Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Chaos and Order

I recently came back from a three week trip to China (Beijing and Chengdu), Hong Kong, and Japan (Kyoto and Tokyo). What an eye opener it was! I hypothetically knew the difference between China and Japan, but only now understand how different they really are.


I found both Beijing and Chengdu quite surprising. The capital is clearly a city in transition. Traditional hutongs (alleyways) are converted to tourist traps replete with bars, shopping, and ice cream shops; whole swaths of streets become outdoor plazas containing malls and food streets. There's a mixture of highly modern, very traditional, and slum (at least to Western eyes).

And yet you can't forget that this seemingly bastion of free markets and capitalism is still China, where the Tiananmen Square "incident" happened and you aren't that far away from Chairman Mao's influence.

The people are welcoming, warm, and generous. Granted, where are they not? But in Beijing, I was repeatedly asked to be in photographs-I assume because of my height, Western-ness, and blue/green eyes. And let's not talk about how chaotic lines can be.

One really funny incident happened at a restaurant. My husband and I got there accidentally; the hotel erroneously found a Peking duck restaurant a few blocks from the one we were targeting, and I didn't notice because the name was very close. Be that as it were. With the restaurant mostly empty, we sat down near a round table with about seven or 8 men and one woman. They were clearly having a good time and not a little bit inebriated. When they saw us, out came the cameras, the handshaking, and toasts. It was both annoying and quite humorous, ending in a few rounds of one guy kissing our foreheads.

A week of this is fine, but a year of this might be infuriating. Walking the streets with my friends in Chengdu, they annoyingly waved away several people who were acting as if they were paparazzi and we were stars. My friends (one being a blue-eyed beautiful blond woman) are over it.

Beijing is also unfinished. Or at least, it's been in a hurry. Misspellings abound in public signs, leading to some quite funny photos. I'm sure they'll catch up.

Chengdu is also quite interesting in that it's much better finished. Clearly their infrastructure was designed with more time and therefore the mistakes and misspellings are practically nonexistent.

But Chengdu is still China. Sichuan University graduate housing looks like a condemned building, I heard stories about how some dormitories don't have showers (it's a building across the street), and they cut power at midnight because (of course) you should be sleeping at night. And Chengdu pandas have air-conditioned cages to keep them comfortable.