China isn’t really what I expected. It’s better, in many ways, and also worse. In other words, it’s unique. It’s its own strange place which really doesn’t match well with the western view. For example, where’s the communism? Aside from the portraits of Mao, I can’t see anything “Red.” All I see is McDonalds, KFC, Hilton hotels… Everyone is trying desperately to sell something, to make some money.
It’s dirtier than a porno theatre, too. The streets are quite literally coated in shit. Some places are too dirty for cockroaches, and others are too swamped by roaches for dirt to settle. Trash piles threaten not only an array of diseases, but the possibility of collapsing and crushing a passer-by. The skies are an orangey-yellow colour, thick with the exhaust fumes from millions of overcrowded buses and motorcycles driven by small children and even smaller old men and women.
But I love this place. It’s so fantastically chaotic I find myself charmed daily, even by the most awful smells and sights. The complete and utter lack of organisation is so alien to me that I can’t help but feel like a child. Nothing makes sense. Nobody has any idea what’s going on. Someone has turned out the lights. I’m in Narnia, or more likely, Jurassic Park.
What grabbed me most about this place upon arrival was not the filth or the chaos. I was taken by how nothing met, broke or even came near any of my expectations. Chinese food tastes nothing like “Chinese food.” The people don’t act like Chinese people are supposed to act. They don’t like the things they’re supposed to like, sound like they’re supposed to sound, or look like they’re supposed to look. From even my most rudimentary of understandings, I can tell that if I travelled twenty miles from my present location it would be like visiting a foreign country.
Trying to describe China seems a little futile. It’s home to an infinity of possibilities and stories, and only a wild internet meme-inspired string of generalizations could offer hope of understanding.
So here’s a serious anthropological study of contemporary China, entitled Stuff Chinese People Like:
Whereas the rest of Asia is smitten with baseball, Chinese people are experiencing an intense period of adoration for the NBA. Every newspaper and magazine carries the latest headlines, games are regularly broadcast on state TV, basketball courts are found on every corner, and half the people here seem to have English names like LeBron and Kobe. The favourite team is, of course, the Houston Rockets, and there’s not much time between Yao Ming’s TV appearances.
There aren’t many of us here. Outside Shanghai and Beijing you can go weeks without seeing a foreign face. When we leave our apartments we are followed, photographed and asked for autographs. We are assisted in every aspect of our life by 1.3 billion eager followers, desperate to learn English, to teach Chinese, to get a close-up of the freaks with the big noses, and, quite possibly, to find themselves a new family member. In Hefei, at least, it seems every woman is hunting for a foreign husband…
Everywhere I go, from Erika Rae’s house, to buses in Taiwan, and the beaches of Malaysia, there is K-pop. It is going global and we are all doomed. A gift from fifty million Koreans to some 1.3 billion Chinese. Every cell phone in this country seems loaded with the Wonder Girls’ dubious back catalogue and there’s nobody – I repeat, nobody – who can’t do the dance.
Korean dramas are popular here, too. Every TV left on seems tuned into some badly-made, poorly-acted, ill-representation of life in Korea.
The streets of Hefei smell like shit. Not just a bad smell, but rather actual human faeces. People crap on the roads and they crap in the bushes. When they crap at home they put the used toilet paper in a bin, then chuck it on the street, where it festers in the heat outside some restaurant, and people quite happily stand over these piles and eat their food. Children’s clothes are split around the crotch so the mother need only spread the baby’s legs for him to let rip on the pavement.
Note to potential visitors: Never wear sandals in China.
KFC makes more money in China than it does in the United States. Think about that for minute… The Colonel’s fried chicken has stumbled into the world’s most populous country and made the tremendous realization that these people all like fried chicken. Americans may be able to out-eat a Chinese person, but they can’t out-eat all of them.
(Interestingly, KFC is the least greasy food around… It seems that in Hefei one cannot acquire an item of food that hasn’t been double deep fried.)
She might not fit in with a western view of life under a Communist regime, but that’s where the west has it all wrong. China is in love with American culture, and Lady Gaga is currently riding that wave of enthusiasm.
Her songs are probably the only ones to occasionally push the Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation off Chinese cell phones, and although her videos don’t make it on TV, her face is as well known as Rain. But no K-pop star has this claim to fame: Lady Gaga has already entered the Chinese lexicon. “Oh my Lady Gaga!” is the latest, greatest exclamation of fake surprise since “Sweet Jesus… and Mary Chain!”
Remember the 1990s? Remember waiting a whole minute to get online, then having to remember to sign off? Remember the bills you received at the end of the months that made you regret wasting all that time on whatever it was that was popular before Facebook?
China remembers, because it’s the 1990s here. Dial-up rules supreme. Facebook does not yet exist. Twitter is pure sci-fi.
The only quirk of Chinese culture I’ve found truly repulsive is this: One cannot order a cold beer. According to Chinese superstition (and there are almost as many of these as there are people) it is very unhealthy to consume a cold beverage. This is doubly true for pregnant woman, and for women on their periods. Consequently, beer and other drinks are served luke warm, and asking for ice or prior refrigerator will earn you a look of utter bafflement.