- History - Chinese history is as old as any culture, deeply rooted in an emperor's dynastic reign in order to coalesce a very diverse group of people and form the monolithic, multifaceted society of today encompassing a land size equivalent to the United States with 4-5x the population as well as 5,000 years of history. Interesting enough, though, is that in the story we were told yesterday, the "villain" of our guide's story was female - the "Dragon Lady" (despite our guide being female). Lost in the story were the decisions of the leaders - emperors, democratic leaders, foreign puppets, and communist politburo (and all primarily male) - who made awful decisions that cost millions of people their lives. But I guess the Dragon Lady is on the hook because she was the "last leader" of the old system, even as the emperor had a brothel of 3,000. Interesting who we point our fingers at, and Americans are just as guilty. For example, we point the finger at Thomas Jefferson but give George Washington the free pass on slavery, though the latter had more slaves than the former.
- Family - the influence of the family couldn't be more pronounced here than any other place. Like many other (mostly Asian) collective societies, the surname (your family name) comes first, and your individual name comes last. So, in China, our tour guide goes by the name Li Jun, and we call him Jun or an Anglicized "John." Still, Jun is very close with his family, and his parents have helped him in purchasing his home in Beijing and guiding his decisions to move to Shanghai. Additionally, Jun's married a Polish woman and they have 2 children. You can tell that they mean the world to him, and that his dedication to work is to provide for the family. The fulfillment is in giving of himself for them rather than giving himself for his employer. Again, this is just my thoughts. Eric, a cousin of a good college friend, told me that living with his wife (who's full Chinese) has taught him the respect that one pays to their elders, even calling the grandparents by different names whether they're paternal or maternal. Additionally, cousins are called "brothers and sisters."
- Art & music - there certainly is plenty of amazing calligraphy across the country, and the billboards and graphite are equally emblazed with the loveliness of their words, whether they are. The music, at least in our local shops, is very much focused on the ancient flute pieces. Otherwise, they are very much influenced by American entertainment.
- Food - while the food choices sometimes look familiar (KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonald's, and so on), the food is very different compared to Americanized Chinese food. It's much less focused on the fried and buttery component many of my fellow Americans have come to love, but I enjoy their food much more here. This is especially true of the breakfast choices, as there are vegetables (wow!) for breakfast, and they're very much the centerpiece of breakfast. There's plenty of eggs, meats, and fruits to eat as well, but there's also variety. For lunch and dinner, the choices increase almost exponentially. I've eaten so many different types of food, and I've had an open-mind about eating them, even the things I haven't really enjoyed. I think I enjoy the sautéed vegetables and beef dishes the most, as well as those mixed with eggs. We had hot pot, where one makes their own food in boiling water, and rice dishes, noodle dishes, and so on. However, my favorite has been the dumpling. In the north, dumplings are folded and boiled, then served in a soup. In the south they're more intricately handled (and, thus, more expensive) until they're steamed. Writing about the dumplings is making my mouth water, so I'm going to move on.
- Employment - most Chinese are workers. In a country so large, it's impossible to know just how many people don't have work, but the Chinese government is probably the largest "business" in the world and can put a broom in just about anybody's hands at any time. While the average income of the Chinese is low in comparison to our own (the average person makes 1/4 what an American makes, $8,000 vs. $34,000). That said, the real estate market is intensely inflated - Li Jun said that the value of his property doubled in just 2 years. Eric lives in n apartment that costs probably $5 million, and he said the value of it and his factory property (4.8 acres to build a new facility) have increased 40% in just 6 months. People who are bought out by the government's eminent domain typically become millionaires overnight. Unreal! When the land bubble bursts here, it's going to hurt hard.
- Government - in one regard, the Chinese government is insanely impressive. They've added 7 subway lines in just 15 years here in Beijing and 17 in just 20 years in Shanghai. They have influence on their people, and their people revere its communist-capitalist, Deng Xiaoping perspective. On the other hand, the government is everywhere and all influential. Tiananmen Square is a great example of that - cameras pulling a 360 degree vantage point across the Square at just about every 20 yards coupled with the fact that the only TV stations on our set are CCTV (state television) and Beijing TV (BTV). That's it. Eric told me police don't sit and catch speeders - the all-seeing eye of communist government takes pics and sends you the fine home. The suppression of free speech and breaks in the collective thought aren't just illegal, they're not issued. Li Jun told me that if someone stood on a corner and yelled out that they hated President Xi, most people would walk past "and think that they're the town crazy." However, once a group demonstrates against the Party, that's a major crime. Compared with the United States, where the demonstrations for President Trump began almost on day 1 and the burning of Obama effigies happened almost as quickly, I tend to ask our public - what type of speech do you want? That said, a people are not their government. This American social studies teacher can relate to this perspective many times over.
- Social problems - the taboo issues here in China are called the "big 3 T's": Tiananmen, Taiwan, and Tibet. All of these are issues for the people and especially the government. For the latter 2, it's a question of self-autonomy. Tibet wants to be its own country; Taiwan, by and large, mostly "is." In speaking with Eric, he told met he other side of the Tibetan story, whereby the people there were tithing (forcefully) 90% of their income to the Buddhist temple. He seemed a bit exasperated by this process though he, himself raised a Jew but now identifying much as a Buddhist, came to see that not all of these issues are one-sided. He also thinks that Taiwan will never become a military issue because the economic consequences for the island nation, mainland, and the US are too high. Tiananmen, by contrast, was both he proud victory parade of Mao in the early formation of the government in addition to the moment in the late 1980s where glimpses of democracy and the hope of breaking the regime was smashed to bits by the regime itself. That liberal thinking of choice and free speech sounds like something that wouldn't just scare the bejesus out of the communist government, but of the Republican Party (where President Trump is interested in retelling the news, facts, statistics, and people's stories) and many college campus liberals (where those whom the groupthink doesn't agree with, despite how putrid and horrific their message, are quashed by the status quo). May we learn something from China and never be afraid to talk about our many misgivings - like the treatment of indigenous Indians, slavery, imperialistic aggression, meddling in foreign affairs, and so on - and having that be our greatest virtue. Keep in mind, there are many elected officials, especially on the state level, who are trying to whitewash our history in many ways. Don't let them pull that off.
- Language - If there's one thing I'm truly struggling with here, it's Mandarin. I guess I was under (the wrongful) impression that there were more regular English speakers, but that's not the case. While I struggle with basic communication here (I've mastered hello and thank you), it's a double-edged sword of being thankful the culture hasn't been permeated by the ever-increasing reach of English. Li Jun told me that Shanghai will be much more English-friendly, and for my solo survival sake I hope it is, but I've also learned a bit about the language. For one, pronunciation is key here. While we have homophones in English (like "bear" and "bare"), they have the same word "ma" with 4 pronunciations, which can mean "horse," "mother," "a finger wagging," or another definition - just based upon the pronunciation. While that's pretty difficult for me as an English speaker with little time (and rooted at age 34 in teaching an older dog new tricks). However, Eric has picked up an ultra-fluent ability with the oral language, and when an older Chinese gentleman came over to help us find stinky tofu, he backed away saying "Your Chinese is much better than my English." Despite speaking it most exclusively for the last 27 years, it's been very difficult for Eric to pick up the literacy of it. He said he knows approximately 1,000-2,000 characters and that's not enough to read a newspaper (you'd need 5,000). He said he still uses Google Translate to ensure what he's saying in an email is appropriate. The sentence structure of the written language is - essentially - a math and logic problem, adding the characters in context to string together the meaning of the sentence. This is important because many of the words (and even sayings) can have different meaning in different context. Think of "raising" a house versus "razing" a house, for example. I'm exhausted just writing about it in English!
- Religion - Religion is probably one of the greater differences between west and east. While we tend to be in our specific, often divided camps when it comes to religion (think Trump's Muslim ban, for example, in 2017), most people in here are atheist but spiritual. They're non-believers, but they believe in something bigger. They're not afraid to take this thing in Christianity and couple it with 2 other things in Buddhism and Taoism to make their own faith. I think in the west we try to peg people into specific denominations very quickly (I've been and always will be Lutheran, for example), but that's not the case at all in China. The government has now begun to permit many more types of religions (including Christianity), but whatever religion is practiced cannot take orders from another leader. So Catholicism, for example, is outlawed here. Most of all, religion is a principled way of life, one in which you don't embarrass your ancestors, both living and long gone.
- Holidays - I didn't experience any major holidays while here, but during the big holidays (like Chinese Independence and China New Year) are marked by MASSIVE amounts of movement. Since so many people living in the big cities didn't grow up there, they go back home for the time they have off to visit. There's no way on God's green earth you'd want to be caught in the midst of that travel.
- People - The Han people are a very overwhelming ethnicity in China, dominating some 90% of the population (much higher than whites in the US or Europe). There are also distinct minority groups, like a group who lives in the far west near Kazakhstan that's white, Mongolians in the northwest, Muslims in the west, and Manchurians in the east. The interesting thing about these sub groups is that the One Child Policy doesn't apply to them. They can have 2 children, or, in some cases, more than that. Additionally, as China grows into an economic super power, you're going to see large groups of immigrants entering the country that might have gone to the US (we had an Indian bus boy, for example), as well as other nearby groups in search of better opportunity (like Nepalese).
- Clothing - I've found the clothing choices one Chinese in Beijing and Xi'an to be very, very, very casual. They observe almost no fashion rules, wearing kahakis and t-shirts, shorts and suit jackets, and socks and sandals. Yes, even outside of Germany and the States, this fashion faux paus is observed! In Shanghai, however, that rule does not apply. These people dress incredibly nicely, with women wearing heals or platforms to go with their skirts and straw hats, while the gents wear rolled-up dress shirts or polos. Most interesting enough, I'd say a majority of Chinese wear shirts in English, and I highly doubt many of them know what it says on their shirt. In some cases, they're very similar to what we'd wear back home (saw more than my fair share of "Supreme" shirts), but sometimes it's just minced words strung together to make no sense. I asked our tour guide Jun if this occurs in the states with Americans, and he said that Justin Bieber has Chinese script on his chest that's supposed to mean "open heart," but, since the characters are so closely plied together, it actually means "I have no guts.
- Sports - in China soccer, badminton, ping pong, gymnastics, and traditional Kung fu-like sports reign supreme. We didn't see soccer in action, but that's the rave here as it is much of the rest of the world (minus the US, which, admittedly, is growing quite quickly). I saw an advertisement containing who is apparently the premier badminton player, and that made me chuckle. I'm sure the Chinese say the same about us and American football. Ping pong, made famous with the opening of diplomatic relations in the 1970s with Nixon and Deng Xiaoping continues its influence as a man source of leisure today. So are outdoor parks, where I went and beat a 50ish year old dude in a pull-up contest (he challenged me to it) only to be completely embarrassed as he twirled around the two bars. Lastly, we also practiced some tai chi, and I plan on bring that back to the US with me to hopefully help strengthen my back and provide some inner-peace for this constantly going mind. Lastly, with Yao Ming making his splash in the NBA, basketball is the fastest growing sport. There were plenty of Stephen Curry ads here in just about every city, showing that the Chinese will play the hot hand in their culture. I only saw one Yao (a huge one, though) in Shanghai.
- Medicine - one American doctor I met on the Great Wall discussed the health care system a bit with me; as west melds with east, there are distinctly western hospitals here. That's what he was here for: to teach the doctors here how to do neurosurgery. He told me they've come a long way in hospital care, but there's still some ways to go. There are also eastern methods of treating illness. Compared to Europe when you walk the streets and see a big cross for a pharmacy, here these crosses are when people can go and get herbal remedies. When we were visiting the tea ceremony, the main selling point wasn't the taste of the tea, it was its health benefits. Additionally, Eric told me that he'd seen a doctor at the Mayo Clinic over his sciatic nerve and many other specialists in the states to help heal that. It didn't work. It wasn't until he want to an eastern chiropractor-like specialist that she cured him of that and several other ailments. The story of medicine here is "to each their own," and American is melding much of that eastern medicine to serve as an alternative to the care received in hospitals. Heck, it's serious enough that my back doctor, when I was frustrated with the lack of progress regarding the treatments he prescribed, told me to go to a acupuncturist.
- Environment - there's no way around noticing that the air here is polluted and smoggy, especially in Beijing but also in Xi'an and, to a lesser-but-still-noticeable extent in Shanghai. The government, however, is on a blitz to clean that up after being a bit embarrassed in the 2008 Olympics, and factories are being pushed out of the major cities. Additionally, much like the U.S. in the 1890s and early 20th Century, the gross waterways and land that was polluted is now being cleaned up. Certainly there's room to improve, but coming from the guy who took his students on a field trip to the largest garbage dump on the East Coast and grew up on a creek called "Black Creek" from the gross coal runoff, we have some ways to go yet, too. But I can't wait to drink in American air again -- no lie there!
Post on education to come when I have time to write in the airport or on the plane ride itself.