China: A tough place to travel
China really challenged me. I found it pretty difficult to travel in China relative to other countries I have visited. I think it was also the only country I came out of liking it less after I visited.
First off it was the most difficult visa that I obtained. I had to get it back in the US before the start of my trip and they required by far the most documentation, and I had to visit the embassy multiple times. And to be honest, they didn’t really care to be helpful there at all.
Partly, I feel China is quite insular but most people are fine with it.
One aspect that jumped out was the language barrier. This has been the most difficult language barrier so far. It happens to be the case that many countries, even with other languages, do have many English signs. Shanghai and Beijing really didn’t, and it sounds like smaller cities are more difficult. And almost everyone I interacted with did not speak English. It was a lot of struggling to use Google Translate to kind of communicate.
Additionally, with the payments: it seems it works really well if you are Chinese. You have a Chinese bank account, phone number and then you use WeChat and AliPay for everything. But as a tourist visiting for a short amount of time, it’s really a big hassle to pay in China. It took me three ATMs to get cash out, it was the most difficult country to get cash for me as difficult as a relatively remote island on the Philippines. Couldn’t use my credit card anywhere, maybe there was one spot that said they would accept it. It’s interesting because the feeling is that they are actively trying to make it difficult for tourists. Maybe that is just my impression but I did not feel that in other countries.
It’s just like ‘hey this is China we do things this way.’ That sentiment actually feels to pervade many things in China.
One thing that mostly worked well was Didi, which is like a Chinese Uber. So that was quite handy for me in getting around Shanghai. It was especially helpful because when I took a regular taxi a few times it was extremely difficult to explain to someone where I was trying to go. It took many people to help me get my taxi to my hostel from the airport. Additionally, I used Google Maps… which kind of worked in Shanghai but not really. It seems that there is a map there, but maybe its 10 years old? And then showing an English map to someone who speaks Chinese doesn’t work great. And then I couldn’t really use a Chinese map. And the maps just were mismatched. So that was tough.
And the food. Mostly, I found Chinese food extremely unappetizing. Again, it’s cultural and probably just me, but I really though it looked gross. I went to a restaurant called Polo / Baolu and it was packed full with Chinese people. I’m pretty sure I was the only non-Chinese person. And they have a menu full of pictures of things I just had no interest in eating. Like frogs and chicken feet and sea cucumbers or whatever.
I actually don’t know what kind of Chinese food American Chinese food is based on, and I also don’t know what “Chinese food” really is. I am sure it’s not a monolithic thing since China is so big, but I guess it is not the chicken, fried rice, and Mongolian beef that I am used to (ha ha).
Additionally, there were many cultural things about China, that I think mostly remained below the surface that I found bizarre to horrifying.
First, the surveillance. China is a full on surveillance state. How you feel about that is a different question. For the Chinese, it’s just a part of daily life. For me, that is extremely creepy and if people don’t actively resist this in other countries that is going to be a real shame.
At first I didn’t notice the security cameras. Then some people pointed them out to me and I would see them here and there. Then I started seeing them everywhere. You go down the escalator on the metro and there are three big cameras staring at you, as you go down, then as you exit. It seems to be the case to me that if they wanted they could track every single step and place I went in China. Stop to think about that for a bit: that is insane.
But if you are Chinese, it’s normal. This was a harder one to talk about with people but I did get an opinion on it from a Chinese girl. What do you think about all the surveillance? I ask. She says, it’s fine, no problem really. It helps keep people safe. Does she think it’s weird or creep her out? No. Do any of your friends think it’s weird? No. She had gone to school in the US, and I asked what she found surprising about living there. She said she was surprised there weren’t more cameras. A few examples she shared: What if in a restaurant, someone doesn’t pay? This prevents that. She says there was a car break in in the US, but they don’t have cameras so they can’t find the person.
As you walk across some crosswalks, there are tons of cameras. But some of them have poles in the center, with screens, and on those screens they show you the feed of the video of people walking across the street. Well that first off seems strange. Next, sometimes it would zoom in on a persons face who was walking across to fill the whole screen. I don’t know why it would zoom in on them.
I’m not sure if they got the ideas right out of 1984 but this is what it looks like.
Additionally, I met a number of friendly Chinese people, but I found the people who I interacted with who worked in a government position very hostile. As I went to Tiananmen Square my passport was stopped and checked 4 times. There were thousands of guards there, of many various types. I got an aggressive airport pat down. And as I try to enter a tourist site and talk with some of the people who would not let me enter because I was one minute before the close, I felt as if I was speaking with a bunch of robots.
I felt China is a really interesting place, a very different place, a very different value system. There is lots to see, there are some very famous sites. But I think it’s a culture of repression. One guy in the hostel spoke to me about how he wanted to get out of China, but he really couldn’t. I felt like if you just don’t question and go about your life, that is how most Chinese live. But when you think about it, such as the way they rewrite to erase history, it’s weird.
And I think the conformity culture and culture of fear is actually dangerous. If the Chinese government gets more extreme, it seems people would readily comply because there is such a deference to authority. That can go bad fast.