Note: Josh McNorton is a musician, writer, and all-around good guy. This is his website: www.joshmcnorton.com
Every year for the past three I’ve embarked on a solo adventure in a foreign land. With encouragement from some Canadian friends living in Beijing and Shanghai, plus a very inexpensive plane ticket, I chose China this year. These are my impressions after visiting seven cities and four provinces, plus Hong Kong, in one month. I am in no way attempting to characterize the country or its people as a whole.
- Despite living in Vancouver –- which has one of the largest Chinese populations per capita in the world — for 9 years, I had no idea what distinguished a Chinese person from other Asians. Turns out the short, ultra-pale and formally dressed (business suit for men, kimono for women) Asian stereotype is not at all Chinese.
- What North Americans call “Chinese food” doesn’t even scratch the surface of the diversity, richness and ingenuity of their cuisine. I’ll never look at a noodle the same way again.
- An overwhelming majority of men smoke and they’re allowed to do so everywhere –- restaurants, bars, public toilets, etc. When I asked a local journalist why cigarettes were so popular despite the health risks, he said “because Chairman Mao smoked.” He wasn’t kidding.
- I always thought it very strange to see a person walking around with a parasol or wearing a ridiculously large visor in the summer. Having tanned skin in China means that you work outside, you’re a labourer, which means that you’re lower class. They take this very seriously — a lot of their skin care products, including sunscreen, contain chemical whiteners.
- Out of the twenty different countries I’ve visited, China was the safest. I never once felt preyed upon for being a foreigner, traveling alone. Even in the tiny village of Bo’ao, where I was constantly stared at, people left me alone — except for packs of school children screaming “HELLO!”
- Contrary to my last point, the roads are insane – small cars, bicycles, and scooters all arbitrarily obeying or disregarding traffic lanes and lights – and yet, I never once saw an accident. It’s chaotic but controlled.
- A “small city” in China has a million people. My Canadian perception of size (“Toronto is a huge city!”) is forever changed.
- Everything is wrapped in plastic -– from fresh pastries to fruit to magazines. Consequently and not surprisingly, the four beaches I visited were all littered with the stuff.
- Having millions, if not billions, of people in a city warrants the need for public toilets. China does this well – they are everywhere (and free, unlike in Europe). Cleanliness and ventilation is another story (see point #3).
- The question everyone asks is “what’s the grossest thing you ate or saw?” While I ate scorpions, drank marinated seahorses and chewed betel nut — all highly recommended — the grossest thing I encountered in China was… babies. Since billions of diapers would create an inordinate amount of waste, not to mention expense, many parents’ solution is crotch-less baby pants. Let me repeat that: crotch-less baby pants. When the baby has to go, the parent just holds its legs apart and its business spills onto the street. The sight is utterly terrifying. How parents know when their baby has to go is beyond me.