The countryside screamed past at 200 mph as I worked on my laptop, comfortable inside the train’s first-class cabin. Outside, weathered farmers worked fields by hand as women walked by carrying baskets.
The only evidence that it was 2015 vs. 1315 was the occasional worn-down tractor and the power lines that crossed the landscape. And, of course, the gleaming 21st century bullet train I rode in.
As we neared the outskirts of Wuhan, cluster upon cluster of Soviet-style high rises rose against a dreary sky thick with smog. Despite having never been to mainland China before, I felt a sense of déjà vu: The stark contrast between old and new, rich and poor, viewed from our high-tech train eerily felt like a scene right out of The Hunger Games.
With its sheer number of people, China reminds me of a much cleaner version of India, but it’s there that the similarities end. I was bombarded by street smells which I’d love to describe, but can’t because I’ve never experienced them before. I could walk blocks in a market without recognizing a single food item.
It wasn’t the smells, crowds, food or the lost-in-time countryside that stood out most starkly, however. Despite being warned, I wasn’t prepared for the often brusque nature of Chinese interactions.
Stuck on a bus where we hadn’t moved for close to 5 minutes, a passenger approached the driver. She wanted to get off and walk, but the bus driver wouldn’t let her; there was a police officer right ahead and he didn’t want a ticket. After a few more minutes, she came up to ask again, but in a much louder and agitated tone.
After another denial, the bus exploded to life: a chorus of previously uninvolved people started shouting, most in defense of the driver. Things grew (to my Western instincts) fairly heated, with the bus driver yelling back at the girl. The confrontation continued until he relented, opening the door to let a stream of people pour out of the bus.
In most Western cities, a scene like this would leave bystanders somewhat shocked and exchanging looks with each other. But within seconds, everyone returned to what they had been doing seemingly unfazed.
Surprising incidents like this were, if anything, entertaining to watch. It was the Chinese mores of “please” and “thank you” that were the most difficult for me to adapt to. The difference? The pleasantries just aren’t used much.
It’s especially tricky with those closest to you, as the rationale goes something like this: My Chinese family members and friends know I love them, and they’ll assume by default I’m thankful. By vocalizing it, I’m putting into question our closeness and bond.
Despite knowing how my frequent “thank yous” came across, I just couldn’t help myself and still said it constantly. Normally it wasn’t an issue, but after thanking friends who treated us to one meal I felt a bit of awkwardness in the air and wished I kept my mouth closed.
You hear about the internet being censored in China, but it’s a surprisingly surreal experience to be blocked from Google the first time you get online. Nearly 3,000 sites are blocked altogether, and everything else you download is censored on the fly as you browse.
The Chinese government is often criticized for many things from censorship to human rights, leaving it with a less-than-stellar public image in the West. So I was surprised when I saw a myriad of things being done by Big Brother to improve life and move the country forward.
Street trash was minimal as the government pays an army of workers to keep things tidy. Cell coverage was maintained throughout my entire underground ride in the government-built subway. And the high-speed train infrastructure made getting around China fast, comfortable and affordable in a way I haven’t experienced back in the States.
Business moves forward at a blistering pace in China. A restaurant that was in the early stages of construction upon my brother’s arrival was finished just a few weeks later, a project that likely would have taken months in the U.S. Walking the streets at 5:30 a.m. one day in Wuhan, I was shocked to find a buzz of activity at a construction site. It turns out that workers are there around the clock.
Seeing how efficiently an authoritarian government can act does make you think about things a bit differently. If we could ensure a just and infallible dictator who had our best intentions at heart, I’d vote that person into office in an instant. It’s an especially attractive option at a time when dysfunction in the U.S. Congress has earned it a lower approval rating than cockroaches.
Watching a video one night, I was especially impressed by the government’s foresight in defining, planning, and executing their program to eliminate poverty, which reduced the severe poverty rate from 53% to less than 10% in just 20 years. The gains seemed won so much more easily when carried out by a single, efficient party versus multiple bickering sides.
It wasn’t until the end that I realized the documentary had been produced by the government. I started to pull up YouTube to learn from a more objective source, but quickly realized that due to the censorship I couldn’t access it, either.
It’s hard to grasp the mind-boggling selection of product materials available without visiting China.
One day we headed out to look for fabrics for a product I’m developing and ended up in the city of Guangzhou. We visited fabric shop after fabric shop, each with thousands of options. I could have spent hours looking at the offerings of one business alone, and I quickly become overwhelmed by my choices.
After leaving one shop that had every conceivable type of buckle, strap and pull you could ever imagine, I asked our guide and manufacturing guru Jamon Yerger how many shops with a similar selection existed, expecting perhaps 3-4 competitors in the city. His reply: “Oh, easily dozens and dozens. Perhaps 100 or more.”
I’ve been to Tokyo, Delhi and New York City, but nowhere has left me with a sense of the sheer volume of resources needed to support humanity like China did. I was spellbound when we ate at a restaurant with a dining room 100 yards long. An endless stream of food poured from the kitchen, and I couldn’t help but extrapolate this scene in my mind across all of China. I left and was tempted to immediately invest my life savings in Chinese pork futures.
This scale isn’t unique to China, of course. I’m sure there are similarly sized restaurants in cities across the world. But there’s something about China that conveys a massiveness of scale unlike anywhere else I’ve been.
My initial judgment of China for much of the trip was that of a polluted, overcrowded and brusque society. But that slowly started to change.
Just a few blocks from a massive electronics mall in Shenzhen we discovered a picturesque oasis that reminded me of Central Park in New York. It wasn’t a scene you’d expect to find in one of the world’s most well-known manufacturing centers.
My family and hosts were incredibly kind, and I was warmly treated to meal after meal with absolutely no possibility of my paying or helping out.
My biggest mindset shift came one evening as we strolled along the Yangtze River park as dusk was falling. In America, most parks would be winding down as people headed home for the night. Here, a full-scale party was underway. Dozens of people flew kites decorated with elaborate lights. A group of men played with enormous tops, using whips to keep them spinning furiously.
And there was the dancing. Every quarter mile or so, we’d come across a large group of mostly older women (and a few brave men) dancing with a leader to music. I thought this was isolated to the park and was surprised to see similar scenes in parking lots, shopping centers and random sidewalks across the city. The groups were everywhere, doing everything from simple moves to elaborate, modern couples routines.
As our bus bounced home over a bridge illuminated by strands of colored lights, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of community and energy in the air as we drove throughout the city. It was if everyone came out after a busy day to play, relax and connect with each other. It’s not a feeling I’ve had in many places before.
Even while leaving, I had the nicest, most amiable custom agent I’ve ever run into – normally an interaction you look forward to as much as a lunchtime stop at your local DMV.
As my return plane took to the air, I knew I wouldn’t miss the crowds, the chickens feet, overcast skies or the pig jerky airline breakfast appetizer I had just been handed. But I was already looking forward to coming back.
Special thanks to my brother Chris for showing me around China and putting up with my antics. To Jamon from High Cappin for being our tour guide in Shenzhen. And especially to my sister-in-law Laura and her parents Xueshan and Huadi for graciously hosting me.