I have just returned from a month in China.
Before I went, I was not sure how much I would like it. I had been reading things like Een barbaar in China and Carolijn Visser’s travel stories, both written in the 1980s. I held on to the comfort that, if the worst came to the worst, the excellent food would pull me through.
I have a completely different image of China now. In fact, it has been the people that I have come to love most of all.
My overnight stays in China. Adapted from Joowwww’s map on Wikimedia Commons.
Of course, China is vast and varied, but in the places I visited, I encountered one cultural feature again and again, one that completely differs from the European North-Sea culture I am used to. This was the people’s openness, their physical freedom, their carelessness almost, but an accommodating, elegant sort of carelessness.
Of course, most of the places I visited were very crowded. You may argue that this makes it simply impossible for people to maintain some distance to each other. Still, when you look around you on the London underground, you notice that people can succeed at this, if they want. In eastern China, however, people did not seem to mind touching each other. In fact, I have often seen strangers touch each other on the back to ask them for room to pass, instead of only saying ‘excuse me’.
And then there is the infamous pushing and bumping into each other on the street, which annoys a lot of visitors (yes, that includes myself). I received the impression that, instead of estimating the way of least resistance through a crowd, most people just walked; and instead of giving way to pedestrians with a determined look on their face, as in Europe, they stuck to their own swerving path… and let the bumping happen. Or perhaps I should say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, because by the end of my journey, I was doing the same.
In motorised traffic, this habit gets a little more dangerous. Cars as well as the uncountable electric bikes, scooters and mopeds, all approach you uncannily closely before giving way. What is more, the lanes for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles are usually one shared space, and usually they contain traffic both ways.
And yet, I did not often feel unsafe. With all the millions of people I have seen pass during that month on the road, I did not witness a single accident.
Most of all, I think this is because 1) drivers keep to a modest speed, much more modest that you would expect in a place where most formal traffic rules become irrelevant. And 2) people look at you. They ‘do’ traffic through a continuous visual and aural negotiation with each other, rather than by ‘blindly’ obeying traffic lights. The result is a general worming and pushing, rather than people flashing past (or into) each other.
The same happened on the sleeper trains. You share a single space with 66 people. Everywhere, bodies sleeping or eating or brushing their teeth. Feet and heads sticking out from the berths. People happily come by for a chat or for dinner on your bed. I was not always ready for this, but that was just me being from a different culture. So I had to get used to it!
But what I wanted to come back to, was the fact that people look at you. Of course, I was obviously a foreigner, and this seems to have been quite a bit of an attraction to many Chinese. However, a strange person in Wiltshire or Drenthe is not looked at in the same way as a European in the prefectures of Guilin or Yichang (which are both popular tourist destinations). In Europe, I think parents would admonish their children: ‘Don’t look!’ In China, they might sooner ask their child to take a photo. People stare at you unabashedly in the street – and they smile. I don’t think I have ever smiled back at people so much in my life. In fact, much of our interaction was so weird (to me), that a giggle was always lurking near the surface.
In this highly touristic place, people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: ‘Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!’ (in Mandarin). After all, the place is primarily touristic for tourists from China itself. They received some laowai spectacle for free. (Photo by author)
A lot of strangers also came to us with, for us, rudely personal questions. Most were just either being friendly/curious, or showing off their English (this group did not understand our answers anyway…). Yet it made me realise that there is a third option between either getting angry or complying completely with demands you do not feel comfortable with: you can always laugh and move on to the next topic. As a visitor, you want to respect the fact that norms are different in different places, and what is impolite in one place may be polite in another. However, at the same time, you have to protect yourself from your own cultural ignorance that makes you so vulnerable to abuse from the more mercenary types. Accommodating to the people you are visiting does not need to be an all-or-nothing question.
I won’t go into any post-colonial issues now, or the current goverment’s policies, though of course these also played a role in creating my experiences. But the simple fact that so many Chinese people whom I met, were so easy in looking at you, touching you, sharing things with you (or from you), talking to you (or shouting at you), made me in fact feel very free. It was not always nice; it was not always pleasant; but I felt a certain carelessness come over myself as well.
A fellow European tourist may have experienced something similar as we visited a hot spring. In order to take her mud bath, she had to change into her bathing costume. Afterwards, she reported that there had been no other option than to change in an open space full of strangers, women and men. As she told this, the horror in her voice mixed with elation and carefreeness.
By the end of the journey, I was no longer minding other people’s bodies so much, nor my own. I no longer cared so much where it was, what it was doing, whether it had the right degree of visibility or invisibility or normalness, and what or whom it might bump into.