Friday, September 7, 2012

Things I didn't like about China

I liked this

Here's a post that'll come back to bite me and threaten to expose the values I've tried to explain to / impose on others out here in less liberal Asia as a sham. Those frustrated English teachers blaming their host country for their own shortcomings, Malay girls dropping casual homophobia into unrelated conversations and internet trolls boldly leaving racist comments behind anonymous IDs will finally be able to point out my hypocrisy as I reveal why I didn't like China very much.

I don't just travel so I can justify moaning, by the way (compare this to this). Sometimes I really enjoy my time in countries, but China wasn't one of those times. I haven't technically finished China yet, but I'm sure Macau will get creative with problems of its own that I can deal with elsewhere.

First I'll clear up that I don't have any problems with Chinese people, which should be taken as read. I've met nice Chinese people travelling in many places, who came from Real China as well as Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and other expat destinations. Of course I have - what country doesn't have 'nice' people? Except maybe England. That's right, I'm following the wrong assumption that slagging off my own country gives me a free pass to be mildly racist about another one.

Most of the problems I had with China are problems its Chinese residents have to deal with too, on a daily basis. And there are a lot of residents. And they can't even moan about it on Blogger.

Animal cruelty

There are a few reasons I left China until last, one of them being its famously lacking attitude to any kind of animal rights or empathy with any living creatures that aren't humans (sometimes even… no, I'll stick to what I've seen and not go into conjecture). I thought avoiding zoos would mean I didn't have to confront this dark side of the country, but then I passed by this upsetting scene outside Liurong Temple in Guangzhou.

These turtles are still alive (barely), I saw one of them futilely moving its feet. I don't know what was going on, but I can't say I left the temple feeling particularly at peace. I tried to ask a monk, but my limited Cantonese only let me say 'turtle' and 'why?' in a distressed voice, which he just smiled at. Loving people, these religious types. Animals get treated pretty badly in Thailand too, but at least there the monks care for unwanted dogs who've been hit by a car and have their intestines all hanging out. I can't imagine the same thing happening in China.

At least I didn't subject us all to the horrors of Guangzhou's Quin Ping market, where they apparently slaughter turtles, anteaters and other creatures at your request. But maybe the ethically untroubled customers are just trying to make sure their food is really fresh, to avoid problems like:

Expired cookies

This isn't some sort of technical internet issue (that's coming up). It's an incident that happened to me with actual biscuits, which I didn't realise were six weeks past their sell-by date when I hungrily pawed them off the shelves at Family Mart.

At least, I assume they were out of date - their inedible softness implied it, as did the printed date in this photo (with actual date stamp for comparison), which was the only such marking on the packaging. The same date was on the foil packaging inside too. I've worked in a biscuit factory - the machines don't print the date of production on there for posterity. Cookies are not a fine wine; they don't improve with vintage.

This probably happens to me a lot, but it's the first time I've actually noticed. My British indignant consumer outrage led me back to the store with cookies and receipt in hand, but the staff wasn't very helpful. I think she understood what I meant, but I didn't come out with a refund or free cookies. Other boxes on the shelf dated back to April. It was July.

Internet restrictions

Makes a change from staring impotently at an 'Acquiring network address' screen for hours on end, at least

This was my major problem in China, but it was my own fault really. I knew China blocked some of the websites I need for work and pleasure (including this one), but I risked it regardless, thinking I'd cheekily cheated the system by downloading several virtual private networks and testing them in Hong Kong, failing to consider they might not work quite so well if I'm trying to access them in heavily filtered countries that know all about their tricks.

I did get past the filters a few times, which was enough to manage my blog comments and watch boring YouTube clips about the benefits of synthetic turf for landscaping and other things I needed for my ridiculous job. But I'm not exaggerating when I say I would have spent a lot longer here if I'd been able to access YouTube when I needed it, as I optimistically requested a 90-day visa for the People's Republic of China. Maybe it was a good thing I was persuaded out after 9.

Spitting and other bodily evacuations

Don't worry, I won't include a picture of gozz. Instead, here's a weeing kid

I already complained about this in Singapore last year, and since then I hear the Singaporeans have cleaned up this practice entirely. But Chinese citizens can't read my blog without an unreliable VPN letting them pretend they're in Germany for a few minutes per day, and there are none of the ineffective 'No Spitting' signs that Singapore tries desperately to enforce, so I had my task cut out for me. I hope making an unimpressed face and quietly going 'eeugh' when a man or woman hawked up their throat contents and distributed it in the centre of the pavement or shop doorway got the message through.

China has its share of cultural quirks that can amuse, inspire or confuse foreign visitors, but this one's really unpleasant and unnecessary, especially when you spit where people are walking, or blow your nose without a tissue and direct its contents onto the tiled floor where people are lining up to get served at Kungfu like a guy I actually saw do that.

I decided to eat here because it seemed funny. I wasn't prepared for the horror to come

Farts are still hilarious in China too, to at least one guy who I annoyingly shared a thin wall with. While people in most other countries become jaded by the comic potential of methane being ejected from their anus by the age of about 14 (at a stretch), the event of his own fart was enough to make the Chinese guy in the room next to me laugh out loud in surprised delight several times per hour, for a few nights in a row, by himself. I guess there aren't reliable Cantonese translations of Brass Eye or Arrested Development in circulation yet, so they aren't burdened by high humour standards. To be fair, he could have just been one of these.

I used to be confused by the disproportionately low numbers of Western women in relationships with Chinese men, compared to the other way round, but I'm starting to get it.

Apparently, the spitting thing is based on some outdated notion that phlegm contains bad stuff that needs to be evacuated, which makes no medical sense but then neither does acupuncture or other Oriental 'medicine' that's somehow achieved popularity in the rest of the world. If the Chinese were really that bothered about ridding their bodies of toxins, they wouldn't light up inside metro stations before we've been given air.

The metro

Speaking of the metro, Guangzhou really shouldn't have been given one of these until its citizens had been instructed on how to use it. I've been on 17 metro systems over the last two years (I just worked that out now, I haven't been keeping score, I'm not mad), and this one was far and away the most insane, crammed to capacity with moshing commuters at all hours.

At least it means there are a few less cars on the road, but the current metro system really isn't suitable for Guangzhou's population of 4.5 million. That's more people than live in Wales and Northern Ireland put together, trying to get around on five subway lines. Some people even take their children on this.

Listen to shaved Ristar, we are not animals

I was only in Guangzhou for a few days, but I saw two fights nearly break out as people responded badly to being forced out of the train, despite ineffectual signs like this one. But most commuters seemed used to it and just accepted it as another facet of life in China, which isn't as oppressive as you might think if your only source for world news is the paranoid American media, but isn't a place I'm planning on returning to all the same. I think I've seen enough of China to get a reliable overview, don't you?

Okay, maybe not.

China route map

A Hong Kong
B Shenzhen
C Guangzhou
D Zhuhai
E Macau

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