What’s that I hear you eating?
At my primary school our boys’ toilet was very much like some of the units I’ve been experiencing recently. Ours was perhaps a bit ‘flasher’ - a 3 sided corrugated iron wall with a length of spouting nailed on the inside as the urinal and a single ‘closet’ for those wishing to spend more time – usually smoking stolen fags. The wall must have been about 6 feet tall because I recall being able to see our teacher’s hat over the top - on the occasions he wore it. He only visited the facility during class time but there were corresponding occasions when I was standing in a corner of the corridor in recognition of an unappreciated effort and I was able to peep out the door to observe the teacher’s reason for leaving his charges. I digress. As 10 year olds we competed to see who could pee right over the top. Robert Ellis gained our admiration for succeeding and has probably gone on to greater things in life – but hardly much greater as that is a splendid accomplishment. I tended to experience quite a lot of splash back. Sorry – that may be a bit too much information but I was reminded about it as I recalled our earlier efforts as less ambitious 6 year olds in the same facility. We attempted to spit over the top and in this respect I was an honorable achiever. Our efforts were puny compared to some of the excellent expectorators’ we have seen here in China. Truly admirable quantity, splendid distance and marvelous accuracy. While desperate to compete to gain an appreciation of my own humble standard I am afraid it’s been impossible. My mouth has been quite dry. We tend to travel some distance for a couple of days, then have a day (2 nights) in the same location which is usually one with tourist ‘attractions’ that have been finely tuned to extract as much Yuan from visitors as possible. All of these days involve exposure to the highways and byways of China and all are comparable in their ability to deprive my salivary glands of fluid. On the other hand (and probably due to the very fine Chinese beer we enjoy with our meals) there is a continual desire to frequent the often provided toilets. This is a rather interesting phenomenon – don’t you think? Simultaneous deprivation and oversupply.
The principal reason for the dry mouth is the astonishing realization that the Chinese do have a lot of things right – better than the western world. Apart from the enormous petty bureaucracy that I suspect is the result of endless cheap labour needing jobs and a traditional hierarchal attitude that encourages the employment of those lower down the pecking order, the economy that we are witnessing appears to work very well. The greatest surprise is that China is a more capitalistic society than the west and conversely, our western society has become increasingly socialist. Here, for the most, effort and risk are rewarded. Mature people are all very ambitious and the majority accepts that success is worth the effort of study and work – although few know the hard physical work of their forefathers. Who can blame them?
The most interesting observation is that, while I suspect there are rules, and certainly we have seen many written in English for our benefit, the Chinese people simply take no notice. This is not civil disobedience; it’s simply the mass acceptance that if a rule is an impediment to efficiency or progress they ignore it. The road rules are an example. If the motoring populace operated to our western road rules the streets would choke and the whole economy would grind to a halt. The Chinese simply drive around every problem, fill every gap and squeeze twice as many vehicles into the width and length of available road as we would consider possible. They stop anywhere, u-turn everywhere, drive the wrong way in one way streets and treat intersections as game. It’s great. I confess, it took me a couple of days to change my mindset from that of a brow beaten, police fearing westerner to that of a nation careering headlong into the future at top speed. Their driving skills are astonishingly good when one understands and converts to the system. Their peripheral vision and distance judgment are legendary. There are a few simply accepted rules : never leave a gap unless you want someone else to fill it : only give way to vehicles bigger than yours – and then only at the very last moment : ignore bicycles, motorcycles and derivatives thereof on the basis that they understand with instinctive good sense that if they are involved in an accident they will be the worst effected : toot to advise others of your presence (it’s likely to be appreciated and even save their life because the noise of theirs and other vehicles conceals your approach) : look only ahead for your own opportunities to progress (everyone else behind is watching you) – and finally – a miss is as good as a mile, don’t sweat the close shaves.
If one drove like this at home the witnesses would either call the police to have you removed for the good of society or, before they managed that, die of indignation. That is such a pity as the Chinese system is much better.
Here’s an example of Chinese logic and efficiency. We were driving behind a taxi in a huge city jam-packed with traffic all intent on arriving first. Our destination was further up a hill that required a long battle through the streets. Our intrepid leader had a plan … we drove into a high rise private carpark past ‘no entry’ signs and careered the wrong way up the ramps to the top floor where we exited back into the traffic quite close to our destination. The taxi gave up a substantially greater fare to provide us with the best result and a fine learning experience.
Our western society is stifled and submissive to the rule of law. We have so many and encourage more to be made – especially if it is perceived to benefit us at the expense of someone or an idea / concept we don’t approve of. Every facet of our lives is governed. For some unfathomable reason we find comfort in this. Sadly it stifles progress, reduces opportunity and impedes creativity. Pause and consider any aspect of our lives and the rules / laws surrounding them. We are told it’s for our own good. Rubbish – it’s pure socialistic ideology that, like all the historic socialist societies is doomed to fail. China is prospering on the same ideology the West embraced with such success 60 years ago.
Not only have I discovered China’s great strength and philosophy but I’ve mastered chopsticks. For years I’ve questioned why a civilization that invented gunpowder could not get to grips with the fork. Today however, I stand embarrassed and humbled by my attitude. The Chinese invented the fork around 2400 BC. They’ve moved on. Consider, a fork has no advantage over a chopstick when eating slippery noodles or rice. A fork generally needs the assistance of a knife to conquer most foods. The chopsticks however, have made it acceptable to bring the bowl to ones mouth to accelerate the eating process and have introduced a range of noises to the processes. It is well known that smell enhances taste. I expect that here it has been discovered that an added audible element has further improved the experience.
Given that driving is taking a significant part of our time, I am sure you will accept that ducking and diving has become second nature. It’s overlapping into my writing as well. I would like to tell you of so many things but most will have to wait. One that won’t is our appreciation of the signage. The highways are littered with good advice for those able to read English … Fowl Wether – Slow Down … Don’t drive drunken … Don’t drming when tired … Overspeeding prohibitaion … Animals attention … Don’t enter the exit … are a few examples that spring to mind. Hotels are also a source of interesting signage that must be very mysterious to the local people using the rooms, eg, Warm tips … please don’t flush the rubbishes in the toilet, Don’t bath in bowl (over the toilet), Toilet Bowel for gests.
Following the worthless Chin & Cheek we suffered the attentions of Charlie. Charlie is a good natured man of indeterminable age who told me he had an overweight daughter aged 8, a wife who had to work to support him as guiding was poorly paid – in fact he reveled he was poorer than his 3 brothers and sister. He had an interesting sense of humour – encouraging us to break into a farmer’s house to see what they eat for lunch, suggested we gatecrash a wedding to enjoy the feast and proposed we catch an endangered Crested Ibis to discover if it tasted like Chicken, or Kiwi. After each of these ideas had been voiced he chuckled contented in the knowledge that he was entertaining his Western guests with great skill and sure that this would be reflected in the tip. On reflection and with the benefit of hindsight gained from reading my own description of poor Charlie – all his jokes were about food. He certainly didn’t look underfeed and we suspected his daughters problem was gained from their mutual enjoyment of American Fast Foods. Sadly the skills we employed him for were non existent. He was a useless guide and it was only when we eventually wrestled the Maps and GPS off him and ordered him to stop talking that we stopped getting hopelessly lost. He had an aversion to reading signposts preferring to telephone the hotel or next guide to ask directions. The problem with this stroke of genius was that he did not know where we were - which made the advice given to him rather worthless. Again we resorted to the shameful ploy of asking strangers to save us. To my everlasting humiliation we even asked a policeman for help. The saving grace was that this happened in the middle of a busy intersection and we gridlocked a whole city of 6 million people. They had their revenge however as the policeman was no more capable than Charlie and sent us the wrong way. Charlie did have a winning smile and a desire to address us collectively by our individual names recited in series – this takes time – especially when spoken in his slow drawl polished from listening to the soundtracks of old American Western movies. Flypaper thought he was endearing (like a puppy that digs up the garden and eats socks) so naturally I was keen to get rid of him.
We have finished stage 1 of our journey – Hong Kong to Xian. Apart from the frustrations of bureaucracy in Shenzhen which was typical of officialdom everywhere, it’s been great. We’ve mastered the art of ordering unknown foods from pictures in books and with one exception loved every dish. It’s likely that this would not be so had we actually known what we were eating. Our accommodation has been superb in spite of the idiosyncrasies that remind us we are in China. The tourist attractions have only been spoilt by the fact that tourists were visiting them. We learned that this is a civilization which has been doing astonishing things for over 4,000 years and were generally world leaders in most fields or most of that time. I have started to appreciate this juggernaut that is travelling out of control towards an exciting future – but I’m not frightened by it. I am frightened by the fact that the West may not learn to accept Oriental wisdom. I've got the message but I suspect our lords and masters are unlikely to experience the 'real' China as we have.
The lush mountains and plains that sustain the worlds largest industrial region now gives way to a dryer sparser environment that will bring other challenges that take us out of our new comfort zone. One thing I do know - going into these desert regions is nothing like going to the beach at low tide.