Almost a quarter of the world’s population lives in China, the country is about to become the largest economy in the world, and it produces a very large proportion of the products we use every day. But for many people in Europe, the Middle Kingdom continues to offer an enigmatic, exotic, even frightening picture.
I have been visiting the country regularly for four years – professionally and privately – and the most common questions I am asked in my home country are: What is China really like? Are the Chinese being bullied very hard? Do they all have to wear the same uniform? Are they allowed to have houses and cars?
The most surprising things in China are: Time stands down, the Mega City, there are humorous individualists, China is totally Networked, Fried rice, and more.
Here is my list of the things that amazed me most about this incredible country:
TIME STANDS DOWN
With a width of more than 4000 kilometers, China should have three different time zones from east to west. But since the Communists came to power in 1949, there has been only one sign of national unity – the Beijing period.
This means that in the far west of the winter, dawn does not set in until 10 a.m. and office workers and schoolchildren have to spend the first two hours of the day in the dark.
But a lot of people try to live by a more biologically comfortable – but unofficial – local time. During the holidays you can experience that children watch the night program on TV while they are having dinner at the same time.
THE MEGA CITY
Have you ever heard of Chongqing? I didn’t until I started traveling to China. It is the largest city in the world – a huge center for car and motorcycle production, food processing, chemical and textile industries, mechanical engineering and electronics.
Only China can have a city of 31 million that so few foreigners know even exists. The country will have 219 cities with more than one million inhabitants by 2025. For comparison: in Europe today there are 35.
The Chinese are anything but the docile, robotic conformists that some images here. One of the best pictures I’ve taken in the country shows a boy about nine years old in a Superman costume walking his white poodle in the city center.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the middle-aged lady who also took a poodle for a walk – in this case, the dog was covered with pink dots from snout to tail.
The Chinese are sociable, talkative, and argumentative in public, have an excellent sense of humor, produce loads of avant-garde art, honk when driving, and often complain about bureaucracy and poor customer service.
China is the largest cellular market in the world, with 900 million people who own a sho ji (handset) – that is almost every adult in the country, just like in the west. But Chinese city dwellers also spend an average of 70 percent of their free time online, compared to around 30 percent in the UK.
The government reportedly employs around 50,000 people to monitor the Internet. Political resistance to the government is suppressed. But control is not easy to carry out, and there are 200 million bloggers in China, many of whom complain about the authorities.
The Chinese are prohibited from accessing Western social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but their national counterparts – Sina Weibo and Tencent for Twitter; Renren and Kaixin for Facebook – are just as powerful now. When two trains collided in Zhejiang Province in July 2011 and 40 people died, the authorities tried to censor details. But some people were still posting messages on Sina Weibo from out of the rubble.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao did not visit the scene of the accident until days later and justified his late arrival by saying that he was ill. This is seen as the first such political triumph of so-called social networking in China.
The “ quintessentially ” Chinese dishes we know in the West are limited versions of Hong Kong Cantonese food. Something like sweet and sour pork is unknown to most Chinese – and fried rice is available for breakfast. In fact, the mother of a Chinese friend describes sweet and sour as “pork for foreigners”.
There are at least eight major cuisines within China and thousands of local variations. In addition to the Cantonese food we know, there is also the spicy Hunan and Sichuan cuisine, Anhui (with lots of bamboo and mushrooms), Fujian (a large seafood kitchen), Shandong (peanuts, grain, and vinegar), Jiangsu (sweet, with lots of braised and steamed fish) and Zhejiang (little oil and fat, with an emphasis on the fresh taste).
The Chinese love interesting textures, so they like to eat things like fish heads but find the white flesh of the body boring. Hamburgers and steaks are simply disgusting because of their uniform taste. And chicken breast is so uninteresting for the Chinese palate that it is the cheapest meat in the supermarket and is therefore mostly bought for pets.
Western kitchens, such as Italian and, in cultivated Shanghai, French, are more of a fashionable phenomenon. And although there are coffeehouses on every corner in the cities, few people really like coffee. Kentucky Fried Chicken, on the other hand, is a hit, with around 2,000 stores – the largest number outside of the United States. And of course, the chicken wings are much more popular than the boring breast.
China is now also becoming a huge market for fine wines, but people often drink a classic vintage mixed with green tea or even cola. Bottles that cost hundreds of euros often remain unopened in circulation as gifts.
THE PRICE IS HOT
Chinese are so enterprising that it is hard to believe they live in a country that is officially still communist. I went to a department store in Beijing with a friend. When she couldn’t find any jewelry she liked, the saleswoman took out a tray with brooches from under the counter. It was her private business – her own little shop in the department store.
Another friend recently decided to open a pet store, so I asked if she would leave her previous job. “Of course not,” she said. Her boss invested in her new business and had given her a raise so she could keep working for him and pay an employee of her own. An example of the Chinese principle is that friendship is more important than good business.
Chinese people would rather get bad business with someone they know than good business with a stranger.
ONE COUNTRY, MANY LANGUAGES
Almost everyone in China speaks Mandarin, the standardized form of Chinese based on the Beijing dialect. But most residents, belonging to 56 individual ethnic groups, prefer to use one of 292 different local languages. The most common is Cantonese. It is spoken by 70 million people and also prevails in the “Chinatowns” of western cities.
The written language has 80,000 characters, of which at least 3,000 must be known to be able to read. But they are understood by almost everyone in China, no matter what language they speak. However, children use pinyin (western script) up to the age of seven, as it is much easier to memorize than the characters. And when a Chinese person types on a computer or phone, he is typing Western letters. The device then displays different characters so that he can choose the correct one.
China can claim to be the largest English-speaking country in the world. Around 300 million people are learning or have learned the language. It is the most important subject in schools along with math because it is seen as the key to the best careers – although Western companies often find that applicants with good English skills lack other skills. Some people even have surgery on their tongue that is said to make it easier to pronounce English words.
CHINEESE ETIQUETTE – A MINEFIELD
you should never open a gift as soon as you get it.
Sipping and burping are considered respectful.
You should always try everything that is offered to you at the table.
It is rude to talk about business at a business lunch.
It’s not impolite to pick up your cell phone during a meeting and then talk loudly enough to interrupt the meeting.
It is not impolite to hold the rice bowl in front of your face.
Tipping is considered an insult, at least for those who grew up in the heyday of communism.
THE TIBET QUESTION
I asked my usually very liberal Chinese friend Amy whether she cared about the suffering of the Tibetans. “No,” she said, “I don’t know any.” But she added that if she had Tibetan friends, she would go there to help them. The Chinese, she explained, would happily give their lives for those close to them and for China itself – but traditionally nobody cares about strangers who happen to be Chinese too.
That is slowly changing, however, especially when it comes to children – as you can see from the outrage over the death of a two-year-old girl who was run over in Foshan but ignored by passers-by.
And the communist rule has awakened a strong sense of community. A British friend who lives in the electronics manufacturing city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong is constantly surprised by the community spirit his neighbors have. “Real life still feels very socialist, in a good way,” he says. “When the local party official thought our street was messy, he organized a joint street cleaning. There was no pressure, but everyone took part and the atmosphere was really great. “
The communist creed also ensures that basic things like rent, medical expenses, education, and public transport are very cheap. A recent report by the Gallup polling institute showed that poor Americans are three times more likely to have no money to eat than the Chinese.
Even cultured, educated Chinese can be extremely superstitious. The belief that 8 is a lucky number and 4 brings bad luck is almost universal, and few buildings call the floor above the third the fourth.
Superstition makes it very difficult to buy someone a gift. Items to avoid include scissors (they symbolize severing the ribbon of friendship), watches (the word for it also means death), and shoes (they indicate you want the recipient to leave). Oh, and green hats. “Wearing a green hat” is an expression of having been betrayed.
branded items can be just as expensive in China as they are in the western world – a pair of sneakers easily cost the equivalent of 100 euros. A median Chinese salary is around 63 euros a week, so how can people afford that? Because of the communists’ one-child policy.
Since there is usually only one offspring for whom they have to spend money, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents can shower them with money and often sponsor their lifestyle well into adulthood.