Contrast – Reflection on China

01. China

Feeling the heaviness of my eyelids in jet-lag stage while trying to sort out the cricks in my back from airplane seats and taking in the other world of an oriental country is quite a task. An exhilarating and tiring task that comes with international travel. My first international travel.

Now, to say I hit a culture shock every block I turned during my eleven full days in China is an understatement. Because I come from an oriental background and have been enlightened with stories of my parents’ every day lives in Asia when they were small kids, I knew what to expect stepping into the rural parts of China. I guess my biggest cultural slaps in the face were in the city.

I come from a rather middle-income to wealthy town in Texas. Not big city-life and not country-life. Just the middle. I’m used to courteous manners, somewhat respectful driving, and orderly lines. I don’t know what I was expecting entering the overly-populated capital of China: Beijing and the other large cities like Shanghai and downtown Xian. Whatever illusion I had in my mind of Chinese people and their behavior in the city immediately exploded apart in the first five hours of just being in Beijing.

Firstly, I truly learned where the stereotype ‘Asians are bad drivers’ come from. Now I’m going to insert a disclaimer here before I go on: I’m almost sure every overly-populated city in Asia has the same type of driving and social skills as what I witnessed in China. I’m not picking on China or even making fun of it. Very far from those reasons. These are my observations and my attempts to understand why it’s like that.

Driving is absolutely crazy. And I feel those simple, descriptive words are just an understatement! In  my first hour of being on the tour bus, I witnessed Asian driving at its best. There are painted lanes on the roads, of course, but hardly any car follows. There are practically two cars per lane, and if there is a marginal amount of space left, a car or even a large bus, like the one I was in, would try and squeeze through! It was insane. Honking was incessant and the raucous noises were downright obnoxious – different from how it sounds in America. Or maybe it’s just my ears. The major intersections are the worst. Yes, there are red and green traffic lights and though they do obey them, the cars seem to move on its own accord. They never stop while turning and it appears as though there will be several collisions in the middle of the road, but yet, everything flows smoothly.

It baffled me.

I can’t even count on fingers how many times I winced or cringed expecting an accident, but then…no noise of cars crashing. They just moved on by each other like slithering snakes. I couldn’t help but wonder about the car accident statistics between China and the United States. Upon coming back home, I looked it up and gathered the best information I could find. In China, there are approximately 450,000 car accidents per year and in the states, there were 6,420,000 auto accidents in 2005. Now of course there are several different factors going into the difference between these numbers, but it’s still mind-boggling to me how we have so many rules and traffic regulations in the states and an abundance of order on the highways compared to the craziness on China’s highways, but we still have a higher car accident rate.


Like I said before, I know there are other factors involved, but I think people would wonder the same thing if every one saw how the Chinese drive.

Another unspoken rule I learned in the first two hours of being in Beijing, China was that cars do not yield to pedestrians. Pedestrians yield to cars and to bikes and to motorcycles…and to anything moving fast at you. Basically, pedestrians are the bottom of the whole yield-to-what-while-driving pyramid in China. Therefore, crossing a major intersection in China for the first time was scary and exhilarating. I was laughing, holding hands with my cousins, taking nimble steps before rushing into a sprint all the while listening to my dad’s amused chuckles and my aunts’ yelling their culture shock angry bewilderments in Khmer.

Observing the local Chinese people crossing the street is very humbling. I know for sure I stood out as a tourist despite my oriental looks. There was no tranquility around me as I crossed the streets. They did it with ease, pausing in the middle of busy intersections without a care in the world and then continuing forward bravely when the cars passed by. I guess there is an example of what this specific blog aims to show: the striking difference between chaos and peace I found everywhere in China. Peace in the middle of chaos, I would say.

Needless to say, crossing the streets in China was one of the highlights of the trip. My mom’s constant chiding towards my father’s reckless bravery at doing so also was a plus.

Unfortunately, the Chinese’s driving behavior translated over to their social behavior in the city. I found very quickly that people in China have very little regards and respect toward others’ personal space. If you have a very bad claustrophobia problem, I would stay clear of downtown Chinese cities. Body odor, cigarettes, and stifling air comes together as one when you’re traveling downtown streets. It’s very easy to get lost or separated from your family if you’re not careful. [[which actually happened to my aunt,  but all was well in the end]]

If you leave a space in line, people will cut. They don’t care if you’re traveling together as a family or not. The rule we learned quickly was that bunch in together because if not, someone is going to take your spot. There are no orderly lines anywhere: the markets, the tourist attractions, standing in lines to get on a boat, on the boat. No where. Sometimes I felt herded into a closed surrounding as though I was cattle…or as though I was coming into a refugee camp…but without the atmosphere of panic. To make the situation less comfortable, there are always Chinese authorities yelling in your faces if you’re not doing something right, and because we don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese, it’s even harder to reason with them. They don’t stop yelling even though you repeatedly say you do not speak Chinese! A man in our tour group who knows how to speak the language got lost in the city and to my surprise, found very little help from the locals.

It’s frustrating, to say the least.

I can’t even count how many times I was utterly pissed off or angered by the locals’ manners. You’re shoved and pushed away without a thought and there are no ‘excuse me’ and ‘please’ uttered in their language. But after moments of blowing off steam by muttering angrily under my breath or in my head, I would take the time to calm down and think. Especially when I was away back in our quiet hotel rooms.

Why are they like that? I’m sure even in the busy times up in NYC, there are some ounces of manners – this was confirmed by a family from New York in our tour group.

Could it be because of the rush of time? The rushing atmosphere the country is developing? Trying to catch up in the world in the technology race, the space race, and everything else since so many wars and communism have kept them behind? It could be. Or it could be the constant need to always be doing something, to obtain something, to get somewhere because they need to be able to support someone – their kids, their parents, their grandparents. The fact that China has the biggest population in the world also adds to the intensity of the crowds. It’s hard to understand why they move the way they do.

But then, I’m reminded of myself. The way I’m constantly moving forward in my goals and dreams, and sometimes, ashamedly having little regard for others on the way. I don’t know. It’s generations of breeding and decades of history, I suppose.

Every time I became frustrated with the local manners, I just had to remind myself to try to understand why this is going on around me.

Now while this bustling of city life is going on, a temple or a pagoda can be just a few kilometers away holding a completely different aura. The immediate difference is relieving.

I have to say my favorite temple was the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian. There were little tourists compared to the Hanshan Temple and Jingci Temple. And after coming off a wild train ride from Beijing and running through the rain with heavy luggage being dragged dreadfully behind, it was nice to just witness and breathe in some peace. Essences [[this special aroma]] tops one of my favorite smells ever. It just calms you from inside to out. There was a large gold Buddha statue, and it was like magic. All the noise and the bad manners found in the city just washes out of the people. And we are all left humble on our knees, heads bowed in prayer, and hands up toward the sky. The Chinese people do say that the tallest pagodas are the most special for they are closer to heaven.

The sky was foggy like usual and the air had a tinge of rain, but suddenly, it didn’t feel like pollution cascading over my skin. It just added to the peaceful surroundings, reducing the intensity of heat and burning fire. All I wanted to do was find a bench and sit there and write and sleep and not go back to the bustling and noisy traffic. The place sings of ancient songs and stories of hope and faith and the sorrowful tales of woe. The monks easing their way around in robes of gold and red and simple brown sandals made me feel like nothing can go wrong here.

Some of you might say there’s always the contrast of bustling city life and tranquil religious areas in every country, but the contrast just hit me more while being in China. Maybe it’s because I’m used to being in the median of chaos and peace.

Analyzing my personality, I can say I’m a little of both. I have an ambitious drive equal to a city, but I also have my pensive, writer side flowing like gorgeous country hills. Yin and yang. Balance. Chaos and peace. But between city and country, I think I definitely prefer the tranquil temples, burning essences, clear fountain water, and reigning green mountains to the low, grey clouds of the city.

China Travel Blogs Upcoming: Vibrant Colors, City Highlights, Airplanes

[[All photography are mine]] [[I will try and finish these before my Europe Study Abroad begins – from Europe, expect a blog post for each country]] [[I will also be doing a blog about BostonMed when the show is over]]

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  1. August 4, 2010 / 03:09

    okay, I meant to comment on this post! so, though your “Leaves” post is nice, pretend the comment for it is for the China post!


  2. Augusta Daley
    September 2, 2010 / 18:35

    I love essences too. They are really calming. I wanted to bring them to college with me…but for some reason I just don’t think they’d allow them haha.

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