China, October 4, 1999
I made it across the Chinese border, right into culture shock
Yes, I'm in China now, and in complete culture shock!
I'm not sure what I was expecting, maybe something like an oriental version of Russia, but I like the experience so far. First, the border crossing was one of the most civil and efficient processes I've ever had.
Reminding me of EU customs, the border guards handed us coherent English forms which we were able to figure out without the aid of a UN delegation, and stamped our passports without the usual 'Why are you traveling?' questions the Russian border guards like to ask. Actually, it was so pleasant, I refused to believe that was the whole process until the train started rolling on towards Beijing.
Now that I am in Beijing, I still can't believe that I am here. Like the first time I went to Red Square in Moscow, when I laid down on the granite stones and cried, I keep pinching myself to make sure I am not dreaming of walking freely in the capital of yet another Communist state.
Looking around, it is hard to imagine China being Communist. Unlike Russia, where the words business, mafia, and government are interchangeable, Beijing looks like a modern Asian capital, complete with an unimaginably large fleet of red taxis, all using digital meters.
These taxis shock me in that the drivers actually use the meters, the meters work, and you can even get a receipt for the trip. Unfortunately, like taxi drivers the world over, they are keen to take scenic routes and I spent five minutes last night explaining that I should get 65, not 55 RMB back when paying a 35 RMB fare with a 100 note. (Chinese currency is 8RMB/$1)
Oh, don't get your hopes up that I was able to explain the math in English (or even Russian). I was using the international traveler's favorite tools, pen and paper, to get the message across. Like Russia, the locals expect you to know their tongue, cuz with one billion Chinese, by volume alone it is considered a major language. A language that I've already started to pick up.
My first day here, I quickly learned the word 'mayo,' which loosely translates into English as 'your screwed.' Just like Russia, there is a great Soviet mindset in a few of the less enthusiastic locals that I, as the customer, should be eternally grateful that she, the random gatekeeper of whatever required service, even unlocked the door in the morning.
I'm sure that as I spend more time here, and I hope to settle down for a bit in this very exotic land, I'll pick up more useful words, though not at the same rate I learned Russian. I didn't arrive with a year of study or the great acclimation program run by the Peace Corps, so its gonna be a struggle.
And you, my kind audience, are welcome to join me for the fun!