China, November 29, 1999
Can I dislike China and still be cool?
I wanted to write about how cool Shanghai is. How it is everything Beijing
isn't; cosmopolitan, liberal, exciting, and filled with foreigners, but
I'm not. Shanghai is cool all right, and almost Hong Kong, almost. As it
isn't Hong Kong, I'm not sticking around, I'm heading south to the real
deal and getting outta the PRC.
Why? Because this past week, I came to realize something that I felt earlier but I really didn't want to admit; I don't like China. At first, I though I was unhappy here because of the language barrier. In Russia, I could do anything and go anywhere cuz I could just ask a local for help. Here in China, if I speak English to someone who doesn't, they show their abhorrence to the language by making a face like I just spit on 'em as they back away.
Of course, I felt the cultural difference instantly and I tried to assimilate into it. I wanted to adapt to the new land so as not to be so obviously a foreigner but in China, my Anglo looks mark me in any crowd as the 'laowai.' I am excused from many of the Chinese customs that I am ignorant of, but in exchange, I am also excluded from daily life. Officially, I'm not allowed to live with Chinese and they are not allowed to visit me in my 'approved' apartment, since doing either would 'contaminate' the locals.
I could breech both the language and cultural barriers if I really wanted to, but to do so I would need to find the underlying people worthy of my efforts. Unfortunately, I don't. A complete lack of independence, individualism, and independence here conflicts with my basic Western values. Chinese love to do things in a group, and with 1.2 billion people, ya kinda have to, but that doesn't mean I like it.
Every Chinese will tell you that they always follow their parent's lead, never thinking of rebelling like I did and any good Western teenager will, and take this obedience to authority into every aspect of their life. After the freedoms of America and the lawlessness of Russia, I find the blind submission to the Man incomprehensible. Finally, my ideas of independent thoughts, travels, and actions get nothing but looks of shock, head shakes of disagreement, and on a few occasions, screaming police.
I could forgive the people for all this, and continue to spread my corrupting ideas, if anyone would listen. I am an extreme extrovert, loving every second of my interactions with peoples everywhere, well, everywhere there are other extroverts who wanna play too. China, I feel, is a nation of introverts. Always looking inward, they want the outside world to leave 'em alone. In 5,000 years of history, when did they ever build a boat and go check out the rest of the world?
The Turks walked from Istanbul to Beijing on the Silk Road, but the Chinese stayed home. The Mongolian Kublai Kan rode with his horse army to Hungary before invading China and inviting Marco Polo to wander around his kingdom. The Portuguese and British sailed all the way from Europe to start Macau, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, the most dynamic cities in China.
What did the Chinese do all this time? Retreat into their hutongs and wait for each period to pass. Actually, I find these hutongs to be a perfect physical manifestation of their mental situation. Three or four houses, all with windows and doors only facing a common courtyard and surrounded by a thick wall with only one opening, define the classic hutong. This inward looking domicile, stressing interaction only with relatives and excluding any outside influences, is exactly how I picture Chinese mentality. Yes, this is a gross generalization subject to millions of exceptions, but probably a billion fine examples of why I don't like it here.
If you're still following my thoughts, you can help me answer a question I'm currently struggling with: Can I dislike country?
I love traveling the world, and I try to be open to all manner of new ideas and situations, but so far, I'm hard pressed to stay positive about China. I know there are specific people, places, and things I abhor, but can I disapprove of an entire nation? If I really do dislike this country, am I still a decent human? Will ya'll still accept (and read) me if I say that I never wish to return to the Middle Kingdom? Will I still be a cool traveler if I don't wanna ruin my lungs on Beijing smog? Will all the friends I've made in Beijing and Shanghai still speak to me if I dis their ancestral or adopted homeland?
I'm still wrestling with this question as I head for the only Western outpost in the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, where people think, act, feel, live, and breathe freedom. Email me, and let me know what you think of my Chinese dilemma.