China: The World’s Chinesiest Place

After a few days in Tokyo, we took a short flight to Shanghai. The airport is quite a ways from town, but they have a REALLY cool way to cover that distance- a MagLev (magnetically levitated & propelled) train! This is the world’s longest maglev (because they are ridiculously expensive to build- dozens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars per mile), but it is still relatively short. The train smoothly accelerates to nearly 300 miles per hour, and almost immediately begins slowing down. We hoped to see the famous Shanghai skyline from the train, but the air here turned out to be lung-burningly thick, so we unfortunately couldn’t see very far.

From the end of the MagLev line, it was a short Taxi ride to meet our friends from California- the Littles ( The Littles lived a few doors down from us when we lived at Vandenberg, Sara Little and Shawn used to work together at the Children’s House Montessori school in Santa Maria, and two of the Little children were in Shawn’s class. We met them at a TGI Fridays of all places, but decided to eat at Papa Johns instead. It was surprisingly nice to eat familiar food for a change, although they charged familiar prices, too, which wasn’t so nice.

After lunch, we hopped on another high-speed train (although this one only went about 130 mph) to Nanjing, China. The Littles are spending two years here, where he is working on a Master’s degree while learning Chinese. They graciously invited us to stay with them for a couple of weeks. Their townhouse was large and modern, in a beautifully maintained neighborhood. It was great to be in an actual house…with bedrooms…and a kitchen…and a living area- and it was all set up in an American style. Sometimes it was easy to forget we were in China if we didn’t go out for the day, but the first night we definitely knew we were somewhere different.
We arrived on the last night of Chinese New Year, and this night was the grand finale of about a month of constant fireworks. This made our 4th of July look tame in comparison. They had been lighting off fireworks for so long that the Littles children didn’t even seem very interested, at least not until they started to really ramp up at about 8:00 PM (an auspicious hour, I believe). These were HUGE pro-size fireworks, exploding about level with the top floor of their townhouse complex, but on all sides. Cardboard fragments were raining down in a constant stream. We decided to walk around, and were able to stand right next to where they were being launched. That was definitely an interesting experience- although definitely unsafe, too. The next morning the ground was blanketed in a coat of debris, although the groundskeepers quickly cleaned it up.

Our time in Nanjing was…definitely slow paced and relaxed, which is just how we wanted it. Every couple of days, we’d go out to explore the town, or go shopping, or see some of the historical sites around the town. When we’d go out with the Little’s blond haired, blue-eyed two-year-old son, throngs of Chinese would surround him taking pictures like paparazzi surrounding a celebrity. Most of them wanted to touch him, too. The little guy always took this pretty well though. Anytime anybody would point a camera at him, he’d just put on a coy little smile and wait for everyone to go “ahhhhhh”. Of course, the Chinese all thought the little guy was severely underdressed- they bundle their kids up so much that they can barely move whenever the temperature drops below 55 F….except Chinese kids have a slit down the back of their pants when they’re being potty trained. Their parents just hold them over then nearest garbage can or bushes and….yeah. Oh yeah, they also believe the reason that many western kids are fat is because they drink milk, and cold water messes with your chi and causes cancer so they are appalled when they see parents giving their children cold water. BTW- since Chinese people only have one child, their only child is often very pampered and many of them are quite chubby, as well.

Overdressing their kids and letting their butts hang out so they can crap into a can wasn’t the only strange cultural trait we noticed. They are generally very pushy with each other and very opportunistic. People have no qualms of cutting right in front of you in any kind of line- including in cars. They’re completely blatant about it- very rude. Once, we even saw a scooter crash into a cyclist while cutting her off. The scooter driver looked IRRITATED with the cyclist, rather than remorseful, and nobody stopped what they were doing to see if she was okay. We felt horrible for her, and stopped and made sure she got up okay. This was interesting to us since we heard that a common conception that many Chinese have about western people is that we only care about money and that is the basis of all our relationships, where as the Chinese people take care of each other. Interesting. Shawn just knows when she crashed her bike last spring in Albuquerque, she had someone stopped to make sure she was okay before she had even realized that she had crashed. While in China we also came across a cultural boundary that we were not really willing to break. That is the willingness to eat just about any part of an animal that could possibly be cooked into something possibly eatable. The Chinese use all sorts of animal products in their cuisine, which makes going to a restaurant there a particularly stressful affair. We just were never quite sure what we were ordering- Is it tripe? Is the red sauce on the dish blood? Which organs are in this dish? While making a beef stew at the Littles house one night, Shawn learned first hand that Chinese butchers and western butchers are not the same. She ended up spending quite a bit of time cutting out bone fragments and other excess ‘stuff’. Sara just laughed, as this is just the routine for her now when she buys and prepares meat.

Nanjing has the biggest, longest wall of any walled city in the world. The city was never occupied until the Japanese came in WWII. Today, much of the wall is in excellent condition, and makes for a very interesting place to visit. When we first visited it, Shawn said “Wow- this place is really Chinesey!”. Adam replied “Yeah- there are a lot of Chinese people here, too!”. Nevertheless, the main gate to the walled city was the first place in China that we visited that had an unmistakably feudal Chinese look to it. It was such a classic, photogenic spot that Barry Little, who was being promoted from Captain to Major, decided to have a ‘little’ promotion ceremony there. Since Adam still holds his commission in the reserves, he swore Barry in- something he’d never done before, and never expected to since he is no longer active duty, AND he did it in China!

After the promotion ceremony, we took a walk in the park between the city wall and the river. There isn’t a lot of green space left in many Chinese cities, so people were out there taking advantage of the beautiful day by flying kites (which they can reel out to over a kilometer away!), doing Tai Chi, and playing a chess-like game.

After our time with the Little’s we decided to stop by the cities of Suzho and Tongli on our way back to Shanghai. Suzho is famous for it’s many Chinese gardens (I suppose they just call ‘em “gardens” there though). They were beautiful, but probably would’ve been nicer in the spring or summer. They were also very crowded since it was a weekend. While they were nice, we were frankly more impressed with the Chinese garden in Portland. Suzho also has a huge pedestrian street lined with western-style shops. They seemed nice, but many of them carry the same things we could get back home. We did enjoy the Japanese noodle shop with a girl winking on the logo though. After laughing at the winking girl, that shop became “winkey noodles” to us.

Tongli, on the other hand, was excellent- Very Chinesey. We were thrown for a bit of a loop when we arrived though. The man from our hotel met us just outside of the city to show us the way. Once we were about half way there, he said we had to buy a ticket, which cost more than the hotel itself. A ticket! To walk to the hotel!? The ticket was for entry to many small museums, but we had no intention of going to any of them. We explained how we weren’t going to any of the museums, and how it was very misleading to not mention this was about the only city in the world that CHARGES ADMISSION when we booked the hotel. Finally, we talked our way in. The city is built around an intricate canal system with wide sidewalks, but few roads. The city has been preserved with classic traditional architecture. The canals, old buildings, and few motor sounds made it the most peaceful town we visited. There really isn’t a ton of stuff to do there, but one could easily spend a couple of days just wandering around the streets, breathing the relatively clean air, sampling all of the food, and taking pictures. It was also interesting perusing all of the little shops and taking a look at all of the Mao paraphernalia that you see at all of the tourist places in China. Some of our favorite stuff was the communist leader stacking dolls and Mao’s “little red book’.

(Funny side note: as China moves away from Communism, the official policy is that 70% of what Mao did was good, and the other 30% not so good. Can’t lose face now 🙂

After Tongli we moved to Shanghai. This city is very modern and western (at least by Chinese standards). Although air pollution there is terrible, our hotel was close enough to the waterfront to get an excellent view of their impressive skyline.

(View from our Hotel window)

They also have an ‘old town’, which is a historic-looking pedestrian-only area. By this time, however, we’d been in Asia for about five months, and were getting very ‘Asia-ed out’. We were giddy with excitement looking forward to going down to Australia, which, naturally, would have to wait an extra night due to a problem with the airplane. Fortunately, Australia didn’t disappoint….

(Tip: If you go to the photo gallery section, you can usually find our photos much sooner than you’ll see a blog entry)


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