December 9, 2010
India may be the land of culture shock on my trip, but China is my land of cultural confusion. From the moment I landed in Shanghai my trip was chaotic. What had started as the sniffles in India had turned into a full-blown cold during the 30+ hours of flying and waiting around at airports between Jaipur and Shanghai. When I landed in Shanghai I received an invitation via email to go to a spectacular dinner party that evening that I could not pass up. So despite my cold and the fact that I was landing at 3pm and had to be at the party by 8pm and had literally nothing to wear I accepted and dived right in to Shanghai life. I dropped my bags at my hotel and turned straight around to Plaza 66 where I in record time bought a dress (all I had with me were mud and feces stained safari/working clothes) and some makeup and rushed back to the hotel. Well at least I tried to rush. The hotel had told me I would have no problem hailing a taxi back to the hotel and they gave me a card with the hotel’s name written on it in Chinese, but it took me almost 40 minutes to find a taxi that would take me- the start of a month long transportation issue I encountered in every city I visited in China. I’m not sure exactly why I had so many problems with taxis, but my highlight of horribleness include taking a pedicab and getting scammed and bodily threatened in Beijing, not finding a taxi in Xi’an for over two and a half hours, having a taxi driver arrested and being kicked out of my cab in Chengdu and my taxi driver doing a hit and run later that evening in another cab in Chengdu. I know form other western traveler’s I met along the way that my experiences were not unique and almost everyone I met had some horror story of transportation (or lack thereof) in China. I ended up making it to the party on time and it was an amazingly decadent and lavish event. It was hard to believe that just a few days before I was sleeping in a basement apartment in India with a non-flushing toilet and cockroaches the size of the chopsticks I was using at the party.
My time in China has overall continued to be like that first night- a series of strange ups and downs, twists and turns that were strange and sometimes scary, but overall an amazing experience. There are extreme cultural differences between the Chinese and American and it is very difficult as a traveler to react accordingly. On one hand I want to be a good traveler and embrace cultural differences and not judge another culture, but some things like the constant pushing and shoving, and the constant taking photos of me or with me started to wear on me. People asked to take pictures with me in India as well, but there people were much more polite and would never do if I didn’t say yes. However in China I felt like I was being hounded by paparazzi. The Chinese, especially the men, would take pictures of me as I walked on the street or went to temples or parks or restaurants often coming up to me and without asking draping their arms around my shoulder snapping a picture and then walking off before I could say anything. If the situation were reversed and an American did that to a Chinese person in New York City everyone would be shocked and say how racist that was, but here if I complained my guides just said “you have to respect the cultural differences.” I think there is a difference between cultural differences and just plain racism, which is essentially what was happening. I got used to the constant spitting they all do on the ground- literally the Chinese hock up gigantic wads of spit anytime, anywhere even nice restaurants and on planes in first class. However, I never got used to all the smoking, the constant picture taking, and the constant feeling of being scammed out of my money.
Overall I enjoyed my time in China, but was left feeling let down. I believe that managed expectations are the key to enjoying the country. I had come expecting so much ancient history and beautiful old sites. However, like the fake Gucci’s and Louis Vuitton’s I saw everywhere in China, all the sites felt somewhat fake- most of them rebuilt in the last few decades and made for tourists. Even Mount E’Mei one of the holiest mountains in China felt like a tourist destination for which I had to keep shelling out money at every gate, passageway and temple. While it was a different experience than India where I felt everyone I smiled at begged for money, I felt that everyone I smiled at tried to scam me out of my money. Maybe it is part of the experience of traveling alone since I am instantly made a target since I am a woman traveling on my own, but it was not an experience I was expecting.
Getting to see and work with pandas was a wonderful experience, but like the rest of my trip was complicated and filled with strange cultural roadblocks. Throughout my trip in Africa and India I kept hearing the same thing over and over again- “this animal is going extinct because of the Chinese.” The Chinese are responsible for a lot of the poaching that goes on in Africa and India, often supplying the funding to local poachers for helicopters and weapons or supplying funding for roads in impoverished places and then using those roads to illegally export animal parts like elephant tusks, rhino horns and tiger carcasses. I witnessed first hand that the Chinese do a good job conserving the panda (although they are very secretive and protective about it), but their other animals like the golden monkeys, cloud leopards, and south china tiger are in serious danger and are not being conserved properly and they are being mistreated in captivity. I will write more in the coming weeks about my experiences with Chinese conservation when I write about my time in the panda’s homeland in the Shaanxi and Sichuan Provinces of China.