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[The whole series of blogs can be read here]

Monday the 30th was mostly a travel day – another bullet train, this one from Zhengzhou to our new home base in Beijing. So this seems a good a place as any to add in some miscellaneous thoughts that don’t fit elsewhere.

Let me preface this whole series with this thought: I’m not trying to be ethnocentric. I admire much of what I saw of China. In some cases, I chalk up the things I didn’t like to a difference of opinion and a culture gap. In no way am I a pro-America chest thumper. The main reason for our trip was to try to build, in our own little way, ties between China and the U.S. by introducing our students to each other.

That said, most of the culture shock was instructive. And some of it was really funny.

China is building. This is not a controversial statement, but until you see it – the sheer amount of it – you cannot appreciate it. America hasn’t seen a building boom like this in over 50 years, and that’s only scaled down to our size. We’ve never done anything like this.

No matter where we went, there it was. Entire neighborhoods, 20 or 30 city blocks square, razed and being replaced with new buildings.





from the rooftop garden on PS 159, in the heart of Beijing's financial district

from the rooftop garden on PS 159, in the heart of Beijing’s financial district

near the CCTV building in Beijing

near the CCTV building in Beijing

The scale and scope was amazing.

What was equally striking was the short lifespan that much of the construction has. We were in several buildings that were less than 15 years old. The facades were beautiful, the foyers and very public areas were flawless. But when we got into the building, there were massive structural flaws – gaping cracks in the concrete walls that weren’t evidence of settlement as much as wholesale shifting. There were 2 inch gaps in many places. Nothing seemed to be maintained, even to the point of a fresh coat of paint.

Decade-old residential buildings (I asked) were showing rust stains down the sides and evidence of structural defects. The massive residential buildings appeared to be mostly pre-fabricated concrete boxes stacked like so many boxes of saltine crackers. In these huge new residential areas, where 20 or 30 new buildings, each 20-30 floors, were being constructed at the same time, there was little evidence of structural steel girders.

It seemed to be so much facade, much of it for show, with corner-cutting everywhere. Say what you will about American government regulations, but these buildings would not be allowed to be built in the U.S..

In a real way, China seems to be where the United States was during the Gilded Age, past its own industrial revolution and coming into its own as a world power. They’re just trying to do it at an accelerated pace. And in the middle of so much great history, the present seems entirely disposable. There is an urgency to now, no matter the cost or price to be paid. Perhaps remnants of Mao’s Great Leap Forward mindset?

If you read Part One, you caught my comments about pollution, especially in Beijing. In the time between when I wrote that and I’m typing this, the L.A. Times ran this article.

For those too lazy to click and read, a study claims that pollution in northern China cuts 5.5 years off the life of the average Chinese and that “based on their modeling, the researchers estimated that the 500 million residents of northern China in the 1990s collectively lost 2.5 billion years from their lives”.

There was also this: “In January, PM 2.5 measurements [particulates in the air] reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of northeastern China. A daily reading above 300 is considered “hazardous” and the index stops at 500. By comparison, the U.S. has seen readings of 1,000 only in areas downwind of forest fires. The U.S. national air quality standard for daily PM 2.5 exposure is 35, and most areas in the U.S. are easily below that threshold.”

Living in Beijing on a bad day is the equivalent of being downwind of a forest fire. Please remember that the next time a politician recommends doing away with clean air laws.

Unless it has freshly rained to clean the skies (and pour the suspended pollution into the groundwater, which it did when we arrived back in Beijing), the air is a filthy, depressing, disgusting mess.

China’s cities have lots of American fast food. You’d expect McDonald’s, and you’d be right. I avoided it out of principle.

The bigger surprise was KFC. KFC is huge in China. In the northeast U.S., KFC is an also-ran chain. Not in China. It enjoys prominent status. Urban areas in China are almost as saturated with KFC as the U.S. is with Starbucks.

It’s not quite the same as an American KFC.

The milky stuff is congee, which is defined by Wikipedia as "a type of rice porridge or gruel". That definition is pretty good. Unlike congee.

The milky stuff is congee, which is defined by Wikipedia as “a type of rice porridge or gruel”. That definition is pretty good. Unlike congee. (click to embiggen the picture)

Which might not be the worst thing in the world. We had KFC three times when we needed something quick and (fairly) predictable. Which is twice more than I’ve eaten it here in the last 5 years.

China doesn’t supersize. Because I don’t speak Chinese and your average Chinese KFC worker doesn’t speak English, Xiaoqiao, Wilkes University’s China coordinator, did the ordering for us. So when I ordered a chicken sandwich meal, large, I had certain expectations. When Xiao came back with drinks that, to me, looked like a small, I said “oh, they’re out of large cups?”. To which she responded, “those ARE the large cups”.

Sheltered – and way overfed – Americans.

Which leads to a broader (pardon the pun) point: if you saw someone who was obese, you could bet all of your RNB that they were American. Granted, I didn’t get a look at all 1.1 billion Chinese, but I didn’t see one that fit the American definition of fat. I saw a bunch of Americans that did. You don’t realize how obese we are as a nation until you go to the east.

Part of it is that eating in China seems to be slower. For one, you really can’t plow through your food with chopsticks the way you can with a fork the size of dustpan. You have to eat slower and it gives your brain a chance to realize that “hey, I’m full” before you’ve polished off another thousand calories.

China has also instituted a national ‘eat healthy’ campaign, portraying healthier eating as a duty to your country. Kind of like Michelle Obama. Maybe that’s why Sarah Palin thinks she’s a Commie for trying to encourage kids (and her husband) to lay off the junk food.

An excellent gift for your favorite Tea Partier, confirming what they already think they know. This stuff practically writes itself.

An excellent gift for your favorite Tea Partier, confirming what they already think they know. This stuff practically writes itself.

Chinese folkways say that cold things – water, soda – are bad for you. Even on a 97 degree day. Hot tea or plain hot water is almost always offered as a refreshment upon your arrival. You can’t order a cold water in KFC. If you need it, you get boiled water with ice – though I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that NO ONE should be drinking tap water in China. We even brushed our teeth with bottled.

Nothing says refreshing when you’re sweating gallons on a hot day like a cup of scalding hot tea.

File this under: things to know when traveling in Asia.

They (largely) don’t use American-style toilets.

This is a (cleaner) example of an Asian toilet. A porcelain hole in the ground.

Wait. What the...?  How?

Wait. What the…? How?

You also have to bring your own toilet tissue. There is none in there for public use.

There are some American-style toilets. We called them ‘sitters’. Versus the ‘squatter’. You can figure it out. Mostly you’ll find sitters in American hotels (we booked based largely on that criteria) or handicapped stalls. In the cities, they weren’t hard to find. Out in the mountains, at the touristy places (Longmen Grottoes, Shaolin Temple, Terracotta Army, The Great Wall), not so much.

And opening those stall doors was like kicking in the door on a random house. Maybe it’s a pleasant sitch and maybe you just burst into the filthiest restroom in the Port Authority in NYC. You don’t know until you try it. There was a game show in the 1970’s and 80’s called Let’s Make A Deal, starring Monty Hall. Monty would give away cash and prizes, and then give you the opportunity to trade them away for a shot at something bigger behind “Door #3”. Sometimes it was a new car, and sometimes…. it wasn’t. Or, to quote Forrest Gump, “you never know what you’re gonna get”.

At the Shaolin Temple the restrooms were outside-accessible individual stalls, like a strip mall. They all had this sign:


Mike and I initially thought it meant that you could go skiing or tobogganing. But that doesn’t make sens….. ohhhhhhhh….. right. Got it.

As confusing as this was to us, sitters are equally confusing to Chinese who haven’t traveled much. Sitter stalls often have variants on this sign:

squat lesson

I thought it was a joke.

It is not.

At the Beijing airport, just before we boarded our flight home, Mike and I were washing our hands in the men’s room of the VIP lounge. It was a lovely men’s room, and not just as far as men’s rooms go (always fly first class if you can). The stalls were elevated about a foot off the floor. In the mirror, we could see a man’s head over the stall door. It was close to 8 feet of the ground. Doubting it was Yao Ming, we both instantly realized that the right side of the above sign was, in fact, a necessary coaching maneuver. It turns out that there are some horrific injuries suffered by Chinese who try to squat on a sitter. Don’t Google it, just trust me. Do. Not. Stand. On. The. Rim. Of. A. Toilet.

This is China.

[The whole series of blogs can be read here]