THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE CHINESE By R J Furth
A few days ago Alan and I climbed Taishan, one of the holiest mountains in China. It was a brutally hot, humid day and Taishan kicked my 61 year old butt. I’m in pretty good shape, but after 3000 or so steps, streams of sweat were rolling down my face, stinging my eyes. My soaked shirt clung to my chest and my damp shorts stuck to my thighs. Half way up I hoped the cable car and met Alan at the top. It was a tough trek, though fascinating. It also revealed the Chinese at their best and worst. I saw a few 80 year old grandmothers who climbed all 6,000 steps, entire families with little children who completed the climb. I saw people who respected the mountain and its history that goes back over 2500 years; they stopped and prayed at shrines along the way and talked in respectful tones. Then there were the other Chinese, the ones that make traveling in China so stressful. One woman had a radio attached to her belt that blared music up and down the steps. Groups of young men would stop to sit in the middle of the stairs, smoking cigarettes and forcing everybody to walk around them. People hacked up phlegm which they spit on the steps, threw their cigarette butts on the ground, and dropped trash a few steps away from the plentiful trash cans. This is the China we saw last year and we are seeing it yet again. Many Chinese are kind and polite, others show no respect for their environment or other people.
I’ve read a lot about China, talked to many people who have lived here, so this was all expected. Last year Sandy and I dubbed our trip to Beijing ‘The Patience Tour’. We thought we were ready for the same this year, but it has been difficult. Before proceeding I should make one point: like many countries there is a vast difference between urbane city dwellers and those from provincial areas. Alan lives in Hangzhou, a modern city where the worst of Chinese behavior is less evident. People still push to the front of lines, drop trash and spit, but less often. We are now in Suzhou, a lovely city known for its canals and ancient gardens. Our 48 hours have been wonderful, the women as beautiful as promised (our hotel clerk in Tai’an called them the prettiest in China and I concur, though my knowledge is limited), the gardens amazing. The four days in Qufu and Tai’an, however, were stressful. In one modern, immaculate restaurant a young man cleared his throat three times and spat on the floor. Children, many obese (partially a result of the one-child policy), run around restaurants as if they were playgrounds. When buying train tickets you have to use your elbows to fend off people who try to push past you, even though you are already in the middle of a transaction. Please, excuse me and thank you are never heard. In a country where people are destroying the environment (our eyes and throats burn from the horrendous air pollution), and selling food and consumer goods packed with toxins and poisons, it seems that people care about their immediate families and nobody else. I see little in terms of respect. People smoke while standing next to no smoking signs, take flash photos in museums that ask people not to use their flashes. There is a campaign to et men to stand closer to urinals, yet I saw a man standing a foot away, much of his piss falling on the floor.
I will leave you with two positive images. We saw a lot of grandparents caring for their grandchildren. At the amazing garden we visited yesterday we often saw three generations together, with grandparents showing bountiful love and affection. We also saw thousands of Chinese at the London Olympics. They didn’t spit, stood politely in lines, cheered loudly and appropriately for their athletes. These were wealthy, well traveled Chinese who knew the proper behavior expected in modern nations. I believe that the Chinese have great potential as a nation, but like their government (Tiananmen Square, the invasion of Tibet, support for Assad’s government in Syria) the people don’t seem interested in following simple rules that allow a society to function smoothly. It seems to be about self-interest rather than respect for their fellow citizens. We have enjoyed many aspects of our two visits, but we don’t expect to return to China any time soon.