Travelling from Japan to China is comparable, in my mind, to stepping out of a hot tub (or hot spring, if you will) and stepping into what you think is going to be an equally hot shower to rinse off but which turns out to be shockingly cold. And you can’t just jump out of the shower. You’re locked in. Although in Shanghai (our first stop in China; the cold shower in the poor analogy I just gave), I had the MV Explorer to escape back to during and after an overwhelming day. So I suppose you can jump out of the cold shower, but you have to jump back in again and again so it only helps momentarily. Get it?
China is cool; don’t get me wrong. It’s just not cool in the same way that Japan is cool. Japan is quality. It is strong. It is built on a value system of respect and kindness and a firm belief in helping other people. China is a little more every man for himself. It’s rough around the edges. It’s fast and cheap and probably not built all too sturdily. It’s filled with uncertainty; no price is fixed. It’s impossible to know if you’re paying what you should be paying for anything. Cab drivers don’t run their meters because they know they can make you pay much more than you should for the ten-minute cab ride to the sky bar across town (and they almost kill you in the process of getting you there). Street vendors try to sell their wares for up to a thousand times what they’re worth. They give you fake money for change, hoping you won’t realize. They don’t give you change at all, hoping you’re not paying close attention or feel too uncomfortable to ask for it. They sometimes even snatch your money right out of your purse.
Traveling in China is just plain exhausting. On our first day in Shanghai, we spent an hour in the rain trying to find our way back to the ship. The deans had forgotten to write out the address of the ship terminal in Chinese (they usually provide any information we might need on a “green sheet,” which we’re told to have with us at all times), so even when we could hail a cab (which was difficult, because most avoid picking up foreigners), the drivers would get frustrated with our best efforts to communicate where we needed to go and shoo us off. When we finally succeeded in securing a ride, it was only through a combination of pleading, using precious phone data to access Google translate, and showing the driver a picture of a cruise ship. On our second day, we spent an hour trying to buy train tickets to Beijing. For some reason, even large establishments like train stations only accept cash here, so our group of five had to walk a mile from the station to the airport to find a currency exchange desk before purchasing the tickets we had already spent thirty minutes telling the woman at the counter we wanted (once again, we needed “one ticket to Beijing” written out for us through Google translate before we were able to do this). So, as a close to this first post about China, here is a list of things I have a newfound appreciation for:
- The English language (while most people in China don’t speak it, it is still the closest thing to a universal language that exists; if someone speaks a second language at all, it’s going to be English)
- Toilets. China loves what my friends have fondly come to refer to as “squatty potties.” We are not fond of them. Toilets are more of a pleasant surprise here than an expectation
- Subways. If there is one thing that the Chinese have mastered the art of, it is subway systems. They are clean, fast, and cheap. And using them keeps you away from cab drivers who try to rip you off and make you fear for your life (driving in China, while on the right side of the road – except Hong Kong – is very, very scary)
- Trustworthy tap water. Brushing teeth with bottled water is never fun. Neither is forgetting to and living with the fear that your body will decide to retaliate at any moment
- Internet!!! Not only is good, free wifi almost impossible to come by here, but basically any website I would ever use is censored. Free speech, yo. So also democracy.
- Not being a minority. We each got to a point in the past few days where we found ourselves smiling much too enthusiastically at the other white person passing us on the street. Who thought we were strange.
- American pop music. (Chinese pop music is not great)
- FRESH AIR. Smog :( Weird smells :(
- The option to use a credit card
- The MV Explorer. Seriously, having a little piece of America with clean water and friends and a nice bed to come back to is PRETTY nice. Plus it transports all of your heavy stuff for you.
- So many more things that I’m forgetting