Friday, August 25, 2006

15 Things I Learned in China

This summer I visited China for the first time in my life. It's a country that has always fascinated me. So now, after a week's vacation in Beijing, I'd like to share some little nuggets of information I have come away with.

1. The word "hamburger" refers to any sandwich consisting of meat between two buns—mainly fish, chicken, pork or ham. But almost never ground beef. Ground beef is not sold in stores. The only place that sells beef burgers is McDonald's (and it did not seem to be the most popular menu item there).

2. By and large, people in China are very friendly and complimentary. Although I was stared at almost constantly while walking down the street, when I actually engaged someone in conversation, I was flattered and told very nice things.

3. Everywhere you go, signs—including names of parks, stores, places, etc.—refer to Happiness, Joy, Good Health, Dreams, Luck, etc. I visited the Wonderful Supermarket, located in the Pretty Department Store. None of this nomenclature is intended to be even slightly ironic.

4. Lay's Potato Chips are extremely popular. Flavors include Lemon, Cool Cucumber, Green Tea, Texas Barbecued Ribs, Steak, Peking Duck, Chicken, Hokkaido Grilled Crab and, of course, Crisp Hokkaido Seaweed.

5. It is summer, and the cicadas are in the trees everywhere, buzzing loudly. My Chinese guide said she liked the sound. "They are singing for joy," she explained (again, without irony).

6. They're still using the old-fashioned pop-tops on soda cans over there—the old pull-off, removable kind. Using them gave me a little nostalgic kick; I haven't seen them in about 15 years.

7. There is no part of the chicken or the pig that Chinese people will not eat. In addition to cow's hearts, chicken feet and pig heads, some of the stuff I saw in the marketplace was appalling to my Westernized sensibility.

Most disturbing: a table full of silkworm pupa. This would have been a serious matter for the health department in the U.S., not a typical dinnertime alternative. Also, as a rule, Chinese cuisine bears little or no resemblance to the Westernized Chinese food they sell in the U.S.

8. It was a revelation to finally see how the Chinese language is typed using a standard "QWERTY" keyboard. Chinese characters are entire words in themselves, not "letters" used to form words. Therefore, using special computer software, a letter of the Roman alphabet is clicked to bring up a menu of Chinese words to be selected. I also learned that most, if not all, Chinese words are one syllable.

9. There are no clothes my size available in China. An XXL shirt in Beijing was roughly equivalent to our "large."

10. Chinese tastes are reflected even in the flavors of their toothpaste. I brought home a tube of Crest toothpaste—Green Tea flavor!

11. Welcome to a whole new world of fruits and vegetables. Taro, durian and haw (see above) seem to be as common as apples and strawberries are here. But watermelon seems to be the most popular fruit in China by far. I lost count of the different kinds of vegetables, but cucumber is staggeringly popular. Oh, and three words: CORN ICE CREAM!

12. No matter how crazy or irresponsible you think American pedestrians are, I assure you, they are not. People on foot in and around China's highways are all suicidal, every single one of them, including people on bicycles. As a passenger in many Chinese taxis, I was sure I would witness a killing about every 10-20 seconds. People step right in front of speeding cars in this country, totally devoid of any kind of fear. Bicyclists too. Watching cars and pedestrians constantly play games of
"chicken" was one of the most amazing and horrific things I have ever seen. Side note: The entire time I was in China, a Communist country, I never once saw any police or any police cars. By comparison, the USA is much more of a "police state." When I asked where all the police were, my Chinese guide said I could find them at the police station. "If you need them, you call them," she shrugged.

13. I came down with strep throat in China. Lucky for me, antibiotics were cheerfully sold over the counter, and my condition cleared up after a couple of days. (Side note: virtually everything in China is dirt cheap.)

14. It is not unusual to see cars with one wheel in the front of the vehicle instead of two, like a giant gasoline-powered tricycle. Same with three-wheeled motorcycles. There are many motorcycles in China that have a kind of auto-body structure built around them.

15. Toilet paper in public lavoratories is NOT a given. You would be very wise to bring your own.

Monday, August 07, 2006