My wife and I visited China recently for about 12 days and we spent reasonable amount of time in three cities – Nanjing, Shanghai and Beijing. In terms of our expectations of visiting China, the culture shock we experienced was much subtler than our experiences in India and other Asian countries. The rapid development of the economy of China in these cities, and the fact that we did not venture into the hinterlands meant that at least on the surface, things appeared very developed. However, we also realized very quickly that China is aiming for modernization and not westernization which was very evident from my desperate cravings for a good glass of single malt scotch and a café Americano from Starbucks.
My first impressions were that China’s economic transformation has been hugely successful with remarkable achievements. I felt that the economy did not improve in isolation from society. The Chinese state is a unique institution and I don’t think is one that can be transplanted anywhere else. In my opinion, the Chinese governance structure succeeded because of its Confucian based society and not because of its communist party. I also saw the beginning of the transition towards market forces and only time will tell whether the current stability will exist at the end of this transition towards less state control and a consumer based economy.
My immediate impression leaving the Shanghai airport, after a 16 hour non-stop flight, towards the downtown was that it is a concrete jungle. The pictures here tell the story better than the best descriptions I can give. As the taxi was snaking through the inching traffic, I could not avoid the question silently in my mind… “How will the future generations of Chinese judge the current leaders for creating these urban jungles made out of concrete and steel without any due consideration for the natural environment …?”
As soon as I checked in at the hotel, we experienced our first frustrating and difficult lesson in China that all the internet sites that we frequent are blocked or choked. We wanted to check a Facebook posting from our son and could not understand why we could not until we spoke to my colleagues from my company. It was also an interesting lesson to listen to the way our Chinese friends and colleagues defended this seemingly unacceptable disruption of our way of life being connected to the web from anywhere and all the time.
Having been invited as the key note speaker at an important conference in Nanjing and also realizing that I will be meeting some business leaders in Shanghai and Beijing, I had prepared myself with the Chinese concept of Guanxi. Guanxi emphasizes that relationships are more important than transactions and should be honored above all else. For the first time visitor, I felt that this practice was often taken to the extreme in terms of formalities and the strict adherence to hierarchy. I also found that my ability and limits of alcohol consumption was put to the test with the number of toasts presented with Maotai and Baijiu at all the banquets, which are a necessity if you are doing business in China.
Another item that stands out is food. We like to think of ourselves as foodies and adventurous eaters… until we went to China. We learned the humbling lesson that the Chinese food we eat in the US or anywhere is not real Chinese food….regardless whether it is Sichuan, Hunan or Cantonese. Two of my favorite dishes Dan Dan noodles and Kung Pao chicken will be hard to taste again since we had the real ones. On the other hand, we’ve also come to the impression that the Chinese eat everything. Although pork, beef, fish and chicken are staples, many strange food items and menu options may seem as off-putting in the beginning. I thought they add to China’s appeal and some of these items are considered delicacies served at banquets for honored guests. The biggest mental obstacle seemed to be the appearance since we did not dare to sink our teeth into many of these “delicacies”
We found it really hard to initially understand and accept the lack of respect and observance for personal space. It is nothing personal since there doesn’t seem to be the same reverence for personal space. This also extends to the fact that they talk so loud face to face and even into their phones … not because they are angry. Being the first time visitors, initially we found every one to be so rude while waiting in a line anywhere. No one thinks twice about breaking the line or jumping ahead of you.
Of course, I have to end this post with our fantastic and memorable impressions of visiting the Beijing highlights – the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Ming Tombs and a personally important one, the Tiananmen Square. It was a surreal feeling for both of us to take a walk on the Great Wall of China and look at all the sections of the imperial palace within the Forbidden City, which we only saw in the movies. When we visited the historical sites we felt the legacy and heritage of the longest civilization in human history. Our final impressions were that we had just scratched the surface of everything one could see and enjoy in China.