I am *so* glad to be out of China. Malaysia is…*friendly*. Polite. Happy. Full of tasty food. In such an atmosphere it’s easy to overlook things like mosquito attacks and sudden, unexplained interruptions of internet service – things I would have railed against in China.
I would love wrap up my feelings about China (something more sophisticated than “I hated it”) into a clever Chinese box, but I don’t think that’s possible. My ignorance of Chinese history robs me of proper context. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up and live in a communist society, so my powers of empathy are limited. And there’s no way to overstate the handicap of the language barrier – few people could speak English, no one could understand my sorry attempts at Mandarin, and most importantly, I couldn’t read signs. All these factors make contemporary China impenetrable to me.
All I can do, as the ever-insightful Henry points out, is report on what I observe from my demanding-critical-skeptical-tightwad-ignorant-western point of view.
I went to China expecting philosophy, ancient architecture, modern hyper-development, great food, and plenty of unexpected stuff.
What I found, I think, is…meanness. Most people were completely uninterested in me. This sounds rather self-centered; what I mean is that people didn’t even try to understand – what I was trying to say, to find, to do. People weren’t curious. With a few notable exceptions, few people went out of their way to be helpful. Tour operators didn’t give a shit if I was happy with what I paid for. I can’t remember anyone ever saying “good morning.”
But this lack of cheerfulness extended beyond my tourist-haze. On the streets, no one smiles. You rarely saw anyone (including Chinese people) strolling, enjoying themselves. I don’t remember many random acts of kindness. In fact, people would barrel right over you on the street, cars and motorbikes would run red lights and almost hit you in the crosswalk. Like Russia and Eastern Europe, communist “collectivism” paradoxically seems to have bred a people who will shove old ladies out of the way to get what’s on offer first.
It’s like they’re hoarding time.
People didn’t even take the time to enjoy simple pleasures such as food – most of the time people shoveled it into their mouths, or slurped it up, as quickly as possible.
No one seemed happy.
That’s why Guilin, full of vacationing families and strolling couples, was such a pleasant surprise. All of a sudden, Chinese people seemed human.
Indeed, the change here in Malaysia further highlights the meanness of China. People smile. There’s gentle music playing in the shops. There’s *street life* – markets, parks, restaurants, bustle. Other than in Kashgar, I can’t remember much street life in China – everyone was too busy rushing around their Levitt-cities.
Malaysia is more human.
I’m sitting in a cafe in Melaka (aka Malacca), on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The wicker chair ain’t too comfortable, but the fans in the high ceilings keep the air moving and the mosquitoes at bay. Chilled-out lounge music is playing on the stereo. On the rough, peeling walls hang a haphazard collection of random B&W photos, art posters and a few paintings. There are just the right number of knickknacks strewn about the bar and tables. Earlier the server came around and offered each guest a fried banana that his friend had brought him in a bag. In fact, I just looked up, caught his eye, and he smiled at me. For no reason.
This place does not, could not exist in China. Outside of hostels, there are no public venues where people linger in China. Even the thousands of malls lack seating.
So the question is: do I love this cafe because it’s what I’m used to, or because it’s just good?
Back to Henry’s observations for a sec: I think he’s wrong that Eastern non-individualist culture precludes having an ideology. AFAIK, Chinese people had ideology/philosophy for most of their history – from religions to communism. The fact that they don’t seem to have one in the post-Deng era is troubling. If you go back and read the quoted dude in the NYT article, you’ll see that even *he* was taken aback when he couldn’t say what China stands for. He struggled, but he came up with an answer, because he knew that you gotta stand for something.
His struggle – and my search – to come up with a guiding ideology outside of economic power and development is telling.
I didn’t look very hard – and couldn’t, given the language barrier – but I don’t know that there is any funk in China. One billion people and no funk (art, personality, etc.). Now that’s troubling.
Sorry – Just two more quick things about China.
First…maybe this is another indication of lack of funk, but everyone dresses in the same drab, ugly manner. The men wear cheap collared shirts tucked in to pleated (pleated!) trousers hiked up and fixed in place by a simple leather belt. On their feet they wear thin white socks and black or brown loafers. It’s *so* ugly. Awful.
Second…a little rant about Chinglish. People think it’s funny, and it can be. The menu translations are hilarious. But when you see Chinglish on sign on a train, in a bus station, in a hotel (fire escape instructions!), or even on a billboard, to me it shows that they just don’t give a shit. It’s inexcusable in the age of the internet, even the one behind the Great Firewall. I mean, even spellcheck would help matters. So yeah – I don’t think Chinglish is funny. I think it’s one more example of Chinese insularity and fundamental lack of interest in anyone but themselves.
OK – no more ranting about China – I’m tapped. From now on, it’s hot, sticky, friendly Malaysia.