By Brian Sack
I love traveling, but when it came to China I’d made up my mind what it would
be like and I wasn’t interested. If I was going to spend a day on a plane, there
were many other places I’d rather see: New Zealand, Japan, South Korea or
Antarctica—but my wife felt differently. She wanted to see China, and used many
adjectives to make her case.
The last time she’d insisted so strongly on something was when she said I
couldn’t eat chicken that had been in the freezer for three years. Turns out she
was right. Maybe she’d be right again? Ultimately I was persuaded. China it was.
The next thing I knew, I was spending twenty-billion frequent flier miles for
tickets to Shanghai. It was to become one of the most eye-opening trips of my
life. And the only trip where I’d find myself eating a bird’s nest.
Here’s what I learned:
THEY EAT EVERYTHING
When you have a huge population that is mainly poor, all options are on the
table when it comes to sustenance. What that means is that standard fare in
China has the habit of freaking us, and our less-adventurous Western palates, out.
What’s on the menu? Bee pupae. Caterpillars. Crickets. Snakes. Frogs. I
passed on donkey meat stew but I did eat a shark fin and bird’s nest soup. I thought bird’s nest soup might come from boiled twigs but it’s actually a nest. A nest the bird makes from its
saliva. I found that out afterward.
Dogs and cats can breathe easier in the cities now that the new middle class
has started warming up to the idea of pets. But many folks, especially in the
rural areas, don’t freak out about cat meatballs. Can’t say I’m a fan.
What’s notable is the lack of dairy in Chinese cooking. There’s not much of
it. There are a couple reasons: Chinese have a high prevalence of lactose
intolerance. It’s in the genes. One Chinese girl told me she found the idea of
cheese "disgusting." And dairy farming requires a lot of land and a lot of cows.
As a result, dairy is simply not big. And of course, the tainted milk scandals
THEY’RE NOT REALLY COMMUNIST
I saw a Ferrari in Shanghai. In fact, I saw a good number of nice cars. That
doesn’t mesh with the "classless society" that Marx and several of my professors
fantasized about. No matter how egalitarian societies want to be, there’s always
the ruling elite and the ruling elite always like to have more things than
everyone else. In my wife’s communist Poland they had a cynical expression for
this disparity in fiscal equality:
"There’s even, and there’s even-er."
The big cities have no shortage of high-end shopping malls, luxury items and
fancy restaurants (one of my favorites was named "Made In China"). Most of their
population, around 1 billion folks, is indeed very poor. And poor in China is a
lot worse than poor in America. But their middle class of about 300 million
people (the size of the U.S.), have it pretty good if they play nice and don’t
annoy the one political party. Though we tend to paint the country with a broad
brush and say they’re communist, it’s more like two diametrically opposed
ideologies had a one night stand that produced a baby called capitalistic
THEY HAVE THE WORST BATHROOMS
A hole in the floor. In a small, filthy stall. Oh, and the toilet paper is
outside the stall because you were supposed to bring it in with you. Enjoy.
THEY LIKE US
As more and more Chinese travel and interact with people outside the People’s
Republic, they learn that what they were told about the West and the reality
aren’t the same. Sure, there are plenty of folks who buy the Party line but
there are also many, many skeptics and dissenters. I almost feel bad for the
People’s Party because they have a hard task ahead of them, especially because
of the Internet. Their people, if you can talk to them one-on-one, are
very interested in Western culture and
wouldn’t mind if we learned about theirs. Several people ran up and took
pictures of us, but especially my wife because she’s blond. And prettier than
WESTERN NOTIONS OF POLITENESS ARE OUT THE DOOR
When your population is absurdly large, certain niceties get sacrificed for
expediency’s sake. People bump into you on crowded streets and say nothing. They
charge the elevator before you get off. They stand over you as you’re eating,
waiting for your table to become available. Once you get used to it, it’s kind
THE LANGUAGE IS ABSURDLY HARD
China is riddled with different dialects and languages that geographically
are not far apart – like driving from New York to Boston and wondering what
everyone was saying. The government wisely decided to pick one language and
stick with it, so the official tongue is Mandarin. Still, getting your point
across can be tough. We have 26 letters in our alphabet. They have 6,000 written
characters. And then there are the oral tones.
I’m a good traveler. I make an effort to learn the essential and polite words
and use them often. I had no luck here. Try as I did, people just stared at me,
shook their heads, and raised eyebrows. It was hopeless. And I have the tones to
thank for it. Say a word with the wrong tone and you’re saying a totally
different thing. For example: The word
Say it with a high tone and it means
Say it in a rising tone and it means
Say it in a falling/rising tone and it means
Falling tone? Oh, that’s
LAWS ARE ENFORCED RANDOMLY
We took an overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing. We arrived in the
morning and found ourselves among the droves of folks streaming out of the
station. As we headed out the gates, a very punchable guard stopped me. I
determined that he was asking to see my tickets, which I believed I had thrown
away. I tried to explain this despite the language barrier. He wanted to see the
tickets. As he barked at me in Mandarin, hundreds of people streamed right past
him, their tickets going unchecked. He demanded my tickets. I insisted they were
gone. And what’s the point? We were only trying to
Eventually we had to drag our bags back to the train, find our car, and sift
through the trash while four people leered at us. After 45 minutes we found the
tickets. In my camera bag. My wife mocked me for being an idiot, then we showed
the guard the tickets. I swore at him, knowing he wouldn’t understand, and we
were on our way.
YOU CAN’T RENT A CAR
That’s right. No Hertz for you! You need to hire a driver to take you around
because car rental is forbidden. But you don’t want to drive anyway. It’s absolutely insane. Fortunately, hiring someone to drive you around isn’t expensive in a country where the average monthly income is $300.
YOU SHOULD NOT DRINK THE WINE WITH THE SNAKE IN IT
If you find yourself in the stunningly gorgeous Guilin area taking a lovely
cruise down the river, there’s a very good chance you’ll be presented with a
dead snake coiled up in a bottle of wine. This is called snake wine.
They will tell you that snake wine is loaded with curative properties that
will cure farsightedness, impotence and baldness. They will urge you to try
some; however, I recommend that you don’t try it, because the combination of
vile snake-flavored wine and the motion of a boat on the water will result in
you stumbling off the boat and throwing up on a pretty, young Chinese woman who
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
THEY HAVE THE BEST ASPARAGUS
I’m serious. It was the best asparagus I’ve ever had. Sure, it was probably
fertilized with the blood of dissidents and injected with melamine, but it was
absolutely delicious. Five years later and I still drool like Homer Simpson when
I think about Chinese asparagus.