If you’re looking to be a big fish in a small pond, China is not the place for you.
This is probably intuitive. China’s the world’s most populous country and is one of the oldest countries in the world. When I saw some of China’s historic monuments and structures in person, “diminutive” was not the first word that came to mind. Their majesty was overwhelming to me.
At the same time, nothing made me feel like more of a minnow in an ocean than simply walking the streets of Dalian, Beijing, and Shanghai — and, I hate to say it, not in a good way.
The last country where I played tourist was Japan just a few months ago. In Japan, courtesy seemed to guide every interaction I had with locals; the Japanese people I met bowed to me and politely offered to help whenever they could.
China was the exact opposite. China felt like a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself kind of atmosphere. In crowds, people shouldered and shoved me without hesitation. Traffic never gave pedestrians a right-of-way, even at crosswalks with lights — and the obnoxious car horns rang incessantly. Lining up for cash registers or buses was futile since the people who were served first were the ones who shouldered their way to the front. Strangers would hover over my shoulder if I was reading my phone simply to be nosy.
And while my sense of personal space changed, so did the social hygiene; while in Japan, I considered wearing a preventative surgical mask to fit in with the trend, yet in China I felt compelled to wear one even though they were more uncommon. I couldn’t walk outside without hearing someone loudly coughing and gagging or hocking a loogie. The food made me sick to my stomach and the air was palpably thick with air pollution.
I did luck out, though. I happened to visit Beijing during the weekend of the APEC summit, and was treated to the “APEC Blue,” as locals called it. Our tour guide told us that smog in Beijing was usually so bad, people couldn’t see ten meters in front of them. To help make Beijing seem more appealing to the visiting international leaders, the city shut down production of about 2,000 surrounding factories for the weekend. The bright, smog-free skies of the “APEC Blue” certainly helped my sightseeing photos brighten up.
And I do have some neat photos. After I visited jade and silk factories, I zealously toured parts of the magnificent Great Wall. Seeing this world wonder stretching across the mountain pass was breathtaking and humbling. On days when I felt more ambitious, I fought the crowds of tourists to see the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and the tomb of the Wanli emperor.
The most gorgeous site I saw in China was in Shanghai. Standing in the Bund at night, the blues, purples, and pinks of the skyline mesmerized me. Between the glittering metropolis of lights in Shanghai and the Great Wall — arguably the magnum opus of China’s history — I was in awe of the grandiose results of what civilizations can create.
Now that I’m back in the States, it’s nice to have a more relaxed atmosphere with more patient traffic and people who cover their coughs. But even if I was just a minnow, it was worth swimming upstream to see the sites in China.