I finally made it to the People's Republic of China despite a rocky preparation. As you know from my previous post, I am here for a Short Term Assignment of three (3) months to work closely on improving production with our suppliers. I have just completed the first part of my assignment at the first factory, so it's the perfect moment to reflect on my first impressions about the country. Before getting into my thoughts and observations, the first thing I must mention is that up 'till now, my travels to Asia were very minimal. About a year ago, I travelled on business for two weeks to Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. But, besides that, my experience in the Far East is close to none. So, this is the first time I'm expose to the "real" Asian culture. With that said I consider myself very lucky to be here for three full months and hopefully get across the cultural Great Wall of China. With the complexity of the Chinese History and its diverse cultural heritage, I hope the duration of my stay will allow me to know a side of China that is not often shown to short term travellers.
Useful Advice vs. Pluralism
Before coming here, many people took the liberty of sharing advice about China. Although I purposely did not research anything about my new work location (as I mentioned in a previous post: going forward this would be my new way of travelling), some of my friends and colleagues still felt the need to share their opinion about the country. I have to admit, I always find it quite amusing when people share their two-cents about a certain destination, as if this information would be helpful to me. Normally, I'm all for knowledge sharing and truly believe it helps gaining efficiency while managing projects. But, now it's different. We're talking about travelling, people! First off, there is no way I will remember everything you told me. I'm a very visual person and therefore need to see things in order to remember them. Some people will argue that I have A.D.D. or don't care enough about the person to give her my full attention (That's right! I said "her"!), but I completely reject these two thesis. Let's be honest, I am a complete stranger to any reference point you will mention to me about this destination. Whether they are cities, neighborhoods, areas or streets; there is no way I will remember them, so why waste your time telling mem about them? I cannot tell the difference (and neither can you, if you have never been there) between Hunan and Henan, or between Shanxi and Shaanxi (these are real provinces, by the way) and it's completely normal - I'm not in the situation yet! Besides the situational aspect, the most important omitted factor while giving advice is pluralism (or the doctrine of multiplicity). Did it occur to these Mr. & Mrs. Know-It-All's that their own experiences could be perceived differently by another human being? Or, are we all subject to reacting the same way toward a specific event? We are not all the same, and these made of cardboard advisors tend too often to forget it! Some people enjoy the heat, some others the cold. Some like to lay on the beach, others like to hike up a volcano. I could love what you hate - and vice versa - whether it's food, sights, culture, or human interactions. That's what makes human nature so beautiful.
They told me "Guangzhou is a shit hole"
When I told my colleagues I was going to Guangzhou, their first reflex was to tell me how "Guangzhou is a shit hole". Throughout my travels, I have at times crossed some places that most travellers would qualify as shit holes. So, I was really expecting the worst before getting here. I thought I would be bored to death in a soulless over-populated dormitory town where there was nothing else to see but tall buildings full of tiny apartments for factory workers. Did I mention the person who specifically told me - and I quote - "Guangzhou is a shit hole" lives in a tiny rural town located five minutes away from our office location in Germany? So you can see how his comments prepared me to the worst. By the way, that same person insisted on having dinner at the Hard Rock Café while in Ho Chi Minh City - one of the most culinary diverse foodie city I have visited so far - and yet, he craved a burger... No comments.
My Observations: Guangzhou is NOT a shit hole! It's the third largest city in China: a megacity along the Pearl River with 12 million inhabitants. It is also ranked ninth on the planet in terms of number of skyscrapers. It features both some of the best preserved most beautifully decorated ancient buildings, as well as the most avant-garde architectures in China - perfectly bridging the future and the past. Its food scene is ridiculously diverse with the world renowned Cantonese flavors and also some fusion cuisine from other countries. People come from all corners of China to experience the Guangzhou culinary experience. I have only spent a few days in Guangzhou before I made it to Dongguan, and I can't wait to go back. It's a very large city with tons of sights to see. I'm still wondering what made my colleague qualify it as a shit hole. It is true that the city has developed at light speed over the past few years. Perhaps he visited this city more than 10 years ago?
They told me "It's hot as hell"
People warned me about the weather. They told me I that it was the worst time to go to China, as the temperatures go over 40℃. Let me be clear, there is no possible weather - good or bad - that will prevent me from fulfilling my dream. What do I care if it's hot as hell or raining cats and dogs all day long? I came here with a specific purpose to gain exposure to a business area that is unknown to me, broaden my knowledge, and share some best practices with the local teams. Besides, with a three-month assignment, it was either heat, monsoon season, or a happy mix of both. In any case, I did not have the choice and it didn't even occur to me to take this factor into account. The gain was much greater than the pain. It's all about gain, people!
My Observations: Although I was born and raised in Montreal and feel very Canadian, I also have a Moroccan background which is equally part of the cultural heritage I carry. While growing up, my family and I used to spend complete summers at my grandmother's house (God rest her soul) - in a tiny town in the middle of Nowhere, Morocco. Temperatures could go up to 50℃ in the middle of the afternoon with no beach at sight in a four-hour radius by car. So, my tolerance to extreme heat waves is probably much higher than the one of someone from the midlands who spent his whole life under cloudy skies and chilly temperatures. Pluralism, people... pluralism!
They told me "Food is weird"
I think everyone I know who have been to Asia told me about the "weirdest" tastes (to the eye of a Western) the Far East cuisine has to offer. Some told me about dog meat, some others about insects. I have also been told that it is frowned upon to refuse to taste something that is offered to you. Apparently, some locals might even consider this gesture as an insult. I did see some interesting plates back when I visited Phnom Penh: street food carts full of fried bugs, freshly grilled dog heads, and even steamed rice topped with fried ants (which are considered as a delicacy at the same level as caviar).
My Observations: I've never understood this statement. I find it so obnoxious from people to come visit a country located at the other world's end and still be surprised to note some differences. The best example of this is when people travel to another part of the globe and immediately rush to McDonald's to enjoy a Big Mac. Unfortunately, I have witnessed this behavior far too often over the years. Quite honestly, I find it sad to see people wasting such great opportunities on ease of accessibility. All I want to tell them is: "You've made it that far away from home! Now is certainly not the time to fall back into your comfort zone!" But, you don't need to try everything if you don't feel like it. It's okay to know your limits and respect them. My personal experience is that locals will respect your limits too. I made it very clear from the beginning that I don't eat pork, frog or dog meat; but I am ok with everything else. The staff always took the time to describe every plate that was presented on the table. It was up to me to eat whatever I felt comfortable with. The way meals work in China is that they place all plates on a Lazy Susan right in the center of the table. Then, each guest serves their food into their dedicated plate in front of them. No one is keeping track of what you do or don't eat. Everyone enjoys the meal while engaging into an equally enjoyable conversation. I was never finger pointed because I did not try the dog or the bullfrog. Besides, the factory staff was from Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines, and - even to them - eating dog meat is not part of their culture.
They told me "People are Rude"
One of the most common remarks from the Western travellers was that Chinese people are rude, and that I will be very happy to be back in Germany after my assignment. Another statement I found ironic, given the reputation of the German people overseas. They said I would find the Chinese people lack manners and have no sense of respect. Perhaps it's worth spending time analyzing the root cause of this behavior. I am a strong believer of the expression "You reap what you sow". Could it be that these people had this experience because it was a natural reaction to the tourist's shitty sense of entitlement while in a foreign country? But, that's none of my business... (as I’m sipping on my drink while looking away).
My Observations: I guess it's one of those things where we tend to remember the 'bad' experiences over the 'good' ones. Yes, I have found at times that people are loud and disgusted by others who spit on the ground. But, it's far from being the vast majority. Besides, I am sure there is an equal number of assholes per capita in every country around the Globe. It just so happens that China has a larger population than anywhere else. As a result, you might notice a little bit more of those behaviors you qualify as being rude. So, if you can get passed these superficial observations, you will notice how attentive they are. When I was at the first factory, the staff made sure I felt right at home. They even changed their lunch menu to accommodate me although I have never mentioned anything about my diet. Actually, they had their secretary call our local office to find it out. They also made sure I had dinner at their expense every single evening after work and even on weekends when they drove me around to visit some of the regional jewels of the Guangdong province. Everything is done for you to feel good. They really go the extra mile at every occasion, which makes me resent the German customer service even more than before.
WHAT I TOLD MYSELF
Again, I did not research anything about life in China or any of the cities I would visit. As a result, I did not tell myself much. I try and stay as clueless as possible in order to avoid being biased by preconceived ideas. But, I was still biased by general mass media information that was regurgitated over me throughout the years. For instance, I thought I would come to a country where people were introverted. When I was younger, I did not have the wisdom of understanding how difficult it could be for a young Chinese immigrant to integrate a new country. Being born in Montreal, I have never really reflected on how being different in every superficial aspect could introvert a young Chinese kid in a classroom. I simply thought it was part of their culture... How uninformed was I!
My Observations: One of the things that struck me the most about China was the people's attitude. I guess it was so contrasting with Germany than seeing people on the street seeking for eye contact so they can smile at you. People are curious! They ask questions about where you are from, they want to know about you so they can enhance your experience in their country - as if it were every citizen's responsibility to make you feel comfortable in your knew environment. I find it quite pleasant and it gets me even more curious about their culture.
What I'm telling yoU
I was always reluctant to using the expressions 'good' and 'bad' experience. To me, there is no such thing, since you can learn from both. From my standpoint, there is just 'experience'. It's as simple as that! You've probably heard the expression "It's not about the destination. It's about the journey." Some friends often asked me for advice to go on vacation. My answer to them was that it didn't matter. Firstly, pluralism tells us that our tastes could be completely different from one person to another. Therefore, I could not possible share valuable advice to a person other than myself. Secondly, the experience is far greater than the destination. It only represents the container of your experience. The content is what you will remember forever - the people you have met, the things you have learned, the emotions you've been through, etc. Unfortunately, the container is impossible to reproduce. It is an experience that will be unique to each individual. In the end, it's all about positivism. We can find silver linings in every experience we live. Is Guangzhou a shit hole? Perhaps the nature around it will allow me to hike. Is it hot as hell? Perhaps I can spend more time indoor trying different tastes of food. Is food weird? Pehaps I can find a middle ground between dog meat and a Big Mac. Are Chinese people rude? Perhaps I can understand why they are being rude to me so I can become a better person. I've had my share of 'good' and 'bad' experiences. But, they always came with a key learning. As long as we travel with an open mind, we will come across some amazing things which we would have never experienced by staying in our comfort zone.