“What’s China like?”
Of course, any person who has been to China gets asked this all the time by people who haven’t. Could you begin to describe it? Surely it’s impossible.
I can never give a coherent answer to this question. Sometimes, if I think the other person might be able to relate, I don’t try to answer it. I simply try to describe an image. I don’t know why on earth this image summarises China for me so much, but …it does, and I can’t escape that! So…here you go:
It’s around 2pm. The sky is bluer than usual, but retains that ever-present tinge of grey. The air is not great, but it could be worse. It’s 30 degrees C, and it’s loud. Engines and blasting horns, but to me it’s faded into an endless buzz.
The highway I’m cycling along is about to curve around to undercut another larger highway that stretches across it, a hulking grey mass. All I can see in front of me is an enormous bridge and the dull sky. But my attention is focused on the foreground, not the backdrop. I’m the only person on a bicycle in this part of the highway right now (which is unusual in itself). There is only one pedestrian.
A man. Slight, quite small. His skin is dark, dark like a worker who has spent his life in the paddies, and his face drawn sallow from years of poor nutrition. He is dressed in a grubby white polo, and his black slacks are grubby, faded and ripped.
Despite his wasted appearance, he stands erect on that corner beside the roaring highway, and seems to have been there for hours. It’s hot, nobody is stopping for him, and still he stands. He points towards the cars. Clasped in his outstretched arms, he holds a rough, whip-like stick. Tied to the stick is a piece of string. Hanging motionless from the piece of string (of all the things it could have been) … massive, stolic, majestic and sad-looking, but very alive… is a turtle. There is a LIVING turtle, dangling from the fishing rod of a poor man making his living on a busy highway in the suburbs of Beijing in the dry, harsh and dirty air in unforgiving heat, and it is considered entirely ordinary.
I continue on my way.
Bizarre. To me, it’s bizarre. To others, it’s probably normal, boring even to some people. But that’s social construction for you. Seeing this in the UK would be considered totally weird, bizarre, unheard of. In China, it’s normal.
Do you have an amusing or weird snapshot of a place you have visited, a culture you have experienced? Do you have a funny story? When you came back to the UK, did you have trouble describing your travels to your friends? Let me know in the comments!