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Random reflections from a Chinese tour

Now that China has made its official debut as a superpower on the Olympic world stage and the fabled fire breathing dragon is fully awake, a personal reflection on a recent trip there this May is certainly overdue. Unfortunately, the visit eerily coincided with the Sichuan earthquake and added an unexpected dimension to the experience. Besides bonding with the Chinese people for the official moment of silence as this great nation came to a complete halt, I could not help but compare its handling of a major natural disaster against that of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. While viewing coverage on their English language TV channel, it seemed that a vigorous response from the government and a solidarity of the people was almost immediate. Traveling can at times be unsettling but certainly provides a different perspective and deeper understanding of the country you’re visiting and indirectly your own country.

Little Emporers

One can travel independently and not rely on the prepackaged tours that are available on the Internet. The advantages are keeping your own travel pace, choosing your own travel mates and selecting your own travel itinerary. Such freedom would probably not include all those famous factory tours for pearls, jade, lacquered furniture and silk so criticized by unsuspecting tourists on the travel forums. However, even if doing it yourself, these shopping stops cannot be totally avoided because day trips booked through your hotel mysteriously add them on when least expected. Prepackaged tours are still a good choice if economy and the least amount of hassle and confusion are needed for your vacation enjoyment. Certainly a person could do the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai by themselves but venturing beyond them requires some language skills and extra time and patience to negotiate logistics. Some believe that this extra effort is the essence of traveling while to others it’s an unnecessary burden on their yearly two week vacation. When considering China as a travel destination keep in mind that there’s also a new influx of indigenous Chinese tourists who can add to the crowds at such hot spots as the Xian terra cotta warriors and Forbidden Palace.

A surprising benefit of the prepackaged, one size fits all tours are the local guides who live in the area for the sites you’re visiting and are utilized by certain travel operators. The local guides offer the usual historical banter at the appropriate times but during those long hauls on the bus through congested city streets or rural highways their lectures veer towards a dialogue where questions are asked about modern Chinese life and then are answered with references to their own personal lives. One local guide was a middle-aged woman, a member of the new rising middle class; married to a doctor, (although teachers seems to be more honored in China) who spoke about raising an only daughter poised to enter college. Of course, she’s a bright, talented child who wants to embark on a fashion design career. However, in order to accomplish her goal the daughter wants to attend a foreign college and she likes the ones in England. The mother is doing everything possible to grant her daughter’s wish, a phenomenon not foreign to Western culture, but for this generation in China much more intense.

This generation born of the one child family policy instituted by the government in the late 1970’s is special and has generated the moniker “Little Emperors.” They are considered a little spoiled and sometimes do not function well socially.

Chinese tourists at Beihai Park

The lavish attention bestowed on them by four grandparents and two parents is what’s known as a 4-2-1 paradigm since this only child has to shoulder the legacy of two families and will inherit the wealth as well as anxieties of both. How this generation will affect China’s future is anyone’s guess and to a certain extent everyone’s worry. They seem to favor the techno superficiality and narcissism exhibited by youth in the West so an outsider can feel a sense of relief over that fact or one of dread depending on your perspective. As one young tour guide answered when asked if she had a steady boyfriend, she giggled, “no,” but then half seriously added that a potential boyfriend must have the four “c’s.” He must have a car, condo, cash and of course, be cute. As she spoke in English, one was left to wonder what the Mandarin translation would be to such a bold declaration or was this just a snide joke for the benefit of the tour group. Since she was talking about herself, everyone was in on the joke and laughed but there are always subtleties to humor that sometimes get lost in translation.

Some believe that China is actually two countries, one urban and the second, rural. The differences between the two are almost like the famous yin/yang symbol, the Tao. Keeping a balance between them is a prodigious task as one hurtles forward into the 21st century and the other is bogged down in various periods of the past. Certainly the media spotlight is being focused on China’s future, its sprawling urban centers. Here, building cranes occupy the skyline, their long beaks along side of unfinished high rise condos transforming major cities like Beijing and Shanghai from the horizontal to the vertical. However, some old neighborhoods still exist with their narrow alleys and old customs.

Pedicab in the hutongs

They are called hutongs and it’s where you can still find multigenerational family dwellings crowded around small courtyards but who knows for how long. In the meantime, most tours will include a thrilling pedicab ride through the narrow alleys of a hutong and a short visit into the home of some of its inhabitants, possibly a retired couple who have the time to host nosy tourists and answer pointed question about their lifestyle. For some it’s probably better to turn their old home into a museum than being forced to move into a new place without memories or tradition.

Although China might not be considered a very religious country, the ruling party does recognize its importance for social order and harmony and falls back on the traditional stalwarts Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism to fill that void. Some newer spiritual movements labeled “evil religions” are considered too radical and therefore banned or persecuted. The other advantages of supporting these three main religions are that many of their temples have been restored and now serve as tourist destinations thereby providing spiritual space for the people, income from tourists and an outward manifestation of tolerance. Since most of these ancient temples were damaged during the Cultural Revolution, there might possibly have been some unreported spiritual awakening in China in the intervening years reflecting the prodigious efforts necessary for their restoration.

Temple Tourism on Mt. Tai

This aspect of China’s recent history seems to have gone by unnoticed or misunderstood. Since China has such a grand history, it could be argued that nothing more needs to be added. Yet a visitor is still left with the feeling that it’s a work in progress and the gnawing realization that a return trip is not just a dream but a destiny.

Mike Mannetta is the creator of the travel DVD’s, Adirondack Great Camps, Parts 1 & 2.
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