A Reasoner’s Observations on China

So far I’ve been in China for 23 days. This post is about some basic differences I see between the United States and China.

1. There are SO many people.

This is straightforward: at 1.3 billion, the Chinese population is more than quadruple that of the United States (300 million), and the land areas are very, very close (each at about 9.6 million square kilometers). This means the population density is four times as high. So Americans, imagine a busy street in the United States. Now multiply each person by four. That’s China.

Actually, it seems even worse. This is because most of China’s population is concentrated in cities on the eastern seaboard and inlying plains; if you take a look at a topological map of China you’ll see why. The USA, however, has cities near the West and East coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and many others.

2. Lining up means forming a blob and rushing as close as you can to the front.

This is almost a consequence of the first observation. My main evidence for this is the Beijing subway system, wherein I traveled for about an hour. I certainly do have precedence for the comparison, since I’ve used the New York City subway system as well. Now, in the United States, the subway train doors open for a sufficient amount of time, and there is usually enough space on the trains. Not so much is the case in Beijing, where the doors open for about 15 seconds at most. At one stop a lot of people needed to both exit and enter, so after about 10 people exited in 7-8 seconds, about 25 people, myself included, needed to enter in the remaining half of the time window. I was near the front as I had waited for a while, but almost as soon as the last person exited, I felt a large force on my back: it turns out that I was being pushed—or rather, shoved—onto the train.

There were also a couple of American tourists on the train: one who was already inside the train when the mass shoving happened, and one among the shoved. They were obviously unacquainted, but exchanged that look—you know, that eyebrow raise with a forced smile when something awkward happens. Being my first-time experience with the Beijing subway, the incident caused me to join them in their expression.

In all, it’s a culture difference. I suppose I’ve been too accustomed to Western culture—public behavior in China seems in comparison so rude. Out on the streets, it’s just as bad, only instead of just people fighting for space amongst themselves, they have to compete with motorcycles and cars.

3. Driving—think chase scene.

What I mean is that traffic laws are much more lenient than in the United States. Imagine the subway crowding above, only instead, put everyone in cars, on a three-lane highway. If you think you know the definition of aggressive driving, and have only lived in the United States—then you don’t know aggressive driving at all.

In China, the only real rule of driving is: Get to your destination as fast as you can, and don’t hit anything. There are so many violations of American rules, which I am used to, that I don’t know where to start. Here is an incomplete list:

  • When changing lanes, roll a die. If it lands a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, change to that lane no matter the situation—if there happens to be a car alongside you in that lane, try to edge it out, or speed up and cut in front of it. If it lands a 1, then signal your blinkers first, then proceed as above.
  • When the person in front of you is driving slowly, tailgate within two inches of their car, honk, and flip on your floodlights. Even if they speed up, change lanes anyway.
  • The sign on the bus lane that says “Buses Only” in reality signifies: “Drive here to pass the car in front of you.”
  • The center marker (equivalent of the double solid yellow lines) means: “Cross over to pass the car in front of you.”
  • When someone tries to cut in front of you, speed up as to deter them.
  • When trying to cut in front of someone, and they speed up, you speed up more.
  • When a pedestrian is crossing the road in front of you, speed up as to force the pedestrian to make up his mind.
  • When passing into a pedestrian-crowded area, tailgate the car in front of you so that no pedestrians can cut directly in front of you.
  • With the exception of highway and one-way road driving, spend 20% of the time on the opposite lane.
  • Sometimes a traffic officer will show up at crowded places to control the flow. Listen to him, unless his advice has a negative effect on your overall average speed.
  • Pass as many cars as possible.

The only continuity is that a red light means stop, and people do stop. Unless nobody is around.

A motorcycle seems to be the preferable method of travel. It is much easier to navigate through a crowd of pedestrians that way.

4. The Tiananmen Square Protest never occurred.

Of course it did. But I’m referring to the Great Firewall of China, which blocks many sites and censors many other pages of otherwise unblocked sites. Some things to know about China and the Internet:

China is good. Communism is good. The Chinese Communist Party is good. Any site that says otherwise or has contrary evidence is clearly false—I mean, what sites?

Some notable blocks and censors:

  • Facebook is completely blocked. The https workaround doesn’t work. The ping hack doesn’t work either—it won’t even let you see the IP. And most proxies don’t work, because they themselves are blocked.
  • You can, however, access Facebook and other restricted sites by using a VPN server that routes outside the country. You must pay money for the good ones. Anyway, back to sites.
  • YouTube is blocked.
  • Twitter is blocked.
  • Tumblr is blocked.
  • The above sites though seem only soft-blocked, not as much as Facebook. Several proxy sites can access YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr, but not Facebook. The Chinese government seems to hate Facebook with a passion.
  • Google works, but is blocked on most searches relating to China, the Chinese Communist Party, or the history of either. For example, if you google “tiananmen square protest,” the page fails to load and you will not be able to connect to the Internet for another 10-15 seconds. Heck, even if you google “tiananmen square,” you get blocked.
  • Bing suffers the same blocks as Google.
  • Wikipedia works, but is similarly suppressed. Even Mao Zedong’s wiki page is inaccessible. Sometimes a page will partially load, but then trigger China’s blocking system, which prevents the rest of the page from loading and blocking your Internet for 10-15 seconds.
  • Many, many other sites are blocked.

If there is one thing about China I could change, it would be this. Most Americans take the First Amendment for granted, but many countries do not have it. China still has far to go.

5. For every 200 Chinese people, there is 1 ethnic foreigner.

I don’t know the actual ratio, but it certainly SEEMS like over 99% of the people in China are Chinese. It’s not at all like the melting pot of America.

For instance, in a 20-minute journey in the Beijing subway stations and trains, I counted 19 non-Asians. And 5000 Chinese, I’d estimate, and that’s a way, way on the low-end estimate. That’s also relatively dense for a non-Asian crowd, as Beijing is a tourist city. In the past 20 days at Suzhou, Anhui, which has a population of over 5 million, I’ve not noticed a single non-Asian.

6. It’s not the cleanest country

This might seem like a weird thing to say, but relatively speaking, the US is a very clean, modern-looking country. China seems to skip the maintenance of everything. In the US, a 20-year old building will often look two years old; in China, a two-year old building will almost certainly look 20 years old.

Not only are structures old-looking, but streets are indescribably unclean, at least in Suzhou. I’d take a picture if I could take one. On any street you can find mounds of dirt, mud, plastic, scraps, waste. When it rains it is not uncommon to see fish overflow from rivers and into puddles in the streets. Not that you should try to catch any—river water is incredibly polluted. I passed a river earlier today that was completely green, and nothing in it seemed to move, not even the water.

The air smells different too. The instant I stepped out of the Beijing airport, I was hit by a mix of what smelled like smog, car exhaust, and cigarettes. Quite unpleasant. After a while the smell becomes unnoticeable.

7. (Almost) Everything is extremely cheap.

The exchange rate now is 6.8 yuan to 1 US dollar (USD). You’d expect prices and salaries in China to thus be 6.8 times as high as in the US.

Fact: It’s nowhere near that high.

Take the basics. In the US I could probably get a satisfactory breakfast for $2 to $3. In China, if I buy from a street vendor, of which there always a few on each corner, I could get a big breakfast for one yuan; or about 15 cents. Half a yuan would probably suffice for a more conservative meal—7 cents.

Another example: The place I go to for haircuts in the US charges $12 per cut. So in China, for a haircut I brought with me 200 yuan just in case, as I had no idea how much it would cost. The place was fairly nice too, clean and well air-conditioned. At the end, however, I was shocked that the haircut plus a wash cost 10 yuan, or a dollar and a half. I told this to my cousin, and she told me that 10 yuan is actually high. A haircut should be 3 yuan. Woops.

Anything imported, on the other hand, costs a fortune. Especially American brand name clothing. Much more than the USD amount. For example, there was a panel of Nike shoes that each went for 600–700 yuan.

8. Miscellaneous

A list of other things:

  • Saw an American tourist in Beijing subway station reading 1984. A somewhat ironic read.
  • Engrish: “Please to bake properly” on a sign at the bread section of a supermarket
  • Saw someone wearing a shirt with “NERD” on the back. He didn’t look like one. I wonder if he actually knew what that word meant.
  • Someone’s karate uniform had the karate school’s initials: “W. T. F.”
  • My blog becomes randomly banned and unbanned, i.e., sometimes it’s accessible and other times it’s not.
  • Scariest moment: Our taxi driver is on the left-most lane going forwards, and to pass the car in front, crosses over to the other side, i.e., crosses over the double yellow lines. (By the way, China drives on the right, just like the United States.) Eventually the car that we were trying to pass switches to the right-most lane, so there is a space of one lane between us. We’re on a head-on collision course with the car in front of us going the OTHER way, and that car also crosses the double yellow line, to get through in the one-lane space. That car flies by on the RIGHT hand side of us.
  • I was not amused at the fact that China is on the opposite side of the world to South Africa. World Cup games started at 2:30, a.m.
  • Chinese TV commercials are extremely uncreative, at least compared to American ones.
  • The food is good! But you have to watch out—try to avoid packaged food. Reliability is really an issue, and I speak from personal experience. Go to street sellers or fancy restaurants instead.

4 thoughts on “A Reasoner’s Observations on China

  1. Hm, no comment on the RIDICULOUS REPETITIVENESS OF THE CHINESE COMMERICIALS? Those commercials will drive anybody insane.


    1. Lol. Actually, what’s really repetitive is the really loud broadcasted commercials from the store across from my window. For the last 20 days they’ve been like “Jiang ja le! Jiang ja le!” which means “Decreased prices! Decreased prices!”

      The only catch is that the prices are the exact same as they were 20 days ago. SO ANNOYING. And it’s broadcasted in real life so it’s not like I can turn it off.


  2. W.T.F is actually Taekwondo and it’s also in the US. But other than that, you’re completely correct. I think the building problem is the pollution coupled with the fact that most Chinese buildings are built with concrete, which is alot harder to maintain. I did see something about a new type of concrete being developed at the expo, but that probably won’t end up where it really needs to be for a long time. Also, there are some places farther inland that are really well maintained such as Wuxi.

    I hope you’re having fun in China though. :]


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