China has meant so much to my imagination that the reality shocked me. I still cannot get the images of Shaolin warrior monks out of my mind. Or workers in Mao suits brandishing Little Red Books. Or even just old folk practicing tai chi in a public square. I half expected to find them all going about their daily lives. I remembered growing up hearing that I should eat everything on my plate because there are starving children in China. I remembered Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” and James Clavell’s novel Tai Pan. The truth is that China is dirty, cruddy, and trying oh so hard to fit in with her modern siblings. Its beauty is found in the way a family values its only child, in the happiness of people coming home from work, and in the joy of sharing meals with friends. Perhaps someday China’s siblings will one day emulate her. But now, it is convenient for everybody to realize she is still a growing child.
Mostly the shops sell cheap, mass produced plastic useless knickknacks, western style clothes, the merchants lying on cots during the hottest part of the day, and the more ambitious pitching their products with bullhorns and microphones. God forbid you show interest in something. Salesmen are masters of detecting the slightest hint of delight in your eyes. If your facial muscles twitch ever so slightly, betraying your inner most desires, then a salesmen will usher you to a seat, offer hot purified water, and the products will be brought to you for inspection. If they have a fan they will aim it at you as sweat beads down your forehead.
Outside on the road, vehicles—and motorized contraptions that pass for vehicles—honk their horns. Everybody honks. Everybody squeezes their way through oncoming traffic—by everybody I mean motorists and pedestrians alike. Nobody shouts or flicks off that asshole that narrowly missed running you over or rear ending a car that had stopped for some inexplicable reason. There is a miraculous absence of road rage. The light signals it’s okay for pedestrians to cross. When in China do as the Chinese do. That means you walk along with everybody else when the signal says it’s okay. For some reason this makes me think of a tropical school of fish that bands together so that only one of them is randomly devoured by a predator.
Cars do not yield to masses of people crossing the street. If a taxi should happen to touch your leg with its bumper the driver may slam on the breaks and pretend you are not there. And if you showed anger at just having yet another near death experience, if you decided it was convenient to slam your fist on the hood of his car, or worse, voice aloud how inconvenient it was for you to almost die—then you will lose face in front of everybody.
Very soon you realize there are two breeds in China: those who shop at high-end supermarkets like Wal Mart and those who bargain on the street. Regardless of where one shops, everybody is well dressed. On the street you can find all the basic necessities: an infinite variety of fruits, vegetables, dumplings, meat on a stick, cheap electronics. A walk downtown is like playing a version of Russian roulette with your olfactory system: grilled meat, burning trash, animal excrement, raw fish, burned rubber, vehicle exhaust, somebody’s cologne or perfume, pungent incense, acrid cigarette smoke, and some indefinable, but not unpleasant odor that seems to be endemic to the equatorial regions of our world.
In a farmer’s market downtown there are thousands of people haggling over baskets and blankets of produce spread over grimy, wet pavement. There are buckets of critters crawling and slithering over each other or floating in crystal clear water. There are no price tags and nobody speaks English. Everything is fresh. It is a chef’s paradise. There is stuff writhing in buckets that would make a Klingon gourmand salivate. But in Wal Mart everything is clean and well lit. Everything is tag and bagged. There is an attendant in every aisle. Unlike Wal Marts in America, attendants in China are not busy stocking shelves, rushing past you, or too tired to look at you. In China, Wal Mart employees flock to your aid whether you want it or not. They invite you to inspect merchandise. They demonstrate how an iron works. They will even point out that it is a better deal to buy a 12-pack of roach motels than two 6-packs.
Confucius say, “Man who shop at Wal Mart save money and live better.”