Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake
jaylake

[travel] A few random observations about being in China

The number four is unlucky here. The Mandarin word for four is very similar to the Mandarin word for death, so the hotel I'm in doesn't have a 4th floor or a 14th floor. It also doesn't have a 13th floor, thanks to Western superstition. Likewise the rooms — no rooms -04, -13, or -14 on any of the floors. Makes the elevator buttons kind of strange, for one thing.

Also, it's very interesting just wandering about on the streets. I spent my grade school years in Taiwan (in addition to having been born there). I also studied Mandarin in college. While I have no pretense of speaking the language, I can be polite in Mandarin, ask simple questions, make remarks along the lines of "The cow of my aunt gives milk. How are your socks?"

But I can hear Mandarin. Not understand it, but hear it. Hindi, for example, is gabble to me. I'm not familiar with the sound pattern, have absolutely no vocabulary, and no experience with it. Mandarin is more like Spanish to me. It hovers just beyond the horizon of comprehension, but I can hear it as a language. The word boundaries are clear, the phonology and prosody is familiar to me, I can pick out bits and pieces of the flow of conversation.

All of which brings me back to my childhood, in an interesting and pleasant way.

Another thing of note here is how utterly different the traffic is. I'd kill or be killed behind the wheel of an automobile in China. There's a dance to traffic so unlike Western driving. The trucks and busses and cars and bicycles and scooters and pedestrians slide around one another in a way that has me literally closing my eyes sometimes as we drive along. No following distance, no side clearance, lane markings highly optional, traffic lights at best treated as modest suggestions.

And it all works.

It works because everyone is following the same rules. If I drove according to the Oregon driver's handbook, I'd leave a trail of utter chaos in my wake. I wonder if people have done traffic studies on this kind of flow, as I suspect the underlying math and moment-by-moment decision dynamics point to a rather different flow model that traffic engineering in the United States.

People here are polite and impolite in different ways. No one stares openly at me except little kids and a few brassy old ladies. Yet everyone looks. If I turn suddenly and look across a room, every face is pointed somewhere else in that manner that only happens when no one wants to be caught looking. And people are unfailingly friendly. Smiles, greetings, helpful wherever possible; much more so than Americans generally are for foreigners, especially foreigners who don't speak the language. At the same time, god help you if you think waiting your turn in line is a good idea. The American conception of getting on or off a plane, for example, is just laughable here. The great push feels rude. I have finally gotten to the point of being willing to elbow the old women who are elbowing me, simply for the sake of getting through a gate somewhere, but it feels so odd.

When I go to Canada, for example, the differences are subtle and the commonalities obvious. Here in China the differences are so obvious as to be overwhelming. What I'm really enjoying is the process of rediscovering more and more of the commonalities.

Originally published at jlake.com.

Tags: canada, china, personal, travel
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