I can’t explain why, but I had to come to China to find out for myself whether or not it was a real place. Bear with me here. When I imagined China, I imagined a vast country full of people working in factories to produce small mechanized trinkets that the underemployed sell on boardwalks in New Jersey. I imagined universities full of students, diligently learning tons of math and science things I’ll never understand. I imagined armed guards everywhere, standing stiffly at attention and never, ever smiling.
I was right about the guards. They’re everywhere, and they never smile. But, naturally, I was wrong about the rest. And I knew I was wrong, but I didn’t know what to imagine in its place. I had to come to China to find out that people here laugh, kiss, fight, take the subway, look silly in acid wash jeans and jaywalk at frighteningly busy intersections.
Once I arrived, China was a perfectly natural place to be and I felt silly for building it up into some crazy place in my mind. But can you blame me? China is such a big deal and everyone’s always talking about China in these weird hushed tones. But China is a real place, full of kind people and mean people, skinny people and not that many fat people, smart people and dumb people, cute kids and ugly kids. Just like everywhere else.
However, China is also full of things I couldn’t have anticipated. Like people constantly hawking loogies onto the ground–both inside and out. The most modern subways and trains in the world that travel at 200mph and feel like you’re sitting perfectly still. And where I imagined endless miles of soulless high-rise apartment buildings–well, those are here too. But a few miles beyond? Brand-new condos with Spanish tile rooves.Where the math and science kids should have their noses buried in textbooks on the subway, instead there’s an extremely well-dressed, well-coifed, well-bespeckled man who should be a Calvin Klein model giving me some sort of inquiring look on the bullet train to Shanghai. When I turn away, he picks up a copy of the Economist and adjusts his line of vision.
So China’s not so simple. And I’ve only seen slices of it: Beijing, Shanghai, thousands of miles in between borders and cities passing by out the train window. Today I arrived in Kunming, near the Burmese border. Next to Chengdu, then onward to Tibet. Stay tuned–I just might find more unexpected people and places.