From a distance, Shanghai looked no different from other big metropolis: shiny skyscrapers, large avenues, designer brand stores. When we looked closer though, we found one big difference: it’s full of Chinese. So far, our voyage has in some ways been extraordinarily narrow: Japan and China were the first countries we visited that were not former European colonies. For a first-time visitor, the resulting cultural differences are truly astonishing.
Etiquette is the first obvious difference. Coming from Japan, where I’m sure we committed many faux-pas, Chinese etiquette is comparatively much more relaxed: speaking loudly, picking your nose, spitting on the floor and cutting in line seem to be widely tolerated.
The second obstacle is language. So far we always spoke the local language, but our Mandarin doesn’t go further than ‘xiexie’ (thank-you), and most locals don’t speak English. So lost were we on our first morning in Shanghai that we fell for the oldest scam in the book: a nice young couple that spoke English invited us for a tea ceremony, which ended up costing a boatload of money.
So, first impressions were definitely not great, and we were left wondering what to do with the 15 days we had budgeted to travel around China. It took us a bit, but we finally came to our senses: were we really trying to reduce three thousand years of history and more than a billion people to a few odd social customs and a couple of scammers?
From that point onwards, we opened our eyes (but closed our wallets) to this most singular people: the waiter that though me how to properly use chopsticks; the lady that fashioned us a rain poncho from a couple of garbage bags; the self-thought man that learned to speak English on the internet and chatted with tourists to practice; the kids on the subway that asked to take a selfie with us. They’re certainly a rowdy bunch, but with a joy for life that’s hard to match.
Keep posted for more about China, as we travel around Beijing, Xi’an, Luoyang and Suzhou!