Another ten things that make China the crazy place it is
As I said at the time, my first list of ten things China wouldn’t be China without was in no way exhaustive. How could it be? In a land whose population is greater than that of North and South America and Western Europe combined, where each province could just as well be a country in itself, choosing ten things, and ten things only, that China wouldn’t be China without, is just not possible.
I had this latest list in mind during my recent trip to Guangxi Province in the southwest of the country. We’ve had communal dancing and random karaoke, we’ve had vacuum packed chicken feet and the perilous joy of the night bus, but I knew there was more that could be said. More of those quirks and peculiarities that make travelling in China such an interesting and maybe, at times, frustrating experience. So here, with the greatest of respect, is another ten things China wouldn’t be China without.
1. The Chinese Squat
I’ll say it now, squatting makes sense. You see it everywhere in China. People squat at train stations, people squat when shopping, people squat in endless queues at tourist sights or whilst waiting for the bus. But who doesn’t like to rest their legs every now and again? And with 1.35 billion people on the go, you’re either going to need an awful lot of benches or find some other way to take the weight off.
Forget sitting on the filthy floor, forget the balls of the feet-style squat as practiced in the west, for instant relief whilst out and about in China, the full, flat-footed squat is the way to go.
Try it, it’s surprisingly comfortable – no burning in the thighs or feet, no stress on those already creaking joints, just a whole lot of leg relief and plenty of scope to say “Yes, I fit in too.” Just don’t try it in Hong Kong, you’ll be tarred and feathered and chased out of town before you can say one country, two systems.
2. Hot guys with fit bodies
Want to keep cool in the heat but still look good for the ladies? Then just roll up that shirt and let it all hang out.
The Chinese are masters of practicality. The easier an aim is achieved the better. To hell with airs and graces if they stand in the way. If your legs are aching and you’re tired of waiting, just squat down and chill out. If you’re sick of feeling the sweat on your back and long for the feel of the wind on your belly, then what else is there to do? It doesn’t matter what it looks like. It doesn’t matter what people think. If quick and easy comfort is the aim, the shirt goes up and the gut comes out.
3. Guys in groups
Another one for the gentlemen folk. Whether it’s card games or chess, or simply standing around chatting, guys in China seem to have a natural tendency to gather together. In parks and squares, on street sides across the country, two guys playing chess attracts another that decides to watch. Another couple come over to see what the fuss is about, and without sharing a word, begin to watch as well. Ten minutes later there may be fifteen or twenty guys, with more arriving to peer over shoulders, gathered around, standing and watching.
No doubt they will remain this way the whole afternoon, moving between other groups that have formed in the meantime, whiling away the hours. It’s another indication of the Chinese preference for the social over the solitary, preferring time spent as a group, rather than individually. Like the dancing and the karaoke and the phenomenon of the tour group which I wrote about before, it isn’t something that is uniquely Chinese, but China certainly wouldn’t be the same without its guys in groups.
4. Large loads on small vehicles
Why make three trips when you can do it in one?
You couldn’t name any piece of furniture, clothing, household material, food, commodity, waste product or caged animal that hasn’t at some point been piled twice as high as the vehicle on which will be transported and driven very hazardously across town in China.
“Can I stack these thirty school desks on my trailer using their interlocking legs as my primary means of securing the load?” Yes you can. “Is it possible for me to transport all of my worldly possessions to the next village by electric farm truck in a single journey?” Yes it is.
Maybe it’s the lack of any rule or anybody to say that while something may be possible, it probably isn’t wise, to prevent such flouting of the laws of physics. But while basic road safety is still merely a dream, stack it high and go go go!
5. Exceptional health and safety standards
It’s health and safety gone mad. Or so goes the familiar cry back home when people can no longer drive forklift trucks without a licence or operate heavy machinery whilst under the influence of alcohol.
Well, maybe those people would be glad of a few rules and regulations if they were ever given the chance to trade places with a guy working a similar job in China. I don’t want to characterise China as some lawless wild wild east where anything goes. There are laws in China. There are rules and regulations. It’s just that the structure to enforce them, or rather, to prevent them being ignored when they get in the way of convenience, can sometimes be a little shaky to say the least.
Building skyscrapers without safety ropes, check. Welding without gloves or visors, check. And why bother with goggles when red hot splinters of metal are firing at your face? Nanny state indeed!
6. Nongfu Spring
A trip to China wouldn’t be complete without a passing dalliance with Nongfu Spring. When most visitors would be well advised to avoid drinking the tap water, the ubiquitous red-labelled bottled water is many peoples’ go to option.
Pictured here in its natural habitat, a 550ml bottle can be bought for as little as one or two Yuan and 1.5 litre bottles for as little as Y4. But with great thirst comes grave consequences, and with all those plastic bottles you’re getting through daily, staying hydrated on the road in China is a more conscience-pricking exercise than you may have previously envisaged.
Many a time I’ve found myself collecting empties on top of my locker for no other reason than I can’t bear to throw them away. You can try finding a recycling bin to put them in, but even if you do, you know you’re only fooling yourself, and that ultimately, those red-labelled bottles and your need for hydration, are most definitely here to stay.
7. Kids with cool hair
Kids are cool. It just happens that kids in China are cooler than most. With their amazing array of bizarre hairstyles, Chinese kids make western kids look like a bunch of boring all-the-sames.
It is of some debate when the practice started and why it persists. Some say it goes back to the Song or Tang dynasty and was traditionally seen as a way to protect the child from evil spirits, since the head, being the most sacred and most vulnerable part of the body, is in need of the extra protection. Though why a full head of hair rather than a shaved Angry Bird wouldn’t be a better barrier, I don’t know.
There is also the link with the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West and the naughty little Red Boy character whose crazy hair matches his crazy antics. While the second day of the second month in the Chinese lunar calendar is traditionally the day on which Chinese people cram into barber shops and hairdressers to get their lucky haircut, shedding the past and looking forward to a year of growth and prosperity. A special haircut for a special day for kids nationwide.
8. The cross-body bag
It seems every fashion-conscious Chinese man-about-town needs to accessorise these days. And it seems no trip abroad, or at home, could commence without a cross-body bag to complete the ready-to-go look.
As de rigueur to the travelling Chinese male as high-heels and a nice frock are for the ladies, quite what is kept inside these manbags is a mystery. If anything, I suspect cigarettes and plenty of ready cash would take up most space. But whatever is inside these faux-leather travel satchels, if the man-to-bag ratio on the Chinese tourists on the streets of Hong Kong is anything to go by, whoever is in charge of their distribution must be carrying his cross-body killing all the way to the Bank of China.
9. His ‘n’ Hers Matching Outfits
Yes, it’s more Chinese fashion, and a subject I’ve written about before after my visit to Qingdao – a phenomenon that once you start noticing it, you just can’t stop; one which while previously it never even registered, now seems to manifest itself wherever you go.
I can’t quite figure out the motivation for such a public display of fashion absurdity. To show the two as truly one, maybe. Not just in love but in t-shirts. But surely there are better ways to go about it than wearing matching Angry Birds outfits. One is bad enough. Two walking hand in hand just shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
But it does happen. And with alarming frequency. I’ve seen whole families dressed in orange ‘camouflage’ and no one deems it worthy of a second look. Just another of those quirks that make a trip to China a constant stumbling upon strange surprises.
10. The interesting public toilet situation
Maybe it’s a cliché, but the public toilet situation in China, to put it mildly, leaves a little to be desired. No paper, no water, no soap, no sink … no doors. Often smelt before seen. I couldn’t finish this thing without a brief mention of what I’ll call the Chinese public toilet ‘experience’.
It’s not necessarily the squatting that’s the problem. Squatting, as I said at the top, makes sense in several situations. It makes even more sense here when you realise you can get the job done without having to sit on anything, lift anything, close anything or press anything. When a trough is sometimes all you have, you’re not exactly blessed with options. With no cubicles and no doors; maybe a partition or two. It’s that Chinese practicality I mentioned taken to the extreme. No airs and graces here.
There have been initiatives to clear the situation up on a very limited scale. The ‘two flies per toilet‘ rule initiated in Beijing, for instance, elicited much comment in the western media. But the public toilet experience is very much part of the China experience as a whole. You’re not at home now. So enjoy it … if you can.
Related Post: See my post Ten things China wouldn’t be China without for the first batch of ten things that make China the crazy place it is.
Get Involved: If you think I’ve missed anything or have suggestions of your own to add, feel free to share them in the comments below.