Driving. Having read Peter Hessler (Country Driving) on the massive influx of new drivers in China, I was prepared for mayhem. It really wasn’t so bad. Of course, you must bear in mind that I’ve seen driving in India, Kenya, and (my personal worst) Sri Lanka. It wasn’t so bad compared to these.
You do see a lot of left-hand turns into four lanes of oncoming traffic. You do see pedestrians, bicycles, and scooters all mixing into city traffic as equals with cars and buses. You do see occasional bizarre decisions, like backing up on the freeway to reclaim a missed exit. However, the pace is pretty sedate and reasonably polite, from what I witnessed. Ubiquitous cameras ticket freeway speeders, which seems to hold them in check. And the freeways (all new) are really good!
Public spaces. My biggest surprise was seeing really attractive new parks and plazas, laid out with statues and fountains and lights and greenery. In Xi’an a new plaza stretches a good quarter mile long from the Big Goose Pagoda, an ancient Buddhist monument. This vast and impressive public space has many massive bronze statues memorializing the Tang Dynesty (618-907) as well as a new art museum and a new concert hall. It doesn’t come off as a monument to the greatness of the current Chinese government. It comes off as a really pleasant place to walk and socialize. One way to pacify restless populations is to give them nice spaces to live in! Compare this with India, a country with comparable riches, that has not invested in a public space since the British left in 1947. It occurred to me that all politics aside, I would prefer to live where the government invests in infrastructure than in places where they don’t.
Chinese tourism. The summer may be different, but the vast majority of tourists we saw were Chinese. Many seemed to be groups from the countryside, seeing historical monuments. (Many of them gawked at us. They hadn’t seen many non-Chinese before. Very often someone would ask Chase, my 6’5” son, if they could take their picture with him.)
Some sites were completely Chinese. The Birds Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing was so non-western in orientation that the hawkers completely ignored us: they were targeting Chinese. At Mount Hwa, a massive granite mountain with Yosemite-style cliffs, we saw only a handful of westerners out of tens of thousands of tourists. (And entrance was not cheap.) Mount Hwa, we were told, sees 1.7 million tourists a year. The mountain is known as “the most precipitous mountain under heaven,” and its reputation is as “The Most Dangerous Hiking Trail in the World.” I won’t argue; it was a little scary because of the crowds on very narrow trails with long drops close at hand.
Banquets. You may know that the Chinese entertain in restaurants. We ate lavish banquets every day we were in Xi’an, hosted by our very generous family members. Boy, did we eat. The courses just kept coming. And they didn’t repeat themselves. I guess we had 150 different dishes in a week, with only a handful that we saw twice.
One Child. Most people are aware of China’s one-child policy, which demands that families resist the temptation to have a second child. The impact of this was vividly observable in our new extended family. At the various banquets and family gatherings, there were about 15 adults whom we saw multiple times—a good-sized extended family. There was just one child, a six-year-old. We learned of another small child who could not attend. That was it!
What children we saw, in the family, at church, and on the street, acted like American children—rambunctious, easily bored, full of animal spirits and not easily tamed. With four grandparents and two parents to spoil them, all alone, it’s no wonder.