Travels in Sichuan and China 2011

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Helen (Gong Zhihong) and I spent a month in China in late 2011. I've been to China a number of times, but always to Beijing and Shanghai. My Chinese friends always told me to see other parts of China. Helen is from Sichuan, so we went to visit her family and friends.

Here are my notes about China. If you have comments, please write at the bottom of the page (in English or Chinese) and I'll reply. Text and photographs are © Andreas Ramos 2012 USA. You can ask me for permission to use these.

All the Food in China

The biggest thing about China is of course the food. There is no doubt that the Chinese have the world's most complex and developed culture for food. It's not just the food: it's also the way they serve and the way they eat.

So what's the difference between Western and Chinese food? It's not just chopsticks. It has to do with the idea of flavor. The essential idea of Western cuisine is complementary flavors. The meat is the center of the meal and the other items support its flavor. Thus it's steak and potatoes, hamburger and fries, chicken and rice, etc. The drink's flavor should also complement the food: red wine with beef, white wine with fish, and so on.

In contrast, the Chinese like their food to be in contrast and disharmony. This is why they serve so many things (you can easily see 7-10 dishes for a table of four) and many different kinds of things: noodles, fish, chicken, beef, pork, and so on made in different ways: fried, steamed, and so on. The flavors fight for attention: you'll get super-hot, sweet, savory, sour, aromatic, bitter, and more all in the same meal.

This isn't just complexity: the Chinese like chaos and odd juxtaposition. Everything is possible. I think this highlights the difference between Western and Chinese culture: Western culture for some 2,500 years has been based on the combination of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, which presents the idea of a single god which unifies all aspects of the universe in one. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, and so on are based on a fundamental idea of (and ideal) unity. In contrast, Chinese have 5,000 years of multiple simultaneous traditions which arose for different reasons. They don't expect unity in the universe.

The candy section in a supermarket.

Once you see this, you began to understand many things about Chinese culture. They wear the oddest fabrics, styles, and colors together and don't mind that it clashes. For Westerners, the ideal is a coordinated ensemble. A Chinese can wear a business suit with red socks and white running shoes and not understand why we notice. A Chinese street is a chaos of sounds, colors, billboards, and activities. They even have a word for that style: "hot and noisy."

Restaurants, markets, street life: They like it that way.

Go to the very best Western restaurant and the best Chinese restaurant. The ideal Western restaurant is a five-star French restaurant with muted coordinated colors, quiet conversation among adults, and food served at the same time, featuring simple preparation and clear flavors. People wait politely to start eating at the same time and everyone has table manners. Many meals often start with a prayer. Your assigned waiter comes to your table to check on you.

A Chinese restaurant is everyone talking loudly all at once, children running around, dishes are hurried out to tables, where everyone immediately starts eating. Table manners? Others have written that Chinese have the suspicion that table manners are a Western trick to keep you from digging in, and it seems that way. Nobody prays before they eat. They wolf down food, stuffing their mouths, talking non-stop at the same time. If you slow down, your neighbor spoons food onto your plate without asking. Everyone is included: grandmother, spouses, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews, and friends. You want a waiter? Flag any waiter down, halfway across the restaurant, as they run from table to table, and just tell'em what you want. I really like this kind of restaurant. It's total fun to eat with our Chinese friends. Every meal is a big happy group of family and friends and we have practically nothing like this in Western cuisine.

To learn more about the difference in Chinese and Western food, see Albert Lazlo Barabasi's article on Chinese cuisine.

Kitchens in the Home

After a few days, you'll finally realize there are no ovens in the home kitchen. This means they don't make bread, so bread isn't a part of their cuisine. They also can't make pizza, pies, or cookies at home.

If there is no bread, then the things to put on it are also missing: no butter, no peanut butter, and so on. No toast, butter, and jam.

It also means roast duck is not something that you make at home. It's made only in restaurants. That can seem a bit odd to us: I can't think of any Western food that can't also be made in the home. We don't have that distinction of "restaurant food versus home food." (However, we distinguish between home-made food and processed food, such as Fritos and Pepsi, which you can't make at home.)

There are a few Western-style bakeries that make wedding cakes and so on. Because these are foreign and exotic, they also tend to be more elaborate than ours. We celebrated my birthday while I was in China: the cake included fireworks! Now that would be a great addition to birthday cakes in the US, no?

Chinese kitchens have "dish drying cabinets." These are large cabinets with built-in heaters. You put in your dishes and turn on the heater. It also sanitizes the dishes.

I also noticed in most homes that they don't have coordinated sets of pots and pans. Every item came from a different place. It seems that whatever works is okay. The kitchen is a workplace for the maid and visitors rarely enter the kitchen.

Because Chinese food often includes frying, the home stove has a hood that encloses the range on both sides and above.

The kitchens also have doors. The trend in American kitchens is to open the kitchen to the rest of the house. But Chinese don't like the kitchen odors to be in the rest of the house. That's one of the complaints that Chinese have about American houses: the kitchen is open to the rest of the house.

Kitchens in Restaurants

Restaurants can be very rustic and simple. Often in the morning, we bought steam buns from street carts. We ate at many roadside restaurants where floors and walls are bare concrete. On a country highway, we stopped at a farmer-style restaurant that was once a favorite of Deng Xiaoping. In the countryside, waiters often stand out in the road to flag customers into the restaurant. Restaurants can also be an exotic luxury beyond any Western restaurant. In Beihai Park, the imperial park in Beijing, we had lunch at a place that once served the imperial court. Because China has a long tradition of porcelain, many restaurants, even simple places, often have unique and beautiful dishes, bowls, and cups.

An imperial restaurant. The pillars and walls are adorned with gold leaf.

Nearly all restaurants are local and family-owned. There are also quite a few new Chinese chains. In the large cities, you'll see Western chains, such as McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Dairy Queen, and many more. KFC is very popular in China. There are mini-McDonalds that sell only fries and drinks. McDonalds also delivers by motorbike.

McDonalds delivers!

Restaurants generally have a public area, but families or groups go upstairs to private dining rooms, where they sit around large round dining tables. Several waitresses are assigned to the room. Private dining rooms often have a large flat-screen TVs and sofas for relaxing.

The waiters are almost always young women and they leave you alone. None of the "My name is Todd? I'll be your waiter this evening? Is everything okay? Would you like to see the dessert menu?"

In the West, each person orders his own plate, often with elaborate instructions (hold the pickles, medium rare, curly fries, dressing on the side). In China, one or two people are in charge of ordering and they order what they think the others will like. They order items in each category, which includes soup, vegetables, the four meats (bird, seafood, pork, beef), mushroom dishes, and so on. The waiter stands by the table as they order, and there is often a long discussion about how something is prepared because there are so many province styles of Chinese food. However, they don't make changes to the dishes, at most, you can ask for mild or spicy. No "medium well" or substitutes.

At dinner at Beijing University. Starting at left: The Chief Editor of Beijing University. CEO of a company at the university. Helen and me. A visitor from Canada. She just came to the US to do a graduate business degree. A producer for CCTV, the TV network of China.A daughter. Owner of a jewelry store. Her husband is a professor of geology.

They always over-order. If there are six people, there can easily be eight or ten dishes. Sometimes there are so many dishes that they are stacked up in a pyramid. Dishes are brought out as they are ready. Everything is shared. People begin eating with the first dish.

Food is served in bite-size pieces to be eaten with chopsticks. In a local restaurant, they'll dig around the kitchen and maybe find an old fork for you. We ate in many homes which had no forks. Chinese have used chopsticks ("kuaizi" in Chinese) for nearly 4,000 years. They are mostly pine or plastic. Ironically, many Chinese chopsticks are made in the US, which has large pine forests. Napkins are small and thin. They're basically what we call a Kleenex in the US.

I've had many business lunches and dinners in China. What's that like? You show up for a meeting at 10 am. Several people join the meeting and there's a long rambling conversation about everything but business. Everyone talks about friends, politics, whatever the US is doing that week, the industry, the weather, universities, ideas for more business, and so on. After a while, someone asks if the others are hungry. Everyone troops out to a restaurant within several blocks. Massive amounts of food is ordered and you spent at least two hours eating and talking. Somewhere along the way, an agreement was reached and there will be endless rounds of toasts with maotai, the Chinese vodka. A business meeting is never less than three hours and always includes lunch or dinner. A family celebration will be much longer.

In many restaurants, we visited the kitchen. Restaurant kitchens are small and primitive. Only a few cooks who use only a few basic kitchen tools, yet they make dozens of plates. Even large restaurants don't have the large elaborate kitchens and staff of Western restaurants. A Western food inspector would find so many violations, but we ate everything, everywhere, and never got sick.

Another odd thing about Chinese restaurants in the West. These are generally laid out according to feng shui. Why? According to feng shui, evil spirits try to enter a building, but they are long and rigid so they can't turn. Restaurants block their path with an aquarium. The fish also absorb the evil energy. But most mainland Chinese don't believe this stuff. I never saw a restaurant in China that used feng shui.

And another thing: no fortune cookies in China. This is "only in America," just like burritos are only in the US. Mexicans don't eat burritos.

A small noodle joint in Sichuan.

Table Manners

I wrote they don't have much in the way of table manners, but there are a few table rules.

Westerners fill their large plates first. Chinese use a small plate. The dishes are placed on a central Lazy Susan (a large rotating platter). They take a few bites from each dish.

The main rule is to talk. They love conversation with their meals. Every meal is hours of non-stop talk.

They won't touch food that has fallen off a plate, either on the table or the floor. No two-second rule. If it falls off the plate, it's gone.

Types of Chinese Cuisine

Let's get one thing clear: There is no Chinese food in China, just as there isn't a thing called "European food": there's North Italian, Swedish, South German, and so on. There are eight general styles of food in China: Lu (Shangdong), Chuan (Sichuan), Yue (Cantonese), Su (Shanghai), Min (Fujian), Zhe (Zhejiang), Xiang (Hunan), Hui (Anhui). Some of these can be broken down into sub-categories.

People generally prefer food from their own region. This means the university cafeteria serves at least four different styles of food.

Their breakfast is nothing like ours. We have foods that we eat only for breakfast, such as pancakes. They'll have sweet soup and corn on the cob for breakfast.

Supermarkets have perhaps twice as many things as we have. They have pretty much all that we have and more. There are additional vegetables and fruits that we don't have, including many kinds of mushrooms. Along with many kinds of shellfish and fish, there are turtles. The butcher includes all the parts of a pig that Americans won't eat.

Chinese are crazy about pomelo. It's a large dry grapefruit. You pull each section off and peel the section. It's available in some US supermarkets, but in China, farmers stand by the road to sell these. Everyone loves to sit and talk while eating pomelo.

There's also Black Chicken. These are small chickens with very fluffy feathers. Under the feathers, it has black skin. Chinese say these make very healthy soups, so when you get sick, you get black chicken soup. You can find these at Chinese supermarkets in the US.

They also have a spice called Hua Jiao (pronounced "hwa-joe"). There's nothing like this in the West. In English, it's called Chinese pepper, but it's not pepper. It has a very odd taste which also tingles in your mouth like an electric current. This spice is used only in Sichuan and the southwest China; many Chinese in other regions don't like it. I like it because it tastes so different.

There's also a vegetable that feels like cat fur in your mouth. I have no idea what this is called in English.

So many kinds of mushrooms!

Jerky (dried meat) is very popular. There are many jerky stores with perhaps a hundred kinds of jerky. It's a specialty of Sichuan, where they eat it like candy.

Hot pot is another type of Chinese food. The center of the table has a hole, in which a large soup pot is placed, which is heated underneath by gas burners. The waiters bring a dozen or more small plates with different kinds of thin-sliced meats, vegetables, and mushrooms. You take a small piece and drop it in the boiling pot and eat it when it's cooked. It's another form of social eating; everyone shares. Hot pot restaurants are very popular. They often specialize by type of meat, so there are fish head hot pot, rabbit hot pot, and lamb hot pot. In Shanghai, we went to a hot pot restaurant that served over 25 kinds of mushrooms.

At a hot pot restaurant in Chengdu. They put the "hot" in hot pot by using hundreds of chilis.

It's quite true about China: they eat everything. We had grilled rabbit heads, duck tongue, duck heads, duck bills, and duck feet, along with at least six different dishes of turtle. Pig ears are boiled and sliced into thin strips. These actually taste pretty good. I've had both dog and donkey. None of these are served in the West.

Some things are missing. Like I said, they don't have ovens at home, so no bread. For whatever reason, there isn't much chocolate. They also don't eat much rice. You have to ask for it in a restaurant.

It's raining, but that doesn't stop tea and mahjongg!

Chinese love corn. They make a thick corn soup, like a chowder, for breakfast. It's a bit sweet. I think they add sugar (Chinese use sugar as a spice, just enough to sweeten.) (Americans use sugar as a major food group :-) For lunch and dinner, they steam the cob and cut it in half and eat it off the cob. However, I never saw them use those little cob sticker things that we use to hold cobs. They just use their fingers. No butter or salt. At the zoo or in parks, street vendors bring wheeled stands that have a large bowl for charcoal, on which they roast corn in the husk. You buy it and eat it while walking around. No butter or salt. Many Chinese fast-food restaurants serve a hot corn drink: I suppose they steam the cob, strip off the kernels, crush them a bit, and maybe add a bit of water.

They don't eat dessert after a meal. Perhaps there is a small bowl of fruit, or a few slices of watermelon, but the assortments of pie and cakes is missing. They also don't eat ice cream as a dessert after meals.

They generally don't drink much with their meal. Some may have a small cup of tea. Restaurants don't put out glasses of water. If you want water, you ask for it. You get bottled water, not tap water. Generally, if they drink water, then they ask for a pot of hot water. They rarely have ice. There isn't much fruit juice. If it's a large festive gathering of family or friends, there will be lots of beer, which is pretty good. For celebrations, there is Beijiu, the 120-proof alcohol, which is similar to vodka or gin. It's served in tiny glasses in endless rounds of toasts.

We're at a small country restaurant.

Coffee is new and exotic, which also means it's very expensive. We went to Laguna, a café in Nanchong, where it was US$35 and $45 for a cup of coffee.

The specialty of China is tea. The best Chinese teas are like single malt scotch in Ireland or Scotland. They have been cultivating and discussing tea for nearly 3,000 years. The art of tea has been elevated to a level that most Westerners don't even know. A number of schools teach the tea ceremony (how to prepare and serve tea); a tea serving can take two to three hours. What we know as the Japanese tea ceremony is actually from China. Just as we have specialized glasses for single-malt scotch (starting at US$50-80), the Chinese have a complex culture for the types of pottery for tea pots and tea cups. To them, even the cup's type of clay makes a difference. The best tea cups can cost thousands of dollars; there are tea sets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The price of tea can also vary widely. Tea leaves are sorted in five grades of quality. The tea cups are tiny, almost like a doll's cup. We had many different teas and they have remarkable complex aromas. What is sold as tea in the US and Europe isn't worth the bother. Go to a Chinese tea shop and try a few of the teas.

Although Sichuan is crazy about chili peppers, they have only one kind. We went into several very large supermarkets and vegetable markets; they only have Thai chili. They don't know about chili negro, pasillo, ancho, chipotle, Serrano, Anaheim, Tabasco, cayenne, habanero, poblano, and so on. I think some day, they'll learn about these and there'll be an explosion of flavors.

Hot pot with chili. Yes, that's all chili.

The city is Beijing, but it's called Peking Duck, not Beijing Duck.

Helen's mom didn't eat beef. I asked why, and she said "Cows work for the people." Most vegetarians have an ethical reason to avoid meat; she had a Communist reason. Very few Chinese are vegetarian. Some are Buddhist, so on the 1st and the 15th of the month, they don't eat meat.

A Tea House

The social life of Sichuan revolves around the tea houses and foot massage houses. Men and women talk, drink tea, and play mahjong.

Just as in restaurants, you get private rooms for your group, where you spend the whole afternoon drinking tea, playing mahjong, and talking. There are also small day beds if you want to take a nap.

More Stuff about Food

It may surprise Westerners, but in general, Chinese don't like Western food, which they find bland. As I said, Chinese like food with contradictory clashing flavors. We prefer our food to be simple. Just as British food is boring to just about everyone else, Western food is boring to the Chinese. When they come to the West, they prefer Chinese restaurants.

However, one Western food is similar to Chinese food, both in its flavor and the way it is eaten. That's pizza, which has lots of different flavors and is placed in the middle of the table and everyone shares.

What most people know as Chinese food are "Chinese restaurants for Westerners". It's fake Chinese. If you have Chinese friends (who were born and grew up in mainland China), ask them to take you to a real Chinese restaurant. They'll ask you if you're sure. Go with them and let them order. Don't order the stuff for Westerners, such as "Broccoli Beef" or "Lemon Peel Chicken." Let them order and don't ask what it is. Just eat it.

The Valley of Sichuan

We were in Nanchong and Chengdu, which are cities in Sichuan, a vast valley in the center of China. Sichuan is 480,000 square kilometers (185,300 sq.mi). To compare, California is 423,970 sq km (164,000 sq.mi); and Germany is 357,021 sq km (138,000 sq.mi). Sichuan is surrounded by mountain ranges. To the west, there is a mountain range perhaps 2,000 kilometers wide. This means Sichuan is well-protected. Rivers bring water from the mountains, so there is plenty of farming. Eastern Sichuan is sub-tropical. Many of the cities are 2,000-3,000 years old. The valley has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. Sichuan used to be spelled Szechwan or Szechuan and you'll often see these variations in the US.

Because of the valley and the rivers, Sichuan is perpetually overcast. There is often a heavy fog with visibility at only 1 mile (2 KM). You rarely see the sun.

The cities in Sichuan are very large. Chengdu has 12 million people. Nanchong has seven million.The city of Chongqing is the size of South Carolina or twice the size of Denmark. I don't mean twice as big in population. It's twice the land area of Denmark. It also has 32 million people.

Sichuanese like to have long lunches, drink tea in the afternoon, and play Mahjong. Just like California and Southern France, life is relaxed. To me, their cuisine is the most delicious and varied in China. Sichuan food is famous for the use of chilies in their food.

Whenever they can, they set up a table outside and share their food. Chinese love to eat.

To the north of Chengdu, there is a large open-air archaeological museum at Sanxingdui for the Shu kingdom. The Shu were a civilization from 3,200 years ago which lasted over 1,000 years and disappeared completely. The ruins were discovered by a farmer in the 1980s. The museum is modern, beautiful, and well-worth a visit. The Shu produced spectacular artwork of a very high quality in jade and bronze. They made large bronze sculptures of trees, which they decorated with birds. These are somewhat like our Christmas trees. Some of these bronze sculptures are more than three stories high. Shu craftsmanship is excellent and as good as anything today.

The bronze tree is over three stories tall.

An odd item is their bronze masks with jutting eyes, as if the face has telescopic eyes. If anything is evidence of alien visitation, this surely is a good example :-)

To the northwest of Chengdu, there is the Dujiangyan water dam. It was built in 256 BC to provide irrigation for the region and it's still in use. A clever design allows the dam to control water flow without filling up with silt.

In honor of the king and his son who led the construction of the dam, there are spectacular temples in the cliffs over the river. You can see excellent examples of ancient Chinese architecture, many of which are over 2,000 years old.

Dujianyan dam also has a large outdoor opera that is performed daily. It tells the story of the construction of the dam and how it benefited the populace. Hundreds of actors participate in a theater which includes galloping horses, boats, floods, and water works. It's worth it to see theater on that scale.

Taoism was founded at nearby Mt. Qingcheng, just 15 km southwest from Dujiangyan. The area has some three dozen peaks, more than 70 caves, beautiful temples, 1,400 year-old palaces, and 1,500 year-old statues.

Langzhong Village

Founded some 3,000 years ago. For more than 2,000 years, it was a significant city in central China. The river curves almost entirely around the city. It is also surrounded by mountains. For ancient China, this meant the city was located in an almost-ideal geomantic (feng shui) location which promised fortune. A number of temples are in the hills around Langzhong.

The ancient city has been restored. You can see the gates, towers, houses of the wealthy, merchants, and craftsmen, plus dozens of restaurants, tea houses, and noodle houses. There are several hotels in the city. We stayed in a hotel in a 900-year old merchant's house.

Langzhong also has the scholar's examination hall. For more than 1,300 years, the annual scholars exams of imperial China were held in Langzhong. Those who achieved top scores got positions as imperial officials. The Europeans learned about the Chinese bureaucratic system based on examination, which became the model for the civil service system in France, Germany, the US, and other Western countries.

The Imperial Examination Hall of China. Our western bureaucratic system originated from this village.

A Red Flag Village

One day, we drove along the river to a Red Flag Village. These were the collective socialism villages that were set up under Mao. Everything was socialized, which means there was no private property. Land, tools, and even the homes were held in common. The village had separate dormitories for men and women. People could marry, but married couples were kept apart. The focus of the village was a large theater, where they held political speeches and songs. Everywhere in the village there are speakers on poles which broadcast the songs and speeches. All of this is now dusty and silent.

The women's dormitory.

Why does this matter? The Chinese that we meet today were strongly affected by this. If they're 45 or older (in 2012), they grew up in the Culture Revolution, a time of intense political turmoil. Young Chinese (in their teens and twenties) have grown up in Deng's China of capitalism and commerce. They are very different from the older generations.

Nature and the Countryside

We drove through the countryside quite a bit to get to other cities or visit national parks. One thing you notice is the lack of birds and small animals. In the US, it's common to see flocks of birds in the sky and rabbits in the fields. In China, there are practically no birds. I saw a few common birds, such as swallows, one or two egrets and a hawk. Just driving for 30 minutes in California, I'll see a hawk every kilometer, but in three weeks in China, I only saw one hawk. In Beijing, we saw magpies. There's lots of white ducks in the rice fields. But no crows. Every European city plaza is filled with pigeons, but not in China. I never saw any pigeons or crows. I asked people about this, but they hadn't notice it. They would look around, realize there are no birds, and shrug their shoulders.

Chinese really hate rats and mice. Just as in Spanish, they have one word for both rat and mouse, and they hate both. In the cities, there are no squirrels in the trees. I never saw wild rabbits.

They love pets. Even in small crowded apartments in the huge cities, they'll have cats, dogs, rabbits, parrots, and turtles. The names are usually just "rabbit" or "turtle" or "kitty" and "doggie". In contrast, Westerners often give elaborate (or even ridiculous) names to their pets, such as "Foxcliffe Hickory Wind" (yes, that's some dog's name; he even has his own page in Wikipedia.) (My cat has his own web page, which means he also shows up in Google.) A friend in Chengdu has a Mynah bird, which of course speaks Chinese.

Chinese have had city parks for more than a thousand years. These are what we call English parks, which means in a natural style (in contrast to French gardens, which use geometric lines.) The English garden, which first appeared in the early 1700s, were modeled on the Chinese gardens and parks. In Beijing, go to Beihai Park. It has a large lake and island (both are man-made). On the island are many buildings of the Chinese imperial court, incl. Kublai Khan's massive wine bowl, carved in jade, and an imperial restaurant which serves a delicious lunch.

Pandas in China

Okay, one of the best things to see in China are the pandas. For that, you go to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in northeast Chengdu to see dozens of pandas in a large, beautiful, and well-run facility that shows them in their natural habitat.

Spot the panda!

A shuttle bus takes you around and you can hop off and on. There are lots of tourists, mostly Japanese and Europeans, in the bamboo forests. There's also a shop where you can buy everything panda, including very cute panda hats.

Over a hundred panda live there. The preserve also breeds pandas, which are loaned to zoos around the world. Those zoos pay a million dollars per panda per year, so it's quite a business. Pandas are very lazy animals. Their diet is bamboo, which has little nutrition, so they move very little and mostly sleep.

One panda. 100 tourists.

People in Public

What do you see in public? In central China, I didn't see any other foreigners. In the small cities, villages, and mountains, it's only Chinese. Everyone stares at foreigners because these are so rare. If people know some English, they'll talk with you so they can practice their English.

It's very crowded in China. Wherever you go, at any hour, there are many people on the streets, in plaza, in stores. A number of Americans told me that after a few months of China, they go to the USA and feel lonely.

How else would you carry a live carp though a city?

In the US, public and private life is clearly marked. The border is blurred in China. People will set up a folding table and chairs outside and move out to eat or just sit and talk. In the evening, you see folding tables and chairs at street corners, where people gather to pass the evening. Often, a restaurant's kitchen is open to the street. Cooks will sit on the sidewalk and prepare food.

There are few benches on the streets. Often there isn't anywhere to sit down. Whereas the streets and sidewalks in Shanghai and Beijing are in very good condition, you often see potholes or cracks in central China. You have to walk carefully. There is also the strong smell of urine nearly everywhere. The sewage systems appear to be overloaded. Even the Chinese complain about this.

Nearly everywhere, I was able to use my iPad and smart phone to log onto the web because many people have Wifi, but they rarely use password. They don't seem to mind sharing their Wifi.

You often see people carrying live chickens, ducks, or fish. They take a bus to visit family in the country and come back with a few chickens or ducks. We never saw people jogging or running. They walk along calmly. The buildings in city centers are covered with billboards.

This woman has several bags of live chicken. She lives on a farm and every once in a while, brings chickens for her son's family in the city. We asked her where the chickens would stay. "Oh, on the balcony!"

He's moving a basket of ducks from one farm to another.

What Do People Do?

Everyone works. Everyone is busy. In the smallest corner, someone opens a shop. We talked one morning with a young brother and sister who had a small street stand where they sold steamed buns. These are 1 Yuan (less than US$0.15) each. They may earn only 200 Yuan per day (about US$30).

Helen's circle of friends and family are lawyers, MBAs, city power department, and engineers. A nephew is a police officer; an uncle is a professor of literature at the university. Her brother is the manager of a large bookstore chain, similar to Barnes and Noble in the USA. He is a semi-professional photographer (he's won prizes and his photographs are often published). He also has an extensive collection of cigarette lighters. They live comfortably. Her sister is a government official. She is married to an architect.

To me, Chinese can be very frugal in some things, often much more than Westerners, but they are also very generous, also much more than Westerners. They often keep things far past the point that we would throw it away. On the other hand, the amount and value of gifts is remarkable. Relatives and friends gave us so many gifts to bring back to California, including silk robes, many large boxes of excellent tea, and so on.

In contrast to California, women don't want a tan. Women use sun block creams and skin bleaching creams. They often carry parasols to avoid the sun.

In the House

What's it like to be in homes in China? I visited quite a few homes of friends and family. People were glad to show me around (and when Chinese friends come to the US, they're also interested in seeing my house).

Something that's different about China is the way they buy houses. Houses and apartments are sold with plain unfinished walls. There are no fixtures, windows, doors, kitchen cabinets, or bathroom items such as bathtubs or toilets. You add those yourself. In the US or Europe, you generally get a choice of style A, B, or C. In China, you get bare walls.

In general, houses and apartments are pretty much like what we have in Europe and the US. The differences are in small details.

First of all, you enter the house by stepping over a high door sill. These can be 12 inches high in old houses (that's 800-year old houses). In modern houses, these sills are still 3-4 inches high. I asked people why these are there. It's just tradition. Some said that it blocked out demons, but today, it blocks out wheelchairs.

Chinese are fastidious about cleanliness and they don't like to mix street and home, so nobody wears shoes in the home. When you enter, you switch to slippers or sandals. They always have many extra pairs for visitors. I suggest you bring your own flipflops, because their feet are smaller.

The center of the home is the living room, which are large and comfortable. However, beds are very hard. They don't like soft Western beds.

Kitchens tend to be small, with narrow counters and just a few small cabinets. There are only a few pots and pans. Generally, only the maid works in the kitchen, so it's not a space that you enter as you do in US homes.

Kitchens are simple and functional...

Bathrooms are often elaborate and modern because they buy modular bathrooms or shower cabinets. They often install European shower cabinets with many water jets. If there is a second bathroom, then it is generally a squat toilet. There is no center roll in toilet paper.

But the showers are space-age! I think this has 20 shower nozzles.

The clothes washers are small. I never saw a clothes dryer. People think it's healthier if things dry in fresh air. I've been told that even if they have a clothes dryer, they won't use it.

Interior decoration is often basic. They hang scrolls, posters, and photos on the wall. But light bulbs are often bare, without a shade. I never saw an incandescent light. All lights are fluorescent.

Condo courtyards and apartment balconies tend to have elaborate gardens of lush plants, often with ponds or small streams.

In the center of the city, on a busy boulevard, enter through a small gate and there's the inner courtyard of an apartment complex.

They have lots of pets. These include dogs, cats, birds, turtle, fish, and crickets, which they categorize as "the Four Pets": mammals, birds, fish, and insects. You see lots of small pet dogs everywhere; many houses have bird cage in the garden. The bird is brought out in the morning and brought in at night. Houseplants are common.

Nearly everyone we visited had maids or cooks. A maid's salary is about 750Y per month (about US$120) in Nanchong, who is there all day, from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. (In Beijing, house staff are 1,000Y to 2,000Y per month.) (That's US$160-320 per month.) She washes, cleans, makes lunch and leaves dinner ready. The cook makes lunch, sets the table, and joins everyone at lunch and takes part in conversation.

From left: Mom, dad, the maid, sister-in-law, and Helen.
The maid cooked lunch, set the table, and is part of the family.

Chinese can be frugal to an extreme. They turn off the water heater after use. They even turn off the pilot light in the stove and heater. My water heater hasn't been turned off since I bought my house 14 years ago. To avoid turning on the water heater, they put hot water in thermo bottles and place these in many rooms.

Here's a short description of several homes:

  • Helen's sister works for the city's department for industry and commerce development. Her husband is an architect, so the large spacious apartment is European minimalist modern, with clean empty surfaces and furniture made of glass and steel wire. One room had only a telescope and a punching ball. Quite minimalist.
  • Helen's brother owns a city apartment with large outdoor balconies and many large tropical plants.
  • Her parents live in a 3-bedroom apartment in a gated community.

  • Her niece owns a small fashion shop next to the university and she dresses very stylish. She owns a large roomy two-story apartment with five balconies. The center two-story hall has a flower chandelier. She sleeps in a round canopy bed. The apartment is also a luxurious Mediterranean-style gated complex with ponds and a large swimming pool.
  • A friend's apartment in Chengdu: The family own a string of franchises and are wealthy. They live in a large gated complex of luxurious apartments, with lush gardens and ponds. The thick foliage of the gardens soaked up all city noise. Their son had a separate apartment in the complex with several extra empty bedrooms and two large balconies.

  • A friend in Beijing is a successful international attorney. They have a large comfortable apartment with a large living room, piano for the daughter, a number of bedrooms, and a large modern kitchen. They live in the embassy district in east Beijing. They lived 12 years in Palo Alto, so their home decoration is a mix of California and China. They want their 14-year daughter to study at Stanford, so they rented a two-story apartment in Palo Alto for her.


China is a shopping paradise. The large stores have many more kinds of things than in US stores. Because production is cheap, there are very large stores for women's purses, shoes, and boots.

In general, if you're looking for luxury brands, such as Dolce and Gabbana or Prada, buy them in the USA or Europe, where they're cheaper. Luxury items are 50% more expensive in China, yet there is such a large market and so much demand that China buys 25% of global luxury goods. The Chinese are #2 consumer of luxury (Japan is #1.) We saw many Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche, including Rolls Royce, Ferrari, and Maybach.

There are many copies and cheap versions of Western products. We saw two fake Apple stores and a fake Walmart. We also saw Green Dog bus (a copy of Grayhound). Some of these replicas are very good and (to me) indistinguishable from original brand items.

There are also excellent Chinese items. We bought ceramics that much better than what you see in the USA. The Chinese invented porcelain around 2,000 years ago and have a very rich tradition. It was only in the 1700s that Germans discovered how to make porcelain; the Chinese are still far ahead. Silk clothing is also very good. The costs are generally what you'd expect to pay for fine products.

Fashion and Clothing

In Sichuan, people mostly wore functional clothing, especially in the small towns and villages. This is similar to what people wear in rural areas of the US, which means jeans, boots, running shoes, and T-shirts or polo shirts. Women wear either functional clothes or somewhat trendy clothes. A few dress well, but hardly any women dress as they do in Paris or Hamburg, even in Shanghai.

White socks go with anything. Red and green socks also go with anything. Basically, anything goes with anything. I don't think they're aware of matching their clothes; they certainly don't notice or care. But this is probably the same as their attitude towards matching in food. They prefer contrast and discontinuity.

Although there are many hair salons, few women have styled hair. Most cuts are the same basic styles. It's very rare to see dyed hair. Men generally have crew cuts, which is inexpensive and easy maintenance. I expect as they become more sophisticated and stylish, people will began to style their hair.

I also noticed that no one wore baseball caps. In fact, few wore hats.

Although some Chinese are tall, most tend to be smaller. I tried to buy some shirts, but XXXL was too small for me (my US shirts are mostly medium). The large Chinese told me it was also difficult for them to buy clothes; they buy their their clothes online.

Chénzhuó. That's "Chinese for "savoir faire" :-)

Politics in China

When you talk with Chinese, you'll find they are very direct in their questions. They'll ask how old you are and how much you earn. And they'll also discuss politics. I found it fascinating to compare what they and we had been taught in school about various events and wars. With a number of people, I had long discussions about politics.

So we have Twitter and Facebook in the USA. The Chinese have Weibo and Renren, which are their social media sites. Hundreds of millions of people chat and discuss everything. Chinese are quick to complain and there are frequent spontaneous demonstrations. They are unhappy with corruption and the growing gulf between the wealthy and everyone else.

The McClatchy news bureau wrote about recent political scandals in China and made a point about China's two central issues of the lack of political participation and corruption. In two short sentences, McClatchy shows how these are related: "On one hand, the nation's rulers insist that the party remain the unquestionably dominant force over the government and anything that resembles political speech, an approach that largely has shielded officials from accountability amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power. The accompanying lack of political flexibility, however, makes it difficult to address public grievances in a large-scale manner, leaving issues such as corruption or abuse to fester."

When a group holds absolute power, the group sees any form of criticism as a threat because criticism raises questions, which can lead to a weakening of power. However, this raises leads to two secondary problems: a conservative society (change is prevented because it may raise unknown situations) and corruption. Corruption arises when criticism is suppressed because government officials hide behind the shield.

There are many examples of this in China. We can understand this better if we look at the USA. After 9.11, the threat of al Qaeda led the US government to enact many restrictive laws that curtailed our freedoms. The White House carried out massive surveillance of all US citizens, including imprisonment and torture of Arabs, both in the US and in the Middle East. In the panic, any criticism of the officials and their actions was considered treasonous.

This led to the two secondary results. Under that political protection, corruption exploded: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars cost perhaps 3-4 trillion US dollars; perhaps half was stolen. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others can't be indicted for war crimes because it would open a horrible web of corruption and scandals. This situation allowed Wall Street banks to steal 16 trillion dollars.

We also have the other result of repression: the USA has become deeply conservative. Obama is clearly to the right of Richard Nixon, yet to many Americans, he is considered a dangerous leftist.

I bring up this example so we can understand what is happening in China. The details of their politics are complex and don't make sense to us, but the basics are the same as ours. The inability to participate in the political decision process allows the centers of power to protect themselves from criticism. That produces corruption. This happens in China, the USA, Russia, and many other countries.

Cultural Differences

Here's a list of many small cultural differences.

The Chinese don't sell things by the dozen. You don't buy a dozen eggs. Their numbering system is base-10. We use dozen because an old European numbering system was base-12.

We don't think much of our hands and feet. At most, women will get manicures, paint their nails, and wear rings. There's nothing done for men's feet in the West. The Chinese concept of foot reflexology goes much further. To them, the foot is a major part of the body, with much attention paid to its features and nature. They have foot massage spas which are literally everywhere. It's a social activity to go to a foot spa, much in the way we go to restaurants with friends. Friends sit together in a comfortable room, where staff first brings you a small meal of soup with dumplings and some fruit. When you finish, masseurs come to give you a foot bath and massage. This can take several hours. It's fairly inexpensive and a widespread custom.

We think of China as small rice villages. China is mostly vast cities of skyscrapers, massive malls, crowded freeways, lots of advertising, and iPhones.

The biggest cultural difference is the way they eat. Food is a social event. Chinese put the platters in the center and share everything, taking only small portions, whereas in the West, we sit with our own food on our own plate.

People dress very casual. Generally, it's polo shirts with jeans or slacks. They dress mostly like Californian brunch casual.

They don't use much heat in houses or restaurants. Restaurants can be open to the air and ice cold. People wear their heavy parka in restaurants or at their office desk.

Chinese pay much attention to their social groups. If you're a friend-of-a-friend, then you're part of the group and they're very friendly. They like to hug for welcome and goodbye (in contrast, Indians won't hug at all.) When you're in the group, they'll also share everything with you and ask you anything that comes to mind.

Every girl has an iPhone. There are more than 900 million cell phones in China (there are only 300 million people in the entire USA.) Kids say "oh my goddeh" in Chinese. They also say "cool." Although China is developing rapidly, it's an uneven mix of things from the 1950s and the 2000s. You see things that are 2,000 years old next to smart phones and iPads.

Chinese + English = Chinglish

What's China without Chinglish? Sometimes, the menus are filled with misspellings and odd English. Here are several menu entries for coffee and cocktails at the Laguna Restaurant in Nanchong:

  • Smack Blue Mantian (They're talking about Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.)
  • Individuality Password
  • A Rain Season in Morgue (I think this is something about a monsoon.)
  • Dependance Snuggles Up To
  • Arrow of the Napolean
  • Visits the World (No idea what this is.)
  • Happy Fruit (the Chinese word for "pistachio.")


In the West, we can drive by only looking ahead. We don't have to be concerned with other drivers because we know they stay in their lane and obey rules.

In China, you drive by looking in all directions. You have no idea what another driver will do, and he'll often do whatever possible. You have to constantly watch 360 degrees.

Chinese drive better than Indians or Saudi, but that doesn't say much. There's a general lack of rules. There are often no stop signs. Drivers ignore zebra stripes. They don't look at oncoming traffic when they enter a larger road, they just swerve in. They'll take a U-turn anytime, anywhere. They ignore turn lanes. The strategy is pretty much that you do whatever you can.

Chinese drivers will suddenly speed up, race along, and then slow down to a crawl for no reason. They blow their horn at anything and everything.

Beijing University and Tsing Hua University

We spent a few days in Beijing to visit friends. Helen graduated from Bejing University, which is the elite school of China. Many of her classmates are now professors there, so we had dinner twice at the university. My book was published by Tsing Hua University, which is the MIT of China, so we had lunch with professors from Tsing Hua. There are at least 70 universities in Beijing alone. Beijing University and Tsing Hua are very large, with dormitories, student restaurants, and faculty buildings. The dormitory courtyards are filled with bicycles.

At Weimin Lake in one of the university parks, two Chinese came up to me and spoke Spanish. Somehow, they knew I spoke Spanish. We talked for 30 minutes. They spoke excellent Spanish, yet they had never been outside of China. They hoped one day to go to Peru and Argentina.

Peking Opera

We also went to Peking Opera in Beijing. Just as with Peking Duck, it's also called Peking Opera (it's not Beijing Duck nor Beijing Opera).

Since many of you are somewhat familiar with Western opera, I'll compare and contrast the differences. I've been to perhaps 12-15 opera performances in California and Germany.

In the late 1700s, various theatrical and music traditions came together to create what is now called Peking Opera. It's only loosely similar to Western opera. Apparently it developed without any influence from Western opera (and vice-versa: Western opera wasn't influenced by Peking Opera.)

Several theaters present their productions of Peking Opera. Tickets are 680 yuan per person (US$106, which is about the same for opera in California).

A friend got first-class tickets for us. We sat in the section at the front where there were tables and chairs, as if for dinner theater. You sit at a table for five, with waiters who serve tea and cookies. (The tea is Chinese green tea, not Western dark tea.) The audience is dressed informally, whereas in Western opera, the audience is generally formal: men wear suit and ties, while women wear evening gowns.

Helen waiting for the opera to start.

The performance lasted two hours and 45 minutes, with no intermission or breaks. People entered and left during the performance (in Western opera, there is no entrance during the performance.) People take photographs during the performance (which is discouraged in Western opera.) The audience was entirely Chinese. I think I was the only non-Chinese there. Just as with Western opera, there are sub-titles (but in Chinese). The Chinese need these; they can't understand the singers.

There are only twelve or so actors at most on stage (in French or Italian opera, there can be moments with 400 or more on stage.)

Background and situation are implied with minimal action. To show that the actors are on a river boat, two men at the back hold oars. That's all there is: no boat, no water. In contrast, a major production of Aida, the Italian opera by Verdi, will have colossal Egyptian temples, hundreds of soldiers, swarms of dancing girls, horses, chariots, and elephants and everything is motion all at once. Watch the Triumphal March from Aida. Yes, that's a stage!

At most, Peking Opera may have only a simple cloth backdrop for a minimalist set. The focus is on the performers' skill and their presentation and control of voice, not the action or the set.

The costumes are colorful and elaborate and the result is deliberately artificial, not natural. The point is to emphasize artificiality, not to create a natural look. Just as with Chinese cuisine, there is not a unified color tonal range to the set. The colors clash and contrast (good Western opera production features excellent color coordination). This isn't a failure of Peking Opera: it's intentional.

Each moment is precisely scripted. They snap to position, pause for a moment, and snap to the next position. The movements are synchronized by the music, which is mostly percussion to mark time for the performers. The orchestra is small (only 6-9 musicians), who sit at the side, not the orchestra pit.

The actor's movements are standardized. For example, as he raises his arms, his long sleeves slide back. The actor shakes his sleeves precisely four times. This standardization reduces the significance of the movement to put focus on what matters: the voice. For the same reason, there is no change in lighting. The stage is brightly lit and stays that way throughout the performance.

The actors use a wide range of vocal effects. They can start with speech, which rises into song and drops back into speech again. Spoken Chinese uses tones. Beijing Chinese uses four tones (rising, falling, long, and drop-rise). Shanghainese uses nine tones. When you listen to people, there is very little difference in tones. But in Peking Opera, each word is enunciated clearly and distinctly, so you can hear its tone.

Here's a clip from the well-known romantic opera White Snake.
The woman is the White Snake, a mythical creature.
An unlucky young scholar has fallen in love with her.

An aria by Li Shengsu, a leading performer of Peking Opera.
Note her elaborate head dress and costume. As she performs, others stand still.

There is little acting or action. The performers stand and deliver their lines. When one speaks, the others freeze (in Western opera, this is called "park and bark" :-) However, there can be several martial arts scene, where characters fight in a kind of gymnastic ballet combat. It would be very amusing to see Western opera stars try to perform ballet and somersaults.

There are several hundred works. Many are on DVD with Chinese sub-titles. If you like Western opera, you should get a few Peking Operas and watch these.


Asides from the massive traffic jams, it's pretty easy to get around. From city to city, there are trains and airplanes. Just go to the station and buy a ticket. Within cities, there are subways and bus lines. There are also taxi, pedicab, and motorcycle taxi (you sit on back.) The metro is only US$0.30. Pedicabs are about 3 Yuan (US$0.50).

We went into several stores for scooters and motorbikes: a scooter is about US$450 (or US$40 per month on a payment plan.) A new car is 150,000Y (US$23,500). You often see three or four people on a motorbike. Mom drives and dad holds the kids. Maybe one of them has a helmet.

It rains quite a bit, so motorbikes have these long umbrellas that act as a canopy. They also have two-headed poncho for both persons.

A number of cities now offer free city bicycles. There are extensive transportation systems of bus and subways.

Tianamen Square on October 1st

We were in Beijing on October 1st, which is China's National Day. People come from many cities in China. The center of the celebration is Tianamen Square, the large central plaza that also includes the People's Congress. It's 880x500m (960x550 yards). The streets are blocked off to traffic for several very long blocks. We went by metro as close as we could and then joined hundreds of thousands of people. It was decorated with massive floral arrangements. Vendors sold small flags and stickers. Kids posed in front of buildings and statues so parents could take photos. The crowd was very Beijing, which meant everyone was out to walk around and have fun. This included punks, girls in trendy clothes, and girls with pink bunny ears. National Day is a huge street party. If you can, go.

The National History Museum of China

At Tianamen Square, we also went to the National History Museum, which had just opened in May 2011.

It has a modern museum layout, with large spaces and an excellent collection, which makes it one of the major museums of the world. You can stand in front in a long line or go around to the north entrance and pay a small fee to get in.

2,300 year old bronze of a Chinese rhinoceros.

It's a place where you can spend all day to see treasures of China's long history. A few remarkable things: a collection of porcelain figures of an all-girl polo team in 1100 AD. OMG! Chinese women were playing polo a thousand years ago? It was only first in 1876 that Americans played polo, and of course, it was only men. A large painting shows the city of Chang'an, which already had a million people in 1,000 AD

A woman playing polo. She is part of a team of 900-year old figurines.

Sculptures from 3,000 and 4,000 years ago already show emotions on their faces. In contrast, most Egyptian sculptures at the time show the same blank expression.

A large room had a collection of several dozen of the terra-cotta warriors (2,300 years ago). Each warrior has a unique face, which means Chinese artists personalized the statues to each of the 8,000 soldiers. Again, to compare, the West lost the ability to draw portraits some time after 600 AD and wasn't able to draw a portrait until 1300 AD. We don't even have a painting of Charlemagne, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Chinese also made excellent, accurate sculptures of animals such as rhinoceros.

What you see is a highly-sophisticated society based on classical literature and poetry with a bureaucracy to manage their empire. In many fields, they were often hundreds (and even thousands) of years ahead of the West. They invented many of the essential tools of science and technology (clocks, steam engines, and explosives). However, science and engineering never developed beyond examples. There has much research into why the Chinese fell behind. The best research on China's technology is Joseph Needham's 50-year academic project which has been published in more than 24 volumes. In short, the Chinese gave preference to transmission and annotation of established scholarly and literary knowledge. They downplayed the value (and power) of merchant wealth. Furthermore, labor was cheap, so there was little incentive to develop machines. This of course makes us wonder what aspects of our society are underdeveloped because of tradition.


China has many spectacular skyscrapers and modern buildings. These are in that hypermodern architecture style called "starchitecture" (as in "star architecture", which means the design was by a star in the architecture world). Most of the major cities have commissioned such buildings to be distinctive. It's hard to call it a style when none of the buildings look alike.

Shanghai at night

Many of the buildings for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo were designed by star architectures. Look at the pavilions for Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Russia, and the China Aviation Pavilion.

A Few Notes about China's Infrastructure and Growth

Although China is developing very rapidly, development is uneven. You see very modern infrastructure next to systems that are 20-30 years old. In some cases, things are missing.

China has 6,000 miles of high speed rail. There is not a single mile of high-speed rail in the USA. By 2013, China will have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined. Within the next ten years, they will build another 10,000 miles of high-speed rail.

Hospitals are very crowded. The halls are packed with people. Doctors and nurses are overworked. The hospital buildings are in poor condition. People in the countryside can get health insurance for 50 Yuan per year (about US$8 per year).

Nanchong has seven million people, yet there is no museum or large zoo. There are no nightclubs. Any city of one million people in the West would have a broad range of cultural opportunities. Their evening life seems to revolve around restaurants and social dining.

Party boats take you out for a river cruise with dining and music.

Practically nobody speaks English in most parts of Sichuan. A few had studied in the USA, but otherwise, some knew only a few basic phrases. Many young people study English now.

There is construction of vast apartment complexes everywhere. A new apartment is about US$50,000 in a small city and can be US$500,000 or more in Beijing and Shanghai. China expects 400 million people will move from villages to the cities in the next ten years. Those 400 million people will require apartments, houses, schools, restaurants, buses, city administration buildings, and so on. In the next ten years, China will build more infrastructure than the entire existing USA. The people who will build all of that will become very wealthy.

General Thoughts

In general, it's easy to travel in China. The Chinese move around quite a bit, so they have a strong infrastructure for travel and tourism. There are plenty of airplanes, trains, buses, taxi, plus lots of hotels, restaurants, and cafes. The Chinese like to be tourists in their own country, so there are lots of things for tourists, such as museums, parks, and tourist attractions, plus all sorts of fun stuff. The food is clean (we never got sick). People are friendly and helpful. The streets are pretty safe, even in the large cities.

Mini-Mac? This McDonalds serves only a few items.

The only difficulty is language: outside of Beijing and Shanghai, very few people speak any foreign languages (I tried French, German, English, and Spanish). However, at most hotels for tourists and often at major tourist spots, you can hire government-certified tourist guides at a low cost to show you around.

So why do Chinese go to the West? They look for the latest in education in Western STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) and opportunity (set up companies). Many learn and after a few years, return to China to start new companies.

In Nanchong, a chair lift brings you to the top of Xi Le mountain. Helen's brother-in-law was the engineer who designed the chair lift.

Around the mountain top, there are paths to caves that were used by monks hundreds of years ago. There's also a large Buddhist monastery with a 7-foot tall sticks of incense in front. Like most things in China, the buildings are open and you can walk around wherever you like, incl. the basement and interior rooms, including the tiny sparse bedrooms for the monks. Buddhist temples were mostly destroyed during Culture Revolution and have been beautifully restored. I couldn't tell that these were restorations.

This aspect of China bothers Westerners, but the Chinese don't mind. We want to see the original building, but the Chinese feel that reconstruction is better. The parts of the Great Wall that you visit, for example, are reconstruction. The actual Great Wall is a slag heap of bricks. The Buddhist monasteries are nearly all recent reconstructions.

A Few Final Items

The cost of living in Beijing is about the same as California. It's very expensive for most Chinese.

Would you like to learn an easy Chinese word? A dragon is a long animal, right? So that's easy to remember: the Chinese word for dragon is "long."

Two of the dragons from The Wall of Nine Dragons at Beihai, the imperial park in Beijing.
Pop quiz! What's the word for "dragon" in Chinese?

Where do Chinese go when they travel? Chinese travel to SE Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and South America. If they go to the West, then they go to Germany or France, because these countries have historical sites. If they go to the USA, they go to see national parks. But the USA also reject many tourist visas. So it's easier for them to travel to other places. Plus, Western food is bland to Chinese, so they prefer other destinations.

Things to Bring

What should you bring to China? There's Walmart and European shopping centers. They have everything.

A bookstore in Nanchong. Helen's brother manages these bookstores. He also took the photograph.

It can be a bit of challenge to get aspirin and common pharmaceuticals, because they use different names. I happen to know the chemical names for common pharmaceuticals, so I could communicate with the pharmacist, but I suggest that you bring your own pills.

Just about everywhere, you can get access to the web. However, some things are blocked. You can't use Facebook or Twitter. You can use LinkedIn. Google works for a few minutes, then it doesn't work, and then it works again. If you really want access, then set up a VPN service (US$5-10 per month), which lets you bypass the censors.

Bring lots of presents, and have space in your bags to bring back lots of things. China is quite a place for shopping.