This is how I entered the People's Republic of China: by foot.
A subway ride from central Hong Kong deposited me at the border just south of Shenzhen. Backpack buckled, I walked through one round of customs before being dumped into a wide corridor flooded with a sea of people, most about a foot or two shorter than me. Together we're headed straight towards a second round of customs, but for now we're hovering in between two entities, Hong Kong and China proper.
Amidst the masses, I suddenly notice something strange and inexplicable: a man dressed as a security guard is fighting his way upstream through the throngs of people, blasting a megaphone playing a piano version of My Heart Will Go On.
Oh China, I have so many questions.
China is so massively ancient and complex, unfamiliar and bizarre. Even after visiting six major cities, I feel as if I've only just begun my discovery of this culture and its people.
There were things I absolutely loved about China, such as the rich history, culture, people and beautiful designs.
But there were things I found creepy, invasive, or just inexplicably weird. I've already mentioned the pollution for one, but there's also the censorship. Sometimes random things are deemed "sensitive." Since I got to know a few people in the environmental and diplomatic realm, I was privy to stories about meetings or events suddenly shut down due to a bù fāngbiàn, or an "inconvenience."
I also had the distinct feeling that Big Brother was watching my every move. Maybe that's because he was. There were video cameras everywhere––shopping malls, intersections, street corners, buildings. While driving, strobe lights flashed snapping images of cars at regular intervals. Why oh why is this necessary? I asked one of our drivers to explain. Unfazed, he told me that it was simply documentation.
But it gets weirder. Like wire-tapping houses and being followed sort of weird.
I'm certain this doesn't happen to everyone, but did you know that "sensitive" people (such as diplomats abroad) basically have their entire lives monitored? I'm talking about entering of private homes, moving files around, reading personal emails, listening in on phone calls, tapping into dinner or bedtime conversations. I sure heard some stories.
The idea of this is sort of appalling at first, but the funny/sad thing is that this kind of monitoring and censorship becomes normalized after awhile. It's just the way things are, so people adapt.
To be honest, something similar is creeping into our lives back home. Yes, I'm talking to you America. Remember drones? Or those freaky police cameras that are starting to pop up on street corners? Heck, what about those invasive TSA full-body pat-downs? I hope we re-think this whole privacy invasion/civil liberties compromise sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, I've figured out a tactic for dealing with such absurdities. The best thing to do is imagine the puppet whose job it is to follow you and/or listen in on your mundane dinner conversations and/or grope your privates at the airport. Where did I put my dirty socks? Wasn't your mom's casserole delicious? Does this shirt make me look fat? That sure must be a crappy job.
I have to say that I agree with journalist Rob Gifford when predicting the future of this superpower of a country. He explores the wacky complexities in his book China Road, A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, which is a must-read if you're planning a visit. Gifford draws a mixed conclusion and I tend to agree. Some days it's easy to love this place, other days it's so bizarre and illogical that it's off-putting. Gifford thinks that because China is so set in its ways in many regards, the country may be destined to "just muddle through, remaining largely as it is... neither imploding nor becoming the next superpower..."
It seems China's main goal now is expansion, to keep the economy growing even at the expense of the environment and basic freedoms. Gifford fears that the underlying reason for this is the need to stave off social dissent. How long can China last in its current state? It seems unsustainable to me. The rows and rows of giant empty skyscraper apartment buildings lining the freeway to Fuzhou was a visualization of just one facet of this idea. Apparently wealthy investors from Shanghai build infrastructure such as this in the expectation that more and more people from the country will abandon generations of farm life in order to move to these sprawling cities. They will re-install into tight cramped apartment complexes like these, work a repetitive job in a factory, and earn in one month what they'd make in one year from farming (about $30). It was obvious to me that there is a polarity of growing wealth inequality. How long can this cycle last?
I have mixed feelings about this country. And so many more questions.
Yet I'm glad I got to experience all I did. People say that to truly know China's history you need to visit three places:
Xi'an, to understand the last 5,000 years.
Shanghai, to understand the last 100 years.
And of course Beijing, to understand the last 1,000 years.
China can be a tough country to travel through without assistance, so we hired a guide in Beijing.
Winter is a great time to visit. Walking through the famous Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City was freezing, but absent of slow-moving tourist lines. A portrait of Mao still silently guards the front exterior, even though our guide told us that he had to be stopped from destroying this historical (now UNESCO) site during the Cultural Revolution. Go figure.
Then of course there's the Great Wall.
It is great.
If there's one thing I've come to understand, it's that China is a country of complex contradictions. It's a land of opposites, power, fear, and complications. At the same time it's a country of beauty, growth, ambition, endurance, strength and incredible depth.
Now I understand why red is the color of China. It's bold and rich, representing a deeply historic and cultural past. It symbolizes fire, good fortune, and joy.
But it's contradictory too.
It's also the color of Communism.