A lot of how you first experience China probably depends on how you feel about China before you go there.
For instance, if you think of China as the majestic, longest- lasting civilization in the world–one that invented paper, gunpowder, kites, ice cream and toilet paper (hard to say which I value the most)— you’re going to be pretty darn impressed with all the rich history and present-day achievements you see. But if you are pretty sure that with 1 billion people, a land mass only slightly smaller than America (I was totally sure it was twice our size) and an economy growing at breakneck speed, China will be taking over the world in our lifetime – and not in a fun, let’s-break-the-bank European way but in a we-are-all-striving-together-to-suffer-and-achieve way – then you’re less likely to be enamored of the culture. Although I have to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of culture on display where I was in Chengdu. Mostly it was just gray skies, lots of smoking and spitting, a million high-rise buildings, and noodles galore. (But I wasn’t in the groovy old-world part of Chengdu with all the pandas, etc. so maybe I just missed the boat.. or the junk.)
Once you get out into the countryside, though, China is awfully pretty.
The people are adorable, friendly and fascinating. The roads are great. Everywhere you look, you see building and new bridges and tons of billboards offering tons of stuff for sale and people who seem to be coping with the stress of living in this highly competitive, highly regulated country pretty well.
And make no mistake: China is regulated. You can’t get on WordPress, any Western blog sites, Facebook, twitter or YouTube in China. And my month-long quest to get a visa to visit Tibet came to naught, as they don’t seem to want to let Westerners in to visit that cheerful, beautiful Buddhist country. It’s astonishing how restrictions like this chafe and bind when you’re used to being able to go anywhere you please and criticize, make fun of, and badger your government (go, Jon Stewart!).
Despite the general affluence of China (there are more thousand-dollar handbags slung over skinny girls’ shoulders here than in New York), I also witnessed some of the worst poverty I’ve even seen.
I heard last night on CNN that the Chinese economy has slowed down to a roaring 8%, although China is still producing more millionaires a day than anywhere else on the planet. But there is a world of difference between people in the cities and people in the countryside – as well as a huge income gap between the haves and the have-nots. Which makes the work that Heiferis doing to improve the lives of rural, agrarian Chinese so vitally important. The people I was with were gentle, thoughtful, grateful and sweet– of course! they were Heifer folks, working in conjunction with some really helpful and committed people from the Chinese government– but I have to say, the overall charm quotient in Chinese cities is pretty low. By the time I got to Nepal and a beautiful monk smiled directly my face, I almost dropped over in surprise, I was so accustomed to the anonymous stare of the urban Chinese.
But looking back, all I can remember (as usual) are the children.