First Impressions of China …

A lot of how you first experience China probably depends on how you feel about China before you go there.

Where I went in China (Sichuan province).

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.)

Yup, this is pretty much my memory of Chengdu.

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.

I have no idea what this means, but you gotta love a headline that uses the word "protagonist" right?

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.

And what’s not to love there?

Categories: Children, China, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

Post navigation

31 thoughts on “First Impressions of China …

  1. Totally enjoying your comments and photos as you visit Heifer locations worldwide.

  2. So interesting to hear your experience of China. When we lived in Vietnam and Sara was the national/country director for Habitat for Humanity there, we discovered that NGOs sometimes need to work differently in communist countries than they do in democratic ones–especially in terms of partnerships–partnering with the government much more often than other NGOs. Sounds like Heifer may be facing some of that in China–if I’m interpretting you correctly? Is that the case?

    Also curious to hear more about the government minders you worked with. When Sara has traveled to China to work with Habitat there, the oversight was pretty tight. How was it for you?

    I know you can’t address all of these issues in a response to a comment. I’m just so curious. It was also challenging when we were setting up the Jimmy Carter Work Project in Vietnam and trying to bring in volunteers–not to mention the Carters themselves. Sara had profound visa issues in Vietnam. Someday, if we ever meet, we can exchange stories.

    Great, great post, Betty.


    • Sorry, I should say, Sara had horrible challenges gettng visas for the hundreds of international volunteers we were bringing in to build 30 houses in one week. Neither of us had issues with getting visas.

      • Visas are a big headache — and so arbitrary! I can’t believe that you had to have a Chinese visa AND a Tibet visa … it’s like having an American vias and having to get a visa to go to Kansas. And for my trip to Cameroon, I have to send a copy of my bank account. Seriously?? But … I can only imagine having to get visas for volunteers and hundreds of them. Btw, Vietnam doesn’t let you get a visa more than 90 days in adavnce, I just tried … phew!! Hard to keep up with all these rules!!

    • Thanks so much for your insightful comment, Kathryn! I definitely would concur that working in a Communist country does seem to be different than democratic ones, but in many countries, like Peru and Nepal, Heifer works with government agencies and it does seem to be pretty effective. In some ways, that expedites the community’s ability to interface directly with “authorities” and that’s pretty powerful for these people who often don’t feel they have a voice or any means to effect change. Personally, I didn’t feel as if we were under any kind of tight oversight (although I’m kind of oblivious to that) but Heifer has very good relationships with the government officials with which it works, and that is the result of years of work. Mostly we were working with local Animal Husbandry officials and Poverty Alleviation Bureaus who had contributed a lot of expertise to the Heifer projects … SO impressed with your Sara and all her experiences with Habitat — one of my favorite organizations EVER!

  3. Great, cool. So why are they taking off…all the products, government, minimalistic lifestyle? Yet you saw 1K handbags and skinny jeans. I love your comments. I’m still stuck on seeing the big tank roll over the people years ago in Tienemen Square. Thanks for my education, boy do I need it 😉 Time zone…that’s where I’ve been hiding. I have so much to catch up on. Once again you capture a very special look in the children’s eyes and this little girl is more puzzling, not as happy as the Haiti girl. A look of consternation as she is not quite sure how to take her situation.

    • Such a good observation, Kim — she was a solemn little beauty! But right next to her was a girl with SO much life in her face, and a super ability in languages… that you’ll see next post! China was kind of confusing as in some senses it seems so prosperous in the cities, but yet, the rural areas are emptying out, as all the men go to the towns to work, and women are left to do all the farming. I think the income disparity is really reaching critical mass — and I will be talking about that in future posts. Thanks a million for the comment!

  4. China has always been such a hugely complicated conglomeration of ethnic groups, They have achieved such heights of culture and such depths of human misery. I trust you will continue to put a very human face on a society that, in terms of sheer numbers, can seem so overwhelmingly not human.

    • Oh Renee — I was really amazed at how MANY ethnic groups are in China (56) … and how large they are! (Plus I totally didn’t know that ethnic groups were exempt from the one-child policy). So .. hope my posts can live up to your faith! I had a pretty remarkable journey, but was only in Sichuan … however, I did keep you always in mind and got your videos!!

  5. Martha Radatz

    Thanks for this great intro to China! When we were there a couple of years ago, I remember the same “charm quotient” of the cities (zip), and being shocked at the affluence—just didn’t expect that. Was not able to get into the countryside much, so I’m looking forward to your posts to show me the side of China we missed.

  6. Martha, you’ve been everywhere!! Ihave to say, when I arrived in Beijing I was so exhausted I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but it seemed to be the biggest, emptiest terminal I’d ever seen. It wasn’t until I got out to Meigu and the countryside beyond that I saw all the beautiful countryside that I loved .. and the happy faces of the peope that were so lovely … can’t wait to show you!!

    • It is kinda sad, isn’t it?? Ironically, as a Communist country, China seems to have a LOT of very very wetlhay entrepreneurs and corruption is rather rampant. If you want to really get depressed, read the New Yorker article on Macau it’s a brand new Sodom, and makes Las Vegas look like Salt Lake City. But when you consider all the accomplishments of the Chinese civilization over the years, it’s particularly wrenching to think that they have become so materialistic and perhaps lost their cultural identity that is so rich and splendid.

  7. Great post, Betty! Captured so much of how I felt when I visited China and spent a month exploring the eastern 1/3 of the country – the wealth, the poverty, the freedom and the control – all those contrasts,,, not sure if I felt like I had been deliberately misinformed or that China is really so vast and diverse that so many things are true, depending where and how you look.

    I did not know they invented toilet paper! Too bad they didn’t invent the concept of insuring it was readily available in all public conveniences! It was the first thing that went into my back when I set out in the morning!

    • Dear TS … You are so right about the T.P… we always had a roll in the truck and I ALWAYS kept some in my camera bag. I should be documenting Toilets I Have Seen … boy, you sure lose all your high standards of where you’ll go pretty quickly! As for China, because we were just in Sichuan province, I don’t feel like I had even remotely a broad view of China — but I was so happy that we were mostly in rural places (with Heifer, luckily that is always the case!!) where it was beautiful and the people were so much more friendly and accessible. The cities I found to be really anonymous, gray and boring – but I was just in three: Chengdu, Beijing (just the airport) and Xiachang. Shanghai is supposed to be dazzling but I’ll have to report on that when I go back (with my hubby) in November! So happy to hear from you…

  8. Anonymous

    I can imagine how you felt about China Betty having travelled there over 20 years ago! I felt a distinct lack of ‘culture’ and certainly no sense of interest or hospitality towards westerners (maybe for good reason). Nepal is like a heavenly planet in contrast.

    • That is from Lulu – I don’t know why I come up as anonymous?

    • Nepal was a beautiful change of pace for me, too, Lulu — and not just because of the western food.
      I was just SO happy to be able to post and surf the web undisturbed…..but I do have to say that when I went to the villages, I loved the people in China. They were really sweet and fascinated by my big eyes (ha!) and my clothes, and especially my i-phone. That is a universal ice-breaker & the best thing is, kids everywhere — and I mean everywhere — can figure out how to use it in about 10 seconds. They LOVE the camera, scrolling thru the photos, taking photos of each other — it’s SO great!!! Love hearing from you, darling Lulu and you are never anonymous to me!!!

  9. Good topic Betty.

    Yes, it is easy to label China as one thing or another and fail to consider the diversity, history, culture, wealth, and poverty that exists there.

    Glad to hear that Heifer is actively involved helping there.

    • Thanks, SD — you hit the nail on the head when you talk about diversity! With 55 big ethnic groups — and the Yi that I’m writing about next have 8 million people (and they’re only the 7th largest group), you can imagine how large and wide-ranging the Chinese culture really is. Nice comment!!

  10. It’s depressing to hear that China is no different from the west and they seem to have their 1% too …

    • It is kinda sad, isn’t it?? Ironically, as a Communist country, China seems to have a LOT of very very wealthy entrepreneurs and corruption is rather rampant. If you want to really get depressed, read the New Yorker article on Macau — it’s a brand new Sodom, and makes Las Vegas look like Salt Lake City. But … when you consider all the accomplishments of the Chinese civilization over the years, it’s particularly wrenching to think that they have become so materialistic and perhaps lost their cultural identity that is so rich and splendid.

      • which issue of the New Yorker has the Macau article? I’m a few weeks behind with my reading…

  11. What a fascinating, interesting bloody marvelous description of the real China. I appreciate your honesty about the place. I love traveling but the more I hear about China the less I want to go there. You couldn’t access WordPress when you were there? And why no Visa to Tibet? What are they scared of?

    Love the top photo. And the laughing monk.
    Bottom photo is a WOW. What was the little girl doing with her hands? Clapping them?

  12. Rosie — It was shocking to learn that I couldn’t get on WordPress, twitter or Facebook (the government banned them after the Tibet riots right before the Olympics) — and that annoyed me to no end. They are also obviously not letting Westerners into Tibet (maybe because they don’t want us to meet the people, who are DARLING and get even more enamored of the country than we already are & hence want to protect the Buddhist culture from being wiped out) .. but the people in the rural areas were enchanting. And the countryside is often gorgeous. The top photo was from my time in Sichuan’s earthquake rehabilitation area, the laughing woman is leader of a self-help group in Zhaojue (I loved her so much!) and the little girl was clapping to welcome me to Waxi Village .. along with about 25 other girls who danced and sang. How gorgeous is she?? Thanks SO much for the comment!

  13. Rosie: Here’s the link on the Macao story by Evan Osnos from the April 9th New Yorker .. it’s amazing!

  14. Pingback: Heifer 12 x 12 China and Nepal Round-Up | Heifer Blog

  15. Subair M

    If you expected everything the same in the ” communist ” countries ( you don’t even know what it is, other than the exaggerated excreta defecated by the imperialist media whoremasters in the so-called ‘west’!), why did you go to China? Did the Chinese beg or beseech you to condescend to China with your ‘exalted’ presence? If you don’t like their laws and regulations, get lost to the decadent, rotten mess, where you came from! Your very ‘comments’ reveal your bigoted, biased outlook!

  16. Wow, Subair — sorry you were so offended. But your comment does reveal to me what I feel is a certain paranoia in the Chinese government. Why do you feel that a difference of opinion about the restrictions in your country (I’m assuming that it is your country) is such an insult? I have never felt my presence in any country was “exalted” and I’m sorry my column caused you to feel such rage and fury.

  17. 浴衣 通販 安い

  18. chacoチャコ クラークス 手入れ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: