Two Months in, Here are the things that stood out
I came to China not knowing what to expect. I had read blogs and travel guides, and researched cultural faux-pas; anything I could do to prepare myself. It was a fruitless effort. No amount of reading can prepare you for culture shock.
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet
China is in a state of rapid change and advancement, and a lot of information online is outdated. I didn’t pack white clothing specifically because I read that the colour white is a symbol of death in
China, and wearing it is frowned upon. It seems so silly now! I see people wearing white all the time. Even brides wear white, despite multiple sources saying they only wear red. It’s possible that the less developed areas of China are a bit more traditional, but for the most part China is living in modern world. Technologically speaking, they might even be in the future.
One of my reasons for travelling was to skip a Canadian winter. I arrived in Haikou at night, but as soon as the warm air hit me through the open-wall airport I knew I picked the right city. The streets are lines with palm trees, fruit vendors walk along the sidewalks, and coconuts are available on most street corners.
I arrived in late fall, but coming from Canada it still felt like the peak of summer for me. It’s now “winter” and the temperature has dropped slightly. There was even a “blue cold warning” last week. It was 14C. It doesn’t quite feel tropical, but I’m used to cold warnings when being outside for a few minutes with exposed skin will cause frostbite. The way everyone is dressed, you’d think it were that cold: heavy coats, scarves, double layers of pants and sweaters… the works.
You can’t walk outside in Haikou without immediately noticing the scooters. Everywhere. There’s designated scooter lanes, but they also drive on the sidewalks and roads – they can drive wherever they want, it seems. Crossing diagonally across intersections, weaving through cars and buses, going in the opposite direction as traffic – the skies the limit. I’m not sure what the rules are, but they’re not following them. They’re worse than the cars, and that’s saying a lot. It’s utter madness.
The traffic takes a while to get used to. I’m still not 100% sure what the stop light sequence is; it seems to vary by intersection. I’ve seen it where vehicles turning onto the same one-lane street from opposite directions both have an advance signal. I guess they’re just supposed to look out for one another. Smaller intersections don’t even have stop signs. Everyone can go at once. I will say this about Chinese drivers – they are very aware of their surroundings. Somehow, they drive bikes and scooters while talking on their phones. I was actually in a cab the other day, without a seat belt (the norm here), and the driver was watching videos on his phone the whole drive!
Somehow there is organization to the chaos, though I can’t see it yet. It’s a little bit like a murmuration of starlings; how they seem to move as a single unit but somehow avoid collisions. It’s probably for the best that they don’t let foreigners drive cars here. If you were to drive like the average westerner – following traffic laws, being relatively considerate of others, and proceeding in an orderly fashion, you would crash. I think if people drove with the organization of the west and the spatial awareness of the east, there wouldn’t be so many car accidents everyday.
The scooters do significantly reduce the number or cars on the roads. During peak hours, the roads are already quite busy, and I don’t think they could sustain more people.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected from Haikou, but it wasn’t this. In the last two years the city has undergone major upgrades to infrastructure. The roads are well maintained, the streets are clean, and everything is convenient and accessible. Though there’s no subway, the buses run frequently (usually every 10 minutes) and make getting around fairly simple.
Considering Haikou has a smaller population than Toronto, I have no idea how they support the shopping districts they have. I expected it in Hangzhou, which is huge, but not in Haikou. It may be because more people live in a smaller geographic area. Everything is built up instead of out. I haven’t seen a single detached home since I’ve been in China; it’s all apartments and condos. The average home is relatively small, but I have seen some apartments that have two stories and are quite large inside.
I can’t even count the number of shopping malls I’ve seen. I highly doubt anyone buys second-hand clothing here, with so many inexpensive clothing stores around the corner. I’ve found everything to be good quality as well. I guess they keep the good stuff here and ship the rest overseas. There are a few international malls in Haikou, with stores like The North Face, Zara, H&M, Sephora, Nike, etc.. These malls are nice, but the stores are even more expensive than they are in Canada.
I find it a bit difficult to shop here. I’ve been around pushy sales staff before, but not usually in clothing or grocery stores. In some stores, they’re at my heels as soon as I walk in the store. They’ll start talking to me right away, but of course I have no idea what they’re saying. I find it so uncomfortable that I’ve even left stores because of it. When I shop I like to be able to browse on my own. I generally don’t have something specific in mind that I want, so there’s no need for a sales person the second I walk in. When I learn a bit more Mandarin, I’ll be able to listen to other people interact with the sales staff so I can get a better idea of the customs here. That’s the hope, anyway.
Learning some basic Mandarin is one of my top goals for the new year. It’s difficult having everyone pay attention to me without having any idea how to interact with them. When I walk around Haikou, people stare at me constantly. People honk at me and yell ‘hello’. Sometimes I’ll be walking around and I’ll wonder why everyone is staring at me. I’ll worry that there’s something on my face, or that I’ve forgotten a major article of clothing, until it eventually hits me that I’m different here. Something I’ve never experienced as a white woman in Canada. It doesn’t help that I’m very blonde and even my tan is pale. I stand out.
Overall, I’ve found people to be very friendly and welcoming, but there are a few things that get old rather quickly. Like when people take my picture without my permission, it makes me very uncomfortable. I’m completely fine with someone asking to take a selfie with me, but when I’m just getting on with my day, minding my business, and I look over and someone is clearly taking a picture of me – that is irritating.
I can’t imagine being that surprised seeing someone that looks different that I’d need to take a picture. Coming from a country that is very multi-cultural, it is very strange to be somewhere where everyone is the same.
I am here to observe and learn, and not to judge. It’s sometimes easier said than done. There are some things in China that I love, and other things I’m not crazy about, but the goal isn’t to create an opinion of their culture; the goal is just to understand it better.