Stark Realities of Life in Regional China

Going to China and exploring the well worn tourist trails is one thing, it’s another thing again to live in one of China’s major urban cities for a period of time, and it’s very much another thing again, to live outside those urban cities. It’s a journey that can push you to explore all of your social conditioning and values, while considering those of people who have grown within different cultures.

1. A Hierarchical society – people have to work hard to claim a position in society and without it, it’s a VERY difficult life. To have wealth, or status that’s afforded by a high position in a company, especially within government, ‘greases the wheels’ and smooths the way of every step in life, and maintains your acceptance into groups, or your ‘Guanxi’ network. Everything is done by recommendation, without a network of friends, to find a job is difficult, to find a partner is difficult and so on through the steps of life. The more powerful your network, the smoother your existence. In a society that doesn’t have a well developed social system it can also mean the difference between eating from a table or eating from a bin, and at the extreme, life and death. I’ll never forget the facial expression of doctor I was visiting frequently while attending to some kidney trouble. Over tea, he explained that he had just witnessed a girl jump from the roof of the hospital. She was a cancer patient who didn’t have the money to stay in the hospital, when told of the costs the family simply walked away, without payment for the hospital bed, the staff had to ask her to leave. She walked to the roof. You’ll perhaps understand why Chinese are so determined when it comes to education, passing the all important entrance exam, Gaokao, which can mean the difference between a good life and a difficult existence, perhaps it also explains their ruthless determination in business, and get rich at any cost attitude. There isn’t a floor, unless you make it yourself.

That in part will help to also understand the importance of ‘mianzi’, or face, and that how one is viewed by others is of critical importance to Chinese and it affects all the decisions in their life. Higher status equals better life.

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2. Every kind of animal and plant is a resource. Explore the markets outside of major cites and you can find all kinds of medicines created from dried flora and fauna. In one sense it is quite amazing, the knowledge that’s been passed through generations, on the other hand, it’s a huge tax on the planet, particularly wildlife. I’ve seen Bears Penis fermenting in jars through to Mouse Baby Wine, all with reputed health benefits. Many famous celebrities have tried to campaign against things such as Bear Bile farming, Shark Fin harvesting and so on. A long road I think, it’s a deep part of their culture.

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3. Everything is edible (especially in Guangdong, they have a famous saying, “Cantonese will eat anything that has it’s back facing the sun” :)). When you walk past dog meat restaurants and see the dogs in cages, or worse, being skinned, it’s challenging, but again it reinforces the fact of moral relativity. It’s their culture and not only considered normal but also a delicacy. It gets grimmer, some also believe in beating an animal prior to killing it, as this releases a chemical, adrenalin I guess, which tenderises or makes the meat more tasty. Unfortunately, I’ve seen anything from snakes to crocodiles being tormented prior to death, for people that have grown up in a culture of respect for the environment, and a love and appreciation of wildlife, it’s difficult to accept. So, it reinforces the fact that as humans, our values and beliefs don’t come naturally. In recent months there have been growing calls for an end to festivals such as the Dog Meat Festival in Yulin. Also remember that these people had to survive through a policy induced famine that saw million die of starvation, but I am unsure as to whether there is a correlation or not.

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4. Just because something is in a sealed plastic bag, it shouldn’t be considered hygienic or authentic. Plastic bags with logos can be bought anywhere, and filled with anything….

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5. Politics, is never really talked about, especially to outsiders. Most people just concern themselves with getting rich, getting rich provides dignity and free passage, there’s no other path. The government maintains an ever tightening grip on how it is perceived, and manages information on an unparalleled level that is going global in its reach. Maintaining harmony while the education system and social reforms take hold, or, increasing the entrenched power of a one party state? Probably both and more, it’s a big and complex society. Just stay focused on China’s beauty, it’s rich history and highly useful philosophies including the birth of Zen Buddhism (Chan), Confucianism and Taoism.

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6. Bins are not bins, for some it’s a resource center. I know that’s really hard to swallow, it still breaks me up when I see it. The answer, could I help, should I help, my morals say yes, but wait, I’m not in my house, and after some thought I came to the conclusion that if the locals are acting, stand with them and help, if not then not. There’s also cultural issues to consider, and that moral relativity thing again. Actually, helping in some cases can do more damage, many would find it quite embarrassing to see a foreigner helping or even witnessing such a thing. So much so that the unfortunate, or perhaps even mentally ill, could be moved to other areas out of sight, and those areas may have even less resources. Get my drift. Always work WITH the locals. At the same time, you shouldn’t think that locals don’t have a heart, they do, consider two factors, they’re still striving themselves, and that there’s no real existing examples for them to follow. Where to help, how to help, they probably don’t know, I sure as shit don’t. It’s not all gloom, I actually think the government is trying ways to improve the social conscience through various advertising that runs on TV. There’s no NGO’s to speak of, this is still developing and I think, a touchy area, as it has struggled with government integration and stories of corruption, such as the history of the Red Cross in China. Also to consider, as a race of people, they have been through a lot, invasions by Japan, Russia and Britain, followed by the mass wiping of their own native culture and trashing of religion, by themselves, with the introduction of socialism, which they followed and were led to starvation. Even further back through their history, each new emperor would cast his own beliefs upon the land, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism would go in and out of fashion. What are they supposed to believe in? The only thing that seems to have given hope and certainty is, renmenbi…

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7. Admire the entrepreneurial spirit. Walk around and you soon bump into roadside stalls, or lets make it cool and call them Pop-Up Stores 🙂 I’d often come across hundreds of handbags piled on a tarp with women digging through to find something they like, most of the time it’s cheap stuff, although at the start of winter I came across a pile of jackets and they were Columbia’s latest. Factory rejects or back door sales I guess, as the quality was A1 and the price just 60 RMB. But the award for Pop Up Store of the year goes to this guy, the Roadside Butcher with his freshly culled pig.

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8. Animal Mastery or Cruelty? I keep banging on about animals, but if there’s such a thing as cyclical existence, I’m really hoping to be western cat, you really wouldn’t want to have four legs and be in China, unless your a cute puppy.

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9. Human Mastery or Cruelty? These two girls were street performing for cash, in the end moved on by police. Some people say its quite sad, perhaps they never had an education or childhood. Trained street performers hustling their way through life. They were skillful, no doubt, but the expression on their faces just wasn’t right.

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10. Life is just insanely tough for the impoverished, as it is everywhere in the world. Living off collecting plastic bottles from bins to claim the refund is one of the most obvious ways they sustain themselves. There seems to be so few places they can gain respite from the heat and from the cold which seems such an easy thing to solve. In some ways they are like ghosts, people seem oblivious to them, but then again what to do? As mentioned earlier, most are simply working hard to keep themselves out of the same position. This is a society that just coming out of poverty, but oddly, quite rich, there’s well stated issues that all the wealth is sitting at the top. Who is poor, the wealthy or the man in the picture? Social conscience will start to grow once the novelty of being rich wears thin perhaps or should there be government led initiatives or is it generational? All things that only the Chinese themselves can reconcile. Should also remember that there’s plenty of homeless in developed nations, it’s very much a global problem.

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11. Human labor is cheap. So cheap, you can pay people to walk around all day in commercial protest. A waiter in a simple restaurant maybe be as low as 1500 RMB a month. So, before you complain that their thumb was in the soup bowl as they served it, consider living on that each month.

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12. For some there’s no option left except to beg. this is really difficult, things are often not what they seem. Some beggars work for gangs, some people become addicted to begging, and deliberately maim themselves to draw more attention. In every case they all still need help. But actually donating may or may not be helping. Hard for a foreigner to know, follow the locals.

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13. If you love animals, maybe don’t go to the fresh produce markets. It’s probably too much too bear, I wont go on about it. Again, with the moral relativity, if you started talking about animal rights, you’d probably be considered a looney and end up in an asylum. It’s still developing, just accept it.

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14. Don’t be late for the bus. You can start to understand why Chinese rush for the door, as apposed to polite, well mannered queuing of foreign types, do you want to sit on a bucket for four hours or have a seat? In China, there’s never enough of anything for everybody, first in first dressed, last in lost. By the way, those people on the buckets, they paid the same price for a ticket….

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15. Whats real and whats not? It’s a relative thing. To me the first photo looks like a mind-blowing copy of a Land Rover!!! IP laws and questions about the morals of the company that blatantly copied another companies design run through my mind. In the mind of the local, they don’t give a crap about what some foreign company is crying about, they just see a new car, a locally made car that’s more affordable. There’s plenty of KFC clones too, Apple store clones and just about everything else you could imagine. Fake it until you make it? But, unfortunately, only few of these copies would go on to reinvesting profits into engineering and design of their own. Fast bucks. That’s a shame for China. So, on your journey through inner China, accept that nothings real, everything just has an end result or end use, be pragmatic 🙂 And when you cant get a bottle of Penfolds, there’s always “RunKangaroo”.

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I could go on, but for now, that’s enough. What’s the point of the post? None, just observation, most certainly not to criticize, for me it’s been a journey into two topics, moral relativity and the concept of poverty mind. more about those another day.