China is a land of contrasts, mostly between old and new, past and present. Chinese aesthetics, architecture, lifestyle and wealth have all changed greatly in the last 30 years, so why should the people be any different? The younger generations are living in a world their elders could not have imagined. Young women with perfect bodies clothed in Western chic bounce along the streets of cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai— not at all what we used to expect.
The bent-over bodies and frumpy clothing of two women I encountered in the back streets of Beijing, however, told a different story. They were making their way along a narrow hutong or alley in one of Beijing’s old neighborhoods. Those houses have survived several revolutions, political, cultural and economic. As the women approached, their dour faces registered a puzzled curiosity, and they stared at me as though seeing a creature from outer space. I decided to practice the first word I’d learned in Mandarin. “Nihao,” I said, “Hello.” At the sound of that one word they broke out in smiles, their faces transformed. Amazing— or maybe not.
One of the women was practically toothless. Many of the Chinese I saw had teeth in pretty bad condition. Although they do use sugar in the preparation of many foods, I assume the proximate cause is poverty. Preventive care and regular visits to the dentist aren’t habits that can flourish when finding food and eking out a living without provoking government watchdogs are overriding concerns.
The Chinese with whom I interacted personally were helpful, gracious and polite, but the Chinese that I encountered in large, public spaces were something else again. They were tourists themselves, probably coming from the country and provincial cities to see the capital and its monuments. Perhaps the old stereotype of the country bumpkin, the hick, explains their incredible rudeness, at least by Western standards. One man shoved me off to the side in a museum so that he could get a better view of the exhibit I had been contemplating.
The Chinese do not share our sense of personal space. They cross your path, often walking directly in front of you, seemingly unaware that you are there at all. You are simply an obstacle that obstructs their movement through space, so they will cut you off within an inch of your face as if you didn’t exist (and therefore never say “excuse me” or its equivalent). They drive in exactly the same way, blocking intersections and cutting each other off across six lanes jammed with vehicles. They make no concessions to pedestrians. You venture into no man’s land when you step off the curb to cross the street.
In a land with so many people, I should think that common (to us) courtesy would be essential. An old China hand reminded me that they’ve only just begun to drive. Twenty years ago cars were a rarity on the streets of Beijing; thousands upon thousands of bicycles, right up next to each other, crammed the streets. Today the city has 5,000,000 cars.
Communication can be difficult. I have never before been in situations where there was a complete lack of comprehension. Few Chinese speak English or any of the European languages I know, and I don’t speak Mandarin.
One of the three telephones in my Urumqi hotel room was dead. It didn’t take long to discover that one end of the coil was broken: the RJ11 plug was missing the little piece that flexes to lock it into its receptacle. I called housekeeping, saying phone the phone didn’t work. No, I explained, I can dial, but there is no dial tone. No, I said, not because there is anything wrong with the line… It’s never easy to explain over the phone, so I asked for someone to come up. A young woman promptly arrived. I showed her the plug and she looked at me blankly. I showed her the good end, smiled, thumbs up, and then, with a frown, held up the broken part. I showed her the piece that was defective and she took it and stuck it into the phone. I pulled on it, demonstrating that, unlike the good end, it didn’t click in and wouldn’t stay. She gave no sign of comprehending anything at all. Yet when I came back from dinner, the telephone had been repaired.
In a few years, situations like this will be rare. Recognizing the advantage of speaking English in an increasingly globalized world and especially the need to know it for international commerce, the Chinese government now mandates that children begin to study English in kindergarten. All state employees under 40 must learn 1,000 English phrases in the next four years.
Unlike the Chinese tourists, the individuals with whom I had more intimate contact were invariably friendly. In the smaller cities at least, they like to be photographed. Indeed, they ask for it, despite knowing that they will not have a copy of the picture. (The one exception was the soldiers I photographed in Urumqi, Xinjiang, but that’s for another day.) The children were very responsive to the attentions of a foreigner.
The pictures that follow portray Uygurs of Kashgar, a city near the western border of China between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Uygurs are Muslims of Turkic stock with a strong sense of independence. They resent their Chinese overlords.