When hearing someone reflect upon their time in a country, you may expect them to say how beautiful a country is, how friendly and helpful the people were and how much they enjoyed themselves. However, apart from the beauty aspect (which is in itself becoming increasingly and needlessly destroyed), I cannot say any of those things about our experience of China.

This may seem like an overly negative statement, even from me, but let me explain myself.

I will start with the people I met. I won’t draw any general conclusions about “the people” as I think at best this is unhelpful and at worst racist.

To start with communication. Of course there is no reason at all why the people we met should speak English and we in no way expected them to. However, not speaking a common language has never previously stopped me communicating on a basic level with people. Through non-verbal communication I find you can generally get directions, find out how much something is, pay for stuff, etc. Hand signals, pointing and face expressions normally do the job. However, with the people we met, this simply was not the case. On the whole, they seemed completely unable to understand anything non-verbal. If we were in Huxleys ‘Brave New World’ these people, would fall into the ‘semi-moron’ category. A couple of examples of this to highlight my point. After buying a bus ticket, we went to the ticket checking place which was in front of all the buses. Of course the bus destinations were in Chinese and so we didn’t no which bus to board. Once the ticket inspector had checked our tickets, we signalled that we didn’t know which bus to catch. However, the ticket inspector looked at us with a totally blank expression and chatted away in Chinese. This is something else. The people we met seemed not to understand that when talking to someone who doesn’t speak your language, that actually means they don’t speak your language. They will simply chat at you. No hand signals or anything else but a mouth moving. Eventually the mouth will stop moving, as if awaiting a reply and when it doesn’t get it, will either start moving again, or the person will simply walk away. Anyway, eventually another ticket inspector came up and we again demonstrated that we didn’t know which us to catch. She clearly understood us – or so we thought – and pointed straight ahead. We pointed to the bus that she was pointing at and she nodded. Brilliant. We boarded this bus and gave our ticket to the driver. “Bushi” (means no) came the reply. So we got off the bus and the ticket inspector who had pointed us to this bus, now pointed in a totally different direction to the bus which was actually ours…
Problems of communicating directions happened a lot. Other typical examples. We went into a hostel lost. Asked for directions and the person behind the counter – who spoke English – pointed in one direction. However, Lucie and I thought she was pointing in different directions. So Lucie pointed left and she said yes that way, and then I pointed right and she said yes that way. In turned out, that whichever way we pointed, she replied, yes that way. In turned out, Lucie was right and it was left. Apart from demonstrating communication difficulties, this also highlights the cultural problem amongst many of not wanting to be negative. In other words, not wanting to disagree or say no – even to the point of absolute ridiculousness.

The most absurd example of lack of non-verbal skills, occurred on a train from Beijing to somewhere else. Upon boarding the train, you get given a piece of card and your ticket gets taken. These pieces of card seem completely useless as they have exactly the same information on them as your ticket, and you get your ticket back at the end of your trip. However, we didn’t realise any of this when we caught our first train, and thought that in fact this piece of card might actually be useful. So we showed our two pieces of card to someone else in our carriage. He of course didn’t speak English. He looked at them and then put them in his pocket. At this point, all the lights went out, which certainly didn’t help the situation. When they came back on, he had given us back one of the two cards. We spend at least the next 45 minutes trying to explain to him that we had given him two cards and he had given us back one card. This isn’t a particularly hard task to communicate non-verbally. However, he seemed completely unable to understand anything we were trying to communicate. This is not, I must add, through being intentionally unhelpful – he phoned several of his friends (“You have missed the train?” “No, we’re on the train”…) and used his phone to translate things, a painstaking task… Eventually we gave up and later found the card on the floor – how it got there we still don’t know.

These examples are not one-offs, but illustrate a pattern which occurred throughout our time in China. What became apparent was this seemed to be an inability to abstract. The only times when this did not occur was when we were with monks. While ultimately I do not know why the people we met showed such a complete inability to understand what we were trying to communicate, while similatanously simply chatting at us, the ability of the monks to communicate provides me with one possible answer. China as we all hopefully know is an incredibly repressive country. Conformity is central, and independent (at least critical and independent) thought is certainly not looked on positively. While I know nothing about the education system, I assume it is similarly oppressive.  Abstracting in a critical way, I would presume, is not taught. On top of this, Chinese language is very specific. Words mean very specific things. This seems to mean you can’t think outside that exact word. However, with the monks this was not the case. Being religious people, they most certainly need an ability to abstract (like all religions, they have to believe in absolute nonsense). Such abstraction is taught from a very early age and the language of the Tibetan Monks (in some of the several Tibetan provinces of China) is different to all Chinese languages.

The other major issue we had was staring and its implicit racism. While I understand that if you see something for the first time, you might stare (not that most Chinese people haven’t seen a white person before – even if its just on TV), this in no way justifies what we (and many other travellers we met) had to go through. People would stop and stare – in fact this was mild. People would come up to us in the street, say hello walk away. In one village, people formed a semi-circle around us while we ate and on another occasion, someone actually took the book that Lucie was writing in out of her hand, flicked through the pages, passed it to his mate and then gave it back to Lucie. Imagine if this happened in the UK. If I was with someone who went up to a Chinese person (or any non-white person) and shouted “Nihao” in their face and then walked off, I would think they were a racist twat. But somehow, these practices seem totally accepted in China.

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