Perhaps the greatest trip of my life so far because I had done so much preparation to understand the culture, the language (although I could not even say "Hello" in Chinese) and the food...but I am not exaggerating. In actual fact the whole week seemed like a long dream because everything happened so quickly. I completed my final exam in the morning in the (annoyingly) wet and windy Loughborough; and 24 hours later I was on a night cruise on the Pearl River in the middle of Guangzhou, and it was like, I have to make the most of this trip because I am only here for seven days. When you are so far away for such a short time, not knowing if you will ever go back to the place again in the future, then there should be a second wasted. So effectively everyday seemed like a great dream because I saw so many things in such a small amount of time. It was amazing.
First impressions of China?
China is a very beautiful country, one which has so much to offer but does not normally get the chance to show off its true inner self to the outside world- what do I mean by this? Well, there are those who question if it is still a friend or foe, there are also lots of biased points against (and some, of course, for) China’s policies. Media can be a wrong source for digesting a destination’s good and bad points because not all media is full of positive points. For example, the coverage of the Beijing Olympics (as an example), I believe was not covered in a well balanced way. I use factual data to take wherever I go (like for example from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Website). Of course, one does not expect a simple and smooth approach to life from a country which is still considered by some hard-line economists as a sleeping dragon that is too ambitious...the obvious answer to this statement would be that even Rome was not built in one day.
It goes without saying that the cultural differences do not hit you when you land in Hong Kong (as most of its’ colonial British feel is somewhat fading away at a slow pace- for many it’s still a home away from home). There used to be a saying among the English, “If you cannot make it in London, then go to Hong Kong”, however, even though Hong Kong has a “International” feel to it, that statement would no longer stand as the former colony is now, of course, part of China. Nevertheless, the real culture shock would hit anyone once they cross the border into the mainland. Shenzhen is the city that borders Hong Kong and at that time had only 2 border crossing, one at Huanggang and the other at LoWu.
From Hong Kong, once I crossed the border I took the Guang-Shen train straight to the capital of Guangdong Province, Guangzhou. If I just say that “China is amazing and full of so many surprises that one cannot just sum up the whole picture in one go”, that would be a common statement these days because so many people have experienced the country, but then in 2002, for me, those were the first words that came out of my mouth. China has of course a lot of similarities with its neighbours (namely Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, India etc), and like any Asian country which is moving from the developing stage into a newly industrialised stage, it has the good points, the bad points and the unmentionable ones- and that’s not too difficult to observe.
A short ride on one of the many local buses will open your eyes immediately; you may be travelling in a very affluent area at one point, and then suddenly you may come across a highly deprived neighbourhood. An extreme example as it may seem, but just imagine you are driving through the suburbs of a busy western city like London one minute and then suddenly you are travelling through the shanty towns of, say an economically deprived rural village, and a minute later you are suddenly back into the affluent area (vice-versa). There may be many places in the world where such contrasts exist, but to see it in the flash and blood is a unique experience. Watching something on the television or reading about it on the internet is not quite the same as experiencing it in real life.
Then there are also the minor but important downsides from living in the world’s fastest growing economy: China is also a VERY noisy country, especially in the big cities (Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai), for example it is considered normal to use the drill or do heavy construction at 2am in the morning or even all night! If you are in London and you have noisy neighbours, I bet nothing is more annoying than having a drill go off almost all night long.
China is also the world's largest consumer of alcohol so it is no surprise that if your neighbours (irrespective if it is a hotel or home) are heavy drinkers, then they will sure keep you awake all night with loud shouting and arguing over Mah-jong or any card games which they be playing. It may be quite and then suddenly you hear a loud “Arrrgggg” (of course, indicating that someone has won the Mah-Jong equivalent of the national lottery!).
China is also the worlds largest market for tobacco, therefore it is no surprise that you will be exposed to smoke everywhere because people smoke in Internet cafes, restaurants, cafes, buses...and if you don't smoke (like myself) then you are going to find it just that little bit challenging!
If you are in the workplace (corporate culture defines a very different meaning in China as compared to say a more "International" environment such as London, Hong Kong), then you will be exposed to things such as the "normality" of answering you mobile phone in the middle of a corporate meeting/presentation and even a formal Interview!
What about the culture, the people and those Famous Chinese Restaurants?
While it is quite difficult for a lone western tourist to get around and speak English with the locals, the people are very friendly and assisting. Over in the border in Hong Kong it is more of a relaxed approach towards foreigners because of the reason that Hong Kong is multicultural (and maybe because there are too many people), however that is not the case in the mainland. You do get a lot of respect and VIP treatment as a foreigner in China.
To some extent it's an advantage to be a foreigner in the mainland because you get treated in a much better way. I mean as an example I remember popping into a local sweet shop (nothing more different then a newsagent in the UK), and as soon as they saw me entering the shop, they were so eager (not pushy or anything) to lend a hand or get me to buy anything. Now I can imagine that kind of hospitality would seldom be seen towards a tourist in the UK- of course there are good places and bad places everywhere. That’s just one simple example, and also another one is that people are most willing to learn English.
The Chinese food you get in your local takeaways’ in the UK is nothing compared to what you get over there in China, of course that’s the same with all other foreign foods I hear you say, but the experience is totally different. You simply have to taste it to believe it. The most wonderful thing about seafood in Chinese restaurants is that it’s FRESH and you can choose what to eat straight from the fish tanks!
Food, especially when it comes to eating out at Dinner time, is a very important part of the Chinese lifestyle- and even more "fashionable" in Guangzhou because of the variety of seafood available here.
Restaurants in general within the UK are nothing compared to what you will see in Guangzhou or for that matter the whole of China, it brings out a whole new meaning to eating out. The competition can be so fierce in some cases that some of the best seafood restaurants in Guangzhou are similar in size to four story buildings, which usually tend to have their own Karaoke Bars (a must to try even if you do not speak the language and a popular pastime of the locals).
Chinese tea...and did I hear someone say night zoo?
One of the highlights of my trip was going to see a zoo at night (yes.. a night zoo). A unique experience which is seldom seen in the west..with all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures. Not only a zoo but mix that with a night circus, a laser disco show, and a whole load of water acrobats show which consisted of the Chinese water sports Olympic team...so it was more like a huge funfair but at nighttime..quite impressive actually. Sounds too good to believe.
Moving on from night zoos...lets talk about something which is a bit more of a common thing in China...Tea! Apart from India and Sri Lanka, China is the world largest exporter of the stuff...and its pretty much quite hard to avoid...leaving China without trying at least 4 or 5 different types of tea would be a comparable to leaving Scotland without trying whiskey. If its your first time drinking Chinese tea, you would be immensely surprised to know that it has no taste just sweet smell, nevertheless after a week of trying the stuff- day in day out, it felt soo good that I got put off drinking English tea altogether!
This one week’s trip was my first trip to China and just about when I thought that maybe this would be also my last time to go there, I was fortunate enough to have been offered a contract position as a Graduate Sales Engineer with Philips Semiconductors in Shenzhen, China. This was indeed an exciting opportunity, so much for my fate that I have been in China ever since and never looked back.