This post is going back in time - I wrote this message around July 25, 2007 while we were still in China. I didn't keep a blog while we were in China but I made notes in a outline form and then I wrote the story afterwards. The next several entries will be our China blog - only written after the fact - one month later. The entry for today is...
Comparing China - South Korea - U.S.A. (my observations)
I am writing this now that our trip to China is finished, and we have experienced our whole reason for going there – which is to receive our daughter Xiao Wen Xin (Jenna). These are just some random observations and comparisons…
Just about everywhere we have been in China (Beijing, Changsha, and surrounding area within the Hunan Province, and Guangzhou) has interesting things to see. The architecture of all the buildings in the cities, watching the cars navigate their way through traffic and playing chicken with each other. The daily life going on in the villages, the agriculture and farming in the fields, and of course the several majestic tourist attractions that are rich with ancient history and excellent architecture. Also the different types of art that you see in so many places – painted & embroidered pictures, ceramics, cloisonné figures and vases, jade jewelry, statues, and monuments. Just about every ancient tourist site we went to sells books and/or postcard packets and I bought some from everywhere we went. The pictures you see posted throughout this post are birds-eye view pictures from postcards of these places. They are much better pictures than any of the pictures we could take.
I can tell that the Chinese are very hard working and ingenuitive (just like Koreans). The Chinese know how to make the best of what they have. Sherri our guide in Beijing told us that most of the Chinese just started driving since 2003 when automobiles became more abundant, therefore allowing the prices to come down so more of the common folk could own one. We asked her about auto insurance and she said that they must have insurance to drive, and their vehicles must pass periodic inspections to be deemed roadworthy. She also told us that the Chinese rent houses, or buy apartments (which is kind of the reverse of what we generally do in the U.S.). Imminent Domain is alive and common in Beijing – the government forces many to move out of one story homes to make room for more efficient housing (or whatever they deem necessary) and Sherri says they are usually compensated fairly (I wonder – I have read that they rarely are fairly compensated). She says what usually happens is these people have to move farther away from the center of Beijing into more expensive housing, and they now also have to travel farther to go to work or school (hence another reason for more vehicles on the streets). The fact that the population of the large cities is exploding, and there is way more vehicles on the streets are obviously taking its toll – at least in Beijing. Beijing’s skies are gray, hazy, and polluted. It reminds me of how Seoul S. Korea often was back in the mid 1980’s when I was stationed there. Because of the 2008 Olympics being in Beijing the people are really working hard to make improvements to the city and there is a lot of construction happening about everywhere you go. They are planting a lot of trees and flowers along the roads and highways and they have things looking pretty good right now. New buildings and stadiums are being built and many existing buildings are getting facelifts and renovations.
Fuel for vehicles generally costs about $1.70 per gallon currently. Our driver in Changsha took us on a trip to our daughter’s orphanage and finding place. It was a round trip of more than 220 kilometers (roughly 136 miles), and he only charged us 280 Yuan (about $37 dollars). I thought that was an absolute bargain. By the way the current conversion rate = 1 dollar = 7.55 Yuan. A good tip here in China would be 10 Yuan ($1.32) or 20 Yuan ($2.65). These amounts seem inadequate to us for the services we receive, but for the Chinese they seem happy with these amounts. In the U.S.A. we tend to be more cavalier and careless with our money, whereas the Chinese value their wages more. Sherri told us that you can buy a Toyota Camry in China for about 120,000 Yuan (roughly $16K dollars). A short taxi ride usually costs 10 - 20 Yuan. I can buy 2 cans of cold coca-cola for 5 Yuan (66 cents). In Changsha a couple of times we bought a Pizza Hut large pepperoni pizza and had it delivered to our room. This cost 200 Yuan – which includes the price of the cab that delivers it to the Hotel. If you buy a meal at the hotels the prices are comparable to prices we are accustomed to. Overall though just like in South Korea, the dollar can go a long way. In the cities they only seem to like crisp new dollars. In Beijing a lot of the street vendors will sell you what they are selling for 1 dollar. They all know how to say “one dollar!” Someone told me once that what they really mean is 100 yuan ($13.25). I told him no – a few times I handed some of these vendors an actual dollar bill and they accepted it gladly for their goods. In fact I bought a couple of the post card packets that these pictures came from with 1 dollar bill. In Beijing the street vendors are very aggressive – they often will not take “no” for an answer and therefore force you to be rude (like them). Around Beijing the street vendors and many store keepers will bargain with us. It is hilarious to see their reactions when you lowball a price. One day we went to a Pearl Market in Beijing (near the Temple of Heaven) that had 4 floors full of just about any souvenir you could think of – jewelry, clothes, rugs, crafts, cameras, you name it. It reminded me very much of the Techno Mart in Seoul, though the prices of the items in this Pearl Market were negotiable. Sometimes you can negotiate really low prices here.
Counterfeiting seems to be a bad problem with the renminbi (Chinese currency). Their smaller bills have like a rough raised area on the right front (sometimes rear) of each bill that you can feel to make sure the bills are real. The 100 Yuan is a common bill ($13.25) that doesn’t always have this rough patch, but our guide here in Changsha (Shirley) says that 100’s usually are not counterfeited. If an employee accepts a counterfeit bill as a payment for goods or services they are deducted from their wages – so they usually check each bill they receive carefully. If you want to use traveler’s checks – use American Express. Some one in our group used Visa Traveler’s checks and last I heard is having trouble spending them. They accepted Visa everywhere I tried - except the Wal-Mart in Changsha - they wouldn’t take Visa.
In some elevators I noticed they don’t have a 14th floor button. They will go from 13 to 15A to 15B. We asked our guide Shirley why and she said 14 is an unlucky number that is associated with (or sounds like) death. I told her that we just view death as a part of life. The numbers 6 & 8 are lucky numbers in China. That’s why the 2008 Olympics in Beijing are set to start on 8/8/08 at 8:08 p.m. On this very day our oldest daughter Leah will celebrate her golden birthday – she will turn 8 on this day. We asked our guide Joyce (in Guangzhou) about the meaning or symbolism of the lions. Many buildings have 2 lion statues on either side of their entrance. One is usually calm and the other is snarling. Sometimes both lions are calm and sometimes they are both snarling. She didn’t know the significance. I also asked her once if car rental companies in China would let an American like me rent a car from them. She thought this was funny and said that you have to be skilled to drive in China. I told her that I could do it for sure because I used to drive everyday in Seoul S. Korea for 1 ½ years and they drive just as crazy over there as they do here in China.
Korea (South) and China are very similar in so many ways. A few times I have actually forgotten that I am in China – thinking momentarily I’m in Korea. It is obvious that they have a lot of influence on each other (you can add Japan to this mix as well). Their characters and alphabet are similar and therefore their street signs look similar. The architecture of their ancient buildings, temples, and palaces are very similar. A lot of the artwork is similar. At night in the cities there are lots of colorful neon lights – even more so than in the U.S. In general there is just more color in China and S. Korea than there is at home. Seoul is much cleaner than Beijing, but Beijing is probably cleaner than Chicago or New York City. Seoul is more Americanized than Beijing, but there is evidence of the U.S. influence in Beijing. Beijing has KFC’s and McDonalds. They also have Wal-Marts. Apparently they also have Pizza Huts (I haven’t seen one yet – but as I mentioned earlier we ordered pizza from one in Changsha). Our guide Sherri told us that in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s the U.S.S.R. had a heavy influence in China, but now the U.S.A. has become more of an influence there. Both Beijing and Seoul have large malls that have many American style shops for clothes, software, music, and they are very popular with the younger generation. In Beijing piracy is rampant – they have knock-offs of just about every brand name you can think of items from all over the world. One big difference between Beijing & Seoul is the subway systems they have. Seoul’s subway system goes everywhere in Seoul (except up Namsan Mt.) and surrounding areas. Beijing’s subway system isn’t comparable as far as the number of lines it has (and therefore the area it covers). Beijing and Seoul are also similar in the respect that in both you will see more Caucasians peoples. They might be Americans, British, Germans, Russians, or any others. But the further you get away from these capital cities the fewer whites you will see, and the less English you will hear (especially in the provinces). This means the more looks we get for being the minority that we are. Since China is so much larger than Korea (China and the United States are almost the same size in area) they clearly have more diversity, more different kinds of weather, more different races of people, more just about anything. South Korea, because they are an actual republic (and not just pretending to be one in some respects like China) is more prosperous than China, mainly because their economy has been capitalist longer, but China is really booming right now economically (and population) wise.
Two things that several people said to us related to the Great Wall and where our daughter was adopted. They would ask if we climbed the Great Wall and when we said yes they would tell us that we are heroes (according to Chairman Mao). When people would ask where Jenna was from and we’d tell them Hunan, they would say “oh spicy girl!”
Shamian Island on the Pearl River in Guangzhou was the last place we stayed before we left for home. We stayed at “The White Swan”. It is very fancy and obviously a hotel for the rich (what were we doing there?). It has very upscale shops for clothes and art – the artwork that is everywhere is amazing. Shamian Island is very touristy, but it is also very impressive. It has a lot of old-style English buildings with impressive architecture. It is a very colorful place – the river is lined with neon, and even the ferry boats are colorful neon. On Saturday nights there is a green laser light show over and across the Pearl River to go with all of the neon. We had a river view from our hotel room. There are souvenir shops everywhere which sell clothes, jewelry, arts and crafts, pictures, portraits, you name it. The people working in these shops are very friendly and often speak good English. They seem genuinely interested in where we are from and about the adoptions of our children – not just Jenna who is with us, but also of our children from Korea. The subject would come up because often we were looking for souvenirs for our other children. The prices are generally cheaper than an equivalent item would cost here in the states. We attended a Christian church here and went to a Buddhist temple (but skipped the blessing – it was interesting to watch). I took a weird video as we were climbing up & down the Liurong Pagoda. We also took a taxi to the Guangzhou Zoological Gardens - a zoo that was pretty impressive. We just felt that everywhere we went was more for us than for Jenna so we wanted to go one place she might enjoy. Catherine and Phoebe mentioned to us a few times that The White Swan will be closing this December and Holt is looking for other options to use as a host hotel for adoptive families in Guangzhou. They seem to think that the White Swan will no longer be available for them whenever it reopens. Several of the shops outside of the White Swan are trying to sell their shops because they know they will be losing business – but who would want to buy?
It is weird to read this now a month after I wrote this stuff down. I am now in the process of writing the story of this trip to put in Jenna’s journal that I keep for her. I have done this with our trips to Korea to receive our sons as well. Basically while I am on the trip I keep an outline of each day so I can remember details and not spend a lot of time writing. Then when I get home I write the story. It works OK this way and it takes a few weeks of typing here and there.