On the eve of my arrival in Vietnam I wanted to make an assessment about facts from everyday life that have most struck me in China.
I think China is not a country where you feel immediately at ease. It took me a while to accept the language barrier. I had been warned many times but I did not think that it would be so difficult to arrive in a country where we do not speak any of the language and where English is hardly spoken. Anything one wants to do in China (ordering food, buying a bus or train ticket, asking for directions ... ) is hampered by the inability to communicate with words.
I remember the first night I went out to eat in Kunming city I was unable to order anything at a local restaurant, the waitress made absolutely no effort to at least try to understand me, I lost patience and frustrated I went to eat at McDonald's! I quickly realized that it was important to always travel with a pen, paper and a small dictionary. When I arrived a French I met in a hostel and who was ending his stay in China kindly gave me his dictionary. This precious object was incredibly useful!
The Chinese have no sense of personal space, they do not know it and this is probably the thing that I had the most trouble to cope with and that infuriated me the most. They spit everywhere! This is probably the thing that surprises and disgusts most travellers arriving in China for the first time. They smoke everywhere, crammed into a car with babies inside or all stacked on top of each other in a train compartment, there is always someone who will light a cigarette and smoke out the space! They throw their rubbish everywhere. On the bus I am appalled every time I see someone throwing paper or an empty bottle on the floor or by the window ! On the road they "attack" each other with their horns and everyone forces his way to reach his goal! I discussed this particularly unpleasant characteristic with another traveler who thought that the lack of consideration for others in public space in China could partly be explained by the fact that most Chinese are only children.
Fortunately there are many positive aspects that have eventually reconciled me with this incredible country. The Chinese have a touching fascination for foreigners that I find very intriguing. Many times I felt scrutinized by the people as if I had just arrived from another planet. Then there are those who take the plunge and break the barrier to approach foreigners. Often they want to have their picture taken with foreigners.
Once I was leaving a restaurant and the waiter ran after me asking if we could take a picture together with his iphone! I think they also have a sort of pride to show themselves with us. Some Chinese with whom I spoke told me that it was the first time they were talking to a stranger. "Today is the first time I speak with a foreigner " told me a teenager who helped me to find my way. When I asked my way I noticed that there were generally two types of people: there were those who absolutely did not want to get in touch with me - the fear of not knowing how to answer me and have to face someone who speaks another language I suppose - and those who would have done anything to help me. Twice random people walked with me for more than half an hour to take me to my hostel !
Finally, Chinese people are incredibly generous. More than once strangers paid for my lunch or diner! A Chinese who stayed in the same hostel as me bought me the CD of a singer whose song was constantly playing in Lijiang, a young Chinese insisted that I take his water pipe, another one bought the tobacco that goes with it. On the train a young man I had just met took his bracelet off to put it around my wrist ! Do you think that there are many places in Europe where someone would run after you in the streets to give you the note that you have just dropped? It happened to me twice in China.
It is this human, generous and kind aspect of the Chinese that I will remember. Whenever I will hear this song from Lijiang or smoke the water pipe I mentally will return to those land and I will remember the kindness with which the Chinese welcomed me into their country at the end of 2013.