Real China

There’s China that the tourists see and then, just a few metres away, there’s real China. One of our table mates on our Yangtze River cruise, who had been to Beijing and Xi’an just as we had, mentioned that he was surprised at how clean and modern China was. That’s because you haven’t seen the real China, we told him.

Toward the end of our first day in Beijing, our tour guide dropped us off at a marketplace. It turned out to be a tourist trap selling low quality, over-priced goods and souvenirs; not at all the sort of place where real Chinese people shop. It held little interest for us so after relaxing for a little while in a nearby Starbucks, we went for a walk. Down a narrow alley, less than a block from the glitzy market, I stopped to use a public bathroom. It consisted of several metal squat toilets set into a cement floor. That’s all! No cubicles, no sinks, nothing but the squatty potties! I was about to take a picture when a local lady walked in so I hastily shoved my camera back into my purse and left. She was surprised enough to see a foreigner there; I wasn’t sure she’d appreciate or understand me taking a photo! That’s real China.

Later, as I mentioned in my last post, we spent an evening strolling East Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s famous shopping street. The crowds enjoying the music, action and glittering lights along this popular shopping strip were largely a mix of Chinese and foreign tourists. I doubt that many of the foreigners had any idea what they’d find if they wandered just one block to either side of the street they were on.

When we exited the subway, we accidentally took a wrong turn and found ourselves walking parallel to East Nanjing Road, one block over from where we intended to be. There it was dark and dirty and we had to walk around piles of old broken building material. It looked as if several places were being torn down or renovated. That didn’t bother me but the two men sleeping on the sidewalk in their underwear did! I’m pretty sure they were both breathing but I didn’t actually hang around to find out. That was the first and only time in our almost five months in China that I wasn’t entirely sure how safe we were but that’s real China.

Don’t get me wrong! We loved our time in China. It was an amazing adventure and I don’t regret one moment of the time we spent there but I wouldn’t want anyone to get the false impression that China is the shining face that it tries to put on for the rest of the world. It’s not third world but it still has a long way to go. As long as you’re willing to accept it for what it is, warts and all, it’s very easy to love though especially since its people are so warm and friendly toward its foreign guests.

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