As my daughter is studying in Hangzhou, China, we decided on a trip to visit her and our itinerary is Shanghai, Zhouzhuang and Hangzhou.
China – a place of contrasts
Our first stop, Shanghai, a city of almost 30 million people is a whirlpool of activity and has a level of pollution that fluctuates between bad and very bad.
Walking on one of the main streets, The Bund places you in London, Zurich and Eastern Europe and at night this strip is the backdrop for many pictures of young brides, models and tourists.
The city seems a melting pot of success and poverty, of well-off businessmen and beggars. It is confronting to buy a cafe latte for 32 Yuan, the equivalent of A$6.50 while the nearest street corner is the home of a weathered woman and her toddler. All she owns are a couple of bags filled with essentials for her survival on the street. I am aware that this is not unique to Shanghai and that some people are professional beggars but I am affected when it concerns kids.
East versus West Prices
It is amazing to see how West meets with East in China. The costs of food, transport and consumer items are proportioned total unrealistically.
It is hard to explain how a ticket from Shanghai airport to the city centre on the state of the art MAG LEV train costs 50 Yuan (A$10) while a taxi driver dares to charge us 550 Yuan (A$110) for the airport to city trip in a taxi stinking of cigarette smoke.
Well known American coffee chains offer Western style foods and drinks for higher prices than you’ll find in Australia while street stalls sell local specialities for not more than a couple of Yuan.
The price range is beyond logic and I ask myself how many people can afford to buy expensive coffees while street fenders seem to be able to make a living earning a couple of Yuan per sale.
Western and Eastern taste
In Asian countries it has become increasingly common to cater for Western taste. Westerners traditionally have money to spend and are used to paying higher prices at home.
As we are quite often the only tourists the reality is that there are more Chinese than foreign people consuming the expensive products and there is no doubt that they have the cash to spend. After having a drink for astronomical prices in a club next to our hotel where we also were the only Westerners, I am even more in search of answers for the huge differences in prices and the ability to afford them.
First Impressions of China
My feelings towards China vary on a daily base. The culture, the sights, the food and life in general are very interesting. Yet there are so many aspects of Chinese life such as the polution, the spitting and the non-existing respect for personal space, that are difficult to accept, hard to understand and display on occasions a total lack of manners.
One of my favourite impressions is to compare China to an ant nest. Extremely busy, functional, everybody claims their space and has a role to play and together they keep the system going. The system seems more important than individual needs and the population numbers are high enough to replace the weakest link.
Survival of the Fittest?
Wandering the streets can be a matter of life and death. Cars, buses and bikes beep constantly but keep on going and your only option for survival is to jump aside. Nobody stops or makes way for you crossing the road despite green traffic lights and the only way to advance is to behave in the same way. I found out that the fines for such offences are so low that nobody bothers.
The majority of Chinese do not speak English. The people of Shanghai may be equipped with a couple of words but in Hangzhou it is hard to find anybody understanding even the most basic English. Quite amazing as you consider the world power China is becoming but it makes ordering a cup of coffee or asking what bus to take a frustrating event. If you do happen to speak the odd word Chinese they don’t understand your pronunciation and laugh at you.
The Chinese do not go out of their way to help you or explain things to you. You need to know what to ask otherwise you don’t get the answers you may seek. They do not make an effort to accommodate you in any way and are more likely to ridicule you, your looks and your ways.
The Chinese are born entrepreneurs as is clear in all ‘Chinatowns’ all over the world. They want to sell their wares to you. At markets and many shops you have to haggle and play the game. You have to be aware that the rates they charge you could be elevated because you are assumed to have more money and they expect you to bargain. If you don’t, they have a winner!
This is not because you are Western, it also happens to wealthier Chinese. For the average Chinese seller it is nothing more than opportunity and they take it. It’s up to you to NOT get drawn into their game and become the weakest link.
Remarkable is that more well off Chinese seem to accept Western prices and think that being able to afford them shows prestige, status and wealth. For them that may be more important than being ripped off. This however is material for another article…