The Things I Saw

01Dec99

Cultural Norms

Early in the morning of September 5th, 1999, I was saying goodbye to my mother and my co-worker at the Santa Barbara Airport. A short while later, I was in San Francisco, waiting with thirty other students, to leave for Asia. We had arrived at the airport quite early, but soon enough, we were on a plane to South Korea.

We got to South Korea on the evening of the sixth. We made our way through customs fairly efficiently, then made our way outside. It was warm, but drizzling. During the bus ride to the YMCA Hotel that we were going to stay at, I got a sense of how large Seoul was. There were many huge sky-rises with packed apartments. They were all inhabited, but they often seemed to take on the appearance of neglect. This turned out to be one of the most obvious observations throughout China, South Korea (Seoul at least), and what I have seen of Vietnam.

Over the next few days in Seoul, our group was given a chance to explore the city. Although the city was very modern and western looking, down to the way people dressed and the pervasive use of cell phones, amongst the many futuristic looking skyscrapers, one could find incredible, intricate mazes of alleys and side-streets—all well stocked, mostly, with food vendors. Since I was not quite adventurous during the first couple of days, I did most of my eating indoors, in cleaner (looking) restaurants. What struck me as odd in many of these restaurants, was the great number of people working at the same time, despite the small number of customers in the restaurant.

In our short time in Seoul, we also got to go on a couple of tours of places of historical interest. There was noticeable influence of Chinese culture in many of these places, such as the influence of Confucius thought, as well as noticeable Japanese influence, especially seen in the ancient architecture. From both cultures, a comforting, traditional, harmonious incorporation of man and nature was definitely observable. There was also a noted Western influence. From the rooftop of the YMCA, I could see three buildings with crosses, and when some friends and I went to a teahouse and spent three dollars each on authentic Korean black tea, we were brought cups with Lipton Brisk teabags floating in them.

One night, I decided to go to a club to see what Seoul’s nightlife was like. Except for the fact that I had never heard any of the music, most of the experience was the same as what one would expect in America —mostly drinking, dancing, and loud, repetitious music. But there was a significant difference. The dancing was different. Men danced with men, and women with women. It was certainly a different display of gender roles, but in many ways, didn’t surprise me too much. After all, when I thought about who most of the Western dressed, cell-phone-carrying people were, they were mostly young women—another apparently different set of gender roles. However, I found out from one of our guides that women worked until they were married, at which point they were expected to take up a more submissive, traditional role in the home.

A few days later, and we were ready to leave this expensive metropolis and go to China. We did so by taking a ferry in which we had communal, unisex sleeping rooms—something I don’t think would be acceptable to many Americans. In the morning, approaching Weihai, I saw evidence of land and humanity floating by in the water in the form of trash. It struck me as odd that a culture that has always been in my mind as one that embraces nature and harmony with it would allow for such environmental degradation. This was not the only time that I noticed high degrees of litter. Trashcans were not always available on main streets, but usually only at historical places and tourist attractions. On one of the ferry rides we took, I saw people on other boats simply dumping the contents of their wastebaskets overboard.

When we got to Weihai, two somewhat contradictory events occurred almost simultaneously. Our group had been warned in Santa Barbara that we should expect to feel the presence of authority while in China. One small example was a moment of disciplinary education and the checking of passports and visas of one of my classmates who made the mistake of standing out of line. This power display was a bit odd to me, since, while looking around me, it seemed like the idea of lining up and awaiting your turn was a foreign one to the Chinese. The display of authority, however, was contrasted with a display of sincere kindness: many little Chinese men voluntarily helped us carry our weighty luggage and made no big deal out of it at all.

Three of my experiences in Weihai are worth recounting. The first is of my meeting with a shoe repairman on one of the downtown streets. The second is of the great eating situation in Weihai. A third experience I wish to recount is my meeting with a few Chinese students. All these events gave me a bit of insight into Chinese culture.

On one of our evenings in downtown Weihai, Amy and I ran across one of our fellow students sitting on the sidewalk with a few older Chinese men. They weren’t talking much—just sitting together. Amy and I went over to join them. The men were quick to offer their collapsible stools to us, and we accepted, saying hello and thank you to them in Chinese. Our poor Chinese skills amused the men very much and warmed the atmosphere, encouraging one of them to try to strike up a conversation with us. He was the oldest in the group of men, and he spoke a little English—just enough to actually converse. His son was studying at UC Berkeley, and this man’s extreme enthusiasm and pride in his son’s accomplishment was motivational. From our conversation, there was also a strong feeling of pride about the progress China was making both in terms of economics and in terms of relationships with foreign nations—especially the United States.

Later that evening, back at the dining hall, we ended our day with another massive meal—one of the many that we would shortly become accustomed to. While we did have a traditional meal in Korea where everyone sat down together and shared food, eating in China was an entirely different experience. Eight people to a table, and about six different plates of food to be shared between us. There was a present collective atmosphere, which was in stark contrast with the individual culture I had become accustomed to in America . One of the things that I never got accustomed to was the fact that rice always came at the end, while I always expected it to come first, and all the other dishes be “rice toppers.” There was an explanation for this: to the Chinese, rice was seen as the end dish, and given mostly symbolically as a humble way of apologizing for not having enough (delicious) food available to us.

One evening, we were given the chance to meet Chinese students who were studying English. Although Chinese students are not exactly a fair example of the typical Chinese person—only 1 percent of the population of China gets to go to a university—it is still valuable to meet with them. My initial reaction was that I was impressed by their English skills, and their skills allowed me to have a very good conversation with them. After answering many of their questions about my family life, they came to the conclusion that I was very conservative and traditional. This I found strange, but when I thought about it, I could see what they were referring to. I was not the stereotypical individualist American that they had in mind (though they all agreed a unique looking one). For example, I liked family over freedom and I had dinner almost ritually with my family at six each evening, at a dinner table, and not alone in front of a television.

We talked about politics, and found out that, in their minds, Chairman Mao is still seen as a great man. Taxi drivers have photos of Mao in their car for good luck. But, the general agreement was that most students have come to the conclusion that Joe Enlai is better liked—his pragmatic (these were their words) approach to foreign relations helped bring China where it is today. We agreed that President Clinton has been a good leader, but should have been careful in the image of values and morality that he was projecting to the rest of the world.

The students we met played many of the roles we were told to expect from Chinese people. They arrived on time, not wishing to offend the guest. They showed up with a small gift—a token of friendship. I offered them chocolate; they declined—with a shy smile. I offered again—same response. Third time, and they thankfully accepted. Amy offered them compliments about their mastering of the English language. They responded with the phrase I kept hearing over and over from the people I talked to, “No, no…. My English is not very good.” They left promptly when they felt that it was too late, and promised to write Amy and I. We got letters from them two weeks after we left. The notion of friendship is much different to them. I am afraid to offend them.

Our time in Weihai was too short. We arrived in Jinan after spending just a few days in Weihai. It was nice to finally be somewhere that we could settle down. One of the first things I noticed as similarities between Jinan and Weihai was the level of development that is going on in the cities. There were many buildings that seemed to be just waiting to be filled. Apparently, China is simply very big on construction. I mentioned the buildings in Korea, which seemed to have been neglected for years. I also noticed many such buildings in China, but rather than maintaining the buildings and preventing them from falling into complete disrepair, the Chinese left them, then tore them down, then rebuilt.

Jinan had a lot to take in. There was more environmental degradation, like I had noticed in Weihai with the littering. The air was practically unbreathable. Since this is a major, mid sized city, there were many more people—and a lot more traffic. What was odd to me about the pollution problem is that it is a problem that is well known to the Chinese government—they spent millions cleaning up Beijing for the 50th anniversary of the PR China, and they knew exactly which industries were the ones contributing to the problem. Why such a policy could not be enacted permanently, and all across China, I’m not sure. I feel it is related to the desire to do what it can to “catch up” with the world’s economic powers.

Late in my stay in Jinan, I met with some more Chinese students. One of them, a history student, impressed me with his factual and statistical knowledge. When I thought about it, I had noticed the Chinese value of statistics back in Weihai, with the lecture given to us by a university historian while there. But it was more than statistics. It was memorization. This was a value passed down from Confucius, who prized knowledge. To the Chinese education authorities, knowledge was simply memorization. For example, one of the English students pointed out to me that the reason so many of the Chinese students hesitate with their English is that they spend most of their time memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules, and very little time getting to speak the language.

One of the strangest experiences I had in China was during one of my computer software shopping days. I was having a wonderful time buying bootlegged software, wondering if China had any laws regarding copyright infringement, and at the same time, letting go of all my morals concerning personal property rights and buying lots of great programs for next to nothing. One of the stores had an entire floor dedicated to bootlegged software, which was stored in shoeboxes under the counter, brought out on request. There were some legitimate software titles on some of the shelves. On this day, I was casually browsing through a couple of boxes, along with maybe thirty other consumers, when I heard a shout from the stairwell. Immediately, all the boxes were snatched off the counter and shoved into the locking cabinets. I was in the midst of a raid. Seven or eight Chinese men, smoking and wearing black sports-coats and sunglasses, entered and began opening the legitimate software boxes and checking their authenticity and warranties. I snuck out. I didn’t want to be caught up in any of this.

But my question about the existence of laws concerning copyright laws was answered. Most likely, the reason such activities are able to exist in the first place is that they can. Enforcement is probably too expensive. When I told the story to one of the Chines students I met, he agreed with my reasoning, but also added that it was also a matter of demand. Many books and audio CDs, for example, are far too expensive for the average Chinese person, especially the average Chinese student, to afford. Bootlegged goods are the only way they can get exposure to most of this sort of stuff.


Soon enough, we had left Jinan, and ended up in Beijing. Although I was the least impressed by Beijing, there was a lot about the city that intrigued me. One thing in particular was the paradox between tradition and modernizing. There were skyscrapers, for example, which would have traditional Chinese rooftops. Tollbooths were built to resemble the traditional gates found at the entrance to different parts of gardens or palaces. Many buildings also had such gates at their entrance.

Modernizing and traditionalism also came into conflict at any tourist spot I went to. Even sacred places, such as the “thousand Buddha caves” in Jinan were Disneyland-ized. Fake antique Buddha statues could be found everywhere. When we went to the Great Wall, there was a section of the wall that was nicely kept up, lined with vendors yelling “Hello! Come take look!” It took a fairly dedicated effort to find a part of the wall that truly felt ancient. But, in many ways, I felt like the tourism factor was not just for the Western tourists—there were many Chinese people at most of these places. What got to be rather frustrating was the persisting opinion of the American tourist as being rich.

As I expected, in Beijing, I did not feel like I stood out as much as I had for the whole trip up to that point. In Shanghai, this feeling was even more accentuated. There were many Westerners everywhere, and in many ways, the city reminded me of something in between London and San Francisco. This was a definite contrast to Beijing, which appeared to me more as a Los Angeles —sprawling, with every destination requiring getting in a car.

Although I would have liked to have gotten to spend more than two days in Shanghai, I do not feel that doing so would have given me much insight into Chinese culture and tradition. It struck me as a modern, prospering city. Whenever I used Chinese to say “Hello” to people, I got responses in English. Like in Beijing, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken were everywhere—there seemed to be one every four blocks. This was actually interesting in economic terms, for in market oriented economic courses, it is generally accepted that franchises do not generally allow two of their stores to be opened up in great proximity to each other, thus preventing competition and the lowering of prices between each franchise. My only explanation is that perhaps the Chinese government, and not the franchise owners, are the ones who determine where the stores ought to be located.

The richness of Shanghai was soon contrasted with an interesting couple of days in Guangzhou. Walking down the many alleys of the downtown, I was offered hash perhaps fifteen times in one hour. Many of the alleys were filled with hair salon after salon, each of which had about five attractive young Chinese women sitting, doing nothing, just waiting for a passerby to step in. This was also the place that I noticed the most widespread, immediately observable poverty. Of all the cities we spent time in while in China, Guangzhou was the only one where I felt uncomfortable walking around. The reason we were in Guangzhou was that we were hoping to go to Hong Kong for a day. This showed us something interesting about China ‘s policy concerning Hong Kong. Even though it is now a part of China, since it is considered a special economic zone, once you leave China and get into Hong Kong, a new re-entry visa is required to get back on the mainland.


On October 29th, we ended our trip to China and landed in Vietnam. Our first experience was to encounter a cumbersome customs process where, instead of walking our own luggage through, we had to let airport workers stack them on carts, check each individual tag on the luggage, unstack them onto the conveyor belts, stack them back onto the carts, then stack them in a bus.

The ride to Hanoi from the airport took us through the countryside. It was a strange experience. Everything was like I had pictured it—the rice fields, the particular shades of green, the mossy trees. In many ways, I was getting flashbacks to Trinidad, especially looking at the familiar varieties of plants which grew there, and the yellow and white paint used on so many of the buildings. The countryside in Vietnam is home to some of the poorest people in the world, earning less than $300 per year. What I saw was an agricultural system based largely on manual labor and animal labor. I assume people simply cannot afford more.

Soon, we were in the city, which was nothing like I had expected. Thousands of motorcycles zooming by us, on good roads, with no stop signs or stoplights. Although there were sidewalks, we were usually forced to walk in the streets with the motorcycles since the sidewalk was basically a parking lot for bikes not in use. There were few particularly tall buildings. Many buildings were quite narrow and long, representing, I was told, the response to Vietnam ‘s parcel distribution laws. The French influence on architecture and food was very obvious. There are many Westerners here, and interestingly, every one of them who lives in Hanoi is working with some form of development firm.

The use of English was extremely widespread, making knowledge of Vietnam only useful if we wished to know what people were saying behind our backs. I feel they must be saying something about us behind our backs—I find it hard to believe that there is a nation of people out there as polite as the Vietnamese. When we sat down to dinner, food would not be served until a table was full, to guarantee everyone had fair access to hot food. When we first got to the hotel, these tiny Vietnamese men insisted on taking our luggage up the three flights of stairs, then refused any form of tipping or compensation. When wandering around a Confucius temple one day, a young Vietnamese girl came up to me and said, in flawless English, that she would like to give me a tour of the temple and use the opportunity to practice her English skills. These are just a few examples of their kindness.

This is not to say that there have not been any hostile acts towards us. A postcard seller flicked off a friend and me because we refused to look at his goods and buy anything. Another one of my classmates was grabbed by a Vietnamese man who kept telling her to come with him, and the security guards at the hotel did nothing to stop the act. While shopping one day, a student pointed at a lady on the street cooking something. The student had had the food before and was talking about how good it was. The lady looked up and yelled something in Vietnamese at the girl that translated to, “You don’t need to stare!”

I am sure this lady’s instantaneous reaction is justified. In many ways, it is hard to step into a society so different from your own and resist the temptation to stare and point. It is even harder when you are continuously being stared and pointed at. It is also easy to see only what you wish to see. The poor and homeless people in Guangzhou are the least recalled of my memories of China, but the feeling of poverty I felt in that city is still significantly vivid.

What you have just read is what I remember of what I saw. There are many gaps. There are gaps in observation, comprehension, acknowledgement, contact… the list can go on. I can say that I have a fair notion of what the wealthier (yet still poor) minority of the population of South Korea, China, and Vietnam live like. I can also say that there was a definite feeling of forthcoming change in all these countries, which are all incredibly different from the United States cities with which I am familiar, but which I feel are everyday becoming more like the ones at home.

Those were some of the things I saw.

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