Sunday, April 7, 2013

Observations from the Mainland

It is a running joke that living in Hong Kong is not really living in Asia, it's more like "Asia Lite".  With plenty of expats, extensive English signage, and never-ending alleyways filled with charming little Western restaurants, it is really easy to forget that this actually is China.  It is also easy to forget that although Hong Kong operates under an economically liberal regime (for now, at least), China is actually an insanely giant, opaque, and intimidating Communist superpower.  Well, thanks to my shiny new multiple-entry China visa, I was able to venture into the mainland over the Easter holiday to jog my memory.

A few observations on the experience:
  • Google and Facebook are both prohibited in mainland China.  It was eye opening to see how difficult life becomes without these two.  We frequently found ourself struggling to figure out how to get in touch with friends.  And this conversation may or may not have actually occurred: Where should we go for dinner tonight?  I dunno, let's Google it.  Oh, wait, no... I guess we can't.  Oh, Googling really just means "looking up"? There must be other places to look things up.  Other search engines you mean?  Like what?  (long pause) Umm... Bing? 
  • Nobody speaks English.  Really, nobody.  Instead, what people do is even when you clearly state you do not speak Chinese, they will look at you and continue to speak at you (usually, yell at you) in rapid-fire Shanghainese.  Then, they end the soliloquy with "ma", then look at you expectantly, but also half laughing,  waiting for you to answer their question.  Obviously, that doesn't happen, and the unproductive ridiculousness continues until one of you throws your arms in the air, exclaims "Ahhh!" and walks away.  By one of you I mean it is pretty much always the local who ends the interaction in frustrated desperation and disgust.
  • I kid, but it's actually really scary not being able to communicate.  Sometimes you'll end up in the wrong the place, unable to provide directions on where you were actually trying to go. Or, you'll end up sitting in a taxi performing the exchange described above, and you don't end up going anywhere.  Then you have to get out and do the whole thing over again.
  • We met up with some friends who are part of the Hare Krishna movement and they were telling us how celebrations are often difficult because of how secretly they have to approach any type of gathering.  The government strictly regulates and enforces limits on religion throughout the city (and the country) and does not allow for multiple sects of the same religion to exist in the same municipality.
  • All of these anachronisms are incredibly bizarre because Shanghai is also a huge, hustling, bustling, culturally rich, sometimes decadent, modern city.  It's stuck in the past in so many ways, and yet continues barreling ahead into the future.
One section of the expansive Marriage Market.

The most interesting experience of the trip was probably visiting the Marriage Market in People's Park.  Yes, that's right, the Marriage Market.  When you first hear of this, you might think it would involve people hawking wedding goods like dresses, jewelry, or veils.  You might even think it would involve people who want to get married.  But you would be incorrect.  There is no such exchange of goods.  In reality, it involves parents looking for an adequate mate for their unwed children. And this is not just a few parents, either.  We're talking hundreds, maybe thousands, of parents swarming around the park, perusing posted signs that include a prospective spouse's name, height, weight, birthday, monthly salary, and previous marital status.  

Parents reading about prospective mates for their
available children.
 After I timidly approached a few of the people who appeared to be agents, manning the postings and consulting with parents, I was able to find someone who could speak broken English.  However, when I tried to ask what was going on, she laughed loudly and said with astonishment, "You here looking for boyfriend?!!"  I'm not sure if she was more amused by the fact that as a foreigner I'd be there searching the postings for my ideal match (as long as he had an adequate monthly salary) or the fact that my parents weren't there doing it for me.

As I made my way through the throngs of eager families, I was mildly refreshed by the frankness with which the market-goers approached marriage (as a contractual joining of two families for the purpose of reproducing), but also quite depressed by the complete lack of romance.  But who's to say what love should be like?

It occurred to me that this is exactly why I enjoy traveling so much.  On one hand, it makes you feel so close to humanity.  You see that in spite of being spread out all over the globe, having varying languages, dispositions, and ways of life, we really are all just human beings.  At the end of the day, we all are just fighting to eat, sleep, and reproduce.  We adapt to each other and our environments in order to keep doing those things.  It makes life's biggest dramas feel petty and insignificant.  Whatever you think you're going through, there's a billion other people just living through the same things.

Yet on the other hand, glaring cultural differences such as the marriage market prove how humanity is still so strongly divided.  Being born into a certain nationality and way of life can dramatically alter the way you perceive yourself, others, and the world around you.  And isn't that all that we have anyway, our perceptions of those things?  So, in that sense, just because you are made of 99.99% the same stuff does not mean that you can even begin to understand what someone else's life is like.  We might have the same physical needs, but we all go about meeting them in completely differing ways.

This explains why China is still a monstrous business opportunity that foreigners just haven't cracked.  You can't just take your usual way of doing things and impose it on a culture that has spent hundreds, thousands, of years doing things a very different way.  They say great companies solve problems for their customers.  But given all we are actually doing is running around trying to eat, sleep, and procreate -- I think it would be more accurate to say that great companies solve their customers' perception of problems.  Figuring that part out is the key, and it takes a lot more work than most are willing to do.  For now, I'm just enjoying observing, collecting the facts, and building a strong appreciation for the power of perception.