China still blows my mind

Trip Start Jun 03, 2006
Trip End Jun 03, 2009

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Flag of China  ,
Monday, March 26, 2007

I remember my first few weeks in China, when everything was weird, but less weird than I had thought it might be.  I didn't understand anything that I was seeing and was quicker to judge than I try to be now.  I thought that with time and familiarity, the weird stuff would seem less weird, and in many ways it is, and yet I still find that almost everyday brings something that surprises or simply blows my mind.
There are the people who sweep the highways by hand.  This isn't cleaning the gutters in a regular street to stop the gutters blocking, this is a handful of men and women with "witches' brooms" sweeping a 6-lane concrete flyover.
There was the guy riding across the airport runway on a bicycle in Guizhou.  How else do you expect airport maintenance staff to get around after all?

There is the race for the bus door, clambering aboard as if it's the only life-raft in a rising flood.  There is an utter mindlessness to it that resembles blind panic.  The notion of a collective, considerate society certainly doesn't exist, and I'm told parents even will even shout at their children if they don't push aggressively when they are getting onto the school bus.  I shouldn't do it, but on a bad day, the pushiest people in the crowd tend to get acquainted with the sharp end of my elbows.
There is the strong militarism to the whole society.  School children are marched around like small platoons and are lined up for morning exercise like a small army.  Their dull faces and unenthusiastic participation give the lie to their real thoughts, but the discipline of lining up and marching in step is unquestioned.  Every day in the street security companies drill and march their guards and you'll often see them in combat gear or with riot shields rehearsing their "defensive" moves.  Can it be intended to be anything other than intimidating I wonder?
There is the contradiction between a state of apparently chaotic disorganisation and the ultra-impressive piece of large scale planning and implementation, be it a government infrastructure project or the dispatch of 3000 kids from school in under 45 minutes on going home days.
There is the strange realisation that if you ever stop to watch any sport being played on a park, on a playground or in the street, you never see anyone good playing.  Maybe this is because for all that people are hugely enthusiastic about sports there is an absence of a social sports culture, but my guess is that the talented ones have been cherry picked very young and the others get no opportunity to develop or learn.  The school P.E. lessons I've seen are a bit of a sham educationally.
There was the excavation machine for the new subway system driving the wrong way into the rush hour traffic tearing the concrete beneath its tracks as it went and swinging a lethal looking digging tool in front of it.  It was escorted by four small workmen on foot whose job was apparently to keep the traffic away from the gently swinging lump of metal.
There are the school kids running red lights on bicycles at a big 4-way intersection as if there is no way any harm could possibly come to them and the traffic officers who calmly choose to ignore the potentially horrible accident they nearly created.
I can't imagine the day when any of this will ever seem normal.  Perhaps it will come, and perhaps it will be the day to move on too if the traveller within me still beats as strong.
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