China is not very different to Germany. Woman dress up in mega short skirts and men try to show off with cars and generosity. Chinese people are mad keen on the newest technical devices and (what differs them from other asian countries) the majority has the money to buy them. They use high-speed trains, live in gigantic clean and modern cities and treat nature like they shouldn’t. They have few children and little believe in religion. Money and individualism appear to be the new priorities in life.
All this seems not very different to us. In theory at least… Still I call China a “parallel universe”. And that’s not (just) because they eat dogs, beetles and cat brains – you could theoretically find such habits in some Bavarian area. But for me China was even more alien than for example India, where they have a huge bunch of weird traditions and pray to Elephant gods… So why is it China is so similar but yet so different? I thought a long, long time about that question and came up with some answers eventually.
It feels like a parallel universe because the people’s minds are so different in many aspects. The Chinese culture seems to be one of few in the world which is not westernized at all. Not American-toned. That might sound strange at first. Like I described at our China trip this country is so big and mighty most people don’t seem to care too much about the rest of the world. And because China is, sadly, so shielded from it they don’t know much about it either. They have their own huge brands, products, pop stars, networks, traditions, habits – which are similar but still oddly different – they don’t orientate much on the western/american ones like most other cultures do. – The whole of Europe is looking towards the States, central Asia peers at Russia and Europe – everyone really seems always to orientate on the bigger and more “modern” culture to integrate some of their idols lifestyle into their own. China doesn’t. Because of two reasons: because they simply don’t need to and because they are not allowed to.
So what provides the parallel-universe-feeling is that China is an independent world-might with their own rules and habits. Even the most basic gestures (which are the onliest ways to communicate when you don’t speak Mandarin) are completely different to those you are used to from the rest of the world. Numbers are shown with the fingers in a totally different way and so are welcoming or negating gestures. If you don’t know the rules you are likely to become desperate very soon because it seems that all basic human communication doesn’t work with Chinese people just because it’s an alien code to you. Eating a raw carrot in public gets you great deranged stares (no one in China would ever eat anything raw) and when you give someone a big present he would just say a brief thanks and put it aside not opening it. Try for a lift and somebody even driving 80% of the way to your destination would just say sorry they can’t help you and drive off. One of the highest priorities of Chinese people is being polite and not loosing face which provides the base for (to us) weird actions and also shallow encounters.
When I sat together with an Indian woman my age who had four children and was devoted practicing Hindu rites we had topics to talk about and we saw and judged many things in life the same way. A Chinese woman though (I am sorry, but mainly appearing as girls) was always inapproachable for me. I felt I would never experience her real inner feelings. She would not speak out loud what she thinks. Because everything in China was made to be at least a perfect facade. Everything in China had a beautiful, correct, neat and polished surface and you wouldn’t know if it was real or you were just bluffed. And so you wouldn’t know if a Chinese person said or did something just out of politeness or because he really felt that way. You wouldn’t know if that “old town” was really old or rather new build. You wouldn’t know if those smiling employees were truly happy or in fact very sad. You wouldn’t know if someone invited you because he really wanted it or because the politeness-codex forced him to do it.
China was a big strange riddle for me and even after over 3 months I felt I didn’t get any closer to the rules of that similar-appearing parallel universe.