My first trip to China

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While China has been in the center of business news with its falling stock market and yuan, I had an opportunity to spend several days in Beijing, the capital of this Asian giant. Although China is a neighboring country for Japan, somehow I’d never had a chance to visit before.

Prior to my departure, I was a bit concerned because I thought August is not a particularly ideal month to visit China as a Japanese. As preparation begins for ‘Victory Day’, marking the end of WWII, anti-Japanese sentiment tends to run high at this time of the year. Needless to say, that’s a result of the aggression committed by Japanese soldiers during the war.

Despite my concern, I didn’t encounter any negative experiences and had a great time although the stay was far too short and I could only glimpse the city.

I feel my experience was too limited to mention anything about the country but decided to write a few notes anyway –

(1) There are still very few people who speak English. Even in the five-star hotel I was staying (lucky for me I had a good client!), some waitresses at the restaurant had very limited English. But forget about the housekeeping staff. I had to write to communicate with them. Japanese use ‘kanji’ – Chinese alphabet – so it was easier to communicate with them by writing. I had no clue what they were saying and many Chinese didn’t understand even the simplest English like “You”, “I” or “good” and “big”.

(2) Buildings are huge. They weren’t necessary tall but 2-3 times wider and bigger than the ones in Japan or the U.S. I could really feel the scale of this gigantic country through this coercive-looking architecture.

(3) No more mass-bicycles on the road. The familiar scene of a sea of bicycles filling the road is gone. You see electric bikes are more popular, and the middle class can afford a car these days. I was shocked by how many fancy cars, like Mercedez, BMW, Audi are on the road, pretty much everywhere. I even saw a Lamborghini twice in four days. It’s a good reflection of growing wealth – China’s new rich, I suppose. I was standing outside a new boutique hotel/shopping center one evening and I saw many youngsters getting in and out of high-end imported vehicles.

(4) Exploding domestic tourism. When I visited the must-see Forbidden City (Palace), I tried to beat the crowd and got there by 7:30am but there were already thousands people there even it’s half an hour before the ticket windows open. They were mostly domestic tour groups from different parts of the country. People sit on the ground congregating everywhere. The scene reminded me of India. Like India, the mass tourism is the result of explosively increased middle-class population.

(5) As a photographer, I didn’t particularly enjoy the assignment because of the many restrictions I had to deal with. It was a reminder that the government still has a tight grip on the media.

(6) Yes, they are loud. I knew it and I was mentally prepared for it but it doesn’t matter men or women, young or old, they speak very loud. I still don’t understand the necessity of raising your voice so much when you’re talking to the person right next to you or on the phone. Can anyone explain the historical background of this?

About speaking English, I had an unusual experience. Ten out of ten locals spoke to me in Mandarin. Not a single person thought I was a foreigner. It’s understandable because I look like them and they look like me but it was kind of a strange experience to me. I realized that this was the first time I traveled to a country in which the absolute majority population has my-kind-of face. I was always an obvious foreigner in the countries I lived in or visited before, except the U.S, which is a melting pot. It was nice to be seen as one of them and not standing out but every time they spoke to me, I had to apologize saying “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese”. However, they didn’t even understand what I’d just said and just stared at my face.

Overall, I had a good time and I only wish that I had had more days to see and feel the city. Well, I should be happy that at least I was able to visit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. It was a moving experience to stand on the ground of the square, facing the picture of Chairman Mao on the familiar red wall. I have seen this place so many times on TV, in newspapers and magazines but actually being there and seeing it with my own eyes was special and almost gave me a chill down my spine. One of the most iconic photographs of 1989 – a man standing in front of column of tanks following a crackdown of Tiananmen protests – was brought back to life in my mind.

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株の値下がりや人民元の切り下げでニュースを賑わせている中国だが、いまや世界経済に大きな影響を与えるこの「アジアの巨頭」の首都北京で、数日を過ごす機会があった。僕にとって中国を訪れるのはこれが初めて。日本の隣国として色々な意味で近い国にも関わらず、これまでずっと縁がなかったのだ。

出発前、八月に中国を訪れることに、少しばかり神経質になっていた。来月はじめの「戦勝記念日」を前に、太平洋戦争がらみのプロパガンダが増えるので、反日感情が高まる時期でもあるからだ。しかしそれも杞憂に過ぎなかったようで、日本人だからとネガティブな経験をすることもなく過ごすことができた。もっとも、3日間の仕事を終えて自由に町を歩けたのはたったの1日だけ。こんな限られた時間での経験を語るのもおこがましいが、初めての中国の印象をいくつか述べてみたい。

(1)思っていたより、英語を話す人がまだまだ少ない。宿泊していた5つ星ホテル(いいクライアントをもつとラッキーだ!)のレストランでも、英語をあまり解さないウェイトレスがいたのには驚かされた。ハウス・キーピングのスタッフはもう論外。もっとも初歩的な「I」や「 You」、「 Big 」とか「Small」といった単語さえ通じないので、会話が全く成り立たない。不完全であっても、漢字での筆談のほうがよほど意思疎通ができる。

(2)建物が巨大。高さはそれほどでもないが、幅や長さが日本や米国の2−3倍はありそうなビルがゴロゴロしている。こんな威圧的なほどに大きな建物が並んでいる光景をみていると、巨大なこの国のスケールを感じずにはいられない。

(3)一昔前によく映像や写真で目にした、広い道路を埋めつくすように走る何百という自転車の姿はもう過去のもの。自転車よりも電動モーターのついた原付を良く見かけるが、中流階級はみな車を持てるようになったということだろう。さらに、メルセデス、BMW、アウディなどの高級車がやたら目につく。ランボルギーニが街を走っているのさえ、4日のあいだに2度もみた程だ。多くは「ニュー・リッチ」とよばれる成金だろうが、裕福層の増加はめざましい。ある晩、まだ新しいブティックホテルが併設するショッピング・センターの前に立っていると、目の前で横づけされていくのはほとんど高級車ばかり。それを運転する多くはまだ20代とか30代前半にしか見えない若者たちだった。

(4)観光客の多さに圧倒される。日本にあれだけの中国人観光客が訪れているのだから、国内旅行者の数は言わずもがなだ。観光スポットである世界最大の宮殿、故宮を訪れた朝のこと。混雑を避けようと朝7時半に到着すると、チケット売り場の開く30分前だというのにすでに何千の人だかり。所構わず地べたに腰を下ろして休む家族やグループ観光客の姿は、まさにインドを思い出させる光景だった。インド同様、観光客の増加は、人々の間に経済的余裕ができたことの反映だろうか。

(5)撮影の仕事は、制約が多くてやりづらかった。政府のメディアに対するコントロールがまだまだ強いことを実感。

(6)蛇足だが、評判通り、老若男女みな大声。すぐ隣に座ってる人や、携帯で喋るのに、なんであんなに声をはり上げなくてはならないのか、理解に苦しむ。この大声文化に何か歴史的背景はあるのだろうか。

言葉に関して、僕にとっては珍しい経験をさせてもらった。機内のエアーホステスから、ホテルのレセプション、 吉野家のおばちゃんまで、10人中10人、例外なく中国語で話しかけられたのだ。僕は中国でよく見かける短髪だし、顔も平均的東洋人なのでもっともな話ではあるのだけれど、考えてみたら、「人種の坩堝」である米国を除いては、これまで住んだり訪れた国では、僕は明らかな「外国人」だったのだなあと実感。何処にいっても「中国人」として目立たずにいられるのは嬉しかったが、話しかけられる度に「すいません。中国語できないんです」と弁明するのがそのうち億劫にはなった。

滞在時間が短すぎたのが残念だったが、天安門広場を訪れることができたのはいい経験だった。これまで幾度となくテレビや新聞、雑誌で目にしてきたこの場所。戦勝記念日の式典準備のために近くまではいけなかったが、実際に広場に立ち、あの見慣れた赤門に掲げられた毛沢東の肖像を前にしたら、どういうわけか鳥肌がたつほどの感動を覚えてしまった。1989年の天安門事件で撮られた、もっとも歴史的な写真のひとつ「戦車の前に立ちふさがる男」が胸に蘇ってきた。

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