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.




(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。






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。


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