13 Incredible Things I Learned on my Trip to China

My husband and I recently got back from two weeks in China- the trip of a lifetime! Everything there was so different that the whole trip felt like traveling to a completely different time and place from our world, and we never stopped learning. I will now attempt to put some of what I learned into words...wow. Here are a few things that completely blew my mind on my recent trip to China.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a Chinese history or political expert. All of this information I gleaned by talking to various people in China, so if I was misinformed, I apologize!

1. China is HUGE!

We have all heard that "everything is bigger in Texas," well, Texas doesn't have anything on China. We all know know that the country is huge geographically as well as having 1.3 billion people, but there is no way to wrap your mind around just how huge it really is. Shanghai is one of the larger cities with 24 million people. Flying over in the plane, all you can see for as far as you can see is high rise buildings. Apartment buildings. A neighborhood in SHanghai looks like 20 high rise apartment buildings 30 stories high that all look exactly alike side by side. And then another group of 30 high rise building right next to it. And then another. We took a day trip to Suzhou, which is an hour and a half drive from Shanghai, and we drove a good 45 minutes before the jungle of high rise apartment buildings started to thin out. So many people! Just an incomprehensible number of people.

Some of the things that go along with that many people are difficult to imagine. In Shanghai, more than 10 million people use public transportation everyday- that's more than all of New York City. To limit the traffic in Shanghai, they bid on license plates. Only 750 license plates are released each month and each one will cost on average about $10,000. Some people wait for years to get a plate, so you invest in the plate before the car! You are only covered for health insurance in the city you are born and registered in. You are only allowed to have one child. Fo having that many people, the cities are spotless! No trash anywhere and all of the gardens pristine. That is because all of the tons of people need jobs, and so you will see crossing guards at every corner, gardeners by every flower, trash pickers on every sidewalk, and yes, even policemen in the intersections directing traffic with the white gloves and whistle. Every person has to have something to do, and there are a lot of people to keep busy.

2. China is Super-Censored

As a citizen of the US, we sometimes complain that our rights are being infringed upon, and freedom is more highly prized and protected than any other commodity. Because of that, entering a highly censored country like China comes as quite a shock. There is no facebook, no youtube, no netflix, and NO GOOGLE! Can you even imagine your world with no google? All information that comes into the country is censored by the government. As we were watching CNN in our hotel room, an update on the student protests in Hong Kong began and suddenly the TV went black! A few minutes later it turned back on to a commercial. At first we thought this must be a coincidence, but as the news cycled through it happened over and over!

One lady we talked to explained the reason for no facebook this way. She said, "We have our own version of a Chinese facebook here. The problem with facebook is that anyone can post whatever they want. There is no way to know if what you are reading is true. The government wants us to be able to trust what we read online, so they look through all of the information and take out the lies so that our internet is reliable. If someone posts anything with certain keywords, it will simply not show up until they approve it."

Before going to China I asked myself, can a government really "brainwash" an entire country that big? Especially in today's age of free information circling the globe as fast as it happens? The answer is yes. They can, and they are.

3. Tiananmen Square is Simply a Governmental Center

We have all heard of Tiananmen Square. We all know the story of happened to the student protestors there in the 80's. It is the only reason anyone and everyone has heard of it. When we were in Beijing we had the opportunity to tour the square, and I was interested to see what they would have to say about the site on the tour. In the 5 Chinese airports that we traveled through, we hardly had to show an ID of any kind, but to get in to the "public" people's square a group must have an appointment in advance with an assigned time to tour. Every person must go through a metal detector and show their passport to enter the heavily guarded gates. Inside the square, there are 10-12 surveillance cameras on every light post, and groups of military marching around (not to mention those under cover). We also saw a huge pile of riot shields stored off to one side. Other than that, the tour we got highlighted the different monuments, government buildings, the crystallized body of CHairman Mao, and the entrance into the Forbidden City. The entire experience was pretty chilling, and needless to say, there was no mention of the massacre that occurred on the site. It was as if it had never happened at all.

4. The One Child Policy is Complicated

As it turns out, the one child policy is not really a one child policy- here are a few things I learned:
- 95% of the population is Han, but the one child policy does not apply to any of the other 50+ people groups that live in China
- Families that live in the rural areas are allowed to have more than one child
- New exceptions to the policy are growing each day as CHina is about to face a housing crisis
- It is really a one birth policy, so if you have twins or triplets on your first try, you get to keep them all!
- If you have a second child, you have to pay a fee to the government, which can be a few thousand dollars in the rural areas to over ten thousand in the city
- If you don't pay the government fee, then your child is undocumented- they will never be able to have an ID, a job, drivers license, insurance or go to school. Basically, they are invisible in society. (You can later buy documentation, but the fee increases with each year.)
- As a result, abortion rates are extremely high in China, and having an abortion is commonplace

Are there ways around the system? We heard one story of a woman who already had one child and became pregnant again. She and her husband began saving money to pay the fee to get documentation so that they could keep their child on the way. She then found out that she was having twins, and there was no way that they could raise the money to keep both. So...the couple had a close male friend who was homosexual and did not plan on ever marrying, so he offered to "give" them his one birth. The woman divorced her husband, married the friend, gave birth to the twins as his one allowed birth, then divorced him and remarried her husband. I guess if there's a will, there's a way, but it sure makes me grateful to live in a country where my family is my choice!

5. Retirement in China is Awesome!

The retirement age in China is young (because they need those jobs for new workers) at 55 for women and 60 for men. While growing old in the US seems like a sad and lonely process in a depressing nursing home, these retirees are not that group. Every day, in almost every part of China, all of the retired elderly go to the public parks for morning exercise. The parks are completely packed with these self-organized groups led by volunteer retirees in every activity you can imagine! They have hackey sack groups, choir groups practicing, old men flying kites, ladies knitting, belly dancing circles, artists painting, you name it! They are all filled with energy and not only a hope, but a determination to get the most out of each day with a smile on their face. We definitely need a place like this in the US- where the elderly have a place to contribute their talents, find community with a group of friends, and stay active. I want to retire here!

Here is a group of ballroom dancers practicing their moves and teaching others.

This was my husband and my favorite! This group dresses up and dances with umbrellas, fans, drummers, and even a few ladies like the one pictured here dressed up like a donkey. My husband was all to happy to take the reigns and lead her around the dance floor for a while!

This group does various forms of Tai Chi. This one uses fans, but we also saw one with swords!

This group was enjoying some morning exercises with basic motions to help blood circulation.

6. The Three Gorge Dam Project had Huge Implications

Like everything in China, this dam is enormous! The Three Gorges Dam Project was the largest construction project ever undertaken and caused a worldwide cement shortage. The dam blocks the Yangtze River and was supposed to generate 10% of the entire country's electricity. While the pros seem amazing, the con was that the level of the river would raise 75 meters along the banks displacing over 3 million people who lived along the river's edge in almost untouched villages where their ancestors had farmed and fished for over 1,000 years. All of the cities along the river were relocated to villages higher up in the same area of the gorge. However, what were individual farms became high rise apartment buildings, and history was washed away in the forward march of technological advancement. Unfortunately, only 30% of the promised money to those being relocated ever ended up in the hands of those who had to leave their land and livelihoods. Was it worth it? I guess I should add that the dam only ended up supplying 3% of the country's electricity.

 This is a model of the dam project, since our pictures didn't have very good visibility that day. All the way to the right are the locks where the ships go through, and to the left is the dam. It is the largest man made construction in the world.

In this relocation village, the waters completely buried the original city. The wall with the gate that you see by the water is the original city gate that is over 1,000 years old. The citizens took apart this section of the wall and gate and rebuilt it brick by brick at the new city's site. It is one of the few cities to still have its original gate at the front of the city.

7. The Gorges are Gorgeous!

I don't mean to be cheesy, but there is simply no other word to describe it. We took a four day cruise up the Yangtze River through the three gorges and saw the most beautiful and pristine scenery I have ever encountered. It was so beautiful, I wanted to cry! ANd by that I mean, I seriously had an emotional reaction to how amazing it was! I could keep trying to describe it or just show you a few pictures that still don't do it justice... Oh, and if these pictures look like postcards- they're not! I took them with my very own camera!!!

8. The Terracotta Soldiers are All Broken

The Terracotta Warriors in Xian are one of the modern wonders of the world. In the 1970's a farmer digging a well discovered the archaeological jackpot- 8,000 life size pottery warrior, each completely unique in every way including facial features and expression. The army was made and buried with the first emperor of China (his name was Chin). He was the one who united the different clans in China and started construction on the great wall. During his reign of only 15 years, he had to enlist an unfathomable number of man hours to create his life size army of soldiers and horses as well as begin work on the Great Wall. When he died, and his son became emperor, the people wanted to show that they would not be oppressed by such labor any more, and broke into the emperor's buried army and destroyed every last soldier in pieces. I knew about the soldiers, but I didn;t realize that when they were discovered, they were a broken mess on pottery. Each and every soldier has had to be pieced back together, taking archaeologists an average of three months per scientist per soldier to repair. At this rate it will take 200 years to put them all back together! Even still, it is an amazing sight to see in person!

 Here are some of the broken pieces that archaeologists are still uncovering day by day. For a while the digging had stopped because the soldiers underground still have paint on them. However, when exposed to the air, the paint immediately falls off. Just recently they have found the technology to continue uncovering the soldiers without compromising the original paint. At the museum on the same site, we were able to see some of the first displayed pieces with the original paint in tact.

Here are some of the soldiers that have already been put back together, standing in their original ranks.

9. The Forbidden City is Called a City for a Reason

The Forbidden City is where the emperors lived while the capitol was in Beijing. I always thought that it was just a fancy name for the palace- I was wrong! It truly is an entire city where all of the emperor's family, concubines, chief officials, eunuchs, and servants lived. It is literally the size of a city with 9,999 rooms. There are several thick walled gates with courtyards to go through before you ever get a glimpse of the Forbidden City. The floors of the courtyards are made of 15 layers thick of brick paving to keep anyone from digging their way in. This was a truly incredible site to visit! Some emperors lived their entire lives within the walls, never stepping foot into the actual country that they ruled. In fact, the last emperor of China continued to reign in the Forbidden City for years after being overthrown, without knowing that he was no longer in charge!

10. Some Things Made in China are Simply Amazing

While most people immediately think of mass produced cheap plastic goods as synonymous with China, there are true artisans in China of ancient arts that are simply breathtaking. We were able to visit several of these artists to see how they create their work and some of the beautiful examples. Chinese silk carpets are made with 170 hand tied knots per square inch, and they are breathtaking! The silk embroidery is just as amazing with hand stitched pictures that look real. Pearls are also abundant in China and used to make high end jewelry. Jade carving is another incredible skill. The picture below is a sculpture carved into a single piece of jade that has naturally occurring color variations used by the artist to complete this depiction of a herd of running horses.

Another rare art is that of making lacquer furniture. Here are just a few examples with inlaid wood, pearl, and jade.

I would trade everything I own made in China to have just one piece of any of these treasures! 

11. Our Chinese Food is Not as Good

All of the meals in China are served family style at large round tables with a huge lazy Susan in the middle. They bring out 10-12 dishes of every kind of vegetable and meat you could dream of and its like Thanksgiving at every meal! I guess this is why all Chinese restaurants in the US are buffets- it is as close as it gets :) Chinese food is very different from American food- there is no bread of any kind, no  milk or cheese products, and no desserts. There was a lot of rice, noodles, vegetables, and meats in different sauces. Everything was delicious! I will definitely miss the food, but not how full I felt for two weeks!

To the right, a dumpling in the shape of a rabbit!

12. The Cultural Revolution was Terrible

The cultural revolution in the 1960's resulted in the destruction of almost every historical site in the country. Thousands of years of precious history across the landscape was brought to the ground. I cannot tell you how many historical sites we visited in which they have a pagoda built in the traditional style on the original site of a temple which was destroyed in the 1960's and rebuilt after 2000. Of the 12-15 temples we visited, only one was original- over 1,500 years old! It makes me sick to think of how much of the rich history of this country has simply been erased.

13. The Great Wall is Steep!

I have always heard that the Great Wall is wide enough to drive a car on, and that is true, but it gives you the idea that the top of the wall is flat, and that is NOT true! The Great Wall is made up of many different pieces built over 1,000 years during many different emperors and stretches over 8,000 miles across China. It is easily wide enough in certain parts to accommodate multiple lanes of vehicles, but they wouldn't get very far. That is because the Great Wall is built through the mountains, and is mostly stairs. Uneven stairs that range in height anywhere from a few inches to several feet. Getting far at all is a hike! Anyone who goes the entire length should get an olympic medal! We had high hopes of going as far as the eye could see, but we were only able to go about ten towers worth and were so sore the next day it wasn't even funny. But what a sight! The wall did not disappoint :)

While I learned a lot of facts and history, most of all I learned to be a learner- to step into another culture and try to see it in a different light than I had previously perceived it from the outside. China is a fascinating country filled with hospitable people, and I was honored to spend a few weeks seeing life from a very different perspective. It makes me grateful to live in a free country, but also interested to see the what the future holds for this other country so different from ours on the other side of the world!