CAQ: Is China Safe?!? – The Size Issue

16 Jan

Well, small break in the vacation plans – mom fell yesterday and crashed her hip so I spent 13+ hours in the Korean hospital.  Today she is zonked out on pain meds, so I have some time to do a little typing 🙂

I haven’t really had time to answer questions yet, but I wanted to start addressing some of the Commonly Asked Questions people give me about China.  While it may not answer everything, I hope that it will clear up some big misconceptions people have about this beautiful country.

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CAQ #1: Is China Safe?!?

When I began telling family and friends about my new adventure plans to teach in China,I found fear and worry was a bit more prevalent than excitement, and I had to do some serious selling of the idea before they would start to get behind me.  The most common question I was asked was “well, do you think it’s safe?”  After thinking about it, I’ve decided that this question stemmed from concerns of about three things (size/language, health, and security); I’ll address each in turn over the next few posts, but I want to start with the size/language concerns.

Concern: China is massively large and the language is foreign. 

Just looking at a map will tell you that China is one of the worlds largest nations (technically #3, right after Russia and Canada).  Then there is the fact that it is actually the #1 largest nation in terms of populations (1.3 billion in 2015, making up 19% of the worlds’ people!).  Just, woah!  There are 45 cities in China with more than 1,000,000 people, and the vast majority of them are closer to 3-4 million.  Compare that to the US, where only 9 cities have more than 1,000,000 and only 4 of those are more than 1.5.  It’s just kind of mind-boggling to think about how HUGE China really is.  And I think this is one part of China that people actually kind of get – we’ve seen the movies about Shanghai and Beijing, watched the tiny little streets and billions of flashing lights in strange characters leading us into back alleys to be lost in the maze forever.  China’s size is daunting, and I won’t say that this doesn’t scare me at times.

Unlike Korea and Japan, where subway signs, maps, and bus routes are more or less in English, most of the transportation aids in China are in Pinyin.  In fact, there isn’t even a map at all of my home city of Xinzheng, and it has about 600,000 people.  While this seems extremely big to a Missouri girl from a town of 12,000; to the locals, this is practically a backwoods country farming village.  Even the nearby city of Zhengzhou, boasting 5,000,000 as early as 2010, is considered a small city. And that’s TWICE the size of Chicago! And still no good map!

The people’s English is generally broken or spoken with a heavy Henan accent, all of the signage or products are in Mandarin or Pinyin, and traveling is just plain difficult.  It’s true that this makes getting around somewhat problematic and a little dangerous in times of an emergency.  Even if you have the Pinyin on hand, speak it in the wrong tone and you might sell your firstborn child for  a teacup.  And the characters are so difficult to read that it makes finding the right place or product just plain troublesome.

So do I feel unsafe?  Honestly, no.

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Because China is the land of Hospitality, and the people are heart-soothingly, mind-calmingly friendly.  They kind of restore your faith in humanity they are so kind and good-natured.  If I have a problem, I have 12 students and workers falling over themselves to help. If I cough, five cough syrups and chicken soup bowls find their way to my door. If my water goes out, six people bring towels and start mopping it up. I needed help at the bank, and the student not only agreed to spend his whole Saturday helping me out, he spent four hours the night before practicing banking English terms because he wanted to do a good job. He even got his roommates to quiz him!

I’ve never really felt unsafe here. When I need directions, there are always people around willing to point me in the right direction. If they don’t know enough English, they’ll call someone who does.  When I need a product, there are translator apps and you would be surprised at how much you can do with simple gestures, pictures, and contextual locating/pointing.  I find the general laundry soap aisle, look up allergy in my app, and mime scratching my arms to communicate what I need, they hand me hypo-allergenic laundry detergent, and we’re all happy.  Sometimes, it doesn’t go so well, and I have to try a multitude of communication methods, but I’d like to think this makes me a better teacher. If I’m too lost, I call my contact and they help me out.

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Admittedly, I don’t go anywhere too far from home on my own. Not because of “I’ll be murdered” fears as much as they are “I’ll get lost and end up dying in the Gobi Desert” fears.  If I am going on my own, I make sure I have very precise directions in English, Pinyin, and Mandarin,. I buy all of my tickets before-hand, I make sure the hotel reservation is finished before I walk out the door. I have a fully charged phone with my contact’s number, and I call them if I need the help.

The whole “Having a contact” thing is important here.  I actually appreciate their high respect for “guanxi” or “relationships” – it’s a kind of networking used in daily life.  You help them , they help you; you form a friendship.  At this point, I have on my phone an English speaking doctor, computer technician, health and make-up girl, importer girl, Beijing map expert, students from all around Henan who can help if I’m in their area, a student who understands banking, a student who knows construction/electrical people, a security guard/police officer, etc. In return, I help as a babysitter, English editor, English tutor, substitute teacher, and all around friend.  It works, and we both have someone to call if we need help.  One of the comforting things about the Chinese is their dependability. If they can’t help you, they will generally call someone who can help. Or that someone will call someone. However it works, someone will be there for you in the end. For example, my mom fell yesterday and really banged up her hip. I called a Chinese friend who’s dad owns a hospital. He called his dad who got ahold of a doctor that sent the name of a medicine back down the line. Now I’m getting ahold of a friend who studied abroad in Korea to help me translate the name into Korean.  The system may take a while, but it works and it works pretty well.

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Besides, with such great friends, how could I be afraid?  I’m actually more at ease here in China than I was in my last town in the US.  Here, I know that I have people I can rely on, people that genuinely care and want to help.  If I have an emergency, I’m not that worried.  I can get it resolved.

Some people have also asked me about the “foreign” feel, they think China is just so “strange” and different that it sounds frightening.  This I have to say no to absolutely. There is very little that is truly scarily strange about China. Okay, so some of the food gets a little iffy for me (star of anise chicken is a little odd, so is duck head with eyes, sheep gut, and a few other odds and ends.) But I’ve never been in a situation where the strange food was all that they had to eat. There were also friend chicken thighs, Pork dumplings, soup, and other yummies to be explored.  Every c-store has Oreos, Pringles, Dove soap, and Pantene Shampoo.  There are McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, and other US restaurants are here. They serve funny additions like squid rings and a ton of fish sandwiches, but they usually had the good old traditional choices too.  Toilet paper is actually a little more awesome here in China, as are other household items. They may only have coke and coke zero, but at least my soda addiction is satisfied. Admittedly, the signs and logos are different, and the buildings have a lot more color than I’m used to. I see sights that are new and unfamiliar every day – little tiny tricycle cabs, scooters with bare-bottomed babies hanging on, grandmas selling corn off blankets at the side of the road. But those aren’t scary or strange as much as unique and exciting.

I guess in the end, it’s true that China could be frightening. If you are a lonesome wolf-type person, escaping from the world and not interested in making connections with the locals, China is difficult to survive.  And I get it, there are people like that out there; they are the independent travelers making it on their own. I’m sure they can find their way through life in China, it’s just harder to do. I can live in Korea for months without speaking to a soul; not true in China. China is a very social country, everyone knows everyone else and it’s all personal and involved. This is a place to know your neighbors, to form relationships, and be part of a community. There are truly very few real outsiders here – everyone has a place and they just pull you in.  As long as you make an effort to join in with the people around you, there are enough helping hands that China isn’t scary at all.  As far as it just feeling too strange, well that’s part of the magic of traveling. I like seeing new things that are wonderful and different. It makes me feel like the world still has something to offer.  On the other hand, China isn’t really THAT different from the US in terms of products and services offered, so I’m pretty at home.  It’s all a question of personality and willingness to adapt.

So no, in terms of the size issue, China isn’t really scary at all!

One Response to “CAQ: Is China Safe?!? – The Size Issue”

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  1. CAQ: Is China Safe?!? – The Health Issue: Pollution | Deceptively Blonde - February 27, 2015

    […]  have about this beautiful country.  You can find the first part “Is China Safe: the Size/Language Issue […]

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