This is pretty random, and not explicitly connected to Objectivism, but I just returned from a vacation to China and Japan, and these are my thoughts on the trip.
I returned from Asia last night after a 12 hour flight and 2 hours of sitting on the tarmac. To recap, I went to Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, and Tokyo.
China is pure chaos. It is crowded, disorderly, and often dirty, except in or around government facilities. Despite the central planning, the cities don’t seem to be in any coherent order, with sky scrapers, mid-sized buildings, and migrant hovels regularly in walking distance from each other. No one knows any street addresses, especially not their own. With the exception of Shanghai, street signs are rare, making navigation very difficult. Smog clouds constantly hang over the big cities (I may have gone to the three most polluted cities in the world in succession) and create an unavoidable dirty odor. I didn’t have any trouble breathing, but one of my friends did.
Japan is orderly, clean, and efficient, giving the country a sort of high-tech European feel. There are disappointingly few tall buildings due to the threat of earthquakes, but there is a nice mixture of modern and traditional buildings in most cities. Navigation is very easy, even in the-biggest-city-in-the-world Tokyo due to the public transportation system and huge national rail network, including the high-speed rails which travel at 300 mph. There didn’t seem to be much pollution, but some Japanese people wore masks (which look like the things doctors wear in surgery), though the masks were far more common in China.
The two best areas of illustrative comparison between Japan and China are the subways and toilets.
In the Japanese subways, there are markings on the ground for where to stand outside of the subway cars. Everyone lines up on those spots (you will get evil stares if you don’t) and then politely wait for the inhabitants of the arriving car to leave. Once everyone has left, the entrants slowly file in. If they are only going a few stops, they stand, if not, they will take an open (and usually heated) seat. Any person who is pregnant, with a child, sick, or elderly unquestionably gets first access to a seat. I probably got a seat 80% of the time. Even extremely busy Japanese people who sprint out of the subway cars to go wherever they are going, are polite and calm getting on the cars.
In China it’s every man for himself. Both the entrants and exiters of the subway cars crowd around the doors and go their own way when the doors open. This invariably leads to shoving and contorting around people to get through. Weak and old people sometime get shoved backwards by the oncoming crowd. Chinese people literally sprint for empty seats, which is why I got one less than 20% of the time. It is even more exciting at transfer stops where the Chinese people sprint between subway cars regardless of what’s in their path.
Japanese toilets are the best in the world. I actually wanted to go to the bathroom as much as possible. About 50% of toilets are heated, and maybe a quarter have built in systems for spraying water on your but from within the toilet. They are massive and extremely powerful, apparently capable of flushing more weight than American toilets. Bathrooms were consistently clean and well-stocked, even public ones.
Chinese toilets are terrible. About 50% of them are what I call “HIGs” for “holes in the ground.” They are these disgusting little slots in the floor which you have to squat over without falling into and then try to accurately direct your output into. I had used these in Turkey, and hated them there as well, but what really shocked me is that no public bathrooms and many private bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap. You simply have to buy your own roll and soap and carry it around. I couldn’t figure out why this was the case (do Chinese people really not use toilet paper?), until my Chinese friend told me public toilet paper and soap would usually be stolen. To top it off, Chinese toilets aren’t powerful enough to flush toilet paper (though I accidentally dropped it in a few times) so you have to leave your used paper in a basket next to the toilet with whatever else is already in there. Yuck.
Chinese people tend to be aloof. They aren’t usually rude (the way many Turkish people are), but they just don’t care about their surroundings. When walking on the side walk towards a Chinese person, 90% of the time, I would end up being the one to move aside because the Chinese person wouldn’t notice me in the way. They are terrible about giving directions, even to fairly obvious landmarks, and respond to requests for help with annoyance and hand waving. Most Chinese merchants were very weak, or at least not nearly as good at sales and negotiating than the Arab, Turkish, and Italian equivalents I recall.
On the plus side, Chinese people tend to be friendly and talkative in different settings. While I was looking at some tourist goods at a street vendor, a random Chinese girl tapped me on the shoulder and told me the jade an animal bones in front of me were probably fake.
One of the highlights of Beijing was talking to a Chinese girl in my hostel for about an hour about politics. She was oddly imperialistic and wanted Taiwan, Tibet, and the rest of “old China” returned to the mainland (despite my objections that Taiwan didn’t want to be a part of China). When asked if she cared that China censored her internet and prevented her from having the freedoms I enjoyed at home, she responded that nowhere in the world was really free and that it didn’t matter. When asked about Chaiman Mao, she said he did some bad things but was generally a good guy for “creating modern China” (which not only revealed her ignorance about Mao, but also his successors who opened up China to the West). She then asked me what I thought about Mao, and I told her that Americans consider Mao to be another Adolf Hitler. She was shocked and visibly disturbed by my answer.
Japanese people are excruciatingly polite, but not friendly. If you ask one for help, he will do everything in his power to help you, including walking two blocks, looking up the answer up on his phone, calling people on his phone, calling over people for more listeners, or referring to someone who speaks English better. Customer service is excellent. Yet for all their politeness, I didn’t speak to a single Japanese person in my two and a half weeks of residence who wasn’t a merchant or hostel owner. Maybe the outward niceness is only skin-deep.
Cities and Buildings
Both China and Japan have plenty of great sites. Hong Kong was my favorite, and Guangzhou my least favorite.
I can happily die without seeing another Buddhist temple again, since I think I’ve been close to twenty at this point, the vast majority of which are interchangeable. I had never been to a temple before this trip, and while they aren’t as nice as Cathedrals or mosques, they do have their own beauty. Interestingly, they aren’t individual buildings, but more like complexes with multiple shrines, each with their own statue of Buddha or something related. The Shinto shrines were a nice change of pace in Japan and prettier than the Buddhist shrines due to their dark colors, and nature motif.
Hong Kong has the best skyline I’ve ever seen, with a breathtaking 180 degree view across a river, with the nicely complementing mountain range immediately behind the buildings. Shanghai (the second prettiest) looks almost exactly like New York, complete with rivers, a pseudo-central park, and a pseudo-Brooklyn. Guangzhou is pretty ugly, but was interesting to visit as the least international city I visited. Both Guangzhou and Beijing have an unappealing sprawl which results in few skyscrapers and a lack of city center, but plenty of endless back alley ways and apartment buildings smashed together. Beijing was disappointingly drab and grey, though maybe that can be blamed on the winter (or maybe it can be blamed on the creepy omnipresence of Soviet-style government buildings and check points at every subway station.)
The Japanese cities all looked pretty similar, but were very pretty. The buildings averaged between 5 and 12 stories and looked sturdy. The streets were wide and very well lit at night. As the biggest city in the world, Tokyo is an impossibly large and complex place. It has 36 subway lines, five or six more national rail lines, and hundreds of stops. The suburbs are endless and form their own formidably sized cities, though I didn’t explore them much. Remarkably, Tokyo’s homicide rate is 0.5 per 100,000, compared to NYC’s 5.5. You are more likely to be murdered in a random small town in America than in Tokyo.
For decades China has been in the weird position of wanting to be a modern developed nation, while still being run by the same government which established a totalitarian, genocidal, communist dictator. The sense I got is that the Chinese government can’t just dump its history, but it doesn’t exactly want to broadcast it either. The pro-Mao/communist stuff was all in Beijing or random, obscure museums.
In Guangzhou I went to something called the “People’s Movement Institute,” which a billboard delightfully informed me was an intellectual training facility which produced the government officials in charge of forcefully dislocating millions of peasants from their homes and moving them to more beneficial locations for “the people.”
I never felt any ill-will towards me in China or Japan for being American from the Natives. But numerous history museums called Americans and especially Brits “imperialists,” “aggressors,” etc. However, I also got the sentiment that the West was held in higher esteem that the traditional Chinese dynasties, at least due to the West’s innovative prowess. The Dr. Sun Yat Sen museum was especially pro-British, with Sun Yat Sen himself praising the rise of Hong Kong in the 19th century in contrast to the squalor of mainland China.
In Japan I never saw any mention of its fascist past. The Prime Minister’s annual visit to the grave/shrine devoted to numerous generals who commanded Japanese forces in WW2 was nationally televised and widely watched. Fortunately, I got to see the Japanese emperor give a speech to a huge crowd which waved flags and yelled whatever Japanese people yell in patriotic fervor.
I wish I got a picture of it, but I saw a restaurant with a name that was a pun on the “Rape of Nanking.” It was something like “Grape of ….”