I just came back from a 10 day trip to China where I visited Shanghai, Biejing, and various parts of the Yunnan province (mostly Lijiang).
I thought I’d share what the trip taught me about China, myself, travel, and my general worldview.
In order to properly frame my learnings, here are some candid observations I had. I recognize that many of these are influenced by my peer-group of American ex-pats in addition to my own thoughts.
- Traffic is far less regulated and established. I saw countless cars on the wrong side of the road in certain pockets.
- I’m not sure if this is because I was America, but it seemed like the concept of lines is doesn’t really exist. I got cut mucho.
- There are far fewer homeless people in Beijing and Shanghai than New York City. The homeless people I encountered were far more severely physically debilitated (missing limbs etc) compared to many people in the streets of NYC.
- The pollution and extent of littering was pretty terrible.
- Price discrepancies were far exaggerated especially around food. I could pay equivalent of 10 cents for a decent breakfast on the street and then step into a bar and pay $5 for a beer. You really can leave as frugally or expensively as you want over there, even in the major cities. I found this flexibility attractive.
- The rate at which they can build infrastructure is incredibly impressive. I saw enormous metropolitan areas half the size of Manhattan that had been marshes just 20 years prior. The authoritarian structure of their government and land ownership policy is ideal for building quickly. From my understanding, all of the buildings and land are owned by the government which gives them total control of when and how they can build without having to answer to anyone…sorry you’re going to need to move. We’re building a highway here. Thanks.
- The one child policy has some crazy implications on human behavior. There’s an immense amount of pressure on that one child to achieve. Children also have a ton of attention (2 parents, 4 grandparents) which I’m sure has some implications.
- I felt safe the entire time with the exception of a few driving instances in rural China. One reason this might be is because guns are few and far between.
- Many components of attractiveness mirrored elements reminiscent of feudal societies. Paleness, heaviness amongst males, and even an overgrown fingernail(s) were considered attractive attributes. All of these things are signals of wealth and status in their culture.
- Athletics aren’t seen as a valuable activity for youth at the scale and degree prevalent in the United States. Instead most push their children to study or take up artistic disciplines like caligrophy or music.
- It seemed like many employed people were doing unnecessary jobs. I had 5 people check my ticket between my boarding gate and sitting down on the plane. I hypothesize this is what happens when your government guarantees full employment.
- The level of censorship is insane. Apparently most people my age don’t know about the slaughtering of students in Tiananmen Square. I was in Beijing shortly after its anniversary. I couldn’t believe that there were hordes of tourists there that had no idea about an event so prominent in world history. I also found the recounts of a few other things from Chinese I interacted with pretty interesting…like how the Communist Party defeated Japan in World War 2. It appears someone tampered with the history books
When I juxtapose my observations with my experience in the U.S., the best way to interpret them and avoid judgment rooted in self-bias is to ask why:
- Traffic is chaos because cars were introduced at scale 5 -10 years ago. Can you imagine what traffic was like in the 1920’s
- Pollution is terrible because China is just now undergoing rapid industrialization. I understand the case that it makes sense to optimize for growth in the short term vs. focusing too much on mitigating the costs of that growth. I can’t imagine the U.S. was incredibly worried about pollution during our industrial revolution…though we didn’t have a model to follow.
- I hypothesize that the vast price discrepancies for everyday goods are a reflection of economic inequality than anything else. Considering our massive middle class and the fact that so much of price in the U.S. is built on “brand equity”, the disparity of extremes makes sense.
- Youth athletics is a luxury good. Its value in terms of establishing virtues like hard work, discipline and teamwork were probably not conceptualized in the U.S. until people had the means at scale for their children to participate in organized sports.
- Attractiveness is generally about scarcity and groupthink (this is what I’m supposed to think is attractive). It’s rare that someone has a six-pack in the U.S. and is over 6’3. In China, I guess it’s rare that someone can avoid a lifestyle in that requires them to be working in the sun.
The long and short is our behaviors and proclivities are mostly a reflection of our environment. The reference points of people in China is vastly different than ours which is the driving force for all the things I initially found to be so obscure.
Learnings About Myself
I love traveling because it helps shape my worldview while making me more self-aware. Here are things I learned about myself from this trip:
When evaluating other’s disposition and decision-making, I’m inherently biased about what has worked for me. “You don’t value youth sports! That’s ridiculous.”
This tendency is true for pretty much anybody.
Avoiding self-bias in my thoughts all together is highly unlikely. The most important thing is that I’m cognizant of this tendency and its shortcomings when interacting with others.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat and we’re all a product of our environment.
My friend John helped me crystallize the fact that my richest relationships are those that have the most range. What I mean by this is that the people’s whose company I enjoy the most are those that I can engage with on a variety of levels and interests. One minute we’re goofing off and 10 minutes later we’re having a deep conversation around a plethora of shared interests (business, relationships, aspirations, faith, sports, travel).
These relationships tend to teach and challenge me the most. Their dynamic nature also yields uncertainty and spontaneity; two things that make life exciting.
To an extent, I have a tendency to attune my behavior to those around me. There’s no doubt that this behavior is rooted in the desire to be accepted and liked (psstt the thing we all truly want) .
In some scenarios, this can be a good thing, but in others this is definitely not a beneficial disposition. For most of my China trip, I’d say that this wasn’t a big deal, but there were definitely instances where I found myself saying – why the heck am I acting this way? Oh yeah, because that’s what the people around me are doing.
I think the way to overcome this and consistently be stronger in my convictions is to define my behavior in a more formalized, established code. I plan on writing these out sometime over the next few weeks. Manifesto time!
Learnings About Travel
Having a limited proficiency in the language really takes away from the cultural experience. This trip was awesome, but it would have been incredibly enriched if I had the ability to communicate with the locals (as well as know what they were saying while pointing and laughing at me heh)
I love adventure hikes. I’ve never considered myself a huge outdoorsman and didn’t really engage in a lot of it growing up between my families preference and full schedule of athletic activities.
On this trip we did a two day hike along the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was nothing short of awesome. I found it to blend a few things I love:
Intense exercise, beautiful scenery, conquest and the satisfaction that comes with success (complete + overcome a challenge), camaraderie, uncertainty, grit.
I plan on doing a whole lot more of these in my future travels.
It’s really hard to maintain a paleo / limited starch diet in emerging countries. I think this is because they’re typically grain-based economies and I can only stomach fruit and veggies for so many consecutive meals.
I felt like everything in China was a carb fest (rice, dumplings, fried meat). Because I consider diet to be such an integral part of my health, happiness, and energy, I’d have trouble sustaining this for long periods of time.
I talked to a lot of backpackers along the way. One question I always had was – “how much money would I need to travel for X months.”
A simple way to determine this recommended to me by a traveler from Malta was just coming up with a daily number. His budget was 50 Euros a day. He was able to travel 10 months for 20,000 Euros all across Asia with this budget. I think it can be done far cheaper, but nonetheless I found it interesting.
This trip was truly an incredible experience.
I got to spend time with some of my best friends .
I learned and experienced a country that will arguably be more influential on the U.S. trajectory than any other in my lifetime.
I left thinking in more of a macro mindset; it’s a big world and there’s a lot of opportunity out there.
I even learned some new things about myself which I believe will help me become a more productive member of society.
This is why I love travel and will continue to be incredibly intentional about making it a part of my life.