Monday, October 25, 2010

Should we NOT want to travel to a foreign country because of its socio-political reputation?

In the weeks leading up to my recent trip to China, friends and colleagues kept asking me the same question: “Why on earth would you want to go to China?”

Different people, same exact question. They’d follow this comment up with, “There’s nothing to do in China,” And, “They make so much money off of us exporting cheap crap.” And my favorite bon mot: “They’re all a bunch of communists.”


Me in the Forbidden City with a bunch of my "communist" friends
So how do I begin to explain to these people (whom I love dearly, despite their lack of cultural awareness) that China is both everything they’ve read it is and nothing that they expect. Yes, China’s citizens are dominated by a totalitarian political party that controls all their economic and social activities. But that doesn’t make all 1.3 billion of them “communists.” Yes, the Chinese currency is severely undervalued, but that’s because the country is trying to keep up with the huge demand for cheap goods that other countries—especially America—can’t seem to live without. (Been to a Walmart lately? Hello!?) Yes, China’s towns and cities are loud and dirty and suffer from bumper-to-bumper cars and elbow-to-elbow people. But you try shuttling millions of people to work and school everyday and see how clean and quiet you can be.

I’m not a journalist, so for a better explanation of the current state of Chinese affairs, read this and this

I only know what I saw for myself.

I tried telling my good-natured friends and colleagues all of the above, and was met with responses along the line of, “Yeah, well…whatever.” I even got a few blank stares. I decided right then and there that they simply didn’t understand. Which is totally okay. There’s something in all of us that most people just don’t get.

Upon my return to China, I told them about all the things I saw and ate and drank and experienced. The Great Wall in Beijing…The Forbidden City…The Pandas in Chengdu….The Giant Buddha of Leshon…All the pagodas and drum towers in Xian…so much more and not enough room here to summarize. The food? Fresh, hot, and cooked to order right in front of me. And so much healthier than the fructose-laced crap I can’t seem to avoid here in America. The tea was delicious, the rural landscapes beautiful, and the subway stations surprisingly clean and well-maintained.

They seemed a little more receptive, but mostly to be polite, not because they suddenly cared about all the “communists” in China.

I could have been a real jerk and said that America ain’t so great, either. Millions of people are unemployed, the housing market is in the toilet, and the middle class is slowly being hollowed out as more and more jobs are shipped overseas. Our justice system is screwy-louie, the rich keep getting richer, government is filled with crooked thieves, and don’t even get me started on the lack of separation of church and state.

The government seems reticent to do anything about all our problems, probably because they don’t know how to fix them, both sides can’t seem to agree on anything, and powerful lobbyists pay our politicians to look the other way.

But change is on the horizon—for both countries. A Chinese man living in exile was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and federal money in out on the streets, helping fix America’s dilapidated bridges and tunnels and roadways. A changing of the guard is occurring in China as a new PM is gearing up to take office. And America is preparing for mid-term elections that could see a huge shift in power, ushering in sweeping changes…or more of the same. Time will tell.

So now it’s time for me to tell. To all the people who question why I’d want to go to a country as “backwards” as China, this is the simply answer: Why not? What better reason to visit China—or any other country—than because it’s unique and different, and because it’s experiencing a time of change and uncertainty? The exact reasons we give for NOT visiting a countries should be the same reasons why we go. For the straight story, for the first-hand experiences, for perspective.

Life is short. Immerse yourself into different cultures. Surround yourself with people different than yourself. I did. And in doing so, I found myself surrounded by 1.3 billion Chinese “communists.” Just don’t tell anyone that was my real reason for going.