Ici, on dirait que le ciel est plus grand.
This observation was made by a friend during a schooltrip to Russia a long, long time ago. I couldn’t help thinking of this again when I went to China earlier this September; the sky looks bigger over there as well. Along with quite a few other things, but that is to be expected when visiting Shanghai, the world’s “largest city proper” according to Geohive. Large city, disorienting Orient, patchwork of colourful impressions, mind-blowing experience — this is what I shall fail to capture in the next few Entries.
First a disclaimer. The following haphazard account is merely an attempt to describe my first impressions of China gathered during a very short visit in a very specific location. For this reason, it is quite subjective and more likely to reflect my own flawed perception of things rather than providing a deep insight into Chinese civilisation. But honestly, would you be reading this if you were looking for boring objectivity? So there.
So, let’s start with the obvious topic: language. This is probably the main reason why a European like me can feel isolated in China. Everything else, no matter how strange and wonderful, looks familiar enough: streets, houses, supermarkets, metro, restaurants, roads, crowds. But when you don’t know the language it is nigh on impossible to get around based on what you read and what you hear. The spoken language, a melodic flow of vocals and soft consonants, doesn’t provide me any familiar point of reference; I could not even remotely guess the difference between someone saying “come back in one hour”, “I once saw Jackie Chan in that restaurant”, or “next stop, People’s Square”.
Written language is certainly very pretty, but quite hard to learn as you go. To some extent this reminds me of sign language: there is a lot of intricate information happening in each sign, and you have to be really attentive to grasp all details in one glance. The other similarity with sign langage is that the written on the one hand, and the spoken / signed on the other hand, are not related: being able to read a word doesn’t mean you can pronounce it (or sign it), and vice versa.
Yeah yeah, all nice and well, but can you speak Chinese now, I hear you ask. Well, before going there, I could say “hello”, “thank you”, and “cat”; fascinating conversations guaranteed. Now in addition I also learned “bye bye”, and “east / west / north / south”. I can also recognise a few written words: “Shanghai”, “Exit / Entrance”, “Road”, and “South Railway Station” (the latter being useful when you want to take a bus and not end up in the wrong place). Curiously, despite being really not much, it helped me a lot feeling not quite so lost.
Are there nine million bicycles in Shanghai? I don’t know, but there sure are shedloads of them, along with scooters, cars, buses. Driving, or indeed circulating, in Shanghai appears to be a very intense activity. It seems that everyone is going their own way the best they can; gently forcing their way in order to merge, turn, overtake, dodge. Lots of honking going on, not necessarily the long angry hoooonk you can hear elsewhere, which basically replaces cursing and swearing, and which more often than not turns into a two-voice concerto for hoot and peep. No, what you also frequently hear are shorter toots, which simply indicate to other people that you are here, and please don’t bump into my vehicle. And when you are already focused on overtaking the stopping taxi in front of you, dodging the pedestrians who take the opportunity to cross in front of said taxi, and not getting hit by the cars in the lane you’re moving into, you are quite happy that the little scooter who pops up from a side road resoundingly announces its arrival. All in all the whole driving spirit could be summarised as, ‘whatever works’. I was grateful not to be behind the wheel though.
Of course there are also quieter locations; there, loud honks give way to the tinkle of bicycle bells, and embarrassing collisions with dreamy pedestrians are happily avoided.
And one last topic, pretty unescapable. What about… you know… free speech? Like, is there internet in China? Why, of course there is; as much as my hotel’s shaky connection would allow anyway. Yet somehow there were some pages I, eeer, didn’t feel like visiting during my stay. Or, if you prefer: easy and painless social media detox! Two weeks freed from the procrastinating claws of facebook and twitter! Youtube I missed a bit more. As for blogs: somehow I
couldn’t didn’t want to visit anyone on blogspot, while WordPress was perfectly accessible (well, not quite: I couldn’t login, causing a delay in publication of last week’s Chinese portrait). Amusingly, while the moving medical stories of Dr Jaddo [fr] were unaccessible, I could browse the fierce entries on justice and human rights by Maître Eolas [fr] to my heart’s content.
And this is the end of my general first impressions of China. Coming up next time: food! The bets are open as to what is the most unusual dish I have eaten there.
Pictures credits: me, anywhere on the web, Vanessa and Julien.