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I have been living in China three years now. During this time I have had the opportunity to observe the Chinese people going about their daily lives. I am struggling with the fact that I don’t yet speak Chinese. For some people, learning a language is like learning any subject. Unfortunately for me, learning Chinese is a frustrating procedure. But in my defense it is also a frustrating language to learn. When I go out and try some words, people don’t understand me. While pronouncing words is difficult in itself, there is also the fact that the local dialog spoken in Kunming is different from Mandarin. I expect at some point I will reach a threshold where I can say enough words where they will be able to understand me. My American friends tell me patience is the key to grasping Chinese.

In any case I have been here long enough to see things I am trying to understand. From my observations, I came up with the theory that the Chinese in general are in a new era, what I call, “de-evolution”. Let me explain.

The Chinese gave the world the most amazing technologies history has ever seen. They invented the compass, gunpowder, kites, paper, printing press, seismograph, ink, chopsticks, umbrellas, astrology, the planetarium, fans, hot air balloon, animal harness, rockets, bombs, books, medicines, the abacus, the mechanical clock, the crossbow, playing cards, silk, Porcelain, wheelbarrow, ice cream, suspension bridge, pasta, paddlewheel boats, natural gas deep drilling, the blast furnace, toilet paper, the newspaper, parachutes, zoos, decimal system, binomial mathematics, and they even invented the “zero” for Christ’s sake!

These things have changed the entire course of history in the world. They are also one of the oldest civilizations in history. Going strong after 5000 years. One could say that the Chinese must be very smart people. With all the great things China has given the world, I can only ask, “What the hell is going on here now?” So herein lies the source of my confusion.

As I observe the Chinese going about their daily lives, logic and common sense are nowhere to be found. At first I just thought Chinese are just a vastly different culture than us Westerners. While this is true to some extent, there appears to be more to it. They do things that fly in the face of everyday common sense. There are some examples.


Crossing the street Most often they simply do not bother look for oncoming cars, or, they will only look right when they cross. They never look left which is the primary direction of oncoming traffic. The result being that they step right in front of a car! Instead of jumping out of the way, they just freeze and do not move. Same reaction as a deer caught in your headlights. This happens all the time. It is more the norm than the exception. I think that in their minds they believe that if they don’t see a car, it is not there. So, how could one see a car if he never looks in the first place? You see…..very different logic used here. Sidewalks are rarely used. They usually walk in the street, no matter how busy the traffic. Children, babies, old people all walking in the street. Most of the time they walk in the middle or in a car lane, not even to one side. Mind you, there is a sidewalk empty along the street. At night this is very dangerous.You never know when they will just decide to just cross the street without warning.


Driving There is a reason why countries of the free world do not recognize a Chinese driver’s license for car rentals or for any other function. It is very simple….they can’t drive. Oh, they sure try hard enough. So far in the first six months of 2008, they’ve managed to kill over 100,000 in traffic fatalities alone trying to drive. You can’t fault the Chinese for not trying. So what is the deal anyway? I’ve realized it is two basic genetic things going on that will naturally put the Chinese behind the eight ball with driving. First is the inability for them to process incoming data fast enough to react to it. Really, as smart as the Chinese are, their brain waves just simply run at 50% of normal speed. So fast moving objects, or situations, will have already happened before they realize a problem even exists. This makes crash avoidance impossible. The second missing piece of genetics is “depth perception”. I don’t think there is even a Chinese word in for it! In any case, they don’t have it. They do not have any idea about the space they occupy and how it relates to others. They will see a bicycle rider on the curb of the road. As they approach in their car , they will move all the way into the next lane, while braking, thinking they are about to hit it. They shouldn’t have a reverse gear on any car in China. I will give 1000 RMB to the first person who can back in a straight line for 30 meters! Hell, make that 15 meters. It will never happen. They can’t do it. Usually when a car must be backed up, a family member will exit the car, go stand in the street with the other traffic, and direct the driver as he backs up. Talk about the blind leading the blind! Besides the genetic flaws of Chinese drivers, there is the complete and utter disregard for traffic lights, signs, laws, right of ways, people, whatever. They really believe that the entire road system was built solely for their own private use. There is never a fleeting thought to using indicators to change lanes or make a turn. No, the only time you see an indicator light is when they are passing another car on the highway. NOT changing lanes, just passing a car. Then they turn on the left indicator as they approach to make a pass. Doesn’t matter that he is going to change into the right lane after passing, he still uses the left turn indicator. They are taught to always turn on the signal while passing a car. It has nothing to do about lane change. Ah yes, and how about those horns. Noise is in their blood. I think they buy a car just because it has a horn. No need to light firecrackers when you got an electronic horn! I don’t even pay attention to horns anymore. It is no different to engine and road noise. Horns never stop. Every car is honking, moving or not. It doesn’t matter what the reason. They got one and by damn they will use it! I actually read that there is a traffic law that states, if you honk your horn before an accident, then it is not your fault. So they drive down the street always honking at nothing. Kind of scary huh?


Drinking Westerners go out to the a bar with friends to enjoy a few drinks. During the course of the evening, maybe they drink too much. It happens all the time. However, the Chinese have a different approach to it. To the Chinese, drinking is not a social function, it is a national competitive sport. It is a competition that is taken seriously. You buy beer by the bucket. When you order a beer, they bring 15 at once to the table. You have to make a special order if you only want one beer, and you pay a much bigger cost to do this. Before you take a drink, you must toast every time so everyone will drink at the same time. It is bad manners to take a drink by yourself. Then soon the table begins playing a vast selection of drinking games to speed up the drinking process. Conversations are basically about who will pass out first, or fall off the chair. If you prefer to drink liqueur, it is usually sold by the full bottle only. Then it is usually mixed at the table with 7-Up. The beer is also mixed and served in shot glasses so that during the drinking everyone can verify how much you are drinking. The whole process is designed to make sure everyone is consuming at the same volumes and rates. After a while, people begin to spew to the others delight and taunts. Later people simply pass out and are dragged away by their buddies, and this usually marks the end of the evening. By the way, there is no drinking age in China. You can be 8 ~ 80. Funny enough you rarely see very young people drinking. By nature people are 18 and up. I think this is more due to affordability than anything else. I think they tried to enter drinking as a competition in the Olympic games this year. China gold is a shoe-in.


Health and safety This one is a little complicated to put a finger on. Granted, China is an emerging 3rd world country with a boatload of people jammed into a little space. You really have to see it for yourself because reading numbers does not give you a picture of just how many people are here. The sheer density of urban populations is staggering. My city, Kunming, is smaller than Seattle. Seattle has 1.5 million people. Kunming has over 5.5 million. Imagine 4 times the people walking and driving around Seattle alone. Apparently human life holds little value here. If someone gets killed on the job, he is quickly replaced so work can continue without interruption. There is no such thing as company safety programs, OSHA, or safety equipment for use by the worker. Construction workers do not wear helmets, eye protection or safety shoes. They wouldn’t have a clue about such things. They grind away at steel and hammer rocks without a thought to eye protection. They work high up on bamboo scaffolds and iron beams wearing sandals. Forget about safety straps. Many fall and are killed. There is always someone else ready to take their place. Children run around and play alongside working large cranes and steam shovels. Construction sites are simply open for people to walk or drive through during construction.

As far as health goes, China seems to be stepping up with implementing some sort of national food safety programs. In light of the recent problems with tainted food exports, there is a direct economic benefit to inspecting food production in China. So the government has starting to implement inspections.  I read in local newspapers on several occasions where numerous schoolchildren were sent to hospitals because the school lunch food was contaminated. The open markets, where you buy all your food, have no sanitary standards. Meats are put on open tables in the sun until they are sold. Vegetables lay in the street or on small dirty tables in the open. Who knows how many chemicals or tainted water was used to grow them. One learns to spend a time carefully washing everything before using it. I average food poisoning about once a month, even being careful. Everything looks great and is fresh picked daily, but you must pay attention from where you buy it. Still, somehow it all seems to work out ok. However, I tend to believe the western approach leans too much in the other direction now. I have been eating this stuff for 3 years, and I’m not dead yet. Smoking is just short of being encouraged here. The billions the government takes in taxes from the factories cannot be overlooked. Cigarettes are very cheap and plentiful. Packs sell for less than one dollar. You can smoke almost everywhere. Many smoke and eat at the same time in restaurants. I have not seen anti smoking material anywhere.  Public toilets are nothing more than open sewers, only the brave can muster a trip inside. Most children simply stand on the public sidewalk and do their business like a dog would do. You can see this everyday. I don’t care about the openness of public bathroom activities as much as I don’t wish to see it done a few feet from me where I am sitting eating a bowl of noodles.

China is a remains beautiful country despite the fact that people throw trash everywhere. It is thrown from the cars and dropped to the street. Nobody gives it a second thought. Finish a can of soda and simply drop it or throw it out of the window. There are armies of people wearing orange vests that are stationed every few blocks. Their function is to sweep the street clean and monitor their assigned block to keep it clear of debris. Maybe this is what you call job security. Still it is annoying to see people throwing rubbish everywhere.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I am frustrated mostly by the apparent lack of citizens respecting their own country and city. Something needs to be done to instill pride in the population and start teaching their children the same. As I said, China is an amazing country filled with beauty and history. I don’t believe these habits were this way in the past. But as China opens it’s doors to the world, these problems seem to be getting worse. Maybe as more and more Chinese travel outside China, they will bring back better habits to show their communities.