Over the past three years I have been to China about five times, or so I thought! But in reality, I had been to Shanghai. This time my business trip was going to take me to three cities, like a rock tour: Shanghai for two days, Beijing for four days and Guangzhou/Shenzhen for the remaining two days.
My first trip to Shanghai, a few years back, made a great impression on me. This modern futuristic mega polis and financial center had everything you can imagine and more: fabulous hotels, restaurants, neighbourhoods and amazingly cheap taxis. But this is not what my imagination had made up of China and I wanted to see the real China, the one that is traditional and architecturally different from what I am used to, so when I had expressed this thought in Shanghai, my colleagues had taken me to the walled Chinatown area!
-How could China have a Chinatown area? I asked my colleague Sunny.
-Well Helene, Shanghai has developed so quickly and in such a modern way that they had to protect a little area for tourists like you who wish to see what it use to be. The Pudong area that contains all the highest and most futuristic sky rises of Shanghai was a fishing village sixteen years ago and it is now this ultra sophisticated city of 15 million people.
So I thought I had been to China over the last three years because I had been to Shanghai numerous times… But this time, I went to China!
My first stop was again in Shanghai in the French quarters that still has a flair of Europe with a big touch of Asia. I stayed at my regular Regal International hotel that has a business floor for women and do, like most five star hotels of Asia, understand what the ultimate service and comfort is, to a level you can only experience here. But the 42 degrees in the shade with a humidex factor that gave the sensation of 50 degrees Celsius was unbearable. The extreme heat made your jewellery burn your skin and made walking an effort that would absolutely need to be rewarded with a beer or some sort of a heavenly experience at the end.
The first day, my friend and colleague Steve Baker rewarded me with the beer and the second day, an unknown local hair dresser salon surprised me with the latter one: A 30 minute hair wash while lying down on a massage table with a head neck, back and shoulder massage that made me believe that there is a heaven on earth, even in this hell-like temperature and that above all, heaven only cost $40.00 (Sing), massage, wash and blow dry included.
Yet, Saturday morning, it was with great enthusiasm that I left Shanghai to my next destination: Beijing. There, I would spend the weekend visiting with my great friend Kevin who I worked with for a year in Singapore. Kevin is the kind of genuinely fine intelligent professional that becomes even more interesting as you get to know him. I feel privileged that he calls me friend and China should be proud of such a fine citizen. He has a passion for his country that is contagious and it is not because he has not seen the rest of the world or is oblivious to things China still need to ramp up to, on the contrary. Kevin is one of the best ambassadors China can have. This time, I would also have the opportunity of meeting his lovely wife Sherrie who has done her university studies in Ottawa and speaks an impeccable English (same goes for Kevin).
As soon as I landed in Beijing I rushed to the Sofitel to get changed for my first sightseeing of the day: The Forbidden city. The new Sofitel was so spectacular and sophisticated that my jaw dropped, but sorry Sofitel, no time to stare at this young beauty because I have a busy happy afternoon ahead of me. For the next few hours, I played the real tourist in Beijing, from the temples to the silk factory with a stop for the tea ceremony an a walk at Tiananmen Square. To describe the building on my right, I spontaneously said:
-Oh is this the parliament? Then immediately burst out laughing when I realised what a joke I had accidently made. The government office was more appropriate and I corrected myself right away with a smile on my face. I meant:
Is this where the country’s leaders are?
-Yes, this is where the government governs Helene! Said my tour guide.
–Every morning there is a change of guards, you should come back to see it.
–They should change them more often I replied, poor them, it is 38 degrees in the shade today and here they are standing still for hours… in the sun dressed in wool!!!
The morning after, Kevin picked me up early to drive to the Great Wall. It is only 50 km away from Beijing, but it took hours to reach.
Beijing has twenty-four million people and approximately 30% of the population own a car. No wonder lately they experience major traffic jams of 18 km long!! The traffic is brutal. But while sitting in Kevin’s beautiful Passat and looking around the impeccable highways, all I could see is cars, cars and a lot of nice cars. Passat, Audi, Mercedes, Lexus, etc. I did not see one old car in the thousands of vehicles I got to see in the four days I was in Beijing. One thing I noticed is that Audi and VW have an outstanding market share here.
For the entire day, blessed by a blue sky and no pollution (very rare in Beijing), I could not once be fast enough to pay a ticket, a drink or anything. I was treated like a princess and literally felt like one. At the end of the day, Sherrie and Kevin crowned my princess day with the best Peking Duck one could experience in the heart of the city where this famous dish was born. The day could not have been better and I had reached my second heaven of the week, but even exhausted, Kevin insisted that he has to show me the Bird Nest Stadium created for the Olympics, which becomes one of the most beautiful and intricate piece of architecture at night when the lights enhance its features. Kevin was right, it was spectacular. I spared him to drive me back even if he insisted as I knew that his little detour to the Sofitel would have cost him a couple of hours in traffic.
If by now you are still wondering what I thought of the Great Wall after all this: It was really impressive under this crystal clear day and worth seeing for sure. I was not the only one who had this thought because millions of people had the same idea as us that day! The wall was carpeted with people as far as the eyes can see. Yes the Great Wall is impressive and yes it is worth seeing, but in reality, it is the people of China that are the real treasure of the country. It is the people of China that is the real China I was looking for. The kindness, intelligence and passion that inhabits the country.
On Monday, it was time to go to work and after a great successful day I was again surprised by two of my Chinese colleagues who offered to spend the evening with me and show me Beijing from another angle: The Hutongs! During my first two days I had seen the city of Beijing as the proper, clean modern city with large avenues and government buildings: Beijing was a typical capital with history and lot’s of people buzzing around.
While in a car or walking around I had seen tall walls that I thought were just that: tall walls or fences hiding an embassy or a school. Never I had imagined that behind these walls lived another city, the one I was looking for.
Walking into a hutong is like entering another world by simply opening the small red door on the wall. It is like a video game that you are facing several doors not knowing what awaits behind. On the other side of the door is China, the one I had imagined: Small and narrow streets with local people busy with their lives, an entire community intricately taking care of each other with local restaurants that rapidly create a delicious meal behind a curtain that I would not penetrate by fear of discovering what no one should see if you wish for a magical moment to remain intact.
Some of my colleagues, who today live in high rise modern condos, were raised in the hutongs. While grabbing one more delicious oyster spiced with aromas of freshness, my colleague became melancholic and spontaneously expressed:
–30 years ago when I was playing with my friends in the streets of the hutongs, we were dreaming of success, of owning a condo like the rich people, of buying a car and to have sanitarians in the house with luxury at our finger tips. This is what I dreamed and this is what I have today. But when I look back at my childhood, I would give it all up to go back and live in the hutongs again. The friendship, the family spirit and community atmosphere is so much better. In the hutongs even strangers take care of you, of your children with all doors open, it is very safe and the world is a better place. In my condo I don’t know my neighbours and quite frankly they don’t want to know me either. We live alone with our little family and take the car once a week to visit the parents, we plan to walk 15 minutes to the park to have our children play on Saturday and Sunday. In the hutongs, life was so much better.
-But would you be willing to go back to basic, get the community toilet with all the neighbours, etc. (my sanitary standards rose above the emotions here)
–True Helene, I might find it hard but today we can renovate the houses and make them up to new standards, he replied.
-Great! Problem solved; sell your condo and buy a house in the hutongs! I enthusiastically replied.
-I cannot afford it Helene, the real-estate in Beijing has gone up so much and many people want to go back to the hutongs so today it would cost millions to buy a house here.
-Wait a minute, are you telling me that all of these great people walking simply on the street or riding their bicycles and living with the strict minimum are all millionaires?
-Yes, if they sell it, yes!
-My problem solver mind continued its thought process with me saying: Great! Sell your condo for 500K, get a mortgage for the rest and buy one.
-They burst out laughing and began to tell me that it is not in their culture to take mortgages. Chinese people pay cash!
Kevin had told me this and the guys confirmed it: In China people save money and pay everything cash. Their cars, their houses and everything else.
-If you think about it Helene, people may live a simpler life, but the reality is that many Chinese are way more richer than the standard Westerners. We don’t have debts and we save money. Lot’s of money.
I realised that most of my colleagues, younger than me, who earn probably half of what I make, have more money than their counterpart in the western world. Think for a moment and remove your mortgage, car debts and credit card payments and then see how much you have left before your next preconceived thought about China invades your mind.
Yes China still has parts that are extremely poor and underdeveloped, and yes they are aware that they need stronger individualistic thinking, but my trip also made me realise that China is as diversified in languages, cultures and standard of living as Europe is. If you would slice China in several countries like Europe, you would have many countries of 40 to 100 million people with some countries being very rich with a strong economy and astonishing growth and some countries struggling with their development. China is many countries in one and many of them are debt free! How is that compare to what is going on in Europe these days.
After nine days of having people carrying my laptop, opening doors for me, paying for every move I make, reserving the best in class restaurants for me to experience extraordinary culinary discoveries, after nine days of having a window to the Chinese culture thanks to my colleagues and friends who speak impeccable English and translated everything to make my life comfortable, after all this time getting to know these amazing people I felt hopeless on how I will find ways to thank them.
I went back home and sent a gift to my friend Kevin as a small token of appreciation and he sent me the following email:
-Helene, thank you so much for your gift but you should not have done this. It is unnecessary. We are not colleagues in business, we are friends and this is how we treat friends in China! It is our culture.
Well, Kevin, I thought I was debt free, but I have one now when I think of how much I owe to the great people I met and spent time with in China. Special thanks to Edmund too. This blog is for you guys!