Visiting China is like taking trip a hundred years into the future and a thousand years into the past - at the same time.
China is a place where every encounter, every sight and even every conversation brings more questions than answers.
Is China a harbinger of the future?
Or is it forever locked into a manual labor, serf-based Feudalism?
Is China a model of state run Communism?
Or unbridled cowboy Capitalism?
Is China a culture obsessed with control as it seemingly monitors every citizen and visitor?
Or is it on the verge of upheaval, collapse, revolution and chaos?
How do cities with the populations of mid-sized nations even function?
The most amazing thing about China is that it does seem to work; and the impossible becomes possible, and impossible looking buildings are being built, and seemingly infinite populations are being fed and housed - and educated. And monitored. Or not.
Is China the future?
Is it teetering on collapse?
I’m attracted to places and situations that are impossible, ridiculous, contradictory, neglected and rejected.
If it doesn’t pay, and no one else wants to do it, it’s for me.
That might have a lot to do with why I like Tacoma.
And why I volunteered for a short-term teaching gig outside of Shanghai, China.
Shanghai is a city (with almost the population of California) with one foot in the ancient, traditional past and another in a futuristic, high-tech fantasy.
A common European-based saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. But in China, a picture raises a thousand questions.
Real Chinese food, as one might imagine, has almost no correlation to Chinese food as served in North America.
Most authentic Chinese food is unrecognizable, if not unidentifiable.
You won’t find Orange Chicken, or fortune cookies (they were invented in San Francisco) or forks.
But you will see animals - or animal parts - you would never expect to see on your dinner plate.
Ready for pickled vegetables and piping-hot soy milk for breakfast?
How about stewed beef tendons or duck tongues for lunch?
Even those few restaurants that appeal to Western English-speaking customers have descriptions that are less than helpful. Duck tongue, anyone? How about chicken feet soup – for breakfast?
But it is not only food that makes every American or European feel like Marco Polo.
The university where I was teaching (one of the largest and newest in China) did not have flush toilets - or toilet paper - or soap - or paper towels - in the bathrooms.
In fact, the Shanghai airport featured helpful signs showing how to use a flush toilet - for those not accustomed to such things.
If you go to China, don’t expect to lounge in a Paris-style roadside cafe, or drink a toast on a Mediterranean cruise. In China you’ll feel a spirit in the air that there are worlds to conquer and fortunes to be made; and no one wants to be left behind.
And good luck looking for the ‘real’ China. The real China is as elusive and mythological as the ‘real’ America.
What else captures the collision of the Medieval and the Space Age than freeways and high-speed railways being literally constructed by hand by armies of manual laborers with trowels, tools and techniques used for millennia.
And yes, virtually all social media sites are blocked (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and many more – young people have, almost as a second nature, mastered VPN and other bypasses to government censorship) monitors, guards and watchers are everywhere.
Every street scene seems to veer between unleashed chaos and obsessive control.
Cities with populations of mid-sized nations are the norm.
Yes, China is messy, corrupt, crowded and oppressive beyond description.
Every experience is surreal and expansive beyond human recognition.
Many people I know hate and distrust China in a way and to an intensity unlike any other nation.
China is frustrating, incomprehensible and packed with filth, disease and squalor. And opportunity.
Perhaps, in it’s own way, China is the new land of opportunity.
Whichever way China goes, it will take the rest of us with it.