Denver Bar Association
July 2010
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Things I Didn’t Know About China, Part One

by Marshall Snider


China may have opened up to the West, and indeed may own the West, but it is still a pretty inscrutable place. As my wife and I traveled around China this spring, experiencing big cities, rural villages, nature reserves and the exotic environment of Tibet, we realized that the more we learned about this vast country the less we understood it. China is surprising, challenging and contradictory.


The Three Ps of China

It is presumptuous to try to sum up China in a few words, but if you were to hold a gun to my head I’d have to say that what stands out are the three Ps: population, pollution and phlegm. Nearly a billion and a half people are really a lot of people. Chinese citizens refer to cities of 8 million as "small." You can’t get away from people in urban settings — wherever you go, there they are, in mobs coming at you, walking by you, shoulder to shoulder, bumping and grinding to get where they are going. Early on in my travels I learned the Chinese phrase for "excuse me," then realized that saying that to a Chinese person you bump into on the street is ridiculous — they couldn’t imagine why you are apologizing. Physical contact and absence of personal space are constants in Chinese life. A sardine in a can has more elbow room than a passenger on a Beijing subway train.

In Denver, we think we know pollution — remember the famous brown cloud? Child’s play. The air in the large Chinese cities we visited was often a murky brownish-yellow that obscured any view of the sky. Eyes and throat burning, there was nothing to do except don a mask and try to avoid breathing.

Before the 2008 Olympic Games, the Chinese government encouraged its citizens not to spit. But spitting is an Olympic-level sport in China. Everyone does it, everywhere. Walking down the street you hear a loud hacking sound and have to look around in an effort to dodge the incoming gooey bullet. Indoors, spitters aim for waste baskets and ash trays, not always successfully hitting their mark.

Mad Max meets rural China — these exposed engine trucks are common in the villages in Yunnan Province, Southwest China.

A Buddah statue perches at Huaqing Hot Springs near Xi’an.

Retired folks play Mah Jong in a farming village in Yunnan.

Traffic and the Death Defying Crosswalk

That traffic is congested in a country of over a billion people is not surprising. What is surprising is that it moves at all. Six lanes of cars fit Zen-like into four lanes of highway, all bobbing and weaving to gain an extra foot or two in the gridlock. The smallest space between vehicles is an invitation to honk a horn and horn right in. We sat in taxis and watched other vehicles come within inches. Amazingly, we never saw a fender-bender.

Equally amazing is the absence of pedestrian deaths. Crossing the street is a risky business in China. The "walk" and "don’t walk" lights and pedestrian crosswalks are laughable, existing only to lull you into a false sense of safety. Step out into the street with the lights in your favor and vehicles still come at you from all directions. I didn’t look up the Chinese traffic laws, but cars must have the right of way — asserting your "right" to pass in front of them is to risk your life.

Lines, Language and Loudness

A fascinating aspect of life in China is how people line up, for example at a ticket counter. Did I say "line up"? Sorry, I must still be light-headed from the exhaust fumes. A line of people in China has all the structure of a rugby scrum. The first person served is the one who most efficiently elbows his way to the front. Even when metal rails seek to funnel people into a line, people at the back will try to squirm through in front of you. As a Westerner, you need to shed your sense of what is polite and throw an elbow or hip check yourself, or you’ll be perpetually at the end of the "line."

Language is another challenge faced by the visitor to China. You can buy a phrase book or take Mandarin classes, which will earn you an "E for Effort," but it won’t let you communicate with anyone. Western mouths simply cannot make the sounds that the Chinese language requires. Each word has five meanings, depending on what tone you use — a rising tone means one thing, a falling tone another, and just try to get your lips around a tone that falls and then rises, all in one syllable.

It should be easy to get a cup of tea in China; after all, this is where tea started. But the short word for tea — cha — simply can’t be pronounced by an English speaker. No one to whom we said cha understood what we were saying — we had better luck asking for "tea." Fortunately, we were able to conquer a few important words – hello, thank you, and cold beer (if you don’t specify "cold," it won’t be – beer is sold off the shelf, and only a few precious cans or bottles are squirreled away in a cooler).

Speaking of speaking, Chinese people talk loudly. Common speech consists of yelling (no one is angry, they just yell), and to get near a crowd of people such as a tour group from the provinces, led by a guide squawking through portable speakers tied to her waist, is to put your hearing at risk. Between the crowds, the yelling and the rugby-scrumming queue, observing a group of Chinese people is an entertaining experience in itself.

Read Part Two in the September issue of The Docket.

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