First impressions can prejudice long-term opinions, particularly where China is concerned. My favourite examples of this recently were Twitter posts from professional snooker player Mark Allen. He said: 'People are ignorant. Place stinks. Arenas rubbish, tables poor, food is horrendous. Other than that I love China'; 'Dead cat found this morning. Any wonder this place stinks. Must be dead cats all round the town' (source: BBC sport).
On some counts he's right. Strolling around Guangzhou one's nose does encounter some awful stenches which may or may not be one or any number of dead cats. I can't comment on snooker tables, but it's true that the food can be quite dangerous. More often than not meat is not de-boned so you can be chomping on chicken to suddenly crunch down on a joint.
Last week after lunch around a quarter of the students at my school got food poisoning. In England there would have been outrage, but in China there have so far been no repercussions. I wouldn't be surprised if the school blamed the children for not washing their hands.
To say people are ignorant is very harsh as there are many ignorant people the world over. But I do encounter many problems with people when I try to speak to them in Chinese. Mandarin is a difficult language to get one's head around due to the four tones that exist. This means that a word can have four completely different meanings. My favourite example, and the most common, is 'ma' which, with each of the four tones, can mean mother, hemp, horse and or scold. Equally, with each tone 'shu' can mean book, ripe, rat or tree.
So mistakes are often made, but some people do not use their brain when they don't understand. For example, if you go into a bakery and mistakenly ask for noodles (miantao) rather than bread (mianbao) it is fairly obvious what you are looking for. Or if you are in restaurant, they ask you what you want to drink and you reply 'pijiu' (beer) or something like it. Instead of trying to figure out the word, they may look at you as though you've asked them to dance on Chairman Mao's grave.
It can be frustrating for you, but a shock to them when 'foreigners' attempt to speak Chinese. It may also be true that people understand what you say but do no want to do something so feign misunderstanding. The best examples of this are the many taxi drivers who do not wish to drive the hour to my area of Guangzhou and not get a fare back.
Some of my own first impressions of China were not dissimilar to Mark Allen's, but as you get used to the country and its people, you understand why things are the way they are and refine your views. When I came to China I deliberately did not have any expectations. Things were obviously going to be very different. Unfortunately Mark Allen's mindset did not enter the Orient.
In the west we see China as a major economic power and, consequently, a wealthy country like our own. With successes like the Beijing Olympics showing us a resplendent nation, we do not expect some localities to resemble a Third World country.
The West is also fearful of China. To counter Chinese power, the United States has recently placed an emphasis on its Australian alliance. This move came around a month before Chinese military spending passed $100 billion. Incidentally, as a percentage of Chinese GDP this is far less than British military spending.
There are also efforts to undermine Chinese achievements. There are regular articles about poor working and living conditions; Chinese human rights; and economic failures including uninhabited cities and empty shopping malls. Some comments are overtly xenophobic and display high ignorance from the west. It is unfair to pass comment on other countries' fallibilities until we put our own houses in order. There may well be empty cities in China, but at least they are building houses. There may also be shopping malls with no customers, but British high streets have been dying for decades.
The fact remains that Chinese economic power is here to stay and grow exponentially. Britain was not the greatest place for an industrial worker in 1890, nor for many people a century later were American living standards much of an improvement. China's economic and political growth is in the same place as Britain's was before reforms were passed that we now take for granted. We need to accept China as a major world power rather than snootily dismiss it. If you haven't already been, please come. Don't 'do a Mark Allen'. Open your mind but maybe not your nose!
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