A stream of thought response based on my impression of my first visit in the summer of 2016 (Edited from the original post on Quora: https://www.quora.com/How-do-foreigners-view-China-after-visiting-China/answer/Robin-Pittman-1?srid=i6BR
Of course, since then my awareness and impression has changed as I have returned two more times, so take this as a wide eyed foreigner’s first experience.
A few of the first photos I took. When you arrive in China the first time – you tend to want to take pictures of everything – because things are so unfamiliar.
Expected and unexpected impression
I traveled to Nanjing for the month of August. The humidity was almost unbearable. I was fascinated by the mix of old world culture and futuristic society. In some ways with the street vendors and the open markets, I felt like I was back in the 17th century, but everyone has smart phones.
Most of the buildings are new, but not well maintained (except for the nice shiny downtown). Kids played outside like I did back in the 1980s. Everyone wore t shirts with English writing on them which they probably don’t understand. Often the writing made no sense and was worth a laugh.
The future and the past
The more urban centers feel like something out of minority report or blade runner but with less dystopia and much more materialism. Capitalism is the name of the game here. From the street side food sellers to of course the large enterprises. The worst service came from state controlled places, everyone else was always eager to get the sale no matter what.
The pollution could have been much worse – in August it wasn’t bad. The rules of the road are not enforced. Tthe right of way goes to cars, the Scooters, then bicycles, and finally pedestrians. But at least they warn you. I haven’t decided if that chaos results in better drivers or worse, but I decided it was safest to look in all directions everywhere when walking because the sidewalks are as likely to have scooters as the bike lanes (much bigger and separated from the main road).
Where I was, I might not see another white person for days. I was quite conscious of it. It was intimidating and exhilarating, everyone tried to say hello in English, several times they wanted to get a photograph with me.
KFC ( 肯德基 ) and other western amenities
The sheer number of KFC restaurants. The Chinese love their fried chicken. Starbucks is common too, but just as expensive as in the US. Most of the restaurants are local mom and pa shops. I was aware the food in China is nothing like the Chinese food in the west. I think I had more tofu than rice. It was good, but my western stomachs could not tolerate the idea of tripe.
As for my impression of the food – most of it is fresh. Even Walmart had live animals (fish, frogs）that you can buy for food. Drinks are room temperature or warmer. It is barbaric and unhealthy to drink cold drinks. The cold soft drinks were still warm for my taste. It’s difficult to find chocolate – at least good chocolate.
Shopping in malls was similar to America, but there is way more staff. It is like it was before the vast cuts for efficiency in the 80s. The prosperity is very visible. Many things are sold differently. Groceries are sold by weight. At one of the many stations in the store, instead of the cash register. Buying clothing didn’t seem so different. At least they were air conditioned. 38 degrees Celsius and 85 percent humidity are not pleasant for a Canadian such as me. Interestingly enough, when entering these AC palaces of survival, the doors are large thin plastic strips that you just separate like vertical blinds.
Public transit was amazing – buses, subways, trains. Easy to use, frequent and though crowded, they seemed the best way to get around.
What about the people?
Of course, you can’t visit a city in China without talking about the crowds. I never felt frustrated by the crowds, and being taller than most people, I could easily see over everyone’s heads. There is a very obvious difference between a younger generation that have only know prosperity – more western in appearance, more materialistic, willing to hold hands, than with the older generations who grew up in villages and received little education. Their appearance and health seem very different. One beggar women actually grabbed my arm aggressively expecting money. Violently. It was weird.
Anyone who could afford to buy a home several years ago when they were dirt cheap, may own several now – and they sell for a huge amount. A lot of hidden wealth. A lot of ostentatious displays of wealth as well.
There are so many more things. It was my first chance to travel overseas. I plan on going back. The people were nice, the speech does sound aggressive – it is not, just the nature of the language sound. I went out for dinner with others often and they were all exceptionally accommodating and friendly. Oh yeah, and Canadian dollars go really far there. 30 dollars got three of us a nice dinner in a decent restaurant in downtown Shanghai.
I definitely noticed a more pronounced class-ism though. Not by culture or race, but on education and family status. It seemed heavily ingrained in the culture – a certain disrespect for those of lower education such as farmers or vendors. Some farmers are pretty wealthy. The government paid them well to buy them out. Now they sell watermelons. Oh yeah, so many watermelons. Cheap, delicious. Mmmm. Stinky Tofu – smells like shit – tastes great.
Are they really Communist? Maybe in name only.
My impression of law enforcement is that at least outwardly felt more like unarmed security guards – in fact, it is not even clear who is what. I didn’t once feel intimidated by them. They generally let everyone mind their own business – not authoritarian at all. I did see some police or guards with AK-47s, but that was only once. Most don’t carry firearms.
I felt much safer there than anywhere else I have lived. At night, I never felt like that shady person was planning on stealing my wallet, or going to rob me. There just seems to be less desperation, and harmony is a strong part of the culture. There were some places that had a bit more of a slum like feel, but not so intimidating as Hastings in Vancouver.
They do complain, they complain about the government openly, they have as many beefs as we in the west, but the tremendous growth in prosperity and the culture gives them less incentive to put up a fight. There is definitely propaganda. Nationalism like we see sometimes in the US. They think they know about the outside world as well as most Americans who haven’t traveled abroad think they do. Their knowledge is just as biased. They know about Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen (called the June 4th incident) – though these tend to be all downplayed and they don’t bring it up if they know much of it at all. Culture Revolution seems to be pretty disliked though.
I will conclude by mentioning the great firewall – it was annoying. The Chinese people who care are well aware of it and seem to dislike it. I hope the VPNs aren’t all blocked by Feb 2018. I’ve heard this but we’ll see.