I comfortably sat on the bullet train flying across the Chinese country side at 160 MPH from Tianjin to Beijing through split pea soup smog that had my lungs heaving just looking at it. The landscape looked like the movie “The Mist”, but Instead of monsters emerging, there were pods of massive homogenous housing complexes. Seeing so many series of 34-story brown and grey high rises freaked me out a bit. How many people were inside? What did they all do? What kind of lives did they live?
This was the second time myself along with two friends, Patrick and Chris, headed into Beijing for an overnight stay during our contract onboard the Westerdam. Beijing is home to some amazing temples, delicious food, high end shopping, and plenty of bars, but there’s an odd feeling of always being watched, and the buildings have a quiet, hushed aura.
The day held peking duck, exploring narrow Hutongs, and checking out the 798 Art Zone, and the night was dedicated to casual bar hopping. To kick off the night, we stopped at a bar called The Parlor, and little did we know what that bar would lead to.
We took three seats at the speakeasy-esq bar despite being instantly turned off by the fact it was empty, far too bright, and the featured decoration was a fake deer bust above the bar. However, it was time for a cocktail, so we figured we’d have one before heading out. I got an old fashion with bacon infused whiskey, which was average at best. The three of us exchanged knowing looks of “let’s get the bill”, but then Jef, the owner, started talking and things got interesting. Jef’s English was impeccable, and it turned out he owned 3 spots around the city and was a budding entrepreneur. After covering the basic get to know you questions, we started testing the waters with deeper topics.
I had been dying to know how Chinese people feel about the restrictive nature of the government. Google is blocked, facebook is banned, and there is zero tolerance for any controversial free speech on the internet, newspapers, or media. Did each homogenous apartment complex door open up into a personalized, colorful apartment with people discussing the issues of abortion and environmental policy? Or were people sitting in a happy state living a life of duty to the government?
The idea of having my free speech taken away and life completely regulated by the government makes me cringe, but I recognize that I’ve a grown up in a culture with those values. My freedoms are imbedded into the very threads of the United States Constitution, and I’ve never known otherwise. In China, what I, as an outsider, sees as brainwashing is their normal. Who am I to say what “freedoms” are “right” and “wrong”? Values and standards are all relative to a specific culture, and wanting my western ideals for the Chinese is naïve.
I might want my idea of “freedom” for Chinese citizens, but do they want it for themselves? Hopefully Jef would provide some insight.
The first topic was public planning and progress. Chinese growth has blasted off in the last 20 years; the extensive, efficient, Beijing subway system alone was put together in one measly decade. In America, our urban planning projects are expensive, inefficient, and can take years to complete. In China, the concept of citizens opposing public planning projects is flat out preposterous, and there are no legal battles over the government seizing little old Betty’s land or concerns about building a new city on a nature reserve. The government decides what is best, and just does it.
Next, we discussed the idea of tipping in the US. Jef asserted that it’s better to get paid a steady solid wage; a pretty standard opinion from non-tipping cultures.
He whipped out some Makers Mark and said “this one’s on me”, and conversation got a bit deeper.
We asked what his thoughts were on google, facebook, and Instagram being blocked. He smiled, pointed to his phone, and explained he just gets around the block with a VPM converter and proceeded to follow us al on Instagram. Chris asked, “But doesn’t it bother you that the government doesn’t let you have access?” He said no. In China, the people serve the government, while In the US, the government serves the people. The systems are completely opposite, so it only makes sense that we will have differing opinions.
Jef continued on in explaining how Chinese government and culture is built on thousands of years of history and it’s flat out stupid to think civilians can ever change that. In the United States, people take the approach of influencing the government to bring about change. In China, the people simply find a way around the laws and regulations. It’s like blowing through a mountain with TNT vs. going up and around.
He poured yet round out, and we ask him his thoughts on Americans and how the Chinese news portrays us. Jef responded, “That you are all rich” without hesitation. Jef continued to say that Chinese citizens hate Trump, and that his policies and approaches to issues are ridiculous. He also threw in the absurdities of US gun laws; “the response to mass shootings is more guns?! The stupidity is comical!” He continued on in explaining that it’s pointless for Chinese people to have guns. The government is so astoundingly strong that a civilian uprising with measly AK-47s would cause more harm than good.
I asked what he thought of the Japanese out of curiosity, to which he responded, “They are simple and organized.”
Jef ended with giving us his prediction that China will be the top country in the world before long. The powerhouse has mastered the formula for efficient growth that is built on over 3,000 years of culture, and it’s only a matter of time before they surpass the United States.
It seemed like the right time to grab the check and head out. What we thought would be a quick drink ended up being one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had.
Americans, myself included, tend to make the fatal logical flaw of assuming everyone wants the freedoms and social liberties that we want. Free press, right to a fair trial, social mobility, access to education, freedom of religion, so on and so forth are all “correct” values that have been imbedded into US citizens from a young age. Stepping back and taking a global perspective, it’s naïve to think the values of a 243 year old country is what the standard should be. Why should we think that a country built on thousands of years of culture would ever want our ideals?
Experiences like this is why I crave travel. I love being forced to question my beliefs and choices, and nothing thrills me more than a revelation that maybe I’m wrong about something I was avidly defending 5 minutes prior.
Cheers to never settling for complacency, questioning everything, and embracing the world.