I had a good time in China, really I did. However, I think it is highly unlikely that I will return to China (at least on my own dime). While I enjoyed my time in Suoyuan village with the Jinhua Homestay Project; at the end when everyone else was promising to return and effusing prodigiously about how great China was, I realized that I really didn’t like China that much. I found the cities of Beijing and Shanghai overwhelming and, to be honest, boring. This is probably partially due to my interests: I love history and seeing historical places – I could care less about skyscrapers – and Beijing and Shanghai are both super-modern. Of course, there are pockets of history in these cities like The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and of course, The Great Wall of China, but they are all but vanquished by skyscrapers and highways.
One of the biggest factors to my decision is the language barrier. The people in Suoyuan were unfailingly welcoming and friendly, but I couldn’t understand much beyond ‘eat’ and ‘hello’. Everyone knows that Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world for English speakers to learn. It is highly tonal, which means everything depends on saying it just right – otherwise you’re screwed. have no plans to even attempt to learn Chinese. At many of the sites we visited, there were no guides that spoke English. In addition to the language barrier in speech, there is also a language barrier in written language.
There are roughly 5,000 characters in the Chinese writing system. All the signs, menus, and everything else are all in Chinese, usually Chinese characters (not that using Pinyin would make a difference). And unlike other places I’ve traveled (even in other places using a non-Latin alphabet like Thailand, Cambodia, and Greece), the menus and signs in the capital or other big cities were exclusively in Chinese. Most restaurants I went to I ordered by pointing at a picture, with no clue as to what I was actually ordering. Honestly, I don’t really expect people at restaurants to speak a lot of English as long as the menu is in English. In addition to these practical needs, most of the interpretive signs at attractions either did not have English or had an English translation that was so poorly written that it only added to the confusion.
Another contributing factor to this decision is the cost and hassle of getting a visa. China was the first country I’ve traveled to where a visa was required ahead of time. The 30-day visa itself cost $140 and I paid a service (Oasis China Visa Service) an additional $100 to process it. This was necessary since China requires you to go to one of their consulates to apply in-person. For Iowa, the nearest consulate was in Chicago. Even coming from Macomb the train ride to Chicago alone would have cost $88 for two round trips (they don’t mail it back, you have to go back and pick it up four days later). I managed to get mine processed just in the nick of time and actually received it in the mail the day before I left for Singapore.
I abhor crowds and China is nothing if not crowded. Crowded places and waiting in line are two of my very least favorite things in the world. Again, this was less noticeable in Suoyuan, but even at most of the tourist sites we visited, there was a big crowd. Going to The Great Wall at Badaling was the stuff that nightmares are made out of. I think one of the reasons that the crowds bothered me more in China was that Chinese people have a very different concept of personal space (as in, they don’t have one) so you are continuously being crowded and pushed, without so much as a ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me.’ This is a huge cultural difference between the U.S. and China. Chinese people also aren’t great at waiting in nice orderly lines. There’s always shoving and cutting in line, which is very frustrating.
This is not meant to be a criticism of China, the Chinese people, or the Jinhua Homestay Project. It’s more of a self-reflection of my personal preferences and travel style. If you are a person who loves cities and crowds, then China is probably a perfect place for you to visit. I’m glad I had the opportunity to participate in this program and see a different side of China from the major cities. This helped to shape a wider understanding of the entire country. As someone who prefers smaller towns and villages, historical sites, and personal space, China just wasn’t my cup of tea.