Joshua Keel

Travels in China

April 19, 2020

In the winter of 2016, with my best friend Philip, I set off to China for a 10-day tour that would hit Suzhou, Beijing, Wuxi, Shanghai, and Hangzhou—eastern cities near the sea. Having never been to Asia, I was in for a treat. And a shock.

I was unprepared for the huge apartment buildings, towering complexes that must have housed thousands of people. Recognizable locations like car dealerships struck me as somehow off, the architecture so different from the American style. Rows of businesses lined the streets, but I couldn’t tell by looking at them what they did or sold. The foreign characters were entirely unintelligible to me. Hell, it was almost like I was in a foreign country.

Yet some things are the same no matter where you go. For instance, Oreos and (if I recall) Pringles were sold in the shops. Like God, Pringles are omnipresent. There were balls of meat and seafood I didn’t recognize, but that didn’t matter much, since I’m vegan anyway.

This was the cheapest tour imaginable; something like $700 including flights, hotels and food, a deal Phil found on Travelzoo. As penance for paying so little, it seemed that we were expected to spend hours shopping for Chinese novelties.

The experience was surreal. We would be taken behind the scenes to see how a jade ornament was made, or how silkworms were turned into fabrics. Then, we were given a couple of hours to wander around and spend our money in large shopping areas full of any jade jewelry you can imagine, or any silk bedding you could want.

The shopping was incredibly boring, and the tours of the factories weren’t much better. I felt that we were somehow being hoodwinked. That’s what you get for spending so little. You get marketed to, heavily.

But what was truly odd were the enormous dining halls at some of these locations. Most of our meals were included in the price of the tour, so we would stop at the jade shop, but attached to it would be a giant room full of round tables. Our group of 30-40 would be served family style, with only a few of the tables being occupied, and a vast array of empty tables around us.

You’d better hope you like plain white rice, stir-fried vegetables, and beef, shrimp or chicken. There was little variation in the dishes. Each lunch and dinner was more or the less the same as any other. In one dish the shrimp might be battered and fried. In another, it may be simply sautéed. You might get beef in brown sauce, or slightly different beef in brown sauce.

To drink, we had Sprite, beer, water and hot tea. Never any variation. It was as if Sprite were the only soft drink available in China. For me, trying to remain vegan, this was a trying situation. Almost never were there any vegetarian protein sources. No tofu, or beans, even.

On more than one occasion, at our standard hotel breakfast buffet, I bit into something I thought was vegetarian, only to discover it had meat in it.

Thankfully, our accommodations were always of the highest quality. Think of a very nice Western hotel, and that’s what we stayed in every night of the entire trip. It amazed me that all this food, travel and lodging only cost us ~$700 each.

Our tour guides were friendly and spoke pretty good English. I noticed pretty quickly, though, that there was a message on this tour. The guides had a perspective, and if I could sum it up, it would be this: “Obama, leave China alone.” It seemed as if our guides were frustrated that Americans had a sometimes negative view of China, and that we did things that were against Chinese interests.

I listened to what they had to say, and I mostly agreed with them. We should leave China alone. But I also wasn’t sure exactly what we were doing to China that had them upset. I’m still not sure, and remain mostly ignorant of our foreign policy on China. From what I do know, however, things have deteriorated even further since 2016.

I started to wonder if there was some sort of conspiracy, if this tour was actually a thinly veiled propaganda device, intended to show Americans the best of China and leave out the less cheerful bits. Phil and I discussed whether or not the government was subsidizing the tour, and how they could afford to give us this level of experience so cheaply.

Now I wonder more about the people we saw on the streets, going about their daily lives. Some of them stopped and asked us to take pictures with them. We, the tall-ish white Americans, were something of a rarity— a good photo op, a way to show off to your friends.

I wonder what it’s like for the men and women who are my age, living under Communism. What do they think of their government? Do they buy the propaganda and the lies, or do they see through it? Do they yearn for something different, or are they content with their lives?

What will happen to China in the next decade, the next century, or even two? Will they become more democratic, or continue to ruthlessly eliminate that which is not sanctioned, that which smacks of capitalistic excess?

I don’t know, but I’d like to understand the average Chinese person’s life and thinking better. I care about the future of China, and I’m pained when I hear of crackdowns and censorship that is so obviously not in the public interest, but instead serves only to maintain power and control the masses.

China makes up almost 1/5 of the world’s population. It matters very much what happens to it, and it behooves us all to understand what’s happening there.

A few days ago, I started reading a book that I hope will help me understand. It’s called Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China. It follows the lives of six millennial Chinese men and women, from their early childhood into college and beyond. I’m hopeful this book will give me insights into China that I couldn’t get just by visiting, separated as I am by language and culture.

I want a world characterized by peace and good will toward all. I hope that by trying to understand the ordinary Chinese citizen, I can do my part toward furthering the world I want to see. We’re all just people, after all. We have so much more in common than not.