For someone that has grown up with a very western background, China is a fascinating and unsurprisingly unfamiliar place to visit. If you are looking to distance yourself from home – physically, culturally, and/or mentally – there’s no other place that I’ve visited that quite checks off all the boxes. (Take that with a grain of salt. I have a lot of the world left to visit.)
My latest trip for work took me to the southern-most Chinese province of Hainan, an island in the South China Sea. The surf contest was taking place at ‘Riyue Bay’, which is a rather rural section of coast, so my experience in China is probably quite different than other people who have just visited the super cities of the mainland.
The tone of my two-week stay was set right off the bat upon arriving at the hotel. After 24 hours of travel, I was longing for an oh-so-needed shower only to discover that there was no hot water. Now, I’ve lived abroad before to know that sometimes you have to turn on the water heater or something along those lines to get hot water, so at 2am in the morning I find myself having a google translate conversation with the woman working the front desk of the hotel. Exchanging the translated messages on our phones seems to accomplish nothing and I walk away with more questions than I originally had. I took a cold shower. (Over the two weeks most of the showers were warm enough, no complaints.)
I think human instinct is to get frustrated when you can’t communicate with someone like in that situation, but I tried to keep my cool knowing that being in China I have just as much responsibility to speak Mandarin as this woman at the hotel does English. Not anyone’s fault here, just got to go with the flow.
So many things stick out to me as memorably unique of this country. I’ll try to highlight a few without getting too longwinded.
Individualist vs Collectivist
Being from a very individualistic culture, it was interesting to observe life in a country that has a very collectivist culture. One very visible example of this was how the hotel employees prepared for work. They would all get into formation in front of our hotel in the morning and dance. Yes, dance. The foreigners, of course, found this amusing and gathered around to watch and take photos, even joining the dance at times, but the employees didn’t seem phased. They must be used to it.
I suggested implementing a morning dance routine with my work team, but getting to work earlier than you have to for a dance routine was a hard sell.
Kids having fun without iPads
Outside of the restaurant that we typically had dinner at, the kids, and some adults for that matter, would play this simple, but amusing game outside with bamboo. In a day and age where most kids in the US can’t have fun without a screen, it was refreshing to see kids playing outside and it gave me nostalgia to my childhood of playing in the streets and forests of Santa Cruz.
China has a thing for building islands. I don’t know if there is a better way to ruin an underwater ecosystem than covering it with sand until it is above the ocean. And before you get all up in arms, our hands aren’t exactly clean either because the harbors, jetties, and cemented cliffs that line our Californian coast also have negative effects on the ocean’s ecosystem, principally in the flow of sand (also known as littoral drift for you ocean nerds.) As a result, Riyue Bay is experiencing an erosion issue where sand is leaving, but not being replenished.
Apparently, it’s cheaper to build an island than to buy land, which is what is promoting this practice in Hainan. To make it even worse, construction has been halted on these eye-sore highrises that have been built on these islands, making it probable that they will join the other empty, unfinished projects in the region. Lose-lose for everyone.
People are people
I am trying to take an unbiased approach as I write this, and I understand that I may not be painting the best picture of China. But I don’t want to omit the positive side of China that I saw. The Chinese group that we were working with were extremely friendly, kind, and helpful, and really served as excellent ambassadors of their country for us visiting foreigners that were working at the event. On nights that I finished my work early I would go to this beach bar and have tea or beer with the locals, and it was a fun cultural exchange just trying to understand each other. They taught me some Chinese phrases like ‘I love surfing’ and taught me how to write my name in Chinese characters. I am grateful for the warm welcome that these people gave me in China.
Surfing is on the rise
It’s also worth noting the blossoming surf/skate culture in China, particuarly on the island of Hainan. China is serious about their Olympic sports, and now that surfing has joined the party they are making no exception. The government is pouring funds into developing surfers and surf tourism in the country, the reason why I was there in the first place. They have hired surf coaches, arrange surf trips to the US and Australia, and give kids salaries to train as surfers in hopes that somewhere down the line this can translate into a higher medal count in the Olympics.
When you look around Riyue Bay you see new hotels popping up, bars that are frequented by surfers, and local surfers that make their living by being on the national team, and you wonder what kind of economy the area would have without surfing. Surfing is rapidly developing the area. This is definitely a good thing, providing work and income for the locals, but as you can see, as with anywhere in the world, where there is money to be made, there are greedy people who may just build an island on a pristine marine habitat.
As with most of my work travel posts, I left China feeling like I didn’t even see the tip of the iceberg. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there is so much left to discover that remains unknown to me. It’s hard to jump to conclusions when I have such little experience to base anything on, but my first experience in China was overall a positive one. Looking forward to the next one.
*First image courtesy of ISA / Tim Hain