Many people’s first trip to China is filled with hopes, dreams and tonnes of preconceptions as to what life here is actually going to be like. You’ll also have plenty of preconceptions as to what Chinese people are like, as touched on in this article.
Several years ago I was relieved to find that Oscar winning director Danny Boyle, of Slumdog Millionaire fame, was just like me in thinking that China was summed up by Tiananmen Square when he first came here.
The Chinese newspapers were full of reports of how the famous Hollywood director headed straight from the airport to the infamous square. Photographed in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait, Boyle told reporters, “For me, Tiananmen Square is China; this place is the most iconic symbol of the power that is the PRC. I just wanted my first memories and impressions of this country to take place on this Square.”
My first impressions of Beijing were actually taking the airport bus and then lugging my suitcase to my university dormitories on a wet Saturday afternoon, but I can absolutely relate to those childlike feelings of excitement that come with that first impression of China.
I’d read Wild Swans, watched documentaries and pored over countless new reports about China before coming here, but my heart really did skip a beat on my first trip to Tiananmen Square. Now when friends and family come to visit I find myself distinctly nonplused with the whole experience, but there was a time when being there felt like I had arrived at the centre of it all.
But reading Danny Boyles’ comments brought to mind the common expat ideal of the “Real China”. While many of us have preconceptions about China before we come here, it’s very common for that notion to translate into a “Some things in China are more Chinese that others” attitude. Let me explain.
How often have you found yourself thinking, or heard others say: “This restaurant is very Chinese”, or “Look at all the designer shops, this isn’t real China.” I remember having the feeling when I was new to China that my relatively comfortable life in central Beijing, with Western restaurants, fast internet, heating and other expats milling around, was somehow not "Real China”.
Thinking about it now, I smile at my naivety. I’d come to China with one of the most common preconceptions of all — that China is a backward and alien society. There are of course very underdeveloped parts of the country (see: China’s Poverty Line) and it was those parts I thought I should be seeking out, as I slurped my milkshake at Grandma’s Kitchen.
The joke is that I missed the whole point of China altogether – that it’s developing, which of course means some parts are more developed than others.
The truth behind the “Real China” myth is that both Gucci stores to Guizhou villages are equally part of the China we find ourselves in today. They are two sides of the same coin and neither one is more or less valid than the other in terms of what makes up the PRC.
So the next time you find yourself sitting in Starbucks and dreaming of “Real China”, wake up… you’re already here!
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Keywords: Real China
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