Interview with My Brother: A Newbie’s Reflections on China

One year later and he’s back again! This last August my brother made it to Asia for the second time in his life, but this time he’s here to see China, Thailand, and Malaysia. Will he be able to bare a whole month up in cut-throat China before making his way down to laid-back Southeast Asia? My brother talks about every aspect of traveling in China – the people, the ladies, the food, the tourist sites, the cost of traveling, and more – in this here interview. So let’s get started and see what he really thought about the juggernaut that is modern mainland China.

(Ness in bold font and my brother in regular font):

Welcome back to Asia, my brother! Last time you were in Japan, but this time you’re in China. I’ve already pointed out how incredibly different the two neighboring countries can be, which can be shocking for a traveler going from one to another. So how did the real China compare to your expectations?

My expectation was that China would be crazy, and it certainly was. But that didn’t prepare me for just how crazy it was 24/7. China is very intense and in-your-face, so you always have to deal with that, which can be difficult.

Now that you’re actually here, what words come to your mind when you think of China?

The number one word definitely has to be crazy. Crowded. Intense. You just can’t get away from all the people, the staring, and all the bizarre situations you find yourself in. Stressful. A mentally weak person would never survive here. Interesting. Any direction you look something unusual is happening.

China is definitely not for the faint-hearted! You saw four cities – Dalian, Dandong, Beijing, and Xi’an. How would you describe each one?

Tianjin Street in Dalian, China
Tianjin Street in Dalian

Dalian was in the middle – a little bit crazy, but still a bit developed. It had a little bit of everything.

Dandong was not a town I’d ever want to go back to. It was just shitty. The people were very rude, and there was nothing there for a foreigner to see.

Beijing was by far the most developed, but maybe a bit too developed. That made it tame, and it was tamer than I would have preferred.

Xi’an was a good in-between type city. The people there were nice, especially more than the people in Dalian. It was cleaner too.

Xi’an was definitely my favorite, and Dandong was definitely the worst. Actually Dandong is one of the worst places I’ve ever been to.

Even being a China veteran, I would still never step foot in Dandong again. How would describe Chinese people?

Young Man at a Seafood Restaurant in Dalian, China

Inquisitive – they were always wanting to know about me and you, and always staring at our every move. I hate to say it, but they can also be uncivilized. At least compared to what us Westerners think of as civilized. They seemed rude and selfish compared to everywhere else in the world I’ve been. The bottom line is, sometimes they were friendly, but other times they were obnoxious.

However, young people actually weren’t too bad, especially young Chinese women who were often very nice actually.

How do Chinese and Japanese people compare?

They’re polar opposites. The Japanese are polite, but so much so that it comes across as fake. Whereas “polite” isn’t even in the average Chinese person’s vocabulary, so they’re not fake at all. Overall I think I prefer Japanese people over Chinese.

Just like I talked about in one of my previous articles, Chinese people wear their emotions on their sleeves, whereas Japanese safeguard their emotions and true feelings. We’re opposites though, as I prefer mainlanders over Japanese people. Both can be pretty difficult to deal with, in completely different ways of course.

Family at a Train Station in Beijing, China

What about Chinese women? What did you think about them?

Mixed. They’re neither great nor bad, but I’ve seen better. As I said before, the young women were usually nice, and they actually seemed kind of interested in us. I went on a few dates that were nice. But the middle-aged women were often rude, so I didn’t like dealing with them.

I wasn’t really a fan of Chinese girls’ fashion. It seemed like they didn’t quite know how to be fashionable. They were also often lacking that extra layer of feminine “polish,” which could make them often seem a bit rough around the edges.

Many Chinese girls were physically attractive though. Not all of course. They were usually slim and clearly made an effort to look nice (though they sometimes missed the mark). Overall I’d say I prefer Japanese girls over Chinese ones. I haven’t dated many women in either country though.

Being married to a Chinese national, I’m obviously a proponent of Chinese women. They’re definitely not for everyone though. How do you feel you were treated as a Caucasian in China?

Very yin and yang or love and hate. People were always looking at us and seemed curious about us. Even if we just picked up something as simple as a bottle of water, strangers would look at us. People took our pictures. I’d go on dates, and the girls would tell me they only want to date Westerners. Sometimes we’d get noticed by young, good-looking women.

Yet other times people were completely rude to us. We couldn’t stay at certain hotels just because we were foreigners. People would also try to take advantage of us. For example, “black” taxi drivers would always approach us at the airports and train stations, yet they’d completely ignore the locals.

It was hard to pin down if we were liked or hated. But one thing is for sure – you’re gonna get noticed anywhere you go in China if you’re a white person. Your presence is always noticed, and that makes it hard to relax.

You’re right. I always tell others that I could live in China for 20 years, master Mandarin and the local culture, yet when I walk in the streets, it would still be just like the very first day I stepped foot in China. Whether you’ve been in China just one day or one entire decade, the average Zhou in the street still sees you as just a “white face.”

Mao Zedong Pins at a Souvenir Shop in Xi'an, China

What was the overall level of English in China like?

The average Chinese knows about as much English as the average American knows Spanish – a tiny amount, but not enough to get by. The overall English level was pretty bad. My interactions were very limited. People usually knew a word or two, but that was it. Some people were clearly making an effort, but still had a long way to go. That was one reason I didn’t date much, because I couldn’t talk to anybody.

Actually the poor English level in China was still above the average I experienced in Japan, which had the worst English level I’ve ever seen in the world.

I believe English in China is “all or nothing.” There’s not a whole lot of in-between. In other words, people tend to speak it at a fairly reasonable conversational level, or they just don’t speak it all (other than maybe “hello” and “thank you”). Most people fall into the latter category. That said (and as you know), speaking Mandarin or knowing someone that does is essential in accomplishing much of anything in mainland China.

What did you think of real Chinese food, and how does it compare to the Chinese food in America?

Liang Pi Served at a Restaurant in Dalian, China

I prefer real Chinese food over Americanized Chinese food. It’s a lot less sweet but a lot more spicy in China, and I prefer spicy. I liked what I ate in China, but after eating it for every single meal every single day for five weeks, I started to get tired of it.

Chinese Muslim food was my favorite. Any time I went out to eat it, I knew it was gonna be an awesome meal. The kebabs, the naan, the potatoes – they were all good.

There weren’t too many meals that I straight up didn’t like, but hot pot was surely my least favorite. I just don’t get it. It’s also the only meal that made me feel sick after eating it.

I can enjoy hot pot on a cold winter day, but that’s about it. How was the cost of traveling in China?

Compared to America it seemed cheap. Oddly enough the only thing that seemed priced the same here as in America were the sweets. But everything else was dramatically cheaper in China. Restaurants were cheaper. Alcohol was cheaper. Transportation was cheaper.

Food was definitely the biggest bargain. I was constantly eating meals outside due to the low cost of food, whereas in America I only dine out occasionally because that’s all I can normally afford. I liked this because it made dining out more casual, relaxing, and enjoyable, whereas in America it’s often an “event.” The only meals where I paid as much as I would in an American restaurant were all at the super fancy restaurants.

Did you feel like anything in China was a rip-off?

The Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an, China

The tourist sites. They were priced so high that I didn’t even feel they were worth going to. This is especially true for the Terracotta Warriors, where an entrance ticket was 150 RMB. That’s the most money I paid for any one single thing in China.

And at many of these tourist sites it’s extremely crowded, and the people of course behave poorly. The environment is just awful. I’m never a return visitor to any tourist site in China. You’d actually have to pay ME to go back!

One thing that needs to be emphasized is just how stressful and intense the social environment always feels in China. You may go to a tourist site, but you never feel like you can even focus on it because of what’s going on around you. You always have to move out of someone’s way or you’re always getting bumped into. It’s not even enjoyable. Just snap a picture and move on.

Agreed. What was your favorite thing to do in China?

Singing at a KTV in Xi'an, China

Eating meals at restaurants of course. But other than that I also enjoyed going to the KTV/karaoke. They were a fun and cheap way to kill a few hours.

If you ever came to China again, where else would you want to see?

I’m not sure if I have great expectations for it at this point, but I’d like to see Shanghai. I feel like I have to see it. Also Macau. And I’d actually be willing to see Xi’an again someday.

What was your single most memorable moment from the month-long trip?

It would have to be the day we were planning to leave Dandong for Beijing. That was a total nightmare! It rained for two days straight, which meant the entire city was flooded. So in order to get to the train station, we had to wade through dirty water up to our knees for hundreds of meters while carrying our heavy suitcases over our heads. We just barely made it to our train on time. We were soaked on the entire six hour ride to Beijing, and the people sitting behind us were loud and obnoxious. It was an intense day from beginning to end. There’s no way I can forget that day!

What grievances were there traveling in China? What made you the most frustrated?

Huimin Street in Xi'an, China

The crowds. They were intense and made me want to avoid any place that might be popular.

People’s selfish behavior was also irritating. Cars always honk and almost run you over. People bump their shoulders into you. People stare or click pictures of you, particularly at your worst moments (like carrying your bags down the street). It seems like rarely does anyone want to help you, and that gets old really quickly when you have to deal with it every single day.

Like we both said – in China an act of random kindness is far more surprising than an act of random rudeness. Practically anyone new to China, Western or Asian, gets irritated about the exact same thing. So looking at the other side of the coin – what made traveling in China fun?

The fact that there’s always something to see. You have no idea how people are gonna behave in any given situation. It seemed like they behaved as if no one around them could see them. This meant something crazy would often happen right in front of you.

Expect the unexpected! How was China as a place to photograph?

It seemed good, and I saw lots of interesting things, but I never felt like I was taking many pictures. I guess China just wasn’t as visually pleasing as I thought it would be. For example, there are lots of nice-looking giant buildings everywhere, but they’re all very spread out, which makes it hard to get a nice shot.

Photography in China can be very hit or miss. Some cities – such as Beijing – are not dense enough, have zero nature, and/or are just too sanitized. Whereas other cities – such as Chongqing – are very dense, have lots of street life, and/or have an atheistically pleasing landscape. But I agree that none of the cities we went to on this trip were very fun to photograph.

An Apartment Block in Dalian, China

I still felt I got some good pictures, but I was trying extra hard. You and I walked around for days with our cameras, but I don’t feel we have as many good photographs as we should to show that.

I feel as China develops, it loses more and more of its “edge.” But unfortunately that edge is often what makes for great photographs. Beijing is a perfect example of that. Even I felt like I was getting way better pictures of it only three years ago back in 2014. Yet this time around I was struggling to find anything worth photographing. It’s the same story for Dalian. I think it’s only going to get worse, not better.

Dandong was my least favorite town, yet ironically enough it was also the most photogenic. That’s precisely because it hasn’t yet developed that much. The craziness was amped up to 10 there. Sadly we never got to take pictures there because of the never-ending rain (which is also probably part of the reason I hated it so much there).

It was a shame we never got to photograph Dandong. I agree it had a lot of potential. So what are you gonna miss the most when you’re away from China?

I know my responses have sounded mostly negative, but China was actually that bad. I’m definitely gonna miss the constant mental stimulus. China is unique. I’ll miss the craziness of it and not knowing what waits for me around every corner.

What advice would you give to American just like yourself who’s coming to China for the very first time?

The Mutianyu Great Wall in Beijing, China

You can’t fully mentally prepare for a trip to China. Throw all your Western rules out the window. Nothing in China is going to work like the way you’re used to it working. China’s crazy and hard to understand.

You should probably also go around with someone who speaks Mandarin, as it will be incredibly difficult to do anything without them. China is not an easy place for the casual traveler, rather it’s more suited to “advanced” travelers. Beijing was the easiest. Xi’an perhaps so-so. Just make sure China isn’t the first foreign country you ever travel to, because it will culture shock the hell out of you. Definitely go to some other countries first.

I think I can say the way you experienced China is the same way 90% of other Westerners (including myself) experience China when coming for the very first time. Our next stop is Bangkok, Thailand, where we’ll be spending another 10 days. That will also be your third Asian country to see.

China is the most difficult country I’ve ever traveled to, so surely it can only get easier from here.

Like I always tell everyone – if you can survive China, then you can survive anywhere in Asia. Thanks for the interview and good luck in Bangkok!