“But I want to see the real China.”
What do we even mean when we say we want to see the ‘real’ China? Or the ‘real’ Scotland? What you are seeing right now, in this moment, is the real China, or the real wherever you are. I often hear people complain about how westernised China is these days (I am also guilty of this on occasion) and how it’s just not what they expected it to be. Well, sorry to break it to you but why would it be any other way? The whole world is developing at an absolutely crazy rate, so why should China or Thailand or India be any different? I too, would love it if everyone in China did Kung Fu and wore qi paos (traditional Chinese dresses) and only rode bicycles. But sadly, life goes on. Cultures develop and adapt and borrow from other cultures. People still practice tai chi here, but it’s usually outside Walmart, which is nestled between a Starbucks, a KFC and a McDonald’s. There is the odd bicycle or two sprinkled amongst the rush hour traffic, and occasionally you might be lucky to see someone adorning the classic qi pao dress. Of course there are places in China where you can go to still catch a glimpse of Chinese life as it always was, but those days are fleeting. Trends catch on. Everyone wants a car and to try a hamburger. Personally I just want a bicycle and a bowl of brown rice, but that’s because I grew up with cars and hamburgers. We always want what we don’t have, don’t we? I want to cycle along a river filled with bamboo rafts and stop at a pagoda for a cup of green tea, then continue on my way to the bottom of the mountain to dabble in a spot of Kung Fu. Meanwhile, my friend Lily from China wants to go to Starbucks and drink coffee, then head to the mall and buy the latest iPhone. Then she might get her hair dyed light brown and consider whether she wants pizza or a steak for dinner. And on it goes.
Everyone, the world over, is totally free to decide which cultures they want to flirt with, which languages they wish to learn and which countries they want to travel to next. But we must just keep in mind that they might not be exactly what we had anticipated. More often than not, there will be a McDonald’s standing high and mighty at the end of the street, but there will also be a friendly little local restaurant tucked just down that alleyway. Go there! You might be lucky enough to meet some lovely people who can restore your faith in the fact that there are still some people who care enough about preserving their unique culture and sharing it with any curious visitors to the area.
So, when you arrive in Shenzhen or Tokyo or Edinburgh or Cape Town and things aren’t quite what you expected, don’t panic! Rest assured there will be some hidden gems that will be positively oozing ‘China’ or ‘Japan’ or ‘Scotland’ or ‘South Africa’. But also, keep an open mind. Don’t expect everyone in Scotland to be wearing a kilt and talking with an accent so strong you can’t even make out one word. You will come across it, but not around every corner, and that’s what makes a place so interesting. You come in with a narrow view of what a place will be like, filled with kilt-wearing, haggis-eating redheads and you should be pleasantly surprised to see that there is more to Scotland than meets the stereotypical eye. We all embrace modernity and development, even if we pretend that we don’t. We want to sit cross-legged with the monks at the temple, then run back to our air-con’d rooms and check Facebook. We want to eat with chopsticks to prove that we can, but we also want to eat pasta sometimes too. We want it all. And that’s OK. In fact, that’s the key, embracing all aspects of a culture, both old and new, and enjoying everything that a country has to offer.
Don’t blame China or wherever you are for trying to keep up with the rest of the world. It would be nice to be able to live in a small, traditional Chinese temple house, but the reality is: that just doesn’t work in the big, bustling cities. And thus it is, we live in skyscraper apartment buildings and commute by bus instead of horse and cart. So, the next time you travel somewhere remote and get upset when you see that giant yellow ‘M’ or people wearing jeans instead of robes, just remember: we are all moving forward together, and only we can be responsible for preserving and maintaining our unique cultures and languages so that they don’t disappear off the edge of our beautiful earth, never to be seen again.
On that note, I am a proudly Scottish girl who absolutely loves the country I was brought up in and even though my accent is ‘messed-up’ (as people like to remind me on a daily basis) and I have lived abroad for almost a decade, I am still Scottish and always will be. However, I also speak Chinese and I need to drink a bowl of Japanese Matcha tea every morning, and I left a chunk of my heart in South Africa and sometimes I think I might actually be Taiwanese I love it that much, and soon I am going to travel to Myanmar and I know there will probably be a Starbucks in every city, but that’s totally OK. Because I respect that if I want to embrace a whole assortment of cultures, then so too, does Myanmar, and that includes coffee culture. Plus, just because it’s there, doesn’t mean I have to give it the time of day. I will happily cycle on and hopefully get lost on some magical road from days gone by.
Hypocritical? No. Like I said before- keep an open mind. Don’t compare the place you’re visiting to history books and travel stories from centuries ago, but when you do have a close encounter with a part of the culture that you hadn’t imagined still existed, remember to enjoy it and be respectful of that special moment, because they are rare.
p.s. Have you ever travelled somewhere and felt disappointed because it wasn’t what you expected? Ah, but that is life. Just try to find the positivity and enjoy whatever experience you are having, because really, you are lucky to just be experiencing it in the first place.