Everything I thought I knew about China was wrong

People would cut in front of us in barely civilized anarchy, especially on the subway, where someone said they physically push you in like sardines. That was one of the prominent things I’d been told to expect in China.


And did you hear that they televise the sunrise on a giant TV in Tienanmen Square because the air pollution is so bad you can’t see it otherwise? People reported with glee that the food was all unknown organs and unexpected body parts, served with bilious sauces that you had to choke down or starve. And forget about communicating with anyone!

Xian from above

Orderly. Clean. And dancing.

Yeah… No. None of that.


We took the subways in Beijing, Xi’an, and Chengdu and found them immaculate, superbly organized, and full of polite people moving around their cities in an orderly fashion. Trains came every three minutes, so even at rush hour everyone was relaxed and affable, no crowding on and not a single case of pushing. Nowhere in China did we see the sort of aggressiveness we’d heard about, and while people did cut in line now and then (especially on buses), it was no more than I see in California.


Tiananmen Square was immaculate under a clear blue sky when we visited, no screen, and traffic passed with a light whir that exemplified why my pollution expectations were overblown. Twenty years ago, China began the switch to electric vehicles like e-bikes, which reduce carbon emissions by 98% per-mile compared to cars. The quiet whir of electric motors gave the city a quiet, peaceful vibe that was astonishing to my ears, accustomed as they are to a honking internal combustion world. And while the air quality in the cities was still significantly worse than almost anywhere else I’ve been, it wasn’t the thick choking clouds I’d seen on TV, nor nearly as bad as fire season in New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, or San Francisco.

Chinese food

Duck heads, I recognize. Pig somethings. Feet. And those aren’t endive in the upper left.

And the food? Well, they were right about the organs, I ate a number of unidentifiable parts from unknowable animals, but all but one were absolutely delicious. Plus, if the spirit was feeling meek that day, familiar items were available at every stop, just in a better form than I’d ever tasted before. Ordering was easy too, since the dialectical/linguistic variety in China is such that even speakers of the same formal language have trouble understanding each other, so most restaurants had lots of photos on the menu and/or wall. Look, salivate, choose, point, pause, enjoy.


When I read that list of prejudices now, I feel 30% amusement and 70% chagrin. I should know better. People love to jabber horror stories, exaggerate differences, and cast the unknown in its most threatening light. My partner and I both absolutely loved China. But maybe we were just lucky. A fluke. All I know is I would love to go back for another round. Even if I can’t identify the organs.