Which country you visit depends on what you are looking for and how open you are to what you find. Are you a tourist or a traveler? If you are new to Asia and simply want a taste of it, dip your toe into Japan. You will not be disappointed. But if you seek a challenge and truly want to travel some back roads and experience a country with a 5,000-year-old history unlike any other, pack your bags and head for China.
China and Japan Highlights
I fell in love with Japan more than thirty years ago as a recent college graduate. I lived with a Japanese family, taught English and traveled throughout the country. I could speak enough Japanese to get around. Japan is “user friendly” for Western tourists. Train travel is simple and efficient. English is spoken, especially in major cities. Japan is charming, clean and safe; its people are sincere and honest.
Yet, I was always drawn to China. I remember traveling to Tokyo years ago on a packed Northwestern flight from Chicago, en route to my second stay in Japan. During the flight, I met a fellow traveler who confided that if I really wanted to experience a truly “foreign” culture, China was the place. There I could see water buffalo walking down city streets!
Those water buffalo stuck in my mind for many years, until 2006, when I had the opportunity to spend one month traveling throughout China on a summer Fulbright Hays Fellowship. Our group of 16 college and high school teachers arrived in Beijing on a hot summer day. There were no water buffalo in sight. In fact, Beijing was so much like New York City that I couldn’t believe my eyes – at first. Then, little by little, the “heart of the dragon” revealed itself.
Beyond the usual and wonderful tourist sites such as The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, there are still hidden gems in Beijing. The Hutong alleyways with life teeming all around are part of the old China that is fast disappearing, especially in the big cities. Shopping in the traditional markets and visiting The Summer Palace on a Sunday afternoon with people of all ages enjoying ballroom dancing and traditional Chinese music are treats to savor.
The New China
There is urgency here. A “new China” is emerging, one that prides itself on its rapid economic rise. But, an unfortunate aspect of the “new China” is the fact that the powers that be seem to want to erase the vestiges of the past, much to the chagrin of the people. The Hutong and the traditional courtyard house are being razed in a building frenzy with bland unattractive high rises taking their place. In fact, in China these days, it is often said that the construction crane is the new state bird. I urge you to make seeing and experiencing traditional China a priority.
Japan, however, seems to have made an effort to preserve the old alongside the new. After a recent visit in April 2008, little had seemed to change. But Japan is a very homogeneous country. There are no indigenous ethnic groups or minorities living there, except for the Burakumin, who are more a distinction of lower social class than ethnicity due to their heritage of working in leather and other “unseemly” industries, and the Ainu, who live mostly in the northern island of Hokkaido.
For the most part, what you see in one part of Japan will be roughly the same as what you see in another part of this tiny island nation. Cherry Blossom time is particularly beautiful and should not be missed. But it will be there, next year and the year after. Kyoto may have modernized, but the temples and shrines and the traditional ryokan (Japanese inns) are still there; still as wonderful more than 30 years after I first experienced their fragile and exotic beauty.
Ethnic Frontiers in China
China, on the other hand, is a vast frontier and a land of contrasts, especially once one gets out of the big cities. Beijing and Shanghai are no more representative of China than Boston or Manhattan are of the U.S. China is roughly the size of the U.S. Within its borders live 55 different ethnic minorities. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to western China, to Shaanxi and Qinghai provinces, and to southern China, where many of the people of diverse ethnicities live.
Qinghai is the third poorest province in China. Many people have never even heard of it. Yet, traveling to the capital city Xining, and beyond was a one of a kind adventure not to be missed. Qinghai Province is situated on the Tibetan plateau, next to the Tibetan Autonomous region.
I have heard it said that one can experience more of traditional Tibetan life and culture in Qinghai than in Tibet, since much of Tibetan culture has been homogenized in Tibet. A highlight of my stay was visiting a Tibetan monastery in the area where the Dali Lama was born and joining in on a traditional Tibetan Harvest Festival with local people. Living in this province are also the Tu, Salar, Muslim and many other minority peoples.
In China, there is much to learn and to explore. When travelling to any destination, one needs to keep an open heart and an open mind. Leave the stereotypes and the “isms” behind. Yes, there are human rights abuses in China, just as there are in the U.S. (This is not the venue to debate them, however). If the recent response to the tragic earthquake in Sichuan province is any indication, perhaps China’s leaders are beginning to recognize the importance and value of being more frank with their people.
The Chinese are warm, kind, friendly and funny. One of my most memorable experiences was trying to lug a huge 50-pound suitcase onto a curb at a regional airport. It was hectic and hot; I wasn’t making much progress. A tiny Chinese woman, who must have been 80 if she was a day, popped up out of nowhere, picked up my suitcase and placed it on the curb. Without waiting for a word of thanks, she disappeared into the crowd.