As we got on the plane we geared up for our final transportation battle, here’s what we expected:

There would be a olympic-grade race for the gate culminating in a series of shoves, pushes and elbows to be the first to enter the plane. Once embarking the plane, there would be someone sitting in our seats, covertly attempting to smoke their cigarette, or spit seeds on the floor. The woman behind us will receive a call on her cell and shrilly scream “WEI!” as if the person on the other end were deaf. And there would be bags upon bags of red and white striped rice bags being used as luggage.

The scene we expected

Surprisingly, this didn’t happen, or just maybe we learned how to deal with the crazy.

There was a rush for the gate with full out sprinting and elbows to the head to ensure first place. But we managed to avoid it. The cell phone conversation was had by a man, and not a women (that doesn’t mean there was no screaming). And wonder upon all wonders, there were no rice bags used as luggage- they were replaced by cardboard boxes.

Entering the plane we could only laugh at what we know now, at the predictable series of events that we brace ourselves for on a daily basis. From the daily game of charades, the incomprehensible shrill staccato conversations, the squatters, the cigarettes, the smog, the double twin beds, the fellow travelers, the crap internet, the noodles, and the occasional odd piece of meat.  Through it all we’ve learned a little about ourselves and the country that is reportedly poised to take over the world.

Village life in China

I learned that modernity is not always beautiful thing and it shouldn’t come at the expense of history. In China there is a palpable feeling that this is a country on the move – but the move from where and to where is not entirely clear. Every city seemed to want to copy the success of Shanghai and without giving much thought to the external factors that make a modern city successful, they tear down the old and paste in the skyscrapers, business men and stores. As tourists, it became increasingly difficult to find the historically unique aspects to each city as they were being eaten up with the same expensive box chains and luxury stores of the future.

I don’t say this to romanticize the poverty of subsistence farming, or undervalue the massive success of what has been thirty years of economic reform. I’m simply surprised at how modern China has paved over millennia of history.

Smog city, anywhere China

Life in China is cheap, but goods and services aren’t. Everyone of those new name-brand stores are over-employed with bored looking, highly styled men and women who have nothing to do because the high price of the goods keeps the customers away. It’s not just the stores that are full of employees, everywhere you look there are tiny hole in the wall stores manned by little old ladies with raisin faces who are selling poorly made The North Face knockoffs or camouflage army surplus gear. Next door there is a shriveled old man selling the same thing, and so on down the street. One street after another full of stores – the big ones selling crap that people can’t buy and the small ones all selling the things that people can actually afford.

In the United States, people love the expression, “work hard, play hard” but in China the expression should be “work hard, work harder.” Leisure activities are for the financially successful and the huge majority of the country just isn’t there yet. Instead, people work all day – everyday. Temporary houses are set up near constructions sites where hundreds of hard hat-less men pound out projects in days rather than months. Homes are torn down and new buildings appear in weeks. The sidewalks are being built as you walk on top of them.

Temporary dorms next to construction site

China is full of hard working, cheap labor and it’s impossible not to see this as a tourist. On every train sit thousands of migrant workers heading back home carrying rice bags of clothes and mop buckets full of Baiju. In the cities wide-eyed people in cheap, ill-fitting clothes take instructions from subway workers on how to buy a ticket, and how to ride the metro – for thousands of people (perhaps millions) the World Expo was their first time outside of their small village.

It’s amazing to see how quickly China is being built and to see the huge adjustment from farm workers to city dwellers. I’m thrilled to have been witness to the insanity and breakneck speed that life is moving in China, but man, I’m tired.

China has been the great equalizer: all foreigners are foreign no matter if your French, American, Chilean or South African. We met friends from around the world and we all had one thing in common – culture shock. Never have I seen Vinnie lose his shit the way he did on the bus to Litang. He actually yelled at Monks! Never have I felt more frustrated when trying to understand just why the peanuts that I was pointing to were “mei yo” or “don’t have.” (How can you not have them, you’re holding them in your freaking HAND!)

All people traveling to China have to learn that things won’t happen the way you have come to expect. Don’t try to sell the idea of baby diapers when going in the street is just as easy, and cheaper!  Don’t attempt to explain that driving at night with the lights ON is a safe idea, when driving with the lights off saves electricity. Why should you expect to buy a train ticket online, when everyone knows you have to go to the train station three days in advance to book your trip.  It’s just the way it’s done. China has created it’s own rules and you’re expected to figure them out, whether they make sense or not.

China, no diapers

Diapers? No need!

By the end of these two months, we were just beginning to figure out those rules. Part of me feels like we should stay longer, join in on the frantic pace of modernization and take advantage of all the obvious opportunity that China has to offer. The other part of me is simply spent. It takes a lot of energy to keep up with China and I’m ready for a vacation!

One thing that I’m sure of is that I will be back to China and by the time I do,  I’m sure it will be a completely different country.