Beijing Stories and Tips

Sheer Numbers

Little girl in Shanghai Photo, Beijing, China

There are many revelations to behold in China. As this was my first visit, I was in complete awe of them all. I could, and probably will, describe the usual suspects to which all visitors flock with great curiosity: the seemingly endless Great Wall, the imperious Forbidden City, the now historic Tiananmen Square and so forth. But there was something more impressive that hit me almost literally between the eyes – its massive population. The CIA’s official count puts it at near 1.4 billion. You will not hear me drone on about there being too many people and that China’s "One Child Policy" was a good idea – it was not! China is paying in more ways than it imagined for that dreadful attempt at managing human behavior.

No, I was simply trying to mentally absorb the reality of the numbers. Everywhere we went, there were masses of people. Yes, one expects to find them at major sites, particularly since China has moved quite near the top of favored countries to visit. Anyone who has made the trek to China understands why that is – it holds much fascination in the West and is rapidly rising on the world scene. If you easily feel claustrophobic or just don’t like crowds, this is not the destination for you. I would urge you though, to reconsider and try, as the undeniable pluses far outweigh the negatives. Yes, China has its challenges, not the least of which is their population. They have nearly four times the amount of people that the U.S. has, yet their land mass is nearly the same as ours (being only a bit smaller than the contiguous United States). But, one has to consider that much of their land mass is uninhabitable, being either desert or mountains, compressing their population onto a smaller area of land in proportion to ours.

Another interesting aspect of this great population is watching human behavior. On several occasions, I heard comments by other visitors that were surprised and occasionally put off that the Chinese do not stand in orderly and equitable queues. Though it was a little startling when it first happened to me, what came to mind was that 1) we’re in THEIR country and 2) it is a very different culture. Those are important facts to remember as visitors travel throughout China, particularly Americans, who (like it or not) think that everyone should abide by the same "rules". I saw it as a valuable learning experience and only perceived it as an essential observation during our short time there. It can be quite the eye-opener, but that is a good and necessary thing.

With such a large population, it is not surprising that the Chinese are as assertive as they are. But even with that necessary behavior, it was always civil. I never witnessed open hostilities in spite of the tight spaces. I also continually saw their genuine interest in and curiosity about us – us, meaning Westerners. One has to remember that until recently, much of the population lived in the rural areas and simply did not have the means to travel. But as China develops economically, many of its people are moving to the major cities where industry holds the promise of better economic opportunities. That transition has occurred in the history of many Western countries over time, as they developed. The same holds true for China. As a result of their economic development, many Chinese now have the ability to travel within their own country. I dare say, it won’t be long before many more of them are traveling internationally. I remember when I saw the first wave of Indian tourists in Europe and thought to myself, "this is a good sign – it’s proof of growing prosperity". One of the most vivid examples that occurred to me was during my visit to The Great Wall. Our savvy tour director took us early in the morning so as to avoid the peak visitation time and minimize the crowd impact. Nevertheless, we weren’t the only people there. In the one section of The Wall that we visited known as The Badaling, there were several thousand other people there too. The tourist count grew steadily throughout the morning. As my husband and I climbed a section of The Wall, unbeknownst to me, I was being watched by some Chinese tourists. They seemed utterly fascinated by my light skin and blonde hair. Before I knew it, they eagerly maneuvered me into a photo being taken of them by their friends. No doubt, I will end up on someone’s living room wall or in someone’s photo album as a novelty of sorts. But I can tell you I didn’t mind a bit and it was a pleasant, if not humorous experience! Though we could not share any conversation, they smiled graciously and we tried to communicate with facial and hand gestures as best we could. It was a lovely moment I’ll long remember.

In closing, without a doubt, the best part of all this people watching, were the children. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were sweet and curious and when the opportunity presented itself, I took photographs, always being mindful of their "space". As a tourist, I personally try to consider the privacy of others and make an effort to gain the consent of the subject(s) before snapping away in close range. One does not like to be guilty of committing what I call "animal in the zoo" syndrome. To my joy, many of the mothers of children I wanted to photograph were honored that I wanted to take their child’s photo. I would show the resulting image to them with appreciation. I could have made my entire trip out of this delightful venture, but alas, I would have needed far more time than our tour allowed. Now there’s an idea – a photographic study of the children of China. I fear, I will not be the one to take those precious photos, but it is lovely notion and certainly a bridge into another culture.

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