I kept out China out of my 2013 RTW itinerary, citing the reason that it was too far north of the intended trajectory toward Oceania via Southeast Asia, but to be honest the thought of visiting made me anxious. Because even though I am half Chinese*, I have always felt more in touch with my Japanese heritage; I don't know any Mandarin or Cantonese; and vast China, with it's stringent visa policies, elicited a nebulous fear of the unknown rather than my innate sense of adventure.
Childhood friends who had grown up visiting China to see relatives always acted like it was a huge drag on otherwise would-be fun summer vacations. When I asked why, the answer was always the same. "It's dirty," they'd say, wrinkling their noses as if the stench had followed them back across the Pacific Ocean.
I suppose, also, that I had it in my head that China would feel similar to India - dirty, yes, but also chaotic in the way of an overpopulated area furiously trying to modernize to the detriment of the millions still scraping the bottom of the ever widening wealth gap. (As opposed to "chaotic" like trying to have dinner at a Bay Area restaurant on a Friday night sans reservation and after the James Beard award winners have been announced). India was equal parts fascinating and exhausting; I'm glad I went but it's not somewhere that I would have gone solo if I'd known what it would be like prior to the fact.
So, yes, China was intimidating. Waiting around to board my flight in Tokyo's Haneda airport, I tried to clear my mind of all the negative things that friends and family had experienced - the poor air quality, the spitting, the squat toilets, the babies pooping and peeing in public through splits in the seat of their pants designed for that exact purpose, and the general pushiness inherent to Chinese people. (If you stood in line like a normal person you'd never move forward).
But when I actually got to Chengdu and started hitting the streets, I was pleasantly surprised. Contrary to previous experiences in urban centers of the developing world, there were wide sidewalks for pedestrians, a semblance of orderly traffic (although cops generally don't have the balls stop cars out of fear that a party leader may be at the wheel), sleek modern skyscrapers, and a noticeable absense of slums**, herds of cattle or pigs and stinking piles of animal (possibly human) excrement.
What does it mean to be "developed," though? Oftentimes, cities seem to conflate development with saturating the local economy with outposts of western companies, but as an American visitor, I have to say that it makes me cringe to see Starbucks, McDonalds and KFCs with long lines of customers. I get that it helps project a certain socioeconomic status (what screams money and urbanization more than a large overpriced latte?), but I'm more in agreement with what my host said about the importance of infrastructure over dinner one evening.
"If you can drink the tap water and people are more or less civilized on the road - that's development."
*Chinese-American, but ethnic identity will be explored in a future post.
**I have no doubt that there are slums here, but there aren't, like, tents and shanties pitched right outside affuent gated communities as is common in Delhi.