Why it is fun to travel around China

I submit that really every part of China is worth seeing, not just Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan are very different from Guangdong and Fujian, which are not at all the same as Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning, which are so distinct from the Jiangnan, and on and on, to say nothing of the far west. Each Chinese province has roughly the population of an EU country; there may not be as many differences between each province as there are between European countries, but they’re still huge.

One can’t so easily find accounts of how much fun it is to travel around China. Those who haven’t ventured far beyond Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing underestimate the sheer number of totally random stuff that happens to you. In stores, traffic, restaurants, and on the streets, I regularly come across behaviors and fixtures that I had no idea were a thing. You might be driving along miles of farmland, when suddenly a massive high-tech factory with the logo of a well-known foreign company looms up on the horizon; in a restaurant, I was asked one time to help with the cooking because chefs had to go out to buy more ingredients; you never know who might come up to you and tell you an interesting story. The lack of professionalism in nearly all things is sometimes frustrating but mostly hilarious.

That is from Dan Wang’s “What I learned in 2017,” many more topics at the link, including learning and books.


"The lack of professionalism in nearly all things is sometimes frustrating but mostly hilarious."

Rates a pass to me. The inconveniences of China were rarely hilarious and often debilitating.

But I think this sentence does show he and Tyler are more kindred spirits.

"The lack of professionalism in nearly all things is sometimes frustrating but mostly hilarious.”
That's quite insulting, really. If someone were to write the same thing about their zany travels through unprofessional Rwanda or South Africa or Cameroon would it still be hilarious, or would it then be hateful hate-speech?

Such a worry about hate speech, which the 1st Amendment fully protects. And let us be honest, would it be hate speech if it was written about Italy or Spain? How about Argentina and Chile? Or India? Or Afghanistan?

A friend who was in Rwanda recently said that it seemed to him to be well run: by African standards, exceedingly well run.

I suppose I should have asked him whether it was better run than Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, ....
Or California?

Paul Kagame is a remarkable leader. I hope his model is sustainable.

One assumes he speaks Mandarin and/or Cantonese, though there is no specific information concerning that detail at https://danwang.co/about/ The idea of helping out in a kitchen where you share no vocabulary with anyone else sounds surreal - including how one would even realize that one's help was being asked for.

But you can also learn surprising things just sitting in a chair in front of a screen. Like discovering that The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream is a commentary about China, for example.

This raises a question I'd like Tyler to express an opinion on. Which is the best second language for an Anglophone to learn? Mandarin seems like the front runner, but there are other candidates. My list would include Russian, German, and Japanese (mostly because I'm half Japanese). French not so much, unless you were simultaneoulsly learning all of the Romance languages -- French, Italian, Spanish, and Portugese (forget Romansh). In terms of number of speakers, Hindi rates being on the list, but almost all the speakers are in India, so not much use unless you move there.

Arabic is widely spoken, propelled by Islam because you don't really know the Quran unless you read it in Arabic. Farsi is actually understood not only in Iran but also across the southern states of the FSU.

Another consideration is leverage. There's lots of bilingual Chinese and Hindi speakers, but not so much Japanese, so you'll be a little more special if you speak Japanese.

Yet another consideration is the ease with which an Anglophone can learn another language. I found Russian to be easier than German because it completely lacks articles (a, an, and the). There is gender flection in adjectives, but it's not such a big deal. You can learn the Cyrillic alphabet (always proudly noted by Bulgarians as being a Bulgarian invention) within a few days.

Spanish is a very high leverage language (speaking as a Canadian).
It's the third most spoken language after Mandarin Chinese and English.
It's one of the easiest Romance language for an Anglophone to pick up, and is a gateway to other Romance languages. Portuguese is a stone's throw away.
It's geographic reach is pretty broad, and you will have access to literature from the Hispanic world.
If you live in urban America, you will not find a lack of people to practice with.
However, it is not a prestige language, so it may not be easy to find people with whom you can discuss ideas. They exist of course (there is a strong intelligentsia in the Spanish speaking world), but they tend not be common among the Spanish-speaking peoples you are likely to meet in America.

With a name like Thorson I was envisioning someone of Nordic ancestry. But where I worked in California there was one person named Peterson who was all Japanese, sansei I think; I presume Peterson was her married name. And there was someone named Fujiwara who was as white as Britain's royal family. I recently read an article, it may've been cited here on MR, where the researchers only had names and no ethnic information so they tried to deduce who was Latino by using their surnames. I wonder how accurate that procedure is.

Interesting comment about Russian, most people who I've talked to who took it said that they found it more difficult to learn than most other languages.

As for the best language to learn, it surely depends on what activities one is planning to do and where. My limited French came in handy traveling in Quebec and in Paris, and helped a little reading signs in Romania. If I kept living in California, I would have learned Spanish for the practical uses. Chinese or even Japanese could be useful for someone planning to deal a lot with those countries -- but what if you end up in your corporation's offices in Berlin? Or more to the point, if you like opera, beer, potatoes, and Goethe, it'd be advisable to learn German so your corporate headwquarters sends you to Berlin rather than Tokyo.


"I submit that really every part of China is worth seeing, not just Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing." Would any potential tourist have Shenzhen in their top three to visit in China?

It's also hardly cutting insight that the world's fourth largest country with 1.4 billion people might be rather diverse.

Actually what is interesting about China is that it is not that diverse. Sure, the non-ethnically Chinese parts are not at all like the ethnically Chinese parts. But among the core provinces of China's central heartland, what is surprising is how a pre-modern society with TV or radio or a national education system managed to produce such a uniformity of culture.

The comparison would be with India. Which is wildly diverse. In a way China is not.

Now presumably people don't want to say that because it sort of sounds like you are saying Chinese all look alike, and anyway, real sophisticates ought to be able to tell from the smallest differences. But still, the overwhelming impression in China is how really similar pretty much all of China is to the rest of China. Made worse by the awful modern architecture.

"The comparison would be with India. Which is wildly diverse. In a way China is not."

That was my experience too. China was quite visually drab to me although I was only in the north. Not as colorful as India - the clothing people wore, the buildings, the countryside. I very much enjoyed my trip in China because it was so interesting, but aesthetically it was not particularly pleasing.

It presumably smelled better than India?

Another thing that Mao and his merry minions can be blamed for, if one is so inclined.

China did have a national education system, though, didn't it? Ambitious people anywhere in China had to pass the same imperial exams, so presumably there were tutors around the country teaching the same things. This would have had at least some marginal effect in disseminating a common culture from the top down.

"Why not let’s ask for the US to reach and sustain 3 percent GDP growth by 2020?"

Sure, all we need to do is overcome the public choice hurdles to economic liberalization that seem to be an inherent part of modern regulatory and welfare states. Actually, I don't know whether that would provide "sustained" growth, but eliminating the deadweight losses would provide plenty of "catch up" growth, catching up to where we could have already been had we liberalized sooner.

My initial reaction was hey Paul Theroux's written at least a couple of books about traveling in China. But the reader probably wouldn't say that his descriptions are of "fun" travel so maybe Dan Wang has a point. I guess it's a question of what one considers to be fun. An approach that is open-minded and filled with curiosity will make travel rewarding; I'd call that fun but maybe Dan Wang woudn't.

I think he traveled for weeks subsisting on bananas and peanuts, but this was before Deng’s “it doesn’t matter the color of the cat” thing really kicked in.

I agree it's fun to travel to smaller places in China, but getting around on the train system can be a pain-in-the-arse if you can't read the Chinese signs.

I suspect Wang is using the term professionalism in a different sense than the readers assume. In any case, focusing on one word in a beautifully written essay has the disadvantage of missing the forest for a single tree. But that is America today, isn't it? My only direct experience with China is vicarious, through my best buddy and his son (who is my godchild), the latter fluent in Mandarin and well-acquainted with the history and culture having studied China, its history and culture and its languages since a small child, attending a private school with many students from China, and visiting China several times including spending a summer in China on an internship. My best buddy visits China often in his business. Several years ago, he planned a trip that included an excursion inland, something he had not done before. My best buddy does not speak much Mandarin, so he took my godson along for the trip to act as interpreter. And it turned out to be a very good thing he did, for inland China is very different from the developed coastal areas. Just to give an example, travel inland by rail can be tricky, as the rail system can, without much warning, suddenly end. What does one do when the means of connection don't connect? And what does one do when nobody speaks the "official" language (i.e., Mandarin)? What an adventure, especially when one takes along a teenage guide. An aside, Wang's reflections and David Brooks' column today about John Stuart Mill have much in common. Life should be an adventure, even if you never leave home. Lack of professionalism notwithstanding. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/opinion/john-stuart-mill-democracy.html

"I suspect Wang is using the term professionalism in a different sense than the readers assume." I dunno: what do readers assume it to mean? It seems mostly to be used nowadays to mean that someone has the right sort of clothes and haircut, or shows some other evidence of being conformist.

Are there no state controls on internal travel by foreign tourists? Can an American simply go rolling around the Chinese countryside at will?

Yes you can. The greatest sense of freedom I encountered as a younger man (1990s) was rolling around China at will (maybe due to the lack of a developed local travel industry or domestic tourism to make things dull). There used to be some 'closed areas', generally some places in Tibet, I trespassed in some and it was no big deal, and as far as I know those are pretty much gone. Could be some areas of Xinjiang which get closed now and then.

“Could be some areas of Xinjiang which get closed now and then.“


Because of ongoing unrest among the people who live there especially the Uighurs, which periodically breaks out into serious violence. Which some might call terrorism or some might call freedom fighting, it's a long and rather messy history. Either way the Chinese government doesn't look kindly on such activities and will crack down as it sees fit, although I don't know if that specifically includes travel controls.

Culturally the people there are far apart from the Han Chinese; Uighurs are predominantly Muslim and physically often appear more European than East Asian.

Xinjiang and Tibet have been closed off to individual foreign tourists since ~2008. You can go if you join a Chinese-run tour group. I've been chased out of western Sichuan too, which is ethnically Tibetan, and hence restive.

I've never learned more in a comment section than this site....you guys are awesome lol

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