Friday, September 04, 2015

Monkey Kings and other things I learned in China

I’ve just returned from an incredible adventure in China, where we visited five cities in eight days talking about our state, its people and the things we make and do.

This work required our full attention. But I did keep my eyes open to see new and exciting things. Here are 10 things I learned.


The Chinese are probably far too polite to say it, but I suspect they scoff at what we consider ancient history in America.

We spent one morning touring the amazing Great Wall, visiting the Mutianyu section, which is about an hour outside of Beijing. That part of the wall is about 1,400 years old.

To put that in perspective, Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492, just over 500 years ago. This section of the Great Wall already had been standing for more than 800 years when Chris packed up the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

I didn't learn the Chinese phrase for "I've got socks older than you," but I think that's how they might feel about our ancient history in the Americas.

American brands

I went for a short walk in Beijing and saw so many little shops that were no bigger than a walk-in closet. But there also were some chain stores that we’d all recognize, like Starbucks, DQ and 7-Eleven. There were KFC restaurants everywhere. But check this out – they don’t specialize in finger-lickin’ good chicken, but Asian food instead. And we got ice cream there, too. Wouldn’t the Colonel be surprised?

Baseball underware

One of my colleagues explained that basketball is very popular in China – thank you, Yao Ming – and American football is just plain confusing. But my beloved baseball just isn’t on the Chinese radar.

So imagine my surprise when walking down a street near People’s Square in Shanghai I saw this sign with the Major League Baseball logo – advertising underware. Now, I get trying to introduce Chinese sports fans to baseball with caps and even jerseys.

But underware?


I’m New York native. I’ve driven in Manhattan. I’m brave. But I’m not brave enough to drive in Beijing. Red lights, walk signs, lanes – these all seem to be merely suggestions to drivers. The most aggressive New York cabbie would be hiding under his dashboard if he had to drive in Beijing.

The streets were scenes of organized chaos set to a symphony of horns. You’d think there would be crushed pedestrians stacked like cordwood at every intersection, but somehow it works.

I learned that driving a car is actually very expensive, with a driver’s license costing what would be $14,000 in U.S. dollars. That explained why so many people opted for bicycles and mopeds, which came in all shapes and sizes. My favorite were the three-wheeled versions, which just looked fun to drive.


I learned the difference between Western toilets and non-Western toilets, which are basically a hole in the ground. You don’t flush, but toss the TP – which you supply – in a little basket. This requires a great deal of undressing before you can take care of business. Or you can wait until you get back to the hotel.

Chinese food

What we think of as Chinese food is not really Chinese food. Meals come in many courses, and none of them ended with fortune cookies. General Tso never came around on the giant lazy Susan. In fact, I don’t even recall seeing any white rice.

I did enjoy trying many new and different things, most of them carefully and beautifully plated. Meals started with cold dishes, and the early waves usually involved soup leading to fish and other meats – lamb seemed to be popular – with at least one round of vegetables. The Chinese don’t seem to like sweets, so meals always ended with fruit. That included something I learned was called “dragon fruit,” which was white with black seeds.

It was fun to try exotic things like jellyfish – tasted like salty noodles – and appreciate the great care our hosts took to prepare such feasts. One highlight: Enjoying Beijing duck in Beijing.
Smoked eel was a breakfast option.

No bagels and Pop-Tarts. The Chinese breakfasts seemed to be similar to lunch and dinner – noodles, pork, black beans, and fish were in abundance. I regret not trying the smoked eel, but I did have some sushi. The hotel restaurants did prepare some traditional Western fare and there always was plenty of fruit.


There’s no denying it. Air pollution is an issue in China, and it’s a shame. There were great skyscrapers in Shanghai that I could barely see through the haze from just a few blocks away. The view from the 112th floor observation deck of the Canton Tower didn’t show us as much of sprawling and vibrant Guangzhou as we had hoped. And the beautiful green hills surrounding West Lake were shrouded in gray.

This wasn’t a problem in Beijing, however. The government was planning for a massive parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and ordered factories closed for two weeks and vehicular traffic cut in half. We were greeted with brilliant blue skies that showed off the city’s architectural treasures.

Contrary to belief, pandas do not run like squirrels around Chinese cities. There might have been some misinformation about this one. We saw no live pandas. But we did see a large sign with a panda outside a zoo, and there were many little pandas in the Great Wall souvenir stand. This was a crushing disappointment.
Monkey King 
I turned the corner in a hotel corridor near the conference rooms and ran smack dab into this guy.  The sign revealed he was the Monkey King. This required some research.
According to the always accurate Wikepedia, the Monkey King “is a main character in the Chinese classic novel Journey to the West. He is a monkey born from a stone who acquires supernatural powers through Taoist practices. After rebelling against heaven and being imprisoned under a mountain by the Budda, he later accompanies the monk Xuanzang on a journey to retrieve Buddist sutras from India.
He “possesses an immense amount of strength; he is able to lift his 17,550-pound staff with ease. He is also extremely fast, able to travel 34,000 milies in one somersault. He knows 72 transformations, which allow him to transform into various animals and objects; however, he is troubled in transforming into other forms, due to the accompanying incomplete transformation of his tail. The Monkey King is a skilled fighter, capable of holding his own against the best warriors of heaven. Also, each of his hairs possess magical properties, capable of being transformed into clones of the Monkey King himself, and/or into various weapons, animals, and other objects. He also knows spells that can command wind, part water, conjure protective circles against demons, and freeze humans, demons, and gods alike.”
I like the Monkey King. He should be one of the Avengers.

In all, I was amazed by China’s beauty, impressed by its architecture – both ancient and modern – and touched by the hospitality shown to me and others in my group.

Mostly, I remember the people we met. One of the government leaders we met told us he thinks Americans have the wrong idea about China, with some he met saying the country was a powerful threat to the United States, and others thinking most people lived in extreme poverty. The truth, he said, is that China is not as formidable as we think, and not as poor, either. The Chinese, he said, are peace-loving people looking to build relationships with other nations.

 It’s a special place, and I’d be thrilled to return.