“I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” – Mark Twain
A by-product of China’s new economic prosperity is a new middle class. Historically, the Chinese have been savers, but this new generation has taken a bite from the Western apple of consumerism and now enjoy the thrill of spending. After satisfying the basic needs of food and home with hard purchases such as washing machines, refrigerators, stoves and televisions, the next logical expansion of their consumer spending spills over into luxury items which include travel.
To give some scale to China’s torrid pace of economic growth, one can point to the city of Shenzhen, who in 1980 was designated as China’s first Special Economic Zone. The city was to be a manufacturing hub for attracting foreign investment to build China’s plan for an export based economy fueled by its cheap labour. In just 35 years, the modest fishing village of 30,000 people exploded to over 12 million people. During this time the city’s gross domestic product (GDP) rocketed from just under 2 million RMB to well north of 800 billion RMB. Just imagine the amount of toilets, let alone roads, housing and other infrastructure needed to support this type of explosive growth.
I’ve travelled to China numerous times over the past 4 years, but during my most recent trip to China which included the larger cities of Xi’an and Chengdu, the Chinese seemed to have a swagger that I neglected to see in previous visits. I remember during a broadcast of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an elderly Chinese woman was asked what it meant to her and the country to host the Olympic Games, and to paraphrase her response:
To have the Olympics means that China has arrived and that we can’t be pushed around anymore.
A strong statement I thought at the time and even now. The persona of this statement oozed from the pores of the Chinese as I watched them commute to work in the mornings. Chinese tourists have acquired the reputation of wearing this persona like entitled prima donnas on their travels. China is now the big dog of the East and their people know it. Americans have the notorious reputation of being the worst and most obnoxious travellers in the world. The Chinese tourist is making a valiant run at this title with reported incidents of opening emergency exits while planes are in motion and shot putting piping hot cup-of-noodles at flight attendants. Thailand’s tourism department has even created “tourism manuals” for Chinese tourists outlining proper “travel etiquette”.
The Chinese Tourist
My recent travels in China included spending a week travelling alongside a group of young Chinese university backpackers through the Tibetan Plateau of northern China. I prepared for the worst as my own experience with Chinese tourists have in general not been favourable. At the risk of stereotyping, I often run (literally at times) into the following types of Chinese tourists:
The sudden accumulation of wealth have turned many of the Chinese into modern day Jed Clampetts; hillbillies literally waking up to overnight wealth. Conspicuous consumption is paramount to these new millionaires. My Hong Kong friends remember early in the new millennium when China was in the midst of their own industrial revolution, China’s nouveau rich would wear their designer clothing with the labels still attached and visible as proof of their wealth. Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss tags left on men’s suit sleeves apparently weren’t uncommon.
With China’s reputation for rampant production of fakes, scams and replicas for virtually everything imaginable combined with the high import taxes on foreign goods, the Chinese shop like they’re supplying a bomb shelter when leaving China’s shores. On international flights entering into China, it’s common to see Chinese tourists with over-packed carry-on luggage while double fisting at the duty free shops. While here in Thailand, I’ve grown accustomed to the familiar sight of Chinese tourists buying and negotiating 10-20 boxes of skin creams or baby formula; whole cases of Tiger Balm coming out of the storage room no longer surprises me.
The high octane Chinese shopping tourists are actually quite entertaining to witness and the only inconvenience for me occurs when I board a plane trying to find space for my bag in the overhead carriage jammed with excessive duty free purchases.
The Line Cutter
The multitude of high density populations throughout China fosters a “kill or be killed” type culture. Any lock of assertiveness, will leave you spinning your wheels and become an afterthought in China’s daily life. People cutting line-up queues are common daily occurrences in China and this cultural norm becomes second nature while travelling abroad. No line-up is too long or too short to abruptly insert themselves into.
The first time that I experienced a Chinese tourist line cutting was at an airport check-in where I was next in line and cut in front of at the last minute. With a knee jerk reaction, I belted out: “What the f*ck buddy!”. The Chinese man looked at me stoned faced and then in confusion; probably wondering why another Chinese person is cursing at him in English. He then backed away and cut the queue a few feet behind me. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but I’ve had numerous, “What the f*ck buddy!” bellows since then.
Akin to the line cutting is the mad dash upon landing a plane where Chinese tourists storm the overhead compartments for their luggage when the plane is still taxiing off the landing strip.
The Chinese have a notorious reputation for public spitting; it’s a common sight in all of the Chinese cities that I’ve visited. However, in my last two years of travel, I’ve noticed the Chinese conducting this behaviour while in other countries as well. Most recently, while I was waiting for a flight in Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, a Chinese man sauntered out of the washroom on his phone and suddenly spit to his left. As if I were watching a movie with dual camera angles, another Chinese man immediately crossed my view, plugged one nostril and unloaded the contents of his other nostril onto the floor. I immediately stood up in shock and came within an inch of shrieking out another, “What the f*ck buddy!”.
With these experiences forming the foundation of my impressions of tourists from China, I braced myself slightly before flying into China last month since I was going to be travelling alongside eight other Chinese backpackers.
Enter The Chinese Backpacker
I was to meet up with my friend, Chris who is a Chinese national, in Xi’an for the first part of my trip in China. Chris’s ability to speak my parents’ southern Chinese Kaiping (Hoiping) dialect including some English compensated for my weak Mandarin. She had arranged through a Chinese travel forum for us to share a car and travel expenses with eight other Chinese backpackers to travel through northern China in the Tibetan Plateau.
My first night in Xi’an, I met the first group of Chinese backpackers armed with only my previous experience with Chinese tourists and antiquated stereotypes of the Chinese being robotic studying machines.
The seamless interaction and fluidity of these young travellers’ conversation led me to believe that they were long-time friends taking a trip during summer break. To my surprise, everyone had only met hours before for the first time. All of these students were from different parts of the country. There were no awkward gaps in conversation amongst them and plenty of laughter; they exuded a camaraderie that is characteristic of battle tested friendships.
Despite the language barrier, they did their best to include me in the conversations. The Chinese culture of communal food while dining lent to an inclusive bonding environment. Rather than everyone buying their own meals, money was pooled together (equivalent of $10 USD per day per person) and given to one fellow in charge of our meals. Perhaps a bit socialist in practice, but the arrangement worked. Despite being students and on a budget, they really knew how to indulge their stomachs. The meals that I ate with them were some of the best that I ate during my travels. Every lunch and dinner was a communal banquet style meal that used a Lazy Susan to share and access the food.
These young travellers worked part time jobs while attending classes to help fund their travels. Buying souvenirs was not a priority for these young travellers; stretching their travel budgets to see more places and eating well ranked most important.
These are China’s Y-Generation Millenials. However, the Chinese term for this generation is simply coined as “the post 1990’s kids”. Their youthful exuberance and curious natures started to change my view of the Chinese tourist. They are fodder for the age old debate of “tourist versus traveller”.
How The Internet Changed Travel In China
Ten to fifteen years ago, it was virtually impossible for the Chinese to backpack and travel in this budget manner. In 2004, the travel website www.qyer.com was created and quickly became China’s version of The Lonely Planet. The “qyer” website stands for “qiong yu” which translates into “budget travel”. The site offers online travel information, services and forums. It’s within these forums that my friend Chris was able to arrange this joint travel venture with these student backpackers.
Prior to the existence of these travel websites and forums, travel for this demographic was limited to primarily family vacations. With the advent of the internet, these Chinese backpackers can now:
- Travel more often and freely.
- Travellers can meet and travel together to stretch out their travel budgets.
- Travel in groups to feel more safe and secure.
- Travel with other people to provide a social component.
- Travel with more freedom and bypass costly group tours.
China doesn’t really have a community of travel bloggers to speak of, therefore travel websites and forums have been crucial in enhancing the travel experience for Chinese travellers. China’s online travel revenue, particularly mobile, has exploded in the last 5 years with online revenues expected to reach $75 billion USD within the next 2 years. I have used Chinese online booking sites like Ctrip and eLong without any issue except during Chinese New Year. You can read about the pitfalls of travelling and booking online in China during Chinese New Year here.
Meet the three C’s
Like most avid travellers, these young travellers once having a taste of travel have no desire to relinquish their pursuit of exploring new destinations. When not travelling, most of these backpacking students spend their spare time preparing for their next adventure.
After spending some time with Jiu Ling Hou, he asked me to give me an “English” name as he didn’t have one. I told him, I’d call him “Charlie” moving forward as the name had some remote phonetic semblance to his Chinese name and simply because “Charlie” just seemed to suit him. With graduation closing in on Charlie, he was trying to squeeze in as much travel as possible fearing that he’d have little time to travel once he graduated and entered the work force full time. He also wanted to take a more advanced English learning program to not necessarily improve his employment prospects, but better English proficiency would allow him to travel to countries other than China.
I could tell that travel was a big part of Charlie’s life by all the travel gear that he sported: backpack, quick dry clothing, rain gear, hiking boots, UV sun hat and the list goes on. I liked that about Charlie, a nerd for travel gadgets and gear like myself.
Before we parted ways, Charlie revealed that despite spending his education studying to be an architect, what he really wanted to do is build mobile apps so that he could he could work remotely and perpetually travel. He wanted to be a digital nomad. I’ve tasted a bit of this digital nomad lifestyle and it’s not an easy one. Before saying goodbye I gave him a hug and told him that it’d be great to work on a project together so that we both could be digital nomads. He gave me a firm handshake with a big smile and said: “DEAL!”. It’s hard not to like that type of optimism.
Cindy was a second year university student from Guanghzhou with aspirations to attain her Master’s degree and become a teacher. I asked why she wanted to be a teacher and she replied with a faint smile saying that she’d get two months of holidays to travel. Spoken with a nomadic soul. Like Charlie, she also wanted to improve her English proficiency in order to explore beyond China’s borders.
My friend Chris was a few years older than all the other backpackers and she was the envy of the group. Her stronger English proficiency has allowed her to venture outside of China which included countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, India and Iran. As with the other backpackers, she has little interest in buying a lot of souvenirs; her aim like the others is to figure out how to travel further and more often. With the same desire to see the world with a new set of eyes, we quickly became friends when we met last year.
Perhaps I lucked out with this amicable and happy go lucky group that I got to travel with. We spoke little of each other’s language. We spoke a language that used an alphabet that consisted of curiosity, wonder and hope as the building blocks of its letters. We spoke the language of travel.
“Everyone smiles in the same language.” ― George Carlin
Have you ever travelled alongside someone from a different culture that spoke a different language? What was your experience like?