One of the great ways to learn about a country you’re visiting is by reading — the newspapers, the signs, the writing on the wall, anything that shows the local inhabitants going about their business or expressing themselves. Sometimes you find out important things that help you understand local attitudes and customs. And sometimes you just end up scratching your head.
I learned a lot about China during my recent trip to Beijing by reading the local papers. And besides getting the official stance on social issues (“Men can’t shy away from paternal duties”), I came across some things that made me realize just how different (and sometimes strange) life in China really is. Here’s a few nuggets gleaned from the China Daily during the course of one week.
According to a government anti-corruption investigation, 100,000 officials have been drawing pay for years despite the fact they no longer work for the government. Amounts for one province alone totalled close to $40 million in unearned paycheques, some apparently going to family members of government officials. So apparently family values do exist in China.
Meanwhile, in Kunming, commuters were shocked to see a group of senior citizens pole dancing in a subway car, reportedly led by a woman in a purple coat. A spokesman for the Kunming Railway Transportation Group said pole dancing isn’t encouraged “for safety reasons”. No mention of whether the dancers got any tips.
Stay back — I’ve got a fork
Schools in the city of Changsha have issued 2,700 steel forks to school children, the ministry of education reports. Teaching them to eat steak? No, they’re meant to help them defend themselves against assault from potential attackers, who remained unnamed. Apparently, switching from chopsticks straight to knives would have been too big a step for Chinese youth. And this way, the culprits will be easy to find, with those four little holes in their forehead — or possibly their knees.
Home for wayward crickets
A 51-year-old man in Xi’an spent more than $3,200 to bring 100 crickets into his home, heating it to just the right temperature — and presumably, buying lot of Purina cricket chow. The man, named Pan, said he liked to hear the chirping: with a house full of crickets, you’re never alone. Doesn’t China have dating services?
Cuba’s biggest producer of natural products has come out with a “woodsy and refreshing” citrus scent called Ernesto, in memory of iconic communist leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Finally, a fragrance you can wear with your Che t-shirt and the little cloth cap. The company also announced a cologne called Hugo, with hints of mango and papaya, in honour of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Who knew he was such a fruity guy?
In the land of the blind …
A Lankui man has sued the police because he was unable to renew his driver’s licence after losing one eye in a traffic accident. According to the report, 17 one-eyed people attended the trial in his support. But sadly, the court still could not see its way clear to renew his licence.
And finally, some uplifting advice
Apart from the news reports, the one thing you notice in Beijing is the constant stream of recorded instructions, in the subway and everywhere else. The most head-scratching example was a sign at the national art museum, titled “Must-knows for Elevator Riding Safety”, presenting a comprehensive list of 14 instructions on the safe and proper use of elevators.
Among the helpful instructions: “Please do not jump in the running elevators.” Also, “Those who are not able to take the full civic responsibility for their behaviors, the children, the elders, the disables, and people not in good health, shall be accompanied to ride elevators.” And, “Never try to open the car door or floor door through improper means such as strike, kick and unclench.”
Reading the local papers — and the street signs — of a foreign country is kind of like reading the hieroglyphics on an Egyptian temple. It’s a way to decipher the psychic language of the place. Sometimes the biggest clues are between the lines: the things they find important, the things they explain and take for granted, the attitude toward figures of authority …
And now and then, it’s worthwhile just to get a chuckle or two. After all, discovering the weird and wonderful is a great part of travel — if everything worked the way we’re used to, why would we leave home?