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China: inside looking out

10:15, November 25, 2009

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By Gavin Jon Mowat, People's Daily Online

Western perceptions of China have been changing. Although it has to be said, prior to the Beijing Olympics, these perceptions were changing less vigorously than China itself. Older generations of foreigners until recently, tended to associate China with Zhongshan suits and short cropped hair styles.

As a foreigner living in China, I am in the privileged position to have seen the country from two angles; looking at China from the West, and looking at China, from China.

In my opinion, this 'privilege' is conducive to soften hard-line misunderstandings or prejudices that have built up in the west, where society and individual expectations are so different from there Chinese equivalent.

But if you don't want to take my word for it, I have taken the liberty of asking some foreigners about their opinions and experiences of China;

Patricia from the UK has been to China on two separate occasions. Her first visit was to Beijing in 2006 and she later visited Suzhou in 2008. Her first and lasting impression of China was that the country is more modern than she had previously thought.

An expert in the field of alternative medicine, Patricia was particularly enamored with Beijing's parks; "Beijing is a beautiful city and the parks are very special. I love to see the freedom that people have to sing and dance and use the outdoor gyms." she said.

Patricia told me she felt people in the parks in Beijing seem to understand keeping healthy, socializing and having fun can all be done at once, it's not like the parks back home, she said. "They know how to live a healthier lifestyle, not just relying on medicine, but clearing out toxins in the body naturally, through exercise or even just shouting!"

Because of where we were born, and what we see in our lifetimes we will often have different perceptions of the same things. Callum a one time visitor to China in 2007 said "…[I] wasn't sure quite what to expect, but it [China] was far more modern than I had anticipated and much bigger."

When Patricia first came to China she was struck by the variety of hairstyles that Chinese girls wore. I was slightly taken aback by what I saw as naive comments, but when I thought about it, she had not seen a lot of contemporary Chinese society back in the west. In her lifetime images of China had been dominated by the revolutionary era, where Chinese people would often be depicted as a homogenous collective.

In fact Chinese hairstyles come in all shapes and sizes and some could no doubt suitably offend older generations the world over. Amanda and Laurie Samuel, who visited Beijing in 2008, were suitably impressed by the vibrant colorful cross-section of society Beijing has to offer. "People here [Beijing] are just like they are everywhere, different styles and tastes. It's really a diverse city!" they said.

Cath, also visiting from the UK in 2007, told me that she felt welcome and very safe when out and about. While Patricia summed up her feelings on the Chinese people when she said "The people are friendly, even although most could not speak English the body language and gestures overcame barriers, they are very open."

Chinese culture inspires fanciful imagination in people the world over, and the real thing doesn't disappoint. "The temples are awesome and so interesting, and of course the Great Wall of China is magnificent. I did not expect such magnificent scenery, and the wall itself - well words can't describe this experience." said Patricia after visiting the some of China's more famous sites.

Callum especially enjoyed the Summer Palace, particularly one spot near the lake where music was playing in the background that he called "beautiful."

Amanda said she was impressed that Beijing is managing to retain some of its old culture in the face of modern development. In particular she enjoyed the Beihai and Houhai areas; "it's so amazing. These old buildings are just what I wanted to see in China!"

Amanda was referring to a city which had already undergone great changes in preparation for the 2008 Olympics and her comments are testament to the coexistence of old and new in Beijing.

Callum conveyed what he saw in Beijing with two words "Busy and beautiful." This was a China he had not expected. Arriving in China in 2007, he also witnessed some of the changes Beijing underwent before the 2008 Olympics. Describing what he had seen on a bicycle tour of the city Callum said "I've seen…very old alongside very new buildings and many of them are magnificent."

Many were impressed by the culinary skills of the Chinese, saying they really enjoyed the food, particularly in the quieter back street restaurants where the food seemed more traditional. Cath enjoyed trying out new tastes and found staff helpful and friendly.

"The food is so full of flavor! We need to try and cook like this at home!" Said Amanda. When people visit China they get a taste for why so many say China has the richest variety of food in the world.

When I asked if visiting China changed or affirmed your perceptions of the country Callum said, "Definitely changed, I was completely amazed by how modern the city was. Tiananmen Square was spectacular and far bigger than it had seemed on TV."

Cath said of her visit to China, "Fascinating. It's completely different from what I expected. The music, the people, the scenery it's quite an experience."

Even after being to China before Patricia said, "On my second visit I thought I knew what to expect however the coldness of the weather in January surprised me. I also went on an overnight train journey too ...... and this was an amazing experience. Everywhere most people are very friendly." So it would seem our opinions and perceptions are constantly challenged by new experiences.

When foreigners come to China they don't necessarily find what they expect, they usually don't expect what they find. Any preconception of China being 'backward' or even 'inferior' in terms of level of development, are usually debunked the moment people land at Beijing International Airport.

I remember an older lady once asked me, "What do you want to go to China for?" I answer that with the question, why not go there and find out for yourself?

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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Gavin Jon Mowat

Gavin Jon Mowat, editor and columnist for People's Daily Online.

As a graduate from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, Gavin came to Beijing 2 years ago to study Chinese.

Enjoying the culture and traditions of the orient so much, Gavin has since left his home in Scotland and is now living and working in China.

Gavin uses his background in writing to share his experiences of China with you at People's Daily Online.

Columnists

Li HongmeiLi Hongmei

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.

Li HongLi Hong

After 19 years working for China Daily and its website, Li Hong moved to english.people.com.cn in March 2009.

Li has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.