By: Sumay, Aila, Lihong and Joseph McPhail
We just got back from our fifth family trip to China, but each time feels like the first. China is constantly growing and changing in unexpected ways. With nearly 1.4 Billion people, China is the largest country in the world. On a purchasing power basis it also has the largest economy, and could surpass the GDP of the United States before 2030. In this article we share our adventures from visiting Jiangyin City, the hometown of Dr Lihong McPhail (a.k.a. "Mommy"). This vibrant city is small by Chinese standards (only 2 Million), but even small cities have much to offer. We also discuss our favorite foods, new technologies, cultural differences and environmental challenges.
Day one was November 18, 2018. We were all jet lagged so we walked out the door at 4am. Jiangyin was already starting to come alive. Scooters were all over, but so were cars including nicer brands like BMWs. Street vendors sold buns with meat inside (baozi). Trucks with giant rotary mops on the bottom were cleaning the streets.
We just started walking with no particular destination. We passed a strip mall with dozens of senior citizens outside dancing and practicing Tai Chi. Another group of couples were learning to waltz. Another was doing aerobics. They seemed to be having fun so we joined in for while.
We found a book store and talked history. China is led by the "Communist Party", but China's economy is mostly free. The state owns the land and controls many of the banks and power companies. However, free market forces drive much of the countries capital. Deng Xiaoping led China through far-reaching economic reforms starting in the 1980s. As a result, China's economy is now the second largest in the world.
The Chinese economy is resilient in large part because of the culture. The whole time we were there we never once saw someone asking for money. Lihong’s family mostly works in the textile industry. While we were there they were working from morning until night (and through dinner) finding routes for their products through countries like Vietnam that don’t have tariffs from the USA. There are many poor people, but the ones we saw were working hard to make a living selling something or playing middle man. The work ethic is powerful and hard to ignore.
The economy is also a lot more diverse than it used to be. Despite what you may read in the press, China is no longer as dependent on its exports. Chinese wages have doubled over the past decade and families are using their higher incomes to import more goods. (Picture on right is a port in Jiangyin along the Yangtze river).
China is also innovating. Many companies in China are at the cutting edge of technologies including artificial intelligence. Alibaba is a leading Chinese technology firm that is empowering businesses. One way they do this is by using a machine learning model called a neural network to create credit scores for Chinese citizens. China's household debt has been rising in part because lenders are able to better identify which citizens (many of whom run small businesses) will pay back their loans.
We used our phones to do just about everything. Mobile payment volumes are 50 timeshigher in China than the USA. New credit scores and in-app rating systems made it much easier to find trusted services. We ordered freshly cut watermelon and noodles using our phones and within 45 minutes we received a knock on the door. The total cost of delivery was less than $1. These new technologies make it easier to build and market brands. This in turn incentivizes investment which is helping to create new jobs.
China's growth has made it a more attractive for tourists which come for the great food, sight seeing, reasonable prices on increasingly high quality goodsand services, and a truly unique cultural experience. One major drawback is the environment which has become polluted, but all-in-all we had a great time.
With 23 provinces and 5,000 years of history it would take many books to discuss "Chinese Food". There are simply too many dishes and styles. Moreover, China has many restaurants featuring foods from other countries. Even moderately sized cities like Jiangyin have American, Japan, Korean, Mongolian, and other food styles. Here are a few of our favorite experiences.
For breakfast we usually had noodles & buns. Noodles are thin and cooked in a beef broth with cilantro. Breakfast buns with meat inside are called baozi. You can buy a dozen for $2 and feed a whole family! Chinese don't often drink coffee, but you can usually find a decent cup-of-joe within two blocks.
Home cooked meals are still common...and for good reason. There are no rules to worry about like "double dipping", "have some and pass some", "don't chew with your mouth full". You grab what you want and eat it. A home cooked meal will typically have at least three vegetable and three meat dishes. For special occasions the number of dishes exceeds space on the table; which results in stacking bowls sometimes three layers high! There is so much food that when everyone is full there is still enough food for another meal, and every meal is a feast!
Men tend to do the drinking. You won't see them drinking straight from bottles. Instead they poor beer, wine and spirits into bowls. Recently, you can see more use of wine glasses, but the Chinese don't seem to worry to much about proper drinking etiquette. The only rule with drinking is that guests should not refuse spirits from hosts. This can sometimes result in copious alcohol consumption, so beware! If your not sure what to buy for a party, go with Wu Liang Ye (a.k.a. baijo). Its pricey, but a standard for Chinese weddings and other special occasions. Some Americans call it "Chinese Fire Water"... and for good reason.
There are lots of East Asian food options. We went to a Korean barbeque where the tables were a foot high and you sat on cushions. But the best part was the food, they gave out this meat platter and it was amazing, the funny thing is it seemed like the same recipe as a korean restaurant in the U.S.! Later we went to a Japanese restaurant, we ordered many different dishes including eel, beef, sushi, seaweed salad, and soup. It wasn't quite as good as our favorite spots in Tokyo, but definitely on par with Washington DC. The upscale restaurants are half the price of those in the US and are very clean. Mid-scale restaurants are quite tasty, but usually allow smoking and tend to have dirty floors and bathrooms.
Probably our favorite restaurant was a hot-pot place called HaiDiLao. HaiDiLao is very modern, family friendly, has a place for kids to play in, and great customer service. After we waited for a little bit we got to get our sauce for the hot-pot!
Everyone takes part in cooking hot pot by dumping raw meat and vegetables into a boiling soup. Once the food is cooked, everyone grabs it with their chopsticks, dips it into their personalized sauce, and shoves it in their mouths. Next, a chef came in with a small lump of dough and within 30 seconds turned into a 10 foot long noodle by swinging it around his head!
Shopping and Pampering
Shopping in China is not all that different from the USA in the cities.They have lots of styles and clean buildings. There are some differences. Bathrooms have holes instead of toilets. You have to squat; which takes some practice but is also great exercise.
Clothes in China come in many varieties. When we first visited as a family in 2006 it was hard to find good quality shoes. Since then, quality has much improved. Fashion is a booming industry. We visited a family friend who started her own fashion depot catering to upscale Chinese ladies. At the ripe old age of 22 she took out a loan, rented out a three story building, and organized suppliers from around the city. She receives new dresses and coats each week. The whole time we were there we saw young ladies walking in, trying on new coats, and walking out with their hands full!
Perhaps the biggest difference in fashion is the plethora of clothes with animal features. Coats, ear muffs, shoes, and sweaters often feature a smiling cartoon rabbit face, or bear ears. We saw one old man riding a scooter down the highway smoking a cigarette. He would have been intimidating if not for the hoodie he wore which featured giant bunny ears. We bought several of these trendy fashion items to display in the states.
Our Chinese hair cutting experience was far better than anything we experienced in the .U.S. We are economists at heart so we tend to economize on things like hair cuts, but even cheap places in China are full of perks! The hair stylists are typically men wearing suits and ear pieces as though they double as secret agents. They treat you like a movie star, feeding you fruits and beverages while you watch them not just cut, but curl our style your hair as if in preparation for a photo shoot. The price was super cheap, costing only $8 compared to the $25 we pay at the Hair Cuttery.
Since 1980, China has experienced the longest and fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history. This has brought about many great things. For example, over 800 Million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. However, China's environment has become increasingly polluted, especially along the more populated eastern shore.
Water in the lakes, ponds and rivers are thick with mud and garbage. We had to peel the apples, pears and peaches because of the strong pesticides and herbicides used by farmers. One morning there was so much smog we could barely see.
When there is smog, the highways close, and kids and old people are advised to stay indoors. We had sore throats and headaches after walking outside during a particularly smoggy day. Our symptoms didn't get better until we got back to the US. We had to spend the night before we flew back at the airport hotel, so we wouldn’t miss the flight. Many ignored the warnings and missed the flight (leaving many open seats for sleeping :).
Besides the chemical pollutant from cars, trucks, and factories, there was also dust due to construction. Since we starting visiting in in 2006, high rise buildings having been popping up like mushrooms. There are roads and bridges being built everywhere, in places that are already well developed. The city employs many cleaning vehicles and personnel to keep the streets and parks trash free, but the water still has trash floating around.
Many men still smoke in China although smoking rates are falling. Our favorite neighborhood restaurants have no-smoking signs, but many customers ignore them. Even some nice coffee shops have rooms that their customers can smoke in, and when non-smokers visit, the air inside is suffocating.
The government is actively trying to improve the environment. Many cities have imposed restrictions on car usage. Trees are planted everywhere. Parks are easy to find and would be very beautiful if not for the dirty water and air pollution which creates a dull haze everywhere you go. While the pollution doesn't seem to be getting worse, it also doesn't seem to be getting better.
We always have a great time visiting Jiangyin, China. The growth is palatable, the people are friendly, and we never run out of things to do. New technologies are enabeling even more Chinese to pursue their dreams and make life easier tourists. Economic growth has come at a cost to the environment, but the government is making a strong effort to clean things up as evidenced by the planting of trees all over the city. We hope to come back soon!