- Great metro
Lines are well described, color-coded. Tiny lights show you your location on the journey, a voice tells you in Chinese and English where you are, where you will be, whether you can change to another line or not. In addition, there is an animated screen, with pictures and the written text of what is spoken.
- Descriptive signs
Chinese people use cardinal directions – the four points of the compass – in the metro and in everyday life. Metro exits are always well described with cardinal signs; a simple stop with four exits (People Square has 22!) will be signed A for northwest, B northeast, C southeast, and D southwest. Major landmarks are associated with a particular exit. In Paris, metro signs give you the name of an adjacent street, depending on the chosen exit, but if you don’t know the area, the name of this unknown side street doesn’t help at all.
- Inspiring names
In the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and other monuments, the places are not only beautiful, they have very Zen and inspiring names: Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Preserving Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Hall of Abstinence, Hall of Eternal Protection, Hall of Ten Thousand Happinesses, Hall of Eternal Harmony, Hall of Heavenly Kings, Longevity Hill, Garden of Virtue and Harmony, Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, Hall of Happiness and Longevity, Temple of Heavenly Tranquility, etc. It brings internal peace just to read these names.
- Helpful people
Structurally, the tactile paving on the sidewalks or in the metro is very common to help visually impaired people follow a street or be warned of an intersection. They are more prevalent than in most large cities in the world. Even when the sidewalk is in marble, there are tiles with long lines to follow and dots at intersections and before crossing a street. Culturally, people are kind and helpful. Even with complete ignorance of the Chinese language and no English language on their side, we managed to communicate with signs or pictures. On several occasions, a person even accompanied me half way to make sure I would not get lost again.
- Extreme multi-tasking
Dexterity in millennials is known. In China, I have noticed it also in older generations. Chinese people read on their tablet, play games on their phones, or watch TV while walking extremely quickly in the packed corridors of the metro. In Hong Kong (the New York of China for speed) I even witnessed people eating with chopsticks while walking – a far more difficult feat than eating a sandwich in the street! I admire the agility, while not necessarily condoning the simultaneous practice of these, especially eating mindlessly.
- High-speed train
I knew the high-speed train in France, so I did not expect to be wowed. Beyond the high speed, China has excellent customer service. High-speed stations are designed like airports with enhanced security, modern well-lit facilities, and uniformed hostesses. Train tickets bear your name and a passport check is performed many times before you are allowed to board the train. Luggage is x-rayed. Once on the train, there is much more leg room even in economy class than in any plane, even domestic business class. Hot water is everywhere to be found at the station, not only for tea but also the ubiquitous Ramen noodles. On the train, there is also a hot water faucet but why would you only eat noodles? Every ten minutes a hostess passes with a little cart loaded with different choices: cooked chicken, cut fruits, cut vegetables, drinks, cookies, etc.
- Consular team spirit
Now for U.S. diplomats only. Consular sections usually have the best team spirit – I had noticed it in Mexico. In Beijing, and even more so in Shanghai, the team spirit was at its best. Consular management welcomed us, temporary employees, upon arrival with a private meeting, and thanked us at the end with personalized certificates and a party. A teacher advised us to ensure our accent was understandable. Managers assigned us special projects to make us shine beyond the tiring biometrics. We felt truly appreciated. I would love the opportunity to serve again because, whether they say thank you or not, we are absolutely needed in large missions at peak season.
- Air quality
On the majority of days, the air quality is very unhealthy in Beijing or Shanghai. Beijing’s air is worse than Shanghai’s on average. Immediately upon arrival at the embassy, besides giving you a badge, managers brief you on what website you should consult to check the air quality, and advise you to stick it in your favorites. I was shocked to see American families with young kids in these cities. I believe it should be an ‘unaccompanied under 16’ post.
Are you surprised it’s a con? I was. When I told people I was going to China, the very first thing they exclaimed was “oh, you will eat so well there.” Exactly what I thought. I love Chinese cuisine so I was thrilled to discover the real thing. What I really discovered is the outrageous amount of oil they use to cook. I tried the cart-street food, the small-no English-sign restaurant, the fancy restaurant, and each time I had to fish my food delicately with my chopsticks out of an ocean of oil. After a few times, I stuck to the Marriott or Ritz food – with international clientele they had learned to temper their natural oily inclination. Or I simply went to the Korean or Vietnamese restaurants. In Hong Kong, I had a delicious fondue, with food cooked by myself in lean broth.
I also loved the variety of landscapes, the amazing Great Wall, the bargain shopping, the great museums, the customized clothing, and so much more. I would love to go back but air quality has to have improved by then!
- Great metro
Edited in 2020: the air quality has improved tremendously in 2018, and again in 2019 so we were happily posted in Beijing when “you know what” happened in the center of the country and a month after our lives were changed forever … and a month after, everyone around the world saw their lives changed forever. Too many things are still happening around me, eating up my time, but one day, I will be able to write about it. The good and the ugly.
The New Diplomat’s Wife has More Pros and Cons posts.