When I moved to China almost eight years ago, one of the first pieces of advice I remember hearing was a single word. “Elbows,” my colleague at English First said, and positioned his how I would eventually need to position mine, when the time came—which, if you’re wondering, was later that evening on the Shanghai Metro.
To those of you who’ve never lived in the Middle Kingdom, this probably sounds barbaric. But it doesn’t take long in even the most cosmopolitan Chinese city to realize that becoming a bit crude is essential to assimilating here, to admit that China is a crude country with a crude culture.
I imagine some of you are looking up at the title and wondering if I made a mistake. Isn’t he supposed to be convincing us to go to China?
On my recent trip to Chongqing and Chengdu, to be sure, I used my elbows to shove more than a few dozen people out of my way. Among my minimal remaining Mandarin vocabulary are the very filthiest of swear words, ones my Chinese friends tell me are even more offensive than if I said them in English, which would get my ass kicked, or worse.
In the time that passed between my last trip to China and the one before that (to Beijing and the frozen city of Harbin, in 2015), I’d forgotten about this crudeness, as well as a dead energy I perceive everywhere I’ve ever been in China, and every moment I’ve ever spent there, that I can only describe as human static.
I postulated, somewhere on the bullet train between Chongqing and Chengdu, probably having just told an old woman to go fuck herself, that this interpersonal necrosis was the true legacy of the Cultural Revolution, since the first temples rebuilt in the wake of it are now weathered enough by pollution and overuse to appear as if they might be original.
Yet in spite of all the issues I have with the country—the issues most every non-Chinese person I speak to has identified, the issues that exist in and define today’s China, by any objective measure—a trip to China is, in the end, a journey of transmutation. Benevolent bursts of color flicker if you’re willing to look past the barbary and the tyranny and all the rest of the static.
If you’re willing to see each image in front of you for the thousand words it’s worth.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.