I have had a lot of anxiety and fear about cycling in China. China is an enormous and populous country that has been developing rapidly economically over the past decades, it has a culture I am unfamiliar with, a language that is highly challenging, and a questionable political regime.
In any case, it feels like such a long time since I’ve been on my bicycle. I’m a novice again. Yet I’m eager to dig deep, find courage, and push on – recognising that all my fears and anxieties are mostly just mind play. There is surely much to learn about happiness from China.
Connecting without words
Although I am fascinated by the Chinese language – the characters in particular – I cannot speak Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese). Since not many people from China speak English communication is going to be difficult for me. However, this does not mean connection is not possible.
On my first day cycling in China I had hardly cycled 10kms and a Chinese cyclist out for his daily ride stopped and helped me get over a difficult bridge crossing. We then figured out that we were actually going the same way and ended up riding some 50kms together. In fact we switched bikes for half the distance, after we stopped and he’d bought me lunch. If such simple kindness wasn’t enough to ease the tension within me I don’t know what would have been.
People on the whole want to help here. There is generally patience and care when I’m trying to get something be it food, water, or a place to sleep. Just the simple things. There is a joy in being able to communicating without words – perhaps one gets to the heart of things.
Every now and then as I’ve ridden through I get encouraging reactions from people – sometimes just a smile, but also exclamations of delight and surprise. Such little gestures mean the world to me. I find support and happiness in these gestures and they are another reminder that happiness comes in connection with others (as I have always known, as research confirms, and as I have found countless times on this journey).
However, when it comes to happiness and well-being more broadly China is a particularly interesting case. The rapid rise in material standards in the last decades from high economic growth (lifting millions out of poverty) might cause many to think that happiness and well-being must surely have risen. In fact, happiness and well-being in China have been declining, particularly in the early years of this growth phenomenon. This, some have concluded, is due to rising inequality, and a social comparison process, where people feel inadequate because they don’t have what others visibly have.
As I’ve ridden through the urban areas I have gawped at the manifold construction works and numerous high rise buildings that awash the landscape. Many of the buildings can’t be less than 10 years old, and I have found myself wondering what life would have been like here a few decades ago. Simple, visibly impoverished in a way that I’ve seen in more rural areas, and challenging in a different way. The changes have clearly been rapid, and perhaps too rapid for people to make adjustments. In part China seems to represent an extreme example of what happens when there is such a blind focus on economic progress – people will suffer.
Lack of freedoms and dominating powers
There is also the question of freedom. It would be an understatement to say that China is not a particularly free society. There are substantial human rights abuses and people have limited access to the information outside of China. One questions whether happiness and well-being are of any value here. I’m sure happiness and well-being are important on some level, some misguided level, but the most important objective might just be power and influence.
As I’ve ridden along I think often about dominant cultures, and about how difficult it is to resist them and protect what is important to a less dominating culture. Before I entered China, I made friends with a man from Hong Kong, and he bemoaned what he saw as the erosion of his own culture by the influx of people from China, down to the simplicity of how the once tranquil parks near his home were now awash with Chinses musicians. I think about Tibet. I think about the persecution of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang, western China. I’m reminded of what I witnessed with the First Peoples all over the Americas.It seems to me that countries that have a large enough economy can do as they please because it is difficult to contest them, and that this doesn’t do much for the happiness and well-being of either the dominating population nor the dominated one. Yet the other hand it is probably those countries which are fairly small, economically sufficient, and free, that are the happiest, and making the most in roads into well-being based policy. Odd that!
These are my haphazard learnings about China so far. I am sure there is much more to come but perhaps China will be another Mexico – scary from the outset but wonderful when I get into the heart of it.