What do you think is the largest city you've never heard of? By definition, there is no way to know for sure, but I could guess. Chongqing (pronounced "Chong-Ching") is a city of 32 million people built at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing Rivers in central China. Yes, 32 million people in one city. Also, no, I'm not being racist. It really is called "Chong-Ching".
I'm in Chongqing on a 'study trip' with my university for the elective law unit "Foundations of Chinese Law", the final unit of my degree. Along with 23 lucky (because they get to spend two weeks with me) other UWS students, I'm in Chongqing for two weeks to "study" at the South-West University of Political Science and Law (SWUPL) in the north of Chongqing. After I finish the program in Chongqing, I'll then move on and travel through the south of China for a further three weeks.
This is my first time in China, my 53rd country. Overall I've been very impressed with China, although my experience thus far has been quite sheltered. When you travel in a big group of Australians, particularly with a risk averse university program, it can be easy to forget that you're in China (especially when you grow up in Western Sydney and being immersed in crowds of people speaking Chinese is a regular occurrence). For that reason, I've been trying to spend as much time as possible away from the SWUPL campus and immerse myself in the local culture, which has surprised me consistently in strange and unexpected ways.
China is a fascinating blend of so many different things. Apart from India, I've never been anywhere where it's quite so obvious that I'm a foreigner. When I walk down the street, I'm nearly always the tallest person and the only white person in sight, and yet I don't really feel like I stand out the way I did in India. By and large, the Chinese are incredibly interested in any kind of Western culture. People on the street aren't staring at me because I'm a novelty, they're staring at me out of genuine interest. The way I would describe China's understanding of the West is like this: it's like China has been watching American movies, but with no understanding of the language - they have a reasonable idea about the content but the subtleties are totally lost in translation. This is a country where Pizza Hut is a fancy restaurant, Pepsi Co. make socks, and you can buy hand-drawn images of Osama bin Laden on the street. It's always surprising and you just kind of have to roll with it. The Chinglish signs alone are enough to brighten your day.
China is also a place where free-market capitalism meets an authoritarian, single-party Communist State. Before we came, our lecturer/trip organiser/self-appointed mother June made it abundantly clear that we should not ask any questions about any touchy subjects (including, but not limited to, Taiwan, the South China Seas, the Hong Kong independence movement, Tibet, or Tiananmen Square). China is a Communist country in name only these days, but you need only look at the Great Firewall of China to realise China is definitely not a free country. Every moment in China so far has felt like an exercise in organised chaos and yet, perhaps in some degree because of the authoritatively strict organisation of Chinese society, everything works surprisingly well.
Obviously there are some pretty staggering cultural differences which can be a little confronting. To my eternal disgust, spitting in public is totally acceptable here, whereas the concept of personal space is virtually unheard of (although in a city of 32 million, that isn't surprising). Once again though, compared to the vast cultural differences found in India, China is easy to wrap your head around.
In any case, I've been in Chongqing for a week now and it's begun to feel familiar. SWUPL and UWS have done their best to make sure we have all felt supported, and a number of volunteer SWUPL students have been attentively showing us around Chongqing and making sure we're well taken care of. I hate to admit it, but if the situation was reversed, I doubt I would be half as attentive to the needs of visiting students from China. Not only that, they've taken us on a number of organised outings to places around Chongqing that they thought we might enjoy. On our first day, they took us all to the Three Gorges Museum and the ancient town of Ciqikou on the banks of the Yangtze.
The Three Gorges area was, surprisingly, an area which contained three gorges before it was dammed in the mid 1990's to create a hydroelectric dam. The museum was created to house artifacts salvaged from the area before it was flooded, as well as to serve as an historical and ethnographical museum for the Chongqing area.
Ciqikou is the only place I've seen foreign tourists in Chongqing, although they were still a very small minority. Domestic tourism in China is a huge deal, a fact which was made very apparent in the narrow, cobbled streets of Ciqikou. It's hard to know how much of the town was a genuine preservation of pre-industrial China and how much is a manufactured tourist trap but, at the end of the day, as long as you get some good photos out of it, what does it matter?
They've also included some activities for us at the uni, including language classes and a Chinese opera. Unfortunately, my Chinese language skills are pretty non-existent after one class, which impacted heavily on my enjoyment of the opera.
As I mentioned before, I've also been trying to get out into the city as much as possible. Some people in our group seem quite content to stay in their hotel room, apart from the occasional trip outside for food or class, but generally it's not hard to round up a group to go exploring. Chongqing is, as might be expected from a city of that size, a hectic place. As with any city, the best way to appreciate it is to just get lost.