How To Be A SciFiNaut in Chengdu

When we, for reasons best left to the mists of time, ended up manning China’s Worldcon Bid table back in 2014, we did find ourselves repeating the line that, if you ever want to experience the feeling of landing on a hospitable alien world, come to China. This year, WorldCon, that great traveling show of Sci-Fi Nerdery, will make its home at Chengdu’s Science (And Science Fiction) Museum. This feels extra special for me, not only because it will be held in my birth country, but because it will be here for the very first time in its 80+ years of history. It will mean hundreds of geeks from across the world converging on this town which seems to be modelling itself on a sci-fi utopia, with its groundbreaking architecture and commitment to green living. However, we envision some culture clash.

Earlier this year, as Chengdu hosted the World University Games, Chinese social media was filled with reactions to the antics of Westerners as some attendees partied and lived large. Whilst the Worldcon attendees are not quite the rambunctious youngsters from the Universiade, or even the sugar-fuelled mob of comic cons, there are some differences in culture and approach you may want to be aware of.

The first and biggest, is how seriously China takes sci-fi. This is not as in “if you didn’t love every episode of The Expanse, you’re dead to me”.  Science and technology featured in many science fiction works are as centred as the characters or plot. Since its first introduction into the country in the early 20th century, SF had been identified as a charismatic genre of fictional literature that would carry the nation forth into brighter futures, in terms of better-educated population, advancement in industry, engineering and technology. To the Chinese, science fiction is a tool of education, and you are just as likely to see technology giants such as The Chinese Space Agency and hypothetical physicists giving lectures as video game developers and fan-writing groups. Even though the newer generations of more diverse writers may not choose to engage with developing sciences, they are no strangers to frequent and lively interactions with the scientists and academics, which is still actively encouraged as part of China’s SF industry. So the first note to our budding SciFiNauts? Be prepared to learn, and be as enthusiastic to see the latest development in China’s space programme, artificial intelligence and green-energy, as you are to have your latest purchases signed.

The next point is the presence of authority. Unlike the US or Europe, there is a top-down view of safety and protection in China which can feel very heavy handed to Westerners. There are prolific uses of security cameras, and you may very well, if you use the city’s metro, be expected to put your luggage and even water bottles, through metal detectors and x-ray machines. So much of this is due to the pure size of the country and the population, where there are real security risks.  London and New York are not the sole targets of terrorist attacks. Culturally, it’s always been considered far more acceptable to inconvenience the general populace than to allow even the slightest risk of harm. If you feel this is all too invasive, and your mind is carried to those shelves of Orwellian dystopian novels,  you may feel more confident sticking to taxis ferrying you between the venue and hotel, whose addresses you should have printed out in large, easy-to-read Chinese characters, for reasons I will get on to. Be aware that the venue may have similar attitudes to security, and even your hotel.

This sense of surveillance will probably extend to the technology around you. If you are concerned about international roaming fees, and decide to buy a local SIM card, you’ll need to provide your passport and have a photo taken for registration. Even buying them from a little newsstand will have them whipping out cobbled together setups of laptops, cellphones and web cameras in an experience I thought may have been dreamt up by William Gibson. You may have concerns about the security of your data, connecting to Wifi or phone networks, but as we’ve seen both the UK and US granting themselves these powers and more over the past decade, it would seem entirely a case of “it’s only bad when China does it.”. There is such a huge number of data points passing across China’s digital landscape, it’s almost solipsistic to think that ‘Da’ge’ will be looking through anyone’s Insta posts or draft novel.

Whilst all this omniscient tech comes with its own benefits (such as WeChat Pay, face recognition for ticketing and a myriad of other timesaving, joined-up automation), those are all very much limited to the local populace, meaning that you, as a foreign visitor, will have the discomfort without the benefits. You may even find yourself considered strange, or a nuisance for trying to pay cash whilst every other patron just smiles into a camera, or waves their phone over a scanner. The lesson here is really just to accept the decisions made within the host country, and understand you do not have access to the full story.

Language is another barrier you may find yourself running into. As much as you may have drilled yourself on Duolingo for months, and be hyped to impress your fellow geeks with your Mandarin, be prepared to be responded to in perfect West-Coast English. English is such a large part of education in China, that those who have the opportunity to learn it, do so at extreme levels. They’ll always apologise for poor skills, but may go on to be lucid, erudite and make you feel incompetent for your overly rehearsed “yibei kafei, xiexie”.  This is not to say there won’t be mistakes. From hastily labeled dishes promising “freshly steamed crap” at the shellfish restaurant, to the often puzzling “European” names front-facing staff tend to choose for themselves. Try not to laugh if someone tells you their name is Bison, Pinky or Sparkle. It’s an odd meeting of conventions. Rather than having fixed traditional nomenclature to choose from as you do in Western cultures, Chinese names are free to be created from any choice of one or two characters. While social norms tend to make these more “mundane” in Chinese, those simply are not present when someone adopts their English name, and people can get pretty creative with their choices. 

Having spoken about how good people’s English can be, it is also worth noting that it is not necessarily ubiquitous. Not everywhere is set up to cater for Anglophones. Whilst there are far more accommodations made for English speakers in China than vice versa, it is worth remembering that you are the visiting alien, and may have to deal with being unable to communicate clearly. Restaurants, taxis etc. may require a certain amount of mugging, pointing, and if you’ve had the wherewithal to prepare, the waving of appropriate flashcards. If you rely on technology to get you through these interactions, be aware of the limitations. Without your very own pet Babelfish, if you have been relying on Google for your translations, be aware that it may not work within mainland China, and you may want to do your research and download an app like Speak & Translate, though they can be data hungry.

Between the impeccable English of those who have it, and the resourcefulness of those who do not, you may feel no need to trot out your Mandarin at all. This would be a mistake. The bar is set very low for Westerners, and even the smallest attempts to match language, or affect cultural consideration will gain you huge compliments. In fact, you may find compliments coming thick and fast from all quarters, as Chinese hosts, volunteers and fellow attendees, react positively to anything from your geeky T shirt and hair colour, to your choice of comics and to taste in movies. This can come off sometimes as sycophancy, but is more than likely a sign of their fascination. It’s quite common for the Chinese to show curiosity towards all non-local people, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree. Some of my black friends have felt uneasy about requests to touch their hair, even my white friends often feel like performing monkeys, being marvelled at trotting out imperfect phrases in Chinese. The polite culture of acquiescence, which still pervades China makes enforcing your boundaries quite difficult. Saying that you are sorry but you are quite tired, or feeling unwell, instead of a blunt refusal, seems to be the politest way to extradite yourself from the attention. Luckily, as China becomes increasingly international, you will be seen less and less as a rare beast, though the fuss and attention may continue.

This is just the nature of Chinese hospitality, which is intense, gregarious, and can verge on the aggressive. Your friends might surround you from the moment you step out of the airport, offer to take your bags, suggest you get some food, or at least grab some fruit on the way, with repeated insistence until you accept their hospitality. It can be overwhelming, especially if you are introverted or some flavour of neurospicy. This apparent ‘lack of social graces’ truly comes from a desire to make you feel welcome. So much of it is culturally ingrained, with the host’s worth being measured by the comfort of the guest, so smile, accept the fuss and bask in the attention.  You will be offered anything from having lunch bought, to being taken around or having your shopping done for you. You are by no means expected to take all of these up, and often a gentle push back with a “that’s too kind of you, but….” would do. This constant soft shoving back and forth is the lubrication of Chinese social interaction, and should be appreciated within the context of the care with which it is offered. Even if you mean to take up one of these plethora of offers, the convention still requires deferential game playing, where you need to ‘let’ them convince you, and definitely offer to reciprocate when the opportunity arises. 

Sometimes it does go too far, especially if you find yourself sandwiched between two people who have decided to compete for who can be the better host. The insistence in taking someone for an evening out or to a good meal can seem like nothing short of kidnapping, and fights over who is going to pay the bill can often end in Matrix-esque blocking and swiping of credit cards, or covert trips to reception desk before the food has even hits the table.  I remember my poor English partner being dragged around the supermarket on a sprained ankle because my aunt decided she wanted to take us shopping there and then. Not being related to your host, or connected to them by any kind of guanxi, gives you a lot more freedom to refuse. But it’s often more prudent to provide them with a much easier target, such as telling them that what you’d really like is to just grab some bottles of water and head to the hotel. A definite goal, and easy to achieve, letting everyone feel they’ve achieved the social contract.

Bottled water brings up a rather sensitive topic. Hygiene in China. Travellers from 20 or 30 years ago will have stories of maggoty toilets and stomach upsets from the water. These are, for the most part, things of the past. Toilets may be the Western style, or the Eastern squat style, depending on the type of venue, but you should not assume there will be paper at any of them. Always carry a packet of tissues. You may not want to discuss toilet etiquette with your Chinese friends. If it’s the low, ‘hole in the floor’ style, use it facing the door, feet either side of the hole, and the flush is either a floor button, or a handle on the wall. That “always have tissues” thing has become a cultural staple and self-fulfilling prophecy, in so far as restaurants will save the expense of putting paper in their loos because “everyone has tissues”, but then also provide tissues on every table, in case you haven’t. 

This is also true of the “only drink bottled or boiled water”. China has not really prioritised their water treatment, because everyone drinks boiled water, and bottled water costs pennies. Chengdu’s water scores 53/100 on the Numbeo scale, and is considered “moderately safe” (London’s comes in at 67, and U.S. cities tend to range between 13 and 68), so it’s probably safer to stick to the bottled water, especially if you are not sticking around to acclimatise to the water, and you do not want to miss panels working your way through your precious tissue collection.

I should probably also use this section to dispel the myths about food in China. There are of course plenty of Western chains easily recognisable by their logos, where you can go for the processed tastes of home, though you’ll still find Chinese flavours on the menu (from the rice portions at KFC to the taro ice cream at McDonalds). However, the best experiences will certainly come from the smaller local restaurants off the main track. Food stalls where you can simply point to select, and where, if they did have any health and safety issues, they would quickly face swift local retribution. In Chengdu in particular, the local flavour is spicy, and any dish prepared for tourists will almost certainly pull their peppery punches, so if you feel the desire to brave the burn, you may have to rely on local knowledge, perhaps taking friends up on the offer to treat you to dinner.

Chengdu is not Mars. For a start, it certainly has an atmosphere, but you may certainly feel like an alien, surrounded by sounds, sites, and smells that vary so greatly from home. Whilst there are definitely ways to shelter yourself from the otherness, and take advantage of the Occidentalism, our advice is to lean into it. Be the alien and explore the new land. Accept the differences with the attitude of an intergalactic explorer. And most importantly, come in peace.

This article has been jointly written with writer and editor,
Joseph Brant. 


Posted in Commentary, Culture