I just spent the past three weeks in Asia, visiting Tokyo, several cities in mainland China (Shanghai, Wuxi, Wuhu, Nanjing) and then Hong Kong. This was the first time I’d been in China since 2007. My cousin had invited the whole family to Nanjing for her wedding, and my brother and I decided to tack on a few more destinations. China is changing very rapidly and it was my first time in Tokyo. A few things I noticed:

On trains and public infrastructure

The subways and trains across Asia were fantastic and by far the easiest way to get around. The subways all had cell service and TV’s and multilingual announcements of all stops. Many stations had doors built onto the platform and air conditioned platforms.

Traveling Nanjing to Shanghai on high speed rail (about the same distance as New York to Boston) took an hour and a half from city center to city center.

On bikeshare

Bikeshare was everywhere. Tokyo had it in many places. Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuxi all had it. Wuhu is planning it. Most didn’t seem to require any sort of advance sign up, just pay at a vending machine and ride away. In Tokyo I even saw what looked like a Vespa share station.

On restaurants in China

Several restaurants I went to in China have adopted a curious habit of charging extra for napkins and even for plates and dinnerware. Each setting at the table would have a sealed wet napkin and the plate, cup and bowl sealed in shrink wrapped plastic. Opening the wet napkin cost 1 RMB and the plates 2 RMB. The restaurants have outsourced dishwashing to companies that specialize and return dishes shrink wrapped and disinfected and are passing the cost on to customers.

Curiously though, every restaurant allowed you to bring in outside beverages, alcoholic and otherwise.

On health and food safety

In China, my relatives were very concerned about the safety of food. Any fresh fruit was peeled, including grapes and peaches. In our luggage, we brought several bags of powdered milk and baby formula for people who had requested it.

On smog

While in mainland China we experienced a string of beautiful hot blue sky days with no smog, rain or clouds. Near Wuhu many factories were shut down due to high temperature. Hong Kong was smoggy while we were there though. The South China Morning Post seemed to be leading a call for warning the public about the dangers of smog.

On shopping malls

There were an absurd number of shopping malls and department stores. And yet they somehow all seemed full of people shopping. The malls are mostly built up vertically, and the basements have giant food courts. In Japan in particular, the department store basements have “depachika”, glorious food markets with stall after stall of varied food and pastries.

On suburbs, gated communities and cars

China’s cities are expanding and the streets everywhere are clogged with cars, but they still haven’t reached U.S. levels of sprawl yet.

New construction in the outlying areas of cities are of apartment complexes with multiple high or low rise buildings, parking spaces, green space and maintenance buildings. They look like New York’s Stuyvesant Town but on a smaller scale.

There’s a real bias against buying a “used” apartment. People generally preferring new construction. Many newly constructed buildings provide the apartments unfurnished with no fixtures, appliances, floor boards, etc to allow the new purchaser to install those to their own liking.

On banquets, table seating and drinking

When we went out to eat as a large group in China, we rarely sat in the main dining room of a restaurant. Most restaurants have a large number of private dining rooms of different sizes to accommodate the group. The dining rooms all have a large circular dining table with a lazy susan to hold the food.

Even though the table is round, seating matters. The guest of honor sits at the seat furthest from the door and facing it. There is typically some sort of aesthetically pleasing backdrop behind them. That end is the “top” of the table. In the opposite seat, at the “bottom” of the table and with their back to the door, is the person who has invited everyone to dinner, and who will confer with the waiters to order and will pay at the end.

For the rest of the seats, people sit from the top of the table to the bottom according to their position.

On Chinese tourists and tour groups

Tourism in China is booming. My aunt owns a travel agency in Wuhu and told me she has dozens of new competitors. Tour groups from China dominated many of Tokyo’s tourist attractions with their matching hats and flag waving guides. Within China, tour groups were even more common. In fact, people don’t seem to travel on vacation in any way other than a tour group. These tours are organized and paid for by offices for all their employees to go on vacation together, bringing along spouses and children.

On global cultural convergence

Wuhu is a fairly small city by Chinese standards, in a part of the country analogous to the Midwest. In the center of town there is a large pedestrian shopping area, and at night at the center of that shopping area there were high school age kids with a boombox blasting LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem and shuffling. Shuffling pretty darn well too.