China Travel & Cattle Branding: They’re Practically the Same Thing

Traveling in China makes me feel like a calf in the corral at branding time. We push and shove our way through the narrow pathway that’s been created and planned for us, prodded often from behind.

A few of our own will undoubtedly make things more difficult by pushing in the opposite direction, moving backwards through the line as if he or she has the right of way. At some point, we will all make it into the shoot, one at a time, and the peak of my frustration in China is equivalent to that hot iron’s firm press as it synges the hair from my burning butt.

Every time I go to Guangzhou, I return with a chip on my shoulder that’s hard to shake off. In fact, every time I go anywhere in China (which, to be fair, has only been around the Southeastern parts so far), I return this way, which is always a complete change of heart from the way it all started out.

I leave the bubble that is Peizheng full of eagerness and curiosity about what lies ahead. As I walk to the bus station, my escape from the confines of a place where everybody knows who I am, where I’m from and what I do is so tantalizing I can smell it like the body odor that will most likely waft from the Chinese student who sits next to me.

But already, as I approach the bus station and stand in the orderly line that has formed waiting for its arrival, my mood begins to darken because I know what’s coming next. When the bus pulls in and the line pulls apart, I’m agitated. Why did we form a line if we weren’t actually going to use it?

As everyone rushes toward the bus door in one big cattle herd, shoving their way forward, their hands on the person in front of them and three more hands on their backs, I have no choice but to join in the madness. If I don’t, I won’t get a seat, or worse. I may not even get on the bus.

When the cattle run has commenced and we pull onto the road, the fumes (from the bus and the body odor) combine with the swaying from the driver (who speeds over large pot holes) into a toxic concoction that threatens to force my own bodily fluids into the mix.

An hour later, we exit the bus slightly more humanely than we entered, and walk down the stairs to the subway, where the useless lines and the pushing are bound to begin again. Forget ever getting a seat. Nobody will politely wait for you to board. Nobody will get out of the way for you to move over. And nobody will wait for you to step off, either, before they crowd on.

I make my way back up the stairs and through the maze of people. I’m on high alert for small Chinese people walking directly toward me. I know they plan to continue walking straight, whether I move or not, and I’d rather step to the side than butt heads and receive a glare as if I ran into them.

When I walk into the grocery store or crowded shopping mall, I prepare myself both mentally and physically. I know I’m going to have to lock away my learned, polite behavior and plough through in a way I think is rude but nobody will think twice about. I shove through the people, get what I want, and make my way to the cashier where I’ll stand in a cue that exists for no apparent reason. If I stand in that line and wait patiently, like my parents taught me to do, I will get nowhere, because the only thing changing about the line will be the people in the front.

If I decide whatever I’m purchasing is actually worth the battle, I must do the same. I’ll push forward, elbows out and unrelenting. When I reach the front, I’ll hold my item out in front of me, like the five other people vying to be rung up first, and hope the cashier grabs mine next. If she doesn’t, I’ll become slightly more annoying – wave it in her face, start asking questions, push my way further in front of her – until she finally puts it in a bag and tells me the price, without smiling, of course. Then again, who can blame her?

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I need to scream louder, push harder, and hotshot myself into gear each time I want to accomplish anything in China. I’m working on trying to sharpen my elbows as well.

When I return to Peizheng and take a deep breath (whether it’s to feel better after the return bus ride or release my built up agitation, or both), I try to remind myself not to hate China. And it always turns into the same conversation with myself. “You don’t hate China, Jessica. Actually, China has a lot going for it. It has beautiful scenery and a lot of interesting things to do, and the people are actually quite nice if you think about it…”

But something about this conversation doesn’t make me feel better, and then it hits me. I don’t hate China, but I do hate the ways Chinese people deal with their massive overpopulation, and that getting anywhere would be a struggle even if I had four legs and a hotshot on my ass. Unfortunately, China and Chinese culture go hand in hand, like a young calf and a delicious piece of veal.

China Travel and Cattle Branding: They’re Practically the Same Thing
Written by:Jessica Hill


  1. Ah yes, I remember now…I glanced at this post and decided to come back later to read it in detail.

    This is the universal reaction to China, and sadly I can’t say it gets easier over time. In fact, after learning the language, delving ever deeper into the Chinese psyche through thousands of conversations with Chinese friends and students, even studying how Chinese values and their world view has been formed while I was studying at university, in the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that the more I understand it, the harder I find it to accept.

    The only way to truly be happy with things in China is to be able to completely abandon your own world view and system of values (which is something I cannot and will not do), as the two are inherently opposed in so many ways. You’re just lucky you’re not Australian, as there are additional points of culture clash for us! In the end I just have to accept that China and I are not compatible, and that I cannot accuse them for doing things or thinking a certain way, it’s just my own problem that I cannot fit into that way. In the end, it’s either adapt or get out, and I cannot manage the first. Just too bad my financial situation and various other factors make my final exodus a long time in the making!

    • jessicajhill says:

      This is certainly interesting to hear, though not exactly comforting! It makes me feel a little better that my rash judgements aren’t entirely the cause of a case of homesickness and that, even after eight years of living and studying the culture and language, you’re still baffled. I guess there isn’t much hope for my mind to change – I just have to try to enjoy it while I can over the next eight months!

      Where will you go next? Back to Australia, or off to explore the villages of somewhere new?

      • Next stop’s Vietnam, perhaps indefinitely. It’s my wife’s country and I absolutely love the place. It’s always such a nice escape from the craziness of China when we head down there! Australia’s great, but it’s getting harder and harder for the average person to afford life there. I think we’ll just stick with visiting there from time to time and have a more comfortable lifestyle in ‘Nam.

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