I arrived at a language school in Beijing in order to improve my Chinese in September 2009. Having been asked where I was from, I was embarrassed to answer that I came from Poland. I was surrounded by students coming from countries that are widely recognised as economic or cultural superpowers like France, England, Italy and Russia, and I was aware of many stereotypes about Polish people that are maintained in those countries. In spite of the fact that I’m a native Chinese, partially I identify myself with the country that I was growing up in. After a year spent in Beijing, I came back to Warsaw to be amazed by the city’s rapid development. It turned out that the days of the Polish capital welcoming global, technological innovations and fashion with a yearly delay, were gone for good. Warsaw, in the blink of an eye, transformed from a backward, provincial Eastern-European city to a modern, European urban area. The sudden transformation changed my point of view and now I’m proud of the city where I live! Unfortunately, not all of my countrymen (I mean Chinese) agree with my opinion that Warsaw has its own charm. Chinese tourists coming to Poland expect some overwhelming impressions, similar to those experienced while visiting the western part of Europe. They are after streets with luxurious boutiques, high, gothic towers, castles wrapped in dark, medieval mysteries, and expensive cars parked on the streets. Additionally, they expect to hear Chopin’s music everywhere they go. As you can imagine, they come back down to earth, as soon as they come in touch with reality. When their holiday in Poland is over, they are being left with mixed feelings. The illusion that causes so much excitement among the tourists from the Far East (not only China), stems itself from cultural differences which have been building around three main factors: stereotyping, ignorance and a different lifestyle.
Let’s start with a stereotype deeply engrained in Chinese mind. Europe is seen in the Far East as a perfect continent in every respect; drowning in splendour, wealth and luxury. In colonial times the West had an impressive technological and military advantage over the colonies that were subdued by imperial countries. This amazed Asians and caused that the local communities started to like European culture, and recognise European goods as better than Asian ones. As a result, contemporary Chinese have an inferiority complex towards Europe. They believe that wine, Mozart, Louis Vitton, Ferrari and even the cutlery symbolise a social life of a better quality, which makes Europe in their eyes more luxurious.
A Chinese tourist arrives to Warsaw and expects to see high skyscrapers like in Manhattan, fashionable streets like in Milan and romantic night views like in Budapest. All those expectations concerning Europe as a whole were built up by Chinese tourist leaflets and media. Unfortunately, the real Warsaw is completely different from those images. The tourists quickly notice the city’s dominant greyness with its blocks of flats and canals, the architecture of tenements which is far from the baroque-gothic-renaissance type you can see in other western European countries, and there is only one building that can impress them which is the Palace of Culture and Science.
This leads us to the problem of ignorance towards Warsaw. Chinese demonstrate limited knowledge about Polish history and the events of the last century. They don’t know that Warsaw disappeared from the world’s map during the dark times of WWII and it was completely rebuilt by the Soviet authorities in a communist style. The architecture was supposed to be simple, practical and made out of concrete, the opposite to the grand style typical of the kings’ and tsars’ eras. The lack of knowledge about the history of particular European countries in the turbulent times of WWII, contributed to a general picture of Europe as a romantic and luxurious continent. A different lifestyle is another factor determining the Chinese’s view of the western world. China is an overpopulated country where people have no privacy and wherever they go they are always surrounded by others. The hustle and bustle of the street, lots of pedestrians, traffic and queuing at restaurants became everyone’s routine, determining certain living conditions. People who are stimulated for a long time by external influences, become unimpressed by their possessions. They need stronger stimuli to feel some emotions and they look for them in noisy and stressful forms of entertainment like karaoke, bars, dancing, rollercoaster and shopping centres etc. It is no wonder that Warsaw, which is full of empty parks (in China they are packed with families) and colourless, modernist blocks of flats, is unable to impress Chinese tourists. The Chinese living in Warsaw that I’m in touch with, often complain that the city has no attractions they could show to their guests from China. There is nothing that would be even slightly similar to the Eiffel Tower or the Heroes’ Square (Budapest) which would be able to impress the visitors and raise Warsaw’s status in Europe. Chinese are not really interested in opera, theatre and classical music (it’s a real irony considering that Chopin is very popular and loved in China), they love karaoke clubs but you won’t find their Chinese equivalent in Warsaw. One of the Chinese guides told me that she constantly takes her tourists to the Old Town (Starówka) which is exactly the same as other European old towns. She also walks with them to the parks and gives them the opportunity to eat some Polish sausage - and it’s worth mentioning that it is the cold cooked meat they are most pleased about.
I believe there are two parties you can blame for creating such a faint aura about Warsaw. On one side you have Warsaw Council which neglects tourism, on the other side Asian communities themselves, who seem to be unable to enjoy their holidays abroad. I referred to “Asian” communities as it’s not a problem concerning only Chinese people.
We know the stereotype about the Japanese tourists who go abroad for three days, take dozens of pictures with their camera and come back home. Where is the joy of holiday? Is it really so important to collect pictures of all attractions we know from leaflets and Google? Is it so important to take a picture with a Pantheon and boast about the fact one went to Athens while their friends cannot afford holidays abroad? Unfortunately, for the Japanese holidays means: taking pictures, buying souvenirs and European designer labels, as it’s the only way to prove that they actually went to Europe (did you see the queues full of Asians at Louis Vitton in Lafayette shopping centre in Paris?).
White Europeans treat holidays quite differently and they use “Carpe Diem” as their motto. For them, holiday is a time full of relaxation and privacy. Firstly, they do some sightseeing, take some routes of the beaten track, go to the cafe for at least two hours (which is a waste of time for a Chinese) and philosophize about life and death. They will also talk to their friends about really strange subjects like the very damp hair of Indian elephants. The next day they will sunbathe on the beach, drink a glass of wine in a reasonably priced restaurant, and in the evening they will go to the opera. They will come back home happy and tanned.
I have to admit that I also believe Warsaw doesn’t have a special character that would distinguish it from other European capitals. All of the most important tourist capitals in Europe have some certain qualities you associate with them, e.g. for London it’s tradition, Paris – romance, Madrid – so called hot blood, Vienna – Mozart in the public toilets and chocolates. It’s only Warsaw that is grey and boring. I have no associations when it comes to the Polish capital, maybe apart from grey colour and communist blocks of flats. Oh, and of course Legia Warsaw.
The city develops rapidly thanks to the financial support from the EU. Every month it looks more beautiful and modern, and more and more people know where to find Poland on the map. Warsaw should take the advantage of those favourable circumstances and become another tourist hot spot. I can see big potential in this city, but it still needs an exceptional soul. There is no Eiffel Tower and no Heroes’ Square but it’s fine. Warsaw has a lot of other attractions that can be promoted around the world and become its widely recognised symbols. Chopin should be even more appreciated and the city should become a capital of modernist art or an European centre of science and high-tech researches as mathematics in Poland is of a high quality.
Anthony "Lao gong" Chiu
Translated by: Anna Martinsen