China and Egypt, apart but alike
An Egyptian view of life in China
By Omar Badr  ·  2021-09-09  ·   Source: NO.36 SEPTEMBER 9, 2021

At first glance, my motherland, Egypt, and China seem to be worlds apart. In a strictly geographical sense, there are 6,896 km between them. But a closer look reveals much the two countries have in common. That was what my uncle, who served as ambassador to China in the 1990s, used to tell me.

But judging by the funny-smelling bottles of Chinese condiments that he brought as gifts and which my mother would pour down the drain, the 10-year-old me couldn't fathom how this faraway land could resemble mine until I saw it with my own eyes.

After two years of living here, I would like to present things that I find strikingly similar between both "oriental" countries.

I have yet to meet a Chinese person who won't say they're proud of their 5,000 years of history. The same can easily be said of Egyptians and their 7,000-year-old country. Both peoples feel that they belong to great nations.

Family comes first. This couldn't be truer elsewhere than in China and Egypt. Chinese people travel extremely long distances to be reunited with their families for the Spring Festival. The situation is almost identical in Egypt where family also takes on an almost tribal dimension. Extended families and family names are still highly regarded, especially in smaller towns and cities.

When I was stuck in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, on a business trip amidst the torrential rains that wreaked havoc across the city in July, it was my first encounter with the Chinese spirit of self-sacrifice, as a colleague put it. The local staff hurried out into waist-deep waters to buy us, a group of foreigners, dinner. They made sure we found a decent place to stay the night while they slept sitting at their desks.

This unique kind of hospitality is foreign to most countries I have visited, except Egypt. An Arab tradition of hospitality and putting others first means that you have to host any stranger that knocks on your door asking for shelter for three days before asking them any questions. Of course, this is gradually disappearing as more people move to live in big cities but this benign curiosity about strangers and putting them first is something that is definitely felt in both China and Egypt.

This list wouldn't be complete without a mention of taxi drivers. This phenomenon is so ubiquitous in Egypt that one of the country's best-selling books of all time is titled Taxi in which the writer documents 58 conversations he had with different taxi drivers in Egypt about a wide range of topics, from politics to religion and sex. It came out before the 2011 Revolution and prophesied an imminent wave of change in the Middle Eastern country simply through the voices of taxi drivers in a congested Cairo.

My Chinese is not yet good enough for lengthy chats with cab drivers here, but one driver who I encountered in Beijing's similarly congested roads answered all my questions about China, in fluent English. From communism to capitalism, arranged marriages to modern dating, John dissected Chinese society better than the average urban sociologist would do.

This list is by no means exhaustive. And I'm sure the longer I live in this fascinating country, the more similarities I'll unearth. So the next time you find yourself admiring the Giza Pyramids or the Terracotta Army, remember there's a similar culture only 6,896 km away.

The author is an Egyptian working in Beijing

Copyedited by Ryan Perkins

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