The Vagabond Chronicles: China
By Kathy Krejados
Copyright 2017 Kathy Krejados
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This book is dedicated to those who have encouraged and supported my adventures: Conspirators – without whom this book would not exist, friends who relish the tales and family, who laugh, hug and/or wipe the tears away, as needed. G and C, you qualify for all three categories!
Table of Contents
Part 1: Getting Ready to Go; Getting There
Part 2: Firsts
Part 3: Travel
Part 4: Culture
Part 5: Odds and Ends
I am at the freest time of my life: the kids grown and gone and not dependent on my wallet, a very secure career that pays really well and has great benefits, debt-free. I live in a nice house, have plenty of leisure time, wake up pretty much when I feel like it after a restful 8 hours of sleep. My only obligation is to go to work as scheduled. I am healthy, happy, have plenty of friends, I’m single… but that will be the subject of another chapter.
What’s missing? I didn’t know, but for a long time I felt that I’m not where I’m supposed to be. How could that be? I have pretty much everything except a significant other, and I already said that would be a topic for another chapter.
I did everything backwards. I married very young, had children immediately after marriage. By the time I was 22 I was divorced with 2 kids to care for. Even more complicated: I grew up in Europe, but found myself suddenly alone, in America… just me and those two kids. I didn’t know how to be an adult, how to be a parent or how to live in a country I had only had a passing acquaintance with growing up.
I scrambled for work, doing anything that would feed/clothe/house the Monster-Babies. There were two stints of homelessness and several times, ashamed, I took my place in welfare lines. It was truly a life of desperation.Until I had the great fortune of landing a job in a Federal Facility: everything turned around, then! I had money to support the kids – by then teenagers, I had money to earn social acceptance – no longer did I sense sneers as I handed over my foodstamps, I had buying power… what a heady feeling all this was!
All too soon, the kids moved away, ready for their own life. The life I had built – great job, secure finances, ect., suddenly meant less without them to fend for, and I wondered what to do with myself.
I decided to pursue a college education, having never had time/money for one in my younger days. Guess what? I was really good at academia! The succession of A’s first surprised me, then pleased me and, most importantly, earned me a spot on an academic delegation to China. That is where my world went from black and white to color: I suddenly understood my calling and knew where I had to be.
After the challenges life has thrown at me, and how I was able to overcome them without sinking into despair, indeed rising above every miserable vagary I was faced with to achieve the life I have now – successful career complete with professional respect, kids happily established in their own life, financial freedom, ect. I have to ask myself: what kind of idiot walks away from such a life, especially after working so hard to achieve it?
I guess I would be that idiot. Today is my last day working with my esteemed colleagues and even better boss. For the next 3 weeks I will be carless, homeless and jobless, traveling across America to visit the friends I’m fortunate to know before boarding a plane and, once again, starting life in a strange, new place. I’ve condensed my earthly possessions into two footlockers which are currently on their way to China and the life that awaits me there as a teacher of foreign languages (I speak several of them, but very little Mandarin).
I invite you to partake of my adventures, share the laughs and feel the dismay. Maybe, if I imagine you are reading this, I can dispel some of the loneliness I’m sure to feel at some point in time while getting used to living in a country where I cannot even read the billboards or grocery shop. But mostly, through reading my story, I hope you will see that life is NOT over at (nearly) 50: there are still adventures to be had, new things to learn, new experiences to savor, new sights to enjoy.
++]C’mon! Let’s go live a vagabond’s life!
Part I: Getting Ready to Go, and Getting There
Chapter 1: Viva Las Vegas… or not?
Shortly before leaving clearing out of my Texas home, I had gotten a phone call from an old high school friend. This is no mean feat, because I actually went to high school in Berlin, Germany! Only one of my friends from high school and I are still in touch; she and I have been lifelong friends and she lives in Pennsylvania. I will be visiting with her later in my Stateside Roundup of Friends Before Leaving the Country.
When Eva said she had just moved to Vegas from Germany, I fairly jumped at the chance to go see her. Vegas is only 5 hours by car from where my kids live in Southern California, and my son happens to love going to Vegas anyway, so when I pitched the idea to him he was eager for the road trip.
He arranged his work schedule so that he got off at 2:00pm, and swapped cars with a buddy – his car is too unreliable. I packed an overnight bag for me and my grandson, and soon enough we were on the road. I drove because my son was exhausted.
The only event of note on the way was the burning bus. By the time we encountered it, night had fallen, and I didn’t know what was burning a quarter-mile ahead, I just knew it was straddling the highway and it was burning. All of the cars ahead of me shut of their lights and engine; I did the same. My son soon woke up and joined me on the side of the road.
You know, its funny how a seeminly deserted highway can fill up! Soon enough there were miles of cars and several people contemplating the nature of the disaster they were privileged to witness, and how long they would be stranded. I contemplated the stars. The lack of light pollution lent me a rare opportunity to see clearly. I was awed. Even though we’d been in the desert for hours, in my rush to get to Vegas, I nearly forgot to take time out to look at the stars. Don’t we all forget to look up as we rush here and there?
Soon enough the highway was cleared and we started the engines. As we passed the burning bus, we hoped that no one was hurt, and that whoever was on the bus wouldn’t be stranded forever on this desolate road.
My excitement grew as I saw the lights of Vegas in the distance. I had never been there, and so many people love it, rave about it, swear it must be a destination for everyone at some time in their life. My time had come!
As I eased the car into traffic on the strip, I looked around with eyes wide with wonder. This was Vegas! This was The Strip! This was the vacation destination of millions of people worldwide!
Vegas has a pound and beat that is almost audible. It has an energy that draws you in in spite of yourself. One cannot be a casual observer in Vegas; one way or another you become a part of the city, if only for a short while.
Strangely enough, Vegas reminded me of Beijing. The same pulsing energy, the same throngs of people everywhere, the same drawing-in and the same feeling of of being a part of being something huge. As I drove the strip for the first time, my eyes were everywhere, but my thoughts were in China, where I had experienced this vital, moving energy once before.
Yet it seemed to me, Vegas has a whisper of sadness running through it. It is not just a tourist town, it is a place where people live their life, usually earning less in one year than some spend in one spree, hoping to hit the big one. It is a place where dreams come true, but also where, more often, you hear those dreams shattering magnificently or whimpering a quiet death. It is mecca for gamblers and those who wish to break into show business. It is Endgame for performers who have already experienced the peak of their career but are not done entertaining: Cher, Barry Manilow and others.
By daylight, Vegas is a dirty city. Not because people don’t ever clean it, but because it is an oasis in the desert. The pavement gets so hot it buckles under the weight of the buses. Zebra-striped pedestrian crossings disappear under bubbling asphalt, the gum (or other ejected body fluids) drying is grayish lumps on the sidewalks and gutters. There is a quiet desperation in the unfinished construction, in the casinos that sell beer 24 hours a day, in the people that partake of that beer and of the casino activities. By daylight, it is too hot to walk in Vegas, so most people don’t see this part. But at night… Oh, the blessed night! Under the blanket of now invisible stars, how Vegas glitters, promises and witholds, drawing in again and again those whose imagined fortunes await!
Even though looking ahead is the prime directive in Vegas (besides spend, spend, spend, that is), one should look down at the curbs, to see the homeless and the dejected sitting there, their dreams gone, their survival questionable, their existence not to be denied.
Yes, there is a sadness in Vegas.
However, the reunion with my friend was joyous, loud, and all too short. Eva, when will we have this chance again?
On the way back to California, my son and I looked for the charred carcass of our burning bus. It had already been removed.
Chapter 2: The Quest for Shoes
To every friend I have visited during this jaunt I have given a gift, usually something that they had given me over the years. Mind you, I’m not so churlish that I would actually return a gift; I gave it back to them more in the spirit of safekeeping. Should I return, they could give it back to me. Although not at all necessary, every friend felt compelled to give me a gift, usually something small or serviceable that I could use on my travels, keeping in mind that the airlines have a weight limit to comply with, and I’m not Hercules. Seeing how much weight I can carry is not an adventure I’m seeking.
Of course, I could have simply re-gifted everything I had – Liz’s gift to Cat, Cat’s gift to Marjorie, Marjorie’s to Mark and so on. But I feel re-gifting is tacky and I would never do such a thing. Besides that, each friend had the pleasure of savoring the memory of the original gift-giving occasion all over again, so everything worked out very well in the end.
Marjorie received jewelry from me, and she looks very good wearing it – or not wearing it. She is in fact a very attractive woman whether she wears my jewelry or not. And, she being quite literally the Queen of Charm and a most wonderful friend to boot, she fervently pondered what to gift me in return, Ideas were suggested and rejected, or they hit that grey mark of “Yeah, OK… maybe. Let’s see what else we come up with.” I was in on the decision-making process, and even my suggestions were… not summarily dismissed, but not quite suited to the magnitude of the gift she wished to make to me. That’s the type of friend Marjorie is.
She settled on buying me a new pair of shoes. Before you scoff, I have to explain what a gift that is. I have very big feet: size 12 if the shoe is cut big. Also, I require a wide width, as my right foot is unnaturally splayed out. If you do not believe how difficult it is to find footwear in this size, please feel free to amble through the large sized shoes at your favorite footwear venue.
As though these two qualifiers were not challenge enough, my left pinky toe does not make contact with the ground. Instead it crosses over the next toe, to the effect that, if I walk bare-footed on the beach I leave a 4-toed foot print rather than a normal, 5-toed one.
There are benefits to this, the main one being that I am forever absolved of suspicion in all crimes involving barefooted, standard-toed suspects. The downside to it: I have a miserable time shopping for shoes. Sure, I could have had corrective surgery to fix my pesky toe problem, but along with the other problems my feet give me, I figured “Why Bother?” Considering the depressing results of shopping for shoes, maybe I should have had the surgery.
I concede that finding an attractive shoe that makes my foot look dainty and in my size is about akin to melting a glacier with a cigarette lighter, so I have given up on finding attractive shoes and I generally settle for serviceable men’s shoes. I can get away with wearing the lunkier, less feminine shoes when I wear jeans or when I was working, but… I am female! I like looking feminine! I like wearing fun outfits and I NEED the shoes to go with the outfits! NOTE: I’m a pretty normal fit clothes-wise, it is just shoe-wise that I am… difficult.
But still, you wonder: shoes? What kind of gift is that? I mean, really: its not like one must travel on horseback for days or sit astride a mule through the Wild Country fending off snakes and savages in order to buy shoes! You do not have to go ‘back-alley’ and exact a heavy barter for a pair of shoes. To my knowledge, there are no ‘Shoe Sharks’, to whom if you don’t pay the price they will systematically break first your loved ones’ bones and then yours until they get their money! There are literally – to paraphrase …… Shoes, Shoes everywhere and not a pair that fit.
Besides having mailed boots and sports shoes to myself, I am taking 3 pair of shoes to China with me: a pair of flats to work in, a pair of Okabashi to bum around in and a pair of white Sketchers with the strap that crosses over the top of the foot that I’ve had for at least 3 years. Those are to be worn with my capris and other summer outfits. They have really held up well but face it: they are 3 years old. They do not look good. The velcro closure does not hold and, at awkward moments just lets go and causes me to trip over my own shoes. Marjorie recognized this and thus decided to gift me shoes.
Now you know why it was such a huge deal.
Truly: my grin was fully 5/8ths delight at getting new shoes and 3/8ths mocking her for daring to challenge my impossible feet, because shoeing them is sometimes is an impossible feat! Nevertheless, my friend, a self-proclaimed Shopping Queen set off with me in tow (toe? Pun intended) to find shoes.
We started at the local mall – a logical choice for people with normal feet. At the mall, shoes stores abound. We checked Macy’s, Sears, Payless… where else? There were several stores, and it was all a blur: one store after another, each selection stopping at size 10. We moved on.
T.J.Maxx, Ross, Lane Bryant just for fun. Admittedly, Lane Bryant had attractive shoes in my size, but because of the crossed toe, I cannot wear a deep cut shoe. There has to be a generous amount of toe covering for me to be able to wear it. We moved on.
Do you get now, why I keep my shoes forever?
We went home unsuccessful. Marjorie was undaunted – she is the Shopping Queen, after all. I… was along for the adventure. Could my feet defeat and unseat the Queen?
The next day – Sunday, we set out again, as early as possible. By 11:00AM we were at Bon Ton, no luck. Although there were cute shoes there, none fit the bill. On to the Outlet mall, 5 towns and a 1 hour drive away. There we would visit Easy Spirit – the one Marjorie was banking on, Naturalizer – the one I had high hopes for, Bass-Weejuns, Eddie Bauer and more. No luck on Marjorie’s horse or mine, and I noticed…
I noticed the façade cracking. Marjorie was no longer looking optimistic, or even hopeful. I, on the other hand, started gloating. Not that I wanted Marjorie to fail – if she did, I’d be shoeless, but because my feet trumped the indomitable will of my friend, the Queen. I was not happy about her being flummoxed, I was just so amused that I am truly THAT hard to fit!
Uniform World saved the day. Just for fun, we went and looked. They had Sketchers that had the generous toe covering, the crossing straps over the foot, they were white, they were my size. They accommodated my orthotic insoles (another painful aspect of shoe shopping I had previously forgotten to tell you about). They were… PERFECT! It was simply amazing that, after 2 days of nearly constant shopping, my feet were ‘beat’ – literally and figuratively.
Marjorie won, and I’m so glad she did. We giggled about finding kicky shoes at such a functional store while we munched pizza at the mall’s food court. We deserved a reward for all of that searching, right? I have new shoes to wear in China, and I will take good care of them so that they will last as long as their predecessors. Who knows if I’m going to be able to find shoes in my size in China, and obviously, ordering online is out: I wouldn’t be able to try them on. The act of trying on is a must for feet as difficult as mine.
But the most important reason I’m so glad she won is that, while in China, when I’m feeling sad, missing my friends, wondering if I’ve made the biggest mistake ever… I can just walk a mile in my friend’s shoes and be comforted and cheered by the memory of spending this time with her.
How do you thank someone for such a wonderful and comfortable gift?
Chapter 3: Significant Other
I do not have a significant other, and that is the truth… for the most part. I live alone, dine alone, go out alone, everything alone. Nearly. Now I confess: there is an ‘other’, and he’s pretty ‘significant’ to me.
We met 6 years ago. From the moment I gazed into his sea-green eyes and he returned the look and nodded his hello, we were both hooked. It was like wildfire, spontaneous combustion, that ‘click’ you feel in the middle of your brain and every one of your neurons firing in time to that perfect celestial symphony that only plays when the stars are aligned just right. That’s what its like for me and him. Even now, after 6 years.
We’re not together, and we’re not going to be together. Various circumstances compel us to not have that kind of life: our backgrounds, our values, our beliefs, our way of life is too different. We live in different parts of the country. He has commitments he cannot break, I’ve lived a life of solitude I can’t let go of. But for the past 6 years, we’ve been there for each other: in hard times, in good times, to nurture and comfort one another. We accept that that is all there is for us, and all that there will be. For what we need and want from one another, it is perfect.
He’s a sad and wistful man, deeply introspective. He lends thought to bigger things, philosophical questions, moral rights and wrongs. We often discuss his ponderings of whether he’s doing the right thing with his life. In his opinion, he comes up way short. He’s compelled by circumstance to be more materialistic than he shows himself to me to be. I think, on some level, he resents having to put on that face but he doesn’t know how to get around it. I don’t give him advice; my place it to listen to him and let him work things out. I’m not his preacher or teacher.
I don’t look for him to be my savior or my rescuer: the whole knight-in-shining-armor phenomenon women seem to think men are supposed to be. There is nothing for him to rescue me from. Putting him on that pedestal would most likely break this wondrous relationship we have. I accept him for what he is, and how he fits into the life I made for myself. The only thing I ask is that, when he is with me, he should BE with me: no Blackberry, no phone calls, no distractions. He accepts that, and complies.
Since I met him, there has been no one else for me. I’m content with the phone calls every few months that last for hours, and the occasional emails, and maybe a face-to-face rendezvous whenever his schedule can manage it. He is the one who initiates most of the contact; I usually send emails wishing him a happy birthday, or letting know I’m thinking about him on the anniversary of his mother’s death. After all, that’s all there can be.
There have been strange coincidences that have thrown us together over the years. He had business in Houston one year, and I lived only a few hours away. A suggestion from him, a drive south for me and presto: magical weekend ensues! Another time, I went to D.C. for a job interview; guess who happened to be there on assignment that very week? The pleasure of sitting across a table and conversing with him obliterated the frustration that I did not get the job I had traveled across the country for.
There’s a reason we haven’t let go of each other. I don’t know what it is, and I suspect he doesn’t either. But every time we are together, it is like there’s been no time apart. We fall into that comfortable zone where people are totally themselves together. That’s also been a rarity in my life.
Is this love? How should either of us know? We were both too broken in childhood to understand what love is, or recognize it when it comes our way. I think that love has slapped us both in the face with this relationship, and we are both too ignorant to know it. I’ve told him I love him, but I know instinctively that he will never say those words to me. I accept that.
I’m leaving the country. It will no longer be as simple as picking up the phone, finding out we are in the same neck of the woods by some strange coincidence, sitting across the table from each other in some funky restaurant again. He doesn’t even have a passport. I don’t know if he’s curious about China and would want to go there, but when I told him about my new job via email a few weeks back, he immediately jumped on the Internet and learned what he could about the city I’ll be living in. Its little things like that that let me know how he feels.
I do not know a soul in Baltimore. Yet here I am, my last 4 days in the United States in a city full of strangers that I’ve never been to before.
He’s here on assignment. He works long hours, and has social commitments to boot. We can’t spend every minute together, and I don’t think we would want to. We did spend two wondrous evenings together walking the harbor, dining at eclectic restaurants, talking, talking, talking. Ever the conversation flowed. How I enjoy these moments with him! Surely he must enjoy me too: he’s the one that grabs my hand, wraps his arm around my waist, arranges his schedule so that we can have some time together. Yes, there’s definitely something between us. We’ll have email, and that will have to do, IF there is to still be something between us while I’m on the other side of the globe.
One last kiss in the elevator, hand in hand we walk to his truck. There is no sadness, nor is there a sense of fatalism. It doesn’t even feel like good-bye. It never does, with him. One final hug by his truck, and he gets in. He sends me a smile and a wave, turns the ignition, and then he’s gone.
He had brought a bottle of wine for us to share, and a bottle opener – a particularly fancy one. We didn’t drink the wine; he suggested before taking his leave that I take it with me and drink it on my first night in my new apartment. What an excellent idea! While packing up my stuff, I noticed he also left his bottle opener. A quick text message from me, a return phone call from him: he meant for me to have it. He had bought it in Houston for our rendezvous and had kept it all of these years so that he could open the wine whenever we meet. He had no more use for it with me gone, so now its mine.
Grabbing a taxi to the airport, the sky starts to weep, as though mourning my loss.
Chapter 4: U.S. To Wuhan, via Shanghai
The trip to China, and then to Wuhan, my destination city, was an adventure in itself. It was a journey fraught with discomfort and unsettling surprises, as well as some wonderful and some not so wonderful discoveries.
I reasoned I should go to sleep at about 7:00PM, that last night in Baltimore. I had to be up at 2:00AM, and I would have to shower and call a cab to the train station in order to be there at 3:55AM to make my train, which would take me to the airport.
At 11:30PM, the phone was still ringing. Why didn’t I just turn off the phone, you ask? I was using it as an alarm clock, as well as having set the hotel’s alarm clock and having requested a wake up call. I wanted to be sure to wake up on time: had to catch that train!
I woke up on time. As a matter of fact, I was so worried I wouldn’t wake up on time that I kept waking up. At 12:17AM, at 1:00AM, at 1:47AM. I think I had the waking up thing down pat. By the time the various chimes went off to actually wake me up, I was red-eyed, dizzy, overwhelmingly tired. Never mind I reasoned, I had a 19-hour flight ahead of me and I could certainly sleep then.
I could not have been more wrong.
I made the train, I made it to the airport in Newark, I made onto the plane still working that phone. I was missing people already, and I wanted to be sure they knew about it. I called people whom I knew were not near their phones and left voice mail so that they could have a nice surprise when they came home. I called people who wanted to monopolize all the time I had and battery life the phone had. I really tried to get to everyone, those last few hours in the U.S. Who knew when I would hear their voice again?
No worries: I didn’t wake anyone up. My plane was due out around 11:00AM; most people I was trying to reach were already at work.
Finally: the Big One. The overseas flight. 19 hours worth. No phone, no interruptions… well, maybe a meal and a movie. I had my Benadryl ready to make me drowsy and sleep most of the flight away. My first disappointment: I had requested an aisle seat and not only got a middle seat, but a middle seat in the middle of the plane. Not just the middle of the plane, but the very back seat of the middle of the plane. There was no place to store my carry-on in the overhead bin, so per the air hostess’ instructions, my laptop got to ride first class in an empty storage compartment, and I was remanded to the back of the plane. There was no place for my ‘personal item’, so I had to shove it under the seat in front of me. There went any leg room I might have had. Strike One.
I forgot to tell you how I dressed for the trip: long pants, cami under a long sleeved hoodie. I wanted to look somewhat appropriate when I met my employer for the first time, as soon as I arrived in Wuhan. Thus the slightly formal but still sporty selection. The outfit was a little warm I grant you, even for 3:00AM Baltimore weather, but I can’t tell you how fortuitous my wardrobe selection turned out to be! The plane’s climate control system was damaged and the cabin temperature was stuck at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire overseas flight. There was no fixing it, and there were no extra blankets. We found that out the hard way.
That was the third shock in this nightmare flight. The first came when I sat down and tested my position: how would I manage my limited leg room, how companionable are my seat-mates (they would have to let me out for bathroom and stretch breaks), will the seat recline and will the headrest support my head? The seat did not recline at all. Not one iota. It simply did not move, whether I pushed the button or not. Strike two.
Just after taking off, when the hostesses were offering the first round of drinks and a snack. The man in front of me asked that his wife not be served peanuts, as she had an allergy to them. Immediately, all 6 hostesses in the vicinity yelled at him – not kidding here, yelled! – that he should let everyone one the plane know in case something happened and she accidentally got peanuts. One hostess in particular was loud and braying; one of my seatmates and I figured that she was the ringleader… or at least held some sort of rank over the rest of the crew.
I leaned toward my seatmate, after this poor guy had been berated 4 times by the staff about letting everyone know, and asked her: “didn’t he just let everyone know? Why are they yelling at him?” She was as shocked as I was at the aggressive tone of the hostesses. Maybe it was because they thought he was deaf instead of Chinese that they felt they had to yell. Regardless, we being in the last row were destined to suffer the ire of the crew, and they fairly threw us our snack: a bag of pretzels apiece. Strike three.
Normally, after Strike 3, one is considered out. Unfortunately I was on an airplane and I couldn’t just ‘out’ myself. Where would I go at nearing 3,800 feet? Helpless, I had to let the strikes continue.
My seatback entertainment center died. Not that I was wild about seeking entertainment: I was shivering, tired and hungry. But still, there might have been a good movie to watch. I elected to take the electronic survey before I reviewed the movie selection. Even though I honestly appraised the flight, including the hostess’ attitude, the cabin temperature and the seat backs not reclining one bit, it would only allow me to select and report that everything was excellent. I started giggling madly – I simply couldn’t believe that, on a flight where personal comfort was anything but the norm, and the hostesses were rude I could not review the flight as anything but excellent! Both my seatmates also tried the survey, and got the same results: no matter what rating they gave any particular category, the system would only accept ‘excellent’ and taunt you with your lie before you moved on to the next question. They both started laughing as well.
That’s when the entertainment system died. Not everyone’s, just mine. So now, I’m stuck in the back of the plane, in the middle seat of the middle row and I’m too tired to read my book but still too wired to sleep, and I’m wrestling with the microfiber blanket to cover most of myself up. That’s when they brought out the food. Only one selection – pork, because the pasta was all gone. The food was cold, so I asked the hostess to please warm it up for me. She took the food… and it never came back. Seriously. I don’t know if it was meanness or if she just forgot that she had someone waiting for a warm meal in a very cold cabin. Whatever the reason, I never saw that food again. Just as well; I wasn’t hungry anyway and my seatmate told me the food was not any good. She didn’t finish hers, either. After the meals were cleared cabin-wide, the braying hostess asked me if another hostess had remembered to bring me my meal. I told her “Never mind, I don’t want it now.” And that was the truth. I did save the pumpernickel roll, the butter and the cheese, and the brownie. It made for a nice snack later, and I was grateful to have it because that was all the food I got on that flight.
It struck me as completely odd that, on a plane bound for China and with fully ¾ of the passengers being Chinese, the two languages offered on the on-board entertainment system were English and Spanish! There was not a single Chinese character in any of the menus or in any of the flight information. None of the on-board literature featured any Chinese either but they did have safety information cards in English… and Spanish!
Fortunately, the flight is now over. It is now time to deplane in an orderly manner and get stranded in Shanghai.
I knew I would be cutting it rather close when I found out (while still living in America) that my plane landed at Shanghai PuDong airport at 1910, and the last train to Wuhan left at 2155. PuDong is about 35km away from the South railway station where the train departs from; had I flown into Hongxiao (Hong shee-ow), the other Shanghai airport, I would have only been about 14km away. As it was, I had to clear customs, retrieve my luggage, race through the airport, catch the mag-rail (super fast, magnetic motor train, racing through the city at a whopping 300km/hr!) After riding the mag-rail I had to find the #2 subway line to People’s Square, and there transfer to the #1 subway line to the South railway station. I was able to navigate all of this just fine, thanks to written directions from a guy on the plane.
Fortunately, I got to the train station at 2110. Unfortunately, there was a very long line of people buying train tickets. By the time my turn came to approach the window, it was 2205 – I had missed the train by 10 minutes. I sat down and contemplated my options: I could find a hotel in Shanghai. I could go back to the airport and buy a plane ticket to Wuhan. Or I could spend the night at the train station and buy a ticket for the very next train to Wuhan. Considering I was pulling a 46Lbs suitcase, a 20Lbs laptop bag and a fairly heavy carry-on, and the fact that the plane ride was less than comfortable, I opted to stay at the train station. I really couldn’t move anymore, and besides, it is all part of the experience, right?
Just before the ticket window closed down at midnight, I was able to buy a ticket on the next train departing at 1347 the next day. Immediately after that, the police started blowing their whistles, rounding vagrants up and out of the station. Being a valid ticket holder – a stroke of luck, there! I got to stay and I found a quiet corner, curled up on top my luggage and slept for about 3 hours. Then the train station got really cold, I woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep, even after foraging into my suitcase and digging out my jacket to use as a blanket. I was very hungry. Remember the food disaster on the plane? Unfortunately all the stores in the station were closed. Fortunately, some of the food stores at the station opened at 0600, so I got up, washed my face and scored some food. Luckily I had thought to convert some money before leaving the U.S.. After that, a quick phone call – navigating a pay phone menu, nonetheless! – to my boss to let him know that I was not going to be on the train I had anticipated being on, and then… I wandered around the train station in a daze, instead of going to sight see around Shanghai. I was too exhausted to enjoy the sights, and by now my feet had started swelling badly in spite of the comfortable shoes Marjorie had provided me with.
So now, the wait for the train. I was unbelievably tired! Remember, it is just 6:30 in the morning and I had only slept about 3 hours. Adventurous spirit be damned, I wanted a bed, a shower, a decent meal… but it was all part of the experience, right? I was NOT in a good mood at this point. Let me stress that clearly.
I thought some warm food would help me, maybe something carb-laden. So I went to the train station’s KFC when it opened at 7:00 and ordered a breakfast meal. Please note that there were not many choices to be had; it was KFC or a dumpling restaurant. Chinese dumplings are notoriously light and, although initially filling generally do not go the extra mile to keep you full. Also, I think I was looking for comfort in familiarity. So I opted for a brand I was familiar with: KFC. I ordered a chicken sandwich meal, but instead of fries it came with congee, a Chinese glutinous rice soup dish that can be served either sweet or spicy or just loaded with other stuff. In this case, it was loaded with seaweed and some questionable meat. Being so hungry and cold, I gobbled it all up and felt a little better.
What to do now? With more than 6 hours wait for my train, I sat down and people-watched. What a fascinating snapshot of Chinese society I got in the train station! Women like to dress to travel: their finest dresses and heels, even if it what they were wearing would be more suited to evening. Some of the younger generation went more for stylish or sporty comfort, but still styled their hair and carried designer bags. There was a lot of moneyed people going through that station, and they rubbed elbows with the vagrants and migrant workers – those called ‘shoulder-poles’ because they made their living toting goods using two baskets dangling from a bamboo pole, balanced on their shoulder. Interestingly enough, everyone was accorded the same amount of personal space, whether rich or poor, fancied up or unwashed. Nobody shied away from the peasants and no one sought out the rich.
I changed places many times, getting up and walking around when I started getting drowsy. Once I sat next to a father who was travelling with his daughter, who appeared to be about 5 years old. A sweet looking little girl with a pink dress on and a matching bow in her hair, the poor thing was so tired she was trying to sleep while leaning on her bag. Her father must have been equally tired as he was canted to the left and sprawled out as much as possible in the narrow metal chair. Perhaps some inner clock woke him, or maybe he just suffered the same problem I did – inability to actually sleep, so he nudged the girl and told her to watch the bags. And then he got up and walked away! Imagine: leaving a 5-year-old child alone in a busy railway station, and in charge of the bags, no less! She roused herself as best she could and reached for her drinking cup inside a small, pink bag. Feeling slightly like a voyeur, I looked away.
There were several instances of children running free around the station. It is not that the parents don’t care, it is just that maximum freedom is afforded here because, of all the places in the world, China is one of the safest places to live. There is a premium value accorded to children in China, because they are treasured. It is truly a place where children can frolic without the obvious presence of parents nearby.
My lingering thought while taking all of this in through my fogged out, sleep deprived brain was: although I would do most anything for some creature comforts at that point in time, and I was sorely missing everything I’d left behind in the States, there is still no place on earth I’d rather be than in China. Except for in the company of a loved one.
My mood took a turn for the worse when I finally boarded the train, only to find out I had booked passage on the SLOW train to Wuhan: the one that left Shanghai at 1347, and got to my destination at 0600 the next morning! I had to borrow a fellow passenger’s cellphone in order to call my sponsor and tell him I’d be later than I thought. And, my mood didn’t improve when I realized that, not only was I on the slow train, but I had a ‘hard seat’ ticket, when I could/should have bought a sleeper car ticket. But, the ticket teller didn’t give me that option and I didn’t think to ask about one because I didn’t figure I was on the slow train! So again, I spent the night sitting up, in a loud and lighted environment. The glow from the KFC carb-extravaganza had worn off a long time ago. Hungry, aching from pulling suitcases everywhere… you can imagine it was not a fun time. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting ride.
I’d like to make something perfectly clear: this is an adventure I sought out and welcomed (while I was planning it). Other than the hostesses, the temperature, and the food problems on the plane, I was in control/in charge of every single aspect of this trip. Although it does sound grueling, I take full responsibility for it and all the mishaps that happened along the way. I hope that I’m relaying these events in such a way that you will see it as a sometimes humorous but always factual narrative, not a ploy for sympathy or pity. I was definitely not a victim of some evil travel demon who had me in his sights, I was merely a victim of a soul that thirsts for adventure. This time, I got more than I was ready for, that’s all.
OK: it is now 13:20. All Aboard! Final Destination: Wuchang Railway Station!
Boarding a train in China is somewhat akin to the cattle rushes of yore. Once those gates open you (the cattle) rush through and hope to not get trampled or separated from your luggage, and then you have to go downstairs to the platform. Nothing so genteel as an elevator, such as the ones available at the Amtrak stations in the States, and definitely no porters around to help you! By now I saw my luggage as extensions of my own arms and heaved them effortlessly down the stairs, racing to car #7 so that I might get to my reserved seat and get settled in before too many people crowded the platform or the train car.
I was in luck! Being the only foreigner on the platform, many people stopped and stared, or deferred to me and I got to sail through the crowds like a ship sailing into harbor. I boarded the train with the approval of the conductor. And then, my suitcase zipper broke, right in the doorway of the train between cars 7 and 8. I got to block the way for several moments while I picked up my things. Fortunately it was a smaller pocket at the side of the suitcase, and it only held some health/beauty aids. I had moved out of the way and kicked everything over so that others could board, and I thought I had everything picked up until I noticed a young lady with one of my razor cartridges in her hand. She was laughing and wondering what it was. Shamelessly, I plucked it out of her hand and told her in Chinese ‘It is mine’. She immediately stopped grinning and hurried along. I was too tired to care whether I had offended her.
Because of my zipper mishap, I had lost my early boarding advantage and was now in the mainstream of boarding traffic. Not an enviable position for someone as big and as burdened as I. Another problem; although I am intellectually aware that there is not much in the way of niceties when it comes to public transportation in China, I could not bring myself to bully my way into the line of people streaming on. A kindly gentleman allowed me to go before him, and once again I was carrying suitcases down the narrow aisle to my seat.
All luggage is to go overhead; there are no vacant seats to store your suitcase on and there is no aisle space. Somehow I managed to lift two of my three bags (remember their weight/size) over my head – one at a time of course! – and heave them onto the luggage racks above. The people already seated marveled at the feat and commented on my great strength – and my great size. I wish I could have been amused, but for the sake of their good mood and to maintain companionability, I mimed an Iron Man – So Strong! – gesture. Everyone in the vicinity burst out laughing, and then asked me to hoist their bags overhead. Just what I needed. I sighed and sat down after hoisting 2 of their bags, to prove I’m game. My third bag I kept cradled on my lap for the entire journey.
I should have written about the Amtrak trains, and maybe I’ll make up that omission in a later post. For now I’ll just say that Amtrak train seats are luxurious, wide, clean and comfortable. Chinese train seats have nothing in common with them. They are just wide enough to accommodate a Chinese posterior, hard, uncomfortable and covered by a dust cloth that does not stay on. People step on the seats to put their luggage overhead; some even remove their shoes or move the dust cover before climbing up. No wonder I was such a hit storing baggage!
I finally got my coveted aisle seat, but in this context that was not a good thing because my posterior is modestly – no, substantially! – larger than a Chinese one. My right side, hanging over the seat and into the aisle, was flogged/beaten by all manner of baggage and appendage as people progressed down the aisle to their seat. “Par for the course” I whimpered, feeling sorry for myself. I let myself get beat; there was nowhere else to move to.
Soon enough the whistle sounded, the last few passengers scurried on board or flat out sprinted down the platform and hustled through the car. And now, we’re moving… but wait! I had a reserved seat. What are all these people doing, standing in the aisle? How could the ticket taker authorize 150 people in a car designed for occupancy of 118? It took a long time to glean the answer
And then, madness ensued. Not my own, personal madness – I think I’ve already established a measure of that by undertaking this journey, but madness in the train car. People broke out food, games, little stools so they could sit in the aisles, only to have to get up and move so the push-cart vendors could make their way through, hawking their wares. Some vendors had food, some had fruit, some were renting computers for 20 yuan per half hour. Others were selling trinkets and newspapers which were eagerly bought, not to be read but to line the floor so people could sit down in the wake of the pushcarts. Every vendor cart that came through caused a throng of people to push themselves into the seated passengers. I was nothing special anymore; I was crowded/banged into just like everyone else. This went on for hours. And hours. For seventeen of them, to be exact.
At 7:00pm, my hunger vulture returned. It had been more than twelve hours since KFC. The food vendor had all manner of unrecognizable wares and I no longer felt adventurous, but the fruit cart had appealing stuff, so I bought 8 plums for 10 yuan – about $1.50. I eagerly bit into the first plum, even though it was hard, bitter and unripe. I lost my appetite again, and saved the other 7 for later, when they would ripen.
Unable to sleep in this ruckus and confinement, again I watched. There were riotous moments, like when the youth and the train official got into an argument and it escalated into blows. Yes, he actually balled up his fist and tried to hit her. Fortunately, several passengers intervened and the fight ended quickly. There were families who did not get seats together, negotiating with passengers near them so they could sit with their loved ones. A married couple who looked more like father and daughter, she cross-stitched while they talked and laughed a blue streak, gazing lovingly at each other. There was the father who removed his shirt to wrap around his son, who was shivering in his sleep. When the shirt did not do the trick, he took drapes off the train windows to wrap the boy up. There was a mother who stood sleepily in the aisle for hours so that her son could sprawl out on the double seat. Every so often, she made sure he was covered, and then she went back to dozing while standing. There were two girls who did not look more than 14 years old, traveling together, huddled for warmth and curled up around each other. This greatly annoyed the businessman sitting next to them, as they occasionally leaned on him and rumpled his suit. He pushed them away every time they slumped on him.
Somewhere around 4:00 in the morning, I could not stand being hungry anymore. I carefully looked at the wares on the vendor cart: vacuum packed leg of fowl. Some sausages, some other things I couldn’t identify, AH! Vacuum packed peanuts! I snatched them, and a can of what looked like soup. Grand total: 15 yuan. The soup turned out to be a sweet peanut soup, which wasn’t that bad once I put some of the salty vacuum packed peanuts into it. All of the passengers who were awake watched me eat; maybe it was weird to them that I put peanuts in the peanut soup.
I have to admit that the soup, while not satisfying, certainly helped with the hunger pangs. Add an unripe plum for dessert, and I felt at least fortified. Which was a good thing, because Wuchang station was coming up, and I had to get the luggage down and get ready to meet my boss.
If you come to China, you must experience riding the train; it is a microcosm of humanity that is absolutely alien to the American way of life. Through the discomfort, the cold, the hunger, the cramped confines and the hard seat that made my back and backside ache, I kept thinking how fortunate I am to experience this. I hope, by this narration, that you experience it too.
Chapter 5: Arrival Wuhan; Meet the Boss
The train’s slowing roused me; we were in a metropolitan area. Judging by the time, it had to be my final destination! Bleary-eyed, I peered through the rain-streaked window at bobbing umbrellas and trundling buses below. At first glance, Wuhan is nothing to look at: gloomy concrete buildings; sad, drooping trees and traffic, just starting to build up at this time in the morning.
Whimsically, I imagined the rain meant to wash the city clean expressly for my arrival.
Shortly after 6:00AM the train pulled into the station. Finally! I was by then so tired of traveling, but had a bit further to go. Fortunately, it wouldn’t be far. I envisaged setting up my house, making my bed with clean sheets, showering, eating, sleeping…
But first, I had to get off the train. Functioning mostly on autopilot – my sleep-deprived brain had given up on any rational thought, following instead basic instinct and instruction, I pulled my luggage down and followed the crowd off the platform and into the station, my eyes peeled for someone who might be waiting for me.
And, the thought occurred to me: how would I know Sam? Having never seen him or any likeness of him, he could have walked up and slapped me, and I would not have known it was him. How to tell one foreign teacher liaison apart from the horde of Chinese bustling about and exclaiming loudly?
The question was moot: After the flurry of pick-ups, the station emptied out. There was not a soul to greet me. There were a few people who apparently wanted to drive me somewhere; they brandished car keys and tried to grab my luggage. They were all soon dissuaded by my terse, slurred: “I have a friend coming to get me.”
Where was he? Why hasn’t he found me? After all, I might have trouble distinguishing one Chinese from all others milling about the station, especially when I have no idea what he looks like, but I am the only foreigner here, and a remarkable one, at that: six feet tall with honey-blond hair, towing a large duffle and a smaller computer case.
Instead of ambling about, trying to recognize someone I have never seen, I decided to stay in one place and wait for him to find me. Not an easy task seeing as there are no benches.
Now the reception hall is creepy: a dimly lit open breezeway of grey pavestone and matching grey walls. No shops open except for McDonalds’ and, right next door, Kentucky Fried Chicken. I wondered if Sam might be in there…
Nope! Barrelling toward me was a person of short stature, an exceedingly round head sporting glasses; he wore a juvenile striped shirt and jeans. “Are you Sophia?” He inquired,unfolding a piece of paper with my name on it.
Looking back on that initial contact, I have to chuckle. How many blond-haired foreigners of my height pass through Wuhan? He had seen a picture of me; could he not associate my likeness with myself? Because of that and his youthful appearance, I concluded that this person must not be Sam; he must have sent a student in his place.
I was overwhelmed with gratitude at not being stranded again, and at the thought that I would soon be in my new home.
This person, whose identity was still unknown to me, placed a quick phone call to our driver, grabbed the lighter of my 2 rolling bags and took off. With my swollen feet and burdened by exhaustion, I barely managed to keep up with him. Fortunately, the driver and he had their signals crossed: he went to the agreed meeting point but the driver wasn’t there yet. I limped to where he had paused, sliding gratefully into the van’s back seat, once it arrived.
The road to our school was… could barely be called a road. It was a series of potholes of varying sizes, held together by dirt strips. The driver seemed to not care about the vehicle’s suspension system or tires; he careened over them, causing me to flop around like a rag doll. A few times, the ruts were so jarring I actually smacked my head on the van’s roof! In vain I searched for a seatbelt. This carnival ride was just one more in a long line of events that required endurance.
Thanks to it, I now know what clothes in a dryer must feel like, tumbling ad nauseam.
Because I spent most of the ride hanging on for dear life, I didn’t get to see very much of the route to campus. I only had vague impressions of buildings, a few restaurants and some people, peddling produce, even at that early morning hour.
At one point, the van turned left, onto an unpaved road. Mercifully, he drove slowly, honking at people in muddy galoshes that crowded the way. Looking out, I could see what appeared to be open country. How far out of the city was this school I had signed on to live at?
Finally! Campus! Now driving much faster over the paved roads (and speed bumps!), I only got a fleeting glimpse of: a sports track, a couple of buildings, and a small park. Soon, the driver back into an alley and switched off the ignition.
For better or worse, I was home.
Chapter 6: The New House
I was admittedly a bit dubious when we pulled up to the building; it looked like a dorm. I thought I was getting an apartment! As it turns out, the apartments for foreign teachers are on the first floor of the girls’ dorm building. Not that that bothered me; everything seemed rather quiet… at 6:30 in the morning.
Full of anticipation and somewhat excited, I let Sam lead me to apartment 4108, my new home. He was chattering all the while, commenting on how young I looked and the like. Quite complimentary is Young Sam; I felt anything but young after traveling for thirty-six hours. Matter of fact, I was feeling decidedly used up, wrung out, in need of a shower and some fresh clothes and some sleep! I was looking forward to a quick tour of my new digs, a wash and a long nap.
At first glance, the apartment was quite charming. Laminate floors in the living room and bedroom, and both rooms of generous size: 12’ ceilings lending the illusion of extra space, but even so: plenty of floor space and sparsely but adequately furnished. An air conditioner stood silently by in each room, ready to afford me comfortable temperature. A queen-sized bed with dual nightstands and a wardrobe in the sleeping area; two desks and a book case in the office area, both parts completing the room. Two lamps illuminated the décor: one at the desk, and the other by the bed. There were brand-new linens piled on the bed, and a thick winter quilt waiting to keep me warm in the closet.
The only drawback in the living room was the world’s most hideous couch: a low-slung affair made up of white faux snakeskin with a tan cushion to sit on and two leopard print pillows for reclining; wooden accents formed the legs. All other furniture was not a decorator’s nightmare: a television stand with TV and DVD player, two more book cases, a small dinette set and a shoe cabinet. I already had plans for how I would arrange the furniture, and for all my things.
My things! My two foot lockers had arrived, and had been carted to my apartment! How I wanted to tear into them right then and there, and reacquaint myself with the few things I packed! It would be just like Christmas, and what a perfect way to welcome myself home! But Sam was still here, showing off the virtues of the apartment. I had to wait a little longer for that Christmas morning feeling.
The kitchen was next. Brand new dishes and chopsticks, still in the package. A serviceable wok, a single, electronic hotplate with directions in Chinese, and electric rice cooker. A washer with cycle selections in Chinese and dryer with cycle selections in English, a microwave with symbols and pictures for directions, and a bottled water dispenser, sans bottled water. Blue cabinet doors. Granite counter tops: what a nice touch! Now, if only I could get them set at higher than mid-thigh. There would clearly be a lot of stooping while cooking. All of this AND an attractive tile floor. How lucky could a girl get?
The bathroom floor is also tiled, with a granite vanity. Very nice! An added bonus: a full-sized bathtub with adjustable height shower: not a bad coup for a tall girl like me. My own water heater – very important in China; you do not want to be at the mercy of the community boiler, or worse, a solar-powered water heating unit mounted on the roof. They’re not bad in the summer, but they function miserably in the winter.
The guided tour finished, Sam declared he would leave me alone to get some rest. He took his leave after giving me my key and inviting me to dinner after I’ve rested. Rest? I had things to do! Finally alone, I took off my now hurtful shoes and prowled my new digs: each room had a window, each window was coated so that no one could look in and also had a screen. Each window apparently allowed its share of dirt to be blown in… but I didn’t make that connection immediately.
After just a few steps barefooted, I could feel the dirt and grit on the soles of my feet. I dug into my suitcase for a pair of slippers, thinking that the floors probably would be dusty if no one had occupied the apartment for a month or so. But looking beyond the initial charm of the apartment I found it… absolutely filthy!
Cobwebs hanging from the ceiling! Dust Great Danes prowled the floor and growled at my intrusion! They really could not have been called dust bunnies or even dust kitties, they had surpassed that stage of growth and gone smack into pony-size. The tub had a ring around it, and not the nice kind, either! And the kitchen! Oh, my Stars! The accumulated grease in the kitchen! How could any kitchen be that greasy! I dared touch one of the cabinet handles and it was greasy; while I was at it I opened the cabinet and found the shelves inside brown with dirt and grease. The vent hood alone was going to take me days to clean; you couldn’t even see the filter mesh pattern for all of the caked-on grease!
That’s it; I’m too tired to take all of this in. I need a shower and a bed. “Oh, NO!” I moaned! ‘The bed!” The mattress was gray with dirt. “No big deal” I thought, “I’ll just turn it over” I should not have had that thought; the other side was in even worse shape. A wordless moan escaped me, and I resolved to do something about it soon… but not right now, I had other business to take care of.
I had to ‘touch my peeps’ – get in touch with everyone I’d left behind to let them know I was safe. Many of my friends did not anticipate this journey taking days and surely they were worried about me. As my hiring-in prospectus promised, there was a computer with a DSL modem waiting for me, but I wanted my faithful laptop. I installed it on one of the desks, finally got everything connected after puzzling out the various wires. I click on Firefox and… no connection established! What could be wrong? I went over my connections again, reset the modem and… no connection established! I couldn’t get online!
This may sound strange, but I was more frantic over this than my need for food and sleep or the state the apartment was in. I just to get online! I was missing people! I needed to open my inbox and see some emails! I needed a connection to the outside world! Somehow, not being able to connect to the internet just capped this trying travel adventure for me; it was an inglorious end to a miserable trip. I felt alone, disconnected, abandoned.
I tried the university-provided computer, and after several tries, I was able to establish a connection. I literally cried with relief and kept my fingers crossed that I would be able to access g-mail.
Triumph! The page loaded! I settled in to read the 20-some odd emails that had accumulated. People missed me! People wondered about me! In this hyper-filthy apartment where I was having second thoughts about laying my head down (even though the pillow was brand new), I felt not quite so alone. I sent my ‘Got Here Safely’ message and then decided against unpacking my footlockers with my linens in them. I just had to clean this place up before I unpacked anything.
So I made use of the school-provided linens to make up the bed and take a shower. A short digging expedition into my suitcase yielded my soap and shampoo, a little more digging and I had clean clothes to wear after my shower. Either I was moving in slow motion because of fatigue or I just really enjoyed that shower, because I ran it until the water ran cold. (Only later did I find out that the water heater is a small capacity unit; I’m going to have to learn to shower quickly!) When I pulled back the shower curtain I found a substantial puddle on the floor directly in front of the bathtub; stepping out of the tub meant stepping into dirty water. I couldn’t figure how to get around the problem, so I stepped into the puddle on the floor and then threw the towel down after I was done drying myself. I decided then and there that, from now on, that towel would do for my floor mat, and I would have to call maintenance to fix the plumbing.
I had no sense of time by now: minutes or hours flew by; I’m not sure which. After making up the bed and cleaning myself up, I wanted to unwind in the little park I saw out my bathroom window. I decided to go for a short walk before napping, but unbeknownst to me, Sam’s apartment is two doors down from mine. He came rushing out in a panic when he saw me walk by, wondering if something was wrong. I neglected to mention the plumbing problem, but slurred that I had to relax a little bit before I could go to sleep.
Besides, I had an ulterior motive. Considering the time difference, my significant other would still be awake and he would have received my message on his BlackBerry. I would have liked to hear from him before I could consider sleeping. Some reassurance from him would go a long way to help me feel more… balanced, so I could actually go to sleep. He hadn’t written anything while I was in the shower, and I wanted to give him time to respond.
It was a very short walk. I might have known this before, but suddenly I was made aware of how hard it is to walk on rubbery legs and swollen feet. On the other hand, the park was lovely in the morning sunshine. One short lap around it and I headed home, no doubt to Sam’s relief.
There were new emails! I read them all, saving his for last. His genuine concern over the length of the trip, and his expression of discomfort and unease about my living in a foreign country was exactly what I needed to hear; I responded to him with sincerity. Sure, I had put on a brave front for everyone else when I sent my original, blanket notification email, but to him I confessed my true feelings: ‘You have no idea how alone and scared I feel right now…”, to which he responded, immediately and comfortingly: “We have email, we have communication, you now have a bed to sleep in and a roof over your head. There’s a lot to be said for that. Sleep comfortably.”
What better advice could he have given me? I crawled into my strange new bed and cried myself to sleep.
Part II: Firsts
Chapter 1: First Outings
I slept until 9PM, my first day in Wuhan. When I woke up and turned on a light, Sam immediately came by and expressed his concern for me. He had been by several times to check on me but hearing no noise from my apartment correctly presumed I was still asleep and left me be.
Nice to know that, as tired as I was, I didn’t snore loud as a running chainsaw.
He invited me out to eat, which I gratefully accepted. Even though he had stocked my fridge with a loaf of bread, some fruit and some bottled drinks, I didn’t see that as being a sufficient dinner… even if I added my 6 remaining plums from the train and the snacks I had left over from the early morning binge at the train station convenience store in Shanghai.
I realized I was ravenous as soon as we hit the small shopping area just outside of campus. He asked me what I wanted to eat. The answer: EVERYTHING! And with gusto! Of course I didn’t tell him that,
I demurely asked what was available, to which he countered “What do you like to eat?” It was like playing gastronomical tennis. As we lobbed those questions back and forth I spied a dumpling stand. I really like Chinese dumplings, so I suggested we eat some. He had eaten earlier and thus did not partake, instead he sat patiently and made conversation while I tried to muster some decorum and not shove the food in my face as fast as I could. I think I did a respectable job; Sam did not run away horrified and the other patrons only stared at me because I am a foreigner using chopsticks. A left-handed one, at that. Somewhat of a novelty in this area I was to discover; not many foreigners in this corner of Wuhan and even fewer southpaws.
Feeling sated by the tasty dumplings, we went foraging for some cleaning supplies and more food to stock my fridge with. Sam took me to a cluttered market, where I bought a mop, a broom and dustpan, some dish soap, sponges and Mr. Muscle (the equivalent of America’s Mr. Clean). On the way back, we stopped at the farmers’ market and bought some soy sauce, vegetables, rice and a few eggs. I was already imagining the meals I could make with this bare stock. We got back at 11PM and I started cleaning my little house.
End of first outing.
It took me nearly 4 days to clean my apartment with the bare supplies I had. I’m not going to write about that; everyone knows that cleaning is the pits! I will say that the broom and mop handles are dismally short; I have to stoop to make use of them. *Sigh*!
The next outing was more involved as it called for us to be dropped off at the regional hospital. The ride into town, in a campus staff car, took nearly one hour – apparently traffic is an issue in this city. We had to take the bus back the campus because the driver had other errands to run. No problem for me, I am up to adventure! Eyes all agog, trying to look everywhere at once, take it all in… it was overwhelming.
The medical examination was rather short: an EKG, an eye exam, measuring my vital signs, giving a blood sample and posing for a chest X-ray. We were out of the hospital in the space of one hour. After that we hit the streets and that’s when the real adventure began.
We walked past a Taoist temple that was being renovated; no visit possible. Then we walked through a park whose name I don’t recall. It was not particularly noteworthy other than the foliage appearing limp and discouraged, as appears to be the norm in this apparently grimy town. We went to a bank to exchange money – I was running a little low on Yuan. Off to buy a cell phone and then Sam treated me to an excellent lunch before boarding the bus home.
The only real image of note was a small dog, curled up tight and sound asleep on the sidewalk while cars and motorcycles thundered by, and pedestrians stepped right over him. This little puppy was the epitome of serenity and I sorely wish that I had brought my camera: he was the only picturesque subject of the whole jaunt.
Unfortunately, being away from campus and all of the construction did nothing to change my mind about Wuhan being a very dirty, ugly city. The buildings still bore the façade of Sino/Soviet cooperation: narrow white tiles, narrow, barred windows, no air conditioning. There was very little in the way of charm and no iconic Chinese architecture around. The faces of the people were hard and lean; obviously life is more difficult in Wuhan than other Chinese cities I have traveled to and enjoyed. Or maybe the people had some other struggle I do not yet understand.
Like breathing this air. If that is their struggle, I completely understand. By the time we got back to campus I felt my chest constricted, and it was a struggle to draw breath. I was forced to clean out my nose with a Q-tip as soon as I opened my front door because I could not breathe through my nose. I was appalled at what the Q-tip revealed: charcoal black dirt!
Breathing is still a challenge, now exacerbated by this hacking cough I’ve developed and can’t seem to get rid of. I’m sure I’ll get better; I am a Darwinian creature, at least I’d like to think so. Surely I’ll adapt, right?
If not, I’m in some serious trouble.
Chapter 2: First Day of Class
Monday morning, 8:00AM: my first day of class, my first session as a teacher at a University. I am eager to meet my students, to help them learn English, to do a good job.
Of course, that is a daunting prospect. I’ve received no orientation from the school, I have no textbooks to work from, no assigned curriculum and, as I found out upon seeing my classroom for the first time, no resources such as projectors, computers, flipcharts, wall charts or teaching aids. I do have a blackboard and a rich supply of chalk, both white and multi-colored. I have a lectern from which to address my class, which is set on a podium 12 inches off the ground. As if I need to be taller! I resolved to teach class from ground level as much as possible, so that I’m not such a dominant figure to my students.
The classroom is set up ‘lecture style’: one bench row of seats after the other, all bolted to the tile floor. Moving the desks around into various groupings, as suggested by my recently completed TESOL course will be impossible. The classroom is not air conditioned, but the windows are open and there are fans that twirl noisily overhead. Thankfully a student knew how to turn them on; I couldn’t have located the switches for them if I tried.
And speaking of located: let me back up and tell you about where my classroom is located. Building 2, 6th floor. Fortunately I could identify building 2 by the big golden “2” on the front of the building. I followed the stream of students in, turned right and followed the masses up the staircase. By the time I hit the 3rd floor, I was panting; 4th floor I was sweating, 5th floor I was frantic. Not for my health, but because that is where the stairs ended. How do I get to the 6th floor? I’m so confused…
I brave the tide of students climbing up to go back down the stairs and ask the kindly campus policeman sitting at the door how to get to the 6th floor. He did not understand me, even though I used my best broken Chinese. Again saved by serendipity, one of my students came by and offered to lead me to my classroom, directly accessible by climbing the back staircase, whose existence I knew nothing about. There really should have been some orientation!
Class starts at 8AM sharp and the bell doesn’t let you forget that. Each session consists of two 45 minutes instruction sessions, with a 5-minute break in between. The bell doesn’t let you forget the break, either. Doing quick math reveals that I am in fact teaching for one hour and a half per session. The 9:35 bell releases the students to their next lesson, and me of my teaching obligations for the rest of the day. For my first 3 weeks, I only have 2 sessions per week, until the freshmen hit campus.
I ‘mapped’ the board as I was taught in my TESOL class: a greeting in the center with open space to write notes and instructions for the lesson, the day’s agenda on the left and the class rules on the right. I made sure to include an extra section for questions and feedback. At five minutes till 8, with the board set up, I was ready to start class. Well… ready?
I am not, and have never been a morning person, even now that I’ve been off coffee for 2 years. Yet here I am, bright and early, confronting 28 curious and eager faces that express wonder about this strange, foreign giant. I, with only a TESOL certificate under my belt and virtually no classroom experience, certainly none teaching languages or university students in general, wondered how to begin.
I was informed my class monitor would have my class roster, and Lily did not disappoint. She passed the list around, and everyone wrote their western name on it. I knew to expect 28 students, so this first day I counted heads instead of taking roll, because the students had the list.
I gave a rousing ‘Good Morning’, which the students returned enthusiastically. I then explained the agenda, led the class through the rules, explaining my reason for each rule as I went along: Speak English, no cell phones, ask questions, ask for help/help others, give feedback, have fun. And then, I introduced the day’s activity: each student was to introduce him/herself, and tell us something about themselves. I kicked off the activity by introducing myself: My name is Sophia, my Chinese name is Le Si (meaning happy thoughts), I like to travel and meet new people. Each student introduced themselves in kind.
The strange thing about Chinese people is that they are so agreeable. “Do you understand the rules?” Everyone nods or vocalizes assent. “Do you understand the instructions?” Nods all around again. I have yet to meet any dissent or disagreement in my students; they are all eager to agree to anything I say, whether they understand or not. That leads to some confusion; if they don’t tell me they don’t understand the instructions for any given activity, come time to call on them to take part in the activity I am met with a lot of stalling and general confusion on their part. This is a cultural gap that I must somehow breach.
Another one is the girls’ demeanor in class. They are not badly behaved or otherwise undesirable as students, it is the fact that they are taught to be demure and gentle. Speaking up is for peasants and boys; young ladies speak quietly. So quietly that my poor old ears, damaged from the rock’n’roll concerts I shamelessly partook of in my youth, can barely hear them over the noise of the fans overhead and the noise coming in from the open windows and the noise coming in from the hall. I have yet to find my way around that problem as well: encouraging them to speak up does nothing. Currently I stand as close as possible to them and listen as they whisper their answers. Sometimes I feel like I’m eavesdropping, but I have the sneaky suspicion they are enjoying the closeness.
Before I knew it, it was 9:35 and the bell was ringing! I was surprised at how the time flew, at how the students responded, at how they left the room: each paraded past me, smiling and wishing me a good day. That was my first clue that I had made a positive impact.
After cleaning the board off and policing my room, I descended the back stairwell and left Building 2. Walking among students rushing to their next class and feeling the sunshine on my face, I thought, for the first time, that maybe I didn’t make a horrible mistake coming here.
Chapter 3: A Great Honor
On Monday, after teaching my first class, Sam informed me that the school’s officials would like to have a luncheon the following day in our honor – mine and Victor’s honor. Victor is the other foreign language teacher. Dirty apartment notwithstanding, I was excited and touched at the lengths the school was going to make me feel wanted and welcome.
Although I had anticipated some sort of formal meeting with the school’s officials, I did not anticipate a luncheon. Planning for such an occasion while still in the States, I had remembered to pack at least one formal outfit: a skirt with matching blouse, hose and appropriate shoes. My friend Lisa and I also had gone shopping to buy small gifts for any dignitary or official I might meet. It is proper Chinese custom for visitors to offer such gifts, and she and I had a great time selecting a variety of key chains and lapel pins depicting Texas for me to offer my hosts. Come time for the luncheon I loaded my trinkets into my purse and Sam escorted Victor and me to the teacher’s cafeteria, where the feast was to be held in a private dining room.
Finally, I learn where the teacher’s cafeteria is!
But that’s beside the point.
A server asked what I would like to drink; erring on the side of moderation (and culture), I asked for hot tea. Victor quickly sided with my choice, and then we were immediately trumped by an official looking man who had just entered the room and proclaimed that we would all drink beer. Who am I to argue with the man that turned out to be the Communist Party Chairman assigned to the school? As he was the most important figure, I presented him with one of the nicer key chains Lisa and I had selected after shaking his hand.
In short order, the other dignitaries arrived: the University President – harried and pressured, the Dean of Languages – a gracious and beautiful woman, the Secretary of Foreign Teacher Affairs who struck me as rather bawdy but fun to be around, and, to my delight and surprise, the Head of Maintenance. Only a former maintenance technician knows how often maintenance is overlooked! Each got a Lisa-picked trinket, their importance within the school hierarchy denoting the substance of the gift they received.
After that, beer flowed like water. We toasted each other, our joint venture, our friendship, my being left-handed, our apartments and the promise that, if Victor and I stay next year we would get new apartments. We toasted the Chairman’s recent return from France, and the fact that he and I could speak French together. We toasted the English language… we might have even toasted the flies buzzing around; I’m not exactly sure. After so many toasts, I, a non-drinker, ended up pretty toasted myself! I do remember toasting the maintenance man and telling him we have a similar background. I even ventured a toast to the whole group in Chinese: Let’s drink to our friendship!
Poor Sam! He is also a non-drinker, and it showed: his youthful face suddenly grew haggard and red around the eyes; spots of red also bloomed on his cheeks. He whispered on the sly if I could tell he was getting smashed; I took one look at him and gravely nodded my assent. We made a pact to help each other down the stairs and back to our apartments after lunch was over. Victor is maybe of hardier stock, he did not appear to suffer from all of the drinking.
And then came the food. This private dining room boasted a typical Chinese large-gathering set up: a big, round table with a glass lazy susan covering most of it; allowing just enough room for each diner’s place setting comprising of a tea cup, a glass, a rice bowl, a sauce dish, chopsticks and chopstick rest – a little bench for your chopsticks to rest on when you’re not using them. The food was placed on the lazy susan one dish at a time, the glass was then gently spun and another dish brought in and placed. As is customary, the dishes stop in front of the guests so that they might have the first sampling of the food being offered.
Oh, bad news! The first dish was fish! A whole fish, pan-fried and cut up in chunks: head, tail, fins, bones and all. Familiar dread coursed through me: fish has not crossed my lips but maybe a handful of times since I got so horribly sick as a child after eating a bad piece of fish and suffering for days afterward. As the glass turntable advanced past the maintenance man, past Sam, slowing… slowing… in front of me I decided to give my hosts ‘face’ and eat at least one bite of this local specialty, prepared for this special meal.
I grabbed my chopsticks and reached for the smallest piece possible, which to me looked like a huge chunk. Everyone was thrilled that I knew how to use chopsticks; I heard their approving comments and felt their eyes on my suddenly sweating face as I put the bite of fish in my mouth…
And I discovered a unique problem that will forever absolve me of eating fish! It is a condition completely beyond my control! Much to my joy and relief, I am prevented from eating fish because I cannot feel the bones in my teeth. I wear full dentures and anyone knows that dentures are insentient pieces of plastic held in your mouth by suction. If the inside of my mouth had been stabbed by 20 fish bones I would not have known it, protected as I am by my dentures. Elation! Rapture! I have discovered a reason to never attempt to eat fish again!
Maybe my hosts thought I was drunk, careless or foolish as I ate the fish with no regard for bones. They urged Sam to caution me of the bones. Bones? What bones? I didn’t feel a thing… in my mouth! But I was giddy with relief that I had passed the ‘fish test’ almost as much as with the fact that I will never have to eat fish again.
The rest of the meal passed uneventfully. The officials made conversation; it turns out that they do not get to see each other very often as they are busy with important matters while running the school, and this get-together was as much for them as for Victor and I. Sam, Victor and I entertained ourselves. The food was delicious – fish notwithstanding, and after a time, we wrapped things up by… you guessed it: toasting each other farewell!
I went back to my apartment and napped substantially. After a meal like that, who wouldn’t? Poor Sam still had a lot of work to do, so no nap for him!
Chapter 4: Montezuma’s Family Reunion
Sad to say that my first bout with gastroenteritis, within days of my arrival, set the tone for the stomach woes that would plague me my whole stay in China. Normally of robust health, I’ve suffered a measured decline since taking up residence here: first breathing difficulties, and now this?
Being over the moon at finally living in China, naturally I embraced all aspects of being here with gusto. Eating traditional foods from street vendors was my main manifestation of such elan.
Oh, did I pay for that!
I am not blaming my gastrointestinal woes on that single bite of fish from the luncheon, or even on all the beer. I am blaming myself for not taking it easy, for not giving myself time to acclimate, for not remembering that, even before leaving the States I was having stomach problems. That sounds all very honorable now, but I was not so rational while writhing in pain from stomach cramps and not being able to eat anything for days. Self-evisceration was more like the thoughts that crossed my mind during those days.
I normally have a very healthy constitution. I usually can eat anything with no negative impact or any suffering of any type. For that reason I was completely taken by surprise at the violence of my stomach ills, and at the longevity of it.
You see, I didn’t know that Montezuma had a family reunion planned, and the selected location was my gut. For days my abdomen was distended, painful, cramping with such force as to wake me up from sleep. Fearing accidents, I found myself running to the bathroom every time I felt a twinge in my stomach, no matter what time of the day or night. It was quite fortuitous that I did.
I found no solace in Gas-X or Tagamet, both medications that I had remembered to bring ample amounts of. I did not need the laxatives that I had brought; I needed the opposite of a laxative, which I had brought none of.
In agony I forsook the street vendor stalls in favor of something milder to eat: bread and fruit. That’s when Montezuma’s grandchildren visited. Their contribution to the reunion was my total inability to be any further than 25 feet from a bathroom at all times. Anything I ate manifested itself in a near-immediate discharge; sometimes painful, always humiliating. Silly me for thinking bread and fruit were rich in fiber, substance and bulk!
As I could not think of anything more innocuous to eat than bread and fruit, in desperation I elected to swear food off completely. The great-grandchildren of Montezuma then put on their show. Dehydration became a real concern. So far, this had gone on for 5 days. Sam stopped by, only to find me sweating and wrung out. He was so concerned he thought he should take me to a doctor. Fever set in; chills caused me to dive into a hot bathtub, with my overhead heat lamps burning (it was 27 degrees Celsius outside that day).
For some reason, while in the tub, the thought of a ginger infusion popped in my head. A hot ginger beverage is an excellent homeopathic remedy for stomach ills; I had read that somewhere, not too long ago. After my bath brought my fever down, I felt strong enough to stumble out to the farmer’s market and buy some fresh ginger to make the infusion with.
Finally, some relief! Within the first few sips I could already feel the calming effects of the ginger. For my third or fourth cup I decided to add a spoonful of honey to the brew, to help with my sore throat. Surely all that hacking and coughing I was doing because of the air quality was not helping my stomach muscles rest.
I can’t exactly say that I felt like a new penny the day after sipping the ginger/honey mixture but I am pleased to report that I made it to class without falling on my face from the exertion of climbing 6 flights of stairs on an empty stomach. Furthermore, I made it all the way through the class without having to run to the rest room. I did have my trusty bottle of ginger water though, and I sipped it regularly, as a religious devout would chant a mantra.
The end result was that, after class I discovered I was ravenous! Always one to listen when my body tells me something, I mentally ran through my food options. Bread and fruit weren’t going to cut it. I was out of eggs and had no rice cooked, so I had to venture out to shop. As long as I had to go out, I decided to explore those options. All street vendor fare was ruled out. Ditto the local sit-down restaurant: too many unknowns on the menu. There was this chicken fast food place that had roast chicken… that would probably be the best choice. And it is in fact chicken, smaller than chickens in America but recognizable as edible fowl of the barnyard kind. NOTE: that restaurant also has fried chicken that is recognizable as such, but I thought it prudent to stay away from the fried variety.
Consensus: roast chicken!
I was nearly salivating as I walked the quarter mile or so to this restaurant. I had never actually patronized it; just looked at the menu board while walking by – I must have been planning for this. Now comes the acid test: ace-in-the-hole food source, or another disappointment?
My friends, this little chicken restaurant did not disappoint! I was fairly moaning with anticipation by the time I made it home with my little chicken, and I did grunt with pleasure as my body responded – nearly instantly, and favorably to the food.
Thus ended the siege of Montezuma and his relations. All it took was a lot of ginger water with honey, and an undersized roast chicken which I ate all in one sitting. I’m still careful about what I eat, but I have been venturing back to the vendor stalls.
There’s this one guy that makes these stuffed batter cakes… sort of like crepes, and they’re stuffed with egg, green onion, crispy fried tofu, sausage and lettuce, all wrapped up like a burrito.
Oh, Lordy! I’m hooked again!
Chapter 5: Twelve-Hour Shifts
Of all the things I anticipated upon moving to China, depression was the least of them. I knew I would suffer some dislocation discomfort, and missing everyone in the States would definitely be a factor, but I reasoned that, with email, video-chat and the like, along with the excitement of being in this country, these manifestations would be manageable.
I did not reckon on living in the armpit of China – Wuhan, where everything is ugly and dirty, and I didn’t reckon that I would be confined to quarters after dark, per Sam’s instructions.
I reasoned that shopping would be difficult at first, at least until I learned to read enough Chinese to decipher labels, but I didn’t figure on the absolute unavailability of products I had heretofore considered essentials, such as paper towels and mouth wash. I didn’t reckon I would have to learn how to navigate the bus system on my own before I could go anywhere and I didn’t reckon on having to ride a ‘standing room only’ bus, all the time mindful of my bag against crafty pickpockets. I certainly didn’t anticipate riding over bumpy roads while sandwiched between all manner of people before I could get to anywhere I could walk decently. I didn’t know I would be made so uncomfortable by the constant scrutiny of those who had never seen a foreigner before, and those who had, but felt the need to stare all the same.
Those things tipped the scales into the ‘unmanageable’ region. There is nothing I can do about where I live; the university is situated where it is at, and I live on campus, and that’s that.
I can’t force people to accept me and not gawk. I simply have to learn to live with it, and the more I explore the far reaches of this city, the more I have to deal with it. Nothing I can do about it.
I am contractually obligated to uphold Chinese culture and principles as long as I am working at this university. That means no walking around at night unescorted.
The bus system I could do something about, if I had a little help. A bus schedule maybe, or someone to explain how the buses run. Or, maybe there would be a website in English that I could peruse that would be of some use. No help forthcoming, and no website found.
With so much free time – I only teach an hour and a half on Monday and Wednesday, surely there could be some exploring I could do. But it just seems so daunting to have to 1. Put on clothes, 2. Walk to the bus stop, 3. Make sure I have enough money to ride a bus (2yuan per boarding), 4. Be able to find my way home. On some days it just isn’t worth the bother. On top of all of the other ills like separation anxiety, dislocation, missing everyone, and wondering if I can actually do this job well, I decided that staying home would not be such a bad thing at all.
I can feel the depression creeping in. It is not that I am powerless to stop it, it just seems too overwhelming a task to fight it.
I took to my bed and started sleeping the clock round. I figured that being awake for 12 hours was plenty when there was nothing to do but go out, score a little food, review a lesson plan or two and write emails.
Which was the cause and which the effect? I didn’t make a conscious decision to be depressed and sleep – as if anybody does. I was kind of a victim of circumstance. One day, when I woke up at 1:30pm, I decided I had had enough of this nonsense.
This is NOT what I came to China for.
Battling my lethargy, I forced myself out of the house and to the bus stop. I boarded the first bus that came by – #906, and made it to the train station. I walked around some and found that the train station is a major transportation hub. I made note of all the bus numbers, went back home and jumped on the Internet with the intention of googling each individual bus number in conjunction with ‘Wuhan, China’ and lo and behold! My first hit: a website that not only told me where each bus went, it gave me the option of planning a route to a certain destination.
As always, if you only ask the right question, you get the answer you are looking for.
I have that website saved. Now, if I want to go somewhere, I look up the destination and find the various buses that will take me there. Or, if I have no particular destination in mind, I just go to the train station and jump on a random bus to see where it will take me and what is along the way.
Sometimes it is still nice to stay home, especially on a rainy day. But it is even better to know that I have the option of leaving home should I so desire, because the bus system is no longer so intimidating. I’ve made several forays out into the city without getting lost, and only once have I not made it back to campus before dark.
I no longer sleep in 12-hour shifts. Now it is quite the opposite: I look forward to getting out of my jammies and going exploring!
Chapter 6: Stepping Out on my Own
Now that I have minimal issue with braving buses and navigating the city by myself, I am endeavoring further and greater outings. I will now tell you about my very first outing by myself.
I had read about and studied bus route #402. I was told that it hit all of the tourist hotspots like the Yellow Crane Tower and shopping districts, to say nothing of the waterfront route on the shore of the Yangtze River. I knew that the 402 started its route at the train station from my previous studies of that transportation hub, so it was a cinch to board it and see where it would take me.
I set out with a few Yuan in my pocket and a full bottle of ginger water – I’ve been hooked on it since Montezuma’s little party. I brought my faithful black bag in case I saw something interesting that begged me to buy it and my camera in case there was something picturesque. Oh, yeah: I brought my umbrella because it was already raining and I did anticipate walking around, at least a little.
A lovely young lady sat next to me on the bus and soon we were having a wonderful conversation because she speaks marvelous English. She did not mind my taking up her leg room; we even laughed about it a little bit. She is a native of Wuhan and, being as she is unemployed right now, offered to be my tour guide. I asked her where Wangfujing is, touted as a major shopping district. As she would get off at the next stop, she asked some young women sitting in front of us to signal me when to get off the bus. We exchanged contact information and she and her parents got off the bus just after crossing the Yangtze River bridge. Her parents, too shy to actually venture into speaking with the foreigner while on the bus waved at me enthusiastically from the safety of the sidewalk.
Looking out the window, I soon spied a Carrefour store. Carrefour is a French chain supermarket much akin to Wal-mart; one can buy pretty much anything there. It just so happens that I had been looking for Carrefour (and Wal-Mart) so I could satisfy my still burning need to associate myself with Western products until I made the transition wholly into Chinese shopping. Excitedly I jumped out of my cramped seat. Well, not exactly jumped; more like unwedged myself from my seat. As I exited the bus the two women who were supposed to follow instructions given them by my former seatmate admonished me that I was getting off the bus too early, but I told them I was looking for Carrefour and that was why I was getting off the bus. Regretfully, they relinquished the hold on my arm. They must have been really determined to fulfill their obligation.
What was I hoping to find at Carrefour? I still don’t know. Paper products would have been nice. I think maybe I just wanted to walk around and see what I could find. Shopping in Chinese stores is still a daunting process for me: the sales people that follow me everywhere, the products whose labels I cannot read but that must be vital to Chinese cuisine because of their sheer abundance, products and foods I’ve never seen or eaten before. Raw meats, cuts that are not familiar or considered edible in the west, like pig snouts, that just lay there out in the open, eggs that don’t come in cartons, cheese-like substances that are not cheese.
I should explain here that the Chinese consider cheese the grossest substance on earth, but I’d heard of stores that cater to foreigners do stock some varieties. Surely Carrefour would be one of them!
Maybe I just really wanted a piece of cheese. Maybe finding some butter would have been nice, or bread that wasn’t overly soft and overly sweet, like the types sold in the bakeries around my school.
Of all the things I hoped or expected to find, I was most excited and happy about this particular item, and it had nothing to do with food. Well, maybe a little.
You see, I’ve been worried about my oral hygiene since I got here. I am a total Listerine freak, and have been for years. Due to weight considerations I had only packed 2 pint-sized bottles in my suitcase, and I was nearly out. There is no mouthwash in the campus stores, let alone any Listerine. I had contemplated shipping myself a few bottles of Listerine before leaving the States in case I ran into this situation but had decided against it. Lately I’ve been thinking of getting my friends and family to put a bottle or two in a care package to me every so often. However, mailing Listerine has a few logistical problems – weight being one and quantity for two – you can only mail one quart of liquids.
But I know mouthwash had to be available somewhere in this city, because on my previous trips to China I had seen Scope and other mouthwashes, although never Listerine. I really did not want to contemplate switching to a sugary tasting mouthwash after being a Listerine girl for so long, but I might not have a choice.
So, imagine my awe at finding Listerine at Carrefour! There, stocked on the bottom shelf under what I supposed were more popular mouthwashes! Granted it was the small bottle, and granted it was prohibitively expensive… but it was LISTERINE! It even had Chinese writing on the label, right under the trusty Listerine name! Like a caveman approaching fire for the first time, I squatted down, reached a trembling hand out and touched a bottle. Fearing it might be a mirage, I quickly snatched a bottle and hugged to my chest. Still squatting, I looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then snatched another bottle. I then stood up quickly and quite nearly ran for the cashier. I half anticipated a saleswoman to call me out or worse: call security on me for taking too much Listerine. How terrible it would be to only be able to buy one bottle at a time!
I no longer cared about butter or cheese, meat or condiments. I had a taste of the West, one I was intimately familiar with, one I loved and had been hoping I would find a steady supply of. Food I could find at any grocery store, Listerine was a treasure. I paid the exhorbitant price of 32 Yuan per bottle and stashed them into my trusty black bag, and then clung to it as though it were my salvation as I scooted out of the store.
Listerine! My day was made.
Chapter 7: I Have a Box
It is an unassuming thing: white and measuring approximately 20” by 14” by 10”. There is some tape holding it closed, and various markings on it. It is a bit heavy, and a tad beat up from all of its travels.
It is my very first care package.
Sam happened to be visiting with me when he got the call that I had a package waiting. He was thrilled at my excitement and so happy to be the bearer of such good news he forgot to tell me exactly when and where and how to rendezvous with this package, only vaguely gesturing toward the campus’ entrance gate.
I had been expecting this package. Marjorie and I had colluded on it. I needed some pharmaceuticals that I’ve found are not available in China and ordered them online, to be sent to her house. She then added a few things of her own and found out that the cost of mailing a box to China is prohibitive. We split the postage and she let me know when she shipped it and when it should arrive.
Receiving a package or a letter in China is a bit different than in the States. My parcel was not delivered to my apartment; it was dropped off at the main gate. There is a small building to the right of the entrance gate that signs for all incoming packages and then phone calls are made to the proper recipients to come pick them up. I was ready to pick my package up the minute I found out it was waiting for me, but Sam instructed me to wait until the afternoon.
I didn’t know about that small building wherein the packages lie.
At 4:00PM I sent Sam a text message asking if now were a good time to go get my package; he responded to the affirmative. With all of the glee of a small child at Christmas I set out to a nearby store that advertised it was an outlet for ChinaPost. I asked about my package and they looked at me like my nose was on upside down. They directed me to the post office, again vaguely gesturing up the street.
By now it had started raining, and I had forgotten my umbrella. No matter, my smile was my umbrella as I trudged though the mud to the next friendly store that advertised itself as an outlet for China Post and asked them where I’m supposed to go pick up a package. I should inform you that my Chinese has not substantially improved in the two months I’ve been here, and I still can’t manage the local dialect so again I got looks like I was possessed.
Finally a kind student helped me out by indicating that the post office is in fact across the major road. By now I’m a little unsettled and not exactly happy I’m getting rained on, smile or not. Arriving at the post office I ask about receiving a package only to be informed I never had to leave campus to receive it. Reversing my course through the rain and the mud, and mildly cursing Sam for not being more detailed in his explanation on how to receive packages, I trudged back to campus.
It just so happens that the Postal Clerk I talked with had called ahead to let the campus mail clerk know I was on my way. She flagged me down as I entered the gate, otherwise I would never have known about the small building wherein packages lie. The clerk ceremoniously indicated which box I should pick up and take home with me.
As though I wouldn’t recognize a Parcel Post box, sealed with priority tape. As though I wouldn’t recognize the huge address label Marjorie printed out from her computer and affixed to the top of it. As though I didn’t hear the choir of angels singing at me when my eyes lit upon it. As though I really needed her to show me my box. Now I’m happy with Sam, the Post Office and the whole world again. I have my box.
You can imagine my excitement – not at receiving the items I had ordered, but at seeing what Marjorie had padded my order with. All I knew to expect was Oreos. I barely got my front door open for all my excitement, and stared reverently at this wonder, this unassuming container that had so recently been in the presence of my best friend and was now in my company.
The staring lasted all of about 5 seconds, and then I ripped into it. The tape hindered my animal efforts to liberate the contents so I ran to the kitchen for a knife and unceremoniously cut the binding. I was literally holding my breath until I touched the first packing peanuts concealing my treasures. One by one they emerged as I pawed through stryrofoam: a bar of chocolate, the promised Oreos – 2 bags!; a bag of Dove candies, a box of breakfast bars, a monster bottle of Listerine – the biggest money could buy. And the stuff I had ordered – but that was academic; I knew that stuff was going to be in there.
I sat down on my hideous couch, cradling my bottle of Listerine, with tears running down my face. My friend remembered I love Listerine. Running my fingers over the chocolates I imagined her standing in the candy aisle at Wal-Mart, trying to decide what might please me the most. I pictured her heading toward the checkout with all of these things she would never buy for herself (except the breakfast bars and the Listerine), trying to decide if she had bought enough stuff to send me. I imagined her at the checkout, a small smile playing on her lovely face as she paid for the things she knew would bring a smile to my face.
Oh, my friends: if you know of anyone who is far from home, either by their own decision or on order of a Supreme Commander – i.e. our Service Men and Women, please send them a care package. It doesn’t really matter what you put in it, it is the ‘care’ that matters. The idea that someone ‘back home’ is thinking of them. The idea that, no matter what they’re doing in a foreign country, they matter to those they left behind. The fact that, even though they are isolated they are thought of and loved and missed.
I stuffed an entire Oreo cookie in my mouth and drooled chocolate crumbles to mingle with my tears. Nice visual, right? Finally getting up from the couch I decided to leave my treasures on the coffee table all night, so that I could behold them every time I walked through the living room. And I passed through the living room often that day.
Later that night I found myself pawing through the packing peanuts one more time because I just couldn’t believe Marjorie would send a whole package and not include at least a card. Come to find out, there was one final gift in this care package Marjorie so lovingly prepared: a news article detailing her as a role model for men and women everywhere. Marjorie is in fact a Weight Watchers top 100 role model, and is currently enjoying a bit of fame for it. We had talked about it on the phone; she knew I wanted to share in her great success and thoughtfully included this article. I kicked myself for nearly having missed it, and then settled down to read the whole thing.
Marjorie, you are not just a Weight Watchers’ role model, you are a model friend and human being. You have taught me many things over the years, but now you’ve added a most important lesson: the value of caring.
Chapter 8: Flouted!
Up until now I had been a good University employee. Because of the edict imposed on me that women cannot go out unescorted at night, I either sat around and waited for an escort or I stayed at home.
This little rebellion of mine, the one that started about three months into my tenure here, which led to my refusal to participate in English Corner… this little rebellion of mine is not quite done, I fear.
As I look out my barred windows I see women walking on campus alone. Not many, I grant you but some. And I wonder: why am I staying at home night after night while it is OK for these women to walk around unescorted?
Probably because they are not contractually bound to a certain set of archaic rules.
But am I? Am I really? The idea is to be a good role model for the students; nothing says I have to stay at home all the time. And neither the campus nor the student body comprises the entire city of Wuhan. I can be out and about in the city and return after the students are safely tucked into their dorms. Sam even agreed to my suggestion about returning home after the students are in for the night.
But what if I don’t want to stay out until after 11:00PM?
I’ve decided that it is perfectly OK for me to come home at 8 or 9PM. The buses stop running at 9PM, so, if necessary I can explain the situation to school officials… just before they fire me. It is worth a try, right?
Besides: if being a good role model means being an example of modern, progressive womanhood, then am I not setting a good example by being independent? That argument probably won’t fly if I’m ever called on the carpet about my being out after dark unescorted. I’ve decided to take my chances; I might never actually get called on the carpet about being out after dark alone.
Therefore, one breezy afternoon, I went out to Lu Xiang Square (pronounced Loo She-ang) just to have a look around. It is also known as Optic Valley for some reason I haven’t been able to find out. I had heard so much about it and wanted to see it for myself. As promised it was busy, thronging with people, full of things to see and do. Matter of fact, there is so much to see and do there that, by the time I was finished exploring a monstrously large mall and stepped outside again, night had fallen.
I was enchanted! There was a light show playing on one of the buildings. Another building, a geode with a plain glass facing by day turned into a giant television screen playing music videos at night. The square itself, a traffic circle with billowing tent awnings amidst landscaping floored me with its multicolored lights. And everywhere… EVERYWHERE there were people! This was Wuhan at night: something I had only glimpsed one time from a bus window, and guiltily at that. Now I was out, enjoying it!
I walked down a well-lit boulevard, taking in the night air and the scene, all while experiencing a sense of freedom I had not felt for months. The street vendors hawking their wares on the sidewalk impeded foot traffic, just as I remembered from previous night outings on prior visits to China. Artists put on their shows and people stopped to gape at them. Rare and exotic offerings from the various food stalls tempted my palate, but I was perfectly willing to stop short of sampling fried scorpions in order to find a nice restaurant to have a meal in.
Grandma’s Kitchen! Ah, now if that doesn’t sound like someplace you’d want to eat at on your first night of rule-breaking, I don’t know what would be. Drawn in by that irresistible name, I ate Western food for the first time since arriving here. It was delicious! It even felt a little bit naughty to eat sour cream again.
It was already going on 9 PM by the time I left the restaurant, and the air was a bit chilly. Also, the crowds were thinning; this was a weeknight. I decided to walk a little more and treat myself to a taxi ride home.
I arrived home just before 10PM. The taxi could not drive to the campus gate due to construction so I had to walk the small street that led back to campus from the main road, which wasn’t a problem. There were a few students out, but they were mostly male students. I only saw one female and she was in the company of her boyfriend. They were ahead of me, so they did not see me. See? I’m not setting a bad example for the female students!
That sense of freedom and elation stayed with me even after I turned the key, admitting myself back into my former prison. Not so much a prison, now that I can come and go at will! Maybe now I will start thinking of it as home.
At 10:30 the dorm monitor locked the gates to the building. Being as I was keyed up from my first nighttime outing, I was still in my living room when, a few minutes later, I heard banging and a desperate cry. It seems one of the students that lives in this dorm stayed out too late and got locked out. She was banging on the gates and yelling to be let in, even though it was after curfew.
Who is flouting rules now???
Chapter 9: First Road Trip
Unless you want to count the long distance bus trips I took, this will be my first actual road trip by car in China. I was so excited!! I prepared for it much like I would prepare for a road trip in America. A small stash of clothing and food: hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese, sausage, fruit and veggies. Don’t forget the cookies and chocolate for dessert!
Yes, me and my bestest traveling buddy Gary are hitting the road! He had to return to WenZhou (pronounced ‘when joe’) to register his car and renew his insurance. Why Wenzhou when he lives in Wuhan?
In China, you register your vehicle and maintain the insurance in the place where you bought the car, not where it is garaged. Registering a vehicle implies having it inspected therefore, every 2 years he must drive the car back to where he bought it. Aggravating, isn’t it?
The plan was to drive straight through, no stopping. In that way, the food stash was a great idea because it was a twelve-hour trip, not counting the stops we made for the typhoon-driven rainfall. More on that later.
As camping and day tripping are relatively novel concepts in China, coolers and other such outdoor gear are in short supply and not something you can buy at your local store. I made use of a vinyl bag that my friends had given me while stateside. It has an outside zipper pocket perfect for packing ice and a larger inside pocket where I put the food. Because the bag is vinyl it did not leak water at all. Because of the separate pockets the food did not get wet and, with the top folded over, the bag worked just like a cooler.
I don’t know what Gary had planned for provisions or meals along the way but my ‘cooler’ packing turned out to be the thing that impressed my travel buddy the most. Until I told him how we could heat the sausages: on the engine manifold, wrapped in aluminum foil. That sincerely impressed him.
I find the interstate highways in China much like the ones in America. Their system of numbering interstates eludes me but the road signs are the same: green for directional, blue for advisory, brown for tourist attractions and so on. Traffic signs are more like European ones: Merge, Start/End of Highway, speed limit signs all harken back to my time in France and Germany. Thus upcoming road conditions were not a mystery.
All traffic signs are both in English and Chinese. Gary did not have an answer as to why that is even though he did affirm that not many foreigners drive the highways in China. The only thing that would probably stump the few English motorists would be the explanation for traffic signs such as ‘merge’ or ‘yield’: ‘Intermingling traffic ahead. Please use caution when cars come to you.’ There were also several signs that warned: ‘Choose lane according to destination’
Nice of the Highway authorities to warn unsuspecting, English-reading motorists of such possibilities but wouldn’t “Caution: Merge Ahead” be so much simpler?
I’m given to understand that not many Chinese partake of fanciful road trips. That is due in part to the cost of gasoline: over 7Yuan per liter. It cost Gary over 400Yuan to fill his gas tank. Another reason for not taking road trips in China is toll fees. All the highways we went on were toll roads, and indeed all the highways I’ve run down in long distance buses charged toll fees.
Here’s how it works: unlike in America where you get a paper token that denotes your point of entry, here you are given an electronic badge, much like a security badge. It is programmed with your point of entry. Once you get off the highway you are charged like in America: by the distance you’ve traveled. It cost Gary between 115 and 150Yuan to cover the highway distances between Wuhan and Hang Zhou.
A note about these toll roads: I’ve heard it reported that many citizens are angry about the ongoing tolls. As in America, toll charges are meant to offset the cost of building the road. Once the road is built, maintaining it falls under the purview of the government… or, if you prefer, the taxpayer, being as the government pays for road maintenance out of tax funds. However, many if not all of the roads are still charging a toll.
Not sure if there’s been an outcome to this debate.
The final reason why most people do not road trip in China: no vacation time. Unlike Americans, the Chinese do not accrue vacation time in addition to paid holidays. For the most part they only get National Holiday off – first week in October, and time off for Lunar New Year celebration. These are the two big holidays in China and if people travel they would rather make use of mass transit, such as trains or buses. In the long run it is cheaper and faster than driving one’s own car… if one even owns a car.
Let’s talk about that typhoon rainfall for just a minute.
Gary is a very cautious driver. He does not exceed the speed limit and observes all of the traffic laws, even that most annoying one that states: ‘if you are in the passing lane your left blinker must stay on at all times.’ The same rule exists in France. Nearly drove me crazy, hearing the blinker kilometer after kilometer while passing a long line of trucks.
The entire coast of South China is primarily a shipping port, thus most South China cities are crowded with factories. Stands to reason that the highways would be lousy with long distance trucks, doesn’t it?
But that doesn’t answer why I was not inspired to safety at Gary’s driving skill in the pouring typhoon rain. A few things led to my disquiet about that: not turning on headlights when turning on wipers, not being able to read road topography (if the road is darker it means there is standing water on the road), getting freaked out when passing cars splash his windshield and, perhaps the most curious, not knowing what that little switch at the bottom of the rear view mirror was for.
He had commented that he was bothered by the headlights of vehicles behind him. When I suggested simply deflecting the mirror he nearly had a cow… until I showed him how to reposition his mirror by flipping that switch the other way. Amused and amazed he seemingly forgot he was in the driver’s seat and flipped the switch back and forth, back and forth, while the car slowed down and the rain poured outside. I made sure my seatbelt was securely fastened.
We did stop in the worst of the rainfall. Visibility was down to about 3 meters and a rest stop was just coming up anyway. Besides, we hadn’t been out of the car for 6 hours; it would be nice to have a good stretch.
It is law to turn on your hazard lights when driving in adverse weather conditions. Signaling to exit the highway means turning those 4-ways off. Gary forgot about that, simply veering off the highway when the ramp came up. Fortunately he did not hear my gulping in fear.
Chinese rest stops: they are not like rest stops in America. More specifically, they incorporate all of the rest stop features you might expect, such as: restaurant, small convenience store, gas station at one end, public bathrooms at the other. But they are distinctly Chinese in that they sell things like tea sets and other porcelain ware instead of pillows, blankets and local region souvenirs. The restaurant is only open at mealtimes and instead of a bottomless cup of coffee you can get all the hot water you want for tea or that bowl of ramen noodles you just bought at the convenience store. You can also buy vacuum packed snacks like peanuts, dehydrated fish, duck thighs and chicken feet.
All in all, other than those obvious indicators of being in China, it was a road trip, much like one could make in America or any other country. Other than the typhoon causing some disquiet, it was a fun, relaxing time spent in the company of my good friend.
Part III: Travel
Chapter 1: Wen Zhou (When Joe):
Coming into Wen Zhou as we did, by car, gave me a unique opportunity to cast my eyes all around. Unlike coming into town on a train or a long-distance bus, which usually follow main arteries, we came in on a smaller industrial/residential avenue. One of the first sights that caught my eye was a large, domed building on a hill, topped by a Christian cross.
Remember that, as a group the Chinese are not a particularly religious folk. However, Wen Zhou’s population, I found out later is, by last count, 15- to 20% Christian. Very interesting statistic and most likely accurate, seeing as there was a large, obviously Christian edifice visible from a distance on a well traveled road.
On the day that Gary was preoccupied with business I set about exploring the town. By sheer dumb luck I rode the bus that took me straight to that large church. Instead of riding the bus to the end of the line like I normally would, I decided to get off and explore this area.
Turns out that that particular region of Wen Zhou is in fact the religious center of the city, as proclaimed by that high profile Christian church on its hill. It is surrounded by Taoist and Buddhist temples, behind and across the street, respectively. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Walking toward the stairs that would take me up the hill there was what might be interpreted as a sacred fountain. In perhaps the greatest act of irreverence I’ve ever witnessed, a man was using that basin’s water to wash his car. I couldn’t resist: I got my camera out and snapped a picture. And then I climbed the stairs.
Invisible from the road and tucked behind the Christian church was a Taoist temple. Now THIS was strange. The Tao is an inclusive philosophy, which means that you are welcome to believe in that school of thought as well as any other doctrine you see fit. Christianity, on the other hand is considered exclusive: you either believe in the Holy Trinity as the be-all and end-all of religious wisdom or you are not Christian. That these two religious houses shared a hill is remarkable, in my opinion.
I was torn: which one to explore? The sun was setting and I didn’t have much time. I have toured all manner of temple in every Chinese city I’ve been. Not that I’m jaded to the idea of temples or in any way disrespectful toward Taoism or Buddhism but, after all, a temple is a temple is a temple. I chose the Christian church, being as this was the first time I had been up close to one in China.
The church sat a bit higher than the temple did so I climbed a little bit more. It looked like a relatively new building, constructed perhaps in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, right after China opened its doors to the West. There was no stained glass, just simple windows covered in a mirroring, UV reducing film. By pressing my face against the windows I could reach I saw that it was outfitted with pews laid out in the standard pattern: two rows of pews on either side of a wide aisle leading up to the altar. On the side of the altar was a stand for the choir. Along the back wall, a giant pipe organ. In short, a typical Christian church.
I leaned against the parapet and looked out over the city. Across the street was another temple. Most interesting: two temples and one Christian church, all within a stone’s throw of each other. Widening my scope I spied another building in the not too far distance, also topped by a Christian cross.
What is up with religion in Wen Zhou? Most any other city I’ve visited, even temples are discreetly tucked away and Christian churches are as hard to find as matching snowflakes. Here, religion is virtually flaunted. Why?
It could have a lot to do with the fact that, being an industrial as well as a port town, many foreigners came to set up shop and brought their beliefs with them. Eager to please the money-bearing industrialists, churches were set up in quick order. That might explain the Christian churches, but what is the story with the temples?
If the lords of business get to go to their prayer houses, then so should the serfs. At least, thus goes the philosophy. So, while those who ascribe to the Christian doctrine attend services in their house of worship, those who bow to the Buddha or are empowered by the Tao can go pray at their temple. At least, that is the conclusion I came to after researching everything I could on the subject.
NOTE: China is still pretty closed mouthed about its religious activity and indeed bills itself as a non-religious country. There is not much information to be found. This oversimplification is mostly conjecture on my part, I’ll admit.
While still on the upper rampart of the Church I looked down to the street below. I thought I had witnessed irreverence before. During my brief tarriance up top, that first car had pulled away and two more pulled up for their washing.
Maybe they were taking ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ to a whole new level?
Gary had asked me to meet him in the fashion district. The purpose of our meeting in the fashion district was twofold: give him a chance to revisit his customers there and to see if, perchance I might be able to find anything in my size. No luck, as always, being as I am much bigger than most Chinese. He walked away with a fall line sure to impress his customers and a nifty pair of green sandals for himself. In an odd way they matched what he was wearing perfectly.
Wen Zhou is a tier 3 city, like Wuhan. It is an industrial town with a population of about 3 million, approximately 15% of them Christian. That is a significant statistic which explains the prominence of Christian iconism in this town. Wen Zhou is known as the birthplace of private economy because that is where the home manufacturing and small factory trend started. It is also a port city, being closer to the ocean than Hang Zhou (our next stop), which ships its goods down the Yangtze before shipping out internationally.
The first night we were there we spent it in an outlying district, Wen Zhou East. This is where Gary lived and worked his first 2 years back from studying abroad. Our visit there was purely for pleasure, for him to visit with his friends.
This part of Wen Zhou is a mean town, where people are said to drink the beer and eat the glasses. No sidewalks, no tree lined boulevards. Nothing nice, mild, genteel or inviting about this part of town. No traffic lights and no traffic rules: you brave traffic as it comes to you. If the drivers are not drunk or otherwise distracted, you might just survive crossing the street.
Besides drinking beer, KTV is the main pastime. In fact, that is where Gary found his friends: drinking beer at the KTV. They had already been at it for several hours, our arrival having been anticipated for earlier but again, we had met heavy rainfall and had to drive substantially slower than normal. We were escorted to the room his friends were at but midway there he was assaulted by two of them who unabashedly threw their arms around him and greeted him effusively.
This was a first for me. I’ve seen Gary among friends, among family and among business partners but I had never seen him cut loose and be totally caught up in the fun. He was like a completely different person! I’ve never seen him smile so unselfconsciously or sit, limbs akimbo. Again and again he was toasted and he returned the toasts till I wondered about his ability to drive (he reassured me we would stay in this part of town tonight: no driving necessary). He even sang a few songs at KTV, one of them a lovely duet with a girl he had dated years ago.
We left that KTV room a mess: spilled beer and spit sunflower husks. Dice flung about everywhere. A platter of fruit, now sadly wilted, on the floor. Full ashtrays and empty bottles. To be fair to Gary and I, most of that was existent before we even got there but we contributed our little bit.
Gary’s former boss, who had passed out at the KTV room had recovered sufficiently to take us to a surprisingly fine hotel for such a rude town. In fact, it was the nicest hotel we stayed in our whole trip. He had booked us adjoining rooms. I excused myself into ours while Gary went on to the next room to further enjoy the evening by playing cards and perhaps drinking more. It was great to see him have a good time with his friends.
The next day, his hangover alleviated only a little by coffee and a long shower, we went into Wen Zhou proper.
Wen Zhou looked like Wuhan must have prior to its building craze. Virtually the entire city is edificed with that sinister-looking tile, testimony to the era of Sino-Soviet relations. There are no ‘ring roads’ here, what in America would be a looping highway around the city. Everyone drives surface streets and they are not well surfaced. There is virtually no government money spent here, perhaps because the population is minimal, and perhaps… well, perhaps they just haven’t gotten to that town yet. There are plenty of bus routes I was to discover later, and a lot of iconic Chinese architecture.
There is money in Wen Zhou though. It is quiet money, evidenced in the type of cars driven: Aston Martins, BMWs, Audi and others. There is not a large proliferation of shopping malls, like in most major Chinese cities and very few shops that I saw that sell internationally trendy merchandise. Most shops serve their neighborhood or their district.
Also, there is not much in the way of foreigner restaurants. Whereas in Wuhan McDonalds and KFC abound, one would be hard pressed to see such in Wen Zhou. That did not hurt my feelings at all.
In Wen Zhou proper, Gary was all business again. Apparently the act of renewing a car registration is not a light-hearted affair. It took him nearly all day to do so, and in the end it didn’t quite happen. A hurried visit back to the hotel room, a jump onto the computer, a few cuss words and a quick snatch of papers and he was off again, presumably back to the car registry bureau. Little did I know that he wasn’t registering the car but actually selling it.
Selling the car??? How were we going to get home??? Leave it to Gary to take care of business: he had looked into buying plane tickets back to Wuhan before he even contemplated selling the car.
Chapter 2: Hang Zhou (hahng joe)
I found Hang Zhou to be a pleasant city to walk around, even though the temps were a bit hot and muggy. Adjacent to the hotel was a lovely park, threaded by a canal, where I decided I would picnic for dinner, making do with some snacks I’d picked up. After eating, I walked further down the main road where the hotel was on, and quickly found a bank to replenish my stash of cash. I kept my eye out for a cellphone store where I could reload my phone, my minutes being nearly spent.
How improvident of me to travel with a phone low on minutes and no cash in my pocket!
I had no luck finding a phone store and the weather was simply too hot to walk around. I resorted to a vagabond tactic to see a city: ride a public bus. Heading to the nearest bus stop I found bus K355 to be both appealing and nearly empty. I decided that would be the bus I would ride. As luck would have it, the stop I came to was the first stop in the long route that this bus travels: all the better!
The second stop along the way I found a phone store. Isn’t that how it always goes?
Instead of getting off the bus and wasting the entire 2Yuan fare I rode the bus to the end of the line. Good thing I did: it took me to the old part of Hang Zhou, where ‘real life’ happens. Snaky alleys, grocers boasting their wares in the street, vendors pushing their carts, fragrant smells wafting along behind them. Meat hanging in the butcher’s windows. City seniors fanning themselves on shady street corners. Vehicles – buses and trucks – caroming down narrow lanes. Can’t get enough of this China! I was enthralled and overjoyed, both at my dumb luck at having found this area on my first time out and at having spotted a China Mobile cellphone store in this district, just 2 stops away from the end of the line.
Now flush with cash and a phone full of minutes I had nothing left to do but enjoy the sights. To be honest, there weren’t that many sights to enjoy, at least not along that particular bus route. This being an industrial town, much like all those others along the southern coast of China, it did not have much in the way of noteworthy architecture or attractions. Still it is quite pleasant, with tree lined boulevards and quiet waterways lacing through the city.
Walking back to the hotel from the bus stop I spied several people enjoying what I call ‘picker sticker bread’, a type of unleavened bread topped herbs and sauces, and served chopped up in a small brown bag, eaten with stick akin to a toothpick, only longer.
I’ve eaten this type of snack plenty of times before in Wuhan, but never has it been quite so tasty. In Hang Zhou they make this bread with a sweet chili sauce that gives it a mildly spicy yet sweet flavor. Also, they are much more generous with their greens, including large chunks of pepper and leek. I could have made an entire meal out of that snack alone but I was due to meet some friends for dinner, so I refrained from getting a larger portion. I did go back the next day for another helping, though.
The dinner was quite an affair, with these friends speaking virtually no English and me only a little Mandarin. We had become friends through Gary, who usually translates for us. Now, we relied on one of the dinner companion’s translation software, downloaded to his SmartPhone. Although we did have a few laughs we all agreed the food was not that tasty. After a short walk, they escorted me back to my hotel.
There is much in Hangzhou to see and do. I had been to West Lake before but it was so crowded it was impossible to enjoy it properly.
I would be meeting Vanessa, a former student who had relocated to that city after graduation. She had a grand scheme all laid out, but rain threatened our plans: an afternoon at West Lake. However, when in China, do as your host instructs. I’m sure Vanessa’s iron will, and the fact that she is Chinese will be enough to vanquish any adverse conditions. True enough: the rain subsided and we frolicked.
Vanessa took me to a park by the lake. It was a monastery/temple grounds, now open to the public. Because of the inclement weather, visitors were few. We got to linger over attractions without being pushed out of the way or having to push our way through hordes to glimpse anything worthwhile. What a bonus!
A cable car took us to the mountain top. From the gondola and atop the mountain we could see the monastery layout, exact in its precision. Immediately outside the cloister walls were rows upon rows of tea plants. As with many regions, Hangzhou boasts its own type/brand of tea. Later we snacked on bean curd patties that had been simmered in the local tea: quite tasty!
The longer we spent together, the more Vanessa relaxed. Initially she was nervous about being able to show her guest a good time, a common idiosyncrasy of Chinese hosts. She took responsibility for the bad weather, the traffic around the lake… everything that she had no control over, apologizing profusely. That all changed when we spied the cable car trundling up the mountain. We giggled like the young woman she is and raced to buy tickets. I wasn’t allowed to whip out my wallet.
However, everyone was grateful I when I whipped out bottles of water: after the rainfall it got quite muggy.
Besides the cable car ride, the drop dead gorgeous collection of Buddha statues carved into the mountainside and in caves thrilled me. A small stream (of startlingly clear water!) separated the paved walkway we were on from the base of a mountain opposite of the one we cable-car’ed to. We noticed several people crossing the stream via a series of flat-topped boulders and wondered what they gained, being on that other footpath. Soon we learned that there was another temple atop the mountain, apparently a spectacular one.
I didn’t say a word. Vanessa was wearing high heels. Not only would it have been difficult for her to cross the boulders and climb the rough trail up the mountain, I was sure she must be in agony after all the walking we did. Had I expressed any desire to climb, I’m sure she would have done her utmost to accede to my wishes. I made a mental note to revisit Hangzhou, West Lake and this temple on my own.
That snack of simmered bean curd served to remind Vanessa that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and was now ravenous. That, coupled with my concern for her no doubt aching feet ended our stroll at the park. We dined in the monastery restaurant. It was amusing to watch the uber-composed Vanessa practically drool over the pictorial menu. Together we made several selections and she asked our waitress to please bring the food quickly.
After dinner we walked around the lake until we were all weary. I thought we could walk all around and end up where we started but that was not the case: we had to double back. I’m not sure how Vanessa managed to walk so far in those shoes after the walking we had already done. Apparently my concerns were valid: we rode a cab back to our starting point. I was surprised at how far we had roamed.
Chapter 3: Xi’An (Shee Ahn)
There is just something about the people of Xi’an. They are all so very nice and friendly and open and warm-hearted and welcoming. Try finding that in Wuhan.
Matter of fact, as this entry is about the difference between Xi’an and Wuhan, let’s start our comparison right now.
Usually, when I wake up I have trouble breathing. Actually, sometimes I have such problems breathing that I wake up from a dead sleep with my nose stuffed up and gasping for breath. I don’t know if the air in Wuhan is that bad, or if my mattress is somehow contaminated, or if it is the mold growing on my apartment walls… but waking up in Wuhan requires a kickstart to my breathing apparatus. Waking up in Xi’an, my nose and sinus passages are clear, my lungs do not wheeze and my throat does not hurt. Even at the hotel, after napping in a room warmed by a coal stove, I had no trouble breathing. Wow. What a difference.
Let’s not stop there!
Before going out for that bowl of noodles, my first meal in this city, I took a shower. I could immediately feel the difference in the quality of the water. My hair was silky smooth and my skin did not feel like it required any lotion. As though proving the point, when I blow-dried my hair, it did not look brittle and dry; it lay glossy and sleek on my head in an approved and attractive style. And that was not just a one-time occurrence: I washed my hair no less than 4 times in Xi’an, and each time, my hair acts like it would like to thank me for not subjecting it to a chemical bath. I’m really impressed! I thought I was going to have to live with ugly hair for the rest of my time in China. Now I know it is just the water quality in Wuhan that is killing my hair and making it fall out.
From hotel I stayed at there are two main bus lines that will take me to City Center, where I can transfer to other buses. And Xi’an has a lot of buses, let me tell you! And guess what? They are all natural gas powered, not diesel powered like the buses in Wuhan. To be perfectly fair, Wuhan has 8 lines whose buses are electric-powered, but they are more like trolleys and only cover the main downtown area. Unfortunately the diesel-powered buses also cover the downtown area and everywhere is soot and grime and fumes from the diesel exhaust. I have to add that the buses in Wuhan are not necessarily well maintained, either. I can tell by their grinding gears and their engine hiccups while they go down the road. By contrast, some Xi’an buses appear virtually new. But even the old ones are better maintained than those in Wuhan.
Ah, the soot and the grime! Wuhan is undergoing major construction projects. Therefore, there is dust and mud everywhere you go. Plants, shrubs and trees are dispirited, limp and gray under their mantle of dirt, and flowers all bear a uniform dirt color, no matter the species of flower. However, Xi’an is also undergoing major construction projects: they are committed to opening no fewer than 3 subway lines in one year. In Xi’an as in Wuhan, they work around the clock to meet their target. Yet Xi’an’s trees are easily recognized as trees and not some agonized, stunted creature begging for oxygen and Xi’an’s flowers and plants are vibrant, multicolored (flowers) and green (plants). And, they are certainly more spirited than Wuhan foliage. Why is Wuhan so dirty and Xi’an so clean? Really: the dirt and grime of Wuhan’s construction projects is somehow not replicated in Xi’an’s construction projects. Yet both cities are tunneling under ground and working around the clock. How does that happen?
The list goes on and on. The food in Xi’an is ultimately palatable; the Wuhan culinary specialties mostly taste like dirt. The drivers on Xi’an’s roads mind their lanes and road signals; the drivers in Wuhan act like their mission is to thwart everyone else on the road from getting to their destination. Getting on a bus in Xi’an is a civilized undertaking in which people queue up; getting on a bus in Wuhan is an Olympic event in which everyone wishing to board crams toward the doorway and tries to pass through it at once. Xi’an has a lot of iconic architecture and traditional Chinese buildings; Wuhan looks like a generic city and they are tearing a lot of their buildings down. Xi’an has a lot of historical sites and cultural relics, Wuhan has one: the Yellow Crane Tower. Xi’an has temples and mosques (they have a strong Muslim population); Wuhan’s four temples are closed for repairs or renovations. Xi’an preserves its cultural heritage; Wuhan builds shopping malls. Xi’an is a treat for the eyes; Wuhan is an eyesore.
Is it any wonder I prefer Xi’an to Wuhan?
One of my favorite aspects of Xi’an is its diversity. There are shoppers and strollers, sightseers and foreigners. There are old buildings and new, old buses and new, old people and… young. And they all commingle virtually seamlessly. At any given point you might ride by a park dedicated to statuary, or an edifice that has stood since the days of Genghis Khan. And that would be right next to the new shopping mall, complete with McDonalds’.
No less a spectacle is the Muslim Quarter. Xi’an boasts a fairly large Muslim population, and they are centered around the centuries-old Mosque near the ancient drum tower, which just happens to be very close to the heart of the old city. Matter of fact, everything in the Old City is within walking distance from the South Gate of the original City Wall.
Coming here is, in a sense, coming home for me. Not just Xi’an, but especially Muslim Street. It has nothing to do with religion, tradition or custom but more with the hustle and bustle, the life, the excitement, the wares, the very air and atmosphere and the timeless practice of barter and trading, eating and strolling, eyes wide with wonder and heart soaring with elan. When one walks down Muslim Street, listening to the vendors hawk their wares, tripping over that loose cobblestone, taking in the traditions in craftsmanship, cookery and trading, one feels like they have turned the clock back about 400 years and changed geographical points altogether.
It is a loud and fragrant place. There is no restaurant section, sales section, this section or that section. Everything is all mixed together. At any given point you might find a whole lamb shank roasting over an open fire right next to a craftsman making jewelry, right next to a baker making their strangely tasty, unleavened bread. Most of the food is cooked outdoors and if you find an entrancing chef, it is perfectly OK to stop and watch him. And they are always a ‘him’. No ‘her’ chefs in the Muslim Quarter.
Many of the vendors sell the same type of tourist kitsch; it is a tourist attraction, after all. You have to look past those vendors to get the beat of the true Muslim Street.
There is one distinct section that is in fact reserved for tourists. The fist time I came to Xi’an I was in fact a tourist and that is the only part of Muslim Street I saw.
In this narrow alley, off the main thoroughfare of the Quarter, Chinese vendors hawk their wares almost exclusively to tourists. Their calls of ‘Hey lady! Hey Lady! You come! You buy!’ are almost comically stereotypical. They like to grab your arm and pull you into their shop. And, unless you bargain with them, they will not respect you. For all of that, I do have to say that they do indeed have nice, touristy stuff: Terra Cotta Warrior replicas, copies of Chairman Mao’s red book, various tee-shirts and some Chinese clothing. There are silk painters who will custom paint for you; there are artisans who will paint on rice paper, there are trinket and toys and things for little and big ones alike. There is jewelry and teapots for sale, along with the requisite variety of teas, and there are ornamental boxes and a million other trinkets.
Had that been all there was to Muslim Street, I would be writing about something else.
As I walk alone down Muslim Street, I take in the sights, sounds and smells. My hands are in my pockets and a small, knowing smile plays on my lips. I almost close my eyes and let my other senses guide me. I do not need to see tourist kitsch; I need to feel the connection to this living time machine.
These Muslim are humble and hard working. They do not accost you directly; it is more the skill of their hands and the aroma of their food that beckons. Theirs is a type of seduction that, although you might be able to resist momentarily, its lure and chant will haunt you until you return, again and again, to behold it, if not take part in it.
For you are a participant when you are on Muslim Street. That is, if you do it right.
You should go there by day, the earlier the better. Certain types of food are only cooked early morning, and their delicate aroma is trumped by the smell of roasting meat if you go later on in the day. Besides, if you get there before the tourist buses, you can see what life is truly like on Muslim Street without getting squished by throngs of people or assaulted by tons of vendors.
Early-day food cooked and served, men head to the mosque at the center of the quarter. The chant from the minaret is loud, clear and powerful in the morning air. There is camaraderie evident among the devout as their sandaled feet slap the cobblestones. An aura of reverence descends on the Quarter at prayer time and, even though the men smile and talk and laugh while walking, the closer they get to the mosque the more hushed and awed they become. Tourists are allowed to enter the mosque, even at prayer time, on the condition that they do not cause a disturbance or interrupt prayers. Women must be properly attired: no bare shoulders or low cut shirts.
Or you can take in Muslim Street at night, when it reinvents itself into a bazaar. There is a sensual feel to the smoke from the barbeques, the cracking sound of the fruit presses for fresh pomegranate juice, the popping of walnuts churning in their roasters, and all around you the night air, silky and redolent with the fragrance of flowers and herbs. At night you are anonymous, a face in the crowd, a part of the swelling masses. At night, Muslim Street happens without you being able to see it for all of the noise and the press of the people. But you know you are there.
One night, I felt need of a walk. Invariably my feet took me to Muslim Quarter. I didn’t need the lights or the people but I wanted the sounds and the smells. I walked on, an island in a sea of faces, feasting on the aroma and drinking in the sights. Rather than stick to the main concourse I decided to run the side roads, which are substantially more narrow and infinitely more real to me. That is where life happens in Muslim Street at night.
As I walked on I came upon a small drama. A kitten had perched on a scooter seat, and the scooter’s owner was trying to dislodge it. The man did not simply exert his larger size against the kitten’s more fragile countenance, scoop it up and deposit it unceremoniously on the ground. Instead he encouraged the kitten to jump down of its own volition. Man and cat wrangled for a minute, with the feline hissing and the man nudging its hindquarters. Finally the cat understood that the man was giving it dignity by allowing it to descend on its own. It raised its tail, jumped down and found its own way along the cobblestones to its next perch. The man mounted his scooter and rode away.
That is the essence of the dignity and life of Muslim Street.
Chapter 4: Cheng Du (Tchung Doo)
I had long wanted to visit Chengdu. The only thing I really knew about that city is that there was a huge Buddha statue carved by a blind monk. I wanted to go see it. As far as Chengdu was concerned? Well, a city is a city is a city. While most cities have their particulars, each city has shops, people, roads and tourist attractions. I’m coming to realize that a lot of cities look alike with their chain stores and franchised restaurants; it is the feel of them that are different. I did not anticipate a special vibe from Chengdu like the one I feel when I visit Xi’an. No, the only thing I really wanted to do in Chengdu is go see that giant statue carved out of a mountainside by a blind monk in the 700’s.
And I did see it; you’ll read all about that experience later. First, about Chengdu and how I came to go there.
While visiting with my friend Carrie Ann, a teacher at Maplewood International School, she expressed the idea of burning her four days of leave before the end of the school year. Being as her schedule is much more rigorous than mine, she has to plan her ventures more carefully than I do. She opted to take two days in conjunction with the weekend, which would give us four days to discover and explore together. She also invited her friend Olaf, a German native who is on assignment in Wuhan for his engineering firm. Strangely enough, Olaf had just told her the day before that he wished to visit Chengdu before his China assignment ended in five weeks.
Chengdu it is, then!
Chengdu is a 2,000 year old city. Relatively young by Chinese standards, nevertheless it boasts a rich history and culture. It is the Capital of Sichuan province, located in Southeast China. The name of the city means ‘become a capital’, so it lives up to its name. It has made staggering progress in modernization and industrialization, now being home to companies like Motorola, Microsoft and Siemens.
Its traditional culture – spicy foods, embroideries and brocades distinguish Chengdu from other Chinese cities. It is the start of the Southern Silk Road. Chengdu, like Los Angeles, sits at the bottom of a topographical bowl and is ringed by mountains. Industry is strictly controlled so that air quality remains healthy. Indeed all of the buses and taxis are natural gas powered and tractor trailers are discouraged or even fined for driving through the city rather than following their designated routes.
Chengdu is home to about 10 million people. It boasts a thriving expat community as it is the home to many consular offices, including an American one. Although traditional Sichuan food defines the culture, there are many ‘foreign’ eateries that serve anything from Indian food to Tex.Mex. Nightlife pulses at clubs such as The Shamrock, which offers all you can drink for 88 Yuan, or The Bookworm, a more sedate and intellectual setting that features a well stocked library of books written in English, as well as a fully stocked bar and a menu that offers anything from spinach salad to bangers and mash. Many students, after graduation from the city’s universities choose to make their home in Chengdu because of its progressive, urban lifestyle.
Shopping, a trademark of contemporary Chinese cities is exciting at such areas as Chun Lu (Tchun Loo) Street. There you will find several hundred stores and large malls selling everything from basic household items to luxury goods such as jewelry from Cartier, perfume from Guerlain and clothing from top of the line designers.
If you are into ‘tourist shopping’, buying souvenirs, you should visit Jin Li (Gin Lee) Street. It is part of ‘old city’ Chengdu but has been completely renovated. While the buildings maintain their ancient architecture they have all been modernized with electricity and indoor plumbing. Most buildings house restaurants or shops. Paved avenues make strolling this area feel like you are in Shanghai in the 1920’s.
Chengdu is home to many temples, most notably Wuhou (Woo how) and Wenshu (When shoe) temples. Both are within city limits and display relics of traditional Buddhist worship and culture. Each temple is surrounded by cultivated grounds that beckon with their lush, green shade on steamy, hot days.
For temples outside the city limits you can visit Mount Emei (Eu my) or Mount Le Shan (Leu Shahn). Mount Emei is one of the four Buddhist sacred mountains in China. Not only is it home to over 30 temples on the mountain but also home to several monkey tribes. The peak of this mountain, at some 3,000 meters above sea level is usually buried in clouds, making you feel like you are on top of the world.
Le Shan, meaning Happiness Mountain is where the giant Buddha statue sits. Well, was carved from. The statue is 71 meters tall and faces the convergence of the Dadu and Qingyi (Tching Yee) rivers. While the sight of the Buddha statue is magnificent, the opposing view – the rivers and the city across the water, is equally spectacular. The giant Buddha is not the only attraction to Le Shan; the temple at the peak of the mountain rests on its own timeless reverence.
For more natural recreation, you can enjoy visiting the giant panda conservation area. Sichuan province is home to the dwindling panda population and the Research Base is located close to the heart of the city. The pandas are fed early morning because they are crepuscular animals – they are most active at dawn and dusk. To make the most of your visit, you should visit before 9AM. After that, those lazy pandas don’t do much more than sleep. Although, the park is lovely and well worth walking through, even if you don’t get to see pandas eating or playing.
There is Citizen’s Park, where people gather to dance, stroll, boat or just hang out. It lies in city center, within walking distance from another traditional walking street. It is a bit like Central Park in New York; a patch of loveliness in the middle of the city.
There’s Tibetan Street with shops and restaurants. There’s The Valley of Nine Villages with its crystal clear waters, waterfalls and mountain scenery. There’s ‘Wide and Narrow Alleys’ district, a re-creation of ancient a traditional Sichuan neighborhood. There’s the brand new subway line that will take you through the heart of the city, north to south. There’s museums and bookstores and… and…
The focus of my fervor: the Le Shan Buddha.
I enjoyed all of our activities while in Chengdu but the one I was looking forward to the most, in fact the one that I actually went there for was to visit the giant statue by the river. Le Shan, literally Happy Mountain is two hours away from Chengdu by bus. After that one needs to take a taxi to the actual site, pay a 90Yuan fee for access to the grounds and then climb a mountain to get to the top. It was all worth it to me, especially what happened at the top of the mountain.
We arrived at Le Shan just after 3PM, leaving us just under two hours to savor the park and all of its wonders. Carrie Ann and Olaf rushed up the mountain, clicking their cameras all the while. I took my time, holding them back from their rigorous march. They did not get mad at me but they did emphasize that time is of the essence if we were going to make it to the airport to catch our plane.
At the top of the mountain, level with the Buddha statue’s head, rests a temple. I had already seen two temples on this trip and wasn’t particularly interested in seeing another but Olaf had his camera out and was shuttering away. Carrie Ann was following suit and I just loosely followed them. They took pictures of everything and they did it Chinese style. Not taking time to savor or get the feeling of anything, they clicked madly and moved on. Me, with my inferior camera and my penchant to experience rather than capture things on memory cards, concentrated on absorbing the feel of this temple, only loosely holding my camera in my hand should something picture-worthy manifest itself.
In this particular temple there were monks chanting in front of the altar and people kneeling on the prayer cushions. Outside the masses made offerings in the form of burning incense or oil in chalices, for a price. I took this all in, but then I left it behind. Alone, my hands clasped in front of me I sought the feel of this temple. What was it all about? What solace did it have to offer? I circled the altar, where no other tourist had ventured and looked out at the deserted courtyard beyond. Apparently the tourists were concentrated in the front of the temple, yet the whole back area was being left, unexplored. I thought I should go get my friends and expose them to this uncrowded area.
As I circled the rest of the way around the altar I came face to face with a monk. Without even thinking about it I made the sign of respect and bowed to him. He raised his right hand to chest level, palm facing left, and blessed me. His blessing did not feel like dispensation.
Without saying a word, a universe of knowledge passed between us. His eyes, bright with the light kindled in his soul, locked on mine. I felt the impact at some unknown, unnamed place within me and for that instant felt connected to all things past and all things yet to come. This encounter lasted only a few seconds and he went on his way while I went on mine.
That was it. I instinctively felt that my trip to Le Shan had fulfilled its purpose even though I had not yet seen the giant Buddha statue, and I no longer cared if my eyes did light upon it. However, I had companions to consider, my touristy friends who, as far as I know, had not had such a personal and deep encounter with a monk. So I went back to them and to the noise and the crowd in front of the temple and asked them if they had seen the courtyard behind the altar. “Is there anything worth seeing?” asked Olaf. “To me there is” I replied. He gave me a strange look but nudged Carrie Ann and they followed me through the deserted area beyond.
Later, we climbed down the steep staircase parallel to the statue. The Buddha is impressive! My mind was still distracted by the force of the encounter I had at the temple, away from the crowds and the noise. Intellectually it registered that I was a participant to the activity around me. I had to stop and start continuously on that treacherous staircase carved out of the side of the mountain that was only wide enough for one person at a time, because people in front of me were taking pictures all the while. I really didn’t care. I was content to only snap one or two pictures on the way down, and only one picture once at the foot of the statue, for posterity. My real experience had happened atop the mountain.
Chapter 5: Nan Jing (Nahn Jing)
Nanjing really seems to be a town that agrees with me! I jumped on some random bus, found that lovely park and walked around. The biting cold, coupled with a vague malaise decided me: sit on buses for the rest of the day and view the city from that vantage point, sheltered from the wind.
That is when I discovered that Nanjing has so much to offer one cannot possibly see it all in one stay. I knew that this city is rife with history, it having been the capital of China during 6 dynasties and the site of the Nanking Massacre, when the Japanese slaughtered every man, woman and child in the city on their way through the country during WWII. It is the capital of Jiangsu Province and will host the Summer Youth Olympics in 2014.
Nanjing feels like Berlin, Germany. A regal, long established city with a distinctive chronicle, Nanjing has a noble, timeless feel to it. In part because it is not built up like other Chinese megalopoli and in part because of its long history, Nanjing feels like it can and will endure for centuries. Even aged birch trees lining the streets appear to have been there forever.
The air here is remarkably clean. All industry is confined to the outskirts of the city and there is only minimal construction. In fact, when China’s central government bureau approached Nanjing’s political body about tearing down and rebuilding some of the older apartment communities the residents and the local government rebelled. That is why the skyline is relatively uncluttered. The buses are all well maintained for being the waddling things that they are, although they are not as uniform or well kept as the buses in other cities. This city has 3 established subway lines and 3 train stations: two at the outskirts of the city and the main one at city center. All of this works to keep the air in Nanjing free of pollutants.
The next day is when the bottom dropped out. Thinking I’d try the hotel cafeteria’s breakfast, I made my way to the second floor, where the hostess stopped dead in her tracks upon the sight of me. I asked her if I could still get breakfast; it was going on 9:30AM. She replied well, we don’t have much left. Before I could go see what was left she asked me if I had a coupon. “No, but I have my room card” I answered. “You can’t use your room card. You have to go downstairs and get a coupon from the front desk” she informed me, and then turned around and left.
That’s strange! The day before, when I asked the desk clerk where I could get food she said there were plenty of restaurants around but she did not tell me about the hotel’s restaurant, and certainly did not say a word about coupons. Well, I’ll just go and find someplace else to eat. There was this nifty restaurant that looked like it was carved out of the hill not far from the hotel. It had blue painted doors and white facing, and one had to climb a narrow set of stairs to get there. I saw it from the bus window yesterday. I wanted to get there, so I climbed.
The hostess met me at the doorway and asked me if I wanted coffee. “No, I’d rather have tea” I replied and, before I could say I wanted to order food as well, she motioned me upstairs and closed the door in my face! I went upstairs and found only a beverage menu. If I were only thirsty, I would have been happy to stay there; the atmosphere was cozy and inviting, for all that the hostess was rude. But I really did want lunch so I left after telling the waitress I wanted food as well as drink. I thought about opening the door to the lower level and just walking in but decided to not patronize this establishment at all.
I’m not used to being snubbed. Usually the Chinese are all very friendly and open to me. I found the people of Nanjing to be abrupt and in fact rather rude. I thought about that as I looked through the bus window. There did not seem to be many people smiling or enjoying life. The bus passengers seemed harried and downtrodden. Women especially seemed misfortunate. In every other city I’ve been to women, especially elderly women tended to congregate and chatter away. Middle aged women like to dance in the street or at public squares come sundown. Here there seemed to be more lonely older women and women traveling singly.
I wonder if all the standoffishness I experienced had something to do with my being a foreigner? There are many students from other nations studying at the great and renown University of Nanjing and there is a good chance that the locals were fed up with foreigners getting drunk and ugly… that is, presuming those students do in fact conduct themselves that way. Maybe native Nanjingers just don’t like people who are not native Nanjingers? That wouldn’t explain the lack of smiles and women chattering together, but it would certainly explain why they were unfriendly to this non-native face.
In desperation I sought out foreigners and posed the question to them: do they find Nanjing to be unfriendly? One person I talked with named Paul said that he found the people of Nanjing to be pleasant, and he has lived here for 6 years. For him it was the people of Shanghai that seemed rude and abrupt. From there, he and I enjoyed very pleasant and stimulating conversation.
As always when visiting a new place I try to sample the local fare. There were not many restaurants boasting local cuisine that were open and I found no street vendors at all. It was probably because I was there during the biggest holiday season this country celebrates – Lunar New Year, but even at that park I went to the first day I was here there were virtually no vendors selling food.
I ended up eating most of my meals at restaurants that target foreigners. Emma’s was one, and the other was a sportsbar whose name I can’t remember. I do remember the food was delicious though.
In spite of those negative experiences I like Nanjing. It was well worth a visit.
Chapter 6: Qing Dao (Tching Dow)
During the 1800’s China was a divided country. Russia, Germany, Great Britain, France and America, among others all came over, first as opportunists, next as missionaries and finally educators to settle and civilize what they considered a nation of natural riches, unfortunately full of heathens and savages. I believe they didn’t quite realize who or what they were reckoning with.
After years (Centuries!) of exploitation and occupation, the Chinese had enough of all these strangers impressing their way of life and enslaving their people. There ensued a rebellion, The Boxer Rebellion, during which the Chinese forcefully evicted all foreigners. After this nearly completely successful expulsion, China closed her borders and didn’t let any foreigners in for the next eighty years. Of course, she had her own power struggles within, culminating in the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, ruled by Mao Ze Dong and governed by the Communist Party as we know it today.
Prior to the Boxer Rebellion, Germany had taken over a large part of coastal lands and established itself in the religious development of the country, as well as forming a Naval force and in the shipping industry. The German stronghold was the coastal city of Qing Dao and radiated out from there.
I originally became interested in Qing Dao because of a movie I watched called The Floating Landscape, situated in that city. Not only is the story gripping and real but the backdrop to the story, the old part of Qing Dao haunted me. I wanted to walk those very streets. While watching the movie, still in the States, I vowed I would make it to Qing Dao one day.
And, there’s another reason: architecture is not the only thing the Germans left behind. Their monks had taught the Chinese how to brew beer and now Tsing Tao beer is famous worldwide. You can buy it in select stores in the States.
Qing Dao is divided into 3 distinct parts: Old Town, City Center and New Developments. I focused my explorations mainly in Old Town. That district is pleasantly walkable, reminiscent of San Francisco, only less steeply hilly. The streets are laid out randomly, as opposed to the grid patterns one is used to seeing in established municipalities. Green abounds everywhere; indeed the name Qing Dao means ‘Lush Island (or Green Island)’. There is certainly a feel of Germany in Old Town, as its skyline is dominated by the twin spires of its Catholic cathedral, set upon a hill. The train station, the city’s transportation hub, is only about 100 meters from the beach. From there radiate buses that crawl all over town. Of course I made ample use of those buses.
The next day, with heat peaking in the mid 90’s and humidity right about 70%, I thought that would be a perfect time to visit a museum. Bus 217, that stops directly in front of my hotel, will take me straight to the Qing Dao Beer Museum!
This was one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It is divided into 3 sections: Part A was One Hundred Years of Beer Brewing History. The coolest thing I learned there is that people used to buy beer in a bag straight from the factory and drink it through a straw. So that’s why I saw people milling about outside the museum with clear plastic bags of beer! Pardon me but at first glance, all those bags of beer held at thigh level looked like waste bags that catheterized people wear strapped to their leg. I thought I had stumbled into a tour group of infirms, out for the day.
The second, and by far the coolest part of the museum was the old brewing house. Virtually unchanged since its inception over 100 years ago, therein displayed were huge copper kettles, vast vats, dimly lit chambers extending into the distance. Adding to the effect were several wax figure workers fingering the hops, standing by control panels, bending over troughs and pens.
Tell you the truth, the old brewery creeped me out with its low ceilings, dim, incandescent lighting, echoing chambers, tiled walls and huge, silent machines. I was not a part of any tour group but ahead of me as well as behind I could hear the chatter and laughter of groups as they went through. Their ghostly voices added to the effect, ramping up the creep factor. Here and there were wax mannequins looking so lifelike as they bent to their tasks that I was actually scared when I came upon one. Honestly: I would have liked to linger and take my time through this exhibit but it was simply too creepy. I rushed through.
The third coolest thing was that, included in the price of the entrance ticket you get free beer and peanuts. Not as much as you want but still: that is a pretty neat bonus. Between the old brewery and the modern facility is an antique bar where you are served a glass of ‘raw beer’ and a small bag of honey roasted peanuts before venturing into the modern plant.
I am a mean drunk and a cheap drunk. Especially on an empty stomach. You see, I figured I would find something to eat on the way to the museum. I didn’t, and by the time I got there the heat of the day and the thrill of adventure had robbed me of my appetite. I didn’t reckon on getting free beer and peanuts.
Of course I didn’t have to partake of beer or peanuts. But who am I to refuse free stuff? And, its not like I drink beer every morning before breakfast. Nor is it every day I tour a beer museum. In short: these being extraordinary circumstances I forgave myself the beer. The peanuts were less of a problem. Luckily I was able to restrain myself and not make anyone a victim of my attitude, so, all’s well that ends well and the tour continued.
Part C was the modern brewing and packaging facilities. Having worked in production line food factories before I recognized almost all the machinery and systems. First came the large, stainless steel brewing kettles, systems monitored by electronic control panels. Lone operators were responsible for huge sections of the production floor and, in fact as I walked the catwalk over the production area there were no workers visible.
The next part was more active: the bottling and canning portions of the production line. To the left canning and to the right bottling. That is where I recognized most of the machinery. At one point, two women responsible for quality control sat in front of a fluorescent light panel gauging the clarity of the beer in the bottles. Their job was to stop production if the beer was in any way discolored or contaminated. Other workers also milled about, their responsibility being to make sure nothing stopped production. Their work made me flash back on my days as a production worker. My heart reached out to them. I hope they enjoy their work and that their spirits are not crushed beneath the mind-numbing monotonous repetition of their job.
At the end of the tour we were treated to another glass of beer, chilled and coming straight from the production floor. This beer was lighter in color and had a more polished taste than the raw beer.
All this beer made me crave German food. After all, the brewery was located in the heart of German Town and the streets and sidewalks were cobbled in the style of streets in Germany. It would be reasonable to deduce that there might be a German food restaurant somewhere close… right?
WRONG!!! Qing Dao being a coastal town, standard fare is seafood and more seafood. Not a single restaurant in the brewery district served anything but seafood, the very smell of which turns my stomach.
All the free beer didn’t help matters there, either.
Chapter 7: Shi Shou (Shuh Show)
Shi Shou has one claim to fame. In 2009 a hotel chef was allegedly murdered by government officials to ensure his silence with regard to corrupt dealings these official workers undertook within the walls of that establishment. Two days of rioting followed. The parents of Tu Yuangao refused to allow their son’s body to be removed, demanding an investigation into his death. The police refused to investigate, stating that the young man had committed suicide. They offered the parents money provided they would sign a statement acknowledging their son’s death by his own hand. The parents refused. More citizens joined them in blocking entry to the hotel. During the debacle, the establishment was torched. Tu’s body was finally removed and cremated, and no money was ever paid to the family. The controversy still rages, with the family and most of the villagers believing their son was murdered, while the police assiduously keep a lid on any uprisings with regard to the skirmish. The whole incident is a blemish on the town’s peaceful, seemingly innocuous appearance. Its only visual indication is the husk of the burnt out hotel, still visible today.
I visited with Martin and his family for two days. Martin is a former student turned friend who had repeatedly extended an invitation to his home. I had met his parents once, as they visited Wuhan to tend to him when he got sick. His mother is such a sweetheart and his father is generous and kind. They did their utmost to assure I would feel welcome and wanted.
Martin’s mother met her husband while washing clothes. Her village is across the creek from her husband’s and he fell in love with her, watching her pound brightly colored garments on the rocks by the water. They are still madly in love with one another. He has provided her with a beautiful, well appointed house. She in turn has made it a home complete with good smells wafting from the kitchen, cross stitched decorations on the walls and quilts that she made herself draping the beds. In the open parlor, the entrance to the house is a shrine to his relatives going back three generations.
During this visit, we mostly stayed at home because it is so far out from town. One needs to hire a car to drive to the ferry, and then take the ferry across the bay. We did this on the first day there.
Other than the burnt-out husk of the aforementioned hotel, there is nothing noteworthy or touristy in Shi Shou. Nevertheless, Martin and his mom made the most of the occasion. We went through a bazaar of sorts, where one could buy anything from apparel to vegetables. I had to be cautious to not linger or look too long any anything lest Mom whip out her wallet and buy it for me… whether I wanted it or was just curious about it.
Further meandering through the streets we visited Martin’s old schools, from elementary through high school. We then dropped in on one of Mom’s friends, who offered us a generous portion of fresh beef tripe for dinner. After a hurried consultation, she opted not to accept the gift because Martin told her foreigners don’t eat bovine innards.
Everywhere we went we had a cortege: apparently, not many foreigners visit this tiny ville. When we paused our wanderings, at KFC, Mom encouraged diners to visit with me, much to my dismay. In such an environment, people can gain a lot of guanxi (g’wan shee) – respect from having possession of a foreigner.
And that’s what being with Martin and his family felt like: I had become a possession. For that reason, I decided to cut my visit short, possibly offending my hosts. But then, offense goes both ways.
We were in a grocery store. Mom needed to replenish staples, and I wanted to restock on wet wipes, which Martin and Mom had used up in KFC, wiping the table, the walls and even their shoes. I nearly lost my temper when Martin snatched the wipes I wanted to buy out of my hands so that Mom could pay for them.
The situation had grown untenable. Any autonomy a guest might reasonably expect was vanquished in this household that tended to my every perceived need, even if I had no actual need or desire.
My last night there, we walked down country lanes, visiting a few relatives along the way. Country homes tuck in early at night (I wasn’t the least sleepy), and before the family sent me to my room I was admonished to waken at 6:00AM in order to make the most of our last bit of time together.
That last day was a blur: teeth clenched, chanting over and over in my head: “Only a few more hours. A few more hours!” as Mom tugged me this way and that, urging me to conversation all the while. Finally, the evening that did not come soon enough rolled around and the whole family trooped to the bus station with me, remanding me to the custody of the driver, with explicit instructions to ‘take care of me’.
As much as I prefer to visit small towns around China – as opposed to big cities and tourist attractions, such visits are invariably difficult. Many village hotels do not have permission to house foreigners; my only choice is to stay with friends. Their culture compels them to venerate foreign guests and I don’t want to be venerable. I would rather just be a person.
Can’t anyone make that happen?
Interlude: The Demise of Kathy-The-Kid
Over dinner the other night I confided to my friend, Sam: So far, my travels showed me a glum future as a lone wanderer in China. While I will get to see touristy things, and touristy things are indeed nice, I will not be treated to ‘real’ China: where people call each other ‘friend’ no matter where they hail from, where people help travelers out and get downright neighborly, even if it is just for a minute. Not that I mind touristy things, but I know in my heart that I am missing out on the soul of China while I snap pictures of tourist attractions.
The truth is, no matter how well I speak and understand Chinese, I am not and will never be Chinese. No matter how long I live here, to the Chinese I will always be a foreigner. Certain hotels will not be able to lodge me. Certain restaurants will not serve me. Observing and taking part of cultural rituals will be denied me no matter how much I want to take part in them, because of my foreigner appearance.
That topic came up in conversation on Thursday evening because I’m always planning trips, and Chinese friends aren’t necessarily free to travel with me. Sam being responsible for me 24/7, has been curious about how I endeavor to travel. He wanted to make sure I would be safe and well taken care of.
Now back to that sad disclosure: that I am missing out on China even as I travel through this beautiful and sometimes poignant land. You see, I was speaking figuratively when I told Sam that some doors will forever be closed to me. He took me literally. Only after I explained what I meant did he understand that I did not mean an actual door, slamming in my face.
Conversing with Sam is so easy I sometimes forget that English is not his first language. Sometimes he does not get the nuances and pictures our language paints.
And so I erupted into gales of laughter. Not at Sam, and certainly not because of his disability in grasping the subtleties of the English language, but at the mental picture his misunderstanding created…
At the edge of town stands Kathy-the-Kid, her pack pulling her shoulders back and a pouch slung low on her hips. The sleepy burg, no more than two streets a’cross, lay below. A canteen on the left, the bank and post office on the corner. Some shops lining the street and the general mercantile dominating the block. The courthouse on the right, just before the bank. Beyond that, the feed co-op, a few houses and, at the far end of town the school and then it is back out and to the open plains beyond. Would there be a hotel for this traveler to rest her weary bones?
All the townsfolk knew there would be foreigners coming to their idyllic little village eventually. With their country opening up to the greater world, it would only be a matter of time before some stranger made it to these parts.
And what a stranger! Standing 6 feet tall, with her big nose, and short hair cut into a bob blowing in the breeze and dust on her shoes from all her travels, she cuts an intimidating figure. Shading her eyes with one upraised arm, she slowly makes her way down the thoroughfare into the heart of the town, her footsteps raising equal parts of dust and doom.
Even with the greengrocer’s place is when the cry rang out: “Foreigner!” the shopgirl hollered. The warning rang through the midday drowse.
Instantly the townsfolk swung into action. Windows were barred and doors locked. The merchants hurried their wares off the sidewalks. The general store had too much to carry in so they left their goods out, where the stranger could get to them, if she wanted them. A mother snatched her baby off the street. On the crossroad a lone dog howled.
Everyone watched the foreigner make her way into town. Through shutter slats and dainty laced curtains, working folk and rich folk alike tracked her progress and puckered their brow at the ruin this stranger might cause. Some kids hiding under a porch drove a projectile toward the stranger with their slingshot, but missed. And where was the law? Would the man with the badge confront this latest trouble and save the town?
By now Sophie-the-Kid has made it to the crossroads. The canteen’s batwing doors precede the gloom within, but no sign of life inside discourages her from entering. In the intersection she turns around, looking for a friendly face or an open place. There was none to be found. It seems even the Law would hide from this new arrival.
Dispirited, Kathy-the-Kid moves on…
Sorry, no gunplay in this story. Guns are not allowed in China. I only slew her with laughter.
All of this rolled before my mind’s eye in a flash. As the scene got more and more elaborate – adding the mother snatching the baby off the street was a particularly nice touch, don’t you think? – so the gusts of laughter grew until I was unable to catch my breath and tears came streaming down my face.
We were in the newly opened Teacher’s Cafeteria. It was virtually deserted; only a few diners lingered over their meal remains. The staff had just sat down to their dinner at the table next to ours, presumably to get a good eyeful of ‘the foreigner’, a phenomenon that I deal with on a regular basis. That kind of added to the effect of the movie playing in my head and made me laugh even harder.
Now I’m laughing so hard that I actually have to cover my face because I’m crying and I’ve run out of tissues to blot my tears with. My face is so red it looks like I’m nearing apoplexy. Sam, who has no idea why I’ve suddenly taken leave of my senses and am making like a hyena looks on, nonplussed.
His puzzled expression makes me laugh even more. Now I don’t know when the last time was that I laughed so hard and for so long!
Finally I got a grip on myself and managed to tell Sam what got me going. It took a few tries but, once I got the story out he too started laughing. With more decorum, of course. Sam is Chinese and it would not do for him to break down so completely, as I did.
I, that bumbling foreigner to whom the doors to China’s mysteries will forever be closed.
Chapter 8: Su Zhou (Sue Joe)
What a great place!
Lovely, charming… this waterbound city is a traveler’s treat. Wide, well paved, shaded roads. Not crowded. Good, fresh air, even though there is quite a bit of industry. Plenty of public transportation, to include 2 subway lines. There is not a lot of construction. The people,to the extent I was able to interact with them, were very friendly and helpful.
I didn’t get to ride any buses because we were chauffeured everywhere… not that I’m complaining. Martin’s relatives set up shop in Suzhou: a furniture factory with an outlet store (more on that later). Several of the family members work there, including Martin’s grandfather: a jolly, erudite man of 70-some odd years. I had the privilege of meeting them all. It was Martin’s cousin who drove us everywhere.
The first day there we went to their furniture outlet store, where I learned the family concern is dining room furniture. And then to the factory, where my mind was effectively blown. It was not a glitzy production wonder with conveyor belts, heavy machinery and ISO standards, but a series of workshops where each table and chair was hand-crafted.
The next morning, at the insanely early hour of 7AM, we took off for China’s first water village: Zhou Zhuang (pronounced Joe Juah-ng). I thought it might be something like a water park, with rides and carnival food. Boy, did I have the wrong impression!
It is China’s answer to Venice. There were no streets. Gondoliers paddled around the canals. It was lovely! I kept saying that, even as we walked through – there were sidewalks. Although this town is touted as a relic and tourist attraction, and indeed it is a UNESCO heritage site, it is a living village. Each dwelling had a set of steps to access the water, making it easier for the women to wash clothes, and rinse mops and pails in the canal. However, almost all of the gondolas I saw were ferrying tourists. Did people have their own gondola? It seemed most natives got around on the walkways, leaving the water to the tourists.
Unfortunately, Zhou Zhuang’s trade is tourism. It is such a shame that nearly all of the old buildings had been converted to restaurants, coffee houses and shops selling kitsch. Shiny wooden gondolas ferried tourists all around. Some of the gondoliers, mostly women, treated their passengers to ancient, traditional songs as they paddled along. It was a lovely scene, but undeniably a tourist experience.
Have you ever seen a concrete, flat-bottomed boat? I hadn’t either, till this jaunt. These sturdier – indestructible? – craft made grunt work possible: collecting trash and conveying building materials for those structures under renovation, activities that might have damaged or even sunk a wooden craft. I didn’t know concrete could float, let alone loaded concrete. Did you?
After lunch we left this attraction, heading for another, less well known but much more authentic water village. Parking was scarce, so we pulled up in front of a gate leading to a construction area. Just as we were about to leave the car a man told us we could not park there, and then proceeded to hatch a plan for free entry. He drove us to a remote parking lot which abutted the attraction. A bridge spanning a narrow canal would give us access to the rear of the park. Me, being a foreigner, would look like I belonged. The others would join me in a few minutes. All I had to do was tarry in front of a tea shop till they strolled along, one by one. Once reunited, we could go explore.
And so we got away with visiting this park without paying an entrance fee. I am firmly against this practice. Admission is not terribly expensive and that small amount of money goes toward maintaining the facilities. However, being as I was not allowed to pay for anything – I would have volunteered to do so, so strong was my objection; and I didn’t want to shame or incur bad feelings in my hosts, I kept my mouth shut… but secretly dropped 100Yuan in a donations box when my companions weren’t looking. That assuaged my guilt somewhat.
We had been on the road and walking for about 7 hours straight. Martin had been nursing a headache all day and my feet were killing me. We opted to rest up for the night’s activities: going out on the town.
At 6PM we reunited. Meeting Cousin’s girlfriend and another pal, we rode the subway to city center. The plan was to have dinner and walk around a bit. I was ready for dinner but not so eager to walk. My shoes gave me no support, leaving my lower half in agony in spite of the Tylenol I took.
I can’t tell you how many restaurants we passed on the way to the specific one our host wanted us to dine at. Martin still had his headache and I was less than thrilled to prowl narrow, winding lanes that seemed to go on forever, but it was worth it in the end. While the restaurant and the food were only OK, it was situated on a riverwalk. Plenty of people out, enjoying the cool evening breeze. Again it struck me how lovely what I had seen of Suzhou was.
I’m going to have to come back to explore it properly. While I am grateful to have been hosted, the downside to it is that I only got to see and experience what was offered. Much as I hate to admit it, I have bad feelings about the experience.
Returning to this lovely city, this time on my own, I aver the opinion I initially formed from the back seat of my friends’ car stands: Suzhou is a gem; a traveler’s treat.
She is a prefecture level city with a bit more than 10 million residents but unlike larger cities in China, residents are not all crowded into just a few areas, leaving the rest of the districts underpopulated. Suzhou’s urban areas comprise of just over half the population. Though there are not many grandiose displays – new shopping malls and high-end stores, there is money here. The economy bustles and the people seem at least comfortable, if not well-to-do.
If you have read Pearl Buck’s The Green Earth, You might know about Suzhou (Soochow, in her novel): the protagonist’s hometown. Indeed it has a long and important history: she is the cradle of the Wu ethnicity, and for a long time was the refuge of emigrating North Chinese. Until Shanghai became the city we know her as today, Suzhou was the nation’s economic, commercial and cultural center. She was also known as one of the largest non-capital cities in the world until the TaiPing Rebellion in 1860.
What all this means to the average traveler is: an uncrowded city with shaded boulevards, plenty of cultural relics to enjoy, good food and friendly people. Being ye average traveler, I set out to enjoy all I could.
My arrival was inauspicious. I kicked myself for not taking the overnight train; these days, the bullet trains are so much more convenient! Speed is good, but one loses the magic of a long railway journey, in my opinion. However, seeing as I had a window seat and both my seatmates slept the entire 6 hours, leaving me penned in, I felt like the journey took much longer than it actually did.
What I was really looking forward to were my accomodations: a rustic looking hostel in the heart of Old Town that advertised Ikea-style beds. Laugh if you must but the inn’s location came in second to what I thought would be a heavenly rest after my prowlings. Not that I intended to sleep my visit away.
Ikea beds! What were they thinking? My charming room comprised of a seemingly antique bed: a wicker weave stretched into a wooden frame. Over that, a thin mat covered by a sheet and a duvet. Someone should tell them that does not comprise an Ikea style bed. I resolved to run till I dropped from exhaustion each day I was here. That way I would not mind the overly hard bed.
Nor would I mind the damp cold. In spite of the sunshine that greeted me getting off the train, and that persisted through my first full day here, it was cold. And we were surprised by a few showers the weather service forgot to predict.
After settling in, I went in search of buses. It was about 6PM when I finally found a bus stop, and there I discovered my first problem: a lot of the buses stop running at 7:00. Fortunately there was one that ran until 9:30, so I boarded it. Soon came bright lights! This was an area I recognized from my first time here. Quickly I joined the stream of off-going passengers, prepared to hit the bricks.
But first, I had to find food. In Suzhou there seem to be a lot of restaurants advertising LanZhou (Lahn-Joe) style noodles. Not knowing exactly what they were, I reasoned such fare would do for my supper. After being served I realized I’ve eaten that style of noodles plenty of times: there is such a vendor close to our school. Occasionally, I will eat there. Their ‘noodles with egg’ are particularly tasty.
And then I walked, taking in the crowds, the scene, the night. Suzhou being water-bound, there are plenty of canals to follow, and I did just that. Around 8PM I made my way back to the bus stop and home, only to find the hostel’s adjoining bar in full swing. That would not have been bad except for my room was directly over the bar and my window faces the street, and people were loud.
The next day, adequately rested I took off, again on bus 146. Destination: Tiger Hill and its leaning pagoda. On the way I looked for a vendor’s cart or hole in the wall restaurant for breakfast. Between my hotel and the bus stop, about 1km away, there were none to be found. In fact, all through town I noticed a surprising lack of street food vendors.
I bought breakfast at the store opposite Tiger Hill’s entrance. Eager to start my adventure I packed my goodies, relishing the idea of a picnic in the park. Here again I have to comment on how joyfully uncrowded Suzhou is. No long lines at the ticketing booth, no stumbling or getting shoved out of the way by eager sightseeers, no getting crowded out of lingering over anything.
At this point I’d add the adjective ‘serene’ to Suzhou. While there were plenty of people in the park, overwhelmingly I got the impression of tranquility. I sat on a low wall atop a hill to enjoy my breakfast – a bun and bottled tea. At the foot of the gentle knoll was a family with an exhuberant small child. That boy’s cries did not have the piercing quality that seems particular to Chinese children, nor did he run around wildly, as some are wont to do. It seems the aura of peace imbued him as well as us adults. Throughout the park people walked around calmly, a few with hands clasped behind their back, a little smile playing on their lips. Or, it might have been they were squinting in the spectacular sunshine, under the flawless blue sky. Unbelievable how beautiful the day was!
The next day dawned equally clear, so I rented a bike. With air as clean as Suzhou’s is, I could imagine pedaling around all day, the benefits of which included not only plenty of exercise but the ability to stop and go at will, and… one can see so much on a bike that might be missed from a bus window.
Tiger Hill’s tranquil gardens and pagoda, near my hotel was the first stop. One might say that those gardens were given over to cats, so many of them were there. Laziness and the site’s serenity inclined me to linger, but there was so much more to be seen!
A short ride along, I came to a trail alongside a canal and followed it to what appeared to be another Old Towne. This one was not as touristy. Like the community next to my school, people meandered about with mops, shopping bags or other dishes, presumably bringing food to some elderly relatives. Many doors hung open, through which I spied televisions, altars dedicated to ancestors, and, in one, an unmade bed with a woman, deeper in the room, brushing her teeth.
After her, I turned my eyes away from open doors.
Further along, on a canal-side deck, I found a wizened woman whose face looked like an applehead carving, sunning herself. Upon hearing the rattle of my bike on the cobblestones (a VERY uncomfortable ride!), she addressed me, pointing at the sky. I didn’t understand her toothless dialect but followed her finger and found colorful soaring kites splashed against the deep blue sky. I rested in her company a few moments, again attempting conversation, and then moved on.
In all, I preferred my unaccompanied visit to Suzhou, not that I am ungrateful to my hosts for everything they’d done to see to my comfort and entertainment. Maybe it is just difficult to find kindred traveling companions.
Maybe I will never get used to the over-the-top Chinese art of hosting.
Chapter 9: Traveling Companions
My first year here, my friend Gary invited me via email to go on a trip to Chong Qing with him and his friend Mask. I immediately said ‘yes’, provided the travel days fit within my teaching obligations.
And then I lost my Internet connection, so I have no idea if Gary sent me a response or not. But we live in the same city and the same country, so sending a text message, or even making a phone call is not out of the question. Or is it?
The Chinese are rather strange that way. They do not confirm and reconfirm and plan ad nauseum, like I need for them to. I actually get unsettled if I don’t have things planned out in advance, especially with regard to my job. Conversely, the Chinese are happy to fly by the seat of their pants.
So, when I didn’t hear from Gary for about ten days, I wondered if the casually extended invitation was going to shape up into an event that will come to pass. I finally heard from him on September 28th, when he sent me a text message asking if I was still up to the trip and if my schedule would accommodate a 7-day sojourn. As I would in fact have 9 days off – according to Sam, I replied that I was available and more than ready to go. Gary then tapped out that he would make all of the arrangements. He said he would contact me on September 30th.
He called me on the 29th, asking if I was free to leave on Saturday and if it would be OK to stay in hostels and less than stellar hotels. Of course, I replied. In for a penny and in for a pound with this adventure stuff. That’s what vagabonding is all about, right?
I waited all day on the 30th for Gary to call. Toward sundown I wondered if I was supposed to have met him at the bus stop today and he left me behind, or if he had simply gotten busy and not had a chance to call. Or maybe he meant yesterday’s phone call to be today’s phone call? It is so hard to tell with him, sometimes!
Finally the phone rang at 8PM. ‘Can you be at the bus station by 7AM tomorrow morning?’ he asked. Well, it is short notice, but I’ve been packed all day and waiting on this phone call, so it is no big stretch to leave my bunker and get to the bus depot downtown somewhere close to that time. I agreed to get to the bus station as soon as possible, considering normal traffic woes and that Saturday was THE prime traveling date for those vacationing over National Holiday.
I thought I would be ahead of the game getting to the bus stop a little after 6AM, but didn’t realize the tenacity of the Chinese traveler. Mainly because I avoid going out on peak travel days.
The bus stop outside of campus was so crowded lines of people 5 and 6 deep stood by the side of the road, scanning the horizon for the next bus. Newcomers walked further up the road, extending that line even further. City buses were already so packed that they weren’t stopping. After watching several buses filled to beyond capacity pass our stop without so much as hitting the brakes, I realized I needed another plan. I enlisted some students who were also hoping to get somewhere today to go in with me on hiring a van. We would split the cost and, for 10Yuan apiece, could get to the train/bus station much faster than standing there, waiting for a bus to stop.
The van we hired dropped us off 6 blocks from the depot. Traffic was so snarled there was no hope of getting anywhere near it; walking would get us there faster. Off we all went, walking while the van driver turned around to help more travelers out (and make a hefty profit for himself).
Meeting up with Gary and Mask did wonders to ease my frazzles. These guys are so good natured and patient and kind. There they were, standing in the rain, waiting at the station for me and not getting angry at all. They greeted me warmly and apologized for all of the stress I endured, and then we battled the crowds heading for the bus depot.
Couldn’t buy tickets for the bus we wanted because we couldn’t get near the terminal for all the people there. Fortunately Gary knows everyone, so he just made a phone call and presto! His friends’ mom, who works at the ticketing agency agreed to buy our tickets for us. Gary would meet her somewhere around 1PM to pick them up. That put our departure time at a little past 3PM. We spent the morning at Mask’s apartment watching movies and sipping tea, even partaking of a delicious lunch, delivered to his door. And then we all got sleepy, but we had to get our shoes on and catch a bus.
Our first stop was Yi Chang, where we spent the night. After about 4 hours on the bus we stumbled into that terminal, already familiar to me from the one trip I had previously made there. Having left myself completely in their hands, I didn’t know that we didn’t have a hotel room for the night until they started talking about where to sleep.
And the whole trip went like that! We had reservations for no place! And, we had no reservations. It was as though the three of us have been friends and traveling companions forever, talking earnestly, laughing, teasing one another, chattering away about just any old thing.
This is the kind of travel I envisioned myself having when I dreamt up this vagabond life. I, a foreigner, am treated distinctly differently than the average Chinese. Traveling with Gary and Mask opened doors that I could only wish to open. Asking directions, securing accommodations, arranging transportation… all of these things Gary and Mask took care of in ‘spur of the moment’ fashion while I stood innocently by. I got into cars after they bargained a fare, I slept in hotel rooms they rented, I walked to destinations they planned and took part in activities where there were no other foreigners.
It is not like I was not consulted on anything. These guys are solicitous of me. What did I want to eat? Is this room OK? Here, take that bus seat: it will be more comfortable for you. Are you tired? Do you like this food? There was a hint of deference in their manner that I’ll touch on a bit later, but mostly it seemed that they were being kind and concerned about my comfort, welfare and safely.
Now that the groundwork as been laid, I want to spend some time telling you about the adventures we had. Remarkable adventures, considering that, on the outset of this trip I had only just met Gary a handful of times and had only just been introduced to Mask.
Chapter 10: Chong Qing (Tchong Tching)
Presumably, Gary did his homework while planning this trip for us. He knew of Ancient Town, a part of the city not at all redone. It was in fact the original city, surrounded by a moat and protected by a winding staircase, once you cross the bridge. Everything about the houses there is small: windows barely a meter square, doorways I have to duck into, floor space that only just accommodates four people and ceilings that nearly graze the top of my head.
Ancient Town was filled to capacity, but delightful nonetheless.
Artisan shops lined the alleyways and the walkways were filled to capacity with shiny black heads and pressing bodies. We bobbed along for a while, carried by the tide but soon grew weary of this exercise and found a tea shop to settle into.
Having met Gary at a Starbucks I was worried that he fancied that mega-eminent brand. Turns out he prefers eclectic shops and off the beaten path dens of refreshment, like I do. We sat in that tea house for quite a while, comparing pictures and telling stories. We stayed till we got hungry and then, led by our noses went to find the snack stands.
While you can find such standard fare as noodles and Chinese dumplings anywhere, every region in China has its own food specialties. Located in the Sichuan Basin, Chong Qing likes spicy, crunchy food. I’m not a fan of food so spicy that all you can taste is spice and not the food itself, but I am getting used to food that has a pleasant glow to it. That is the minimally accepted standard of spicy in Chong Qing. Mask, on the other hand, is on a permanent quest for food spicy enough to make him cry.
This whole trip was a disappointment to him in that respect. Early in the trip he bought a jar of crushed peppers, and said jar made its appearance at every meal we ate. It was 1/3 empty by the time we boarded the train home. Gary sat squarely in the middle where spice was concerned. He likes things spicy enough to make him sweat, and finds it easily.
These guys can put away some food! Mask especially. The smallest of us three, that man can chow down like an entire army of recruits and then eat again an hour later. Gary and I poked fun at him for this. Long after he and I had put down our chopsticks, Mask was still eating. Each time we ribbed him he would sheepishly mutter: “I was hungry”.
So, emerging from the depths of Ancient Town it was no surprise that Mask would be the first to err off in search of food. He returned laden with skewers of succulent meat, unspicy for me. He and Gary wolfed while I nibbled. My stomach was not behaving well at all – a problem that would plague me the entire time I lived in China. I was not ready to eat again but I was ready to laugh, and I did as Mask returned again and again, dealing out meat skewers like some sort of flesh-dealing poker player.
We ate hotpot several times while in Chong Qing. Although fun, that was not the most remarkable dining adventure we had. This city, like many others in China boasts a Snack Street. Gary, in the mood for food, decided we should spend a day there, sampling indigenous fare.
Besides ‘spicy’, ‘deep-fried’ would best characterize the food in this city. I am decidedly a fan of deep fried; I was ready for whatever golden treat there was to sample. Gary wanted some rice noodle soup, a dish indigenous to that region. Mask treated me to a frozen shaved mango concoction that I would gladly eat every day. Seeing my enjoyment, he went to buy one for himself.
And so we ate, and then we walked and then we ate some more and then ambled further, until Gary cried Uncle and demanded a rest. Chong Qing being a very cosmopolitan city, there were no funky little tea shops to be found, only Starbucks. That is where we parked ourselves to watch the world go by, under the setting sun.
In Chong Qing, few ride bicycles. The region is too hilly; the streets are much like those of San Francisco. Walking is the extent of physical exertion the inhabitants partake of; otherwise there is an excellent bus system and plenty of taxis. With everyone out and nobody riding bikes, we tourists found it hard to nab a taxi when confronted with locals who had all the local taxi-catching tricks down pat. We rented a private car to ferry us home.
Whereas Gary loved Chong Qing and expressed a desire to live there, Mask and I didn’t care for the atmosphere. It felt like a city of nouveau riche, filled with people who were trying too hard to flaunt their fortunes. Its urban sprawl seemed disorganized and chaotic. Even those out for pleasure adopted a frenetic pace, as though there were on a timer and needed to reach their goal before it chimed.
Our return to Wuhan as ignoble. Sam had cleared my holiday travel, but later texted me that classes would be held over the weekend. I was due to teach only an hour after the train pulled into the station!
And that is how I came to spend a day teaching in blue jeans, tee-shirt and boots, having hastily changed from my flipflops while riding from the train station back to school in a taxi the next morning.
Chapter 11: Chi Bi (Tcheu Bee)
Chi Bi is a relatively small city, located in the southwest of Hubei province, about 2 hours from Wuhan. If Wuhan is considered a Tier 3 city then Chi Bi would be maybe 5th tier. It receives hardly any government money although it sponsors plenty of industry. Most of the buildings are still faced with that white tile/barred window look, a mute testimony to China’s erstwhile collaboration with and emulation of Soviet communism. Very little new construction and virtually no high rises mar the horizon which, in itself is spectacular.
I would liken Chi Bi to Boulder, Colorado for all it has to offer: savage water, stately mountains, eclectic lifestyle heavily shaded by tradition. This town of just over half a million people houses only 1 KFC and no Walmart, with no plans to bring in any more or any different foreign trades or businesses. It seems the Chi Bi-ites are quite happy with their local shopping venues and foods.
I can see why. Whereas Wuhan specialties rely either on heavy spice or on that one herb that makes everything taste like dirt, Chi Bi specialties are fragrant and flavorful. One dish in particular, Feng Wo Yu Mi (Fung Woe Yuu Me), is a deep fried corn dish that had till that moment never met my lips but that I would now gladly reproduce to awe my loved ones with, if I could be persuaded to share. Another winner resembled a Yankee pot roast, except the beef was sliced thin rather than left in chunks. Regrettably the trademark dish of the region is fish, something that, at this point in my forays into Chinese cuisine I have mostly been able to avoid (and I intend to continue avoiding it). Besides fish and outside of those standout dishes mentioned above, everything else I ate while there was more than passable.
Like several seemingly poor areas around China such as Wenzhou, there is quiet money in Chi Bi. Audi, VW, Cadillac and Buicks all vie for road space. Taxis are plentiful. Nine bus lines rumble through the city, joining outlying areas to New and Old Chi Bi. The buses themselves are poor, diminutive, wheezy little things, no doubt dating back to around 1980.
At night, New Chi Bi glistens like a shiny penny, but during the day that part of town is as mediocre as any other city. While the sun is up it is best to visit Old Chi Bi: more iconic, characteristic and charming. It seems most residents prefer Old Chi Bi to new. Early morning marketing, traditional lifestyle, street vendors and neighborhood restaurants thrive. New Chi Bi sees everyone headed for the office, or whatever concern might be signing their paychecks. Shopping and strolling are mainly New Chi Bi pastimes, while neighborly communing, dancing and hanging out in the park belong to Old Chi Bi. The passion for food is about equal on both sides, with Old offering more traditional fare while New draws more trendy but nevertheless fully Chinese menus.
Whether old or new, Chi Bi beds down about 10PM every night. It is a working class town, and 6AM comes pretty early.
Of all the sights and areas of interest, the first that my host, John highlighted was the 3 bridges that span the Han River – that body of water which divides Old and New Chi Bi. The government has funded only 3 bridges (as opposed to Wuhan’s 5), and done very little else for infrastructure and transportation. Apparently, a Chinese city’s worth is measured by the number of bridges spanning its waterways.
After showing off Chi Bi’s three bridges, he introduced me to his family at a fine restaurant in Old Town. There I met his mother, his best pals since childhood, his aunt, his cousin and a few other relations. Of course this meal was a lavish affair, designed to impress, no holds barred, red wine included. The table fairly groaned under its load of food and we groaned over our distended stomachs at meal’s end.
The next morning, we visited the Battlefield of the Red Cliffs, where – not necessarily a reenactment of a battle but a presentation of costumes, customs and dance takes place.
Between divergent annals and the obliteration of all heritage through the years, very little is known about the Battle of Red Cliffs. Historians presume the significance of the locale based on the size of the fort and the relics found there. It has been speculated to be a conflict of major importance because of the known alliance between the two southern warlords and the numerically superior and better organized troops of the northern warlord. The most detailed account of the battle comes from the biography of Zhou Yu, written in the 3rd century AD.
Due to the lack of records it is impossible to gain a proper accounting of this battle or of its historical significance. However, thanks to preservation efforts, many of the magnificent structures that have been restored. I can also positively assert that the city, formerly called Pu Qi, adopted the Chi Bi name in 1998 to tie the area to the Battle of Chi Bi. I can’t tell you why the battle was called Chi Bi.
What I can tell you is that the residents love their city.
At night the People’s Square is filled with dancers, strollers (people walking, not baby carriages) and folks just enjoying the night. A jumbotron bathes the square’s center with light, broadcasting topics of interest such as the current wildebeest migration in Africa. In a less illuminated corner children skate, the lights on their rollerblades and scooters giving a surreal impression of hip, modern day cool to their ghostly figures. Elsewhere, people danced to the music we heard throughout our stroll
I don’t think Chi Bi sees very many foreigners. I drew more than a normal share of attention while there and did not see any other foreigners. Why John chose to highlight my presence in the park by adorning my head with a flashing pink bow I have no idea. As though being foreign, nearly 2 meters tall and twice the size of anybody else in the park weren’t enough to draw attention to myself.
He honestly did everything possible to insure my comfort, pleasure and entertainment. He worked very hard to cover the highlights of his hometown in the short time I planned to be there.
While I have good reason to be leery of someone who is so adamant that I come to visit, John was pleasantly laid back and non-controlling, all while coordinating the whole event from transportation to food. Now that I know I have nothing to worry about while visiting this delightful, eager young man I will gladly make another trip to Chi Bi and spend more time. There really is a lot to do and see there. Not only that, I have friends I have to visit.
During my seven years in China, I visited more than thirty locales. Would I bore you with each and every sojourn? I think I will list summaries, and hope that they spark your interest enough to research them on your own.
Chapter 12: Could I Live There?
There are some things to see and do. Centrally located; it is easy to visit other cities from here. Enough foreigner commodities and enough foreigners to satisfy. Easy to navigate. Food is not necessarily good but I do like a few indigenous dishes. People are friendly. The climate is not too extreme but the air is rough, causing breathing problems. Winters tend to be harsh. My current job is a gravy train.
CILT: irrelevant. I live here already.
there is plenty to do and see, good shopping and a lot of foreigner commodities. The people there are friendly, it is easy to get around and I have made lots of friends there. Indigenous food is fantastic. On the downside, temps tend to be rough, and it is not centrally located.
CILT: YES! In spite of the cold temps and the westerly location, I have dreamt about living in Xi’an since the first time I visited that city.
Its main claim to fame is Three Gorges dam. Being so close to such great bodies of water the temps are iffy and the weather is usually damp. The food is delicious and it is an easy city to navigate. The people are very friendly. There are not many foreigner commodities and not much to do.
CILT: If I had to, but I’d rather not.
No major claim to fame, not much in the way of foreigner commodities and, for that matter not many foreigners. It is a semirural area demonstrating little progress. The people were friendly but reserved; I suspect if I had gone there on my own I would have met with a lot of resistance. The food is OK but not remarkable. It is not easy to navigate; no major infrastructure (although there are buses). CILT: No. I would feel too isolated.
A very cosmopolitan city with plenty to do and see. Lots of foreigner commodities and a fair amount of culture. Food, what I tasted of it was very spicy. The weather was great and the people were friendly. Easy to navigate.
CILT: Probably. Well… yes. Wouldn’t mind it at all.
Cosmopolitan in the extreme, with the people exhibiting a competitive, nouveau-riche feel. They were not necessarily friendly. There is plenty to do and see, and plenty of foreigner commodities. For that matter, there were plenty of foreigners. Indigenous food is good. The layout is complex and, I suspect not easy to navigate in spite of the ample buses rumbling around.
CILT: No. I did not like the way this city felt.
nice climate and friendly people, enough foreigner commodities. Easy to navigate, but not much to see or do. Its main claim to fame is being close to Hong Kong. No indigenous food to speak of and no indigenous culture. The outlying neighborhoods tend to be kind of rough and there is an air of… desperation? Hopelessness? Not a traditional city.
CILT? No. Wouldn’t want to.
Old timey, established feel with few major commercial centers, plenty of foreigner commodities and plenty of foreigners, easy to navigate. More than enough to see and do. Some construction but not to the point that the city is cloaked in dust. Climate is about like Wuhan but the air is substantially cleaner. The people are not very friendly but the men are handsome (I am female, after all!) I don’t have any idea what the food might be like.
CILT: Yes. Second place after Xi’an.
Tiny village with only one school. No foreigner concessions and no other foreigners. Only a few small shops, selling daily goods. Easy to navigate only because it consists of one road, running north/south. Remote in the extreme; difficult to get to and even harder to leave. No restaurants; the only indigenous food I sampled was at individual homes (very tasty).
CILT: No. Too small and too rural.
Small town with no foreigner concessions. Only one school, but it does have an English program. People are friendly and the food is delicious. One small commercial center. Not much to see or do. Not easy to navigate.
CILT: No. too small and remote.
Very large and fast paced. Weather is disagreeable. There is plenty to see and do, plenty of foreigner commodities and plenty of foreigners. Lots of employment opportunities too. Fairly easy to navigate. Not well located for vagabonding.
CILT: No. It is too large and too fast for me.
Seemed to me a rather mean town, where people drink the beer and eat the glasses. Industry is king there, with factories of all sizes – from mammoth, fume-disgorging concerns to hole in the wall, piecemeal and no doubt poorly paid work. This relatively small town gets virtually no government money and I saw no repair work or new construction, even though it was sorely needed. There is a bus system, but they run infrequently and the vehicles are sad, tired things, belching smoke. However, the people I met (through Gary) were nice and welcoming.
CILT? No. No foreigner commodities that I saw and hardly anything to do.
Now there is a gem of a town! Hangzhou has a lot to offer. In fact, it is an up and coming financial center whose focus is fashion. Someone looking for work could do well there. Beyond that: public transportation is more than adequate and there are plenty of foreigner conveniences. For entertainment and relaxation, one can take in the tea plantations and temples, and ride a cable car to the top of the mountain to see the whole city spread out at their feet. Lots of shopping, nice restaurants and funky cafes to while away an afternoon. Abundant, lush vegetation and clean air.
CILT? Yes. But not so much that I’m enticed to leave Wuhan.
a lovely coastal city with a lot of history. Plenty to see and do, but food choices seem to be lacking if you are not into seafood. In spite of its German heritage, I found virtually no German influence (no German restaurant!), which was kind of disappointing. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. Public transportation is widely available and the city is easy to navigate. The people are very friendly and accommodating. There are some foreigner concessions and vigorous sea air.
CILT? Probably not, because of the chilly, damp climate and the food. A nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to call it home.
For me, a mystical place. While no great shakes, the people more than make up for what the city lacks. Public transportation is adequate for a town its size, and everywhere there are cars for hire. No foreigner concessions that I know of. The temple of Wudangshan – the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu, featured in the movie Karate Kid 2010, is this burg’s claim to fame: a must see! The higher up the mountain, the better the air but at street level, beware of dust.
CILT? Perhaps. It is close enough to Shiyan and Wuhan that I could ride the train to make a day out of shopping and dining.
Beautiful! I couldn’t help but repeatedly exclaim over its loveliness. Wide avenues where the many buses trundle along efficiently. Her 2 subway lines are clean and well maintained. This city is not as crowded as some, and seems to beckon visitors. Water villages Zhou Zhuang and Tong Li lie nearby, and there is a riverwalk to dally around in the evening. The food was good. Plenty of foreigner concessions. People seemed a bit reserved, though.
CILT? Probably, but not my first choice of places to hang my hat if I had to leave my current digs.
EVERYTHING about this city is perfect for me! Plenty to see and do, and the food is fantastic! What really crowns it are the people: they radiate happiness! Plenty of public transportation, and – surprise, surprise: courteous drivers! I couldn’t help but notice: cars stayed in their lanes, did not cut each other off and did not continuously honk their horns. There are some foreigner restaurants but not many concessions… which really doesn’t matter because Wuhu is only 2 hours by train from Nanjing. CILT? Yes. YES!!! A thousand time YES!!! If not for my loyalty to my school I would be packing my bags right now.
to be perfectly frank, I did not give this city a fair shake. Coming from my perfect Wuhu, the dirt, the cacophony, the rudeness of the people I met in Hefei did not make a favorable impression. This town seems to be undergoing a rebirth and everything is topsy-turvy. Renegade traffic, torn up sidewalks, people aggressively hustling. Objectively: there are some foreigner restaurants but not much in the way of concessions. However, it is close enough to major cities where those outlets abound. The air is dirty from all of the construction. I was not impressed with the food.
CILT? No. In spite of my optimism at the outset of my visit, I found little that might convince me to want to hang my hat there.
the porcelain capital of China. Active archeology digs make it interesting to me, but there is not much else there besides Pottery Row where one can buy wholesale china. It gets virtually no government money and suffers from that lack. There is a mass transit system but traffic seems to be a nightmare. I imagine it might be difficult to get around. Few foreigner concessions and the people seem reserved. I did not care for the trademark food: sour noodles.
CILT? No. Even if I had to, I wouldn’t want to.
a mostly rural, quiet little town one hour outside of Hubei province’s capital city. It is easy and cheap enough to get to Wuhan that the lack of foreigner goods and concessions doesn’t matter. The people are very friendly and kind. For being a smallish, industrial town the air is fairly clean. Public transportation is adequate and the city is easy to navigate by bus. Plenty to see and do outdoors.
CILT? Yes. I’d like to retire in Ezhou.
I probably don’t need to give anyone a description, do I? I can share my thoughts, though.
Plenty of foreigners and foreigner conveniences. Plenty to see and do. The subway system is a marvel and buses abound, but they are unreliable. For such a large city the air is remarkably clean. Food tends toward the sweet, although I did have some super salty dishes. In the right district Shanghai is indeed a 24-hour city.
CILT? Well, I could but I don’t want to. Shanghai felt deceptive to me, with the pretty, rich Eloi playing while the Morlocks toiled away, unrecognized and unacknowledged.
Chapter 12: Tibet:
Tibet has been on my horizon for as long as I can remember. I heard its mystical call long before I fell in love with China, or even set foot in the country. As a young girl I had read TinTin in Tibet over and over. I wanted the adventure of walking this ancient land, among the supposed Yeti. Maybe I’d even see one?
Long since grown up and stuck in my western mindset, I was not enamored of China. Even though I boast to have the heart of an explorer, I never wanted to come to the Middle Kingdom. Full of western prejudice, I couldn’t imagine what there would be here to discover that I might like. Except for Tibet.
My stint in college changed my mind. Good grades earned me a spot on an academic delegation to China for a 3-week seminar on Anthropology and Archeology. In that time, we would travel all around the country, taking in some of the most historic sites and talking with venerated professors. The high point would be to take part in the dig at the Terra Cotta Warrior site in Xi’an.
Although the premise of this trip – especially the dig fascinated me, still I couldn’t be persuaded until I saw Tibet on the itinerary: the last week would be spent in Lhasa and surrounding villages.
I was already a grandmother by the time I enrolled in college. How many more chances would I have to visit Tibet? I was sold! Quickly I reserved my spot, forwarded my passport for the necessary visa, and bragged to friends and family that I was going to China.
Did I already mention that prejudice against China in the west? I heard no end of it, until I mentioned Tibet. Then, everyone understood why I would fly to the other side of the world.
Almost from the moment I got to China, with scholars from other universities around America, I was captivated. Admittedly, Beijing didn’t quite hit that feeling for me, but as soon as we set off into the countryside: Oh, the poignant beauty! The timelessness! My eyes drank in what my soul had not known it was thirsty for.
It is hard to describe how my life changed during that trip. It was almost an audible ‘click’ inside me. Personally, it was like my world had gone from black and white to color. After a lifetime of moving from country to country, city to city, I had finally found a place where I felt I belonged.
That was in 2008, the year Beijing and all of China shone, hosting the Summer Olympics. I was not remotely interested in that event, once I actually arrived. China has so much more to offer! Bit by bit, like unwrapping a precious gift, our tour guides and professors made sure we delegates realized that.
Unbeknownst to me – and everyone else on the team, Tibet and China have long-standing ties. The Dalai Lama has/had a palace in Beijing, and it was quite common for the country’s spiritual leader and political leaders to meet. We learned that Tibet has always been a part of China, and that China has helped raised the province from a feudal system to a region of equality. China has poured money, effort and energy into improving the lives of the people and their children’s education, all while protecting and preserving age-old religious rites and temples.
We arrived in the Spring, just after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. Tremors were felt as far away as Xi’an. How my heart ached to see people in that city spread their sleeping mats on the sidewalks, terrified that their house might collapse on top of them while they slept! Their fears were not unfounded: aftershocks were felt for weeks, and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an was closed due to structural damage sustained during the quake.
Coincidentally, that year in March saw some sort of uprising/rebellion. Foreigners were barred from entering or visiting Tibet, no matter under what guise: tourism, activism or academic delegation.
For those two reasons, the trip to Tibet was canceled. We went to Guilin instead. I should have been disappointed, seeing as Tibet was the reason I had come here to begin with, but by that time, I was so enamored with everything else to see and do in China that it hardly mattered. It was on that trip that I decided to end my life in America and make China my home. I have no regrets.
And I still have Tibet on my horizon. With the new railway, it will be much easier to get used to the altitude. And I do love a train ride! My traveling buddy Gary and I batted Tibet around as a destination for one of our future journeys.
However, time is running out. My time in China is winding down. With only five months left, and that time to be filled with a full teaching rotation, it is likely that I will not have the chance to walk the streets of Lhasa.
Maybe I’m not meant to go. Maybe Tibet will forever remain a dream for me.
Part IV: Culture
Chapter 1: Noteworthy Iconic Idiosyncrasies of Chinese People
As I experience life in China – mainly on campus, at the outset of this adventure – I’ve noted some things that I was not familiar with, with regard to Chinese society. I was informed of two of these customs; the rest were picked out by my astute eye. I’ll try to not break my arm as I pat myself on the back for my powers of observation; I kind of need it to type. Here are those observations (and the two nuggets I received), in no particular order:
Chinese people, unlike Chinese movies, do not come with subtitles: Intellectually I was aware of this, and you may be too. However, I spent a great deal of time in the States preparing for this Chinese adventure by watching Chinese movies with English subtitles so I could get used to the rhythm and pattern of speech, thus subtitles became an integral part of my understanding Chinese dialog. Also, I study Putonghua (Poo tong wah) – literally: ‘common language’; the standard Mandarin. That is what I can speak a little of. Unfortunately I cannot make heads or tails of this regional dialect. The older citizens speak it freely; the younger citizens speak a mishmash of dialect and Putonghua. If I have to ask for directions, I usually approach a younger person. They are more likely to respond using the Common Language, and if I’m really lucky, they might even try out their English skills.
Women protect themselves from the sun using an umbrella: On any given sunny (or hazy) day, someone of my height will have to dodge the seemingly continuous roof of umbrellas that women use to protect themselves from the sun, or risk getting an eye poked out. Chinese women being a bit shorter than I am, I am terrified that I will sustain an eye injury from an unfurled umbrella, carelessly wielded. Interesting culture difference: in America, tanned is healthy, in China tanned is indicative of peasantry. Refined folk, especially women, are to be fair-skinned. I later learned that most women own two different umbrellas; one for sunny days and one to use in the rain. When I asked my informant what happens if the day starts out sunny and then turns to rain: do they carry two umbrellas? She laughed and said that then they only use one umbrella; usually the one reserved for rain so that the more ornate ‘sun’ umbrella does not get water damaged.
Women are not to go about unescorted at night: I was informed of this tidbit and the next one shortly after arriving on campus, much to my dismay. Chinese life ‘happens’ at night; that is when the street vendors hawk their wares, when the people hit the streets and parade around, when housewives bring out the boomboxes and dance in the square. Apparently my former lone nighttime wanderings were tolerated because I was a foreigner and a tourist, but as a member of this teaching institution I am to set a good example and do nothing to deny/decry Chinese culture. It would not be appropriate for my female students (who do go out in pairs or giggles) to see their esteemed professor flout Chinese culture by stepping out by her lonesome. Unless I have an escort, I am compelled by this social edict to spend evenings in my apartment.
Women are not to smoke in public, with or without an escort: While this particular social more is neither here nor there considering the air quality itself causes me to hack like a chain smoker, I find it quite the double standard that men can puff away anywhere their lungs desire but women cannot, even though statistically, equal numbers of men and women in China smoke. Again, in order to set a good example for my students, I do not light up anywhere on or in the vicinity of campus, even though Chinese custom dictates that, upon meeting someone for the first time, you offer them a cigarette. Thus I have been offered cigarettes, but was not allowed to smoke them. Right now, I don’t think my lungs could stand it, anyway! (NOTE: never thought China would be a deterrent to smoking!)
Physical affection is commonly expressed between members of the same gender: Boys (or men) together, or girls (or women) together commonly walk along arm in arm or hand in hand. Or, the more elegant ‘hand on the crook of the elbow’ hold is used, generally practiced by more mature women. It would be natural to think that this is certainly a non-homophobic society for all of these displays of same-sex affection, but in fact China still vilifies homosexuality (it was de-criminalized in 1997 and only since 2001 not listed as a mental illness. Clinics still exist where aversion and shock therapies are touted to cure what is still thought of as ‘a condition’). So if you see people of the same sex walking hand in hand or hanging on each other, it does not mean they are lovers, it just means they are observing their cultural right to express same-sex affection. Or, they are hanging onto each other so that they don’t get lost in a crowd.
10 million Chinese who work the same schedule: What do 10+ million (population of Wuhan) Chinese people who work the same 9 to 5 schedule 5 days a week do on weekends? They all go out… at the same time. On weekends, you can forget leisurely travel through the city or the hope of a seat on the bus. You can forget strolling down wide avenues; the avenues are still wide but are crowded by a sea of bobbing, black, shiny-haired heads (and umbrellas). And remember: they hold hands or drape their arms around one another, giving an additional challenge to navigating pedestrian traffic without breaking up a physically linked group. It seems nobody stays home in Wuhan on the weekend; everyone is out in the streets, in the malls, on the buses, on the ferry. If traffic is heinous during the week, it is flat murder on the weekend. Any plans for outings must start at 7AM or earlier or you run the risk of not being able to realize your plans. That would mean that I wouldn’t get back to campus before dark… shame on me for flouting rules!
Chinese people will do anything to approach a foreigner: Young or old, regional or migrant, male or female there seems to be no restraint when it comes to approaching a foreigner. Especially a tall, blond, big-boned female foreigner. While out, I’ve had my arm and other body parts touched, my hair tousled, my clothing tugged on, and have been shouted ‘Hello’ more often than I care to count. I have stopped traffic, literally. While standing at a street corner to waiting to cross, more often than not traffic stops, car windows are rolled down and gape-mouthed stares are directed at me, resulting in angry honking from the vehicles behind the starer… until they get a load of what is being stared at. I know I am no raving beauty, nor am I particularly noteworthy in appearance other than my 6’ height, but I am treated like a combination of royalty, beauty queen and freak of the day. Some days I’m used to it and shrug it off, other days it is nothing short of annoying. Like the time I entered a restaurant and two small children pointed up at me and shouted ‘wai guo ren!’ – ‘foreigner!’ I felt like pointing at them and shouting back ‘xiao hai zi!’ – ‘small child!’ It was one of those days. I suppose I would damage community relations if I mocked China’s most precious resource – children, so I stopped just short of teasing them. I simply smiled and waved. They were either terrified or elated; they quit shouting and ran back to their mother. Beggars are no exception; whereas they stand idly rattling their few coins in tin or paper cups while Chinese citizenry pass by, I am chased down, prodded and have their collection cup shoved directly beneath my nose. I do not like the stench of that.
It seems that everywhere I look I see oddities. Not as in ‘carnival’ type oddities, just things that you wouldn’t necessarily see in other parts of the world. In no particular order, I list more iconic idiosyncrasies of Chinese people.
Chinese People Marry Chinese, and That is That!: The Chinese are endogamic to a fault. While knowing a foreigner has a certain cachet and dating a foreigner is borderline acceptable, at least in the big cities, marrying a foreigner is strictly taboo. That includes another Asian person: from Laos to Kuala Lumpur, if you are hoping to marry a Chinese girl, you can just forget it. The family is likely to disown any girl who marries outside of her race and culture, and the more traditional the family is, the more absolute the abandonment is. As the Chinese are very family oriented, most young women will not take a chance on marriage to a foreigner.
Also: there is a dearth of marriageable women in China due to the one-child policy instituted 30 years ago, and only recently expanded. In an effort to stem gender-based abortion, a penalty has been instituted against physicians that disclose the fetus’ gender. Add to that the more recent explosion of women’s rights and their appearance in droves into the work force, more and more Chinese women are postponing marriage or foregoing the idea of marrying altogether in favor of pursuing a career. Which leaves a lot of young men without the chance of a partner. Still, traditional Chinese men are reluctant marry a foreigner.
Murses and Purses: Men carry murses. For those of you not in the know, a murse is a man’s purse. Chinese men from all walks of life carry them. Efficient clutches for the business man, over the shoulder bags for the more stylish male, the ‘sling’ model – the strap crosses the chest and back while the bag hangs by the hip – for the up-and-comers. Murses come in all colors, shapes and sizes, and are huge in China. It is a poor man indeed who does not show his status and fashion sense by not sporting a murse.
Conversely, men in love will carry their women’s purse, even though they already sport a murse. The men simply add the purse to the same shoulder that bears the murse. Chinese men do not seem embarrassed to carry women’s purses while strolling with their wives or girlfriends; it seems more of a testimony to their testosterone. It kind of shouts: ‘I’m important enough for a murse, but sensitive enough for a purse!’ It also shouts ‘I have a woman!’ but not quite as loudly (see entry above for the significance of that.)
Belly Air Conditioning: At the height of summer or anytime the weather is sticky, muggy or just plain hot, you will find men air-conditioning their bellies. They are fully clothed: shirt, pants, socks and shoes, but they pull their shirt up and show their belly. Generally these men are older and have a bit of a belly, but the practice is not limited to the old, the uneducated or the mah-jongg players who sit around on the curb. College kids (without girlfriends) do it, construction workers do it, just regular men walking down the street with their women do it. You know it is warm when you see exposed male bellies going down the street.
Pick your nose, not your teeth; It is perfectly acceptable in China to pick your nose in public or to actually bend over and blow your nose without the benefit of a Kleenex. At the dinner table or just walking down the street, if thine nose offends thee, pick it! Same goes for sputum: it is OK to simply hock a loogie wherever you are… but they do frown on that in restaurants. They prefer you spit directly into used dishes.
They also frown on you picking your teeth in restaurants – or on the street. The finer restaurants provide toothpicks, however the proper way to pick your teeth is to shield your mouth with one hand while discreetly picking underneath the shield with the other. Kind of like a covert mouth operation that everyone knows is going on, but no one wants to see. Last but not least, NEVER let a toothpick hang jauntily from the corner of your mouth, either at the table or while walking out of the restaurant. You will be sneered at as classless and uncouth.
Strangely enough, while picking your teeth out in the open is bad manners, it is OK to witness someone brushing their teeth. In the more familial neighborhoods of every city I’ve been in over here I’ve witnessed people with toothbrush in one hand and a cup of water in the other, performing their dental hygiene routine in front of whoever may be passing by on the street, and with no qualms whatsoever about it. Spitting at the nearby tree is how the routine if finished. Mouthwash is optional.
The table is dirty: When in the midst of eating you wonder what to do with that chicken bone you’ve just gnawed the meat from, the answer is: put it on the table. Do not look for a dish to put it in, and do not use one of the spare/as yet unused plates for waste. The Chinese consider the table unclean and acceptable for waste of any kind.
Conversely, if you should happen to inadvertently drop a morsel of food on the table, do not pick it up, even if you use your chopsticks to do so. Again, the table being considered unclean, that bite of food is now counted as inedible, even if it looks particularly tasty and appealing.
Potty training is a public act: One of the most radical differences between East and West, or maybe I should say China and the other parts of the world I’ve visited is the method of potty training children. It is not because I make it a habit to watch children go potty, it is just that it is so publicly obvious what is going on. Potty training pants are nothing like in the West. In China, baby clothes have no crotch. The parents have the option of diapering their children, but more often than not, the baby’s nether regions are exposed because of the way the pants are designed.
Potty training starts as early as 3 months old when, at certain intervals, the parent holds the child’s legs open and dangles its exposed private parts over a trash can (at home, on a bus) or a nearby tree (while out and about). The child’s back rests against the parent’s chest and the parent encourages the child to just let it rip. Sometimes just blowing on the ‘privates’ achieves results; other times whistling or dripping water ‘there’ works. As the child’s age increases, so do the intervals in which he/she is hoisted up, legs spread, to pee. After the child is old enough to vocalize his/her need to urinate, the squat is taught: the parent squats down in such a way that the squatting child is ‘spooned’, and the child is encouraged to void him/herself. I couldn’t tell you at what age the children pants become ‘crotched’, but I have seen children as old as 4 years (by appearance; I really don’t know their actual age) with these crotch-less pants.
The more I look around, the more I see that is just… iconic and idiosyncratic to the Chinese.
Chapter 2: Toilet Paper
My first few months in China clued me to the fact that here, toilet paper reigns supreme. You can go into a restaurant and see toilet paper on the dining tables – that is how you know you are in a fairly well to do joint. Two-ply toilet paper is used pretty much anywhere and for anything: as napkins, as a first aid supply, as facial tissue, as a quick clean up assistant.
Before moving here, while visiting, I wondered about the use of toilet paper everywhere. Was it just more economical than paper towels? Easier to stock than Kleenex? A less complicated inventory item than paper napkins?
After moving here, my first few ventures into Chinese grocery stores still did not convince me of the significance of toilet paper. The mere fact that there was no other type of paper goods to be bought – no napkins or paper towels, although there were facial tissues – did not shock me out of my Western mindset that there must be a more durable form of paper goods available somewhere in this country. I just thought it was because I live in this tiny neck of the woods that only toilet paper was sold, with or without cardboard spindles. Five local stores where not even mouthwash is stocked: what else am I to think?
One of the grocery stores near campus actually stocks paper towel holders, with the legend written in English: Paper Towel Dispenser. I searched that store frantically for 30 minutes, looking for paper towels to fit that dispenser until I realized that the dispenser was meant to accommodate 2 rolls of toilet paper, side by side.
My trip to Carrefour is what finally convinced me to abandon any hope of finding any type of durable paper goods. In this megastore, where I could in fact find various types of mouthwash including Listerine, there was an entire aisle of paper goods: 24 different brands of toilet paper, packaged in various denominations. You could go for economy –8 rolls; for a low-key approach – 4 rolls; a long-term approach – 12 rolls; or the showoff’s selection – 24 rolls WITH cardboard spindle. That variety is for those who don’t care how much they spend. Finally there was the Jumbo Roll selection. The rolls weren’t oversized or double-thick, they were one and a half times the width of standard toilet paper, and you can buy them 8 or 12 rolls at a time; no cardboard spindle for extra economy.
Maybe that is what is meant to be put into the aforementioned paper towel dispenser.
I have gotten used to a life of toilet paper. I look for toilet paper on restaurant tables before I decide to eat at any certain establishment. Bonus points are accorded if the toilet paper is in a plastic, stand up variety dispenser with a cover and extra credit is given if a sheet of toilet paper is showing, but I will settle for a roll of paper on the table, with or without cardboard spindles (usually without).
Although I do have sharp pangs in the kitchen as I long for non-existent paper towels, I have adjusted to using toilet paper for what I would normally use a whole paper towel for: wiping down countertops, cleaning up spills, even wiping the excess oil up after seasoning my wok.
You would think that the prevalence of toilet paper would mean that, come privacy time, there would be abundant paper available, right?
Let me caution you right now: if you come to China, be prepared to provide your own toilet paper for any restroom excursions. In the finer establishments (and on certain trains) you will find one toilet paper dispenser, industrial sized, mounted on the wall somewhere by the door to the restroom, before you hit the stalls. There will usually be no paper in it. Do not look for paper or dispensers in the stalls, there will be none.
If you are so lucky as to find a centrally installed toilet paper dispenser in such places, remember that that paper is to serve both as toilet paper while using the facilities and as paper towels to dry your hands on after you are finished washing your hands. Please do not take too much of this paper, as one roll is supposed to accommodate all of that evening’s patrons. Proper etiquette is to take about 3 sheets into the stall with you, and then use another 3 or 4 sheets to dry your hands after washing them.
Finally: although there is a proliferation of toilet paper everywhere except in restroom stalls and its uses are many, under no circumstance are you to dispose of used toilet paper in the toilet when you are done performing that most intimate act. China’s sewer system is too delicate to withstand wads of soggy toilet paper clogging it. Instead you are to throw your used toilet paper in the trashcan provided in each stall. If there is no trashcan in the stall, it is perfectly acceptable to throw your used toilet paper in a corner, preferably the corner that already boasts the discarded paper of previous patrons. There is usually a custodian available to sweep up discards after every few patrons. Usually.
Chapter 3: Paradoxes:
I often daydream about being your tour guide as you visit China for the first time. I know where I would take you and I’ve studied some of the more significant history attached to all of the tourist spots so I can wow you with the depth of Chinese history and culture. Or maybe the depth of my knowledge… but I think it is more the former. I don’t like to show off, you know.
Invariably I wonder how you would see China: as a progressive society with a 5,000 year-old culture, trying to find its way into the modern world? Or would you only see the dirt and the drab – which is plentiful? I imagine, after sightseeing for a few days, and maybe being disgusted over some of the lesser qualities of my adopted home you would ask me: “Show me YOUR China. What do you love about this place?”
Before you ask me that question, you have to see the paradox.
Life in China is hard. For many Chinese, there is no hope of rising above their current station in life. When there are only 8 slices of pie and 2.2 billion people are reaching for them, you’ve got to figure some people are going to be left out. It is not a matter of ambition at all; it is just the way this society works, and the people have absolutely no illusion about it. Or about themselves.
There is no sense of entitlement here, and certainly the people do not operate under a belief of manifest destiny. They live their lives as their parents and grandparents before them lived, often using the same methods, from washing clothes and cooking food to larger concerns such as construction. Still: the women sweeping the street and the men laboring in construction are possessed of a dignity that is simply magnificent to behold.
If you ask me “Show me YOUR China”, I would show you the people. The true embodiment of 5,000 years of living experience, cloaked in an unsurpassable dignity.
To me, that is the true and lasting beauty of China.
However, for as much as the Chinese people live as dignified a life as possible, there are stunning displays to the contrary. They throw their garbage out the window of their high-rise apartment and it accumulates on awnings and rooftops below. Walk any given street and you can see piles of garbage littering such rooftops. In some areas of the city, there are no dumpsters, just pits where people throw their garbage in. That is to make it easier for people to sift through refuse in search of recyclables. In the summer, the stink will drive you to distraction.
Although there are so-called Western toilets available, especially in tourist areas, Eastern toilets still prevail. They are pretty much just a hole in the floor with two ‘foot steps’ flanking either side of it. To use it you place each foot on a step, drop your drawers and let go. The stench in these bathrooms is untenable, especially when you consider that wastebasket you’re supposed to put your used toilet tissue in that may or may not get emptied.
Personal hygiene is also questionable. On the occasions I’ve been invited into a Chinese home for more than a few days, I can’t help but make note that people shower or even sponge bathe only every few days – sometimes up to 5 days pass before the next shower. And although there are modern conveniences available to them such as washing machines and dryers, the laundry is still washed by hand in a small, plastic tub, beaten with a stick and hung up in a window or outside for all to see. And that includes underwear.
Finally: there is a certain lawlessness in China that simply would not work anywhere else. Here, people meander in the streets among moving vehicles regardless of traffic crosswalks, drive with no regard to traffic laws, lanes or common courtesy, and disregard civility completely when using public transportation – pushing and shoving, jumping ahead in line. This is a particularly strange contrast to the China everyone, including me expects to see. China is supposed to be so regimented, right?
Chapter 4: Oxymorons:
The Chinese are notably afraid of getting sick. Being sick in China is a very costly affair, and good health is considered paramount. A testimony to this is how many Chinese people will wear surgical masks while out and about to prevent airborne illnesses, especially in the winter.
One of the more glaring oxymorons to the ‘good health’ mentality is the prevalence of bodily functions in public: children voiding themselves, sputum flying, noses being picked. I would be remiss if I did not mention the condition of bathrooms again. And I’ve not even touched on the food vendor stalls, where meat, vegetables, rice and noodles are on display without the benefit of refrigeration of any kind. And they lay there for hours, summer or winter.
But what about in the kitchen? In the spirit of maintaining good health, any chef worth his salt in a Chinese kitchen will wash raw food before cooking it: vegetables and meat alike, it all gets its run and scrub under water. Usually cold water – that is all that is available in some kitchens.
And then he or she will lay that meat (or veggies) on an ancient wooden cutting board and chop it up with an equally old meat cleaver with a steel blade that has not seen a shine on it since circa 1949. Mind you, the blade is not exactly rusty, it is just so old that, like any steel blade, it has oxidized and turned black.
The wok, also steel and also black with age is then heated up and a generous portion of (perhaps recycled) oil is poured into it, and all of the food is fried in that same wok.
If the concern is health and cleanliness, how can one justify using recycled oil, steel implements and wooden cutting boards that are notorious for harboring bacteria? How is washing food (in cold water, mind you) supposed to prevent foodborne illnesses under those conditions?
I recently visited a friends’ house and we took turns in the kitchen. She was going to teach me how to cook Chinese food; in turn I would share a few Western recipes. I decided to demonstrate how to cook chicken and dumplings and beef stew, mainly because the ingredients can be found in Chinese markets.
This woman had a panic attack because I did not wash the beef after I trimmed all of the fat from it! I just threw it into the pot to simmer and she kept stirring it, and expressing worry that I had not washed the meat. In fact, just to appease her I had to scoop the meat out and throw out perfectly good soup stock and use fresh water to start cooking all over again. Luckily she didn’t watch me cook the chicken.
It seems rather strange to me that she wouldn’t accept that heat would kill bacteria much more effectively than a quick run under cold water would. In fact, my unwashed beef was probably safer than anything she cooked – even though her cuisine was decidedly delicious and no one got sick.
I am aware of that old adage ‘When in Rome’, even though I am in China. I suppose it can be adapted to ‘When in China’ but, being a little pig-headed, I decided to take the issue up with my faithful friend Yalong, who happens to be this young woman’s fiance and who happens to speak very good English.
He was puzzled why I would question age-old cooking methods. Even after explaining the illogic of washing meat and then using a bacteria-laden cutting board and a steel bladed cleaver, he did not see the point of my argument. He conceded that I had a point, but in his opinion, maybe it wasn’t a valid point. He then – wisely – ducked out of the kitchen.
I certainly would not insult someone in their own home, let alone a chef in her own kitchen, but the illogic of Chinese cuisine still befuddles me. I simply cannot understand why, with Chinese people being so rational and intelligent, they would persist in cooking methods that are so potentially harmful.
Another interesting oxymoron is the fact that Chinese people are so afraid of their water supply that they will order bottled water. Most homes I’ve been in – mine included, have bottled water dispensers, and guests are traditionally offered hot water to signify that the water has been boiled to purify it. The bottled water has been boiled so as to prove it safe to drink.
But food is washed in cold tap water. Dishes are washed in cold tap water. Clothing is washed in cold tap water.
I don’t get it. But I’m not going to ask a woman who is fiercely skilled with a meat cleaver to explain it to me.
It might have to remain a mystery.
Chapter 5: Essentially Chinese
Everywhere I look, in China, I see Americana – as Edith Wharton puts it. Americana is anything that pertains to American culture, for those of you who are not fans of Edith Wharton. Food, music, clothing, dancing, sports, pastimes, books, mannerisms, movies – these are all Americana.
McDonald’s, KFC, Papa John’s and more prominently, Pizza Hut flourish in China. Dairy Queen and Starbucks… all of these American brand restaurants are well patronized by Chinese people wearing jeans and tee-shirts, sneakers or other sports shoes. Matter of fact, except for the patrons being Chinese, if you just looked at the clothing and the menu, you would swear that you were in fact in an American establishment. With a few minor differences, that is. For example: Pizza Hut offers a full range of menu selections including salads, entrees and desserts, not just pizza and wings and bread sticks. Nevertheless, a personal pan pizza is still a personal pan pizza: same taste, texture and toppings, and served the same way.
All over campus you can see kids, mostly boys, sporting NBA gear and bouncing basketballs in anticipation of getting a heated game up. Walking any commercial street, you are likely to be blasted by rap music. Males and females alike dye their hair any color from mahogany to blond. Everyone wears Western style clothing: jeans and sneakers, tee-shirts with slogans in English emblazoned on them, hoodies, and other western dress.
The girls wear a type of cosmetic tape on their eyelids to make their eyes look more wide open and western. Or, they opt for a type of colored contact lens that makes their eyes appear rounder and lighter, a la Betty Boop. These contact lenses have been deemed dangerous because of rampant eye infections – they are not prescribed by an eye doctor but bought at a vendor stall in the mall, and thus are not made to fit each individual eye as a normal contact lens does. Nevertheless, these girls are so crazy to appear western they will do anything to that end, even endanger their eyesight.
My students all tell me how cool America is. It is their dream to go there, maybe to study and live, but at least to visit. They want to see everything they’ve seen in the movies: the houses, the cars, the iconic scenery. They want to see the diverse population and the wide-open land, the desert and the lakes and rivers and mountains. They are enraptured with what they know about America; most think it must be heaven on Earth.
So you’d think that, with all of these Chinese people enraptured with America, that they would automatically and enthusiastically embrace genuine American experiences, right?
The few students I’ve invited over for an all-American meal did not really like the food. It wasn’t prepared badly and it didn’t taste bad, it was just that they are not used to the taste and texture of it. Nobody left hungry, but most only sampled what I had cooked and then reverted to the more Chinese type fare that I had prepared as a cautionary backup.
The one western culinary success is mashed potatoes. That is one of the only foods that seems to go over well all across the board. I think Chinese of all ages love mashed potatoes. You just can’t find them in any Chinese restaurant. I think that, given time, mashed potatoes will be something you will find on every Chinese menu.
Last night I had some students stop by, looking for something to do. As it happens I was bored and wanting some action myself, so I broke out the Uno cards I had recently bought at a shop in Optics Valley. The kids’ first reaction was “I don’t know how to play” to which I countered “I will show you”. They did muster some enthusiasm for the game, and it even got fun for a while, but then one of them muttered longingly about mahjong. Ah, now everyone is on the bandwagon about how fun mahjong is and how we should be playing mahjong.
I’m a little bit confused. These kids seem to want to walk the walk, talk the talk (that is why I have a job here), wear the clothes, dance to the music, partake of fast food restaurants, and savor the experiences, but when confronted with something quintessentially American, such as food cooked by an American or a game of Uno, they promptly revert back to being Chinese. What am I missing?
I thought that, for as much as these kids embrace all things American, when confronted with a genuine American experience or activity, they would embrace it wholeheartedly, ascribe to it and make it their own. It would spread through the dorms like wildfire and, much like denim being worn all over campus, soon everyone would be shouting ‘Uno!’ all over campus. It appears that that will not happen. I have to admit: I am a bit deflated. I had envisioned paving their way to understanding and gripping American culture, but it seems all they want is the trappings of the culture. The appearance of it. In all other things, they wish to remain essentially Chinese.
Chapter 6: A Monty Python Skit
As I become more acquainted with Chinese lifestyle, traditions and history, I am often treated to behaviors, actions and customs that could or should smack of distinct un-Chinese-ness, were they not so downright comical in their practice or coming about.
In China, once a concept is introduced it is embraced fervently, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, to the complete abandon of all that had previously been believed to be right, good, necessary and true.
Note that, some sixty years ago, this country underwent a total obliteration of class struggle to the point of neutralizing gender and intellect differences. During the Great Leap Forward, men and women wore the same colored, same styled baggy clothing, shoes and hats. Although females were allowed one concession – long hair, during that epoch males and females were virtually indistinguishable.
So intent was the focus on building a classless society that families gave up anything of value for the greater good. Thus, previously illustrious families were as materially barren as the poorest farmer, and their social status was reduced to match their new, impoverished circumstances.
After properly enshrining Chairman Mao in 1976, Deng Xiao Ping’s economic stance dictated a total reversal of Mao’s previously touted edict of total barrenness: “Capitalism is good!” the new country leader proclaimed. Immediately the Chinese cast off the poor garments, abandoned the work farms and factories and sought their chance at wealth. I don’t mean that this was an overnight transformation. I’m trying to illustrate that, one minute people lived shackled to poverty and yoked to an ideal; the very next minute those yokes stood empty, the plows were left standing in the fields and people were storming their way to capitalism.
Here are some other historical reversals:
The first automobiles were introduced in China around the late 19th century, and of course the imperial family was the first to own them. A total of 4 cars were brought over but not put in service for years because the dowager empress kept ordering the drivers beheaded.
Those early carriages were designed to have the driver sitting on a box seat far above the passenger compartment. This model followed the most popular horse-buggy style; the high seat designed for better control of the animals powering the vehicle while the nacelle sat low to the ground to assure passengers’ comfort. Unfortunately for the drivers of these primitive motor driven machines made for the imperial family, the law stated that no one could have their head higher than the elite figure. Once the dowager empress was comfortably seated, the driver climbed aboard and the empress, outraged at his ‘seemingly loftier than hers’ position ordered him beheaded. Soon, there was no one left who knew how to drive a car.
Shortly after that the dynasty crumbled and the country plunged into a series of conflicts that lasted about 60 years. While driving eventually did become commonplace, mainly because of military vehicles, the concept of personal transportation did not catch on for nearly a century.
Around 1990, people in China were introduced to the idea. Till then, those fortunate enough to afford a bicycle, rode. Mass transit took care of the rest of the population. Once car ownership became accessible to the citizenry it became a no holds barred competition for value, brand, status and parking spaces.
Now people will drive their car when walking would be faster, and spend hours idling in traffic or circling the block for a parking place when they could have left their car at home and gotten where they were going much more efficiently in some other manner.
50 years ago a marriage was arranged by a matchmaker and sanctioned by the government. Romantic love as it is known in the west has never been a factor in Chinese relationships. The classic ‘eyes meeting across the room’ scenario never played out here, mainly because the culture dictated that males and females were not to mingle socially, and making eye contact was considered vulgar to begin with.
Couples would spend their entire lives bound together by practicality and adherence to tradition. Sometimes genuine affection would blossom from long term cohabitation and familiarity but more often than not, malcontent ruled the household.
In the last 5 years, with more people than ever migrating away from their homes, families, roots and traditions the standard ‘love requires an introduction’ has fallen completely by the wayside. Romance rules the day.
Almost literally overnight, our campus went from a shining tribute of purity to a hotbed of sexual activity. Nobody bothers with introductions. Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, off they go to local hotel. Hickeys to follow; homosexual relations permitted. The only nod to tradition is that parents are not to know their child has a lover. So I’ve been implored by the students whose parents I’ve met.
The concept of leisure is as uncharacteristically Chinese as water buffalos suddenly donning tutus and dancing Swan Lake. Yet when the idea of indolence was presented, the Chinese abandoned all efforts at ‘keep head down, work hard, achieve and bring honor to family”. Eating out, whiling time away and vulgar outlays of cash in pursuit of a good time is now the new standard by which the Chinese judge each other and themselves. Other activities like traveling and shopping all fall under that same umbrella. And all are done with that seemingly un-Chinese over-the-top Chinese-ness.
Swimming is as un-Chinese a pastime as possible. Even last year my students declared that they were too afraid of what could happen to even want to learn how to swim in a controlled environment, with a qualified teacher, in a shallow pool. Let alone tackle any water sports in an open lake or sea.
And admittedly, ‘swimming’ is too broad an expression for what actually happens. People bob around in the water tethered to or encircled by a Styrofoam life preserver, as dictated by law.
Last year, carousing in malls I didn’t see a single shop offering any sporting goods, including anything that would pertain to water activities. This year there are stores dedicated entirely to bathing suits for women. Men ‘swim’ in their underwear.
I was completely nonplussed the first time I witnessed men walking around in sodden briefs that concealed absolutely nothing. And they did so with a complete lack of modesty. .
As little as one year ago one of my female friends refused to buy a shirt because it showed too much cleavage. One of my students refused to remove her sweater because she felt the tee-shirt she had on underneath was too revealing.
People will not (intentionally) buy clothing that is too tight or too sexy (unless they are THAT kind of girl, wink-wink, nudge-nudge). Even belt buckles, the modern day codpiece, are modest and unobtrusive. However, it is perfectly OK to strip down to one’s underwear in public (no locker rooms; however there are lockers for rent on the waterfront), get in the water and then walk around in clingy, see thru briefs with head held high.
Sometimes I feel like I’m living a Monty Python skit, in which witches must weigh as much as ducks. The doubting public first frowns at this logic but as soon as a suspected witch is weighed against a duck and the scale balances, the witch/duck proclamation is substantiated, all doubt is cast off and the villagers are suddenly and enthusiastically in favor of torching a woman they’ve known all their lives.
Chapter 7: Boo Tie Shoo Foo
It is not the latest creation from an inspired chef; you will not find it on the menu of your favorite Chinese restaurant. Bu tai shu fu (see pronunciation above) literally translates to ‘not very comfortable’. It is how the Chinese say they’re sick or in pain, or burdened by some psychological or mental dilemma.
I’ve noticed, in all of my wanderings and delvings into the language and culture here that hardly anything is expressed in actual negative terms. There is no actual word for ‘No’; Bu is the closest there is to a negation. ‘Bu’ precedes most any verb to indicate a negative. The sole exception is ‘mei’ (pronounced ‘may’) which precedes the certain verbs.
More specifically: there are no positive statements for a negative condition. ‘I’m broke’ translates to ‘I don’t have money’ in Chinese; ‘I’m unemployed’ becomes ‘I don’t have any work’; ‘I’m sad’ becomes ‘I’m not happy’.
If you think about it linguistically, that puts a positive spin on every possible condition. The expectation is to be on the sunny side of life – as it were; to express a negative state in positive terms signifies acceptance and even a certain expectation of that condition. And this pattern of speech has been in place and actively used by the Chinese for over 5,000 years.
Mind you, I am no historian or cultural anthropologist (although I’d love to be one) but I have to comment on this peoples’ utter desire to put a positive spin on everything. What is so wrong with just coming out and saying what is wrong? Why do they negate what should be perfectly acceptable? People get sick every so often; why not state that one is under the weather, rather than confess to not being comfortable?
I think it has a lot to do with expectation. Here, people expect good things to happen, good conditions to be maintained and good states of being to exist. If, for some reason that level of goodness cannot be maintained, somehow it is the fault of the sufferer. If you get sick, it is your fault: viruses are supposed to coexist harmoniously with all other organisms, including you. If you have no money it is your fault; every person is to be industrious. If you are sad, who’s to blame? Each person is to make their own happiness.
Kinda takes accountability to a whole new level, doesn’t it?
And that smiling acceptance doesn’t end there. I recall the story about the American salesman pitching an insurance policy to a Chinese restaurant owner. The restaurateur agreed with everything the salesman said, right down the line. Yes, it would be terrible if his kitchen burned up. Indeed, it would be frightening if he got sick and couldn’t provide for his family. Of course, if he died and his loved ones had no money it would be a sad state of affairs. The salesman, already relishing his fat commission, whipped out all the necessary forms for business, health and life insurance… but the establishment owner refused to sign anything.
Perplexed, the salesman walked away. I too have walked away from one Chinese conversant or the other shaking my head, wondering what went wrong.
Like when I tried to organize a blood drive here on campus. There is a desperate shortage of blood in the blood banks, and if you haven’t heard that tragedies occur with startling regularity in China – earthquakes, floods, fires, even desperately needed surgeries, quite frankly I have to wonder if you’ve decided to adopt a hermit lifestyle and remain out of touch. A university campus would be the best place to hold a blood drive – all that young, healthy juice of life running around, but somehow I just cannot seem to get anyone interested in the idea. That’s not to say that, when I broach the subject, people are not enthusiastic. When it comes to the actual doing though… that’s when the problem occurs.
The enthusiasm comes from the cultural more to agree with anything. Chinese people will smile, nod and agree with anything you say. Just when you think you’ve got them hooked, there is no follow-through. It is not you or your words or your ideas that they are not agreeing to, it is simply that what you are suggesting does not follow their way of life. This is not just Chinese versus foreigner either; it happens when Chinese people deal with other Chinese people. At least, so I’ve been told by my Chinese friends and more recently by some of my students. It is maddening, really.
But on the other hand: doesn’t the same kind of thing go on in America? Especially in the South? The genteel mannerisms of the South mirror the Chinese passion for positive spin. ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ for example: some women have taken that adage to heart and used it to elevate cattiness to an art form. It has even been satirized in movies and books: have a read at a gothic novel or a Jodie Picoult story, if you don’t believe me. Or, just watch a soap opera or two: women who pretend to get along when, really, all they want to do is scratch each other’s eyes out.
And what about politician’s campaigns? A prime example of the smiling, nodding agreement that results in nothing!
When I first made my acquaintance with China, I was bowled over with the positive attitude and sense of accountability everyone here had. I think that that is one of the reasons I wanted to live here. Living and working among this young generation of people has shown me how dangerous it is to expect everything to be happy-happy and Oh, so gay!
Not that having a positive attitude is a bad thing, in itself. Pretending to have a positive attitude when you are broke and starving is counterproductive, though. There is only so far genteel politeness should carry you, after that, we’re down to the brass tacks Baby, and you’d better be calling it like it is. This younger generation of Chinese have learned that, and the culture is evolving because of it. I wonder how it will reflect in the language, in years to come.
I’m boo tie shoo foo. I think I’ll take some Nyquil and go to bed. Also, my desk chair makes my back hurt and I wonder how I will make Christmas special for everyone I love. Bu tai shu fu covers all of those things.
Chapter 8: How to celebrate birthdays, Chinese style:
Sam apparently told some of my students that the next day was my birthday. Unbeknownst to me the news went around campus like wildfire and, come sundown, a couple of girls came to get me. I thought we were going to the show that was planned that evening, and we did. But first, a stop at the park behind my apartment, where about thirty of my students were waiting for me with a cake and gifts.
The rascals had planned a birthday party for me!
I gave a little speech, they clapped politely. And then they sat me down and handed me a cake cutting implement so I started serving this delicious looking cake all covered in fruit and whipped cream and gooey chocolate. My taste buds were working overtime and I was really looking forward to enjoying this nice, creamy cake, but first I made sure everyone was served. Only after each student had a portion did I serve myself.
I didn’t know I was providing them with ammunition.
Yes, ammunition! For it is traditional in China to smear cake and frosting all over the birthday girl’s (or boy’s) face and neck! And then pelt chunks of cake at her! After the first student smeared my face I sat there in shock, wondering if this was my ‘Carrie’ moment where I get publicly humiliated and everyone laughs and points at me – for they were laughing and pointing. While still sitting there like a bump on a log, trying to comprehend this action, another student smeared my nose with cream and again they all laughed. ‘Carrie’ moment or not, I was going to get in on the action because by now, I could hear the kids all around, pelting each other with cake and dashing about. It was a veritable cake war and I was the first casualty, but I was going to take some of them down with me. After only 3 bites of this cake that was indeed delicious, I started pelting with the best of them.
Nailed a few of them pretty good, too! I never did catch the one that initially smeared my face though.
After a protracted battle and lots of laughter we washed up and proceeded to the Fall Festival stage show in an orderly manner, only barely managing to stifle our giggles.
During the show, the kids handed me a gift: a ‘pick your nose’ mug – a tall tea glass with a lid depicting a cartoon dog’s nose. I finally had a decent sized mug! I was laughed out and couldn’t cry anymore, even tears of happiness. The mug is cherished but did not get an outpouring of emotion.
The show was fantastic: lots of great music and funny skits. I got my students to dance with me and we had a great time. The gala ended with a massive fireworks display – what else? We are in China, after all! I didn’t think I would be able to sleep after all the excitement of this perfect day, but once I showered to make sure I was not taking a wad of frosting to bed with me, I slept like a log!
Happy birthday to me!
Chapter 9: Mid-Autumn Festival:
The day after my birthday was Mid-Autumn Festival. I didn’t plan it this way; fact is this celebration has been in place for over 4,000 years in China. It just so happened that my birthday quite nearly coincided with this most important celebration.
Kind of makes me feel special.
Legend has it that in 2,000 BC the sky burned with the heat of the 10 suns that encircled it. The gods knew that something had to change, so they sent Hou Yi (Hoe Yee), the famous archer, down to Earth to shoot down 9 of those 10 suns that were scorching the Earth. One after the other Hou Yi loaded his red bow with a white-feathered arrow and shot down each sun, until only one remained.
The weather immediately turned cooler. Springs started bubbling, forming streams of cool, clear water for the humans and animals to enjoy. The volcanoes ceased their grumblings and spewings and trees and grass grew all over the earth.
Hou Yi was walking a path and saw a young woman carrying a bucket full of water. He was thirsty from all of his shooting, so he asked her for a drink. She noticed his red bow and the last white-feathered arrow in his quiver and immediately knew she was serving the valiant Hou Yi. As he drank she picked a flower and offered it to him as a token of thanks and respect. He in turn offers her the coat of a silver fox… and thus their love was born.
While Hou Yi is indeed blessed by the gods he is not immortal. So deep is his love for his wife Chang’e (Tchahng Eu) that he seeks immortality for them both. He appeals to the Queen Mother of the Kunlun Mountains, who presents him with an elixir that will make him and his beloved immortal. Queen Mother cautions him that both husband and wife must drink the elixir, otherwise only the one who does drink it will be immortal.
Hou Yi descends from the mountain with the vial of elixir and arrives home to tell his wife the good news: they will be lovers forever! They decide to drink the elixir together the next time the moon is full and bright.
However a wicked man hears of their good tidings and decides to drink the elixir himself so that he might become immortal. By the light of the full moon, while Hou Yi is on his way home from the hunt Feng Meng kills Hou Yi, and then rushes to the home where faithful wife Cheng’e awaits her beloved. He tells her Hou Yi is dead by his hand and tries to force her to give him the elixir. To spite him she drinks every drop herself.
Overcome with grief at being immortal without her husband, she chooses to live on the moon because it is close to earth, where Hou Yi’s mortal remains lie. The gods feel pity for Cheng’e and once per year, at the 8th full moon (lunar calendar) Hou Yi is resurrected so that the lovers can spend one night together.
The Chinese celebrate this holiday, called Mid-Autumn festival by enjoying moon cakes together and telling the story of Hou Ye and Cheng’e under the full harvest moon.
That is why moon cakes are all the rage at that time: they are a symbol of love, a successful harvest, the benevolence of the gods.
Unfortunately this year it rained on that day and night: no full moon to be seen. Still, plenty of moon cakes were consumed and families enjoyed togetherness.
Chapter 10: Observing Qing Ming (Tching Ming):
“Have a nice Qing Ming!”
“We forgive you; you’re a foreigner. You don’t know any better”
– Seen on social media
Every year in spring, all over China, people manifest reverence for their dead: by traveling home, by burning yellow paper in little chalk circles on sidewalks all over cities, by buying lavishly of fireworks, streamers, flowers, and the aforementioned yellow paper, that serves as currency in the afterlife. For the Chinese – whether they actively believe or just go through the motions, hold that their ancestors are alive and well in another world. Surely they need money, I-phones, jewelry and other items, cunningly made of paper. All is sent across the barrier of these two worlds by smoke: from incense, from candles, from reducing those paper items to ash.
This foreigner was uniquely privileged to witness, first-hand, how a family from a small village honors their dear departed. Penny hails from a such a village about 30 minutes outside of Huangpi (who-ahng pee). Among her dead are the usual assortment of great- and grandparents and others, but also her father, who was taken when my friend was just 14 years old. As I've met most of Penny's family, I was eager to finally 'meet' her father.
Having arrived in Huangpi Friday evening, we set out early on Saturday morning to the village – if indeed it could be called a village: it was a collection of 7 houses. Not so much as a post office to distinguish it as a township proper. Arriving in a caravan of 3 cars over a succession of one-lane roads, we clambered out, shaking off the rattling we endured over the rough roads. Those most concerned with the proper playing out of events headed directly to the general store – essentially, a few shelves of goods, set up in someone’s living room, to purchase all of the necessary accoutrements: firecrackers, incense, candles and, of course, yellow paper ‘money’. After borrowing a hoe, a shovel and a scythe, we set off, down a narrow footpath, into the hills.
Being an observer – not family, I arrived at the graves last, to see people climbing on dirt mounds, hacking away at vegetation with the scythe. Others were bringing chunks of sod to form caps on these mounds. Penny took a moment to ‘introduce’ me to everyone: here lay her grandmother and here, her great uncle. Over there rested an aunt, and, in the only marker not made of dirt, was her mother’s brother. I questioned the difference in the tombs. Sam explained: in China, one is no longer afforded a whole-body burial, as they were in the past. These days, cremation is the law, so this uncle with the concrete marker was the only relative who was cremated.
Whether cremains or skeleton, everyone got the same treatment. The eldest of our party, a venerable old man, planted lit incense and candles in front of each grave. Young and old participated in burning ‘money’. The feeling was not so much of reverence as of gaiety. Once the burial mounds had been clear of vegetation, Penny led the obeisance: in front of each grave, bowing 3 times with hands clasped and muttering something I did not catch. Finally, the men gave warning: “Small children, get away!”. They were about to light the firecrackers.
We all wended our way back to the homestead for a short break, and then repeated the process at another location, in the opposite direction of where we had been before. This time, the area was more open, and I could see what all went on.
This burial mound was cleaner and better tended. Hardly any vegetation grew on it, and it sat apart from others, on level ground. This was Penny’s father’s grave.
The mound stood nearly 2 meters tall. Fresh dirt was shoveled on, and the sides compacted. As with the other graves, sod was brought in to form caps – one inverted and one right side up. How I wish I knew the significance of these caps! As with the others, ‘money’ was burned, incense and candles were lit and planted, and this mound was encircled with a ribbon of fire crackers. Meanwhile, further back into the tree line, some of our party tended to other graves, giving them the same treatment. In a moment, the men once again declared we should make haste away, and set off the fire crackers. As we rushed, pell-mell, from the noise, exclamations of a wild boar sighting floated up. Too bad I missed it!
Strangely enough, at these burial mounds, there were old, discarded shoes. I have no idea why there would be shoes there. Sam did his best to explain, but I don’t think I really caught the essence of the tradition.
Isn’t it difficult to try to explain a ritual to a complete outsider? I am so grateful to Sam and Penny, who invited me to celebrate her family with such an intimate rite, so that I could witness for myself what happens, even if I left with more questions than answers.
Why didn’t we celebrate Sam’s family? By tradition, daughters honor the family and men take care of it. Thus, for any other celebration, Sam would be called on to lead his kin. For Qing Ming, ancestor worship falls to his sister and her husband, whose sister, in turn, takes up the yoke for his family. However, these days, most people honor both sides of the family, traveling first here and then there to make sure all ancestors are equally revered and rewarded.
After a third such gravesite visit, we had a lunch at some relative’s house, still deep in the country. I’ll describe the house, the meal and all that went on there in my next post but, for now, we have to drive sixty-eight kilometers, to Ezhou, to tend to yet another relative.
Remember Ezhou? That lovely little city I described in July, 2014? Such a good feeling I had when visiting there, that I decided that would be where would I retire to. Apparently, many others thought so, too. There were so many grave markers, even along the highway! When I shared this thought with my friends: how they laughed!
I stayed in the car with the two children while the adults paid their respects, in the pouring rain. Even though I wasn’t grave-side, I can report one notable difference between the ceremonies in Huangpi and Ezhou: garish adornments. Whereas Huangpi graves are decorated only with candles and incense, Ezhou tombs are lavishly embellished with streamers, tall posts wrapped in bright paper; and vivid, larger-than-life silk flowers. Of course, paper ‘money’ and fire crackers feature heavily. Penny explained that every region, and perhaps every village treats their ancestors differently. What is the norm in Ezhou would be considered bad taste in her village.
I might have questioned the depth of feeling, considering the general air of festivity surrounding the proceedings of the last 2 days, if not for the incident at dinner in Huangpi. It took place in a fancy restaurant, and everyone who was graveside also attended the meal. Erica, my little buddy, soon grew restless – young children care little about momentous events. To amuse her, I taught her how to make flowers out of tissue paper. The prettiest one she requested I put in her hair. She then went to all the relatives, preening and expecting compliments.
Everyone told her her flower was horrible! Because the tissue paper was white, and white symbolizes death, the assembled family told her to remove her flower, because she’s not dead and shouldn’t adorn herself as though dead. Penny’s aunt went so far as to snatch it out of the poor, bewildered child’s hair. Sam and Penny tried to explain the significance of white flowers in vain: the child thought her flower was pretty, and meant to wear it in spite of its supposed significance.
Once again I acknowledge that China is a land of contrasts: one may merrily set fire crackers alight around graves to wake the dead, but not adorn themselves with white flowers, for fear that the dead may actually rise and snatch a beloved child prematurely.
Who am I to understand where the lines of distinction are when putting pretty flowers in a young girl’s hair?
Chapter 11: Death Rites
In China and all over Asia, death is seen as an integral part of life. It is inevitable. Everybody and everything must and will die. That is an accepted fact here. And it is seen in the reverence held for ancestors, in the burial rites and in the remembrances to the deceased.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t sadness, grief or mourning for a loved one’s passing. However, how that passing is marked and handled and celebrated is as opposite to the western way of marking a death as cold is to hot.
In the West, death rites are performed for the living. The funeral, the services, the processions and the burial are all executed for the benefit of those attending the rituals. Before you get into an uproar about this postulate, let me explain how things transpire in China.
When a loved one passes, he or she is cremated within 72 hours. That is because of growing health and sanitary concerns. Until recently – say, thirty years ago, it was not uncommon to bury a loved one in the fields that he or she had cultivated all of his or her life, sometimes with and sometimes without the benefit of a coffin. If there is a coffin, it is not sealed. It generally consisted of a handmade, handpainted box. As the body decomposes… well, you can just guess what happens to the crops, right? Thus the government passed the edict that only professionals can handle dead bodies. Even more recently, due to concerns of available land for burials, a new law states the bodies must be cremated.
Upon the death of a loved one and after cremation, the processions start. At the head of the line is the first born offspring, holding a picture of the deceased. Following that heir come the pallbearers, those bearing the box of cremains, usually mounted upon an altar and surrounded by burning incense. After that comes a band, playing loud music. The rest of the procession consists of family and friends, each singing loudly, wailing and tossing yellow paper into the air. This procession is paraded around the neighborhood or the village of the deceased, both to proclaim that soul’s liberation from his earthly body and to announce to the departing spirit that here is his or her home. Should he or she ever want to come back and visit in spirit form, he or she would know where home is.
At some point during this procession, depending on the ethnicity of the deceased (there are 58 ethnic minorities in China, and one majority: the Han) the family will prostrate themselves before the procession 49 times, wailing at the spirit of the deceased to not leave them. They get up in time to not be trampled by the procession, run ahead and prostrate themselves, wailing, anew. In every case, yellow paper is thrown in the air and/or burned. This yellow paper symbolizes money, so that the deceased will have money to spend in the afterlife.
The procession continues, all the way to the burial site – however far that may be from the deceased person’s home. The shouting and singing continue and the pall bearers are changed out so that no one gets too tired. If the way is long, stools are carried to provide a temporary rest for those weary of walking. Invariably the songs and shouting consist of instructions for the deceased to find his or her way back home, especially if they are being moved far away from where they lived.
As I understand western death ceremonies, the loved one is talked about but not invoked. Sometimes strangers (Priests, ministers, pastors, ect.) offer platitudes, and sometimes eulogies are offered up. Sometimes those that knew the deceased well will offer up anecdotes. Sometimes – well, often, music is played. For me, western burial rites are sad affairs: grief at a loved one’s passing, where sadness and gloominess prevail. There also seems to be a sense of embarrassment. What does one say to someone whose mother or father just died? Is it as uncomfortable an ordeal for everyone as it has been for me?
There is a finality in western burial rites: the deceased is gone, their time had come, they’ve passed on, gone on to their reward, are in a better place, home with the Lord… but might he or she ever find his way home to his loved ones again? Usually, ‘home’ is heaven. It is implied that that person will never again occupy space or time on Earth.
Not so in the east. Here, strange as it sounds, the deceased are as much a part of things as they ever were. They are just not physically present.
For as long as I’ve been here, wandering the streets of China, especially around holidays such as Qing Ming and Lunar New Year, I notice small chalk circles on the sidewalk, and ashes (or remnants) of yellow paper in those circles. Prior to knowing about the ritual, some intuition led me to circumvent them.
Burn Circles, explained: paper is burned for the loved ones to have more money to spend in the afterlife. And, this paper is burned right there, where the living members of the family reside, so that the spirits of the loved ones will be compelled to return and visit. Especially during the momentous occasions like New Years or birthdays, or the birth of a new family member.
For all the chalk circles and paper burning, I fear that some of the rituals are on their way out. Just this year, coming up on Qing Ming, I asked my students who would return to their village to perform those sacred rites. “Most of us don’t do that anymore” said Way, an adorable munchkin of a girl. “We’re modern Chinese.”
How long until ancestor altars in individual homes make way for plasma-screen TVs, I wonder?
Chapter 12: Poor Funeral Directors!
A recently released report disclosed that funeral workers in China are among the most psychologically distressed groups, with nearly half the workers suffering some form of depression. This report, generated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs concludes that 21.3 percent suffer from severe psychological problems.
Didn’t I state that death was an incontrovertible part of life in China? That, for momentous occasions such as the birth of a child, a marriage and, of course all of the major holidays like Spring Festival, people burn paper money so their dead will have money to spend in the afterlife?
These days people also burn facsimiles of I-Phones, luxury cars and jewelry so that their ancestors can enjoy status in the afterlife as well. That is a relatively new trend, distorting the reverence of celebrating one’s ancestors, and enterprising merchants are cashing in on it: Apple gift packs including an I-Phone, an I-Pad, ear buds and that nifty watch that Apple came out with, all made of cardboard, for more durable burning. They sell for 10Yuan.
Another relatively new trend of death in China is burial at sea. As land is scarce and population is plentiful, the question of where to bury the dead has stymied this government, and the problem has grown exponentially in these times when more people are dying than are being born. Cremation became law several years ago as a way to deter those who would bury their loved ones in their fields, ostensibly so that their spirit can watch over the crops. Now, even finding room for cremains is a challenge. Scattering ashes at sea has become a satisfying alternative for those with little money to buy a plot. In some parts of the country, the government offers cash incentives to those who would select that option.
Donating bodies to science or universities has come to the forefront of the issue, with the stipulation that the receiving organization must be an approved institution: a medical school or an establishment above municipal level – say, a state run laboratory. In Guangzhou (G’wan Joe), relatives need not consent to donation as long as the arrangements have been made in advance by the person wishing to contribute to science. Previously, donation could be halted by a relative who doesn’t agree to such a disposal of their loved one.
I’ve long ago determined that I would donate my body and all of my organs. I don’t wish to be interred or burned and then interred when my organs and corpse could continue to help others, even after I no longer occupy it. Imagine my joy at finding out I could donate! But then, another article: Foreigners who die in China can be expected to pay a hefty price.
Assuming loved ones back home would like a physical form returned to them so that they might perform their rites, preparing a body for transportation carries a price tag of 7,500 Yuan (about $1,200), and that does not include paperwork, transportation and storage fees, nor does it count the price of the funeral in the country of destination. The grand total for an expat dying in China can amount to 80,000 Yuan!
And then, there’s the small matter of price gouging. While funerary fees are fixed by the government for Chinese nationals at 300Yuan, it jumps substantially for foreigners: to an average of 8,000Yuan. And still the necessary paperwork – with fees, and contacting the embassy, and shipping the cremains. And the small matter of storing the body prior to cremation: for Chinese, 3Yuan per day. For expats: 20Yuan per day.
What if the foreigner in question loves China so much that they wish to be buried here? Legislation largely bans it, with the small exception of one cemetary in Shanghai, and only if that foreigner has made exceptional contributions to Chinese society. I don’t know what qualifies as ‘exceptional’, and I don’t want to be buried anyway. Unfortunately I don’t know how the law is formulated for expats who wish to donate their body.
Before I get back to our poor morticians, and to illustrate how severe the stigma is against them, let me tell you the story of the woman who had to change address 3 times in 6 years because she did not bury her parents according to tradition. She acceeded to her parents’ wish to be donors, thus she incurred no funeral expenses and, in fact, got a little cash for their generosity. Apparently her neighbors felt she was unfilial and disrespectful. They held that she should have denied her parents their wishes and buried them. She could no longer stand their jabs and taunts. Hopefully she does not disclose her parents’ final destination to her new neighbors.
Or hopefully, she will. The Chinese largely regard even blood donation from living people as sacrilegious. Why would one give away one’s qi (Tchee) – life force? Thus, organ and body donation has a long way to go to become socially acceptable here, and the only way for it to gain acceptance is through education. So maybe my hope should be that this woman finds a progressive neighborhood to live in, in which she can share her experiences openly and teach others of this more charitable option.
Funeral directors are equally stigmatized, and I don’t understand why. It seems everyone wants a dignified burial ceremony and strives to provide a comfortable afterlife for their dear departed, but the people who facilitate the transition from one life to the next are villified. One funeral director, in the business for over 20 years reports that he is too ashamed to tell people what he does for a living. He can’t get technicians to come fix broken equipment in his shop. Because those who deal in death are so negatively branded, many in the industry struggle to find pride in work or even a work identity that doesn’t clash with social mores.
While death is an accepted part of life in Chinese culture, it is not openly discussed. On the contrary: it violates basic social principles. So, even though morticians are performing a legitimate and needed service, they are condemned for their role in society. Seems to me that that is yet one more oxymoron of Chinese culture: puzzling but perhaps unchangeable.
Or is it? What if we could make a paradigm shift? Include the mechanics of transition from one life to the next in the reverence our ancestor are entitled to? After all: those ancestors would not have made it to the afterlife without the proper ministrations of those qualified and trained to prepare the bodies.
To me, maligning a mortician is rather like cussing a taxi driver for taking you to your destination. Didn’t you ask the taxi driver to do his/her job? Aren’t morticians necessary for the proper and dignified disposal of human remains?
Could you imagine the world without properly disposed remains?
Chapter 13: Dragon Boat Festival
Dragon Boat Festival comes on the fifth day of the fifth Lunar month. It is colloquially referred to as Double Fives Day, an occasion when, after months of practice, people race a boat called ‘long zhou’ – literally ‘dragon boat’. The boat – actually a skiff, is a long, light water craft traditionally found around Asia. A typical crew consists of 20 rowers, a steersman and one drummer to set the pace for the rowers. Come festival time the boats are decorated with dragon heads and painted in vivid colors: red, blue, green and gold. Come race time, the rowers also wear colorful costumes to reflect their team membership. It is quite a spectacle!
As with all festivals in China, Dragon Boat Festival has its traditional food, called ‘zong zi’ (dzong dzuh). It is a dumpling made of glutinous rice surrounding either a meat or a sweet filling, such as a date or red bean paste, and is wrapped in a bamboo leaf and steamed until the rice binds.
Now, the origin of the festival.
Two thousand years ago, the poet Qu Yuan (Chew Yuan) was an advisor to the emperor’s cabinet and much loved by the people. Unfortunately the Emperor did not want to listen to the great poet and he drove the country to ruin. Qu Yuan, not being able to stand his beloved country being brought asunder by the greedy and stubborn emperor, pitched himself into the river in a fit of agony. The people started throwing rice into the river so that the fish would not eat Qu Yuan’s body. Fishermen ran their boats up and down the river in an effort to distract the fish from eating the body as well.
Now you know why Chinese race boats and eat rice dumplings on Festival Day even though, by now, I’m sure Qu Yuan’s body is no longer relevant. They no longer throw rice in the river, though.
I’ve never actually witnessed a dragonboat race; only saw a couple of decorated skiffs propelled across the water, a few days before official races. However, I have experienced the making of zong zi. It is an intricate craft, calling for much dexterity.
For that occasion, we gathered at colleagues Chris and Julia’s home. They had prepared all of the ingredients in advance; all we had to do was wrap, steam and enjoy. Chris’ nimble fingers tied twine again and again while I, with my oafish fingers, managed only two. Later, pulling them from the steamer, we enjoyed our treats while watching recaps of the day’s races on TV.
Chapter 14: Omissions
Autumn Festival, Qing Ming, Dragonboat Festival: you may have noticed that I’ve detailed all of the major holidays in China, save two: National Holiday and Spring Festival – the biggest celebration of Chinese culture and tradition.
I have my reasons.
National Holiday is called Golden Week, when every Chinese who is able to travel does so. It is madness and mayhem on the roads, the rails and the skies, when every available transit ticket is sold out days before travel actually begins. Normally, I avoid the crowds and the crush by enjoying a week with no classes: sleeping late and puttering around. The one time I joined in the rumble was when Gary, Mask and I traveled to Chong Qing.
As an avowed Sinophile, you would think that I would revel in that holiday, replete with tasty dumplings and lush fireworks displays. In truth, I’ve only experienced Lunar New Year once in China, while in Xi’an, visiting friends. There was a lot of food and a lot of booze, and a gala on TV that citizens, of late, deride as trite and passe. In no way does that one instance make me an expert on that holiday.
Usually, I spend winter break, which coincides with Spring Festival in the states, with my loved ones. Our revelry is paltry compared to what I imagine must be a wild and joyous time in China. With the exception of this year.
I spent Lunar New Year 2017 in Wuhan, alone. I did not watch the gala or set off any fireworks. However, I eagerly anticipated the displays that might be seen from my apartment building’s rooftop. I was disappointed. In an effort to combat pollution, the government asked that not too many fireworks be set off. Apparently, the citizens heeded the call. There was only one fireburst, which ended before I made it to the roof.
Part V: Odds and Ends
Chapter 1: A Year in China
China is where I wanted to be. Maybe not in Wuhan, but Wuhan was the chance presented to me and I took it. Except for the dust and the temperatures I have had no reason at all to regret my decision to come here.
It didn’t feel that way at first. Like many of the students coming to this campus for the first time I looked around in horror and wondered what sort of situation I had gotten myself into. I had abandoned a good job in America where I had professional respect, good pay and easy work. I had abandoned my friends and my family. I had abandoned guaranteed social security. I had abandoned my comfortable life to come… here???
Many students describe our school as an ugly old woman with a beautiful heart. That might be a cruel description but in many ways it is apt. Unlike Wuhan University, people would not pay 5Yuan to tour our campus: we do not have a lake, a boat and new buildings or sakura trees that blossom in the spring. Unlike all of the other universities in Wuhan, our school has heart and soul that, sooner or later compels each person here to loyalty and love for this institution.
I had preconceived notions of what teaching in China would be like based on what I read on the Internet from other teachers. I had an idea of what living in China would be like based on what I knew of China, what I had seen in movies and by firsthand experience of visiting. None of my preconceived ideas were correct.
For example: I was not prepared for the loneliness I felt the first few months of living here. Everybody did their best to make me feel welcome and included but, being one of two foreigners in this entire campus and this entire neighborhood was a very hard burden to bear. I was not prepared for that burden to be so heavy. It nearly sent me running back to America.
I was not prepared for the confusion. As a first time teacher I had hoped for a little guidance, or some direction. Maybe even a little bit of supervision. And then I realized that the school officials trusted me to do a good job and felt that I didn’t need to be supervised so closely. It took me a long time to get used to having that level of trust, and even longer to accept this great gift.
So many things nearly sent me running back to America those first few months! Most of them were ideas that I thought were going to be true, but in the end disappointed me. Fortunately, many more things kept me here. Like…
My students: I have never met a group of people that I instantly liked and wanted to be around. I have never had the opportunity to work with such intelligent, optimistic minds who carry the weight of the future on their shoulders with such grace while living with such verve.
My fellow teachers: although it took us a while, we finally found our common ground and started enjoying our relationship. Together we have found professional respect as well as enduring friendship.
Our school administrators: until I came to this school I thought administrators such as these only exist in books and movies. Our school administrators have done everything they can and have gone beyond what is necessary to ensure my comfort, safety and happiness while working in their school. Any request I made was quickly satisfied, usually to a much greater degree than I hoped for.
The fact is that, working in this school is a dream come true. It is not the dream I thought it would be at first, but it is a much clearer, much better reality than my simple, unformed dream was. How many people actually get that in their life?
Now, with just weeks before semester’s end I walk around campus. Here and there students shout their greetings, some even walk a ways with me. As we stroll together in the evening air I feel the muted beat of our school’s beautiful heart; the beat that unites teacher and student alike in our love for our ugly old woman. I look up toward Building 2, where I held my very first class. The setting sun reflects from the window of my former classroom.
I imagine is the twinkle in our old woman’s eye.
Chapter 2: What’s to love of/in China?
Being as I choose to live here as an expat with little to no chance of ever truly belonging, one would assume that I must really love this country for reasons many and varied. The reasons I list in this post are small and specific. As they say: it is the small things that matter… right? Let me tell you of the small things in China that make me exclaim “I LOVE this country!!!”
When dining out in China, patrons are greeted at the door and offered a choice of tables. The host/ess leaves a menu. The tables are usually already set and a pot of hot tea is either already on the table or quickly provided by a silent server, who then immediately withdraws. Diners peruse the menu and then shout ‘Fuwuyuan!’ (foo woo yuan) – ‘service person!’, when they are ready to order, relay their selections and then settle into conversation. Nicer restaurants have a buzzer that diners ring to summon a waiter/ess. Once the food is brought out, patrons do not see their server again unless s/he is summoned. The bill is paid much the same way as in America with the vital difference being that no tip is required or allowed.
At fast food restaurants, diners do not clean up after themselves. Dining room personnel circulate constantly, sweeping and mopping the floor, collecting and disposing of trash and wiping the tables down.
In China, a traveler can buy a train ticket to pretty much anywhere at a reasonable price. If a train can’t get you all the way to where you need to be, you can buy a bus ticket – even cheaper than a train ticket! – to cover the rest of the distance. Major cities have frequent train arrivals and, depending on the city, one can chug into it by bus at pretty much any given time of day. Most trains and some long distance buses are outfitted with bunks so that the passengers may rest or sleep if it is an especially long journey. While it is true that some train rides can be more than a day long – Wuhan to Mongolia, for example, the rapid deployment/proliferation of bullet trains are making such long journeys a thing of the past. Flying is quickly becoming the preferred means of travel but trains cannot be beat for convenience and price.
Security checks at airports, train and bus stations tend to be minimal and not at all personally intrusive. Scanning bags and ‘wanding’ people is pretty much as far as it goes. However, because of the recent spate of terrorist activity, these checks have been stepped up somewhat, but still not to the extent that they are at American airports.
Every city in China, big and small, offers public transportation, even out to the suburbs at a reasonable fare. In the outer reaches one can ride a pedicab or take a taxi, whose stations are conveniently located next to bus stops. Rates are more than reasonable. Subways/light rails run on a time schedule but buses run by itinerary only. It is unlikely a passenger would have to wait more than 10 minutes for a bus during daylight hours. Public transportation tends to be crowded, but it is still more efficient to ride a bus or subway than attempting to drive in uber-crowded cities.
In China, if you feel a sinus infection coming on, you go to the pharmacy and buy antibiotics. You can buy any amount you wish.
Maintenance medications are also available over the counter. I can buy several boxes of thyroid hormone (100 pills to a box) at a time without presenting a prescription.
In China, earning a driver’s license requires successful completion of an accredited driving school and no fewer than 4 exams: a complete physical, road test, written exam and application specific driving skills: parallel parking and stopping/starting on hills, to name a few. The written exam itself has more than 100 questions. The cost for earning a license is extremely high and the whole process takes more than a year. A DUI/DWI leads to 6 months in jail and loss of privileges for 2 years at first offense. Second offense leads to a longer jail term and permanent loss of driving privileges. There are no hardship licenses.
Clearly, driving is not taken lightly here, in spite of drivers throwing everything they learned out the window and driving any way that will give them the most advantage on the road. What I love about this system is that people WILL NOT drink and drive! Some do of course, but more often than not one is likely to hear their guest say: no beer or wine for me: I’m driving.
Here I needn’t fear walking around after dark by myself, even down dark alleys, such as those in the Over the Wall community. Granted, I’m much bigger than most Chinese – in itself, that might be a deterrent to an attack on my person. While there are instances of rape and/or robbery, they are far fewer than other places I’ve lived. Another aspect to consider is that there are no guns here. I’m not likely to be a victim of a drive by shooting or a stray bullet.
While it is true that there have been terrorist attacks in public arenas such as train and bus stations, the government is doing their utmost to educate the public and, more specifically those who work in those depots. Such attacks could happen anywhere, at any time, so police presence is high.
While China is reputed to be a crack-down police state where citizens live in fear, I aver nothing could be further from the truth. In most cases, officers act as mediators to disputes rather than aggressive agents of social control. They espouse the idea of ‘peace officers’. There is no such thing as tasering a suspect or beating somone into submission. However, should somebody actually transgress, the police are a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes they help distressed citizens by finding a workaround to their problems, and even give money out of their pockets to alleviate an immediate situation, such as hunger or housing.
Caveat: forced confessions. Yes, suspects have been made to confess under duress. However, reforms in law enforcement are putting an end to this practice. Hard labor inprisonments were done away with last year.
President Xi Jinping’s anti graft campaign is a crackdown on public officials abusing their position for personal gain. This is a very public effort, with offenders being decried in national and international media.
Another admirable aspect are public forums at all levels of government, where citizens are allowed to voice their opinions on matters that concern them. Student issues are discussed with students present. This courtesy is also extended to foreigners, who were invited to a symposium on foreigner policy and regulations. As a result of such a meetings, laws governing foreigners rights have been clarified.
All of this comes to mind when I plan my next stateside trips. My kids live on opposite sides of the country and my friends live in Texas. I have to figure out how to make my rounds cost-effectively. Invariably I am shocked to find how inefficient and expensive traveling around the country is. That’s what I get for being spoiled by the convenience of transportation.
Chapter 3: I’m Going to be Arrested!
With about five months left to live in China, my thoughts are turning more and more to repatriating in the States, at least for a little while. I have to admit: as much as I’m looking forward to seeing everyone, there is a bit of panic induced by thoughts of being stateside.
I don’t know how to be American anymore! From the start I’ve felt so at home here that instances of culture shock were rare phenomena. Looking out the bus window and seeing Chinese characters on street signs and shop advertisements served only to indicate that I had finally arrived to where I’ve wanted to be all along. Eating with chopsticks is now so commonplace that a fork and knife feel funny in my hands. I know; I’ve tried them recently.
Pressing close to strangers does not bring on blushes. Wrangling onto public transportation is part of my exercise regimen, as is walking nearly everywhere, standing for long periods of time and carrying my groceries. Holding a young girl’s hand while walking is a pleasurable activity, not unnatural at all. Taking another woman’s arm is so commonplace I don’t even think about it anymore. Seeing boys go about arm in arm is a matter of course. Ditto for men with exposed bellies and women wearing negligees out in public. By the way: men wear their pajamas out in public too. And not just around their neighborhood, they jump on their scooter and drive across town in pajamas.
Driving! How am I ever going to get used to people staying in their lane and obeying the speed limit and not honking their horn and not jockeying for most advantageous position? What is that funny, red and white, 8-sided sign with that word ‘STOP’ on it? What does it mean? What do you mean, jaywalking is a crime? How am I going to get used to using crosswalks instead of challenging oncoming traffic and double decker buses? Where will I find any double decker buses in America, anyway?
And what about when I stoop down to talk to and play with a stranger’s child? Somebody is going to think I’m trying to kidnap their baby and scream for the law! I’ll have to run, with cops in hot pursuit down a side street where I must first obey that stop sign! I’ll never get away!
I’m going to be arrested if, in America, I practice some of the behaviors that are so commonplace here.
At the very least, I’m going to be looked at funny for offering everybody cigarettes. Here, that is considered an icebreaker; a way to make friends and a way to cement friendships. In America I might get thrown out of places for doing that, especially in California. Heaven forbid I do it to any of the many cops I anticipate will be arresting me!
“No officer! I’m NOT trying to bribe you! It is custom in my country!”
“You have an American passport. That means America is your country.”
“Oh, officer! I’m so confused!”
And I will be, too.
When I board a bus I’ll get pulled off for shoving my way onto it. I’ll have to walk everywhere I go.
Men in white coats are going to approach me slowly in McDonald’s because I’m eating my french fries with disposable chopsticks that I pulled out of my luggage.
I’ll try to lay off the chopsticks at McDonald’s, but if, after my repeated calls for ‘fuwuyuan! – waitress!’ brings no chopsticks I’ll HAVE to get a set out of my bag. Of course, I might get thrown out of the restaurant for shouting ‘fuwuyuan’ to begin with. They might think I’m speaking in tongues, or, at the very least that I suffer from a strange variation of Tourette’s Syndrome. Either way, here come the mental health professionals! Or a charge of disturbing the peace.
If I manage to evade the doctors and/or policemen, night patrolmen are going to detain me because I’m spray-painting ‘Welcome to our Establishment’ in Chinese all over the doorways in the business part of town. I might be able to stop myself before attempting to train cats to wave though.
Here it is common to have a huge banner, greeting customers by telling them ‘Welcome to our Establishment’. The sentiment is reinforced by a golden ceramic kitty waving its paw, inviting you to come in. I’ll stop at the kitties, but there is no guarantee that I won’t welcome people to establishments. That is too quick and easy to do, and it seems so polite, don’t you think?
And playing! The word ‘wan’ – to play, is used in so many contexts over here! One invites adults over to play, or out to play. It sounds nasty but it only means ‘let us go hang out somewhere’! Heaven forbid if I invite a child over to play; I’ll be called lewd and obscene names and get a referral to a psychiatrist! Or arrested for allegedly attempting to harm a minor.
What about calling ‘em like I see ‘em? Here it is common to point, stare and openly comment on appearances. For example: I have been designated ‘foreigner’, ‘tall’, ‘big-nose’ and the like. What if, while in Walmart or out and about, I start pointing my finger and saying ‘Fatty!’ or ‘You’re Black!’ or ‘You’re a badly behaved child!’ Or, if someone starts pummeling the tar out of me for making such comments and I start screaming ‘I didn’t know you would understand me!’ At the very least I could end up with an emergency room bill to pay that I won’t have the money for. I’ll have to go to jail for being destitute. If I don’t go to jail for causing a disturbance, first.
What if it just so happens I’m out and about in my negligee when I get arrested? And with my umbrella open to protect me from the sun? First off, wouldn’t using an umbrella on a sunny day be a dead giveaway that there is something wrong with me? And then, isn’t it considered indecent exposure to go about in a negligee in America? And what will happen to me in prison if I go there in a negligee and they take away my umbrella? I’ll have no way to defend myself! And, if I’m in one of those holding cells where you can see everything the prisoner is doing, and they watch me squat down over the drain to use the bathroom and throw the paper in the trash? I will have to get psychiatrically evaluated all over again!
I’m scared I won’t know how to stop being Chinese.
Epilogue: The Little Prince’s Rose
Surely you are familiar with The Little Prince, written by Antoine de St. Exupery? Maybe, in the halcyon days of your childhood you curled up in your parent’s lap and listened to the voyage undertaken by this Prince? Perhaps you read it by yourself, when you got a little older? Maybe you have seen the movie, or even heard it on the radio.
In case you haven’t, let me summarize.
The Little Prince, on a voyage across the universe, happens on a pilot – an Earthling, stranded in the desert with his crashed plane.
“Please, draw me a sheep.” was the Little Prince’s opening gambit.
Our aviator, very much preoccupied with earthly concerns such as his dwindling supply of water, the fear that he might not be able to repair his craft, and a snake that wends its way sinuously through the story, initially fears he might have lost his mind, for there was nothing but sand, as far as the eye could see.
“Please, draw me a sheep.”
How could the Little Prince have known, coming from far across the stars, that this aeronaut had once aspired to become a great artist? Unfortunately, his elephant-inside-a-boa-constrictor drawings resembled hats and, persuaded by the adults in his life, he soon gave up his dream of art. And now, this odd little man, this prince, in white breeches and a long blue coat, with his hair as fair and fine as cornsilk, wanted him to draw a sheep.
Through the various sheep presentations – that one is too sickly, that one appears old, we learn that the Little Prince’s concern is less for a sheep than for what he left behind.
The Little Prince’s home is an asteroid. It has 3 volcanoes: 1 active and 2 extinct, that he cleans regularly. He gardens meticulously lest baobab trees take over his little planet. His drifting rock is so small he can witness the sunset thirty-seven times simply by moving his chair a bit.
He left his home on a quest for knowledge and has traveled far and wide, and met interesting – and some not-so-interesting people. Now, on Earth, lonely, homesick and tired of traveling, he asks for a sheep to accompany him on his long journey home.
And why would he want to go back to that churning bit of rock, when the whole universe is his to travel?
Because his asteroid has one feature that he absolutely loves.
The Little Prince’s Rose is a character onto herself. She blew onto his planet and sprouted – nearly was eradicated because our Prince thought she might be the beginning of a baobab! Avidly curious, he watched her grow and finally bloom, and he was captivated by this capricious Rose who demanded so much of him.
Did his heart break when he left her behind? I think he didn’t realize how much he loved her, when he left her. Still, he had to have an inkling of his feelings to be so concerned that she might catch cold from the night air, or that a tiger might get her.
“I have my 4 thorns to protect me” Rose boasted.
Four thorns! Against tigers and chill air! What will those 4 thorns do against all manner of danger?
China reminds me of The Little Prince’s rose: staunch, proud and believing that all she has and all she is, is enough to protect her against anything, when those four thorns are not nearly enough to defend herself against all the ills of modern society. That the sheer sovereignity of being Rose is enough to insure credibility, China believes. That her delicate beauty is reason enough to be loved, in spite of her caprices.
In another time, on another planet, four thorns might have been enough to defense against the world. But not today.
Of course, beyond the enchantment of this classic tale we find that, really, his Rose is all that matters to the Little Prince. He might have continued on his journey had he not seen a garden full of roses and realized his Rose is not very different from that whole horde of bobbing, nodding roses. Still, the flower back home is special because she is .
And this very love for what is uniquely China enraptures the Chinese. In spite of global social advances, in spite of the bias (against the poor, against women, against foreigners and the handicapped) and hardship of traditional life, people here cling to their mores and traditions, no matter how damaging they can be.
I await the time when China will realize, as the Little Prince did, that one’s singular – albeit remarkable qualities is not enough to engender unconditional acceptance. I wait for China, finally unshielded from her glass dome, to find her place on the global stage.
Until then, like the Little Prince, I continue my journey. Who knows where I will end up next?
The romance and mystery of travel! Reading is the best way to sojourn without ever leaving your favorite chair. Thank you for voyaging with me! Won’t you tell your friends how great this trip was? Please leave a review with your favorite retailer.
In this first installment of The Vagabond Chronicles, we explore China beyond Beijing and the Great Wall. We travel to out-of-the-way places, talk with the locals, eat their food and learn their customs. This is a very personal narrative, from the perspective of a long-time traveler with a thirst for adventure. From the first page, saying goodbye to all that is safe and familiar, through the first rocky days, when everything seemed uncertain, to the growing assuredness of a seasoned expat, you'll laugh, cry and maybe... maybe! decide that such an experience would suit you, too.