|gorgeous morning light in Dali|
But on the other hand, we encountered almost no English at all -- not even an understanding of the word "English." Someone would be speaking Chinese to our bewildered expressions, we'd shake our heads and shrug and say "English" and they never seemed to know what that word was conveying; ordinarily, people say, "no English" but in China they didn't know that word. As always, it isn't that we expect English to be spoken everywhere, by any means, it's just that it was so striking how absolute the absence of English was (where we traveled, anyway). I don't know why that would produce such a profound feeling of foreignness, except for the implications of that fact, such as how hard it made it to eat, and how little we were able to pick up about the places we went. I often say that we travel like little children, having no idea what we're seeing, and that felt even truer in China than anywhere else.
|now these were some great spicy noodles!|
"Summing up" is also silly if I now think I've seen China, because we saw such a tiny bit of it -- and only southern China. No big cities, and we have no desire to see the big cities, either. I can sum up our experiences of two places in Guangxi, and four places in Yunnan, and as long as I'm summing up those experiences, I'm on solid ground. Maybe. One of the funniest things about looking back at our trip is how much I simultaneously LOVED it, and how little I came away with in terms of understanding. When Marc and I travel, we don't really like to hit the famous "must-see" places; instead, we like to walk a lot, go to the markets, eat where people eat, and try to get a feeling of a place in that way. Whether we do or not, really, it gives us a feeling that we understand a place, that we have a sense of what it would be like to live there. I'm not sure, now that I'm home, that I really have that sense.
|This, I will NEVER forget.|
But we enjoyed it, a lot. From the very beginning, from our first moments at the first hotel in Guilin, by the lake, we loved it. The places we went were so beautiful, such breathtaking landscapes. We have a particular fondness for markets and villages and places with little boats, so that is the China we sought, and for the most part, the China we found. Our experiences with Chinese people were mixed; if we were paying (at our hotels, for instance), they were very friendly and helpful and warm. For the most part they were utterly indifferent to us, though, and that's just fine. I was anticipating a possibility that because I'm so tall and light-skinned I'd stand out in a noticeable way, but that didn't seem to be the case (even though, literally, I could stand flat-footed and look out over a sea of people's heads, almost always). The high-school aged people we encountered were often quite mean and even cruel. Of course it's hard to know how to interpret people's emotional responses, but we often felt like they disliked us . . . and maybe it's nothing more than the old "easy to fool a foreigner" contempt. And it's also possible that were we in big cities, this would've been different.
One very notable difference between China and Vietnam, especially, was the presence of old people. When we're in Vietnam, it's always striking to us, no matter how often we go, that we don't see very many old people. When we first went to Vietnam in 2005, we read a statistic that 65% of the population was under the age of 35. All those wars, all that slaughter. But in China, I think we saw as many old people as middle-aged people, and it was kind of wonderful. So many ancient-looking Chinese women I encountered, almost all walking, giving me a chance to look at them and say hello, and hear their delighted hello back to me. Ni hao. I had an easier time with that than Marc, perhaps because women are more open to other women, I don't know.
|incredible produce everywhere|
One of my connections to China comes through Maxine Hong Kingston's incredible book The Woman Warrior, which I also re-read while we were in China and that was quite an emotional experience. Being a girl in China has historically been a pretty awful thing to be; boxes of clean ash were kept next to a woman in labor, in case it was a girl -- in which case the baby could just be smothered in the ash and killed immediately. Kingston says the character for 'girl' is the same as the character for 'slave.' I've read that book dozens of times and was always moved by the easy and constant contempt the culture has for girls, but reading it IN China, looking at the women who grew up with that kind of constant, constant, CONSTANT contempt, it was very hard. China is the country where women's feet were bound -- how dangerous women must be, to have to be hobbled like that.
|I was so happy in Shaxi!|
The URL for this blog is "China finally," which reflects our long hesitation to go, and our decision, finally, to go ahead and visit China. I'm very glad we did, and I have so many beautiful memories of being there, of seeing the various places we visited, and of traveling together. I'll always remember bicycling around Yangshuo and Xizhou, and how exceptionally sweet and wonderful the air smelled in Yangshuo, of orange blossoms and jasmine; I'll always remember that bamboo raft trip among the karst mountains; I'll always remember the tiny little villages we found in our wanderings, and how beautiful so many of them were; I'll always remember the noise and shattered red paper of Tomb Sweeping Day(s); I'll always remember freezing in Shaxi; I'll always remember how it felt to walk around Dali; I'll always remember walking with Marc around the lake in Guilin and having that moment of connection with the woman who invited me to join the group dancing that one morning; I'll always remember our delicious meal the last night in Shuhe Old Town at Number One Restaurant; I'll always remember riding the night ferry from Lamma Island back to Hong Kong, and then a second ferry back to Kowloon and seeing the dazzling light show of the dramatic Hong Kong skyline.
A woman Marc knows advised us to take a roll of toilet paper with us, which we dutifully did and never once (obviously, probably) needed, but I will always remember, and will advise you, that napkins are almost never available in any form, so you might want to take paper towels along.
|I really LOVE this picture so much, and|
I so love traveling with Marc, the very
best travel partner I ever could have.
I'm not sure we'll return to China, though I would certainly be glad to! I gather the north of China is extremely different in every way from the south; one thing about China is the dominance of all the minorities, and their influence on the various places, and if nothing else the landscape and minority groups are different in the north. Our visas are good for 10 years......