April 18, 2016

Summing Up

What a silly post title, "summing up," as if I could sum up China. It seems to be the fashionable thing to say that even if you spent the rest of your life there, you could never really understand China (well, Anthony Bourdain said that, anyway). Apparently one of the most vivid things Chinese have historically believed is that it's easy to fool a foreigner, and there we were, extreme foreigners.

gorgeous morning light in Dali
I had the hardest time finding a good grasp of whether China felt foreign or not. In many ways it was the least foreign place we've traveled in Asia, and I once told Marc that aside from the language, I felt like I 'got' China and understood it. Maybe it was as simple as the fact that they drive on the same side of the road as we do, and driving didn't feel as impossible there as it does when we travel in SEAsia, where they seem to navigate by echolocation, horns honking constantly. China, on the other hand, was orderly, straightforward, quiet driving. (But slow.....even on the busy highways, all our drivers drove so slowly it was strange, and of course we don't know what the speed limits were.)

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!
Another thing that added to the 'foreign' column was the complete absence of western tourists. Like, NONE. We'd be in touristy places, even, with hundreds of people, and not see one other obvious westerner. Some of the Chinese or Asian people we saw may well have been tourists from the US, but if so they didn't speak English in our hearing. And one of the most startling experiences that added to the foreign experience happened as we were coming into Guilin on the first day -- I still have to ask Marc about it, to be sure it happened. The flight attendant said that no newspapers were allowed to be brought in, so everyone needed to leave their newspapers on the plane. Of all the places we've traveled, that has never happened.

"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.
We went into the trip with hesitation and a bit of anxiety, worried that we might really dislike China. Every time we've encountered big groups of Chinese tourists in our travels around SEAsia, they've been so loud and taking-over; when we were in Siem Reap, for instance, at Ta Prohm, we waited and waited for huge hordes of Chinese tourists to leave so we could get close enough to see some of the ruins and finally we just left. I have a long and deep fascination with China, as I had with India, born of literature and books, and hoped desperately not to feel permanently disconnected from that by a bad experience.

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
Another notable thing we experienced was the overwhelming amount of food being grown. I've been re-reading Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, an account of his trips by rail through and across China in the late 80s, when Deng Xioping was remaking China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and he commented on this too. He noted that there are very few trees left because you can't grow crops in the shadows of trees. I felt like the Chinese must be master farmers, because every possible bit of land was shaped into beautiful fields of crops, gorgeous gardens outside a house or village. Every possible square inch. When we were riding bikes around Xizhou, the fields were full of people -- morning to night -- crouched over planting or tending or harvesting crops . . . and they are beautiful, if they're the same ones we always saw in the markets.

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!
Our last couple of nights in Hong Kong were a bit overwhelming for me, and I hate to say it but I did not like Hong Kong at all. I guess if I hadn't lived in NYC, I might have been dazzled by it (though it's true that Hong Kong at night is extraordinary, especially from the water). Kowloon is extremely crowded and overwhelming, and Hong Kong is great if you want to shop at Cartier and stores like that, but otherwise it's a big, busy city and it wasn't my cup of tea. It didn't help that the weather was looming and quite heavy and I had such an extreme headache our second day that I couldn't even leave the hotel. The public transport there is remarkable, as everyone always says. We never got any food that was better than mediocre, but with one exception that was true in China, too. The people in Hong Kong were quite helpful and nice to us, giving us directions with generosity and smiles. I imagine that my experience of Hong Kong was heavily shaped by the terrible headache I had, but at the same time I don't personally feel a big desire ever to go back.

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......

No comments:

Post a Comment

We love your comments!