Still don’t know Jack…

I’m losing perspective. I can feel this; the elusive sensation that what I believe to be is not as it is.

(Pic found: onpoint.wbur.org/2011/01/20/china-america-question)

It’s been more than two years since I’ve been home, and with my imminent return to the States for a holiday visit, I find myself trying to recall American life in its most minute details. I’ve fielded so many culture questions, answered the most absurd inquiries regarding social aspects of life for Westerners, and debated the validity of either nations being more open or conservative than the other with college students, drunk Asian businessmen, colleagues, and my girlfriend that I actually think I can’t remain objective any longer.

The fault is my own, not China’s, though there are many days I feel blaming this place is the easier route. Expats here have a tendency to be viewed as vast information repositories of the culture from which they come. People routinely ask questions and then whatever answer you provide is considered Gospel, not a biased opinion. I’d like to think I’ve never let myself be pulled in by that sort of perceived power and authority, but I have been.

I’m sure I’ve told someone things like, “We don’t ever worry about our reputation,” in response to the topic of mianzi, or “In America workplaces never have a problem with nepotism,” only to later realize I care a great deal how I’m viewed, and that classmates of mine have walked into cake jobs because of daddy’s help.

And then, when I’m on the receiving end of deep guanxi, I don’t bat my eyes at all, just smile and make a joke and accept the offered service or gift. As a rule, it is hard for someone like me to gain meaningful guanxi, but when you have close Chinese friends or a girlfriend whose uncle happens to be some sort of industrial leader, there are certain perks you can take advantage of.

Cut lines, forged documents, lowered prices—parts of China I can’t be bothered to form objective thoughts about any longer. Does that say something about me?

It’s not like I’ve been here that long—just under two and a half years.

Just when I begin to feel that China can’t faze me anymore, a ridiculous driver will decide the left lane is a good place to park, a worker will refuse to do something that fits their job description because he doesn’t know you, or a man with no scruples will make a move on a girl fully aware of his friend being her boyfriend, and I lose it. I lambast China with the worst vitriol I can conjure (which is usually a statement of comparison between it and the US, where China is degraded to a nation of imbeciles and chaos).

When I take a step back from that, I can see that I am the one who has taken all that culture and understanding I’ve gained these past few years and thrown them out the flippin’ window. The cathartic release is quite satisfying at times, but then I listen to another stubborn foreigner griping about the Chinese having no manners or traditions of nonsense and I feel like a heel.

There was one older guy I met, from Liverpool, who actually choked a man when he was cut in line. Another Englishman who’s been here for about six years—a bar fly everyone knows—routinely yells foul Chinese obscenities to people. Others come and go on 3-6 month contracts and use every opportunity they have to tell others that they know China. Some of the stories are amusing and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, true, but others are complete bull. From Chinese economics to bedding the locals, I’ve heard just about every piece of crap adage and advice the Expat community here has to offer, and I still know jack-all about the place I’ve called home since 2011.

If there is anything I’ve learned, and by extension, the point to this rant, it’s that I will never reach a moment of complete clarity or catch that concrete understanding of Chinese culture. Ever. It will bend, wiggle, snap, and break, but it will never just occur to me conclusively that I can say, with authority: I know China.

Traveling in the Rain

It’s raining as I type this, so I suppose that is only fitting.

At the end of June Xiao Ming and I traveled to Guilin and Yangshuo in the southwestern part of China. At the end of July, we traveled to Changbai Shan in the Northeast of the country. Both places seemed bent on soaking every set of clothing we brought.

Yes, Guilin and Yangshuo’s natural scenery were spectacular and truly breathtaking, but rain can be quite annoying. We ducked into Reed Cave that first day in town, just to seek shelter from the storm, had our basement level accommodations changed to the second floor on day two, and then finally just sucked it up and enjoyed an awesome half-day bike ride across Yangshuo’s countryside in the rain on the third.

The bamboo raft ride down the Li River got the ax, but the big yacht worked out all right. Moving from our first room to the next seemed irritating, until we were put up in a private room with a shower. The rainy bike ride appeared less than ideal, but then we realized the rain cooled us down when the area is usually painfully humid most times of the year. The hostel, Riverside Hostel, actually sat along the banks of the river, and the young staff, helpful and tolerant of my accented Mandarin, was fun to talk to.

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If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like "I will love you forever."
If you say these numbers in Chinese they sound like “I will love you forever.”
Longji Rice Terraces.
Longji Rice Terraces.

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Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago...
Landslides in the area cleared these small villages out not long ago…

Changbai Shan (mountain), the spiritual home of the Qing Dynasty, is an old volcano that sits along the China-N.Korean border in the Jilin province. Beautiful countryside begins just north of Dalian, and continues, interrupted only a few times by cities, until you reach the protected land of the Changbai range.

The seventeen hour train ride there through this landscape surprised me. I’d almost forgotten that most of China’s population still lived in rural areas, not the fast-developing major cities. At night the stars were beautiful.

Being the only Westerner on the train provided the usual amusements: stares, giggles, and curious children that continually walked by our car. One boy forgot to keep walking. He stopped dead in his tracks and just stared at me. I asked him in Chinese what he was doing, but he just smirked, and then ran away. He walked by once more, quickly. I saw him coming the time after that, and as he walked by I jumped out of the car and grabbed him, bearhugging him and laughing. When I released him he stepped away and said, in English, “Bad man!” He didn’t walk by again.

The rain began in a haze, then precipitated into a sprinkle until finally, dropping all pretense, the clouds released their bounty and drenched the mountain. We trekked up and down the north and west side of the mountains the first two days, taking in the scenery and clean air even though it continued to rain. Our goal was to see the famed Tian Chi, Heaven Lake, but the ubiquitous fog sabotaged that mission those first two attempts. The small town we stayed in right next to the mountain lucked out and most of the rain passed over it, leaving us free to wander about between excursions up to the lake.

Dirt roads, mobile merchant karts, and small packs of semi-wild dogs playing with filthy looking kids wearing slit-pants made up the town, Bai He, White River.

On the third day there, it stopped raining long enough for us to summit the top. We set out early, and then realized it hadn’t been early enough. Ten thousand or more (easily more) crowded around the outside and inside of the check-in building. A few thousand more packed in tight as they herded themselves through corrals that led to little shuttle busses that rocketed up the side of the mountain to another spot where the people had to queue up again…then they boarded tiny white vans that shot up the narrow road to the top of Changbai Shan. Every van sped up and down the roads, always keeping a distance of a car and a half between themselves, much like the worker bugs in a giant ant farm. We waited in lines for hours that day, and then, when we got to the top: Fog.

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The trip, while full of pretty trees and no actual emergencies, seriously teetered on becoming a complete waste if we couldn’t at least see those blue-green turquoise waters of Heaven Lake. The murky white of the fog clung thick in the air and taunted us as we gazed around at the peak. Once again, another ten-plus thousand travelers greeted us at the top, but we waded through the throngs and found a spot along the rim of the caldera.

Right as we were getting ready to throw in the towel the breeze picked up. Slowly, slowly, the fog rose from the surface of the lake, granting the faintest hint at a color other than gray. The winds continued to lift the mass of fog, revealing more and more green and blue. As one, the entire population of the summit howled and hollered, cheered, and gasped. I laughed like a mad man.

We could see Heaven Lake.

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And just two weeks ago we took a week long trip to Tibet. I’ll write about that soon enough…