It’s been hard keeping up my Chinese study habits since I started at the International School. All my interactions with the staff are in English, except for when I chat with the Mandarin teachers or go to the copy room. In my ELL specialist position I try not to rely on my Chinese, but it has definitely come in handy in rough situations, and it’s helping me get a new student adjusted this week. However, I’m not improving.
The Learning Plateau is real, and anyone who has tried to master a skill that contains many levels will tell you that it is a leviathan that can lull the learner into languid complacency, making even the steadfast of students lethargic.
Last summer I had a great strategy. I talked with three different college students from different parts of China for an hour each, nearly every week. It helped with my listening, and strengthened my ear for dialect. I bought a great book (one of perhaps a few dozen now) with everyday situations and plenty of idioms and vocabulary. I always had it nearby and resorted to it many times a day, soaking in new phrases. Xiao Ming and I stressed Mandarin for longer periods of time, and she helped me with the correct wording constantly. Even my buddy, Matt, a guy who’s been here for 10 years, offered a few compliments. I was improving.
Then August rolled around and I was in a new position.
In an effort to break through this plateau, I have been learning a word or two a day for the last month. In my planner each week, on the weekdays, I’ve been jotting down words of the day. These words are terms that relate to my job or to something I’ve needed to know how to say while helping a student. This has been going on a month come St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve listed my words for the past month below, but I’m curious….anyone have any suggestions for learning a new language when you’ve already got a very busy schedule?
I would wager that many of you (all seven) aren’t aware of the holiday that has just passed. I’ll give you a hint: It was in celebration of a self-less hero who died too young, but left a lasting influence in the psyche and hearts of his people.
Did you guess the 22 year-old communist soldier Lei Feng?
No? Well, what the hell, man? Brush up on your communist-era Chinese heroes.
In 1963 Mao Zedong Christened March 5 “Learn from Lei Feng Day,” a day in which all Chinese people should strive toward a more self-less, frugal, altruistic ideal. The young soldier lived on a pittance of around 6 yuan a month and yet somehow managed to donate hundreds of yuan to charities. He spent his free time helping other soldiers, the elderly, and children. He volunteered to serve people on trains when he traveled. He studiously memorized Mao Zedong Thought and dreamed up even more ways in which to serve his country. He also cured cancer, rescued kittens, and could turn his body to diamonds and fart out rainbows…
Upon his untimely death at the hands of a falling telephone pole (seriously), Lei Feng’s diary was found, and the world got a peak at the inner musings of possibly the most awesome patriot since Captain America.
Every few years Lei Feng is brought out and touted as everything from an anonymous member of the proletariat doing his part, a severe scholar of communist thought, a courageous soldier, a self-less volunteer, and most recently, a hip youth with a flare for fashion and motorcycles. Rightly so, this all-purpose communist hero and his image have raised a few incredulous eyebrows. Propaganda and political agenda aside, Lei Feng’s name and his super-human good deeds and patriotism live on in the minds of modern Chinese people today in a few common phrases like, Xiang Lei Feng tongzhi xuexi! Study to be like Comrade Lei Feng!
In America we have Honest Abe, the Boy Scouts, and G I Joe, but here they have Comrade Lei Feng. If someone shows an uncanny amount of altruism and knows someone with a camera, chances are that a comparison between them and Lei Feng will be made, but just the other day I read about an American who was extended this great honorific title.
David Deems teaches in a very poor area of China, the Gansu province. He has been in China since around ’95, and works to develop the schools in the area. He teaches Mandarin and English in Dongxiang County, and raises donations to improve the teaching conditions there. He keeps meticulous records of all the donations, even writing to his donors. His accomplishments in this area are many, but what might be even more impressive is that he has routinely refused to accept a salary higher than that of the average Chinese person in the county.
The man carries a Chinese flag in his pocket just to remind himself that he’s in China, and speaks flawless Mandarin. Yes, Chinese people love this lao wai.
Honestly, the world needs more people like Mr. Deems. Although I’m not sure if they all need to carry flags in their pockets in order to remind them of something they should definitively know just by opening their eyes…Anyway…Great man.
Even though the date has passed, and, yes, the guy may be a fake, it’s still not a bad idea to heed our old pal Mao Zedong’s words, “Xiang Lei Feng tongzhi xuexi!” I think the we can all get behind someone who just wants to help people.
Along the Kai Fa Qu shoreline, just a short five or eight minute drive east of the center of the Development Area, there is a modern, artistic white bridge. If you sit out there at night you can see the stars over the harbor, and listen to the fishing boats rock back and forth on the waves as they rest for the evening anchored close to land. Even the ambient light of the city recognizes this is no place to invade, leaving the light and noise pollution off to the horizon along the peripherals. Very few people are there during these quiet hours, and if you sit still long enough, you can forget you’re sitting in China, circa 2014.
The effect is not necessarily magical so much as it is mystifying. Just a short ways up the road is the Da Yao Bay where the Dalian PX plant sits alongside a few other factories. This plant exploded a few years ago, leaking tons of oil into the water, polluting the bay as far up as the Golden Pebble Beach. Though the scene in front of the bridge is beautiful, the land around these businesses is scarred and rough. When you get up to leave the bridge, though, you may catch a glimpse of some construction going on behind it. When you look closer you see that old, derelict homes are being demolished by bulldozers and bobcats. Looking even closer, you notice that a few of the homes have clothes still hanging out to dry. The small remnant of some village is being destroyed, and the people haven’t even all left.
Kai Fa Qu, or the Development Zone, was touted as China’s largest, and there were high expectations for the area. The reality of the last twenty years has shown that those ambitions were rooted too much in fantasy. KFQ has become a residential zone, more or less used by citizens of downtown Dalian to escape the din that makes up all Chinese cities, not a haven for businesses to set up shop and bring in the big bucks. Sure there are businesses here, but not enough to keep KFQ in the limelight.
During the last few years, the construction bubble that made so many filthy rich in China has definitely popped, or at least began to fizzle. Empty rectangular complexes stand outlined against the smoggy skies like enormous playing cards that bluff the people, promising expansion and enhancement, but unable to do anything but loiter where their foundations were laid. Construction company owners and those willing to play high-stakes poker with their money bought, built, and sold these vacant goliaths for years, loving every minute of it as the gambles paid off and the money rolled in. However, now the Chinese government is getting a bit miffed about all these hollow homes, and they’re beginning to tax people with similar empty deeds. Better late than never, eh?
But the mad construction bubble is just a symptom, isn’t it? It is just one element of a much grander paradigm of thought. Yu Hua discusses at length how the ideas of copy cat products have infiltrated every stratosphere of Chinese economics, and how grassroots millionaires can be made over night in his book, “China in Ten Words.” He doesn’t come out and point a finger, but it’s pretty obvious what the culprit is: an addiction to money and the conveniences it can provide.
China is at the top of the world in the consumption of luxury goods, surpassing even the US in this ranking (Chang, chinadaily.com). In an article published just over a week ago it’s also made abundantly clear that knockoffs aren’t good enough for many consumers. Lyu Chang says, “Chinese appetite for luxury is the reason why all major European designers, such as Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, have a large presence in China.” It’s difficult for me to pronounce some of these brands let alone entertain the notion of purchasing one of their outrageously priced products, but large groups of Chinese men and women are driven to fork over their cash in order to get their hands on these logos. From chic cosmetics to classy cars, consumers in the Middle Kingdom can’t get enough. However, this need to get the latest in Western fashion doesn’t end with products you buy on a shelf, but rather escalates to purchases made in acreage. The 2014 Annual Report on Chinese International Migration revealed that many Chinese are racing to buy up real estate abroad. America and Canada have seen large numbers of Chinese investors since 2011, when China became the second-largest foreign property buyer in the United States (chinadaily.com). Population numbers certainly have a role in these statistics, but so too does the prevalent belief in the power and intoxication of money.
Where did this manic desire for Western products come from in the East? For crying out loud, before the 1800s England and other countries west of India were generally viewed through the lens of suspicion by the Chinese and Japanese. Then, after the First and Second Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the forced signing of what became known as the Unequal Treaties, this suspicion basically became fiery hatred. How the hell do we go from unwelcome “Yang Gui zi,” foreign devils, to the trend-setting idols of the modern Asian world?
The Foreign Devil
English is fashionable here. Kids and adults throw random English words and phrases into their daily life to spice up their lexicon, and people walk around with misspelled brand names and shoddy logos on their clothing. American TV shows are downloaded and streamed by teens. Friends is watched and analyzed as though it is some sort of cultural Rosetta Stone that will magically help the viewer absorb all that is Red, White, and Blue. English, and the culture that uses this language, has become a symbol of success to many parents who force their four year olds to chant and sing songs in this foreign language before they even master their own mother tongue. How did the two cultures, at their heart so vastly different from each other, become so intertwined in today’s world?
I think it had something to do with a few bombs that were dropped, the fact that during WWII the US had almost no damage done to her country, and because, for a short time, America did behave as several countries’ righteous big brother, not the spoiled only child that she’s become today. Because the US infrastructure suffered no damage, the economy kept pumping along after the war. Bullets became ball bearings, missiles turned into microwaves, and atomic bombs made way for automobiles. These products helped shape a new world that needed to pull itself out from the rubble left over from a world war, and in the process, became the first heralds of a new culture, the American Cultural Monopoly.
The consequences of this cultural imperialism can easily be seen today around the world, and many travelers who eat at Pizza Huts in Egypt, Dunkin’ Donuts in Shenyang, China, Seven Elevens in Thailand, or Dairy Queens in Cambodia can see this clearly. Just last night we had dinner with a group of friends, all from different parts of the world, and Malaysia got brought up. Billed as the “real Asia,” Malaysia left two of my friends shaking their heads and thoroughly disappointed. Segregated and culturally bland, the country did not live up to the hype, they said. Too much division and no actual blending of cultures left them feeling like they had visited a set on some stage, not a rich nexus of culture. Another Canadian friend mentioned that many of the cities in her country were all the same. Whether she was in Toronto or southern Ontario, it all looked the same. Then Xiao Ming mentioned that most Chinese cities had this very quality as well. From Luoyang to Beijing or Tianjin to Xiamen, it all blurs because there is no diversity.
It’s this lack of diversity that is alarming. Within one country the diversity may not be as pronounced, but when you begin to see a waning of it internationally, the hairs on the back of your neck better be standing on end. Are cultures really being obliterated, consumed by one encroaching, smothering mass of ideas, entertainment, and convenience being paraded around as culture? Yes.
Let’s go back to the bridge. Remember that construction going on behind it? Well, that small pocket of homes is the last of an old fishing village that had been there for centuries. In fact, all of Kai Fa Qu and most of Jinshitan was a fishing community up until a few decades ago, but now only a few houses here and there would hint at this past. Instead, Jinshitan is promoted as a scenic spot that, “…aims to become an all-round resort that integrates tourism with entertainment. Many projects are still under constructions, such as Theme Parks, Hi-tech Agriculture Sightseeing and Demonstration Park and Golden Pebble Valley Country, etc,” (travelchinaguide.com). There already is one theme park, a few golf courses, a hunting range, and even a wax museum.
These promotional endeavors are surrounded by architecture inspired by neither rich Chinese history nor by the Russian influences of the area’s hectic modern history, but by what appears to be an American southwestern style reminiscent of Arizonian or Californian suburbs. Having traveled throughout China the last few years, I can’t describe to you the amount of souvenirs that are identical all across this country. Mass-produced, faux ancient relics with no meaning are sold along every alleyway and street from here in Dalian all the way to Lhasa, Tibet. Those 56 minorities that the Han majority is so smitten with right now barely managed to keep the tatters of their cultural identities throughout China’s often prejudiced dynastic eras. Today they are regarded as Chinese gems, banners that the government likes to wave around at international audiences as a way of saying, “look at us, we still have more culture left!” Sadly, when you visit these minorities in their homelands the truth is made clear. They are oddities to many, attractions that need to stay on the stages provided for the entertainment of the masses. Much like the Native Americans living on the reservations, these minorities in China have their culture dictated to them. You can do your dances and wear your quaint clothing, but just don’t leave the fenced in area.
Lack of assimilating has always been a way some cultures have been spared destruction, at least for a while, but then natural curiosities abound in the minds of the majority group. That curiosity doesn’t always bode well for those being observed. Who are they? Why are they wearing those? Why do they always do that on this day of the week? No, son, you can’t date that girl because she’s one of them. I didn’t make enough last month, and it’s because those people keep taking the jobs. They always have money while the rest of us have to tough it out. Maybe they are the ones to blame. Yea, let’s blame them. But blame is not enough. They have to pay for their crimes. Our leader also blames them, but he knows how to deal with them. Soon they will be all gone and we will finally have what we deserve. Yes, son, you can kick that girl. She’s one of them.
Cultures get blotted out due to human atrocities all the time, but that’s not what is so startling right now. It’s the willing annihilation of some cultures that freaks me out. In China, even old Han villages are demolished, and along with them their folk traditions and way of life. In an article published in the American Conservative last month China’s on-going bulldozing of villages is explored:
Why are villages so important? What makes them distinct and culturally significant compared to cities? Villages support subsidiarity and diversity, whereas cities usually promote mass movement and centralization. Of course, the village’s specificity has downsides: it can foster clannishness and biases toward “outsiders.” Nonetheless, without the village, we would lack the kaleidoscopic culture that makes art and life so rich.
Without the village, we’d likely forget valuable traditions. Villages tend to have a longer memory than cities, due to their permanency. Landowners and families are generally more stayed, often remaining in the same area for generations. In contrast, cities often inspire new enterprise and “the next big thing.” They foster pop culture, not folk culture. In the small community, neighbors, family, and friends are almost inescapable. Whether gathering at the city hall, church, or merely visiting the grocery store, familiar faces abound. One must learn to live in communion with others. In cities, it is easier to live alone—and easier to be lost in the clamor and crowd.
The forgetting of valuable traditions is what I fear, and I’m not alone. Addictive consumerism and this race for urbanization have costs that many never saw coming. Quoting Gordon G. Chang, who wrote an article in the Times, Gracy Olmstead’s article last June says, “…the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress was planning to build a city of 260 million people, in an effort to propagate economic growth and consumption. This mammoth enterprise would require moving 250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years,” (theamericanconservative.com). These people making these migrations are giving up more than their homes and generations of memories that are tied to the land. By adapting to city life they unwittingly let their traditions slip by the way side.
In the daily lives of young men and women, this has real side-effects. I often have conversations with Chinese people about the differences between the West and the East, and it’s amazing how conflicted they are. Values and traditions once held sacred are now sources of confusion as they navigate a world so saturated with mixed meanings, innuendo, and relativism. Role-playing, stereotypes, skewed assumptions—these are words that define the actions and thoughts of many adolescents today, but when you place a nebulous cultural identity that is constantly assaulted in the mix, you may not get just an angsty teen.
Just two weeks ago I wrote about the recent Lantern Festival, and I joked about the people hanging out in front of a McDonalds as they lit their lanterns and about the Chinese couples who cuddled and exchanged flowers because of it also being Valentines Day. A shift in thought the last few years has given rise to wide-spread acceptance of Western holidays in China. Despite most people here not caring one bit about the values and traditions of these holidays, they seem to celebrate them nonetheless. This is a byproduct or consequence of the commercialism Li Yang writes about in her China Daily article Lantern Festival Losing its Luster. She complains about how the lanterns today have sold out and are no longer handmade, but mass-produced and lack any originality. She reminisces about the detail and wonder of the Lantern Festival from her childhood, and laments the way the tides have changed the traditional Chinese holiday into a commercial event. Her complaint is very similar to my mother’s annual irritation at the faux Christmas cheer that gets shoved down our throats by the stores just so they can make their money. This is not a Chinese thing, and that’s my point. But since I live in China and this blog is about China, I’m writing about…China.
It’s this commercialism that is the weapon of the cultural imperialism I mentioned earlier. Left unchecked, international consumerism leads to cultural atrophy, or an ignorant variation of a suicide pact in which everyone is bleeding their values and traditions dry in order to get the next big thing. It’s always the commerce, the trade, the exchange of one thing for another that gets a product from point A to point B. In the case of Chinese buyers, they want the image, prestige, and convenience of Western products, but they have no clue that with each swipe of their credit card more is being bartered than they agreed to.
By the time they realize their folly the damage has been done. In China this has played out dramatically ever since the Cultural Revolution. Spurred on by Mao’s battle cry of, “Destroy the Old World; Forge the New,” entire collections of paintings and relics were destroyed, temples and ancient structures were ransacked and burned, and nearly every shred of literature was hunted down and tossed onto bonfires. Then, right after this monumental gaff, China opens itself up commercially and the gap left in the psyche of the Chinese from that cultural lobotomy got filled—by Western products.
People around the world know this. There are institutes fighting this tidal wave, but their voices are nearly drowned out by the rushing tides. In 2010 the Goethe-Institute’s president, Klaus Dieter-Lehmann talked to DW about how his group fights against this very cultural atrophy. His group works to educate and spread the German culture, but they also help keep other countries’ culture alive in their own borders. He talks about China in a part of the interview he did with Aya Bach:
When it comes to such a big power like China, couldn’t it be that the country says, we don’t really want to have anything to do with the European Enlightenment, we want to defend our own values?
All I want is for people to reflect on their values. Right now, people are only thinking about money. And that’s disastrous for a society. Because as soon as money stops rolling in, the society will break down and look critically at its behavior. That’s when thinking about values will clearly take on importance. But the process of reflection can be about great Chinese traditions and philosophers; after all, there’s also a concept of the Chinese Enlightenment.
Do we end up then in a kind of cultural relativism, where certain values become questionable because they’d be viewed differently in another culture?
I’m in favor of a compromise. I don’t believe in cultural universalism because it reduces our world to something less rich than it is. Insofar as cultural relativism enables dialogue, sharing and reflection, then I support it. But, for much too long, cultural relativism had the effect of partitioning cultures off from each other. That doesn’t work. We have a globalized world. We also have wealth in the world, but that only becomes clear to those who are able to take part in it.
I’m not a stone-thrower. I am not demonizing globalization and capitalism, but I do not think they exist together in our world without dangerous and negative consequences. They are not the enemy; it is our tendency toward forgetfulness that is to blame. Make your millions. Become a grassroots success story. Just do it without forsaking what makes this world diverse.
If evolution has shown us anything it’s that diversity equals success. Single-celled to complexity beyond the human imagination, that’s the story of our world. Creating a one-world culture will have disastrous results, I swear it.
Back on the bridge, where these ideas seem to be tossed back and forth on the wind, it’s obvious that right now in China the momentum is pushing toward a willful forgetfulness. There are factions here that fight for that cultural identity they see slipping away, but with this invisible, but very real, race for power on the world stage never slowing, villages and their way of life will continue to be bulldozed.
Friday was Valentine’s Day and Lantern Festival. Apparently this auspicious day happens but once every nineteen years when the dates align on the Lunar and Solar calendars. People get married, lovers go out gallivanting, kids eat sticky rice balls called Tang Yuan and Yuan Xiao, people split time between their special someone and their mom and dad, and then in the evening send paper lanterns floating into the heavens, trying to secure good fortune from their ancestors.
One of the stories goes—surprised that there’s a story…anyone? Didn’t think so—that way back during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, around 220-280 A.D., there was a great military tactician known as Zhu Ge Liang, or by his formal name, Kong Ming, who launched lanterns into the sky in order to get messages across to his people. Men in ancient China had two names they were known by: their “ming” or common name and the “zi” which was their formal name they received when they were twenty, but in modern Mandarin we think of “Mingzi” just as given name. Girls only got the “zi” when they were fifteen, the age of marriage. Anyway, that’s why the lanterns today are known as Kong Ming Deng, after his “Zi.”
Then, during the Qing Dynasty there’s a story about how the people of a village let lanterns fly to signal that bandits had left and the village was safe. As the years passed, traditions evolved and that’s why folks launch them still.
Then, during the Qing Dynasty there’s a story about how the people of a village let lanterns fly to signal that bandits had left and the village was safe. As the years passed, traditions evolved and that’s why folks launch them still.
And we all know the story of the Western holiday, Valentine’s Day, right? On a cold February 14 in Chicago back in 1929 a group of Al Capone’s men, two dressed as cops, gunned down seven of his competition’s men, in broad daylight, thus prompting card companies to adopt the color red and a Tommy-gun toting cherub in a fedora as their mascot (Chicagotribune.com, except for the cherub part…).
(Not exactly the Valentine Card I was expecting…
Well…It may have been inspired by other things, too…
Enough of history.
Xiao Ming showed me some jokes that are circulating the Chinese net on this auspicious day. I’ve written before about the “Second Wives” of Chinese business men (here: https://ourchinaexperiment.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/women-wives-and-wandering-willys/ ), but I’m not the only one. In China, Xiao Sans and their Sugar Daddies are joked about openly, or at least quasi-openly since it’s on the web. Here are two jokes, translated by Xiao Ming and me.
First one: In two day, xiao sans and wives will fight for the same guy. Secrets will be revealed, roses double or triple in price, and many more people will be produced. At 4 pm managers of flower stores will smile. At 6 pm restaurant managers will smile. At 9 pm bar managers will smile. At midnight hotel managers will smile. And the next day pharmacy managers will smile.
Second: Schedule For Valentine’s Day
7 am: Send text to lover while in shower.
7:30 am: Make wife breakfast.
8:00 So to store, buy 100 roses.
9:00 Give 99 roses to lover.
9:30 Back home give one rose to wife.
11:00 Make lunch.
12:00 Accompany parents for lantern’s day.
17:00 Western restaurant with lover.
19:00 Take wife to a restaurant nearby home then watch movie.
22:00 Give wife a cup of water with 5 sleeping pills inside, go to bed.
24:00 Get up quietly.
0:30 Home of lover, get it on.
8:00 Next day back home, make breakfast wake up wife.
Whoever you’re spending your time with, take care and have fun this weekend.
Then we had a week and a half off for Chinese Spring Festival. Xiao Ming and I took off right after school that last day and headed to the airport, me changing in the car. We spent a day in Shanghai and visited the museum.
It was the vacation that almost didn’t happen, though.
About a week before the trip I filled out forms online for the E-visa, and I got mine within three days. Xiao Ming waited a bit longer, and by the time we were at the airport in Shanghai she still hadn’t received her visa.
Without it she couldn’t leave the country, and we would miss our flight. All day long I had been on her about checking her mail. Then I had her contact them again. Still, we were in line, ready to check in, when I thought to ask if she’d checked her spam folder.
There it was, a digital e-visa. But the woman behind the ticket counter wasn’t havin’ any of that tomfoolery. She told Xiao Ming she needed to go down stairs and print it out and bring it back before she’d check us in.
That ordeal took about forty minutes, and by the time we got through security and ran to the gate we were the last ones to board. We laughed it off with weary smiles. If I hadn’t had nagged her so much we wouldn’t have gotten a seat on the flight.
Then off to Phnom Penh we went.
We checked out some temples, a museum, and walked around the city during the midday heat long enough to get a bit snarky with each other before finding a few good restaurants along the river. Then, during the evening on the second night, we stumbled upon the…bar street.
Neon-lit bar fronts lined the narrow lane, and petite, cosmetically rejuvenated gals of all ages dangled themselves around the entrances, calling out to passersby with their whistles and smiles, hellos and cleavage. Xiao Ming and I trotted down this street once before doubling back and walking straight into what looked like a vampire lair. The VVIP Bar door opened into a dimly lit, air-conditioned interior with a long bar running back into the place, and about fifteen hookers smiling and looking at us.
The scene felt mildly comical to me, but Xiao Ming freaked. She pulled us back out and was half way up the street, speedwalking toward the river. When I caught up to her, she admitted that the girls looked like vampires and freaked her out. I suggested we grab some dinner to chill for a bit. We found a place and as we finished she was ready to try again.
We strolled right back to the same bar, walked in and drank two beers, completely unmolested by the vampire hookers. In fact, two of them just kept staring at us while we talked and laughed the whole time.
Now, before you say, “How do you know they were hookers,” let me just say that it was very obvious that they held a job, but also moonlighted, ok.
Inspired, Xiao Ming suggested that we try another bar—the raunchiest we could find. I was to go in alone for a few minutes and then she’d come in after, just to see how the girls acted around a young, lone male.
As soon as I stepped into the next bar, Oasis, three girls immediately leapt to their feet and ushered me to a stool at the bar. Two sat beside me and one placed her hand on my lower back, keeping it there as she handed me the menu and smiled at me. Totally aware of the situation, I silently removed her hand, ignored the two girls on either side of me, and studiously analyzed the beer list.
The hand girl gave the other two a strange look, and then disappeared. The one on my right, the only attractive one in the joint, kept trying to slide her knee up and down my thigh. She asked me a few times what my name was, and, unable to get her to say the right one, I settled on something that sounded like Joelny. The other one asked the same question. I simply told her it wasn’t important. I ordered an Angkor beer and then moved my leg, for the second time, away from the cute one’s friendly knee.
Due, apparently, to her highly tuned senses, she could tell I was not playing the part of a guy on the prowl. She asked what was wrong and I politely said that all was good. She didn’t press the matter. Instead, she and the girl on my left leaned closer to me and touch my shoulder. Just for something to do, I guess, because that’s all that happened. I stood up, completely surprising them, and surveyed the rest of the bar.
One other Western traveler sat behind me, groping two girls and speaking a language I couldn’t understand. The girls seemed eager enough, but then I saw the Cambodian business guy on the couch in the corner. He had his hand down the front of one girl’s shirt, and the other two around him rolled their eyes and just stared on. The looks on their faces held both revulsion and determination.
“Where you going?”
“I’m moving,” I said.
The girl then nodded, knowingly. She pointed to the back.
“Want to go in the back?”
It was after three steps that I realized that, no, no I do not want to go in the back. What I thought was just a larger area at the back of the bar turned out to be just a private room with a couch and no light. I about-faced and walked back to the bar just as Xiao Ming walked in smiling.
The girls left us alone once they realized we were together, and the two of us enjoyed another beer. Before we left though, we got to see the whole staff stand on the bar and dance to Cambodian rap that I hope I never hear again.
Then, after a few days in Cambodia’s capital, and after I had acclimated to the temperature change, we took a seven hour bus ride to Siem Reap in the north, bound for the famous Angkor Wat temples and beautiful natural scenery.
A few thoughts that occurred to me during this week-long trip:
I know next to nothing about Cambodian history. Aside from being a French protectorate for a while and home to jungles that hid majestic ruins for years, the place and its culture was entirely a mystery to me.
The language is in no way decipherable to me, nor would it reveal its grammatical gems upon further study—it’s just a language I could never pick up, I’m sure.
Living in China for the last two years and spending RMB did not make it easy for me to flip to using USD and Cambodian money, both of which are widely accepted there. Though the dollar is about 4,000 Cambodian Riels, the prices in the two cities we spent the most time reflect this leaning toward the US buck. Things that most Americans would stop and exclaim were so cheap seemed a bit steep for me. I’m not a cheapskate or anything, but still, the place was very comparable to Chinese prices—something I wasn’t necessarily prepared for.
Speaking Chinese with Xiao Ming on the sly to avoid eavesdroppers did not work as there were many who understood both English and Chinese. And though she can speak French, I cannot—but that wouldn’t have mattered either because there were a surprising number of French speakers as well.
We got into Siem Reap around seven-thirty and, after conferring with the bus station’s map, let an impatient Tuk Tuk driver take us to the center of the city, on one side of the river. We were a day early, but we figured that didn’t matter. After all, Siem Reap was chalk full of hostels and hotels—we were bound to find a place to sleep for the night easily enough.
On one hand, I was completely wrong. On the other hand, we got to see a lot of the city by walking around for 45 minutes looking for a place. Eventually, we managed to secure the last room in a hotel. A minute after we checked in, a group came by asking for a bed and the hotel explained we got the last room available. Yeah, we got lucky.
The next day we found our way across the river and to the Siem Reap Hostel. Check in was at two, so we decided to leave our stuff and take a ride to the Floating Village.
The next few days we saw all the temples in the area. After that first day without sunscreen my neck was nice and red. It was then that I realized why so many wore those loose scarves even in the heat. I bought two and let my neck turn from lobster red back to a more human tone.
Everywhere we went Tuk Tuk drivers called out to us, wanting to know if we needed a ride today or tomorrow. This constant barrage of questioning prompted me to buy a shirt that proclaimed, “No Tuk Tuk today and tomorrow.”
We actually went to Angkor Wat twice. Once in the morning and once during sunset. We wanted to see what it looked like from the top tower in the evening since the line to go up there was too long during the day. Unfortunately, the tower closed at 5 and we got there around 6. As we walked around the perimeter though we saw five guards all huddled together playing poker. One looked at us and told us if we wanted to go to the top we needed to give him ten dollars each.
Annoyed, I told him that was ridiculous because that money would go right in his pocket. I asked him to lower the price, but he wasn’t having it. So we kept walking. And as we rounded the corner and disappeared from their eyesight, we formed a plan. If all the guards were there…At that time of the day, most tourists were actually outside of the temple. We could only see a handful of visitors, and not one guard. We hopped the wooden gate and crawled up the steep stone steps, rushing to the top before anyone could see us. Once at the top, we snapped pictures, and then began to hurry down. We stopped when we realized what we’d started, though. Those other tourist, they were now climbing up, too!
About five of us stood at the top, illegally taking pictures at Angkor Wat. After a few minutes one of the guards did catch us, and kept yelling that we all needed to pay two dollars. I told him that he needed to talk with his boys in the back who were charging ten each. He said he didn’t know anything about that. While he wrangled the others who had gone up, Xiao Ming and I vanished in the temple without shelling out four bucks. We laughed the whole way, surprised that we were the two brave enough to do what everyone else was apparently thinking.
Xiao Ming found the Cambodian’s accented English hilarious, and took to imitating them at the most inconvenient times. Everything they said sounded like a question, the end of the sentence rising more than necessary. I had to tell her to stop a few times when she did it around crowds of Cambodians just in case they didn’t take kindly to a skinny Chinese girl mocking them.
We spent a week wandering around Siem Reap and seeing the sights, and only once had to stay at another hostel for a night when the Siem Reap Hostel ran out of rooms. On that last day, we took a drive out to Kulen Mountain and hiked through a temple and found our way to a beautiful waterfall.
Phnom Kulen is a sacred mountain plateau on which Jayavarman II as the first independent king founded the Angkorian monarchy and Khmer Empire in 802 AD. Also the Siem Reap River originates from Phnom Kulen. Nowadays Phnom Kulen is a National Park and is with its waterfalls, the Siem Reap River and forest a popular recreation side for the Khmers. Especially at the weekend or during holidays it is a very popular destination for a refreshing swim in the waterfalls or a picnic on the riverbanks. (globaltravelmate.com)
It was a blast swimming in the water and jumping around off the rocks. About ten minutes after I got dried off a whole group of people showed up. Some tourists and even a group from a local orphanage came out and had fun. It was a good way to bid farewell to our vacation.
Once at the Siem Reap International Airport, I changed back into jeans and a dark shirt. We were flying into Guangzhou, a much colder destination than we were leaving. One night in a Youth Hostel there and we were back in Dalian that Sunday afternoon.
Best of all, going from the freezing air of Harbin down to the tropical climate of Cambodia within days of each other didn’t even give me the sniffles. No, it was coming back to Dalian that did that. The next day at work I fought a runny nose, and endured shorts and t-shirt withdrawal symptoms.
Not really, but once you’ve experienced the claustrophobia-inducing bus rides, the I’d-rather-chew-on-my-weenis-and-sacrifice-loved-ones-than-stand-here-for-two-days ticket lines, or the, we-have-a-toliet-but-you-can’t-use-it-now-because-we’re-so-overbooked-that-thirteen-people-are-sitting-in-there-for-the-duration-of-the-twelve-hour-ride train rides, you may think my translation is a bit more appropriate.
The Lunar New Year is the BIGGEST holiday for Chinese people. Spring Festival (Guo Nian) is the celebration of the new year, and everywhere in China you can see more red than usual, doorway hangers with meaningful and auspicious phrases greet guests as they enter homes, and many kids and business men will receive little red envelopes with crisp, clean bills in quantities of 100-1000 RMB.
As the legend—there’s always a legend in China—goes, Nian was a great and terrible monster that harassed a village, eating its people and basically causing the real estate market to crash. He did this for a while until an old man convinced him to switch his diet to other creatures that weren’t…human. The man turned out to be an immortal—there is always one of them running around in Chinese myths, too—and, additionally, told the people how to scare off this beast if he ever returned.
Wear a bunch of red, make noise, and light things on fire was his advice, and the Chinese have held true to these sage words so well that, for a week during this holiday, some Dalian neighborhoods resemble what I imagine downtown Baghdad might look like. Sulfur fills the air, conversation is blotted out by explosions, and flashes of light illuminate the sky. And occasionally a pedestrian gets fourth degree burns and street cleaners lose phalanges.
Guo Nian, once known as the “passing of the beast,” now mostly just means Spring Festival, but it’s fun to know the source, ain’t it?
Stories and myths are nice and all, but when you’re standing or squashed hip-to-hip with smelly strangers or sharing the bathroom with seventy other dudes, you come to learn that a new beast has appeared in China, and like Nian of old, it comes around once a year to ravage even the most civil of citizens—Chun Yun, Spring Festival Travel Rush.
Families, students, migrant workers, and tourists all travel in China during Spring Festival, which usually falls around the first week of February. Some will fly, drive, take buses, trains, ferries, or even hitchhike to get back to their dear mom and pop.
Airlines here are being, “…instructed to take measure to avoid flight delays as the world’s largest annual human migration…draws closer…”(Wang, Chinadaily.com.cn), but in a country of so many, and a severe pollution problem that routinely grounds and delays flights out of big cities, this “instruction” might just be wishful thinking. Heck, Shanghai alone is projected to have more than 9.3 million travelers pass through (Chinadaily.com.cn). That number might not seem so scary, but consider that Shanghai is just ONE of hundreds of cities with airlines in China. Still not convinced? Then think about the most popular form of travel: the trains.
Last year more than 220 million passengers took to the trains, and this year already more than 148 million tickets have been sold for these suicidally filial citizens (Chinadaily.com.cn). At its peak, more than 500 train tickets a second were sold! To put that in perspective—I have no way to cognitively register such a number of sweaty, pushy, humans—in the US this year AAA projected that about 94.5 million people traveled 50 miles or more during the Year-End holidays, and we Americans don’t even like trains—that number is a total for ALL travel forms (Newsroom.com). Less than 100 million compared to more than 220 million…That. Does. Not. Compute.
Living in China introduces you to myriad situations that test your gumption and resolve, but nothing zaps the will so much as the sheer force of numbers. I’ve avoided markets and stores until I was about ready to boil the leather of my shoes, just to not have to deal with people. I’ve walked a block out of my way instead of allowing myself to become part of the anarchy that is the pedestrian parade crossing the street. When I see a China-size crowd, I feel like I need a pep talk from Jesus telling me not to take a machete and cull the multitudes.
That being said, there are three reasons that people smarter than me blame for the rage-birthing throngs in China this time of year. Besides the simple answer of This Is China, or “Damn that’s a lot of people,” three reasons do stand out as the origins of so many annual aneurisms:
Traditions of traveling back home.
Education/Work reforms that promote students attending universities in other cities, and large numbers of workers that travel city to city for work most of the year.
Spring Festival, along with the Golden Week of the National Day holiday in October, are two holidays that EVERYONE has off. Because of this, they like to take their trips during these times as well as visit the ‘rents (Coonan, “Two billion journeys in China’s own great migrations”).
China is aware of these issues, and, believe it or not, they are working on it, but this Spring Festival travel season is already upon us, and all I can say is, “God’s speed to you crazy commuters, you.”
I originally thought of putting this cultural gem in the “11 Observations of Behavior in China” entry, but it is too complex a topic to simply rope in with the eleven behaviors I mentioned. It’s a bit concept with many facets, but I’m just interested in the behavior aspect of it and how I’ve encountered it in my time here.
In China, when a married man has a girlfriend she isn’t called a “home wrecker,” “Skank,” or even a “gold-digger,” no, she’s called a “Second Wife,” (Er nai or even more common lately, Xiao San “little three” because…well…third person).
The male habit of having a girl on the side is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon by any means, but Chinese is one of the few cultures where the idea has infiltrated so many levels of society, and in some areas and for some people, has become accepted.
The practice of having a girl on the side goes back a loooong way in Chinese culture. Having a Second Wife you could take care of while also maintaining a household and all those responsibilities were badges of honor and symbols of a man’s status as one belonging to the upper echelons of society. See, it wasn’t just about carnal satisfaction, it was a demonstration of virility, influence, and …well, ok…just because the mechanics of it spoke to status enhancement, it’s hard to rule out simple, base desires as motivating factors. I mean, who goes out and says, “Ah, yes, there is a gal who could boost my image,” huh? I would bet it’s more along the lines of, “Oh, snap, she’s fiiine. Gotta have some of her lovin’.” But, you know, in Chinese.
There are two types of girls at this point: those who know the man’s married and those who do not. Either way, he pursues her somehow. Eventually she has to find out that he’s married. In which case there are also two kinds of those types: those who desire the security his position and money can bring and those who just follow their big ol’ hearts in the name of passion.
Even television shows and movies have gotten involved. There are a few shows that depict ancient Chinese concubines skirmishing for power, and a very popular Chinese show called Woju had the main female lead become a second wife. She had the wide-eyed innocence that most men in this culture love, but even as her plight became clearer to her, she maintained that she was in love with the guy (who happened to be a handsome, corrupt government official). SPOILER: This became a huge hit here in China, but it was eventually cancelled and the govt official died in a car wreck before he could be brought to justice, and the main girl lost her baby. So, in the end there was some sort of cosmic retribution or a concerted
Another, more recent film, Beijing Meets Seattle (Finding Mr. Right in English), is about a woman who goes to Seattle after watching “Sleepless in Seattle” too many times…well, not necessarily. She’s a pregnant second wife who wants her kid to be born in the States. While there, though, she falls for a stoic Chinese single dad. It’s sort of a boring film, but the themes and ideas in it hit on some pretty hot topics right now.
How does this translate into reality?
Throughout Chinese history Emperors obviously had the best deal, right? I mean, there are some who had hundreds of concubines. Even the Tang emperor, Gao Zong is said to have taken pleasure in about 3,000! Like I said, mistresses, or girls on the side are nothing new, but it was actually quite frowned upon by Mao back in ’49, so the trend was wiped out.
There is a bunch of literature about this topic. You can find out all you need to know about this from any number of sources, but one recent article I read claims that economics is one of the factors that’s brought it all back in fashion. “Second Chinese Wives are Back,” writer, Olivier, says of the Chinese men who have made a buck:
Their social progress is seen by their many luxury expenses (car, travel, home etc.). But now, they consider that it is not enough. The best way to show its rank is the maintenance of young and pretty mistresses. The modern cohabitation thus comeback! This phenomenon is spreading so fast that in most major Chinese cities, there are “concubine villages”, with buildings housing luxury apartments where young women maintained their spending and gifts : jewelry, wardrobe, new technologies…
Villages, man! I know that business men in Hong Kong stick their Er Nai/lai (second wife) in the neighboring city of Shenzhen, but I wasn’t aware of villages. My girlfriend, Xiao Ming, even told me that a lot of second wives get a specific car from their sugar daddy—a BMW—and the first wife (kinda sad that we’ve gone back to numbering them like they did back in the ancient days. What are they, Mormon?) will get a bigger SUV or something like that (I guess it’s so she feels secure in the fact that if the little hussy is too much trouble she can run her over?). Some girls even use this catchy little phrase to sum up their chosen path, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.” The BMW is such a common purchase for this little set up that it’s jokingly referred to as “Bao Ma” or “precious horse,” because, as Xiao Ming explained, you mount both.
The article hints at this, too:
This relationship is organized as a win-win situation. The trend of these new wives is so fashionable that luxury cars have named a segment of their range “car mistress” (often flashy sports cars).
For example, Jian, a 42 years Chinese businessman at the New York Times says “Having a mistress is like playing golf. These are two expensive hobbies”. To maintain his extramarital affair with a 20 year old student, he spends about 4,500 € per month.
Expensive is right, but not just for the man, and not just in regards to cash. I have a friend who was a second wife for a few years while living in Shanghai. As you can imagine, when I learned of this I had a ton of questions, but I couldn’t just interview her about the relationship. Over time I got most of the story, though.
After college she met this business guy, and really liked him, so she moved to Shanghai to be with him. She dealt with her qualms about him being married by focusing on the time they spent together. He bought her jewelry, a car, clothes, etc. This went on for quite some time, but she wanted more. She lied to her family about what she did, who she dated, and it took its toll. More than anything, she wanted to be with this man “for real.” Then he wanted a baby. His wife had a health problem, and he wanted my friend to trust him. So she agreed. She became pregnant and he bought her a 2Million RMB apartment. Things looked as though they were going the way she had always dreamed, but when he disappeared for an extended period she became distraught. She suspected that he had another girl. When he did resurface, he made her get an abortion, saying that he wasn’t ready even though she had already conceived. After that, the illusion broke and so did her spirit.
Shortly after that she returned to Dalian and, with the help of her uncle’s guanxi and some forged documents, got a job. If there can be a silver lining it’s this: the man put her name on the lease of the apartment. My friend used this to her advantage. She put it up for sale and just two months ago it sold, making her quite financially comfortable.
She’s a very strong and passionate woman, but she’s cynical, angry, and hurt. You can see all of this if you take the time to get to know her. I wonder how much of the pain is from her decision to be with the man and all that transpired because of it.
It’s not just the uber-rich or highest level officials in big cities that have these second wives. Here in Dalian my girlfriend’s father has a brother who just asked him to help him deal with his second wife. Apparently the second wife is just causing a stir and the man needs some advice…you know, beyond the obvious. This man works in construction, and though China loves tearing up roads they have just paved, the construction market has already seen its hay day.
If you’re thinking all men are pigs, think again. Some of the wives know of the Xiao San and let the man do as he pleases as long as he’s a capable provider. Some will even take on a man of their own. The term for the wife’s boyfriend is Xiao Bai Lian, or little white face. He’s the strapping young buck who tends to the woman’s needs while she provides him with clothing and everything else so he can just have a leisurely life. Basically, the husband is paying for his second wife and her financial needs, his first wife and family’s needs, and her boyfriend’s needs.
This cultural trend is not just casually accepted by all. Of course, many women despise the practice, and the men who have a bit more integrity are frustrated over it, but it does happen. It is talked about, joked about, and parodied on the big and small screen. In ’09 some 95% of corrupt officials were reported to have had second wives, for crying out loud! Some corrective measures have been enacted, though. Government officials have been asked by Hu Jintao to curb their lust and, “…refrain from all young women temptations,” classes in HS have even been implemented to teach young girls to value themselves and have higher standards, and hell, a vice mayor of Hangzhou was executed because of corruption charges and he had more than a dozen mistresses.
Economics is a factor in all of this, but some people like to blame another one: Western influence. This just frustrates me to no end and makes me want to gouge eyes out with chopsticks. Take this little new trend that’s apparently catching…
Starbucks has become a place for casual pick-ups. Not like a good place to meet people, no, people come here by themselves, to find other like-minded individuals, and find somewhere to get it on. The way it’s been explained to me is like this. That dolled up, cute girl or that slightly older attractive woman sittin’ by herself playing on her phone…she’s probably scanning Weixin (a messaging system that uses texts, pics, and audio) to make new “friends” in the area so they can hook up. The guy who is glued to his phone, but looks up every time the door opens, yeah. I know women and men who have admitted to getting together this way. Some of them are single while some of them are attached and just lookin’ for something more. I asked one guy why they do this at Starbucks, and he said it’s because it’s a Western place. Granted, this is just his idea, but he didn’t hesitate to express it.
I’m not judging the behavior; I’m just annoyed by the perceived motivation behind the venue. Whatever. Western men already get stereotyped as playboys and worse here. What I do get pissed off about is when guys with these cavalier attitudes directly cross my path. Four times already guys have tried to pick up Xiao Ming after knowing she was with me.
The first time was with my old landlord. Remember him? I mentioned him when it happened. He has a wife in Japan, but that didn’t stop him from telling Xiao Ming he loved her. When Xiao Ming laughed and told him she didn’t have any feeling whatsoever for him he became a dick.
Another guy was the manager at the gym on the fifth floor of An Sheng shopping center. At first he asked her the normal questions about filling out membership stuff, and then after she did, he began asking if she had a boyfriend. When she said she did he seemed excited and kept asking her to bring me along so I could join (he’d comp the first few times for me, he said). She thought he was just being a salesman. Then he kept following her around when she’d go there to work out. He’d open conversations with questions about me. What I did, all that…When he learned I was an American he asked her how we communicated. Xiao Ming has a wicked sense of humor, and responded, “Wai guo ren ye shi ren.” Foreigners are also people. He concurred, and walked away. Later, a few days after that, he sent her a text asking how long we’d been together. She exaggerated so he’d get the hint and said a year. He then responded, saying that he didn’t have a chance. That was the last communication they had. We both laughed at the lack of tact on his part, but it was annoying anyway.
The next guy hasn’t out and out asked her to be with him, but he’s a bit older and possibly more cunning, but not by much. She met him when she and her cousins and aunts went to KTV. He’s the friend of her aunt or something. Well, that night nothing happened at all. But then a week later, Xiao Ming and I run into him at a bar. The two of them chat a few minutes and I chime in here and there, but then we go our separate ways. At first I thought nothing of it, but then when he said, “Oh, I don’t want to disturb you two,” and Xiao Ming responded, “You’re not disturbing us. We’re together all the time,” I had to wonder. I asked her why she added that. Not because it wasn’t true, but because I could tell it went beyond her normal pattern of speech. She said she felt a little strange when he looked at her.
He had shown an interest in French culture, she said, and when she told me that he’d begun texting her about this I told her to watch out. He even began one line of dialogue by saying I was handsome. What the hell is that about? I explained what he was doing and she saw it, too. The guy did have a bit more tact, going at her through an intellectual route, but it wasn’t going to happen. And then a week later I had dinner with a buddy of mine and then a drink. He and I were having a good time when Xiao Ming texted me and wanted to hang out. She told me that she’d just stepped into one of our favorite places and the guy was there. She told me she thought I should head over because he was talking about using her as a translator on his next trip to America. She laughed about it, on her guard, and when I showed up the guy’s eyes got a little wide, and then sad. I walked over, made it obvious she and I were together, and then joked about him in English with her. She cracked up, and I let the two of them continue chatting for a bit. Then I started picking his brain on where he was traveling to, made some recommendations.
When he tried to tell her that he’d pay for everything, that he’d even sleep on the floor, it was my turn to crack up laughing. He spoke in Chinese, but I had understood and told him it wasn’t happening. Soon after that he and his pal left and Xiao Ming, my friend, and I all kept having a good time.
The fourth guy went about things a bit more discreetly but more explicitly, and that’s why I am still waiting for a chance to see the little bastard. I met this guy first, about a year ago in Starbucks. He and I are not close friends, but we’re at that superficial, by-you-a-round-shoot-the-breeze level. Ever since he and Xiao Ming exchanged numbers (something she only did because she felt that, as my friend, he was ok) he had a thing for her. She told me that he once made an inappropriate joke about sleeping with her and that she had shut him down rather harshly, saying that if he said it again they would never talk again. That was the end of it until recently.
He’s moving back to Shanghai this month, a move to change his boring, lonely life, he says. This has made him rather desperate, I think. One night while Xiao Ming and I were out, we met up with him and two others for a drink. We hung out a bit, but then she and I wanted some food. We told them we’d meet up later. After food, though, we just wanted to hang out on our own, so we told him we’d catch him another time. Then, as she and I were playing pool (we are two of the worst players ever) her phone is lit up with weixin messages. She’s annoyed, I could tell. Her face took on that pensive look she gets.
When I asked about it she reluctantly said I shouldn’t be angry, that he’s just lonely. Apparently he kept asking her where she was, where she’d be staying tonight, and then flat out asked her to spend the night with him. She responded to each of these with irritation and told him that she wasn’t like that, that she was with me. He said it’d be just their secret, but she refused, saying that she’d know, and that she only thought of him as a friend, and now not even as that. I was livid. Man, I wanted to deck him right in his fat face, but I let it go…for a bit. At the time I was just focusing on making her feel better because she felt pretty upset about the whole thing. She wondered what it was about her, what was she doing to get this sort of attention…
I made jokes, I soothed her, I praised her, but I couldn’t let go of one thought: it was me. It’s true, she’s a great woman, and embodies all the ideals of beauty that Chinese men seem to value, but I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that when they see her with me, a young American, some Chinese men automatically judge her based on other preconceived notions of these types of pairings. Suddenly her status is in this hectic blender that they have no right to put her in. I don’t care about the looks I get, but shit, it really irritates the life out of me when I see first hand how this crap affects her. I haven’t gotten a chance to run in to this maggot since that night, but even if I do, I’m not sure how I’ll handle it. My first instinct is to break bones and listen to the snaps, but I’m in China. I may just make it obvious that she’s told me everything, and enjoy the fear in his eyes. Xiao Ming says to leave it since she’s already taken the rest of his Face, but the Y chromosome in me wants to exact masculine vengeance.
I fear I’ve stumbled off into a digression. Please forgive me, and understand that I am not holding any of this up as a general statement of how things are here, but rather as an indication that people can be douche bags on every continent.
There are stories—in China there are always stories—about Hua Shan’s connection to Chinese martial arts. Famous novels depict the sacred mountain as a ritual meeting place for Kung-fu tournaments and a sword competition where the winner is given a sword and proclaimed the champion. The “Hua Shan Lun Jian,” or Mount Hua’s Discussion of the Sword is a well-known cultural detail that just about anyone that visits the place can tell you about thanks to the “kung-fu” author, Jin Yong. Though we didn’t have to defend our honor in a bloody duel, I did descend the mountain with a sword. Here, I’ll tell you about it…
From the hostel we took the subway to the train station, and then the train to the town Hua Shan is located. We missed our original train because of a confusion with the time…Not my fault! Anyway, because of that we did not have tickets with seats on the one we finally got on. For about twenty minutes we managed to pretend like we belonged in two seats while others filed in and stood around in the cramped compartment. Eventually our luck ran out, though. Someone with a ticket number matching (my stolen) seat booted me out and I had to stand. Xiao Ming managed to hang on to her seat and the two of us ended up sharing it for the rest of the journey. The whole ride took about an hour and a half or two. It was my first time on a train.
At the base of the mountain chain, and the entrance to the site, the jagged, sword-tipped peaks were too far away to be intimidating, but the place sure was pretty. Xiao Ming and I ambled about in the welcome/info center, a state-of-the-art, artistically designed building that would be at home on the Enterprise. We paid the absurdly expensive tickets to get into the mountain and then grabbed some lunch at one of the restaurants on the bottom floor. We had just missed a group departing for the mountain, so the center was mostly empty. As I’ve mentioned in different ways before: that doesn’t happen much in China. It’s one of those things I just can’t get around—I don’t like big crowds. I don’t even go to the stores here unless I absolutely have to. I will wait until all my resources at home are completely tapped before braving the throngs and overly heated supermarkets…I digress…
A shuttle bus took us up to the cable cars. The ride up through the base of the mountain was not what I expected. The shuttle driver reminded me of the van driver I had on the way back to Chiang Mai from Pai, a few months ago in Thailand. Both of them took the curves at ridiculous speeds and seemed to have forgotten what the brake was used for. Homicidal driving was not what captured my attention, though. It was the mountain. Rising up on all sides of the shuttle, the mountain seemed to just explode from the ground and shoot up into the clouds. Peering out of the windows while being jerked left and right as we rounded curves, I felt like I was looking straight up at skyscrapers. The peaks touched the sky like sword points being raised in celebration. I tried to take some pictures, but none could really do the scene any justice.
We walked up to the cable car place and weaved through the empty metal guide things that people have to walk around when they’re in lines…what are those damn things called? As we entered the actual building part I caught the screen of one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling. Avril, from at least eight years ago, belting one out. No worries. No one paid her any mind.
The cable car ride up through the mountains brought us even closer to those sharp peaks. We boarded the car along with three others. As we ascended one of the others, a middle-aged woman, buried her face in her husband’s shoulder. He joked with her, saying we were going to fall and that if the wind picked up we’d all drop. Most of us laughed, but it was easy to see that the woman had a genuine fear of heights. I loved being up that high. I kept leaning over close to the glass to get different views, but once I looked straight down at the cars that trailed behind us I got a bit dizzy. The angle, movement, and small space of the cable car kinda had that affect.
I know, I know…why didn’t we just climb up the mountain? That option was available to us, but we just didn’t have the time. We needed to catch a bus back by six, and even at the top, it takes hours to hike along the ridges and peaks. Taking the cable car saved us time and got us to the wonderful scenery faster.
As one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains, Hua Shan is pretty famous. But it’s also considered dangerous. Xiao Ming’s father told her about how tourists die every year along the hike up the mountain. The narrow walkways, sharp angles and paths, they claim lives all the time apparently. That may be true, but our experience up and around the sacred mountain proved relatively uneventful.
The views were great, though. Up and down the peaks we hiked, snapping shots and resting to enjoy the scenery a lot. My thoughts drifted in and out of focus, tossed about, no doubt, by the wind and the simple beauty and history that surrounded me.
We bumped into two familiar faces, two of the girls who’d gone on the Terra Cotta tour with us. We chatted and they told us we still had several more peaks to see before we had to turn back around.
Along the way up you can see thousands of little locks with Chinese messages carved into them hanging from the guard chains. These messages contain names, hopes, desires, and even lovers’ names. People buy them, carve their special message, and then lock them where they want. They are given a key and a little note that describes the location of their lock. The hope is that one day you can come back and claim it if you want. Xiao Ming bought one and put her parents’ names on it. She said that she hopes one day they can make it back and unlock it together.
Then, at one of the peaks, Xiao Ming bought me a sword. A bit paradoxically, the swords are cheaper at the top than they are at the base. It’s illegal to own guns in China, and in the Liaoning Province in the NE of China even knives aren’t that common, but in the Shaanxi province and around Xi’an, they are everywhere. For the last few days I had been seeing booths and stores with swords of all description. I have loved swords ever since I saw the first Highlander years and years ago, and even have a small collection in America. Seriously, I even tracked down the dragon katana that Connor McCloud uses. So when Xiao Ming asked me which one I liked I checked them out and told her. I never thought she’d say, “Okay, let’s wrap ‘er up.” When she began negotiating with the guy sellin’ them I butted in and tried to stop her, but she carried on until the two had come to an agreeable price. After that I still tried to tell her it wasn’t worth it, that I didn’t need it, that it was too much, blah, blah, blah….To no avail. A few minutes later we were trekking back along the path we’d come, sword in tow.
On the way down we took some pictures, and since I was one of the few white guys on the mountain, AND I happened to be carrying a sword, people wanted to get in on the picture taking. I took about three or four pictures with different people, even letting one of them hold the sword, and then we got a few of our own.
Ever since my hiking trip with my dad along the Great Smokey Mountains I’ve noticed a difference in the endurance of my knees. Up is no problem. Down is where the knees wanna just give out. It takes a while before any discomfort flares up, but it eventually does, reminding me that my old neighbor was right: jumping off roofs and doing flips out of trees as a teen has finally caught up to me.
We made it to the cable car place and descended, taking in the change of angle. Rising through the peaks was still more dramatic, but coming down through them also had its appeal.
On our way down the walkway we sat down on one of the benches lining the path, and I finished off the rest of the sandwich from our earlier lunch. As the other people filed out down the path we caught a few of them glancing at us. Stares are just something you have to get used to as an Expat, but these stares and conversations were even more specific. I understood some of it, phrases like, “Foreigner with sword,” and “look.” I asked Xiao Ming to clarify.
“They’re saying, ‘Why does the foreigner think he deserves the sword?’ They’re referencing the old stories.”
Of course I was annoyed and wanted to use my limited Chinese to ask them, “What are you looking at?” but Xiao Ming gave me a better phrase: Jiao Liang Yi Xia (roughly: let’s compare). It’s a phrase that kungfu fighters used to begin a fight or contest of ability.
Once off the mountain and back at the train station we encountered the first of what would become many “sword transporting” issues. First off, before stepping into the place I handed the sword to Xiao Ming. It was in a box and a red string was tied to either end of it so you could sling it over your shoulder, but I’m white. And in China. Carrying a sword is just too much attention. Giving her the box just bypassed some of the superficial issues that could come our way.
I set my bag on the security belt and it passed through just fine. I walked ahead of Xiao Ming and tried to seem nondescript to the point of just plain old ignorable…By the way, never, ever works here. As soon as the sword passed through the woman behind the scanner sat bolt upright. She motioned to the box and then to the other security guard. I didn’t make eye contact with either one. Instead, I grabbed it and set it against the railing like I didn’t have the faintest clue what they were on about. Then the male guard came over to it and asked in Chinese what was inside it. I shrugged my shoulders and told him in English that I didn’t understand. I made a gesture to Xiao Ming and grabbed the sword and headed off in her direction. I gave her a heads up when I got to her just before the guard came over.
Xiao Ming told them it was a fake sword for her father, a gift for an old sick man. It was tied up tight and was not dangerous, at all. They relented and let us through under the condition that we didn’t open it or swing it around on the train. I kind of just stared at him when he said that. I wanted to ask what the hell fun could I have with it on a train if I couldn’t lop it around and do some permanent damage to body parts, but I didn’t…
Anyway, once we got back to Xi’an we took another bus to get us on the same block as the hostel. Before heading back we picked up some newspaper and tape. At the hostel we taped the sword up, using about five newspapers and an entire roll of packaging tape. Hopefully having it sealed up would limit the amount of bullcrap we’d have to deal with on the rest of our trip (barely any help, is the answer to that one).
We grabbed some more food at the hostel, but the atmosphere had changed. As soon as you walked in, the place felt more like a club. On the second floor a live band played and a Chinese girl who sounded like Sarah Mclachlin sang songs in Mandarin that I had no hope of understanding. Customers who were definitely not staying at the hostel came and went, ordering food, beer, smoking, and chatting loudly. The Han Tang Hostel is a strange and interesting place. They play American country music in the mornings, alternative international ballads in the evenings, and on our last night there they had a Chinese girl with a voice combo of Mclachlin and Pink. And the staff stayed friendly and helpful the whole time, even the over-worked girl from that first day maintained a scary amount energy and patience at all times. She even laughed at my jokes in Chinese. I spoke Chinese, she didn’t laugh in Chinese…
But we were leaving in the morning. Off to Luoyang in the morning, to see the famous Longman Grottoes. We packed our bags, and turned in for an early night. I dreamed of cutting things with my new sword.
The next morning, on our walk out of the hostel, we ran into Lady Jia Jia. She smiled at us broadly and wished us happy travels.
I wanted to put a few more pictures up with a few of my students. This group of shots is from this weekend. Three classes: SK1, SK4 a, and SK4 b. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites, but every teacher knows that’s just not practical. These kids are definitely some of my favorites!