As a new current student at Prescott enrolled in the Chinese Language Institute and living with two of my China travel mates (both write the blogs for Prescott), I can say my travel to China not only touched me physically, but mentally and emotionally.
I didn’t contract any of the weird diseases I had hyped myself up for. I didn’t end up in prison. I didn’t see any public executions or religious persecution while amongst the commoners. Nobody quoted old Mao sayings or wore grey and black Mao suits. Instead, my perceptions were severely altered. I contracted food poisoning from tasting the unique foods with no regrets. I nearly ended up in prison while enjoying a Wonder of the World. I heard deathly loud noises and smelled heavenly aromas. And the only people quoting Mao were those of us on the trip.
In the month since I left China, I have realized the magnitude of senses I encountered. But, with this China blog coming to an end, I wanted to wait until I was out of the country and had some time to grasp my last sense. From the close physical proximity of the Chinese people on my airplane going to China to the closeness I felt to the Chinese people as I returned to the States, touch is one of my most cherished senses.
A Throwback to Romance
On the last week in Qinhuangdao, our group was asked to speak to a group of British students about American culture and our university. Some students spoke about airplanes. Others spoke about religion. Nikki and I spoke about dating. Though we know enough about American dating, we felt like we were comparing a 1950s sock hop to the 1970s Woodstock when we researched dating with our Chinese language partners. When we brought up dating at the dinner table, the girls giggled and the guys blushed. They talked about how they planned on marrying the first boyfriend or girlfriend they dated. They would only hold hands and maybe kiss if they had been “going steady” for more than a year. Uh, what?
But, just because they do not show public displays of affection does not mean they do not closely interact with others. Asian cultures generally have a smaller “personal bubble.” I attribute it to being tightly packed in small places. Upon introduction, my language partners would stand toe-to-toe with me and speak nearly nose-to-nose. Others would stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the subway and during walk and talks. But, the most stunning aspect didn’t revolve around dating. Although the Chinese women are cautious to hold hands with the opposite gender, they will hold hands with the same gender. Nikki and I had noticed this at our first campus in Beijing, but it wasn’t until Xi An when I had female language partners that I really understood. My partners, right after meeting me, grabbed my arm and proceeded to lead me, by either arm or hand, across the campus for the remainder of the day. Nikki and I only grabbed each other’s hand on the trip if the other was going to get run over by a taxi. My personal bubble slowly became popped throughout the trip and I am glad. It was time to let some air out.
Chinese are impatient. I don’t mean they tap their foot if you take too long in the line. They will literally shove you out of the way to get into line quicker. The cars do not yield for pedestrians and lines are only for foreigners. With 2.6 billion inhabitants, physical space is a lucrative and expensive commodity. On a particularly cheery afternoon on the four-hour train ride from Qinhuangdao to Beijing in the lower class seating, I came down with my final freaky illness. I had a black tongue, severely upset stomach, a high fever, and had recently broken into head-to-toe hives. Subsequently, I spent much of the afternoon in the ill-kept train bathrooms. During stops in towns, about every twenty minutes, the train attendants would lock the bathroom doors. Because the train had no facilities to hold the waste underneath the car, unlike an airplane, the waste simply dropped while we were riding. To prevent it from piling up at the train stops (though it didn’t stop the smell), the attendants would lock the doors until we had pulled away from the station. However, after numerous trips to the bathroom, the attendants knew to open the bathrooms as soon as the car pulled away because I would be back, bent over and careful not to lose my footing. However, on one occasion of visiting the restroom, I was abruptly charged in on. I had been in the bathroom for less than a minute but planned on staying there for another twenty when a young man from the class car above mine began banging on the door to the bathroom. In his increasing fury, he actually dislodged the door and told me to get out. I am sure this is not common practice, but I was so alarmed I decided to take Pepto-Bismol (the reason my tongue had turned black) and hope for the best. After all, I had outstayed my welcome in the train car bathroom and we were coming up on another stop.
I love shopping, especially at discount prices. I play the retail game. After working in popular clothing stores, I know everything is marked up a 100% and then slowly lowered so the consumer feels they are getting a great deal. But, in China, you set your own price. As my Chinese improved, so did my perceived discounts. Our ability to bargain actually became a bragging topic on long bus rides.
I never had much to brag about. I am terrible at bargaining, especially when I feel like I am insulting the person by continuously offering a ridiculously low price. But, bargain, bargain, bargain. The vendors may look sad and desperate, but they are sly. They know the value of the dollar to yuan and will even translate the price. They speak multiple languages so trying to argue with them in another one will only leave you flabbergasted. Our group of seven spoke eleven different languages ranging from Icelandic to Hawaiian. For those of us who spoke European languages, attempting to mislead the vendors about our nationality only made it worse for us. The Euro is even stronger than the dollar and the vendors’ French and German were better than mine.
They also will stop at nothing to make a sale. While walking the Great Wall, I heard different languages and numerous dialects, none of which resembled our American. Then, out of nowhere came “Lookie, Lookie, Lookie, very cheap price, American lookie”. And thus started my vendor experiences. This section of the wall was steep, but the vendors had adapted. Their tables were makeshift and the vendors could paint, assemble and tinker at 45 degree angles. Impressive, yes. Expensive, well no, if we hadn’t bought everything we saw that day.
After taking a few days to recoup our financial losses, we ventured to Wangfujing, one of the most famous streets in Beijing. On this day, I ate starfish, scorpion and cow tripe. My luck with food had been bittersweet, so I tried my hand at shopping. Thanks to recent class work on shopping, I had slowly become decent at bargaining in Chinese. Prices just seemed to melt away, but so did my money. I still had presents to buy, so I decided to be frugal. I spotted a black camera that would be a perfect gift for my photographer uncle. The camera was a film loader and had to be rewound by a hand crank. The vendor spotted my interest and the battle began. “duo shao qian, (how much does it cost)?” I asked. “Wu kuài, (500 yuan)”, she said. “Oh, tai gui le, (too much),” I said. “Very old,” she said in English, “Too low, very old.” I shook my head and started to walk away when she reached for me. Well, it wasn’t just a touch. I was accosted. She grabbed my arm, after refusing my offer of 100 yuan and continued to explain that is was very old and a collectible. I looked around, seeing multitudes of broken, “old” cameras and wanted to try my new-found talent elsewhere. But, she wouldn’t let go. As she pulled harder, my smile quickly faded and I started to resort back to English. I told her that I could get a working one for cheaper, but she tugged harder. April, one of my travel partners, and Chinese herself, stepped in to help out my Chinese vocabulary. But, the woman would not relent. A few choice American words escaped my mouth as I was yanked by the vendor and April, now gripping my right arm. Our boys also stepped in as the woman’s partner helped her hold onto my left arm. My right side, with the help of two boys and April pulled harder, releasing me from the vendors’ grips. I never did buy a camera. I may have wanted a camera that day, but I wished instead someone had been snapping a camera.
Following our adventures with vendors at the Great Wall, we headed to the Ming Tombs. It had been 90 degrees and 110% humidity during our climb and nothing had changed. Our excitement that morning had led to sore muscles, blistered feet and some amazing purchases, experiences and photos. Although utterly exhausted and needing to beat the afternoon showers, we craved more. The bus was cramped and smelled like dirty socks. My stomach was curdling from the under-cooked chicken feet I consumed in between stops, but we were all in high spirits and singing Disney songs.
As we pulled up to the entrance, I noticed a man dressed in tattered military uniform, Mao hat and smiling enthusiastically at the approaching bus. He tottered over as we pulled up, banging on the windows and saying something in Chinese. He helped the ladies off the bus, offering his hand and a crooked smile. As I got off he grabbed my hand and pointed to my shirt. A little uncomfortable and still unsure of Chinese culture, I accepted his hand and walked towards the entrance. He followed me, professing something, but I was still confused. However, through the language barrier, I realized he wasn’t admiring my shirt. He wanted my nearly empty bottle of water. I assumed he wanted something to drink, so I handed it to him. He gestured for me to finish it and I complied. When I was done, I handed him the bottle. Americans are used to the term “plastic money” referring to credit cards. However, in China, Visa is still accepted but there are other and more widely recognized and discarded types: plastic bottles.
China has a built-in recycling program. These discarded bottles are returned for a meager profit, earning the collector a “free” income. For many professional trash collectors, this is their only source of income. Shanghai recently introduced a machine to recycle bottles and spit out 0.10 yuan pieces approximately 3 cents. This project intends to reduce waste collectors and improve environmental awareness, but it is producing an unofficial workforce in a country with a large class divide.
Because we were told not to drink the water, we bought large cases of bottled water to keep in our rooms. This meant we went through a lot of bottles during the day. I would save them and pass them out when we would go to main tourist sites, earning me the mocking nickname “Humanitarian Heather” by my group. I had collected nearly 30 bottles one morning during our morning class and transported them with me on our field trip to Tiananmen Square. I spotted a woman who seemed to be digging in the trash and as I handed them to her, I felt myself being tugged from another direction. I looked up to see a man run from another trash bin and start stealing the bottles from my hand. I grabbed a few out, much to his dismay, and handed them to the old woman before he took off with the bag. I shook it off, but realized this may have been his only way of eating for the day.
I continued to people-watch, partially for fear of being accosted again. I saw people reduced to pick pocketing. Children begging next to their grandparents. Elderly pulling half-eaten popsicles out of the garbage to savor the lost flavor of childhood. I realized my bottles could help reduce waste in the environment, but they could also help reduce pain in a person’s environment.
The dollar goes far in China and it took us directly to the local massage parlor in Beijing following our trek on the Great Wall. The first back massages Nikki, Brett and I had had been pretty successful, relieving the tension of living with sixteen very different individuals and adjusting to a new culture. The following week before we left Beijing, we decided to go again. The sketchy, two-story parlor, located hidden behind a guard and an elevator ride, beckoned our bemoaned bodies to be rubbed. Because we didn’t want to be separated, we picked a foot massage, which traditionally stays below the belt.
After greeting the door guard, he motioned for us to get on the elevator destined for the second floor. As the doors opened, we were warmly greeted seemingly by the whole staff. “Well, this is a nice start,” I said, fondly remembering our back massages. The owner spoke English and led us to a room. She handed us pajama like outfits and told us to change and lay down on the beds. She turned on the Chinese television and brought us water. Our attendants entered next, bringing in wooden bowls of hot water. They placed our feet in the bowls and started massaging our feet. Then they started up our legs. Then to our waists. Suddenly, the massage left tradition.
The three of us started flashing concerned glances and uncomfortable grunts. Nikki’s attendant was seated behind her and had Nikki’s arms twisted around her own back. A 6’3 Brett was pulled backwards over his 5 foot massage therapist’s knees and having his back cracked. My 5’4 Chinese attendant with crooked teeth giggled, pulling my toes and fingers out of socket, like he knew our howls of pain were enjoyable. All the while they spoke Chinese and we cried in English.
For an hour and a half, our attendants twisted and prodded our bodies in ways unnatural to the Western world. Now, Nikki and I have been cheerleaders for a decade, but the contortions slowly became more painful and awkward. As I was laying there having my body manipulated into the Olympic rings, I was quickly searching for “rape” in my phrasebook. The phrasebook, considered our Bible during the trip, failed to produce the correct phrases for moments such as this. Universally understood pain howls seemed to only urge on our attendants and the intensity quickly escaladed with the finale. Our attendants left, bringing back warmed towels and two plastic mats. Nikki and my attendants laid out the mats on our backs and placed the warm towels on top of the mats. They were hot, and I was thankful for the mat. However, Brett didn’t have a mat. His attendant reared back, slapping the hot towel upon his pale, bare back. He let out a shrill schoolgirl scream much to the amusement of our attendants. Then, it was done. We thanked the attendants, paid and hobbled to the elevator. We walked the three blocks back to the hotel crooked and leaning on each other. Crawling into plywood-hard beds was our happy ending.
Great Wall Barricade
I had to wait to write about my most amazing touch experience until I was well out of the country. I fully plan on visiting again and didn’t want my future visa revoked for my antics.
The Great Wall was built to keep out outsiders and did a decent job of keeping out most. But, it was no match for determined American college students. During one of our last days in China, we went to a slowly decaying section of the Great Wall outside of Qinhuangdao. Thus far we had remained on the other side of a Chinese prison fence, so we figured this was our last chance to jump one. There was no sign posted, but the lack of accessibility insinuated our restriction. Slowly we snaked our way around the barricade, gripping onto thousand-year-old, crumbing rock over a 40 foot drop. Once we climbed around the walled off area, we ran. I mean we hauled it up a sheer face of moldering and unstable rock for about 100 yards. We all quickly grabbed the photo opportunity to be the only one photographed on the wall and then, rather loudly, kept ascending. Then, panting and trying to catch our footing, the ten of us future jailbirds caught a glimpse from the top. Overlooking the valley, we saw a sight most people, unless tempting the law, would never see. A brown and green patchwork quilted the countryside. Dirt roads dotted the landscape, separating farmland and pastures from rural housing. A setting sun brightened portions and shadowed others. Our uninhibited view lasted just long enough to snap a photo.
On the way down I noticed I had something wedged in my shoe. A few pieces of the wall, probably dislodged from my sneaker’s insole, had gotten caught in my shoe. At least that is what would have been my alibi at customs when they asked why I had pieces of rock.
Although I ignored the “advice” not to trespass on the Great Wall, I acquired my own advice during the trip. All of these, though self-explanatory and seemingly common sense, failed me when I most needed them. Hopefully, your common sense will guide you better than mine.
- Eat at the vendors with the most people in line.
- Don’t drink the water or eat the fresh fruit no matter how appetizing they look after a long trek up a mountain.
- If a Chinese restaurant doesn’t have Chinese characters, it means no Chinese people go there and you shouldn’t either.
- When you cross the street, don’t look both ways. It will only scare you.
- When driving in a taxi, be sure to enunciate your location. Then close your eyes and hold on tight.
- Don’t leave home without a phrasebook. You never know when you will need to say “Easy Tiger” (mai dian lai, in case you needed to know).
- Bring toilet paper and baby wipes. Then pack extra.
- Don’t wear flip flops in outhouses.
- White wine in China is “lighter fluid” in the United States.
- Argue with EVERYONE about the price. But, argue in Chinese for better results.
- Remember the old adage “If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you do it?” Shake your head yes and jump.
- Learn enough Chinese to read the signs. Forget enough Chinese when you get caught climbing the Great Wall. After all, you only live once.
Nikki and I arrived back to the United States via San Francisco on June 16. I was so happy to hear English again; I almost hugged the customs guard. He, seemingly not amused by my relief to hear English, asked me what I was carrying. “Well”, I thought “I have those new strands of pearls in my new fake Gucci bag, a high fever, two Chinese paintings, a stomach virus, Hi-Chews, and hives from taking too many anti-biotics.” But, I really brought home more than that: memories.
The hardest memory was all of us sitting in Nikki and my room the night before former strangers turned new friends started filing out of Beijing back to the reality we left. Some back to graduate, one from high school. Some to start college. Some to finish college. Others to find jobs. Most scattered to the far reaches of the world. We have all these amazing future trips planned to Iceland, Vietnam and Egypt, some which will happen and others which will not.
But, the trip that did happen was to China. One that none of us will ever forget and I did it all.
I came. I tasted. I saw. I heard. I smelled. But most of all, I was touched.