Friday, June 22, 2007
After two long, grueling weeks of traveling, part of me was ready to sleep…hard. I had been through immigration more than a dozen times before we arrived back in Hong Kong again for four straight nights in the same hotel—finally—and I was feeling, well, a bit ragged around the edges.
But a bigger part of me wanted to explore. Plus, I still had to pick up some little souvenirs for about a zillion people, so I had business to attend to as well.
The weather had been unusually mild the entire trip, with only a little rain thrown in for good measure. This morning, however, it was humid and though the sun was hidden behind a perpetual shroud of polluted haze, it was the warmest it had been in days.
Our other associate had business that morning on the Hong Kong side of the harbor (we were staying in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side), so he too had escaped the visit to Indonesia and was gracious enough to offer to show me around, an offer that of course I accepted.
We had agreed to meet for a cup of coffee and pastries at DeliFrance, a little café about a block from our hotel. Not only was it incredibly inexpensive (read: dirt cheap), it was unexpectedly good! I didn't have coffee, as the coffee in China tastes like straight-up tar to me, but the breakfast was delicious. And, let me tell you, I have some high standards when it comes to breakfast—but I was starting to understand how different Hong Kong was, compared to southern China.
We leisurely finished our croissants and set a time to meet up again in a few hours. Feeling slightly less faded, I took the map, struggled to keep straight the directions I had been given only moments ago, and struck out to explore on my own for a few hours.
The streets toward which I had been directed were not far from the hotel, so I never really had the chance to get lost, but it also gave me a certain amount of confidence that allowed me to relax enough to enjoy my surroundings. And in Hong Kong, one's surroundings consist mostly of people.
I found myself people-watching when I was supposed to be shopping, wondering where everyone was going on a weekday, in the middle of the day, when I had yet to see a business suit outside of the hotel. People were not going to jobs, they were just, from what I could tell, walking.
…I mean, when you are in downtown Chicago during the week, everyone is walking with purpose. Everyone has an appointment to keep, a meeting to attend, a desk to get to. Or at least that's the feeling generated by the undulating crowd of people as they navigate the sidewalks en masse. Here there was a more relaxed feeling, almost relaxed to the point of confusion at times.
Winding my way through the throngs, heading toward the street where I was told I would likely find a number of shops that cater to souvenir shoppers such as myself, I found myself without any desire to shop. It's not like it wasn't already obvious that I was a foreigner, a tourist of sorts, but I had this sudden fear of being taken advantage of, being ripped off, being another American who paid way too much for a shitty pair of chopsticks I could probably find at Target. I wanted to walk softly, to not disturb my surroundings, to go unnoticed so I could absorb more fully what I was experiencing.
And then it occurred to me that by doing just that—nothing—I wasn't experiencing anything. By assuming I could absorb culture through osmosis, I was being more of a tourist than I would be if I actually made an attempt to interact with those around me. I meditated on this while window shopping my way back towards the hotel, finding that although nothing displayed really struck me as special, I was still restraining myself, unable to go inside the shops, afraid to be asked if I needed help finding anything when I didn't even know what I was looking for.
I was almost all the way back to the hotel when something in the window of a small tea shop caught my eye. It was a simple, beautiful jade pendant, and although I had already seen thousands of these in the past hour, this one somehow drew me over to take a closer look. It was small, but luminous, and I was absorbed in battling my inner demons, who were telling me that I was meant to have it, when the shop owner struck a match to light his cigarette, causing me to look up and catch his eye.
I smiled back.
And before I could stop myself, words tumbled out of my mouth.
"How are you?"
Perhaps he did well enough, being so close to the hotel, that he did not feel the need to pressure-sell me, or to even acknowledge that I was surreptitiously admiring his wares. Or maybe that was his business style. Either way, we ended up talking about my trip over the past few weeks, struggling to get past a slight language barrier, and next thing I knew, I was inside his shop. And he was preparing tea for us to share.
The shop itself was empty except for me and the owner, which relieved me somewhat. Teacups have been a secret obsession of mine, so I took some time to look around while the water was being heated. Clay yixing pots, iron tetsubin and tiny ceramic cups lined the walls, displaying designs ranging from simple, painted cherry blossoms to intricately sculpted dragons and tree branches. Everywhere I looked was a new delight.
The wall behind the register was filled with canisters of probably a hundred different teas, most labeled in Chinese, all combining to create a subtle, yet heady fragrace that wafted through the room on each passing breeze. The water was just about ready, and the man asked me what kind of tea I would like to sample. I chose the Dragon Ball, tightly rolled pearls of sencha scented with jasmine. We sat down across from one another at a low table and continued our conversation as he poured the water.
I was disarmed by his pleasant humor and his seemingly genuine surprise that I had not yet witnessed a proper tea preparation, which he demonstrated and explained with the patience of a true teacher, never showing the slightest hint of condescension. He rinsed the cups and pots with hot water, then rinsed the tea leaves themselves, explaining that the tea must be washed before it was ready to brew. Maybe it was the previous events of the day, maybe I was already romancing the moment in my head, but the tiny cups of jasmine tea we shared were sublime.
We talked for what seemed like hours, but could not have been more than 20 minutes or so; he told me about how long he had owned the shop, how the tea trade had always been in his family, and then about his family and children. I told him about my first trip to China and a little about my life back home. It wasn't an easy conversation, as my Mandarin is limited to about five phrases and he was continually apologizing for his English, but the challenge was half the charm. By the time we had finished the entire pot of tea, it was nearly time for me to meet up with my associate.
Of course, I ended up leaving the shop with about three bags of souvenirs and the promise of a carved chop that would be delivered to my hotel room later that night, but I didn't feel as much like a tourist about it. Perhaps it was the discount he gave me that put my American mind at ease, but even when I consider it now, that was just an unexpected bonus. I wouldn't have felt as pleased with my purchases if I hadn't been able to truly lose myself in the experience the way I did.
We xiè-xie'ed (syeh-syeh) and parted ways. I admired the jade pendant in the window one last time on my way out, and then lugged my bags back to my room. And promptly fell asleep.
(as it was, my borrowed HK phone rang about 10 minutes later, calling me back to the city, but that's another story…)
After long days of traveling from vendor to vendor, exploring showroom after showroom, being shown the inner workings of resin factories from Xiamen to Macau, we all needed a drink…and, well, a massage. Did I forget to mention that this trip was for business, not pleasure? Well, who says the two need to be mutually exclusive? Not I.
As I said previously, we spent much of our days in transit, usually crammed shoulder to shoulder in a small minibus. There were times that I was so busy working on a spreadsheet that I would forget I was in China. One glance out the window at the green, luscious hills dotted with small niches dedicated to the lives of former monks, the landscape striated with red gashes of clay, though, and I would remember.
And then we would arrive home. Home, of course, generally being a nicely appointed hotel in a small urban area. Checking in would always take an endless 20 minutes, and then I would slide the card into my door, unlocking it, and enter, wishing for just a second that I could unpack. But no, I rarely had five minutes to even wash my face before it was time to change out of my humidity-dampened shirt and head down for dinner.
During our first week, we were treated to traditional Chinese dinner, followed by a foot massage. Thanks to an incredibly epicurious family, I have had the privilege of being introduced to many a foreign cuisine, but even with this background, I found myself asking time and time again, "what is this?" as various bowls of (it could only be assumed) food rotated toward me on a huge lazy susan in the middle of the table.
Sometimes I would taste first and ask questions later, whether it was because I was pleasantly surprised (eggplant and shiitakes) or not so eager to have more (alligator…yes, fried alligator tastes like chicken, but boiled alligator with skin remaining is a lot more like a giant fishy rubberband.). Still, other times I needed to know what was going on in that bowl ahead of time, because even though I knew I'd taste it, I needed to steel my stomach in the event of a gastronomical disaster (I think she said it was some sort of fat? Perhaps something was lost in the translation there, but needless to say, the effect was as I had expected.).
This particular day had been unusually exhausting and thankfully the wine flowed freely. We were already late for dinner and it was waiting for us, hiding undercover, when we arrived. One of our associates, however, was still missing. When he walked in about 15 minutes after we had been sitting there, I for one wondering (with a growling stomach) what would be revealed once the lids were lifted on the dishes in front of us, he explained his delay with a story that may or may not be uniquely Chinese in nature.
When we had first arrived at the hotel, the assistant accompanying us to dinner had told us the restaurant would be on the first floor, but somehow our associate heard "third floor," and so he headed there after washing up. When the elevator doors opened, he was already feeling a bit apprehensive, as the lighting in the hallway seemed a bit dim, but once he stated the name of the party, the woman waiting there led him directly to a small room and seated him.
Not two minutes later, the door to the room reopened and in filed 10 young women, presumably for his choosing. He immediately reacted to the error by jumping up and leaving, eventually finding us on the first floor, but while he was describing the incident over boiled peanuts and grilled beef tenderloin I couldn't help wondering how many men would have appreciated the mistake and stayed, not to mention the fact that these "mistakes" were likely to be fairly common.
After all, only a day or so earlier we had been in Macau, the gambling center of China. Formerly a Portugese possession, the Chinese had regained the property in recent years and although visiting there is much like traveling to a foreign country, involving going through immigration, changing money to Macau dollars, etc., etc., it is still distinctly Chinese. I think one of us even remarked that there wasn't a single person of Portugese descent to be found anywhere on the island. That aside, Macau has been built (and continues to be bolstered in its endeavors) to become a smaller, dirtier version of Las Vegas. There's a Wynn hotel and soon to be a Venetian, but make no mistake, there is a seediness to the entire area that permeates your being. I don't normally take baths, but it was necessary after walking through the streets in Macau.
And much like Vegas, there are drunks everywhere, the sounds of slot machines kerchinging their way into your ears from all directions, and, of course, members of the world's oldest profession walking the streets well into the early morning hours. Madams handing out cards on the streets were one thing, but the basement of our own hotel was another.
Having been directed there (with an ominous giggle) by a friend in our own business, we soon found ourselves walking a circuit populated almost exclusively by some of the most beautiful women I had seen in this country thus far. But their beauty was matched by their entrepreneurial enterprise (the redundancy is appropriate, trust me…gumption's got nuthin' on these girls). It was an experience, to say the least, and so when my associate relayed his personal encounter, I was amused, but not particularly surprised.
And so we laughed through his story and toasted his late arrival, opening yet another bottle of wine and picking our way through the new plates of food being brought out. We were finally able to relax.
After dinner it was time for a foot massage. Now this was definitely new to me. Every step in the process had to be explained to me, but thankfully we were accompanied by an associate who spoke Chinese, and so it was only the girls' whispers and giggles that were left to one's imagination (and perhaps personal insecurities) to interpret.
What started as a simple foot soaking and massage evolved into having (nearly) every muscle in my body relaxed under knowledgeable fingers and elbows. This was legit, or at least it was kept as such because I'm a woman and I was present among the men there, but either way it was incredible. I ordered a beer that I never finished because after about 20 minutes, I was informed that the massage would last nearly 2.5 hours and I was welcome to fall asleep. Maybe next time I will, but something wouldn't allow me to while I was in that chair. It could have been the persistent kneading of the chair itself, but more likely it was my own reservations that kept me awake. Plus, it was good to know what had caused the bruises on my calves…then again, I bruise easily.
Either way, towards the end of the massage I felt a compelling need to compensate my masseuse beyond what she was already paid. I just wanted to tip her, but I wasn't sure how much. I felt that surely this was something those who accompanied me would also be doing, so I didn't want to leave too little, but I was still having trouble with the exchange rate (math is not a language I speak).
I worked in the restaurant service industry for more than ten years, so tipping has become second nature, but in this country I kept feeling like nobody is paid their worth…this of course being because the standard of living itself is so far below those of western cultures, but all the same I didn't feel that a simple "thank you" conveyed what I wanted it to without the backing of cold, hard cash. Maybe the service industry jaded me in this regard, but, as they say, money talks, and in this case I wasn't sure if I would hold up my end of the conversation appropriately.
And so as I lay in my chair, desperately trying to calculate an appropriate amount, and then, as always, deciding too much was better than too little, the ladies filed out of the room and my friend awakened from his snoring slumber and turned to me while putting on his socks, saying, "How are you?" and I knew they had disappeared and weren't coming back. No tip. No tip expected, none necessary. And, again, in my western misconceptions, I had simply assumed something that doesn't even exist.
***i messed up my sleeping schedule today, so as writing put me to sleep earlier, i figured i'd give it another go...and it seems to have worked :)***
"This is a culture without nuance, a people without irony."These words (as closely as I can recall...), spoken by a friend from across a glass-topped table in a small bar in mainland China, brought into focus the perceptions I was just beginning to develop during my first trip to a foreign country. It had already been a long trip for me, and it was only the second of 12 days that would be spent traveling between various cities and hotels in China, Hong Kong and Macau. It was my first passport, my first opportunity to explore the world beyond my own home country. And I was exhausted.
We sat with cocktails, obtained with much effort (and patience) from what appeared to be a 14-year-old boy behind the bar, observing a room full of presumably Chinese men and women dancing to the British-Chinese accent-tinged English lyrics of songs well known in the US. I watched as men cooled themselves with fans, assuming no pretense and indeed no irony, the women following the men's lead on the dance floor in a symphony of various ballroom-style dance moves. It was soothing in a sense, but I was jarred by the culture shock to a certain degree and it was then that my friend introduced his own take on the situation. Having traveled to the country more times than I could imagine, he knew this culture far better than I, and I appreciated the summation as an authoritative preview of what I could expect from our trip.
In the following days we traveled by car, taxi, train, ferry and airplane to areas that were intensely foreign to me. Each was distinctly different, yet all shared elements that laid bare my western-influenced naivete with regard to the world outside US borders. I've always believed myself to be easily adaptable to new situations, but the sense of wonder inspired by the scenes constantly unfolding before me was impossible to suppress. Not to mention it would be unlike me to attempt to do so.
For instance, I was aware that driving in other countries is very different, but I had no idea how incredibly terrifying it could be. No joke. Not unlike being in a real-life video game (memories of Pole Position as well as Frogger are easily conjured), I wondered how someone moving to China from elsewhere could ever hope to drive or ride a bicycle even a block without being killed. The lines dividing lanes are either absent or superfluous and horns are used instead of turn signals, often as a warning that any existing rules of the road are about to be ignored. I trusted my drivers; I had to, as the alternative would be to stand on the side of the road and wish myself to my destination.
Surviving only one minor accident during our entire stay, I chose to suppress any thoughts of my mortality in these situations, taking for granted that we would arrive unharmed wherever we were headed. Never mind the information imparted by one of our drivers that 300,000 people in China are killed in car accidents every year* (as compared to the, I think I was told, 38,000 in the US); we arrived safely everywhere we went and that was enough for me.
Much of our trips through the countryside and small towns was viewed through the window of a Jinbei, a smallish, tall minibus that could hardly be said to be comfortable but was not altogether unreasonable in its accommodations. Perhaps I am too forgiving after driving a Saturn with bad shocks for 4 years, but I was less bothered by these rides than others and it can't be denied that any discomfort was certainly mitigated by my interest in what was going on outside the car.
The medians and parks are meticulously maintained; such landscaping would surely command an exorbitant price in the US. Sculpted hedges, tropical plants, colors and shapes blended with nature in an artistic interpretation of God's intentions, these were well-placed as distractions from the rubble, tin shacks, garbage and dirty stores lining the streets just beyond their borders. As beautiful as the plant life is, the side roads and dwellings are equally opposite.
Imagine a hundred garages butted up right next to each other, filled with random assortments of everything you could imagine from car batteries to toilets to broken televisions, like so many giant shoeboxes storing odds and ends, and then a dump a year's worth of refuse onto the yards and broken concrete sidewalks and spray it all with the red dust of clay-infused soil. If you can assemble this image in your mind's eye, then you have a weak idea of just about every road in rural (and not-so-rural) China.
At night the neon signs, screaming whatever they're screaming in Chinese characters, almost blot out the glow of 16" televisions set up in the fronts of these stores, except that the crowds of anywhere from 10-50 people gathered around them draws one's attention back to a seemingly common nighttime activity. Well, that is if one can consider watching TV to be an activity.
I won't lie; I have 400 some odd channels on my 27" television, yet I only watch about 4 of them, and even that's only as a ridiculous panacea for insomnia. Half of my friends have plasma screens despite tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And the only time I watch anything on a screen with more than two other people is when I go to the movie theatre.
Needless to say, I had a difficult time processing what it was that drew these people like proverbial moths to the flickering light of their run-down sets. Perhaps they were watching the news, although I doubt it…and even if they were, the news in China is so censored, what "news" could they truly hope to glean? Perhaps it's as simple as an escape from their realities, much like what compels us as Americans to have a set in every room of our homes (not to mention computers with high-speed internet access). Either way, it left me with a feeling of embarrassment compounded by the guilt of immediately (and erroneously) judging their habits as a reflection of an inferior lifestyle. After all, it's not as if we, as westerners, are more highly evolved; we just receive more credit card applications in the mail.
All the same, ethnocentricity is difficult to shed, even willfully. And even such a realization does nothing to dampen its implications. I am still coming to terms with this.
*side note: "A report from the World Health Organization estimates that more than 600 lives are lost and more than 45,000 people are injured on China's roads every day." (meaning 219,000/year) They expect this number to increase to half a million per year by 2010, by the way. A similar report puts 2006 US auto deaths at 45,000 per year. So the numbers the driver gave us were a little off, but the magnitude remains the same…even if you take into account that US population is 298,444,215 (2006) and China's is, oh, 1,313,973,713 (2006). If you're going to get nitpicky about it, though, only 3 of every 1000 Chinese drive a car, but in the US almost 67% of the population drives (200,000,000 licensed drivers in 2005). So there. Suck it. I was still justified in being a leetle beet nervous.
****Yarg…So much more to follow…part two of this gazillion-part blog will exist once I'm finished surviving my jet lag (and cleaning my apartment). Maybe I'll put up some pictures in the near future…a slideshow thingy or something. Get excited.****
whenever i do write for myself, it's always on some sort of disposable medium...notepads i discard as soon as i'm finished filling them with half-sentences and lists, pieces of paper i fill with words and then write on top of until they're completely illegible, napkins, random pages in random notebooks...whenever i do come across something i've written in the past (be it half an hour or 22 years ago), i'm always surprised that i'm the one who wrote it. and yet i have a crate of half-filled journals that i've written in over the years and yet know i'll never go back and read.
the thing is, i don't plan on reading those things...they were all exorcistic in nature and i want to throw them away, but there's something that won't let me...and yet keeping them around is almost more of a liability. we all know the trauma that reading someone else's mind would cause, yet when faced with a crate full of someone's innermost thoughts and no one around, it's hard to believe that personX wouldn't sneak a page or two, even if what was read was from X years ago. this very thing being against my nature (principles?), i used to be naive enough to think people wouldn't do that, but i know better now...from experience. and so i can't tell if i'm scared to write, or if it is that it actually bores me. my thoughts are too scattered and often i feel like my hand can't keep up...or write the right way to get it all down, i don't know.
When i was in college...and even afterwards, i would write term papers for money. it was easy for me, and the money was good, but i think i did it mostly because i knew i wanted to write, and now that there were parameters and someone else's grade on the line, i had a goal. i had my focus. as much as i charged, the money was never worth what i put into it...and i could never admit that i committed as much as i did to those papers because although i knew i could get away with a lot less (i know i did with the papers i wrote for myself), i wanted to write something kick-ass. The literary analysis i did for this girl my senior year ended up being one of the greatest papers i ever wrote, and one of the most exhilarating and engrossing things i ever researched...and my biggest regret is that i don't have a copy.
why is it that these seemingly sterile term papers captivate me more than the stack of journals filled with my own thoughts do? why is it that i'd rather spend the evening conversing with a friend than i would sitting and writing the same things i would say, but more? i think it's the give-and-take.
writing irritates me b/c either it's completely internal or you have to hand it to someone and say "read this, please." and for most people, that's kind of heavy...and weird. especially if it's musings like this or personal thoughts. so what can you expect someone to say? right. at least in the course of conversation you can expect someone to dispute or add to something you say. with writing, it's just you. you vs. you. and to me, me vs. me is boring. and 90% of anybody who bothered to read even the beginning of this blog probably got bored a long time ago, further proving whatever point i wasn't even close to making (although i'm sure it doesn't help that i ignore capitalizing letters and believe that ellipses are the most supreme form of punctuation).
See, and here's the part where i have more to say, but i'm tired of writing.