(China – February 2014) Despite the enormous size of the Big China blog-post, there is more. After all, our China experience was far greater than the sum of all tourist attractions seen. Seemingly trivial events that occur between the sights will often reveal the most fascinating aspects of a country.
Celebrity Sightings in China! (Us)
As Jessica and I made our way through China, we got many a curious stare. Sometimes the looks went further and we were asked to pose in a photo. By “we” I mostly mean, me. (I guess Jessica doesn’t look quite as strange and different as me.) We were told in advance this would happen and sure enough it did. I generally didn’t mind, though once Jessica and I were in the middle of debating whether or not we wanted to do a particular tour and people zoomed in with big smiles and cameras waving. Sorry, it’s not always going to be the right time ‘to sign autographs.’ I hope they didn’t think we were rude Americans.
A thorough discussion resulted from all of this celebrity treatment. Why? Why are they eager to take our picture? The first of our two leading speculative answers to this question is that there is so much all-look-same within their own culture, they are excited to see people so different from themselves. Additionally, they seem to view us as special or privileged people…kind of like celebrities. The second explanation we came up with is that taking photos together is a form of connecting to people that are obviously from another part of the world. Posing for pictures is both universal and personal….and it requires only non-verbal communication. It’s a symbolic form of outreach; a harmless gesture that connects people together.
Anyone else have an idea?
Jessica wasn’t interested in posing with random Chinese people, but she did receive an awesome amount of attention from a cute little girl we met on a tram car during our journey from Guilin to Yangshuo. The little girl was sitting with her mom and dad in the three-across seat in front of Jessica and me. She turned her whole body around and faced Jessica, smiling and displaying excess cuteness all the while. Jessica responded with smiles of her own and it was game on. First we took pictures. A moment later the little girl reached for Jessica’s hands and pulled them up to cup her own face. I’m not sure what this meant since all attempts at verbal communication beyond Hello were failing.
After exiting the tram, the little girl insisted on holding Jessica’s hand as they walked down the street towards where our bus was parked. Jessica truly had little choice in the matter as the girl latched onto her entire forearm with both arms, as if squeezing a teddy bear. The little girl’s mom was mostly staying out of it, but eventually admonished her vibrant daughter to let go. In sparse English, the mom explained, “She very friendly.”
Friendly indeed, at least where Jessica was concerned. It was really a special little bonding moment that defies easy explanation.
Beijing and China’s Ugly Side
Of the five cities we went to in mainland China, by far the least appealing was Beijing. I have no doubt there are many dozen remarkable places to visit within Beijing, but until they clean up their environment, we won’t be seeing them. The air pollution is so bad that being there just three days seemed like almost too much. Such a shame. And it is not just the air that’s dirty, it’s the cars, streets, sidewalks, buildings, bushes, trees….you name it, it’s dirty.
Jessica and I had a lengthy discussion about the pollution situation and came away with different predictions about if and when it would get better. I say in 10 or 15 years there will be significant improvements. Jessica thinks it is so bad now that even 15 years is not enough time for a turnaround. Only time will deliver the answer.
In the past six months, the Chinese government has released several official statements regarding its intention to clean up the air and environment. The wording of some of these statements has been remarkably direct and forceful. Of course, only if actions follow these edicts will things start to change.
During our visit to China we have witnessed so many grand accomplishments of the Chinese people. In my mind, there is little reason not to believe that if China aims to be cleaner, it will.
Spit and Litter
Prior to coming to China, we heard about all of the PDS- public displays of spitting. Unfortunately, it’s disgustingly true. People of all ages and both genders will hawk up a chunk of spit like it’s no big deal at all. The sidewalk is the chief recipient of so much mocos, but we saw people drop spit indoors and even inside the subway cars. Yes, it’s pretty gross.
Chinese spitters aren’t quiet or discreet, either. Even when you were not seeing someone in the act of spitting, you were still hearing it. Often we would hear a close succession of spitting sounds coming at us from several directions. It was almost comical at times…but still super gross.
Our Chinese guide for the tour of the Terracotta Warriors told us she used to not think anything of all the spitting. However, after returning from her first trip outside of China, she’s changed her mind. There’s one convert.
Littering was even more prevalent than spitting. People would eat something from a wrapper and just let the trash drop wherever they stood or sat. After exiting the Forbidden City we walked past a vendor selling corn-on-the-cob from a cart. Five additional minutes walking down the sidewalk and we started seeing mostly eaten ears of corn thrown into the iced-over pond next to the walking path. It was only one or two cobs at first, but then we saw discarded cobs by the dozen, all pitched aside onto the frozen pond… that otherwise would have been quite picturesque. C’mon, people!
Chinese Food is Better in America
This next revelation pains me slightly. Our experiences eating Chinese food in China were not nearly as great as we were expecting. Admittedly we were not super adventuresome with our menu selections, but we ate plenty of rice and noodles along with chicken, beef and veggies. The problem was simply that the seasonings we found were not particularly interesting or delicious. They were alright, but less than we expected.
Another problem I had with the Chinese menus was that so many dishes featured crazy and obscure animal parts. Glazed Chicken Feet in Sauce, or Fish Lung Soup, etc. From my American perspective, cooks were leaving the bounds of reason to come up with the most outrageous and shocking meals imaginable.
My comments about the food are general. We did eat a few meals that were quite delicious.
Pizza Huts in China are not what you’d expect. We ate there once looking for something familiar. What we found wasn’t familiar at all….it was far better!
In a previous post, I made this big thing about the different table napkins we are finding throughout the world. Well get this, in China we mostly found they give you NO napkins. That seems either negligent or insane to me. Apparently it is customary for people to provide their own napkins wherever they go. Lame!
Slow or No Internet
Updating our travel blog while in China was not happening. Internet connections were always fax machine slow. Plus, the travel pace we kept (5 cities in 14 days) allowed precious little time to work on it.
Did you know Facebook and YouTube are both banned in China? We accessed them on occasion, but only because we paid some extra greenbacks to get a US proxy server.
What is not banned are a few choice US TV Shows. Big Bang Theory is very popular in China, (and everywhere else we’ve traveled). The big surprise was the popularity of another American show, 2 Broke Girls. Who knew?!
So far our world travels have introduced us to many different types of toilets. Mostly it is the flush mechanisms that vary- lever on side, lever on the front, button on top, multiple buttons on top, pull-plungers, foot flushers, etc. What we had not seen prior to China were so many squat toilets. A squat toiliet has no seat on it, only a porcelain or metal base on the floor, with a hole at its center over which one hovers in a squatting position to do their business.
At first the squat toilets struck me as uncivilized and “backwards” but that impression soon evaporated. In many Asian countries (including China), squatting on one’s haunches seems to be a perfectly comfortable position. Wherever people are gathered, you are sure to see a few of them folded down like they’ve taken a seat on their own heels. I’ve tried to replicate this style of chair-less sitting with highly uncomfortable and short-lived results. Although, if I had grown up squatting this way since childhood, I’m sure doing so would feel as comfy as the latest Herman Miller chair.
Furthermore, I’ll bet you squat toilets have ruled China for thousands of years. Western “throne” toilets are probably a relatively new innovation in China. I assume many Chinese detest the type of toilet you and I think of as normal. “You want me to sit on what?!” To bring home this point, we saw signs posted in bathrooms warning people against squatting on the toilet seat.
While in China, Jessica and I both encountered one type of public restroom that was truly awful by our standards. (Naturally, you need to hear about it, right?) Upon entering, the bathroom looked almost normal- stalls with doors all lined up on one side of the room. Enter a stall, however, and the truth comes at you. Instead of finding a regular toilet, or even a squat toilet, inside the stall, this restroom had a squat trough; an open trough that ran from stall #1 to stall #8, (or however many stalls there were). A continuous trickle of water flowed through the trough, carrying everyone’s business (and the stench that goes with) from the high side to the low side. Choose your stall carefully, my friend.
China Was Our Half-Way Point
Half our trip is gone and half still lies ahead. It is a moment to reflect.
Even while in the midst of doing it, traveling the world for a year often does not seem real to us. It sounds weird, but…being us is scarily like being other people, people we’ve only heard about. Put better, the way (we think) you view us is very much like the way we view ourselves….as that incredibly fortunate and fun couple that’s traveling the world for a year. The fact that we happen to be the ones experiencing all this wonder is a challenging concept for us to grasp. We talk about it a lot, by the way. I guess it is our way of pinching ourselves to make sure it’s real.
Before we began this trip, Jessica posed the following question to me, “Ideally speaking, what would you most like to get out of this trip?” I said I’d like to come back from it fundamentally different in some way. Now, at the half-way point, am I experiencing some sort of fundamental shift in my being? Good question! My answer: I have no earthly idea. Check back with me in a couple of years.
Flashes of sadness are inescapable when we think about our trip-of-a-thousand-lifetimes coming to an end. Therefore, we mostly don’t think about it. Passing the half-way point, however, has brought those thoughts closer to the surface. But then we realize all there is to look forward to in the next six months, especially Greece, Italy and the rest of Western Europe. Mallorie and Brandon, and nieces, Leanne & Mickaela, will meet up with us soon. I’ll play Ultimate on the beach at a big tournament in Italy. We’ll see Boris again, this time in Switzerland. Another niece, Glorie, will travel with us in London and Paris. Flashes of sadness, we’ll take, since there is so much goodness yet to come.