Friday, August 31, 2007

Guizhou Travels

note: if you are in China and therefore must use complicated means to actually read this and other blogspot blogs, I recently came across the best method I've yet seen

After my father and brother left I met up with friend/co-worker/bearer of confusingly similar name Danielle in Guizhou province. Before meeting her I killed a day in Tongren (铜仁). An opinionated woman who resembled Jabba the Hut told me about America over my bowl of local noodles. The only thing I understood was that America is not stable, unlike their stable China.

With limited options that night I wandered into one of the only places open, a karaoke bar. A birthday celebration was in full swing and I was eventually coaxed into joining the party, and even talked into singing Chinese karaoke for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised when the men in the group insisted I drink slowly the whole night. I obviously wasn't in hard-drinking Gansu anymore. A fake platinum blond with a cigarette in the group who exuded old Hollywood cool eventually made sure I went home in a taxi, informing me that "this place isn't stable."

The next morning I watched a blind fortuneteller under the shade of some trees for an hour or so and chatted with the elderly Chinese whose had noticed me. One of them asked me "are you American or Japanese?" Later in the conversation he became confused and said "in your country..... you're Japanese, right?" I was once told a story by another foreign teacher about a blond woman arriving at a school to teach and being confused with the new Japanese teacher. The school also later insisted on giving the actual Japanese teacher a spoon during the first banquet, despite her insistence that they also use chopsticks in Japan. The blind man talked with me for a short time and while making polite conversation I almost asked "are you often busy?" but stopped myself; "busy" (忙 máng) and "blind" (盲 máng) are pronounced exactly the same in Chinese and "are you often blind?" didn't seem like a very polite question.

After several hours on the bus next to a drunk 65-year old philosophy professor who looked like Professor Snape from Harry Potter and adored America, I was in Kaili (凯理) where I would meet Danielle. This was the starting point for our exploration of southeastern Guizhou, home to a wide variety of ethnic minorities, including the Miao (苗族) and Dong (侗族). We passed a couple of very pleasant days in the villages of Xijiang (西江) and Zhaoxing (肇兴), where a way of life completely different from that of the dominant Han Chinese could be observed. We only saw a glimpse of two of the area's many cultures (by official count there are 55 minority cultures in China in all) but each had its own language, style of dress, and architecture, and I found the trip much more invigorating than the many hours of anthropology classes I attended in college.

In Xijiang we encountered a group of about 20 French tourists led by a Chinese-speaking man from Cameroon, and some miscommunication while they ordered dinner led to the unusual situation of A. the man from Cameroon speaking to the Miao hostel manager in Chinese B. the manager speaking back to me in dialect Chinese because I could understand her (only slightly) better C. me talking to the man from Cameroon in English and finally D. him translating back to his friend in French. After dinner I ended up with my first translating "job," as I was asked to expand their English menu by about 80 dishes, a good challenge. Earlier we had noticed a spontaneous but full-fledged game of basketball had broken out between five of the French and a Chinese team in uniform, with a referee and practically half of the small town watching and cheering.

In Zhaoxing I went out in the evening alone and befriended an entertaining group of young Chinese - four likable girls, a portly man from the Bai minority who sang when he lost in our drinking game, and a charismatic man from Guangdong with a serious smoker's voice who had driven by himself all the way from Beijing. Though I couldn't keep up the conversation was much more stimulating than normal (in a year and a half the only time I've seen discussion and even disagreement about the Taiwan issue) and it was one of my more memorable moments of the summer.

The bus rides on winding, bumpy roads through this part of Guizhou were memorable in and of themselves, both for the beauty of the scenery and the curious things the locals brought on board. During one trip a man was standing in the aisle next to me when an unmistakable sound come from the sack he was holding tightly in his hand: "meoooowww..... meoowwww......" When the ride got bumpy this changed into a frenzied "meeOOWWW!!!! mEOOWW!!!!" On various bus rides we saw chickens in a sack, ducks in a sack (one of them tried to bite a baby), and enormous fish in a sack. During a stop for food on one bus ride we heard the yelping of a dog, and quickly realized it was coming from a large, moving sack across the street. The sack, with no visible air holes, was tied to the back of a motorcycle that had just ridden in. This was definitely dog eating country and when two men took the dog out of the sack we thought we were going to watch them kill it on the street right then and there. They didn't, merely tying it up where it could pant and drool as it wished.

Last stop in Guizhou was Chishui (赤水), which is so close to Sichuan you could probably reach it with a baseball and unsurprisingly was the start of Hot Pot country, a distinctive Sichuan meal popular throughout China. Me and Danielle were intrigued by a paper-burning ritual by the river in honor of a deceased relative. It was not a gloomy affair, with the family joking around with each other and one middle-aged man looking simply bored as he fanned himself and rolled up his shirt over his large gut. The city itself was small and quite pleasant, and allowed for a couple of outings to nearby waterfalls and surrounding bamboo forests.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hunan Travels

I'm now in the midst of about four weeks of traveling over my summer break, and wanted to make some comments as I go along. Most excitingly, my father and brother visited China for the first time and traveled with me for two weeks, but I'll write about that in more detail when I have the chance, probably when I return to Zhangye. For now I'll just talk about the past few days after they flew home and I left Beijing.

I ended up heading to a small place in Hunan Province called Fenghuang (凤凰; the name means "phoenix"). There is no train station in Fenghuang so I first had to head to the nearby city of Huaihua (怀化). As I waited for my train in the Changsha station a girl my age in over sized sunglasses took the empty seat next to me, greeted me with a confident "hello," and then stammered for about 15 seconds, managing only "speak...... China......?" I assured her I could speak Chinese (I was also clearly reading a book about Chinese grammar, dork that I am), and she immediately relaxed. As a college graduate she had probably studied English for 10 years; I have my serious doubts about China's policy of mandatory English instruction for all students. She was named Chao Lang (巢浪) and was heading to the same city, where she works in the construction business.

I've been having a hell of a time understanding the accents in southern China, even the normally standard Chinese of students, and conversation with Chao Lang was awkward and brimming with silence. Even so, it's not necessary for a Chinese-speaking foreigner to be clever, and she suggested we hang out while I killed time until my bus the next day. Actually, translated literally she said "why don't you come to my place and play." This sounds saucy indeed but in Chinese it's simply the way you talk about hanging out with a friend.

Even so I was wondering what this pint-sized girl, with her smoking habit, big earrings, and tiny shorts was up to. As it turned out not much; she took me to her apartment, which had five people in two bedrooms, introduced me to her co-workers/roommates (it's normal for your job to arrange your living situation in China), treated me to her roommate's cooking, and found a hotel for me. Oddly, 20 minutes after meeting me she had also suggested I could come down for next Chinese New Year if I didn't have plans. The Chinese are nothing if not hospitable.

The city of Fenghuang, from the road, looks like a hidden gem of ancient China - picture-perfect traditional architecture, a lazy canal, working class Chinese hiding from the sun in lampshade hats, picturesque countryside. It's not in the guidebooks, and I had only read about it 48 hours earlier on the internet. On closer inspection, it's quite a nice place but is oozing with Chinese tourists. I don't feel the need to go into the amusing spectacle of Chinese tourists, as I can refer you to a spot-on description I read yesterday on another blog I like. The site of boatloads of Chinese in identical orange lifesavers, singing in unison to the tune of a microphone-wielding woman in a token minority outfit outside of my hotel room window was humorous, followed quickly by very annoying. However, the advantage of the herd mentality of Chinese tourists is that if you move a couple of hundred meters away from the crowds you will be completely alone, and down the river I watched local boys swimming (many naked) and jumping gleefully from a bridge.

It hasn't quite been totally ruined but the town has been built up for tourism in a major way; a sign that said "No Jap!" in English and Chinese in one of the bars caught my attention. In the evening I was drinking imported Budweiser at imported prices when the woman sitting near me passed me a note in Chinese, along the lines of "are you also alone? Don't misunderstand me, I don't normally talk to strangers but if I'm not bothering you maybe we could have a conversation. Do you speak Chinese?" I liked that she didn't ask if I can speak Chinese until the end of the paragraph. I had seen her sitting by herself and casting glances at me. She was older than me and drinking by herself, and I thought she might be a prostitute. It turned out she was a kindergarten teacher. Her accent wasn't so difficult to understand, but liquor-inspired Chinese shouted into my ear over the sound of live musician with a full PA system was, and it was kind of a relief when she finished her glass of mysterious Miao nationality alcohol and we went our separate ways, accompanied only by the sounds of Chinese cover songs and the glow of tacky neon lights.