Friday, August 31, 2007

Guizhou Travels

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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.







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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.


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