Thursday, September 20, 2007

Jones Family in China

At the beginning of my summer holiday, my father and 22-year old brother Erik came to China for a visit, a trip I had long anticipated. It was an eventful and rather successful two weeks, but I'm going to keep the write-up relatively short, especially since I write this blog partly for my family and half of them were there.

The start of the trip was near disaster--as I waited for the two of them to arrive in the Lanzhou airport, wondering why their flights wasn't appearing on the arrival board, I realized for the first time that the copy of the ticket I had said "22 Jun" instead of "22 Jul," nearly impossible to notice from the way the ticket was printed. My plan of buying their tickets from Beijing to Lanzhou really early had backfired, with the travel agent selling me tickets for the wrong month. To my immense relief they arrived on a slightly later flight; after some confusion in Beijing they were able to get same-day tickets on the same airline for cheap.

The first day was spent in Zhangye, where they were able to meet a number of my friends and see in person where I'm teaching and why I like it so much (the food by itself is reason enough). Their first meal was at China Fire, where owner and friend He Le cooked up some fish. I don't like fish in China because of the tiny, deadly bones, which combined with the spicyness make the dish at best annoying to eat and at worst lethal. He Le placated me by saying "oh, this fish has no bones." When it arrived with every bone intact, I brought this to his attention, to which he replied "oh, well it has far fewer bones that other fish." Chinese-style communication. In the top picture they are standing with my friend Little Ma's father, who is a painter and quite generously gave my dad and Erik a painting each as gifts.

After Zhangye we visited Jiuquan, a city similar in size to Zhangye where we were invited to visit the homes of my friends Joy (her Chinese name is 徐莉) and Beth (高彩霞). Joy and her uncle can be seen with my dad and brother in the second pictures above. During this stay, and throughout the trip, my friends insisted on calling my dad "Uncle" in English because using his first name would be rude. There something endearing about my non-English speaking friend Beth catching my dad's attention with "uncle" and leading him around. We were guests in one of Joy's English classes, a summer class she organized completely on her own by going door to door and renting a classroom. It took her a lot of work to convince the wary, mostly poor locals that their children would benefit from extra English class, and she made enough money for herself to pay off a decent amount of tuition she still owed the school. Knowing her situation I had insisted she borrow money from me, but all she ever took in the end was 10 yuan (about $1.20) to buy a train ticket at the end of last semester when she had quite literally run out of money. Nowadays Chinese people are often accused of excessive greed and concern for money, and I'm sure that sometimes it's true, but you don't have to look far to disprove most stereotypes.

After Joy's class we rode to her Uncle's house in a cart, powered by her cousin on a bicycle. I knew this was going to be serious "country living" and was looking forward to the stay, as well as the reaction of my dad and brother. Overall they enjoyed it, despite the perils of using the toilet: it was nothing more than a pit in back of the house, and to even reach it one had to run the gauntlet of two blood-thirsty dogs. At the end of its chain, the second and larger of the two was no more than a foot or so from the toilet, all the while barking and trying to break free and tear your face apart. Add to this a curious cow, whose large head comfortably fit over the fence and into the bathroom "stall" to see what you were up to, and the fact that a family member insisted on chaperoning any guest to the toilet at a close distance, and you have your ideal Chinese bathroom experience to welcome newly arrived foreigners. The bathrooms in general (Western, sit-down toilets are quite rare outside of classier hotels and homes) were a constant source of shock/amusement/photo opportunities for my dad and brother throughout the trip.

After Jiuquan it was back to Lanzhou for a flight and an unexpected hospital visit. My parents give to a charity called Smile Train which fixes cleft palates in poor children around the world, and my dad (who is a doctor) had a visit organized for us at the participating hospital in Lanzhou. We were met at the train station by head surgeon Dr. Lu and an attractive medical student with the English name Sara who would act as translator. They had obviously been confused by the e-mail I sent to Dr. Lu, as Sara was eagerly holding a sign that said "Welcome Dr. Dan." My dad and Erik were surprised and amused at the royal treatment we received, especially the banquet lunch with some of the higher-ranking hospital staff that ended in drinking games (one hopes they didn't have surgery in the afternoon). During the hospital tour my dad started to take a picture of a dental hygienist working on someone's teeth, but they made him wait while she awkwardly put on her mouth guard and cap. A doctor beside me said quietly to Sara "we wouldn't want the foreigners to think that..." but she stopped him and said "he can understand Chinese" while motioning to me. I gave a knowing smile.

Once we left Gansu, the trip became significantly more touristy and less unique, so I don't feel the need to go into detail, as plenty of travel writing exists about these places. We spent three days in Yangshuo, followed by shorter stays in Hangzhou, Xitang, and Beijing, including a day trip to the Great Wall. We did a four-hour walk on the Great Wall, starting at Jinshanling (金山岭) and ending at Simatai (司马台), a good choice that escapes the hordes of tourists that apparently descend on spots like Badaling that are close to Beijing. The least known of the places we visited was definitely Xitang (西塘), a fairly quiet little water town in Zhejiang province that was a nice change of pace from the large, modern Hangzhou. The pictures below are from the area outside of Yangshuo as well as the Great Wall.

Finally, I'll include a brief excerpt from the journal my father wrote about trip (which totals over 20 pages). I enjoyed seeing their surprise at all the little cultural differences I'm now used to (though still amused by), which have been put down in writing by my dad:

General Observations About The Chinese


They love to cook and love to eat and most of their life centers around food.
Their families are very close and they all respect one another including the kids.
They have very little in the way of possessions and are much happier then most of us.
They enjoy “taking a rest” after lunch and can stay up real late at night.
They love to do everything and share everything (including experiences) in groups.
They have tremendous pride in their locality and also in their nation as a whole.
They love to have visitors, especially foreign ones, and are incredibly hospitable.
They love to have their picture taken.
They are getting much taller.
They generally seem to be where we were at in the 1940-50s
They do not know how to form lines and wait their turn.
They never touch their food with their hands.
They squat rather than sit on the ground (like "animals & wild people").


Men love to play drinking games with each other using beer in shot glasses.
Men chain smoke
Men drive crazily.
Men sometimes are seen wearing their shirt with its bottom rolled up exposing their belly.


Women do not drink alcohol.
Women do not smoke.
Women ride on the back of bikes and motorcycles in a side-saddle manner.
Women respect themselves and their men.
Women are great cooks.
Women do all the cleaning and serving.
Women find lighter skin to be more attractive and some cover up completely outdoors.

Items that could be used in making squares for travel bingo in China:

girl riding side-saddle on back of bicycle
kid standing up between parents on motorcycle (no helmet)
man with shirt rolled up over belly
“welding mask” on woman to block the sun
arm cuffs on woman to block the sun
a women with an umbrella to block the sun
public urination
hacking up and spitting out a “lugie”
a cow or water buffalo being walked along the roadside
people playing badminton on the side of the road with no net
“happy pants” on a baby boy
hawker shouting “hello, water”
a rickshaw
a motorcycle/cart hybrid
a bicycle extremely overloaded
a cart or truck extremely overloaded
poor “Chinglish” on a sign
a bathroom with a Western toilet
a person squatting
men playing drinking games
people doing Tai Chi
a car passing a car that is passing another car

Bonus squares (automatic wins):

any Chinese forming a line
a car stopping for a pedestrian
a bus that is not packed
a bathroom with toilet paper
a motorcyclist wearing a helmet
a Chinese man wearing a green hat (means his wife is cheating on him)

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