Last post from China

Last Saturday night I stepped off the train in Guilin, after a long 27-hour train ride south from Xian, in the center of China. I strolled across the parking lot, enjoying the unexpectedly balmy breeze. As I sat on a concrete planter to await the pick-up from my hostel, I was surprised to see dozens of paper lanterns floating in the sky. It was the “mid-autumn festival” here – the mooncake festival – and the flying lanterns were part of the celebration.

After dumping my bags at my hostel I went for a walk. Tables of merry Chinese tourists sat eating a leisurely dinner along the river. Familes, couples and packs of teenagers poked languidly around the night market. Everyone was smiling, relaxed, happy. It was like the best late-summer night, with back-to-school or back-to-work thoughts temporarily banished.
Southern China is like a different country, one that isn’t as brash and harsh as the China I’ve come to know.

The following day I took a bus to Dazhai, a village of ethnic Yao people situated in the famous Dragonbone Rice Terrace area. My room in a family-run guest house was on the corner, with large windows overlooking the town and the rice terraces beyond. $7/night. Wow.

I ordered lunch – fried rice with chicken – and was served a huge pile of rice with a few scraps of chicken hidden inside. ugh. But within a minute or two, the ancient matriarch invited me to the table where the family was eating their own lunch: fish with vegetables, broiled pumpkin, and other non-fried-rice deliciousness. None of this was on the menu. I don’t understand why there are so many places in the world that won’t put their homemade foods on their menus.

Two days later I trekked along a trail from Dazhai to the more touristy Ping’an, passing through more remote villages along the way. The area is hilly/mountainous – the highest point is about 1200 meters – so for hundreds of years the locals quite ingeniously carved flat terraces up and down the sides of the hills to plant rice and a few vegetables on which they subsist. As a result, the hills have been transformed into lovely scalloped fields of green or, in the autumn, yellow.

Not many tourists undertake such a long trek – it’s about 4 sweaty hours along narrow paths up and down hills along rough stone steps – so for the first time during my nearly two months in China, I found myself utterly alone. The air was sweet, the grasshoppers and birds chirped, the sun was warm on my face, the sky un-smoggy blue. I could hear the wind in my ears and my Tevas slap-slapping on the stone path. Peace.

The next day, October 7, I bussed to Yangshuo via Longshan and Guilin. Yangshuo is hyper-touristy, but it’s worth it – those mystical paintings of green-clad limestone cliffs that are so typical of Chinese art are here, live. I arrived in the late afternoon and had just settled in to write when…hello! Evelina and Ia, Swedish women I had met in Xian, appeared. So much for writing, but a nice surprise!

The following morning we three went for a bike ride with Nick, a British guy; Jessica, another Swede; and A-something, a 59-year-old hippie German guy. We made quite a sight: Nick and the German guy have dreadlocks, Ia is blonde and covered in tattoos, Evelina has a shock of lovely red hair, and Jessica is cute and blonde. I was, by far, the least interesting-looking of the bunch.

Today I’m back in Guilin, and tomorrow morning I catch my flight to Kuala Lumpur. I’ve leaving China behind, probably forever. My first 36 hours in this country were truly awful. My last week here was, I grudgingly admit, quite pleasant. I’m not even going to complain about the second round of bedbug bites that blistered and have rendered my legs absolutely disgusting to look at.


A few random observations:

* Yao women all have well-toned calves since they spend most every day walking up and down the steps of the terraces. Their traditional dress includes thin ankle socks and cloth Mary Janes, a wrap top, and knee-length pleated skirts that swing cheerfully and youthfully as they walk. From behind, even the oldest, most wrinked women look like…well, naughty schoolgirls. The traditional colors are hot pink and black – “fuck-me colors,” as my old friend Joey D. used to say. It’s like a village of Lolitas. Disturbing.

* In most Asian countries I’ve visited, one amusing feature of the buses is the music videos blared on the speakers for your “enjoyment.” But in China this entertainment is typically a sort of variety show that’s a cross between a bad Vegas show and “Chinese Idol.” In one video, an off-key midget (little person?) swooner in a Hawaiian shirt exchanged banter with a large, muscular guy, also in a Hawaiian shirt. The big dude had a military-style flat-top, but with the top of his head shaved…so he looked like a military Friar Tuck. Is this entertainment?

* No matter how many people sit at a restaurant table, the server brings just one menu. Then she stands there waiting for you to order immeditaely. If your friend points at a dish to ask if you’d like to order it – “How about the beef with green bean?” – the server assumes you want that and writes it down. You can imagine the confusion if there are 5 or 6 people at the table. This is considered good service – if you’re left to discuss what to order, it’s considered inattentive service. If you’re alone, you point to what you want – “The chicken and eggplant, please, and a beer” – and she always confirms with her index finger: “One?” I was always tempted to scoff and say, “Of course not! I want ten dishes of chicken and eggplant! Geez.”

* In Russia, the soldiers were dressed sloppily, in uniforms that were too big, threadbare and badly made. But the train attendants wore crisp navy uniforms. In China the opposite is true: the train attendants wear polyester pleated trousers and loose, ugly shirts that are cinched at the waist. But Chinese soldiers are as stiff as their spotless ironed green uniforms. I don’t know what this means, but it must mean something.

That’s what I got. Last post from China. Tomorrow it’s nasi goreng for dinner!

One thought on “Last post from China

  1. i have been thinking about your reaction to China and the seeming funk-lessness that you feel. I was also struck by your inclusion of the article in which a Chinese person was asked about their national culture or something similar. Without being a rear-view apologist I think there may be some other perspectives to your observations.

    In many ways, the China of today is less than a generation old. My Chinese History professor told us that the Communist regime was just another in a series of dynasties, the current leadership is in many aspects an even newer sub-dynasty, or perhaps an entirely new one, that took power with Deng XiaoPing’s reforms. The nation is in the midst of the most incredible transformation that the world has ever seen. They are going from peasant-agricultural to post-industrial in less than 20 years. I can’t think of another place (nation state) that is going through so much, so quickly and with so many human individuals.

    I don’t know if you could ask a Chinese individual what they thought of the current ‘ideology’ of the state and the people when everyone and everything is in flux. I believe that Americans are good at inward reflection since it’s something that we are actively trained to do. Western culture also privileges the individual as the central object of importance whereas the Chinese individual sees him or herself in the context of group and the whole. If the group and the whole are in change it may be perplexing for the individual unit to answer the societal question. I am guessing that it will take a generation or so for artists and academics to come to grapple with the question of Chinese identity and cultural traits. Does not help that so many of the cadre of intelligentsia were wiped out during the Cultural Revolution.

    The general criticism that the Chinese are derivative creators in commerce and art has been repeatedly placed upon economically progressing east asian nations. First the Japanese, then the Koreans and now the Chinese. I think there is great truth to the fact that each did have derivative aspects, since each was gearing up an economic machine that needed to sell to the great free market of the US. Each nation, at a certain stage, invested heavily in the understanding and mimicking of American tastes and practices. I believe that Korea and Japan have left their growth periods with their national identities intact and with new understandings of their place in the world order.

    China is unique in that their cultural arrogance is far greater than Japan or Korea’s. Whereas the other two nations had histories of military subordination at the hands of the US and the West, modern China, has not suffered under foreign troops on its soil in the modern (post WW2) day. China projects itself as the dominant world economic power in another generation. Japan and Korea could never hope to do so, speaking to people of Chinese descent in the US reflects many of China’s hegemonic hopes. During the economic downturn, one group holds that China has decoupled, to some degree, from the US and that Chinese investment is leading the world out of recession.

    I think you are in the unique position of being able to both bring up some of these questions and to answer some of them. It is also interesting that you bring up the point of an end to cultural ideology in the world, I thought that the”end of history” was put to rest with Fukuyama while another vein ended with the fall of Marxist regimes throughout the worls

    I think the most interesting thing that I learned, in school, about travelogues was what they often said about the writer and less the subject-land that they were visiting. Whereas your travels through Europe and perhaps even southeast Asia were influenced by a library of pre-experience images and understandings, your travels in China are truly an exploration of new places that westerners and you may not have any preconceptions to work off of. It is worth noting that you state that your physical state and temporal distortion may have influenced your perspectives, I think your mental state and our shared concepts of ‘funky’ may keep us from seeing other form of funk.

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