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May 18, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon a Time in China, Part 3

500 words down so far on the China article for the Escapist, and I feel pretty good about it. So here's one last annoying anecdote from my trip to the Middle Kingdom three years ago. If only I had a slide projector and a monotone, I could do this properly.

I spent most of my trip hanging out with a couple of students with family in Guangzhou. They were American-born Cantonese speakers, so they made good intermediaries between the three languages and cultures. And since it didn't make any sense to me to travel halfway around the world just to hang out in a dorm room, we spent a pretty fair amount of time wandering the city. That's how I ended up playing DDR for the first time--although that's not the story I want to tell today.

This story is about going to dinner. Keep in mind that when I went to China, I had been at one of the most diverse universities in the country for a couple years--but I didn't own a car, so I didn't eat out much. I'd missed out on many of the great cultural foods located around the Northern Virginia area, a deficiency that was only exaggerated by differences between American Chinese food and actual Chinese food.

So here I was in Xi'an, a Kentucky Yankee in Qin Shi Huang's court, and we decided to go out for food and karaoke (read: drinking) with some local students. They knew a great place, they said, and led us through back alleys away from the university. It was starting to look a little shady, but the restaurant was well-lit, and the food--meat strips with a spicy rub, grilled on skewers--was tasty. I had about four before I saw that my Cantonese friend was watching me closely and smiling a bit too widely. She asked if I knew what kind of meat was on those skewers. Horror stories of rodents and pets flickered through my mind. Beef? I asked.

Kind of, she said. Beef stomach. Which, looking back on it after many bowls of questionable pho meats, seems pretty tame. But at the time, it was a big step. I had two more.

Nowadays, the beef stomach incident also serves not just as an amusing cultural incident, but also a reminder of China's diversity. The skewered meats are a snack native to Xi'an's local Muslim population, called the Hui. The Hui Mingjie, or "Muslim Street," may be a tourist trap within the walls of the old city, but it's also home to the Great Mosque, where the Hui still worship as one of the nation's non-Han minorities. Arabic and Chinese mix in the carvings there.

Which is not to say that China is filled with well-integrated but conveniently-costumed cultural groups--to an outsider it still looks pretty homogenous. But it's such a big country, and communications were so slow for so long, that visitors eventually see the fierce regionalism that exists within it. It emerges with the mutually unintelligible local dialects. It manifests in the inequality between rural and urban areas. And you can taste it in the wildly different cuisines between the North and South. While for policy purposes it may be possible to imagine a simplified "China," those who don't realize that the PRC encompasses differences even wider than our own local subcultures will find the reality (pardon the pun) hard to stomach.

May 6, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon A Time in China, Part 2

My parents gave me the notebook while I was in high school, I think as a Christmas gift. It's a small leatherbound volume with sheets of yellow paper, bolted together with wood and held shut by a pair of leather straps. It's kind of impressive, like something Indiana Jones would open to find the location of Tikt'Chuatl. And that was problematic for me, because I wasn't about to fill it with just anything. It had to be something worth reading.

It stayed empty until I went to China since I figured, screw it, I'm probably not going to get an opportunity more interesting than that. I sketched and took notes in the notebook, and also wedged different tickets and brochures into it for safekeeping. I did the same thing when I went to France, although I only managed four pages or so that trip. It takes a lot of time to sketch something and write about it longhand. And I don't have a lot of patience.

While I was in Xi'An, where I spent most of my time in the PRC, we took a side trip to see the Terra Cotta warriors. If you ever find yourself in the country, I highly recommend it. The warriors are the last tribute to Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who united China and then started work on the Great Wall. Not content to grind his subjects to death constructing the wall, Qin Shi Huang also wanted servants in the afterlife, and ordered the creation of thousands of life-sized soldier statues, many with different features and weapons. It was a massive undertaking--and one that was buried with him when he died. In 1974, farmers who were digging in the area found the tomb and its clay army. Researchers are still digging it up today.

At least one of the farmers is now employed full time by the PRC at the visitor's center for the terracotta warriors. He signed my notebook (as well as dating it 2003--guess I had the year wrong). According to my professor, that's all he knows how to write. I guess it's a living.

As I was saying, I did a few sketches in the notebook and the terracotta warriors got several pages' worth. I'll have to scan it some other time. But as I was standing at one of the display cases, finishing up a sketch of a warrior leading a large clay horse, a short Chinese woman walked up next to me and started to look at the drawing. "Very nice," she said, and then added something I couldn't understand. Amanda Laoshi, the graduate student from Xi'An Jiaotong Daxue who accompanied us, wandered up and asked her to repeat herself. She laughed.

"What did she say?" I asked.

Amanda Laoshi looked at the drawing and grinned. "She says you made the eyes too round," she said. "She says it looks like a Westerner."

I looked at the woman. She looked at me. I shrugged, apologized, and added some lines to the sketch, trying to correct the "mistake." The woman examined the drawing again, and made the universal face for "hmph." And at that point, deciding that I was not going to improve the situation markedly, I shut the notebook and wandered off, as tactfully as possible, to sketch something a little bit less subjective.

May 2, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon A Time in China

In the summer of 2002, after four semesters of Mandarin, I went on a school-sponsored trip to the PRC with a few of my classmates. Going back over my notes from that trip as transition devices for a piece on software piracy in China, I'm reminded of so many great stories that unfortunately won't fit there.

But they'll fit here. And if self-indulgent tales of my cultural tourism can't drive everyone away, I don't know what will.

Right now, I speak Mandarin badly, but back then I was merely very, very awkward. It didn't matter. Almost everyone I met in China was tickled pink by the white boy mangling his sentences. Sometimes to excess. I used to wander around on my own, practicing. One pair of elderly women in Xi'an couldn't stop laughing long enough to give me directions to the bank.

My sugar fixation was also a source of much linguistic amusement. In China, as in much of Asia, the American and European habit of adding sugar to tea is viewed as something between freakish and offensive. And I like a lot of sugar. The cook at Xi'an Jiaotong University treated my habit with amused condescension, pointing me to a box of cube sugar off the side, where I would guiltily scoop up six or seven cubes and take them back to my room in case I wanted tea at night.

I learned how to ask, clumsily, if the waiter had sugar available--"Qing ni, you mei you tang?" I would ask, carefully pronouncing the rising tone on the last word, in case I might accidentally ask for soup or a hallway instead. The servers often ignored me anyway. I would turn to Zhang Laoshi, my professor, to confirm my pronunciation, and he would agree that I'd asked correctly. Looking back now, I wonder if they just didn't make the connection. "Why would he want sugar?" "Who knows? He was asking how to get to the bank earlier. It was hilarious!"

Before we left the country, I remember trying to buy a candy bar from the hotel gift shop. Using a system of cunning gestures, pantomime, broken Mandarin, and panicked grins, the girl behind the counter and I managed to negotiate the actual transaction, up until the point where I would have to pay. "How much?" I asked in Chinese--one phrase with which I'd become quite fluent. She replied with a couple of syllables, but I couldn't quite follow her. "Shenma?" She repeated herself, but I still couldn't understand it. Was this a Beijing dialect I didn't know? We went back and forth four or five times, until finally one of the American-born Chinese in my group took pity and told her to use Mandarin. She'd been trying to say "seven" in English, and we'd just been talking right past each other.

When people start freaking out about translated versions of the Star Spangled Banner, or other nationalistic cultural detritus, I like to imagine those people trying to buy a candy bar in Beijing. Who cares about the language barrier, about different cultures? These aren't insurmountable obstacles, they won't kill you. It's the national anthem being translated, an ode to a flag flying over the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's the thought that counts. Translate it all. Take it. Make it yours. Above all, don't hesitate to laugh about it. A sense of humor will get you far, in this country or in another.

Now what's a guy got to do around here to get some sugar for his tea?

Future - Present - Past