Friday, February 23, 2007

Yangshan (photos below)

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Angel’s home was the calendar on the wall, featuring Mao Zedong. I haven’t been in many Chinese homes, and the thought had half crossed my mind that such portraits were usually in places where other people could see them, such as in shops, the fact of their presence being as important as the meaning they purported to convey. But the longer I am in China the more I realize how significantly the experience and memory of Mao, no matter how much it differs from the “truth” of history, has permeated the everyday lives of many Chinese people, attaining a meaning differing from, though linked to, the realities of his rule. Many foreigners who see such portraits—of Mao in China, of Ho in Vietnam—look upon them with some disdain. They know better; modern Chinese subjects have, regrettably, been duped by the state. But such thinking may just be an updated brand of orientalism, for how can I possibly presume to know what Mao means for Angel’s parents, who have chosen to include his memory in their private space?

The identical calendar of Mao hung on the walls of her other family members—Angel’s uncle got it from his workplace and gave it to everybody, and as I made the circuit from one household to another, and then back again, I realized how close-knit the family is. A particularly raucous dinner wasn’t a dinner so much as an attempt to grab a bite or two between toasts of wine. At that dinner I struggled to understand an uncle (I think) telling me about how an American pilot, a member of the volunteer Flying Tigers which flew for China during the Japanese invasion before the US officially entered the war, was shot down in Yangshan and protected by its citizens. He also told me that the US and China are the world’s greatest nations, which I of course found very interesting! (Incidentally, the Chinese word for nation, minzu, is also the word for race. Its etymology is complicated and much discussed, but it involves the important influence of racial imaginings of the Han in the conceptualization of the Chinese nation in the early twentieth century. Anyway it’s sometimes difficult to figure out which exactly people are referring to, or whether they themselves even know!)

The Spring Festival (or New Year's Festival) very much revolves around chatting with family members, often in front of the TV. Pictures of happy pigs (this year is the year of the Pig) hang everywhere. People put money inside hongbaos, which means “red envelopes,” and are, um, red envelopes, and give them to family members and friends. I got a ton from various people, though when I gave out some of my own I was a little confused about proper hongbao etiquette. I gave one to my friend Su and she said, “Oh! Are you getting married?” I also gave a hongbao to Angel’s parents, one for both of them. I happened to hand it to her mother, but apparently I should have given one to each of them—according to Angel, her mother won’t split the money!

On the first day of the festival (this year February 18th), many people in the town visit the local temple, a very beautiful, recently constructed place on the outskirts of town. There they burn incense and stare particularly shamelessly at any foreigner who might happen to be present. They also set off firecrackers, but there really isn’t anywhere that people don’t set off firecrackers during this time of year. Quiet is precisely what the Spring Festival is anything but. Especially at midnight on the eve of the first day, the noise is unbelievable! It was like a war had suddenly broken out around us. I don’t think I’ll forget the image of Angel’s dad grinning and holding his cigarette while throwing a bunch of extremely loud firecrackers out his front door.

Angel’s parents are extremely nice, but more than that, they are very interesting people, and I’m very glad to have met them. They are low-key and give the impression of knowing what’s up. Unfortunately I had a very difficult time understanding them because they speak Mandarin with a fairly strong accent, though they spoke very slowly for me. They speak I don’t know how many languages, as many Chinese people seem to: Mandarin, Cantonese, the requisite local language (“Yangshanese” I guess), plus two dialects of Hakka (because they grew up in a city with a big Hakka population, though they are ethnically Han).

It was interesting to see different ways of doing everyday things, for example ways of keeping things clean. And I realized that Americans are way too uptight about keeping things in refrigerators. Angel’s family doesn’t have one, but they still have plenty of eggs (which you don’t have to refrigerate) and eat lots of leftovers. Also, it seems that everyone keeps live chickens somewhere. Eating habits are different, as people frequently eat more food late at night. So are showering habits. People almost never shower in the morning, but do it at night instead. Many shower in the late afternoon or early evening because it’s “good for your health,” though I never found out why.

Monday, February 19, 2007


On Friday night I took an extremely nice train from Nanning to Guangzhou, where I shared a compartment with a couple of young quiet types who work for Texas Instruments in China. In Guangzhou I made my way to Shamian island. Shamian is beautiful, and looks exactly the same as when I lived there for three months last summer in the US consulate—except that now there’s a Starbucks to compete with my dear Blenz! They’re taking over the world.

In my Shamian hostel I met a traveler from Poland who had been in China for just a few days, and was ready to get the hell out. His plan was to go back to Hong Kong and catch a cheap flight to the Philippines. He’d seen enough of China. Hectic, crowded, and difficult were the impressions he conveyed. What he hadn’t realized is that traveling in China during the Spring Festival is about as easy as climbing Mount Everest with your teeth. He’d made his way to the railway station to buy a ticket to go further into the country (he had planned to travel here for about a month), took one look, and ran away with all possible speed. When I passed by the station later, I saw what he meant. The line was unbelievable. I couldn’t figure out where it ended. It didn’t resemble a “line” so much as a great seething mass of people. Where were newcomers supposed to stand? Luckily my friend and I were not about to venture into that outgrowth of Hell, but were on our way to the adjacent bus station, which for some reason was much less frenzied than the train station (though after that experience, my whole conceptualization of “frenzy” has undergone somewhat of a revolution, sending the calm and familiar image of big crowds to the guillotine and replacing it with a frothing, distorted version of its former self). And there we bought our tickets to Yangshan.

Yangshan is a smallish town about three hours northwest of Guangzhou that sees absolutely no foreigners. Walking down the street lets me know what it’s like to be a celebrity, or a monster, or a flock of sheep cycling by while playing violins, because people would probably stare at each with the same amount of shock. A typical scenario is the casual glance, the double take, and then the relentless, shameless staring. It’s difficult to get used to.

I have two friends from Yangshan, whose English names are Angel and Su. They both studied English in Guangzhou, and I met them there last summer. Angel’s parents kindly invited me stay in their home while I am in Yangshan, letting me see their life during the Spring Festival. It’s an extremely interesting and rewarding experience, and I’ll write more about it later.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Nanning (Feb 6-9)

Nanning is a nice medium-sized Chinese city (about 1.2 million people) that is easy to get around in. There isn’t much to see here, except for some parks, a museum or two, and plenty of shopping, but it’s a good place to just hang out. A nice girl showed me around a bit, and pointed out a good local specialty, laoyou mian, which means “old friend noodles”—sometimes Chinese names get it just right! The next day I went to a museum about the Miao and Zhuang minorities, where a woman who worked there showed me around. She really impressed me: she had taught herself English in two years, and was in the process of struggling through Watership Down! She asked me some questions about vocabulary in it, which were almost all words in rabbit language that the author invented! I don’t think she really understands everything that is going on—the book is, after all, extremely British!—but she’s making a valiant effort. I can’t imagine tackling a similarly difficult book in Chinese after just two years of study.

At the museum I met a very nice French lady whose son had married a girl from Guangzhou whom he had met in France, so she (the French lady) was visiting them and traveling a bit by herself before heading to Kunming to celebrate the New Year with her daughter-in-law’s family. She was staying at the same hotel as me, and we went to a couple parks and ate a couple meals together during the next day and a half, which was very nice. (She’s really into gardening and was interested in the names of all the plants.) Some travelers are amazing: she told me about a Belgian guy she had met in Xi’an who had biked there all the way from Belgium! It took him five months. Some people take traveling very, very seriously.

On the street I randomly bumped into the man from Pingxiang whom I met on the bus in Vietnam, which was quite a surprise!

Hanoi-Nanning (Feb 6)

The night before I left for Nanning I went with Naomi’s roommate Greet and a friend of hers to a meeting of artists from Hanoi and elsewhere around the world, who meet every week to hear about a local artist’s work. The translator had studied at the Art Institute in Chicago!

Getting from Hanoi to Nanning probably could not have been any easier. I’ll outline it in brief so the future tourist can have some inkling of the pleasures of traveling out of Vietnam.

First, you buy your bus ticket for $22 a few days in advance from a nice looking travel agency in the touristy part of Hanoi. The arrangement is for the travel agency to drive you to the station on a motorbike at 7:00 in the morning on the day you leave to catch the 7:30 bus. The employee tells you to come back the following day to pick up the ticket, which seems like an extra and unnecessary trip, but you shrug and do it anyway, confident that the locals know what’s up. Upon arriving the next day, the employee tells you that the ticket isn’t available yet, so you should just come at 7:00 on the day you leave. Assuming that this is just a small mix-up and not at all indicative of any larger twist of fate, you do so. But upon arrival on the day of departure the store is closed tightly, so you wait for somebody to arrive. 7:15 comes. Then 7:30. While turning away numerous ladies selling food, you begin to get anxious, because you think you’ve missed the bus. At 7:45 someone comes and you tell her so. She runs off to get an important looking man in a suit, who tells you to come back at 8:30 to catch the 9:00 bus. You then wander around for 45 minutes, and return at 8:30 to learn that there is no 9:00 bus. Listen to another employee tell you how bad management at this company is, which would have been fascinating information a few days earlier. You’re then offered two options: 1) Get $10 back and get a ride to the border on a smaller minibus, where you can hopefully find a bus to Nanning. 2) Get a free hotel room (how generous of them!) and get the bus tomorrow. Since your visa for Vietnam expires that day, you choose the former option. You hop on a motorbike and get a ride to a minibus, where thankfully there is someone there from Pingxiang, a Chinese town at the border, who speaks Chinese. Cram in with him and hear his opinions about the war in Iraq (all about oil), women in America (are they really “easy”?), and how America’s economy got to be so strong (lots of reasons). Get to the Vietnamese border town, drive around dropping people off at various places, then hop in a new car with your Chinese companion and another Chinese man, which drives to Friendship Pass, the border. Crowd by the exit window, because in Asia lines are luxuries. Passport vanishes, then reappears with an exit stamp. Proceed to the Chinese entry point, where an astute border guard examines your passport very carefully, looking at every single previous visa and entry or exit stamp. Rewrite entry card in ink instead of pencil. Then the guard spots a problem with your passport: why is your passport number 086747655, but on the Chinese visa is written U86747655!?!?!?!?! Which is it, 0 or U?? He calls his superior and they initiate a deep and engaging conference on the subject. You try your best to explain that it’s just a silly mistake that the Chinese consulate in Chicago made because your passport is old and the number 0 is a bit smudged so it could be a U. After much discussion, they waive you through.

The other side is like a cool swim on a hot day, a nice stretch after a cramped bus ride, ease after difficulty. There’s a bus waiting… to Nanning! Not only does it have seatbelts, but the stewardesses make you wear them! It has air conditioning! It drives you directly to a station! (Instead of random hotels that have deals with the bus company.) In Nanning the air is fresh, the traffic is light, and sidewalks are sidewalks instead of motorbike parking lots. Best of all, when people speak they are not totally unintelligible. It’s nice to be back in China.

Monday, February 5, 2007


You have to strike a fine balance when posting something on the Internet—writing all your thoughts while keeping in mind that anyone can look at them. When traveling, though, you have a little more leeway, because you can say whatever you want about people who don’t speak English! A nasty trick perhaps, but such are the traits of the language barrier. I shudder to think what has been said about me in front of my face these past two weeks in Vietnam. “What’s that terrible smell? Is it coming from that foreigner? Hello! You very handsome! This just 5 dollar cheap okay!”

In a place like Hanoi, the relationship between tourists and the people who deal with them is often one of misunderstanding, anxiety, even hatred. On the street, tourists are offered products of every kind, from pirated Lonely Planet guidebooks to pastries. Sellers grab at your arms and clothes, and the constant barrage of hassling can wear the poor tourist down. The worst are the motorbike drivers. They sit on street corners and shout, yell, and wave their arms at any passing white person. Tourists, in turn, learn to ignore them or return rudeness with rudeness.

Traffic in Hanoi is lots of fun, both for the driver and the pedestrian! Most people are on motorbikes, and crossing the street involves wading into the middle of a horde of passing bikes. You must walk very slowly but steadily while they weave around you. Driving one involves constant vigilance. Only ex-pats wear helmets. The most distressing sight is seeing a father driving with his wife perched behind and their little child on his lap, all helmetless! Brittany Spears’ lapse of judgment was the pearl of motherhood compared to these transgressions.

My trip has been limited to Hanoi, where I plunged into the (relatively) luxurious ex-pat lifestyle with Naomi and her friends (for Vietnam is cheap, very very cheap); Hue, a city just south of the former DMZ; Hoi An, another city a few hours south of that; and Hai Phong, a city an hour or two east of Hanoi, whose port was mined in 1972 by American ships, which returned the next year to help clean them up. Hue was the only important city held by the Vietcong for a significant amount of time (3 and a half weeks) during the Tet offensive in 1968 (when they murdered thousands of people suspected of working with the Americans), and you can still notice traces of the intense fighting that happened there. Hue was the capital of Vietnam for a while, and it has an impressive citadel that was built in the early 19th century. In Hue, I went on a day trip to the DMZ area from the American War (as it’s called here) and saw battlefields, many of which were household names in the US in the 1960s: the Vinh Moc tunnels, Khe Sanh combat base, the Rockpile lookout post, and the bridge that “connected” North and South Vietnam. At Khe Sanh they had a couple captured US helicopters on display, which was strangely disconcerting for me. All these areas are overgrown now, which is how it should be, though in some of them huge bomb craters can be seen every few meters. There are still plenty of unexploded artillery rounds, projectiles, and mines strewn about. A fairly large number of people die or are injured each year from the stuff. It was heartbreaking to see big billboards warning children not to play in minefields or touch pieces of metal on the ground. One sign showed a child crying with his hand flying through the air. Imagine having to worry about that as a kid!

Hoi An is a beautiful little town with impressive colonial architecture that combines influences from many parts of the world. I stayed in a guesthouse in a stunning 200-year-old building, which had been passed down through the same family was inhabited by a few ladies of various ages—probably aunts and grandmothers. I didn’t see any men or younger people there. It was right beside a beautiful covered bridge built by Japanese residents in the 1590s to connect their area with the Chinese area. One of Hoi An’s most interesting features is the cultural blending that often comes with port cities—influences from all over Asia as well as Europe can be seen in the architecture around the city.

Vietnam is a big backpacking country, and a typical route has people starting in Thailand and going to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. A lot of them are shockingly vapid and incurious, and a lot of them aren’t. Backpacking is a strange product of our modern times, and often seems to simply involve Westerners traveling to far-away places to hang out with each other. The only locals they can interact with are those who speak some English. It’s an interesting subculture, and one that merits further thought.

Tomorrow I’m off to Nanning, where, to my great relief, I shall finally be able to at least partially transgress the dreaded language barrier!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

First post

Well I figure having a nice little internet site people can go to will be more straightforward than sending out a bunch of e-mails, and it will be easier to ignore too! :) So I will post every week or two probably, hope you enjoy it!