June 20, 2012

China – The Great Leap of Patience

Llama Temple in Beijing.
It takes a special kind of person to visit China. I’m not that person. Although I had unforgettable experiences, saw amazing sites, met incredible people, ate delicious food, and got a deeper insight into the complex and incredible Chinese history, I also wanted to punch someone in the face. I had more breakdowns than normal. It also took twice as long as I projected to get through the country due to the language barrier. I could write a book on numerous incidents that occurred in China while attempting to book bus tickets, plane tickets, getting directions, and asking for food.
Looking back now, I wish I had a camera following me at all times because I can’t possibly make up how ridiculous the interactions are with the locals and the (mis)communication that ensued. I share this (now) hilarious bond of frustration that stems from the multifaceted society with foreigners I met in China or thereafter. Commencing my writing about China has taken me a while because I needed to mentally process all the sites, experiences, and interactions first. I also didn’t want “big brother” coming after me, I mean I am illegally using Facebook as it is. To start the documentation of my Chinese travels I wrote a few scenarios that give you a minor insight into Chinese culture aka the Twilight Zone.

Scenarios from my China travels:

Photosession in Luoyang with some admirers.
Celebrity Status in Luoyang – I visited my Chinese friend in her “small town” of 6 million people. Ever heard of Luoyang, China? Didn’t think so. Apparently they don’t see many westerners so when I arrived for the opening of the Peony Flower Festival (China’s National flower), I was followed by a parade of Chinese fans as if I were a celebrity. I had to turn people down who asked for pictures because after a while there was a sea of natives encircling me as if I were Charlie Bucket holding the coveted golden ticket. Aggressively, people yanked at my arms and pulled me every which way like a rag doll to get into one of their photos to show off the foreigner to their friends. One guy even tried to kiss me in the picture. That’s when my friend stepped in and told everyone the photo-shoot was over and I was whisked away to safety until a new herd found me.

My doctored ankle & foot a few days after using the spray. 
Pharmacy in Beijing – I developed a stress fracture in my foot at some point during the incessant hiking and walking with bad shoes. After I couldn’t stand to tough out the pain any longer, I sought the nearest pharmacy to collect pain relievers. At the immediate sight of westerners, the 5 Chinese men and women in white coats quickly dispersed to find a “menu” of English options for me to describe what the heck inspired me to stroll into their shop. None of the options stated “fracture” or “sprain” or anything relatively close to how I was feeling. I decided to take off my shoe and sock to show the pharmacist lady my clearly swollen and bruised foot. She fumbled under the counter for a moment, pulled out a box of band-aids and tossed the carton in my direction. It was one of those days where you just get frustrated at everything and my injured foot was a constant reminder of that frustration with every step I took. I just wanted a bandage that would give my foot a little support or perhaps Advil to lessen the pain and swelling but her lack of empathy just ticked me off. I didn’t hide my anger well so she brought me some spray to appease me. Yes, herbal spray for a fracture! In China, they believe in more natural and herbal ways of healing. But spray, really? I was so mad I just started crying. I reluctantly bought the spray and found an elastic wrap with no help from the pharmacist. Don’t tell anyone but I think the herbal spray kind of helped.

Document Debacle – I was racing against time to find the train station in Luoyang and make it there before it closed. After taking a bus in the wrong direction, detouring to take a taxi, and actually getting to the train station I had about 10 minutes to spare. Written neatly in Chinese characters, the girls at the hostel wrote exactly what train I needed to purchase, what time, the destination and all other details on a piece of paper. After the train lady took a look at it and typed a few things in her computer, she wrote something on the piece of paper and slipped it back to me under the glass window dividing us. I looked at the paper and saw a new Chinese character added to the mix. Really? I looked at her and give her all the “I obviously cannot read this and don’t understand what you’re saying to me” gestures one would give in this situation. I pointed to a new departure time on the paper. Maybe the tickets for the original train time are sold out, I’m assuming. Nope, that wasn’t it either. I started running around the train station yelling “Does anyone speak English?!” I only heard crickets and received stares, so I left feeling defeated. When I arrived at the hostel, I asked “What does this character say?” The girl at the front desk responded, “Passport.”
REALLY!! Couldn’t she have made a little gesture with her hands or maybe drawn a small picture? I guess we have to start this process over again tomorrow and stay in this town for another day and night…

A lovely dinner of stomach.
Curiosity Didn’t Kill the Cat - Chinese people are very curious, some may say “nosy” but let’s not put them down, eh? These curious Siamese cats usually want to know everything about you – “Where are you from?”, “Why you are visiting their country?”, “What hotel are you staying in?”, “How old are you?”, “How much money do you make?”, etc. In the rare occasion that you do find someone who speaks English (or they find you), you will get not only all these questions plus a hundred more but you will not be able to depart from their presence even if you went running in the opposite direction. They’d come after you. This quality has developed many interesting events for myself such as a Chinese couple taking me out to a traditional dinner of cow stomach and gizzard and not allowing me to pay for my “meal.”
One young guy parked his bicycle at the sight of us and escorted my friend and I in a night market and asked us a million questions about business in America because he is a “business man.” Funny, he never told us what type of business he was in. We made him explain what every single food item was and ordered our meals and then took us to a Michael Jackson street performance.
Two adorable English major students escorted us to the White Horse Temple along with the mother and grandmother of one of the girls who were in town visiting from Mongolia. Soon after the Temple, the girls ditched mom and grandma and gave my friend and I their tickets to a Peony Flower Festival for free. 
White Horse Temple with Grandma, mom, and one of our new friends "Crystal."
Buying a bus ticket from Kunming to Dali – The unfortunate part of travel is that even if you read or research ticket schedules and prices in advance, chances are its outdated or someone is trying to rip you off and you never know which one it is. Due to this, I always have my guard up. Out of 10+ bus ticket purchasing windows at the bus station in Kunming, zero of the vendors spoke English. A drunken homeless man who speaks no English and probably gibberish Chinese felt confident enough to take on a role as tour guide. As he spoke to me in Mandarin with his whiskey infused breath in my face, I stood weighed down by my heavy pack as well as stares from all the people in the bus station and I flipped out on him. Poor guy was just trying to help but it was not the right time to try his tour guide skills. Eventually we paid the price to get on the bus and arrived in Dali.

Our saving grace who brought us to the hostel.
How to Get Lost – If you are in the mood to get lost, ask a Chinese person for directions. I guarantee if you ask 7 different people how to get to your destination, each person will tell you a different path. I know this from experience. I was trying to take a city bus (#3 to be exact) from the bus station to my hostel. The route seemed pretty self-explanatory; I knew how many stops to take and what to look for when I disembarked from the automobile. Only problem was I could not find the stop for bus #3 anywhere! I resorted to the handy dandy Lonely Planet phrasebook. I gave up speaking Mandarin a long time ago because no one ever understood my attempts at the difficult tonal language so I pointed to the word “bus” in Chinese characters and gave the hand symbol for “3.” I asked this question SEVEN times because each instance I arrived to a new bus stop and none were for the #3 bus. Every person pointed their fingers in completely opposing directions. Finally, a nice girl about my age spoke a decent amount of English and guided me all the way from the bus station to the hostel even though she was already at her destination. She didn’t ask for money or attempt a scam, she simply wanted to help some lost souls out of the goodness of her heart and practice her English as well.

You always have the good with the bad. China was super frustrating at times but someone would come out of the woodwork to go above and beyond for you and it ended up being a special experience. Interacting with the locals and taking the more authentic routes is much more eventful (as you can see) than taking the easy path. If things were tranquil, I wouldn’t have nearly as many stories to tell when I’m in the old folks home some day.
Enjoying the Peony Flower Festival in Luoyang!


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