Saturday, July 15, 2006

Being in China

Yesterday, a friend explained his feelings towards the Chinese government this way: its doing a good job internationally and doing a bad job internally. The Chinese society is doing the same in a way, it puts on a good face, but its a much more realistic experience to go inside.
This may read like one of those terrible travel guides that revolve around sentences like "there are, like, totally poor people in Africa." As long as no one makes a comparison of my blog to that Cameron Diaz travel program, I think I can sleep through the night.
The face that is easy to find in China is Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing. Affluent businessmen in hotel lobbies with fluent English get to express the needs and progress of China. The Olympics and monolithic banks tower over the middle, the heart, of China.
Yangshuo is an interesting place, as it seems to have to economies, tourism and farming. Tourists come here to see the "real" China. My guide emphasized that foreigners want to take small country roads around Chinese farms and take photos of oxen pulling carts, farmers picking fields, and fishers under massive mountains. That said, she was right, that is what I wanted to do. In fact, its very much what I did.
However, the whole nature of tourism puts the viewer at a distance with the environment. Without Chinese, my guide would a collection of mispronounced English like "trees," "farmers," and "very beautiful." Before I hired her, very much on a whim, she was nothing more than one of the Chinese people yelling at me to buy something or do something.
Yet Chinese and a lot of time gave me an opportunity to talk to a Chinese person in the heart of China. Sometimes when I am traveling, I became little more than a census worker, trying to get at the heart of the country's prosperity or the country's problems.
Talking to my guide, with a great name but one that I don't especially want to post (I am in a country with a government that systemically blocks the ocean that is the internet), was really special for me, as it was the first time in China I got to talk to someone composing the majority of China: a middle aged common person, dependent on and raised in the country.
She fell in the special accent category of people that I completely understand, making communication much easier than with my volunteer guide from yesterday. We also got along very well, so we talked a lot. She told me about tourism, about Yangshuo, about farming, she talked openly about thing she did not like about the government.
There were all things I incredibly interest me, so we talked all day. At one point she mentioned she talked a lot to her Chinese clients (not so much her foreign clients, as her English is not good enough and her average foreign client did not speak Chinese), but I may be the most she talked to any given customer.
She was in her mid thirties with two kids and a farmer husband. She, as a tour guide, actually earned slightly more than him. This was the first time I saw a specific exception to the argument that the tourism industry is actually harmful to communities. It was clear that the tourism industry provided her family with a more consistent and slightly more profitable form of income. She held no contempt for foreigners, yet no undue affection towards them. That said, I think that the foreigners that comes here are by and large better than the average foreign tourist.
She was very empathetic and very curious about foreigners, Americans, Taiwan, and other things I knew about. Her ambition was visible in her desire to be able to speak to foreigners about things deeper than the collection of phrases she used while traveling.
She had not traveled much, her parents had also been farmers. She mentioned that development had not touched this area, that there was no real change. One thing that was changing she mentioned was that more and more foreigners were coming here, less and less Chinese. I think the added foreigners is pretty clear-cut, China's prosperity makes this place seem safer and so a broader audience is coming. I think the lessened Chinese is a bit more difficult, but I venture to guess that the people who used to come here now can afford to go to places like America and Canada (which is a visa stamp very easy to brag about back home).
Her daughters were killer cute (she showed me a great photo). The government allows people in this area to have one child, if that child is a daughter, they can have one more. I asked as gently as possible how she felt about having two daughters, it was clear she knew where the question was coming from and why it deserved to be asked, with utter pride and love in her eyes she left no question that she considered them nothing less than an amazing blessing.
She said something that killed me with laughter at one point, though I forgot how it came up. She said "if my daughters are smart, they can get a great job and learn lots of things, if they are not so smart, they can work on the farm" and it was clear she would be nothing but pride either way.
Her family's house was an hour away, she worked so hard she said so that her girls could go to school. It reminds me of Taiwan. I know a lot of truly brilliant twenty-somethings with very poor parents. The parents worked very hard to get the kid a good education, and it really worked. Perhaps here has that same opportunity. What I do know is that either way those daughters are blessed with some who seems to be a simply great mom.
The sights today was beautiful (though limited by rather subpar weather), but talking with her was the best part of my today and something I think I will remember for a long time. Tomorrow I have to pay her, its clear she was somewhat vague on the price, but she said most give her 100 ($12 US), I wish I had enough money to let her go to Beijing with her daughters, but I know that is not practical. Right now I think I will give her 300 or 400. I don't give to charity, something I regret at times. Here is a time in which I do have enough money and I know the money is going to someone that deserves it. Although I can't spare too much (I have no idea what financial difficulties I will hit before I fall into cascading massive debt), I can give her a solid tip.
On the whole, I can't say much about Chinese farm life, but it was a start. It was nice to talk to a country person's fears and ambitions. This country has a lot of potential in its people, and I think thats why its development can move so fast. At the very least, today was a great start into the heart of China. It was nice to have her experiences to let me see the farmers working the fields here as people, rather than as apart of the scenery.

I have more people I could talk about, a cool French guy who spoke Chinese (and fluent English), the people who pester you to buy water on the way to the top of moon cave. However, I need to limit myself in some way.
One last thing though, I am actually going to fly to the next stop, Kunming. Trains were booked solid until Thursday, so it is the only way to keep going. Plus it gives me a bonus 12-23 hours (depending on the train) of time. I just hope this does not happen again, if it does my budget will take a solid hit.
I saved all of the PTIs for this blog for the end because I did not want to break stride (since this topic was much less jumpy than most entries). Sorry about the size of the first PTI, I try to keep them one paragraph, and this one paragraph got a bit outrageous.

PTI: I am across the room from a foreign woman who may have been here too long. She is friendly, but jaded in a way that I saw foreigners pass through a lot in Taiwan. She brought her dog, and the dog smelled the waitress, scaring the girl like crazy. The dog is completely sweet and utterly harmless, but the waitress overacted and scurried away. The woman shook her head in disbelief at this, like, "this country, sigh..." The girl was simply scared of a dog, but it was clear that the woman looked at this as another part of the problems in the country. No one could say she shied away from the culture, her boyfriend is Chinese and they use Chinese to communicate. That said, her jade (the jade of jaded) is blocking her from what she likes about the country. That happened to me in Taiwan as well, it happens to everyone abroad probably, still sad to see. Man is she harsh on her boyfriends English. She keeps condescending him despite his ability to speak some more than a bit difficult things. For instance, she was shocked he learned the words "abortion abroad" from a dictionary together. I assume he was just reading the first few pages and found them separately, but its unclear. Man, and when he misspelled the Chinese word he just taught her (well, us actually)

PTI: Not long ago a man was staring at me from a three story window (I am on the second story of a local cafe). He looked noticeably serious, he has left, but where he stood you can now see his shelf with a Red Army cap sitting in it.

PTI: Next door there may be a foreigner doing KTV, that or a Chinese doing the most trite song in the KTV library (its a song so simple level I Chinese students can sing it).

PTI: Did I mention that my hotel room is $2.50 a night?

PTI: The new couples sitting in my room are in a constant fight using their local dialect, its actually a bit scary.

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