Cathy in Asia

News from China #7 - April 7, 2000

Chunjie (Spring Festival) 2000

Perhaps the most representative image I have of my recent wanderings through China is that of my mother, ascending to the Great Wall with me in a "cable car," a kind of oval dish just large enough for the two of us to sit, facing each other and with our knees up, our feet resting on each other's bottoms. I am on the up side and my mother is on the down side, holding on for dear life to the rod which will serve as the brake on the descent. We are laughing hysterically and my mother is gasping through tears of laughter, "I've never been so unhappy in all my life!"


I had started my trip optimistically enough. At 5:30 a.m. on January 19 I came off the train into a dark, clear and cold Beijing morning with the thousands I had travelled with. It was easy to find the subway, and I hopped on it, to emerge just two stops later at Qian Men, the former front gate of the city. I was thrilled to be there, and as I found my way in the pre-dawn across the icy white expanse of Tiananmen Square towards the flag pole, my excitement increased. I gathered with others to await the flag raising ceremony. We all shifted and shuffled in place in an attempt to avoid becoming solid blocks of ice. Eventually the PLA (People's Liberation Army) soldiers, all the exact same height and shape, marched out from the main Tiananmen gate under Mao Ze Dong's massive portrait, in extraordinary precision. As they raised the flag and the Chinese anthem played, I got surprisingly emotional. I was falling prey to nationalistic fervour and it wasn't even my flag! All this in spite of the fact that I was conscious, as are so many Western tourists here for the first time, of this place being the site of what we call the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, officially a non-event in Chinese history.

When the PLA boys had marched back towards the Forbidden City, I turned and headed for the only landmark in sight more world famous than Mao's face on the Tiananmen Gate: the golden arches beckoned me from atop a pole. Big birds (hawks? No, kites!) were already soaring above me as I marched towards my Egg McMuffin and Hash Browns humming the "Brave Soldier Marching Song," the national anthem.

Disappointingly the McDonald's menu lacked Egg McMuffins and Hash Browns, so I ended up in Delifrance instead, with hot chocolate, a croissant, and a view of Mao's mausoleum. Thus fortified I headed back out into what was an apparently unusually clear day for Beijing--blue sky, sunshine and ice making all bright. I went directly to join the line-up of Chinese tourists waiting for their turn to pay their respects to the Great Helmsman. Many of the Chinese visitors bought fake flowers (wrapped in plastic as if their fresh, delicate petals needed protecting) to lay in front of a massive statue of Mao sitting at the entrance to the mausoleum. Quite clearly those flowers would be recycled back to the flower stall outside, but to see Mao lying in waxy state was obviously still considered a privilege.

I wandered the rest of the day with my six weeks' belongings on my back, happy to be in Beijing and visiting familiar sites for the first time.

Then it was time to head south. My train for Kunming departed from Xi Zhan (the West Train Station), a monolithic edifice. When I found the massive "waiting room", I saw that the line up for my train, #61, was moving and contained, continuously, perhaps 1000 people, ten deep. My home in the sparsely populated Dalian Economic Development Zone had not prepared me to confront this density of people, and it was the first time I could more fully comprehend the reality of a population of 1.3 billion.

My journey south was 45 hours, so I had booked a "soft sleeper", which means there are four beds in a private cabin. It was comfortable, but there wasn't much to see except for confirmation that China has a lot of industrial areas, grey and garbage strewn. There were endless flat areas of ice-covered fields, and many brick houses either under construction or being knocked down, the fronts open like dollhouses.

Finally in the south, emerging from a heavy fog, we were in the mountains, terraced from top to bottom and through the valleys. The soil was red, and there was a little green. Little people stood on steep far off mountain tracks, and a man stood on his plow behind his water buffalo, as the train trundled on by.

I was glad to arrive in Kunming, and noticed a slight improvement in the air temperature. I came out of the station to be kidnapped immediately onto a sleeper bus bound for Dali. The next morning before 7 a.m. I was on a local bus and heading into the old town of Dali, the home of people of the Bai nationality.

Dali is an attractive town, with the traditional high-walled houses forming winding alleys and narrow streets. It has become a traveller hangout, and deliberately I was heading there to meet other waiguoren, eat Western food; also perhaps to get some Chinese language tutoring. While I was there I did some exploring, going to some of the sites with a couple of people I met the first day, walking on the mountain (in snow) and cycling to other Bai villages.

I noticed right off the bat that most of the other travellers were fresh university grads or undergrads, some students of Chinese, but most with teaching jobs (although not teachers, and never intending to become teachers). They had the unintentional arrogance of youth and the self-sufficiency of ex-pats. Finding them a little difficult to connect with, I instead played Harriet the Spy, eavesdropping in cafes where we all gathered to eat Western food and get a break from China. Their conversations were similar to ones I've had myself and they were so fascinatingly predictable that I couldn't help writing them down. (I have no feeling of guilt about this eavesdropping; these conversations were public airings of conclusions reached and opinions formed, between strangers who had become instant confidantes by virtue of their shared experience.)

So, at risk of sounding arrogant myself, I offer these excerpts of "overheard in Dali":

Big Brother from a Democratic Country: "It's pathetic . . . I was talking to a Chinese guy who didn't even know that China invaded Tibet with military force . . . He didn't believe me when I told him! He said that was American propaganda!"

What We've Eaten: "Snake's OK. The best thing I did was eat lobster while it was still alive--you pick the meat out of him while he's still watching you . . monkey brain in Canton . . . shrimps still swimming in alcohol in Suzhou . . . "

"Living in China is like . . . it's like . . ." [my unspoken contribution: camping, the word you're looking for is camping . . .] " . . . camping." "Yeah."

On Being a Foreigner: "A little boy in a theatre was staring at me, and he was like, "what's wrong with her eyes?" And people are always coming up and stroking my hair, they can't believe it. They always say "you're so beautiful" and I'm like, yeah, I'm white. At home I'm no big deal."

. . . "But the cool thing is you can stare at anything. It's a scary habit to get into . . . "

. . . "On the bus, these people were speaking about me, and I could understand what they were saying! I looked at them and I was just like, ! ! "

. . . "But it's a good experience to be a minority . . . I went to Beijing (from Shenyang) and I was like having culture shock from all the foreigners, I was like, wow!"

On Going Abroad: "People at home don't know anything about the world and they don't care . . . So and so said to me, "why are you going to Japan?" and I'm like, Japan? China's like this great big country and they're getting it confused with Japan?"


I was suffering a little ennui resulting from a "been there, done that" attitude. However, in my first days in Dali it didn't look like I'd "been there, done that" in the field of shopping. I should have known better, but I fell under the spell of the handicraft sellers, to be haunted for the rest of my trip with the shame and humiliation of it.

It started in the first minutes of my arrival at the guest house. I was just sitting down to a cup of tea, tired and dirty after four days and nights on trains and buses. A shy, yet persistent lady came up to my table and wanted me to look at her handicrafts. I did want to look eventually, I thought, but not just then. I said I would look some other time. She grabbed my hair and put it up in a silver bun holder. The Polite Canadian, I didn't protest. She wouldn't leave until she had pinned me down to tomorrow. That day around town, she kept catching my eye . . . "tomorrow."

The next day was raining and as I strolled out, with nothing particular to do, she said, "you look today?" So I did. I was the only customer, three sellers, three rooms full of stuff. I should have had the upper hand. But even before I picked out some pieces I liked, I felt doomed. I knew I was going to part with too much money, and I felt powerless to stop it. My logical brain told me I had no obligation to buy but my emotional self felt obligated anyway, and I totally forgot to use the best tactic I had, to walk away. They would have chased me all the way back to my guesthouse, and pursued me for several days, the way they did for a third piece I didn't buy, for their lowest price.

They weren't the only ones to "take' me. The shoe shine man was equally brutal--but even worse, he came equipped with positive written testimonials from other travellers, in various languages. I had bought some shoes in Beijing. I had fallen in love with them in the way one does with some material things, such that I couldn't resist looking at them all the time, checking them under my soft sleeper bed on the train, stealing a glance at the shape of the toe when I crossed my legs. I especially liked the tawny natural colour of the suede, perfect for disguising large feet.

At first, even the shoe shine man couldn't deny that my shoes were brand new and didn't need polishing. But as the days went by and I developed a jagged water stain from snow and rain, I began to weaken--perhaps they needed some weather protection? So the last day I was in Dali, I agreed to get my shoes done. I even had to shake on the agreement, twice. And then, with great glee, the shoe shine man poured brown polish in great quantities on my shoes and rubbed them vigourously, changing their colour forever. Beaming all over his face he then prepared to cut a new heel reinforcement out of a piece of rubber inner tube--I protested, "they're brand new!" Then he produced a factory-made heel reinforcer and proceeded to glue it on--"Bu yao bu yao bu yao!" I wailed in useless protest. I watched helplessly as he nailed the thing to my shoe with four nails. I guess the fact that I didn't rip the shoe out of his hands could be interpreted as assent. Then he did the other shoe. Then I had to spend a half hour bargaining, because after the shoe "repair", the price had increased by 1000%. Finally, very unhappily, I clomped off, my shoes gleaming brown like mud in a storm. The shoe shine man didn't appear to notice my distress; on the contrary, he seemed very pleased with his work.

I hurried off to the Sunshine Cafe for a late breakfast, the nails in my heels clicking on the cobblestones, and tried to heed the words of its awning, which advised me to "Chill Out" with the "Funky Music" to be found inside.

Breakfast was excellent but didn't alleviate my glum mood as I got on the bus to head for Lijiang. The bus was already almost full when it showed up to my stop, so I had to take the last seat in the far back of the small bus, where all the cigarette smoke collects. As I sat there in the haze, crammed in with huge bags of other passengers' luggage, I felt quite sorry for myself. Starved for beautiful scenery in Dalian, I was now so self-absorbed in what a rotten time I was having that I was barely noticing the undeniably scenic, in fact, gorgeous mountainous Yunnan countryside we were passing through.

But then I did start noticing it and realized I was seeing my glass as half full. I had to give myself a pep talk: "These are still the MOST comfortable shoes . . . Come on, look out the window at beautiful Yunnan . . . You're the only foreigner on this bus, a big Adventure could happen any minute . . . How many people get the opportunity to travel like this . . . This is an authentic experience!" I felt faint stirrings of my spirit lifting. Then an old man sitting on a stool in the aisle in the middle of the bus stood up and leaned toward the window on my side to hawk a great gob out the window. Unfortunately, not all of the spit made it outside the bus. As I wiped the remainder off my face my glass drained to empty.

When I got to Lijiang three hours later and walked into the old town, the late afternoon sun was illuminating the shop fronts and the cobblestones; the canal water flowed swiftly and brightly, and there were no cars: I felt immediately at peace and happy. That night I used my new Leatherman tool to pry the annoying heel reinforcers off my shoes, and resolved to buy a new pair of shoes on my return to Beijing at the end of February.

[Postscript: Two months later, back in Dalian, I went to one of the many shoe repair/shoe shine outfits outside our local market. My shoes were badly scuffed and dusty. Two people took on the task, starting first by sanding the leather with metal rasps. Then they tried to persuade me to have them polished black, as the colour they were now was bu hao kan (not good looking). I declined and had them use a clear polish, but perhaps they were right--my shoes are now uglier than ever. However, I did buy a new pair in Beijing, and no shoe shiner will ever mess with them.]

To be continued; next: a happier time in Lijiang; language learning; Chinese New Year