Cathy in Asia

News from China #13 - June 22, 2001

News from China - Final Edition

I am in the midst of packing up my life in China, for good, and it’s time for a summary reflection on my life here—what impressions do I go away with, having lived here for the better part of two years? There’s a jumble of images and memories, some of them bringing a smile, some of them a frown . . .

What will I miss?

I will miss the rhythm of daily life, characterized by early bed, early rising; the summer brings full light by 4 a.m. and people are up and about by 5. By 9 a.m. the sun is high in the sky, as if it were noon—Beijing imposes the hour, so we adapt.

I will miss the food. Eating in China is a much valued pastime and we’ve found some great restaurants, many of which we don’t know the name of so we christen them ourselves—Door Number 2, or DGB (Dirty But Good). The Uighur place has recently become a favourite—mutton shishkebabs and Xinjiang noodles made while you watch (those powerful arms get a workout, doing the accordion moves while the noodles get thinner and thinner between the hands)o. The food is great, but as in many of these places, fine dining it is not. The other day Susan said, absolutely without irony, and with genuine appreciation, "They’ve got the recipe for success—great food, ice cold beer, and they give you toilet paper!" This comment prompted as one of the Muslim owners plunked a brand new roll on the table for us to use to wipe our mouths and fingers. The Uighur place is always packed, and perhaps is as often visited by the authorities for making too much smoke and having inadequate ventilation in their tiny premises. I was there once when they got busted—orders were to cease operation the next day. They continued to serve customers; they didn’t look perturbed in the slightest. A Chinese friend said they wouldn’t have to worry, as minorities are given preferential treatment. Sure enough, we’ve been back several times since then. Other ethnic food, high on the favourites list, includes Korean BBQ, where they cook up your meal on your table. And a constant from the beginning has been the local expat hangout, the Office Bar, where the portions are so huge Susan and I have made it a habit to get one order for the two of us, known as "Chicken burger half half" (is this English? I don’t even know any more).

I will miss the surprises, the quirky scenes of China. One of my favourites is the nightly dancing outside a local supermarket in the warm summer evenings under the Christmas lights—the dancers mostly older women and men, but some younger . . . all self-absorbed as they all do exactly the same step which somehow they know. The "in" dancers wear white canvas shoes with a broad strap, but there is otherwise no special dress code. The women, for the most part, however, are lovely in flowing dresses, elegant, serene, regal as only form-fitted, tailored clothes can make one—their fashion poignantly marred, to a Western eye, by the elasticized nylon socklets pinching the legs mid-calf.

People enjoy doing things in groups here. One evening while out walking, we were surprised by a "Tour de Kai Fa Qu," as dozens of male workers swooped by us on old bicycles, coming down a hill and taking the corner at a slant in front of us. Just off their shift on the nearby construction site, they were reveling in their freedom and in the joy of being one of the guys. Their elation might also have been related to the fact that they are happy to be here and earning 3000 RMB (Cdn $550) a year. A recent t.v. documentary reported that a lot of them manage to save money and send it back to their families living in other parts of China.

Then there are the power bikes, favoured by independent, rough-looking workers, often carrying tools strapped to the bike rack. You see them coming, and wonder what that loud noise is—they don’t go faster than other bikes, but the riders don’t pedal-- they’ve turned their old bicycles into "motorbikes" with tiny motors.

I will also miss the language learning which is a daily part of my life—not just Chinese, but also inventive uses of English. For example, if hundreds of millions of Chinese people learn the English phrase "as possible as you can" in their standard schooling, and they use it to mean something that they mutually understand, hadn’t I better just learn it and add it to my own repertoire? The same goes for expressions like "sports meeting" for "sports meet". "Sports meeting" is ineradicable from the English vocabulary of these same hundreds of millions. Businesses also affect English names, perpetuating what for us would be unusual usage, but may become standard for the people with the biggest population on earth. How about the shopping centers, next to each other in downtown Kunming, named "Brilliant Plaza" and "Splendid Plaza?" "The Busiest Section Hotel?" All grist for the creative mill.

Speaking of Kunming . . . I’ll miss the opportunity for exotic short trips, such as the one I took this May Day holiday to Yunnan province. It was a chance to revisit my favourite spot from last year’s travels around China, the old town of Lijiang. I was reunited with the Prague Café sisters, and went on a four-day mountain trek with some intrepid Canadians I met on the flight there. From Joseph Rock’s former residence (Rock was an eccentric Austro-American who lived in the Lijiang valley from 1922-1949 and catalogued the many flowers and plants of these mountains) we climbed on a locally used track from an elevation of 9000 feet up the backside of Yu Long Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain), pulling ourselves up by our hands, as the way got steeper. Ultimately we reached 13,500 feet. We were treated to the sight of flowering azaleas, shining in the sun all along the narrow track we had chosen to ascend. On our descent into a valley where we camped the second and third nights, we had a dream of a walk across a grassy mountain side, through stands of flowering rhododendron trees, and many different kinds of evergreen trees. The stands of bamboo were also fun to walk through. There was also a lot of variety in the weather, ranging as it did from blazing sun to hail and snow, and everything in between. One constant was the view we kept coming back to of the green village we had started from, and the now tiny complex of buildings where Joseph Rock used to live.

On this trip, we learned a new meaning for the words "logging road" and "logger." Unknown to us 5 British Columbians, we had been walking on a logging "road" for most of the second day before we realized that’s what it was. It was a thin track, not even two feet wide, the dust scored with two straight lines. We didn’t clue in until we were setting up camp and a logger went by with his horse, dragging two logs. In case the term "logger" conjures up for you a burly guy in a plaid shirt and steel-toed boots, let me disillusion you. These guys are diminutive, wiry, skin dark and tough and scored with injuries. Their attire is more likely to be a suit than jeans, and their favourite footwear is green canvas shoes with knobs on the soles, like soccer boots. This logger didn’t seem to be too aghast at the sight of five thirsty waiguoren setting up by the trail, and agreed to bring 20 bottles of water from the village the next morning. Encouraged by his agreement, we flagged down a second fellow who agreed to bring beer. Backpacking in China . . . gotta love it.


So there are a number of things that I will miss when I leave China, and others that I haven’t even listed here—my new friends, for example. But there are a few things I will be happy to leave behind. I’ll make this part short.

Perhaps hardest to live with are the daily reminders of environmental degradation: the industrialization, the pollution, the dust storms resulting from drought and destruction of grasslands. Littering is commonplace, and plastic bags float around on windy days, getting snagged in trees and highway fences ("white pollution"). Noise pollution is also common—from construction, from vendors shouting through loudspeakers while roaming the neighbourhood, from schools playing marching music full blast (or Jingle Bells, take your pick). Peace is a rare commodity.

Another thing that is hard to accept is a lack of common sense regarding safety. The maniacal driving by most taxi drivers, the disregard for traffic lights, even by police, can be crazy-making if you let it. Recently I was heading across the highway with three others, beckoned by the little green walking man on the pedestrian crossing light. There was a bus that had stopped (barely) on our left, and as we peered around it cautiously before we advanced further, a police car shot through the red light, a cop in the passenger seat looking indifferently at the three people his car had almost obliterated. Imagine speeding through a pedestrian crossing, through a red light, beside a stopped vehicle.

In another case of lack of common sense, a student from our university drowned at the seaside this month. When he started floundering in the water (he couldn’t swim and had stepped off the drop-off on the beach) his three friends ran away from the scene to get help instead of enlisting help from the many people right there at the shore. A notice appeared in our classroom soon after, telling students not to go to the beach. It was similar to the notice that appeared last year at this time when another unfortunate student drowned. Apparently they average one every year. Bad odds for a school of less than 3000 students.

Other bizarre sightings: deep, open manholes with no warning signs; an invisible wire stretching across a sidewalk at my eye-height (decapitation height for someone on a bicycle), and a long stick propping open a washroom door—one of my colleagues has a deep gash on her leg as a result of tripping over it and going flying. It could have been worse—they could have just "washed" the floor.

Let me indulge myself with just one more thing that I will not miss—that is the rubber necking, frank staring, and sniggering as we go by. I am tired of being an exotic zoo animal. Other rudenesses—shoving to get on buses, smoking in small enclosed spaces, spitting—seem bearable in comparison to this alienation.

But to end on a good note, even these negative aspects, viewed in good humour, are the stuff of good stories; in fact they’ve made us laugh all the way, when we’re not letting them get to us. For example, last year while riding in the back of an open truck, I saw my Chinese friend sitting opposite me suddenly burst out laughing—she had just witnessed a guy riding a bicycle, head turned to stare at us, crash into a pole. Even pollution is funny, as when, seeing a plastic bag flying by, someone calls out, "Look, China’s national bird!" The safety issues, when not resulting in death or dismemberment, have had us laughing to tears at times.

So I return to Vancouver with my good humour pretty much intact, yet grateful to be returning to the clean and green.

Catherine Ostler
June 22, 2001