Sunday, October 2, 2011

This Sea of China ...

I remember when Herb Caen, Pulitzer prize winning icon of three dot journalism, when to China. He wrote this great bit about taking Polaroids of people and having a line form of people to get one. He was so novel, and so was the Polaroid. His detailed description of the crushing force of the Chinese people, rushes into my mind today.

Last time I was here, I remember people calling out to me "Waiguoren," which means "foreigner." I remember young people rushing up to me to test out their English. "Hallo!" I recognized my rarity, how novel I was. For some reason this year, I am noticing that people are staring at me. Sometimes they look away, but sometimes they stare me down. They are staring at me as if they have never seen a white person before. I look around and realize that I am the only white person. In fact I have only seen a very few white people at all, and no Americans. Not even ugly ones. No fat American demanding ice for the beer. Not one American complaining about having to pay to pee. I am virtually alone in a sea of China. One American in a sea of China.

I've been on the road a few days now and I am a bit tired. Nine days to be exact. The temperature overnight was one degree Celsius, clearly indicating to me that my beachcomber attire is probably done for this trip. The choice of two pairs of shorts and one pair of pants was just slightly wrong, and not bringing a jacket has proven to trouble my hosts more than I, but over the next 9 days, I will need one. I have been using the hotel laundry service to keep me in clean clothes, and I have been trying to find a warmer day to launder my pants, since the hotel wants to keep them overnight. I need to buy some clothes.

Being in any foreign country is hard, but this part of China is very challenging. Walking around is a problem because of the amount of traffic, and although there may not be a huge threat all the time, the omnipresence of scooters, bicycles and larger projectiles, makes feeling secure, even on the sidewalk, somewhat difficult. If you stop near the curb, a sea of pedestrians pushes you into the street. Finding a quiet spot to change lenses, or write a note to self, requires putting yourself behind some sort of barrier and hoping no vehicle hits it while you're distracted.

Additionally, the language barrier is considerable. Only occasionally, will someone venture forward with spoken English. Often, they are high schoolers testing out their new English to see if it really works. They say "Hello, how are you?" and giggle with their friends when they hear a reply. Not much help if you are trying to buy some yogurt, or a pair of pants. Even with my friend and her family it's a bit difficult, being the only other English speaker, she says twice as much if I am trying to speak with one of her family.

It's tiring. After yesterday's adventure into the burning corn fields of China, and fishing, everyone seemed tired. We had a simple dinner of rice noodles and a movie, and agreed to take today off, I can do some chores, sleep in, maybe take a walk in the park.

So I got up this morning and headed out in to the streets, grabbing a hotel business card on the way out and headed to the park. Well. I never made it to the park. Yesterday was National Day, and this week, Golden Week, is a big travel week. There are a lot of people here and it's quite crowded on the streets. Plus what, I had no idea how tired I was. I made a big circle, stumbled on to the KFC I had eaten in before, and had a Chinese chicken burrito for breakfast, and headed back to the hotel for a two hour nap. I lounged over that and took an extra long shower.

I ate a bowl of instant ramen from the mini-bar. Like the burrito, it was good. There were no bones in it. No garbage within the food that has to be sorted with tongue and teeth, no delightfully fine fish bones, no pork rib bones, no chicken bones, no crab cleaning, no shrimp head sucking, just pure carbohydrates with a fork. No pressure to eat something I possibly wouldn't.

I don't eat KFC at home, so why would I here. One, I know what's on the menu, so I can just point at it and get it. Two, it's familiar and ready to eat, it's probably safe. Three, I suspect that the chicken industry in China probably hasn't been modernized in the same way as it is in the West. I prefer to think that the chickens are farm raised and scratch fed, in a pleasant and attractive way, without a lot of chemicals in their diets. Managed by human energy, as it were. Maybe I am deluded, but it sure tasted good.

So … today. A day of rest in a sea of Chinese. Respite. Warm showers. Hotel mini-bars. Afternoon naps.

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