October 2nd, 2006


JZG: The Big Taboo

(Entry is backdated)

At 5:30AM today my Chinese national holiday officially started. This holiday is basically their Fourth of July, except the country takes the entire week off to celebrate. Though I’m glad they have a government and not existing as an anarchist state after years of warlord kingdoms, civil wars, Japanese invasion and oppression, and then more civil wars, I’m just taking advantage of this week off as free time in which I can finally do some traveling.

At a hot pot mini-banquet our landlords threw for us, our landlords got wind of our wish to visit this gorgeous place called Jiuzhaigou. As I’ve said before, China is run on connections, so our landlords were able to set something up with an affiliate of theirs who has some influence in a travel agency. Unfortunately Sunny couldn’t go because of bank complications (do not take Wells Fargo with you when you travel overseas) and decided to visit some places closer to home instead, but my friend Deborah was able to come, and she came for the same reasons I wanted to go: 1. To enjoy the beauty of the area; 2. To go somewhere, do something during our week-long break; and 3. To make friends and family back home insanely jealous.

A van picked Deborah and me up at the university’s North Gate, and the crazy driver (I suppose by now I can drop the “crazy” when I refer to Chinese drivers… You’d be correct in mentally adding “crazy” to “driver” each time I talk about one) sped around picking up other people to drop off at the already nearly full tour bus.

It was a very Chinese tour. Meaning, I was the only person on board that bus whose ancestors (most of them, anyway) came from Europe (Deborah’s parents were from Taiwan). I’d like it to be known that being among people of different races doesn’t bother me, and of course I don’t mind being the oddball of a group since I usually am anyway, but in this case it was a bit more obvious who the oddball was. The Chinese on board that bus thought so too. All eyes were on me as we boarded the bus and we found a place to sit down.

At some point the tour guide made his way to the back of the bus to talk with us, or rather, talk to Deborah, and there was some discussion about us being from America. He turned to me to test my Chinese by greeting me with “你 好! Ni hao!”

I responded back with the same, which totally surprised him, and one of the people behind us said, in Chinese of course, “She said that pretty well!”

The Chinese usually make certain assumptions about Westerners, probably particularly about Americans, such as not having any idea how to use chopsticks, or lacking in common sense. As evidenced by the reaction of our tour guide when I greeted him in Chinese, many Chinese think most Westerners wouldn’t speak Chinese. Some even seem to think that Westerners may be incapable of LEARNING Chinese, as in learning how to say the tones. So, because of this, even saying two little words correctly like “Ni hao!” can impress some Chinese people, and often they use that to base their judgment of your Chinese language skills.

Some Chinese might also think that you speak Chinese fluently if you’re able to correctly say a couple of words such as “Ni hao!” (hello) or “xiexie” (thank you) or “zaijian” (see you later). Matt used this idea to really freak out a couple of Chinese girls on a bus one time as they were obviously gossiping about a friend who had gotten off on one of the stops. As Matt was getting off, the two girls looked at him, he looked at them, and then he said, “Zaijian!” That horrified them as they earlier assumed he couldn’t understand what they were saying (which was the truth) and so felt free to gossip in front of him, but from hearing him say two little syllables in Chinese, they assumed he had understood their entire conversation. Hmm, must’ve been pretty malicious gossip.

Anyway, the bus took off, and it wasn’t long until the tour guide started gabbing on the microphone and eventually sang a couple of songs. All I wanted to do was take a nap since I hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, so I really wanted him to shut up. I wondered if the entire ride, all 11 hours or so, was going to be like this. Thank God it wasn’t, or I would’ve been tempted to make him eat that microphone…

We stopped to have lunch at this restaurant that was attached to a hotel. I use the term “restaurant” loosely, as it seemed more like a cafeteria. The food wasn’t too bad, just heavy. I was still the only “white” person in that large eating hall, so I was attracting a lot of attention that I was almost successfully ignoring. Once we started eating though, Deborah started laughing a little and mentioned something about people watching me, which I told her I was trying not to notice.

Besides my coloring, some of the people in the room might have been staring at me because of the way I was eating. It might have been the fact that I, a westerner, was able to use my chopsticks successfully. Or, it might have been the fact that I eat with my chopsticks in my LEFT HAND – everyone, whether they’re naturally left-handed or not, is taught to use their right hand in eating or writing. I cannot help but think sometimes that I must be almost the complete opposite of the typical Chinese person…

We got back on the road and again stopped off, this time at a road-side attraction where you could, for a fee, ride a camel or a yak. Deborah rode a camel, but I decided that I’d rather not ride a strange animal right next to a busy road with (crazy) drivers, so I just took pictures.

A couple hours later, we arrived at the hotel, which was not very impressive. It had no heater, though the place was up in the mountains and so would get quite cold. What is amazing is that the room had a tv, but not a heater.

The bathroom wasn’t very clean – the toilet had remnants of previous “flushings” – and hot showers could only be taken between the hours of 9 and 10 at night. Fool that I was, I actually took a shower and had to go to bed with mostly wet hair because I didn’t bother bringing a hair dryer with me.

About an hour or two after we got to the hotel, a group of us went to a Tibetan dance performance. Deborah and I both wanted to go because we wanted to experience Tibetan culture, but that was not the impression we left the place with.

Each guest was given a white scarf, which was draped over the shoulders by the greeters at the door, kind of like the Hawaiians giving leis to their guests. After being pointed in the right direction by a greeter who had looked at the seat number on my ticket, I was personally escorted by one of the dancers.

I had mixed feelings about that last part, wondering if the personal attention was a universal courtesy employed with all guests, or if my escort after seeing that I’m obviously not from anywhere near China thought I wouldn’t be able to find my way to my seat though the number was given in Arabic numerals.

It’s not that I meant to be irritated or to think cynically about this dancer’s service, and I did make myself relax and to my relief the dancers were helping many of their guests find their seats, but I’ve noticed that many Chinese act or speak according to their opinions; if they think you don’t know how to do something because you are a foreigner, they would go to the trouble of doing it for you, which can sometimes get ridiculous. It can be on one hand very sweet because they’re trying to take care of you and help you, but on the other hand sometimes it’s easy for the thought to pop into your head that they have the idea that you have absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Some of the Chinese try to be extremely helpful, almost to the point of doing themselves harm. For instance, two stewardesses on the Chinese airline I was traveling on for the last leg of my journey to Chengdu saw me board the plane, took my ticket from me and personally guided me to my seat. Again, the ticket was given in Arabic numerals, with the addition of Latin letters. I didn’t see any flight attendant helping any of the Chinese passengers to their seats, so I figured it was because I was a westerner. It was rather charming, but I wondered if there was some other passenger on the flight who actually needed their service and wasn’t receiving it because I had TWO flight attendants helping me out while I was completely capable of finding my seat.

That wasn’t all the flight attendants did either. I had two carry-ons, which were heavy with the things I didn’t want stolen from the baggage I had checked in (namely a laptop, other electronic stuff, and books), so I reluctantly handed one of my carry-ons to one of the stewardesses when she asked for it. Instantaneously the other one had to help her as she almost dropped to the ground under the weight of my bag. They refused my help, either out of trying to make an effort to make a good impression of China to a foreigner or to save face (saving face is very important in China), when I was trying to communicate to them that I probably ought to put my bag up in the compartment myself.

These two very slight Chinese women struggled and strained for minutes to put my bag in the compartment. I don’t remember now, but I think I decided at this point to jump in and just simply shoved the bag into the compartment with one hand, and the deed was done. The other bag was lighter, but I think I actually put it into the compartment myself.

When the flight was over, one of the same stewardesses came to actually TAKE DOWN my carry-ons, and again she nearly collapsed to the floor. It was half charming, half frustrating as she went through this process of trying to lift a bag she knew she couldn’t carry. She gave me this really helpless look, with kind of a mix of “What in the world do you have in here?!?” and “How can you, a girl, be so strong?” If I had known enough Chinese, I would have told her that I was about to carry those two heavy bags through the fourth airport of my journey. I knew and respected their efforts to be hospitable, but the only thing I could really do was thank them, which I felt was wussy in comparison to the trouble they went to.

I have more examples, but I’ll leave it at that. Like I said, the service is very charming, and I’ve appreciated everyone’s help which has been above and beyond just common courtesy, but at some point you just want to cry “STOP, PLEASE!!!” before they either hurt themselves or go to the extreme to help you out in rather trivial matters when you’re sure they probably have something more important (and much safer in certain cases) they need to do.

And yet there are some Chinese who really think you don’t know what you’re doing.

So, these observations were the cause of my irritation, though I was surprised at my sensitivity as I was personally shown to my seat at the Tibetan dance hall.

We had pretty good seats – the front row. Some of the dancers kept strutting (and I really do mean strutting – peacock style) across the stage floor. And it really was a stage. As the offspring of someone in the Biz, I looked around and noticed they had some really decent lighting rigs. I looked at the colors of the lights that were already on during the “pre-show strutting” and it seems someone has a background in lighting because they used the apricot gels instead of white or yellow that would really distort skin color.

This should have been an indication of exactly what kind of show we were about to see.

When the show started, my ears were assaulted by very loud music that did not sound very traditional in its use of synthesizers, though I heard some other instruments that sounded traditional. Lights were flashing everywhere, and then the dancers began to dance.

The dances were pretty interesting, but because of the other details of the show, I was wondering about the authenticity of these dances.

Many of the dancers were wearing stage makeup, though on a few people it was overdone, which means they probably did their own makeup. That’s fine, just some of them could probably use some instruction in the application of stage makeup.

I was enjoying the show until they began to sing Chinese karaoke music. No dancing, just some dude standing in the middle of the stage singing to the crowd. I’ve heard snippets of Tibetan singing, and I know that it’s considerably closer to what I’ve heard at powwows than it is to Chinese karaoke music. The Chinese in the room were having a grand time because of these songs, which were of course put into the program to cater to their tastes as Chinese tourists.

Unfortunately I do not like Chinese karaoke music. I would not have been disappointed at all if the sound system broke; I was actually disappointed that it didn’t. There were a couple of other songs like that, and my usual diversion during those dumb songs was to play with my camera.

At some point the audience was invited onto the stage to dance with the dancers. I really do not like tourist “culture” activities, because they seem so… yeah, staged. Most of the Han Chinese just were not taking the dancing seriously, as in they didn’t bother to figure out how to actually perform the dance. The Tibetan dancers just smiled as the crowd did their thing, but I’m in agreement with something Deborah said later about wondering what they really think about their culture being twisted for the pleasure of tourists.

Later on as we went through town, I noticed the pictures posted on buildings advertising the dancing troupe, and they reminded me so much of Las Vegas shows. It was an interesting performance to watch, but personally I would’ve preferred just being the silent witness to an actual traditional performance of these dances.

I was informed that we will actually see Jiuzhaigou tomorrow, after a two hour bus ride, though there were hotels in that area. Being accustomed to going directly to the places I want to see, my mind shouted “Why?!?” because the time spent there seemed like pretty much a waste.

Strike one against tour groups.