Land of the Dragon
by L. James Hammond|
© L. James Hammond 2003
|With Yafei and her sister, Yamei, at the Bund in Shanghai. Note the Western-style architecture, a relic of pre-Communist times.
Our first full day in China was Wednesday, June 15. In the morning, Yafei was cheated by a taxi driver, or rather by someone who offered to get us a taxi. Then we did some shopping. On Thursday, a friend of Yafei's came over, a big-shot businessman. Like others in his class, he has a car and a driver at his disposal. He took us to one of Shanghai's fanciest restaurants for lunch. We ate in a private room. Waitresses hovered around us, and filled our teacups every time we took a sip. Our room had a television and microphone for sing-along videos, called "karaoke". These sing-along videos are popular in China, and are common at restaurants.
2. From Shanghai To Hefei
On Friday, June 17, we boarded a ferry that sets out from Shanghai, and then follows the Yangtze River west.
The ferry, like China in general, is very non-egalitarian; China is far from being a classless society. Before boarding the ferry, we sat in a waiting room with about two hundred other people. Someone came up to us and said that, for a price, we could board the ferry first; he evidently figured that we were richer than the other two hundred people, and would be willing to pay for privileged treatment. I was embarrassed at being singled out, and declined the offer. But when another woman accepted the offer, and encouraged us to do so, we went along. (Later we found the same early-boarding service at a train station.) Our tickets were the highest class (called second class for some strange reason), and there were a total of four classes. Second class cabins had two beds, third class cabins six beds, etc.
There was nothing romantic about the ferry. The food was so salty as to be almost inedible. The bathroom had no toilet paper. In fact, they had put a padlock on the toilet paper rack, so that no one would even think of putting toilet paper there. First the ferry went through the Shanghai area, of which we got a good view. Then the river widened and we could barely see either shore. But when we got near Nanjing, we could see both shores easily. There were mountains on one side of the river; the mountains had been cut away to supply gravel, etc. Even the mountains are under construction.
I watched the dock being swept. All the garbage was swept into one big pile. Then the pile was swept into the river--not surreptitiously, but in full view of everyone on the ferry. The Chinese have no conception of environmentalism, just as they have no conception of health food. Cigarette-smoking is widespread. Sugar-filled soda is popular, while fruit juice is almost unknown. Orange juice, for example, is regarded as exotic and peculiar. The only kind of bread is white bread; the Chinese have no respect for whole-grain, high-fiber food. They despise granola, calling it "the shells of grain", and would no sooner eat a bowl of granola than a bowl of peanut shells.
I lost several pounds since: 1) the food is hard to adjust to; and 2) I only slept about three hours a day due to jet lag and culture shock, and more calories are burnt waking than sleeping.
When the ferry reached Nanjing, we were met at the dock by several of Yafei's cousins. They had a truck, and we drove through Nanjing to the tomb of Sun Yat-sen. Along the way, we saw people struggling to drag carts loaded with about fifty tires, the sort of carts that horses usually pull, and with less effort. Since trucks are in short supply, freight is often moved by people, by animals, or by bicycles (actually tricycles). In China, affluence and poverty are side by side, not in separate neighborhoods, as in the U.S.
The tomb of Sun Yat-sen was preceded by a long walkway and high staircases.
The tomb itself was a small, circular building surmounted by a dome. The coffin was set in the middle at a lower level. (The coffin is empty since Sun Yat-sen's remains were brought to Taiwan by the Nationalists.) It looked like an economical imitation of Napoleon's tomb. Before the tomb was a larger room, with a seated statue of Sun Yat-sen and quotes from him inscribed on the walls. It looked like an economical imitation of the Lincoln memorial. After seeing the tomb, we left Nanjing and headed west toward Hefei.
The drive to Hefei was long and bumpy, but it gave us a view of the Chinese countryside, and was therefore one of the highlights of the trip. Little plots of rice fields, peasants working in wide-brimmed hats, little family tombs in many of the fields, water-buffaloes pulling plows, mountains in the distance partly deforested to supply lumber, a little shack in the watermelon field where the farmer sleeps and guards against thieves--this is how 1,000,000,000 Chinese live. There are few cars on the road since there are few cars in China; mostly trucks, medium-sized trucks. They did some planting in the middle of the road, emulating a good Western highway. As we went through a toll, one toll-taker said to another (in Chinese, of course), "look at the foreigner," and laughed.
Road signs were in English as well as Chinese; English is definitely China's second language. But few young Chinese can speak English, though they study English in school. Yafei's brother, for example, studied English for seven years, but can't speak it; he can, however, read a little English. The only Chinese who can speak English are those who were educated in the 1930's and 1940's, such as James Chang.
The drive from Nanjing to Hefei took about three hours. We arrived in Hefei about lunchtime on Saturday, June 18. First we went to Yamei's new apartment, where we stayed during the two weeks that we spent in Hefei. Most apartments in China are obtained through one's employer. Yamei's old apartment was at the school where she worked as a gym teacher. Yamei's new apartment was obtained through her husband's employer. The new apartment is rather fancy--a product of the new China. The old apartment, like most Chinese apartments, had floors, walls and ceilings of bare concrete. The new apartment, on the other hand, has no bare concrete--it has paneling, wallpaper, tile, etc. Now that China is getting richer, some people are laying tile in apartments that were once bare concrete.
The new apartment has hot water, but the hot water isn't stored in a tank. When you want hot water, you first open the valve of a tank of natural gas, as if you were going to barbecue on a gas grill. Then you light the flame of the hot water heater, as if you were starting a gas stove. Then you turn on the water, which passes over the flame, and then comes out of the faucet (or shower head) hot. If the water is too hot, you lower the flame, you don't mix in cold water. Since it's difficult for the person showering to adjust the flame, the person showering usually shouts to someone else, "Too hot!", or "Not hot enough!" Showering in Hefei requires teamwork.
After leaving our luggage at Yamei's apartment, we took a taxi to Yafei's parents' apartment, where I met Yafei's parents for the first time. I also met Yamei's 7-year-old son, Jiang-Jiang. Yafei's mother has the same radiant smile that Yafei has. Yafei's father began by offering me various foods and drinks, in the traditional Chinese manner. (The Chinese place such emphasis on eating that one traditional Chinese greeting is, "Have you eaten?") Both Yafei's parents were, like most Chinese, informal. Yafei's mother demonstrated various facets of Chinese painting to me. She asked me to do some painting; I reluctantly made a few strokes, then Yafei made a few strokes. Then Yafei's mother analyzed our strokes, and told us what characteristics they displayed.
When Yafei's father worked for the telephone company, he walked about 100 yards to get to work. Like most Chinese workers and Chinese students, he came home for a long lunch. (Since most people go home for lunch, there are four "rush hours" instead of two.) A few years ago, he retired from the telephone company, and recently he started a small business next to his house. Now he walks 10 yards to get to work. He works with seven other retired executives. They sell telephones--occasionally to individuals, usually to companies. Much of their business probably comes from connections. (In fact, for centuries Chinese society has been based on connections, on doing favors for people you know, and receiving favors from people you know.) His goal is a 20% return on the money he invested--a modest goal in a country with 15% inflation. He has attained his goal, and now his company may expand beyond telephones.
We gave Yamei a Rubbermaid dishwashing tool. As soon as Yafei's father saw it, he wanted to manufacture it; recently he told us that he had found a company that would manufacture it.
While we were in Hefei, one of Yafei's father's connections, a guy from his hometown, visited Yafei's parents frequently. He worked as a salesman for a company that made bathroom fixtures. He ate dinner with us if there was room at the table; otherwise, he ate on a bench in the kitchen. Whenever he visited, he brought a present, usually food, and whenever he left, Yafei's parents gave him something. On his last visit, he brought some delicious purple plums, and when he left, Yafei's mother gave him some melons. As he was walking out, Yamei's husband spotted two cans of beer, and forced him to take them, too.
|Three generations of the Hu family.
Yafei's father's mother lives with Yafei's parents. Yafei's parents have a live-in house-helper, a woman from the countryside, Zhang Sao. "Zhang Sao" means Sister Zhang; the Chinese often call people "aunt", "uncle", "sister", etc., even if they aren't real relatives. One day Zhang Sao's cousin came over. She wanted to write a letter to her son; since she didn't know how to write, she dictated to Yafei. She said that she had been living in the countryside with her son's family. Her daughter-in-law, who worked in a coal mine, wanted her to look after both the crops and the children, so that she herself could spend more time in the mine. Eventually, there was a rupture between herself and her daughter-in-law, so she left and came to Hefei. Now she was sending a letter to her other son, telling him where she was and how he could contact her. Tears streamed down her face as she dictated to Yafei. When the letter was finished, she was in awe of Yafei's ability to write so much, so fast.
Since there's a shortage of electricity in Hefei, the electricity is turned off in certain areas at certain times. Almost every night, the electricity would suddenly go off, and Jiang-Jiang would be charged with the task of locating candles and matches. Because there's a shortage of electricity, there are no dryers, though washing machines are common. People hang clothes outside; drying racks are attached to most apartments. Everywhere you look, clothes are being dried; people who live along the street often dry their clothes on the sidewalk--between two road signs, for example.
Before I went to China, Yafei had warned me about the street noise, the honking. I found the street noise worse than I had expected; in my opinion, it was one of Hefei's major problems. It seemed, however, that the problem could be solved, and indeed, when I went to Beijing, I found that Beijing had solved this problem. Yamei's apartment wasn't close to the street, and wasn't beset by street noise. Yamei's apartment had a different noise problem: every morning, there was ballroom dancing in the courtyard, accompanied by loud music. Just as the older generation does tai chi in the morning, so the younger generation practices Western dance.
I never saw another foreigner in Hefei; there are no tourists in Hefei, and few scholars or businessmen. From June 17, when we left Shanghai, until July 2, when we left Hefei, I saw only Chinese. As a foreigner in Hefei, I attracted considerable attention. (Foreigners also attract attention in Shanghai and Beijing, though they aren't as rare in those cities.) Being stared at on the street was one of the most difficult aspects of life in Hefei. Only once did someone come up to me and make conversation; for the most part, people would just stare with surprise or amusement.
I noticed lots of people reading magazines in Hefei. The Chinese magazine industry is big, like the American magazine industry thirty or forty years ago. In the U.S., television has conquered print, but in China, print is still king, and the short story is more popular than the television drama. When Jiang-Jiang woke up in the morning, he immediately started reading his comic books. He only watched a little tv.
Jiang-Jiang did a lot of school-work, though he was only in first grade. In China, classes are bigger than in the U.S.; there are about fifty students in a typical class. Even in first grade, exams are graded, and each student has a rank in the class. First-graders do a lot of math work, and also practice writing Chinese characters. During the summer, Jiang-Jiang does one math assignment and one language assignment each day. He returns to school for one day in mid-summer, so that his teacher can see how his summer work is progressing.
A typical day in Hefei: get up about 7; after breakfast, Jiang-Jiang goes to school, riding on the bars of his father's bicycle; Yafei and Yamei do some shopping or housework; lunch was usually at home, occasionally at a restaurant; at about 3, we go to Yafei's parents' apartment, about two miles away; once there, we talk or play with Jiang-Jiang, then have a late dinner that consists of rice and about eight different dishes made from vegetables, meat and fish; the final course was a watermelon (melons, especially watermelons, are all over the streets in China); after dinner, we return to Yamei's apartment (via bicycle, foot or taxi). My ability to speak a little Chinese made it much more pleasant for me to be with Yafei's family.
On July 2, Yafei, Yamei and I flew from Hefei to Beijing. (We chose to fly on a day when an American plane, not a Russian plane, was being used; Russian planes had been involved in several recent accidents in China.) After landing in Beijing, we went to the China World Hotel, and met a friend of mine, Doug, who had arrived the previous night. Doug was supposed to have a 12-day vacation in Beijing, followed by a 12-day vacation in Hong Kong. But his law firm asked him to work in Hong Kong; they told him that, in return for his work, they would pay his Beijing expenses, and also our Beijing expenses.
The hotel was one of the fanciest in Beijing. On the nighttable next to the bed, there was a control panel with buttons that controlled the lights and air conditioning. But it took time to learn how to use the control panel; at first, I had trouble turning off a light, and ended up unplugging it. The hotel complex had 21 restaurants, at which we could eat for free; when we wanted to stay in our room, we could order a room service meal. We used the hotel's fitness center, bowling alley and swimming pool.
Our first sight-seeing trip was to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Beijing is windy, and Tiananmen Square was full of people flying kites. (Sometimes the wind blows sand and dust into your eyes; I saw some cyclists wearing goggles to prevent this.) We saw some tiny street restaurants around Tiananmen Square. These "restaurants" consisted of one table, about six feet long, on which there were several plates of food. In front of each plate was a tiny bench, about four inches above the ground and ten inches long. The proprietor was behind the table, loudly urging passersby to sit down on one of the benches and enjoy a meal for ten or fifteen cents. China has lots of little street businesses; people use the sidewalk to repair bicycles, display books, etc.
|The Forbidden City, from Jing Shan Park. The major buildings of the Forbidden City are aligned on a north-south axis. This photo looks south, toward Tiananmen Square. "The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 as the ‘Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties’, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.... ‘Forbidden’ referred to the fact that no one could enter or leave the palace without the emperor's permission."(Wikipedia)
Doug and I made the 3-mile walk back to the hotel from Tiananmen Square. We met several beggars along the way. Some of the beggars were small children, one of whom followed Doug for a long time. When Doug finally relented and gave him some money, he wasn't satisfied, and continued begging.
|One of Beijing's stately buildings, probably one of the gates of the Forbidden City.
One day Yafei and Yamei went shopping, and Doug and I rented bicycles. We went to a coin shop, but it was closed. Then we went to the Temple of Heaven, but it was also closed. We enjoyed the cycling, however; the roads are flat, and there's plenty of space allotted for bicycles. I had to ask directions several times. Though I spoke Chinese, one guy said, "I don't understand foreign languages"; perhaps he didn't expect that I would speak Chinese, or didn't understand my accent.
Yamei had to leave Beijing before the rest of us in order to monitor an exam at her school. She chose to take a train back to Hefei instead of flying. She was wary of planes, having heard about numerous plane crashes in China. She said she was especially wary of planes after Jiang-Jiang was born; she didn't want him to be left without a mother. So on Friday afternoon (July 8) Yafei and Doug went to the train station with Yamei. They said it was quite a scene: big and crowded. They paid someone to take them down a special passageway; this allowed Yamei to be first on the train.
Meanwhile, I walked to an ancient observatory, about a mile west of our hotel. (I generally walked on the left side of the bike lane, as far as possible from the sidewalk, with its numerous beggars and peddlers. The peddlers are so annoying that I dreaded hearing someone say "Hello!" since I knew it was a peddler trying to sell me something.) I noticed some groups of ten or twelve men outside the observatory, playing cards. (Street card games are a rather common sight in China.)
As soon as I reached the observatory, a young Chinese woman came up to me and said she was going to take an English exam soon, and would like to speak English with me. She came from a rural area, and had learned English on her own, with the help of a radio and a dictionary. When Doug and Yafei walked up, I introduced them to her. It turned out that she worked at the observatory, and had a few minutes off her job. (She got the job because she could speak some English, and communicate with "big-nose" visitors from the West.)
She walked us up to the roof, where the huge, centuries-old, bronze astronomical instruments were. As we went, she explained that there were 99 stairs since the emperor considered 9 a sacred number. We were the only tourists at the observatory, and our guide stayed with us the whole time. (During our stay in China, I was surprised at how often we were alone in various places, though one often hears how crowded China is.) Our guide asked us to read some of the plaques out loud, so she could listen to our pronunciation. (She had some trouble with pronunciation; try as she might, she couldn't pronounce the word "measuring"; it always came out like "margarine".) She told us she had become a Christian a month ago, and felt like a baby; Christianity is making quite a few converts in China.
The astronomical instruments are a conspicuous feature in Beijing, visible to anyone travelling Chang An Street, Beijing's main street. (Yafei used to work across the street from the observatory, at CASS, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.) The instruments are richly adorned with carvings of dragons, etc. The observatory is referred to as a Jesuit observatory, since it was inspired by Jesuit missionaries around 1600. The observatory is a massive building, perhaps because it was originally part of the Beijing city wall. (In Chinese, there are two common words for city, chéng and shì. Literally, chéng means wall, and shì means market. So it's clear that people in China originally thought of a city as a wall, or as a market.)
|While we were in Beijing, we had dinner with Dong Leshan (left) and Li Shenzhi (center). Dong Leshan was an essayist and translator who liked my writing, and introduced me to Chinese editors. When my book of aphorisms was published in China, I dedicated it to Dong Leshan. Li Shenzhi was an intellectual who occupied a high position in the Chinese establishment; he also supported my work.
After Yamei got back to Hefei, she called us and said that her maternal grandmother had died. Yamei's mother, after interrupting her studies at painting school in order to be with Yafei and me in Hefei, had to interrupt her studies once again in order to attend her mother's funeral. She cried for days over her mother's death. Her eyes usually swelled when she cried, but this time they were okay. She felt that the only explanation was that her mother, though deceased, was still protecting her.
She blamed herself for her mother's death. Her mother had been living with her in Hefei, but when she went to painting school in Hangzhou, she arranged to have her mother live with her brother. She felt that this re-location triggered her mother's death. She became more religious after her mother's death, and began to think of life after death, just as Chujuan Hu, our Shanghai host, had become more religious after her husband's death.
On Saturday, July 9, Doug, Yafei and I took a taxi to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. Most people go to these places on a tour bus, but we thought a taxi would be better. Unfortunately, our taxi driver didn't know the area, and made some wrong turns. The Ming Tombs are thirteen tombs scattered in a valley; the tombs were built for Ming Dynasty emperors. Most tourists visit two of the thirteen tombs. Luxury items buried with the emperors are on display. One tomb features a long staircase that goes to a burial chamber deep underground. But when you finally reach the burial chamber, it contains little besides sealed coffins and boxes (and a brief respite from the heat above ground). Elaborate devices were used to seal the burial chamber, and keep out grave robbers; I was reminded of the Egyptian pyramids. On the whole, the Ming Tombs were a disappointment.
Our taxi driver had lunch with us. He told us that he works at least sixteen hours a day, and rests only half a day per week. He borrowed money from friends to buy his taxi. Since inflation in China is about 15%, the usual interest rate is about 20%. But he didn't pay interest to his friends; instead, he gave them various presents. Frustrated by his inability to communicate with foreigners, he longed for a world in which everyone spoke the same language; he said the U.N. should order everyone to speak English, and smack everyone who disobeyed the order.
Many Chinese work long hours. Ren Zhiqiang, Yamei's husband, worked at his computer business until about 9 p.m. Peasants who bring fruits and vegetables into the city often sleep on their cart, next to their produce. One often sees people sleeping on busy sidewalks. As we drove to the Great Wall, we saw people sleeping in the back of trucks, on top of sacks of grain, etc.
After we had seen the Ming Tombs, and eaten lunch, we drove to Badaling, the main access point for the Great Wall. After parking, we followed a sign that said "Entrance to the Great Wall", bought tickets, and soon found ourselves in a kind of zoo. There were several huge cages, each of which contained dozens of bears. The bears scarcely moved in the hot weather, and no one paid much attention to them; everyone had come to see the Great Wall, not to see bears. After making our way through the zoo, we came to the Great Wall itself, which was preceded by another ticket office. Yafei protested that we had already bought one set of tickets. She was told that the bear zoo was run by a separate company, over which this company had no control. So we bought another set of tickets, and entered the Great Wall, protesting as we went.
Unlike the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall wasn't a disappointment. It's very scenic; there are great views all around. The wall itself is only about ten feet high, but since it's built on the ridge of the mountain, it feels much higher. It twists and turns with the ridge of the mountain. It constantly ascends and descends; we saw few flat spots. Much of the wall consists of stairs; without stairs, it would be too steep to walk on. We were tired after walking a short distance.
When we left the wall, Yafei continued protesting what we regarded as a double entrance fee. Her anger increased when we went to a public bathroom that had a special fee for foreigners. During our month in China, we had often encountered higher fees for foreigners, but never at a public bathroom.
Yafei spotted two green-uniformed policemen and went up to them to make one final protest. As soon as she began to argue, other Chinese gathered around and joined in-they, too, felt that they had been cheated. One policeman escorted Yafei to the ticket office, and pointed to some fine print in the window. But Yafei continued arguing, and the crowd continued to grow. The other policeman tried to disperse the crowd by escorting Yafei into an office. I followed her into the office, despite some objections from the police. Doug waited outside apprehensively, wondering if we were going to come out alive.
Once inside the office, the policeman admitted that Yafei's arguments had some validity. He said that most foreigners came in tour buses and entered through another gate. I told him (with Yafei translating) that if he visited Niagara Falls, he wouldn't have to pay two entrance fees. He asked the ticket office to reimburse us, but they wouldn't. So he reimbursed us from his own treasury. When we left his office, there was still a crowd milling around, waiting to see what would happen. Doug was relieved to see us.
The policeman's parting comment was, "so that's settled, but I can't reimburse you". This comment was aimed at the crowd, aimed at dissuading the crowd from asking for reimbursements. This comment infuriated Yafei. She felt that she had become an accomplice in a scheme to deceive and cheat the public. She felt that he had reimbursed us only to save face in front of a foreigner, and that if she hadn't been with me, her protest would have been ignored.
The policeman thought he was clever, but he was actually foolish and petty. By saying that he couldn't reimburse us, he planted the idea of reimbursement in people's minds. He reminded Yafei of a story that's told in China: a man stole three hundred silver coins, buried them, and put a sign over them that read, "There aren't three hundred silver coins buried here. I, who live in the nearby house, am not a thief." When one denies, one sometimes reveals. Yafei was disgusted by what she regarded as the typical attitude of a petty official. She was also appalled by the willingness of Chinese to mistreat other Chinese.
|Ancient Chinese coins. They lack something that most Western coins have: a head.
Sunday, July 10, was our last day in China. Doug and I rented bikes and cycled to the coin shop, the same shop that was closed on our previous visit. This time it was open. Doug bought two ancient coins, and then we headed back to the hotel. On our way, the skies opened up and let loose a deluge of rain. Though we took cover for a while under an overpass, we still ended up dripping wet. Other cyclists--more experienced, Chinese cyclists--pulled out raincoats (ponchos) as soon as the rain started.
On Monday morning, we took a taxi to the airport, and began the long trip back to Boston.