Chapter 11: Traveling in China
Even though I live in China, my travel experiences have been limited. As formerly the owner of one company and the second in charge of another, I was always able to plan, organize and make quick decisions on matters that arose, but as an individual making decisions just for myself however, I have always found it difficult. By nature I hate going to new places, meeting new people and doing new things and in China that means that I have a hard time even deciding to travel, let alone organizing it. The only time I actually managed to decide on, plan for and go on a sightseeing trip 'by myself', was when I went to Macao in 2007. Even coming to China and organizing my work was done by my younger brother.
Now this is not to say that I haven't travelled in China because I have. What it does mean is that my travels have always been associated with spending time with friends, and I always turn over the planning to them. With my friend Mingxing (from Hong Hu) I have been to quite a few places. In 2008 we traveled to Nanjing where we spent two hours looking for each other at the train station (no I did not own a cell phone at that point) before finally meeting and catching a bus to visit Dr. Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum at Zhongshan Mountain National Park. Whilst we were there I saw a beautiful 'Chinese style' building up on a little hill and got halfway up there to take a photograph before realizing it was a washroom. We also went to Confucius' temple and other sites.
In October of 2012 Mingxing flew from Chengdu where he was working to attend a conference in Wuxi in Jiangsu Province and since Wuxi is just 20 minutes by fast train from Suzhou, we got together on the weekend and visited Lake Tai (Taihu) and went out to the Buddhist Park. In June of 2012 he had a conference to attend in Shanghai and so we got together to travel to Xitang water town and Hangzhou with its West Lake. In February 2006 we visited Du Fu's Cottage (Chinese Poet) and the Panda Reserve in Sichuan Province and in July we visited YiChang and traveled by bus to the Three Gorges Dam. (My first trip to the Three Gorges Dam was with Chen Yang in August of 2004 right after Tobias and Chen Yang took me to PuQi City to see the Catholic priests.) In the summer of 2007 Mingxing and I visited Mt Emei and Le Shan Giant Sleeping Buddha , also in Sichuan.
In May of 2004, when he was about 13 years old, I traveled with Zhan Yan to Shenzhen and two months later in July, I traveled to Tianjin with Qinchao. On both occasions I faced the same problem. While both boys families invited me to travel to these cities to stay in the home of a relative, in both cases the relatives were not prepared to have foreigners stay in their home. Had I been a Chinese National, I would have been welcomed with open arms since teachers are respected in China. (And some people think that because I am white I don't know what it is like to be discriminated against). In Spring Festival of 2007 I traveled to Xiangfan City in Hubei to stay in the home of one of my Wuhan students, Ke Shangxin where I was welcomed with open arms. Jerry, a Chinese friend of a friend about whom I will write more later, once organized for us to travel from Suzhou to Mt. Tai in Shandong where we were refused (during a storm) a room in the fancy hotel on the basis that they were not allowed to house foreigners there. (True! Many people don't realize that not all hotels are permitted to accept foreigners). We spent the night in an acceptable room in the grungy looking guest house.
There have been other places of course some of which were organized for the foreign teachers by the Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture in which I am currently employed and in which I worked in 2007/2008. Along with the other foreign teachers I have been taken to Wuzhen, Nanxun, Tongli, Nantong, Ningbo and who can remember all the other places.
Flying in and out of Hong Kong and Beijing has made it easy for me to do tours in those places; all you have to do is ask the hotel receptionist to organize it. Currently I fly in and out of Shanghai, but organizing tours of Shanghai I leave up to Chiara who currently works there but who used to work with me in Suzhou. It was she who organized my first trip to West Lake in Hangzhou although I never published an article about Hangzhou until I went the second time with Mingxing. On that trip I visited places that Chiara and I had not.
In 2007 as we were heading into the May holidays Chiara wanted to know how I would spend the holiday and when I told her that I had no plans she started talking about her plan to go to Hangzhou. Eventually she let it slip that she was a little worried about travelling alone. When I asked her if she was hinting for me to make the trip with her, she said 'Only if you want to go there!' I told her to make the plans and that I would just follow her lead. She ran me ragged!
When it comes to travelling anywhere on my own in China, 'Finding Myself in China' has been a big challenge. It's hard enough to 'force myself' to get off my fat ass and go here and there, but when you combine that with the language barrier and Chinese culture and customs to boot, it can be a nightmare. China may be an 'exotic' country for tourists on prepaid tours, but for those of us who actually live here, we know that there is nothing 'exotic' about travelling in China when it comes to all the pushing and shoving that goes on, whether it be in the queues to buy tickets, the headlong rush to enter trains and buses, or the scramble for seats even when your ticket is numbered with your assigned seating.
If I have to travel long distances I personally prefer to fly because it is generally, but not always reasonably hassle free even if things do not always run to plan. The first thing to know about travelling in China, is that even on airplanes ('sometimes' and unless attendants hold a firm reign on the wild horses), people pretty much sit where they please. There has been a lot of improvement over the years I have lived here thanks to an ongoing multimedia educational campaign designed by the Government to get people to behave in a civilized or cultured manner.
In 2007 in Macao/Macau I suffered a bit of a culture shock when I realized that cars were stopping on pedestrian crossings as soon as I walked onto them. Crossings are always a dangerous place in China. After leaving Macao I travelled to Shenzhen airport in order to fly to Chengdu to meet Mingxing. The moment we boarded our flight I was reminded that I was once again in mainland China. Nobody seems to pay much attention to the 'one piece of hand luggage' rule on flights in China. On that particular trip I witnessed one lady carrying 6 bags and dragging one suitcase. The poor attendants were running up and down the aisle trying to find places to put everyone's extra luggage, and that included shoving them into the amenities cupboards, and stashing them under seats.
Then there were all those people who found that their seats were occupied by others, and had to try and get them back. In the course of doing that they tended to block the aisles and fellow passengers began pushing, shoving and climbing over luggage in the aisles as though the plane was going to take off before they could get to their own particular seat. The attendants of course put on their best smiles and valiantly tried to keep their cool while they got everyone organized. I have to admit that it has been a while since I have seen that on an airplane, but that trip really brought home to me the cultural difference that can sometimes be observed in China. Although not perhaps so common today, when I first came to China I witnessed it every time I traveled on a plane.
Buses and trains were even worse. Buying bus and train tickets can be a nightmare unless you have a Chinese friend to buy them for you on the internet. Today in China you can't purchase a ticket without providing your identification number which for the foreigner means showing your passport. Buying tickets at the ticket offices requires standing in the long queues, especially if you plan to travel on public holidays or during the longer national holidays.
Although I am assured that the situation is improving, I prefer not to catch a taxi at bus and train stations unless it is a professionally run and supervised taxi rank. I usually walk a block or two to hail a taxi because drivers often quote you a price to your destination rather than just use the meter. They count on the fact that you are either ignorant of distances and fares or wish to accept the driver's price in order to jump the queue so to speak. Having found myself in a couple of outrageous situations, I never travel with a driver offering a 'special price'; I never, unless absolutely necessary, put my luggage in the trunk, and I never take a taxi unless I already have a good idea of the price.
If you must take a taxi from a place where every driver is quoting prices, cut his quote to 40% and work your way up as is necessary. A few years ago at Beijing airport taxi drivers were offering me an extra special price of only 200rmb to take me to my hotel, which by metered journey was only 75 rmb. I once had a female taxi driver quote me the genuine price to take me from the railway station to the airport. On the journey she explained that she had given me a good price because I was the first foreigner to ever get in her cab.
The experiences of expats living in China do not always fit into western preconceptions about China or its people. Unfortunately in my opinion, far too many foreigners either tainted with or fearful of political correctness gloss over the realities of life 'as they personally experienced them in their unique situation'. Political correctness has so psychologically conditioned westerners that some people would recoil with politically correct abhorrence upon hearing certain tales that expats could tell. Nothing will rile me up more than someone writing to me either tell me that I am a liar or that I am a racist, based on an article that I have published recounting my real life experiences. 'Truth' it seems is never a legitimate defense as far as the 'thought police' are concerned. Living in China has given me a new perspective on life. I now understand the methodology and power of propaganda and the use and power of carefully crafted language. Today when people start 'selling' me an idea, my first focus is on the way they craft their language and if it smells of manipulation then I am not interested in listening.
While I have enjoyed 'package' tours to places like the Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City, The Ming Tombs and Mt Emei, I actually prefer the everyday 'ordinary' sights and life of China. Wandering in an 'out of the way', tiny, shabby, but regularly patronized Buddhist temple on the banks of the Yangtze, is far more interesting to me, that the beautifully decorated, neon lit, 'gilt leaf' temples found at so many 'tourist sites'. And wandering down back streets and seeing life as it is; and more than that, meeting and talking with the people who live in such places, is much more memorable than sanitized tours. While some things in China really are 'exotic' and some like Mt Emei in Sichuan are just plain breathtaking, for the most part, expats living in China are just experiencing normal life - whatever that may mean in their particular location and circumstance.
My students always laugh when I mention anything in connection with the city of Hong Hu. I have a special place in my heart for that town. Across the Yangtze River (Changjiang) and about 20 kilometers away is the village of Chibi. Some distance from that is the 'City of Chibi' which was known locally by its former name of 'Puqi'. Puqi/Chibi City is an ordinary Chinese city about 2 hours drive from Xindi (Hong Hu), provided you don't get held up too long at the Ferry Crossing to Chibi town/village. My trip to the City of Chibi with Tobias and Chen Yang ranks among the most memorable trips I have undertaken, precisely because it was such an ordinary one, and because the sights we saw walking over the river bridge (just like the ones I saw from the bridge in Yichang) were so 'stereotypically and exotically' Chinese. The photographs I took of the boys climbing the pylons underneath the bridge in Chibi, and those of the Catholic Priests with whom I spent time, speak to me of 'old China'. They are the images which for me are 'exotic'.
My trip to Chibi was for a specific purpose; to talk with the local Catholic Priests about children in the orphanage. Those priests, the nuns and the congregation were really wonderful people and I really appreciated the genuineness and helpfulness of the priests. The things they conveyed about their lives and ministry really impacted me. I was similarly moved by Zhan Yan's Grandmother's story about her life and also my Mingxing's Grandmother's story about her life. It is the many conversations that I have had with ordinary Chinese, under ordinary circumstances, that provide me with the fondest memories of China, not to mention remind me of how grateful I should be to have grown up where I did.
It is always great to be able to talk about and describe 'places you've been and things you've done', but quite a different feeling to be able to look back and remember 'people' and the meaningful relationships and conversations that you have had with them. It is also one thing to 'go see' a tourist site and another to spend quality time with friends. After Tobias, Chen Yang and I made the trip to Chibi, Chen Yang and I did the 'Chinese Tour' of the Three Gorges Dam up to San Xia. Not much luxury there but it was a great trip.
While photographs I have of Mt Emei and the Three Gorges Dam remind me of what spectacular sights have seen 'on tour', some of my fondest memories are captured in photographs taken in ordinary places with ordinary people.
Foreigners living in China don't live 'exotic' lives although there is no doubt that sometimes they might live quite colorful lives, and nowhere in china is there more potential to experience the 'colorful', than in a classroom of Chinese students making mistakes as they strive and struggle to speak correct English. (If you are easily offended by bad language, you might want to skip the next two Chapters).
Writers Journal Kingscalendar
2013 Social Commentary Articles
Giving the Finger to Comrade GOOGLE's brand of Communism
By Comrade R.P. BenDedek
August 26, 2013
I have come to the decision that the only thing I can do is take a page out of Comrade Google's 'Little Red Book' and say: 'Screw You!' Comrade Google didn't like the way the Communist Government of China kept changing the rules. Comrade Google would not submit to a 'totalitarian authority'. Comrade Google decided to pull up stakes and leave. Is there a lesson to be learned in that?
Political Islam is full of hypocrisy and lies
by R.P. BenDedek
August 11, 2013
Politicians care only for themselves and nothing for the truth unless it suits their purposes. What they do call truth is usually nothing but lies! The general population - never seem to notice when radicals of all nationalities, religions and persuasions turn to 'ad hominems' rather than to logical debate when someone disagrees with them. The honest man will argue his point honestly. The perverted man ignores the argument and attacks the man (ad hominem) as though truth is not found in discovering and weighing the evidence and facts but in the character and 'Politically Correct Nature' of the person speaking them.
R.P.BenDedek (pseudonym) is the Author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' (http://www.kingscalendar.com ), and is a guest columnist and stand-in Editor at Magic City Morning Star News. He is also the Editor of the 'Writers Journal' at Kingscalendar.com. An Australian, he has been teaching Conversational English in China since 2003.
Writers Journal Kingscalendar
"The King's Calendar" is a chronological study of the historical books of the Bible (Kings and Chronicles), Josephus, Seder Olam Rabbah, and the (Essene) Damascus Document of The Dead Sea Scrolls