Good morning, Laos!
The visa extension, paid for by Ludong University, which allowed me to stay in "Zhongguo" (The Middle Kingdom, a.k.a. China) until August 26th came to an end three days ago. So, I have moved on to the lush, tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Bring on the rainy season! My bags are often enclosed in garbage bags, I wear a poncho, my feet smell like fruit-rich mud, and my wet head is testing the theory, "Direct exposure to rainwater stimulates hair growth."
The last two provinces in China were also rainy. I'll tell you more about them than that, eventually. They were the liberal province of Szechuan, and the jewel-like pride of China, Yunnan.
But, for now, let's take a break from our travels to reflect on the very populous, sometimes annoying, hard-working Zhongguo.
First question: In six months, did I come to know China well?
I worked hard on the language. Every day, I wrote in my journal using hundreds and hundreds of Chinese picture characters. It was difficult and fun. I read in Chinese, but the kids' books were too difficult, and the first humorous comic book I found ("Robot Cat") turned out to be from Japan. Next, I tried reading "Journey to the West". It's a classic novel about a proud and stubborn monkey who learns magic and travels in search of Buddhist scripts and the secret to "chang sheng bu lao" (Long Life Never Old). In two months of very interesting reading, I got to page 18 out of 300.
Meanwhile, my relationships with the people could've been better if I would've lived with a Chinese family while I taught, instead of in a building with other foreign teachers, surrounded by students eager to speak English. I was only able to have intelligent conversations with people once I'd begun traveling, and at that point I didn't have a phone or a stable lifestyle. I did have five dates with a warm and friendly English teacher; our chemistry wasn't very good.
Nevertheless, I'd say I got to know the country pretty well. Some may say I'm a fool for saying that.
On to Question Two: Did I have fun in China?
For the first month, my life in Yantai was interesting. After that, it was just comfortable, as the modern city and its residents were focused more on progress than on the beauty of life. I realize now (too late, duh) that a great opportunity was offered to Sophie the New Zealander and me by a handsome guy that Sophie had a crush on. She only had crushes on handsome guys. It was so unfair. He worked at the gym Sophie worked out in, and he offered kung fu lessons.
Traveling, I especially enjoyed Inner Mongolia and Qinghai Province, where the hitchhiking was successful and I camped in remote nature. In China, it often felt like a relief to get away from people. I also enjoyed the ancient cities of Yunnan, Buddhist and Taoist monasteries, Forbidden Cities, and the old part and coast of Yantai. But, towards, the end of my travels, I got angry easily, indicating I wasn't enjoying myself. Why? Probably, it was because the deadline on my visa was oppressing me and pressuring me to move too quickly.
In addition, I had never kissed a Chinese girl, heading into the last two provinces. What would happen in Szechuan and Yunnan!?
My time in China wasn't incredibly fun. But, I will miss my weekly dinner friends, and weekly soccer with a class of boys.
Question Three: Isn't it time for another version of MODERN ODDYSEUS' TOP 5!!!, so brilliant that its glow will un-freeze Mao Tsedong?
Nope. Not yet.
Okay, now it's time.
The Top 5 Best Things about China! will make you want to start learning Mandarin so you can say, "Wo xi'ai Zhongguo!" (I love China!) Actually, you don't need to learn the whole language if that's all you want to say. Here's the "biao" (list):
1. THE FOOD IN YANTAI -
It was a voyage through the clouds for my tongue, every time I ate in Yantai. Outside of Yantai, where the restaurants were unfamiliar and I was eating by myself, the meals weren't nearly as good.
2. TANG DYNASTY DRESSES -
Sleeve-less and short, made of a firm material that got pointy and shiny around the breasts, these dresses sometimes had high thigh slits and slits slicing down from their necks. I saw a young mother quickly walking away from my grasp, in a white version of this tight material, and I was so upset that I couldn't just grab her and throw her over my shoulders, that I yelled at the next three people I talked to.
3. CHUANGTSE (AND LAOTSE) -
Both had the most wonderful philosophies. Chuangtse's fables, starring animals and funny old men, were delightful.
4. KUNG FU MOVIES AND TAI CHI -
I was on a bus that showed an old Jackie Chan movie. First, he tricked a girl into kissing and hugging him. Then, he beat up some people. Then, he got beat up. Then, he ate a bunch of food in a restaurant that he couldn't pay for. So, then, he got beat up again. He puked out the food. And the conclusion was that he beat some more people up. Brilliant!
5. AFFECTION BETWEEN FRIENDS
And the HONORABLE MENTION "biao" includes: TO LIVE (a movie), BEYOND (a rock band), WRITTEN CHINESE CHARACTERS, KITES, TEA, FIREWORKS, ELEPHANT CHESS AND MAH JONG, IT'S SAFE AND FRIENDLY, and GOOD STANDARD OF LIVING. "Zhongguo hen hao!" (China's very good!)
But, wait a minute. The Top 5 Worst Things about China! have something to say in their defense. And even though Chinese people prefer to say positive things - smiling instead of complaining - I believe a little careful criticism can be good. See, that's positive!
1. NOISE -
Construction machinery booms and squeaks. The shrill horns of car drivers pierce the air, over and over again without pause. People let their dogs bark freely at five a.m.
2. TOILETS AND BOTTLED WATER -
The Chinese want to impress the world by building modern cities. Yet, most of their toilets are holes you squat over without the privacy of a door, and many of them look and smell like they haven't been cleaned in weeks. Some have poop on the walls. Also, China was only the fourth country I've been to where you can't drink the tap-water, and it seemed wasteful to buy so many bottles of water.
3. NOT FUN, INTERESTING, OR ROMANTIC -
China has few rock music bars, or dance clubs that play anything but loud pop music. The people are practical and single-minded, putting all of their energy into making money or studying. When they do have leisure time, they're tired, or they're rushed by the next practical thing they must do.
Conversationally, they're not very interesting. They're of a single mindset. They're superficial, believing men should have short hair, women should have light skin, quality of life is measured by money, Taiwan is China, and that rich people must be good people. Few criticize the government, though the government does nothing for the people besides control and tax them.
They believe people should be married in their twenties, as soon as men own homes and have enough money to get the "approval certificates" from their potential brides' parents. Women seek men who can provide material comforts, and there's little spontaneous fun between the sexes. However, some girls are cute and sweet to hang out with, and it's now common for college students to date until they graduate and must part.
In general, I'd say Chinese culture inhibits people from developing their own personalities. My advice for China is that people wait until they're older to get married, so they can spend their twenties learning freely and questioning what their schools taught them. Then, when they have children, they should let their children play, and not force them to compete in boring schools.
"The aim of life is self-development. To realise one's nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for." - an Oscar Wilde character
4. HIGH TICKET PRICES (TO SEE CULTURAL AND NATURAL ATTRACTIONS)
5. CONFUCIANISM -
Confucius was a very smart man. He said many things regarding many subjects - many of his opinions seemed to contradict one another. He said people should be true to themselves. But, he was adamant that people should carry out all the ancestral rites and ceremonies he deemed appropriate. And he said people should obey and not question their rulers and elders.
He came from Shandong, the province I taught in. Confucianism is strong there. In the tradition of Confucius' love for knowledge, students in Shandong attend classes from morning to night. They follow rules well. And their parties are full of boring, ceremonial speeches.
"The ancient scholars studied for their own sake; today the scholars study for the sake of others." - Confucius
For the sake of China, here is the HONORABLE MENTION: CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES, THE GOVERNMENT, LITTER, RACISM, DANGEROUS DRIVING, and INVASION OF PRIVACY. People always looked over my shoulder when I was writing, and they handled my possessions.
Okay. Well, I'll end this story with a good memory, one that even involves a government worker.
In Gansu Province, a boy my age named Lu Jiming invited me to sleep in his home. He led me past farmers selling fruit out of wooden carts, to a side road of his poor town. He opened his family's door, revealing a two-story open courtyard. His father, a relaxed government worker, and I were soon playing Elephant Chess. "Bu gan chi." (Don't dare eat that piece.) Lu Jiming and his father-in-law offered me advice on every move I made using the wood blocks.
I lost both games. By the time we'd finished, the women of the famiy had laid out a dinner with chicken livers, eggplant, firm seaweed, cooked peanuts, meatballs, and so on ... "Zhongguo hen hao!"
Yum. Well, I've still got two more provinces to tell you about. I'd better get to work.