#5: Overcoming Preconceived
Notions Part 2 - Zhongshan
by Joann Flora,
Acupressure, Nutrition Counseling, Qigong
November 06, 2003
Thursday - 12:50 am
There is no tie-dye in southern China but you can buy European
pointy-toed shoes extending so far beyond the foot they look
like elf shoes. There are no fresh, raw vegetables to be had
in restaurants; everything is cooked, including the lettuce.
There are no table manners as we know them; it is acceptable
to reach across your dining companions, slop food everywhere,
and slurp your noodles. However, you are expected to cover your
mouth with your free hand while you pick your teeth with the
other. To say that I experienced a myriad of cultural differences
between the west and the People's Republic of China,
what we used to freely call Communist China, is an understatement.
There is a rhythm to the movements and social graces of China
that westerners observe with awe and without understanding. "How
can they do that?", we want to know.
Upon leaving Hong Kong, I took the China Ferry
to Zhongshan, on the mainland of China, 90 minutes
away. Diana, who had made this trip one year earlier, said, "the
customs and immigration people are very serious here, especially
on the mainland". She put much emphasis on the 'very'. This
was apparent from the time we arrived at the ferry terminal in
Hong Kong. No one smiled when we passed through the lines and
there were no hellos or greetings in any language. I saw a man
chastised by an agent because his foot strayed in front of the
yellow line behind which the sign required him to wait. We had
to complete one of many health questionnaires required for travel
into and out of China. These began on the plane prior to landing
in Hong Kong and continues each time we make a significant move
by public transportation. There are masked workers ready to take
temperatures or delay those who look unwell. This procedure continues
literally till one deplanes back in the states.
The China Ferry is a big, high speed, people only, two-level
water taxi with snack bar food service and TV. To an Alaskan
experienced with the excellent docking and loading procedures
of the AMHS, getting on and off the China Ferry required the
skills of a dancer. These boats tie up along a float, but are
not held fast. Therefore, the float is moving in one direction
as the boat moves in another. The ramp between the two slides
along the with boat, which means it's moving on the dock. If
the water is calm, this is not a big deal. It the water is rough,
or a wake occurs, it's more like something in a fun house. You
watch the ramp closely, get in sync with its movements, and jump
on (or off) with your luggage. It reminded me of 'jumping in'
in double-dutch jump rope. The trip to the mainland is not particularly
interesting once you leave the Hong Kong waterfront till you
get closer to the PRC (People's Republic of China).
The waterway narrows into a National Geographic-like location
of delta sloughs. Fishers stand or squat in their sampans
pulling nets. On the banks among the reeds were tattered sheet-metal
and plywood structures which I thought were weather shelters
for workers or maintenance equipment. I learned later that these
were dwellings for the people who fish.
When we docked in Zhongshan, the PRC Customs and Immigration
Officials were more serious than those in Hong Kong; there was
no greeting, no smile, and no eye contact. When my passport and
visa were handed back to me, I inadvertently said thank you,
smiled, and nodded: a western habit. This shocked the agent who
cracked the tiniest of smiles and offered the slightest nod.
Suddenly, I felt suspicious and hoped I hadn't attracted any
attention. We filled out another health form and exited the terminal
where my teacher was waiting. Chan Lao-Shi loaded our baggage
into his car (a status symbol in China) and off we went.
Driving along, I noticed a mixture of new construction, modern
buildings, and old impoverished areas. Master Chan told us that
Zhongshan was becoming a vacation spot for Hong Kong residents
and that much money was therefore coming into southern China.
Zhongshan was experiencing the benefits of a boom town economy.
The road we traveled was modern and new, very spacious, and had
good signage and signals. I noticed that though the bikes, scooters,
and pedestrians far out numbered the cars, vehicle traffic seemed
to be setting the pace. "The rule is, no rules", Master
Chan announced. Only then did I begin to notice what felt so
odd about the traffic: cars crossed lanes at will, often without
signals; no one stopped or yielded to anyone else; bicycles and
pedestrians were definitely at the bottom of the pecking order;
speed was relative and I don't recall that it was posted; driving
on the line was OK; turning was purely a matter of choice if
you accomplished it before someone else moved into that space.
It was a bit dicey; little did I know what waited ahead.
We arrived at Greenville, a very modern, gated
community with three swimming pools, massage spa, play areas,
two restaurants, manicured grounds, and uniformed guards. Service
workers were everywhere clipping, weeding, sweeping, cleaning,
and spraying. They dug out grass growing between the brick pathways
and swept the gutters on a daily basis of any leaves or debris
that may have fallen. The porches were scrubbed weekly. I even
saw someone scrubbing the black tire marks off the curbs. Within
this large housing complex, there was an obvious absence of dumpsters
or household sized trash cans. It soon became apparent that people
put their garbage outside in small grocery bags; it was picked
up by a mini-garbage truck that circulated through the complex
several times each day. Among the cars I saw were Lincolns,
BMWs, limos, and types you would expect well-to-do westerners
to drive. They were all late model, clean, and blemish free.
They had also been paid for in cash as car financing is only
just becoming available in some places. I had arrived in a community
of upper-middle class to wealthy people. The complex included
low and high rise condominiums, duplexes, and single family homes
(which would be the only private homes I would see in five weeks).
Fichus trees the size of mature maples lined the streets; western
house plants were artfully landscaped into hedges and borders.
A lake stocked with fish ran throughout. I was amazed. Music
was piped out to the public areas each afternoon from speakers
in the bushes and mounted on buildings. Within a week, I realized
it was an Asian Pleasantville. Nothing grew in it's natural state
as far as I could see in any direction. It was entirely manufactured.
The constant sweeping, clipping and cleaning seemed less a necessity
and more a function of keeping the lower class working, like
the WPA in the 1930's. There were no family pets and no one fed
the wild birds (one species only). Everything was organized,
arranged, and perfect. The one thing that broke the monotony
of the plastic environment was the laundry hanging from every
porch, even the penthouses. Dryers were only used when it rained,
which it rarely did. The wash hanging out gave the place a sort
of wealthy tenement look. It was a slice of reality for me.
My stay in Zhongshan held other new experiences in addition to
the environmental ones. At master Chan's home, I learned that
the food is always eaten cooked not raw, and is fried or sauteed
in oil. I expected rice to appear at each meal, but was surprised
at the frequency of noodles and potato in the same meal (along
with the rice). Homes come standard with two burner stoves,
no ovens, half sized refrigerators, and little washers and dryers.
Chinese people love white bread but don't eat the crust, whole
wheat, rye, or whole grains. Sandwiches tend to be inadequate
club-types with the crust cut off. They steam buns filled with
dabs of something sweet, and put pickled cabbage instead of sugar
on oatmeal. They don't use paper towels in the home and Kleenex
serves as your napkin at meals. Napkins are provided in restaurants,
but they're thin and wimpy. Restrooms frequently have straddle
trenches (email me if you need me to expound on this further),
but often lack soap, hand towels or toilet paper.
Restaurants (as well as buses and stores) are very loud.
Everyone talks in the multi-tonal language which makes for high
volume conversation; background music plays at volumes that would
please US teenagers, and the overall din is pretty amazing. The
service people nearly outnumber the diners. They hover at your
table refilling cups and glasses each time you take a sip and
change your plate at every course. At the more popular places,
you can see livestock awaiting their fate just outside the door:
chickens (live and dead) in crates, crustaceans and fish in tanks,
bee larvae wiggling near the honey comb, or crocodiles in cages
with mouths taped shut. Inside, processed birds hang by the neck
from hooks in the windows of the kitchens, and shark fins lay
in cases. It really is enough to make an omnivore consider vegetarianism.
The locals peruse the potential meals, pick their dinner, and
the cooks prepare it. Dinner isn't over till the fruit plate
arrives. Unless you're the one who ordered, you can't make assumptions
about the number of dishes. The food comes in waves, two or three
plates at a time. Just as you think you're getting full, more
plates show up. It seems to go on all night. None of it remotely
resembles the Chinese food I've had in the States, except the
steamed rice and sweet and sour pork; everything is wonderful!
In deference to my teacher, I ate the fish head at one meal,
but drew the line at the pigeon head. The coffee was the best
I've ever had. I was pleasantly surprised at this discovery.
It was thick, and slightly bitter; with a little sterilized cream,
it was like dessert. Coffee is served in short cups that are
larger than a demitasse cup but smaller than a 10 ounce mug.
There are no fortune cookies in China!
Traffic is a story unto itself! It got worse and worse
the more places I went. In the downtown shopping area, it was
worth your life to try to cross the street. I learned to get
close behind a local person and go with them, drafting like a
race car. Traffic frequently came from two or three directions,
four abreast: cars, buses, bicycles, scooters, rickshaws, everyone
for themselves. The idea is to wait for a hole, then run for
it and not stop. One time we misjudged our distance and had to
stand on the center line with the buses going by in each direction
while we waited for the other side to clear. No one stopped to
let us finish crossing. Pedestrians get no consideration from
anyone, not even the bicycles. But, traffic has its own rhythm
and flow so the bodies do not pile up on the pavement. It's truly
amazing. The best description I've been able to come up with
for the traffic in China is 'Russian Roulette with moving vehicles'.
In this game you always bet against the pedestrians.
Walking back from dinner, it is common to see the beggars. They
are not visible during the day as it is too hot for them to be
out. These beggars are not the 'down on your luck' types you
often see in American cities; they are physically deformed from
rickets and other pre-natal nutrient deficiencies. Underdeveloped
and twisted limbs, their bones bent, they lay on the sidewalks
holding cans for money. It's best to reserve change for the cans
from the restaurant as you will pass them on your way back to
the taxis. It's a tragic, 'Send Your Dollars To Care' scene that
is just another part of the landscape in China.
On our one day off, we would shop a little in the market areas.
In very busy locations, pedestrian safety and the flow of vehicle
traffic was facilitated with pedestrian subways and overpasses.
The exchange rate made it fun and easy to buy everything we wanted;
nothing was too expensive at the asking price, but you are expected
to barter. "Made in China" has had many negative connotations
in the west. Here among the Chinese people, we were able to purchase
first rate, high quality merchandise of excellent craftsmanship.
Textiles of silk and cashmere, traditional articles such as fans,
art, embroidery, jewelry, as well as contemporary western items
were offered in roll-up door stores and air conditioned indoor
malls featuring Armani, Gucci, and Clarins among other products
from the US and Europe. Anything we wanted could be found and
purchased except post cards and fresh salad. Later I learned
that the Chinese keep the really high quality merchandise for
themselves and ship out the lesser as exports; I am not stating
this as a fact, just reporting what was reported to me.
There is a definite class system present in the PRC, though it
is not a system of oppression. Those individuals who have studied,
lived, or worked in the west, and those who have had the good
fortune and ingenuity to get in on the ground floor of the economic
revolution now occurring in China, live the good life. They are
the ones driving cars, living in the exclusive, gated communities,
traveling, and wanting for nothing. They are the bankers, factory
owners, real estate developers, hotel owners, pilots, and entrepreneurs.
The peasant class has produced two types of workers: those who
are still in the rice paddies and banana plantations, and those
who have moved into the service of the upper class. The service
workers in the public sector (gardeners, street sweepers, maids,
cooks, servers, massage therapists) make about $200 USD per month
($1,600 RNB). They often work nine or more hours per day with
one or two days off each month. Those in private service can
make considerably more (nannies, full time housekeepers). They
live on these wages and can even send money home. Master Chan
said they are happy to have these jobs or else they would still
be working on the farm with their families. These meager service
jobs are potentially their way out. A third class that seems
to stand by itself is the artesian class: those who create and
craft their wares principally for the art and jewelry trades.
Naturally, the 'artist' is at the top of this class, with the
assistants and skilled laborers making up the balance. The point
is that there is tremendous opportunity for those who wish to
move out of traditional ruts. The demand is high for workers
to meet the needs of the growing upper class, and the farms and
unskilled labor forces are providing these workers. In turn,
the service people are improving the status and position of
their families monetarily, through education, and improved standards
of living. Additionally, the construction boom (roads, commercial
buildings, water and amusement parks, housing) are providing
opportunities for unskilled people to become skilled workers.
They have a future of employment opportunities to look forward
I went to China expecting Mao suits and armed guards. Instead,
I met a kind, welcoming society of upwardly mobile people looking
ahead toward- looking forward to--their future in a rapidly developing
country and expanding economy. All they really need to complete
their modern society is a good Caesar Salad and tie-dyed clothing.
E-mail Joann Flora
To Your Health
Joann Flora 2003
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