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Travel Log

#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 to.

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.



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©Compliments To Your Health
Joann Flora 2003


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