Thursday, June 02, 2005

“My Absolutely, Very Last Farewell From China!”

I know I’ve already sent out my “farewell” and final email from China but I’ve awoken at 5 in the morning with jet lag and feel compelled to better articulate my experiences in China. There has been so much to process in this past month. New worlds have unfolded in our mind’s eye across the Pacific Ocean, new friendships forged, and adventures which have sharpened my appreciation of the comforts of life in America.
But most of all, I feel the strong urge to set straight several of the stereotypes which I, at the very least, had of China before we set out on this trip.

So here they are, the short and the skinny of travel in China:

--First of all, the dollar is weak in most places around the world. China is the ideal place to travel if you want your dollar to stretch further than you ever dreamed! We easily ate huge meals for a mere $2 or less in both the cities and the countryside. The most expensive and lavish hotel room we ever booked was $27 a night. And there were silk flowers on our beds at night. Most hotels and guesthouses ranged from $4 a night/double in the smaller towns to $15/double in the larger cities. Jade, silk, handcrafts, and scroll watercolor paintings are very inexpensive if you know how to bargain and enjoy it at the same time! I can honestly say that China is the cheapest country that either Mom or I have visited in the world.
The Chinese yuan will be re-evaluated this summer in relation to the American dollar. Prices will be slightly higher but, I believe, that China will continue to be one of the best places for travel while the dollar is so weak.

--It’s incredibly easy to travel as a woman in China. Women are not openly disrespected—at least on the most superficial of levels—as travelers like I have experienced in other countries. Contrary to travel through Latin America, Africa, and some small Asian countries, I was never “cat called” or “ogled” in China. Whether this is because it was more subtle or they just thought I was an ugly girl I’ve no idea. But I wouldn’t hesitate to travel on my own as a woman (bar wearing tube tops and mini-skirts Santa Barbara style!)

--I admit that I expected China to be crowded, polluted, obnoxious, and very dirty. Okay, yes and no. I saw some of the nastiest toilets I’ve ever experienced. But this is usually par for the course for travels in Asia. The whole habit of spitting is equally annoying and hard to ever get used to. It’s great fun to be chewing on vegetable curry when you hear someone hawking at the table next to you. BUT, that said, it is possible to find hotels, restaurants, and neighborhoods which are very clean. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised by how clean the larger cities were. The streets and sidewalks of major neighborhoods are swept free of litter and the Chinese government is making headway trying to discourage littering.
Sadly, smaller communities do have litter problems. Rivers are choked with garbage and roads are in a constant state of construction and disrepair. I think that, with time, the littering is going to be lessened as education spreads.

--I expected the Chinese people to be cold, rude, and obnoxious. Not true. We found that 99% of the men and women—from villagers to business owners and taxi drivers—we met were kind, funny, curious, and engaging. Although language often proved to be a limitation, the Chinese were always patient with our questions for directions ever if it meant we had to act out what we wanted with crude body language. Most people were incredibly warm and helpful and very funny. They tended to be much more outgoing than other Asians whom we’ve met.
That said, the large groups of Chinese tourists that we met on our travels were pretty fun to make fun of. Traveling in large tour buses and following guides with megaphones and colored flags, we still don’t get the Chinese obsession with travel in large, loud groups. One on one however is a totally different thing.

--I also have to admit that I’ve never found the sound of Chinese to be appealing. Tolerable at best with its rollercoaster tones and grating intonations. But we found that Chinese can be a beautiful language and doesn’t have to sound like nails drug across a chalkboard. Much of the sound—like any other language—depends on the dialect and the person speaking. We met many soft-spoken Chinese people who made it sound like a whole new language. On the flip side, we stuck fingers in our ears when we’d hear a high-pitched voice of a female vendor selling newspapers or cold noodles on the street…”Ni haooooo! Woooo yaoooo!!!!” Painful.
But for the most part, I’ve come to appreciate the Chinese language more than I ever thought I would. Conversational Chinese is not as difficult as you would think at the beauty of the characters is unrivaled for its shear poetry.

--“They’re all commies!” I hadn’t realized how many shades of grey there are in interpretations of communism. We were shocked at how prosperous the economy is and the thriving middle class in the cities. China is not a pure communist government. Wisely, they’ve adopted some aspects of the free market economy and this has enabled them to continue to grow as a force to be reckoned with in the world market.
The government has eased many of their oppressive policies towards citizens’ ability to move throughout the country. In the recent past, if you were born to a farmer in the countryside, it was prohibited for you to move and work in the city. And vice versa. But today, there’s been a massive exodus of rural people to the cities to make better lives for themselves.
Social laws directed towards relations between men and women also continue to become more progressive. In larger cities, women can be seen wearing shorter skirts and high heels. Couple can be more open in their affections towards one another.

--Not all Chinese people eat cats and dogs. Yes, it is true. Some do. But China is almost as large as the U.S. and food is largely regional. I was most surprised by how much the Chinese love small dogs as pets. I saw some of the cutest puppies in my life in small villages throughout our trip. I had never expected to witness the Chinese as pet lovers.
I did have the unfortunate experience of seeing a couple of dogs in cages in smaller villages. The markets are not for the faint at heart. Even for someone like me who has grown up with a hunter for a father and has seen animals being butchered….well, let’s just say that I saw some weird stuff being eaten. The conditions for animals at the markets is not good from what I witnessed. And I know that we also have problems with our treatment of livestock in the U.S. I can only hope that as we continue to evolve as a species, so will our treatment of other animals.

--Lastly, China is as diverse, if not more, as the United States. It encompasses cultures and biosystems from the edge of the Mongolian steppes in the North to the Thai and Burmese Borders in the South. From the mountains which separate it from Afghanistan in the west to the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the thriving state of Hong Kong. Just the province of Yunnan contains 26 different ethnic groups each of which have their own language, customs, religion, and dress.
Put it this way, think of China like an extra large Supreme Pizza. In our travels through Sichuan and Yunnan for four weeks…we’ve only eaten a mushroom and a pepperoni from ONE of the slices of that giant pizza.
Think about it.

So in closing, I’d like to first say thankyou to my beloved mother who continues to be an incredible travel partner and my best friend. It is because of her that we traveled to China. And I thank her for that with all my heart!

And a big thankyou to all of the incredible friends we made during our journey through Sichuan, East Tibet, and Yunnan who make our short one-month trip look like a blink in time.

And lastly, a thankyou to the people of China who have broadened my perception of their country and of my own.
Besides the love of the adventure, travel also tends to sharpen my appreciation of the comforts of home. I was so elated to go to Trader Joe’s and pick out all the scrumptious food which I have missed….to take a shower without wearing flip flops…to travel on the bus without worrying about catching lice…and to return to a home of my own with the support and encouragement of my loved ones!

Please, if you are thinking of traveling but keep finding excuses and reasons NOT to…just do it. Book that ticket. Demand time off. It will change you and you won’t be sorry. If at the very least, it makes you appreciate everything you’re blessed with in this life.

Don’t let fear guide you. The adventure that lies ahead just may change you....

Cheers to all of you and thanks for reading…until next time!
Rachel "the jet-lagged one" Thurston