Thursday, July 15, 2004

Culture Shock Blues in the Middle Kingdom

He was sitting at a plain table on the 4th floor of a Beijing shopping mall. And he was angry. He wa so full of anger that a small confrontation with an aggravated Chinese citizen would have easily provoked him to scream and even, perhaps, begin a fist fight that would have quickly resulted with him wrestling with his opponent on the ground until either he won or was defeated or arrested by the Beijing police.

Where did this anger come from?

A combination of things. Beijing bureacracy, rules and regulations concerning the exchange of Chinese RMB for U.S. dollars was one. It took him all afternoon and evening of one day and all morning and early afternoon of the next day to simply find a meansto buy U.S. dollars with the large amount of Chinese RMB that he had withdrawn from a Citibank ATM. He had accomplished the task illegally. He sold his RMB by being a black market tout soliciting newly arrived foreigners who were standing in lineat one of 3 Chinese bank tellers at the Beijing International Airport.
As he sold his RMB bit by bit he dared in his mind for his arrest. He wanted to be provoked into an arguement, a fight to vent and release all of his pent up traveling anger. The police at the airport would have been a perfect excuse to finally explode with little care of being dragged to a Beijing prison or court. He did not care, he was being foolish, reckless, apathetic, and angry.
The other reasons came from a series of discomforts and annoyances since his departure from Xi'an. Although he often complained to those who could understand his native tongue that he had yet to experience culture shock in China it was simply apparent to all that the complaints themselves were an obvious sign that he was culture shocked, and in a very bad way.

After arriving in Luoyang after a 7 hour train journey on a hard sleeper in which he saw 3 power plants along the way he checked into a hotel. The hotel was one of several recommended in his guide book. He had a bit of difficulty finding the hotel and cursed his poorly xeroxed pirated guide book that he had bought in Vietnam for his inability to quickly find the hotel.
The hotel itself represented everything that he was beginning to hate about China. You could say that after his three and a half years in Japan he was simply seeing China through the eyes of a Japanese.

In his eyes and mind China was a filthy place where men and women drew in a horrifically loud breath before spitting on the ground. The spat anywhere regardless of whether the ground was public or private.

After taking a shower in his room he decided to make a list of all the things he found incredibly foul about China.

List of things that I hate about China:

1 - dried snot on my hotel room walls. what the f*&k? why cant people here use a handkerchief instead of blowing out the innards of their nose into the air and ground, or walls of my hotel room for that matter?
2 - the ground is a garbage bin. everyone throws their trash on the ground, into the street, on the floor, carpet, whatever. bus drivers throw their empty plastic drink bottles out their window. pedestrians throw their plastic bags and unfinished foods on the ground. men in hotels spread their cigarette ash all over the carpet - carpets in all buildings are full of cigarette burns, they are filthy and disgutsting. people blow their noses straight onto the ground. kids with their slit pants piss on the ground.
3 - the Chinese have no integrity in maintaing their surroundings. All the interiors of hotels and buildings are in disarray. they dont take care of their environment. elevators are filthy. it seems they never ever have the thought to clean anything around them.
4 - everyone in China is a chain smoker. brown marks on teeth caused by excessive smoking is a common sight.
5 - brothels are everywhere; especially near train and bus stations. small shops sell sexual devices in plain view of children who happen to walk by. I found a freakin water balloon condom in the drawer of my hotel room! prostitutes call my hotel room at all hours of the day and night!
6 - the Chinese are loud people!!! they are always yelling. and taxi's and bus drivers are always honking their horns.

1 - Chinese people - mostely men - can be seen everywhere playing cards, checkers, or mahjong.
2 - I often see men and sometimes women with a glass jar filled with water and tea leaves.
3 - the Chinese never que (wait in line) properly. they all just attack the teller to get a bus or train ticket.
4 - the Chinese are unable to speak any English. and that is a good things because touts quickly walk away after only one attempt in trying to sell foreigners something in Chinese. as a result the Chinese touts are not nearly as aggressive or innovative in selling souvenirs to tourists as the touts I found all over southeast asia.

Luoyang, China (continued) - June 24th
He strolled the streets of Luoyang for miles and miles in search of an internet cafe. Unable to find any internet cafe after hours of searching he walked and walked in search of any cultural light that would brighten his thoughts. Row after row of horrendously boring and uniform buildings passed him.

At the city's center he looked at the oddity of the hyper-modern corporate buildings and new buildings which had shot up only years ago. They seemed out of place in Luoyang - a once small town turned into an industrial urban grey by the "all-knowing" Mao.

There was a sharp contrast between rich and poor that could be seen all around those out-of-place modern buildings. For example the 5 star hotel that had yet to be completed stood right next to a series of low-income brick buildings for families that carelessly threw their garbage out onto the alley-like lane that served as the walkway to reach the front door of their homes.
Just a few blocks away from the modern buildings surrounded by poverty was an Olympic stadium. Before it stood a bleak bronze statue of football (soccer) players running and sliding to gain control of the ball.

He snaped a picture or two of the statue; locals walked by wondering why. Then it began to rain lightly. Great, he thought, perfect!

He then began to walk east praying for a restaurant that had any sign in its window in English for he had yet to eat anything for the day.

He walked until he saw a fish market. Out of curiosity he decided to investigate. It was far too long into the day to see the sporadic activity of the fish market. The market was located within an enclosed lane. Rusty, beaten-up shops lined the lane. Men and women within those shops lounged around watching their black and white T.V.'s.

As he had expected as soon as he had exited the fish market he saw seafood after seafood restaurant. But, he was too embarrassed to walk into one of them for lunch and go through the hassle of trying to communicate what he would like to eat. So, instead he chose to be stubborn and hungry and continued on toward the river.

The river was wide and on its nothern bank was a wonderful park as green as Ireland. He walked quickly through the park to reach a concrete kiosk where he sought refuge from the rain.
He stood outside under one of the kiosk's corners with an adolescent Chinese couple. He could see that the girl before him had had some kind of accident which resulted in the deformities of her neck and lower jaw. She was simply in appearance and had difficulty speaking but regardless of these physical differences she had a boy by her side who cared for her deeply.

He didnt know what to think about that. This girl who had someone. They soon left him to sit beneath the long protective branch of a tree that stood just next to the river.

He was beginning to feel lonely again. He was beginning to feel sad.

Once the rain had let up he decided to walk east along the river. It was quiet and the grass, yes the beautiful grass, was so wonderfully green.

Perhaps an hour later he passed a Taoist temple and continued east down an old street lined with old and uniform homes and barbershops.

So many barbershops, he thought, in this country. Why? All the Chinese that I have seen have the same hair style. You would think that there would be a vast array of hair colorings and styles to go with all these barbershops.

He looked into each barbershop searching for any sign that it was indeed a brothel. He found a few barbershops that confirmed his suspicion.

Finally at the end of the street he stopped and bought a bag of fresh, rubbery bread. As he walked away from the bread vendor he began snacking. But he was self-conscious as he ate for he was the only person who was eating as he walked.

As he walked north he soon came across a massive castle gate and wall. It was apparent that the wall was only a decade or more old. There was a grand gate entrance into the "Old City" of Luoyang. After buying a drink for more than it was worth and passing by a vendor who was selling cooked rat among a few other meat products he walked through the gate.

What he immediately found was a sort of remake of what one would find after passing through the gate of a fortified castle. The rising walls and towers had the look of a Disney attraction. Chinese women dressed in their uniforms called to passer-bys trying to seduce them into one of the several restaurants that were located within the remade castle walls.

Further along down a major lane he saw old buildings and homes and shops selling crafts, clothes, and food. He fot a sense of the old China from this place but he could see that bits of the lane had been renovated resulting in the alterations of the original pieces of the lane.

Far ahead he saw an old gate. He walked and walked moving his tired legs until he reached the gate and continued on passed it.

As he walked he began to look into every open door observing any life that was to be found down its long corridors and open-air halls. He saw Chinese women attending to their children and staring at him not understanding why on Earth he was taking a picture of her and her children.
As the sun began to set he decided to call it a day. He walked back the entire length of the lane until he exited the grand gate and took a taxi back to his hotel.

These Words have been brought to you by Domenico

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Xi'an and the Terra-Cotta Warriors - June 22nd to 24th

I took an overnight hard sleeper train from Nanjing to Xi'an on the night of the 21st. This was my first journey by hard sleeper (I took a soft sleeper from Guangzhou to Shanghai) and it was very comfortable and safe. The hard sleeper car consists of open compartments of 6 beds (the soft sleeper consists of closed compartments of 4 beds).

I put my bag at the end of my assigned bed and laid out on it with my head resting on my bag. I faced the window and simply looked out into the darkness between concentrated hours of reading. There was also a TV to entertain each open compartment. The programs were all in Chinese so it didnt distract my reading since I couldnt understand a thing. I did put my book down though to watch a sort of comedic talk show. The host was interviewing a Chinese rap star. I found myself laughing at their converstation. It was ridiculous to see a Chinese teen spit out words and lyrics of mixed English and Chinese. He then went on to show the host of the show rap mannerisms that he had obviously learned from watching movies and videos of rapppers in the hood and ghettos of the U.S.

This Chinese kid knows nothing of the culture that African American rappers are apart of - a culture defined by growing up and living in the ghettos of the U.S. Black hip-hop culture is black hip-hop culture. Any hip-hop/rap performer who has never experienced life in these rough neighborhoods in U.S. cities is simply imitating what he or she thinks that culture is all about. And so I find it comical to have lived in Japan or to travel through China and to see Asian pop star after Asian pop star spitting out rap lyrics and lingo that they really have no clue about. Black urban hip-hop culture is cool for middle-class priveleged American, Japanese, and Chinese teenagers. They try to speak, act, or dress like their favorite hip-hop stars within the safety of their neighborhoods, schools, and circle of friends. What would happen if a Japanese hip-hop pop star wearing his or her hip-hop clothes and attitude walked into South Central, L.A.? He or she would be laughed at and ridiculed; perhaps even beaten up or shot. Im sure the black communities of the urban ghettos of NYC, Chicago, and L.A. would find it hilarious to see a Chinese or Japanese hip-hop star trying so hard to be something that they are not. They are not black. Period, end of story.

There is a band in Japan that I respect. Love Psychedelico is the name of the group. The singer grew up in the States and in Japan and as a result she is bi-lingual. Her lyrics are a mix up of English and Japanese which is fine by me because she has an understanding of both cultures and languages. What I dont like to see are Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pop stars spitting out English lyrics that they can not even pronounce or understand. It is at times obvious to hear and see that some music producers in these East Asian countries are forcing their artists, or encouraging them, to spit out a few words in English in their songs simply because its "cool". English is "cool" in East Asia.

All that aside the train trip to Xi'an was pleasant.

On the morning of the 22nd a tout found me as soon as I got off the train and led me to a half-way descent hotel not too far from the station. I singed up for the Terra-Cotta tour for the next day when I checked in.

After resting for a bit in the hotel I decided to check out the city. I walked south down Jifeng Lu and immediately ran into a whole strip of massage parlor brothels. These brothels were very small and extremely dirty. The girls would sit in chairs in the doorway looking for their next customer. As soon as I walked passed them they began shouting, "Massage? Massage?" I shook my head no repeatedly until one woman ran up to me and grabbed my arm trying to pull me into her brothel. I pulled my arm away and ran quickly away. This was the first time I have experienced such aggressive prostitutes in Asia. Although I have heard stories of aggressive girls in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

When I got to Dong Dajie street I turned right and walked west until I saw the Bell and Drum Towers. The Drum tower is near a major round-about (the Bell Tower is in the center of the round-about) where Nan Dajie intersects with Xi Dajie. There is a major shopping mall, a posh hotel, plenty of Chinese restaurants catering to tourists and so forth all around the area. I headed to the Drum Tower and took a look around it before walking under it to reach the Muslim Quarter of Xi'an.

Xi'an is where the Silk Road began, or ended depending on how you want to look at it. As a result Muslims from Central Asia migrated into China along its route. It is in Xi'an where Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism from India came into China and then spread. Just north of the Drum Tower is where the Muslim Quarter begins. Along the streets here I found men wearing white muslim caps and women wearing muslim shawls to cover their heads and hair. The restaurants here serve a mix of Chinese and Muslim dishes. The highlight is the Great Mosque which is hidden between narrow lined streets filled with vendors selling an assortment of souvenir goods for tourists. The Great Mosque is still in service and as a result non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the prayer hall. The mosque itself is stylized in a Chinese fashion.

Today was the Dragon Boat Festival in China. As a result all the main streets in the Old Muslim quarter were lined with vendors selling food and candies. It was quiet festive. What the history or the story is behind the festival I have no idea.

Later in the afternoon I walked south down Nan Dajie to the massive and impressive South Gate; Xi'an is yet another city in China that was once walled on all its sides. The moat around the city still exists as does most of the old wall of the city. I later took a taxi to the Eight Immortals Temple which is a Taoist temple. This was my first time to see and walk within a Taoist temple. Of the major religions of China - Buddhism, Confuscianism, and Taoism - Taoism is uniquely native to China; Confuscianism is also uniquely native to China but its more a philosophy than a religion.

Within the temple I found several halls dedicated to specific Taoist gods and a newly painted series of plaques describing a story of a particular Taoist god.

After the temple experience I walked north along a street that was servicing the locals as a market. One thing in particular that caught my attention for nearly half an hour was a Mom and Pop outdoor shop that sold live birds, chickens, and fish. There was a stack of cages filled with either live chickens, ducks, or various birds. I also saw buckets filled with live catfish and eels. Customers simply walked up and pointed to the chicken, duck, bird, or fish that they wanted. The owners of the shop would then grabbed the animal that was pointed at and kill it and prepare it for their customer.

The Death of a Chicken
The way the shop operated was like this. A customer would point to a particular chicken and a boy working in the outdoor shop would grab it. The chicken would obviously panic as the boy held it in an uncomfortable position before grabbing a pair of industrial scissors and cutting its neck open. To increase the amount of blood that was pouring out of its neck the boy threw the chicken into a metal vat of hot water and place a lid over it. I could hear the chicken trashing within it. Once the chicken ceased trashing the boy would pick the bird up and out of the vat and throw it into a machine that he then turned on. The machine moved violently about and when the boy shut it off and picked the chicken out of the machine the chicken was completely stripped of all of its feathers. The boy then threw the chicken into a bag and gave it to the customer.

The Death of a Catfish
If a customer wanted a catfish then someone working at the shop would grab the one that was pointed to and throw it on the ground where he or she would then kill it by banging a heavy comb or hammer on its head. Once the fish was dead and bleeding then the person working at the shop would take a knife and begin scraping its scales off. Once they had done a good job of scraping all the scales off they would throw it into a bag and give it to their customer.

Army of the Terra-Cotta Warriors - June 23rd
I was apart of a tour group. The majority of the people on the tour were Chinese except for a New Zealand couple and a girl from Japan; her name was Nao. We were taken to a museum and a few heavily "cheesy" tourist sites before making it to Emperor Qinshi Huangdi's burial mound. The mound has yet to be excavated. What I saw was simply a massive mound of earth covered with trees and heavy vegetation. It was amazing to see the mound and to imagine the amount of labor (perhaps hundreds of thousands of laborers) to move the amount of earth that now makes up the mound.

From there we had lunch and then walked over to the extremely well-kept park area where the pits of the terra-cottas are to be found. The site currently consists of 4 pits (there are sure to be more pits in the future revealing more terra-cottas). The most famous pit is Pit #1 where I saw with my very own eyes 6 to 8,000 terra-cotta soldiers and horses. The site is housed in a sort of giant airplane hanger. I must say that the sight of the terra-cottas was absolutely amazing and is definitely one of the major highlights of my trip to China. The army of figures are separated by walls that are about 2.5 meters wide. All the soldiers are facing east. Originally these soldiers were all painted and not one of their faces are the same meaning that they did not come from a single mould. The soldiers were all armed and as a result nearly 40,000 swords and metallic weapons have been uncovered from the site. Behind the horses I saw an empty space before the line of terra-cotta soldiers began again. When I looked closely at the earth in this empty space I saw the imprint of a wheel. Before decomposing there was a wooden chariot behind all the horses within the pit.

Pit #2 is composed of chariots, cavalry, infantrymen, and standing and kneeling archers. All I saw really though was an outline of the excavation pit. It will be several years if not decades before the site is completely excavated and shows the line of terra-cotta soldiers in their attack formations. What is interesting to see here are the imprints of the wooden beams in the dirt that represent the beams of the ceiling that stood over the soldiers.

Pit #3 is a small pit that consists of 68 high ranking soldiers and a war chariot. The costumes of these high ranking soldiers are more elaborate than the ones found in Pit #1.

Pit #4 is simply empty.

The Qin Museum is fantastic and what is amazing to see within it are the displays of the metallic weapons found in the four pits and the two highly detailed bronze chariots that were discovered near Emperor Qinshi Huangdi's tomb.

These terra-cotta warriors are 2,000 years old. It is an incredible feat and accomplishment for its time. Emperor Qinshi Huangdi was the first emperor to unite China under tha Qin dynasty. He is was also responsible for beginning the undertaking of building and connecting the Great Wall of China.

I should note to make it clear that all the terra-cotta horses and soldiers are life size. The tallest terra-cotta soldier is just over 6 feet tall.

This Journal Entry has been brought to you by Domenico "Itachan" Composto