Another post from my new blog, Biddle Writes. Check it out!

Biddle Writes

The following story is the second installment in my longer piece, “Loawai!” a portfolio of stories from my travels in China.  To read the first part of “Laowai!” click here.

I wake up.  Nothing.  No Mr. Li. No food. No sassy grad student from Seattle, and no heat.  I pull out my computer and discover that there’s no internet.  I try to turn on the TV, but there’s no power button on the box itself and no batteries in the remote. I can’t find a broom to sweep up the dust bunnies.  I can’t find soap in the kitchen to wash the dirty dishes.

I unpack the rest of my things, and wonder if Mr. Li plans to stop by, just for a check up.  He’s given me a phone number, but I don’t have a phone.  There’s a balcony for hanging clothes in my room, and from it…

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The following has been reposted from my new blog, Biddle Writes, where you can read more about my travels in China as well as other essays, stories, and profiles.  Hope you enjoy it!

The plane ride. It’s long but I get to watch movies.  I don’t know whether or not I sleep because the same thoughts I have in my head invade my dreams.  I make it to a hostel. Three days in Beijing partying with a sassy grad student and three dudes from England. One of the guys shares my name, as well as my fashion sense: rolled up jeans, understated shoes, a plaid shirt, and thick rimmed glasses.  We order Peking Duck and discuss the exorbitant amount of ‘massage parlors’ in the vicinity of our hostel.  We’re young and rich and in Beijing, the wildest city in the world. We stay out all night in the Sanlitun bar district, and nibble on lamb kebabs at dawn.

Sometime around noon on Sunday, my teacher Mr. Li arrives in the parlor of my hostel.  He approaches the first white dude he sees imploring, “Chris?”

“Hello!” I say, “I’m Chris’ It’s nice to meet you.”

A cab ride.  We eat dinner at the train station, and he offers to buy me a beer.  I like the idea, but beer doesn’t agree with me anymore; not after three days of using jet-lag to my advantage.  A man in an orange jumpsuit with cuffs around his wrists and ankles sits latched to a nearby table while his security detail fetches their meals. They hunch over their bowls, slirping their soup and conversing like old friends.

Mr. Li insists that we carry my backpack together—each of us manning a strap.  How Confucian! How Chinese!  I think, equating myself to something of an expert.  On the train, a woman offers to trade her bottom bunk with me, so that I don’t have to climb the the three feet to lie down.  I don’t know whether to be insulted or thankful, but before I can decide she springs upward and lands softly on her hip with a grin.  I clap my hands together, bow my head, and chant ,“xie xie.” Thank you.  I lie down on my bottom bunk and fall asleep in minutes

Another cab ride.  It’s dark outside. I see lots of neon, and I think  Typical Chinese City. We drive past a massive gate that must be a hundred yards long, and thirty feet tall, made up of a series of concrete columns with a ten foot wide connector along the top.  “The gate!” says Mr. Li. “The biggest gate in China, uh, for school, uh, for a school.”  I don’t know want to believe him.  There’s no way this little po-dunk school has the biggest gate of any school in China. But then again, I’ve had enough experiences, heard enough stories, to know that in 21st Century China, image is everything, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the school administrators thought a huge fucking gate would help put their little school on the map.
We drive past the gate and arrive at East Campus, where Mr. Li tells me all the international students will be living.  “How many of us are there,” I ask.
“About, uh, twenty.  All Korean.”
“Are they here now?”
“Uh, some are here, but your uh, your uh…”
“Roommates!  “Your roommates are not here.”

The hallway in my apartment building is cold and dirty concrete, and it smells like garbage. The apartments are all white walls with hard white-tile flooring. A layer of grey dust coats every surface in every room.  There are three double rooms; a common area with couches and a TV; a kitchen with a two burner propane range, a fridge, and a water cooler.  In the bathroom are two stalls, one with an Asian style squatter toilette, and one with a porcelain throne.  I don’t know whether to be happy about the presence of a western toilette, or disappointed.  Mr. Li says goodnight, and I flop on to my bed, forgetting that the Chinese like their mattresses a good deal harder than us cushy Americans.  I fall asleep in minutes.

Laowai.  Lao, meaning old, and wai meaning foreign, translates literally (and rather innocuously) to old foreigner.  In both spoken and written Mandarin, the word laowai serves as shorthand, a colloquialism; a slur?

The second sylable, wai, bears the fourth tone, somehow the most unforgiving tone, as well as the easiest to remember.  It cuts downward, snips the end of the word off, jabs an elbow in the nose—laoWAI! When children on the backs of bycicles saw my bulky frame weaving through traffic, they cried, “Mama!  Laowai!.”

Sure, they say that most Chinese people who use the word never mean it in a derogatory sense; but hasn’t it only been within my short lifetime that these people first saw men and women with curly hair and freckled arms and legs? Weren’t those old men on the street corner who spent their retired hours playing cards and keeping birds; who wear the old Mao caps and navy blue jackets; who are the patriarchs of their respective families — were they not once taught to fear and to hate me, and my Western, “liberal arts” education?  Were they wary of what I might tell people back home?  Did they think I looked down on them?

The term my teachers taught me for foreigner, waiguoren, translates literally, to foreign country person.  It’s easy to imagine why the powers-that-be prefer this more rational translation, and why laowai never makes an appearance in Chinese Language textbooks; but there remains reason enough for Chinese nationals with genuine affection for foreigners to uphold the use of laowai.  The first syllable lao, is also used in laoshi, the Chinese word for teacher. In this case, lao presumably falls in accordance with a Confucian reverence for the experienced and wise. Laopengyou serves as a common term of endearment between acquaintances, just as its translation, old friend, occupies the same connotation in English.

If you enjoyed reading The Otherside, check out my new blog by clicking here.

The Otherside is in…a transitional mode.  My last post centered around my time in Chengdu, which was far from the end of my time in China, far from the end of the story.  In the time between Chengdu and the Beijing airport, I floated down the Yangtze, escaped a flooding hostel, and awoke to cooing carrier pigeons in Beijing’s Hutong District.  It is the travel portion of my experience, and therefore is the quintessential “white dude goes to China” portion of my blog.  It is a glorified bar story, which deserves to be told in its own right.  For now, here’s something a bit more relevant to the experience of studying abroad as a whole.

On (Not) Being Here

A month and some change back stateside and I’m not back in the hang of things.  The combination of an air-tight schedule and morphed social atmosphere has made college life less hospital than I remembered.  I feel myself going places and doing things not because I want to, but because I have to, for the first time in six months.  The past two and a half weeks have had their late nights, their early mornings, and somehow I still end up short: a late paper, a flunked quiz, a missed advisor meeting.  Third week in and I still haven’t bought my books.  I had to leave a note on my car pleading the security guard not to ticket my car, because I haven’t remembered to buy a parking pass yet.  I was watching a soccer game the other day when my boss gave me a good slap in the face.  “You don’t seem like you’re here,” he said. “Seems like you’re back in China.  You better get back here soon,” he said.

It’s senior year, and sooner or later I’m going to have to catch up with that idea.  I go to a small school in the Appalachians, where it really only takes half a year to know the majority of campus by first name.  It’s the sort of community that you can describe as if it were a person, as if it had its own personality. After one semester away, I don’t understand that person. 我不认识他.  Of the close friends I still have, I see them in one of two lights.  They have either moved on in some way, found a new focus in their life, whether it be a new lover, a group of friends, fashion sense, or life aspirations.  And then there are those who remain the same people, either having settled on these things long ago, or content in remaining care-free and curious.  The problem that I face after five months living in China, after riding my bike all afternoon around Liaocheng, after floating down the Yangtze, after a 43 hour train ride across the country, after dinner and KTV with the communists, after Beijing’s Hutong District, a flooded hostel in Chongqing, after rabbit head and hotpot, after Confucius and Mao Zedong, after 白酒 and 西红柿炒鸡蛋–and then after all that–math class, renaissance literature, and 8:00 am work shifts, is that right now, I am entirely incapable of deciding whether I am the same old me, or something new.

I’ve got a tough final year ahead of me.  What credits do transfer to my school from my semester in Liaocheng count towards only one general ed requirement.  It was essentially the equivalent of taking one class for an entire semester, so I’ll be making up for it in my senior year.  There was a part of me that wanted to thank my boss for the wake up call.  He’s a good guy, and I know he has my best interest at heart.  But I can’t help but feel like maybe there should be a part of me somewhere in China.  It would give me a better a reason to find a path back there some day.

I call this the, "Christopher Went To China Picture," and I'm totally going to use it pick up chicks.

Photos courtesy of Sharon.  We walked around Chengdu for hours.  I gave her my camera and told her to take pictures of people.  This is what she came back with.

More posts coming soon!

Back in the States, back in my home, my bedroom, sitting here with my dogs, my belly full of cheese, my brain full of aimless, unanswerable questions.  People ask me things like So, what’s China like?  How does life in China compare to the US? or, What kind of stuff do you eat in China? Now I understand why people ask these questions, they’re curious, inquisitive and self admittedly uninformed, so they start with the basics.  But really, how the hell am I supposed to answer these kind of questions.  China is big.  Life in China is different from life in the US.  I eat food in China.

What’s more is when people ask me deeper, more involved questions, I often times have difficulty coming up with an answer for them, as I haven’t even begun to reflect upon my journey in a way that I can draw conclusions.  I’m still in the throws of jet lag, of culture shock, and a little head cold I think I got on the plane.  It’s going to be a while before I’ll really be able to sum my experience up in a way that satisfies people’s need to know and my own need to explain.

So until then I suppose I’ll write about what I did after the last time you all heard from me.  I spent about six days in Chengdu, which is the capitol of Sichuan province, and home to some of China’s spiciest dishes, including the world renowned Sichuan Hotpot, and (my favorite) rabbit head.  Chengdu is also the home of the largest panda reserve in China, as well as the prettiest girls.  It’s said that after a girl marries her mother gives the girl explicit directions to never let her husband go to Chengdu.

Looking back now I think I can honestly say that my few days in Chengdu were among some of the best of my life. I had a crew of mismatched hooligans to trounce around the city with. I had fallen into an unlikely romance with a girl I met in Hangzhou and traveled with to Chengdu. I was confident in my language abilities and my (albeit) slight understanding of Chinese culture.  I was young and able and for the first time in months invigorated with the sense of life being there for the taking.  We didn’t go see the pandas, we didn’t go see the temples.  We slept in and lawled in the garden by the hostel where we stayed into the afternoon.  We drank beer and enjoyed each other’s company.  We got street food at three in the morning after going to KTV.  It was both alien and somehow familiar.  I felt for the first time in China as if I actually belonged there and had not ended up there as the result of some adolescent On-the-Road-thinking , as if it were some strange of version of home.

I don’t know exactly what I was thinking.  Maybe it was the slow pace of life in Liaocheng and the predictably easy-going way of Hangzhou, but for one reason or another I decided to bag my plans and head west, on a forty-three hour train, with three strangers, and a hard seat.  It was perhaps one of the best experiences I’ve had in China.

The original plan was to go from Hangzhou to Huang Shan, and then onto Yichang to get on the boat ride down the Yangtze.  Huang Shan is perhaps the most famous mountain in China, and rightly so.  It’s beauty out parallels perhaps even the Grand Teton, and as a result the horrific beast that is  the Chinese tourist industry has swallowed it whole.  And after the West Lake I was less than excited about going to yet another tourist destination.  I met Sharon, Lion (both Chinese), and Sam, at the hostel in Hangzhou, and decided to join them on a 43 three hour train ride across the country, on a hard seat.

As it turned out, we were among the lucky ones who actually got a seat.  Some passengers were standing or  lying down in the hall ways for the majority of the trip. For the first 24 hours of the trip, it was literally impossible to move down the aisle.

The trip was made bearable by the company I was with.  We drank baiju, we played cards, we played truth or dare.  We shared noodles and peanuts and shoulders to sleep on.

Max was a ten year old kid we met with really good English.  We liked him so every time the food cart went by we bought him more treats and sodas.  He played games on our cell phones and took pictures of us.

The other thing that made the trip as wonderful as it was seeing some of the beautiful scenery, especially as we got closer to Chengdu.  What with the movement of the train and the dirty windows, pictures can’t really do what we saw justice, but at least it gives you a taste.

For the first leg of my journey after Liaocheng I got on a sleeper train and headed south to Hangzhou, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in China, and one of the few places that lives up to it’s touted beauty amongst the guidebooks and travel agencies. (It’s not that China isn’t beautiful, it’s that Chinese people really like to use hyperbole in order to attract people.)

With a history of over 2,000 years, Hangzhou is one of the most culturally relevant cities in the history of Chinese civilization.  Today, Hangzhou is known for three things in particular.  Its silk, its tea, and the West Lake.  The West Lake is without a doubt the most famous lake in China. Poets, philosphers, emperrors, and common people throughout China’s long history have spoken of the West Lake as a place of awe inspiring beauty.

While much of the natural beauty that has attracted people to the West Lake for generations remains, like most places of interest in China, and for that matter world-wide, the tourist industry has spoiled much of that.  Especially now that school is out for the summer, hoards of fanny-pack sporting, visor wearing, picture snapping “tourerists” flood the shores of the lake, distinguishing much of the peaceful beauty that the ancient poets must have experienced.  And along with tourism came the inevitable shift of culture to accommodate the visitors.  Finding a hamburger is just about easy as finding a bowl of noodles in Hangzhou.

That said, I came to Hangzhou expecting all of that, especially the hamburgers.  After four months in the sleepy little town of Liaocheng, it feels refreshing to once again be a place more a kin to my own culture.  While Hangzhou may not be a necasarily ‘genuine’ Chinese city (and I use the word genuine with great hesitance) it offers weary Western travels like yours truly many things that more typical Chinese cities don’t.  The streets are clean, the road signs have both English and Chinese, the bars serve more than crappy Chinese beers and gut-rotting baiju.  Plus, it’s pretty beautiful.  It’s a perfect place for me to recharge, recoup, relax.  Below are a couple pictures from my first day in Hangzhou…hope you enjoy!

Even on rainy days, or maybe especially on rainy days, West Lake is pretty damn beautiful

The West Lake was actually once a series of marshes that were dredged to create what is known today as West Lake. I found the most pleasant and tranquil experiences were found wandering amongst the many gardens that dot the shores and wander throughout the marshlands that remain.

A little surreal, no?