Encounters with locals key to travels in China

Volunteers from the Caribbean Association of China pose with children of migrant workers in Shanghai after a day of English class.

The Sunday Record
Troy, NY

By Bill Marcus

You better love people if you go to China because they are everywhere.

A pro-tourism campaign by the Beijing city government asked locals to try not to stare at foreigners but it doesn’t seem to have worked.

Many Chinese have never seen non-Asians and they want to know more.

As a result, during a recent trip to China, people gawked at us and took pictures of those in our group with blond hair or black skin.

I traveled as one of 19 University at Albany geography students on a 2 ½ -week tour of Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta led by department chairman Christopher J. Smith.

Learning to say hello and thank you in Chinese and smiling broke the language-barrier. But other cultural differences took its place.

The live snakes kept at the restaurant in our hotel weren’t for show, they were for dinner. The Cantonese consider snake a fortifying food with healing properties.

At an open air market on the University grounds where we were staying snakes and other live foods were skinned, slaughtered and plucked while customers watched to make sure their food was fresh.

Through Western eyes China looked old and arcane, dirty and broken. We had to ask someone to open our hotel room door every time we used it.

Thin people abound. I didn’t realize this until I returned to New York and for the fist time in three weeks and saw an overweight American.

Public toilets are brick holes in the ground over which one must squat.

In general, the people couldn’t have been nicer. One day I stopped a student of International trade to ask directions. After leading me to a post office and buying me stamps, she began to affix the postage for me soiling her fingers with glue in the process.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said.

“You are foreign friend,” she replied.

The land of the tropical south is rich and green, and the towering sandstone mountains of rural Shaoguan are only 3.5 hours by train from Guangzhou (Canton) in the southern province of Guangdong.

But on board this moving mass of humanity, vendors of cooked chicken, lukewarm soda, and congee (a rice based gruel) disrupted standees with regularity. Quietly and patiently, smiling strangers engaged one another.

Pictures were snapped of the cooked-chicken lady and her wares, much to the fascination of the Chinese.

Privacy doesn’t exist in China. The slightest curiosity, like a foreigner, draws a dozen pairs of staring eyes.

Though westerners are increasingly common to Chinese cities, residents still called us “gualos” or white ghost barbarians, sometimes unaware that the term was pejorative.

In Beijing the shop owner who sold me my two orange soda breakfast (15 cents a bottle) waited for me to finish so he could have the bottle back then insisted I join him for a cigarette.

That night a dozen neighbors transfixed by the Italy-China soccer match on TV gave me their best seat so I could watch with them.

The 23 year-old African American student from Long Island, with whom I traveled north, found the attention paid to him to be stressful.

Chinese who spoke English always asked if he played sports. One woman would not even touch his money. She took it instead from me.

Driving in Beijing and Guangzhou is a freestyle sport. Cabs weave into oncoming traffic, around cement trucks, donkey carts, pedestrians and bicyclists. Use of a horn is mandatory.

For five jiao (three cents American) you can avoid the aboveground chaos and take the efficient Beijing subway.

For $75 you can hire a cab to take you to the “most dangerous part” of the 2,700-mile Great Wall at Simatai built 600 years ago in a future attempt to keep out northern invaders.

You get a two-hour ride with a driver who speaks no English and the chance to climb a mile uphill to the wall itself. We thought at the time it was the best way to see the wall without the trappings of tourism.

But a merchant girl peddling bottled water, post cards and a photo book trekked the steep incline along with us. Then an old woman appeared marketing the same. We signed and resigned ourselves to sharing our experience with someone else.

It is the only choice you have in a country of 1.3 billion.

Photo caption: Bicycle Alley: Shopper in mid-town Beijing can park their bicycles in an alley of a street called Wangfujing for pennies. Department stores and western eateries such as McDonald’s are becoming a more common sight in urban China.