Archive for June 26th, 2008

When asked about the highlights of my 9 weeks of travel in China, it is easy to rhyme off the usual suspects: The Great Wall, the Forbidden City (which they call the Palace by the way), and the Terracotta Warriors. All of these famous tourist destinations are spectacular, and if you only have a short time in China, definitely must be on your travel “checklist”. If you have time to linger though, you will see other sights as you wander through the backstreets, parks, and markets. I cannot say that I enjoyed everything that I saw, smelled or tasted. But it was all part of the sensory overload that I am, 3 weeks later, still recovering from.

So here is a list of the top 10 unexpected, quirky or surprising things about living among the Chinese that I observed over 2 months. I have provided photos where possible: sometimes, there are things you just don’t want to have a visual reminder of! (Under that heading, I am not going to go into public bathrooms and sanitation)

10. Street Fruit: if you have read my earlier posts, you will know how much I enjoyed the inexpensive and excellent cuisine of China. Everywhere I went, there was something new and delicious to discover. (The exception being that dodgy shrimp that had me on the bathroom floor at the edge of the Taklamen desert, but that is to be expected at least once) One of the special treats that I looked for in each town was the street fruit: peeled slices of seedless ruby red or yellow watermelon, or spiral carved wedges of honey sweet pineapple, stuck on sticks and offered for $ .70. Well, they offered it to me for $1.50. until they realized that I knew the real price and would not pay the foreigner surcharge!
9. Unbelievably garish wedding dresses. Even in the small cities, there was at least one street of “one stop” wedding stores. Mannequins of the tackiest wedding and formal dresses imaginable dominated large store front windows. Staffed by small armies of coiffed women in subdued uniforms, couples planned their wedding by picking from albums with set “menus” of flowers, tuxes, locations, photos shoots, and those awful dresses. Oh my. I enclose a few pics because you simply would not believe me otherwise.
8. Rubbing the Buddha Belly. For reasons that I could not discern and none of my Chinese speaking friends could help me with, Chinese men like to lift their shirts and walk around rubbing their bellies. Large and pendulous or washboard flat. Before or after dinner. Warm weather or cool. They just do.
7. Horking away the Vapors. Since most of the men in China smoke constantly, they also feel the need to loudly and vigorously expel away the phlegm left in their lungs. Personally, I think that they are secretly trying to achieve personal bests in volume and distance with each instance. It is unnerving to hear them loading up behind you on the street, and certainly makes walking without stepping in it a challenge. It also makes a strong argument for slippers when you enter a home or hotel room. (All hotel rooms, no matter how cheap come with slippers)
6. Babies with their Bums Out: Diapers are expensive so Chinese parents dispense with them and simply allow their toddlers to go where they will, literally, through a large slit in their cute little overalls. It’s a little disconcerting when you see it the first time, and I am not sure that they pick up after them as well as they do their dogs. Again, slippers rule.
5. Hot water served in Restaurants: I believe it is meant to be an aid to digestion, but if you request just a glass of water, it will be served hot. Not lukewarm. Hot. After struggling to get cold water unsuccessfully time after time, you acquire a taste for it. And who knows: perhaps the heat destroys whatever nasty bits and critters are floating about!
4. Being asked to pose with Chinese Tourists. Many Chinese people, especially from the country, are just starting to travel and be tourists in their own land. So when they are strolling through the Forbidden City, one of the stranger sights they encounter could well be you! If you are blond or even better, a red head, you will likely be asked to pose with the family or hold a baby for a photo. Smile. You are moving Sino-Canadian relations ahead!
3. Feeding on Planes. If you fly at home, you are no doubt accustomed to being tossed a packet of peanuts at dinner time on North American flights. Well, you will be shocked at the amount of food you are served on flights in China. No matter what the duration, there is always a meal. And while to say that the food is good would be a stretch, it’s certainly edible. And here’s the real kicker: if your flight is delayed, (and I was delayed a lot) they will bring prepackaged meals to your gate and feed you while you wait! And then again when you fly! Funny, the little things that please us now, when we are accustomed to getting nothing at all.
2. Smoking on Planes. On every plane, it was dutifully announced that all flights were non-smoking in as many languages as required. And yet, on 2 flights, I smelled smoke after take off and just before landing. I concluded it was the pilot, celebrating the post coital equivalent of a successful take off and then girding himself for the landing. And yes, it scared me.
1. Concerts by the elderly in the park. On Sunday afternoons you can see choirs of older men and women, dressed in elaborate costumes, accompanied by 5 piece orchestras on traditional Chinese instruments, singing their hearts out. (Some of these 60+ men were definitely in drag, and with heavy stage makeup) It was odd yet charming. I cannot imagine a group of pensioned Canadian teachers for example, getting together every Sunday in High Park to dress up and sing just for the joy of it. Jingle Bells was an instrumental favourite. I cannot account for that. These performances, when I could find them, were one of the highlights of my trip, because they were so unexpected and so full of simple, unaffected happiness.

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