Of all my travels, I haven’t been in a country that is so mentally isolated from the rest of the world the way China is.
Treo in China
An intro explaining why
The simplest examples become apparent during the first days in China, when you get the most intense shocks. It happens when you try simple things like talking and trying to communicate with the people providing their services in hotels, restaurants, bars etc. Words like ‘menu’, ‘hotel’, telephone’, ‘taxi’, ‘internet’, ‘tourist’ are not in their vocabulary. They have never heard of them. Sometimes they don’t even know the name of their own hotel in English. In China all foreign words have been mutated into Chinese. A striking example is the names of all the foreign countries, which most of the times have no connection with their original sound: ‘England’→‘Yīngguó’, ‘Greece’→‘Xīlà’ (WTF ??!!??), ‘France’→‘Fàguó’, ‘America’→‘Měiguó’ — now tell me, is there any language in the world that has a word for ‘America’ which does NOT sound something like ‘America’?. Nevertheless, there is a city of Thailand, which sounds like the original: ‘Bangkok’ is called ‘Bàngǔ’ in Chinese. Eh, well, I was pronouncing, for a quarter of an hour, all the possible vocal and tonal pronunciations of the world ‘Bangkok’, towards a Chinese lady, who was working in a travel agency, without finally being able to make her understand where exactly I wanted to go. So, I sat down, relaxed and tried to think “How much can ‘Bangkok’ differ from ‘Bàngǔ’, no matter how you pronounce it?” The answer is simple. Not much.
So, that brings us to the second part of the Chinese isolation. It is not only the Chinese language and its pronunciation, which has almost no connection with the western languages (and some Asian) — after all, I’ve been to the most isolated countries of the world, like Mongolia and I managed to carry through most of the basic dialogues of primary communication. All it took was a little local good will. It is not the Chinese language. It is the idea that they seem to have, that anything that is not Chinese, is from outer space, completely alien. Thus, to connect this theory with the previous example, it was not that the lady in the travel agency could not understand. It was that she thought there was no chance of understanding. This behavior towards foreigners is expanding to all forms of interaction in China and sometimes it reaches extremities or degeneration.
“The feeling of guinea pig” or “In the train”
While traveling in China, I wanted to take a long trip towards Western China. So I took a train (almost 30 hours), inside a wagon in which — of course — I was the only foreigner. It is interesting to describe the first reactions. When a foreigner enters a closed space, like a room, a wagon or a public building, all conversions suddenly seize and everybody is looking the ‘stranger’ (like in the American western movies, when the cowboy-hero gets into the obscure saloon of a small town). The conversations tend to begin after a couple of minutes, but whenever you look around you, there is always somebody that observes you with intense curiosity but of course without being in a hurry. You are all his (bitch) anyway. If you look at him in the eyes, he looks away for a second, having remembered that you are human as well, but almost immediately he looks back to you like he had thought “Yes, but he is an alien”. All visitors of China can tell you that China is very tiresome. It is exactly because of that. The more they watch you, the more they want to watch more and moreover there are so many more who must watch you from anew some more! There is no escape.
All these when you stay still. Now, in case you want to move e.g. for lighting a cigarette. Everybody is turning his head to see how you lighted the bloody cigarette. You peel an egg. They watch how you peel it and how you eat it. You take out of your bag a book to read. A Chinese is coming, he takes your book from your hands, he looks at it, he turns its pages, tries to read, he can not, very pleased he gives it back to you. Then the next Chinese is coming… You take out your notebook to write a letter. All kinds of ages and sexes are coming and sitting next to you to see what exactly you are writing. The ultimate show, I have ever given in the wagon, was when it was about bedtime and I wanted to sleep. So, I took out a thin mattress I used when I camped, I laid it down and I started unfolding my sleeping bag. Suddenly I realized that ten to twenty Chinese have formed a circle around me and were looking with their eyes wide open. I laid my sleeping bag on the mattress, I went into it and said ‘Goodnight’ to everybody. They were watching till the moment I closed my eyes and slept.
On the road
On the road, things tend to be more cruel and mean, since, universally, the road is rougher than closed spaces for practical reasons. Of course the norm is that anybody that passes next to you and have no interaction with you, MUST look at you. Anybody that passes next to you and has some kind of interaction — e.g. says a trivial “Hello” or you ask for the time or some direction — MUST laugh foolishly and look the rest of Chines around him, who have to laugh in the same foolish manner as well. You try to catch a cab. You bargain the price with the cab driver. At the end of the bargaining, he will turn and look at the surrounding Chinese, he will laugh and will say something triumphantly. Apparently, he is telling them how much he ripped you off. Ripping off a foreigner in China is a well-applied old tradition. I didn’t have, even once, a restaurant bill, which did not have a “mistake” (upward mistake of course). Now, in every interaction which lasts more than five minutes, you will hear several times the phrase: “tīng bù dǒng.” (translation: “He does not understand”). Even if it is about buying a ticket, asking when the train leaves, or how much a bottle of water costs. The almighty belief in China is “Every non Chinese does not understand”.
Despite all these, life in China is going on, both harmoniously and in stressful ways, the metropolises are growing upwards day by day, the poor Chinese people are working like slaves day and night (literally), all the land that can be cultivated is cultivated (even the mountain slopes), construction yards everywhere, cranes, building, building, building … What are they building? The vision of a contemporary Chinese empire is visible. However, the purpose is located only at the back of the Chinese head. And that will take us a long time till we find out.
China is somewhere else. Trapped in a world of ancient history, ideograms, contemporary catholic capitalistic communism and one and a half billion people. At the beginning of 21st century and while the world is opening itself to globalization, China insists to laugh foolishly in every contact with the unknown. I am afraid that when all the defenses fall and the doors open, they and we shall look at each other with our mouths open.
18 September 2001
On the road to Canton, China