Returning to central China after 10 years opens your eyes to change
|I have been traveling to China since the late 80’s on business. I have a unique job of working on visual display systems flight simulators. It has taken me all over the world but China is one place that is hard to describe in reality. My goal is to describe my last trip not making it sound as negative as it seems. I want to tell you about the wonders of China and the wonderful people that inhabit it.
I am here with a team of people from all over the world installing a new 737 simulator for training at the CAFU China Airline Flying University. There are three French Canadians, two Dutch one Englishman, two Chinese and the one loud obnoxious American. That would be me; someone has to keep up the bad reputation. We have three meals a day supplied by the university where we stay at a hotel like dorm. Meals are served at 8:00, 12:00 and 6:00 and you better not be late or no rice for you.
You can only imagine what the conversations are like. I wish I could record dinner for you. They all speak a little English except for the Chinese translator that was hired by our customer. Go figure.
It has been 13 years since I have been to this part of the world and the changes here are very noticeable. I dreaded this trip, a month away from home, the pollution that is so thick in the air and the water and the food that I can not do justice in describing it to you. People I talked to about my trepidation of this trip all seemed to think that there had been so much change here that everything would be different. I imagine in the larger cities of Beijing and Shanghai things are different but the biggest change here is in the countenance of the people not the environment. There has been a lot of construction; the new buildings look hundreds of years old even though they have just been constructed. There are many more cars on the road, then when I was here earlier. The roads are paved but I am sure a typical American car wouldn’t last a year due to ruts and potholes large enough to loose a Buick in. Years ago it took several hours to travel the approximately 50 miles from Chengdu to Guan Han but now it is an hour’s drive on a four lane highway.
The people’s outlook has improved and you can see it reflected everywhere. I have always found the people very gracious and kind and more ethical than anywhere else I have visited. You see a genuine pride in the faces of the older people and such an overflowing joy in the younger ones. Years ago making eye contact was not possible the people were so oppressed they would never look in the face of a foreign visitor. I have seen so many smiling faces, I don’t really care if they are laughing at me but it is a beautiful sight. The traditional lack of color in the construction of the buildings has been replaced with bright colors and signs that look like American billboards. In the past everything was either, raw concrete, brick or dirt. Clothes were usually gray or the dark blue Moa military jackets. Now you see a rainbow of colors people wear. It is funny I guess they have no sense of color coordination because the lack of experience in having a choice.
I was one of the very first Caucasian people into this area of China in 1989 and even though years have passed I am still a bit of a tourist attraction everywhere I go. So many funny things happen when I walk the streets it would be hard to describe the different reactions from the locals. Everything from a prideful “Hello” probably the only English word they know to bicycle accidents that happen when you walking the streets. A small boy of about 6 years old walked out of a store and looked at me and immediately started screaming. Cars will stop in the road to watch us walk down the street and we see people hanging out the windows to get a better look.
To give you a rough idea of the mass of people of the Sichuan province. The province is roughly the size of the state of Ohio with half the population of the US within it’s borders. Needles to say there is a lot of people no mater where you go.
The flight over was not too bad it took over 30 hours to get to the city of Guan Han. They had us booked into as nice of hotel as there was, but it was not quite up to western standards for cleanliness and convenience. But it was livable and so much nicer than the one I stayed in on my last visit. Last time here I stayed in a 5 star hotel. No it wasn’t but that was the name, Five Star Hotel. Strangley enough it was still standing and didn’t look like it had changed one bit.
It always amazes me that most of our goods in the US come from here but the local people do not have the monies to purchase or use them. A simple broom with a wooden handle is not to be found. Clean water is completely out of the question and the air quality is something you never want to experience. Since landing in Chengdu the smog is so thick visibility has never been more than a mile. There is so much dust in the air that your nose stays continually clogged and breathing is labored. To try to describe the general smell and cleanliness of the place try to picture the worst roadside bathroom you have ever stopped in, multiply that by a hundred. One of those places that you decide is so un-sanitary that you really don’t have to go that bad after all. There is always a strong smell of coal, sweat and urine mixed with everything you experience. The water in the bathtub is so gray that you decide to shower instead hoping that the water won’t stick to you. After shampooing your hair, while it is still wet feels brittle and dirty. You don’t dare let a drop of water in your mouth or work its way in through your eyes for fear of the many diseases common here. We as westerners have not built up a tolerance to. When I was here last I saw children playing in a sewage filled ditch, I was amazed that there was not more disease.
The food has improved or I have gotten more tolerant over the years but it still wears on a person after a few days as it all smells and tastes of coal, garlic and very hot spices. The spices are there to kill anything that might kill you. I am sure they are doing their best to make the food more tolerable for us. I did make the mistake of looking into the kitchen and saw a large tiled square pen full of small turtles and large frogs. The good part is if the frogs are jumping the food is fresh. I have found one or two dishes that were good but my main diet is rice. Three bowls of rice a day will sustain you. It is nowhere near as bad but I feel like a prisoner sometimes forced to live on dirty rice
The days go by quickly because of how busy we are. We are working from 8 AM until near midnight most days. Then trudging back to our rooms for a shower and sleep only to repeat it the next day. We are staying far from town and there is nothing you can walk to of interest. The rain has come several times but is still not cleaning the air. Visibility is a mile on the best of times at others it is no more than 100 yards.
A word or several hundred on adaptability and tolerance
As the days wore on in a very mundane manner it was work eat sleep work eat sleep. There was a week there when I could no longer tolerate the food dishes being served and just ate rice with some sauce of one kind or another poured over it. I drank a few beers every day which seemed to be a good addition to the rice and it washed the dust and grime out of your throat. I had given up on a clean shower and stayed away from tea of anything made with water, with the exception of the beer of course. We had made a few short shopping trips into town and had a little time to look around. The people as always were very nice and not pushy like the hustlers in the big cities. We bought some bootleg DVD’s and had about a 50 percent success rate on them working but it was entertainment when back in the room at night. I am not sure I watched more than half of any of them as I fell asleep soon after getting to bed.
The room was a nice size but I felt very cramped with the five foot bed being six foot tall. The mattress was more like a box spring with a thin layer of padding. I could feel every wooden slat as I crawled into bed at night. I woke up each morning sore and stiff not knowing if it was the work or the bed. I started the habit of taking all the blankets and putting them down and sleeping on top. In the morning I would fold them all up and put them back in the closet hoping the staff at the dorms wouldn’t think I was an old wimp. This brought up the next problem, mosquitos. One night the cleaning people I call them cleaning people because once I returned to my room after breakfast and found 7 woman all about five foot tall or less cleaning my room. I just shook my head and said, “Lots of people” which they laughed and chanted back to me, “Lots of people”, “Lots of People” they had left the sliding window wide open and I woke to what felt like hundred mosquito’s biting me. It was so frustrating I could hear them in my ears and biting me everywhere. I shut the window after the fact. I ended up locked in the bathroom with a magazine killing the little bastards. I slept sitting upright on the toilet needless to say it wasn’t a good night’s sleep.
Gradually I noticed the smells were diminishing. I immediately remembered when I was 8 years old moving to a house near a pulp mill on the Oregon coast. Those of you who know can testify that there is nothing much worse then the smell that emanates from the making of paper. The first day at the new house the smell was enough to make you want to gag. After a few days it wasn’t as bad and after a month or two you wouldn’t notice it. I think this is God’s way of allowing us to tolerate the intolerable. Another thing that came to mind is spending the summer at my Aunt and Uncles in Modesto California. There was a freight train that would pass by in the middle of the night within twenty feet of the house making such a god awful racket that I jumped out of bed afraid the house was crashing down around me. Weeks later I too slept through the night. These thought were running through my mind when in the next few days I realized the smell seemed to have diminished. I am a little worried about going home and smelling like this place and not having a clue.
The food and I started getting along much better the third week. I started trying a little of this and that, until right before I left the food was actually good. I admit there were a few things I passed on such as the cow throat and the turtle that was whole, not cleaned and covered in a brown sauce. It is still hard for me to understand what skill it takes to cut meat in a manner there is always a piece of bone in every bite. That’s talent.
We had a dinner with the VP of the school where they served lots of seafood and other specialties. We learned another word this day, not sure of the spelling but it sounds like “Gumbay” Meaning pour three glasses of special Chinese liquor called “Mi Ti”. It is also cherished there. It tasted like a cross between rubbing alcohol and motor oil. It is over 90 proof. You down it all in one drink. We taught them bottoms up. The first one was so terrible you almost gaged, the second was a little more tolerable and the third one, “from what I remember” just made my face go numb and you were likely to find yourself face down on your bed in the morning with your shoes still on. At least I think it was my bed.
My favorite meal would be Beijing duck. It is thinly sliced roasted duck served with a sweet brown sauce and wrapped up in a thin bread thing that looked like a tortilla.
Two nights before we left we were invited out for a special mushroom hot pot hosted by our customer. A funny start to the night as we walked in there was a Pooh Bear mounted to the wall greeted us in small cheerful Chinese voice. At least there was something made in this country that wasn’t exported to the US.
A hot pot meal is a Sechuan specialty. A large steel bowl is mounted into the middle of the table and a tank of butane that is quite near the tale provides the fuel to heat it to boiling. The water I am sure wasn’t filtered but it was boiling for a long time before they brought out a “Black Chicken” and threw it into the pot. Black Chickens are very rare and they are black through and through. The skin the meat everything is black. After trying for three weeks to tell a joke to no avail, I got my one and only joke out here. Our guest was telling us that the black chicken was very healthy, I looked at him for a moment pointing to the pot and said, “Not that one”. They translated it for everyone and it made everyone laugh and toast. Those who know me realize how hard it is for me not to joke around. This was a dead crowd. It did prove timing is everything in comedy. Translation messes that up a bit.
I explained to my host that as far as I knew there are three kinds of mushrooms I knew about. The edible variety found in stores, The magic variety found in cow pastures that causes you to see stuff and the deadly ones that cause you to see nothing forever. I asked him which one we would be having and he just said “Yes”.
After the chicken cooked for a while they came out with at least twenty different types of mushroom. Long skinny ones, spiked ones, all colors and all sizes. They dumped those in with a lot of the hot peppers this area is familiar for. Well back to “Gumbay” several times over while the mushrooms cooked. By the time they said it was ready I was “gumbayed” to a point I would have eaten the black chicken and danced with the mushrooms. What kind of mushrooms are these again?
This was an outstanding meal, the server came out and with a ladle scooped up a bunch of liquid in my bowl and added some green things some white things and a few things of rainbow colors, damn those mushrooms. The soup was excellent and we ate a few appetizers of smoked pigs balls and other small bits of meat. You think a person wouldn’t eat pig’s testicles, however they were very good. My guess is the pig had no further use for them anyway.
The working conditions also improved, we were done with the diesel cranes and fork lifts and they had swept a lot of the dust out of the bay. There was a real sense of accomplishment seeing this shiny new simulator come together in this environment was amazing. The simulator was far enough along that I finally got to my area of setting up and aligning the display system and training. It is a project I am very proud of.
Tolerance, adaptability, and acceptance were the key to making this trip successful. Our creator is awesome at giving us all the little systems that make life tolerable. I think of times sitting in a restaurant in the US and complaining that I am short of something or that this tastes a little salty. After experiencing this I am sure I have a lot less to complain about.
Last night in Guan Haun
It was my last night in Guan Haun. I was so ready to get out of here. The people are wonderful however the place had lost its unique appeal. I was asked by our technology import agent from Beijing to join him for dinner downtown. The dinner was a simple hot pot that we shared with several other people from the simulation install team. Then we shopped around the downtown area for little things. I stopped in several shops looking for an MP3 player. I ended up purchasing nothing at all but the shopping was fun looking through all the shops with the same stuff it seemed in every one.
Being on the streets here gives you the feeling of visiting royalty. If one word of English is known here it is hello. Lots of smiling faces and hellos greet you wherever you are. You smile and wave back and the people giggle and stare a little. It is a very strange feeling but not entirely unpleasant. The sheer innocence and the fact that no matter what our government is up to people everywhere seem to like Americans.
After many blocks and many stores that looked the same I ended up buying nothing. We walked along the Duck River, a point of much local pride. It is a wide river and is the source of the water needed for this agricultural part of China. It is also very polluted, which you can not fully grasp until you stand at the edge. The stench from the river is overwhelming. Along the South side of the river a wide concrete roadway has been cordoned off for sitting in the evening and drinking tea. Another local service provided there is ear cleaning. Several men wearing minors caps with a bright lights shining from the front move from one person to the next shining the light into the ear and dipping long swabs, in some kind of liquid they would ram them deep into the ear cleaning them out. I skipped on the ear cleaning.
Earlier today they had a festival on the river where they raced Dragon boats and ate small clumps of sweetened rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. I am sure the Panda’s would have loved this desert. The Panda’s are from this province and are a local icon.
Another point of local pride is three bridges that cross the river set about a mile apart. With such a shortage on energy these bridges stand out as glowing examples of how far China has come in the last several years. Each bridge is adorned with so much bright white light that they stand out in stark contrast to the darkened cityscape behind them. Gaslight looking fixtures run down both sides of the road crossing each bridge, set about 20 feet apart. Each fixture must have 20 bright glowing globes hanging from them. Each bridge was constructed with three large arches underneath that were lit brightly by white lights placed only inches apart. On the bottom facing the water were lights of many colors flashing on and off reflecting off the water. It lit up the whole area and was very beautiful. It seems a waste of such a precious resource but the pride the people had in it was obvious. Our agent said, “They are bragging.”
We walked a little further along the river and heard loud music echoing off hard gray concrete buildings. The music was American big band, swing and waltz music from the 40’s. When we got to the source of the music we were surprised to see in my estimation about a thousand people dancing in a well lit park the centerpiece was a huge flat area and a small stage where someone was standing playing cd’s. There were groups of people watching the dancers and small children playing together. There were tables you could rent for 1 Yuan a night to sit at and enjoy the warm evening and sip tea or anything else and watch the dancing. Children on roller skates raced around the crowd and young couples walking hand in hand reflected there love for one another. It was beautiful in the way the people came together as a community. I never saw one sight of domestic trouble in all the time I visited this ancient place. No fights or arguments ruined this peaceful scene.
The dancers were doing a traditional two step however sometimes they would all arrange themselves in long lines, not like country dances but place themselves so that no one was closer than 5 feet. Believe me 5 feet of space without anyone in it in this country is a lot to ask for. There movements were very smooth and graceful as in the ancient fighting arts of the Orient. It was beautiful to watch and again you could see the joy on peoples faces. What a beautiful people looking forward to better times ahead.
While we were looking around this crowd of people a young man walked up to us and in perfect English asked if we were working for the museum. We explained what we were doing there and had a short conversation. Waing Chen (Pronounced “Chin Way” or as I called him Chicken Wing asked him where we might find a place to get a beer and enjoy some music. He gave Chen Way directions to an area of town known for nightlife. We all loaded up into three bicycle taxi’s to travel to the area of town that was popular for nightlife.
I wish I could explain what it looks like from the backseat of one of these taxi’s that are very prevalent all around China but now being used mainly in the rural areas. There are hundreds of cars, motorcycles other bicycles and people walking in front of you as you make your way down the main streets of town. I am sure most Westerners would have a heart attach dealing with the sheer amount of targets all aiming for you.
When we got to the area of town that we were directed too it looked like something out of a B rated movie, or maybe the old west if they had electricity. There were many buildings with signs made up of florescent lights spelling out names like Baby Face and the playboy club but most were in Chinese and we had no idea what any of them meant.. I was a little concerned that we might be heading into somewhere I didn’t want to be,
We stopped in a place with a name that I could not pronounce no better than I could spell it. When they showed us a table, several young girls came and sat with us I am not sure of the purpose but every time our glass of beer would get low they would promptly fill it up with a ready smile. After several beers I played darts with one of our crew from Holland
It took me a little while to figure out the girl situation. They were there to carry on good conversation and provide company while you drank there. There was nothing illicit and after a bit I felt more comfortable, thinking of the Geisha girls of Japan that were trained from a young age to talk and carry on interesting conversation with their guests. My first thought of course was they were prostituted but I felt guilty thinking that after seeing how they interacted with all the other customers.
They brought the beer out in six packs and served us all until it was done. I think we drank twelve beer between the 5 of us in small glasses. It was a pleasant time and the music was a bit to modern for my taste.
We headed back to the school, I had to pack but it was a nice night out and again to see the growth in the people there was beautiful.
There are hundreds of things that come to mind but only a few that I think I can do justice to trying to explain.
Scooters are a main source of transportation here. Most were small ones maybe 50cc or less. One morning while I was looking out my window I saw a sight I will never forget. I am assuming it was a family taking there produce to market it on a street corner somewhere. We saw meat hanging from hooks on the side of the dusty roads all over town.
The scooter was small on the front was the man of the family he had slid clear up on the tank, his wife was positioned up behind him and behind her was one half of a pig. Split vertically from nose to tail, both the nose and the tail were dragging on the ground on either side. The ribs were faced up and in the rib cage sat a small boy of about 5 years old. What a sight.
The day we arrived we stayed at a hotel in Guan Haun I was on the seventh floor and tired from the long trip. I heard a continuous sound that sounded like a broken bell, clang, clang, clang at a fast rhythm. Looking out the window I saw in a very busy intersection and I can’t do justice explaining what a busy intersection is here. There were cars bicycles, scooters, tractors, horses, mules and a lot of people walking. There were six people chipping the white lines off the intersection with small hatchets. The only protection they had was an orange vest. There were stripped markings at each side of the intersection and they chipped them away in about three days. I wanted to complain about the noise but damn, what they were doing from sun up till sun down had to be a lot more uncomfortable then sleeping through it.
Technology is a funny thing here they have the best of the leading edge technology but can’t get a cold beer. My cell phone always had all bars no matter where I was, try that in the US. You can’t get a clean towel anywhere but the air conditioner in my room is operated by a remote control. It is such a drastic separation between new world and old.
I will never forget this trip as it stands out to humble me and make me a lot more aware of how spoiled we are as westerners. The people are so happy in such a place and feel great about themselves because they have a small glimpse of how they have the ability to change things, to better themselves and make a better life for the future generation. A few extra dollars a month in their hands is a great advancement over the past.
I know the prophecy of the red army and Armageddon, I also know we as a country are so inward focused. This is the birthplace of the worlds people. They may deserve to take it over because they have suffered and sacrificed more then we will ever understand, or more then we would have the capacity to do so.
They are a wonderful people that are coming from the darkness into the light. It is a change that will take generations to stabilize. They will be the leader of the world because they are still willing to work to do so. They accomplish so much with so little and for so little reward. This is the root of China’s ability to overcome the world.