Travel literature with a literary twist: China and Anhui Province.
|The Cactus Land
The Chinese mainland is developing at a rapid pace; many western amenities are a prominent fixture in grocery stores and corner markets all over Wuxi. I can get a cold beer easily enough and buy toilet paper and toothpaste without hassle (although, god-be-damned, try to find Tylenol on a Monday morning after a late Sunday evening...). There are computer stores where the latest gadgetry is sold at bargain prices and everyone seems to have the best cell phone you've ever seen. Pirated DVDs are one dollar at the pirated DVD store and high quality digital cameras are slung about the necks of people who earn no more than one-hundred and fifty dollars a month (CND).
The buildings are new and impressive and every once in a while a shiny brand-spanking new Porsche drives down the road and swerves past a red cab that I swear was manufactured in the 1960s (when there were no seat-belt laws, let alone traffic laws). But behind this glossy veneer are shanty towns cleverly hidden behind skyscrapers, like an Olympic athlete with cancer; if you want to avoid these blemishes, you can, but really (surely?): why would anyone want to do that? There are two Chinas: the one in which I live, and the one which I recently visited. I want to take this opportunity to tell you about the latter. Not everyone in China has a cell phone and not everyone in China drives a brand-spanking new car. In fact, this is far, far from the case.
Anhui province borders Jiangsu province -- where Wuxi is located -- and is one of the poorest and most desolate places that I have ever visited, let alone one of the poorest and most desolate places in China. It is located across the basins of the Yangtze and Huaihe rivers and borders six provinces: Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hubei, Henan, Shandong and Jiangsu. Its capital city is Hefei, which boasts a population of about 4.5 million. The province itself has a population of sixty-four million people, despite being slightly larger than the state of Louisiana (whose total population is 4.3 million, slightly smaller than the city of Hefei). Anhui’s per capita GDP ranks 28th out of 33 provinces, making it one of the top five poorest provinces in China. Its total GDP ranks 15th, placing it in the middle of the pack, but the distribution of wealth is not at all in line with any sort of Marxist or Communist ideal, leaving the majority of the population, the farmers and the workers, to live in deplorable conditions. The topography oscillates between vast plains in the north (the North China Plain) and towering mountain ranges in the South East (the Huangshan Mountains). Its people are friendly, interesting and ignorant. The Han Chinese make up the majority of the population with the She and Hui ethnicities being the largest minorities.
However striking its poverty, the countryside is one of the most beautiful and stunning places I have ever visited, making a stark contrast even starker. When I stepped into an air-conditioned Chinese manufactured bus at 6.40am on a Tuesday morning, I had no idea what I was getting myself into (an air-conditioned Chinese manufactured bus, you might say). I had no idea what culture shock really was. Since I came to China I haven’t had a serious case of culture shock. I have been warmly received by the Chinese people and have been able to find what I’ve needed on most occasions. I have made enough friends to keep me active and my job has been interesting and has kept me busy. I have seen many strange things that have made me turn my head and cringe, but nothing that has really shocked me to the point where I was scared of where I was and what I was doing. All of this was about to change. Rural China is an entirely different beast.
Travelling in China is a very difficult endeavour. Since I do not speak the language I have to ‘go with the flow,’ so to speak. Luckily, I would be travelling with three Chinese girls who would take care of all the arrangements. This would make things a lot easier, but at times very confusing. There were seven in our group: three foreign teachers, three Chinese teaching assistants and one Chinese man who was the husband of one of the teaching assistants. The two foreigners were named Ron and Alex.
Ron is a grey-haired fifty-eight-year-old American from Massachusetts with very active hands (a trait I affectionately refer to as the “Massachusetts hand-shuffle”). He speaks with a heavy Boston accent and loves to tell long winded stories about his youth; he is a blues musician and self-proclaimed landscape architect who has played with some of the best blues players in the world from the 70s and 80s, including Muddy Waters and BB King. He is a fascinating cat who loves to talk too much and is jaded about America (almost to the point where he despises it); he wants to die in China. He has also been here one year but barely speaks any Chinese and somehow gets around fantastically. He absolutely loves his life in China and never wants to return to “that shit-hole.”
Alex is a twenty-four-year-old 6-foot-4 Aussie with a penchant for nihilism (a trait he is attempting to overcome). He is a very jaded fellow with a great sense of humour. He is very well read, educated and intelligent and we get along fantastically on these fronts. He has been in China for over two years and has a Chinese girlfriend, but is set to leave China in September after a quick pilgrimage to Mongolia. Alex is a great guy to have around and we have become good friends since my arrival. He has taught me a lot about China and a lot about living in China (“don’t let those fuckers take advantage of you!”). He continually feeds me helpful situational material for which I can not thank him enough.
The three Chinese girls are teaching assistants from our school (Shane English School). Their western names are Amanda, Jenny and Shally (yes, with an ‘a’). They speak English, but it is sporadic and broken at best. This makes communicating the finer points of any situation difficult, but hey, it wouldn’t be China if this wasn’t the case.
“Where are we going, Amanda?”
“That way, Devin!”
“What’s that over there, Amanda?”
“It’s a bamboo forest, Devin.”
Fucking great. Oh well. At least it makes things interesting. Never a dull moment in this country.
Anyways, we were in store for a seven hour bus ride into Anhui province via Jiangsu province. We left early so as to have enough time to do interesting things later in the day. I packed a small bag with clothing and bathroom amenities and slung about my shoulder a laptop-case that held some reading material, some money (700 RMB, or about 100 dollars CND), an iPod touch and my passport (of utmost importance, as you will see later). I was ready. I was set. Gung-ho and all that jazz. The western frontier: cowboys and indians and the wild, wild west. Sure, why not? Spurs, a cowboy-hat and guns ablaze I enter the bus; lo-and-behold I am met by twenty-something faces staring at me with curious eyes. “Hello,” I say to the entire bus. “Hello,” they echo en masse, arms akimbo with salutations. Their amicable greetings please me. I take my seat and prepare for the long trip.
I fucking hate buses. Chinese buses are worse, as the size of each seat is about seventy-five percent of a seat on a western bus (Chinese people are smaller). Alex is especially having trouble and has to sit with his legs in the isle. He simply can’t fit. This is going to be a long trip.
As the bus pulled away I couldn't help but feel a rising excitement bounce from organ to organ and give me a jittery disposition. I was enthralled. I was elated. However I might try, a curious and creeping smile would not vanish from my auspicious visage. This is why I had traveled across the world; this is what I wanted to be doing: traveling, seeing new things, doing new things, hopping from one stinking cess-pool to another and discovering the underbelly of the communist system, giving it a scratch and hoping that some barnacle or another would break off and fall into my pocket. I want to experience China: all of China and not just the capitalist veneer that glosses over the underdeveloped inland. China is like a nut: a hard, well-developed shell protecting a vulnerable and soft inner flesh.
But you don't eat the shell. It is the flesh that is the most delicious.
Everyone on the bus was extremely interested in us. You could see the excitement in their eyes when we stepped on board. They were filled with pride. Traveling with foreigners would be a fulfilling and honourable experience! There was an older woman sitting in front of me with a small child of about ten years old. He was continually peeking over his seat with star-struck eyes to stare at me, and Amanda, who was sitting next to me, would translate his broken, infantile Chinese. His mother would join him and smile at me constantly. How happy she was that I was being so polite to her son! How elated she was that her son was talking to a foreigner!
Most of Jiangsu province is fairly well developed. It is one of the richest provinces in China (3rd per capita GDP and 5th total/gross GDP), so although the houses and small towns along the highway were not up to western standards, they were decent enough that a Chinese family could be content with the state of their affairs. The highway was actually rather isolated from the cityscape. It weaved in between urban areas, avoiding them with intention. There were gas stations and factories and a few houses and farms scattered about the landscape, but it was quite empty and void compared to the bustling and downright abusive hustle of the Chinese urban landscape. I almost felt at peace. Mountains were slowly creeping over the horizon and I began to see dense bamboo jungles for the first time in my life. It was all very exciting.
But when we crossed into Anhui, the world exploded.
I choose this metaphor carefully. I left civilization and entered a war-zone. I left the developing world and entered the third world. I left my comfort zone and entered the unknown. At this point I was numb. Its sting was not yet completely felt. I kept thinking, “Oh look, how interesting! They look like quaint little huts! Such a fascinating little village!” and when I saw a man walking an ox down the middle of the road, I laughed as our bus swerved around them and gave a quick honk. The ox didn’t flinch. The man didn’t glance back. No one else seemed interested as I gave the old one-eighty to get a second look at this enigmatic sight. I smiled and pointed furiously. “Look Amanda,” I said, “it’s a man walking an ox down the middle of the highway! Isn’t that strange?” She shrugged and smiled passively at my cultural innocence. I shrugged too and continued to take in my new and expanding surroundings.
At this time I had only been in China for three weeks.
This may be why it is difficult to describe the houses and roadside villages I saw the deeper inland we ventured. My description of them as ‘quaint little huts’ does not do them justice. They were not ‘quaint’ and they were not ‘huts‘. They were fifty-year-old wooden shacks with bamboo shingles, open windows with no glass-pane and dirt roads haphazardly linking one section of the village to another. Chickens, goats, street-cats, dogs and various farm animals walked freely about, pecking and digging and scavenging for food as it pleased them. The people wore sandals, if they wore shoes at all, and if it could be helped wore no shirts, their bare, dark-skinned backs glistening in the blistering August heat. They were a hard people, farmers and workers mostly, selling and trading whatever they could grow or find in order to support their families. If you had asked me before I arrived what it was that I would see, I would not have imagined nor envisioned a sight as destitute and impecunious as this.
But still it was exciting. Only in Hollywood movies had I seen images of the third-world, grinning wildly as I watched Brad Pitt walk freely among poverty-stricken villages while filming one of his latest disconsolate awareness dramas. “One day I will visit there! One day I will be like him,” I would scream silently at the television. And one day I did, but shit, I didn’t have a five-hundred-thousand dollar luxury trailer to escape to when the director called “Cut! Perfect Brad! Absolutely perfect! Let’s break for lunch,” and Brad, handsome Brad, famous Brad, would walk nonchalantly with a bottle of purified water to eat a carefully prepared lunch, mud his face, and return to the set as beautiful as ever. I had to step in goat shit and avoid six chickens just to cross the street and buy a bowl of rise. I had to face twenty-two sixty-five-year-old women with a full set of teeth between them screaming at me to buy their grapes and their pears so that they could feed their grandchildren for another week. I had to shit in a trough with no running water and no barriers separating one crouching man from another, their feces escaping giddily from their colons to be at one with like-textured matter as the flies buzzed above and a barefooted fifteen year old boy entered the room, looked at me crouching next to the other men, smiled, pulled out his pencil dick and urinated on the floor. I definitely was not Brad Pitt and this definitely was not Hollywood.
“Care for a cigarette,” the man next to me purportedly asked as he pulled one from his shirt pocket and offered it to me.
No. I’m trying to take a shit here, and your drooling on my toilet paper. Asshole.
After seven hours we finally arrived at our first destination. The first activity of the day was to get off the bus and board a boat that would take us down the Yangtze river to dock at a few remote villages for a quick tête-à-tête with the locals. This sounds like an easy enough task, but when I got off the bus, teary-eyed old women and children accost me with 'merchandise' for sale. Stupidly, when an old woman hands me a brochure and three dice, I think they are a gift. "Wow, these people are so friendly! They're always trying to give me things!"
As I try to walk away, she grabs my arm and demands payment. I clue in and try to hand back her merchandise. Now here is the kicker: she won't take the shit back -- under any circumstance! Whatever I do, she manages to cleverly manoeuvre around my carefully thought out return policy. I shove her things at her and she steps back and yells at me for money. I try to place them in her basket but she pulls that away and places it behind her back on a hook attached to her belt. I try to place them on the ground and walk away, but she stops my arm from reaching the dirt road. Confusion is paramount. I am surrounded by about six old women shouting at me, shoving fruit and things at me like an Uzi sprays bullets. Finally, Shally pushes her way through the crowd to rescue me. She pushes the old women aside like husks of corn, grabs the brochure and dice from my hands and whips it at the old lady all the while taking my arm and leading me through the crowd to the dock. The lady catches her things, barely shrugs and moves onto the next poor sap. Safe at last.
"Sorry," I say, "I didn't know." She shakes her head as if to say "no worries, foreigner," and smiles. Saved by a girl no bigger than my sixteen-year-old niece. I feel awkward, but relieved. At least I know not to accept anything again. Such innocence! I should have learned from the 'little-girl-with-the-pink-rose' incident two weeks prior. Oh well. Live and learn, or so they say.
We board an oversized houseboat and I buy an overpriced beer and sit down. Some of our group go upstairs to be more intimate with the surroundings. I decide to wait and sit down. I am sitting with Alex and we chat leisurely about an assortment of topics. He is giving me tips about living in China, and how to survive.
"Be strong. Everyone will try to rip you off. If something sounds fishy, say no and threaten to walk away. They will change their mind and drop the price. Trust me. They will not call the police. In fact, you can threaten to call the police. If the police turn up on the scene and discover that a shopkeeper is trying to rip of a foreigner, shit will fly. You have the power. Remember: saving face is the most important thing in Chinese society. Take advantage of that. You have the power. You can say no; they can't."
Excellent advice that I have used to my advantage on many occasions. At first I was very apprehensive about the whole bargaining culture, but now I have no qualms about saying "no, I won't be paying that price today" and threaten to walk away and scoff at their temerity. At first, it seemed so rude to say 'no' it such an adversarial manner, but once you realize the issue of politeness is a western convention that they will take advantage of regularly, you will learn to ignore the desire to say 'excuse me' when you bump into someone on a crowded street and plough ahead uninhibited: morally or physically.
And you have to learn this quickly or you will get ripped off buying a fucking bottle of water from a street vendor. And they will rip you off every time, especially if they think you're a tourist. In Wuxi it is getting better because the people around my apartment building know I am not a tourist and that I live in Wuxi, that I am like them: a frequent visitor to street vendors and restaurants and corner stores that will come back time and time again if treated fairly.
But when travelling around China I again become a foreign tourist. It reminds me of that one Seinfeld episode where Kramer basks himself in butter to get a better sun-tan and instead 'bakes' himself so that Newman begins to see him as a roasted chicken and in the end tries to eat him, overcome by an incessant hunger. Sometimes I feel like Kramer: a roasted chicken waddling about from town to town as the Chinese merchants lick their salivating lips. It is too bad really, but is something you have to oppose as best you can, and as diligently as possible.
Anyways, the scenery is breathtaking. Beautiful, green bamboo forests encompass the mountains that jut out of the ground like skyscrapers from a vast plain. The river playfully winds through the landscape and small, isolated villages are sprinkled along the river basin. Someone tells me that parts of the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" were filmed at this location. I believe them (and later discover this to be true when I climb Mount Huangshan). It is truly breathtaking.
Eventually the boat docks at one of the isolated villages. We walk across a small wooden plank that links the shore to the boat and wander around for a while in the village, buying handmade nick-knacks from the locals. They are not Han Chinese and have very dark skin, a feature -- as I have learned -- that is the mark of a worker who is of decreased social status. They are rough people and wear sandals and very old, worn clothing. Many of them are missing teeth and many of them have some sort of blemish or assortment of scars -- a leftover result of the Cultural Revolution, I am sure (long live Mao Zedong!). Sometimes, when I am teaching, the little children will call each other 'black' as a sort of insult (all espoused in a very innocent and playful manner, I assure you). Of course, this is very racist and difficult to accept and I sometimes desire very strongly to intrude and explain that this is not acceptable discourse and should not be repeated again, but I don't (and surely can't); hey -- when in Rome!
After a short stay in the village we board the ship, proceed downstream for about fifteen minutes and dock at a second village. This village proves to be more interesting and provides me with one of my most interesting and revealing cultural moments as of yet in China.
We are ushered into a temple with a stage and some speakers. We sit down with many others and watch as a Chinese woman with a microphone enters via stage right (or is it stage left? I can never remember) and talks gibberish for a while. She then departs and traditional Chinese music begins to play. Oddly clothed figures with painted faces enter the stage and begin to sing in a high-pitched, wobbly way. This, as I discover, is Beijing opera, and a very traditional and long-lasting staple of Chinese society. It is interesting, to say the least, and something that one would never witness in any theatre, bar or community center in North America (lest it be a Chinese community center in, say, Vancouver or San Francisco; still, it is strangely removed from that setting).
Soon it ends and the woman returns. She begins speaking Chinese and Amanda translates for us. She is asking if anyone would like to come on stage and sing for the crowd (in, as the crowd and she assumes, a traditional Beijing-operatic focused manner). One girl goes up (a very good looking girl too!) and performs as intended. She is spot on and even delivers a traditional dance to go along with her singing. Everyone claps and is enthralled.
And this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a harmonica.
Ron, until this moment completely silent, murmurs something. I turn to him, "What did you say?"
"It has to be done. I can't just sit here and turn down this opportunity. I have to do it," he says as he reaches into his bag and pulls out his 'harp'. "Do what," I implore. He smiles at me.
He turns to Amanda and explains his intension. Amanda laughs and raises her hand. The woman with the microphone, imploring the audience for more performers, gladly accepts this new volunteer. Amanda and Ron rise and head toward the stage. Ron glances back and gives the thumbs up in a way only a fifty-eight-year-old American Blues musician with his tongue sticking out and a smarmy, conceited smile on his face can. I burst out with a laugh and the entire crowd turn their heads toward me, my shrieking, maniacal laughter echoing throughout the chamber.
Shit. You think that was something? Just you wait!
The crowd chatters like a flock of geese. They are amazed that the old foreigner (definite article intended) is going to sing Beijing opera. They wonder how he is going to do it. They ponder the consequences. They imagine the possibilities.
They are all wrong.
After a long-winded Chinese introduction by Amanda, Ron enters the stage with his harmonica. There is complete silence. As the cliché goes: you could hear a pin drop. I pull out my digital camera and begin recording. He doesn't say a single word or give any hint of a personal introduction. He just plays and lets the sound of music be his words. He 'busts out', as they say, a southern American Blues song that, as he afterward tells me, was a popular diddy 'back in the day' among the ‘blacks’. The crowd is absolutely flabbergasted. They have never heard anything like this before in their lives, or their parents or grandparents lives, for that matter. Ron is now lost. He taps his foot furiously and bobs his head back and forth, un-wavered and un-aware of anything around him. Everyone in the room forgets where they are. They don’t remember the long bus ride, the three-toothed old women selling rotten apples, or the Quasimodo-like figures sprinkled sparingly about the shanty towns of remote Anhui province. Two worlds collide right in front of me and the only thing I can hear is a pentatonic scale.
Silence, awe and a harp to lull the void: we are awe-struck.
It wasn’t as if the music was especially good or anything. This, with all due respect to our lovable American blues musician, is not to diminish Ron’s talent (which is great), but is intended to outline a greater influence upon our then ever so transfixed minds. In the middle of nowhere amidst one of the poorest regions in the world, Ron managed to bridge a cultural gap that opened a world of incredible possibilities. At this point in the trip I could begin to feel a creeping fear rising in my stomach, but was not quite aware of its implications. The western music contrasted with the 3rd world environment and traditional Chinese ambience was beginning to bring to light my current position; however, I was much too involved with my increasingly bizarre and foreign environment to pay much notice to its evolution. This, of course, would later come to a head, but as of then: I was drunk.
When Ron finishes, the crowd erupts; somehow I am transported to Ron’s past; I find myself at a gig somewhere in New England when he was a thirty-something-year-old hipster jamming with BB King at some late-night blues bar, the crowd chanting “Ron! Ron!” and BB King gently ending the evening with a guitar solo, and Ron -- enigmatic Ron, precocious Ron -- with his harp lovingly caressing his sweat-beaded lips begs the crowd to swing their hips one last time before the sun rises and the boring work-day begins. Somehow that moment is transplanted onto this moment and I have to shake my head lightly to shrug it off. I am in China. I am in some Buddhist temple and some man who I have just met is playing the blues. I am one of three foreigners surrounded by individuals who only one month prior were literally a world removed.
Where am I? What the fuck am I doing?
The people are so impressed with the performance that they feel the need to congratulate me! Since we are only three, Alex and I are automatically associated with the western music. “Oh it’s really no problem! You are quite welcome. It was my pleasure,” I say to some man who thanks me in broken English. “It really was great, wasn’t it?”
‘It sure was,’ a twisted, elated smile belies. ‘What is that odd instrument!?’
At this point I feel it pertinent to excuse myself for the blatant tense shift. It is grammatically inexcusable, I know, but sometimes when a moment becomes as emotionally charged as this it is difficult to mould it into any cohesive pattern. This moment is never in the ‘past’, and therefore cannot be represented in the ‘past tense’; it is right there, right on the cusp of the present, always visible but never within reach; always audible but never clearly heard; always palpable but never quite there.
This moment was powerful. I can not explain how or why, and even then it was not readily apparent, but it was just that: powerful. When two seemingly opposing multitudes coexist within a single moment, the mind reels in confusion. The head gives a shake and tries to comprehend up being down and down being up, good and evil being simple shades of grey while grey is a mixture of black and white, and man and woman being merely human and human being life -- but can’t.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
It is as if two forces that have never touched let alone held hands embraced in such an imitate manner that something astonishing was born.
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
And when the shadow falls and the fated kiss is lost, a void is left to weep hollow tears of indignation. Melancholy salvation is denied and the moment of reconciliation is burned onto the retinas of an empty man.
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
But all is well, for thine is the Kingdom.
And so I apologize for the tense shift, but assert quite vehemently its thematic and pragmatic importance.
Anyways, we are ushered out of the temple and once again board the boat. This time I take the opportunity to enjoy the top deck and view the scenery from a more intimate perch. I am drained. A long day of travelling and unintended emotional stimulation has taken its toll. I watch passively as the mountains slowly creep their way out of eye-shot. There are men in odd looking boats fishing on the river. I wave to them and they wave back. One of them turns out to be a small boy, trapped alone on his boat. He smiles warmly and waves his hand frantically. I yell ‘hello’ in Chinese and he responds passionately.
I can do nothing but smile.
When we finally arrive at the docks, the old women and children are waiting for us. They swarm the boat and it is difficult to reach the shore. When I do, I barrel through them like a linebacker and get on the bus. It is not long before we depart, and soon we are on the road again, on our way to lodgings in Huangshan City, a ‘small’ city about forty minutes away; we will stay the evening there at a hotel and rest. It has been a very, very long day, but will be nothing compared to the next day.
The next day I will climb one of the eight Holy Mountains of China: Mount Huangshan.
And it will be a majestic experience.