Saturday, January 24, 2009

Back in Chengdu

I just got back to Chendgu and will be hanging out here for a few days I think. My last couple days in Guilin were a lot of fun. I got to meet some really interesting people and feel like my Chinese was able to improve a lot just from the week I spent there by myself. One benefit of being a foreigner in China is I do not have to worry about offending people or asking too personal of questions. I just ask them anything I want and Chinese people do not seem to mind. There are so many stories I could tell right now. Like about one of the Chinese guys living in my hostel who was in Guilin interviewing for a job at Pepsi and really needed the job so he could convince his girlfriend that he was reliable so she would be willing to marry him, or the 4 girls from Nanning who wanted me to come visit their hometown because they have the best food in china. But the most interesting person I met was a girl who works in the city of Shenzhen.

First I should say a little about the city of Shenzhen. It is located in the south east of China and is right across the water from the island of Hong Kong. Today Shenzhen is one of the most developed and prosperous cities in China but that was not the case just 30 years ago. Before, it was simply a poor fishing village when it won the lottery of the century by being selected as the first Special Economic Zone as part of the Reforms of 1979. Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, wanted to introduce market economic reforms in China but wanted to experiment in a few cities first before bringing the reforms to the country at large. Shenzhen proved a tremendous success and today attracts a lot of professionals from China.

So, this is where my friend worked. She actually spoke English quite well (definitely better than my Chinese). What was so interesting about her was the fact that she had such an independent and open mind. She was a Christian and talked about how her faith in Christ gave her a better sense of morality to treat other people better. She said that a lot of people in China will not think twice about cheating you if it will benefit them. She thought that Chinese people could learn from the example of Christ to treat people as you would yourself. She even had many negative things to say about the government, and how they constantly lie to the people rather than tell them the truth. She was the first Chinese person I had met who actually held these kind of views. Most others either did not think this is the case or simply have no opinions whatsoever.

But the most interesting part of talking to her over a few days was her thoughts on America and Taiwan. She greatly despised American foreign policy in the world and saw the country as looking down on everyone else. When I asked for some examples, she pointed to our immigration policy and how it is very difficult, time consuming, and expensive for Chinese people to live or visit the US. She said we think we are just so good that we want to keep everyone else out. Later, she went on to say that with China becoming stronger and stronger they might just do the same thing to Americans and keep all of us out.

It was pretty crazy how our conversation turned so quickly from a lively one to a fairly antagonistic one. It then got worse when she brought up the question of Taiwan. She wanted to know why America wants to divide the Chinese people by selling sophisticated weapons to Taiwan. In her mind, America is trying to control China by using Taiwan. When I told her that the US does not support Taiwan independence and hopes to eventually have a peaceful reunification, she did not seemed too convinced. She then made a very interesting point by referring to how Hong Kong was re-integrated with the mainland in 1997. At that time, there were a lot of fears that Mainland China would restrict the relative freedom that Hong Kong enjoyed under nominal British rule for so long. But China agreed to allow Hong Kong to have their own independent press as well as local government and enjoy relative autonomy for the next 50 years. This policy, from my understanding, seems to be fairly succsessful. My friend said that this proves that Taiwan should be reintegrated by the same kind of policy. It also shows that China really does not have bad intentions, but just wants a united country.

Granted, we obviously do not see completely eye to eye on this issue but it was very interesting hearing what she had to say. I try to do my best to avoid political discussions because it usually does not lead to anywhere constructive and a lot of times becomes a bit testy. But I really enjoyed getting to know this lady over the last few days I was in Guilin.

Today is the Chinese New Years Eve and I do not have any plans as of now. I think I am going to go to a local bar and watch the New Year festivites on tv. Apparently, everyone from around the country will be watching so I am curious what it is all about. I have been traveling now for over a month and still have about 3 weeks left before I have to head back to Harbin. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity where I can just travel anywhere in China that I feel like. In fact, I think on this trip, I will have seen more of China that most Chinese. Im pretty lucky.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Still In Guilin

Right now I am in Guilin waiting on a train back to Chengdu. I have decided to take it pretty easy for the next three weeks before I head back to Beijing for the start of the new semester. I leave for Chengdu in a few days and then plan on going to Xi'An, Tianjin and then finally Beijing. In Beijing I am meeting up with the other Americans in my language program for the upcoming semester and then we will all take a train over to Harbin.

My traveling companion, Andrew, left Guilin a few days ago to go to Hainan where he will spend the Chinese New Year. I decided not to go because it sounded like it would be a expensive and I also wanted to travel on my own for a change. Now my goal is to spend my days studying Chinese and talking to people I come across in my hostel and throughout the cities that I visit.

For example, today has been a good day so far. I woke up late, took a long hot shower, ordered a western breakfast the hostel and hung out in the lobby for awhile reading my Chinese book. I had planned on taking a walk along the Li River in the afternoon but two Chinese students from Shanghai were also hanging out in the lobby. They came and sat with me and we spent the next several hours talking, mostly Chinese but they also spoke some English as well. These girls were very interesting, they are both currently studying French and want to travel there with their school in two years. But they told me they have to be selected to go and the selections are based on how good their French is in two years. So if they study and work hard they will have a chance to go abroad, if not, they wont.

Im going to walk around the city square this evening and eat some Guilin rice noodles at this really cheap place that I found. Some locals also told me about a local bar that is popular for young people so tonight I plan on checking that out. One of the cool things about being a foreigner in China and having an OK grasp of the language is that it is not too hard to meet other Chinese people. If you can speak a little Chinese they really want to talk to you and are really excited. Im already pretty good and the general first encounter conversation with Chinese people (like where I am from, whats my major, why I am in China) etc., and working on having more in depth conversations. That is still a work in progress but will improve with time and hard work.

Im getting hungry so Im going to grab some of those noodles I mentioned. Thanks for all of you who read this thing, especially you who leave me some comments. I really appreciate it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

In Guilin

Right now I am in the city of Yangshuo in Guangxi province. This city is amazingly beautiful and one of the best places I have been to so far in China. The city is very flat but has these large, steep mountains popping up all over the place. They come out of nowhere and are really hard to explain. When I get back to Harbin and settled in I will start putting my photos onto here for everyone to see. The view is really breathtaking, definitely the most beautitful city in China that I have ever seen.

I will give a recap of what I have been up to since I was in Wuhan a few weeks ago. My companion, Andrew, and I took a train from Wuhan to Shanghai a few days before New Years and spent about 4 nights there. Shanghai is an incredible city. It is developing new skyscrapers everyday and as you walk around you cannot help but keep staring up at the sky. But for some reason I was not too keen on Shanghai. Shanghai has a lot of foreigners and does not feel like China. It is also does not feel like it has a whole lot of culture. And it is a lot more expensive than "real China" so I was pretty happy to get going from Shanghai.

We spent New Years there and it was also a little disappointing. Chinese people dont really celebrate real New Years at all, they have Chinese New Years or the Spring Festival that is coming up at the end of the month. It is based on the lunar calendar and so is on a different day every year. Anyway, we went down to the Bund, which is a popular place along the Huangpu River, that houses a lot of European architecture. It also across the way from the Pudong area where the tallest skyscraper in China and second tallest in the world is located. Anyway, there were thousands of people congregated down there around midnight and I was expecting a pretty spectacular fire work display, seeing as it is one of the biggest cities in the world. But the when the clock struck 12, they began a pretty pathetic show. It reminded me of the displays we would do in AK out in the woods during New Years eve, not the stuff of a major international city. Afterwards we went to McDonalds and pretty much called it a night.

After a few days in Shanghai we got on a train to Nanjing, which only took about 2 hours. In Nanjing our main goal was to relax for awhile and not spend money. We found a hostel that had dorm beds starting at 30 yuan a night, pretty cheap and for the first two days just hung out at the hostel in the day, eat cheap jiaozi for lunch and dinner, and maybe go to starbucks in evening, come back to the hostel and watch a movie and then go to bed. I felt we had just been going and going so much it was nice to relax for awhile.

In Nanjing we also hung out with two of the hostel workers a few nights which was a lot of fun. One of the girls could speak English incredibly well so it was cool to have some lucid conversations for change with Chinese people. We toured some of the lakes as well as old city walls from the Ming dynasty and also checked out some of the muesums. The most impactful one was the Rape of Nanjing musuem. It chronicled Japan's occupation of Nanjing from 1937 to 1945 when an estimated 300,000 people were slaughtered by the Japanese. Some of the worst atrocities of WWII were commited in Nanjing but do not get a whole lot of attention for some reason. A lot of historians refer to it as the forgotten holocaust. The pictures and images from that museum were incredibly disturbing and it really got you thinking how massacres like this can possibly happen.

After Nanjing, we took a 24 hour train to the city of Guilin in Guangxi province. The train ride was not as bad as I was expecting it to be. We had a hard sleeper where you have these little room like holes where three beds are stacked on top of each other on both sides. I was concerned that it was going to be an awful trip but Andrew and I slept for about half the way and the rest of our time was taken up by eating, talking, reading and looking at the scenery. So it was not so bad. As soon as we got into Guilin we hopped on a bus to Yangshuo and that is where we currently are. On the bus, we were also lucky enough to meet two other Chinese travelers and we hung out with them in Yanghsuo on our first day. We rented some bikes and ride about 8 km down to whats called Yueliang Shan, or Moon Mountain, and had a fantastic dinner of hot doufu, this pork and vegetable dish called huiguorou, and the Yangshuo speciality pijiu yu, or beer fish. It was one of the best meals I had had in a long time and it was relatively cheap.

I have also discovered our travels are a lot more fun when we make some Chinese friends to hang out with. The ones we met in Yangshuo were also good because they could not speak any english so we had to use Chinese the whole time. So it is good to continue practicing and improving your Chinese. Life is also a little easier with other Chinese people because people dont try to cheat them as much as all the foreigners. For example, we were in this chinese painting store where they had these scenic drawings on Chinese scrolls. I was not seriously thinking about buying some but I asked how much and the guy told me 80 yuan. I knew this was way to expensive so I said how about 30 yuan and after a few minutes he actually met my price. 30 yuan is less than 5 US dollars, not very much money at all, but my Chinese friend said I should pay no more than 15 yuan, about 2 dollars. And later I actually saw him offer roughly this price to other Chinese tourists. But I would not be surprised if other foreigners are paying incredibly high prices for stuff Chinese people are paying pennies for.

This morning we slept in and later rented bikes again and toured the countryside a little bit as well as hiked up a mountain. Yangshuo is quite the tourist town and everywhere you go people are trying to sell you some kind of trincket or touristy item. It reminds me a lot of being in Mexico this summer, I dont really like it. I think we will spend a few days here and then head back to Guilin for a few days and after that I am not sure where I will go . Andrew is planning on going to Hainan, apparently the Hawaii of China but I think I will either go to Yunnan or perhaps Chengdu again. Not sure at the moment. The Spring Festival is coming up and I have heard things get pretty crazy in China during that time, especially hotels and trains. So I really just want to settle down some place and not have to deal with the craziness.