Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Americans Have to Shower Every Day and Other Amusing Tales

Here are some tidbits from the big envelope of old emails from China I found in my parents' basement. They're all printed out because my parents didn't have a computer at the time. I would write a long email and send it to a long list of addresses -- just reading those addresses is a walk down online memory lane -- and my in-laws would print it out and mail it to my parents.

First we have an account of a weekend trip to the coast that ended with us spending Sunday night on a train crammed with hundreds of other vacationers. We were sitting on the floor:
"At one point the guy across from me woke up suddenly, and he accidentally smacked me in the face. Then I had to go to the bathroom, which meant I had to get four people to vacate the bathroom so I could have some privacy. It was so nice not to have anyone touching me that I felt like staying locked in there, but I figured the masses would storm the potty if I did that." On that trip, a conductor ended up taking pity on us and let Epu and I sleep on the bench in his little booth while he sat on an upside-down bucket on the floor.

On another trip, this time to Harbin in far northern China for the Ice Lantern Festival at Chinese New Year, we agreed to take a paid sleigh ride to an island in the Songhua river with snow sculptures.
"The whole ride (the sleigh driver) sat with us and tried to talk us into going to six other places for a 'really good price.' We were already pretty cold (it was 20 degrees below 0 celcius) so we told him we didn't want to go to six other places, but he wouldn't shut up. When we got to the island he said he would have to wait for us because otherwise we wouldn't be able to get back, and he wouldn't take our money. He wanted to follow us around and collect the round-trip fee at the end. But he got on our nerves chattering about what a good deal we could get for the six other places so we told him to wait for us at the river and we'd come back. So then he wanted us to pay in advance and tacked on $10 for waiting! I mean, 80 RMB, 10 US dollars. We were like, get out of here, don't wait anymore, and finally ended up giving him the $2 promised for taking us and an extra buck for going away. He wanted more, but other people were starting to notice him arguing with us, and he'd probably be embarrassed to be caught ripping off foreigners so bad."

On that trip, we were supposed to be staying with a Chinese friend's family, but he found out -- after we'd bought our plane tickets -- that his family was going to grandma's house for the holiday. A 10-hour train ride away. He and his younger brother ended up leaving their family after a few days of holiday to host us at their empty family apartment. This is how nearly everyone in China treated us: If they weren't trying to rip us off, they were so incredibly hospitable that it was sometimes embarrassing. Some people tried to rip us off and were so nice that the end experience came out positive.

After all, one woman told us when we refused to pay an inflated price for a bowl of noodle soup: "You have money." Compared to them, we were rich, so you could hardly blame people for hoping they could get some of our "riches." Yet no one wants to get ripped off.

Many of our most revealing moments happened when we traveled along with Chinese friends. This anecdote isn't from the emails, but since it's the title of this post I'll tuck it in here: We climbed a mountain on a hot Oct. 1 with a few Chinese friends from our office. We we obviously sweaty and dusty when we reached the top and were devastated to learn that none of the hotels up there had showers. We borrowed a basin, filled it with water, and politely asked if the inhabitants of one of the dormitory-style rooms would clear out for a little while so we could wash. It was just before dinnertime.

People did as we asked, and they didn't seem too annoyed, but they were puzzled. My friend Xiao Shan told them, knowingly, "Foreigners have to take a shower every day." He may as well have told them we grew new heads of hair each night and started each morning with a clean shave.

I could tell Shan was enjoying his status as expert on foreigners. Later, he told a waitress who offered us fish, "Foreigners very rarely eat fish." Of course, after that we didn't have the heart to say, well, we were thinking about having the fish.


Notta Wallflower said...

What an experience you guys had. It's so fortunate that all your old emails were saved. As far as the shower every day, I can't imagine NOT showering every day. Funny about the bartering of goods and services. I met up with a friend of a friend a few weeks ago - she is from Kenya. Even though she is originally from there, the attitude is still the same when she comes home. Basically, they figure that since she's American now, she should have enough money to pay more for things and is expected to pay certain things for her family and friends. I don't do well with expectations like that, whether I have the $ or not.

Kori said...

I used to love getting your emails, and I seem to remember the train ride to the winter festival as a highlight. How fun to get to relive them!