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Monday, August 15, 2005

A Few Stories

I am now in Jiayuguan after another longer-than-supposed-to-be bus ride with its usual 20 minutes-late departure and two stops by police. As we drove from Zhangye the landscape became more barren, rocky, sandy. There were dried out river beds and giant mounds of dirt. Then, in the distance, a shimmer of mountain peaked by ice. A sudden burst of green fields and sunflowers, and then back to dirt. Jiayuguan itself seems nice. It is Saturday and there are people and family strolling in the streets at a nice slow pace. After three days of car horns in Lanzhou and Zhangye, I have yet to hear one here, which is nice. I had a lunch of dumplings and a chat with an 8-year-old Chinese girl and her father, sitting next to me. I exchanged a US dollar with the man so that he could give it to the girl, and I answered the girl's wide-eyed questions about America and Japan, about distances from China and about how much a plane ticket might cost. It was a very sweet thing, and a bit sad, how little she knew about how different Japan and America are, and how much farther away the US is.

Still, despite the pleasantness of this exchange, and the comfortable temperatures outside, I can't seem to shake the low feeling that descended on me at some point--I think early this morning.

Why? It is hard to say exactly. Yesterday, in Zhangye, I was taken out to a beautiful mountain area of Matisi, where there are any number of temples built into cliff faces (and where I heard an argument coming from behind one of those cliff faces, which was a bit strange). The landscape was beautiful, and I enjoyed a huge lunch of sheep (which I am sick of eating--too fatty and hard to chew, the meet), watermelon, pumpkin, potatoes, veggies, and soup. Also, there were some girls of one of the minority ethnicities in the area who danced and sang, and as part of some tradition continued to offer up glasses of bai jiu (alcohol mentioned in an earlier letter) to me and the others with me. As I was the foreigner and the others didn't really drink, I was the one who took the brunt of it and by the time we were ready to drive back, I was ready for sleep (also having not slept much the night before on a night train, despite the great lengths that were taken by my Lanzhou hosts to help me secure a sold-out hard sleeper car berth).

After returning to Zhangye, my new host dropped me off at the hotel he had arranged for me to stay in and left so I could rest. As I lay there, though, I couldn't sleep, and I realized that I now had my first opportunity in days to be off on my own. This is not a complaint about the several people who have gone out of their way to help me. Far from it. Their kindness has left me at times speechless. The problem lay yesterday in the fact that it was something of a co-worker of a friend of a friend and I kind of got the impression that at least the guy driving had no real desire to be there. The problem also comes in knowing how to graciously explain that all of the things people plan for you to do may not be what you are hoping for, and a number of people all over the place never really understand when someone tries to explain that they just want to be off on their own wandering in streets for awhile.

Thus it was that in Lanzhou I was being stared at by just about everyone, as much because of my skin as because of the fact that I was accompanied by three teenage girls (12-19) who took it upon themselves to watch out for me. This was very sweet of them, and very understandable that they would want to practice English and be with a foreigner, but at the same time, it felt at times as if I was being babysat as much as being guided around, and this in itself was a bit exhausting. It was not helped by the fact of my missing Natalia more than usual on that particular day.

After leaving the hotel, I first went outside to work on the novel that was the main excuse for my taking this trip in the first place. Having been away from it for so long it took awhile to get into it. Two pages of writing later, a 40-year-old woman sitting at the next table over (tables set up outside the hotel's restaurant) came over and began speaking to me, The speech became more excited as she realized I could speak some Chinese. Perhaps I shouldn't have in this case as she proceeded to talk to me, or at me, for about 45 minutes nonstop. I understood maybe half of it, gathering that she was telling me I should work for her company which was somehow connected with businesses in several Asian and European countries, as well as Canada, and maybe America as well. I also gathered that she thought I was "hao bang" or excellent for learning Chinese and traveling in China. The conversation ended only when I excused myself to use the bathroom and then begged off further conversation by explaining that it was time for me to go take pictures as the late afternoon light is so good for taking pictures.

I left and headed into a small neighborhood of one- and two-story earthen colored houses tucked behind the hotel. Amidst these houses, many accessed through small archways leading off the straight dirt road (and through the archways visible inside clothes hanging and children studying) were people sitting on the side of the road in the shade or on bikes. There were several mothers holding their young children, and as soon as I took a picture of one I was something of a pied piper going up and down having kids and parents, and even some older folks asking me to take pictures of them as well. Then, as I returned to the hotel, I glimpsed inside another archway to see several 30-50 something women dancing with long red ribbons, apparently practicing for some performance. Then I came upon four women playing mahjong, one of them at least 80, wearing sunglasses two sizes too large and then some. While watching this, I answered the usual questions about my nationality, how long I've been in China, what do I think of the people, where have I been and where will I go, where did I learn to speak Chinese, etc. Then a man in a security guard shirt (unbuttoned as if he had just gotten off work) came up with his 5-year-old son, imploring the boy to practice his English. We talked for a bit and then he insisted I come to his home for some food and to see how he lived. His house was on the second floor of one of the buildings, and while not large was obviously a place with a lot of love. The young boy showed me his English books and I gave him an impromptu lesson while the dad and I spoke about places in China, and about the way things are in America. He seemed very eager, as many do, to know if certain things are true and about how much it costs and so on and so forth. The man's mother served a bowl of mian tang (noodle soup, with some tomoatoes and spices that was just delicious) as well as an ear of corn. I stayed for about a half hour, and then politely turned down offers of more food insisting I must return to my hotel not knowing when or if the man who had taken me to Matisi was due to return.

He did call later than night, and I explained that I was full and why. I felt kind of bad, wondering if this would result in a loss of face for him, but after so many days of constant accompaniment and of Chinese (I think I have spoken normal English maybe 5 times in the last 3 weeks, not counting conversations with Natalia) I just could not do it anymore. He accompanied me to the bus today as well, and though I wanted to be more exaggerated in my gratitude to him, I don't know if I pulled it off. I guess today I'm just a bit burned out.

Tomorrow I will go see a part of the Great Wall for the first time, the end of it actually, or the Westernmost part. Then on Monday I will be off to Dunhuang. Who knows what today or tomorrow or any other day will bring? I am sure it will bring more curious stares and questions, more childlike excitement at being in the presence of a foreigner. I really do enjoy those kinds of interactions, but I guess maybe right now I need a bit of company with a foreigner myself...


Anonymous shawn grant said...

come on buddy! keep your head up! I am so jealous of you rigt now. I'm at work midnight on a sunday in SF and here you are wondering the world! can I come visit you some time? You are still the man!! Have fun buddy! talk to you later.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Natalia said...

Just the cultural shock maybe, it'll pass. I love you.

11:00 AM  

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