China is a fascinating place and the people are full of intriguing paradoxes – delightfully friendly and respectful, wise and dignified in one moment, then spitting and burping and picking their nose the next.
There is symbolism everywhere.
There’s an ancient Chinese belief that an evil spirit dwells in the throat. They frequently clear their throats and spit in China to keep the evil spirit at bay and to keep him from strangling them when they swallow. Also, practically, the Chinese have a lot of phlegm build-up due to the weather and smoggy conditions. And they chain smoke. It should be noted, however, that spitting is also considered rude in China amongst the upper class and younger people.
Slurping soup and belching, on the other hand, both are a sign of pleasure from a meal, a sign of gratitude toward the host, and a compliment to the chef.
And, blatantly picking your nose in public? Not sure what to say about that one.
Unlike in Hong Kong, there is no English on the streets anywhere in China; not company names, street signs, billboards. Nada.
I don’t know how much of It was that I just knew how polluted the air was, but there was a metallic taste in the back of my throat and a burning sensation in my eyes for the whole time I was there. And a moderate headache to boot. But always eager for an adventure!
The guy next to me checking in at the front desk of this Guangzhou hotel, puffing away at a cigarette, reminded me to ask for a non-smoking room. The woman behind the country smiled slightly but looking moderately perplexed; “we have no non-smoking rooms”. I clearly was not in Kansas anymore.
And I realized more and more why they call Hong Kong “Asia Light”.
Far from a vegetarian haven, this China place, I must say. There was literally nothing on the hotel menu for room service. When I asked the hotel manager if anything could be done to have a dish with no meat or fish, he looked a little bewildered and forlorn, “we’ve never been asked that before, I’m not sure the cooks will understand”.
Turns out the Chinese – as with the case in other Asian cultures – have a really hard time saying “no”, because it may cause them to “lose face” (mianzi, in Mandarin). They don’t like to admit if some service can’t be offered and often hedge the answer so they’re not put in a position to deliver disappointing news.
I encountered this during my previous trip to China, to Shenzhen. A Chinese friend of mine had invited me to her favorite local dim sum restaurant and was excited to have me try it out. Likewise, the waitress was eager to please this new gweilo (foreigner). We ordered rice and vegetable soup and then I asked what dim sum dishes were vegetarian. “Not many”, was her answer. “Well, I only need one to try it, really, what dim sum do you have that are without meat or fish”. “Not much” was her answer. This went back and forth for an uncomfortable amount of time when I realized – duh – that she didn’t want to tell me that there was nothing vegetarian. I kept insisting and every time I did, I was doing the terrible “manzi” faux pas of making her lose face.
Lovely Chinese dim sum waitress, wherever you are – please forgive me for my wicked Western ignorance!
So, back a little further north to my adventure in Guangzhou, the hotel manager ends up walking me over to the local grocery store to forage for some vegetarian grub for dinner that night – which was so very cool of him! I just love browsing around local markets in any new country I visit. The only thing for dinner that initially I thought might be vegetarian was the Cup of Soup. Of course all of the ingredients were written in Chinese only — we’ve been spoiled with so many years in Europe, with multiple languages being a legal requirement!. Aside from the fact that I was pretty certain one of the first ingredients would be MSG, the pictures on the fronts seemed to indicate there would pretty definitely be something with eyes inside – whether they be from land or sea. Dinner that night: cashews, a banana, and a bag of potato chips (cucumber flavor. Not bad!).
There was also no English language TV, in spite of this being a 4-star hotel. The best I ended up with was the Australian Open tennis match, and some of the game information was posted on the screen in English. It was actually the first time I’d watched professional tennis now that I’ve become a tennis player myself. It was heartening to see that even the professionals hit the ball into the net and out of bounds now and then.
Then tried connecting to Facebook and of course forgot that it is censored in China. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Google, no any kind of Western social media platforms. There are local versions of all those things, the content of which presumably the Chinese government is better able to track and control.
The bed was nice and big and comfy, but there seemed to be a raging karaoke party in the banquette hall somewhere on my floor. Or was it actually IN my room? It was excruciating loud, the singers painfully bad, and the raucous went on until the wee hours of the AM.
Note to self for next time: ear plugs.
The hotel very kindly arranged for a shuttle bus back to the ferry to return to Hong Kong. It was fascinating to see the amount of horn usage for a ½-hour ride – which, by the way, was on the “right” side of the rode, a side I had not ridden on since our arrival to Hong Kong. Oddly for the American that I am, it felt weird! The driver honked at the slews of pedestrians and bicycle riders who were several yards away. He honked if it looked like any car might be coming even remotely close to our bus. And instead of signally to turn, the preferred alerting procedure was – you guessed it – the mighty horn.
My driver was very friendly, smiling all the time, and chatting away with me in Mandarin, which I – of course – didn’t understand a word of. He took regular breaks to talk on his phone. No, to YELL INTO HIS PHONE.
“WHY”? “WHY?” NUN JAI”!!
I love that the Chinese answer the phone with what sounds like “why”… it always makes me think they’re all saying “why? why are you calling me, why”?
As a side note, I always thought it would be interesting to do a little study on the various ways of answering the phone in different languages. The Portuguese answer their phones “Sto”, which means “I am”. If they can’t hear, they add a “si” at the end. So the first part of the phone conversation would be “I am….. I am…. I AM , YES..!”… and so on.
And I love the Italians “pronto” = I’m ready. Whatever crazy merda you may throw my way on this phone call, I’m ready for you. Just like the Italians to be crafty like that.
“Hello” just seems so very banal.
But I digress.
So I had my cigarette smoking, horn honking, non-seatbelt wearing, smiley, chatty and swirv-y bus driver taking me to the ferry to return to Hong Kong when I glance out the window and see the police.
No, two police.
Both on the same motorcycle.
Neither of them wearing a helmet.
And BOTH smoking cigarettes AND talking on their phones.
Gotta love China.