Monday, July 18, 2011

Couples Who Wear Matching Outfits

We arrived in Fenghuang jonesin' for some English. We had been in gorgeous, but relatively remote, or at least un-foreign tourist-ed spots for the previous couple weeks and were hoping that Fenghuang, a bigger, more touristy old city, would have at least a single hostel employee that could answer some of our questions. It became rather quickly apparent that this wasn't going to be the case. It was touristy, alright- it seemed like all of the 1.3 billion Chinese people had chosen this week to come to Fenghuang as well. We sat down on a stone wall by the picturesque river, trying to figure out where, exactly, on the useless Lonely Planet map we were and where we could sleep.

As has been the case in the majority of our China travels- people were staring and taking photos of us. Being hot, lost and frustrated, the unwanted attention didn't help. I'm pretty sure I shot more than a few daggers at the passing photographers. Then, a Chinese couple, maybe a little younger than us, the man wearing a red and white striped shirt, and the woman in the matching dress version stopped and stood over us. They stared and bent over us like they were trying to read the Lonely Planet over our shoulders. I thought it was quite annoying, but this is what many Chinese do. I was just about to ask them why they just had to stand there and stare at us when the man piped up. 'Where are you from?' He asked. I wasn't in the mood for small talk. Thankfully, Jonathan is endlessly patient. 'Canada,' he answered, smiling, before turning back to the map. Were we holding it upside down? What side of the river are we even on? Man, this map sucks (as usual). 'What can I do for you?' asked the Chinese man. I sighed and rolled my eyes. What is it with Chinese couples dressing the same, anyways? Did the matching outfits come in a package? At a discount? 'Well... I could use a foot massage, but really, we're fine, thanks, just looking for a place to sleep,' Jonathan responded.

The couple continued to stand there, hunched over our guidebook like maybe if we all stared long enough a hotel would magically hop off the page like a pop-up tent right in front of our eyes and, heck, we could just sleep there. I don't know why I need to get so annoyed almost immediately, I know that often, the Chinese are really just trying to help and they mean no offense by constantly and obviously staring and taking our photo. China just has a way of getting under your skin. For me, and my long-suffering husband, its almost every day we move to another destination. It was my choice to create our Chinese itinerary out of a whole bunch of out-of-the-way, backwater, remote, destinations. Of course travel was going to be harder than your typical Bejing-Xi'an-Chengdu trip. But as soon as I thinking about how complicated it is, and how we can't communicate with anyone- I get annoyed. I love it and hate it with equal passion, every day. Its exhausting.

'You can come to our hotel,' suggested the man, whose English name turned out to be David. I shrugged and sent Jonathan along to check it out while I babysat the bags. 'Are you ok?' I was asked for the second time that hour by a European sounding man about my age. I was defensive. I was just sitting here. Why did everyone think I had some sort of problem. 'Yes, why?' I asked, a little snarkily, I admit. This was the first foreigner I had spoken to in about a week- what was my problem? Why was I being rude? I guess I did have one after all. 'Oh, they said you needed help,' the European responded. 'Who's they?' I asked, looking around, immediately annoyed again. 'Oh, the Chinese people. They say you don't speak Chinese and you need help,' he answered matter-of-factly, motioning behind him. Mostly, I was annoyed because it was true. And apparently obvious to everyone around. Hmmmmm. Despite my unfriendliness he continued to tell me where he was staying, how much it cost and that there was a room left, if I so required. I thanked him and he walked away, vowing never to be helpful again, no doubt.

Jonathan returned, with his new best friend, David, in tow. It turns out that David and his girlfriend Wan Kai, or Sophie as I later named her (How fun is that? I named someone!) just graduated from a four year University English program. They really wanted to talk to/help us, but they were shy, hence the staring. Yup, its official- I'm a jerk. They studied English for four years and so very rarely got to actually practice speaking, that they were very nervous to do so, especially with us foreigners, even though their English really was quite good. We carried our bags back to the perfect hotel with the perfect panoramic balcony as a team. They acted as our official translators with the hotel owner and directed him to set us up with a fan, toilet paper, towels and even pre-set the TV to the one and only English channel, so all we had to do was press power and-voila- good old consistently depressing world 'news'- in English! The lap of luxury, really. They told us their room number and that we could come get them if we needed anything else. So nice. I felt especially bad for originally being so annoyed. As is almost always the case.

A couple days later, David knocked on our door. 'Hello!' I greeted him cheerfully. He smiled, but looked confused. 'Is Jon here?' he asked, like a kid asking their parent if their child could come out and play. Jonathan came to the door. Turns out David can't really understand me. Jonathan speaks much MUCH slower, deliberately and with perfect pronunciation. Those who know me know- I don't. At all. Sometimes Jonathan has to translate my English into his English for other people. Anyways, David and Sophie wanted to hang out, 'taste the local dishes,' and 'take many beautiful photos' with us down by the river as, 'meeting us has been a very special memory that they will always remember.' Cute, right?

David was very concerned as to how we ever get any food to eat, being that all of the menus are only in Chinese, and of course, the vegetarian complication. Really though, its quite easy. We point. We confidently walk into the kitchen (which is often just right there in the same room, making it easy) and point to eggplant, potatoes, spinach, lotus root, noodles, or whatever suits our fancy. We point to garlic and chillis so is clear that we like it spicy. What was so frustrating at the beginning of our Chinese adventure, is now the easiest part of our day. Rice is unlimited for a mere 30cents each- and yum- for under $4, we have a full, filling meal for two. Two can dine for $3.99! ('Are you outta your mind?!') How will we go back to a fork and knife?

David and Sophie wanted to take some photos down by the river, show us the local spicy pulled ginger sugar candy, go on a boat cruise to taste some local wine, take us for dinner and finish off the night with drinks at a small, hidden riverside cafe that they had discovered. Turns out Chinese white wine is whisky, though- for all those who are interested. Its quite shocking when you are expecting wine, as we think of it. And funny.

Splashing water at friends and strangers is a favourite pass time on the boat cruise- turns out. We were on a small wooden boat similar to a gondola, being punted down the river. Being foreigners, we were prime target to the surrounding splashes. Splashing water spreads 'good luck.' The Chinese take luck very seriously. David and Sophie did their very best, in their defense, to convince everyone that we were quite lucky enough without their splashing- but of course, it was to little avail. Jonathan started a small war with one hand swipe into the river. We were soaked. Who are we to turn down luck?

It was a fantastic experience, and our first, to really be able to talk to Chinese people, in China about their opinions and experiences. It was the first time that they had shared a meal with foreigners- and our first time to share a meal with locals. How exciting! In China dishes are not ordered individually. Instead, a series of dishes are ordered and placed in the middle of the table along with a massive bowl of white, steamed rice. I think it pained David a little bit to have to order all vegetarian food when there are so many meat dishes that Fenghuang is 'famous' for, that he wanted us to try. He took it all in stride though, and ordered us a fantastic spread. Everyone at the table has a small bowl. Smaller than a typical cereal bowl. Half the size, maybe. Rice is piled into your small bowl with a spoon from the communal bowl. Then, using chopsticks, you pick your choice morsels out of the oily dishes (not as bad as it sounds, but yes, oily), and put them into your bowl a little at a time, as not much can fit with all that rice. Everyone shares the dishes, using the same chopsticks to serve as to eat. With a growing concern of disease or sickness, some restaurants provide serving spoons for the dishes, but between friends and family, most just stick to the chopstick method. Chinese people eat very fast. Often two or three parties will eat and leave before we are done savoring our meal. Its unabashedly loud, slurpy and messy. Many people hold their bowl up close their mouths use the chopsticks shovel style. Any bones or unwanted chunks are scattered across the table and floor. Not only do they clean the table between restaurant customers- they change the entire table cloth! The craziest part about it all. This is becoming completely normal to us. Really, whats so bad about slurping in surround sound anyways?

We are so happy to have had the opportunity to meet and spend time with David and Sophie. China is full of fantastic, interesting people, and we are so glad to be able to have had an insightful chat with a couple of them.

ps. Yes, that sure is a flattened pig face!

pps. Today is 285 days of travel for us! Can you believe it?

ppps. We are flying to Kathmandu, Nepal in one week, just so you know.


Joel and Sonia said...

Hey! Glad to see you are doing OK -- let us know if we can research anything for you from this end. I love the picture of Jonathan.

karly said...

Wow can't believe you've been gone soo long!! Miss you lots!! Keep up the great stories!! Can't wait for more!