On Friday, I went to dinner with the same four students that had taken me out to dinner. I told them that since they took me out the first time, I would take care of dinner the next time. We went to a restaurant near our school that I pass by twice daily on the way to and from the bus stop. What caught my attention about the restaurant is that it has a sign on it that says KTV. KTV is karaoke, and I thought that would be something fun that would could do together. When we got there, the vote for KTV didn’t pass, so we just ate instead of having both dinner and entertainment. We got a private room. The waitress handed me the menu to order. When you go to a restaurant here, the waiter or waitress hands you the menu and stand there until you order. Instead of feeling pressured to order, sat there with the menu for a minute showing my students all the characters on the menu that I knew. I conceded the menu to them to order. The first dish that came was a plate of pig joints. We received packets that contained chopsticks, a plastic glove, and straw. We all put on our one glove and picked up our pieces and started eating. The knee was the best piece, so they gave it to me. After struggling to eat off of the knee effectively, they gave me another packet, so I could use a second glove. They completely cleaned the bones; I could only stomach the meat but not the fat, ligaments, and cartilage. I felt bad wasting the best piece. They summarily put their straws to use. They slid them inside of the bones and started sucking out the marrow. I decided to give it a try, and it wasn’t bad. It tasted like the rest of the meat but the consistency of a thick liquid. Think of a warm, meat flavored smoothie or milkshake. The rest of the food was really good, especially the sticky rice cakes that we had.
When I went to eat with Susan when I first got here, I was shocked at her tone when she talked to waiter. It is in no way abnormal to yell for the waiter; that is just how you get them to come over after you order. After we had been sitting for a while, she yelled for the waiter and said something to him in an agitated cadence. I asked what she said to him, and she told me, “I said, “I’m hungry; hurry up.” Sven was telling me that those of higher classes really distrust and talk down to people of lower classes and occupation. He theorizes that since people try to take advantage of people with money, the upper classes think those serving them are trying to cheat them and treat the lower classes like lesser people. I know Susan’s father is a math professor, and teachers are very respected in Chinese culture. I expected my students to yell for the waitress when we needed things. They quietly slipped out of the room and asked humbly for whatever we wanted. I wonder if they treat waiters and waitresses with more respect because they come from a similar stratus of society.
Joking around with me, Crystal asks, “When are you getting married?” I say, “In a long time. When are you getting married?” Fred jumps in, “Tomorrow.” I snap back, “Are you the one marrying him?” This spurred a pretty serious discussion of relationships and marriage in China. I asked when they seriously wanted to get married. Dave answered that he wanted to get married at thirty. I asked him why he wanted to wait that long, and he said that he wanted to wait until he had enough money. I asked if the reason why guys buy expensive western clothes and spend lots of money in bars is to show women there that they have lots of money so they have the chance to get married. They adamantly agreed. I asked that if they have to do this because there are so few women. Again, they agreed. Dave interjected, “I think this is a bad thing. Most women are just interested in money, but not all of them.” I was very satisfied with his analysis and reluctance to generalize.
Since Crystal lives in Henan province, he can’t go home for the National Day holiday next week. The other three guys all live in Heilongjiang, so they are all going home. Since I’m still feeling pretty far behind in my class, I asked if Crystal would be my tutor during the holiday, and I offered to pay him for his time. Right when I said I would pay him, all of them rang, “No, no, no.” They informed me, “We are friends; we don’t talk money.” I apologized for offering and said that I appreciated the cultural lesson. After dinner, we all went back to my room for a little while, listened to music, and taught me Chinese phrases like “Dear, I’m hungry; can you cook dinner?”
I had to get up early on Saturday to go to Wudalian Chi. We had a personal bus for our group of ten. In our party, there were five Germans, one Austrian, one Chinese, Sven (representing Switzerland), Mark (representing Holland), and myself. A fair amount of the conversation was in German over the course of the weekend, leaving myself and Bo Feng (our Chinese traveling companion) oblivious to what people were talking about. It didn’t matter to me at all; I’ve become quite good at spacing out when listening to languages I don’t know. The drive there took six hours. It was a really nice drive. The was a long conversation about Christianity, politics, and race in America. Since I have lots of opinions on those subjects and tend to get excited when they’re brought up, I think I dominated conversation a little bit. To be fair though, I have a bit more knowledge and experience on those subjects than those with whom I was discussing. It was really interesting to get European and Chinese perspectives on the subjects. I was really impressed with Bo Feng’s knowledge of America politics (with Europeans, knowledge of American politics is almost expected). Of Chinese people with good English speaking ability, he is by far my favorite. He is interested in the aspects of America that I find interesting, and I appreciate his sense of humor. What he finds funny is very strange and goofy. We were surrounded by flat farmland dotted by white birch trees. As we got farther north, the yellowing of the leaves on the white bark created a beautiful effect. Having lived in rural Russia for seven months, Sven said that it really reminded him of Siberia. I was encouraged to find this out. It was exactly how I pictured rural Russia whenever I have read Russian literature.
When we arrived, we ate a big lunch and headed to the main attraction in the area, Laohei Shan. Wudalian Chi is a series of volcanoes that just pop out of the plains. I was a bit disappointed when I arrived. There were six or seven bug bites on the horizon with a couple lakes in the middle. Laohei Shan is the supposed to be the most popular of the volcanoes according to Lonely Planet. We were all surprised when arrived at the gate to find that entrance to the park cost sixty yuan which is very expensive for Chinese standards. However, the price lead to several funny moments. Sven kept quantifying the value of each of the views. This lead to the Sven-o-meter, a device that measures the value of tourist sights. Its quite a complex device. Sven says how much he thinks something is worth, and I place one of my forearms horizontally while the other gauges it Sven’s measurements in relation to the cost of entrance. Another good moment was when we were told that we couldn’t bring lighters into the park. Sven had to explain to us that the village has been peaceful for the last twenty years and that they didn’t want us to light the volcano. The sight itself was nice in addition to light-hearted attitude of the group. The mountain was surrounded by a lava field that looked like the moon. Mark walked into the lava field, took the moon from America, and claimed it for the Netherlands. The walk up the side of the mountain to the crater was nice. We were surround be trees, and that was a first during my trip here. I made a Chinese friend on the walk up. I managed to understand one of about every six or seven phrases he said to me. I managed to find out that he was from Xiamen in Fujian province, and he gave me a bottle of water since I was lacking one. When we reached the top, he got me to take a picture with him. The crater was impressive, and the views and the wind off the top of the mountain were refreshing. The walk back down was not so fun.
We briefly returned to out hotel because it was getting cooler. For sunset, we walked to Hao Shan, another “mountain” just on the outskirts of the village. I think “Hao Shan” is the name because even though their was nothing saying this at the mountain, a near by street was named Hao Shan. On the top, there was a Buddhist statue and tow pagodas. The trees on the top were a collage of reds, yellows, greens, oranges, and browns. By the time we got there and reached the top, it was almost completely dark. It was a nice place to go to conclude the day.
We walked back into town for dinner. We went to a place near our hotel. When we got the bill, back it was far more than we expected. A debate between Bo Feng and the staff ensued. They charged us twice as much for two dishes and almost double for our beer. It took about twenty minutes to get the bill from 170 yuan to expected price of 104 yuan. Granted, they difference in expense is not that great when it taken from the standard of Western currency, but it is greatly disrespectful. No one likes it when someone tries to take advantage of you.
We walked out of the restaurant, and everything in the town had shut down. Since it was relatively early, we looked around for something to do. We were referred to a KTV place. We walked over, and we opened the door to what looks like the inside of the a trailer. The room is small, there are two couches, and the walls are covered with tanish cloth. There is a strobe light, bad techno is blaring, and there are three middle-aged men dancing poorly. The owners take us upstairs to a room for KTV. They bring out the song book, and the only western music is from Classical composers. We leave. One the owners comes back out. He has traveled to the depths of the basement to a secret vault and pulled out the tome of Western music that he hid because nobody uses it there. We go back up to the room only to find out that they didn’t have the CD that went with it.
We walked down the street to another place. They immediately put some familiar music on, and spent the rest of the night singing. If I had to estimate, the town has about four hundred people at the most, but it also has two KTV places. On the walk back, the vast majority of the lights in the town were off, and I saw more stars than I had seen in a long time.
The next morning we went to a different set of lava fields after a quick breakfast. The place wasn’t too large, but it was interesting. The lava field at Laohei Shan were completely barren; these had different trees and shrubs creeping out from between the rocks. We left there and went to a spring. This spring supposedly had minerals in it that were healthy. People came with water jugs and filled them from the spring. It just tasted like carbonated water to me, but when I lifted a car later, I knew it had to be the water. We wandered into an outdoor market. There were fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables lined up on the sidewalk. We went into a bakery and had some chocolate covered pastries and moon cakes. Moon cakes are the food that people give each other for the Mid-autumn Festival during the National Day holiday. The vendors tired to pitch their products to us in Russian, and we had to let them know that we weren’t Russian.
Our admission to the spring also included entrance to one of the lakes. It seems that you have to pay to access anything worthwhile here (or sometimes you have to pay to see thing that are not worthwhile). The lake was first place I have been where it fit my preconceptions about what China would look like. There were pagodas beside a lake that was lined with tall reeds. The reeds were rustling in the wind, and they were backed by yet another lava field. It was my favorite part of the trip.
We left the lake and went to a Buddhist temple and monastery that was on the far side Hao Shan. Fed up with charges to get into places, most everyone decided not to go in, but I was really interested. I paid the fifteen yuan entrance fee and went in. After paying the monk at the door, I starting spraying pictures. The temple area was filled with statues. Smaller ones were free standing in the courtyard; larger ones sat inside temples. All of the statues were of warriors except for two golden buddhas. There was a fat buddha and a skinny buddha. There were three temples inside the walls of the compound. The largest temple was under renovation. I walked around transfixed by people worshiping and throwing coins into a metal tower. I walked into the second largest temple. There was a female monk kneeling in prayer. I was taking pictures of the inside of the temple, and I turned in her direction to take a picture. She was not pleased. She covered herself up with a jacket, then immediately pulled it off to start yelling at me. I had no clue what she was saying, so I just walked out. I definitely understand I was being disrespectful, but in another sense, when you open your temple to tourists, charge admission, and have a gift shop, the sanctity of the place is lost. Also in my studies of Buddhism, I never found anger as trait a practitioner should express. At the same time, I realize that an individual monk has no control over whether her temple is open to the public and can understand her frustration in having her worship disturbed; I should have been more respectful.
After waiting for a couple minutes, the monk at the door let the rest of our group into the temple for free. We walked around for a minute then walked up Hao Shan again to get a better view in full daylight. When we got the Buddhist statue at the top, there was an old woman with red ribbons. She gave us each one to tie on the trees for good luck. We asked if we had to pay before we took them, and she said it was a gift. After we had tied them on the trees, she asked Bo Feng to get us to give her some money. She asked for five yuan at first, then two, and she said it was nothing to us. Bo Feng told her it wasn’t right of her to tell us that it was a gift then ask for money. When we walked away, she untied the ribbons we put on the trees.
I really enjoyed the trip. It was two great Autumn days. Getting out of the city was nice, and I found rural Heilongjiang province beautiful and interesting. I’ve posted many pictures from the trip on the picture sight, so check them out. As of Tuesday, it will be one month since my departure. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things about China, home, and the relationship between the two, so I’m going to provide my analysis of my first month here in my next post. Thanks for reading, and keep the e-mails coming.