It has been over three weeks since I last posted, and it was on the eve of our trip to Beijing to meet my family. We spent a week there and the trip was great. We went to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple, and the Great Wall. I wasn’t really expecting much from the Great Wall, but it was my favorite part of the trip. The hype given to tourist sites is usually proportional to level of disappointment you feel when you go to the site. However, the Great Wall at Mutianyu was notable exception. The engineering and logistics of building something so expansive on such rugged terrain is incredibly impressive. The wall itself was left unrestored making the experience feel more authentic. The landscape was also picturesque. There was not so much tourist hype in Mutianyu; however, we did take the ski lift to the top to walk around and took the Alpine Slide down. Although the Alpine Slide was not the most ancient of all things at the Great Wall, it was one of everyone’s favorite moments on the trip.
We also made quite a few purchases at the Silk Market, and I got to put my bargaining skills on display on behalf of my family. Whenever someone would try to buy something, I represented them. After I would set my price, the vendors would give up trying to negotiate with me and look to my other family members, but we held strong. We usually got the price I set after waiting a while. My brother, Sean, and I also purchased quite a few DVDs. It was a nice and laid-back week. We saw everything we set out to see and did it at a gentle pace. Grace and I even got to enjoy foods that we deemed Western luxuries at least once a day.
I was a little worried before the trip because China can be a stressful place. Vacationing can be even more stressful than just living in China because you are completing more monetary transactions, and as a foreigner, every transaction brings the risk of being ripped off. Furthermore, my family has not become accustomed to these things like I have. They are not used to haggling for everything; they are not used to thing of how much money things are worth in Chinese terms. Despite these concerns, things went much better than I could have hoped for, but that is not to say that there were not bumpy spots in the trip.
One event that really stood out in my mind was buying Cokes on the way to the Temple of Heaven. My dad and my brother both bought Cokes. The price on all soft drinks was clearly labeled three yuan. My father brought the two drinks up to the counter, handed the lady working there a ten, and got two yuan change. After we got out the store, I asked my dad how much he paid. He said eight yuan. It is one thing to overcharge when prices aren’t labeled. Prices are hardly ever labeled, and that leaves it to the person working to determine the price given what you look like and how much Chinese you speak. It is something completely different when you overcharge someone when the price is labeled. I went back in and demanded two yuan. Two yuan is worth a quarter. I said that two Cokes should cost six yuan and pointed to the price tag. She got up from behind the counter, walked the the price tag, and said, “This says that Sprite is three yuan. You bought Coke. That is four yuan” I replied, “All soft drinks are the same; I don’t care. Give me two kuai.” She angrily sat back down and went through her cash drawer looking for two one yuan bills. She was speaking with a cranky tone the whole time she was shuffling through bills, and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. When she gave me the money, I walked out and glanced back to say, “You’re trash.” She cleverly replied, “You’re trash.” I gave the money back to my father and told everyone what had transpired.
When my mother was talking to me about the trip, she brought up this event. She said that I may not think I’m changing, but to her, this event was conclusive evidence that China is making me a different person. Certainly China has made me more assertive and at times hostile and confrontational, but I’m not sure if its personal. Everyone is looking out for themselves even if that comes at someone’s expense, but it is not because they personally dislike that person in any way. That is just the rules to a game everyone plays. Its not nice or fun, but I don’t think anyone is offended by it except for foreigners who operate under a different set of rules. At first China made me more of an angry person, but now I think I understand how things work a little better and have adjusted. Hopefully, I can turn off some of these changes when I go home, but I like being more assertive. I think that when I go home I can be assertive without engaging in Chinese behavior that we would consider rude.
Another rough spot came when I tried to change the date Grace and I’s train tickets using the consignor at our hotel. I bought our train tickets back to Harbin right when we arrived in Beijing, but after spending a couple days there, I figured that I could adjust my teaching schedule in Harbin and stay another day to see my family off. I contacted my students, and they were more than happy to have their final moved back a day. After breakfast one morning, my dad and I went to the consignor’s desk to see if they could change the tickets for us. The person working said that they could, but there would be a twenty percent service charge and a charge to pay for the taxi to send one of the employees to the train station. We said that it would be fine. He made a couple phone calls, and then he said that he would have to talk to his “captain” to see if he could go. His captain arrives and tells us that the service charge is thirty percent, the tickets are sold out, there are not enough people working the desk to send someone to the train station, and it would be too expensive for us to use their service. We say that its fine; we can go to the train station ourselves and take care of it. We go back up to our room to grab our jackets and go out front to catch a cab. When we get out front, the porter tells us to come back in and go to the consignor’s desk. The captain is still there, and he tells us we owe him money. We owe him a “cancellation fee” as well as the thirty percent service charge. In total we owe him ninety yuan. We are completely confused because this is the same person who tried to talk us out of using their services and now he wants us to pay. It is also ridiculous to to charge a service charge when you don’t provide a service. He said that they already sent a person from a travel agency by cab to the train station, and we have to pay of that, and a service charge, and a cancellation fee. We debated, but we had reached the limits of the captain’s English abilities. He looked exasperated trying to express himself in a language he didn’t really command. Rather than waste anymore of our time, Dad payed the ninety yuan. I was glad he was there because that is a lot of money to me and not so much when you are paying with dollars. I never would have paid that; I would have just walked out and took my chances. We went to the train station, and I changed out the tickets myself in about fifteen minutes.
Not much has happened in the two weeks since we have been back. Its cold enough to keep you inside most of the day, and it has made me a little stir crazy at times. I administered my last two finals and submitted my grades. One student called me after I submitted my grades and asked me to give her a high mark, but there was nothing I could do to change her grade which is probably a good thing for her. One evening, Grace and I cooked hamburgers and French fries to thank all our Chinese friends for helping us get through the semester.
The main tasks for these past two weeks were preparing for traveling and getting Grace registered for her Chinese class. They may seem independent, but the two tasks went hand-in-hand. Grace came to China on a ninety day tourist visa; she arrived on November first, so her visa is expiring at the end of the month. Since she planned to study Chinese at nearby Harbin Engineering University, I figured we could pay for the class and have her visa changed to a student visa as soon as possible. We could not travel without Grace having a valid visa because they would check her visa at every hostel we went to, and she could get in trouble with the police or worse, deported. We were planning on leaving Harbin with Crystal and spending a couple days with him on his farm near Zhengzhou. We had given him money to buy tickets to ride home with him on Sunday, but when we found out from HEU that it would take two weeks for Grace to get her new visa, we told him to return our tickets and planned to meet him at his home later.
On Saturday night, Crystal came over to return our money from our returned tickets. We were all supposed to leave on Sunday, so I asked him, “So are you excited about going home tomorrow?” He looked at me with the deer in the headlights look that he often gives me when I ask him a question in English, so I rephrased my question, “You are going home tomorrow. Are you excited?” The deer in the headlights look was not lifted.
He said to me, “I have also returned my ticket.”
Grace, needing a Chinglish translation, says to me, “What did he say?”
“He returned his ticket for tomorrow with ours.”
So we had intended for Crystal to go on home, and we would meet him there later. Using the word “our” was a little too inclusive for him. We felt horrible but also flattered that he was willing to wait two weeks to go home for us, but when we found out that he returned his ticket, we reformulated our plans on the spot. We decided we would all get tickets the next morning for the next train to his hometown. Grace could extend her tourist visa anywhere along the way. There were three tickets available for Wednesday and one student ticket available for Monday, so Grace and I gave Crystal the choice of leaving Monday or waiting to travel with us on Wednesday. He decided that he wanted to leave on Monday morning, so all-in-all he only missed a couple hours at home. We discovered that the second city on our trip, Guilin, is known for its speedy extensions of tourist visas, so we intend to extend Grace’s there. We paid for her class, but we will get her student visa when we return to Harbin.
Another interesting experience this week was when Grace got the pictures made for her student card. When I first arrived in Harbin, Diana took me to a photo shop in someone’s house to make pictures for my foreign expert card and to give to the police. I took Grace there to get her pictures made because that was the only place I knew of. The apartment is on the fourth floor of an apartment building near our room. The woman who takes the pictures is quite the artist, and her apartment its filled with her own photographs, paintings, and unique furniture. My favorite part of her place is something like a hippie door drape, but instead of beads, she had small, laminated photographs with holes punched in them strung from the door frame with key chains. Grace got her official pictures made. She chose the blue background for her picture which meant that the photographer’s friend stood up behind Grace and held a blue blanket. While we were waiting for pictures to print, the photographer handed us two Bibles. Stunned, we said thank you and started thumbing through. She said to us, “No thank me; thank God.” When she perceived we were bored with the Bibles, she put a video of the life of Jesus on her computer for us to watch. When we were leaving, she lent us the video which we politely accepted and invited us to church. She invited me to go to church with her the first time I came to get my pictures made, but I deferred the invitation to a later time when I could understand Chinese. This time, I agreed that when we came back to return the video, we would set a time to go. I’m just curious to see what the Chinese Christian church is like.
People are very open about being Christians here. One of my engineering students always wears a cross pin. Two other students in that class have also answered all my questions about how they became Christians and what denomination they are. They’ll talk freely about their religion if you ask them, but if you try to talk about their boyfriend or girlfriend, its another story.
Tomorrow morning at eight, Grace and I board our train bound for Zhengzhou. We have five to six weeks to travel, or we have until or money runs out, whatever comes first. Zhengzhou is our only destination in Henan Province, and we plan on leaving there only after a couple days to spend the vast majority of the time in southern provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan. There we should have great weather and see diverse geography and minority villages. This will be my last post until March when we return. I plan on spending some time writing along the way, but I’ll only have the opportunity to stop and type it up once we get back. We’ll be stopping in at internet cafes along the way, so I will still be able to read and reply to e-mails. There are no pictures from the Beijing trip on my picture site yet because an earthquake in Taiwan has really limited the internet in mainland China. I can’t get them to upload yet, but I think everything should be functional when I return. Expect a nice long post and lots of pictures in early March.
On a side note, I thought I was losing a lot of my readership over the past month. In December, the visits to my blog dropped pretty drastically. However, since school has resumed, visits have resumed normal levels. I guess my writing is being used as a tool for procrastination, and thats fine by me. I’d love it if you would send me an e-mail; stay in touch.