Justin and I have been spending our last week in Huzhou spending equal times relaxing and packing since all of our classes are done. Next week will be our final week in China, and we’re planning on spending it in Xi’An, which is the last (major) city that we haven’t visited yet. We were originally planning on making it into a fun road trip with our friends Mickery and Catherine, and we were going to head from Xi’An all the way to Gansu (where Catherine is from), which is so far west and north that it’s on the border of Inner Mongolia! (Justin was really jazzed about that…he wanted to cross into Mongolia.) However, our road trip plan did not work out. Catherine and Mickery were both all for it when it was in the dreaming/pre-planning stage, but once it came time to really nail down the dates and the specifics, they told us that they couldn’t do it.
And when they came to us to break the news that the trip was a no-go, they were all shifty-eyed, staring at the floor, fumbling with their hands, and making lame excuses that didn’t really make sense. And that’s when it hit us that our trip was violating a few basic principles that most mainland Chinese people seem to abide by:
1. Parents feel that foreigners should be teachers, not friends.
Apparently, they had both spoken with their parents about the plans, and neither Mickery’s or Catherine’s parents thought it was a good idea for their (twenty-year-old!) children to go traipsing across the country with some strange foreigners. And to many parents–especially the ones who are old enough to remember when only Chinese people were allowed to live in China–when we come around chatting with their kids, their “stranger-danger” alarm starts blaring full force. Many people in China love laughing at us and shouting out “hello” and taking pictures with us, but they don’t want to actually be friends with us or grab dinner together or anything. And honestly, the reason that almost all of our Chinese friends are students is because the teachers at our school were never really interested in hanging out with us. They were always saying things like, “Oh, I’ll have to invite you over to my house for dinner sometime!” and we’d say, “That would be great!” But then the invitation would never come, and we slowly realized that they had only said it to be polite and never intended to follow through. Our British ex-pat friend, Connie, told us that a teacher at her school confided to her that they had a Chinese-only faculty meeting one time–no foreigners invited–when the teachers were literally told, “Keep your distance from the foreign teachers at this school. Translate for them and help them if they are confused, but do not make friends with them.”
I think that this “keep your distance” idea is starting to change a little with the younger generation, though. Teens and college students in China all listen to Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, closely follow the NBA and support their favorite teams, and seem to be very intrigued with holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Twenty years from now, I’m hoping that the majority of the general population will be welcoming foreigners as friends and not just as language teachers.
2. It is always better to travel with a tour group rather than travel alone.
This was the official reason that Mickery and Catherine gave us for bowing out of the trip to Gansu. “Our parents feel that it is too dangerous to be traveling alone.” What? “Traveling alone? There will be four of us!” I countered. Catherine came back with, “But we will be in an unfamiliar place and we could get lost.” And that’s when I remembered how fond Chinese people are of traveling with tour groups.
We bump into these tour groups every place we go, and they drive us crazy. It’s not just that there’s a leader at the front of the pack waving a yellow flag and shouting in Chinese through a loudspeaker. And it’s not that they force everyone in the tour group to wear some sort of ridiculous hat (the worst group I’ve ever seen was all clad in plaid Gilligan’s Island style hats). The problem is that everywhere we go, there seems to be five or more of these types of tour groups, all the leaders competing for who has the loudest loudspeaker, and everyone in the fifty-person group trying to shove forward and snap a picture of the same exhibit at the same time. Justin and I will travel to these beautiful, historical-looking villages, and only have a moment to bask in the peace of what life must have been like so long ago, before a group of red baseball caps comes at us from the left, and a group of yellow baseball caps comes at us from the right, and a group of blue Gilligan hats closes in on us from behind, and we’re suddenly boxed into competing loudspeakers and cameras flashing and complete chaos.
It all seems a little juvenile, doesn’t it? Dressing everyone in the same outfit so they don’t get confused or lost. A leader at the front waving a decorated baton or flag. Taking five minute bathroom breaks as a group while the leader waits outside patiently for you. Does the leader dole out the lunch money to everyone too? It’s just too much like kindergarten for my taste.
However, more than one Chinese person has tried to convince us to book a tour group like this. They’re always ready with a previously rehearsed set of reasons, too: 1. You get a group discount to whatever tourist destination you’re headed to, so it’s cheaper, 2. Your tour guide is a pro and will take you to all the right places, 3. You don’t have to worry about getting lost or managing your own schedule, etc. Sure! Great reasons! You’re also stuck with the same group of fifty obnoxious people for the duration of your vacation, with no chance to bail out on the museum that turned out to be boring and go shopping instead, because you must stick with the group. No fun.
But Justin and I have discovered that it’s no use trying to talk anyone into our crazy American ways. I hadn’t realized what an independent, American idea it is to round up some friends at the spur of the moment, jump in a car, and just hit the road and see where you end up. It’s an adventure! But to the Chinese, it is dangerous and an inefficient use of your time.
In the end, Justin and I decided to travel to Xi’An by ourselves, and say our goodbyes to Catherine and Mickery in Huzhou instead. Actually, Catherine made a last-ditch effort to salvage the road trip idea by conspiring with her progressive, western-minded sister who lives in Gansu. We thought that since Catherine was traveling through Xi’An anyways to head home to Gansu for the summer, we could at least hang out with her on the train until we stopped in Xi’An. However, when her father found out, he decided to make the twenty-six hour train ride to Huzhou to accompany her for twenty-six more hours back to Gansu because he was worried about her saftey (a.k.a. traveling with foreigners), even though Catherine has made the trip home by herself before. So much for that idea. We will all be headed to Xi’An this weekend, but on separate trains–victory for Dad.
One final Chinese opinion that I discovered while cleaning out my closet this past week in preparation to move:
3. Second-hand clothes are only for beggars who have no money to buy new clothes.
In America, when a friend cleans out her closet, it is her duty and obligation to her girl friends to call them up and invite them to look through the pickings before she drops them off at Goodwill. There are a bunch of great pieces in my wardrobe that were throw-aways from friends or bought at Goodwill or a consignment shop. I love bragging to people when they compliment me on a dress or a purse, “I got this at a yard sale for $3!” Not so in Chinese culture.
In Chinese culture, wearing second-hand clothes is not something to brag about–it’s something to be ashamed about. I collected two big bags full of clothing (most of which I’d bought since I’d been in China and they’re really too small for me) and took them to school to see if I could find any girls that wanted them. I didn’t put anything in the bag that was old or damaged; they were all items that still looked brand new. But no one at school wanted to look in my bag, or even touch my second-hand clothes. Everyone made the same scrunched up face when I offered the bag to them so they could pick through it. “Are you crazy?” that face said. “I wouldn’t be caught dead picking through second-hand clothes!” No one told me this to my face, of course. They all politely hemmed and hawed and said things like, “Oh, it is too hot now to wear this sweater,” and “Maybe these clothes are too big for me?” without actually holding them up to see. Eventually, one of the teachers offered to donate the bags to charity, and I agreed, feeling a little hurt that not one person had wanted to take a look in my bag. It’s not bad taste in clothes, I tell you! It’s just a difference in culture! 🙂