My first trip to Asia
N.B.: This is a copy of a letter I wrote a friend at the time and it was not intended to be a web page but since I am not getting around to building a web page as such, I might as well post this rather than nothing. This refers to my first trip to HongKong and GuangZhou in February of 1997. I returned in February 1999 and (hopefully) I will soon get around to writing about that.
I was in Madrid at the time and over the weekend had discussed with a friend the possibility of getting away for a few days. He backed off but Monday morning on a whim I decided to go. I went to the Chinese embassy to get a visa, then the travel agency to get a ticket and the next day I was on my way.
I arrived in Hong Kong in the mid morning and took a bus to the Star Ferry terminal in Tsim-Sha-Tsui. From there I walked up Canton road to the China Hong Kong City terminal where I waited to take the ferry that left for Guang Zhou at 9 pm. Because of the beginning of the Chinese new year it was very crowded and I could not get a berth, only a seat. I was tired but I enjoyed the trip up the Pearl river and we arrived in Guang Zhou about 7 the next morning.
Going through customs gave me a first taste of China. I had to wait in a long line for almost an hour. The young woman in the passport control booth was dressed in a very impressive green uniform but every time she was handed a new passport she looked at it like it was the first time she had ever seen a passport in her life and then took a good five minutes to process it. She had to type the name in a computer and she obviously had difficulty using a Latin keyboard. I was with a group of Americans and we were cracking jokes about the bureaucracy but I quickly sobered when a guard made me a sign of disapproval.
Having being graciously allowed to enter the country, even though it was raining, I decided to walk to the youth hostel on Shamian Island. I got lost and having a map was no help. I soon found out the Chinese can smile but they can't read a map. You show them a map of their own city and you might as well show them a map of Paris.
I stayed at the Youth Hostel where the beds are hard, there is no heat and some of the staff are less than friendly but I enjoyed every minute of it. It was many years since I last travelled like this and I am quite tired of lonely hotel rooms when I travel on business. At the Hostel I met other backpackers and we shared stories and I learnt a lot about China from them.
When I first walked into the hostel I saw about five guards and thought I may have walked into a police station by mistake. I had the impression I would be more subject to their control than when I was a kid in a boarding school but as the days went by I realized they had little interest in what we did and were there for other reasons. The first is to protect our safety but even for this their numbers are disproportionate. The other reason is that in China there is a lot of make-work and this is a job very suitable for that purpose. Still, they would not talk to us and were not friendly.
One guy liked to tease them in ways that no Chinese would have dreamed of and still got away with it. One day he stood in front of a group of three trying to make them laugh (or at least react) but they were stone faced. Another day he threw fire crackers near a guard who was holding a rifle. The guard fired a couple of shots in the air but I did not feel he was trying to intimidate us as much as establish who was in charge there.
On the whole I found the Chinese people to be very friendly but this can be misleading. They smile a lot. If I smiled to a pretty girl on the street I invariably got a beautiful smile back. The children, recognizing me as a foreigner would cry "hello!" and were delighted when I said "hello!". If instead of "hello" I said it in Chinese, "ni-hao", they were even more amused. But the Chinese will smile all the time, even when they are trying to cheat you, steal from you or otherwise screw you.
The only truly obnoxious person I met during the trip was a Canadian who just could not adapt to the thought that this was not his country and things were different here. I also had an exchange with two Canadian women who were complaining they had been to a beach a few days earlier and their skimpy bathing suits brought not only stares but fishermen with cameras taking pictures. I pointed out to them that they as tourists were taking many pictures of the Chinese doing whatever they do and I would think this would give the Chinese the right to go and photograph them back in their home towns not to mention in China.
They also complained they could not buy a bra in China which was not heavily padded which got me thinking... Chinese women seem to have very small breasts. Now, if half of what I'm seeing is padding... what's left?! I think there may be a great business opportunity in China for those in the breast enlargement field.
Many travellers told me Guang Zhou is much more advanced and developed than most of China and at certain times and places it was difficult to believe one was not in Europe or America. There are plenty of expensive European and Japanese cars, cellular phones and other signs of wealth.
I found the women were always very neatly and elegantly dressed while the men were neatly dressed but not as elegant. The children were always well dressed and always very well cared for. I am no lover of children but I recognize the importance of caring for them. Chinese children seemed very happy and loved. They are not abused and they are not spoilt. With me they were friendly but also respectful. I never saw anyone strike or yell at a child and yet these children knew well to respect adults. I was very impressed by Chinese children and if I would have to chose one thing about China that stands out in my mind it is the children.
During the days I was in Guang Zhou I walked all over the place until I had blisters on my feet when I left but it was well worth it. I enjoyed every corner and every new face I saw. I walked the open air markets where one can see the sale and slaughter of all sorts of animals. This is not something I would find pleasing but it is very far from me to judge or condemn another culture on account of this.
The second day I had my pocket picked and lost a wad of bills to an expert pickpocket. They are very good at what they do. While I still consider stealing is morally wrong I could not bring myself to be angry at the thief. I could only be angry at myself for being careless when I should have known better. When my home in Washington or my apartment in Madrid were burglarized I felt great anger at the perpetrators and if I had the chance I would hang them by the ears (I'm being polite here). But my pickpocket took advantage of my own carelessness (it still doesn't make it right).
On the way back, in Hong Kong, I stopped at McDonald's for a cup of coffee. An American in his fifties struck a conversation with me and sat at my table. I had my back to the counter. He said he was going for another cup of coffee and a minute later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of my bags which was by my side was being lifted. The American pretended is was only a joke to see if I was paying attention but now I have no doubt he was ready to take it. I also have to say it was pure luck that I saw it and if he would have waited for me to turn my head a bit he probably would have succeeded.
I was surprised to see milk is not part of the Chinese diet and is just not sold. I reasoned this must me due to a lack of refrigeration but when I got back I learnt the truth which is much more interesting: more than 80% of Chinese are lactose intolerant. I am not sure if this is genetically caused or if they become intolerant to lactose because they stop consuming it after they are weaned. Thinking again about breast sizes, maybe Chinese babies don't get much milk anyway. :-)
Another thing I learnt is that for the Chinese it is polite to reject gifts until the giver has insisted a couple of times. I was confused by this when I tried to give something. I am used to the western custom where you always accept a gift with thanks and then do whatever you want to do with it (dump it if you don't like it). I later learnt it is rude for the Chinese to accept a gift at the first offer because that is considered being greedy. (I guess picking pockets is not considered being greedy).
Anyway, I loved it and I could go on and on but I'm running out of steam. I've repeated all these things so many times since I returned that I figure I've bored too many people already.