Monday, March 27, 2006

A very bad day...

This is an excerpt from my written journal that I keep in addition to what I write on the blog. Things have gotten significantly better since this day but I figured for posterity's sake I'd post this. It really covers a lot of the frustrations/difficulties that I faced in the first two weeks of China (especially after our love affair with SE Asia.) I apologize if it seems bit too whiney or negative for people but it is how I felt on that day. And sometimes, we all just have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.


3/19/06 Pingyao, China

I just ordered a beer. I felt like ordering a double Jameson's. Hell, I just still might.

We got into Pingyao this morning, arriving on our third overnight train in four nights. I was ok getting off of it and the room we settled into is nice but four hours later, I'm just exhausted. Over the past five days or so we've picked up the pace considerably and it's taking it's toll. Throw in the fact that China is just a tiring place to travel in general and I'm running very, very thin.

When we got here originally, we decided that to give ourselves more time that we'd push our flight from Hong Kong to New Zealand back a few days. That being done I'm not sure it was such a good idea. 45 days is going to have been a very long time to be here. It's easily the most difficult place we've traveled and throw in the fact that we're hitting our second wall (the first was 4 months into Europe) and it's not good.

So many aspects of China are draining. We've ran into a very fierce language barrier; especially in regards to the tonal aspects of the language. A bigger barrier than the language itself though has been people's inability to be helpful/understanding with our pronunciations. I know I don't know your language. But I'm trying to learn at least a little to be friendly and do simple things like order food and find the nearest bathroom. Throw me a friggin' bone.

We do our best to pronounce something correctly (esp. Becca) however if you're not 100% spot on (which is very difficult for just about anyone to do who isn't a native speaker) they just give you a blank stare. There appears to be no attempt to put a slight mispronunciation into proper context. Just a blank stare. This makes it very, very difficult to communicate at times and can become so exasperating that you just lose the will to live. Or at least the will to do anything other than run away and curl up in a cocoon someplace far away.

Just beyond draining. It's definitely the biggest language barrier we've encountered on the trip. To be fair I've wondered how much of it is timing; we're on our 22nd country and we've had as many languages (not counting local dialects). We probably could have used an extended stay in an English speaking country before tackling China head on. Or maybe we would have gotten "soft" and have an even more difficult time of it. For now though it remains as big of a hurdle as the Great Wall.

The other difficult part of China to date is the sanitation and person space issues. The sanitation here is in some ways worse than Laos and Cambodia. Sure there isn't the garbage in the street, open sidewalks, pig crap to avoid, etc. Instead they are replaced with personal habits those of us in the west just aren't used to (highlighted by people spitting with a shudder-enducing hocking that must start from their ankles) and the steady dark choking haze of polluted air. It's made what otherwise have been beautiful sights just as memorable for their environmentally destructive elements.

A classic example was Tai Shan. Hoofing it all the way to the top sometimes gives the recipient a view that stretches for over 200km to the ocean. Instead we were lucky to see faint glimpses of the valley approximately 8-10km away. The rest was shrouded in coal produced smog. Even here in Pingyao you can tell the sun is out; you just can't see it amongst the grey blanket that permeates our eyes and lungs.

Personal space being an issue isn't as shocking. Looking through the guidebook even the smallest sounding outposts are over a million people. It just gets exhausting when you're constantly jockeying for position for everything. Lines are an afterthought. You'd better be ready with elbows sharpened and fists a flying to keep your ground. It's not the "big city" aspect of this that bothers me the most; I've done just fine surviving a number of major metropolises both before and during this trip. What frustrates me to no end is the lack of common consideration given to the fellow person. This may just be a west v. east issue but it's one that rankles me to no end. I hate finding myself being THAT guy elbowing his way past a 80 year old grandmother to get on the train.

Becca forwarded an interesting theory; in addition to the social fabric tearing impact of the Cultural Revolution, with the one child policy there is an entire generation of people growing up as single children. As a result they are used to being the center of attention, they haven't had to be displaced by siblings, learn to play well with others, etc. I'm not sure if it's a right answer but it's a pretty interesting perspective.

Despite all of this and my sense of sensory overload/exhaustion at the moment, China has been at the very least an educational experience to date. Certainly a learning experience on how it truly feels to be a minority. Even at our previous stops in the trip if we were feeling too overwhelmed we could always huddle amongst the comfort of the packs of (mostly western) travelers. Here however the non-Chinese travelers are merely an afterthought. As well they should be I suppose; Chinese travelers make up something like 95% of the travel in China. A billion people can't be wrong, eh?

Hopefully the Gansu and Yunnan provinces will bring warmer weather & people, less smog and more tranquility. Or at the very least someplace where I can sit and enjoy my surroundings and do things like this without being immediately accosted. I tried to start this entry outside in an open space in a Pingyao courtyard only to be propositioned with various tourist trinkets multiple times within a five minute span. I ended up writing this instead in the safety of our hostel with a beer in hand. And you know what? That's more disappointing than anything else this trip has allowed me to experience.

1 comment:

Steven said...

Sorry to hear this Brian, but I think it is right of you to also share these experiences... I am sometimes weary of travelling after three weeks. You guys have been at it for nine months... Wow ! It can't all be roses and sunshine, and this just completes the 'picture' of your experiences around the world... I still think you guys are brave beyond belief... Hope you feel somewhat more upbeat in the meantime... A beer every once in a while can't be bad... :-D Love to you both !