Yosef Mendelsohn
November 1994

In 1994 I performed with a Chicago based symphony orchestra in Beijing and Tianjin, China. Following the orchestra's departure I remained for another six weeks and explored as much as I could. I was asked by the principal of my high school in Montreal to write a summary of my experiences in China. It's hardly Pulitzer material, but a few people have since asked me to read it, so I decided to post it here along with a few pictures.


I was recently invited to perform in China as a member of an orchestra in Chicago. I was not looking for any major epiphanies, but the trip was surprisingly enlightening as it caused me to gain a new insight into a foreign culture. Not surprisingly, it forced me to reexamine Western opinions and temperament. The more I dealt with the Chinese, the more I found myself forced to shed old stereotypes.

When we arrived in Beijing, we were met by representatives of the Chinese Ministry of Culture who whisked us past bewildered but resigned customs and immigration officials to a waiting bus. The next few days, I played the part of the happy, air conditioned tourist as we visited all of the major area sights including the Ming Tombs, Forbidden City, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven and the Antique Market. But I still felt somewhat removed.

While we were treated courteously and well as a group, we quickly came to the realization that Chinese behavior and way of life was not something that could be held up to Western standards of politess. While the Chinese might not--at least openly, be considered oppressed, their lot is truly a strenuous one, appearing to require tremendous effort and vigilance only to maintain a consistent lifestyle. This can sometimes become evident in the form of bitterness manifested as frequent bickering, street fights, and simple rudeness. The locals are accustomed or perhaps resigned to this behavior. For example, street fights seem break out wherever you look, and the passersby will pause on their bicycles and form a circle around the display. There are no catcalls or shouting, they simply appear appreciative of a break from the monotony.

The morning following the orchestra's final performance, was when the bravado of my bold decision to remain alone, began to seem more and more foolish. I didn't speak a word of the language and had very little money. As the orchestra mounted the bus to the airport, it occurred to me that I still had no idea of where I was going to stay that night. The bus pulled out of the lot with the entire orchestra staring and waving at my forlorn figure, most of them doubtless, shaking their heads in sympathetic disbelief. I pulled out a tattered piece of scrap paper given to me by one of our guides, and handed the Mandarin lettering to a muttering taxi driver who shook his head disapprovingly before waving at me impatiently to get in.

I think Lonely Planet best summed my initial sentiments. The chapter entitled "Coping With China" began with the sentence, "The best way of coping with China is to leave early." (Note: That sentence was removed from subsequent editions). That night, I stayed in the most sordid and unclean conditions that I have yet experienced and likely ever will. For China, however, it was quite standard. Beijing does have its high-rise five star hotels, but they were well out of reach of student travelers on shoestring budgets. Still, the misery of low-quality living had one positive and highly significant consequence. Travelers bonded together in China in a way that I have never even come close to seeing anyplace else. The usual topics of discussion ranged from 'how much we hated China' to 'the miseries and inefficiencies of socialist rule' to 'those #$%@ing foreigner prices.' Sooner or later, the theme inevitably would revolve around the indignities suffered upon visitors by the Chinese authorities.

The Chinese government has sanctioned a legal method of ripping off all its visitors. There are two prices for all national (i.e. all) services, be it transportation, museums or travel documents. As soon as a ticket attendant sees a non-Chinese face, the price is automatically boosted by about four-hundred percent. Naturally, it leads to a huge black market where locals will sell you everything from phony student passes, (indicating that you are actually studying in China and therefore eligible for local prices) to the tickets themselves (which are purchased from friends who work in the ticket offices). In turn, this leads to another common frustration of the traveler, the words "mei yow," meaning "not have." These two syllables are the principal reason for premature hair loss among foreigners traveling in China. Nothing ever seems to be there when you need it, from train tickets, to laundry detergent, to finding change for bus fare. Foreigners are regarded with distrust and in certain settings, even the samllest favor is granted with great reluctance.

It is not uncommon to see forty or fifty year-old men and women solemnly bearing the weight of huge wooden wagons on their backs, as they make their way to the local fruit and vegetable markets for a fourteen hour workday. They rarely exhibit visible signs of weariness or discomfort, but they are betrayed by their furrowed brows and sweat-ridden clothing. Nor is it rare to see young--very young children working as aspiring entrepreneurs, hawking everything from chopsticks to steamed wantons in order to supplement their meager family income. The kind of child-labor that might be considered brutal and illegal in North America is an established norm for the Chinese.

Yet these children do not seem to consider themselves victims. Many are energetic, optimistic and creative in their efforts. My personal favorite was a nine year old who called himself "Warren." He had managed to get a hold of about ten or fifteen rusty old bicycles which he rented out to foreign travelers. Warren spoke a broken but discernible English and was always smiling. He would set up camp at about six in the morning and then slave the whole day through in extremely oppressive heat and humidity, cleaning, repairing and restoring his bicycles. For about a week I had a routine of getting up in the very early hours of the morning to watch the throngs of elderly Chinese do their Taiji exercises in the park across the street, and Warren would always have a cup of bitter but flavorsome tea waiting for me when I ventured back.

While sipping our tea, we squatted with our backs to the squalor and faced the canal that penetrates the city. Warren would describe with great zest and optimism, his immediate plans and long-term aspirations. These included visiting (but not living in) America, buying his parents a nicer apartment, and getting a car. Warren's hopes have often since caused me to reflect on the relative merits and significance of those things that I myself consider important. It was the first of many occasions on my journey that I felt humbled by the honest simplicity that so often appears to belong only to those who possess very little else.

On the other hand, in spite of their difficult lifestyle (or perhaps because of it) many of the individual Chinese that I encountered were among most kind and considerate individuals that I have ever met. A few days following the orchestra's departure, I met a lady in a store who had seen one of our concerts on television, and was very intrigued about my upcoming enterprise. She offered to show me around Beijing for the remainder of my visit. Later she and her husband had me over for dinner where they created a delicious meal, and then took me on a lengthy evening bicycle ride around the city. Tiannanmen Square at night surprisingly tranquil--perhaps not coincidently When I went to visit Chairman Mao's tomb the next day (he's looking a bit green), I couldn't help but shake the feeling that many of the things that the visitor to China sees and does, have been anticipated and prepared for, according to the authorities' volitions.

Li-Ping and Xin-Wong insisted that I stay with them at their home, and so for the remainder of my stay in Beijing, I was mothered and doted upon by them to the point that I could not make any requests of them at all, as they would drop their current activities and rush off to accommodate my whims. Even a casual reference to a hand problem that was affecting my musical performance found me within two hours at an appointment with one of the foremost acupuncturists inBeijing. While three treatments was really not enough to gauge whether any improvement had ocurred, I found the intrigue of the experience well worth the expenditure of its discomfort.

I began my little pilgrimage by heading north into Inner Mongolia. The Mongolians, not generally accustomed to foreigners, were a great deal more courteous and accommodating than the people in most of the places I had or was to visit. Huhaot, the capital, was perhaps my favorite of all the major cities that I visited in China. When I disembarked from the train (still a bit uncertain as to whether or not I was in the right place,) I was immediately besieged by local hotel representatives who in search of hard currency, zeroed in on my Caucasian features like a homing device.

One of them was "Robert", who after escorting me to his employer's residence, helped me rent a bicycle and then spent a full ten hours or so giving me a private tour of the city and its environs. He later took me home to meet his friends and family who spoke absolutely no English, but whose actions conveyed unmistakable impressions of warmth and hospitality. The Huhaot museum was a trove of treasures and artifacts dating from the great Kahn dynasties.

The next day, I joined a tour to the Inner Mongolian grasslands. I was awed by my first sight of the magnificent plains. It took little imagination to picture the awesome fear that the spectacle that a Mongol marching over the hills must have instilled in its enemies.

As a former wrestler, I experienced a pleasing little episode that day when I stumbled upon an impromptu wrestling exhibition held in one of the sandpits. The Japanese guide who was not aware of the fact that I had a great deal of previous wrestling experience, pulled me out of the group, and thrust me into the hands of a benignly smiling Mongolian. Although it was not a style of wrestling with which I was familiar, I made a pretty decent go of it, and by the time we were done (about 20 minutes later), nearly the entire village had crowded around to watch. It turned out that I was fighting with the village champion, and even though I had "lost" (the rules never were made quite clear to me), I was a minor celebrity for the duration of my stay there. That night, a family invited me to stay in their oval shaped yurt, a sort of tent containing a toilet and a large, flat platform on which everyone sleeps. In order to counter the effects of the frigid Mongolian evenings, a tremendously thick blanket was used, and thus enveloped, I spent my most deliciously cozy sleep in China.

A 20+ hour train ride (I'm still coughing up smoke) brought me to Xian, the ancient capital of China. Besides being home to the famed Terra-cotta Army and the Neolithic Banpo village, this noisy, dirty city offered little of interest. Still, those sights alone were well worth the detour. The soldiers belong to an army of some eight thousand warriors carved out of stone. Each one has a distinct pose and facial expression, and they are arranged in authentic military formation. Their purpose was to protect the Emperor Shi Huangdi, founder of the Qin dynasty, after his death. Only a small segment of the army has yet been excavated, with the whereabouts of the emperor's remains are still unknown.

Personally, I was a great deal more affected by the Neolithic village, than by the stone army. Excavated about eight years ago, the village is still the most ancient habitat ever uncovered. The Chinese did an excellent job of providing clear and detailed descriptions (even in English) and the hall that covered the excavation also contained a captivating photographic exhibit of similar archeological digs undertaken in other parts of the country.

The next leg of my journey took me all the way into the south-central part of the nation. Guilin and Yongshuo were the most beautiful places that I ever had seen. The never-ending rolling mountains of the Guanxi province, its lush fields of rice and corn being worked by straw-hatted laborers made for a compelling portrait of an ancient and unchanged history. The following night I went on a small boat to witness a technique called cormorant fishing. A fisherman astride his flat bamboo raft had about twelve large cormorant birds perched alongside. The only thing illuminating the dark river aside from the moonlight was a lantern that he hung from a pole in the front. With his steering pole, he would gently shove his birds off the side, who, after a few indignant squawks, would dive deeply into the water. It was sheer artistry. Head and long neck arched forward, bodies sleekly extended, they would project forward and emerge several seconds later with some small variant of bass or trout in their beaks. The fisherman, after inducing them into depositing their catch into his basket, would then unceremonisouly throw the frustrated bird back into the waters for another go.

The next morning, I went along with some newfound friends on a boat ride to a village a little ways upriver. I brought my bicycle along, and after the stunning ride and a thoroughly enjoyable lunch in Xinping, cycled through the countryside for the twenty-five kilometers back to Yongshuo. That evening, I stopped at a new restaurant, and I had my first (and last) curried snake. Once over my initial revulsion, I actually found it reasonably palatable. It tasted like chicken--really.

Two British travellers and I were forced to forgo our planned boat trip from Yongshuo into Canton on the river, as there had been considerable flooding in the region lately. We elected. therefore, to take an overnight bus. The Chinese travelers did not find it the least bit unusual when in the middle of the night, the driver pulled over, killed the engines and settled in for the evening. The three of us decided to get out and investigate. It turned out that a landslide about a mile down had overturned a large bus approaching from the opposite direction. While there were no signs of passengers, the bus itself was pretty badly damaged and had only just avoided falling down the embankment into the water. As none of us could sleep, we stayed up all night talking and watching the river until we fell asleep just after sunrise.

We were shaken awake a short while later by the bus driver who told us that our bus would not start. He motioned us to get our luggage off and then left us to our own resources. By now the road ahead had been cleared and all of the other passengers had, apparently, found other means of transport. Finally after a few sordid attempts at hitching a ride, a dingy minibus pulled over. Too frustrated, tired and uncomfortable to say no, or think better of it, we got on without even being aware of the final destination. It was a truly wretched journey. The Chinese have a frustrating habit of ridding themselves of unwanted gastric fluids whenever and wherever the urge strikes. People were coughing and spitting up storms which, while initially propelled outside the bus, began to be deposited inside on the floors after a rainstorm forced us to close the windows. Smoking, appeared to be their second favorite indoor activity. The three of us, by virtue of our presence, provided the entertainment for the journey. Rosie and Charlotte, my two British friends, were forced to bear the brunt of it, receiving a great deal of unsolicited friendship from a chivalrous gent in front who kept offering us cigarettes and swigs of some rancid-smelling swill.

It turned out we were headed right into Canton.  The streets were a most welcome sight to our smoke-sore eyes and fatigued bodies. After blessedly invigorating showers, we set out to explore the infamous Cantonese open-air market. It was not a place for the weak of heart. Walking along the roadways of the market quarter we saw monkeys in rickety bamboo cages holding onto the bars staring out at us dejectedly, appearing to demonstrate a sad awareness of their plight. Cats stuck their paws out at us from thin wire cages and mewed much as they might in any pet store. Local butchers offering everything from side of dog to raccoon livers, hacked, chopped and cut up creatures that we would consider companions. While I found it unpleasant, it was not disheartening. The Cantonese make much more efficient use out of their food products than we do in the West. The quantities that we discard as refuse, is to them, a considerably more grievous crime. What we perceived as senselss slaughter of miseried kittens in China might arguably be more justified than our inhuman assembly line methods of animal slaying in the West.

Suddenly my trip to China ended--although I didn't realize it at the time. The only places left were Hong Kong and Shanghai. Those two cities had a great deal more in common with New York City than with mainland China.

Hong Kong was a brilliant landscape of islands nestled in a bay of the South China Sea. We stayed in a youth hostel (run by a Montrealer) that rested on top of Mt. Davis on Hong Kong Island. From that vantage point, we could see all of the many natural harbors from Kowloon clear out to Lamping. At night it was enchanting to watch the colored lights of the large sea-vessels as they drifted like giant, lazy rafts around a swimming pool. I found the hostel a great deal more interesting than the city itself. At any given time, at least fifteen or twenty countries were represented there. In the evenings we would all sit out at the picnic tables and talk and snack, play backgammon and trade travel stories as we took in the dazzling panorama below. I said my good-byes to my new British friends but my initial melancholy was quickly forgotten as I was invited to join in a truly international game of basketball taking place just a few feet away. It is hard to describe the splendor of Hong Kong, but it seemed a lifestyle of the rich and famous that quickly wore thin. Most people come here to make their fortunes, and then leave.

Shanghai was a panorama of glitzy skyscrapers, posh hotels and glamorous night club and great restaurants. Shanghai was another metropolis. While unable to compete with Hong Kong's wealth of glitter, it did at least offer the romantic seductiveness one associates with "the Paris of the East." Personally, however, I was disappointed. While Shanghai is doing its very best to bring itself to the forefront of 21st century advancing metropolises, the allure of budding riches has advanced at the expense of preserving past history.

I found it to be a conflicting hodgepodge of quality and kitsch. Unfortunately, the latter appears to have gained the upper hand in the battle for the government's priorities. But such is China. A vast and wonderful land that has maintained its heritage through countless conquests; it is now encountering its greatest threat to date through the subjugation of culture and history imposed by those who might best learn from it.

Although much of this narrative might appear to indicate a dissatisfaction with my experiences in China, nothing could be further from the truth. Life there was extremely hard to be sure, but the rewards of exploring a land of rich and beautiful heritage, resplendent monuments and a story-book history, was more than enough to overcome the discomforts of combating its many inefficiencies.



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