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.
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
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
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.
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, 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
More pictures from China