Friday, February 18, 2005

SAS Email 4 - China & Hong Kong

Well I know it’s been a while since my last email, but I’ve literally been going so hard since we arrived in China I haven’t had a free moment to write … I haven’t even had the time to get the hour-long massages for 6 bucks! Before I get to describing China, and a brief foreshadowing of my next email on Hong Kong (where I currently have been for 3 days), I’ll finish up on Hawaii.

We were on Honolulu for a few more days after my last email. More great times were had there, but the best part was the day before we left. I went with three friends on the bus system (amazing public transportation system in Hawaii… so reliable) to ManaWilly Falls (prob spelled very wrong), which was a pretty remote place about an hour outside the Waikiki area. The hike was really beautiful and cool (walking across small rivers, up stairs, down hills) and we met this crazy old local man named Dr. Dizon (claims to have worked for Time, Life, Newsweek and Playboy magazines… and is the only person in the world to know exactly how to have a boy or girl… which he told us the secret of) that cracked us up for 15 mins. The best part was at the end we came to a 30ft waterfall and the small pond it fell into. We were told there’s a way to climb up the rocks and do a 25ft cliff dive, but we apparently climbed up the wrong side and ended up about 45ft up, towering above the waterfall… It was pretty damn scary, and the footing was awful, but one of the guys I was with is a completely crazy bastard, so obviously he jumped and we followed the mantra of “You only live once” and jumped too… it felt like you were falling for 10 secs but so much fun, haha, and we ended up jumping a bunch of times. So if you’re ever on the big island in Hawaii, do the ManaWilly Falls hike and no matter how scared you are, jump off the highest cliff. It was definitely one of the top three highlights of my 12 days in Hawaii.

So next we flew to San Francisco on our way to Beijing (one of my favorite cities in the world… so clean and cool and just different), and had a 9 hour layover starting at 4am. We left the airport and went down to catch sunrise at Fisherman’s Wharf, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. That was pretty beautiful and fun, and we also checked out all the sea lions on Pier 39, Lombard Street (the really steep one), and some local cafes. Then it was the 13 hour flight to Beijing (some people went to Beijing and others to Shanghai… all depending on field programs and expected travel), and my field program was basically touring the city’s major sights with a group led by students from the Beijing University of International Business. Everyone was so excited to finally get to Asia, the vibe was really positive, and it was so strange to say “I’m going to get some Chinese food”… and realize EVERYTHING IS Chinese food.

Our itinerary was really busy throughout the stay, and our guides were great. The first morning we went to Tian’anmen Square, which is just enormous. It’s 100 acres in its entirety, and thinking about the massacres during the student protests made us all feel a sense of historic significance in being there during our college years. We next went through the memorial building for Chairmen Mao, who is completely worshipped there… His picture is on every currency bill and they sell t-shirts and watches with his face on them like hot-cakes. His body is actually displayed in a glass chamber in the middle of this one room that you have to walk on the outskirts of very quickly, and some say it’s actually him, others say it’s a wax figure, and real wack-jobs say it’s just his skin on a fake body. Either way it was really eerie and weird, but kinda cool at the same time. Across the way was the Forbidden City, proving with its 9999 rooms that Emperors in early China really lived the good life. No other building in Beijing was allowed to be taller than this one “Emperor’s Building” in the Forbidden City, because no one was allowed to look down on the Emperor. There were massive plazas, at the end of which were huge buildings colored mainly in red and green with names like “Hall of Heavenly Purity”, “Hall of Earthly Tranquility” and “Hall of Preserving Harmony.”

After that we went to the Temple of Heaven, which was even bigger than the Forbidden City (to show that G-d was always above man in his grandeur). There’s one special circular plateau with 81 stones on the outside ring, 49 on the next, then 25, then 9, and one taller round stone in the middle. It’s believed this stone echoes onto G-d’s ears, so people all take pictures on it and say a quick prayer… but in China lines are not practiced, they just don’t’ do them, they mostly just create a mass of people and first to the destination point wins. So on the stone people are bumping and shoving each other all over the place, so if you ever get there be prepared to get physical. Later that night we saw an acrobat show at the local theatre, something similar to Cirque de Soleil, which was cool and mind-blowing and overly flexible at the same time. The best quote of the night was when someone criticized an act, my roommate Matt on the trip goes “Yea, they act like they’ve never turned their bodies inside out while balancing seven dinner plates before.” After that we went to a standard local restaurant for dinner, ended up buying lots of beer, and these Chinese men in their late 50’s (who were hammered with their families there) starting coming over and toasting with us… before we knew it the place was a mad house, beer was flying all over the place, chugging and cigarette smoke O-blowing contests led to huge cheers, and basically every one had an amazing time. Leaving the place all of us keptlooking at each other and saying “That was just awesome.” From there we went to a local bar with a live band playing Chinese and American covers, and I’ve kept a streak of going on stage at every club or bar we’ve been to so I went up and sang a song with the lead singer.

The next morning we drove to the Great Wall of China. The twist was that it was snowing, so people were slipping and sliding everywhere. It was pretty amazing to think I was actually on the Great Wall, and the snow made it incredibly majestic. After the Great Wall we went to the Summer Palace… it’s incredible, I got lost in there from my group for over an hour… definitely my favorite place on the trip. Being lost was the best part too, cause it made me see all these towering temples and go to desolate spaces away from the tourists. The adventure of being lost in such a cool and crazy place, and I was alone with someone I’d just met that day, made for a great time. After that we saw the dorms of the University, which was by far the biggest taste of culture shock. What would stand for a single at Brown was inhabited by 6 students! They had their computers, and books all on their beds, no room whatsoever, no hot water in the dorms, and showers were in another building a quarter mile walk away. I became pretty close with the two male student guides we had, we a couple great conversations, and they considered this living arrangement to be “so-so.”

That night they took us to a really popular night club, called Rock and Roll Disco… it was insane. Hundreds of Asians in this upscale club in the middle of the dance floor, dancing their faces off to throbbing techno beats with flashing lights and lasers everywhere. Most of the American kids left cause they didn’t know what to do in that environment, but I figured “When in Hong Kong” and joined the middle of the dance floor (eventually ended up on stage for most of the night) and it turned out to be one of the most fun nights of my life… the music was so good, and no one cares (cause they dance like they’re in The Sims… all crazy body contortions and head shaking and stuff… hysterical to just sit back and watch) how you look or dance… it just about self-expression and a release. The following morning we did some shopping at the Yaxiu Clothing Market, and they flew to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been incredible so far, some of the most memorable events I’ve ever been a part of have already happened. I feel like everyone should see Hong Kong once in their life, it’s just a place of greater contrast than anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s a metropolis that seriously puts mid-town Manhattan to shame, but the skyline is surrounded by rolling lush green mountains, extremely impoverished people, and exotic colored fishing boats in places like Aberdeen… it’s just so different from any place I’ve ever seen, and you need to witness it with your own eyes to understand what in the hell I’m trying to feebly describe.

So here’s the list of my major observations on China:
1- Yao Ming is everywhere in China… he’s marketing gold
2- Chinese don’t smile in their pictures, they almost always give stone faces… a testament to the self-reservation practiced via Confucianism
3- You can bargain for ANYTHING in China, and everything is dirt cheap
4- They have the worst toilet paper ever, the stuff just doesn’t rip straight at all… the real Chinese water torture is the process of using the bathroom
5- People are everywhere in China, everything is in mass too
6- Chinese people have a great affinity for Americans… they’ll stop you everywhere you go and ask you to get in their pictures with their family… it’s hysterical… would you ever stop a Chinese guy when you were at a museum and say “Get in all my pictures with my family! Thank you thank you so much!”?
7- They LOVE to pose in pictures with the palm-out peace sign… it’s like a national requirement
8- David Hasselhoff in Germany is to the Backstreet Boys in China… if you love the Backstreet Boys in China you’re the coolest
9- The youth study very hard, and party almost never… our trip was the first time both our 21 year old guides had been in either a bar or club… when I asked where they go to party they said “We don’t.”
10- The TV show Friends is a huge hit there… when my guide and I became close he told me he had a serious question for me. He said “I love Joey from Friends, he is very funny. You know how he says “How you doooing” to all the girls.” I said “Yea..” and he goes “Does that work?”
11- They all somehow have English names, but it’s obvious that they’re conversions to whatever sounds closest to their real Chinese names. One guy I met said his name was Oscar, another was Eugene… I’m thinking “There’s no way in hell you’re real name is Eugene Tokanowa.

From my amazing night at the Chinese disco club I came away realizing something really ironic about our two cultures. Americans celebrate individualism and confidence, but when we go out we either dance in a uniform way relying on another person (grinding) or if we’re dancing by ourselves it’s usually in a circle of people so everyone can make sure they don’t look too bad and can evaluate or even replicate those around them. China promotes collectivism and self-reservation, but when they dance no one grinds or circles up. It’s like each person is in their own little world bubble, not caring at all what anyone else perceives them to be, dancing alone and so hard you’d think their backs would break. It’s just really paradoxical that we dance so differently from our cultural mentalities… I know that probably means nothing to any of you and you think I’m rambling on something ridiculous, but it just struck me as strange… plus I still can’t get over the scene at the club that night…

Lastly I’ll share the usual anecdote from the trip. As we were leaving the Forbidden City, we had to wait about 15 minutes on the street for our bus to arrive. While our group of 60 American students stood on the sidewalk being harassed by locals to buy postcards, scarves, and dragon figures for something like 50 cents, we all wouldn’t open our wallets for a second. Then an elderly limping man walked around our crowd of students, dressed in a dirtied soldier’s uniform with his head down. His face was completely withered, and his eyes expressed a sadness that I can’t really explain. He wasn’t asking us for money, he was just walking by… but strapped to his back, as he struggled, was his baby son. His face was also dirtied and in poor shape, but this boy was beyond cute and still smiled with curious eyes at us. I think every student in our group gave the man some money, helped him to sit down, and he kept muttering “Sheishei Sheishei”… Thank you Thank you. We gave his son Oreos, and the man gave us the thumbs up, a small smile, and pulled out an old photo of him dressed in uniform when he was probably 25. He was still wearing that uniform, now walking the streets with his baby strapped to his back, but displaying the picture with such pride and vigor. I was mesmerized by how sad his eyes looked, and how oblivious he was to how curious his son’s eyes were in contrast… Two individuals, deeply connected but at the opposite ends of the spectrum in life.

We pulled away from the Forbidden City on the bus, as he still sat there on the ground, his son’s face now covered in black Oreo. He gave us the thumbs up through the window, the son playing with the picture of the old father as we pulled away. We all felt good about ourselves for helping him out… then I thought about the fact that tomorrow, that man returns to the same life. We go on to see the Great Wall and travel around the world, but he returns to walking the streets possessing nothing but a love for his baby son. Somehow he went from a strapping soldier to a charity case, but the only thing he couldn’t lose was his love for his family.

So we leave in two days for Vietnam, which is probably the country I’m looking forward to seeing second most on the trip after India. We’re also meeting the ship there in a week, so I’ll have more frequent access to the internet and try to respond to some emails.

Take care and stay classy,

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