The Country in Between
Ah China―land of legend! In the halls of cultural memory its collection appears: the Great Wall scribed in elegant lines on a silk panorama, a panda in a bamboo cage, an elegant porcelain tea set, a helter-skelter movie poster of Bruce Lee, and perhaps a portrait of Mao Zedong as well. Emperors, armies, silk roads, and jade wonders!
The traveler expects romance from China, seeks misted mountains and crowded alleyways, a sophisticated culture entirely different and on the other side of the world from home―and the quixotic strength of my romance will turn China into what I seek of it. This is the setting for the penultimate chapters of my adventure.
Mohan did not appear very whimsical, though the trip to that border town had been—such is often the case in life and travel. The bus there was full, so Sergi and I hitched a ride with a bus full of Laotian silver merchants, the back packed with their merchandise, on their way to a market in Mohan. We officially entered China at that pleasant station, where you rate the official passport stamper, and a friendly officer knows English and some Español.
Boten on the Laotian border was a city of thatched bamboo houses and dirt alleys, with children and dogs rolling about in the gutter. But crossing a line on the map, suddenly the buildings were gleaming new, tall and white and factory-made, with blue tile roofs that curved in the Chinese fashion, on freshly-paved streets, where well-lit stores stocked with the mass-produced crud of an industrial nation.
I practiced my Chinese, “Duo shao tian?” How much is it? I intended to learn as much Chinese as I could, and my lessons began that morning with the phrases a girl had written down for me in Luang Prabang. I asked how much is it to Meng-la, as we organized transportation with two Japanese, from Kobe and Kufu.
This southernmost province was Yunnan, a land of mountains and hills, much more temperate than bordering Tibet. The highway north was new, and the hills had been carved away or tunneled through to accommodate it, some of the tunnels miles in length. We passed through country towns: ocher houses with dark roofs, slanting out at the corners, and a ridge running along the top with two up-curved ends like horns.
Reaching Meng-la, the bus rounded several palatial hotels newly sprung south of town, in strange and outmoded designs, one vast in red and gold. The city center was sparkling and western on its main drag, clean and new, though I expect most of the structures were seedy within, and the alleyways certainly were—wet stone and refuse and ruffians in narrow canyons of decrepit buildings—but we found the northern bus station alright. The Japanese left for Jinghong; Sergi and I would go to Luchun the following morning, and to the Yuanyang rice paddies from there: a short detour on the way to Kunming.
Language made China a difficult country to travel. Mandarin, the national language, has four tones to it—high, rising, falling-rising, and falling—so that a phrase like ma can be pronounced four different ways to mean four different things. It is a clipped and guttural tongue of trade, much more concise than the Western languages, and much easier to shout in a market. As for my first day attempts at it, most Chinese could not understand my pronunciation of phrases or place.
The poor locals, for whom helping a foreigner was a matter of honor, could only look perplexed and speak right back in Chinese. Sometimes they would speak slowly, or try to write out characters on a piece of paper or even on the palm of my hand. I often resorted to undignified charades or to drawing pictures in a notepad, and the Chinese endured this in good humor. The Chinese word for one such as myself, or the most commonly used word, is lăowài, meaning “venerable foreigner.” The prefix lăo is also used in lăozī, meaning “teacher” or “old master,” and in lăoshu or rat (literally “old mouse”).
Written Chinese is a different language entirely. Each character represents not a spoken sound, but an artistic depiction of an idea. Witness the Chinese characters for their own nation: 中国 , Zhōngguó, Middle Country, the first a bisected box to show “middle,” the second the character for land with a border around it to mean “nation.” Put a sign for person over the top and that same character means “king.”
Reading Chinese is not like reading this English text, sounding out all the transcribed noises of the mouth; rather, it is like following a story set in art: an art of elegant pictographs, of stroke order, precision, and calligraphic flourishes. One who can write Chinese can paint, and one who can read Chinese does not necessarily speak zhōngguó-huá.
The Japanese travelers I met were getting around by writing out the kanji characters for bus station or chicken fried rice and following the pointed signs, and they said they could read about seventy per cent of something written in Chinese. 中国 means the same thing whether the Reader says aloud China or Zhōngguó or Chūgoku or Sredínnoye Tsárstvo or Empire du Milieu. Within China, a man from Beijing and a man from Guangzhou, though they could not have a conversation, could share the same newspaper—and I could pick it up as well, if I only knew four-thousand characters.
Among the most difficult elements are the four character sentences―the characters literally mean something about animals or nature, but have implied aphorisms, such as “different roads all reach the same end” (殊途同归 ) or “when the tide goes out the rocks are revealed” ( 水落石出), which you simply must have memorized.
In their great tread backwards, the communists tried to replace over two-thousand characters with much simpler variants, to improve literacy among those who had no time for the noble old arts—“like trimming the foot to fit the shoe” (削足适履 ).Taiwan and Hong Kong waved off the regressive effort, and these days, thanks to Chinese cultural narcissism, the complex characters are returning to the mainland.
Anyway, everyone in Meng-la would spite all these barriers in their great wanting to help this lăowài. One man with a wispy beard and a good grasp of English helped Sergi and I procure tickets to Luchun, and we let him show us a friend’s hotel, where we found a dirty room with two beds near the bus station for 30 kwai ($4). Looking in the bathroom with its squat toilet I said, “Hey there’s porn in here.” The same nude woman beamed out from all four walls. No mere poster, these shapely quadruplets, but a design glazed into the very tiles.
Leaving our porcelain brides, Sergi and I went out to wander the town. We ordered lunch by pointing at vegetables and praying, and later inspected the market—stalls of clothes, soap, incense, meat, and dusty vegetables laid out on blankets in what looked like an airplane hangar—as the locals joked and laughed and tried bare English phrases; they animated pig legs and ran them around the butcher’s table, and the old men slapped the wooden pieces together as they played at Chinese chess—and I was overcome with such a feeling of wonderment, because this was real and not some act for tourists like in Thailand, because this culture ran so deep I would never be able to know it all, and we were the only lăowài for miles.
This was real travel!
China is a nation apart from the world. The Chinese have always called their land Zhongguo, “Middle Kingdom,” because of its central preeminence on earth. Other countries radiate out like the petals of a lotus flower, and the Middle Kingdom exerts an authority proportional to proximity. “From the edge of the sky to the ends of the earth,” quoth Voyager Zheng He, “there are none who have not become subjects and slaves.”
This is the way that China fancies the world, and there is one other thing the Reader should know about it: this fancy of the Middle Kingdom is, and always has been, make-believe. When the Ming Emperor dispatched Voyager Zheng He across the southern seas with the fleet of China supreme, the mission was not to conquer or even discover the world.
(Zheng He may have even reached British Columbia, planted a flag, and sailed away from that irrelevant outland, a century before Columbus the idiot thought the Caribbean was Indonesia. It took Amerigo Vespucci of Florence to realize the discovery of the New World, a German map-maker to name it, and the religious plagues of Europe to populate it. The Chinese realized what it was immediately, but they did not care one way or another for that empty barbarian land.)
Voyager Zheng He sailed into the ports of Zanzibar and Ceylon and staged impressive parades with his great army―not unfamiliar to any spectator of the 2008 Olympic Games or attendant to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai―then he requested a certificate of auspicious submission to the Emperor, without obligations, other than a role in the celestial mummery of China. The Emperor of China received the traders of Japan, Korea, and Persia as emissaries of subservient nations. Their trade goods were called tribute, and the merchants were given “rewards” in equal measure to bring back home to loyal benefactors. Their commerce became another pageant of vassalage.
So the student of history sees that China does not care an ounce for anything other than China. Allay your fears―there is no such thing as the Red Threat!
Also observe the most important thing in China: Mianzi, Face. The greatest injury is not moral sin but public shame. A malicious action is not wrong as long as nobody knows about it. Revenge must come subtly, the forceful hand hidden by a silk glove, and that makes it acceptable. Defeat must be concealed and victory proclaimed. This ethic of appearances applies as much to the lowest guttersnipe in Chongqing as the grandest maneuvers of the People’s Republic.
It sounds unscrupulous, to use the least condemning word, but I urge the Reader not to be so quick to judge this foreign perspective as barbarism. In essence it is the American Dream: if you act like things are such a way, then they are; and the great pretender can be anything, even morally right. We Westerners pretend to the same virtue, while extracting the same rewards: only we are never aware of the charade our conscience plays, never pull back the curtain to find the miser standing there, making a profit off goodwill and Samaritan impulses.
Returning to Meng-la, a flustered teenager had ran up to help us without any reason at all, except that she spoke some English. The words trundled out of her mouth: “Excuse. Me. What. Are. You. Looking for?” Well we had just finished bowls of rice and meat and a bottle of beer at some local eating house, and we were out looking for tea. “Oh, cha. If. You. Want. Umm. Water! There’s a supermarket. Over there.” We thanked the girl and waved goodbye to her.
There were few teahouses in Yunnan, which was a coffee-drinking country, so we settled on beer at an outdoor cafe on the main drag, watching the posh Chinese circumambulate the road. It was Friday night after all, but we had to be up at seven.
At the hotel I watched an amazing old wire-fighting kung-fu serial. A warlord had kidnapped an imperial princess. Her protector was an old monk with a magic green staff, who flew around destroying rocks, at night so you could not see the wires. When the warlord captured the old man’s ward, the man died somehow, and there was a tournament among his disciples to find who would inherit the green staff. A long-haired drunk took on three brothers, who flew through the air hitting the ground with long sticks, and were eventually overcome by the drunk’s unpredictable technique.
When the drunk disciple confronted the warlord, he was put hard to the test and nearly killed—but in the last instant a book landed next to the drunk’s head, and the wind of their furious combat blew the pages one at a time, so the drunk could see all the motions of some ancient martial technique. He performed these motions against an energized backdrop and pointed his hands at the warlord, who howled and then exploded. The princess was saved! The fighter nearly missed his own wedding because he was dead drunk again.
“Yes,” I though,—“Yes, this is China.”
We missed the bus the next morning, though did not realize it until halfway through our noodle bowls. “Wait,” said Sergi, “what time is it? Shit! Did you set your clock forward? Shit, shit!” Neither of us had remembered to change our clocks an hour ahead for China, and so the morning bus to Luchun had left almost an hour before. Sergi swore around the noodle shop, but it all worked out: at the bus station they returned our money, and we spent it on tickets to Jinhong. From there we got a ten hour bus to Kunming.
I must add that the highways in China are a marvel of sheared mountains and bridged valleys and two mile tunnels, the great works of a great empire. Replanted trees rose up the sides in neat little rows, the land not just tamed but domesticated by human industry. I was perversely delighted to see Chinamen in paddy hats running wheelbarrows of stone to a railway bridge in the warm pleasant air that had put me in such a good mood. It had been sunny since I got to China and not at all too hot or humid.
Kunming itself is known as the City of Eternal Spring: far enough south and high enough in the hills to be always a perfect temperature under a beaming blue sky, with only a little of the gray smog that characterizes China’s vast metropoleis. It is a city of merely three million, in a province of only sixty, yet Sergi and I both felt something of culture shock when we arrived. Moving from the villages of rural Laos to a city comparable in its modernity and fashion and its lineup of Western chains to Madrid or Toronto (and far more advanced than Bangkok or anywhere else I’d been since Tel Aviv, six months before) had both of us wanting to leave immediately.
Sergi and I went to a hostel right on Jinmabiji Square called the Hump, and named after the Burma Hump, presumably, which dropped of supplies to Chiang Kai-shek’s Republican army during the Japanese invasion. The dormitories were full, but they let us stay on the floor in the common room for a bargain that we were happy to accept, though we had to wait for everyone out there to call it a night. I glanced across the pool table to the groups of guffawing rich Chinese, who had ordered about four beers per person and then just laid them out across the table unopened, and I thought dispassionately that it would be a while. So Sergi and I wandered out to see the town on Saturday night.
Happy, handsome, well-dressed Chinese bourgeoisie strolled around the neon-lit gateways of Jinmabiji Square, with LED signs flashing consumer propaganda from the rows of glass towers. They walked up Zhengyi Lu, lined with palms and shopping malls, to McDonalds and Papa John’s and even, horrifically, a Wal-mart, and bought huge Canon cameras and Zara handbags and bottles of European wine. Taking these same streets and observing all this, I placed the sick, disillusioned discomfort that had hollowed out my gut. It would take some getting used to, these Western ways!
Ponder this: China is in not a communist country. Workers in America have better protections and social services, and most Chinese intelligentsia look with undisguised envy at the welfare systems of Northern Europe. Deng Xiaoping worked all that goodwill out of the People’s Republic thirty years ago. That being said, Kunming is a long way from Beijing, which works well in its favor. Yunnan has the largest minority population outside Xinjiang and Tibet, and a large Muslim population: 200,000 in Kunming.
We ate noodles from a halal place, waited out a quick monsoon shower, and wandered through the back alleys behind the square, where we observed a strange spectacle: Every night before a bar or restaurant opens in China, all the employees convene out front in martial ranks, with their hands clasped behind their back, as their manager walks up and down the line, reading from a clipboard and exhorting them to great deeds of fry-cooking and waitressing.
The next day, after finding baozí and bus tickets for an overnight to Dali, Sergi and I met some friend of the Catalonian’s, a Chinese-American from Florida named Linda who had been teaching English in China for two years, with designs on learning China and working for the American foreign service. She and Sergi had met in Vang Vieng—not tubing but biking and hiking and those sorts of things, and I could not picture Linda tubing, anyway. She was a quiet, distant, perhaps cerebral young woman, and she took us to a Brothers Jiang restaurant for guōqiáo mĭxiàn, across-the-bridge noodles: a Kunming treat. We each received plates of raw meat and vegetables, a bowl of noodles, and one of chili and spices, and we poured them all into a Jethro-bowl of broth.
“It’s very Western here,” Linda was saying, “but still very Chinese under the surface. The men spitting in the street—I’ll never get used to that—the food, the smells, the way people think. Have you seen the pants that the babies wear, with the hole in the back? That one has them on over there. They just pee everywhere.”
“Saves diapers,” I said.
“Can you imagine how many diapers China would go through? Oh, there he goes.”
Outside a young mother was holding her infant spread-legged over the flagstones, while the kid let loose through the aforementioned hole in his pants.
Linda’s sister was also a teacher in China and had married a Chinese man, but Linda said she could not date a local—“I just don’t get them,” she said—not with the spitting and the lack of conscience beyond shame and the way they thought in general—“You say that now,” said Sergi—but it is easy for lăowài boys to date Chinese girls—“They’re more malleable, I think. You see a lot of foreign teachers with Chinese girls. The Chinese don’t mind it, although they get mad when it’s an ugly foreign guy with a beautiful Chinese girl.”
“That makes me mad too,” I said. “Some jerk with no prospects at home, swooping into China to carry off some poor peasant girl.”
“Yes, this also makes me mad,” said Sergi.
“I guess that does make me kind of mad. That guy from Mississippi I worked with in Hangzhou, he married a really nice Chinese girl, who was also a teacher. We were really good friends at the school. I never knew what she saw in him. The only thing he could say correctly in Chinese was beer. Pizhou, iping pizhou! You know, now that I think about it, he always had a beer. You can drink anywhere in China, and anytime we went somewhere he took a beer and drank it in the street. It’s kind of weird. So they got married and he took her back to meet his conservative family.”
“In Mississippi. Oh no.”
“Yes, they live there now. She says it’s alright, but she misses Chinese food. There aren’t any markets or anything, so she can’t cook.”
“Why would you marry a Chinese girl and not let her cook?”
There is a saying in Asia— if you want to have fun, marry an American; if you want a girl you can trust, marry Japanese; for a passionate girl, go to Korea; and if you want to eat well, marry a girl from China.
Linda said that Kunming felt like home now—was home, even though her accent was not perfect, and she could never let her guard down.
“You have to look up, down, everywhere. There’s falling construction, unmarked potholes, those E-bikes that come swerving up behind you without making a noise.”
“And the little old ladies that cut in line.”
It was true what she said, which made life difficult for a peripatetic thinker like myself: the industry of my intellect suffered by the need to always be looking in every direction and watching the periphery vision, because in China some motorbike loaded down with chickens could always come crashing through a red light in the wrong lane.
“You know," said Linda, "I got scammed when I came back to Laos.”
When Linda returned to Kunming from the Laotian jungle, she relaxed her guard. This was her hometown, and she spoke the language and knew the people and had lived there for some time. She might have waited an hour for the local buses to start running, but instead she got in a black cab and told the driver, an unreadable woman, to take her to her street near the University. There were already two locals in the car, one going to the airport and one downtown, and Linda joined the latter in the back seat.
At some point in the long ride into town, the urban desolation of suburbia all looking the same, the wallet slipped out of the pocket of the man on his way to the airport, and Linda watched the man next to her snatch it up guiltlessly. The first passenger began saying, “Where’s my wallet? It’s gone! Who has it?” and shouting at everyone, as the driver took them around in circles. Linda pointed out the perpetrator, who had committed so blatant a crime. At first the thief kept a stone face of denial, though eventually, as the victim pressed him from the front seat, the thief yielded the wallet like, Oh how did that get here?
The passenger went through his billfold and said, “My debit card is not here―where is it? Give it to me!” But the thief was adamant that he had not removed the card, nor any of the yuan. “Well then,” said the victim, after some time of arguing, “you’ll all have to give me your bank card numbers so I can make sure you don’t transfer money from my account.”
This was a ridiculous demand, to which the driver and the thief readily complied, but Linda refused to give up such private details. Now all three of them turned on her, still driving randomly around, and demanded that she write down her card number, her PIN, and her account balance―or maybe she was the thief! She protested, “But you already know he took your wallet―why would I have the card?” They were not interested.
The black cab pulled over at a pay phone and had her call her bank to prove her balance, but she could not remember the PIN number. “What is it?” they said, “You have to remember. Think hard. Write it down.” Then the driver picked up a policeman with an off-colored army uniform and a plastic police badge, and Linda was crammed in the back with the thief and the victim while the driver took them in circles and the cop lectured her, told her to give up her bank details so they could make sure of her innocence, or they would have to go to headquarters where it would take... twenty hours to process her. Linda would not give in.
Eventually the driver dropped her off on some street of Kunming entirely unfamiliar to Linda, who asked, “Where are we?” The driver told her, “The University is just over there,” waving broadly, and Linda said, “I don’t know where this is,” and would not pay the fare until she got to her home. “Fine, fine,” said the taxi driver, “don’t pay.” And the driver, the thief, the victim, and the cop all got into the cab and drove away.
Linda, Sergi and I finished our across-the-bridge noodles and took a walk to help with digestion, down to the two T’ang pagodas behind the square: high, clay-colored structures with dozens of rooftops stacked on top of each other, set in wide shady courtyards. An old man with a long white beard sat on a stone bench under the trees in a position of dignified repose, his hands folded before him on a walking stick. He wore a cap and glasses, and offered the slightest nod when Sergi asked if he could take a picture. More venerable old Chinese played boisterously at cards and Chinese chess and mahjong around the corner from the pagoda, in Good Fortune Alley.
Sergi and I said farewell to Linda, and I went off to find a bookstore. Failing this, I had dinner instead, sipping beer and chatting in pidgin and hand-signs with the waiter, and when I went to pay the young waiter refused.
“I, please, you,” he said, spreading his hands in a gesture of sacral offering.
“Well. . . shit.”
I moved slowly towards the door, waiting and hoping for him to call me back and tell me what the price was, that I had somehow mistaken his intentions for generosity, but no—I had somehow found (though I hardly deserved) a free meal.
I was horrified to find how ardently China yearns to be Western. They adhere to that American idea—that you can become what you seem to be. But that is not true. We are as we are born, and that way we remain; otherwise becoming a worthless absurdity, garbed in mummery and stupid passion and a naïve and empty hope—in short, an American.
The Chinese all want huge DSLR cameras they do not know hot to use, German cars they cannot drive, American cinema instead of their own fine auteurs, Spanish guitars while the zither fades to dust; they want Italian suits in Hollywood gangster cuts, and French wine that they can’t really taste. It’s a sign of status to be Western, just like pale skin and a fat stomach, and the young and wealthy of China scorn with haughty contempt that which appears “too Chinese.” In Kunming they have torn down the old wooden houses of contemplative courtyards and tile roofs and replaced them with the grand structures of metal and glass that to them symbolize a golden notion of development. O Tacitus, they bring a wrecking ball and call it progress!
I mourn all that’s being lost under this Western steamroller, and do not abide by the American conceit that our way is best—and torch all the rest! “The curse of the human race,” said Salman Rushdie, “is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.” One thing alone comforts me in my reflections: that this infatuation may be only temporary. I have glimpsed the remnant culture beneath the absurd Western appropriations—it’s far too sophisticated to be squelched entirely—and know from history that such a buried ember may be renewed, that this situation of conquered contentment will not necessarily last for ever.
The analogy I would like to invoke comes from Japan, which, in tide of yore and time long gone before, was to China that cultural sycophant that China is to the West in modernity. Japan loved everything about China, adopting the language, the art, the religion, the clothes, the philosophy, and the government, even though most of it fit their little island like a fat man’s robe would fit a child, and in fact the Japanese had some admirable native lore that seemed in danger of being forgotten.
A hundred years passed wherein the Japanese grandees would dress up as Chinese bureaucrats and play at being Chinese generals and write awful poetry in a language they had never heard spoken aloud, and the Emperor in Nara would write “from the Emperor of the Sunrise Land to the Emperor of the Sunset Land”—and then a strange thing happened: the Japanese ceased all communication with China, closed its ports, stopped bringing in scholars and silks and writing out verses about Chinese landscapes in Chinese calligraphy, and stopped pretending that Japan was something else.
The Japanese had taken in quite a bit of foreign culture, and for the next hundred years they sat there alone, quietly gnawing on that great big bite, selecting the good bits and spitting out the fat and the bones, and patiently blending together the best and most palatable parts of China with those modes and inveterate ways of their own heritage, thus producing (if we simplify things a bit) such elegant and entirely Japanese inventions as the Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries, the Japanese sword, the Haiku, the Koan, Zen Buddhism, and Bushido: more recasting native ways in a foreign light, than adopting foreign ways entirely.
If there are rules of history, and as far as I know the only rule is that there aren’t any others—but if we can learn something from analogies, at least, then I see China and much of the world caught in that landslide phase that the Japanese had to overcome, overwhelmed by the shiny newness of a foreign way, and wrapped up in the forms as they disregard the substance—and the substance remains essentially native. Even cloaked in the new clothes of Michael Jackson and Louis Vuitton, caught betwixt and between an old world and some unknown composition of assimilated cultures that I cannot fathom, this is still China—I hope.