China Part I: Culture Shocks and Military Personnel
There are many things a person can say about China, including how amazingly friendly some of its people are (and how shithouse others are), how in certain cities your nose is assailed with a new smell approximately every five metres that no one would mistake for titillating and that although the town Zhujiajiao is also known as ‘Pearl Stream’ and is a popular tourist attraction, it’s as dirty as a donkey’s arse and far too expensive for a true hobo. However, instead, I’m going to spin two tales of my experiences; and who knows – maybe my encounters and advice will keep you alive, or at the very least in pocket.
Firstly, this all took place in Xi’an and its surrounding areas. Xi’an is the capital of the of the Shaanxi province and is one of the oldest cities in China. Upon my arrival in Xi’an, I was unconcerned despite the fact the humidity had made my my hair grow two frizz levels in size and I was sweating like a Swede in an STI clinic. I had prearranged a homestay with a cute (wealthy) looking family who wanted to improve their English skills, and even though they probably had more comprehension of the English language than me, I was happy to try. Exiting the airport, I was more than pleasantly surprised (if not slightly alarmed) when I was picked up in a black town car and told unceremoniously (after establishing my identity) to “get in”.
The family consisted of four people (mother, father, sister and brother) plus the “nanny”, which was a very fancy way of saying slave from the slums who needed somewhere to live whilst attending university, who was far more enlightened than the arseholes who had me stay at their house (sorry – getting ahead of myself). Anyway, the family lived in a strange gated complex that had armed guards, a funky smell and a giant stick up its arse. Turns out my “dad” worked for the army as an engineer, so they were very well-off in comparison to a lot of people in China. Now, by this point, after awkward introductions and the sticky humidity starting to really piss me off, all I wanted to do was take a shower, so after tracking down Jenny (the slave nanny’s English name), I enquired about the bathroom situation and was informed that there was no hot water due to some technical fuck up, so we would all be going to the “baths” for a wash before dinner.
It’s pretty hard to explain how this went down, but essentially we went to this massive spa place where everyone was separated into males and females and given either blue or pink pajama things, a towel and directions to a spa bath that wasn’t already full of people. Unfortunately on this trip, I still had my horrid dyed-red hair and was pretty fucking pale, so you can imagine how much I stuck out amongst the tiny Chinese women with their dark eyes and jet-black hair. It’s a very interesting experience when you’re forced to strip down with a bunch of people watching and exclaiming just how white your skin is.
I quickly forgot about my own awkward situation though when I realised that the two other ladies sharing my bath must also work as “servants”, because they were helping each other clean and re-dress what looked like belt marks on their backs. I’d never been more disgusted in my life, but Jenny later explained to me that in some households, it is quite common. I personally have never been able to wrap my head around it. However, after making some loud noises trying to explain that what was happening to them wasn’t okay, I realised I was just making it worse for them by making a semi-spectacle, so shut the hell up. So if you’re heading into China and not just doing the much-travelled, only-going-to-interact-with-other-tourists route, you need to prepare yourself for a culture shock. Learn to get off the moral high chair westerners sometimes throw tantrums in, and let the fucked-up shit wash over you unless you have a chance at permanently changing the situation. Maybe that sounds like I’m uncompassionate, but the truth is nobody likes it when foreigners who can’t do anything walk about the place saying how things should change, and they like it even less when that behaviour could make them lose their jobs and the only livelihood they have access to.
Next on my host family’s list of screwing with the “gweilo” (a Chinese derogatory term for white people) was taking me to a “retreat”. This was a chunk of time after I’d arrived, and I was pretty excited as I was a seriously skint and my family said I wouldn’t have to pay a dime. In my mind, I truly believed that this retreat was going to be some magical place with an endless supply of gorgeous people, buffet food and hotels rooms with white linen and fluffy pillows. In my mind, I’m a real dumb shit. Fast forward a five-hour car ride out to the middle of god knows where (not easy to do in a place where everywhere is populated) and were we pulling into my fantasy land? No we were fucking not!
Upon realising that one has been taken to a Chinese military base for a weekend getaway, one can start to worry somewhat. Passing troups running in formations straight out of bloody Battle Royale, I tried to figure out exactly how I’d misinterpreted the word “retreat” and contemplated the likelihood that they thought I was a spy and this was the beginning of what promised to be a very long day of torture. After parking and once again another round of everybody-stare-at-that-white-girl-with-the-really-frizzy-red-hair, we signed in and were given uniforms – yes, uniforms – to change into, and I was then assigned a bunk (everyone could speak at least a little English, so I did have a small indication of what was happening).
We all ate dinner and I learned that I hadn’t accidentally joined the Chinese army: this was a weekend “adventure camp” run for the families of military personnel. Some highlights of the adventure camp included daily mud runs, tai chi, shooting type 56-1 assault rifles alongside my 10-year-old host brother (not even remotely unnerving) and obstacle courses including classics like barbed-wire crawls and wall jumping. The bonus of all this was free food, free body toning, constant supply of ciggies from the 40+ Chinese dudes and completely useless inadvertent lessons on how to spit really far from those same 40+ men.
To be continued in Part II…