Thursday, July 05, 2007

Trying Not to Be a Tourist

Kunming and Guilin are cities where tourism is their major source of income. It is not surprising then that so many people are trying to make a dollar off of us, the tourists. We go into an electronics store to buy a video camera tape. They don’t carry that brand but one of the salesboys says he can get one in 10 min. He then runs to some other store, returns with a tape, which he sells to us without a receipt and most certainly has made a small profit from us. All transactions are negotiable, whether for service or product, and without taking the time to negotiate, one can expect to pay several times more than what the expected cost should be. At some point during our stay though, the whole process feels tiring and you begin to think that the twenty cents or ten dollars is not worth the effort. You can easily spend 15 min haggling over 20rmb which amounts to $3! Although it really represents the principle of the matter, the $1 gained means more to the vendor than it does to us.

There is also the constant question posed to us as to where we are from. It is
a mystery to many people as they say my Chinese is very “standard”. I suppose it means textbook like, as I do not speak with any local slang or local dialectical accent. But I am accompanied by what obviously is my family, half of whom speak Chinese but not well, and my husband, not at all. We are hesitant to say we are from the US for obvious reasons of getting cheated. Therefore, we have given a variety of responses consisting of, “Where do you think I am from?” “What, you don’t think I am Chinese!” “Perhaps I am from Korea.” “I flew over from Hong Kong.” “I live outside of this country.” “My mom is from northern China.” They are even more puzzled when they see Ray, as he looks Chinese, acts Chinese but doesn’t speak any Chinese. Most of the time, they think he is from Singapore. On one taxi ride, I said we had come over from Hong Kong and he proceeded to ask me about the political situation in HK, how the poor are now being treated, and whether the stories he had seen on tv were true! I think I blew my cover on that one.

The biggest source of embarrassment is in a restaurant, when the menu has no pictures. All of us study the menu in great detail, trying to combine our character recognition. Unfortunately, all 4 of us recognize the same basic characters (cow, chicken, egg, mushroom, vegetable, soup etc.) which doesn’t help much in deciphering the complex naming of Chinese dishes. We’ve done ok in some places, but in others have ended up with surprise plates of food. Waitresses often balk at having to describe all the vegetable dishes they have, especially when they have already told us to read the menu. I have devised a question system by which I ask specifically what ingredients are in the dish and how it is prepared. This makes me appear less stupid and more of a culinary expert. By asking whether it is braised, fried or steamed, and whether it is spicy, or what part of the animal it contains, I can usually gain enough information to figure out what the dish is. We also ask what the specialties of the region are and since we are from out of the area, this is a question that is better received.

We have found the food in western China to be quite greasy and the cooking to be less refined than in Beijing or Shanghai. We also found prices to be quite high compared to the larger cities. Yunnan specialties include Yunnan ham, steampot chicken, rice noodles, and babba, a fried pancake. We are not really sure where the fish comes from but suspect is is mostly river fish. I have given up worrying about what could possibly be in the food-toxic or whatever. I read on a listserve about rural farmers injecting red sugar water into watermelons to make them red and juicy. Only problem is, they were using nontreated water. It is just too much to worry about and I think I accept our fate regarding whatever we eat. Although we do try to eat in large restaurants that seem to have a large number of clientele. Walking down the street, I saw a dishwashing basin outside a food stall with the foulest looking water you could imagine!! However, there seem to be a fair number of very healthy looking elderly women and long bearded men in these towns and villages, so it can’t be all that bad!

Another of our greatest challenges in traveling in China is operating in a cash society. Our credit cards are basically unusable except in large department stores. We have found no restaurants on this trip that would take a credit card.
I was savvy enough this time to bring only American Express travelers checks as most hotels and banks will not recognize Citibank’s checks. We can only exchange $200 US a day and bills have to be clean, unmarked and in good condition. We have only seen one ATM that had the Mastercard, Cirrus logo on it. When shopping in Chinese department stores, each section is a separate vendor, so items have to be paid for individually. This results in your US credit card being rejected after 3 or 4 purchases. We seem to be constantly exchanging money and the trick is to finish your trip before running out of cash!! On this trip, restaurant prices seemed to be much higher, perhaps because we were in tourist areas, and our cash ran out quickly each day. Also, we were told that admission prices to local sites were scheduled to increase on July 1, some double the old rate. We tried to see as many as we could on June 30!

People in the US always ask about the toilet facilities in China. I am always tempted to take pictures of them as we have encountered just about every size, shape and condition. When you have to go, you have to go and I could write a book about washrooms in China. Squat toilets that flush are the norm in this area and I find it interesting that usually the upright toilet stall is left empty, the Chinese prefer to use the squat toilets, finding them more sanitary. Today at the beautiful new Shanghai train station where the interior glistens with glass and shiny metal, I walked in to the restroom and was hit by a strong odor. I reached for toilet paper in the wall holder which was empty. (one holder hangs at the entrance to the washrooms and you have to remember to get your paper before entering the stall, or you will be in trouble). As there were two women cleaning the washroom, I asked one of them if they had any paper. Her response was, “If there is paper it will be in the holder.” When I asked if she could fill it, she replied, “We will fill it when we are ready to fill it.” At one stop, our driver stopped at a “free toilet” which turned out to be at the very back of a long, long gift shop. This was a row of tiled shoulder height stalls with no doors. They resembled tiled troughs and I think were the worst we encountered. At one of the restaurants, Ray noticed that the water from the sink drained directly on to the floor, and in order to reach the sink in this little triangular room, you had to lean over the squat toilet. We all plan to claim that we have been running around the rural areas so that airport security will irradiate our shoes! Basically, if you plan to travel to China, don’t expect too much, you won’t be disappointed or surprised!!

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