Relaxing in China Part 2: A Walk in the Park

The twitter of birds, the fresh scent of flowers, a picnic on the grass — is this your idea of an afternoon in the park? If so, you’d better stay far away from China.

Recently, I discussed the decidedly non-relaxing experience of a Chinese massage. A walk in the park is another activity that might normally be peaceful in a North American setting, but is cacophonous in China.

As you probably know, there are a lot of people in China — well over a billion. This makes the Chinese a bit more used to crowds than those of us who grew up with any sense of elbow room. Add to that an amazing tolerance for noise and a love of anything carnivalesque, and strolling in the park becomes more like a day at Disneyland for the western visitor. Here’s what you can expect on any given sunny day in any given park in China:

%Gallery-94745%Noise. And not just the noise of hundreds of people clamoring for space. The Chinese have a penchant for synchronized dancing, often with props. You’ll find dozens of men and women moving in unison to a screechy boom box, waving fans or flags, or dressed in minority costumes. The dancing wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that several groups cluster near each other, so that the screeching music overlaps until you think you might lose your mind.

Paparazzi. The Chinese love their cameras, and equally love posing for them. If you’re in an area that sees few tourists, you can expect the cameras to focus on you as well. Any moment constitutes a photo op, but some of the more bizarre that I’ve witnessed include people feeding hundreds of gulls bread, snapping a shot just as the bird swoops down to grab its food (see album).

Junk. You’re at a park, not a shopping mall… right? Think again. Parks here are packed with more than just popcorn vendors. Need a key chain? How about a ceramic pig? Stalls selling trinkets and electronics line walking spaces, encouraging you to trade your yuan for more stuff. On the other hand, masseuses in white lab coats will help rub out your tension, and teahouses are surprisingly calm oases in all the chaos.

Other sights. Children in split pants peeing next to the sidewalk. Games of mahjong set up along walkways. Groups of men playing cards, a crowd gathered around them. Buskers playing screechy string instruments. Fake flowers, roasting nuts, beggars writing characters on the ground in chalk, old ladies knitting on park benches… the list goes on.

No matter what you encounter, you won’t be bored or understimulated. Don’t expect a bucolic scene, and instead prepare yourself for an onslaught on your senses, and you should be able to enjoy an afternoon in a Chinese park.

Photo credit: Flickr user damien_farrell

Relaxing in China part 1: Massage

Picture a quiet room that smells of essential oils, maybe tea tree or lavender. The lights are dim, and there’s a candle or two flickering in the corner. The background noise is either a small burbling fountain or a CD of monks chanting. A masseuse expertly spreads warm, fragrant oil across your bare back while you accidentally fall asleep….

Cue needle-ripping-off-of-record sound — this is China, baby. Pretty much everything here (dinner, strolling in the park, a visit to the acupuncturist) is accompanied by noise, groups, and fluorescent lights, making what North Americans normally consider “relaxing” experiences worlds away. Massage is no different.

First, toss away that quiet, private room. Oh, and keep your clothes on for goodness sake — there are other people in the room with you. True, your masseuse is likely to be blind, (blind folks are considered disabled and therefore unable to work in very many occupations), but still. They’ll cover your body with a sheet and massage you through that. Next, bring a couple of friends — getting a massage is an excuse to be social, after all. Enjoy your cup of green tea during a foot massage, or maybe watch the big-screen TV while the masseuses gossip with each other.

%Gallery-92547%A massage in China ranges from full-body (they even rub your face down), to my favorite, a foot massage. Generally you can choose what kind you want, though some places are geared towards one or the other. You’ll find a massage joint on every street; because it so cheap (anywhere from $3-10 US) it’s possible for people to enjoy a regular rub-down.

So what can you expect with a massage in China?

First, anticipate the usual bright lights and crowds. I did some spa research for hot springs outside Kunming and saw rooms with 100 chairs for foot massage. Expect noise — whoever is pressing their hands into you will likely be chatting with their friend across the way, or occasionally answering their cell phone. A full-body massage will require the same kind of table you’re used to, with a hole for your face. However, no oils or lotions are used; instead a sheet will be placed over you and the masseuse will work through that.

If you go with friends, you can expect the masseuses to work in unison. It’s odd at first; the massage is a well-timed routine, and you’ll hear rubbing, popping and slapping at the same time across the room. There’s no real individual treatment, unless you ask for it. Everyone is treated the same – you know, kind of like in communism.

A foot massage is a fun, social activity since you can sit next to and chat with your buddies, rather than have a muffled conversation while face-down on a massage bed. My favorite type of foot massage is a medicinal one: you choose a scent from a menu, and a wooden bucket lined with a plastic trash bag is filled with almost-too-hot water. Then a packet of fragrant … stuff … is added, which turns the water into a jelly-like substance (it feels great between the toes). After a few minutes of soaking, a “magic” powder is added that turns the jelly back to liquid (see gallery). After a few more minutes of soaking, your bare feet will get a thorough rubbing. Often your back and neck will get some attention as well.

High-end spa treatment it ain’t, but a thrice-weekly after-dinner activity with your friends it is. Once you adjust your cultural expectations, it becomes a Chinese experience worth repeating.

Read more about my life in China here.

Far West in the Far East: My Chinese apartment

In mid-November I set up camp in Kunming, China, in order to study Mandarin. I didn’t want to live at a hostel for several months, so I perused the classifieds at GoKunming (no Craigslist here) and found a room.

Following is a highlight of all the quirks of my apartment, but I want to stress that this post isn’t a complaint — my apartment is luxurious by Chinese standards and I’m very grateful for it. I simply want to point out the differences in standards between China and the US.

First, I have four doors to get through to get inside. I live inside a gated complex, complete with uniformed guards, and I use a card to open both the gate and the door to my stairwell. I live on the 6th floor (though in the States it would be considered the 7th), and there is no elevator. The lights inside my stairwell operate on a sort of “clapper” system that registers the sounds of footsteps on the cement and turns the lights on. I usually have to stamp a foot at least once on my way up to turn a light on, an act I still take incredible delight in even after nearly two months — it makes me feel like a little kid. Once at my apartment, there’s a large metal door to open and then a regular wooden door to go through. I’m not sure why there is so much security, as I’ve always felt relatively safe in Kunming, but perhaps I have the four doors and the security guards to thank for that.

Once inside, I step onto large, shiny tiles, though my bedroom has wood floors. But let’s start with the bathroom, since Chinese restrooms are notoriously… simple. My bathroom is a mix of Western and Eastern — in fact, it appears as though it was originally designed to be a basic Chinese bathroom but was “upgraded” with Western facilities. The result is a leaky mishmash; it would’ve been better to have just stayed Chinese. There’s a Western toilet, which is nice (though I personally prefer the Chinese squat toilet), a sink and a shower. The shower head is installed on the wall, and the stall itself looks to be a later addition to the room. It leaks all over the floor and the shower drain backs up, leaving me ankle-deep in bathwater. It would have been better to have left the stall out and let the water drain into the floor like it was originally intended to.

There’s a washing machine the size of a bread maker, rising to just above my knees. I can do about one load of underwear at a time in it. To use it, I have to plug it in and stick a hose into the drain in the floor. I don’t find it inconvenient at all, especially considering that Wal-mart still sells blocks of laundry soap for the many people who wash their clothes by hand. There’s no clothes dryer, of course; all laundry is hung outside no matter what the weather. And, keeping in tune with Chinese plumbing, all toilet paper goes in the trash, not the toilet.

Next, the kitchen. Again, the sink has a hose that drains into the floor, rather than plumbing that’s all attached and out of sight. There’s no oven, and a small refrigerator is actually outside the kitchen in the eating area. A stove, which is very similar to my parents’ two-burner propane camp stove, is what all the cooking is done on. Only one burner works, and the non-functioning hood is covered in grease. No oven, no microwave. My Chinese roommate has a giant jar of MSG, which I’ve seem him sprinkle liberally onto his meals. Like the washing machine, the counters are only thigh high. And as you can probably guess, there’s no dishwasher.

Finally, my bedroom. I have a luxurious queen-sized bed that I share with my laptop (there is a slow wifi-connection). The window doesn’t seal, and the China soundtrack of motorbike alarms, cell phones, and loogie hocking winds down around 11pm and starts up almost exactly at 7am. Even though I’m way up high, there are metal bars on the windows, though there’s a plan in Kunming to remove all the bars from city windows — a massive project.

In general I feel very comfortable where I live, save for one aspect: no central heating. When the temperature dropped below zero last month, it was nearly impossible to get comfortable. My exhaled breath hung in white clouds, and if I wanted to type I would have to warm my hands under my covers every other sentence. I have two quilts and my down sleeping bag, plus a small electric blanket that thankfully I haven’t needed recently.

For all of this, I pay less than $200 per month, and that’s actually a large sum here. I’m in a great neighborhood, on a tree-lined, boutique-filled street about two blocks away from a couple of streets filled with Western-style cafes and bars. A small market across the street sells everything I might need, from oranges to live fish and chickens to noodles to cuts of meat. Down the road is a large park where I can meander and watch the Chinese dance in sync.

To read more about my life in China, click here.

Far West in the Far East: Christmas in Kunming

It’s Christmas day here in China, but only Christmas Eve back home. I know the rhythms my friends and family are settling into in the States: the quiet streets, busy homes, smells of spices and baking, and the building anticipation of opening piles of colorful presents. Just writing that makes me feel a bit homesick, but thankfully Christmas is not a big deal in China so I don’t feel as lonely as I might if I were alone in a country that celebrates the holiday as fiercely as America does.

In Kunming, I’ve seen some half-hearted attempts at decorations, with lonely strips of tinsel tossed over a counter, or a cardboard Santa taped to a window, or restaurant employees wearing Santa hats, but in general today is just another weekday. I don’t have class, but that’s really only because my school caters to Westerners. The universities are open, though the Western instructors and students I know seem personally affronted by that. However, I think the Chinese are probably baffled by what a big deal we make out of Christmas.

With no religious connection to the holiday, I am actually a bit relieved at escaping the consumer hype of it. I think I’ll celebrate today with a walk in the sunshine, a hot white Russian, and dinner with my Jewish friend.

Far West in the Far East: The Wa Women of Nanya

Last week I was treated to the kind of experience travelers look for but seldom – at least in my case – come across. An hour up a dirt road outside a small town in western Yunnan province, China, a dozen women from the Wa tribe donned their ceremonial clothing and spent the afternoon dancing for me and my friend. All they asked was that we take photos and video of them, since there’s very little recorded of either their clothing or dances.

But let me back up. I spent the past week traveling around Xishuangbanna, an area in southern Yunnan, with My Friend the Fulbright Scholar (MFFS). MFFS is in China on a scholarship to study the relationship between tourism and minority crafts. The majority of the Chinese population is Han, but there are dozens of tribes in China that have their own clothing, language, and customs, and as might be expected, their ways of life are changing.

Though we’d visited several other minority villages during our trip, seeing the Wa was a particular goal for MFFS. Not only is the group somewhat elusive due to its rural locations along the Burmese border, but their mysterious status is amplified by the fact that they were headhunters until the 1970s.

Our luck began with our arrival in Menglian, a small town close to Burma and just north of Xishuangbanna. We planned on buying a ticket for an early morning bus to a Wa village, but read in our trusty Lonely Planet that a helpful cafe owner named Nan Qing was Wa. We sought her out, and she immediately chatted MFFS up, cooked us dinner, gave me the jacket off of her back, and arranged transport to her childhood village the next morning.

%Gallery-80170%We met Nan Qing in the morning for a Chinese breakfast of savory noodles, then hopped on motorbikes for the hour-long ride to Nanya up a dirt and cobblestone road through the mountains. All but the steepest hillsides were cultivated, and we passed small herds of water buffalo as well as people carrying impossible loads on their backs.

Once in Nanya, Nan Qing showed us around, pointing out medicinal plants and telling us about the Wa’s daily lives. While they were once large in the opium trade, their work is now mostly agricultural. They subsist on less than $1000 US per year, butchering their meat and growing most of their own food; according to Nan Qing they need only to purchase salt, spices, and rice.

We came across a woman weaving an intricate stripe for a skirt, all on a small but complicated bamboo loom. Behind her, an older woman with three-inch diameter earrings squatted and watched. While we sat in the sun, the village “official,” a petite, strong woman that appeared to be in her 50s stopped by. I thought perhaps she was keeping tabs on our whereabouts, but it turned out she was talking to Nan Qing about dancing for MFFS and me.

Nan Qing announced that the women of the village would dance for us, and asked that we please record it for them. Usually if I ask someone in China if I can take their picture they say no, so this invitation was a welcome surprise. As the women filtered onto a large cement patio outside their community hall, MFFS and I began snapping photos. They encouraged to get up close, inside their circle, and many of the women asked for photos of themselves sewing, pretending to smoke long pipes, or posing with their friends.

Their clothing consisted of long headdresses covering their waist-length hair and weighted down with silver necklaces. They paired black shirts festooned with fake silver buttons with hand-woven skirts in bright colors. The women wore heavy silver bracelets and necklaces, carried hand-woven bags, and wore Nike sport socks in a typical display of Chinese incongruity.

Though the dances were clearly all about the women, three men led the rhythm at the center with one large drum, a pair of cymbals, and a small gong. The women marched and chanted in unison, speaking in their Wa dialect. I couldn’t understand any of it, but the rituals of grooming and smoking came up several times. In one dance the women let their hair down, smoothing it and doing a side-step as they wrapped it back up in their headdresses. In another, they squatted down and pretended to light and smoke long pipes.

After several hours of dancing and posing for photos (and a giggly game of “Dress the Foreign Girls in our Traditional Clothing”), the afternoon wound down. We all meandered up small paths and stairs to the road, and most of the women headed back home, spooling bright pink thread as they walked. The only gift I had with me was a small bar of face soap from my parents’ town in Washington state, which seemed horribly inadequate for such an amazing afternoon. The women accepted it gracefully, saying that the oldest woman in the village would use it to wash her face.

Nan Qing asked my friend and me if we had any ideas on how to bring more money into Nanya. “The villagers are simple people who lead simple lives,” Nan Qing explained, “but they are very poor.” She suggested bringing tourists to watch the dancing, which MFFS and I tried not to immediately discourage. Nan Qing came up with the idea of sewing logos on the traditional clothing and selling it in town, which would bring money into the village without bringing tourists, and that seems like a great idea though I wonder if there is much of a market for those goods in little Menglian. If you have any ideas or examples of a project like that, leave me a comment.

Click here to read more about my life in China.