Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Trip To China

A year ago to the month I went to visit my son in Perth, Australia. I came home feeling wonderful. I said at the time that the Perth trip changed me. I was filled with love and good feelings. I could live there happily. I fit in. It felt comfortable and I survived the travel. Then I found out about a trip to China. A dream come true. I’ve always wanted to visit China. Two big trips in one year and I’ve never gone anywhere outside of Canada and Mexico in my life. Two stamps on my passport. I was very, very excited and happy about it. Now I’m back from China. I haven’t been able to write about my experiences because I‘m normally a positive person. But China did change me and I have had a hard time putting it into words.

I have to begin by saying that Jessy, who is my business manager in Beijing, China, has more energy than is humanly possible. Seriously! I’m not exaggerating at all. I had a real hard time keeping up with her. She couldn’t weigh more than 90 pounds and she is in constant motion. Okay, I’m 59 years old and she‘s 43. I have a curvature of the spine and the left side of my body is two inches shorter than my right. I’m telling you this so you will understand that walking two blocks does tend to throw my back out. Jessy’s apartment was five floors up. No elevators. That’s 70 steps up and 70 steps down. I know this because I counted them on my last trip down. I made this trek at least two or three times a day while in Beijing. Yes, Jane Fonda, I did FEEL THE BURN.

From day one I was in physical pain. That was a given, and I accepted it and did my best to put it in the background because I was excited. The purpose of the trip was to have an art show with a well-known Chinese sculpture. Jessy had set the entire thing up for me. She had done extensive promotions for the show. It was going to be a big deal. I had high hopes that I would sell some art. I’m a big girl and I can take a hit, but I wasn’t prepared at all for a knock down.

The gallery was up a flight of stairs, which as you will hear from this writing isn’t unusual at all for China. Everywhere you go, you will be climbing up or down stairs. Lots of people came to the opening night. I was interviewed by radio stations, I got my picture in lots of magazines, but nothing sold. Because I couldn’t talk to any of the potential buyers, I felt frustrated. I found out that they didn’t even have a price sheet available and no one connected to the gallery was making an effort to sell anything. It was their opinion that people come back if they are really interested. There were three potential buyers at the opening, each asked for a price sheet and all three of them went away empty handed, but left their name and phone number, and none were contacted after the show. I was told that if they were interested they would come back or call. I have owned a gallery before and I know the art of selling, and there was no effort made at all. The show lasted four weeks, so I still had time to get suicidal, but I was unhappy about not selling. I came a long way to sell paintings. I had normal expectations. Most art work sells on the opening night. But I held out hope because I had four more weeks.

I thought I had four weeks. What I didn’t know was that the designer in the floor up from the gallery would be doing a major reconstruction of her studio. When I went back the next day to the gallery, there were workers blocking the entrance and dust so thick coming from the construction that I couldn’t breathe. The lights were off in the gallery and the door was closed. And it stayed that way through the entire four weeks that my show was running.

The second issue I had was my biggest. I had no voice. Jessy was fluent in English and Chinese, but I found out that she really didn’t like translating, so I wasn’t able to speak to anyone. And that included the gallery owner or the potential buyers. The gallery owner decided after I got there that he only wanted to hang abstract paintings for the show. Prior to going, he had sent a list of the paintings that he wanted. I took the paintings off their stretcher bars, I packed them and hauled all 27 of these paintings across continents to bring to his gallery. I had an issue with this, but I was not allowed to speak to the owner. When I asked Jessy to tell him of my issue about the paintings, she refused. I was being disrespectful. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway because no one could get into the gallery to see the paintings after the opening night.

Setting aside the art part of my trip and bypassing the issue of toilets and the non-stop search for a sit-down toilet, Jessy took me to see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City and Tian‘an Men Square. I saw the Olympic village with the Bird Nest and the Water Cube. We traveled to Shanghai and saw the Shanghai Museum. We went to HuaQing and saw the terracotta Warriors. I took a tour of the gardens in Hangzhou and shopped for pearls in Suzhou. We went to the West Lake and saw the evening water show, which was beautiful. I saw thousands of Chinese paintings in museums and galleries. I am and will be forever grateful to her for everything she helped me see. It was great.

I walked a million miles on my Birkenstocks until I couldn’t stand the pain and wet feet and bought some tennis shoes which gave me blisters on every square inch of my feet and ankles. This was definitely my fault. I should have brought broken-in shoes prior to the trip. I didn’t know I was going to be walking as much as I did. It rained the entire time I was there, so having my feet covered was a better idea. But everywhere we went, we either took a taxi, which can only be described as putting your life in an insane person’s hands, or took the subway which was a very good way to travel through the city, but always three floors down and up or we walked and walked and walked.

The truth is that China scared the ---- out of me. From the moment I walked off of the plane until I put my feet down in San Francisco, I was engulfed in a negative energy that tormented me. I had ugly nightmares every night that woke me up in cold sweat -- terrible horror movie-type dreams that I have had maybe five or six times in my entire life.

I felt that I needed protection always. I saw a small girl get run over and killed and no one with me even gave this incident a second glance. The image is still with me. There were earthquakes where hundreds of people died, and trapped mine workers that died, but I didn’t hear or see any sign of concern. When I asked Jessy why people weren’t concerned about this, her response was that it had nothing to do with them. I don’t want to make a blanket statement that there is no spirituality in China, but I didn’t run into any while I was there. All the temples were tourist traps with booths filled with junk to buy. I thought it was ironic to see so many Buddha statues when even showing a painting or picture of the Dali Lama got you a one-way ticket out of China. The Temple of Heaven was the only temple where it felt slightly serene. It was beautiful with lots of trees, grass and pathways to walk on. But you couldn’t go off the path to just sit under a tree. And nowhere was there a place to be quiet.

Being cold was the usual while I was there, because in China they turn the heat off in all the buildings except hotels and probably government buildings on March 15th. It snowed March 16th so they kept the heat on for one more week. I got there March 30th and it was a balmy 40° to 50° inside Jessy’s apartment at all times.

When you hear someone talk about having a bad experience in traffic situations, you might think of Mexico and taxi drivers. Well, Beijing and Shanghai have it all over on Mexico. I had to close my eyes and pray (or my favorite when in a scary traffic situation, screaming crash!!!) that I would make it home every time I sat in a taxi or bus. The streets were jammed with buses, taxis, cars, motorcycles, motorcycles with carts on the back, bicycles, bicycles with carts in tow, people, women with baby carriages, and all fighting to get in front, going as fast as they possibly could. What was even more dangerous was walking next to or having to cross these streets. And all these vehicles were making noise. Horns never stopped honking. Always so much noise everywhere.

That’s the next topic: Noise. It was a deafening, serious noise: Advertisement video screens talking to you, people screaming, babies crying, horns honking, buses with screeching brakes and back firing, whistles blowing, bicycle bells ringing, people yelling at each other in cars. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. All that noise blocked my brain and drowned out thought. To those living in a city of 17 million people, I suppose this is normal. To me it was exhausting. It never occurred to me until I saw a bird four weeks into my trip that it was the first bird I had seen or heard the entire time I had been in Beijing.

The birds were smart enough to exit the city, but not the people. Millions of them and most of them were trying to sell me something. Usually a copy of a famous brand name. I took a stand at that. I wouldn’t buy anything that was a patent infringement. I found it very offensive. I know that Nike makes zillions of dollars, so who cares, right? Well I found out that I do. I bought my Nikes from a Nike store that sold real Nikes, and I paid real money for them and felt good about it. You have to stand up for something once in a while. That was my protest to China for ripping off companies and using their brand names. Wait a minute, I have to step off of my soap box and I’m still a little stiff.

The people were friendly, even though they all had personal space issues. I should say I have personal space issues and mine are wider than those I was being bumped or pushed by. I would have had a more enjoyable time if I had been able to communicate with some of these people. But because I couldn’t speak to anyone, I felt very detached and out of place. I wanted to hear what they had to say about their world and mine. But instead I spent hours (which is also normal) sitting with Chinese speaking people while they all talked and ate and I pretended to enjoy myself. I wasn’t good at that at all. I’m a Gemini. I get bored easily. Especially when I can’t join in on the conversation. Food, now here’s a fun subject.
I went there with complete forethought of accepting different food. The Chinese are serious about their food. Their menus are 50 to 100 page bond books filled with pictures of dishes to choose from. They eat the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m a westerner. We eat meat, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, cereal, fried eggs, and drink water with ice. I knew Chinese food was going to be different, but I’m sorry, when they serve chicken and the head and feet are still attached, it tends to put me on an immediate diet. I love fish. What I don’t like is eating fish that are looking up at me with their black eyes staring back in contempt for killing them so I could eat them. Popping a shrimp with fins and eyes still attached in my mouth just isn’t going to happen. Fish heads are a favorite in China. No, thank you! And to my own laughing heart, so is pumpkin. That was what I didn’t like eating in Perth. I can eat pumpkin pie all day long and have, but I’m not a big boiled, fried or anything pumpkin eater. They did have wonderful vegetables and mushrooms. Many I had never seen before, and some I would never want to see again. It was unusual to have a dish without some kind of nut. Usually peanuts. When they have snails, we are talking garden variety here. And they suck them out of the shell. It’s a very disturbing sound, but then I don‘t like escargot either. In general, I would have to say that eating Chinese food is much healthier for everyone than what we eat here in the states. After all, there are no fat people in China. Seriously, not one! I settled on cut-up chicken or shrimp, minus the eyes, with vegetables and rice, and that was what I ate for five weeks. I had no problem with chop sticks at all. I did get used to drinking hot water with my meals, but the corn drink just wouldn’t go down. And, of course, I loved the tea and brought a lot back with me. It’s the best.

I felt a suppression around me that wouldn’t go away. Restaurant workers and hotel staff are forced to march every morning. I was told this is to show control, and it did show me that. I felt that the noise was another way of control. The one child rule allowed me to experience a lot of very spoiled, noisy and drunk young men in the restaurants. The older people looked at me with frowns and the small children stared in wonder. Jessy’s friends were very nice, and I would have loved to have shared a conversation with just one of them, but that didn’t happen. But they were all very hard working, real and sincere people. Most were dressed just like you and I dress. They were working toward what they hoped would be a better future. But what I came home with was the realization that there is no way for anyone who has been raised under such control to understand for one moment what it truly feels like to be free. They want it, they dress like it, they dream of it, but they have no concept of what IT really is.

As I write this and feel that my liberties are being simultaneously stripped from me daily, I wonder if they aren’t better off. Knowing what is being taken away from you because you used to have it may be worse than wanting something you can never truly conceive of or understand.

I have changed. I am just fine living in my small suburban house where I can sit in my backyard and listen to all the birds and watch my trees sway in the breeze, surrounded by multi-cultured people who have varied pigmentations and speak different languages. I love all of them because they are my people. We live in the United States of America. As flawed as it is, I can say from my heart that it’s the best place for me to be. It’s my comfort zone.

What I brought back from China was an education of a lifetime and a love of my home and life. I have great respect for their long history and antiquities. I find the people beautiful to look at. The children are beyond adorable with their little butts exposed in the clothes they wear with the backsides left opened. I didn’t see any disposable diapers, but then I wasn’t looking. But I was disturbed by the presence of the military everywhere. Police officers at every corner. The marching of employees and the inbred caution they display out of fear. The rules of the families, though they keep each other close, are terribly outdated and another form of control, and the ability to find nothing wrong with stealing or getting the advantage from another in business is something we all need to know. But that’s another post.

In conclusion, I can now say I’ve been out of the country twice. Five weeks was too long for me to be gone from my home and Steven. I missed him something awful. If I did go back, I would not go alone and I would take old broken-in shoes to wear. When my feet touched the airport floor in San Francisco, I swore I would never leave again and couldn’t wait to go outside and breath in my air. That feeling hasn’t left me yet.

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