A storyteller's sandbox
We saw: Airplanes, our first look at Beijing
We saw: Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Peking Duck
We saw: Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong
We saw: Beijing school, Big Wild Goose Pagoda
We saw: Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum
We saw: World Financial Center, downtown Shanghai
We saw: Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown
We saw: Airports ... and too much of the Shanghai tarmac
Wizz on a national treasure? Spit on a sidewalk?
China just shurgs
From my vantage point on the Great Wall, I could see the yellow river. Not the Yellow River that originates in the Bayan Har Mountains and that flows through nine Chinese provinces.
I mean the yellow river that originated from the little girl squatting next to me and damn near flowed over my Nikes.
That's right — the little girl was relieving herself on a national symbol, perilously close to my feet. She did this with the full knowledge of her mother, who stood right there and watched Miss I.P. Freely water the pavement within view of hundreds of tourists. In fact, mom actually shot me a dirty look for standing there with my mouth agape.
OK, maybe she wasn't mad because I was slack-jawed, but because I recovered in time to take the picture above. What can I say — I knew you wouldn't believe it unless you saw it for yourself.
Little did know there would be other such candid moments, as in the national museum in Xi'an, where a mother couldn't be bothered to walk her kid down one flight of stairs to a public restroom and instead let her tyke drop trou and take a squirt in front of a trash can. If you've ever straddled a squatter in a Chinese public restroom, you can't half blame the mother. But the kid wasn't exactly directed to an out-of-the-way place to tinkle. He wasn't behind a trash can. He was in front of it. Where people surely would be passing to discard a cigarette butt. Or one of the crappy Rolex knock-offs they purchased from that peddler in the lobby.
Before you read further, I should be very, very clear on one point, because much of this post could be misconstrued as disdain for the people we encountered on our nine-day tour of China. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese are polite to a fault when you engage them. They try to be helpful even if they can't understand what you're saying. They are exceedingly gracious.
Case in point: Our original itinerary was to have our group of 26 divided up and taken into Chinese homes so we could watch families prepare an authentic dinner. Because of some miscommunication with the tour company, this excursion wasn't arranged, and when Debi and I learned of this on the eve of the trip, we pleaded to get this added back to the itinerary. After all, this was precisely the sort of personal interaction and cultural exchange that we believed would be a highlight of the kids' trip.
The tour company did its best on short notice, but its best was a single woman in a Beijing hutong, who agreed to accommodate the entire group in her four-room house. I'm sure she was compensated for the expense; even so, cooking for 26 had to be quite a chore and quite a disruption. She did all of this with a smile on her face, answering our questions and posing for photos with us.
What an angel.
But the Chinese simply have different ideas about what constitutes socially acceptable public displays. Some things we witnessed:
• A grown man watering a bush (if you get my drift) in a public park that borders a busy street.
• Spitting. Chinese sidewalks are essentially giant, concrete cuspidors And we're not talking clear, clean spittle. We're talking big, green-and-brown globs of mucous that hurtle end over end from the lips of males and females, young and old, peasant and dandy. I've not been many places around the world, but I cannot imagine that any nation challenges China for the title of "Loogiest-Hocking Population." In fact, we were told by people who have lived in China — and they were quite serious — not to bother packing open-toed shoes.
• A security guard in the main concourse of the Beijing airport elbow deep in his right nostril — right in front of Buddha and everybody. And he wasn't the only one digging for bait. This apparently is a perfectly acceptable pastime in polite Chinese society.
• Public belching. I was riding an elevator in our Beijing hotel with one other lady. She cranked one out at a decibel that nearly perforated my eardrum. She didn't bat an eyelash. Didn't punch a button to exit the elevator prematurely out of sheer embarrassment. Didn't say "excuse me." Ahem … didn't even cover her mouth. "How was the garlic chicken," I would have asked her, had I known a word of Mandarin.
• Public gas-passing. On the same elevator — honest to God — I rode up with two gentlemen, one of whom decided this was a good place to float an air biscuit. I'm not sure which one dealt it, but we all smelled it.
• More line cutting than we could possibly quantify. This is a communist country, by golly. One would think the party would have instilled a little more discipline and been a bit more insistent upon following protocol. Not so. The Chinese have no concept of waiting in line. Hell, they don't even have a concept of a line. Every cash register, every toilet, every museum entrance seemed surrounded by an amorphous blob of impatient elbows.
• I hate to get too scatological here. ... Oh, who the hell am I kidding? I love to get scatalogical. So if you're easily offended by poop, just move along to the next paragraph. ... Still here? ... OK, so Tommy informed Debi and I that while in a KFC (the Colonel is huge in China, by the way; much more prevalent than Ronald McDonald) that had an actual toilet, not a squatter, a gentleman pooped right on the seat. We could only figure that he was so conditioned by squatters that he could not use a toilet without hovering and that he had really bad aim. In his defense, he did attempt to find some toilet paper and wipe up the mess. However, as seems to be the case across TP-deprived China, there simply wasn't enough Charmin to get the job done.
• Pointing and staring. Actually, this trait was unusual but rather endearing once you got used to it. We didn't notice it nearly as much in Shanghai, which is more a financial center than a tourist destination and which is quite full of Westerners. But in Beijing and Xi'an, most of the tourists are Chinese visiting from the countryside, and they gawked at the group of Americans in their midst. Given that many had likely never seen a person with white or black skin, we really must have looked like a gaggle of Martians in a Bay Street crosswalk.
Anyway, in addition to pointing and staring, the Chinese people loved to have their pictures taken with us. This is particularly the case if you are a blonde, tall or African-American. I'm none of these things, but our contingent included an array of all three. They were stopped and asked to pose so often, they had difficulty keeping up with our tour guides in the Summer Palace and Tiananmen Square. Alex Simmons, a strapping football and track star at Beaufort High School, admitted he liked the attention for a while, but the constant staring convinced him a life of anonymity is for him.
I'm proud to say our kids were good-natured about the attention and as accommodating of photo requests as the Chinese were of our inability to speak the language.
As I said, China is a wonderful country full of wonderful people.
Nonetheless, I can't escape the conclusion that this country could use a couple million copies of "Miss Manners" and a few good hall monitors.
Or at least a can of air freshener and another roll or two of toilet paper.
Yes, this little girl really is peeing on the Great Wall.
The Chinese we encountered were typically quite polite ...
... but they weren't shy about sidling up for a photo with blondes, tall women or our African-American students.