If you have never eaten and drank a full meal with true Chinese friends, you should make it a point to, as it is one of the most delightful social experiences one can find. The round glass tables that swing around the same as a lazy susan are a wonderful design, and it epitomizes the difference in cultural perspectives of the east and west. Everything is about being humble and not so much kissing ass, but showing an overabundance of generosity and gratitude to others. It makes for a very flattering meal where everyone feels very happy and jubilant.
The Chinese like to start you off with rounds of food, then rounds of food, and then still more rounds of food. Amidst it all there is constant laughter and exuberant story telling. “GAHM-BEAEEE!!” is called out intermittently as well as “Cheers”, and either you drink the whole glass back or you take a small drink. There are a few tips about toasting your glass as well: don’t raise your glass way up high into the air, instead, you seek the lower point on their glass, then they lower theirs, and its becomes a slight and quick game to keep the top of your glass lower than theirs. This is a sign of respect. To really understand it, you have to think in the broader sense that humility is revered above the individual ego, quite a change from the self-worshiping culture of the US. If you cannot reach all the way across the table it is appropriate to touch the bottom of your glass to the table and then swill it back. You can also individually cheers someone, or the whole group. The bottom line is that the Chinese are very open, welcoming, full of smiles and laughter, and their conversations are gleeful. Never have I felt so much joy at the dinner table….except, except for at home with my whole family in Montana. I had forgotten that when all nine of my siblings and parents gather together there is all the same emotion and feeling, the same whirlwind of mirth and joy. We sing blessings boisterously while holding hands and swinging our hands and arms back and forth and all the while smiling and laughing, and making sure we take the time to look at each other and acknowledge each person.
There are similarities between so many countries I have traveled through outside of the United States; a feeling, style, and sensation that somehow runs through every “developing country”. It is hard to get a specific exactness, but you can get close. The first thing that jumps out is that everything is built with concrete, and the buildings are very much the same. The houses always seem still in construction, rising two or three stories with rebar running out the top of the columns, just in case they want to add the 3rd or 4rth floors, which often they do. The other is the public works all always seem to be lacking in maintenance. This goes for garbage, sewage, public transit and power, and both hotels and municipal buildings as well. You see many buildings that go to great efforts to have the facade of a well-designed and well-built construction, but then there is no upkeep and the building is let go to the natural atrophy. It’s shoddy craftsmanship. The pollution is third. It is easy to see how America seems great in comparison. As we sat and looked at pictures the other day from the Chinese artists’ trip to the Montana last year, you could see the green open fields outside of the front door, and the mountains in the background as seen from the wineglass looking north to the Crazy Mountains…..I just thought to myself, “fuck, that looks like the promised land”. And I had a twinge of longing, and was looking forward to making it home again.
As I go from place to place and we have new guides and new places, stopping for meals massive meals every few hours, the traveling and new places without being able to speak the language or have any idea of what is happening from one moment to the next except for the small updates our guides translate for us, it had begun to wear on me. It is not the places or the people of China, but the lack of being able to get emails home or any connection with the world I have known. I have had to severe myself from it, and it has begun to weigh on me that I have responsibilities to take care of.
Particularly I have been paying attention to the buildings. There is mold creeping into not just the hotels, but in all the buildings everywhere, such is the result of the humid but still cool climates. They open windows which cools the building, but also allows the heavy carpets and drywall of the hotels to soak up the humidity and the water does it slow damaging work. The wall paper begins to peel, and the cigarette burn on the floor leave pock marks, lightbulbs burn out are not changed, and spider webs seem to be everywhere. This may seem like a poor description, but this is how we build in the US now as well. Whatever is the cheapest and fastest way to get a job done. It had never occurred to me that this may be the worst route or the best route to the worst product. It makes me feel guilt for all the things I have left undone on my vacation rental. It makes me wish that I would put more effort and time and money to fix the things I know I need to fix. Some people talk about being stretched too thin, and here, deep into the countryside and jungle of China, I find that at least 60 percent of my mind is in the US, organizing, cataloging and filing what will have to be done upon arrival back in the states, the time that will be needed to be spent with my girlfriend, which is a job just as much as any other, even if it is a job I love. The remaining parts of my attention are here, in China, and of that the majority is typing these stories as we bounce along on our bus. The good thing is that I have gotten to a point where I can type without looking at the screen and my thoughts can flow freely and be captured., as I get to enjoy my favorite part of driving: riding and looking out the window taking in all the sites as they pass by. This all boils down to one thing- I am longing for home again.