Saturday, January 16, 2010

China

I have it as one of my 2010 new year resolutions to write a blog post about my trip to China. It behooves me to write this post for so many reasons - One: because it gives me something to revive my writing. Two: because after posting pictures from my trip on flickr and looking at them repeatedly to re-live my experiences, I realized those pictures did not manage to capture or convey the essence of the experience. There is something about words that can convey things that pictures can't. Or at least, that is what I want to try doing through this post. Three: China was my first international pleasure-travel. And what a dramatic first it was! So much so that sometimes I fear if it has set the "WOWie"-bar so high that it will be really hard for my future travel exploits to match up. Maybe they can't because what I believe to be the most important travel lesson was learnt here - that the best of it is never in the guide book. Four: This post will also be my memento - a keepsake of my best memories associated with the trip - in case my brain's own blog post starts fading out.

I realize as I write this, how difficult writing a travelogue is. There are so many things to write about - the places I saw, the food I ate, the people I met, the culture I experienced, advise on what to do and what not to do... . It is hard not to write about all these - but I will try to keep out of this post anything that my flickr photos or a good guidebook can tell you.

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The first thing most people ask me about my trip is how we managed to get around and get things done without knowing the language. I tell them how we got names of places and their addresses written down in Chinese by hotel receptionists which we then showed to cab drivers, and about how we learnt a few chinese words that we used now and then etc. And that would be the proper technical answer. But beneath and beyond the technical details, the real elemental answer is that humanness (which means such a multitude of complex things that the simple word 'humanness' would explain it better than a ten page article) transcends these language barriers. Here is the perfect anecdote to that - Sree and I decided to go to this particular restaurant for a dinner one day. We had the name of the restaurant and the address all written down in Chinese on a piece of paper. Got into a cab, showed the driver the paper and we were on our way. After about 10 minutes, the driver started speaking to us in Chinese pointing to the address on the paper. It was apparant that the driver did not exactly know where the place was and was trying to get more directions from us. But all we could say was "No Chinese" and grin sheepishly. Based on the tone of the "ohhh" that he let out on hearing that, I am pretty sure he understood what it meant. But he still kept talking. I was pretty pissed off - he should not have even started driving if he did not exactly know where the place was, especially when he should have expected that we wouldnt be able to clarify anything to him in Chinese - given how absolute-tourists and how non-Chinese we looked. Anyway, he finally decided to stop the cab somewhere and ask around for directions. He needed to do that twice before he ultimately got us to where we wanted to go. What should have taken 20 minutes to get to, took 45. But what happened after we reached the place was what was most unforseen - he checked the price indicated on his meter, started speaking in Chinese and kept pointing to the address we gave him and kept touching the temple of his forehead with his index finger as if to say something about brain or memory or intelligence. He then took out his wallet and gave us the money that his meter indicated! We were caught off-guard and stared at him for a minute or two, as he kept repeating his words and his finger-touching-temple action. And then we got it! - he was trying to say he wanted to pay us for the delay instead because giving up his money to a passenger would help him remember the location and address next time. We refused to accept the money, paid him instead and ran from the place.
But what a way to own up! And what genuineness it takes to want to do it inspite of it involving communicating this to people who absolutely dont get his language. I still feel guilty about being pissed off at him at one point.

Another heart-warming experience was when we went to a local restaurant in Beijing. We were welcomed by every single waiter in the restaurant when we entered, who seemed quite enthusiastic about our arrival - maybe because we were one of the very few non-Chinese folks who have ever visited the restaurant. When we had looked at the menu and were ready to order, we called the waiter, showed him our Chinese cheat sheet and indicated that we wanted his help in figuring out if the dishes we picked were indeed vegetarian. He called another waiter who was passing by for help. And guess what - next minute, almost every waiter in the restaurant was at our table! It was slightly embarassing to have 10 strangers standing around our table and discussing our food choices - but it was also so cute that they cared enough to do that! When we were done with our meal, we told our waiter (in sign language) that we really enjoyed the food and he literally jumped around on hearing that! It felt so good!

When you visit China, initially it could be frustrating that no one bothers enough about tourists or people from around the world to learn any small bit of the universal language - English. But then, they ultimately somehow make you feel welcome. Afterall, they did a stupendous job welcoming countries around the world for the 2009 Olympics, and they are doing it again with their 2010 Shanghai Expo. Hats off to the Chinese people.

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A friend told me this anecdote about herself: She once went out on a dinner date with a guy at a restaurant where the food was absolutely delicious. She thought the date went pretty well and decided to continue seeing him. It wasn't until after a few more dates with the guy that she realized that the reason she thought the first date went so well was because of the amazing food and not because of the guy!
That is how many of our pleasurable or painful experiences are - many times we go through them without trying (or wanting) to understand what it is that is causing the pleasure or the pain. Not that it is always necessary to understand either. Just like how you can enjoy driving a luxury car without trying or needing to understand what it is about the car's engine that makes the drive pleasurable. But when you do try to understand it, it gives you new insights.
A travel experience is like that too. Soon after I was back from China, when a relative asked me what it was about the trip that made it so enjoyable for me, I fumbled. I hadn't explicitly thought about it. I started making a conscious list of reasons and it included the nice food I ate, the great places I visited, the shopping et al. But all that didn't seem to add up to the sum total of the fun I had. Then I realized I had missed out the biggest reason of them all - an absolutely great travel companion. This is one of those "of course! it is too obvious a reason to even bother to state" reasons. But then it is not! Eating amazing food all by myself is not half as much fun as eating it with the person who is as foodie as I am to just talk about the food on our plates the entire hour that we are at the restaurant! Coming back home from shopping and realizing that the half-hour long bargaining session you just had is ultimately of no use because the dress you bought doesn't fit you, is painful, if not for the person who makes so much fun of the whole shopping experience that you end up feeling like the lost money was well worth the funny experience. Hats off.

8 comments:

bubbles said...

This is soo cute! I hope Sree reads it :-D

Vats said...

thanks honey, that's really sweet >:D<

Preetha@Indeed said...

That's a great compliment to your hubby, and you guys are lucky to have found each other!

Harini Sridharan said...

@D - I didnt tell him, but he snoopified into my blog abt 5 days after I posted and was surprised :).

Thanks, Pree. Nice of you to say that :)

JyothiSandeep said...

Harini, u write so well....I loved the way you explained ......keep posting ......

Harini Sridharan said...

Thanks, Jyothi :)

LifeIsAGame said...

I happened to read the 3rd section only now. I cannot agree more on what you have said.. funny we never realize its signficance or its contribution until we go through it. I am very happy for you dear to have found that companion :)

Harini Sridharan said...

Tankoo very much, ponne! :)