Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Gan Bei! (Bound feet and bai jiu)

Okay, so I can't really even begin to describe the first 4 days of China. I have done such mindblowing things already, I don't even think I can do them justice.

Our time here didn't really start until Day 2 because by the time we got to Kunming we had all been travelling for over 35 hours and we were ready to drop. We will be staying, at least until we move into our two-week homestay, in an international student hostel/dorm on the Yunnan Normal University campus. It just so happens that students from the Duke/Wesleyan/WashU Chinese program are also staying there, which means that not only are the lovely Diana Shum and I staying on the same campus in the same building, but we are living on the same floor! Very exciting. The hostel is modest by American standards, but it has two beds (which feel like sleeping on tables, the Chinese style), a bathroom with a Western toilet (such luxury!), and a TV, so we're doing very well for China, even some of the places we've been since. My roommate is named Tania-- she goes to Hampshire and we seem to have a lot in common, but she actually arrived a day late due to airline snafus.

We began Day 2 (the fullest day of my life, I think) with a Chinese breakfast, which is an odd mix of sweet (muffins, rolls) and salty (meat soup, chicken, etc.) Then we got into our group van and drove down to Tonghai, a small city about 3 hours south of Kunming. The SIT program has special connections in Tonghai, but it is very much not a tourist destination. We stayed in Tonghai 3 days and I did not see a single Westerner. When we walked in the streets we were stared at, and an old woman pointed at me, smiling toothlessly and crowing "lao wai!" which is a not-so-nice word for foreigner. Tonghai was not the "countryside" I was expecting but it was a priceless chance to get to see Chinese life as it really is, mostly unmarred by the evils of the tourism industry.

We had some free time in Tonghai, and I bought myself a used cellphone, charger, extra battery, and all the minutes I will ever need for Y300, about $35. I'm dorkily excited about answering my phone "Wei?" which is the Chinese way. Ashley, a tripmate who is almost fluent and has spent a great deal of time working on her thesis in Tibet and Xinjiang (two remote areas) helped me to get a great deal and made friends with the saleswoman in the process. I can't believe how much my Chinese speaking and listening has improved already. Only 4 days. Listening to Ashley bargain and negotiate was very much an educational experience.

Before our dinner we drove to a small village outside Tonghai, where a group of women with bound feet still live. Tonghai is so remote that the Revolution didn't arrive there until much later than in most parts of China, and so the practice of binding feet (considered to be a great trait in females) wasn't abolished until later either. This means there are still some women alive in Tonghai whose feet have been bound. We went to their village and saw them dance, with slow movements akin to pool gymnastics, and then they asked us to dance with them, which was pretty incredible. And it says something about our group that, although we were laughing (and so was the crowd that came to watch us), none of us felt the need to pretend to be "too cool for this." Watching these women, with their twisted, tiny feet, was incredibly powerful. I didn't think I would ever see something like that.

But the day went on, adding to "things I thought I would never see/do." Next on the list was the dinner with Chinese officials. It is custom for Chinese officials to toast their guests with "bai jiu" or rice wine, an incredibly strong liquor. They stand up and yell "Gan bei!" (like "cheers!") and you have to drink with them. You can say "I don't want it!" or "I'm allergic" but they won't listen, and they consider it an insult for you to flat out refuse. Ashley had 14 full shots of Bai Jiu the first night, and was taking shots over the officials' shoulders (sort of a "group hug" drinking position) before the night was out. It was a big bonding experience for all of us, though, since we were watching the officials and our tripmates become sillier and sillier. Even one of our teachers, Chen Laoshi, was drunk. The officials started singing Chinese drinking songs and the night just got crazier from there...

The second floor of our hotel played host to "KTV" which is what Chinese people call karaoke. We decided it would be fun to try some after the officials left.In KTV you get your own room and it's like a private karaoke party. A lot of us were in the room drinking Chinese beer and singing bad American pop (Michael Jackson, Backstreet Boys) when Chris, a southern deadhead from South Carolina, came back with a Chinese friend he made in the bathroom. After awhile, the friend when and got more friends, and all of a sudden the room was a dance party, complete with a strobe light and sterio. I never knew how party rooms could end up trashed until now... those Chinese kids were crazy, dancing on the tables, breaking glasses. We were all overtired and jetlagged and basically in shock. We couldn't believe it was actually happening.

It's pretty late and Kailey, one of my tripmates, wants to go back to campus because we're still jetlagged. But coming in my next entry: my trip to see 800-year old Buddhist temples on mountains, my 15 minutes playing the er hu (Chinese violin), Tania and I draw a crowd, the group performs for Mongolian minorities.

Gan bei!


Marianna said...

Is Ashley going to be with you the whole time? She sounds like a huge asset. I'm constantly glad that there are kids here who've lived in Germany before. And I bet your roommate pairing works out, I've always liked Hampshire kids. You paid a lot less for your cellphone than I did! I guess our locations are pretty much diametrically opposed, except for the karaoke, we've both done that. Is the er hu like the thing that that guy in Harvard Square plays?

Janie said...

That sounds awesome!!! I assume you can't post pictures, but have you taken any yet?

annalisa said...

sounds like fun man, i'm pretty jealous

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