Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nanjing

This is a long one.
 
We got to the bus station for our three day trip to Nanjing with a few of our buddies. As I draw out money from an ATM and rearrange my backpack, Zoey says to me, "I am so worry for you to be on your own for this trip." "What?" I ask her. "I mean, without any Chinese," she replied. That was the first I had heard of this. Five minutes later and with very little further explanation Chen, Ellie, Alex, and I were shoved onto a bus for a 6 hour drive to Nanjing. "Maybe the bus have a stop for a break. That is not Nanjing, don't wander off there," Lance said to me before abandoning us on a foreign bus.
 
All went fairly smoothly. The bus was spacious and comfortable, and we got to see a lot of great scenery. I may have taken a few too many pictures (see "Nanjing" folder in the flickr feed). In any case, at one point we were on a ridiculously long bridge. It was miles of straight mud. There were boats in it, so we assumed it was floodland that had receded from a drought or something. Also, there was a space port. Eventually, we were over some unidentified (to this moment) body of water. After the long crossing, we stopped at a pit stop that smelled like pee and dead cow. Actually, no, it smelled like something inexplicably horrifying. My entire being revolted at being in this place, but they had great snacks for sale and we never figured out what food smelled so bad. To be safe, we bought awesome packaged things like pocky. We enjoyed our food while watching Chinese people sprinting from bus to building and back again, horrified at the prospect of a bit of light rain touching them. Chinese people are utterly terrified of the rain, no matter how light.
 
During the entire ride, this kid kept peeking at me. Eventually he got his hands on his mom's camera and took endless pictures of me. I finally started playing with him and taking pictures back. to his unending delight. Un. Ending. Six hours of attention from the little guy. When I finally started ignoring him to play DS he threw hershey kisses and chewed up sunflower seeds at me. It was great be assailed by sticky bits of chewed Chinese candies. His mom was so happy and proud that he was interacting with an American.
 
The arrival went smooth. The person that we were told was going to pick us up was in Shanghai and didn't know what we were talking about. Black Taxis (illegal drivers offering taxi service in areas were real taxis are scarce) shouted at us while we called everyone we know in China (all ten of them) to figure out where to go. Eventually, we got the name of a hotel where we could meet some AIESECers. Miracuously, they were there, and so we met Joy and Cartina.
 
We got settled into the hotel, with Ellie, Alex, Chen and I opting for a single room for the four of us to save some cash. We were gifted with these wonderful cards, courtesy of the local prostitution ring. They gave us an exorbitant amount of the things, with more appearing every time we left the room. Whoever was dropping the cards off was like some sort of pimp-ninja. Alex and I determined to start a trading card business out of them, and treated them like a sort of prosti-pokemon card game. Joy and Cartina were horrified, and made us promise to tell people that this isn't normal.
 
Ellie was determined that we would try "street food." Alex and I didn't want to get tuberculosis until the end of our trip, when we could be safely treated in the US with medicine instead of snake oil, but we were outvoted. So, we partook of some of the local delicacies at a street-side restaurant. It was actually a really nice place, with pine paneling, inlaid brick, and warm lighting. Nanjing has a different feel than Ningbo. It is just as polluted, if not more, however it was much easier to escape the loud concrete jungle. From what I've seen, cities in China are a cacophony of ancient and modern - I'll address this better later. That night in Nanjing, we were able to enjoy our meal and get to know eachother in the soft light of the tiny restaurant for hours as darkness settled outside. After our filling meal, we entered the cool night for some more exploration.
 
We stumbled upon a local university, apparently called "Nanjing University of Flight." Cartina and Joy told us it was a university devoted to all aspects of flight. I wasn't able to really extract much in the way of clarification, so opted to just enjoy the tall trees and thick gardens of the university (I'm not trying to be ironic with that pic - nature abounded, but I can't look at certain pics in my flickr feed, and so can only link to the ones that I can view here. Click around that flower pic for more pics of the university). The benches were lousy with couples, and the buildings were bright and filled with study-sick night owls. We went to the tallest building we could find and, after some convincing by me, we all went to the top floor and found an observation deck. The view of the city was fantastic, and we were able to see both the flashing downtown and the misty mountain in the distance. The view brought the conversation to a more humble level, and as I looked at the ground hundreds of feet (sorry, meters) below, I found myself in awe of the fact that there was miles (sorry, kilometers) of broiling magma between me and my house. I realized that I never fully accepted my place on a spinning rock in space, and even at that moment couldn't fully comprehend the fact. I addressed the question to Joy, and learned some interesting things about her very different view of the world. Joy did not believe in an afterlife, yet still felt that all of her actions were pre-ordained. I asked her if she felt hopeless at the idea of not having free will. She said she did not, because she could just experience life, even if every choice she made, no matter how radical, had already been set as a choice she would make.
 
I have noticed many Chinese people hold similar opinions, and do not see despair in the lack of free will. I feel that it is reflective of the culture here. In the US, we reject any form of authoritarian control, hence our value of liberty. In China, the focus is more on the country as a whole. At a politicians mausoleum, I had a conversation with another AIESECer about Chinese politics. I told her the US philosophy could basically be summed into the ideas of "liberty" and "equality." She said Chinese values were "to advance China." Lance had said something similar: when I asked him what the Chinese equivalent of the "American Dream" is, he said "China was the best before WWII. So, maybe to restore it as the best?"
 
After we dragged our full and exhausted bodies back to the hotel, we met up with a ton of other AIESECers, all from "Seesou University" in Shanghai. There was several EPs from different countries. Can't see my pics right now, so I can't hyperlink, but there was Tony from Switzerland, who had a degree in geology and sociology and did a lot of environmentalism and sustainability work (he loved metal music and had seen Metallica in concert, among other headlining rock bands, so we got along great), PK from India (who was very interested in participating in our prostimon card game), Hung from the Phillipines (but looked Chinese), and Roughy from... somewhere. They were all great people, and super nice. The AIESECers from Seesou made a point of speaking in English, so that nobody would feel left out.
 
Despite the late hour, we all went to a Confucian temple. I was fairly confused when we arrived at a gaudily lit and loud outdoor mall.  Turns out, the place had turned into a sort of marketplace, and the temple was covered with huge lit up dragons. People were selling goods off blankets, and the restaurants required you to buy tickets to pay for food. It was very awake and alive for the hour. The people who hadn't yet eaten got food at a sort of cafeteria place, while the rest of us chatted. Someone put a foul creation known as "stinky tofu" in front of me and invited me to "have a try." I am not one to pass up any experience on this relatively temporary trip to China, and so after some mustering, I took a bite. Alex nervously watched on, for his turn with the beast was next.
 
Some things are not meant to be eaten. While I understand and appreciate the fact that this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing, perception-altering experience, I learned, as I chewed the moist, fragrant cocktail of flavours, that passing up a few things is acceptable. "It smells bad but tastes delicious!" they promised me. "It is a traditional Chinese treat!" they said. No. It smelled like hell and tasted like hell's backed up sewage. What's worse, the smell and taste were combined into a nightmarish oil that infected my internal respitory system with the stink, leaving me to suffer for hours.
 
I manned up, swallowed it without another chew, then told Alex to "have a try." I was incredibly disappointed to watch him actually enjoy the stinking mass. As I forced back vomit, I decided that Alex must be a man made of iron.
 
The night ended with the a few people being schocked at the fact that white people can't squat on their heels, and the discovery that Roughy is a monster that can turn his feet backwards. Also, we realized that our room was the emergency exit and that, upon opening the emergency exit door in our room, we found a Chinese military camp behind the hotel.
 
The next day we were kept constantly busy. We were supposed to head up a mountain to watch the sun rise, but it would have required waking up at 4AM, something nobody was willing to do. So, after checking up on the military and watching two soldiers a floor below us attaching some sort of large wire to our hotel, we headed to the mountain at about 10AM. We were going to check out the mausoleum of a Chinese Democratic politician. It was the grave of the man that had brought to democracy to China, ending the Qing dynasty and thus making him a hero of the Chinese people. How this ran in line with Communist ideals I don't know, but everybody thought the guy was great (except for the kid that squatted down and took a poop on the steps leading to his grave). The view from the top was fantastic. The mist pervaded all, and from inside the dark mausoleum, looking out was like looking at a blank canvas.
 
Afterwards, we went to a local park, surrounded by an ancient wall. Lots of people were doing activities, such as dancing and Tai Chi, and we discovered that AIESECer Quella is a beast on the accordion. It was good to see so many old people doing activities. The Chinese seem very focused on community activities. Cities are like college campuses, probably because of their compactness. Hence, the work I do is through a local community. More on that later. Also, a cute kitten.
 
That day, we also went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum. I can't really describe this place all that well, other than to say they did a damn good job to make the place haunting and disturbing. I was pleased to find that there wasn't much racism towards the Japanese, although many of the placards describe the glorious actions of the Chinese and the "Great Chinese Victory," with almost no mention of US, Russian, or British involvement whatsoever. In fact, their huge mural of Japanese surrender featured Chinese military officials recieving the signed document, rather than on an US ship, as had actually happened. In any case, the musuem was fantastic.
 
That night, after I designed an ingenious solution to our broken showerhead, we went to a local foreigner's bar for a huge AIESEC party. The local Nanjing AIESEC chapter was there, too, so I got to meet tons of awesome people. As soon as I walked into the bar, I heard my name called. I was utterly shocked to find Tommy, from University of Houston AIESEC, chilling at a table with some Nanjing AIESECers. Turns out he was posted in Nanjing and just happened to tag along with the chapter for the party. It was totally surreal to see such a familiar face. Everyone there was very excited about playing a drinking game, the name of which I can't remember. It involved setting up 8 cups of beer in front of 8 people, split into groups of 4 facing eachother across a table. The person on the right would chug their cup as fast as they could and then tap the person to their left to begin. First group to finish won. I was told that Asians can't handle their alcohol as well as westerners, something I refused to believe until I witnessed the debauchery that night after Tony and I wiped out the competition, drinking what was to us practically water.
 
On the final day, we watched the Chinese military demonstrate their ability at hopscotch, then checked out of the hotel and went to a beautiful lake. If I remember correctly from the museum, the gate we went through to get to the lake was the same one where the bloodiest battle for Nanjing was fought during WWII. There had been hundreds of pictures of piles of defiled corpses on the edge of the lake, which was hard to picture when standing in the picturesque scenery. It was an incredibly calming environment, with lots of old-style Chinese buildings, and all bordered by the ancient wall. I could have enjoyed walking through the woods for hours, however, we were in a rush to catch our 2pm bus. So, we rushed through it all, causing all my pictures to be unfortunately blurred. I took a lot of videos to make up for it, and for my own personal enjoyment later.
 
The post is long, and yet I wasn't able to say all I wanted to about the trip. It was great to see another facet of China. The bus ride alone gave me a great view of the natural parts of China, from forests to mountains to rice farms. I also got a good look at the more suburban areas, which all had enormous houses. However, I don't know what those suburban people did for a living, as there were few cars on the road. In China, one's heritage is not only to China, but also to the city. So, each city has a language that is totally different from Mandarin Chinese. In the US, it is common and easy to travel from city to city. The roads in China, however, were practically devoid of travelers. I doubt people in the suburbs were commuting to the cities to work, and from what I've heard, few people do this, or are even aware of it as an option. Most people are work and die in the city that they were born in. Even some of the AIESECers, who are international people by definition of their involvement of AIESEC, were studying international business not to work abroad, but because they wanted to work in China with international businesses. The idea of it makes me claustrophobic. I have encountered a few cases of wanderlust here, though, one of whom will be joining us in Shanghai next weekend.
 
In other news, gmail is blocked for some reason, making my communication very difficult. It has yet to affect mail reaching my phone, so what I am doing now is forwarding mail from my phone to my yahoo account. I am still recieving your emails, it just takes me significantly longer to reply to them now, since it takes so much effort just to get a decent read, let along get a reply out.
 
Check out the "nanjing" folder for all the pics from the trip. Bring your patience, there's some 300 picture.