Sunday, October 31, 2010

The great walk along the Great Wall of China, with unexpected ending

Going to China and not visiting the Great Wall should be considered a sin. I knew it was impressive, but being actually walking along that piece of history felt really special.

Although the fact that it can be seen from the moon is a myth, the Great Wall is a truly outstanding piece of ancient architecture, a series of walls built between the 5th and the 16th century BC, with the main purpose of protecting the Chinese Empire from the attacks of nomadic tribes.

Our tour began at the Ming Tombs, big complex with the graveyard of the emperors of the Ming Dinasty. Most of the Great Wall was built during this dinasty, and was started under emperor Zhu Yuanzhang who also founded the Dinasty in 1368. The Ming period ended tragically in 1644, when the last emperor, Sizong, hanged himself after strong peasant uprisings headed by Li Zicheng, who managed to defeat imperial forces and break into Beijing.

In Changling, we have visited the burial mausoleum of Chengzu, Zhu Di (third emperor of the Ming Dinasty) and empress Xushi, with annexed a museum displaying ancient imperial Chinese tools and jewellery. To stay within the jewellery topic, afterwards we headed to the state-run jade factory, where they work (and sell) all kinds of Chinese jade.

After the jade factory was the turn of Chinese medicine. Or better, a wellbeing-sort-of-spa centre where we were introduced to the fascinating world of natural remedies. Apart from the too touristy atmosphere, the group was starting to get impatient about the Great Wall that, in the itinerary, was left as the last part.

Finally, we made it, more than an hour drive from Beijing, through a mental summer holiday traffic, we got to the Wall. Needless to say, the view started striking all of us since far away, and every time we saw a "piece" of it, the bus echoed of our "Oooohhhh".

The heat was stifling, and the massive crowd didn't help face the long walk that was awaiting us. We started climbing huge stone steps and steep uphill paths literally pushing our way with the elbows.

There is not one single best viewpoint, it's a gradual achievement, and staring at that overwhelming landscape from the Great Wall nonetheless, makes the exhausting route all the way worthwhile.

Our guide gave us instructions on how to go back but didn't come with the group, so after we reached our top spot and were starting the descent, we followed the crowd towards the exit. While we were facing the hard way back, the first signs that something was out of place started showing up.

Then, we realised we hadn't seen the little train we used to get to the entrance of the wall, that was supposed to bring us back down since we had a return ticket.

We kept going and immediately after the exit something felt unavoidably wrong. Much more quiet than what we had found when we had arrived, slightly different people, a soft-looking camel posing for tourist pictures and, more importantly, our bus was not there anymore.

It took us a while to understand it, but connecting all the dots, the truth was inescapable: we had ended up in Mongolia. Inner Mongolia, to be precise.

Originally, with my parents we had planned to go to Mongolia, but of course organising the trip, not "by mistake".

It has been an exhausting walk, the descent was double-length of the way up because we couldn't find the train that spared us half of the trip at the beginning; the heat was unbearable, the path bristled with pitfalls, such as small stones making it dangerously slippery.

As if this wasn't enough, once outside, before understanding where we were, we kept looking in vain for our bus. Finally, we had the epiphany, we found the phone number of our guide through her office and she told the taxi driver where was the bus (oh, because of course none of us spoke Chinese and we were unable to explain it ourselves).

After a huge traffic in the pass between Mongolia and China, we got to our bus, tired and annoyed for the unexpected extra-walk, but suspecting already our adventure would have become source of jokes for long time in the future.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Don't be afraid, you are in China!"

A view of the Great Wall of China
When our laoshi delivered to the class the odd statement "Don't be afraid: you are in China!", the first thing that crossed my mind was to imagine this sentence out of its context.

Admittedly, out of nowhere, it does make China look like some kind of shelter, and said by a Chinese person, you will inevitably think "Wow, Chinese people have a really great concept of their country!"

I am slowly appreciating the fact that Chinese people truly love their country, and every time a foreigner mentions Zhong Guo (China), the face of the local shines with a smirk, let alone when foreigners confess their own love for the Red Dragon.

However, the sudden burst of vigor didn't belong to such a patriotic context, but was simply a way to reassure the class that by living in China we naturally have all tools we need to learn the language properly and quickly.

Our teacher insists, and rightly so, that we need to go out and speak to as many people as possible.

After having overcome the initial shock of moving to such a different culture, I'm starting to getting to grips with Chinese mentality and outlandish lifestyle, so I took my teacher's advice and started talking to people in shops, streets or wherever I had the occasion.

The result so far hasn't been very remarkable as most people don't understand what I'm saying. Did I think learning Chinese was like learning any other language? Not quite.

Last week the government was conducting a population census in Shanghai and when the officer came to my place in order to "count me", I took it as a great occasion to sport the sentences I had just learnt and introduce myself. Wrong guess, little did I know that it was going to be source of greater frustration.

The man only understood I was from Italy, he didn't understand I was here to "study", and when I showed him the character and told him I was studying Chinese, he looked at me puzzled: "Are you studying Korean?!"

I get it: I need to look after my pronunciation.

The trick is to understand the difference between tones, they are four, and the same word can have four (or more) different meanings, according to the tone. Admittedly, to me the tones sound all pretty much the same, but our teacher promised us that they are completely different. It must be, otherwise people would understand at least some of the words I say.

I'm not even starting mentioning how hard learning the characters is, and now we are talking about a "simplified" Chinese, courtesy of Mao who thought the traditional characters were too difficult and imposed to make them "easier".

We learn about ten characters per class, and at the beginning (the very beginning, let's say the first ten characters), I was thrilled: "It's not that difficult after all!" I kept repeating to myself. After thirty characters (I know, just three classes) I had already changed my mind.

Not only the difference between tones is almost undetectable to foreign ears, but many characters are hopelessly similar, with only a couple of strokes marking the distinction between them.

While I'm increasingly less afraid of Shanghai life, I'm starting getting worried about communicating with locals. But I guess, like everything, it's only a matter of time.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In China, where you never say "No"

"Chinese never say 'No'!" Warned us our laoshi.

So do they always say 'Yes'? - Was my very first thought. Once again, too easy.

Chinese culture is a fascinating array of unspoken rules that date back thousands of years, how can I understand them in only two months? With a rich oral tradition, Chinese people proudly perpetuate almost unconsciously the lengthy heritage of their ancestors.

I'm usually quite direct in my responses, but I admit some difficulty in delivering a blunt "No" when I get invitations for something I'm not too keen on, so probably at least in this case I won't need to make an effort to adapt to Chinese customs.

Apparently this is also the tradition when it comes to dating: "Careful!" laoshi advised my male classmates this time. "If a girl tells you she's tired, she's just not interested, so admit defeat and leave her alone!"

As long as this happens in contexts such as dating, shopping or among friends, it might be annoying but no harm is made. However, awkward situations might be caused when it comes to business. The whole not-saying-no thing, in fact, rules also in trade and economy, and this is why Westerners consider doing business with Chinese people exhausting.

Apparently, if a Chinese businessman says "I will think about it", he means "No way"; on the contrary, if he says "Wo qing ni chi fan" (I invite you for a meal), there is hope.

Although so far I've been regarding the Chinese not exactly fussy when it comes to manners, probably they consider saying a direct "No" a sign of impoliteness, and they always prefer a "middle way".

This "middle way" of thinking is actually the foundation of Chinese culture: the word "China" itself in Mandarin sounds Zhong Guo, looks 中国 and means "the middle country". This is not to stress that China is the "centre" of the universe, but it's because the Chinese think the philosophy of staying "half-way" is the best one in pretty much all daily occasions.

This entails also never be "too sad" nor "too happy," for that matter, because after a too strong sentiment, inevitably follows the opposite. Now, although I think (and have experienced) that this is often true, and I do admire their ability to master their feelings, I'm not quite sure I'll be able to do the same.

Let's see if my stay in China will teach me how to be "less Italian" and better manage situations with a too high emotional burden. Starting point? Unavoidably Confucius.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chinese families, baby boy or baby girl?

The Great Wall of China
During Chinese class our laoshi (teacher), along with teaching us the mysteries of her ancient language, gives us also little pearls of oriental wisdom and precious information about China's culture and society.

Last week we studied how to approach people, introduce ourselves and ask for others' names. In China there is the unspoken rule that you cannot ask directly for the personal name if a person is older than you or in a higher position: in this case, you will need to politely ask for the family name.

At this juncture, laoshi told us about the controversial topic of Chinese people preferring to have a baby boy instead of a girl.

As in most countries, also in China the new-born takes his/her father's family name, so in order to keep the name alive through the future generations, when women learnt they were expecting a baby girl, they would have an abortion.

Truth be said, in the (recent) past also in Italy having a baby boy was much preferred, to the extent that when I was born and my grandmother learnt I was a girl, with a hint of disappointment, told my mother just recovering from the birth: "Umm...it's ok too...".

While in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai this practice has disappeared, in other parts of China, especially rural areas in the 1970s and 1980s when the country faced the biggest poverty of modern times, it had started becoming too common.

This has led the Chinese government to come up with a drastic plan: it is now illegal for new parents to check on the sex of the baby. This way women won't get an abortion and the awkward situation of having a nation made only of men will be avoided.

In addition, due to the boom that made China's population reach the figure of 1.3 billion people, the government has adopted the two-child policy, meaning that a family can only have two children, after that the mother can be sterilised or, in case of a third child, the parents would get fined.

This applies only for Chinese people: the law, in fact, exempts from this rule the minorities such as Mongolian and Tibetan that, *because* minorities, have the right to have as many children as they wish.

I was pleased to learn that in China women keep their own family name and don't take their husband's one, as it happens for example in the UK. "We must thank Mao for giving us this power," told us our laoshi in a burst of national pride. I have to agree, in addition to avoiding all the hassle of changing the name in ID papers, I wouldn't be very willing to give up the name my father gave me.
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