It’s noon on West Street in Yangshuo, and the heat rising off the pavement is intensified by the crowds pushing their way past street vendors and novelty shops. I’ve spent the last hour wandering the streets and back alleys looking for a place called China Café, which, I’ve been told, will contain a man named Forest, who claims to be the Chinese Picasso. I had originally planned to hire a student at one of the nearby English schools to work as my guide for the day, but that failed when the students found out that another girl in my group was going to the river to do her story. Now, given the heat today, I can’t blame the students for blowing me off to go for a swim.
I decide to take refuge from the heat in the McDonalds, which the English students told me was the best place to find English-speaking locals, and before I can finish my drink, a young man comes up to chat with me and offers to help me find China Café. Two hours, and countless conversations with random people on the street, later we find China Café, which turns out to be named Café China and is only about a block form the McDonalds. I ask the owner where I can find Forest, and he whips out a phone, flips through his contact list, and hands it over to me.
I’m not really sure what to make of the voice coming through the phone’s speaker. There’s clearly a Chinese accent mixed in with the quickly-spoken English, but there’s also something else. After several “I’m sorry, what did you say’s” Forest exclaims, “Oh, must be my Texas accent.” I’m at a total loss for words, but he agrees to meet me at the café after his lunch, so I wait.
An hour later, the crackling drone of a motorcycle that has seen better days announces Forest’s arrival. His hair is greasy and blown into a mess from the ride over, and his teeth are stained brown from years of smoking Chinese cigarettes. He is wearing an old shirt from a local café where he used to work that has his name embroidered over the company logo and khaki pants covered in holes and dried oil paint. He is the quintessential, almost to the point of being stereotypical, artist.
We sit down to talk. In person, his voice sounds like a pirate’s parrot one with an expansive vocabulary. He explains that he began learning English by watching Forest Gump repeatedly. When he started taking English classes, his teacher chose the name Forest for him because of his strange accent. He tells me about his home in Yangshuo a farmhouse in a village outside of the city his life before he moved here, and his ideas on art. A former painter for the Chinese government, he stresses the importance of expression when creating or teaching art. He refuses to put a price on any of his paintings, instead selling them for the value people put on them, or not selling them at all.
At his gallery, I can see the diversity of his work. The front entrance is covered in charcoal portraits of famous Chinese women. Inside, you can find everything from traditional Chinese watercolor landscapes to Dali-esque surrealist pieces done by one of Forest’s students. Forest describes each of his paintings to me, explaining which event in which dynasty he was trying to capture, or how he mixed styles from certain European periods with Chinese backgrounds to match the times when Europeans came to China.
We sit in his gallery to talk more while he smokes a cigarette, and discuss everything from international politics and America’s wars in the Middle East to preferences on locations to paint he prefers working in the countryside to his gallery on West Street. Forest is, however, careful to avoid making any statements about politics in government in China, aside from his dislike of his government job. As a professional artist in China it’s difficult to balance the expression needed to produce good art with the restrictive nature of the government. For Forest, it was difficult to find work painting after leaving his government job, and he wound up working as a t-shirt painter on West Street. After a few years, he was able to afford his own home, and started teaching traditional Chinese painting classes to local students and foreign tourists. He has since expanded his teaching business to include lessons in Chinese cooking and ping-pong, and has taken on a few students interested in western painting styles. He also started displaying his own work in a gallery in Yangshuo, and has been commissioned to paint pieces for local hotels. Despite his success in Yangshuo, Forest doesn’t seem to have any plans for expansion. He talks about friends who have left the area to teach in the U.S. or take better jobs in China’s larger cities, but he is content to continue teaching in his farmhouse and producing whatever art he is inspired to create. His only plans for expansion involve cleaning out a cave behind his farmhouse to use as a cool spot to paint in the summer, and acquiring a new ping-pong table to keep in his front yard and give lessons on.
A few hours into our hike through the rice terraces outside of PingAn village, and just as the morning clouds were burning off to let the mid-day sun beat down on us, our group met the first of the Yao women. The Yao, one of the more than fifty identified ethnic groups that make up China’s population, live and farm in the mountain villages outside of PingAn. The women cut their hair only two times in their life, once at the age of sixteen, then once more after it has grown to its full length again. They keep the cut hair, and any long strands that fall out over the years, in two strands that they weave into their own hair and wear wrapped on top of their heads (which they are happy to let down for foreign hikers, for a small fee).
Initially, when I met the Yao women along the trail, I thought they were, like the many other women we met on the bus ride and hike up the mountainside to our hotel, simply trying to make a few easy yuan off the silly American tourists who packed way too much junk to carry on a four-but-actually-six hour hike. Forty yuan to carry my bags full of clothes, shampoo, and camera equipment up the side of a mountain? I think not.
Naturally, five minutes later I started feeling the symptoms of sun poisoning and found myself sitting on the steps of the rice terraces, trying to convince myself and the Yao woman who stopped to help me that I would be just fine in a moment. Which was, of course, nonsense. My new Yao friend took my bags, ran off up the mountain to get our trip leader, and, after returning, helped me cool off in the runoff from a rice paddy and did something that involved a very up-close-and-personal head rub to help relieve my symptoms.
Standing on a limestone step on the side of a mountain with my head pulled down, only a few inches away from hers, I came to realize that I had been wrong about these women. They don’t roam the steps of this mountainside searching for tourists to make some easy money from. This place is their home, and the people who come to hike to their village are their guests. Everyone needs to make money, and with the recent surge of tourism that has hit these once-pristine villages, the Yao women are making theirs by taking care of the people passing by. For them, it’s a way to make sure that more tourists will come back, and though they won’t all get to know them the way we did, it will bring more growth and wealth to their home something they want for the future benefit of their families, but something we, as the outsiders, dread, knowing that the beautiful landscape won’t survive the commercialization that comes with tourism.
In this place time periods collide. We have seen so many familiar sites; the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, karst mountains, and the Terracotta Soldiers. We all know a bit of China from books, movies, and magazines, but seeing these places in person has been been a different experience.
As I huffed and puffed my way up th Great Wall, I could imagine myself as a soldier in full metal armour. There was no smog that day, so it was easy to picture another time. In Tiananmen Square, I recognized the lightposts from the famous photograph and realized that 1989 was only 22 years ago. No matter where I stood, Mao gazed at me from his immense portrait. As we rode a bamboo raft down the Li River, it’s clear why so many artists were inspired by the landscape. Now the muted colors of plastic litter decorate the trees on the banks. When we traveled to the Central Plains, herds of horsemen were not far from my mind. And the sheer number of terracotta soldiers was impressive, every face really is different.
China is not only a country of ancient and familiar sites. It is full of enormous cities, vast tracks of land, neon lights, fashion, and millions and millions of people with their own individul stories. I stare out the window on a 24 hour train ride back to Guilin, which has slowly exended to 28 hours. I see nameless cities, but know that they are not nameless to the people who inhabit them.
In Moon, there is one road. At the end of that road is a grouping of farmer’s wives that sit in shade, jumping to sunlight as tourists pass by foot or bike. They may sell warm water but the real money is in guiding. My first encounter at the end of this road in Moon involved just such a water and a promise. As I stopped to wait for a bus, one turned to three and four until I was surrounded by women sternly forcing obligations from me. “I’ll be back tomorrow…I promise I will come here…I can’t make any other promises…I will be back tomorrow.” Of course, they wanted me to hire them for a guided tour of Moon Cave, a local tourist spot, not for the graces of they’re company. When I returned that night to find them gone and I was without a story, the “cave women” (as they came to be regarded) took on a new focus in my mind.
When I got there in the morning, they were waiting with smiles and jokes. In my approach, they saw a sale but after a friendly reminder that I promised to return and not purchase, I got my pass. I was accepted as one of the girls after only a few friendly gestures from a smart tongue. These women were gritty and in order to get their respect, I needed to grit up my mannerisms.
Chinese women work extremely hard and the farming families are an extreme example of this scenario. With that being said, tourism opens a golden for these girls to hit the bikes after the cooking in the morning and off to the tree, where the banter of family and local gossip becomes a living folk odyssey. The money they could make from a guide day is the equivalent of a month’s worth of farming in some cases.
At some point throughout the day, a male fruit farmer pulls up on a moped. His back rest holds a styrofoam cooler filled with leftover berries from a day’s worth of sales. As if there has been no food had in weeks the women dart for the box. Picking, pulling, smelling and squeezing the berries, the women yell like banshees as the contents are moved into small plastic bags. At the end of the scramble, green leaves and insect infested fruit is all that is left. I was forced to eat about 10 of the picked berries, which were wonderful and then it was back to the shade for us all. The commotion had ended and everyone had eaten. As the farmer packed up his now empty cooler, smiles and jokes filled scene once more.
Each of these women had two children and all wanted them to go to a university. The money they attempt to make in the shade goes toward such hopes. Currently, all the women have at least 1 child enrolled in university. They are a fond memory and I wish them the best. They’re names are Wu Yi Fong, Chou Di, Tsiou Giou and Tsiou Di.
Our third stop on this whirlwind immersion trip was Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. We’d be staying at Shiyou University in the International dorms. Arriving at the airport, we were greeted by a group of college students and a sign that read “WVU.” Riding in a small bus to their campus, we all instantly clicked, talking non-stop about shared interests in music, basketball, and pop culture, learning quick about each other’s countries, lifestyles, educations, and more.
After arrival and a quick lunch at the campus canteen, we were treated to lectures by two of their professors. The first gave us an introduction to the ancient city of Xi’an’s history and the second covered media in China. Following the presentations, we chatted with students of various majors. I talked with Ezra, Christina, and Du about media in China versus America, our views and preconceptions about each other’s countries, and the realities of each. I was blown away by how friendly and interested in us these students were, but had not yet realized how close we would become.
Anna, Adelle, Dylan, Wendy, and Hao took turns accompanying us during our days in the huge town teeming with history. Wanting to practice their English and tour guiding skills, they made many of the arrangements that filled our time. With them, we visited the Muslim Quarter, saw the Terracotta Warriors, got a taste of Xi’an city transportation, and attended a Tang Dynasty performance. As time passed, we realized more and more how similar we all were. Our connections grew.
The last night, a few of us took part in one of their favorite recreations, joining them at a karaoke bar. We spent the night singing American pop classics, hearing some of their Chinese favorites and even fitting in West Virginia’s soul-felt “Country Roads.” The night closed with Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a song they loved and one that I had always found rather annoying. From now on, however, I’ll hold it dear. It’ll remind me of some of the nicest people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, and the relationships that grew between us.
Over our two and a half days in Xi’an, I grew to adore these students who we’d been spending so much time with and who had gone to so much trouble to make our stay and experience in their city a good one. We had our goodbyes twice before the real thing, always afraid it’d be the last time we’d see each other before our departure. The final farewell, Thursday morning before we piled into the taxis that would take us to the airport for our last trans-country flight, was the hardest. Just like every morning, they waited outside our dorm for us, ready to help. At the gate, luggage packed and taxis waiting, we took turns hugging and shared parting words. “Friendship has no limitations,” Anna quietly said to me just before I got in the car. We must have hugged at least five times over those last fifteen minutes. The tears that had begun when she gave me a necklace to remember her by came on full force as the taxi pulled out of the drive and I looked back at them a final time.
I wish these words that I write could do this experience and what it meant to me justice. They don’t. I arrived at Shiyou University impressed by these young people’s enthusiasm to make our stay successful, but unaware of the potential connections that loomed. By the end, we had each developed close relationships with certain students. I walked linking arms with at least one of the girls at many times, I shared my own life stories and learned theirs, we belted “Near far, wherever you are, I believe that the heart does go on.” We exchanged email addresses and will stay in contact, filling each other in on our lives and experiences from opposite sides of the world. I know that I will see one, if not all of them again, whether it be when I make it to China again or when I’m able to host them in the States and hopefully show them as wonderful of a time as they showed me.
Xi’an was a brief stop for us between Yangshuo and Beijing. We weren’t able to see as much of it as one would like, but my time there was one of the most valuable to me because of the souls who’s paths crossed with mine and the relationships that I developed.
Beautiful, charismatic, intelligent, innocent. Susie. Getting to know her was not just a great experience, it was a life changing event that can hardly be put into words. My perceptions of China and it’s people transformed in an instant. Before I was the outsider; the six-headed carnival attraction. I was the giant redhead whose appearance apparently screamed, “Take my picture!” Susie and her friends took me under their wing and accepted the “foreigner” and everything that came with me.
I went to the Zhuoyue English College with the intention of hiring a student as a translator. I was determined to go to the river and dive in after a story. I approached Susie and asked her if she knew of anyone who would be interesting enough to do a photo story on, and her instant reply was, “Me. I want you to do your story on me.” I was blown away, but couldn’t deny the offer even if it wasn’t what I had envisioned as my perfect subject. Looking back now, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
Susie and I headed back to her apartment after school where the connection between us felt as if we had known each other since kindergarten. After passing her neighbor in the hall, she turned to me and whispered with a giggle, “I have gossip!! Last week I saw him coming out of her room- as she points to the room next door-wrapped in a towel!” Her innocent perspective on life melted my heart.
Since my initial goal was to attempt some elaborate story on Susie (which I now know was impossible to do in a day in a half), she suggested I join her and some classmates for dinner. Needless to say, “some” classmates turned into about forty students and four teachers. They embraced me with open arms, ordering me vegetarian dishes and making sure I was happy with the food. For the first time in China I didn’t feel like the outsider; I finally felt like I belonged somewhere.
The following day I was invited to bike to the river with Susie, Bruce, Ada, Jerry, Donald, Sky, and Tamara. We jumped on bright pink bicycles and rode through the bustling streets of Yongshuo, all the way out into the open plains. Since the Chinese seem to spend a lot of their time eating, of course the first stop on our trip was lunch. I found myself standing in front of an overgrown field with a path that zigzagged in and out of numerous gardens where you could walk through and pick your own watermelons and cucumbers. The seven of us sat under a straw pavilion where we eagerly dug into our fruit with a giant butcher knife. Lunch was served with a 12-pack of local beer, the food was amazing, but the time spent with those kids topped it all. I learned Chinese dining customs and even mastered chopsticks?well?sort of.
The river was also a time to take a step back and observe the students through my camera. I watched as the boys stripped down to their underwear and plummeted into the clear, cool water. Susie and Ada tiptoed off of the bank and were instantly bombarded with splashes from the boys. Some decided to swim upstream to a small waterfall while I followed the girls through ankle deep mud in the neighboring farmer’s field. The heat was unbearable so into the water I went with my clothes still on.
Time flew by and before I knew it 5:30 had crept up on me and I had to make it to the Italian restaurant for WVU tripmate Barbara’s birthday celebration. Panicking, I grabbed my gear, said goodbye, hopped onto my pink bicycle, and peddled my heart out for the next six miles. I sped off back through Yongshuo with my red pigtails flapping in the wind and my sunburned skin glowing for all the countryside to see.
By Barbara Yanero
Traveling on motor scooter with Fung for the day was such a necessary way to see the city. We started out on West Street in YangShuo, headed to the farmer’s market in Fu Li, visited the rice noodle factory and finished up at Gan’s Noodle Shop.
At first, Xi’an only appears to be a huge industrial city. On the drive from the airport, I stared with dislike at the dingy concrete buildings, neon lights, and terrifying traffic. However, within the metropolis is the small Muslim Quarter. You are greeted by the spicy smells of grilled meats and Uighur men and women cooking bread over open flames. The outdoor stalls are lit by single light bulbs hanging from strings. There are a variety of ethnicities, evidence of the city’s rich history. Once a major stop on the Silk Road, it is not difficult to imagine oneself in another time.
Reflections by a Chef
By Barbara Yanero
We headed out to Liquin for the best roast duck in Beijing, but what we got was something beyond the food.
We had made reservations for the famed duck the night before and the concierge told us that they were only able to reserve a duck and not a table, that’s how busy Liquin roast duck is.
So, I took what I could get and settled on the duck and not the table. When we arrived, we had to wait for an hour to be seated, so we patiently took our seats outside the restaurant on the iron chairs decorated with red velvet cushions.
Finally, our number was called, we took our seats at the table and food arrived immediately. First, it was sautéed peanuts in a light vinegar sauce, followed by coleslaw consisting of cucumbers, purple and white cabbage, and carrots in a spicy, tangy vinegar sauce.
Then came two- sided ramekins filled with julienned spring onions on one side and plum sauce on the other. As well as julienned cucumbers, and braised eggplant in a sweet and hot chili sauce.
Now for the main event, the bird arrived tableside and was neatly filleted and portioned on two plates for the table.
I sat for a moment, puzzled and thought about how I wanted to eat Beijing duck the right way. The waitress noticed me stumbling and immediately approached the table. “You don’t want to eat like a westerner and pour the sauce all over the pancake,” said Jacklin Zhang.
Then she showed me the proper way to do it. She took a piece of the duck with the chopstick and dipped it in the sauce, then took the lightly dipped piece of bird and spread it on the pancake.
Next, Zhang told me that the julienne spring onion goes on top of the duck, “only as much as you’re used too,” she said.
“Followed by the cucumber, and all the other dishes standalone and can be eaten independently,” she said. “Now, fold it neatly like an envelope and eat it like it was meant to be eaten.”
We thanked her for the input, she smiled and said,”It’s my responsibility, if i don’t tell you, who will?”
I took her advice and made the pancake, the flavors mingled like a harmonious marriage.
The peanuts in the vinegar sauce broke up the richness of the nut, what a great idea, I thought to myself.
The eggplant was tender and braised in the spicy- sweet, balanced sauce and the coleslaw. Well… I had wished I came up with that dish.
Zhang knew so much about the process of this duck and the restaurant, I was curious how long she had worked at Liquin.
“My father started this restaurant in 1991 and in the first month of business, he only sold four ducks,” she said. “Now, it’s hard to get a table.”
Zhang continued,”A lot of people make roast duck in Beijing with charcoal or electric, but my father learned how to make it in a brick oven, only using fruitwood.” The only way it should be made.
Tourists and locals alike rely on the drivers of Yangshuo. I imagine that in the course of a working day, they hear little more than “How much?” and “Take me there.” From the start of our stay in this small, but crowded, riverside town, these motorists captured my interest. They range from young to old, are both women and men, and drive vehicles ranging from the classic compact to large van, motorcycle, to the local form of Chinese transportation, a small vehicle with a motorcycle front pulling an open-air mini-trailer with benches. Our assignment was to each find and develop a story idea to execute over our four night stay in Yangshuo.
After a full day of research, being driven from town to village to town and then back to our Inn, I landed on my idea. I would profile the drivers of the town. My idea was to meet, speak to, and ride with a number of different people. Starting out the next day the first step was to find a translator. It was a complicated process, but eventually I found a guy named Neal to help me out.
With Neal acting as the middleman, I approached my first subject. The motorcycle driver let me ask various questions. “How long have you been working as a driver?” “Do you enjoy it?” “What did you do before?” “What would you rather do?” “Have you been outside of Yangshuo or China and if not where would you go?” and “Do you have a family” were among my standards. After a difficult time getting each other’s thoughts across, my job was almost done. I just needed a photo. He declined. I was not happy. On to the next one. The realization that this would be harder than anticipated set in.
We headed for the bus stop which seemed an obvious location for the task at hand. I decided to take a new approach. I would hire someone to take me somewhere and ask him questions along the way. We found Yangbai, a van driver, who agreed to the arrangement. Although I was getting a ride across town to somewhere that I didn’t need to go, I was granted time for him to become comfortable with me and hopefully make some photographs.
Fifteen minutes later, our short ride was over. Right away, we began looking for another driver to take us back to town. A man in a similar van to the first pulled over and Neal worked to make him understand my request. He declined, but thinking quick, I turned on my camera and showed him the photos of the last driver with whom I worked. He looked and hesitantly agreed. As he drove, I asked him questions through Neal and jotted down his answers. When I thought he’d become comfortable with me, I began to photograph him, even moving to the front seat when other passengers entered. This was better than the last interaction, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted one more subject.
We walked to an area in which motorcyclists wait for work and discussed our game plan. Many of them were staring, just as many locals do with foreigners, but one young man in particular caught my eye. I’ll call him the Chinese Leonardo DiCaprio. I showed him my Inn’s address, and he nodded consent. He could take me. Neal translated my questions as I jotted down answers and took a few photos. I thanked the young English language student and we parted before I hopped on the back of my driver’s bike with camera in hand. It took awhile, but I eventually became comfortable enough, letting go of one hand and then the next, to make photos as we drove down the long road that led to my Inn. We winded in and out of tour buses, taxis, and bicyclists as I experimented with my camera at various angles. And then it was over. We were at the entrance to the Inn, I thanked him for his help and patience, and watched as he drove away.
From the various rejections I received trying to make photos of the drivers to attempting to get my questions translated correctly, there were a number of challenges. I only made three profiles of Yangshuo drivers, but I accomplished what I set out to. I went out on my own, and although anxious and a bit fearful of failure, I approached and communicated with people in a country completely foreign to me. Next time, I will set out with the memory and knowledge from this experience and make it a little bit further.
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