Akhilesh Pant, Political and Economic Development in China, Summer 2012
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact type of satisfaction that I felt after going an entire day without speaking a word of English. It wasn’t as much pride as it was a sense of resourcefulness and empowerment that could only come after being in China for a while. Nearly two months in and suddenly this place is really starting to feel homey. I waited this long to post because I wanted to say something meaningful (hey I guess that’s not up to me to decide, but I’ll try), aside from the awesome touristy things we’ve done so far. I’m going to write a few wrap-up posts this week for me to gather my experiences and put them in the context of everything I’ve learned about Chinese people and China so far. So here’s how I got up most of China’s east coast over the course of a day, easily becoming my favorite day of this trip.
After getting to the Hangzhou railway station at around 10 AM, I was intent on finding an internet cafe to kill 3 hours before the bullet train arrived. I knew the sign that had the character 网on it meant the place was internet-related, so I went in. Imagine at least a hundred people in a room playing video games – anything from groups of 15-year old kids playing shooting games to couples playing the PC equivalent of Dance Dance Revolution. Once I had given the lady up front money (she definitely hadn’t seen many foreigners come through, let alone an Indian person), I sat down to a screen FULL of icons and pictures of celebrities, almost none of which I could read. And worse yet, the Great Firewall is even more limiting at public internet cafes, so I ended up just being stuck on Chinese websites and reading what I could, all while being forced to breathe cigarette smoke from the guy next to me who was somehow simultaneously racing a virtual car and chain smoking.
Eventually, I got on the bullet train next to a couple who immediately greeted me: “Ah! Laowai! Ni hao, laowai!” (“Oh, a foreigner! Hello, foreigner” – actually a rather affectionate term) and then a hesitant and less confident “h-hello!” But my response saying that I can speak some Chinese prompted one of the most genuine, appreciative smile I’ve seen in a long time. The man ended up talking to me for all 6 hours, a Hangzhou native who served in the army for 8 years in Shanghai, guarding the subway system. As an “apology” for not being able to speak English, the man offered me pounds of vacuum-packed chicken legs, 5 handfuls of sunflower seeds, crackers, seaweed and bottles of water. I ended up having to just eat slowly so that he would stop offering me more, despite saying “I’m full” repeatedly.
What really struck me about this man was that despite his theoretically patriotic army background, he could not stop praising the United States. He genuinely believed that my simple phone was somehow “better” than his iPhone. I told him that no matter where you buy a phone, a good amount of the manufacturing process likely happens in China, but no matter what, he stuck to his “meiguo mai de hao” (~”American phones are better”). Likewise, he felt the lifestyle in America is more lavish, that the American army treats soldiers better comparatively, and that houses in America are invariably larger and more comfortable. But he never expressed any envy or desire to somehow be part of this place; in fact, I would say he was almost showing a certain level of pride that China has not reached that level yet, but that he can be part of its development as a hotel manager. It’s a kind of nationalistic sentiment that felt gentle and internal, which contrasted with the kind of overt nationalism I often see in the United States. It’s an interesting distinction to look at, and something I plan to study in the future.
In general, the man didn’t have the most bubbly or “warm” social disposition, but through his curiosity, his willingness to share his life story and his incessant offerings of food, I felt a level of comfort that I almost never feel with English-speaking strangers. There was certainly an humbling sense for both of us, knowing that we each had our weaknesses in communicating with each other. But we never switched out of Chinese, and at that moment I felt a new kind of appreciation for my two years of studying Chinese. These are the kinds of experiences that can’t be planned and require a degree of willingness to “dive in,” but it’s something I know could have only happened by coming to China and spending a summer here.