Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Episode Eight: The Sister Visits with Cookies

Tour Guide Instead of Tourist

While you all were eating your way into a tryptophan- and carb-induced comas, dozing off in front of the t.v. or nodding off and dropping your book onto the floor, my sister, Dona was experiencing the highs and lows of being a tourist in China. It was my first opportunity to trot someone around what have become my stomping grounds in Xi’an.

If you ask my friend Aks (a computer science professor here) the purpose of my sister’s visit, he would say it was to bring him his new iphone. He wanted the gold one. He couldn’t get the gold one in China – at least not yet. Aks also contends that the apple products sold in China are not only of lesser quality, but hazardous to one’s health. He tells of a colleague who could register the radiation from his Chinese iphone on the science lab’s Geiger counter; when Aks held his American iphone up to the Geiger, no radiation. I guess when you have over a billion citizens, you don’t have to worry about product safety standards.

I ordered Aks the phone using my Visa card and had it delivered to my sister’s house. Aks is the kind of techno-geek who can’t stand not having the latest gadget. Before he would trust Dona as his mule, he did his research on her. He knew where she lived, where she worked, how long she had worked there, what she did in the job before that, and likely her income. He also showed me photos of her house and work place via Google.Maps. He tracked the minute-by-minute shipping of his precious phone from Hong Kong (where they are made) to China, to L.A. to Indiana, to Dona’s house. Then, as Dona was traveling here, he tracked her flight. He hardly slept the night before she (really, the phone) arrived, so excited was he about his golden apple. He was at my door at 7:30 a.m. to get it.

In other words, my sister was Aks’ mule for his Apple crack.

I, however, had no ulterior motive. Z and I were just glad she came to visit. My sister is the model house guest. First of all, she came bearing chocolate chips, good coffee, and brown sugar. Gold, frankincense and myrrh I could not care less about. But I needs me coffee and cookies. Second of all, she eases into the morning. No getting up at the crack of darkness to be the first in line or to beat the crowd or to get to the warriors before the rest of the crazy tourists.

Sidebar: Vacations are meant for no alarm clocks.

I hope Debbie and Jennifer are reading this. They tried to get my ass out of bed at 3:30 a.m. to go climb 14,000 foot mountains a couple summers ago in Colorado. I think I fell for that ridiculousness the first day. But after one day of stumbling blindly uphill on rocks, walking fast to keep warm in August, and trying to be cheerful about it, I stayed behind the next day. After they slugged off to the mountains at o-dark hundred, jangled by the wee hour, I went back to bed, got up when there was sun in the sky, had a latte, had a massage, and had a real vacation.

Also, Dona is up for an adventure and trying new things. She ordered the fish soup, for example. I think she stopped eating once she discovered the fish head bobbing along with the other parts. She did blanch when I told her I had discovered a restaurant that sold dog meat.

Dona wanted to try some traditional Chinese acupuncture. The campus “hospital” (more like a glorified M.A.S.H. clinic) has an entire section of the second floor devoted to “traditional medicine.” You have to walk through the row of people sitting in the hall hooked up to I.V.’s and past some really stinky bathrooms to get there, but once you get there, the traditional medicine area is something worth writing about.

There were people there getting acupuncture, of course. There were also a few people rendered incapacitated by some pretty archaic-looking traction devices (could be torture gear, for all I know). There were also a couple men who were holding something big and square down the front of their pants. I didn’t ask. And I tried not to stare too long. No privacy in a Chinese hospital, just a big ward with rows of cots. Some of the cots do have little curtains to pull, but they only hide half the story.

This part of the hospital smelled strongly of what we originally thought was hash. The air was thick with a haze that could rival a Grateful Dead concert. I later found the source was not marijuana, but smudge sticks. Smudge sticks are wads of sage and cedar (and other herbs/grasses/plants, depending on what you are trying to do) wrapped tightly together to form a thick stogie-like thing. The stick is lit and while it is smoking, the stick/smoke is held and waved around the offending area of the body to extract the bad energy.

Some Native American tribes use smudge sticks to purify areas before traditions and rituals. Some new-age-y people use smudges to purify houses or rooms, to get rid of bad energy. The Chinese traditional doctors use them to draw out the bad energy from the ailing body part.

There was no smudging involved in the acupuncture, but once the needles were in, the doc did attach some electrodes, which pulsed energy into the needles. The procedure lasted for about 30 minutes. Dona paid $10, but that was $10 for three treatments . . . she was told to come back two more times (with a week in-between each treatment) to rid herself of her back pain. Since she was only able to visit once, she will need to see an American acupuncturist to finish the treatment. I bet they charge her more than $3.50 for a 30 minute session.

Besides facilitating Dona getting needles poked into the small of her back, we trotted around to all the big tourist sites in Xi’an. We biked around the wall. We visited the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. We went to the Muslim Quarter. Poked around in the Great Mosque. We shopped and ate street food. We went out to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. We travelled to the local Taoist temple and burnt fake money (Z’s favorite thing to do; you can burn all kinds of things to the gods, but one of the things that Z loves to burn is the fake yuan sold outside the temple).

Some Taoists believe that if you burn something to the gods, it will end up helping your dead ancestors. On the “sweeping the tombs” day (in March) where people pay homage to their dead, people burn all kinds of items: clothes, money, phones and computers. Just to be clear: they aren’t really burning these things. They are burning paper replicas of them.

My question is, “Aren’t the gods smart enough to know that the money isn’t real?”

My next question is, “Why would a dead person need money . . . or an iphone?”

One of the tourist things my sister wanted to do was dress up in traditional Chinese clothing and get our photo taken. These “dress-up” places are at most tourist sites. On the balcony of the Bell Tower there was such a place, so we stopped. The costumes are of traditional Chinese fashion. There are far more options for females than males. Dona chose a lovely red dress and I chose a sky blue version.

Unfortunately, the people who were orchestrating the photo shoot were adamant that I could not wear a dress. Apparently, the idea of two Empresses in one photo was out of the question. No lesbians Empresses. I needed to dress up as the Emperor. No matter how many times I told them that I wanted to wear the blue dress, they insisted that I needed to put on the golden costume of the emperor.


Here I am in traditional Chinese drag. Dona and Z look great. I look like a stuffed toad. Very “emperor like,” I suppose. Z only had one costume option as well: the warrior guard. Z had a mini-battle with the woman posing us because he wanted to hold his spear a certain way and she insisted he hold it another way. Finally, she just took him out of the photo altogether. The official photo has all three of us in it, but there were several taken on Dona’s camera where the recalcitrant warrior was excluded, banished for failing to comply with protocol. Zephaniah adamantly says, “I was trying to protect you, not stab you.”


Because Dona was a first-time visitor, it was interesting to see what she found unusual . . . things that even having been here just four months, I take for granted as “normal.”

1)      American phones can’t call/text Chinese phones. The Great Fire Wall works really, really well. And although Dona was convinced she would eventually get her phone to work in China, it never happened (she could, however, text and call other American phones).

2)      Students on campus do not have hot water in their dorms. They have to go to the public hot-water spigots a couple times a day to fill their thermos for washing, tea-making, and soup-making. There is one public bath on campus so they can shower with hot water and I see students carrying their little shower caddies across campus on a regular basis, bound for the hot showers.

3)      Taxi drivers regularly drive off after hearing where you want to go. It could be they don’t want to go there, it could be it is nap time or lunch time. It could be – upon a closer look -- they don’t want you in their cab. Regardless, they regularly drive off after you tell them where you want to go. Dona was convinced they were driving off because they couldn’t understand my Chinese. Granted sometimes it took them a while to realize what I was saying, but they eventually got it . . . and then drove off: “Nali, nail!”

4)      There is pollution, but it is not so bad that you have to wear a mask. There are always a few people I see each day with masks, but likely they are folks with asthma. Neither Z nor I have suffered more/less upper respiratory junk here than back home.

5)      There are groups of dancers who gather on the public squares and dance every night. It is the night-time version of Tai Chi. You can find lots of different dancing groups: line dancers, middle-eastern style dancing, ballroom dancing, break dancing, square dancing. I haven’t seen polka . . . yet. Note to the Czechs: Visit China. Teach Dance.

6)      Many older men spit and hawk snot out their noses on a regular basis, so watch out. Zephaniah proudly announced the first time someone spit on him (it was about 6 weeks ago in the produce market while I was buying apples). Dona had heard that young women do it, too, but I have never seen a young person (male or female) clear out their nasal passages with quite the same flourish as older men do. At least the sound gives you fair warning of what it about to happen, dodge and look away.

7)      People don’t speak English. If you don’t have it written in Chinese or speak enough Chinese to communicate what you want, good luck. In the tourist areas there are usually some basic English phrases that people understand. But if you try to engage in a conversation, go off script, or venture beyond the tourist areas, you will quickly realize how difficult it is to accomplish simple tasks when language is not shared. Charades rarely works; it mostly garners odd stares: “What the hell is she doing?  Should I call a doctor? Anyone have a smudge stick?”

8)      No one tips in China. And if you try to tip, they refuse the extra money quite adamantly. It takes some getting used to for Americans. I still feel cheap for not tipping.

9)      If you are a tourist, you will be offered a “Big Nose” price (Westerners are called “big noses” for the obvious reason). You can typically get anything you want for half (or less) of the initial price, if you bargain.

10)   Miscellaneous Chinese people will come up and ask to have their picture taken with you. They will want to talk to you. They think you are exotic and interesting. I always wonder what they say when they show the photos to their friends and family: “And then I saw an American! I got my photo taken with her. Freaky, right?”

I am sure Dona could add many more things to this list. It was great to have her come visit. Good to be a tour guide instead of a tourist. Fun to show someone our corner on this side of the world. Even if she was unimpressed with my Chinese skills.

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