Monday, January 26, 2009

a note on banality

my friend Amy wrote in an email that travel is often romanticized in hindsight, and while there have definitely been moments worth romanticizing, it's true that a lot of the more mundane details get glossed over in the re-telling. because who really wants to hear about the fact that you need to BYO napkins when you go out in most chinese restaurants, or that a lot of your time gets spent figuring out where you are and where you're trying to go, or that you sometimes find yourself getting excited over the smallest things (confession: i ate mcdonald's for lunch today. and i enjoyed every bite)...?

when i told people i was quitting my job to backpack through asia for two months, nearly everyone expressed envy. they (i was guilty of this too) pictured exotic adventures, bizarre tales of unusual foods, cozy evenings in the hostel bar with fellow backpackers from around the world and funny stories of miscommunication while using the universal language of travelers, i.e. hand gestures and apologetic smiles. and while i have indeed been lucky enough to experience some of these things, there have been plenty of small things that have been just as memorable, and just so you don't think my trip has been one great wall-esque epic adventure after another, i hereby present you with a list of a few of those more mundane memories:
  • i can now pee in a chinese squat toilet in a moving train. if that's not skill, i don't know what is.
  • using a combination of one city bus (15 minutes), one airport shuttle (40 minutes), one airplane (two hours), one minibus (45 minutes) and one subway (30 minutes), i single-handedly navigated the trip from hangzhou to hong kong today. i felt very proud.
  • i am craving an expensive sandwich on seeduction bread from the austin whole foods like nobody's business.
  • when i was perusing a market in beijing, i got all flustered because this lady kept pointing at my face and yelling something in chinese (i think there's something in their dna that makes them yell everything in an angry-sounding voice. they could be mourning the loss of their favorite pet yet it always comes out sounding angry. that's probably not a very nice thing to say but i had that same reaction every single day in china). i kept wondering what i'd done wrong, maybe the 2 yuan hairpins i had just purchased were actually 5 yuan, maybe she hated my guts, maybe she was offended i didn't speak mandarin. later i realized she was telling me i was pretty. oops.
  • in a similar vein, there is little differentiation of "outdoor voice" and "indoor voice" in china. if somene's cell phone goes off in a crowded subway train, the owner always answers it and always proceeds to have an extremely loud phone conversation for the entire train to hear. this is when i REALLY wish i knew mandarin so i could know whether the person was having an intensely private conversation at ten billion decibels surrounded by 400 complete strangers. also, on the train from shanghai to hangzhou, multiple people around me were watching DVDs on their laptops. with no headphones on.

i'll add more to the list someday but that should be enough for now.

btw, i'm in hong kong now. i arrived this evening and checked into my hotel room -- i am splurging in hong kong and spending $45/night on my room. since it's such a big city, there aren't many cozy backpacker hostels like there were in xi'an and hangzhou, and i can't afford one of the nicer ones, so i got a single room in a very budget hotel which is basically comprised of 55 rooms spread throughout a very old high-rise building. my room is impossibly small (the bathroom has a shower head but no shower stall... you just kind of let the water spray everywhere, including over the toilet, and make sure you keep the bathroom door and toilet lid shut) and rather dreary but somehow it all works. i felt very bizarre as i unpacked my bag today... you mean i don't have to lock up my stuff when i head out for the day? i don't have to schlep to the shower carrying everything in a shower kit?

after i checked in i headed out into the city to get my bearings and ran straight into the city's chinese new year celebrations. i watched the parade with throngs of fellow celebrators and one of the first things i noticed was how diverse hong kong is. after two weeks in china where everyone has black hair and brown eyes, it's weird to see all these people who aren't... well, chinese. there are plenty of white folk, brown folk, black folk, etc., and although hong kong is technically back under chinese rule it definitely feels like a completely different world.

that and the fact that they have toilet paper and soap and hot water in public bathrooms and even offer (gasp!) napkins in restaurants...

1 comment:

  1. the BYO paper products thing is interesting... why such a shortage?