PERSONAL NOTE: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China. It costs too much to order a copy from USA. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. Peace, Steve, usa, March 21, 2019 email@example.com blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
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Benny, now working for the Chinese central government in an office in Xiamen, was at the airport to greet me, after an absence of about five months. Now I had returned to China as a common American tourist to spend some time with some of my beloved students, and their parents in different cities. And I had deliberately arranged my flight schedule so Benny could be at the airport to see me. I chose a weekend because he had to work during the week. This was a Saturday and Benny would be spending the weekend with me. Not all Saturdays are free for him, he told me. We took the airport express bus—for 10 yuan, about 50 yuan for a regular taxi—to Xiamen Ferry, then a boat to Zhangzhou, then hopped on a regular school bus to the campus area where I had lived for the past seven long years. One minute I was in USA, the next minute I was in China, the same person but now I will try to talk, behave, eat and live like any of the Chinese around me. Though a few locals outside the campus had labeled me a Korean or a Japanese, a few mentioned “you sounded like someone from Singapore.” What a revelation that my voice had betrayed my place of origin. Only once I had to prove to a doubting shopkeeper that I am an American citizen, showing him my American passport with my photo (true identification) in it.
I wanted to see Benny because I needed his assistance to procure a Chinese SIM-card for my mobile phone, and a new pair of bifocals which would cost me an arm and a leg in USA, even with my insurance. Benny took me to a shop right outside the XMU campus and for 1,000 yuan (slightly over 150 USD) I could have the best frame and the lenses for my new eye glasses. From there we went to my temporary lodging at Dream Hotel outside Zhangzhou campus, back to where I had spent seven years living and working.
Jay, a sophomore, studying Tourism Management because he loves to travel all over the world and meet different kinds of people, had arranged for me while I was still in USA to stay at the Dream Hotel for five days. Instead of 85 yuan a day, he was able to make a deal with the owner for 80 yuan a night. Because I am a laowai from America. (Laowai literally means “old outsider”, or “foreigner”). And in this community a laowai is usually a foreign teacher, well respected by most Chinese in the community where I worked and lived. Jay, originally a student in Computer Science, and I met when he attended an Ensanity meeting because he wanted to improve his written and spoken English, and since then I had become his mentor. Jay impressed me as a student who was not afraid to experiment anything that is new or foreign and at that meeting, he proved himself the center of attention because of his fearless self. While most students were reluctant to speak some English, Jay was smiling and enjoying
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himself speaking English freely, like someone who was used to speaking English, without hesitation or restrain. He stole the show the whole evening. I decided I would work with him to improve his oral English and took him under my wings. Soon Jay would be going to Australia and spend a gap year living and working in Australia. This is Australia’s first year inviting 5,000 Chinese students, between the ages of 19-25, to come and live and work in Australia. When Jay first heard about this, he went ahead to prepare and take the qualifying English test, required of all students interested to apply for this program: Working Holiday Australia. He passed the English test, and was selected as one of the 5,000 to spend a gap year in Australia.
Jay found Dream Hotel for me. Located just outside the campus of TKK College. I liked Dream Hotel because it has everything I would want in a hotel: a clean room with wifi and the internet and a working table, a nice double bed, a TV, an electric kettle, and hot shower. You can always borrow an electric hair dryer at the front desk. With as many empty rooms in the building, the young owner and his pregnant wife still slept in a bed with a mosquito net next to the front desk. This is China.
Dream Hotel is located in a small village town, like a dead-end street in the West. In America, a dead-end street means “a street with only one way in or out”, a blind alley or a cul-de-sac. Literally it means this is the end of a street and there is no road leading you anywhere. The only traffic in this college town is cars from nearby towns or villages, for people going to and from work nearby.
That means Dream Hotel serves only the people living in the small village town. And most of the guests would be parents coming to visit their children in the school. Not a magnet for international travelers or tourists or busy entrepreneurs on their way to a Shenzhen or a Beijing nearby. It is a small village town—isolated from mega-cities in China—serving the needs of a growing population now living in many newly built highrise apartments, popping up like weeds luxuriating in the subtropical rain and sunshine. This Dream Hotel, like many other similar hotels outside the gates of the campus, is very popular with young college lovers who need to rent it for one hour or more, depending on their sexual hunger or stamina. Walking by these places one is tempted to spy on who is going in or coming out of these love hotels. Mostly sex-starved students, who else? This is China.
Benny and I arrived at Dream Hotel. Spying on sex was not on our radar, but going out to enjoy the local foods and snacks was the first thing in my agenda for my first night back in mainland China. That is what I missed the most living in USA; the Chinese cuisine in China (not USA) is simply unbeatable anywhere in the world. CCTV aired A Bite Of China, a TV series about how the locals would search
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for the abundant raw materials and ingredients in different regions in China, and share their local favorites or dishes using these materials. Many in China tuned in to this show. It became so popular, they continued the series. They say Chinese love eating and the series has continued and expanded, now also seen on American TV. A friend and I were eating some Chinese food in a Chinese restaurant one day in USA, and we saw an episode of the CCTV A Bite Of China on the big TV screen. In America, you can order any TV series shown on PBS channels, but not in China.
After settling down in the hotel and a hot shower (there was chill in the winter air) we were out—hungry like some homeless people—looking for anything that was appealing and appetizing to our taste buds. Benny and I went from stall to stall, hawker to hawker, and smelled and pointed and collected at least five or six different kinds of street foods, which continue to attract countless students each evening to taste street cooking. Singapore or Hong Kong used to have the best street foods in the world, not necessarily the foods advertised and served in expensive international hotels or fancy restaurants, graced by the rich and the famous. We brought them together and sat at a table, with light shower all around us, enjoying a simple but a great delicious meal, while watching countless boys and girls going by searching for foods, some could be on the way to the love hotels. This is China.
My next concern was the speed-train tickets Benny had ordered for me when I was still in USA, and I told him I must pick them up in a day or two before I embarked on my long journey to see friends and students during this coming Chunjie holidays (the Chinese Spring Festival fell on February 8, 2016). I returned to China for this purpose. Very soon, some time in late January, the whole of China would be on the move, to return home for the annual Chinese New Year or Chunjie, like the migratory birds to a warmer climate and place south each year in USA, or the great spectacular annual migration of millions of zebra, wildebeest and other antelope in East Africa. While these wild animals have their powerful legs to carry them through wilderness and harsh landscapes and rugged terrains, people in China now have available to them, regular trains (especially for those who want a comfortable bed to sleep or rest), speed trains, motorcycles, cars, taxis, buses, and planes. The key to happiness this time of the year is to buy or order the tickets way ahead of time, though quite a few have chosen not to return home for this, the most important holiday celebration in the Chinese culture.
To pick up the tickets soon is an urgent matter. Why? Remember the Chinese New Year is just around the corner. And the great migration will soon begin. Timing is up-most in my mind right now. Why a sense of urgency to get the tickets?
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Youli, who will receive his PhD in Biology from XMU and I traveled one early morning in May, 2015 from his Xiangan campus (a new campus of XMU outside the island and city of Xiamen) to the Xiamen north train station for our train tickets to celebrate the WuYi holidays in Fuzhou, his hometown. WuYi stands for May First. WuYi celebrations are less common in democratic countries, unlike countries like China, Cuba, Russia or North Korea where workers—the proletariat—are still considered the economic pillars of the nations. His fellow PhD colleague, his junior, drove us to the train station, confident that we were an hour early before the departure time. Little did we realize there were “millions” already lined up at the windows, some to purchase and negotiate for tickets, others to change their departure times, still others, like us, to pick up the tickets for our journey to Fuzhou. Gradually, I sensed sudden panic in Youli’s voice and face because as minutes and now seconds were ticking away, there was no hope of us ever getting to the front of a long line—that seemed to stretch from China to Russia—to get our tickets for the departing train. The truth is: the train left the station without us. And you might as well forget the refund. This is China.
We wandered in the ticket area like confused fall leaves blown by the wind, lost for words to describe our tear-inducing misfortune beyond our control. Honestly, we should have reported to the train station five hours ahead of time because most travelers this time of the year would not follow the rules of society. Many would follow their jungle instinct and they became ruthless monsters, everyone fighting for a seat in the train. It was simply survival for those who would stomp on your feet, trample over your body, and you were simply one of the obstacles in their push to get to the front of the lines. You could not be timid. And because we were timid, the train had left without us. Until a happy stranger—smelling the opportunity to exploit dejected souls like us—approached us and promised he would drive us to far-away Fuzhou for a price that, at that instant, seemed acceptable and doable because, in truth, we had no alternative but deserved to be exploited for a non-negotiable high transportation fee! We took the punishment without smiles or tears. I paid dearly for the taxi trip from Xiamen to Fuzhou city. Money talks, as we would say in America.
This money-costing experience made an indelible impression on me and I was not about to be exploited again; only a moron would make the same mistake twice.
“Hi Steve,” Benny said via the WeChat across the Pacific Ocean, “you know this is the season of the Chinese New Year and I had a small problem booking the ticket from Hangzhou to Nanchang.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
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“The only tickets left would cost a lot of money and I am not sure you would want me to buy the ticket. The price is between 400 to 800 yuan. The cheap tickets were all sold out. So…?”
“What do you think we should do, Benny? I still have to go from Hangzhou to Nanchang because I had promised Jady I willl be there to visit him and Eric, my godson.”
“Give me a minute.” He returned, “It is possible to go to Shanghai first, a slight detour, and from there to Nanchang.”
“Just book it, Benny. It is okay with me to go from Hangzhou to Shanghai to Nanchang.” I had no choice but to take a detour from Hangzhou to Shanghai, then to Nanchang, instead of a direct route from Hangzhou to Nanchang.
And Benny added, “You need only to wait for 2 hours at Shanghai station before you continue your trip to Nanchang. You sure it is okay with you?”
“Done!” I assured Benny. With money, everything is possible even with a slight inconvenience, especially true in mainland China where money is your God and salvation.
This is China.