“Chinese People Are Shy.”

“Chinese People Are Shy.”

When describing interactions between Chinese natives and foreigners, or between Chinese natives and natives, there is one thing that my Sichuanese roommate would always say: “Chinese people are shy.”

On the street, lots of people will not make eye contact with me, but if they make contact it is usually to start a conversation. They’ll not think twice of taking me, a total stranger (and a foreigner to boot), to dinner, or shouting a friendly ‘Hello’ on the street. Chinese people are not shy. Such a sweeping statement is ridiculous.

However, the more I think the more I realise that she probably meant (if you’re heavily generalising) “Chinese people are introvert.” In the UK, a student who doesn’t go out at least once a week may be considered uncommon. (By the way, they’re very very common in reality) In Tsinghua University, students are rarely judged, no, they are encouraged to spend long hours in their room recharging (or studying) with their roommates.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement recently, and it’s partly false. Many people from many different places would treat me with courtesy and kindness fit for a queen. Across China, I would be treated to a meal , given gifts, offered lifts, invited out and welcomed into an acquaintance’s home. The people I met were incredibly friendly and curious in general. However, I would probably only meet them once or twice.

To develop a close relationship with the people I met, which I only managed a couple of times,  was something quite removed, something incredibly special. My fellow students would mostly gather in small groups, to go shopping or eat hotpot, and would rarely spend time together one on one, perhaps only with best of best friends. I met one Chinese native, in all my time in China, who willingly sat down with me and opened up (even once), and that person was not my roommate.

I always wondered what she meant by that sweeping statement. “Chinese people are shy.” All 1.5 billion of them? Surely not. She couldn’t have meant shy in the individual sense, but perhaps she was touching on an integral part of Chinese culture and I just didn’t realise it. Altogether, the part of Chinese culture that I only glimpsed, a part which is kind, welcoming, and always reserved.

Advertisements

My lightning tour of Shanxi: Mount Wutai

My lightning tour of Shanxi: Mount Wutai

The road up to our hotel, high on Mount Wutai, was a whole town, with hotpot restaurants and souvenirs and print shops, consumerism nestling comfortably in the valleys of a great natural mountain. It seemed thousands of people live here at the bottom of this mountain (monks or otherwise!) and only a faithful few would make daily prayers at the most sacred temples in Shanxi Province. Mount Wutai (Five Plateau Mountain) is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China, in other words it has been an imperial pilgrimage site for ages past.

We were due to hike up,, but were somewhat inhibited by torrents of rain that soaked the afternoon, so we went straight to the sites we’d come for. The first wasYouguo Temple, where narrow balconies enclosed a small quadrangle of prayer rooms, study rooms and shrine rooms, too similar to other Buddhist temples I had come across. My spirits became as damp as my clothes as we darted between the covered corridors to stay as dry as possible, and  I felt thankful we only really had time for a quick look. That was until we reached the exit. Suddenly, a strong breeze drenched my face and the claustrophobic corridors became a sheer flight of slippery marble steps plunging downwards into the valley below. Beneath scopic hills, the roofs of several holy temples and the White Pagoda of Wutai Mountain looked meekly up at me. To the left and to the right, the rumps of low clouds settled on rocky outcrops and rainy fog swept over the whole scene. (Silly me, I lost the photo that I took so you’ll have to imagine it!) I could have looked a little longer, had I not been jostled out of the way by two old ladies with pink anoraks…

I don't have many pictures of Wutai myself so this one is credited to @rdinbj (Instagram)
I don’t have many pictures of Wutai myself so this one is credited to @rdinbj (Instagram)

Mt-Wutai-2Youguo

I was being beckoned by one of the group, so I started the steep climb down the steps, hoping that I wouldn’t have to slide half the way. Thus, we reached the second temple. Xiantong Temple. I suppose it were almost as interesting as the first temple really, except that the traditional buildings were mixed up with the added grandeur of gold plated pagodas and miniature towers. Here, the rooms did not seem to have any particular order. Shrines, staircases and cells were thrown together as if the architect were desperate to fill up every available space.On the four corners of every roof, a small parade of animals had been carved. It is not uncommon to see dragons, birds, or lions stand proudly atop a pagoda, but I was surprised at this temple to find only horses. Why horses?

WP_20150717_006Youguo temple

We visited one or two other spots on the way down, but they were so unremarkable I can hardly bear to talk about them! There was one shrine which was particularly lavish, and it seemed to be filled with hundreds and hundreds of gold ornaments, and plenty of fresh fruit. The wealth of the Buddhists who had inhabited this temple was, as always, very obvious. We commented on the nature of modern Chinese Buddhism, a religion which strives for independence from material objects, but gathers so many riches.

One last observation: I saw a fight between two monks! The two holy men nearly came to blows, had a third man not come to stop them. I asked oneguide why they were fighting, and she claimed that one monk had stolen the other monk’s chair! That made me laugh, until another tour guide told me that the little he’d heard suggested the monks were of two different sectors of Buddhism…

One hour in Hanoi, Vietnam (or ‘My rash decision to leave the airport during transfer’)

One hour in Hanoi, Vietnam (or ‘My rash decision to leave the airport during transfer’)

No, no, it really was only one hour! My lightning tour of Hanoi (or, at least, three or four streets in Hanoi) happened during an airport transfer. 9pm, dark. Weather: light rainfall (huge raindrops!), pleasantly cool.

1) good, clean roads! It is hard to have a more noteworthy impression when the airport is an hour away from the city centre… The roads just looked less dusty and worn than they did in Beijing. The roads were still bloody busy, but people did not beep their horns quite so much.

2) Buildings are thin and tall. They can be five storeys high but only one window across. The posh hotels can be just as thin, but taller! Most people slept with their doors open and one could see right into the house, if they would care to look. There was what looked just like a regular six room house, except with the small difference that it didn’t have a front wall at all. Men could be seen sitting and chatting in rooms furnished with table and chairs.

3) Okay, literally no one wants to speak English. I say ‘want’ because I can’t tell if it’s a shyness issue or if they really can’t speak English. I walked up to a food stall with 20 or so Vietnamese people and they knew I couldn’t speak Vietnamese by my face! They hastily pushed over the youngest of the group to translate for me. She was really, really shy! However, Vietnamese seems similar to Chinese sometimes. At least,I could understand it when she said ‘Nei ge’.

4) Vietnamese writing uses Roman characters. I didn’t know that before! Sometimes it looks like it could be Pinyin. There were also lots of places with foreign names (Cafe Rouge, Posh Hotel, Sakura) and even the sign for the launderette had an English translation! Occasionally, Chinese characters would spring out of nowhere!

WP_20150729_127

5) Street food! I was lucky enough to taste the place as well as see it. I found a road where every restaurant advertised ‘Bit Tet’ (beef steak, I guess?) and so I planted myself on a plastic chair to have a try. They brought a completely alien dish to me, and I had to be given instructions how to eat it step by step. There was fried egg, rich beef steak, rice and a jelly like substance that must have been sauce. I checked whether I was supposed to use bread to soak up the sauce, and the shop lady kindly nodded at me. They laughed when I tried to thank them in Vietnamese (Da Men?) but I guess they got it.

WP_20150729_100

6) Random observations. Firstly, that round building I saw was definitely a tourist attraction but god knows why. Secondly, there were political messages and ‘polite notices’ everywhere. Billboards, shop fronts, police stations, you name it. Also there are loads of karaoke bars and barely any smartphones.

WP_20150729_131 6

7) (though this doesn’t surprise me) Vietnamese people seem fantastic. They smile, chat together, and laugh loudly. Sometimes people said ‘Hello’ like they do all the time in China, but not often. They seemed really mild-mannered, gentle and calm. I wish I could have spoken to them more!

WP_20150729_127

8) Money was really confusing. I legitimately took out 1,000 000.00 from the cash machine, and paid 6000.00 for a small cake. What?!

That was my lightning observations of Hanoi. I tried to get a glimpse of the culture in the short time I were there. Anyone who has been to ‘Nam before, let me know what you thought of Hanoi!