I didn’t want to go to China, everything I knew about the Country was what our (Western) media transmit about it and it’s not flattering. The same goes about Chinese people. It’s easy to stereotype them and, at least in Italy, we identify them with closed communities, unwilling to integrate and opportunistic. I think this is the reason why I get startled reactions when, if asked what I like most about China, I answer: “its people”.
Ancient traditions, diversity, stunning backgrounds and even food…these are all reasons why I am now addicted to China but I don’t think my experience would have been as mesmerizing without the interaction with Chinese people. It’s true, the fist impact might be tough. I remember feeling desperately lonely when noticing that nobody was answering to my enthusiastic smiles, not having any positive feedback to my brief first interactions. I wasn’t aware on how much we rely on that before this initial cultural shock. Getting a good deal of diffidence and indifference aggravated the situation. When I was around on crutches (I broke my knee when I was there), I had the feeling that I was perceived as a disturbance rather than as someone in need (especially when people would push me or my precious crutches around not to be slowed down). Every single seller tried to trick me, a clueless foreigner, and people in the street all looked so loud and careless (this is something I’m a bit more used to being Italian but it shocked other foreigners way more). Plus, it’s almost impossible to find an English speaker.
I could go on for pages writing about what can be upsetting…as I probably could do writing about the hateful habits of any other people, sophisticated Westerners included. Of course there are differences and, when they involve things we’re so used to or social patterns that we don’t find correspondence to, we awfully tend to focus on their negative sides. Even worst, we might choose to ignore that they could be facets of a deeper and beautiful alternative “social way”, actually having a meaning beyond that annoying –and merely subjective- sense of inappropriateness.
And it is indeed considering the bigger picture that I came to accept the initial diffidence I was treated with. After that, when a Chinese vendor smiled back at me or I shared a laugh with someone I was working with I felt I earned much more than a sympathetic moment. I felt adopted as yes, Chinese groups can be seen as more closed, but they value the extended family so much more than we do and that includes you whenever you “pass the test” of breaking a super-hard ice. A shortcut to this “adoption process” is being a guest. The guest is sacred in many cultures, even mine, but never have I felt the meaning of this concept as much as in China.
I try to travel as cheaply as possible and, as it was the case for travelling China, I tend to spend less than staying in my own relatively expensive country. So I was a guest, first at a friend’s house and then in hostels, country houses and schools, offering labour in exchange of food and bedding. I was a farmer, a teacher, a waitress and a cleaner. Each place and family first tested me and then accepted me within it. I’m not sure I’m able to convey the meaning of this sort of “adoption” by describing it so I’ll try to do it by writing about episodes that happened during these beautiful experiences.
I didn’t know the whole family was prepared to meet me when I arrived in the hometown of my friend Rizzo. She explained me that, before settling in her parent’s home, I would have to greet her grandparents. So there I went, trying to be as humble as possible while listening to Rizzo introducing me to the old couple everyone was being so respectful towards. Then it was the time of aunts and uncles and cousins. They showed me with polite pride their habits, a bit surprised that I was unaware of so many of them. All while participating to a tea ceremony, something I wasn’t used to yet. I made so many times the terrible mistake of finishing my super-tiny cup – something that should never happen. An empty cup exposes the inappropriateness of the host and pushes him/her to fill it up immediately, shamed. I should have left a bit of the liquid in the cup, satisfied with what I was given. Nobody made me notice my mistake though, ever kind. I’ve seen too many times Westerners behaving in the opposite way, condemning people belonging to different cultures for not being aware of their habits, labelled as rude (remember the paragraph about diffidence and misunderstanding at the beginning?). After a great deal of Chinese talking in front of the unaware (and non-Chinese-speaking) me I think the grandparents were ready to accept me within their community and allowed us to go home – not without a load of snacks and a sort of benign austerity.
The next time I visited them our slow but steady process of getting to know and accept each other went further. I think they truly appreciated my interest in learning about them and their way of doing things, from cooking to managing the family. They showed me how to prepare dinner and handle drinking, laughed at my goofiness with some basic tools and started to be protective of the weird foreigner I was. Most of all, they enjoyed my enthusiasm about the meal they offered me, proud of the awesomeness of Chinese food –they didn’t even care about vegan habits, they just adapted a few dishes without a fuss or included some that are naturally vegan. They repaid my showing respect and interest with opening up: I was making it, breaking the diffidence that accompanied all of my previous interactions with locals. And this was not out of politeness, as it often is for us. I earned it.
I think –and I’m not proud of it- that the widespread admiration for Westerners helped me in stimulating the interest of the family. They even forgave me when I sat on grandfather’s chair (even though, of course, they gently and hilariously made me move away). Still, I experienced the authenticity of being a guest in a Chinese home. Every time I expressed appreciation during a meal, someone would be sent out to buy more and offer it to me, for the continuation of my travel. I would never go out without a reserve of extra-food and Rizzo’s parents would not come back from work without treats for us. I couldn’t manage to offer any of them a dinner out, they paid every single one of my expenses. And wouldn’t it be an awesome idea to bring back that bottle of wine for my father in Italy? Maybe two, in case I need it. And, since I liked tofu so much, I could take those jars of fermented spicy tofu that grandma made. The morning I had to leave, someone woke up early to buy those chestnuts pastries I loved, one extra box for the days to come. I am sorry to say that I was forced to abandon presents on the road or I would have never been able to go on with my travel. Still, I had so much food with me that I didn’t have to buy more for almost the whole following week.
What did I give back? I feel like I couldn’t do enough. I couldn’t offer them a dinner out so I cooked an Italian meal once. And I even scolded them because they mixed the dessert with pasta (there is no concept such as having a dessert at the end of the meal, as I explained here). That’s it. On the other hand, they dedicated their days to me, introduced me to the most important members of the family (the grandparents and the hosts of a marriage) and showed me their culture from the inside, never tired of teaching, finding the right matches for my interests and showing me around. This strongly contrasts with the distance you can get from the people you superficially meet. Trust is not easy to earn and it looks like people don’t want anything to do with you. But this is because you have to earn that trust as, once you get it, they are willing to give you everything. And, whatever you ask, they will do it. It is impossible to get a “no” as an answer and this is the power that a guest has. Not used to such a reverence, we foreigners often tend to underestimate or abuse this power. I would recommend to always leave a way out to our hosts and to weight what we are asking from them as we will never be denied, no matter how costly our requests might be.
This is going to be longer than expected so I’ll continue in a “part 2” post. It will be more about travelling while getting food and bedding in exchange of labour. I guess it will contain more tips about how to plan such a travel as well. Well, thanks for reading this list of considerations, hope they don’t sound trivial – at least their discovery and experiencing meant a great deal to me. I’m ever grateful to the people that I met during this venturing.
If you’re looking for wilderness while traveling throughout China, you might want to give this post a try, it’s about one of the most famous Chinese national parks – with a bit of bitterness.