People, places and stuff

Publié le par chrislzh

People are weird.

We were lucky on the train to Dalian. Often hard seat can turn into hell in a tin can. Part of what can make it good or bad is the people sitting around you, and it was in that respect that we were lucky.

In our little group there was a young woman from Dalian who worked in Beijing. When I say 'young', I mean painfully so. She must have started working straight after high school, at the very least. Or at least that's how she looked. Still, she seemed to be doing quite nicely for herself. She was well dressed and spent a good portion of the journey listening to her ipod. There was an older couple, probably in their mid-30s, originally from Chaoyang in northwestern Liaoning. I'm not sure what they were doing in either Beijing or Dalian. They had a bit more of a working-class look about them. The sixth seat was alternated between a civil servant from Beijing and various of his in-laws. They, like us, were tourists for the week.

lzh struck up a conversation with the young woman from Dalian, and before long the couple from Chaoyang and the civil servant had joined in. And then the conversation took quite some lively and interesting turns: certain events in a certain square 17 years ago; Far Loony Goons; Tibetan Buddhism, and more specifically the places of the D@la1 Lam@ and P@nch3n L@ma in the hierarchy. I, doing my usual stuck in an over-crowded metal tube for 12, no, 13, wait, 14, dammit 14 and a half hours grumpy old man act, wasn't much in the mood for talking, but I listened in as I read my book and it was quite a fascinating conversation. This was when the civil servant got interesting: As each new issue came up, he said, "Let me explain it for you..." or "Let me introduce this to you...." or similar such things. Unfortunately, he came across as a bit of a know-it-all, but despite his manner, he really was an intelligent, knowledgeable guy.

lzh said he obviously wanted to talk to me, and was a bit disappointed that I was in such an anti-social mood. Fortunately he was smart enough to see I wasn't in the mood for talking and left me alone. I saw him the next day at Xinghai Park, we waved and said hi, but he had shit to do with his in-laws, so unfortunately we didn't get to talk. Pity, he would've been quite an interesting guy to get to know.

The civil servant and his in-laws presented quite a contrast, and looking at them, it wasn't hard to see why he was so keen to get into a conversation with us. He certainly seemed to be seriously starved of intellectual stimulation. Whenever one of his in-laws swapped seats with him, they would spend their time next to me staring at me with that dull, bovine, stupidity one sees in the eyes of cyclists who ride into busy intersections at rush hour without so much as a glance around to check if the road is clear, and then seem surprised when they find themselves surrounded by traffic screeching to a very sudden halt and the furious blaring of horns. When they weren't sitting next to me doing their best impression of a stoned cow, they occupied the benches opposite us and kept very much to themselves, to the point of generally ignoring the civil servant. Even his wife pretty much ignored her husband for the entire duration of the trip. Then the next day, when I saw them at Xinghai Park, his in-laws sat on the beach doing whatever it is such people do at the beach, while the civil servant sat silently behind them on his own, looking miserable, waiting. Perhaps lzh and I should have gone over and struck up a conversation, but we had our stuff to do and they had theirs.

The Dalianren we met were, well, quite a contrast with people I've met in any other part of China. The young woman from Dalian on the train told lzh that Dalianren don't think of themselves as northeasterners; they identify more with Shandong. Well, that's only one person's opinion and I don't know how many other Dalianren would say the same thing. But there was something about their attitude that I can't say I've came across anywhere else in China. They weren't necessarily 'friendly'; they pretty much left us alone. But they certainly weren't unfriendly. The people we met were all very much down-to-earth, ready to help strangers without expecting anything in return, efficient, open and 'friendly' to outsiders, but closed off and private at the same time. Hard to describe.

It seems that attitude carried through to the city as a whole. Apart from trying to find a bus to Heishijiao in the chaos around the railway station and the mix-up getting to Tiger Beach caused by the inaccurate information printed on our map, we had no hassles with transport. And those two problems we did have with transport were very minor hassles that were easily solved; the first through simply asking people and discovering that beautiful Dalian attitude, the second through walking down the street, turning a corner and discovering Dalian's beautiful, efficient infrastructure. In fact, the transport was so good we never spent more than half an hour on a bus. In fact, I don't think we ever even spent that much time on a bus. Even the longest of our journeys took no longer than an hour. This meant we had stacks of time to enjoy what we had gone there to see.

Compare that to Beijing: I'm sure large numbers of tourists, Chinese and otherwise, leave Beijing cursing the capital's transport because they wound up spending more time travelling between the sights they had gone there to see than actually seeing the sights.

Dalian's transport was so good that we only took a taxi once, and that was because I was so tired and wanted home as soon as possible (it was the day after my trip to the clinic, and I was still pretty shattered from the whole experience). Dalian's transport was so good that to get to the ferry terminal all we had to do was wander down the hill and jump on the exact same No. 801 bus that had served us so amazingly well the previous few days. It went straight to the ferry terminal for the grand total of two kuai per person. That was probably the longest bus ride of our time in Dalian, and probably came the closest to half an hour.

And the roads were great: not one of the roads we used caused us any kind of trouble, hassle, or discomfort. The 801 took us straight to the ferry terminal in as much comfort and efficiency as one could expect of a public bus and deposited us safe and sound outside the international terminal, a 2 minute walk from the domestic ferries, unshaken, unbruised, unbattered, unbroken. Arrival in Tianjin, on the other hand, was quite a contrast. The ferry terminal and the car park outside were fine. But walking out into the car park presented a stark contrast with the Dalian terminal: Where were the public buses? There were half a dozen (at most) private minibuses all competing for passengers to the point where arguments would develop over whose bus the passengers would ride in (sorry folks, I am a human being, not a commodity or cargo. You will treat me with the respect due to a fellow human being and a potential customer). There were also a few taxis, both legally registered and otherwise, who followed the usual Tianjin taxi business practice. Then when our minibus left, we were presented with another, even starker contrast: All of a sudden the road seemed to have disappeared. We bounced, shook and shuddered our way over what seemed to be a former battle zone still littered with shell craters, trenches and foxholes, clambering over railway lines and dodgin bridge pylons. Eventually we found a road. Naturally the trip to Tianjin Zhan took longer than the trip to the ferry terminal in Dalian: The distance between Tianjin Zhan and the Tanggu ferry terminal is much greater than that between the Dalian ferry terminal and Heishijiao. But arriving in Tianjin proper presented yet another stark contrast with Dalian: Instead of the smoothly functioning, efficient roads we had been using for the last five days, we found ourselves in an overcrowded, narrow, labyrinth dodging, or trying to, all manner of other vehicles and pedestrians who seemed to either have a death wish or have their sense of traffic courtesy and safety permanently, surgically removed. Eventually we managed to extricate ourselves from the bus outside the Post Office at Tianjin Zhan, shaken, bruised, battered, but, by whatever miracle, unbroken.

Arriving in Tianjin after five days in Dalian was something like waking up the morning after a great night on the piss with your mates: It hurt like hell, and the memory of the great time you'd just had only exacerbated the pain.

I've heard all kinds of crazy shit about which is the best place to study Chinese, based on the pure, standard, Putonghua-ness of the local's speech. Obviously, Beijing doesn't qualify. Although one of the Chinese English teachers assigned to teach us foreign teachers Chinese at my school down in Changsha did occasionally try to teach us a Beijing accent. My boss in Taiyuan told me Hebei and the Northeast were best. Most people I've heard have said the Northeast is best. They're all wrong. Most Northeasterners I've met, although they can speak reasonable Putonghua compared with people from many other parts of the country, still have decidedly non-standard accents, and the Northeast certainly seems to have its fair share of local dialects, idioms, and other nasty little things that conspire to impede communication. lzh didn't like the Dalian accent. To me, the Dalian accent seems generally Northeastern, but with its own little peculiarities. In general we had absolutely no trouble communicating, although every now and then somebody would say something that would throw us. In general it was like talking to Americans: 99% is mutually intelligible, but every now and then one or another of us says something that leaves the other looking confused. But lzh just didn't like it: To her the accent was ugly and difficult. She loved the Tianjin accent, on the other hand. She thought it was cute and funny.

I went to Ali Baba's after work yesterday. Tuesday is the perfect night for mid-week drinking. I have no classes on Wednesdays. While I was there, sitting at the bar staring dumbly at the TV nursing a series of beers, some apparently Chinese chick came in and asked if she could chuck a movie in the DVD player. Fine with Aliu and Joe, fine with me, I didn't give a fuck. I couldn't pick where she was from. Her Chinese was flawless, and so was her American. From her size and shape and fashion sense, she looked more ABC than Mainlander. Had I been in a more talkative mood, I would have been more interested in a conversation. But I wasn't. I answered her occasional questions about the film she'd bought (I'd noticed it was the French edition of an American film. She hadn't) and tried not to be rude. She seemed alright. She was followed by somebody more obviously Mainland. She walked in, looked around, saw me at the bar, and sat next to me. I'd seen That Look in her face as she spotted me, so I studiously ignored her. She asked me some dumb question about the film, and I answered rather curtly, not wanting to talk to such a person. Fortunately she got the hint and moved away.

That sounds bad, doesn't it? Like I'd rather not talk to Mainlanders. I'm more than happy to talk to Aliu and Cosmo and Joe and other Ali Baba's staff. They treat me like I'm human. And I'm open to talking to anyone with the same attitude towards me. But I don't go to Baba's to meet people. I don't give a fuck. I'm leaving in two months, and I'm not likely to come back to Tianjin after that. I go there for two reasons: To relax, and to watch rugby. Neither of those necessarily involves talking to people any more than is necessary to get the TV turned to either SS1 or ABC and order beer and food. And last night was one of those nights when I didn't want to talk any more than was necessary.

Years ago I was in Loup Chante and bumped into a mate. He's a crazy French intellectual type. He introduced me to a friend of his, a French woman who, if I remember rightly, was studying Chinese. Like most French people I've met, she insisted on speaking English, despite having been assured I could speak and understand French perfectly well (which, at the time, was not quite as far from the truth as it is now). But she couldn't seem to understand that 'misanthrope' was an English word, and had to try and explain it to me, even though it's a word I understand perfectly well in both English and French. Why? She decided to accuse me of being a misanthrope like my mate the crazy French intellectual type. I vehemently denied the charge at the time. But maybe she was right. Maybe I am a misanthrope.

Last night the internet in our shitty foreign teachers storage seemed to have been turned off unusually early. It was back on again this morning, so I checked my email desperately hoping for good news from the schools in Beijing I've been talking to about work for the next academic year. One of them sent me an email, and that was all good. The other hadn't, but in its place were two emails from entirely new organisations. I'd talked to them both at the jobfair the weekend before May Day. But the weird thing was for the second time this year somebody looking for an English teacher wound up talking to me in French. This email basically started with, "Sorry, I'm writing to you in French because my English isn't good enough." His French wasn't that great either, especially his spelling, but nevermind, he got the message across.

Not that I'm in any position to laugh at other people's French.

Enough rambling. I'm getting lunch.

Publié dans chrislzh

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