Saturday, December 10, 2005

Stupid Foreigner, part 1

When I lived in Japan, one of my goals/dreams in life was to move from country to country, for about a year or two each, and start a magazine/web site/blog (though the term blog hadn't been invented yet) called Stupid Foreigner: Stories from a Stupid Planet Written by a Stupid Guy. Of course I started by emailing long stories of my misadventures in Japan to friends back in the States. When they finally blocked my email address, I started posting some of them on Geocities.

Well, since it's Saturday, and hopefully a few people logging on will have time to read, I've decided to recycle those stories and publish them here. They are rather long, but I think they've withstood the test of time and are still funny/interesting, so if you have time, you might enjoy them. Anyway, here's the first one. I'll post more in coming Saturdays.

In China
June 25, 1999

I suppose the defining moment from my trip to China was when I witnessed a "protester" being whisked away from a public area by security forces. I mean, that's what China's all about, isn't it?

In case you didn't know (maybe because I haven't contacted you in the past five months), I visited China a couple of weeks ago--which was a couple of weeks after the U.S. did its part to bring on the end of the world by bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Despite this act of aggression against their country, the Chinese people I saw during those six days and seven nights were ... very nice. At least the ones that acknowledged my existence were nice.

My trip was pretty much like the rest of my life: quite uneventful. (But that has never stopped me from writing ...) I flew there on Pakistan International Airlines (a mini adventure during which I got to pray to Allah before the flight and eat some amazing curry during the flight), visited Beijing, the Great Wall and a place called Datong, and ate too much duck meat. And of course I took lots and lots of pictures, which I crammed into two photo albums that I'll show you sometime (but only if you ask).

As I said, I was in China for only a week, which isn't enough time to make the kind of sweeping generalizations you might usually expect from me. Still, I saw enough to compare it with my current home, Japan. No matter how similar you think these two countries might be, there are some important differences I'd like to point out.

For example, in two years in Japan, I've never once seen anyone protest anything. So I've never seen anyone manhandled by the men in black. But in China, I saw it all come down on the very first day I set off to explore Beijing. This was a couple of days before the 10-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, so I guess the authorities were a little on edge. They made it clear that opinions of any sort would not be tolerated.

I was at this place called Tiantan, which is like a huge park with a couple of important temples and stuff--you know, the typical touristy place tourists visit. I heard some shouting and looked over to see a big group of people crowding around a souvenir stall. At first I thought they were buying water, but I wandered over anyway (I was thirsty). I got there in time to see this little guy in a suit hanging on to some banner and being pushed around by this gorilla in a Chinese army uniform. The little guy was shouting, pleading his case, but the gorilla wasn't listening. He knocked the little guy down and dragged him away, and off they went into a distant corner of the square, the gorilla, the little guy, and the foolish, crumpled-up banner.

"I wonder what he was up to," I wondered aloud.

Much to my surprise, I got an answer. "Nothing," I heard someone say to me. "We just wanted to take a picture."

I turned to the speaker, who looked a little like the little guy, except he wasn't so little. "But what did the banner say?" I asked him.

"It just said, 'In memory of our trip to China,'" he explained. "We're on a group tour from Malaysia. He's our tour guide. We just wanted to take a picture."

"Oh," I said, and turned away to buy some water. Ten minutes later, I walked past and saw the group still there, waiting for their heroic tour guide to return. I don't know if there is anything sadder than a group that has lost its tour guide. Most of those kinds of people don't even know how to find a toilet on their own.

OK, OK, I know that that wasn't exactly the "protest" story I promised. But Beijing was a sleepy town of 16 million when I was there. The embassy area was deserted the night I walked past (lost, looking for a bar). Tiannamen Square was closed off, under construction. Only the daily newspaper offered excitement, attacking the US and NATO every single day. But, as I said, I did notice a few differences between China and Japan. Here are a few:

Japan: Toilets have no seats. You gotta squat.
China: Toilets have no seats, and the stalls have no doors or walls. You gotta squat, and look at the guy next to you squatting. (Of course I didn't suffer this indignity, saving all my bodily functions for the privacy of my hotel room or the local McDonald's, where they sell a great version of the Quarter-pounder called the "Teriyaki Burger" and the stalls in the bathrooms do have doors.)

Japan: A new bar of soap every day.
China: One bar of soap during my entire stay.

Japan: Every once in a while, cute girls ask you to pose in a picture with them.
China: Every once in a while, cute girls TELL you to pose in a picture with them. (I didn't really have a choice.)

Japan: Unneeded bridges are built in places where there aren't even any roads.
China: People make potholes in perfectly good roads. Seriously. I saw this one guy with a pick-ax and shovel making a hole in the middle of a road. When satisfied, he hopped on his bicycle and peddled off to another location, where he started digging a new hole. When I asked what the guy was doing, I was told: "Construction."

Japan: The only time people use their car horn is to honk a polite "thank you."
China: The only time people don't use their car horn is after they've parked the car.

Japan: Red light means stop. Even if there are no cars, pedestrians don't cross the street.
China: Red light doesn't mean much. Even if there's a traffic cop directing traffic, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians don't necessarily stop.

Japan: Dogs are not allowed inside the house (maybe because they can't take off their shoes) and are forced to live their lives chained to a doghouse.
China: In Beijing, dog owners must pay a hefty annual tax on each dog. In the rest of the country, dogs are considered delicious.

Japan: People are surprised that foreigners can use chopsticks.
China: People are surprised that the Japanese can use chopsticks.

Japan: A small container of cherries will set you back about $30.
China: A 10-pound watermelon goes for about $2.50. (And that's without bargaining.)

Japan: Sales clerks yell some incomprehensible greeting to you as you enter the store. Then they sneak away, hoping you don't ask them a question. As you leave, they again yell something incomprehensible.
China: Sales clerks and vendors yell "hello" to you if you so much as glance in their direction. They follow you around, pushing some useless item into your hands, and as you leave, they yell: "OK! OK! Bargain! How much?" And they run after you.

Japan: "Sumimasen" which is a cross between excuse me and sorry.
China: "I swear to God I'm not American! I'm Australian! Believe me!"

Ah, not really. Chinese people are very nice. I was even invited to my tour guide's house for dinner--and then invited again a couple of days later for a goodbye party. Of course I went. It turned out I had dinner with a family of 10. It was great fun, even though I don't speak a word of Chinese and eight of them couldn't even pronounce my name, much less say anything in English. It turned out that I was the first non-Chinese any of them had met.

With me as the ambassador, I wonder what they think of Americans now.


Blogger uptown said...

hey ap
i read ur post and it was hilarious. i just have one question? did u have an epiphany while u were praying to Allah on PIA? lolz

5:01 PM  
Blogger ap said...

An epiphany, huh? I'll have to think about that one and get back to you. But I do remember thinking at that moment that I was truly caught between religions--a Catholic-raised boy on a Muslim flight from a Buddhist/Shinto country to a godless, Communist one. If that plane crashed I didn't know which heaven (or more probably hell) I'd end up in.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What will they think of America after your visit... Well, regardless of the two nation's future relations, I'm betting they believe they'll be entertained either way.


7:25 PM  

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