We arrived in Xiamen yesterday evening. The two-hour drive from Zhao’An was nice – a brand new highway, very little traffic, and beatiful mountain views. Before that our friend took us to Chaozhou, a culturally and historically rich city about 40 minutes from Zhao’An. There we saw some temples, markets, the Ming and Tang dynasty walls and bridges, and a very old and poorly maintained Tang Dynasty palace. We ate a lunch of Chaozhou food at a local restaurant. Olive soup, chicken and mushroom soup, sweet ube porridge, fried noodles, steamed local river fish, pickled cabbage, pickled water greens, roasted goose head and neck, and deep-fried tofu with sweet and spicy dipping sauce. It really is amazing how local the food is in China. It seems like you could travel to a village 20 minutes away and be presented with a significantly different cuisine.
We returned to Zhao’An later in the afternoon – with just enough time to throw our bags together and hop into the car to Xiamen. I was disappointed that we did not have much time to wander around Zhao’An at all and felt that our leave-taking was so hectic that we did not really get a chance to say proper goodbyes.
On the whole I would say that being a guest was a very wonderful for all the reasons obvious in this and the two previous posts, but it is also a challenging experience for a number of reasons.
1. Our time was completely scheduled and we were not consulted in the scheduling. Our hosts decided what we should see, when, and who would accompany us.
2. We were not allowed to pay for anything and were not given the opportunity to reciprocate with gift-giving. At one point I picked up a couple of little trinkets at a market, just some items I wanted to bring home for friends. They would not let me pay even for those – even when I explained that I wanted to give them as gifts and I could not do that if they paid. Another time, we stopped in at a neighbor’s house and they gave the kids red envelopes each with 200 RMB in them (about $30 US – too much), We tried to say that is was too much but they wouldn’t hear of it. Even when we were leaving we had some gifts to give and we really had to push them to take them while they wanted us to accept a very expensive assortment of Chinese tea (to drink in the little cups). I suspect some of all of this is the fact that we are not good at refusing and refusing refusals. Here you are supposed to decline everything (even compliments) and only accept them begrudgingly after several forceful rounds of offer and decline. Such situations are contrary to my cultural programming – you only offer that which you deem desirable and appropriate and you gratefully accept what is given to you. I am uncomfortable when I feel like I am forcing a gift on someone and when I feel like I am not showing appreciation by willingly taking their gift. From my perspective it ends up as a power struggle (but, really, that is often what gift-giving in the States is too).
3. I am just not sure how to please Chinese hosts around eating. I ate EVERYTHING (except the goose head) and talked about how new and delicious it was even though the vast majority of the food was meat – even now I feel the meat sitting heavily in my body. All the same I was not able to please our hosts who said that I was not eating enough. I tried to eat more slowly, thinking that maybe I was finishing too quickly and they took it to mean that I was not happy with the food but that didn’t seem to help. Is it possible to eat enough?
4. So much of our time was spent being shepherded from home to home, introduced to the hosts, sitting down for a sip of tea, nibbling on some snacks, and then heading off to the next engagement. It often felt that we were on display and, given our limited language ability (disregarding even the fact that many people did not even speak Putonghua – Mandarin) we were often without anything to do but smile and be observed.
5. I often felt sorry for Jason when it came to gender expectations. Pretty much every social setting was segregated by gender. Sometimes the men seemed to sit at the main table (distinguished by its size and the fact that it had chairs instead of stools) along with a few important women. For example, on the first night, we sat at the main table with Xiao Yin and her parents, and the female VP of the bank and her family. The other table was mostly women, with a couple of men who often came to stand by our table making toasts and offering cigarettes (2 at a time) to poor Jason who must have claimed an allergy to smoking at least 100 times in 48 hours. Most of the time, however, families did not sit together – the men sat at the minor table drinking and smoking, and the women and children sat at the first table not drinking and smoking. Jason usually chose to sit with his family because none of the men spoke English and it was so smoky at the other table. He would walk over to do toasts with them, and they him, but I think they started to think of him as a bit unmanly – particularly after we bailed on karaoke – another segregated situation in which it was likely expected he would stay our carousing while I left with the kids.
So, anyway, we had a great time for all of the difficulties. I would love to have another invitation to visit a friend’s home but think that the trip would have to be a nice short one – 48 hours is the limit!