We’ve been in China for about six weeks. It was hard at first; we weren’t used to the attention. By the nature of cycle-touring and of our route, we stop in places where foreigners are rarely seen. All this attention just because of our ethnicity!
I balked at the “hellos” at first, but Chris reminded me that they are (for the most part) inviting and welcoming contact after being relatively isolated from the outside world for years. I’m learning to accept some of the fuss. For one thing, we are grateful to the point of overwhelmed by the helpfulness, honesty, and goodwill we’ve been repeatedly shown.
We’re even learning to accept that people want to pay for our food. Twice it was in situations we could understand. I wrote earlier of the owner of a hot pot restaurant, and yesterday at a lunch stop we were invited to join a jovial group of men at their large round table. We had already ordered our food at this point, but we merged dishes and joined them to eat communally. Chris was provided with a beer and I was handed a herbal tea drink. “Cheers!” And “cheers!” again. Our companions were reconstruction workers on their lunch break, and the cook joined us too. Our bikes parked outside had been scrutinized, and I had introduced myself and Chris and shown the map of our travels.
There was an incident the day before that still puzzles us. We were eating our supper in Pu’An when a young woman with good English (we believe she was a patron , not staff) came to tell us that another patron, a well-dressed woman, wanted to pay for our food. We protested, saying it wasn’t necessary; I guess we protested too much because our would-be patron marched off in a huff. We realized we’d cause offense, so we sent the translator after her to apologize profusely. We sat together using our translator to explain that etiquette differs between countries, and we had not been deliberately rude. In the end, we hope all was forgiven …and we let her pay for our meal and thanked her.
We can understand offers of payment from people with whom we’ve made social contact, or from the restaurant owner, but out of the blue from someone across the room it struck us as strange. Although food seems anything but scarce here, we know it’s been scarce in the past and that China is a less-developed country than Canada. We are the rich brats and feel suitably guilty about it. We’re learning to accept what we don’t yet understand, though. We’ve even read of other cyclists having people get out of their cars to hand them money, but this hasn’t happened to us yet.
The nature of travelling by bicycle is that one needs to stop for snacks and meals, not to mention asking for directions. If only my Chinese teachers knew what they had unleashed on the villages of rural China, by giving me a rudimentary vocabulary to which I add a few hand gestures and a few props! The Lonely Planet phrasebook is always in hand, too, and it’s heavily thumbed and annotated with useful new words like wu xian shang wang – wireless network.
We often draw a crowd. I don’t like being stared at like something not human, so I start by saying we’re Canadian and where we’ve come from. Only recently, I’ve begun to say where we plan to be at the end of the year, too – Ouzhou —Europe. Conversation flows. My basic utterances are usually understood, and if not all of the group understands at least one does, who repeats for the others. Nods, head-shaking, discussions. Rapid fire questions begin that are way beyond my ability to understand. I catch a word or two and guess what I’m being asked, and answer based on my guessing.
They always want to know how old we are, and like to guess. Joan, my Chinese teacher, explains that they are especially curious about the ages of children and seniors, so I guess we – especially me with hair almost white – look close enough to “senior” age to ask. Or is it the almost-white hair in the context of trying to pedal across a continent? Conversation can easily turn to family, as I ask an older woman the age of the toddler she’s holding. I have a page of photos of my immediate and extended family, but I wish there weren’t so may different words in Chinese for niece and nephew, and the word for great-niece is simply out of my league.
As for taking photos and being photographed, where to begin? We feel as if we’ve been photographed with every police officer, security guard, giggling receptionist, saluting Young Pioneer, shop owner, and a multitude of passersby. There is a digital trail of our images from the Laos border and through three provinces. How on earth will we ever go back to blending in with the crowd?