In June my in-laws and my 18-year-old daughter had the trip of a lifetime to China – they had a fabulously wonderful time seeing all the glorious sites everyone raves about, tripping along cobbles older than the discovery of my country and walking on structures so huge they can be seen from space. How cool! And they brought back valuable artifacts from their journeys, and gave me a couple really cool things – a red star hat so I can show everyone I’m number one, a replica of a terra cotta soldier, and a box of super gooey candy that was very, very unusual (and tasty). The sesame and tea flavors were my favorites.
I started to think about China, the incredibly rich and diverse cultures blended together until as Westerners we see it one homogenous, uniform society, and how exciting it would be to experience a taste of such a fantastical place.
A few months before the family visited, we had a good laugh going online and finding examples of Chinese signs “creatively” translated into English – there are lots of good ones, but my favorite was a typical “Please stay off the grass” sign that was translated as “No walk on grass: she cries!” Some friends had also visited China earlier and told me all sorts of stories about their horrible experiences with rude people and open sewer lines, and the humorous translations coupled with their experiences made me realize a few things.
We bring so much baggage of our own experience with us, it’s very, very difficult to see things from anything other than our own reference points. The signs were meant primarily to inform people, not make them laugh, and what I found humorous was funny as a result of someone trying hard to communicate with English-speaking tourists. They weren’t ignorant, just unfamiliar with another language and societal connotations which always seem to inform a huge portion of any communication. Perhaps the smells and rudeness were a perceptual issue, too, because my own family had not had nearly the same impressions as my friends.
The company with which I work is partnering with a number of factories outside of the US in a number of projects, building stained glass windows for several structures. I was approached to see if I would be willing to go to train the two Chinese factories we’re working with in our style of manufacturing and techniques, so their products (windows) will look completely consistent with ours as they all go in the same buildings side by side. I hemmed and hawed a bit, but they were serious and within 48 hours of my visa getting approved I was on a plane to Xiamen. I had wanted to go, and I got to! Of course, it wasn’t a site-seeing tour and I had to work the whole time, but it was an absolutely amazing experience.
From the San Francisco airport going out:
The hotel in Xiamen (and the penguin soda!):
The smells were not gross, they were exotic. The people weren’t rude, they were all (except for one person) incredibly patient, thoughtful, and kind to the ignorant American. And I got to eat some foods I had no idea even existed.
Meeting the meal:
I only spent 3 or 4 days at each of the two factories, but it was a very cool experience. In Xiamen, my host made sure every meal was cuisine from completely different places in China, and my host in Jia Xing carried on the wonderful tradition (more on my taste journey later). However, if I could sum up my incredibly thorough experience of 8 days in a country of over a billion people, I would have to borrow something from my hero Garrison Keillor: All the men are strong, all the women are elegant, and all the children are beautiful.