I’m sure by now our astute readers have cottoned on to the fact that our time in China was filled with plenty of ups and downs. Truth be told, it probably featured a lot more downs than ups. And no one is more disappointed about this than we are. Seriously. I never sat down and tried to transform my dreams of what our time in China would be like into words, but it’s fairly accurate to say that they were about as large as the country itself. For all the time I spent fantasizing about what we would see and experience while there, I never once considered that rather than living up to my lofty dreams, China might instead turn out to be the stuff of nightmares. Sure I had read of others who had visited China and left disenfranchised, but I never thought for one second we would be amongst them.
We’ve told you about our various triumphs and also of our disappointments during our first 1.5 weeks in China. There were enough of each that while we couldn’t exactly say that we liked the country very much, we also couldn’t completely write it off either. Sure we had struggled, but didn’t payoffs like visiting the Great Wall or seeing the caves of Datong make up for it?
Perhaps. But there was a larger issue that was weighing us down, preventing us from truly enjoying ourselves in China; we had come to terms with the fact that some of the artifacts would underwhelm, that aspects of the culture would make us uncomfortable, but the one thing that made us unbearably depressed was the less-than-glowing impression we had formed about the people. We’ve said it before, but for us, the people are the places, and for the most part, the people we had encountered in China had not been very nice at all. Yes, we had weathered a lot of scams (some more successfully than others) and ruthless price gouging, and while these may have been mentally exhausting, we were prepared for them to some extent and didn’t take them personally. What we weren’t ready for was the blatantly rude behavior we experienced, and I’m not talking about people taking surreptitious pictures of us or staring at us unabashedly (though those things did happen). That stuff might be weird, but is nothing in comparison to being repeatedly lied to about things, or having people laugh in our faces when we tried to speak Chinese to them or simply pretend they could not understand us, even when we showed them the characters in our phrase book. It got to a point where, quite honestly, we were hardening our hearts against the people around us, bracing ourselves whenever we had to deal with the locals, and generally not trusting or liking anyone other than each other.
It wasn’t a nice place to be.
When we landed in Guilin, we were cautiously optimistic about the state of Chinese urban environments having liked Xi’an quite a lot, and though we soon found ourselves enjoying how colorful the city was, we remained extremely wary about the people we would meet there. Checking into our hostel, the girls at the front desk greeted us with ready smiles and apologized effusively (in unimpeachable English, no less) when they had to inform us that our room wasn’t ready as we had arrived 30 minutes early and they needed to finish cleaning it. But would we mind relaxing in the lounge while they gave us some information about Guilin and some of the nearby sights?
Our warm welcome seemed promising, but we still weren’t convinced. When we headed off to the train station to buy some tickets for daytrips, we girded our loins, preparing to do battle with the world. After waiting in a dreadfully long line only to be told that the tickets were all sold out (although they had ostensibly only gone on sale that very day), we hung our heads in defeat and began to head back to the safe haven of our hostel. As we wended past various tour agent booths scattered outside the station, an older man approached us and asked if we needed help. We looked at him warily and told him we were fine, we had just been trying to buy tickets for a daytrip we were planning to take from our next destination, Shanghai. He told us that the tickets we wanted would absolutely be available and that perhaps the ticket agent simply had not understood us… but he could act as our translator!
Having just been maybe tea scammed, we were obviously suspicious of this man’s motives, as there was no logical reason why anyone would choose to brave the terror that is train station ticket lines on someone else’s behalf. Nevertheless, we agreed to go along with it, figuring that if he was able to get tickets for us, he’d likely ask us for some kind of payment… As we waited in line, our companion was all lightness and kindness, telling us we had the right idea to get out of the area for the upcoming Golden Week festivities as prices skyrocketed to unconscionable levels and commending the excellent price we got on air fare. We soon found ourselves talking and laughing easily with him, hardly concerned with the claustrophobic crush of humanity that writhed about us.
When we reached the counter, the ticket agent gave our companion a very sour expression and said something sharply to him in Chinese. We have no idea what was said, but after about 5 minutes of back-and-forth between the two, he turned to us apologetically and said that the agent was telling him the same thing about the tickets, but that we should try getting bus tickets to our destination when we reached Shanghai as they would surely be available. And then, although he had spent nearly an hour of his time on this fruitless quest for strangers, he simply shook our hands, gave us bright smile, and wished us the best of luck before heading on his way without ever asking anything of us.
Now, perhaps this guy was running some kind of scam or maybe if he had been able to get us the tickets we wanted he would have asked for some kind of commission. All sorts of sinister motivations can be ascribed to him, but as we walked back to our hostel, bouncing all the possibilities off of one another, we started to question why we were bothering to do so. The sad truth was that while in Japan, many strangers had gone out of their ways to help us along and we never once gave it a second thought or looked for a hidden catch. We merely felt buoyed by these random acts of kindness, and looked on them as confirmation that ultimately, the world is filled with good people. Had China so thoroughly jaded us that we could no longer believe this to be true? If this were the case, then it was exactly the opposite of what I had hoped to learn while traveling.
Embers of shame began to glow at our cheeks as we acknowledged the ugliness we had been fomenting inside of us. We realized that we had amplified the negative run-ins and discredited or misinterpreted the positive ones since arriving in China… sure we had met a few jerks, but our own outlook hadn’t helped matters either. If we were being completely honest with ourselves, ever since stepping off the train in Beijing, we had been wandering around completely on guard, worried beyond reason about scammers lurking around every corner. We had fallen into the trap of deciding people in China were generally awful and were merely looking for proof to confirm that notion. Turns out that if you go around fearing the worst about people, you may just find yourself in a self-fulfilling prophecy as you poison your mind against everyone. Putting your trust in strangers makes you feel incredibly vulnerable, but we knew that by doing so, we would not only be allowing ourselves to be tricked, but also to be swept away on a tide of kindness and generosity. As the old saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Just in case we hadn’t learned our lesson, upon wandering into a bakery to pick up some late night treats, the owner scurried over to us, a smile lighting up his face as he breathlessly asked us if we had seen the sign outside. We admitted that we had not, but that we had been enticed in by the beautiful array of baked goods he had on offer. I didn’t think it was possible, but his smile got even larger, and he then proceeded to explain to us what all the different buns and pastries were and helped us place our order with the cashier. As we waited for her to wrap up our purchase, he shared with us that prior to moving back to Guilin, he had spent 5 years living in Houston and had visited 47 countries. Now that he has his own shop, he just wants to help out tourists who have made their way to Guilin so that they can enjoy his city. Which is why he had a banner made for outside his store that states in big, bold letters “I CAN HELP YOU!”
While he was talking about helping us buy train tickets our get around town, the shop owner helped us in ways he likely never intended. Along with the other friendly people we met in Guilin, he helped us see the error of our ways: just as Xi’an taught us not to paint all Chinese cities with the same brush, Guilin taught us that in a country with over 1.5 billion citizens, there may be an awful lot of rotten apples, and unfortunately, sometimes we’re part of them.