Vancouver: Chinese Tour – Part 2 (Cast List)

bus headerThis is Part 2 of a continuing series.  If you’d like, you can catch up and read Part 1.

During the course of the tour, I only actually got to know 3 other people’s names: Thomas, our tour guide; and Sherman and Yale (more about them later).  Most other people spoke very limited English, and I had to give them nicknames to identify them.  I didn’t do this to be mean, but mainly to keep them straight in my head.

Sitting across the aisle from me was Golf Shoes.  Knowing that she would be doing some hiking in the Rockies, she must have decided that wearing golf shoes the entire time would provide her the best traction for mountain climbing adventures.  This meant that almost everywhere she went her shoes made a click-clack noise on the sidewalk.  I never did see her walking through any open fields.

Further up the aisle were Fred and Ethel.  They were both well advanced in years, but quite peppy and adventurous.  Ethel never talked much or even acknowledged me, but was a constant source of conversation as we tried to figure out whether her jet-black hair was a wig.  It turned out that it was, although I’m not going to tell how we found that out.

Fred found me to be far more interesting than the scenery.  Almost any time I looked his direction, he was looking at me.  This didn’t bother me, actually.  I was often observing him.  He was a very cute old man and a smile was permanently etched on his face.  Every day, he looked ready to wade into the river for some fly-fishing, with his khaki fisherman’s vest and Gilligan hat.  I tried to ask him once if he wanted to fish, but he thought I was asking if he liked sushi or something.

Finally, there was Angry Asian Guy.  We didn’t interact much, except for the times when he’d throw a disapproving look in my direction.  I wasn’t quite sure what I had done to upset him.  It could have been for being the only white guy on the tour, or maybe he wasn’t getting enough dietary fiber, but I can’t really speculate.

There was one time that AAG did talk to me.  I had a camera sling bag with a small collapsible tripod lashed to the side.  It wasn’t very bulky or cumbersome, but I did have to be careful when moving through the aisle.  On the second day, as I entered the bus he loudly said “Be careful, your weapon!” as I passed.  I hadn’t come even close to hitting him with it, but my fleshly side thought about being less careful in the future.

There were others on the bus, but they took more minor roles in the events of the week.

Vancouver: Chinese Tour -Part 1

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As I write this, I’m in Vancouver, Canada on a much needed 12 day vacation.  We just ended a Chinese group tour of some of the national parks.  It was incredibly beautiful, with spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains, culturally interesting, and stuffed full of amusing experiences with Chinese people.  If you have never experienced something like this, these are some of my experiences and what you might expect.

But before I get deep into my account, let me be clear about a couple of things.  Although my naturally sarcastic brain found many things to keep myself amused (some outright ridiculous, some simply culturally funny), that does not mean that I didn’t have anything less than a wonderful time.

The tour guide was an amazing man who did a great job, and said everything in both Chinese and English only for my benefit, since I was the only non-Chinese speaker there.  The people were mostly very friendly and respectful, and this type of group is a hidden travel secret to visit many places without having to drive yourself, and paying less money than you would almost any other way.

Having said that disclaimer, here’s what happened:

We met at the bus at 8 AM.  On vacation, one would expect to get to sleep in a little bit, but the 8 o’clock time was actually our latest of the whole trip.  We got on board a standard tour bus, the kind with areas to stow your carry-ons above your seat and the little fold down foot rest.  There were two more stops for others to be picked up as well.

By the time we were ready to go, the bus was full of excited and chatty Chinese people…well, except for the seats directly around the two of us.  Those sat empty as a sort of buffer zone from the white guy, apparently.  I wasn’t really offended.  This meant more space for me.

Our collective DMZ was short lived though, because the tour guide quickly announced that we had been given assigned seats.  These would change each day according to who had made him the happiest the day before (or something like that), and we would need to move to those seats after the first rest stop.

Yes, on vacation…assigned seats.  I had returned to Mrs. Zimmerman’s second grade classroom.  I was sure there would be homework later, but I looked forward to some dodgeball during recess.

Actually, it is sort of like your first day of school, or summer camp.  You are anxious about how your teacher/tour guide will act, and you know there will be certain roles each person will play.  Some people you will like, some you won’t.  There will be the popular kids, the nerds, and a group of bohemian iconoclasts who do their own thing.  I was in that group, naturally.  I was after all, the only white guy.

To Be Continued…

Thoughts from Taiwan

We arrived in Taiwan after a whirlwind tour through Tokyo, and my knee was sending distress signals with every step.  The story of how this happened is a matter for another day, but suffice it to say that every step hurt, a lot, and stairs were impossible.  After a four hour sleep, it was off to the city of Tainan.  It is normally about a four hour trip, but at Chinese New Year it takes twice as long due to traffic.  I ended up in a world very different than the one I usually inhabit.

a parkTaipei is a world-class city, in many ways identical to every other big world city.  There is Costco, TGI Friday’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and million other exports of Americanism that has homogenized the world.  That is good.  It is also grievous.  Anyone who has traveled much can attest to both.  I’m not complaining.  Taipei is awesome.  It is a pleasure to visit.

All of Taiwan, and Taipei in particular, has an energy that is frantic.  It never stops.  Tokyo is always busy, but there it is business.  In Taiwan it is life in general.  The mopeds speed endlessly along, constantly jockeying for position.  When the work day stops, the night markets open.  If New York is “the city that never sleeps,” then Taipei is the city that never stops to catch its breath.

Night markets are ubiquitous here.  They are constant crowds and energy.  Exotic birds flutter in their cages, while men hoarsely squawk into loudspeakers hawking their wares.  Men stir and fry in endless arrays of food booths, as throngs of people shuffle by.  They are shoulder-to-shoulder, talking about which booth has the best Stinky Tofu, or which jeans are fake Levis. The night market is more than a crowd.  It is a living, breathing organism.

crowd at a marketTaiwan is energy in ever form and every way, and its people feed that energy with a constant supply of food.  When they aren’t out at a nice restaurant, they are snacking from street vendors, or chewing on fruit and seeds at home.  When they aren’t eating, they are looking at food or talking about it.  This place is a food-lover’s dream.  There are millions of choices, and each city has its famous specialties.

Most Americans could not appreciate the food here.  It is more opposite of the American palate than any food I’ve ever tasted.  Some dishes require a lot of commitment and character, but in the end it is usually rewarding.  Sometimes it is a real challenge though, and Taiwan does not have a robust Health Department or FDA enforcing any codes or standards of cleanliness.  Bathrooms are always dirty, furnishings are a distant afterthought, and I can’t figure out how street vendors could clean their hands and cookware.  I’m sure they don’t.  Many Americans would use all of this as reason to stay away from the food—their loss.

For as much as they eat, the people are quite thin.  Many are more rugged and old-world as compared to the West.  Dentistry is probably a few decades behind the US in much of the country, but maybe it is more noticeable because they smile a lot more than people do in many other Asian countries.  Sometimes the people who smile most have the worst teeth to show, but that is often because the people in the rural areas seem to be a lot happier even though they have a lot less access to the modern things we think should make us happier.

As a “foreigner,” I stand out everywhere I go.  I can’t help it.  My eyes, hair, and skin are all a different color than theirs, and I stand a lot taller than many people.  It isn’t like one might imagine.  I don’t feel like Gulliver among Lilliputians, but I am taller.  I stand out, literally.  Some people choose to ignore me and hope that I go away.  Many times this is due more to them feeling uncomfortable by me.  There is a sense of inferiority in Taiwan in general, and especially toward white Americans.  This is true in many parts of the world.

Other people look right at me and smile.  Some of them walk right up and start saying all of the English words they know.  This means that Chinese New Years Dinnerseveral times each day I am greeted by some stranger shouting “America!  Hot dog!” at me as if my white skin also makes me slightly deaf.  As they grin from ear-to-ear, I smile back and say “Hi!”  It is humorous, but also really heart-warming.  I’ve never shied away from being a spectacle anyway.  Most Taiwanese are very warm, and if they invite me into their home or business, they take care of me with great warmth and fastidiousness as if I were a greatly honored guest.

For all their focus on food or commerce as Taiwan’s greatest asset, I think they really miss the brightest part of their whole culture.  Their people are their greatest resource.  They are not outwardly warm in the way many Southerners are in America, but once you are their friend they will not only give you the shirt off of their backs, but will convince you that it is for your own good that you take it.  They will give endlessly with the same passion that they devour a bowl of noodles.  This is Taiwan.