Experiencing China

'Experiencing China' is about ordinary life in China and the wealing and dealing of a Dutchman in the Middle Kingdom. Marc works for DuoArts Consultancy and the Empowerment Foundation, travelling between the Netherlands and China.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

China 1999 - Part Three

After celebrating Chinese New Year with the Zhang family, it was time to do the thing I had to do in China, which was, conducting my (organizational) research at a state-owned textile factory in Dongping, Shandong province (see publications). First, as already said, I traveled from Datong back to Beijing to take the train there to Jinan, the capital city of Shandong (see map China).After the ‘freezing-my-shoes-to-the-ground’ incident at night, I negotiated a bed and had a short sleep. The allover voyage took me about 14 hours. In the train I met a Chinese student, wanting to talk to me, because he wanted to practice his English. When I told him I was heading for Jinan, he understood Xi’an (pronunciation similar) in, I guess, Shaanxi province. He told me that the stone army could be found there and for the first two months I believed the stone army to be in Jinan instead of Xi’an. A few hours later I went to the train’s restaurant to have lunch, when I met some curious personnel whom I learned how to roll Dutch tobacco cigarettes.

Glad to finally get out of the train, in the Netherlands you never travel longer then, let’s say, four hours, I arrived in Jinan, where I was picked up by the company’s car that took me to my hotel. Dongping looked much friendlier than Datong. Compared to moon-like Datong, Dongping was a green paradise. The same was true about the temperature, which lay beyond the 10 degrees Centigrade. The thing I didn’t know was how Chinese village life was like. Although the temperature outside was rather comfortable for winter, houses and companies alike lacked any central heating, warm water, a shower, a washing machines and fridge, things that were primary goods to me. During the next two months I worked with my coat, scarf and gloves on, having to walk for ten minutes (back and forth) for hot water and washing my cloths the way our grandmothers did. However, man is adaptable, and soon I loved being in Dongping. Shandong people generally are considered to be very hospitable, straightforward and friendly. I agree.

Because of the holiday season, I didn’t have any contact with the Hemp Mill, the state-owned enterprise I was to do my research. Actually, I didn’t matter that much for I was able to sleep in (the first week had been terribly tiring) and to get to know the town a little bit better. At one day I met teacher Wang, a teacher English, who spoke English very well. He invited me for dinner with the teacher’s committee of Dongping. This was the first time I was able to experience a full fledged traditional Shandong Chinese banquet that I had many since. A traditional banquet is done with many people, in this occasion the teacher’s committee, and centers around one or more round table that have a circulating inner circle. This circle enables the guests to taste the diverse dishes that are being served. The more dishes, the more hospitality you show to your guests. Ordinary drinks are beer, for special occasions the famous Chinese white ‘wine’ is used. When I was first asked if I wanted a white wine, I said ‘yes, please’ and expecting a European 14% white wine. However, Chinese white wine has an alcohol percentage between the 50 and 65%, and is drunk more frequently in Shandong then anywhere else (tip: when in China, try the following brand: Er Guo Tou, it's really strong and nice!). Around the main table the most important people (according to the Chinese) are sitting, in this occasion including me. There was another table with people of seemingly lesser importance. The toasting ceremony is also structured according to reputation; the guest never has to make a toast, but does all the drinking. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans’, so I did and neatly emptied all the glasses of spirit. After dinner we took some photos to remember our new friendships. Normally I am a pretty good photographer, but you can imagine this time it didn’t work too well.

The next day a man my age walked into the room. Privacy has a somewhat different content then in Europe and hotel rooms are usually not regarded as places where privacy is provided for. I already got used to this. But as said, a man my age walked into my room, introduced himself as Tom and said something like: ‘let’s go meal’. Aha!? Dinner, I thought. I don’t who he is, but he might act on behalf of the teacher’s commission or the Hemp Mill. Thus, I took a little bag containing my camera, passport and wallet and wanted to leave with him. ‘No’ he said, ‘you should bring your suitcase as well’. ‘No’ I said, ‘don’t worry, I won’t need it’. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘you need it’. ‘No’ I said, ‘I won’t need it’. Etcetera, etcetera…. After a while I didn’t want to argue with him any longer and packed my bags. We got into a car, not knowing where we would go. Eventually it turned out that the management of the Hemp Mill had sent Tom to get me to the factory, where they had a little room present for me in order to conduct my research. Tom turned out to be my translator and, later, became my informant and good friend as well.


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