Understanding America and China

“You Americans don’t understand anything about Chinese culture,” my roommate on the Yangtze River cruise said. We’d been talking about cultural differences in Chinese, and he had reached this conclusion based off of recent news. He said that Americans are fine, but that they know nothing about China. (And if you are thinking “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” then you and I have the same brain).

To be frank, I could say the same about him and American culture. We would be trying to talk about it, and when we reached a Chinese word I didn’t know that was related to American history, he’d be aghast, saying that I don’t know my own history! Then, when I looked up this mysterious word, which was “The Civil War” I had to explain that we use different words to describe our history, and that maybe I just didn’t know how to talk about it in Chinese. He was a plump guy with an impressive collection of Hawaiian shirts and pants that never quite made it past his socks. He also had an innate ability not to pay for things and to cheat the tourism market to save hundreds of yuan. I had much to learn from him.

But as much as we could talk about certain things, and as much as he thought he understood my culture, still there would be times when he would interrupt a good conversation to ask what I consider to be stupid questions.

Such as:
“Why is your hair gold?”
“Can you use RMB [Chinese money]?”
“How long are you going to stand here and look at things?”
We all have our moments.

Still, it bothered me. China and America are both such big, influential countries, it seems like the most important thing in the world is to understand each other, or at the very least be able to have conversations with each other without it being reduced to mud-throwing or argumentation. A real conversation–the art that sometimes I feel is slowly dying in a comment-strewn wasteland.

We never really got to that point, mostly because my Chinese has limits, and his English is basically non-existent. A pity. Sometimes speaking a foreign language feels like trying to stuff a handbag into a keyhole–there’s so much you want to say, but very limited capabilities with which to express it.

But sometimes, you make it work.

I found this when I went to the Summer Palace with one of my American friends, who was there for the week. (Only a week in China! How overwhelming.) We both play violin, and so it was with joy that we saw a man sitting at a desk with a violin case next to him. He had fake teeth that looked like they were about to flap right out of his mouth, a fanny pack, a stained white tank top, wild black and grey hair that looked as though it was struck by lightning, and a pair of glasses on his nose. His nose was bent over white paper on which he was practicing calligraphy.

“Want to make a new friend?” my friend asked me.


I sidled up next to him and mentioned that we both played violin. And, boom, the violin was in my friend’s hands. Then, it was my turn, and I played “The Butterfly Lover’s Concerto,” which is a famous violin and erhu piece in China. He got really excited, took out a beat-up erhu, and began to play with me. My poor friend was reduced to holding the music for us (though would get his chance later to play as the man then got us to do Beijing opera with him) and we played.

“You see?” he said to the surrounding gaggle of tourists watching our progress. “The American can play our music! And we are playing together now!”

Indeed we were, and although it wasn’t my finest performance, it was still a good one.

He kept playing, and then turned to expostulate some more to the audience. “Just as there is a great canal connecting Hangzhou and Beijing, so we are connected from far away. We are playing together, and so we are connected. Obama and Xi Jiping can fight and argue all they want, but we don’t need to do that, not here! Leave the fighting to the leaders. Chinese are good. Americans are good.”

And then we played once more, before romping around in Beijing opera (he had me singing, and my friend on violin).
Maybe that’s all it is. Once we realize that some governments represent only the idea of a place, then maybe we can realize that the actual place, the actual people, and the actual conversations are not as scary as we might think.

Or, when it doubt, make music and hope the rest comes together.


Hanging Coffins

“This is where the dead were buried, but you don’t understand anyway, do you? Look, a skeleton!” The sarcastic guide led me through the museum with a flashlight, and as he had said, indeed there was a skeleton. The electricity had gone out, which meant that we were reduced to Scooby Doo tactics.

“So short!” I said, shining my flashlight into the glass where a skeleton laid.

“Yes. Short.”

He shone the flashlight over to another part of the museum and I jumped to see another skeleton.

“Are you scared?” he asked, cackling.

“No,” I said. Which was a half-lie. I was out on my own in a completely off-map sort of place in Sichuan–the kind barely in Lonely Planet. I man with a violin had led me to a bus, and then a man with a burlap sack led me to a motorbike with a ridiculous rainbow umbrella, which then took me to the hanging coffins that I’d wanted to see.

Hanging coffins. I’d read about them online, and then promptly decided to go find them. They’re remnants of an old civilization in China (the Bo people) that have since been driven out, reportedly around the Ming Dynasty. There are hanging coffins in several areas in China: around the Three Gorges, near Zhangjiajie in Hunan, in Yunnan, and then the place I’d chosen to visit: Gongxian County of Yibin, Sichuan. The most recent coffins date back to about 400 years ago, whereas the oldest ones are a couple thousand years old. Going in, I didn’t know any of this, only that there were coffins hanging on the side of a cliff, and that it sounded bizarre. Usually, that’s enough for me.

Really, the big question is not so much who the people are, as how did they get the coffins up so high? Something I’m sure the guide was telling me, but sadly, my Chinese wasn’t good enough to decipher.

That didn’t stop him from trying though.

In the small museum, there was a kid following us with another flashlight. I walked in front of a wooden coffin, like the ones suspended on the cliff. There was money draped all over the coffin, but when I asked the guide why people put money there, he just responded with “How the hell should I know?” Then I went outside, where a simple crane of the neck put hanging coffins into sight.

If you are picturing something like a mobile, or something like Christmas ornaments, you are wrong. The hanging coffins are put onto wooden spikes sticking into the cliff wall, much like placing things onto a shelf. The aspect that makes this so strange is how they got up so high.



I had my own theories, ranging from ridiculous to downright fantasy. I’ve read online that ultimately, archaeologists discovered remnants of rope from above, leading them to believe that the Bo people lowered the coffins down from the top of the cliff. (And here I was picturing these giants doing construction work, accidentally uncovering coffins, and placing them on shelves “for safe keeping” until they forgot about them and moved on.)

Why, of course, is another question.

Apparently, dead bodies were safer from up above, which was the answer I was given, though it wasn’t fully satisfying. Why put something up so high, when you won’t be able to access it later? Apparently, there was honor in being put above the ground. Or, maybe someone was just making that up because they also didn’t know.

It took a lot of effort to get there, and along the way most Chinese travelers were asking me “Why?” For them, the hanging coffins were okay, but not the best thing to see. They directed me instead to the bamboo sea, which most foreigners go to. I tried to express that I like “strange history” which they sort of understood. All the same, I ended up in Yibin, Sichuan, and because every person I met had the same attitude (“There’s nothing to see in Yibin, so you’ll be so bored! Let me show you around!”) that I ended up having a blast. An hour massage that turned into a plate of noodles and then a party because I was a foreign friend; a trip to eat dumplings that turned into a cruise along the beginning of the Yangtze River; a seat-mate on a bus that turned into a trip to an ancient town and then playing violin on the bank of the Yangtze River. The people of Yibin were quite possibly my favorite in all of China.

And in this case, I might ask “why?” as well, but maybe, like the hanging coffins, the why is not so much the part that interests me, but the “how.” How did I get to the hanging coffins? Part dumb luck, part making new friends. How did I spend my time? With the dead, and then with the living.

To Hell and Back

Amazing, this traditional Chinese art...
Amazing, this traditional Chinese art…

“Why do you want to go there?” another traveler on the ship asked me. “It’s not real history.”
“Yeah, but…” I searched for the best way to describe it. “I prefer fake history.”
“Okay, your choice…”

He left me as I got off the boat to Fengdu, or what I will call “Chinese Hell.”

Now, when I say Chinese Hell, I don’t mean one of those times when I get caught in a supermarket on a Sunday afternoon and the crowds make me want to rip my hair out. I mean the actual representation of where the dead go after they’ve died. As in, someone at one point in history, actually went out and built the temples, and the statues of demons eating human hands, and the graphic depictions of souls being tortured. (Side note: imagine the conversation this architect had with the builders: “no, no, his mouth needs to be gaping a little wider, and you need to make the blood darker…”) I mean, actual Hell, according to the wonderful powers of the human imagination.

And what excellent, creative personalities there were that concocted this place!

The first phase of Chinese Hell is the more figurative representation of what happens after death. Once we visitors made it past the hawkers selling scream masks and water bottles, we climbed up a series of steps toward the pathway that leads to The Yellow Springs (the name of Chinese Hell). It’s a bit misleading to be climbing steps, since The Yellow Springs is underground, but it’s a detail I was happy to ignore. I floated in between tour groups, finding a small abandoned corner of Hell, which had broken and splintered shrines, plants growing out of the stones, and cracked pillars. Then I joined in with a group again as the guide explained about The Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Apparently, if you crossed with someone you loved, you were safe. There were workers dressed up as guards with fake axes to permit people to cross (or not). If the people were unfit to enter hell, they were chucked into the River of Blood. I was deemed Hell-worthy, and so continued up toward The Gate of Hell.

Bring it on.
Bring it on.

Along the path to The Gate of Hell, there were statues of ghosts and demons. A ghost with eyes all over its skin, a ghost etching into another’s skin, a ghost eating a human hand, a ghost with skulls around its neck. Can I help that I loved it? Inside there was The Home-Viewing Terrace, which was overgrown and a bit rickety (and also behind a bunch of trees, so there wasn’t much of a view), and then another pagoda which marked where spirits eventually were tossed back into earth. I took photos, basically dorked out, and never wanted to move on.

Boy am I glad I did.

The second phase (as I see it) of Chinese Hell is inside the Hall of Judgment, where the Lord of Hell awaits souls to determine where they will go, or what sort of torture they will endure. The crowds were thick at the entrance, so I slipped off to the sides. By pure accident, I came face-to-face with graphic depictions of all the phases we had just figuratively passed through.

I guess he's not resting in peace, so much as resting in pieces...
I guess he’s not resting in peace, so much as resting in pieces…

There were men with mouths open in screams as demons ripped out their innards, a demon stuffing bodies into a chimney, a demon politely seating men at a table with poisoned drinks, a demon chopping a man in half at the groin, a demon frying hapless souls in a giant wok, a demon throwing men from the top of a mountain made of spikes, a demon barbecuing men over metal rods. And behind them a row of gods watching with demented grins. I saw a tiny version of the Bridge Over Troubled Waters, but instead of letting people pass, the people were shoved off of the bridge and into churning waters full of skulls and blood.

Yes, this is morbid. Yes, I enjoyed it very much. Where else in the world can one see something that is one part horror, one part cheese?

Oh, but there was more.

In the final phase, one had to climb down the mountain and go up another path. There weren’t as many visitors this time, because time was getting short and we needed to be back on the boat. But I wasn’t about to miss a single moment of Hell.

First, I had to walk through what was called the “Ghost Shopping Street” which was just a clever way of saying “Please buy random merchandise, people.” I breezed through. I saw what appeared to be another temple, and what appeared to be stairs. I chose the stairs, passing again another line of demons until I was at the top, at the gaping mouth of a demon signifying the entrance into another area. (Sort of reminiscent of the Cave of Wonders, no?)


When I entered, there was something saying “Experience The Yellow Springs” and so I followed the signs. What followed what something so dizzying and delightful, I can hardly describe it.

They had turned Hell into a haunted house.

There were mechanized dolls lurching about in the corners, their age so apparent, I could see their wire frames. There was a figurine of a woman being impaled, as she spun around like a ballerina. There was a figure of a man holding a snake. I walked through, giving up on taking pictures, since nothing could ever do it justice. Each new room was another mock-horror, dark stairs and pathways twisting up into another scene of terror. And then, there was a short roller coaster ride through a Day-Glo rush of the underworld, the dolls and paintings chipping off of the walls. After the ride was done, I had to walk through the Reincarnation Room, which was a series of pathways with different animals painted on the sides. Deep voices bellowed at me as I raced through, and then, as soon as it had started, it was done.

What lessons have I learned from this trip?

Chinese Hell is great, but let’s hope it’s not where we go when we die.

How to Travel Alone

In most of my time traveling in China, I have been alone.
“Isn’t it boring?” some of my students ask.
“Of course not!” I say.

Traveling alone is a wonderful experience that allows you to be much closer to the culture and to be swept away by the current of new friends. You learn more about the language, customs, and traditions when alone, and you get more time to think. Locals are more likely to stop and chat. Whenever you want to do something, you can just do it without having to check with anyone else to see if it’s a good idea. You make friends along the way, and you learn that the world is more and more like a global village. In short, you feel richer by the end of the trip.
There are risks involved, as there are with most things. The big one being that you are alone which means a whole host of things to different people. For me, it just means that I have to be stronger than I might with someone else.

So, how to do it? Well, once the planning is put together, the location chosen, and the landmarks fantasized about, there are a few things to consider. For those thinking about traveling alone, here are some general pieces of advice I have:

1)Research. This is something that most travelers should do anyway, but when you’re alone, it’s all the more important. You don’t have anyone else to tell you where to go next. That being said, not all research is done online or through Lonely Planet pages. Some of the best travel advice I’ve gotten is from talking to other travelers in hostel lounges. Which brings me to…

2)Be chatty. I was on a bus in the middle of nowhere, Sichuan to see some hanging coffins. I saw a guy with a violin case sit down next to me and, rather than leave him alone, I started up a conversation about violins. (Tip for making small talk: start with a question, even if you already know the answer). He found out where I was going, and then another seat-mate said he was going in the same direction and then helped me get to where I wanted to go. To top it off, violin guy called me up the next day to see how it went and then to invite me to play violin with him by the bank of the Yangtze River. With a smart phone, I could have just looked this information up myself and gotten there without incident, but where’s the fun in that? Traveling alone necessitates finding company.

3)Know when to be vulnerable. There have been times that I’ve been on a bus, uncertain of where it was going. In these cases, it’s easy to clam up and keep to myself. And when someone asks if I know when to get off, say “Of course!” But it’s good to know when to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing. Only when vulnerable, will someone know that you need help.

4)Know when to be an impenetrable wall. That being said, it’s also a good idea to gauge situations properly. Sometimes, it’s necessary to appear more confident than you actually are. When you do this, others will know not to take advantage of you.

5)Be bold, but not stupid. It is excellent to push limits and to experience something new, but keep in mind that if something happens to you on the road, absolutely no one will find out right away. It’s a sobering thought that has stopped me on occasion, but one that’s necessary to keep in mind.

6)Keep in touch. Your friends and family will want to know that you’re not dying in some hospital, and if you don’t update frequently enough, this is the conclusion they will come to.

7)Have a blast. I think traveling alone is the most rewarding experience anyone can have, and would recommend it to all travelers, no matter the distance, no matter the destination.