The post below is a continuation from my last post on the journey to China. After I arrived in China, I had minor internet issues to deal with. With that and a very full schedule, my plan to post every other day proved to be impossible. Long story short, I can now begin to share what was an enlightening trip to Zhongguo.
I awoke the next morning refreshed and surprisingly, felt no jetlag. Not having had a decent meal in a day or two, I dressed quickly and we headed for the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Served in a room that must have been luxurious in its earlier times, I thought perhaps the hotel should be renamed The Past Hotel. I did not recognize many of the thirty dishes that covered a set of circular tables. Skipping the overripe watermelon, I went for fried eggs – a bit unusual with big, round firm yokes like hardboiled eggs, but whites were true to a fried egg. Rice porridge looked good so I scooped up a bowl but was disappointed when it turned out to be blatantly bland.
After eating, we headed out of the hotel, around the corner and into the commercial hub of Wuhan. In a center of high end shopping, restaurants, food courts, street food, the hotel was but steps away from the Times Square of Wuhan. Adding to the noise of it all was the fact that major building renovation was underway just outside the hotel. We made our way through the construction, turned a corner and happened on a Starbucks. Starbucks never looked so good except in Lisbon the previous fall under similar circumstances. With Starbucks’ universal menu, I began to salivate over the expectation of a green tea chai. Of course they would make it, but with soy instead of my usual almond milk. It was one of the best I had ever had, but not surprising considering that China is the home of green tea.
Retreating to a cozy corner with large windows I observed a heavy traffic of middle class shoppers, students and hipsters. They were not the artful hipsters that I am used to seeing on the back streets and east side of LA, but corporate hipsters with the sleek look of Armani and Max Mara.
After lingering over our drinks a bit we moved next door to a food hall and supermarket to buy some fruit and a few odds and ends for snacks. I spent quite a bit of time acquainting myself with the offerings of a Chinese supermarket. It was late morning by the time we started back to the hotel and street musicians and food vendors were setting up for the day. Truly enjoying the leisurely pace after the schedule preceding my trip along with the unusual sites and scenes of a country I had yet to know, I acted like a typical tourist snapping photo after photo.
In the afternoon I accompanied my partner to the University of Technology where he would give his last lecture. Dealing with traffic and crossing street had its own set of norms. I quickly learned that drivers have the right of way, or at least act like they do; crosswalks require one’s full attention. Prepared for most anything having traveled extensively in Asia, still, I was totally surprised by bikes and scooters riding the sidewalks!
At the end of the lecture two students approached us with an invitation to dinner; we accepted. At the agreed time, the two, a young woman and man met us in the lobby of our hotel from which they led us to a nearby, nine story shopping mall. We escalated to the eighth floor with its bevy of restaurants. Our young companions selected a Beijing style restaurant. I began to realize that I had seen no other foreigners than my partner since I had arrived. I must have appeared unusual to the locals as I noticed they stared at me. And if I stared back, they continued staring at me. I decided to smile back. Instead of stares I began to get smiles in return.
While the small, nondescript restaurant, served food not fit for a foodie, some nicely done okra and rice appeased my appetite, but not my longing for a good meal. I did get my first lesson on eating customs. The students ate quickly and quietly as I would find out is the norm. Only after completed their meal, did conversation begin.
The young woman was having issues over her major. Two years in she wanted to change from engineering to economics. As in many countries, changing a major or career is highly unusual. Her father, a banker, thought she should continue because he did not want her to end up in banking. She explained that he did not understand that economics does not necessarily mean a life in banking. The mother, a doctor, had told her that women should not do such difficult majors as materials engineering. The uncle felt she should continue. It seems that her entire family had weighed in on her issue. She had to change as soon as possible for if she waited she would be locked into engineering. As in many countries, changing a major or career is not the norm.
An interesting side note: her mother had told her that if you became a doctor in the US you had to make home visits to see you patients. I cleared that one up and explained that such practice had ended for the most part some 50 years ago.
Coming to understand the Chinese view, and its cultural mores played a major role in my decision to make this trip. With that in mind, I felt good as we ended our dinner and walked back to the hotel. As we strolled, I was totally fascinated with the vendors who occupied every inch of spare space. After a meal that left me longing, I found myself slavering for some of the street food. Along the walk, I got a hint of how technology had taken over every aspect of commercial life in China. The street food vendors, even the elderly lady selling fresh slices of pineapple had two-dimensional bar codes that allowed buyers to use cell phones to pay for purchases.
Twenty-four hours in; I felt like I had been away from the US for weeks. Images, colors, styles, customs all new, but deep inside I felt completely at home and safe.