A Guided Tour of China
When I say “guided tour,” I mean that I had a Chinese guide and the tour consisted of a singular place where I had some business. I’m telling you this up front so you understand what a pathetic “tour” this story relates. Like all of my travel stories, however, this one is based on the truth.
My guide called himself Gordon, since all Chinese get to choose a Western name in addition to their actual ten-syllable Chinese name, either to make it easier for foreigners or to confuse the authorities. Together, we managed to complete our business despite the fact that I speak no Chinese and have a tendency to laugh out loud at the spoken language. This can be especially bothersome during serious business negotiations:
Chinese businessman: “Why is he laughing?”
Gordon: “Because Americans put starch in their underwear.”
At least that’s what I imagined.
At one point in the conversation, the businessman boasted that he’d recently visited Los Angeles.
“What did you like most about it?” I asked, to be polite.
“The fresh air,” he replied.
We’d met in Foshan City, northeast of Hong Kong. Foshan is notable for its ceramics production; every business district had at least twelve high-end tile display stores. The industry, however, left the air heavy in particulates and pollution. It wasn’t uncommon to see people walking around in surgical masks or bicycling with one hand covering their mouth and nose. The air was so thick, buildings literally disappeared into it. I couldn’t see two city blocks.
I stayed in a swanky hotel built for foreigners. I could tell because the bathroom toilet actually had a seat with a bowl, unlike most Chinese toilets, which are basically plumbed holes in the floor to squat over. It takes practice to manage, and I discovered my aim wasn’t very good. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?
China in general is a country of contrasts. It’s like a billboard advertising the latest fashions with green stains from the acid rain. It’s like a jade salesman in a silk shirt with a smoker’s cough. It’s like a hip karaoke bar with only songs by the Pet Shop Boys.
The China I saw looked sleek and modern and efficient, but a closer inspection revealed chinks in the armor — I mean no ethnic slur; it’s just an apt description. For example, my hotel room had a spacious, glass-enclosed shower, but the stall didn’t drain properly, so water backed up onto the beautiful ceramic tile floor … which wasn’t properly grouted.
Now imagine a whole country with these quality standards. High-rises lined with flashing neon lights that would’ve looked amazing if all the neon lights still worked. Gracefully curving skyscrapers that pollution had already started to eat away. “Made in China” has come to mean cheap reproductions of plastic toys, but the entire country seems to have been built on this principle.
One final note: My hotel room had a card-key electrical system. Upon entering the room, I had to insert the card into a slot before I could turn on the lights. That’s fine, but the room’s small refrigerator was on the same circuit, meaning the piss-poor excuse for beer in the mini-bar experienced more temperature fluctuations than a Republican talking about sex. I discovered this the hard way.
Lessons Learned: The Chinese have difficulty with English – the Ls and Rs especially. On the last day of my stay, I exchanged contact information with Gordon. Only then did I find out his name was actually “Golden.” I’d been calling him Gordon for weeks.
Mark H. Bloom is a published writer and editor originally from Salem, MA, aka The Witch City, where tourism is a huge industry. Mark now resides in the mountain town of Asheville, NC, another tourist destination. He entertains himself by writing creatively and professionally, editing books, and doing video work. Get in touch with Mark a firstname.lastname@example.org and read his full bio below.