Trips and Tales: Part 125
Truer paths – new terrains #1
They had pulled down history only to replace it with a faux version, a Disneyland of aspirational Western brand names in a sanitised, mock-vintage setting. Somehow missing the point on what exactly draws people to locations resplendent with age and culture, oozing both perceptibly from every stony pore.
Surely if we combine the appearance of the past with the convenience of the modern – and offer all those lovely, touristy goods and familiar brand names: then that’s the best of all worlds, right? Right?
No, no, a thousand times no! “The Chinese have very little understanding of what constitutes a tourist attraction,” PA reveals, after spending months immersed in their culture, homing in on the real deal. “And,” he adds of the stores themselves: “They are not cheaper, even though the products are made there!” That’s right: you get to pay Western prices in China, even though the goods are made (geographically speaking) just around the corner. Remember the scandals and suicides over mobiles, tablets and running shoes – all assembled in sweatshop regimes for our delectation, comfortably far away from our moral embarrassment?
Leaving these “temples to retail therapy” behind, PA would venture into Beijing‘s Silk Market or Pearl Market and indulge in a little faux of his own. Fancy a knock-off “North Face” jacket or 3 “Timberland” shirts for a tenner? No problem. Then there are the hassling CD sellers who could avail you of various CDs for pence, literally. I’m not saying it’s right, where is “right” in any of the above? It’s just a fact.
The faux shopping paradise (the one within the rules that is) is just behind Tiananmen Square too, which no doubt has a different significance and context to us in the West than it does to the Chinese establishment.
Heading back on his bicycle (he paid 15 GBP for one), PA would find his hostel in the Hutongs, the busy ancient streets where traditional Chinese life trundles on to the embarrassment of the authorities, the authentic restaurants where he would eat and manage amongst local families and workers on their daily routines. Here, he was regarded with politeness and respect, often generosity too – with a free meal and hospitalities on the night prior to his leaving, for example. All from people who didn’t have much of their own to begin with. Isn’t that often the way?
He found a continuing interest and curiosity amongst the locals, partly out of his English-ness (they learn English as it’s their way out, he tells me), but also out of concern and a basic desire to help. The locals would gladly phone ahead for him prior to his departure – in order to book a bed at the next hostel, reserve tickets, whatever. That’s without ripping him off.
You see, PA is not fluent in any Chinese language or dialect. Devoid of voice, the mutual communication was all about manner and demeanour. Acts, rather than words of politeness. So it seems that actions do, in fact, speak louder than words.
More next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 126) Arrival Beijing #15
[Photo by lylevincent]