This wasn’t the plan. I was to be standing on the Great Wall, but instead I am singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to 150 Chinese students. Not only am I singing, but I am also marching in place. To top off the tune, a jaunty salute and an exaggerated bow are even tossed in. It is a performance I will repeat six times this day.
Since refusing the request to "Disco, madam!" at a wedding in Yemen, I have vowed during my trip never to regret doing something for fear of looking like a foolish foreigner. And so when the Chinese teens ask â€“ no, beg â€“ me to sing a song, I go along. True, they didn’t ask for the marching bit, but I hoped it would add to the number. Judging by their wild reaction of claps, cheers and catcalls, I conclude that it did.
It is day 12 of my stay in China, and I have journeyed to the remote town of Yullin. Few Western tourists venture to this wind-swept northern city, but I had been told that those who do receive a remarkably warm welcome. Besides friendly hospitality, this former desert outpost offers visitors the opportunity to see the Great Wall in its raw, unrestored form, which is a far cry from the over-touristed, over-commercialized, over-hyped sections easily accessible from Beijing.
I have grown accustomed to being the object of gob-eye, who’s-that-gal, tongue-wagging attention, but what I experience in Yullin is enough to make me, well, act like a clown in a classroom.
Brother, Can You Spare a Bed?
The games begin the moment I step off the bus. They point, they gawk, and they cluster around as I attempt to find the Yullin Hostel. Finally, me and my small entourage make it there, only to be refused a room because the hotel is no longer licensed to accept foreigners.
As I sit outside, mulling over my next move, a mini-mob surrounds this round-eye wonder. I give up counting at 23. Suggestions are shouted out, fingers are pointed, and the hotel manager tells me to get the hell off his stoop. The only problem is this is all in Chinese, and I don’t understand a lick. Except for the part about getting the hell off the stoop; the manager was quite clear about that.
It is a 16-year-old who saves me. A relative rarity in China, he speaks surprisingly fluent English. Would I like to come to dinner at his neighboring house to discuss my dilemma? Over potato noodles it is decided I am to spend the night in the family guestroom.
The crowning point of the spacious and simple apartment is a big-screen television, and I spend the evening in front of it with his parents, who don’t speak English, while the boy heads off for his night classes. Their tongue-twisting names trouble me, and so I address them as "mom" and "dad" in Mandarin. This, they like.
I show them photos of my family and friends in America; they show me photos of their family, friends and, yes, many of their big-screen TV. This being China, they have only one child, and I conclude that the Sony big screen has taken on the role of a second son.
It is the first time I am in a Chinese home, and I quickly learn what to do and not to do.
- Rule #1: Don’t wear shoes in the house. And so I flop around in a pair of the mother’s plastic sandals, half my size. As I look down at my feet, Ronald McDonald is giving me a big-ass grin. The global domination of the golden arches has yet to reach Yullin, but I dolefully imagine it is only a matter of time.
- Rule #2: Soup is to be noisily slurped and noodles are to be sucked with gusto. American manners are tossed aside, and soon our mouth music produces an international symphony.
- Rule #3: Tasty meal? Give out a burp! Dad lets out a nice one, followed by a muffled one from Mom. But, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t let it rip. I leave the table with my head down.
- Rule #4: Feet must be washed before turning in. The mother follows me into the bathroom, eyeing my every move. Teeth are brushed, face is washed, and I ache to release the potato noodles from my screaming system. But the lady won’t leave. Instead, she reaches down to pull off my socks. Burping, belching, spitting, hockering and peeing in front of others (see Rule #6 below) are perfectly acceptable in Chinese culture, but god forbid you don’t have fresh feet.
- Rule #5: Socks should be rinsed out nightly. Before I realize what is happening, she tosses my hiking socks into the suds. I see hers already hanging to dry, but I want to scream, "No! I have only worn them twice, and there is plenty of life left in them." (Yes, hygiene has taken a hit here on the road.)
- Rule #6: It is okay to pee in front of strangers. When I gesture that I have to relieve myself, she simply steps aside to close the bathroom door, and then expectantly stands there. Audiences scare me, and I close the curtain between us. Struck by stage fright, I save the potato noodles for later. But the woman doesn’t mind putting on a show and takes her turn, right in front of me.
The next morning I am unexpectedly told they are leaving for grandma’s and, therefore, I can’t stay a second night. As I gather up my gear, I wonder what â€“ if anything â€“ I did wrong. Maybe my socks smelled after all, maybe it was the no-burping business; maybe it is considered rude if you don’t pee in front of your hostess. In any case, I need to find a hotel.
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