I traveled to Sanya on Hainan Island, China, for a couple of weeks of beach and relaxing and met a really interesting friendly guy, with whom I immediately bonded despite the 30 years difference in our age. When he sent word that he was in Yangshuo and took a job teaching there, I changed my original plan of returning to Kunming for a second time for language classes and went to Yangshuo instead to study at a language school called Omeida. Was a really good decision anyway, since—although the classes were just as good in Beijing, Taipei or Kunming—the students were a lot friendlier. If was also a lot more convenient than in a big city where you wasted so much time just getting some where. In Yangshuo, you can walk to most places, although most students rent a bicycle.
Yangshuo also has beautiful scenery with the mountains (crags) and rivers that you often see in Chinese paintings. It is well known for rock climbing, and many foreigners come for that as well as river rafting and other outdoor activities. The picture on the 20-yuan note is from this area.
View from TV tower
The first time studying there, my friend Shawn whom I had met in Sanya was already well established and introduced me to lots of other people he knew. Most of the other students were very outgoing, and we had great fun hanging out and going to bars. My favorite at the time was Rusty Bolt where a great Philippine guitarist and singer often performed. Shawn was still there the second time I came, so I would up in bars too often and spent too little time practicing Chinese, although I still made progress in the language thanks to the teachers at Omeida.
At Rusty Bolt
Shawn playing bartender:
In the big cities, most of those studying Chinese were mainly interested in making big money there later. In Kunming, most of the students were only enrolled to get a visa and spent most of their time teaching English when not watching DVDs and getting drunk at the bars on the weekend. One time word was out that the police were coming to check whether students were actually studying at the school and not just there for visas, and I never saw so many students at the school (and never saw them again)! At Omeida in Yangshuo, most students are actually interested in learning Chinese for itself and the culture, even though most give up before becoming fluent. The school has a tandem school teaching English, which means that it was easy to get contact with Chinese and practice the language. The school also often had group outings on the weekend that included Chinese students and meant that I did not have to spend them going about alone. It is the only language school that I have attended that arranges activities for its students, a big plus if you are just somewhere for a couple of weeks. Another plus is that you still have classes with a teacher if you are the only person at a certain level without any extra charge! I like classes with a couple of other students, but private classes with only you and one teacher certainly help, even force, you to progress.
One time, we cycled with the school to the home in the countryside of one teacher. Another time we took a bus to another town down the river, then hiked back for a couple of hours before finally taking a boat the last few kilometers. There was an outing to a small temple on the top of a steep crag, from where we had a great view.
There were class dinners every month, always a good chance to taste different dishes and converse with the teachers.
A nice excursion with the school included a long hike along the Li River, but we got tired at the end and took a boat the last few kilometers.
Our best outing was to the Longji Rice terraces. They were celebrating the planting of rice, so there were a lot of Chinese tourists there too, but that only added to the fun. I had a t-shirt on with the characters 洋鬼子 (foreign devil), which I had a store at home make. It is a curse word for foreigners from the era when Western nations humiliated China at the end of Qing Dynasty. Most Chinese I have encountered find it very funny to see a Westerner wearing such a t-shirt (although a few are shocked and say that it is impolite). At the rice terraces, I was stopped every few steps by a group of Chinese who found it very funny and wanted to take pictures with me. It was a great opportunity to practice my Chinese!
In the evening, they placed thousands of small oil lamps in the rice terraces, creating a spectacular scene.
I had first visited Yangshuo in 1987 with my wife and daughter on our first trip to China. We flew from Korea during summer semester break to Hong Kong, and an enterprising young Hong Kong man specializing in visa for foreigners quickly arranged ours. Across the border to Guangzhou, which was just starting to wake from its years of stagnation under Mao. Of course, the market was the big attraction, since it is said that the people there eat anything that moves, and there were lots of such strange things at the market. The white grubs disgusted us the most.
We flew to Guilin and then took the six-hour tourist boat ride down the river to Yangshuo. I dare say we were the only foreigners on board, and the fact that we had a two-year old daughter along, whose hair was still blond, made us a big attraction. Our daughter was used to Asian kids, and often went up to Chinese children her age, often hugging them to the delight of their parents
After the boats arrived in Yangshuo, almost all Chinese tourists headed back to Guilin on buses after having purchased souvenirs and taking photos for the few who had cameras. The few foreigners in the town had to stay in converted army barracks, since we were not allowed to stay anyway else.
Yangshuo was very peaceful at the time, and there were no bars and only a couple of very basic restaurants. Xiejie, or West Street, which is now full of souvenir shops, bars with pole dancing, restaurants, etc. only had dilapidated buildings where the locals lived. It was only a short distance to bicycle out of town and arrive at rice fields where few people lived. There were no tourists and no entrance gate at the spectacular rock formation at Moon Hill, all of which is hard to imagine these days with the hordes of tourists that converge on Yangshuo and all of its surroundings.
Near the river as it once was; now filled with souvenir stands and tourists.
Along what is now West Street, formerly just old, dilapidated houses, now lined with souvenir shops, bars with pole dancing, etc.
Moon Hill in the times before the tourist onslaught:
The countryside was very peaceful in those days, although the farmers had a tough life.
There was only one place where foreigners were able to get advice and have other matters taken care of. Tony was certainly ahead of his time!
Years later, I digitalized the pictures we had taken that time, and when I returned to Yangshuo to enroll in a Chinese language class almost 30 years later, I took them along.
My daughter giving instructions to kids as they head off to sweep the streets.
I took my pictures to a market area near the river, where many older women were selling various souvenirs. I showed them the pictures, and they excitedly exclaimed, oh that woman died, that one moved away 10 years ago, she lives out in the countryside now, etc. They spoke with such a strong dialect that it was not easy to understand everything, but I was able to understand most.
The owner of the language school I was attending has a large network, and he posted the photo on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent to WhatsApp. Surprisingly, one person recognized one girl and put me in contact with her. She was 33 years old at the time.
One of the kids from my photo years later
A newspaper in Guillin got wind of the story and decided to publish an article about it. The journalist changed my story a bit, writing that I had promised the kids at that time that I would give them a copy of the picture. In truth, they had not noticed that I had taken a picture (they were all looking at my daughter), I did not speak Chinese at the time and they did not speak English. The journalist continued that for years my daughter and I spoke about the kids and our promise to give them a copy of the picture, and that finally I returned to make good on the promise.
The day after the story was published, a couple of people who saw me downtown told me what a good person I was, never forgetting my promise to those kids and finally fulfilling it.
When I returned to Yangshuo and Omeida, the language school, the next year, another man contacted, who was also in one of my pictures from 1987. His mother had been at the market near the river the previous year and had seen the picture, but had not recognized him, since they did not have any pictures from that time (cameras being too expensive).
He invited me to a barbecue at his sister’s place one evening where I was also served two very expensive types of tea: white tea (a man in a tea shop told me he had never even tried it himself, since it was had to procure and expensive) and 20-year-old pu er tea (its value increases with each year).
One former teacher told me that there were three kinds of people who came to Yangshuo to learn Chinese: young people who had just finished college and were looking for some adventure, old men who hoped to have a last adventure in life, and those who were really interested in Chinese culture and the language. Then there are the other foreigners who get jobs with one of the excursion companies taking foreigners rock climbing, rafting, etc. or those who get jobs teaching English. Because Chinese is not that easy to learn and the culture is superficially so different, many if not most foreigners often hang out together. Many are in Yangshuo for years without learning the language and meet in the same bars each week. I am afraid that I am also guilty of this in part, since I find it difficult in mainland China to find Chinese with whom I can discuss anything besides superficial matters. I met a quite interesting Chinese man at a hostel in Sanya, who had some scathing criticism of the government and country in general, but he spoke so fast that I missed a lot of what he was saying. The next day when I wanted to talk to him again, he was already gone. I once met a Chinese man in Yangshuo, China, who was in the process of writing a novel. We had quite an interesting conversation, and he talked about the current situation there and what his parents had suffered during the Cultural Revolution.
But Yangshuo is a tourist destination, and he was only traveling through. Most of the time, I would up in bars with other ex-pats, and the few Chinese there all spoke fluent English and were determined to do so.
The next time I returned it was perhaps not the best time of the year, since it was rainy season. The week before I arrived, the streets were flooded with one meter of water, and I saw a picture of one guy who caught a big fish on a street. However, a Belgium guy living there told me that he thought they had opened some floodgates by mistake, because it had rained just as hard a couple of other times and there was no flooding.
I had one-on-one classes, since there was no one else at my level. My morning teacher was very strict, focusing on my poor mastery of tones and grammar, which I discovered to my surprise was quite good for my language progress. My afternoon teacher was elegant and funny; we laughed a lot, and it was a good contrast to the morning classes even though I did not learn as much (but got a lot of practice speaking).
There were three other men my age, but they kept mostly to themselves, while I was happy to socialize with the young students. There were really hard-core alcoholics even though none was older than 25 (and most younger), all from northern and western Europe.
The first weekend I went to a bar where I heard they were all going to take advantage of “all you can drink” for approx. $10. I was definitely not interested in getting “stinkoed”, and I really wanted to practice my Chinese, but I wanted even more not to spend the evening alone. The students were already far along in their quest and playing a silly game where one person asked an otherwise embarrassing question such as did you ever have sex in a classroom, and if someone had had the experience, that person had to guzzle a drink. The game continued for a while, but soon most of the participants were too drunk to concentrate on anything besides the next shot. The Chinese teacher passed out, but the others were intent on more alcohol. A cute 19-year-old British girl grabbed me at one point, hugged me tightly and ran her hand through my hair. She said that she needed a boyfriend and really liked my hair (which was a bit long; I’m becoming a hippie again in my old age). It was quite flattering, but her Swiss boyfriend was standing next to us and he pulled her away. I left the bar around 12, but an hour later I could hear them outside my window (most of the students lived in a couple of adjacent buildings). The British girl was screaming “Leave me alone! I want to sleep in the street!” This went on for about 20 minutes until four guys were able to carry her up to her room. She had apparently vomited in the bar, and when her boyfriend tried to clean it up, he also vomited. They carried her out to a tuk-tuk and got her back to the hostel, whereupon she woke up and started screaming. One of the teachers woke up in the next morning to find a young guy without a shirt on sleeping next to her. She angrily demanded what he was doing there, but he responded that it was his room.
The next weekend, I went out with a bunch of the students (I think the oldest was 40 years younger than me) to dinner and then KTV (my first time!). It was actually a lot of fun, even wild. The music I listen to (and play) is mostly flamenco, so I am not familiar with contemporary pop music and was shocked by the lyrics in many of the songs (am I too conservative?). I could not help but think of how people had been shocked 50 years before when the Rolling Stones sang “Let’s spend the night together.” Nothing so tame these days with multifarious obscenities and sex to no end, not to mention celebrations of sadomasochism. A few of the women had learned a bunch of Chinese songs in class that they sung with exuberance. It did not take long until most of our group were a bit tipsy, singing loudly and dancing. Only one lone tall, skinny French guy, who was mostly in town for Tai Chi classes, remained sitting, too introverted to take part. I really felt sorry for him, but decided that I was not going to be like that, even though I am not really one for singing and dancing. I sang Yesterday and then a couple of other songs that I don’t know (but of course all the others did) and even got compliments for my voice. To my surprise, I found I was really enjoying the experience. By midnight, most were jumping up and down on the couches and screaming more than singing while a Dutch guy took off his shirt and began lewd dancing movements with the one Chinese teacher with us. We had only rented the room for a few hours, so we had to leave shortly afterward with a couple of the guys shouting “Chinese bar.” The Chinese bars in town that they meant have pole dancers, very loud music and expensive drinks where foreign students in town rarely venture. In other words, this was really slumming it, but the young folks were up for some raucous fun. Walking on the street there, the guys continued to shout that they were foreigners (waiguo ren), as if that were not obvious, and making a scene of themselves in general. The bar they chose was so loud that I feared for my hearing, and I quickly left them there and returned to the hostel. The next day, one of the students told me that it was very expensive and that they only stayed one half hour, regretting that she and the others had gone there at all.
I was back the next spring, but the other students were more subdued and there was not much partying (but that time we visited the rice terraces). However, the weather was great and I cycled to Yu Long River a few times on a nice bike/hiking trail and went swimming. I decided that my next course would be in October again, since the weather is normally the most beautiful then: warm temperatures and sunny.
Little did I suspect that it would rain the whole time I was there, and I did not see the sun for almost three weeks. There were few students at that time and were not the kind of people who often went to bars. A few of the students had never even heard of the bar Rusty Bolt never mind been there, something inconceivable with previous groups of students. However, I did not ask any of them to go either, since I did not want to hang out with foreigners speaking English this time (and most of them could not speak Chinese well enough to hold a conversation), but instead intended to try and spend more time with Chinese. That turned out to be not that easy. The hostel I was staying at had changed its restaurant where Chinese students leaning English used to go for lunch and where I was able to meet some. This time is was almost always empty. A couple of thoe students whom I met promised to let me know when they were going to KTV, but then never contacted me. In addition, I had homework after six hours of class and then had to do some translation work, so that I had no time for a language partner.
My favorite bar Rusty Bolt had moved and was located down an alley at the top of a building with nice terrace, pool table and fussball table, but not the same ambiance since no people just passing by and then coming in. It is not easy to find, so only those familiar with it are there, i.e., closed groups of people who already know each other. Last time I was there, there were two groups: one Chinese and one long-time foreigners. Nobody talked to me, so I left early and did not return.
I took a couple of cooking classes, since I like cooking (and eating) and it was a great way to spend a rainy day or evening. The classes first took us to the market where the teachers explained what some of the vegetables or roots were that we were not familiar with. We also took a look at the meat market where there were dogs and cats in cages and carcasses of their brethren hanging: dogs okay, but I was really surprised that they eat cats too! (At the end of the Second World War when food was scarce in the area where I live in southwestern Germany, some people took to eating what they called “Dachhasen” [attic rabbits], i.e., cats).
The cooking teacher
At the meat market
The next day, one of my Chinese teachers related that she had eaten dogs, cats and rats growing up. Whether they tasted good or not all depended how they were prepared. Her family had a storehouse full of rice, and they only ate the rats from there, because the rats had probably only eaten rice and consequently would have good meat. To avoid any misconceptions, however, the great majority of Chinese have never eaten (and would not dare to eat) dog, cat or rat meat.
Of course, there are other alternatives, and there is a lot of great-tasting food in China, including vegetarian dishes, although some of the menu translations are rather amusing. But then I would not lot to think of what such a menu would look like if I translated it from English to Chinese.
My favorite xian bing stand, unfortunately no longer there (although there is another one now, although not quite as good)
The great bike/hiking trail from previously had been cut in half by a monstrous theme park, Romance Village. Sculptures towered over it, but no idea what it was supposed to represent.
The theme park that cut the formerly great hiking/biking trail in half:
A mall had been built in the center of town, and although it replaced a dirty, mosquito-ridden small lake, it lacked any authenticity and also contained a McDonald’s and a Starbucks, not places that I go to China to see. The Chinese tourists all seemed to like it, and after all it is their country.
The obligatory “graduation” photo with one of my teachers on the left and my lone morning classmate on the right.
Hey, if you want to learn Chinese, enroll at Omeida in Yangshuo; you won’t regret it!