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August 26th 2010
Published: August 28th 2010
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The work retreat that really took me out of my comfort zone



"In order to promote better communication and understanding among our workers, we are sending you on a roadtrip to the scenic area of Beidaihe for this year's 'Worker's Travel Retreat.'" Roughly translating, this was the notification we all received in the hotel computer system two weeks ago, after a couple weeks' anticipation and speculation as to where we would be headed.

I admired the purpose of the retreat, and I thought I would save what little face I had by going, so long as I didn't do anything fool-hardy along the way. But truth be told, I didn't want to go. Not at all. Because, while I might make a few new friends and get to know my coworkers better, this was truly an excursion into the unknown and into untested waters on multiple levels. After the fact, I was glad I went, mostly because I learned some important things about myself in the process, not to mention seeing facets of Chinese tourism I had never seen before and opening my eyes to many things that surprised me.

The map above shows the approximate route that we took on the bus to get to Beidaihe; for some reason, the place name drop-boxes above and the map itself did not include Beidaihe in the larger area of Qinhuangdao, so our route actually veered a little bit south of the coastal point shown on the map. Strange, since I was able to find Beidaihe on the maps part of the Google site. Beidaihe is in Hebei Province, my first time to that part of China, although it is very close to Beijing. We had been told that a "normal" trip between Huhehaote and Beidaihe would take about 12 hours. Our route took 15, because the driver chose the wrong road in Beijing and we were stuck for two hours in rush-hour traffic.

That morning we had risen to meet for breakfast at the hotel workers' canteen at 5:30 a.m., and then quickly boarded the buses parked in front of the hotel at 6. The second-in-command of the hotel was there to see us off; she often eats in the workers' canteen for lunch, maybe every day, in spite of the fact that she could eat at the nicer hotel restaurants for free if she wanted to. I
Pier at Mazu TemplePier at Mazu TemplePier at Mazu Temple

Temple of the Sea Goddess, Lao Long Tou
have always liked her (she acknowledges me and calls me by name when she sees me), and her being out at the crack of dawn to canoodle with the workers and say goodbye and bon voyage deepened my respect for her considerably. PR is obviously her strong suit.

The bus was nice, with personal vents above each row for the air-conditioning system, and head-lamps for reading when dark. It was not comfortable, however, as regards leg-room, especially considering that I had over-packed and practically had to straddle my back pack, which was shoved between my seat and the seat before me: it wouldn't fit in the overhead storage area. What did fit was my bag of groceries, which I had taken the liberty of filling to excess in case there was nothing for me to eat in Beidaihe. Also, of the three days of the trip, two were to be on the road with no stops for meals, only bathroom breaks, so it was necessary to have vittles on hand. Bag lunches are still as much fun as they were up through high-school: tiny lunch swaps were rampant on our bus and I tasted all sorts of strange goodies,
Bubble fight!Bubble fight!Bubble fight!

Yeah, we're all grown-ups here...
like sour fruit-paste crackers; and was handed some more familiar items, like chocolate cookies. I handed out some of my fruit as barter, since I didn't want my cornucopia to go to waste after getting back to Hohhot.

The trip would have been tiring enough without the entertainment system installed on the bus. Movies and music videos were played the entire duration of the 15 hour ride; I wouldn't have minded this had they been played somewhere in the "not-inducing-premature-deafness" range of volume. Adding insult to injury (literally) were the ads, played every thirty minutes during the movies. The same six ads. Over and over. And one of them was about a plastic surgery clinic, the closing line of which was "Beauty is not inherent; Beauty can be made to order." Nice.

I mention the movies and ads because, in the course of the trip, I learned that the many of the things that annoy foreigners (self included) about the Chinese tourism industry, also annoy the Chinese. The volume of the movies was far from universally loved, especially since most of us wanted to sleep. Other annoyances would present themselves later, and bearing them with my coworkers was
Arrow Rack and WindowArrow Rack and WindowArrow Rack and Window

First Pass Under Heaven
indeed, a good bonding experience and source of humor.

We arrived, bone-weary and hungry, at 9 p.m. We were taken to a small diner, where my supervisor, my main buddy in a mandated buddy-system that only applied to me ("Don't lose the American!" was a repeated line throughout the trip) sent back one of the dishes of food after peering into it and making a horrified face. I asked her what the problem was. She said, "Don't ask." It would turn out that this was a bit of dismal foreshadowing about the amenities arranged by the travel agency. I won't go into the hotel they booked us in. Let's just say it was not a five-star.

We woke up bright and early the next day, had a breakfast of mantou (steamed bread), pickled veggies, cabbage, porridge, and boiled eggs. We had been warned that we might not be used to the seafood-heavy cuisine in Hebei, but this was a very typical breakfast where we had come from. I am pretty accustomed to this sort of fare and tucked in, just in case the food warnings would turn out to be true. Well, the travel agency once again triumphed
ArcherArcherArcher

First Pass Under Heaven
in taking us only to "Inner-Mongolianized" places to eat (actually, I guess just North-eastern style). Many of our group were deeply disappointed, as the more food-oriented had come on the trip in the hopes of eating fresh seafood. This is another failing of package travel deals: they often assume that their customers are only willing to eat what they are used to. This happened to me (once upon a time) in Europe, when the travel agency that booked the amenities for my European Humanities class only took us to very "Americanized" restaurants.

After breakfast we departed promptly for our first stop: a section of the Great Wall that sports the "First Pass Under Heaven;" this part of the wall is very close to the eastern-most point and terminus of the wall, which we would go to next. I was struck by how flat the wall was; here, the Great Wall did not resemble the steep, swooping curves of the lushly vegetated Badaling pass, but rather was more like the city wall in Xi'an, with plenty of room to walk, no special hiking skills required, and overlooking busy city streets. It was a pleasant spot, though. The only drawback was, as I began to discover, that Beidaihe's status as a coastal resort did not, by any means, make it a cosmopolitan location. I was the only foreigner on the wall, so far as I could see; I'm used to this, but in Hushi people don't approach me on the street for a photo op. Here not one, not two, but fully ten people accosted me for photos, jumping into the shot one after the other, and making me feel like a tourist attraction or part of the scenery. The second time it happened, fearing another snapping spree I flatly said "No thanks" and walked away. My coworkers began to say I should start charging, and when other tourists did this to me again and again on the trip, my coworkers would glibly shout out, "Fifty kuai per shot! Come on over here to pay up!" I appreciated it; in a way, they were mildly discouraging the gawkers.

Here, more than any other place in China so far, I felt my foreignness. And an event later in the day showed me how deeply immersed I have been in a mostly homogenous society. I was at "Gezi Wo Gongyuan" (Dove's Nest Park), a lovely park with wading spots, a long bayside path, and a promontory with a pavilion called Eagle Rock. As a friend and I mounted the stairs to the pavilion, I looked up, saw a man and was about to look down again when I noticed something odd about his features. It was as if my mind turned over in slow-motion when I finally realized, "He is a foreigner." And in that moment it occurred to me how strange the experience was; I literally thought, "It's like looking in a mirror and not recognizing your own face." It came to me that he was the first foreigner I had seen since Hushi; that I had looked up wholly believing I would see a Chinese or Asian person; and that this wasn't the first time seeing a foreigner had deeply surprised me, although maybe not to this extent. And if I can feel that way about seeing a foreigner, after only ten months of living here, and after only twelve hours away from Hushi, I can understand on a deeper level the staring, the gawking, the amazement and sometimes contempt with which I am met very often in this part
Ticket booth at Lao Long Tou...Ticket booth at Lao Long Tou...Ticket booth at Lao Long Tou...

..."The Head of the Dragon," eastern-most point of the Great Wall, which dips into the sea
of China.

It will sound corny, no doubt, but this trip truly turned some of my perspectives completely upside down. Not at first recognizing a foreigner as a foreigner was like going through a looking glass or being sucked into a cyclone; Alice and Dorothy, and other heroes of surreal literature do have practical lessons for us, after all. Sometimes, when you go somewhere that is truly alien and new to you, the normal rules just do not apply. I realized that somehow, I had been very strong when I thought I was weak, and I think I came back stronger than before. I learned many lessons about my coworkers and friends, as well, on different but related dimensions of Otherness, the comfort of the known and the threat of the unknown; and found that braving the unknown can be painful or trying, but in the end is worth it. When the normal rules don't apply, your logic begins to change and adapt; and you begin to see things from the perspective of those you live with; at least, a little. "In order to promote better communication and understanding among our workers..." If my coworkers did not come to
Anybody hiring translators?...Cause they needed one here.Anybody hiring translators?...Cause they needed one here.Anybody hiring translators?...Cause they needed one here.

The Chinese says, "Office Area, Tourists May Not Enter." Underneath it just says "Tourists"...in Spanish.
understand me, I hope I can at least claim that I have made a step towards understanding them.

-Sam











Additional photos below
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Kid on "The Princess"Kid on "The Princess"
Kid on "The Princess"

Qinhuangdao Port
I'm an old hand on boatsI'm an old hand on boats
I'm an old hand on boats

Ok not really but I like boats
Shell DragonShell Dragon
Shell Dragon

Gezi Wo Gongyuan - "Dove's Nest Park"
The covey at DoveThe covey at Dove
The covey at Dove

Does this remind anyone else of "The Birds?"


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