Monday, June 27, 2011

Now This Is My Kind Of Travel

When I graduated from college, my parents gave me an awesome graduation present. While a car would have been cool and probably far more practical, instead we went on a family vacation to China. We spent three weeks cruising from Beijing (ok, Tianjin but we had a few days on land in Beijing) to Ningbo to Hong Kong and more.

It was fabulous. I saw so many places that I otherwise never would have seen. As we were on a cruise, the majority of our experiences and excursions were with the other passengers, most of whom were Americans. That was the only non-fabulous part of it.


When I travel, I want to see and experience the local place I'm visiting. I want to meet the local people and taste the local food. I want to learn about their customs and history. I want to pretend, just for a little while, that I'm from that place, too, before I go back to my life in Chicago with all the modern amenities and fast pace that I'm used to dealing with daily.

I appear to be in the minority, however. There were so many instances of people showing the stereotypical Ugly American that I actually did pretend I was from Canada at one point to avoid being associated with a specific small group.


Some of the highlights:

The countless chopsticks stolen at nearly every meal. Interestingly, few of those at the meals were able to use chopsticks - or interested in trying. And the chopsticks they stole were not the disposable ones that are typically provided in Chinese restaurants in the States. They were very nice polished wood ones and sometimes gorgeously engraved ones made of various metals. Apparently, stealing silverware was de rigeur for them.

The need to experience every American chain seen. There were only two Carvel ice cream parlors in the city of Shanghai when we visited the town on a tour. Those on the bus with me happened to spot one of them and made the bus stop and wait for them to all go get ice cream. When they returned to the bus, they weren't happy. They couldn't believe they could only have vanilla ice cream and I think one other flavor - and, worse yet, it didn't taste the same as it did back home. The same thing happened whenever we passed the rare McDonalds or KFC or Pizza Hut. There was a mad rush to eat the "American" food there, even when it was nowhere near a mealtime or they'd just eaten.

The disrespect for locals. Shockingly, this was a big issue at mealtime. We ate at a restaurant at the Great Wall of China, which was a prix fixe meal and included our food and drinks. The drinks were water and two bottles of Coca Cola for the table to share. Sharing wasn't working so well after the first couple people drank whole bottles. They gestured wait staff over to ask for more Coke, which wasn't included in our package. When the wait staff - who didn't speak English - didn't understand, they simply shouted, louder and louder. Eventually, they walked into the kitchen and simply took bottles themselves. Did I mention that they complained that the Coke was warm?

The inability to try something new. Customs are different. And some things are less comfortable for some people than for others. I so get that. When the people returned from their run to the kitchen to steal the Coke, they started telling everyone at the table not to eat the green beans. Apparently there was a several foot high stack of beans in the kitchen on the floor, and they were cooking the beans in boiling water directly from the top of the pile. Was it the most sanitary thing ever? No, but hey, they were still being boiled, and it's not killing anyone. When I took a mouthful of beans after that, someone leaned over the table and stage whispered, "Did you not hear about the beans? They were from the floor!" Obnoxious recent college grad that I was, I simply smiled and took another bite. Really, how much cleaner were they expecting the food to be elsewhere, especially after we got into some of the more rural areas? Stay out of the kitchen; you'll be happier.

The list goes on and on, and unfortunately I don't remember everything. I had kept a journal while I was there that detailed what we did each day - where we were, what we learned, and my impressions. It was lost somewhere along the way, although I have some hope of digging it up at some point. What are your favorite travel memories?


In the interest of full disclosure, this post was inspired by the book "The Unexpected Circumnavigation: Unusual Boat, Unusual People Part I " by Christi Grab, a part of the From Left To Write book club where we are sent books to read but don't write traditional reviews. There is no compensation involved, and all opinions expressed are my own.

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13 comments:

Brandie June 27, 2011 at 7:39 PM  

The ugly part sucks - but what an awesome awesome experience your parents gave you! I'm so jealous. =)

Tara R. June 27, 2011 at 8:53 PM  

The summer between her junior and senior year, my daughter got to travel to China with her high school choir. I think she was a lot like you in wanting to experience the culture of China and not just the Americanized parts of it. She did however, make a beeline for the first McDonalds at the airport when they got back into the US.

Melisa with one S June 27, 2011 at 9:21 PM  

That's why I had a GREAT time visiting Dresden, Germany (in the old "East Germany" part) in 2006. Hardly any of the locals spoke English, and there were very few tourists compared to the other larger, western cities. I love experiencing as much as possible like the locals.

Alicia June 27, 2011 at 9:36 PM  

I guess my fondest memory would be the "ugly American" in reverse. When I was about 9 years old my parents took my sister and me to Mexico. We went to a small town where my dad was born. In this small town there was a small corner store that my dad took us to and he bought us candy. The next day my sister and I went alone as it was not too far from the home we were staying at. The owner of the store was bragging to his friends that he spoke perfect English. He kept trying to speak to us in English and we in turn replied in Spanish as my dad had strictly forbidden us to speak English while we were there as he felt it would be rude to the locals. That poor man was so embarrassed when we wouldn't allow him to show off by carrying on a conversation in English with him.

Karen June 27, 2011 at 10:15 PM  

What a great gift! Thanks for the idea, wink wink! An amazing experience for sure! Your parents are brilliant!

Thien-Kim aka Kim June 28, 2011 at 12:31 AM  

What a bummer! I don't understand the fascination with chain restaurants in other countries. I'd rather eat the local food.

Joy Weese Moll June 28, 2011 at 12:17 PM  

What a terrific experience to have at that age! And good for you for figuring out what kind of traveler that you don't want to be.

Pat June 28, 2011 at 1:03 PM  

What a fantastic graduation gift from your parents!

It's a shame about all the complaining going on...You'd think people would know ahead of time that things in third world (second world?) countries are probably not up to the standards of the US and they'd take it in stride!

We had chosen assigned seating for dinner on our Panama Canal cruise, and our dinner companions complained about things at every dinner. On the 4th night of a 21-day cruise, the woman announced that she already had a full page of complaints to give to the Holland America Line people. They take 3 or 4 cruises a year. I don't think they ever got off the ship at any of the ports. After that unpleasant dining experience, we decided to choose open seating from then on.

April June 28, 2011 at 6:19 PM  

Your story reminds me of when I hear people say, "Speak American!" Do they really not know that American is not a language?

Taylor U. June 28, 2011 at 7:22 PM  

I cringed when I read this -- I'll ever understand people who dont' want to experience local flavor, and who are rude to the local people. Uuugh. I don't know how you tolerated it!

robin June 28, 2011 at 10:53 PM  

I can't imagine why people would travel to a place and not attempt to savor the local flavor, and yield to local traditions and manners. Why even travel? You can be a buffoon at home.

I would pretend to be Canadian too. I speak enough french to fool someone who doesn't speak French :)

septembermom July 5, 2011 at 1:26 PM  

That is an amazing graduation gift!!! How could anyone not want to enjoy the cuisine of the region? What wonderful memories for you in so many ways!!!

Michelle July 11, 2011 at 11:07 PM  

Brandie - Oh I am so grateful. I know I'm so lucky, and I'm glad that I am able to recognize it.

Tara - Oh wow. How fun for a high school trip! I bet she had a blast. I've yet to have a hamburger yet, but it's coming!

Melisa - Yep, very cool to do it that way. It was the same way when I was in Vilsbiburg. I knew you'd get it ;)

Alicia - I love it! There's definitely that aspect of it, too, where people want to practice their English on the Americans.

Karen - Oh they are brilliant. Shhh just don't tell them I said so ;)

Kim - I'm absolutely with you, but I know for some food is their safety net to feel comfortable with the rest of the trip. It's just not for me.

Joy - Oh it was a fantastic experience. Of course, now that I'm ahem older, I wish that I'd done more of that when I was younger. I still regret not doing a riding tour through Ireland. And a cooking tour of Italy. I'll still stick with "someday" though.

Pat - Wow. I think I'd choose the open dining experiences then, too. Some people are just determined to be unhappy no matter what.

April - Sadly... I think there are people who don't know that. And lots of other things they should know, too!

Taylor - Oh, I had plenty of snark going in my head. That and I focused on the guides and learning what I could. The temples and such where we could wander on our own were great, too.

Robin - I think they like the idea of having gone, but they want to do it in their own bubble. That's the challenge - to really do it, you need to be outside your bubble.

Kelly - Lots of people don't. Actually, when I was in Italy I was with someone who wanted to eat only a very limited selection. But the rest of us tried SO many awesome things!

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