I’ve now returned to Xi’an, the capital of Xaanxi Province, China, where I’m currently living and working. Oh! and a happy Chinese New Year, by the way; celebrations which are still going on. Most businesses are closed for at least a few more days as Chinese get together for a catch-up with distant family members. The university campus where I’m teaching, and usually swarming with students, feels like a ghost town.
I must say I’ve had a really enjoyable, and somewhat adventurous time, spending most of the Chinese New Year holiday staying with a couple of foreign teacher friends, a husband and wife, to celebrate Christmas who I met while teaching in Wenzhou, a long way to the southeast of here. Then I went off to hang out in two of my favorite Chinese cities, Hangzhou and Chengdu, because of the rich cultural diversity that can still be found in those places. However, the time with the foreign friends was not without drama, and you have to spend some of the travel time making sure you don’t lose your passport or your wallet – or else you’d be sunk. That goes without saying! After returning and unpacking my stuff, I found a metal backscratcher I took with me – something I was fond of – had gone missing.
Since China opened its doors to foreigners thirty to forty years ago, it has made significant inroads, making them feel welcome as guests and also to come here to work. However, this is not without shortcomings or contradictions. As Nancy Ps Hopp pointed out in her blog Post Inauguration Blues – Despair VS Hope, we can’t escape from the fact that we continue to live in a divided world.
The foreign friends wanted to take a trip to spend a day or two with another friend they’d made a few years ago while working in another school in another area of China, as they hadn’t seen her in awhile. The wife got one of her Chinese assistants who helps her do tutoring of children’s classes to book a hotel for a couple of nights. I was quite happy to tag along with her and her husband, and the hotel booking went smoothly – no questions or implications were asked.
Until we arrived at the hotel reception where we were frankly told we couldn’t stay at the hotel! Naturally, we were shocked, stunned, and couldn’t believe it. My hands started to shake, then we kicked up a fuss – at least the wife did. ‘Why did you process our booking and take our money?’ ‘You knew by our names we weren’t Chinese!’ ‘We don’t smell. We’re clean.’
The hotel management wouldn’t back down and were awkward about refunding our money, and told us to go to an expensive hotel (because we were foreigners). I was beginning to think we’d end up on the streets at this point. The wife was convinced that the attitude by the management had been a scam to make us pay more. Anyway, after an unpleasant confrontation in which she went into tears, she got the police and the immigration authorities involved. After a tortuous dispute that took a few hours, characteristic of Chinese, we finally got our rooms. When getting back to Wenzhou, the wife said she curl up in front of the hotel entrance until something got done.
But the fact remains, how do foreigners know which moderately priced hotels in China accept foreigners and which don’t? It seems like a lottery. This is the first time I’ve had this problem here because I’ve always traveled cheaply, staying mostly in international youth hostels which have to accept foreigners in any case. But whether staying in ‘international’ accommodation or not, Chinese should accept foreigners wholeheartedly in all their hotels or not at all.
However, I need to end this on a positive note. Although there are problems, as there are everywhere, and that incident at that hotel might indicate otherwise, I don’t wish to detract in any way how Chinese can be the friendliest and hospitable of hosts anywhere on the planet, as borne out by being invited to partake in two Chinese Spring Festival (New Year) meals at a hostel in Chengdu where I stayed. As the premises includes Chinese-style dormitories and teahouses, I found it to be one of the warmest, relaxing, and uniquely Chinese places to accommodate anyone. And although the security was lax, no one stole anything.
How inconsistent and how ironic