Travelogue: Hainan, end of 2003 - part 4

I left Mouth of Sea and returned to Sanya, to a sunny warm and clear Sanya, back from grayness to a blue sky and a blue sea. Only the broken stone steps preserved the memory of the typhoon which was by then a faded memory, like those posters in the university corridors from which the sun had eaten all the colours.

I was ready to begin the work experience at the hotel but for the first days I was kept waiting, at the last moment cancelling and rearranging. Waking up at dawn and then receiving a phone call saying "no need today" could have ruined the mood for the whole day but the beautiful sun ascending from the sea and filtering through coconut leaves cleansed the disappointment.

Carelessness is a big issue for me, and I've encountered a lot of it. Being inconsiderate, not making the effort of stepping into the other person's shoes and seeing from a different perspective. Not thinking much ahead of the consequences of an action, a word, a behaviour. And too many times a word was given lightly, without then keeping it. There is a Chinese proverb that runs like: "shuo dao zuo dao" (what is being said should then be done) but too many people lack it from their life scheme. This meant that very often I've been left waiting, expecting and then becoming frustrated when what had been agreed was postponed or cancelled. Meiguanxi, "never mind" is their magic word. I'd rather prefer to hear a real Duibuqi, "I am sorry" (literally: 'I cannot face you, I disappointed you so much') but in those occasion it never came out; or if it came, it was not sincerely felt. Carelessness, such as groups of tourists making a lot of noise and laughter and chatter when leaving the hotel at 5 o'clock in the morning, completely disrespectful of other people's sleep. Carelessness, such as forgetting to inform your employees or colleagues of a change in schedule.

Along the lines of Meiguanxi, another key sentence is Chabuduo, "more or less", "approximately".. sometimes it can really play harmonics on the nerves.

One more day approaching its end, the sun gently poised over a forested hill. A large park, recently created, near Phoenix square. I was conducted there by my friend, the deer girl, the forbidden fruit, the smiling enigma with her measured gentle meaningful words. Thanks to those words I got to notice what I had previously passed by. They had moved here several ancient trees, after digging them from their original mountain dwellings. Contorted shapes moulded by uncountable years that dug into the very flesh of those trees, leaving cavities and nodes and what would seem death if it was not contradicted by new young shoots that proudly sprout from the tree tops. Not all of them survived but most of them did, and launched new life out of old bones. They speak of life energy, of agelessness. They donate serenity. They are mysterious gates.

Not content, the beautiful guide raised the level of poetry and intensity of the tour, leading me to the park of the white cranes with their long necks and elegant flights. There were just two people in the park, the two of us, surrounded by palms, bridges, lakes, peace, hills, reflections and the city.. far away, so beautiful when silent, when its continuous chaotic noises could not be felt.

The following day I started my contribution to the diving club, promoting their activities with the foreign guests in the top hotels and effectively being the single link between the Chinese speaking staff and the non-Chinese tourists. A very weak link but a continuously improving one. Boredom and interest in entangled embrace. Most of the time was spent waiting and chatting. Then, sudden bursts of activity, speaking five languages in close succession, transferring meaning, requests, apologies and clarifications, getting brief but intense peeks into the worlds of very interesting people.

It was definitely a great and novel experience for me, getting up every day at dawn, commuting on a crowded bus, working until sunset. But the weather, the setting, the people.. everything contributed to keep the mood up. And beautiful Brahms helped ease me out of reality every once in a while, for example during the times on the bus, protecting my ears from the omnipresent Chinese pop.

After the first frustrating days in which I was kept waiting, I really put myself into the job, even to its most tiring aspects such as standing at the reception in the main lobby, maintaining the posture. Additionally, there seems to be an unspoken rule that you are working at any time, liable to be called to discuss with the boss on random evenings. But there were many positive aspects too, like seeing all the miss world contestants, taking advantage of the no-work days to get a quick swim or windsurf sailing and anyway having the chance to work in the gorgeous scenario of the Bay of the Dragon Tooth. Almost every evening I went partying so I got increasingly tired but always very happy and determined to give my best without evading the responsibilities.

I had observed in the past the accommodating mentality, that yields, avoiding confrontation. An aspect I liked of Chinese culture. But an aspect that can reach unpleasant levels. Like for example when people don't understand what you are saying but they still say "ok" or "yes" or "I see" or "no problem". It's always "no problem" and "never mind" but actually for me it minds, most of the times. Probably it's considered rude for them to interrupt and profess misunderstanding. I start to understand and re-evaluate the Japanese way of constantly repeating what is being said at them. It was very strange when I encountered it and I always felt at loss in interaction. But now I appreciate the value of such a system for communication. Ensuring that meaning is conveyed. Caring and showing that you are caring. Hopefully not limited to just showing..

Being treated to meals in the top restaurants where solid gold dishware and cutlery accompany beautifully arranged dishes was an interesting experience. Even more intense and diverse was dining at the open air food courts where you first go buying the food at the attached fish market, followed by the cook that helps you choosing and bargaining and then prepares the food which is finally cooked directly on your table. Hainan is blessed with wonderful fish and sea food, complemented by an infinite number of regional restaurants that provide the specialties from the different regions of the Middle Kingdom: Sichuan, Xinjiang, Hunan, Dongbei.. I was never very daring when eating alone but when I was with other people I had them choose and got to try things I would have never eaten in my life. Nevertheless, day after day the desire for non-Chinese food grew and grew up to the point in which whatever was served to me was accepted with equal neutrality, whether it was the employees' canteen food or the rare specialty served in gold. Since the only alternative to Chinese was American fast-food I just waited and endured, dreaming of Italian, Japanese and Greek cuisines. Dreaming of having a kitchen and being free to cook what I wanted.

Eventually answering my requests/suggestions, the diving club recruited some English speaking staff. I met them on the evening of their arrival: four girls that had been studying English in Haikou. I accompanied them to a meeting with the boss and I had the possibility to observe the double measure, the different treatment accorded to them. The boss, which was so gentle and friendly to me, European male, behaved coldly and almost roughly towards them, Chinese females. At some point I made him notice that they were starving, since they still hadn't had dinner. In the end I did what he should have done and invited the girls to dinner in my favourite king-of-dumplings restaurant. I like that place because the waitresses seem happy there, not so stressed or fearful or depressed like in other restaurants I've been. The treatment of waitresses is one of those aspects that amazed and saddened me. The customers address them rudely, order the food without looking at them, complain irritated if the rice is not good or if they are slow in refilling the tea cups. And the waitresses rush and mutely obey. I guess they are afraid of losing their job, the customers are in command here. Quite a different situation from Italy, where sometimes the customers are the timorous ones.

The best disco is located in the worst part of town. On the second time I went there I had the possibility to test the safety of Sanya (or the skills of my guardian angel). After dancing and getting noticed (not many blond foreigners in the disco), being offered to drink (and challenged to bottoms-up drinking), being chatted up by several people.. I was not in a very lucid state. I left the disco together with a couple of newly found "friends". It was very late, the music and the lights in the disco had stopped for quite some time. Rather than rushing home, there I was, sitting with the couple at a nearby street restaurant, eating crab and veggies, keeping up a conversation (drunkenness facilitates smooth talk even in Chinese), half aware of how possibly dangerous a situation I was in. I was so sleepy I continued to fall asleep and at that point I decided I'd better go. The couple with me insisted for offering me the dinner. When I had put my hand on the money in my pocket to pay, I was sure that in that moment I would be robbed. It didn't happen. I went back to my hotel smoothly and almost unbelieving everything was ok. I don't know if this was extreme luck or if the city is really that safe. Definitely nothing bad happened to me in a whole month and not even in this potentially very risky situation. One more Chinese proverb for the occasion: zui weixian de difang jiushi zui anquan de difang: "the most dangerous place is the safest one".

During the evenings of the MissWorld contest I went (and invited several friends to join) to watch the fireworks from what I thought would be the best location: the park of the white cranes. Sitting by the lake in a wooden teahouse, the flames reflecting on the waters, the far away buildings, the nearby hills: I was not wrong, this was a perfect place.

The day of departure eventually arrived and the return journey began; a total of 44 hours from my friends' house to mine. Twelve hours to be spent in HongKong, waiting for the plane. I went around the metropolis, feeling suffocated by the crowds, the bustle, the buildings which shield the people from the world, the Commercial Christmas atmosphere. Of course the city is not devoid of positive aspects: the possibilities, the variety, the activities. The good and the bad, always together. I had a very welcomed break from Chinese food entering a Japanese restaurant and treating myself to a selection of sashimi. Memories of beautiful Japanese meals invaded my mind, dragging with them hundreds of related images and sensations.. I then wandered around, with the intention of shopping but becoming incredibly annoyed and frustrated by the continuous necessary bargaining, the always changing prices and the myriad ways in which they try to cheat you, sometimes in evil ways, sometimes in risible but still annoying ways.

HongKong to Bangkok to Dubai to Roma to Milano, trying to get some sleep at any possible occasion but never managing more than twenty minutes before having to change body position. Eventually I was back to the known, to the friendly, to my cosy and secure home. Back also to cold weather and decadent society: just a few images glimpsed on tv, the gazes of people, fragments of overheard conversations, the cold humidity penetrating the body and here I am, dreaming of tropical Asia again.

But there are too many beautiful aspects and too many ugly ones, swirling and spiralling into each other, in an intense enticing yinyang maelstrom into which I sink, pleasantly and horribly.

Hospitability, friendliness, openness, sincerity, naivete' and curiosity. Hypocrisy, carelessness, negligence and a tendency to exploit generosity.

Sincere, true, modest, serene girls. Unelegant, unsexy, unaware.

Sun and clear starry skies, welcoming waves and sand, fresh breeze and the sound of the sea. Grayness and dirt, garbage and spit, continuous abuse of klaxon.

Expectations, energy, enthusiasm. Disparity, decay, despair.

Poetry and legends, proverbs and single powerful words. Narrow-mindedness and materialism, greed and contriving thoughts.

The scale oscillates and I with it, on top of it or maybe burdened under it, trying to gauge where it is leaning to and if I could tolerate the bad aspects while enjoying the good ones. Difficult decisions ahead....

Joseph A.L. Insana

Last modified: Tue Dec 16 14:16:42 CET 2003 First appearance: Tue Dec 16 14:14:23 CET 2003