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Home  /  Inside China  /  Going abroad for the first time - The story of low-income traveler Chen Luwei
Going abroad for the first time - The story of low-income traveler Chen Luwei print version
fortune_cookies_439A story of an uncommon journey of a young rural woman to a vacation overseas. The cultural shocks she experiences turn out to be less striking than the shock of her hosts, who encounter a type of Chinese 'traveler' that does not fit our categorial thinking concerning Chinese tourists as well as socioeconomic classes in China.

When (or If) a Chinese person decides to exit the borders of the mainland and go abroad (chuguo) for the first time of one's life, it is usually not an impulsive move. The financial background of the family is a major factor, allowing only Chinese that know that their income is secure and that the trip would not jeopardize their real-estate aspirations to take the journey. A second group could be young Chinese that are not of high economic class, but decide (i.e. their parents approve) to go abroad and study, as a financial investment for future years. This is settled usually in ages of high school to college, although some anxious families do not mind to ship their kids even in less mature ages. Finally, the third option extends to the working class, among which some members get visa to commit themselves to heavy labor in different countries. This is hardly a joyride (and the visa applications may cost a decent annual Chinese salary), but it does involve an airplane...

The case of Chen Luwei doesn't fall in any of these categories, and frankly, I still find it incomprehensible. Chen, a reception worker in a foreign-students dormitory in a Wuhan university is a skilled assertive young lady, but with a salary that does not exceed 2000 RMB and with a rural background (her parents still reside in their old village, and have certainly not ever considered 'traveling') how can she even dare to think of a voyage overseas? Even the fact that she managed (through connections) to get a good job in Wuhan is a miracle considering the fact that in age 16 she dropped from school in order to help her dad in farming, not going to high-school (gaozhong) and saying goodbye (almost) to a chance of social mobilization.

When I first got to Wuhan I met two compatriots in the dormitories, who immediately got very friendly with Chen. Remembering the strict manners of the female staff in a Beijing campus dormitory where I had spent two years before, I could not help but feel embarrassed by their naivety when they expressed their wishes to become good friends and with Chen. I thought they were ridiculous to expect the conservative, institutional girl to cooperate with their permissive habits. I was never more wrong then I was back then.

18 months later, Chen has landed to visit us in our homeland. Still a receptionist in the sushe (dormitories), still a rural girl and still not hooked up with a sugar daddy (bang da kuan), Chen decided that this is a good opportunity for her to travel. Good opportunity to travel? Not only she had never left China before, one can count in one hand the number of times where she left her province! And now, she is not settling for a short visit in Korea, Cambodia or Thailand but a $1500 flight to the Middle East! There is a limit on how much I could express astonishment and ask for her financial records, so eventually I just 'filed' this story in the folder of 'peculiar things that my small mind will never fully grasp' and welcomed her presence. Her parents also felt surprised, lamenting that they cannot support her financially. In the day of the departure they were so excited so they asked the boyfriend of their smallest daughter to arrive with his car (a rare commodity where they live) and drive the entire family to the local airport.

As a 26 yrs old woman that had never left the country (yet had met thousands of students from all over the globe) and did not get to hear too many expedition stories from her working-class friends and family, Chen didn't know what to expect. Unlike middle class pampered youngsters and businessmen who travel abroad after adopting a bourgeois lifestyle, or on the other hand workers who go abroad for labor and don't get to enjoy even one day of sightseeing, Chen was in a unique state. She had the chance to make a pleasurable travel (independently and with the accompaniment of her local friends) without trying to confirm her identification with a 'global middle class' culture.

Not the most shy or hard-going person she is, it was hard to identify cultural shocks in her face, yet curiosity and amusing remarks were handful. As her first visit abroad and in the so-called 'West', every perception she had about people was automatically transformed to a general conception of 'lao wai' and 'xifang ren' (we can't blame her, most people are preoccupied with generalizations the first time they step in a foreign country). Therefore, insights like "lao wai girls are kinda fat" (and "now I tend to agree with the foreigners in China that say that Chinese girls are very skinny") or "lao wai don't like garlic" were frequently expressed.

Another mental tendency of new travelers is to make the generalizations based on the lifestyle of your hosts, even if they are representative of nothing. "I see that work here is very relaxed" ("well sure", I answered, "I just took two days off work to entertain you") was a response to the fact we had time to take her sightseeing in the mid-week. When she met gay friends of one of the hosts Chen expressed new thoughts about the openness (kaifang) and carefree lifestyle in the Middle East. If only that was true... Yet overall, playing with the thoughts and delineating patterns is what we all do in many levels, particularly when encountering new cultures. Until now, the final conclusions from Chen Luwei's visit have yet to be officially expressed...

Chen is not the type of girl that is over patriotic. In recent years she has been attracted to many foreign cultures through the stories and behavior patters she had encountered in her foreign-student dormitory. She is also not the small dependent girl that cannot manage by herself or runs to the arms of mama and papa in every holiday or vacation she gets. Nevertheless, as a first timer overseas, she rationally acknowledged the small bits of yearning that were sneaking in while she was away from home. As expected, this longing is mostly manifested in the most important aspect of traveling - food.

After a long day on our feet, I had a feeling that Chen was in need for some heavy dose of white rice. We were in a suburbian location, therefore I couldn't take her to a good restaurant and had to settle for a small and unfamiliar place called 'Beijing'. This restaurant, not owned by Chinese (and I can assert that never visited by a Chinese either) seemed as a decent option considering the circumstances. The waiters were proud by the fact that a 'real' Chinese chose this place and the fellow eaters also seemed suddenly more confident with their dining choice that evening. We had a suan la tang (spicy-sour soup) that tasted more like a ketchup fiasco, tofu with mushrooms and vegetables. Chen also had a fried chicken dish. The main dishes were incredibly dull and dry. We ordered white rice (we didn't expect the dishes to be so dry so we thought we could use it for the sauces) and fried rice, that was exactly like the white one, only with a slight shade of orange. It was a terrible meal in all parameters. Chen knew that I was right to be disappointed, but she ate with an eruptive enthusiasm, saying that having rice and dishes with some soy sauce brings joy to her abdomen after a week away from home, and makes here feel full for the first time since leaving Terminal 1 in Beijing's airport. 

The highlight came at the end of the meal. One of the smiley waitresses arrived with a plate of fortune cookies. Chen Luwei looks at me, looked at the plate and asked loudly: "what is this?" The embarrassed waitress scattered off, while I had to explain to her this 'authentic' concept. This reminded me of The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and the encounter of the Chinese immigrant protagonists with the weird concept of fortune cookies after they move to the States. They later reach the conclusion that the 'insights' within the crispy product 'are not wisdom but bad instructions'.  Chen did have fun though when I translated the optimistic message inside her cookie to Chinese ('soon you will have new opportunities opening up for you').

'American think I'm Chinese, Chinese think I'm American, what am I?'

More and More Chinese in recent years are finding the means to travel and immigrate to every location on this planet. Yet I am still left to wonder whether unique travelers like Chen Luwei could also become a common phenomena or is it a case of rare a cultural encounter made possible only thanks to the class unconsciousness of Mrs. Chen.

In her last evening, Chen was standing on my porch taking a picture. I asked here whether she would like me to photograph her with the view. She answered that she didn't like to take photos of herself. "Is there such thing as a Chinese (women) traveler who doesn't like to be shot when traveling?" I asked. "I'm surprised of you", Chen said, "I expected you to contain a less superficial image of Chinese people."

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