My mistake of taking the cheap, government-sanctioned tour is a
blessing in disguise. It got me to a Ming tomb (bland), the Great
Wall (accurately named), and an authentic tea house (good, except for
the expensive aged one that smelled like a fine blend of dog and horse
hair), but by far the best moments were at the jade shops. We were
required to stop at 2 different places carving the green stuff and
selling it for ridiculously much. But, before we're supposed to buy
pricey diced rocks, there were brief tours of how they're made. Right
near the start of the first one, I see this lady stop carving and
start rubbing her eyes. I don't know; maybe she's got a piece of jade
in them. She stops, but keeps her hands up. Just as I'm wondering
what's going on, WHACK: her supervisor comes up and pushes her awake.
I literally laugh so hard that I'm crying and a German guy tells the
bewildered guide that we were drinking before the tour. Narcolepsy is
not strictly a North American phenomenon.
Not so funny is the next jade guide, a rather fireplug-looking woman who prefers the monotone bursting shouts style of English, when I interrupt the canned schpiel upon seeing a guy carving an intricate tiger with his hands pretty close to quick-moving metal. I ask if many people get hurt during the making of their jade, and her answer's 2 words: "Yes, many."
But really unsettling is our government-sponsored tour guide Trevor. He's 24, ambitious, and can be a little annoying (mainly because he keeps waking me up during the ride to talk about Chinese history); not entirely dissimilar from me:)
Apparently a hard-working guy, he claims he got up at 3 to make his commute from South Beijing to our tour on time, is fluent in English and Japanese in addition to Mandarin, and, most impressively, puts up with having to take tourists to those same jade shops every day. More because he's talkative and curious than from any urging by me, he tells me that any Chinese citizen who wants to travel abroad for any length of time has to put 500 thousand yuan (~$70,000) on deposit with the Chinese government to warrant that he will return. I'm shocked: there's large borders with unstable countries that must be relatively open, so why don't people just leave? Apparently, they do. I explain what a coyote (=smuggles people from Mexico/south into the U.S.) is and learn that the term for Chinese reverse coyotes, who smuggle you out, is "todu." I ask Trevor how much they cost and he replies "I don't know, because then I would be tempted." I entertain arguments that his plight in life is similar to mine, in that my indebtedness, which is within an order of magnitude of his government bond requirement, prevents my liberty because it means that I've got to more or less make enough to be in the process of paying it back. But this breaks down on a lot of levels under even the slightest scrutiny: I'm doing what I want debt be damned, I've been many places, I'm making drastically more than him, and I'm certainly not getting up at 3 to lead tours to shops that are boring on the first time and must be excruciating by the 300th. I don't know that he always works harder or who would score higher on an IQ test, and I don't care. Here's someone similar to me whose life opportunities, hell, even expected lifespan, is drastically downwardly defined because of where he happens to have been born. Sort of makes it all seem a bit arbitrary, doesn't it?
And then I am back on a train for the night, this one drastically better and worse than the previous. The worst seat I can buy is padded and has an armrest between me and the one person next to me, touch-sensitive doors separate the halogen-illuminated, clean cars that are not unlike rooms at a mid-range U.S. hotel, and large Tsingtao beers, for 50 yuan ($0.80) or less are replaced with 12-ounce boring Heinekens at 200 yuan ($2.50) per pop.
And there are MBAs. From Dallas, acutally. We speak broadly and openly, as Americans abroad after a few beers and a random encounter of compatriots often do, in no small part about what's right and wrong with America and China. There's the engineer with a lack of people skills, arguing that it was right to invade Iraq: we want the oil, so we should take it and be harsher with quelling insurgency. And there's the dumb token girl: frequently speaking over others, often non-sequitors, and occasional Bush-style misuses of vocabulary. The third, last of the group I meet, and most interesting for me because I at least somewhat identify with him, is Wesley (I didn't remember his name: he gave me his business card). He's 27, smart, doing business development for a tech company, form a lower-middle-class background, and his mom's even a nurse. But, from what I can assume based on a few minutes speaking alone, he might be substantially more lost a life than me: dropping $50k of his own money on a networking degree (he doesn't agree with me when I describe it as such), recently dumped his girlfriend because he's on business travel he doesn't particularly enjoy all the time, and torn between climbing the corporate ladder and doing something to try and help the world like his dad and younger sister do. And leverage leverage leverage: he uses this word a lot, but I think it wrongly implies his actions are adding up to something. I and I'm sure he have to wonder whether it's really adding up to anything and if the goal is worth the path. Call me self-indulgent and spoiled, but it gets old to hear those with more voice jealousy of me: Wesley isn't the first to say he admires that I'm traveling light and not stuck doing business meetings and factory tours or any of that shit, and I'm also often on the giving end of praise to those less tethered than myself.
Imagine how Trevor must feel.