In June I traveled with my family to China for a two week tour of the “Middle Kingdom.” My husband is of Chinese descent, and though he was born in the United States he’d lived in Shanghai for a year when he was fifteen. It was one of the most formative experiences of his life, and he dreamt of taking his kids there at a time when they’d be old enough to appreciate the culture and many ways in which life in China differs from life in the United States.
Planning for this event took years, and because it always seemed to be so far off in the future, the trip, for me, became something rather hypothetical. I knew that eventually I’d have to come to terms with my own discomfort with the idea of traveling to this crowded, frenzied and in many ways, grim, country, but was no more pressured than a high school freshman is at the prospect of having to find a job after college graduation.
It was years away, then it was a year away, then it was a few months away, and then I began to sweat.
I’ll admit that I had a tremendous amount of anxiety about this trip, and not for the normal reasons such as being confined to a small space for fourteen hours in the air or whether, as a vegan, I’d find anything to eat besides steamed rice.
As neurotic as it may seem, a significant part of my anxiety was related to my feelings about animals.
Everyone has heard the racially-unflattering and unfair characterization of the Chinese as dog-eaters. Before there was an internet with which to spread factually dubious rumors far and wide, I’d once been told a story about a couple that traveled to China with their beloved poodle, and upon taking said poodle to a Chinese restaurant interpreted the gesticulation of the proprietor over their dog to mean that the staff would take the dog in the back and prepare him something to eat. Instead, the dog emerged later on a platter, a victim of poor communication.
If my angst was purely the product of urban myth or inexperience, it would stand to reason that educating myself would have yielded reassurance and rationality. Unfortunately, it was educating myself that had gotten me into my predicament. I’d read too many essays and articles, seen too many reports, heard too many first hand accounts of the horrors inflicted upon domesticated animals in China to chalk up my growing anxiety about the trip to ignorance.
Thus, I braced myself to see things that I worried would haunt me forever.
Our first day of the tour was in Beijing, a super-naturally polluted city where the air had the ashen cast of the blow-over of an immense forest fire. Though the day was “clear,” the actual sun was obstructed by the smog – just a slightly brighter spot in the in the orange sky.
We ventured to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and though I didn’t see anyone barbecuing kittens at roadside stands, I noticed that there were no birds in Beijing. Though we walked through miles of public tourist areas, with swaths of bright marigolds and patches of pine, I didn’t see a single pigeon or squirrel. I made a game of it. “Tell me when you see a bird,” I said to my family, who blinked at me through the smog with their red and runny eyes. If you asked the guides where all the birds were, they smiled politely at you and told you they were there, in the trees. But clearly there were no birds in the trees. This phenomenon of denial, to our never-ending amusement, persisted across our tour.
As we rode through cities in our air-conditioned tourist bus, our local guide dutifully distracting us from the teeming humanity just beyond our windows with stories and facts, I averted my eyes and affixed them upon the front of the bus, lest I inadvertently catch a glimpse of something unspeakably ghastly or cruel.
We traveled to the Summer Palace and the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs (where I finally saw a few birds in the vast, park-like site) and the 2008 Olympic village, and then on the fifth day went on to Xi’an where we’d see the Terra Cotta Warriors. By then we’d had several meals, mine all reassuringly vegetable. Our tour guide was patient with her American charges, and the tour itself was run with all the efficiency and energy of an iPad factory. Everything was planned for us. We were marched along from attraction to attraction, in and out of gift shops, in and out of fine Western hotels, seeing what they wanted us to see, hearing what they wanted us to hear. When we grumbled or made the kinds of insensitive remarks that Americans do, they pretended not to hear and cheerfully propelled us onward.
Though I had no doubt by then that our Chinese experience was being skillfully managed by the Chinese government, I was okay with that. We had several small children in our group, and the constant micro-management of every aspect of our journey, while occasionally annoying or even insulting to our intelligence, was nevertheless comforting on many levels. We didn’t have to think about where to eat or stay, or how to get from point A to point B, or which line to get in or which bathrooms had “sit-potties” and not “squatty-potties.” It was also immensely sanitizing. Clearly, the tour company, heavily subsidized by the Chinese government, was intent on creating a clean, positive, friendly experience for the Americans so that they would go home and tell their friends and thus more Americans would venture to China to participate in their burgeoning tourist industry. If you wanted to see the real China, you weren’t going to see it here.
Which is how halfway through the trip my months of anxiety about witnessing animal cruelty that I’d be helpless to affect morphed into a thrumming, low-level annoyance with our sweet, mothering guide, Lucy, for whom no detail was too small to escape constant reinforcement. (“A lock!” she’d remind us each time we were supposed to leave our luggage out for the porter, her finger turning emphatically toward the sky, “You must close your suitcase with a lock!”)
Xi’an is in the heartland of China, and in June the weather reminds you of Oklahoma or Nebraska. We took a long bus ride to the Terra Cotta Warrior site and disembarked into the heat to take a tram to the enormous enclosure – like the Neville Island Sports Center, only much, much bigger – that shelters the warriors, and where they are still being painstakingly excavated and reconstructed.
As with every site we visited in China – the silk “factory”, the jade “factory”, the Terra Cotta Warrior Museum, the tea plantation – each tour funneled us into a gleaming ten thousand square foot gift shop where trim and smiling hostesses awaited our arrival with calculators poised for negotiation.
Xi’an was no different, except that because the site was one of the most visited tourist destinations in China, and was smack in the middle of farmland, the planners realized that they could create a mile-long outdoor mall on the way from the museum to the tour bus parking lot, a corridor that tourists would be forced to walk if they ever wanted to get back to their busses and digest their lunches in air conditioning.
The kids were hot and tired, and we still had to make a stop to visit the cave dwellers (Did you know 30 million Chinese still live in caves?!) before we hit the much-anticipated dumpling dinner and stage show, so we jogged the strollers through the long, winding plaza, past open air vendors selling Mao hats and miniature terra cotta warriors, barking, “Bu yao” (don’t want) to the ones who were particularly insistent. The kids got in on the game, chanting “bu yao, bu yao” as we flew past.
And then I saw them. The pelts. Beautiful, glossy, orange and tuxedo, calico and Persian. The icy blue white of the Husky. The rich brown and black of the German Shepherd Dog. The soft amber of the Golden Retriever. They hung high in a vendor’s stall, the bushy, luxurious tails undulating in the breeze, as the wind stirred the silky fur coats that had once belonged to dogs and cats.
“Look,” I said to my husband, pointing. I couldn’t say more. My imagination had overtaken me. When you see a gallon of milk or an oak end table, do you see the violence and ruin that these ordinary things are wrought from? Do you see the male calves that are cleaved from their anguished dairy cow mothers, mothers that are impregnated over and over during their short lives in order to keep the milk coming, the calves slaughtered immediately for pet food? If you drive through logging country you never see the devastation of the forest. A swath of trees is always left as buffer strips along highways, and so the forest seems to go on forever, pristine. Thus we are reassured, as we are by the beautiful celebrity’s milk mustache, that the things we consume have given themselves willingly or have materialized fully realized as blameless, wholesome products: Ice cream. Patio furniture. A snuggly down jacket.
And so it is a matter of perspective, I realize, as Chinese tourists admire the quality of the pelts, smile at one another, delighted at the softness, the sheer size of the tail of a seal-point Himalayan. I can only imagine the horrific machinery that had to be put in motion to harvest the hide of a German Shepherd Dog, the many gruesome and heartless transactions and decisions that are made along the way, the purity of the final moment of agony that provides the punctuation to what was certainly a dismal and pointless life. But is it a process that differs at all from the one that gives us a carton of eggs or a leather purse?
I’m overwhelmed by sadness, and confused. I’ve witnessed Chinese who do Tai Chi with their cats and paint watercolors with their Pomeranian dogs at their feet. Can someone feed one dog by hand while eating or wearing another? Indeed, as our Chinese guide informed me nonchalantly, if it flies, swims, crawls or walks on four legs, they eat it in China. They can befriend one companion animal while stir-frying another.
Americans, however, are black and white in their loyalties. As Melanie Joy explores in her book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, Americans have affection and compassion for some animals (dogs and cats) but are callous to the suffering of others (pigs and cows.) We could no more eat dogs than we could let turkeys sleep in our beds. Does our love of dogs and cats absolve us of our sins against our food animals? We seem to think so, as if this form of hypocrisy is more civilized than the Chinese’s conflictory viewpoint of animals.
From Xi’an we fly southwest to the province of Zhejiang, our destination the historic and “beautiful” West Lake, a Chinese honeymoon destination in the “city of Heaven”, Hangzhou. Where poets and artists once drew their inspiration from the natural beauty, there are now luxury brand car dealerships and Prada and Hermès boutiques. The guide is talking about Chairman Mao, about the history of the one child rule. Everyone we met has a son. We meet no Chinese person who has a daughter. “Do you have children?” we ask, always in the plural. Though we know about the one child rule, and it’s insensitive of us to ask in this way, we’re conditioned as Americans to ask after a person’s “children.” It takes a full week before we realize that every single person smiles, bows a little and says, “Yes, a son.”
Our guide is openly critical of the one child rule. My husband nudges me. “You could never have spoken like that about the government in 1981,” he whispers, referring to the year he spent living in Shanghai.
We stare out the window at the gleaming shop windows full of haute couture and Swiss watches. Onyx-haired young people in trendy clothes thread through the crowds with their earbuds in, glued to their iPhones, anonymous in designer sunglasses. Along the lake, senior citizens dressed in trousers and dresses bend their bodies in the exaggerated waltz of Tai Chi.
Every city we’ve been to has at least eight million people living in it. In a few days we’ll be in Shanghai, which has a population of about twenty-five million. Our bus rides sometimes last hours and we never ever enter a stretch of highway that does not pass human development. For miles upon miles we pass clusters of thirty, forty story apartment buildings, cranes everywhere, stretched into the hazy horizon, arms draped over the skyscrapers like enormous puppeteers. We learn that many of the buildings we see are completely empty. The government just builds them. They build to build.
We don’t know it yet, but within twenty-four hours Henry, my four-year old nephew, will slip on the deck of the hotel pool and end up in a Chinese emergency room with six stitches in the back of his head. Without anesthesia. The bandage affixed to his head with paper clips. Really. The bill will be twenty-seven dollars, US. (Including the bribe to get him seen immediately.) I will vow to never complain about the cost or quality of our health care again.
As we stare at West Lake, and all of the glitter and glamour of downtown Hangzhou, we silently ponder the China of the past, portrayed by the artists – simple farmers, shy rose-petal lipped maidens, willows and mist and mossy mountains and crystal clear waters. As we roll down the garish, new money lakefront street that is best compared to Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, my sister-in-law asks our guide, “What do the locals think of all the development along their historic lake?”
The guide smiles and says, “There is no development. It is much like it was a thousand years ago.” And then we pass Chanel. My husband and I exchange sly smiles. In China, as in America, it is what you say it is. It is what you want it to be.