Before I explain the math sentence that is my title today, I should tell you that my column did not run in Friday’s DSKB/City Express. I was a little bummed, but I knew that was a distinct possibility. It should be in next Friday’s issue, at which point I will post it here and find a little bottle of champagne…to share with Matthew! Who will be here, in my apartment, sleeping away his jet lag. I can’t wait.
A couple of posts ago, I shared a link to a story about Hangzhou that appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s travel section. It turns out that the New York Times ran a story about Hangzhou last weekend, too: The Poetry of Hangzhou. I read the 2 articles about a week apart, and because I approach most things neurotically, I read the Strib piece 6 or 7 times. Each time I read it, I got a little more indignant, a little angrier.
I felt like the author had spent 6 hours total in this city and was determined to perpetuate stereotypes about how “backwards” China is. He describes Hangzhou as a city of upstarts- at one point even refers to the neighborhoods of new condos as “built for Beverly Hillbillies” (I am especially upset about that line)- and ignores that it is one of the 7 ancient capitals in China (this fact has to be mentioned by his editor in the short description that follows the headline). There is money in Hangzhou, to be sure, but he makes the people who live here sound unsophisticated and materialistic. In fact, the people here have fierce pride in the quite non-commercial things that have long made Hangzhou a popular destination for Chinese tourists: West Lake, excellent tea, ancient temples, steep hills of quiet forest hiking and sweeping vistas of the city and lake below.
He describes his meal with monks using battle-like imagery, chopsticks “clashing like brittle swords.” While he does give credit to the monks for giving him the last cashew, he misrepresents Chinese dining. There is never conflict at the Chinese table; there is only generosity. Chopsticks do not clash. Their owners use them to guide more food into your bowl, to help you pull apart a piece of lamb that’s too big. Bao told me once that Chinese people don’t use Western table manners, and while this is true to some extent, the warmth they bring to the table makes every meal feel like Christmas with your family. No one minds if you need to pick some fish bones from your teeth or if you lean over your neighbor a bit to reach the lotus root. If that eggplant is knocking your socks off, you might put a few pieces into someone else’s bowl. Everything about eating here speaks of love and welcoming acceptance and even the bowls of rice make you feel taken care of. How did the author miss that feeling, especially while he was dining with monks?!
In the early part of the article, he also diminishes the food itself. He distills all of Hangzhounese cuisine into a few varieties of fish dishes, when what it’s most well-known for is a pork dish. He snubs the eel and doesn’t mention the lotus root (another extremely popular Hangzhounese dish), the squid, the tofu, the eggplant, the duck, the sweet rice, the steamed buns, the pumpkin, etc. When I read that he and his travel companions “settled for take-out,” I wanted to scream. There are approximately 483902489203 restaurants in Hangzhou, and I have yet to be disappointed. Perhaps he should have just taken all of his meals at KFC and not mentioned food at all in his article, if he was going to be so ignorantly judgmental. (Can you tell how much I love to eat here?)
Even though I was pretty offended about the whole food situation, the worst part of this article for me is the author’s caricatured depiction of Kevin, his tour guide. It irked me that he seemed mystified about Kevin’s name, calling him “one of many locals who seem to have Western names.” Because Chinese students begin learning English somewhere between ages 7 and 10, they have English names that were given to them by their teachers, or ones they picked out themselves. Hmm, maybe he could have just asked Kevin about it if he didn’t know. It further irked me that the voice he gave Kevin was so broken without acknowledging that the only reason he could communicate with Kevin is because Kevin knew English. Interesting that the author never mentions the Chinese he can speak. Actually, it irked me so much that I wrote a letter to the travel editor at the Strib, Kerri Westenberg. I asked her to consider printing a rebuttal (which I of course offered to write), ending my email with this killer line:
“Americans, I think, are unaware of how much depth and beauty and generosity there is in China; it seems a shame to print a travel piece about it in which the author consigns the only Chinese voice to speak in Pidgin English.”
(Oooh, snap. Also, please note that the part about Americans includes me before I came here.)
To Ms. Westenberg’s credit, she wrote me back right away and said that she was glad I was having such a wonderful experience in Hangzhou. She turned down my offer, saying that she’s never printed a rebuttal in her career and wasn’t about to start. She also said that travel writing is subjective (I’d argue that “subjective” and “misinformed” are 2 different things, but okay, I see her point) and that many people “adored” the article, to the point that one person was considering a trip here. Because I’m 5 years old, I had to write her back to get the last word. I also wanted to genuinely thank her for her response, which I did, but I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “On balance, I’m happy that an article of any quality was published about Hangzhou, and I think it speaks to the city’s magnetism that readers are considering trips here.” (Really, how old am I?)
So you can see why I felt that a grave misdoing was undone when I read the Times piece. It’s much more accurate to the Hangzhou I know without being romanticized, which I know I have a tendency to do. I loved it. Best of all, the author mentions that she spent time with a writer- Yang Yi- from the very newspaper I’m now writing for. I was reminded that on Tuesday night, when I met with my editor Karen, she told me that a woman from the Times had just been to Hangzhou and was writing about it. Small world, indeed.
What this all boils down to is that China- and Hangzhou specifically- has become like my 3rd little sister. I am allowed to roll my eyes when the woman sitting next to me on the bus drops a dollop of spit on the floor and rubs it in with her toe, but anyone else better think long and hard before opening his mouth to say one word against her. You know?