Guilin is a city in southern China that governs the 10,700 square mile Guilin prefecture, an are featuring myriad opportunities for visceral outdoor stimulation. Endless spans of small karst peaks dot its landscape. Scattered around the bases of these roughly oval-shaped jutting limestone peaks are stretches of calm rivers and small lakes, rice terraces–mountainsides carved into layers of zig-zag lines–cover some of the more rural parts of the region.
I spent a week in Guilin via a NYU-organized (and, more importantly, subsidized) trip. There, I shared some much-needed time with Mother Nature, bonded with some of the locals, and learned a bit about myself.
A Chinese goddess
In my first week of language classes, my Chinese teacher gave me my Chinese name: Wang Mu Nan. "Wang" appropriately means "king" in English, but "Mu Nan" is a bit more difficult to translate. Since then, I've made a game out of asking Chinese people what my name might mean.
Our second morning in Guilin was spent drifting along the Li River on a bamboo raft. Soon after embarking, a friend and I began making introductory small talk with our five-foot-tall Chinese boatman. As he thrust us forward on using a bamboo pole some eight feet in length, he gave his name and we gave our Chinese names. Neither party understood the other. But in trying to sound out my name, our raft pusher settled on an interpretation that sounded like "Wang Mu Nan Nan." He broke out into hysterical laughter.
As we glided past other rafts, he began shouting for the attention of his fellow boatman. Once he got them to look, he would point at me and shout a string of Chinese which always ended with "Wang Mu Nan Nan!" It was always followed by a chorus of laughter (of similar intensity) from the other boatmen.
Obviously, I thought, my name had a dirty meaning.
Afterwards, back on land, I briefed our Guilinese tour guide, Jessie, on the situation. I quickly recounted my story, anxious to hear her decipher our raft pusher's response, but I was interrupted by a burst of giggling. She spoke quickly.
"Wang Mu Niang Niang. It is, how do you say… Chinese goddess. Her name means 'Mother of the West.' Like, hmm. Like your Mother Goose?"
She continued giggling. I imagined myself in a gray wig and grandma spectacles and couldn't help but laugh with her.
A beautiful American
On my second night in Guilin, a few friends and I went out to dinner in downtown Yangshuo, a town down the Li River from the city of Guilin. We picked a restaurant on the main street and sat outside at a table bordering the main artery of pedestrian traffic. We were the only non-Chinese people in sight. Additionally, we were, probably, also obviously American. I say probably because nearly every Chinese person that passed our table with a camera in hand stopped to shoot a picture of us. Uncertain as to whether I should pose for the cameras or ignore them, and increasingly annoyed by it all, I began to sympathize with celebrities' common loathing for paparazzi. But I was more surprised that a group of Americans was such a rare sight for these guerrilla photographers.
Not ten feet away from our table was a large group of Chinese men ranging in age from late adolescence to late adulthood. Three generations sat huddled around the wooden table, enjoying a night of drinking and dice. Tubs filled with ice and Tsingtao sat at each end of the table, and they were almost constantly in need of refilling.
Towards the end of our meal, one man from the group stood up, chugged the last of his beer, and stumbled toward us. He was a little chubby, had a friendly, bubbly face, and wore big, square glasses. His English was not as good as his confidence would have led you to expect.
After introducing himself, he quickly moved on to profess his love for America, his dream that America would accept and welcome him one day, and his love for us, as people who believed in and represented what America stands for: freedom. He thanked us for listening and insisted that we join him and his friends for a few drinks. We accepted.
As we enjoyed complimentary Tsingtaos and received instruction on how to play their dice game, our new Chinese friend launched into a tirade of questions.
"Where are you from in America?" "Do you like baseball?" "Do you like Kobe Bryant?" "Do you like movies?" "Do you like Tom Cruise?" "Do you like Obama?"
At one point he paused his interrogation to introduce me to one of his friends. His friend was thin, shy, and about my age. He had on a t-shirt with the movie poster for Pulp Fiction.
"Hey, great movie!" I said, pointing. "I'm a big fan of Tarantino."
The younger man smiled, but our friend felt that wasn't appreciative enough. He pinched his friend's arm, whispering angrily under his breath, "say thank you, say thank you." I began to feel a little afraid of my new Chinese friend.
In addition to asking questions, he also felt the need to tell me many of his thoughts regarding American politics and pop culture. The more memorable revelations included: he thinks former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was the political equivalent of our current president Barack Obama; he doesn't like Obama as much as Bush (W.), preferring the way Bush "treated the law"; Mao Zedong is one of his major idols; the most-played band on his iPhone is The Cranberries; and he loves the movie Mission Impossible, thinks Tom Cruise is a very handsome man, and thought I was a similarly "beautiful American." I didn't know whether to feel flattered or frightened.
After one more Tsingtao, I stood up to bid him a good night and left. He shook my hand violently and followed me out onto the main street, waving me off as I turned the corner. The last image I recall is of him tripping on a step and falling to his knees. A couple of his friends came over to help him back up, and they went inside to the bar to dance. The three sober elderly men in their group stayed seated and quiet, looking on as they smoked their dark cigarettes.
A terrible climber
There is no exciting story behind this revelation except my failed attempt to climb the side of a mountain (a route that was rated "medium" in difficulty by our group's assigned climbing guru) at 9:00 a.m. while tired and slightly hungover (see: previous night, free Tsingtao, etc.). The assortment of cuts and scrapes that gathered on the undersides of my arms and legs were badges of my ineptitude.
But in the pounding heat of the moment, as I ascended 100– to 200-something feet in the air, as I struggled to fit my feet onto the thinnest slivers of ledge or to keep my body afloat using only the ends of my fingertips, my mind kept flashing to a memory from high school gym class. There I had also tried my hand at "rock climbing," albeit on my school's state-of-the-art, manufactured mountainside, outfitted with friendly plastic color-coded grips to guide me along as I worked my way to the top. Here, however, it was different, and although I wasn't much better at climbing a karst cliff face in Guilin than I had been at working my way to the top of our high school climbing wall, I'd arrived at a place that I never possibly could have imagined in my high school days, a place of self-discovery as much as one of an exploration of the other. Whether a Chinese goddess, beautiful American, or terrible climber, I was, strangely, discovering something new about myself here in China, far from home–and that's the real beauty of travel.