Westernized Yangshuo?

“It says that Yangshuo is the most westernized city in China,” Ian pointed at the computer screen quoting the sentence he just learned from SummitPost. “Oh No!” I screamed out this reflex response and soon enough my brain was loaded up with images derived from my wild imagination and my head was covered by cold sweat. I knew I was overreacting and I wasn’t sure what I worried about: Starbucks and McDonalds taking control of the streets? Everybody speaking fluent English? What does that even mean by “westernized”? Why do I subconsciously resist this idea? What do I truly dislike, being westernized or touristy?

Upon arrival, we were soon surrounded by countless middle-age women with photos of hotels, sightseeing spots, wanting to squeeze some business money out of us. Throughout our stay, this became a regular scene because we usually traveled with our backpacks and “Bu Yao, Xie Xie (No, thank you)” soon became one of the Chinese phrases Ian mastered.

The first sight we checked was the West Street. It’s a coincidence that this street is also where you see the most westerners. However, this street has quite a long history and it preserves the traditional architecture and stone pavements. Furthermore, its side street was the former residence of a famous painter of early 1900’s, who is well-known by his brush-painted horses. Currently the street presents a mixture of Chinese and western flavors. Here is the place you can find western restaurants which serve English breakfast, American hamburgers, French home brewed beer etc; oh did I mention that every restaurant on this street has English menus? In between shops that sell souvenirs and antiques, you see bars and nightclubs which are truly western imports. The fact that there is also an East Street which is fairly quiet, unavoidably stimulated me to have some unwanted associations.

One night when I dined out with Ian and three just-met European adventurous bikers, we were a target of a three-Chinese-girl team wandering around West Street with the mission of recruiting westerners for English chats at the so called “English Corner” school. In exchange, westerners were offered free beers. Ian couldn’t turn down this offer and was as well intrigued by the whole scene; therefore he dragged me there regardless of my resistance. Over there, I tried to keep silent at the beginning but I gave in because some students requested help from me for a few words. Once the girls found out that I speak fluent English, all of a sudden, I became the spotlight. Girls wanted me to share tips with them about how to master English, how to get to United States and stay abroad etc. I shared some of my experience but in the meantime I was uncomfortable due to some of the girls’ overeagerness.

Ian suggested for me to relax, he said that these girls simply projected me as their role model, “You are one of them, you look just like them and you speak perfect English;” he concluded that it was a good thing because “you are an inspiration to them.” Aside from feeling a bit pressured by being categorized as some sort of role model, what I most worried about was that some girls seem to think mastering English is their shortcut to success. I am afraid that if they get too desperate they can lose their individuality. Perhaps I think too much. These girls are still so young and this is merely one phase they are going through. I remember later in my stay I bumped into them on West Street because we were all there trying to get a good watching spot for the beer drinking competition which was one of the programs of Yangshuo’s yearly festival. I was happy that I got to see them in a different setting and they talked with us in English because Ian was around, and their English was just fine because they were not trying to find topics to chat. I laughed at myself and smiled.

Ian and I arrived at Yangshuo on November 19th, we missed the first Yangshuo Rock Climbing Festival but we got to be part of the 10th Yangshuo Yu Huo Festival (literally translation: Yu Huo means fishing and fire). The festival has some interesting programs such as West Street beer drinking competition, a 40-minute long fireworks display along Li River with bonfires on the shore and candle lights on countless drifting bamboo rafts, an election of Yangshuo West Street spokesperson (more like a beauty contest), and literally a-thousand-people tug of war. I was most impressed by the fireworks and local people proudly told us that their fireworks are bigger and more splendid than National Day fireworks. The tug of war was impressive too because where do you find so many people to be in one team other than China? When we were climbing at crags, sometimes local people came to watch and chatted with us about the recent climbing festival. According to their description, there were hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators, and they told me “tons of westerners were here too.”

Yangshuo is well know for its tourism, and it is still developing toward the top of tourism. New hotels are being built everyday and according to the regulations buildings can not pass a certain height in case they block the views. They openly encourage climbers to open more lines on their endless limestone towers. Parents of neighboring provinces send their kids to English language focus schools here due to the high number of western tourists and western teachers here.

I have this contradictory thought: on one hand I love to see people in this town have better income and better living conditions due to the booming tourism; on the other hand, I am afraid that the town might lose its spirit and characteristics due to the rapid growth of tourism. Ian, as a native and therefore a witness of the growth of Bend Oregon, provided an interesting perspective. Bend Oregon used to be a logging town, the fact that it became touristy has saved many trees. It’s a balancing act between overly pandering to the public and saving natural resources as a side effect. Besides, other than its landscape, Yangshuo has much to offer, for example, some of its featured agricultural products are not easily replaceable.

Let’s go back to the topic, westernized Yangshuo. According to the stats, the number of westerners visiting Yangshuo every year is more than three times of that of local residents. The statement of Yangshuo being the most westernized city in China might be true; however, it’s still too early to say that Yangshuo is westernized. If you do not speak any Chinese, it’s kind of difficult to order dishes outside West Street and it takes longer to get familiarized with the local bus lines, not to mention deliberate bargaining with local vendors (which is a must-have skill in China).

I felt relieved that I did not see any Starbucks or Mcdonalds and the only fast food chain restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken, was not so intrusive on West Street. Ironically, I after all wished that Yangshuo were more westernized in terms of the service. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable when the service person gave us an attitude if we turned down their menu. I felt awkward that right after we sat down in a restaurant, the server wanted us to order right away even before I started reading the menu. I felt that I wanted to run away from a shop because every time I browse a store, a salesperson followed each of my foot steps. In my vague definition in western world people give other people a bit more space, and it seems that space is still a new concept for an over-populated country like China.

I chatted about these phenomena with my mom after the trip. It seems that these were common too in early days of Taiwan but things have changed evidently. Taiwan is also over-populated; however, due to its physical conditions, Taiwan had to open up to the world much earlier than China. The living conditions got better in Taiwan much earlier than those in China and a higher percentage of the population had a chance to get an education.

We stayed in Yangshuo for about a month and we visited the local bus station almost daily because bus was the most efficient way to get to local crags. Toward the end of our stay, Ian noticed that women at the station had stopped trying to make us stay in some hotels or sell us tickets to tourist spots; he acclaimed, “Szu-ting, we are local now.” Well, I felt that I had fit in just fine so much earlier but the point is Yangshuo might look touristy at first glance but once you have settled in there is much more. People here do earn some money from tourists but people live here too. Once I was aware of that, I started to enjoy this place much more.

Looking back to this China trip, I couldn’t help but compare my personal experience to China’s current situation. I started to study English when I was 11, not only because it was a required subject in school, but also because people generally believed that we needed to master English in order to be competitive, to “not lose on the starting line.” To be honest, I hated English back then. I wasn’t sure whether it was related to the fact that I love Chinese literature, and I love all the disappearing Chinese arts. I spent quite some time indulging in classical Chinese books, practicing Chinese calligraphy, and doing research on regional traditional operas. I had never thought that I would reside in the United States, so I kept my English grades just good enough so that I could enter a good college.

And then I came to the States. I had a hard time during the first two years communicating with people. I failed my first attempt of my oral qualifying exam and I remember vividly that my advisor told me that I was in the United States and in order to be successful I had to speak English well. Now my English is much better and my Chinese didn’t get worse. Many of my Taiwanese friends like to say that I am Americanized because I truly enjoy my life in the States and I have many American friends. But to me and to my American friends, I am not at all Americanized: I still preserve my identity and I have a unique signature. I have been observing the strengths and shortcomings of both American and Chinese culture and I am a firm believer that the best lies somewhere in between, and that’s what I strive for.

Not until maybe two or three decades ago did China start to open up to the world. China wants to be internationally competitive; people want to improve their living conditions. The word “western” is loved and hated at the same time. I am rather optimistic because I kind of went through a similar phase and I love the way I am. Western culture might be dominant but Chinese culture is stubborn. China’s future is worth anticipating.

photo credit: Ian Farquhar

1 thought on “Westernized Yangshuo?”

  1. I enjoyed your article on Yangshou. To be honest, I stumbled across it while in search of different information on the city.

    I’m yet another Westerner possibly on his way to this city. I plan on teaching English in China and the company that will be training me apparently does so in Yangshou. I would prefer to teach in Wuhan but I may not have that choice as the company probably has plans for me elsewehere. I’ll continue searching for a job in Wuhan though.

    Any other information on Yangshou will be appreciated.

    Xiexie ni.

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