Hi, my name is Scott Ferguson. I write, travel, and help others find freedom in life.
On this site, I share my experiences of long term travel, spending a bunch of time in China, and creating a great life.
We all are learning, experiencing, growing, & living life every day. Perhaps we can learn something together.
Thanks for visiting. Peace.
Stepping out of the Grind Excerpt
Mengla: The Beginning or the End?
One afternoon in July, my final day in China, I found myself in the far south of Yunnan province, near Mengla, sending this text message from my mobile phone:
Lunch stop near Laos, my last meal in China. Fight broke out next door. Broken beer bottles, thrown chairs, anger, chaos, chase down the street, insanity, total madness! I’ll miss China. 🙂
The replies came quickly:
Laowai classmate Don: Hahaha. So epic bro!! China will miss you!!
Chinese friend Hui Qing: Ha, so many male idiots!
Chinese friend Rene: Vivid chaos . . . Sure u will miss us. 😉
Laowai roommate Anderson: Haha. Leaving that last good impression on you. At least it wasn’t a car horn. Good luck on the rest of your journey.
At the time, I knew I truly would miss China, but had no idea of the extent and swiftness a yearning to return would strike. I never expected to fall in love with China, it just seemed like a good place to begin my year of traveling, and, certainly, I didn’t expect to feel culture shock and homesick for China later that day.
The stop in Mengla was my dramatic good-bye from China after nearly six months, first living in Beijing and then travelling overland more than 4200 kilometers (2600 miles) to Laos. A statement I’d made many times before turned out to be quite fitting on my last day: in China, anything can happen. People live routinely in the midst of chaos. If you are ever bored in China, go for a walk and you will probably see something new or unexpected; if not the first street, simply turn the corner and keep your eyes open to discover something amazing or worth thinking about.
In Mengla, five minutes before the clash erupted, I sat next door in a small restaurant enjoying a peaceful lunch with two Chinese guys–a friendly, young engineer from my bus and his local friend. Our bus had departed mid-morning from Jinghong, after the tropical heat set in, bound for Namtha, Laos. Stopping for lunch in Mengla, my new acquaintances and I shared two hot dishes, a cold dish, and a tall bottle of beer in the casual restaurant across from the bus station. The Lao border at Mohan was about 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) away and from there we would ride several more hours to Namtha. While eating, I lazily snapped photos of placid activities outdoors—a dog walking by, a girl on a scooter, moneychangers dawdling in the shade outside the bus station.
My mood was a little blue due to my impending exit. Though resigned to leaving China and fully aware my day of departure had arrived, I didn’t want to go. Unfortunately, there was no choice because I had a flight to catch in Bangkok, Thailand, and barely enough days to get there via bus and train with short stops planned at Luang Prabang and Vientianne, Laos. The young engineer’s invitation to lunch perked me up a bit and I introduced myself in Chinese to his friend, though after a few questions the guys returned to speaking between themselves while I observed the restaurant and the scenes outside.
My new friends insisted to pay the bill despite my protest and I put away my camera as we stepped outside. Suddenly, crossing the street, all hell broke loose behind us. From within the bar next to the restaurant came sounds of broken glass and yelling, furniture smashing, more broken glass and an argument. Under a blazing sun, we turned in the street to gawk as a shirtless young man ran out of the bar and down the street as fast as his short legs could carry him.
The shouting grew louder and sounds of a fight reached our ears. Others on the street also paused to watch as the commotion swelled like a tsunami. Crash! Crash! Wham! The door burst open and two more shirtless men darted out with two shouting thugs in hot pursuit–a brawny guy running with a chair held overhead and his comrade bellowing like a stuck pig. Of course, I didn’t know the local dialect, but it didn’t matter; I understood. The roar was universal and those first guys were in trouble.
The chair was launched, fell short of its target, and rattled down the sidewalk. The howls continued, but the bigger guys didn’t have the energy to run more than a block in the intense heat. Screeching from inside the bar had come to a halt as the brawny guys lumbered back in; people on the street suddenly resumed their business and within seconds there was no sign of the upheaval. My new friends grinned nervously and shrugged. Across the street I climbed the steps to board our bus and discovered it had been filled with so much cargo only a few seats remained for the passengers. Nonetheless, the young engineer and I crowded in among folks seated in the aisle and the bus rolled out of town.
Oh, China, I will miss you and your surprises, I thought, and sent my text message to friends.
Sooner than expected, we arrived at the border-crossing in Mohan and the bus dumped us on the street outside the Chinese immigration and customs building where women moneychangers swarmed over us like ants at a picnic. Apparently no one wanted Lao currency, the kip. Earlier, in Mengla, the exchange rate had been 1200 kip per 1 yuan; now at the border the offer was 1260 kip, a surprising increase of 5% and actually above the official rate of 1252 kip, though later in Laos I discovered the banks offered only 1100 kip–nobody wants the kip, including Lao people. With my thoughts elsewhere, I sent a couple of final text messages to friends, skipped the moneychangers despite their favorable exchange rates, and lurched into the immigration building with my baggage.
The road along the Chinese side of the border had been impressive and beautiful. Gorgeous landscaping full of tropical green plants and blooming flowers filled the spaces and a 20 meter (65 feet) arch towered above the road at the border. Inside a spacious modern building, immigration processing took place in air conditioned comfort with cool, marble floors. Passports were scanned by electronic systems utilizing the most modern technology. The border agents were efficient yet friendly at their jobs. Still preoccupied with my swirling sad feelings of departure, I neglected to get a departure card in advance of the queue, but a friendly woman in uniform with a hypnotizing gaze left her desk to help me obtain the necessary card from a machine.
In a daze, my passport was stamped and I shuffled my way to the door, the last person from the bus to linger in China. Outside, a blast of sultry heat slapped me in the face as if to underscore the striking disparities between China and Laos which even here on the border immediately became apparent. Suddenly, I was standing under a blazing sun at the distant end of a slowly moving queue. Waiting on a narrow sidewalk, I had ample time to examine the cinder block walls and sheet metal roof of the Laos immigration building as beads of sweat sprouted on my forehead and trickles of perspiration rolled down the small of my back. There were not air conditioning or cool marble floors to soothe us, nor machines to process our documents, just a single window from which a man sitting inside the building stamped papers and passports. Next to his window a sign instructed everyone only to speak Lao or English.
At last, I received my passport stamp, then walked around the corner of the building to the unpaved parking lot where the bus sat amidst mud puddles. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any stores and neither money changers nor vendors approached me. Was there not even a small village?
Back on the highway, the change in surroundings from China was obvious and immediate. Simply put, there were fewer people everywhere and less of people’s presence—fewer cars and trucks on the road, fewer houses in the countryside, no roadside stores to be found, and the road itself was not so well maintained. The small numbers of people seen along the road were dressed in a rural style of clothing and their houses were built of bamboo and wood with thatched roofs. Yes, I definitely had left my China.
The ride soon became bumpy and rough, setting off a barfing marathon as most of the people aboard the bus, kids and adults alike, began to vomit in plastic bags. Splat. Splat. Everyone dropped their barf bags out the windows of the moving bus. After thirty or forty minutes of people vomiting every four or five minutes, I wondered, shouldn’t they drink some water?
By late afternoon, we reached the outskirts of Namtha where my new acquaintance, the young engineer, hopped out at the long distance bus station before the bus from China continued into the small town and rolled to a pause in the middle of Main Street. I clambered down, the only person to disembark there, and stepped off the bus into the Central Business District of Namtha which stretched for perhaps 100 meters (110 yards) as the driver pulled my bags from the cargo hold. The bus drove away and I stood alone in the road holding my bags.
No other vehicles were in sight and no other people were on the street which felt weird because I had rarely, if ever, been alone since arriving in China months before. Where is everyone? I wondered. Doesn’t anyone live in Laos? On top of it all, I didn’t have any Lao money, a map, or a hotel reservation. More than a little dread crept into my stomach as I realized my Chinese phone no longer functioned. I felt totally cut off–completely alone in a foreign country.
After standing befuddled for a minute, I noticed a well-dressed Asian woman seated outside an empty restaurant, so I walked over and began speaking to her. She stared at me and didn’t reply.
I felt confused, until slowly it dawned on me: I was speaking Chinese. “Do you speak Chinese?” I asked in Chinese.
With an expressionless face, she paused before saying in English, “I speak English.”
“Oh, okay. I speak English, too, but I haven’t spoken it much lately.”
She nodded. “Do you speak Lao?”
“No, I’m sorry. English and Chinese.”
“I don’t speak Chinese,” she said emphatically.
We talked a few minutes. She lived in Namtha and I asked whether local businesses accepted Chinese yuan. She told me no, I needed to use Lao kip and the bank was closed; however, a woman down a side street might change my money. “Look for the store selling t-shirts,” she instructed.
The owner’s daughter stood at the front of the store when I found it. The girl spoke almost no Chinese, but called for her mom who was clearly of Chinese descent. Mom was confused by my language. Was it the Putonghua (Mandarin) or my accent or just because I was a laowai, a foreigner? I don’t know. After a minute, I pulled out some red 100 yuan notes and at last she understood my desire to exchange money and offered me a very fair rate of 1250 Lao kip per Chinese kuai (kuai is a slang term for yuan). She laughed when I said, “Zai jian. Good-bye,” in Chinese.
Back on the main street, I discovered the lone Chinese businessman who had travelled on my bus had made his way back to the center of town. He stood trying to speak Chinese to the same woman I had seen outside the restaurant, but they didn’t understand one another. For the first time, I became a Chinese translator. I could hardly believe it–an American with just four months of language training translated Chinese to English and vice versa. What a surprise. I helped the man find his hotel and check in because no one there spoke Chinese. Hopefully, the guy didn’t starve trying to order dinner.
I bought some water and walked around the dusty streets until I found a guesthouse for the night. Outside, the town was so quiet a dog napped in the middle of the road without fear of being run over. Not a single Lao person I met spoke Chinese which caused me to feel somewhat bewildered because I thought Chinese language would still be useful near the border, much like Spanish and English are spoken near the Mexico and U.S.A. border. Unfortunately, Chinese language was not helpful at all; in fact, I discovered it to be completely useless in Laos.
After being surrounded by the sound of Chinese for many months and having spoken little English in recent weeks, my brain automatically translated everything from English to Chinese and vice versa while constantly deconstructing English thoughts into fragments for easier conversion. Searching for a place to stay, I struggled to speak a clear sentence of English using correct grammar, proper verb conjugations, and all of the necessary articles: a, an, the—those stupid articles. In Laos, I felt more confused than I ever did in China. My God, to what galaxy had I been transported? Am I still on Earth?
In the evening, my bewilderment became worse. I tried to eat dinner at a restaurant, but all served Western-style food which I hadn’t eaten for months and which I did not want. The food seemed silly—hamburgers, spaghetti, sandwiches, pizza, meat pies. Why were these being served in rural Northern Laos? I don’t even eat that in America. And who were these strange-looking people?
A surprisingly large number of Western tourists had materialized like aliens from outer space. I couldn’t imagine where they hid earlier in the day when I arrived on the deserted main street, but after sun set Westerners prowled the town like vampires on a mission. This shocked me. I couldn’t handle to be around Western tourists anymore and for weeks had avoided them. Yes, I was a travel snob. I didn’t want to overhear the foreigners’ petty complaints or pop culture references to which I could barely relate anymore. I wondered, how did it happen that the worst louts of Australia and Europe were packed up and hauled directly into the jungle of Northern Laos? Ay, ay, ay! I had to get away.
Thankfully, I found the local night market where I purchased sweet chicken feet, grilled kebabs (chuanr) and Hong Kong-style fish balls as well as a local spicy dish with ground pork and lemon grass similar to something I enjoyed in Jinghong, Yunnan. With familiar food in my stomach I felt better and, to my changed way of thinking, the fact I was the only foreigner eating at the night market proved it was delicious.
While enjoying my dinner alone, I thought of many Chinese friends and other people I had met over the months, of how much I missed them and how we enjoyed the talking and listening, the sharing and learning, the laughing and crying, the sweet and the sour, the bitter and the salty of life. Through dinner I smiled thinking of people, remembering shared meals and shared experiences, and recalling fun days and joyful nights together. Once, I told my teachers my favorite thing about China was the people and my second favorite thing was the food. On this night, I missed both.
After dinner, I decided to have a beer at a bar on the main street. Yikes, again there were too many Westerners; they seemed to have overtaken the town and I couldn’t understand how to talk with them. The Lao beer seemed expensive and insufficient in tiny 330 ml containers. Where was I? Where were my 600 ml bottles of Qing Dao or Yanjing beer? The furniture and décor seemed too Western to my new foreign eyes.
Looking around, I felt disoriented and couldn’t adjust to these conditions fast enough. The situation felt frustrating and when, reflexively, I spoke Chinese everyone seemed to look upon me as crazy. Was I? I’m not sure, but I knew I didn’t belong there. In this moment I realized I was in the deep throes of culture shock. I didn’t fit in. As I struggled to identify with the surroundings, I felt a need to be back in China.
How did this happen, I wondered. How did an American arrive in Laos and experience culture shock at having left China? Could I really have developed an identity that permitted me to feel at home in China? Had I really fallen in love with China and begun to identify with a Chinese way of being? Yes, yes, it was all true. And after only 5 hours, I was homesick for China.
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