Travels with Lois and Jason


June 7 - 23, 1993

WOW! China was an incredible experience. In two weeks we stayed in five hotel, took seven airplanes, visited four cities, as well as toured eight hospitals, 20 shrines, palaces, walls (great and otherwise), and enjoyed in eight banquets. We never understood the movie title, "If its Tuesday, then it must be Belgium" until this trip. Fortunately, all the hotels we stayed at had a very useful "elevator carpet" policy designed specially for visitors like us. Each day they changed the carpet in the elevator to read, "Welcome Monday," "Welcome Tuesday," etc. This helped us keep our sanity, or at least to track the time. This had to be the most exhausting and exhilarating trip we have every been on.

We guess this is our Asian year -- Japan in February and China (that's the PRC) in June. Lois was asked to be part of a medical delegation of doctors and nurses involved in childbirth education to share US practices with their counter parts in the PRC. Jason traveled as the accompanying spouse with no responsibility expect to enjoy himself. We must say, that one of the highlights of the trip was for Lois to say to Jason (as Jason has said so many times when roles are reversed): "What do you mean you're going to go sightseeing without me!"  The delegatino spent 10 days in the PRC and then we extended the trip with three additional days in Hong Kong.

The delegation consisted of 37 people, plus six companions (3 husbands) and a professional liaison. The delegates visited hospitals in three cities: Beijing, Xi'An, and Guilin.   In general, the hospitals where very primitive, with essentially no technology or what we would consider modern conveniences. The norm seemed to be concrete floors, chipping paint on the walls, dark, dirty and smelly (like urine, not antiseptic), no screens on the windows, and old rusty steel frame beds. Even though the priority was the hospital visits in each city, there was also a touring. A summary schedule is attached, just in case you want to see the details. The following are a few of our impressions and reactions to this overwhelming country.

Each city presented a unique look at China -- four extremely different faces. Since the delegation was committed literally from 7 AM to 10 PM or later each day, this did not present many opportunities to get out and walk the streets, which is the only way to really get a feel for the cities.


Beijing is a up and coming metropolitan area -- trying hard to be 20th century. They are tearing down the old brick and clay shanty towns with their corrugated tin roofs held on by bricks and stones and no indoor plumbing, and replacing them with "modern" high rises. There was a growing use of autos, but all major streets had large bike lanes, generally separated from the auto traffic by a parkway or just a barrier. Almost every street was tree lined, providing shade for the bikers. Streets were clean and there was no sense of poverty about the city.

We arrived in Beijing about 11 PM on June 9th. It was the strangest thing as the city was shapeless, with no sense of breadth or depth. Our bus drove down streets with some street lights, but sparsely located. We went past tall dark building. That is, dark as in no lights turned on. When we got to our room on the 15 floor of the hotel and looked out, the city was dark. It was as if someone had pulled the plug at the power station.  We had no idea if we were in a rural or suburban area.  In the morning when we looked out our window we were amazed that we were in the middle of a sprawling metropolis.

The minimal use of light (electrical power) was extended to the hospitals and university: they were all dark, with either the lights turned off (during the day) or the single bulb in the room insufficient to make the rooms bright. Apparently, the use of electric lights and the concept of personal privacy have a lot in common: both are seen as a privilege. Privacy in the PRC is a privilege while here in America we see it as a right. Crowds, entire families living in a few hundred square feet of space, and "community" rest rooms don't lend themselves to much privacy.

One of the most amazing aspects of driving around Beijing was that with millions of people riding bikes and cars, and only about five traffic signals in the entire city, we saw no accidents, heard no sirens, saw hardly any police (except an occasional traffic director), and saw only one ambulance. What we couldn't believe was that people making right turns never stop -- pedestrians and signals didn't matter, they just went. It was like a game of chicken. Part of the safety factor was the driving speed, which was maybe 30 mph max. We didn't know if the cars and busses (of Chinese make) couldn't go any faster or if the drivers were just being cautious. Well, it turns out very simple: we were told the driving laws are strictly enforced (like jail, lost of privilege, fine, and deportation out of the city for first offense (sic)). Traffic was awful and getting worst.


Xi'An is approximately 600 miles southwest of Beijing and appeared generations behind . Most streets were without paved sidewalks. Dirt, ruble and unfinished buildings were everywhere. A sense of poverty pervaded the area. Driving in from the airport we saw people using sickle, rakes, forks, bundling by hand and manually thrashing the wheat. Brooms where just straw tied to a stick. In our three days in Xi'An we counted only a hand full of tractors or other "modern" farm support machines. Everywhere in Xi'An we saw iron grates pulled across store fronts. Street vendors were everywhere (with watermelons being one of the most popular items available).

In stark contrast to Beijing, and in spite of the seeming poverty, Xi'An seemed to have a vibrant night life. Televisions appeared in front of stores, chairs, stools, and lots of people gathered to watch and enjoy a drink (beer flowed instead of water everywhere). Pool tables also were pulled out at night and people seems to come out to enjoy the cool evenings. So, even though Xi'An seemed poorer in urban development, it had a street vitality not observed in Beijing.


Guilin was another 600 miles south of Xi'an (about 1000 miles south of Beijing) and very tropical -- green, wet, humid, hot, steamy, and raw. The city seemed primitive by contrast to Beijing, but had a sense of self containment and dignity which Xi'An lacked. Maybe it was the karst, the limestone peaks, which were everywhere, with the city nestled between. The LWe River ran through the middle of the city and the mountains were on all sides. It gave Guilin a sense of dimension and comprehension. This was our kind of city:  given a day or two you could walk the length and breadth of Guilin and feel you knew the city. Even though we were told that when in China, don't drink the water (unless in a sealed bottle) or eat the food (unless in a western style hotel), we felt very much at home in Guilin.

It was in Guilin that we had the most personal and warmest experiences. We walked the streets and people came up to us and talked. We were invited to a dance at the hospital and the doctors and nurses danced for us (traditional dances of the area), we danced for them (traditional dances of our area, better known as the Hokey Pokey and Bunny Hop) , and then we all danced together (ball room dancing and disco are very popular). We were invited into an art professors home to watch him paint a picture. We saw men having shampoos in street side barber shops. We saw children playing along the streets, in the lake, along the river, and at school. Guilin had a warmth and personality which endeared it to us as few cities have.

Just as the people captured our hearts, Guilin's mystic mountains and clouds captured our aesthetic senses. The karst formation are unlike any we've seen anywhere -- raising abruptly from the valley, some several hundred feet high and yet only two or three hundred yards in circumference at the base, so you could just walk around them. Some had caves or tunnels beneath them, others where shaped like an animal. The clouds and rain (sunny, cloudless days are apparently rare) added depth and a moist beauty to the landscape. While Beijing was all concrete (except the trees), and Xi'An essentially golden brown with wheat, Guilin was green with rice, bamboo, and a variety of broad leaf trees.

Hong Kong

From Guilin we flew about 300 miles southeast to Hong Kong, a jewel of a city built on an elegant harbor. Ten percent of the building standing in Hong Kong today were standing at the end of World War II, and 50% of the building were built in the last 20 years. It is new and sparkles as no other city we've ever seen. It seemed that the shortest buildings were a dozen stories, although some may have been less. Hong Kong could easily serve as a model for a 21st century high density living metropolitan environment. The medical delegation return to the States from Hong Kong but we stayed three additional days. We spent almost 100% of our time with one of my former doctoral students who treated us as royalty, taking us everywhere and sharing their home and family with us. Lois visited the Prince of Wales Hospital, which was a huge improvement over what she had seen in the PRC. They had linoleum on the floors and didn't smell, but they were as primative with respect to childbirth education as the PRC. We visited both the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong, both of which were as modern as any university in the west. Electricity was used and wasted as freely in Hong Kong as here in the States.

The contrast of going from the PRC to Hong Kong was amazing. Its hard to believe that they are going to be reunited in 1997. The values and orientation of the people in Hong Kong were in such marked contrast to what we had observed. The modern conveniences, the market orientation, the freedom of movement, the open expression of ideas with a variety of both eastern and western newspapers on the street, the large number of international banks and corporations, all suggest a most challenging time ahead as the PRC tries to reabsorb Hong Kong into its culture.

Some observations

How can anyone go to China and not mention the food. This was an adventure in and of itself. Surprisingly, the only time in all the meals we had, only at breakfast was any dish repeated. The foods were prepared very similarly to what we get in the Chinese restaurants here, but with greater variety. The restaurant owners here in the States have learned that economic survival is a function of not putting slimy things, things with heads still intact, or things that obviously belong in a mosquito net in front of their customers. The restaurants we visited in the PRC didn't care if we complained. First of all they couldn't understand us, and second, they knew our tour was leaving town and we weren't going to be repeat customers. Nevertheless, we were good sports, gained a couple pounds on all the noodles and duck, and became quite expert with chop sticks.

As we toured the Great Wall, the Imperial Palace, the Terra Cotta Soldiers, and the various tombs, temples, and shrines, many of which are over two thousand years old, we were struck by two questions: "Why isn't the whole world speaking Chinese?" and "Why didn't a Magna Carta like event occur in China?" Over 2000 years ago, while the rest of the world was breaking up into nation states, China was unifying. But it stopped at some set of natural borders (we guess as we are not too clear on this part), and didn't continue to expand. It created a civil service, bureaucratic governmental administrative structure which emanated from its emperor, and regardless of the head (Sing Dynasty (i.e., the Sing family since emperor where off spring until over thrown), Ming Dynasty, etc.). The concept of individual rights never developed as a result of the bureaucratic system and the inertia which it created. So many peasant had risen and other peasants saw the opportunity to rise, through the civil services, that the vested interests where at maintaining the status quo. There was no comparable experiences of the various "lords" returning from the Crusades as enlighten men who joined together to challenge the emperor, and hence, no rise in the concept of civil liberties or individual freedom.

One of the most incredible things about the PRC was the prevalence of the English language. Everywhere we went we met young people who spoke English. For the three cities we visited in the PRC, we were told that every young person was exposed to English in school. When Jason visited Tsinghau University in Beijing, all five professors he met with understood, read and wrote in English. The younger professors spoke very well. To achieve this level of English with so many people knowing it without any real personal contact with native English speaking people requires an extensive network of teachers, books, and curricular organization. Its apparently has all been in place for some time.

In Guilin we found myself saying "hi" to every person who went by. One young man came up to us and started talking -- the usual opening was "Where are you from?" and if you said "America" they stopped to talk. Anyhow, this one young man had a very strong English accent. From where? The BBC News Services. Given this as a major source of verbal English We was surprised we didn't hear more English accents. Most spoke with the usual "Asian" type accent, omitting some sounds ("th") and substituting others (e.g., "l" for "r").

We tried to turn on the TV in each city to see what the local people view. In Beijing, by the time we got to the room each evening, all that was left was cable sports, no local stations. In Xi'An we never got a chance to turn the TV on. In Guilin, We watched two evening at 6:00. There were two stations, one with a "taking radio" news broadcast. The man read from a sheet, looking down the entire time and then looking up to the camera on the last word of each sentence; no back up or support pictures. I'm guessing that that was the news. The other station was English language instruction, done with quite a high level of sophistication.

The funniest incident on the trip was in Guilin. One of the nurses wanted to buy Christmas cards at one of the art galleries. She asked the man behind the counter for Christmas cards, and he said "No Christmas cards." She said, "Are you sure you don't have any Christmas cards?" and he replied, "American Express, Master Card, but no Christmas cards!" For the rest of the trip, everyone wanted to purchase things with Christmas cards.

We were surprised to learn that none of schools are free, but at the same time, education is compulsory through age 16. They were collecting money on the bus to support "Project Hope" to support kids who could not pay. We don't understand how the system works.

In Xi'An and Guilin we saw many building in various states of construction, but not finished and with no one working on them. We were told that the government allocated funds, but then when the money ran out, construction just stopped.

We were told that bribery and corruption is rampant, a way of life. A frightening sense of foreboding was conveyed to us one day in Guilin when a young man we met by the river asked us "Do you have hope for my country?" Lois answered "Yes. Do you have hope for your country?" He said "no" and when asked why, he said "Because the government is so corrupt."

In counterpoint, we had expected to see Mao suits everywhere. We never saw one. People took pride in their individuality and showing their differences. This was in stark contrast to Japan (a free and democratic country) where the people seemed regimented and ridged, and avoided (at all costs) being seen as an individual. Our professional liaison said that when he was in the PRC five years ago everyone was still wearing Mao suits and that the individual dress was one of the biggest surprises for him on this trip.

The Chinese had a saying: "When two British people meet, they ask, 'How's the weather?'" When two Chinese people meet, they ask, 'Have you eaten yet today?'" Our guide said its not like that anymore. She also, in the next breadth, told us about the rodent control policy -- bring in a tail and get a stipend. No one asked questions about the rest of the rodent.

Everywhere we went we saw billboards saying "A more open China awaits Olympic 2000." The people we met were definitely open. However, the factories we visited (tourist stops for cloisonn*, jade, silk, and art) were sweat shops of the worst kind, with individuals (mostly women) doing extremely intricate work without good ventilation, light, and on open stools without back support, at long tables in over crowded rooms where no one seemed allowed to talk to anyone. The political and economic systems may be opening up, but there is definitely a long way to go in the area of human rights.

Finally, we decided that China had the most challenging toilets in the world. Frequently these were just trenches in the ground with a wall around them.

Traveling opens many doors and is a very enlightening experience. We're glad to be able to share our experiences with you. Your feedback and comments are welcome.

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Jason Frand
July 4, 1993