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Day 111 – Being Black in China (Plus Terra Cotta Warriors)

June 22, 2010

Dateline: Xian, China – Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I’m here in Xian to see the infamous clay army buried by China’s first emperor. He assembled this force to protect him in the afterlife—a reasonable endeavor considering his brutal four decade reign. Trying to unite a fractious empire, standardize writing and measures, and enslaving hundreds of thousands tends to piss a few people off.

A few fun facts. The emperor chose the site for its good feng shui (something about a mountain, river, plains, and other things). There are thousands of clay warriors split amongst three closely situated archeological sites about 40 km outside Xian the city. Pit 1 is the largest and is home to the infantry and cavalry. They are all situated east in order to protect the emperor’s tomb, which is situated to the rear.

Pit 2 appears to be archers, more cavalry and other support forces, which would reinforce the infantry. Pit 3 is the smallest and is the military command center. Statues of high ranking generals and officials were found here along with statues of soldiers facing each other. Unlike like the troops at the other sites, these soldiers’ weapons were made only of wood with no metal tips, meaning they’d have been useless in battle. The fact that they are not facing outward and that they’d have made a crappy combat outfit suggests they are an honor guard, the sort of “soldiers” who welcome foreign dignitaries carrying flags and ceremonial weapons.

The museum complex is hot and bright. For some reason the architects laid down hundreds of acres of white concrete, creating a surface akin to a mirror. Everywhere I walked I felt like I was staring at the sun. By the end of the day I felt like the undersides of my eyelashes were singed.

The sites are all still being excavated and reassembled. The warriors used to be housed in large underground rooms. The roof was supported by large wooden beams. When the empire fell after the emperor’s death, the invaders sacked the Terra Cotta Warrior site, stole a bunch of warrior heads, smashed figures, and set fire to the wood support beams causing the roof to collapse. Thus, the warriors were buried, record of them lost forever (sort of).

Here we stumble on a peculiar type of celebrity. The site was discovered in 1974 by a farmer trying to dig a well. A little over a year after the discovery, the Chinese government took the land to construct a museum complex which they opened four years later.

Let’s recap. We have a farmer, doing his farmer thing, digging a well. He finds the head of a clay warrior. A year later, the government’s repurposed the land he was working (takings law notwithstanding) and turns it into a museum. And, he’s famous. A hero, of sorts.

He’s still alive today. If you go to the museum, you’ll probably find him signing autographs at the large souvenir shop in the back. Pictures weren’t allowed unless you bought an autograph, but I snapped one through the mob anyway.

This man was essentially struck by lightning and now he makes a living by selling picture books bearing his John Hancock. If he’d dug that well 5 meters to the east, he never finds the edge of Pit 1 and he’s still a farmer today. And I never come to Xian and save myself a few bucks on an overnight train ride. Life’s funny like that.

Mr. Farmer Man wasn’t the only one being gawked at in Xian. I had the privilege of hanging with two people of great notoriety. To understand what I mean, a little background helps.

Just three years ago, when Max moved to Beijing, the locals weren’t used to seeing White people. Max called his status equivalent to that of Pauley Shore. If you saw him, you might stare, but you wouldn’t see a mob like the one you’d see if he were, say, Brad Pitt. If you were close, you might ask for his autograph or to take a picture with him. You might even sneak a picture while he wasn’t looking.

And that’s what happened to Max. People would stare. Businesspeople would ask to take photos with him. One time, he and a White buddy walked into a bar and everyone turned to look at them and kept looking until they’d ordered a beer and he raised a glass in cheers.

In three years time, people in Beijing have gotten used to seeing Whites. But Max’s Pauly Shore moments happened only three years ago. All in the capital city. A place where you’d expect the locals to have the best chance of adapting to foreigners. Imagine if he was Black.

I don’t have to because today I wandered Xian’s Muslim Quarter with two Canadians who happen to be of African descent. This is a big city. With 4.2 million people, it’s five times the size of San Francisco. That’s a lot of people. Apparently, none have been Black.

I met Lindsey on my Terra Cotta Warrior tour today. I met her friend Beatrice later that afternoon after she finished her more extensive tour. We decided to eat in the Muslim Quarter with Kodje, a Japanese guy Beatrice met on her tour.

The Muslim Quarter is home to a large, longstanding Chinese Muslim community. The streets are narrow and remind me a lot of Hanoi, but with fewer motorbikes and on-the-street food seating. There’s a ton of street food which I probably won’t get to try much of because of my short stay in Xian. Everywhere you look there are guys wearing those Muslim head things. I saw no ladies in burqas.

Two Asian guys who don’t speak a lick of Chinese and two Black girls wandering Xian. Together, we broke China.

People stared. People touched the girls’ braided hair. People brazenly took pictures. I was walking next to Lindsey when a Chinese guy walked past us, staring. He looked at me over his shoulder, then looked at her, then gave me the “All right!” nod. He thought that I was a local Chinese dating a foreigner. It was only the beginning.

The best part: Beatrice speaks Chinese. She’s worked in Shanghai for five years. The two guys who looked like they might speak Chinese couldn’t, one of the girls who looked like she shouldn’t, could. I repeat: we broke China.

We arrived at the restaurant and tried to get a table. Beatrice asked in Chinese, which freaked the hostess out. She looked at me when she answered. I laughed, shrugged, and pointed at Beatrice. The hostess insisted on talking to me. Beatrice had to snap her fingers at the hostess to get her attention.

We eventually sat down. The waitress did the same thing as the hostess. I just smiled and shrugged. Bea had to clap her hands and tell the waitress, “They’re not Chinese. I am.”

It was awesome. I spent the whole night cracking up. You could tell Chinese people were confused. They wanted to stare at Beatrice and Lindsey because they were so different. They wanted to talk to me because I looked like a friendly “Chinese” face. They didn’t know where to look. It was like standing on a tennis court, looking up at the crowd during a match. The heads would just bounce back and forth between them and me. I just kept pointing at Beatrice and laughing.

As we wandered the streets after dinner, I learned just how mono-racial China is. One local girl turned around, saw Bea, screamed and hid behind her boyfriend. Really. It was like she’d seen a ghost. Beatrice pointed at her as she walked by and said, “See, she’s actually scared.” I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen if for myself.

That’s China for you. Despite the veneer of modernity, it’s still very isolated and a bit backwards. I, for one, am once again appreciating my anonymity. I may not get credit for speaking the local language, but for the most part, people leave me alone. I don’t stand out enough to warrant stares, touches, or screams. That is, until I open my mouth and speak my English. It’s always something, I guess.

GALLERY: Click through to see bonus pictures of warriors, pictures of a cute kid, food, food, and more food.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. sally permalink
    June 28, 2010 11:16 am

    i stare at white people ALL THE TIME.

  2. dan permalink
    July 6, 2010 12:03 pm

    good one merv! i was in beijing at a university a few years back and we went out to a local bar near the school. we were a bunch of white guys and girls and it was an obscure bar. well we got stared at pretty heavily by the few patrons (who were pretty reserved) especially when the girls started pounding beers. we were told later that we were one of the few whitey groups to ever go in there and def the only ones bringing along girls who drank as heavy as guys do in china. (which is pretty hard). we started buying drinks for everyone and got everyone pretty lit. we were heroes. i bet they are all alcoholics now..

    • July 7, 2010 5:15 am

      I think you broke China all by yourself. Beijing’s much more accustomed to White people now, though Western guys still get a lot of play with the local ladies by being an “exotic” foreigner.

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