Impressions of Dezhou
28 Jun 2004
This past weekend I went on a business trip to Dezhou, a city in northern Shandong province. It’s funny — before heading off to Dezhou, any person I told I was heading to Dezhou had one of three reactions:
- Had never heard of it. (Not surprising, really.)
- “Texas??” (The American state of Texas is Dekesasi-zhou in Chinese, and often abbreviated to De-zhou.)
- “Paji!” (That’s the name of Dezhou’s one claim to (relative) fame: a chicken dish called paji.)
Unfortunately, right before leaving for Dezhou I came down with a terrible cold. The fact that it’s my second time being quite sick in Shanghai in only six months of living here alarms me somewhat. I like to think I’m a pretty healthy individual, and these new statistics aren’t jiving with that. (Why could this be? My imagination takes the idea and goes with it. Maybe I’m an example of a rejected transplant. You know how sometimes a transplanted heart doesn’t take in a new body? Well maybe I’m not taking in a new city. Or maybe the city views this foreign body as a threat and is trying to knock me off with its defenses. The Chinese, however, invariably offer the same explanation: “bu xiguan.” I’m not used to life here in Shanghai. Well, there might be something to that, but really, Shanghai has got to be the easiest Chinese city to get used to. Plus that’s a pretty boring explanation.)
And so it was that Thursday I found myself on a 14-hour train ride to Dezhou, a city in northern Shandong province with no convenient airport. We left at 10am, which made for a looong day on the train. Fortunately I had my cold medicine, a big box of tissues, and my sleeper bunk. I was unconscious for most of the way there.
I woke up around 10pm and decided I had better stay up. All the lights in the train were out, save for a few floating downturned faces bathed in the ghostly illumination of a cell phone’s display screen. I climbed out of my bunk and took a seat by the window. It was storming outside. Every few seconds lightning lit up the desolate countryside for an instant. Farmland, ditches, crude buildings, lonely trees. It all seemed so foreign and yet so China. I thought about how four years of effort to “get to know China” had been successful, but only in my one little corner.
Dezhou is a wholly unremarkable city. It has no famous mountain, or lake, or park, nor is it the “ancestral home” of any famous figure that the locals could boast about to guests. All it has is paji, a chicken dish. Which is very good, by the way.
But Dezhou is a city in Shandong province, and as such, it is populated with Shandong-ren, a much-discussed group in China. I found them to be warm and generous, and although they all had that northern accent, it wasn’t nearly as strong as I expected. One might even call it pleasant. There was only one guy with whom I came into contact whose Mandarin level was sub-par. But holy crap, was he hard to understand! I never thought a speaker of a northern dialect could be as difficult to understand as a speaker of a southern dialect, but I was sorely mistaken. There was no “s/sh c/ch z/zh” pronunciaiton issue like you find in the south. I don’t even notice that anymore, anyway. This time the issue was strictly tones. The man spoke without a shred of respect for the established tones of the words that make up Mandarin Chinese. Foreigners learning Chinese do much the same thing, but they generally have the decency to speak slowly and simply, and they radiate uncertainty. This man had the gall to speak quickly and confidently in his abominable Chinese. Talking with him was certainly an experience.
I went on the business trip with three female co-workers, so I got a cheap hotel room all to myself. Friday night around 11pm the phone rang, and the following conversation ensued in Chinese:
[Me:] Hello? [Woman:] Hello, sorry to disturb you. Do you need a girl’s services? [Me:] No. [Woman:] Sorry to disturb you. click.
This kind of Chinese hotel service is well documented, but it was the first time it had been offered to me. Apparently my female co-workers got a call as well, but as soon as the caller heard a female voice, she hung up. The thing is, this exact same exchange repeated itself Saturday night at 10:15pm, and then again that same night at 11:15pm! It was the same woman calling. Did she think in the hour that had passed I had gotten lonely and changed my mind?? [Telephone conversation in Chinese]
Dezhou was not so bad. It wasn’t as polluted or as poor as I thought it might be. The people were nice, and I actually kind of liked their accents, to my surprise. But it’s still good to be home in Shanghai.