Colin recently had a work trip to attend the opening of photography museum, and since I had gotten to meet and dine with the museum’s director a few months back, I was invited to tag along for the weekend with Colin and one of his local staff.
En route we stopped for gas and I had definitely the most Chinese bathroom experience of my life, involving a gaggle of older women who decided to flout the long line and admittedly arbitrary standards of decency and pee all together in what was either a wall-length urinal or hand-washing setup. Some men were doing the same by the time I came out of my squatty potty stall, reaffirming my decision not to join the old women.
The museum is in a small Chinese city of half a million people, four hours away from where we live in GZ, a little rough and ramshackle around the edges. It was a two-part celebration: an annual festival that features artists from China, the U.S., and Europe shown in a former shoe factory, a granary, and a candy factory, this year simultaneously held during the opening of the contemporary photography museum. It was the fruit of years of labor, and showcases Chinese and European photographers in an industrial space using local building materials.
I called for a pit stop on our walk to the museum and we bought a dollar’s worth of sweet and savory steamed buns for the three of us. There were leftovers.
Though not actually special guests, we were invited in early to see the museum space and exhibits. When the gates opened and the speech-making began, I found myself hiding my face and frowning at the men who so blatantly turned their camera to me. Look, sirs, this is not why we’re all here.
We joined a couple people from another consulate for dinner at a riverside restaurant serving all the hits, saucy veggies, bone-in chicken, spicy pickled vegetables. The food immediately got cold in the 50ish degree air. Walking back, the others pointed out the dried meat hanging in a shop that was suspiciously puppy shaped.
Back at the hotel we put on every lick of clothing we brought to go to the outdoor opening of the annual photo festival. Dancing, more speech-making, videos–all with the volume turned up to 11. The young Western photographers I was sitting next to brought beer and snacks, which seemed like the right call. A reception back at the museum followed, at which they immediately ran out of wine glasses but not wine. Luckily my years of training have taught me never to let go of a wine glass. The gal from the other consulate and I were approached by a few teenagers to take a photo with them. It took a while because when we said yes to one, all the dozen teens in the space crowded into the shot.
I walked around the square the next morning, watching the groups doing tai chi. I said good morning in Mandarin to an old man who seemed surprised to see me, but couldn’t catch his response because it was in a local dialect. He assured me that speaking Mandarin was still pretty good, though I wasn’t able to piece that together until after we’d parted ways, so he clearly overestimated me. Grabbed 50 cents’s worth of veggie buns and warm soy milk for breakfast.
We visited the sites of the festival, especially enjoying a series by a Japanese artist telling the story of a younger cousin and their grandmother as well as a collection by an American artist we’d met the night before showing mugshots of the same person in different clothes, code-switching. A mom asked me to take a picture with her kids because “they love foreign friends.” You know what’s totally fine with me? Being asked to take a photo.
One final stop for buns (more buns!) and fruit for our four-hour journey home, with another rest stop with more staring.
So why was this bun-filled, puppy-filled, staring-filled, photo-filled trip to small-town China the wrong business trip for me to go on? Because just days later Colin was sending me pictures from his visit to a former U.S. consulate in a town apparently chock-full of craft breweries and seared tuna dinners, bakeries and cute cafes and antique shops.