Travels without Porpoise: Clash of the cultures


August 17 continued:
So, what were the scientists really doing with the funding they’d received from Earthwatch? We’d signed up to help with research, but they gave us nothing to do and we didn’t see them doing anything either. The only actual equipment they had seemed to be a device to measure water quality. The team had only two pairs of field glasses to go around between everyone so we never got to use them.

Wanting to find out if these scientists were scamming Earthwatch, we asked lots of questions, to no avail. Each time we asked for something to do besides sitting on the water staring at nothing, one of the Chinese would say, “I’ll see what I can do.” Later on, they’d go off by themselves to have a long whispered discussion as if we’d asked to do something exotic, maybe even kinky. I’d once met a Chinese American who told me this behavior reflects a mentality where no one person wants to be responsible. In this case, none of them would rock the boat by going to the Director with our complaints.

August 18
During lunch, Dave tried to get a conversation going about Chinese social issues like rural poverty, but the Chinese would only parrot what they deemed politically correct. They didn’t mind letting us say whatever we wanted, however, and seemed to enjoy our straightforward opinions.

We three volunteers were now bored to death. Since we’d “come so far” as the Walrus said, we had reason to be upset with the situation. That afternoon, we asked if we Americans could leave the project early on the 25th instead of the 28th. The request brought on a possie of bureaucrats, who again went off for private discussions, not whispered this time; we heard a great deal of argument. They finally agreed. In the meantime, it seemed there would be no changes to our watching water routine.

The elusive Project Director, who lived off site, had arrived earlier in a blue car with tinted windows and a private driver. He didn’t strike me as a man of culture. He rolled his pants legs up to the knees, spit on the ground and drank way too much at dinner that night. He leered at me and Sharon, constantly pushing beer on us, but only Wang and Dave drank with him, Wang unenthusiastically.

I’d been in my room only ten minutes after excusing myself from the table when one of the younger Chinese staffers named Jiao—who turned out to be 27 years old—ventured into my room, shyly holding a three-inch thick book called English by Television. He asked me for help with his English. Up to this point, he hadn’t uttered one word in English and after he began to read, I understood why. The book inexplicably contained complicated paragraphs about Australia and Brazil—nothing like good, conversational English—and he couldn’t pronounce any of it, let along understand. He converted four syllable words into one. He pronounced the letter Z as an R. He told me his teacher taught him that way. Fortunately, before I had to actually deliver the bad news about his teacher’s expertise, Wang came by and excitedly called him away. Something had gone very wrong.

Sensing a story in the making, I followed Wang and Jiao up to a corner of the roof where a large water tank held water after being pumped up from a source unknown to me. Strangely, they hadn’t set up a way to ascertain the amount of water in the tank—unless it was empty. So, frequently during the pumping process, the tank would over-fill, water surging on to the roof until someone on the ground noticed a torrent cascading to the ground and ran to turn off the pump. On this occasion, however, Dave had noticed first because the water had leaked through the roof, into the 3rd floor ladies’ room and from there, into Dave’s room.
I heard Dave yelling out the window, “Outhouses in the USA are five times cleaner than the *#@!**#!@* bedrooms in this place!” Wang looked at me, perhaps for support, but in all honesty I couldn’t disagree. He left me in a huff. I stayed up there on the now drying roof, avoiding Dave’s tantrum and enjoying the great view of the countryside.

August 19
In the morning, when the boats went out, I stayed behind, electing to perch on the roof with my sketch pad. Wang stayed back also, ostensibly to work, but I heard him aimlessly chatting to the locals. When they asked why I wasn’t out on the boat he told them my stomach was sick. I’d learned Wang seemed to feel that foreigners would, and should have such a malady, and it served his purpose to lie, rather than saying I didn’t like their “research.”

This pissed me off so much I started for the stairs to set them straight, but just then Wang’s walkie-talkie went off with the news the boat team had finally sighted some porpoises! Wang asked if I wanted to go out and I eagerly said yes. A few hours passed before I finally got a glimpse of three porps, and I mean glimpse–a view of their backs for 3 seconds at a distance of two hundred feet. Did watching this count as the “research” we were supposed to be assisting with?

And so it went for a few more days until the announcement came we were going out on the main river to seek the Bai ji, the big porpoises we’d seen captive in Wuhan. And if time permitted, we’d get to visit their fish museum.

Now this sounded more like it. Oh, misguided me.
To be continued…
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~ by mickeyhoffman on May 5, 2011.

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