A Chinese woman I met the other day has fallen in love with London. Why?
Because ‘it’s so crappy and dirty, the streets are narrow and you see old buildings all around. It reminds me of Beijing in the 1980s. Nowadays you can’t find anything like this in Beijing, it’s all modernity and skyscrapers.’
I was amused by her comments – but not entirely surprised. They brought back vivid memories of my tour of California with three Sichuanese chefs, who were looking for the American Dream and bitterly disappointed by the reality of modern America.
The tables are really turning. Westerners go to Shanghai to ride on the Maglev train at 400km an hour and to drink cocktails at the top of the Hyatt. Chinese people come to Europe for a glimpse of primitive, olde worlde charm!
Here is the text of the piece I wrote in 2004 for the BBC programme From Our Own Correspondent, about that US road trip with the chefs. (It’s no longer on the BBC website)
These days, China is one of the world’s hottest travel destinations. Travellers go there from the West for a glimpse of an exotic ancient culture, made recently fashionable by kung fu films. Or they go to see a nation shedding its communist past and modernising at break-neck speed. But what’s it like for Chinese tourists visiting the West for the first time? Fuchsia Dunlop found out when she accompanied three Chinese chefs on a sightseeing tour of California.
Since my companions don’t speak any English, we talk only in Chinese. And as always with speaking another language, it’s not only my words that are becoming foreign. As we drive through the sun-dappled landscape of the Napa Valley, I find myself looking at America through Chinese eyes. One of the chefs compares the hills, shrouded in early-morning mist, with the romantic Qingcheng Mountains in Sichuan. The view of San Francisco across the Bay from Sauselito reminds him of the skyscape of Hong Kong. And the city’s steep hills evoke the sloping roads of Chongqing, Sichuan’s Mountain City.
In San Francisco, we stumble upon a Remembrance Day Service in the Grace Cathedral. None of the chefs has been inside a Christian church before. Incense drifts over a hushed crowd of worshippers; pipers in full Scottish regalia play mournful tunes. And finally, a cloud of paper poppies falls from the ceiling, shimmering down like blood-red snow. Because I’m with my Chinese friends, I notice the eerie beauty of the service, and I’m taken back in an instant to my own first visit to a Chinese temple, when the strange gilded statues and coiled incense brought me out in goosepimples.
I quickly notice a cultural gulf between our aims in sightseeing. I gravitate towards the historic temples of San Francisco’s Chinatown, to narrow streets and small cafes. The chefs want to see skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls. So instead of relaxing in the Bohemian neighbourhoods of San Francisco, I end up taking them to Los Angeles and driving them around the mansions of Beverly Hills and the swanky designer boutiques of Rodeo Drive.
They even persuade me to take them to Disneyland, where we ride the rollercoasters, buy souvenirs and take hundreds of photographs. And as I pose for a picture outside Mickey Mouse’s House, it strikes me that this must be some kind of karmic retribution. For years I’ve been dragging bemused Chinese friends round picturesque teahouses which to them are miserable hovels, and backstreets that I find charming but they think should be demolished immediately. And here I am, to my surprise, paying homage at the temples of Western consumerism and the American Dream.
On our last day together, the chefs want to buy some gifts, so we go to a famous department store. But as we stroll around, our quest takes a desperately comic turn. Everything we pick up – leather wallets, fashion accessories, beauty products – turns out to be made in China. We literally can’t find anything that is locally produced. ‘And it’ll look really stupid,’ says one of the chefs, ‘if my friends notice their gifts are Chinese after all.’ In the end, we leave without buying anything.
As the days go by, I realise that the chefs’ have a travel plan that is more alien to me than I’d thought. Because they are just not interested in exploring American history and culture, and they don’t want to see spectacular scenery – they’ve got plenty of that at home. What they do want is to see how America measures up to the American Dream. They’re all familiar with the stereotype of America as the richest and most advanced nation in the world, its lifestyle as the holy grail of development. And they want to see it in all its brilliant modernity, to understand how far China has to go to catch up, and whether the struggle will be worth it.
Given their high expectations, it’s not surprising they are disappointed. Even lovely San Francisco doesn’t fit the bill. ‘If that’s going to be the end result of China’s development,’ says one, ‘Then I’m really in despair.’ The extravagant mansions and leafy avenues of Beverley Hills are more promising – ‘this is what we should be aiming for’, says one of the chefs. But perhaps it’s a shock that the gilded life of the Hollywood elite is such a tiny part of what we actually see. The rest is simply ordinary: people going about their lives, vagrants begging on the streets, cheap consumer goods.
The American Dream is a myth which has not lost its potency in China. But China itself now has gleaming skyscrapers, luxurious apartments, private cars and designer clothes aplenty for those who can afford them. It takes more than that, these days, to impress a middle-class Chinese tourist. And ironically, considering the tough scrutiny given to their visa applications, after a couple of weeks my companions can’t wait to get home.
When I’ve seen them off at the airport, I meet up with a friend in Los Angeles. We laze around on Venice Beach, eating ice cream and chatting. And since I’m not comparing the experience with anything, it feels like pure joy, what with the blazing sunshine, the fine Italian ice cream, and the gentle rush of the Pacific on the sand. And I have to admit that contrary to all my expectations, I’m enjoying California more as an English than as a Chinese tourist.
N.B. The photograph above was taken by the travel photographer Ian Cumming. He’s an old friend of mine, and we travelled together to Xinjiang in 2002 – where he got roped into the search for a whole tandoor-roasted camel that I describe in my Shark’s Fin book, and various other food-related activities. Our trip led to a collaboration on an article on Xinjiang food that appeared in the Observer Food Monthly. Unfortunately you can’t see Ian’s amazing photos of the trip on the Guardian/Observer website…