The Chinese and the Pacific

I didn’t expect to meet so many Chinese people on a trip through the Pacific islands, but they were on every island, in a very important way. The Chinese run most of the little corner shops, convenience stores and super markets, and sometimes all of the restaurants too. In the midst of a Mormon revolution and conservative bible belt, they are the ones who will work on Sundays and stay open late, sometimes even 24 hours, selling beer and the largest assortment of canned tuna. They import goods from China by the boat loads, and sometimes these goods are the only goods available to buy on an island. Food, drinks, clothes, car parts, furniture, and kids toys are all Made in China, and they sell like hot cakes every time there’s a new shipment in. Every island I’ve been to had a Chinese restaurant, sometimes it was the only restaurant, and sometimes there was a dozen, all with names like Fortune Star or Lucky Dragon. They served the cheapest and most generous portions of rice or noddle dishes, but the pork never quite tasted like pork and the chicken rarely had more meat than skin on it.

I always thought I’d chose Russian or Arabic as the next, most-useful language I should learn, but now I’m convinced its Mandarin. The Chinese who live and work these islands always learn the local language, in whatever dialect they speak, and that’s it, so no white-girl English. It’s funny to speak pigeon to a soft-spoken, pale, little shopkeeper, but if you don’t know Mandarin or Samoan or Tongan, then you just had to rely on body language and face gestures.

By the time I reached Micronesia, the Chinese population had grown, since tourists and business men started to grow exponentially. Palau is to mainland China what Mexico is to the rest of North America, a cheap and tropical little play land for the hard working to go and chillax. I happened to be in Palau for Chinese New Year, so there were literally thousands of them, filling every hotel and tour the island had to offer. Right after I went to Saipan, which and has successfully marketed car rentals (mostly Hummers and Mustang convertibles) as a tourist trap for teeny little Chinese and Japanese drivers that have rarely driven anything bigger than a Yaris.

boatloads of Chinese tourists empty out at the Milky Way in Palau's Rock Islands

boatloads of Chinese tourists empty out at the Milky Way in Palau’s Rock Islands

After coming to mainland China on my way back home, I decided I like Chinese locals much more than Chinese tourists. The worst experience I had with them was trying to snorkel around the Rock Islands and the famous Jelly fish lake – imagine a hundred black-haired people in leotard unisuits and life jackets flailing around in a sea they don’t know how to swim in, but meanwhile trying to look at all the pretty fishies through their awkwardly fitting snorkel masks, and every once in a while trying to adjust their snorkels while standing up on some super fragile coral or trying their best to pull out some clam shells or pick up some stingerless jellyfish to take home. There’s something about personal space they don’t respect above ground either (I’ve often been walked through by groups of Chinese tourists), but underwater (especially when I don’t have a life jacket) is a bit more dangerous, and I definitely choked on a few mouthfuls of seawater as floating Chinese kids thrashed into me or over me.

The best experience I’ve had with the Chinese was thanks to China Southern Airline. First of all, I was able to book a last-minute one-way ticket from Taipei to London for less than 500 euros, which is 2 flights connecting in Guangzhou, China. Upon checking in, I was informed I had a Premium Economy ticket, which would rival most other airlines first class cabins. I had a big comfy reclining seat with a foot rest and extra leg and arm room, a meal with wine, and free entertainment, just on the short 2 hour hop between Taipei and Gangzhou. I was expecting a shitty 16 hour overnight layover in the airport (which made sense since the ticket was so cheap), but then China Southern offers a complimentary hotel stay for connections over 8 hours. I’m not talking about a flight delay, but simply a layover entitles me to a 45 min shuttle to a beautiful hotel, where I was given a 3 bedroom suite, free breakfast, and a transfer back to the hotel, all for free. I literally couldn’t believe it, and thought it was some sort of scam and I’d have to pay later, but after drinking some Chinese tea while soaking in a bubble bath, I jumped for joy onto my queen sized bed, but realized a little too late that the bed was rock hard.

Its hard to imagine the pacific without the Chinese, but I did try. Maybe it would mean less industrialized islands with more self-sufficiency, not depending on shipments or trade… or maybe their seas wouldn’t be as exploited by the harvest of nearly everything edible (including coral). Or maybe the islands would have long gone under, tired of living with such limited resources and simple diets. Or maybe the Australians, Kiwis and Americans would have just filled the gaps instead… who knows. All I can say for sure is the Pacific economy would be totally different without the Chinese, and I wouldn’t have eaten nearly as well without them during my trip.

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