Hong Mei_India

Backpacking, Bollywood and Buddha: A Chinese Woman in India

A Q & A with the first Chinese woman to backpack across India

Though not universally popular, tourists from mainland China are now a fact of life, particularly in neighbouring countries. However, some of those who leave the once-hermetic country are looking for more than just luxury travel and selfies in front of scenic spots. Some can be classed as more than – or maybe even the opposite of – a tourist.

One such person is Hong Mei, author of “The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me,”  a book in which she recounts the experience of becoming the first Chinese woman known to have backpacked across India. Her adventures included appearing in a Bollywood film, staying in rat-infested hotels and getting kidnapped but what she mostly got out of the experience was India’s spirituality and how it put her own nakedly materialistic country to shame.

The Nanfang managed to catch up with her for a few questions. Here is what she had to say:

One of the first things you observed in India was the spirituality. What do you think has caused China to lose its spirituality? Was it the economic miracle or something earlier?

I think India’s religion was so profound to me because my generation (“post-80s”) of Chinese didn’t have any spirituality in our childhood. It was more important to have a television in our lives than have God. Buddhism and Daoism of course exists in today’s China, temples are everywhere, altars to gods in our storefronts and we pray to our ancestors on Tomb Sweeping Day. Yet nobody will say “I’m religious, I’m Buddhist.” Those beliefs are practiced in China out of tradition, not out of faith. The only faith that China has is in prosperity. Some people will argue that India’s moral crisis and corruption are worse than China’s, like that Shenzhen singer who says “The rich are all corrupt…China! China! At least it’s not India!” But I personally disagree, because at the end of the day at least corrupt, immoral Indian’s have gods to be accountable to.

Hong Mei cover_走得越远离自己越近正封_HIGH RES

As a member of the generation who is expected to strive to become a house slave (房奴), car slave (车奴) and baby slave (孩奴), has the relative lack of materialism in India changed your priorities?

India didn’t “change” my priorities, it validated them. I come from a small farming village where I was raised very humbly, so I like to think I’ve never been materialistic. I know it’s rare for a Chinese woman to say this (and mean it), but I don’t care about shopping or owning the latest gadgets. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for years, I don’t own any Apple products, I do my own housekeeping, I only use public transportation or walk. Maybe that’s why the backpacking life suited me, living out of my pack for a year, just some essential clothes and books. It’s not like I was a sadhu and renounced ALL my material possessions and stopped bathing. But most of the luxury things that the new generation of Chinese sell their souls for is just stuff nobody needs. Backpacking is not a lifestyle for everyone, certainly not the “house slave” generation. Most Chinese women my age cover their mouths in horror when I talk about my travels. But I hope the college-aged girls who do read my book will be inspired to go see the world before they become a house slave.

A passage about your encounters with Maoist rebel activity in Odisha has been censored from your book. Why do you think India’s Maoist movement has survived so long?

I can’t answer this with authority. I’m just a village girl with a backpack who unexpectedly got caught up in a Naxalite insurgency while traveling through Orissa. But I think the parallels and contradictions between India’s Maoists and China’s current Communist leadership are interesting. In the 1960s, Mao Zedong personally advocated that India’s lower castes and tribal people rise up against its upper class and ruling class. Ever since then, the Naxals have waged a violent guerilla people’s war for land rights and workers rights. The irony is that while the Communist Party of India is comprised of farmers, laborers and tribal people, China’s Communist Party are now turning against its peasants, confiscating land from farmers, and taking rights away from certain ethnic groups. My guide in Orissa didn’t want to take me into the southern jungles (where the Maoists are based) because there is a belief that Naxalites are secretly funded and trained by China’s government. I wrote about all these things in my book and it got censored, but I’ll put it back in for overseas translated versions.

You had to fly out of India four times while you were there due to visa restrictions, and the Indian embassy was suspicious of you returning to India so many times. Surely India would be desperate for the money that masses of Chinese tourists can bring. Could India be more welcoming of its neighbours?

China’s leaders see India as their economic inferior. The amount of trade and investment in India is very imbalanced. I think that’s called a trade deficit? And China considers India’s political model a failure, a reason to avoid democracy. India’s strict visa restrictions is just a direct response to this. But I don’t think it really matters to India because most Chinese tourists just go there for a week to take a picture in front of the Taj Mahal (and maybe carve their name into it), buy some brass trinkets, then go home. And in that short time the typical Chinese middle-class tourist will spend more money on hotels, food and transportation than I did in an entire year there! So actually, I’m the kind of traveler India doesn’t want.

What do your family think of all this traveling (including stays in rat-infested hotels) and writing?

My book was published last spring, but not even my mother and father have read it yet! India is such an alien culture to them, they can’t really get into that mindset. And I think that’s the typical reaction most Chinese have towards India: we think of it as some mythical land from Journey to the West. Maybe the recent news about Xi Jinping investing in India’s railway and Prime Minister Modi coming to Beijing this May will enlighten a new generation of Chinese about India. Maybe my book will play some small part in that too. But our elders don’t really have any need to be aware of India. So, no, my parents don’t know yet about the rats, or being in a Bollywood movie, or getting kidnapped and arrested in Mumbai.

You can pick up Hong Mei’s book on Amazon China.

Kevin McGeary

China hand, bawdy balladeer.