South of the Border (Part 2)

22 May

I set my phone’s alarm for 5:45 a.m., and muffled the device with a pillow so as not to disturb the French travelers. As if the wake-up time wasn’t unpleasant enough, I was roused repeatedly during the night by a subconscious anxious about sleeping through the alarm.

With tired eyes I slipped out of the hostel and into the low, early-morning sun. There were few clouds in the sky, and the slightly nippy breeze contained an crispness unfamiliar to Shanghai, or most of China. I wandered for a few minutes, soaking in the scenery and, more importantly, looking for a place to soak up some coffee. Cafes abounded: I counted at least five after two blocks, some with seating, some purely take-out. Each was independent, artisanal, with its own motif, and wouldn’t have been out of place in Williamsburg. At 6:30 a.m., unfortunately, a Family Mart convenience store was the only establishment with its lights on. I settled on a coffee-flavored milk carton and a packaged pastry.

From Family Mart I retraced the path I’d taken the previous night back to the subway. The morning rush hadn’t yet begun in earnest, but at the three stops between Hongdae and my destination, Samgakji station, the crowds boarding the train grew progressively larger.

A Korean co-worker, Jae, had told about his country’s extreme work ethic. He used to work at Samsung, until a month-and-a-half straight of 120-hour weeks provoked him to quit. Throughout my time in Korea many offhanded references were made to the insane hours workers logged, the same way an expat in China might mention the eternally inept service employees. Thousands upon thousands continue to toil under these conditions, though.

Why would anyone tolerate such an environment? The Samsung you think you know, a recognizable but not terribly exciting consumer electronics maker, comprises one of the Samsung conglomerate’s 83 companies. What began in 1938 as a grocery and noodle store grew through shrewd business decisions and cheap lines of credit implicitly backed by Korea’s former military dictatorship to account for 13% of South Korea’s exports, and in 2010 record $220.1 billion in revenues and employ 344,000 people.

In Korea, the Samsung brand is present in separate industries like retail, consumer electronics, shipbuilding, and insurance. It is in keeping with a strategy of making hefty bets on nascent industries believed to have high growth potential.

In 2000, Samsung Electronics began producing batteries for digital gadgets. In 2010 it sold more than any other company. In 2001, it invested in flatscreen televisions and four years later emerged the market leader. In 2002, it wagered on flash memory. In 2006 and 2010, respectively, the iPhone and iPad, were introduced. Both use flash memory. Samsung parts, in addition to memory, accounted for 16% of the iPhone 4’s retail value.

Today, the conglomerate is targeting five new industries – solar panels, LED lights, electric vehicle batteries, biotech drugs, and medical devices – it hopes will produce $50 billion in revenue by the year 2020.

To be a “company man” at an organization as monolithic and tentacular as Samsung (and to a lesser extent LG and Hyundai) is the aspiration of many Koreans, even at the expense of sleep and health. The status and salary accrued at such a job is quite beneficial, not least of all for marriage prospects, an especially weighty subject in Asian culture. My co-worker Jae, 37, is only half-joking when he says he came to China to find a bride, to satisfy his father.

When I exited Samgakji station the sun had risen a bit higher, and the adjacent five-way intersection thronged with cars. I began walking north, as my printed directions seemed to indicate, toward Camp Kim, a USO office and the DMZ tour rendezvous.

A week or two before arriving in Korea I researched a number of tours, all run by Korean companies. I settled on the one associated with the USO, supposing that the organization’s connection with US armed forces would allow for the most access.

My directional hunch was confirmed when I saw three Westerners one hundred feet ahead. Two minutes later I caught up to them (my international friends tell me I walk fast, I tell them I’m a New Yorker) and queried, “Are you going to the USO tour as well?”

“We are,” answered a middle-aged man who, it seemed, was traveling with his wife and daughter. I placed his accent as either Australian or Kiwi. An uncomfortable pause ensued. Should I make small talk? Should I speed-walk ahead?  I introduced myself to the daughter, who looked similar in age to me. Her name was Nicole, from New Zealand. She was teaching English in Korea, and her parents were visiting.

We compared our experiences living in China and Korea, and joked about the cuteness of elementary school-age Asian children. We reached the gate of Camp Kim just as all obvious subjects of conversation were exhausted.

The most distinguishing feature of Camp Kim was its roughly 10-foot walls topped with barbed wire. Everything else was forgettable: a parking lot, a warehouse-type building, and a reception center, the entrance to which a smattering of people milled about.

A few days prior, I had received an email from the tour company, Koridoor Tours, reminding me to bring my passport to be checked. I entered the center and found the back of the line. Also stipulated in the email were precise restrictions on clothing and footwear:

(I have a number of reactions to number 7, as I’m sure you do. Namely, the company should familiarize itself with recent fashion trends, which have thankfully left baggy pants to become a relic of the past [although, given nostalgia’s cyclical nature, we may not be safe forever]; and, at the risk of sounding supercilious, I can’t imagine that the type of people who continue to wear “gangster” clothing [be they earnest, or white, suburban poseurs] have the wherewithal or curiosity to live in Korea, let alone know what the DMZ is.)

When I first read the restrictions I was livid. Who do they think they are! This is an affront to my dignity! In abstract terms it’s a forgivable response. Unlike, say, onerous, Kafkaesque TSA “security” proscriptions (Why do you need to see me naked? To protect you from the terrorists. Which terrorists? All of them.), the DMZ dress code isn’t baseless exercise couched in bumper sticker logic.

The “think about how you are perceived and represent [insert organization]” cliche is pertinent. There is a tangible enemy within spitting distance, assumedly with lenses of multiple varieties trained on tour groups. The Koreas never signed a peace treaty and, as anachronistic as it seems, still engage in a psychological war.

A tourist wearing a Che Guevera shirt could find himself on a North Korean propaganda poster, proof that Western oppressors have revolutionaries in their midst. A shirt emblazoned with guns could be evidence of the predatory, tyrannical methods of said oppressors, and an immodestly dressed woman of moral turpitude, in contrast with the wholesome, all-North Korean mise en scene at right.

This is, alas, speculation, but if it inhibits the regime from augmenting its unreality, I’m glad to help.

When I neared the desk where passports were checked and payment was made, I stuck my head around the person in front of me to peer at the loud, entitled-sounding, not-as-obese-as-you’d-think American who had come into earshot. This woman was, of course, wearing sandals and a shirt that exposed her shoulders. When an employee asked her why she didn’t have close-toed shoes, she said something along the lines of, “I thought it would be OK.” Luckily for the woman, and less so for the rest of the group, Koridoor had shoes she could borrow. And she had brought a shawl to cover herself.

This sort of “ugly-Americanism” is to be expected when traveling, but I’ve rarely encountered it in China. Sure, there are young expats in China for dubious reasons: English teachers whose sole motivation is to fund their party habits, men seeking brides. But those come in all stripes. The culturally-ignorant variety exemplified by this woman is less common in Asia, I would theorize, because fewer people speak English and it is more foreign than Europe.

My passport checked and payment received, I was assigned to bus “B.” I glanced at a spreadsheet a staff member held. Name, citizenship, and bus assignment were listed. In the rightmost column, most people were identified as “civilian,” save a few Americans designated “military.”

I added to the larger group now milling about the entrance. To pass time I modified the usual people-watching routine I conduct in cafes, subways, airports… pretty much everywhere in China, this time attempting to identify the military personnel. Between the shaved heads, athletic sunglasses (as opposed to fashion glasses, like Wayfarers), and boots, it wasn’t a difficult game. I also overheard snippets of a conversation two men standing next to me were having about Army politics.

Around 7:30 a.m., a guide appeared in the doorway. “If you’re on bus ‘B’ follow me,” he said, motioning with his arm to the two coach buses idling in the lot.

If you’re still with me, well, thanks! This has become a more arduous endeavor than I initially envisioned, but one I’d like to see to completion. I’m leaving China tomorrow, and between the packing (50 lbs. maximum = bane of my existence), goodbyes (I practically had to be rolled out of the farewell feast my old host family threw for me, even though I skipped lunch in preparation) and everything else, I’ve been hard-pressed  to find writing time. The  14 hours of monasticism that is a Shanghai-Newark flight should be conducive to productivity, though. 


Hong Kong Impressions

15 May

I’ve been in Hong Kong since Friday, which has complicated the whole “expect ‘Part 2’ in a day or so” thing. I won’t be writing a full account of my time in Hong Kong – God knows when that would be completed – but here are a few anecdotes and observations based on what I’ve experienced so far:

  • Every day, the temperature has hovered around 90°F and the humidity hasn’t been lower than 60%. It was unbearable the first day, but I think I’ve begun to adapt.

    At my internship, a co-worker used to tell me I acted very Chinese – riding a bike to work, drinking lots of tea or hot water, eating steamed buns for breakfast – but there was one native habit I never accepted: showering at night. When I lived with my host family, I joked with them about how odd it was. Now I understand the logic. Why shower in the morning if you are going to sweat the whole day?

  • There are many Mainland Chinese tourists, and it’s easy to tell them apart from the Hong Kongers. Even without the linguistic difference – Mandarin vs. Cantonese – there are subtle differences in dress, comportment, and other intangibles. I can’t pinpoint what those distinctions are but, as Justice Potter Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” How we intuit different nationalities/cultures, even with ethnically similar people, is a fascinating subject, and also something of a Pandora’s Box. I’ve thought about it extensively, but I don’t want to be the one to open it. Thankfully, someone has already done the legwork. Check it out.
  • One reason for the cleanliness of the MTR is a ban on eating and drinking. I’ve been careful to observe those stipulations; the last person who didn’t, a Mainlander, caused an international incident.

    I now understand why Jay Walder, the transit guru who ran Transport for London and more recently the MTA, ditched New York for Hong Kong: the unions are seemingly less intransigent, there is no myopic state government to report to, there is no Second Ave. Subway, there are no Upper East Side residents complaining that Second Ave. Subway-related construction is having adverse health effects on their dogs (I kid you not). Oh, did I mention that the subway here, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), is clean, well-lit, efficient, modern, and air-conditioned, and that this was true even before Walder arrived? The neatest thing, I think, is the Octopus card. It’s like a Metrocard, only it has an RFID chip (no false swipes!) and can be used like debit card to purchase items at 7-Eleven and a few other stores.

  • In Hong Kong, the character of the city, an admittedly nebulous term, seems much better preserved than in Shanghai. How so? The neighborhoods here mesh well together. The area I’m staying in, Causeway Bay, has a mix of old buildings and new malls, but neither seems out of place. The malls are sleekly constructed with glass and steel, but aren’t tall or ostentatious, as is often the case in Shanghai. Land grabs by unscrupulous government officials in cahoots with greedy developers occur all over China, and Shanghai is no exception. In the past decade or two, Shanghai has lost a staggering number of old lane houses, replaced by nondescript high rises (“Blade Runner-esque” is a term I’ve heard thrown around before). Looking out across the city from a high perch, tall buildings are placed incongruously next to two- or three-story houses. In fairness, I haven’t seen enough of Hong Kong to know whether the same kind of incongruity exists here, and Shanghai is not nearly as developed as Hong Kong. But I hope the former sees the latter as a role model.
  • Hong Kong and Victoria Harbor, as seen from Victoria Peak.

    I arrived at my hostel on Friday afternoon at the same time as a French guy, Frederick, an engineering student studying abroad in Seoul, and a Korean girl whose name escapes me. Frederick and I were placed in the same room, which houses nine people in total. Last night, he invited me and three German friends, also students, to dinner. We ate at a Singaporean/Malaysian restaurant near the hostel. The dinner was pleasant and the Germans, Max, Dani, and Cecil, who actually studies in Shanghai, invited me to accompany them to Victoria Peak afterwards (Frederick opted not to join because he had an early flight back to Seoul this morning). We went to the top of the peak, then to a bar, where we watched the Manchester City-QPR soccer match. It was the kind of evening that a year ago I couldn’t have imagined happening.

    A corollary: Hong Kong is blanketed with free Wi-Fi networks. Everywhere we went, the Germans took out their smartphones and engaged, I don’t believe deliberately, in a tag-team effort to identify the free network; or if there was more than one, which was fastest. “Should I use [ABC]?” “No, [XYZ] is the network you want to use.” In the moment, I didn’t think much of it. Today, though, it struck me as an amusing, stereotypically-German thing to do.

South of the Border (Part 1)

9 May

It’s funny how similar the “Publish” and “Preview” buttons appear. I had been planning post a complete account of my trip to Korea. Now that it’s escaped, though, I’ll publish what’s been written so far. If you saw an earlier iteration, a few edits have been made and a few paragraphs have been added. Expect “Part 2” in a day or so.


A few weeks ago an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal describing the lengths some foreigners in China go to extend their visas. The “visa run,” as it is known among expats, has a number of variations. Those who need a new Chinese visa go to Hong Kong, where it can be procured in 24 hours. Others, like me, reside in China on a tourist visa that is valid for a year, but requires holders to exit the country before a set period of time (usually 60 or 90 days) elapses.
The subject of the Journal article, a 25-year-old American woman living in Beijing, who I would guess is an English teacher, chose to make a quick jaunt to Mongolia because it “seemed romantic.” How she conjured that notion about a dirt-poor border town where cab drivers attempt to extort visa runners is beyond me. But I wholly endorse the woman’s next planned visa run, a trip to South Korea.
With my 60 days soon to expire, I spent four days in Korea last week – why travel to a foreign country simply for a passport stamp? – and had a fabulous time. I left China last Thursday afternoon, going straight from my internship at a consumer research firm (which may or may not be the topic of a completely hypothetical future blog entry) to the airport.
I’ve learned many things in China, one of which is to pay attention to the small details, in all aspects of life, that reveal nuanced cultural logic. If you walk down any street in the U.S. you are wont, consciously or not, to establish eye contact with and smile at passersby. In China, all natives gaze down or blankly ahead – an attempt at eye contact or smiling will receive a bewildered look. When my family visited China a few weeks ago, they had trouble squaring the cold, indifferent behavior of passersby and the many stares we attracted riding the subway, with the warmth my former host family displayed when we had dinner at their house.

A physical manifestation of guanxi

The dichotomy makes sense once you understand the logic: Chinese society is all about guanxi (关系), pronounced “gwan shee,” a cliched term that translates imprecisely to “relationships.” Chinese are as friendly as any nationality to the people with whom there is guanxi; like an American family whose son lived with them for three-and-a-half months.

Sitting by the gate at Hongqiao airport in Shanghai, the seats surrounding me filled with Koreans as the departure time neared. Even if my fellow passengers hadn’t been speaking Korean, it wasn’t hard to differentiate them from from the few Chinese who dotted the crowd. The Koreans talked quieter, generally had paler faces, and dressed differently from the Chinese – which is to say, better. (I could hold forth on this particular subject for hours, but I’ll just direct you here).
The flight wasn’t especially notable. Korean Air felt it necessary to assign a 10-seat wide Boeing 747 to the route and, consequently, the plane was less than half-full; the food was above-average; each seat had a screen.
There was one small detail that caught my eye, though: the customs declaration form was designed better than any I’ve ever seen.

The Korean customs declaration form comes pre-folded to fit perfectly within a passport.

I say this with complete sincerity. A bureaucrat cloistered in the bowels of a drab Korean government building put serious thought into designing a form that snugly fits the exact dimensions of a passport, except for a small pull-tab that hangs off the side for easy removal, and he deserves recognition.Perhaps it means nothing, but I’m inclined to believe that small details are relevant.
I arrived in Seoul around 9 p.m. As the plane taxied to the gate, I was relieved that no one hastily unbuckled his seatbelt to heave possessions from the overhead bins. That is the norm on flights to and within China, and it is utter chaos; yet the chaos is codified by an ethos that pervades Chinese culture: there are two sets of rules – those written and those obeyed. International law says passengers cannot leave their seats until the plane has come to a complete stop and the fasten-seatbelt sign is off. Chinese instinct says “every man for himself, me-first.”
At passport control I stood behind three people in the foreigners’ line who all appeared to be businessmen. Everyone else was Korean. I exchanged currency at a booth outside baggage claim, then descended into a tunnel connected to the subway which would ferry me toward my lodging, the Yellow Submarine Guest House.
Like many of the hostels I considered booking, this one was located in Hongdae (홍대), an area surrounding Hongik University. All guides and articles I read described the area with adjectives like “hip,” “creative,” “indie,” and remarked on the influence of Hongik’s reputed School of Fine Arts and Design. Not knowing what to expect, I exited the subway station into the Seoul night.
The first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. In Shanghai, drivers honk, people yell, and fireworks are set off – most recently on May Day – at all hours. Growing up in the suburbs, it’s easy to take the tranquility for granted. When I returned home in the winter, I was uncomfortable the first few nights with how eerily silent everything was.
Mind you, subdued noise emanated from a few passing cars and mopeds as I walked down a one-way street separated from oncoming traffic by a grassy median. But the sounds weren’t overwhelming, and neither was the cityscape. There is a mix of buildings in Hongdae. The new ones, nondescript, top out around 15 stories. The old ones, most constructed from dark red brick, are not taller than five stories, and form a tight, largely self-contained grid.
I could perceive that much around 10 p.m.  Further observations would have to wait until the next morning, which was almost as near as the hostel I could now see. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to catch a tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Simon, the goateed Korean in his late-20s or early 30s who ran hostel, checked me in. He gave me a tour of the refurbished three-story house, then guided me to a six-person dorm on the second floor where I would be sleeping. I exchanged pleasantries with the two French tourists staying in my room, quickly edited a Powerpoint presentation that hadn’t been completed at work, then bid goodnight.

“Like it or not just in to gym”

16 Nov

If I haven’t been blogging, you may wonder, what have I been doing? Among other things, I joined a gym. I figured it would be more productive than sitting in front of a computer, and a good way to burn off the few pounds that anyone living with a Chinese family gains.

At every opportunity, at every meal we eat together, my host mom does her best to force-feed me. She insists that I eat more – soup, fish, dumplings, chi haiyou! The first week, I obliged, if only to establish that I enjoyed her cooking.

“Why are you eating so little?” she asked during the second or third week, by which time I’d reduced my daily intake. “It’s too much food,” I replied.

The next day, I faced another, seemingly unrelated, question: “Are your parents tall or short?” I said, “They’re about the same height as me.” “You know,” my host mom responded, in her earnest, motherly manner, “if you eat a lot, you will grow taller. Look at Dawei,” – my host brother, whose height is, unscientifically, above average for a Chinese person – “he ate a lot and now he is very tall.”

I was amused by her logic, though I understand why, in a society ravaged not too long ago by deprivation and malnutrition, the thesis would seem sensible, so I feigned assent. “Okay, whatever you say.” Also, “DNA” was never one of my vocabulary words.

When I first heard about the gym from my program director, I was skeptical. How big is the gym, does it have a locker room, are foreigners allowed to join? The last point prompted the most uncertainty because the on-campus gym prohibits non-Chinese students from using its facilities.

My questions and fears were largely answered and assuaged by Kate, another gap year student and gym member. A month ago I bought a two-month membership for 600 RMB, about $90 USD.

Healthy Star Fitness Center, as it is called in English, is a 10 minute bike ride from my apartment. It occupies the fourth floor of a small shopping center where forgettable Chinese ballads are played, across the street from a Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut.

An area of perhaps 2000 square feet is devoted to treadmills, ellipticals, free weights, and a variety of weight machines. Equinox it is not, but for a country where the cult of fitness is nascent, it is adequate.

I’ve never belonged to a gym in America, but I can say with relative certainty that the idiosyncrasies at “Healthy Star” are unique to Chinese gym culture. Here’s my typical routine, what I consider a benchmark of balance and normality: I first spend half an hour doing cardiovascular work on the treadmill; the next half hour I lift weights; then I spend 15 minutes on core workouts and stretching.

Of the Chinese members – that is, everyone else – I’ve noticed two distinct groups: the “cardio crowd,” composed of equal parts women, pot-bellied old men, and fit men; and the “Schwarzeneggers,” Chinese men full of machismo who treat this middling club like their own Gold’s Gym, which is, in a sense, fortunate because I don’t know how tolerant the real Gold’s Gym and its patrons would be of my companions’ tendencies.

Evidently, everyone is a VIP at 健之星健身中心 (Healthy Star Fitness Center)

One of the trainers, an amiable man named Steven (not his actual name, I presume), is a fluent English speaker. We chat for a few minutes each time I’m at the gym, and on occasion he’ll speak very candidly with me, I think because he doesn’t feel comfortable doing so with other Chinese. Once, Steven asked if I thought “Healthy Star was a good gym.

I’m always perplexed by questions asked by Chinese people (often in English) that require me to pass judgment on something. It is never clear whether I’m expected to answer honestly, as a foreigner unconstrained by the Chinese notion of “saving face,” or to answer falsely, doling out affirmation in the same way a Westerner hired to attend a factory opening is perceived to add prestige.

“Uh…” I stammered for a few seconds, trying to answer delicately. “It’s not ba… er… pretty good?” “Really?” he replied, “I don’t think it’s so good.” I tried to equivocate, to exchange the native’s hat for the foreigner’s: “I mean, compared to other gyms in China…”

A different time, Steven commented on my expertise using the weight machines. “It was required for gym class, so I had to learn,” I informed him. He was surprised, and impressed too, I think. “When new people come in,” he told me, “most of them have no idea what they’re doing. I have to show them how so they don’t get hurt.”

It came as no shock to me that so few people have prior gym experience. In my eyes, it’s a forgivable offense – Chinese high schools are notoriously spartan, focused solely on preparing students for the gao kao, or “high test,” essentially the SAT on steroids. Only in the past decade or two has a “fitness revolution” begun to take hold. The trouble is the nuisances a lack of experience engenders.

Between Monday and Friday, I go to the gym three or four times, often in the evening. Inevitably, I encounter some of the same people. Even when faces escape me, certain behaviors are all to familiar.

A few other people and I care to carry around sweat towels. But, curiously, I’m the only one who wipes off a machine after use. It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine’s crush (George’s latest nemesis) leaves a piece of equipment coated with sweat – only a thousand times worse. (No word on whether, like George, anyone urinates in the shower).

Plus, George and Elaine never had to contend with people who annex machines – and, other than treadmills, there is just one of each kind – for 30 minutes at a time, performing 10 reps every five minutes while playing games on smartphones during each interlude.

Then there are the roving bands of “Schwarzeneggers,” in their twenties and thirties who treat the gym primarily as a social engagement. When not ogling themselves in the mirror, four or five sit idly on adjacent machines, watching one friend lift weights. A dirty look is required to free up a place.

The situation in the locker room could stand to be improved too. Smokers are everywhere in China – when a pack of cigarettes costs less than a pack of gum, why not? – but the gym was the one place I thought I might find a reprieve. Alas, many members fail to perceive that contradictory nature of smoking after exercise. Inhalation of second hand smoke, the story of my life in China, continues unabated.

All the antipathy I harbor doesn’t go to waste, though. When fatigue sets in, the motivation I derive from it works wonders. And at the end of a workout, when I’m trying to chill out, there is an abundance of characters whose more benign mannerisms I can cull laughs from.

One of my favorites is the lanky guy with the body of a prepubescent boy. Inexplicably, he wears muscle shirts that accentuate his lack thereof. His favorite exercise is playing games on his phone.

I feel like I should tell him that his second favorite exercise – attacking a punching bag like a banshee, arms and legs flailing violently – probably won’t help him gain muscle mass, and, in general, makes him look like a fool. But I won’t, because it’s simply too entertaining.

Another hero of mine (a legend, really, since I’ve only seen him once) is the man who wears a green camouflage-patterned spandex onesie that ends mid-thigh. He tops a list of fashion faux pas that includes the multiple people who wear street clothes while exercising.

Absurdity also reigns in the locker room. On my first day, I walked in and nearly burst out laughing. Two men, unclothed and fresh from the shower, stood in front of a mirror using a blow dryer to dry themselves off; to dry everything off. This, I have since learned, not an isolated practice.

The Chinese, God knows why, have an aversion to normal, Western-sized bath towels. At both my current home-stay and one the previous summer, I was provided with towels no larger than two-thirds the size and half the thickness of my bath towel at home in America. Needless to say, I dry it off more than it does me.

Out of habit, and perhaps a sense of decency, I still use a towel, but my companions are constrained by no such conventions. Let’s just say it can get a tad awkward; not just because of the towels: I’m the only Westerner, and certainly the only Jew.

“Healthy Star” has been a peculiar, if memorable, experience but, when my membership lapses in a month, I think I’ll seek out a more upscale club, one that attracts more expats. One that enforces a few more rules.

Seeking a lost horizon

1 Oct

Today marks one month since I arrived in China. Weird. It feels like so much more time has passed.

Ramen selection, the most important travel preparation

Today also marks my departure for Tibet. I’ll be roughing it, traveling 52 hours by train from Shanghai to Lhasa. My accommodations are hard sleeper, which means I have one (somewhat comfortable) bed in a column of three. I expect it will be, if not fun, a very interesting ride.

This is one of two “Golden Weeks” on the calendar when almost all Chinese have time off. Tens of millions of migrants who work during the year in factories on China’s east coast return home to the western provinces. For those who left children behind, to be raised by grandparents, this is one of the few opportunities they have for family time.

Looking at the Shanghai-Lhasa route, there will certainly be migrants on the train. If they can take seriously a Caucasian who speaks Chinese, it would be fascinating to talk with them. More on that (and more) when I return…

The family congregates…

22 Sep

Two Saturdays ago, around 8:30 in the morning, I was roused from sleep by what sounded like gunshots. What the hell is going on, I half-consciously thought, and couldn’t it have waited a few hours? I stumbled over to the window, hoping for some extraordinary sight – carnage, a police standoff? – to justify being awoken at such an ungodly hour. All I saw was a group of Chinese people massed a few feet from fizzled-out firecrackers. What is wrong with these people? The Chinese New Year isn’t until January!

It wasn’t the Chinese New Year but, in fact, a different holiday: 中秋节 (Zhongqiujie), the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is celebrated annually on the autumnal equinox, when the moon is at its fullest. The holiday’s closest American analogue is Thanksgiving, in that both were originally harvest festivals and are now occasions for large family gatherings. This year, the festival fell on a Monday (Sept. 12), gifting me and 1.3 billion other souls a three-day weekend.

Other students in my program celebrated with their host families on Monday evening, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, my host family had its pow-wow at lunch on Sunday. And what an affair it was…

I had been video chatting with my American family for 40 minutes when, around 11:10 am, my host father called out, “Luo Yi Fan, zhunbei haole ma?” “Evan, are you ready to go?” The door muffled his voice, but not its aura of urgency. “Xianzai? Keyi xian xizao ma?” I replied. “Right now? Can I take a shower first?” The answer was no. I threw on a collared shirt and jeans, then hustled out to the curb, where a taxi was idling.

I hadn’t expected to be in such a hurry. The previous day, my host mother told me we would leave at noon. Evidently, “arrive” and “leave” were confused in translation.

A few minutes before 12 o’clock, we pulled up to a nondescript, gray stone building in an area of Shanghai I didn’t recognize. I was unimpressed, fleetingly unaware that the structure’s ugly exterior belied its opulent interior. As soon as I stepped inside, I started laughing. Over-the-top would not begin to describe how outrageously decorated this restaurant, Dynasty Food and Drink Chain Business, was.

The palatial "Dynasty Food and Drink Chain Business"

Every flat surface was marble, wood, or gold-encrusted. Mirrors lined ample areas of all walls, which was a nice touch, but frankly unnecessary. Every square inch – floor, ceiling, left, right – was so well polished that I could see my reflection at all times. As we (my host parents and I) wound a labyrinthine path to our personal lunch room – there was no grand dining hall, only individual spaces for large families – some walls appeared to have been constructed from large, immaculate, white marble bricks. Just below the ceiling ran intricately detailed gold friezes, which housed lights that cast a yellow-orange tint, as if to accentuate the excessive amount of gold. It was clear that this unabashedly flamboyant establishment catered to China’s emerging middle class, the relative nouveau riche.

We found the dining room empty, but three more people – my host-aunt, uncle and cousin – arrived a few minutes later. My “cousin” introduced himself as Wilson and we got to chatting. I learned that he was 20 years old, which surprised me, because, having no facial hair, I could have sworn he was 15. He asked me, in Chinese, how many times I had been to China, where I had been, all the standard “getting to know you” questions. The oft-rehearsed answers rolled off my tongue as if I were a fluent speaker.

Wilson and me

After five minutes of small talk, Wilson beckoned for me to follow him. We walked 50 feet, then sat alone in a room whose purpose was ambiguous. Wilson took out a pack of cigarettes, offered me one (I refused), then lit up. “My mother doesn’t like it when I smoke,” he told me. An awkward silence ensued… He spoke first: “Ni chou dama ma?”

大麻… dama… what is dama? I frantically trawled the depths of my brain, searching for the word’s meaning. Oh, it’s marijuana! MARIJUANA?! He was asking, “Have you smoked weed?” Before I could reply, Wilson added, “I really want to try it, just once. Does it feel nice?”
I stammered, weighing how I should respond. “Umm… Uhh…” His eyes telegraphed a want for answers. “Who’s that?” I deflected, pointing out the door to a Caucasian man and an Asian woman walking toward our dining room. “Oh, he’s from Belguim. He’s married to my aunt. We should go back now.” Continue reading

A finger on the pulse of Chinese society

21 Sep

Sorry about the recent lapse in blog posts. I’ve been busy with life, the Internet at my home stay hasn’t been working recently, and I’ve been organizing a trip to Tibet, for which I leave in a few weeks. Without further ado:

To gain insight on current events in China, there are select blogs and news sites I’ve made a habit of returning to. James Fallows of The Atlantic and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, whose sites are listed in the “blogroll” at right, always offer superb analysis. The China Beat, full of dispatches from both Western and Chinese academics, is another excellent resource, so much so that it is inaccessible in China without a proxy or VPN. I extract a plethora of knowledge from these sites, yet one could accuse the authors of writing from an ivory tower. Their interviewees are not always “people on the street,” or your “average Joe.” The subjects are more often professors, dissidents, artists: people in the public eye.

That is why I like to supplement my “hard news” media diet with pages like Chinasmack, which translates memes and trending topics from the Chinese equivalents of Facebook and Twitter. Stories that are slow to take hold in Western media, and off-limits to mainland Chinese media, are heatedly discussed on social networks. This summer, for example, a Communist Party press secretary’s tone deaf response to the horrific crash on the Beijing-Shanghai high speed train line became an instant classic thanks to “netizens” who mocked and repeated his words. Two weeks after reading about the press secretary online, an article appeared in The New York Times.

Chinasmack and other sites are like a fingers on the pulse of Chinese society. They offer an unrivaled “on-the-ground” perspective. One translation that recently caught my eye, while not especially controversial, was a magazine piece that profiled the African expat community in Guangzhou, one of three major cities (along with Hong Kong and Shenzhen) in the Pearl River Delta

The presence of Chinese soft power in Africa, through investment, is well documented (and worrying for the United States), but I had never before come across the inverse of that story – African merchants in China – and I doubt I’ll be reading about it in Western media any time soon. Enjoy this excerpt and please continue on to the full, if imperfectly translated, story:

As Chinese companies have entered Africa to find resources, African businessmen have also come to China, “the world’s factory”. Businessmen ship cheap goods to Africa, where 50 far-away African countries quickly consume these daily consumables that can’t be produced in their own countries. At the end of the 90s in the 20th century, the first batch of Africans came to Guangzhou, their first stop being Canaan clothing market [Clothes Trading Center]. Now, however, with Canaan clothing market as the center, many goods for export markets have sprung up in the surrounding one kilometer area. The people of Guangzhou have gradually come to call this area “Chocolate City”.