Vacation to China
Eve and Kevin were hankering for an adventure. We wanted to do something to celebrate Kevin's graduation from college. I suggested a long weekend in San Diego. They quickly nixed that and a week later I got a text message saying they had decided we were going to China in three weeks. While not my first (or second) choice, I threw myself into the adventure by reading and learning about this big red machine.
Here are some notes from our trip.
We had guides in every city whose language skills were mixed but always had something to teach us. Most interactions felt like we were getting a progressive take on life today in China although it was clear that in many cases we were fed the "company" line with data in direct conflict to our readings.
International travel today begins with getting cash. I've
relied for years on my trusty BofA ATM card. Despite advising the bank in
advance, the card refused to initially work and ultimately only dribbled out
the equivalent of $50 a day. Meanwhile BofA was calling me to ask if
these were legitimate withdrawals but I wasn't home to answer their calls.
Finally, a day later they sent an email that allowed me to acknowledge the legitimacy of
the withdrawals. I was starting to get worried because we could not survive
on $50 a day. When I asked for the equivalent to $400 I was excited to hear
the machine counting out 25 one hundred note Yuan bills. I grabbed the money
and my receipt thrilled to have the freedom that cash in the pocket
Unlike the US machines where the card is returned before the transaction truly begins, in China there are two extra steps that have to be taken to get your card back. In my excitement I failed to do so getting distracted by the cash. When I returned to the bank it had already closed. I banged on the window and used my Google Translate App to write "I lost my ATM card, please help me." The guard took pity on me, but the manager told me it was impossible to help me tonight. I was pitiful and to his credit he made an exception. When I heard someone on his team say a long Mandarin sentence with the term "Bank of America" in it, I knew they had my card. "Do you know your number?" he asked me. "Uh, no." But how many Bank of America cards could they have?. I produced my passport where the name matched the card. I successfully entered my private code and yet it still took three people 35 minutes to produce the required paperwork I would have to sign in order to return my ATM card in my pocket.
We saw Chinese girls throughout our journey in Beijing wearing t-shirts that in large letters said I [HEART] BJ.
I know of two definitions for BJ one was the name of our first Golden Retriever and the other is a sex act that I might not choose to broadcast on clothing if I were a teenage girl. But I kept seeing this shirt wondering if China had a huge sex worker trade and this was how people advertised for clients. It wasn't until we reached Shanghai at the end of our trip and saw girls wearing the same design that said I [HEART] SH that we concluded that SH stood for Shanghai and BJ must have stood for Beijing.
We read a statistic that China has used more cement in the last 3 years than the United States has used in the last century. That statistic didn't seem possible until we saw hundreds and hundreds of buildings under construction...typically clusters of twenty 30 story apartment buildings. While there were plenty of people in China, we were struck by just how many seemingly finished but completely empty buildings littered the landscape over hundreds and hundreds of miles. We were told that every single one had been sold, and since the Chinese have few investment opportunities owning an empty apartment was generally seen as the best investment. "We add a million people every month and they all need a place to live" one guide said confidently. But in a society where they are allowed a maximum of two children per couple their population can't keep growing at that rate (and it hasn't). She countered that divorce was now more popular and parents no longer wanted to live with their children as a way to justify the increase in housing supply. Somehow I still think I'm missing something.
I know smog. I grew up in LA. I've even defended the LA area at times retelling the story that LA is known for its haze which was apparent in the time of the first settlers to Los Angeles long before cars. Our phone's weather app said that we were experiencing "fog." As a Bay Area resident I know fog. China's air is not fog, it's not haze and it's worse than any smog I've ever seen. The best example I can give you is that most color is lost with any object more than 50 feet away. Objects over 300 feet away looked like little more than a gray silhouette. And when we drove by what looked like a mini three-mile island facility, before we even asked, our guide told us that this was one of three coal burning power plants around the city. This plant was just miles from the city center. Made me curious about where we keep our power plants.
At first we were horrified to learn that virtually none of our apps worked. Google is banned, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many news sites all blocked. It was more than an inconvenience but all told it was good to have a break from the internet.
Water became a constant requirement. One of our very nice hotels advised us not to drink the water and ALL of our guides advised against it. We kept the bottled water close by at all times while the natives clung to their tea which in theory had the yuck boiled out of it.
There were plenty of good meals some where we had help with the menu but the best meals came when we had to struggle a bit with the language. There was the "hot pot" restaurant where we weren't quite sure if we ordered right and then when presented with a milky bubbling pot of soup, we weren't sure if we were cooking things right. We got lots of help at every turn and lots of sympathy from the staff. Maybe the most memorable meal came after rejecting half a dozen restaurants we walked by and rejected without setting foot in the restaurant. As hour drew late and we were getting hungry and a little desperate we walked down what looked like a side street and stumbled across an outdoor restaurant that was literally on the sidewalk and in the street. The food was all laid out on a table and being able to point to the food reduced much of the uncertainty. After some mooing and some oinking and a bit of clucking we were able to communicate our desires and this family endeavor probably produced the best noodles we had on the trip.
Silk made China famous. It's still one of the great gifts of nature in my book. Loved watching it being made and loved even more what a good job the Chinese did at keeping their manufacturing process a secret for hundreds of years.
In China historically the government was run by eunuchs. It's the only way the emperor felt safe having other men around his women. Got me to thinking about how well our country would be run today if....
We saw lots of happy seniors who regularly visit the parks, gather to play games, to smoke, to gossip and socialize. They looked like they were having much more fun than any senior center that I've visited. A subset of these seniors were more serious. There were about 50 or so who placed carefully written pieces of paper along to ground advertising the qualifications of their sons and daughters in an effort to find a marriage match. The marriage-age people we asked about this practice laughed it off as not a serious effort, but there were too many people to deny that this is a thing.
China today is a "me first" society. The "for the good of the people" philosophy seems to be supplemented with "as long as I get mine first." Maybe that's the Chinese version of capitalism. We saw it in many places. I wanted to take a picture of the emperor's thrown in the forbidden city, but to get to the front of the line required elbowing, pushing, edging. It was very much a physical contact game. I loved playing the game and found that I was a natural at getting to the front. But the same game is also played in cars. A red light, apparently, is merely a recommendation. A red light plus pedestrians in the crosswalk is merely a challenge to punch the car through a gap in the people. The Chinese approach of lane merging strategy would be enough to get shot at in the United States. Traffic was the worse we have ever seen and driving was scary. What we couldn't figure out was that when the traffic actually cleared (rare), the drivers never went even 1 kilometer above the speed limit.
The bullet trains were amazingly fun and efficient. We loved rocketing through the countryside at 180 MPG and traveling the equivalent of San Francisco to Phoenix in under 4 hours. The train is quiet with a gentle rocking that certainly makes train travel easier than plane travel and with a much better view. And while we all had assigned seats the line up in the station prior to boarding was another exercise in "me first." By this time we knew the game and secured a location near the entrance. We paid close attention to the sign board (since we couldn't understand the announcements) and when it was time to board we were ready. Eve and I were standing a few inches apart and we left a reasonable "personable bubble" distance between us and the person ahead of us. Once the gates were open, however, all available space was filled by a crush of passengers. Despite moving little more than 15 feet to the ticket taker, Eve and I were separated by 10 people who had pushed their way in between.
While our white faces were part of a incredibly small minority on the streets of China, 80% of the billboards and advertisements we saw were of white faces. I saw many people trying to surreptitiously take a photo of Eve, a few ventured up to me to practice their English by saying "hello" and the really brave ones came up and asked to take a selfie with us (me once and Eve twice).
The Great Wall is amazing. It's size is only the half of it. Its location at the top of incredibly steep hills was even more impressive. A word for Donald Trump...the Chinese have undeniably built the world's greatest wall of all time and by all historical accounts it was never very effective at keeping people out. In fact they were so embarrassed by their wall that they encouraged people to help dismantle it one point. Walls are a strategy for past centuries!
I regularly work out on the Stair Master. I go for an hour straight at a good pace a few times a week. I outlast many that come and go while I plug away toward my goal. I was ready for the stairs on the Great Wall. But the steps are not even. I ended up staring at my shoes trying to navigate the irregular steps. At the end of the day that Wall kicked my butt. I assured Kevin and Eve that I was simply dehydrated, but if you want a serious work out....
The history was everywhere. You could walk the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors date back to 200 BCE. Unlike some ruins in Europe very little imagination was required to see the history up close. The Terra Cotta Warriors sit over a kilometer in front of what's believed to be the world's largest tomb and after 40 years of excavation they've barely scratched the surface of the treasures that lie beneath. In some cases it was suggested that they've even slowed down some excavations because we haven't yet discovered the technology to preserve these treasures.
Our cultures may be night and day different but despte the differences our cell phones use the same ring tones. There might be 1.4 billion people in China, but apparently only four ring tones.
China is a BYOTP country. You know about BYOB (bring your own beer) parties. This is a bring your own toilet paper country.
The Chinese version of TSA looks just as bored as the American version.
The Chinese seem to like dogs, not just eat them. We saw lots of little dogs. I saw one Golden Retriever (what we consider to be a real dog) on the trip and saw one middle age man walking his dog wearing his golden colored silk pajamas. That was a look!
Old China used the lion to show the power of a building. New China uses sky scrapers. Shanghai's skyline may well be the most beautiful I've ever seen with the soon to be open second tallest building in the world. We were thrilled with our view at only the world's 9th highest building. While the new World Trade Center in the US officially ranks number 6 in the world, China's buildings don't achieve their records with really tall antennas on the top.
I saw a hot pink car. That was a first.
Most T-Shirts we saw with writing had English words. I've shared some of my favorites and no, don't ask me what they mean:
Cool kids can't die
No wood. No ref.
No black street standard
There were a few I think I understood:
Fuckof -- I'm not sure I could have worn this shirt to Disneyland. Who says they don't have free speech in China!
Anti Social Social Club -- I actually wanted to join this club.
US Army -- Given the tensions between the two countries I was a bit surprised to see this shirt. I must have seen it half a dozen times. I can only assume that when we invade China these shirts are designed to confuse us about who is on our side.
I saw more kids with grandparents (men and women) than I did with their parents. I think we have something to learn here.
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September 16, 2016
© Greg Harris, 2016
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