Greetings from Chengdu!  Being the good Jew I am, I decided to head to Chengdu Christmas morning for a long weekend of eating spicy Sichuan food and seeing some pandas.

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Giant panda climbing the IFS Chengdu, yet another luxury shopping mall in China

Okay, not exactly that panda, though the city makes good use of its panda connection by plastering the creatures all over the city.  Upon landing in the airport, many of the information signs were framed by pandas and that theme has been a constant since that point.

It’s my first time here and a city I have wanted to visit for a very long time. The original motivation was my love of Sichuan food (川菜), but lately everything I have been reading about China mentions the relatively newfound prosperity of its inland cities, which would include Chengdu and Chongqing.  Having only been here for 24 hours, I attest that Chengdu definitely appears to be on the up-and-up.  The IFS above is home to Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Zegna, two Starbucks, Muji, Uniqlo, a bookstore where I could buy new English books, a huge Western supermarket that is part of a Hong Kong chain, the requisite ice skating rink, and even a bowling alley.  The inside is your typical white marble, soaring ceilings, and the cleanest floors I have ever seen, probably due to the ever-present crew mopping and sweeping as you’re moving around the mall.  However, IFS is just one of many luxury malls in this area of Chengdu, which also includes the retail-filled pedestrian streets of Chunxi Lu (春熙路) and Imperial Examination Alley (正科甲港), an Isetan department store, a number of other Western luxury brands, and numerous Chinese brands.

I guess it makes sense given that Chengdu has become one of the richest cities in China.  The Milken Institute released a study this fall of the best performing cities in China and chengdu came out number one, beating Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing.  Putting aside studies and government statistics touting GDP growth and per capita incomes, just the feeling I get walking around the city is that it’s one of growth and possibility.  Now one may argue that most of China feels like this and many places do, even in spite of the recent slowdown of the economy, but having spent the past month and a half in Shenzhen, I can sense a different energy here. Shenzhen is right next to Hong Kong and was created to rival its neighbor to the south and serve as a laboratory for economic liberalization on the mainland, so its people are used to being favored and there is also relatively seamless mobility between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, obviating the need to replicate a lot of the shopping in HK north of the border.  I mean, one would think that Shenzhen would have had it’s own Kiehl’s store before Chengdu, but you can only find it at the Shenzhen airport in duty free.  Chengdu has one in the Isetan by the IFC.  Not that Kiehl’s is a barometer for economic development, but the fact that a company like that went to Chengdu after Shanghai and Beijing says something about the city and its place in China’s economic hierarchy.

Chengdu is an inland city and only part of a central government push within the last ten years or so to promote growth inland away from the coasts.  With that promotion, an economic tiger was released as the city promoted its lower labor costs to attract global manufacturers in the aerospace and electronics sectors, including Foxconn, which produces Apple’s iPhone.  Anyway, not to devolve into a boring economics lesson, but the takeaway is that Chengdu has a buzz that is not always as readily apparent in some of China’s larger, more established Tier One cities.

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View of central Chengdu from my hotel

Of course this still being China, I marvel at how well the central government has been able to wall off the country from the rest of the world.  I’ve written a lot about the mystery behind Chinese people becoming more global as they travel the world, but seemingly bringing nothing back from the travels except luxury goods and souvenirs. Forgetting that when you fly domestically in China, you’re not allowed to turn on any electronics, I was left watching some bizarre Korean movie on my flight from Shenzhen to Chengdu.  When I arrived, I thought I would either be given or be able to buy a Financial Times or Economist at the Ritz Carlton or find another hotel with a gift shop at which I could buy one of these publications to read on the way back to Shenzhen, but to no avail.  Even the Page One, where I eventually found English books, had a magazine section with only Monocle and In Style in English, neither of which I was particularly interested in buying.  Putting the availability of Western media aside, I am sitting here in a Starbucks (where else?) in another new luxury mall called The ONE and it’s one of Starbuck’s new Reserve locations with pour-overs and siphoned coffee.  The place is packed with young and old, alike, and many on iPhones or Macs enjoying coffee, pastries, and quiche.  At this particular moment I feel like I could be anywhere.

Yet, with all of that said, there is something about Chengdu that reminds me of the China I knew 15 years ago.  Perhaps it’s the layout of the city with back alleys still filled with little stores and food stalls or the mix of old and new buildings that co-exist side-by-side, though I have the feeling that won’t be the case five years from now since so many look like they’re being readied to be torn down for new construction.  I guess Chengdu is a city that while growing rapidly, still retains elements of what it was.  It has long had the reputation of being one of China’s most laid-back cities and for a city of nearly 8 million people, still moves at a remarkably more languid pace than Shenzhen.  Maybe it’s part of a next wave of growth where people won’t be in such a hurry as they modernize and seek to retain some of what makes a particular place unique?  Or perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that unlike Shenzhen or even some of the other Tier One cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou, Chengdu is a city filled with people who are actually from here or the surrounding areas, which would go a long way to preserving those qualities that make the city special.

As I was leaving my hotel this morning, I was chatting with one of the members of the concierge staff, Roland, asking him for restaurant recommendations while I was here.  He told me that he had just transferred from Beijing two months ago because his wife was pregnant and they wanted to escape the pollution,, traffic, and mayhem of Beijing.  I asked him how he liked Chengdu so far and he remarked that it was more laid-back than Beijing.  He attributed this to the fact that home prices were so much lower than Beijing, so people didn’t have to work so hard, thus they had more time to relax and enjoy life.  Probably the most interesting reason of all for why Chengdu feels so different, yet one that not only makes the most sense, but is very telling as to what is potentially being lost as the country rushes to modernize. As an American, I know all about a country that does not seem to have enough time for leisure as our workweeks get longer and longer and people fear taking holiday because they may fall behind at work.  Let’s just hope that Chengdu doesn’t go the way of the rest of the country and lose what makes it special.

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It’s my last morning in Linyi and I am packing up my hotel room at the Linyi Hotel (临沂宾馆).  

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Packing up my hotel room

Hard to believe that this morning represents the end of three-plus weeks on the mainland.  Now I am off to Hong Kong for a week to meet with some law firms and catch up with old friends.  Last night I went to my favorite Sichuan restaurant for a farewell meal of sorts.  麻辣传说 (Mala Chuanshuo) has been my go-to in Linyi and last night did not disappoint.  

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My favorite Sichuan restaurant in Linyi

What was odd about last night was that perhaps because it was a Friday and more crowded than normal, everyone around me kept watching me eat and as people would pass to and from their tables, they felt the need to pause at my table and give me and my food a longing stare.  I was doing nothing out of the ordinary.  Just enjoying my yuxiang rousi (鱼香肉丝), some cold cooked spinach with peanuts, and a cold tofu dish where the tofu is light and airy, soaking up the flavor of the chilis and vinegar.  I was also celebrating the end of class with a Qingdao beer.  Perhaps it was the sight of a foreigner in his baseball cap and three dishes of food in front of him that he ordered in Chinese that prompted the stares, but everyone who passed by felt the need to run their eyes over my personal space.  I’m not complaining.  I just thought it was funny, kind of like a special farewell.

Now I must leave you to finish packing and get to the airport for a day of travel – Linyi to Shanghai, then a three-hour layover and change of terminals before heading on to Hong Kong.  

I’ll be back from the other side.

Surrounded

June 14, 2012

Living in a city like Linyi, I imagine it’s what most of China was like 20-30 years ago when the country was just beginning to really open up to foreigners.  As a foreigner here, I attract all sorts of curiosity.  Most of the attention comes in the form of random “hellos” or other types of greetings.  Whether it’s a “hello” from the old men in an SUV while  waiting on the side of the road for a cab or teenage girls asking “what can I do for you?” as they sashay out of the hotel in their short shorts and too much make-up, I am constantly being spoken to.  Not spoken with mind you, just spoken to as if I am some sort of curiosity whose only function is to smile and say “hello’ back.

My gym is a constant source of fascination.  If I go to work out later in the afternoon when people are starting to get off work, the small gym becomes quite crowded.  I was there lifting the other night and I tend to get lost in my workouts, so I do not always notice what is going on around me.  At one moment in my workout, I looked up and there was a group of seven guys standing around me and just watching as I was lifting weights.  I demurely put my head down and continued my workout, but upon completing my sets and putting my weights away, I had to turn around and inadvertently come face-to-face with them.  I was greeted with the requisite thumbs-up and “you are strong”.  One of the guys, who is a trainer at the gym just blurted out that I had “nice muscles”.  While flattering, none of these pleasantries did much to make me feel very comfortable, so I just plowed on with my workout.  As I was later stretching, another trainer named Sun Shuo (孙硕) came over to speak to me.  He spoke English and it was pretty good, so he would speak in English and I would respond in Chinese.  He told me I was very strong and looked “very good”.  At the end of our conversation, he told me that if I needed anything, he would be very happy to help me and held my hand for a tad too long as we shook goodbye.

This brings me to something that always vexes me in China.  Men are so much more tactile here, both with me and each other.  Unlike the guard in Beijing who was pretty clearly giving me a lingering stare, Sun’s lingering handshake and offer to help with anything was most likely a polite entreaty to a foreigner.  However, I noticed in class this morning that the guys who sit in the front row of my class are always touching each other and it’s not that playful fighting that good guy friends may do with one another.  Their hands on are on each others legs, they hold hands, they have their arms around each other.  Once again, it’s most likely nothing more than friendly behavior among friends who live in very close quarters for their four years of college, but for a brief moment when I am lecturing from the stage and look down to see one guy’s hand resting on another guy’s thigh, it gives me pause because that action is not something that you would see in an American classroom.

At the end of class, it’s always a gaggle of guys who gather around me to ask questions about class or life in America.  In yesterday’s class, we talked about identity theft and I told my students I had been a victim of such an act because Yale had been careless with my social security number and left it on a database that was searchable by Google.  Seven credit cards, an ID watch service, and a police report later, I finally nipped that problem in the bud.  But my students informed me that you cannot open a credit card online in China, only in person at a bank.  It’s a smart idea and has the double-edged effect of preventing someone from opening credit cards in your name, while also curbing the number of credit cards that one can open up.  The other extreme is the American system where with a few clicks online, I can have a new credit card with a $5000 credit limit.  My students also told me that college students are not allowed to have credit cards, which is definitely not the case on U.S. college campuses.

These guys always stay behind after class to talk, which is a great thing because it means that they are curious and want to talk.  I am all for encouraging them to practice their English, especially since it’s usually the girls who tend to speak English better, and thus are more confident in their skills.  It doesn’t matter whether I am in the classroom or at the gym, I seem to end up attracting a crowd, which is not the case in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or even Guangzhou where foreigners are a dime a dozen or they just do not care about them.  In Linyi, it is still an oddity to see someone like me.  I realized that last night when I went to dinner with one of the other instructors.  We went to my favorite Sichuan (川菜) restaurant and she asked me if they knew me there.  They probably do, but at that moment I realized that they knew me, even if just for the fact that it’s rare to have someone like me running around Linyi.

Except when I am in my hotel room, it seems that no matter where I go in Linyi, I am surrounded.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely something I am not used to experiencing.  Now it’s time to head to the gym.

The “real China”

March 1, 2009

My friend, Henry and his girlfriend, Sara were in GZ yesterday for the day visiting some of Henry’s family.  We managed to meet up for dinner before they headed back to Hong Kong and I had a chance to show them my apartment, the campus, and my favorite Sichuan restaurant, which is right outside the East Gate of campus.  They were my first visitors from outside China.  As we were walking to dinner, Henry remarked on how cool it was that I was getting to live in the “real China” compared to so many other foreigners who park themselves in Hong Kong or Shanghai and feel as if they’re roughing it.  Now living in GZ is certainly not roughing it, but it’s definitely more “real” than HK or Shanghai in terms of how little the city caters to its foreign population.

One aspect of the “real China” I always seem to be bumping up against is just how not obvious it is to the people here that I am a gay man.  After Henry and Sara left, we went out to meet up with our friend Superman at a corny GZ nightclub called Nana Club that was hosting an’80s party.   Wherever there’s Superman, there are sure to be lots of foreigners because he is a Chinese guy that enjoys surrounding himself with them.  Anyway, we met a lot of his friends from Australia and France and they were fun to hang out with, but the whole night these guys kept asking me if I had a girlfriend.  When I told them no, they asked me if I was into Chinese girls because that could be the only thing keeping me from having a Chinese girlfriend.  I finished the night amused at all the assumptions that were being made and wondered if the idea of gay is so ephemeral in China that even the straight foreigners here don’t have gaydar.  

One place where I think everyone knows I am gay is at the LGBT organization I volunteer at, Guangtong (广同).  This past Friday I was asked by the head if I could come in and facilitate a discussion after their screening of “Milk.”  It was funny that they were showing it because I had just seen it last week and was going to suggest showing it to the group on English night.  However, every Friday night they show a movie and this happened to be their selection this Friday.  It’s an understatement to say that it’s an amazing movie, but after watching it, I wanted to get back to the States and re-immerse myself in the fight for gay rights.  Before watching the movie I had no idea just how important and powerful a figure Harvey Milk was, but his role in the fight for gay rights in the 70s was so important to get the movement to where it is today and a powerful reminder of how much more needs to be done.  Now I was sitting in a room full of gay men in China and having a discussion about the movie and its message, mostly in Chinese with my friend, Kevin acting as my translator.

I opened up by asking the group how the movie made them feel and I received quite a few responses along the lines of inspired.  One man said that China needed to stand up and fight like Milk did, but it would never happen in China because Chinese people do not have anything to fight against the same way that Americans do.  This idea that there are laws in America against gay people, but none explicit in China and the presence of these negative laws is the motivation for the fight in America came up repeatedly throughout the evening.  After three or four people echoed this sentiment, I asked the group of 16 how many of them were out and only two were out in some way, shape or form.   I then raised the idea that it’s not only having laws telling you that you can’t do something that serve as the motivation to fight for change, but you also have to fight to change beliefs and perceptions in a society that will not let you be who you want to be or live your life the way you want to.  I was greeted with some murmurs of approval, but also looks of skepticism.  The discussion then drifted to what progress has been made in the U.S. since Milk’s assassination and what to do if a girl  hits on you, so it was a bit of the serious and then some not-so-serious.  Once again it was a great chance for me to see how far China has to go and how hard in China it is to get a group of people being hurt by society’s attitudes to realize that you can work to change those attitudes, that fighting something is not always synonymous with going against the government.

Of course the “real China” is also the land of confusing and poor signage, so I leave you all with this sign hanging in the supermarket located in the Jusco department store (a discount Japanese chain) that I stumbled upon Saturday afternoon in the basement of Teemall.

Make sure to brush twice a day and use your toothpasta

Make sure to brush twice a day and use your toothpasta

Happy belated New Year!

I have been back in the States for a little over a week and I still get a little thrill that I can access my blog without logging into a VPN. Leaving China 8000 miles away has given me some time to gain some perspective on the last five months there, but that perspective will have to wait until a later blog post.

I’ve been wanting to write for the past few weeks about an op-ed piece Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times last month, but alas, grading final exams left me little time to do much blogging.  However, now as I hang out in suburbia with my parents, I have plenty of time to indulge my random musings.  

On December 23, 2008, Thomas Friedman wrote “Time to Reboot America” in The New York Times.  The gist of the piece (and I am oversimplifying somewhat, but not all that much from what was actually written) was that China can build extremely efficient airports and train stations, but the U.S. still has freedom of speech, and thus we can still assert our leadership in this new century.  It’s true that China has censorship and America does not, at least not to the same extent.  America has great raw materials to make this country a leader again, but we’re squandering those resources by letting our education system, scientific research, and infrastructure atrophy.  However, there’s something missing in the logic of Friedman’s piece.  

China may have censorship, but there is also something else at work in China that portends more disparities between the US and China aside from mobile phone service and airport efficiency.   After spending a semester in the classroom with Chinese university students, I am beginning to better understand quotes included in these articles from everyday Chinese people. There was a recent article about love blooming in the relief camps in Sichuan province in the aftermath of last May’s devastating earthquake titled “Romance and Recovery in Quake Area.”  Part of the article discussed the slow speed of recovery and there was a quote from a farmer in one of the villages destroyed by the earthquake in which he expressed his understanding that the government had other problems to focus on, thus explaining the slow response to rebuilding the earthquake-ravaged areas.  The farmer, He Yifu said, “The government pays attention to those living on the side of the road, not those far away.  But I understand the government has its own difficulties.”  

If I had read this article six months ago and come across this quote, I would have been outraged that a Chinese citizen whose town had been completely destroyed in an earthquake and who was living in a makeshift tent village was okay with the government’s slow response to his plight and millions of others like him.  However, I think I better understand where this sentiment comes from. There is a real concern among many Chinese people about the government’s image and a belief that the government knows best. One group of students in my Zhuhai class was writing a letter to the editor about the handling of Yang Jia’s case, the man who stabbed six policemen in Shanghai after previously being arrested and allegedly beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle.  Yang was then sentenced and executed in November 2008 for his actions, even though questions arose about the circumstances surrounding his treatment by the police and the fairness of his trial.  My students’ main point was not about the mishandling of the case or any unanswered questions, but how this episode affected the Chinese government’s image and how the government needed to take steps to repair its image. Forget about Yang Jia’s family and the possibility of injustice being perpetrated, my students deemed that the top priority ought to be repairing the image of the Chinese government.

While the recent economic troubles afflicting China may challenge this conventional and received wisdom of Chinese people like my students, there are plenty of Chinese people who are quick to forgive the government and blame external factors for their woes. Even with the recent economic trouble, many people are quick to blame the U.S. for China’s problems, which may be partly true, but it is the Chinese government’s responsibility to navigate this downturn at home. Perhaps as my students realize how difficult it is going to be for them to get jobs or internships,, they will begin to include the government as one of the parties responsible for their misfortunes, instead of being so concerned about not tarnishing the government’s image.  Yet, until that moment comes, the large percentage of the Chinese population willing to go to bat for their government, along with its efficient airports and mobile phone service, may be a far more powerful force helping China to take the 21st century away from am America with its open and innovative culture, but inability to pull its people together to rise above these short-term troubles.