Where Is The Chaos?

November 14, 2015

It’s my first weekend in Shenzhen and what i can’t get over is how calm this corner of China is.  Shenzhen is not known for much aside from the fact that it was one China’s first Special Economic Zones (SEZ) established in 1980.  Before that, it’s claim to fame was being a small market town through which the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong passed, but did not stop.  Now it’s a metropolitan area of nearly 18 million people, so calm is usually not something associated with a city of this size and one that is home to a particular form of rough-and-tumble Chinese capitalism.  But calm it is.  Right outside my apartment complex is a tree-lined street with a single lane of traffic each way.

工业九路 as seen from outside my apartment complex

工业九路 as seen from outside my apartment complex

It’s almost idyllic in how quiet it is with people strolling to and from the mall and Walmart a short walk away.  I even ventured a bit further afield today to Ole, which is a state-owned Western supermarket, in a massive mall near Window of the World, a theme park filled with miniature versions of the world’s 130 most iconic tourist attractions.  This 45 minute trip involved a ride on the Shenzhen subway, which was also remarkably pleasant, and navigating the city’s bus system, another relatively pain-free experience.  Ole itself had a great selection, including wine and liquor that are hard to find elsewhere in China since there are no corner wine shops or liquor stores, but the prices were insane knowing what things cost back home.  A box of Post Great Grains was nearly US$10, a small container of blueberries was about US$7 dollars, and a tiny container of Greek yogurt was almost US$4.  I bought some cheap muesli and splurged on pumpkin seeds to toss in because I couldn’t buy much else in good conscience knowing I would be making a trip down to Hong Kong next weekend where imported goods are infinitely cheaper.  All in all though, it was a nice way to get out and see a bit more of the city while checking out another Western supermarket.  I am a bit like a kid in a candy store when I am abroad and get to go into a grocery store.  My friends think it’s weird that I find such an excursion relaxing, but I think it comes from being an actual kid and going into grocery stores in different parts of the U.S. with my parents and marveling at the regional variations in what was carried.  I guess some things don’t change the older we get.

On a different note, one of the interesting things about these first few posts from China is how devoid they are of any of the usual craziness associated with being in China.  I am not sure exactly why that is, but it could have to do with Shenzhen’s distance from Beijing and history of being granted a bit more freedom than other areas of the country.  Or the flip side of that is Shenzhen’s proximity to Hong Kong and the relative ease with which people go back and forth across the border, which leads to a greater identification here with its neighbor to the south than with the rest of the country.  Though what is lacking in Shenzhen is the superiority complex of a city like Shanghai because no one is actually from Shenzhen.  It’s a city of immigrants. Everyone here comes from elsewhere in China and the city has not been around long enough for any real civic pride to develop, so you feel that people are here because they wanted to avail themselves of the opportunities that came along with Shenzhen being an SEZ, but have not quite developed the sense that their’s is a city that is better than others.  Regardless, there is something beneath the surface that sets this city apart from many others, but I have not quite found it.  That is what further exploring will hopefully uncover.

However, when getting set up to have a temporary life here, I was reminded of the reach of the Chinese state.  Right now I have a Chinese mobile plan, internet in my apartment, and a Chinese bank account.  All were set up in a day, but there was a sequence that had to be followed to make it happen.  First I had to get a local phone number, then I needed to open a bank account, then I had to go back to the China Telecom shop to give them my bank account number, and finally i had to give my phone and bank account number to the internet provider.  All of these steps involved copies of my passport.  What was also strange was how the other cell phone providers, China Unicom and China Mobile would not give a foreigner a cell phone plan. It seemed rather arbitrary and even the Chinese people who helped me acquire these services admitted that if we had tried a few other shops of either company, one would have let me get a plan.  China is still this odd mix of government control and an arbitrariness associated with asserting that control.  If you knock on enough doors, someone will answer, even if it’s against the law for them to do so.  If you’re paying for something, it’ll probably take a lot less doors before someone answers because ultimately money seems to win the day here.  Always an important lesson to keep in mind when transacting in China, though the higher the stakes, the more one must be careful because you never know when the government may actually decide to enforce its laws and then no matter who you paid, trouble could ensue.

Two unrelated thoughts before I head off to the gym.  One, I spent the day at our school here in Shenzhen and it’s a pretty cool place.  The building was initially designed for offices, but it has been repurposed into a school.  The marble lobbies, study corners with potted plants, and dramatic balconies were definitely not a part of any of the schools that I attended, but it works and the students running around couldn’t appear to be any happier.

Second, some readers paying close attention to my last post (which I always appreciate) noticed that I had taken half a Xanax when I flew over here.  Just to set the record straight, I have only taken Xanax once before on a long-haul flight and find it helps me sleep better than Ambien on such journeys.  While there is nothing wrong with taking Xanax, it’s not yet something I have found I need outside of on the occasional 15-hour flight.

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It’s Father’s Day back in the States and I already called to wish my dad a happy Father’s Day, but sadly I cannot be there with him to celebrate the day.  So I can do the second best thing and heed his wishes by posting some pictures of Linyi to give a sense of how sprawling this city is.

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Blue Sky in Linyi

That’s the view facing east from the bridge on Tongda Road (通达路) heading back from the gym last Friday.  The right side of the picture is the southern part of Linyi and heading in the direction of most of the commercial activity in the city.  The left side is north of the river and the new part of the city where the only real tenant is the city government and lots of new apartments.

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This view is facing west towards the university and where my hotel is.  As you can see, there are some cranes in the sky and lots of open space.  The university and bus station are the main anchors in this direction, but a lot of ground has been broken for new housing and in a few years there should also be some commercial development to support the population in this part of the city.  Right now though there is nothing to really talk to from the hotel except for the bus station across the street.

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This hole in the ground is on the north side of People’s Square (人民广成) and is part of a new shopping center that is called Osca.  I tried to make out the meaning of the name from the Chinese, but was unable to initially.  Right now there is not much in the way of development except for Linyi’s first Subway and a new Korean restaurant, but the mall is supposed to be the home of other foreign retailers from Hong Kong and further afield.  Of course there will also be a residential component to this development.  I guess this would be considered prime real estate in Linyi because People’s Square really is the center of town and on the weekends is filled with people. It’s also where you can find the city’s Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Watsons, the soon-to-be-coming Tesco, and maybe the city’s first Starbucks (this last one is still wishful thinking at this point).  I think of People’s Square as downtown because there are also lots of office towers in the area.

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And the Osca mystery is solved – the complex is named after the Oscars, the awards ceremony in the States.  A bit random, but no more random than a local residential development named Chianti Mansion, like the wine.  Though I did not know the Oscars were such a part of the local culture.  But the Chinese word is Aosika (奥斯卡), so it’s not that far off in its Romanized form.  One other thing that I have been thinking about lately are the artist’s renderings of all of the new construction taking place.  That image above is the completed version of the previous picture.  The artist’s renderings always look so opulent and full of life with grand visions of wealth, happiness, and prosperity.  I know these renderings are supposed to be somewhat aspirational, but the Chinese renderings are off the charts in their optimism for the future.  All of the housing developments look absolutely amazing, to the point where I am staring at the dirt field in front of me and wondering how the developers plan to go from nothing to the most amazing and buzzy mixed-use development complex ever.  I saw a lot of this on the bus ride to Qufu in towns much smaller than Linyi, including Feixian, Sishui, and Pingyi.

So those are some recent pictures of Linyi.  I wish I had taken a picture of dinner tonight while we’re on the subject of pictures.  Lu and I went for Sichuan hot pot (火锅) and it was amazing.  I have not had good hot pot since I left GZ many years ago.  This time we went to Little Swan instead of Little Sheep, our GZ go-to.  Little Swan (小天鹅) is a Chongqing-based chain.  Yes, Chongqing is the same city where Bo Xilai, the disgraced party official was mayor.  This meal was perfection – spicy broth cooking a variety of meat and vegetables. as well as noodles and rice cakes.  I don’t think a picture would have done it justice.  I came back to the hotel and looked up the name of the chain and of course Sequoia Capital, a U.S. private equity firm has taken a stake in the company.  I guess the good news is that perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we get one in New York.  There is already a Little Sheep (小肥羊) in Flushing, Queens, so why not a Little Swan somewhere in Manhattan?

On that note, I leave you all to gear up for week two of class.  Happy Father’s Day, dad.  Until next time . . .

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Sorry, So Sorry

May 7, 2009

I’ve decided to mix it up a bit and head out to another part of GZ to check out yet another Starbucks.  Hey, it’s a great way to explore new neighborhoods.  Just have a vague idea as to where you’re headed and then hop on the metro and do some confused exploring of a new neighborhood before you stumble upon the familiar circular sign and green lettering of one of America’s most over-priced, but extremely comforting exports.

Today it is the Starbucks in Zhujiang New Town (珠江新城), which is on the north side of the Pearl River, also called Zhujiang (珠江) in Chinese.  It’s one of these planned neighborhoods with tall buildings, wide streets, lots of trees, and devoid of any character that would indicate you are in the middle of China that Chinese urban planners are so fond of creating when they’re given the open space to do so.  That’s not to say that it is not a nice neighborhood, complete with men in army fatigues running by as I sip my tall iced coffee with low-fat milk.  I’ve taken the metro underneath this part of town many times since it’s on the way to the train station, but it’s the first time I have just wandered around mid-day.  Upon first emerging from the metro, I noticed all of the new construction and some interesting architecture, which reminded me of Miami for some reason.  The thought of Miami could also be that it is also nearly 90 degrees with bright sunshine and lots of pastel colored residential high-rises and balconies decorated with  ornate balustrades.  It’s definitely a welcome change of pace after mainly going to the same Starbucks over by Gongyuanqian (公园前) and next time I am here, I will be sure to take some pictures and share them here.

One thing I have noticed during my time here is that Chinese people do not use the word “sorry” to the same extent that Americans seem to.  I feel that when I am in the States and stand on a crowded subway, squeeze to get by in the supermarket, or accidentally step on another person’s toes as I am exiting an elevator, there is usually a chorus of “sorry” coming from people who may not even have done anything wrong.  Now come to China and the same things happen, sometimes even more aggressively with old ladies pushing me out of the way as they march off the metro, and there is no uttering of anything resembling “sorry”.  Now my Chinese is not the best, but I know how to say sorry, whether it’s 对不起 or 不好意思.  It’s one of the first things I learned in Chinese class all of those years ago and I would be able to recognize it, probably in both Cantonese and Mandarin.  However, I rarely ever hear it said by anyone.   You would think in a society that values harmony, sorry would be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

As an American in China, I feel like I am always saying “sorry” about the American government’s policies (a little less so with our new President) or way of doing things.  When Chinese people ask me about America and its support for Taiwan or about pulling troops out of Iraq, there is a subtle expectation on their part that I should be apologizing for my country and it’s sometimes controversial stances on certain issues.  Yet, I have never heard a Chinese person apologize for the way the government treats its Tibetan minority, beats its prisoners, poisons its babies, destroys the environment or makes dissidents disappear from public view.  No country is perfect and living abroad has given me the perspective and wherewithal to know when to apologize for certain things, but there seems to be something in the Chinese national psyche that views apologies as a sign of weakness or something to be dispensed with because China deserves to do what it needs to do to develop.  I’m just waiting for that woman who cut in front of me in the check-out line at Carrefour when my groceries were clearly displayed on the cashier’s conveyor belt to apologize.