China Babble


On a quick trip to China, checking out the reality of the world’s manufacturing hub Guangdong. Not having done my homework, I had expected the region’s two main cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou to be only partially developed, subconsciously linking the stereotype of cheap Chinese products to an architectural and infrastructural equivalent. Just looking at my own top-notch mobile phone of the Chinese brand “oppo”, I should have known better.

The reality did prove me quite naïve and uninformed – both cities are modern metropolises of Western standard. Superb public transport, well-maintained streets and sidewalks, malls, the full program. In fact, I learned that Shenzhen is one of China’s wealthiest cities. My surprise exposed a Western ignorance that I had not been aware of. I am still trying to overcome my impulse to compliment my Chinese conversational partners on the state of their city’s development – if I ever had that kind of authority, now is definitely to late for it. I empathize with the irritation of my Chinese business acquaintance “Angela”, who remarked that while Chinese do not have a problem admitting other country’s qualities and even look up to them, they often find unsubstantiated arrogance vice versa.

Driving down yet another street of skyscrapers, I asked her when these buildings had been built, since they looked so new. “No, not very new”, she replied, “already about 5 years old”. Shenzhen used to be a small fisherman’s town of about 30,000 people just about 30 years ago, before it was made a special economic zone that became the country’s outsourcing hub with a population of over 10 million – so no wonder clocks tick a bit differently here. “They are building new buildings all the time”, Angela continued, “every time I come back from a trip I find something new”.

This observation is confirmed by the occasional sight of construction sites, and an intimidating 500 meter row of massive digging machines that I find the next day in the middle of a large shopping street. The rhythmic boom boom metal sound has a strange drawing power. I walk down the street and feel alive, like this is where something is still happening. It feels odd to know that this place has existed for years without me knowing about it, and the fact that there are no non-Asians on the street and virtually no English skills just reinforce that feeling of a parallel universe.

When I tell my Chinese counterpart about Indians’ perceived competition with her country, she briefly tilts her head, weighs her thoughts and then says, in a tone as though stating a natural fact: “Actually, we don’t even think of them.” When I grin at her, remembering the many instances when my Indian professors compared India to China, she adds: “No…”, thoughtfully shaking her head, “…sometimes Bangladesh is talked about, but India, no.” What a slap in India’s face. But sadly justified – I think that anyone who has actually seen cities in both countries, however short the exposure, would not put them in the same category. The differences are too obvious. (The fact that in both countries, the countryside is of course much less developed than cities does not change the essence of the comparison). It is often said that India is an elephant and China a tiger, implying that China’s rash actions will soon loose their energy and the silent intelligence of the elephant will persevere. However, i fail to see this implied strategic – and hidden – superiority of India. When I later share this with my Indian boyfriend, he compares his country’s one-sided competition with China to Pakistan’s similarly futile attempt to put itself in one league with India.

Not surprisingly, I also did not know much and nothing correct about Chinese mentality. Unlike in other Asian countries, nobody has yet lied to me or ripped me off, and all my contacts were on time or too early. For the train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, there was a super organized process in place at the super modern train station, which led passengers from the super efficient ticket purchase to a “waiting hall” with a security check, similar to a boarding gate, right onto the train platform, where the train was already waiting and everyone found their already allocated seat in an orderly fashion. The same orderliness at the airport, where people queued up for the taxi and became anxious to leave when the taxi behind them bumped the horn. I had expected this from Japan, not from China.

OK, this is not Germany – people do jump the queue if you give them the space. Most toilets I have seen were a mess and when a business partner and me were served lunch the tablecloth was stained, with waiters serving overflowing teapots. Not to speak of the slurping, munching and occasional burping. What I am trying to say is – the tiny bit of China I have seen so far smells of efficiency and performance orientation, and I am quite impressed. Leave the manners aside, which are anyway relative and quite irrelevant.

Some more telling details: There is no concept of tips; people are paid for their jobs, end of story. I like that, it is clear and straightforward. Also, many people are atheists, so they do not get obstructed with bogus when structuring their life or that of others. That same pragmatism can be seen in the cuisine – Chinese seem to eat just about anything, and there is a huge variety of delicious dishes that I have never seen or tasted before. (In two days, I had roasted goose, pig feet in jelly, fried fish babies, warm corn juice, rice tea, and a bun filled with sweet pork, to name just the dishes that were new to me.)
I understand that some people draw a line between vegetarian and non-vegetarian food – but there is no rational explanation why one should eat pork, but not beef, or vice versa; or chicken and prawns, but not insects. I caught myself thinking in these irrational terms when I was disgusted by what looked like small fried worms in my dish (that turned out to be shrimps).

The Chinese degree of openness may sometimes go too far for our standards – like the female factory workers I was told about who watched a white business traveller peeing, trying to see the color of her labia. Most frustrating to copy-right holders and certainly not fair play is also the widely-known Chinese tendency to copy. “We may be overdoing the copying a bit” my friend admitted to this with a smirk, but showed the same pragmatism when she added that “but if you do not have the capacity to invent, this is the only option left to learn and develop yourself.”
With that same just-do-it spirit, the Chinese are now conquering Africa. Angela may be going there soon herself.
Despite the irritation, one must admit that this reality-embracing pragmatism is quite compelling – and successful.

Over lunch, I asked another business contact about common entry salaries for graduates, which prompted him to speak openly about his own. As an engineer he used to earn 400-500 dollars a month, and changed to sales for a higher salary of about twice as much. Now, after five years of work experience, he earns 1800 dollars a month. He has a nine to six job with a one-hour break, and does not work on the weekends, though this is common in China.

A sales rep of another company has similar working hours, and, more interestingly, lives in a dormitory on the factory premises. When she first tells me about it, I assume that she lives in an apartment building close to the factory, probably because she has just started with the company. But when we visit the factory, she points to a door inside the building and says “this is where I live”. Surprised, I ask “how long have you been working and living here?”, “for three years”, she says. She does not seem unhappy about it, and my impression is that she even feels privileged: “other people have to take the bus to go to work”. I don’t know whether this is an exception, but it certainly fits into my image of the hard-working Chinese.

Her “English” name is Vanes, she is tiny, wears almost no clothes and ends every sentence with a giggle. In the first 30 minutes of our meeting, we both don’t know what to do with each other. I can’t stand the giggling, but feel obliged to at least smile back, which causes the kind of sore cheek muscles I usually get from fake smiles. Later in the meeting, when she does not manage to open a child-proof closure and I have stopped expecting her to be a business executive, I begin to find her cute and make a sheepish comment on how the closure is not just made for kids, but also for her, which she finds hilarious, Her good mood is infectious.

Like the other female representatives I have met, she complimented me on my beauty, which, according to her, had also been remarked by her colleagues. I found it both factually and professionally inappropriate, but figured that it must be part of inter-women etiquette. I tried to imagine a business meeting between men where the one would tell the other how handsome he is.

I mentioned before that virtually no one seems to speak English in this country. The usual approach-young-or-business-people-and-they-will-speak-some-english strategy does not work here. I had chosen my hotels specifically for their English-speaking receptionists, so they are an exception. But on the street, it is almost impossible for me to communicate, not even in the simplest words. Even my business contacts, whose job it is to deal only with international customers, speak so poorly that I usually have to rephrase sentences until much of the meaning is lost. In this context, a printout of my PowerPoint has helped me a lot to get across what I want, in combination with the Google Translate App on my phone.

Getting a Chinese prepaid SIM is easy, by the way. It took me less than 15 minutes at China Mobile to get one, and topping up can be done at shops or hotels. There was a numbered counter, a simple flyer explaining the tariffs and only one signature on a small form was required. Of course, English was again a problem, but one staff spoke a bit and the layout of the flyer was clear enough for me to get the idea. I am sorry to be picking on India again, but this simplicity can only be dreamed of there. I do not know how many hours I already spent in chaotic Indian mobile shops, trying to get a standard product.

After Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Chongqing was my next and last destination on my short discovery trip. This time I was purely on private business, as a guest to the wedding of my friend Tobias and his Chinese-German now-wife Luyao. I had met our common friend Joseph on my last day in Guangzhou to travel there together. Chongqing is yet another Chinese city with a 10 million + population that I claim to be unknown to most Westerners, including myself. I heard the city’s name first when I was invited. Not being a typical tourist destination or an outsourcing hub, Chongqing is even less frequented by foreigners. This is not only apparent from the rarity of foreign faces on the streets, but also from the size of the international airport, which is tiny and old compared to its impressive domestic neighbor.

Although Chongqing also has the usual super modern blinky futuristic areas and the infrastructure is largely comparable to Guangdong, the city mostly displays older mid-century buildings that remind the visitor of the country he is visiting and its history. Unlike in Guangdong, I get to see disheveled houses, which may be called slums. If there were such houses in Guangzhou or Shenzhen, I did not get to see them.

What I will remember as a characteristic Chongqing sight is a wide and endless panorama of 30 story apartment buildings. Sometimes they are erected on a hilly ground and close to each other, which makes them look sculptural, like a mountain ridge. I am not sure I like the ubiquity of these largely uniform houses, but am fascinated by the grandeur of the landscapes they create when built densely. It convinced me once again of my friend Minx’ claim that skyscraper aesthetics strongly benefits from the architectural density of their surroundings, which also explains the drawing effect of cities like New York, where not all skyscrapers are a nice sight by themselves, but create value as a part of the architectural landscape.

Traveling by bus to the wedding ceremony, we pass by a hill of rock with small cave like entrances containing shops and cafés. We learn that they used to be bomb shelters against Japanese attacks, which targeted Chongqing because of its temporary role as capital of China. I should really read up on China, at least on Wikipedia, I think.

I notice some typical Chinese behaviors stronger here than in Guangdong, probably because I have already spent some days in China, but maybe Chongqing is also a bit more rustic than Guangdong. There is a certain unsmiling straightforwardness about Chinese, which could be called either rough or factual. This is not the land of smiles like Thailand. Societal acceptance, or “saving face” is as important, but it comes in a less polite format. When Chinese men speak, their forceful intonation sometimes almost resembles Russian, or rather my idea of it. This is in line with the frequent absence of numerous manners surrounding body matters as we know them that I alluded to before.

Still in Guangdong, Chongqing was introduced to me by several people as the home of China’s hottest dishes and hottest women. My two day stay was not enough to confirm these claims. The food at the wedding – the now familiar huge selection of delicious food of unknown or exotic biological origin – was not particularly spicy, and I did not see any particular beauty in the women compared to Guangdong.
Anyway, I don’t trust the Chinese idea of beauty: When I talked to a very attractive Chinese woman at the wedding, who could easily have been a model, her first sentence to me was how very beautiful I looked. When I gave her a doubtful, almost irritated look (as this was already the 4th time I had heard this from a strange woman) and replied that I would be more justified in telling this to her, she shook her head and said “well, at least in this country you are”. What a nice feeling to be lifted from aesthetic mediocrity for a second, before having to admit to oneself that this must be either etiquette or bad taste.

On the street, people seem to dress more conservatively than in the South (but with an equal lack of taste, I should add), which I think is not only an effect of the coldish weather. This changes when going to a nightclub, where a specific selection of people makes sure it’s the same super mini dresses I already know from Thailand. After the wedding, we went to “muse”, apparently the place to go for rich or pseudo rich youth. A beer costs 9 Euros there, they have VIP corners, 300€ whisky bottles and live acts from Asian and American singers who perform so well they could be stars. Interior architecture prioritizes tables, where you can pour yourself a Whiskey-tea mix or eat from a lavish fruit plate. The elevated, tiny dance floor of about 10 square meters was often so crowded one could hardly move and constantly had to watch the edge of the platform, while escaping from Chinese boys trying to get touchy and Chinese girls wanting to hold hands with me.
Alcohol consumption was quite steep wherever I looked, and the formerly clear landscape of tables and standing figures became more and more dynamic and somewhat uncontrolled. It reminded me of these microscopic close-ups of some growing substance that are shown in movies sometimes to show a dangerous virus whose cells expand and begin shaking as though they are boiling. When I could only dance with my elbows tucked to my upper body and in the safe shadow of one of my companions, and witnessed several evacuations of half-unconscious girls being dragged outside, I just needed to exchange a look with my friends, who had experienced the same, to convince them to leave. It was quite crazy actually – and again, unexpected. By the way, only later I understood the pictogram in front of the toilets that warned of voyeurs – unaware of the apparently strong attraction of female peeing, that kind of danger had not occurred to me before.

As the rainy weather discouraged the group of wedding guests to see more of the “Chicago on the Yangtze”, we ended up spending my last day in China in a fabulous Spa receiving a 100 minute “foot massage” that turned out to be a full body massage and included regular refills of tea, fruit and a snack that was more like a proper lunch. Is there anything the Chinese are not good at, I wondered, while the kneading of my masseuse sent me into a trance-like state. Coming from Bangkok, the source of Thai massage with its abundant parlors, I had agreed to the massage reluctantly, assuming that it would not make sense for me to have one in China when I am about to return to Bangkok. After the massage, I had to admit to my Chinese host that this was one of the best massages I had had (which she proudly made me repeat in front of the group – “say the sentence, Anna”).

Sitting in the airplane and waiting for the take-off, I contemplated whether in this intense one week I had just seen a new United States of America, judging by Chinas rapid development, its work ethics and performance orientation, and its self-contained industry and values. Of course, just looking at the vastly different political systems, this comparison was far-fetched and undifferentiated. Also, I had only visited the most developed cities with no sight of authoritarian repression or human rights violations. I thus tried to curb my enthusiasm. Yet, I think that the drive, discipline and can-do mentality which presented themselves to me so often should not be dismissed as random or insignificant, but rather typical.
China has spell-bound me, and intuitively I am so convinced that I will be back soon that I did not even bother about souvenirs. Looking forward to my next encounter with the rising giant, which luckily now is only 200 Euros away.

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