Thursday, September 10, 2009

How To Learn Nothing About China in Three Days

Another day on the hoof.

(Hotel room view. I'm facing a different direction than last time.)

(Another view of our Hotel, the Garden Hotel. In all these pictures, imagine it's a thousand degrees and 100% humidity.)

After the breakfast buffet at the hotel here (where I surely consumed enough for a family of four) I decided to head back to the electronics section of town I saw on my last visit. After verifying the location with the concierge (he also suggested this as the best place in town to look for DVDs), I asked if one of the two main routes to get there were preferable. Once again, the idea that anyone were planning to walk this distance seemed to him the height of folly, but I set off just the same.

Well, given how the day turned out, he may actually have been onto something. In a word, it was hotter than bloody hell and humid as a sauna, and I arrived at my destination an hour later with my shirt looking like a Rorschach blot. And, doubtless, smelling like a farm animal. But actually, apart from sweating like a shower head from every pore in my body for the hour, I was no worse for wear, and I spent a couple hours poking around this most fascinating part of town. There are several multi-story buildings, all crammed with little stalls and kiosks, dedicated to electronic stuff, and these are surrounded by streets packed with stores and stalls and kiosks almost innumerable. Most of the stores focus on phones or cameras or accessories, but there's plenty of everything to be found, including a whole street dedicated to musical and stage performance stuff--lights and microphones and sound systems and so on--and another with home security system equipment. I found an entire department-store-sized building devoted entirely to high-end home audio equipment. Fan-freakin'-tastic! You can hardly buy stereo equipment any more in the states; everything is about surround-sound audio for one's TV. But apparently listening to music is still the rage in Asia.

(Not sure what this means, but I felt appropriately cautioned.)

(A sidewalk cleaner makes herself a new broom.)

(The crowd in front of the city's main train station.)

(A pay-for-use public oasis in the middle of the city. One can rent pedal boats here and walk the trails.)

I did find a place with DVDs for sale, thousands of titles for $1.46 a piece. At that price, one can hardly cavil about trying anything that seems even remotely interesting; so I bought 20 titles, and a couple more on the street later (and half of even that price). It was still before noon by the time I had wandered all through Technology Town and bought my DVDs, so I decided there was no reason to rush back to the hotel and spend the rest of the day sitting listlessly in my room. Next stop: the purse and leather market across town, again in search of a particular Coach bag Susan's had her eye on. I searched high and low for it last time and it was nowhere to be found. But I suspect it's just still too new (and too rare for widespread dissemination). And so it remained elusive today as well, though I did manage to find a lower model in the same line as the one she's looking for. So that's a good sign for future trips, maybe.

I did have an experience, though, finding a little goodie for her, an experience with the whole negotiation debacle that seems to accompany every purchase here (or at least it's a debacle when I do it--or I just settle for paying more than I suppose I could get away with). So I found this nameless goodie, and I asked the price. She told me. I left to think things over and to see who else had the same item and at what price. After a couple hours of looking around, I was back to see what kind of deal she would make me. She quoted her original price (this is typically done by taking a big calculator and punching the number into the display so that language issues do not impede; everybody understands numbers). I said "What kind of deal will you make me?" She pointed to calculator number. So I cleared the number and put in one about 30% less, and she waved her hand dismissively. I bumped my number up a little, and she waved her hand again and cleared my number off the calculator and put in her original number again. "Really?" I asked. "No deal?" She pointed to the calculator, and turned away. I said "Sorry, no" and left the store. Now, generally, when one walks away the vendor calls after you and makes another price offer or asks you what you're willing to do. But she just let me go and she turned to her other customers. I went back to the other two vendors who had something similar, and felt them out as to whether they would give deals or not, and they were also pretty tight with their prices. So I returned to vendor No. 1 and took my money out of my wallet and said "Really, this is all I have," and I put the number in the calculator. I was about 30 yuan (about $4) shy of her asking price. And to my great surprise she rather testily cleared my number and put in her original number! So I guess this really is her bottom line price. So I left again and chewed it over, and then went to the cash machine and took out another 100 yuan ($15). At this point it seemed stupid to quibble over $4 (though SHE was...), and I was disinclined to give her my business as she had been so brusque; but nobody else had the merchandise, so I caved. When I went back to make the purchase, she was gone and her partner was there. And SHE did not want to give me even THAT price! When I said her partner had agreed to it, she said she'd need to call the partner. Fine, I said. But they she got busy and waved her hand and said "OK, I give it to you," and the deed was done. So it seems that maybe her partner DID come down in price a little, but she seemed to have done it at the first query from me and there it stayed.

I'm not a very good negotiator in financial matters (in anything, really). I'm not inclined to apologize for this, as sometimes this skill in others seems to me a bit distasteful. But I'm quite at a loss to figure how I might have managed this little transaction better. I'm one guy buying one item (albeit one of her nicer items), and I suspect these places typically sell large numbers wholesale; so I have little leverage and my sale must not be very attractive in any case. But I wonder how I might have known that the usual rules of give-and-take--to the extent that I know them at all--were not to be applied here. In just about every other transaction in this town the price is often not really the price, especially in these big markets. I had bought another knock-off watch the previous day here, and the transaction followed the rules I was used to. They quote a price; I counter at about half the value; they act shocked; and so on back and forth until we end up somewhere in the middle. (At least this time I remembered to have her size the damn thing before I left the market.) This little haggling routine seems to be how commerce is done here; and it makes me think this purse vendor needed to start with a considerably higher opening bid if she is not to go through this abortive negotiation for every sale.

(Five levels of traffic. Five!)

(A neighborhood entrance.)

By the time I reached the purse & leather market I had covered somewhere around 8 miles on foot. In the extreme heat and humidity I must have sweated a gallon. I stopped at markets along the way for a Diet Coke (most places have Coke Zero here), each of which disappeared instantly. My couple hours in the purse market was at least in air-conditioned comfort, but I decided to face the heat again and cover the last three miles back to the hotel on foot. I was already well past the point of needing a shower, so what's another gallon of sweat? The Gmaps Pedometer when I got back said I had covered something North of 10.5 miles plus all the walking inside the markets. In the heat, it seemed like an accomplishment, and I was tapped out enough after I left the purse market that I decided if I were to make a wrong turn I'd take a cab to rectify my mistake. But no, I actually kind of knew where I was going by now.

At the end of two more days wandering the streets of Guangzhou, I have a few general thoughts. There's a conspicuously large security presence here, with monitors and inspectors everywhere. It's not clear to me whether these guys (they're all men) are police or Communist Party or Customs or what, and they don't seem to be an ominous presence, but they are absolutely everywhere--always in some kind of uniform though not usually armed.

I'm struck again and again by how industrious the place seems. Everybody appears to work, and there isn't much cultural sense of leisure, at least that I can see (though they cater conspicuously to the leisure of tourists and visitors). In the evenings one occasionally sees groups of older men sitting around in a park or people standing at an outdoor bar in the residential zones, but that's about it. In all this work there seems little thought given to efficiency. Workers certainly don't seem lazy or wantonly inefficient per se, though people seem often to work at a slow-but-steady pace, especially with outdoor tasks in the oppressive heat. The division of labor in any big city is amazing to contemplate, but here there seem to be so many jobs titles that don't really exist at home: sidewalk cleaner; intersection monitor; bathroom attendant, bicycle trash, uh, picker-upper-dude. And there are many of the same jobs as we have too, but they're parceled down into smaller chunks and attended to by much larger numbers of people. The purse and leather market employs thousands of people, while I suspect the same merchandise might be sold in the States by far fewer people. Part of this, of course, is the frenzy for people to try and find a free enterprise niche in their changing world.

I saw quite a few booths on the street during my walk today that were no more than a broom closet off the sidewalk packed full of merchandise with a man sitting in front on a folding chair. This was his living. I saw two bicycle repair shops like this, one with a single proprietor and another with what looked like a father and son. They were sitting on milk crates in front of their little kiosk, the booth packed with all manner of bike parts and tires hanging from the ceiling. There was an air hose tied up in a tree over their heads so sidewalk passersby wouldn't trip on it. This was the family business. And this was not the bottom limit to people's resourcefulness, to their willingness to occupy any niche that would yield a living (like, I thought, the plant life that springs up from any crack in the sidewalk). I saw a woman running an impromptu hair cutting service below a freeway ramp, with a client sitting on a folding chair wrapped in plastic getting a trim, while two others waited on chairs for their turn. A dream of private enterprise just doesn't get any more basic than this. And I saw a Chrysler Caravan on jacks underneath another freeway ramp. At first I thought the guy was just having car troubles, but as I went past it was clear that major maintenance was going on. There were three or four people at work, in dungarees, with all four corners jacked up and a guy on his back underneath with parts laying around and the hood open. A cop / monitor was watching impassively from the sidewalk on his wooden chair, fanning himself with his military-style cap.

Because the city is exploding in growth and commerce, there is construction and infrastructure work going on everywhere, each job with 10 or 100 or 500 people employed. Looking out my hotel room window I can see a dozen construction projects big and small, all buzzing with quiet activity. In all of this it's hard to get a sense of how the experiment (if that's what it is) is doing. The underground trades--the knock-offs of everything--seem to be doing a good business, but few of the rest of the zillion shops and stalls I visited seemed to be doing any business. It's hard to imagine that all these merchants are making their living off their empty stores, though perhaps the country's Communist underpinning keeps everyone afloat regardless of the soundness of their business plans.

(Another neighborhood entrance. Most of these are monitored / guarded.)

(The water-delivery bike.)

(There he is! Bicycle trash picker-upper-dude!)

(Naptime, or heat stroke, or the last gasp of dehydration.)

There is a real sense in the air that China is undergoing seismic change, that the young kids of today will lead lives utterly different from what their grandparents lived. That may be true in the US as well, but I suspect not NEARLY to the same extent. Speaking of bicycles, they serve as one of those indicators of change. The old photos of China 50 or 80 years ago show masses of people using bikes to get around. There are far fewer of them today, I suspect (on a per capita basis), but they still largely occupy a cultural niche that is almost nonexistent in the US. There are no fashionable bikes here, no lifestyle bikes, no bikes-as-workout devices, no mountain bikes or kids' chopper-style bikes or anything of the sort. I never saw a NEW bike anywhere, even in shops. Everything seems old and utilitarian, a collection of turn-of-the-last-century safety bikes serving a purely utilitarian function. One sees a fair number being used as commuting vehicles--I saw a couple construction sites with almost identical black bikes lined up with workers' hard hats on them, and the hotel here has a bunch of workers' bikes parked out back--but there are at least as many being used for commerce. My favorite (and I had trouble getting a good picture of it) is the water delivery bike. I saw at least 50 of these (it didn't strike me right away that I ought to get a picture of them), regular bikes with flimsy metal racks on the back carrying two or four or even eight five-gallon bottles of water. On these and other delivery bikes one sometimes sees some kind of propulsion system, a battery with an electric motor in the rear wheel hub, or a puttering single-cylinder engine that looks almost like it came from a model airplane; but just as often they are purely human-powered. The very concept is absolutely unfathomable in the US: a grown man delivering Culligan water around town by bicycle! Ha! You'd have to pay the guy a doctor's salary to get anyone to do it. But there are lots of delivery bikes here, including three-wheeled "pickup truck" varieties. I never saw a single bike that anyone seemed to care particularly about; they were all cobbled together to make them function, but not a single one had been prettified or accessorized in any personal way. How foreign this is from our culture, where one's wheels are very much a vehicle of personal expression.

In the end, I think the biggest impression from my time in China is all that I don't know: I've managed this arm's-length interaction with a number of people, all centered around some commercial endeavor--hotel staff, retail sales, van & taxi drivers, restaurant or convenience store staff. This is always a pretty superficial interaction anyway, but with the language barrier here it becomes absolutely rudimentary. And so I'm more and more aware that I have no idea who these people are or how they live. This sense of disconnect is made psychologically worse by the sheer numbers involved: one is simply overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of lives and stories and dramas and aspirations that one cannot get any kind of grip on. (This is kind of a false objection, I know, when even in Appleton I know but a tiny handful of the 70,000 residents. But these people's lives are much closer to my own than that of any Chinese person.) I have this sense, maybe self-fulfilling, of people here as a gray mass; there just seems to be so much less emphasis here placed in individuality. One sees young people who stand out for being very Western and making a style statement, but they are an aberration among masses of quietly, modestly, uniformly dressed people going quietly about their lives. I find myself taking photo after photo of the grubby high rises and the ancient apartment blocks that are visible as one walks around. These scenes hint at all I've failed to learn thus far. People's windows are left open during the day, and many apartments have laundry hanging out their windows, the humid industrial smog thwarting people doubly by making their clothes both damp and gray. Sometimes one sees plants on balconies or in the open windows. What are the spaces like? What do their possessions or the contents of their kitchen cupboards or medicine cabinets say about how they live? What is life like in these spaces; what is it like to live 70 or 80 years in this way? Do folks aspire to bigger or newer lodgings or a better part of town? There's just no getting around that this is a country of some 1.3 billion people whose entire lives do not intersect with mine in any way. They are born, live and die without my knowing the first thing about them or understanding any of their life's experiences. Beyond the most rudimentary things, their cares and priorities are undoubtedly very different from my own, which fact essentially takes the stuffing out of so much of what we think of as bedrock. No one in Sydney was clamoring to invite me to their home for dinner, but it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to go to a restaurant several times there and befriend someone in the process. But that seems like a thing that would simply never happen here; the gap to be bridged is simply too wide.

It just leaves one with a whole lotta stuff to think about.

(Off the beaten path, the neighborhood entrances are less gated / monitored. But the sense that this is not a place for visitors remains.)

(The friendly neighborhood footpath-overpass roasted chestnut seller.)

1 comment:

dbackdad said...

Fascinating story and pictures, as always. Very jealous of your travels.