Tuesday, September 15, 2009

One Last Guangzhou Post

I fear it may be, too--the last Guangzhou post--as the rumor that we're switching operations (and layovers) here seems confirmed. Next time I'm back in China, in late October, I'm scheduled to fly into Shenzhen, about 60 miles Southeast of here, just across from Hong Kong. Hong Kong has long been highly rated by crews as a layover, though we lost the route to the 747 before I moved over to the MD. It sounds like it's not too difficult to visit Hong Kong during one's Shenzhen layover, though there's a border crossing involved (and back), with customs and visa implications.

Shenzhen is said by Wikipedia to be one of China's designated "Special Economic Zones," and it looks very intriguing. Its population is about the same as Guangzhou's, about half that of Shanghai (though the Wikipedia density figures for these two places make me wonder if these figures are useful. Shenzhen's population density is said to be about four times what Guangzhou's is, but, at least where I'm stationed here in Guangzhou, that seems highly improbable). Like Guangzhou, Shenzhen is on the water and looks like a very interesting place.

(A maintenance truck, packed with tools and hard hats...)

(...for working on the catenaries of the electric bus system. The truck is parked just behind these buses.)

But alas, I'm just finding a comfort zone with Guangzhou, and I've come to really like the place. I took another long walk yesterday and yet another today, each time veering a bit further from familiar territory. I'm walking to familiar destinations, but going via an improvised route helps to give a better sense of how the city is laid out, for distances and for how the map corresponds to reality (the paper map and the Google Map are subtly different). After a few of these walks, I fancy I'm beginning to get a feel for the place.

I headed out yesterday afternoon to buy Susan a boxed DVD set of a TV series she wanted, only to arrive at my destination without money or means to get money. When I moved from the DC-8 to the MD-11, I opened a separate debit account for travel purposes, and I transfer relatively small amounts of money into that account when I go off for a trip. I've alerted the bank what this account is for, and so they expect withdrawals from all corners of the globe (our regular debit card gets rejected outside the States except by prior, case-by-case arrangement). But at any given time I have a sketchy idea what's actually in the account, as I'm never withdrawing even numbers of dollars, and the service charges aren't always clear. So when I found Susan's DVDs yesterday, I did not have enough cash to cover it. It took me about an hour to find a cash machine, and then I found three, none of which would give me money. So I explained to the vendor that I'd have to straighten things out online that night and I'd be back the next day to buy. Oh well, the exploration of the city made the trip a satisfying endeavor just the same.

As I deviate from the main tracks I've walked on the last few visits, I begin to find myself back in the neighborhoods that I originally thought were off limits. Nobody seems to pay me too much attention back on these side streets, though I'm absolutely the only non-Chinese to be found here. But I keep my head down and make my way along. I did stop for a few photographs, but I feel a bit sheepish about it; someone usually takes note of my picture-taking, though whether they disapprove or just wonder "why the hell would someone want a picture of THAT?" I do not know.

It is a different city away from the main thoroughfares. Everything is much more intimate--streets and sidewalks are narrow and winding, and little passageways dart off in all directions, up and down stairways that disappear around corners. It's very much a concrete jungle--the low- and high-rise apartments are built very tightly together and the neighborhoods live in shadow and seem enclosed and protective. There are so many fun small details in the neighborhoods: tiny little squares with benches or tables on which people are gathered to play cards or mah-jongg or dominoes or what have you; there are tiny little booths, like mini convenience stores, that cater to perhaps a single thing--coffee or newspapers or fresh fruit. Rather than a few big do-everything stores, there are a zillion tiny stores, each with a very limited stock of a thing or two. There are coffee bars or places to buy beer that are barely more than a covered counter with stools attached to the side of a building. There are cars back in here, but clearly there are many more people than there are cars for them. Some of the apartment houses have little courtyards that are full of parked cars (though even then it seems like cars for maybe 1/3 of the building's residents), but clearly most people get by without their own car. And cabs wind their way through these streets regularly, picking their way slowly among the bicyclists and meandering pedestrians (I can't imagine what is involved in coming to know all the little two-block-long streets as a cabbie).

My walk yesterday, Sunday, was my first exposure to China On A Day Off, it seems. Though all the stores and booths were still in operation, there were many more natives on the sidewalks, shopping and walking and gathering and eating, than I had seen before. The big roads are lined with shops and seem always busy, but it appears there's shopping everywhere; these secondary streets are lined with daily-life shops clearly aimed at the local populations. All these were busy yesterday. Back in the residential sections there were lots of people loitering and smoking in casual, friendly groups in front of buildings or along low stone walls or in parks. China seems a very social culture. The next day, Monday, I was surprised this morning to see similar numbers of people out and about in the residential sections as I saw on Sunday. Not sure what to make of this. A lot of businesses don't open much before noon, so maybe there is a bit of social time in the mornings. In any case, seeing people away from work changes the aspect of the place a lot, at least to me.

And a few more little observations:

I saw (but could not dare to get a picture) two or three dads out this morning on the quiet, shady little streets holding their little sons in what struck me as an odd manner. After I looked a bit it was clear that they were waiting for the kid to take his morning dump: his back to dad's chest, dad squatting down, kid's pants around his knees and dad holding the kid semi-horizontal in a fetal position by the kid's knees. In all cases the dads were aiming their kids' poop at the base of decorative trees along the sidewalk. I would not have known what to make of it except that I saw it three times. Clearly this is one form of potty training (or maybe a strategy to save on diapers).

I imagined them picking up their kids' poop like they'd be expected to pick up their dogs', which reminded me that there are almost no dogs or cats to be seen in the city. And most of those one does see appear to be strays. China is not a pet culture, apparently. It's odd when about 30-50% of New Yorkers seem to have dogs, and it's maybe 5% here. Less than that. I heard some very loud mewing as I approached the hotel an hour or so ago, and there was a little stray kitty in some construction rubble yelling for mom or food or whatever. Kind of breaks your heart, but there seems little to be done by a visitor. A few people were taking note of the kitty as I snapped a photo, but no one tried to pet it or run off to find some food. The kitty did not seem tame.

(Metal frameworks holding bamboo platforms.)

(I watched them covering this 8-story building with this scaffolding. No fat guys walking on the bamboo!)

I was also a little surprised to see how much manufacturing / assembly piecework is done even back in these neighborhoods. I saw numerous little booths where people were at work doing odd things: putting soles on shoes, sewing backpacks (like the bike shops from the earlier post, most of these were not at all what we would think of as going concerns: dark and grimy and rudimentary and old and worn. And tiny, tiny). I must have seen half a dozen sewing machines sitting out along a sidewalk along my three mile walk, with someone working at some piecework under the shade of a tree or back in a covered alley. Most of these sewing machines were human-powered. These were not even places of work; they were just where someone had set up shop for the day's labors, a shady spot, someplace out of the way of the crowded foot traffic. It all just puts our conceptions of free market enterprise kind of on its ear.

I've noticed in many of the shopping markets--and I saw on the street today--people just tossing their trash on the ground. I'm accustomed to thinking of littering as an indelible mark of power-tool-dom. But here, I wonder. There are not so many public trash cans on the streets here as I am used to--though if you hang onto your napkin for a block or two you'll likely find someplace to dispose of it--but there is a small army of people tasked, and presumably paid by the city / state, to pick up trash and keep their floor / building / sidewalk / street clean. So one wonders whether littering is really littering here. Big trash seems to get thrown away properly, but cigarette wrappers or napkins or the like just gets tossed onto the ground. And yet one sees almost no litter around, so the system, such as it is, seems to work quite well.

I think part of the reason I'm coming to like the place is because this little bit of time I've spent makes it a wee bit less inscrutable. My walk through residential areas of town shows me a more human side of Chinese culture, even if I really understand almost none of the details; when all you know of people is how they work, then a glimpse of people away from work is revelatory. And with this little additional exposure, my sense of the population as a faceless, gray mass, and of China as a place where individuality has no value, seems oversimplified and wrong. Wherever I walk I see clean, healthy, well-dressed people going about their business with nary a cross word or personal tangle (I did see one guy having a meltdown at a bus stop, but everybody--maybe 200 people--stared with pity and regret as his friend tried to calm him down; and in any case it was no worse a meltdown than I see in the Target in Appleton on any given day). People seem educated and competent, and one begins to see that so many people all pulling in their small way in a general direction constitute an astounding resource. From my little exposure this seems a modest culture, and people are not at all given to showboating or drawing attention to themselves. They ARE individuals, of course, but they seem happy to express that in quieter ways. People seem secure in who they are, rather than having a need to broadcast it to others; it's an internal matter, not something one DOES. One can look at this a couple different ways, I'm sure, but it seems healthy to me.

Whatever the reason (and I'm sure I've not grasped it with these few days' exposure), it remains inescapable that China is a place on the move. The world is in recession, but you'd hardly know it here. And this sense of so many people--four times the population of the US!--each doing their little bit; it makes them seem not like a strange, backward country but rather an unstoppable force of nature. It's a different vibe from the quintessential American inspired genius or Donald-Trump-Style business maven (though I'm sure China has these in proliferation as well); It's all about little steps which, in their billions, add up to vast distances covered, to mountains moved. I learned that the big construction project in front of the hotel is the digging of a subway system. That just strikes all sorts of chords for me. It's an immense public works undertaking--a hugely expensive one--and now I realize I've seen the worksites at half a dozen locations. I've mentioned all the building and infrastructure work going on, and this appears not to be a local phenomenon. We took a taxi last night to dinner and passed through unfamiliar territory, and the work seems to be going on everywhere. (It must be said that a few of these big projects appear halted or abandoned, including a large building next to the hotel which is about 1/2 finished and looks like it hasn't been worked on in a few years.) One does see grunge and decay here, but generally everything is picked up and clean and functional, and there's an army of workers, like worker ants, that keeps it that way.

(Back at Shamian Island; the Pearl River at night.)

Without language, I have no way to gauge how political people are, or how large or menacing a presence Communism is in these people's lives. I walked through a park on Sunday, a memorial park to "fallen martyrs" or some such. It was a large and beautiful space, artfully designed and meticulously manicured, and there were lots of people walking around inside, but there were uniformed guards at the gates and lots of signs and placards inside--it wasn't simply a park for pleasure (a la NY's Central Park). Some of the signs did have English translations on them, so my being there was not a no-no, but it's impossible for me to get a sense of whether people are there out of ideological fervor--like attending church--or whether they just wanted to use the roller skating rink and paddle boats and escape the inescapable crowds.

My upcoming visit to Shenzhen may give me another perspective to help flesh out my picture of China.

(An official Communist site: odd kiddie figures in front, grim bronze statues in the background.)


Dzesika said...

It's been really fun reading about you getting to know this place! Thanks.

wunelle said...

It seems kind of ridiculously over-indulgent, no? But I've wanted to visit China for so long, and now that I've seen a bit of it I'm (clearly) struggling a bit to figure out what to make of it. So I kind of put down my thoughts on paper.

Anyway, I'm glad someone gets something out of it!

Anonymous said...

Bil! Mary here. I love reading your blogs about China. I was there in 1988 and it's always remained such an amazing country to me in so many ways. The way people make their living, what they do for recreation...I could go on and on. I love the detail. Thanks for doing these!

Anonymous said...

Chris's sister Mary, by the way!

wunelle said...

Howdy! Now that you mention it, I vaguely recall Chris saying you had spent time there. For work, no? Well, you've probably had a much better exposure than I, but I do find the place intriguing. I had a short visit to Shanghai a month or two ago as well (written up below). Now we're headed to Shenzhen, so I'm gradually seeing a few spots.

Mary said...

I think that you are seeing places in such unique ways. How many foreigners would walk for miles on end without fear of getting lost? Not many. I love the detail that you notice. My tour was very topline even though we were with a Chinese nun who taught at St. Ben's. We travelled throughout China but really didn't get to see what you are seeing. It's fascinating reading, really. I am anxious to hear about Shenzhen...and Hong Kong if you get to go across. What a great place although I didn't spend enough time there. And my friend Cassy lived there for a long time and I never did get back over there. Oh well. My daughter, Megan, enjoyed the ride on your motorcycle. Or did she just sit on it? I can't remember. She is our tackle football player and not afraid of much. Anyway...I will keep checking in for new posts and will read your older posts from time to time too. Thanks for writing!

wunelle said...

I'm glad someone gets something out of the experience! I've got quite a few posts over the years about my flying experiences / travels. The key to keeping one's blood pressure intact with my blog is to use the navigation tags and read, say, everything labeled "travel" and avoid the rest (since my posts on politics, etc. seem to resonate with no one but me)! ;-)

I didn't give Megan a bike ride, though I'd be happy to do so any time. She was fascinated by the bikes, so she came out with Grandma and Grandpa (or maybe just Uncle Chris) to have a look-see. They all said she'd be DYING to see the bikes, but I figure I didn't dare offer a kid a ride on my bike without mom's or dad's direct approval!