Friday, May 13, 2011


(Urban China in a nutshell: busy, crowded and social.)

More obsessive-compulsive hand-washing about China. I had a 36-hour layover in Guangzhou, good for a couple days of good walking in the dictatorial heat and hegemonic humidity. Nothing particularly extraordinary happens to me on these trips--certainly not from the perspective of a native--but as I walk the streets my Westerner's sensibilities are continuously tweaked in ways big and small and I'm dying to bring some of the experience back with me and share it. (I always say this, but the desire to absorb these experiences and share them does not seem to abate with repeated exposures.)

(Near our hotel, the notorious Cave Bar. Never been inside.)

It's mostly little things, especially once the big things have sunk in, things like the language and the millions of people and the broad strokes of architecture. But as I walk around I'm continuously filled to the brim with the foreign-ness of the place, overwhelmed with the zillion tiny details that mark China as different from any other place I've been. I'm aware that this fabulous alignment of circumstances is a temporary thing for me; even if it lasts another 10 years, I'll someday stop coming here and I'll likely never make it back. And so I want to grasp and understand as much as I possibly can while I have this chance.

The first thing I notice--one of the strongest impressions--is the smell; it strikes me right away every time I step off the airplane or out of the hotel. I hear my un-enamored coworkers ready to chime in at this comment, but I don't mean it as a criticism. It's not a bad smell, though not exactly a good smell either. New York City has a certain, identifiable urban smell (and it's one of the many things I find endearing about NYC) and this is like that. But different. For one thing it's not confined to the city itself, but is kind of everywhere. And I notice it--or I think I do--in all the places I've been in China: Guangzhou especially, but also in Shanghai and Hong Kong and Taipei. (Of course, these are all huge cities, so maybe it IS a city smell.) It's the smell of human habitation, maybe, but mixed with incense and diesel exhaust and the cooking of unidentifiable foods and… something else. But it's a characteristic smell like a woman's signature perfume, one which if encountered years from now will bring me right back here to this place and time. And it's one of the things that makes me rub my hands together in anticipation of some small adventure every time I step outside. Inside my hotel room, away from the crush of humanity and the oppressive heat and humidity, it's easy to get sucked into a film or to be lulled into surfing the (censored) web or just loll around on the extremely unyielding but incongruously comfortable hotel beds. (Seriously, it's like lying on a sheet of plywood. And yet I wake up feeling like a million bucks.) But the moment I step outside for a bite to eat or a Diet Coke from the 7-11 across the street I'm grabbed by this amazing smell, the smell of millions of things happening all around you.

(Interesting block of old buildings.)

That smell is doubtless related to how densely-packed everything is here. The streets and sidewalks are Manhattan-busy (at least during the day), a function of there being more people being packed into every square mile here than maybe anywhere else in the world--certainly when scale is taken into consideration. I've never been in a Chinese household, so I'm speculating; but my sense is that no one has very much living space, even the quite prosperous. This is a culture where it's normal to live cheek-by-jowl with one's neighbors, people above and below and on all sides. With the one-child policy there really aren't any large families, but I suspect that three or four generations live under a single roof. And that density of living spaces brings a concurrent density of all the stuff needed to support them: utilities and vendors and public transit and pollution and every other thing. And it's not just a section here or there, but it extends for miles and miles. Even out of the city center where there is presumably more space, housing still looks to be small and multi-unit.

(Love the narrow alleys and the piled-up ancient housing that looks about to crumble.)

(One of the more fascinating things I've come across is the occasional still-occupied neighborhood which is literally falling apart and pushing its inhabitants out as it crumbles. In Shanghai particularly I walked thru a section that looks almost bombed out with half or more of the structures crumbling and uninhabited--the walking tracks literally wind over and thru the half-walls and huge piles of crumbled bricks and dirt. There's a tier just above this of housing still standing but too far gone to be safe to inhabit. And these exist intermingled with similarly-dilapidated structures which are yet still inhabited. This is obviously a very poor part of town, but once again I'm surprised to see the places comparatively picked up and the inhabitants quite clean and well put-together. It's hard to get pictures in these settings, as I'm aware that I'm out of place and being watched slightly--about the only time I ever feel this in my wanderings around China; I want not to make a spectacle of these people's circumstances, and yet it's a very different flavor from any poor or old places I've seen in my own country; there's no sense of self-destruction or self-immolation here.)

(These few from a visit last year to Shanghai.)

For the zillionth time, I'm surprised at how often the rest of the crew have never really looked around the place. As we discuss what we might do on our layover, the various markets and so on, they're always surprised that anyone would actually walk to these places. Despite flying in here for years, they often have no real idea how to get anywhere except to give a pre-printed card to a cab driver. They're even more astounded when I try to point out the location of someplace I've visited on a map but caution them that I'm not exactly sure whether the place in question is here or here. "How can you not know where you're going?" they ask. And my response shows the gulf in our philosophy: while pilots tend to be single-focus, goal-oriented kinda guys, I try intentionally NOT to know exactly where I'm going as then I'd never see anything I hadn't seen before. The IDEA is to get a little bit lost. There's always a little satisfaction in coming out of an unfamiliar section of town to find myself someplace I know, or to find my way to a familiar destination by way of a random, unfamiliar route. Because there is no standard grid here, getting lost can carry one quite far afield from where you might expect to end up, so one has to expect to not make quick, linear progress. Even after two years of this, I've surely seen only the tiniest fraction of what there is to see here, but from a starting point of zero I've managed to see quite a bit of stuff. More and more I find myself using the subway to see things further out, making my walks one-way affairs rather than a loop that begins and ends at the hotel. (I could of course keep busy for years this way.)

(North of our hotel, an outdoor cafe. Unusual, as this isn't really cafe culture.)

So many little details. I always note the security person / watchman / party informant that sits at the entrance of each little neighborhood--hundreds of people employed in this way, maybe thousands. Sometimes they're just sitting on a battered chair, other times they have a little weatherproof booth. They're almost always in uniform, but I never actually see them doing anything except sitting there reading a paper or playing on their cell phones or chatting with others on a ramshackle collection of lawn chairs. I tend to be sheepish about entering a neighborhood with one of these sentinels on duty (since I don't know that their function isn't precisely to keep me out), but the further one gets from the main thoroughfares the more the neighborhood entrances are unguarded, and I will take the opportunity to head in and look around. I've exited past these guards a hundred times and never had anyone give me so much as a glance, so maybe my sheepishness is unwarranted.

(A neighborhood entrance, this one unguarded.)

This profusion of small jobs for which we have no analogs in the US is everywhere. The health club at our hotel--an amazingly swanky place--features a small army of track-suited folks whose primary job is apparently to "facilitate" your workout. (The facility, though beautiful, isn't particularly large, maybe accommodating 10 people working out at once. There are nearly this many attendants.) They walk you from the front desk to the facility itself (though no guidance beyond a simple finger point is needed), and they stand around at attention in the facility ready to assist with every little thing--handing out a towel, giving a bottle of water, helping with the machines, answering questions. The idea of these folks earning a living this way strikes me as odd, an obvious area where a company could economize. There are zillions of staff members paid to do these little arcane service jobs.

(A couple pictures from a previous visit.)

Likewise on the streets. Crossing guards and sidewalk sweepers and general trash-picker-uppers and traffic cops and little motorcycle taxi drivers. At the technology markets where I buy DVDs, I'm amazed at how many booths are selling the exact same items (or very slight variants)--iPhones and Android phones and Blackberries and all manner of cases and covers and accessories for these things. Hundreds and hundreds of these booths in mall after multi-level mall for several blocks, all concentrated in a particular part of town (the purse markets are in one place, the watch markets in another, the toy markets in another, etc.--this must be according to some plan). One typically doesn't see much commerce going on at any of these places, and you wonder how they make a living when a hundred other places within a stone's throw are selling the exact same stuff (maybe they do a big web business). Some booths have some action going on, but most are empty but for the clerk. I also cannot help noticing that almost none of the folks who work at these booths actually use an iPhone themselves, despite selling them (and despite seeing iPhones all around Guangzhou). What to make of this? Is the iPhone just that expensive to buy here (yes,I think) and / or is the plan so expensive that these vendors cannot afford them despite getting them at cost? I suspect that most iPhones sold here are not the real McCoy; perhaps the "Chinese" iPhones don't work very well? There are many items for sale in these booths that are China-only, copyright-infringed items: iPhones and iPads in different sizes and configurations, Apple branded items which Apple clearly had nothing to do with. Who buys these? Sure, a fake iPad is much cheaper than the real one, but its functionality must be a fraction of the real one; what's to be gained this way?

I walked yesterday through the campus of the Sun Yat-Sen University, noticing the phalanxes of smokers taking their breaks outside the Cancer Center (no, really). Odd that smokers here are almost exclusively men. One sees the occasional woman smoking, but it's rare. But probably more than 50% of men are smokers.

I love that this is a public transit culture (and that there's a vital rung below this on the transit ladder: human powered). Guangzhou's subway system is quite new, and the times I've ridden it has been absolutely jammed to the gills--so much so that I'm surprised there aren't "pushers" to force folks into the cars. There are no surface trains for in-town transit, but there appear to be hundreds of bus lines (my attempts to learn more about the bus system in general have only made the whole thing seem larger and more multi-headed than I thought going in). Buses are everywhere, in a profusion of types and sizes. I'd say about 1/4 of the buses in the inner city are electric, with the overhead catenaries giving away the route structure. The rest are diesels, mostly of regular city bus sizes, but all of them have manual transmissions (like most of the rest of the world). And the buses are invariably full or nearly so. During rush hours they are standing-room-only affairs, and one NEVER sees an empty bus. The vehicles themselves are well-worn, sometimes bordering on shabby, but one does not see much graffiti or other vandalism.

I also can't help noting things which seem to have bigger ramifications, chicken-and-egg things. Like diet. Walking around, I'm always amazed at how little of the food I can identify, and how fundamentally different the Chinese diet is from our own. Of course, McDonalds and KFCs are popping up everywhere here, and we will doubtless see a steady rise in all the health problems Americans suffer from as the Chinese fall prey to Western big-business culture--obesity and diabetes and heart disease, things largely foreign to these Asian cultures (this makes me wonder about the liabilities of these companies that introduce these things--bad food and tobacco and so on--for reasons of profit and marketing success even as they leave a trail of human wreckage behind them--and know that they're going to; but that's another post, I guess). There appears to be no such thing as a Chinese jogger. I've seen maybe one or two in the few parks I've walked thru here, but they're very much an aberration. I suspect this is because the Chinese diet is not at war with the human body as ours is. We are having to battle the effects of a diet which has evolved solely for the benefit of other people--of CEOs and shareholders and board members--of organizations operating purely on profit motive. This is literally killing us. The Chinese markets still contain raw foods sold by mom-and-pop vendors, people supplying a particular grain or fruit or fish in small quantities to individuals. (At some point business will discover that they can process and package these essential foodstuffs, thus taking nutrients out and making people pay more for the privilege.) People eat at home, or the restaurants (mostly street vendors) seem to sell exactly what you'd make at home. It's not the first thing I notice, but over time the difference becomes striking: it's rare here to see an overweight person here, certainly not an obese one. The difference with Westerners is quite striking.

(A third-floor coffee bar. Just... odd.)

At the aforementioned health club, the machines are almost exclusively plying the gelatinous flesh of Americans. Anyone else is European, and about 85% of us are fat or nearly so. I have never seen a Chinese person at this health club who was not an employee (and none of them actually working out), and I've never seen a health club as I've walked any Chinese city. This cornerstone of American life is all in pursuit of a solution to a problem the Chinese simply don't have.

I leave this discussion with some t-shirt wisdom. Printed t-shirts are all the rage among the young here, and for some reason the shirts MUST contain an English slogan (I honestly don't think it's that I simply don't see / understand the Chinese sayings or those in some other language; they just don't seem to exist). Some of them are perfectly comprehensible: I saw a fella yesterday whose shirt said "I'm smiling because I have no idea what is going on." But many others get their slogans subtly--or spectacularly!--wrong. (I don't mean to criticize when I don't speak a single word of either primary languages--or any of the hundreds of others--of the country.) A while back I saw one that said "But Over Just Here More Delight." My favorite from yesterday's wanderings was a young woman's shirt saying:

bizarre MUST awesome WANT.

Hey, amen to that. Or whatever.


Jon said...

Interesting post! The obesity factor is truly American. It is interesting that the Chinese, who make just about everything for us anymore, havent figured out how to make and package meals like we do and cut out the middle man. Maybe its on purpose, to make sure that more people have work. And what do all these people do for a living besides the work that you mentioned? There must be factories everywhere. Alot of our jobs are now there in China and more than likely in the bigger cities.

wunelle said...

I think factories are in the outskirts of town all around Guangzhou and the surrounding areas. Guangzhou proper has something like 19 million people, but there is no border between the city and all the dense populations surrounding; I'm told the larger valley around Guangzhou and Shenzhen and Hong Kong contains something like 400 million people, the largest concentration of people on the planet.

We fly in and out of this area because, as you say, this is where everything is now made.

I often wonder how people actually get by. The clerks at the little zillion empty booths selling iPhone accessories surely aren't paying their rent on these proceeds. So maybe the Communist government gives everyone a basic stipend and then they can work a private business for supplemental income. I'd be curious to learn the details.

GreenCanary said...

"I try intentionally NOT to know exactly where I'm going..."

I love that, Wunelle. I'm going to try to get lost more often. In your honor :-)

Years ago I met with a nutritionist, who asked me what I wanted with/from my body. I told her that I didn't want to exercise or watch what I ate. I just wanted to BE and for that to be enough. I still feel that way. I want my lifestyle to sustain me. I don't want to be in a gym, on an elliptical machine, or counting the calories of packaged diet foods. I want my life to be lived smartly and for that to keep me healthy and active. It sounds a bit like the Chinese live that way.

wunelle said...

I love that as a food philosophy, and wish it would work for me.

Alas, I'm unfortunately a perfect product of the very culture I'm coming to fear and despise: for years I've had no skepticism and have unwittingly fallen for all the heavily-marketed junk foods, my tastes weaned on high-fat, high-carb, low-nutrition junk that makes for "comfort food" to me. And for the life of me I don't know how to workably turn a corner from this.

It ticks me off that I'm addicted (and that's what I think it is, really) to exactly what the big food conglomerates want me to be addicted to.

Alas, I begin to sound a bit nutty, even to myself! ;-)

shrimplate said...

I love your travelogues. Keep up the good work. It's interesting how you begin your essay with that most primal of the senses: smell.

wunelle said...

I'm wondering now if some of this smell I talk about is a particular source of pollution. We always note how hazy and smoggy it is when we fly in, and I tend to think it's because of all the coal-fired power plants (the emissions of which are of course unscrubbed and unregulated). Maybe it's that.