I previously blogged about my initial impressions of working in a Chinese law firm. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to dive a little deeper into the China pool with one of the quintessential experiences of China’s business culture: the company retreat. Many Chinese companies don’t provide any paid leave for their staff. Instead, companies will pay for their staff to go together on a brief vacation each year. Such retreats are intended both as an opportunity for rest and a chance for team-building.* My firm sent the office to South Korea’s Jeju Island over the winter. While it was my first extended time in South Korea, the trip was perhaps more interesting for the insights into Chinese culture that I gleaned!
Jeju Island itself is well worth a visit. Only an hour’s flight from Shanghai, the change from the east coast of China can be jarring: from China’s smog-choked, overcrowded cities, to a pristine island with clean air, mountain peaks, and dramatic seaside cliffs. Jeju was formed by volcanic activity millennia ago, and the results today are unique scenic sites declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. The island is dominated by the central Mount Halla, whose flanks are crossed with trails used for leisure hiking. Also famous are the cliffs along Jeju’s coast, many of which have colorful and ornate designs as a result of the cooling lava that formed them, volcano ‘tubes,’ or underground caves, formed by flowing lava, and Mount Ilchulbong, a dormant volcano whose dramatic position on a small peninsula is simply gorgeous. The scenery was breathtaking, and I would have loved to spend several days hiking around these sites to soak in the beauty of creation.
But as I was traveling with a Chinese tour group, that was not to be. When Melanie and I travel around Asia, we frequently see Chinese tourist groups: crowds wearing brightly colored hats (to identify the group) led by an intrepid tour guide, who waves a large flag and burnishes a bull horn to regale the group (and those unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity) with wisdom and directions. Melanie and I often wondered what kind of travel experience such groups provide. Traveling around China, we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the clamor and crush of tour groups around us. Travel just a bit off the beaten path, however, and these groups seem to disappear. Where do they go, we wondered? What do they see? It was my time to find out. To the left, one of my colleagues shows me how to pose for pictures, China style!
Jeju has thrown open its arms to China’s tourism industry,** and as a result, buses of Chinese tourists clog the island’s roads. Before our departure, our tour agency sent tips for our preparation. The tips were in Chinese of course, so after struggling through translating the email, I had a rough idea of the advice: pack your own toiletries, because Korean toiletries are of poor quality, and pack lots of snacks, because the Korean food in South Korea is not as good as the Korean food in China. One would think we intrepid Chinese travelers were heading into the barbaric wilds, and I suppose the food and toiletries were different from China. Yet I must say that I generally found South Korea to be an exceptionally nice and clean place, and the food was quite good (I could happily live on a diet of Korean barbeque and stone pot rice). This didn’t stop my colleagues from grumbling at every meal (“不好吃!”, not tasty), or complaining about the lack of hot water.*** My first takeaway from a China tour group: there’s no place like home (i.e. China).
Upon arrival, we first visited some of Jeju’s scenic cliffs, and these beautiful sites quickly wetted my appetite for more natural wonders. As we trudged back into our tour bus, I had a hard time understanding our Korean tour guide’s Chinese, so I asked my colleagues what our next stop was. Their response: a duty free shop. I was a little surprised, but I suppose everyone likes to do a bit of shopping when they travel, so I went along with it. I found a nearby café while my colleagues shopped for a couple of hours, but to my surprise, this was hardly our only shopping excursion. Indeed, nearly half of the tour’s stops were at duty free shops or shopping malls! To be fair, Melanie and I have often complained about the shopping options in China, which offer the two extremes of poor quality cheap products, or exorbitantly priced imported products, so I can’t blame my colleagues for wanting to take advantage of reasonably priced, quality products. Still, I must admit that I was rather disappointed that so much of our time in Jeju was spent in shopping malls. My second takeaway from a China tour group: bring lots of excess baggage to bring home all of your shopping goodies!
After our first visit to a duty free shop, our next stop was a little surprising to me: a teddy bear museum. I asked my coworkers if Jeju has some connection to the teddy bear industry, but they didn’t know, and after visiting said museum, I still don’t know. The museum was little more than a gift shop, and I have no idea why Jeju has no less than three such museums (that I saw). Instead, I was learning my next lesson about China tour groups: don’t let an interest in local culture or history get in the way of good, clean fun! To the left, a classic example of a Viking Teddy Bear, at least as interpreted by Wagner...
Jeju seems to have fully embraced the Chinese tourism industry’s search for simple fun with an array of attractions that I admittedly found bizarre, but which Chinese tourists seem to enjoy: the aforementioned teddy bear museums, Mini Land (mini-recreations of world landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower), the African Art Museum, Elephant Land, Mongolian Horse shows, and more. One stop on my tour was a multi-faceted entertainment complex, which included a “5-d” Movie (I don’t know where the extra dimensions were, but we did see a terrifyingly stupid 3-d horror movie), random ice sculptures, and an “Interactive Picture Hall,” which was a bunch of wall paintings designed for customers to pose in, resulting in funny pictures. My colleagues loved this picture hall. Okay, so did I: I pose in an Indiana Jones-like scene on the left.
We also stopped at a Mongolian horse show, which featured actors riding horses (presumably Mongolian) accompanied to eclectic music, ranging from Mortal Kombat to Gangam Style (the crowd loved that one). The audience was also treated to some kernels of wisdom about Genghis Khan, such as:
“He lived with himself and rats. But he learned from the words of others. He learned that the only enemy is in yourself, and don’t blame your country, poverty and home.”
Those were some smart rats! Though this wisdom sounds a bit pacifist for a man largely known for his warfare and conquests…silly rats!
While I must admit that these weren’t the type of sites I favor when traveling, my Chinese colleagues genuinely enjoyed themselves, to an extent I doubt many Westerners would allow themselves to. Many Westerners seem to adopt a jaded and ironic worldview as they grow older, and this can cause many Westerners, including me, to miss out on opportunities for fun that we might have enjoyed when younger. This carefree attitude allowed my colleagues to really enjoy themselves. My colleagues broke out into a big snowball fight when we visited Mount Halla, something I can’t imagine happening with a group of U.S. lawyers!
And that’s my biggest takeaway from a Chinese tour group: it’s all about having fun with friends. I never cease to be touched by the warmth and generosity of my colleagues, and I have a new-found appreciation for their ability to enjoy life. While I might have preferred a different travel itinerary [Indeed, I hope I can learn a bit more about South Korea the next time I go there!], the company was good, and I enjoyed myself!
* I suppose there are some undertones of pre-capitalist days in this practice: “Together comrades! For the glory of the company!”
**Jeju Island is the only place in Korea that the Chinese can travel without a Korean visa. And travel there they do!
*** The Chinese generally prefer to drink water at close to boiling temperatures, believing this provides health benefits. I didn’t care for this much when we first arrived in China, but I’ve grown to like it, especially in winter!
Mr. Li, I toast to thee
Whose garden I now view
A man of merits, who chose to share it
So that I enjoy it, too.
I hear a tale of four males
Who'd gather in your shade
To chat, to write, to paint, to delight
In conversation made.
It's even claimed, you man of fame
That a glass of wine or two
Would help along a chat, a song
And laughter would ensue.
Mr. Li, I toast to thee
For surely you somehow knew
That sometimes we each one need
A garden with a view.
While the immediate area around our apartment is mostly commercial concrete, a few nearby parks satisfy our thirst for greenery. One such urban oasis is the Longhua Martyrs Cemetery. As you can see from the link, the park itself is a paradox. Chilling execution grounds and brash statues collide with fragrant blossoming magnolia trees, gentle swaths of grass, and delicate bridges crossing slender brooks. Needless to say, I focus on the park's natural aspects.
Anyone who wants a crash course in contemporary Chinese culture need only spend an hour strolling through the cemetery. I myself recently imbibed in the essence of all things beautiful and absurd on a morning jog. I invite you to join me on a journey into the heart of twenty-first century China as I recount this jog for you :).
As I approach the park, I must dodge sprays of water from a start-up car wash company whose clients have taken up all of the sidewalk. The dodging continues at the park's gate, where I need to avoid cars turning hither and yon. Another entrepreneur is using the stretch of concrete in front of the gate as a parking lot for the city's countless new automobile owners.
As I enter the cemetery, I smile as adult children push heavily clothed parents in wheelchairs, sharing an opportunity to enjoy a mild autumn day outside. Other folks who are older slowly stroll amongst the graves of the cemetery's eponymous martyrs.
I turn the corner and encounter a new scene: young adults with badminton racquets hitting a birdie back and forth, a troop of tai chi practitioners beautifully swaying together in motion, and oddly, one lone individual seeking some sort of spiritual connection by vigorously rubbing a hapless poplar tree. All of this on top of a slender stretch of grass beside the jogging trail.
Before long, the trail veers left and opens up to a new collection of statues, fountains, and pavilions. A band of retired folks is gathered under one pavilion, belting out an opera song of a bygone era. Tuba and oboe players accompany them. One lone soul sits under another pavilion with his erhu (a Chinese stringed instrument), strumming a haunting song undoubtedly about unrequited love.
As I continue to jog, most people I pass on the trail avoid eye contact with me. A few children shriek "lao wai!" (foreigner!), and a few others steal curious glances. Some look at me, then turn back to their friends to laugh at the freakish alien in their midst. One woman, however, smiles directly at me, gives me space to pass, and cheers me on with an encouraging "jia you!" (you can do it!). I smile back at her in gratitude.
After meandering through small yet lovely expanses of bamboo, the trail journeys forward to the park's front gate. The scent of incense increases as I swing near the Longhua temple, which sits right outside the park's entrance. I glimpse the top of the temple above some juniper trees.
As I continue on the trail, I leave the incense behind and encounter other pockets of activity (this time underneath an ornate archway): an assembly of ladies line dancing, as an upbeat Chinese love song blares through a portable speaker. Another group of ballroom dancers bumps against the ladies, as the couples' waltz and song compete for prominence. The trail proceeds past the jostling dancers to a small inlet of water, where a bridge crosses the water and circles me back in the direction of my apartment. Spruce trees almost hide a few lone fisherman who sit beside the pond. Judging by their facial expressions, I suspect they care less about catching fish, and more about avoiding problems at home.
I approach my last stretch of greenery in the park, and am not disappointed by the scene I encounter: some friends in full fencing garb, their swords clashing dramatically in an intriguing dance, while a peasant couple nearby holds their crying toddler at arm's length. I soon discover that the toddler is defecating in the grass, and I quickly turn away when I get a glimpse of his small penis. If the word feels awkward to write, I promise you it was just as awkward to see! I seem to be the only one embarrassed by this situation.
Saturated with intrigue, curiosity, and contemplation, I exit the park and walk the mile back to my apartment. I find China often leaves me with a smirk on my face, and this morning is no exception!
I’ve been working for several months now in a Chinese law firm, and I thought it might be fun to share some of my experiences there. Going into this job, I was excited about the opportunity to learn more about China’s legal environment, but I was even more curious to see how much the work culture might be different in China from the U.S. What about our work places is universal, and what is cultural?
I’ve found that quite a bit in my Chinese work place is similar to what one might expect in the U.S. The office itself would be readily familiar to anyone from the U.S.: a combination of cubicles, offices, and conference rooms, along with a nice kitchen area to prepare your lunch. Office attire would be considered business casual in the U.S., and most people trump into the office at 9 and leave around 6 or 7 each day. And like the U.S., everyone hates the commute! Though rather than grumbling about traffic, most staff grumble about the crowded trains in the Shanghai subway.*
My office is in one of the towers at Lujiazui, Shanghai's biggest business district.
But it’s the differences that can be interesting and amusing! Of course, 95% of all communication is in Chinese, as one would expect at a Chinese firm. Office emails, employee handbooks, my employment contract: all in Chinese. My orientation was conducted entirely in Chinese. While Melanie and I do our best with our limited Chinese, and we’re pretty good at conversing with our neighbors or giving directions to a taxi driver, it’s far beyond our abilities to read a contract about Chinese employment law! I just try to get along the best I can, usually understanding maybe 30% of what’s going on, and hoping that I don’t miss anything too important in the rest (or that my gracious coworkers will let me know anything important)! Luckily, my vocabulary is improving!
Aside from this obvious difference, I’ve started to notice some more subtle cultural differences:
- No Anonymity: Perhaps my perception is colored by my last job at a giant government bureaucracy, but I’m used to some anonymity in a big office environment. When there are hundreds of people in an office, it’s unlikely that you will work with and get to know all of them! There’s over 300 staff in my office, and I’ve only met a fraction of them so far (maybe 30). However, everyone seems to know who I am! I suppose that’s what comes of being one of two foreigners (the other being a French Canadian partner) in the entire office! I can’t exactly blend in with the crowd.
- The Company Knows Best: While Americans might grumble about overly intrusive bosses (sometimes justifiably!), employees in China seem to expect, perhaps want, that the Company and their boss micromanage every part of their work day. About 20 minutes of my orientation was spent emphasizing that all employees must be present in the office from 9-6 exactly, and that lunch is only permitted between 12 and 1. Additionally, the company will only send my pay to one specific bank and required that I open an account there, supposedly because they think it’s the best bank.
This attitude even touches office supplies: my first few days I only had a single pen and pad of paper, and I couldn’t find any additional supplies around the office. I figured I just hadn’t looked in the right place yet for the supply closet (and I had a computer to do most tasks anyway), but I was eventually called into HR to receive my yearly stipend of office supplies. Apparently, the supplies are kept under lock and key, and employees get only a specific amount of pens, staples, and clips each year!
Never before have I so appreciated precious binder clips!
- It’s Good to be the Boss: Executives everywhere get perks with their positions. That’s not exactly unique to China, yet the degree to which executives (or partners in the case of my law firm) exist in an almost parallel world to the rest of the staff is bizarre. Of course, the offices with nice windows/views are reserved for partners, but executives in the office also have separate elevators and bathrooms! These facilities are protected by key cards that keep out the hoi polloi, such as me. I must admit I’m curious what makes an “Executive Washroom”. Champagne? Massage?
- In Defense of Piracy: One day at work, I was scanning an email (in Chinese) related to some litigation being handled by the firm, and something caught my eye: the name of the opposing party was in English, and that name was Michael Jordan. While this is admittedly a fairly common name, my curiosity was piqued. Could this be THE Michael Jordan? I set to work trying to translate the rest of the email. Sure enough, my firm’s client was a Chinese sporting goods company called ‘Jordan Athletics’, and its logo is a suspiciously Jordan-like silhouette of a basketball player dribbling! The Michael Jordan was suing them for appropriating his name and likeness without permission! I can’t imagine something quite so…blatant…from a U.S. company!
Though I’m playing no role in this case (unless Michael Jordan actually makes an appearance in China, then I might try to find a way to get myself involved!), I do think local ‘inventiveness’ regarding U.S. personalities can have its upside too. A few years ago, the Walt Disney Company learned that lots of schools in China were using Disney characters, such as Mickey Mouse, in curriculums to teach English, though without the permission of the Walt Disney Company. Disney started suing these schools in China to prevent their use of Disney characters, but Disney also learned something valuable: Disney characters are extremely popular in China, and Chinese parents are willing to pay a premium for English schools using Disney characters. Disney decided that it wasn’t such a bad idea after all, and Disney began opening its own Disney English schools throughout China! Maybe Michael Jordan will decide to open his own sporting goods company in China!
Any resemblance to "Air" Jordan is pure coincidence...
-Nap Time: While I don’t think it’s in the employee handbook, there seem to be an unspoken rule that 1-1:30 is nap time in the office! My first few days on the job, I was shocked to walk around the office and see people openly bring out a pillow on their desk and catch a few zzz’s after lunch. I’m sure people in the U.S. will get a bit of rest on the job from time to time, but I think most would try to find an out-of-the-way place, preferably out of sight from the boss! In China though, it seems quite acceptable that staff can take a power nap after lunch! If I wasn’t afraid of my endemic bedhead, I would join them!
Gearing up for afternoon meetings!
I’m sure I will continue to learn more about Chinese work environments as time goes on. I’m fortunate that no matter the many differences I encounter, and the language barrier I face, my coworkers have been constantly gracious and patient with me, doing all they can to help me adjust and understand. I feel very fortunate to work with them, and I look forward to deepening friendships!
*A ‘crowded’ train in Shanghai takes the idea to a new extreme for me. I thought I’d experienced bad crowds on the DC metro, but the degree to which Shanghai locals will cram into a train is frightening. People routinely continue pushing into trains until there are cries of pain. I suppose this is the result of living in a city of 24 million!
Recently, I received some infuriating news about my visa that honestly made me want to throw in the towel here. Even as I'm processing yet another unexpected paper cut, I realize it's really the same story over and over again, only with different names and circumstances. Just as I've done before,* I find that I need to retell myself the reasons why I'm here and I put up with this crap in the first place. Yet this time, what I remind myself is not simply a list of little Chinese pleasantries. It's the places where I see the divine at work in a deep and mysterious way.
I find the divine in the quiet rustle of bamboo forests.
I find the divine in gardenias, magnolias, and peonies that are just as colorful and fragrant as ones back home.
I find the divine in the kind drivers who go the extra mile to make sure I arrive safely at my destination.
I find the divine in the woman at the Ikea food court who gleans napkins and chicken wings from the trash.
I find the divine in Chinese ladies who publicly stand up to men who beat women in noodle shops and street corners.
I find the divine in groups of people line dancing in the park, all ages, classes, and genders celebrating life together.
I find the divine in the young lady who was snuggling with a stray cat in the park.
I find the divine every time I greet our local alterations shopkeeper, who responds with smiles and gusto.
What matters is: I find the divine.
*Check out our December 2011 blog, Seeking Warmth and Renewed Wonder.
A few weeks ago, Melanie and I celebrated her 30th birthday with a return trip to Malaysia. While we love our home in China, Shanghai’s crowded streets, constant car horns, and pollution can really leave us yearning for peace and quiet in natural surroundings. Last year during Chinese New Year, Malaysia provided the perfect refuge from the chaos of China’s craziest holiday. So when we were in need of more rest in some idyllic natural surroundings, we again looked to Malaysia for our rescue!
But rather than revisit the charming cities along Malaysia’s main peninsula that we visited last year, we instead went to Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the northern coast of Borneo that is known for having relatively few people but lots of rainforests and beaches. Luckily, Sarawak was everything we hoped for and needed. Our hotel was located on a peninsula in the South China Sea that is dotted with rainforest-cloaked mountains and pristine beaches, and our hotel had a healthy dose of both. We had access to private beaches whose waters were amazingly warm and relaxing, as well as a ‘jungle pool’ with chilling waters trickling down from a nearby mountain. The hotel’s cabins were nestled in rainforests on the lower slopes of Mount Santubong, and these forests provided us with plenty of exotic wildlife and strenuous hiking. Our hotel really ended up being the perfect refuge from life in a Chinese megacity! To the left, a photo of our hotel's beach. The cabins are in the forests behind the beach, and Mount Santubong's peak is in the clouds.
A view of the sunset from near our hotel.
Here's our cabin, though it was called a 'tree house.' We were right on the ocean.
A waterfall in the rainforests, about an hour's hike from our hotel.
Some monkeys in the trees outside our cabin.
As relaxing and wonderful as our hotel was, we also ventured out to explore some of what Sarawak has to offer. We visited Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching, which was about an hour south of our hotel. For a relatively small city surrounded by rainforests, we were pleasantly surprised by Kuching and its fascinating history. Kuching’s old town is nestled along a river front, with narrow streets lined by European-style buildings and Buddhist temples. It reminded us of some of the former colonial towns we’ve previously visited in Malaysia, with charming vestiges of British influence including old forts, courthouses, and monuments to British monarchs. These buildings now house cafes and shops, and the city is a pleasure to stroll through. To the left, a picture of some Kuching shops from a park.
Yet for all that Kuching looks similar to other cities in Malaysia, its history is unique. Kuching and Sarawak are the legacy of the so-called ‘White Rajas,’ a series of English rulers, or Rajas, who ruled Sarawak as their own independent kingdom. In the 1840s, James Brooke, a failed British civil servant from India, wandered into the sultanate of Brunei, which then nominally ruled today’s Sarawak. Brunei’s Sultan was struggling to control the indigenous tribes in Sarawak who were constantly at war with each other, and he offered to grant authority over the area to James Brooke if he could bring peace to the region. Brooke succeeded, and he eventually came to control all of modern Sarawak as an independent Raja. All told, three Brookes ruled as Rajas over 100 years. They were relatively benevolent rulers for their time, focusing on bringing prosperity to Sarawak’s inhabitants, though they also made no pretense of democracy. The Japanese occupied Sarawak during WWII and brought an end to the Brooke’s dynasty,* and Sarawak would eventually join a federation with the rest of Malaysia after the war. To the right, Kuching's waterfront, with the old town in the trees on the left, and Kuching's parliament on the right.
Part of the legacy of the White Rajas is that the diversity of Sarawak’s indigenous groups is no longer a source of conflict, but rather a source of pride. To learn more about these groups, we visited the Sarawak Cultural Village, a kind of living museum for Sarawak’s many indigenous peoples. For many people, Borneo is most famous for once being home to headhunters,** which is true, but there’s really an amazing diversity to Sarawak’s indigenous groups beyond this alarming habit. Borneo is home to a huge variety of native peoples who have long lived in the island’s rainforests and coasts, including the Bidayuh and Iban (farmers), the Penan (nomadic hunters), and the Orang Ulu (miners living in the mountains). There are also many Malays and Chinese living in the region’s cities, who have generally served as the areas merchants. The Cultural Village brought all these cultures together, with members of each group living in traditional households according to their traditional ways. We enjoyed seeing a variety of native dances, musical instruments, and even used a blow gun! To the left, a picture of the Sarawak Cultural Village.
Melanie hitting a bull's eye with a blowgun!
As fascinating as Sarawak’s history and culture is, we primarily wanted to enjoy the natural scenery of Sarawak, and so our last stop was our favorite: Bako National Park. Bako sits at the end of a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea, and there are no roads into the park. Instead, visitors hire a local boat at the nearest village for a 20-minute ride up the coast. Riding along towards the park, we saw many locals fishing for the local specialty: jellyfish. When we asked our boat driver what jelly fish tasted like, he laughed and said he had no idea. Apparently, the locals in Sarawak aren’t crazy enough to eat jellyfish. They instead export it to the one country that eats everything: China! To the left, Melanie and I after wadding ashore to Bako. Below, a picture of one of Sarawak's jellyfish, yummm!
Continuing up the coast, we began to see the terrain that Bako is famous for: pristine beaches, overlooked by sheer limestone cliffs and rainforests. And in the waters surrounding Bako, there are rock pillars jutting from the sea that the oceans have shaped into elaborate shapes, providing a kind of modernist sculpture park!
We eventually arrived at the park’s entrance and waded ashore for a day of hiking. Bako’s mountainous terrain allows for a variety of landscapes within the park: there are mangrove swamps, dry savannahs, and dense jungles. Each of these areas made for interesting hikes, and each abounded with wildlife, especially monkeys***!
Melanie climbing down through rainforests to reach a beach.
Bako’s greatest treats though are its pristine beaches. After a few hours of hiking, you’re rewarded with breathtaking views of beaches at the jungle’s edge. Getting to these beaches requires a near vertical descent from the surrounding mountains, but it’s well-worthwhile. After an afternoon of hiking, Melanie and I relaxed on a beach for a couple of hours before catching a boat to head back to our hotel.
Overall, Sarawak provided the perfect refuge. Sarawak’s scenery is truly breathtaking, and its people and history are wonderfully unique. And finally, Sarawak’s food is every bit as delicious as that found in the rest of Malaysia, so we ate especially well throughout our trip! Sarawak left us recharged and ready to return to our hectic urban life in Shanghai!
* Though the last Brooke Raja apparently took quite a bit of convincing to relinquish his claim to rule!
** Sarawak’s first attempts to attract tourism in the 1980s and 90s focused on the exotic nature of its indigenous peoples and, yes, the fact that some used to be headhunters. The government eventually realized that the chance to lose one’s head wasn’t the best way to attract visitors to an obscure region, and tourism now wisely focuses on the natural beauty of the region.
*** As you can see from this picture, Bako’s monkeys are rather infamous for being ‘naughty’. Generations of tourists have given them so much food that they’ve become quite aggressive in approaching travelers. Visitors who stay in the park’s cabins must keep their doors locked at all times, because the monkeys have learned to enter the rooms in search of food!
A few days ago Melanie posted some thoughts on our daily life in China, and her interesting post also got me thinking about the aspects of our life in China that strike me most. Honestly, for much of our first year in China, I would simply respond that everything was overwhelming. Our rudimentary Chinese often made the simplest tasks an ordeal, and we struggled to learn what was and wasn’t possible in our new home. So even while we enjoyed the exotic nature of China and Hangzhou, we’d often retreat to our local bar/restaurant run by an American chef for a taste of the familiar from the U.S.!
Thankfully, our life in China has become easier as time went on. Our Chinese (especially Melanie’s) improved, and we became more experienced in the daily rhythms of China.* Our move to Shanghai also helped. Shanghai is a very cosmopolitan city and a much easier place for foreigners to live than Hangzhou. Since there are such large numbers of foreigners living in Shanghai, we can find far more food and other items from home. And while Mandarin remains the best language to get around with, it’s surprising how much you can do in Shanghai knowing only English.
Even with life becoming easier in China, there are still aspects of our daily life that I’m not sure we’ll ever fully adjust to, for better or worse! Here are my two cents:
The Utter Chaos of China’s Roads: This is usually one of the first things to hit a foreigner in China (not literally I hope): Chinese drivers are crazy! The roads here teem with overly aggressive drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians who all seek the same thing: going where they want, no matter what is in their way. There’s absolutely no concept of yielding on China’s roads. Changing lanes is a matter of aggression and speed, and cutting off other drivers is the norm. Car horns blare from every direction. The typical rhythm of a taxi ride for Melanie and me is one of acceleration, as the driver finds a little bit of space, and then the inevitable slamming of brakes, as another driver finds this same space and cuts off our taxi driver. Bad traffic is, oddly, a mercy in China. Traffic is exceedingly bad in most cities and acts as a check on driving aggression, forcing everyone to slow down!**
And the great wild card on China’s roads are the bikes. While cars are increasingly popular in China, many in China continue to ride bikes, especially electric bikes capable of going 20-30 mph. Bike riders essentially follow no rules in China: they will drive in the wrong lane against opposing traffic, run red lights, drive on the sidewalks. Everything is fair game! And for all that bike riders don’t wear any protection (helmets are exceedingly rare), they don’t hesitate to cut in front of cars and buses. All too often, the results of this reckless behavior are deadly. In Hangzhou, there have been so many bike accidents involving foreigners that the city has banned foreigners from riding electric bikes.***
In this kind of environment, Melanie and I have absolutely no desire to drive in China, but even as pedestrians, we can’t escape the chaos of China’s roads. Bikers love to whir onto sidewalks at 20-30mph to get around traffic, happily honking away at pedestrians to jump out of the way. Crossing the street is always a risky proposition. You first need to look in ALL directions for bikes, as they might suddenly come at you from any angle. You next need to look for cars turning. Drivers here seem to believe in an absolute right to turn, no matter the traffic light or whether pedestrians happen to be in the crosswalk. The end result is that crossing the street is often a long wait, punctuated by a brief sprint as a hole opens up!
A Place Where Quality Is Luxury: When we first decided to move to China, we thought it would be a shopping paradise. Since many of the best products for sale in the U.S. are made in China, we expected China to be akin to a massive outlet mall, with all the best items available at extra cheap prices. We couldn’t have been more wrong!
While China has developed into the world’s top manufacturing center, making some of the best products in the world, China’s own domestic market place lags far behind the quality of its manufacturers. Overwhelmingly, the products for sale in China are cheap in price, but of exceedingly bad quality. Most clothes will disintegrate after a few washes. Shoes fall apart after 2-3 months. Televisions break after a year or two. Toilets leak perpetually. There’s an almost total absence of quality household goods (Bed Bath and Beyond would be a dream come true here). The uniform awfulness of most products is absolutely astounding, but I suppose the one saving grace is that these items are usually quite cheap.
Though Western-style toilets are oddly a luxury item here, many of them are exceedingly poor quality (including the toilets in our apartment). They leak constantly, are overly complicated, and the tank is very moody in deciding whether or not it wants to refill properly.
But this is not to say that you can’t find any products of decent quality in China. There are many Western chains, such as Gap, Ikea, and Apple, selling pretty much the same products that they sell in the US. But in a market place of overwhelmingly shoddy products, the quality products at these stores are considered luxury items. They actually cost MORE money in China than in the US! Generally expect to pay 30% more for the same product in China than in the US, even though these products are almost all made in China! Unfortunately, retailers have successfully convinced Chinese consumers that quality products are luxury goods, and consumers must accordingly expect to pay a premium for quality products.****
The result is that most foreigners in China hoard items from their home country. Every time a foreigner goes home for a visit, they will typically take empty suit cases for the sole purpose of buying items to bring back to China. Toiletries, clothes, food, pretty much anything is fair game. And for any readers out there wanting to visit Melanie and me in China, expect us to request a few items from the US! :)
These are two issues of daily life in China that I doubt we’ll ever fully adjust to. In the grand scheme, they are minor issues, and we overall enjoy our Asian home. Still, on those days where you’re nearly run over while crossing the street, or your newly repaired toiled promptly starts leaking again, all we can do is sit back and sigh, “That’s China!”
*However, I should note that part of the daily rhythm of China is to expect the unexpected. Part of the challenge for foreigners in adjusting to China is that you must surrender any desire to always be in control or to know what to expect. Every facet of China is changing so quickly that it’s really impossible to have the level of stability we’re accustomed to in the U.S.
**Conversely, when there is no traffic, such as late at night, Chinese drivers will push their cars to the max! When Melanie and I returned from the Shanghai airport late at night a few days ago, our taxi driver topped out at 95mph!
***Why the city of Hangzhou doesn’t think this problem applies equally to locals I don’t know…
****I should note you can also find items that would be considered luxury items in the US, such as Prada hand bags or luxury wrist watches, in China. These items are also expensive, but since I’ve never bought one, I couldn’t say how the prices compare!
Happy spring, dear reader! It's been quite awhile since our last post, and I apologize for the extended silence. The warmer temperatures have brought everyone out of hibernation, making life feel much quicker and more frantic. Thankfully, many of our tasks lately have been quite enjoyable and life-giving, yet they haven't provided much time to sit down and blog. A brief overview:
As many of you know, we traveled back to the US in late March/early April for my best friend Kim's wedding. It was wonderful to see some of y'all, as well as to delight in aspects of US living that we took for granted before China: talking openly in person as opposed to through Skype or email (self explanatory, I'm sure), beautiful skies (the air is so much more COLORFUL when there's not as much pollution!), inexpensive and high quality groceries (I never thought I would consider Whole Foods to be CHEAP, yet it is in comparison to the premium we pay for imported and organic food in China), empty sidewalks (even at rush hour in the heart of the city, DC felt so open and vast compared with the always packed streets of 20 million people in Shanghai), and birds chirping (only possible to hear in the VERY early morning here). I wish we could have had more time at home, but we're grateful for the visit stateside nonetheless :).
We also just returned from a few days of R & R in Malaysia. It was wonderful to travel for the sake of rest, and to enjoy some tropical nature. I hope we can blog about our adventures in Malaysia soon, so stay tuned to see if I get around to that :).
Today, however, I wanted to respond to a question our friend Sarah asked recently: what is a typical day like for us? I thought this was a good question, and one that I can respond to more easily than some of the blog topics I typically have percolating in my mind. Describing our daily tasks and habits is a bit easier than trying to formulate deep ideas comparing cultural tendencies :).
So, without further ado, here's a day in the (Shanghai) life of Brian and Melanie:
We get up around 7:15am. I'll jump in the shower and get ready while Brian prepares breakfast. Breakfast typically consists of All Bran cereal (48% of our daily fiber!),* a banana, Australian milk (we've found it to be the most reliable of the imported milks), imported Italian coffee (made in the French press), and 1-2 packets of sugar to put in the coffee (it's quite difficult to find artificial sweetener in the grocery store, so we use sugar).
After breakfast, we spend some time reading daily Scripture passages and praying together. We've found this daily devotional time to be quite important--our days feel tangibly more difficult on days that we don't spend in devotion and prayer. I could write a whole other blog post on this topic! :)
I then throw together a simple lunch of PB&J (jelly either from Ikea or the French grocery store Carrefour), apple, and sometimes some nuts or other salty snack. I brush my teeth, then leave the apartment around 9:15am. Brian works from home, and/or runs errands nearby.
I take the Metro to work, changing lines once (about a 5-10 minute walk and many staircases between lines--helpful for daily exercise! :). I arrive to my office about 30-40 minutes later.
I spend my workday responding to emails, planning lessons/classes, having staff meetings, and/or traveling to different parts of the city to meet people. For an afternoon pick-me-up, I'll either grab a coffee at Starbucks (gotta love their frequent user card in China!), or make a cup of hot tea in the office. I'lI stay at work until about 5:45pm, then return home via the same Metro network, arriving home around 6:30pm.
Dinner is sometimes at a local Western restaurant (buy-one-get-one free hamburgers on Mondays!), a Xi'an Chinese restaurant (good noodles and veggies!), a frozen pizza (an amazing comfort food now that we have an oven!), noodle curry dish, spaghetti and salad, tacos, or lentils. After dinner, we wash dishes (always by hand because we don't have a dishwasher). I'll sometimes do a workout video, and/or we'll stream TV shows online to watch for some chill time. We'll then get ready for bed, and read for awhile before falling asleep around 11:30pm.
There are obviously variations to this schedule (especially on Thursdays, which is my day off). This schedule will also probably change soon after Brian starts a job in July with a Chinese law firm and will have to commute himself. But for now, this is a glimpse of a "typical" day :).
A few aspects of our lives that take up significant time and energy:
1) Buying groceries. Quite a challenge, and one that keeps us busy. No store has everything that we need, and since we don't have a car, we have to schlep everything ourselves (though thankfully, my colleague gave me her old cart. Many people here have these carts to haul groceries). I go 1-2 times/week to the French grocery store Carrefour near my office, we sometimes order frozen meat and produce from a good (though expensive) home delivery shop, we'll buy some staples at another good (yet VERY expensive) imported food store nearby, and we often buy cleaning supplies and storage items at a Chinese supermarket that's also nearby. The prices and inventory at each of these places can vary considerably, since the market is so new here for so many items. In short, we are constantly buying groceries and comparison shopping, and have to plan ahead based on when we'll pass what store.
2) Exercise. As mentioned above, I thankfully get some exercise in my daily commute of walking and going up and down Metro steps. However, finding other forms of exercise is quite difficult. I occasionally do workout videos, though I confess it's hard to work up the motivation. Running is stressful here with the bad air, crowded streets, and psychotic drivers. The gym nearby is very awkward: it's right by the Metro exit in the bottom of a mall, with glass windows for the world to watch people bobbing up and down on the elliptical. Ick. I'm hoping to try out the local pool, though some have warned me the sanitation standards there are....substandard. There's also a small (and free!) gym near my office, but it closed for three months starting in March to "redecorate." So for now, I'm biding my time until the end of May when it will (supposedly) re-open. I sure hope it's quite fancy now after THREE MONTHS of being closed.....!
3) Paying utility bills. Possibly our biggest headache. Some bills (i.e. electricity and internet) we can easily pay at local convenience stores: they simply scan the bill, collect our money, and it's paid directly to the utility. Our gas, water, and cell phone bills, however, are quite annoying: the meter for the gas is actually INSIDE our apartment. So if we're not home when the attendant comes by to check (always unannounced and sporadic, of course), then they'll charge us an "estimated" bill. This estimate is QUITE high, and is more than we'd ever use in reality. So for now, until we can figure out if there IS actually a schedule for the attendant to show up, we pay an estimated (i.e. EXPENSIVE) gas bill.
The water bill requires us setting up a (Chinese language) account. Our Chinese is not good enough to do this, so I'll (yet again) need to depend on my Chinese-speaking colleague to help me out. Sadly, however, the lack of account hasn't mattered much because our bill has been messed up after an attendant a few months ago charged us both for our neighbor's water AND our water.....
The cell phone bill is still a mystery--we thought we signed up for a monthly plan a few months ago, but apparently not. Yet again our limited language abilities are an obstacle here, but we've learned the hard way we must actually have a "pay as you go" plan since our phone service has twice cut out on us in the middle of calls. Argh!
Okay, that's enough "day in the life" for now. I'm sure I'll think of more later, but I'm sure that's more than you ever wanted to know about how we get around in the Middle Kingdom :).
*Some of you may remember from an earlier blog post that I was lamenting the lack of All-Bran for awhile. I suppose All-Bran also went into hibernation for a few months, but we are delighted that it has RETURNED to the shelves, with new and shiny packaging :). What was dead is now alive, and we are quite thankful for this ultimate comfort food :).
For the last stop on our 19th century China tour, we head south still further to more tropical climes, to Xiamen, an ancient coastal city nestled in the mountains of Fujian province. Fujian is one of the more unique provinces in China. It’s ancient, even by China’s standards, with evidence of human habitation going back to 7000 BC. It’s also covered in mountains, which are both scenic and pivotal in Fujian’s history: they’ve acted as a kind of cultural barrier between Fujian and the rest of China. While the Han culture originating in northern China slowly came to define what we think of as modern China, minority groups have long flourished in the isolated mountains and valleys of Fujian. There are hundreds of languages* spoken in Fujian, with locals claiming that if you drive 10 miles in any direction that the locals will speak an entirely different language!
A view of lush Fujian province from our train (speeding trains don't make the best venue for pictures, so forgive the blurriness). Melanie would also like to note that the milk tea reflected in the window was yummy!
Fujian’s mountains have also made overland travel and communication with the rest of China difficult, with the result being that Fujian’s denizens have long looked to the sea for trade and travel. Fujian has a string of coastal cities unusual for their long history of trade with other cultures and nations,** and Xiamen is the most famous of these coastal cities. As early as the Song Dynasty, (around 1000-1200 AD), Xiamen was the main port for foreign trade in China. As a result, when European ships first started making their way to China in the 1500s, looking for tea and silk, Xiamen was their port of call. Xiamen would end up having a lasting impact on Western views of China. For instance, the English word ‘tea’ actually comes from Xiamen’s local Hokkien dialect (one of Fujian’s many local languages), the word ‘te,’ not the Mandarin word for tea, which is ‘cha’ (茶).
As China’s trade with the West grew, Xiamen remained one of the most important trading centers in China for laowai. Xiamen’s semi-tropical climate and warm year-round temperatures made it a particularly appealing place for laowai to settle, and Xiamen was thus one of the biggest hubs of laowai in the 19th century. Europeans, Americans, and Japanese all flocked to Xiamen. Most laowai settled onto an island about 100 yards off-shore from Xiamen: Gulangyu. Initially a deserted rocky outcropping overlooking Xiamen’s bustling harbor, Gulangyu’s 19th century laowai community transformed the island into a warren of mansions, gardens, shops, churches, and consulates. To the left, the entrance to the old U.S. Consulate.
The island’s architecture is what you’d expect to find in a picturesque Mediterranean town, with palm trees and narrow cobble-stone streets winding between walled mansions and immaculate gardens. A variety of churches were built to suit the multitude of believers in Xiamen, with Catholic and Protestant churches often sharing a town square. And with Xiamen’s relatively warm and wet climate, Gulangyu’s gardens burst forth with astounding varieties of flowers and trees. One can even find a few art deco buildings lending a slightly modernist twist to Gulangyu! In Gulangyu, Xiamen’s 19th century laowai created a beautiful European-style city with a tropical flare that is unique in Asia.
An old Protestant Church now used as a state Church.
As with the other sites we’ve visited on our tour though, Xiamen’s cosmopolitan turn ended in the 1940s. Japanese forces occupied the city, and Xiamen’s laowai population fled. Gulangyu’s mansions and gardens were not abandoned for long though. Xiamen’s local populace soon took up residence, with great mansions once home to a single laowai family now home to 6 or 7 Chinese families! Gulangyu’s new residents appreciated the beauty of their surroundings and kept the island’s charms largely intact, while also adding more local flare. Where once Gulangyu’s streets teemed with French cafes and German bakeries, Gulangyu now teems with local street food: sea life of every variety being grilled on demand! Xiamen is famed throughout China for its seafood, and the locals seem undaunted in eating every imaginable creature fished out of the surrounding seas!
Yummmm...nothing like eating the insects of the sea!
I imagine this was once a mansion home to European elites, with formal dinner parties a common occurrence. The hanging laundry now indicates a more down-to-earth use! I wish Melanie and I were lucky enough to rent one of these apartments!
After a few decades of turmoil in the 20th century, Xiamen has again emerged as a hub of trade and commerce. Xiamen is one of China’s wealthiest cities today, and the city’s port continues to be a center of shipping throughout Asia. Xiamen’s Gulangyu is also famed throughout China for its beauty, and the island overflows with tour groups on the weekends! The island has aged gracefully, with its gardens and mansions echoing its past luxury. Melanie and I happily spent a day strolling*** through the island’s winding streets and gardens, luxuriating in its peace and beauty. To the left, a Buddhist monk and his dog relaxing in a cafe.
A view of downtown Xiamen from a ferry in the harbor.
And so ends our tour of 19th century China. Melanie and I set out to see new places a little off the beaten path along China’s eastern coast. Our travels showed us some of the diversity and beauty of eastern China, and, unexpectedly, the imprint of laowai forerunners from the 19th century. It’s interesting to reminisce on the mixed legacy of these forebears, and also to ponder what impact today’s laowai might leave in China. China’s long history with outsiders is a mixed one, with contact often being fitful and tumultuous. Despite this, the interactions between China and laowai have been important for both parties, yesterday and today.
*When Melanie and I first moved to China, we thought everyone in China spoke either Mandarin or Cantonese, but the reality is far more complex. China has hundreds, maybe thousands, of so-called ‘local dialects’, spoken languages specific to cities/regions. While these dialects are nominally related to Mandarin, many are so different as to be entirely different languages.
**Because of this outward focus, Fujian is also the source for much of the Chinese diaspora living throughout the world, from southeast Asia to the United States. Next time you’re at a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., ask your server about Fujian. There’s a decent chance that’s where they’re from!
***Of note, Gulangyu does not have any cars or motorbikes, making it the safest place for pedestrians that we’ve ever experienced in China!