Archives for the month of: July, 2011

In addition to the amazing sights and various intangible cultural experiences, travelling in China provides with many other pleasures. For instance, realising that the picture you pointed to on the Chinese-only menu turned out to be a succulent Sichuan-style fish with a thick, spicy gravy and not pig’s intestines and gall bladder cold noodle soup. Or going on a street food eating binge and not getting food poisoning (to understand the deeper significance of this, you may wish to refer to my previous post about public toilets in China).

But finally, travelling in China exposes you to some of the most beautiful examples of creation, wait for it, a “stuff white people like” moment is about to hit you: Chinese babies. The only thing that is better than seeing a free range Chinese baby (and there are hundreds of millions of those roaming about out there) is seeing a fat Chinese baby or Chinese twins. Seen in the context of China’s one child policy, twins are like an almost-legitimate way of cheating, they are the Enron of the one child policy. If ever there will be a day when I come across fat Chinese triplets, I might not be able to control the Brangelina within me and will for sure snap one or two for the house in Malibu.

So imagine my surprise when on the plane from Lijiang to Beijing I was seated next to a Chinese family of three and, more precisely, seated next to the Child. Making sure not to appear too creepily excited, lest the family think I am a child molester, I looked around the plane to see who I will be sharing the honour of a three-hour Eastern China airline (member of Sky Team alliance, F Y I) flight with: an extended Chinese family of eight (no fat children) who seemed quite surprised to realise that there was no point in elbowing their way onto the plane since the seats were assigned (ironically, they were seated in eight different rows and during the flight they kept calling each other over to look from the window, much to the chagrin of their fellow Chinese passengers). Save for a delegation of 30 West Africans and Burmese Red Cross volunteers (don’t ask) on some kind of training trip or teambuilding retreat, there wasn’t much in the way of people watching in-flight entertainment to be had. So it HAD to be Chinese kid time.

Meeting halfway in the twilight zone where Chinese and Italian non-verbal communication intersect, the family and I kept gently nodding our respective heads and smiling whenever the eight-year old baby girl did something slightly out of line the way bored kids in closed spaces tend to do. Them non-verbally apologising for the inconvenience, me non-verbally saying it was no inconvenience at all. The moment the fasten-your-seatbelt sign went off, the mother pulled out a sheet of paper from a hotel notepad and gave it to the girl. On the slip of paper there was a list of English words with Chinese translation of items that are typically featured in a continental breakfast. For a people that is used to minimalist and sugary breakfast, Italians generally find continental breakfasts to be a bit of an extravagant concept; like bungee jumping, something that ought to be tried when given a chance, but also something you would not wish upon yourself everyday. So I could barely fathom what an obscure intercultural experience it must have been for the girl to toil away at the task of copying a list of items over and over: toast and butter, bread and jam, water melon and three slices of tomato, orange juice, milk tea, pancakes, omelette.

Whenever the girl got distracted the mother’s face would produce a highly disapproving frown that would guilt-trip the girl into some more copying. According to some English teachers I had met, Chinese schools had just started their summer holidays, yet a Chinese mother’s task to ensure that every second of a child’s free time is spent having a go at the “One Million Step Journey Towards Success” never ends. Even for someone like me coming from a mother-centred culture, Chinese mothers are a force to be reckoned with. Suffice to say that Chairman Mao himself was brought up by a Chinese mother.

In a country were success means being in the top percentile of a population of one billion, this psychosis about nurturing the Solitary Jewel of the Chinese Family into success is understandable. To be in the top ten percent of your class in Italy (average size 30), you need to be better than 27 kids. In China (average class size 60) you need to be better than 54 kids or else you can say goodbye to a place in a decent university. My mother’s aspirations for us was to raise well-mannered and curious young men who would go vote regularly, obtain a university education without impregnating anyone (if straight) or contracting a venereal disease (if gay) and hopefully be gainfully employed and live above the poverty line. Mrs Montessori was, after all, Italian. I wonder what she would have to say about the Chinese collective psychosis that takes shape in various forms of which violin lessons and weekend English classes are just a common example and whereby the future generations of Chinese citizens is formed, ensuring both the country’s ascent into success and the survival of the western luxury items’ industry and the financial solvency of the British higher education system.

The kid kept going back and forth between doing her homework and being mischievous and I just imagined myself as a nine year-old on an Alitalia flight, writing a list of Chinese breakfast items because Chinese is the language of tomorrow. A list far enough from my cultural bearing points to make the exercise monotonous and entirely futile: rice congee with preserved egg, steamed buns with bean paste, wanton soup, white rice etc …

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Whenever people ask me what it is like to live in Cairo, I always say that Cairo is like an abusive lover: you have every reason to leave, yet you don’t.

On a personal level the four and a half years I have spent in Egypt coincided with a happy and exciting transition into adulthood. I always joked about my very bourgeois lifestyle in Cairo: brunch with friends on Friday morning, trips to Sinai at the end of each month of Ramadan, improvised karaoke sessions and various forms of drama exclusive to Cairo such as walking in on your cleaning lady having sex in your house to Delta airlines and Cairo airport misplacing and eventually “losing” your cat. I don’t think you can meet so many interesting people in such a stimulating (over stimulating perhaps?) environment and the people you meet are the main reason you survive Cairo’s relentless abuse.

I cannot explain where Cairo gets its charm from. But I will forever remember the buzz of racing in a cab over one of the bridges on a summer night and feeling like the city is a living being, cars moving in the streets like blood flowing through a person’s veins, the constant throbbing of life and chaos as you negotiate a pedestrian traffic jam. Looking at the motorboats on the Nile and the glittering lights of the buildings reflecting on the Nile, you have the impression that the city is making love to you. In a somewhat sloppy and abusive yet charming way.

The thought of having to go to the bathroom in China triggers a physical reaction that resembles waking up from a nightmare: when it’s time to go my heartbeat accelerates, I sweat and my stomach closes, for the memories of past horrors re-emerge in my brain.

I shan’t describe some of the horror scenes I have witnessed. For a country that aspires to become our planet’s next super power China really needs to get its shit together. You can tell a lot about a country from its crapholes. It’s not even an issue of lack of resources, I think it’s lack of peer pressure. I remember going to the toilet in a small cafe in Laos only to find a toilet with turquoise tiles and a lotus flower in a basin. For one of the poorest countries in South-East Asia, such a toilet made you feel like you were having high tea at the Park Hyatt not a sticky rice mango pancake in an unassuming cafe in the back streets of Vientiane.

So this is my strategy to win hearts and minds of public toilets users in China. First you have to find an incentive, let’s say an item that oozes prestige and that is a status symbol. I don’t know China well enough to think of a better status symbol than a Louis Vuitton handbag. So if a family adopts a public toilet and keeps it clean for 365 consecutive days, the lady of the house (or maybe the gentleman) wins a real Louis Vuitton. Imagine how cheap it would be to purchase a billion Louis Vuitton bulk and you will realise how close a “One Billion Clean Public Toilets Great Leap Forward” would be. Practically a bargain.

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Even a cosmopolitan bullshitter like me had reservations about travelling to China. I have heard horror stories from friends involving compulsive spitting en plein air, generalised abrasiveness and a country-wide latrine situation that would make your knees tremble. So when I decided to make my way from Northern Laos to China’s Yunnan province I prepared myself for a trip to hell, no more no less.

I booked a ticket from Luang Namtha in Laos to Jing Hong in Yunnan and was favourably surprised when instead of a run-down truck with chickens flapping about and their entourage of boisterous peasants we were ushered on a fairly new microbus with three backpacker and a few Laotian and Chinese travellers.

After one hour we were stamped out of Laos and approaching the Chinese border. I was envisaging a couple of buildings and paperwork nightmare but was instead met by a four-lane motorway and a state of the art, two-storey immigration compound that screamed ‘welcome to the third millennium motherfuckers’. You can check the picture below.

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I realised that the Chinese had shamed the Laotians into building something a bit more grandiose than their usual shack-by-the-road-with-Lao-flag border post, hence the stupa-shaped gate on their side (see pics below).

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Being stamped into China was a painless affair. Each counter had a little remote-type thingy whereby you could rate the performance of the immigration officer. And this is when I learnt that  the People’s Republic of China is very much concerned with its customers’ satisfaction. I got only mildly ripped off when changing Laotian kips into yuan, which made me realise that the stars must have aligned in my favour on that day.

And off we went, on a three-hour motorway journey through lush vegetation, surrounded by rice paddies caressing the gentle slopes of Yunnan’s hills.

After my surreal and spooky experience during a three-hour lay over in Guangzhou (Canton) on my way to Saigon, I had very low expectations about Jing Hong: a third-tier city at the edges of the last province of the Chinese empire. I imagined a concrete fest in the midst of China’s capitalist Wild Wild West, a ruthless inferno of smog and cut-throat consumerism. Instead we landed in a sunny town on the Mekong, with manicured lawns, broad avenues with cycling lanes, lined with palm trees and blossoming buganvilleas. It looked like a slice of Californian suburbia had been airlifted to the Middle Kingdom.
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It was then that I realised how much the fear of China pushing the West into economic oblivion was the source of my prejudices. I am pretty ignorant about China so my two days in the country do not give me much of an authority to comment (but I shall nonetheless) and I am sure that there are plenty of places in China that are a concrete jungle of industrial misery, but I had been swallowing this monochrome idea of China as hell on earth fed to us by our governments without thinking. We are sometimes led to see Chinese as threatening hordes of barbarians, a terracotta army of speculators and hoarders of US T-bills, hell-bent on buying out the remaining bits of Western hegemony. The Jing Hongans were instead a friendly and smiley bunch, busy building their way into middle class comfort. If the city had been on the sea, it would have been the kind of place where you take the kids and the mother-in-law for a summer vacation, definitely not the location for a 21st century version of Oliver Twist.

I indulged myself in the city, had lunch, an almond milk tea and an early dinner (constantly eating is the Chinese national sport, I have decided, so when in China…). Before getting on the sleeper bus, I lost myself for a bit in the Burmese Jade market, even bought a couple of souvenirs (yearly contribution to money laundering of the Burmese opium trade: CHECK!).

On the way to Kunming, as I was trying to find a comfortable position on the sleeper bus (I am Western-short/Asian-almost-tall but the seats were designed for Chinese midgets) our bus was pulled over by the police. Chinese police wears camouflage uniforms, helmets and white gloves, which I found a bit surreal. Everyone’s documents were inspected, random pillows and bags inspected, a few passengers were asked to get off. I thought this was standard procedure, but two sleeper buses came and went without going through the same things at us. When all the passengers started getting off and all the luggage was taken out of the bus I stared to get a bit worried. A woman’s bag was opened and searched. It looked like the police had been tipped off about some drug smugglers. In the end we all got back on the bus with no disruption and the whole search took no more than 20 minutes. Of course all of this happened in Chinese so I kept a clueless face during the ordeal, because this is what white people in China do best. A policeman came on board and gave a little speech, of which I understood nothing because I am only fluent in medieval Cantonese and he was speaking Mandarin. The speech ended with xie xie, which Lonely Planet tells me is Mandarin for thank you. The Chinese Public Security bureau must also care a lot about customer satisfaction, I concluded.

If there is one thing that I have learnt in the past ten years cavorting with the homosexuals, is that gay bars sort of look the same everywhere. Like entering a Mark and Spencer’s department store anywhere in the world, you can have some confidence about what you will find and what you won’t. Cheap-ish polyester and cotton clothes and huge snack selection shall be waiting for you regardless of whether you are in Milton Keynes or Kuala Lumpor (although I hope for you, dear reader, that you are not in Milton Keynes).

Stepping into a gay bar you can expect decent music (usually either 70s and 80s vintage disco or more contemporary pop beats, which nowadays will alas involve some Lady Gaga crap). Patrons will most likely fall in the either good, the beautiful and the bad type; there will be people that realised they were in a gay bar only after having been seated (and its corollary of straight men partly flattered by the attention and partly freaked out). Drinks won’t be too expensive, some guy will be wearing a sleeveless t-shirt even though it’s January and around midnight all the single men will turn into post-modern cinderellas waiting for a charming prince to take them home, for nothing is more bitter to a dapper gay man than enduring hours of bad pop music only to end up going home alone.

Save for a pool table (boy have I seen weird stuff in gay clubs, but a pool table??!), I didn’t feel like I was venturing out of my comfort zone. Weird if you consider that Luang Prabang is yes the tourist capital of Northern Laos, but is also in a place that until 1990 was linked with the outside world by unpaved roads. It was the only bar in Luang Prabang where there were as many locals as foreigners, maybe because the Lao customers were not expected to get a drink but could just hang out in a gay friendly space.

The owner, a very friendly Laotian in his 20s, explained to me that he had left his business in Vientiane to move to Luang Prabang because he liked the vibe. He said he expects to open a wine bar on the main street, a bar that would be ‘same same but spicier’. I looked around: a clingy couple holding hands and sighing at one table, a girl kicking everyone’s ass at the pool table and wondered how such a welcoming space could exist in a town of 26000 inhabitants, in one of the poorest Asian countries (Laos is supposed to graduate from low- to middle-income country by 2020, insh’allah). Laos simply defies all explanations I have for its tolerant attitude towards homosexuals. You tend to associate the gay rights movement with affluence (but some countries that are twice as rich as Laos are not nearly half as open), religion ( nearby China shares the same religion and even the same one-party communist system, but it is not a champion of gay rights), political pluralism (did I mention that Laos is a one-party state?) or social fabric (Laos is a multi ethnic society where ethnic affiliations can be important). Also, Laos is not a freewheeling place on the sexual side of things: sexual relations between a foreigner and a Lao can only happen through marriage and public display of affection is frowned upon. Laos does not seen to have as bad a prostitution problem as nearby Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand (and trust me, as a single white male travelling solo you don’t have to do much effort to find some ‘part-time companion’).

I cannot claim that my short visit allows me to speculate as to why Laos society is so accepting and where the exceptionalism comes from. I can only wish that more sleepy provincial towns (in developed and developing countries alike) had more places like the bar I went to in Luang Prabang.

The night bus ride from Vientiane, the capital of Laos to Luang Prabang was supposed to take eleven hours. It took seventeen. The distance is approximately 400 km.
The rainy season had caused landslides and various other shenanigans while also coating some parts of the road (the main road leading to the North of the country) with thick red mud.
Around 4 am we stopped because a truck was stuck in the mud and it could not be unstuck until there would be more sunlight.
Eventually we got going again, climbing steep and curvy roads, following the course of rivers, driving through hills with patches of vegetation missing, a sort of ecological alopecia induced by the illegal logging that feeds into the Chinese and Vietnamese manufacturing industry, for Laos is so poor it does not really have any industry.
As I was thinking back at my two days in Vientiane, catching up with a friend and soaking in the city’s sleepiness and provincial bonhomie, our bus eased its way on a road that had cracked up into half and seen an entire lane washed into the river. After barely pushing through and seeing the murky waters opening their arms to us, we arrived at a rest stop.
Some of the Laotian passengers went for their noodle soup break and I bought some sliced pineapple. I noticed a sign advertising clean toilets (with western seats!) and was waved in by this old woman who perhaps had the sharpest business acumen in a 50 km radius and managed to spot a great business opportunity while leaving basically in the middle of nowhere. I thought that if she hadn’t been born in a little village, but somewhere suburban in the West she would have probably graduated top of her MBA class.
Upon exiting the toilet (with western seat!) I looked to my left and saw the most breathtaking landscape opening up in front of me, something for which the woman could have charged an admission ticket: endless hills, with nothing built on them, soaked in mist and clouds.

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