Archives for posts with tag: China

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 …

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.

image

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.

image

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).

image

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.
image

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.

image

The Hong Kong government is running a campaign aimed at getting citizens’ feedback about the HK airport (which has won multiple prizes for being the most functional in the world). The rationale is that they see the airport as a key to keep HK competitive so they are asking citizens for their views on how the 2030 expansion plan should look like (foresight, anyone?).
Seeing the ads on the MTR (the underground) prompted me to ask my friend about HK politics. While the city has an active local politics that is free and fair, she complains that HK people are rather disengaged from politics. To be honest I do not find it hard to believe. After months of discussions about why the military has put so and so on military trial for protesting in Egypt and a 5-week stint in Libya where everyone is happy to walk about with guns and fire them in celebration in the midst of crowds, I am quite happy to let consumerism embrace me and put my political self to sleep.
My friend agreed that in a society where efficiency is the norm (and with the comparison of mainland China next door), citizens become more like very empowered customers rather than politically engaged citizens.
My friend told me that while HK people can be quite vocal (those stereotypes about the Cantonese must come from somewhere) and happy to take a protest to the streets, politics is not on the radar of most youth. A few weeks ago it was the anniversary of the Tienammen square events. During a discussion one of my friend’s friend admitted that until recently she did not know that the portrait hanging on the square was of Chairman Mao.
Maybe she thought it was the portrait of China’s next top model?