February 18, 2013

Notes on China, Part I

(Photos from a Hutong on our first day, just after arrival. From 4th from the bottom: Older men playing Chinese chess (I think) near the Drum & Bell towers, areas of the city under construction, a mobile bike repair station, a temporary key copying station)

Jacob and I returned from China a few weeks ago, but it's taken a few weeks and a bit of distance to really gather all my thoughts and observations. More reflections come out with each conversation we have, over dinner, with friends late at night, talking to our families -- trying to grasp why it's not a place I'd necessarily tell you to vacation, but certainly describe as a place I'd encourage you to visit.

Beijing was the last leg of a long trip that also earned us passport stamps from Berlin, Istanbul, Warsaw and Tokyo. I'll put an immediate disclaimer out there -- my perspectives and observations are skewed by only visiting Beijing (within China), only being there for a week, and from being privy (or biased) due to what we learned from the experiences and perspective of my (American) friends who live there. They've lived in Beijing for ~8 months and moved there with four young children (under the age of 6), which also means my observations are also focused on some of the battles/interactions/challenges they've faced navigating a life that's probably unlike yours or mine would be if you (for some reason) ended up in Beijing.

I'm going to start off with major China themes -- things that surprised me or became major topics of conversation while we were there. In the next few days I'll share more of the sites and experiences we had around the city.

Pollution: First things first. The pollution. It is very bad. It was so bad while we were visiting (record-setting bad) that it made international news, a first possibly ever. You've probably heard about it in the last few weeks. It's so bad that it warrants its own forthcoming post.

Arrival: We arrived in China by way of Warsaw and were immediately struck by the modernity and scale of the Beijing airport, which is, as of 2009, the busiest airport in Asia. I believe we landed in the built-for-the-Olympics Terminal 3, designed by the British architecture firm Fosters and Partners. The space is expansive and open with incredibly clear and helpful signage, and fluid, open navigation through customs and baggage claim. In hindsight, this is even more remarkable given that clear, open navigation and helpful signage/translations are not among China's strong suits.

CCTV Building: Our hotel was just across from the famous CCTV building (China Central Television Headquarters), designed by Rem Koolhaas's firm OMA. The building is also known as "The Pants" and took 8 years to complete (opening earlier this year) after a terrible fire mid-construction. All TV in China is operated and produced by the state, and most of it goes down in this building. Our first day, we could see the CCTV building clear as day; quite a site. In hindsight, also remarkable, given the pollution we would soon see roll into town, blocking that view.

The Architecture of Pollution: Aside from the CCTV Building, architecture heading into downtown Beijing is remarkably unsexy. There's lots of cement, a distinct lack of central HVAC units, lots of old block-y, sometimes-pastel rectangular buildings with thousands upon thousands of apartment units. The city is in general less tall than either Jacob or I had anticipated considering the sheer number of people who are condensed in the city. That said, there are many quite-tall 40-50 story buildings that have gone up in the last decade or so. The city's tallest building is the China World Trade Center, which looks like a spitting--but shorter--image of the former World Trade Towers in NYC. All of this makes for a rather unremarkable skyline, which, compounded by lack of visibility due to the frequent pollution, made it feel hard to orient ourselves within the city. Our friends explained that most of the "sexy, futuristic" China portrayed in movies/TV is likely either shot in Shanghai or Hong Kong. The LA Times has a good piece from 2008 about how architects take smog into consideration when developing in Beijing.

The Great Firewall of China: As most of you probably know, Internet access in China is subjugated to what is known as the "Great Firewall of China." A good handful of sites that you and I visit regularly are blacklisted in China, or, are slowed to a level where functionally using said website is impossible. Among these are: Gmail, the NY Times, Twitter, Facebook, blogspot, blogger, etc. Jacob and I found, despite staying in a largely foreign-oriented hotel with decent wifi, that trying to use the internet was essentially futile. Gmail timed out after ~10 seconds and trying to search news websites to keep up with un-censored sites is fairly discouraging. A lot of expats (and others) set up VPN's to connect to the web and surpass the firewall, but the government intermittently shuts these down as well. Oddly enough, Instagram still worked and furthermore, pushed updates to Twitter + Facebook. So, there are obviously holes and there's a somewhat arbitrary degree of blockage happening here. What this does emotionally is more complicated than pure frustration. Because the internet often works just enough, I found myself trying to spit out lots of quick emails which definitely included words like "Chinese government" and "horrible pollution" and "Ai Wei Wei." Then, the next day when your internet doesn't work at all, though there's no causation or fingers to point to, you find yourself feeling very suspicious/paranoid that you're being observed. Not knowing how much you're being controlled has a psychological impact much greater than knowing what restrictions are.

Lost in Translation: Many storefronts and street signs feature English "translations," but calling the words a translation would be a major leap. Generally, the English "translation" has no relationship to the Chinese words. This makes finding places difficult -- because even if you could speak Chinese, you also need to read Chinese to know the name of a place. On top of this, surprisingly few people in Beijing speak English compared to other international cities of that size. If you do go to Beijing (or China), download the Beijing Taxi Guide app, listing 3,000+ locations with their Chinese and English names. If your driver or other people you're asking for directions can read, this will be extremely helpful.

Cash only: We paid for everything in Beijing in cash (aka Renminbi, quay, yuan) and nobody aside from our hotel even accepted credit cards. Dinner? Cash. Get in a car accident? Settle with cash. Go to the hospital? Pay cash. Shoes? Cash. Pay for your kids' school tuition fee? All cash. Occasionally you see Mastercard or Visa stickers on businesses' doors, but as my friend explained, that usually only means that Mastercard or Visa sent the business a sticker and doesn't actually mean they accept it. Credit cards are essentially moot.

And, a few warnings my friend N sent me a few days before we arrived:

1) For your stay, you should memorize one phrase in Chinese. "Bu Yao" (I don't want) Say it forcefully and repeatedly if someone is pushing themselves on you trying to sell you something. There is no begging allowed here in the streets, so you dont have to worry about that, but salespeople are alarmingly assertive.

2) Any price you are quoted that isn't written down (and some that aren't) is negotiable. By like 90%. Never pay asking, or anywhere close. If you dont feel comfortable bargaining but want something, just ask me. Street and restaurant food is the exception, the prices are the prices.

3) dont step on the street grates/manhole covers. J had one flip out from under him before we learned that this is a common issue in Beijing.

4) The pollution may make your throat hurt and give you a headache...

5) People spit phlegm in the streets. It is believed that mucus is very unhealthy for the body, so it is unloaded right there and then. You'll learn to recognize the sound of someone about to hawk a loogie (is that the right term??) and watch your feet

6) There is no sense of personal space here. People shove/push/don't queue, etc. Don't worry about being polite, just push on in if you want to get anywhere.

7) Careful crossing the street. There are bike lanes here that have electric scooters/motocycles that dont abide any traffic laws. And also you can't assume a car will stop for a red light because they often dont. You have no right of way as a pedestrian, even with a walk signal.