Archive for June, 2008

When asked about the highlights of my 9 weeks of travel in China, it is easy to rhyme off the usual suspects: The Great Wall, the Forbidden City (which they call the Palace by the way), and the Terracotta Warriors. All of these famous tourist destinations are spectacular, and if you only have a short time in China, definitely must be on your travel “checklist”. If you have time to linger though, you will see other sights as you wander through the backstreets, parks, and markets. I cannot say that I enjoyed everything that I saw, smelled or tasted. But it was all part of the sensory overload that I am, 3 weeks later, still recovering from.

So here is a list of the top 10 unexpected, quirky or surprising things about living among the Chinese that I observed over 2 months. I have provided photos where possible: sometimes, there are things you just don’t want to have a visual reminder of! (Under that heading, I am not going to go into public bathrooms and sanitation)

10. Street Fruit: if you have read my earlier posts, you will know how much I enjoyed the inexpensive and excellent cuisine of China. Everywhere I went, there was something new and delicious to discover. (The exception being that dodgy shrimp that had me on the bathroom floor at the edge of the Taklamen desert, but that is to be expected at least once) One of the special treats that I looked for in each town was the street fruit: peeled slices of seedless ruby red or yellow watermelon, or spiral carved wedges of honey sweet pineapple, stuck on sticks and offered for $ .70. Well, they offered it to me for $1.50. until they realized that I knew the real price and would not pay the foreigner surcharge!
9. Unbelievably garish wedding dresses. Even in the small cities, there was at least one street of “one stop” wedding stores. Mannequins of the tackiest wedding and formal dresses imaginable dominated large store front windows. Staffed by small armies of coiffed women in subdued uniforms, couples planned their wedding by picking from albums with set “menus” of flowers, tuxes, locations, photos shoots, and those awful dresses. Oh my. I enclose a few pics because you simply would not believe me otherwise.
8. Rubbing the Buddha Belly. For reasons that I could not discern and none of my Chinese speaking friends could help me with, Chinese men like to lift their shirts and walk around rubbing their bellies. Large and pendulous or washboard flat. Before or after dinner. Warm weather or cool. They just do.
7. Horking away the Vapors. Since most of the men in China smoke constantly, they also feel the need to loudly and vigorously expel away the phlegm left in their lungs. Personally, I think that they are secretly trying to achieve personal bests in volume and distance with each instance. It is unnerving to hear them loading up behind you on the street, and certainly makes walking without stepping in it a challenge. It also makes a strong argument for slippers when you enter a home or hotel room. (All hotel rooms, no matter how cheap come with slippers)
6. Babies with their Bums Out: Diapers are expensive so Chinese parents dispense with them and simply allow their toddlers to go where they will, literally, through a large slit in their cute little overalls. It’s a little disconcerting when you see it the first time, and I am not sure that they pick up after them as well as they do their dogs. Again, slippers rule.
5. Hot water served in Restaurants: I believe it is meant to be an aid to digestion, but if you request just a glass of water, it will be served hot. Not lukewarm. Hot. After struggling to get cold water unsuccessfully time after time, you acquire a taste for it. And who knows: perhaps the heat destroys whatever nasty bits and critters are floating about!
4. Being asked to pose with Chinese Tourists. Many Chinese people, especially from the country, are just starting to travel and be tourists in their own land. So when they are strolling through the Forbidden City, one of the stranger sights they encounter could well be you! If you are blond or even better, a red head, you will likely be asked to pose with the family or hold a baby for a photo. Smile. You are moving Sino-Canadian relations ahead!
3. Feeding on Planes. If you fly at home, you are no doubt accustomed to being tossed a packet of peanuts at dinner time on North American flights. Well, you will be shocked at the amount of food you are served on flights in China. No matter what the duration, there is always a meal. And while to say that the food is good would be a stretch, it’s certainly edible. And here’s the real kicker: if your flight is delayed, (and I was delayed a lot) they will bring prepackaged meals to your gate and feed you while you wait! And then again when you fly! Funny, the little things that please us now, when we are accustomed to getting nothing at all.
2. Smoking on Planes. On every plane, it was dutifully announced that all flights were non-smoking in as many languages as required. And yet, on 2 flights, I smelled smoke after take off and just before landing. I concluded it was the pilot, celebrating the post coital equivalent of a successful take off and then girding himself for the landing. And yes, it scared me.
1. Concerts by the elderly in the park. On Sunday afternoons you can see choirs of older men and women, dressed in elaborate costumes, accompanied by 5 piece orchestras on traditional Chinese instruments, singing their hearts out. (Some of these 60+ men were definitely in drag, and with heavy stage makeup) It was odd yet charming. I cannot imagine a group of pensioned Canadian teachers for example, getting together every Sunday in High Park to dress up and sing just for the joy of it. Jingle Bells was an instrumental favourite. I cannot account for that. These performances, when I could find them, were one of the highlights of my trip, because they were so unexpected and so full of simple, unaffected happiness.

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It has been more than a week since I returned to Toronto. When I am asked “How was China?”, I am having difficulty crafting a response that is neither gushing, as in “amazing, exciting, challenging, life changing” or triggers a long hyper paced outpouring of stories and anecdotes that have my poor listeners drinking from the proverbial verbal fire hose. Somewhere in there, is a middle ground but I have not found it yet. For China was all of those things and more for me. On my outbound flight, I read an interesting article, suitably in the airline magazine, that explored the transforming power of travel. I tore it out, not really understanding at the time, how much it would eventually resonate with me, but sensing that there was something in the content that might be important on my journey.

“Getting lost to yourself might be the best way to find out who you are” was the closing statement. Yes, emphatically yes, and now I understand how and why. If you have not had the experience of losing yourself in a city or country, where every simple action becomes a challenge, then it is difficult to convey the sense of consciousness that must accompany every single waking minute. It is tiring at first, and generally frustrating, but once you abandon yourself to the flow of this kind of travel, then it becomes the essence of the experience itself. Every sense is heightened, every adaptive ability is stretched, every strength and weakness exaggerated. You discover that you are braver than you ever thought, not just because you are doing something that others think is brave and they would not attempt themselves. (I got that incredulous reaction from western women around my age almost universally in China). Nonetheless, I also recognized when I was not up to everything that came my way, and where a more adventurous soul might have leaped in for the sake of the memory, the bragging rights, the “we will never pass this way again, so go for it”, I demurred. And I learned to forgive myself for that. For not feeling the need to prove myself brave. To myself or to anyone else.

Was that perhaps the greatest gift of my trip to China? It was certainly one of them. But the greatest prize of all was the discovery of how much I enjoyed writing. And that I have changed my self definition to writer. (Sounds so much more productive than “retired”). When asked what I did for a living in a charming cafe in Shanghai, I said, “I am a writer”. Out loud, to a perfect stranger, just to try it on for size. Now of course, her reaction, was “oh, what have you written?. I cast around for a suitable answer, coming up with only a lame, nothing you would know. Now, that is the downside of verbalizing one’s dreams: you create an expectation in the recipient of something concrete when all you have to offer are some thoughts in a battered notebook and a couple of possible titles. And of course, that opening question is closely followed by: “Are you writing a book? What’s it about?” Mmmh, again, questions to which my answers are vague and mumbled. But, it does force the issue. I recall an oft quoted story of a published writer making polite cocktail chat to a business man who announced somewhat pompously, that when he retired, he too was going to become a writer. To which the novelist replied, yes, and I’m going to become a brain surgeon. The point of course, is that writing says easy and does hard. But like travel, writing puts me in a place where I am truly, completely in the moment. In the zone, as the athletes say. There is no better place for me to be.

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And tomorrow, I fly home. I would like to write more about China, my impressions and my adventures. But some thoughts are best to wait until I am no longer here. And that, of course, says something about China in itself.
I leave you for the moment with pictures from my trip down the Li River, from the city of Guilin to the town of Yangshou. Whenever I quizzed a fellow traveller about their journeys in China, this destination always came up as one not to be missed. The voyage down the river was obscured by rain and fog, but that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Chinese men at my table (actually, as a single, I was put at their table and they were the hosts of our long on board lunch) They had ordered the regional specialties for the group: river sails in garlic, deep fried whole fresh water shrimp, beer fish, and steamed flat fish. They tried hard to get me to drink beer with them, but I had been previously cautioned that once you accept one alcoholic drink in China, you will be in deep for the rest of the evening or journey in this case. No stopping or you will be considered a very rude foreigner and not appreciative of your hosts’ generosity. But if you firmly but nicely insist that you do not indulge at the outset, there will be no bad feelings. So I turned my glass over, drank my bottle of water, and joked with them (as best you can with no common language) and let them push the snails and whole shrimp on me. They were a little dismayed that the crunchy shrimp with heads on did not deter me from eating them with gusto: making foreign women squirm is good sport apparently!
Our destination of Yangshou is a pretty charming town on this beautiful river, with lots of back backers in dreds and sandals on the circuit from Vietnam and Thailand. It’s that sort of place. It also offers the best rock climbing in China, so there are a lot of robust, adventure type travellers too. Over breakfast, I met a retired couple from Arizona who had been here for 6 months teaching English: they advised me that if I wished to stay a month or a year, just walk down the street, take a left and I would be assured of a job for as long as I wanted. I admit, I thought about it. My breakfast was enjoyed at a little cafe owned by a former hot dog vendor from Ottawa and his bride whom he met here on his first day in Yangshou. They live above the cafe with their new baby, where she makes jewellery and they ponder whether to move to Canada. Like most of China, Yangshou is developing, building, growing: it is clinging hard to its image as a laid back haven for city weary tourists and travellers. But I could see the “luxury” condo developments underway at every turn. I think that I came to Yangshou at the best, and last time.

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My hosts and I were unable to give the cab driver sufficiently detailed directions to our intended dining spot, (not an uncommon event when street names change each block and street numbers are not sequential) After 30 frustrating minutes of getting nowhere fast, we obeyed the dictates of our rumbling stomachs and got out and walked south in search of a late evening dinner. Normally, a dinner for 3 at a quite elegant Sichuan or Yunnan restaurant would never top $70, even with drinks. But it was getting on 9:30, and with no such haven in sight, we threw frugality to the wind and walked into Jasmine, a high concept and high end Asian fusion restaurant/club.

Here we had entered the rarefied land of plush expense accounts and equally padded bodies camouflaged by well cut Italian suits. It was the sort of place where the only reasonably priced bottles of wine were the 350ml kind. (It took sending the waiter back twice to figure that out!)

As we settled into our large club chairs, I leaned back, enjoying the stylish ambiance, I happened to catch the conversation between the 2 businessmen seated close behind me. (The chairs were so large that it was easier to hear them than converse with my dining companions. Really.) One was Chinese, and the other an attractive American with lots of salt and pepper hair. As the conversation drifted from congratulating each other on the conclusion of a successful deal and an equally pleasant dinner, the Chinese gentleman asked the other if he had a girlfriend. Frankly, as a woman in about the same demographic cohort as the American, my ears perked up. The American said no, that he was in fact, looking for a new girl, that he was not looking for anything long term, and that he had learned that from his previous experience. All of this is verbatim by the way. Then the conversation shifted to real estate in California, how much his wife loved growing grapes in their $11.1 million property, and how his gorgeous and brilliant 25 year old daughter would love the challenge of China but his son was too conventional and would not take the risk.

Now, I am not going to comment on the morality of the man’s choice to have a long term girl friend here in China: he knows what California divorce laws are like and perhaps his wife was fully aware of his arrangements. No one really understands anyone else’s marriage. It’s not the first time that I had heard reference to a “Chinese wife”. But I did wonder what had happened to this person , now known only as “Previous Experience”.

Was she a still young woman of 30, who after 5 years of entertaining Mr. California, had decided it was time to move on, get her own life, husband and possibly child? Or was it a case of a lady who had spend years catering to him while he was in town for his monthly meetings, planning the special outings, making sure the cupboard had his preferred foods and drink, and the fridge was stocked with cold water and ice, the way Westerners like it. I hoped that he had siphoned off enough funds from his personal or corporate accounts to leave her well provided for, and that she still had her apartment that he had arranged for their trysts: it is unlikely that a Westerner would have been willing to live in a Chinese style flat. I hoped that she was not still not waiting patiently for the special ring tone, the nudge on Messenger, or the knock on the door. But I was unable to suppress the vision of a small elegant woman of a certain age, sitting straight backed , dressed in his favourite silk kimono, hoping it was not, but knowing, that like those beautiful Beijing roses in June, they were finished.

There would be no “unintended consequences” from this liaison: with the Chinese one child policy, abortion is easily available at public hospitals for about $65 per procedure. However, in response to some international pressure about the high rate of abortions, the government outlawed promotional advertising some years ago. Still, flyers and newspaper ads offering the procedure from less savory and less safe outlets are commonplace. Indeed, the easy access to abortion was intended for married women to comply with stringent laws. However, with the increasing rate of sexual activity of unmarried women, especially in urban areas, young single women have become major users of the service. While sexual activity is on the upswing, sexual education has lagged seriously behind. Slogans are everywhere: useful information is not. Getting pregnant while unmarried would be a major loss of face for her family and so her support system would disappear: few unmarried women would want to carry a baby to full term.

Small packs of condoms are available in bright pink, girly packaging and displayed optimistically at the beauty counter check out, along with the lip gloss and the breath mints. But a young male acquaintance of mine told me that his friends will not use them So that other “unintended consequence” of unprotected sexual activity, STD’s are also on the rise.

Clubs in cities like Beijing offer frenetic “hook up” opportunities, for Westerners and Chinese natives. Although the nightly outcomes might be the same, intentions between the 2 groups differ. I was told that Chinese men seek out Western women for a night of unencumbered fun because the beautiful Chinese girls in the same clubs might charge them for the privilege. On the other side, young Chinese women often see Western men as their ticket out of China, and would do pretty much anything to make that happen. Western men are not oblivious to the opportunity that circumstance represents and have been known to see the city as a sexual “all you can eat buffet”, if you pardon the metaphor. Getting the girl home to your apartment is as easy as flashing a passport: getting her to leave once ensconced is a bit more tricky. Parties that should have been over in the light of day have a strange way of continuing until the next afternoon or evening. But then, how do you get her to leave when she won’t put her pants on?

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After an intense 3 days of shopping and touring in Hong Kong, I boarded the busy ferry to the island of Macau. Macau was a Portuguese trading outpost from the 1500’s, and the stepping off point for the Jesuit missionaries working in Asia. Hence the unique blend of Asian and Portuguese food, culture and architecture. It is now a “Special Administrative Region” like Hong Kong, but there is a special tension here that Hong Kong does not suffer from. Hong Kong, whatever the pace of development and growth, will always be confident in its core identity as a global center of commerce that pays unapologetic homage every day to the power of trade and the glory of affluence. I have never seen so much money so grandly and proudly displayed: New York seems modest in comparison.
As the only place in China with legalized gambling, Macau has been under aggressive pressure from real estate and gambling consortiums. There is now some dissonance being expressed with the pace and intensity of development: at the time of writing, the local government apparently wanted to put a moratorium on new gambling licenses and land reclamation. (“Land reclamation” is simply a positive spin on “sea destruction “) As you can imagine, pro and con editorials and accusations are flying fast and furious in the local morning papers. As a first time visitor, I can only say, please hold the line.
Don’t get me wrong: despite not being interested in slots or table games, I have visited Las Vegas with family and friends and on business on a regular basis for over 15 years. The attraction for me now is a 5 star luxury long weekend with the girls and some of the best dining in North America. Seriously. take a look as this sample of fine restaurants from Frommers; ” multi-Michelin-starred chef Joël Robuchon opened two restaurants in the MGM Grand; deservedly famed chef Julian Serrano reigns at Bellagio’s Picasso; Thomas Keller, the brains behind Napa Valley’s French Laundry — considered by many to be the best restaurant in the United States — has a branch of his Bouchon bistro; legendary chef Alain Ducasse is behind Mix at THEhotel; …2006 James Beard Awards featured several Vegas nominees, while Robuchon’s L’Atelier won Best New Restaurant in 2007.” Of course, you have to be prepared to spend $30 on a starter and upwards of $75 on a main, but hey, that’s what’s winnings are for. Or at least, that’s what I tell my mom when she scores at the slot machine! Otherwise, it’s off to the “all you can eat before 5pm” $12 buffet.
So while Vegas is styled as a place for adult fun, however you define it, the gambling face of Macau is not fun at all. Not because the branches of the Wynn or the Venetian are any grand or luxurious than they are in Vegas; it’s because gambling in China is not meant to be fun. At least not that I could see. As I walked through the ill kept, dingy underground passage between the original Casino Lisboa, over to new Wynn , I saw only sad, dejected faces. In the casino, there was no laughter, no shouts of excitement, not even a lot of that annoying ding ding ding from the slots. There are not as many slot machines in Macau which certainly keeps the din to a minimum: I imagine that table games are considered to be more “lucky” or perhaps requiring more skill than simply pushing a button. And no alcohol is consumed while gambling: this is a serious business.
I watched one baccarat table where a young woman appeared to have a streak of good luck, judging from the crowd pressed around her, urging her on. As she was dealt her cards, the women standing behind her started to blow air from their mouths, and waving one hand towards the dealer, as if to wish away bad luck from the player. (Or perhaps bad luck on the house) The Chinese are very superstitious, and never more so than when gambling. And betting is done aggressively: one possible reason for all those disappointed faces I saw earlier was that they bet the whole bankroll on one play and lost. That’s normal. It’s not about extending out the play for its own sake, seeing how long your money can last, as my friends and I do in Vegas. It’s about the chance, the win, the roll, putting everything on the line. And when it’s done, it’s over.
So why do I think that enough is likely enough. Well, when I travelled over the bridge to the smaller island of Taipa, I passed the massive Venetian complex and 3 equally massive holes in the ground which will shortly become the Hard Rock Cafe, the Sheraton, and a Hyatt. Getting past these works in progress required traversing 4 very large roundabouts. Not a sidewalk to be seen. So what I envision will happen will be a transformation very much like Vegas: huge retail, hotel and casino complexes, connected by above and underground people movers, dominating the skyline and extending ever further out into the harbour until Macau and Taipa are one land mass. The format and intention are very much in line with Vegas: keep in the punters in the complex, away from the outdoors, and always in front of a table or a store. But how much more of it does one or two small islands really need?
And what is at risk? Well you can already feel the impact of the new gambling complexes: I was staying in a charming Portuguese style pousada and I could not get a cab at a casino hotel to take me there at night. Too much easier money to be made shuffling the players from casino to casino. The architecture of Macau is lovely and best appreciated while strolling or sitting at a local coffee shop (did I mention that the egg tarts here are wonderful, as is most of the Portuguese food?)But if the tourists are simply bused from ferry to casino, and then shuffled from one gaming table to another, never to see the light of day, who will support these restaurants, museums and cultural attractions? Macua may be at risk of being a city that simply exists to support the casinos, instead of the other way around.
My advice is to see it soon before it disappears. Have dinner at the well known local culinary school, where you can have an excellent 4 course meal accompanied by very good Portuguese wine for about $50. Stay in a pousada, and admire the lotus flowers growing in ponds with stone fountains and orchids displayed against traditional blue and white tiles. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets and enjoy this special Asian urban experience while you can.

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