Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why I Didn't Love Shenzen and Why I Liked It One Helluva Lot

If I could bring home to Seattle one feature of life in Shenzhen, it would be basic, humble, essential to civilized living, and largely invisible here--the public toilet. There were bilingual signs for them in almost every neighborhood I visited, they were in public parks, in the approach to the paid area of the metro stations, and on every floor of every shopping center that I visited. They were clean and Western-style commodes weren't uncommon. My only caveats would be carry toilet paper with you and if squat toilets aren't your thing, look for the sign that says Handicapped Toilet. (When I did, I always tried to limp as I entered one, but that's just me. Nobody seemed to give a damn. But be sure to hurry because there are a large number of people in wheelchairs who travel around that city, surprising to someone who has spent most of her Asian time in Bangkok.)

There are other features that I wish were here as well as there: vending-style machines where library books can be checked out anytime (even in the airport), fresh fruit carts on the sidewalks, Pizza Huts that sell cocktails...but every time I walked through a park and realized there was no smell of urine wafting toward me, I longed for those public toilets to come home with me.

Following close behind that is the lack of salt as a predominating flavor in food--even potato chips and nuts weren't drowning in sodium. Could that be why my blood pressure reading was so low when I recently went to the doctor? Gee, do you suppose?

Although the libraries, metro system, tree-lined streets, and green spaces near major thoroughfares all made my time in Shenzhen pleasant, I didn't fall in love with it and anybody who knows me will realize this is far from usual. Ordinarily I return from a trip to any city and immediately start checking Craigslist or its international equivalents, plotting the time that I will be able to move there. It's a ritual so firmly in place that I was surprised to find I wasn't doing that for Shenzhen in the past weeks, once the jet lag faded.

But Shenzhen, as far as I could see, has no landscape, other than architectural marvels and the spectacular view of Shenzhen Bay at the park of the same name. (Yes I know eponymous would have worked there, but I hate that word, okay?) Hong Kong has its harbor with the hills behind it, Shatin has its river, Beijing has its lakes and hills, Bangkok has the Chao Phraya. Shenzhen? The best view of the river that separates it from the New Territories is seen only when crossing the windowed bridge between the two border checkpoints and lingering is forbidden. On the Number 5 metro line, there was a brief glimpse of green hills stretching toward the horizon but the area was under construction and studded with equipment. And to my mind, a doomed landscape is no landscape at all.

The second drawback comes with being a city that is under forty years old. The infrastructure is beautifully in place--miles of really stunning buildings in the central business district, the clean and polished metro stations with trains that come every few minutes, the museums and libraries that are placed in those stunning buildings and are conveniently near those metro stations. But Shenzhen is a city with no layers. Instead it has space and zoning. I found myself going to Hong Kong to soak up the clutter and variety of its neighborhoods. And within the beautiful libraries and museums, there is nothing that made me grateful that I had traveled for hours to see them. 

But it is a new city and that will change. What is more immutable is that damned firewall, which in Shenzhen extends to print as well as cyberspace. For a reader, it is a painful city to be in for more than a week because I could find no English newspapers, not China Daily, not the Global Times. After my first week, I would have killed for both. In Eon Books, there are copies of the Economist, Time, and the National Geographic. All are individually shrink-wrapped and none of them are new. 

It was difficult to live without internet access as I knew it, but not impossible. What was impossible was the paucity of print in English, which seemed peculiar for a city that is positioning itself as a global player. I found myself going to the airport Hyatt as much for its single copy of the South China Morning Post that was provided for its guests as I did for unrestricted use of the internet.

Once a week I crossed the border and came home with newspapers and magazines. And the silver lining to that cloud? I, who am notoriously one of the greediest print gluttons on the planet, learned the skill of reading very s-l-o-w-l-y.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wordless Traveler

It’s not often that I wish I had a travel companion but this thought frequently crossed my mind when I was in Shenzhen. There were days when all I ever said was “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Check please,” “Cold,” and (very badly but with great feeling), “Where is the toilet?”

After I had met Mr. Lee, the manager of Granville Whale’s Cafe, things perked up, conversationally speaking, but he was a busy man. Once a week or so, I met my friend Albert across the border for a few hours and tried not to allow my words to become a tsunami as we chatted.

Aside from normal human discourse, there was the sheer surprise of Shenzhen, constantly knocking me on the chin. I took snapshots constantly and posted them online when I could, but out of context, they looked flat and ordinary. Even the skyscraper whose facade was peeled away mid-tower to resemble an appendectomy at one angle, a hernia at the other, was only an amusement without seeing the other equally imposing but less eccentric buildings that surrounded it. The half of a motorcycle that burst through a restaurant wall just beneath its roof meant little unless it was viewed from the perspective of a chic shopping center across the street. And the amazement caused by a sign for a new apartment complex that said “Dolores Park: Life is routine punctuated by orgies” was nonexistent unless the reader had walked for hours in a place where written English is an anomaly.

Ordering a soft-serve ice cream cone at a streetside McDonald's that looked from a photograph as if it might be related to strawberry and finding it was made from hawthorn berries, asking a clerk in an Apple store where to find an ATM with an English menu and being directed to the nearest Starbucks, emerging from the metro into what was expected to be still more city and finding it was a gigantic construction zone where Shenzhen is still being built--all of this would have been more credible somehow if there was someone to turn to and ask “Can you dig it?”

And yet without that comradeship and without the immediate gratification of a status update, I wrote this all down every day. And when I go back to Shenzhen, I will go by myself, with a goal. Yes, I need language there. No, that language is not my own, and the conversation I want will be hard to come by. But there really is nothing fun about “easy.” It’s about as dull as being wordless for sixty days in another galaxy.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Without a Map, Without a Clue

Shenzhen is almost double the size of the city of Los Angeles, with its 792 square miles eclipsing the 472-square-mile metropolitan sprawl of L.A. Its subway system runs for 177 miles, close behind New York’s 228-mile length. And there I was, doing my best to find my way around this place without a map.

When I first went to Beijing, the staff at my guesthouse handed me a bilingual city map when they gave me the key to my room. Unfolded, it could have papered most of a wall and it was beautifully detailed. I still have it somewhere, tattered enough to resemble lace, after three months of constant use while I walked as many streets of China’s capital as I could.

The desk clerk who checked me in at my Shenzhen hotel looked politely puzzled. “Our maps are only in Chinese,” he told me. But he gave me careful directions on where to go to buy coffee and the hotel’s brochure had a rudimentary map that would take me to the nearest subway station.

I was in an area that was easy to map on foot. It was a self-sufficient community, with two huge malls within walking distance, parks, a bus station, banks, a post office, and at least three restaurants on every block. The sidewalks were wide and uncrowded and many of the streets were bordered with banyan trees, their branches reaching out to form green canopies. It was the perfect spot to recover from jet lag and that was where I spent my first few days, having coffee at sidewalk cafe tables and window-shopping on a street that was filled with clothing stores.

I had downloaded what seemed to be the only guidebook to Shenzhen in existence which told me about a place in the central business district called Book City and that I decided would be my first destination. It turned out to be over an hour from my new neighborhood by subway on two different lines but I was overjoyed to find bilingual route maps at every station. Soon my phone was crammed with pictures of subway line maps and I concentrated on every announcement that called out the name of the next stop, trying to memorize the tones.

There was a foreign language bookstore in the mall that was Book City and that language was my very own. I chose a small stack of books and took them to the counter, where the lady behind it spoke to me in perfect English. “I can’t find a guidebook to Shenzhen. Can you help me?” I asked. “We don’t have one,” she said.

“Do you have a map in English?” “No. Only in Chinese.”

“Do you know any place where I can buy a map of Shenzhen in English?” Smiling sweetly, she assured me that there was no such thing anywhere in Book City or anyplace in Shenzhen.

This seemed beyond comprehension to me, but Hong Kong was just over the border. I put my selections on the counter with my credit card on top of the stack. “I’m very sorry, but I can’t take this card. Credit cards need this symbol in China,” and she showed me her own card, with the logo of Union Pay.

I bought one of the books, with cash, and left in a state of miserable confusion. I was in a city that was positioning itself as a center of world trade and commerce that didn’t seem to recognize international banking practices and didn’t acknowledge, let alone help, a tourist market beyond the domestic one. Less ebulliently than when I had begun my expedition, I found my way back to my hotel where at least I knew my credit card was functional.

On the next morning I made my first border crossing and went immediately to my favorite Hong Kong bookstore. Swindon Books has been in Kowloon for almost 100 years, since 1918. It has a substantial travel section and a hefty selection of maps. None of them were for Shenzhen, in any language at all.

Google maps aren’t available in China and the versions I found on yahoo were far from helpful. I began to feel a kind of mental vertigo, floating in a new universe, unanchored by the laws of gravity. Then one day I met a friend in Hong Kong who handed me a map of Shenzhen with place names in English.

I took it home and spread it out on my bed. There were names of subway stops that I had passed but none were near me. As far as I could see, on this map my neighborhood in the Bao'an district simply did not exist. I took it down to the reception desk where the staff confirmed my fears. We were indubitably off the map.

There are eight subway lines in Shenzhen and I used six of them almost every day in my two months of living there. I walked in futile attempts to find cohesion between neighborhoods but the concept of flow escaped me. I began to feel that I was in a city that was a follow-the-dots page, with all of the dots still unconnected.

Halfway through my stay, I found a bilingual guide to cultural attractions in Shenzhen with transit directions and miniscule line drawings of maps. Clutching that, I wandered the city like a character out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, making my way from one helpful pedestrian to the next, on a quest. Luckily for me, Shenzhen people are kind.

And now, back in Seattle, my quest continues. Somewhere, somehow, I will find a map of this confusing, seductive city. It’s not impossible. After all, Beijing has been mapped for centuries.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Granville Whale's Cafe: A Refuge from Slippery Chopsticks

Plastic chopsticks and I have never gotten along very well. My Asian gateway country was Thailand where people use a fork and spoon and (wooden) chopsticks are used for noodles. I soon found that if I ate fat, thick noodles with wooden chopsticks, I could save myself from public humiliation. On the occasions when the restaurant had plastic chopsticks, I simply avoided noodles. Case closed.

Shenzhen apparently thought that wooden chopsticks were vestiges of a less affluent past because even the humblest streetside diner had plastic ones for their customers. I bought a package of bamboo utensils but always forgot to carry them with me and always wished I had. Even dumplings proved to be slippery little devils when my fingers held plastic chopsticks and my clothes were soon splashed with vinegar and chili oil.

But even so, a broad has to eat and I persisted, but some days were much worse than others. After one morning in a dumpling joint where the people sitting near me averted their eyes and the waitstaff found tasks that would give them a good view of this peculiarly inept old foreign woman, I left knowing I never wanted to go back.

As I walked down the street, still hungry and with my self-esteem far below absolute zero, I approached a place with the intriguing name of Granville Whale’s Cafe. I had been there once before, had opened the menu, and quickly left, muttering “I didn’t come to Shenzhen to eat pasta and risotto.” But it was a spot that served espresso, and I needed something that I could eat without embarrassing myself. I went inside.

It was still early and I was the only customer. I sat at a table in a regal peacock chair and looked at the bilingual menu. Charcoal coffee was something I’d never seen before, so I ordered it.

While the beans were being ground, I stared at the large, light-flooded space and saw shelves filled with hand grinders, filter cones, and long-spouted kettles. Obviously this was a place that understood coffee, and this assessment was buttressed by the careful actions being taken by the man who was making my coffee. As he poured water over the ground beans, he frequently stopped, bent his head, and sniffed at them. I was impressed and very hopeful. After a couple of weeks spent drinking Nescafe Red instant and Starbucks lattes, I was more than ready for a cup of good coffee.

But I wasn’t ready for the presentation. It arrived on a footed wooden tray with two recessed spaces; one held a graceful white gilt-trimmed porcelain cup and saucer and the other had a little white pitcher with the coffee that hadn’t fit in the cup. A demitasse spoon rested near the cup, along with cream and sugar that I was certain I wouldn’t need. The coffee smelled like the best drug in the world and when I tasted it, it was.

Undertones of bitterness made me want something sweet and I examined the pastry case at the counter. Lemon poppyseed cake came to my table, garnished with a sphere of chocolate and a miniscule sprig of parsley, on a plate drizzled with a thin border of chocolate syrup. I was enchanted.

I had found much to love in my Shenzhen neighborhood, but casual elegance was not its hallmark. This eccentrically named cafe was an anomaly and a welcome one that became my primary refuge in a fascinating but exhausting city.

Mr. Lee introduced himself on that first visit and he became a friend. Educated in the UK and a generous English speaker, he was a source of conversation and information and kindness who made this cafe nourishing in more ways than one.

Toward the end of my time In Shenzhen, Granville Whale’s Cafe had a sign advertising Row Dinners, a four-course meal with cocktail included, and one evening after a tiring trip to Hong Kong, I decided I needed a treat. The waitress brought me a menu and I asked about the cocktail choices. She smiled and fled, returning with Mr. Lee.

“I don’t drink alcohol,” he told me, “I’ll ask the man who makes the cocktails.”

“Perhaps I should just have a glass of wine instead?” I asked.

“We can’t serve wine here,” he explained, “or beer, only cocktails when they are ordered with dinner.”

I ordered the rest of my meal and went to wash my hands. When I walked back toward my table, I passed the counter that held a small but stunning collection of liquor bottles, where Mr. Lee and another staff member stood, looking a bit puzzled.

“This is what we have,” Mr. Lee said. “What would you like to drink?’

“Johnny Walker Black,” I decided, “with ice, no water.”

And soon I was presented with a glass filled with Scotch with a thin sprinkling of small ice cubes. It tasted like god on the rocks and I sipped it happily while eating a beautiful salad composee, a flavorful vegetable soup, and tender beef with perfectly cooked vegetables. There was no need for dessert.

In my two months in Shenzhen, I was comfortable in my hotel room, loved the cats and flowering potted plants for sale in the nursery down the street, found Hunan and Xi'an food that made me happy, and learned to be grateful for the neighborhood mall, but the place that will draw me back to the neighborhood of Jian’an Road is Granville Whale's Cafe and the welcoming presence of Mr. Lee.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

In the Year of the Rooster

I had been told there was no reason to spend Chinese New Year in China. “Everybody stays at home with their families.” The subtext was that everybody goes home to be with their families and I had seen enough mainland movies to know that train stations were crowded to the point of nightmare at this time of year.

What I didn’t know was  that this migration lasts for forty days and in 2017 was estimated to consist of 2.98 billion travelers. An online English language newspaper said it would finally be over by February 21 and I was leaving exactly one week after that.

I like crowds but the idea of almost three billion people taking to the road, rails, and sky was daunting. Within less than two weeks, my rides on the Shenzhen metro had changed. At first I was traveling with commuters and shoppers who never left a child, a pregnant woman, or an elderly person standing. The trains were pleasantly full and riders were relaxed and friendly. “Shenzhen, “ I told myself more than once, “is a claustrophobe’s dream.”

And that it was. Streets were wide, coffee shops had outdoor seating, public parks were gigantic, and even the shopping malls were civilized places with spacious hallways flooded with daylight and blessed with public seating. In this city of 792 square miles, space was easy to come by and it seemed to have been the guiding principle of Shenzhen’s urban planners. After a week there, I crossed the border into Hong Kong, got as far as Kowloon, and came back shaking; the number of people on the MTR felt unbearable after seven days of being uncrushed in this other city.

But then the suitcases, cartons, and bundles appeared on the Shenzhen metro and a whole other way of traveling began. My hotel was near a bus station and the streets of my neighborhood were studded with clumps of travelers and their baggage, sitting near the sidewalks, waiting for their trip to begin. I thought of how crowded the terminal must be, shuddered, and kept walking.

People left Shenzhen; people came to Shenzhen. After the holiday began, the metro demographic became quite obviously rural. Passengers had loud conversations, their clothing was utilitarian rather than stylish, and even the women had developed the most impressive techniques of manspread that I had ever seen. While the people leaving Shenzhen always left the metro in an almost empty state when it reached a railway station, the new travelers seemed to have more tenuous destinations. They sprawled and chatted and watched their children enjoy the ride, looking at those unfortunates who remained standing with the unmistakable silent message, “I’ve got my seat. Sucks to be you.”

One unforgettable morning when the migration was in its first week, I changed trains at a railway station to save time on a trip to the border. Few people got off the car closest to me and caught in a river of people, I was squeezed on board. And more and more passengers shoehorned themselves on before the doors finally closed so that we were a solid mass of bodies, pushed together with no millimeter between us. This was beyond MTR crowds in Hong Kong. This was the stuff that disaster movies were made of and the pressure per square inch on my body was almost bone-breaking. A mother next to me made a protective barrier of both arms around her small daughter; it took her minutes to get that position in place.

And then little by little, the car emptied out with nobody fainting or being trampled to death and my thoughts of traveling outside of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen area ebbed with those departing passengers. Small matter that a train trip from Shenzhen to Guanzhou took a mere sixty minutes if those minutes were spent on a high-speed sardine can.

As transit became more populated, my neighborhood grew emptier. The convenience stores where I bought large bottles of drinking water slammed down their gates over locked doors. Restaurants turned off their lights in a slow procession of closures. Traffic was sparse on streets where I had feared for my life on first arrival and often I was one of perhaps three pedestrians. Granville Whale’s Cafe, where I drank charcoal coffee in the morning and chatted with the UK-educated manager, went dark. The flaky little pastries filled with bean curd that were sold from street stalls were all gone. In fact everything that I had loved about my neighborhood was gone.

I began to appreciate the virtues of the local shopping mall. Starbucks still sold its lackluster coffee, the Buy It supermarket provided large bottles of water, and a Hunan restaurant on one of the upper floors kept me well fed with its food that was more incendiary than most Thai food is. On Saturday mornings I would have breakfast at a Hong Kong import, Cafe de Coral, and watch families stroll past in the hallway, all beautifully dressed, Shenzhen boulevardiers out to regard their world. The Haiya Mega Mall was my neighborhood’s community center and I learned to respect its function and to use it without my usual disdain for shopping palaces. It was keeping me alive.

When my neighborhood first began to darken, I took my customary Monday morning bag of laundry to be sent out into the world at large. Every week I did that and every week it returned within a day, every last item ironed dry and in sealed cellophane bags. Laundry is my indulgence as a traveler. I don’t do it myself because the end result usually smells like a mushroom farm and it is always wrinkled. Shenzhen was the apex of any laundry I had ever encountered and my clothes had never looked so good.

But that Monday night I came back to that same bag of dirty clothes, still unwashed. “No,” the girl at the desk explained, “New Year.”

I found that the mall's branch of Uniqlo had underwear that fit me, and H&M had cheap socks in packs of six, but after I had spent forty dollars in that first week without laundry, my homestead upbringing took over. As I turned the low wattage hair dryer that was attached to the bathroom wall upon sink-laundered underwear and dresses that had previously been wrapped in a micro-fiber towel to absorb moisture, I felt a tiny surge of self-sufficiency that came with a healthy dose of self-ridicule. “Let it never be said,” I told myself, “that I don’t know how to properly celebrate Chinese New Year.”

Saturday, March 11, 2017

How Not to Prepare for Two Months in Shenzhen:Dos and Don'ts from a Woman who Was Clueless

1) Do not take a Google Chromebook. (I did.)
2) Do create a Yahoo email address and give it to family, friends, and the airline that will take you to China. Also to any banks whom you might use, or to businesses that you pay online. (I didn't.)
3) Do not expect to use your credit cards easily. Chinese credit cards are linked to UnionPay and yours almost certainly is not. Make sure your hotel will accept a foreign card before you leave or expect to use agoda.com constantly. (I was lucky. Mine did.)
4) Do bring cash, lots of it. You can carry a small fortune without fear of theft in that city, with reasonable caution recommended. (I did.)
5) Do hunt down maps of Shenzhen before leaving the U.S. because you will find none that you will be able to read within the city. (I didn't.)
6) And DO download as many books as you can. There is one (1) English language bookstore. (Thank you, Eon Books.) (I didn't and therefore learned to read very slowly for two months.)
7) Do put a translation app on your phone and carry a small phrasebook with you in case of emergency. (I used my little phrasebook often.)
8) Do buy the only guidebook available for Shenzhen and download it to your phone or ipad. Yes, you will have to buy it from Amazon and yes it is outdated. But it has parks, museums, streets, and other essentials in Chinese characters, along with the characters for stored-value subway card which you are going to need. (I did that--wish I had also bought the taxi guide to Shenzhen. You probably should.)
9) Do find out where the nearest branch of the Bank of China is in relation to your hotel. That's the only bank where you will be able to use your ATM card. (I didn't and was helped by a very kind brace of bank employees in a smaller bank.)
10) Do make sure you have Hong Kong dollars for an Octopus card when you make your first border crossing. (I didn't.)
11) If you go between November and May, do take sweaters. There is no central heating. A warm coat won't be a bad idea either. (I didn't. Thank you, H&M.)
12) If you are there for Chinese New Year, do not have silly prejudices against shopping malls because they will keep you alive when everything else shuts down. (Without malls, I would have had to buy very small bottles of drinking water from my hotel. And by the way, thank you, Starbucks.)
13) Do accept any and all offers of help from Shenzhen residents. They are the kindest people you may ever meet. (I did.)
!4) Do realize that Whatsapp is a fantastic telephone connection and make sure the people you love best have that app before you leave. (Nope, didn't do that either.)
!5) Do not expect to use Facebook or Gmail unless you find a Hyatt. Do not expect internet service to be anything other than spotty in your hotel unless you are a deluxe traveler.
16) Do use taxis to get to destinations far afield. They're cheap if your hotel staff negotiates the fare for you. Otherwise you'll spend at least 1/3 of your time on the metro. (I did. Great for people watching but those nine subway lines don't go everywhere and so neither did I.)
17) Do not think three months in Beijing is adequate preparation for two months in Shenzhen. (I did.)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Back from Another Universe

Last Wednesday I returned from the most puzzling and isolated journey of my life. I'm still sorting it all out and am even more slowly resuming my usual life in Seattle. After two months of using five phrases in Chinese and having limited conversations in my native language, without connection to google or other staples of my internet existence, with news that was usually a week old by the time I received it, I'm still catching up on every conceivable level that I can think of.

Like everyone I know, I was reeling from the presidential election and its hazy yet horrifying consequences. I thought about it almost every waking moment, read the NYT and news sources on Twitter to the exclusion of practically anything else, and Facebook was my lifeline to friends who were in the same state of mind.

And then I went to Shenzhen, where I was cut off from everything but whatsapp, yahoo (ghastly news source), and occasional bursts of gmail through an AT&T app on my phone. Deprogrammed, definitely, and it was painful.

I am able to travel alone because every night I put photos and updates on Facebook. Family and friends respond and the conversation never stops. Without that connection, I felt adrift for quite a while--well to be honest, for the entire sixty days I was gone.

On whatsapp, a few wonderful people sent news and photos and messages about daily living. Without them, I would have withered.

Meanwhile I realized that in preparing for my trip, I had made every conceivable mistake. Details come later for anyone as clueless as I. Let it be enough to say that three months in Beijing was not really helpful when translated to two months in Shenzhen.

Even so, that city is compelling and (for me) seductive. While I was there, I wrote every day and took more than a thousand snapshots of what I saw. I struggled to get a grip on what it was to live there and where its core might be. I still don't know, but I will spend a lot of time now that I'm away from it searching through the barrage of sensory detail and hours on the metro and journeys through its streets. This blog is where I'll try to make some coherent sense out of my time away.

What I do realize already, and what I am grateful for, is my time in Shenzhen has given me back my life, and I won't let it be taken hostage again. Letting a madman control the narrative is a sure road to madness. Balance is essential and there are more crucial elements in being alive than consumption by politics. I'll keep being aware and active but that can't come first. First is family, friends, food, long walks, welcoming the beauty and pleasure of the world around me.

Glad to be back.