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.

No comments: