Sunday, March 28, 2010

MIM Trip - China, in two parts

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One of the photos China really didn't want you to see — outside the Forbidden City at night

Beijing

Apologies for the delay, but Blogger was one of the many things locked behind the Great Firewall, and I was too busy discovering Tokyo to write this up then. Thank god for boredom on airplanes, then. Plenty more photos from China available here.

Finally arriving in China was something of a wake-up call. Compared to the more western-oriented nature of Japan and South Korea, at first the Olympic city appeared to be much the same — driving into town from the nicely-appointed airport, you can see a variety of new skyscrapers with impressive Chinese national and international brands. Here, Sinopec tower; there, one for China’s offshore oil company; just down the road, one of a couple of banks.

Beijing looks very nice, modern and new if you are looking up — at the skyscrapers or streetlights or even the city traffic. Watch your feet, though, and you can see the weariness of winter and the truth that, while not third-world, China is still a developing nation in many senses. Broken, dusty sidewalks happen in the United States too, but there’s a certain sense of dilapidation in parts of Beijing. Walking along the wall of the Forbidden City toward Tiananmen Square, you see all sorts of small stores, shacks, and side-streets that run toward Beijing’s poor (middle-class?) areas away from the upper-middle-class boom.

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China is also culturally very, very different from anything else I had ever experienced before. Chinese traffic is indicative of many things (ranging from waiting in line at McDonalds to doing business and planning) — it’s busy, noisy, and conducted with elbows as you force your way up toward the front. One of my grad school friends joked that something “wasn’t impolite, we’re in China” was very true — politeness certainly is relative to the context, yes, but for somebody who’s only ever been in the west (and the west coast of the United States at that), it’s a strong shock.

[This is without even going into too much detail on cab rides in Beijing and Shanghai, which were harrowing to say the least. Cheap, fast, and efficient seems to be the order of the day, though you might be a bit frightened].

Being an American tourist of even modest means in China makes you feel like a black-card-strapped rock star back in the United States. Want to share a multi-course meal at a very nice Chinese restaurant, complete with a couple rounds of Tsingtao and dessert afterwards? $15. Subway fare almost everywhere in Beijing was 2 yuan (which had to be state subsidized to drive people onto the trains and away from driving); the exchange rate is roughly 7 yuan to $1. Hit the ATM, pull out $200 and walk away feeling like a rap star with a much, much fatter wallet.

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On one of the last nights in Beijing, a group of students went out to a party hosted at a bar on the other side of the city from where our hotel was located. All-you-can-drink until midnight at a bar that was a converted houseboat? 100 yuan, or (roughly) $15; taxis weren’t even close to that. A good time was had by all for sure.

This also translates to shopping in China, especially in the markets where haggling is the name of the game. Beijing has a few famous markets, the Pearl and Silk markets, where the legitimacy of the goods is questionable and the first price you’re quoted for anything is nearly 400 percent too high. The merchants are very aggressive and know enough English to catch onto some things — a few students were walking through one of the markets and one of them accidentally said the other’s name, which led to the poor sap being called out by name throughout the rest of the market. The slightest eye contact toward something while browsing will lead to merchants falling over themselves trying to offer you twelve of whatever that is, whether it’s leather goods (wallets, bags, etc.), clothes, or electronics.

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The dance that ensues when you do want to buy something is complicated. Step one is to ask the price for something else, then immediately cut that price in half. The haggling then starts, once you figure out where the price floor is; then, you ask about what you really want, stay firm on the price, and even walk away to prove your point. They’ll come asking for you to come back, and accept your price.

This is how you get fake decent-quality fake North Face jackets for $20, or string upon string of pearls for $20 total. I’m really not good at this sort of haggling, and even had a moment of conscience when I realized my price was incredibly good within the context of American prices, if not the “market goods game” that developed within the cohort. Sure, you can be an ass and get your “I Climbed The Great Wall” T-shirt for 25 cents, but what’s the point? Just pay $2 and be on your way.

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I don’t know if I could live in China — more on this when I talk about Shanghai — but being a tourist there is a certain kind of fun. Your dollar goes a long ways if you’re smart, sights like the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, the Olympic stadiums, and the Great Wall were amazing — the Great Wall was one of the best experiences of my life — and the sights were definitely eye-opening.

Shanghai

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It might be a very obvious observation, but Shanghai just feels like a much more developed, more westernized and older city. It and Tokyo feel similar; I’m led to believe Hong Kong is about the same, and my personal theory is because all three were developed earlier than cities like Seoul —they had outside influences from the late 19th century on, instead of post-WWII like the South Korean metropolis. That said, there’s just a purpose and genuineness to the skyline in Shanghai that just didn’t feel there in Beijing. It’s like comparing Spokane and Seattle — they both might have downtowns, but you can tell which one walks the walk.

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That said, I liked the neon and hustle of Shanghai. I went out a couple nights with students from China on our program — notably Michael, who’s from Shanghai and seems like a boss in his hometown — and got to enjoy an entirely different experience than I would have had otherwise. Nothing like an elaborate, multi-dish Chinese dinner full of things I can’t remember and that they certainly don’t serve at any restaurant I’ve seen in Portland (or the United States, really). Didn’t try the bullfrog; probably should have, in retrospect, because when will I again? Our night out at a hot pot dinner was also a lot more fun and, yes, kicked the crap out of doing hot pot in Portland. Most of the food followed such a pattern on this trip, honestly.

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I felt like just being out in the neon of Shanghai — and washing it in from the backseat of a car, feeling the skyscrapers bear down — was a different enough experience that things like trying bullfrog didn’t seem as necessary as they probably will when I look back on this trip. However, making a fool of myself at a karaoke box surrounded by my friends and the Chinese students in our program? Definitely an experience I got behind, even if the Chinese girls put a bunch of Backstreet Boys and N’Sync into the karaoke mix for the three Americans out that night.

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Ah, Shanghai. I could probably ignore China’s myriad problems (like censorship, reason no. 1 why I couldn’t update this site at all during my Chinese trip) if you threw me into doing business in Shanghai, but man, learning to drive in China might be a bridge too far. I don’t know if I’d honestly want to make the personal sacrifices necessary to work and live overseas in order to live in Beijing, however; despite the PRC’s best efforts, I still don’t think I could believe in Beijing. Shanghai for the money, Beijing to be a tourist for four or five days.

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