China Wrap Up

Zaijian China

I’ve been to China many times in the past to visit family, so to me, it has never felt like a tourist location. For that reason, I didn’t really consider China to be part of my travels, and added it to the plan in large part due to obligation (also, my route took me so close to it anyway that it would be shame not to go back). I hadn’t planned on spending too much time there, so when my plane tickets worked out to give me more than a month in China, my initial reaction was to be upset that it meant less time later in Spain in Portugal.

As soon as I went back, though, I realized how important family was. I’d been living away from home for so long that I had forgotten the benefits of having family around, but everyone immediately rushed to visit and make sure I was comfortable, just like always. Even though I’ve only seen my dad’s side of the family about 5 times total, they welcomed me with open arms and went out of their way to host me. Even more so for my mom’s side of the family, who were just as excited as ever to have me back. 3 years had passed since I had last seen anyone on either side of the family – how could I have let so much time pass?

What hit me the most was how fortunate I was that everything was still more or less the same, even though 3 years had gone by. There were close calls with one of my grandfathers a couple years ago, but now he is stable and staying at home. My other set of grandparents, who are pushing 83 and 90, are still completely self sufficient. And their apartment is exactly as I remembered it, though my small triangular room has since been converted by my grandpa into a home lab. Who knows if I’ll still be as lucky the next time I go back? This was a constant reminder for me to live in the moment and enjoy it as much as possible, while it’s all still here.

On the whole, outside of family, China has undergone some huge changes in the past 3 years. As always, there are new buildings on the horizon, and this time, there is a 6.8 km bridge in Dalian that skirts around the city out in the sea. Mobile technology is also better and more widespread than ever before. WeChat is the social media giant through which everyone communicates with the world, and payment is mostly done by scanning one’s phone. I almost couldn’t buy food in a local mall cafeteria because few stalls accepted plain and simple cash.

Politically, things are also heading in a good direction. Though I haven’t been following the news, the topic on everyone’s mind is the recent anti-corruption crackdown. Xi Jinping has led a big push to punish corrupt government officials, regardless of rank, slowly but surely owning up to and addressing governmental problems one at a time.

But, of course, the Great Firewall is just as strong and impeding as ever. No Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or even the Wall Street Juornal. With a paid VPN service, I managed to stay connected and even complete some work, but it’s no exaggeration to say that sometimes things took 2-3x longer. The Firewall is the biggest single thing that I dislike about China, but unfortunately I don’t think that’s going away any time soon.

In hindsight, China was exactly the break I needed to catch up on health, work, family, and finances. A month turned out to be perfect, and I wouldn’t have minded a little longer… but once again, adventure calls. I’ll be back again, definitely before 3 years this time!

Misc China Observations:

  • Payment via WeChat and Alipay is so common that people don’t have to carry wallets anymore when going outdoors. Every vendor, down to the lady with galoshes who sells seafood in buckets at the wholesale market, simply has a WeChat QR code taped on the counter that customers can scan. Boom, instant payment. Some places only accept scanning and cards, which made for a very awkward situation when I tried to take family out to dinner with only cash.
  • Especially because the population of unmarried men is much higher than that of unmarried women, it’s become a requirement for young men (or their families) to provide a car and a house to be considered eligible for marriage. Typically, the groom’s family provides the house for the newlyweds, while the bride’s family funds the renovations.
  • In the previous year, China passed a new policy that makes it impossible to get a temporary SIM card. All SIM cards must be tied to a national ID (for Chinese citizens) or passport (for foreigners). There are no more pre-paid SIM cards – the smallest plan you can get is a 6 month plan.
  • The Great Firewall SUCKS. But if a more or less reliable VPN is only $12/month, seriously, why bother?
  • Almost all the taxis I rode in have rear view mirrors that record and sometimes display live footage of the front of the car. This is because there have been lots of cases of people throwing themselves in front of cars and then suing the innocent drivers for damages.
  • Taxi drivers, bus drivers, security guards, and people in other common service professions are addressed as 师傅 “shifu.” This is typically how you would address, say, your kungfu master. But it’s a sign of respect for people in these blue collar service professions, a remnant of communist ideology.
  • For decades and even now, all school kids wear a red scarf around their necks to school. This is called the 红领巾, a Communist garment that symbolizes the corner of the flag dyed red by soldiers’ blood.
  • Every morning, students have an hour long routine where they line up on the school field for an assembly and then do collective morning exercises.
  • Leftovers are dumped directly in thin plastic bags, even soup.
  • By 2050, 1 out of every 3 people will be over the age of 60.
  • Chengdu is the city with the second worst traffic in China, so massive highways that are 8 lanes across are frequently seen and sometimes just common streets.
  • People prefer backing into parking spots over pulling into them, while the opposite is true in the US.
  • It costs roughly three months average salary to buy 1m2 of property in a city.
  • Foreigners that are not staying in hotels/other tracked accommodation have to go to the police station to register their whereabouts. This is probably applicable to many other countries, and China is just the only one where I would not stay in a hotel. But my thanks to the little old lady in the neighborhood who tattled to the police that there was an unidentifiable foreigner in the compound.
  • Cellphone cases with rings on the back are popular. These rings can turn into a stand for your phone, and also give you something to loop your finger through when holding the phone.

Lessons from China

Lessons from China

1. Ask for help

I can be independent to a fault, and sometimes it comes back to bite me in the butt. Like when I first arrived in China.

My uncle came to pick me up from the airport, but I didn’t see him at the gate and I had no way to contact him. All I knew was his WeChat profile, but I couldn’t connect to wifi because I needed a Chinese phone number to do it. I needed a Chinese SIM card to do that, but I couldn’t get one without a Chinese national ID. Quite the bind, you see.

After walking up and down Terminal 1, where I arrived, I concluded that he probably wasn’t there. One of the shopkeepers told me that Terminal 2 was 800m away, so I loaded my luggage on a cart and ran to check if he might be waiting there instead. I couldn’t find him there either, so I ran all the way back to Terminal 1.

At that point, I finally gave in and started asking for help to connect to the internet. One woman who I approached unapologetically told me to ask airport personnel instead, but thankfully the next woman I asked allowed me to hotspot from her phone so I could finally call my uncle. Thank goodness for this kind soul!

In reality, though, it could have been much less stressful and a lot less hard. If I had just gone around asking for help in the beginning, I could have connected with my uncle right away. But I would literally rather run 2km with my bags and waste more than an hour than ask for help. This is a great lesson for work and for life – just save yourself the trouble and ask!

2. Family runs deep

My first stop in China was Chengdu to visit my dad’s family, who I had only visited a few times and usually in the company of my dad. This time it was just me, and I dropped by with little warning or coordination. More or less “Hey, I got a plane ticket into Chengdu on this day. Is it alright if I stay with you?”

I felt that I was imposing and worried that the stay might be awkward, but to my relief, it didn’t feel that way at all. They welcomed me with open arms, going out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and provided for. All with no strings attached. And conversation with my cousin, aunts, and uncles was easy and natural – we weren’t almost-strangers, as I had feared.

A live demonstration that family runs deep. No matter how little you see each other or long it’s been in between, there’s something that connects you and it takes little effort to find.

3. Few things are as important as family

Having lived away from home for so long and now traveled on my own for 2 months, I’ve learned to be fiercely independent and to be comfortable being by myself. I kept in touch with family weekly (okay, biweekly), but for the most part, I was in my own little world.

However, seeing family and being welcomed back to the familial circle reminded me of how nice it is to be part of a community where (mostly everyone) cares about and helps one another. Sure, there’s a fair share of drama and bickering, but it’s so nice to just belong.

You only have this one family, and the relationships will follow you for life. Big decisions that you make not only impact you, but everyone in your close family circle. Now, even though I’ll be on my own in distant lands again, family will still be close to my heart.

4. Understand differences by understanding context

This time in China, I had the opportunity to have some discussions about Chinese Communist ideology and policies, why they are the way they are and what Chinese people think of them. It’s easy to throw a blanket statement of “X is bad” or “you should clearly do Y,” but I learned that it’s all about the context.

For example, on the rigorous Chinese pressure-cooker education system that culminates in a single college entrance examination, the western view is that such a system suppresses creativity and only tests a student’s ability to take tests. This is true. But from a Chinese view, there are so many students in China that a more holistic system would take forever to evaluate. And if the system weren’t so black and white, there would be room for corruption and students with poorer backgrounds wouldn’t be able to compete.

5. Accept others’ generosity

A funny Chinese custom is the constant battle to pay. Because I hadn’t been back for so long, many relatives took me out to eat and insisted on paying for the meal.

A few times I was invited out along with my parents, and my mom found a way of thwarting the payment plans by sending my dad out to “go to the bathroom” halfway through. The check was taken care of, all good. But the problem was that the original invites got genuinely upset.

So accept the generosity and good will, and just find a way to pay the person back – next time.

6. It’s good to relax!

I arrived in China after two months of living the independent, on-the-go, penny-pinching lifestyle, and I was stuck in that mode for a good few days. It took me a week to realize that I don’t have to hand wash my clothes in the sink anymore – I can use the washer. Slowly, I let go and embraced a little more luxury, returning for a little bit to normalcy.

It was good to relax, and my body needed it. Almost as soon as I unraveled, I came down with a cold. It’s miraculous that I didn’t get one at all while shivering up in the Himalayas – yet I got one in Dalian, and I couldn’t point to anything in particular that could have caused it. I think it’s just my body finally taking the time to flush out the bad!

Cherry Blossom Season in Dalian

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Dalian is the mainland Chinese city with the closest ties to Japan, largely due to its location at the tip of the northeastern peninsula (if the map of China is a gigantic chicken, I like to say that Dalian is the the tip of the wattle on its chin – that’s what it’s actually called, look it up).

One of the ways that this is evident, besides the presence of many multinational Japanese companies and, sadly, the remnants of Japanese colonization, is 203 Park in nearby Lvshun. It claims to be the largest cherry blossom park outside of Japan (or maybe even including Japan?), and I happened to be there right in time for cherry blossom season.

I don’t know about the validity of those claims, but it certainly is big!

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Flowers in the whole spectrum of colors: white, white tinged with pink, pink, and even red.

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

And, of course, I couldn’t resist the temptation to take a few flower-framed shots.

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Cherry blossom festival at 203 park in Dalian, China

Nothing beats this perfect camoflague though:

A woman blends seamlessly into a cherry blossom tree at 203 park in Dalian, China

I always try to make it out to see cherry blossoms when this time of year rolls around, so I’m grateful that I got to fit it in this year too while on the road. Maybe next year, cherry blossom season in Japan? Definitely on the bucket list!

Food in Chengdu

Spice-soaked skewers in Chengdu, China

Chengdu is the relaxation capital of China, known for panda bears, tea houses, and – of course – a wide variety of (very spicy) food! My relatives in Chengdu took one look at me and decided that I looked far too skinny. My cousin, in particular, took it upon herself as her personal mission to make me gain at least 5 pounds in the span of one week.

The 5 pounds thankfully didn’t happen, but not for lack of trying. Everyday, I had two meals that stuffed me to the brim. Here are some of the highlights:

Soup Pot – A large boiling pot of soup, which you use to cook raw vegetables and meat yourself. Just like hot pot, but minus the (spicy) “hot” and a little healthier.

Soup pot in Chengdu, China

Vegetarian Hot Pot – Hot pot with only vegetarian options and surprisingly, but very delightfully, nothing that tried to masquerade as meat. All sorts of tofu and new vegetables, including one that looked like it was covered in solid dew. This place also greets you by offering a bowl of lemon water to wash your hands in, and has all sorts of chargers available for use. My favorite of them all!

Vegetarian hot pot in Chengdu, China

Hot Pot and Congee – Individual pots that you cook raw meats and vegetables in. At the end, when the broth cooks down, you pour in half a cup of rice and make your own congee.

Hot pot and porridge in Chengdu, China

Spicy Skewers – Sticks of various meats and vegetables soaked in a spicy peppercorn broth.

Spice-soaked skewers in Chengdu, China

Spice-soaked skewers in Chengdu, China

Fish Baked in Paper – Fish wrapped tightly in wax paper with spices and grilled.

Fish cooked in paper in Chengdu, China

Grilled Eggplant – A popular dish at BBQ places. Eggplant cut open, sprinkled with spices, and grilled. Your not supposed to eat the skin, but the rest of it is delicious.

A midnight meal of spice-soaked sticks in Chengdu, China

Stir Fried Rabbit – Self-explanatory. People in Szechuan apparently consume more rabbits than other places in China. Below is an entire 3lb rabbit:

Spicy stir fried rabbit in Chengdu, China

Deep Fried Bugs – A gourmet platter of 5 different kind of bugs (not sure what they are, and not sure I want to know), deep fried to a crisp. Even in China, bugs are a novelty, so this was definitely not the most popular dish.

Stir fried bugs in Chengdu, China

Thankfully for my weight, but sadly for my stomach, I didn’t stay in Chengdu for long. I (literally) got a great taste of it though, and I’ll have to make sure to visit my Chengdu relatives more often!

Lan Bao Relaxation Club (pool/steam/sauna/spa)

One of the first items on the agenda that my family planned for me on my visit to Dalian was a trip to 蓝堡 (Lan Bao, or “Blue Castle”), a “relaxation club.” China has many of these outfits, where you pay for an all-encompassing ticket and thereby have access to amenities including a pool, steam room, sauna, massage parlor and spa, buffet lunch/restaurant, sitting room with TVs, and sleeping room. You could theoretically buy a ticket and live a life of luxury inside for weeks, because they have everything you could ever need. Lan Bao was a bit smaller than ones I’ve been in before, so it only (“only”) had a pool, hot tubs, sauna, steam room, spa, and sitting room.

The first thing that attendants do when you enter is swap your shoes for slippers (pink for women and blue for men) and hand you a small towel and a wristlet with your locker number. Then you’re separated by gender and ushered into a public bathing area, where the majority of the people that you encounter are in their birthday suits as opposed to bathing suits.

In the US, this would be a horrifying, but I actually rather like it as a communal experience. When you meet people in non-public bath situations, they’ve usually gone through great pains to put up a facade and craft every detail of how they’re presented to the world. But in a public bath, the clothes come off, whether they’re designer pieces or from street markets, the hair hangs wet and loose, and the makeup disappears; you’re the most natural you. Though I can’t say that I’m 100% comfortable stripping down in front of strangers (and family – talk about a bonding experience), I at least like to think that baring it all is a great equalizer, and nobody judges you for what you may or may not have. One definite downside to public baths, though, is that it’s quite difficult to communicate across genders. Even in the bathing area, I was having trouble keeping track of my grandma and aunts, and I barely saw any male members of my family the entire time we were at Lan Bao.

Though the stated intention was to “swim,” very little swimming actually occurred. This was partly because children in floaties occupied the entire shallow end of the pool, but mostly because it was crowded since it was the weekend (and China, nuff said). Instead, we headed back down to the bath area for spa treatments, which was probably the REAL reason why my family chose to go to Lan Bao.

All along the bathing area, there are rows of massage beds, each with a middle-aged masseuse wearing a black bikini. You line up by telling a scheduler your locker number, and once it’s called, the masseuse puts a towel and a thin sheet of plastic down on the bed and you lay down, stark naked and in the open.

The first service that I signed up for was 搓澡 (Cuo Zao, or a “scrub bath”). This entails your masseuse wrapping a regular towel or special scrubbing towel (which is as close to sand paper as your skin can withstand) around her hand and scrubbing every inch of your body, as if you were a particularly dirty and sticky table. Only a total of maybe one cubic inch of skin on my body remained untouched, and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where. The entire process is fairly violating but also extremely gratifying, because you roll off the table and see exactly how much dirt and dead skin was coating your body. What’s left looks kind of like long, thin, black eraser shavings, and if all collected and rolled into a ball, all of mine would have been the size of two standard marbles. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clean in my life!

Next was a 奶浴 (Nai Yu, or “milk bath”), which is most concisely summed up as having hot milk poured over your body and then massaged and patted into your skin. To keep you warm while working on a specific area of your body, the masseuse wets you down with warm water and then lays a thin sheet of plastic over you, which effectively seals you in a plastic pouch. Simple and slightly uncomfortable, but surprisingly effective! I’m not sure about the health benefits of absorbing milk into your skin, but I guess I can’t see any harms that may come of it, either.

An afternoon of complete relaxation, all for about 25USD! I’ve never felt so pampered and clean, ironically in a country that on average ranks pretty low on hygiene. But that’s what I love about China, it’s a country of contradictions (and amazingly cheap services). Enjoying it all while I can!