Made in China, Part 3
There are some things in the world whose majesty should only be appreciated from afar off.
Pudong, Shanghai city limits
I had a strange feeling in my gut when I was first told that I was being nominated to attend a seven week conference in China (of all places in the world). I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be excited or perturbed. It took me only 4 days in China however to realise that I should’ve stayed home. This post covers the last four of the 10 critical lessons I learned about China.
Be warned. It gets pretty ugly from here on out:
7. The pollution is severe
Yes. That’s exactly what it looks like on an almost daily basis.
With the exception of Hangzhou, China’s city limits effectively smell like a giant welding plant. In fact, the metropolitan areas outside of Shanghai’s business district smell like a furious concoction of sulphur dioxide (a common by product of manufacturing plants) and carbon monoxide emissions. The air is very dirty.
…even though their streets look immaculate.
Now you know why you often see videos of Chinese nationals walking around in the city with masks on their faces. It’s not so much because of the bevy of dangerous microscopic organisms floating around, (I’ll get to that in a bit), but the air often becomes practically unbreathable during certain times of the year.
In Shanghai, construction is going on everywhere – presumably to coincide with the Shanghai Expo 2010 that is slated to kick off this year. The sad thing is that most of the impressive structures they’re building will be torn down afterwards. I mean, what a waste! And what of all the pollution produced?
Construction goes on 24/7 in China – and the air suffers for it.
I get the distinct impression that the Chinese nationals don’t care too much about how unbreathable their air becomes from time to time. I look at them walking around, oblivious to the poison they’re ingesting into their lungs and it seems to me that they’ve all but gotten used to it. I mean, with an economic growth rate in the double digits, why should they care about their pollution?
Another thing I noticed in China, is that construction goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year – non stop. When we first landed in Shanghai, we noticed that they were digging the foundation for a new building. On our way out of China, we noticed a tall semi-finished skyscraper standing in that space. You can literally see the Chinese economic growth before your eyes.
But at what price?
Better city maybe, but better life? Well that’s debatable.
When I finally got back from China and breathed in the fresh air of my home state, I realised just how polluted China’s air was. It took me two complete washing cycles to get the thick smell of Chinese economic development out of my clothes (The runoff water even had a feint brownish red colour) and a couple of visits to the local hospital to get my lungs treated for tissue damage.
Yes, you read correctly; my lungs sustained damage (more on this later).
I’m not kidding when I say the pollution is pretty bad. That’s why the Chinese government has taken some serious steps towards cutting emissions, by enforcing car pooling laws and hiking up the price of licensing your vehicle (it’s in the two thousand US dollar range). But they don’t seem to be doing anything about all the construction going on, which is also major culprit to me.
Now because of the severe pollution:
8. Don’t eat at non commercial joints
You know, there’s a very good reason your body revolts at poorly cooked food. It’s to stop you from getting poisoned. We got food poisoned so often in China that most of the people participating at the conference (except the notably thicker ones who’d eat anything), started to order in from KFC and McDonald’s.
I have a strong suspicion that the heavily polluted water table in the city had a lot to do with why we kept getting food poisoned. I mean, when the rain falls, all that ultra-fine particulate matter floating around in the air gets trapped in water droplets on their way down from the sky. It has to go somewhere, right?
The waters in Shanghai are dangerously polluted.
Once we went to a community cafeteria and had the food prepared there. Personally, I didn’t eat anything. The smell alone of the grease they used to prepare the food switched off my appetite. One of my colleagues had his bowels turned inside out after the meal however – this went on for a week.
I’m pretty sure he felt like he left his colon in the toilet at one point. But he wasn’t the only one bothered by it. The entire group of participants who ate anything had some form of severe diarrhea. My colleague just had it the worst of us all – to the point where I became very seriously worried about his health.
As it turns out, Shanghai has a very serious water pollution problem and it has on more than one occasion, found its way into the food market – particularly some of these fly by night restaurants that don’t have proper health inspection. Even some hotels have this issue. Be very careful where you eat.
But as bad as my colleague’s condition was, my turn wasn’t far behind:
9. Prepare to get sick
With this many people crammed into one city, getting sick is incredibly easy.
If you’ve never been to China before, you’ll want to ramp up your constitution (to deal with the exotic food) and your resistance through imbibing Vitamin C. If you’re going to be in China for more than a few days, you might want to know where the nearest hospital is, because you will get sick. Guaranteed.
Did I mention that most of us got pneumonia? Well, just as how my colleague had the worst bout of food poisoning, I got the worst bout of penumonia. My god, I still have nightmares about it to this day. It was bad. It was really bad. My pneumonia spread to both lungs in a matter of 3 days. I was seriously ill.
Imagine being 7,500 miles away from home, in a land where you stand out like a sore thumb, where most people don’t speak english and you’re down with a deadly disease. I couldn’t even imagine the sheer emotional trauma back home with family and friends when they found out that I had gotten sick.
Again. Allow me to explain:
Within the first week of landing in China, I got struck down with a really, really bad flu. I’ve had the flu before, but this one was wicked ill. Tests confirmed that it wasn’t the variation from the Mexican swine. It just happens to be nothing more than a mutation of the virus that doesn’t exist en masse in the west.
Between the chills, the fever, the nausea, the vomiting, the coughing and the severe muscle atrophy that followed, I had hit rock bottom in China. It was bad enough that I had to be hospitalised for two weeks between the one week Christmas period and early January. I was even in the ICU at one point.
Even though I don’t believe in Christmas, that had to be the single worst Christmas period that I have ever had. I kept thinking to myself, that I traded up a warm, gentle, tropical climate to come all the way to a cold foreign country as exotic as where I was, to get sick with a well known killer disease.
God, I felt stupid.
The worst part of the experience was not just feeling completely helpless due to the illness, it was the nurses. Mother of God. Those have got to be the worst nurses on the planet. Between the ugly old hag who forced herself on me, speaking wildly in Cantonese while she wiped my skin (as if I should understand her), and the cute 20 year old nurses who kept ripping into my bone because they couldn’t find a vein, I wanted to burn China to the ground.
The nicest nurse there was a young trainee who never made eye contact with me at all. She was the most professional of the lot and spoke perfect (and I do mean, perfect) English. When I met her, I could have married her and taken her home with me. If only I could just feel some sexual attraction for her.
Not only was I too sick to feel anything sexual at all, but my condition was worsened by the fact that Chinese women are notoriously as featureless as they are pretty (more on this later). Either way, for a trainee, she offset the gross incompetence of her co-workers and I’d like to think that’s a part of why I’m still alive and typing this. I sincerely wish I had taken her picture. *sigh*
This man is protecting himself from the dirty, bug infested air.
Chinese nurse crush aside, the doctors were considerably more competent, if only more scarce in appearance. While interviewing me about past illnesses, I joked with one of them that the last time I was in a hospital was when I was born. No seriously. I don’t get sick like this. Like… ever. She chuckled for a bit.
I’m not sure why she thought that was funny, because what she said next really scared the crap out of my colon. The particular Community Acquired Pneumonia I had was a fairly new bacterial mutation that had been helped along by Shanghai’s 20 million strong population density. In other words, I literally got sick because of the vast number of people living in Shanghai.
You would think that I would have inferred from the potent pollution and the fact that many Chinese nationals were walking around with face masks, that I should’ve done the same. They’re wearing face masks because the air literally gets toxic from time to time – especially in the city’s densely populated areas.
That made me want to leave China in a hurry – and in a hurry I did. Pneumonia inhibits your body’s ability to absorb oxygen. That’s why my muscles took such a vicious beating while in the hospital. I literally willed myself back to health, fighting off the severe muscle atrophy to catch my January flight out of China.
Thank science for broad spectrum anti-biotics.
The Iranian Good Samaritan
I must at this point acknowledge my new found Iranian friends. Say what you will about Iran, but those guys are positively wonderful people. These guys are Muslims – and in true humanitarian fashion, they came to visit me, while I was struck down with pneumonia for no other reason other than to lift my spirits.
Now I’m not a religious person (anymore) but their kindness almost wooed me over to Islam. Almost. They brought food and drink and sat and chatted with me about everything from religion to women. I kept reminding myself that there’s no such thing as altruism, even though these men showed differently. They have positively no good reason to be helping me in any way, and yet there they were, at my bedside. It was like we have been friends forever.
So to my friend Ibrahim and family, thank you for your kindness. Despite the shitsuke that China had dealt to my health, it turns out that the least likely candidate for a Good Samaritan turned out to be from the one religion my former faith detests. If half the Christians in the world were half as hospitable as these Muslims were, Richard Dawkins would never have written about a God Delusion in the first place and idiots like Pat Robertson would never exist.
10. Beautiful “Chinese” Women aren’t Chinese
This cutie was made in Shanghai – but she’s a rare exception in China
Before I travelled to China, I was constantly being told by my male (and female) colleagues that I was sure to hook up with a cute Chinese femme and get married – ultimately invalidating any romantic relationship I had in the west. Upon landing in China, I quickly realised how terribly wrong they were.
Allow me to give you some context:
I like my women gorgeous and curvaceous, like the black and latino women of the Caribbean. While I have a soft spot for the multi-ethnic idiosyncrasies of Jamaican and Trinidadian women, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Brazilian and Venezuelan women are probably the cream of the crop over here in the west.
No she’s not Chinese. Latina women look amazing in any country.
In the east, it’s Japanese, Malay and Thai women (in order of general beauty). Some men have a thing for Phillipino women, but I don’t get it. So I’m not touching that one with a long dry, rusty broadsword. While Malay women are hard to beat and Thai women are gorgeous, I’m a Nihon junkie. Give me a Japanese girl any day of the week. I mean, that’s why I learned Japanese.
So where do Chinese women stack up in the mix? Well, it’s a bit complicated. I wouldn’t compare a Chinese woman to a Thai woman for all the same reasons I wouldn’t compare a native African tribal woman to a Russian blonde. While the countries of Siam and Zhōngguó (Thailand and China) are more or less from the same bloodline, the genetic variations are relatively noticeable.
Now, I know this is all a matter of personal taste, since some men prefer Chinese women over Japanese, Malay or Thai. So let me concede that to each his own. However, my black and white bretheren from the west mostly agree with me that the Nihon, Siam, Malay stack is incontrovertible in the East.
This woman just got married – hence the iconic porcelain doll look.
This is not to say that there weren’t some really cute Chinese girls out there. In fact, when you see a really cute Asian beauty, (particularly in China), the trigger finger on your camera grows wild with anticipation. I met one in a cell phone factory, one in McDonald’s and another at the Silk Museum. When Chinese girls doll up, trust me, they quite literally look like porcelain dolls.
But to put those discoveries in a broader context, that was over a two month period. By contrast, I could walk around in New York, Kingston Jamaica, Tokyo, Amsterdam (and probably even in Vietnam) and see more physically attractive women in the same period, than I did in six weeks while in metropolitan China.
The women grow considerably prettier in Hangzhou
To be fair, the women in Hangzhou were considerably more attractive than those anywhere else I’d been. I met more gorgeous women in China’s tea country in one week than I did in all of Shanghai. Could it be the green tea? A scientific study would be required to answer that. I personally think it’s their DNA. Genetic qualities are accentuated over generations of group migration.
So it seems all the beautiful women in China moved to Hangzhou.
With that said, I ran into a hot Japanese honey in the elevator in Shanghai. We spoke in Japanese for about 2 minutes before I had to get off on my floor. It was the single most fun thing that I did while in China for seven weeks. Now while I know I have a Nihon bias, that little chat validated my opinion. I find the personalities in Japanese women to be more exciting. That I believe could be chalked up to differences in culture between the neighbouring countries.
At the end of the day however, I didn’t find myself as drawn to Chinese women as much as I thought I would be. As it turns out, most of the “Chinese” women my colleagues see in the west, are not really Chinese at all. Many of them are actually from Myanmar, the Phillipines, Thailand and Japan. It’s just one of those silly things where westerners think all Asians are from China.
We in the west can be so naive at times.
Hangzhou, the Pearl of China
Hangzhou is a lovely city
I’ve mentioned Hangzhou on a number of occasions throughout this three part series on my travels in China and that’s largely because Hangzhou is awesome. If it wasn’t for our (too short) visit to this beautiful city, I would have completely written off China as a possible tourist destination. Hangzhou is just divine.
I get that most foreigners who travel to China are either business people or exotic junkies (people who get a thrill from having a culture shock), but I probably saw more foreigners in Hangzhou than I did anywhere else in China and it wasn’t hard to see why. It has a lovely tourist district called West Lake.
I ran into more English speakers there than in Shanghai – and that’s probably because it is a popular tourist spot. I loved the rustic lake side villas dotting the picturesque countryside, the water bound sculptures, the man made lakes, and the cozy roadside benches. West Lake is a wonderfully gorgeous place.
This lovely gazebo perches precariously above the water in West Lake, Hangzhou
In fact, West Lake is so gorgeous, I could be tempted to purchase real estate there. What I love about the town is how the Chinese living there have found a way to make the 21st century coalesce almost seamlessly with the gently sloping hills, the fresh water lakes and the natural forest sorrounding it.
Try to understand; I’m an avid lover of nature and I saw forests for the first time in Hangzhou. It was a welcome break from the concrete, glass and steel ejaculation that is Shanghai. I was growing tired of the nauseating hustle and bustle of the city centre and the massive crowds thronging in the streets.
So I guess you know I can’t live in New York, London or Tokyo.
Traditional architecture like this abounds in West Lake, Hangzhou
Even more exciting for me personally, was the enormity of Chinese architecture that remains unchanged in Hangzhou. Between the traditional upwardly curvaceous wood slabbed rooves, to the semi-circular arching bridges over calm, clear waters, Hangzhou was like the amalgamation of all the great things about Ancient China faithfully preserved in a botttle, frozen in time almost.
Between the gorgeous women, the gorgeous landscape, the clean air, the relatively light population density and the availability of green tea, if I were ever to visit China again (which is not likely), I would probably try to spend my entire stay in Hangzhou – if only for the environment and the beautiful women.
When we finally left Hangzhou, I lost my interest in the rest of our tour de force in China. I even hinted to one of the conference organisers that they should’ve had us spend most of our time in Hangzhou, but perhaps at a better hotel. The Holiday Inn™ we stayed at smelled a lot like blood, guts and ass.
If the Japanese had sites like this, I’m sure the suicide rate would be lower
With that said, while most people would agree that you haven’t been to China until you’ve seen the Great Wall, I would also add that you haven’t seen the best of China until you’ve visited Hangzhou. I believe that a tour of China without a visit to this small city would be a gross injustice to your passport.
At least if you get sick, you can say it was worth it.
If you want to plan a vacation to the country, you probably don’t need more than two weeks to see everything worth seeing. If you’re from a warm country, 5 days is enough. You might want to avoid China during the winter. The dirty air and the smog are just not worth your tourist dollars at all.
Land in Pudong, Shanghai and make your way to a decent Western hotel in the Bund. There are plenty of them. The Radisson is probably not a bad bet. Avoid the Super-8 chain. If you’re a non smoker, do not stay at the Bund Riverside Hotel. You will regret it. Make sure to ask for a non smoking room and avoid chatting with the housekeeping staff. It is an exercise in frustration.
If you’re staying in Shanghai, the Radisson is in a great location in People’s Square
Make sure you avoid the coastal sections of the city. The smog density is worse there. Don’t even try to drive yourself around unless you’re skillful at defensive driving – and never ever accept anyone’s offer to give you a massage. They have a very different understanding of the word in China.
A real massage can be had from established businesses – usually in the hotel that you stay. However, anyone offering you a massage on the street is trying to sell you a teenaged girl for sexual favours. If the idea excites you, note that there are undercover cops there who are skilled at racially profiling foreigners.
I was shocked when one Chinese man tried to sell me sex to 15 year old girls – my god. He followed us around in Yu Garden, until a group of cops seized upon him like a hawk after a field mouse. I know that this sort of thing existed in Thailand to some extent, but I was not expecting that there in China at all.
At the back of the Sci-Tech Museum, you’ll find an underground shopping village.
If you’re going shopping, you might be tempted to go into Yu Garden in Shanghai. That’s the best place to get everything from authentic Chinese swords to porcelain statues to traditional Chinese clothes. There’s also an underground shopping village at the Science and Technology Museum. Watch out for Chinese Triad if you go there though. Also, stick to buying clothes if you must buy something. Chinese electronics are mostly useless, worthless junk.
If you search diligently though, you might find some intriguing devices.
You’ll want to spend two to three days at specific hot spots around China. So budget your time accordingly (and I say this for health reasons). You don’t need more than 3 days in Shanghai. Trust me – spare your lungs. They will thank you for it. The same can be said about Beijing and many similar cities.
…and for the love of God, travel light. It’s not like you’re going to Jamaica. China is a pretty big country. The hot spots are hundreds of miles away from each other, and no less than two hours worth of flying (or driving) in any direction. The less luggage you have with you, the easier your travel will be.
If I were staying in China for only a week or two, it would have probably been a more positive experience. No, wait. I’m certain it would have been a more positive experience. So I pass on the same advice to you (again). You don’t need a lengthy stay in China to appreciate it. Less is more and more is less.
The longer I was there, the more I was counting down towards my flight back to the US. I liked the country less with each passing day. However, to be fair, I have been emotionally compromised by my sickly experience, the poorly organised conference, the horrific food, the dirty air and the deceitful people.
So I’m not really loving China right now, irrespective of whatever good thing can be said about it. Concordantly, I admit if I were in Hangzhou for most of our stay, I’d probably feel differently. Probably. For now we’ll never know and as much as I’d want to, I don’t really care to – well, not at this time anyway.
With that said, if you visit China, your experience is statistically more likely to be a positive one, filled with grandeur, excitement and wonderment. So don’t let me convince you to not go to China if its one of those places you’ve always wanted to visit. Just don’t complain if you get sorely disappointed about it.
Having experienced China in person and then reflecting on those wonderful documentaries on the country I saw long beforehand on the National Geographic and Discovery channels, I had quite an epiphany: There are some things in the world whose majesty should only be appreciated from afar off.
That’s what occurred to me while lying in bed in the hospital.
While China looks like a wonderful place on television, the people who create these expositions edit these videos to tell a story – one that is rarely congruous with the actual experience on the ground. This kind of personal enlightenment, while profound, was too expensive, considering all the risks.
For while I sit here typing this, I still have a light cough, my lungs haven’t fully repaired themselves as yet, and I’m wondering if they’ll be scarred for life. Was I grateful for the experience? Aside from having been there and done that, I have mixed feelings. For now I have a taste aversion to all Chinese food and subconsciouly avoid anything with the words “Made in China” written on it.
While I would be tempted to say Ming tian jian (Chinese: “Until we meet again“) to our Chinese hosts on our way out of the country, I thought I would sound pretty disingenuous. So I settled for something that more succinctly described how I really and truly felt without seeming needlessly pretentious:
Zai jian (Chinese: “Good bye“)
And I meant it too.