Our man in Shanghai
By Kenny Hill
China; Blazing a Trail
From Mid County Post, 12/2003
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China was never on my list of places to go. Although my work has taken me on a lot of international travel, China didn't beckon. Maybe it seemed too difficult, to remote, too unrelated to my life. The image of groups of the political faithful all dressed alike, doing collective exercises, of glowering politicos, of peasants ekeing out a bowl of rice a day, these are all stereotypes that I didn't feel the need to see first hand.
But events presented me with the need and opportunity to go to China. I was approached by a Chinese violin making company who was planning to set up a guitar making shop. That is my business and my expertise, and I have been working for many years doing the same type of thing in Mexico, so I have hard earned experience dealing with this kind of startup in third world conditions.
The proposition of working in China presented me with several personal, ethical, and practical dilemmas. There is a plenty of worry among manufacturers everywhere, sensing the threat of China putting them - us - out of business. The labor rate there is so low (line workers make around $100.00 a month) and factory conditions are not necessarily subject to the kind of oversight and outside control that we take for granted here. I was being advised by all kinds of people to be very careful, and to protect myself from unscrupulous business practices. I was told that all they would do is make junky guitars and then flood the market with cheap and inferior stuff, creating impossible competition and dragging down my good name. Of course the last thing I wanted to do was train my own competition only to have them put me out of business. Then again, history being what it is, I know that if I don't do it, someone else well. Finally I decided that it would be better for me to be on the train than to be lying in front of it. I joined up and began my travels to China.
It's a long flight, San Francisco to Hong Kong, very long, - about 15 hours in the plane. The first time I went all I had was a phone number and one Hong Kong dollar, (like a quarter) to make a phone call to hook up with my hosts in Mainland China. Well, for whatever reason, I tried and tried to call from Hong Kong, but nobody answered. I never did figure out why, but the result was, I was on my own. Though Hong Kong is quite a culture shock, there is still English spoken, so getting around isn't too bad. I found the train station and headed toward China.
Guangzhou - also called Canton - is only a couple of hours by train from Hong Kong. It is tropical, warm, green and wet, where there is nature, but the population is built into canyons of high rise buildings. Everyone lives in these very tall, very dense apartments. The older ones look dark, smoky, claustrophobic, but there is construction of new ones going on at a dizzying rate. Even the "small" towns dotted between big cities are built up as high rise complexes, and that corridor from Hong Kong to Guangzhou presents a population density like that of downtown San Francisco if it were to stretch to Gilroy, maybe farther. It was exciting, and numbing at the same time. Arriving at Customs in Guangzhou is the first taste of the stern face of the government of the People's Republic, but although I never glimpsed a smile or made any chit chat, all in all things moved along pretty well.
Crossing the international dateline over the Pacific is very confusing. Going west to China you arrive two days after leaving. Returning east to California you actually arrive before you left. Either way it's exhausting. I didn't take that into account on that first trip, and after 24 hours of straight travel I arrived in Guangzhou on May 1st, International Workers Day, one of the biggest vacations of the year in China. On the mainland there is very little English spoke, and nobody was working. On my arrival in Guangzhou my host still were nowhere to be found. I met a scamming kid on the sidewalk, who spoke a little English, and he tried some calls for me on his cell phone, but no one answered. Weird. He funneled me to his buddy's car/taxi, who funneled me to some hotel, where I was able to register, but this was definitely the biggest city I had ever seen, and I hadn't the slightest idea where I was.
Even my watch stopped. The Chinese are famously good hosts, but I was still at large, and no one knew where. I ventured out into the streets, which were absolutely jammed with people out walking, shopping, romancing, and I stared at the beautiful noodles and vegetables and fish in the dim sum cafes, but there is no English and no western presence whatsoever. Standing there in the night streets of Canton something dawned on me that I should have guessed - the world is Asian. My world has very little to do with what was going on in China, and China is a very, very big place.
Even in the hotel I couldn't find any one to speak English, and I couldn't figure out how to use the phones. so I just chilled, took short walks, sleeps, and snacks from the little shops, but I was very careful not to get lost. What was beginning to be apparent to me though, was that China, and the Chinese people, had almost no resemblance to the image I had back home. China is a modern, dynamic explosion of human energy, and the faces and styles of the people are as varied and full of character as any place on earth, and the China is a very smart place, going about it's own business and not really asking anyone's permission to advance, become better at what it does, and make itself into a the society it wants to be.
Finally I did get past the fog and doldrums of my arrival. My people found me and took me to work and to the life that I would get to know better over the next year.
Driving in China is insane. From my first day there it was hysterical to see the overlays of various vehicle, from 3 wheel bicycles, like pedal rickshaws, to motorized versions, to these strange work tractors that are like giant heavy duty rototillers hooked to a pick up bed trailer, to enormous belching tricks, or telephone booth size mini vans, to Mercedes and Honda SUVs made right there in Guangzhou. Buick, as a brand, is now exclusively made in China, for Chinese. Everybody is going around on the hustle, going somewhere, with most of the workers using motorcycles as their main transportation. The first thing I saw was a whole family on a motorcycle, dad driving, mom behind, 2 year old baby squeezed between, mother-in-law barely perched on the back, and they were driving on the edge of the expressway, going the wrong way, in the rain, with the driver talking on a cell phone! Insane! Doing everything wrong! I got used to seeing things like that. I'm surprised haven't seen more death and mayhem. On motorcycles they will carry anything. I saw an enormous stack of styrofoam electronics packing - enough to fill a UPS truck, strapped to a tiny 3 wheel motorcycle. I saw a guy on motorbike with a huge live hog, hobbled and strapped to a board, carrying it crossways on the back of his motorbike. Then there was the guy with container like a big dishpan fastened to his motorbike, completely open with water sloshing around, riding carefully to deliver live fish to a restaurant.
Cantonese cooking is one of the great cuisines of the world. Although during Maoist times, the politically correct push was to eat only rice and a little fish, but now that dumbing down period is very much over, and eating is the center of life in Guangzhou. The variety of foods and ingredients seems infinite, and they will eat anything. To enter a restaurant, from the lowest class to the highest, is like walking into a pet store. There are walls of aquariums with every kind of live seafood, shellfish, crabs an lobsters, things that look like they're from the prehistoric deep. There are terrariums with frogs, snakes, turtles, giant black water beetles, and cages with every kind of bird, duck, quail and other things, sometimes you would swear aren't possible. Occasionally there are dogs and cats, which is bound to give any westerner the creeps. I suppose most of these exotica must be raised on some type of farm, because otherwise all of these species would have been wiped out long ago, with the eating population of China. (They tell me dog is very good, but should be eaten only in cold weather. Fortunately the weather was always warm.) There are an incredible variety of vegetables and spices and everything is as fresh as it can be. After all, the food was alive in the lobby just minutes before it appears on the plate and disappears into our mouths. From here it seems barbaric, but it is real, very real, and it is not hypocritical.
Meals are the center of the social life. They are noisy, long, lots of food, with boisterous conversation, laughing, arguing, and plenty of overacted stories. Although immediate families are small since the one child per couple rules have been in place, extended families are large, and meal usually involve 5 - 10 people, at a round table with a big lazy Suzan in the middle, and everybody eating with chopsticks directly out of the serving bowl. It is truly delicious, with dish after dish coming out. Sometimes I think it's better not to ask what it is - just eat. All of the bones or shells get spit onto your tiny plate or right onto the table. That's just the way it's done, and the more you enjoy the food the more noisy the slurping and spitting of bones. It is surprising that, even when doing this 3 times a day, and with way too much food, most of it gets eaten, and no one gets fat. The service is great. There are normally as many servers as guests.
Many people smoke, and everyone has a cell phone, sometimes two. They use them to talk to the person in the next room, or across the country, or at the next table. They are used instead of landlines, because the wired phones are so unreliable. Cell phones are an essential social tool. Once I was hanging out with a logger I had just met, a guy pretty rough around the edges, from somewhere near Tibet, and we ate (and drank) a huge meal, but we couldn't talk about anything, so he called his sister near Mongolia to translate. She was a university student with pretty good English, so he and I just passed the phone back and forth, while she translated. We found out about each other's families, made big plans for foot massage, for future visits, and business. Another time I was at a hair salon for a haircut, which starts with a nice massage, and the manager came over to me talking quite animated, and both of us were getting frustrated at our failure to communicate. Finally we called someone on a cell phone who translated her questions, "Do I want a hair wash and cut or just a massage? " and "Please when you go home tell George Bush to stay out of Iraq, and stop trying to run the whole world."
It seems politics are no different than here. When I was leaving California a friend said to me "When you get to China tell them to free Tibet." I guess I just look influential.
I haven't gotten a sense of oppression there. I know there are plenty of problems connected to government, but in my experience it seemed distant and not a part of daily life. I also have not seen horrible working conditions that look like exploitation or international conspiracy. Yes, the wages are very low by our standards, but at the same time the cost to live is low. Everybody I've met is very glad to be working, and they work hard to advance. Most of the factory workers come from the distant countryside and see it as their hope for a better future. I did get the chance to go out in the country and see the beauty of the rice fields, the bamboo forests, the steep mountains with rich rivers and waterfalls. To me it was so beautiful, but my companions looked out and said, "It's pretty, but it's so poor. " I told them that in California these country estates would be where the rich people would want to live, but they said "Oh no, we like it where there is good shopping, more people, more business." The Chinese are very good consumers. Most people see development, building, commerce, as unadulterated progress. The amount of building that is going on is overwhelming, and it is killing the environment. There is no qualms about tearing down the old, or not so old, to make way for the new. Certainly many beautiful and significant places are lost, only to make way for something new and temporary. A Chinese businessman I am acquainted with said to me " We will continue with this pace of development for maybe another ten years, and then, when our economy is better established, we will start to work to clean it up." It sounds familiar, like our own American history of the last 100 years. It sounds crazy. But they may well do it. I hope it's not too late.
This year the SARS phenomenon was the big story. I still don't understand. I was in southern China last February when the story began. Upon returning the news media were talking about this new disease that was sweeping through China. I had just come from there, yet I certainly wasn't aware of it. I thought back and could think of one person who had a cough, but it seemed to me like a winter cold. I looked at the statistics, and in a country of a billion people it seem that there was probably more danger from an infected toe nail, but I took precautions and avoided returning, even though I needed to go. Finally I decided, "Oh, go," and everyone around me said "But what about SARS? You'll get dead or quarantined." etc. etc., Still I looked at the reporting and decided that other things, like the driving, were far more threatening to my health. So I boldly returned to the land of SARS. I did find a lot of people wearing surgical facemasks, and whenever I crossed an international border or entered passed an airline checkpoint someone took my temperature. In China they make you stand on painted footprints and some device scans you. In Hong Kong they stick something in your ear for two seconds. I asked around, and no one had experienced anything about SARS more than what was said on television. No one knew anyone who had been sick. I saw the girl who I had remembered with the cough, and sure enough, her winter cold had passed. I don't know what to think. Any number of other diseases, not to mention traffic accidents and falling object, are a much grander threat. To my unprofessional observation it looked like they had a bad flu season, and it got blown way out of proportion in the media. Of course I never visited any hospital wards, where you usually find sick people. All my life I have heard about Asian flu, Hong Kong flu, all the seasonal flavors. But now it can become world news and get stuck to the media like burrs. SARS did have a very real and bad effect on the economic fortunes of some very real people, and in the end it left everyone shaking their heads and making dark jokes about it, many people believing seriously the it was some sort of plot from the west to weaken their economy and weaken their status in the world. I could not prove that it wasn't.
When I was working in Mexico I determined to learn Spanish, and with time became fluent. Now I'm taking baby steps to learn Chinese, but I am pretty sure that I will never know much more than enough to get me in and out of a taxi, a hotel or a chance encounter. There are two major dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese, along with several other less prominent dialects. These languages are written the same, but the sounds are very different. I don't' know if it's the difference between English and, say Spanish, or is it English and, say Ebonics. I need to believe that it's possible to learn Chinese, but it's going to be a long haul.
I've been treated very well in China, with curiosity and respect, although sometimes it's bizarre. Women will pull the hair on my arms, like they're seeing Sasquatch for the first time. Waitresses and other strangers steal glances from a distance, and trace a nose profile in, pointing out my most prominent feature. They call us big nose, or round eyes, or ghost person.
Thankfully there is little sense of direct animosity toward westerners. In fact there is admiration for the accomplishments of the west. At the same time, looking toward the US from Asia, there is arrogance and a coarseness that comes through. American people are well received, but as in many (most) parts of the world, American politics are viewed with cynicism. I do not feel that China wants to conquer the world. I think China wants to conquer itself, and realize its own potential. This may be hard to take for the egomaniacs in Washington. China is a very old civilization, and although the Cultural Revolution under Mao was a negative time, it was only fifty years of China's four thousand year history. One accomplishment of that period of political paranoia in China was to clear the slate of foreign influences. Now with reforms and expansion of freedoms of economy and of lifestyle, they are developing in a way that seems to be lifting the standard of living for the economy as a whole. Market economy is alive and bursting in China. I have been told that although China doesn't invent new ideas, but is very good at assimilating, and then improving ideas. In my own experience this seemed to be true. They learn quickly, and there is a culture of excellence and ambition that predates our civilization by a couple of millennia.
Of course after just three visits, for a total of six weeks, I hardly qualify as an expert on China. I'm just trying to digest what I see, and learn to fit in. China is a magnificent country and culture, and a huge up and coming force in the world. Our national futures are intertwined in ways few people can imagine. We all live in an increasingly global culture now, all of our worldwide differences not withstanding. This reality will not be held back. I hope there is some way to share in this development in a positive way. Those who deny this future are kidding themselves, and in some ways prolonging the agonies of change.
© Kenny Hill, Felton, CA