Christmas weekend, doctors and the cold
singapore sunset
Last time visiting Hong Kong was less awful than usual. I ducked back to Fanling station, which is just a couple of stops over the border and deep in the northern end of the New Territories. There are some clusters of public housing here and there, but most of the landscape is rural - mountains, villages and the odd temple. It's peculiar knowing it's only half an hour away from some of the most densely populated urban centers in the world. I've realized staying in the hills is my key to enjoying the SAR.

I picked up a pork bun and a bottle of green tea to go with my existing water bottle, orange and sponge cake i had brought over from China and headed up into the mountains. It was December 23, and after waiting over an hour to get through customs behind masses of people heading over to buy gifts and/or meet family, i really needed some peace and quiet. The sky was overcast and temperature was brisk but not cold. It was a perfect day for a walk.

I had not originally planned to do anything that weekend, because i was still on the tail end of a severe cold that had smacked me on my ass the previous Saturday, but my teacher suggested i go out and get a bit of exercise.

Getting health tips over here can feel very contradictory - on the one hand: "don't go out in the cold or you will get sick", on the other hand: "getting fresh air will do you some good". This is what happens when a secular government decides to repackage and brand a hodgepodge of quackery because they can't yet afford to provide real healthcare to the peasants. Nowadays the infrastructure to provide real healthcare is there, but modern China can't disavow Mao's stop-gap measure because they make too much money selling the myth. I can't decide whether the resulting mess is an indictment of ruthless authoritarianism or ruthless capitalism.

So, back to the mountain. It was a great climb; much less exhausting than when i tackled it in summer. I decided to break off after reaching Pak Tai To Yan (~2 hours in) because i wanted to be back in civilization before nightfall. I walked back through Lam Tsuen valley, where there a bunch of small villages, to the Tai Po urban center, where there are some bars.

I have decided i like Hong Kong bars better than mainland bars, mainly because they are more like English pubs. People just sit down alone and drink beer. It's perfectly fine to read the paper, watch TV or bury your head in your phone all night. In mainland China these sorts of bars are filled with douchey rich expats that make me want to kill myself. In the New Territories, they are filled with working-class Hongkongers who barely speak a lick of English or Putonghua. I sat down next to one. We grimaced and drank. He smoked. I ate spicy tofu.

I left Tai Po around 9:30pm in order to make it back across the border in time to catch the last subway. The border traffic was still insane. I just made it into bed by midnight.


The following day i met up with a friend who disappeared into a hole a couple months ago after some personal health issues and a death in the family. It was fun to spend a day wandering around town with her and doing an easy climb up Nanshan here in Shenzhen.

Her recent medical issues have have left her worried too, and she's struggling right now with the same contradiction described above - inability to afford a specialist due to losing her job amidst the turmoil, but frustration that the hocus pocus remedies of "traditional" Chinese doctors are not helping. Her next plan is to visit a yoga practitioner in Xiamen. I really hope he's also a trained physiotherapist who can provide her with proper advice beyond trying to pitch another round of expensive quackery.

I am sympathetic, though. Of course she is desperate to find a magic solution. This is a highschool dropout with no job who has just been diagnosed with a chronic condition for which there is no cure. She's not a close enough friend (yet?) for me to give her cash outright to help her see a physio, but i did share stories of my own health issues and explained how many of my family and friends live with their chronic conditions. Beyond that what could i do but listen? It was Christmas Eve. She bought me tangerines and 辣条 (là tiáo) - a spicy gluten jerky - and red bean cake. I treated her to dinner.


This week i booked my ticket back to Toronto. Christmas was just a normal day - headed to school, emailed my new employer to get an update on the work permit and so on. Yeah, the work permit drama continues. I don't want to talk about it. But it looks like January 11 will be D-Day, so i have set it up so i land in Toronto on the 10th. If all goes smoothly (please, God, let it go smoothly!) i will receive my digital work permit approval and file my visa application on the Thursday or Friday. After kicking back for the weekend at R's place in Windsor, i will return to the city to pick up my visa, maybe catch up with some other friends, then fly back here on the 20th. If things don't go smoothly i will scream.

Actually, i will probably scream as soon as i land, since it is currently -25 degrees and i will only be wearing a tank top and an unlined cotton hoodie. First stop will have to be a clothing store. It's hideous that i will have to spend a fortune on winter gear that i will only wear for 10 days. If anyone has an innovative solution for keeping me warm that will also be useful in a city where the daytime temperature rarely drops below 20, that would be awesome.

Ugh, right now i don't want to worry about it. I am tired. I am always tired. I think it's because i rarely sleep longer than 5-6 hours, even when i don't have anywhere to be in the morning. I wonder why that is? Eh. Don't care. I'm getting drunk. I ate BBQ for dinner - green beans and chilis and tofu. I also have a bag of horse beans and some of those giant-sized rice crackers. And beer. Merry New Year and stuff.

throwing my hands in the air
singapore sunset
I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. So, in true thumbing my nose at AA fashion, i decided to buy a couple beers. Everything else has failed. Eating well. Sleeping long. Drinking tea. Getting fresh air. Time to ignore it.

Two of my documents have arrived here in China. I am still waiting for three other ones, one of which is in the mail and two of which are still delayed because my previous fucking employers are useless at basic admin tasks. I don't even want to get started on the litany of errors and excuses i have had to deal with. I am too sick and exhausted to care right now. At least we are getting closer to organizing this shit.

Today i have a ghost following me. In the school one of the fluorescent lights started flickering and eventually blew out the whole room's fuse while i was in class. It also filled the room with a chokingly bad smell. Later on at the restaurant as i ate my noodles and big plate of choy sum, the power went out in the whole place. Cue Twilight Zone music etc etc.

I know in Northern China recently there have been brownouts due to harsh restrictions on burning coal (natural gas and renewable energy isn't yet covering the winter energy needs), but i don't think Southern China is having the same problems. How could we be, given heating is apparently not a thing in Guangdong? Compared to summer it does feel bitterly cold right now, but i keep thinking of the guys in Heilongjiang where it's like -20. Here people are wearing winter coats indoors and complaining because it dipped below 10 last night.

Fuck it, i'm complaining too. It's cold and i'm sick and i have run out of shows to watch. At least i have a pineapple beer.

south china freeze
singapore sunset
It is cold. Like, by Shenzhen standards. It is fucking cold. I don't think it got above 13 degrees (~55F) today. Most of the locals are wearing coats. I don't have a coat any more. I don't have a scarf any more. I don't even have a lined hoodie. Academically i know it's not cold at all. In Germany i walked to work for weeks in this kind of weather wearing the same clothes i have now. But after 6+ months of temperatures that never dropped below 20, and a couple months when it was over 30 all day every day, this is really uncomfortable.

It doesn't help that i have gotten sick. I don't know who to blame. Someone at school on Friday? The street vendor who sliced up a mango for me? The cook who prepared my 小面? It's gotta be one of them because Saturday i woke up with a sore throat and headache. My whole weekend has been thrown - no clubbing, no mountain, barely got outside long enough to eat. I know not getting any fresh air is just compounding the problem but i am wiped out.

I did marathon the first season of The Orville, which is a spectacularly corny love letter to Star Trek TOS and early TNG. I also watched season 3 of Mr Robot, which avoided the trigger-y schizophrenic pacing of last season and has settled into being a regular cyberpunk thriller. Not bad, even after recently blowing through both seasons of Berlin Station and season 5 of The Americans. I am still not spied out. Need more spies. Or more spaceships. I need more something to make myself feel less sick.

Yesterday i was not thinking straight enough to eat well, which didn't help me at all. I ate various tofus and lotus root and a hot dry noodle. Today i had a dragonfruit and some senbei (big rice crackers) for breakfast. Then a sour and hot sweet potato noodle for lunch, plus a plate of choy sum. Just now had a numbing and hot rice vermicelli with buckets of greens and mushrooms for dinner. I've been drinking flower tea non-stop. I don't think i could eat any healthier today.

But i still feel like garbage.

Tomorrow is back to school. Hopefully next week all the work permit paperwork will come through and i can finally start considering the best time to fly back to Canada. Looks like i'll be working by mid-January, February at the latest. Back to the grind. This is already the grind, but that will be more the grind. I don't want to think about it. This cold is already enough to make me miserable.

I think tomorrow i am going to try to find somewhere that will make me eight treasure congee. I'd look for it now, but just going out to the noodle place killed me. I am staying wrapped up in my blanky. Supernatural, Top Chef and then i dunno. Maybe i will fall asleep watching Hackers.

dancing, blacking out, and an accidental Christmas dinner
singapore sunset
Two weekends ago i think i had hit the brick wall on immigration stress. It hasn't helped that my two hiking/chatting buddies have left Shenzhen - one off to follow a job opportunity in Xiamen, and one to care for family in Hong Kong after an unexpected death. I have buried myself in language studies to stay occupied, but sometimes i need to blow off steam and just reviewing flashcards or going for a solo climb isn't enough of a distraction.

Enter, booze?

As i have mentioned before, Chinese bars are not like Western bars. They very rarely have barstools and don't open till after dinner. A couple months ago i discovered a bar that opens at 7pm, so the other day i decided to duck in and throw back a few. Although i don't like the opening hours or expectation that everyone arrives with friends, i much prefer the atmosphere of Chinese bars to Western bars. The music is loud and almost exclusively electronic - pop, trap, trance and house. The spaces are dark and feature disco lighting. Sitting there alone i realized i needed to dance.

There are two nightclubs in Shenzhen i know of that play underground house and techno music. They both play more popular stuff in the main room and house/techno in the side room. One is about a 40 minute walk from my hotel, so i left the bar and ducked back to my hotel to put on my "interview shoes" (read: the pair of sneakers that isn't split all down the side). I picked up a can of beer from the corner store then headed over, planning my arrival for opening time to avoid any hassles at the door.

I was a little nervous, having heard that the Chinese club scene was overrun with trendy rich kids. I needn't have worried. People certainly weren't dressed in rags, but i didn't feel out of place in jeans, sneakers and a threadbare tank top. Of course, there were lots of tables where people could snack and play dice games - it is China after all - but the music was loud and the lighting was dark and the focus was clearly on the dancefloor. I instantly felt at home.

So i got drunk. I got very, very drunk. I started in the side room dancing all alone to Detroit style techno and house. Two DJs down, one Corona and a great many gin tonics later, i ventured into the mainroom where DJs were playing dubstep and other Music For Young People. The crowd was obviously younger than in the techno room, but that's a given. They were all very into their hyperactive bass drop tunes and perfectly friendly. Or perhaps they were just bemused at the very drunk, very tall, very old laowai stumbling about buying everyone blue shots. The shots were blue. I wanted everyone to taste the blue shots.

Cue my blackout. That One Night In Xi'an was pretty bad, but i haven't really blacked out that completely since i lived in Berlin. I recall snippets of adding some randoms on WeChat, kissing a sweet boy who asked nicely and looked like he needed a kiss, snagging a cigarette from someone, arching my eyebrow rather high at the tiny bottle of water that cost the same price as a blue shot, and... Oh yes - more blue shots... And fragmented glimpses of the long walk home.

I woke up the next morning with clothes strewn all over my room and a splitting headache of doom. No food in my room, bar a bag of instant oatmeal someone gave me a few weeks ago and i didn't want to casually eat because it's not vegan. In a fit of desperation i boiled water and ate it. Contemplated how fucking disgusting (powdered) milk tastes. And then vomited it all back out into the toilet. And then vomited out bile and phlegm and goo and swore never to drink again. Again.

It took me hours to recover enough to try clean up my room, at which point i realized that somewhere along the way i had lost my earplugs. Which is rather unfortunate, because they were a very expensive custom-made set that i bought after suffering through a few abysmal sound systems in Toronto. And then i moved to Berlin where the music completely surrounds you and fills you up and rattles your bones... but there is no distortion, no echo, no ear fatigue. Everything about clubbing in Berlin is fantastic, but i think the single thing i will miss the most is the sound quality. I was prepared for Chinese nightclub sound systems to be as shit as every other place in the world, so had my ears protected from the outset. It seems that despite having 20 years experience keeping track of my wallet, phone and passport in a drunken stupor - not to mention getting myself safely home no matter where i am in the world - i have lost the skill of holding on to a couple of earplugs. That's something i am going to have to relearn, when i find somewhere to buy new ones. Sigh.

That Sunday was one of the most miserable days of my life. I eventually made it down the elevator to the corner store and back up the elevator again clutching some rice cakes and 豆干 (dòu gān) - jerky-like dried tofu. I ate and passed out and then woke up to another fucking hangover. God, i wish i could tell my teenage and 20-something self to party even harder than i did at the time, because once you hit your 30s just a short night out on the drink will leave you in misery and despair for far longer than is reasonable. My 40-something friends tell me it doesn't get better.

At least i flushed the stress out of my brain.

Last week i tried to detox.

It was all going well until Saturday. I was very nobly heading out at around 7pm to go to a local noodle place where i can pick lots of good healthy veges when i got a call on the stairwell. It was one of the hotel staff. He ushered me up to a hotel room that the whole team was converting into a little dining room. My hotel does not have a fridge or kitchen supplies in the rooms - it is just a bed, TV, bathroom and kettle. But it turns out with a bit of Chinese ingenuity (couple of electric skillets and a plastic bucket) you can cook up a freakin' feast.

The host, who i assume is the hotel manager, explained to me that she likes to give the staff a feast once every month or so. They emptied some stock mix into the skillets and added boiled water from the kettle. Washed and sliced veges in the bucket, then spread them out all round the table with some pre-sliced meats. In China this is called a hotpot. It's basically a fondue - a big pot of simmering broth where ingredients are tossed in and pulled out every now and then. Everyone has their own chopsticks to fish stuff out of the pot, and everyone mixes up their own personal seasoning (garlic, chili, cilantro, chives, vinegar, soy), so it's a pretty easy way to cook and eat in a group.

Obviously trying to eat vegan went out the window. I could have been very satisfied with just the sweet corn, potato, enoki mushrooms, winter melon, tofu skin and several different greens. But i was a guest, so i had to give everything a try. Other ingredients that went in and out of the hotpot included crab sticks, mini hotdogs, pork balls, mystery balls with some weird juice and offal (?!) inside, paper-thin shavings of beef and mutton and random chunks of bone-in chicken. Then there were the 小吃 (xiǎo chī), literally "small eats" or snacks. I was comfortable with lotus root and peanuts. I was a little less happy with the chicken feet and duck neck. But, you know. Now i can say i have eaten duck neck. Don't ever need to try that again. I think the best meat thing was a slim mutton roll filled with garlic. I've had mutton a few times in China and it has always been very, very good. Aside from pork buns and hotdog buns, i think it is the only thing here i would deliberately buy for a "cheat" (or "treat") meal.

I felt a little guilty after the excessive meat consumption, so i was very happy when the cups of dice got pulled out. When the dice come out in China, you know it's time for serious drinking. After a few rounds i figured out the rules of the game, and proceeded to laugh and chatter and drink them under the table.

I should note that i had spoken little-to-no English all evening. Although every Chinese theoretically learns English in highschool, and they listen to plenty of English music and watch plenty of English movies, they really cannot use it very well at all. The hotel manager (?) had been to university and could speak a little, but i wasn't getting anything from the receptionists or housekeeping. I could still follow bits and pieces, though, which was nice. One of the receptionist's boyfriend joined us - he was a soldier on R&R. The conversation was refreshingly unremarkable. Since almost everyone in this city is a migrant worker, a common topic is comparing food and traditions from people's hometowns. Making fun of different accents and dialects. Talking about family and the weather. Who's hooked up, who's getting married, who's the drunkest, who has to work tomorrow? Haha! Oh no, you have to work front desk in the morning, here, have another beer!

It can get a little awkward playing drinking games when you are a hulking barbarian with twice the bodyweight of the other participants. I will need to find a way around this as i spend longer in China. My trick last Saturday was to deliberately throw a couple of rounds of dice (which resulted in me having to slam a couple cans) and then excusing myself.

Although i was far from the previous week's blackout drunk, i woke up Sunday with a very fuzzy head. I decided to go for a proper 3-4 hour hike to clear it out. That was sorely needed. Lately my hikes have only been short up-and-down jaunts, but getting up on the longer (and quieter) trails helped me to relax and focus a little more. This week has been much better as a result.

Or maybe this week was just better because i didn't have any immigration shit to deal with.

Well, it was better until yesterday when i had an anxiety attack because one of the marketing people put the hard sell on me to attend the school Christmas do on Friday. I was looking forward to being in a country where Christmas is totally not a thing, because holiday parties are the fucking worst. In China holiday season is Spring Festival, but because this is a school whose clientele is all foreigners, they thought it might be cute to do a Christmas thing. Nope the fuck nope and nope. It's very hard to refuse an invitation in China because custom says you should find some kind of valid excuse, but fuck that fucking stupid tradition. I hate enforced fun, i hate "parties" and networking and all that shit. Nope. If it doesn't happen completely on the spur of the moment - like last week's impromptu dinner with the hotel staff - then i am out.

But i am still nervous just thinking about the fact that i have to duck out of the office at 6pm after class tomorrow, knowing that the thing starts at 7pm. Ugh. Nope.

Maybe i will go out clubbing again this weekend. Try the other nightclub. Not drink so much.

Maybe i will head out to one of the mountains i haven't visited before and try one of those 5+ hour trails. There is a 100km trail in the New Territories i want to tackle once i have residence here and feel less nervous crossing the border.

Or maybe i will just hide under my blanky and drink beer and eat tofu and enjoy the fact that this immigration nonsense is actually giving me an extra month or two of being able to do nothing at all. Soon i'll be looking back on these 6 hour school days as the vacation they really are.

a middle way
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The other day i received an email from my mom with a long spiel about her opinion on China. It follows her email from a couple months ago where she said there was a lot she wanted to talk to me about but she was afraid it might cause problems for me. Like this country of 1.5 billion people is some kind of Orwellian dystopia itching to disappear any random laowai who receives a private email that doesn't toe the party line. I told her to just speak her mind.

Although i have been living here almost 5 months now, i know my mom has a broader insight into the country than i do. In a previous job she worked very closely with Chinese organizations and clients. She has visited the country many times over the course of a decade or so, and has spent far more time being wined and dined by the middle and upper classes than i have. But when she ended her mail with some modern spin on those inscrutable Orientals it made me want to scream.

I am lucky enough to have relatively "woke" parents. My father is a hardcore greenie, and is extremely passionate about indigenous rights and environmentalist causes. My mother is less idealistic, something like a green technocrat. Both of them have their own prejudices. They are both upper-middle class and will never truly try to deconstruct that privilege. I have plenty of prejudices and privileges of my own, but i still think it's important to challenge my family when i have the chance. Since they are the only people in my life i am (culturally) forced to stay in touch with, i think it's my responsibility to make sure my continued influence on them has a net benefit to society.

Last time i saw dad he came out with some white knight nonsense while proclaiming to be a feminist, and i clapped back hard enough he said i reminded him of his wife. I will take that as a win. When mom was in Berlin i defended the punks, squatters and anti-capitalist protestors whose direct action tends to make middle-class lefties feel uncomfortable. I think our conversations helped her to understand their thinking. But i am not sure how to challenge her opinion of China, which - aside from the valid list of human rights complaints - included a line about "not being able to trust the smile".

I guess i should reply by reiterating the point that the government is not the people. Since my mother has spent the last two decades living in a country where there is bipartisan support for holding migrants in concentration camps, i would hope she can see that difference. Though given Australia's recent breathless reporting on Chinese sneaks and spies - not to mention Turnbull spouting more polite Sinophobia in parliament this week - i am not sure she will be particularly receptive. Distrust of people who look different can run very deep.


As my grasp of the Chinese language increases, i have been more comfortable tackling the topics that most interest me about this place - urbanization, environmentalism and politics. Still, i am barely kindergarten level. I am sure to adult Chinese i sound like Trump when i try to discuss issues of consequence. But there is one interesting side-effect of being forced to shoehorn nuanced political thought into such a meager vocabulary - it can hone in on some fundamental truths and values.

Often when the Chinese talk to foreigners about how great their country is, they talk about 文化 (wén huà) - culture. They are proud that they have a relatively unbroken chain of cultural heritage and consider that rich history a major international drawcard. Who knows, perhaps it is? I guess there are lots of white people who are drawn to China because they read the Art of War or the Tao Te Ching and want to learn acupuncture or kung fu. I often surprise locals when i tell them my interest in that stuff is not particularly more or less than my interest in any other historic culture.

What interests me about China is how it is today. I am interested in 社会 (shè huì) - society. In superficial ways China is following the rise of Japan in the 80s and South Korea in the 90s. This is cool to me, because as a kid i grew up with images of The East as being a cyberpunk wonderland. But China has the added peculiarity of being a country still ruled by a Marxist regime - one of the few that not only survived the collapse of the Soviet Union but went on to prosper. Although day-to-day China feels as capitalist as any other country, the fact there is still a party at the top that proclaims to be working toward a communist utopia is fascinating to me. How has all that propaganda influenced today's young people? How will the society they build be different to Japan and South Korea? How will it be different to America and other western democracies? The new wealth and optimism here combined with an authoritarian government enables unparalleled opportunity for urban experimentation and social development. For a science fiction nerd and a political nut like me, it's thoroughly exciting.

Of course, most Chinese themselves don't see it. Why would they? Most of them were brought up in extreme poverty - or certainly their parents were - and their biggest focus is trying to build a life where they can enjoy the conveniences people in developed countries have known for decades. This is why a country with the second biggest GDP in the world still needs its president to announce a "toilet revolution"; hundreds of millions continue to live without access to basic sanitation. I am quite sure some of these kids who grew up barefoot in a village without electricity are utterly bemused by my talk of why the rapid prototyping in Chinese New Areas may unlock urban development ideas that will influence the rest of the world.

An interesting exchange happened in a recent Chinese lesson where i went off on a rant about white flight, suburbanization, gentrification and nimbyism. Spinning off recent headlines, i said that at least in China the government can kick people off a block when they see a better use for it. Granted, this week's destruction of Beijing tenements is actually evicting poor migrant workers and the only impact on the rich is that there are no longer any couriers in the city to deliver their hot lunches and Taobao purchases, but my point at the time was about America. I tried to explain that even though everyone knows American lifestyle and urban planning is massively harmful, their government is so brainwashed by colonial-era ideas of land ownership that they would never even consider steamrolling it all and starting again. Unfortunately my attempt at a nuanced summary boiled down to "a fair society is more important than rich people's houses and cars". Rendered that simply, it occurred to me that i sounded a lot like a Mao-era sloganeer.

That got me thinking. Do i really value society over property? Well, yes. Yes i do. My feeble vocabulary also led me to the simple realization that i value society over culture too. It isn't that i don't think individual property is important, or that we shouldn't respect different cultural traditions, but i very much feel they all should take a back seat to the improvement of society. And that, my dear comrades, sounds exactly like a CPC slogan.

I want to protect our planet and lift fellow humans out of poverty and progress out to the stars. Once upon a time i thought everyone wanted that. They don't. Immediate personal happiness trumps everything for most people. My dream is a classless society, but i don't have much faith in people to self-organize and cooperate to get there. So what? Is authoritarian rule a necessarily imperfect step? Well, probably not, given that so many authoritarian governments are full of kleptocrats. Then again, many capitalist democracies are thinly-disguised plutocracies, so what difference does it make? Well, that's the sixty four thousand dollar question, isn't it? That's why i want to spend some more time here, to gain perspective. There has to be a better way, a middle way.

Fuck fucking Australia again.
singapore sunset
I fucking knew it. I fucking knew Australia would find yet another fucking way to fuck me. Living there was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. Now the fucking Chinese embassy is refusing to legalize my authenticated degree unless I can send them proof I was allowed to study in Australia during the period where my degree was granted. Hey, how about fuck you? When I finally escaped that fucking shit hole of a country I did not hold tight to that badge of racist appeasement called a permanent residence visa. Not to mention the passport the visa was in is several passports old and I almost certainly have either lost it or tossed it. And if i didn't i should have, since Brexit has rendered that entire citizenship shameful and worthless. Fuck this fucking shit and fucking Australian-resident Chinese bureaucrats continuing to fucking force me to relive that fucking period of my life i left behind 10 fucking years ago. Like, who fucking cares about proof of education anyway? Certainly not fucking Australian fucking universities who universally refused to grant me entrance because they were too racist to admit an immigrant from a country in Europe whose high school diploma wasn't published in English. And after over 8 years of struggling to get that stupid degree doing part-time remote classes alongside a full-time job, literally noone has given a shit about it. Now finally someone does want me to show the arbitrary scrap of toilet paper that proves I spent a ton of money and emotional stress learning shit I did anyway at work for years beforehand, they also want proof of living in the racist hell hole that caused me all the problems in the first place. God I wish I had left there in 2002. When America also decided not to let me in I should have just returned to Europe and left the whole colonial shitfest behind me. Fuck all and everything. And especially fucking immigration law. But that's a given, right? I am fuming right now.

city life
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Today i want to talk a bit about 热闹 (rè nao), which is a word i encountered in class a few weeks ago. There are several Chinese words i have encountered that describe feelings that do not really have an equivalent term in English, but this is one that helped to illuminate a particularly conspicuous aspect of Chinese culture for me. My books variously translated it as "busy", "noisy", "exciting" and "hilarious" (!?), but the closest i can come up with is "hubbub". The problem is that in English adjectives like busy or noisy tend to have a negative connotation. Chinese also has words for busy and noisy, but if a place is described 热闹 - literally, "hot noise" - it means it is filled with fun and excitement.

Anyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant overseas and watched a family or group descend on a table and laugh and shout and make a huge mess has seen 热闹 in action. The more clatter and chaos, the better. But the word isn't just used to describe a bustling place of business, it was also explained to me as a way to describe a commotion. For example, a public performance or argument or just a couple of old guys playing chess. When people stop what they are doing and cluster around to watch, it's because they are caught up in the spectacle; they are 看热闹 (kàn rè nao) - watching the renao.

This word helps me to understand why modern urban life here tends to celebrate its urbanness in ways that you don't see so much in other countries. Barkers standing outside stores with noisemakers. Roving electric trikes blasting electronic music and breathless slogans. Grannies taking over the town squares to dance every evening. Parks full of folks practicing screeching fiddle tunes. Raucous games of cards with crowds of onlookers and not-so-discrete betting. Red carpets and firecrackers and confetti. Plenty of cities around the world share this sort of hustle to a certain degree, but i feel like in China there is sort of a hyperactive reveling in it that is not so prominent elsewhere. People like the throngs, and when they're not there, the level of enjoyment drops.

It's odd, on one hand this is one thing i really love about China - the fact that people here so boldly embrace the public space. Everything is loud and lively and all business is public business. It strikes me as exactly the way cities should be, and exactly the sort of attitude people should have if we want to build a big, diverse, inclusive future. On the other hand, i also value solitude. Although urban life can you give an unparalleled sense of anonymity, true moments of peace and quiet are hard to find. This is one reason why i spend so much time walking the urban space, trying to find the road less traveled. If you walk enough you will always find involuntary parks or unpopular locations where you can imagine yourself on the ocean, or in the desert, or atop a mountain.

Sometimes i want to picnic there. As i have settled into a routine here in Shenzhen, i have found that - like everywhere else - lunch rush is a total shit-show. The most popular restaurants stack people outside on plastic stools waiting for a table. The smaller food stalls that i normally frequent are elbow-to-elbow. On weekdays sometimes i go with the flow, but lately on the weekends i just want to sit in silence reading the paper on my phone. It's tough to find a suitable spot, but today i took a walk and discovered an isolated dive in a cloud of dust opposite a construction site. I ordered 酸辣粉 (suān là fěn), which i guess you could translate as sour and hot noodles. It's thick glass noodles in a broth of vinegar and chili paste with bean sprouts and some token green beans and peanuts and sesame seeds floating on top. I read the paper. The 老板 (lǎo bǎn) or boss sat with her family eating a "proper" meal of rice and several small dishes. There was one other guest, watching a TV drama on her phone, slurping noodles with bok choy. Not exactly solitude, but it was relaxing.

I'm back in my room now. I can hear the renao out the window. I can hear it every day. I am just one floor up from a KTV - an all-night karaoke bar - so i fall asleep to it every night. In the morning the construction starts - ripping up roads for whatever reason, re-laying tiles, putting up another skyscraper, who the fuck knows? And the bikes and trikes start honking their horns, and the street vendors hawk their steam buns, and on and on. In my room i can write and watch TV and recharge for next week's onslaught.

It almost feels like i am working already, i am too exhausted to do anything "fun". Then i remember learning Chinese is "fun". This is how i have chosen to spend 大部分 (dà bù fen) - a large part of - my sabbatical. By the time i actually get to start work, i will have five months of continuous study under my belt. I am still a baby when it comes to reading and understanding this language, but just getting to this level has brought me a bigger sense of achievement than years of software development. My mom asked me in an email a while ago why i am wasting my time learning a language that outside of China has pretty much no use whatsoever. I dunno. It feels like less of a waste than my job. I love visiting new places, trying to grok them. Every day i come home spent. I don't have any fantastic adventures to relay to you. But each day i understand a little more. That's something that makes life worthwhile, i think.

Immigration can bite my ass.
singapore sunset
When i first saw the requirements for a Chinese work permit, i breathed a sigh of relief. After having to produce literal stacks of documentation to prove my relationship was legit back in 2009 when i was immigrating to Canada, it was refreshing to just have a bullet point list: passport, 2+ years work experience, bachelor degree, non-criminal record, health check. Unfortunately, the reality is that this is as frustrating as ever.

Let me start by explaining the process. The above documents are required for step one: Work Permit Approval. After waiting 15 days for the Work Permit Approval to be granted, you have to apply for a Work Visa. The Work Visa is actually just a single-entry visa that you can only get if you have Work Permit Approval. If your Work Permit Approval is for a position in Guangdong, you cannot go to Hong Kong for your Work Visa, you inexplicably have to fly all the way back to your passport country. After waiting 4 days for the Work Visa, you can fly back to China, where you are able to apply for the actual Work Permit. Which takes 15 more days. And then you can start work. So, good times.

Or, you know, it would be good times if you had all of your documents with you on your person up-front. But of course i don't, because unlike the people who are actually out to scam the system, i am legit in China on holiday and did not carry a stack of authenticated and legalized documents with me in my backpack. And, dear God, obtaining these documents from all over the world is a huge pain in the ass.

I have never in my life been issued a "work certificate". I think i only have one written reference from my first job back in the late 90s/early 00s, and i have no idea where that is. Every employer i have applied at in the west exclusively uses LinkedIn and other social media for reference checking these days, because it is far more reliable than easily-forged letters or hokey phone calls. But China's social credit system is still being built, and right now it is primarily based on domestic e-commerce and mobile payment solutions anyway. So paper it is. Because i haven't stayed at any single employer for 2+ years, i have had to contact several employers for reference letters. I don't even know up-front if the Chinese government will accept them, because they want some kind of official stamp or seal that - once again - companies in other countries do not have. Ugh.

Next up, the useless piece of paper that is my university degree. Further to my previous entry, i found a law firm in Australia who will handle the authentication and legalization on my behalf. Of course it costs a ton of money, but it's cheaper than a flight. I sent that off this weekend, so hopefully i can blissfully forget about Australia again for a while.

Then, oh dear Lord, the fucking police check. When i immigrated to Canada i needed to get an RCMP (Canada) check, an FBI (USA) check and an AFP (Australia) check, because for some reason CIC can't just make a fucking INTERPOL request on their own. At least China doesn't care about every country i visited in the last 10 years and just wants a single RCMP check, since apparently the only thing that matters here is your passport country. But they want that check authenticated and legalized, so i have to book yet another law firm to handle this on my behalf.

And i need to find somewhere to get my fingerprints done.

Following the advice on the Canadian Embassy website, i visited the central police department today, where some bureaucrat pointedly did not speak to me, shooed away the clerk who was supposed to be helping me, called over someone who could allegedly speak English, then told her to tell me that they will not be helping foreigners get fingerprints and that i would have to go to the Canadian Consulate in Guangzhou. The same Canadian Consulate that referred me to this exact police station. I was fuming when i left, but i know better than to make a scene with a cop, especially a Chinese cop, and especially a probably-racist Chinese cop. So tomorrow i am getting up at 6:00am to take the rush hour train(s) to Hong Kong to see if the cops over there will be more friendly. It would be entirely ridiculous if i had to fly to Canada just to get my prints done.

But you know what would be even more ridiculous? If i had to fly to Canada to get a fucking physical that includes a hocus pocus Chinese witch doctor inspection. After some understandable confusion on my behalf, it turns out you need two fucking health checks. One to get the Work Permit Approval - this one requires the aforementioned TCM nonsense as well as X-rays and ECGs and everything else - and then another one to get the Work Permit. The second one includes all the same stuff as the first one, the only difference is that you have to do it inside China. And the first one needs to be performed, authenticated and legalized in your passport country. I mean. WHAT THE FUCK. Why not just do the second one in the first place!? God only knows. So now it appears i have to sign some kind of special release form to waive the first one, even though i am right here in China already and could do both of them right now. Like... seriously, guys.

Now, i should add that i made a stupid mistake over the past month, and that was assuming that the Work Permit Approval was just a letter that my employer could get anytime. I thought i could just collect all the docs in Canada and then waltz into the Toronto Visa Center with everything in-hand. But it turns out that all the documents are required here in China before my employer can even apply for the Work Permit Approval. I now have half my docs in the mail to Canada, and need to have a friend over there forward them back here to China again. This is less awful than it sounds, given that it now looks like sending my fingerprints to Canada and getting the police check back here is going to be the biggest bottleneck.

Long story short, i will be in China for at least another 3 weeks while i wait for all the shit to arrive here from everywhere else in the goddamn world. Assuming all goes well with the Work Permit Approval, i will then have to fly to Canada to get the Work Visa. Then come back to China to start the Work Permit process. Not that i am complaining - the longer i don't have to go back to work the more time i have to learn Chinese and climb mountains. I have enough money in my emergency/bridge fund to pay for that at least. It's just frustrating that so much of this is out of my control.

I think the worst part is the embarrassment. I feel like my future employer now sees me as stupid and disorganized, when in reality i am being fucked by antiquated immigration processes that are very much not designed for people who actually spend their whole lives in migration. Again. As usual. As i probably will be for the rest of my life until i decide to stop moving altogether. At which point i will be old, broke and homeless and freeze to death somewhere in Canada. Actually, the worst part is being reminded most everyone in the world distrusts or resents people like me. Sigh.

Let's get some TV news out of the way.
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I finally started watching the third season of Dark Matter a week or two back and finished it yesterday. I cannot believe Syfy canned the show on that cliffhanger. Truly some Sarah Connor Chronicles level bullshit. Dark Matter was great fun - one of my favorite space operas of recent times. They left you hanging every episode, but it never became tedious or pretentious - every episode felt worthwhile. Losing the blink drive macguffin that made them all-powerful in previous seasons allowed the team to just be small fries in a big and complex universe, which is a rare and wonderful setting for sci-fi television.

I guess we still have The Expanse, though that scratches a totally different itch. Some Amazon reviewers of the books call The Expanse "Tom Clancy In Space", which it basically is. Especially the TV show never lets you forget you are watching future politics. It's very entertaining, but not really a hot mug of cocoa and blankie watch. I did read the whole series while i was peaceful and relaxed on the boat from Greece to China, though.

That reminds me, i think the new book has just come out. I should buy it. I need a boat.

Smash cut to Andrade Cien Almas winning the NXT title. Fucking about fucking time. Pretty much every other Wargames result sucked, but hearing the crowd pop for Almas after he has spent so long struggling to get over with them was exactly the sort of moment that makes NXT television so compelling. A well-deserved victory. I am looking forward to the story they will build for him going forward.

It could be cool to see Zelina Vega get spun out of Andrade's storyline too. Her promos have been a bit abstract at times, but she seems like a badass and has really helped put Andrade on top. With Asuka out of the way, the women's division could be getting interesting again. I wish Nikki Cross had been given the belt instead of the bookers pushing yet another wrestler with cool in-ring moves but total lack of charisma. Perhaps they are hoping Ember Moon will be able to find a personality if she becomes a target for all the other (much more engaging) women on the roster.

Oh, but let's be real. My mini-crush on Nikki Cross aside, that Velveteen Dream vs Aleister Black match was all charisma all the time. Those dudes are freakin' superstars. Excellent storytelling. Match of the night, easy.

Since this is a TV post, i might as well add that it appears i have dropped all of the DC shows except for Legends of Tomorrow. By accident i deleted my Arrow folder, then realized i didn't care. It occurred to me that i already waste an hour a week watching a TV show all about manpain, but at least Supernatural doesn't have any nauseating relationship crap shoehorned in. I decided to delete my Flash and Supergirl folders too, since - like Arrow - i hadn't even finished last season, much less started the current one. Legends is still there, though. When they lost their best character after the first season i thought it would start to suck, but season two continued to feel fresh somehow. I like that it's not afraid to be silly. Grim superheroes are so boring.

I think i am disappearing into TV stuff right now because immigration continues to suck, and because i am feeling a little weepy over having to start work, or pondering my identity (see last post), or something... I will write more about all of that stuff soon. Sooner or later.

Fuuuck Australia, redux; plus, je suis hobo?
singapore sunset
So, now that i have had a few hours to relax - not to mention i am back on a device with a keyboard - let me unwind that rant.

One of the biggest requirements of getting a work visa here in China is that you prove your education and work history. It didn't really occur to me this would be very difficult, because when i moved to Canada it was enough to give them my LinkedIn page and photocopies of my work contracts, bank statements and so on. But when i moved to Canada i was applying as a spouse, not as a skilled migrant. Applying for a work permit without some arbitrary family connection appears to be much more difficult.

China needs to see my university degree and at least two years of "work certification", which basically means reference letters from previous employers indicating that i really worked there, and that my job involved more than making coffee. What i didn't expect was that i can't just give them the docs and let them figure it out - for every "official" document i give them, there is an extremely long and painful process required to "legalize" it. That is, each document has to be notarized by a justice of the peace inside the local government district where it was filed, then it needs to be authenticated by a federal government department in that country, then it needs to be legalized by a Chinese embassy in that country.

So, i need to pay for (and presumably show up in person to obtain) three different bureaucratic certifications on my university degree which i have literally not used for anything in my life up until this date. Seriously. It is still inside the same tube it was when the university sent it to me back in 2006. There are three (!) countries worth of postmarks on it because i keep getting family and friends to send the useless thing all over the world for me.

But anyway, yeah. Immigration. Fucking. Sucks. It is incredibly stressful, expensive, frustrating and time-consuming. Anyone who thinks immigrants are getting a free ride needs to take several fucking seats. Immigrants work harder than anyone with birth citizen privilege to contribute to a country.

This morning's emails from various consulates and visa offices uncorked a torrent of pent-up Australia hate. I had some great times and made some great friends there, but it was always a place i was dragged to reluctantly. I spent years longing to move to America, which is the country i had dreamed of moving to after finishing highschool in Holland. Australia's macho, sports-crazy culture did not suit my awkwardly androgynous nerdface at all. My little scene of hippies and ravers was relatively open-minded, but i still had trouble integrating. I swung between being sort of happy there and struggling to escape. Nowadays i know the country i wanted to escape to is possibly even more racist than Australia, but at the time i was still caught up in the mythology. Ugh, fuck everywhere. Perhaps i never gave the place a good chance, but after 10+ years i left and have not once looked back.

Except for, you know, when fucking immigration laws forced me to look back. And that's what annoys me the most. I know it's China that has the strict documentation requirements, not Australia. But i resent the fact that i am going to have go back just to get this stupid documentation sorted out. I resent that i ever got my degree there. I am annoyed i spent so many years stuck, because now every time i need to immigrate somewhere new, this is going to fuck me. Again and again, Australia will fuck me, even when i thought i left it good and well behind. Why? Because while living there i clawed my way through part-time, correspondence-based university courses in the hope the degree would be my ticket out. It wasn't. I guess those efforts have finally opened at least one door for me now, but dear God it's not a convenient one.


I have so much more to write about, and was intending to this morning, till this whole shit happened. I want to write about the interesting Chinese term 热闹, but instead i will write about me.

I was thinking the other day about how i do not have a culture of my own. I guess i am something like a "third culture kid", but that's not entirely true because many "third culture kids" do have some kind of home country. I don't. My father and mother were born in different countries, i was born in another one, and by the time i turned 18 i had lived in five more. My core identity is a traveler. Not really an aimless bum - although i definitely enjoy holidaying like that - but perhaps more like a hobo or a seasonal worker. I like to live in the places i travel to, work for a while and contribute to the community. And then leave. What struck me recently is that it's not because i have commitment issues or because i am a self-hating white person or whatever other thing lots of armchair psychologists have thrown at me. No - this is really, honestly my culture. My father has itchy feet too. My grandfather's stories scatter the globe. This is the only life i have ever known.

And this lifestyle - moving around a lot and not having a home country or a credit history or a paper trail - is not something modern society really supports. Immigration law in particular - in all countries - really fucking fails me. Sure i could be a douchey "digital nomad" and flit around not paying any taxes in the countries i temporarily live in, but i care more about my hosts than that. I just wish my hosts would make it easier for me to be a legit contributor to their society in the first place. And make it easier for everyone else who wants to immigrate, for that matter. God, i fucking hate borders. They truly are the worst. Nationalism of any and all stripes can get fucked.

When i was young i thought i would grow up to see world peace, a world government, complete freedom of movement, something like Star Trek. Instead my own country of birth has turned its back on me and millions like me. All around the world people are wanting to erect taller walls and cower into ever smaller and more ethnically uniform bubbles. This isn't the future i signed up for, and i don't know what i can do to change it.

I am going to watch science fiction and try to forget it all for tonight :(


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