through the eyes of a laowai
singapore sunset
Friday night it was, mercifully, 七夕节, which is lamely translated to English as "Chinese Valentine's Day". That's a shit translation because the Chinese also celebrate actual Valentine's Day on February 14.

I think i already wrote about Qixi Festival last year. It's the tragic legend of a cowherd and a seamstress who are in love but forever banished to opposite sides of the river and alas, each year but one day can they meet. It's on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. That day was Friday.

What made it great was that i could go out for after work drinks, and all of the expat men with Chinese partners left early. This meant i didn't need to suffer the most obnoxious of the bunch, and instead got to spend the evening with A, who has slightly more nuanced politics than "Africans and Muslims are savages, Europe has been overrun, China is great because my delicate flower won't get raped by savages."

A also has a Chinese partner, but she is in Shanghai, which just got hit by a typhoon big enough to cancel the trains, so he was stranded here instead of being able to take his planned journey up north.

We talked a bit about Shenzhen, because he started working here around the same time i did and has already given his notice. Trying to maintain a long-distance relationship was a factor in his decision, but another part was that he found he really didn't like Shenzhen. He spent his first years in China living in Beijing, then Tianjin, and he's spent a bit of time in Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai too. He found Shenzhen to be nothing like the China he was looking for.

I found that intriguing, so asked for some more details what exactly he was looking for. He said Beijing felt like "real" China to him because it has the Forbidden City and lots of other ancient sights. Tianjin was great because it was a treaty port and has lots of grand European-style buildings from the turn of the (20th) century. He recalled Spring Festival in Shanghai, the streets festooned with lanterns and bustling in excitement - a far cry from Shenzhen's holiday ghost town. He bemoaned the fact there are no temples in Shenzhen. He's not religious, but seeing temples around is another aspect of life he considers to be essentially Chinese. (I recommended he visit Taiwan, where it seems there are more temples than 7/11s.) I started to think about what i consider to be essentially Chinese.

Certainly, there is a particular brand of Chineseness i imagined in my head from my childhood trip to Hong Kong and my love of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. That is: very narrow streets, tall glass buildings, loud storefronts, topless chaps brandishing machetes, hawkers selling digital watches and wind-up toys, chaotic dim sum restaurants, the smell of joss sticks and plastic and 叉烧 (char siew). It turns out that is only a Chineseness that exists in very small parts of Hong Kong and possibly some seedy overseas Chinatowns. Or, at least, i have never experienced it anywhere in the mainland or Taiwan. Perhaps Guangzhou? Whatever. The other Chinas i imagined in my head were ink wash 山水 (mountain/water) landscapes, Deng Xiaoping era modernizations and Xi Jinping era urbanization.

In reality, i think the 山水 landscapes are a bit of a mythological China. The karst formations around Guangxi and Guizhou feel close. Zooming past on the bullet train, you do catch glimpses of terraced rice paddies and straw hats, rainstorms and waterfalls, inverted jade parabolas rising from the mist. Then there are the epic gorges and mountains of Sichuan, which feels colder, wilder and more grim. And Taiwan, with indigenous tribes, volcanic ridges and ocean vistas lending more of a Pacific island feel. And that's just places i visited - there are dozens of AAAAA tourist spots in the east full of cloud-wrapped granite peaks and pillars. You can understand how artists were inspired to paint these weird and wonderful worlds. And aside from the classical 山水, there are also the Himalayas of Tibet, the salt flats of Qinghai, the oases of Xinjiang, the plains of Inner Mongolia... But let's be honest - anyone who has visited a country known for its natural scenery also knows that the vast majority of people do not live very close to it. It's a holiday destination - postcard fodder - but rarely an everyday experience.

So, the Deng modernizations and Xi urbanization. Shenzhen is Deng's baby. It is the raging hub of no-holds-barred capitalism that he wanted to experiment with in the 80s. It follows the ancient Chinese principle of smashing everything that was there before and building something better on top. And what is better? Here in Luohu District it sometimes feels like a slapdash knock-off of the least interesting parts of Hong Kong. Out in Futian and Nanshan they did an objectively better job - taking a nod from Singapore and constructing harmonious rows of high-rises with plenty of greenspace and public transport links. In Bao'an, Longgang and Longhua districts you can see the industrial engine of the Pearl River Delta slowly being taken over by Xi's urbanization drive. The haphazard factories are being turned into condos. Business parks are getting set up for white collar workers. Pollution is being swept away. There are small but optimistic steps toward a greener future. It's fucking awesome. To me, Shenzhen is peak China.

When i mentioned this, A concurred that Shenzhen might be developing faster than the northern cities, but that he felt it doesn't yet have a soul. I explained that i think the soul of Shenzhen beats in the hearts of the millions of migrant workers who came here to seek their fortunes. It's like a mini America, a mini New York (albeit with more people), a place where rural folk want to go because they think life will be better. In reality life probably isn't that much better - there was always a wave of immigrants who made it before you did and grabbed all the best shit. But that's part of its soul too - the waking from the dream, the realization that now you made it to the big smoke it's not all Maseratis and Luis Vuitton, you're just feeding yourself to the capitalist monster and praying that one day you'll scratch together enough to move your parents out of their hut. Or not praying, since there are no temples.

It's funny because when A talked about the Forbidden City being essentially Chinese to him, it occurred to me i have no idea what the Forbidden City actually is. Is it a palace? An old gated community? I've read hundreds of articles and wiki pages about China but never read anything about the Forbidden City. I don't know what it looks like or where it is or what relevance it holds to modern China. It's not even on my radar as somewhere i ever planned to visit. Who fucking cares about how rich people lived hundreds of years ago?

Admittedly, when i was in Europe i did like to visit palaces. I never went inside, but they often had peaceful gardens around them and a coffee shop. There were always a lot of retirees wandering about, and it made me feel like when i was old i would be quite happy to just flit about Europe, strolling through palace gardens, reading books, drinking coffee and eating black forest cake.

I am not sure if Chinese palaces are the same. From walking past a handful of ancient sites in Xi'an, it seems they tend to be jam-packed with tourists and generally lacking in both the coffee and the garden department. Not my bag at all.

Anyway, A's point was that places like the Forbidden City give Beijing a soul that Shenzhen lacks. I guess, for him, the soul is in the buildings.

Although i generally consider myself a European, i think this is an area where i am not very European at all. I mean, old buildings can be nice to look at, but at the end of the day they're just buildings. I'm with the Chinese - if they're in the way, knock 'em down, throw up a new one, who gives a shit? What matters to me are the people that live there. The European palaces i like, i like because they provide public parks where older folks can potter about and chat over tea. The brand spanking new public parks of Shenzhen provide the same service and feel just as cozy to me. Any public space that acts as a community gathering point is a worthwhile space. But if it's not a public space, then fuck it, swing the wrecking ball. To me it's all about the people, the community... today's community, not some wistful notion of an elite community long dead and buried.

I guess that's where i lose the Chinese again and end up on my own little weird island of solitude. I am not so fussed about tradition or cultural heritage. For me, each generation starts new. I feel like an important part of growing up is exactly about the kids casting off the chains of their parents, their ancestors. Sure, it's fascinating to read about history, to learn from it... but then go out and live how you want. Push the world forward. Create new stories. Shock the system. Build the next shining city, a new destination for the next generation of huddled masses.

I think A's and my conflicting view of the essence of China helps illustrate the tightrope Xi and the CPC propagandists are trying to walk. How do you balance the need for urbanization with this cynical nationalism built on the myth of a millennia-old nation state? How do you flatten entire villages while also proclaiming to revere the ancient heritage of the Chinese people? This kind of wacky contradiction is exactly what i think is superbly interesting about this place.

I do wonder where i will go next, though.

leveled up
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I still remember the first time i went to the doctor in Berlin. It was an optimistic attempt to get back on the meds i'd been taking for 10+ years before faltering in my last stretch in Toronto. Aside from the annoyance at being denied the prescription and referred on to some specialist to sort it out, the experience did make me feel like i had reached a deeper connection with my new hometown.

Part of it is the buzz of being able to confidently explain your decrepitude in the local language, but i think a bigger part is spending a few hours with your neighbors in that universal limbo that is a doctor's waiting room.

Here in China i have been a little worried about visiting the doctor. Partially because i wasn't sure my Chinese was up to snuff, but also because of how critical both expats and snobby locals are about the Chinese healthcare system.

I should point out that China - despite being a country run by the Communist Party, and by a government that claims to be socialist - does not have universal healthcare. It does subsidize a basic level of care, but advanced treatments are an out-of-pocket expense that most poor cannot afford. Depressingly, there are also lots of private medical clinics that cater exclusively to the rich and insured.

I am rich and insured. This is one of the things i fought the hardest when i started working here: i wanted to decline private health cover. As an expat in China, having health insurance is fucking the country twice over - once because by definition private health insurance undermines the public system, then on top of that foreigners who have private health insurance are exempt from paying social security tax. As if that wasn't enough, our company's group plan isn't even provided by a Chinese-owned company, so it's the ultimate fuck you to our local community.

So when i realized this morning i should probably see a doctor, i felt dirty setting up my account.

Let's rewind a few weeks. I got blindingly drunk. I fell off a bike. You would think i would've injured myself while drunk, but actually what happened is that in my hangover i somehow moved my arm in a weird way and i heard a snap and my back started to hurt. I was in such a state i didn't put two and two together till a couple of days later when i realized breathing was very painful because of the stabbing shoulder pain that resonated all the way around to my boob.

I told myself it would go away. I searched around online and decided i had strained my infraspinatus, or twinged a nerve back there or something. I started doing some stretches and bought Tiger Balm, because even though it's snake oil, it's snake oil that reminds me of dad, and i am a firm believer in the power of good memories/good vibes making you feel less shitty about a very real injury.

It didn't get better.

Monday i had a weird, woolly headache. I almost felt like i was going to faint by the end of the day. I figured it might be the heat.

Yesterday, when i got home, i took my shoes off, thinking that the pins and needles i'd had all day were due to a tight sock or something.

Yeah, no.

I woke up this morning with the whole right side of my body numb. As i type this now i still have pins and needles in my foot and fingers. If you have been a heavy drinker or addicted to other drugs you might be familiar with the sensation, as i was, but it's really fucking alarming when it happens and you didn't consume anything that could have caused it.

Perhaps i am being a little paranoid since my mom just got that surprise cancer diagnosis, but i figured i should go to the doctor.

So, after filling in my details, i checked out my health insurance's list of recommended doctors. Every. Single. One. Was in Hong Kong. Like, fuck off. There are twice as many people in Shenzhen as there are in Hong Kong, and you mean to tell me there's not a single doctor here worth visiting? To be fair, the coverage we were provided with was the Hong Kong plan, not the mainland plan. I guess it's mostly catering to the expats who only come into the office once a week and spend the rest of their time in Hong Kong because mainland China is so dirty and dangerous and inscrutable, or something.

Next i checked out the list of recommended doctors when traveling "abroad" in China. Every. Single. One. Was not in Luohu District. Most were out in Shekou (Nanshan District), plus a few in Futian CBD, but come the fuck on. You mean to tell me i need to travel to the next goddamn borough over just to see a doctor? There's a hospital one fucking block from my house!

I should have known better than to check the expat websites too. They universally advised going to Hong Kong for healthcare, because Chinese doctors aren't to be trusted, and the hospitals are filthy and bla bla bla.

In the end i said the hell with every flop fucking laowai in this Shen/Kong area and resolved to forge my own path.

That was the moment i discovered the hospital a block from my house is a psychiatric hospital. Well. Good to know.

Fortunately there is another large hospital on the south end of 翠竹, the little green bamboo hill. I stopped into Starbucks for a morning coffee and grumbled at the 27元 price tag, then crossed the road into the hospital i cycle past every day.

It was insane. There were people everywhere. I knew from one of my Chinese lessons last year that the first thing you need to do is 挂号 (grab a number), but it's not like grabbing a number in the west - you need to pay first. But first first you have to know which specialist to grab the number for. I guess if you are a regular that's no problem, but i don't fucking know. I went to the "pre-triage" and mumbled something about my back and i can't feel my legs. She wrote down on a piece of paper 脊椎外科, which means spine/back external medicine. I paid 33元 for my number, grumbled again at the price of Starbucks coffee, then went up 3 floors to wait.

All the floors were equally busy. Filled with people chattering, playing mobile games, grabbing numbers, getting their blood pressure done, going to another pre-triage, yelling at the nurses because they missed their slot... It was far cry from the earnest silence of German waiting rooms. No magazines. No TV. Just the hustle and bustle of hundreds of other sick, injured and impatient people.

Eventually my number was up. I left the door open because it seemed like that was the right thing to do. During the 10-15 minute consultation the doc ducked out once to check on someone else and at least 5 people ran through my room to get to another room and/or just nosy about to see what was up with the ailing barbarian. This is fucking China. It's not really rude, it's just that in a place with lots of people living on top of each other all the time, the idea of privacy is different. Why would you bother to close the door unless you're going to get naked?

I didn't need to get naked. The doc listened to my story and poked me and prodded me and moved my arm one way and the other and said i shouldn't worry. I said, dude, i can't feel my foot. I am worried. He said, if you can walk and move your arm around, well, clearly you're not dead. (I am paraphrasing.) He prescribed me some NSAID pads and asked if i wanted painkillers too. I said no, because i don't like to take drugs unless i am really, really fucking dying. And this pain is just a dull thrum. Could be worse. Could be dead.

Out the door and back to reception/accounting (there's one on every floor, plus self-service terminals to grab a number and pay using WeChat). Tossed them another 100-something kuai for the NSAIDs. Down to the pharmacy. In, out, done.

It was the most efficient doctor's visit of my life. No bullshit trying to send me off for a billion fucking blood tests and X-rays and CAT scans and EKGs like Australia, Canada or Germany. No trying to toss every drug under the sun at me like in America. Just some poking and prodding and questions and alright then. Here's some NSAIDs, please stop hunching over your computer, put down your phone, drink less alcohol and get more serious about stretching.

I mean, that's what a fucking doctor is supposed to do. I can't tell you how many times i've been redirected to 17 fucking specialists and spent assloads of money only to be told it's nothing. I mean, obviously when it's something, it's something. But when it's nothing, it's nothing. All i need is to hear someone who's been through med school to tell me it's nothing when it's nothing and then i can get on with my life.

Hell, even if it turns into something later, at least right now it's nothing.

When i got into the office the IT director said he has the same thing. Sore back. Numb foot. Gettin' old. Fuck yeah. Now my manager is in the loop he's telling me every hour to get off my ass and stretch.

That's fucking healthcare. Ye can stick yer poncy private Wan Chai clinic.

Now just wait for this day to come back and bite me in the ass in 6 months. Heh.

中国新说唱's not-so-subtle emphasis on the 新
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I haven't read any hot takes in the English language press about this season's Rap Of China. I guess the novelty is gone now. The big topics of late are Luckin Coffee, climate change, the return of Google and the trade war.

So here's my hot take as a foreigner who is still trying to keep up with the talking heads segments, much less follow the lyrical content of the performances. This year's storyline is less about scrappy former gangsters becoming surprise hits on streaming sites while the Party scrambles to figure out what its stance on hip-hop should be. This year you can feel the weight of the censors keeping things harmonious.

Perhaps i am reading too much into it, but when three of the top 12 rappers are all from Xinjiang province, and at least one of them is an ethnic Uyghur who uses the catchphrase "i'm made in China", i feel the producers are deliberately going for a nationalist storyline. Don't get me wrong, those Xinjiang rappers are dope as fuck. Two of them in particular have amazing flow and definitely deserve their spots. But it feels suspicious that an entire province with less people in it than the city of Shanghai could have such a strong representation in a country with well over a billion people.

Then again, Hong Kong and Taiwan are even less populated than Xinjiang and they dominated the Chinese-language entertainment world for years.

It's kind of amusing that the judges on this show are Taiwanese Aboriginal, Taiwanese Han, Hongkonger and one Guangdong guy who grew up in Canada then became a K-pop idol. It's like... is there anyone from the inner provinces who makes any music at all?

Which, of course there is.

I am feeling a bit strange. Exhausted from work. Disinclined to do anything. So, pretty much the usual weekend for me.

Except this weekend i got an email from my mom saying she has cancer and is about to start chemo. So that's a thing. I feel like i should feel something but i don't. I am just tired.
Tags: ,

Let's talk coffee.
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I have a whole list of journal topics i would like to get around to at some point - mostly observations on my life here in China - but with work and everything i find i never get around to posting them.

Here's a great quote from a recent email from my now re-retired mother that shows me the apple did not fall far from the tree:

I now realise how caught up I had become (again…) in the workplace. There are multiple things I pushed to the side and didn’t pursue – even where it would have been in my own interests to do so. For instance, I have now spent time researching energy plans and medical insurance plans – and negotiated better deals with my providers. I could (should…) have done that ages ago but told myself I didn’t have the time/patience to look into it.

She goes on to list a bunch of other things she has neglected. I am exactly the same.

One thing i do not neglect is my daily coffee. kishenehn just posted a short bit about making coffee up on a fire lookout in Big Sky Country and it got me thinking i should write that coffee entry.

So, the coffee thing. China. They don't fucking drink coffee here.

That needs some explanation, since i am sure all of you read the news last week that Starbucks is teaming up with Alibaba to expand their operations here.

China is Starbucks' second biggest market. But it's Starbucks' second biggest market because China has got lots and lots of people, not because Chinese particularly like to drink coffee. Fortunately the strategy of Starbucks is to rebrand "coffee" as "a hot milkshake that comes in many different flavors, sometimes including coffee".

Even still, it's a tough hill to climb. I saw a crazy statistic the other day saying the average person in China drinks something like 6 cups of coffee... per year. Hell, i get through that many by Tuesday lunchtime.

I fucking love coffee. Let's not get it twisted. I am only semi-serious about being an alcoholic, but i am definitely a caffeine addict. If i don't get my first cup on time i am incredibly cranky. I drink three or four cups a day. I get headaches without.

The reason Starbucks is running scared at the moment is because this year's latest buzzy Chinese unicorn is Luckin Coffee. Starbucks had a stranglehold on the coffee market here through uncompetitive practices like writing into their rental contracts that the entire property was not allowed any other coffee vendors apart from Starbucks. Luckin works around that by setting up in unusual locations. They have tailored their strategy 100% toward yuppies. You can't pay cash for a coffee. You can't even order it at the counter. You need to book in advance through their app and then it will either be delivered to your office or you can pick it up from a hole in the wall.

For this reason, i am not a fan of Luckin Coffee. I do like to sit down for that first cup.

On the other hand, i am also not a fan of Starbucks. A black coffee from Starbucks is about 25 kuai. At the current exchange rate, that's around US$4 or 3€. Now, ignoring the fact that in China 3€ pays for two dishes from a back alley greasy spoon, that price is insane even by western standards. Who the fuck pays 3€ for a coffee? Oh, wait. People who go to Starbucks, that's who.

I remember when Starbucks first entered the Australian market in the mid-2000s. They faced another uphill battle because Australia has one of the best coffee cultures in the world. The Italians and Greeks made sure that literally every dive bar and fast food joint in the country sells top-notch espresso for a couple of bucks.

But marketing prevailed and now Starbucks is big in Australia. People learned to pay more.

When i left Australia i moved to Canada. And Canada, despite being right next door to America, has a very different coffee culture to America. Canada's most famous fast food joint is Tim Hortons, which is a thunderingly mediocre donut and coffee shop. They don't have espresso machines. Don't make me laugh. But they do have very, very cheap drip coffee. Tim Hortons is more than just a coffee shop - it's a meeting point for the proletariat. The Greyhounds stop there, the newcomers work there, the drug dealers operate out of there... They are open 24 hours and open to all. And if there isn't a Timmies nearby, there will be a Coffee Time or similar dive. These types of coffee shops are central to Canadian communities.

Meanwhile, there is also Starbucks, which doesn't even bother marketing itself to the flannel-wearing, Hip-listening, hockey-watching crowd. And they do fine, because there are plenty of Crazy Rich Canadians.

And there are plenty of Crazy Rich Chinese.

Aside from Luckin Coffee being a brand that differentiates itself on being more tech-savvy than Starbucks - not to mention proudly local - it also differentiates itself on price. I mean, that would have made me interested. Coffee should be a working class drink, goddamnit. I downloaded the app to check it out.

21 kuai for a black coffee.

My brand here continues to be the Taiwanese 85°C. Also known in mainland China as "that bread shop". Here they are more famous for selling cakes and pastries than for selling coffee. Meanwhile i am like. Dudes. You realize a black coffee at 85°C is, like, 13 kuai? And if you buy a coupon book, it's only 11 kuai? That's less than half the price of the other coffee chains!

But, you see, 85°C doesn't sell the image of being a luxury coffee shop. No self-respecting member of the bourgeoisie is going to proudly walk around town with that red cup in their hand. It doesn't have the cultural cachet of Starbucks, or - now - of Luckin. 85°C is for the plebs.

Except, of course, it's not at all. A coffee from 85°C is still a lot more pricy than picking up a 豆浆 (soy milk) from the roadside 油条 (donut) vendor, or plunking a bunch of leaves and herbs into your own plastic flask to make the tea that gets most working class Chinese through the day.

This is one of the biggest challenges i have found with fitting in here. The middle class is very middle class. Not much different to the middle class in other countries. But the working class is much poorer. There is not really a gap for people like me who work highly skilled white collar jobs but don't feel comfortable amongst our professional peers.

One of my colleagues recognized i was far too good for this company and asked me why i don't do a startup here instead. He shared his idea of making an app to link Filipino housekeepers with the nouveau riche who covet them. Technically Filipino housekeepers are illegal here because China has a relatively strict immigration policy, but the rich find ways to get around it, and my colleague was convinced he could make bank off the app before the government caught up with it. Or perhaps they'd turn a blind eye, because the government don't seem to care very much about rich people bending the rules to get more rich. They sure do like to clamp down on anything that excites the kids and the working class, though - hip-hop, short video apps, tasteless joke sharing sites, anime...

Anyway, during that conversation i said if i was really free to start any business i wanted in China, i would try to kick off the idea of working class pubs. Or Canadian-style coffee shops. Basically, places where regular people can go to drink for cheap and socialize without being pretentious about it.

He thought that was hilarious. How would i get rich targeting the poor? They don't have any money!

That exchange made me think.

When i was in Guangyuan (population: 2.5 million - an insignificant backwater by Chinese standards) there was one Starbucks and that was it. I got a coffee from a kid in a kawaii drinks shop who was utterly thrilled to have a foreigner in her store. It was a Nescafé with a splash of condensed milk. You could barely call it coffee, but somehow it tasted better for being the same stuff the kids in that town were drinking to get a taste of cosmopolitanism into their lives. Those are the kids i'd like to make coffee for, not the ones who can afford a brand name beverage. And their parents are the ones i want to open a pub for.

But, yeah. Why would a laowai bother? Why would anyone?


let me gush a little more about NXT
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I just need to leave a short note here to say that NXT is really, spectacularly good right now. If you're even a tiny bit into wrestling you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Currently we are in the midst of an epic feud that has literally been building every week since early 2016.

They were a sweetheart tag team, best of buds. Last year one betrayed the other in a shock twist and has spent his time since then becoming ever more dastardly. Just when you think he can't escalate it any further, he does something even more dickish. He's a totally hateable character. But it's not as simple as that, because now their feud has gotten so heated that the face has started to become consumed by it, to the point where he's started losing control and is acting heelish himself.

Our dear sweet Johnny Gargano is falling apart! Oh, whatever shall we do? The story is far from over at this point. Will Johnny turn heel himself, destroyed by his anger? Will he finally remember his morals, pull himself together and give Tommaso Ciampa the beatdown every fan is hoping for? Will there be a double turn - notoriously one of the most difficult plotlines to set up - where the baddie turns good and the goodie turns bad in the same episode? Add in some title belt drama and other bit characters getting drawn into the stand-off and it's seriously compelling television.

And that's just one side of it! Over in the women's division, Shayna Baszler - an ex-UFC fighter - is proving to be a delightfully evil foil too. Most of the people who come up from UFC or other sports kind of suck at professional wrestling because they can't act worth a damn. Professional wrestling is more than just about being an athlete, it's also about getting the fans invested in your storyline. Fortunately, Shayna is full of anti-charisma. Like Ciampa, she is also a heel, and she leans on her UFC background to create a character that is just a straight-up, no-nonsense ass-kicker. She doesn't care about anything except for kicking ass. The fact we all know that in real life she would easily kick anyone's ass in that locker room helps to sell her kayfabe cockiness.

But nobody likes a braggart. So the one we are really rooting for right now is Kairi Sane - a woman who was hailed as one of the greatest professional wrestlers in the world before leaving the Japanese and Mexican circuits to come wrestle in NXT... She looks petite next to Shayna, but that helps to sell her as an underdog face, and she plays it up with a totes adorbs kawaii pirate gimmick. In the ring she's as tough as anyone. Throw in my current wrestling girlfriend Nikki Cross - who plays a completely unhinged Scot - plus a solid locker room of up-and-comers and that division is the best it's been since Bayley left to work on Raw.

Meanwhile. The Velveteen Dream. Dear Lord, this guy is absolutely everything. He started with a paper-thin Prince gimmick, but he's worked it into something profound. He's not just flamboyant, he's electrically so. The way he whispers and gazes and snaps his fingers during promos, the way he writhes and pouts in the ring - everything he does is magic. It's still not clear if he's a face or a heel, but you can't help but mark for him. He's a great entertainer and really epitomizes what makes wrestling unique in the performing arts.

Velveteen Dream promises to shine at TakeOver: Brooklyn


Plus there's Adam Cole and his stable of total douchebags that are giving Johnny Mundo and his gang over in Lucha Underground a run for their money as the biggest douchebags in wrestling. EC3, who is some generic boring big guy who somehow manages to cut a funny promo whenever he opens his mouth. Moustache Mountain - two Brits who are dynamite in the ring. There is just so much great packed into one hour a week of soapy drama and fisticuffs. It is tons of fun and has really become the highlight of my week during the summer down-season.

Anyway, done gushing.

On a side note, I read this interesting article the other day about how the industry is starting to embrace more honest gay storylines: I suspect it'll be a while before the WWE lets its talent be out and proud without it being a tacky gimmick, but we can always hope something in NXT slips under the radar. Meanwhile, here is XO Lishus from Lucha Underground...

XO Lishus’ “An Ode to Flashdance” (feat. Ricky Mundo and Jack Evans)

once in a lifetime trip to the beach
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This was the greatest beer of my life.

Actually, being an alcoholic, i admit i have the greatest beer of my life at least several times a week. But this was undoubtedly a well-deserved one. And it tastes all the better in retrospect now knowing i will never have it again.

Let's rewind. Sunday morning i was up and cooking breakfast bright and early. I've been a bit sick the last week (more on that in a future post), but when i finished my food and my coffee and had showered and watched a couple episodes of Lucha Underground and it was still before noon i figured i should do something more with my day. Of course it took another hour or so from the moment of decision to actually get out the door, but such is my sloth.

On the map i spied a lake way out in the north-east that i wanted to go to. The route there was the road along the Shenzhen reservoir and up to Dawang village, which is a route i have quite enjoyed wandering since i moved to this side of town. I found myself a share bike with a decent set of brakes and headed on the way. I knew from the last time i BMXed out the back of Dawang village i'd be able to cut across a construction site under the freeway and head the wrong way up an offramp to pop back out on a road heading north-east. This time i didn't see people in cowboy hats riding horses, but i did pass by several sketchy looking cars with couples canoodling or doing drugs or perhaps just learning how to drive.

I really love these little places in between. They're not really country and not really city, just sort of a limbo where nobody lives yet. The roads are mostly brand new, but they don't go anywhere and are usually blocked off anyway, so you get this weird zombie feeling. Here and there you get a glimpse of what i consider to be the quintessential image of modern China. Back of a factory, creek of dubious water quality, empty high-rises, big ol' pile of containers. All that was missing was a water buffalo. Hiding in the bush, no doubt.

Checking the map i realized i could continue north-east or loop back around the mountain to the beach. Since i'd been biking for about an hour at this point i got the idea in my head that it would be awesome to kick back on the beach and paddle my feet in the South China Sea.

See, Shenzhen is technically a seaside town. The unfortunate thing is that the Brits nabbed pretty much all of the best seaside and called it Hong Kong, but we still have a little bit down here. Sure, to the north is Dongguan and the rest of the industrial PRD cities. Out west is the wide and dirty Pearl River. That has its own charm, at sunset. But on a little tiny strip way out east - across the Wutong mountain - Shenzhen has proper beaches. Admittedly, most people who live here rarely go. The logistics are a pain in the ass.

But my phone said i was only about 1.5 hours away, and that felt totally doable. I started out alongside the freeway, amidst the din of internal combustion engines, breathing dust and fumes. I stopped at a gas station to get some sweet tea, then pushed on. For all of 50 meters. At which point the "cycle path" (read: narrow paved area behind the guard rail) disappeared. I don't mind BMXing a little bit, but this transition made it clear: either you're a car, or get the fuck off the freeway.

Fortunately my map showed some frontage roads that looked like they'd still get me through, so i ducked down into a mountain village slash industrial area and pedaled my little heart out. There were several of those typically Chinese checkpoints where it looks like you're not allowed through because there is a security post and a boom gate, but actually the checkpoint is there for no reason whatsoever. There's no guard, just some shirtless guys smoking and drinking and playing cards, and they hoot and holler and wave while the ladyfolk collect ong choy from a nearby creek.


I guess i should've checked the map a little closer, because although my small road seemed to follow the highway, what actually happened was the highway went into a tunnel, and this was a steep ass switch-backed fucking mountain trail. There were a few cars heading up there, and a couple of hardcore mountain bikers, but mostly it was just people hiking. At this point i'd gone so far with my trusty steed i figured i couldn't just leave it there, so i dragged it up the damn hill with me.

Needless to say, that was a slog.

But it was all worth it. Not at the top of the mountain, but at the top of the mountain pass, there was a temple. I didn't bother going in because, damnit, i was slick with sweat and when i saw the view i knew it was all downhill.


Zooming down the other side was epic. I zigged and zagged and crossed a little railway that i am sure has a story, but my water bottle was empty and i wanted to see the sea. I popped back out onto the wrong side of the freeway and pedaled against traffic for a short while before a bike path appeared and i could continue in relative safety. Heading into Yantian District proper, things got back to the regular urban feel. And then i popped out at the docks. And there starts a greenway where you can bike all the way along the coast.

I stopped for a bit to get some 凉粉 (grass jelly) from a street vendor. She seemed like a reasonably young girl, very happy to see a foreigner come by. We chatted a bit, then she got her 小朋友, which literally means little friend, but i suspect it was a nephew or maybe even her own son, to take a photo. They took some videos too. No doubt i am a now a hit on one of the short video websites - the sweaty red foreigner who biked over the mountain and says she's a girl but sounds like a boy. The kid was shy as hell. I hope i don't traumatize them. Parents often present their kids to say hello and get a photo with the foreigner, even when the kids are desperately embarrassed about the whole thing.

After the pit-stop i headed on to 大梅沙 which is the Big Plum Beach. I have been there once before - for a group run/sports thing last year - and i didn't really enjoy it because i was in a group and didn't have any freedom. But i also didn't enjoy it because you have to pay to get on the beach, and then when you go through the turnstiles you are just stuck on a tiny strip of sand with about a million people. So i headed on to 小梅沙, the Little Plum Beach. Turns out, that was just as bad.

On the other hand, down at 小梅沙 it had a bit more of that seedy resort town feeling - one long strip of storefronts all open to the road, all selling the exact same sunglasses and hats and floaters. Lots of plastic stools and people in flip-flops and fish and chip shops that sold Chinese food instead of fish and chips. I think i would've liked to hang there a while, but i was sunburnt and exhausted and desperate for my beer and paddle.

I asked one of the cops if i could buy beer on the beach, but he said i needed to stock up before going in. Of course just one can plus some water and sweet ice tea cost over 25 kuai. Beach prices, man. But entry to the beach cost 50 kuai! So fuck that noise. Biking over I had noticed a boardwalk where some intrepid fishermen had jumped the barrier, so i locked up my bike and headed back on foot.

And that's where i found a nice flat rock to sit on and drink my beer. I never did paddle my feet, but i tell you what. Just looking out at the South China Sea after a 4+ hour summer bike ride was bliss.


The story should end here, but it doesn't. By the time i started walking back to the fancy hotels and clothing stores up at 大梅沙, the sun was dipping behind the ridge.


Oh, shit. Now i remember why no one in Shenzhen comes here. The streets were chaos. Gridlock. I picked up some tofu and waited for the bus. And waited, and waited, and waited. After 45 minutes of waiting and seeing dozens of buses, none of which were mine, i crossed the road to wait for a different bus. But the jam was intense. Every bus that came by was already packed, and not even the smallest person could squeeze in. So i walked back several stops, and eventually managed to squish myself onto a 103 back to Luohu District. The traffic was stop-start all the way. 3 hours after i left my idyllic rock, i arrived back by the green bamboo hill near my house all poked and prodded and bent and spent.

I flipped open my phone to jump on another share bike... Only to find that i had broken the rules of Mobike. Apparently even though Yantian District is still Shenzhen City, it's not part of my Mobike area. I can ride almost all the way to Dongguan - 10, 20, 30, 40km out west - but if i go over the hill out back of my house and pop out at the beach? No way José. I was told this was my first and only warning. Next time i have to foot the bill to have the bike retrieved. Never mind the fact there were several other Mobikes over there. Never mind the fact that encouraging people to pedal their asses over the mountain to get home might help alleviate a little bit of the insane traffic. Rules are rules, and now i will never get to take that trip again.

At least, not on two wheels.


i did not buy enough beer to deal with this disappointment
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Okay, fuck that 重庆小面 place.

As mentioned briefly in my glimpseatmyday post, they recently refurbished the Walmart downstairs. Inexplicably, they moved the checkouts to the non-grocery side of the store, so everyone has to haul their full baskets past aisles of clothes and TVs and whatnot, but whatever. The highlight of the refurbishment was that they added a refreshments arcade after the checkout. There was always a 麻辣烫 (pick-your-own veg soup) joint and a pizza place out front, but now there is also a 兼并 (crepe/pancake) place and a sushi place and a bubble tea place and a coffee place and a goddamn fucking 面馆儿.

I mean, you all already know 小面 is my jam. It is stock (probably pork-based, but i'm not asking), garlic, spring onion, chili, Sichuan pepper, oil, noodle and bok choy. If you're lucky they'll put some crispy fried soy beans on the top, or perhaps some peanuts. That's the whole thing. It is hot. It is spicy. It will stain anything it drips on a violent shade of red. It would probably melt through the table if it wasn't contained. It is the grand boss of soup noodle.

So when you put up big signs saying 重庆小面 - literally Chongqing small noodle - you better fucking deliver.

Except, i should've known, because it's the exact same signs dotted all over this city. This is a "Chongqing" fast food joint.

I think i mentioned before - China has many of the American fast food joints, and it has its own burger and pizza joints too, but it also has regional fast food joints. And without fail every time i eat at one of these places it disappoints me. They're always the most prominent storefronts on main streets and all there is to find in malls and train stations. Their food is 1.5-2x the price of back alley eateries, but still cheaper than casual dining restaurants. Pretty much every menu has photos of the food and every dish has meat. And no matter what you order, it has no flavor at all.

Like, what's the point of a 小面 with no flavor? You might as well just be eating 方便面 (instant noodles/ramen). In fact, you can literally go to any convenience store in the city and have them heat up your 方便面 add a 豆腐串 (bubble fried tofu on a stick) and that would be faster, cheaper and spicier. So who are these guys catering to?

I mean, today, i was just craving it. I don't have a Chongqing style back alley place anywhere near my work or my home, so i wanted to give this place the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the first time i went they just got it wrong? I figured since they had just opened, maybe they hadn't gotten the formula right, or perhaps they saw a laowai and decided to cook without seasoning. But this was my second time, so i told the guy i really, really want it spicy. He's like really? I'm like yes fucking really. Why come to a so-called Chongqing style restaurant if they aren't going to make it spicy? Like, literally. There is no fucking point. You get these weak-ass Guangdong guys walking up ordering 微辣 ("micro spicy"), whatever, i get it, some people don't like heat. It's not a competition. But when someone walks in and says they want it spicy, then just give it to them real, for fuck's sake. He shrugs and tries to upsell me some bullshit side. Why the fuck would i want a side? No one ever tries to upsell you on a side at a back alley joint, they just serve you the noodle, because the noodle is the whole meal!

But of course he tries to upsell me a side, because this is Chinese McDonalds.

I mean, it took a while for this to finally sink in.

After getting my "really" spicy noodle, and being just as disappointed as the first time, i plonked in almost the entire jar of chili paste they had on the table. Still no spice. (Side note: where can you even buy something that looks exactly like chili paste but has no heat? What kind of cynical-ass factory is producing this ungodly creation?) A couple of minutes later i went back up to the counter, and i was kinda pissed because i had just spent 15 kuai on something that i could've made for free (and much tastier!) at home with literally just one tablespoon of doubanjiang and a handful of noodles and some boiling water. I confronted him: like, what the hell am i supposed to ask for next time if i want to eat proper spicy? Did you just not give me spicy because i'm a foreigner? Like, what do i need to do to actually get a fucking real bowl of 小面?

And he just looked at me blankly. Like, he understood the words i was using, but he didn't understand what i was saying. Eventually he looked away and tried his best to pretend i wasn't there. The other customers looked on in bemusement. And that was the moment it all clicked.

Chinese fucking McDonalds.

I mean, you've got these kids in front of house who have no idea how to respond when someone asks about the quality of the food. But of course! Why would they know anything about food? They're not restaurant workers. They're clerks. That's why they can't or won't hold the meat when you're at a place with no vege options. That's why they find it baffling that someone would even bother to come back and comment on the flavor of a dish. They're just there to press the magical slop #1 or slop #2 button and fling it out the window. Nobody cares if it tastes good.

Like, why would anyone eat at these places? The food is trash. The service is trash. Sure, they have a green smiley face on the health check sign and the back alley places have a red sad face. But come on, my own kitchen would have a red sad face if the health inspectors came round. You don't eat at a restaurant to avoid cockroaches, you eat a restaurant because the food is supposed to be better than it is at home.

It's just so disappointing that there so many people whose livelihoods are tied up in their hole in the wall, but the vast majority of urban Chinese don't eat there, they instead choose to eat at these soulless fast food joints that serve dishes bland as all get-up. The diners seem all too happy to make some rich businessman even richer while shoveling cardboard into their faces. The health inspector says it's good! Hey, at least it's not some 低端 (low end) joint! And anyway, it's far more convenient because i didn't have to walk two blocks to get there!

Hey, did i mention i hate the Chinese bourgeoisie? Yes, they are awful. Everything about middle class China is awful. They all want to drive cars and buy houses and eat meat and get private health insurance and send their kids to private school and lament the fact that they have to share a city with lower class migrants. I try to pretend they're not here, but they are, and they are just as insufferable as the European and North American and Australian middle class. And i say that as a near life-long member of the (upper) middle class. Their values are so alien to me.

And their food is garbage.
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Quick weekend grocery run in Shenzhen, China - 2018-07-22
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(Note to friends who may see this twice: this is a draft for my post in glimpseatmyday.)

Since there is a Walmart literally on the same block as my building, I don't tend to do big grocery shops - I stop by every couple of days after work to restock. That said, I have learned that the best time to go shopping here is around noon, when everyone else is at home eating lunch. You don't get the freshest pick of the morning's vegetables, but they're usually less wilted than the after work hauls, so I normally look forward to my weekend shop.

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Time for lunch!

everybody's free...
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It might not seem like it from my LJ, but i am a very uncommunicative person, especially when i am working. Work sucks up so much of my energy, the last thing i want to do in the tiny amounts of free time that i do have is spend it on other people.

I got a reminder of that when dad sent me an email this week. I scrolled back through my sent mail folder and realized the last time i wrote him was December last year. The last time i wrote mom was April. I don't even know how to contact my sister or other family members, I haven't spoken to most of them in years. Since i left Germany i haven't contacted any of my friends there. I've lost touch with all but one friend in Canada. I just don't have energy for it.

It's so exhausting to be forced to keep in touch. It's exhausting to keep in touch with anybody, but family is the worst because you can't just ignore it. At least with friends, if they don't hear from you for months or years, then whatever. If they're still friends in the end then cool, and if they're not, also cool. But with family there is this cultural obligation to interact with some kind of frequency, so i always feel a bit guilty when i don't.

It struck me how unusual i am again this week when some guys at work angled to add me on WeChat and i threw them for a loop by saying i could add them but i'm not sure if it'd be worth it because i never check it. On Friday my boss also brought up WeChat, saying he would like to add me to the emergency/after hours group. Now, i don't mind being on call if that's part of the job, but fuck if i'm going to be on call on my personal phone. I explained that on my personal phone, i never pick up. I get messages and literally do not read them for weeks. I just swipe the notification away and forget about it. Occasionally, when i feel like i have the mental space, that's when i check.

Obviously, that doesn't make sense for work. I explained that if they want me to be on call, just get me a work phone, then i will know that everything that comes on that phone is urgent. I don't want my personal phone to sometimes be urgent and sometimes not. That will completely wreck my personal life, a huge part of which is about not giving any shits whatsoever. The instant i feel pressured into doing something in my personal life, i get stressed out and frustrated and resentful.

This is why i will never be in a relationship again and i am so very happy to be single.

However, because on Friday i opened WeChat to make a point to my boss that i never open WeChat, it was running in the background on my phone. Usually it's closed and not running in the background, so i don't get any message notifications at all. But Friday after work i was sitting at a bar having a few drinks and i got a notification from the one work guy i have added. Since i was already a bit drunk i agreed to meet up, even though if i was sober i would have said no because one of the other guys in the group was the "it's a man's duty to tell women what to wear so they don't get raped" guy.

We ended up heading out for BBQ, had a whole bunch of drinks, and then i hit that level of Berlin drunk where i wanted to party all night. One reason i should never go out with these asshats is their idea of party all night is go to someone's house and drink whisky or cognac or something. Fuck off. If it's at someone's house, it will never be a party in my books. People's houses are just awkward and uncomfortable places full of obligation and everything i hate. So i left to find another bar. That really upset one of them, and that's ... ugh it drives me nuts when you already spent several hours drinking with people and then they feel like you owe them the rest of the fucking night. Like, no. You go out, you drink, if someone else happens to be there that you know, bonus, if not, fine. I don't understand people who don't want the people around them to be free.

Anyway, i eventually found another bar that i'm not sure if it was a gay bar or not. Almost everyone there was a guy, but that's not saying much because drinking heavily is more of a guy thing in China. They had lots of different beers from around the world and they played techno music and gymnastics was on the TVs. The beer was very, very expensive. But i guess that's how it is. No working class bars, period. I chattered with a bunch of other very drunk people before flopping off home near dawn. I was such a wreck i stacked it a few times and am now sporting several more bloodied up and bruised limbs. Good times.

Yesterday was a write-off. Unfortunately i had no food in the house, so after a reasonable breakfast i cooked the only thing i had left for dinner - Job's tears. Yes, it's actually called Job's tears - check the wiki. In Chinese it's 小薏米 (xiǎo yì mǐ). I bought some the other day because i didn't know what it was and thought i'd experiment with it. It's some kind of grain. Last week i made a porridge out of it, just sitting there bubbling away in the wok for almost an hour to get it to soften up. Yesterday i did it again. It's a pretty good hangover food. Not too much flavor but it goes down easy and coats your stomach good.

This morning i really had to hunt through the dregs for breakfast. In the fridge i still had some Korean rice cakes from my little Korean food buying mission of a few weeks back. For those who haven't had them before - they are little squares of glutinous rice, about the size of dominos. The Koreans toss them into hotpot. I got the wok fired up to roast peanuts before adding garlic, ginger, fennel and cumin. Then i scraped out the last of my doubanjiang to add some heat. Plenty of water. And these new pickles i found the other day called 萝卜干 (luó bo gān). It's something like pickled radish or turnip or something. It is incredibly spicy and delicious. Then i splashed in just a little bit of vinegar and soy, and added some of those 山楂条 sweet hawthorn candies. And then, the Korean rice cakes. I had no idea what to expect, but it bubbled furiously before thickening up. In under 10 minutes it turned into something like American/Canadian Chinese hot and sour soup. A roaring success.

I burned my tongue.

But now i need to go buy real food. I want to play the last episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm today, so i will probably need some crying food like fruit jellies and pineapple beer. Maybe a sweetened version of Job's tears would fit the bill, but i don't want to spend another hour standing by the wok watching it cook. I also kinda want to go out exploring, but since i pulled a shoulder muscle doing something drunk that i don't remember i should probably just chill.

Fucking, tomorrow is work again. I am already dreading it and it's not even lunch time. The weekend is never enough.

truly outrageous
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I've only contributed to two crowdfunding thingees in my life: the 1.6 billion € Greek Bailout Fund, and the development of a fan movie for Jem and the Holograms.

I am not sure why i have such fond memories of Jem. Why do any of us have fond memories of childhood cartoons? Jem was one of those cheap cartoons designed primarily to sell children toys, but in the process of creating a fluff kid's show they tapped into the same exciting fashion and stylistic ideas that fueled Miami Vice and other shows now seen as quintessentially 80s. The real 80s was not glamorous at all for most people, but watching Jem was a way to live the fantasy, 23 minutes at a time.

Anyway, i contributed to the Kickstarter because i wanted to support some fellow fans who were keen to put together an episode for nostalgia's sake. They weren't nobodies - they were a talented bunch of famous-on-YouTube artists who had already produced a fairly well-received Jem music video. I checked out their other channels and it seemed like they were a decent crew who operated a bit outside of the big name YouTuber circles and would probably appreciate the support. And then I forgot about it for a couple years.

Lo, here it is.


This was actually released a couple months back, but I hardly ever poke my head out from behind the Great Firewall these days, so I didn't get around to watching it till today.

It's a bummer they've only got about 25k views, because it's such a sweet and genuine take on the characters and the show.

Anyway, this dopey little flick made me happy today.

Also making me happy in the TV world: first episode of this season's Rap of China and an absolute stonker of a tag team match between Moustache Mountain and The Undisputed Era on this week's NXT.

That is all until my mood improves.


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