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Pleasures meme
mom walk
I have been busy with work. The commute is long and exhausting too. The weather is very hot. We had a tropical storm that blew over some trees and left me soaked, biking the city streets alone. The only pleasures i feel i have time for these days is simple ones. I took this from sweetmeow.

Name ten of life's simple pleasures that you like most, then pick ten people to do the same. (I'm not going to tag anyone. Just do it if ... it's your pleasure!!)

1. Getting up slowly. On work days i usually wake up when the sun rises (around 6), but don't get out of bed till the last possible minute (around 8:30). On weekends and when i am off work i tend to stay in bed till the afternoon, just dozing or idly reading the news.

2. Bubble tea. When i lived in Melbourne my fave was coconut water with coconut and pearl sago. Lately i have been getting passion fruit green tea with coconut and grass jelly. It's cool and sweet and chewy and the sensation of boba shooting through the straw satisfies me at some primal level.

3. Coffee. At work we have an espresso machine, which is fine, but what i really love is pouring hot water into a French press and then going back into bed for that lazy morning. It's mealy and bitter and gives me a tiny legal speedy push. I'm always a little sad when i finish the last cup.

4. Being naked. I am not really one for public nakedness, but unless it's very cold i tend to be naked at home. Clothes annoy me.

5. Gliding down a slight hill on a bike. Steep hills aren't as good because you need to think about braking, but cresting an incline and coasting quietly down? It's like suddenly life switches to easy mode.

6. Wrestling. I love it. The silliness of it all makes it feel unpretentious. It's something that can entertain no matter what.

7. The feeling when i get to the top of a mountain path and sit on a rock looking back at the view, imagining i could soar off the cliff and leave it all behind.

8. The sound of a TB-303 synthesizer. It is simply perfect, the most beautiful sound that could ever exist. When i hear the 303 absolutely everything else disappears.

9. Walking around aimlessly at night, preferably along streets i have never been before. The lights, the shadows, the reflections, the anonymity... I can forget about my real life. I hunt that flash of déjà vu, becoming a teenager again when everything was new.

10. Dancing. God, i miss dancing. When the song is just right and the place is filled with smoke and a strobe is flashing and the only things that exist are sweat and bass drums and a loop that never lets up... It's transcendental.

I thought about including alcohol - it's much cheaper than bubble tea - but now that i am old and get hangovers it's not as simple of a pleasure as it used to be.

What's in my bag? Shenzhen, China - 2019-08-10
mom walk
(This is my draft post for glimpseatmyday.)

It's the peak of summer here in Shenzhen. I recently started a new job about 12km away, which i am stubbornly biking to every day.

The commute is about an hour each way, and i carry this pack Monday to Friday. What's inside?

Read more...Collapse )

the almost-storm, and an update on my nemesis
mom walk
Today it's one of my favorite tropical weathers.

I woke up to a rainstorm but by the time i dragged myself out of bed after noon, the ground was dry and the sun was teasing the odd ray. I went up to a nearby Starbucks, which is still the only convenient place i have found to buy bags of real coffee beans, then went next door for a 凉粉 (liáng fěn). Depending what part of China you are from, 凉粉 can mean a spicy mung bean jelly noodle, or a bowl of grass jelly, or (in this case) a clear mystery jelly topped with dragonfruit and raisins and peanuts and 山楂 (shān zhā) hawthorn and sugar syrup.

On the way back to the grocery store i decided to climb the closest mountain to my house. It's only about a 10 minute walk, barely even a hill. It's interesting because the peak is lower than some of the buildings in the neighborhood, so you don't really notice it's there from street level. Still, it gives you enough perspective to look around and imagine what this place would have been like 30 years ago before all the highrises went up. Creek, lake, trees, just some foothills between Tanglang and Yangtai mountains.

The news this week has been showing pictures of Hong Kong's Yuen Long suburb. That's what my hood looks like too, which is why the protests and beatings there feel closer to home than the stuff happening down in Central.

I kept seeing phantom spiders in the forest. Some light post-traumatic flashbacks to walking through that web the other week. The signs saying "beware of snakes" didn't help.

Anyway, yeah. Today's weather. The thunder has been rolling for several hours. Every now and then there is a cool gust of wind. Otherwise it's oppressively hot and humid. The clouds are brimming with water and spilling over occasionally, but it's not quite raining.

I love it.

It's like those moments when you are on the edge of something, but it's not happening. Hypomania feels this way. I miss that feeling. So do drugs, in that dizzying yawn before they kick in. Or when you are about to take a bus to somewhere you never went before. Anything could happen. The anticipation is everything. The destination is never as good.


Work is work. There are a lot of frustrating things about it. My line manager is alright but middle management and the head of our department are both hopeless. I suspected this going in and it's why i made the choice to join a different department, but due to internal politics i somehow ended up in this one anyway. Oh well. It's work.

Every now and then i get a reminder that no matter how bad it gets here, the last job was worse.

A few weeks back i went out with C. He sent me a message saying he wanted to meet me in person to talk about "something that isn't gay stuff". (He is still mostly closeted, single and unsure of how to meet men. I am the only LGBT person he knows.)

He told me that when he quit the last company, he went on to once again work with S, the useless architect who had been fired for incompetence. C knew that i considered S a complete shyster with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The guy knew very little about tech, he was supremely arrogant, and he treated everyone around him like garbage. So C was embarrassed to tell me that they had been working together again.

But it turns out the past few months have been a disaster. S managed to find a company owned by some local bigwig with a fist full of fat government contracts and no software team. S promised the world, but (once again) barely coded anything and threw together a shoddy system with ancient technology that he got two juniors to build for him. He also used the juniors to translate for him, because he can't speak any Chinese. How the fuck did he get the job? Fuck. Welcome to China, where in certain circles hiring an expensive foreign mascot can still make your company seem more prestigious.

Anyway, C also admitted that while we were all still working at the same company, S kept C and the two other juniors late after work until i left, then set up a private meeting with them to say that i was a lazy moron who knew nothing at all. C explained that for weeks they had a private WeChat group where S ridiculed everything i did in the office, and where he told them that in the senior dev meetings i had been abusing them behind their backs. (Not true.) Get this. The group was called "[CompanyName] Friends". S played up their good friendship and cast me as some kind of vindictive, two-faced bitch.

Like, i can't even. I had no idea any of this was going on, and perhaps it explains why some of them were reluctant to accept my feedback and coaching even after S had been fired.

Anyway, C said at the time he felt caught in the middle because he thought we were both good engineers. But after working together for three months he started to realize that S has no idea what he is doing. S bamboozles everyone around him with jargon and nonsense to cover up the fact he is incompetent, and everyone just goes along with it. It's infuriating to me that people don't instantly see through his charade, but what can you do? They have to figure it out for themselves.

I would have been fine for the story to end there, but it didn't. Because a month or two ago, S just disappeared. Like. Completely. He told the boss he needed to do a visa thing and then there was radio silence. No WeChat. No email. No phone calls. Nothing. C explained that he started getting worried, and that even though he had realized S was an incompetent engineer, he still considered him a friend. After weeks of not responding to daily texts, S finally replied that he was in the hospital with a heart condition and that's why he couldn't come back to work.

Note that this heart condition story was what he told C. The owner of the company had still received no contact at all. Meanwhile both C and the other junior engineer were just showing up to the office for 10 hours a day, then going home. Not doing a jot of work but still getting paid, which is something that happens in depressingly too many companies (especially in China). Without S to boss the guys around... nobody did anything. And that started driving C nuts.

So just before our dinner, C checked in on LinkedIn and lo and behold S is now miraculously cured of his heart condition. He is working another job at another company, once again as a "senior software architect". C finally broke down and - against the astoundingly poor advice of his fellow junior engineer - spoke to the big boss about the situation, since presumably S was now collecting two paychecks, one of them for a job he hadn't shown up to for months.

Hearing the story basically confirmed every suspicion i had about S from the first day i met him. Poor C was crushed that his "friend" had betrayed him - and their company - so shamelessly. I didn't say "i told you so". I tried to perk C up by saying this was an opportunity, because now even though he is a junior he gets the chance to build a system from the ground up at his new employer, to really take ownership and learn some stuff. I'm not sure he's mature or independent enough to make the most of it, though.

Anyway, so that's the story of S.

Meanwhile my other colleague L - who is still working at the old place - this week shared that she is shut out of meetings while the male employees with more years of experience but far less technical skill plan the new architecture. The other day a colleague yelled and screamed at her for having a different opinion on how to build the system and now the new CTO is saying to everyone that she isn't able to follow instructions and that she is a troublemaker. I am trying to point out that she is being gaslighted because her opinion was correct, and that even if her opinion had been incorrect there is never an excuse to yell at colleagues or for managers to publicly humiliate their staff... It's exactly the same toxic shit that made me sick working there. But L feels like she has no other options because she comes from a poor village and did not go to a prestigious university and she's a woman so no one will ever take her seriously anyway.


I really hope i can get through to her that she's better than that. She deserves to work at a company that will help build her into the kickass dev i know she can be. She is already better than everyone else working at that dump.

C deserves better than he got too.

It seems Shenzhen can be a city of shattered dreams for young Chinese guys who busted their ass through school but didn't have the money and connections or the luck to land a position at a job where they aren't treated like shit.

What makes me really mad is that so many shitheads and sociopaths are making bank on the backs of the people who work hard and get nothing. And then i realize the current top dogs in the UK and America are exactly that too. So, basically, the whole world is fucked.
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violence across the bridge
mom walk
Since i got back to China i have been wearing all black in solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters the day after each protest. It doesn't count for much, just some laowai on the other side of the bay wearing black on a hot summer's day, but it's my little way of reminding myself that i don't want to get sucked into a bubble where i forget i am living in an authoritarian state.

Today i did not wear all black.

The fact that a bunch of shitheads in the suburb just across the bridge from my office took clubs to innocent bystanders "to protect their houses" while the cops stood by and did nothing is an epic escalation. The authorities are blaming it on triads, but let's not pretend a pack of organized criminals was beating the shit out of innocent bystanders for fun. This was a goon squad. The politicians excused it and the coppers ignored it. Meanwhile Hongkongers bled on the floor.

What's Carrie Lam's response? "Many sides..." Fuck this nonsense.

🌴 guitar music and a palm tree
mom walk
My new favorite song is a song i only heard about 5 seconds of in my new favorite show.

The show is called Reef Break and it is hilarious. It's obviously filmed in Gold Coast, but they are pretending it is some hypothetical 51st state of America where everyone speaks with a terrible accent and hundreds of miles of swamps, mangroves and barrier islands are described as "the reef". The hero is an old surfer slash criminal turned PI, or something. It doesn't really matter. I am quite sure everyone involved realizes how silly the whole thing is, and they revel in it. Great summer trash.

Anyway, this episode had a song called The Voyager by Jenny Lewis. It's some kind of jangly white girl folk rock, which is up my alley as far as guitar music goes.

By the time I got your letter
I had lost my mind, I was trippin'
When you're getting better, it's a jagged line
Nothing lasts forever when you travel time
I've been sippin' that Kool Aid of the cosmos...

I hope it's not literally about doing acid because that would be too obvious. I don't want to read anything about the artist in case she really is that vapid. If i don't read anything about her i can pretend she is like some modern day Ani Difranco or whatever. I like how it does that Rakim style internal rhyming. Also she has a nice voice.

I know absolutely nothing about modern guitar music.

I could have learned a little more, tonight, because one of the guys at work invited me out to see a rock band. A couple of the singles from the office are going, getting drunk and listening to rock and roll. But it fucking starts at 10pm, like.

I mean, yes, as i type this it's 11pm and i am drinking a beer at home, so i could easily be out at a bar doing the same. But, ugh. Fucking rock music. And socializing. Maybe on a different week i'd have the spoons but this week i do not.

So instead i am getting drunk watching beautiful Australians pretend to be American and fantasizing about sitting on a beach drinking a mai tai.

It's been incredibly hot and incredibly humid here all week, so even though there aren't any beaches worth a damn in Shenzhen proper i could easily take a boat to Hong Kong or Zhuhai this weekend and drink some rum under a palm tree. Or, you know, i could just go sit under a palm tree in a nearby park and do the same thing.

Doesn't feel as holiday-ish i guess, when it's home.

Jesus, where am i going to retire? I have Canadian and British citizenship and both of those places are shit for palm trees.

Edited to add: i guess most people reading this don't know i used to live in Brisbane and go to a lot of goa/psytrance parties in South East Queensland. So when it comes to ferns and gum trees and LSD, i got me some nostalgia there. Should be more synthesizers and tie-dye, but.

Dealing with people takes all of my spoons.
mom walk
I am back to working 5 days a week. It's exhausting. But the last two weekends i have also dinnered with L and C and Skyped with R. Even just one of those things would wipe me out a whole weekend. I haven't read LJ. It's all too much socializing. I am zonked. I need a few weekends with nobody and nothing.

I'd like to tell you guys the story about meeting C last Friday because he has a funny slash depressing continuation of the story of my nemesis from the place i worked before my current job. But i'll save that for later. Remind me if i forget.

Two Saturdays ago i went out for dinner with L to talk work and things. Things included the Hong Kong protests and Brexit and communism. She said most mainland Chinese think communism is garbage because party cadres tend to be the richest, most corrupt people in the community. Also because of family stories from the Bad Old Days.

She told me about her family's stories of the Great Famine. It was chilling. One story was about how a couple in their village secretly killed one of their children so that they could continue to collect the extra rice share and feed the rest of the family. Another was of her grandfather losing his job and having to get home from the distant work site without money, transport or a meal. They found him collapsed on the road the next day, left for dead. The rumors were that some people resorted to cannibalism, they were so desperate.

The government here can control the media and the education curriculum, but they can't control family history.

When my mother passed away, i climbed 羊台山 (yáng tái shān). It's the beautiful conical mountain i can see from my apartment window. Things have been so busy with work. Every now and then i get emails from the family or from the lawyers trying to figure out legal shit around mom's belongings and the will. I don't give a shit about any of it. I just miss my mom. She didn't really have stories, but we talked about all the things.

The day after dinner with L i biked up to the village near the foot of Yangtai mountain and went for a climb. I chose a different path up the hill this time, but it still started by zigging and zagging through some peasant shacks. For the first couple hundred meters you share the path with chickens and ducks and dogs. It feels like walking through someone's garden, until it doesn't.

At a curve in the trail where the only thing around to see was longan trees, i climbed on top of a boulder and cried.

It was a dark day with thunder clouds overhead, but it didn't rain. There were more hikers than there had been that first time on a weekday, but still very few for China. I nearly stood on a snake. Almost every pair of trees had a web with a spider as big as my hand hanging at head height. The humidity had made the ground softer, but you still needed to cling to tree trunks and roots on certain slopes.

My mom would've liked it, i think. The south face, at least.

Once you get to the Big Yangtai peak, stairs are cut to the north and all the paths are paved. I hiked east to Little Yangtai peak, where some guys were blasting dance music and shooting videos of daring leaps onto and between the boulders.

Just two minutes away i found an overgrown path. It was narrow and steep and headed almost straight down to the reservoir. After succesfully ducking webs for 2.5 hours, on this slippery downhill i plowed straight through the middle of one, freaked out, and flung a giant spider away from my head before it bit me. I think it was probably more scared than i was, but lordy it was a shock.

It was nice to get back down to the reservoir and greenway. Oldies were out on their after dinner stroll. I probably looked a state with hair full of golden silk goo and a mud-stained ass.

I left the mountain area through the factories on the east side and bought some pastries at a wet market. The subway was packed, but my home was quiet. I ate fruit salad. Yellow water melons are in season and peaches are coming in. Dragonfruits, guavas and grapes are the year-round staples at my local store.

Did i tell you the police kicked out our local street vendors? I have to go down a back alley now to sneakily buy home fried potatoes and dumplings. Fuck the police.

I need to remember to get out hiking more. 20 minutes from my house i can easily spend 3 hours on Yangtai mountain and in the other direction it's a good 2 hour trek over Tanglang mountain. I guess i am biking 2.5 hours a day, 5 days a week now, so i am permanently aching and sunburnt and UTIed... but that's urban chaos, rush hour shit. Encounters with the fauna aside, there's something pretty great about getting up into the hills. Lets the mind go a bit.

how people holiday
mom walk
Working in a tech company there are always dozens of screens around the office showing dashboards full of cryptic charts and gauges that we use to monitor the systems. You all know that from TV. But we also also have screens that pop up informational messages and corporate propaganda. In this company those screens include realtime customer feedback and social media mentions - good and bad.

My new employer is a B2C travel company, which means our customers are people just like you, dear reader. The interesting thing, as i read your comments, is the insight into what is really important to people when they travel.

The vast majority of feedback is from people either thanking us for helping them find an affordable holiday, or telling us we should do a better job showing "hidden fees" like hotel taxes or baggage costs. The angriest people are upset because whatever unexpected event knocked time off their stay or cost them more money than they anticipated.

People get so uptight about money.

I have to remind myself that a lot of people have to search through the couch for change at the end of each month. It's hard for me to deeply understand that, not because i haven't been poor, but because most of my life i have gone to great lengths never to do anything that approaches the limit of my budget. I live with less now than i did as a teenager. My rent is cheap. Everything i buy is cheap. My current salary could be slashed in half, and then in half again, and my lifestyle would continue unchanged.

That makes me sound totally out of touch, a fount of privilege. Which is true, i suppose.

Anyway, i'm on a tangent. The point is that it's interesting how different people approach holidays, and traveling in general.

I don't go anywhere on holiday that is expensive, because it is expensive. I have missed flights or ended up in towns with no hotels and then had to pay a hefty premium to continue... but i could afford to because i factored misfortune into my decision of where to go in the first place. Of course it irks me when i get hit with an unexpected cost or a redirected itinerary, but i keep calm and carry on.

There have been several times - even just in the past few years - where i ostensibly went on holiday to relax and sit on the beach, but then when i got to wherever it was i ended up spending most of my time walking around hungover and hungry, searching for sustenance in unlikely spaces, far from the blissful seaside. And somehow i still enjoyed that.

I would like to be that person who is happy to take a flight wherever and shuttle direct from the airport to the resort without the slightest care of what is going on in the country outside. I would like to be able to just sit on a deck chair and drink out of a coconut for two weeks. It disappoints me that i can't. I get itchy feet. I walk around aimlessly. I get stuck in a dead-end town, lost and alone. Then i wish i had just stayed on the beach. But i keep doing it to myself, every time.

A part of me must like being uncomfortable and miserable when traveling. Or, at least, i certainly expect to be. It took me a week for my back to un-fuck itself from the human origami of taking the overnight bus to Glasgow. Still, as the rest of my trip fades, i clearly retain the memory of getting off that bus, aching and bleary-eyed. So many of my memories are of the places in between and the emotions i felt there. Stuck, delayed, hemmed in, worn out, looking at the people, looking at the horizon. Those were the best parts.

cities and density and doing my civic duty
mom walk
As a follow-up to my last post, i was thinking about cities and population density.

Let's start this by pointing out i really am a city nerd.

I am 39 years old and i have only exercised my political franchise once in my life. This is largely because there are only two elections in my life that i have ever been eligible to vote in: the 2014 EU elections (i didn't register in time) and the 2016 Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg local council elections (i voted for a minor party that picked up 0.3% of the vote). All the rest of my life my country of residence has not allowed me to vote in elections at any level.

However, voting in 2016 was not my first engagement with civic duty.

The year was 2005, and my new friend slash fuckbuddy slash partner (i'm not sure what we were yet) was finishing up her social work degree. She thought i was a flop for not being more engaged in Australian politics, so she signed me up for a series of workshops and conferences that the council organized to get feedback from residents on future urban development. I think she was surprised that i ended up far more into it than her. Or perhaps she knew it was my thing all along.

At the time the model city of the world was Vancouver. A lot of urban planning experts gave presentations about it and helped facilitate group discussions around how we thought we could apply those learnings in Brisbane. I was a passionate advocate of high-rise development like in downtown Vancouver, although that was less popular amongst other participants who thought "Queenslanders" (wooden stilt houses) were part of the local culture and shouldn't be replaced across the board. We talked a lot on pros and cons, brainstormed and voted and actively participated in fucking democracy. Something we all agreed on was that the major infrastructure investment should be in busways and greenways over tunnels and bridges. It was surprising and pleasing to see such a diverse bunch - at least as far as age and ethnicity goes - all prioritize public transport, cycling and walking over private internal combustion vehicles.

The big thing coming out of the sessions was that collectively we favored the idea of a building a city of "urban villages". In that context, we were using "urban village" to describe multi-storey developments clustered around a public transit hub with commercial on the lower floors and residential on the upper floors. I.e. something a lot like the Hong Kong new towns. Then radiating out between the patchwork of hubs, the density would decrease to allow some of those traditional single-family homes to remain.

The plan was called CityShape 2026 and it was controversial because it would require the rezoning of formerly low density residential areas to execute. It's almost 15 years later now and i haven't been back to Brisbane, so i'm not sure if any of it got made into policy. There was an epic flood that destroyed half the city a few years after i left, which seems like a good opportunity to rebuild properly, though i'm not sure the people who lost their houses would see it that way. I'm skeptical now, but back then i was optimistic. I really thought as residents we could have an impact on the future of our city - have it become the green utopia so many of us wanted.

Here in Shenzhen the dream has almost come true for me. I mean, Shenzhen is a goddamn disaster. It's China, so entire neighborhoods are marked for demolition on a whim. They rip up the roads every two weeks, resurface them and then rip them up again like it's Lego bricks and not poured concrete. But, on the other hand, subways are going in everywhere, and around those metro stations you do get clusters of mixed-use development just like in the Hong Kong new towns. There aren't really any single-family homes because that would be ridiculous, but there are plenty of rickety tenements and dank alleys that form part of Shenzhen's local culture. The good news is that the council recently recognized these areas as an important part of the city and have put a halt on demolitions.

Anyway, this brings me back to the topic of density. You remember when the government blocked Wikipedia and i was really upset because i spend so much time on it? One of the things i like to read is city pages. Australian cities like Brisbane are drawn to include a lot of empty hinterland, which makes it difficult to get a feel for the real population density from the formal statistics. That's true in much of China too, but the PRD is fairly unique in that the whole goddamn region is so tightly packed that density metrics "feel" just about right.

According to wiki, Hong Kong has 7.5 million people and a density around 7000 per square kilometer. Shenzhen has 13 million people and a comparable density, officially. Unofficially we have 20 million. In any case Hong Kong has more greenspace than Shenzhen, so they have these stupidly tall pencil-thin skyscrapers, whereas we have more prefab tower blocks and miles and miles of tenements.

When i was in the UK i saw that London has about 8 million people and 5600 per square kilometer, which feels weird because London doesn't feel dense at all. But then, maybe it doesn't have much greenspace either. I guess density statistics can be misleading, because the densest "city" in America is only 4 blocks long and it's in New Jersey. It's literally just a handful of tower blocks and a council chamber.

But then i think about how many similarly tall tower blocks i pass every day on the way to work and it makes me ponder what the real density is around me. I am about 11km from work. If i imagine a "tunnel" of 500m to my left and right, and taking the city average of 7000 people per square kilometer, i should pass 77,000 people on my commute. Except i know that a larger section of my ride is past 20+ storey towers and not 7 storey tenements, so it could be double.

Jesus, 150,000 people and there still isn't a decent coffee shop on that route. Fucking China! But seriously. To service those tens of thousands of people there are department stores and fast food outlets and fancy restaurants and schools and gyms and everything else. I could get pretty much everything i need in that north-to-south tunnel of my commute, but fortunately i don't have to because the city stretches out 80km from east-to-west - not just 1km - and there's another 20km north of my house. So there are at least a handful of places to get good, cheap coffee.

It sort of feels amazing that we don't spend all day tripping over each other, but i guess humans don't need much space. I remember reading Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem series and at one point a character mentions that you could fit the entire population of the Earth into Shanghai, if we all just stood holding hands.

So, i kinda think this idea that racists like to haul out about how the Earth is over-populated and poor people in third world countries should stop having children is garbage. I live in a relatively dense city and there is still a lot of room to breathe. There are trees, there are flowers, there are birds. It's not a Garden of Eden, but it's far from a concrete box packed with flesh.

Somewhere inside of me is still that little optimist, the one who read Kim Stanley Robinson as a kid and still believes that humans one day will stop being awful and selfish and self-destructive. Urbanization will continue and billions of us will live in green cities, walking and biking and zooming around on electric vehicles. We will all live in urban villages. The suburbs will be demolished and replaced with farms. Rural towns and far-flung ranches will be handed back to the buffalo...

I won't live to see it, i guess. But that's a future that does excite me. Mass global urbanization. Complete destruction of borders and nationalities. Huge expanses of our planet rewilded. Maybe the future will look more like a network of glittering city states.

Maybe for some of us we're already back to the city state era, seeing as non-citizens like me are disenfranchised on every level above the city anyway.


Here is a cyberpunky photo of my new haircut. My hairdresser used one of those magical filters on his phone to turn me into an anime character.

town mouse and country mouse 🐭
mom walk
Coming back to China this time felt less comfortable than last time. I arrived in Taiwan over 2 years ago and so far have only left Greater China for about a week to get my passport stamped and then another week for the work thing just gone.

Going to Toronto - and Windsor - i felt quite alienated. Toronto was as diverse as i remember, but far less walkable than i remember, even downtown. There were loud and stinky internal combustion vehicles everywhere, and every restaurant was meat and dairy fucking central. Windsor, being a small town slash lily white suburb of Detroit (depending on your point of view) was worse. So much guitar music. So much gluttony. It was a culture shock and i was happy to get back to China.

On this recent trip to the UK, London was meh, but Glasgow and Edinburgh felt like places i could get to like. Lots of vegan food. Cheap beer. House music. Mountains. Parks. Apartments. And freedom.

I mean, the kind of freedom that you don't have in mainland China.

Every newspaper is still blocked. It's not just the newspapers. Most image hosts have been blocked too, so a lot of blogs that do come through don't have pictures any more. Various free shell accounts and other technical sites that could be used to bypass the Great Firewall... gone. Especially with major protests happening just across the bay, coming back to a total internet blackout felt cripplingly repressive.

It didn't help that the coolest, greenest section of my work commute was destroyed while i was away. All the trees have been ripped up and concrete barriers erected. Even if they're just replacing the woodland shrubs with a "high class" manicured greenway, it's still fucked. Every wild thing here is just a prelude to a goddamn bulldozer. No one will handcuff themselves to a tree to protest road construction in Shenzhen. Or if they did they'd just be arrested and sent to a re-education camp.

The trees were gone and no one cried but me.

On the other hand, the lifestyle in the urban villages often makes China feel more free than cities in the west. At night the streets overflow with people. Old ladies dancing to techno music. Old men singing karaoke. Street vendors, many of whom surely don't have permits. People drinking beer and gambling and playing cards or chess. A couple of shops near my house haul pool tables out on the sidewalk and show costume dramas. Kids kick soccer balls around the temple courtyard. Fruit vendors brandish machetes and hack up melons and pineapples and whatever other goodies you desire. There is a sense of community. It's nice to be surrounded by thousands of strangers reclaiming the streets.

I've been thinking a lot about what i like in China, and this is it. The urban villages. The city life. It's what attracted me to this country - i wanted to experience the rapid and unprecedented urbanization first-hand. It's everything i imagined. If you are a city nerd, Shenzhen is truly incredible. It may not have all the cultural perks of European cities (notably vegan food or western-style pubs and nightclubs), but the convenience is unparalleled. Buses go everywhere, and they are all electric. Cheap eats. Share bikes. Mobile payments. Fully furnished rental apartments. Overnight or same-day shipping of anything you could possibly imagine. Fuck. It's great.

This week i got in a frustrating conversation with someone on a comment thread. They lived in upstate New York, and they were trying to make a point that nobody really wants to live in big cities, they only move there because of work. They claimed that literally every aspect of life in the big city was equalled or bettered in small towns. Apparently not only do small towns have superior access to nature, they also have world-class art, theater, food and music.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. I have lived in small towns. It is true that there can be fantastic restaurants in small towns. Some small towns have thriving arts scenes. But come on.

I tried to explain that people in cities don't just want access to one good restaurant, they want a dozen, and they want to be able to walk to each one. I told them that from my house i can not only bike to museums and markets and stadiums and theaters, but also to nature parks with hours-long trails. I said that many people in cities do not drive a car and never learned how. I pointed out that there is a lot more to the entertainment scene than just country music and classic rock, and that for some people finding a club that plays exactly their brand of quirky underground music is exactly why they moved to the city in the first place.

The guy continued to insist that there was a wealth of similar entertainment options in small towns, but admitted that perhaps cities were the right place for the small percentage of people who enjoy going to nightclubs and getting mugged.

Which is when i realized the guy was so out of touch it wasn't worth continuing the conversation. I sometimes forget how many rural people believe that cities are dangerous places. That was one of the most surprising questions people asked me when i was traveling across the US on routes that Greyhound has since canceled due to lack of ridership. For some reason, many rural folk are convinced that just walking around in the city you will get attacked, or that your house will be broken into while you are sleeping, or something. They seem terrified of other people.

Another thing they don't get is that city people don't have a problem sharing stuff.

A separate thread on the article featured some other country guy asking how anyone could have a hobby in the city, because there's no room to set up a proper workshop. Nevermind the fact that plenty of hobbies don't require a workshop, this guy couldn't conceive that there might be such a thing as a shared workshop. It was as alien as the idea that - given the choice - people would choose not to own a car. One guy was convinced that as soon as a person earns enough, they will always buy a private vehicle. As if carshare hasn't been a thing for decades. Or, you know, taxis. Still, to some it seems incomprehensible that millions of people happily spend their entire lives never once getting behind the wheel of an automobile.

I also found myself defending the fact that there are people in the world who legitimately prefer to rent. It was exhausting.

Then, at work, i had to do it again. The Chinese government - like many others - has a tax break/savings scheme for home ownership, which annoys me because i think the government should be building free houses for the proletariat instead of propping up the banking industry and property developers by encouraging the petite bourgeoisie to buy. Payroll thought they were doing me a favor by offering to sign me up for the "benefit", but why would i ever? All that money and paperwork just to own a chunk of masonry stuck in one spot that now needs regular maintainance? God, no. Renting is freedom. Growing up my family always rented. It's not because we were poor and couldn't afford a house, it's not some wacky cult thing, it's just how some people live.

Anyway, i am glad for LiveJournal because here i get to read the stories of people who own houses and live in small towns and other places around the world that are nothing like where i live. I hope it helps me to understand those lifestyles a little better. I don't ever want to become like those country folk who just point blank refuse to believe that anyone different to them could exist.

As for me, i am thinking more and more that i am a city kid. As much as i enjoy visiting small towns, and sometimes i daydream about life in a trailer out in the middle of Saskatchewan... in reality i think i'd miss the convenience. I'd miss the anonymity. I'd miss the freedom. I'd definitely miss being able to walk everywhere. I'll just look at country life through the window of LJ photo posts.

Well, the photo posts that aren't hosted on sites blocked by the Great Firewall. Sigh.

when i was a bairn
mom walk
I arrived at the Glasgow bus station early Sunday morning. The city was dead, but i found a crossroads with a trio of fast food restaurants that were still serving drunks and other stranded travelers. I picked up a bagel and coffee and pondered my next steps.

Glasgow is the last place i lived in Europe during the Cold War. We had just left the army so for the first time i was attending a civvie school and hanging out with kids who had grown up in the same place their whole lives. I remember living in fear of the headmaster's belt. I remember football and The Beano and crisps and Jet Set Willy. I remember my parents expressing concern i might be gay because i was too close to one of my friends. It hardly mattered since any friendships i made were lost when we were whisked off to New Zealand, via nan's in Essex and grandpa's in Hong Kong.

Another thing i remember from Glasgow is Pollok Park, and specifically hating it. I hated it because my dad scared me there once.

Mom and dad both loved going out in nature. One trick my dad pulled to try entertain us kids while hiking was to spin fairytales. Dad spent his boarding school years reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons & Dragons, and he saw being a father as an opportunity to become the ultimate DM/storyteller. He still does it today - makes up fantastic stories to explain away everyday things he doesn't know the answer to. He totally deadpans it, and sometimes i think he even ends up believing his own myths. It's kind of charming.

Except when it scars you. Pollok Park is a weird fucking place anyway. It's got a terrifying old mansion and thick beds of dead leaves and ominous mounds of earth and hollowed out trunks. It also has highland cattle and Clydesdale horses and other freakishly oversized animals. Dad took great delight in telling us about the goblins in the woods and trolls under the bridges. At one point on a typically gray day he suggested i take a walk down a lonely path, then he looped around and jumped out from a tunnel to scare the living daylights out of me.

I think i found that tunnel on Sunday, under a bridge opposite a golf course. It was tiny and not scary in the slightest.

The park is still ultra fucking weird, though. The trees in the old growth woods are as oppressive as they ever were, although there is a mountain bike trail there now. There are still odd little corners of the place decorated with tiny doors and houses for pixies and gnomes. A hedge festooned with bright colored flowers and punctuated by paths that lead nowhere. This is a place of my nightmares, but also a place of my childhood, a place instantly conjured up in my mind every time i hear a Cure song.

I made it out of the park unscarred and walked through suburban Glasgow till i came across a coffee shop that was open. I will spill the name here because it was by far the best fancy meal i ate in my whole time in the UK - Cafe Strange Brew. I got their take on beans on toast, which was a vegan option. The sourdough toast was chewy and crunchy and just right. The beans were a mix of British-style baked beans and American-style chili sin carne. The vegan cheese was melted just like real cheese. It was topped with cilantro, cress and chimichurri. I went all-out with avocado smash and vegan sausage on the side. The staff were amazing. Top joint.

After breakfast i walked back down to the river, via a few more parks and tenements. At one point i smelled that rusty bitter aroma i have always associated with train tracks, even though most train tracks don't smell like that at all. Perhaps it was always just the smell of an old pedestrian bridge in Glasgow. I felt at home.

After checking into a hotel, i did some clothes shopping. I wanted to buy some large sized clothes and very quickly found a much-needed replacement bra and a couple of tank tops. I hope that will last me till next time i am visiting a country with big people. I broke my vegan thing by enjoying fish and chips at an "upscale" chippy. By "upscale" i mean that people could make bookings and order wine, although the food was not elevated in the slightest. Why mess with perfection? Dinner was served in soggy cardboard. I finished the night at a student pub where pints of Tennent's were just over 3 pound.


Monday morning i was due in Edinburgh for work. I had set my alarms, but somehow still slept through and groggily got on the 8:30am train. I remember as a kid we drove through Edinburgh at some point, but i am not sure we ever really visited the town. I was surprised to find it has steep hills and cobbled streets and tons of ye olde buildings. Every shop is a tourist trap. It's utterly hideous.

Work was work. Monday night we went out for rooftop drinks at some brew pub for IPA-drinking hipsters and tourists. Did you know Edinburgh has a castle? It does. People go to rooftop bars to take photos of it. I lamented the lack of 3 pound Tennent's.

The next morning i walked as far away from the tourists as possible to try find something that didn't suck. I finally found the kind of cafe i remember from my youf. The operative letter here is "e" (as opposed to "é"). The menu is sausage on a roll. Lorne on a roll. Black pudding on a roll. Haggis on a roll. Bacon on a roll. You get the idea. You can also buy crisps or various sweets and fudges that sit behind the counter alongside pickled onions and egg sandwiches cut in triangles. I got a vegan lorne on a roll - with brown sauce - and cheerfully chomped it out of a paper bag on the way to work. (Things have progressed somewhat since the 80s. They also had a real espresso machine to make my mandatory morning Americano.)

After work i climbed a nearby mountain. Edinburgh also has a naked mountain in the city, one without a castle on the top. It looks very tall and imposing from the bottom, but because the weather is so fucking cold it only takes about 20 minutes to climb and you don't really break a sweat like you do climbing equivalently steep trails here in southern China. It's a good mountain, despite the crowds. I found a quiet corner amidst the heather and thistles and breathed the fresh air and took selfies.

Descending the mountain i resolved to get a curry, but the first couple of restaurants i found were closed. Then i found a pub. Not a London pub full of wankers in suits standing up and drinking 6 pound pints. A proper pub with people in high-vis vests and tracksuits sitting down and watching football. I got my 3 pound Tennent's and played some tunes on the jukebox. My greatest hit was Alison Moyet - All Cried Out, which got an approving singalong from the chaps at the bar who probably hadn't heard it in 30 years. I went next door to the chippy and took my second vegan holiday by getting sausage and chips. The sausages were battered and deep fried because of course they were. The chips were thick and soft. Everything was doused in brown sauce and vinegar and wrapped up in paper. It was divine.


The next morning as i traveled with my hangover to the airport and got a ploughman's sandwich and Irn Bru out of a vending machine, i got a flash of what my life would have been like if we had stayed in Scotland. I would still wear sneakers and a hoodie all the time, but i'd wear tracksuit pants instead of jeans. I'd probably have a shaved head and listen to drum'n'bass or hardcore. I would definitely be fatter and whiter and speak with an accent completely impenetrable to foreigners. I would go to the pub and drink Tennent's and eat chips and finally make a choice between Celtic and Rangers. I think i would still climb mountains, but i'd wear a bobble hat instead of a bandana. Bizarro me.

Coming back to China was a shock. While i was away the government cracked the fuck down on the internet and now almost all foreign newspapers are blocked, most notably The Guardian, which i (used to) read daily. Hong Kong is erupting in protests and the censors are aggressively wiping away any mention of it here. But people still know about it via word of mouth and they are worried. They are also angry at America for warmongering and annoyed that Shenzhen specifically is being targeted with the attack on Huawei and threatened moves against other major local employers. The mood is tense, but what are you going to do? I can leave if things get hot, but a billion other people can't.

I don't plan on leaving any time soon, but one thing this trip has done is reopen the UK as a place i wouldn't mind returning to. Brexit remains a fucking debacle, but i didn't meet any (open) Brexiteers on my trip there, and that makes me feel less embarrassed to be British-on-paper. Maybe i am still a little British-at-heart too. Life there did feel vaguely familiar and comfortable. Especially Scotland. Good food. Cheap beer. Mountains. Not bad.