Happy New Year!
singapore sunset
amw
Tomorrow (Feb 16) starts Year of the Dog. Tonight in China everyone has gone home to be with their families and depending on where they are might be eating dumplings or fish or other traditional celebratory dishes. I am just celebrating being able to cook, period, so i whipped together two of my favorite Chinese dishes and experimented with a third.



On the left is a plate of water spinach, which is known in Chinese as 空心菜 (kōng xīn cài) or "hollow vegetable". I know the Cantonese call it "ong choy", though i am not sure which characters they use to spell it. It's one of my favoritest favorite dishes of all time, and from what i understand is popular in rural areas all over South East Asia, because you are basically just eating weeds. You can use any green veg that has a hollow stem - even regular Western spinach is acceptable, if a little limp. Usually it's made with plenty of garlic, oyster sauce and maybe some salty fish. I tossed mine in the wok with a splash of dark (mushroom) soy sauce, a bit of sesame oil, a few cloves of diced garlic and bit of water.

On the left half of the second plate is the 干煸香辣土豆 i mentioned in the last entry. Take one small potato and cut it up, then toss it in a wok with no oil, no nothing. Keep tossing it till it starts to brown. Then add dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns and a tiny drop of peanut oil to help transfer the flavor. No problem if you don't have the peppercorns, but that 麻 (má) numbing flavor is nice. At the end i also tossed in some cilantro.

I decided to also cook up some tofu for extra protein. I started with 豆瓣酱 (dòu bàn jiàng), which is a fermented bean and chili paste they use in Sichuan cuisine. It is extremely, ridiculously salty and i think i put in too much, but i'm still figuring out good ratios for my Sinicized (read: smaller) appetite. I tossed some peanuts in and let it go for a while then added Sichuan peppercorns and the dry tofu (豆干), which has a similar chewy consistency to dried shiitake mushrooms but with a less meaty flavor. Yum.

Companion beer is Tsingtao. Over in Nanshan District, Budweiser was the beer of choice - available everywhere and cheaper than Tsingtao. I tended to stick with a beer in a green can called 珠江啤酒 (zhū jiāng pí jiǔ) - literally Pearl River Beer. It's a local brew and very cheap, which is exactly what i look for in my booze. Unfortunately here in Luohu District it's quite hard to find. Also in Luohu, Bud is priced more like a "premium" beer, so Tsingtao it is.

The firecrackers have been going off for the last hour or so. I guess there are still a few families who have settled in Shenzhen and are celebrating here. Aside from the meal, i am celebrating because my phone provider sent me a text message saying "stuck without wifi? don't worry, we have a new year's deal for you!" They are blatantly targeting the kids who have gone back to the village where their parents have no internet, but 4G coverage is still good. For 20元 (the price of a Starbucks black coffee) i get 14GB of download for the next 7 days. YAS. Happy fucking new year, i'ma watch the Star Trek season finale 🎉💃🖖
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Spring Stocktake
singapore sunset
amw
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is in full swing here. All week the streets have been disconcertingly empty, and almost all of the mom'n'pop shops have closed up for the break. It is very tough to find anywhere to eat that isn't a chain restaurant. My money situation is getting very tight (i have spent the last month dipping into my Canadian emergency fund just to survive) so i can't really afford to go traveling like everyone else. I also can't get wired internet hooked up, so a show-binging staycation isn't on the cards either. I think i will just buy hiking snacks and wander around this bizarre ghost town. But first, stocktake.

Last Sunday i moved into my new apartment. For the past week i have been filling it with the bare necessities. I went though a similar process when i settled in Berlin after a couple months on the road, but this time i have been on the road almost a year. Let's take a look at the list.

Traveling gear, the clothes:

two pairs of sneakers
one pair of sandals
five pairs of socks and a single sock who lost his partner
six pairs of underwear
two bras
one pair of pyjama pants
one pair of long johns
one pair of shorts
two pairs of jeans
six tank tops
three hoodies (one thin, one medium, one thick)
one emergency t-shirt
two bandanas
one teatowel
one beanie
three pairs of sunglasses

Traveling gear, the tools:

smartphone
2-in-1 tablet
e-reader
USB stick
external hard disk
water bottle
washing line
penknife
flashlight
needles and thread
paper clips
notebook
pen

Traveling gear, the toiletries:

toothpaste
tooth brush
deodorant
razor
contact lens box
contact lens liquid
spare contact lenses
glasses box
glasses
lotion
sun block
hair brush
hair ties

I lived for almost a year with just this stuff. Sometimes i bought more toiletries (e.g. shampoo or laundry detergent), sometimes i left things in a hotel room that i never used (e.g. headphones). I also lost three umbrellas. Generally, though, i think this was about right for me. The big thing is that you need to wash your clothes more than once per week, which is a pain in the ass in countries like China where coin laundromats do not exist.

What's much more interesting than the "what's in my backpack" thing, imo, is the "what did i buy after i moved into my place" list. I think the former is pretty much the same for everybody, but the latter is quite personal. In Berlin i lived with very, very little stuff, but it still seemed like i had to give too much away when i left. Here's what i've picked up since settling down for work in Shenzhen.

Arrival gear, the clothes:

two long-sleeved shirts

Although the dress code at work is casual (smart jeans and a hoodie is okay), i am worried about my tattoos. In warmer weather i will need those shirts. I desperately also need to buy some new underwear and socks, but this is proving very difficult in China because their largest size is too small for me.

Arrival gear, the tools:

measuring tape

When i moved to Germany i bought a full set of screwdrivers, pliers and a hammer and i still missed a wrench when i needed to refill the boiler pressure. Here i am going to try keep things simple - there is no central heating to maintain, and i am not going to build any furniture. Still, a measuring tape is indispensible when you are moving in. I will definitely need another umbrella too, when rainy season arrives.

Arrival gear, the kitchenware:

two plates
two bowls
two spoons
two cups
chopsticks
Chinese chef knife
cutlery holder
chopping board
electric kettle
wok
coffee press

Being able to cook my own food is the number one drawcard for living in my own space. I love to cook. In Germany i held out for a few months without a coffee press, drinking Turkish/cowboy coffee instead, but i realized this is non-negotiable for me. A coffee press is critical. What i am trying in China is not buying a pot (which is what i used to boil water in Germany) and using an electric kettle instead. Since my "stove" is just a single gas burner designed for a round-bottom wok, that was my only affordable option for preparing daily drinking water anyway. On my first night i was struck with the idea of preparing noodles in the coffee press, and that worked great, so it seems i might be able to make do with just the wok and the electric kettle.

Another difference from my German kitchen is that i decided to buy stainless steel crockery instead of ceramic and glass. It is much, much lighter and doesn't chip when you drop it. I don't know why i ever bought ceramic or glass before, this is both cheaper and more convenient.

Also, cook with chopsticks. It will change your life. So many utensils become superfluous (spatula, tongs, wooden spoon, whisk etc).

Arrival gear, the homeware:

bed sheet
duvet
duvet cover
pillow
pillow cover
body towel
two hand towels
bed side lamp
trash can
power strip with USB sockets

I should mention the place came with a closet, bed, desk, chair, fridge, washing machine and the aforementioned wok burner. There were also a few cleaning things like clothes hangers, dish detergent, mop, bucket and broom. What's interesting to me is that the bed side lamp really felt like a must. Overhead lights are so bright; i never turn them on. It seems having soft, indirect light is really important to my comfort.

Arrival gear, the food:

coffee
peanut butter
raw peanuts
dried chilis
peanut oil
sesame oil
soy sauce
vinegar
chili paste (doubanjiang)
chili condiment (pickle)

What made me happy about shopping here is that all of the same staples i have used in my kitchen for years are available right off the shelf; there was no need to go hunting in the import section. (Funny side note: the import section of grocery stores here has Italian food in it.) Bear in mind i did not have a kitchen knife at the point i bought all of this, or i probably would have bought garlic and ginger too.

My first night i chopped up some dried tofu, oyster mushrooms and napa cabbage with my penknife and just stir-fried them up. An interesting thing about cooking the Chinese way is that you don't mix it all together when you are eating at home - that's more of a take-out thing - you just cook each thing separately and put it in its own dish. This is a bit of a revelation for me because it means you can season much more sensibly (e.g. sesame oil and soy sauce for napa cabbage, peanuts and chili for tofu). I am almost tempted to buy more little plates to prepare more dishes at a time, but i think i would feel guilty if i did. Why should i prepare more than two dishes for each meal? I am just one person.

For the base i have been drinking a beer and adding a small serve of those coffee press noodles. Now i am in my own place i can also buy implausibly huge bags of rice crackers, which i have been spreading with peanut butter as a snack. The other day i topped some with stir-fried napa cabbage for dinner and it was awesome. Yesterday i bought some potatoes to make 干煸香辣土豆 (gān biān xiāng là tǔ dòu) which literally just means dry-fried spicy potatoes. I am a little worried my wok might still be too "young" to fry potatoes, but since i left my hotel in Nanshan where there was a cheap mom'n'pop Sichuan joint in the back alley i have been craving it.

I am so thrilled to be cooking again.

Cool discovery... although i am using the fridge to extend the shelf-life of my vegetables, i think i could live without it. In Chinese cookery most things are either preserved (dried, pickled, fermented) or killed and bought fresh the same day. I am really tempted to unplug the fridge as a challenge to myself, since this apartment was obviously designed in the days when fridges were a luxury item (there is no dedicated space or electrical outlet). It would be interesting to see how much it would save on the electric bill. On the other hand, it's pretty convenient to have somewhere to store leftovers. Not that i have had any yet. Cook small. Eat it all.

But yeah, i don't think i really need to buy any more stuff. On my list is still some kind of rug for the front room because i don't like walking on tiles in my bedroom, but other than that i already feel like a king. I am tempted to buy a rice cooker because i have never had one before and they are very popular here, but i am not sure i would eat enough rice to make it worthwhile. Perhaps if i start bringing lunch to work with me it'd make sense? Other likely buys i have identified are a butter knife (spreading peanut butter with a spoon kinda sucks) and a router (for when i get the internet connected).

Trying to keep track of all this stuff is really interesting to me because aside from my personal philosophy of minimizing consumption, i still have a romantic notion of retiring as a full-time RVer. (Presumably all-electric, self-driving RVs will be a thing by the time i retire.) This means not owning much stuff and definitely not using much power. It's pretty cool to be living in a country that has developed so recently - people my own age remember things like fridges, washing machines and hot water heaters being luxury items. For billions of people in the world these things still are. Seeing people live quite modern and comfortable lives without a lot of stuff reassures me that my dreams aren't completely wack, even if many in the west (and the newly-affluent Chinese) think i'm a bit nutty.

flying back into my cage
singapore sunset
amw
I hate the free hotel my work gave me. I mean, it's nice that there is a shower cubicle and that they provide you with separate hand soap and shampoo and body wash. It's nice there is hot water. But the staff are hopeless. They refuse to understand my spoken Chinese, even when i ask very simple questions like what day i'm supposed to check out. It's like they are either deliberately trying not to understand so they don't have to help me, or their own grasp of Putonghua (Mandarin) is so bad they can't deal with a foreign accent. If i was in Hong Kong i would suspect a combination of both of those things, but this is fucking mainland where people are generally nice. And it's not just any part of the mainland, it's Shenzhen - China's capital of migrant workers who all use poorly-accented Putonghua as their lingua franca.

The longer i spend in Luohu - especially after months in Nanshan - i am starting to wonder if some of the asshole-ish behavior i previously associated with Hongkongers might in fact be culturally Cantonese. Or maybe it's just a trait of 本地人 (běn dì rén).

An aside on 本地人. It can be used to refer to indigenous or native people, but it can also just mean the locals. In Cantonese 本地 is pronounced "Punti", which you might have heard of when people talk about the Punti vs Hakka wars that raged here in the Pearl River Delta 150 years ago. "Hakka" is the Cantonese pronunciation of 客家 (kè jiā), which means guest family. The Hakka are a Han sub-ethnicity that have their own language and customs and built unique walled villages all over Southern China. Over a million people died when these "guest families" clashed with the Guangdong "locals".

Anywho, i wonder if Hong Kong/Shenzhen area locals are just assholes, regardless of whether they are historically Hakka or Punti. (Both are considered "local people" here nowadays.)

Or perhaps i am making assumptions based on the fact that i know there are more locals in Luohu than in other districts. Maybe the people who work here are just tired of putting up with douchebags coming over from Hong Kong to "go wild" and find hookers or meth or something. No doubt Hongkongers feel exactly the same way about the mainland Chinese flooding over there to buy powdered milk and tacky accessories. This might be a downside of living in a border town.

Getting further away seems like a good plan. My new apartment is right on the north end of Luohu District, just before the hills where it turns into Longgang District. It's only 4-5km away from the checkpoint and "cosmopolitan" (not really) downtown Luohu, but it's like a Tier-3 city out there. There are no white people. I spent ages trying to find a coffee press and non-instant coffee. Nobody i asked even knew what it was. In the end i found a tea press right at the back of a shelf in Walmart, and eventually ventured into a Starbucks to buy the beans because dude, what's the point of having your own apartment if you can't make your own coffee?

Although i spent most of today trying to find fucking coffee, i also did one thing that made me feel like i am finally really living in China. I hauled over my laundry bag and did a load in my new place then hung it up in the cage. Yeah, my apartment is oldskool China - the wet rooms (bathroom, kitchen) are on the outside, and beyond that is the cage, where clothes hang like curtains and drip water onto the streets below. It does have windows that close, though, so that's a plus. Anywho. I think every country has a rite of passage for me. In Germany it was figuring out how to open a beer bottle without a bottle opener. In China it's hanging my laundry out the window in a cage.



Tomorrow i move in for real. I am really done with this hotel and its asshole staff and its windows that don't open and its sad breakfast buffet that has meat in everything. If i wake up early enough - and if the family hasn't closed up for Spring Festival - i will go sit on a plastic stool and eat 肠粉 at the place on the corner. I have to admit, i've really developed a taste for it living in Cantonese central the past few weeks. I think it's now my favorite Cantonese dish that isn't a pork bun. Ask for no meat and no egg and it still tastes great with the shiitake gravy and some fresh chilis on top. After breakfast i will shoulder my pack and take my last migratory hike.

I've been on the road for 10 months, living in cheap hotels, ferries and a freakin' container ship. I know i've been settled in the same city for over 6 months now and i even started full-time work again 3 weeks ago, but tomorrow is the day it will all definitely be over. Today i bought some homewares that will not fit in my backpack. Monday morning i will wake up in my own bed. I'm trying not to panic.

happy birthday, i got you a place
singapore sunset
amw
I'm beat.

Where did i leave off? Ah yes, the house.

So it turns out my initial assumptions were correct. I guess as a person of (relative) privilege it's so unusual to be the victim of bigotry it can be hard to accept that's what it is. Surely i must have done something wrong? But, really, i didn't. Thinking back she suggested from the start that i would break the lease (because i am a foreigner) and that i would not be able to pay the rent easily (because i am a foreigner) and that i would not be able to communicate well (because i am a foreigner). The next day i received a roundabout face-saving message from the agent: "well, she is also thinking about selling the apartment, so it might be inconvenient for you to live there, would you like me to take you through some other places just in case?" When i asked for a direct answer, out it came: the landlord will not rent to me.

I was pissed, both at the agent for wasting my time and at the landlord for (probably) being racist, but what can you do?

Well, you can call the other agent who had your second-place choice. The experience could not have been more different. He didn't rush me to sign; he said whenever is convenient. He said we should meet in the apartment so that i could test all the appliances before signing. When i got there Tuesday after work, the landlord and his girlfriend welcomed me warmly and made smalltalk while the agent filled out the paperwork. The agent went through each part of the lease agreement with me to make sure i understood. After everything was signed and i had headed home, the landlord sent a long message saying he would be more than happy to help out with any questions i still have.

So, i am now the owner of my own place in Shenzhen Luohu District for the next year. It's on top of a Walmart. The bus direct to my office stops right outside the front door. The subway station is less than 5 minutes walk away. Work itself is just under an hour. Bed, washing machine, fridge, gas burner, AC, closet, desk, the end. No unnecessary furniture anywhere. It's basically perfect for me, and now i'm glad i didn't get the other place with all of its superfluous cupboards and cranky landlord.

I have been slowly getting it set up after work. My hotel is paid for until Sunday, so i'm taking my time.

The thing i found the most confusing when signing the lease was the landlord's insistence that i change the locks. It's such a weird thing for a landlord to suggest in the west that i had to double-check with a few colleagues to make sure i had understood correctly. In every country i have lived before here, the landlord has keys to the house and can come in pretty much any time he wants. In many buildings as a renter you aren't allowed to change the locks even if you want to. In China, after you sign the lease, that apartment is yours for a year. You are expected to immediately change the locks and keep your own set of keys to avoid a situation where an unscrupulous real estate agent or previous tenant screws you over. You're also entitled to privacy from your landlord. Huh. What a revelation.

Anyway, after getting the lock replaced, i bought toilet paper and a towel and a pillow. Today i bought laundry detergent and a duvet and a set of sheets. I think the only things that are still absolutely necessary are an electric kettle (still need to boil tapwater before drinking it), a bathroom trashcan (still can't flush paper down the toilet) and a bedside light (still too lazy to get out of bed to turn the light off). I'll have to pick up a wok and things before i can cook, but for the basics i think we're good to go. Gotta say, capitalism is shit and everything, but living on top of a Walmart does make setting up a breeze.

The plumbing is in the Chinese style i have mentioned before, but it's worth mentioning again because it's so different to how things are built in the west. Basically, the "inside" part of the apartment (the one connected to the hallway and elevators) has no water connections at all. The water is only connected on the "outside" part, which in older apartments is actually just a balcony with a cage around it. There is no bathtub or shower cubicle, there is just a hole in the floor where the greywater drains. Additionally, there is no hot water in any of the taps. This particular apartment has a fairly standard setup which is a small gas heater attached to a shower nozzle, which you can use to shower or to fill up a bucket for handwashing clothes or doing the dishes. The bucket comes with the house. It seems odd after living in the west where all the plumbing is hidden behind walls and you just expect hot water to come out of the taps no matter where you are, but i guess there is some kind of efficiency to the design, especially in the south of China where the weather is very warm for ~9 months of the year. I'm curious to see how i'll go with it. Guess i'm stuck for a year even if it is a massive pain in the ass.

It's my birthday today. Is it a sign you're getting old when you forget it's your birthday until someone sends you a message wishing you happy birthday? Fuck, i just went to work and bought sheets. It was tremendously pedestrian. I am officially putting any celebration on hold till i have moved into my place and have the last two residence permit/visa things finished. By that point it will be Spring Festival anyway.

The holiday season is definitely kicking off for serious now. The office is half empty because people have already headed out on vacation. Some of the mom'n'pop joints i go to eat noodles are closed. And today on the subway i noticed i was sharing the car with a strange assortment of folks all looking haggard and clutching suitcases and squatting on the ground staring at subway maps. They were all sharp elbows and buzzcuts. I guess perhaps they came in from a much poorer part of the country to catch a plane? They certainly won't be spending the Spring Festival in Shenzhen, since almost everyone here is a migrant worker and leaving the city themselves.

I think it would be interesting to travel around China at this time of year. I know it's considered the worst possible time because every mode of transport is packed and everyone is stressed and half the country is shut down. But i kind of like that - to see everyone stripped to their essence, spent and exhausted and trying to get home. I don't have anywhere to be. Watching everyone i can imagine a thousand and one stories.

Probably i will spend the break collapsed in my new apartment without any internet exhausted from jumping back into work so very hard and fast. It's a wonder i had anything left over to find a place.

i found another kryptonite, and maybe an apartment
singapore sunset
amw
I am cold and i am tired and i am so fucking over looking at apartments.

I hate looking for apartments. It is one of my least favorite things that i am still forced to do. Aside from all the time it takes, and all the shitty places you have to visit, and all the socializing you need to do, and all the people you have to bother as you traipse in and out of their homes, there is the looming knowledge that you are about to sign away your freedom for a year. It's just one long, miserable cringe-fest with the prize at the end that you found the least bad prison.

The weather here has not improved. It is very cold - inside and out, because there isn't any central heating. Saturday morning my hotel didn't have any hot water again. I can live without hot water if i know up-front there is not going to be any hot water, but Jesus Christ when you are working 45 hours and you are still in the process of running about getting paperwork organized for your immigration and you are also trying to find an apartment at the same time, and it's like 5 degrees out, just one fucking hot shower. Is it too much to ask?

Saturday afternoon i went around several expensive and mediocre apartments on the east side of town. I don't know why people pay so much to live beside the freeway facing another building just across from their own. Finally we came across one that was exactly what i was looking for: nice size, relatively clean, under an hour's walk from work, able to see some sky out the window, and - get this - literally situated right next to the entrance of the little bamboo mountain park. I mean, perfect, right?

No. It was a gated community. I know there are a lot of gated communities in China because i have been trapped inside them several times when i got in there by accident. The security guards for the most part are assholes and don't let you out unless you have a card so you are stuck in Stepford limbo until a resident comes along to swipe in or out. I'm going to assume they let food delivery guys in or the residents would riot, but it's still so pretentious.

I hate the whole idea of gated communities. I think they are one of the most evil things in real estate. I can deal with apartment buildings having a locked lobby (although i think that's stupid too, and it really upset me when the super installed a lock in my previous building in Berlin), but walling off actual fucking land is just the worst. In my opinion it takes away from a really important part of city life, which is walkability. Landowners depriving common people of their freedom to get from point A to point B without making a huge detour is just a total fucking dick move. Also some grade-A bullshit: golf courses and country clubs.

I have a huge long rant saved up about "private" land in China and how it reminds me of the worst parts of America, but that will be for another day. The point about this weekend is, when i first started looking for apartments i did keep an open mind. I knew there were lots of gated communities here and i thought maybe i would be able to hang. But the moment i had to sign in with the security guard, wait for the gate to be buzzed open, then leave a bustling street to enter an empty garden with some Mercedes and BMWs out the front, well fuck fucking that. I literally wanted to throw up.

I tried to explain how i felt to the real estate agents and they looked at me like i was crazy. They said the security is there to protect me. Fucking protect me what? Bullshit. The security is there so that the assholes living in these sorts of buildings can feel superior to the plebs around them. It's disgusting. It's especially disgusting in a country that is supposedly socialist. And don't even get me started on the excuse that it's "tradition" because Hakka villages were famously walled, and China has been building walled cities for thousands of years. Fuck off. If the land belongs to the people, it should always be accessible to the people.

I didn't realize i felt so strongly about this until now. Because today it happened again.

I decided to go to that little suburb surrounded on three sides by mountains and one side by Hong Kong (more mountains). It's really quite a lovely place. Pretty much every street has a view, and the air really does feel cleaner. It's only a few minutes drive from the central Luohu sprawl, but the surroundings make it feel like a whole nother city. I got shown through two apartments there and got queasy again the moment we had to sign in at the security checkpoint. Visiting these sorts of places really causes an immediate physical reaction in me.

Fortunately we made it up to the apartments without me vomiting, and they were huge. Way bigger than i want. Like, i would need to buy a shit-ton of tchotchkes just to fill up all the shelves. I've been living out of a backpack for almost a year. Even the 4 years i lived in Berlin i didn't buy a whole lot more stuff than what fit in my backpack when i left Toronto. What on Earth am i going to do with an entire fucking extra room that isn't my bedroom?

Of course, i could afford it. But it would be so wasteful. It would be profligate. Heating a place like that, air conditioning a place like that, cleaning a place like that, it doesn't make sense when you are just one person. I would feel guilty living there every day. Not to mention the whole gated community thing, and looking out your window at the beautiful mountains... yeah, nestled just behind those blocks of low-rise buildings where the plebs who aren't even allowed to see your gardens live.

Turns out every single highrise apartment in that part of town is in a gated community. So the agent instead took me through some of the places where the less well-to-do live. The price difference is negligible - from 3000元 down to 2400元 - but the quality is day and night. Walk-up apartments with bugs and trash in the halls and jerry-rigged wiring all over the place. Inside the rooms were fine, though they all had the problem of my recent hotel where hooking up an air conditioning unit meant smashing a hole in the windows. I think i could just about live there if it wasn't for the obvious insect problem. I know from living in Australia that in hot climates you are guaranteed to have at least a few cockroaches crawl into your house every month, but fuck if i'm going to risk a place where it's likely to be daily. Been there, done that, i was 17 years old, 20 years on i think i'm okay to treat myself a little.

But, you know, just a little. Not live in a fucking gated community.

I really had no idea i would have such a visceral reaction to those places. It's greatly reduced my options, since it seems the culture here is to choose between extremely shabby buildings on the roadside or mediocre-to-nice buildings with ultra-exclusive door policies.

In the end i decided on a place i had visited late Saturday night. It's a fairly new building in a different area, close to the mountain with the open-air gym. Almost 6km and over an hour's walk from work, but whatever. What i liked about it was although there was a security guard, he was just there to charge parking fees for people who wanted to use the parking lot. On foot anyone could cut across the parking lot, walk up to the building and ring the bell at the lobby. Underneath it's all auto repair shops. The whole area is light industrial, though no doubt it will gentrify sooner or later. The room was fine - washing machine, fridge, bed, stove, hot water, windows that close. Still way more shelf space than i need, but it didn't feel outrageous for one person. I told the agent i was interested, and he told me to drop by tonight.

Enter the next stage of my woes. I got to the agent and realized there were no banks nearby that would accept my (foreign) debit card. The bigger banks in China accept Visa and Mastercard in their ATMs, but most of the small banks do not. I ended up having to walk around for half an hour trying to find a bank that would take my card. At which point i discovered that my Canadian debit card is blocked from taking out cash in China.

I haven't needed to access my Canadian account up until now, but last week my German bank account finally went dry. This is the first time i tried to use my Canadian debit card, so it was a rude shock that it doesn't fucking work. Instead i used the credit card i picked up when i went back there a couple weeks ago, and that let me cash advance the daily maximum (3000元). With the money already in my wallet that was enough to cover the first month's rent and the real estate fee, but what i didn't realize is that i also needed two month's rent for a deposit/bond.

Yeah, so when i got back to the agent with the not-enough cash, the landlord was there yelling at the agents and the agents were trying to get her to sign the lease, and i was just sitting there feeling awkward. There aren't many things more stressful than being in the middle of an argument in a language you don't understand. I could catch bits and pieces, but i missed a lot of the nuance, and i wasn't sure if i did something wrong or what. I started to get paranoid that she was racist and didn't want to rent to a foreigner. Then i started to worry that if the landlord was going to get this mad over something so easy to fix what does that mean if something actually goes wrong when i live there? Thinking about it now i suspect she was just annoyed they had called her in to sign today instead of two or three days from now which would have been easier for everyone involved, but maybe that's just wishful thinking. I am really not used to following emotionally-charged Chinese.

I was really upset and shaking by the end of it. We agreed to come back to sign the lease when i have the full deposit in cash, but i left really confused and stressed out. This is the first time since i left Germany that i have been brought to tears traveling alone. I just wanted a friend to talk to. Almost any other difficulty i can get over because it's just shit you move on from - change hotels, go to a different city, ask a cop for some help, drink some hot water, spend a day in bed, whatever. But having your future landlord yelling and three real estate agents pushing you to sign something that you can't even read and maybe even ending up with no house at all after you just spent an entire weekend traveling all over the city looking for one... fucking ugh!

I took the bus back to a little urban village i found this morning (and where i had my first real Hong Kong style pork bun in the mainland - delicious btw) and ate some sweet potato glass noodles with a buttload of chili and vegetables and mushrooms to make me feel better. Then, wisely avoiding alcohol even though i really wanted to get drunk, found one of those twee/kawaii coffee shops where i got an expensive coffee in a pink cup. It made me feel better. Fucking Luohu, man, it's so hard to find a normal coffee over this side of town. First thing i buy in my apartment will be a coffee plunger. If i ever get an apartment.

At this rate i don't even know if i will be able to pay for a hotel, given my bank card doesn't work. I should probably call Scotiabank to complain, but i don't have the money for that either. FUCK! So much bullshit.

I hate looking for apartments.

looking for a mountain to call my own
singapore sunset
amw
I am exhausted. Work is fucking exhausting. It's just the same old shit, though, you know? The same problems as everywhere else. The same politics, the same cliques. The same people trying to make shit work. The same people frustrated that it doesn't. And the same me pulling 10 hour days and sucking down a few beers every night to try find some way to de-stress. It's like the last 9 months of sabbatical/vacation never even happened.

I wanted to be able to give y'all some insight into how Chinese offices differ from those in the west. The insight is they don't. The only unique thing i've seen so far is the lunchtime siesta - the lights go out over lunch, and a lot of people who don't head out for the break just nap in their chairs. Then they wake up and it's business as usual.

So instead i will talk about the other big thing in my life right now and that is apartment hunting. I haven't actually been seriously hunting, per se, but what i can say is that my whole experience of urban jaunts has changed since i landed with a work visa in my passport. Instead of wandering about aimlessly looking for adventure, i am wandering about pondering if a particular neighborhood has all the basic necessities.

One very good piece of advice i got about finding an apartment here was simply to go into a real estate agent and tell them what i am looking for. I mean, no shit, right? But up until now i had this weird feeling like most real estate agents wouldn't be interested in helping foreigners find an apartment, especially not a rental. But even my colleagues who can barely speak a word of Chinese said you just go and show pictures and gesticulate and they'll figure it out. That was the push i needed. It turns out when dropped into the situation my Chinese is good enough to explain exactly what i want without needing to show pictures or gesticulate, and i can even understand what they are saying back to me too. I guess i did learn something these past 6 months after all.

Last weekend i switched hotels to one further away from work - about 45 minutes at a decent march. The area has a wet market and a handful of passable restaurants, although like the previous place they are geared more toward the Cantonese palate. To the west, heading downtown, is a skinny park with a lake in the middle. To the east is bump of a mountain with some bamboo growing on it. Up north there is a larger mountain where i found a little outdoor gym.

Did i mention Chinese like to build outdoor gyms on the tops of mountains? In the modern areas downtown, the city installs workout machinery next to kids' playgrounds to encourage old people to stay fit and healthy. I think this is some kind of Mao-era holdover or something, the idea that people should work out in public. But perhaps it's an older cultural thing, because even in Hong Kong up in the mountains you will find these little clearings where it seems people have just independently lugged stuff up the hill for public use: hand weights, exercise bikes, step machines, hula hoops, heavy bags etc.

Anywho, the mountain up north had a great little gym where i spent some time on the heavy bag. I took it easy because no gloves, but it was good to feel strong again. I kinda miss boxing. I also missed climbing those stairs. It was on that mountain when i resolved that wherever my new apartment would be, it would definitely have to be near a mountain so i can do at least one climb through the week, even if it's just a short half hour thing in the morning.



Sunday i continued roaming, over the bamboo mountain and then further to a park that is below the dam of the Shenzhen Reservoir. That park is the first park in Shenzhen i've seen that allows people to come in on bikes, which is kind of neat. It connects up to a greenway that apparently goes all the way around the reservoir and perhaps further north too.



I walked a few km along the reservoir then went offroad and clambered up the mountainface alongside. There were some small trails there that i figured must lead somewhere. The view at the top was great - reservoir on one side and a view across the rest of Wutong National Park on the other. When i climbed back down - through a rare-in-China un-bushwhacked trail - i got trapped behind a huge wall of twigs and branches that i guess the rangers had put up to stop people climbing that path. There was a sign saying no entry, which i only saw after squeezing through the undergrowth and falling conspicuously back down onto the main (paved) trail where everyone turned their heads to look at the muddy barbarian who had just unceremoniously dropped out of a tree. Oh, China.

There is a tiny suburb nestled in the mountains that has both an urban village and some new development attached. It's surrounded by hills and is really beautiful. Well, beautiful considering it's in the middle of a city of over 10 million people. I could see myself living there, except the only way to get back downtown - other than the greenway - is the freeway. The subway is rapidly being extended out that way, so no doubt the prices will (rightfully) skyrocket once it opens. Might still be worth looking at a place there now, though the walk would be very long - beautiful, but well over an hour.

I mean, i don't need to be walking distance from work, right? In Berlin i was, but everywhere else i have lived i had to take public transport unless i was really in a mood of wanting to spend a couple hours pounding pavement. But, i guess, living in Berlin changed the way i think about living in the city. I still think living in some ritzy downtown condo a few steps from the office would not be cool. I need some kind of separation between my work life and my home life. But being able to walk an hour or so into the office and back clears your head so much better than jamming yourself into public transport or sitting in traffic blasting out smog for the same amount of time.

I started to make a list. Top priorities... Within a 1 hour walking circle from work. Less than 3000元 (about 380€, which is around what i paid for my place in Berlin). Comes with a bed and preferably also a washing machine (after 6 months of washing my clothes in hotel sinks, i'm ready to not have fucking blisters any more). Mountain nearby. Street vendors nearby. Window that lets in some light. I don't give a shit about air conditioning or a TV or how close it is to a subway or a supermarket or any of that. Just give me a bed, some natural light, a guy selling food on a stick, a walkable commute and some greenery.

Today i went on my first visits. When you visit real estate agents here, they immediately take you through the buildings in their neighborhood. Because there are so many high rises, there are real estate agents on every big block, and i guess for the most part they only deal in apartments on that block. I dropped into a place near my hotel after work, since this area - having 3 smaller parks nearby and Wutong National Park just a few bus stops away - is pretty much ideal for me. I got shown 4 apartments in a building on top of Walmart. Convenient. One was the clear winner. Just a bare, white, tiled studio, but it had a bed and a fridge and a washing machine and a stove and a window facing north-east that if you crane your neck you can see a mountain through the highrises. 10 minutes walk from said mountain. An hour walk from work. Not bad. The guy was desperate for me to sign - at fucking 9:30pm Friday night - but i told him i needed time to think.

What i really also needed was time to go home and figure out what the fuck is going on tomorrow. Even though this hotel is a dive, i had planned to extend my stay here. How much of a dive? Well the last week winter has been kicking our asses here in Shenzhen - it's been getting down to about 5 degrees overnight and not much warmer during the day. My hotel room does not have heating, and the windows are permanently cracked due to a hole smashed in them to jerry-rig the air conditioning pipe. Let's just say there is a bit of a breeze in the room. There is no hot water tap in the bathroom either, although the shower does have hot water. Except when it doesn't. Like on Thursday, when i woke up and could see my breath in the air and then the hot water was out. Fuck my ass. Cold. Fucking cold. So fucking cold.

When i told my manager why i was cranky that day, she freaked and work organized to move me into a fancy hotel downtown. I refused, because i feel guilty for work paying for my living space. Then i got home tonight with my plan to extend my booking here for a few days and found there are no rooms. For fuck's sake. So now i need to move hotels anyways - i might as well have just accepted work's offer and actually had a good night's sleep in a hotel that doesn't have an all-in-one soap/shampoo dispenser stuck on the wall and condoms on the night stand and fucking ice-cold wind blowing in through a mallet-smashed hole in the window. Instead i am moving to a place even cheaper than this one, with no windows at all. At least it should be a bit warmer.

And maybe soon i will have an apartment of my own. Where any problem will be much worse, because i won't be able to just move away from it. But after i move (again) this weekend, i am going all out to find a permanent-ish place. Fun fun fun. Not really fun. Signing a lease will be the true death knell of my freedom. But i'm working now anyways so i guess that's already down the tubes. At least there will be a mountain close by.


let's talk about work... no, let's talk about food!
singapore sunset
amw
I am flonked. Also, my stomach is a mess. Before i talk about work in general, let's talk about work and how it relates to food.

My office is located in a building a stone's throw from the Shenzhen/Sham Chun River, which marks the border between the Hong Kong New Territories and mainland China proper. This is neat in some ways, because Luohu District is the oldest and therefore the most cyberpunk/80s-looking district of Shenzhen, but it's less cool because it appears there are far more Cantonese and Hongkongers here than out-of-province migrants. Without a doubt, the workforce is very diverse, but the people who own the shops are less mixed than out in Nanshan or Bao'an districts. Which means, basically, eating here is like eating in Hong Kong. Eating in Hong Kong sucks.

Why does it suck? I mean, Cantonese food is eaten all over the world and Hong Kong is a renowned foodie destination. A lot of people would say this is the pinnacle of Chinese cuisine. Well, a lot of people are wrong. Cantonese food sucks because spices are not a thing in Guangdong. Guangdong cuisine subscribes to the philosophy that Western chefs call "honest food". That is, barely seasoned. You steam the ingredient and then serve it. The end. Plus, famously, they eat nose to tail. So it's the worst of all worlds - lots of meat, lots of offal and lots of no fucking chili. Add Hong Kong cuisine in there too, which is largely influenced by colonial-era British cuisine (milk tea, eggs on toast, custard buns), and it's basically a vegan nightmare.

But, you know, there are a few things i can get by on. For instance, 河粉 or "hor fun" as it is often called overseas. 肠粉, the ubiquitous rice noodle roll. Singapore noodle, which anyone who has ordered from an American Chinese restaurant will be familiar with. That's about it. All of them require copious amounts of chili to make them taste of anything. The saddest part is that a lot of Cantonese restaurants don't even have chili and vinegar on the table, which is basically China's mustard and ketchup.

So that's what i'm working with. Lunch with the guys at work means being dragged to some overpriced Hong Kong chain restaurant that mostly serves bland, meat-based dishes. Today i didn't even get that far. I went out with my PM, who is a vegetarian. She's Indian and doesn't speak any Chinese at all, so her go-to here is Subway. I can't remember the last time i ate at a Subway. There is one vege option, and it is exceptionally unexciting. Plus it has cheese. All-veg would have been okay with me, but we split a foot-long, and i let her order whatever to avoid being difficult on my first week. Speaking of mustard and ketchup, that's exactly the sauces she got. And Thousand Island dressing. And mayonnaise. It tasted like a Big Mac without the meat.

Sigh.

I should have known better. I've gotten an upset stomach i think four times since coming to China, and three of those times have been when i had typical Western food. Not that it tastes any different here, but i think there might be a psychological aspect where i am so disappointed to be eating food that i didn't even eat when i lived in Europe my stomach just says "fuck you". I mean, pretty much all i ate at work lunches in Berlin was Vietnamese, Korean, Thai and "Asia" (bao) burgers. Oh, and falafel.

Man, i wish someone here did falafel.

The area of Luohu where i am staying does have one conspicuous group of out-of-province migrants, and that is the Uyghurs from Xinjiang and the Hui from the rest of Silk Road China. The common thread here being that they are Muslim.

China has a strange relationship with its Muslim population. The Hui are tolerated as just a funny-hat-wearing minority. The Uyghurs, on the other hand, face heavy oppression thanks to a violent separatist movement that has painted their whole ethnicity as terrorists. Sound familiar? America's War on Terror has only egged China on. Recently a sensationalist news story went around about how 100,000 Uyghurs are currently in prison. That sounds like a lot, but it's under 1% of the population. For perspective: almost 5% of black American men are in prison. Still, compared to the rest of China (~0.1% incarceration), the situation in Xinjiang is undeniably fucked right now. I am not surprised some residents just said the hell with it and moved 2500 miles across the country to cook beef and lamb for Shenzhen office workers.

Because that's what fucking Muslim cuisine is in China. Beef and lamb and more beef. Also bread. Bread that is kind of like a pita bread. With beef in it. Also sometimes nuts and dried fruit because Silk Road. But mostly beef. Today, after the Subway debacle, i thought i would improve my day by getting my favorite "oil splash noodle" from a new restaurant i found down an alley somewhere. Unfortunately i missed that it was a Muslim place, so the "oil splash" turned out to be beef drippings.

Sigh.

Why don't they do falafel? I guess i am just ignorant. I associate Muslim cuisine with what is actually probably just Mediterranean cuisine, because i am a European and all the halal restaurants there are run by guys from Turkey, the Levant and North Africa. In China it's something different, and probably a lot closer to Mongolian cuisine - famous for its big chunks of meat, gruel and animal fat.

Actually, just writing about it is making me queasy. I bought some mini bananas on the way home so i guess that and my one can of beer will have to hold me through till the morning.

Tomorrow i am "moving house" to a hotel up in a different neighborhood. It's not walking distance from work any more, but it's the only hotel under 150 kuai (20€) now that my current hotel is bumping its rates due to Spring Festival. Hopefully up that end of town i will find better food to make up for the commute. It's still Luohu District, though, so who knows?

Oh yeah, work. I'll write more on that over the weekend, perhaps. Short summary is it's the same old same old. Doesn't matter where you are in the world, work is always the same. The good news? They have a fucking espresso machine. And one where you just press a button and it grinds and brews and does everything without you needing to be a pretentious twat about it like at my last couple jobs. Fucking. Yes. Coffee.

back in china, and starting work
singapore sunset
amw
The flight back here was hellish. On my leg from Shanghai to Toronto the lady at the checkin counter must have taken pity on me, because when i got on the plane i discovered i was in an exit row with a ton of leg room. Leaving Toronto i was relegated to a middle seat way at the back of the plane. But, hey, you can't win 'em all - 40% chance you're gonna be the middle guy. Just wish they stacked the deck based on your height a little more often.

Still, middle seat is fine as long as you are surrounded by considerate folks. My neighbors were two older men who kept to themselves. The guy in front was mercifully not one of those assholes who likes to recline their seat. Unfortunately the lady behind me spent the entire flight digging and jabbing the back of my seat. I have no idea how someone who is barely 5 foot manages that. After about 8 hours of keeping a stiff upper lip i finally turned around and asked her if she could try to kick me a little less. I guess she took my polite request literally and just kicked me a little less. For the next 6 hours.

Getting back to Hong Kong was good, though. I headed to the bus and zoomed back to 上水 (Sheung Shui), which is the last stop before the Shenzhen border crossing. Ducked over expecting a song and dance with my work visa, but they just did the usual flip through the pages, stamp and wave me on. Walked for about 20 minutes to my hotel and that was that.

I headed out for dinner that first night and found a guy with a wok and mise en place and asked him to make me 炒河粉 (chǎo hé fěn), which you can probably find in most Chinese malls overseas because it's a Cantonese thing. It's just thick rice noodles fried up with whatever. Chilis, pickled green beans and fresh bean sprouts was this guy's base, plus egg and ham on demand. I decided to spoil myself and go with egg.

Next door was a small convenience store where i ordered a can of Bud (China's favorite beer) then plopped down on a plastic stool and almost started crying i had missed it so much. Of all the things that are frustrating and problematic about China, the one thing that makes up for all of it is being able to sit on a plastic stool on the sidewalk, sip beer and eat noodles. It's my happy place.

The next day i got up at the crack of dawn, skipped breakfast and headed straight to the hospital for my physical. They have it down to a fine art. There was a whole platoon of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed English teachers in the waiting room when i arrived. Couldn't speak a word of Chinese. I exercised my linguistic privilege and snuck through to what turned out to be a fucking production line: draw blood, check blood pressure, listen to breathing, check eyesight, get weighed, chest X-ray, ultrasound, EKG, pee in a cup. Each step was catered by a dedicated person. I was out of there in about half an hour. And, because i hadn't had any coffee in the morning, could barely squeeze out a third of a cup.

I spent the rest of the day getting all the goodies i missed. 肠粉, which is the most popular Cantonese breakfast dish - a big flat rice noodle sheet rolled up into a gooey tube with some (optional) pork, egg, lettuce and bean sprouts. 凉皮, the Xi'an speciality which is some kind of cold white noodle with some spongey seitan chunks plus julienne cucumber, bean sprouts, peanuts and so on. 凉面, the cold noodle where each place makes it a bit different, but it's always fresh and if you order it how i like it's assburningly spicy. 热干面, the hot dry noodle with peanut butter sauce. Steamed buns. I got some with rice vermicelli and pickled cabbage inside. Rice crackers. I guess that's more of a Japanese thing, but whatevs. Tiny little bananas. Jackfruit. 豆干, or tofu jerky. So much awesome.

Wait, i got carried away. I am mixing two days worth of food together.

Today i didn't get up to much besides picking up my health check. As usual i have unusually low blood pressure and heart rate. Apparently i also have a gall bladder polyp and some blood measurements outside the norm but nothing worth worrying about. So, cool. Cool cool cool.

I'm not cool. I have been trying to relax because yesterday i got an email saying "hey why don't you come into work on Wednesday for onboarding".

Fucking.

Onboarding.

I haven't been in an office since March last year. I haven't even looked at a single line of code. I feel like an impostor. I know i know my shit and i know that they won't expect anything on the first day anyway, but i'm scared. Maybe i won't wake up on time because of jet lag. Maybe this tickly throat will develop into a full-blown flu. I'm worried about weird stuff like i chucked out all my makeup before i got on the road, and all my clothes are beat-up, and my hair is faded and fraying, and what kind of first impression is all this? What if they invite me out to lunch and feed me a bunch of fucking meat and cheese the whole time? What if i hate my new boss? What if after 5 minutes back at work i immediately remember why i wanted to drop everything and disappear on a boat to China in the first place?

But what else am i going to do? I have basically blown through my life savings learning Chinese. I didn't blow it climbing mountains or scuba diving or partying on the beach. I just sat in a classroom being boring and now i have no money. So now i have to work. But why did i accept a job at the lowest salary i have had in over 15 years?

Oh wait, that's right, because i asked to start at the lowest rung because i think software engineers globally are hideously overpaid and also i didn't want to feel like a neo-colonialist coming in and expecting to be paid more than the locals simply by virtue of the color of my skin. Hooray for my moral fucking backbone. Now i am scared i will hate it and won't even have the salary to justify keeping on.

I know, i know. First day jitters. I'll probably just spend the whole time doing paperwork and setting up my goddamn laptop. Get it together. Maybe they have a coffee machine. Lordy, that would be something. Mmm, coffee.

a winter wonderland
singapore sunset
amw
The Toronto Island is a spot i discovered soon after first moving to the city back in 2009. It's essentially just a collapsed sand bar with an airstrip, an amusement park and a couple of car-free residential communities. There are no shops or restaurants; residents need to take the ferry into the city for everything. My main experiences there have been off-season, when even the amusement park is closed. In the dead of winter it's one of the most serene places in the city.

On my last day in Toronto i headed over to the island. The harbor was iced over, but it seemed like there was a clear channel for the ferry. Turns out that was true till about the last 500 meters or so, when our little boat became an ice breaker and had to crunch its way through to the dock.



My favorite spot on the island is a little point at the east end where you can look across the channel to Leslie Street Spit. I have taken both my mother and father there when they came to visit, because i think it's so great. I have a delightful memory of showing my dad Ward's Beach, only to have him immediately strip to his underwear for a swim. I can't even remember the last time i swam anywhere.

One thing i never knew until i moved to Toronto is that the Great Lakes have waves. If you've only ever visited the ocean before, walking along a Great Lake is really bizarre. There is plenty of wind whipping up waves and tossing spray in the air, but there's no taste of salt and the water is a deep blue and doesn't foam. In the winter, the spray freezes as soon as it lands. This makes for some pretty spectacular ice formations.



I got a great surprise a few km down the boardwalk where the entire pathway had been icicled. It was bitterly cold out there, but well worth the hike. There were a handful of brave Chinese tourists and a single hipster with an old-timey box camera taking photos, but for the most part it was totally isolated. I stayed as long as my body could hold it.



Which, actually, wasn't long. In total i guess i was outside for 4 hours in long johns, jeans, tank top, hoodie, bandana and beanie. No gloves. I only really noticed i had probably been suffering from exposure (hypothermia?) after i got back to my hotel and spent an hour shivering under the covers with the heater on. My fingers and legs were burning. I guess i finally got that "true" Canadian experience, after 10 days shrugging off the cold. I forgot that very cold temperatures are entirely manageable as long as you keep stepping out of and back into warm places every half an hour or so. It's only when you are out for extended periods that your body really starts to give out. I'll remember that next time a bunch of warm-climate people start lecturing me about how i need to buy a fucking parka for a 10-day vacation in a major city.



Anywho, cold aside, going out and enjoying the big skies was my favorite day of my trip. I will try hold on to the memories of those huge horizons while i am back here in the smoggy PRD. It's the ultimate North America to me. Clean air, no people and vistas that go on forever.



Coming up next - my flight to Hong Kong, joy at being back in Shenzhen and a production line physical where i failed to produce a full cup of pee.

Culture shocks
singapore sunset
amw
Toilet door gaps. Yeah, that's a weird thing. But, odder than that: flushing paper down the toilet. It has become such a reflex to wipe and then dump the paper in the trash, I started to panic at the first toilet I sat down on where there was no trash can beside it.

People eating with their hands. After 6 months in a place where people eat everything either with chopsticks or directly out of a bag, watching people's hands get dirty and seeing them lick their fingers really makes me squirm.

(That said, I also haven't gotten used to the Chinese spitting out bones, husks and pits onto the table.)

Overweight white people. Coming back to North America from Europe the girths are disconcerting. Coming back from China where even the (few) overweight people are much smaller than me, it's like arriving in Brobdingnag.

On a related note: portion sizes. I ordered a sushi lunch special. There were something like 16 large pieces - twice as much as I expected. J asked me worriedly if it would be enough. Her "bento" was a foot-long serving tray. It's grotesque.

Being asked for a credit card. In Europe (or Germany, at least) they are used rarely. In China it appears they skipped credit cards altogether and use mobile payments for everything. Here you're looked at funny when you say you don't have one, or that you prefer to use cash.

Being offered a parking spot. Since when did hotel rooms come with parking spots? Why would anyone voluntarily drive a car on holiday? To a city?! I'm so very far out of the car owner lifestyle I can barely comprehend this is a thing people do.

Peanut butter. Peanut butter is fucking great. Of course it's sold everywhere in the world for home consumption but only in North America can you order it in breakfast joints on a bagel.

Bars. Oh lordy I missed proper bars. Bars where you can walk in at a respectable hour and drink alone and not feel obliged to bring friends or play drinking games.

Tap water. I can drink it without boiling it first. I can drink anywhere, for free! What luxury!

But also: ice water. What is with ruining a perfectly good glass of water with a half ton of ice?

Kindness. There is something nice about having a "sorry war" when one person inconveniences the other. It's nice that cheerfulness is considered an asset in the service industry. Chinese are polite, but not very kind. Europeans are neither polite nor kind. Kindness isn't necessary, but it really is nice.

Diversity. China is a diverse country in theory. Different regions have different languages and cuisines and cultures. Domestic migrants face similar challenges to international migrants elsewhere. But even still, almost everyone is Chinese. It's not a country that has ever welcomed immigrants. Toronto feels like a global city. China's cities, aside from Hong Kong, all feel Chinese. I forgot what it was like to see the rest of the world around you.

I go back tomorrow. I am glad I took this trip; it felt like both a holiday and a homecoming. But it has also left me feeling fat, bloated and a little ashamed at the decadence. Not that the Chinese nouveau riche are any better, but at least they have the excuse it's all relatively new to them. The developed world should know better. I expect more. I expected more from myself, coming back. Three crippling hangovers. Coney fries. Really?

Today I am going to visit my favorite place in Toronto: the island. It's almost free (just a ferry ticket) and there are no shops there, no bars, no food, just some bicycles and cottages and a Great Lake. I need to take a walk and remember this place is more than just a monument to colonial excess with potable water and peanut butter bagels.

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