May 15th, 2020

mom walk

i'd swap it all for an open border...

I really miss beer gardens. In China drinking happens late at night - often in KTVs and eye-wateringly expensive bars, but also at outdoor restaurants in Guangdong we call 大排檔. It is very rare that anything opens before 8pm. There isn't really an afternoon drinking culture here, outside of homeless people and other "low end population". Not being able to hang out on the street with a cold beer makes summers here far less enjoyable than they should be.

I just spent almost 3 hours at the bank. It's 32°C and humid enough that my sweat is sweating. I need a beer and I don't want to drink it in my shoebox apartment.

I went into the village and visited a notoriously shit (and overpriced) 大排檔 to get a beer. It's one of the few we have that I knew would let me sit and drink, despite not being officially open for several hours yet.

The owner is at the table next to me prepping ong choy and garlic chives for the BBQ. There is a massive pot of five spice stock starting to bubble on a stove out front. Across the way a woman on a low plastic stool is chopping shallots. Kids are running about being kids. The wet market is winding down for the day. Just round the corner are groups of old men playing cards and mahjong, and bored coppers pretending not to see them gambling.

Our village is still fenced in, of course. But this week something changed. You don't need proof of ID and a transit pass or green health code to enter any more, just temperature check and done.

Another thing changed this week too. They reopened the university. I don't know if classes have started up yet, but the campus gates are letting people through, and the towers across the road from me that have lain empty since January have started to get lit up. I kinda miss looking out the window at those dark looming hulks. Now they're just student dorms again.

Hopefully that means soon the street vendors will come back. Although, it's still a kilometer hike to get through the checkpoint and loop back out here, so not sure if they'll bother. Or if they're even still in Shenzhen.

I stopped in at a 沙县小吃 that I haven't visited since before the lockdown. It's one of the businesses that is right on a road that was blocked off when the government fenced in the village, so it has fuck all customers now. I asked the owner about it and he said the fence is very inconvenient. That's about as close people are going to get to saying "fuck this fascist bullshit" in China.

We nattered about Canada. There's no way to really small talk in China unless you pick a hometown. So much conversation is comparing hometown notes and laughing about local customs or raving about local foods. When two people from the same hometown find one another they explode into local language, which nobody else can understand.

This is the best China. The China without any Starbucksification and Party bullshit.

My hometown is always Canada, because even though I was born in England, I left it when I was too young to remember enough trivia to fuel a meaningless chat. In truth I feel more cosmopolitan or pan-European than Canadian, but that sort of identity is difficult to explain in China. People here grok Canada, though, whether it's because of 白求恩 the Communist martyr, 大山 the variety show star of the 90s, Vancouver where all the rich Hongkongers escaped to, or Toronto where everyone seems to have a distant family member.

Canada is up there with Australia and New Zealand as a top emigration destination. Large diaspora. Affluence. Freedom. The owner of the restaurant said he wished he could move there. One of the other customers said he traveled there and it's so big and empty. He said Canada has a government that really cares about its citizens. I'm not sure whether he was contrasting us with America or China but either would be apt. The owner thought it was hilarious that Canada is bigger than all of China but has less people that his home province of Fujian.

Anyway, the reason I spent almost 3 hours in the bank and came out trembling is because I made the biggest financial transaction of my life to date.

I took an entire year's net salary from my current job, of which I have spent precisely zero, and sent it to my account in Canada. That was about 51000 US dollars.

First I had to get temperature checked and sign in with yet another health app, different from the others. Name, address, phone number, passport number, temperature reading. Sigh. No such thing as privacy in this country.

Then started the ordeal.

China has extremely strict controls for what money is allowed in and out of the country. Every other country I lived in, I just left my bank account open and used online banking to send money over to my new country, or used ATMs all over the world to withdraw cash as i needed it. But China's banking system is separated from the rest of the world so you can't send online money transfers, and most foreign ATMs won't take local debit cards. Even if they do accept Unionpay, you can't take out more than a very small amount of cash each day, and it's not clear if the government will freeze your account if you start taking too much too often.

Chinese citizens have to jump through ridiculous hoops to send money overseas, so a common hack is to manually take the maximum legal amount of 20000RMB (about US$2800) in cash to Hong Kong, get it exchanged by black market money changers, then deposit in a Hong Kong account and wire it wherever. I was always a bit suspicious of these expats i met when i first came here who said they were in "banking". They were all from Bahamas or British Virgin Islands or whatever and traveled to Hong Kong and Macau all the time.

Tax evasion is a big business here. And it really shits the government. A year or two back the government disappeared the biggest movie star in the country for tax evasion, then she suddenly reappeared with some groveling admission of guilt. On one hand, fuck the rich, they deserve to get dragged. On the other hand, people like Xi Jinping and his cronies are also tremendously rich and will never get busted for corruption because they run the country. The Party is a racket and everyone knows it.

Meanwhile people like me need to go through a whole song and dance to get money out of the country. I had to show my tax returns, my work contract, my work permit, my passport, my residence permit... I had to explain i was sending money to myself and not someone else, and i had to explain why my name on my Canadian account doesn't include my middle name but my Chinese account does. I was not allowed to send money i have earned from previous jobs before this one, even though my tax return showed i had paid taxes, because that salary was paid into a different bank account. I had to buy American dollars because i don't know why. I filled in a whole lot of forms. I can't imagine how hard this would be for an expat who can't speak Chinese.

I think the money is going across now. I hope it all works out. I felt like a shitheel sending so much money out of the country when people here are struggling, and i felt like a shitheel for blocking a teller for such a long time while local people were waiting, but that's what they get, you know? The government put the currency controls in, and almost all banks in China are owned by the government, so they're only shooting themselves in the foot. I get why they don't want people sending money overseas, but everyone knows the rich have other (illegal) ways to get it out, meanwhile unmarried foreigners have no incentive to leave it inside China because we can't buy property and we have no path to permanent residence - as soon as we lose our jobs, we are kicked out of the country, the end.

In other news, an Australian New York Times reporter who has been here 24 years just got kicked out of the country as retaliation for the latest escalation on the American side to limit Chinese reporters' visas to only 90 days at a time. Shit is getting ugly.

I bought my second pack of emergency cigarettes today. I have been smoking once or twice a week since the lockdown. I need to quit again. But it's like my little slow suicide.

I was cheered by the news that in Japan suicides have gone down. It turns out that office work is an even bigger stress than coronavirus. Yeah, me too bro. Although, life without freedom pretty much isn't worth living either. So let's shoot for a world with no work, no virus and no borders. Right now my life in China is one out of three.

Hence the emergency cigarettes.