amw (amw) wrote,

talking politics and culture

I'm currently sitting in one of those big "cafés" (read: casual dining restaurants) that cater to the middle class all over Taiwan and China. Up until now i have avoided frequenting them because they are several times the price of food stands and i get this sad North American vibe from them. You know - menus longer than your arm but everything is Sysco and will taste identical to everywhere else, line-ups for tables during the dinner rush, servers trying to push you out of your spot or up-sell you on crap you don't want... Though today since it's 11am on Wednesday during school holidays and on the tail-end of a typhoon and a tropical storm, i think they are just happy to have anyone at all here.

I am drinking a pomelo tea, which is something i discovered at the ultra-cheap kawaii tea/juice/Nescafé stalls in mainland China. I am not sure if there is any tea in it, but it is a bittersweet lemonade (not carbonated) with little shreds of citrus peel in the bottom that come up through the straw like pearl sago or grass jelly. It is refreshing and a nice change when a place doesn't have my other fave - passion fruit black tea. The Chinese cold drink game is so on point. Of course here it costs twice what it would at a stall, but i wouldn't be able to sit down and type up an entry at a stall.

Reflecting on that Trump-supporting Taiwanese guy, i started thinking about how people gossip about China.

I haven't yet written about my flight from Hong Kong to Taipei a few weeks back, but it was a total shit-show. We got on the plane and then were left on the runway for a couple hours. Eventually they said there was a mechanical problem and we had to switch planes. The whole thing added up to a 4-5 hour delay, and i spent a couple of those hours next to South African girl who was teaching English up in the ass-end of north-east China. She was one of those socially awkward people that can't bear silence so babbled constantly - too loud and absent of any tact. I have dealt with these sorts of personalities a lot in the software industry (and in fannish circles), so i kinda grimaced and nodded and let her go.

Her opinion of the Chinese after being there a few months was that they were generally unfriendly. She didn't like the food or the culture, and had been overjoyed to spend some time in Hong Kong where she could get more Western-style food and experience a more colonial atmosphere "like back home". She was a language virtuoso, as many Africans are, and was excited to practice some Cantonese. She was traveling to Taipei to do an immersion course in Mandarin. What most stuck with me, though, was this weird attitude of not really liking China or Chinese people, but working there anyway. It's something i have seen several times now.

The other night i had just been on a very long walk around the city and wanted to cool off with a beer. As usual, no bars are open before 10pm here, but i found a cigar bar that was open at the early hour of 8pm. (This, by the way, is the main reason to go to expat bars - they open much earlier.) After leaving the cigar bar i found a regular bar that was open and decided to have a few drinks there too. As usual, that resulted in me gabbing with all manner of characters and getting hopelessly drunk. Yesterday was a total write-off. But i did speak to a lady who started the "Taiwanese" drinking ritual of gan bei with me while we listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd and other southern rock.

Kaohsiung is kinda the heart of the Taiwanese nationalist movement. Politics in Taiwan are quite complicated, and i feel like if i tried to explain i would come off sounding ignorant, but i should give a little background before going on. The main political split in Taiwan is between the parties who consider themselves uniquely Taiwanese and those who consider themselves the true inheritors of Chinese culture before the Communists corrupted it. There is some kind of social split too, between the Han who colonized the island hundreds of years ago and mostly speak Hokkien and Hakka dialects, and those who fled the mainland in the 50s and speak Mandarin or other dialects. Meanwhile the indigenous people have been oppressed by everyone. All of this has resulted in a ping-pong of renaming national institutions "Taiwan" or "Republic of China", a minefield of politically (in)correct terminology and a muddling message on whether Taiwan should present as independent state or "also China, but with a different political system". To generalize, Taipei leans more toward the "we are the real China" point of view and Kaohsiung leans more toward "we have our own unique culture and it is Taiwanese".

So, while enjoying the "Taiwanese" ritual of drinking gan bei, and being given "Taiwanese" food like glutinous rice and tofu, i let slip i was planning to go to Shenzhen to learn "Chinese". Oh, the horror. One of the first questions people ask down here when i say i want to learn Chinese is if i want to learn Taiwanese too (that is the Hokkien-based dialect most common in Taiwan). It's happened two or three times now, and i even had a bartender try to encourage me by teaching me some Taiwanese words and pronunciations a few days ago. But it's not just "Taiwanese" vs "Chinese" (Mandarin), it's also the traditional characters vs simplified characters. Both sides of the political fence seem to prefer traditional characters here, claiming that simplified characters are a desecration of the language. (In mainland China it's seen as a natural progression from the four previous iterations of Chinese characters.) After hearing the now-familiar list of reasons why learning Mandarin in mainland China would be bad, the lady admitted that she is a bit biased against China. I nodded sagely and said it was a complex situation, assuming she was talking about the weird diplomatic limbo the Chinese government has forced Taiwan into, but then she said "yes, all they care about is money". This stereotype of Chinese people is something i heard from Hongkongers - ironically - too.

What i find odd about the stereotype is that a lot of highly-skilled Taiwanese work in mainland China because the salaries there are better than in Taiwan. And many Taiwanese companies sell into mainland China because it's such a huge, profitable market. But both here and in Hong Kong - epic capitalist exploiters of mainland China - you hear comments that the Chinese people are money-grubbing, corrupt, criminal and so on. I saw it differently. I saw the poor hustling hard. That's true of the poor in many countries. And the rich? Well, come on. Profligate consumerism is a characteristic of the middle and upper classes all over the world. It's disappointing that the Chinese nouveau riche have jumped on that bandwagon, but it appears selfishness is a rather depressing fact of human nature.

One thing i am hoping to understand a little better by learning the language in the biggest, baddest boomtown in China is the mindset of the migrant workers who have come from rural areas all over the country to improve their family's lot. I want to talk to foreign migrant workers too. I had a fairly long conversation with an expat last time i was in Shekou who was pumped to raise his kids in Shenzhen. He said Shenzhen today was like New York 100 years ago. It's growing like crazy, everyone is flocking there to be a part of it. I didn't really enjoy the conversation too much because he was also one of those unusual expats who is well-traveled but conservative. He was totally down with the idea of police everywhere and walled compounds and private hospitals and private schools, because that's how you keep the riff-raff out. When Western conservatism overlaps with Eastern authoritarianism... But despite our differing political values it was interesting to hear his view of the place too. I want more of those conversations.


So, i'm back. Getting here was a giant pain in the ass, again. I stupidly followed the sign to the baggage claim instead of the ferry, which meant i went through Hong Kong customs, only to be told you can't get back to the ferry after you passed through. Apparently if you take the ferry they will grab your bags on your behalf. So instead i piled into a share taxi with a bunch of mainlanders. We took the freeway around Lantau and the New Territories to the Shenzhen Bay Bridge, where it took about 45 minutes to get through customs. The other side is a total mess of touts trying to get you to take their taxi or bus or whatever. I fumed and had to get real assertive because fuck you guys if you want me to pay 100 kuai (talked down from 250) just to take a taxi 3km. Especially when the share taxi down from Hong Kong airport (much further away) was an already-overpriced 130.

I hoisted my backpack and started walking down the edge of an expressway to my hotel. Or, more to the point, i walked to the block in which my hotel was. I went back and forth and back and forth to try find it and failed hard. It took me half an hour of circling until a fellow laowai took pity on me and pointed me to the right building. I can't believe this has happened to me twice in a row in Shenzhen. Though, admittedly, both times i have stayed in "oldtowns", or perhaps what could be called "urban villages" - these little islands of chaotic alleyways inside the beautiful, planned rest of the city.

Still, i made it. And immediately i am glad to be back. There is a totally different feeling here compared to Taiwan (or Hong Kong). The grubby stuff is grubbier. The modern stuff is moderner. The buses are electric. The scooters are electric. The city is much quieter as a result. Greenways everywhere, except when you get into the older, car-free areas, where bikes and pedestrians swarm all over the place. Smoking BBQ out on the street, people hanging out on plastic stools, meat hanging on steel hooks, the works. I followed the smell of burnt chili to what i now know is a south-west or western vendor and got a liang mian (cold noodle). They have liang mian in Taiwan too - i tried several - but they are fucking garbage. No flavor, literally just a bowl of cold noodles. Also, they often add meat. In China, whether it is Guangxi or Guizhou or Sichuan style, you are going to get something fucking bangingly spicy with all manner of crispy, crunchy vegan goodies inside. And it is far cheaper. Now i am at an expat bar because it's before 10pm and i wanted to get several beers somewhere where i didn't have to balance my tablet on my knees. Posting tethered to my phone, because i got 40-some gigs of data for a pittance. I fucking love China.

Well, i do so far. You know. Maybe it will take a bit longer for me to see it for the authoritarian, unfriendly, money-obsessed place that people who have lived in the region far longer than i have see it as. But that's the point, right? You move somewhere to experience it for yourself.
Tags: alcoholism, china, politics, travel

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