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clothing, freedom and a home-cooked meal
singapore sunset
amw
On my second week back into a daily routine i pondered on clothing.

Although i love fashion as an artform, i have worn an extremely simple wardrobe for most of my adult life - jeans, tank top, sneakers. The end. Hoodie when it's cold. To this day buying clothing still causes me panic attacks. I am too big and too fat for everything. Anything that has sleeves makes my arms feel trapped. Anything with even a hint of lace or frou-frou girlyness makes me feel like vomiting. And a skirt or dress is never going to happen. Ever. So clothing played an important part in choosing which countries i would visit. Anywhere where my "look" wouldn't blend in - or where it would trigger unwelcome male gaze - was out. China has a reputation for being a country that dresses casually and comfortably, and arriving here i felt very much at home. I get the odd glance or open stare due to being white and giant-sized, but no one gives my clothing a second thought. Plenty of women dress just like i do, and that makes me happy.

But what do the Chinese wear to work? I have been lucky enough in most all of my jobs to be able to wear casual dress to the office - far and away the best perk of the software development industry. I don't know if i could keep my sanity in business casual or full business dress. I am still batting around the idea of looking for work here, but having to buy a hideous wardrobe would pretty much be a dealbreaker. I was a little worried because Hong Kong is straight-up fucking 1980s power suits and ties and heels and the whole bit. Fortunately, after commuting into an office park in Shenzhen every day for two weeks, it seems that casual dress has definitely hit the white collar scene over here. The smartest outfit i have seen is a collared shirt and slacks, but the majority of men wear a polo, and a sizeable amount are just in jeans and tee. Almost everyone wears sneakers. Well, the men, at least.

Work clothing in China appears to be more gendered than their casual clothing. A few women are happy wearing capris and sneakers, but a great many more tend toward a light skirt and dress shoes. Tops vary. Granted, in this weather wearing a skirt is a far smarter idea than pants, but still. Groan. I suspect i could get away with dressing reasonably comfortably and just play it off as being a "tom" or tomboy, which is uncommon but certainly not unknown as a fashion choice over here - especially amongst lesbians. I could swing a new/clean pair of jeans and shoes through mail order and then just struggle my way through finding some thin summer hoodies to cover up the tattoos. I hate thinking about all this. Work sucks.

-o-

Thursday i got an unexpected invitation to eat. I had been chatting with one of the women at school about how the only thing i really missed while traveling so much was being able to cook my own food. That must have inspired the invite. I find visiting people's houses incredibly awkward and generally do all i can to avoid that kind of invite, but in China when someone invites you a place there is some kind of "face" involved. Plus, goddamnit, i do fucking miss having a home-cooked meal. So i said yes.

The first thing i did after accepting was go to my local bar and ask the bartender what i should bring as a gift. The internet is useless for this, because the internet is all about family dinners and business invitations. She said girls like fruit, so usually if it's the first time you visit someone's house - and you are all girlfriends, or people of the same "status" - you can bring fruit. I failed that hard after WeChatting with my host and agreeing to go to the supermarket together to pick up some ingredients beforehand. My plan was to pay, but we did the let me/no let me/no let me dance and she won. Because i am an amateur. Before we even got to the supermarket, she insisted i come up to see her place first (that was my missed opening for the gift), and from the moment i got in i was showered with nibbles. Hawthorn tea. A spicy fake meat jerky type thing. Some special sweet flower cake from Guangxi province. Congee. Grapes. I should have known after Friday when one of my teachers gave me a little bowl of fruit during break (watermelon, cantaloupe, apple, red dragonfruit). Dear everyone, if you ever get invited to a Chinese girl's house, bring fruit.

But let's rewind. As i have mentioned, Shenzhen is an entirely new city - official population 10 million, unofficial 20 million. Forty years ago the block of land that now makes up the city was just a scattering of villages and farms. When the city borders were declared, the villages retained their own boundaries, so the planned city grew up around them. The villages turned from agricultural hubs into dense mid-rise (~10 storey) blocks, and the villagers turned from farmers into landlords. As a migrant worker it can be difficult to find a place willing to rent to you in the city proper, so these "urban village" landlords have stepped in and provide homes for the unofficial residents. (Did you know Chinese can vote in local elections? They can. But migrant workers can only vote in their hometown and province. Officially emigrating is very difficult.) It turned out that my host and her roommate were both migrant workers. What a delight to randomly get an invite into this world!

She met me at the subway station, which opened out into a huge shopping mall with a bevy of recognizable western chains and dozens of local ones too. After going a couple of big blocks we passed a police checkpoint, ducked through a fence and found ourselves in a walking street with street vendors and open storefronts and all the wonderful chaos i love about this country.

We headed up to the 10th floor of an 11-storey block and into her place. Pretty much everyone on the floor had their front doors open. I don't think neighbors here are particuarly friendly with one another, but they are well-practiced at ignoring one another. Here - and in Taiwan too, for that matter - you regularly see families eating or watching TV in their living room, which is completely open to the street, since it may also double as a storefront. In the apartments it's no different. Why not leave all the doors open? It improves the airflow. Very few people can afford an air conditioning unit, and it's fucking hot.

I have often wondered what lies behind the prison-like bars going up the sides of these ramshackle Chinese apartment buildings. Now i know - the "wet" part of the house is all "outside". The kitchen/laundry room and toilet/shower cubicle are - aside from the bars - open to the outdoors. From the street it always just looked to me like a balcony where people hung their laundry. Of course, it's that too. Later, my host told me that they couldn't afford a washing machine. That may be a reason for the light and silky clothing women wear at work - it's much easier to handwash and hang out to dry.

My host and her roommate were very happy to have found the place. Affordable, close to the subway and the mall, plus it had a separate living room as well as two bedrooms. It was a great little space and i felt immediately at ease. I was one guest and a friend from Guangxi was the other. I've been reading a book about Chinese migrant workers called Factory Girls by Leslie Chang, but for some reason i didn't expect the anecdotes to hold true for white collar migrant workers. They do. People from the same province stick together. They have food in common. They have language in common. They may even have a hometown or childhood friends in common. I always knew academically that China was a hodgepodge of different cultures, but being invited into this little group of Guangxi girls in a Guangdong boomtown finally drove the point home.

We picked up a bunch of food from the supermarket. I am not sure if they deliberately decided not to get meat, knowing i try to eat vegan, or if it just made economic sense. We did pick up some eggs, though. Here in China, eggs are treated like fruit and vegetables - there are huge piles of them and customers pick them up one by one, shaking and listening to see if they are fresh. In the end we cooked up four dishes - Chinese long bean with egg, bitter melon with egg, king oyster mushroom (my contribution) and water spinach (my request, on being asked what my favorite Chinese food was). Everything had plenty of garlic and chili, because Guangxi people love spicy. After they saw that i enjoyed the spice, they pulled out three jars of other Guangxi specialities - a salty chili mix similar to sambal oelek, some kind of chili pickled king oyster mushroom and something they called "radish skin", which i think is similar to the Sichuan pickle called 芽菜 (yá cài). Of course there was rice, it had been in the rice cooker since the morning. And more congee, with red bean and hawthorn and a whole bunch of other nice fruits and grains in it. Dear God. It was the most satisfying meal i have had in China, and knowing i helped cook and prepare it made me so happy. Afterwards they offered me dried mango and dried ginger and more hawthorn tea and a plum and hours of conversation.

They all seemed quite optimistic about Shenzhen and felt similar to me - that it is definitely the most diverse city in mainland China, the most "open" and the best place to get ahead. No doubt there is plenty of corruption and vice - perhaps more than anywhere else in China - but, critically, it doesn't have the massive population of established families and "guanxi" (business relationships) and permanent residents that make it more difficult to succeed as a migrant worker. By creating a brand new city, Deng succeeded in establishing perhaps the only real meritocracy in the country. Or a hell of a hustle-ocracy anyway.

Sadly, it seems Mao-era gender equality - whether that was just propaganda or not - didn't survive through till today. Or not in the tech industry, at least. They had all either worked at or were still working at a tech company. I mentioned the current problems around racism and misogyny in the US tech industry, and apparently it is fairly similar here. Women tend to be working in less technical and more client-facing roles. It occurred to me this might be a reason why i noticed women looking more put together than men in the subways and office parks of the city. Certainly when it comes to dress outside of the office, women wear just as relaxed and comfortable stuff as any man.

They brought up politics too, unprompted. It is difficult to talk directly about much of this stuff since there is a language barrier, and the whole issue is sensitive. They lamented the fact that anyone who gets successful in China leaves. I talked a little bit about "brain drain" and how this happens in many countries, then said i had heard in Taiwan that many people from there were coming to China because the economic opportunities were better. I was swiftly corrected. China is doing fairly well economically - it's plain that foreigners are seeing it as a destination where they can make money, and that's good news for the country as a whole. But - one of the girls said - people aren't leaving because they can earn more money elsewhere, they are leaving because they can speak freer elsewhere.

It surprised me to hear internet censorship being brought up. But of course it would. Chinese aren't in a bubble. They go on vacation to other countries. They know all about the internet sites that are blocked. Those who care enough do find ways to circumvent the Great Firewall. But more concerning is high-profile netizens getting disappeared, and certain conversation topics on the micro-blogging sites getting shut down. I didn't dig too deep on what the problems are that they feel can't be talked about. The disenfranchisement of migrant workers is one that clearly struck close to home, but i got the impression corruption was the big one. People don't trust politicians and generally think they are only out to empower and enrich themselves. Xi is said to have started a crackdown on corruption, but everyone knows there's a long way to go.

Since it has been on my mind recently, i tried to explain how despite "freedom of speech" laws in other countries, it doesn't result in the utopian government we would hope. Even in the west, parties use fascist-inspired techniques to divide and conquer. I explained how the Republican Party in the US - and particularly the current president - have run a long campaign of undermining the free press. Nowadays, a truly frightening percentage of Americans do not trust the free press and prefer instead to consume propaganda and whisper conspiracies. The war on "elites" is an example of a campaign designed to instill a fear of education and further spread the ignorance by discouraging critical thought. All over the country people who tend to vote the other way are being systemically disenfranchised. Let's not even get into how wildly the system favors rural voters over urban voters. This might not be an explosive oppression of the kind that rocked China 50-60 years ago, but it's insidiously pushing the country in the same direction. And it's not like this stuff is only happening in America either. The pessimistic view is that no matter where you are in the world, government is run by and for the rich and powerful.

But, i guess, at least in some countries you can express those views openly. In China there is no shortage of people willing to talk openly about problems in person. But no one wants to broadcast anything specific online because if it goes viral it'll only get blacked out and possibly lead to a disappearing, or at least a questioning. It's hard for me to imagine because nothing i have ever said or done has gone viral. I like my little quiet corner of the internet. But it must be particularly frustrating for younger people who use modern social media extensively and haven't gotten as cynical about government as i have. Perhaps they still imagine they could change something, given a big enough bullhorn.

I mean, they all love China. That's definitely a common theme with everyone i meet here. They all do love this country and are very proud of all of the great things it's doing. They still see themselves as a developing nation - which i guess, GDP per capita they might be - but they're not blind to the amazing transformation happening. It's unprecedented.

On the way back to the subway, we took a walk through Walmart. There are tons of Walmarts in China. I bought a new notebook for 4 kuai. My host asked me if they had Walmarts and McDonalds and KFC where i come from. I explained that yes, they do, but that in some countries around the world there is a backlash against these stores because no one wants to give rich Americans even more money than they already have. I said i usually try to shop in stores that are owned by locals in the area, whichever country i am in.

At one point, she said "i guess in Canada all the stuff in Walmart is different, though, since it's made in Canada". I was stunned for a second, then told her that the stuff is different for sure, but it's still made in China. Everything is made in China. Of all the things i expected someone here not to be aware of, i didn't think that would be one. I still have so much to learn.

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If you are interested in the migrant story, i recommend checking out the book i mentioned. It's a bit strangely-paced (perhaps because it is written by a journalist), but it gives a good insight into the basics. I hope to be able to learn and write more about this stuff over the next months.

that dinner sounds goood. especially the home-cooked part.

these glimpses of life in china are totally fascinating. i just read an article about a chinese national who got his phd at mit in some engineering field (materials, i think) and wants to stay in the us - he has a baby now, who's an american citizen - but he didn't get any offers and a chinese university lured him back home with what i'm guessing is a good salary, research money, and a down payment on a house. so he's going back to china to work. which sucks for the us, because i'm sure he's a smart, talented guy, but is good for china. i think that's a result of american attitudes towards foreigners getting educated and working here, more than it says anything in particular about china. i mean, i'm not at all surprised that folks leave china in favor of places with greater freedom of speech.

i wouldn't have guessed there was such a thing as white collar migrant workers. interesting!

I would definitely recommend giving the book i mentioned a read, if you are interested in the Chinese migrant story. I have finished it now, and a bit later in the book some of the blue collar migrants turn white. In China there is this unusual situation where it is very difficult to give up your hometown residence, so what we in the west would think of as young people moving to the city to get a job, in China they are still seen (and treated) as migrant workers.

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