I got a little taste of that Canadian winter this morning. Two days ago the weather here got miserable. Sunday i met up with a friend at a Buddhist buffet and ate a ton of great vege food. We had a brief walk in the brisk drizzle before i headed home to book my hotels and organize other shit. Monday was much the same, but i didn't venture more than a few blocks from my hotel due to the torrential downpour and bitter cold. Today it is about 7 degrees. I moved back to my hotel in Shekou to be closer to the ferry, walked to the port to buy a ticket and then - perhaps stupidly - went for one last hike. It was just a short one over the Nanshan, but i was shivering most of the way.
Then i saw a grandpa hiking up the stairs with his shirt off and i realized i should harden the fuck up.
Still, it's good to be back inside. I'm sitting in that little concrete box hotel with no windows. I wanted some kind of symmetry. When i first arrived in China back in May 2017, i was in a ship docked in Shekou container port. When i decided to pause my traveling in July so i could learn Chinese, i spent the first month here in Shekou. I want to leave the same way - spend a night here, then take a boat to Hong Kong. The next time i arrive in China it will be as a worker and not a tourist: i'll get off the plane, swipe my Hong Kong and Shenzhen subway cards like a pro, and settle in a hotel near the office.
A secondary motive for coming to Shekou is that i thought it might help a bit with the culture shock. In the part of Nanshan District where i was living and studying for the past 3-4 months i can go days or weeks without seeing another laowai. In Shekou they're everywhere. It's nothing like Central (Hong Kong), but compared to other parts of Shenzhen it's noticably multicultural.
I feel awkward. I think it's because when i'm the only white person around, people either ignore me because they're too busy to care or gawp at me like i'm a zoo animal. Both of those things i can deal with, because neither of them affect me going about my life. But in Shekou catering to laowai is a business, so people come up to try offer a ride, or ask questions, or point me this way or that. Here the color of my skin marks me as an expat who is either out to hook up with a Chinese woman or excited to teach children English. Here i'm assumed to be rich and profligate and incapable of speaking a single word of Chinese. That association makes me uncomfortable.
But, eh, what can you do?
Although back in the more "Chinese" part of town i did tend to be ignored, occasionally i would get one of those Shekou-style encounters. A few weeks ago a curious local approached me in the coffee shop. She asked if it was okay to sit with me and practice her English. I didn't have to go to school that day, so we ended up chatting for about 2 hours. It was probably the longest all-English conversation i've had since leaving Germany. I talked slow and clear, as is my default accent after 5+ years in countries where English is a second language, which i think she appreciated.
But, you know, she was quite a character. She was a second generation migrant. Her parents had came from elsewhere in China to find work in Shenzhen in the 90s, then decided to stay and have kids. I've met a few people like this now, and they seem much more rudderless than the migrant workers.
You see, migrant workers have a very clear story. They almost universally come from rural areas. Their families are often poor, but the first kids go out and do hard labor, sending cash home so the next kids can work hard and graduate highschool - maybe even attend university. They mainly come to Shenzhen because salaries are the highest in China, but it's more than that. Billboards around the city have the slogan "move to Shenzhen, you're a Shenzhener". Migrants like it here because they aren't made to feel like second-class citizens by locals who have been here for generations or by rich migrants who can afford hukou. Sure, they're just here to work, but it's a place that welcomes them and helps them achieve their dreams.
So what about the second generation Shenzheners? They don't have a built-in story of trying to make a better life for themselves or their families. They may be born into some degree of prosperity, but once they hit the workplace they find they have to compete with the hungriest hustlers from all over the country.
The girl i spoke to was looking for work. She went to design school but didn't appear to have any interest in the field. She had just turned down a job in Longhua District because it'd be an hour commute from her home in Bao'an District. But she didn't let that phase her. She was convinced that by improving her English, she would be able to find a much better job closer by, no problems. She asked me if i knew Ted. "Ted who?" Turns out she was talking about TED talks - her primary way of learning English. She was reading a self-help book. I figured she might be open to political talk, and that's when i discovered i had met my first Chinese libertarian.
She wasn't consciously libertarian, of course. We talked a bit about poverty reduction. To simplify the conversation i picked and contrasted the Chinese and American situations. I said America is not a great place for poor people and explained that a large chunk of the country actually believes the government should do even less to help them. I'm worried China will head in the same direction, despite Xi's war on poverty. She said that it didn't matter because private benefactors would pick up the slack.
I feel like this is what happens when someone watches way too many TED talks - they become a Silicon Valley/Burning Man cliché. Get rich, then - if you feel like it - "gift" people things that they should have had access to in the first place if your country wasn't such a dumpster fire.
I was so shocked to meet someone who honestly believed the rich would save the world i wasn't sure what to say. I explained that excessive consumption is destroying our planet and how that disproportionately affects indigenous people and the global poor. I shared my belief that it is the richest people in the richest countries who are causing many of the world's problems. She said she never thought about it that way, but she didn't care because she still wants a big house and a car and a gold-plated healthcare plan and private school for her future children. Never mind she doesn't have a job yet because the actual poor who moved here are willing to put up with a commute. She'll get something, and when she does, watch out world!
Mao would roll over in his grave.
You know, all the kids here have to learn socialism in school. They are all taught about Marx. The mandatory CPC-approved lessons continue all the way through university. But, just like kids anywhere else in the world, they don't give a shit about mandatory classes. I have yet to meet a single Chinese person who can talk in-depth about Marx, or Mao, or Deng, or any serious CPC policy. They remember the slogans, just like (some) ethnic Christians can recite the Lord's Prayer, but it's meaningless to them. Once they grow up they develop their own views, and those run the gamut from liberal to conservative to whatever. It shouldn't be surprising to bump into a shameless libertarian in China, but it did give me whiplash.
I guess once i start work i am going to bump into a lot more.