Friday, July 19, 2013

Return to the Pearl River Delta (Again)

I just can't seem to get enough of South China. Which is quite interesting, given that I hate the temperature, hate the humidity, and hate the fact that, when on an escalator in a subway station, people adamantly REFUSE to STAND ON THE RIGHT AND WALK ON THE LEFT (they just stand on both sides like philistines taking up the entire escalator) . But, for all its minor faults, South China (or more specifically, Shenzhen), really is the place to be. I left this maddeningly interesting place back in November 2012 after a year of living here, and have since bounced around the Korean peninsula for a month on two separate occasions, spent some time living with old friends in Kuala Lumpur, spent a month living in a tiny dump of a bedroom in Central Hong Kong (for about $800US per month rent, no less.....), and sprinkled in stopovers in Chicago, Zurich, and Washington D.C. for good measure. I also ended up getting quoted in Yahoo Finance, which was pretty sexy.

But in spite of the busy-ness (I was going to write business, but realized this was not in fact an adjective to describe busy, but was in fact the word business....), or perhaps because of it, my mind was constantly wandering back to this blossoming megacity located in the delta of the Pearl River, just over the border from the manic and overcrowded (but still lovely) Hong Kong, and just far enough south of the manic and overcrowded (but still lovely) Guangzhou. Somewhere in-between--not quite Hong Kong, not quite China, just a weird hybrid of free market economies, Communist propaganda, wide boulevards, a blooming art scene, more parks than you could visit in a year (as I found out firsthand), and fleets of Ferraris, Rolls Royces, and Bentleys existing hand-in-hand with armies of downtrodden people earning less in a lifetime than the cost of any one of those cars, Shenzhen really is a city of contrasts and contradictions (a note on the previous 2 links....yes, living in China does make you slightly more Communist). Maybe that's why I found the place so darned interesting (anyone who can name the film from which I lifted that line will get a beer next time I see them).

So, anyway, having given an overly artistic and abstract account of Shenzhen, let's get to the facts and events that led to my coming back to this city. I ended up flying into Hong Kong on May 18th, with the intention of renting a short-term flat in HK, getting a China visa (and praying for multiple-entry, so that I could enter/exit China as I pleased without having to buy a new visa frequently--a $140-150 expense which adds up quickly!), and then moving over the border to Shenzhen. Easy enough. So upon arrival in HK, I met AlanKey--a regular character in this blog, and old friend from exchange in Hong Kong--near his flat in North Point. Alan is from Adelaide, South Australia, but has a certain propensity for all things Asian. He's also very good with making the most of an iPhone. Alan currently works as a tunnel engineer in Hong Kong, working on expanding their public transportation system, the MTR. He is perhaps the most resourceful and well-connected person I know, and as such I had full faith in him that he would be able to help me find an apartment without haste. What I didn't know at the time was how tremendous the lack of haste would be. That is--after landing in Hong Kong at about 5:00pm, I was signing a one-month lease on an apartment in Central by about 7:30pm, arranged by none other than the AlanKey. The apartment was, in short, a dump. A tiny room in a small flat in the center of the most expensive real-estate market in the world (or among them, anyway). Complete with 2 roommates--one of whom a French model, and one of whom a British wine salesman--I was settled in my temporary one-month abode--or at least as close to settled as one can get when the smell of mold permeates every square meter of your flat, and the space between your bed and the wall is roughly the length of your knee to your foot. But anyway, for $800US per month, it was a bargain worthy of the Price is Right!

So, that was that, and I was settled in Hong Kong for a month. During the month, not an overwhelming amount happened. I worked, I slept, I ate a lot of Pret a Manger, met a lot of really great people who I still keep in touch with, and I visited Chungking Mansions a lot. And I drank an obscene amount of Starbucks. I also miraculously acquired the mythical 6-month multiple entry China tourist visa, which was a huge victory. Other highlights included taking weekend excursions with the AlanKey to explore more remote areas of Hong Kong, including Tai O, random parts of Kowloon, and even the occasional border crossing to Shenzhen once my visa came through.

So, on June 19th, after 1 month and 1 day in Hong Kong, it was back over the border to Shenzhen. And here are the circumstances under which I returned to this crazy city--

My best friend from a year of previously living in Shenzhen, John Scutt (Scutt from here), is still living in Shenzhen. He recently returned to find a job, and got a good sales job with a computer-type company that manufactures components for tablets and that sort of thing. And his lease was just about to run out on his apartment. So, we got a 2-bedroom place in a more Chinese part of town (relatively's still quite western, with a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut within a 3 minute walk, but then again, anything is more Chinese than our previous accommodation--the Sheraton Hotel). So, with the help of my old co-worker, Lisa "the nicest and most helpful person in existence" Liu, we were able to find a nice flat for a decent price in a safe part of town that was convenient in terms of public transport and relation to other interesting areas. So there you go. The new apartment has a balcony, 2 bedrooms, a nice sitting room with a 3D TV, and a nice bathroom. It also has s full kitchen, which is already being put to good use--the refrigerator is currently home to a bottle of Tsingtao beer, 2 bottles of Chinese rice wine that neither of us can stomach, but which we bought for <$1 each just in case of a horrible bodily injury, as the stuff is a brilliant disinfectant, and a package of grapes. There's a very nice pool downstairs, and our neighbors include an 80 year old Chinese woman who cannot understand a word I am saying, even when I speak to her in Chinese. So there's that. Further, just outside of our apartment is the world famous "Super Market Greatly" (yes, that is the name of the supermarket), as well as the curious convenience store who's English name is simply a gigantic "E". Conveniently, there is also a mattress store just next door, which made finding a mattress less than difficult. After an IKEA run (yes, they have IKEA in China, complete with a Swedish woman living here as the store manager!), our apartment has come together quite nicely, and in addition to the fat buddha statue that the old owners left, we now have an assortment of posters, paintings, some cool lamps, and a wooden man scattered around the place (photos to come in the next post).

On the work front, I have lately been working from my old office in the CBD of Shenzhen. It's been going well, with me being able to do my new job around my old coworkers, and combining the convenience of having people with whom to banter, with the convenience of being able to not go to the office any time I want, and just work from home.

In other news, because this blog post has been extremely dry thus far, let's cut to some bizarre scenes I have seen since my return to China:

1) I was walking through a very central part of the city the other night. Keep in mind this is (arguably) the most developed city in China, and further, the central part of the city should, in theory, be quite developed. So, while walking through this area, I encountered one of those maybe 4ft tall cylinders which are built to keep cars from swerving off the road onto the sidewalk. The cylinder is made of concrete, with a diameter of maybe 8-10 inches. So picture this sort of concrete cylinder on the side of the road. Atop this cylinder, supported by his (presumably) father, was a 4-ish year old boy, proudly urinating off of the cylinder into the street as though this was the most normal and socially acceptable thing in the world. Welcome to China, circa 2013 folks.

2) Some friends and I were in a very expatty-bar (hence the name xpats) the other week. We were about to leave, but before doing so, I went to say goodbye to another friend sitting at the bar with some guy I didn't know. And here is how that went:

Me: "See you later Bob, nice seeing you"

Bob: "Yep, you too, have a nice weekend"

Unknown 50-ish year old man sitting next to Bob: "Do you have a name card (business card) for me?"

Me: "Actually, I'm sorry but I don't have any at the moment"

Guy: "Well then get out of here, you're useless!"

Me: "Sorry?"

Guy: "You heard me, you're interrupting our conversation, and you don't have a name card, so get out!"

Bob: (who, it should be noted, is the most laid-back, casual, easy-to-get-along-with Californian you could ever hope to meet) "Well wait a minute, he was just coming over to say goodbye, they're not interrupting anything"

Guy: "No, they're useless, get out of here"

Me: "Bob,  is this guy serious?"

Guy: "Get out of here kids" (or something to this extent)

At this point, we left the place, only to come back an hour later, see that the guy was urinating outside the bar, go inside and find out that he was apparently molested by his father at some point (or so he had said at the bar), and thus was mentally not quite all there, or some garbage like this. To that, I would say, well, you should probably do one of two things:

1) Get over it (obviously this is much easier said than done)
2) Learn to handle your liquor sometime between the time you start to drink alcohol and the time you reach 50 years old.

Anyway....the people you meet in Shenzhen. Note: I realize that it is at best distasteful and at worst horrific that I mention the man's previous sexual abuse, but frankly speaking, when you go around a bar telling people how bad they should feel for you because you got molested by your father, that information becomes public knowledge. So, if anyone really took offense to that, I am more than willing to listen to why, and if the reasoning is compelling enough, I can remove it (that's a lie).

3) Some current obsessions lately:

  • Quartz--a brilliant news website that I have been using literally every day to get my daily dose of macroeconomic, business, financial, or otherwise interesting news. I even used it to steal the idea for having a "current obsessions" section to this blog.
  • Improving my Chinese--it is wonderful to be back in a country where I can go out any time of any day and practice Chinese. It's been improving pretty quickly, so that's nice.
  • The Ashes--a massive cricketing match between England and Australia which alternates between the two countries. Currently we are in day 2 of a series of 5 tests. Brilliant thus far. 
  • Teaching English--I am not a teacher. I generally don't care for teaching. I like getting up and talking in front of people, and am very comfortable doing it, but being asked to teach someone else at their pace of learning, which is generally incredibly slow, is really unpleasant. However, my old Chinese boss has asked me to tutor his daughter for 2hrs per day in English, in preparation of her going to the US for school. And in fact, it's been kind of enjoyable.
  • The TV shows The Newsroom and Entourage--I don't watch much TV, but lately have been watching these shows at the flat, and find them both to be well-written and generally entertaining to watch.
  • Expanding my consumption of different Chinese street foods. Lately has included 凉皮 (cold rice noodles)肉夹馍 (“Chinese Hamburger”),and various organ meats. Living the dream, I tell you.

So, with that, I apologize for the dry and generally unenjoyable nature of this blog post. It is intended as more of a transitionary blog post--basically I had to let you all know why I'm now writing from China and not Korea. I will be writing more regularly from here on out as I'm more or less settled in my current location, and will hopefully be able to bring back some stories from the last 6 months as I traveled across the world in search of a place that I like better than Shenzhen, only to come up empty-handed. Until next time, lay off the organ meats--they're definitely not as good as the Chinese hamburgers.

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