08 June 2007

改革开放以后... (gaige kaifang yihou...)

Something I've always found interesting (and rather annoying... and rather disgusting, actually), is that in the bathrooms in my dorm, the ayis will fill the soap dispensers with water. My guess is that they're trying to make the soap last longer, but really, I just pump more onto my hand. But then again, we're lucky we have soap. Most places don't, so I always carry around hand sanitizer.

I also always carry around tissues, as bathrooms in China consistently lack toilet paper. If, by some stroke of luck, we encounter a bathroom with toilet paper, it's big news. That's a classy bathroom. But something that none of the bathrooms have is a plumbing system into which one can flush toilet paper. It was hard to get into the habit of not flushing toilet paper; when I get back to America, it will be hard not to not flush toilet paper.

As CET is coming to a close, there's more and more talk about reverse culture shock. I'm not really sure what that will be like. I didn't suffer from normal culture shock (is there such a thing?) when I got here; I adapted pretty quickly. But I'm not sure about going home—will I just fall back into my normal routines? What will I find strange? Perhaps eating with a fork, not sharing food with everyone, non-negotiable prices, driving, clean streets, or clean bathrooms.

That the days are dwindling has made me start thinking about what I miss about American life—cleaner air, clean streets, non-negotiable prices, driving. It's interesting that some of the things that I'll miss are some of the things I look forward to getting away from. But there's still a fair amount that I miss about my life in America that I don't get here-- my family, hummus, Ethiopian food, my own bathroom, less questionable health conditions, good chewing gum. Even though I know I'll miss China and my life at CET, I'm ready to come home. I'm studied out, and I'm ready to start my internship in California.

But before we start thinking about China-less adventures, let's recap what's been going on on this side of the Pacific.

Last weekend Victoria, Annetta, Jason, and I went to Qingdao. Some of you may know it as Tsingtao, as in the beer. Qingdao is a coastal city in Shandong and the future site of Olympic watersports. Though Qingdao is unquestionably a part of China, it sure doesn't feel like it.

Actually, it feels like California with a little bit of Europe thrown in. Not only are the streets clean (I'm sensing a trend here), but the buildings are more colorful (ie not gray), it's on the coast, there's less pollution, and the streets are lined with trees. I know those don't seem like a lot of reasons, but until there's just something different about the way it feels. At one time, it was occupied by the Germans, so a majority of the buildings are done in European-style architecture. It's gorgeous. It was like going back to the States for a weekend.

The four of us left on Friday after our test, and after a brief hour in the air, we were in Qingdao. We booked a hotel online and we were excited, because not only was the price decent, but it was a Hyatt and supposedly a ten minute walk from the beach.

We were a little surprised when we got into the rooms. They weren't bad, but they were incredibly small. Annetta and I shared a room, and we hardly had any space at all. The other indication that it wasn't quite up to Hyatt standards is that the shower was the bathroom and the bathroom the shower. This isn't uncommon in China; you'll recall I noted the same about Tianqi's house. But the thing is, it makes the bathroom really wet and a little gross after you shower. Then took a closer look at the hotel's name. Not a Hyatt, but a Hyatt Star. Oh, those clever business-people. They also mentioned that the hotel was star-rated, but failed to mention just how many stars it had been rated.

But we didn't spend that much time in the hotel anyway. Because the second we set our stuff down we went out for our first Qingdao meal. Qingdao is renowned for it's seafood (it's on the sea—it should be), so we went in search of the best seafood we could find.

This is the street with the best seafood in town (according to more than a few Qingdao-ites).

I don't normally eat seafood—it's too fishy. But in Qingdao, they know how to cook their seafood, and, well, there really wasn't much of a choice. Boy, did I suffer.

This is our fish before we ate it.

There's nothing like seeing your meal killed before your eyes. I think that whacking it on the floor is a good method. Plus it provides a little bit of a challenge, since it's hard to pick up again when it's writhing furiously on the floor.

This is our fish prepared.

We also ordered dates stuffed with nuts.

And mushrooms with noodles.

And beef in some hard wrap thing. Good.

And some clams. I didn't eat those. Not my thing.

And these. These spectacular buns of doughy greatness. There was meat and green onions in the middle.

They were fantastic. I only ate two and a half. Annetta had four. I was impressed.

Then we went to the supermarket and bought tons of candy. In China, there's a fruit called Hawthorne (or Haw or Shanzha) that's nonexistent in the US. Somehow, the Chinese have managed to take this small, cherry-sized, tangy fruit and produce The Most Fabulous Candy of All Time. There are fruit roll up things, flakes of dried shanzha, a candy of both of them layered like a sandwich, special chewy gummies with powdered sugar on the outside, and then, The Most Fabulous of The Most Fabulous Candy of All Time, strips of fruit roll-up type shanzha coated in sugar. Here in the Gang of Four, we call them the “weixian tang,” or “dangerous candy.” It's not hard to eat a ton of them in one sitting (as I may or may not have been known to do. Ask the extra ten pounds on my hips). This is what we do while we eat candy:

I think the greatest problem of American society is that they do not have Shanzhas, or if they do, they aren't available to many. I think a lot could be solved by the Hawthorne. I'm bringing some back to the States with me; we'll see if my family agrees. Maybe I'll bring about world peace (or obesity or diabetes).

This is the best looking man in Qingdao:

The next day we were blessed with nice weather, so we set off to Huang dao, or Yellow Island, to go to a beach that my book said was prettier and less crowded than the others in Qingdao. Following half an hour in a cab, half an hour on a ferry, and another half hour in another cab, we reached Jinsha tan aka Golden Beach.

Chinese beaches are a lot different than American ones. The beaches are filled with tents and umbrellas, and the second you step onto the sand, someone hounds you to rent one. Also, no one on the beach wears a swimsuit. Annetta, Victoria, and I wore ours, and we got a LOT of stares; more than usual. Nothing like waiguo ren in a bikini, I guess.

And then, we were hungry. Big surprise there. So we found a little place, killed another fish, and watched it sit on the dirty tile floor for awhile before it got cooked.

We also ordered some fried beef:

Potatoes and eggplant:

Octopus (not bad):

Mapo dofu:

It was good, but not spectacular, and way too overpriced.

Once we cab-ferry-cabbed back to Qingdao, we went to another beach that was not as good. It was recommended by our cab driver, who seemed to fancy himself an expert on Qingdao and our tour guide. He rambled on and on about a TV tower, an underwater aquarium, and various other activities he seemed to think were a good use of our time. This may sound helpful, but really, it was irritating, because he just wouldn't listen.

After the beach, we back to the same street filled with seafood restaurants for dinner. This was our best choice yet.

Mandatory fish:

Oily iron-skillet meat with chili powder and tons and tons of garlic:

Mussel thingies:

Tofu noodles:

Oily fried eggplant stuffed with pork and then doused in oil:

Fried dough with beef and egg for stuffing:

Needless to say, we ate too much. It was that night when I reached my saturation point. All that oil swimming through my digestive tract made me not want to think about eating any more food. And then, after a foot massage, we went back to the hotel and ate candy. Because candy isn't food.

Sunday we woke up and went to the Tsingdao beer factory. This is without question the best museum I've been to in China (though that's not saying much since Chinese museums are somewhat lacking in organization).

So we walked through exhibits, watched ads, walked through a factory and learned how to make beer. And then we reached the free sample counter, in which they gave each of us a free glass of beer (but we paid 50 kuai entry to the factory).

We posed with the beer, took a token sip, and then gave the rest to Jason, since none of the females like beer. Actually, it wasn't bad; much better fresh, but I didn't like it enough to drink it at 10 in the morning. Jason, however, downed all four glasses in quick succession. Impressive.

We then continued on our journey through the brewery and arrived at the gift shop a few minutes later. After purchasing requisite tchachkas, we were greeted with another “free” pitcher of beer. Jason managed to polish off a little more than half of the pitcher, and, before the hands of the clock reached eleven, got drunk. Though he wasn't absurdly drunk, his eyes were red and he couldn't walk straight for the next two hours. Our group lush, it seems.

Then we walked around for awhile, went to a fish market, and then we females got our nails done (though Jason should have too).

After that, an early dinner back at the seafood street.

Killed another fish:

Shrimpy things (not my thing):

Chicken and vegetables:

Vegetables with pork (really good):

Salad with seafood bits and TONS of garlic:

And then it was off to the airport, where we ate more candy and did homework. All in all, a great weekend. I'd really like to go back some day. Maybe when I compete in sailing at next year's Olympics.

Back in Beijing, it's been a week of last suppers. Thai, Shanghai, Hakka, a new Hunan place. Actually, we haven't been going much of anything; this week was finals and Friday is our “graduation.” And then Monday, early morning, I head back to the other side of the Pacific.

So now I have seen both sides of the Pacific Ocean, but it's hard to come up with overarching theses about China. It's different, it's the same. I look forward to going home but I don't want to leave. China is one massive maodun, or contradiction; it's one big problem that just can't be solved. Actually, it seems like the best way for the laobai xing (ordinary people) to live is just to acknowledge that there is a problem (the most common sentence is: Zhongguo de ren tai duo le-- China has too many people), but to live like you aren't part of the problem. Everyone here is just trying to get by and live the best life that he or she can. Maybe he does it by shouting “hello!” from vendor stalls in the hopes of selling you an overpriced anything, or maybe she sells fruits or bootleg DVDs, or operates an elevator, or tries to gouge you on service prices. It's annoying that people shove to get onto the bus or the subway, but the way this country is, you have to shove your way around or else you get left behind and you're the only one that suffers.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Tianqi's dad about the gaige kaifang, the closest translation of which is China's Open Door Policy, which signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution, when living in China pretty much sucked. It's a pretty big deal here in China, even though it's just a sentence in American history. Here, the sentence “gaige kaifang yihou... (after the gaige kaifang...)” is a very common one. Basically, that's when life in China stopped sucking so much. After years of not developing the economy at all, the government finally started. They finally allowed people to attend college, stopped sending teenagers to rural areas to work, and allowed people to stop starving.

And so I asked Tianqi's dad: gaige kaifang yihou, what were the biggest changes in your life? This man was alive during the Cultural Revolution; he worked in the rural areas. His life must have been hard. What he told me is: zhongguo ren de shenghuo shuiping tigao le henduo-- Chinese people's standard of living improved a lot. That's the biggest thing. He said they were finally able to use the law to protect themselves. They had jobs, so they had more money, so they had more clothing and more food. They bought more things, more electronics, and suddenly, their lives improved quickly. How could a society with a majority of people who lived through the Cultural Revolution not shove to be first, not fight for a seat on the bus or subway, not covet the latest cell phone model? They had nothing, and now their kids have comparatively everything. And the kids who were born right after the Cultural Revolution are living in a maodun—old ideals from their parents, new ideals from development and the Western influence.

No wonder China is developed but behind. Some buildings look Western, but they're surrounded by old buildings that sag with age. I don't know how China's going to deal; it just can't take any more people. Sometimes in our drill classes our professors ask us how we could solve one of many of China's problems, and usually all we can come up with is: they should implement related policies. I don't know what those policies are, and I don't think the government does either.

Being over here has changed my opinions a lot. When I first arrived, I and my classmates were against the One Child Policy; we thought it was unfair that the government could control how many kids a couple are allowed to have. We kept telling our teachers: it's an individual choice. They clearly didn't agree; we're just spoiled Americans. But then I saw just how many people there are, just how many of them don't have enough to get by, just how small apartments are, and I started to understand. The government has to control the population. It might suck individually, but that's the price the Chinese have to pay for a history in which they had no participation.

I'm going home in three days, so I'm lucky that I can leave this problem behind. It's easy to look at China and say, there are just too many people; it's not my problem. But what about Tianqi? What about the other 1.3 billion people in China? Basically, everyone just has to ignore the problem until they personally suffer the consequences. I wonder how long it will take for America to suffer the consequences, too.