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China – Beginner’s Eyes

chinamorningAs the delegation returned to our hotel in smoggy dusk a lime green rickshaw was playing chicken with a big tan BMW 7 sedan. Some unseen signal passed between the cyclist and driver and the tangle resolved itself smoothly; the perfect metaphor for my adventures in China last week.

The country is a fascinating jumble of the old and new, the Chinese are inventing new ways of working together on the fly in the midst of unprecedented growth and change. The whole country smells of wet concrete. Construction is everywhere.

In the spirit of “Beginners Eyes” I’ve captured in this post a few of the things that caught my attention over my 6 day visit. We’ll be making an announcement soon about the business venture we worked on, but in this initial post I’ll focus on my personal experiences.

Patterns

22 hours of travel took me from the warmth of Austin to the winter chill of Beijing. As we descended the street patterns of the communities on the flight path caught my attention. Everything is catawampus, it has an organic and erratic look to it. Villages, large apartment complexes, and farms all have irregular layouts.

The Cartesian orderliness valued in North America isn’t that important here – even in the most modern zones. As much as architecture reflects patterns of thought this aerial perspective provided some insight on cross-cultural differences. The Chinese are at home with complexity.

Nightlife

My bleary eyed search for dinner took me in a taxi to Huhai, a restaurant and bar district encircling a small lake in the center of the city.

Strolling around the lake I heard emo girls with guitars, a tight hard-rocking house band, and blind erhu (Chinese violin) players. I had to shake off numerous touts (“Lady Bar?”) who could give Bourbon Street’s dollar-a-holler hustlers a lesson or two in persistence. The scene was a pleasing mix of cultural vibrancy and the peace of the lights reflected around the lake.

chinesebanquetAbout the Food

That first night the menu featured turtle, bullfrog, fish heads, intestines, duck feet, alongside spring rolls and pork. Over the course of the week we ate rabbit, conch, foie gras, yak, duck eggs, bamboo, and all variety of chicken, pork, beef, and lamb. I don’t think we had squeal, quack, or moo, but if it could be cooked it found it’s way onto the table. Every bite was delicious and my personal favorite was a spicy Sichuan chicken dish that left your mouth numb. The yak was damn fine too.

I discovered quickly that the trick to surviving a Chinese banquet is taking just one bite of each dish. When 15-20 dishes are served it adds up to a full meal with a head spinning range of tastes and textures. I found it far more interesting than having just one dish to yourself.

You should try the corn juice too.

In a case of stereotyping and thoughtfulness the Chinese assume we want ketchup with everything. I was also amused to see a full display of Tabasco sauce products in our Sichuan hotel. Sichuan sets a high bar globally for spicy hot food, they do everyday things with peppers the Cajuns only dream of. And yet, there was Louisiana’s finest front and center.

forbiddenmaoThe Sights

My first full day was a chance to see the city and adjust to the 14 hour time shift. I headed off to the Forbidden City and had my first full contact encounter with Beijing cueing protocol. After I got skunked on the first subway I got into the spirit of the thing and muscled my way onto the second one.

The Palace was clearly built for intimidation – the scale must have been awe inducing when it was an active residence of the emperor. But the funny thing is the hordes of tourists clung together in the center of the passage through the various squares – leaving acres of empty space to the left and right. The scale remains intimidating even today.

Wandering in the hutongs (alleyways) behind the Palace gave a small taste of daily life in the city. Mountains of vegetables, laundry lines, and construction everywhere.

Where the heck are the trash cans? It isn’t like there is a lot of litter (there isn’t) but I spent half my time with trash jammed in my pockets.

Driving

During the long taxi ride out to the 798 Art Zone I noted that the question of front seat vs. back seat in cabs has a generational split to it. Older more egalitarian comrades ride shotgun while the new generation sits in back.

Anyone who learned to drive in Boston feels at home with the traffic patterns in China. Aggression mixed with a fine sense of when to give ground, a general disregard for lanes and lights, and a love affair with the horn are hallmarks of Chinese automotive arts.

Chinese trucks are impressively built, not fancy but engineered for power and scale. Half of them seem to be dragging great loads of brush and trees that spill out of the cargo area.

Seatbelts in cars and helmets on the ubiquitous motor bikes are entirely optional. In most of the cabs I rode the seat belt tab was hidden too deep in the seat to be used.

798artzoneArts and Culture

798 is a wonder – artists colonized and then overwhelmed an East German Bauhaus factory center about 10 miles northeast of the city center. Galleries, cafes, and shops spread over 10-15 blocks and feature a mix of local and international artists. The local scene is vibrant and ranged from deeply profound to kitschy (Maobama!). The streets are littered with sculpture mixed in with industrial detritus that creates an enervating contrast.

In one magic moment I emerged from the 798 Building into a small courtyard. An icy breeze brushed the trees and all the leaves came down at once. Essence of autumn.

Soaking the Laowai (foreigners) who want to remain in their cocoon is a finely tuned art. A 25 minute taxi ride back to my hotel was less than a cup of regular coffee in the hotel lobby. It was also 10x what I paid in a local café earlier in the day.

State sanctioned media (China Daily) mixes decent straight reporting with eyebrow raising howlers like “Kids Keen To Learn Financial Management.” I am not making that headline up. Things are not THAT different around the world.

Morning

I hit the streets for a walk at 5:30 AM (3:30 PM in wide awake Austin). We were staying in the financial district so you wouldn’t expect it to be vibrant. But it was totally dead. A few taxis idled sulkily and that was it. No pedestrians, no early morning coffee shops, no traffic. Nothing. I noticed a similar pattern in Sichuan a few days later.

As a night owl myself this makes total sense to me. Perhaps millennia of civilization have taught the Chinese that the early worm gets eaten.

A semaphore for income inequality – they still have payphones everywhere.

hlhlfoundation2011Ceremony

We were lucky enough to attend the HLHL Foundation awards in Beijing, the Chinese equivalent of the Nobel Prize. As guests of one of the founders we were given seats in the VIP section and added a touch of the West to the event.

All the judges and VIPs spent the better part of the ceremonies flipping pages of the documents they had been provided. This, rather than attending to the speakers, seemed to be the polite thing to do. They were very nicely printed documents and fortunately there were enough pictures to keep me entertained.

Dining protocol for business dinners is strict. The host always sits with his back to the wall facing the door, honored guests are placed in a pecking order in the seats radiating away from the host. I guess I expected something a little more egalitarian in a Communist culture but it seemed to work well for making sure people at the same level in the different organizations were able to interact.

Chinese toothpick style is a habit we should adopt in Texas. They cover their mouth with one hand while the other manages the excavation hidden from view.

commflagOutside Beijing

From there we headed to Sichuan Province in the center of the country. The parts of Beijing I saw were comparable to other world cities I’ve visited – Prague, Toronto, San Antonio. Just bigger – much bigger. Arriving in Sichuan felt a bit like landing in Mexico. It is a roiling dynamic area of construction and growth, but it also has more visible poverty. One block from our elegant hotel were broken windows, open markets, and obvious signs of economic stress.

The pollution is choking. If you can recall what LA was like in the ‘70’s double it and you will get some sense of the chemical fog that is a part of everyday life. If Made in China products are cheaper because of laxer environmental regulations we are doing nothing more than externalizing the health costs onto people who are least able to deal with them. Its taken the better part of a week for my lungs to clear, and I was only in Sichuan two and a half days.

This may be an inevitable part of industrialization but you would think we’d have learned better in the 150 years since London choked with smoke and the 40 years since Cleveland’s rivers were aflame.

Homeward

I rose before dawn on my last day for my flight to Taiwan. On a dark and empty boulevard someone tossed a bundle of firecrackers that crackled in the industrial fog. It was a punctuation mark for the end of my first visit.

I’ll be back. I love this place.