Category Archives: China

2008 Wuhan backstreet vs 2017 Wuhan highrises

This is my third trip to China since leaving ESL in December 2010. I’m trying not to less of one of those people who takes pictures of everything because in the States a street sign is a street sign but in Wuhan it’s something exotic.

What isn’t exotic, and what makes me melancholy is the constant urban renewal erasing places I cherished. The backstreet was the place I first visited on my own in China. It’s also the place where my wife and I had our first dinner together. I remember everything about the restaurant.

It’s jarring to see the changes when your memories remain so strong. Here’s the backstreet in 2008:

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And here it is today, new apartments charing an arm and a leg and probably a kidney per square meter:

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Where has the time gone? Wrecking balls and clouds of construction dust.

The Seven Year Laowai – Annotated Edition (aka the Director’s Commentary)

Hi there!

I’ve uploaded the full Seven Year Laowai with some annotations. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, and if that 99 cent pricetag was holding you back, rejoice! The whole story is available for free.

Check it out:

The Seven Year Laowai – Annotated Edition

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Wuhan Style Streets

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Germany Style Street: a trio of Bavarian dancers.

Italy Style Street: a suspicious-looking Mario and pizza.

Spain Style Street: a matador on the run from a bull.

This is what greets you when you leave Guanggu Wuchang and enter the rest of the mall: Optics Valley Walking Street, the part they were building when I last lived in Wuhan. Each area is marked for the country it mimics, and there is a mock cathedral for weddings.

At the end of the Style Streets a small train hauls children around a pack of animatronic dinosaurs who screech at timed intervals. Beyond this a wall with cartoon characters promise a Children’s Park and much more, and looking at the dinosaurs and the wall and the sheer size of what was once a nice outdoor mall turned consumer wonderland, the old line from Jurassic Park occurs to me.

What else have they got in there, King Kong?


Style Streets is an appropriate name because this place has its own style. It’s not Italy or Spain or Germany, images of European life it hopes to conjure in the minds of the Chinese nouveau riche. This is a uniquely Chinese style, a monstrous maze of shops and restaurants and cafes, stacked so close you wonder how anyone ever turns a profit. This is not a billion Chinese jumping.

This is a billion Chinese swiping Union Pay cards, the middle class and their hopefuls keeping the economic bubble well-inflated.


In 2008 Guanggu Wuchang was relatively new. Incumbent foreign teachers spoke of a time before the huge mall, with its giant Starbucks cup and dusty Epcot center bubble. Behind Guanggu it looked like they were building apartments. Walls were raised. Construction crews were called. Money changed hands and the corporate planners stood by, awaiting profit.

Seven years later they have it.

The Style Streets aren’t the only thing that’s new. New World Plaza arose while I was gone. A mall like any other, the fourth floor of New World is dedicated to children. Children’s development centers, clothes stores, a children’s train that does a complete lap around the floor, a play area and a Toys R Us.

The Toys R Us is a compact version, but as a compact unit it crams in quite a bit; they have all the toys and games we have, at high prices. 779 RMB for a Lego set, 99 RMB for a small Winnie the Pooh doll. Big Pooh goes for 199. I don’t know about Piglet.

BalaBala, Me and City Kids and the other children’s stores are similarly priced. Custom-made children’s desks go for 1149 RMB and up. An English Library (爱说读) in the middle of the hall has shelves of children’s books in Chinese and English, and two child development centers will have your kids ready for Harvard before they’re potty-trained.

There are three play areas. One is an obstacle course, the other has a carousel and a small train.

The other is Happy Bar: Baby’s Paradise.

50 RMB per person grants you entry to a crowded play area. You remove your shoes but keep on your socks. Some parents come in while others stay at the counter, watching Chinese dramas on their phones or staring vacantly into antiquity as their children wear themselves out on a boat that rocks back and forth, plush ABC blocks, an obstacle course, four slides, a sand pit of fine grains, nine swings and a ball pit. An HDTV lords over a small stage. Children are doing ballet on a continuous loop or synchronized dances to classic Chinese children’s songs and doting grandparents lounge by the ABCs while their grandchildren dash up and down stairs and jump on trampolines and in the ball pit a toddler is crying while a fat boy keeps throwing balls at him, ignoring his mother’s gentle suggestions to stop. A child crashes his toy car into your shin. Sweat beads pop soundlessly on your collar. The letter B has gone missing.

In the middle a giant inflated polar bear spins ceaselessly.


The dinosaurs at the end of Optics Valley Walking Street screech. People take pictures with the dinosaurs and two girls exit Mean Dessert carrying cupcakes. I look over. A replica of a London tour bus is permanently parked in front of a cafe. Then I look back at the wall and the promise of more to come and I think it’s true.

King Kong isn’t far behind.

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The Three Weeks in China that Shook Me

The last few weeks, summed up in one conversation:

女孩儿还是男孩儿? (Boy or girl?)

女孩儿。 (Girl)

她几岁? (How old is she?)

三岁。 (Three)

三岁!这么大!? (Three! That big!?)

她说汉语还是英语? (Can she speak Chinese or English?)

都可以。 (Both.)

哦!很棒! (Oh! Wonderful!)

她冷吗? (Is she cold?)

不冷。 (She’s not cold.)

*Feels her hands.* 多穿点衣服。(Put more clothes on her.)

Had a great time. See you again someday…

A Mei Suzi Level Event

March 2014, Hankou train station and my wife’s had enough.

“Tamen dou mei suzi de ren.”

The crowds rushing past us, the unhelpful train station workers, four suitcases and a fussy one-year old. First day here and she’s already hit a China Breaking Point.

Tamen dou mei suzi de ren. One of the rushing passengers bumps into our suitcase.

It falls over.

***

How do you convey this to the people back home? How do you make them understand what it’s like to haul your four suitcases up the stairs after the guard tells you the elevator’s out, and then watch that same guard open the elevator for someone else, quickly locking it again?

How do you do it?

How do you explain what it’s like to get on the train and find people in your seats? Then these people argue with you and you have to get a stewardess to make them move and they argue with her too.

How do you do it?

If you can explain all that, then you can understand what it’s like to stand there atop the stairs as the crowd surges around us. As not one person bothers to stop and help, as the guards just watch us and the train whistle blows again. Hurry up.

If you can, you’ll understand why my wife said “Tamen dou mei suzi de ren.” When it comes to a China Breaking Point, it’s actually rather tame.

It was my first time in China in three years. Going in, I tried to be realistic. I tried, because three years does funny things to the brain. It makes the brain think that the every man for himself mentality is not a big deal. Hell, it’s part of the culture, it’s a quirk. It makes you romanticize the days when you had no money, weighed over 200 pounds and subsisted on a diet of beer and hot dry noodles. It makes you long for the taste of baijiu — fucking baijiu! And not the well-brewed kind but the tiny 5 RMB bottles, one of the many perks of your “high” ESL salary. It doesn’t make you realistic. So I prepared myself.

But preparation only takes you so far.

We make it to my wife’s hometown. We’re heading out of the train station. As we close in on the exit, a guy behind us starts to speed up. He and my wife hit the door at the same time, and he goes faster. While there’s plenty of room on the right, he has the warrior’s instinct: he knows the slit between my wife’s shoulder and the wall will be quicker.

He squeezes through. The checkered flag drops.

Still, I’d say I’m better equipped than most. Check out the airplanes. Taxi’ing in, seatbelt sign on? What seatbelt sign? One guy actually made it all the way to the front with his luggage before we’d come to a complete stop. That’s more than skill — that’s an inbuilt instinct, the difference between waiting at the front or waiting close to the front.

The difference between life or death.

Not everyone sees it my way. When we landed in Chicago,, a man cut off this old lady, nearly whacking her with his suitcase. She glared at him.

“Excuse you!”

Then she gave me this look. The look of someone who’s on her first (and only) trip to China. The man didn’t react. I could tell her he can’t understand “Excuse you”, but I don’t think she knows how to say it in Chinese.

And besides, she’s nowhere near a “mei suzi” moment.