24 August 2008

Red flat caps in Fuzhou

I've had unusual drink experiences on work trips before but tonight was a first. When the taxi driver just giggles when you hopefully utter some English you think, ‘oh shit’. When he can't even read your map you become more concerned. In any case, so far as I can tell, the pinyin (phonetic Chinese-in-latin-letters) street names in my rough guide do not correspond to the ones actually in use – thanks guys, really needed things to be even trickier. But a way will be found: I have the Chinese characters for a hotel adjacent to my desired destination, so with a bit of enforced reading I make it to the bar. Despite the English bits of the menu not featuring any beer – how about that for cross cultural ignorance; there's no easyjet stag nights in Fuzhou (foo djoe) yet – even I can pronounce Tsing Tao comprehensibly so I get my desperately needed lager.

My head is spinning. Difference, strangeness, unfamiliarity. None of them come close. I'm sure any first visit to China is challenging. The ketamine-like jetlag on arrival doesn't help. And I doubt 5 films back to back in Virgin cattle helps (have you seen Cloverfield? It’s amazing). But this is my first time in this giant country and I'm the only non-Chinese person in a city of 5 million people. The place is massive, there are skyscrapers everywhere, traffic and pedestrians interweave in some chaotic but functional bee dance. Lights, noise, so much noise. The heat, the omnipresent, all penetrating, hot sticky heat. 30C and 90% humidity. At midnight. Lost doesn't even scratch the surface. Only now do I understand the true meaning of foreign. You need to experience a full day of absolutely everybody looking at you from the moment you leave your hotel room to genuinely feel this. I want to get a tshirt printed in Chinese saying “Will everyone please stop staring” with “While you’re at it, stop spitting too” on the back.

The stare is rarely unkind (but it’s undeniably disconcerting); it’s just symptomatic of my essential physical difference. Maybe in Beijing and Shanghai things aren’t like this, I’ve not been there yet, but Fuzhou is not a traveller’s city and a European stands out like a large pagoda on a Ming manicured hilltop. The stare is predominantly curious; my dress (which, in effect, is not that different from many young people here), my skin, my hair, my body hair. I’ve realised that my legs must make me look like a monkey in this environment. The young also look, but in an altogether different way. The cool kids, and there are plenty. Here you sense a sharpened, admirative affinity. And many coy smiles. Plenty beauty wanders the streets at night. Much ‘hello’ precedes an explosion giggle. When contact does arise, shyness prevails, but when broken through a seriously impressive level of English ensues wrapped with a welcoming warmth. Bloody shame all the kids don’t work in my hotel then.

One item of dress did get me an extraordinary reaction however. My famous red flat cap on arrival at the airport. I’ve a thing about travelling in that hat, I don’t know why. But did that hat get a reaction…! I don’t know if it was the fact I was wearing a hat at all, or that it was a flat cap or most probably more due to it being red (not simply an important colour here) but any clues would be most appreciated.

Arrival in Shanghai’s immense Pu Dong airport is not nothing (and I’ve not seen Beijing’s airport yet). The gate pier is about 2 kilometres long. Trying to discern the ends when you are near the middle makes you a bit giddy, especially after 12 pressurised hours over Siberia, any longer and you could see the curvature of the Earth. I had to find myself an internal flight for my final destination, which in fact wasn’t very difficult to do. Smiles are subtle but present and brief. Eye contact almost flinching. People are very helpful in their own way. I had to change airports and my second introduction into the enormity that is China is that it takes 90 minutes by taxi to change airports in Shanghai. Had I been going into the city I would have been on the adjacent world’s only commercial Maglev train, which, being the physicist that I really am, is a 400 kmh-1 orgasm. I saw it fly past. Fucking amazing. No moving parts. But I was bound to the motorway and having a presentation of Chinese driving and its ultimate dependence on the horn. The horn is used to warn others you are overtaking, decelerating or accelerating. Or travelling at a constant speed. It also denotes various other unfathomable actions and is very, very important. Yet it is not in the slightest bit aggressive as heard in the West. I also had my introductory lesson in pretending to converse with a taxi driver who apparently cannot care less that you’ve just flown across the planet and you can’t understand a single word. The drive traversed a never ending new China urbanism. Not unattractive tower blocks for 90 minutes. It’s astounding. On arrival at Hongqiao airport I realised two things I’d already been vaguely conscious of at Pu Dong; there are millions of children everywhere. Airports feel like a real family experience. Outside Gatwick South (oh don’t let me think of that now) children are almost forbidden in ‘London’ airports. The other thing was the Olympics-enhanced security. X-ray machines and ion scanners everywhere. If you keep popping out for a ciggie like me (yes, I know I should’ve stopped again by now – the thought crossed my mind on arrival after about 16 nicotine-less hours on the journey but the jetlag overcame the issue), then being (very politely) swabbed for Semtex every time you re-enter the building gets a bit tedious.


I travelled to Fuzhou on business. Consequently I’m being looked after a lot of the time. Such impeccable hospitality! Ok, verging on the suffocating maybe sometimes, but very kind and wonderful. My host, a 25 year old girl, is a sales manager at the company I’m visiting. The company in question is owned by a woman. All very new China also. My non-existent language skills don’t enable me to observe beyond the visually obvious, but I witness sexual (I no longer use the euphemism ‘gender’ in this context, as apparently it refers only to nouns) equality everywhere in fact. As I note is happening a lot in London these days, this is even overshooting in certain situations. It will be sometime before I deduce the hidden rules of priority and etiquette in negotiating the bee dance enacted at crossings, doorways and pavements here, but one thing I have noticed is that the women defiantly play a ‘fairer sex’ card while barging through onto their chosen path. None has yet, fortunately, surpassed the delightful lady who wilfully and painfully elbowed me out of the way in London Bridge tube station last year. Another tipping point too far in how low London will go in terms of abandoning all human decency.

Anyway, back to China and my wonderful host. I am picked up, driven around, fed and watered regularly and my state of being is regularly checked for contentment. One could get accustomed… Maybe in a Chinese way things are a smidgen too regimented – hangover of the Cultural Revolution’s martialism? – but altogether unfaultably hospitable.

In a general sense, Chinese food isn’t as foreign to westerners as my hosts might expect. And my developed chopstick skills were met with much nodding admiration. I felt quite proud (is that ok?) Of course there are surprises and things I’ve not yet dared, but I think should, touch. In a way that actually appeals to me out of principle, much food here is raw; not in an uncooked sense, in a closer to nature sense. It’s less transfigured into something anonymous. A chicken’s foot is unmistakably what it is. Fish often look as if they perished in the very pot they are served in, scales, eyes and all. Sometimes shocking to the uninitiated, yet here you always know exactly what you are eating. Ok, except the dumplings. My only problem with the food was the stupendous quantities proffered upon me and the resulting, diplomatically difficult task of sensitively refusing any more. It’s a trade-off between causing offence refusing food and imparting horror by vomiting in front of your hosts.

Fuzhou isn’t reputed in China for its restaurants (it is, regrettably, reputed in certain circles as the world capital of gastric cancer...); however I did eat some lovely food here. Being a business guest I suppose I was taken to some of the better places (though I actually preferred the more fast food noodle bar style eateries) and saw that these restaurants had a very different setup. Invariably, they are always on the first floor – hence I would’ve had no clue they were there, I’m yet to learn the character for restaurant even, although I do know the second character (out of two) for Fuzhou – and they comprise a long narrow corridor leading to a series of parallel private rooms. Good for intimacy, not so good for people watching. Also not so good when all your companions inexplicably leave you in the small (rather grotty?) room with the embarrassed waitress. It’s not like we could engage in small talk, I couldn’t even say hello, ni hào, at that stage.

I’ve not yet seen anyone spit in an (indoor) restaurant, but apparently it happens. However it is not true that everyone thinks it’s fine to spit, although an awful lot of people engage in it. My host for one thinks it is disgusting. There are teams of street cleaners in Beijing employed to request people clean it up when they are seen spitting, if they refuse they are then shamed by the street cleaner doing it themselves. Can you imagine this working in London for litter? Yeah right… more like, ‘pick it up your fucking self, arsehole.’ The practice really is immensely shocking. Especially when women do it too; I’m sorry, it’s true. It’s not so much the act of propelling the sputum-saliva mix on the floor that bothers, it’s the significant, voluminous, preparatory sound effects. The great, guttural, croaking roar from the depths maximising the potential excreta. I just get scared everyone is going to be sick.

Food and flobbing aside. My week’s work in Fuzhou was a fascinating experience. Given our gaping linguistic and cultural divide, I remain amazed that we actually got anywhere, but we muddled through everything and I learnt about 10 words of Chinese (that I’m trying to practice at any opportunity). Much about Chinese language produces fear and admiration. Of course, the character set itself is petrifyingly immense at over 10 000. But more repellingly intimidating is the system in which tone (and not spelling) encodes meaning. But then I learn that 2500 characters is enough to read a newspaper (and only the very educated know many more). Even more dramatically, I find out that English uses many more tones than Chinese, but does so to denote stress or nuance, and then it all starts to feel a bit more approachable. All the Chinese tones exist in English (but, ok, might be a bit unusual). For example, the ‘first’ tone (in Mandarin Chinese), that which gives Chinese it’s essential sound I would say, is said in English whenever you want to mimic a) a robot or b) someone who is boring you to death. Then I learn that there are no tenses, no verb conjugations and no gender (see) and I feel that maybe Chinese is manageable after all. Yeah right, I’m still struggling to say thank you, xié xie (tschiay tschier) correctly. This latin letter system, pinyin, was planned to totally replace the Chinese characters in the fifties. Ok, maybe there was sense in the project, but thank god it didn’t happen. The characters are simply beautiful. One thing that still escapes me however is how do you map the use of tone for nuance in English (think how you would say, ‘you’re ki-dding’) in Chinese without just saying a different word? It’s all so fascinatingly strange.
New urban China is very serious about shopping. And karaoke. Since opening its doors to the rest of the world, China is absorbing Japanese and Western consumer materialism at an astonishing rate. Everything is available. 99% of it instantly recognisable (it’s all made here, after all). JC Decaux street 'art' occupies all available space, just as you are so familiar with. A fair proportion of magazine covers you would know immediately. Fuzhou’s streets are busy busy busy at night. For one thing, the temperature and humidity have retracted to just a mildly unbearable level. For another, it’s time for serious shopping. Shops start to close (see there’s the intonation again, you can’t do that in Chinese, it would render the meaning sheep needs kettle or something like that) at 10pm. In one of our million cultural information interchanges, my host was aghast when I said shops close at about 7 in the UK, and that’s in London. A glimpse at maybe the paucity (is it fair to say that?) of cultural alternatives here in Fuzhou was her reply asking, ‘but what on earth do people do?’ Many of the urban Chinese are now essentially ‘free’ (by whatever we may mean by that dangerous word) but free to do what exactly? Spend of course. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want it to be any different, but let’s hope that a wider culture grows in to the new found space.



One previously (and still, strictly speaking) outlawed practice I unwittingly stumbled upon in my hotel. I decided to be brave and have a go at negotiating entry and understanding protocol in the hotel spa. It was there after all and should be sampled. And lovely it was, with a super heated giant bath tub, sauna and steam, just as you’d expect. Then I find myself ushered through the complex, only to find a giant 40 bed filled TV room. Everyone was half asleep in front of the Olympics, naturally. So I joined in and laid down. The diving was on. Oh, how I love the diving. Peace wasn’t to persist however. There was an interesting, different arrival for some in the area, and that something was me: I had to fend off six ‘masseuses’, trying it on, one after the other, each one getting incrementally more explicit about what was on offer. There was nothing distasteful. But they wouldn't stop looking at my dick! (I was not naked.) These girls were gorgeous, and sweet. Not a hint of the rough slutishness you’d maybe more expect. But they were so barking up the wrong tree. I tree I wasn’t yet going to try and explain.

I did come across some wonderful culinary culture one night. After a lovely night time wander (a word my host cutely used instead of walk, possibly to get around the horrendous work-walk confusion for non-English speakers) in the park – the parks in Fuzhou are heaving at night – when asked (again) what I wanted to eat, I threw the cat amongst the pigeons by saying I didn’t care but wanted to eat outside (that particular evening was pleasantly less humid, just 82%). Ensued a panic filled taxi trip, frantic conversation and countless u-turns. I felt very guilty, like some over-demanding, integration-phobic American cruise ship tourist. But then someone had a flash of inspiration and took me to a very real bit of Fuzhou. Messy, run-down, chaotic, atmospheric. I loved it. The main street lined with double wok-equipped stalls, garnished with every ingredient imaginable. You simply choose what you want and they stir fry or grill it for you there and then, in a furnace of sweet-smelling flame, spice and oil. I’ve no idea where I was, it was off my map, and of course it wasn’t mentioned in the guide. It was my most magical night in Fuzhou. I think it threw my hosts a bit…

6 comments:

contented_andy said...

it's funny how the most unplanned parts of a trip can be the most memorable ! one of my best memories of a 3 week journey in africa, was an unscheduled lunch at a shack on the side of a road, waiting for a ferry to cross a river ...

i have to disagree with you about the spitting ... i know that it's unhealthy, but if that's what the locals indulge in, do we have any right to judge it by our customs ?

bomon said...

my point was not everyone here approves of it at all. immaterial what i think of it.

Xander said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Xander said...

maybe because i hang out with younger chinese more, or i live in the different parts of china (xinjiang and beijing) i never noticed people spitting. so to me it almost feels like another strangely successful marketing trick that makes spitting a chinese characteristic. i guess it's more common among older generations and in certain areas of china.

wanna see a pic of you in that red hat :-D

In a way that actually appeals to me out of principle, much food here is raw; not in an uncooked sense, in a closer to nature sense. It’s less transfigured into something anonymous.
i guess fujian cuisine is more like that. many dishes from other parts of china can be confusing, and sometimes over-processed i think. but mostly taste good. that's the most important to many people.

My only problem with the food was the stupendous quantities proffered upon me and the resulting, diplomatically difficult task of sensitively refusing any more. It’s a trade-off between causing offence refusing food and imparting horror by vomiting in front of your hosts.
lol and that's very true. chinese in general are not very extroverted, not good at expressing their emotions. and the time of hunger is not so far behind us. so to make sure you eat as much as you can is their way to say you are really welcomed here. and it may also have something to do with the time in history when chinese people think plumpy is beautiful :-P but i'm not sure.

Many of the urban Chinese are now essentially ‘free’ (by whatever we may mean by that dangerous word) but free to do what exactly? Spend of course. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want it to be any different, but let’s hope that a wider culture grows in to the new found space.
true again. chinese are very successful at make the economy work, but when it comes to pop culture, to spiritual stuff, it's just dreary if not dreadful. too many restrains and censorship. to me the problem is not even so much political, i think at our time pop culture have a very important role of educating the mass. for example the stupid chinese tv shows really make our people dull, and also make chinese culture less competitive in the world. at least this is the main reason why i want to learn english. that's too much a price to pay.

There was nothing distasteful. But they wouldn't stop looking at my dick! (I was not naked.) These girls were gorgeous, and sweet. Not a hint of the rough slutishness you’d maybe more expect. But they were so barking up the wrong tree. I wasn’t yet going to try and explain.
lol wish i was there, i'll get a better chance haha

bomon said...

Hello Xander, thanks very much for your comments.

maybe because i hang out with younger chinese more, or i live in the different parts of china (xinjiang and beijing) i never noticed people spitting. so to me it almost feels like another strangely successful marketing trick that makes spitting a chinese characteristic. i guess it's more common among older generations and in certain areas of china.
ooo i'm a bit worried everyone thinks this is becoming a debate on the spitting thing... that's not really my intention at all. It's simply for anyone who is newly arrived to China, it is a very obvious thing you pick up on immediately. What interested me was the 'debate' happening within China about whether it is acceptable or not (it is, e.g. illegal to spit on Tian'anmen Square, so that means something).

wanna see a pic of you in that red hat :-D i'll send you a pic

lol and that's very true. chinese in general are not very extroverted, not good at expressing their emotions. and the time of hunger is not so far behind us.
it's interesting you raise this point. I found the differences on this aubject very intriguing. Yes, ok, Chinese people are reputed to be less expressive than others. But I remarked how pleasant it was that when someone talks to you, they stand so close, there is a lack of an overvalued 'personal space' issue that you'd get elsewhere, especially, e.g. in the US. I also loved seeing how many people, including 2 men, walk with arms round shoulders, arm in arm, hand in hand etc.

Many of the urban Chinese are now essentially ‘free’ (by whatever we may mean by that dangerous word) but free to do what exactly? Spend of course. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want it to be any different, but let’s hope that a wider culture grows in to the new found space.

true again. chinese are very successful at make the economy work, but when it comes to pop culture, to spiritual stuff, it's just dreary if not dreadful. too many restrains and censorship. to me the problem is not even so much political, i think at our time pop culture have a very important role of educating the mass. for example the stupid chinese tv shows really make our people dull, and also make chinese culture less competitive in the world. at least this is the main reason why i want to learn english. that's too much a price to pay.
I hear what you say and definitely felt a lack of a 'modern Chinese' culture in modern China, at least one that was not based on Gucci billboards. But the cultural vacuum you speak of is not actually unique to China. Superficial obsession with e.g. false celebrities and unrefined culture seems to be an unfortunate side effect of consumer capitalism everywhere.

Xander said...

i'll send you a pic
xanderm.cn(at)gmail.com thanks! :-)

it's interesting you raise this point. I found the differences on this subject very intriguing. Yes, ok, Chinese people are reputed to be less expressive than others. But I remarked how pleasant it was that when someone talks to you, they stand so close, there is a lack of an overvalued 'personal space' issue that you'd get elsewhere, especially,e.g. in the US. I also loved seeing how many people, including 2 men,walk with arms round shoulders, arm in arm, hand in hand etc.
maybe people stand very close to you because they think you are hot and wanna take advantage :-d ok erase that. maybe it's just me :-$ now seriously, someone is introverted doesn't mean he or she doesn't like to express himself, in many cases he's just too timid to take initiative, actually he's dying to embrace the world, and when gets the chance tends to overdo it. that's how i used to be like :-/. second, i guess it's cliche that western culture values individualism more while chinese culture pays more attention to society as a whole. and we don't have "personal" anything before just 40 years ago. third, maybe better public security? (the unfortunate incident with the u.s. tourist is very rare case.) chinese can't have guns like in the u.s. bla bla. we can go with this idea further: in a way people are just animals. they learn from and repeat what they see in their surroundings (statistically speaking). chinese state controlled and censored media does cause some bad consequences for the lacking of free speech, but you have to give it credit for making chinese people less violent cause people have much less chances to see it on the media.(i know it's a very conservative way of thinking, but it's true.) and last, traditional chinese culture doesn't worship male masculinity like the west, but more some kind of neutralism or middle-of-the-road(?) philosophy. so less fear of public display of male intimacy indicates lack of masculinity or gayness.

I hear what you say and definitely felt a lack of a 'modern Chinese' culture in modern China, at least one that was not based on Gucci billboards. But the cultural vacuum you speak of is not actually unique to China. Superficial obsession with e.g. false celebrities and unrefined culture seems to be an unfortunate side effect of consumer capitalism everywhere.
yeah i guess. a flat world. but what i mean is that the english language based literature and derived works in various art forms are very active, abundant, some with very high quality i think. being the two more dominant languages worldwide spoken by most people, chinese based art and culture on the other hand are sluggish. but to think more of it, besides that our modern culture have a shorter history, maybe chinese gov do it on purpose and they have a point. we used to be distinguished in arts and culture hundreds of years ago, but it didn't help us to win the war against the western invasion. so it's very reasonable for the new leaders to learn from the past and decide to develop material strength first. and so far it works fine.
on a probably unrelated subject: after the beijing olypmics closing ceremony, i went to a famous chinese bbs, most chinese people like the "london 8 minutes". i think it's fun, it's full of personality, which is what differentiate your culture from ours, so the contrast generates drama. we sure have our style or characteristic as whole, but not much "personality" in the sense of a single person. your mayor's unbuttoned "geeky" (i heard he has a handful of degrees) appearance is also a sign of character, while the chinese governors' looks are just too tidy, almost inhuman. then i checked comments on a bbc blog post, obviously most londoners there dislike it. it's so funny, cause it's the exact same reaction with the "beijing 8 minutes" in athens 4 years ago. most chinese people really hates it while the rest of the world seems quite ok. seems people all tend to be too critical to their own culture.