Snakes on a Plane: Chinese New Years

Just got back to China after a very VERY much-needed week back home in America visiting family, friends, and Luke.

On the way to Shanghai on the plan yesterday, I had a nightmare that…. and wait for it, I’m not kidding…. there were snakes on the plane. I didn’t even realize I had fallen asleep. But in my dream I “woke-up” when the plane started experiencing stomach-turning turbulence. Then one of the luggage apartments fell open and snakes fell out of it. But they were weird sparkly Chinese dancing dragon style snakes – shiny toys made out of cheap nylon and plastic. It was both hilarious and horrifying at the same time. I woke up for real and realized our plane had not even taken off the tarmac yet.

Now I rarely dream, and if I did I do not remember my dreams; I already don’t remember much about this one. But the one feeling that stuck with me the most was this intense stab of dread that I would never get to see my family and friends again.

If there was ever a way for your subconscious to tell you that you miss your loved ones, a joke “snakes on a plane” dream is about as literal as it can get.

Happy Chinese New Years, may this Water Snake Year bring you and your loved ones closer together. Thank-you to all my friends and family who made my visit home to the US so wonderful.

Bus load of vegetables and one 美女

Last week, I  decided to physically conquer the metaphoric “mountain” of challenges before me by actually climbing a mountain, 五指山 (5-finger Mountain) specifically. So here it is, the token “mountain climbed” post that every blogger inevitably makes.

I had arrived in 五指山 City late the previous night, and observed that even this far into the interior of Hainan Island, far away from the beaches and paved highways, one cannot escape the ruthless hand of real estate development. High-rise condos and mountain “resort spas” dotted the forested countryside as my bus bumped into the heart of Hainan. There cannot possibly be that many Chinese millionaires in the market for mountain-retreat retirement homes, I thought in disgust…

6 am the next morning, I pack-up and toss-back a small can of Nestele “coffee”. Ugh, disgustingly sweet every time … but it gives the necessary caffeine boost where real coffee cannot be had.

I stand awkwardly on the road side in front of my hotel, waiting for the uncertain arrival of a bus that will take me to 水满乡, a small village at the base of 五指山. Thankfully, the bus of the day came zooming by around 6:30 and came to a screeching halt in front of me.

As I clamber in, the ticket collecter lady yelled at me in a voice WAY too loud fo 6:30 am: “这么早啊?!” (“This early?!”) I am her first commuter of the day. “往后坐,我前面需要装菜!” (“Sit in the back, I have to load vegetables in the front!”)

Vegetables? I thought as I tucked myself into a back corner seat, examining the dilapidated bus interior, hoping the bus shocks were going to be in better condition than the seats.

I quickly realize what she meant. If you ever want to learn more about the daily work life of Chinese farmers, then wake up in the predawn hours of 5-7 am and ride a bus – this is when the farmers are doing 30% of the daily labor. If you ever had any doubts at the productivity and hard working character of Chinese labor, I suggest you walk through any Chinese town/city at 6 am. As our bus careened through the streets of 五指山 City and its surrounding towns, the bus made about 5-6 unscheduled stops where groups of tired looking farmers huddled on the side of the road, guarding giant piles of vegetables, fruits, and freezer boxes of freshly butchered meat. One-by-one, they load the front of the bus. Bags of onions and potatoes tumble onto the walkway, cow carcases are tied to hand-rails, and where people normally sit, giant stacks of bak choy and carrots lie propped against styrofoam bins of squirming river shrimp. After dumping their goods, the farmers depart on their motorbikes and our bus rolls on upwards to the mountain.

As we drive further into the forest, I gain a glimpse of what the wild Hainan Island must have looked like before development. I am struck by the beauty of the greenery, sparse tropical palm trees eventually replaced by a riotous mix of deciduous spruces, tropical ferns, berry bushes, oaks, beeches, etc. Occasionally, majestic slender white-barked trees emerge from the mountain side, towering over the forest canopy like silent ancient Gods, standing sentinel over their forest. In the distance, I observe a naturally occurring water fall trickling down a cliff face, melting into the mountain mists.

After a hour or so, we arrive and as I get off, the ticket lady took it upon herself to give me advice about safety. “Be sure to wait for other hikers! Don’t go up by yourself, it’s too dangerous!” she said with a crooked tooth grin, “A bus load of vegetables and one 美女!” she cackled (美女 or beautiful girl, is an endearing term Chinese use in reference to young women like me).  Strangest bus ride of my life, I thought quietly.

I pay a local cabbie to drive me to the start of the hike. The jarring ride up on the back of his 三轮车 (three-wheel car) took me past quiet terraced rice patties and chickens pecking at the foot of sleepy looking water buffalo.

Luckily, I bump into a group of college students and their professor from Guangdong province who are in Hainan doing a cross-island bike trip preparing to climb the mountain and ask if I can join them, taking heed the bus lady’s cautionary words. Proving once again that bus ladies in China always speak truth, I was very grateful I did not attempt the climb by myself for 五指山 quickly proved to be the most daunting mountain I have ever hiked.

The 1800 m mount proved to be a treacherous, slippery, and exhausting 7 hour hike. At times I found myself clinging to tree roots and the occasional strategically placed metal bar perched precariously on an exposed vertical face of the mountain, empty expanse stretching beneath my feet. About halfway up the mountain I emerge above the misty cloud cover and blink as the startlingly bright sunshine dries my dew drenched cloths.

Beautiful. Truly beautiful.

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If only life were as easy to climb as mountains….

Minor 腐败, Disillusionment, and Depression

I’ve had time this week to reflect on the occasional indignities of life in China, especially as I just spent the last couple days in Sanya (三亚) which despite being billed as the “Hawaii” of China, is far from it.

I came to Sanya with low expectations but high hopes. I am aware of the overwhelming trend in China to over-develop, transforming what was once beautiful naturally into gaudy and artificial disney-style theme parks. But I came with high hopes that if I stray from the beaten path, escape some of the tourist hell holes (aka “tourist zones”) that I may be able to find unspoiled, isolated pockets of Hainan’s southern coast with some remnants of local culture and laid-back surfer scene.

Alas, in the last three days I have not had much luck. What I have seen so far is all of my worst nightmares of unsustainable tourism come alive. There is a “American dream park” currently in the process of construction which is a combo sea world/universal theme park/carnival/horror-house knock-off. Trash ranging from straws, chicken bones, packaging and the occasional shoe strewn the beaches every morning as trash pickers work steadily to clear it all before the onslaught of new tourists. Price gauging, petty theft, and scams run rampant, and massive foreign-run resorts completely devoid of culture dominate entire stretches of the best beaches.

And I do not say this with some sort of snotty foreigner attitude – I point these things as a reflective of ALL unsustainable tourism which manifests around the world, NOT unique to China. Some Chinese tourists I’ve encountered share my distaste with these aspects of Sanya.

My initial bout of disillusionment was crippling. I’ve had a sense of mounting depression in the last week driven mostly by loneliness. Moving to Hainan has not been easy and as is the case with moving to any new place, I struggled to build a new community of friends and locate conveniences which make a place more like home. On top of this I miss my family, friends, and Luke intensely. Finally, it seemed, all the small indignities of living in China had caught up with me.

So I spent a good portion of today brooding in my hostel and wallowing in my sadness instead of taking the risk to venture out, lacking the emotional capacity to handle more disillusionment. I brooded over why Sanya has become this way and like the proper poli/econ-nerd that I am, reflected on the minor forms of corruption (腐败) that often lie at the base of misguided government-driven development.

There are many examples of corruption in China (as is in most developing countries), but some are more insidious than others. Some 腐败s are petty thefts, minor nuisances which once encountered leave a vague unpleasant taste in your mouth as you move on with your life. For example, when I first arrived in Hainan I had to obtain various medical exams and other certifying paperwork for my visa. At the medical examiners, I paid 463 RMB, but my official receipt billed me 300 RMB for the actual medical clearance and 100 RMB for the “Hainan local” processing fee, leaving a mysterious 63 RMB unaccounted for. On the other hand, likely to prevent this kind of mysterious fee charging, at the National Security Bureau which handles visa processing, I was not even given an option to pay with cash – only cards are accepted.

Other forms of 腐败 are thuggish, and while not damaging to the a large swath of citizens can prove to be cumbersome for individuals. These sorts of corruption happen most often at the local level and affect private business owners, like the owner of my hostel who was visited by not one, not two, but a group of 7 local-inspection officers who casually sat in his smoke-free lobby puffing cigarettes and demanding to see his operation license. I asked the owner later about this visit, and he waved it off, saying something vaguely about how in the high-season, inspectors will come unannounced to ensure that all hotels were operating legally. I noticed, however, that the officers did not visit any of the other 5 hotels on the block….

Finally, there is institutionalized corruption, 腐败 which manifests at the very core of China’s development model. This sort is the hardest to identify but its effects will uproot entire villages, level entire forests, and drain entire lakes…. all in the name of economic development. This institutional 腐败 lies at the heart of China’s drive towards unsustainable tourism. Take Yalong Bay, for example – booked as the go-to spot for “luxury tourism”, huge gaudy brand name resorts have been constructed in a Atlantic City style strip renting out rooms at prices that 99% of the Chinese population would never afford. OR even more audacious, the BoAo resorts further up the eastern coast about 2 hrs drive from Sanya. This little town was literally constructed out of no-where because the favorite ex-mistress of a certain official was dying, and her dying wish was to direct funding to a piece of land her grandson owned in Hainan. So ten years ago Beijing designated BoAo as the location for its “BoAo Forum” which is China’s version of the World Economic Forum. Sofitel, a German luxury hotel conglomerate, was convinced to build a hotel/ conference center at a huge loss because they were “gently” informed that if they did not, they would not get the license to build any resorts in China anywhere. A few years later Sofitel finally cut its losses on the BoAo resort.  The resort, which I visited last year, is beautiful but isolated; it is not even near the ocean. Besides the annual BoAo forum, it sees very little traffic except for the occasional company retreats of large state-owned companies who I highly doubt pay the listed asking price of 4000 rmb/room/night.

Sometimes I wonder how Chinese citizens, faced with these constant reminders of the indignities of life and the injustice of the system stand it all. I do not purport that life in the US is devoid of these things but I do feel that our indignities and injustices pale in comparison. I find however, that if I reexamine my experiences the last couple days and focus on the life of the Chinese individual, there are many joys and humorous things to celebrate.

For one, the Sanya sunrise is truly beautiful:

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And who can resist a man in a speedo?

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Tomorrow is another day and this ugly pony isn’t done yet.

Running of the Hares

This past weekend I found my favorite group of people in China so far. Having just moved over from Beijing, I was really keen on making local friends and heard to my great delight that there is a pretty enthusiastic group of Hashers in Haikou!

For the readers who don’t know what a Hash is, it’s basically a bunch of strangers who get together at specially appointed times each week to run and drink beer together, sometimes at the same time. We follow a trail laid out by the weekly “Hares” who run ahead of us to mark whatever crazy path they’ve determined. Only house rules are: we don’t use our real names, we don’t talk about our backgrounds, and we don’t talk about politics.

I ran Hash a couple times back in DC and was curious as to how the Haikou Hash would be like. I discovered that although the languages spoken and paths run are different, the 自由精神 (free spirit) of the Hashers and their sense of humor is the same both in America and China. It appears that regardless of where a Hasher comes from, we all love joking about poop and penises…. 😛

I almost didn’t get to meet up with the Haikou Hashers because I was running late and couldn’t find the meeting place, Red’s Bar (红吧), but thankfully I caught them right as they were boarding the bus. The bus drove us to a rural suburb (郊区) of Haikou that was basically some kind of giant fruit/palm tree plantation, which this week’s Hares have selected as our Hash location.

The Hash that proceeded was like no other Hash I’ve ever been on. When I ran Hash in DC, we stuck strictly with urban areas, running through different neighborhoods, mostly on paved roads, and we only ran for about 1-2 miles each time, with a beer break in the middle.

The Haikou Hash, however, is at minimum a 5-mile long trek through rice patties, coconut groves, pig farms, and just straight up wild rainforest. The ground was often muddy, slushy, and uneven – you were never sure if you were stepping into soil or a giant steaming pile of water buffalo doo-doo. And the worst part? ….. you don’t get beer until the very end. So run little rabbits…. run…. or else NO 啤酒 FOR YOU!

Beer never tastes as sweet as after your just ran 8-10 KMs through poo-ridden terrain to get it. But alas the Hash is not over until the 法官 (Hare Boss) says so —– and in Haikou that means someone’s going to have to 坐冰 (sit on ice). The Hare Boss gets to choose his victims freely and you never know whom he chooses to punish. The only certainty is that if you are a Hare or if you are a newbie, you have to 坐冰. When it was my turn to sit on ice with two other newbies – one newbie had no shoes on so they made him put his feet on ice too. Two giant cups of beer later and suddenly I find myself performing the Gangnam Style horse-riding dance for everyone. (Hat Tip 北京电视台for teaching me the dance) The night ends with a delicious dinner and many more bottles of Anchor 加力 beer (which is the Hainan version of Tsingtao).

What an amaze night! I thought on the bus ride home, listening to the drunken crooning of my fellow rabbits as they sing traditional Chinese children songs with wildly inappropriate revised lyrics about malfunctioning bananas. Thanks to the H3 Hares for a great time! Looking forward to a great year of Hashes with you all!

Haikou Hash House Harriers (H3) pictures from the run.

Three Hour Naptime

I’ve found my initial transition into Hainan at times rocky, at times straight up frustrating, and at times infuriating.

Today I must say has been one of the more infuriating days. I just spent a good portion of this morning running around trying to meet with professors, deans, and their administrative staff but I’m beginning to feel like no one actually works from their offices or answers their phones. I can’t tell if it’s because it’s the end of the semester so people are off their usual schedule, or if this is the norm, I fervently hope it’s the former.

I’m also finding that I must mentally adjust over to island time. Recently, I’ve found myself quite out of sync with the Hainan schedule – where they are accustomed not only to a more relaxed pace of life but a THREE hour long nap-time in the middle of the day. Basically from 11:30 am to 3 pm, the ENTIRE city shuts down, which I guess makes sense when the weather is hot but is absolutely infuriating right now, during the Winter months when there is really absolutely no reason for this massive break.

I guess I’m still hopped up on the break-neck northern pace of life, the Beijing work schedule which runs 24/7 with absolutely no consideration for evenings and weekends. It’s weird that while trapped in the Beijing insanity I would give anything for a free moment, but now that I’m on an island dedicated to leisure, the slow pace of things here is driving me insane.

Well I guess now I have a 3 hour window of writing every day, wether or not I want it. I guess at least I finally understand why people here don’t need coffee….

PLA Birthday Party

(Please note: for purposes of privacy I do not use people’s real/whole names)

Your favorite ugly pony here, writing from a cafe sitting next to a giant palm tree and sipping a fresh coconut juice. Apologies for the delay in posts, I finally arrived in Hainan to start my official research posting for Fulbright and have been scrambling around to organize my life and get my presence on the island legally ordained by the authorities. Now that my visa is safely in processing mode, I thought I reflect a little on my initial impressions of my new home for the next year.

Beijing is such a different scene from Hainan, particularly with regards to the 老外 (foreigners) crowd. There were so many foreigners living in Beijing that I often found it all-too-easy to fall into an isolated social scene of just foreigners. Thus, when I came to Hainan I was very keen on 交-ing some proper 本地 (local) friends. And what interesting friends I have made…

I lucked out by making fast friends with a lady named 思姐 (big sister Si) who owned the local Haikou hostel that I stayed in when I first arrived. She is originally from Henan, had studied undergrad in England and her husband, who runs the hostel with her, is British. On my third night staying at their hostel, I introduced myself and she readily accepted me into her social circle. Most foreigners, or Chinese for that matter, are just passing through Hainan for vacation, very few actually decide to live there for an extended period of time, so she was quite excited to here that I would stay for at least a year.

On the spot, she insisted that I stay sitting in the lounge, she was about to throw a birthday party for some of her friends and she wanted me to meet them. So one moment I was sitting quietly reading my Kindle, and the next moment I suddenly found myself eating pickled goose feet, sunflower seeds, and drinking an inordinate amount of Tsingtao with 3 PLA officers.

The three gentlemen were called 小洋 (xiao yang),大洋哥 (da yang ge),and 小李 (xiao li) respectively. 大洋哥 was clearly the senior officer of the three, the oldest and he works with PetroChina in some kind of security capacity — he was definitely the 高ist 地位 (highest position) of the three. (For those of you unfamiliar with China, I point this fact out specifically because “position” is very important in the Chinese social scene and decides everything from who pours drinks, who sits where, and who drinks when).

Tonight is 小李’s birthday (he’s the youngest and most junior) and his 兄弟们(social “brothers”) are clearly out to get him drunk and laid. Here’s a picture of 小李 with his birthday cake:

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For me, the birthday party was a hilarious but useful lesson on the social/scene in China. The three PLA officers were very curious about me – but I made it quickly clear to them that I was not on the market. After that, the guys took to acting like my big brothers with the explicit intention of getting me to set them up with my foreign girl friends. 大洋哥 was particularly emphatic: “blond hair, blue eyes, and under 35 years old!” he declared, were his criteria. And they need not worry, he’s not looking to get married, “just wants to have fun” – he said through what can only be described as the world’s most lecherous grin. “我可以免费教她中文,她免费跟我谈恋爱” (I will teach her Chinese for free, she can be my girlfriend for free), he said, smiling even bigger and slapping 小李 on the back.

I could not honestly tell if any of these guys are married. They all looked to be about 30-yrs, give or take, although the oldest 大洋哥 I suspect is in his upper 30s. I asked Si Wei about this later and she did not quite give me a straight answer, saying something vaguely like “they’re probably divorced”. Whatever the case, their marriage status clearly did not matter when it came to “having girlfriends”.

After that, 小洋 who is the closest friend to Sister Si asked her to invite some of her friends, asking specifically for a girl friend that he’s hung out with before. The officers were looking to have actual single-girls at the party. When the girl friends of Si Wei show up however, they came with two other guys — all of them were dressed very trendy and thoroughly drunk. One girl, the one the officers specifically asked for, works at a bank, the other girl is originally from 新疆 (Xinjiang) but now she works for an event planning company in Haikou. One guy works producing TV programs (call him Mr. 张 “zhang” if you will) and the other guy owns a very popular Karaoke bar in Haikou (Mr. 潘 “pan”).

It soon became clear that the girl the officers originally wanted to hang out with was 1) sloppy drunk, and 2) already hitting it off with the TV producer guy.  At first it seemed the PLA officers were very unhappy with 张 for monopolizing the girl. But Mr. 张 and his friend Mr. 潘 quickly plied the officers with beer and promises to introduce them to the countless beautiful models that both of them work with. After while, birthday boy 小李 starting hitting it off quite well with the girl from 新疆 and his officer friends took their leave, satisfied that 小李 had a good birthday.

The most interesting moment of the night for myself was when Mr. 潘, the owner of the Karaoke bar who is rather soft-spoken and does not drink much, chatting with me told me that he liked my personality. “你比较传统”, (you are quite traditional) he said. That threw me, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone tell me I was “traditional”. Rather I always imagined myself a hard-headed, overly-direct, independent personality that is very much a product of my American upbringing — the exact opposite of what a “traditional” Chinese girl should be. Thus confused I asked Mr. 潘 what he meant.

“你不真么喝酒,也是不大声说话,不爱说话,跟我一样,很好的” (You don’t drink very much, don’t talk loudly or very much, like me, its very good), he replied.

Now, anyone who knows me knows I am not “quiet” by a long shot. But due to my inability to fully communicate in Chinese, I come across as more reserved in China because I talk less. More interesting though is that they (including the PLA officers) felt that I am “educated” or appear to be so, so they find me to be more “traditional” then the other girls, who were more party girls. What an odd experience, to suddenly find myself being described as more “traditional” than the local girls….

My main take-aways from this experience were: (1) dating here is in many ways a form of material transaction, where knowing beautiful single young ladies was a form of social currency and political capital; and (2) if you yourself are not a beautiful young single girl, then you are a gateway to your beautiful young single friends. This presents an interesting challenge for young women trying to network in the professional and political scene in China, a challenge that I find myself navigating with great difficulty. What is your proper role / manner of interaction with men? How do you maintain dignity while still developing 关系 (connections)? Is it possible to be a respected, intellectual female in the male-dominated world of China without finding yourself becoming one of three archetypes: (1) “Madame”/pimp, (2) young ersister/ingenue who needs 照顾 (care), and/or (3) a she-man (强女).

What will I become? Can I carve my own distinctive path, find some way to develop my social identity without having to fall prey to traditional female stereotypes? It remains to be seen. I’m helped by the fact that I am technically foreign, so they give me more social leeway for “odd behavior”, but at the same time I still look Chinese and thus will always be measured in some part by Chinese standards. All-in-all, I expect I will learn a lot over the next year about feminine identity in China’s rapidly evolving society.