Thursday, March 20, 2014

Travel funnies 2014 - China

Torrey Orton
March 20, 2014

Travel funnies – where everything is of interest that can be a bit strange, unusual, unexpected…in short, a threat to my normal preconceptions, understandings and values. The shock of the new is often a laugh of surprise, which isn’t what people are talking about when thy say they are just having a laugh. Now, here we go again…overseas that is, to China mainly Shanghai and Beijing quite a lot, with an opening glance at Hong Kong, which really is China but for the lingering effects of years in the fold of the lion.

As long as 35 years ago on my first to China I noted some at the time amazing facts of street behaviour between vehicles, mostly bicycles, and pedestrians, as well as between vehicle riders and drivers themselves. In my field notes of those days (10 Oct – 25 Nov, 1979) I remarked at length such things as what follows here, modified but not moderated by the shift from the largely self-powered transport (bicycle) of those days to the dominance of self-driven transport in these days (cars and motor scooters – electric and petrol).

The underlying theme here for me is cultural constants and their consistency under pressure of material change. Cultural resilience shows up even now in simple ways: five days ago one Chinese colleague from 35 years ago pointed out, unprompted by us, that her floor of a three year old apartment tower had six flats on it, numbered 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7 as do all the other floors in the 25 story building except for level four which doesn’t exist. Guess why? The number four in Chinese sounds like the word for death, which should never be spoken lightly. Our aversion to 13 is a weak sibling of that four.

“… a Nathan Road cabbie in the way.”

Six days earlier we were on Nathan Road, Hong Kong on a fully peopled Friday arvo with barely a car’s width of passage on our taxi’s route. Another taxi was ensconced in a no stopping zone, the driver standing by his closed door about a meter into the available roadway looking at something in the near distance without the slightest glance our way and just stood there as we passed almost brushing his jacket. Not looking and not flinching are the key facts. This behaviour has been repeated in my view dozens of times in the following week in Shanghai and Beijing. I have never successfully learned it until almost now, though I started 35 years ago and had a two year stint as pedestrian and cyclist in Beijing in the early 80’S, with repeated medium term stays in Shanghai in the mid ‘90’s and early Noughties.

In the last week I have consciously tried to mimic it on street corners and crossings. The learning requires two acts of faith: that I have the right to take any space I choose if I can get to it first, and second that others will respect that right by giving way or altering their approach trajectory not to collide once I’ve made my move. At the corner of Huaihai Lu and Maoming Lu in downtown Shanghai one morning I crossed with the pedestrian light as three cars were waiting to turn into my path (as they legally may when their light is red) and I managed not to look at the nearest driver or to pause in my walk while the driver started his creeping turn, timing it so that I felt the pant leg of my trailing foot brushed slightly by the passing car going through the turn. And, did not feel a rush of fear at that perception!!

This rule system applies to any public passing, not just vehicular, in China. I know the rules and only this trip have noticed their working beauty in the intensely loaded pathways of Beijing and Shanghai. They really work, until they don’t! (the story of which is recorded daily and annually, locally and nationally, in traffic accident reports). But as they are working they make for a driving and walking experience of continuous flow which is essential to progress in a traffic-jammed economy. Unfortunately Beijing and Shanghai are not far away from all day gridlock. The rule for managing that are unclear.

BTW, these rules are not just some fantasy of mine. I have tested them repeatedly with PRC origin Chinese and never had my understanding of them challenged. Interpretations of their application, of course, differ because correct use requires exquisite judgment about (1) one’s ability to take the front position anywhere and (2) the other’s capacity to respect that decision (the stopping distance judgment) or override it with incontrovertible power. The latter effect can be achieved by daring in many circumstances. The balance of power tilts somewhat in pedestrians’ direction because the law favours them over cars: a car smashed pedestrian is presumed to have been in the right. Of course, having been smashed one may not be around to enjoy the presumptive right, so we’re back to judgment. In the process of field=testing my understanding of these rules I’ve gotten spontaneous feedback from others that they apply in other Asian cities, too.

Self-organising (dis) order??

It is not surprising that Westerners have so much trouble in China. We cannot accept that humanity can be run by such rules and to be placed in the full and open command of the rules is radically disempowering. They cannot easily be learned because they are so counter-intuitive. Try driving on the “wrong” side of the road for a sampler of the personal change demands.

The same challenge is also the case for immigrant or tourist Chinese in Australia. They may just step off the curb wherever it strikes them, working automatically from the understanding of their origin which will get them killed here, and /or the object of vilification by Oz locals. Mirroring western amazement at their home town behaviour, they often remark on how rule abiding Melbournians are by contrast with home. We stop at stop lights without police supervision and police presence is remarkably less noticeable than in China.

I used to use an exercise I called Beijing Bus in cultural awareness training for Australians going to work in China or having Chinese colleagues coming to work with them in Australia. It was a usually successful attempt to induce the feeling of oppressive crowding which is typical of Chinese city life. It gave entry to a world where not taking control of your space means someone else will without compunction.

A stray phone… “No one’s in charge here…it’s whacky”

Another version of this story occurs on planes. A few days ago we were enroute to Beijing…a two hour run from Shanghai. While the airline gave extremely clear and careful instructions about turning off all phones completely on take-off and landing, a number of people were close to the wire on take-off and one started up his tool on touchdown well before we’d taxied to the gate. The hostess seated two seats in front of and at eye contact range said nothing. The hostess on our side looked away from the offender as did her colleague. She subsequently was shamed by passengers who jumped up to get first go at the luggage compartments well before taxiing stopped – another major no-no clearly stated by staff beforehand. Her shame was expressed by her head hung down and away from subsequent offenders of her effort to remind the first ones of the airline rules, which they disregarded.

This passenger behaviour has always been my experience on passenger planes in China. It has a historical precursor – the Beijing Bus again – perhaps the original of what is now known in the West as the psychosocial distortion FOMO (fear of missing out). For the Chinese this has been a well-founded fear, not declining with increased wealth. I commiserated a bit more with the hosties dilemma of public disregard as I watched the mostly Chinese masses at Beijing airport wander through outgoing carryon inspection talking on their mobiles at all stages in the process…while surrounded with clear multi-lingual and visual exhortations of some vigour to keep their mobiles buttons!!! Everyone, including endless uniformed agents of state security, acted as if no such exhortations existed (which the folks in homey Melbourne incoming lines polices with persistence in my experience, as do air hosties).

Those in charge don’t take charge. Maybe it’s like the libertarians’ favourite enemy: “taking offense”. A dangerous self-indulgence for others.

30% discount surprise!!

There we were at the end of a 3 hour reunion dinner in the revolving restaurant of the Xi Yuan Hotel in west Beijing with two Chinese couples we had not seen for thirty years. The setting was much of the charm of the event; the food was buffet and workable but not notable. The view actually worked (smog was way down!) and revolutions under us were seriously plodding. Conversation had been wandering in that way that pleasant recollection does when supported by some very deep shared experiences in the past. When I called for the bill, the lead waiter called for our passports and hukou (local residence permits in China) because over 60’s got a 30% discount on meals!! It wasn’t advertised anywhere, but was not a surprise to our friends except that it was applying in an upmarket establishment.

Whose engineers don’t know human dimensions??

Once again I have had the not to be repeated (in my imagination) cramped toilet experience of Toulouse four years ago.  There the hotel bathroom design engineers had assumed an average adult height somewhere like 10-15 cm short of my 191. This left me scrunched between the loo lip and the wall, whatever business I was doing. At the Xi Yuan in Beijing I’ve had a near repeat this trip. My knees nearly bang the glassed shower enclosure in this recently renovated hotel. Even I know that Chinese kids of our friends’ children’s generation are massively taller than their parents. The field test for that proposition is a walk in the streets of Beijing.  35 years ago I pretty much towered over everyone else in the street. This is certainly no longer the case. What world are design engineers living in??

Grain pillows, 35 years later

One of the unmentioned treats of our 1979 stay in Beijing was grain pillows… pillows of high grade dried buckwheat with a fine aggregate-like consistency and weight. They provided a reliably firm head rest for sleeping which also worked even for those with down pillow backgrounds, as were many a foreign student’s in those days. Real Chinese beds share this firmness without the aggregate effect – a slight crunchiness to the touch.

Here we were in the Xi Yuan Hotel (at much less per night than city-centre branded hotels require)  and under two duck-down pillow variants on the twin bed hunkered two grain based models of yore. Small reminders of basic needs…



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