Archives for category: Uncategorized

I will no longer be working at Rock Bar as a server.

Business has been slow, and now that the peak season is over my services at Rock are no longer needed. This is a good thing, actually. I’m going home to the US in a couple of weeks to renew my visa, work on grad school applications, and enjoy time with family and friends after a long absence. Now I can use my last few weeks in Yunnan to travel and explore, hopefully lessening the shock before I extricate myself from what has proven to be one of the most fascinating, emotional, maturing, and unforgettable summers of my life.

But all that is for another time. What I really want to write about is something far more boring—the economy in Lijiang. Working at Rock has given me a glimpse into the inner workings of Lijiang’s tourism industry, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’ve written before about tourism in Lijiang, and the widespread commercialization and commodification of the Old Town. I already knew that everything in Old Town exists for the purpose of making money from visitors. What I hadn’t realized was how deeply this has penetrated every sector of the tourism industry. I’ve also written before about the importance of guanxi (connections) in Lijiang. Now I see that guanxi forms the very core of Lijiang’s economic structure. Without it, you’ll never survive.

Most businesses in the 21st century operate within the simple restrictions of supply and demand. In Lijiang, businesses must juggle three parameters: supply, demand, and commission. Tour companies receive commission from guesthouses. Guesthouses receive commission from bars and restaurants. Individual tour guides receive commission from everyone. This is simply how it’s done. No business succeeds in a bubble. Nobody survives outside the system.

Lets take a hypothetical bar as an example. This is a brand-new bar that just opened, and it’s in a difficult-to-find location. Thus it would make sense that the bar should keep its prices low—at least until it builds a reputation. After all, Lijiang is saturated with bars, and this new bar lacks a competitive edge. But the weird thing about Lijiang is that it is saturated with tourists as well. Even places far from the center, such as where this bar is located, are still swarming with people at all hours of the day. So in a city with practically unlimited supply (bars) and practically unlimited demand (customers), how do businesses compete? Why is Man Xiang Bar (one of the most successful in Lijiang) packed every night, while Rock Bar is so empty that they can no longer justify paying me?

The answer is that (almost) every bar in Lijiang pays 50% commission to guesthouses. If you sell a 40RMB bottle of beer to a stranger off the street, you make about 37RMB of profit (yes, the markup is that big). If you sell it to a tourist who came from a specific guesthouse, your profit is slashed in half.

In Lijiang, everyone stays in guesthouses. The average bar is filled 90% with guesthouse-affiliated drinkers, leaving very few tables available for independent travelers. This means that every bar in Lijiang is marketing themselves not towards average consumers (most of whom like to save money when they can), but to guesthouse staff. From the point of view of the guesthouse, a more expensive drink means more commission. The guesthouse would prefer to take their guests to a bar that serves 40RMB beer, rather than to a bar that serves much more reasonable 20RMB beer. This is why everything is expensive in Lijiang.

The problem with our hypothetical bar is that the location is inconvenient from the point of view of guesthouses. When a guide takes their guest around the Old Town, they take them through high-volume shopping areas where they will get commission, then to a nearby restaurant where they will get commission, and then to a bar where they will get commission. Our hypothetical bar is not located near any of the main shopping areas, so guesthouses usually don’t bother coming. Meanwhile, the prices are far too high to appeal to the rare individual traveler from the street. Add to this the fact that management has put far too little effort into advertising, marketing, and establishing connections with guesthouses (guanxi!), and it’s apparent why business is slow.

So who holds power in Lijiang? It isn’t the tourists. It isn’t the bar owners. It isn’t the local tour guides or individual guesthouse owners, although they certainly benefit from the system. There are really only a handful of truly powerful people in Lijiang. These guys not only own large tourism agencies, they also own numerous shops, restaurants, guesthouses, and bars. All of these businesses work together, and the commission money stays within a closed loop. Man Xiang Bar is packed every night because the owner sends drinkers from his own guesthouses, all located nearby.

The strangest thing to me about this whole system is that it leaves us—the consumers—completely stranded. The economy is neither demand-driven nor supply-driven. It’s like a private game played among the local businesses, and the consumers are trapped in the middle with no choice but to pay inordinately high prices. Until the massive groups of Chinese tourists catch on and stop coming to Lijiang—unlikely—the system will never change to meet the demands of consumers.

IMG_3639

IMG_3352

Advertisements

Every time I meet somebody in China I get the exact same set of questions.

“Where are you from?”

“The US.”

“How long have you been in China?”

“Almost two years.” (It’s true. Counting my semester abroad in Hangzhou in 2011, it’s been 20 months).

“Your Chinese is so good!” (They’ll say this to any foreigner who makes any effort at all. It’s encouraging, compared to the blank stares I’d get when I tried to speak French in Quebec, but I have to remind myself that they may not mean it).

“Thanks, my Chinese is okay I guess, but there is still a lot that I can’t understand.”

My biggest motivation for moving to China was to improve my language skills. After four years of studying in college classrooms, I was convinced that the only way to take my Putonghua to the next level was to put away the textbooks and absorb the language the natural way, through my pores, by eating and breathing and living it 24/7.

So has it worked? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. As with any skill, the more I learn the more I am aware of what I do not understand.

I’m at the point where I can carry on a basic conversation with just about anybody, accomplish tasks like opening a bank account or finding my away around a chaotic bus station, and live comfortably in a house full of Chinese people. I’m totally pro at navigating a bubble tea menu. But at the same time, I quickly find myself lost in meetings at work. I can’t follow a Chinese comedy show. I have trouble understanding people on the phone. My knowledge of chengyus is crap.

Sometimes after a frustrating day of failed communication, all I can do is hole myself up in my room and watch an episode of The Simpsons, feeling satisfied that none of my Chinese friends could keep up with the American humor, even with subtitles.

Every once in a while, however, something happens that reminds me how far I’ve come.

I find myself translating for an expat who has been living in China for decades.

My boyfriend jokes with his friends in a Wechat group message and I read over his shoulder, laughing as easily and genuinely as I would with my American friends.

I realize that I’ve stopped dividing my friends in my head into “English-speakers” and “Chinese only.”

I meet some foreign exchange students who are just beginning to learn Chinese, and I see how much I’ve improved since I first arrived in Hangzhou in 2011. I remember how it felt to enter a bar or a restaurant or a room and not understand a single word, and I realize that this is no longer the case. The veil has been lifted.

I do understand.

Mostly.

Except for a few words here and there.

And chengyus.

And cultural references.

And formal phrases.

And nonstandard accents.

The fact is, I will probably never become completely fluent in the language and culture of China. There is just too much depth, too much history, too many phrases and metaphors and characters and dialects. Even Chinese people do not know them all. I’ve spent 20 months of my life in this country, and I’m only just beginning to feel comfortable here. All I can do is keep trying, and keep reminding myself that no matter how frustrated I feel, I have improved. The progress may be slow and hard to see sometimes, but it’s real.

And when I feel really discouraged, I can always go out and order a bubble tea (cold, no ice, low sugar, with coconut jelly, I’ll take it to go but I don’t need a bag). Instant confidence booster.

IMG_0326

Back when I had just rented my apartment in Nanjing, my roommate took me shopping at Walmart. I bought toiletries, hangers, kitchen supplies, sheets—everything I needed, all in one easy location. I casually mentioned this to my parents over Skype once, and they were slightly appalled. Walmart?? We avoid that place like the plague back home. After all, Walmart is widely known to represent the epitome of American neoliberal evil. It is the fluorescent prison where idealism goes to die, surrounded by sweatshop-stitched Spiderman sneakers, underpaid employees, and camo-clad parents screaming at their greasy children.

Is Walmart in China any different? The company first opened a retail store in Shenzhen in 1996, and has since expanded to include over 400 stores in 147 cities across China. Although Chinese sales are quickly increasing, revenue from China still only accounts for 2 percent of Walmart’s global total. Several cultural differences have prevented Walmart from taking off in China as it has in the West: Chinese shoppers are accustomed to purchasing small amounts more frequently, making the suburban super-store model less appealing; frugality is also so deeply embedded in Chinese culture that Walmart’s low prices seem much less alluring—Chinese people already know how to get a good deal from local shops and street vendors. They do not need a corporation to teach them how to save money.

Despite these differences, Walmart in China is similar to America in a crucial way—employee treatment. In the U.S., Walmart has long been criticized for subjecting employees to low pay, few benefits, and poor working conditions. It’s the same in China. Although Chinese Walmart employees are officially unionized and members of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), ACFTU has been unsupportive and unsympathetic to employee complaints. Labor laws are weak, leaving disgruntled employees without legal recourse. Although a few employees have attempted to protest—Wang Shishu in Shenzhen is a notable example—most employees simply leave when they realize that they cannot make a living from Walmart wages.

I knew all of this in the back of my mind, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that Walmart was just so damn convenient. There is a large, two-floor store just three blocks from my apartment, stocked to the brim with every consumable item I could imagine, from impossibly cheap bread, to packaged rabbit-meat jerky. As the weeks went by, I continued to shop there. I bought flip-flops and socks, cheap vegetables and snacks, imported goods, and even breakfast—they carry an enormous assortment of steamed breads and buns, for the same price as on the street.

But eventually, I began to feel a little guilty. Why should I buy dirt-cheap yogurt from Sam Walton, when I could pay a few kuai more and get the same yogurt from a family-owned convenience store?

And so, I have made a decision. No more casual shopping at Walmart. I may still go there for imported goods or bulk items like cooking oil, but I’m done paying Sam Walton for my ordinary groceries.

And now, without further ado, I present to you a list of 10 Things You Can Do at Walmart In China

1. Choose from an entire wall of Drisd Meat

image-4

2. Select your own (unrefrigerated) eggs

Image

3. Take a nap, if the mood strikes

Image

4. Buy a flattened pig face or two

Image

5. Stock up on dried-out ducks and whatever that other thing isImage

6. Celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival by spending your paycheck on moon cake gift boxes for all your friendsImage

7. Choose from a massive selection of buns, cakes, dumplings, dim sum, and other Chinese snacksImage

8. Ride up and down the super steep moving ramps between floorsImage

9. Buy massive amounts of oil and rice

Image

10. Select your favorite turtles, frogs, and eelsImage

Image

I sat down at a rickety outdoor table next to a bustling night market in Hong Kong and scanned the laminated paper menu. The local specialty, surprisingly, was sweet-and-sour pork. When the dish arrived, it was disconcertingly familiar: deep-fried pork and chunks of pineapple swimming in a sticky-sweet, bright orange sauce. Was I really in Hong Kong? Or was I back in Hong Kong Kitchen, my family’s go-to takeout place in South Burlington, Vermont?

As it turns out, most American Chinese food traces its roots back to the Cantonese traditions of America’s earliest Chinese immigrants, most of whom were from Hong Kong and Guangdong. Their culinary expertise created such American favorites as lo mein, orange chicken, and egg rolls.

It was strange, after months of sampling strange and complex dishes from across Mainland China, to finally stumble upon something familiar. After all, Chinese cuisine is a vast and complex art form. Tradition divides Chinese cooking styles into four primary schools: Lu (a northern style from Shandong), Chuan (a spicy style from Sichuan), Su (native to Jiangsu), and Yue (Cantonese). Another traditional categorization identifies eight schools of cooking, including in addition to the previous four: Hui (from Anhui), Xiang (from Hunan), Zhe (from Zhejiang, including Shanghai), and Min (from Fujian). Each of these styles has a unique arsenal of ingredients and techniques, and a unique emphasis on flavors, textures, and appearances. Su cuisine such as that found in Nanjing, for instance, favors soft textures and salty flavors. Chuan cuisine smothers preserved ingredients in garlic and spice. Yue cuisine, in contrast, emphasizes fresh ingredients and complex textures, and features many small, bite size dishes known as 点心(diǎn xīn or dim sum). In addition to these eight culinary schools, China is also home to hundreds of regional variations, cultural appropriations, and minority nationality traditions. Some popular examples include the northern style of Manchuria, the exotic flavors of Yunnan, the meat and dairy-heavy cuisines of Mongolia and Tibet, and the Halal dishes of Xinjiang.

Of China’s vast and complex culinary landscape, only a tiny smattering of flavors and techniques have found their way to the Magic Woks and Hong Kong Kitchens of the United States. Even in Hong Kong, sweet-and-sour pork is only the tip of the iceberg. Although most Cantonese cuisine favors sweet and fresh flavors, it also utilizes such unique ingredients as chicken feet, sparrow’s nests, cuttlefish, and shark fin cartilage. Roasted duck organs are sold on skewers on the street. In some Guangzhou restaurants, patrons can pick their meal from tanks of live crocodiles and snakes.

I quickly learned that Cantonese cuisine is a great source of pride for the locals, to the extent that Cantonese people are reluctant to eat anything else. Although Hong Kong is a global metropolis brimming with world-class dining options, I was told that authentic Mainland food is difficult to find; when it does exist, it is tweaked to suit Cantonese tastes. An American friend living in Hong Kong told me that whenever he goes to the Mainland, his first stop is to a Sichuan restaurant, where he can finally satisfy his craving for real spice.

As a big fan of spicy Sichuan food (see my “about” page), I was disappointed to hear this. But since I was only in Hong Kong for 48 hours, I decided to embrace the local pride with a massive dim sum lunch. Although our restaurant of choice was disappointingly reptile-free, the sugar-crusted pork buns, shrimp dumplings, and steamed egg cakes were delicious.

Image

To celebrate Rosh Hashanah last night, I cooked dinner for my roommate and my Chinese coworker.

Image

It didn’t matter that they had never heard of this holiday before, and were very confused as to why the New Year would begin in September.

It didn’t matter that I almost never cook, and had to WhatsApp my mom in desperation asking how to make her signature feta pasta.

It didn’t matter that the candles were jasmine-scented, and melted all over the table because we didn’t have candleholders.

It didn’t matter that none of us could open the wine bottle, and that after nearly an hour of struggling we were left with a pulverized cork that shed little bits into the wine.

It didn’t matter that the bread, which I’d picked because it was round and vaguely challah-looking, had a surprise coconut-paste center.

It didn’t matter that we ate dinner with chopsticks, because I never got around to buying forks.

It didn’t even matter that my roommate never told me she was lactose intolerant, and she couldn’t try the feta.

What mattered was that we dipped apples into local Nanjing honey, chatted about cultures and religions, and appreciated a quiet evening together.

What mattered was that we had Ben & Jerry’s for dessert, and even my roommate tried a bite.

Image

Imagine Whirled Peace. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Near Da Xing Gong in the center of Nanjing, there is a tiny little Japanese restaurant with two small tables and a bar, decorated with paper lanterns and calligraphy on the walls. I have been to this restaurant twice, and I am slightly obsessed. The sushi is freshly made behind the bar, and beautifully presented. The tomato udon noodles are fat and rich and savory. The miso soup is like crack—and I used to think I didn’t even like miso soup.

Only later did I realize the irony of eating delicious Japanese food in Nanjing, the focal point of every anti-Japanese sentiment in China.

Nanjing was the capital of the Republic of China in 1937, when the Japanese army invaded the city from three sides, wreaking utter havoc and destruction within. Known in the West as the Nanjing Massacre or the Rape of Nanking, this incident represents the epitome of human brutality and ruthlessness. An estimated 300,000 innocent Nanjing residents were murdered at the hands of Japanese soldiers during a six-week period beginning December 13th, 1937. Even when Japanese victory was certain, the soldiers continued to rape and kill with total abandon. What could possibly cause a human being to lose all concept of humanity? We often compare the Nanjing Massacre to the Holocaust, but the Japanese invasion represented an entirely different kind of violence. The Holocaust was cold, calculated, and systematic, so that the responsibility of each individual was relatively small. It is one thing to give an order, or lock a door, or push a button. It is another thing to rape a seventy-year-old grandmother, to stab a pregnant woman in the stomach, or to compete with another soldier to see who could kill 100 people fastest using only a sword.

Although many of the perpetrators were later tried and punished for their crimes, the Japanese government did not formally apologize until 1995. Even now, Japanese officials continue to underestimate the casualties or even deny that the massacre ever occurred, and Japanese history textbooks frequently gloss over or minimize the incident.

Not surprisingly, the massacre has left a deep and lasting impression on Chinese culture.

I first became aware of anti-Japanese sentiment in China while I was studying abroad in Hangzhou in 2011. A new sushi restaurant opened near the university campus, and my friend’s Chinese roommate refused to go, saying simply that she “did not like Japan.” We tried to reason with her, explaining that Japanese food isn’t the same thing as Japanese government (and Japanese government isn’t the same thing as Japanese people), but she still refused to go. Another time, a waiter in Hangzhou was chatting casually with us, when out of the blue he randomly burst out with “I don’t like Japan.” None of us quite knew what to say.

Last year, anti-Japanese sentiment in China reached a boiling point when Japan  purchased the uninhabited Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands in the South China Sea from a private owner. Sovereignty of the islands has long been disputed among China, Taiwan, and Japan, and in August 2012, anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots broke out across China. People burned flags, looted Japanese-owned businesses, and smashed Japanese-brand cars. The Chinese government cracked down on the protesters in mid-September to halt the rapidly escalating violence.

But for all the historical and political tensions, I have so far failed to witness any true animosity during my experience in Nanjing. One Chinese friend from Anhui Province agreed wholeheartedly with my opinion that modern, ordinary Japanese people should not be blamed for the mistakes of their grandfathers. My coworker from Wuxi explained that except for Nanjing residents whose family members were personally involved in the war, most Chinese people from other cities remain relatively neutral on the subject. Even my housemate, whose mother’s side of the family is from Nanjing, expressed very moderate views. She told me that she strongly disagreed with the Chinese riots and violence in 2012, and that she holds no particular animosity towards Japanese people living in Nanjing. Incidentally, my housemate was also the one who introduced me to the adorable little restaurant near Da Xing Gong.

Last weekend, I visited the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. The award-winning museum is built around the preserved remains of an actual mass grave. While the exhibits are undeniably disturbing, and the atmosphere undeniably somber, the museum ends on a note of hope. One room honors the unlikely heroes who emerged from the tragedy, particularly the German Nazi Party-member John Rabe, who is credited with saving the lives of over 200,000 Chinese in Nanjing. Another room features audio recordings from Japanese soldiers apologizing for the actions of their military, and expressing deep regret for their own involvement in the massacre.

Finally, as visitors exit the museum, they are led through an outdoor Peace Garden complete with reflecting pool and neatly trimmed bushes. The wall of the garden is draped with thousands upon thousands of paper origami cranes sent from Japan, strung together like fluttering strands of rainbow prayer beads.

Like everything else in China, attitudes toward the Japanese are highly complex and not easily generalized.

I think, perhaps, the situation is best symbolized by Mr. Sushi (寿司先生).

Mr. Sushi is a takeout sushi chain for people who like to eat things wrapped in seaweed and rice, but prefer not to be reminded that sushi comes from Japan. Mr. Sushi’s made-to-order rolls are about as Japanese as a grilled cheese sandwich, a Chevy pickup, or not dying your hair pink and wearing Victorian dresses with six-inch platform shoes. The Mr. Sushi menu offers curry sushi, pizza sushi, Korean cheese sushi, Thai chicken sushi, and the intriguing “red wine cheese beef roulade.”

Only once does the menu mention Japan. This is in a little blurb at the bottom of the menu explaining that sushi was originally invented in Han Dynasty China, long before it reached Japan. “原来寿司也是中国的呢”—So in the end, sushi is Chinese!

Image

To continue a previous post I wrote that was purely about food, here’s another list of some of the new, delicious, strange, or otherwise memorable things I’ve eaten in China.

1. Vacuum-packed Squid

Image

Okay, so I’ll start with the strange. This is exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what it looks like. A whole little squid. Preserved in salt and vinegar. Wrapped in plastic. It wasn’t bad actually, if you are into things that are fishy, pickly, vacuum-packed, and have tentacles.

2. 炸酱面Zhájiàng miàn (preserved black bean noodles)

Those of you who have seen the South Korean film Castaway on the Moon may remember this as the dish that drives the main character to the brink of insanity, before ultimately becoming his sole reason to continue living. I have now had zhájiàng miàn at three different restaurants, and while I can’t say it has haunted my dreams, I will admit that it is very delicious. It comes in a lumpy, salty heap next to your noodles, usually topped with cilantro and sliced raw vegetables. When you mix it all together with chopsticks, it makes a delectably greasy, cheesy little sound that makes my mouth water just to think about it.

3. Mangosteens (山竹)

Mangosteens are one of the strangest fruits I’ve ever eaten. They have a hard, purple shell that stains your fingers with bright red juice when cut. Something so juicy looks as if it should be sweet, but the shell is in fact too bitter to eat. Inside the shell, there is a collection of little white wedges that are very sweet and mild—unless you get a bad one, which I did, in which case this bitter yellow resin stuff from the shell bleeds into the white part and makes the whole thing rather disgusting. I have heard that a fresh, perfectly ripe mangosteen is very delicious; unfortunately, I have yet to find one.

4. 山楂卷shānzhā juǎn (hawthorn rolls)

When I was little, I spent my summers attending various nature camps, farming camps, and sports camps. All of these required me to pack a lunch. Whether I was covered in sawdust and chicken feathers from Shelburne Farms, hot and muddy from mountain biking at Catamount, or mosquito bitten from running around in the woods at the Audubon camp in Huntington, I always reached into my squishy insulated lunchbox hoping to pull out a fruit leather. Do you remember fruit leathers? They were fruit roll-ups’ healthier cousins, thick and chewy and made with real fruit. When I bit into a hawthorn roll in China, it was as if I was back in the woods, sitting on a wooden bench and reeking of organic bug spray.  Hawthorn fruits look a little bit like crabapples, and hawthorn rolls have the exact texture and tartness of an apple-berry fruit leather, one long strip rolled up into a little cylinder of nostalgia. Best of all, when I gave one to my Chinese-American coworker, she exclaimed that they reminded her of her childhood as well. I grew up eating fruit leathers, and she grew up eating shānzhā juǎn.

5. Red Bean Popsicle

I already knew that Chinese people like to incorporate red beans into every single sweet thing they eat—cakes, buns, candies, and even milk tea—but I was a little surprised to see a red bean popsicle. It was actually quite tasty, in a slightly pasty bean-y kind of way. Next I have to try the green pea popsicle, which my coworker assures me is really good for cooling off in the heat.

6. Black Rice Yogurt

To continue the theme of Chinese-foods-that-are-always-sweet-for-some-reason, I bought some black rice-flavored yogurt once because there was a three-for-two deal at the grocery store. Black rice is known to be very nutritious; just mention black rice to a Chinese person, and he or she will almost certainly reply that it is rich in nutrients. In yogurt form, however, I think some of the health benefits were probably canceled out by the massive amounts of added sugar; I would classify this more as a liquidy pudding than as traditional yogurt. Nevertheless, it was delicious. It was light purple in color, and had a rich, nutty flavor reminiscent of sesame. The texture was just slightly grainier than plain yogurt, and I had to restrain myself from licking the container clean when I was done.

7. 鸡蛋灌饼 Jīdàn guàn bǐng

There is a tiny little roadside shop near my apartment that sells something called Jīdàn guàn bǐng. It’s never very busy, but every single time I walk by, no matter what time of day, there is at least one person waiting by the little cart for what looks like an eggy pancake wrapped around lettuce and meat. One day, I decided to try it. First, I had to look up the character灌 so I would know how to ask for one. It turns out 灌 guàn means to pour or to fill, so 鸡蛋灌饼 means something like “egg-filled pancake.” The pancake’s taste was actually not very remarkable; it was rather bland, with just a touch of brown sauce and some lettuce that quickly wilted with the heat. How they made the pancake, however, was quite interesting. First they stretched out a circle of dough like a little pizza and plopped it flat onto the griddle. Then they flipped it a few times, adding oil as needed. Finally, an air pocket formed and the dough started to inflate. They poked a hole in the bubble with a chopstick, and before it collapsed they quickly poured a beaten egg inside, where it cooked almost instantly. Then quick as a flash, they scooped the thing off the griddle, wiped it with sauce and hot peppers, layered it with lettuce and meat to order, folded it up, and put it in a plastic baggy. Done.