Shenzhen: Facts, Observations, and Thanksgiving Celebrations

It’s been long enough that we are through the honeymoon phase of our move. We should be thoroughly into the “hating it all” phase, but remarkably, we’re fairly content. A few months time living in Shenzhen has given us a bit of perspective, and we’ve seen much of the city now (but not all of it by any means). We still find the generous greenery appealing. We still can’t believe there aren’t a million traffic fatalities every day. We have learned more about the city, and made more observations. Here are some.

Population: almost 12,000,000. Some estimates place the actual population, including those who aren’t registered officially, closer to 17,000,000. It’s China’s fourth most populous city, behind Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. I figure it’s part of the reason traffic laws and crosswalks aren’t necessarily paid much heed to, but that maybe just because the cops in the vicinity don’t care much. I hear other districts have more rigid policing. Anyway, since Shenzhen is such a big city, it takes a long time to get around. Speaking of getting around…

Didi: it’s Uber, but bought out by a Chinese company. With a new English interface, Didi makes hailing a ride much easier. I set it up, in conjunction with the ubiquitous social app WeChat, so that our rides are automatically debited from my bank account. This leads us to…

WeChat: it’s China’s do-all social app, and it’s mind-blowingly convenient. I can scan a QR code to pay for food, taxis, bicycle rentals (something else very China), and the like, after linking my bank account. I can use it like Facebook or like Facebook Messenger. It’s a bit like Apple Pay meets Facebook and they have a baby. A really convenient baby. Now, back to observations–a drive, or indeed a Sunday afternoon stroll, could not be accomplished without witnessing…

Skyscrapers: lots of them! The Ping An International Finance center, designed by an American firm, was just finished this year, and it is the fourth tallest building in the world. There are high-rise apartments everywhere. Quality, if you’re wondering, doesn’t seem to be especially high in most buildings, though they are evidently safe enough. Speaking of super tall buildings, presently, according to CNN, there are 49 buildings over 200 meters tall in Shenzhen.

Ping An IFC

Newly completed, Ping An International Finance Center reaches 599 meters into the sky, making it the world’s fourth tallest building. It comes within about 10 meters of being the third tallest and is indeed impressive.

Style: still not much. On hot days, of which there are many, men roll up their shirts to keep their navels cool. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my coworkers christened this the “Beijing Bikini,” while I just call it cringe-worthy. Other men shirk the shirts altogether, regardless of whether or not they have a body worth showing off. One must admire the unselfconsciousness of these guys, I guess. When it’s hot, you gotta be comfortable, right? To answer your unspoken question, not everybody disregards all sense of taste. There are definitely some elegant dresses and spectacular suits, but they’re in the considerable minority.

T-shirts: we get quite a kick out of seeing things terribly written in English (and sometimes terrible things written in English) on T-shirts here. Check out the hilarious (and highly inappropriate) things people wear courtesy of an instagrammer from Shanghai, who’s made an effort to document some of the ridiculousness here, if you dare. We’ve seen some pretty dumb shirts, but nothing quite the jaw-dropper “I Am a Whore” is, for example. Now, let’s move onto that favored, always-safe conversational topic: weather.

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T-shirts aren’t the only things to get puzzling or hilarious English translations, as these signs attest.

Temperature: has now dipped into the upper 50’s (Fahrenheit) at night. It feels like fall at last. Today Jenia even lamented not having brought more cold-weather clothing from the States. Shenzhen veterans tell me temps can dip almost to freezing, and when that happens, it’s mighty unpleasant, for there isn’t any heating inside the school offices. With the mercury dropping, it actually seems appropriate that we should be having…

Thanksgiving: not celebrated by Chinese folks, of course, so Starbucks is already decked out for Christmas. As for us, we will be celebrating over the weekend with friends–folks we know from the UAE, as well as new ones we’ve met on this teaching adventure. One of the enduring pleasures of life abroad is the relationships that spring up and the surrogate families that form.

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Noise.

Big city life is noisy, right? So is country life, but in its own way, you might say. And you’d be right. I never knew how many weird noises cows make before moving to rural Georgia, after all. Big city noises are different, though. The unceasing clatter and din of human beasts. Traffic. Construction. Demolition. Reconstruction. Jackhammers.

In Shenzhen, there’s hardly a day goes by without the obnoxious racket of a jackhammer. There is a construction site adjacent to our residence–everyday for months they’ve been excavating there, cutting and drilling and slamming out rock so they can erect another skyscraper. Are you familiar with that process? Huge hydraulic breakers are employed to do the job, mounted on large crawler tractors. They repeatedly send a heavy chisel point into the rock. Eventually an excavator comes along and digs out the debris, whereupon a dump truck hauls it off. As you can imagine, it’s a loud and drawn out process.

Last week, a crew started demolishing the vacant Longzhu Hospital which is just across the road on the other side of our domicile. Now the clamor of jackhammers and breakers echoes off Tanglang Mountain from that direction, too.

There’s no relaxing outside in the beautiful fall weather because it’s so loud all the time. Even relaxing on the balcony is unrealistic. Luckily, after 6:30pm all is quiet.

Unless, that is, the road is being torn up so a sewage line can be replaced. Or they’re paving the other road.

Bearing all this in mind, when Jenia and I spent the night at the fantastic new Hard Rock Hotel in Longhua, some 45-60 minutes away, I was delighted that it was located in Mission Hills, where a posh golf course exists, and where things must surely be quieter.

Imagine my dismay when I was awakened on the 15th floor by the noise of what appears to be a metro line under construction. The entire median separating the highway was a big work zone. Curses.

But that’s all part of the deal with Shenzhen. It is a really big city, after all. Much of the construction really does make life better, ultimately, but it’s a drawback to living here as well.

Impressions: Shenzhen After 4 Weeks

In lieu of a straightforward narrative per the usual, here’s a post that aims simply to catch the feelings of some recent moments. Some paragraphs are present tense, some past, so don’t get all English teachery about it. It’s about emotion.

Dafeng Oil Painting Village: Man, most of these rip-offs/copies of other people’s work are actually not even good. Low-caliber. Also, this whole street reeks of sewage. But where are the bathrooms? This toddler needs to pee! No luck with a bathroom. A while later: look, there’s a local mom holding her son in the air, buck naked, over a diaper so he can do his business (again, judging by the state of the diaper).

Princess at Dafeng

Princess doesn’t care that this is a low-caliber knock off. She likes it.

Walmart: no thanks. Holy too-packed-for-me, Batman!

Electric buses used everywhere in SZ for public transportation are made by BYD (who has a factory in California now). Slick! Quiet, modern, nice. The buses also have English announcements, making using them painless for foreigners like us.

More cloudy days than not. Glimpses of blue skies and rare clear days. I’m enjoying one of these on my balcony now, sweating like a stuck pig, but thrilled with the sun beaming down on me.

Clouds keep the heat down.

Buddhist (i.e. Vegetarian) restaurants and Muslim (i.e. halal) noodle places. Who knew?

Curse those wretched silent electric bikes which disregard all rules. Sidewalks, opposite traffic lanes, you name it, they go there. Royally irritating. Can’t let your guard down while walking, and especially not with little ones.

Curse also the miserable excuse for a human who decided to start putting durian into all manner of otherwise delectable foods. Breads, ice creams, you name it. If it’s yellow, watch out.

Speaking of durian, why in the whole world would anyone ever want to eat it? It is the most sense-confusing fruit ever–the nose says, “Hey, that’s going to be sweet!” and the tastebuds, caught off guard, say “Holy unexpected crap, this tastes like rotten onions!” If at first it’s not revolting, try and try again.

Walked into a restaurant. Evidently they were using Szechuan spices as they prepared something. Whole family felt vaguely pepper sprayed and started coughing uncontrollably (but not severely).

Best mango ever! Huge and, oh, words can’t express how soft and sweet.

Breakfast

Delicious–fresh mango and a Cantonese breakfast food called chong fen (pork excluded, of course).

Risky business, making an order for food. Being vegetarian adds a serious layer of challenge to eating out.

Spying a toddler clad in split pants, Turtle points and laughs. “Hahaha! Mom, look! You can see his butt!”

Fuquing St.

Sometimes you need to laugh a little.

People slap themselves while exercising. They also walk backwards.

There are eye exercises at school, wherein pupils shut and then rub their eyes in various patterns.

“That’s called the Beijing bikini,” says a coworker, as I point out the guy walking past our bus wearing his T-shirt rolled up so everyone can see his jiggling waist. This style of dress is common.

Style? It’s all over the place. From none to wow, there’s something for everyone.

Bentley. Porsche. Tesla. Maserati. Those with wealth flaunt it.

Caddy in Nanshan

Cadillac is well represented in the area.

Yeah, it gets crowded. Mornings are less busy.

You could get mowed down in a crosswalk. Keep your eyes open–not just for cars, also for the jerk on the e-bike I mentioned earlier.

I’ve only seen one automobile accident. How is it possible, given the way these people drive? “There’s a rhythm to it,” says another coworker, describing the near-chaotic traffic. “It seems to be about occupying the space,” my coworker continues. “If you’re there first, you can have it, and if you turn and get partly there, then other drivers will yield to you.”

Amazing architecture.

Ping An IFC

Newly completed, Ping An International Finance Center reaches 599 meters into the sky, making it the world’s fourth tallest building. It comes within about 10 meters of being the third tallest and is indeed impressive.

Chegongmiao

Outside the Chegongmio metro stop there are a number of impressive buildings.

Dafeng Houses

These buildings in Dafeng Oil Painting Village suggest the massive growth that’s taken place in the last thirty or forty years.

Mall interiors that defy logic. Why the devil isn’t there an escalator right here, with all the others, to get down a single floor?

Windows that get opened and left open for no reason, including while air conditioning is running.

Noise.

People often shout when they talk.

Shoddy workmanship.

Tropical vegetation. Lush.

Banyan 1

That banyan tree blew my mind. The dude outside started examining it when I aimed my camera up.

Shopping for big items isn’t easy without a car.

Buying food is cheap, unless you opt for the high-end stuff. It’s possible to spend a lot if you’ve gotta have all the same stuff as you do at home. Also, cooking is a hassle when you can’t get all the same stuff as home (and you aren’t versed in Chinese foods).

Banks take forever. Under no circumstances change money at Bank of China. Just leave your cash at home (or swap it in HK at the airport’s forex) and use the friggin’ ATM. Jenia’s going to write an entire post about this.

Korean food

22 kwai (if memory serves) buys a delightful Korean dish (kimchi fried rice), plus water and appetizers are free.

What a modern and efficient subway system. It actually is a pleasure to use.

It really is possible to eat out for less than it is to cook at home. Quality varies.

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring Shenzhen’s Nanshan Neighborhood: Tang Lang Mountain

Today my 4 year old son and I hiked a mountain. That is, we walked on a nicely paved road and granite stairs. Tang Lang Mountain overlooks our residence, and it’s been beckoning me since we arrived. Since Jenia won’t be talked into scaling its heights, such as they are, I dragged my boy along instead. Wowzers! We left at 9 in the morning and got back after noon. By then, my shirt was soaked and so were my shorts–soaked with sweat and nothing else!

Typhoon Hato caused, according to today’s headlines, no major damage when it came through yesterday. The threat of serious damage was enough to lead to school cancellations and the like. What we ended up with, however, was lots of broken tree branches and that is about it.

When we headed out on foot this morning, it was humid and there were many maintenance people out and about cleaning the sidewalks with straw brooms. They were sweeping leaves and other debris into piles along the sidewalks. It’s only a couple of blocks to Tang Lang Mountain, and there were lots of people cleaning up there, too. If you’ve worked in the UAE, you might have heard a couple of jokes about how dish washer and street sweeper aren’t appliances or what have you, but are actually careers–that might fit this area too. There were lots of guys (and ladies) out there sweeping the curving road along Tang Lang (which is, by the way, restricted to pedestrian traffic except for a few odd autos) with brooms. It’s got to be hard work in this heat.

Making the hike wasn’t easy. I’m told there are actually trails along Tang Lang, but I didn’t notice them. I did see sections of stairway, and those were too inviting to pass up. Going up the stairways is hard, I admit. Coming down them isn’t at all bad, however.

Since I had a 4 year old in tow, I had snacks and water for the trip. Those were magic–whenever things seemed too hard, a treat showed up, a pause along the way ensued and strength to continue was summoned forth.

We were rewarded for our climbing prowess (or rather, our hard fought tenacity) with splendid views out over Shenzhen and the bay. This is quite a place.

Should I mention the mosquitoes which enjoy the shadier places we found? Nah. Let’s just say the attraction was not mutual.

By the time we returned, dripping with sweat, Jenia was wondering if we were in fact coming back, and we were both ready to be off our tired feet. Traveling by foot with a four year old isn’t a particularly speedy proposition, and we’d also stopped at a shop to purchase a couple drinks on our way back, our water supply having dwindled. Notably, I recognized when the clerk said “Seven quid” in Chinese! It was a proud little moment! (I only just learned how to say seven yesterday, you see).

Days like this hot one really drive home how far we are from…well, home. Climbing the mountain provided a different view of the city, quite literally, and helped me feel like I am actually exploring the area. Tang Lang Mountain’s network of trails offer a little respite from the constant noises of city life. It’d be easy to forget that there are 15,000,000 souls not far off, were I not so unaccustomed to the area. It must be said that lush Shenzhen is nothing like rural Georgia, and even less similar to arid Utah. I look forward to my next hike.

Update: For more on Life in China, check out our new in 2018 blog, Our Traveling Zoo.

Shenzhen: First Impressions

1. Holy horrible humidity, Batman!

2. They take the border between HK and mainland China very seriously.

3. Hm. No English from the security guards at the international school we live at?

4. Green! Hills, parks, lining the streets.

5. Laundry on every balcony. I wonder what size that pink underwear is? Looks pretty big.

6. The people seem to enjoy trying whatever English they know on us. They also seem to love finding someone nearby who can help interpret.

7. Banyan trees are amazing!

8. Food is cheap.

9. Whoah, that’s a capacious, sparkling, clean subway system! And it has English on the signs and over the intercom. Sleek and modern. Air conditioned, too.

10. It’s way cleaner than we expected.

11. The kiddos get tons of attention. And we get stared at. And photographed.

12. Bamboo scaffolding.

13. Those cursed electric (i.e. silent) bikes and scooters going every which way on the sidewalks.

14. Typhoon Hato! Yeah, a typhoon!

Moving to Shenzhen, pt. 3: Learning

Part of the preparation for any of international move involves learning about a culture and location. Even the most rudimentary understanding of some of the unique cultural aspects of a place can go a long way to helping ease the inevitable shock of taking up residence in a foreign place.

There are a few bases we’ve tried to cover to this point. Most important, doubtless, is some knowledge of Chinese language. Learning a language inevitably impacts and helps to form a better understanding of a people, plus we don’t expect a lot of spoken or written English around Shenzhen. While we have a TON left to learn, we’ve found iPhone apps like ChineseSkill and Memrise to be useful. ChineseSkill is really neat, because it has a nicely scaffolded manner of development which covers spoken language, learning Pinyin, and also practicing writing Chinese characters. Memrise is rather less logically laid out, but it is helpful, too. Podcasts are a favorite method of learning for Shon, and he loves the very straightforward lessons the Shao Lan offers in her Chineasy one. What’s more, Shon is using a book called Chinese in 10 Minutes a Day, which is helping expand his (still pitiful) language skills.

There are a number of interesting videos about Shenzhen on YouTube, which give us an idea of what the city is like and where it has come from (it’s only 40 years old and the population surpasses 10 million!). Wired has an interesting documentary about how Shenzhen is basically China’s Silicon Valley.

YouTube is also home of vloggers such as Serpentza, a South African who calls Shenzhen home and creates videos about life there. Here is a link to one of his videos which explains how Shenzhen is one of China’s first tier cities. Needless to say, these videos can be illuminating.

We have also watched TV shows such as Wild China and even, you might laugh, An Idiot Abroad, which has an episode set in China.

That’s all for now!

Moving to Shenzhen, pt. 2: visa office

It’s close to go time. We are supposed to be in China the weekend of August 18th. In the meantime, we are waiting for our visas.

Here’s how that went down. Rather than use a courier service (because the Chinese Embassy won’t accept anything by mail), we took our passports and complete visa applications, along with supporting documents (the list of documents necessary is on the Embassy’s website), to the Chinese Embassy’s visa department, which is, by the way, not in the Embassy building, but on Wisconsin Avenue. We parked under the building, a privilege which cost $10. The attendant told us it would probably take a while: “Very bad. 2, 3 days.” With that cheerfully covered, we took the elevator upstairs to the first floor and found a long line–we joined the que with no less than 60 people in front of us.

That was fine, though. Jenia heard that the Chinese are very picky about the size of the photos that must be included in the packet of stuff to be submitted–they want a rectangular size that is not the usual easy CVS 2×2. There is, on the third floor, a Chinese visa specialist who do pics, etc, so we left the throng and went up there. The pictures didn’t take very long. Our applications were complete with those, so back down to the waiting room.

Long hallway on the third floor. The visa service place is at the end of the hall.

Services the visa place upstairs offers and prices.

We bided our time for about 3 hours before finally getting called to the window. Oddly, the guy behind the window hardly acknowledged our presence, other than to answer our questions. He gave us receipts and told us when the visas would be ready. That was it.

Tomorrow we return to pick the passports up–hopefully with no problems. As soon as I have our visas in hand, then we will have tickets ordered for us by the school.