Little Trouble in Big China

In the last six months, I’ve spent about twenty days in China — twenty-five if you count Hong Kong and Macau.  I would not consider myself an expert in any regard (at 26, I’m hard pressed to think it’s possible for me to be an expert about anything, really), but I find the place fascinating, and I’ve tried to unravel what goes on behind the scenes there many, many times in my head.  I don’t think I’ve been successful, but it at least means I have some stories.

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A R R I V A L

Light.

There’s light everywhere in China.  Not just the blinding fluorescent light that douses any airport in any country — there to help you forget what godforsaken hour it is in this part of the world — but lights of every color, every shape, a colorful panoply of illumination that pulls your eyes in every direction at once.  Giant Chinese characters burning with lambent neon fire, colossal LCD billboards shining like squat searchlights in the night, scrolling LED signs playing message after message written by some calligraphic pointillist.  If territorial holdings were what ensured the sun never set on the British empire, it’s technological holdings that make certain the sun will never truly set on the Chinese empire.

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The first night of my first trip to China, I landed late in Hong Kong and took the last ferry across the bay to Shenzhen.  This let me bypass Hong Kong customs and go through immigration straight on the mainland, but it also meant that I was keeping Chinese border guards at their posts far later than they wanted to be there.  The boat docked and we were quickly marched out, first into the sticky night air and then into a long, low-slung hallway that led from the docks to the customs inspection.  As the passengers on the ferry — mostly my American coworkers and a small handful of Chinese nationals — walked through the long hallway, our suitcase wheels clacking against old linoleum tile, the overhead lights shut down one by one behind us.  Shadow swallowed the hallway one chunk at a time, and we dragged our luggage until finally we burst out of the encroaching darkness and emerged into an equally low-slung, equally sickly lit, but much wider room, decorated with a small metal detector and an old luggage x-ray conveyor.

I was more or less waved through customs without stopping by bored, laconic guards.  As I stood on the sidewalk waiting for the van my company had hired to take me to Heyuan, a small town a couple of hours north of Shenzhen, I saw the customs personnel filing out of the building and vanishing into the night.

I almost typed “the dark night” there, but nothing about the night in Shenzhen was that dark.  There were lights everywhere, on every surface, advertisements and names and numbers and decoration intermingled in a neon and LCD glow that bathed the roads in color.  Giant electronic billboards flashed white at the end of each advertisement, just for a few seconds, a blazing digital sun descending on the street before vanishing again into the next product’s story.  Pollution is rampant in China; it makes sense that light pollution should be no exception.

As we drove away from Shenzhen, the roads reminded me more of sections of Los Angeles than anything else — long strip malls of restaurants and businesses lining the sides of wide roads made for far more traffic than was present at midnight.  But lit signs were everywhere, more signs than I’ve ever seen.  Every high-rise building had huge numbers or Chinese characters rising from their roofs, letters erected like the Hollywood sign in the hills above L.A. but ablaze with electricity.  The bright red text of “HAN’S LASER” jockeyed for space with a vibrant yellow Walmart logo.  LCD screens hung on the side of towers, scrolling through messages in English and Chinese, showing time, temperature, aphorisms.  TIME IS MONEY, one flashed.  EFFICIENCY IS LIFE.

The two and a half hour van ride to Heyuan passed in the fog you only experience when you’ve been up for twenty-four hours — and spent fourteen of them in an economy seat on a plane crossing the Pacific.  I drifted in and out of consciousness as our driver swerved in and out of traffic.  The van stopped only to wait for the other car in our caravan, which had been ahead of us until it was pulled over for speeding.  Every time I opened my eyes, there were more lights. More giant, indecipherable characters perched like glowing gargoyles on high-rise roofs, each one a message entirely inaccessible to me, beaming hidden meanings into the sky.

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Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin (or Cantonese, or Hakka), but the history of Heyuan seems impenetrable.  The language barrier makes it hard to research — I can’t even really tell you how big it is, since I’ve found conflicting numbers on different English websites.  The best I can offer is that it’s a prefecture-level city, kind of a county capital if such a thing existed in the U.S., in Guangdong province.  One Wikipedia article puts the population at 2.9 million; another at 900,000.  There was so much construction happening that I couldn’t begin to give you a guess as to which is correct — and both will probably be wrong within a year.

Either of these numbers is a staggering amount of people to me — more people than Boston or San Francisco (or, depending on which Wikipedia article you believe, more people than the two cities combined).  This is not what my American vocabulary would deem a “small town.”  But Heyuan is small to my Chinese coworkers, a backwater whose location sucks them away from their lives and families in Beijing for weeks or months at a time.

To say that it is rare for westerners to visit Heyuan is like saying the Great Wall is a pretty decently-sized garden fence.  Flying back from Europe once, several years ago, I sat next to a Swedish girl on her way to America for the first time.  She was coming to be an au pair, and in perfect but accented English she asked me what the “NJ” in the second line of the address she had been given meant.  When I answered, she told me that I talked like a movie star.  (I didn’t have the heart to tell her she wouldn’t find my southern California accent, with its undifferentiated vowels and articulated Rs, too often in New Jersey.)

But I have never felt more like a movie star than I do in Heyuan.

It is the farthest from The West, capital letters, that I’ve ever been — a measure equally of how sheltered I am and how isolated Heyuan is.  McDonald’s has made it here, but for the most part white people haven’t, and so walking down the street I am constantly stopped by teenagers who ask to take a photo with me.  Kids who walk past me yell “hello!” and when I say “hi” back they usually keep walking, until the last possible second, and then say “hi,” too, smiling as the slang syllable pops off their tongues.

From the window of my hotel room on the fourteenth floor of the Great International Hotel, I can see the city sprawl.  The hotel sits at the top of a hairpin turn in the Xinfeng River, which bisects the city.  The northern half of the city is modern, western.  There are wide roads and familiar brands, even occasional menus in English — though I still delight restaurant owners when I walk in, and am often asked for a picture to prove that Westerners enjoyed the food.  The southern half of the city — the lump of buildings and spider web of streets that take up the bulge of the hairpin — is anything but western.  The roads are narrow, and inside of the road that traverses the perimeter of the bulge, all of the advertising is gone, replaced by yells and shouts and street markets.  There are crowds of people, pushing their way through skinny alleys.  There are fish in tanks and clams in buckets and chickens in cages lining the side of the road, and stands — little more than a wooden chopping block, a wicked-looking knife, and a weathered-looking old woman — where these animals are gutted and butchered on the spot.  In one alleyway, a narrower offshoot of an already narrow, crooked street, the animal in question is a dog.

Heyuan is growing everywhere — just from my hotel window, I can count twelve huge construction cranes dotting the skyline.  There are more in any direction you turn, and each looms like a metal necromancer, raising the skeleton of a skyscraper from the ground beneath it.  Steel bones burst from the earth and race each other towards the sky, clawing at the clouds, while the shells of newly finished, empty buildings stand nearby, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in their hollow shadows.

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My second trip to China starts much like my first: a twelve-hour trans-Pacific flight to Shanghai, a somnambulant shamble to the taxi line, an hour drive into the city.  It’s evening again, but the lights are still as bright as day.  I fall, exhausted, into a hotel bed.

But the next morning, my trip to Changxing is worlds away from the wild drive through the dark to Heyuan.  I take the high-speed train from Shanghai to Changxing, and for the first time in my life truly realize that Amtrak needs to get its shit together.  The train glides along its rails at 250 kilometers an hour as delicately as a figure skater, blurring together cities, villages, towns, and rice paddies in near silence.  When it slides into the elevated platform of the Changxing station, my knuckles are surprisingly pink and I realize I haven’t been holding on to, well, anything for dear life.

Changxing itself is a very similar city to Heyuan: two hours west of Shanghai; maybe a few hundred thousand, maybe a million people, depending on who you believe; dozens of factory sites clumped on the main road into town like chunks of rocks and ice in the tail of a comet.  There is construction (albeit not as much), there are alleyways (albeit not as crowded), and there are confused stares as I walk down the street (albeit not as many).

I went to Heyuan in the winter, but it is summer in Changxing and the air is thick — with heat, with humidity, with smog, with dragonflies and mosquitoes.  But if you ignore the weather (this is hard to do when your California upbringing hasn’t exactly prepared you for the deliquescent effects of 90% humidity), it feels similar to Heyuan, similar to — I’m sure — any of the thousand other million-person towns in China.  This, maybe, is what I was least prepared for on my second trip to China: that after all the surprises of the first trip, nothing different would surprise me any more.

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S O M E   M I N O R   C U L T U R A L   D I F F E R E N C E S

There is some motivational poster somewhere, I’m sure, espousing the universal oneness of all humans, that we are all one people, something something coexisting something something understanding something something love et cetera et cetera et cetera.  You know the kind of uplifting platitude I’m talking about.

I think that deep down I may still believe this, that the liberal humanist in me eats those bromides up like a fat kid sucking down cotton candy at the Topeka county fair.  But nothing has stressed this opinion more than trying to figure out, at multiple points, on multiple occasions, in multiple situations, just exactly what the fuck is going on in China.

Everything — everything — I saw in China was just so unlike my American experiences that it’s hard to know where to begin describing the differences.  And yes, I realize this makes me sound about as cosmopolitan as some jerkwater evangelical preacher railing against abominable interracial marriages, but I promise I’m not purposely trying to be parochial.  Even Tokyo or Seoul or Hong Kong seemed closer to a U.S. city than to these little cities buried deep in China.

Let me absolve that liberal humanist in me by saying, from the get-go, this does not inherently make things worse than the U.S.  Just different.  But it did reaffirm in me the thought that this whole republic thing we’ve got going for us is a pretty good way to go about managing several hundred million people.  Freedom of speech, freedom of choice — turns out they’re decent ideas.

I was thrown into the middle of all these differences between China and America like a toddler dunked into the deep end of the pool — worse, maybe, because (again) I don’t speak the language.  Like, at all.  There was no cohesive narrative presented to me — here’s China, x is like y because z, thankyoucomeagain — and so I can’t do it justice by giving you one here, either.  I saw China — what I think of as the real China — in vignettes from bus windows and in snippets without explanation. Here are some of them.

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The engineers who work with me wear the same clothes day after day.  They’re not particularly nice clothes either — stained t-shirts and old jeans — though at least that is a similarity between engineers on both sides of the Pacific.  Wearing the same screen-printed shirt after you’ve spent all day yesterday sweating away the summer heat and humidity strikes me as not the choice I would make when I roll out of bed in the morning, though.

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I constantly see things that are simultaneously supremely dorky and supremely functional.  The main form of transportation seems to be these Vespa-like scooters that swarm through the streets like giant two-stroke locusts.  This would be dorky enough — the kind of thing I’d expect Berkeley PhDs in Birkenstocks to ride — but it is cold riding one of these in December, even in southern China.  So all these scooters have hand warmers — things that look like overstuffed oven mitts — mounted right on the handlebars.  Everyone I see riding has some kind of doofy-looking backwards windbreaker on to protect themselves against laminar flow and, presumably, having to interact with any members of the opposite sex.

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I see very little idle standing or idle sitting in China — both are replaced by a ubiquitous squat.  Any time you see people waiting, for anything, you’ll see them hunched over on the balls of their feet, knees bent and spread wide.  I have to admit it’s very comfortable.

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Personal space isn’t so much of a thing.  Lines are pretty solidly ass-to-crotch.  The engineers I work with, who — it should maybe go without saying — are exclusively male, hang and drape on each other like a teenage couple in a darkened movie theater.  I have had some uncomfortably long handshakes, like holding a limp fish until it suffocates.

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One night at dinner with my Chinese coworkers, I mention offhand that I was in Germany earlier in the month on a different business trip.  They ask me what countries I’ve been to, and I start ticking them off on my fingers — once I get past five or six, I’m greeted by gaping mouths.  One of the engineers, a stout guy from Inner Mongolia who’s normally amiable and reserved, has had a decent amount of beer at this point.  He stops me halfway between “Denmark” and “Sweden” and slurs, “Don’t say Taiwan.  Taiwan is not a country.”

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Before I went to China, I only vaguely knew what a selfie stick was.  But those things are everywhere in Asia, the perfect combination of tech-gadget and method-to-avoid-unnecessary-social-interaction that marries right into the proliferation of smartphones with front-facing cameras.  I’m not going to lie, I think they’re brilliant.

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There seems to be some kind of public antipathy to soap.  That’s the best explanation I can come up with for how unbelievably dirty and unhygienic parts of China are: a widespread animus towards soap, a general distrust of paper products, and what must be some sort of quasi-religious symbolism to burning trash.  At most restaurants I visited in China, the food was delicious, the dining area was beautiful and clean, and the bathrooms looked like a someone had fought and lost a wrestling match with a septic tank.  None of them had paper — any kind of paper — in them at all.

The genesis of this entire piece came from a bunch of notes I took while I was on my trips to China, hastily typed into my phone or scribbled down into a pocket notebook.  I usually had a few entries per day — observations, anecdotes, descriptions — but one day, towards the end of my second trip, my notebook has just a single entry.  It reads, in its entirety, “HAND FUCKING SANITIZER.”

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F O O D   A N D   D R I N K

Almost everyone I know who’s gone to China for some extended period has gotten sick from something they ate there.  I am an exception — a part of the genuine China experience I’m happy to have sidestepped, at least for now.  (Believe me, as I type this I am feverishly knocking on anything that looks like some part of it, at some point in its manufacture, came from a tree trunk.)  It’s not that I shy away from the food, either, consigning myself to the multiple KFC locations that are somehow strewn across rural China.  My general philosophy around food and drink when traveling is to just say yes to whatever is offered to me.  In China, this translates to some meals that are, frankly, weird as shit.  Some are weird in good ways (a whole fish steamed in a little basket volcano at my table!), some… less so (a whole plate of nothing but chicken feet and snails!).  So I am, I know, supremely lucky that my gastrointestinal fettle has held up.

I’ve heard people complain that the food in China is bad, but I think it’s just monotonous.  My American palate is used to taking a trip halfway across the world three times a day: Greek yogurt for breakfast, a Mexican burrito for lunch, Japanese sushi for dinner.  But in China, my choices were more like Chinese food for breakfast, Chinese food for lunch, Chinese food for dinner.  Some days, if I was particularly tired of stir-fried chunks of meat and over-steamed vegetables, I could branch out and find Korean or Japanese food.

The Chinese food was fine, though.  Some of it — plenty of it — was great.  It’s just that after spending about three days there you realize that it’s ALL CHINESE FOOD ALL THE TIME.  There’s no escape.  Even the hotels I stay at, which are “five star” western-style hotels (this translates to about a three star American hotel), are no exception.  They serve a western breakfast, but get it only mostly right.  There’s toast, but only some days.  There are eggs, but always hardboiled.  There’s sausage, but it tastes like dim sum pork.  It makes a man yearn for some goddamn American bacon.

At almost all the restaurants I ate at, I was the only westerner in the building.  This translated to some stares, usually, but I stared right back — at the sizzling pans, at the cages full of animals that were about to be slaughtered and served to me, at the pitchers of beer that tasted like sugar water.  I consistently amazed the locals by 1) simply not asking for a fork, and then 2) actually being able to mostly feed myself with chopsticks.  This, combined with a passable pronunciation of the Mandarin word for “thank you” (谢谢, xièxiè), got me pretty far and bought me a lot of clemency with the waiter when it came time to figure out how much money I owed at the end of the meal.

When I say the food is good, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t bring up one horrendous exception: the company cafeteria where I ate lunch.  As anyone who’s ever bought lunch at a public school knows, this is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, but it was certainly magnified by the cuisine choices.  As far as I can tell, the food was all prepared the same way: find an animal (any genus, really), cut it into 1″ x 1″ x 1″ cubes, stir-fry those cubes, and serve.  I picked a lot of duck bones out of my teeth.  The cafeteria food was, to a meal, a greasy, slimy expedition through a jungle of bean sprouts, gristle, and unidentifiable lumps of flesh.

And not once did they serve Panda Express orange chicken.

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D R I V I N G,   P T. 1

Just don’t even try.

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D R I V I N G,    P T. 2

Okay, so the reason I say don’t try to drive in China is because driving in China might be the single most heart-poundingly terrifying thing I’ll ever do.

In the U.S., we have these things called “rules” and “laws” (I almost added “courtesy,” but I’ve driven enough on the East Coast to know this isn’t exactly universally true), and people generally listen to them.  So as a result, everyone follows the rules, more or less, and assumes everyone else will follow the rules, more or less, and everybody yields, more or less, when they don’t have the right of way.

As far as I can tell those rules and laws exist in China, but no one really seems to know about them.  So instead, everyone does whatever the fuck they want, assumes everyone else is doing whatever the fuck they want, and everybody plows ahead full speed, assuming people will get out of their way.

There are markings on the road, signs on the side, but they seem to be purely decorative, an ornamental sprinkling of lights and lanes and octagons that make the streets look civilized but serve no actual purpose.  The drivers all move like drunks heading away from their favorite bar and into the loving embrace of the local police DUI checkpoint, weaving in and out of lanes and slaloming down the road.

Amazingly, in this colossal clusterfuck I have never once seen an accident.  This is a country where I watched a guy in a pickup truck laden with so many steel beams his truck bed was flexing (all held down by a single strap, of course) fly up to an intersection, notice the left turn light was red, swing across three lanes of oncoming traffic into the channelized right turn lane, blast through the turn — going against the flow of traffic! — cross another three lanes of traffic, and continue on his way, just as if he had made a normal left turn.  These kinds of maneuvers are commonplace.  I took a private bus to work every morning in Heyuan, and this bus — a big, bloated grasshopper-looking thing with huge rearview mirror antennae dangling out in front — would routinely find itself approaching a red light, and instead of stopping it would careen into a right turn, flip a quick U-turn, take another right, and trundle on down the road like that had been its plan all along.

Swarming around all of this, all the time, is a constant stream of little Vespa-style scooters.  They roil and bubble around cars like a brook flows around rocks, then are dammed up at intersections, big clumps agglomerating at red lights until the light turns green, the dam bursts, and a dozen scooters shoot off ahead of the more inertia-laden cars and trucks.  The scooters are small, but that’s no limit for their passengers.  I’ve seen single riders, or two people on the saddle, or even entire families strapped into a scooter — dad driving, mom holding on to his hips, daughter sandwiched in between, and son strapped into some kind of device that’s cantilevered off the back in a temerarious triumph of engineering and ingenuity.

There are so many of these scooters I’m amazed they don’t clog the streets.  At night, in front of shopping malls, the stream of scooters spills out into a static sea — a mangrove swamp of kickstands and parked Hondas that covers the entire sidewalk and part of the road in front of the mall.  Navigating through them requires a nimbleness (or slender hips) that I don’t possess, and so I swing wide around these stationary scooter estuaries, wondering how the hell so many people all decided that 9pm was definitely the time to go buy knock-off iPhones.

I can’t imagine what would happen if this many people tried to drive in the U.S. — everyone encased in their own personal SUV would cause gridlock of apocalyptic proportions.  It’s a good thing China has these scooters, because the alternative is a total and complete collapse of the entire transportation infrastructure.  That’s the thing, I guess — this whole system works, somehow.  It’s lawless and anarchic and it works.  So the cars swerve wildly, and the scooters flit around them, and I sit in the backseat of a taxi dreaming of Dramamine and trying not to think too hard about anything I see.

No matter what happens in the next fifty years, the image of China that will always stick with me will be an old man chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette while riding along on one of those little two-stroke scooters.

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S M O G

All those two-stroke scooter engines are not the cleanest burning option for getting from point A to point B.  So when you have a billion plus people ridding around on them, with a couple hundred million cars thrown in for good measure and a history of rapid industrialization that outpaced environmental regulation, well, it’s not really going to shock anyone that air pollution is a problem.

What did shock me is just how much of a problem it is.  I had seen pictures of Beijing before the Olympics.  I had read about how bad it was.  But nothing is quite like breathing the effluvium that’s passed off as air in Shanghai — and I was there on a relatively clean day.  This is air you can cut with a butter knife, air that hangs low and gray and suffocating.  From the ground floor of buildings, you can’t see their tops.  It’s like the fog that rolls in to cover San Francisco, except instead of smelling like urine and the ocean, it smells like urine and cigarettes.

Four days after I arrived in Heyuan, in the morning after it had drizzled all night, I learned that the town was in a basin, that there were majestic mountains in the western distance.  For four days they had been invisible to me, hidden behind an impenetrable curtain of smog.  Southern China has amazing mountain geography, these spires of stone that shoot out of the earth at impossibly steep angles — more like giant stalagmites than peaks, rocky fingers thrust into the air. But they are shrouded and concealed, hidden away by the smog that blankets everything.

China is a beautiful country. The planet can only hold its breath and hope China realizes that while it’s still true.

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W O R K

When I got to the factory in Changxing for the first time, the ground was steaming.  It had rained the night before, drizzled through the early morning, and now — as I stepped out of the taxi into slate gray air that had the same feel as a microwaved bowl of jello — moisture clung to puddles on the ground in foggy wisps that refused to disperse.  The taxi wasn’t allowed through the gate of the factory complex, and so I was looking at a couple hundred meter walk from the entrance to the first building, hefting my rolling suitcase most of the way to avoid dragging it through those smoking puddles.

I was soaked by the time I made it indoors — from the rain, from the puddles, from just sweating straight through my clothes.  The only thought that kept me going was that once I made it inside the factory, through those enticing double doors, I’d be hit by a blast of typhoon-strength refrigerated air, the kind of gelid spike that smacks you right between the ribs and immediately drops your core temperature by five degrees when you lurch into a Starbucks from the Atlanta summer.

Nothing like that happened.

The A/C in the factory wasn’t broken — it just wasn’t even on, some bizarre cost-saving measure created by an accountant who realized the amount of productivity lost due to human misery wasn’t equal to the cost of electricity.  So instead of the merciful kiss of compressors, an engineer walked up, handed me a USB-powered fan to plug into my laptop, and said welcome to Changxing.

The distinction between outdoors and indoors in this factory was ceremonial at best.  Indoors was just the place that had overhead lights; the temperature and humidity barely changed on the manufacturing floor.  (The upstairs office, I learned later, had one hell of an A/C unit and became my go-to sanctuary.)  The engineers admitted they were bothered by this when I asked, but I was the only one to complain — they accepted it as inviolable, immutable status-quo.  So I sat in the heat, in the humidity, and tried to program a robot while being eaten alive by mosquitos.

There’s a possibly apocryphal story that says the term “bug” in software comes from an early computer in the 1940s — some bit wouldn’t flip no matter what punch card program was fed into the machine, and eventually the engineers opened the case and found a moth stuck in an electrical relay.  The story may or may not be true, but I can certainly sympathize with those engineers now.  Maybe I take for granted the effort that goes into hermetically sealing our technology off from the inexorable advances of nature, just how much upkeep is needed to keep bugs from invading our buildings or to stop jungle vines from swallowing our cars.

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Bugs and heat aside, the factory is just like any other factory I’ve visited.  There’s a constant flow of people moving WIP (“work in progress” material — pronounced like you’re Indiana Jones) from staging area to staging area.  Large machines move up and down, back and forth, in sinusoidal patterns as regular as the tides.  The air is filled with the hum of industrial generators, the purr of industrial vacuum pumps, and the buzz of industrial Chinese chitchat as operators wait for tools to finish.

The noise and bustle of the factory is pierced, constantly, by the hissing opening of large vacuum laminators.  This is a solar panel factory, and the way you seal a solar cell into its casing is by pushing the panel into a bedroom-sized tool that works more or less the same as your standard Staples-issue desktop laminator: huge vacuum pumps suck the air out of the panel, an inflated bladder presses down on the panel to flatten it out, and the whole assembly is heated to about 160 degrees Celsius to fuse the mess together.  It’s a lengthy process, and so any solar factory worth its silicon has several of these laminators, each opening and closing out of sync with the others like giant mechanical oysters.  You feed in a grain of sand, and fifteen minutes later have a polished photovoltaic pearl.  But with so many laminators operating on different cadences, you need to know which one is about to open so you can rush your operators to the right location and shepherd that newborn panel into the world.  The Japanese company that makes these laminators has decided that to announce their imminent births to the world, each laminator will sound an alarm — but to ensure that no one mistakes this alarm for a real warning, it can’t be a siren or a buzzer or a klaxon.  It has to be a song.

And so every single laminator in this factory plays a shrill midi version of the first twenty seconds of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” right before it opens.  There are enough of these laminators running that by the time one has finished wailing out its last arpeggio, the next one in the line takes a deep breath and launches into its own caterwauling rendition, a constant drone of computerized Beethoven that lasts for days.

“It is ‘For Alice’!” one of my coworkers yells over the din one day as we walk past, heading to lunch. “Have you heard the song?”

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There’s no Wi-Fi on the manufacturing floor — evidently the air is too thick with humidity or mosquitoes for electromagnetic waves to penetrate.  So to send an email or look up a spec sheet, I have to hoof it around the building and into the upstairs loft where the managers hang out.  It is, at least, mercifully cool there.  I’m sitting in the office one day when a group of middle-aged Chinese guys burst through the double doors and sit down at the large wooden table with me.  I immediately realize these guys must be important — everyone I’ve seen at the factory up to this point is under 30 — but I have no idea who they are.  They know who I am, though, as I’m the only American on site, and they say hi to me politely, using my name, before pulling the room’s phone over to their side of the table.  The conference call starts in Mandarin and I tune it out like white noise, until I hear “Cigarette? Cigarette?” and turn to see one proffered to me, another hanging from the lips of the first man who entered the room.  Unlike everyone over the age of 45 in China, I don’t smoke, so I decline.  The guy shrugs, lights up, sits back down, and continues talking into the speaker phone in Chinese.

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Maybe my biggest challenge on these trips to China isn’t the medieval internet, or the mysterious food, or the malignant air — it’s getting a straight answer.  I try to do a lot of support work for the factory from my desk in California, which is air conditioned and in much closer proximity to a decent burrito than these Chinese sites.  China wakes up right around 5pm Pacific time, which means it’s perfect timing for all the Beijing engineers to start buzzing me as soon as I start wishing I was buzzed at the bar down the street.  I talk to them chiefly over WeChat, which is a social media app actually allowed behind the Great Firewall — kind of an amalgamation of Facebook, iChat, WhatsApp, Messenger, Twitter, GroupMe, Hangouts, an emoji factory, Omegle, Tinder, and LinkedIn.  It’s really pretty slick, and I’m not quite sure why WeChat hasn’t caught on in the U.S.  There aren’t many places where you can have a serious conversation about factory yields punctuated by an animated dancing squid.

Any time something goes wrong in China, my phone vibrates with another WeChat message.  And almost without fail, the message is entirely useless.  There is no context, no information, no nothing.  Case in point: one morning I woke up to several frantic messages from an engineer in China, pictures of a single piece from a complicated machine that had snapped in half. The accompanying text said, in its entirety, “Coupler is broke.”  I knew I was being asked to help, to swoop in with answers and solutions, but without any background on what the hell was going on when coupler was broke, I had no ammunition.

Messages like this just prompt me to fire back a salvo of questions asking for details, stories, anything that will help diagnose the problem.  As soon as I ask, I get the answers I need — the engineers are smart, and know what’s going on.  But I can’t for the life of me figure out why they never volunteer the information in the first place, instead wasting a day sending messages back in time to me across the date line.  Maybe they think I’m smarter than I am, that I’ll know immediately what’s wrong?  Or that I’ve seen the issue before and they don’t need to explain it again?  Or maybe they just think that I can divine the solution by dowsing the residual electromagnetic radiation from their message?

The Chinese engineers I work with seem afraid to troubleshoot.  This is compounded, I’m sure, by the fact that the equipment in China is all stuff that I (or my American coworkers) designed.  We are, unquestionably, the experts.  But we’re trying to train the local engineers to take over the day-to-day, trying to get them to think critically about problems and be proactive in potential solutions when we’re half a world away and half a day behind.  Instead, we get coupler is broke.  This is not a message I would ever get from an American engineer — not because of the grammar mistakes (American engineers make those, too), but because of the total lack of content.  Almost all of the engineers I work with in California would send a detailed email listing what the part is, where it’s found in the tool, what exactly was going on when it broke, some basic forensic analysis on how it broke, a possible solution they tried that failed, a second temporary solution they have in place, and a plan for devising a permanent solution in the near- and long-term — if they even sent me an email at all, instead of just fixing the damn thing without thinking twice about it.

It’s not that my Chinese coworkers can’t problem-solve, or that they’re not good at it — they just won’t.  When I talk to them in person they have great ideas, they understand the way the tool works, but none of this seems to make the critical leap to actually implementing a change that will fix something.  I’ve thought about this — and, like a good American engineer, about how to change this — and have come up with the following argument.  Whether this argument is veracious or just specious is certainly up for debate, but it goes something like this:

  1. There are a fuckload of people in China.
  2. Therefore, there are a shitload of engineers (1 metric fuckload being approximately equal to 20 standard shitloads).
  3. A shitload of engineers means getting an engineering job — especially at a big, well-known Chinese corporation like the one that owns my American company — is extremely competitive.
  4. If getting the job is extremely competitive, then it’s easy to replace a fired engineer.
  5. It is this replaceability, combined with some kind of culturally-ingrained filial obedience that translates readily from grandparents to bosses who haven’t twisted a screwdriver in years, that makes my coworkers unwilling to volunteer solutions, innovation, or even contradictory opinions.

The rare times when the Chinese engineers send me the background information to a problem, the basic engineering analysis is wrong — wrong in a way a sophomore mechanical engineering student would notice.  I can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the voice of the manager who stood on the floor for five minutes, decreed what the root of the issue was, and told my Chinese counterpart to tell me what he said.  The engineers pass this fiat on, unedited and unchallenged, and I read emails about how the steel plate is too weak (no, finite element analysis puts its factor of safety at about 10x) or about how the bolts are too small (no, they’ve been installed in the wrong location).

Taking initiative or challenging conventional wisdom means taking responsibility, and opening yourself up to the fact that you may be wrong.  This is celebrated in America — fail first, fail fast, fail often is almost a Silicon Valley mantra — but seems like anathema to China.  So the Chinese engineers move cautiously, testing the water, asking me questions that hint at a solution they’ve been thinking of but don’t want to voice.

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B U I L D I N G S

When you go to school at a private university with an endowment larger than some African countries’ GDP and a pool of rich alumni just itching to plaster their names on the sides of buildings, you think you know what it’s like to live surrounded by construction cranes.  All day long, all year long, their necks swing and dip around the sky in an intricate ballet of ballast and girders, one crane piling on piece after piece of a library as fast as another across campus is tearing down the engineering quad.  The campus is constantly in flux and evolving, a living thing that will be radically different within a generation.

But you have never seen construction until you’ve seen China do it.  It’s not that any one construction site in China is spectacular.  It’s the sheer volume of them, all going on at once.  Dozens of cranes dot the skyline — any skyline — and move in concert, looking like the string section of an orchestra as steel bows move up and down, back and forth, lifting and moving and carrying and placing.  It’s a symphony of assembly, humming along in any city (and sometimes any empty field).

I saw two major varieties of construction while I was in China.  First there was the construction happening within the city limits, or just on the outside of them, each site stretching the boundary of the city just a few more meters — new buildings being built around, even right on top of, the old.  But there were also sites being built in the middle of nowhere, far away from any existing structures.  Sometimes these were factories, but more often than not they were apartment buildings — or, in one previously deserted valley somewhere between Heyuan and Hong Kong, sometimes they were an entire goddamn downtown, materializing out of nothing by sheer force of will and some serious government lucre.

But no matter where the construction is, if you look next to it you invariably see equally many abandoned, or just uninhabited, buildings.  These empty apartment buildings or unoccupied factories are ghost towns that sit in the middle of a city which is otherwise very much alive.  Some look like they’ve been abandoned for years, but some look like the construction cranes just packed up yesterday — and even more look like they’ve been abandoned for years, but the construction cranes really did just pack up yesterday.  Something about southern China makes all the buildings look weathered beyond their years.  Whether it’s the dirty air, the humidity, the women’s-bathroom-looking tile facades that all the buildings seem to get, or just shoddy workmanship — I never found out.  But after a few months of standing in the hazy south China sun, every building seems to weep, black tracks of mascara running down their sides underneath windows and tiles.

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The workmanship inside these buildings isn’t much better.  The banister on the staircase in the factory I work in wobbles back and forth precariously; the cornices in my five-star hotel are crooked.  None of the buildings are in danger of falling down any time soon (not that I’d want to be in one during an earthquake), but anything deemed ornamental is also deemed frivolous and therefore not worth time, effort, or — most importantly — money.

Everything, ultimately, boils down to cash.  This is probably true a lot of places, but I’ve hardly ever seen it as outwardly visible as in China.  The government seems to be obsessed with increasing the country’s GDP, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to sponsor huge construction projects across the nation — projects that then sit idle and empty when the cranes leave and there’s no one with the capital to buy.  With all this money being thrown into the construction industry, companies are quick to grab it and even more eager to make a profit, which makes them not exactly cut corners, but just… round the edges.  And thus, crooked molding.  No one is hurt by this.  From a distance, it looks fine.  But up close, under scrutiny, there are fissures in the facade.

When I ask my coworkers about this, most of them seem entirely unperturbed.  The majority of the engineers I work with are around my age, children of the 1980s and 90s who have never lived in a China that didn’t have portraits of Mao on its money or hanging in its Hunan-style restaurants.  My coworkers’ parents worried about finding enough food to survive; my coworkers worry about finding enough beer to get them all drunk during dinner.  This is a colossal shift to happen over a single generation — Mao’s Great Leap Forward, just sixty years ago, left thirty million people dead from famine, but in 2015 China has a nominal GDP of $11,000,000,000,000.  That’s trillion.  With a T.

If I’m allowed to speculate wildly, this is what I’d point to as a major reason so many people my age in China abide by the government’s actions: things are unquestionably better than they were forty, fifty years ago, unquestionably better than the stories my coworkers heard from their parents and grandparents.  There is a substantial middle class, they have a decent lifestyle, and most of them are happy, which is an important measure never quite captured by export statistics or purchasing power (outside of Bhutan, at least, where the government tracks something called “Gross National Happiness”).

I have to admit that when I went to China for the first time — as a naïve, flag-waving, freedom-exhorting American — I expected everyone there to be unconditionally supportive of the Chinese government.  But abiding and supporting are far from the same, and I was astounded that all of my coworkers complained about these abandoned apartment buildings, saying that they were built without consideration for affordability, that none of the people in this little town could possibly rent a room on the fifteenth floor of a luxury tower.

But, they all then said, that’s the way it is.

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One of the most revealing conversations I had was with a guy my age about a train wreck that happened somewhere near Shanghai.  It was a massive wreck: two trains collided on a viaduct, sending several full cars plummeting to the ground below.  The Chinese media apparently reported an absurdly low death count, something like in the single-digits.  My friend — a college-educated engineer from Beijing — looked at this story and knew, from the onset, that it was farce, that this was at best a lie and at worst a cover-up.  But he shrugged, said that that’s the way it is, and took another sip of his beer.

By the time we left the restaurant we were eating at — a little mom-and-pop barbecue place on a big street — the sun had gone down, and we were greeted by the neon stars of street signs that never sleep.  I could see the golden arches of a McDonald’s cresting a mall down the road, the usual ocean of scooters parked outside it as people hurried in to shop for toys, electronics, groceries.  My friend pulled out his smartphone and started hailing a cab with an app called Didi (“like Uber,” he said).  And I paid for our meal with three different bills, each a different color, each painted with Chairman Mao staring off into the future.

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All photos taken by me, sometime between the end of 2014 and middle of 2015.  From top to bottom:

  • Abandoned towers outside of the factory, Heyuan
  • Sign board, Heyuan
  • Along the Xinfeng River, Heyuan
  • View from my hotel room, Changxing
  • Scooter rider, taken from the window of a bus, Heyuan
  • A family selfie, Heyuan
  • Street vendor, Heyuan
  • Truck parking, Heyuan
  • Traffic circle, Heyuan
  • View from a hotel hallway window, Heyuan
  • Tang dynasty style tea house, Changxing
  • Hakka village, Heyuan
  • Boat captain in a Hakka village, Heyuan
  • Construction, Heyuan
  • Roadside strip mall, Heyuan
  • Alley, Heyuan
  • Sunrise from my hotel room, Heyuan
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