Skip to Content

Tag Archives: Shenzhen

May Day, Day Late

Yesterday was May Day, or International Labor Day, whichever you’d prefer. It was celebrated in various ways around the world–protests in Seattle and Istanbul, and an odd mix of parade and support for Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

The wishing tower at Dameisha, Shenzhen. I wish I could have more vacation days

The wishing tower at Dameisha, Shenzhen. I wish I could have more vacation days

In China, it’s a couple days off for almost everyone (it used to be a full week, but the government split up the holiday to give more time to more traditional holidays). Of course, in typical employer fashion, the days off are made up by having employees work a couple extra days on weekends. During my second year teaching in China we were give New Year’s Day off, which fell on a Friday, so we had a three-day week, but we had to work on Saturday and Sunday to make up for the lost workday. I’m still confused by that one.

The giant sculptures attract all the tourists

The giant sculptures attract all the tourists

My first and last May holiday trip was to Jiuzhaigou–it was an amazing trip, but the crowds were awful. My second year, I took a local trip to the Dameisha (大梅沙) beach with the language training center. It wasn’t warm enough to go swimming, and the water isn’t all that clean anyway. It’s still a popular destination in a city that even locals refer to as a  “cultural desert.” It was still an excuse to get out, despite a rather half-assed bus ride “home” to the middle of nowhere with no taxis in sight to actually take me home.

Company Outings in Shenzhen

Companies and schools in China seem to enjoy having outings for employees. They see it as a morale booster, even though plenty of employees see it as forced fun. I went out on a few with the schools for which I worked–some were sponsored by other companies or government agencies, but a few were planned just for the school.

At the end of my second year, I worked for an English learning center for adults. During the international labor day holiday in May, the school arranged a bus to take the staff to Dameisha–the major tourist beach on the other side of Shenzhen. It took almost two hours to get there. dameisha_factory_bbq

We weren’t the only ones there to enjoy the day at the beach. A local factory also had a company outing, complete with an early evening barbecue. I didn’t eat much at the barbecue since none of the food was kept in a cooler.

In the background of what looks like a landfill is a five-star Sheraton hotel.

Chewing on Air

With the airpocalypse gripping Beijing and spreading eastward (even Japan is worried about its effects), I’m reminded about how bad the air pollution was when I lived in Shenzhen. After seeing photos posted on Twitter, I knew that even those awful days I experienced didn’t come close to the horrors of this past week.

View of Central Hong Kong from Kowloon on rather bad day

View of Central Hong Kong from Kowloon on rather bad day

In the last year I lived in China, I had a HEPA air filter and multiple snake plants (I’ve been told they are natural air purifiers). I witnessed days so bad that my throat burned and eyes watered. On the worst day, the Hong Kong news noted that people should avoid outdoor activities. In contrast, the local Shenzhen news claimed it was a great day to be outside. Fortunately, the Chinese media does not state such stupidity when referring to the air pollution today. I was even told by my students that it wasn’t smog, it was fog.

I hope that new pollution regulations are enforced not just in Beijing, but throughout China. It is a beautiful country, and I would hate to see it waste away into a brown cloud.

I Left China Before It Was Cool to Leave

Over the last couple weeks, my Twitter and Facebook feeds have been filled with blog posts proclaiming, “I’m leaving China.” These are mostly from long-term expats, not the English teachers who stick around for a year or two and move on.

Shenzhen Government Building

Shenzhen Government Building

Why is everyone leaving China?

Other expats have expressed a mixture of disappointment and anger at these posts. Some are upset to see friends and acquaintances leave the Middle Kingdom. And others are just angry at the seemingly self-indulgent posts that vaguely state reasons for the departure without actually providing any interesting details. There are also jokes about all the expats leaving–yes, this is apparently a trend. There’s even a parody post on how to write an “I’m leaving China” post.

Air pollution in Shenzhen, China

I saw too many days with pollution like this

I thought this would be a perfect time for me to state that I left China before it was cool to leave China.

I’m a China departure hipster

That’s right, I was the trend setter here for all those departing hipsters. I left back in 2009. I got the idea from thousands of expats who left before me, but who weren’t cool enough to blog about it (or maybe they left before every expat in China had a blog). Of course, when I left China, I didn’t write a long post about my reasoning–I also didn’t say, “So long and thanks for all the fish dumplings.” I did have a going away party that included a 14-lb. roast lamb, beer, and foot massages.

mmm...Xinjiang lamb


My favorite leaving China post is Unbrave Girl’s Dear John letter to China. Much more entertaining that than the mostly dry posts from the long-time expats with Chinese business interests.

Update: Even The New York Times picked up on this trend: Heading for the Exits in China. (Thanks to Unbrave Girl once again for this.)

HK at 15

July 1 marks 15 years since Hong Kong was returned to mainland China.

I wasn’t around long enough to notice the significant changes, and I’ll let the journalists and long-time expats focus on that. There’s plenty for those writers to discuss about economics and politics. Everything I noticed was the vast differences when I crossed the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.central hong kong

Hong Kong was much more organized, efficient, and friendly. One of my friends commented that he was overwhelmed by the sight of so many foreigners–he was tempted to stare at them the way we were stared at in Shenzhen. Even though the streets were just as crowded as Shenzhen (sometimes more so), there was a greater comfort level in those crowds. And, of course, there was always HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang with his trademark bowtie–you can’t help but like a politician who always wears a bowtie.

The first few times I crossed into Hong Kong, I used the Luohu/Lowu border. On the Shenzhen side, it contains an enormous shopping mall that mostly sells knock-off products. The Hong Kong side has nothing except for the train station that took me to Tsim Sha Tsui. Probably the most striking difference at that border was that as soon as one crossed the physical border, the air conditioning got stronger. The Hong Kong side was definitely cooler.

hong kong

The Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak

I always found it a bit unusual that I had to pass through customs to enter the same country, albeit a Special Administrative Region as designated by the central government of China. One round trip to Hong Kong required four stamps in my passport–and the customs agents never wanted to coordinate their stamps and found it amusing to use completely empty pages rather than filling up already used pages. It’s all part of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which also applies to Macau (does that make it three systems?). This forced me to add extra pages in Bangkok during my second year.

Later on, I began crossing the border at Huanggang because it was slightly closer than Luohu. There were also a few times that I took the ferry from Shekou, but that was usually to go to the airport. When I moved to Nanshan, the trip was easier as I could take a 15-minute bus ride to Shenzhen Bay and another bus into Kowloon.

Lantau Hong Kong

Lantau from the Ngong Ping cable car

One constant at the borders was the unfriendly customs agents. They almost never spoke, even when a question was asked. Even when I brought back a Balinese statue that was the size of a small child, wrapped in paper to conceal it’s face, the officer (who looked rather confused) didn’t say a word.

Supermarket Madness

My favorite thing about living in China was the food. A less appealing aspect of this was the inevitable trip to the supermarket.

During my first year in Shenzhen, I mostly shopped at Meijia–a small supermarket next to my complex that really wasn’t of great quality. There was very little in the store with English labels, which was a challenge for someone with limited Chinese skills. I wasn’t the only one who bought knock-off Oreos because the packaging looked the same. For more recognizable food, I took a weekly trip on bus 305 to Wal-Mart (sometimes, they even sold cheese).

coastal city shenzhen

Coastal City under construction

Everyone in the area was excited when Ren Ren Le (literally: people people happy) moved in. This was a major Chinese supermarket chain that had much better quality than the old Meijia, which shut down shortly after the competition moved in.

The only problem with Ren Ren Le was that it got crowded–much like Wal-Mart, but with more of my local community. Because of my dislike of crowds, I opted for more trips to the local grocery stores in the neighborhood when I just wanted to pick up some produce. It also made me feel better because I was buying from a family-owned business.

During my second year, Carrefour, the French equivalent of Wal-Mart, opened in Bao’an District. We were all excited because the quality and selection was better than Wal-Mart (and there was a mall attached). The weekly Wal-Mart trips were quickly replaced.


I would avoid shopping at this supermarket

In a twist of fate, I had to return to Wal-Mart, albeit a different one, when I moved to Nanshan District. Fortunately, when Coastal City mall opened soon after I moved in, two international supermarket chains opened. We now had Jusco from Japan and Carrefour. Jusco was rather overpriced, but had some decent deals and really good coffee, so we usually shopped at Carrefour like everyone else in the neighborhood.

Some things I learned from shopping at various grocery stores in China:

  • Carrefour is superior to Wal-Mart in terms of quality, variety, and price. However, it is interesting to see the difference between a Chinese Wal-Mart and an American one.
  • Shopping carts are much smaller than in the US, and the aisles are usually more narrow.
  • Going to a major supermarket on the weekend is a horrible experience; it’s just like going to a mall a couple days before Christmas.
  • Small grocery stores are usually good for produce that you plan on eating within the next two days (similar to the ones in the US).
  • Products you really like purchasing aren’t guaranteed to be on the shelf the following week. Stock up if you can.
  • Convenience stores like 7-11 are plentiful. They’re great for a quick beer and a snack, which makes walking around town even better. They’ll even open the beer bottle for you.
  • Kiosks within a supermarket are not necessarily owned by the store. If they are independent, you won’t be able to return the product if it breaks. The store will likely deny any responsibility for a refund (of course, this may happen even if the store owns the kiosk).

Lessons from Living in China

nanshanparkI spent almost four years in Shenzhen, China. During that time I only traveled home once, but I rarely felt homesick. It wasn’t all a great experience, but it was entirely worthwhile. I learned more about life and myself in that time than at any other point in my life. Here are six of the lessons I learned.

1. I can teach

Before moving to China, I had very little experience teaching. I hadn’t considered teaching as a career before then. I took a course in grad school in which I taught creative writing to a freshmen English class at the local high school. I’m not sure how effective my lessons were then, but I did enjoy it every now and then.

When I taught children, the school really just wanted me to play games in class. I wanted to educate. After breaking out of the routine of listen and repeat, I realized that I could get my students to use what they learned. I was tired of students saying, “Teacher, no pencil.” I made a point of reviewing a lesson on asking to borrow things–and almost half the class picked up on it.

I may not be the most fun English teacher, but I know I can educate my students. It has carried over to teaching my students to write essays at the community college.

The graduate school library

The graduate school library

2. It’s difficult to learn a language without a class

I desperately wanted to learn another language and I thought I could do that by living in another country. That wasn’t quite the case. For the first year, I was provided with a weekly survival Chinese class. Unfortunately, there was little structure and it didn’t build on previous knowledge. Therefore, I had to rely on textbooks, Chinesepod, and the help of locals (mostly the staff at the restaurant in which I dined three or four nights a week).

I’m definitely not fluent in Chinese, but I’m not willing to give up on it yet. Fortunately, there are more great resources online to help me out. I would still like to take a writing course though–I can read characters but I’m terrible at writing them, and I think it’s holding back my progress.

3. I need to be more aware while driving

Driving in Shenzhen is crazy. Being a pedestrian in Shenzhen means you have to constantly watch the traffic (even while on the sidewalk). Drivers don’t necessarily stop at intersections or for red lights.

Coincidentally, it’s not much different in Jersey City. I drive slow and watch all intersections because I’ve seen too many people drive right through the stop signs.

While walking to work one day, I yelled at a driver who almost hit me when I had the light to cross the street. The driver got out of his car and yelled at me because he had the right of way to turn right on red (even though he had no intention of stopping first). I ignored him and kept walking. Which leads me to lesson 4…

4. Patience can be learned

I was never considered patient. But when dealing with horrible bureaucracy and language barriers, it’s a necessary skill. I got frustrated easily when attempting to accomplish the most basic of tasks. It was annoying to ask a shop attendant for a product and hear “没有” (don’t have) in reply even though the product in question was right behind the person. I also got angry when I was told to create five mid-term exams in less than 24 hours, yet the department had at least two weeks to tell me about it (there were plenty of other reasons to get angry about working there).

I don't think anyone read the sign

I don’t think anyone read the sign

Fortunately, situations change. My subsequent jobs were much better organized and I was treated as a professional instead of entertainment. I learned to vent my frustrations at appropriate times (usually over a few bottles of Tsingtao at a restaurant with my friend who also needed to vent frustrations).

Aside from my job, I knew there was nothing I could do that would change people’s attitudes or habits–I had to let things go, which is not always easy for a guy from New Jersey. I could still tell off a cab driver who wanted to play rip-off-the-foreigner by getting out of his cab and taking one of the thousands of others nearby. I could also teach shopkeepers a lesson about not harassing customers to buy things. But everything else I had to let go.

It also helped when driving back home. I didn’t drive much in New Jersey when I returned (and I don’t drive at all now that I sold my car), and I took my time when driving downtown. Other drivers still piss me off, but I’m a bit more willing to let it go.

5. There are foods that even I won’t eat

snacksI’m an adventurous eater, but China pushed my limits. I tried to avoid eating organ meat as much as humanly possible. I told people I kept kosher–since most Chinese don’t know what that means I could use it as an excuse to not eat anything I didn’t want. I still ate some interesting food–the donkey in Guilin was surprisingly good.

During my first visit to Wangfujing in Beijing, I caught sight of some street food that I wouldn’t even touch. Seahorses and scorpions on sticks. To make it worse, the scorpions were still moving.

I was once treated to hot pot in Shenzhen at a restaurant that advertised in large characters: Hot pot of cat and dog. I was very happy when we ordered the lamb. But that still doesn’t top the restaurant with its posted window menu item of fried rat.

6. Networking works

It wasn’t until I was almost finished with my first year in Shenzhen that I began meeting people outside of the school–we had about 20 foreign teachers, but not much else in our area. As my social network grew, so did my goals for the future. I also expanded my online social network after discovering sites like Twitter and LinkedIn. My local connections helped me land a great job teaching academic writing at a graduate school. Through the online networks, I received my first travel writing assignment and an interview for a technical editing position (which I ultimately didn’t want). I also met some other expats who have become good friends.

Works Like Magic

While in China I encountered many signs that didn’t make much sense. Most of these signs were written in Chinglish and poorly translated. Despite the numerous campaigns in major cities to proofread such signs (as well as menus), there were still plenty of errors.

Sometimes it wasn’t what was lost in translation that caused the comprehension problems. Sometimes it was an image

At a park in Shenzhen, I came across this map key. I was impressed that there was such a thing as an ecological toilet anywhere in the country, but I was confused by their choice of images. Are they implying that an ecological toilet works like magic?

The amusement facilities image is also slightly confusing, albeit much less so than the magical toilet. I guess the only amusement they want people to have is exercise, which isn’t always a bad thing. But, everything else on the map key makes sense.

Cheesy Theme Parks

Shenzhen is not known for culture or history. It’s something I didn’t know before moving to China in 2005. Even the Chinese refer to the city as the cultural desert–not exactly the kindest of descriptions for the first Special Economic Zone.

This replica mosque was a gift shop

This replica mosque was a gift shop

Despite it’s reputation, Shenzhen has made efforts to bring culture to the populous. Early on they opened Window of the World, a theme park in which visitors can see and experience all the countries of the world. Not long before I moved away from China, they opened OCT East, which mostly includes a European village as well as a more traditional Chinese village.

SplendidForbiddenMy first experience with the cheesiness was a day at Splendid China and the Folk Culture Village. Splendid China is home to all the wonders of China in miniature form–there are replicas of the Forbidden City, Buddha of Leshan, and the Terracotta Army. There’s even a Great Wall that runs through the park. None can really compare to the experience of seeing the real thing.

Some of the replicas are well done; others look poorly constructed. And, of course, no one pays attention to the signs that tell visitors to not touch or stand inside the exhibits. And no one that worked at the park cared to say anything.

Maybe the Mongolians used this path through the Great Wall

Maybe the Mongolians used this path through the Great Wall

Attached to Splendid China is the Folk Culture Village, where guests can visit some of China’s 52 ethnic minorities and watch them sing (or lip-synch) and dance. Of course, some of the minorities aren’t actually minorities. The best attraction of the Folk Culture Village was the Mongolian performance–it portrayed the invasion through the Great Wall and included vocal sound effects from the announcer.

Although most of the original structures of Shenzhen have been demolished and replaced by sterile blocks of apartment complexes and shopping centers, a few neighborhoods have remained as a reminder of the fishing villages that once existed.

Hey kids, grab a pack of smokes!

Hey kids, grab a pack of smokes!

And sometimes when you find culture in Shenzhen, like the semi-ancient remains of the original town, you’ll find a claw machine filled with cigarette packs.

While it may sound as though I abhor such cheesiness, I actually enjoyed most of these trips. When given the opportunity to witness kitschy attractions around the world, I just can’t resist–it’s just too much fun. It makes me wish I had had more time while moving across the U.S. to stop at the ridiculous roadside attractions.