The brand new Shenzhen Airport is one of the nicest I’ve ever been in.
The Year: 2014
The Trip: Shenzhen, China
Imagine the most of place you’ve ever felt. A hoity dinner party? Family reunion? The neighborhood block party where you realize you’re the only one in a half-mile radius that doesn’t have at least one floppy-haired child stuck to their hip? Imagine that, or something similar, but amplified a thousand. While in the midst of overwhelming awkward feelings, you also can’t understand a word anyone is saying. You have no idea if they are talking about the weather, about the state of political affairs, or about you. Imagine not being able to read where the nearest exit is located if there was an emergency. Imagine that in order to do anything in the environment you now find yourself in, you’ll have to rely completely on other people’s help.
That’s what being in China felt like for me. It was the first place I had ever been where I felt like I was not going to be catered to in the slightest. And I kinda loved it.
Of course, my overall enjoyment had to do with the fact that we had very good hosts. Like so many westerners, we were there on business, and the vendor there made sure we never ventured too far on our own. I was only in Shenzhen for a few days, but I got my share of sordid information from nearly everyone I knew when they found out where we were going.
“Shenzhen? Oh my gosh, be careful!”
“You’re going to Shenzhen? Watch out. Nothing but swindlers and pickpockets there.”
“Oh gosh, do you have guides while you’re in Shenzhen? There is so much gang related crime there, it’s unreal.”
Naturally, this gave me pause. I was aware that there was a fair amount of cyber crime based in mainland china, so I figured I would stay away from unprotected wifi, but I didn’t think I’d have to keep my hands in my pockets while walking around the street. After all, I live in Los Angeles, one of the most dangerous places in the world. How bad can it be?
Open air market. No health inspections here.
Shenzhen is in the Guangdong province. It is roughly an hour north of Hong Kong by train, and here’s where it gets interesting. Shenzhen essentially didn’t exist before the 1970s. It is the result of Communist China realizing that they were struggling to support its vast population, and decided it would get its hands a little dirty with some economic experimentation. Shenzhen was created as a result and was the first of the Special Economic Zones the government created to allow for some freer economic policies (as well as some tantalizing foreign investment) as part of the experiment. The result? Shenzhen boomed. So quickly, in fact, that they struggled to get enough housing created to support the influx of new residents coming from all parts of the country in order to find work. The housing blocks that I passed, looking more like prison blocks with their iron window bars and concrete facades, were a testament to that early boom period. The Shenzhen I visited is still growing, with renewed interest from American and European businesses looking to grow their profit margins by manufacturing on the cheap.
The view from our hotel. Rush hour has died down.
There is, of course, a price to pay for this booming economic growth. It’s one that can be seen in the air of big cities all over China. Luckily, though Shenzhen is still dominated by factory upon factory, their air quality is better due to their close proximity to the ocean. That ocean also makes it an ideal place for container ships to dock and unload their cargo. The shipping port at Shenzhen is the fourth busiest in the world. Its location to Hong Kong and the rest of Southeast Asia is a huge plus. Hong Kong money is funneled into Shenzhen, which of course means that there is a fair amount of corruption as well. Another big price to pay for unregulated capitalism. In my research, I found that a lot of the mail-order-brides that come out of Asia do so from this location. I did not, however, see any of this first hand, so that could be blown out of proportion. What I did see was a lot of young people. And some of the cheapest prices for clothes I have ever seen. Well, it makes sense. They are all manufactured here.
The large open town square in Shenzhen. Often used for concerts and dancing.
One of our hosts was a recent graduate from a university in the Yunan province. She, like many others her age, had come here for work. She lived in the housing provided by her employer. Located outside of the city center, it is on the same lot as both the offices and the manufacturing plant. It took me awhile to understand this. When she said she lived in company provided housing, I didn’t think for some reason that it would literally be located at where she works. But apparently, this is a common arrangement. In exchange for free rent and a minute’s walk commute, employees share a room with other employees and have to deal with the tropical climate without air conditioning. We were only there for three days with 90 plus degree temperatures with 90 percent humidity. I can’t imagine doing that year round. She claimed it was not bad, and that living rent free was worth it, but I had to wonder if that kind of situation was something she chose freely to do, or it was something that is almost necessary to do because of something like a low salary. I know that a lot of young people who do get jobs like that will most certainly be sending a lot of the money back home. Still, it’s not something I would immediately sign up for.
Shenzhen night life is not much different than ours. Grab a beer, grab some grub, and hang out.
Not that the city life is much better. Everything in Shenzhen is happening all at the same time all the time. Chaotic is a good word. Nightmarish would be better. Traffic feels like someone dropped a ball into a pile of jacks, picked them all back up again before throwing them against a wall. Government police are everywhere on motorcycles and in cars, but they don’t seem to enforce any traffic laws. Or if they do, it’s completely on a whim. Trying to cross the street is like playing a game of Frogger in real life. Pray and hope you can keep up with a local. That method seemed to work for me, but I still got a rush of adrenaline every time I made it to the other side, or got out of the company provided van that drove us around the city. Motorcycles would barrell towards us in the wrong lane, completely unfazed that their life could end at any moment. Lanes would back up if someone stopped in the middle of traffic to buy some lychee from one of the myriad of vendors lining the curbs.
When you need to ferry goods from the attic to the store floor one must improvise. The sound of this basket smacking down did startle me a bit.
Honking was like breathing to them. There seemed to be a secret driver’s language to it, like morse code. I couldn’t quite figure it out, but three short honks in succession seemed to signify “look out, I’m here next to you! Check your mirrors.” Markets would be set up in any street, no matter how littered it was. Meat was exposed to the bugs and heat. Vegetables lay withered and wilted, but people seemed to prefer to shop here than inside. At night, vendors would expand their carts magically – a steel drum would turn into a bubbling cauldron of broth. Metal sheets unfolded to become chairs. A grill would appear to fry up the rest of the meat to serve customers. It was another world for me entirely.
This precocious child was bothering the cooks at the halal noodle place.
However, even though I had no frame of reference for most of it, people there were like most people anywhere. They went to work. They left promptly at 6 pm. They dealt with rush hour. They delivered goods (often balanced precariously on their motorcycles). They met with friends. They hung out in common gathering places, like the open town square or the local bar. And though we didn’t speak the same language, I’m pretty sure that despite Shenzhen’s sketchy reputation, they wanted what most other people wanted. A good job. A place to live. Friends to laugh with. Boyfriends. Girlfriends. Families. Success. A good life. And really, what’s so strange about that? I would only hope that the people of China are getting that without losing their identity. Money is tempting, but it’s not everything. And that’s the one thing that Shenzhen lacked. An identity. It grew up so fast it didn’t have time to find itself, and it seems that everyone who goes there is just passing through. Including myself.
I’ll tell you one other thing that surprised me in Shenzhen. The best meal I ever had was a bowl of soup with hand-pulled noodles. It takes five years to master the art of hand-pulled noodles, and the shop we ate at was run by — wait for it — Muslim Russian immigrants to China. Yeah, how’s that for diversity? Your move, Los Angeles.