Posted in essay

Fanciness with Chinese Characteristics

When I was living in South Korea, there used to be a joke which wasn’t really a joke – more of an astute observation offered as a lament of inevitability – about Western restaurants. People laughed through their frustration at the process whereby Western restaurants invariably declined in quality following a set pattern. It went something like this:

The quality would start out high as the owners maintained their ideals. Soon, foreigners would flock to get the good food and enjoy the unique atmosphere. This would cause the restaurant to be noticed by locals, who would see the international customer base and suddenly consider the restaurant as cool. Soon, the locals would begin to eat there partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to be hip themselves. It wouldn’t take long before they started to complain about the food because it didn’t suit their palette, and the quality would begin to decline pretty rapidly, eventually leading to an exodus of foreign customers, and all the items on the menu being replaced by local foods or pale imitations of the originals.

In China, and particularly in lower tier cities, this process has been sped up to an absurd degree. In fact, theoretical scientists would need to postulate new units of time to describe the speed with which the Chinese can ruin something nice. In Huainan, where I live, a few idealistic souls have attempted to introduce entirely alien concepts like cleanliness, ambiance, and taste, and these efforts have severely punished. I shall now present a case study of three such businesses.

 

The Italian Restaurant

We shall start our culinary tour of Huainan’s international side with the greatest restaurant ever to open its doors in this backwater town. Its owners were Chinese people who’d lived abroad and learned of the finer things in life. They opened a sprawling restaurant in the middle of Huainan, where they endeavoured to keep things authentic – genuine stone-baked pizzas, fine wines, beautifully-presented side dishes, the highest-quality imported ingredients, and impeccable service.

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Blueberry and Durian “Pizzas”

Alas, the denizens of Huainan are not wooed by such things. They would venture into the restaurant, complain that the food wasn’t Chinese enough, steal the silverware, let their children run riot, and act rudely towards the staff. Typical complaints include:

  • Can you make a pizza with durian and blueberry?
  • A real pizza should be thick like the ones I saw at Pizza Hut.
  • The pasta sauce doesn’t have enough sugar in it.
  • This steak isn’t charred to a crisp; how am I supposed to eat it?

The owners refused to lower their standards enough for the locals, and quickly went out of business.

The German Restaurant

The success of German beer throughout China in recent years has prompted the opening of a number of German restaurants throughout the land. They mostly sell a mix of inauthentic European cuisine and grossly-overpriced Chinese fare. This allows Chinese customers to visit an international restaurant without having to actually eat something unfamiliar.

Such a restaurant opened in Huainan, offering a very hit-and-miss menu. They had some genuinely impressive Western food and a range of exciting beers that could be found nowhere else in this tier 310 city. They even did very non-Chinese things like cleaning the bathrooms and providing soap at the sinks.

The owners were not as idealistic as those at the Italian restaurant, and happily compromised on quality by allowing for normal Chinese behavior:

  • Spitting on the floor
  • Putting feet on the table
  • Allowing tuhao customers let their kids and dogs run freely around the restaurant

Over time, the items on the menu became harder to order. The beer supply was seldom restocked, and only the items the Chinese wanted (fried rice, fried noodles, etc) were usually available. They would begin substituting important ingredients and switching cuts of meat, and eventually the service degenerated to the usual Chinese standard – the staff all playing on their phones and orders routinely forgotten.

After a little over a year, the German restaurant closed, and few people noticed or cared.

The Japanese Restaurant

I had the highest of hopes for the Japanese restaurant. It was, after all, part of a chain of restaurants, meaning that it would be forced to stick to a set menu rather than bow to local demands. Moreover, Japanese food is not so alien to Chinese palettes, and therefore less likely to offend the delicate sensibilities of the locals. Alas, it was to suffer a slow and steady decline.

This chain store provides a menu of mostly noodles, in a pretty peaceful, clean setting. As they serve Japanese food, a healthy dose of nationalist hatred keeps most of the locals away, and ensures mostly a younger, more open-minded crowd. However, it has never proven popular, and it is a mystery why the company even bothers funding this branch as it could clearly have never turned a profit.

As the months and years have passed, the staff has gotten lazier and the food blander. Getting served is only possible if you can shout really, really loudly – even when the restaurant is completely empty – and while the dishes are made to a strict formula, the quality of the ingredients has declined so severely that it’s like eating paper. Complaints are met with typical Chinese customer service skills: “So what?”

 

Conclusion

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“No Pooping in Public”

Perhaps it is absurd to expect nice things in a place where the government has had to put up signs that say, “No shitting in public.” After all, this is a town that is made fun of by even hicks from the most backwards burghs in the province.

Yet this process is a story that is true throughout the Middle Kingdom. People want to appear adventurous, but only within their own predefined boundaries; they want to walk outside their own comfort-zone, but only if they can act the same way as they do at home; they want to be international, but still thoroughly Chinese. And that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with importing an idea and adding local flavor (although I still maintain that putting durian and blueberry on pizza is among the vilest crimes of humanity). China long ago imported communism, calling their style of governance “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Now they are doing the same with the fancy things they import from abroad.

All across this country, expensive new buildings appear overnight, and foreign ideas are introduced every day. A few months ago, a big mall opened in Hefei and my friend reported that he walked in and saw dozens of brand new stores and restaurants selling expensive things, shiny decorations everywhere, and signs proclaiming how advanced and international the city had become because of this cosmopolitan, international mall.

“That sounds pretty fancy,” I said, over the phone.

“No,” he replied.  “There’s an old woman helping a baby to shit on the floor.”

The mall will probably make billions of RMB, and as China grows richer, more malls like it will be built in every town in the country, but there will always be someone taking a shit on the floor right there in the middle of it all. In many ways, China is just developing too fast for the people who live there, and if you’re looking for something nice, the best you can really hope for is “Fanciness with Chinese Characteristics.”

In the bigger cities, where people have been exposed to a bit of culture and taste, things are improving, and will probably continue to improve for years to come. Yet out in the sticks, where public defecation is the norm and where social mores haven’t changed since iron was invented—despite the proliferation of iPhones and blunt government propaganda to “Be More Civilized”—it might take a while before people can be expected to sit down to food that doesn’t still have its head and feet, go two minutes without spitting on the floor, or leave the restaurant without swiping the cutlery, crockery, and a few rolls of toilet paper for good measure.

As the country grows wealthier, the Chinese look west and decide what they want based upon what we have… but they want it on their own terms. And that’s fine. It’s their country. They want flashy malls and bars and cafes and theme parks and high-speed rail, but they want the right to spit and piss and poop in public because that’s their culture. I just wish they just leave pizza alone.

Posted in Photography

Winter Comes to Huainan

It seldom snows in Huainan. I can recall one light snowfall last year, and previously, when I lived in nearby Hefei, I remember a few other slightly snowy days. Yet last night, as I slept, winter arrived and brought with it several inches of thick, white snow which covered everything on campus. I awoke at 6am for work and looked outside to see a very different world – cleaner, crisper, the snow covering all imperfections. I’m not a morning person, yet I quickly ventured out into the  dawn and snapped some photos of this rare spectacle, walking around almost knee-deep in powdery snow for a cold but pleasurable half-hour.

I went off to work and taught all day as the snow continued to fall. During my breaks I’d go stand out in the snow as it fell all around, and students would stare at me like I was insane. Yet this is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen the campus, the city, or any part of China. The snow covered everything and made it seem fresh, clean, and new.

By 3pm, when it finally stopped, we’d had almost a foot of snow dumped on the city, and everything was hidden beneath it. Students trudged about and fell wherever the snow vanished and was replaced by ice, and trees buckled and snapped under the weight of this alien powder. The little pocked of bamboo were entirely flattened by the weight of snow on their leaves.

I snapped a few shots in black and white over the day – mostly in the morning – to document this bizarre twist in the weather. I’ve never used black and white before.

Posted in Photography

Supermoon

Last night I was able to watch the supermoon from the roof of a tall building in the middle of Huainan. The location was not ideal, as the city gives off both light pollution and air pollution, but the sky was unusually clear, and the moon was right overhead between 8pm-10pm. This will likely be the closest the moon comes to earth within my lifetime, and I was glad to shoot a couple of pretty clear shots. I’d ordered a tripod on the 11/11 Chinese shopping holiday, but it hadn’t arrived by yesterday, so I ended up just trying to keep a steady hand as I zoomed in on this rock, which was about 221,500 miles away…

supermoon

Posted in update

Winter Comes Early to Anhui

It has gotten cold this past week in Huainan and Hefei, in the middle of China’s Anhui Province. Winter has arrived earlier than usual, and it has brought unusually cold temperatures. People are saying that this winter will be one of the coldest on records, and it’s not hard to believe.

Last year we barely even had a winter. It settled in slowly and temperatures never got that low, before a long, pleasant spring set in at the end of February. It is odd that winter sometimes lasts no more than two months, and in other years it seems to drag on for five. I even remember one year when temperatures plummeted to below minus 20, when last year it barely hit freezing point.

Yet winter can be oddly beautiful in Anhui. Summer is oppressively hot, and spring and autumn are all too brief. The flowers and cherry blossoms can be pretty, but winter brings the yellows and oranges, and at this time of year you are almost guaranteed a blue sky. That makes for cold nights, of course, but in the day the ever-present sunshine is very welcome.

It is at this time of year, too, when the old people in the countryside lay out their rice to dry on the roads. It is odd in a country so determined to modernize at the expense of tradition and rural ways, yet in Huainan modernization has met stark resistance. Traffic yields to angry old ladies with pitchforks and the roads are ruled by little old men in homemade tractors.

Last weekend was my birthday and I visited Hefei to see some old friends and spend time at the Shipyard Cafe and Francesco’s Pizzeria. I walked around town in the bright sunlight and explored a park that, in all my years there, I’d somehow never before visited. I also brought friends some of my new beer. Hefei was kind to me, offering up some unusually pleasant sights and two miraculous hangover-free mornings, despite the dozens of beers and whiskeys consumed.

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I returned to Huainan on the Sunday for work, and Huainan, too, was blessed with blue skies and sunshine which made the return to work a little easier. This is what my university looks like on a particularly nice day:

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Today I took a walk around the campus to see the trees standing strikingly yellow against the bright blue skies:

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It helped with my otherwise sour mood following the shock news that the United States had elected the most objectively awful candidate for president. Although my heart goes out to my friends across the Pacific Ocean, and I worry for the future of our planet given their new leader’s determination to wreck the environment, I am at present very glad to be living in China. China is far from perfect, and its government obviously deeply flawed, but this is a country which appears to be bent on improvement, whereas in the West most nations now seem hellbent on setting the clock back several decades with their sickening turn towards far-right groups and fascism.

 

(All photos here taken with my iPhone)

Posted in update

Homebrewing in China

Brewing my own beer is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Particularly for a beer aficionado living in China, it’s a real temptation. On this side of the world there just isn’t much of a beer culture. People drink to get drunk, but they don’t care about the taste, so finding a nice beer can be a challenge.

In recent years the situation has improved somewhat, and there is now a small craft brewing scene, but that largely extends to the big cities. Out in the sticks, where I live, good beers are few and far between. You can buy some imported European beers at many supermarkets, but they’re not particularly good. In order to find a nice beer you need to visit a big city, where there are expat populations and Chinese people with more international tastes.

Fortunately, China is home to an amazing shopping platform called Taobao, which pretty much sells everything you could want. Enterprising merchants capitalize on any upcoming trend, and so even home brewing equipment can be bought. I spent a while researching and translating and then rounded up the materials on Taobao for a mere 800rmb ($118).

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My primitive but incredibly cheap Chinese homebrew kit.

A few days later, the equipment arrived at my house. I have a friend in Hefei who has his own beer factory and he took the train to Huainan with some grains, hops, and yeast, to show me how it’s done. We spent an evening brewing an unusual amber ale-IPA hybrid beer that was to be Huainan’s inaugural homebrew.

Ingredients

Grain:

3.5kg German Vienna

1.5kg German CaraRed

1kg Belgian Aromatic

Hops:

25g Herkules

60g Citra

Yeast:

Safbrew Wheat Beer Yeast

Making beer with a self-assembled kit is always going to be an adventure, especially when none of the component parts were ever intended for brewing beer. However, after six hours it appeared to be a success. Finally, we had about five gallons of beer sitting in the fermentation bucket, and I was tasked with the unenviable job of sitting and watching it bubble away for the next month, knowing that I couldn’t open it no matter how good it smelled.

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The sparging process.

Bottling

After waiting for a month, I had to bottle the beer myself. My friend from Hefei wasn’t here to help me and I was paranoid about the beer getting infected. Thankfully, though, I read online that because the beer is now alcoholic, the chance of infection has been significantly reduced. Still, I dutifully set about disinfecting everything – a process that somehow took me several hours.

For this step, I had bought 50 bottles. These 300ml brown beer bottles cost 1.6rmb ($0.24) each, including shipping, and arrived within a day and a half of ordering. Taobao has become my favourite app.

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50 brown beer bottles – another Taobao bargain.

The bottling process went pretty well, as I syphoned the beer from the fermentation bucket back into the big metal brew pot, which had a tap on the side. However, below the tap line I had to syphon into the bottles, and lost about a bottle’s worth of beer due to spillage. It turns out that syphoning manually is not as easy as it looks.

While bottling, I took a half pint for sampling purposes and was surprised to find that my beer tasted like a chocolate stout – that was very unexpected because its ingredients suggested an amber/IPA. Anyway, it had only just emerged from the fermentation pot and still had a month to go in the bottles. I knew its taste at this point wouldn’t be particularly close to the finished version.

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A beautiful sight – 46 bottles of homebrew.

Tasting

I got 46 bottles of beer in the end, and stored them in a big cardboard box. However, the temptation to drink them was hard to resist… I knew I should leave them in the bottle at least a few weeks before drinking, but it’s hard to sit and look at so many bottles of beer and not have the occasional sample.

After exactly one week, I had a friend over and we opened one bottle to sample it – for scientific purposes, of course. After all, a brewer needs to know what’s going on in the bottles.

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A surprisingly dark colour for an IPA.

Week 1

The beer tasted very sweet at first, with a rather sour aftertaste. It bore little resemblance to the pre-bottled “chocolate stout” flavor – although perhaps that might relate to this beer having been refrigerated, while the first sampling had been at room temperature.

It was not particularly hoppy to the tongue, although it certainly smelled like an IPA. The colour was still incredibly dark, although it had lightened ever so slightly.

Week 2

The taste changed yet again. The slight chocolatey taste returned, but the sweetness, perhaps paradoxically, had abated. The hops were now coming into play and the sour aftertaste had vanished. It was rounding out as a decent IPA, albeit it had some quirks that gave away its hybrid nature. The colour was still very dark, making it look almost like a porter.

Verdict

I declare this first experiment with homebrewing to have been a success… although I admit that I did have a professional guiding me through the actual brewing part of the process. Given that the beer is technically part amber ale, and that it will be ready for drinking come early November (that will be the three week mark), I’ve decided to call it Novamber Ale.  I mocked up a label on Photoshop, although I don’t think the beer will even sit in the bottles long enough to print them off.

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A good beer needs a good name.

In any case, I’m happy with how this beer turned out and very eager to get started on a new beer that will be brewed 100% by me. I’m going to Hefei to pick up some ingredients next weekend, and hopefully will have a new beer to sample near Christmas.

 

Using the Internet in China

Today I woke up and saw that the internet had gone done across much of the Western world… or at least that’s how it was presented. Twitter and Reddit were down, and a ton of other sites. It had all happened while I was asleep because I live on the other side of the world, in China.

Where did I see this news? The same place people get most of their news these days – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. In this hyper-connected world of ours, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the internet, and in particular social media. I wonder what would happen if the attack had been bigger… much bigger. How would people survive? How would they even know what’s going on? Of course, those of us who lived pre-Facebook would adapt pretty quickly, but the others? For them, it would probably feel like the apocalypse.

I don’t need to use much imagination to get inside the minds of those who tried and failed to get online last night. Living in China, not being able to get on the above mentioned websites is pretty common. For me to visit Facebook this morning, or, for that matter, almost any website I regularly use, required me to use a VPN. I pay about $100 per year for this service, which I think is very reasonable. Overall, it’s pretty good. I’m able to check my e-mail and do most basic things I need to. Sometimes, I’m able to watch videos on YouTube – although it can be slow and frustrating.

Without a VPN, the websites that you can visit from China are pretty limited in number, and those which are technically open are usually excruciatingly slow. Sometimes, it can actually be impossible to get any functionality from them whatsoever. To be honest, I don’t even try any more. If my VPN is down, I take a deep breath and then spend my time doing something offline – like going for a run or reading a book. It’s particularly aggravating, however, when I need to do something – like answer an important e-mail, prepare for class, or do some research. It is terribly frustrating to know that I need to do something, yet the rules made by a group of corrupt sociopaths in the government to keep their populace in the dark about their shady practices ensures that my work sometimes needs to be hindered.

But it’s best not to think about it when possible.

The internet in China is not all bad. I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere and yet I get a relatively fast connection at home or via 4G. This place is almost third world, yet even here amidst the poverty and ancient superstitions, we can stream music or movies. Assuming I want to use a Chinese website, it works great. Of course, that severely limits my internet use. If I want to use WeChat to talk to friends, great! If I want to download music from QQ or KuGou, fantastic! Taobao and Alipay are brilliant apps, too. Beyond that, the Chinese internet is sort of like the more vapid parts of the real internet – aka what you can access beyond the Great Firewall. Imagine the idiots you went to school with, for whom the most important thing in the world is who won last night’s celebrity-reality-variety-chat show, or whatever gossip has inexplicably gotten its way onto the front page of the tabloid “news” papers. Imagine the sort of vapid crap that they post on social media, and then tone its intellectual level down even further, translate into Chinese, and add more noise and bright colours. Thanks to censorship, there simply is modern culture in China.

Of course, it goes without saying that being offline is no bad thing. I loved traipsing through Southern Africa or sailing along the Indonesian archipelago, completely disconnected from the internet, with absolutely no way of getting online – no notifications, no pings, no bleeps. It felt great. But that’s not really possible or desirable in day-to-day life, even out in the boondocks of China. Surrounded by the majesty of nature, technology can seem an unpleasant distraction, but in the polluted, grey, backwards wastelands of Anhui Province, it is more like a lifeline. Moreover, I’m a teacher and if I need ideas or resources for class, I need the internet. I’m a writer and editor, so I need the internet to research or publish. I live on the opposite side of the globe from my friends and family, so I need the internet to communicate.

There are innumerable reasons why living in China can be difficult, and the internet may seem like a trivial one, but it really isn’t. I can’t abide censorship, and when that censorship – perpetrated, like all censorships, for spurious reasons – negatively effects my life, my business, my ability to teach using the best available resources… well, that is what I consider intolerable living conditions. If the government announced tomorrow that they were cracking down on VPNs, I’d be on a flight out of here the next day – or at least I’d try, but without access to SkyScanner or eBookers it might be difficult.

So, looking across the world at the turmoil of a temporary disconnection from the internet, I do feel a certain empathy. It’s easy to mock, but being forced offline when you genuinely need to be online can be more than an inconvenience.

Posted in travel

Summer 2016 – Backpacking SE Asia

I’m incredibly lucky that, in my present job as a university lecturer, I have a great deal of free time during the summer and winter months. That has allowed me to visit amazing places like North Korea and Southern Africa over extensive periods. This past summer I decided to do my CELTA in Chiang Mai, Thailand, before spending a month wandering freely around Southeast Asia.

Upon completing the CELTA (with a pass!) I flew to Ubon Ratchathani, then took a bus over into Laos to visit the little town of Pakse. The following day, I bused down to Don Det in Si Phan Don, where I spent almost a week relaxing on the Mekong River. I then followed the Mekong south into Cambodia, where I watched the Irrawaddy dolphins and explored the area around Kratie, in the north of the country.

I spent a bit of time in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, before flying down to Malaysia for a week in the Perhentian Islands. It was not an easy journey. After that, I journeyed through peninsular Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur, and then flew to Bali, where I spent a day on a motorbike, exploring an island I visited many years ago.

Next, it was on to Gili Trawangan, on the coast of Lombok, for a week of snorkelling and hanging out with some friends on the beaches, before a long, pleasant adventure on the high seas as I sailed for Komodo National Park. Finally, I wound up on the edge of the world, looking for a way home.

It was a brilliant trip, and I look forward to the next one, wherever that may be… Here is a crude map of my journey:

map