Shenzhen: The Westworld of China

What is life like when you’re a guest in a fantasy land?

For those who haven’t seen it, the TV show Westworld takes place in a theme park of the future, built to look like the Wild West of the past. The main attraction of the park is its ‘hosts’, human-like robots who spend their days playing out their own personalized storylines, of finding love, or discovering treasure, or bounty hunting, and so on. No matter how violent or traumatic a host’s storyline is, they get up day after day and repeat the same actions and traumas, because in this world the hosts are programmed to repress their memories, so they never talk about them.

The Westworld park is also filled with a new set of ‘guests’ each morning, people from the outside world who come to meet the hosts and engage in their storylines. They play during the day, and at night while they sleep all the bullet wounds are stitched up and the hearts are restarted and every host wakes up to repeat their loop once again.

Shenzhen 3

Shenzhen is one of the most modern cities in the world, called into existence out of rural farmland by the Chinese state in the year 1979. Out of the humid air and marshy ground of the area have sprung towering skyscrapers, seven-story malls, eight-lane roads, cutting-edge tech companies, and millions of immigrants from other Chinese cities.

Shenzhen has a transient quality. Maybe it’s the apartment blocks, built up so quickly and haphazardly that many are already crumbling and overgrown with ivy. Maybe it’s the fact that all its inhabitants come from elsewhere. Shenzhen is home to almost no one. During the holidays the city clears out, leaving those eight-lane roads totally barren. Maybe it’s the way it was built, made easy for cars and buses and subways to navigate, but made very difficult for people to walk through. Shenzhen is not a city built for people. It is a city built to pay homage to modern technology.

Like Westworld, it is effectively a theme park of the future.

Shenzhen 2

In 2015 I became a ‘guest’ in Shenzhen, the Westworld of China. I was so excited to play in the modern China storyline, to meet some hosts who could show me some new adventures in this crazy country. From the start, it felt like I was in a story where I had not been written into the plot, where my only role would ever be as an outsider. And at the time, I was okay with that, as I have always liked to observe more than participate anyways.

There is certainly some robot-level repetition in the way you are treated as a foreigner in China. The surprised remark when you speak to the taxi driver in Mandarin. The woman next to you at the bus stop telling you that you are pretty. The child who points at you on the subway. The never-ending parade of malls, each stocked with one or more of the following: UNIQLO, H&M, Zara, Gap. Day after day these things happened. Shenzhen is full of different people and different places all saying the same things.

Furthermore there is a distinct feeling that Shenzhen, despite being a major world city, isn’t really affected by the rest of the world. Some of it is a lack of context; people are blocked from using Twitter, Instagram, and even Google, there isn’t much choice for foreign foods, and foreign artists don’t hold concerts there. There is little opportunity to learn about foreign things. Some of it is also likely due to China’s thousands of years of history and decades of propaganda, which has created a bubble that surrounds China and its people, a bubble that makes people there different in mindset from anywhere else on Earth.

Foreigners are a curiosity in Shenzhen, but we live in a different world. The Chinese government, I believe, worries too much about letting foreign ideas in, because even when they do get in most people cannot relate to or understand them and so they are ignored or dismissed by nearly everyone. Tell a Chinese person about your world all you want, but you will likely not change theirs. Likewise, you can tell the hosts of Westworld about your world all you want, but the hosts will not truly absorb that information, unless they go through a massive internal paradigm shift. I really believe that the same is true in China.

Shenzhen 4

The most significant comparison between these two places is that Shenzhen, like Westworld, seems to be problem-free. Everything is just so darned pleasant on the surface. Parents play with their kids in an impressive range of parks, and grandparents pick children up from school. Modern shopping malls are evenly spaced out around the city, with the same reliable dining and shopping choices in each one. People smile and say hello to their neighbors. Salaries go a long way, since everything is way too cheap. And in the village where I lived, people danced together in the village square every single morning like an actual Disney movie.

When I first got to the city, this atmosphere was so nice. It was such a good change from the bitterness and unhappiness and misplaced rage of like 80% of Americans. It was such a good change to not be able to check Twitter or read most news websites… to forget, if only for a little while, how messed up the rest of the world was. To forget how messed up China itself was.

Cherry Blossoms 2

Because of course, beneath this shining surface, Shenzhen, and China in general, have a lot of problems: not being able to use tap water, awful toilet hygiene, the Great Firewall, art and literature censorship, poor food quality, dangerously low-quality products, ethnic tensions, and on and on. But these all pale in comparison to China’s biggest problem of all: a desire to avoid talking about problems.

In the end, I could deal with the lack of toilet paper and food making me sick and not using Snapchat, and even the massive bureaucratic inefficiencies. These things were challenging but bearable. But honestly, what truly did me in was simply that people didn’t want to acknowledge any of it!

Chinese people will talk to you about day to day problems, of course, like the rain or having a cold. Just like I’m sure the Westworld hosts have it programmed into their loops to point things like that out too. But point out a larger problem, a problem of how their world is actually constructed, and they just won’t understand why on Earth you would ever think it was a problem. It’s not a lack of personal empathy, it’s simply that some combination of culture, education, and propaganda has taught them that problems must never be addressed, that if you ignore them it is as good as erasing them.

Over time the inability to address any issue beyond a surface level left me feeling increasingly isolated in the city. While at first the friendliness and kindness towards foreigners felt like heaven, it eventually began to feel like a strange form of torture. I started to believe that many of those smiles were empty, that while they may have been happy to merely see me, the connection ended there. There was no real desire to hear my own thoughts and ideas, as they’d be instantly dismissed. I wasn’t one of them, so I couldn’t understand them. And the next day, their loops would go on the same as before, day in, day out.

When I finally visited Hong Kong, it felt so good to break through the bubble. Hong Kong has a lot of problems too, and Hong Kongers will quite eagerly discuss every last one with you. Like most global cities, it is affected by global trends, and people worry that demographic shifts will affect their culture. I am still a foreigner, but no one gives me a big smile when they see me… and it is actually better that way. I am not some strange and special ‘guest’, I am just another average resident.

While many of the guests in Westworld felt comfortable living wild lives because they knew their actions would have no consequences, I am not that kind of person. I do not travel to party or to do things I couldn’t get away with at home, I travel because I seek to make connections with people in other countries. And while I really did connect to many individuals in Shenzhen, I just couldn’t connect to the culture at large, because I am not Chinese, and therefore I would be treated as a ‘guest’ for all of eternity, and guests have no long-term effect on China.

Shenzhen, as a 25 year old collection of skyscrapers and highways, is a city because people believe it to be a city. I wonder if it is more of a collective fantasy of what a modern Chinese city should look like, than an accurate portrayal of what modern China is.

After a year, I left Shenzhen to go live in Hong Kong. After a year here, I can say for sure that I would rather live in a place where the world outside of us means something, even if the lack of a bubble means the place is visibly crumbling and everyone knows it, and even if the world outside is currently going insane too.

Shenzhen 6



Memories of China: The Stinky Tofu

Several years ago I lived in the lesser-known Chinese city of Nanjing for about a month to study Mandarin. Nanjing is quite a nice city, and smaller for China at “only” eight million people. It’s less modernized than places like Shanghai or Shenzhen, which has its benefits (super cheap food) and drawbacks (where is peanut butter?)

Chinese clothes

Trying my host sister’s Chinese costumes

At one point I had a short stay with a lovely Chinese host family. My host father spoke English well and was not afraid to speak his mind about his country (which is refreshing in China), while my host sister was just a few years younger than me and very cool—we got along great. However, my host mother and host grandmother spoke absolutely no English, and since my Chinese was quite poor at the time there were some communication barriers.

On Sundays my host sister still had school, so the parents decided to take me out for a short excursion to the local tourist area, called Confucius Temple. It was basically one of those Chinese tourist attractions that looks like a cool old temple, but sells tourist crap. Basically every ‘ancient-looking’ place in China turns out this way, at least in the cities, and it is one of the things I hate most about tourism in China. But anyways.

As we were wandering through the stalls, all of a sudden the most horrifying stench hit my nostrils. It was like a piece of roadkill slathered in old cheese or something. My host mother grinned in excitement and rushed over to a nearby food stall. “Ah, that’s stinky tofu!” my host father exclaimed. “She loves it!”

Stinky Tofu

臭豆腐 / Chou Dou Fu / “Stinky Tofu”(

My host mother came back with a serving of the stuff, eagerly stabbed a piece with a toothpick, and swallowed it whole, licking her lips. Then she held one out for me to try.

I didn’t want to be rude. Because there was literally almost nothing I could say to her. I’m not even sure I knew the words 不要 (I DON’T WANT IT) yet, let alone 好可怕 (very frightening). And besides, as my host father reassured me, “It tastes better than it smells!” So I took a bite.

Well, it probably did taste better than it smelt, but only because it smelt like a dead raccoon that has been rotting in your crawl space for six months. It maybe only tasted like a raccoon which had been rotting for three months. Yum!

No. I ran to a trash can immediately and dramatically spit it out, choking back tears. My host family just laughed at me, but I felt super basic, and honestly couldn’t help but worry they would be disappointed in me for rejecting Chinese cuisine so violently. Hopefully the number of dumplings I ate that evening proved to them that I really love Chinese cuisine, so long as it isn’t congee, chicken feet, or chou dou fu.

Chicken Feet

The other Chinese food I won’t eat… (

For the rest of my trip my host family made sure I was well fed by giving me what they believed was ‘real American food’: chocolate cake for breakfast. And being a mature adult, I casually decided not to correct them on that one…

Memories of China: The Night at the Village

The old man had been hacking away on his erhu for at least an hour. I wasn’t sure whether to cry, sleep, or cry myself to sleep—the saddest instrument on the planet was truly having its intended effect. It was the end of yet another long day on my class’s six-week trip through China, and this time we had trekked out of the city for a short stay at a village in Anhui province. After the long bus ride, we really just wanted to get into some nice, cozy beds so we could pass out and prepare for our upcoming hike at Huang Shan… but our professor had squeezed in yet another ‘cultural experience’ as usual.

Ancient Chinese Village HouseUnfortunately, a soft bed was not to come. After the man wrapped up his symphony, we were shown to our lodgings and found that we would be staying in an absolutely ancient traditional village house. That may sound pretty cool (and in all honesty it was), except for the small caveat that old-style Chinese living was apparently not very comfortable. While the rooms all had rooves, the hallways between them did not, meaning plenty of cool, damp air was seeping into everything, from the walls to the linens to the floorboards. I was pretty sure I would be putting a hole in my room’s rickety floor at any moment—some of the boards were resting at a very strange angle, others were already cracked, and all were oddly soggy.

Ancient Chinese HouseAnd those ancient Chinese beds… Made of wood and containing no mattress, we basically went to sleep on a flat slate with just one thin little damp blanket and flat pillow for comfort. On that first night, I remember curling up in bed feeling quite bleak about the whole experience, and waking up to a tasteless bowl of traditional congee for breakfast didn’t exactly help.

On top of the discomfort, the whole thing had a distinct air of creepiness. Maybe it was the fog that hovered in the hallways in the early mornings, the cold stone walls without windows, or the ancient photographs of wide-eyed little boys on the walls, one of which was hidden behind my door, causing me to jump in shock as I turned out the light and shut the door on that first evening. Or maybe it was the fact that the building next to the house was full of the remnants of old propaganda posters, slogans from the Mao era, and for some reason, bats. The village seemed utterly haunted with the ghosts of Chinese past. It heightened our feelings of unease as the second night approached.

Chairman Mao Propaganda

“10,000 years for Chairman Mao”

That evening, we decided to take advantage of the ghastly atmosphere, so we headed to an empty room and turned out all the lights in order to tell ghost stories. It was a mistake. Just as one of my classmates was midway through a horrifying tale, with the rest of us submerged deep into that altered state in which suddenly one can really believe in poltergeists and vampires, we saw a small glowing light approaching us, illuminating a stately figure dressed in all white. We all began screaming in sheer terror.

But as the figure approached, we realized it was just the proprietor in her white bathrobe holding a candle and telling us to go to sleep already, as we were probably waking half the village up (and that was before our shrieking). We apologized and headed back to our rooms, but after being scared so thoroughly we were too shaken to sleep alone. All of us girls paired up and shared beds that night—in the morning we found out that even some of the boys had done the same!

Village Chickens Anhui

Otherwise, the village was quite lovely!

Memories of China: The Great Wall

This post is part of a series I’m creating about my top travel memories from China. Watch this space for more short stories!

When I was 18, I had barely been outside of the US, apart from a couple of days in Canada and a two hour cruise stop in Cozumel, Mexico. Instead of just dipping my toes into the travel water like a normal person I decided to dive in head-first, and headed all the way around the planet to China for a study tour with a group of 13 others from my university.

Our professor, Dong “Laoshi” (teacher) was a small, middle-aged, extremely hard-core woman. She warned us that our itinerary was “not for the faint of heart” but as young and fearless as we were, we shrugged it off. What were to follow would be the craziest, most challenging, and most exhausting six weeks of my life. We managed to cram in basically every experience defining modern China, from the major tourist attractions to the neglected slums on the outer rings of Beijing, from having an internship to staying with a host family, from chatting with fellow university students to meeting business leaders and documentary filmmakers. We were kept busy from dawn until dusk… and sometimes even later than that.

Watchtower at Jinshanling Great Wall

Six years later, the Great Wall still stands out in my memory as one of the most amazing experiences of the trip. Remember how I said my professor was “hard-core?” Well, this excursion is a good example of what I mean. It was day two or three of the trip and we were all still overwhelmed with crushing jet-lag. Still, she dragged us out of bed at around 6 AM, piled us onto a bus, and drove us deep into the mountains to go to one of the “lesser-known” areas of the Great Wall: Jinshanling.

Watchtower at Jinshanling

Now, when I say “lesser-known,” what I mean is that I’m pretty sure no one else has walked on this thing since like the Ming Dynasty. It was absolutely ancient, and consisted of steep, rugged hills and crumbling old watchtowers. Contrary to the parts of the wall that have been refurbished as cute little smooth roads for tourists, this one was rough and uneven, and walking on the thing was like repeatedly hiking up and down small mountains. For the entire walk we were shrouded in a thick mist, so it felt like we had just traveled through time to a moment hundreds of years ago. Being almost totally alone just added to the atmosphere.

Despite all this beauty, the Great Wall was also where I got to see my first really frightening Chinese toilet. Next to all the watchtowers were some public toilets, which were probably also built during the Ming. Basically they were just holes in the ground separated by the tiniest of barrier walls. No stall doors of course, and all located outside. Even many ‘good’ Chinese bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap, and this one was no exception. Bathrooms like these were probably one of the reasons we all finished the trip feeling like there were no boundaries between us…

Afterwards, we finished off the day by driving down to a Wall-side rural village, eating lunch that a family cooked for us using entirely plants in their own garden (d’aww) and then talking to the village leader about the politics of local government in the US vs. China. We even got to see all his pretty, shiny plaques from the Communist Party—hung all over his walls! Dream come true.

With its combination of ancient beauty and ancient plumbing, China is always a mess of contradictions. That’s just what makes traveling there so constantly entertaining!

Epic Great Wall of China

Photo credit to our classmate Dan who sacrificed not being in this epic thing to take the photo!