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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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