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

 

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Do They Know It’s Christmas? (in China)

Disclaimer: They definitely know it’s Christmas in Africa, and you should all see this article for more info on why that song is so terrible. But anyways…

Some of you may be wondering whether there’s Christmas in China. The short answer of course is no, but Chinese culture almost always merits a long answer too.

From a basic religious standpoint, while Christians do exist in China they are far from the majority. Most people are secular, and the most-celebrated holidays are Chinese only, things like National Holiday in October, and of course Chinese New Year, a three-week long celebration at the end of the Chinese lunar calendar (this year it’ll be early February). There are Buddhists here, and some Taoists, sure, but all in all the Chinese religion is essentially nationalism. People believe in the merits of China above all else.

But China also doesn’t tend to take no for an answer. So yes, there is a form of Christmas here—a wildly secular, fully commercialized version of the holiday exists, in sporadic bursts that have little rhyme or reason.

Christmas Spirit (2)Holiday decorations are up at all the malls. Sometimes these are just Christmas lights, other times trees, and yet other times strange, conical Santas. I frequently hear Christmas music at coffee shops and department stores, mixed in with the usual rotation of classical music and K-pop. The stores sell ugly Christmas sweaters and sometimes miniature trees, and on the popular online shopping website Taobao you can buy cheap Christmas decorations to your heart’s content.

And yet if you ask a Chinese person when Christmas is, exactly, or what its meaning is, almost none of them know. The religious meaning for sure is lost, and even beyond that, the sort of secular Americanized version of “good feelings and good deeds” seems to have escaped the vision of Chinese corporations as well. Only the most shallow, most plastic little bits of Christmas have washed up on shore here, and because of it, the whole thing probably makes little sense to the average Chinese consumer.

But I can’t exactly say China doesn’t have a right to celebrate Christmas in its own way. After all, Americans have turned the materialism of Christmas up to even further extremes than the Chinese could ever dream of. People being trampled to death on Black Friday shopping for bargains, mothers stressing out for weeks over making sure their kids have enough presents, commercials each minute of the day emphasizing the sheer amount of junk we have the money to buy. None of that really represents Christmas to me, either. Whether it’s the cheap plastic trees littering the aisles of the grocery stores in Shenzhen, or the crowds fighting over the bargain bin at Wal-Mart, I think it is fair to say that Christmas is turned into a hollow word everywhere.

And anyways, since Chinese factories are the ones supplying most of our decorations and ornaments and toys, I think they have a right to enjoy them too.

So does it bother me? Not really. In fact I smile when I hear Christmas music in the stores here. As possibly the only one around here who knows the words, it’s like the music is for me alone.

lamb

This year I got “Christmas” dinner at a Xinjiang (Western region of China) restaurant, including an entire roast lamb. It was great!

Shiny Shiny Shenzhen

For those of you who don’t know anything about the city of Shenzhen, here’s a brief and super simplified introduction:

In the year 1979, the leader of China at the time, 邓小平 / Deng Xiaoping, decided that China should be opened to the world (and by that I mean open to capitalist investment). But he didn’t want to open all of China at once, so he decided to select a sort of “testing ground” where these principles could be experimented with before allowing businesses to enter the rest of the country. He called these testing grounds “Special Economic Zones” (SEZ) and chose Shenzhen to be the first. Since then China has opened several other SEZs where the government allows more flexible free market principles and less governmental restrictions in order to make doing business in China attractive to foreign investors.

Has it worked? Yes, and insanely well. In 1980 Shenzhen was basically just this rural area which happened to be right next to Hong Kong—but now it is a city representing China’s present dreams and ambitious hopes for the future.

I wasn’t sure that I would like Shenzhen at first. The city is massively daunting. I am used to living in Boston, where I can walk halfway about the city in about thirty minutes, and if I don’t feel like walking I can hop on the subway for just a few stops and be fine. But in Shenzhen, a few subway stops might take twenty minutes, so forget walking. In some ways each area of the city is quite isolated from the next. But as I’ve been learning recently this is also what makes it cool. I’m not just living in one city—I’m living in twenty or thirty cities, all lined up side by side.

I like that each subway stop in Shenzhen is a new adventure. You never know what kind of restaurants you’ll find, or what crazy architecture you’ll see, or what beautiful parks will appear in the middle of the madness. I like the air of excitement that everyone carries, like everyone here is dreaming about the future and working hard to get there. And I enjoy the city’s newness, the way basically nothing is any older than 1980. This newness is so temporary, too—buildings are being demolished and built up again all the time. There’s something cool in that transience. Daunting, again, but cool.

Here are some pictures of the cool stuff I’ve seen here so far.

Chegongmiao (2)

Super nice apartment complex in the Chegongmiao area

Cherry Blossoms 2

Cherry blossoms at 少年宫 / “Children’s Palace,” a popular park

Evil Building (2)

I call this one “evil villain building.” Chegongmiao area.

Graffiti 2 (2)

Even a city this new has graffiti. Near Coco Park.

Skyline (2)

Shenzhen skyline on a sunny day

Symmetry (2)

The way to 少年宫

Modern Toilet: Restaurant Review

Yes, you read that correctly. Modern Toilet is a restaurant, not a toilet shop. But you may not be able to tell upon walking in, because the floor is covered in toilets anyways.

Modern Toilet is the strangest restaurant I have ever visited. The theme of the restaurant is actually poop. You enter a room with a tile floor, filled with seats shaped like toilets arranged around tables. The tables all have glass tops and underneath them is a bathtub—some of the bathtubs have half-naked dolls inside. On the back wall of the restaurant is a trophy hall of urinals, which are lit up and slowly rotate through each color of the rainbow in a fixed cycle.

All of the food you order at Modern Toilet comes in squat-toilet or bathtub-shaped dishes. The dishes are all named after poop, though as most of the menu was in Chinese and we didn’t exactly learn much poop vocabulary I was unable to translate much of it. You could even order bubble tea that came in a urinal-shaped cup.

The food was alright, and probably too much money for what it was, but for some reason the waffle fries were fantastic. I had an Oreo milkshake as well, which came in a normal glass and was actually quite satisfying. All in all, slightly better than I expected, considering I was literally sitting on a toilet.

For the grand finale, we ordered chocolate soft-serve ice cream, which for obvious reasons is one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

If you are easily amused by potty humor, I would highly recommend a visit. If not, you may as well just go to the McDonald’s down the street for half the price and none of the shitty décor.

Life in the Village

One of the cool things about my time in Shenzhen so far is that I was able to get housing in a residential village. Called a 村 / cun (pronounced “tswun”), these villages are scattered all across the city, and make apartment living much more bearable.

View from my window

View from my window

View from the porch

View from the porch

Because Shenzhen is a planned city, it was built with certain things in mind that other cities were not. For example, Boston was not built with the intention of ever allowing cars to drive along its roads, a fact which becomes pretty apparent to most visitors pretty quickly. The city also was built up randomly and sporadically over time, which results in roads that are almost parallel but not quite, intersections that don’t make any sense, and all in all, a pretty tightly packed living space.

But since Shenzhen was built all at once and in a place where there was previously nothing, it was built with a purpose. Not only is my village packed densely enough with tall apartment buildings to house thousands of people, but the village is also packed with meandering paths, green spaces, and areas for people to gather and relax.

For the first few weeks in the city, I mainly stuck to the village, just trying to master its wandering pathways, dead ends and surprise gardens. You could probably spend at least an hour or two exploring the space, if you went down each and every path, and the great part is that it is all very public. Everyone shares the space evenly and respectfully.

The village is always full of life, from young kids riding their bikes to old women walking or practicing tai chi. Walks in the morning reveal people exercising in the large public square or at any of the public exercise equipment available throughout the village, and walks in the evening are filled with high school students returning home for the night or, if your timing is right, large flocks walking to the subway stop from their jobs nearby.

A typical building looks something like this

A typical building looks something like this

A typical row of houses

A typical row of houses

In the center of the village is a strip of shops to make life easier—a bookstore, a bakery, a few small restaurants. Just outside the parameters is the subway stop, bus stops, a small grocery store, and a huge vegetable market where everyone heads at night to prepare for dinner. In the morning vendors sell steamed buns or bing, Chinese pancakes.

Because the village is almost entirely Chinese people, I do stick out a bit as I walk around. Many people have given me an odd, concentrated glance, like I don’t belong there. But it never makes me feel unsafe—in fact the neighborhood feels quite peaceful and protected, as it is mostly inhabited by families. And the neighborhood is full of security guards and protected by gates in various places, not to mention that I live on the seventh floor with no elevator, so it’d take quite a bit for something to go wrong at my house.

I have really enjoyed living in the village so far, as it has enabled me to feel a part of a genuinely Chinese neighborhood. It is peaceful compared to the city which closes it in, and yet is still vibrant and full of life.

Sunrise over the village

Sunrise over the village

More morning views

More morning views

There are lots of stray cats around!

There are lots of stray cats around!