Friday, October 7, 2011

Plants and Animals in China

First-person accounts of China often discuss the environmental impacts of economic growth and social pressures.  They are certainly in evidence: brown river, denuded banks, flowing sluggishly through industrial landscapes beneath smoke-stained red skies.  To be honest, those scenes were much less prevalent than I expected: smaller rivers could be surprisingly clean and green.

However, I was really surprised by the huge disparity in the respect shown for living things amidst the landscapes

The Chinese dote on their plants.  Driving into cities, every broad boulevard is lined with trees and flowering bushes, each kilometer tended by three of four gardeners sweeping, raking, trimming, and tending.  Broad trees have their limbs supported by poles anchored into the ground around them: the Old Banyon Tree is a famous source of luck and longevity if you walk around it once (no word on whether clockwise or counterclockwise).  Hotels and public spaces have soaring floral arrangements; the shape, color, and shadow of blossoms are celebrated in art and dance.


Chinese are hard on their animals.   Several areas that I visited are in the tropical south, yet birds were few and well hidden.  Farms have a few desultory oxen or sheep; only the occasional dog roams the street.  Outdoor shopping areas have exotic animals to pose with – monkeys in clown costumes, peacocks with tail feathers pinned up, a camel out of all likelihood.  Mynah birds fill cages in front of shops; occasional flocks of ducks cluster in reeds along rivers.


I’m not sure what spiritual or moral sense drives this division, but it seemed universal.  It’s strange to see park grounds with only the occasional butterfly, silence where there should be birds, strollers without pets.  I’m doing a bit of reading that I hope will sort the mystery, but it leaves the impression that animals simply exist for food and fun.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Negotiating street deals

China is free-market capitalism on steroids at the street level.  From tourist bazaars to night markets, on the paths to mountaintops or descending into caves, there is always someone trying to sell something, hammering at an oversized calculator to haggle the price.  It takes some practice and confidence to plunge into the give-and-take, not to be shaken by the doe-eyed pleadings and protests, and to get what I want at a fair price.  But it’s also a fair bit of fun once I got the hang of it.

First, it’s impossible to know the true quality or value of anything sold China.  The department stores will likely give the best assurance (silk is not nylon; jade is not plastic) and prices will fall somewhere between airport rip-off and street-level uncertainty.  The clerks I met spoke little or no English though (nor should they, really), so patience and a pad of paper to draw pictures and numbers is helpful.

Once on the street, I tended to look for the self-evident goods:  A t-shirt is a t-shirt, a woven bag is a woven bag. There’s not much more to it than meets the eye and a reasonable check can assure that the stitching is firm.  I picked up small souvenirs that are light and characteristic of the area – I avoided any endangered and protected materials like woods, insects, or horn.

When I asked for a price, I’d usually get an outrageous quote, good for a smile together and a shake of the head.  The vendor immediately produced a huge calculator and started hammering in figures: generally my first response would be 20-25% of the asking price.  As time went on, I’d learn what others paid for similar items and could go a few yuan under that figure.  T-shirts are quoted at Y130, for example, but I’d come back at Y40, knowing that friends settled at Y45-50.   The seller would groan and  hammer down to Y90.  I would come up to Y50, they would say No Way, and I’d start to leave.  More often than not, they chase me back saying Okay Okay, and the deal is done at Y50.  If they don’t chase me, it’s over, I’d note the limit and try again at the next shop for the same item, a bit wiser.

But never, ever, pay the asking price, or even half.  We went ‘behind the curtain’ in a handbag shop (actually, a mirrored door) to look at the real designer handbags, suitcases,  and watches. This is a notoriously difficult purchase – if you are lucky, it actually is leather, will last a few flights, or might keep time for several months.  But it isn’t what it says on the face, so Y1200 is a non-starter – people typically got down to Y250 or 300.  Negotiations go better if there is nobody else around: no vendor wants to drop a price dramatically in front of a crowd.  This was particularly true for art sales.


Services are difficult too: people chase us up mountain paths, fanning us along the way and offering water.  At the top, they demand money: I would give Y10, but they would want Y20.  It’s not a negotiation: I stopped carrying much cash, then if 10 is what I have, take it or leave it.  Same thing at any scenic spot: people are hawking pictures posed with cormorants, dress-up pictures  in emperor's clothes, tours of the sites.  If you want it, negotiate the Y5 to Y20 price for it, but don’t let someone thrust something into your hand and snap a picture.

Virtually all of the people selling things were friendly, pleasant, chatty, and took ‘no’ for an answer if I meant it.  If they weren’t, then I left: people seldom grabbed at a sleeve to stop me.  So the experiences weren’t overwhelming or hostile.  And I felt like I got good deals (and good stories) on things that I wanted for people.

And the ‘fair price’?  If I got what I wanted at a price that was competitive with what others were paying, it didn’t matter if it was the lowest price possible.  I came away happy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Gathered around meals

I really looked forward to the variety of foods and cooking styles that we would experience among the Chinese, and every meal was both a treat and an adventure.  Western-style food is certainly available (KFC, in particular, seems to be on every street corner), but I plunged in to the full variety of local tastes on offer.  For every bad experience with a thousand year old egg, there were dozens of good ones, nothing like the pale imitations in ethnic  restaurants mimicking the styles in Europe and the US.

Breakfast generally was a choice of rice or noodles, a watery rice porridge, fresh fruits and stir-fried vegetables, cushiony dumplings and strong coffee fit for the Dutch.  The bacon was horrible; chicken sausage palatable, and cooked eggs marginal – far better to follow the host’s lead and have less English-style fare.

Lunch and dinner were pretty indistinguishable – seating for ten around a large glass lazy-susan where a rapid sequence of dishes were placed. DSC06065 Everyone mastered the technique of slowly rotating to sample everything (and of trusting that everyone would take a small enough portion that each dish made it all the way around).  Rice and cooked vegetables were constant, but the meats and fishes came in endless variety.  Requests for something spicy tended to produce a mixed platter of green and red chilies rather than something Szechuan; watermelon and cantaloupe were the staple for dessert.

And we learned not to spin things too fast lest we knock over the beers.

Occasional treats like hot pots or snails were a nice variation, and there were clear regional differences as we traveled. Street food was another matter – a lot of cooking is done in the open air with meat and vegetables cut alongside grills and pots.   It’s hard to feel confident in ordering.


Stepping out into unchaperoned settings was an adventure – at one point we were handed a bowl, a plate of cooked chicken and beef, and a round crust of bread before being guided to a table.  We sat expectantly. Patiently. uneasily.  Finally a Chinese girl stopped to tell us that one breaks the bread into the bowl, calls the waitress who fills it with broth, then mixes in the chicken and beef.  It was delightful – the bread forms a bit of a dumpling and the noodles were fantastic.  But we’d still be sitting there if not for the the unsolicited advice.

Then there was snake.

The proprietor brought a yellow snake to the table and showed it off before cutting the head with a large scissors.  He drained the blood into a glass or rice wine, then disappeared to cook the remains.  The two parts were separated for cooking: we agreed that the chewy and flavorful skin was preferable to the crunchy bones and flakes of meat that made up the body segments.

And the blood-red rice wine?  ‘Really just tasted like vodka.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Drinks in China

Some of the least obvious things about China emerged when dealing with the most commonplace of activities: finding a drink of water.

The .purification and delivery systems for municipal water have not evolved to the point where it  is safe to drink tap water – about a third of our travel group found out the hard way by getting intestinal disorders during the first couple of days.  Hotels make a point of offering bottled water (with very firmly sealed caps) and insisting that you use it, even when brushing your teeth.  Restaurants place a beaker of boiling water at the center of the table with a bowl for everyone to wash their glasses and utensils before eating.  At the tea house, it all looked like an elaborate ritual, but we learned quickly that there is a “do-as-I–do” purpose behind it.

Water is, in fact, more expensive than beer in most restaurants.  Waitresses presented beer before lunch and dinner, tepid and weak, lightly carbonated.  We tried a few different varieties and none had much kick (spoiled by the Belgian Bush biers, I guess).  Great Wall CabPeople didn’t drink soft drinks often; wine with dinner seemed even more unusual.  We did end up ordering wine on special evenings anyway, and developed a taste for Great Wall red wine.

One appealing variation was the tea ball: a tightly coiled pellet of leaves that was popped into boiling water and left to steep.  In a few minutes, the leaves would unfold into a lovely flower, sometimes scented or spiced, that was saved and re-used. The balls could be bought in markets for about Y6 each, expensive compared to loose-leaf tea.

We visited a tea plantation during the scientific conference: I wouldn’t have guessed that the green bushes lined in neat rows were actually tea plants.  They don’t smell or look anything like tea.  But we went to work with fingers and basket, instructed to pick only the young green leaves off the top of the plants.  A half hour produced a half-basket of leaves (none of us have much potential as tea-pickers), which were taken to a processing house for women to turn by hand in hot metal bowls to dry.  They mix in a bit of waxy oil as they go, and after about 15 minutes the leaves turn brown, fragrant, and wholly recognizable as tea.  

Like any expat, confidence comes from mastering the sample tasks in life, perhaps in remastering familiar routines in local settings.  Within a few days it was second nature to be passing and swirling boiling water ahead of meals, scarcely interrupting conversation for washing and brewing.

Now, back in the UK, I find myself hesitating, reaching for my bottle when I pick up my toothbrush.  It takes an effort of will to trust the taps again, a funny twitch after taking clean water for granted forever.