Thursday, April 18, 2019

Shenzhen, China trip summary

this was in Hong Kong instead, not really what this is about

The following is from notes made on a trip to Shenzhen, China, which involved a lot of transiting and one whole day spent in Hong Kong as well.  It's partly about tea but doesn't get far with that subject.  I'll add a little more about the main tea wholesale market experience in Shenzhen to one or more review posts about teas and keep that part limited here, so people only into reading about tea could skip this.  It's more about travel with some observations about cultural differences.

visa on arrival processing; probably as well to get that in advance instead

We're in China, in Shenzhen. One odd part of that relates to being cut off from the main parts of the internet that I typically use: Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Maps, my blog, Quora, and Line (the Japanese messaging program Thais use most).  That covers any way that I would normally contact my kids or parents. Wechat is it; that works, but my wife's mother (staying with our kids) doesn't check that or answer calls on it.

I've spoken to my son once in two days here and haven't talked to my daughter yet. They went on to do a whole month in the US as a summer break instead, traveling with us up until Hong Kong. That's the hardest part for me; they were by far my favorite thing about every trip I've taken for the last decade.  I would rather go to Nebraska with them than to a tea producing area without them.  This is really about impressions and travel in Shenzhen though, not that.

parting ways in Hong Kong as they went on to the US

last hours with them, of course catching movies on the plane

It's my second visit here, to Shenzhen, once earlier for work. Work trips don't leave enough free time to get to similar levels of exploration or contact with local culture.  It reminds me of Taipei, Taiwan here; the look and feel is similar. It's modern and developed, but to me it's more interesting how people take that, local variations in perspective or setting.

Huawei products demonstration site tea presentation, back in 2012

My wife is having someone look at something in the hotel room now, maybe an outlet that wasn't working, arguing with the hotel staff about them taking off their shoes. I thought that was common to all of Asia, freaking out about wearing shoes in living spaces.  Maybe the hotel staff get it that half the guests would wear shoes in a hotel room and are less into extending a norm based on practices at home to there.  My wife doesn't see it that way, and most Thais generally wouldn't.

We keep shifting between visiting different types of areas. We are staying in what seems to be a tourism and shopping area, like a very different version of local commercial area themes common in Seoul or Tokyo.  Later someone mentioned it's an older part of Shenzhen but it's my impression that the city itself was mostly developed in the last 30 years, so it's probably not that old.  There would have been a smaller town here prior to that and for all I know it was located where we are now.

Yesterday we visited a wholesale tea market.  That was very cool; I picked up a few interesting teas, even for using next to no budget allowance for that. Communication was a problem there, as it has been throughout this trip.  My wife studied Chinese (Mandarin) for the better part of a year not that long ago but didn't retain enough to get far in conversation.  Her knowing some basic words comes in handy though.  Little glitches came up throughout the trip, like road underpasses being labeled as a "subway."

this is different:  bundled ("witches broom style") Da Hong Pao, I think

Then we visited an old shopping area near the train station, the Luo Han area, or something such. Then onto two different versions of local neighborhoods to check out favorite shopping options of my wife, a Decathlon sports store in a mall and a Carrefour grocery store in a shopping center. It seems only a coincidence that both are French, or at least mostly that.

older market area near the train station

To me seeing the neighborhoods was more interesting than the stores. We have Decathlon stores in Bangkok, and I've been to lots of Wal-Marts and Carrefours. It is interesting seeing grocery stores in different countries to see novel foods (the minority of goods; most of what is in those in different countries is the same).  An example: Russia had good black bread, and Thailand has a broad range of curries and dried tropical fruits.  Japan, Korea, and China mostly have foods from those areas that are different, so mostly the same fruits and vegetables as in Thailand are here, given the proximity and Chinese influence there.  In our Chinatown I see dried persimmons as the most interesting novelty, along with herbs and flowers for health treatments that I don't know anything about, which of course came up there.

good mango selection in a local Wal-Mart; that's different

Bangkok is so heavily Chinese oriented beyond foods that it's less novel to me, in the grocery stores and elsewhere.  Modernization evens things out in both places too, the commercial focus.

They had cheap tea in one store, probably not good, but I bought Tie Guan Yin oolong and may pick up two cakes of grocery store pu'er, since I'm curious about it. Selling for $10 a bing / cake it can't be great but if it's drinkable that would be a steal. People worry about pesticides but I'm not so sure. They usually don't worry about fruit grown under the same conditions for some reason.  Later edit:  due to my wife's patience running out I only bought the sheng cake in that grocery store, which seemed really good for that price level, just heavy on pine flavor aspect.  I'll have to live with wondering about that shu.

that grocery store sheng

About culture, people seem normal to me. They're somber in Russia, even more reserved in Japan, unusually laid back in Bangkok, and normal enough in Seoul (maybe a little excitable as Asians go), and so it goes here, people don't seem unusual in any way.

In Hong Kong, where we just only spent a day, it seemed odd that people didn't give me a second look (for being a foreigner), and that applies here too. In cities in general people tend to be reserved, because if you are in the proximity of thousands of people every day you just can't pay attention to very many. As a tourist that's different; you don't take things for granted and filter them in the same way. It reminds me of the saying that you can tell who is a tourist in NYC by who looks up at the buildings. You can tell by who looks around at the other people too, in any city.

Freemont street meets a Chinese food and shopping area

Thais don't fit the mold well for urban culture. When I'm commuting in Bangkok people definitely get that closed-in look about them (beyond staring at a phone), but beyond that they seem less oppressed by crowding, less affected. They walk slowly and seem less withdrawn than in other urban areas. Shenzhen isn't made up of crowded urban spaces to the same extent that Hong Kong and NYC are; it's more open. Taipei stood out to me to strike a great balance of being developed, comfortable, efficient, and friendly, and this matches all that.

It made me wonder what the downside of local culture or environment even is. NYC has crime and people are edgy, Hong Kong is more crowded, people in Moscow are surly (no offense intended; they're great once you talk to them, for the most part); so what's the catch here? Bangkok splits lifestyles by haves and have-nots, but it's not clearly a problem. It's not as I imagine India (which I've not yet visited, so this is based on almost no exposure), where the have-nots might not have a toilet. Poorer Bankok residents eat noodles from food courts instead of mall restaurant foods; it's not so bad. I eat that a lot in those places too, as most people in Bangkok do.

There will always be income and social status levels, but I'm not seeing it as worse than average here.  If anything the opposite stands out, and no one looks particularly poor, or wealthy, for that matter.  Some of that is surely due to my limited exposure.  I know some of the wealthiest people in Bangkok, only a few, and you don't tend to see them in malls.  Even running across people much further down the scale but still high on a percentage-income basis just requires going to different places.  I wonder how so many people in Bangkok can afford to eat in mall restaurants, for example, where spending over $10 on a meal seems like a lot to me, due to the lower end range being so much lower.  It's not that we're poor but it works well to live modestly to have more money to spend on travel or on things like kids' education and activities.

People are friendly here. They typically don't speak much English, so there is that. As usual we've made a hash of planning and rely on others for help to get around, asking directions instead of using a map app, and they're good about helping out. There are a few tea shop locations in Shenzhen saved on my Google Maps, which I'll be able to access again back in Hong Kong--bad planning.

Yesterday a girl took us to a Carrefour--that grocery store theme--walking with us for just over 5 minutes from the subway station. That act of selflessness was touching; she really didn't need to do that, and almost anyone else would have did some pointing and let it go. She seemed gender neutral; interesting those themes carry over here. I don't care how she manages image or personal identification (or how anyone does, for that matter). I wanted to give her something to let her know what it meant to us but just failed that part. A tip seemed a little insulting and we couldn't come up with anything else fast enough.  I tried to think through if I would have done the same thing she did and I can't say for sure that I would have.

the nicest person we met in Shenzhen, even though we could barely speak to her

It's impossible to describe local culture, even beyond only getting a limited feel for it as a visitor. A lot comes across about how people experience their reality but it's vague, and hard to place an impression versus an actual reality.  I've expressed elsewhere that it took between 2 and 3 years to get a feel for the Thai perspective from living and working in Thai society, to begin to see things as they do. I'm not completely there yet, after 11 years, and for spending three weeks in total in China--across three visits--I'm not far along at all with that related to here. I can mention anecdotes or parts that are interesting to me though.

The other trip I haven't mentioned yet was to Beijing and Shanghai, coming up on 6 years ago now, just before this blog was started.  I think an early post is even reviewing a tea from that trip, but since we had traveled a lot back then (more than now) I don't think I made a big deal of having been there recently.  Again as a tourist you only get so much exposure; I could tell how people were on the surface in that visit, and not much else.  We had a nice local guide there in Shanghai for one of my son's best friends being part of a Chinese family living here stationed for work for a year or two, then moving back.  I suppose that made for more exposure, visiting them for dinners and such back when they lived in Bangkok.  For whatever reason my son's two best friends at an international school were both from China, and my daughter's two at the same school were from Taiwan and Japan--international enough.

embracing looking like tourists; Kalani is sort of in the photo, in one sense

at the Bangkok zoo; the guide I mentioned is on the left

Yesterday it occurred to me how novel it is that restaurant servers here don't need to be particularly nice. Some of that relates to tips being a main component of pay in the US, but Thais are pleasant across the board, even though tipping isn't a big part of their culture.  You most typically add 20 baht as a thanks, 60 cents, and the restaurant pays them to work instead.

late night local dinner, more a snack

We stopped for a very late night dinner yesterday, after 11, and the server seemed more like a customer for not interrupting his meal to talk about our options. He didn't even stand up. People are generally pleasant but it's only an option, and even in service roles they often take the other option. A lunch server was just as short with us in a different restaurant.  My wife brings it on by being demanding; it's good that they push back a little to set up a proper balance.

Both meals were excellent, by the way.  Even the service seemed fine to me, they just weren't as nice as I usually am to random people, without being in a service role. I'm finally getting into dim sum, some dozen years after first thinking the texture of steamed foods was too soft trying it for the first time back in Honolulu.

People seem genuine. That's hard to place, how in being agreeable and pleasant Thais give up expressing their real experience.  No one in any culture expresses exactly what they think and feel all the time but as an American I can appreciate people being more open and genuine, filtering things less.  I really liked that about Russians.  They take it a little far, in not valuing being superficially pleasant even as much as in Chinese culture, but to a really cool degree what you see is what you get, and they'll say what they think.  I just met a very kind Russian woman here who seemed very reserved personally; of course that kind of thing varies by person and per local area culture too.

Digital detox has been an interesting experience, coming to what is essentially China's version of Silicon Valley to get off smart phone use. Again they block a lot here. Even though my phone works my Huawei only has Chrome loaded for a browser so it can't access the internet.  Later someone claimed in online discussion that there was a way to adjust for that, it would just be hard to sort out since Google search would be the main way to look that up, and he cited a reference about it on Youtube, both of which you can't access in China. I know a couple of people on Wechat; of course I sent them messages.

this cool Norwegian infuser only cost $6, but I didn't buy it

Second set of notes

Onto final thoughts about visiting Shenzhen already; the time just flies. We've done an unrealistic amount of shopping, and so much walking that my legs are sore.  The subway is amazing here, cheap, efficient, and easy to use, but that always brings up the walk from whatever station to where you are going. Surprisingly I'm coming back with 2 kilograms of tea. It's modest versions, mostly pu'er, with 4 200 gram packs of cheap Tie Guan Yin for gifts (which to me doesn't count). All the pu'er could take a few years to get to, due to how aging concerns work out, so it's not too much.

I wouldn't live on that inexpensive oolong, since quality and traces of pesticide contamination could be a real issue, but I don't think drinking one pack of it represents a significant risk.  I think "tea people" tend to overstate that though.  It gets used for marketing a lot, and people extend interest in tea drinking experience to health concerns, wanting it to be a positive input, which also maps onto concerns about risk.  If you drink 2 kilograms worth of one type that is contaminated with one type of toxin the risk becomes very real, but if you mix sources of teas and mainly use sources that seem trustworthy the risk seems lower than for food items, which seem to not be as thought-through.

one inexpensive cake from the wholesale market, Bulang, I think

the 20 yuan oolong version relates to around $3 per 200 grams (I think)

We made it out to see a bay-side park in what seemed to be suburbs, a better outing for getting a feel for the layout of town and different areas than to see a beautiful natural area. Apparently there is a whole main section of town over on the West that we completely didn't get to, where a few even larger buildings are. In the middle there isn't as much, but there is subway system coverage throughout. It's the opposite of Bangkok, with the system built out to handle expansion, while Bangkok works on linking old neighborhoods little by little, by small station extensions. It has to be easier and much less costly to build it all out first, but then they do pay ahead for an infrastructure they're not fully using yet.  There's probably enough build-out that it makes sense now but in 20 years it will work out much, much better than delaying all that building by 30-40 years.

by the sea, more or less

My impression of China didn't really change; I like it. It was nice to get more of a feel for local culture here.  On the culture side people seem nice, just normal, really. The appearance of people might serve as a marker for how the local culture comes across.  The look is a little casual, not as far developed into trendy and specific looks as in Korea and Japan, distinct clothing styles. Bangkok is closer to here in that regard with a bit more for observed trends shifting looks. Or maybe I'm only judging from seeing plainer people here, while in Bangkok we go to the whole range of demographic level settings for visiting lots of types of places in different contexts. I get the sense that we're seeing tourists in the area we stay in, but I don't know that for sure.

As clothing trends go younger women are wearing cut-off jeans shorts a good bit, and there's a trend towards wearing formal-originated flowing styles that are cool. Neither seem familiar in Bangkok. I lose track of what is trendy there but specific garments and colors seem to come and go there. At a recent party for college age girls in a restaurant we visited (back in Bangkok still) they were all wearing two piece matching skirt and short shirt outfits; that must relate to a current trend back there.  Guys seem to get a pass on wearing anything specific, in Bangkok and in general.  Dressing better or more informally are still options but it never seems to carry over to wearing specific things.

My sense is that the cultural is informal in general here. That works for me, being from a rural area in PA, and spending a lot of time in the CO mountains. People don't look backwards or poorly dressed, just informal.  Japanese people dressed better with more style, and it seemed to vary in Korea, with one part of the culture emphasizing public image quite a bit, and the rest not so much.  Russians looked a lot more serious; that stood out more than what they wore, and went along with not wearing much for different colors. Winter had them wearing a lot more clothes there. I didn't notice much for trends in wearing specific colors here but lighter clothes somehow work better in light colors, with plain black and dark blue mixed in.

In Bangkok people are more colorful.  I lived in Hawaii last in the US; casual clothes and brighter colors worked there too.  Little did I know there that mostly wearing flip-flops would carry over for another decade here.

the typical Western-culture input in the background

Food here would depend a lot on your budget, which is why we ate some really basic versions. Dim sum finally made more sense, after over a decade of getting used to different flavors and textures. We ate in local places, including twice in a version of a food court style diner. We even ate street food, a Chinese variation of pad Thai, fried noodles, with a pickled vegetable included that really worked.  One eating street nearby was amazing, with different stalls selling lots of odd foods. We had an odd sour and spicy noodle dish there, along with different snack foods, fried potato and steamed buns and such. My wife had bubble tea a few times, and we tried grape ice cream sold at McDonald's. We never really did splurge to go higher end.

absolutely not where tourists would go

The main thing that stood out to me was how much the neighborhoods we walked to through looked like Seoul or Taipei, especially the latter. They were spacious and comfortable, modern but not new looking, with lots more parks and open living spaces than comes up in Bangkok. There were bike paths and running trails all over. It felt like a modern and comfortable city, nothing like how crowded and urban Beijing and Shanghai felt.  Bangkok is kind of a mess in comparison, although the old mixed with new theme has a different sort of appeal.  But snarled Bangkok traffic has no upside.

The one new mall we visited seemed relatively empty; that part is familiar from Bangkok, that they build those before there is really demand for one in some cases. Compared to what I've seen of Hong Kong it seemed new and open, with a more positive energy.

I liked the old-style market by the railroad station better

a 12 story mall in Hong Kong; a cool touch to add a sky in it


Not much for conclusions; we spent a quick five days and took a nice look around.  I never really did get a sense of what was limited there compared to in other places, to what potential downsides were to local culture or perspective.  More newly developed areas like that tend to lack as deep a connection to older forms of culture, but then that fades away fast enough in places like Bangkok too.  People might like other areas or cities better for lots of reasons, or experience what isn't there as a gap.

from Hong Kong; we made a request to a tea-related deity

We definitely didn't do exploration justice related to experiencing culture, or natural themes, or anything beyond shopping and eating, with higher level dining never even coming up.  Wikitravel fills in everything we didn't get to.  The people were nice enough, but then people almost everywhere are.

We bought drones for both our kids; they'll be happy we focused on such themes related to that.  My wife wasted half a day on IT gadget shopping only to buy a spare phone battery and to have two cracked phone screen covers replaced (probably nearly for free; she's a fierce negotiator).  We almost bought a family friend a $150 tablet but didn't.  It was nice enough for me just to take a look around, and all the more fortunate I could buy three sheng cakes and one aged brick of modest-quality while there.  I'll say more about the tea part in reviews, with notes already made up for two of those cakes.

at least the silliness comes across online too

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