China unfiled

I’ve been home from China for a few months now, but realize I had a few last things written up that I hadn’t actually posted yet. I think I was waiting to see if the picture of market street dentistry turned out, but I still haven’t tracked it down and here I am about to head out on another trip, so here goes.

Our last full day in China, A and I took a train to Hangzhou, a UNESCO world heritage site about an hour outside Shanghai. That is, some portion of the area is apparently a world heritage site, but most of what we saw was relatively new. I’m talking structures built way back in 2002. In any case, we took a boat to an island and then another boat to a different part of the lake shore. It’s quite possible that there was older stuff hidden away that we missed, but we didn’t see it.

Everywhere we went was jam packed with tourists. Again, lots of shops selling junky souvenirs but still no shot glasses. If you want a toy that you pour water into that turns into a fountain of a little boy peeing, on the other hand, that’s your town. I didn’t get you one, so you’ll have to pick it up, yourself. Sorry…

Back in the main town, we enjoyed wandering around a pedestrian street and got some unusual desserts involving things like basil seeds and black sticky rice. We saw people walking around with little, deep-fried crabs on sticks. They looked like they’d be tricky to eat, but food on a stick is pretty universally popular.

Other observations about my experiences in China: Traffic is not as crazy as in Vietnam. Fewer scooters, more stoplights. That said, the rules of the road are different than in the US, and a “walk” signal should not be interpreted as indication of a pedestrian’s right of way. Unless pedestrians outnumber the scooters, scooters and bikes won’t stop at lights at all. Cars, trucks, and buses stop at lights (eventually) IF they’re going straight. If they’re turning, however, they don’t even slow down. because of all this, it was often safer to jaywalk than to cross with the signal. In any case, you definitely had to pay attention and look ALL directions before crossing. One thing that makes this tricky is that there are quite a lot of electric scooters. These are fast and (unless they’re carrying a creaky load), nearly silent, so they come out of nowhere. In terms of cars, Volkswagens were very popular, as were Buicks. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new Buick in the US, but in China they were pretty common.

The other danger on the streets was of a completely different kind. I’m referring of course to the spitting. Men and women, well dressed or not, could be heard and then seen “hocking a loogie.” Indoors, you’d hear the noise and then they’d spit into a napkin (at a restaurant) or into a “sanitary bag” (on the train). Incidentally, this is why it’s important to check the bags for their tear-off seal and not just assume it’s unused because it’s flat, and then stick your hand in to deposit a candy wrapper. For example.

On a related note, very few of the restrooms we visited had soap. I like to imagine that kitchens have it, but I didn’t really want to find out for sure. In any case, I was happy to have had hand wipes and sanitizer with me. I know, I know, I’m a germophobe. One good thing I can say about Hangzhou is that at least the public restrooms were pretty clean and had soap.

In the train station bathroom in Shanghai, we saw a boy washing his feet in the sink of the ladies room. Then, he reached in the basin and splashed water on his face. Then when a woman spoke sternly to him, he trotted over to the men’s side and began washing his feet over there (we could see the sink area from the woman’s side). He had no shoes. Still curious what his story was.

Speaking of having things (and buying things), I found it challenging to shop in China. It wasn’t clear to me which shops had fixed prices, and which were places that you shouldn’t dream of paying the quoted price. Market stalls were obviously the latter, but shops varied. Musical instruments – haggle. Clothes – haggle sometimes, sometimes not. Grocery stores – firm prices. The thing that made it especially challenging for me was that part of what you need when buying something is to know how to evaluate its quality — you can’t rely on the quoted price or the words on it (whether brand names or information about the materials used). “100% silk?” Real wood? Maybe, maybe not. Sellers did things like pull a thread, light it on fire, and rub it out, or to sand the backside of a carving, in both cases then holding it up to let us smell. I don’t know what burnt silk is supposed to smell like, or how it differs from burnt fake silk. Maybe I’d know it if I smelled it, maybe not, but buyer beware. And be educated.

Then comes the pricing game. It’s quite a dance, and they know all the fancy steps. Opening with an absurd price, then reminding you throughout the conversation about how far they’ve come down from that original price, each time typing the number into a calculator for clarity and dramatic effect. “Usually 350, then I said (clear calculator) 280, then I said (clear) 200…” for something that should probably go for 50. But who knows!

All in all, it was a good trip, and I hope to be able to make it back to China soon — maybe even before my visa expires. I could really go for some scallion pancakes about now.

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