I have been in China for almost a year now. Putting a foundry together for a United States based company. We have a crew of Americans that are bused in from the nearest town, Luxu. Not the quaint little town that one might have preconceived notions about, with typical oriental architecture and people with peculiar pointy hats and drab communistic clothing.
This is a town that is going through growing pains, one could say excruciating pains. The guys wear skinny britches and have hairdo’s that rival any anime cartoon. The young ladies wear impossible looking heels, and don’t leave much to the imagination in their manner of dress.
Our apartment complex in which we live is in an area that was pretty well undeveloped five or six years ago. The road we all call home was dirt then and is now is a four lane paved street. The lake across the street is very well groomed with meandering walk paths and decks to gain water access, patios and shelters from the sun. There are very well manicured shrubs and flowers surrounding the lake.
Trees with all their trunks painted to a uniform height of nearly three feet staked with bamboo structures on all four sides to keep from being uprooted in the event of typhoons that frequent this part of the world. It is almost a two mile walk around the shore, a very pleasant refuge from all the concrete and bustle that surrounds it.
The town itself is in constant state of change. I call it a town, but coming from small town of around 8,000 in the thumb of Michigan, just the thought of calling a place a town with 275,000 people, is kind of a stretch for me. Many of the buildings are ten to twelve stories tall and many much larger. Construction is everywhere; tower cranes, truck cranes, pile drivers are set up all over the area. Tower cranes have been called the national bird of China. Buildings in different stages of the building process dot the area. Some have no apparent reason for being built, a “field of dreams” sort of mentality, build it and they will come.
This is especially true of empty apartment complexes. There are many of these that have very few tenants in them. A developer will build this huge apartment building or complex with the hopes that this spurt of growth in the town will continue. Folks that have money will in turn buy the apartments unfinished and either sell them or sometimes rent them to new people coming to the area to find work. It isn’t uncommon to find huge elaborate buildings that are unfinished or abandoned. Whether this is because of lack of funding or lack of interest I haven’t any idea.
Businesses open and business close with a frequency that rivals the door on a port-a-potty at Octoberfest. The majority being restaurants; Chinese, Japanese , Taiwanese, just about any Ese you can think of and if I include the multitude of street vendors that set up any where there is a wide spot, it would probably amount to one eatery for every ten people in town! Wine stores are usually spaced about a block apart. Cigarette stores are about the same frequency as wine stores, to support the habit of over 98 percent of the male population. Intersperse these with a barber/beauty shop or two, a convenience store, a grocery, a fruit store and an open air fruit /vegetable/ meat market, with a scooter store thrown in every now and then and you will start to get a picture of our town.
Businesses open with a bang, literally, every grand opening is an event, rivaling a small town Fourth of July festival back home. The Chinese have perfected fireworks; of course they invented them about 1400 years ago so they ought to have the bugs worked out. They are cheap about sixteen bucks for a five minute exploding mortar show. Fifty foot rolls of firecrackers that sound like machine gun fire in a Rambo movie. It isn’t uncommon for fireworks to be going off at three or four different locations throughout town at any hour of the day or night, some are weddings or other special events, but most are grand openings. Grand openings are well …. GRAND, in spades! They will have blow up arches 20 feet high, forty or fifty cylindrical bamboo baskets with red flower arrangements nearing five and a half feet tall lining each side of the red carpet to the entrance of the new enterprise and pretty smiling ladies to greet all the new patrons. Of course this all adds to the mess.
The town sanitation department tries its best to keep the filth levels to a tolerable level, which appears to be an exercise in frustration for them. The environmental awareness level is hovering somewhere between nonexistent and hardly discernible. I would venture to say that one would not have to travel more than a hundred yards to find a suitable “love our homeland” solid waste container, I say container but, there are generally two one for recyclables and one for “organism”, which is somewhat disconcerting to think about. It isn’t so much that they are not there as it is getting people to use them, if wrappers, cups, and other debris somehow find their way on, in or around a can this would be worthy of noting.
The most use they get is at closing time when the local restaurants bring their offal out and dump it on top of these receptacles. Then between closing time and trash pickup all this will have been scattered within a radius of fifteen feet and thoroughly picked through by the scavengers; cats, dogs, rats, and recyclers. The animals will pick up any morsel they find appetizing, while the recyclers will snatch any plastic, styrofoam, and any metal scrap they find, for whatever reason glass does not seem to garner the same appreciation as the other items in the list. Then the sanitation department will come and dump both of these containers, the recyclables and the “organism” ones into the same dump hopper on the trash truck and away they go. The broom handling street sweepers will come by and shovel up the rest of the debris. Oftentimes, depending on location this leaves a nasty oily film on the sidewalk that attracts dust and this dust and is then tracked all over the place adding to the general unsanitary conditions that exist here.
The streets here in our part of town, where the city planners were at least trying to think ahead of expanded traffic for potential town growth, allowed for wide streets. These typically are two lanes of traffic both ways and wide bike/three wheeled truck path and very wide sidewalk. What they failed to plan for was parking, which means that just because a person happens to be walking in bike path or on the sidewalk does not necessarily mean that person will not get ran down by a car. Most times it is easier to walk on the bike path than trying to negotiate the obstacle course called a sidewalk full of cars, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians. Also, the majority of scooters on the road here are electric, which means silent. It isn’t uncommon to have the hell scared out of oneself by a horn blaring at close range from behind or to have an elbow bashed by a passing scooter mirror.
In an effort to promote international good will, I have a habit of greeting everyone that passes me in the morning while I am waiting for the company bus. Early on, it was very comical to see the response of the Chinese to their seemingly first encounter with the laowei, or foreigner. Modes of transportation range from walking to buses the majority being bicycles and scooters by far. I can remember one older lady on her three wheeled electric vehicle, it is kind of a miniature pickup with bicycle wheels. She was so enamored with this handsome foreigner, or maybe it was just the surprise of seeing an American standing on the corner that caused her, I can’t say to lose focus because she was focused alright, on me. This was not the time to be staring as she rounded the corner. As she caromed off the side if the very nice BMW parked on the side of the street she muttered something that had no need of translation and proceeded on her merry, though embarrassed way.
Some folks will not even acknowledge my greeting; even though I may be at a range two feet, they just look right through me and continue on as if I don’t even exist. Others wave and jabber as if they have just encountered a long lost relative. It isn’t uncommon to pass someone and have them to say “hallo” a few steps behind me. I am not sure if they just worked up the courage to try their English word out or just finally remembered what it was they were supposed to say.
Early in the mornings, the lady of the house will come out of her home with her wash pan under arm heaping with what looks to be wash cloths and towels. Shuffling over to the lake to do her laundry, just as the women have done for centuries here, you can set your watch by them. I believe it is much more than laundry that brings them out, it is social hour, a time to gossip, and fuss about the old man playing mahjong all night and coming in late all jacked up on bijou, the hooch of choice in this locale, and things such as that. Not much different from the ladies back home in some regards.
There are two such women that come by every morning; beautiful, grandmotherly ladies with ready smiles a nod and a wave, who appear to be close to eighty, but who knows. God, I wish I spoke their language, the stories they could tell! They would have been around during the latter years of the rule Chiang Kai-shek and the ousting of the Nationalist Party and the beginning of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party’s rule. Let alone all the changes China has went through in the last century, from the last Imperial dynasty to burgeoning capitalism.
We have farmers bringing their vegetables in from the multitude of truck patches that dot this area. One such couple is interesting at 6:13, yes it is 6:13 I have checked the time more than once, I will see them coming. She is on pedal powered version of the three wheel truck mentioned earlier and he is on the electric one, (seems fair to me) out of his consideration for the weaker vessel, he has his leg extended and is pushing her down the street at a pretty fair rate of velocity. With them is a dog, which we Americans have affectionately named Bullet. Bullet is no ordinary dog even though one might not give him a second look at the Westminster Dog Show. He only stands maybe sixteen inches at the shoulder. His parentage is uncertain, all though one can be sure he did have parents. His hair is brown, fairly short with little longer scruffy beard around his face. Pretty nondescript at first glance, but can he ever run! Bullet has the heart and lungs of thorobred racehorse.
He trots along with those people of his bound to those carts and will mark a bush here, check for messages on another there. By this time his people may have traveled a hundred or so yards past him. Bullet will crack on the afterburner and in no time flat he has started the whole process all over again. One morning while we were standing there, shooting the bull, waiting for Charles our Chinese driver a smallish sized dog came, turning into the complex we call home. We all commented that he sure looked like Bullet but, since we couldn’t see his people we figured that it must be just another of the hybrid mongrels that roam the streets of Luxu raiding trash cans and looking for handouts. He trotted down the drive and disappeared. In what seemed to be a long time we saw Bullet’s people trundling down street, as they passed the apartment complex drive, here comes Bullet screaming around the corner from which he had disappeared, as he passed us I am sure that was a sonic boom we heard as Bullet broke through the sound barrier. His small feet kicking up little miniature vortexes with every footfall crossing three lanes of traffic without regard for life or limb, thankfully, traffic is very light at that time of day. He has become one of my favorite characters of the early morning bus watch routine.
For the most part, unless they have to go to work or wash their towels nothing much happens until nine or ten in the morning that is when most of the businesses are starting to open with the exclusion of the meat and vegetable markets. The Chinese like fresh food and will get to the markets early to buy their food for the day. When I say fresh, I mean you pick the chicken you want and it is processed before your very eyes. I know of a cow standing in front of a restaurant one evening and hanging in pieces inside the next. In season vegetables are brought in daily from the surrounding area. Eggs are bought by the kilo complete with the occasional feather and spot of doodoo. Fish are found swimming in tubs and tanks to ensure the freshness. Eels, frogs turtles anything the consumer could want, buying fish is like going to the Shed Aquarium except you get to take it home.
Midday is a relative peaceful time in town; people aren’t as likely to get ran over. Getting in and out of stores in a reasonable amount of time is generally possible. Traffic is always horrible whether heavy or light; understand that most Chinese have only had their automobiles for about five years or so. Imagine high school drivers ed classes being let out all at once, and add to that only a few somewhat paid attention to traffic lights, no stop signs and a total disregard for any semblance to right of way rules, and that will paint a pretty accurate picture of Chinese driving. Driving in China is not unlike the demolition derby at the 4H fair.
Ah, the evening hours that is when things really begin to happen, everybody comes out to see if everybody is out. It is social time with a capital S. Older people will bring their chairs or stools out and talk. Young people are out cruising, on foot mostly, laughing, talking, and smoking. Trying to out dress everyone else, higher heels and shorter skirts, for the girls; and tighter pants, sequined blingy shirts (that grandma might wear to bingo night) and the most outlandish hairdo’s that can be imagined for the guys.
As it begins to get dark, the lights come on rivaling the Las Vegas Strip. It seems every shop puts on a light show vying for that extra RMB (Chinese currency). They dance across buildings and up the face of buildings, blinking and flashing and changing colors as they go. It is quite impressive when it is realized how frugal the Chinese people are when it comes to electrical use.
More business is conducted at this time than any other time of the day; deals are done under, over and all the way around the table. Problems are hammered out for the benefit of all usually amounting to the passing of a few handfuls 100RMB notes between the party’s involved and liberal shots of bijou. A few extra toasts and it is off to the KTV club (karaoke) for more bijou and singing, back slapping, and all is well with the world again.
Tomorrow is another day, in the morning all this will begin again, both different and the same.