My heart was happy to touch down in Mainland China after three and a half years away. My lungs recoiled. And my mind fully confirmed that Hong Kong is on another planet from “The Motherland.”
Hangzhou itself surpassed my expectations. West Lake and the surrounding gardens are truly gorgeous. Exactly what you imagine “romantic,” “exotic,” “foreign” China is like: tall golden-spired pagodas, green willow trees hanging over lotus-ringed ponds, pavilions used as informal stages by Chinese classical musicians, charming tea houses, and elaborately carved wooden pleasure boats.
Unbelievably, none of it was marred by garbage cans in the shape of penguins or speakers in the shape of mushrooms blaring tinny music.
The main draw-backs were the matching-capped tour groups whose leaders amplified their talks by microphone, and the non-stop, over-the-top attention my two children drew. My one-year-old son — so long as no one tried to pick him up — took to it like Miss America, waving to everyone. My five-year-old daughter adopted a duck-and-weave approach to avoid the many hands reaching to stroke her hair and clouds of camera phones seeking to take her picture.
Good and bad, here are ten things that marked our week in Hangzhou and made the Mainland feel temporarily “like home” again:
- Gawking at young women in hot pants with black nylons and half-boot/half-sandal-shoes and young men with big, coiffed hair. The fashions are like no other and a world apart from the understated black framed glasses and Converse sneakers that the youth of Hong Kong wear.
- The pleasure of reading simplified characters. Hey, look! That sign says they sell Hangzhou-produced, specialty products!
- Playing “stupid” as needed. Voice says: “Wo ting bu dong.” Internal dialogue says: “Yes I understand that you are asking what country I am from and if I like Hangzhou, but I have already had this conversation many, many times today and am pretending that I don’t understand. Though why you’d guess that I’m French is beyond me.”
- Opaque, brown air. A politically savvy meteorologist might charitably call it “haze”:
- Non-stop construction. Looking at the city, rather than West Lake, one can see a forest of cranes. As in every Chinese city.
- Non-stop honking and “catch-as-catch-can” style of driving. “I drive a BMW so of course I can use the road shoulder to pass at-will” or “this one-way street is a trifling inconvenience to be ignored.”
- “Living out loud.” Tai chi is commonly practiced in public places, but the wide assortment of other public pursuits is astounding: swinging giant poles around within inches of a crowded walkway, ballroom dancing, group “jazz-style” dancing, and this flamboyant singing and dancing duo:
- Surprising English world choices. The glittery fashion clothing store called “Slavery” or the banner welcoming the “Mock Survey Consultants” to a local hotel.
- The Great Firewall of China. Sigh. At least I could access the New York Times for the first four days of the trip. Then it was gone. Of course I immediately sought to find out why: ah yes the story of Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.
- Knock-offs. SPR Coffee: the chain vaguely like Starbucks. The same dark green in the logo. And the same lighting pendants of any Starbucks circa 1998. With prices as high as the “real thing” and with the real thing now on almost every corner, I see the sun setting on the SPR empire.