Ten “Mainland Moments” in Hangzhou

Sunset over undeniably beautiful West Lake, Hangzhou.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. The pleasure of reading simplified characters. Hey, look! That sign says they sell Hangzhou-produced, specialty products!
  3. 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.”
  4. Opaque, brown air. A politically savvy meteorologist might charitably call it “haze”:
  5. Non-stop construction. Looking at the city, rather than West Lake, one can see a forest of cranes. As in every Chinese city.
  6. 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.”
  7. “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:
  8. Surprising English world choices. The glittery fashion clothing store called “Slavery” or the banner welcoming the “Mock Survey Consultants” to a local hotel.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

40 responses to “Ten “Mainland Moments” in Hangzhou

  1. Thanks for jiving to my post about garlic soap!
    I concur with your list (though number two is no big~), and would like to annotate a couple:
    1) That’s one way to know mainland tourists have arrived. You don’t see it much in Hong Kong (in groups, not as independent travelers)?
    6) Parking on sidewalks. Particularly fun when the car honks at you as if to say, China’s no place to walk now, that’s not CIVILIZED.
    8) Have a picture of either/both? Did slavery have two pre-pubescent employees wearing cowboy hats outside and clapping in sync? Try explaining that question in an ESL class.
    10) Teabucks. Seen it yet?
    Also, seems SPR is Taiwanese (http://www.sprcoffee.com/). It doesn’t really matter though, because the point of a coffee shop in China is to have another place to smoke, while not actually drinking coffee.

    • Ha! I keep trying to figure out the garlic dishwashing soap advertising angle, but so far, I’ve got nothing…

      1) I bumped through several Mainland tour groups on a pass through Sheung Wan a few weeks ago and always see them at border crossings, but something about their sheer numbers at key beauty points around West Lake was astonishing. How can so many people agree to wear such hideous, cheap caps en masse?

      6) I abhor that “I am a big man in a car, I have arrived, get the hell out of my way” mentality.

      8) I wish I had pictures, but they were spotted from a taxi whizzing through traffic.

      10) Haven’t seen a Teabucks: can we expect a future post from you? I used to frequent an SPR in Zhuhai, but I think it’s long since been replaced by cooler, more “steampunk” themed places to smoke.

      • You seem to be having not just a “bad China day,” but a “bad China season” developingcityblog. I’m becoming very curious about actually what keeps you in Shanghai. A future blog post?

  2. It’s interesting to hear what you now notice about China after some time away. The good and the bad – I’ve been trying hard lately to focus on the positive, but what you say is very true. Glad you had a good trip!

    • I miss the “messiness” of China and really enjoyed most aspects of my time living on the Mainland (air pollution and dangerous driving excepted…). It is such a fascinating and swiftly evolving place.

  3. Pingback: Ten “Mainland Moments” in Hangzhou | birdmanps·

  4. Did you know that Hangzhou once was applauded as”the most splendid and luxurious city in the world” by Marco Polo, the Italian traveler in the 13th century.

  5. I remember the great firewall of China very well. No facebook for me for a month! Others used a proxy though.

  6. “Gawking at young women in hot pants with black nylons and half-boot/half-sandal-shoes and young men with big, coiffed hair. ”

    Welcome to my world, Jen! And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!!

    • Thanks Susan! (You’ve now perhaps made up for the nightmares some of your album covers gave me last week: I can’t get that European in the black turtleneck out of my mind.)

      Gawking at these looks five years ago (plus some other weird thing that was going on with fur), my visiting mom commented that perhaps *they* were on the forefront of fashion and that I was too quick to judge. Enough time has not passed for me to confirm that these particular fashion combinations appear to be a “China-thing” and that I have no need to update myself.

      • The New Territories of Hong Kong aren’t too bad air-wise, since we mainly only suffer from what happens to waft over from Guangdong Province, and don’t have much roadside/urban pollution on top of that (as opposed to Central or Kowloon).

    • Ha! I did have share a joke with a taxi driver in Hangzhou about Cantonese. I told him we live in Hong Kong and then the driver and I exchanged various silly Cantonese phrases to each other’s delight. Like “hai-a, hai-a, hai-a.”. Or just saying Mandarin but with that singsongy lilt at the end. We delighted each other, but I’m sure would have appeared as juvenile assholes to an actual Cantonese speaker.

  7. I can totally identify with your kids’ situation. My family moved to Changchun when I was 6 years old and back then (early 1990s) waiguoren were much more of a rarity in China (especially in the northeast) than they are now. I hated all the attention.

    • It was the roughest aspect of our family trip. On the one hand, people were mainly just trying to be friendly, but crowds of people being friendly all day long becomes a sort of torture. My 5-year-old took to wearing a hoodie with the hood up.

      I just checked out your blog and look forward to reading more.

  8. My wife is Chinese and our daughter looks Chinese so when she was age seven and I walked down a Shanghai street with her sitting on my shoulders, we gathered a crowd. If I stopped to look over the items a street merchant was offering spread out on a piece of cloth, the crowd would gather too to see what this six foot four inch white guy with the Chinese child sitting on his shoulders was interested in.

    My wife would follow us at a distance because she enjoyed watching how the people reacted.

    • Nice story about you and your daughter and wife. And wise of you to walk around with her on your shoulders–then she could enjoy the attention without feeling overwhelmed. Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  9. Pingback: Ten “Mainland Moments” in Hangzhou « This could be you.·

  10. Hangzhou surpassed my expectations too. It’s one place in China that does live up to the hype. I like how you describe the countless public exercises/dancing/card games as “living out loud” – so true!

    • Yes, Mainland China certainly has it’s challenges some of which are very hard to take (pollution, food scares, censorship, etc). But it’s also quite an interesting place (and after a while you almost forget about the spitting and lack of personal space…!)

      I saw your post on “nian gao.” I stumbled across them in a Hong Kong grocery store last spring and now love them. I hadn’t thought about eating them with sugar (!) so far I just boil and then stir fry them.

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