Tag Archives: Surrealism

China’s Development Ghosts

It is said that China houses two-thirds of the world’s construction cranes.  It’s not hard to see this, even when living in a medium-tier city like Huizhou.  Everywhere you look, the towering yellow steel overhangs bamboo-scaffold high-rise apartments, stylish office buildings, and designer brand shopping malls.  The development here is staggering and overwhelming; so much that you can’t help but wonder where all the money and resources come from.

But one thing that baffles me is when these buildings are finished, what clientage will buy and keep these projects from becoming white elephants?  The biggest and eeriest example is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, a city of 10 million in Guangdong province, which opened in 2005.  It’s the largest mall in the world at two times the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, complete with 659,612 square-meters of space, a 25 m replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a 2.1 km canal with gondolas, a replica of Venice’s St. Mark’s Bell Tower, and a 553 m indoor/outdoor roller coaster.  As grand and impressive as it is, 99% of its leaseable space remains unoccupied, save for only the entrance that has a few western fast-food joints and the massive parking garage, which, for lack of customer vehicles, has now been turned into a go-kart track.

Here in Huizhou there are at least five new 5-star hotels being built at the moment, yet the original and first 5-star, The Kande International, on average only has about a 35% occupancy rate.  Walk through the big double doors and it’s fully staffed; hoards of employees dressed to hilt in formal attire poised and ready for customers.  They seem to be bored and just going through the motions as if their only job was just to look the part.  When a customer walks in they jump at the chance to deliver their service, seemingly overjoyed that something is actually happening.

Another example is a 9-story shopping plaza, Rainbow, located in the heart of downtown Huizhou.  It houses all the expensive (real) designer brands such as Nike, Levis, Gucci, etc… among others.  It’s strange walking through the shops because even though they, like the Kande, are fully (even overly) staffed, you’d be lucky to spot a customer actually buying something, let alone even browsing. They’re more like commercial museums or simulations of capitalism, where anyone can have a gander and only dream that one day they could actually purchase even the cheapest thing available.

I went there a couple of days ago with my girlfriend just to kill some time.  We strolled through each floor and sometimes something would catch my eye and I would step in and take a look.  Everytime I was immediately surrounded by at least a couple of the store’s employees practically breathing down my neck and following me around asking what I’m looking for or if I’d like to try it on.  Like the Kande, they seem starved to try out their customer service skills.  Even with my monthly income, which is considered upper-class here, I know I would be a fool to actually buy an item (especially when I can find a near-perfect copy for a fraction of the cost).

We were hungry so we went up to the food court on the 9th floor for dinner.  When we reached the top of the escalator and entered, most of the tables were full.  I thought, “Oh, so this is where everybody’s at.”  But on a closer look, I was wrong.  At every table sat groups of uniformed employees eating their Tupperware dinners they brought from home.  Out of the four spaces for restaurants, only two of them were in service and yet no one was eating their food.  The cooks and staff stood waiting at each window like a stiff toll-booth employee, only the traffic here had never come.  We walked over to a Korean restaurant on the far end of the dining area.  All ten long tables were completely empty except for one, where two waitresses were sitting and stitching away on an embroidery quilt.  The three cooks  gathered around a computer watching one of them play a shooting game.  As we walked in, they immediately stood to attention, smiled and welcomed us to their empty establishment. 

At this point, I was laughing in disbelief.  What the hell is going on here?  I felt like I was in a surreal post-apocolyptic dream where the whole world had been destroyed and for some reason, this mall had been spared and its inhabitants oblivious to the catastrophe around them.  I slowly ate my kimchi and soup while staring out the window at all the yellow cranes in the distance jutting up through the skyline. 

I had goosebumps as I looked at my girlfriend and half-jokingly, half-terrfyingly said, “This is the future.”

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Yes, I’m a Real Person

Last Friday was surreal. Izel, the head of another school I work at called me up the day before and asked if I could go visit a Kindergarten somewhere outside of the city. Since I don’t work on Friday afternoons at the university, I said why not?

We met at her school, a private one run almost completely by her, and I was greeted by the three other teachers working there.  All of them happen to be from Africa.   Two of them, a younger woman and man from Ghana, and another early thirties guy from Kenya. They all work under Izel, who is originally from the Philippines.

I asked what the plan was and she said we were being picked up by one of her adult students, a chinese man who owns an export garment factory and two kindergarten schools. We were to go visit both of his schools because the children there had never seen foreigners before and he thought it would be a good idea to broaden their horizons.

We arrived at the first school, which was in Shiba, about an hour northeast of Huizhou.  Shiba is a very small town, more like a village where the wealthiest in town are lucky to drive cars and if you have a motorbike, you’re doing pretty good.  The kindergarten building was shaped sort of like a castle and had cartoons of Mickey & Minnie Mouse (among others) painted huge all over it. 

As an attendant opened the gate to let us drive into the courtyard, situational thoughts ran:   A Filipina, Kenyan, two Ghanaians and an American walk into a Chinese kindergarten.  Yeah, the joke’s on us.  There was a big red banner in Chinese that said, “Welcome American Teachers to our school!”  We were all American in their eyes. 

We piled out of the cars and stood in the courtyard, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.   An attractive Chinese woman in her early 30s came over to us and said hello.  She also happened to be one of the heads of the school.  She had a camera in hand and immediately started taking pictures of us; no doubt with the intent of publishing them to attract more enrollments. 

After our arrival photo shoot, I walked into one of the classrooms in session and introduced myself to the little ones.

“Hellooo!!!”  I waved with both hands and smiled as wide as my cheeks could go.

The 5-6 year olds immediately looked up from their desks and gave me a blank stare of reserved curiosity, the kind of look clowns are probably used to getting.  The Chinese teachers asked them to follow their lead, “Good afternoon Teacher!!!”

Nothing.  A few of the kids started laughing at me, others just gazed at this weird thing standing in front of them.  So, I put up a hand and happily walked around trying to give them high-fives.  A few of them held up their little paws, a couple looked on the brink of tears, and one boy even stood up on his chair and stretched out his hand, anticipating my arrival to his side. 

At this point, my six-foot-two colleague from Ghana, we’ll call him Terry, came into the classroom and let out a big “Hellooo!!!” to which the kids turned around and once again became dazed by this new being.  Unfortunately for Terry, some of the children started crying and screaming, yet most of them just looked on in surprise.  The Chinese woman with the camera was behind him taking shots of us left and right.

Terry and I went from classroom to classroom doing the same thing and with the same results:  crying, screaming, laughter, and bewildered curiosity.  I felt like some kind of strange being from another world.  One of the kids even pulled on my nose, as if trying to yank away my “mask”.

After making our rounds playing, singing songs and dancing (I did the moonwalk to amazed laughter), we were told that we needed to stand near the school gate to wave goodbye to the kids and their parents as they came to pick them up.  Of course, this was a bit of a plug for the owner as a way to show the parents his school was special in terms of learning english.

As we stood there smiling and waving, a crowd of people, young and old, started to gather outside the gate.  They all looked on with the same faces as the children we’d just met.  Some of them yelled “Hey man!” or “Nice to meet you!”  I must have posed for over a hundred photos with the children and their parents.  One grandfather rode in on a bike and was looking at us like he’d just seen a ghost.  He kept pointing at us, but mostly he was curious about Terry.  He kept rubbing his face with both hands, as if he was trying to rub something off.  Finally, he walked over to Terry and took a closer look.  Terry speaks pretty good Chinese, and he thinks he was saying, “Why don’t you wash your face?” 

Terry just shrugged it off and laughed and leaned in to tell me grandpa smelled like he’d been drinking all afternoon.  The old man went in to pick up his grandson and came back, slowly lifting him up and setting him in a seat on the back of his bicycle.  No he isn’t!  we both thought as he got ready to ride away, the little one holding onto his backsides.  They slowly wobbled away out the gate and disappeared.  Just to think, this is probably an everyday occurence for the little fella.

As the children started thinning out, there was still a pretty good size crowd of curious onlookers.  The woman with the camera tried to tell them to go away, but had no luck, only laughing when she was walking back from them.  We asked her why she was laughing so much and she said that one of the onlookers asked her, “Zhengde ren 正地人?”  Which roughly translates into “Are they real people?”

Terry and I burst into our own laughter and decided to start walking around like robots to add to the moment.  I couldn’t keep a straight face as the last parents and their kids waved goodbye to us. 

After about four hours of being something else, my cheeks never hurt so much.

P.S.  I’m trying to get a hold of the pictures to post here.  Fingers crossed.

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