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Wow...what an awesome experience! It was a refreshing thrill to finally embark upon my first journey outside of North America, to meet so many wonderful people, to see colorful and spectacular sights galore, and to get a glimpse of what better life awaits me outside of the mundane USA matrix.
The purpose of this 12-day trip was to "get a quick feel" for some of China's bright, colorful big cities, to find out for certain if I want to live in China (the answer is an enthusiastic "Yes!"), and to determine which city is my favorite. I really wanted to see how well I might fit into the contemporary, urban, young-adult culture of China.
While thoroughly enjoying a great time in each of the four Chinese cities visited (Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Shanghai), my favorite one -- which I definitely want to move to and build a life in -- is absolutely, positively, without a doubt........................(drumroll, please)...........................Chongqing!
With that introduction, I will now proceed to Part 1 of a detailed narrative of my encounters and adventures on the trip, along with some occasional thoughts and feelings about them. I'll continue to post more of this trip report as it's completed. Then I'll ponder what my next steps are.
Sunday, July 13th
I arrived at the airport in Oklahoma City shortly after 6:30 PM. When checking in at the United Airlines counter, the clerk asked, "Where are you going, today?" My reply was, "Shenzhen, China! Whoop-ee-doop-ee-doo!"
The departure was about 30 minutes late, but that didn't matter. I remember the time at takeoff was 8:47 PM -- at the exact minute the sun was setting. Because we were flying westward and ascending, the sun actually *rose* slightly from the horizon and stood still for a long time. I ended up witnessing a 45-minute-long sunset to start the journey.
I arrived at the Los Angeles airport around 9:30 PM local time and trekked across the airport to the terminal where the Air China flight to Beijing was scheduled to leave more than one hour after midnight.
Monday, July 14th
While waiting at the gate in L.A., a huge fire erupted in one of the restaurant kitchens nearby. Smoke filled the whole terminal, we had to evacuate to the front of the terminal while the fire department dealt with the mess, and the departure was delayed one hour. I was afraid of missing the connecting flight at the next airport.
The time at takeoff was just before 3 AM local time in a giant, super-nice 747 jet with an upper and lower deck. I immediately set my watch ahead to 6 PM for China's time, and the flight was more than 12 hours long. I sat next to a nice young woman named Jie, who was originally from Harbin, was studying in L.A. and traveling to Xiamen. She was quite fascinated that I was learning Mandarin and visiting China.
Tuesday, July 15th
The flight arrived at the impressive new airport in Beijing just after 6 AM. I walked about 1/2 mile indoors to the immigration checkpoint, then caught a train to another building to retrieve and re-check luggage. As I had feared, the original flight to Shenzhen was already closed. But luckily, the next Air China departure to Shenzhen was only 80 minutes later. So I called and informed the travel agency, and took off just before 9 AM.
I sat next to a woman from Beijing whose English name was Emily. She worked as a commodities manager for a company that did business in the U.S., and was traveling to Shenzhen on an assignment. She also was fascinated that I was learning Mandarin and visiting China. She even gave me her card and said to call her if I had any problems.
The flight landed just before noon, concluding the 26-hour journey from Oklahoma City. I retrieved my luggage and met my first tour guide named Mandy.
The ride to the hotel featured spectacular new skyscrapers galore (along with numerous cranes), and occasionally I'd exclaim, "Hey, I've seen that awesome building in hundreds of pictures and Internet videos!" It was so great to finally encounter them in person.
My hotel was in the center of the city on the main boulevard. After checking in, my tour guide left me on my own to explore the city for the remainder of the day, as planned. For the first few hours, I just relaxed and settled into my room, and had fun figuring out how to switch on the lights! (You insert your room key into the slot on the wall that's just inside the door.) But by late afternoon, I was ready to step outside and walk the streets of China for the first time ever.
Initially, I couldn't believe how humid it was -- it made South Florida feel like a desert. But it didn't bother me very much, and I adapted quickly.
It felt as if I were walking in a dream. One of the main cities I had been mesmerized with for more than a year was right there, surrounding me. There were crowds of people, loads of traffic, magnificent-looking structures towering over me in every direction, and fancy mega-shopping-malls everywhere I turned. And no matter what way I faced, whether indoors or outside, I always saw a luscious rainbow of bright colors in advertisements, signs, storefronts, the interior walls of stores, and even the merchandise itself.
The first shopping mall I ventured into was seven stories, and was actually one of the smaller ones encountered. The majority of the top three floors had walls that displayed a store name and said, "Opening soon." While ascending an escalator, I actually saw a Caucasian guy, and overheard him speaking fluent Mandarin to his cute Chinese girlfriend. Oh...did that make me feel so jealous!!!
The next shopping mall across the street was probably the biggest and nicest one in Shenzhen, called The Mix C. It boasted more than seven floors (with each floor being huge). It also housed an ice-skating rink on the sixth floor with numerous restaurants surrounding it. For several minutes, I observed the scene at the rink. People of all ages -- and especially young adults -- were skating, eating, hanging out, and having a good time. The music being played was fun and happy disco, dance-pop, and pop-rock. Never did I hear any boring hip-hop, heavy metal, alternative rock, nor traditional American country music.
One of the songs played at the rink was the title, "Not For Me" by the Backstreet Boys, which I've had in my collection for a long time, and which is one of my favorite music artists. Nowhere in the entire vicinity did I hear anyone jeering at the song, nor asininely calling it "faggot music," and nor did I see a single person stop skating, which precisely would have happened in the United States if that song had been played. The scene at the Mix C rink was indeed a pleasant and refreshing sight to behold.
I then ventured down a few floors to a store that sold computers, printers, cameras, and music players. While the prices varied, they were generally similar to prices in the U.S. -- unlike most other merchandise in China. The reason is that most computers tend to be manufactured in the U.S., and because this store was located in a very-high-end shopping mall. Nevertheless, I noticed a large number of clerks in each department who were readily available to help customers, and who did not seem to be overwhelmed or highly stressed, as they are in America.
While browsing, I sampled a neat miniature speaker set on display near the store's entrance, which plugs directly into the digital port of an iPod. I didn't purchase the set, of course, but took out my iPod from my travel pouch and attached it to the speaker set to hear it. The song I selected from my iPod (which contains my entire music collection) was the soft-rock power ballad "If Wishes Came True" by Sweet Sensation. Many passers-by seemed to really enjoy that song, as did the female sales clerk. It was incredibly inspiring to me to finally be someplace where it seemed the majority of the people were sharing in my biggest musical passions. My wishes really were coming true.
So after frequenting The Mix C, I continued to meander the nearby streets and markets. I marveled at the five-story department stores and supermarkets, and continued to be astonished at the plethora of bright colors adorning them inside and out. It was awesome!
So at dusk, I walked back to my hotel to take a break, and to retrieve my rented Chinese cellphone that had just been delivered. I then called my "dear ol' mom" to tell her about my first day in China, and about how amazing it and its people are.
But my first day wasn't finished yet.
I strolled back outside to see Shenzhen at night, and to ride to the top of the Meridian Plaza Tower (which is the city's tallest, and formerly the 7th-tallest in the world). Once again on the way there, I was absolutely mesmerized -- this time at the number of bright, colorful lights everywhere. And many of them were flashing different colors. But when arriving at the observation deck of the tower, it was *really* spectacular.
I stayed up there for an entire hour, refusing to pull my eyes away from the breathtaking nighttime view. It was a complete major city full of flashing, colorful, radiant vigor! The best side was the west view. Looking westward, I whipped out my iPod from the travel pouch and donned my mini ear-bud headphones. I then cranked up the Club Mix of Spencer & Hill's "Back in the Love," which is a super-energetic techno-dance-pop tune, and played it several times. Boy...did that make me want to dance my ass off with that view! But I wasn't at a dance club, so I didn't actually dance. Darn.
As I boarded the elevator to leave, one of the cute female employees bowed to me just before the doors closed, as a way of showing her pride in her spectacular city and country. I then walked back to the hotel to conclude my first day in China. Wow...was I thoroughly impressed!
Wednesday, July 16th
Around 10 AM I left the hotel with Mandy to visit some prominent tourist parks. More fabulous tall buildings (and cranes) continued to pass me by en route, even away from the center of the city. We arrived at our first attraction, called Window of the World. This park featured scaled-down replicas of famous world landmarks, such as a 300-foot (100-meter) Eiffel Tower, a miniature Niagara Falls, Egyptian pyramids, etc. The afternoon was spent at an extremely colorful venue called Splendid China, which celebrated various aspects of Chinese folk culture, and was where I watched two great shows.
During lunch I commented to Mandy about the differences between regular American food, and regular Chinese. I mentioned how most American food is chemically produced, extremely-highly processed, and laced with artificial ingredients, which leads to malnutrition and causes obesity, cancer, and health problems galore. I explained how I lost 80 pounds (36 kg) during the first 8 months of 2006 by switching to the organic versions of my previous regimen. Next, I pointed out that most regular food in China is *far less* processed and *much more* natural, and that I could eat it without fear. Finally, I elaborated about American social settings often being centered around food (as they also are in China), and that in the U.S., I'm basically forced to choose exclusively between either enjoying good health, or having a social life. Not so in China!
(By the way, I never encountered a single fat person in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, or Chongqing.)
After relishing the joys of Splendid China, I paid a visit to a nearby Wal-Mart store. I once again was struck by the spectrum of luscious colors that adorned the walls, signs, and merchandise, noticed that plenty of staff was available in each department to help customers, and didn't see any fat people in the store. This is absolutely unheard-of at American Wal-Marts! Mandy accompanied me, and translated some of the food labels. I was especially curious about the ingredients of regular wheat bread in China. So much to my pleasant surprise, only four were present! Of course, one of them was "sugar" (which probably was the processed kind), but when compared to the 15-or-so ingredients that lace typical American bread (such as high-fructose corn syrup), this was quite a relief.
Next I toured the produce section. I examined the apples and noticed that two types were sold: those produced in the USA, and those that were grown domestically. The American apples looked ultra-shiny, artificial, and appeared as if a million chemicals had been sprayed on them. The domestic apples looked much more natural and healthful.
Anyway, I ended up purchasing two small cases of bottled water for $1 apiece, along with a small Chinese flag. I joked with Mandy on the ride back to the hotel about American Wal-Marts selling American flags that say, "Made in China." I also laughed about some Americans who dislike Wal-Mart because their U.S. stores don't sell enough domestic-made goods. My punchline was, "Well then...why don't they come here and learn Chinese?"
That evening I wandered the city streets by myself, searching for a good dinner. I passed by scores of small sidewalk restaurants with none of the signs or menus listed in English. One in particular caught my eye. Several aquariums were sitting by the building and I thought, "Fresh fish. Hey, this looks great!"
So I bravely walked over to a table and seated myself, not knowing if anyone there could speak any English (my Mandarin was very limited). Several people at the surrounding tables were looking at me and were curious as to whom this Western guy was creeping into this off-the-beaten-path eatery. When the waiter appeared, I inquired, "Nimen shuo bu shuo Yingyu?" ("Do any of you speak English?") He shook his head and I signaled for a menu. Maybe I could point at some random items and hope it tasted good. I felt the stare of numerous onlookers all around me.
Just then, a friendly man named Jayson sitting at the next table entered the conversation. He spoke English, and helped me order my food. The waiter stepped over to one of the aquariums with a small net, scooped out a live fish, and asked, "You want this one?"
"Sure!" I said.
He then asked if I wanted it steamed or fried.
My reply was, "Steamed!" and also ordered additional courses of rice and vegetables. Jayson and I struck up a good chat. He was from Singapore, and worked as a director for a health-food business with offices in Singapore, Shenzhen, Yunnan, and Las Vegas. He gave me his card, and told me to call him if I had any questions, or if I needed someone to interpret for me.
Just then, the waiter brought out my meal. I could see the outline of the fish's body with the skin still covering it! Jayson showed me how to scrape away the skin with a spoon, and then I digged in and devoured the fish. It was the most delicious and nutritious fish ever eaten in my entire life. I also learned that in the U.S., it's illegal for restaurants to serve meat steamed, because of the government's (and Americans') silly paranoia toward extra bacteria. So I was delightfully savoring my newly-found freedom to be healthy and happy in China.
Just before leaving, I discovered the name of that eatery (translated into English) was Strong Memory Seafood. The name alluded to the fact that seafood helps improve a person's memory function. So by stepping out of my comfort zone in a *very* major way that evening, I was able to acquire a new potential friend, and could relish a taste and experience never to be forgotten.
Thursday, July 17th
I was on my own for the whole day to explore the city. In late morning I left the hotel to search for a new digital data card for my camera, because my existing one was almost full.
The nearby high-end malls didn't sell any cards compatible with my camera, so I faced two choices: purchase a new camera, or spend time looking around Shenzhen for the correct chip. I called Jayson to ask where to look. He was happy to help me and answered, "Hua Qiang Bei!"
This was the name of the gigantic electronics retail section of the city. He gave me directions, but I had a bit of difficulty understanding them. But I also was awaiting my first subway train ride, since I'd never traversed on one before.
I entered the tunnel and approached the ticket booth. I asked the attendant if anyone who spoke English could help me. Soon after, one of them briefly showed me how to use the ticket vending machines. They featured a touchscreen, where you select your destination station, and dispensed an electronic card or token, which is used for entering and exiting the stations. I bought a token for 60 cents, and used it to travel about 15 miles (25 km) to the other side of the city. The ride lasted for about 20 minutes, and the train's interior sported many bright colors and digital TV monitors.
As the situation turned out, I rode the subway much too far. But while walking around the area, I passed a Starbucks establishment and stumbled upon a great group of guys from Toronto.
We hung out for nearly 45 minutes, talking and enjoying good company. The main person I conversed with was John. He gave me a lot of advice about what to do in China, how to move to China, and told me about searching for an English-teaching job. He divulged after the first few minutes of speaking with me, that he was sensing that I wasn't materialistically attached to things as most North Americans are. I said he was correct; I only "need" my iPod and a laptop PC, and the rest would work itself out just fine.
He told me exactly where to find Hua Qiang Bei, and after an excellent conversation, I headed back to the subway and arrived at the right spot.
I strolled around Hua Qiang Bei for about two hours, incredibly mesmerized. It was a computer nerd's super-wild fantasy adventure on steroids! Block after block, 5-story mall after 5-story mall, shop after shop, beckoned with *literally* thousands of merchants selling every computer chip, circuit board, digital component, and full devices known to man. And oh yeah...bright colors were everywhere here, too! It was a truly splendid sight to see.
I found a vendor selling memory cards, and bought two 1 GB ones for my camera for $5 each. I even tried them in my camera to be sure that no error messages appeared. But after returning to my hotel late in the afternoon, my camera froze up when taking pictures with those cards.
So I walked back to the vendor, passing through two large underground higher-end shopping malls while en route. I walked up to his counter and uttered, "Tamen huai le!" ("They're bad!") With my limited Mandarin, I enlisted the help of Jayson via phone, who gladly interpreted to the seller what the specific problem was, and that I wanted to exchange them for good ones. I snapped several photos with each replacement card to verify its functionality, and then left. I also patronized an additional merchant in Hua Qiang Bei and bought an extra 1 GB card, just to be safe. (Luckily, those cards never troubled me after that.)
I hopped onto the subway to start the evening and rode it to the section that's right next to the Hong Kong border. A visit to the Luohu Shopping Mall (just inside the border) was my next agenda item, and I was getting hungry. Upon entering the mall, I was once again flabbergasted at the incredible array of colorful signs and banners. It had the coolest-looking atrium of any mall I'd ever seen, spanning five floors. It also was a mall that's famous for selling cheap imitations of luxury brand names for pennies on the dollar.
The main drawback of the Luohu Mall is that it was the one and only location in Shenzhen where merchants constantly hounded me. But one of them turned out to be a decent fellow whose English name was Harry. I mentioned I was hungry, and he led me to a nice restaurant in the mall where I enjoyed a large meal with fresh, delicious steamed chicken. Upon leaving the restaurant, Harry was waiting outside to lead me down to his store. I indicated that I wanted to buy some gifts for my parents. So, I purchased a Prada purse and billfold for my mom, and a Gucci wallet for my dad, for less than 5 percent of the price of real ones in the U.S.
Harry then escorted me back to the subway (showing me a shortcut), and even paid for my token. It was a great experience and I would gladly return if visiting Shenzhen again.
I arrived back at the hotel to change into nicer clothing. That's because there was one final task on my Shenzhen agenda that was to be undertaken: frequenting a dance club!
I brought along the address information for a club called Ibiza, which I read about on the Internet prior to the trip. I took a taxi to the intersection listed, but didn't immediately find any nightclubs. After walking around for 10 minutes, though, I came across a venue that displayed "DISCO" in big letters above the entrance on a flashy marquee. I don't know if this was Ibiza or not, but stepped inside, and the place was awesome!
The music was *exactly* the kind I had been longing desperately for more than a decade to groove to on a dancefloor: happy, sappy, bubbly, catchy, disco-techno dance-pop -- which radio stations and nightclubs in Oklahoma (or the United States, for that matter) practically never played. It was my very favorite type of music, and the dancefloor was packed with people loving it! Sometimes the DJ would shout something in Mandarin and everyone would cheer. But occasionally, he would holler in English, "Shenzhen Party!" and the people would root even louder.
During this ecstatic time of my first Chinese clubbing experience, two women danced with me: one for about two songs, and the other for almost four. This was extremely contrary to my American dance-club woes, where I'd be lucky if one gal joined me on the floor for just one tune. In China this was pleasantly mind-boggling, because in spite of the fact that the men at this place outnumbered the women by 2-to-1, the women were dancing with *me*! (And no...I didn't see any men grooving with each other, in case you were wondering.)
I left the club around 2 AM and rode back to the hotel. My first Chinese city visit was complete, and I felt a stunning, tremendous sense of "Wow." Shenzhen kicked ass!
Would Chongqing and Shanghai be able to mount formidable challenges to Shenzhen as my favorite city? Time would soon tell. But in the meantime, I was exhausted. A one-day stopover in Guangzhou was next, giving me a chance for some extra rest. I couldn't believe I was actually in China, and already wanted to call it my new home.
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