It’s a (fake) world after all

I went to Paris today.  Which is to say that I went to Paris with Chinese Characteristics.

Which is to say that I didn’t actually go to Paris today.

In fact, I went to a suburb of Hangzhou called Tianducheng, which is a ritzy area of town built as a replica of the French capital.  I still don’t know what prompted the replica’s construction.  But fake Paris certainly exists, and it just so happens to be on my doorstep.  Which of course meant that I had to see it up-close, to know if indeed I could travel the world without leaving China, and if it was really up to snuff.  There were photos online to prove it existed.  Eiffel tower and all.

There’s more to the story of fake Paris, of course.  As if the idea of fake Paris wasn’t enough motivation to hop on the subway and ride the jangly bus around the Hangzhou sprawl, I’d also heard that this Parisian copy was a ghost town.  As in, cornrows of apartment complexes with no one inside.  Nothing aside from well wishes and hopes of socialites deciding to settle down along the Champs Elysees.  It seems to have been built to form a miniature community and possibly to satiate the love of classy European goods.  I’d read online that this was a project that began in 2007 to create an exquisite and prestigious part of town to bask in.  There were supposed to be tourists taking Eiffel Tower selfies.  There were supposed to be thousands of residents.  But instead…

I had to find out.

I went to Tianducheng with a friend of mine, and though we spotted the fake Eiffel Tower fairly quickly, we decided to go poke a chateau on a hill first and save the tower for last.  We walked past farming fields with rice all in plots, and into a gated community/Paris theme park where men fished along a lake dotted with opulent French-style mansions.  Stone lion head fountains in white marble, a giant yacht plopped dormant in a greenish lake, wrought-iron fences rusted along the edges…

“Are we still in China?” my friend asked.

I responded by singing a couple bars of “Aux Champs Elysees.”

We walked the perimeter of the lake, still trying to get to the chateau, which was an off-yellow.  There was a replica of the fountain at Versailles nearby, but we didn’t want to pay the ticket.  Instead, we sort of rammed into an area dubiously called “Love Post Office.”  Love Post Office had barren confetti rasping along the concrete like tumbleweed and lonely horse-drawn carriages with the drivers slumped in the seats as no one stopped by for a ride.  Couples dressed in wedding clothes posed by swings shaped like hearts and trees made of concrete–cracked until we could see the metal rod and plaster within.  The whole area was surreal.  As if we were on a movie set for a play we’d never meant to be cast in.

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This is where the street vendors come in to hawk noodles and watches. Ah, the sounds of Romance!

“Well, let’s go to the Tower, shall we?” I said.  So we left the chateau, Love Post Office, and the “Paris Townlet” that was a tiny street meant to resemble Hunchback of Notre Dame-era Paris.  The little community itself disappeared behind us, and we were facing what I think was meant to be the Champs Elysees.  I say “I think” because there were no active shops, a definite lack of signs explaining things, and busts of horses that children had colored over with crayons.  In front of the path, a fountain without water, depicting half horses, half fishes grimacing and baring their teeth.  No water was in any of the fountains, which added to the eerie and foreboding atmosphere.  Statues with laundry draped over them.  Crème colored walkways without any pedestrians.  What appeared to be cafes with boards put up behind the windows, painted to resemble little shops.  As funny as I thought the whole scene was, I will admit that I felt a bit sad, too.  So much time and effort put into being impressive, with no one in the end being impressed.

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These shops didn’t even have doors that opened. They were just props with backdrops chipping paint onto the empty floorboards.

When at last we got close enough to the Eiffel Tower, we saw that it was surrounded by construction for what makers hoped to be a bustling shopping center.  Half-enveloped by signage and then obscured slightly by smog, we had our boon: the fake Eiffel Tower.  Shorter than the authentic one, and desperately empty and lacking attention.  Save for fools like us.

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The best part is, there wasn’t even any jet-lag.

All the same, we posed for some pictures, I took out some imitation Madelines for us to munch on, warbled more “Aux Champs Elysees” and more or less accepted the fact that western goods are always warped in some way when shipped overseas.

But I think what best sums up my feelings about fake Paris is this pair of shorts I saw hanging from a lantern.

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When in Rome…wait.

True, the details were all copied faithfully for this lantern, but the reality of what makers hoped it would become was never met.  The people never used it for its original purpose, the tourists (save for engaged couples hoping to score good Parisian wedding photos) never made the journey to even see it, and instead, it’s marked by a slow decay.  Buildings around are already yellowed with tints of smog and disrepair.  Cotton candy vendors perch at the entrance to the theme park.  Noodle shops with their few loyal customers flicker their own, weaker lights along delicately shaped gazebos.  The tiny population of Tianducheng clings to the details of Paris with Chinese Characteristics are obscured by everyday living–the laundry hanging out to dry in the dimmed City of Light.

Nai Nai and her Stick

Since coming to China, I’ve gotten into the habit of walking around and asking “What’cha doin’?” to anyone nearby.  You could call it being insufferably nosy, or delightfully curious.  Both are probably true.  But if you’d been watching this woman, who was short, squat, and bent over the hedges aligning No. 2 Road, you would have had to ask, too.

I’m going to call her Nai Nai (pronounced like Bill Nye the Science Guy’s last name), which means “grandma” in Chinese.  Nai Nai had iron-grey hair, a thin smile, and also happened to be carrying a long stick.  I thought maybe she was just out for an afternoon stroll in the crisp blue autumn skies and was overcome with the simplicity of shrubbery, since she prowled the edges of the hedges like a tiger.  But then, out of nowhere, she’d stab, prod, or thwack these same hedges.  First, a hit to the trunks of the gingko trees lining the lane.  Then, an attack on the bushes.  She’d pry the branches apart and then peer downward, as though reading her fortune.  Resurfacing empty-handed, she’d move down the line to repeat the process over and over again.  THWACK!  Rustle rustle rustle.  THWACK!  Rustle rustle rustle.

I made my move.

“What are you looking for?” I asked when I’d gotten within earshot.  We were on the side of a road, which was lined with gingko trees–her intended target.

“Fruit!” she said, holding up a thin plastic bag with orange balls inside.  I tried to place it, or figure out what the flavor must be, but quickly admitted defeat.

“How do you find fruit?” I asked instead.  “My hometown does not have this kind.”

“Where’s your hometown?”  She said, peering into the bushes again.

“America,” I said, peering down too, despite myself.

“Oh, America.”

Just then, her grandson came running up with his own plastic bag and fruit.  He had a white sailor’s shirt on with a red scarf tied around his neck, and was not in the slightest bit fazed by the foreigner stooping next to Nai Nai by the hedges.

“Did you find those?” I asked, gesturing to his bag of fruit.

“Nai Nai found them,” he said while the grandma in question resumed thwacking hedges and tree-trunks.

“Very strong!  How she find?”

“You hit the trees and then they fall and then you grab them,” he said with a grin that said ‘how can someone not know this?’

Nai Nai wandered back to us and showed me how to split the branches apart and spot those tiny orange fruit that, until now, I was unaware resided in gingko trees.  Her grandson bounded behind her, swinging his plastic bag at his side.  I thought about joining them, but admitted that this was a family outing, not a time to drag an audience along.   I thought instead of the berry-picking I’d done with my own Nai Nai back in Minnesota.  The leaves deepening into flames–a sight not as common in the company of weeping willows.

But I’m not homesick in the ways I thought I’d be.  Because you gotta love a country where, despite how incredibly modern the cities are, people stick whack trees to gather fruit.

Mental Spinach

“How many of you use QQ [Chinese instant messaging] every day?”  I asked my class.  Almost every hand went up.  “How about WeChat?  Renren?  Weibo?”  The same amount of hands.  My students all laughed, amazed that I knew these Chinese chat venues, the equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, or really any form of online chatting.  They gave me more suggestions, most saying that they used them every day.

“Great!”  I said.  “Now…how many of you study every day?”  Half of the class raised their hands, amid giggles.  “How many of you read a book every day?”  Several hands went down, until maybe 5-6 out of a 34-person class remained.

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the quality of information absorbed on a daily basis.  Back when I was a full-time student, I didn’t have to worry so much about this.  Every day, by definition of study, I learned something that I didn’t know before, and it was all a result of showing up to the classroom.  High-quality information in the form of textbooks and essays went in, and as a result, high-quality information in the form of essays, debates and discussions came out.  I never had to exert much effort to find substance, and so perhaps took it for granted that profundity appeared whenever I wanted it to, like a personal genie willing to grant academic poise with a wave of its wand.

But as it turns out, this is not the case in the real world.  In the real world, it’s just not possible to absorb high-quality information just by showing up, nor is high-quality information as readily available as I’d like it to be.  Instead, there’s a barrage of approximation, misinformation, and manipulation.  And on top of all of this, what we need to hear isn’t always what we want to hear.  Discomfort is the spinach of the information age–being pushed around our plates until we can say we’re full from the sweeter, less fulfilling, dishes.

I find myself caught in arguments with almost-information, having to step back because I simply don’t know the facts or really much relevant data related to the overall theme.   Or even worse–to find that my own information is becoming repetitive and stretched too thin, perhaps from only hearing one set of voices telling me what my opinion ought to be.

What goes in affects what comes out.

So I took a hard look at how I spend my time, what I choose to read, and who I tend to listen to.  As it turns out, much of it lacks real substance.  Time checking WeChat where an expat group exchanges side-comments and lol’s, articles showing funny pictures with sex jokes, funny music videos that no longer relate to life in China.  I think my brain does need these moments of stagnancy; constantly probing experiences will burn me out very quickly.  (And I also want to make a distinction between a wandering mind and a stagnant mind–the wandering mind being a product of empty spaces, which allow room for thought, and the stagnant mind being a product of passive learning, which leads to no thought.)  But if the stagnant times extend like a bog through enough areas in my life, then I forfeit things that perhaps I never had the chance to encounter in the first place.

Since I no longer have teachers or parents or advisors to force-feed me that mental spinach, it’s up to me to try and mold what goes in to improve what comes out.

So this is my confession and my pledge to anyone reading.  I confess that I’m guilty of sometimes choosing the convenient rather than the necessary, and I pledge to be an independent learner and to seek out the spinach.  To be one of the students in my class who read a book every day, to think more specifically and intentionally about the kind of information I choose to absorb, and to prove that I have earned my education by never letting it come to an end.

Waves

“It’s coming, it’s coming!” yells a Chinese man bobbing in the seawater.  The water has a salty tang that once tasted, never quite goes away.  I don’t need to turn around to know what he’s yelling about.  I can feel it–the mass of water pulling back as it gathers into the wave approaching.  Suddenly shallow, soon-to-be surging.  We’re all bobbing in the beach, lustily anticipating each wave, judging which one we’ll like the best.

This one might be satisfying enough.  It has enough pull-back to ensure tall cresting peaks that will tumble over all of us.  I turn away.  The guys like to swim against the press of water, pumping their arms as fast as they can while shouting what I assume to be war cries.  They face the wave head-on, jumping up in time to catch the crest and stay above it as it passes through.  But not me.  I don’t stay with waves for the struggle.

As the water gathers behind me, I jump up from the sand beneath me in time for my head to reach the top of the wave.  It’s a moment of both exhilaration and powerlessness as I’m caught in the roar of water.  I have no control of waves, or how far they will push me, and by jumping I have surrendered myself to them. 

But as the water lifts me up and crashes me forward, it feels like I’ve sprouted vast, eon-reaching wings, and I’m flying into the ether on the bite of salt.   

People Mountain, People Sea

One of the first things anyone living in Chine needs to know about National Day (or “Golden Week” as it’s sometimes called) is that almost the entire country is traveling.  Lock the doors, bar the windows, stay inside and avoid anything remotely famous for the week.  There are just too many people, or as the Chinese phrase goes “人山人海 (ren shan, ren hai)” which directly translates to “people mountain, people sea.” 

“Everywhere’s gonna be crowded,” a friend said.  Meaning that it’s impossible to find a beautiful place in China that’s not awash with snapping cameras.  I would fail, even if I tried.

Challenge accepted.

I only had maybe 3-4 days to jet off somewhere, and while temptation was high to go to Yellow Mountain or some other famous place, I knew that there would be so many people, that I wouldn’t even see the scenes!  So I looked instead for what I like to call “paragraph places,” that is: the places that in most guidebooks only occupy a small paragraph, though they might hidden treasures.  I decided on the Zhoushan islands in Zhejiang Province.  There was indeed a famous Buddhist mountain, called “Putuoshan,” that would have to be another trip.  Avoid it like the plague during Golden Week. 

And so I went on couchsurfing.com to find someone to host me, assuming it would be better than me wandering the streets of a fishing town, not to mention free.  I got extremely lucky, meeting a Chinese guy named Charlie who let me stay in his girlfriend’s dorm room while she was away.  And let me tell you, nowhere is more deserted during a holiday than a school. 

Hannah: 1, Golden Week: 0

He showed me around campus, taking me into his lab where he had to feed (and sometimes kill) mice for experiments, and then we went to the fake sea created right outside of the real sea where a lighthouse has searchlights in pink and orange. 

The next day, Charlie wanted to take me to Zhujiajian, which is known for having lots of coast lines where we could hike and also see the sea.  I got up at 6 that day, and after breakfast and noodling around to find the right buses, we at last found the right station to hop on and get there.  A cool day, with strong sea breezes, but nothing that deterred me from wanting to see more.

But then, as the bus we wanted rounded the corner, we saw it packed to the brim (NOTE: “packed” by Chinese standards really does mean packed–squashed up to the windows, the doors, the sidewalks, almost falling out of the bus).  The bus driver shook his head and didn’t even stop to pick us up.  Another one came by with the same result.  We tried walking to another station to see if there were less people, with no luck.

Hannah: 1, Golden Week: 1

So instead, we got on a different bus and went to Dinghai, a small fishing village where Charlie’s old campus is, and where we could hike around in a community park.  I was afraid that there would be too many people, but it was no more crowded than a typical Sunday afternoon with kites flying, kids with nets catching minnows, and families wandering in the grass.  We took a side path in the trees that had bark flaking off like a melting candlestick and arrived at the top, where there was no one else, save for a few children sliding off of a monument.  A good view of the sea, cool breezes, and general quiet.

We spent the rest of the day at his old campus where there was a rickety training course, long abandoned and therefore infinitely interesting for me.  A balance beam made of old logs, a ropes course well rusted and dangerous, creaking chains broken and dragging into the rippling water below.  And since it was another college campus, no one in sight.

Hannah: 2, Golden Week: 1

“You will need to get up earlier tomorrow if you want to get to Zhujiajian,” Charlie told me on the way back to his campus.

I nodded, saying that I would get up at 5. 

So it was that the next morning came like a slap in the face, me rising before the sun, getting ready and out the door by 5:30.  I bought some dumplings and caught the 6:00 bus to another station, where I caught the next one, drowsy from an early morning, grim with determination.   A good sign: on the bus, there were not that many people.

Once there, I didn’t wait, I went to the beach and got my ticket (at half-price with my student ID, though technically I’m not a college kid anymore, hey-o!).  I passed the park, passed the swimsuits on sale, passed the small restaurants, stowed my backpack and made a beeline for the coast, walking to the far end through the waves.

And wouldn’t you know it?  There were barely any people.  (NOTE: probably because it was 8:30). 

Hannah: 3, Golden Week: 1

So I spent a couple of hours on this far end, away from the clearly marked swimming areas, standing in the ocean water breaking and hissing against my calves.  I’ve been in this ocean before–though it was in California with my aunt and cousin.  I like to think that it’s the same water–who knows?  Maybe it still carries that memory, maybe it’s well evaporated by now.  Either way, the folding waves put me in a calm mood, despite the traffic of the holiday, and I spent time writing random lines of poetry in the sand and watching it wash away from the onslaught of foamy water.

Then I decided to go to the Sand Sculpture Contest area.  And let me tell you, I wasn’t the only one with this idea.  Many families clumped together to ogle and admire the sand sculptures that sometimes looked as if they were etched in stone, rather than sand.  I was in a throng of people, but it didn’t bother me so much–perhaps enough time in China acclimates one to hordes.

It wasn’t until I decided to don my swimsuit and join in the waves that I was met with more faces.  In the water, we were just leaping with the big waves and splashing around.  Out of the water, people stopped to stare (possibly at my insanely-pale thighs) and comment on the foreigner, and at one point (as I was trying to read a book on the beach) stoop down to take pictures with me.  I was a little ruffled at this, and had to remind myself that, solitude or no, I was almost akin to an attraction by merely existing.  I retreated back to the far end of the coast where there were less people.

Hannah: 3, Golden Week: 2

But…by the time I was ready to leave (around 11), most people were just starting to settle in for the day, and by 1 in the afternoon, I knew it would be really packed.  Luckily, I was on my way out.

Hannah: 4, Golden Week: 2

In the end, though I was stuffed into a bus and hopping onto the next one back to Hangzhou, I left feeling satisfied.  I got my sea, I got my hiking, and somehow, despite people mountain people sea, I managed to find my paragraph place and have a few relaxing days of travel.

Though the subway was a bit more crowded than usual and I had to weave between street vendors selling sweaters at national day discounts to make it back to my apartment.

Hannah: 4, Golden Week: 3 

Close enough.