AATA: China (Part Three)

Asian American Takes Asia

At long last, I’m wrapping up the travel series with Part Three of China. Last time, I told you guys about extravagant meals with the mayor and my father’s #1 and #2 companies. This time, I’m going to tell you about our leisure trip turned business trip to Guangzhou.

It was with a bit of shock and panic that I realized I had two weeks remaining in China. I’d promised myself that I would finish my novel by the end of my stay. At 60,000 words, my novel was nearing the finish line but not quite there yet. In order to complete it, I’d have to write more than I ever had before. After berating myself, threatening myself, bribing myself, I stepped up to the plate and faced the most daunting task yet. My daily morning routine consisted of chatting with Phineas, sending him off to bed, and gluing myself to my keyboard for however many hours it took to write 2500+ words. I felt bad for my grandma, who kept urging me to eat her cooking and tried to get me to go shopping with her. I didn’t give in until the very last day, when I — by some miracle — finished my novel a few days early.

Sometimes, my dad would take me to his company with him, and then I was writing while he met with government officials, discreetly coughing from second-hand smoke. When we went out to meals, I gulped down the food and went back to my corner, typing furiously. My father had previously mentioned a trip out to Guangzhou, where he would meet a healthcare representative to discuss collaboration on a future project. For the most part, though, he said we would be free to travel and dine at yummy restaurants. Little did we know.

I was told to pack for four days and we were off to the high-speed train station. My father’s #2 and #3 in command were apparently accompanying us. The #2 took my passport and my dad’s ID, and he hurried off to pick up our tickets. It was still surprising to me how much this man was willing to do for his boss. I understood that, in China, there was little separation between the professional and personal realms, but this guy had a Ph.D. for god’s sake! And he was still doing more ass-wiping than the average butler.

My daddy, talking to someone important.

My daddy, talking to someone important.

When we arrived at the hotel, I realized that it wasn’t quite a hotel. First of all, its lobby looked…funny. There were stairs heading up to a dining area, there was a little convenience store in the corner, and there were cubicles in the opposite corner. The place was thoroughly mismatched. It was also, like everything else in China, so new that there was still plastic wrap around the new furniture and elevator buttons. My dad explained to me that this place was both a hotel and apartment complex. The government had “granted” him one of the rooms to use permanently. I would get my own separate room for the night. After having dinner with this healthcare rep, who was fairly boring, I retired to my room. Happily, I found that there were no mosquitoes, the air conditioning worked well, and the internet was fast enough to support my How I Met Your Mother habit.

The next morning, I chose to stay in instead of heading over to my dad’s company for an early meeting. I was on my laptop writing until my dad’s #2 man came to get me for lunch. When I arrived, my father, the healthcare dude, and another government official were already seated in a suite. I found the food mostly inedible (too spicy, oily, and fried for my taste) and drank a lot of this special flavored water. I still haven’t figured out what exactly the beverage was made from. It had these reddish prune-like thingies floating around that gave it the unique taste. In any case, I grew especially fond of this drink while in China. Last night, I found it again at a Chinese restaurant, but as usual it was sweetened 10 times more than necessary.

I excused myself from lunch early to go to the convenience store and stock up on snacks. I’m absolutely in love with anything green tea flavored and found the perfect crackers with green tea filling. Then, I headed back to my room and returned to my writing. That was my most prolific day of writing — I think I ended up with more than 3500 words for the day. In the afternoon, someone rang the doorbell. It was the #2 dude again, telling me to pack up all my things. I was confused, since I just overheard him booking my room for two additional nights at the front desk. He tried to explain what had happened, but I didn’t understand him fully. And so I packed, muttering under my breath about my dad’s inability to forewarn me on important developments. I still remembered how I found out about my youngest sibling, Kevin. On the way to Publix, the local grocery store, my other brother Justin (who was six at the time) asked loudly, “So Dad, we’re having a baby next year right?”

It was after I’d packed up and followed #2 honcho down the hall that I saw the most astonishing thing. #3 honcho was finishing packing up my dad’s belongings. He asked numero dos, “Did the boss say he wanted to pack this up or not?” To which the first guy replied, “I don’t know, but pack it to be safe.” My eyes were bulging.

After a few more minutes of scrambling, we got into a taxi that took us to my dad’s company. I found my father there, chilling out like he was hanging out with friends at a bar. Smiling, he told me that we had to go back to Wuhan immediately because some important government official wanted to talk to him about potential funding.

Smiling back, I said, “Okay.” Within an hour, we were back on the high-speed train. I guess everything in China is high-speed these days.

Ciao,

R

AATA: China (Part Two)

Asian American Takes AsiaThis post is part of the Asian American Takes Asia series, in which I chronicle my three-weeks-long journey to the motherland (Taiwan) and the fatherland (China). Hilarity ensues. 

When I arrived in Wuhan, China this May, a few things were different. I was used to visiting in July and August, during which Wuhan was quite literally a sauna — a 100-degree humidity that clogged every opening of your body. Of course, like every normal human, I used to hate it. I would gasp for air until the nearest taxi came and bemoan the particular driver’s affinity for saving gas by rolling down the windows. At last, I would duck into our apartment or a restaurant or a hotel and demand that the AC be turned on immediately. Then I would face another sort of problem. I’ve discovered a flaw in the Celsius system. Sure, it’s neat that water freezes at 0° and boils at 100°. Cool story, bro. But let me tell you this: it’s impossible to get the AC at the perfect temperature because 27° is a smidgeon too hot and 26° a smidgeon too cold. I’m always switching between the two.

This time, though, I arrived in mid-May, which meant that it was still on the chilly side. Surprisingly, I found myself a tad nostalgic for the sauna days.

The second thing I noticed was that my father was actually working. Well, my father has always worked hard. After all, he’s one of the most successful people in his field and is taking over the Chinese tech world. Currently, he has a primary company working on femtosecond lasers that are a fraction of the cost and much more powerful than what’s available today. This company is now housed in a much nicer complex, which he uses completely free of charge, courtesy of the Chinese government. In the same building is his second company, which does something I don’t quite know. Then there are third and fourth institutions that we’ll get to later. In short, when I’d visited previously, my dad could always take off work whenever he wanted. But now, he was working 9-5 five days a week.

The third change was the fact that the Chinese government was all over my dad. The first man I met was a very strange top official in the Huangshi municipal government. Huangshi, an hour away from Wuhan, is where my dad was born and is sponsoring many of his projects. Anyway, I had a preconception in my mind that all Chinese officials were power-hungry, materialistic, corrupt, chain-smoking, drinking dudes. This guy was, from what I could see, only the latter two. I asked my dad and he agreed that yes, he was one of the good guys. Our first meeting was at a restaurant that resembled a botanical gardens and, of course, the official footed the bill. I played a lot of Temple Run and inhaled a lot of secondhand smoke that day.

For our next meeting, we drove out to Huangshi to meet the whole gang. We were seated in a fancy conference room in a five-star hotel and I was told that the important-looking man was the mayor of Huangshi. Instead of trying to follow the difficult conversation (which probably involved a lot of ass-kissing), I hammered away on my laptop, bringing my novel closer to completion. Then, we entered a private dining room. These are the newest big thing in China — you get your own waitstaff and a separate restroom and you’re served a 10-course meal. I was surprised to see my name card on the table.

My Chinese name! Cao Sushin.

In the middle of lunch, the mayor had to leave to attend his second and third lunches of the day. What a busy man. After we’d finished eating, everyone scattered, but we had to stay at the hotel for another meeting. Seeing that I was tired, just like that, one of the officials opened a hotel room for me and I was free to use it for the time being. I took a nice nap, and then we were headed back to Wuhan. Before we move on, let me tell you about Huangshi. In the past, I’d always thought of it as the poorer, smaller version of its cousin, Wuhan. Though all my relatives lived in Huangshi, I much preferred Wuhan for its nice department stores and relatively cleaner streets. This time, though, I was utterly shocked by Huangshi. I didn’t recognize anything except for my grandparent’s apartment. My dad told me that the apartment’s worth had skyrocketed tenfold since he purchased it years ago. The development that had occurred was incredible — it was as if someone had cheated at Roller Coaster Tycoon, had billions of dollars stashed away, and built whatever he pleased. Technically, this someone was the Chinese government.

Within months, a new five-star hotel arched over the lake water. With a snap of the fingers, a beautiful ancient-style restaurant was erected by the shore.

Ancient Chinese RestaurantWhen we dined at this place one sunny afternoon, we were the only guests. As I continued to type furiously on my laptop while trying to escape the secondhand smoke, one of the officials kept chasing me. I don’t really like my ass being kissed, but I was grateful for the gifts I received. A very expensive bracelet I don’t know when I’ll ever get a chance to wear and an awesome water bottle I later gave to Phineas. My dad also got a soccer ball signed by the entire Chinese national team, but he doesn’t even watch soccer and, as far as I know, the Chinese team isn’t very good…

Our next voyage to Huangshi contrasted greatly with the lunch with the mayor. It ended up being one of the most incredible experiences and I will remember it forever. We were escorted into a strange-looking complex guarded by a stern man in uniform. The rows of buildings appeared old and unused, and I wondered why anyone would need to protect this place. It seemed like something out of a James Bond flick, where the next action sequence would take place. I whispered to my dad, “I thought we were going to lunch. Is this some secret government hideout?” My questions wouldn’t be answered for awhile, since my father had no clue either.

We pulled up to this warehouse and I walked in to find graffiti on the walls and random statues scattered about. On the other side of the warehouse was an open space shaded by a roof made of vines. A man came out to greet us and began to pour us tea at a mosaic table. I felt like I’d just traveled back in time. A few men came out of a kitchen to speak to the tea guy and he gave them orders. I was thoroughly confused. When we were served a lavish, home-cooked meal that was better than any of the restaurant dishes, I had lost my patience. What the hell was this place? Laughing, the men began to explain to me. One of them was the odd official whom I’d met first. Apparently, we were in what used to be a Communist storage warehouse. The area we were currently in was their old barracks. Looking up, I saw a portrait of Mao on the wall. 

As I spoke briefly of Mao with these officials who, many would say, are still Communists, it was absolutely surreal. None of them began to chant a Communist hymn or whisper a prayer to their deceased leader. They just mentioned Mao matter-of-factly and continued to explain that this complex would soon be torn down to make room for something new. Nowadays in China, everything newer was better. I told them that I would be sad to see this place go, however. No matter what had happened here in the past (executions? Torture? Brainwashing?), it was a piece of history and I’m a sucker for old things. To immortalize this Communist warehouse, I took a few photos.

Can you imagine them blowing up this statue? Poor guy.

Can you imagine them blowing up this statue? Poor guy.

Not only did the officials not mind, the funny dude insisted that I take his portrait. Voilà:

This guy had a peculiar sense of humor.

This guy had a peculiar sense of humor.

During this day, I was reminded again that I love China for its history. While I’m amazed by the speed of development that is happening there every second, I am also saddened that places like this will be eternally lost. China is enamored with change, but I hope that it one day learns to appreciate its past as much as its future. But then again, it’s hard to preserve historical sites other than to turn them into tourist havens who will be both annoying and destructive. When I was in Rome, I was shocked to see ruins everywhere, fenced off from construction sites as if they were mere weeds.

To those who haven’t yet seen China, I encourage you: please visit before pollution and tourism ruin its exquisite scenery and before development and business turn the big cities into scenes from a sci-fi film.

For more about companies #3 and #4 and our business trip to Guangzhou, stick around for Part Three!

À bientôt,

R

AATA: China (Part One)

Asian American Takes AsiaThis post is part of the Asian American Takes Asia series, in which I chronicle my three-weeks-long journey to the motherland (Taiwan) and the fatherland (China). Hilarity ensues. 

Since my dad moved from Boca Raton, Florida to Wuhan, China eight years ago to start his own company, I’ve visited him almost every summer. When he first proposed the move, I remember being on the phone with him, feeling shocked. As I spun a plastic globe from North America to Asia, I thought sadly about how much further away China was than Florida from Ann Arbor. To me, China was foreign. The only time I’d ever visited was when I was eight years old. At the time, I was a petulant, spoiled kid who refused to visit the Forbidden Kingdom because it was more than 100° F out. During the same trip, I was so overwhelmed after meeting what felt like hundreds of relatives I never knew I had that I promptly burst into tears.

Chinese Princess Rebecca

My dad paid five RMB to have this photo taken of me on the Great Wall.

I’m not sure what I was feeling when I flew to China for the second time, the summer I turned 12. But I do know that, once I landed in the land of my ancestors, I began to fall in love. For all the reasons that foreigners tended to hate China, I loved it. What others thought was rude, I thought was amusing. What others thought was backwards, I thought was authentic. What others thought was dirty, okay well, I thought was dirty too. But while I avoided public restrooms like the plague, it didn’t spoil the charm of China. Once, I even peed in a hole in the ground next to a rooster, and I thought to myself that I was initiated.

When drivers drove the wrong way up one-way streets, I laughed. This past Christmas, when my carsick siblings complained to me that I drove like a Chinese taxi driver, I beamed. I’ve never been so proud, because damn, Chinese taxi drivers are good. When parents let their toddlers go number one and even number two on the sides of streets, I stared bug-eyed at first. But then I realized that cities, paved roads, and plumbing were all relatively new concepts to many Chinese. Shitting in a bush wasn’t a sign of backwardness, but simply part of a culture that still retained the rawness of its impoverished history. And that was exactly what I loved about China — it was so raw you could look someone in the eye and read his life story through his irises.

Of course, I was not living in poor conditions by any means. I’ll admit that, as a young girl, part of China’s charm was the fact that I was treated as a princess. Food back then was much cheaper than it was now, and I could order anything I wanted at a restaurant. Simply because my dad had more than $40,000 in a Chinese bank, we were considered VIP at airports and waited in lounges while others checked us in. We drank coffee, which was quite an expensive commodity then. When we traveled to Guilin with a tour group, we requested a separate five-star hotel. Even on vacation, my dad and I visited foot massage houses, my guilty pleasure. I still remember one particular place in Guilin. In the dim lighting, one of the masseuses had guessed that my father was only 25 years old, to his great satisfaction.

Every time I’ve returned to China since 2004, I’ve enjoyed it to the fullest. There was the time we visited the old town of Lijiang and went riding in the nearby fields.

One of my most memorable experiences on horseback.

One of my most memorable experiences on horseback.

There was the time we lived in a house on top of a mountain in the middle of the city that was built long ago for expats. There was we traveled to Dali and I met Knight, the inspiration for and namesake of my company.

After this longwinded background story, I’ll tell you now what I meant to say in the first place. I’ve known China for a while now, and I’ve never been as surprised by her as I was when I visited this summer. China is changing ever so rapidly, in more ways than you can count. The China I knew and loved is dying out quickly and I don’t know yet if its successor is good or bad. All I know is that my experience of China from now on will be vastly different. If you want to know why I believe the future lies in China and how the Chinese government ended up paying for many of my meals, come back for Part Two.

Were you or one of your parents an immigrant? What kind of relationship do you have with your mother country?

À plus tard,

R

AATA: Kaohsiung (Part Two)

Asian American Takes AsiaThis post is part of the Asian American Takes Asia series, in which I chronicle my three-weeks-long journey to the motherland (Taiwan) and the fatherland (China). Hilarity ensues. 

As we zipped through the city, passing countless shops and restaurants, I wondered where we were headed. It was still relatively early in the evening, around 6:30 pm, so perhaps we would meet my cousin’s friends at a restaurant. Finally, we stopped at a corner. Looking up at the sky, I saw that the sun was setting. We hopped off the moped, but Da Mao didn’t take off his helmet. After a few minutes, two boys showed up on their respective mopeds, who I assumed to be the said friends. If this were America, Da Mao would’ve introduced us and I would’ve shook their hands and said, “Nice to meet you”. If this were Paris, Da Mao would’ve introduced us and I would’ve kissed their cheeks (once to the left and once to the right) and said, “Enchantée”. But this was the streets of Taiwan, so we did neither.

The two of them ignored me and began to speak with my cousin, so I took the opportunity to observe these Taiwanese gangsters. They certainly looked the part, with their shaggy bleached hair and stained teeth. The boys had a too-cool-for-school attitude and they appeared apathetic to whatever Da Mao was saying. I could only pick up parts of their conversation (my gangster Mandarin was not up to speed). Before I knew it, we were back on the bikes and we set off into the sunset. My thoughtful cousin asked his friends to drive slowly, since I was a moped newbie, but they didn’t listen. Through the busy streets of Kaohsiung, we tried to keep up, squeezing in between cars and gunning the accelerator.

Finally, we arrived at our destination. It was a beautiful area, with a couple of touristy plazas and the open sea. In the distance, I spotted large ships and a lighthouse on a cliff. We parked the bikes and walked along the pier. Being the American that I was, I was beginning to get slightly unnerved at being left out of the conversation. I couldn’t tell if they were nervous to speak to me or if they weren’t sure if I could understand them. My cousin mentioned me a couple of times in passing, telling them that I played League of Legends from time to time. This was interesting to them, since they were avid LoL players and they’d never heard of a girl who played. I explained that it was my boyfriend who introduced it to me.

The water was calm.

The water was calm.

It was the one with glasses who first spoke to me directly. Let’s call him Bruce. “Is America fun?” he asked with curious eyes.

We’d sat down on the concrete wall, our legs dangling precariously above the crashing waves. “Well, it depends,” I explained. “It’s a big country, so there’s a lot of variety. You can eat food from different countries, see really beautiful state parks, do any kind of sport. But it’s not like Taiwan. I think it’s a lot more fun here, because of how convenient everything is. And you can find small things to eat for really cheap.”

After that, they began to warm up to me. Excitedly, I tried to explain the American concepts of Greek Life and hipsterdom with the limited vocabulary I had. As it turns out, it’s quite difficult to define “hipster”. As I told them about the rampant alcoholism that characterized our universities, I wondered if they thought I was a drunk. Quickly, I realized that these Taiwanese gangsters were not so badass after all. Besides chain-smoking, they stayed away from particularly dangerous activities. They only drank when one of them had just suffered heartbreak and they rarely went to clubs or bars. My cousin was the only one who had even smoked a joint. A quick round of ten fingers revealed that, while they weren’t virgins, they certainly weren’t sexually experienced. Despite their rough exterior and dark reputations, these boys were teddy bears at heart.

Chuckling to myself at how I’d misjudged them, I asked them about Asian women. In my experience of Asian culture, Asian men were notoriously attracted to cute, girly girls that were either underage or acted like it. I didn’t get the charm at all, another consequence of my Americanism. I thought that girls should be independent, strong, and sassy. They could be feminine, but they should also be able to swing an axe if need be. I had to explain the concept of “girly” to them. When they finally understood, they asked me if guys could be girly. I replied yes, and elaborated that gay men were often seen as girly.

At that, Da Mao laughed and raised his hand. “That’s me,” he said. “I’m girly.” His friends slapped his back and exchanged knowing glances with him.

Squinting my eyes at him, I went over his words and wondered if he’d meant what I thought he meant. I’d spent the whole night trying to figure out if Da Mao was gay. Growing up, I’d always heard stories of his latest female conquest, and he was the last person I’d expect to come out of the closet. But a few days ago, his mother had confided to me that her son had informed her that he like boys. She didn’t know whether or not she should be concerned. Watching my cousin banter with his friends and tease them with homoerotic gestures, I was on the fence.

The conversation about girls continued, and we established that Bruce liked what we referred to as kittens — girls that batted their big, wide eyes at you and dressed as if they were in preschool. The other guy (we’ll call him Sandy) said he preferred tall women, which were a rare commodity in Taiwan. Finally, my cousin said that he liked older women. “I don’t know, I feel like they have more…flavor.”

It was my chance to ask. “Are you…gay?”

“What?”

“Your mother told me that you told her you were gay.”

He laughed in half-shock and half-annoyance. “She believed me? It was a joke. I didn’t think she’d take it seriously. Hold on, I need to do something.” Da Mao proceeded to pick up his phone and dial his mother’s number. “Ma, you thought I was gay? Well, I’m not.” With that, he hung up. Turning to me, he asked, “You didn’t think I was, did you?”

“No,” I shook my head as I smiled. “Of course not.”

That concludes my adventures in Taiwan. Stick around for my tales of Taiwan’s longtime nemesis, the People’s Republic of China.

Salut,

R

AATA: Kaohsiung (Part One)

Asian American Takes AsiaThis post is part of the Asian American Takes Asia series, in which I chronicle my three-weeks-long journey to the motherland (Taiwan) and the fatherland (China). Hilarity ensues. 

First of all, I apologize for my long absence! I’d intended to blog while I was overseas, but my internet connection in Taiwan was spotty and China decided to block WordPress. I’ve spent the past few days adjusting to jetlag, but I think I’m more or less recovered. Last night was interesting, though. I had to teach a GRE math bootcamp course that I was not fully prepared for, and it turned out that half my class was a math major. Perfect, right? On top of that, I was getting really loopy by 9 pm. Distributive law what?

Anyway, I’m getting horribly off-topic. To begin this series, I’ll share a day I spent with my uncle’s family in Kaohsiung. All of my extended family gathered at the home to celebrate Mother’s Day a week early. I’d spent the first few days upon my arrival with my aunt’s family in Taichung. In the past, I had got along better with my cousin in Taichung, Jacky. After being transported and dumped in Kaohsiung, I was slightly nervous. I hadn’t seen my relatives in four years, but remarkably they looked exactly as I remembered them. During the Mother’s Day lunch, I didn’t even make eye contact with my two Kaohsiung cousins. There’s an interesting story behind that, but first, about the food.

Taiwanese Specialty DishIn the past, I had enjoyed irking my Taiwanese relatives by claiming that Chinese food was much better. Perhaps it was true back then, perhaps I had been weirdly biased towards China. In any case, this time, Taiwan wins the food contest hands down. This particular dish was tasty until my relatives told me what it was. You take the thing that resembles a pig in a blanket and wrap it in seaweed. At first, I thought that it was some kind of sausage wrapped inside, but then my uncle informed me that it was fish egg. With this new development, I began to imagine a giant fish egg that was big enough to produce slices five inches in length. Immediately, I was sick to my stomach. I’d finally accepted the idea of roe in my sushi, but this? Then, my relatives explained that it didn’t come from one titan egg, but many eggs fused together and then dried. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to eat any more of the delicacy. Little did I know, I’d be eating much worse in a few weeks.

Back to my Kaohsiung cousins. One of them, the older, has been my mortal enemy since childhood. He thought I was a spoiled brat from America and I thought he was an annoying Asian dude. I know, my insults are not very specific. We were constantly clashing heads and ended up avoiding each other whenever I visited. Expecting him (let’s call him Big Mao) to continue our Cold War, I was surprised when my grandmother told me he wanted to take me out at night. Eyes wide, I wondered if he was going to dump me in a gutter somewhere. You see, there’s a few more things you should know about Big Mao. Firstly, his father looks like this:

My Scary UncleHe’s the one on the right. Well, I’m assuming you already concluded that much. The woman in the photo is my other aunt. While you can’t really tell in this photo, my uncle is a pretty scary-looking man. He rarely smiles, and when he does, he looks positively evil. Plus, my mother used to tell me stories about him, how he beat up people he didn’t like and sauntered down the streets with his champion show dogs. To me, he could be straight out of a Hong Kong triad. His son, Big Mao, doesn’t look anything like him, but they both have that standoffish vibe. My mom also told me that Big Mao didn’t do well in school. Combining that with his chain-smoking habit, dark skinny jeans, leather motorcycle jacket, and moped, I concluded that my cousin was a Taiwanese gangster. Therefore, when I hopped aboard his moped and he raced off into the night, I was simultaneously terrified and exhilarated.

The problem was that I thought I might actually fall off, and that would be really embarrassing. But I didn’t want to wrap my arms around Big Mao’s waist. First of all, he was my cousin, which made that a little weird. Secondly, we were mortal enemies…I couldn’t touch him! To solve the predicament, I placed my hands lightly on his shoulders and tried not to squeeze when we hit potholes. Big Mao had told me that we were meeting his friends, and I was determined to make a good impression among these slightly older, badass Taiwanese boys.

To find out what happened when I finally did, come back for Part Two.

À bientôt,

R