Saturday, January 17, 2015

Sandmich China UnFAQ

Q: What, no running diary?

A: I thought of doing that, but this was more of a social visit than a tourist trip.  As an example, two of the days I was there (the second and third I believe) were very nearly exactly the same.  Just as you would expect if you were sitting around your own home, and who would keep a diary of that?

Q: Where's the usual biting Sandmich style of snarky B.S. in regards to the China trip?

A: Let me first point out that the Chinese don't do well with criticism ('self' or otherwise), so I feel that I have to be somewhat guarded in my comments.  Additionally, despite whatever issues I encountered, my hosts were very generous and worked to help me with any issues that I thought worthy of bringing up to them.  It's hard for me to say 'X' sucked when if I actually felt that 'X' was that big of an issue I could have asked for help with it.

OK, but I'll need his address.

Q: How about the flight experience?

A: We packed a bunch of food, which I was against since I'd have to dedicate my limited space to hosting it.  The Air Canada flight (Toronto->Shanghai) was crazy with the food and the beverage cart (two and half meals along with four beers).  This meant that starting out the trip, I was already traveling full of food, something which would rarely go away.

Air China was interesting in that they had what had to be at least a full inch more between the seat rows which meant that I could sit and not have to fold my legs in at an angle under the seat in front of me.  I thought the extra space was all the more interesting due to Asian people's reputation for shorter stature (though I saw plenty of Chinese dudes at my same height/weight and got to sit next to one, yay).  Air China made up for this though by not having air vents (so I got backed like a piece of smelly toast in the middle row) and an incredibly inane policy of not allowing cell phones to be on at all ("off" meaning the screen is off).

Which since I've brought up unreasonably stupidity in regards to Chinese air travel I should bring up Chinese airport security.  I've found that the only thing worse than the American 'airport security-kabuki theater' is the strict Chinese airport security (I'd read an article recently talking about how American airport security was the worst and the author listed all the places that were better, and oddly not one place in Northeast Asia made the list).  Lighters (even empty) are not allowed onto checked bags, everyone gets patted down by a goon with a wand scanner of some sort, and security checks are layered and redundant as if the government is absolutely terrified of...something (this is actually a theme that would come up again and again on the trip).  At Beijing we had to go through four security check points before getting on the plane:

  1. An explosive chemical check upon entering the airport
  2. Baggage inspection at check-in
  3. The ever popular x-ray/metal detection station
  4. A spot bag inspection within the tunnel entrance on the plane where fluids purchased within the airport had to be disposed of (?!?!).
Yeah, f@@k them.

Giant Christmas display at the Beijing airport.

Q: You survived the automotive traffic though?

A: There are no scooters on the highways but there's all manner of 30 mph trucks that pop up.  Intersections without signals are treated in a manner similar to a traffic circle (though with everything from pedestrians to trucks trying to get through).  Intersections with signals are actually treated with a proper amount of respect, possibly because the police in China love fines nearly as much the Ohio State Highway Patrol (this in addition to the huge number of traffic cameras on the highways).  However I was there two weeks and was indirectly involved in two traffic altercations and survived more close calls than I've had the rest of my life, so my survival wasn't for lack of trying.
Note the scooter in the far distance; chances are it A) is electric and thus silent, B) is peeling down this narrow alley at  30mph and C) will run you over if you're not quick enough.

Q: Food?

A: I can remember exactly one meal that I sat down to before which I was actually hungry.  Every other time I was so stuffed from the meal before that it took (even for me) all my will power to sit down to another meal.  Even the smallest spreads had way too much food, the worst ("worst") being this pre-wedding feast which had enough food for twice many people as were at a table:
It was interesting because everyone would be at the table packed senseless and then they'd bring out another dish and everyone would groan, and then another, and another, and so on until untouched dishes sat stacked upon the half eaten dishes that the table inhabitants already couldn't finish off.  As many said while I was there, it was as if every meal was Thanksgiving.  So a Thanksgiving dinner for lunch, and then for dinner, and then lunch the next day, etc.

Q: So no food issues?

A: Well...I did get some kind of bug late in the day (after consuming the above feast) and I was not feeling very well the day of the wedding.  I pleaded "stomach issues", not wanting an awkward translation 'back and forth' around the discussion of "fever laden, explosive diarrhea".  In the picture above you can see the clams (about 1:00 on the table, under the multi-colored cake thing, they're raw) but there's also raw crab (probably buried under that plate of green stuff at 11:45), both of which I made the mistake of eating.  As well, all food is 'community eaten' (note the lack of serving utensils) so if any of the dozens of people I was eating with over the course of the days prior had a stomach bug, I was bound to get it myself (though Mrs. Sandwich didn't get ill).

As well, for some reason my eczema was extra upset on the trip and the doctor said "no seafood, no alcohol" (and no spicy food too, though there's none to be found expect for some weak sauce stuff at KFC).  This left me with being able to eat veggie plates, lamb (which seemed to pop up at every meal, in the pic I believe it is under the multi-colored cake opposite the clams) and pork (you may notice the pepper steak sitting on top of the lobster in the picture which is fitting since the lobster showed up more frequently than beef).

Q: A favorite story of Mrs. Sandmich is you being unable to go 24 hours in Japan without having an unquenchable spaghetti jonesing; anything like that this time?

A: Chinese food, at least where I stayed, has a lot more variety, it would seem, than Japanese food.  A few of the dishes tasted outright 'American' and the Chinese aren't afraid to use a wide variety of starches (noodles, rice (not as much as one might think) potatoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca, etc) so it never felt like I was in a food rut.  As well, Mrs. Sandwich bought me some dehydrated peanut butter to bring along for my peanut butter fix (the Chinese frequently had some sort of boiled peanut out as snack, not bad, but not quite the same).  

I should also point out that I did a command performance and prepared pizza one night at the newly married couple's house (they own what may be the one range style oven on the island).  Mrs. Sandmich came by the last imported can of Hunts spaghetti sauce and between the Italian seasoning the I brought over, three packs of very expensive "mozzarella cheese food" (why didn't I get a picture of that?) I was able to make a couple of passable pizzas.

Q: What's it like to be in a police state?

A: It was interesting since crime is known to be low (not Japan low mind you though) but every night the cops would be out by the town square with their giant ass paddy wagon ( I not dare take a picture).  What are they afraid of that they have to be out like that, every night?  I explained the doors in another post where nearly every room in Chinese homes is a panic room, but as well around the development where the newly married couple lives is a high cement wall topped with broken glass.  All larger property developments have private security of some sort (even though and the building's multilayered defenses were often ignored).  I just got the impression that there was some security issue lurking not far below the surface that no one wished to discuss, but this may have just been some natural American paranoia.

Beyond that, I used IPVanish to work around the Great Firewall.  I felt my IQ drop by about five points without my Google access and was glad when I got it back.

Other than that the police state was more PIA than 'goonish', at least where I was.  It was more of a 'soft tyranny' that was indistinguishable from local tastes.  Why is there no foreign liquor?  Because the locals won't buy it, or because some guy in the PLA doesn't want competition for his disgusting rice liquor products?  For all the development, why are the rolling hills almost completely devoid of any kind of buildings of any sort?  Because people don't want to live there, or local government big-men are hoarding it?  Etc.
The undeveloped hills do keep the place looking good though; maybe that's why?
Q: Anything that you think will rank as a lasting memory?

A: With a mind like mine, it's hard to know if anything will stick.  What makes Japan interesting is that it's almost like a giant, Japanese theme park.  It seems that everyone in Japan, from the architects of skyscrapers to the guys who paint lines on the street are of the same mind and are designers where they want everything that they do to match up to each other.  It really is crazy how the whole place just flows.  China on the other hand is much more like America in that, whatever needed to be done at that point in time, was done according to the fancies of whoever was in charge.  Streets don't look the same between areas, buildings bear no symmetry, and stores do the best for themselves without regards for what their neighbor is doing.
This charming store could be almost anywhere.
 As well, the Chinese seem to be more laid back in their definition of 'fun'.  Sure there's movies, TV, and whatnot, but liquor seems to be an afterthought and it's often enough just to sit around with the family spending a couple hours eating a meal.

I have to say though that the one thing that will be hard to purge from my mind was being cold.  In preparation for our trip I had bought two sets (shirt and pants) of Climatesmart stuff.  I dare not buy more since I couldn't have imagined wearing them much since, heck, I live in Cleveland and haven't needed them!  I have to tell you that there was only one day when I didn't wear them (aggressive wash schedule obviously) because there was no heat anywhere even though the temperatures typically ranged between 45 and 55 (with occasional dips below freezing).  I can remember one occasion where I was sitting at my computer (inside mind you) and I had my Climatesmart attire on, a flannel shirt, a sweatshirt, and my light winter jacket and I was still cold, oh so cold!
The air-conditioning boys are happy because they will probably never see a day of service.
 But maybe it's because I'm a wuss?  China is a hard country full of hard people and perhaps I just can't compete.
The 'box spring' is, as Mrs. Sandwich said, "a skid".
 Hard beds, hard decisions, hard to read language, hard to eat food (at times, and I mean difficult, not distasteful), hard government, hard traffic, etc.  It's probably to be expected that a people that has seen (and continues to see) as much adversity as they have, that they probably don't care about silly things like heat when it's just as easy to dress warmly, or about any sort of kitchen gadget when a cleaver can open cans as well as fruit and meat.  Why bother with drinkable water when heating it up does the job?

I suppose that it may not be a bad thing for life to be more closely stripped to the essentials so that people can stay focused on what's really important.
The bride and ring bearer try a duet.
Q: Believe or not, some of us are not dudes and we actually care about the wedding part of the trip!

A: It's...different.  Being a guy it's hard to know what people would be interested in.  Although the marriage was not arranged, it still operated a lot as if it were.  The groom's family had to put up a substantial investment: buying the newlyweds a new home with all the fixuns', and other help to make sure that they get off to a good start.  In return the bride is formally a member of the grooms family.  Therefore, wedding ceremonies carry a bit a business air, but they're serious and they actually mean something and have weight.  The traditional ring exchange occurred at the grooms house and a few facets including paying respects to ancestors and the bride having to serve her new family.  The latter ceremony (pictured above) was (I believe) put on by Sally's family and was basically a redux of the earlier ceremony with a little bit of a western flair and a reception all rolled into one.  None of the ceremonies had an 'authoritarian' figure of any sort (i.e., a minister, etc.) and both involved a serious amount of food (of course).

The whole situation was a little bit odd since I and Mrs. Sandwich were considered part of the wedding party (a distinction we frequently noted was not required).  This allowed us to go to the ceremonies at the groom's parent's house (only Sally and her cousin came along since they were part of the wedding party as well, no one else from Sally's family was permitted to attend) as well as sitting at the main table for the ceremony at night.  Our hosts were crazy good to us and it really stretches the imagination to think of a way to repay their hospitality.

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