Life in times of the epidemic

First of all – I’m doing well and I am not in China at the moment. I left China a couple of days after the news about a new and contagious virus was out. I planned on leaving for the semester break anyway, but as for now, my planned trip to see John got extended for quite some time. After I have arrived in the US things developed very quickly: airlines cancelled their flights, countries banned (and are still banning) travellers other then their own citizens from entry when coming from China, quarantine measures, and overall an increasing number of new cases. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, my University in Beijing, and also numerous German institutions in China recommend to stay away. So I delayed my return flight for a couple of weeks (yay!). 

On the one hand, I think that there is a lot of hysteria going on, and many people react almost in panic. Every year the flu causes more deaths, and that doesn’t get that much attention. But on the other hand, we don’t know a lot about Covid-19 yet. We know that it is highly contagious, as people can spread the disease without showing symptoms themselves, it has a considerably long incubation time of 14 days (presumably), and the actual disease can turn out everything from mild to fatal. China put up very serious measures and locked down cities with more than 50 million people in total. Also, there are various travel bans, that cause problems as the epidemic hit the country in the midst of the biggest “migration” of modern times. Due to Chinese New Year on January 25th, many Chinese travelled back to their home towns to spend the holidays with their families. Most of these people have not yet returned from their travel.

But it is not only a serious health crisis, it is also a serious crisis of trust. The Chinese society doesn’t trust its own government, and the rest of the world doesn’t trust China. This goes back to 2002/2003, when the Chinese government tried to put a lid on the SARS epidemic, and also to the fact that China is an authoritarian regime half of the world is suspicious about. My personal opinion is that China for the most part is doing a surprisingly good job in trying to get the situation under control. It helps that Chinese society is used to follow laws and regulations. Therefore, the streets and squares of Beijing and other big cities are deserted as everybody stays at home as they are told. People are supposed to self-isolate and only go out when absolutely necessary. Everybody seems to obey. Think about that scenario most everywhere else. The streets in China might be unusually quiet, but the digital world is not. In contrast to the times of the SARS epidemic, now there is the internet and social media, a perfect playground to spread rumours, conspiracy theories, and share and post not-so-reliable information. I was following the news online very closely and I am in close contact with friends and colleagues in Beijing. Especially following social media makes me upset because of peoples incompetence to read and understand texts. For instance, when news was out (at the end of January) that some airlines would cancel some flights, people spread the “news” that no airline serves China anymore. Also that race of news agencies and people alike to post and share information first: the urge to always being on the cutting edge and create the most clicks by presenting the most catchy headlines is horrific. In addition, spreading racism against Asian-looking people or Chinese in general makes me angry. For societies in the west, the society of “the Chinese” seems to display a diffuse, unfamiliar, and hence terrifying concept rather than a huge number of individuals with a very own culture and history, different mentalities, fates, and emotions.

However, fact is that the number of cases is high, the number of deaths also. I miss Beijing, but life there is very restricted at the moment and I – as well as my students – was told to not come back any time soon.  As a result, all over China, universities and schools started live-online-teaching. The country strives to function … but the pressure is high. Economically, but also mentally. People I know back in China are literally on the edge as nobody knows how long life will be that restricted, people fear of getting the virus, and also because there is eventually no tv-show left online they haven’t seen yet. But also sitting out the epidemic far from China is not easy as nobody can predict how long it will take and when I will be able to return. I’m stranded outside the country, but, in my case, fortunately not lost. 

Shanghai

While everything is on hold and in the grip of the coronavirus (not only) in China, I don’t want to miss out on sharing some travelling I did, before things went crazy.

After spending a couple of days exploring Guangzhou a little further and walking down memory lane a bit, I took an overnight train to Shanghai. Several times I had been to this city, the last time only a couple of years ago on a quick stopover with my mom on our way to Cambodia. I remember Shanghai as the most western city in China. As much as the cultural and historical heart of the country beats in Beijing, Shanghai very likely has quite a high heart rate when it comes to financial businesses. The city is known to be a global center for finance, innovation, and transportation, and the Port of Shanghai is the world’s busiest container port. Also, by 2019 with about 180 000 people almost as double as many foreigners live in Shanghai as in Beijing. In total about 24 million people live in this huge city at the southern estuary of the river Yangtze, where also the HuangPu flows right through. The most prominent place is probably the famous Bund that is a waterfront boulevard in central Shanghai. Here you can find the magnificent buildings from colonial times in the Beaux Arts style, from back when the British, French, Japanese, Russian, US-Americans, Germans where holding numerous banks, trading houses and even embassies. Opposing this historical part of Shanghai, you’d find the modern and somewhat iconic skyline of the city with some of the cities best-known buildings such as the Oriental Pearl Tower, Jin Mao Tower and many more. A visit is never complete without paying the Bund a short visit.

However, I didn’t come to Shanghai for sightseeing. These two days where filled with catching up: Helen, who I studied with, happens to be a teacher in Shanghai and eventually we found time and opportunity to meet up after haven’t seen for a mere 15 years. It didn’t feel like we haven’t met for a long time at all! Good times!

… and – social media made it happen! – I met up again with Anja, who flies around the globe for a living. We both grew up in the same area and we went to school together for many years. After school paths have separated, but when I put in my Instagram story, that I am travelling around China a bit, she contacted me and half-seriously/have jokingly asked me about the odds to meet up as she was about to fly to Shanghai. … and It worked out! We met in the labyrinth of one of those huge Chinese markets where we went shopping for glasses together while catching up. We couldn’t believe it ourselves – the last time we actually met was 2008 in New York City and now again on literally the other side of the planet.

After days full of laughter, sharing stories and experiences and after I got myself two new fancy fake-designer glasses for a fracture of the original price I’d have to pay elsewhere, I eventually took a high speed train back to the capital. I usually love going on epic train rides on a slow pace, but unfortunately all tickets for the ordinary trains were sold out. So I got a ticket for a fast one: being on a train that only needs 6.5 hours to cover 1300 km was impressive. But to my disappointment the world outside of my window was very dull: construction sites, faceless conglomerates of ever-same looking high-rise apartment buildings, a grey and hazy sky because of miserable January-weather and air pollution. But, on the positive side, that is definitely a serious and, even more important, sustainable alternative to a domestic flight. 

Guangzhou

Ready to get back to the mainland I stepped onto a super fancy high speed train that would bring me to Guangzhou within not even an hour and with an average speed of 300 km/h. The landscape outside looks like I recall it: little fields of whatever crops, banana plantations, garbage piles along the tracks, run down houses, factories and skyscrapers in the distance, huge bridges, broad highways and over it all hoovers that very visual heavy subtropical hazy air. 

I stumbled off the train and momentarily got enclosed by that chaos of something that is a huge migration. Thousands of travellers stand and sit in this huge arrival hall. Security people yell into their megaphones, volunteers help the lost, railway staff directs people to their platforms. Deciding to travel in the vicinity of Chinese New Year comes close to ‚western travellers suicide‘. When not Chinese, you really have to keep your nerves together. Take a deep breath and here we go. It feels like the whole country migrates back home, back to their parents, grandparents, back to their roots. I tried hard not to feel lost and to orientate myself to find the exit of the train station and the entrance to the metro, that should bring me into the city and to my hotel. But I was worried for no reason – everything went smooth, people were happy, smiling, everything almost felt very much in order. 

In Guangzhou I do what I mostly do: I walk, and I walk a lot to soak all in. As I roam through the city I come along big bustling roads, I stroll along small alleys and make my way through busy market lanes. I feel this bittersweet nostalgic sadness that sometimes overcomes me. I like that feeling. It connects me to places. I smile when I remember street names, I marvel on how many more high buildings tickle the sky. I shake my head in pure astonishment when I see new neighbourhoods appear on the other side of the river that rolls thick and brown through the city like it always did. 

I barely ever walked that much in Guangzhou before. I guess I was terrified to get lost. Nowadays GPS navigation apps are a bliss. I should still feel lost in this huge metropolis, but as long as my phone isn’t running out of battery, I am not. I hold my phone in a clasp. It’s my insurance not to vanish in this ocean of lanes, markets, people that easily swallows you and maybe never ever spits you out again. I am suddenly surrounded by people that speak loud Cantonese, raw parts of meat in a butcher’s store to the right, a woman that plucks feathers from chicken on the sidewalk to the left. Old men on bicycles pass me, young people in stylish clothes with fancy smartphones in their hands don’t even look up. Buildings full of stores for shoes, buildings full of glasses, buildings full of stores that sell flowers, buildings with stores that sell all things needed to have a decent Chinese New Year celebration. Guangzhou is all about food, all about business; some used to call the province the factory of the world. There is probably nothing that you cannot get in this metropolis of 15 million people. People from many different countries come here to chase their dreams. Most of the foreigners I see avoid eye contact (which is a typical occurrence in China), some smile and nod at me, knowingly. 

Memory lane! It’s 11 years that I lived and worked in Guangzhou for a year. My first serious professional teaching experience at one of the most renowned universities in China. Overwhelmed at the beginning, I didn’t want to leave at the end. However, I hesitated to ever come back, because sometimes new visits ruin a memory. Now I was back. Finding my way through the city, along the mighty Pearl River that finds its way into the South China Sea. Eventually entering the campus through this huge gate at the south entrance that I recall so well. Slowly I keep on walking. Yes, I remember the little bamboo forest that shades the campus from the humming noise of the city. Then, the building of the School of Foreign Languages. It is very calm, hardly anybody is here. Chinese New Year, probably the most important holiday in China, calls its sons and daughters back to their home villages, luggage full of presents and stories. The second window to the right on the second floor is where was or maybe still is the little German library where I used to sit and prepare my lectures. I walk on, towards the hotel of the university, where I lived in a nice spacious apartment. I take pictures. Suddenly I notice the litte shop where I used to buy my, well, daily supplies of chocolate and soda. The owner stands outside and looks at me, smiles. It is still the same person. I walk over to him and he smiles even more, says, he remembers me, gives me a big hug. It’s all emotional, very unexpectedly. He laughs and tells me to take a selfie. The campus remains calm, it is as beautiful as I remember: old gnarly trees line the lanes, birds twitter, all the buildings add to a very solemnly atmosphere. Here and there are some shattered palm trees. Even though it is January I can almost recall the hot and humid late summer months when I arrived here. 

Nothing has changed and at the same time everything is different. I am happy to be here, because no memory is ruined. New experiences and feelings are added. 

Guangzhou has what I sometimes miss in Beijing: it is rough, loud, real, chaotic and worn down in a nice way. But also it lacks what I appreciate in Beijing: more calmness, more structure, more distinguished, almost elegant … capital consciousness. The Chinese south is way more fidgety, bustling. In Guangzhou Beijing seems far, far away. 

Hong Kong – city of contrasts

The moment I entered the arrivals hall at Hong Kong airport I could feel the difference. I entered not just a different world, but a different system. 

Everything suddenly seemed to be more colorful, more vibrant; people looked more individual, representing a different life style by behaving more individually. The speed of the city is a faster one, even the walking patterns differ a lot from what I am used to in Beijing. The crowds are more heterogenous, people from many different places. Mandarin, English, Cantonese, Dutch, German – many languages can be heard in the shadows of those sky rising towers. 

Hong Kong is this 7.4 million people city in the south of China, on the eastern side of the Pearl River estuary. The territory was returned in 1997 after 99 years to China. Since that it is officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. As having this special status, Hong Kong maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China. The principle is called „one country – two systems“. 

Recently the city is in the news because of demonstrations and also violent protests. A bill was tried to introduced that would allow the extradition of criminal fugitives who are wanted in territories with which HK does not have extradition agreements, including mainland China. This led to concerns that would subject citizens of HK to the legal system of mainland China and thereby undermine the region’s autonomy and Hong Kongers civil liberties. 

Fortunately the city remained calm. But it was very visual that tourists stay away these days. It’s said that official numbers of travellers in Nov 2019 dropped at about 60% compared to Nov 2018, so the major sights were almost deserted, the prices for accommodation surprisingly low. The many shopping malls, luxury brand stores, boutiques and jewellery stores were also deserted. Shopping-crazy mainlanders make up by far the biggest number of tourists. 

Although both Chinese, Hong Kongers and people from the mainland don’t understand each other. Chinese from the mainland say (probably influenced by the official media), Hong Kongers „hate them“ and reject the PR China. Hong Kongers, on the contrary say, that mainlanders „envy them“. And of course, the on-going rejection of the protests by the mainlanders, lead to even more refusal to be part of one big Chinese Nation. 

A Chinese friend told me that his favourite parts of China, if you’d define the territory of China the way the government does, are Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

While being in Hong Kong I tried to imagine how it would feel for mainland Chinese to be here. Being in HK actually FEELS more free and suddenly even Beijing, that I would define as an international „kinda“ colourful city (because of advertisements of whatever kind and all the bling-bling lights at night), is all grey, concrete and dull, even people are dull and I realised that the dominating colors of clothes are black, grey and brown. HK also means, no more open propaganda posters, but there are commercials on the screens in public transport instead of military parades and all smiles toward the Grand Chairman. Way less surveillance cameras, no massive displays on huge junctions that’d prominently show you if you’d dare crossing the road at red lights, no need to talk about certain things in low voice. Free access to all those websites – google, social media, western news, etc.  – that aren’t accessible on the mainland. But, rumours go that a visit from the mainland to HK would put you on an alert-list. 

Anyway, I wonder about how people perceive HK, however, I am aware that I might perceive it way differently than Chinese probably do. 

This is only one side. I also noticed another aspect: People in HK (or in other places of the so-called free world) are expected to be friendly. But all their smiles seemed temporary, it faded when they didn’t have to deal with me anymore. Whereas in Beijing people that work in service and public spaces aren’t expected to be friendly. But when they smile, I have the the feeling that this is an authentic one, a real one, a human one. 

Other than that what can I say? The city is awesome. To witness that iconic skyline anytime of the day is mind-blowing. To take the tram up to Victoria Peak to enjoy the view from above is purely amazing. To take the ferry to one of the outer islands beams you to – again – another world within 30 minutes: White beaches, laid back lifestyle, hills and mountains to keep you busy hiking or running various trails. 

The huge contrasts is what defines the city: a hybrid between the East and the West, an urban jungle on the one side and remote hilltops, sandy beaches and romantic fishing villages on the other side. A fascinating place. 

Beijing – more thoughts

The longer I live in Beijing, the more I see and hear and feel how this country works. The – I call it – outer world barely has an idea about China. It is way more than that picture that is drawn by the media in wherever country you are at. I am not saying that this is wrong, I am saying that you have to add many more shades to it. However, by living here you start to question common ideas everybody takes for granted without questioning them. But shouldn’t we sometimes question them? Maybe not necessarily in order to abandon them, but to make them better, adjust them. 

Being at the beginning of a new decade, shouldn’t we re-new or even create a vision on how we want to live in the future, in democracies that hard fought for? Democratic nations seem to fall apart. Where did the dream of a united Europe go? Let’s not get lost in pettinesses, consumption and numbness. Don’t let too much dust settle on past achievements.

Countries and world views are on the rise that have the power to change a lot, economically and psychologically. 

There are so many things I would like to share, like to talk about, but I do better not. 

I like living in Beijing – I am very much aware of what I sacrifice. I am very much aware of what I gain. 

Instead of continuing on that, I wish everybody who follows me along a Happy New Year and a great new Decade! May it be a happy one. Do things that make you happy, let’s be kind, empathetic, emotional, authentic, let’s go out, explore and see the world. However, also let’s be unhappy, miserable and sad. That’s okay, because life is not an endless Instagram-feed. 

I end here with sharing some of my favourite b/w pictures I took on my explorations on foot though that gigantic city. Enjoy! 

Beijing – the downsides

Living in Beijing is not just sight seeing, unicorns and good food: After waking up in the morning first thing I do is making myself a coffee. As I love reading about what is going on in the world while I enjoy my coffee I usually check the news. To get a full on idea what’s going on I need to peak though the Great Wall of China that is not always easy. Most of the time the software-ladder to overcome the obstacle to have a look on German and English news is working. Some days it doesn’t and so I just have a coffee. However, my app showing the air quality always works – it mercilessly states the air quality on the air quality index (AQI). Up to 50 AQI it is considered healthy and therefore colored in green. I rarely see that color. I am happy when it is just orange. From 150 onwards the color of my app turns red and I better don’t workout outside anymore. Some days the color shows a deep purple and these are the days when I wish I would live somewhere else. Living in Beijing you get a whole different feeling and appreciation of clean air. Whenever the AQI is between 0 and about 120, nothing can hold me back and I spend as much time as possible outside running or walking. But when winter hits and the city needs heating it gets real bad. Bad air affects the body: My throat is sore, I feel drowsiness, I got headaches and in general it feels like a numb hang over. A game changer, at least for home, is an air purifier that runs day and night. But when going outside, at work, in public, I am exposed. It affects my well-being and my life-quality. 

Alright, as a teacher it is quite natural to google for news and interesting learning material for my students. Also, to show interesting YouTube clips. As it is all censored you either have to shrug your shoulders and go along with it or find your way around that. Use a ladder to peak over, right?

Living here takes effort – it is tiny things, but also big issues. It is challenging and very different to what I’m used to. It effects many ways and is a huge experience and important lesson I am grateful for. To be continued. 

More of Beijing

Beijing is such an interesting city! It is surprisingly green, full of places to explore and marvel on, full of culture and history. I love exploring places and I love it even more when I can share that with the person I love. 

So John and I visited places such as the Emporer’s Summer Palace, BeiHai Park, the Olympic Green (where the Olympic Games in summer 2008 took place) and the Park of Heavenly Temple. On top of that we walked miles and miles to get a feeling of that massive city and to see what’s in between subway stations. Using the subway is very convenient, but it feels like diving under the surface and come up a totally different location without being aware how far the distance is and what’s going on in between stations. 

Some of the major places to see are either parks or within a park. And these parks are spacious! The emporers of the various dynasties knew how to enjoy life: lush summer residences, hide-aways from the citys heat and noise, pagodas, ornate walkways from temple to temple. Landscape architecture at its best. But a place that really is magical is the Park of the Heavenly Temple 天坛公园. The moment you step through the big gates the city is far, far away. Barely any noise, no hustle and bustle is perceptible. The parks layout is all about symmetry and everything has symbolic meaning – colours, shape, sound. For example, the main temple is round and is set on a square fundament. This symbolises the Chinese belief that the sky is round and the earth is square. We caught a perfect day – crisp, tblue skies, rlatively clean air and as the temple is built on a fundament that slighty raises above Beijing level, we had amazing views over the city in all directions. A truly special moment as I saw the beauty and I could feel the eternal purpose the place serves. 

The cold … aaah … Great Wall of China

Yeah, you know it – we love hiking! Wherever we are we try to get some miles in. However, to hike in China is quite a challenge. Even though China boast spectacular landscapes such as impressive mountains, deep gorges, vast deserts, green hills and deep forests, hiking is not (yet) the thing to do. My personal impression is that the Great Outdoors in general and hiking specifically are something people are interested in when getting tired and fed up with their urban life. Chinese generally still prefer glittering shopping malls to rocky trails in steep terrain. It is not that long ago that the Chinese society was an agricultural one – for big parts still is. Why go hiking after you took care of your rice paddy? But people go out and enjoy nature – just in a different way you’d expect: pilgrimage to sacred mountains in China has a long tradition. Nine mountains throughout the country are associated with the supreme God of Heaven and the five main cosmic deities of Chinese traditional religion. These mountains can get incredibly crowded – especially on national holidays several tens of thousand people climb up uncountable steps, follow narrow concrete paths and balance on narrow wooden blanks to get to the peak. You won’t see neither proper outdoor clothing nor proper hiking boots. It is just not the thing you wear, because, remember, that is not hiking. 

The Great Wall is not a sacred mountain, but it is one of the worlds major sights. So definitely a Must-See when in China. John and I wanted to explore parts of the Wall that haven’t been restored yet and we wanted to hike the wall. So we joined a private hiking group that organised a trip to a rather remote part. We got to (not so much officially) scramble up and hike for over 10 kms on old parts of the wall. The whole construction is pretty impressive and follows the rugged crest of the range like the tail of a dragon. Very steep up and very steep down. Unfortunately we had a pretty bad air day and also an icy wind was blowing in. So we were embracing the climbs as they kept us warm, but couldn’t do much about the ever lasting Beijing smog. However, it has been a great experience to hike on that massive former barrier, that was supposed to keep the Mongolians out. But it weirdly didn’t feel authentic: power lines, settlements, concrete roads in the mountains, highways, ghost towns (speculation objects of whomever), huge hotels to accommodate tourists in the close vicinity. 

A peaceful place in all the hustle and bustle

After having walked though the entirety of Forbidden City and up Jingshan (that we started to call ‘debris pile’ as it is all the dirt from when the moat surrounding the city was digged up) we just kept on walking … towards the Bell and Drum Towers that are on a symmetrical axis with Tian’anmen and Forbidden City. Unfortunately we unknowingly picked the only day were both towers were closed for maintenance. So we kept on walking through the hutongs towards the Lama Temple. Hutongs are basically the traditional housing in Beijing. A lot of them got bulldozed down the last years in order to give space to new modern buildings and skyscrapers. Beijing is booming and is in ever-need for more and higher buildings. So an important part of the old Beijing, traditional one storey houses, where Beijingers lived for many centuries, are demolished. But on the other hand new buildings with attached sewage and electricity are built. Walking through the narrow and quiet lanes of the hutongs gave us the sensation of a different world. Finally we got to the most important Buddhist temple of Beijing: Yonghegong 雍和宫. As soon as we stepped through the entrance gate all the noise of the city was dimmed and far away. Even though nowadays the temple gets to see more tourists then monks, the whole atmosphere was very peaceful and calm. People were actually praying, worshipping and burning incense. A gem of a place in that time seems to stand still. 

Forbidden City – or: A visit to the hear of Beijing

On one of those long subway rides to the center of Beijing, John noticed, that the Forbidden City is actually a tiny icon on the subway map. And it is the only icon – no other sights are indicated on that rather technical map that helps to ease the chaos of how to get from one unpronounceable station to another one. The Forbidden City is literally the center of Beijing, the heart of the city, probably the heart of the nation. It was the residence for Chinese emperors for over 500 years and many tried to burn it down several times – without success. However, it is a symbol of Chinese civilisation, but as well a controversy for the Communist Party as the Forbidden City also stands for a „political incorrect, pre-revolutionary time“. But it is a fact that it easily counts as one of the major sights of civilisation worldwide, that is visited by up to 80 000 people every single day. Ten years ago, when I visited the place the very first time, there were no bag checks and security gates. The times they are a changing. Speaking of my first ever visit: it was super cold February in 2009 and one of the rare occasions that it snowed in the city. 

The area is vast and, being blunt, the place lacks of cultural artefacts that would give you a vivid impression of how life might have been when it has been a bustling city and the emporer’s residence. Anyway, wandering around on those cobble stones, that didn’t get replaced yet, walking through another huge gate, marvelling on thick red brick walls, colourful ceramic tiles, dragon heads and mythological figures gazing down from those typical Chinese roofs, is an awesome experience. No visit is complete without climbing up Jingshan just north of the Forbidden Citys north gate. As Beijing itself is flat like a pan, I wondered why there is a hill. But this is the „debris pile“ when the moat around Forbidden City was digged out. Good for us as the view from up the hill not only towards the south but also over the rest of the city – and with a bit of luck – on clear days even all the way west to the West Mountains, is nice.