This is China

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Some defining moments for my summer in China.

Today is my last day in China for the summer. In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve found myself cocking my head more often than usual. There are certain moments here that are hard to explain given our Western backgrounds. These moments are the ones that have defined our experiences in China. They’re the ones that immediately come to mind when I’m asked, “How was China?” They are the moments that can only be explained with the phrase: “This is China.”

Who Will Pay 100 Kuai?
On our second day in Shanghai, we ventured off for a famous, inexpensive Chinese massage. Aven spotted a ‘50 Kuai Massage’ sign on a building with very little pedestrian traffic nearby and we headed for it. A dozen girls in dirty white dresses sprung off the couches and sauntered forward as we approached the glass door. We told them we wanted massages and they immediately lead us up a staircase in the back. As we passed clotheslines of lingerie and were individually divided up and lead into small booths, an air of foreboding fell over the building.

Thirty minutes later, we awkwardly stumbled out of our booths and headed back downstairs, exchanging sympathetic glances halfway between those exchanged at a funeral and those you might give in reaction to catching a wiff of raw sewage. No one spoke. As we each individually approached the counter, we waited to see who would lay down the shameful 100 kuai.

Everyone paid 50.

Car Batteries
One week, my boss and I headed to Taizhou to scout out three companies we were considering for recommendation to clients in Brazil. The third company we visited was an electric bike manufacturer.

They had a very nice website with Flash animation. They had sent us very pretty catalogs with a wide selection of bikes. They invited us to look at their factory.

We entered their ‘factory’ to find a row of about a hundred dust-covered bikes and three young girls bent over a table hand-wiring a series of lead-acid batteries.

We told them we’d call them.

Chinese Rafting
For my last weekend, a few co-workers told me that they wanted to take me on a hiking & rafting trip they had been planning for a year. It didn’t take much to sell me on this idea.

I was surprised to find out that the trip they had ‘planned’ was actually ‘planned’ by a Chinese tourist company and that we were traveling with four busloads of middle class Chinese families. No matter, I thought. Rafting is rafting.

After two stellar hikes among powerful waterfalls in Zhejiang province, we hopped on the bus to head for our rafting trip. After witnessing the raging rapids fed by the waterfalls, I was pumped for what must be at least a Class III excursion. As soon as our bus stopped, I rushed off and grabbed a life vest. I looked for a paddle but found none. A bit confused, I wandered down the path ahead… to find a flat stream under a highway bridge and a dozen wooden Tom Sawyer ‘rafts’ each with a Chinese man armed with a pole to drag our boat by the bottom of the water.

An hour later, I was mercifully allowed to get back on the bus.

Jingle Bells
During the first week, we discovered that the small boxes in our bathroom were actually a washer and dryer. The buttons were all in Chinese but, given there were only two, luck was on our side. I filled it with clothing and pressed the largest button. A red light came on and suddenly the “Jingle Bells” tune floated out of our washing machine. We stared in awe. No one moved until it had finished.

I pressed the second button and the washing cycle began.

Feel free to add your own if you’ve had the pleasure of meeting China.