The Dogs Bark the Loudest
Enjoy this special guest post from Austin resident Teresa Kohl, who traveled to China to bring back this report!
Last July our family traveled to Beijing China for a two week Chinese (Mandarin) language summer camp. Our children attended the camp with local children while we attended survival level language classes in the morning and planned excursions in the afternoons. After dinner we were free to do as we will.
We soon discovered this trip would entail a lot of something known as “walking.” If you are a typical American walking is what you do when you leave your cozy air-conditioned house and get into your car when you need or want to go somewhere. If you are a typical Chinese person it is apparently all you do all of the time.
I entered this “walking” thing at a complete disadvantage since I had been suffering from a self-diagnosed case of plantar fasciitis since February of that year. Plantar fasciitis is heel pain and swelling on the underside of the foot. It really stinks because your feet hurt from the minute you step out of bed. There are all sorts of torture devices designed to “help” but the best solution is rest and time, of which I had neither. Only consolation is once you get moving usually the pain evens out and isn’t as bad as first thing in the morning. By the time of the trip I was healing but not pain-free.
I arrived in China with a pair of walking shoes and a pair of Clark sandals. In the walking shoes I had added new a new set of Dr Scholl insoles for the trip. After only day one my husband had talked me out of them! You may wonder why I gave them to him, but I decided to do so based on one known consequence and one assumption; the consequence of not giving them up would be a constantly moaning husband and the assumption was that somewhere in China there had to be another pair of insoles. Since we were walking past all sorts of businesses every day surely one would have them. So, in the end I decided my feet would suffer for my ears to get silence.
The nice thing about a quest is the interesting things you see on the way to fulfill it. After a dinner of cat ear noodles (looks like cat ears, thankfully tastes like noodles) we went exploring and discovered a massive wad of old school telephone wire overwhelming the sidewalk outside a highrise building that was in the process of being modernized. It was a sad reminder that the worldwide death of the landline is nigh.
Here and there on the streets, there were were peeling wooden doors cracked open to reveal ancient alleyways and hand-carved stone.
I found the quirks delightful. In contrast, my husband was anxious about the overall air quality: he lived in constant fear of being poisoned by unregulated asbestos removals at poorly protected construction sites, an addition to his pre-trip nerves about the smog from the car clogged streets.
The stores in Beijing aren’t like the ones we have in the U.S. Entrepreneurs set up shop anywhere there might be a parade of potential customers. Pocket shops lined the sidewalks with goods displayed on bits of used cardboard. Little shanty-style convenient stores lean on walls and tiny storefronts line the first floors of almost every building. Some shops specialize in just socks (no insoles) while others displayed knock-off name brand clothing, anime/popular character themed items, hair accessories or creative home remedies. Others seemed to have no direction and sold whatever the owner could find to put out. While photographing a forlorn chair on the sidewalk I encountered a determined saleslady willing to sell it and its companion settee to me. “I think that would be over my baggage limit, ma’am.”
Food vendors with handcarts tuck themselves into all available corners with extension cords snaking across the sidewalks into buildings to power their enterprises. (Note to male travelers, massage businesses NOT on the first floor may not be the kind of massage place you want. I am not versed on the legalities of that profession in China!)
Yet within this abundance of unregulated capitalism I was disheartened to find no merchants selling the shoe insoles I desperately needed. The old adage about how the word “assume” will “make an ass out of u and me” was keenly felt with every step. The Chinese exhibited the purest form of capitalism in both the good and bad of it. Good, being that the citizens have a chance to make their own way by working hard, but bad in that it seemed there were no regulations either for setting up shop or on some of the merchandise itself. Perhaps with 21 million people to keep in line the city government can’t keep up?
The grandest display of this unregulated capitalism was a group excursion we took with the children to practice their bartering techniques. All the families were taken to a giant complex that was set up like a old school multilevel department store in the United States. Instead of one company selling all the goods, it had flea market style stalls grouped by merchandise sold. To shop here, you must suck it up and barter. The kids negotiated for Pikachu stuffed animals and they both got an excellent price! We scored great gifts for less then we would have paid at the tourist markets. The markets of chaos there made me appreciate our regulated American system, even though what I buy was probably “Made in China.”
To be fair, walking wasn’t the sole means of transportation in Beijing. We traveled many days by their quite clean and efficient subway system. The announcements were made in English so there was no language problem. We also used the bus system which was just as efficient –probably because you are not allowed to talk to the driver. Really, don’t talk to the driver! I tried, then got the “look” from everyone on the bus.
The most interesting mode of transport was the Chinese version of Uber. These rides were arranged by our guide because the app and the driver usually didn’t speak English. Pop in, hold on and if you audibly gasp then expect a laugh from the driver!
There are a lot of cars everywhere, though China is not as bad as Italy as for make your own rules/lanes but it was still creative driving at it’s finest. If you own a car in Beijing you are assigned days you can drive it in town. This limits the cars on the road and lowers the potential smog levels. Considering the number of cars we saw everyday, I call it an excellent practice.
After about a week in Beijing with severely sore feet and no insoles to calm them, I went on a solo sojourn in spite of my barking dogs. About three blocks from the hotel I noticed an alley where people were entering a building through a PVC strip curtain. As a curious but not cautious person I immediately wandered in. Wahoo! I had discovered the Wu Mart. At first I thought it was a just a convenience store with Hello Kitty themed wine coolers, but in the back corner I found a cart escalator. I ventured down. The second floor held the grocery sections with meat, frozen treats and produce. But wait. There was more! The third cart escalator took me to the housewares/healthcare and stationary level. My salvation in the form of shoe insoles were finally in my hands!
In January of this year the young man who led our group on the death march style walking tours arrived in the US to visit and stay with a local family. After a week driving around here in Austin he said he understood why the Americans adults were miserable from walking. On my end I have been trying to walk a few miles every day in case I ever go back to China for that chair and settee.
Teresa Kohl is a jill-of-all-trades who hopes one day to master one of them. She lives in Austin with her family.
All China photos by Teresa Kohl and used with permission.