Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Borders and Boundaries
My Standard column for this weekend. Mostly new stuff with a sprinkling of reheated blog. Thanks also to my Shenzhen Daily foreign barbarian copy editor replacement (and CU journalism school alum) Daniel, from whose blog I lifted some insightful, entertaining material. Interested parties can read more of his stuff at
Though Shenzhen and Hong Kong are close neighbors bound at the hip by Beijing and separated only by some piddling linguistic, educational, cultural, economic and historical differences one might think that someone who regularly bops back and forth between both is a reckless adventurer -- a 21st century Captain Cook of sorts; either that or just a cretin, that is if questions and reactions I field from residents of both cities who have never been to the other are any measure.
``You live in Shenzhen? What about the dead bodies?'' was one I got early on from a Hong Kong native after taking a job here, though I still maintained a Shenzhen apartment.
``What dead bodies?'' I was genuinely bewildered. The only corpses I'd seen were the flayed farm animals and poultry in the markets.
``My father said there are many dead bodies on the streets,'' she said.
It turned out that her father had fled to Hong Kong in 1949 and not looked back. She had never been to the mainland and it was clear that her father's horrorific tales of civil war and poverty ensured that she probably never would.
But several months later a news story that began, ``A man's body parts have been found scattered in three neighborhoods in Shenzhen ...'' gave me pause.
You know, I thought, sometimes father does know best.
In Shenzhen the stereotypes are less brutal. Hong Kong is regarded in almost mystical terms -- a shimmering wonderland of untold wealth, sophistication and opportunity if you've got the right travel pass or can fold yourself into a fetal position and breath through a pinhole while a friend casually tries to pass you off as ``heavy baggage'' at the border.
(Odds are it works, at least halfway. I often see the mainland guards at the border X-ray baggage scanners snoozing, sharpening their solitaire and hand-held video game skills or just slurping tea and gossiping as unviewed suitcase-after-suitcase-after unwieldly blue plastic vinyl wrapped lump of uranium yellowcake trundles through.)
There are some honest differences, however. The most stark I've seen were in communications with mainlanders schooled in a system where critical thinking and questions only bring trouble at worst and puzzlement at best.
Here's an example from a blog kept by an American who replaced me at the State-owned English language paper for which I once labored in Shenzhen. What was under discussion was a story about a bridge that was overloaded with traffic. The Shenzhen government's solution? Close the bridge after 45,000 vehicles have used it and open it again the following day. Repeat as necessary.
Foreign copy editor: ``So, what happens after 45,000 vehicles?''
Shenzhen page editor: ``Well, the bridge closes for the rest of the day.''
Foreigner: ``And what happens to the traffic then?''
Page editor: ``Uh, ... anyway ...''
Foreigner: ``Is there an alternate route for the drivers?''
Page editor: ``I don't know, the report didn't say.''
Foreigner: ``What?!''
Page editor: ``Maybe the drivers should know the way.''
Foreigner: ``What if it's a foreigner who doesn't know the area?''
Page editor: ``Uh ... anyway ...''
Foreigner: ``Didn't they consider anything for what might happen after the bridge closes?''
Page editor: ``No, they know they'll know after the program starts on Friday.''
Foreigner: ``They didn't think about the future at all?''
Page editor: ``No, they are `nowists.'''
Foreigner: ``What?!''
Page editor: ``You know, `nowism,' in which only `now' matters.''
In Hong Kong, the overcrowded bridge issue would've been simple. A simple six-month period of public consultation, followed by a survey, a decision to impose a huge toll hike and build a canopy over the bridge, a subsequent lawsuit or two followed by a public transporation and truck driver hunger strike and some demonstrations with people sporting inflatable chicken heads on their heads. Healthy public debate, in other words. None of this `nowism' nonsense.
But the most common cliche spouted by Shenzheners, usually by those who also aspire to dress to impress, is ``Hong Kong people judge you only by what you wear and how much money you have.''
Like the corpse question, I found this one to be initially ludicrous -- until I had a November dinner engagement with a Hong Kong born woman who lived in Mid-Levels. Though the calendar said ``autumn'' it was about 28 Celsius and the usual gazillion percent humidity. As such, I had dressed for comfort which meant clean khaki shorts snappily set off with a spiffy white cotton shirt.
Her eyes widened in horror when we met.
``You're ... you're. You're wearing SHORTS!''
Her tone implied that I had also accessorized my outfit with a freshly severed human head dangling from my neck.
``Shorts! In November! No one wears shorts in November. No one! It simply isn't done in Hong Kong.''
Suffice to say it was our last and only dinner.
In Shenzhen I could've been wearing a live badger loincloth and the only interest it would pique would be culinary. The city is rife with fashion felons who routinely shop in their pajamas at 3pm. Some also spit in elevators and the concept of ``orderly lines'' is completely alien.
Of course, there's also the traffic situation wherein zebra crossings and traffic lights are seen as amusing decorative props at best and even a mandrill on methamphetmines is licensed to drive provided enough palms are greased.
Another frequently rap against Shenzhen is that it's ``dangerous.'' That's not the Shenzhen I know -- daily traffic aside, the only brush with danger I've personally encountered was on one December afternoon on a bus when I was tapped on my shoulder by a passenger who, via sign language, pointed out a cowering scoundrel who had been fiddling with my backpack.
I confronted him in English and he protested his innocence in Chinese. My fellow passengers, however, joined in condemning him in an unexpected, unscripted show of civic solidarity. The ticket taker was alerted, who shouted to the driver who stopped the bus in mid-traffic, opened a door and screamed at the wannabe thief to hit the streets.
It warmed my heart. And they didn't even care that I was wearing shorts.
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