Christmas in China


Ella Zhou, News Writer

(Originally published April 9 2018)

“The driving in Wenzhou blew my mind! All the way, streets had eight or twelve lanes, except for the alleys. Motorcycles, bikes, buses, cars, mopeds, segways, hoverboards, and even motorized wheelchairs shared the road. No one used a turn signal when switching lanes and if someone was moving slowly, it was the norm to slide onto the other side of the road to squeeze by. I saw a six-way, 12 lane intersection where cars, aided by traffic directors, moved smoothly and there were random changes in the road from three lanes to two lanes where cars would transition seamlessly. I even witnessed someone driving down a one-way street facing traffic. Even when there were six clearly marked lanes on one side of the road, you could look up and count seven cars spanning the width. There were intersections the size of houses. Randomly pulling U-ys was just how it was. Not once did I see a crash. When I asked my mom why driving in China was so wild, she said it’s because ‘we have fast reflexes. Americans just sit around waiting to get hit.’ There’s always a bike lane. On big roads in the city, there’s one in each direction on each side of the road. Everywhere you looked, there were blue, orange, and yellow rentable bikes, not at all dissimilar to the City Bank bike program in New York.”

That’s how I imagine myself responding if anyone asked what was surprising about my trip to China.

Truth be told though, everything in China was wild. The last time I visited China, or was even out of the country for that matter, was four years ago and I slept through the whole trip. I was only there for a week and jet-lagged out of my mind due to the 13+ hour shift, so when I wasn’t asleep, I wasn’t alert enough to pay attention to anything. In contrast, everything I experienced this visit was equal parts eye-opening and mind-blowing.

First, I was in Wenzhou, the home of my father’s side of the family, for an engagement party.

There’s something messy yet calming about how the sidewalks in the cities are paved with brick or granite tiles and littered with cracks and random changes in pattern. It gave the city a more homey feel. It was nice to see something different than the stark gray concrete of the West.

Even in the busiest parts of the city, trees lined the road. Thinking back, the only place where I didn’t see any was the markets where we went to buy breakfast, and when we were there, there was a lot more that I had to think about than the lack of greenery.

And the markets. Oh, the markets. I could ramble on for hours about them. They were an equally, if not more terrifying experience than the driving. There would be a stall selling chestnuts next to one selling herbs next to a cobbler next to one selling milk tea next to one selling dried fish next to one selling duck tongue snacks. They sprawled for streets. I was so shook that you could eat a full breakfast for about half an American dollar.

When my mom and I went out with one of her friends, she explained to me the importance of knowing people. It was the only way you could get something done in a city with a population of 3 million people, almost 9 times as large as Pittsburgh. That said, the people were still somehow warmer. It felt like you could be friends with anyone.

Even though there were bright lights in all the colors of the rainbow and then some everywhere you looked, the city just felt more real. The claw machines in the malls were in the shape of kawaii cats that changed colors. You could argue that that’s a waste of energy and completely unnecessary, which is why they don’t exist in America. I’d agree with you. It’s just that they made me smile.

There are some simple things that raise the quality of life. They sell socks by foot size. Instead of implementing something like Apple Pay, the most popular messaging service/social media platform incorporated a PayPal-esque system where all you do is scan a QR Code, enter the amount you want to pay, and hit send.

QR codes really deserve a section all to themselves. I saw places where you’d scan to open up the menu, order digitally, request things from your waiter, and pay. Seeing a credit card was a rare occurrence. On top of that, every restaurant I visited had a hotplate in the center of the table so you could keep your soup warm. Genius!

The current trend in Wenzhou was gray-scale. Everyone was wearing at least one article of clothing that was black or some shade of gray. Either that or caramel. It was neither drab nor depressing, as it brought attention to each person. Although, perhaps I read too much into it. After all, people also went places in their pajamas.

On December 20th, I went to this trendy restaurant called the Laowang Hotpot which was located in this cute six-story mall where most shops were liter

This is the sauce bar at Lao Wang Hotpot. Yes, I took a photo. Ella Zhou/Sewickley Academy

ally 20-foot holes in the wall. It had a sauce bar where you could mix your own concoction.

Dinner at Lao Wang Hotpot with family friends. Ella Zhou/Sewickley Academy

The restaurant was based on the idea of hotpot, a large vat with some soup on a hotplate. Everything is  ordered raw and submerged in the boiling liquid. There’s a special set of single-use chopsticks that have a replaceable tip to prevent cross-contamination. On top of all that, there was this brilliant sour plum juice that I’ve been craving ever since I left.

We managed to sneak in right before dinner time. This place is so popular that there are tables outside for those waiting in line. People bring takeout from other places and portable chargers so they don’t starve while they wait.

Later that week I went to a Walmart. I didn’t get to explore, but I could imagine what was around the corner. There were Thomas the Train brand yogurt and the aloe-flavored variety less than a foot away from each other! It’d be hard to find something that wasn’t sold in this city.

We all know about the now infamous extra KitKat flavors from Japan. Ones like strawberry and green tea are available there, but not in America. I’m here to tell you that Oreo is part of the club. Perhaps everything comes in more flavors in the East.

On the way home, I passed a store selling bedsheets. They were on mattresses so you could try them out. Small changes like this just made sense.

On the 23rd, my mom and I left Wenzhou and my brother and father behind as we journeyed to Harbin, where her family is. On our way to the airport, we passed by this random mountain. Next to some high rise apartment buildings! I was just surprised to see a mountain in such an urban area. The heart of Wenzhou was similar in that there were temples on hills dispersed throughout the city.

Domestic flights in China aren’t that different from American travel. Seats still recline and they still serve food.  The only major difference is that phones aren’t allowed, even in airplane mode.

It’s consistently below freezing in Harbin during the winter. This is where the grand ice festival that always pops up on social media takes place.

This is an example of the ice sculptures found in Harbin. They can be found throughout the city in the winter. Ella Zhou/Sewickley Academy

I’ve been here once before, during my 2014 visit. All I remember is visiting the salon and getting a haircut, some minor flooding, and cutting my hand on a fence at the aquarium. I think this city should be known for its sculptures. There are awesome two color sculpted hedges, artfully trimmed like sculptures in a museum, when entering the city from the airport.

During my stay in Harbin, I visited a snack store and an alternative medicine masseuse. Everyone always says that I look sad, so my mom asked him to fix my smile. Smh.

The restaurants I went toall had these big menu books where every dish was pictured. I was at this Japanese place and all the rooms came equipped with a charger and free wifi and a button to call your waiter if you needed anything. It was helpful that everything had been thought about. My dining experience was amazing.

When I was at Super General, a Korean restaurant, the menus not only had pictures of all the dishes but also suggestions of what went well with what if you wanted a balanced meal. You can write on the small paper copy of the menu and add notes to lessen the chance of an order being interpreted incorrectly. The waiters carry little phone-sized devices and each order is programmed in with a number. These changes don’t really change the consumer experience, they just make everything more seamless and efficient.

The inside of the Harbin Music Hall is designed so that the acoustic experience is the same from the first row to the last. This means mics are unnecessary. Ella Zhou/Sewickley Academy

On Christmas day I went to see a concert at the Harbin Music Hall. The Harbin Symphony played pieces from many notable movies such as James Cameron’s Titanic, The Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Forrest Gump, My Neighbor Totoro, Man of Steel, as well as a Christmas classics medley featuring songs like “Silent Night”, “Jingle Bells”, and so forth.

I’ve got some good memories.

I ate the most delicious sweet potato I’ve ever had. It was a roasted sweet potato that I got from a guy wheeling a cart around in the street. I was eating it in an Ugg store. Shortly after, my uncle got me a popsicle. When it was -4°F. (That’s the cold that bites. You pull your hat down so far you can’t see and pray to whomever you believe in that frostbite doesn’t take your nose. Or you ask for it to go first. No judgment.)

In China, many people go to hotels to dine. Or at least, food was incorporated in many events. If you went to a bathhouse, you could dine there as well. When we were at the Bellagio, a hotel restaurant in Harbin, I watched a waiter very skillfully open a tin foil pouch of steaming hot fish with two toothpicks. He has my respect. Additionally, pineapple-apple juice is great.

I think though, what surprised me most in my journey in China, was that I didn’t see a single pizza place, and wasn’t all that bothered.