Changzhou vs. Asbury Park

IMG_20160628_220539[1]

Note: I am still in New Jersey, which is why there is a string of comparative travel posts.

At first glance, it might be insane to compare Changzhou with Asbury Park. One is a 4 million plus industrial metropolitan center in China, and they other really is a city in name only on the Jersey Shore. Asbury Park gets its “city” tag more as a municipal label than as an actual urban center.

There are many substantial and superficial differences. Asbury is next to an ocean, and Changzhou is along the Yangtze River. Monmouth County and most of New Jersey in general does not have air problems, and there are hardly any factories around here. People hardly treat Changzhou as a tourist destination, and beach goers flock to Asbury Park every summer.

If you look deeper, though, there is one important similarity. It’s ongoing development. In Changzhou, something new is always being built and is under construction, and Asbury Park often feels the same way. Both when I lived here and now when I return every summer to see family, there also seems to be new condos under construction. A lot of them look the same. In Changzhou, there is always those brown cookie cutter residential high rises being thrown up.

Asbury Park has been under redevelopment for years. It used to be a swanky destination for the wealthy 80 or so years ago. Then, it slowly fell into disrepair. Race riots broke out in 1970, and much of the town burned. From there, the place descended into severe urban blight that it almost never recovered from. Take the most decrepit looking parts of Newark or New York City, and put it next to the Atlantic Ocean. That’s what the area looked like. One sarcastic bit of grafitti boasted: “Asbury Park: Where the debris meets the sea.” Sometimes, debris even floated in from the sea. It it’s worst, garbage covered the sandy beach. In the 1980s and 1990s, the whole town looked like a shooting locations for a post apocalyptic science fiction movie. Crime and drugs were also rampant. Often, people drove through Asbury with locked doors.

When I moved to this place in 2004, walking out the door meant you possibly might have to contend with drug dealers and prostitutes. I once met a woman who fit both descriptions. However, people other than myself and my wife at the time were trickling in. The LGBT community, like it has in other parts of America, had moved in where renovating the town one house at a time. From there, real estate values have gone up and down, but Asbury has been on a recovery trajectory ever since.

However, when I walk through here, now, I am oddly reminded of Changzhou sometimes. For all of the speedy economic development, you can still find empty, derelict spaces in districts like Wujin — even in the prospering uptown of Xinbei in the greater Wanda area. It’s the same in Asbury. For every new condo development, there are still blighted and boarded over areas. It’s especially true the farther you get away from the beach and cross the train tracks.

You could also say there is one thing in Changzhou that always reminded me of Asbury Park. When I moved to Wujin in 2014, I saw the skeleton of a high rise. It was unfinished, and it stood on the 2 and 302 bus routes along Heping / Changwu Road. Two and a half years have passed, and no further construction has occurred. Something similar has happened in Asbury Park. There used to be something called C8. It was a project that never went beyond a steel framework. It became abandoned, and it became a fenced in tower of rust for a long time. This became a sore point for many of the old and more recently arrived locals. People cheered when it eventually became demolished. Once the rubble was cleared, another construction project took its place. And then, ironically, the real estate market in Asbury flatlined again. Construction halted, and now there is new and different failed real estate project there.

The similarities between Changzhou and Asbury Park essentially start and stop there. The Jersey town only has a limited number of spaces to develop. In theory, the construction projects will come to an end. In Changzhou and China in general, it will likely never end. Something is always getting bulldozed to make room for somethng else.

IMG_20160628_214202[1]
Unfinished construction where the infamous C8 rusted ruin used to stand.

Pudong Security Changes

IMG_20160628_104020[1]

If you are traveling from Changzhou to Shanghai Pudong International, new and extra security measures are in place. This came about because of an explosion that occurred at a ticket counter. Somebody lobbed a crudely constructed explosive, and four people became injured because of it.

In all honesty, this new security check didn’t take much time. I recently flew out of Pudong while on my way to New Jersey to see my family for about 13 days. When I went through this checkpoint, I had walked from the Maglev station to the terminal containing United Airline’s ticket counters. Once I reached the check point, I saw that they were wanding ten people at a time. This was to speed up the flow of travellers. By wanding, I mean security officiallys rub a piece of fabric over everybody’s luggage and bags. If an alarm is tripped, then they will more than likely check people within that group individually.

IMG_20160628_104043[1]

Massage Differences in Jersey

IMG_20160627_102232[1]

If you want to hear or speak Mandarin in New Jersey, the best thing to do is get a massage. Such differences are fundamentally different in Monmouth County than it is in a city like Changzhou.

First, there are all the prostitution stereotypes to contend with. Massage places and spas in China can sometimes be a front for such ellicit business ventures. The more legit places tend to be cloaked Chinese traditional medicine. Typically, these places are either storefronts or whole building billed as “spa hotels.”

In New Jersey, it is not the same. Chinese styled accupressure places are typically located in shopping malls. Many of the customers go to the mall to buy one thing, and then getting work done on their back or neck results as an impusle buy. As in, “Ooh! I want a massage, too!”  The places usually tend to be very spare, and the only bit of decor might be reflexology charts. The other notable difference tends to the equipment. In Jersey, massage places tend to use specialized chairs that allow the massuese to focus on a person’s back, neck, and shoulders. There are also tables. Typically, most massage places in Changzhou tend to only use the table. Neither me nor my friends have more than a very few massage chairs — just the tables.

Interestingly enough,  I have only seen Chinese immigrants and green card holders working at these places. You never see a non-Chinese person. Only on one occasion did I get a massage from a second generation Chinese-American who could speak English fluently. In most cases, many of these workers can barely speak broken English beyond, “How many minutes” and knowing body parts. Conversation between parlor workers always tends to be in Mandarin.

It would be a mistake to think these types of Chinese-centric businesses are common across the USA. I have seen mall massage joints in West Virginia that employed no Chinese people at all. In many regards, this is just one, of many, examples of how multicultural New Jersey can be.

HaiDiLao as a Vegetarian Option

IMG_20160626_102916[1]

Being a vegetarian or a vegan in China poses unique challenges. For all you know, a delicious broadbean or bok choy dish could have been simmered in pork broth. Once a person with particular dietary needs settles into a city like Changzhou, the hunt for potentially friendly eateries begins. There is one place, however, that can be a consistent convenience.

HiDiLao 海底捞 has a name that is kind of misleading. It makes it sound like a seafood hotpot. While you can order fish, it also just resembles a normal hotpot with ingredients like sliced mutton and beef. The last time I went there, the seafood options also seemed a little less prominent than my first visit. For example, there were no scallops available. Still, they offered the standard fish balls, as well as crab sticks and white-fleshed fish chunks. Like all other hot pots, there are also plenty of vegetables available.

However, there is another thing to consider. A diner can select what broth they can use. This has not been the case with every hot pot I have eaten at. The other great thing is that a patron can easily select non spicy soups. At my last visit, a friend and I had two options. One was a light water, ginger, and rice soup. The other was made from tomato. So, this is unlike the risk of ordering veggies and then seeing them served in meat juice.

The other thing to consider is the convenience. HaiDiLao is a chain, and there are locations all over Changzhou and even in other cities. In many aspects, it’s a friendly resturant when you are in a city you may not know all that well.

IMG_20160626_103639[1]

Changzhou Starbucks vs. Jersey Starbucks

IMG_20160624_140226[1]
Starbucks in Changzhou

This is a given: Starbucks in America is not the same as Starbucks for China. This is common with any international food chain — just compare the menus of Chinese KFC, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut and their American counterparts. In some ways, it’s interesting to compare how they are different.

In the case of Starbucks, the bake case provides the most stark contrast. In Changzhou, Starbucks display cases look spare, almost bleak. There is a lot of empty space, and some of that space is filled with single rows of the same product. You know? so many peices of the same type of cheese cake sitting next to each other. The baked goods also share space with bottled drinks, sandwiches, and packaged salads. If you go later in the evening, the bake case looks even more empty.

Starbucks in the USA is a different story. Sure, there may be some gaps. However, the most noticable difference is the variety. You don’t have a case sparsely filled by single plates of the similar types of cakes. In America, there are multiple types of cookies, cakes, and pies.

So, it goes without saying. Starbucks in the USA is better. But, that being said, even with the reduced options, Starbucks in Changzhou seems a lot better than the other chains like Costa or Cafe 85. But that’s just my opinion.

IMG_20160624_132428[1]
Starbucks in New Jersey

How To Get To Pudong International

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Every summer and winter, expats in Changzhou often contemplate how to spend their holidays. Typically, Australians,  New Zealanders, and South Africans prefer going back in January and Febuary — those are the warmest months in the southern hemisphere. Most everybody else rushes to Pudong come June, July, and August. This makes for a commonly asked question. How do you get there? Here are the most common answers.

  1. Task a Chinese Friend to Pick You Up or Drop You Off

Just don’t do this if you can avoid it. Don’t. Driving from Changzhou to Shanghai by itself is time consuming, and that’s just to the city limits. And do not forget that gas and road tolls cost money. Metropolitan traffic jams are nothing new inside Shanghai. If you ask the same friend to do this for you all the time, you are taking advantage of them and wasting their time. They might end up resenting you for this.

2. Private Driver

Out of all options, this is the most expensive option. It’s also the most convenient. This can range anywhere between 700 to 1000+ RMB. If you are on a business or engineering salary, cost may not be an option and this may be a bargain for you.

Health is another reason. Getting from Changzhou to Shanghai’s international travel hub is time consuming and physically taxing. If you have, lets say, issue with your legs, the extra money for the convenience is actually worth it. At the beginning of every summer season, request for driver recommendations become common on Facebook and WeChat forums.

3. The Bus from Shanghai Central Station

Image care of Wikipedia
Image care of Wikipedia

Many people swear by this option as the ultimate convenience. You simple go to the main station, and the bus stop is on the far side of the plaza with the clock tower. The fare, last time I did this, was about 30 RMB. You simply stow your bags, get on the bus, and relax.

Personally, I do not like doing this. If you are worrying about your departure time, you have to calculate how often the bus leaves, and trust me, it wasn’t every half hour last time I tried. Also, the bus has to contend with Shanghai traffic. That can be congested on a summer day. Add rain, and it just gets worse. Maybe, though, it’s better for when you are returning to China, and you don’t have to worry about anything other than getting home.

4. Subway with Optional Maglev Ride

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

I am biased. This is my preferred method. It is easy to manage time, and that is saying a lot, since I am math stupid. It goes like this.

  • Take the high speed train from either the downtown or north Changzhou stations to Shanghai Hongqiao.
  • Go to the subway and get on Line 2. Before Hongqiao, there is only one stop. The subway car will not be crowded. There will, however, be a crowd of people trying to get on with you. There will be a mad dash for seats. Eventually, the crowd will thin out after many stops. You can stay on this line; it terminates at Pudong. However, if you get off at Longyang Station 龙杨战, you can transfer to the high speed Maglev. It’s 50 RMB, but it puts you into Pudong in just eight minutes.

The time calculation goes like this. Budget one hour to get to Shanghai Hongqiao via high speed train. Budget one more hour via subway and maglev. For me, it’s become the most consistently reliable. Sure, it’s not the most comfortabe way, but sometimes you do not know what delays you will face in Pudong itself. This method allows you a consistent “two hours” rule from a Changzhou train station to the airport.

Keep in mind that this is general advice. Each of these options could be broken down into more detailed “how to” explanations.

Who are the Cheng Guan?

IMG_20160621_215746[1]
A Statue outside of a Cheng Guan 城管 office in Wujin.

An old lady flees while holding a basket of peaches. A look of profound concern and consternation twists her mouth into a scowl. As she runs, some of her peaches fall, hit the sidewalk, and roll behind her. She doesn’t care. She can’t sell those peaches now; eluding those chasing her is far more important. Who are they?

They are called cheng guan 城管. Foriegners in Changzhou — and China in general — often mistake these guys for the police. They are not. Policemen wear black uniforms, and the cheng guan wear green. These guys are municipal code enforcers, and typically that involves inspecting business to make sure they have all the right permits. For example, if they think your exterior awning is too big, they will come in and try to levy a fee. Honestly, some Chinese people think they are corrupt and are fishing for bribes half the time.

That’s half the story with these governmental officials. They are notorious for going after unlicensed street vendors. The scene is usually the same: six officers on two eBikes would roll up. (Yes, three cheng guan per bike). And dozens of vendors frantically gather their wares and flee. In Changzhou, sometimes they are there to just scare the illegal street merchants. Other times, they actually enforce the city’s codes. Once, outside my former vocational college, I saw about eight of these officers surrounding one person. One officer held a video camera, and the merchant tearfully confessed to selling illegal noodles. Another officer impounded his food cart and pedaled it away.

I thought about this, because, well, I happened into a statue dedicated to the cheng guan and all they do (or illicitly don’t or illicitly do). It’s in Wujin on Yanzheng Road. It’s just across the street from a relatively new Starbucks. This is just two east-to-west roads north of Changzhou University’s north gate.  The most odd thing here, is the color. It’s completely yellow — but not the golden hue you’d find in Buddhist temples. This monument has an odd buttery color. That was also when that coat of paint has seen better days. Now, you can see the pale stone beneath in some spots. The real irony here is the Chinese; it says, “harmony.”  That is a feeling not shared by many who deal with the cheng guan. 

IMG_20160621_223551[1]

Saucy Onion Sirloin at Monkey King

IMG_20160620_231114[1]

So, I haven’t written anything for this blog in two days. The reason is simple: my university is at the end of its term, and I had to get grades calculated over the weekend. And one should always prioritize their visa-holding day job over what is an unpaid writing job done for fun. Once that task was complete, I decided to treat myself to a nice lunch at Monkey King Italian Restaurant in Xinbei. It was officially the end of the semester now, and I could celebrate.

Once I sat down and started looking at their new menu, I realized that coming to this place may not have been a good idea. Why order pizza when I will be in New Jersey in two days? Same for pasta and most other things on the menu like lasagna. So, I thought maybe I would opt for something NOT similar to average Italian American fare back in The States.

The end result was a sirloin topped with a rich, brown onion sauce. It complemented the steak rather well. Honestly, I do not eat steaks all that often; they are expensive, and I can be a cheapskate. So, this is one of the rare times I gave into the temptation. I had the sirloin medium, and the sauce blended nicely with the juices. Grilled vegetables and a few potato wedges circled the meat. At first, I thought the portioning of the sides were rather small, but I was rather full afterwards. It made me realize the the veggies were there likely to mop up the delicious sauce afterwards, and that is exactly what I did.

Note: While this post is categorized “Xinbei,” Monkey King has another location in Wujin. They have the same owner and the same menu. 

The Value of Picking a Good Ebike Shop

IMG_20160617_193808[1]
Where I bought my current bike in Wujin. Their mechanics know some English — enough to communicate issues and concerns.

There are definite benefits of buying a used eBike from a departing expat, but there is also reasons to buy something brand new. Those reasons can be saved for another time. If you are new to Changzhou, and you are considering an electric scooter, figuring out where to buy it is important.

You shouldn’t buy such vehicles from a supermarket like Auchan or RT Mart. A colleague at an old school did that, and he ended up paying way too much for something mediocre. However, there is an even more important reason. Every time he had a tire or mechanical issue, he complained to me about not knowing where to take it service. I refrained from telling him “I told you so” several times.

Buying from a specialized shop leads to building a relationship with their mechanics. They get to know your bike specifically and the issues they have worked on in the past.  And if the issues are minor, they will sometimes not even charge you for service. For example, I bought my current ride in Wujin’s College Town. On several occasions, I have returned their with an issue, and the repair has been free of charge. Not once have the charged me for labour and time spent. Ever since I moved to Xinbei, going to other shops for minor upkeep has lead to some sort of bill, even when small.

What is a Luohan?

IMG_20160616_111805
Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park, downtown

“Each of these statues has a story behind it,” I said. I glanced over to my friend, and then back to a wall covered with hundreds of colorful sculptures.

“I know,” she said. “It’s a bit overwhelming. Like I am missing out on something I should know about.”

This is a common thing when you are not a Buddhist and you visit Buddhist temples. Imagine not being a Catholic Christian and trying to make sense of Stations of the Cross iconography. All you see is a bit of torture and a guy being nailed to planks of wood. Or, complex imagery in Christian church stained glass windows? You know a story is obviously there, but you do not know enough scripture to piece the story together. It would be easy to misinterpret what you see.

I have done this with statues of Buddhist luohans. For example, I was once standing in Dalin Temple over in northeastern part of Wujin. I saw a statue of a guy ripping his face off to show another face beneath. My mind instantly leaped to Clive Barker horror novels and movies — Hellraiser in particular. That is culturally wrong to do. Most of Clive Barker’s fiction is all about demons and tormented people. In Buddhism, a luohan is definitely not somebody with Hell on their minds. They are people who have found peace and enlightenment.

This is important to know, especially if you are trying to be a tourist who visits temples. It’s not just this way in Changzhou, but China as a whole and Asia in general. Luohans 罗汉 populate Buddhist sites of worship. And so, that leads to the inevitable question. What is a luohan? Who are these people you see statues of in Buddhist temples?

The easiest response is to say they are the Buddhist equivalent of Christian saints. They are not gods or deities; rather, they were people who reached the highest point of spiritual enlightenment. Because of that, they became elevated figures within a religion. Some people pray to them because they don’t want annoy a higher power with petty concerns. For example, in Catholicism, you do not pray to God to find your missing car keys or bank card. You pray to Saint Anthony. The prayer goes like this: “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost and it must be found!” 

Of course, luohans and Christian saints may not be an exact comparison. Still, they are close. However, finding a suitable comparison is part of the challenge living in somebody else’s culture. You can treat visiting a temple as a tourist spectacle, or you can try to understand what you are looking at as a matter of respect. Understanding the concept of luohans is essential to unlocking a lot of the meaning in temple artwork.