Category Archives: Weird

My Life, Illustrated by a Dinosaur Park Parking Lot

“You know, most Americans would think that…”

“I am not a typical American.” I say this to cut a person off. I always do. Only, I do it politely.
My biography is way to long rehash completely, but it’s true. I will never fit the stereotype of “American” that some Europeans or Asians would love to quickly characterize. Plus, I do not say this out of vanity or rampaging self esteem. It’s simply just factually true. I am not your average American, and I was reminded of this upon a recent visit to Dinosaur Park in Changzhou’s northern Xinbei district.

Yes, Dinosaur Park — with its multitude of roller coasters,its rides and its prehistorically themed shopping plaza right outside its entrance. Here, you can find goofy sculptures of extinct reptiles wearing top hots or crowns.   The architecture of the buildings incorporates this dino so heavily it seems to drip from every wall, every store front. So, one could easily ask this: why did such a gaudy place give you such existential feelings about your nationality?

Well, it wasn’t Dinosaur Park — rather the strange, semi-abandoned empty parking lot next to it. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even have an advertised name.  It’s just there. It’s filled with short concrete pillars, and each has a country’s flag and a short geographical blurb in Chinese and English.  As themes go, it’s a stark incongruity to the Dinosaur themed kitsch it’s next to.

I found myself there wandering among the pillars retracing every period in my life.  I looked for and mostly found the flags of countries I had been to.  That would start with Germany, where I was born on an American Air Force Base. Only, that was The Cold War, when East and West Germany were two separate countries. Since then, reunification happened after the Berlin wall got sledgehammered. The presence of the American military in Europe and Germany has been drastically reduced since then.

After that, I wandered until I found the United Kingdom. But that wasn’t enough. The strangest part of these pillars is in who was included and who wasn’t. I couldn’t find a flag for Pakistan to send to a friend via Wechat, but Bermuda was there, instead. I lived on that island chain for three years after my family left the UK. They USA once had a naval base there. I lived there for three years. Bermuda is a self-governing territory within the United Kingdom. It’s practically an independent country except for British Colonial legalese. Strangely enough, other territories were there when other major, globally impactful nations were absent. More on that later.

Only, I didn’t think about that as yet. I was too busy tracking down Belgium. All the while, I could think of nothing but excellent chocolate, salty potatoes, beer like Chimay, and the awkwardness of my eighth and ninth grade years in high school near NATO’s military headquarters.  Once, I snapped the photo, I quickly moved on.

I dearly wanted to find The Netherlands. Those were special, if yet frustrating three years. Holland remains my most nostalgic, fondly remembered years while living in Europe. Here, the people were extremely friendly, and here, I turned 18 and left for college in America. The Netherlands was the last European country I lived in, and for a long time, I missed the place desperately.

Imagine the culture shock I might feel. I was an American who never really ever lived in America. And I ended up in West Virginia, a land of mountains, shuttered coal mines, and fundamentally strange people. None of them could truly understand or comprehend me. They grew up in small towns and never travelled; they had roots and extended families. I was a drifter, but that was how I was raised by my parents. Literally. Living in America left me fundamentally unimpressed. There was no spiritual awakening. There was no profound feeling of “coming home.” America felt to me as alien — as foreign — as Germany, the UK, Belgium, Bermuda, and the Netherlands did.  Only, I was supposed to feel proud, and I felt nothing but shame instead. How else can you feel when you share a culture and a language with the people around you, and you still feel like an outsider? I quickly took a picture of the American flag and moved on. I didn’t want to dwell on my many personal ghosts.

China, as one might expect, was super easy to find in this strangely international parking lot. Multiple concrete posts feature this nearly solid red flag with yellow stars. I took multiple shots of this from different angles. Some had dinosaur park in the background, and some had your typical Chinese residential group of skyscrapers. That’s also where my story currently ends. I work in China now, and I live in Changzhou. Life, right now is rather nice. Sure, it’s not what I imagined for myself years ago, but life never turns out exactly as you planned.

Are You Looking for Shit?

What the hell is this shit?
What the hell is this shit?

Living in China is to be sometimes confronted with a number of hilarious WTF! moments. Imagine this: you are shopping at Nandajie in downtown Changzhou. You pass a restaurant, and you seemingly do not notice at first. Yet, something alarms you. It starts in the corner of vision; something registers as “not quite right,” but you are not sure what it is. So, you stop walking and you turn. What you see, not only makes your jaw drop, but the bottle of water you are sipping falls from your hand. You blink a few times, and you try to comprehend the epic weirdness – but it’s hard. Very hard.

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Literally eating out of a urinal.

Why? You are staring through the window of a poop-themed restaurant. Most of the seats around the tables are toilets. Plush and cuddly stuffed turds hang from the wall. The seat back cushions are shaped like swirled-up piles of crap. Shit really factors in big to the decor, but that’s not the most surreal part of it all. The weirder parts are the patrons, the happy diners you might see here. It’s a Saturday night. A group of guys huddle around a table and the empty beer bottles crowd their table to the very edges. A love struck man ignores the pork, mushrooms, potatoes, and other vegetables in front of him to gaze adoringly at his date. He is oblivious to how shit surrounds him. The most off-putting thing is the family you see.  With chopsticks, a Chinese mom and dad warmly take turns feeding sea vegetables to their young, rambunctious, and squirming son. All three smile and enjoy a heartfelt bonding moment – despite the constant reminders of human excrement around them. I didn’t know how they could be so oblivious about eating around so many reminders of defecation.

Maybe Americans are just culturally prude? This is something I have often asked myself for many reasons – especially when it comes to this particular restaurant. It wasn’t because it offended me; it didn’t. It’s because, secretly, curiosity had the best of me. I wanted to go in and see what the hell the place was about. Only, I didn’t have the courage to do it by myself. Well, that changed, recently – thanks to a most daring and most adventurous friend. Together we boldly went where some Changzhou expats might fear to tread.

So what was the poop restaurant like? Surreal, for sure. I sat on a toilet, and my friend had a regular chair. One of the most immediate drawbacks became apparent. If you sit on a toilet in one of these places, you can’t move it around to find your comfort spot while eating. You are stuck in one place and must stay there. Other problems included the table itself. This was a “Paper Barbecue” place. Like hot pot in China, you select raw ingredients, bring them to your table, and your meal cooks in front of you. “Paper BBQ” has a heating element / grill within the table itself. The paper keeps grease all in one place and not falling into the heating element.. At our table, the grill seemed a bit faulty. Half the food cooked quicker than the other

Breast shaped sippy cups?
Breast shaped sippy cups?

half. The paper itself and oil burned quickly, giving off an unpleasant odor. Long afterwards, my friend complained that the smell had gotten into her clothes and hair. Days later, she reported that the stench is still in her jacket, and she was considering getting it washed or dry cleaned. The taste of the food lingered long afterwards. It was mostly cheap vegetables and inexpensive, low quality meat. The fatty pork and beef left my stomach slightly upset. I chose to ignore that because I was in the presence of my lovely friend. My attention needed to be focused on her, exclusively.

If I tried to describe every weird thing I saw, this review would never end. So, I will just stick to the most utterly bizarre, and the best way to handle artless transitions is to use bullet points.

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    A shitty uniform.

    The biggest incongruity is the name, 29 主题烤吧The Chinese word for shit is nowhere in its name. It just plainly says “themed restaurant” and hints at the cooking method.

  • This sort of eatery really doesn’t have real waiters or waitresses. It’s self service, after all. However, one busboy sported a shirt that says, in translation, Are you looking for shit? The Chinese text is above a picture of poo.
  • Some of the  ceramic plates meant for cooked food are shaped like urinals.
  • There are both boxed drinks and fountain drinks available. But the glasses are shaped like breasts that force you to suck at a nipple.
  • Hand-washing sinks are shaped like bent-over buttocks.
  • Cartoonish porcelain turds with exaggerated facial expressions await you upon checkout; they are by the cash register.
  • This wasn’t the only feces-themed restaurant in Changzhou.  There used to be another in the downtown Injoy Mall.
  • If you Google China Shit Themed Restaurant, you will be bewildered to find that these places are extremely common in The Middle Kingdom. 
  • I could go on and on and on. And then go on some more.

And, that’s sort of the point. The surreal nature of the place is its only selling point. It certainly isn’t the food, and women will more than likely hate that a stench will cling to them long after they leave. The only reason to go here is to experience the weirdness first hand.

Cartoon poop.
Cartoon poop.

Working the Map: Tianfu Cemetery

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There are many ways to learn about a foreign country. The most obvious is to pick up a book and read, but it’s not that simple when you live in China. A lot of the broader strokes of Chinese history can be found in English, but if you are trying dig your fingers into something local, the information is just not simply there if you can’t read Chinese. Google Translate, while useful, is great for a general idea regarding a text, but it garbles and distorts nuance out of focus. Plus, smaller cities like Changzhou are more obscure subjects to most travel writers. Places like Beijing, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Guangzhou suck up most coverage. So, what does that leave you? Public monuments, parks, museums, and things like that. Recently, I developed another tactic that’s both helped me learn new Chinese characters and more about the landscape I live in.

I call it “working the map.” It’s rather simple, and I doubt I’m the only one to come up with this. I look at a map of Changzhou, Wuxi, Shanghai, et cetera, and pick two to three locations. Then, I go out and actively try to find them in the real world. It works better if you are picking the locations on your computer or your phone and not a real, paper map. This way, I can type in new characters I’ve learned. For instance, 故居 (guju) means “former residence,” and on a map that’s usually attached to a historical figure.  It’s weird how if you change the keywords ever so slightly, you get different results. A word like 墓地 (mudi) will bring you “graveyards,” but a characters like 陵园 (ling yuan) may not. They both are places that involve the dead, but they are not exactly. The first is “graveyard” in a general sense, and the second refers specifically to a walled in compound with graves. The same nuance can be found in English – tomb, grave, mausoleum, and cemetery are not all exactly the same in meaning.

Sometimes, “working the map” leads me to a cultural hidden treasure, and sometimes it doesn’t. On the most basic level, it is what it is: an excuse to get out of my apartment. I did this recently with a place called 天府陵园 (Tianfu Cemetery). Since it’s October and Halloween season, I’ve been making a point to locate and visit as many cemeteries in Changzhou as I can. I can assure you, some Chinese people might find this activity a little bit odd or strange. Chalk that up to cultural differences. Anyhow, I also picked Tianfu Cemetery because it was relatively close. I had an afternoon class, and I didn’t want to venture too far away from my school. Plus, I figured I could stop at RT Mart for dinner provisions on my way back.

Getting to Tianfu didn’t seem as convoluted as some other places I’ve been to in Changzhou, like Yun Nantian’s home. First, I rode my electric moped to Yancheng in Wujin. This is the big historical attraction from the Spring and Autumn era of Chinese history. There’s also a zoo, an amusement park, and two of Wujin’s foreign restaurants (Monkey King and Chocolate’s). I was on Yanzheng Road, which is on the south end of this popular tourist destination. Once I passed the first intersection, I kept an eye out for Hubin Road. By now, I could smell that I was in one of the more industrial areas of Wujin. You can actually smell the pollution here, and the air feels a bit gritty on your eyeballs.

A crumbling hole where garbage is burned.
A crumbling hole where garbage is burned.

Eventually, I found myself on a Dongbao Road. Here, there are factories, and drab concrete barrier walls. Some of these have crumbling walls, and the locals have used them as incineration points. Basically, people have thrown their garbage through the hole and then set the trash on fire. Only, the job never got completely done. You can say that most places that burn garbage. There’s also something always left over.

This idea also carried over to Tianfu Cemetery. The front of the compound features a semi-enclosed area with a short concrete wall. There, a pile of charred remnants still smoldered and gave off whips of acrid smoke. I wondered how this was different than, say, a Taoist or Buddhist temple, where the air is also thick with smoke. Those sacred sites also have pits and places to burn things, but that’s usually incense. I didn’t smell incense outside Tianfu, but given the Chinese veneration of their ancestors, I also highly doubt people would incinerate garbage there. So, it was probably joss paper. This can be seen as a sort of “spirit money used as a burnt offering to the dead. This paper can be simple, or it can be ornate with gold or silver foil attached. Joss Paper is not fragrant, like incense either. If you believe some sources, this smoke it gives off can be toxic, and prolonged inhalation can harm a person’s health.

The front of the cemetery featured the usual sort of Chinese gate with curved-up edges. Beyond that, I could see

Garbage dump or place of burnt joss paper?
Garbage dump or place of burnt joss paper?

black stone tombstones in rows. There were also buildings and other sorts of things. I looked at the metal gate. It had blocked access to cars. There was a door-like entrance, and for a moment, I thought about walking in and looking around. Only, I didn’t. The place was staffed, and I really didn’t know the Chinese attitudes about regarding burial sites and casual visitors. Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was be culturally offensive.

So, I just jumped on my eBike and moved on down the road. Visiting the entrance of Tianfu Cemetery came with no cultural or personal epiphanies or revelations. My personal knowledge of Chinese or Changzhou history wasn’t particularly advanced by the visit. Going there had just been a case of “working the map.” At the least, another small part of the city is not unfamiliar to me, now.

The West Taihu Church that Wasn’t

West Taihu Wedding Complex

NOTE: This is an old cross post from my personal blog. 

“What do you mean it’s not a church? It has a big cross! It looks Christian to me!” My Chinese friend looked befuddled.

“No,” I said. I pointed out the window at the steeple of one of Changzhou’s very, very, very few Christian worship centers. We were on the sixth floor of a building, and you could see it across Yanling Road, right behind Culture Palace Square. “That is a church. The place in West Taihu is not.”

“Oh,” a second Chinese friend entered the room. “What are you two talking about?”

“Have you seen my Gehu Lake photos on WeChat?”

“Yes. Such still water. Are you going to write about exploring Gehu?”

multi-faceted hall

“Yes … but no, also.” I bit my lip and thought she must have seen the picture of the actual lake I had taken. “No, not that photo. Here—” I dug my cellphone out of my pant pocket and summoned a photo of the building in question. “I mean this.” I found the right picture and tilted my mobile towards her. She leaned over and squinted.

The photo depicted an oddly faceted building with slanted angles. The base of the building, for example, was narrower than the top. Opaque and reflective glass made up the entirety of the exterior. The odd and intersecting lines might remind one of a gem stone you might find set in an engagement or wedding ring. This weird-looking building stood next to a tall, narrow, white arch. Toward the top, there was a simple cross. So, yes, to the casual observer, it did indeed look like a church.

Christian themed gate

The interior, as far as I could tell when I was there, just reinforced that. The entrance was open, but access was closed off by a huge metal gate. Here, too, a golden-yellow cross would remind one of Christianity. If a person were to look towards the roof, they would also see another strong bit of spiritual linkage. The words “Ave Maris Stella” had been carved in white. It’s subtle, but you could see it. The white on white shading, however, made it hard to effectively photograph. In Latin, those words roughly mean “Hail Star of the Sea.” It’s fitting, in a way, since there was a vast body of water right behind the building. It was, however, Gehu Lake and not an actual sea or ocean. Ave Maris Stella was also a hymn or a chant sung in medieval European monasteries and abbeys. The lyrics speak of devotion to the Virgin Mary. So, yes, it’s another misleading detail that screams Christianity.

Although I could peer inside, a slightly rusted cable lock blocked access and entry. One might conclude that the rust meant this place hadn’t been used in a long time. However, if there is one thing I have learned in China, manufactured metal objects here corrode a lot quicker than in other countries. Rust is not a good predictor of age, here. Also, inside: a staircase led upward to a spot that looked like it might be a vessel for holy water. There were spaces on both sides of this staircase, and an elevator door stood on the right. Toward the roof, you could see a chandelier, but it still had a protective covering on it. Besides the Latin inscription, there wasn’t really much else to look at. What appeared to be a stained glass window was over an open doorway into the congregational hall.

Stone slabs around wedding chapel

When I had visited there a few times, this place really piqued my curiosity. I walked around the building several times to see if I could find a window to peer into. I had no such luck. Shiny black stone slabs encircled the structure. There, you could see a series of nozzles, and some of them had been arranged in a pattern. This was likely a water fountain, but its use is also questionable. A few of these dark squares were broken or overturned.

The misleading religious theme continued across the street. A staircase stretched up a small hill to a stone and metal gazebo. At the foot of those steps, a bas relief carving depicted angels. These would not be the winged warriors with flaming swords one might find in The Old Testament or the Torah. These were childlike and nude cherubs – you know, the sort of heavenly creatures that don’t actually smite anything. That’s where the Christian references stop, actually. If you climbed to the top, you would get a good vista point to see the surrounding ecological park land.

As a whole, this place largely confounded me and confused me. This so-called “church” stands in the West Taihu Bay area situated at the north of Gehu Lake. The Galaxy Moon Bay resort is being built on one side, and more construction projects sit on the other side and elsewhere. If you follow the road for a few kilometers, you will end up near the grounds for the Eighth China Flower Expo, which happened in 2013. In short, nobody really lives in the West Taihu park area besides Chinese construction workers. There are not many Christians in China or Changzhou, so the mere existence of this place made me scratch my head. Who would actually attend religious services far out this way? Especially in a building this big?

I later found out, via Baidu, that this place is not a church at all. I first discovered this when I tried locating its name on Baidu Maps. Google’s maps left the whole area blank. Baidu, however, had some text that, when translated, meant “West Taihu Wedding Hall.” After cutting and pasting those characters into Baidu’s search engine, I found a few references that confirmed this. It was, indeed, a wedding hall. This actually made a lot of sense. Every time I visited this part of Gehu Lake, I had seen a lot of couples wandering around with photographers. Not only were the women wearing wedding gowns, but the couples were making the sort of smoochy and lust-filled eyes at each other that only the soon-to-be-married can make.

Notting House

The weirdness of this didn’t stop there. This wedding hall has a financial and business connection with Notting House. This is a gaudy showroom and restaurant in downtown Changzhou, and a highly reliable source told me the German food there was quite terrible. Avoid the schnitzel, I was instructed. As for the showroom, it depicts real estate projects underway. This includes the Notting Town complex. It’s patterned to have a “European” style, but it looks more like a kitschy and cartoony version of medieval architecture. Strangely enough, one website lists 2013 as “opening hours,” and 2014 as “Check in.” The several times I have been out there, the construction site seemed abandoned and derelict. An empty showroom sits in front of the promotional barricade advertising the development. Sometimes, the place seemed haunted and oddly silent with the exception of the sole clank of a metal against something. I have since seen construction workers there, and a news item on the Changzhou government’s website suggests the whole area will be linked to the wedding industry. That post also notes construction of the wedding hall actually concluded in 2013. So, maybe 2014 remains the anticipated completion of this project’s other half? I don’t know; finding information in Chinese can be difficult when you don’t know the language and you’re only equipped with Google Translate. So, this gets me back to the earlier mentioned conversation with two of my good Chinese friends.

“I don’t understand,” my friend said. “It looks like a Christian church.”

“It’s only a for-profit wedding hall.”

She glanced up at me. “But aren’t weddings a religious activity?”

“Yes, but that,” I pointed out the window towards the nearby steeple, “is a real church. People go there for religious services every week. You are not going to attend a Sunday mass at that wedding hall, and that means it’s not a Christian church.”

She smiled. “Oh, I see, now.”

West Taihu Wedding Hall and Notting Town from Above

This was originally published on tguide.org and has been reposted from there.