My shortest trip to China

It’s so easy to forget how lucky (some of us) are to be able to cross (some) borders easily (some) of the time time. Today I had double trouble. First, a very irritating one-day trip to mainland China, in order to cancel a one-month visa I had to pay several hundred HKD for. Since they wouldn’t let me extend or replace it, I had to physically invalidate it by crossing the border and back. Thought at least getting across the Hong Kong side would be easy – but no. Turned out when I re-entered HK from Taiwan on Monday, they stamped me as a student rather than a visitor. Since my student visa then expired yesterday, I had officially “over-stayed” and had to pay 160 HKD and wait 40 minutes for the privilege of getting an extra stamp in my passport. Extremely annoying since I’m allowed to stay 6 months without a visa and I had just got the wrong page stamped, but it was clear arguing was no use and it was all about procedure. I spent the paper-shuffling/stamping time eavesdropping on the cross-interrogation of mainlanders who had overstayed their visas, and feeling I’d got off rather lightly.

Finally I stepped out into the baking sunlight of Shenzhen. I’ve never seen the city look so nice, but today the sky was clear and the mountains along the border with Hong Kong rolled green and invitingly behind the grey buildings. I thought about photos I’ve seen of hapless thousands trying to scramble across during the famine and getting turned back. Seems hard to believe that was within the memory of people my parent’s generation. Now the station square is here and full of shoppers, squatting migrants, HK visitors unloading boxes of cigarettes into plastic bags, and suited hawkers. A young man ran handed me a card offering “warm and tender nights”. A woman tried to invite me to her hotel. I decided to take the train to Dongguan. 

I’ve never been to Dongguan but it’s one of the places I’ve heard a lot about and wanted to see for myself. Forty minutes ride later I took the first bus that stopped outside Dongguan train station, and rattled off into the maze. 

Dongguan is nowadays famous as a mega base for factories, a city that supposedly has under a million local residents and an estimated 5 times that number of migrants. I had expected to be surrounded by super-factory after super-huge factory, but perhaps I was in the wrong part of town. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me how much it looks like any other Chinese city I’ve been to. The same identical cornershops selling the same identical snacks, drinks and cigarettes. The same bright blue nokia and china telecom and china unicom and sony ericsson phone shops. Shining new shops and roads, ruttedy old buildings and roads, stalls of sausages eggs and sweetcorn. Though perhaps it is even more of a hotchpotch than normal, the contrast between new and old constructions more pronounced, though nowhere did I see any structure that looked older than the women who searched the rubbish. 

Then the bus turned into a street where every shop seemed to be a warehouse. One displayed dozens of plastic rocking horses. Another looked like a supermarket full of watermelons, another had trolley after trolley of socks stacked outside. I got off the bus at what looked like a market, and wondered off into a long low street of fluttering pink/limegreen flags, lined with overflowing shops. You could get t-shirts for 5 yuan, english textbooks for 12, or a plastic broom for 3. I bought a bowl of hot tofu pudding from a toothless guy who understood me neither in cantonese nor mandarin, and settled down on a bench by possibly the most polluted river I have ever seen. The stagnant water bubbled black ooze and gurgitated torn plastic and rubber. But the banks were green and chinked with ma jiang tiles from gathered old men, the tinkle of children’s voices, and the whirr of rickshaw wheels. A wonderfully pleasant place to read and watch the clouds. The buildings were only 3 stories high max and I love that – low buildings mean proper sky. Dongguan was much more personable than I had expected. 

Soon I had to get the bus back to Shenzhen. There were factories and warehouses and dormitories in the distance, but I never saw them up close. Waiting in the square again outside the train station, I was approached by a young couple from Anhui with a baby and a hard-luck story. They said they had arrived a few days ago, didn’t know anyone and couldn’t find work. They said they had another kid back home, and had to leave because they were in trouble for breaking the birth policy. They asked for money. 

It is one of the most awkward positions a person can be in I think. Being asked for money so directly by someone who obviously needs it much more than you, but who you don’t know at all. I’m sure their story wasn’t entirely true. Perhaps they stand there every day by the train station, asking rich hong kong people for money to buy milk and rice for the baby. But I know the job situation here is hard at the moment. I gave them the only 10 yuan in my pocket, and explained I didn’t have more with me (which was true). They asked what I was doing and I lied and said waiting to meet a friend in 10 minutes. They said could the friend give them money, I said no. We sat and talked for a while, I told them I was a student and taught english, they told me they were farmers and he was trying to find work on a construction site. They didn’t like Shenzhen but there was no way to earn money at home. For them or hundreds of thousands of others like them. I gave them 20 Hong Kong dollars and went to get my train home. 

I hate the feeling of giving people money. Hate it. I hate the victorian connotations of charity. I hate the combination of guilt and smugness and loss and sadness and comfort at having done something small and discomfort of knowing other people needed the money more and giving someone 3 pounds changes nothing. I hate the fact that I have money which I didn’t work for, and they work and have no money. I hate the unfairness. I hate when human relationships are reduced to money. Beggar and begged. I hate the system that is so unfair. But I love the fact that I and them and their baby have been given the chance to live in this world. To work through it from our own very unequal starting points. Which as we speak are becoming more equal for (some of) the next generation. 

And five hours after I entered, I left China again, and caught the tube back from the border into the centre of Hong Kong, feeling the wind in the tunnels. Just a few days left now, of bank account closing and parcel selling and plane-ticket buying and stuff-storing and friend-meeting and article-writing and essay-backingup and visa acquistion. And hopefully come this weekend I’ll be back on a somewhat longer trip to a country that I love.


One Response to “My shortest trip to China”

  1. dick Says:

    I hope you will keep blogging! If you are in Sheffield do come and see us.

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