In a word, fascinating! From the moment I crossed the border from Hong Kong to Shenzhen I became transfixed with this country. I had very few expectations and came prepared for the unexpected. What greeted me presented initially as familiar, an eerie mirrored image of a big western city. Of course that was only a clever mirage; this place is something altogether different.
Shenzhen is huge and expansive. It is urban sprawl on an epic scale. It isn’t shopping malls and wide suburban bungalows that stretch out to the horizon, in Shenzhen it’s skyscrapers. There is no clear down town, but instead a sweeping forest of shinny, towering glass and steel. Down on the ground one might expect this to be chaotic. Indeed there is no hiding that this city is populated by millions, but there is a strange order to it. A swift new metro system links all corners, while timely buses reach out beyond that. Fresh paved highways are plied by new BMWs and Mercedes. Even the traffic flows as it should: quickly and in the appropriate lanes. Streets are well signed in both Mandarin characters and Pinyin (a way of using the Latin alphabet to spell Chinese words). Virtually no one speaks English, not even “hello,” although those who do often work at Starbucks (which is oddly everywhere). Women are impeccably dressed in the cutesie eclectic style that Asian women pull off so effortlessly. Everyone is constantly on their smart phones. The streets are reasonably clean of litter. The side walks are all wide enough to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and aging scooters, although there are no clear demarcations of their respective lanes.
One clear tip off that this is still an Asian city is the street food. Everywhere you go, especially as you move towards my neighbourhood near the “outskirts,” food is being prepared on street corners and in alleys. There are the ubiquitous quick snacks: pineapple on a stick, roasted sweet potato and corn on the cob. Then there are more involved meals, delicious noodle bowls, veggie and meat stir fries and dumplings. One thing I noticed on my first day at the office is that working China knows exactly when to break for lunch. That’s 12:30 to be precise, certainly not 12:29 and heaven forbid you take lunch at 12:32. At precisely 12:30 offices explode with the hungry exodus, restaurants set up temporary queues out onto the sidewalks and the masses are shuffled through with alarming efficiency. A lunch queue that you would expect to take thirty minutes can go by in as few as five. And the steaming hot food is consumed even faster. Then it is back to work. China is nothing if not timely and efficient. Dinner, however, can be a more relaxed affair. My personal favourite is the late night street barbeque outside my neighbourhood gate. Anything you can throw on a grill is being prepared as passing cars sporadically illuminate the scene. Grilled eggplant, oysters, veggie skewers and mystery meats are all delicious. Then you sit at any of the impromptu tables and are often joined by some new local friends to share in the feast and drink some local brew. Food is constantly being ordered and the feasting can last for hours.
Perhaps the most delightful surprise in China is the generosity and kindness of the Chinese people. From the moment I crossed the border I felt safe in this country. From the moment I met my coworkers and made friends I felt welcomed. The simple fact that I can venture out speaking virtually no Mandarin and end up laughing the night away at street side barbeque with a bunch of locals who speak no English has affirmed the kindness of this people to me. I am looking forward to many more wonderful encounters.