Life in Shenzhen: The Expat Edition
Shenzhen is a bizarre place to live, but I find it to be so in the best of ways. It is a city of contradictions, of stone-floor squat toilets within spitting distance of Sephora, of 3-kuai meat skewers around the corner from an 80-kuai cheeseburger; a concentrated microcosm of what I will hazard to guess is true in many parts of urban China. Ah, the strange and wonderful nature of a developing nation.
Let’s take a quick peek at the profile of the city. If Greater Shenzhen were boiled down to an intersection, stretched out in front of you would be the main drag– busy, noisy, full of buses and expensive foreign cars and flashy neon signs. Like Beijing, which is the only other big city to which I’ve been here, in Shenzhen gaudiness is king, and the louder and more brightly colored your establishment is, the more likely people will choose it. (This is of course not universally true, but it does explain to preponderance of LED displays one finds on a walk through Futian, Luohu, and northern Nanshan…)
Intersecting the main road, you would find a street that is maybe quieter in terms of traffic, but is full of the sound and fury of construction and development. Shenzhen is constantly under construction. The area near my school, for example, is evidently owned by a group of Hong Kong businessmen who are attempting to turn it into the city center in the next 10 years. Currently, the view out my apartment window looks over a shipping container yard and a highway that is almost completely bumper-to-bumper trucks, 24/7. Five to ten years from now, it’s going to be Shenzhen’s Manhattan. Until then, southern Nanshan is a district of cranes.
Running between and around these two large streets you will find a network of alleyways and side streets. These will be a mishmash of street food culture, family-owned restaurants, and menial industry. This is where you will find Chinese groceries and the guy on a bicycle with a bunch of coolers selling soymilk and honey sesame buns for 2 kuai (about 40 cents); where you will find fruit stands selling everything from peaches to durian (oh, the sweet smell of durian in the morning); where you will find car washes and bike shops and fans and paper lanterns. These “authentic China” streets, as we have taken to calling them, appear out of nowhere from amidst the flash and glare of the neon, and while it ought to be jarring, at this point, those are the places that feel more real and more comfortable. You really know you’re in China when you find these places, and they are not few if you know where to look.
Finally, and perhaps most bizarre, are the expat districts. These you will find just off the main drag, usually near a mall or other centrally located convenience– or near the major transportation hubs. My personal favorite is a place called Hai Shang Shi Jie— literally, Seaworld. It just does not get more bizarre than this place. Seaworld is about three or four blocks long, right on the water at Shekou Harbor (where one finds the ferry to Hong Kong and Macao) and filled with Macauley’s Irish Pub, Bombay Indian restaurant, the obligatory KFC and McDonald’s, Tex-Mex, All-You-Can-Eat/Drink Teppanyaki (Japanese-style hibachi, like Beni Hana or Northampton’s Osaka to those at home)… basically, if it’s foreign, you find it here. There is a boat moored permanently in the harbor, some kind of cruise-y looking thing that I guess is mostly hotel but on the main decks there are a couple of bars. At the prow, you walk into a bar called X-Ta-Sea, home to (you guessed it) neon lights, foofy beverages and loud music by an actually pretty legit cover band who play everything from Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” to Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning.” If you wander out of X-Ta-Sea in the direction of the boat’s aft, you pass a tiled hall with a grand piano sitting behind a fountain, and then you spot the wine and cigar store that is underneath a staircase which leads up to a spot called Captain’s Club. Captain’s Club is a small, quiet bar with mahogony and red-leather furnishings; you feel like you’ve stepped into 1890’s London when you walk into this place. Now remember, people, I am living in China. And yet, you cannot find a Chinese restaurant in Seaworld to save your life. You also cannot find a meal that is less than 35 kuai.
This is a good time to take a moment to talk about pecuniary matters. Specifically, the buying power of the Chinese Renminbi (CNY to those in the financial industry). You’ve heard me refer to this unit of money alternatively as the yuan, the kuai, or the RMB. It is all of those things, usually yuan at the counter in a store and kuai when you’re talking amongst yourselves about the price of things, and RMB only when exchanging currency. Currently, there are roughly7 kuai or so to an American Dollar, but its buying power is nowhere near that simple.
In some cases, the buying power of one kuai is roughly equivalent to the buying power of $1 US. On the street, you can get a plate of steamed dumplings for 3 or 4 kuai– plenty of food for one person. Other street food is similarly priced, especially in Beijing. At a Chinese-style restaurant, in the alleys where the street food lives, a substantial supper dish like a noodle bowl or a plate of beef with green beans will run you somwhere on the order of 8 to 12 kuai. A trip on the bus or metro is about 2 kuai. So here, it’s almost a one-to-one correlation between what a dollar would buy you in the US and what a kuai can buy you from a street vendor.
On the other hand, once you wander away from the street, and into more Western territory, a single drink will cost you 55 kuai at a club, and a meal at Macauley’s will run you about Y60-85. All-you-can-eat Teppanyaki is Y150 for 2 hours. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. DVD’s are ridiculously cheap, as I found the entire series, and I do mean all seven seasons, of The West Wing for Y210 (about $30). Might be coming home with that one. Cabs are also cheap, around 10 kuai to start and then usually no more than 40 kuai or so to get from one end of a district to another.
So basically, on the cheap (read: real Chinese) end of things, the kuai is pretty useful; but once you get in to the expat lifestyle it can be pretty steep. The way I see it, it’s the difference between thinking in dollars versus thinking in yuan; you can survive in the expat districts only if you think in Western money, lest you have a conniption over parting with more than Y100 for a single meal. Remember it’s less than $20. I’ve found that I’ve started thinking in kuai, though, so I really have to make that justification to myself. I have a feeling I’ll not be spending too much time in Seaworld. Give me my simple alleyway fare, as at the family-owned restaurant across the street from my apartment; give me a chance to eat simple, good food, and a necessity to practice my Chinese to communicate with the shop owners, and I will enjoy my China experience plenty.
With an All-you-can-eat Teppanyaki night every now and again. This is, after all, Shenzhen.