Well, here in South Korea, we are all advised to stay indoors to avoid the dreaded COVID-19 Virus — you know, that new 2020 Chinese virus that’s making the world sick. Good one, China! But as long as the semester has been postponed for two weeks and I have nothing to do, figured I’d write a post…
First off, let me just share a post I wrote to a Korean expat group on Facebook:
Oh no. We will have to eat soup and drink ginger ale! It spreads like a flu, it has symptoms like the flu, and yet it’s not the common flu. We’ve all had the flu before, but this has a higher fatality rate… but even so, it is listed as a “mild pathogen.” This means that, although it does have a higher rate of mortality, it is still (thankfully!) low. The common flu has a fatality rate of .1%, whereas this COVID-19 has been ranked at a full 2%. And yet, the fatalities are usually among people who are already sick with something, and at a later stage of life. Therefore, barring any sudden mutations, there’s no reason to panic. And yet… Why is everyone acting like this is Captain Trips? Yes, the elderly and infirm are at high risk, but that’s no different than the flu. Get an immune system! Oh wait, you have one. Feed it. Maybe this virus is spreading faster than previous viruses, but the effects are the same. The Spanish Flu was deadly because it was often misdiagnosed, and it triggered something called “Cytokine release syndrome.” Also, it was an H1N1 virus, of which there have been only two outbreaks. The second was the swine flu in 2009. Remember how that one wiped out a third of the earth’s population? No? That’s because it didn’t. It didn’t even come close to the numbers of fatalities racked up by the common flu we see every year. This is not an H1N1. Use hand sanitizer, stay away from people who are hacking and coughing and spitting (most ajjeoshis*), and wash your hands thoroughly. Don’t just run ’em under the tap. We’re all gonna be just fine, even if we get sick. …Unless, of course, the thing mutates. That’s the only reason the WHO is being so cautious. The media is hyping it because fear sells. Frankly, I don’t know how Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are the ones in charge, but whatever. Relax and enjoy the extra two weeks of vacation. If you’re worried, stay home and watch movies. And I hate to say it, but avoid the pub. Whew. That’s a lot of babbling. You are now free to attack me.
*Ajjeoshi is the Korean word for ‘older men.’ Old Korean men are always hacking, coughing, and spitting up nastiness onto public sidewalks and streets. It’s a thing they do. We assume it is like marking territory. There are YouTube videos about this habit. Here’s one:
But I am not writing this to tell you about that. Instead, today I thought it might be fun to talk about my visit to the country where this new virus (and so many others like it) originated — China!
I first went to China during my first year overseas. We had ten days off for Seollal — the Lunar or Chinese New Year. It was February, and we flew into Beijing, stayed there for five days, then flew on to Shanghai. Beijing and Shanghai are like two sides of the same coin. Beijing is dirtier, and has an antiquated subway system. Street vendors sell copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and big, fuzzy Commie hats. It reflects the traditional Communist side of modern China.
Shanghai, on the other hand, is more modern, and has a much nicer subway system. Here, vendors sell everything, as it reflects China’s embracing of a more Capitalist ideology… but don’t call it Capitalism. Shanghai is a beautiful city, and a walk along the Bund by the Huangpu River is the best way to spend your time and get some brilliant photographs.
As we lived in Paju at the time, but were flying out of Incheon, we decided to make a night of it in Incheon so that we could arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare. This meant spending the night at one of Korea’s many “Love Motels.” They get a bad rap as they are designed for cheating spouses and students who do not yet have their own apartments to canoodle in, but some of them are pretty nice considering the low prices you pay per night (the prices have gone up in recent years, but you can still get a decent room for around $30 a night). There were four of us seeking shelter that night — myself, and two male friends, one of whom was sharing a room with his girlfriend. She was not making the journey to China with us, and my girlfriend at the time was already in China, and we planned to meet up with her in Shanghai. That left myself and my other male friend to share a room. We checked in right behind the happy hetero couple, and the night desk manager at the Love Motel took one look at my roommate and I and made an incorrect assumption. Upon entering our room, we found these bottles of lotion next to the bed. That should give you an idea of the assumption made.
Lotion jokes aside, we made our way to China the next day and the real fun ensued. We met up with a group of friends at the Red Lantern Hostel in Beijing, just two blocks from the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. It being the middle of February, it was bitterly cold outside, and some of the best times I had were spent huddled around the little wood stove in the common are of the hostel, drinking 45 cent bottles of TsingTao and chatting with other travelers. (Sadly, after we had arrived in Shanghai, we learned from friends that had stayed behind that the day after we left, the police came in and ripped out the little wood stove because it was not up to code. C’est la vie!)
When we did venture out, we did the touristy stuff. We were joined by another expat for a day trip to the Great Wall, and that was a fun time. It being the dead of winter, the Wall was mostly empty, and we had a blast drinking TsingTao and cracking each other up with lame puns as we walked along the restructured Wall. There are still parts where remnants of the original Wall can be seen, but we stayed in the more picturesque touristy part of the structure, even though it isn’t very picturesque at that time of the year.
We eventually found our way back down from the Great Wall by way of these cool little rail scooters. It was a fast and winding ride down the side of the mountain, where we were met at the bottom by these guys dressed as Mongolian raiders. We posed for pictures, and then found out that the pictures would cost us 100 Yuan (around $10). We paid, feeling like we had just been mugged by Mongolians, and headed back into Beijing.
We decided to go out on the town… and soon found there was not much of a nightlife in Beijing. We went from pub to pub along a walkway around one of Beijing’s lakes, a place we had been told would have some activity. There was not much, although we did walk into one pub that had a live music act: A solo guy on guitar, and two beautiful women singing back-up as they tapped out a rhythm on tambourines. As soon as they saw us walk in, they cut into a very nice cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”
After drinking there for some time, we found another taxi and said, “Night club!” and he drove us for what seemed like an hour until we pulled up outside a place called the Coco Banana Bar. This was a very posh establishment, with security adorned in tuxedos and earpieces, and three levels of bars centered around a dance floor that, at one point, featured a platform rising out of it with a naked girl dancing on top. We can only assume that the people seated in the VIP section around the dance floor were some of Beijing’s top gangsters. I tried to get a few pictures, but was told that cameras were forbidden.
Speaking of forbidden, what trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the famous Forbidden City? Cameras were allowed here, so here are a few shots.
On our last day in Beijing, we visited the famous Silk Market, where you can buy cheap knock-offs of just about anything. The shop owners are very aggressive, and will literally take you by the arm and pull you into their shops to show you what they’ve got. I was advised before going to Beijing not to pack anything, and to just bring an empty suitcase and fill it with stuff, as you can get an entire new wardrobe for around USD$100. One of the shopkeepers snagged my arm and dragged me in to look at a bunch of knock-off Levi’s jeans. He wanted $50 for a pair, but I felt the label which felt more like cardboard than the traditional leather, and said, “Knock-offs?” He replied, “No, these authentic Levi!” I turned and showed him the label on the jeans I was wearing and said, “No, these are authentic Levi!” He dropped his price to a little less than $10 and I bought three pairs. Of course, he hit me with the sellers’ lament: “I make no money!” And yet, he seemed perfectly happy with the transaction. And I gotta say, those jeans lasted me for a few years.
One of my companions bought a bunch of knock-off Rolex watches that he planned to sell for a profit once he got back to Korea. I have no idea how that turned out, but hanging in my closet right now is the very same long, black Cashmere coat that you can see me sporting in the picture on the Bund above. Worth every Yuan I paid or it!
Speaking of Yuan, there’s a lot of counterfeit currency floating around China. Once, while paying a cab driver in Shanghai, he rubbed the bill I gave him with his thumb and said, “Fake!” I asked him how he could tell, and he took a similar Yuan note from his wallet and showed me — on his, Chairman Mao’s shoulder felt a little gritty to the touch. On the one I had given him, it was smooth paper. I was so impressed, I decided to keep the counterfeit bill as a souvenir. I have a habit of keeping lower denomination currency from every country I visit, and that bill is a prized part of my collection.
This year is 2020, and it is the Year of the Rat. This is how long ago this trip to China was: It was also the Year of the Rat. While in Shanghai, we paid a visit to the famous Yu Gardens. As you can see, they were all decked out for the New Year.
I had assumed that Chinese New Year in China would have been a huge street festival. On the night of New Year’s Eve, the city of Shanghai was a thunderous din of endless fireworks. It shook the hotel where my girlfriend and I were staying (as it was our last few nights in Shanghai, I had sprung for a room at the local Holiday Inn). We were inside, snacking on Cool Ranch Doritos and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream — items that, at the time, were unavailable in Korea. I was dumbfounded as to how the Chinese had apparently gotten a better trade deal than Korea. As the fireworks started to burst outside our window, we made our way down to the street, expecting celebrating crowds, firecrackers, and those obligatory dancing dragons. To our surprise, however, the streets were empty. The fireworks were being set off by teams of three guys on motor scooters who would zip along the street, stop at an intersection, send up a barrage of fireworks, and then take off for the next corner. It was pretty disappointing. So we went back up to the room, ordered some wine, and watched Chinese television.
The next night, we met up with some friends and hit up a few nightclubs. It was uneventful, and the next day, we visited a Buddhist temple and the sex museum.
And then we boarded our flight back to Korea.
All in all, it was one of my fist and favorite trips since I have been living abroad. I really need to see if I can get back in touch with my girlfriend from that time. She was nice, and I hope she is living her best life. As for China as a whole, a tremendously fascinating history, rich culture, and generally kind people. However, you do see toddlers defecating in the street, and they do have a dog meat festival every year in which they straight-up torture dogs. It is disgustingly inhuman, and I do not care what anyone says– cruelty is not a culture. You can see how diseases can come from an environment like that. Call it Karma.
So as I said before, use hand sanitizer, wash your hands thoroughly, and suck it up. It’s the flu… until it mutates, anyway.
For now, I am infatuated with Western cultures again. I just returned from a fantastic trip to New Zealand and Australia — my first trip below the equator! Just visiting a grocery store in New Zealand — which you can do sans shoes! — made me miss real western-style cuisine. I wanted to buy everything in that grocery store, the wide assortment of cheeses, tortillas, pickles… More on that later. Maybe.