ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS AN ENDLESS VISA APPLICATION
Welcome to the utopian world of the Chinese website embassy. The landing page will immerse you in a delightful “lottery scam” decor, with portraits of greeting people and URL links displayed all over the place. I believe this is the payback of a troubled intern or your cousin you’ve been forced to hire as a web designer.
With a slight hesitation, I downloaded the visa application that happened to have ten pages. The document contained endless discreet questions, and I wondered whether the form was intended for people that genuinely aspire to move in permanently or to get investigated by the Chinese Authorities.
Was the “Education” section relevant? Will you be denied if you failed your high school diploma back in 1999? What about the “Parents occupation” section? Do I get a discount if one of them worked in a Chinese restaurant or has an active account on Alibaba.com?
“Number 1709, please come to the desk 4”. I sat nervously at the glass counter, where the agent retrieved my application. Around me, the chaos was depicted, or I should say a tribute to Guernica from Pablo Picasso. A visibly irritated woman threw her application up in the air; a man blamed his wife for forgetting his passport, and a group of youngsters was kicking the copy machine.
“Madam, we need a letter of employment and a banking statement that reflects that you have above 1k euros in your bank account. And mam’ your visa photo is not valid”. She firmly designated the 1960′ photo booth located in the back of the room.
Six hours later, my visa was approved with a photo that looked like I served ten years in Guantanamo.
PRAISE THE INTERNET
The cult of smartphones is omnipresent in China. Everyone owns a mobile phone, whether you’re a toddle or a homeless.
As Jean Baudrillard highlighted in his masterpiece, “the system of objects,” people show a genuine fetishistic attachment to objects.” (girl don’t roll your eyes, I did go to university too). In modern days, smartphones are the most precious gadget we own, a cherished teddy bear, almost an extension of ourselves.
China can’t get enough of QR codes. I’ve witnessed panhandlers in Shanghai’s subway, begging with their Apple Pay. In restaurants, customers are required to use QR codes displayed on their tables to place orders. Ask someone in France to pay with a QR code and let me know how it goes.
MANDARIN OR NOTHING
Back in 2001, when I was a dim sum addict, my life goals were to marry someone that owns a Chinese restaurant. To find prince charming, I was determined to learn Mandarin, and I took a few lessons.
A few years passed by, and when I spoke to the Chinese officer at the customs all I could remember was: “Nǐ hǎo, Xièxiè, Wǒ xiǎng huāshēngjiàng báobǐng” (Hello, thank you, and I would like some crepes with Nutella).
To set the record straight, when you get to China, you will be on your own. Don’t look around for friendly faces to help you out or translate the menu at the restaurant. There are none. I think everyone got the memo, “make sure you don’t learn English,” even the automated machines at the train station.
To rescue us, aka the weak and the needy, a genius created AI Translator (available on Apple Store). This mobile app allows you to have a comprehensive conversation in Mandarin using your smartphone. The app translates all your conversations instantly in Mandarin and says it loud, so you don’t have to embarrass yourself in front of your interlocutor.
SHANGHAI / BEIJING
"Northside coolin', shorty, yeah that's where I stay Heard you was a lame boy, get up out my face Wedding everywhere, pre-rolls in the VIP." No, this is not a new track alert.
Meanwhile, you’re still on Tinder waiting for a match and flipping desperately through profiles; everyone is getting married in China. Not quite sure if this tax-related or if Disney sponsored kindergarten schools back in the 90′.
Over the years, the Bund river in Shanghai became the headquarter of wedding photoshoots. Entire production squads are teaming up to satisfy the ultimate desires of these demanding newlyweds, and let’s say that creativity is not lacking. Hey honey, what if we flip my veil over, so we don’t see s**t and pretend there is a typhoon behind us.
“Have you always wanted to be photographed continuously and stalked? Son, don’t look any longer I got you”.
Being in China brought my confidence up; I was suddenly elevated to the superstar status, and I liked it. We looked nothing like them, and they seemed to be embracing this touch of exotism.
My girlfriend, Audrey, with her blue eyes, blond hair, and fair skin, was a dream come through for them. She represented an idealization of our perfect European society (wait until you come to Paris and get smashed by pigeons). On the other hand, well, I am still wondering what they had in mind for myself. Perhaps Rihanna’s backup dancer. That didn’t stop a lady in Beijing who once ask us if we could take a photo with her husband. He flashed his million-dollar smile and grabbed us as if he won at the China Lotto. Merry Christmas, darling.
YOU AIN’T GETTING ANYWHERE
The 70th-anniversary of the People’s Republic of China had the country all shaken up; Paranoia reached its paroxysm. In other words, everyone was tripping and being extra careful in the preparation of the upcoming celebrations. Military forces were omnipresent and checked our passport every two minutes. How do you think we got into the country in the first place? Oh yes, that UPS Cargo.
Traveling across China was also challenging. We attempted to book a flight from Shanghai to Beijing through ChinaSouthern.com, and our request consistently got declined for unclear reasons.
WHY AM I CRAVING A PIZZA AFTER 2 DAYS?
My devoted passion for dumplings reached its limits after I chased down all the dim sum establishments in Shanghai. I tried them all; shrimp, pork, crab, fried, or/and steamed.
In my narrow “Western vision,” I presumed local restaurants would have all the usual food cravings. Alternatively, they offered most of the time tripes, marinated offals, or spicy noodle soups that will burn you to your soul.
Two days later, I could no longer hold my desires and rushed to a tourist trap, a self-proclaimed “Italian” restaurant. We should have run away when we peeked through the kitchen, the Chinese chef, struggling to throw in the air the pizza dough. It is often said, “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” Well, you should.
HUSBANDS FOR SALE (DEEP IN CULTURE)
In China, your family won’t let you down even if you’re still a bachelor at forty years or pursuing your virtual K-pop singer crush.
We briefly got a word about the Shanghai marriage market, a concept that I thought only existed on the National Geographic channel.
Every weekend, the People’s Park in Shanghai hosts the most iconic marriage market. Equivalent to the speed dating principles, hundred of parents turn into salespersons and wait submissively for a potential target. They line up and display on an umbrella a 2-page ad promoting their children. The advertisement implements marketing essentials & standards; appealing photographies, and taglines that resonate with everyone: “My son is rich, very rich.”
IN DA TRAIN
First of all, do not rely on the Chinese Version of Google Map, Maps.me. The app indicated that the train station was just twelve minutes away when, in reality, it was more than one hour away. Not sure which out-of-date satellite the company is using or if they measured the distances with a pigeon.
The oxymoron “Organized Confusion” inevitably found its origin at Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. Very little to non-existent information was displayed; we were dragged from left to right.
For a second, I presumed we’re the new cast members from the TV show Survivor. The plot seemed manageable: make it to the train within one hour. To spice it up, all the automated ticket machines were programmed in Mandarin only. We glimpsed at the screen next to us, although I couldn’t keep up with all the Chinese characters.
The train was leaving in 15 min, and we were still in the same predicament; in other words, we’re fu***d. My inner instinct suddenly kicked in, and I was ready to transform into my favorite ghetto character (the black person you typically see on Fox News). I sprinted into the checkpoints without stopping and dodged all the people in line. Mission accomplished.
Inside, the train felt like a Moroccan souk. Dozens of waiters yelled in unison: “ice cream, Coca-Cola, fish heads.” The unfamous QR code on display allowed you to place any orders you wished for. KFC, Pizzas, Haagen Dazs, you name it, were delivered in minutes.
Again, be prepared to starve to death if you don’t have the QR code app installed on your phone. After 3 hours, I saw a hostess walking by with a credit card device, and I thought Jesus heard my prayers. She stopped by my seat and pause for a moment: « Sorry, no Visa, no cash.» She grabbed the snacks I took from the tray and left me here perish. B***h WHAT.
Sept cent millions de petits chinois et moi et moi et moi
"Sept cent millions de chinois Et moi, et moi, et moi Avec ma vie, mon petit chez-moi Mon mal de tête, mon point au foie J'y pense et puis j'oublie C'est la vie, c'est la vie" "Seven hundred million Chinese What about me, me, me With my life, my little home My headache, my pain in the liver I think about it, and then I forget This is life, this is life." Jacques Dutronc "et moi, et moi et moi" (Enhancing your music knowledge. Thank me later)
We happened to be in Shanghai during the endless festivities commemorating China 70’s anniversary. Please note that the term « Endless » in this context is far from being a hyperbole. Every single TV channel broadcasted the parade or “low budget” military movies for three days non-stop.
The general effervescence resonated nationwide with the celebrations and sparked some excitement among people from the countryside. Suddenly, Shanghai’s population doubled up and reached 50 million inhabitants. Soldiers attempted to regulate the chaos in the streets, whereas people on the other side were driven with their ultimate desire: take a selfie at The Bund. Surrounded by a million bodies, we disappeared into the crowd.
Smells like 1949’
The 70th anniversary of China was taking place in a few days, and the government was making sure that no one was about to flip the script.
A certain tension prevailed as soldiers eyed and shouted frantically: “hey you, don’t cross over there, and you, what do you think you’re doing.” They were proud to showcase their military choreographies; creative compositions inspired by North Korea and Dancing with the Stars.
The struggle was real on the internet aspect. The government strengthened its policies. In other words, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, basically everything fundamental to my existence and well-being was unaccessible.
In the street, everyone carried the Chinese flag firmly and sang patriotic anthems. Audrey and I decided to sing along to reinforce the cultural cohesion (no, we were just scared to end up in jail).
It all started with a random search on Tripadvisor.fr. When it comes to travel, as you may have noticed, French people embrace their own path and go beyond. Instead of suggesting the Great Wall, like 99% of the tourists, one of my compatriots mentioned the Museum of Propaganda.
I was skeptical about the whole concept. How did the Chinese government tolerate an institution that criticizes the administration flagrantly?
Well, very simple, you CAN’T find the museum to get started with!
I presumed Google Maps sent us to the wrong location when we arrived. The building looked more like a trap house from Gucci Mane video’s clip than a cultural institution. We walked through a long corridor toward the basement where lights were flashing, indicating their imminent death.
I lead the way, while Audrey was doing the backup. It was silent, and we wondered if it wasn’t a trap to entice noisy people and conspiracy seekers. Ahead, a sign clearly designed in vintage WordArt (for the connoisseurs), indicated the entrance.
The museum was principally populated by French people, debating on each poster for hours. They shared their extensive knowledge with all the visitors, by interrupting conversations and emphasizing every vowel.
Against the wall, the artwork portrayed a country on the rise, dynamic, and ahead of its time. One and only tolerated perspective: China, the greatest of the great nation.”
No.10 248 Taikang Lu
Cat bar. A must for cats aficionados or your Tinder’s dates. Located in the tourist trap area Tianzefang. Deal with it.
50 Moganshan Road
50 Moganshan Rd, Putuo, Shanghai
Art district filled with vintage stores and art galleries.
Mad crush for the Island6 gallery curated by Shanghai-exclusive collective
South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market
No.399 Lujiabang Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai 200000
Look nowhere else, this is the spot the get any runway looks you’ve been dreaming for since you’re 7 years old. Tailormade suits, coats, dresses.
Mad crush for the 196 shop
Pearl city Market
3721 Hongmei Rd, Changning, Shanghai
All the pearls in the world gathered in a mall. Lost track of time like in Las Vegas, with the “no windows, no clocks” concept.
Jia Jia Tang Bao(Huanghe Road)
Huanghe Lu | Take Exit 8 of People’s Square Station, Shanghai / +86 21 6327 6878
Dim sums sanctuary. Be ready to line up like at the Apple Store.
Lab Whisky & Cocktail
No.1093 Wuding Road, Jing’an District, Shanghai 200040
Whisky bar. For the love of the gram.
798 Art district / Dashanzi
2 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang, Beijing
Massive art space gathering Beijing’s upcoming artists. Trendy clothing stores, art galleries, and cafés.
1949 The Hidden City
Chine, Beijing, Chaoyang, Workers’ Sports Complex N Rd, 4号院
La crème de la crème for the unfamous Beijing Duck
Special thank you to my partner in crime Audrey Maclain, for joining my adventures. And merci for the photos.