Ruminations on Tianjin
01 Aug 2004
Why the long silence? I’ve been in Tianjin for the past 11 days running a kids’ summer camp for my company. It had been my intention to update from the road, but I decided not to.
For one thing, the internet cafes weren’t the most cooperative. Most of us know that China blocks a lot of websites, like anything on Geocities or any Typepad blogs. Trying to access those pages directly from China yields the browser’s “page not found” error. However, some of Tianjin’s internet cafes have a kind of proprietary software installed that closes all open browser windows if there is any attempt to access a page on the blocked list. Let me tell you, that is really annoying! Sometimes you don’t even know that the link you clicked on is blocked, and then suddenly your e-mail, news stories, etc. that you had open are all closed. Grrrr… Maybe this is becoming more common in internet cafes in China — I haven’t needed to use an internet cafe in a while — but it’s the first time that I’ve seen it.
But anyway… about Tianjin. I’m not going to go into the camp now; there’s a lot to say and I’m going to save that for a separate post. There’s plenty to say about Tianjin itself, so I’ll take a stab at it.
I had hoped that with 10 whole days in Tianjin I would have ample opportunity to meet Adam of Brainysmurf.org in person, but it was not meant to be. (I think he’s avoiding me. He beat a hasty retreat to the USA with some kind of “I’m getting married” excuse. Hehe.) He did, however, leave me some sightseeing tips, which I forwarded to another e-mail account for easy access on the road. Unfortunately, all the Chinese in it went to crap and it ended up being useless. Oh well. Thanks anyway, Adam.
One of my first impressions of Tianjin is that it’s very Chinese. I think to understand what I mean by this ridiculous statement that it’s useful to compare Tianjin to Beijing and Shanghai. Shanghai is very international. Snooty expats in other parts of China like to go so far as to say that it’s “not China.” I disagree with that, but Shanghai is certainly singular in its modern atmosphere. Beijing on the other hand, feels very political and cultural to me. (Like the nation’s capital, even!) The city is steeped in politics, and it tries hard to be the nation’s cultural center. It succeeds.
Sure, Tianjin has its own peculiarities… it’s got plenty of leftover Western architecture from that period of its history, and it’s got its own local dialect and cuisine, etc. But to me, these don’t detract from the overall Chineseness of Tianjin. It would be impossible to thoroughly explain or delineate, as it’s really just a big mass of tiny details. But I’ll share some of my observations.
When the student of Chinese begins studying Mandarin outside of China, northern Mandarin in general (and often Beijing Mandarin in particular) is stressed as the standard. Cultural images of China presented in class are usually of Beijing. The influence is a subtle but lasting one. Even now, after four years of living in China, I immediately recognize Tianjin as meshing well with the “proto-China” images still lodged stubbornly in the recesses of my mind.
Yet the Mandarin of the people of Tianjin doesn’t sound nearly as harsh as that of the Beijingers. I actually liked it quite a bit. The “R” sound (er-hua) wasn’t nearly as pervasive as I remember it being in Beijing. They add in their own little Tianjin words too, and the overall effect is just sort of… homey. (A few quick dialect examples: in Tianjin you can say (not write) 耐 for 爱 and 卧 for 饿, although perhaps the feeling changes slightly. I was also amused by their local word for ice cream on a stick: 冰棍儿.)
This all amounted to the Mandarin of Tianjin sounding unquestionably northern to me, but less assaulted by Beijing’s ego. That seemed to fit more with my “proto-China” impression of Mandarin.
The taxi meters in Tianjin start at 5 rmb. I found that charming. In Shanghai taxis start at 10 (13 at night), and even Hangzhou starts at 10. I’m not sure if Beijing still starts at 5, but there’s something that seems right about a 5 rmb Chinese taxi ride, even in a big city. (Meanwhile in Shanghai we can get a short ride in a Mercedes Benz with a built-in TV for 10 rmb.)
Tianjin is a very large city and thus has its traffic problems, but it’s nowhere near the proportions of Shanghai’s traffic problem. There are still tons of taxis on the road, and taking a taxi at rush hour didn’t result in any notable delays for me. Lots of people bike (and yes, they wear solar visors too). The street scene is just so China.
But enough of this “Tianjin is so China” nonsense. I think you get the point. How is Tianjin different from the proto-China image?
Probably the most notable difference is Tianjin’s huge Korean population. It’s really stunning. I had dinner one night in a sort of “little Korea” area, and virtually every store had Korean hangul lettering in the window. I didn’t know that there were places like that in the hearts of China’s cities. I really wonder what other Chinese cities have such sizeable foreign immigrant populations.
Tianjin also has weird traffic lights. They can’t just have the normal “three circle” kind. All traffic lights seem to be in the shape of arrows or colored bars that shrink to indicate when it will change.
The people of Tianjin are friendly, and old people walk the streets at all hours of the day. I didn’t get the typical Beijing impression of there being only old people on the streets, though. There were lots of young people everywhere I went. I was surprised by the number of attractive girls I saw. They didn’t look terribly different from southern girls to me, although I think they tend to be fuller figured (which is a good thing!) than their southern (sometimes anorexic) counterparts.
I attribue fuller figures of the women to the overall northern tendency to eat more. The people of Tinjin adhere strictly to this policy. Sometimes the 10-year-old kids at the camp would out-eat me! I heard an amusing explanation from one person: In the south they eat soup with their meal. It helps fill them up, so they feel full sooner. We eat our soup at the end of the meal, so we end up eating more. I really had to laugh at this, because it’s just like the kind of thing you might hear from Americans rationalizing American obesity. I wanted to tell that girl: No, actually you all just eat a hell of a lot!
I didn’t take many pictures in Tianjin, and certainly nothing notable. I didn’t feel it was necessary. In many ways, Tianjin just fits images of China I’ve already mentally collected. Now I can attach a place to those images. It is Tianjin.