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Travel Back to China

Posted on 19 Mar 2024, tagged lifetravelChinaJapanBeijingTokyo

After more than 4 years staying aboard without being able to go back to China because of Covid, I finally had the chance and spent this Chinese New Year at my hometown. Now I’ve come back to Toronto, it’s time to record it when my memory and feelings are still fresh.

Before We Go

Being able to travel back doesn’t mean it’s easy. The number of flights between China and other countries are still not recovered to pre Covid level. In order to keep our budget in a reasonable level, we need to fly through 2 stops, and then drive more than 3 hours to home from the airport. The flying time and the waiting time at airport combined is more than 24 hours. It’s a very long trip for any adult, not to mention traveling with a 6 months old baby. I was very nervous about that since our longest trip with the baby was taking her to the clinic. But since we haven’t been back for so many years, this is a travel that shouldn’t be delayed anymore. On the bright side, my sister in law will come to meet us at the first stop Tokyo. We will stay there for a few days for resting and sight seeing.

Things were not smooth before we go. First, our company had a bad outrage during the holiday season so I needed to work overtime. Following that was hot debates about the following steps to make our services better, which made me very frustrate for reasons I’d rather not to talk here. And during all these things, the whole family also caught cold and had fever for a few days. It’s the first time the baby is sick so it’s very stressful situation. The baby awoke every 2 hours at night while my wife and I were sick. When everyone finally recovered, we barely had the time to get new Covid vaccines and pack the baggages.

Anyway, we successfully handled everything before we go, took the 15 hours long flight and headed to our first stop, Tokyo.

Stay in Tokyo

I had been to Tokyo twice. But they are both many years ago and I didn’t have enough time to see the whole city. Even though it’s a relatively short visit again this time: just 3 - 4 days, it still got me excited to be there again.

We wanted to book a hotel near Asakusa (浅草) area since Sensō-ji is a must see site in Tokyo. We also want a subway station nearby. At last we found a place near Ueno (上野) station. It’s a traditional Japanese style hotel that has Tatamis, which is perfect for us: our baby doesn’t like to sleep in the crib anymore, so Tatamis is much safer since she cannot fall from it, and the mattress is also much firmer than the ones in regular hotels, which prevent the baby’s face from buried into the mattress. And she can also play on it during day time as well.

Only after I booked the hotel, I found out Ueno area is a place I wanted to visit but didn’t have enough time last time: when my wife and I visited Tokyo last time, we planned to take the train from Ueno station to the airport. We didn’t notice the schedule of that train is less frequent than subway. So we didn’t plan the time ahead and missed it. Disappointedly, we decided to have some food near Ueno station first. That’s when we found out the area around Ueno: there are many pedestrian streets filled with street food, outdoor eatings, restaurants, shops, and people. I was so fascinated by it and it was a shame that we didn’t have enough time to explore the area since we needed to head to Kyoto at that day. I forgot the name of that area since then because we were in such a hurry and we visited so many places in Japan after that. But when I was checking the surrounding area of the hotel on Google Maps, the Ueno station struck my memory and I was so excited that I had another opportunity to fully explore that area.

So Ueno and Asakusa are where we explored most when we were at Tokyo. We went to the Tokyo National Museum and enjoyed the ukiyo-e (浮世絵, wood block prints) exhibition that I wanted to see long before we went. We ate some delicious food at Ueno area. We also bought some electronic devices and manga books at Akihabara (秋葉原). What I didn’t expect was the experience at Asakusa: last time I only visited Sensō-ji and the street in the front of it. I didn’t know there is a larger area surrounding it that has lots of traditional Japanese style buildings, shops and restaurants. We found a shop by coincidence that sells high quality ukiyo-e prints. There are many places selling them in Tokyo, but they are either low quality or too expensive. I’m so glad to find a shop that sells lots of high quality prints in reasonable price range.

The whole experience in Tokyo is very positive. The mix of tradition Japanese and modern culture creates a very unique vibe. Because Japanese culture is largely impacted by Chinese culture in the past, I think I can appreciate more of the beauty of it. I have a fresh eye when I looked at the city after I explored more on the topic of city design in the past years: the non car centric culture, high quality public transit and high density of population makes it very different from North American cities. The city is more vibrant, much cleaner and safer, and have so many interesting places to explore. But unfortunately, Japan is a country better for visiting than long term living for foreigners because of its (almost non-exist of) immigration culture and stressful working environment.

The biggest happy surprise we got from Japan is our baby can sleep the whole night! It’s such a life changing improvement for my wife and me. After having the baby, I felt like there is nothing more important than being able to sleep a whole night. It’s so great to have that back!

On that happy note, we continued the trip back to home.

Back to Hometown

I thought there would be lots of feelings on the road to home. But there wasn’t. Maybe because of there are too many concrete things to worry about with a baby on the road so it left little room for feelings.

With the things happened in the past years in China: the lockdown of cities during Covid, the re-election of Xi which broke the political practice, the protests of both the re-eleciton and lockdowns, the broke of Evergrande Group, and the downhill of America-China relationship, you’d imagine China is in a pretty bad place. However, when I went back to home, I found things were not as bad as I thought. Yes, economic has gone bad: there are lots of unfinished buildings, small businesses are struggling, it’s harder to find a job for new grad, nationalism is on the rise and so on. But on another hand, at least from my limited experience, people’s life is still going on. I saw there is disapproval when people talk about the economic and government policies, but I saw little desperation feelings. When there are fewer ways to make life better, people continue to find new ways. For good or for bad, that’s the resilience of Chinese people. Maybe it looks better than normal because it’s holiday season: the malls and restaurants are packed with people. Beautiful decoration lights are everywhere. There are fireworks everyday.

Theoretically, fireworks have been banned for many years in China. However, with the lift of lockdown at the end of last year, there were lots of celebrations with fireworks at the new year (not the Chinese New Year) and created some conflicts between the crowd and the police in some cities. After that, the ban of fireworks still exists but is rarely enforced. Fireworks in the new year’s eve has been a tradition since ancient time. But in my opinion, the mixed feelings it brings represents the complexity of contemporary China perfectly: It’s believed to be able to dispel bad luck, which is much needed after the Covid and the following weak economic. It extends to some level of superstitious that some people believe it can cleanup the virus in the air. It also seems to be a subtle way to express disapproval of government policies because the ban is still in place. Of cause there is also pure excitement about the lights and sounds, the happiness about holiday, and wishes for a better year ahead.

Another reason of the weak economic not showing much trace may be my hometown is a small city so the trend is kind of lagged behind. It’s still benefiting from the development of the bigger cities in the past years: more and more big brands and chain stores are opening so there are more choices when buying things. Food delivery is more convenient. There are also more culture innovation products with better traditional Chinese aesthetic. If not considering education and healthcare system, the everyday life has little difference from big cities, or even better because of the less stressful working environment.

Not all things are good. Not mentioning the things that were already there before I left China, there is one new development that would trouble me a lot if I lived for a longer time: the lack of privacy both in the real world and in the cyber space. In the real world, cameras are everywhere. Lots of people start to use smart locks on the door that has a camera that you cannot avoid when you pass by. You must have scan the face in order to enter some residential compounds. Every crossing has high resolution cameras recording license numbers of cars and are able to recognize the drivers. In Beijing, face is recorded when entering every subway station. Even worse, when I was playing arcade games in a mall, the arcade machine has a camera that took a photo of me without reminding me first. On the cyber space side, there is little service you can use without installing an app and register an account that linked to your phone number and in turn linked to your ID. The worst experience I had is at a parking lot: there was no person at the exit and you need to scan the QR code to register an account, input personal details and pay the fee in order to leave. Again, there was nothing reminds you that before you actually try to leave and scan the QR code. I guess it’s not like there is no one in China cares about the privacy, it’s more like an already lost battle because the desire of surveillance from both the government and tech giants, and the lack of power to balance that.

Another thing I dislike is the trend of city planning. I think the city did a very good job in the past: reasonable density and mixed use was very well maintained. There are dedicated bike lanes, wide sidewalks and reasonable public transit coverage. However, with the widely adoption of cars, things got worth and the city seems just want to change things in the name of changing. That’s kind of understandable because there are more opportunity for corrupt when there are more projects. But at the end, parking lots replaced lots of green spaces on sidewalks. Roads has been re-designed with confusing turning lanes which replaced some bike lanes. Traffic lights replaced lots of roundabouts, and even worse, sometimes traffic lights are combined with roundabouts which is totally unnecessary. If the changes are limited because of the old foundation, then it’s not surprise that the worse place happens at the newly developed areas. It’s mostly all high rise residential buildings with little commercial uses. That’s kind of understandable as well since one of the main income of government is by selling land to developers. Seems like there were some commercial uses planned but the progress get delayed because of the real estate crisis. But the most ridiculous part is the roadway network design: there are many very wide roads. Many of them have 10 lanes! And some of them even have additional 2-3 lanes service road on each side. Be aware those are not highways. In a grid layout, those very wide roads are just beside residential buildings and are connected without skipping any crossing. It’s such a waste of resource because if there are so many cars that such wide roads are needed, then the non exist of road hierarchy doesn’t make any sense. Combined with the lack of commercial uses, it makes people rely more on cars and makes traffic very bad for commercial areas. Just go outside for a walk like the old days is not enjoyable anymore in the newly developed areas.

Despite all those things, it’s still a vacation at my hometown. So my mind was laid back even though I was very busy physically: my wife’s sister got married just days after we arrived. My wife and I also had the wedding that was planned years ago but got pushed because of Covid. I’m very happy how the wedding went considering we need to take care of the baby at the same time. If we were not preparing for the wedding, we took the baby to my parents and my in-law’s places. Between the gaps, I also needed to find some time to meet with friends that I haven’t seen for a long time. So it’s a very packed schedule but it’s so different (in a good way) to be close with family and friends again. Being aboard so many years and having a baby gave me a new perspective of the importance of family and friends.

However, I couldn’t stay there for long. I left half a month’s parental leave for the travel. But even combined with that, one month is basically the most I can have for a vacation and the company doesn’t allow work from China. So even we felt like we haven’t spent much time at home yet, we needed to go back. The trip back to Toronto has 3 stops on the way. So it’s another battle to fight. Our first stop is Beijing and we will stay at the airport for one night.

One Night in Beijing

I lived in Beijing for 8 years. It’s the second longest city I’ve lived in, just behind my hometown. It’s the longest if considering only the time of adulthood. So I have lots of memory and friends there. It’s unfortunate that I can only stay there for one night but it’s better than nothing.

Just before the day of leaving for Beijing, there was a snowstorm and most highways were closed as a result. We booked the train from a nearby city because the time of the train is better. But since the highway was closed, we changed the departure station to our hometown city. It was a very cold morning and we needed to leave for the railway station at 5:00am. When we were waiting at the station, there was an announcement that said the train was delayed. Following that, there were more announcements and the train was delayed longer and longer. Luckily, while debating if it’s better to go home instead of waiting in the station, the delay got shorter and we were finally able to aboard the train.

Things got better after this rocky start. We took the subway to the airport after arrived at Beijing since we didn’t have the baby’s car seat with us. It’s mostly underground on the way so I had little opportunity to see the city. It’s almost time for dinner when we arrived the hotel in the airport. If not because of the delay of train, we could arrive at noon. I made the plan to meet some friends and have dinner together. I left early from the hotel to walk around the city before I meet them.

I took the subway to Sanyuan Bridge (三元桥). It’s the northeast corner of the Third Ring Road and only one stop away from the airport by the airport express line. I went to a mall first. It’s still early for a weekday so it’s a little bit quite there. I decided to walked to a nearby subway station Liangma Bridge (亮马桥), which is a place surrounded by many embassies. I met my friends there and walked to the nearby restaurant together. Two of my jobs were at that area so I have lots of memory there. Walking along the streets at night, everything feels very familiar but also has a sense of distance. There are lots of restaurants and shops disappeared or changed owners, but the base layout is the same. While taking the subway, walking along the narrow road that has barriers to separate it from the Third Ring Road, going through the underground tunnel, I recognized the familiar feeling: Beijing is like a big machine or beast that doesn’t care about normal human beings. The city is not designed with human scale. Multiple ring road highways cut through the city with giant crossing bridges. But that doesn’t make driving easier because the traffic is still bad and only limited cars can be on the road at weekdays based on the license number. The public transit is wonderful compared to North American cities and most of the people use it. But the subway is usually packed with people during commute hours and stations have maze like paths for exits and connection to another station. It can suck all the remaining energy out after a work day. The pace of life is fast and people are busy. It’s not an enjoyable city to live. But it’s still the capital of China and is the biggest city of the north. There is no shortage of people live there with the hope of a better life. I was one of them and it gave me valuable adventures. I don’t love the city but I love the memory with it.

Back to Toronto

We left early next morning for the flight to Tokyo, then to Montreal, then to Toronto. We had the opportunity to fully explore the airports at Tokyo and Montreal because we left enough time in between of the flights. The longest flight from Tokyo to Montreal is full but fortunately the baby was able to sleep most of the time. We arrived at Toronto at night which means it’s another morning in China and it has been more than 24 hours since we took the first flight from Beijing.

The whole travel went much better than I thought. We not only see the family and friends after 4 years, we also have the experience of traveling a long distance with the baby so it opens so many possibilities in the future. It would be great if I can stay longer with family every year in the future.