In China, it always pays to look both ways

Mar 6

People enjoy the blossoms at the Taiziwan Park.

THE first thing I should probably tell my parents about Hangzhou before they come here in April, is to look both ways.

Literally, when crossing the streets, they need to look both ways in case of rogue e-bikes; metaphorically, because they should always keep their eyes peeled for all of the interesting sights and people.

That is, if I can decide on a list of advice to begin with.

Choosing famous sights to see in China is easy. The real challenge to having visitors is how to prepare them for the strange new world that is contemporary Hangzhou — or even China as a whole.

What, beyond packing tips and random Chinese tidbits will give an accurate roadmap of my home?

Okay, so I’m technically a visitor in Hangzhou, but I still want my parents to enjoy it, like I’m introducing them to a long-term boyfriend.

Will they agree that Hangzhou treats me well? Will they let me keep seeing Hangzhou? Or, will they ask me to find one of the handsome cities that are a little closer to home? (“Hangzhou’s really sweet, guys, you just have to get to know it better,” I can hear myself saying.)

I’ve seen Hangzhou try to highlight its best features leading up to the G20 Summit in 2016, and while it hit some of the right marks (hard not to admit that West Lake is a classic), there were moments when I had to wonder if my city could really be packaged so neatly as: “Alibaba! Temples! West Lake! Silk! Culture!” What parts will actually stick out to my parents? What should I point out to them ahead of time?

More importantly: How do you write a guide to a city you’ve been in for so long, you’ve forgotten what’s strange or wonderful about it?

I think about that a lot as I go about Hangzhou to do my errands. I hear my dad’s voice as he, a manager for an American construction company, comments on how many building cranes are in the air.

“Keep count of the cranes,” I might tell him throughout his visit. As I step on a loose sidewalk tile, I can hear him tsk as he might say “Needed a better foundation,” as my mom might point to the jianbin (pan-fried pancakes) shop and say “Are those like crepes?” or point to a child wearing a marshmellow-amount of jackets and say “Must be hard to get around!”

My mom, a singer and voice teacher by trade, would pick up Chinese pretty quickly. Dad would probably let me do much of the talking.

“Keep count of all the fu (福) symbols you see,” I might tell mom throughout her visit.

As I buy some breakfast, I imagine my parents struggling with Chinese currency, surprised that I’d just scan the QR code and use my Alipay.

“Is that safe?” my mom might ask, and I’d probably have to factor in some time to show them the wonders and many uses of Alipay.

Eventually, we’d have to get on the subway to head closer to Hangzhou’s main attractions.

My mom might insist on taking a bus to see more of Hangzhou out the window, and likely I’d have to explain that Hangzhou’s transportation is a work in progress, and that the subway is easily the best method thus far. My dad would probably compare it to Minnesota’s light rail system where we’re from, which isn’t as developed, and has a strange honor system when it comes to buying tickets.

We’d then have to dodge the parked bikes on the sidewalks, perhaps eventually walking on the street, while I’d repeat how important it is to look both ways and keep an eye out for e-bikes and other traffic.

“Why don’t we walk on the sidewalk, then? my mom might ask, and we’d all look at the Ofo bikes on the sidewalks, the pedestrians on the street, and the much-annoyed drivers on the roads who have to put up with it all. My dad might say “two,” as he points to another building crane, and we’d wend our way to West Lake.

There are so many little details here that I’ve already gotten used to, so many idiosyncrasies that I’ve absorbed, that it’s hard for me to categorize them into what deserves an explanation.

“Practice your chopsticks,” “Don’t mind the looks,” “Don’t mind the bikes,” “Always carry tissues with you,” “Always bring an umbrella, rain or shine.”

I want to get Hangzhou right. Not just because my parents will have traveled a long distance to see it. Not just because I love them. Not just because it’s dad’s first time in Asia and I want to make it go as smoothly as possible so that he’d consider traveling this way again.

It’s more and more because of a strange sense of civic duty.

I want my parents to remember China for more than Beijing and Shanghai. I want Hangzhou to feel like more than “Shanghai’s backyard.” I want them to appreciate the many faces of China (both in terms of population and landscape).

Perhaps no guide in the world can accomplish that, and it’s a fool’s errand to even try and prepare them at all.

I guess in the end, I’ll keep it simple as before: Look both ways; China is all around.

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