Ode to my old passport

When I applied for my first adult passport, I never thought I would actually go anywhere with it.

Nine years later, it’s been stamped by 19 immigration controls — excluding US and Canada — and filled with Chinese visas. I even added 48 pages to it a few years ago. It’s been stickered all over, and tattered and soaked by at least two major downpours, which made the photo page all blotchy. Whenever I tried to cross a border, officials on both sides would do a double-take; sometimes they’d even say something:

  • Exiting China: “Did your passport get soaked?”
  • Entering the United States: “Phew. What happened to your passport?”
  • Entering Thailand: “I can’t see your face.”
  • Entering Vietnam: *Looks at passport, narrows eyes. Looks at computer. Looks at me. Moves passport around to look at it from different angles. Flips through pages. Looks at computer. Looks at me. Looks at passport. Mumbles something at me in Vietnamese. Looks back at passport. Sighs. This is actually quite fun for him. Sits. Looks at computer. Looks at passport. Looks at me. Smirks. Stamps passport.*

I didn’t care.* I flashed my battered passport like it was a badge of my travel cred. I’ve been places, yo. It didn’t help that I had to use it so often within China — signing leases, conducting bank account transactions, booking trains and flights, registering with police, even getting a local phone number. I began taking it with me wherever I went, despite all the travel advice not to. My passport number, issue and expiry dates are seared into my memory. I was one with my passport.

And now I’ve gotten another one, one with fewer 4s and more 5s :(

* This is a lie; I always got super nervous whenever I needed to present my passport because of the damage. But apparently it’s no big deal because my passport was never rejected.

Parade day

It’s a beautiful Thursday in Beijing, one of those rare days where the splendor of the outdoors can actually match that of any other beloved city of the world. It’s in the freshness of the air, in the warmth of the sun, and even in the joviality of everyone on the street.

People are lining my street outside, excited. Neighbors, bumping into each other, chat happily. Elderly people are lounging on stools and old chairs. Nearly everyone has sought shade under trees or patio umbrellas brought out in the past couple of weeks for the “safety volunteers,” citizen brigades tasked to keep watch.

The atmosphere today is in stark contrast to just the evening before, with offices and shops closing abruptly and workers frantically rushing home before the buses stopped running. As I biked home, the roads felt eerily empty, prepped for closure and cleared of the usual parked cars and congested traffic.

2015 China Parade Logo

Today is Parade Day.

Boyfriend left for work early this morning, earlier than usual. While today has been declared a national holiday, he will be working until late tonight. That’s the importance of the parade.

I watched the parade via a VPN-enabled FaceTime call with my sister, who was visiting my parents, who have CCTV. I didn’t intend to watch it, but the parade had become some kind of omnipresent beast that was impossible to escape. It was also taking place along a street that is literally two giant blocks from me.

Despite finding the whole parade concept incredibly tacky, I couldn’t help being taken in by the awesome precision, coordination and number of soldiers marching. And the excitement of my neighbors was contagious. I went outside to see if I could spot the planes flying overhead (yes!).

Military parades, especially ones that roll out some major weapons from the arsenal, must appear quite unusual to Westerners today — even Americans, who spend more on defense than the next seven countries (including China) combined and who have an unhealthy pride in their military achievements. They are, to us, a spectacle bordering on histrionics, a bombastic display of bravado that, in a post-WWII era, is reminiscent of the nationalistic and aggressive dictatorships we fought. It is hard not to see China as being antagonistic, despite its repeated assurances that the parade — and the Chinese — was all for peace.

To understand how a military parade can be a display of a country’s desire for peace requires the application of Chinese logic. That, or a ruthlessly realist outlook on geopolitics. China’s definition of peace is a world that goes about its own business, too afraid to mess with it.

But my dad said something while we were admiring the synchronization of the goose-stepping brigades: A marching army, perfectly in sync, is more than just about looks. To have hundreds of men concentrating on a single task, which is to march in lockstep, because one man said so, is to have complete control — that is power.

To hang banners and posters all around the city, even replacing the ads of perennial bus stop advertisers H&M and Apple with 70th Anniversary posters — that is power.

To close hundreds of factories and leave thousands of workers idling for a whole month — that is power.

To basically shut down a city of 20 million for the sake of a three-hour event — that is undeniably power.

Look at my power, Xi Jinping is saying. I have nukes.

But who is he talking to? Foreign countries — especially Japan — have certainly gotten the message. But then there is that whole peace talk, so no one is really sure what to believe.

The military itself might be the real answer. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign had brought down two of the PLA’s top-ranking generals, among dozens of other generals. The parade was an exercise for the remaining generals to salute Xi as he stood atop Tian’anmen so that he could assert his control over the bloated institution. In this respect, the parade was really to rally the military around Xi, and the people around the military.

Indeed, the people are rallying. The parade has given them a chance to marvel at how far their country has come since they were so weakened by foreign powers that Japan — Japan! — invaded and ravaged their country. It was a chance for them to share their family’s war-time stories and a chance to thank their veteran heroes. That is why everyone on the street, usually so stoic and neutral, was so happy today, despite their street being closed down and under heavy surveillance.

It was, in all fairness, a great day for the country. Still, as I watched all the different types of tanks that I just saw on TV rolling down my street, in an encore performance for the everyman, I couldn’t help but think of the irony. A parade ostensibly meant to commemorate peace and victory over anti-fascism, but proudly displaying the destructive weapons of war. People lauding the show of power, without realizing it is the same power that has placed so many limits on them. The soldiers, peaking out from the turrets, didn’t even smile or wave.

Bolt at the Bird’s Nest

A video posted by Johanna (@picsbyjojo) on

Beijing is hosting the World Athletics Championships now, a major international event that China for some reason is not hyping. Still, all evening sessions have already sold out, so luckily I bought tickets for Boyfriend and me three months ago. That is how we were able to sit 20 rows from the starting line where Usain Bolt took off for gold in the 100 meter against Justin Gatlin. As the sprinters lined up, the nerves and anticipation of the entire stadium was palpable. With the pop of the gun, our collective breath-holding erupted into cheers, crescendoing to a roar as Bolt crossed the line. From behind (or maybe in the moment), it really seemed Bolt beat Gatlin by more than just one-hundredth of a second. The race was over in a blink of an eye, but in the moment, time seemed to stretch for as long as it could.

Definitely one of the coolest 10 seconds of my life.

What China would do for a holiday

Holidays are supposed to be fun, giving the masses some deserved time off so they can relax, celebrate and enjoy life.

That is, anyway, the Western concept of a holiday. In China, things are different.

In May, China announced a new national holiday on Sept. 3 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, otherwise known as the date on which Japan surrendered. China officially designated the date last year as Victory Day and celebrated it for an entire month through various events, such as the airing anti-Japanese dramas on TV.

But this year, workers get time off! Why is 70 years such an important milestone?

For starters, the holiday was announced pretty much immediately after Xi Jinping attended Russia’s 70th anniversary Victory in Europe Day celebrations, which was essentially a giant military parade. No surprise, then, that China is also planning to celebrate the end of WWII with a giant military parade of its own. (News that China would be holding a military parade broke at the beginning of the year, though it was unclear when.)

Secondly, given China and Japan’s current tense relations, I’m pretty sure China just wants to rub Japan’s defeat — and its own rise — in Japan’s face. What better way to do it than with a giant military parade!

Did I mention there will be a giant military parade?

This parade is set to consume Beijing. It is so important that China is shutting down Beijing’s international airport for three hours. This closure was, of course, not announced until five days ago. I’m not really sure how the second-busiest airport in the world will deal with all the frustrated passengers who, upon hearing about the holiday in May, booked themselves a trip out of town. Suckers!

Besides that, China announced a whole slew of restrictions that will go into effect over the coming weeks, culminating on the day of the parade. Authorities will crack down on motorcycle and scooter owners. They must be properly licensed to buy gas. The alternating license plate system will limit the number of passenger cars on the road. Factories will be closed. And delivery vehicles won’t even be allowed in the city (unless it’s during the dead of the night) for the two weeks before the parade, which means no one can receive anything they ordered online. For two weeks.

So that’s how China celebrates its holidays. I hope it rains during the parade.

Home, Sweet Home

There’s nothing like returning home again after a long spell overseas.

The excitement of seeing family and friends again.

The joy of being able to do the things you used to do.

And mostly, the ease of it all. Things aren’t constantly threatening to break down. Dust takes much longer to accumulate. Everything is literally brighter.

There’s no obstacle, such as 20 million people or a language barrier, to doing what you want to do. Or rather, whatever may be considered an obstacle is so familiar already that it doesn’t seem like one. You can take a break.

Various circumstances related to my latest visa run have allowed me to stay home for almost a whole month*, the longest period I’ve been in the U.S. since I moved to China. I feel as if I am staying forever. The ease of being at home means I really don’t mind waking up every hour during the night in paranoid fits and/or not sleeping at all, so that I can do work on Beijing time and free up my daytime to hang out with my family. Plus it helps that my parents are cooking all the dishes I’ve missed, which means I pretty much don’t have a care in the world right now (except for my bosses).

* Twenty-four days, to be exact. But who’s counting? (Me, obviously. I’m relishing every single day.)

Fake Harbin

Harbin is quite an unusual city. For starters, its name in Chinese is three characters, deriving from a Manchu word. And its history as a Russian base has left an indelible European imprint on the city. But other than the unusual architecture and the local’s apparent love for ice cream popsicles, it really did seem like any other second-tier Chinese city.

However, as we wandered around, I began to notice something strange. Everywhere I went, there were the shops of famous brands, identifiers of the Chinese middle class: Adidas, H&M, Sephora, Uniqlo, Zara, KFC, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut. There were shops of well-known Harbin brands as well — Churin and Modern — the latter of which always had throngs of people grabbing a quick ice cream popsicle. But then I saw a weird sign (which I didn’t take a picture of). It looked really similar to this sign:

Xian Guo Shi JianExcept instead of IT’S, it said “VT’S” and instead of TIME, it said “TIEM”. If I recall correctly, the Chinese characters 时间 (shi jian) had been switched to “时光” (shi guang). The store with the logo above is a popular Beijing-based chain found throughout the country that sells fruit-based drinks. I thought the obvious knock-off was quite amusing at first, but didn’t think too much of it. Until I saw another store:

VT's TimeAs you can see, this shop — which turned out to be one of many around Harbin — spells TIME correctly, but still inexplicably spells IT’S “VT’S”. They sell the same fruity drinks from tiny window shops along the sidewalk. They even have a website that looks almost identical to the real/original shop.

Now the Chinese are famous for their copying skills, and the country is a veritable mega-store of fake, cheap knock-off goods. Western media have run countless articles on Chinese knock-offs of Western brands, and overseas tourists have posted their own discoveries during their trips to China. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and people everywhere copy each other all the time, I think what shocks people most when they come to China is how blatant the copying is.

I actually didn’t see any Western store knock-offs in Harbin (or their cousin, the fake Western brand stores), but I did come across some fake Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in a Chinese bakery. It even came in its own branded freezer cooler:

Sorry, Ben and Jerry, you make my favorite ice cream, but I had to get one of these because it was really hot and I don't like ice cream popsicles.
Sorry, Ben and Jerry, you make my favorite ice cream, but I had to get one of these because it was really hot and I don’t like ice cream popsicles.

Meanwhile, back on the street, I saw my favorite dessert shop, Honeymoon Dessert (满记甜品), blatantly being copied. But instead of conjuring up something sweet and romantic like its original, this shop chose a twist on the name that invokes rather the opposite feeling:

Mean DessertAnd then I saw another knockoff! This time, it was on a billboard of food operations in the shopping mall next to our hotel. What caught my eye was a picture of a dessert that looked rather similar to one offered at Honeymoon Dessert, but the name next to it was “Henki Dessert” (恒记甜品). I spotted the actual shop at the very bottom of the pit of the mall next to the escalators, and Boyfriend and I decided to try it for our last meal in Harbin:

Fake DessertI ordered my usual mango and black sticky rice in coconut milk dessert (which was not as cutely named). It was fine; not as good as Honeymoon Dessert’s, but it didn’t taste terrible.

Anyway, these knock-offs were not something I expected to see — Ben and Jerry’s is hardly well-known in China, while the other two stores are extremely popular among young Chinese. Is it a sign of the country’s development if the Chinese are copying their own brands now? It seems that Chinese brands are successful and reputable enough that they are now worth being copied. They are not always happy about it, either: The drink shop above has a notice on their website to alert people of fraudsters. I wonder if, as more Chinese companies are copied, the Chinese will start to care about intellectual property rights.


Boyfriend and I went to Harbin, way up in the far reaches of northeastern China, for the Dragon Boat Festival long weekend. The city of 10 million is known for its bitterly cold winters (-40 degrees!), during which it holds an ice sculpture festival with giant icy monuments dotting the city. For those brave enough to go during this time, it’s supposed to be a fantastic sight. I, however, am not brave enough, so I went during the middle of summer. I hoped it would offer a somewhat cooler respite from Beijing, but it was blazing hot.

Still, the weather was nice, and we could explore the city at at our leisure. Harbin was mostly built up by the Russians at the turn of the last century, and many European-style buildings still stand. If you don’t mind crowds, then a stroll down Central Street (中央大街) can be quite nice. The cobblestone pedestrian street was once the city’s main thoroughfare, and it still carries an air of grandeur, a boast about its past. The Russian influence remains strong: Everywhere, there were street-side stalls advertising “面包” (mian bao, or bread) and stores selling imported Russian goods and trinkets. There is a park named after Stalin (great for a walk along the Songhua River, above) and a street named after Gogol. And of course there is the largest Orthodox church in East Asia, Saint Sophia Cathedral, which has become an icon of Harbin.

St Sophia CathedralThere were also plenty of Russian restaurants, and we even tried one for dinner one night. I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but the decor made it seem like we were stepping back in time to the days of imperial Russian glory.

A trip to Harbin may or may not include the Siberian Tiger Park (黑龙江东北虎林园), a tiger farm with Siberian tigers, regular tigers and other big cats. It is a morally dubious venture that provides very depraved entertainment, so visitors should seriously consider whether to go or not. There are plenty of tigers, and the ones we saw appeared to be well-fed and fairly healthy (though just as miserable as any caged wild animal). Some of them got to roam about freely in large chain-linked enclosures, through which you’ll get driven in a caged bus; for some extra kuai, you can feed the tigers raw meat or even live farm animals. Park staff really tried to get us to feed the tigers as well, though only one family took the bait (ha ha). For 100 kuai ($15), five large chunks of raw beef were sort of tossed onto the floor of the bus in front of them, and then our tour guide demonstrated how to use tongs to hold the beef up through the wires of the cage until a tiger jumped onto the side of the bus to retrieve it. Her exact words were: “Taunt it first” — apparently, hold the meat near the floor of the bus to attract the tigers; then when they try to eat it, raise it up higher so that they too climb up the bus higher — “so that you can take better pictures!” Such is the state of animal welfare in China.

Siberian Tiger ParkSome other tigers were in smaller enclosures with unfilled pools that seemed to have become their litter box. The floor of these pens was just hard, packed sandy dirt, which I can’t imagine was good for the kitties’ paws :( In even smaller — too small — individual cages were the jaguar, cougar, liger and other cats. Visitors could again pay to feed these cats various types of meat, and one middle-aged man bought a chicken. He chucked it into the largest tiger pen through a metal chute. It stood frozen on the ground for a moment, unsure of what was happening, as a few tigers crept slowly — almost as if disinterested or unsure — toward it. By the time the chicken got a clue, though, the tigers had pounced. We heard a frantic cluck, a wild flapping of wings, a deep roar. The next thing we knew, the chicken was no more, just a tuft of feathers laying on the ground where it once stood. The triumphant tiger held the bird in its mouth, while the other tigers silently retreated back to the shade.

Botanical GardenOn a brighter note, we also went to the Botanical Gardens (黑龙江森林植物园), which was lovely. Plenty of families were out that day and had set up tents and picnic blankets. It’s a huge park divided into various sections, with lots of small shaded paths to wander down. My favorite part was the vegetable garden, I’m not sure why, but probably because I like to eat, so it was easier to identify with the plants. There was also a medicinal plant garden and a replica of some sort of prairie land, complete with fake giraffes and herons. After exploring most of the park, we went paddle boating around a very small pond. I’m not sure why we don’t go paddle boating more often.