Me & my (freakish) mini-me: 16 takeaways from Shenzhen, China

My very British observations of a trip to China

I’d never been to mainland China before and so I was stupidly chuffed to get the chance to tour Huawei’s facilities in Shenzhen last week. This was an intensive two and a half days on the ground, and from the schedule to the mini-me takeaway gift, it all proved a very different experience. I’ve dropped some of my – no-doubt-terrifyingly-British observations – below.

1. Mini-Kathryn is the strangest gift I’ve ever received – corporate giveaways tend to follow a familiar pattern so, I was genuinely amazed by the eight-inch mini-me. Huawei also gave us its flagship handset, which is much more what you’d expect. All snaps included are taken on the Huawei P8.

2. Literally lost without Google – how do you search for anything? And when I wandered into the town and lost my bearings… there were no maps available and nobody spoke English. For a few minutes I was genuinely terrified.

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3. A VPN bypasses all clampdowns – we were given the details as soon as we arrived, although naturally, I struggled to make them work. It makes you think though: if companies hand these out as standard there must be an awful lot of ‘black market’ access via employees’ friends. 

4. Oddly, LinkedIn isn’t blocked – I was most surprised. Other major social networks – Twitter and Facebook – are.

5. A crazy obsession with selfies – you can’t move for people snapping themselves and each other. It makes the British selfie problem seem tame. And in Huawei’s flagship mobile store they were almost force-photographing people… and printing out the results.

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6. WeChat makes WhatsApp look rubbish – well, it is pretty much the same, it just has loads of extra features like the ability to pay for things and give people money. This is mostly used during Chinese New Year, apparently.

7. A different approach to tea – okay, I’m an addict. I chain drink the stuff. But the most bizarre response to a request for English breakfast tea I’ve ever received was: “Hot or cold?”

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8. A weird lack of toilets in venues – these are public and located outside bars and restaurants. They often consist of holes in the floor…  

9. From love of our Royal Family to a street of fake goods, brand is everything – this is the cliché about China and the evidence is everywhere to be seen.

10. A work ethic that makes Brits look lazy – our schedule was noticeably tighter than if it had been organised by a European corporation. However, this trend might be changing – a recent BBC World Service documentary highlighted the emergent Ketamine problem amongst the young – I spotted posters warning of the dangers at the border. The 60s-style drug problems may just be round the corner…

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13. Tropical humidity like a botanical greenhouse – there were a lot of lovely plants on the Huawei campus… and stepping out into the hot rain felt very strange indeed.

14. Deep fried mango or pumpkin (which tasted like custard) – and that was first course. Anglo-Chinese dishes obviously have little to do with the real stuff… but what struck me about the convoy of interesting foods was the lack of gradient between sweet and savoury.

15. An almost embarrassing service culture – to be honest, I don’t like being waited on. And I hate displays of status or power. I was mesmerised by the sheer volume of waiting staff to customers –massive compared to Europe and they’re generally more subservient.

11. A visa that needs your parents’ details – this was one of the most complex pieces of documentation I’ve ever done. It required the Chinese version of my name, details of my parents’ occupation and oddly sized passport photos with a special, ever so slightly greyer, white balance. These took half an hour to print at Snappy Snaps.

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12. Supermarket scanner in your face at the China/Hong Kong border – on the way into China we had to get out of the car and queue in a designated holding area where they absolutely scrutinised our passport photos. On the way back to Hong Kong we could stay in the car and they shone something that looked like supermarket scanners, with the red light at the end, in our faces through the open windows. It was odd.

16. That two-handed business card thing – is a really nice custom. It means people actually look at each other when they exchange business details.

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Have you been to China - what are your observations?


For more on Huawei’s facilities in Shenzhen read:

Huawei: Secret transparency in a Chinese smartphone factory