The Gregory Jay Blog

A Wednesday in Tianjin

It occassionally comes to mind that life here in Tianjin, something I usually take for granted might be quite interesting to others who haven't lived abroad or, more specifically, here in China.

Let me tell you about the street on which I live here in Tianjin and why I like it.

Today is a Wednesday, its 10am, I have an iced coffee and a cigar - an Artuto Fuente Hemmingway figurado - in front of me. Of course, you don't have to be in Tianjin to have coffee and cigars but I'm sat inside a cafe, in a large (and thankfully empty!) smoking room. In England there are perhaps one or two places in St. James where I could do this but effectively the smoking ban has brought an end to having a morning coffee with a smoke inside.

Outside I see a constant stream of people in tight fitting blue and red uniforms each with a name-tag of a different shape or colour. This is Tianjin's Korea town and restaurants are lined up like bunk beds in a children's nursary, one up one down accross both sides of the street. The monotomy of the waitresses sailing by my window outside, each one staring into their phone, is broken up by the occassional old nai nai (grandma) walking past, green leaves poking out of her bag - she's been to the market.

Tianjin is unlike the other cities foreigners tend to live in in China, the busying buzz of Beijing is replaced with a quiet hum here. No one is in a rush here, which also means no one is ever on time.

A decade ago the Korean's in Tianjin were very affluent, usually sent here by large companies such as Samsung or LG to run manufacturing centers, they grouped together in this suburb of Tianjin. Out of the city center but only a 15 minute drive from the commercial and university districts. They built the Korean International School here, the restaurants and shops soon followed.

For someone who has eaten Chinese food for a decade and a half having barbequed Korean beef in every restaurant and kimchi in every shop on my doorstep is a real blessing.

On the way here a lady in a qipao (a traditional Chinese dress) called to me offering green tea from the doorway of her shop. Her pigtails run all the way down her back and the look of her shop always reminds me of a thousand Kung Fu movies. As I walked past three cooks sat on the doorstep of Lv Se Zhuang Yuan pulling the skins off bulbs of garlic and stripping long green onions. I used to take my wife here on dates before we were married, now we often have lunch here with our 8 year old son. Sitting on the floor to eat as the waitresses move the dishes like chess pieces, trying to fit everything on the table, injects a little bit of fun into lunchtime for us all.

There is a starbucks at the end of the street but I have never been inside, it's full of 20 something Chinese customers who don't realise the good coffee is to be found here. The coffees in the Korean cafe's are made with precision and care. They roast their own beans and the paper cups and black markers are swapped for white porcelin and leaf designs.

The TV tower is visable on the horizen. In Tianjin, this is an ever-present feature of the skyline, the forth tallest structure in Asia, it's a beacon that allows you to reorient yourself whereever you are in the city.

My first house in Tianjin was next to the TV tower and so whenever I would go exploring I could always find home by looking up, finding the TV Tower and walking towards it. Since then it has always reassured me standing there a constant in a city that has changed so much since I first arrived.

Life in Tianjin in cheap, not only when compared to the West but cheap when compared to Beijing or Shanghai too. And although the house prices here have doubled in the last decade the price of living is still very low. On the same corner as Starbucks is a Bai Ji Mo Restaurant, bai ji mo is a Chinese bun filled with pork that has been cooked in stock till it starts to fall apart. The closest thing would be a thick pita bread filled with pulled pork - they cost 7 yuan. (1 USD) They bake the bread right there in the shop and wrap it in paper so you can eat it on the way back home.

As it gets closer to lunchtime tables here in the cafe are starting to get occupied, the din of Chinese and Korean voices create the perfect unitelligible melody to the percussion of the baristas' coffee machines and rattling cups. My cigar is nearly down to the band. Outside a row of ebikes bright blue with large boxes on the back line the street, their owners chatting, waiting to take their deliveries.

I start thinking about lunch, Korean? Chinese? To the bakery? I think I'll just stay here and ask for a menu.

Greg is a true Sinophile, fluent in Chinese and proficient in Tibetan he is a homeschooling Dad that also consults on the side. You'll often find him cigar in mouth, book in hand, waiting for someone to finish their work or for the coffee to brew.