Archive for April, 2007

In Beijing

19 April 07

Thursday morning, Steak & Eggs Diner, Beijing.

I survived my 10 hour hard seat train ride. What an ordeal. I am actually looking forward to a plush economy airline seat! The ride was monotonous and not to exciting, although as I was passing through the ticket control I did witness a guy try to get on the train without a ticket. He just showed his red Communist Party book and spoke in Chinese. The guards were not impressed. They shoved him back through the gate and told him to get lost.

As usual, on the train platform everyone was lined up in neat rows in the approximate positions of the train car doors. BUT, as soon as the train rolled in and stopped, mayhem ensued as everyone rushed towards the doors, pushing and shoving. I muttered obscenities under my breath, only to discover the guy behind me in “line” spoke very good English. He later approached me and apologized for his fellow passengers. He kept saying that it was terrible the way everyone rushed and pushed and he wished everyone could be more civil. He also told me he was an old-fashioned guy who wanted to support China’s peaceful rise while maintaining traditional values. We had a nice conversation. He was on his way to Beijing for a law school interview. I hope he makes it. China needs level-headed, well-spoken people like him in leadership positions.

I’ve just received my flight tickets and now I’m heading to the airport. More to come this weekend!

Cultural Phenomena

18 April 07

Ever since I came to China I have wanted to share my impressions of kind of funny/slightly odd things that I have seen and experienced. I hope that I have shared some of those things, but I know there are many things I haven’t been eloquent or observant enough to capture in writing & photo. Today I found a website that has captured many of the cultural phenomena I wanted to share with you.

So here is my list of interesting things you will see in China and a link to where you can read more:

Links are from Beijing Travel Tips, commentary is my own.

Lots and lots of bicycles  There are still tons of bicycles in Beijing and everywhere else in China, for that matter. Many cities have special lanes for them, but that doesn’t stop them from riding pretty much anywhere they please. They are a major obstacle when crossing streets. I still think they are better than cars and I will be purchasing one soon.

Apartment living

I am constantly amazed by these monoliths of housing. Even in small Chinese cities, apartments are mainly found in this style. They do resemble some sort of state sponsored housing in the Soviet style, and that is indeed what they are. I’ve always lamented the fact that many Chinese housing complexes and office buildings ignore traditional Chinese design elements (like pitched roofs with dragon motifs, etc.) in favor of square, imposing, completely impersonal architecture. Most of the apartment complexes are identical. And I can personally attest to the fact that the public spaces are dirty! (Our maintenance man keeps our public areas swept and tidy, however, I don’t think that is the norm.)
One of my biggest rants about China is the fact that many complexes lock their gates at 10PM and no one is allowed to enter or leave after that. Sounds like a safety hazard to me. Sounds like perfect control to them.

Newspaper billboards

I used to pass one of these in Shijiazhuang on my way to the supermarket. Basically, it is a long board along the sidewalk where the daily newspaper is tacked up, behind glass. Every page is accessible for  reading, for free. There are always older men stopped there, peering closely at the glass.

Black hair and black eyes

This should come as no surprise! Chinese people have dark hair and dark eyes. I have copper colored hair and blue eyes. I really stick out. I often get older ladies coming in for a closer inspection of my hair. (But to be honest, I also get that in the US, too.) I am completely oblivious to this attention now.

Bike-locked doors

This is something that I have seen, but didn’t really pay too much attention to. It is very, very common and you can expect to see this on banks, schools, businesses, everywhere!

New building construction

China is booming. Even in little Linyi, there are apartment buildings and business towers under construction everywhere. Where are all the people coming from?

Anti-road crossing barriers

These things are ubiquitous in all Chinese cities. They can be very annoying, but they don’t really bother me too much because I would very seldom be crazy enough to attempt a road crossing without the slight protection offered by a pedestrian crosswalk & light at an intersection. (no guarantee for safety, however, one must look both ways constantly before crossing.) Of course I can’t find the link now, but one of my favorite photos of China is an a painted pedestrian crosswalk completely blocked by a brand new anti-road crossing barrier. (I guess they forgot to remove the crosswalk.)

Tea jar

Ah yes, the tea jar. I have one myself! Very handy for my new tea and hot water drinking obsession. The tea jar comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes and designs. I even see some people using empty Tang drink powder jars or used cooked vegetable jars. They are indeed almost always see-through.

Table sleepers

I really can’t quite believe how easily a Chinese person can fall asleep, even under the most uncomfortable conditions. I am envious, honestly. I would love to be able to sleep on train rides or airplane trips or even at the local restaurant. But I can’t. (A grim reminder that I face a 24 hour journey starting later today and I know I will sleep very little.) I have even seen Chinese people sleeping over a table in a disco at 3AM. Although I couldn’t say whether it was fatigue or baijiu that did them in.

Inflatable arch

Yes, the inflatable arch is tacky, but it also represents the presence of “something” going on. And, as a curious expat, I am always looking for goings ons. In Linyi, the inflatable arch is often accompanied by a stage and a comedian, or some sort of raffle or dancing competition. When the DH and I come across this sort of activity, we sometimes unwillingly draw a bit of the crowd away to stare at us.

Bridal show

I’ve never been for sure whether the actual wedding is the draw or the elaborate and expensive photos that are taken before the wedding. There are tons of shops in Linyi and all Chinese cities where one can pick out a white gown and tux and choose settings for photos. Now that it is Spring and the blossoms are out on the trees, young couples can be seen in every park in the city posing for pictures. I was once just idly strolling through a park when I was asked to join a quick photo with a posing bride and groom.

Background music fiasco

I think this may be a major contributing factor to my void of knowledge of current & popular music. No matter where I go in China I am bombarded with easy listening classics, Kenny G, reworked Ricky Martin, Auld Lang Syne and inexplicably, techno at 11AM. At one of my favorite coffee restaurants, they play the same disco-esque song (which I loved the first evening there) repeatedly, sometimes mixing it up with the “Tennessee Waltz.” Never have I seen a people so in love with Bob Denver’s “Country Roads”, but I assure you, every one of my students can sing it word for word. They were devastated when I said Bob had been killed in an experimental airplane crash.

Big thermos flask

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the big thermos flask. She wanted to know what we call them in English. When I explained that we rarely use them in America, and only smaller ones for coffee or soup if we do, she was stunned. Personally, I don’t need to use one of these because I have an electric water cooler in my office. Another conversation arose a few weeks ago about the water cooler. Another friend kept referring to it as the “water trough.” When I explained that a trough is actually for animals, we had a good laugh. But then I wasn’t sure what to call the water cooler. See, in China, the water cooler doesn’t actually cool the water, it heats it. You have two options – boiling water or lukewarm water.

Pants slit

This really is one of the most bizarre-o things I have seen in China. Even in the dead of winter, babies and toddlers scoot around with huge holes in their pants. (Compensated for, I believe, with an enormous amount of clothing and layering. All babies here look like little Michelin men. When they are finally freed from all the clothing in late Spring, I am always amazed by their slim little legs & arms.) And they really do just drop and go wherever. I have even seen a toddler peeing in the dairy aisle of the supermarket. (Although the moms do usually try to get them to a bathroom or at least right out front the door.) More and more babies are sporting diapers, these days. But here is a question – what happens when a little tiny baby who doesn’t yet know when he has to go, goes? Does he just go all over mom? I heard that babies are trained to pee on command, with a whistle, but I don’t know if that is true or not.

Squat toilet

Ugh – the scourge of all foreigners in China. I’ve become really professional about these though. I fear no toilet.

So there you have it. A list of cultural phenomena I’ve been dying to tell you about. Follow the links for great photos and more commentary.

Hopefully this will give you something to do while I am temporarily away from the blog. I will be leaving tonight for my epic journey across Northern China to Beijing and then across the Pacific and Western US to Houston, Texas. I will be returning to the blogosphere over the weekend from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Wish me luck as I sit, contorted, on a train trying to get some shut-eye while all around me the Chinese contentedly sleep.

18 April 07

So I’ve just been reading about the Virginia Tech killings and I am just shocked. As a pacifist, it is so difficult for me to understand how or why someone would do something like this. But I am also a realist and I am all too aware of the high level of violence in our world today. Kids and professors dying in Virginia. Soldiers and civilians dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sudanese dying in Darfur. People worldwide dying of Aids & communicable diseases. People worldwide dying of malnutrition – obesity & starvation.

There is a lot of work to do to make our world a better place.

Peace

Come On Beijing! No Spitting On the Olympics

18 April 07

Beijing is trying to clean up its act before the 2008 Olympics. I’ve been to Beijing multiple times (in fact I’ll be there tomorrow!) and all I have to say is: Good luck with that!!

No Spitting on the Road to Olympic Glory, says the New York Times. The article discusses some common issues that confront the government as they prepare for the games, among them spitting, littering, not waiting in line and bad English translations.

Chinese are hawkers and spitters. They love it. It is ritual of everyday life. Hardly anyone views it as unacceptable. It is something you get used to. You just know that you are supposed to keep one eye on the pavement to miss the spit slicks. (and the other eye open for potential bicycle-car-pedestrian collisions.)

Chinese are also queue jumpers. Why wait in line?

Chinese used to be big litterers, but I notice they do that a little less these days. (Doesn’t look like it from the view to the side of my apartment building, though. What do you think of this little toxic pond?)

Toxic Ditch

Okay, sorry for that pic. EEwww. This is going to be terrible in the summer. I don’t even want to think about the smell…

Chinese translate signs and menus into Chinglish. It is fashionable to have English on your business, even if it makes no sense. Chinglish often delights expats. I know I would be beside myself with joy if I were to come across a translation like this: (mentioned in the NY Times article. If you don’t read the article, at least scroll down to the last paragraph and read this gem.)

Some translations are trickier, like describing pullet, which is a hen less than a year old but appears on some menus as Sexually Inexperienced Chicken.

If I saw that on the menu, you’d better believe that menu would be leaving with me! I think something will be missing from Beijing if they take all the Chinglish away! Although, personally, I could really do without the spitting.

The Hills Are Alive…

18 April 07

Peach Blossoms Up Close

With Pink!

It’s peach blossom time in China and the countryside around Linyi is covered in pink flowers. A few weekends ago, we took a day trip with our friends D. & L. and their family to have a closer look at the blossoms.

We went to a small village that was celebrating a peach blossom festival. Our friends were very surprised because they didn’t expect the festival. Last year, they traveled to the village at the same time and it was completely serene and empty. At one end of the village is a hill covered in peach trees. There was a line of people climbing up to the top in order to get a good view of the countryside, which is just literally covered in pink.

Peach Blossom Hill
The hill covered in peach blossoms. Those are graves in the foreground.

About half way up, we decided to stop and take some pictures among the trees. When some of the other Chinese saw us foreigners, we were surrounded by a large group. We spent the next 15 minutes posing for photos with nearly everyone. Old men, young children, crying babies, teen girls, etc.

Ivan Heather & a Little One

Look what we got! No – just kidding! It is our friend’s chubby little baby.


As we walked down the crowded street of the village, all we heard was the Chinese equivalent of: “look! foreigners! look! foreigners!”

Back at the airport later in the week, I got some photos of the amazing blossoms there.

Airport Blossoms

Airport Blossoms 2

Vegetarians: Warning – Meat Ahead

17 April 07

For those of you who know the DH, you know that his favorite food is lamb. A few weeks ago, he invited a group of us to eat lamb with him. Little did we know we’d be served the whole animal! The strangest thing about the night, however, was attempting to use a fork and knife again after so many months with only chopsticks. Some of us gave up and went straight to the hands.

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Here we are – a mix of Americans, British, and Chinese (and the Spaniard!)

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Waiting for the lamb!

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The lamb arrives! (Those are hot coals underneath to keep it warm.)

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Savagery!

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Almost done! Poor guy!

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The main kitchen where the lambs are cooked. There are several workers who manually rotate the meat over the hot coals. The room was full of smoke and was very hot. Not the best working conditions!

While living in Spain I grew used to eating lamb. I have to admit it is not something that I ate a lot of growing up in America. I did eat it occasionally in Kuwait, where I found it to be quite delicious. However, I’ve never enjoyed lamb as much as I have in China. I don’t know why that is – maybe the style of cooking it, or the style of eating. Maybe it is the rock-bottom cheap prices for something that is pricey back in the West.

After eating a mostly vegetarian diet, it was a great break to indulge in this meat feast. Along with the lamb, we were served a few light dishes, such as raw cucumbers & onions with hoisin sauce, tofu, pickled vegetables and hot peppers. At the end of the meal, a soup made from all the lamb innards was brought out. While I didn’t try the organs, the soup was okay, although not something I would specifically order.

For all 9 of us, (with beer) the total came to about $70.

Cheap Airfare?

12 April 07

There are probably no more frequent travelers than expats. We are always coming or going from somewhere. For those expats (or travelers, I don’t want to exclude anyone here) who don’t have access to a fat corporate air ticket service or company airfare reimbursement, searching for cheap air fares is a time consuming necessity. Looks like there is some help out there for those of us frustrated by expedia and travelocity. Just who does get those amazing fares they advertise?

There are several websites now offering historical fare pricing data, so you can find out when the best time to fly from New York to Chicago is or if a ticket between Atlanta and Dallas is a good find or not.

This will all be discussed in an article in The New York Times on April 15th. I got a sneak peek at it today.
Here are some tidbits:

April 15, 2007 Practical Traveler | Online Fares

If It’s Good, Is It Too Good to Be True?
By Michelle Higgins

 

A growing number of Web sites are offering help. Last month Farecast.com, which predicts domestic ticket prices for air travelers, introduced Farecast Deals, a service that uses the site’s stock of historical airfare prices and sophisticated data-mining techniques to find bargains it says are “based on science, not marketing.”

FareCompare.com shows the lowest prices offered by month for the next 11 months between 77,000 North American and 200,000 international cities.

Kayak.com lets airfare shoppers compare historical data for prices and itineraries in a couple of ways.

Airfarewatchdog.com aims for less fallible results as it scours the Internet for the best bargains out there, including low fares that airlines often reserve for bookings only through their own Web sites.

I’m happy to report I got an excellent deal on my flight between China and Houston. How? I can’t reveal all my secrets! Let’s just say I have a friend who knows the system.

Who Doesn’t Love a Penguin?

11 April 07

Especially a penguin on a treadmill

Driver’s Ed

9 April 07

Driving a car really shouldn’t be that difficult. There are things to learn like the traffic rules, how to control the car, the etiquette of the road. Then there are maneuvers that require more practice and skill, like parallel parking and reversing. These are all things easily learned and put into use everyday by millions of people.

The number of private cars in China is climbing. Everyone wants to trade in their flying pigeon for a Volkswagon or a Suzuki. (Or even a Great Wall – China’s own car designs are improving every year.) What does this mean for China’s roads? It is hard to imagine them getting much crazier. On my 2 kilometer ride to work, I witness countless near miss accidents and pass through three “hot zones” – areas so congested and rife with careless disregard of life, limb and traffic rules it is pointless to try describing it. The good news is everyone is moving at less than 30 km/hr. (Here is a bit of imagery to give you a flash of what it is like: people crossing 3 lanes of traffic without looking, motorized tricycles driving the wrong way down the wrong lane without fear, long trucks blocking all lanes of traffic for as long as they want as they attempt to turn into a road already packed full of trucks, pony & wagon travelling down the middle of the road, passenger buses rolling full tilt through the traffic light on red, several policemen congregating on the side of the road, laughing and talking as mayhem reins all around them… I could go on and on! And as I have seen on Youtube videos of India & Africa, China doesn’t even seem all that bad.) (And Dad – there is no need to worry. It all happens in slow motion.)

In an attempt to understand how Chinese people learn to drive, I accompanied my Chinese friend, I., to her driving lessons this weekend. I. has been attending classes at a local technical college for several months. She has already completed 2 of the required 4 examinations to receive her license. I figured with so many examinations to pass, Chinese drivers must really be getting quite good driving educations. Hmmm. Not really, at least not in my opinion. (Not that American driving education is so great, either. Many of my European friends are appalled that I received a driver’s license without any ability to drive a car with standard transmission.)

As with most education in China, the emphasis is on rote learning of small details that have little practical value. An example.

One of the driving examinations tests the applicants ability to back the car into a garage. Fair enough, that is a useful skill. However, the teaching of the skill goes something like this: Back up until the piece of masking tape on the side of the passenger window is in line with that pole in the distance, then turn the steering wheel completely to the right. Turn until the masking tape in the rear right window is in line with that pole, then stop. Back straight until the masking tape… bla bla bla. I wonder if these students were faced with a car and garage with no masking tape and poles, could they get the car in the garage? In order to pass the exam, the maneuver must be executed precisely with no error.

The street driving portion of the exam requires the applicant to drive straight ahead at a constant speed, then pull over to the side of the road, and then pull back onto the road. They are not really instructed on merging, overtaking, turning around, navigating traffic lights, etc. I was stunned when immediately upon entering the car, no one bothered with seat belts. No one looked at their mirrors, either. In fact, the rear view mirror was turned completely away from the driver. Scariest of all, when joining another road, no one bothered to even look at the merging traffic. The assumption is that anyone coming from behind will simply move out of the way.

Despite the lack of practical, real world instruction, students are expected to parallel park flawlessly, in only one move. Who cares if they don’t know they have to stop at a traffic light or how to merge, at least they can park their car efficiently. (**sarcasm**)

I contrasted all of this with my own experience learning to drive. I took summer “driver’s ed” – a rite of passage at high schools all across America. I sat in my little simulator watching films from the 1970s as I navigated my sim’s steering wheel along with the film. Later, we drove around town in the little Chevy Cavalier driver’s ed car, the kind with an extra steering wheel and brake added to the passenger seat. My town was all of 2,000 people and two traffic lights, so this wasn’t very intense training. Sometimes we drove to the post office so our teacher could drop off his mail. Or we’d go up to the Circle K to get candy bars and soda. We drove down a lot of country roads with practically no traffic at all. I didn’t really get to put any of this training to much use, however. Only a couple of months after getting my license I moved to Kuwait, where driving wasn’t allowed until 18 years. Even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive at all. The Kuwaitis have fabulous roads but they take to them with a speedy vengeance the likes of which I had never seen. Our favorite activity on the way to school everyday was surveying the road sides for evidence of fiery high speed crashes.

I’ve had my driver’s license for over 15 years but I haven’t driven in two years and I still don’t know how to drive a stickshift. In fact, I’d say I’m probably always gonna be a reluctant driver. I much prefer the passenger seat. (And if that seat is on a train even better.)

Unfortunately, there are millions of newly-middle class Chinese just dying to get behind the wheel. Let’s hope that is dying in the figurative sense.

Another Fun Waste of Time

9 April 07

Supposed to be writing a paper or getting some real work done? In need of a mental break?

Another great way to waste time, brought to you by the Internet:

The Speech Accent Archive

This page contains an archive of different accents from the world over. Ever wondered what a New Zealander and a Chileno sound like when reading an English paragraph? Now is your chance to hear the difference between a speaker from Windsor, Canada and Beaumont, Texas.

I’m an accent chameleon myself, as I have mentioned before. Currently, I speak with a Canadian-tinged, Southern US-nuanced, ESL teacher’s accent.  All of that is immediately out the window if I spend more than 5 minutes with a strong British accent, however.

(An ESL teacher is recognizable for use of short phrases and monosyllabic words. They condense complex thoughts into simple ones and they may even mispronounce words or use completely made up words a la Chinglish, Spanglish, Engrish, etc.)