Sunday, May 24, 2009

Malaysia Trip

A few weeks ago, Veronica, our friend Kim and I went on a trip to a few places in Malaysia and to Bali in Indonesia. I'm going to include some pictures and stories here. It was a great time. I highly recommend it. As it turns out, Indonesia (and to a lesser degree Malaysia) are the Caribbean for Oceania, but probably cheaper and more fun!

First things first. If you haven't heard of AirAsia, look it up. AirAsia is up there with RyanAir and Southwest as one of the best low cost air carriers in the world. We took eight one way flights and I think we spent less than 500 dollars a person. If you are considering visiting south east asia and have limited time or just don't want to ride buses for 24 hours a stretch - take AirAsia. But be prepared to pay for your entertainment monitor, your blankets, your drinks and your meal (3 dollars for a great meal - not a big expense).

petronas towers kuala lumpurI'm starting with Malaysia and will post about Bali later.

We planned on meeting up with Kim on the island of Penang, reknowned for its food and beaches. To do this, we took a high-speed train from Beijing to Tianjin (a massive city in its own right). This train did the 131 Km trip in under 30 minutes and cost $10. For comparison, Tianjin is a LITTLE closer to Beijing than NYC is to Philly. $10 for a clean, comfortable 30 minute trip. Unreal. Beat that Chinatown bus.

We hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur, where we'd crash and spend a day before heading to Penang the next day. We got in relatively late and, for future reference, the KL airport is NOWHERE near KL. The bus ride into town took over two hours. We learned a lot about the public transit system, which is currently a bunch of interlinking and independent systems, which got to be quite annoying. We also learned the Lonely Planet isn't a bible, in spite of its claims. We had some good local meals and we explored Chinatown and saw the Petronas towers before heading back to the airport to catch our flight and meet up with Kim in Penang.

I highly recommend Penang. Indian, Malay, Chinese and miscellaneous cultures have been living in this former British colony for a long time and the food selection was truly incredible. Public transportation made it very easy to get around the island and affordable and quaint homestays inches from beachfront bars and restaurants made every day a dream.

We explored the city (Georgetown), stayed at a beach (Batu Ferrenghi) and hiked a rainforest.

The rainforest hike was probably a highlight of our stay on the Island. We encountered very few other people during our day hiking, but we did run into a troupe of wild monkeys (not the ones that hang out for tourists to give food to). The troupe was very stereotypical to a nature program. It had a clear alpha male, an older, potentially former alpha male that has since taken a back seat, a mother with child and a few young playful monkeys. We gave them bananas and realized quickly that these guys were more likely to bite your hand off than eat out of it. Either way, VERY cute. That is, when the alpha wasn't attacking us.

We also spent a chunk of time at a meromictic lake. This was particularly cool -partially because there are only a dozen or two lakes like it in the world and this was the only one in Asia and partially because there was a bridge that we could jump off of into it. If you are too lazy to read the wikipedia article I linked to, a meromictic lake is a lake that is fed by both freshwater streams and by the tide of the ocean. The result is a dual layered lake, with the top being cold fresh water and the bottom being warmer, but denser, saltwater. We arrived when the lake was mainly freshwater and then the tide came in and filled it up. We swam in the rushing currents and jumped off the bridge into them as well.

We only spent a few days here before heading on to Indonesia. That post will be up soon.

Watching NBA Playoffs from China + Foreign Words in Chinese

This will be my last basketball related post. I think.

Now that the conference finals are underway, I'm realizing how thankful I am for China's recent obsession with the NBA. THANK YOU YAO MING. I don't really watch TV here, as there are only 1.5 English channels and watching Mandarin TV is only useful for the novelty of it. Except, that is, for when basketball is on.

I don't understand the commentary. I don't understand the commercials. But I LOVE IT when I hear a commentator yell JIA LEBO! What is a Jia LeBo? C'mon guys. Don't recognize King James' name when you hear it in Mandarin?

I haven't mentioned much about Mandarin here, but one of my recent pet peeves is the fact that the language does NOT take kindly to importing foreign words. The only cases I can easily think of are proper nouns. And even then they are usually pretty mangled.

Bringing a word into Chinese characters isn't a simple task. Because each character has a meaning AND a sound. If you want to turn Apple into "Ah-Pu" you have to take into account the potential meanings of every different character for ah and pu and then determine which works best for your name or your brand. Or rather, which doesn't HURT it. For example, my name in Chinese is Ze Ma Ku. But there are over a dozen possible pronunciations for it and probably almost a hundred different meanings. I could be Strong Horse Spirit or I could be Little Broccoli Face. Translating a name or brand into Chinese isn't to be taken lightly.

So, NBA players names are translated. I don't know what Jia LeBo MEANS. But I assume it means "Super Magic Blackman" or something like that.

What this means for my viewing is that, I don't get to hear words for rebound, block, dunk or any other word that ISN'T a proper noun. I pretty much get to make up my own commentary and then yell JIA LEBO whenever Lebron does something super magic blackman-like.

I love watching the playoffs here!

In the meantime. I thought I'd leave you with this fun picture I took in Luoyang. If you can't read it, this is a package for "1 Paris" of "Mens Health Massage Sport Sock". And it has Allen Iverson on it. In a Detroit jersey.

I wonder how that endorsement meeting went down.

Allen Iverson Socks China

Split Pants. Potty training or Assless-chaps training

Before I came to China, a friend of mine (shout out Sam Graham!) asked me to find out if the legend of the assless chaps babies was true. I had never heard tell of this legend, so I was skeptical. Assless chaps? On babies? Surely my friend was joking, confused and/or slightly disturbed.

Shortly after we arrived I learned the slightly disgusting, surprisingly practical and thoroughly different truth about assless chaps and babies. Yes, they exist. Yes, millions of Chinese babies are walking around with their genitals waving in the wind.

If you are still reading, and your work internet monitor hasn't blocked my website because it mentions "assless chaps" and babies so close to eachother, keep reading. It only gets weirder.

You may have heard about all the efforts China, and certainly Beijing, went through to clean up for the Olympics and the world press. Cars could only drive on certain days depending on the last digit of their license plate. Plastic bags for groceries weren't sold. Certain practices were outlawed, etc.

What you didn't know is that the Chinese have been engaging in a large amount of environmentally friendly practices for generations. One of them is assless chaps on babies.

You: "But Marc! How do assless chap on babies help the environment?"
Me: "That is a silly question. How do assless chaps NOT help the environment?"

I've been here long enough that assless chaps, or split pants as they are ACTUALLY known, do not startle or surprise me when I see them on the street. Actually that isn't completely true. Despite my familiarity with them, I'm always a little shocked when I SEE them helping the environment.

Disposable diapers barely exist here. Cloth diapers are only really used during the winter, when split pants are not feasible. Every other season, the split pants serve as potty training.

It is not uncommon to turn a corner and see a parent holding a child up over a sewer grating or over bushes and helping them create natural fertilizer, through their split pants.

Children here don't have to worry about sitting around in their own excrement, and the waste management system doesn't have to deal with millions of dirty diapers. Instead, children in split pants turn sewer drains into their own public toilets. And their parents are so proud.

I hope you understand why I can't really post a picture of this. I was out with my camera yesterday, thinking about how or if I could take a picture for this blog entry and realized that being deported is a bad thing. Sorry.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fire Dance in Ubud, Bali

Don't get excited. I'm not writing up the Malaysia/Indonesia trip yet. I AM, however, putting up a video I took while there. One night in Bali we stopped off at Ubud, a nice, inland town surrounded by rice paddies. While there, aside from eating, shopping and taking massages, we went to a traditional story-telling dance show.

The dance started with the retelling of the Rama story, but finished with this amazing "trance dance". The dancer wears a horse around his waist and walks through, around and kicks flaming coconut husks. Thought this might whet your appetite for more:

Things I'll Miss About Beijing

Since there was no clear runner up in the voter's choice contest, I'm tossing up a quick post about things I will miss about China, specifically Beijing, when I return to the states.

1: Cheap Food
This shouldn't come as a surprise to ANYone reading this. I love that I can get a delicious, filling, multi course meal for between three to five dollars. Nothing beats taking your girlfriend to a restaurant for a classy, upscale dining experience and spending ten to twenty dollars.

2: No Lines Anywhere!
This may sound counterintuitive, but since I've been here, the only queues I've seen are in locations where queuing protocol is STRICTLY enforced (read: where people are actually herded by physical obstacles). Everywhere else, it's every man for himself. At first, I found it annoying when I'd be standing right in front of a ticket counter, money in hand, only to be jostled out of the way by someone who wanted their ticket a little more than I did. Once I embraced the Zen of "no lines", I started to LOVE it. No more waiting in line at airports, ticket counters, etc. All you have to do is rush to the front and push your way through. This applies for buses, subways, taxis, ticket counters, airline boarding gates and food stalls.

3: Not having to listen to everyone's asinine conversations all the time
This isn't unique to China. It really applies to any place I visit that has a non-romance or germanic language. There is something freeing about not having a damn clue what anyone is saying around you. When a language resembles one I am familiar with, I find myself listening to conversations instead of taking in my surroundings. I don't have to worry about that here. Also, it's great when two masseuses talking about neighborhood gossip isn't annoying and turns into a kind of soothing white noise instead of shrill harpy calls.

4: Cheap Public Transport
Again, not culture related, but man do I love taking the 30 cent subway and 15 cent buses here. Splurging for cab means a base of $1.30 with most rides clocking in at around $3.00.

5: Street Food (and street vendors)
While similar to cheap food, I'm putting street food in its own category. This is simply because it is a completely different breed of street food than the food carts in Philly or New York. In my neighborhood, you can create a whole meal by stopping off at a few carts or store fronts. Get your dumplings at one place, kabob veggies at another, a drink at a third, some pastries for desert and you have the best of all worlds. When it gets warm out, tiny chairs and tables are set up on the street and people eat and drink with their friends. I would LOVE if there were places with free outdoor seating that didn't care if you brought food from other restaurants back in the states.

6: The Variety
Beijing is a gigantic city. In the few months we've lived in this apartment, multiple businesses have closed and opened on our block. New restaurants, new stores, etc. I literally have the choice of four supermarkets within close walking distance. I have the option to go to about eight salons/barber shops. There must be a dozen or more "Tea, Wine and Cigarette" stores within a kilometer radius of our building and probably just as many fruit stands on the street. We've got a KTV (Karaoke) within a few minutes of our front door and probably a few dozen restaurants. I know this is indicative of any large city, but Beijing feels particularly varied. Oh and its surprisingly clean too. I haven't had to deal with any doggy landmines of the caliber you'd find in the art museum area in Philly.

Is that really it? When I started writing, I thought that list would be longer...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Old Chinese Person Exercises

So this is Blog Democracy. I gave my readers the option of choosing my next post and, as a result, you are now going to hear all about the exercises that old Chinese people do. Mind you, I do not actually know anything about these activities aside from what I've seen, so the commentary you are getting will be that of a un-educated anthropologist. Expect me to use the words "weird" and "silly" a lot. Veronica, as an anthropology major, insists that the terms are "culturally differentiated" and "idiosyncratic", but I'll stick with "weird" and "silly" here. You'll know what I mean.

Those of you that know me know that I tend to make lists and organize my thoughts as such even during basic conversation. This is probably a bit annoying at times, but it works perfectly when trying to categorize Old Chinese Person Exercises:

Beijing Tai Chi1: Tai Chi
This ancient and boring martial art originated in Handan. Traditionally it is practiced first thing in the morning and gets the blood flowing. It is a slow moving, meditation-based movement activity and is often done as a community. In Handan, they actually love Tai Chi so much that they practice it at night in parks as well. Tai Chi is practiced world wide, so it isn't really unique to China anymore - even if it was invented here.

2: General Stretches and Self Flagellation
This is more idiosyncratic - oops, I mean "weird". I've noticed, middle age and older Chinese doing what I can only describe as "general stretches and self flagellation". Sometimes this is done as a solo activity, other times in groups. I first noticed this when returning from the gym in early spring. The lobby of the building was crowded with older women who were putting their feet on the walls (stretching) and then smacking their legs with their hands (self flagellation). This meeting seemed to take place on a regular basis. Since first noticing it, I've become aware of this exercise taking place all around me.

It is not uncommon for you to encounter someone walking down the street while beating themselves on the arms, legs or shoulders. This takes place on the bus, on airplanes and waiting for lines in supermarkets.

I've also noticed awkward aerobic activity - but NO running out doors or active cycling. People will walk sideways, taking big steps or they will walk up stairs backwards. This is fairly western, but it is usually done in normal, everyday clothes - thus making it weird. I don't have a picture of this, because I felt really weird taking a picture of someone beating them self on the bus.

Chinese Ballroom Dancing3: Ballroom Dancing
Almost as popular as Tai Chi is ballroom dancing. This often takes place in parks and is often to random western songs (Jingle Bells, White Christmas, etc). Its not uncommon to see white tourists joining in the fun. This is particularly fun to watch as it makes the experience EXTRA awkward. This seems to be a genuine exercise and the parks fill up with dancers on nice days.

And a bonus young person exercise

Military Training
4: Bad Ass Military Training
This comes from the Red Army department. When in the forbidden city (not so forbidden actually), I happened across a group of trainee soldiers practicing martial arts. This was pretty awesome. Dan's camera has the ability to isolate colors and made the practice look extra awesome.