Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Real Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Backflip

The Jedi, only use The Force if ya force me, Shaolin What?!
-Method Man

In the Song mountain, which lies between Luoyang and Dengfeng, exists the sole reason why China will soon rule the world - the Shaolin Temple.

With the recent passing of Mr Kung Fu himself, I decided it was time to fill in my readers on a pilgrimage I made to the the hidden temple.

A few things about Shaolin:

1: Shaolin Kung Fu was brought to China from India by a buddhist monk. Its an import, just like Buddhism itself.

2: It was originally a form of meditation not the apex of ass-kicking, hand-to-hand combat..

The temple itself is accessible by a few bus routes and cars. The buses are primarily for nearby villagers that have sent their children to study at the temple.

And there are a LOT of visitors because there are an insane amount of children studying to kick all of our asses. Kung fu master seems to be an actual career plan in that region. And shit, I'd be worried. I sort of AM worried. Forget trade policy, China will take over the world solely because of this kid's flying kick.

Shaolin Flying Kick

Oh and the temple and surrounding area is pretty beautiful too.

Shaolin Temple Scenic View

Google Back Online in China

As predicted last night, Google is back online. The national outage was temporary and the internet is abuzz with speculation about the reasons for the blackout.

There is no official version from either side at this point, but many are theorizing that it was somehow related to the "Great Firewall of China". The firewall, also known as the Green Dam, is a national project recently implemented to protect children and citizens from unhealthy content (primarily pornographiy and propaganda). A lot of big guns are complying with the new requirements (lenovo, HP, etc).

Google has been pretty good about modifying its services for Chinese consumption, but rumor has it, China got annoyed when they noticed that english language searches done over on were returning content Google had agreed to disallow.

It looks like China is throwing its weight around. It is unknown if Google made any changes to be turned back on.

I'm just glad I have my Gmail back!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009 services blocked in China Mainland, gmail, analytics, adsense, adwords, blogger and other google-based services are not accessible from within mainline China. Only is available.

I've written before about how sometimes my blog disappears from within China and I'm still not clear about China's official internet policy or how it even operates. Because of that, I'm not exactly sure what is happening right now. This could be about pornography, political dissent or something else.

Or this may just be a staring contest between two 800 lb gorillas and I think China will win.

Google will lose a huge amount of revenue in ad delivery when it loses access to the Chinese market. China doesn't stand to lose all that much actually - as its home to many native search competitors such as Baidu and Sohu.

Google will likely be back in with modified terms and restrictions and I expect to see many more of these "China Flexing Its Muscles" showdowns in the coming years.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why I love Chopsticks

I just realized that, throughout my 40 blog entries, I haven't spent ANY time extolling the glories of chopsticks.

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have told you that you were crazy, but today its true. I can't pretend any longer. I love you. I love you chopsticks.

During my first few weeks here, forks and knives were a luxury that I didn't find too often. Restaurants rarely have them, unless they are necessary for a particulary type of cuisine (try eating palak paneer without a fork or spoon). And, Veronica and I, in an effort to acclimate more quickly, chose not to purchase any when we set up our apartment. Best. Decision. Ever.

Dispite all of the comedy routines about chopsticks (I'm sure there are some), I'm thrilled with them. I'll list the reasons here, and they may not be what you imagined:

1: Chopsticks are GREAT for cooking
Nothing beats flipping meat or veggies in a burning hot frying pan with magical wooden fingers. I've even used chopsticks to straighten and clean up improperly flipped omelettes. I can't do it yet, but at a Peking Duck restaurant, I saw a hostess roll a peking duck crepe completely with chopsticks.

2: Chopsticks are GREAT for finger foods
As I mentioned above, chopsticks are like magical wooden fingers. Imagine, people sitting around eating individual peanuts and chilis out of a common bown without ever putting their filthy hands in. That is how it works with chopsticks.

3: Chopsticks make you eat more slowly
Even if you are GREAT at using chopsticks, chances are you will eat a bit more slowly when you use them. This slows down your eating, which lets your blood sugar level catch up with you, so you don't often over eat.

4: Chopsticks make perfect sense for most chinese food
Sometimes it seems like half of all chinese food is a dumpling or a stir fry. Nothing beats chopsticks for eating this type of cuisine. The utensils match the meal.

I've heard that chopsticks are actually different in different parts of Asia. Best I can tell, China, Korea and Japan are the primary users. While South East Asians and Pacific Islanders prefers fork and spoon.

China: Chopsticks are thick and wooden or plastic. Often reused.
Japan: Chopsticks are thinner or tapered and about 4/5s the size of Chinese chopsticks.
Korea: Chopsticks are frequently metal and are frequently used in conjunction with a spoon.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dentist and Hospitals and No Insurance OH MY!

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit concerned about the possibility oh getting sick or hurt while living in China. Afterall, I'd been brought up hearing about long lines to get rations in the USSR and the starvation caused during the Great Leap Forward. Honestly, I was pretty worried that getting sick or injured would end up being the death of me or of my bank account.

Since we've been here, both Veronica and I have been to the dentist and Veronica went to a doctor. Glowing reviews both times.

I'll start with the dentist.
I made an appointment for the next day with an English speaking dentist for a cleaning and checkup. Took the bus and subway right there and barely waited before being ushered into a clean and bright room with six dentist chairs. I was the only patient and was taken care of quickly and effectively. No cavities. The cleaning, polishing and checkup ran me 30 USD. Again, that is 30 USD with no insurance and 30 USD for an appointment I made with a dentist I'd never used before less than 24 hours before the appointment and didn't have to wait for once I arrived. Not bad! Veronica had a similar experience, except she had a cavity that was filled with matching enamel for another 30 USD.

I imagine that we could have paid a lot less if we went to a dentist that DIDN'T speak english or used rusty tools. Overall, I'm completely thrilled with the situation.

On to the Doctor.
To be fair, Veronica saw a doctor in Thailand, not in China. And, if anything, the experience trumped the Chinese dentist many-fold. Thailand is one of those destinations that is becoming known for its medical tourism. I'm sure we could have bought a few kidneys when we were there, but Veronica was just looking to get a mole checked out.

Again, 24 hours notice, appointment scheduled with specialist for the next day, cost of roughly 35USD. However, this time we were blown away by the luxury of the place. The Bumrungrad International Hospital is a mecca for Chinese, Japanese, Thai, American and Middle Eastern patients that want to get their treatments for 1/10th the price of back home in 10x more luxurious surroundings. In the waiting room, I sampled 5 types of juices and watched shieks and their wives shuffle in and out of rooms for botox. I'm not really sure why someone in a hajab or burka needs botox, but hey, why not!

Best I can figure
The doctors seem top notch, as do the facilities. I'd assume the main reason the prices are so much lower is the labor cost (both for doctors and staff) as well as the lack of a tremendously corrupt healthcare system. Again, I'm not Rene Russo's character in Outbreak so I don't know how these things work. I should probably look into what Rene Russo actually played in Outbreak because maybe she was just a civilian. Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman were in the military, so I guess she was the disease expert? Or maybe just the suburban mom who encountered the infected rhesus monkey. Either way, from this point forward, Rene Russo in Outbreak will be my stand in for "expert", regardless of the subject matter discussed.

Since we only have dental experience in China and hospital experience in Thailand, I'll post again if either of us end up at a hospital in China. Here's hoping I don't have to make that post

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Health and Quarantine in Beijing, China

Some of you may have heard that Veronica was temporarily "quarantined" this past week. If you didn't hear, don't worry - I put quaratine in quotation marks for a reason.

China has become H1N1 crazy of late, and since I'm not an immunologist (or whatever Rene Russo was in Outbreak) I can't really say if they are over-reacting or not. All I DO know is that, compared to their total population, they've done a pretty good job at "containing" the "threat".

Unfortunately, this does mean dealing with some minor hassles. So far, Veronica and I have had to deal with:

1: Two delayed international landings.
When we returned from Malaysia and from Thailand, our landing group had to fill out health questionaires (Are you sick? Do you have H1N1? Did you kiss someone with H1N1? etc.) and then go through a screening process that involved some combination of:
Thermal Image Scanning
Brief examination/profiling (staff checked to make sure you weren't sweating too much or coughing/sneezing)
Individual temperature-taking (staff walks around the plane in hospital masks zapping our foreheads).
All said, this wasn't too bad for us. This is primarily because we weren't arriving from the USA. When my parents arrived in May (BEFORE the WHO's pandemic declaration), their de-boarding was delayed over TWO HOURS by all the extra precautions!

2: Annoying Text Messages.
Both of our cell phones now receive random Chinese language messages in which we can make out the roman characters H1N1, and occasionally the chinese characters for the name of a part of Beijing. We can only assume that these are announcements telling us to avoid a part of town because cases of the virus were discovered there.

3: Veronica's Workplace Quarantine.
This one mainly affected Veronica, but I had to suffer too because she worked from home this week! When Veronica showed up for her first day of work, her fellow Chinese employees didn't feel comfortable with her working in the same office as them. They initially put her in her own conference room (without internet connection or computer) until her supervisor told her to endure her quarantine from home. Which meant I had to endure the quarantine from home. Supposedly the co-workers were concerned about H1N1 because Veronica had recently returned from Thailand - but I'm willing to bet it was because she was American. Her supervisor has since informed her that the Chinese employees threatened to walkout if she wasn't quarantined for a week. He is convinced this was only partially due to health concerns and mainly due to "maybe-we-can-get-out-of-working" concerns.

4: Hospital masks and distrusting looks from Chinese.
Most Chinese seem to understand that any Westerner walking around has been approved by the "Frontier Health and Quarantine Office" (real name) and is not any more likely to be an H1N1 carrier than anyone else. Other's don't get this. As a result, I've gotten the stink-eye from dozens of Chinese, been able to ride a bus completely alone for 30 minutes (that might have been due to the weak-ass Chinese deoderant I've been wearing) and had people choose to "take the next elevator".

Due to the increase in the number of people wearing hospital masks, I haven't been able to tell if people are smiling or scowling at me. And with my limited Chinese (yup, still super limited), this piece of body language can be vital for interpersonal communcation. It lets me know if they are thinking "ha ha, look at funny westerner butcher our language and point at things he doesn't really want because he doesn't know what they are" or if they are thinking "what an idiot, I don't want to sell him any of these items now simply because his butchering of our language has offended my ancestors, countrymen and, of course, the chairman himself". It's usually about 50/50 when people AREN'T wearing masks!

Free Bonus Story

There is some worldwide confusion about what H1N1 actually is. For example, Veronica, Kim and I were lucky enough to be sitting behind two Europeans on our flight back to Malaysia from Indonesia who were clearly not native English speakers. We heard a glorious interchange about H1N1, which I will share with you here:

Swede: Why do I have to fill out these papers about if I am sick or not?

German: Oh H1N1 is a big disease, like the SARS and Bird Flu from past years.

Swede: Ah yes. But why do they call it the "sween flu"?

German: Oh, because people get it from sween in Mexico.

Swede: I do not know what this word means. What is "sween"?

German: Sween is a type of Bird.

Marc (loudly): A swine is a pig!

Swede: Oh yes because it is like the bird flu.

Marc (loudly again): IT CAME FROM PIGS!

German: Yes, like the bird flu.

Marc (giving up): PIGS PIGS PIGS.

Those of you in other places - is H1N1 a big deal? Or is it just the flu? I hear the US is being pretty cavalier about it all. Fill me in!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Finally: The Indonesia Trip

Sorry for the massive delay. I know I got you all hot and bothered when I posted the youtube video of the Balinese trance dancer kicking around flaming coconut husks and I know that the post about Malaysia left you wondering what happened in Bali!

Bali is a mixed bag. The best parts are unreal: terraced rice paddies up the sides of active and inactive volcanos, black sand beaches, natural hot springs, mountain paths, artisan villages, great massages, delicious food and drink at unbelievably inexpensive prices. Oh, and the waves. This place is a surfer's mecca for a reason.

The worst parts mainly exist in the most touristy places. The advantages of cheap night spots and English speakers are outweighed by the disgusting excess, too many South African and Australian tourists, all surrounded by poverty and annoyance in the form of beggars and hawkers (respectively).

We started out in Kuta, which is an example of the latter. Though its beaches were pristine, they were overrun with surf instructors and masseauses, so we decided to take a shared bus the next morning to the inland city of Ubud. We were much happier here. We got two rooms ($8 each) in a nice rice paddy-side bungelow and set off to discover the town.
ubud rice paddy hotel
Ubud is where we caught the tribal dance, had some massages (I did), bought a few dresses (they did), ate a great meal and tried Balinese rice wine. In the morning we went off on a trek/rafting expedition. I'm being generous calling it an expedition, but it was pretty amazing. Rafting beneath a jungle canopy usually is.

That night we took a three hour car ride to the former tourist town of Lovina. Lovina is known for its black sand beaches, but overall we weren't thrilled by this ghost town of a former tourist resort. We did meet a great couple there that let us tag along in their Jeep. This afforded us the ability to see some things we otherwise wouldn't have.

Such as, a mountain top buddhist temple. Bali is very buddhist, while Java/peninsular Indonesia is much more Muslim. This place was surreal. Completely isolated and multi-leveled. We kept going up staircases until we reached an amazing temple. I've been using a picture of my sitting in a Budda pose there as my Facebook profile picture ever since we got back from Indonesia.
bali mountain buddhist temple
Our generous drivers led us to some steller mountain-top views as well. The top of the mountains were unbelievably beautiful. We didn't encounter any English speakers, so our new friend's limited Indonesian came in handy. It's funny hearing a Brit of Indonesian heritage speak his mother's tongue with a thick accent.
bali volcano view
The last day we headed back closer to the airport where we booked a luxury hotel (50USD/night) and headed out to a beach that we heard had some of the best waves in Bali. We were surprised when we arrived and very few people were in the water. We quickly learned that this was because the waves were legitimately life-threatening. I'm not exagerrating when I say that they were easily 10-15 feet from trough to crest. And that meant, even when you were standing in a shallow area, a wave could hammer you. It also meant very few areas were actually shallow - the waves had created a pretty steep drop off.

For someone of with aquatic ability as limited as mine, I risked my life more than I should have. Veronica, who was a lifeguard at Camp Harlam, laughed as I gasped for air being pummeled by successive waves. This picture didn't capture the moment when Veronica, who had been floating on her back, was literally flipped by an incoming wave. I swam over - fearing from her life - and she emerged from the foam screaming "Oh my god that was so cool did you see that!?! Again! Again!"
bali beaches
I give Bali, on the whole, two thumbs up. Ignore the tourist hubs. Do your own thing. Meet random fun people and you will end up screaming "Again! Again!" too!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More Things I'll Miss About Beijing

Since my last post of things I'll miss about Beijing when I leave, I've taken note of a bunch more:

7: Cheap Shopping
Many of the things I've been posting about mention the relatively low costs. Shopping is no exception. Seasonal foods cost next to nothing when they are in season. We've been buying watermelon almost every day for around 0.50USD each.

But what is REALLY cool is the clothes markets. If you are okay with knock-offs, you can be armani-clad for a few dollars. Since I've been here I've had four bespoke suits tailored for me (two were made in Thailand - shout outs to Tom and Caitlin for their gracious hospitality, again). I bought a pair of leather versace shoes and countless tshirts and other textiles. I plan to do a bunch more shopping before I leave.

8: Bargaining
Though this also relates to money, I love how different bargaining culture is here. In the US, there are very few times in which one can bargain. Best I can tell, excepting business negotiations, in professional settings, it is limited to real estate and automobile purchases. I've also seen bargaining at informal marketplace settings (flea markets, dirt markets, peddlers' markets, etc).

In China, bargaining is a way of life. The only places you DON'T bargain are department stores or supermarkets. Individual free standing stores are almost always up for it. Especially street stands and vendors, but also clothes stores and more! If a price is too high, offer less. If the vendor is offended, that is the end of the conversation. More likely, he'll feign offense and when you start to walk away, he'll lower his price.

9: Random Energy Conservation Techniques:
All the hallways in our building have "clappers". This means lights are only on when the "clapper" thinks someone is walking in the hall.

Our aircon (I like calling air conditioners aircons now) has a default setting of "on for one hour". This sounds annoying, but is surprisingly practical. You turn it on while you fall asleep and then it goes off once you are asleep. You wake up sweaty - but c'mon, that was going to happen anyway.

Buses turn off their engines at red lights and during traffic jams. Everyone should be doing this, and I think its pretty cool that Beijing has informed their drivers how to save fuel and pollute less.

A cottage industry has sprung up around recycling - much more than a few homeless people claiming trash can territory. There is a fairly organized, independant recycling collection service going on. It's common that I take out our trash in the morning and by mid-day, someone has come into the stairwell to take out all recyclables (including cardboard).

Maybe I've been paying too much attention to environmental stuff lately because of Veronica's program, or because of how filthy the air is here, but these little things make me happy.

10: Witnessing History:
There is so much happening in China right now. Whether it is Shanghai hosting the first Pride Parade in China (this weekend), or the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (Veronica got to go!), there is always something happening.

three gorges dam

Construction and development are growing at such a rapid clip, its overwhelming. I've stopped walking to count construction cranes within sight and the most I've seen has been 21. Its normal to see a dozen. I've heard that something like 75% of construction cranes in the world are here.

11: My Building Complex Has 11,000 Residents:
When my parents were here, I was showing them the huge variety of commercial establishments in the vicinity of our apartment. We decided to figure out how many people lived in the area. Wikipedia says that Beijing has roughly 7,000 inhabitants per square Km, but our complex is more densly populated than that.

We live in one three-towered building in a complex that has 11 towers. By our estimates, each tower has roughly 1,000 residents - assuming 90% of units full and 3.3 residents per unit (one child and some grandparents - an average urban Chinese household). There are 11,000 people living in the square 1/4 Km that is our "compound". No wonder we have our own gym with diving facilities, supermarket, movie theatre, dry cleaner, coffee shop and three hair dressers.