Saturday, December 19, 2009

Apparently, I'm Santa Claus in Beijing

It seems like November and December is when most younger expats and students go home for a few weeks. Thanksgiving and Christmas make the trip pretty appealing - also, Beijing gets REALLY REALLY cold.

As you probably know, Veronica successfully defended her thesis last week and has since returned home on her original ticket before returning to start work in January. A lot of our friends have left too, but a fair amount stayed too. One of them (HEY JEN!) teaches English, is arranging a literary festival (with no carbon footprint) and seems to do a whole bunch of other cool stuff. The other day, she asked if I was interested in playing Santa Claus for a bunch of Chinese children.

To be perfectly blunt, and slightly grinchy, my first question involved payment. After that was resolved my only other question was if I needed to gain any weight to become Santa! It was set - I was going to be Santa. And everyone knows, Santa doesn't speak Chinese.

China is not a very religious society, and is definitely not Christian. However, the "red and white" celebration of Christmas is VERY popular over here. Restaurants and stores have displays and schools and offices have parties. I'm pretty sure that no one knows who Jesus was, but they all know who Santa is - ME!

I took the subway to the first location in need of a Santa and was met by a library employee who took me to get changed and ushered me in to the restaurant hosting their Christmas party.

Now, for those of you who forgot (or don't know me), I'm Jewish. I haven't really done anything for Christmas since my family stopped celebrating it when I was four (or so) years old. I've been to a few friends' and extended family's Christmas parties, but I really don't know too much about the holiday. I sort of panicked when I realized that I probably couldn't sing most Christmas songs if I was put on the spot. Then I remembered...

Secular, English-Only Santa pretty much just says HO HO HO MERRY CHRISTMAS a whole bunch and gives out the gifts that the he's been told to give. Whew.

I had two engagements as Santa today. The first was for slightly older children (5-10) and the second was mainly children under 5 or 6. I was surprised, out of the entire 60 children I Santa'ed, there were about 4 children that seemed pretty fluent in English and a bunch more than knew more than just "Merry Christmas, Hello Thank You". I clearly couldn't speak Chinese as well as some of these kids. But I did try. When it was clear that the children didn't understand my English, I tried my Chinese. Sometimes it worked - often it didn't - all the time it was fun.

Unfortunately, the teachers didn't take as many fun pictures of me with the kids as I would have liked - but they did manage to take one of this creepy, two-headed clown that made balloon animals.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Happy Hanukkah from Beijing

December brings, among other things, a handful of winter holidays. The most important two, for me, are Hanukkah and Marc Zeiger-Guerra day. Marc Zeiger-Guerra day falls on December 29th and has been celebrated throughout the world since 1981, the day upon which Marc Zeiger-Guerra was born. It is a VERY easy holiday to remember, as it falls between the birth of Jesus and the start of the new year. Same day, every year.

Hanukkah, however, is a little more difficult to keep track of, as it follows the lunar calendar. One would think that observing a lunar cycle holiday in a country that has many lunar holidays would be quite easy. Not the case. Despite its status as the most famous Jewish holiday, pretty much no Jew ever knows when it is. I am no exception to the annual forgetfulness. I only learned about Hanukkah's start date (December 11th) by receiving an email from a friend (HEY ALISON!) about a potluck.

Most of the traditional foods associated with Hanukkah involve a lot of oil. The most well known are latke's (potato pancakes) and sufganyot (jelly donuts). I've never made jelly donuts and was not about to start now. But I figured latkes would be pretty easy to make with readily available supplies. Veronica ducked outside to pick up some potatoes and yams and we set about chopping them up into fine slivers for the pancakes. Add in some eggs and flour (we used dumpling flour), shape into blobs and flatten in oil. Toss in some salt and pepper and you've got some genuine chinese sweetpotato latkes.
As it turns out, I was one of two latke makers that night. The other chef (HEY Aaron) used a Julia Child recipe that included all sorts of cream and deliciousness. Between the two of us we made WAY more than we all could eat. So we had latkes and omelettes the next morning.

There were a nice handful of expats there that night and we ate, lit candles and sang some hanukkah songs. No dreidel was played, but there was some gelt presentVeronica and I plan to light candles every night. I'm not sure when the last time I did that was, but I'm excited. We should probably get each other some presents too...

Master Master Lee

In case you haven't heard the news (or the legends for that matter) I recently had the good luck to encounter a great Master, Master Lee. Master Lee is actually a double master, in the ancient arts of Environmental Management and Environmental Engineering. And her first name is Veronica.

This past Friday, December 11th, Veronica successfully defended her dual Masters' Degree thesis before a panel that included faculty members from both Tsinghua University and Mines ParisTECH (formerly Ecole de Mines), along with representatives from her internship and her company's parent company. The defense was held in the Sino-Italian Environmental Sciences building on Tsinghua's Campus at 8:45am.

Since I work on a time-shifted schedule, I was able to attend. We arrived, through the blustery cold, to see life sized stand-ups of each students' thesis abstract, accompanied by a headshot picture posted in the lobby. Clearly I had to take a picture.

Veronica's defense was impressive. And I don't say that simply because I'm an adoring boyfriend. Really. If she were selling theses, I'd have bought one. I mean, look at her there with her powerpoint clicker assessing Energy and Resources and Mitigation thingies. I clearly didn't understand everything she presented, but the faculty seemed pretty impressed.

In my time here, I've heard many differing views on the state of the Chinese education system. In general, sentiment seems to be that standards are trending upwards and a greater emphasis is being placed on creating and inquisitive thought as opposed to rote memorization. This was not demonstrated particularly well during the first few minutes of questions posed to Veronica about her thesis.

The first two professors literally grilled her on the FORMATTING of her thesis. I'll elaborate on some specifics, because it bears repeating:
1: Thesis was printed with a medium light green cover, should have been a very light green cover.
2: Chinese title of thesis used one word for "valley", but abstract used a different word. The word chosen for the abstract (of the many possible "valley" words in Chinese) should have been used in the title as well.
3: Some charts used commas to separate thousands and others didn't
4: Some charts included differing number of decimal places
5: Inserted figures should not be surrounded by borders.

Granted, they did provide students with a FIFTEEN PAGE document outlining the format they wanted. But the fact that the first handful of questions indicated that some people may have been providing grades based on very superficial, "rule-following" aspects of the students' work.

The remainder of the questions dealt with substantive issues, almost all of which were addressed in the thesis itself and for which Veronica had elegant and excellent answers. The deliberations didn't take long and as of about 9:30am, December 11th 2009, Veronica Lee has two masters degrees. In May, after a retooling of the thesis for University of Pennsylvania, she'll have three.

I don't have a single masters degree, but my last name totally has, like, nine more letters than her's. She may have more letters to put after her name, but at least I have more letters IN my name.

Congratulations Veronica!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Boiling Herbs - Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing Part 3

Some people have told me that I'm being too graphic and that my readers don't want to hear about my sinuses or phlegm production. They are probably right - but that doesn't mean I'm going to completely scale back. I'll parse my judgement through the filter of someone that I trust (Veronica) and you'll end up with my slightly toned down, yet fully detailed reports on my treatments.

I'm almost finished with my first regiment of herbs and nasal irrigation and its definitely working. My reactions are getting smaller and smaller and between treatments I'm more clear than ever before. Boiling and smelling the herbs doesn't really seem to do much, but the irrigation itself is where the magic happens.

chinese traditional medicine herbs
At my last visit the doctor threw in some acupuncture to the normal massages. It was similar to some that I'd had done in the states, although that was to treat my feet. It's really interesting how Eastern medicine sees this all as related. All of my US doctors compartmentalized my problems.

I'm really interested to see if any new healthcare reform back in the states involves better, more simplified tracking of medical records. I'm always a little concerned when I switch doctors and the new doctor asks me about my medical history. Usually I'm pretty good about getting my records forwarded to my new office and I like to think my memory is strong, but ultimately, it can't be that good to diagnose anything without a better understanding of the whole picture.

Chinese medicinal theory may not have to apply to the same standards, as the initial exam by most TCM doctors includes a holistic check up to see what is balanced and out of balance. This is how my doctor here picked up on my hip and feet problems without me even mentioning it. I haven't had a doctor in the states express any interest in secondary or tertiary potentially unrelated symptoms when I've gone in for colds or respiratory issues.

As always, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing (Part 2)

My last post ended with a visit to a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Pharmacy (P). Right after I finished typing, I went into the kitchen to prepare my first batch of herbal remedy. See pile of herbs below:

This is where things get interesting. There are two parts to the treatment.

Part One:
Herb Boiling and Steam Inhalation.
As you can see in the picture, I need to boil the herbs and inhale the steam. Pretty straightforward. The steam is menthol scented and smells pretty nice. The whole apartment smells great. This didn't seem to do too much for my allergies though.

After about 10-15 minutes, I strain the herbs out and filter the liquid until any particulate matter is gone, let it sit over night and then proceed to part two.

Part Two:
Nasal Irrigation.
This is where things get really gross and really interesting. Nasal irrigation, for the un-initiated, is the process of drinking liquid in through your nose so that it rinses your sinus and nasal cavity. I've done this before, usually using a light saline solution and warm water.

In this case, the liquid is a brownish concoction made from roots, seeds, leaves and god knows what else.

As you can imagine, this was not particularly pleasant. Despite being smooth (no visible sediment) and painless to irrigate, immediately after irrigation - my sinuses BLEW UP. I felt like I was going to get a sinus infection within minutes. Sneezing, runny, stuffy - all the fun stuff at once.

The doctor had warned:
This could either be very good or very very bad. But either way it is good. You must keep doing it, even if it is bad.

This is hard to hear for someone used to western medicine. We are prescribed pills. We take the pills. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don't. It's usually a pretty painless process. Being asked to make a physical sacrifice for my wellness is something I'm not accustomed to - but happy to do.

Since that first irrigation, things have gotten much better. The irritation lasts much less each time and between irrigations I'm much clearer than I've ever been before!

I'm still sold on this stuff! I'll update the blog again when anything substantial changes. I'm really hoping I need "cupping" soon. I've had acupuncture in America (without much "success"), but am particularly interested in being cupped. Technically you can request cupping or go somewhere just to be cupped, but I'd much rather have it recommended as a part of my treatment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Chinese Traditional Medicine Doctor

I used to assume that most of my readers knew me fairly well, or at least were aware of me. However, my Google analytics has informed me that nearly 75% of my visitors are random people coming via search terms. It warms my soul to know that I'm attracting people who are searching for things like "asian farts" and "chinese baby split pants".

I bring this up, because anyone who actually knows me is aware of my annoying allergies. If you are one of those people that randomly found this blog while trying to figure out how to do a mongolia visa run, be warned - I'm one of those people that has an allergy for all seasons:
Winter: Dust mites
Spring/Summer: Pollen
Fall: Mold/Mildew
All The Damn Time: Cats

I also have a range of off-putting noises to accompany these allergies: Sneezes, Snorts, Coughs and more. In this regard, I blend in fairly well here. People consistently cough and spit up sputum on the streets. Its nice to not have people look at me like a freak when I clear out my throat.

All that said, China also presents a pretty cool opportunity for someone that tried allergy shots and pills his whole life. I've all but given up on western cures for my allergies. Two separate attempts at allergy shots, for over two years each time yielded no results. Claritin and sudafed provide temporary relief but often lead to headaches. I needed to look East.

It took me longer than I'd like to admit, but I'm finally seeing a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor. I'd like to transition to a doctor that locals go to, but for now I'm seeing a very expat friendly doctor recommended by a friend (shout out Jen!). Just once a week for now, but I'm already sold. Hook, line and sinker.

My first visit was diagnostic with a little bit of treatment. I told him that I had seasonal allergies and he poked and prodded me for a while. Didn't ask any further questions and then had an assistant start massaging and stretching me. After the treatment we discussed my situation and this is where he got me.

1: He prescribed a lot of hip and back stretches for me.
People that know me, also know that I've had chronic knee, hip and back issues. The stretches he told me to do and had his assistant perform on me were identical to stretches my podiatrist and physical therapist told me to do. Those guys were trying to help me run and walk without pain, however my new doctor was working on my allergies! I didn't tell him a word about my back, knees or hips.

2: He knew things about me that I didn't even know!
He asked if I'd had any head or neck trauma as a child or if I had a traumatic birth. I didn't think I had so I told him no. He insisted and told me to ask my parents. I called my mom who informed me that she was in labor with me for TWO days and there were definitely some difficulties during birth. Additionally, someone (no names named or fingers pointed) dropped me on my head when I was quite young. It does explain a lot - but it also blew my mind that this guy could tell all of this.

He then proceeded to give me a list of things I shouldn't do physically:
1: Crack my neck/back
2: Sleep on my stomach
3: Read or watch TV in bed

Along with a list of things I can't eat or drink:
1: Cold Beverages/Sodas
2: Alcohol
3: Chili
4: Seafood
5: Cold foods like Ice Cream and Watermelon
6: Garlic that hasn't been cooked thoroughly

I've done my damnedest to follow his instructions. It's made me practice Chinese a lot more because I always need to ask if food has chili or garlic in it. It's also driven me crazy - I didn't realize how much I crack my neck and back! I never thought sleeping on my back would be so difficult.

Oh and no booze. Seriously. But I'm doing it.

Veronica says I'm getting better and I think I am too. So far treatments have consisted of these massages that really focus on aligning my hips to my head (or something like that). Nothing too "extreme", like acupuncture or cupping yet. But it all depends on what my body needs during a given visit.

Last visit he wrote me up a script for some herbs for a vapor treatment and told me to go to a pharmacy to fill it. This led to my first encounter with a Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacy. It was really cool and very different from a western pharmacy.
I gave them my script and they began finding, preparing and weighing out herbs. The then divided them up into seven different packets for me to boil, inhale and then use for sinus cleansing. I have NO IDEA what the herbs were or what they do, but my doctor told me that it should help. I trust him and will blindly boil, inhale and then use for sinus cleansing anything he tells me to boil, inhale and then use for sinus cleansing.

Thanksgiving in China, Beijing Style

Welcome to the second installment of "Watch Marc and Veronica attempt to celebrate an American or Jewish Holiday in China with limited resources". You'll recall, the first entry featured Passover and a lovely meal cooked by Marc and Veronica with the assistance and expertise of the lovely Mary D'Agostino.

True to form, this entry features more members of the Lee-D'Agostino clan and their excellent cooking skills. Meet Jessica Lee and Roxana Wells, Veronica's sister and cousin. And know, that when I refer to excellent cooking skills, I'm really referring to Roxana and Veronica. Jess served as more of a "supervisor" and picture taker. I served as "eater", errand boy and potato masher.

Though not an overwhelming meal to cook, especially with an abundance of cooking pumpkins and sweet potatoes, Thanksgiving, like Passover, provided its own set of challenges. Most specifically - where do you find a turkey in Beijing?! And what is the Chinese word for cranberry?

Many of you jokingly asked if we were going to have Thanksgiving Beijing Duck and we almost did! But we had just gone to a fancy roast duck place the night before and, well, we all know what too much duck in a row can do to a person. Unable to find a turkey, we opted for chicken. Nice, roasted, chicken - with head intact and legs and feet stuffed inside. This was a little shocking to Jess and Rox, but by now, I know to go for the neck first and nibble on the feet a bit. I'm not a HUGE chicken feet lover, but I am learning to enjoy them. The neck, however, is succulent and delicious. Its much easier to carve a small roast chicken than a big turkey.

We didn't manage to find cranberries, but veronica improvised an EXCELLENT substitution. Common in marketplaces around this time of year, Chinese haw (山楂 in Chinese and Crataegus Pinnatifida in Science talk) is a small crabapple-like fruit that has a similar taste to cranberries. Veronica substituted haw for cranberries in her mother's recipe and came up with a great haw jelly that I actually preferred to cranberry sauce.

The rest of the meal was fairly standard and delicious. A nice salad with pomegranate and walnuts, lamb meatballs with cilantro and onions, pumpkin and sweet potato soup, mashed sweet potatoes and a pumpkin pie in an IKEA tupperware!

After the meal, I ate a chocolate turkey (THANKS MARY!) and we all fit onto our couch to watch Mulan - which I had never seen but all three cousins sang along to and commented about what aspects of feudal China a Disney cartoon with a talking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy depicted properly. And then I ate another chocolate turkey.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Someone robbed our house!

I admit, that title is a bit misleading. No one stole anything from our house. Don't worry. However, someone did steal a potential new apartment from us!

We'd seen a dozen or so places and settled on a cozy two bedroom with nice new floors. Then, all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, our realtor started texting me about seeing new places. My ability to read Chinese isn't that great, so at first I thought I'd mis-interpreted his messages. I wrote back that we really liked the place he showed us and want to sign a lease. After a volley of texts, it became clear that the landlord thought we'd be picky tenants and rented the place to someone else out from under our noses!

This doesn't sound like a huge problem, and wouldn't be, if our current lease didn't expire in seven days. Oh and if Veronica's thesis wasn't also due in seven days. Oh and if Veronica's sister (YAY JESSICA) and cousin (YAY ROX) weren't visiting this week. Oh and if we didn't have jobs and Chinese lessons and a thanksgiving dinner to cook. Plus packing .. oh man. We were screwed.

Or. So. We. Thought.

We met with our Realtor the day after he gave us the bad news and he showed us the perfect place; a better location and a better apartment for less money per month.

We managed some basic negotiations in Chinese ourself and signed a pre-lease deposit agreement and started to get super-excited.

I tend to be a "prepare for the worst case" sort of person, but things really fell into place on this one.

Before you read this and think that Veronica and my Chinese has gone from zero-to-sixty, it must be said that we wouldn't have been able to do much of this without the help of our friends Jared, Jen and Ray.

I did learn two lessons though that I think should apply for the US as well:
1: Always negotiate
2: Don't be TOO picky when you are busy always negotiating.

I wish people in the US tried to negotiate more. I was thoroughly bummed when Ari and I were trying to rent out our Manayunk House and not a single person who checked out the place tried to offer us less than we were asking. I was mainly bummed because it took us longer to rent the place than it would have if someone had tried to get us to drop the price to begin with. Bargaining is a way of life here and I think we could learn a lot from China on that. Isn't bargaining a great way of finding where the supply and demand curve meet? Sounds pretty market-friendly to me.

Beijing Real Estate Amateurs

About two or so months ago, Veronica and I decided that we wanted to move. Don't get me wrong - we love our current place. It has a great sweeping view of the endless landscape of residential towers that is the area between the 2nd and 3rd ring roads. It's got two large bedrooms, hardwood floors, a gym in the basement and five supermarkets within a 5 minute walk. It even has one of the nicest bathrooms I've seen since I've been in the city. Actually - I have qualms with the toilet - but thats another more graphic story. All things said, I can't really complain.

But that doesn't mean we can't shoot higher. And by higher, I mean - way cooler. There are a lot of fun areas of the city. WuDaoKou (五道口) is like college town. Wudaokou can be identified by its crowds of westerners and koreans, its rotating supply of good places to eat and drink as well as its inventory of slightly jacked up prices for apartments. Veronica studied near there and many of her friends lived there, so after spending a bunch of time visiting, we realized it wasn't for us. You can get to WuDaoKou via line 13 of the metro - but its a bit of a hike. One bright spot is that it isn't far from Zhongguancun (中关村), the bargain priced electronics market I stop by whenever I need a memory card or a computer accessory.

Also in the category of 'not-gonna-do-it' is SanLiTun (三里屯). This place really has it all. That is, if you want to live in America. Western chains, nightclubs, bars, stores and plenty of Chinese that speak English. While pretty much every expat or student makes there way here a fair amount - I don't think I'd actually want to live here.

Another popular area is DongZhiMen (东直门). I like DongZhiMen fine. We've got a bunch of friends that live there, probably because the carpools and buses to ultimate pickup leave from the subway station there. Apartments can be more upscale and there are some large malls and food courts as well. Its like a baby Central Business District in the north east corner of central Beijing. We heavily considered DZM.

We settled on Andingmen (安定门). This neighborhood is close to historic sites, a subway station, plenty of great, inexpensive restaurants and is fast becoming the best brunch spot in town. Cafes that actually serve good coffee are springing and cute boutiques are opening that are frequented by hip Chinese and by younger foreigners. I don't want to hype the neighborhood up too much because we're very much on the tail end of its development. I'm sure that by next week all the cool people will have moved out.

I'll be posting again soon to tell you about the fiasco we went through while looking for an apartment. I can't just yet because we are signing the lease tomorrow night and I don't want to curse myself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Korean Baby Stroller Accidents

America's Funniest Home videos is a show that is imported to TVs all around the world. This is probably because, bloopers rarely need subtitles and its much cheaper to air a show without captions. I've caught some episodes in China, Korea, Thailand and even Malaysia.

It always gets to me though : many of the videos seem blatantly staged, but more importantly, even more probably resulted in off-camera hospital visits. Regardless of the incidents' veracity or the injuries caused, the laugh track plays on.

When Veronica and I were in Seoul we witnessed two things that, had they been in a cartoon, or accompanied by sound effects, could have been funny. Instead they were painful and terrifying. And they may indicate a much larger, more cosmic possibility - Veronica and I might be cursed...

Walking through an artsy part of town, a grandfather, daughter and granddaughter started to come out of a coffee shop. I wasn't paying attention, but Veronica grabbed my arm as the toddler in the stroller FLIPPED 270 DEGREES OUT OF THE SEAT AND LANDED ON HER FACE. Everyone rushed to help. Minor scrapes and scares aside, the child was okay. But we were terrified.

We were terrified, because, not ten minutes earlier, the EXACT SAME THING HAPPENED. A young boy, performed the exact same acrobatic feat when we were doing a little shopping in a different part of town. At the time, we didn't think anything of it, aside from "don't buy Korean Strollers".

I'm not sure if two babies flipping out of their strollers within 10 minutes is a pattern, a trend or a what. But I'm pretty sure that the forces of gravity apply differently when Veronica and I are near babies in strollers.

If you are a new parent - be careful. Do not invite us to watch you push your child around. Since I don't think that is something that people even do, I think we are safe. But either way - BE CAREFUL!

Monday, August 31, 2009

What is Chinglish?

Every tourist visiting an Asian country (generally Japan or China) feels compelled to take pictures of the mangled English that appears on street signs, restaurant menus, clothing and pretty much everywhere.

I'm no exception to this rule, but I think its worth determining just what is occurring in these anglophone atrocities. In China, the errors can be divided into three main categories:

Chinglish Grammar Errors
Technical manuals and signs at government buildings are often victims of direct translation errors. Phrasings are translated directly and, as a result, the English is often confusing. Occasionally these are funny, but usually a non-jackass can easily determine the intention of what is being said and life goes on. Graphic example to follow.

Chinglish Spacing Errors
This may come as a surprise, but traditional Chinese poetry and calligraphy uses no punctuation or spacing. In fact, punctuation beyond the full stop and the comma are relatively recent additions to written Chinese. Wikipedia tells me that full stops and comma's were used in scholarly annotation, but were often omitted.

This means that spacing and punctuation are NOT first nature to Chinese language speakers. This leads to a fun type of Chinglish error, "thenospace or awkwa rdspac ingerr or". These errors really look like someone took an entire English sentence, removed the spaces and then randomly reinserted them.

This is becoming less and less common as punctuation (and to a much lesser extent spacing) are becoming more commonly used and English is becoming more wide-spread.

I'll keep an eye out for a good one of these and edit this post.

EDIT: Looking through some old pictures, I realized I had a combo error. This definitely includes spacing issues, and probably some character transposition errors as well.

The characters read 省心楼, which could translate to "no worries tower". It appears someone took liberties and called it The Retrospection Tower, only to have their words mis-spaced and improperly transcribed into "THERETRDSPECTIENTOWER".

Character Transposition Errors
Unfortunately this is, by far, the most common type of error I encounter. Luckily its the funniest. This occurs when a typesetter, signmaker or textile manufacturer manages to incorrectly copy one or more of the English letters from a piece of paper onto the magazine, sign or garment. Some may be semi-intentional, like the multitudes of fake Calvin Klein floating around the streets with horrible names like Galvin Kloin Galvln KIein. I've also seen some Ralph Lauren called : Pclo Olub - Palo Team.

Other times, people are not trying to avoid copyright infringement and are just horribly transposing letters. I snapped this picture of a haute couture dress
If you can't read it, it says SEK BOHBS NOT WABS.

I find it FASCINATING, that someone able to memorize over 10,000 unique characters manages to mis-transpose one of the 26 characters in the English alphabet. I think my hit-miss ratio of transposing Chinese characters I don't know is MUCH higher than that.

Score one for Marc.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Beijing Ultimate Frisbee Champions

Attentive readers will note that this is the first post I'm making in August. Many of you know the reason for this: Veronica and I were back in the states for a little over 10 days. Those ten days were the busiest, most fun and friendfilled and generally fulfilling vacation days I can remember. Shout outs to the people that we say and BIG SORRIES to the people we weren't able to get in touch with. That said, our open offer still stands: Get yourself to Beijing, and you have a place to stay and some slightly above-average laowei tour guides.

Since this blog is about living in Beijing, posting about our trip back to the states would be rather pointless. And so, the blog picks back up, as we pick back up our lives in Beijing. . .

And where a better place to start than on the Frisbee fields. Beijing (and China in general) has a small but growing Ultimate Community. Right now, Beijing is home to at least four ongoing teams, comprised of locals and expats alike. There are a growing number of native Chinese being turned on to the sport, due, in no small part, to the tireless efforts of Five Ultimate to open up new markets.

During the springtime, we occasionally made it out to pickup games, but our travel, class and work schedules made it difficult to commit to Beijing's inaugural spring league. Luckily, we were able to join up in time for the 4th annual summer league. The league is small (compared to large Ultimate cities back in the states) with only four teams that play a total of eight games plus finals. What the league lacks in size it more than makes up in spirit.

Beijing Ultimate is lucky to have a committed group of expats that love the sport and love the city. The seed of their enthusiasm has sprouted into a lot of locals joining up and bringing their new take (and often incredible speed) to the game. Most of the people we've met so far are quintessential ultimate folk that, having played in or after college back in the states or Canada, couldn't go without it in China. They travel to tournaments throughout the continent and do the same rawkus things we do in America.

Beijing Ultimate Frisbee Summer League
We ended up on a great team, that managed to lose all but one game going into Final's weekend. We entered the playoffs as the #3 seed and won both of our games as the underdog to take the BUSL championships. I'm not going to bore anyone with a recap, but if you want the gory details and videos, check them out at Anthony Tao's blog.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in Beijing - The Art of War

Back in the states, once a year or so, I'd meet up with some friends and watch a fight that someone bought on pay per view. It was almost always boxing and usually a well-hyped, big-deal match. I can't say that I ever counted myself among the ranks of Mixed Martial Arts enthusiasts.

To be honest, until the other day, I thought the Ultimate Fighting League went the way of the XFL, Chumbawumba and Pogs. I've been corrected. And I couldn't have been corrected in a more awesome way.

If you remember, a few weeks ago I made a quick run to Mongolia. I was supposed to make this trip with a guy I connected with on a Beijing Expat site. At the last minute he was unable to go, but we kept in touch and he hooked me up with tickets to an MMA show in Beijing called The Art of War.

Holy Crap this stuff is the real deal and pretty damned impressive too. Its called mixed martial arts for a reason. The fighters specialized in all sorts of fighting methods and the rules are tailored to avoid "point scoring" and determine a winner based on submission, unconsciousness or medical disqualification.

This was a straight up Vegas style fight - complete with multiple jumbotrons, smoke machines, american referees, round card girls and fighters from all over the world.

The fights had two rounds, the first was ten minutes, the second was five. Only two matches even made it into the second round. There was one impact knockout (within the first 30 seconds of a fight), two head lock knockouts, a whole bunch of leg, arm and neck lock submission wins, one tie and one medical disqualification (huge gash, lots of blood).

I really didn't expect to like the fights as much as I did. They were really pretty bad ass. Most of the Chinese fighters got destroyed pretty quickly - it was funny listening to the Chinese cheer at what they thought was a good move by their countryman, but was actually the beginning of the end.

The foreign fighters almost always won, with the Thais and Mongolians doing particularly well. My favorite fighters was a short squat Mongolian man that came out wearing armor and leapt around the ring for a few minutes before the fight started. He looked like a cab driver and then he completely rocked his competitor.

mongolian ultimate fighting mma
I think I'll check it out next time it comes to town.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Chinese fixed my biggest pet peeve

Ni Hao. 你好.

China has officially solved one of my largest pet peeves.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who thinks the platitude "How're ya doing?" as a greeting ranks tremendously high on the list of social interactions that shouldn't exist.

Even though it is often clear when someone does or doesn't actually want an answer, some people just don't get it. These people launch into a diatribe about their shitty landlord, their sports team or god knows what else is on their tiny little mind.

China's solution is simple and elegant. Their general greeting "Ni Hao" literally means "you good".

But that's no solution Marc!? That creates the exact same problem!

That's where you are wrong, my fair reader.

In Chinese (Mandarin at least) a sincere query into one's well-being is followed by a word that makes it into a question (ma, 吗).

That causes:
1: "Ni Hao (你好)" to mean "hello", while
2: "Ni Hao Ma (你好吗)" translates to a "how are you doing?"

Because of this, I propose changing the way it works in English:
1: "How are you doing?" means "hello", but
2: "How are you actually doing be I have a real and true interest in your current state of affairs" means "tell me anything personal beyond responding with a polite hello and nodding".

That should work. Right?

Side note: Remember how I mentioned that Chinese Characters are combinations of other characeters? The word that signifies a question "ma, 吗" is actually the word HORSE and the word MOUTH smushed into one character. I have no idea why.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Mongolia (Visa Run) on the Fourth Of July

"Mr. Hu, TEAR DOWN THIS (great) WALL."
- Brandon Slattery

Happy 4th of July!

I never thought I'd be celebrating this way, but I just spent American Independance day on crowded sleeper buses traveling back and forth to the closest and cheapest place for a US Citizen to exit and re-enter China. Why would I choose to celebrate our triumph over the British this way?

Its simple really, my original visa, issued in NYC (纽约), expired. And because most Asian countries seem to be limited in how many days-per-stay they can issue (30 days max), my Beijing (北京) and Kuala Lumpur (吉隆坡) issued visas have expired as well. My most recent visa from Bangkok (曼谷) is a bit better - I'm allowed to stay for six months, as long as I leave each month. Hence the trip to Mongolia.

Beijing is not particularly well-situated for a quick exit and re-entry. The main options are South Korea (韩国), North Korea (朝鲜), Hong Kong (香港), Vietnam (越南), Japan (日本) and Mongolia (蒙古). Of those, Hong Kong and Vietnam are pretty far away. Korea and Japan are pretty expensive. And, because my home country isn't really on speaking terms with North Korea (politely called The DPRK here), that option is out of the picture. Since time, money and global stability were concerns, I opted for the Mongolia run. And the best news: US Citizens don't require a visa to get into Mongolia! Actually, I can't imagine why they would require a visa for anyone. Who actually WANTS to go to Mongolia!?

This trip was certainly an adventure. There are two ways to get to the China/Mongolia border: Train or Bus. Trains don't run that frequently, so I took a bus. A few stations have a sleeper bus that leaves in the late afternoon. The ride itself took around 10 hours with a one hour stop. Sleeper buses (for people who are uninitiated) contain 40 small beds. They are almost always full, so 40 beds means 40 people on each bus, with more luggage, twice as many stinky feet and easily ten times as many farts filling any empty space not already filled by people, feet or luggage.

Beijing - Erlian Sleeper Bus
We arrived at Erlian (二连) at 4:00am. Erlian is the small town on the Chinese side of the border. INTERESTING FACT: Trains stop here to be refitted onto new wheels because European and Asian tracks don't match. ANOTHER INTERESTING FACT: I do not envy anyone who has to spend time in Erlian. There really isn't too much to the place. Lord knows they are trying. Recent dinosaur bone discoveries in the area have prompted them to put up some statues in their main park.

Erlian Dinosaurs Park
Aside from the dinosaurs, the only reasons people come to Erlian are Mongolian sex tourism and border crossings. You read that right. Somehow this town has a redlight district. Unfortunately, since no one in the town spoke English and my Chinese at this point can only cover "I" and "Go" but not "Whorehouse", I wasn't able to check it out.

Oh, and to make things EXTRA-fun in this part of inner-Mongolia, Mongolian is much more frequently spoken than Chinese and most signs are in Mongolian and Chinese (with no English). The Mongolian is usually written in a vertical script (adapted from Uigher, which was adapted from Arabic and Persian) or in Cyrillic. I did have a lot of fun playing around with my limited Chinese, though. This place had some English on its sign and certainly required a picture:

Gengis Kahn Army Food Store
There are three ways to cross the border: Bus, Train or Jeep. The first two run on a limited schedule - a schedule which I didn't share. This meant I'd need to find a Mongolian or Chinese that would drive me across the border (and hopefully back!). Luckily this sort of ad hoc taxi role is one of the major professions in Erlian!

Even with my limited Chinese, this was easily accomplished. The driver loaded up a car with 8 people and breezed through customs on both sides. After dropping most of the people off at the Mongolian train station in Zamyn Uud, we headed back to the border.

Zamyn Uud Train Station
The way in was a little less fun. All of the forms were in Chinese and Cyrillic/Mongolian, so, speaking my best Chinese, I requested an English form. I actually think I said "I need english ticket. You have my english ticket?"

I'm no Rene Russo here, but this set off some alarms and pretty soon I was filling out the paperwork while having my temperature taken two ways. People that know me can attest to the fact that I run a little hot - so I was almost detained. Luckily, I managed to convince them that I was good and this was not necessary. Somehow they let me back in. And now I don't need to do anything like that for another month!

I bought a bus ticket back to Beijing and spent the next few hours wandering around this bummer of a town, eating, taking a few pictures and waiting for the bus. I really enjoyed the Mongolian / Former soviet feel to the place. I'm including a great picture to empasize this:

Mongolian Chinese Statue
All said, this trip wasn't that difficult. It was a little annoying not being able to sleep well on the bus (they blast Mongolian techno and the drivers smoke). 36 Hours of no sleep is fine - but it can be a little much when negotiating a shady customs transaction.

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.

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