Category: China


So today’s my last day and that’s all well and terrifying but this post is going to just be some pictures I took along what has to be perhaps my favorite bike ride that I’ve taken in recent memory. I did it this past Sunday while the power was still out, because my computer’s battery had died and there wasn’t much point to sitting in the house.

So I have a thing for old Chinese buildings at night. Sue me.

At one point I ran into this sign -- which says something about engineers, and then "tourists prohibited"; I asked a guard if I could go through anyway and he said sure. Great success!

So consequently I got to spend a decent chunk of the ride up-close and personal with the forbidden city as opposed to seeing it from across the moat, which was a lot of fun but not as good for pictures, because they mainly just show walls, like this.

The main entrance to the 'City.' If you look at the first picture in the post two below this one, I'm behind that building.


How to — get sick in China

I imagine that a good portion of my readers will at some point in their lives find themselves in China. Upon getting here, though, it occurred to me that some people might not know how to get themselves sick properly, so I’m making this handy guide for them.

Now, there are a few reasons you might find yourself in such a situation where you need to become sick in the middle kingdom.

  • Maybe the old man on the corner has challenged you to a loogie-hawking contest
  • Could be that your trip has been a little too enjoyable, so you’re looking for a way to make sure you go out on a particularly low note
  • Winter getting to you? Contract a fever, feel toasty warm all the time!

And so on.

Without further ado:

1) Live in China for about two months and ten days. You see, if you’re coming from a real country your body generally is all full of good chemicals because said countries’ governments love you / don’t trust you to properly nourish yourself on your own, so they infuse all your food with vitamins and things like that so it’s hard to accumulate any sort of dietary deficiency. You want to give it some time for all these to work themselves out of your system while you marinate your lungs in a perpetual haze of industrial fumes, car exhaust, and second-hand smoke.

2) Now, a lot of people here have already accomplished step one and are well on their way to becoming ill. Your next goal is to surround yourself with as many of these people as you can, in as tight of quarters as possible. To this end, spend a few hours a day on public transit systems, or even elevators. The more people wearing the “I am sick” masks, the better, but don’t worry if you don’t see many of them in a given subway car — plenty of people will just not cover their mouths at all and happily cough all over everything. Again, the elderly particularly excel here.

10-to-13 transfer, 6pm. Two major subway lines, only two staircases. So when a train comes in, they stop the flow up one staircase so that the arrivees can come down, and then open the stairway and create a bit of a stampede. If stampeding isn't your thing you can wait in the line on the right, but I shouldn't have to explain why that isn't appealing.

3) If for some reason you can’t locate a suitably crowded place in China, just find some sort of office building where a third of the employees are sick, and hang out there for nine or so hours a day. Extra bonuses if most people don’t wash their hands in the bathroom. Oh and make sure to use plenty of the same water coolers, door handles, etc as they do.

4) Ok, crunch time. Your spitting contest is coming up and ol’ Wang Fung on the corner is on his A-game — if your body isn’t in a seriously compromised state, you’re gonna lose hard. These guys have an INFINITE supply of material. You’ve got one weekend to prepare.

  • Friday: Go eat in a truly filthy establishment. Preferably one where you pay first, and where the waitress is also the cook, so she handles your money and then goes to make your food. You’re in luck if you don’t hear a sink turn on. Oh, and be sure to eat something you’ve never had before so you can’t tell if the taste is off.
  • Saturday: Wake up really early, so that you don’t accidentally use the weekend to catch up on your sleep debt. Later that night, drink heavily and stay out late; it does wonders for your immune system. Oh but be sure not to drink any water — it’s not potable. No need to go that crazy. Before you pass out, though, try to turn off your heater and every light in your house to simulate the effect of running out of power in the middle of the night. This is necessary because you’ll need to
  • Sunday:  Again, wake up way earlier than you normally would because gosh it’s really cold in your house, for some reason. Like, I-thought-I-bought-a-big-fucking-blanket-for-this cold. Spend the day in somewhat of a stupor, and don’t eat much. That night, you’re going to want your house to get down to about 55 degrees — this is a pretty key temperature to hit, because it ensures that you can’t actually sleep even though you’re exhausted, so you get these fun semiconscious feverdreams every half hour or so until 4:30 when your system just shuts down and you actually get some rest

5) But not for long, because it’s up-and-at-em at 8am for work on Monday! You should be pretty much set at this point, especially if you’ve been sticking to the advice in point 1) and haven’t eaten any fruit for a while. Though if you still have any concerns, you can always walk a floor or two in the stairwell of your office; literally hundreds of people use it every day as one big long smokeroom so if your respiratory system isn’t completely broken for some reason you can just get that coffin nailed down tight. And if that still doesn’t do it, your upcoming fifteen-hour, four-airport, three-country international flight sure as hell will. Not that I’m complaining (=

Honestly I like my office a lot. My cube is on the left, with the tea and the headphones.

In seriousness I’m not as bitter as it might come off. The whole reason I made the list is to say that yes, I’m sick, but it’s pretty much my fault (except for the power outage, which was Rayco’s. Bah).  My throat is kinda screwed up and I’m running a smidge of a fever, but hey. Last time I spend two months and ten days in China — I’m serious about this number, this is happening almost exactly TO THE DAY the same as it did this summer — I came out with an upper respiratory infection with pneumonia to chase. So a cold or whatever I’ve contracted isn’t the end of the world, it’s just a kinda sad way to say bye to China. Maybe it’ll go away tonight if I eat lots of oranges and get a buncha sleep. That’s my plan, anyway…

I feel guilty for ranting, so here's a picture of Beijing as seen from my office window. 我非常喜欢这个城市

One week

Wait, what?

Where the balls did winter go? Isn’t this supposed to be the slow season? Especially if you don’t really have, well, friends, and you work nine-hour workdays the whole time (minus Xi’an)? That seems like it’d be the perfect storm of things that would make time seem to pass slowly, but something’s not working. The weather’s been awesome, my job’s been interesting, my acquaintances (got plenty of those!) have been a lot of fun to get to know. And even without them, god knows I’ve been keeping myself entertained otherwise; this blog is a testament to that.

Through it all, I’ve said it before and will gladly say it again — life just moves faster here. This summer evaporated in a blur of happiness, and winter has just become more and more exciting as it’s gone on; if anything it’s been the opposite of the gradual slide into reclusive bitterness that I was half-expecting. (Sidebar: occasionally when making small-talk, I’ll ask people if they like summer or winter better. The answer is, literally without fail, ‘fall.’ In a choice between summer and winter, everyone just dodges the question and says that fall is the best. Pressing the issue does nothing. Weird.) All the holidays, and the political stuff going down help contribute to that, I suppose. In any event I’m coming to grips with the fact that I somehow only have seven days left in this country, and as a weird consequence of that it occurs to me tonight that it’s time to stop blogging for a bit. Or rather, not being able to blog should be a side-effect of my main goal, which is to be out of the house for pretty much this entire weekend. I should ideally be so busy doing cool stuff or at least getting drunk (ha! I don’t even have a wallet for people to steal this time!) that I won’t have half an hour to sit down write about it.

So far I’ve actually planned out by far my most eventful weekend here — helped by the fact that another friend from high school has rolled into town — and if all goes well then I will ostensibly have one last batch of material to write about mid/late next week before I head over to Haiwaii.

Here’s hoping!

Thanks to the lovely folks over at “Zero assumption recovery” I was able to recover all but two of the pictures that I’d been forced to delete.

Starting with the one that got me in, er, some trouble:

A few things to note here. I had to shrink the image to upload it so it might be harder to tell, but if you look at the McCafe sign you see a few things -- the man in the window under it (inside the 'closed' -- to anyone but undercover cops -- Mcdonalds) is intently staring right at me. As is the cop outside to his left, and the man immediately under the cop. The man to the right of window-dude was the guy who tried to take my camera /=

Posted in part to show you how many police were there, in part so you can look at the ground -- see how it's wet? It wasn't raining or anything today, but right around 2pm when the protests were about to start they drove two huge street-cleaning trucks through that sprayed water everywhere and cleared everyone out of the area. Clever, yeah?

More crowd control. My better shot of this one got unrecoverably deleted, sadly. But if you look at the bottom, you can see the random barrier they erected outside the Mcdonalds for 'maintenance' although there was just one dude with a jackhammer inside. The barrier cordoned off most of the street outside the 'left' side of Mcdonalds as it is shown here.

Guy in the orange was the one on my right arm, guy to his right was the main dude. Photographer they're harassing was my roommate's bosses friend. But he got to stay in the area and hang out with them up on the raised part, which is strange because they wouldn't let anybody else stay up there. Makes me think he's a domestic journalist who is just being regulated as opposed to censored entirely.


That is many police, yes?

P.S.
Special thanks to Nick “Su ke” Sauerberg for posing for the following photo, which, as the first/oldest image on my camera at present, was the first one to appear as I scrolled through the camera to prove that all pictures from today had been deleted. Surrounded by Chinese police and scrolling past this particular picture — and seeing the expression on my questioner’s face falter, just for a second — helped get my mindset past “I am unimaginably screwed” to “I’ll be fine, but this situation is stupider than Nick’s face” which was an incredibly healthy change in perspective to have.

Jasmine Revolution

I have never been as scared in my life as I was about an hour ago.
Relatedly, I’m an idiot.

Quick back story: anybody who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past two months knows about the revolutions going on in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc. But what everyone might not know is that they’re spreading to China, too. That is, they’re trying to spread, anyway. The CCP isn’t really having any of it, though.

Here, they call it the “Jasmine Revolution,” a term selected in part because “Jasmine” is the name of an extremely popular pop song, which makes it difficult to censor. Not that it isn’t being censored — if you try to post anything on Chinese social networks that contains the term, well

Status updates with the word on popular Chinese social networking site Renren.com were met with an error message and a warning to refrain from postings with “political, sensitive … or other inappropriate content.”

It aims to create rallies and demonstrations in support of better living conditions, cheaper housing, some amount of democratic reform, and a decrease in government corruption. Protesters were specifically urged to chant “We want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness.” Source/another really good article, with pictures
What makes it personal to me is that in Beijing, the focal point of the ‘revolution’ is the intersection next to the Wangfujing McDonalds. Readers paying attention may recall that said McDonalds is about three minutes from my house.

Here’s an article written yesterday about the protest planned for today.
The highlight:

Five Chinese human rights activists have been charged with “endangering state security” by “inciting subversion of state power,” a crime for which they could be sentenced to years in prison. These arrests take place on the heels of the disappearance of 3 human rights lawyers.

International director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders Renee Xia released a statement saying, “The numbers point to a bad situation that is only getting worse. In the matter of a few days, we have seen more cases of prominent lawyers subjected to prolonged disappearances, more criminal charges that may carry lengthy prison sentences for activists, more home raids, and a heavier reliance on extralegal measures.”

They specifically are cracking down on foreign journalists without licenses. Maybe you see where I’m going with this. While I certainly would not be pretentious enough to label myself a real “journalist” by any stretch of the imagination, your average Chinese cop is not going to know that.

The site calling people to action, Boxun, requested:

“We invite every participant to stroll, watch, or even just pretend to pass by. As long as you are present, the authoritarian government will be shaking with fear.”

But Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), warned: “If you are calling for people to demonstrate on the streets in China, you are exposing them to great danger.” Source

So today, my roommate gets home from lunch at around 2:30. “They’re doing that Jasmine thing again in Wangfujing. The one you told me about a few days ago, you know?”
“Wait, now?” (The demonstrations, it turned out, were supposed to start at 2)
“Yeah,” he says, “I mean, it’s mainly cops, but you can try to go down there…”
But by this point I’m already halfway out the door, camera in hand. Five minutes later I’m trying to figure out how to get past this:

I can see the Mcdonalds from here. What if I just wanted a cheeseburger, man?

The crowd trying to get into Wangfujing

Can’t go through the mall or even through a firedoor in the lingerie shop at the bottom of the mall, though I damn well tried. I was determined, though, and one of the reasons that the Wangfujing McDonalds was probably chosen is its accessibility; the area is wide open — surely they couldn’t block everything. Plus, from the street I had seen people by the McDonalds. They all got there somehow, so I could too. Finally I found this cross street behind a hotel that wasn’t guarded for whatever reason.

And then the pictures stop.
But not because I stopped taking them. No, I wandered around the McDonalds area for damn near half an hour, talking to people, taking pictures, asking questions. Seven of seven policemen don’t know why there are so many policemen around, incidentally. One of the policemen near the front of the street would only say “有事儿” and elaborate no further. “There’s something.”
The people there didn’t really respond to me asking things either. “It’s not clear,” “I don’t know,” even “维修 — maintenance.”
Yes, you certainly do need seventy-five uniformed policemen and thirty other undercover cops wearing wires for maintenance duties. That makes perfect sense, guys.
The McDonalds itself was closed — I wanted to go buy a revolutionary milkshake — and the police made up about a 1-to-3 ratio against civilians in the immediate area. I kept taking pictures pretty discretely. Lots of people were milling about but there weren’t any signs of a formal protest. Nobody was chanting or even seemed organized in the slightest. Finally I got bored and wasn’t really getting any new information, so I decided to head back. Before I left though I overtly took one last shot of the fast food joint’s facade, swarming with police.

Three plainclothes cops saw it. They immediately crossed the street, walking fast. Very fast. Not looking pleased.
oh, shit.
Tried to walk away. They caught up to me. Two of them grabbed my arms, one started yelling at me. They spoke too quickly to understand, but they began to drag me towards a nearby building — some unmarked office next to the bookstore, with a cop at the door. Their speech may have been incomprehensible, but I knew what that door meant.
fuck fuck fuck i’m going to get disappeared
I began screaming. I alternated between “I DON’T UNDERSTAND” and “PLEASE I JUST WANT TO GO HOME, LET ME GO HOME”
Really I was just aiming to make as big of a scene as I could, so hopefully some foreign journalist or somebody might see a kid getting dragged off into an unmarked room by three undercover cops. Nothing doing. All passerby looked pointedly away. The yelling made them nervous; the cops dragged me faster. Seeing no weapons immediately visible on them, I started struggling in kind. They had nothing to threaten me with, and I guess they didn’t want to punch me for whatever reason. This was somewhat emboldening.
I wouldn’t let them take me inside, continued yelling. Loudly. Very, very loudly. In poor, panicked Mandarin.
The third one was looking increasingly scared — I guess people usually go quietly. They did want this noisy whitey as far from the McDonalds as they could, though. That was clear. The two guys weren’t letting up, but they also weren’t very strong. Screaming and twisting in front of this fucking doorway into dissappearsville, I manged to eek out “My camera! Can I just give you my pictures?”
“Go inside”
“I WILL NOT GO INSIDE. YOU CAN HAVE MY PICTURES”
“Fine, give us the camera”
“It’s my FUCKING*english CAMERA you can have the PICTURES”
At this point, I took it out and hit the ‘display’ button. That last picture of the McDonalds flashed up. The third one had the first two let go of me; they had me backed up against a wall and both stood about six inches away. I tried to delete it, to show him what I meant, but I fumbled and hit the menu button or something. Frustrated, the third one tried to take the camera out of my hands, but I wouldn’t let him. “让我让我” — “just let me do it”
Finally I found the little trash can button on the camera, pointed it out to him, and he nodded. We then went through the entire camera, and he had me delete each and every picture taken after that one in the alley. I was shaking pretty badly, had a hard time hitting the buttons. After we’d been through the full cycle twice, he told me to be quiet, and looked at the other two who shrugged. “Go home” he said.

Fucking hell.
Note: in somewhat of a vain attempt to protect myself and this blog, I’ve set this entry to not be discoverable via search engines, so don’t worry about that. Yay…

Today’s post is me playing along with the standard ‘trick foreigners into spending hundreds of kuai on tea’ scam. But tomorrow’s post is something truly special. Big announcement to make, plus I think the post itself should be interesting. Check back tomorrow!

So I just voluntarily got almost-swindled, and it was awesome. Remember this entry from forever ago?

That time I mentioned some high school girls who hang out outside the subway stop and con people. I’d caught them off-duty, having dinner in a cheap dumpling shop and had a pretty good meal. Three days after that happened they all just peaced out; never seen those kids again. Had seen them literally every workday up to that point. At the dinner I had mentioned that I was pretty sure I know what they’re doing. Can’t help but feel these things are related.

Anyway today, walking home, I got accosted by another set.
“Hello? Hello?”
I’m wearing headphones, throw out a “Ni Hao,” keep walking. Sometimes random people — mainly little kids, which is adorable — just greet me in English for funsies. I’m more than fine with this (it kinda reminds me of A&M where total strangers yell “howdy!” at each other all the time and it’s completely socially acceptable); it’s kinda fun. I still haven’t figured out if I like using non-textbook English replies like “hiya” or Oh-P.S.-I-speak-Chinese responses better. Kids will giggle if you “hi there” them and goggle if you “你怎么样?” them — both are thoroughly entertaining.
She’s still following, though, so that disqualifies her as a bizarre greeter and immediately relegates her into “swindler” status. She’s ok looking, maybe twenty five, died brown hair and glasses kinda like mine. And she’s persistent, jeez. How much more closed body language can you ask for than headphones and no eye contact?
At first when I’d get approached like this I would chat with them for a second or two to extract Chinese practice, but since it’s always the same exact conversation even that marginal benefit doesn’t exist anymore; my “hello yes I am a foreigner this is how long I’ve lived here and why and how long I’ve studied your silly language” speech is as fluent as I’m interested in getting it.
So I had a very quick inner debate, and decided that before I continue brushing all these people off as swindlers, I should actually figure out what exactly they do, at least once. I resolved to go as far along with the whole spiel as I could without actually having to pay.
For anyone who is confused at this point, here’s the business model of these people as it was explained to me on my first day back. Quoth myself in an earlier post:

…the girl who accosts all foreigners on their way out of the tiananmen subway station was there with her friends. It was a little weird, because I know pretty darn well that this girl makes money by leading foreigners into redonculously expensive coffeeshops and stuff (like, 20 usd for a cup of coffee. they’re like oh lets go get some tea, and they take you to a certain place and go in and just start ordering things and then when the bill comes you get rocked really hard. rayco told me to look out for these girls on wangfujing but i guess they’re at tiananmen too)…

I stop, take off my headphones, and ask “zenmeyang?” How’s it going?
For some reason, that’s what always gets them. Every foreigner can say ‘ni hao,’ apparently, but when you ask zenmeyang that’s like the epiphany moment. For me at least, I think it’s because I use this expression a whole whole lot (more than anyone else that I know, actually, foreign or otherwise) – so consequently my tones and accent on it are good. Chinese people don’t use it so much but they don’t say ‘ni hao’ either so using the two of them within seconds of each other immediately pegs me as ‘the whitey who is trying but definitely is still just getting the hang of this’ but I’m ok with that, considering that it’s perfectly accurate. If I can convey all that with three words then I’m not complaining. Plus, I have yet to find a closer corollary to “how’s it going” than zenmeyang, and nobody that I’ve talked to has been able to suggest a better standard greeting.

Two things happen – the girl who I’m talking to immediately launches into aforementioned canned conversation, and another (much prettier) girl walks over from fifteen or so feet away. Forty seconds of smalltalk – it’s always almost exactly forty seconds (see the ‘time’ rant) — and then the pretty one: “do you want to go get something to drink? We can practice English, you can practice Chinese?”
Heard that one before. Verbatim. Always in English, even if every single word aside from ‘hello’ thus far has been in Chinese – exactly like that tour guide and her memorized speech that, while technically correct seemed hella unnatural. This line in particular had clearly been rehearsed.

So I decided to test it as much as I could. Staying in Mandarin: “Sure, I was about to go get dinner. The place I usually go is a ten minute walk from here, you’re both welcome to come.”
“Oh that’s too far, can’t we go somewhere closer?” (Also in Mandarin; she couldn’t converse well at all in English and stopped attempting completely after that one line came out. They never realize that this sorta weakens their ‘the whole reason I’m talking to you is to practice English’ cover, but who am I to judge?)
“Hmm I guess. I do know this dumpling place that’s pretty good and it’s nearby” (the same dumpling place where I’d met the other swindlers on their break-time, as it happens).
The first girl cuts back in — “But I don’t want dumplings, I just want to drink stuff. Coffee or beer, you know…”
“They’ve got beer, they’ve got coffee too. Plenty of stuff, good and cheap.”
“Uh, I want tea. Can we go to a tea place? It’s really close”
“We’ll see. Walk with me and if I can look at the menu then maybe.” This is rude as hell. I don’t care too much, I’m dealing with people who deceive clueless foreigners as a living.

The pretty one just straight walks away. Doesn’t say a word. That was game over for her, I figured the other would leave too, I kept walking. First girl keeps up.
Here I’ll note – it seems very much like second girl was there just to be pretty and make the sale, and once I agree to go to somewhere nearby her job is done. These girls almost always work in pairs, both because it’s easier for them to sell something as a team and because asking random people to go drink with you has to be kinda dangerous in terms of random rapists and that sorta thing, so I was surprised when the second girl left. I guess she concluded I wasn’t much of the rapist type, or perhaps just had more business sense than her partner – the second I told them I was going to look at the menu, she called it quits.

“Where’d your friend go?”
“Uhh…”
“I mean, that’s kinda weird right?”
“How long total have you been in China?”
Totally normal human interaction so far, right? No red flags going up here at all, no sir.
“Hang on lemme grab my bike, I don’t want to leave it behind.”
“No! (Like, adamant) No you don’t need to do that we’re not going far!” She was freaked out at the prospect of going anywhere but her one destination that she had in mind, and didn’t have any clue how to make this convincing or give any reasoning as to why it was the case. Again, probably safety concerns, plus they only have one shop from which they’ll get a portion of the bill if we decide to eat there. Totally understandable, not at all disguiseable. I wonder who actually falls for this shit, but it’s enough for a ton of people to live off of, apparently. You’ll see why in a second –
“I don’t want to leave the bike locked back here, even the nearby dumpling place is still two minutes down the road, I’ll just bring it with”
“Could we please just get tea? I know a tea place, we can chat”
At this point there was zero doubt in my head as to what was going to happen, so I started being really really careful. “Ok, we’ll go, but don’t order anything right away, ok?”
“Yeah alright”
She finds this little tea shop, walks in right past the waiter (who she regards in a fashion that makes it painfully clear that they know each other well), and chooses a table. The teahouse occupies an extremely narrow space – it was maybe twelve feet wide but 50 or 60 feet deep – and is clearly pretty upscale. Nice design, pretty lighting, and only two or three tables all with private little walls around them. The tables are decked out hilariously ornately, all sorts of different plates and glasses and shit; I wish I had gotten a picture. Clearly they were trying to make it look at fancy as humanly possible to give some sort of credence to the prices. This table would not have felt out of place in Queen Elizabeth’s room at teatime. No chopsticks anywhere, nothing Chinese at all. There’s a waitress outside the door of our tiny little room, clearly waiting for the girl I’m with to start just ordering shit, because that’s how this works.
Despite me telling her not to do this, she tries. I tell her to wait, ask the waitress to bring a menu. She looks briefly confused – clearly this is not standard procedure – and then haltingly goes to get one. Comes back a second later, puts it in front of me, and I can only imagine tries her damndest not to laugh. I didn’t observe the same courtesy.
Beer –
Yanjing, 40 kuai (street price — 3 kuai, 2.5 if you’re nice)
Qingdao, 50 kuai (same)
More, increasingly pricey.
Appetizers –
300 kuai for, God I can’t even remember. Shrimp, or something. I saw 300 on the first line, 450 on the second, but then something on the right-hand page caught my eye.
Jack Daniels and Coke – 1,060 kuai. $163.
I started chuckling and went to get my backpack to get my camera. Takes me a second to find it, the two girls are just sitting there in stunned silence, trying to figure out what’s going on. I get the camera out and turn it on to take a picture of the menu (which I’ve looked at a for a whole of five seconds. I wish I wish I had spent more time); the second the waitress figured out what I was about to do, she blanched, grabbed the menu from me, and scurried back three feet. “You can’t do that! You can’t do that!”
I won’t ever forget the waitress’s expression. Half shocked and upset, half absolutely baffled. What the fuck did this foreigner think he was doing?
Still laughing, I say “ok ok” and go to put my camera back. By the time I look back up, the girl who brought me is no longer in the restaurant at all. The waitresses in the place say nothing at all. I laugh harder as I brush past them; it echoes awkwardly through the cramped space. Stopping to unlock my bike, the girl who took me comes back up.
She’s fucking FURIOUS.
She spits this ten-or-so string of pissed-sounding phrases at me before I can stop her and tell her she’s talking way way way too fast for me to understand. She gives me this look – pure, unadulterated contempt – and tells me in Chinese: “Kevin, you are garbage.” She spins around on her heel and stalks away.
“…and you’re a bitch and a bad thief,” I call back happily.
She spits on the street. I’m still laughing as I bike home.

As a final thought, those prices make it all make sense. If you can sell someone two appetizers and two drinks, that’s 900 kuai, or 134 bucks. If one of those drinks is a jack and coke, you’ve spent about what I make in a month. If once a week she could find someone to sit down and have three or four beers, a couple appetizers, and a drink or two, their little operation could can divide it up and pay 6 swindlers, two waiters and a cook a decent salary without any issue at all. If each of the six or however many did that once a week, they’d be making bank. What a horrible way to make a living. Fuck these people. I’m gonna be way more rude in the future…

Status Report

So I’m in a bit of a lull, blogging-wise. All the excitement of the holidays has passed but the preparations for leaving haven’t yet begun. It’s worth noting that I leave here in seventeen days, which is absolute insanity. So in the interim I thought I’d put up at least one post to serve as general benchmark to record both my progress here and how I’ve been holding up.

Morale: High. Had a Bocata sandwich for lunch yesterday; they are magical. Plus the end of the trip is in sight, so homesickness and loneliness are both being mitigated pretty hard. Looking back the theft of the wallet wasn’t all so bad, because it provided a natural crash — all my upset feelings and frustration and disappointment got focused into one ridiculous, panicked night, and the experience just burned up everything negative that I had in me. Within two or three days I was as happy as ever if not better, and that feeling has persisted through to now without issue.

Health: Peachy. Had sniffles once for like two days, upon which I drank some orange juice and stopped holding onto things in the subway; I immediately recovered and haven’t held a handrail since. Not only have I stayed really healthy, I’m now a certified professional subway-surfer. As a caveat the pollution in the last two days has turned exceptionally nasty and it’s been giving me headaches here and there. Ick.
Oh and I haven’t been losing weight, which is nice. Last time I got back from China, mom said I looked “skeletal.” This time I’ve stayed at 63 kilos the whole time.

Work: 没问题。No problems. Still interesting, coworkers are really awesome. One of them, my boss, actually found my blog and told me that my writing reminded her of Peter Hessler’s, which I consider to be pretty much the highest compliment that it could receive. So thanks, Cathy, if you’re still reading.

Social: A natural follow-up to work, because I wanted to mention my friend and coworker 马超, whose name literally translates to “Super Horse.” How fucking awesome is that, right? Seriously though he’s been really incredible to me. He was the first person to kinda work out my relatively limited set of vocabulary and use it both to talk to me and to talk to other people around me; when he explains words to me it’s always ten times clearer than when other people try to, because he already knows exactly what sorts of descriptive words I can understand. If my language is getting better, probably 30% of that success is directly attributed to this guy. Aside from that I’ve met up once with my language partner from this summer and have hung out with a few of Rayco’s friends. But really beyond that I honestly have kinda stopped trying to branch out socially both because it’s getting to be kinda late in the game, and at this point I don’t have much free time at all, due to…

Stuff keeping me busy: Work. Applying for jobs. Studying Chinese. Working out housing for Northwestern. Reapplying to be a NU student. Selecting and signing up for classes. Writing — takes more time than you might think. Reading — just finished Hessler’s “Country Driving,” (a travel blog about development in China) starting on “All the Devils are Here” (a book about the history of the financial crisis. Asian studies and Econ). Starting to do whatever I can to arrange housing in an apartment for next year. Staying competitive in Starcraft and keeping up with that community — and yeah, this is important enough to me to go on this list. I’m not really ashamed of that. Also doing a side research project for mah Daddy, which will take about twelve hours total.

Language. This one’s actually kinda tricky. If one of my classmates had told me in December that they were going off to live in Beijing for ten weeks while I stayed back in the states, my knee-jerk reaction would be “God, your Chinese is gonna demolish mine when you get back.” But this isn’t so accurate, as it turns out, for two reasons. A) came from Connor about two days before I left. During I believe his Junior summer at Dartmouth, he took a quarter to intern at a magazine in Tokyo, so he spoke from some experience when he told me that while there was an osmosis effect to the language, it wouldn’t be nearly as strong as I might expect. This has sadly proven to be pretty true, because at the end of the day Asian languages just aren’t particularly intuitive. Chinese is especially problematic because tones make dozens of words sound identically the same which makes contextual learning difficult, and the writing system complicates this further; even if you can figure out a word from context, you have absolutely no idea how to write it. I’ve been dealing with this by carrying pen and paper at all times but it’s really awkward to harass people into writing new words down for you unless you know them very well. B) is that the stuff I’m learning won’t particularly give me an advantage back at school. I can talk about strawberry milkshakes and read menus way better than I could before, but unless my Chinese 3 teacher orders me to explain the difference between 盖饭 and 干锅 then I’m kinda S.O.L.
This is not, however, to say that I haven’t improved. I love qualified double negatives. Or rather I sometimes don’t dislike them. While it’s hard for me to tell personally, people I met in January have all told me that I’ve gotten noticeably better. I take this with a grain of salt because Chinese people love to lie about Westerners’ Mandarin proficiency for whatever reason, but Rayco’s friend Kenny in particular seemed sincere. If I had to identify a few areas of strong growth I’d say that I’ve gotten much faster both at speaking and at processing what other people are saying; conversations flow a lot more naturally. My accent and tones are better too, because all my coworkers and friends are under strict orders to just call me out whenever I mess one up. I’ve been keeping up with NU’s vocab lists. I can’t say quite as much for their grammar, but hey, I’m only human.

Overall Mental State: I’ll write more here tomorrow maybe. For now I’ll just describe it through music. Spent a long time alternating Frankmusik’s “Complete Me” and Robyn’s “Body Talk.” Lots of the new pornographers in Xi’an, and then since I’ve been back…
yeah, I looked back this evening at a playlist that I had assembled at work today. It was an alternation of Bat for Lashes with the Mae Shi. To get some idea of why this is, um, odd: Listen to “pearl’s dream” and then “young marks” back to back — the first is this haunting indie craziness, the second is a song that, could songs give people diabetes, would do so immediately. At the very least it might give you a bit of a headache. Sukes listened to it the other day and reported that it made his soul hurt. Fun times!

So far as the lanterns themselves go, this was pretty much all you got

This post goes out to all you readers out there who saw the google graphic from the 17th and went “wait, didn’t they just have a holiday?”
Yep, they did, which is actually directly related to the timing of this one. Chinese New Year’s is based off the lunar calendar, so fifteen days after it happens you get the first full moon of the ‘year’ which signals the end of the new year’s festivities. In practice, this translates to “anyone who hasn’t set off all their fireworks needs to hurry up and do that tonight.” For the past two weeks Beijing has been a city under siege, but for all the noise tonight I may as well just be living in the trenches. The 1,000-piece rolls of firecrackers sound like machine guns, the heavier fireworks are mortars. And as you bike or walk through the streets, they’re exploding all around you, and little pieces of the trees through which said fireworks are shooting rain down on you like shrapnel. It’s insanity.
Anyway yeah, to celebrate the first full moon people write riddles on lanterns and hang ‘em up, and then sit around eating 汤圆 (lit. ‘soup round,’ these sickly sweet rice-based dumpling-y things filled with sesame paste. They have the consistency of warm peanut butter, and you can’t bite them in half without the sesame crap going everywhere so you have to take ‘em in one go — you can imagine how this might present difficulties). Having already partaken in the latter at lunch this afternoon, I decided I might as well go see the lanterns proper; the same Qianmen that I’ve written about several times hosts what’s apparently the city’s biggest lantern festival.

Qianmen,

, entrance bottlenecked by an insane amount of useless police,

at night.

I like taking shots of buildings at night, clearly. Here’s what that ring of police were guarding, by the way.

From the second I left my hutong, though, it became obvious that tonight was special. This didn’t seem to be a second-thought sorta holiday, that people recognize in passing but don’t actually do anything about. The atmosphere of the whole area was different. People were milling around everywhere, shouting, spitting, hawking cheap plastic crap — standard procedure, but not for 10pm, and not in nearly these numbers. It’s hard to articulate the feeling of the Tian’anmen area in English, but it’s the epitome of 热闹 — bustling. Electric. It never ceases to humble me that I’m so centrally located in the most important city of the most populous country in the world. Everything cultural is concentrated right here, so the opportunities within walking distance that are open to me on a regular basis are truly incredible.
Once I started making my way south of Tian’anmen towards Qianmen though, the downside of living in a place where millions of people want to go hit me in the form of the largest crowd I’ve seen in my life. Here’s what it looked like inside Qianmen, for instance –

人太多

Longer-time readers may remember this post, where I bitched a lot about the poor design of this area, specifically how it’s full of people-blockers and other obnoxious things. Take my difficulty trying to get through that area and multiply it by, I don’t know, twenty thousand? More? A lot. A lot a lot of people. Cannot exaggerate enough. The result is this sorta business:

Mass fence hopping, in front of all the police, who didn’t seem to mind at all. I reiterate, they served zero immediate purpose. I musta hopped 6 fences, maybe more tonight. What was the most bizarre is that all the police cars made a big line to further bottleneck traffic on the way into Qianmen, so they were almost forcing you to hop fences to even get to the front of the street, at which point you were blocked again by the cops themselves. And after struggling through all this crap, you finally get to the street and all it is is this

Nothing against cardboard dogs, but...

Honestly, I was baffled. Not at the miaohuis, not in the subway, not at the terracotta warriors during a country-wide holiday, not at the huge tourist destinations I visited the summer had I ever been forced fight as many people as I did tonight. And it was all for… that?
What the hell, right? This was the biggest lantern festival Beijing has?
I didn’t get it at all. I assumed I was missing something, but when I asked why everyone was here and what they were all coming to see or do, the only responses I got were “oh, it’s the lantern festival. There are lanterns and stuff.”
This wasn’t particularly satisfying. There were thousands upon thousands of people swarming everywhere, for a couple hundred cheap plastic lanterns — the same kinds that are strung up along streets everywhere.
Much to my chagrin, readers, I have to admit that at this point I pulled a card that I haven’t yet had to resort to in my month and a half here.
I stopped trying Chinese entirely. I looked as pathetic as possible, and just started asking strangers “do you speak English? I don’t understand what’s happening. Can you explain?” (note to the wise — don’t try this on police officers. Pretty likely the reason that they’re stand-still-for-hours-doing-nothing-style police officers is that they are not particularly well educated. English is part of that)

Eventually one guy was able to help me. He said what everyone else had been saying in Chinese, namely that people were just here because it was the Lantern Festival and Qianmen is the place to be when that happened. But then I pressed him, saying that the lanterns weren’t really that special, and finally got an answer:
“Well, really the lanterns themselves honestly don’t matter that much. People are here to feel the festival itself, to be part of the atmosphere, to be with each other. It’s a collective experience, a group celebration moreso than a normal tourist attraction. The lanterns and the fireworks are nice, but that’s not why everyone came here tonight.”
Two seconds of thinking later and I knew exactly what he was talking about. I was feeling it as far back as Tian’anmen but had been so distracted by the crowds and the fences and the police that I’d kinda forgotten that base energy that had been so apparent to me even on the street by my house.
So the lanterns weren’t that astounding, sure. It’s still a damn cool holiday.

Valentines, Advertising.

Because the "Big Wild Goose Pagoda" is a completely legitimate and not-at-all-comical name for a holy structure

I just spent my first Valentine’s day in the middle kingdom. Not quite what I expected, on a few levels. For one, I was periodically gifted several pieces of beef jerky and a lot of seaweed crackers by random coworkers (of both genders) throughout the day. Let me tell you — if there’s a more romantic gesture than giving someone a chunk of seaweed and sesame seeds to nibble on, then I certainly don’t know what it is. Come to think of it, perhaps this may be why I’m currently single. Anyway more importantly I was positive this was going to be a way bigger deal here than it was.

This expectation was the latest manifestation of my China-intuition that I’ve been working on recently; it attempts to predict how this city will react to various things. Its most recent test was a few days ago when snow fell for the first time: I opened my door, saw the little courtyard full of snow, and had 3 thoughts: 1) Oh, it snowed, that’s pretty 2) Oh God it’s not going to be pretty once I leave this courtyard and 3) the way Beijing is going to handle snow will almost certainly be laughably labor-intensive. Before I stepped out into the street proper, the last thought that crossed my mind was — “They’re going to handle this situation the exact same way they handled it during the fucking Tang dynasty, I just know it.” The walk to work that day was a trail of gritty, yellow-brown slush being ‘cleaned up’ by dozens of people equipped solely with wicker brooms. That day I enjoyed a quiet “I told you so” moment all to myself; a day or two later someone apparently remembered that you could use salt, and snow shovels, and stuff… but that first day? All wicker, all the time.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what’s up what that picture of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, just think of it and the 3 other pictures in this post as an apology both the length and economics-focused content that you’ll see here in a second. Plus I couldn’t think of a way to make them their own post, and I wanted this one to have pictures.

Since I’ve started playing this intuition game (a different sort of China Match, if you will), I’m one-and-one. I failed miserably to anticipate what New Years was going to be like, but pretty much nailed how people would react to snow down to the bristle. So three or four days ago when I realized Valentine’s day was coming up, I expected it to be a huge gaudy affair like it is in the states. It’s easy to commercialize, its central color is color red (everything is still red from new years! easiest thing in the world!), you can make people feel ashamed for not buying gifts… this holiday was MADE for China.

I felt so strongly that that was the case because Beijing is far and away the most advertisement-saturated city I’ve ever seen. Some of it comes in the form of billboards, plenty more in the form of people accosting you with megaphones from storefronts as you bike by. Increasingly the latter is becoming replaced by megaphones that can accost you by themselves, because they’ve been programmed to scream four seconds of grainy audio over and over. But what stands out most is the video screens. From what I’ve seen of Tokyo, even stereotypically tech-heavy Japan doesn’t quite compare. Beijing has ads on the subway proper, ones that are hundred of feet long and keep pace with the train so you can see them out the subway windows, ads in elevators, in elevator lobbies. They’re on the streets and the sides of department stores, they’re in airports and hotels, and they’re all either networked to the internet or wired to cable; when the need arises they can all play live broadcasts, like they did for the New Year’s Eve show on the day before the Spring Festival.
The message is pretty damn clear: Buy shit. Buy shit right now, and buy a lot of it.

A shot from the pagoda. So pretty you won't even mind when I start talking about history and economics, I'm sure

Now as sorta an interesting economic note, one of the reasons China has done so well since the seventies is precisely because there was a several-decade-long period where nobody in China bought anything practically at all. That’s because they were saving money at freakishly high rates because, as you might have noticed from reading the China Match, the whole country is pretty much off its rocker now, and it certainly wasn’t any better at pretty much any point during the last hundred years. It kept changing governments, and chasing governments to Taiwan, and starving thirty million people to death, and randomly sending chunks of the population to go do hard labor in the countryside (sucks if that’s your husband!), and making it so you couldn’t have more than one child to support you, and not providing any sort of social safety net to stop your old-ass self from starving on the streets or getting really sick if that singular child does not pull through, or happened to be female.

You know how some people who lived through the Great Depression spent the next few years saving a lot of money and putting it under the mattress because they remembered how quickly things can go to hell in a handbasket? China’s wild instability spooked a billion people into acting just like those guys, except that in China the state-owned banks became the nation’s collective mattress.

People put their money in the banks because they’re about as stable as you can get, and there’s not much else you could (or still can, for that matter) do with it. Your average person couldn’t get access to stocks, he couldn’t invest in bonds, he couldn’t do much of anything with it except put it in the banks. This is still largely the case, except that people have figured out that there’s a lot of property they can buy up and at the very least they can gamble a bunch, but that’s a discussion for another time.

So yes, obnoxiously high savings rates persisted for decades and all this cash got funneled into the state-owned banks, who in turn were able to lend it/give it to the state-owned corporations that were in charge of dragging China kicking and screaming into the 20th century, starting about two-thirds of the way through it. Eventually things calmed down politically, ol’ Deng Xiaoping rolled in and freed things up a little, we’re just going to ignore Tiananmen 1989, and the economy really got started by virtue of all the investment that the country had been doing. But still people kept saving, saving, saving — when the global economy had it’s little spasm in 2008, for instance, savings immediately cleared the 50% mark, because that’s the Chinese knee-jerk reaction to basically anything now — so interest rates and inflation stayed pretty damn low. So with little domestic consumption but lots of cheap labor China started trying out an export-based economy we all know how that worked out for ‘em.

But here’s the thing — that’s all starting to turn around. Like, really recently. All of a sudden there’s a whole generation of people who are my age who haven’t ever known anything but boom times. Their parents are the ones saving 50% in 2008, but they’re not. The twenty, thirty-year-old urban population is starting to make some money and they are confident in China’s future, so they’re starting to consume a whole whole bunch. And who better to guide this consumption than — you guessed it — the Chinese Communist Party, who are incidentally the ones controlling all the networks and all the aforementioned video screens which is how this all ties back in.  They really want to grow the domestic economy (the value of the currency is starting to appreciate so their exports are becoming more expensive for other people to buy, for one thing) and the way they’re doing it is by flooding the city with a truly obnoxious amount of advertising.

This one's sorta relevant to the post! Old China/new china!

And it’s working. It’s working so well, it’s baffling. Because it’s all so new, and because people my age are just starting to make and spend money, and because a huge amount of young people in Beijing have recently migrated here from the countryside, nobody tunes out advertisements in quite the same way Americans do. Like, put a tv screen on a New York subway and have it play the same five advertisements in a 4-minute loop and it would get the shit ignored out it immediately. But in Beijing, people — not everyone, but a really healthy amount of people — will just sit and watch. Over and over. And then they BUY the stuff.

Take, for instance, a KFC ad that I’m going to put up sometime later this week if I can find it. It’s about fifteen seconds long. Here’s how it goes:

Shot one: woman sitting in KFC in some random ancient egyptian (?) costume takes a bite of KFC’s new fried shrimp. “This is really good to eat!” She exclaims.

Shot two: the pirate sitting across the table from her yells (Yeah, yells. These things all have little speakers) “TOO GOOD TO EAT!”

Shot three: the pirate and woman seem confused as you hear just someone screaming “WAGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”

Shot four: they investigate, and it’s a guy in a full body cast in the next room, eating the shrimp.

Shot five: closeup of shrimp

End.

That’s it, that’s all. You can always tell when the ad plays because most of it is legitimately just screaming. My reaction to this ad was “if I ever meet an offical of Yum Foods I will stab him in the ears so that he may know my pain.”

But not so for your average Chinese, who literally just eat it up. Every time I walk past a KFC, everyone is eating plates of these shrimp.

So what the hell is up with the no-V-day thing? They have the capacity to advertise anywhere and change the ads instantaneously via network, the ads are effective, you already have people thinking about holidays and red things, it’s an easily shame-able population of a billion. What more can you ask for?

A picture of some fountains, that’s what.

Another temple festival

Quick update 2/9/11: Got my new debit card! And some middle-aged Chinese lady found my wallet in Xi’an! So if I pay her enough (somehow? Haven’t quite figured out how to do this yet) she’ll presumably mail it back to me. Sans cash, naturally, but if this means not having to pay the Texas DMV a visit then sign me up.
Edit 2: Thief broke into Eric’s room yesterday. Stole his iphone, wallet, and watch. I felt absolutely horrible when I heard about this. He should have a huge stock of good karma built up for helping me as much as he did… but then he gets robbed not even a week later. What the hell, China?

~~

It's the year of the rabbit, and this one looks like he's ready to bring you a whole buncha good fortune, right? Happy new years/nightmares, kids!

Today was another temple festival day. Will be the last one, because the holiday is finally over. Also managed to pick up a new power adapter, in a shining example of why you should always always always carry a pen and paper around with you when you’re in foreign countries and haven’t looked up the requisite situational vocab beforehand. It’s the last picture in the gallery (edit: not anymore, apparently? it’s the hand-drawn one), and showcases my incredible artistic abilities.

Things I failed to do today: finish the grammar for chapter 13 that I’ve been putting off for two weeks now, read my book, apply to more jobs, write a good blog. Ugh.

Edit 2/9: Northwestern hasn’t finished chapter 13 either yet, somehow, so I’m not even behind! Did said grammar on the subway today. And I’m fixing this blog now, and already read a chapter of my book so as long as I send out an app in the next four hours I’ll consider myself redeemed.

Third miaohui was completely different from the first two.

#1 was kinda neat, but ‘romantically themed’ which apparently means ‘packed to the brim with carnie games so you can win your girlfriend a huge stuffed animal.’ I wasn’t so interested in these, but it did have some other stuff to offer in the form of performances and interesting handicrafts.

Maiohui #2 was pretty lame to be honest. Lots of calligraphy and some art but nothing particularly impressive. Set in just a street full of art shops. It did, however, have a bird that did backflips and spoke Chinese. Here’s the thing, though: not only could it say hello, happy new year, that sorta thing, but it also knew it’s own price, and would haggle with you over its cost. Like, the bird cost 750 kuai, and if you proposed anything lower than 700 it’d go “too cheap!” and any number you said above 800 or so it’d say “too expensive!” I felt this raises a few ethical questions. For instance, did the bird understand that it was referring to a pricetag put on its life? Or did it just know how to count and direct people towards 750? How bad is it too tell a bidder that your eternal servitude as a pet isn’t worth as much as he thinks it is? Why the backflips?

Rock on, 趙公明. Ps, this is reason #2 to carry pen/paper -- the monks and people who normally work at the temple were all really bored because everybody was busy chatting with the random-plastic-crap vendors in the courtyard, so I got to have a neat conversation with one of them (who wrote down this guy's hanzi for me) about the dude pictured.

#3 was set in a temple, straight up. Shortly after entering I made the executive decision to ignore the majority of the ‘festival’ component — that is, the special decorations and little vendors squatting in the open spaces — in favor of exploring the temple itself, which was incredible. Its main square was ringed by these little ‘departments’ full of statues, featuring one or two gods and some attendants looking disdainfully at those who violated whatever the department was set up to protect. I’ll list some of the department titles here tomorrow but in the meantime you can see some of them in the pictures. I like the department of preventing violence towards animals one though. Also the 15 types of violent death department.

Good news, bad news

Plain and simple.

Good: Back in Beijing.
Bad: Did you know that “Smoke” was even a real weather condition? Come now.

Good: We have electricity! Woo!
Bad: I left my power adapter in Xi’an. Not a problem at home, but at work my computer won’t be able to plug in. Annoying.

Good: Went to another temple festival today.
Bad: Got lost on the way there, had to walk for like an hour to find it

Bad: I dropped my camera on the way to said festival. I am beginning to break or lose all that I see as valuable. My laptop eyes me warily.
Good: I fixed it when I got home with my dual 10RMB ‘Swiss’ pocket knives and a pinch of common sense. Booya.

Bad: No pictures from the festival
Best Possible: The last picture I took before I dropped the camera:

I stand forever in his shadow. Also I'm suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to purchase a watch

I’m heading back to Beijing here in about eight hours, which would be fine and dandy except there’s that whole problem of my house having no power and my not knowing how to pay the electricity bill. Also having no credit card with which to pay said bill if that’s necessary, but here’s hoping that it’s not. If it is, there might not be updates for a little while, given that I don’t have a credit card until Thursday at the soonest and wont be able to get to a bank with credit card in hand until Saturday. But that’s like the absolute worst case scenario, so no worries