Archive for February, 2011


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…

So a few days ago it came to my attention that over the course of his six-year stay in China, my roommate has actually made multiple visits to North Korea. After ascertaining that he’d taken a bunch of pictures, my immediate reaction was to ask him to let me write about them. This made him very, very uncomfortable. Finally after a lengthy discussion of what I would or would not be able to say (his name, for instance), he finally — graciously — capitulated.

We'll start things off with a shot of Pyongyang, taken from the foreigners-only hotel, which is one of the tallest buildings in the city.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, is yet another shining example of the (John-Stewart-identified) phenomenon by which one can tell the inherent maliciousness of a country simply by looking at the number of positive adjectives affixed to the front of its name. See Democratic Republic of the Congo, People’s Republic of China, etc. I am pretty sure that everyone already knows that ol’ NK is not a republic, much less a democratic one, but I have it on good word that the country does actually contain some people. Who incidentally would probably prefer to not be contained by said country, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Korean Arc de Triumph. The dates are when Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Il's dad) left to fight Japan, and when he came back. The Arc stands 10 meters taller than the French one because -- lets be honest -- even North Korea wants to make France eat some humble pie now and again. Can we really blame them?

Speaking of Kim Il Sung going to fight Japan, this is a picture of the two guns that he took with him which, like everything else the original Dear Leader touched, immediately became huge propaganda symbols. The picture was taken at the Mass Games, an annual celebration which features thousands of dancers. Also 20,000 middle school students holding up little squares of color, which is how the pictures in the background are assembled. No joke. Look carefully.

Lets talk North Korean tourism for a second. The country is technically open for tourism now, but it’s pretty limited. Only about 2000 westerners visit a year, and for the most part you have to do it via flying through China. There’s nothing stopping people from the States from going, surprisingly, but there just aren’t any flights there from the states yet. Only three flights go to Pyongyang from Beijing every week, but it’s really not too difficult to catch one.
Once you get to Korea though, a few things become apparent that make it clear — this isn’t like tourism anywhere else. The only way to go to the country as a tourist is to be part of a registered and DPRK-recognized tour group. Which means you are escorted at all times — legitimately, you cant ever just leave the hotel and wander around — as a measure to keep you from talking to locals, doing journalistic stuff, etc. Oh and the currency they use isn’t tradble; you can’t exchange your USD/Pounds/Renminbi for NK won. Which means you can’t buy things at local shops, and instead have to shop exclusively at a select number of stores run by the government near that accept only foreign currencies where locals aren’t allowed to shop.

DPRK Airport. It's cool guys, Kim Il Sung has it covered.


Also kinda funny -- the country is almost completely devoid of traditional consumer advertisements. Instead there's just political propanda absolutely everywhere. The characters in red aren't even the name of that building, but rather say something that, if you are a Korean friend of mine, I'd love for you to try and translate and put in the comments if you could. Would be a huge favor, thanks!


EDIT: Resident badass and Korean Mr. David Lee was nice enough to translate: “The propaganda statement reads something along the lines of “Let us protect and support our great comrade Kim Jong Il with our political ideology and our lives!” North Korean people speak a slightly older and weirder version of Korean so it isn’t exactly accurate but you get the gist of it. The word for the protect and support part in Chinese characters is 擁衛 if that helps you any.”

While we're on the subject of Propaganda, can we talk about Kim Il Sung for a second? This is his Mausoleum, one of the most holy places in the country


To go see Kim Il Sung in his mausoleum, you have to wear your best traiditional dress if you're female, or your communist schwag if you're a dude. Moreover you have to -- and this is a rule that always applies no matter where you are or what you're doing -- wear a pin with Kim Il Sun's picture on it at all times. Am serious.


Even Kim Jong Il has to wear a pin of his father. The man is worshipped like a god.


Text: “My great nation. My motherland, forever prosper.” – David

These two guys had flowers created and named after them. They’re called Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia respectively. This flower display I think is found at the end of this really pretty subway.

De-Militarized Zone, the border between North and South Korea. Clinton said it was the scariest place in the world. The two obnoxiously blue houses are where the two sides go to have meetings and sign summits and stuff.


Reunification (North/South) monument, and traditional Hammer and Sickle communist monument with the addition of the Brush, because the DPRK is hella cultured like that.

One of the DPRK main highways. In what is certainly a nod to Seinfeld, the lanes are just so spacious!

Just dance, it'll be ok, da da de doo, just dance...

USS Pueblo. Only US military ship under the control of another country. They took it in the 60s, held 84 marines there for a year while torturing confessions out of them, and killed one. They now parade people through it for propaganda reasons...


To lighten the mood a little bit, here's some DPRK middle schoolers dressed as chickens and eggs. Also at the Mass Games (where, incidentally, no games are actually played. Just lots of acrobatics and propganda...)


Left is the flying horse that could never find a rider from traditional Korean folklore. Turned into a symbol of development after the wars of the 20th century to represent how Korea must view its attitude towards the world — for every one step forward that the world takes, Korea will ride the horse and travel ten. On the right is the Juche tower, representing the predominant political philosophy of the country. It means/stresses independence and self-reliance, and was critical into how Korea was able to adopt and assimilate communist views into its cultural tradition.

~~~~~~~

You know what's cooler than North Korea?
Nicolas Fucking Cage, that's who.
That's right, this post is the official announcement of the second Cage Match. Will be posting something about it on our homepage shortly. We already have the tentative new movie list selected; check it out:
99min – Valley Girl (1983) BACKUP
103min – Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
100min – Zandalee (1991)
98min – Red Rock West (1993)
98min – Deadfall (1993)
101min – It Could Happen To You (1994) BACKUP
111min – Trapped in Paradise (1994)
98min – Snake Eyes (1998)
114min – City of Angels (1998)
121min – Bringing Out The Dead (1999)
125min – The Family Man (2000)
134min – Windtalkers (2002)
116min – Matchstick Men (2003)
122min – Lord of War (2005)
96min – Next (2007)
124min – National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)
122min – The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009)
109min – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

Now, last year, it became apparent that there are very few people stupid enough to brave 30 hours of Cage — happily, two of those people just so happened to be my roommates Ben Segal and Geoff Hill. What’s more, it turns out that thirty hours simply just wasn’t enough. So we’re doing it again. Bigger, badder, better. For Cage, these latter two naturally go hand in hand.

We’re gonna make this one as big as we can. Looking at places like LR2 for venues, even now. Will start soliciting donations for Amnesty again soon. Anyone is welcome to come and join us, as ever. It’s going to be fucking incredible and you know it.
April 1-3.
Get. Excited.

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.

In what is somewhat of a retro-post I’m going to be writing about some of the rest of the things I was up to in Xi’an that were at the time eclipsed by the whole wallet debacle.

From the top: I had barely gotten off the bus in the middle of the downtown when I met this random guy named Eric from Shanghai. He was traveling alone also and was completely bilingual, so we decided to get lunch together. Because I am forever cursed to live next to snack streets, we opted to check out Xi’an’s famous Muslim quarter, specifically the big network of alleyways that offer a whole bunch of local and middle eastern food.

"You eat what I eat"

Ordinarily this would be great by itself, but was even better when Eric made it clear that I was a guest in China so I wouldn’t be obliged to pay for anything. When I pointed out that he was a guest to Xi’an the same way I was, he wouldn’t hear any of it, and would not under any circumstances allow me to buy stuff. The trick, though, was that after he clarified this after the first thing he wouldn’t let me buy, he was like alright lets go get some more. I’ll buy, but you eat what I eat, ok? Which is a kinda dangerous game to play with a Chinese person in an alley full of shit like this (why yes, that is semi-cooked meat-paste sitting out in the sun. And no, they don’t cook it further before they put it in a roll and give it to you). But hey, I figured it was a pretty good opportunity to get to try the local specialties and stuff, because Eric could both ask the locals what was good — which I’m fully capable of — and understand their responses, which I can’t at all. Uncommon, foreign, and highly specific food nouns are a weak point of mine, what can I say.

Anyway the Muslim Quarter snack street (which looks like this from above, this at ground level, and this from some of the alleys toward the back) was a lot of fun, and I wound up eating easily more than half my total meals in Xi’an there. It’s tucked right behind the famous drum tower, and generally can be counted on to be ridiculous. Hold that thought –

Sidebar: Drum & Bell towers.

Xi'an drum tower. We're in CHINA now, baby

The Drum and Bell towers are both notable historic buildings, but I liked them primarily because they were pretty, and had art that was at once impressive and silly, particularly when it came to the titles of the engravings found all over the upper floors of both. Some of the ones that stood out: “Xi Zhi exchanging goose,” “Mao Shu adores lotus,” and “Unsuccessful visit to a hermit” (aww). Reading back through these it occurs to me that my readership might not find these quite as funny as I did/do, but that’s ok; if the Shepherd family teaches you anything, it’s that if you’re the only one who finds your joke funny, it qualifies as a good joke.
The bell tower also had this neat painting of shrimp that I’m pretty sure we studied in my first Chinese class I ever took. It’s the one by Qi Baishi, where Lin Na goes “看一看, 虾游来游去; 真可爱!”. Oh, and a big ol’ bell, I guess, but who really cares about that?
And just as a bonus here’s a neat shot of the bell tower from the drum tower.

Kids were running around not ten feet from here. 没问题。

Moving right along, we find ourselves back on snack street.  Not only was it incredibly dangerous due to all the random open fires everywhere — I have no idea what they are cooking that requires THAT much heat, but I bet it was tasty — it was also highly unsanitary and satisfyingly strange. Sometimes, every once in a while in Beijing you may forget for a few seconds that the country in which you are living is batshit insane. But then you can go to Xi’an and the restaurants have motorcycles in them and all is right (or wrong, as the case may be) with the world.
Overall my experience with the 小吃街 (little eat street) was highly positive. I didn’t get sick and had a whole lot of neat things, many of which came on skewers. Even if I had had to pay it’d have been pretty cheap, and if you’re ever in Xi’an make sure to pay it a visit or five. Tasty times.
Oh and PS on the subject of food — there was this famous dumpling place right by the drum tower that I tried to go to on my last day, but they wanted 100 kuai for eighteen dumpring and given that at the time I had no way to get more cash I couldn’t really justify the purchase. But the place did, um, smell really good? Next time, next time.

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

Terracotta Warriors

Not the most original title around, I know. But hey. How about instead I make this post interesting by switching tense a lot and jumping around in time? That sounds like a good idea, right? I’ll be like those youtube personalities who use an obnoxious amount of quick cuts to hold viewer attention and ensure that nobody notices that they don’t actually have any real content*. Except that I will have content, probably in the form of some pictures of clay soldiers that I’ll throw in here and there. Then we’ll have ourselves a post, mmboy.

*Seriously, though, there are a lot of parenthetical asides inbound. I will not pretend that this sort of writing is anything short of sloppy, but I couldn’t think of any other way to present it effectively. English majors should probably just skip to the picture gallery and discussion of what the hell these soldiers are, at the bottom.

Righty then –

Pen and paper blogging again. On a bus full of Chinese tourists again. True to white-person form (yes, I can hyperlink on a piece of paper. What of it?) I actually enjoyed showing up at the combined railway + bus station and seeing nothing but thousands of domestic tourists. On the one hand it made me feel a little uncomfortable because the lack of other white people was predictably accompanied by a complete absence of sign translation, which would be good 汉字 practice if I was in the mood, but I wasn’t. So I just disregarded everything that was written and asked a lot of questions, which per usual works passably well. On the other hand, though, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable that I’m not getting ripped off, which is something that I literally cannot afford at present.

Sidebar from future, aka present: Man, and I thought my haggling was good before. This whole lack of wallet thing has taken it to a whole new level, though. I actually haven’t bought anything over 10 kuai for less than half-off since the wallet got stolen. It works so well because you can be like “well gee sir I’d normally be fine with paying you 100 kuai for that, but…” I’ve also lost whatever trace of guilt that I used to have while bargaining, er, effectively. As Connor likes to point out, if someone’s trying that hard to sell you something for 20 kuai he probably needs the $3.50 more than you do. Connor’s actually been known for haggling things UP, which creates so much confusion on the part of the vendor that it’s usually worth the extra buck or two. He’s kinda sorta a better person than I am, but he also has a real income, so that’s fine. Anyway now I can get really, really gutsy because it’s not just me dicking with people because I can; it’s kinda a necessity. So I’ve become completely shameless. Consider: buying everything I wanted today would have cost me 604 without haggling and bargaining. With it, I paid 245. Working from a total of 1800, that’s a pretty critical difference.

Back to the bus. Just had a winner of a conversation with the dude next to me. It starts as I pull out my breakfast, a box of chocolate pocky. Understand that I’ve reached the age where I have realized that I can eat pocky for breakfast whenever I want, but have yet to mature enough to convince myself that I shouldn’t. Before you judge me too much though, this wasn’t premeditated; I just bought them last night and forgot about them, so they were still in my jacket.
Anywho I take one out of the box and offer it to the guy, who immediately gets very serious and sternly tells me that I’m not allowed to smoke on the bus. I guess this looks like something one might smoke? Sorta? Moreso than this, anyway. In response to his concern I just bite off half of it, and in the space between when I did that and when I told him it was food (well, “food”) I got to bear witness to one of the more horrified expressions I’ve seen in a while.
Then he asked where I was from, and I braced to go into the good ol’ standard canned conversation. Fortunately, as soon as I told him he was American, he excitedly noted that I have a black… something? Did I hear ‘zongtong?’
“Wait, say that again?”
“O-BA-MA” (Only words that alternate vowels and consonants can actually be transliterated well into Chinese. Luckily for the leader of the free world, his name fits the bill)
I heard zongtong. “Oh,” I responded, “Um, yes. I like him.”
And that was the end of that rather unorthodox conversation. Although I wanted to return the favor and inform him that his president was in fact Asian, I opted to kill the conversation because he was wearing one of those sick masks — which everyone but Connor wears to indicate that they are sick, not to preemptivly attempt to prevent themselves from becoming so — and he kept taking off his mask to talk to me and was really close and I’m really trying to avoid coming down with something here, because unless your name is Su Ke once you get sick in China it’s really tough to get better again. Sukes does it by somehow remaining unconscious for 20 or 30 hours at a time. Us mortals have to just hope for the best.

Crap. I’m at 800 words and haven’t said anything about the Terracotta Warriors yet. Sorry ’bout that. Here:

Honestly this entire blog post could have just been this picture, and the words "I went and looked at these" and it would probably be funnier than the word-vomit full of parenthetical asides that I've decided to opt for instead, but too late now

Speeding it up. I get to the grounds, get accosted by a bunch of people wanting to give me a tour. Haggle myself one for half of what she wants, talk to her a bit. She realizes I’m college age and asks if I have an ID card. I didn’t see a ‘student ticket’ option on the ticket window so I didn’t know where she was going with it but, enterprising young man that I am, I found my old Qinghua ID in my backpack the night before and thought to bring it with me in lieu of my wildcard. God knows where said wildcard is now. Last update on the wallet situation is that we called the bar and nobody turned it in sans cash, so there goes that little hope. Anywho she directs me to like, an entirely separate ticket vendor and they sell me a ticket for half off. I wouldn’t have found it otherwise and the 55 kuai that it saved me paid for more than half the steeply reduced cost of the guide, so that was pretty sweet.

The guide was a pretty good investment, both as a source of some information that wasn’t on the signs and as a Chinese language partner. It was pretty clear that her English wasn’t actually that good but rather she had just memorized a two-hour long tour pretty much by rote (the Chinese education system has always been and continues to be heavily reliant on just straight-up memorization. This woman must have done fantastically). She was actually convincing enough that it took me until I started asking questions in English to realize this; she could only really answer me in Chinese. I think the best part though was when we got to pit two(sorry for the blur!), where as you may note almost all the people are headless.
I noticed this quickly and waited for a pause in her speech ask to ask why they didn’t have any heads. I did this in Chinese, and in mandarin she responded “wait! we’ll get to that!” which was a lil’ odd but sure maybe it needs more context, or something. When it came to that part in the speech though, she asks: “Do you know why they don’t have any heads?”
Call me crazy but I feel like if she knew sorta the subtleties behind what she was saying she would have skipped the whole asking-rhetorical-questions-that-I’ve-already-answered section of the speech. For those interested, pit 2 was a political headquarters (get it get it) of some sort, and the accepted historian speculation was that the emperor had most of them beheaded because they had done an unsatisfactory job. If that was the case I’m not sure why Qin Shi Huang would choose to be buried with incompetents but that’s not really my call to make.

Oh man I was going to jump back into present tense with some of my thoughts that I wrote down at lunch after the last part of the tour but this thing is already way longer than it should be, so instead I’m just going to insert a gallery of the rest of my pictures from the day. I’m in some of them, because the guide insisted that that was part of what I had paid for and that she was damn well going to take some pictures of me, so hey.

Alright, now just a little bit on what these suckers are. If you don’t want to just go to wikipedia, that is. But if you do, note that 4 of the pictures on the wikipedia page are pretty much identical to the ones in my gallery. I didn’t realize that until just now when I went to fact check, but I guess that means I take good pictures because what gets featured on wikipedia is clearly the golden standard of photography.
The Qin dynasty was the first to really unite China in any meaningful way, so it was host to the first Emperor in the history of the country. From what I remember of my Chinese history and literature classes, this guy was a complete douche but at least he got things done.
Emperors generally aren’t particularly renown for their modesty or humility, and this guy was no exception, so in a show of extravagance he called for 8000 clay soldiers to be constructed and buried in defensive position around his mausoleum to protect him in the afterlife. So they were, and these guys have been standing exactly where you see them since about 200 years before ol’ Jesus kicked the bucket, which is when the first emperor of China finally got around to dying. Pretty incredible stuff. If you’ve got any questions about any of the pictures or the soldiers, fire away in the comments and I’ll answer as best I can.