The Man with the Key

A few weeks back, before the snow started to fly, a friend and I were walking around Long Lake Regional Park in New Brighton, one of my favorite places to walk. As we were walking I commented to her on the random pipes I’ve noticed sticking out of the ground — pipes that have lids on top of them and locks keeping those lids closed. I wondered if she knew what they were and she said she didn’t.

“Someone does,” I said. “In fact, in some office in some building in this county there is a man with a key!”

That was intriguing to me because in China to be in possession of a key is to be in possession of power. When trying to get something done, one of the most dreaded phrases you don’t want to hear is “the man with the key is not here,” which can either be a statement of fact or simply another way of saying “go away, I don’t want to deal with you.”

Where is the man with the key to these pipes, I wondered.

The next week, as I was walking in the park by myself, I spotted a pickup truck just off the path, and a man standing next to one of the pipes.

It was him! The man with the key!

I wandered into the woods where he was working and asked him to tell me about the pipes. He told me that they were old wells and his job was to monitor the water quality. Once upon a time there had been a refinery on the site and the state was making sure that their clean-up efforts were effective. He told me that he checks them twice per year, and when they are sure that there are no more contaminants then they will allow the nearby property to be developed.

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It was a great day. I had found the man with the key!

Happy Birthday “Beijing”

No, today is not the birthday of the founding of Beijing. That happened too far back in history to be able to pinpoint a date. Recorded history goes back around 4000 years and Peking Man dates back more than 200,000 years.

Qing Tombs

So why wish “Beijing” a “Happy Birthday?”

Well, because it was 36 years ago that the Chinese government decreed that henceforth all Chinese words written in English should use the Pinyin Romanization system instead of the Wade-Giles or Yale systems.

Peking became Beijing.

Canton became Guangzhou.

Mao Tse-tung became Mao Ze-dong.

Chou En-lai became Zhou En-lai.

36 years ago today, the Wall Street Journal published an article announcing and explaining these changes to its confused readers. Here’s how journalist Barry Kramer reported it:

“Foreigners reading about China in their own language may soon be scratching their heads over references to Chinese personalities such as Mao Ze-dong and Jiang Qing, or places such as Zhongqing and Beijing. Beijing’s State Council has taken another step toward simplification of China’s cumbersome written language by ordering that all publications printed in China in English, French, German,  Spanish, and other Roman-alphabet languages use only a standard phonetic transliteration system, called Pinyin, to spell names and places.”

You can read the entire Wall Street Journal article on the Today in WSJ History page here.

I wrote about the difference between Peking and Beijing (spelling, of course) in post back in 2010, explaining that the characters didn’t change, only the approved romanization of the characters:

The more complicated (and accurate) response is that in Chinese it didn’t really change. Before the 1970’s the name of the city in characters was 北京, and those characters are still the name of the city today. What changed in the 1970’s was the official pronunciation of those two characters.

The character 北 means ‘north’ or ‘northern.’ The character 京 means capital, so the two characters together mean ‘northern capital.’ The problem lies in the pronunciation of those two characters. In the dialect of northern China (around Beijing) they are pronounced bei and jing. In Cantonese (the dialect of Guangdong Province and Hong Kong) they are pronounced pe and king. Since written Chinese is ideographic, two people who speak different dialects can look at one character and both will know what means, even though they would pronounce them differently. This is the case with Beijing.

So as I said at the beginning, Happy Birthday “Beijing!”

Related Posts:

Beijing or Peking?

Imagine Learning Chinese without Pinyin

 

A Beijing Winter Olympics?

You may not know this, but Beijing is bidding to host the Winter Olympics in 2022. I must admit the first time I heard this, I had to stifle a laugh. Shouldn’t a Winter Olympics host city have, well, snow?  Yes, it does (on occasion) snow in Beijing, but if any of it stays on the ground for 24 hours or longer, it turns black from the coal dust in the air. And yes, there are mountains that surround Beijing, but they don’t get much snow either. Beijing ski “resorts” consist of one or two snow-covered runs (man-made snow) on an otherwise completely brown and barren hillside.

Oslo dropped out of the bidding last month, leaving the IOC with the task of deciding between Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Yes, you read that right. Here’s how Dan Balz, writing for Yahoo Sports puts it:

The effect is the bidding for the 2022 Winter Games, which is now down to just two cities. The final vote comes next summer.

There’s Beijing, China, which doesn’t actually sit within 120 miles of a usable ski mountain, and there’s Almaty, Kazakhstan, which in its bid touted itself as “the world’s largest landlocked nation.”

It’s down to these two cities not because the IOC narrowed the field, but because every other city in the entire world said no.

Seriously, every other city said no.

Here, my friends, is the promotional video the Beijing Committee released last week (go here if you can’t see it in an email):

There are no words!

In case you’re wondering what it was like in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games, you can check out my archived blog posts:

Stranded in Beijing

The Flame-Mobile

Surprisingly Normal

Autumn in Beijing

Tennis, Anyone?

No People? No Food?

The Return of the Marxist Mamas

Weather Report

Watching CCTV

A Day at the Beach

No Joy in Mudville

A Traumatic Memory

Little Wheel Bike Race

Plotting Supper

Please, No More Songs

Early Morning Lightning

Break-dancing Fuwa

Out with a Bang

 

The Parking God and the Parking Demon

Two of the video clips that have gone viral in China this month are of drivers parking their cars. One man in Fujian Province is exceptionally good and has come to be known as the “Parking God of Fujian Province” because of his skill in maneuvering his car into an insanely tiny space.

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I love the way he just exits and re-enters the parking space just to show off!

And if that man in Fujian is the “Parking God,” then perhaps this driver in Jiangsu, who obviously has absolutely no idea how to get his car out of the parking space, should get the title “Parking Demon.” 15 times he hits the other cars!!

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It reminds me of the time years ago when I was out with a friend who had just gotten her license. We got into a situation that required a 3-point turn and she didn’t have a clue how to do it. “I don’t know how to go backwards,” she told me. She eventually made me get behind the wheel and execute the maneuver.

You can read more about the “Parking God” at That’s Magazine.

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Top Ten Features of China’s Car Culture

 

 

Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway

On this day 50 years ago, the Alaska Highway was officially opened to military traffic, only 8 months after work began. Here’s how Wired reports on the anniversary:

Until the early 1940s, Alaska was a neglected U.S. territory. The Klondike gold rush of the 1880s and ’90s was a distant memory, and oil had not yet been discovered. There were a bunch of trees and rivers and snow, but nothing really worth exploiting, so the vast wilderness was pretty much left to the bears and the hardy few who lived on the frontier.

Although proposals had existed since the 1920s for building a highway through western Canada into Alaska, the Canadian government wasn’t very keen, and the plans were shelved.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, coupled with their military incursions into the Aleutian Islands, changed things in an instant. Suddenly, Alaska became a potential Japanese invasion route to Canada and the Lower 48, so both governments agreed that the road would now be built.

Military necessity dictated the route. It was a far cry from the original highway-commission blueprints and their more topographically friendly, meandering roadways. The Alaska Highway — like the Burma Road for moving Allied supplies from northern Burma to China — would take little account of mountains, wilderness, water or elevation.

The U.S. Army assumed control of the project, and the Corps of Engineers — augmented by thousands of civilian contractors — began construction through the northern wilderness. By any measuring stick, it was grueling, backbreaking work.

In the end, the 1,500-mile highway, stretching from Dawson Creek in British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, was completed in an astounding eight months. In many places, it was a “highway” in name only, instead resembling a glorified footpath with stretches of unpaved road, murderous switchbacks and no guard rails or shoulders. Vehicles had a tough time negotiating the road, and traffic didn’t really pick up until 1943.

After the war, major improvements were made to the highway, and it opened to general traffic in 1947 when wartime travel restrictions were lifted.

To commemorate the anniversary, here are some photos our drive up the Alaska Highway in 2013. Happy Birthday, Alaska Highway, and thanks for the memories!

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Mile Zero in Dawson Creek, B.C.

After leaving Dawson Creek, one of the first historical sites along the highway is a memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in a ferry disaster on Charlie Lake.

Charlie Lake, BC

Memorial to Ferry Disaster on Charlie Lake, BC

One of the most famous sites along the Alaska Highway is the Sign Post Forest in Watson Lake (Mile Post 635), home to  more than 100,000 signs. I’m guessing that the homesick soldier who started it in 1942 never imagined what it would grow into!

Sign Post Forest

Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon

And a few shots along the highway….

Alaska Highway

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Related Posts:

Road Trip: St. Paul to Skagway, AK

Mile Zero

A Ribbon of Highway

Wrecker Ahead

We Made It!

Land of the Midnight Sun

A Tale of Two Shrines

Alaska Cruising

Canadian Food

Alaska Wildlife

No GPS, Thank You Very Much

A Conversation at the Border

The Photographer and Her Drive

Is the Curse of Kenny G About to be Lifted?

In my early days of blogging, back in 2005, I wrote a post titled The Curse of Kenny G, in which I went on a bit of a rant about the popularity of Kenny G in China.

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Here’s what I said:

A great mystery here in the Middle Kingdom is the Chinese love affair with Kenny G, the bushy-haired soprano sax player, who anchors the “smooth jazz” genre of music. Kenny G music blaring out of stores, or wafting through hotel lobbies is as ubiquitous here as chopsticks and dumplings (OK, so I exaggerate, but only slightly). Once upon a time, I hate to admit, I liked Kenny G. music. But that was before I moved to China, where his music is impossible to escape from. For those of you who’ve never heard Kenny G (oh, how I envy you), it’s romantic, it’s soft, its’ sweet….and music that is sweet is irresistable here.

Ok, so what’s set off this little anti-Kenny G tirade this evening? This afternoon, a friend and I went off to visit the newly-restored section of Beijing’s old city wall, which runs east from Chongwenmen. It has been turned into a lovely park, and the old watch tower has been restored and now houses a museum. This particular section of the city wall was built during the Ming Dynasty, in the early 1400′s. The place just oozes history, and we went on top of the wall to soak it all up. Unfortunately, someone had decided that it’s necessary to pipe music all along the wall and through the park, and even more unfortunately, this afternoon that music was Kenny G music!! Augh! Is there no Ming Dynasty music available? Not a spot in the park was out of range of the music. I tell you, it’s a curse!! The curse of Kenny G!

I wonder how it gets broken!

Today, 9 years later, I think that curse is about to be broken. It seems that Kenny G was in Hong Kong yesterday and turned up at one of the protest sites to express his support. As you can imagine, it did not sit well with the Powers That Be in Beijing. Here’s how The Guardian reported it:

Most governments aren’t too bothered by what jazz saxophonist Kenny G does between concerts, but when he turned up at pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities were furious.

On Wednesday he tweeted a picture of himself making a victory sign in front of a poster reading: “Democracy of Hong Kong” and wrote: “In Hong Kong at the sight [sic] of the demonstration. I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.”

Within hours, the foreign ministry in Beijing had issued a frosty condemnation.

“Kenny G’s musical works are widely popular in China, but China’s position on the illegal Occupy Central activities in Hong Kong is very clear,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

“We hope that foreign governments and individuals speak and act cautiously and not support the Occupy Central and other illegal activities in any form,” she added.

Dan Levin, writing in The New York Times, highlights the popularity of Kenny G in China:

In one of the more inexplicable mysteries of Chinese culture, his 1989 saxophone ballad “Going Home” has for decades oozed from speakers across Chinese public spaces at closing time, triggering rapid exits by the masses. The song has no lyrics, yet somehow, when it is played in a mall, Chinese shoppers know what to do. They go home.[…] But an opposing theory that surfaced last week on Twitter said that Beijing might send Kenny G to Hong Kong to play “Going Home,” and that the protesters, who have occupied sections of Hong Kong’s business districts for weeks, would finally disperse.

You can read a fuller exploration of the popularity of this song in Dan’s May 2014 article China Says Goodbye in the Key of G: Kenny G. Be sure to watch the video clip as well.

I’m guessing that Kenny G’s music will henceforth be a lot less ubiquitous.

In other words, it’s entirely possible the curse is about to be lifted.

 

{Photo by Ryan Wise, via Flickr (creative commons license)}

A Conversation with Peter Hessler

One of my favorite China writers, Peter Hessler, recently sat down with a reporter for Xinhua, China’s official news agency, to talk about his books, as well as the joys and challenges of writing about China.

(if you receive this post by email and cannot view the video, click here.)

Hessler’s books are all worth a read:

Rivertown (2001)

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.)

Oracle Bones (2006)

Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

Country Driving (2010)

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

Strange Stones (2013)

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West

Related Posts:

A Must-Read Article

Road-Tripping

Who’s Driving You?

Sailing the Mountaintops

 

 

 

 

 

Only One “Why?” Question Per Day, Please!

A month or so ago I was having a lovely outdoor dinner with group of friends, one of whom was a high school kid from Beijing studying at a school here in the Twin Cities and living with an American host family.

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As we were sitting around the picnic table, frantically grabbing for brats, corn on the cob, and slathering butter on french bread, the Chinese kid piped up. “Here’s a question for you — why do you put butter on bread?”

It stopped us dead in our tracks; I am pretty sure that not a single person at the table (except for the other Chinese person) had ever in their entire lives given a thought to that question.

“Why do you put butter on bread?” he asked again.

“Well, because that’s what we do. And besides, it’s delicious!”

After we sat there with our brains on pause and our jaws agape, I attempted an answer that I thought a Chinese person might understand.

“Because that’s what our European ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. Butter belongs on bread. That’s just the way it is!”

That seemed to work for him.

When I do training/orientation programs for people going to China, I often spend time talking about both the duty and danger of asking the question “why?”

If the “why” question is being asked as a genuine attempt to understand something, then it’s a good question — a necessary question actually.

However, for outsiders trying to live well where we don’t belong, it can quickly become a cover for whining and venting, because the underlying assumption is that since it is not the way it’s done back home, then it’s stupid. In this case, the “why?” question is not helpful and may actually get in the way of understanding.

I always urge my trainees to limit themselves to one why question per day.

Things that insiders NEVER think about may seem confusing to outsiders — even something as ‘mundane’ as putting butter on bread.

So, if you’re living cross-culturally, it’s probably good to limit yourself to one “why?” question per day.

{Photo by Ralf Brotbraken, via Flickr. (Creative Commons)}