Xi’an

Xian_2006_019_small I havn’t posted much this past week because my cousin and her husband have been visiting from the States.  Tuesday and Wednesday we did the whirlwind tour of Beijing.  Wednesday night we took the overnight train to Xi’an to see the Terra-cotta Warriors.  Today they flew on to Chongqing to cruise the Yangtze River, and I flew back to Beijing.  I’ve got a fair number of fun stories accumulated, but no energy to write them just yet.  Watch this space.  In the meantime, enjoy one of my photos of the warriors.  Keep in mind that these were made, then buried a couple hundred years B.C. Their existence was not recorded in Chinese historical annals, thus they were forgotten…..until 1974, when a peasant digging a well near the city of Xi’an discovered a head.  The Antiquities Bureau was called in, and excavation began, only to discover thousands upon thousands of these soldiers buried to guard the emperor’s tomb.  It truly is one of the great archeological sites of the world.

Chopsticks Tax

This is from the "only in China" file:  a Chopsticks Tax.   Reports the Los Angeles Times:

"Is China at a fork in the road? Beijing this week slapped a 5 percent tax on disposable chopsticks, dealing what many Chinese say was a powerful gut punch. In cafes here Thursday, people dropped their chopsticks and had a lot to say against the new tax. Some said it could end a 5,000-year-old tradition. The tax will be imposed on chopstick manufacturers, which say they will make consumers pay higher prices. “I think it’s ridiculous,” Gordon Wu, an advertising executive, said during lunch at a central Shanghai restaurant, where he had just snapped apart two 8-inch splints of shaved wood to eat a bowl of braised pork over rice. The tax won’t drain many pocketbooks here: A penny buys bunches of chopsticks. That’s why the government thinks it’s a good way to save the nation’s vanishing forests – one chopstick at a time. China carves up about 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year. That means certain death for about 25 million full-grown poplar and birch trees. And that’s why environmentalists love the tax. “How many trees will we cut just for chopsticks?” asks Liang Congjie, who carries his reusable wooden chopsticks with him so that he doesn’t have to use disposable ones. Over the years, the Chinese have vigorously defended attacks on chopsticks – such as when Western researchers claimed the wooden utensils caused arthritis.  But state-owned media, which blamed runaway chopstick production on China’s growing wealth, recently suggested that the Chinese dispose of chopsticks altogether and eat with their fingers. All this was food for thought on Chinese Internet chat rooms. One person asked: “What’s next? Will I have to pay a tax for toothpicks?” "

It’s interesting that things have come full circle.  When I first came to China in the 1980′s disposable chopsticks weren’t that common.  Come to think of it, restaurants weren’t that common, either.  In the few restaurants that were open, and in the canteens and dining halls at schools and work units, tables always had a big jar of reusable wooden chopsticks.  In the late 1980′s the government decided that such chopsticks were unsanitary (the govt. had that one right) and promoted the switch to disposable ones.  Now they’re trying to move away from those.  Anyone for a  spoon??

I Lost My Bike

Well, not exactly.  The truth is, my bike has been stolen.  Right from the supposedly secure storage area in the basement of the 20 story apartment tower that I live in, even though the basement is also home to the squadron of security guards that are ever-present!  But there’s a little socio-linguistic double-talk that takes place here when someone’s bike is stolen.  The most commonly-heard phrase is wo diu-le wode zixingche (I lost my bike.)  Rarely does anyone say wode zixingche bei tou-le (My bike has been stolen).  I don’t know if it’s an attempt to avoid the passive grammatical construction or what, but I’ve always found it a bit annoying. 

I first encountered the linguistic oddity 20 years ago when a teammate had her bike stolen.  The officials of our school came and scolded her for losing her bike.  We were dumbfounded.  But it was stolen!  She didn’t lose it!  To the officials, it was all the same.  She lost her bike.  That was that.

Well, now it’s my turn!   Before this week, the last time I’d ridden my bike was last Wednesday afternoon—I’d ridden it home from work, parked it in the basement where I usually do, and went upstairs to my apartment.  The next morning was the The Killer Pop-tart Incident, which, combined with the fact that my mom was in town, kept me off my bike for the next week. 

Wednesday morning of this week, I loaded up and headed off to work. First stop, the basement to get my bike.  But lo and behold, it wasn’t there!  I looked all around, thinking it might have gotten moved.  Nope.  Never mind, I thought.  I must have left it over at the campus where my office is.  I walked to work, but when I got there, no bike!  It was becoming clear to me that the thing was gone, but it was astounding to me that it would have been stolen from my building, with so many guards around day and night.

When I got home in the afternoon, I talked to the guard and told him that my bike was missing.  "You lost your bike?" he said to me.  Grrr.  Well, no, I hadn’t lost my bike.  I know exactly where I’d put it, but someone had apparantly "lost" it for me.  He sucked his teeth (a Chinese non-verbal that means "we have a problem").  I asked him if it was possible that it could have been stolen from the basement, and surprisingly he said yes, in fact, it has happened before.  I sucked my teeth. 

By this time, a couple of young boys (12 or s0) coming home from school had stopped in the lobby to listen in on our conversation.  The sights and sounds of a foreigner speaking Chinese are sometimes too much to resist.  When it became clear to them that I was talking about the fact that my bike had been stolen, one of the kids said "aiya!  women zhongruoren diu mianzi le." (Oh no!  We Chinese have lost face!).  I was a bit taken aback that someone so young would already be wearing that lens—the lens of the collective Chinese face.  The fact that I, a foreigner, had had my bike stolen by a Chinese person, caused him to lose face.  I gave him a funny look and assured him that bikes were stolen everywhere in the world.  It didn’t seem to make a dent, because on the elevator he was still going on about the face thing.  And yes, he was sucking his teeth as well.

Well, I certainly don’t hold  Chinese people responsible for the loss (oops, I said that word) of my bike.  But nor will I say that I lost my bike.  It was stolen.  Plain and simple.  I shouldn’t complain too much, though.  In 20+ years, this is the first time I’ve had a bike stolen.  I’ve got friends (Chinese and foreign) who’ve had 3 or 4 bikes stolen.

Do’s and Don’ts

In one of his speeches to the National People’s Congress this week, China’s president set forth a new set of 8 "Do’s and Don’ts" that he wants Chinese people to live by.  Here they are:

Love, do not harm the motherland.

Serve, don’t disserve the people.

Uphold science; don’t be ignorant and unenlightened.

Work hard; don’t be lazy and hate work.

Be united and help each other; don’t gain benefits at the expense of others.

Be honest and trustworthy, not profit-mongering at the expense of your values.

Be disciplined and law-abiding instead of chaotic and lawless.

Know plain living and hard struggle, do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple?   

New Regulations in the Works?

For the past two weeks, the National People’s Congress (NPC) has been in session in Beijing.  This body is China’s top parliamentary body made up of delegates from all the provinces, municipalities and special adminstrative regions.  Alongside the Congress meeting, another group meets, called the China People’s Political Consutative Congress.  This group is made up of delegates from various segments of society (education, the arts, sports, etc.). It’s main function is to make suggestions to the NPC regarding laws and regulations.  Every year, there are some interesting new suggestions put forth by delegates.  Here are some interesting ones to emerge from this year’s meeting, from an article titled, "Fun at the CPPCC" from danwei.org.

§         "Chinese Yuan" proposal: Replace Mao’s image on Chinese banknotes with Sun Yatsen and Deng Xiaoping. The official name of the money could be changed to "Chinese Yuan" from "Renminbi."
Related: "Small Change" proposal: Eliminate small denominations of money.

§         "Urban Shower" proposal: Promote the construction of low-cost bathhouses in cities to serve the people.

§         "CCTV Anchor" proposal: Swap the current Evening News anchors, who are getting along in years, with younger, fresher faces.

§         "Official Weight" proposal: To cut down on government officials wasting public money on lavish banquets, create an Administrative Ethical Code that includes a weight limit for public servants.

§         "Peasant TV" proposal: Zhao Benshan thinks that the current national rural TV channel is not enough to satisfy the entertainment needs of China’s non-urban population.

§         "College Admission" proposal: Sure, there’s good reason to reform the college entrance exam system. But Yin Hongfu has very specific suggestions: 60-70% from the exam, 20% from social service, 5-10% from creativity (which under special circumstances – champions, inventors, and such – may weigh as much as 50%).

§         "Child Actor" proposal: Ban children from acting in commercials.

§         "Beauty Economy" proposal: Regulate beauty contests to limit the value society places on outward appearance.

My personal favorite is the proposed weight limit for public servants.

Yellow Snow

No, this is not about the proliferation of small dogs in China.  This yellow snow is falling from the sky. Reuters has an article today about yellow snow that fell on Korea Monday:

South Koreans were treated to a rare weather phenomenon on Monday when yellow snow fell in the capital and elsewhere across the country. But the snow — containing dust or sand from the desert regions of northern China — could pose a health hazard, the country’s meteorological office warned. “It’s tough to say whether it’s yellow sand mixed in snow or if it’s snow mixed in yellow sand,” a weather official told Reuters. A high concentration of the dust particles prompted the weather bureau to issue a yellow dust warning for the second time in three days. South Korea frequently gets sand or dust storms, but a yellow snow storm is very rare. “I have never seen yellow snow falling before,” the official said.

It seems our dust storm of the weekend headed on over to Korea.  Just a slice of life in Northeast Asia!

Hot and Sour Soup

My mom’s been visiting me for the past couple of weeks, and is getting ready to head back to Minnesota tomorrow.  Unfortunately, yesterday and today she hasn’t been felling well.  Or, as she says, she’s feeling "not quite."  Stomach stuff.  Nothing serious– just, shall we say, more frequent trips to the loo are needed.  This morning I took her to my office to say goodbye to folks there, and of course everyone was concerned about her having to travel across the Pacific Ocean tomorrow while feeling "not quite."  There was no shortage of suggested remedies as well.  All she wanted was some Pepto-bismol, but my boss (an American) convinced her that what she needed was a bowl of hot and sour soup.  He swears by the stuff, says that no matter what ails him, a bowl of hot and sour soup will take care of it.  It’s not too surprising really, since the base of hot and sour soup is vinegar, and Chinese are convinced that vinegar prevents and cures all manner of diseases.  If there’s a health scare of any kind here, the first items to fly off the supermarket shelves are bottles of vinegar.

Well, she ate two bowls of hot and sour soup for lunch and is feeling much better.  Unfortunately, she took two Pepto-bismol tablets at the same time, so we’ll never know if it’s the soup or the PB tablets that are doing the trick!  Never mind.  She’s discovered that she loves hot and sour soup, and wants to find a good Chinese restaurant at home where she can get some.

The Weather is Very Changeable

When I first came to China many moons ago, my Chinese students would always tell me that "the weather is very changeable" in China.  I knew what they meant, and although there is nothing grammatically incorrect about that sentence, it still always struck me as an odd construction. 

Odd as it may be, however, it’s a very apt description of the weather here in Beijing the past 3 days.  Thursday night, I checked Yahoo! Weather, and they were listing the current conditions as "smoke."  It was accurate.  Friday morning we awoke to our first spring dust storm.  The sky was yellowish red, and dirt was blowing around everywhere.  The dirt just becomes part of the air.  It’s disgusting.  This went on most of the day, ushering in the perverbial cold front from Siberia (just to the north of here).  Saturday the temps continued to plummet, and by mid-day giant snowflakes were falling, thick and heavy!  That lasted about 30 minutes, then the sun came out and we enjoyed brilliant blue skies!   Like they say, the weather is very changeable in Beijing.  First smoke, then dust, then snow!  Gotta love it!