An Opposite World

Every so often I see something that reminds me that things here really are opposite to the way they are in the west.  Not just how things are done, but how things are thought of.   As I was sitting in a cab in traffic (what else) this afternoon, a large bus pulled up alongside, and I noticed it had been plastered with a giant ad for "Nivea Sun."  Now most westerners would see that and assume that it’s an ad for sunscreen, or suntan lotion.  But not here.  Nivea Sun is a whitening cream that you can put on in case you’ve been unfortunate enough to actually have your skin (especially face) exposed to the sun.  Got a little sun today?  No problem, just use Nivea Sun, and your face will be white again in no time. 

Something tells me they don’t sell it in LA!

Electric Running Machine

This evening I was at my neighborhood gym, having a good walk on the treadmill (my creaky knees won’t let me run), and I noticed that the Chinese name for the treadmill is dian dong paobu ji.  Literally translated, that means "electric moving walking machine."  Pretty descriptive, actually. 

The Chinese language is kind of fun that way.  With a set number of characters, which aren’t phonetically based, they have to use what characters are already in use (and have been for thousands of years) to describe modern things.  They’re fun, because they are so descriptive, and when you learn them, you slap your forehead and say, "of course!".  Here are some examples:

dian bao — electric report (telegram)

dian hua — electric talk (telephone)

dian ying — electric image (movie)

dian nao — electric brain (computer)

fei ji — flying machine (airplane)

huo che — fire wagon (train).  When trains first came, they were steam engines, that looked like they breathed fire.

But my absolute favorite one is  xi chen qi — suck dust machine (vacuum cleaner).

Stop Stop Go Go

I did one of my most unfavorite things in Beijing today—spent an hour in a cab on the Third Ring Road traversing from the east side of town to the west side of town between 5 and 6pm.  Dreadful.  In theory, these famous ring roads (which all other cities are imitating and rushing to build) are supposed to be expressyways, which only means that there are no intersections or stoplights, only entrances and exits.  I dont’ say ramps, because they are just openings that allow cars to jump on and off. Unfortunately these are about 10 yards apart, so the cars coming on and off have to fight over the same piece of real estate.  And, to increase the fun factor, bus stops are located right past these entrances and exits.  Well, you can imagine the bottleneck that is created.  And in a city where there are 1000 new cars added to the road every month…..you get the picture.

My appointment on the other side of town ended at 5pm, and I had to meet some friends near my place for dinner at 6, so I had no choice but to climb into a taxi and settle in for the misery of what I knew was going to be 50-60 minutes of stop and go, stop and go. The driver was very nice and patient (most cabbies in Beijing are nice), and had the radio on to pick up the regular traffic reports. 

I listened in, trying always to improve my listening comprehension.  I’ve learned the words for traffic jam, detour, accident (to name a few) that way.  Today I learned a new phrase– ting ting zou zou–when the announcer described the traffic conditions on the  Third Ring Road.  Literally translated, it is "stop stop go go."  She got it right on that one!!

Shanghai-ed in Bangkok

I’m in Bangkok, Thailand now for a conference.  I flew down here on Sunday, but had all day Monday free before my conference started in the evening.    In the afternoon I headed downtown with two items on my agend:  taking pictures at the Grand Palace, and meeting up with friends.  I took a taxi from my hotel to the Palace, arriving around 1:30.  Unfortunately, when I got there, I discovered that it was closed until 2:30 due to an official function or ceremony that was taking place.  A tuk-tuk (3-wheeled motorized rickshaw) driver conveniently showed up and told me that he’d take me to see two other temples nearby, for a toal of 10 baht.  Now I knew that was ridiculously cheap, so I should have walked away, but it was hot and I was tired, so I decided to go for it. 

Off we went, careening through the streets of Bangkok in the back of a tuk-tuk.  First stop, the giant standing Buddha.   I walked around, took some pictures, then climbed back into the tuk-tuk.  Next stop–a jewelry shop.  Huh?  The following conversation ensued:

Me:  I don’t want to shop.    Him:  You don’t have to buy anything.  But if I bring you here, I get a coupon for free gas.   Well, he seemed like a nice fellow, and gas prices are going up, so I walked in.  They asked me what I was looking for and I told them nothing, that was just in there because my tuk-tuk driver wanted a gas coupon.  I did one circuit in the stoor, and went back to the tuk-tuk.  Off again, to the other temple. Or so I thought.

5 minutes later we pulled up in front of another store.  Huh?  Please go in, he pleaded.  Stay for 5 minutes and I’ll get a free gas coupon.  Like a fool, I did.  5 minutes later I came back out and asked him if he’d gotten his coupon.  He had.  Off again, to the other temple.  Or so I thought. 

5 minutes later we pulled up in front of a tailor shop.   Another one???   Him:  Please go in for five minutes so I can get a gas coupon and a free shirt!  That was it.  I’d had enough.  I told him that I wasn’t going to go into another shop, and that I would pay him a 100 baht just to take me back to the Palace.  Grrr.  I could have just walked around the area near the palace and taken pictures.  Instead I was shanghai’ed by a tuk tuk driver and made to go shopping!!!

Power Off

A necessary accessory of life here in Beijing is the cell phone.  I remember a time 20 years ago, when almost nobody had a phone (and all phones were, for some reason, orange!), but recently the government announced that there are 400 million cell phone users in China.  Based on that, one could say that every single urban dweller in China has a cell phone.  It’s hard to imagine how we’d function without them, quite frankly. 

I love the messages that I get from my service on occassion.  If my account (I use a prepaid card) is running low on money, I’ll hear a voice in English tell me, "your balance has little money, please recharge in time."   

But my favorite is the one I get when the person I’m calling has their phone off.  In that case, the message I get is "the subscriber is power off."  And quite frankly, that’s how I feel sometime, especially after a long day….the subscriber is power off.  Yup.  That pretty much describes it.

One Step Beyond

A friend, who writes for "That’s Shanghai" magazine, has a new article posted online, titled One Step Beyond:

There was an old joke I heard as a kid: a city slicker is lost in the countryside; eventually, he happens upon a local walking along the dirt road. The guy asks for directions back to the city and the local makes several unsuccessful attempts to explain the route. Finally, the local gives up and says to the city slicker: “Well, I guess you can’t get there from here.” Needless to add, the point of this little jest is that there is always a way to get from point A to point B. But not necessarily so in China. We may be all-too-familiar with the Lao Tse saying: “A journey of a thousand li begins with a single step.” Which is good advice (provided you know what the heck a li is), but it omits a crucial precondition. There first must be a road to walk on. Put another way, you may know your destination, but finding the path to get there is a whole ‘nuther matter.

Go here to read the whole thing.  You won’t regret it.

College Graduate Woes

The New Chinese News Agency (Xinhua) reported today on the situation facing college graduates in this country, and this was the most alarming statistic:  the current job market has 1.66 million jobs for college graduates, but 4.13 million students will graduate this spring.  That’s mind-boggling.

Less than 20 years ago, only about 5% of high school graduates in China were able to attend college, and entrance was gained through a rigorous and highly competitive entrance examination system.  In the late 90′s, China decided that they needed a more highly educated work force, which mean that they had to make college accessible to a larger number of high school graduates.  Whereupon, they launched the great "kua zhao" (expand enrollment) campaign.  In early August (can’t remember if it was 1999 or 2000 actually) the government ordered all the colleges and universities to increase double their intake of freshmen for the coming term.  That meant schools only had a few weeks to get ready for, say 2000 freshmen instead of 1000.  They scrambled to build dorms, classrooms, and hire teachers.  In some cases, "university cities" were built on the edges of cities—entire new campuses that sprang up out of nowhere to serve as branch campuses for the main schools in town. 

Now that student population ‘bubble’ is graduating, and lo and behold there aren’t enough jobs for them.  The intensity of the competition to get in diminished, but it was only moved to four years later. 

I Told You So!

Some of you may have read my post of April 26, 2006, titled "Boom! Then Rain" about how they seed clouds here to make rain. And after reading it, you perhaps thought that I was nuts, or delusional, or just plain making stuff up.  Not so, my friends.  Check out this article from the AP:

Chinese weather specialists used chemicals to engineer Beijing’s heaviest rainfall of the year, helping to relieve drought and rinse dust from China’s capital, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday. Technicians with the Beijing Weather Modification Office fired seven rocket shells containing 163 cigarette-size sticks of silver iodide over the city’s skies on Thursday, Xinhua said. The reaction that occurred brought as much as four-tenths of an inch of rain, the heaviest rainfall this year, helping to "alleviate drought, add soil moisture and remove dust from the air for better air quality," Xinhua said. Though unusual in many parts of the world, China has been tinkering with artificial rainmaking for decades, using it frequently in the drought-plagued north. Last month, another artificial rainfall was generated to clear Beijing after the city suffered some of the fiercest dust storms this decade. Whether cloud-seeding actually works has been the subject of debate in the scientific community. In 2003, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences questioned the science behind it as "too weak."

I will vouch for the fact that it did rain on Thursday afternoon and evening.  It was delightful.  And I did hear loud booms, but I was quite sure it was the real thing–thunder, since the skies were very dark and forboding.  Perhaps I was wrong…….