Bubble Cop

A couple of weeks ago, my favorite taxi driver, Mr. Z  was taking me to the Beijing airport to catch a flight to Bangkok.  As we were on the airport expressway, nearing the terminal building, the traffic slowed significantly as we approached a construction site.

Mr. Z. wondered aloud if we’d see my “lao pengyou (old friend).”  Old friend?  What old friend might I be seeing out here on the expressway?  “You know, the fake policeman that we saw last time I took you to the airport!”

I laughed out loud remembering that in the middle of this construction site is a plastic blow up policeman standing there warning drivers to slow down.  We had both cracked up when we had seen it.  Since we had slowed down, I whipped out my camera in hopes of catching the Bubble Cop on duty.

I was not disappointed!  Watch for him the next time you’re flying out of Beijing!

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

I’m writing this from the beautiful Bangtao Beach on Thailand’s island of Phuket.  10 years ago, I and some friends found a wonderful little family-run "bungalow" hotel right on the island’s longest and most undeveloped beaches.  I came here 6 years in a row , but this is my first time here since 2002.  One of the great things about this place is the friendliness of the people.  And most of the staff have been here since I first came in 1997, so we’re all on a first name basis.  Even though the place was partially destroyed in the 2004 tsunami, all of the people I know here survived. 

Besides making friends with the hotel staff, we also made friends with the "massage ladies" and the peddlars who wander up and down the beach selling batik fabric and other knick-knacks.  I wanted to come back here this year to see them. 

Well, I got to today.  It’s so fun to find yourself on a beach in southern Thailand "where everybody knows your name."  The massage ladies were all excited, and of course started to grab my arms and legs to give me a massage.   Although they survived the awful events of December26, 2004, they all lost family members.

But there was one lady in particular I was anxious to see–Ari.   Every afternoon she walks up and down the beach selling batik clothing.  She always had a way of getting me to buy her stuff.  The last time I was here I finally put my foot down and said NO, but that instead I would buy her a bottle of water everytime she showed up. 

This afternoon, after I took a long walk on the beach, I spotted her sitting under a tree.  I walked up and said "Hi Ari." When she realized it was me, she jumped up and gave me a big hug and started shouting my name and yelling YOU CAME BACK!  YOU CAME BACK!  I THOUGHT YOU HAD FORGOTTEN ABOUT US AND WOULD NEVER COME BACK! Well, all of this commotion got the attention of the beach bunnies and she ran around telling them all that I was her friend of 10 years but hadn’t been here for 5 years but now I was back.  I AM SO HAPPY.  I AM SO HAPPY!  Then she asked about one of my teammates, who used to join me here.  Where was she?  Was she married?  She told me that she had always hoped she’d marry her son, but that now it was too late because her son was married!  I promised to email my friend to tell her, and at that she just roared.  And of course she had to show me all her new stuff.

I bought 2 scarves.  What could I do?  She knows my name. 

No Socks!

My older sister (that would be jiejie in Chinese) and I have a running verbal battle going about socks.  She loves them.  I loathe them.  She changes her socks at least twice a day, and I always (jokingly, of course) tell her that I’m happy changing them twice a week!  I’M KIDDING, JAN!!! My feet just don’t like to be all wrapped up, and look forward to the day when the weather turns warm enough for the return of the sandals.

I’m heading to Thailand this afternoon for three weeks, so my feet are happy.  No socks!  In fact, I’m not even taking along a single pair of socks! Come to think of it, I’m happy too!

I’ll spend a week on the beach on Phuket, staying at a small family run place that I found 10 years ago, and that I have visited many times.  It was severely damaged in the tsunami 2 years ago, but has been rebuilt.  I’ll be keeping one eye on my book and one eye on the ocean.  I watched a documentary on the tsunami a few weeks ago, and learned an important lesson.  If the water in the bay suddenly empties out and goes THAT way, I’m running the other way as fast as I can! 

Following my week in the sun, I’ll go to Chiang Mai for a couple of weeks to attend a conference.   By mid-February, I’ll be back here in Beijing.  Wearing socks. 

Old Blurry Eyes

This afternoon, as I was working in my office, an American colleague, who’s new to Beijing, came in an asked me if I knew where he could buy a pair of reading glasses.  I told him that there were lots of eyeglasses stores in the area and that I supposed any of them would sell reading glasses.  But just to make sure, we asked our Chinese co-worker if the optical stores sold reading glasses.  She wasn’t sure what we meant by reading glasses, so we told her that they were cheap pairs of glasses that some people use just for reading—they’re really magnifying glasses with pretty frames, and don’t require an eye exam or prescription.  Mostly they’re used by folks who are "getting older" and find that their arms aren’t long enough anymore! "Oh," she said.  "We call those lao hua jing."

Hearing her say the word lao, which means old, something told me that I wasn’t going to like this term. I asked her to flesh out the meaning–which Chinese characters were they?  I knew the lao (老) meant old and the jing ( 镜) meant lens or glasses, but I didn’t know which hua it was.  "It’s the hua that usually means flower ( 花)," she said, " but here it means blurry." In other words, reading glasses are called old blurry lenses.  Ah, the straightforwardness of the Chinese language.  And here’s some added fun:  the character for eyes is also pronounced jing ( 睛), the only difference being the tone with which the word is said.  A high, flat-toned jing means eyes, and a jing said with a falling tone means lens. In other words, a person with lao hua jing (old blurry eyes) is in need of lao hua jing (glasses for old and blurry).

But I was still puzzled at the use of hua.  It was one of the earliest characters I’d learned, but only with it’s two most common meanings:  flower, and to spend.  Which brings up another interesting (and slightly maddening) feature of the Chinese language, namely that each character (and there are 40,000+ of them) has more than one meaning.  In fact, many characters have multiple meanings and the various meaning may not even be slightly related!  So, out of curiousity, I looked up the character hua (花) in the dictionary to verify that it meant blurry, and to see what other obscure meanings it might carry as well.  I was stunned.  There were a total of 14 (FOURTEEN!!) different meanings listed:

1.  flower; blossom
2.  pattern; design
3.  fireworks
4. essence; cream
5. wound (injury)
6. smallpox
7. courtesan; prostitute
8. spend; expend
9. womanize
10. flowery
11. profligate
12. blurred
13. false
14;  randy; lecherous

No wonder some of us have nearly gone mad trying to learn this language.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find my old blurry lenses!

The “Smile Wristlets”

There are now only 582 days until the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  How do I know?  Well, there are countdown clocks all over town, and on most local news outlet websites, so it’s really kind of hard not to know, unless one intentionallly averts one’s gaze, which one is sometimes tempted to do.  One of the fun things to do these days is follow all of the campaigns and sloganeering that are accompanying these upcoming games.  Maybe other cities have done them.  I honestly don’t know, since this is the first time that I have lived in host-to-be city.  But China is good at campaigns and sloganeering so keeping up with them all is nearly a full-time job. 

The dawn of the new year saw the launching of yet another pre-Olympics campaign, this one yet again designed to address the…ahem…shall we say "manners issue" of Beijingers and ensure that Beijing puts forth a good image to the world.  It’s a SMILE campaign, and the gimmick here is that all Olympics volunteers will be given "smile wristlets" to wear throughout the games.  There are 5 different colors, and they each stand for something different:  red=readiness to help others; yellow=civility and politeness; black=honesty and trustworthiness; blue=studying and forging ahead; and green=environmental protection.  What any of those have to with smiling I’m not sure, but hey, who can be against studying and forging ahead?

At the ceremony to officially unveil these smile wristlets, the Vice Secretary of Beijing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China and Chief of the Volunteers Work Coordination Group for the Beijing Olympiad (now there’s a title for you!) urged all Beijingers to be civil and flash smiles to visitors and guests from around the world.

I’ll tell you this….in a city where most of the toddlers still wear split pants, I for one am looking forward to having smiles flashed at me instead of certain other body parts.

The Water Walla

In a previous post (Bingzi Walla ) I wrote about the meaning of the word "walla."  In Urdu (the language of Pakistan, where I was born and raised), it means a man or person who does something like a trade.  There was the fruit walla, the vegetable walla, the fish walla, and so on. Each of these tradesmen came to our house each week to sell their wares directly to us.  Since we don’t have a good term in English, and Chinese is bereft of one as well, I’ve taken to just using the Urdu term here to describe the various tradespeople that I interact with on a reguar basis.

The water walla was just here, delivering a 5 pound container of Wahaha (yes, that’s prounced just as it is written) drinking water for the handy water cooler I have in my kitchen.  It’s a great system.  When my container is empty, I make a phone call, and 10 minutes later the water walla shows up at my door to take the empty one out and put the full one in.  I pay him the equivalant of a dollar and a half, tell him to ‘go slow’ and that’s that.

Tonight, as he was putting the new container in the cooler, he noticed that I had the refrigerate function turned on.  That means the water that comes out if nice and cold.  There’s a heating function as well, which is nice when it’s time for a cup of hot chocolate.  But mostly I like drinking cold drinks.  Even in the morning.   I need to have a big glass of ice cold water to get me going in the morning.  It’s my funtional equivalent of a cup of coffee.  Anyway, as he was leaving he looked at me and asked, "do you really still drink cold water, now that it’s winter???"  Yup, I do.  At that he just shook his head and went on his way.

You see, once winter sets in, people in China rarely drink cold drinks.  And it’s not just a matter of comfort; rather there seems to be this deep-seated belief that a glass of cold water drunk when it’s cold outside will lead to certain and immediate death.  I’ve been with friends who have gasped with horror as I drank a cold pepsi in January.  Round about mid-October, it starts getting difficult to get a cold coke or pepsi in a restaurant.  Yes, the refrigerator stocked with drinks still sits prominently in the room, but since it’s now winter, it’s unplugged!  Don’t want the patrons to get sick now do we?

When I first came to China in the 1980′s, this aversion to cold drinks wasn’t limited to winter, but was year-round.  Even in the heat of the summer, it was impossible to get a cold drink.  Street vendors sold luke-warm "qi-shui" (gas-water, or soda), but in every other venue the only option was boiled (and usually boiling water).  Everyone carried around a flask of boiling water with them.  In the guesthouse where we lived, a maid dutifully made sure that our two alloted flasks were kept filled with boiling water all day and night.  If we wanted to drink something other than hot water, we had to pour the water out of our thermoses into a pitcher, and let it cool.  As unappealing as room temperature water was, it was better than drinking hot water.  I once offered some cool water to a friend, and her reply was "I dare not." 

But things have changed here, and in the summer, lots of folks now drink cold water and beer and soda (at least in the cities).  Things started to change in the early 1990′s with the advent of bottled water.  I well remember my first life-saving encounter with bottled water.  I was in the desert in Xinjiang the summer of 1992.  The temperature was near 120 degrees. My friend and I had been hiking around some ruins.  We were bemoaning the fact that we’d have to go back to our hotel and drink hot water.  But as we were leaving we noticed a small shop that was selling bottles of water.  That meant the water was not hot.  It wasn’t cold, to be sure, but it wasn’t hot either.  We bought all we could and guzzled them down.  The bottled water industry took off, and by the end of the 1990′s the water coolers had appeared.  No more having to boil, then cool drinking water.  It truly was a great day. 

And with the advent of the home water coolers, of course there was a need for new profession now, the water walla.  We love the water walla.

Acid Fog, Part II

I flew back into Beijing last night after a couple of weeks in Minnesota.  My scheduled NWA flight from Tokyo was cancelled, but fortunately, they (NWA) just re-booked me on a JAL flight scheduled at the same time.  As soon as the plane descended through the acid fog and landed we all knew we were back in Beijing by the smell in the air–the smell of acrid coal dust.  Ugh.  It wasn’t much better today.  Even inside my apartment it was so bad that I kept thinking something was burning (other than my eyes that is).  Enough is enough.  This afternoon I went out and bought an air purifier.  I don’t know if it really does clean the air and make a difference, but it does seem to have dissipated the smell of the bad air, if not actually cleaned it.  There were lots of folks in the Suning Electrical Appliances store this afternoon buying air purifiers.  And it struck me that it was somewhat of a vicious cycle.  The air is bad, so we buy more machines to clean it, and those machines take up lots more electricity, which uses more coal to produce, which causes the bad air.   Sigh.   Oh, and they had a special promotion today—buy an air purifier and get a jar of fabric softener free!!

Purified Air.  Soft Clothes!  Happy New Year!
Cough! Cough!