Were We Communicating?

Recently, as I was coming home from an airport run, the taxi driver and I were chatting.  The initial conversation topic was my Chinese ability.  The poor guy was so flabbergasted by my ability to actually talk to him that he could hardly keep the car on the road.  Once he settled down and we’d run through the obligatory "You’re Chinese is good"–"No, it’s terrible" formalities, he of course wanted to know how long I’d been living in Beijing.  7 years I told him.  From there, the conversation went something like this:

TD:  Is your family here?

Me: No

TD:  Is your family in America then?

Me:  Yes.

TD:  Did you go visit them over the Spring Festival holiday?

Me:  No, I went to Thailand on vacation…..

….whereupon he became very quiet, and it was at that point that I realized that even though we were exchanging seemingly mutually intelligible words back and forth, we weren’t really involved in the same conversation at all.  You see, for him "family" meant one thing, and one thing only–my husband and children.  The fact that I was there and they weren’t was not a troublesome issue to him, since it’s not uncommon in Chinese culture for spouses to live apart for various reasons (usually work or education related), but he was a bit shocked that I hadn’t at least gone home to visit them over the holidays.  What I’m sure never occurred to him was that I’m not married and don’t have any children, and that I was interpreting the word "family" more broadly. 

So there we were, chatting away, using the same language, but not even coming close to communicating. 

Why Are They Standing in Line?

This is something I wrote a year ago and posted on the other site (which will shortly be closed down).  Hope you don’t mind a little recycling.

Recently I went to MacDonalds for supper.  A co-worker is travelling this week, so I called his wife to see if she and their 3-year old son would like to go somewhere for supper.  We decided that the son could make the call on where to go.  Well, for a 3-year old, it’s a no-brainer:  MacDonalds it was.  I asked him why and he looked at me like I had just crawled out from under some big rock, and said, "The Incredibles!"  Fortunately, the rock I live under isn’t that big, so I could at least recall that I’d heard about a new animated movie with that title, and quickly realized that Micky D’s must be giving out "Incredibles" toys these days.  It made me contemplate the immense power that men and women in suits on Madison Avenue have over 3-year olds in Beijing—not just American ones, but the tens of thousands of Chinese 3-years olds as well.

When we arrived at the Golden Arches, we were at first hesitant to go in because we saw that the line was back almost to the door.  First of all, merely seeing a line (as opposed to a scrum) in a MacDonalds in this town is startling enough, but to see one that long…Ugh, we thought.  It must be a big night for hamburgers.  But it wasn’t.  We entered and instantly had one of those "what is wrong with this picture" moments.  There were indeed people standing patiently (!) in one line and it did stretch back to the door.  Beijing rule-bound Americans, our first instinct was to just get in the line, until we noticed that other registers were open, and they were serving customers.  Nothing about this scene was making sense, but we decided to skip the long line and head to the counter, still puzzling about that line.  "What’s up with that line?" 

I started to look around and noticed a sign above the register that said "pre-paid cards only." Ahah!  Now we’re getting somewhere.  Then I noticed a giant poster on the wall advertising a McDonalds pre-paid card.  "Go to X Bank to deposit some money. Then, use the card for discounted meals at McDonalds."  That’s why these people were calmly standing in line!  For discounted hamburgers!  Ah, it’s those powerful Madison Avenue Suits again!

You know, there was a time not so long ago in this country that people had to stand in line for the basics of life:  rice, flour, cooking oil, meat.  They stood in line becasue there was a shortage and things were rationed. And now it has come to this–standing in line so you can use your MacDonalds debit ard and save a few fen (cents).

It was a good reminder once again that even though the Communist Party is still in power, consumerism is what drives things now.

Where Do I Apply for This Job?

It’s just around the corner–another government "campaign" — this one  to ‘civilize’ the residents of Beijing in preparation for the Olympics.  The campaign will be launched next month, and will be coordinated by the Capital Civilization Office.  4.3 million families will receive booklets on manners and ettiquite, and "civilization supervisors" will be deputized to monitor behavior in public, with authority to levy fines on the spot for things like spitting, cursing, pushing in line, and littering. 

Civilization supervisor…..now there’s an interesting job.  Where do I sign up ? Oh, right….the Capital Civilization Office.  I wonder if they take foreigners….


Img_0201_small These are two new signs that have gone up on the road that I bike everyday between my apartment and my office.  The bottom one is, of course a stop sign. The Chinese word is ting.  Stop signs are a relatively new thing in Beijing.  In fact, I can only think of this, and one other one that I’ve seen.  Now why in the world there is a stop sign at this particular intersection, and not the thousands of others that don’t have traffic lights is beyond me.  A friend once suggested to me that stop signs weren’t necessary in China because the drivers here were so good.  I bit my tongue.

But really, it’s the top sign that intrigues me the most.  Whatever is it trying to tell me?  That if I think there’s a chance that my car might spontaeously combust that I shouldn’t go down this road?  Or that I’m not allowed to light fires in my car on this road?  Or perhaps that no car bombs are allowed on this road.   Whatever the cause, exploding cars are clearly prohibited!! 

At any rate, at least I know that the cars passing me won’t blow up! 

Saturday in the Park


This afternoon a friend and I visited one of the ancient Buddhist temples in town.  In front of the temple is a fun park that we stopped at on our way in.  It was a great day to be in a Beijing park—lots of sunshine, and lots of people out enjoying said sunshine.   We took pictures and chatted with the old folks, which caused quite a stir, being that we were speaking Chinese!  Two blondies speaking Zhongguo Hua — Chinese talk!  On the side you will see a photo album with some of my favorites from the afternoon.  We’re definitely going to go back there someday and get the stories of the old men we talked to, who have lived in this city for 80 years!! 

A Very Funny Sign

Cambodia_misc_016_small This sign is hanging inside the stall of a women’s toilet at a restaurant here in Beijing.  It reads, "if you need to poop, please go to the second floor."

Presumably there’s a toilet up there!  Actually, it’s an improvement from the sign that used to be there, which said "no pooping allowed."

No, I’m NOT making this up!

My Sentiments Exactly

I’m back in Beijing now, but my day began early down in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  At 5:00AM I was on a bus to the airport to catch a 7:00AM flight to Bangkok to catch and 11:00AM flight to Beijing. 

Shortly after boarding my first flight this morning a family got on (colleagues of mine, actually) with their three young sons and sat across the aisle from me.  The youngest one (4 years old) sat down and promptly began to cry.  Something about not liking his seat.  After a bit of of negotiation and explanation from mom, he settled down.

I chatted with his mom, and asked why he was so upset.  She told me that as they’d walked through the first class cabin he’d noticed that the seats were bigger and had fun little individual trays and was upset because he wanted to be sitting in one of those seats as well.

Ah kids.  I’m sure every single person who boarded that plane this morning felt exactly the same way as we trudged back into coach.  We wanted to be sitting in those big seats with those fun little individual trays as well.

This youngster was just giving voice to how we all felt. 

French Fries and Swimming Pools

I’m attending a conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  It is being held at a lovely resort in the mountains above the city.  This week the afternoons are relatively free, so I’ve decided to take advantage of the warm weather and catch some rays poolside.  There are lots of families attending this conference, so by mid-afternoon the pool fills up with the little ones.

Yesterday afternoon, about mid-day, I decided that I’d really like to indulge a little, and order some french fries from the restaurant, to be eaten poolside, an event that, it turns out was to rock the world of some children.  I had no sooner signed my room number to the bill, and the waiter wandered off when 2 children were immediately standing by my side, demanding to know how those french fries had suddenly appeared out here…by the swimming pool.  I must admit to a love of playing with kids minds, so I told them that I was just thinking of french fries, and suddenly the man was standing there with a plate for me.  I suggested that the little boy sit on a chair over there and give it a try.  He started to wander over there, but then thought better of it.  A 5 year old girl sat down on the chase lounge, next to the plate of fries…..stared at them for a few seconds, then looked up at me and said, "what time is it?"  "Yes, you can have a french fry, I told her!"

It was so interesting watching these kids ,as they tried desparately to come to terms with the sudden link between "restaurant world" and "swimming pool world."  French fries clearly belong in restaurant world, but here they were, in swimming pool world. 

But in the world that I grew up in, the two are inextricably linked.  As a kid in Pakistan, we would spend every day of our summer vacation poolside, at a local international hotel or club.  Quite frankly, it was too hot to do anything else, and in those days we didn’t have any air conditioning.  Our summer days were always the same — pile into the old Volkswagon Microbus, pick up other moms and kids, and head to the pool.  Mid-day our moms would call us out of the water for lunch, which almost always consisted of shrimp and chips (Britishs for french fries). 

So for me, eating a plate of chips poolside is a stroll down memory lane—it’s what you do beside the pool.  But for these kids I was with yesterday, eating chips is done in the restaurant or dining room.  What they began to discover yesterday was that the two worlds can be linked.

Something tells me their parents aren’t going to be too happy with me!