It’s Next Thursday

Here in China we’re gearing up for the big May Holiday (May 1 is International Workers Day), which officially begins on Monday.  In 1999, the government decreed that henceforth this holiday would include 7 days off, not the 3 that it had been for ages.  All government offices, schools, factories, and most businesses (not retail) will close their doors for 7 days.  The main reason for this extended holiday (or "golden week" as its called) is not to celebrate the hard work and dedication of the workers. Rather, the government instituted the week-long holiday in an attempt to get people to spend money.  "Hey, I know, let’s give them 7 days to shop and travel and spend money—get all those billions of yuan out from under the mattresses and into the economy."  The great international communist holiday has morphed into one grand frenzy of unabashed consumerism.  LONG LIVE THE WORKERS.  WHAT’S ON SALE AT IKEA?

But this being China, nothing is as it seems, and everything is more complex than it appears at first glance.  Ok, so beginning Monday, we have 7 days off.  BUT….today and tomorrow (Saturday and Sunday) are work days.  Come again?  That’s right.  Everybody here put in a full work week Monday to Friday, and have now had to work this weekend as well.  The way it plays out is that this Saturday and Sunday are really next Thursday and Friday.  Are you in school? Whatever classes are scheduled for next Thursday and Friday are being held today and tomorrow.  Today is next Thursday and tomorrow is next Friday!

It’s true that beginning on Monday, everyone will have 7 days away from work.  But, they’ve just come off of 7 days straight at work.  In other words, in a 14 day period, everyone will have worked for a total of 7 days.  In a normal 14 day period, everyone would have worked for 10 days.  Which means that they’re only really getting three days off. 

Hey wait.  Wasn’t that what it was to start with?  Me thinks that a billion people are being hoodwinked here!

A Bad China Day

Sometimes we all have "bad China days," — days when the will and capacity to manage the cross-cultural differences wane, and things here sort of "get to you."  Suddenly the spitting makes you mad, or the traffic, or the lack of lines.   Things that you’ve long come to accept (if not always appreciate) just get under your skin, and the urge to stay home or just up and leave becomes overwhelming.  It’s a natural part of cross-cultural living.  The trick is in minimizing the days and managing them when they come.

Normally, we foreigners have bad China days, but I just got back from a trek across town and spent the last 45 minutes with a local cabbie who was having a bad China day.  Once he realized that I could speak/understand Chinese, he just started to vent.  He told me about a 19 year old relative of his who’s just had a major health problem.  He went on and on about how much it had cost for surgery and treatment, and how the medical system has become so corrupt.   He’s right about that, as in the switch to a market economy here, the previously free and universal care system has completely collapsed.

He told me that he hated the new China with it’s gap between rich and poor people, and how the poor were getting poorer and being cut out of everything.  He longed for the days under Mao, when everyone was equal and everyone had work and food (he obviously doesn’t know about some of the famines in the 1960’s) and rich people didn’t look down on poor people.  I just listened. 

At one point we drove past an old 1970’s-built apartment block, and he started fussing about that—said it was disgusting, and that living in towers like that wasn’t any way for humans to live.  I just listened. He was clearly (and, perhaps justifiably) having a Bad China Day. 

Me?  Actually, I had a good China day.  Thankfully, most are.

Forests and Grasslands

We’ve officially had ten (yes TEN!) sandstorms this spring here in Beijing.  Naturally, with the Olympics coming up–just over two years from now—there is a bit of rising anxiety over what might happen should a sandstorm hit the city during the games.  This has been a topic of concern and conversation in the media here the past few weeks.

But not to worry.  The forests and grasslands are being mobilized.  Today the head of China’s Desertification Prevention and Treatment Department of the State Forestry Administration issued a statement to try to put everyone’s mind at ease.  He released statistics on the results of aforestation projects in the provinces surrounding Beijing, saying that the amount of land covered by forest and grass has increased by 30%. 

Obviously, however, he thinks it’s a matter of will and dedication, not on the part of the people, but on the part of the grass and forests, because he made this statement: "It’s high time for the forests and grasslands to play their roles in the 2008 Olympic Games." Come on, grass and trees.  Get with it.  You’re part of the motherland as well and if you don’t stop the sand, we’ll all lose face!

Politicians say the darndest things.  You can read the entire article here.

Boom! Then Rain

Last week the AP reported on the government’s plans to seed the clouds in Beijing to clear the air of dust:

Beijing was preparing on  Tuesday to use artifical rain-making to clear the air after a choking dust storm coated China’s capital in yellow grit, prompting a health warning to keep children indoors, state media said. The government was preparing to chemically seed the clouds in an effort to produce rain to clear away the air-borne dust, state TV said, citing the China Meterological Bureau. It didn’t give any other details, and the bureau refused to release information.

This really goes on here.  Late at night we hear loud BOOMS!, like a clap of thunder, but just one.  Then, in the morning we’ll notice evidence on the cars and ground that at least some precipitation came from the skies during the night–muddy splotches on the cars.

In September 1999, during the run-up to the huge celebrations marking the 50th ananiversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the president decreed that it must not rain on the parade scheduled to take place on Tiananmen Square on October 1. The night before, it was overcast, and rain was predicted for parade day.  Early in the morning, before dawn, we heard loud BOOMS!, and sure enough, it rained, and got it out of its system before the parade started.

I can imagine a squadron of PLA soldiers who have been given the task if making rain for Beijing. They roam around the city in their jeeps, pulling thier artillery cannons behind them, gazing skyward in search of clouds.  When they see one, the rush to within shooting distance, point their cannons at the clouds, and BOOM!  A little while later, rain comes out of the cloud.  Mission accomplished, they scurry off in search of the next cloud.

I don’t like to think about what kind of chemicals they are using to produce the rain, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter.  Even when it rains naturally, it’s acid rain, given the amount of pollution always in the air.

So, if you find yourself in Beijing sometime, and hear the mysterious BOOMS! at night, don’t be surprised to wake up and see that it rained!

The Guyuan Gang

This week I had the wondeful opportunity to travel to Ningxia Autonomous Region in western  China.  Ningxia is a Chinese province that gets "autonomous region" status because of it’s large population of the Muslim Hui minority.  It’s a small, desolate region that sits on the edge of several deserts, including the famous Gobi.  The Yellow River runs north through the middle of it, providing arable land for the population.  Most habitation is in the river valley.  I spent Thursday in the capital city of Yinchuan.  It was a fairly typical "small" city in China’s interior—fewer crowds, lots of heavy industry (thus air pollution), and because of its location in the desert, lots of dust.

On Friday I hired a car/driver to take me and a colleague to a town called Guyuan, 240 km south of Yinchuan.  We took the newly built (and still near-deserted) expressway.  Guyuan is a very small city in China–only 70,000 people.  Stepping into Guyuan is like stepping back into China of the 1980’s.  In a country that is developing at break-neck speed, Guyuan is easily 20 years behind (except for the area of cell phone technology of course).  It’s a remote, under-developed city where everyone has to work hard to eek out a livlihood from the harsh environment. 

Ningxia2006_066copy_smallOn Friday afternoon, my collagues and I took a stroll in a village on the edge of town.  Our destination was a gully that had remnants of cave homes.  We walked through the village on the ridge, much to the delight of the children.  I stopped to take their picture, and that was too much fun for words.  As we headed down into the gully, the followed us, shouting the whole time for me to take more pictures.  I’d stop and shoot a few, then we’d keep walking, our little shadows never far behind.  I called them the Guyuan Gang. 

After shooting a few pictures, I decided to chat with them a bit.  Our conversation went like this(with children answering in unison at the top of their lungs):

Me:  Do you know that I’m a foreigner?

Kids:  YES!

Me:  How can you tell?


Me:  What’s different about me?

Kids:  giggle giggle giggle….

Me:  Is it my hair that’s a funny color?

Kids:  giggle giggle giggle…

Me:  Is my nose bigger?

Kids: giggle giggle giggle….

Me:  What makes me different from Chinese?


Me:  I talk different?  But I’m speaking Chinese!  Can you understand me when I speak to you?


I asked them if they could tell how old I was, but I might as well have asked them to explain to me the theory and practice of the American Electoral College.   That was just too hard!

Instead, I asked them if they liked to sing.  YES, WE LIKE TO SING!  I asked them to sing me a song, and after going into conference about what song, they came up singing about a little dove. They were such cute kids and followed us all the way out of the gully and village when we left.

Go here to see photos of Guyuan and the Guyuan Gang.

Sand, Round Two

Shortly before I hopped my bike to ride home from work this evening, another sandstorm blew into town.  This one I saw coming, as the sky to the northwest turned a very strange orange-brownish color right before dusk.  Then the wind hit, and the dust fell!  On me, as I was riding home.   As for yesterday’s storm, it seems I vastly underestimated the amount that fell on the city….if this report in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong newspaper) is accurate:

A massive sandstorm has struck northern China, dumping more than 300,000 tonnes of sand dust in Beijing alone, creating the worst air pollution since 2003….The Central Meteorological Office said the severe sandstorm struck more than 304,000 sq km of northern China, sweeping across Beijing, Tianjin , Shanxi  , Hebei and Shandong . The western provinces of Xinjiang , Ningxia and Shaanxi were also affected, although the impact was not as serious as in Beijing, China News Service reported, citing data from the State Forestry Administration, which plays a key role in monitoring and preventing sandstorms. The administration estimated the sandstorm affected nearly 200 million people in more than 562 cities and counties across a total area of 1.61 million sq km. The sandstorm originated from the centre of Inner Mongolia , according to Zhang Mingying , an official from the Beijing municipal meteorological office.

Three Hundred Thousand Tonnes!!!!!!   No wonder I can’t breathe today!

Mr. Sandman

Sometime during the night last night, while this city of 14 million people slept, it "sanded." Now, I know that "sanded" isn’t really a word, but after what happened here last night, it really should be.  When snow comes out of the sky, we say "it snowed." Well, last night, sand came out of the sky—fine, powdery, golden-brown sand, the kind that looks something akin to powdered nutmeg sprinkled on top of eggnog at Christmas. I wonder what I would have seen if I’d gotten up in the night and looked out the window.  Sand floating down like snowflakes? I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  It was like the Gobi Desert decided to suddenly move east.

After a sandstorm here a few years back the papers reported that it had dumped 18,000 tons of sand on Beijing.  Last night’s was definitely worse, so I figure we’re talking at least 20,000 tons of new sand (not a few grams of which ended up in my lungs as I rode my bike to work).  It covered everything, just like a dusting of snow, except of course, this sand isn’t going to melt and go away.  It’s here, permanently added to the sand that is already in abundance in this city. Oh sure, sooner or later a wind will kick up and blow the stuff around.  Some might find its way further east to Tianjin, or even Korea, but most will blow around and fall right back down.  The word "futility" kept screaming in my brain all day long as I watched people wipe the sand off their cars, bikes, pets, and hair, and dutifully sweep the sidewalks and driveways.  What is that going to do? Just move it out of the way.  Face reality, folks!  That sand isn’t going anywhere, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Below are some photos, one "borrowed" from the People’s Daily (link here), and two that I shot.

Sand1_small From The People’s Daily.  Kind of spooky, really.


A neighbor’s car.

Dust_005_small Piling up.

Eight Glories, Eight Disgraces

Copy_of8_glories_and_shames_005_small_1 It’s springtime in Beijing, which means a number of things:   gorgeous cherry blossoms, nasty sandstorms, frigid weather indoors, and yes, a new cultural (political?) campaign.  I wrote about this one awhile back, in a post titled Do’s and Don’ts.  The Party has put out a list of 8 glories and 8 shames that are meant to be a definition of the New Socialist Values of china.   They’re encapsulated in 8 catchy 10-character slogans, that really don’t translate into English all that well.  After these were promulgated, the propaganda department got into full swing, and within a week, these were plastered all over town on—billboards, posters in schools, bus-stops, parks, banks, ….well, you get the picture.  The photo attached here is of the poster that’s in the lobby of my apartment building.  Even though this is a private development, they can now report in that they are duly in line with Party policy. 

Chinese political campaigns soon take on a life of their own, as the apparatchiks and cadres try to out-do one another in demonstrating their love of whatever is being pushed.  In this case, one would think that discovery of these new socialist values is akin to the discovery of electricity, or Einstien coming up with the theory of relativity. 

A local website has an interesting article about how music is being used to spread the word:

Even better are a couple of children’s chants that local schools are apparently using to enlighten their pupils on what it means to be a good citizen. There’s a clapping song that goes something like this:

I clap one, you clap one, eight honors eight shames must be learned.
I clap two, you clap two, to help our country there’s lots to do.
I clap three, you clap three, expose the waste for all to see.

And so forth. Anyone is welcome to translate the rest. The other widespread kids’ song recasts the eight pairs into kid’s song that’s more readily singable than Hu’s original formulation. But that’s not all – the New Socialist Values campaign is itself tied tied to songs. Neighborhood committees are writing and singing their own compositions, schoolchildren are composing rhymes, and the city of Beijing recently issued 550,000 free copies of a new book of kids’ songs to the city’s schools. Apart from the Eight Honors material, the books also have musical settings of the "Ten Civilized Actions for Middle and Primary Schoolchildren."     (go here to read the whole thing–it’s really quite amusing)

Last week I asked a cab driver what he thought about the campaign.  "Harumph!" he replied.  "Do they think we’re idiots???"