65 Does Not Equal 65

As all of my friends and acquaintances know, I don’t do math.  I was fairly good at math until I got to 7th grade and hit algebra.  Until that time, I was quite happy adding and subtracting and multipying and dividing numbers.  That made sense.  You did math with things that you could count.  But in algebra, we were suddenly adding and subtracting and multiplying and dividing letters!  Come again!  In my mind letters and numbers were in different universes, and now the letters had wandered in where they didn’t belong.  I could never get my brain around that. My potential to become a nobel prize-winner in math died that year, as deep down in the recesses of my brain I realized I’d need to choose which world to live in, the world of numbers or letters.  I chose letters, and have subsequently cultivated a love for languages.  I guess you could say I released my inner linguist! 

But I digress.  I didn’t start this post out to write about math or my childhood, but about the weather in Beijing this time of year.  Or, to be more specific, the weather in my apartment in Beijing this time of year.  This is the time of year — mid-October to mid-November that I dread the most.  The weather cools down, and so do the cement buildings we live and work in.  The problem is, however, that, by government decree, the heat doesn’t come on until November 15. 

OK, so what does this all have to do with math?  Well, it was a glorious Indian Summer day in Beijing yesterday, with temps at around 65.  Outside, it was actually warm!  But, my apartment, in which the temperature was also 65 degrees was freezing.  65 outside and 65 inside are definitely not the same!  It’s really a very interesting phenomenon! And, which is why one of the most common uttered phrases among Chinese friends these days is "wear more clothes." 

Speaking of which, I wrote a short essay by that title ("Wear More Clothes") on this site a year ago. Check it out. 

No Wonder I’m Coughing

The People’s Daily reported today that almost half of all Chinese cities are relatively or heavily polluted.   The reality, of course, is that probably most of the cities would fall into those two categories. With winter looming on the horizon, things are only going to get worse, as power plants fire up to provide central heat for the major buildings of a city, and people in the smaller and older sections start burning untreated coal bricks in their houses.  Soon the smell of coal dust will be a permanent part of the environment, and any snow that falls will quickly turn black.  Sigh.  I sometimes wonder if China will be able to survive its own development. 

A Ningxia Road Trip

In my last post I wrote that I was once again headed out to Ningxia Province, to visit Yinchuan and Guyuan.  Whew.  That was last week already.  I don’t know how we could have packed more in the space of 36 hours than we did.  I, along with a group of visitors from the US, boarded a flight for Yinchuan at 10AM on Wednesday morning.  A mere hour and a half later, we had flown across the desert and were landing.  We flew China Eastern Airlines that morning, and I think were on a brand new aircraft.  I’ve neve been on a domestic Chinese airline flight that was so nice and had so much leg room!  Except for the food, it was actually a pleasant flight.  On flights in China we get what I call “carbohydrate boxes,” little snack boxes with bread and strange cake.  And warm pop.  The weather’s turning cold—no need for ice cubes!!!

Thinking that we might not have had our fill of carbs from the boxes, my friend who lives in Yinchuan met us at the airport with several buckets of fried chicken from KFC.  We talked our way into the little coffee shop in the airport, and sat there and ate.  Where else in the world can a group of 2o people carry their own food into a coffee shop and completely take over the place??

After lunch we headed out of town to a Hui village. As it happened, it was market day in the village, so we got to wander around and enjoy the local color.  After spending an hour or so at the village we went to a nearby middle school.  I think we all now know what it feels like to be rock stars.  As our two small busses pulled into the school courtyard, all the kids in the two buildings came rushing to the windows and leaned out and started cheering.  Within minutes they were down in the parking lot, surrounding us, and grabbing us to drag them off to their classrooms!!  Ok, now what?  Well, I was with three others, and we decided the best thing to do was sing!!  So, we sang, at the top of our lungs, “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”  The kids loved it.  Once we were all “sunged” out, we went back down to the courtyard to have our picture taken with the administration, faculty and all the students!!

Shortly thereafter, we fled to a restaurant and feasted on local delicacies (lots of mutton).   After dinner, our group split up, with half going back to Yinchuan, and half of us going on down to Guyuan, about 4.5 hours south.  Unfortunately it was getting dark as we pulled out, so our entire trip was in the dark.  And even more unfortunately, the first 2 hours of the drive were on a 2-lane highway, and not the newly-built expressway.  Some of the folks in our party had never been to Asia before, so were a little spooked by local driving habits—many cars don’t use their lights (saves power on the battery, so they believe); passing on curves; passing on hills; passing cars passing other cars who are passing trucks;  and above all, lots of honking!  The way I see it, honking absolves drivers of all responsibility in the case of a mishap!  And of course, no seatbelts!!  Well, we finally made it to the expressway about 8, and arrived in Guyuan at 10.

Thursday morning I attended some official meetings while the visitors hung out with my friends and their students.  After that, we went for a walk to the village where I’d encountered The Guyuan Gang back in April.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I’d printed some photos and wanted to find the kids.  Well, the kids were in school that morning, but we met an older woman on the road in the village.  When I showed her the photos of the children and asked if she knew them, her face lit up and she said, “these are all my grandchildren!”  I’d found their grandmother! I was so excited I wanted to give her a big hug.  I resisted the urge. I gave the photos to her, and asked her to give them to the children when they got home from school.

From there we rushed back to the hotel, snarfed down a lunch and hit the road again.  We had to high-tail it back up to Yinchuan to catch a 6pm flight back to Beijing!

The photo here is of a couple of young boys in the Hui Market.

Bound for Guyuan

I’m off again tomorrow, this time to the city of Yinchuan, capital of  Ningxia Autonomous Region, and then on to the smaller city of Guyuan.  As some of you may remember, I visited this city in April, and had a fun encounter with some children in a village outside the city.  I wrote about in a post titled The Guyuan Gang.  I’ll only be in Guyuan for a short time again, but I hope to get out to the village again.  I’ve printed off a few of the photos, and am hoping to see the children again so I can give the photos to them. 


This week I’m in Kunming, Yunnan Province, in the southwestern corner of China.  Since it’s on the edge of the tripics, Kunming is typically known as the city of eternal spring.  Well, it’s been anything but that since I arrived.  Cool, damp, and rainy most of the time, which, of course, the locals swears is not normal for this time of year.  Like every other city in China, this one is is fast-forward development, and, quite frankly, doing a nice job of it!  It’s also becoming a gateway city to SE Asia.  The flight that I came down on was going on to Dakha, Bangla-desh.  The province of Yunnan is home to many different minority nationality groups, so there’s no shortage of interesting sites and smells, and culinary delights.  Yesterday I went to the top of West Mountain, and had a great overview of the city.

Too bad I have to head home to dusty Beijing tomorrow.

Holiday Bike Ride

This being the mid-way point in the holiday week here in China, some friends and I decided to bike downtown to Tiananmen Square tonight.  It’s the place to be during this time of year.  Seemingly out of no-where there are flower sculptures and displays.  One is of the Potala Palace in Lhasa to commemorate the opening of the new train line.  Another depicts the Three Gorges Dam, which went on line this year.  And of course there were The Five Friendlies, the 5 cartoon characters that are the Olympic mascots.  On our way home we rode around the Forbidden City, which was all lit up as well (see photo below).

The Square is about 10 miles from our neck of the woods, and it was an especially delightful ride since there’s lots less traffic this holiday week.   But biking in Beijing is still quite the adventure, and provides probably the same adrenalin rush as skydiving (and maybe the same amount of insurance risk as well) or bungee-jumping, especially when you find yourself sandwiched between two big buses.

Things get especially dicey on those stretches of pavement where the bus-stops and the bike lanes converge,and the buses come barreling through, with the loudspeakers blaring, THE BUS IS COMING, PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SAFETY, which really means, I’M COMING IN AT MACH SPEED AND IF YOU DON’T GET OUT OF THE WAY YOU’RE GOING TO END UP FLATTER THAN A PEKING DUCK PANCAKE AND I WON’T BE HELD RESPONSIBLE BECAUSE I WARNED YOU WITH THIS ANNOYING LOUDSPEAKER ANNOUNCEMENT!!!

It’s not a warning one takes lightly!

I love this city!  Where else in the world can you go for an evening bike ride, and stumble across a scene like this???




Reprise: The Great Mooncake Exchange

Mid-Autumn Festival is just around the corner here in China, on October 6, which once again means the commencement of what I call The Great Mooncake Exchange.  I wrote an a essay about this last year, and decided to re-post it here this week.  Enjoy!

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In
colloquial terms, it’s called the Moon Festival, because it’s
celebration coincides with the full moon.  Much like Thanksgiving in
American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather
with their family members.  If that isn’t possible, then people gather
with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and
think of their distant family membes who are also gazing at the same
moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems
about the moon, so there’s always a poem to be recited at a gathering.

Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of mooncakes.  It’s
hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped
fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling.
Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  Not being
a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks. 

Making and eating and giving mooncakes has always been part of the
celebration here, but as China’s level of prosperity has increased in
the past number of years, like many other things here, mooncakes have
sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceeding Moon Festival, all
the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully
gift-wrapped mooncakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8
mooncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The
more expensive the mooncakes you give, the more face both the giver and
receiver get. 

Mooncakes must be sent to people with whom you do business. Clients
send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Mooncakes are exchanged among
colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers.
Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It’s one giant
mooncake exchange.

And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we
join in.  Last night my professor and his family came to my house for
dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of mooncakes.
I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it’s not polite
to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).  When it was time for
them to leave, I gave them a box of mooncakes.  We all  laughed at the
fact that we were just exchanging boxes of mooncakes.  I always enjoy
my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own
society.  He joked that at the end of the day, mooncakes don’t really
get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where
they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than
welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give
away the box they gave me (which I plan to do).

Like many other things in a society like this that places a high
value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the
mooncake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving
the mooncake is performed. 

Mooncakes, anyone?