It’s travelling season again.  I’m getting ready to take the night train to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia.  Up over the mountains and across the grasslands to the edge of the Gobi Desert.  It’s one of the few major cities in China that I have not been to, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve flown over it a few times.  In fact I’ve flown over it twice already in the past week.  Over the weekend I made a quick trip to Kashgar, China’s western-most city, that sits within 100 miles of several of the "stans" (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan).  This time the trip was strictly business, with no time for "Yak Attack" adventure in the mountains like last time.  You can read all about that here.  Photos can be found here.  Anyway, 48 hours at home, and I’m heading back out again.

Sorry About the Fog

Like an evil being, a thick, toxic, acidic, brown fog has enveloped this city since last Sunday.  Each morning I wake up thinking it will have lifted, but each morning I am disappointed.  What’s made it all the more maddening is that each evening I would check the local weather forecast and the forcast for the next day was always "warm and sunny."  We were promised temps in the 60’s for the first time this spring.  In China, part of the purpose of the weather forecast is to tell people how they can dress.  Oh to be sure, since it’s still March EVERYONE (except the foreigners who don’t know any better) is still wearing at least one layer of longjohns. But the forecast can signal that maybe you can shed one of those layers and maybe wear a lighter coat.

By Thursday the string of mistaken forecasts had "triggered harsh words from Beijingers."  The words were harsh enough and spread quickly enough to newspapers and internet chat rooms, that the Beijing Weather Bureau was forced to issue a public apology to Beijingers.

"The Beijing Weather Bureau apologized to the public on Thursday for making incorrect temperature forecasts for three consecutive days and vowed to improve their accuracy for the 2008 Olympics.  The Beijing Meteorological Observatory has been widely criticized for giving erroneous temperature forecasts from Sunday to Tuesday.  The temperature it forecast for Tuesday was a full 6.2 degrees Celsius higher than the actual temperature and 5 degress higher than on Sunday.  The false forecasts have triggered harsh words from Beijingers and some are doubtful if the meteorological departments will be able to produce a reliable forecasting service during the Olympics."

Aha…the O word.  As is often the case nowadays, it comes down to the Olympics.  Foget about this week’s toxic fog.  What about the Olympics???  But wait, there’s more!

"The timing of the apology is nothing short of embarrassment for Beijing meteorological officials.  On Wednesday, chief weatherman Sun Jisong of the Beijing Meteorological Bureau said, ‘Normally, weather services only tell people the possibility of rainfall, rough estimates of wind scale and temperature.  During the Olympics, we will forecast the exact tiem of rainfall and be accurate to within minutes,’ Sun said."

Come again?  They will predict the timing of rain to within minutes?  This I’ve got to see.

But there’s really nothing to worry about because last August one of the Olympics officials assured the world that there was only a 30% chance or rain during the Games next August.

For now, we wait for the fog to lift.  Today I actually found myself wishing for a good old fashioned Beijing sandstorm!


Redactological Society

There’s another crackdown.  This time against language errors in the media and publishing industries. The government agency that oversees press and publications has declared that 2007 will be the Year for Quality Control in Publications.  Apparantly they are alarmed at the increasing number of "grammatical and logical errors" that abound because "people are using popular slang words more often and paying less attention to formal grammar."

But here’s my favorite quote:

"President of China Redactalogical Society Gui Xiaofeng said the problem is becoming serious, almost unbearable.  It’s in a worst period in history. "

Redactological Society? What in the world is a redactological society?  Is there really such a word? After I stopped laughing at the sentence, I surfed on over to an online dictionary.  Redactological is not listed, but redact is, and it means "to put into suitable literary form; to edit."  Or "to prepare for publication or presentation by correcting, revising, or adapting." So it follows that "redactology" would be the study or science of doing all that above.  Which sort of begs the question—shouldn’t they (members of the Redactological Society), of all people know that redactalogical is not a word, and therefore redact the name of their society to be something like Society of Editors? They obviously are in need of a redactor!

Sometimes I think we are in need of a redactological society for American English, and I’d love to serve as the president. As my teammates and colleagues will attest, I can sometimes be a bit of a language purist, …ok snob, and have been known to be sent into a blind rage during meetings when people, by my totally subjective standards misuse and abuse English.  One that is unbearable for me is the use if "issue" as a synonym for problem.  I’ve heard people start to say problem, then catch themselves, get a look of such guilt on their face you would think they’d uttered some dreadful racial slur, then say "issue."  The one that I find particularly annoying is "health issues."  What?  Is there something to discuss here?  Of course what’s being referred to is health problems, but we wouldn’t want "health" to feel bad now would we?  Or "my car has issues."  Shall we call a counselor?  No, the back wheel fell off the car, which is really a problem!  Another thing I find unbearable is the use of "onboard" as a verb, as in "we’ve got to onboard everyone to this new policy."  My colleagues’ use of this invariably leads me to bang my fists on the table and shout ON BOARD IS A PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE, NOT A VERB!!!!  Of course it has no effect, other than to set off a debate between the "language is dynamic and always changing" crowd and the "but there have to be some limits" crowd (well, that’s usually only me actually).

OK, OK, I admit it’s all subjective, and I can be as guilty as the next person.  In my organization I am often called upon to "prepare for publication or presentation by correcting, revising, or adapting" various public documents.  What I’m doing, of course, is redacting (that’s a real word, remember). But for some reason, we call it "wordsmithing," which of course is not a word.  "Wordsmith" is a noun, not a verb.  But for some reason, I don’t find this unbearable! 

That’s why I want to be the President of the Redactological Society.  So I can be the one to decide what is bearable and what is unbearable.  It would make life so much easier. 

The 2nd ‘Queue Day’

Yesterday in China we celebrated our second "Queue Day," which the government has decreed now falls on the 11th of each month.  It’s a bid to get people to line up for busses, subways, trains, and other venues that spontaneously turn into mob scenes.  To help things along, one of the government-run websites posted some photos illustrating the nature of the problem. You can see them here:    ‘Queue Days’ Required Across China — china.org.cn.


No Smoking! Dream On!

In China’s "crackdown-of-the-month" culture, we seem to have hit upon something that cannot be cracked down against:  smoking. A government official  recently proclaimed his fear that too many restrictions on smoking could lead to serious social instability.  The basis of his fear is that a shortage of cigarettes, or too many restrictions on when/where people can smoke them may lead to the sort of riots that broke out when the former Soviet Union collapsed.  He may have a point.  This is a society that smokes.  Big time!  To the tune of nearly 70% of the male population. 

When foreigners, particularly from the US or Canada, arrive here, it’s one of the biggest things they notice and have to adjust to—being around smoke.  In the US now, a non-smoker can pretty much live his/her life without ever being exposed to second-hand smoke.  Not here.  Smoking and eating go hand in hand, so restaurants are filled with blue smoke.

To be fair, it’s tons better than it was 20 or even 10 years ago, when there were absolutely no restrictions on where to smoke.  People smoked on busses, in subways, in airplanes, in tiny closed-up train compartments, in hospitals.  There was absolutely no escape.

Things began to change in the mid-1990’s, with the imposition of smoking bans on airplanes and  in airports.  Gradually it moved to train stations and sleeper compartments on trains.  That was the most exciting one, because there’s nothing worse than being in an 6X8 train sealed up train compartment with one, two, or even three smokers.  At the most, it was a near-death experience, and at the least a cultural clash as the gasping foreigners would try in vain to get the  Chinese to not smoke.  We had all kinds of tricks.  One favorite was to open the windows (this was back when train windows could actually be opened), which was not appreciated by our Chinese fellow travellers because they don’t like to sleep with fast-moving wind hitting their faces (that’s a topic for a whole other blog post!). 

So you can imagine our joy when smoking in the compartments was banned.  Notice I say in the compartments, because smoking was still allowed, but only in the entryways and connections between the cars.  I’ll never forget my first train trip with this new ban in place.  I was travelling from Beijing to Changchun.  This was back when that trip took 15 hours (it’s 11 now), and the train left Beijing early evening.  When I boarded in Beijing I was lucky to be the only person in my soft-sleeper compartment (very rare).  I was very tired from a week of over-indulgence on  burgers and fries and pizza in Beijing, so I climbed onto my upper berth, pulled the quilt over my head (no heat then, either) and went to sleep. 

Three hours later, we stopped in the port city of Qinhuangdao, and took on passengers. I heard the door to my compartment open, so I knew the luxury of this compartment to myself was coming to an end.  I could tell that it was three men.  Not wanting to engage in conversation, I kept myself hidden under the quilt, pretending to be asleep.  They could see that someone was sleeping in the upper bunk, so were quiet, and quickly they all turned in as well.

At 6, the loudspeakers started playing sweet music, which is the signal that it’s time to get up.  I wasn’t interested because I knew we had several more hours before arriving in Changchun. I also didn’t feel like getting up and engaging in small talk.  I’m not a morning person and I’m not a small-talker, so the thought of doing small talk at 6 in the morning in Chinese had no appeal to me whatsoever.  I remained buried under my quilt. 

And when I say buried, I mean buried.  I was sure that it had not occured to these gentleman that the perpetually sleeping figure in the bunk was a foreigner, much less a woman.  I was fine to keep the mystery alive.  They commented on how "that person" was still sleeping, then headed off to the dining car to get some breakfast.  I was thrilled to be alone again!

But it didn’t last.  About an hour later, they came back, and much to their dismay "that person" was still sleeping.  Or so they thought.  Within 5 minutes, they decided to have a smoke.  I heard the tell-tale sign of the match-strike, and caught a whiff of the smoke.  But this time I was ready, with all of the backing of the Chinese regulatory system behind me.  It was time to make an appearance.  I pulled the quilt from over my head, sat up, leaned over my top bunk railing, looked at them and said, in Chinese, "excuse me gentlemen, but it is now against the regulations to smoke in this compartment.  See, it says it right on the ticket.  Please either put your cigarettes out to the car entrance to smoke.  Thank you. "  Then I went right back down under my quilt, only this time with the looks of sheer terror and shock on their faces burned into my mind.  I can assure you that the last thing they expected to see was a foreign woman with bed-head speaking their language.  They looked like they were seeing a ghost. 

When I laid back down under the quilt, the room was dead silent.  They were stunned speechless.  After  a few minutes one of them spoke:  "Ta shuo zhongguo hua shuo de bucuo"  (She speaks Chinese pretty well).  More silence.  Then another one said, "A foreigner who speaks Chinese?  I’m not staying in here,"  whereupon they all got up and left and never came back.  I chuckled the rest of the way into Changchun. 

Ok, back to the official who has warned of social instability if the government imposes more curbs on smoking.  Did I mention that he is the deputy chief of the State Tobacco Monolopy Administration?"  Do you think there might be a conflict of interest here???

Toilet Ushers

With the opening of the Olympics a little over 500 days away, the locals are in a never-ending search to make the city more tourist-friendly.  There are more "schticks" than you can shake a stick at. (Say that fast 5 times.  I dare you!).  Sometimes it’s just hard to keep up.  Fortunately, the "journalists" at the China Daily do it for me. They can always be counted on to cover the latest campaign or initiative.  Yesterday they reported on the new "toilet ushers" that have appeared in the popular Shichahai area, or what we sometimes call ‘the lakes." This is a neighborhood in old Beijing that has been preserved and restored and re-gentrified into a combination of old world Beijing and trendy hip hang-out.  Apparantly there must be a fairly serious problem (too many beers perhaps) of desparate tourists dashing about looking for toilets.  These toilet ushers (did they write that with a straight face??) stand ready to escort anyone in dire straits to the nearest toilet.  Here’s the description:

With signboards saying "Help you find a nearest toilet!" attached to their front and back, two friendly tricycles, run by two sanitary employees, will take their "guests" to the desired destination within 30 seconds for free!  The Shichahai scenic area, which just began this humane service, has been the best place  for visitors to sample Beijing’s Hutong culture, but the complicated  alleyway networks often leave tourists feeling disoriented.  Wang Huan, one of the "toilet ushers" told Beijing News that he had done a lot of field work before being appointed the job, and now he knows all the whereabouts of public toilets in the vicinity. From 8 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock in the evening, the two tricycls will search the area attending to visitors’ urgent requests.

Having mother nature suddenly get your attention is bad enough, but to be disoriented at the same time!  Frankly, they’re not that complicated, since they run north and south!.  I’m intrigued by the term usher.  It sort of implies that they will escort their guests to their seats, which isn’t a particularly pleasant thought.  Then again, I know the neighborhood well, and one would be hard-pressed to find a toilet that actually had a seat to sit on!

Remember, when mother nature calls, call the toilet usher!

Red Underwear

I recently finally made it to the new Wal-mart in Wudaokou.  Just inside the entrance was a wall of red underwear.  All kinds-boxers, briefs, bra’s, undershirts—the whole nine yards and every stitch the same shade of fire-truck red!!!  Ah, I said to myself, the appearance of the red underwear is a sure sign that it’s Chinese New Year.

Here’s the thing.  The Chinese zodiac is divided into 12 years, and each year is named after an animal.  It’s very common here for someone to ask your age, not by asking how old you are but by asking what animal you belong to.  They know what animal year this is, and they know the order they are in, so once you tell them, it’s easy for them to figure out the year in which you were born.  The Year of the Pig began on February 18.  So someone who "is a Pig" is 1, 12, 24, 36, 48, etc.

There is a supersticious belief that if this is "your" year, it is considered a "year of fate," bound to be full of much bad luck….unless you wear red underwear or a red belt or a red wristband to ward off the bad luck.  I don’t know, I guess evil spirits here don’t like red.  They’re a finnicky lot.  They don’t like loud noises, hence the firecrackers to scare them away.  They can’t turn corners, and they don’t like looking at themselves in the mirror. But I digress…

So, if you belong to the Year of the Pig, don’t forget your red underwear!

No Great Wall from Space

It’s official!  The Great Wall cannot be seen from space.  China has sent 3 astronauts into orbit and they all have said it’s not visible, but the scientists are now backing them up.  According to a local news article, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have determined that human eye can only perceive shapes up to 10 meters at a distance of 36 kilometers.  The wall is only 5 or 6 meters at it’s largest. Therefore we must conclude that it can’t be seen with the naked eye from space.  Another great myth bites the dust.

Truth be told, thanks to the smog around here, the Great Wall is often not even visible from the parking lot!