The Silent Night

When I was going to the airport on Beijing Sunday morning to return to Minnesota, my taxi driver asked me what is a very common question these days:  "what do you usually do on The Silent Night?" The Chinese language he was using is ping an ye, which is the Chinese name of the popular Christmas carol that we know as Silent Night. For some reason it is a favorite song in China at this time of year, and has come to be what the Chinese use to refer to Christmas Eve, which is big in China, and is anything but silent.

When I first started working in China in the mid-1980's my students had hardly even heard of Christmas. All they knew was that it was the big holiday for westerners, similar to the Chinese Spring Festival, where people went home to spend time with their families, exchange gifts, and eat. There was no official or unofficial mention, let alone celebration, of the holiday.  It was another day, plain and simple.

That is definitely no longer the case.  In the past decade Christmas has become a huge event in China, albeit one without any meaning beyond consumption.  In Beijing, it's best not to think about making a foray into the city on The Silent Night. It's the worst traffic of the year, and the restaurants are full of couples out for a romantic evening–St. Valentines meets St. Nick.  China is at essence a consumer society and Christmas being the ultimate consumer event of the year, not just in the West but throughout Asia, they're not about to be left out.

The common sights and sounds of Christmas are familiar–Santa Claus, Christmas trees, bells, lights and Christmas sales.  Christmas carols can even be heard wafting through department stores in December.  For a longtime China resident it is quite arresting to be standing in an escalator hearing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King."

The one thing missing, of course, is any sign of Baby Jesus, which is probably not due to a Communist Party edict banning the religious aspect of Christmas, but rather because the Chinese are borrowing their Christmas celebrations mainly from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

Not surprisingly, beyond the consumer trappings, people don't seem to have a clue what they're celebrating or why.  A few years back I was doing some last minute shopping in a Beijing department store on Christmas Eve.  Standing next to me at a counter were two young men, also making some purchases.  "Joy to the World" was playing in the background as I overheard one man say to the other:  "I don't even know what Christmas is.  All I know is that if I don't buy my wife a present she'll be angry with me."

I thought that pretty much summed up Christmas in China.

Wherever you are this Silent Night, I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas.

Blizzard in the Bird’s Nest

Having successfully dazzled the world as the site of the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics and the sporting events that followed, the Olympic Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest” as it has come to be known, has fallen on hard times.

It was originally thought (hoped, really) that the Bird’s Nest would become a top choice for national and international sporting events.  For whatever reason, that never happened and the management of the stadium (that would now be the Chinese government) find themselves trying to figure out what to do with the thing.

In the first year following the Olympics, the Birds’ Nest (and Water Cube) were able to generate revenue as a tourist attraction, with 50,000 people per day buying tickets to get in to re-live the glory.  But those numbers have dwindled significantly, making it obvious that this business model is not sustainable. Fresh, new ideas are clearly needed.

Enter Old Man Winter and the ingenuity of a bureaucrat and “PRESTO” — the Bird’s Nest becomes a Winter Wonderland.  I’m not making this up.  For the rest of the winter the Bird’s Nest is being turned into a ski area.

The Bird’s Nest as it appeared on a summer night in August 2008

This is what it looks like now (Reuters photo):

In more ways than one, it really has become a white elephant!

Pitching a Tent

After making noticeable progress on a daily basis for the first couple of weeks, my improvement seemed to slow down a bit this week.  I had more pain in my leg, continued fatigue, and was still dependent on the crutches.  By Wednesday I was a bit discouraged and let my physical therapist know how I was feeling.  She assured me that my pain, fatigue, and continued use of crutches were normal, and that it was also normal at this stage that the improvements would not be so noticeable.

I’d hit the proverbial plateau.  This reminded me of the years that I was director of a language school for Americans learning Chinese and the pep talks that I constantly gave to keep them going when they felt like they were stuck and weren’t learning anything new.

I passed along what my language learning mentor had told me; namely that plateaus are inevitable, but the key is not to get stuck on them for too long.  “Pitch a tent,” he would say.  “Don’t build a house.” 

So yes, I may have plateaued in my rehab a bit this week, but I’m just pitching a tent because I don’t intend to be here long!

And if you’re learning Chinese (or any other language for that matter), the advice is still great!

Going Global

I've become a walking (well, hobbling, really) advertisement for globalization….

….an American…

…born in Pakistan…

…living in China…

…and now with 3 Swiss screws in my leg!

Happy Delivery

When I began teaching English in China way back in 1984, people here were still quite isolated from the outside world.  When I and my teammates arrived on our campus in central China to teach English, most of our students had never seen a foreigner, and even though they were middle school English teachers, they had never actually used the language with a native speaker.  We were, as you can imagine, quite a novelty.

Our job at the time was to teach communicative language teaching skills to these English teachers whose own curriculum consisted of dull political texts that they had memorized and their students were to memorize. They could all say "Long Live Chairman Mao" flawlessly. We came in with flashy textbooks from the States that had dialogues and tapes and exercises and lots of interesting (but strange) cultural information for our students.  Nearly everything they encountered in the texts was unfamiliar to them, from the customs of dating to ordering a meal in a restaurant.

I remember vividly (that was a popular Chinglish word back then) their bafflement at the lesson which took place at a hamburger stand.  They had no idea what a hamburger was, and even had a hard time with the concept of a restaurant, since at that time there weren't any of those in Chine either.  So we dutifully brought in our photos of hamburgers and McDonald's restaurants to help them master the lesson. 

My how times have changed, and my experience on Saturday is an illustration.  One of my Chinese colleagues was getting married, so I set out to attend her wedding, which I had been told started at 9:30AM.  After a bit of work, the cab driver and I managed to find the restaurant where it was being held, and I got there right at 930.  Crutches in hand I hobbled up to the second floor (no elevator in the building) only to find out that the wedding was really slated to start at 10—the invitations had said 930 to get people there on time!  Never mind; it didn't get going until 1030, by which time I had already been sitting with my leg propped on a chair for an hour. By the time the clock struck 1130 we were only on item 10 of a 15-item wedding ceremony (we had a program). I could tell that the remaining 5 were going to take awhile, so I decided to slip out early.  I grabbed another colleague to help me hobble back down the stairs to get a cab, and headed home.

By the time I got home I was exhausted and hungry.  What to do?  I suddenly remembered that McDonald's has a delivery service, so I dialed up the "McDonald's Happy Delivery Hot-line" and placed my order for a burger and fries.  About 30 minutes later, a young man dressed like he'd just stepped out "Ghostbusters" showed up at my door with my lunch!  It certainly was a happy delivery for me!  As I ate, I had a chuckle about the distance between the days of explaining hamburger stands to the Happy Delivery Hot-line.

Not only is McDonald's part of the culinary fabric of urban life in China now (I'll leave it to you whether that's good or bad), but I often get children asking me if we have McDonald's in America.

My how times have changed.  

Reality TV

With all the crazy 'Reality TV Wannabe' nuts in the news of late (think Balloon Boy and White House Party Crashers), I thought this would be a good time to direct you to a very funny blog post written by a friend of mine who works in Shanghai.

It's called "Life in China IS RealityTV."  Here's the teaser paragraph:

China is a country of “watchers”: people sitting around and simply
studying other people being…well…people!?! One of the things that
foreigners have to get used to here is what we would call “staring” …
many here would call, simply, “observing the behavior of those around
them.”  I suppose that makes sense … there are so many people there
that free content is always available.  Several decades ago, just being
a foreigner in China attracted attention. Go to the market, let a
couple of Chinese words slip out of your mouth and you gained such a
crowd of interested onlookers that you could put up a tent and charge

Please take the time to clink on this link and read the whole thing.  You won't be disappointed.

If I were to make a reality tv show here, it would center around a very active expat confined to her apartment for rehab.  Watch as she slowly goes round the bend!

Comfort Food

Being in convalescent mode the past two weeks has given me a renewed appreciation for comfort food.  You know what I'm talking about — those foods that somehow have emotional significance, the ones that remind you of your childhood or a pleasant memory, or home. These are the foods that make you feel good, not necessarily in a physical sense, but psychologically.

Here's my list of the top ten comfort foods that are aiding in my recovery from surgery. :

1. toast with peanut butter (the world's best food)

2. Honey Nut Cheerios (thanks to a friend who brought me some boxes awhile back)

3. mashed potatoes (what's not to like about that?)

4. turkey and turkey sandwiches (well, it was Thanksgiving last week)

5. cheese and crackers

6.  soup

7. lots of ice water

8. ice cold Pepsi

9. spaghetti

10. taco hot dish

I'm grateful for friends who have kept up a steady supply of those things. 

My Chinese friends have also done their part to make sure that I have plenty to eat.  To them, it seems like every physical ailment in the world that can be instantly cured by eating, and eating lots.  Shortly after I got back from Hong Kong, 2 friends showed up (at 10AM) with an entire Beijing Duck meal, which included the whole duck, head and all!  Normally I'm a fan of Beijing Duck, but not for a late breakfast and not while I'm sick! 

Another Chinese friend showed up with a loaf of sliced bread in hand and promptly went into my kitchen and turned the whole loaf into french toast.  When she was done, she wanted me to eat all ten pieces right then and there.  I declined.  Mind you, french toast does get close to being a comfort food, but not at 3 in the afternoon! 

Time to hobble into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal.