A Dude and his Dog

The tag line of this blog is “Random Observations on Living Well Where You Don’t Belong.”  Yesterday I observed something that is about as random as you can get.

I was in a migrant village outside of Beijing, attending the opening ceremonies of a community center (more to follow on that in a later post).  Out of nowhere, this dude on a motorcycle pulls up to the gate — flags flying, and a dog riding shot gun in the side-car.

There’s really not much else to say…..


What’s not to love about China?


High School Students in the 1980’s

The “Ministry of Tofu” website has posted some great photos of high school students in the 1980’s.  They bring back some pretty powerful memories.  Maybe it’s time for me to get out my 80’s photos….

Here is the explanation of the series, and one of the photos:

A series of photos taken back in the 1980s by Chinese photographer Ren Shulin (任曙林) of junior high and high school students were put on display in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, a thriving artists’ community similar to New York City’s Soho some time ago. NetEase posted these photos on its website.

China in the 1980s was still an economic backwater where resources were scarce and life was very simple. Chinese economy did not show a sign of taking off until early 1990s.

Many netizens who saw the photo series reminisced about their youth and age of innocence while expressing a healthy dose of aversion for today’s society.

Go here to see all the photos. 

Exploding Watermelons

China has had a rough year when it comes to food safety. Whether it’s cadmium in the rice, melamine in the milk, arsenic in soy sauce, or borax in the pork, it seems like we have settled into a cycle of ‘food-safety-scandal-of-the-week.”

This week’s scandal is exploding watermelons.  Apparantly some farmers in the south have been spraying their watermelons with florchlorfenuron, a chemical thought to speed up the ripening process.

It speeds it up all right — to the point of causing the watermelons to explode.  Right there in the fields.  Lots of western media outlets are starting to pick up this story (none can resist), but I like this one in The Guardian:

The flying pips, shattered shells and wet shrapnel still haunt farmer Liu Mingsuo after an effort to chemically boost his fruit crop went spectacularly wrong. Fields of watermelons exploded when he and other agricultural workers in eastern China mistakenly applied forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator….The report said the farmers sprayed the fruit too late in the season and during wet conditions, which caused the melons to explode like “landmines”. After losing three hectares (eight acres), Liu said he was unable to sleep because he could not shake the image of the fruit bursting. “On 7 May, I came out and counted 80 [burst watermelons] but by the afternoon it was 100,” he said. “Two days later I didn’t bother to count any more.” About 20 farmers and 45 hectares around Danyang were affected. The fruit could not be sold and was instead fed to fish and pigs.

(AP photograph)

The next time I see a pile of watermelons for sale on the sidewalk, perhaps I should cross the street and walk on the other side.

Don’t Mess With the Grannies

This morning I had to make a run to the bank to pay a slightly overdue electricity bill. With a plan to arrive when the doors open at 8:30, I left my place around 8:15. It was a glorious morning for a walk.

When I arrived at the ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) on the West Third Ring Road I noticed 5 or 6 people standing sort of in a line outside the door.  Uh-oh.  Sure enough, opening time wasn't until 9:00AM, so I took my place in the line.  It was a good thing I had the timing wrong because within about 15 minutes there were 25 people lined up.

I looked around and realized that not only was I the only foreigner in the line, my presence also significantly lowered the average age of group.  It was a line-up of grannies, save for the one grandpa who had somehow managed to snag the first place in line. We were all standing quietly, minding our own business, awaiting the start of the banking day. 

Our line went straight out from the door, across the sidewalk, and across a driveway.  This way we were all in the shade.

About ten minutes before the bank was to open, a security guard came and told us we needed to line up along the building, on the sidewalk instead of blocking the driveway. Now, given that the sidewalk was bathed in the hot morning sun, these grannies would have none of it, and began berating and scolding the man for telling "us old people to stand in the hot sun!" After a couple of minutes, the poor guy had no choice but to flee, leaving behind a now totally united and unified line of offended grannies who fussed loudly at the impertenence of the guard and the stupidity of having a driveway here. Moments ago we were but 25 strangers, but now we were a force to be reckoned with.

A few minutes later a tiny female security guard came up and tried to accomplish what the man had not been able to do.  She of course was met with the same resistance and fled.

Grannies here are not to be taken lightly. 

Changchun Railway Station

Recently I’ve been going through a bunch of my photos and slides from ‘the old days’ and ran across this photo of the Changchun train station I took when I lived lived there in 1990.  It was built by the Japanese in the 1930’s when Changchun (then called Xinjing) was the capital of their ‘puppet state’ Manchukuo (Manchuria).

It was torn down in the mid-1990’s and replaced by this:

(source: skyscrapercity.com)



China by the Numbers

You may recall that in November of last year, China conducted a census. I wrote about my experience with the friendly (and generous) census-takers here and here.

Last week, China released the official results of the 2010 National Census, and here are some of the more interesting numbers:

1.34 billion — China's total population.

73.9 million — population increase since the 2000 census

666 million — number of people living in urban areas (14% increase from 2000).  This means that China's urban/rural population split is now almost 50/50.

261 million — number of 'migrant workers,' those living in a place other than where their registration is located.

118 — number of baby boys born for every 100 baby girls born.

600,000 — number of foreigners living in  China

121,000 — number of South Koreans living in China (the most)

71,500 — number of Americans living in China (that would be me!)

107, 445 — number of foreigners living in Beijing.

I think the most interesting one is the urban/rural ration.  When I came to China in 1984, it was 20/80 — 20% of China's population lived in the cities, with 80% in the countryside. To go from that to 50/50 within 30 years is mind-boggling.


(HT: The Beijinger)

NBS Communique on 2010 Population Census

People's Daily

The New York Times






What are the Characters on that Sign?

I have another story from the early days of smoking bans on trains, and my solo and perhaps somewhat silly attempts to be a part of educating the masses.

I was in a soft seat car for the 4 hour journey north from Changchun to Harbin. These cars are arranged with groups of 4 seats, 2 facing each other, with a small doilly topped table in between.  As the train left the station, I was very pleased by the fact that I was the only one sitting in my group of 4 seats.
At the first top, a man got on and sat down directly opposite me.  Shortly after getting underway, he lit a cigarrette. I had noticed that there was a NO SMOKING sign above our seating area (picture of a cigarette with an X through it and some characters), so decided to take an indirect approach.  
"Excuse me," I said.  "I'm learning Chinese, and am trying to figure out what that sign says.  Can you help me?
"It says 'no smoking'," he replied, his hands starting to shake because he certainly knew what was coming next.
"In that case, will you please put out your cigarette."  
He did so then slouched down in the seat.  Of all the the seats in all the cars on all the trains in northeast China, he had to get the seat across from the stupid foreigner waging her own personal anti-smoking campaign. 
I thanked him and returned to reading my book. 
A little while later, the train stopped again, and a man took the other empty seat across from me and promptly got out his cigarettes. Smoker #1 watched with a look of amusement and dread as the man lit up, fully aware of the fate that awaited the poor fellow. 
"Excuse me," I said.  "I'm learning Chinese and am trying to figure out the characters on that sign.  Can you help me?"
"It says 'no smoking'," he replied as the man beside him grimaced. 
"In that case, will you please pull out your cigarette?"
He did so, and the two of them sat there in their defeated misery while I moved on to the next chapter of my book.
The train stopped one more time, and one more time a man joined our little group, taking the seat immediately beside me. Smoker #1 and Smoker #2 just looked at him with pity in their eyes.  As he took out his cigarettes, they, using all the body and eye language they could muster, tried desperately to warn him, but it was no use. 
He lit up. 
I struck.
"Excuse me," I said.  "I'm learning Chinese and am trying to figure out the characters on that sign.  Can you help me." 
Smoker #1 and Smoker #2 stared at the floor.
"It says 'no smoking'," he replied.
Smoker # 1 and Smoker#2 buried their heads in their hands.
"In that case,will you please put out your cigarette?" 
He did so, and for the rest of the journey the three defeated smokers sulked in silence, cursing their bad luck of having been stuck sitting next to me while I enjoyed the smoke-free environment.
When I made the return trip to Changchun a few days later I was feeling rather confident in my ability to handle these renegade smokers. After all, the law was on my side. However, this time the men who sat down around me and started smoking were all train conductors and police — the ones who were supposed to be enforcing the ban.  
It was my turn to be defeated and I was the one left sulking and coughing in a blue haze of smoke.

No Smoking

Today is potentially a momentous day in China, the day that an indoor smoking ban is supposed to take effect.  I say 'potentially' because I am skeptical about the means and will to actually enforce the ban, especially as it applies to restaurants.  In the run-up to the Olympics in 2008, a similar ban was decreed.  The smoke cleared during the Games, but as soon as they were done and the atheletes had gone home, the whole thing fell by the wayside.

I think it will be especially difficult to enforce in restaurants because in this culture eating and smoking are so entwined. For hundreds of millions of people, doing one without the other is unimaginable.

But I do have a glimmer of hope, and that is rooted in memory.  I've been in China for 27 years, so can remember the days (well into the late 1990's) when smoking was permitted anywhere and everywhere:  classrooms, hospitals, banks, airports, airplanes, train stations, and even train compartments. As bans were introduced for more and more venues, we always thought they collapse in due time.  It sometimes took awhile, but gradually they became part of life here, and the blue smoke that seemed to hang in the air absolutely everywhere began to dissipate.

It was hard having to deal with smoke everywhere, but the worst was being shut up in a train compartment with 2 or 3 smokers.  Whenever we'd board a train and enter our compartments we would often break into tears when we saw the boxes of cigarettes sitting on the table between the bunks. We would try to ask our bunkmates to go into the hallway to smoke, but this was usually met with blank stares. 

Figuring then, that that was a bit too direct, we resorted to more subtle (but not too subtle) means.  Knowing that our Chinese fellow travellers feared moving air as much as we feared cigarette smoke, as soon as they lit up we'd open the window.  They would put out the cigarrettes, we would close the window, and within a few minutes the routine would be repeated. 

Once the ban on smoking in train compartments was instituted, we figured we had the law on our side, so became a bit more bold.  We were to be part of the education campaign!

Shortly after the ban started, I was travelling on the night train from Beijing back to Changchun. This was back in the days when the trip was 13 hours.  When I boarded in Beijing I was thrilled to find that I was the only passenger in my soft-sleeper compartment.  The other three beds were empty as we pulled out of the Beijing Train Station. I climbed up to my top bunk (upper birth, in train-speak), pulled the cotton quilt over my head and went to sleep.

Several hours later, the train stopped in the port city of Qinhuangdao, and to my disappointment (but not surprise), three passengers joined me in the compartment.  Because it was late at night and I didn’t feel like making small talk, I did not emerge from the cocoon that I had made for myself up on my bunk. As they entered my compartment the three men could tell that someone was in the upper berth (Upper Berth Person), but no part of me was visible.  Sensing that I was asleep (I was actually just pretending), they quietly put their stuff away, got into their bunks and settled in for the remaining ten hours of the journey.

When the sun came up, maybe around 5:30 or 6 the next morning, they all got up. I remained hidden. I heard them make comments about Upper Berth Person still sleeping, but they remained fairly quiet, and after a few minutes left to find some breakfast in the dining car. I think they were a bit troubled by the fact that Upper Berth Person wasn’t going to eat breakfast.

After an hour or so, my compartment-mates returned, and once again commented on the Upper Berth Person. But by now the day had begun, so they figured (rightly) that there was no longer any need to be quiet.  It was time for UBP to get up.  Besides, it was time for a morning smoke. They reached for their box of cigarettes and all of them let up.

Then I struck. As soon as I heard the striking of the match and smelled the smoke, I cast aside my quilt, sat up, leaned over the edge of my berth and said to the three gentlemen, in fairly clear and accurate Chinese:  “Excuse me, but smoking is no longer permitted in train compartments. Will you please either put out your cigarettes or go to the end of the train car to smoke. Thank you.” Then a lay back down and put the quilt back over my head.

I will never forget the looks on their faces as I finally made an appearance, because never in their wildest dreams (nightmares) had they thought UBP might be a foreigner. But a foreigner with yellow hair and bed-head and the ability to speak Chinese? This was almost enough to trigger cardiac arrest.

My speech and subsequent disappearance back under the quilt was met with silence, but after a few minutes, one of the guys finally said “Wow….her Chinese is pretty good.”  His buddy wasn’t quite so sanguine about the situation and said, “well, a foreigner who speaks Chinese?  I’m not staying in here.”

And with that the three of them gathered up their things and disappeared for the remainder of the journey to Changchun.