Don’t Touch the Red Button

During the two weeks I was in China, I took four different high-speed train rides (the absolute best way to travel). As with all other public spaces in China, there are lists of behavior rules posted all over the train, and a steady stream of announcements over the loudspeaker about prohibited “uncivilized” behavior.

Most of the announcements on the trains were the usual stuff: don’t talk loudly on your phones, don’t litter, don’t interfere with the train attendants, and don’t run and romp around.

But the one that I was most interested in was the admonition, DON’T TOUCH THE RED BUTTON!

Of course, it would never occur to me to touch a red button; in fact, I hadn’t even noticed any red buttons…..until they loudly declared the prohibition on touching red buttons!

Of course, I had to go hunting for the mysterious red button!

Rejuvenation Express

When China began building its amazing high speed rail system in the early 2000s, Hu Jintao was the leader of China. As with all leaders, he had a slogan or catchphrase that was used (ad nauseum) to symbolize his rule. With Hu Jintao, the slogan was “build a harmonious society.” For his 8 years in power, the word harmony and harmonious were ubiquitous; so much so, in fact, that to this day I still find myself wincing whenever I hear the words.

Even the high-speed rail system got in the act, and the trains were labeled “Hexie Hao”. There’s no good way to translate that term, as it applies to a train, but let’s just call it the Harmony Express.

“Welcome aboard the Harmony Express. The next station is Shanghai.”

In 2011 Hu Jintao stepped down and was replaced at the top of China’s political system by Xi Jinping. His slogan is “national rejuvenation.”

And just like that the train  that I was on this earlier this week, which sped along at 200 mph, was now called the Rejuvenation Express.

“Welcome aboard the Rejuvenation Express. The next station is Beijing!”

New leader; new railway slogan!

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A Vile Vial

My travel itinerary on this China trip took me to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province. Besides being the center of China’s coal production, Shanxi is famous for vinegar. In fact, when you step off a train or plane, the smell of vinegar is in the air.

Upon arrival, our hosts took us to a traditional Shanxi restaurant. Beside each table setting was a vial of vinegar that looked frighteningly similar to a vial of medicine. Before eating the meal, we had to sip the vinegar through a tiny straw. Apparently it will cure pretty much anything that ails you.

Be that as it may, I found it rather vile!

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Cover the Cars!

While visiting friends in an old neighborhood of Beijing last week, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before –quite a few of the cars parked along the streets and alleyways were covered.

When I got to my friend’s house I asked her about it. The conversation proceeded like this:

Me: Why do some of the cars have covers on them?

She: (laughing) Oh, this is a new phenomenon in Beijing. The drivers don’t have permits to park their cars in the neighborhood. The covers are to prevent the traffic control police from seeing that they don’t have permits. This neighborhood is very strict when it comes to parking.

Me: Well, can’t the traffic police just pull up the cover and look at the windshield?

She: Oh, that’s too much work for them. They just go by because they only have to report (and ticket) the cars that they inspect and see don’t have permits. Since they can’t see whether the cars have tickets or not, they just move on. Once one car did it, the others started; they didn’t want the traffic police to pass up the car parked in front and ticket their car, so they covered it to.

And presto! – a new industry is born – producing car covers!

Another classic example of the old Chinese adage: the top takes measures and the bottom takes counter-measures.

Or, to put it into plain English — the leaders make the rules and the people find a way around them.

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Ethnic Minority Park

I’m back in the Middle Kingdom for a couple of weeks, traveling with some friends. Last week, we stopped into the China Ethnic Culture Park, located close to the famous Bird’s Nest. Although I lived in the city for 15 years, it was actually my first visit.

However, even though I had never been there, the park is one that looms large in the annals of bad translation folk lore in the minds of Beijing expats who were around in the 2000s. In the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the city launched a campaign to “clean up” the bad English signage. This was a good thing since the sign on the nearby freeway exit ramp pointing drivers to the park said RACIST PARK NEXT EXIT. It was a very very bad translation of the word minzu (民族) which is best (or at least better) translated as ethnic group.

On a Monday morning, my friend and I pretty much had the park to ourselves. In the hour we were there we saw 3 gardeners, 1 peddler, 2 leaf sweepers, 1 other tourist, and a slightly bored-looking group of high school students.

Here a a few photos:

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