Archive Page 2

04
Jun
08

101 Things To Do Before I Leave Beijing

Sweet serendipity! Just as I’m planning my return to the US, local expat rag That’s Beijing publishes a list of 101 things to do before leaving Beijing. It’s pretty funny, and what’s cool is that I’ve already done a lot of these things. I’ll do a few more before Monday. And fortunately, I’ve avoided all the things they listed in the 12 regrets about living in Beijing.

04
Jun
08

He Became a Goddness

This sign was near the front of the Taoist temple Allison and I saw at Heaven Lake. I’ve posted the Chinglish I saw on this trip on Flickr as a set, and I should soon get up the other serious photos as well.

03
Jun
08

The Tour Guide From Hell Takes Us to Heaven’s Lake

The trip to Xinjiang (which I’d really prefer to call “East Turkestan,” since that’s the original name the inhabitants gave it) went very well over all, and was quite exciting. I’ve pretty much recovered from the long train ride – we’re talking almost two days there, and two days back, in a very cramped sleeper car surrounded by people with whom communication, at least for me, is very difficult. Not so much for Allison, naturally, but certainly for me. So over the next few days, while I wrap up my stay in China, I’ll periodically post stuff about the Xinjiang trip and the last minute trips I take before leaving.

For now: The trip we took out to Tianshi (“Heaven’s Lake”) was … well, much more of a cultural experience than you’d expect a trip to a national park to be. You see, we didn’t join a tour group designed for foreigners, but rather one for native Chinese. Allison and I were the only foreigners in the group. And apart from the obvious difference in language (Allison more or less had to translate for me, and the tour guide didn’t know any English), it turns out that there are some rather striking differences from how tour groups operate in America or for Americans than how they are run by native Chinese for native Chinese.

The first stop on the way to Heaven’s Lake was what appeared, at first glance, to be a very, very hokey and crappy museum about the different animal life found in this area of Xinjiang. All it was, really, was a big hanger filled with stuffed animals of all varieties, looking sort of like the cover of the Interpol album Our Love To Admire, except very, very much on the cheap.

And then we got Oddball Moment of Absurdity #1. Completing our trip through the museum, we entered into a medium-sized classroom of sorts, where I was expecting a short film about the Lake or the region. No. Not at all. A woman dressed in a white coat, giving the appearance of a doctor or a scientist, proceeded to give us a presentation about … Chinese Traditional Medicine, specifically, Chinese Herbology. It seems that many herbs and medicines very much favored in CTM are grown in this area of Xinjiang. She spoke about the efficacy of various herbs in treating this disorder or that, and explained that her company grows and produces many forms of this medicine available for purchase there at the museum. (Unless otherwise noted, yes, all of the discussions I mention here were entirely in Chinese, where I understood only through Allison’s translations to me.)

We were then led into a big salesroom where, sure enough, we were surrounded by CTM products of all sorts. I snapped photos of what I saw until some guy working there gently asked me to stop.

So what was this all about? Allison explained to me that she had forgotten to warn me that our tour group might do something like this. In China, many tour groups are sponsored, and the tour company makes money from, say, manufacturers of CTM, in exchange for bringing the tour group, as the proverbial captive audience, directly to their doorstep. Most Americans, Allison and I agreed, would be outraged by something like this, and would rebel if told by a tour guide that they were not allowed back onto the bus until a requisite period of time had been spent listening to a presentation or spent in a store. Time-share promotions are one thing – there, people agree to listen to sales pitches in exchange for free or very highly discounted travel to ski or beach resorts. But this was a far different beast, where we thought we were getting a tour of Heaven Lake, and only upon being deposited did we discover we were in for a gigantic sales pitch for CTM. The other Chinese tourists, Allison explained, probably expected something of this nature, since this is common practice here, but it was very surreal for me.

Then, we were back on the road for the lake. Along the way, we saw quite a few yurts, these portable tent-like structures that native Kazakhs use for purposes of managing their sheep herds. Indeed, if we had had more time, Allison and I could’ve arranged to spend the night in a yurt with Kazakhs, who offer their hospitality as a means of making money that the People’s Republic can’t really tax. Their herds are actually technically the property of the State, so offering their services to tourists helps them get by financially. It’s supposed to be a lot of fun, if you like camping, but also if you like learning about different religions (mostly Shamanism and Animism for Xinjiang Kazakhs, with elements of Sunni Islam) and storytelling traditions. (This area of Xinjiang is traditionally Kazakh, unlike most of the province, which is Uyghur.)

And for what it’s worth, don’t get the idea that these people are primitive in any sense. The Xinjiang Museum and other government sources almost universally suggest that the non-Han ethnic groups in Xinjiang, as well as Tibet, are undeveloped, unsophisticated country bumpkins, who need the economic and educational opportunities only their enlightened Han brethren can provide them. In reality, Kazakhs don’t wear these traditional clothes the Museum suggests they do, but pretty much modern blue jeans and shirts. The ones who are involved in animal husbandry and live in yurts in the summer actually live in regular houses in winter months, and even the yurts often have electric generators and satellite dishes. And don’t get me started on Borat – though he’s humorous enough, there’s virtually nothing Borat has in common with real Kazakhs. He doesn’t even look remotely Kazakh. And many Kazakhs don’t speak Mandarin Chinese, not so much because they don’t have the opportunity, but because they, like the Uyghurs, see it as a cultural imposition.

The arrival at the lake was welcome, since for us, it was long-since past lunchtime. But instead of a delicious BBQ lamb or goat dish prepared by Kazakhs, we were led into a faux-luxurious hotel’s banquet hall, where even our tour guide conceded that the meal was going to be a subpar offering of either a noodle-based or rice-based dish. It was filling enough, but it was by far the worst meal I had in Xinjiang.

It turns out that there was some deception regarding how we’d actually get to the lake from the bottom of the mountain. Allison and I were told that we’d be have the option of paying ¥35 (about $5) for a “cable car” (which I would actually call a “chair lift”). Of course, as cool as that would be, we thought we’d just save the money. But it turns out that it’s not optional at all. Everyone pays that rate, we were told, because the vans that the entire group was loaded into was designed for those guests who were too scared to take the chair lift, and since the vans get everyone to the same destination in the end, we also had to pay ¥35, where we had been told before that everything was to be included. So this was annoying, and unfortunately, not the worst or last deception involved in this tour.

We still had some climbing to do, but pretty mild by my tastes, just a 10 or 15 minute hike up a hill until we were confronted by one of the most beautiful views of a mountain lake I’ve seen. I kept remarking to Allison how much the area reminded me of the best of Colorado, of these secluded areas where my dad would take my family four-wheeling or for camping. Fresh air, a highly valuable commodity after putting up with Beijing air for months, abounded, and the water was remarkably clear and unpolluted. Snow-capped mountains surrounded us, as well as a few peaceful temples. In the pictures I’ll get online soon, perhaps by the time you read this, you’ll see a Taoist temple overlooking the lake.

After walking around for a few moments, the tour group came down to a pier, where Allison and I were thrust into Oddball Moment of Absurdity #2. Or, perhaps it should be called Oddball Moment of Outrage, because what happened to us was nothing short of outrageous. The tour group lined up to board a boat that would show us all around the lake, but Allison and I were stopped by the main tour guide woman. She explained to Allison that we weren’t allowed on the boat, because, “foreigners weren’t allowed” on the boat, and that we wouldn’t understand the things being discussed on this portion of the tour. We were told that we should just do our own thing, and that the tour group would meet us at the bus promptly at 4:30pm, and just to return by that time, or we’d be left behind. We were so stunned that we could only watch in disbelief as the other tourists boarded the boat, and we watched them depart from the pier.

Allison and I will, naturally, post warnings about this tour group on websites and with Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide. The thing is, this is a group that has an affiliation with the youth hostel where we stayed, which itself was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. This wasn’t some podunk group we found at random. This anti-foreigner attitude was insulting, especially because Allison actually understands Chinese quite well, thank you, and even if we didn’t, this is first-rate condescension. We later brought the matter up with the agent at the hostel, and he apologized. He explained that the previous agent we purchased our tickets from neglected to explain that the boat trip cost extra, and that we should have been offered, either from the other agent or the tour guide herself, the option of paying to join the boat with everyone else.

So, what to do? Allison and I tried to just enjoy the views. I snapped quite a few photos of the lake and various landmarks there, including what I take to be a Kazakh animist icon of some sort. We at least got to visit the Taoist temple (from the outside), which the group didn’t do. In some ways, spending time off by ourselves wasn’t such a bad thing, and we managed to enjoy ourselves. But even now, several days later, I can report that Allison and I are still outraged by how we were treated. She suspects that the woman was something of a Han chauvinist, since she was also saying a few condescending things about the Kazakh minority, as if they were like animals you’d see in their natural habitat. The anti-foreigner things she said to Allison certainly would fit with what you’d expect a racist to say. It was such that the other assistant tour guide, and the other tourists we were chatting with, sounded shocked when they heard what she said to us, and couldn’t believe that she had done that.

After viewing the temple, we hurried back down the mountain, and made it to the bus promptly at 4:30pm. One other guy was there. We waited nearly an hour in that parking lot before the rest of the group came back, including the tour guide herself. More time that we could’ve spent actually going inside and touring the Taoist temple.

So at this point, I expected a fairly uneventful return to Ürümqi. Ah, but there was one more Oddball Moment of Absurdity. The third such moment came from a stop we made on the way. Instead of just bringing us back to the hostel, we stopped at yet another sponsored stop, this time at a jade factory and jewelry store. They had merchandise there that ranged in price up to, in American dollars, tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. I later heard from a friend of Allison’s, a Fulbright colleague of hers studying in the area, that when he took this very same tour, he just ran off and grabbed a taxi. In retrospect, that’s what we should’ve done, but it hadn’t occurred to us, alas. No pictures of this place, unfortunately, but unless you really like jade jewelry, you’re not missing much.

All in all, I’d say that we had a good time, believe it or not. I was more amused than angry about the crappy animal museum and CTM sales pitch, and the views were gorgeous enough to help us forget, if only temporarily, about how we’d been treated. If you can ever go to this place, do it, but don’t go with a tour group. This group nearly succeeded in ruining an otherwise enjoyable excursion into one of the few remaining natural beauties in China.

Coming soon – the fabulous, if occasionally disturbing, Xinjiang Museum, the Perfume Bandit, and Other Tales of the Chinese Western Frontier.

29
May
08

Time Zoned Out

So far, the trip to Xinjiang has gone well, mostly. The train ride was entirely too long, to be sure. We left at 6:45pm on Saturday, and arrived at 10am on Monday in Urumqi. This was in a fairly cramped sleeper car. I had hoped that spending so long on the train, that we’d have time to get a lot of reading and such done. But we were limited in some respects, such as there being no electrical outlet for the laptop, and thus, with my dead battery, no means of doing any electronic writing or anything while on the train.

The hardest thing to get used to in Urumqi is the time change. Now, this might not seem like a big deal. Given several days to get used to a two hour time change seems like it should be a simple matter. The problem is, there is a split between what’s called “local time” and what’s called “official time.” The entire nation of China is officially on Beijing time, so it makes some sense just to keep our watches on that time. Official time is recognized at banks, museums, trains, and so forth. But the unofficial local time is two hours behind. So restaurants, hostels, pubs, and so forth are all on that time. So whenever one plans anything, one must always be sure whether the people one is planning with are using one time or the other. So sleeping and seeking out meals can be tricky, because in effect, one is always living in two time zones at once. It makes it difficult to understand why the entire nation is kept on a single time zone. Can the advantages of doing things that way really be that great? If everything were kept exclusively on official time, we’d have to deal with very late sunrises and very late sunsets. Pretty much most countries of this size have multiple time zones to deal with this, and I don’t see any evidence that they have major problems as a result. Russia, I believe, has 11 time zones, and somehow they manage.

Thus far, we’ve had some great Uyghur food, a how-the-hell-did-this-get-here authentic Caribbean & Central American restaurant, and just tonight, a great Kazakh restaurant. Yes, this means that I had a dish that involved horse meat. I didn’t exactly have the same revulsion to that that one might have, say, to dog or cat meat. Eating horse didn’t seem wrong in the same way, just … odd. But I can report that it was quite tasty, and that Kazakh people may be onto something about this as a food source. Still, given the choice, I think I’d still have to prefer lamb or beef. The Kazakhs also enjoy a kind of beer made, in part, from fermented mare’s milk. I’m a little wary of trying that here, but I may have to, just to see what it’s like.
There is some bad news to report. Allison started having what began as a mild migraine headache, but what escalated to a massive attack making her feel nauseated by the time we were finished with the meal. We decided to postpone a meeting at the local expat hangout, a bar creatively named “Fubar,” until tomorrow night. We tried it already last night, and had some local wine. The only decent grapes grown in China, that is, grapes suitable for wine, are grown here in Xinjiang, and I can report that the wine was excellent. With any luck, Allison will feel better by the time the ibuprofen kicks in, and certainly by the time we wake up tomorrow.
We’ll be here until 8pm official time on Saturday, so we should be back in Beijing by Monday morning. We’ve already seen the Urumqi city museum and the “Little Mountain,” as well as the local night market.

Tomorrow, we’ll visit the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum, which should have much more impressive stuff, like the Tarim mummies and Silk Road artifacts. Friday, we’ll visit the famous Tianshi Lake, or “Heavenly Lake,” where we’ll hopefully be able to have lunch with Kazakh herds people in their yurts. (If that doesn’t work out, we’ll instead take a day trip to the much-older city of Turfan.) And then, there’s the Da Bazaar, where we should be able to purchase anything from local arts and crafts, food, and tourist-trap merchandise.

25
May
08

Slow Train to the Silk Road

Tomorrow at 6pm, Allison and I will be boarding a train from Beijing to Ürümqi, in an area the Chinese call Xinjiang (literally, “New Frontier”) Uyghur Autonomous Region, but which the native Turkic Uyghurs have called “East Turkestan” for much longer. (Of course, while in China, one would be advised to not use the term “East Turkestan” – it’s liable to get you thrown in jail.)

Although Uyghur language, cultural and politics aren’t Allison’s current project, she’s strongly considering studying just that as she begins work on her PhD. The local culture is one she’s long been interested in, and I confess that I too have been interested in this as well. She was shocked when, one and a half years ago, on our very first date, I had already heard of the Uyghurs and knew something about them already. There will be lots to see – stuff related to the Silk Road, beautiful lakes, marketplaces, and of course, great Uyghur food. I don’t know that this makes too big of a difference, but the city has the unique distinction of being the geographically most inland city in the world, that is, the city farthest from any ocean. We’re excited about this trip.

Of course, the train trip… well, will be an experience. We leave at 6:45pm tomorrow (Sunday). The train arrives in Ürümqi in the morning. On Tuesday. Yes, on Tuesday. That means it’s a 36 hour train ride, perhaps longer. And back. Well, lots of time for disseratation reading, I suppose. Since the battery on my laptop died, I can only hope that this train has places to plug laptops in.

I’ll try to post as soon as I can – not only about this trip, but also about the trip we took to the Forbidden City a few days ago, with tons of photos.

24
May
08

A Husbandly Kind of Fellow

In the last two weeks or so, I’ve been able to actually obtain more work than I’ve had my entire time in Beijing so far. Figures this would happen once I’ve figured out that I cannot stay past June 9th or so. For example, I’ve been doing a gig involving recording English scripts for a multimedia company that wants to put out products teaching English and Chinese … and teaching about traditional Chinese medicine, in particular about breathing exercises, massage techniques, something called “moxibustion,” “cupping,” and acupuncture. (You wouldn’t believe how difficult I found it not to laugh when the script had me saying things about the body’s flow of Chi energy, or how the common cold can be cured by “cupping,” where vacuums are created in cups sealed to the body which suck the cold out.)

One of the other gigs is with an agency that does one-on-one English instruction and tutoring. I’m sort of ticked off at them for the moment, because they scheduled me to meet with two different students separately – at the same time! And now they want me to work with the students to resolve the schedule conflict myself, as if I were responsible for scheduling these two people myself. That situation seems to have worked itself out, but just today, they introduced me to a boy of three years and nine months, and asked if I could start teaching him English this very afternoon, just as I had finished with my other student and I had planned to go and meet Allison for lunch. He likes me, they said, but he’s shy. What do these people think about my schedule that would let them think that I have time to kill, such that I can drop my plans at the tip of a hat and teach such a young child English?

My theory is that with the changes to the visa rules that have meant that I have to leave the country on June 9th, there is a growing labor shortage in the Beijing English-teaching community. This is why work is suddenly growing so plentiful here suddenly. But Allison tells me that there could be deeper cultural issues at play here, where traditionally Chinese employers are not accustomed to thinking as a person’s spare time as their own. If they aren’t working, the thinking goes, they are always available. This is also why, after explicitly telling the above agency again and again that Wednesday is the worst day of the week to assign me work, and that in the evenings especially, I’m not available, they’ve nonetheless signed me up to work with a student Wednesday evening. Perhaps I should have just flat refused, but against my better judgment, I accepted, thinking that I could perhaps work with the student to change our regular meeting times.

Last week, Allison and I had to move heaven and earth just to get to their office from the Chaoyang District. (Again, Wednesday is the worst day of the week they could’ve assigned me work.) Making matters worse, there had been a massive unforecasted rainstorm come in that day, which in Beijing, makes getting a taxi next to impossible. We were soaked after spending over 30 minutes trying to flag one down. Then, traffic between Chaoyang and the office was wretched, such that we were quite late to our appointment. I kept the office appraised of the situation, so they understood what had happened. While I met with my student, Allison got to chatting with the women who worked there, and uncovered one of the strangest observations about myself that I’ve ever heard.

The ladies who work there are very sweet, and a few seem to me to be flirting in a very obvious kind of way with me. Seeing me there with my fiancée, perhaps, will damper that kind of thing. While I was meeting with my student, they took the opportunity to chat things up with Allison, and she discovered something interesting. It seems that they like me because I seem, to them, “husbandly,” or at least, that’s the closest Allison can render the expression in English. That is, they noticed that I was doting on Allison, and respectful toward her, and in general they’ve gotten the impression that I’m attentive and giving toward her. They also seem to think my physical characteristics – slightly chubby cheeks, for example – suggest that I’m much more of the “cute” type than, say, the ruggedly tall, dark, and mysteriously handsome type.

So since then, Allison has taken to refer to me husbandly at every opportunity, and I’m mostly okay with it, though I’m guessing that it’s a mixed blessing. On one hand, it suggests that I’m the safe, nice guy that many women would’ve wanted to end up with in the long term, but it also confirms what I’ve long known, that I’m seriously not even remotely the ladykiller playboy or gigolo type who could just “love ’em and leave ’em.” I’m reminded of those studies they did where they showed that most women like a particular kind of guy for most of the month, but then during those days of the month when they are most fertile, suddenly show a shifted preference for guys with more “masculine” features – heavier brows, hairier features, bulkier muscles, that kind of thing. So I’m not going to be that kind of guy, I suppose.

None of this is to suggest that I’d prefer to be different than the kind of person I am, either physically or psychologically, but I think what comes down to is that there’s something about realizing that you are a certain type of person, and that even if some day I wanted to be something else, I just couldn’t do it. At the risk of sounding like I’ve been reading too much Jean-Paul Sartre lately, there’s a sense of personal freedom lost there with that realization. Sure, I don’t want to be a playboy, but it may be reassuring to people to think that if they wanted to be something else, they could merely by an act of sheer will. To put it in Existentialist lingo, it’s like I’ve been living with authenticity, in full understanding of my transcendental freedom to be anything, but having been hit with the Female Gaze, or the look of the Other, I’ve suddenly had my freedom reduced, leaving me in Bad Faith. Good thing that while I find Existentialism interesting, enough so that I’ve sort of specialized in it and have even taught it, at the end of the day, I’m not an Existentialist, and far from experiencing any angst or anguish,* this whole incident just amused me more than anything else. And perhaps suggested that I should exercise more regularly so that my cheeks don’t look so chubby, or “husbandly.”

* Before any stickler members of the Philosophy Police rush in to get on my case, yes, I know that Sartre says that you experience anguish over contemplating your freedom, and it’s easier to slide into the bad faith of denying your transcendental freedom, so if anything, being labeled should have been comforting, even if deceptively so. To those who want to get on my case for that, I say, give me some slack: this is just a blog entry.

21
May
08

They don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason

Here are some of things being said on the English radio station in Beijing:

“I feel that the government is like a mother, who has too many children to take care of.”
“This is a real step in right direction, for the transparency of the media.”
“Now the world sees how tough the Chinese can be.”
“This makes me so proud to be Chinese.”

I don’t know if this is the way that the Chinese-language media, but I’m assuming it is. (The second quotation was from the British guy on the station, and quite surprising, given that it tacitly acknowledges that the Chinese government hasn’t tolerated much transparency in the media in the past.)

About the post-Earthquake media here: There is a tone, bordering on the distasteful, of self-congratulatory praise at every turn. Every so often, there are people quoting rescue workers and even international diplomats heaping reams of praise on the Chinese government, and even in a few cases, the Communist Party itself. There hasn’t been any shortage of praise heaped on Premier Wen Jiabao, or President Hu Jintao, either, because they apparently visited the devastated area and met with victims and rescue workers. I keep remembering President Bush in similar circumstances, in particular his visits to New Orleans after Katrina or his visits to New York after 9/11. He received some praise and some criticism for his visits, and I think for my part, I disagree with those who said that he wasn’t showing enough sensitivity by waiting so long to come.

To my thinking, politicians should stay away from such areas. Politicians often only want to go to disaster areas to “share their pain” (a term that was actually used in praise of Hu Jintao in local media), and thus make themselves look good. But in reality, a politician visiting a disaster area is a distraction at best, and hampers rescue workers who now have to scramble to make all sorts of preparations in terms of security to make the visit possible. For all I know, Wen and Hu deserve all the praise in the world for their efforts, but this shouldn’t include the actual visits. And it should go without saying that the self-congratulatory “The-Chinese-Government-Is-Doing-Such-A-Good-Job!” stuff really needs to be toned down.

I thank you guys for opening up the media a tad here, letting international journalists there, and especially for at least acknowledging aid from the US, Japan, Russia, the UK, and others, but please, let your audience make its own judgments about the efficacy of rescue workers and the Chinese government. And while you’re at it, you might at least acknowledge the aid and condolences offered by the Taiwanese government and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan Government-in-Exile. I appreciate that they haven’t been demonized lately, since the earthquake kind of pushed them out of the headlines. But at least acknowledging their generosity might be, well, generous of you.