An American Cat in Beijing

The other morning at work we had a long meeting discussing things I’d rather not write (let alone think) about, and towards the end of it, approaching 11am, someone said, “Let’s get lunch from McDonald’s.” Everyone in the room except me (nearly all of them Americans) thought that was a great idea. A bit later, BG came around with a notepad taking orders, and I passed. “I’ll get some noodles or something,” I said. I ended up walking a couple blocks with a Chinese coworker to get some baozi (steamed buns stuffed with various fillings). When other Chinese staff members found out where we were going, they all put in requests, and we ended up getting twenty or so. The only problem with that is that from the outside, all baozi look pretty much the same, so I’m not sure everyone ended up with what they wanted. I certainly didn’t, but it was no big deal – they were all good. I suppose that from a nutritional standpoint, a steamed wad of bread stuffed with meat, vegetables and sauce is not that different from a burger, especially considering that the meat in baozi tends to be on the fatty side. But if I wanted to eat at McDonald’s (which I generally don’t), I didn’t need to come to Beijing to do it. I came to China to experience new things, and Maidanlao (as they call it here) is not new to me. I must admit there are sometimes days when a burger (or pizza) really seems like the thing to hit the spot, so as an alternative there’s a place called The Vineyard that makes a pretty incredible one, and has really good fries too. The only time I go to Maidanlao is if I like the Happy Meal toys, like the Hello Kitty ones I got a couple weeks ago.
This is a little flower shop I frequently pass on my way to the grocery store.
And this is a rather old-looking cat that seems to live in Nanguan Park. I’ve seen one or two others running around in there.

A few random pictures from around Beijing:
Plant vendors on three-wheelers are pretty common, as are sidewalk real estate agents.
Beijingers love their xigua. Watermelons are everywhere, in shops, on bicycles, and on trucks.

Last night I got home from work around 8pm, and when I walked onto the Seasons Park grounds, I could tell something was different. There was a performance of some kind taking place at the little amphitheater in the courtyard. You might remember seeing it (empty) in some of my previous pictures.

Whatever the show was, it was sponsored by Tsingtao Beer, and involved dancing and audience participation. The dancers brought people on the stage and taught them some traditional dance moves.
I needed to get to the grocery store before it closed, so I couldn’t hang around and watch. At one point the lights were flashing different colors and U2 played on the sound system. I had been wondering if the amphitheater was ever used for anything other than kids to kick soccer balls against.

And here’s my parting shot:
This is the sign outside a building I pass on my way to work. I had walked past it for weeks before I noticed what it said.


Sunday in the park with JD

Aside from all the mang jile around here, I have had a few experiences worth noting (worth it to me at least – you decide for yourself as always). First off, quite unintentionally, I have now seen the new Transformers movie twice. On Sunday the week before last, I got an email from RR saying he was walking to a nearby theater to see it, and I was welcome to come along. I said, “What the heck,” and went along. For a movie about giant robots, the raison d’etre of which is principally as an excuse for blowing things up, I thought it was surprisingly good. Sure some of the dialog was corny, but I didn’t think all the characters were pure stereotypes, and there was plenty of humor to remind you it’s not supposed to be serious. Plus the robots were pretty cool and lots of things blew up real good. Then it turned out that Friday was a coworker’s birthday, so after she shared her cake with me, I asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday, and she said, “Let’s go to a movie!” And after I managed to figure out what she was saying, I agreed.

We left work and took the subway to a part of town way up northwest, where I’ve never been. It’s a college district full of foreign students, and all the buildings have signs in Chinese, English and Korean. The theater there didn’t have any showings at convenient times, so we got in a taxi and went to another theater. We looked at the listings and I said, “Whatever you want to see.” She picked Transformers.
Some observations about going out to movies in Beijing:

1. They are comparatively expensive, roughly the same price per ticket as in an American city. Considering that you could buy seven or eight DVDs for the same price here, it’s surprising anyone goes at all.
2. Both of the theaters I’ve been to sold reserved seats, and had ushers to show you to them. I’ve never seen that in an American movie theater.
3. Transformers is a very popular movie here. Both showings I attended were packed.
4. You are allowed to bring your own snacks and beverages into the theater, and many people do. Theater fare is overpriced compared to the same items outside, but not nearly to the degree I’ve seen in the US.
5. The first time I saw the movie, I noticed that certain bits of dialog had been electronically garbled. This has something to do with the notice that starts out each showing: This feature has been approved by the Ministry of Culture (or something to that effect). Upon a second viewing, I’m pretty sure (from the context) that at least two of the censored bits were mentions of China, though neither one of them could be construed as critical or offensive.
6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix does not open here until August 10.
7. I’ve heard of some American movies (such as Spiderman 3) showing here with Chinese dubs, but Transformers was not. It had subtitles. I’m hoping Harry Potter will be the same.
In the lobbies of both theaters I saw this poster:
Yes, that’s the Disney logo. And yes, the movie is in Chinese. Looking to expand their reach beyond the English speaking world, Disney has produced this movie based on a famous Chinese children’s book. I’m sure it will eventually have an English version, but for now it’s slated for distribution only in Asia. The title is 宝葫芦的秘密 (Bao hulu de mimi - The Secret of the Magic Gourd).

That takes us up to Friday night. Saturday was a very eventful day, but I’m not currently at liberty to discus it, so that blog topic will have to wait.

On Sunday, RR and I took the subway across town to find a CD shop I had heard of (I wrote about their booth at the Midi Festival). We emerged from the station a bit disoriented (normally I would use the position of the sun to determine compass directions, but it was a typical Beijing day and the sun couldn’t be located through the haze). There was a map (YOU ARE HERE), but it only took me a moment’s head-scratching to realize it couldn’t possibly be accurate. Anyway, I saw a street sign that had a dong (east) arrow, so we knew which way to go. The store was small, but had a whole bunch of Chinese rock music. The prices were double or more what you pay for pop CDs in the neighborhood stores, but I don’t mind supporting actual artists. And even still, they’re cheaper than in any other country I’ve bought CDs in.

From there, we walked along a major east-west avenue and before long saw crowds of foreigners with guide books. “Must be something touristy around,” I said. And sure enough, there was the entrance to Beihai Park. It’s quite lovely, and I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves.
OK, this last one will get a little explanation. The lady with the microphone is singing. The lady sitting next to her is clapping in time to the music. And the woman to the right is dancing. They didn’t have a hat out for small change – they were just enjoying the park in their own way.

I probably better explain something else. In the second Beihai picture, the one with the little kids looking down at the giant koi, you see a man with his shirt up to expose his belly. This is so common in hot weather here that you almost stop noticing it. Very seldom will a man take his shirt off, but they often just pull it up to cool off. I wonder if this fashion will catch on in the US...


Preview of coming attractions

Yesterday at the office, RR had occasion to say to me, "It's a bizarre world we live in."

My response was, "And we're in a particularly bizarre corner of it."

What were we talking about? What occasioned this outpouring of observations of bizarreness? Stay tuned for a story that will reveal all. Or at least all that I can reveal without getting into trouble at work.

Here's something that is also a bit bizarre, but completely unrelated to the strangeness not detailed above:
Just look at it closely. You might notice something a little out of whack, even aside from the spelling.


Wo mang jile!

Blog-writing music: Flёur - Волшебство

I promise I won’t inflict too much Chinese on you, but I couldn’t resist that appropriate sentence. It means “I’m extremely busy.” June 30 was the deadline for people in China to submit their order forms for Olympic tickets, and we’re going through a big crunch to get all the applications processed in time. Luckily that process doesn’t involve me directly, but there are plenty of other things going on that do. We even posted a position for my assistant.

In other news, summertime is proceeding in Beijing. It’s been hot and muggy most days, with occasional afternoon thunder storms for a little variation. In between the rain, the air quality has been…well, let’s just say it doesn’t meet my definition of “blue sky.” I’ve posted shots like this before, but this was what I saw out my window at about seven the other morning.
Yes, that vaguely orange circular thing is the sun. A half hour after I took this, it was gone, vanished into grey monotony. The simple act of breathing is sometimes a challenge.

I think I mentioned a while ago that we were the first tenants in our building. There are now quite a few more, including a company called Juto Media on our floor. The sound of drills and saws is pretty much constant every day, coming from the other floors above and below us. And there’s a little coffee shop down on the ground floor, just off the main lobby.
That’s the lobby, with the new station for the building receptionists which went in this week. They have had art shows in this massive space from time to time. And just on the far side is this:
The Café of Nut. I’ve had a couple of lattes from them which were pretty decent. They also sell sandwiches, but I’ve managed to avoid that so far. I know some of my American colleagues have eaten there, or rather bought things there and brought them back upstairs. I’d rather walk down the street a ways for my new favorite lunch: lengmian (cold noodles). There are several different styles with different names I can’t always keep straight, but the general idea is cold noodles with vegetables (usually cucumber and bean sprouts) with some kind of sauce. A big plate costs less than a dollar when I figure the exchange rate, and it really hits the spot when it’s 105° out.

We’re having Chinese lessons two evenings a week for two hours, which is pretty taxing on brains already stretched by the challenges of the work we’re doing. I’m trying to get back into the frame of mind to think linguistically again, but my old brain seems a bit slower than it was when I studied French, Spanish, or Russian. Not that I remember much of those anymore. Our teacher seems to be very good, balancing basics like grammar and pronunciation with practical things like how to tell a taxi driver to make a right turn. Chinese grammar is actually quite simple compared to the other languages I know, which is a good thing considering how challenging the pronunciation is. And the more I learn, the more I realize how challenging it must be to accurately translate between Chinese and English.

I’ve come across a popular Chinese novel that is available in English translation (non-professional, but decent) online for free: Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by Jin Yong. Parts of it have been adapted for TV three different times, including a series running right now. I’ve read the first couple chapters, and it’s pretty interesting. You have to be kind of forgiving of the writing style. Like I said, it’s not a professional translation. So far the story is quite fascinating, kind of a historical fantasy set in ancient China.

As a further bit of craziness, I bought a membership to the World Science Fiction Convention, which is happening August 30 to September 3 in Yokohama, Japan. SF conventions are loony enough in the US – I’m sure this one will be quite an experience. I really hadn’t intended to visit Japan twice during my stint in Asia, but being so close to a WorldCon just seemed like an opportunity I shouldn’t miss. And a certain well-known author whose web site I run will be there too.

Getting ready to sleep music: Remember Shakti – The Believer


Can see right speak

I showed my picture with the strange English to someone who reads Chinese, and here’s the explanation: the characters spell out keshi duijiang which is best translated as video talkback or video communications and the panel is for the video phone in my apartment where someone can buzz me from downstairs and I can see who is there. The characters taken individually can indeed be translated as can see right speak but Chinese characters can’t really ever be taken individually. Apparently even Chinese people forget this.

My favorite example is xiaoxin (careful). It is written using Chinese characters that taken individually mean small and heart and if you translate it that way you will be completely wrong. Sure, you can come up with all sorts of symbolic rationales to explain why small heart means careful but if you do, you’re wasting your time. Xiaoxin (the spoken sounds) means careful, and the Chinese characters are as arbitrary as the alphabet we use for English.

Anyway, the exciting news is that the Chinese classes promised by my employer will finally be starting this week. We’ll have two hours each on Tuesday and Thursday every week. My brain hurts already!