Milestones and musings

Some photos by me, some by D.

This Tuesday was my one year anniversary of moving to Beijing. I had planned to write an entry that day with some sort of thoughts upon reaching that milestone, but it turned out to be a ridiculously busy week at work, and I’ve been at the office until after 9 almost every night this week. As was announced just today, Phase 2 Olympic ticket sales start next week, and people in China will be able to walk into a participating Bank of China branch, or call the phone center, or go online, and purchase tickets without having to go through a lottery.
It’s astounding how much preparation goes into such an event, especially when you have as many moving pieces as we have here. There’s the software used at the bank branches and the phone center, which is different from what Ticketmaster uses in the rest of the world even aside from the Chinese interface; there’s the web site, which also for various reasons is different than TM standard; there’s making sure payment authorization works, making sure the money is reported accurately, making sure the internet connections work to all 1000 banks spread across one of the world’s largest countries, figuring out how many phone agents are needed, making sure there are procedures to deal with problems, making sure all the documentation is available in two languages... you get the picture.
So now it’s Saturday and I have a little quiet time before tonight’s indulgence in one of those odd culture clash experiences that seem to come along so often here. SJ has proposed a group dinner at Hooters. Yes, Hooters Beijing. More on that after I’ve been there.
What are my thoughts after one full year here?

• I’m tired. It’s been a lot of work, especially this week. If I think hard (or refer to past blog posts) I can see that I’ve obviously had some spare time to take in the experience. All of the excursions I’ve written about have been squeezed in between flurries of work.
• China is too big and too varied to sum up or even really wrap my head around. I suppose the same would be true of any large nation, but even among large nations China is in a class by itself (India probably comes close). And the country has such a bizarre (to Western experience) history that the obvious surface differences are the least of it.
• Most of what foreigners know, or think they know, about China is wrong. I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.
• As morally reprehensible as you might consider the One Child Policy, it has saved this country from almost certain disaster. There are plenty of places in the world where you can look to see what uncontrolled population growth does in an economy that cannot support it.
• My brain is still working its way free of the language rust built up from years of not speaking anything but English. It’s taking me much longer to pick up Chinese than with French or Spanish back in high school, or Russian in college. Admittedly my time was more dedicated to learning back then, and with only two classes a week things move slowly.
• Maybe it makes me a heretic to think this, but I don’t think American style democracy would work here. I think the Chinese people will find their own way to a better system, and if they can avoid the kind of money-grubbing political influence peddling that runs our government, they’ll be doing really well. For this country, most of the major decisions coming out of the top levels have been quite reasoned and sensible, and if they can knock down the rampant corruption at the lower levels, the future should continue to improve.
• Pollution is a massive problem. As I mentioned, the highest levels of the government seem committed to doing the right things, but those policies seem to run up against a lot of momentum in the form of old-guard party appointees and corrupt managers. Of course, similar momentum (powerful lobbyists and right-wing pressure) hinders clean-up efforts in the US and Europe as well. Do not think the planet is getting cleaner just because LA isn’t as bad as it used to be. Air does not respect borders.
• The filtering of the Internet is really annoying. I’m all for a harmonious society, but I can’t see how protecting people from Wikipedia or Rocket to China contributes to it.
• Chinese people are generally sociable and cheerful. They’re always gathering in groups to play cards, do tai chi, practice ballroom dancing, sing folk songs, sit along the sidewalk chatting, and so on. They laugh a lot, and I don’t always understand their sense of humor.
On the subject of Everything You Know Is Wrong: The other day I came across a piece written by famed Euro-travel guru Rick Steves about his trip to Shanghai in 2003, and I was struck how different his impression of the country was than mine. It’s only been a few years, and he was in Shanghai instead of Beijing, but even that can’t account for the disparity. He wrote:
People seem docile and resigned to follow the rules. Schoolteachers carry bullhorns. Workers don't organize. Cabbies give you back all the change.

Notice how he says the cabbies give you correct change as if it's a bad thing.
I don’t know how anyone who’s seen traffic in Shanghai could say that people follow the rules.

Here’s a typical example. You get into a taxi at the airport, and the driver heads out onto the expressway. There’s a big sign in Chinese and English telling you to buckle up. The driver is not wearing his seat belt. As you approach the toll booth, where police are stationed, the driver reaches over and pulls the seat belt across his lap, but does not latch it. From outside the car, it appears as if he’s wearing it. Only twice in the hundreds of taxi rides I’ve had did I actually see a driver with the seat belt latched, and only once has one asked me to buckle mine. And while the legitimate taxi drivers have for the most part been scrupulously honest, there are plenty of bogus cabs around, and when the police see them, they just ignore them. At the Summer Palace, D and I waited for a taxi to go home, and there was an officer managing the queue. When we were next in line, a bogus driver tried to coax us into his car, right there in front of the policeman. The cop looked at me and wrote the jing character (as in Beijing) and the letter B in his palm; I replied “Wo zhidao (I know)” – legitimate Beijing taxis all have license plates that start Jing-B, and that car was Jing-E. Other impatient foreigners got in, and the cop shook his head with resignation. We got in the next real cab.
In general, rule-breaking is developed to a fine art here. Obviously, there is a large police presence here, and soldiers can often be seen around the city (it is a capital, and there are guards at all the embassies), but everyone seems to instinctively know just how much you can get away with.
Littering is so common that it seems the norm rather than an aberration – after all, there will be a person with a broom along in a few minutes to clean it up. People cross the street at virtually every possible spot, even climbing over barriers to dodge between cars. City buses run red lights and block intersections all the time. Getting away from traffic, no one lets the NO PHOTOS signs in temples or stop them from snapping away. You often see people barging past ticket takers without having proven they paid to get to the subway or the temple or whatever. And they yell and argue with policemen who try to tell them what to do.

And then there’s the bootleg CD and DVD situation.
• On the street and in small shops, CDs and DVDs cost the equivalent of $1.30 or so per disc, and most of them have quality equal to what you’ll find in the rest of the world. You occasionally get a bad one, but at the price, you just toss it and try again.
• In the major shops, many CDs and DVDs sell for about twice the street price, though some approach the price you’d pay in the US. I assume these are legitimate – what else can I do?
• Given the average income here, if DVDs cost $15, very few people could afford them.
• Given the fact that the “legitimate” copies have all been subjected to government editing, most people prefer the bootlegs, which are the full international versions.
• Maybe an expert can tell the difference between a good copy and a legit disc, but I can’t. They’ve got the little holograms and everything.
• Given all these factors, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of Chinese people prefer to buy bootlegs over legitimate products.
• What kind of massive, repressive police action would it take to thwart the honest preferences of a billion people? Might the cure be worse than the disease? It’s ironic that western business interests, while they purportedly champion freedom and democracy, are actually encouraging the Chinese government to increase its control of citizens.
• How will it work out, and what would be the best solution? I don’t know, but maybe the real future of intellectual property policies will be decided here by ordinary people rather than in corporate boardrooms with investments to protect.
And that’s about as much trouble as I want to create today. I’ve been sitting at my desk all morning catching up on these posts, and I feel the need to do something else for a while. One final thought: it is again that time of year that is after the weather turns cold but before buildings can turn on the heat. Just as it was when I first moved into this apartment almost a year ago. Time to get out the long underwear and flannel pajamas, drink hot beverages, and walk around with a blanket draped over me.

It Comes and Goes

Back on 17 October, D sent me an email (I was at work, she was at Seasons Park) and said my blog was visible from within China. Woo-hoo! Someone realized that I'm no threat to the harmonious society!

The situation didn't last, however. Only a week or so later, it's gone again. What did I do to deserve this?

Yes, girls can play football too

Who says time travel is impossible? I’ve set the Wayback Machine for 22 September, 2007, the place, Tianjin, China. Some photos by me, some by D.

It really was just coincidence that the Women’s World Cup was taking place in China at the time while D would be here. But it was a happy coincidence, and we took advantage of it. We saw a couple of games in Portland, Oregon back in 2003, including that embarrassing match where the US lost to Germany in the semifinals.

The first game that fit the travel schedule was on 22 September in Tianjin. As is usual with such things, we didn’t know what teams would be playing at the time the tickets were purchased. Buying them was a little adventure on its own. Tickets were available through Emma, one of Ticketmaster’s partners here in China, but they haven’t been upgraded to our computer systems yet. I first went online to buy tickets, and managed to get to the event and pick out my seats. But when I went to pay, I found that they couldn’t take a credit card online, so I selected the option to reserve the tickets and pay for them at the local Emma box office, which happens to be close to where I live.

I went into the box office the next day with an appropriate amount of cash and showed the woman my printed receipt. She looked all over in the computer and could not find my order. So I finally decided to just order again – it’s not like I’d paid for them yet. We found the seats and she printed out the tickets for the equivalent of about $25. I should mention that the temperature in the box office was extremely uncomfortable and I’m glad I didn’t melt in the time it took.

There’s a nice new train that runs between Beijing and Tianjin several times a day, so we opted for that. It’s only about a 40 minute trip, but getting to it turned out to be another adventure. A coworker who is from Tianjin told us there was no need to buy train tickets in advance – just go to the Beijing station and get tickets there. What he didn’t tell us is how many thousand other people would be doing the same thing at the same time. There were 20 or so ticket windows open on the outside of the station with a huge mob of people crowded around them more or less in lines. The signs were all in Chinese, and while I know the characters for Tianjin, any instructions about what could be purchased where were completely indecipherable.
We went around the side and eventually found another set of ticket windows. One of them was labeled in English TICKET SALES FOR FOREIGNERS. The line was not that long, and I purchased two tickets for Tianjin on a train leaving in less than an hour, from some track or other that I couldn’t make out on the ticket. We followed the crowd into the station proper and up the stairs to the waiting areas. The signs were confusing and we ended up waiting for a while in entirely the wrong place. I eventually found an information booth, showed them a ticket, and asked “Where?” in Chinese. They pointed my in the right direction. As we made our way to the track, we passed a nice little booth selling Tianjin tickets. If only we’d known.
The train was pretty nice, a lot like the shinkansen in Japan. We had reserved seats, which were spacious and comfortable. Unfortunately there’s not a lot to see along this journey.
The station in Tianjin was quite a contrast to the one in Beijing. For one thing, it’s not a building. There are stairs and ramps to take you over the tracks to the platforms, which are covered but not enclosed. I can imagine this is pretty unpleasant in the winter time. The taxi area there is a massive free-for-all, with dozens of aging little Chinese cars crowded together and drivers shouting out for passengers. In Beijing the taxis are all Volkswagens, Hyundais, and Citroens, and even the smallest of those is bigger than the average Tianjin taxi. We picked one at random and showed the woman the hotel’s address. She took us on a long roundabout path that seemed to circle the outside of the entire city before heading into town.

It was my goal to save some money on the hotel in order to have more available for other travel, but the tactic backfired in this case. We were at a Home Inn, which is like China’s equivalent of a Motel 6. Chinese friends have told me they are simple but clean, and reliable around the nation. This one was kind of run down and in the midst of refurbishment, with the smell of fresh paint permeating the building. The staff spoke almost no English, and my Chinese wasn’t a lot of help. Somehow we got checked in and the proper foreigner registration papers got filled out.
See for yourself. Not exactly what we’re used to.

By the time we were checked in and settled, it was mid-afternoon. I hadn’t made any plans for the part of the day before the game started, so we wandered around looking at the city. We came across this – I’m still not sure what it is.
Notice the window washer guys up on the slope.
And the elaborate safety system they have to avoid falls.
There were people with radio controlled boats in the pond.

Before too long we were getting hungry, so we headed towards what looked like a commercial area. We found hotels, shops, and banks, but not a single restaurant that was open between lunch and dinner.
There was a cool little food street off to one side of the main street, but the only place that was open had a big private party going on. Starving, we finally decided to just find a taxi and head to the stadium, reasoning that there must be food in that area.

It turned out to be a pretty short taxi ride, and there was a shopping center across from the stadium grounds with a few restaurants. We picked Mr. Pizza, where they had a really strange selection of pizzas, and, luckily, beer as well.

When we finished eating, it was still a little early to go to the game, so we wandered around the shopping area for a bit and then made our way to the ticket gate.
Tianjin Olympic Stadium is a very nice looking futuristic structure set way back from the street. They could use a shuttle bus to take attendees from the ticket entrance to the stadium.
In what I’m learning is typical Chinese fashion, there are very few concessions located inside. They had soft drinks (which they pour out of the bottles into paper cups for you) and popcorn. That’s it.
There were a few pitifully stocked souvenir stands, but mostly the huge concourse was just open space. I wonder if they’ll make any changes for the Olympics – certainly Americans and Europeans are used to having more options (and opportunities to spend money). D reported unhappily that the restrooms featured only Asian-style squatters – no Western-style toilets at all – another thing that could use some attention before hordes of foreigners arrive next summer.

We got to our seats pretty early – pretty much the first to arrive in our section, so we got to watch other people come in. One thing we noticed was security. Each section had two security guys in the front row as well as one in the back. At each gate entrance there were a few more, and a bunch down on the field. Mind you, these are not burly, gun-toting ruffians, but mostly young guys in ill-fitting uniforms. Many of them were in a more casual uniform consisting of a polo shirt.
There were no smoking signs, and an announcement was made that smoking was prohibited inside the stadium, but we seemed to be located in the chain smokers’ section. All around us for virtually the entire game people were puffing away. The security guard behind us paid no attention to that – I think he may have even lent his lighter to someone. Smoking is so pervasive here, and Chinese people so oblivious to (if not outright contemptuous of) behavior laws, that such rules come off as mere window dressing, much like the security procedures at the Barcelona game. In fact, trains and subways are about the only places I haven’t seen anyone smoking. As an aside, I’ve noticed lately that many taxis in Beijing now have green stickers in them for no smoking, but most of them still reek after years of it.
It’s easy to fraternize with the enemy when you’re actually from a neutral country.
One of the more entertaining parts of the event (at least at first) was a big British guy wearing a read and white wig and with a flag draped over his shoulders. He was continually shouting England slogans, starting football songs, and bad-mouthing the Americans. His loud swearing probably would have got him kicked out of an American venue, but since it was in English and not Chinese, he was allowed to carry on. Our section seemed to consist mostly of England supporters, though a lot of them were Chinese.
At halftime, Mr. England was quite the celebrity. Lots of people wanted their picture taken with him.

I spoke a little with the guy next to me (the one with Mr. England in the earlier picture). He was a student at Tianjin Sports University (or something like that), and some of his classmates were down on the field chasing the out of bounds balls. He was pretty non-committal about the two teams, though he had some England gear.
He pointed to a big group cheering for the US above us, and said they were also classmates.
And this picture is just too cute to leave out.
Oh, yes, there was a football match, too.

As any of you know who pay attention to such things, the US stomped the Brits handily. The poor English team just never got their act together, and the keeper in particular made some hideous bumbles. I expect she was weighing her alternative career options after the ordeal ended.
Even the most enthusiastic fan felt the pain of England’s poor performance.

After leaving the stadium, it took quite a while to catch a taxi, but eventually we got back to the hotel and ended up watching a part of some old black and white Chinese movie that seemed to be glorifying the revolution.

The next morning we checked out early, which turned out to be a chore. I had used a credit card for the deposit but wanted to pay the bill with cash, but nobody seemed to know how to void the credit card transaction. Plastic money is still a fairly new (or at least relatively uncommon) thing here, especially in places not frequented by foreigners.

I was not surprised that the taxi ride to the train station was much shorter than the one when we arrived. In the waiting area, we sat as far as we could from the restrooms, but the urine and cleaner odor was still pervasive and there wasn’t much ventilation. And unfortunately, the odor followed us onto the train. The nice new high-speed train had a very smelly restroom on it, and whenever someone left the door open to the end of car area (which was basically anytime anyone passed through since it didn’t close by itself) we got a stench like a Honey Bucket that hasn’t been emptied in weeks combined with the sharp edge of industrial cleaners.

Upon arrival back in Beijing, we found the chaos of the train station unabated. The taxi queue was an unorganized mess of shoving, so we crossed the street to try our luck there, only to find zones where taxis are apparently not allowed to stop or have to pay to pass. After what seemed like ages we finally caught one willing to pick us up, and we were on our way back to Seasons Park.

All in all, it was an exhausting and rather unpleasant weekend aside from the football match itself. Tianjin was not a very impressive city, but I’m willing to believe we just ended up in a dull part of town and it actually has something to offer. But I’m in no hurry to find out.


Be my Yokohama

I return to the obscure pop culture references for a title, and catch up on the last bits of my trip to Japan. Pretend the date is 3 September.

I didn’t really see any of Yokohama outside of the short distance from my hotel to the convention center, but there are a few pictures I took in that area which seem worth sharing.
On the way to the convention center, I walked past this large sculpture located between two buildings.
This was not one of those buildings, though it was close by. If I remember correctly, it’s called the Landmark Tower, and it’s, well, a landmark. For a thousand yen you can take the elevator up to the top, where there’s an observation deck, a restaurant, and live jazz, but I didn’t.
The city is proud of its maritime heritage. This is the Nippon Maru Yokohama.
I saw a big group of school children doing exercises next to it one morning. It's probably too small to see, but they're in this picture. I think it was some kind of school outing where they went onto the ship and learned about being sailors.

The return to Beijing was relatively uneventful. I took the Yokohama local train one stop from my hotel, and got on the fast train at Yokohama Station to go directly to Narita Airport, where I discovered a massive line waiting to check in with Air China. I managed to make it to my gate with a few minutes to spare, and in a couple hours I was back in China. I am somewhat intrigued that my booking of a flight from Shanghai to Tokyo plus a flight from Tokyo to Beijing was called a “round trip” ticket.


An appointment with the sky

An entry about Thursday 18 October. Some photos by me, some by D.

The end of D’s visit was fast approaching, and it was busy enough at work that anything very far away was out of the question, so we opted for Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven. It’s one of Beijing’s major attractions, but I’d never been there, and the new subway line has a stop right at the east entrance, so it was a perfect choice. And aside from a stiff breeze, it was a perfect day for sightseeing. As at the Summer Palace, you can buy either a simple entrance ticket or a “through ticket” which includes admission to the special areas that require their own paid admission. With two through tickets in hand, we went in. Maybe it’s always mellower here, or maybe it’s just past the peak tourist season, but we were happy to find very few hucksters offering postcards, Mao watches, guidebooks and the like.
There’s a long covered walkway that goes from the east gate to the main temple. Lots of locals seem to hang out there, playing cards or mahjong.
This old guy was stomping rhythmically and chanting, kind of an old school Chinese rap, I guess.
The obvious thing about this temple compared to all the other Chinese temples I’ve seen is that it’s round. Cool.
But seriously, some of my American coworkers had told me they didn’t much care for visiting Tian Tan, but I rather liked it. While it was far from empty, it was incredibly quiet within the gates, and very peaceful feeling. The buildings are impressive, and don’t resemble anything at the Summer Palace of Forbidden City.
Okay, I take that back. The standard elements of traditional Chinese design are all here. I guess I’ve seen enough of them that I’m now noticing very subtle differences.
The terraces leading to the main temple are decorated with dragons (representing the emperor) and phoenixes (representing the empress) in alternating layers.
It’s hard to get a good shot inside the big round building, especially with the crowd always gathered at the small openings you’re allowed to look through.
This is the circular altar where the emperors made sacrifices to ensure good harvests.
The central stone serves a more secular function now.
To the west of the temple complex is the Institute of Divine Music, where musicians were trained to participate in the ceremonies.
The first interesting thing about these buildings is that they are actually less than ten years old. The original music school went through some very hard times after the last dynasty fell, having served as medical facilities and barracks for troops, various government offices, and finally as raw materials for people to cart away and use for other buildings. In the 1990s, it was decided that the Institute was an important cultural site and should be restored, so old drawings, paintings, documents, and plans were consulted and the whole things was rebuilt. It houses a museum devoted to Chinese music as well as a concert hall for performances. Most of the explanations are available in English. Some ancient instruments are represented by real pieces, while others are just photographs. The variety of drums in particular is impressive and unusual. We respected the no photo sign, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

After leaving the music museum, we were about done for the day, so we headed back across the park to the subway.
And speaking of music, we encountered several groups of people making some around the place.
Here’s another in the series of pictures to cute to avoid posting.

There was a KFC across the street from the park gate, so we grabbed a late lunch before leaving that part of town. On the subway, D and I parted ways. She headed back to Wangfujing to pick up some gifts for people back home, and I headed for the office to catch up on developments and attend Chinese class, where we learned about expressing durations of time for actions.