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.


  1. Thanks so much for writing this, it's a very valuable perspective. It is 2 years since I moved to Canada and it is very tempting to label differences as "bad" or "wrong" when they just are. My latest silly difference between the US and BC: roads are either paved or horrible. I have yet to drive on a well-maintained gravel road, even if it is to a provincial park within an hour of a major city. Ah, but it does keep most people out and the environment more pristine!

  2. Sometimes as I was writing it, I hoped I wasn't coming off as being negative. Like you say, some things just ARE, and you either accept or not. And if you don't accept, you're just setting yourself up for misery, since you can't change them and you can't walk away (something about a contract!).

    Maybe the no heat thing is something I can kind of change. We've ordered a bunch of space heaters for the office, which still has some warm rooms and some cold ones. I'm in the cold part. JW's office is so cold (he's got windows that have never sealed properly) he's taken to wearing his stocking cap and parka at his desk. I can get by with a sweater. Our big conference room is warm, so now there's a bright side to being stuck in a long meeting. I think I'll have to get a little heater for my apartment as well.

    Here, many roads are both paved AND horrible! To be fair, it's because of the construction.

  3. I would say the highways are a little better paved at this was my experience travelling to the Great Wall.