Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Chinese Chips

Got a craving for Lay's potato chips? No problem - we've got plenty of those here in China. A hankerin' for Pringles? Got that covered too. Want some new and funky flavors? No worries! Here are your flavor choices:
  • Classic American
  • Texas Grilled BBQ
  • Mexican tomato chicken
  • French Chicken
  • Italian red meat flavor
  • Ziran steak (sorry, I don't know what/where Ziran is)
  • Cucumber
  • Braised pork ribs
  • Korean kimchi
  • Beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck)
Now I've got the fever for the flavor of the Pringles...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

More Expectations and observations

Poverty: I've been surprised by how little poverty I've seen. I expected to see evidence of poverty everywhere I looked, but I've really not seen much at all. Even in some of the small towns we've been to the housing seems adequate and the slums (surely there must be some) are kept well out of view. The closest thing to a slum we've seen is the construction worker housing. The workers stay in temporary buildings which are sometimes little more than bamboo shacks on the property where they work. Once the building is complete they move on, it's not a permanent slum. We're going to the rural Western part of the country next week and getting away from the Eastern sea coast so we might see a different standard of living out there.

Men: In this patriarchal society little courtesy is shown to women. Men and women seem to fall into the same general categories of work as in the US. In Brad's office all the HR staff is women and 95% of the programmers are men. All the teachers in Andrew's day care women. However, there is no such thing as "ladies first". I've never had a problem getting a seat on a bus when Andrew was with me, but it is always a woman who gives her seat up for the lady with the baby. On the other hand, husbands and boyfriends don't seem to have a problem carrying their beloved's purse for them - even if it high fashion pink.

Bugs: I was expecting to see some nasty bugs here, and we definitely have some mosquitoes, but mostly the bug level is the same as in Colorado. I'm relieved that there are no cockroaches lurking in my less than spotless kitchen. However, I'm sure the bugs are kept in check by a less visible threat from insecticides.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Funny signs & shirts

Rarely does a day go by in China without some amusing sign or a T-shirt catching my eye. Here's a few of the best ones yet.

From a bell tower overlooking Beijing:

No throws the thing

This one is from a jacket for sale at the Hangzhou train station:

Yeah, my photo kinda stinks, so here's the transcript.
Skull Dekoh: Instead of Lovin treat your frier
The thing that I find most amusing about that one is that someone managed to string together 6 seemingly random English words (ignoring the first 2) and create a phrase that is grammatically correct, yet nonsensical. Reminds me of Madlibs.

I spotted a woman right outside our office building at lunch one day wearing a T-shirt with text below (front and back, respectively). Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera.

de puta
Pablo Escobar, el magico

Ten bucks says she doesn't even realize it's Spanish, much less have any idea what it means.

And today, while hiking along a mountain ridge above Hangzhou, I saw a Chinese boy about 3 years old with a confederate flag on the front. Superimposed on the flag are the words:

It's a white thing. You wouldn't understand

I'm devastated that my camera batteries were dead today. I would've loved to get that photo!

Friday, October 20, 2006

My Greatest Hits

For all my fans, this is the album you've been waiting for. Brad Swanson's Greatest Hits - all on one 33-RPM LP! Vinyl, baby - vinyl.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Fireworks at 6:15 a.m.

Fireworks are a common phenomenon here in Hangzhou, especially over the past few weeks. At first I thought it was for the National Day holiday, but I've since learned they're mostly for weddings. The groom often picks up the bride at her house in the morning - apparently as early as 6:15 am, at which point the family launches a noisy salvo of fireworks. The end of the wedding day seems to be another popular time to light up the sky -- 10:30 pm is a favorite time for these professional-grade displays which literally ricochet off neighboring apartment buildings. Don't plan on sleeping in - it's futile!

Pajamas in public

Take a stroll in the morning or evening in Hangzhou, and you're likely to spot women wearing pajamas - silk pajamas, usually. I've seen them doing exercises with fans and swords (tai chi?), strolling with friends, and even riding bikes. I remember seeing something on TV one time about the pajama fad in China, and supposedly pajamas are a status symbol; a way to tell the world "I can afford fancy clothes just for sleeping in!"

If you're in a high-rent district, wearing pajamas sends one more message: not only can I afford pajamas, but I can afford to live here.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Great Wall without the crowd

The crowded day at Ju Yong Guan left me longing for a more satisfying Great Wall experience, so I went back the next day, this time by myself - Andrew and Amy stayed in Beijing. I hired a driver to take me to Mu Tian Yu early in the morning, and arrived before 7 am. The souvenir stands aren't even open yet, there are only a handful of people in sight, and it's a beautiful, cool morning. This is the way to see the wall.

This section has been restored, just like Ju yong guan, but it feels older and more authentic. The scenery here is more spectacular, too, with steeper, rugged mountains.
I reached the highest point of the restored section, and the only thing between me and miles of ancient, unrestored wall is a flimsy sign reading "closed to tourists". Without so much as a chain across the stone doorway, this is practically an invitation for adventure and one which I definitely cannot resist. Besides, the Chinese ignore every other rule and sign anyway (no smoking signs, traffic signs, etc.) so why pay any attention to this one?

For the next few hours, I explored this rustic section of the wall by myself. Shrubs and trees are slowly reclaiming the walkway, and watch towers are partially collapsed. The wall stands about 10-15 feet tall, 10 feet wide, and it's constructed from huge stones and very well-made bricks. The large watch towers are only a few hundred yards apart - surprisingly close together considering the extra effort required to build them. The amount of manual labor required to construct such a massive structure in this steep, remote location is unimaginable.

Watch a 10-minute video of my adventure below.

Great Wall: Ju yong guan

For our first visit to the wall, we chose Juyongguan (Ju yong pass), a recently restored and very steep section of the wall closest to Beijing, partly because it's supposed to be less crowded than the Badaling site a few miles up the road. It's hard to imagine that someone else could be more crowded; for the first quarter mile or so here, it's shoulder to shoulder with police directing pedestrian traffic on the wall to keep it from grinding to a complete halt.

Fortunately, after a short way, about half the crowd gives up on the arduous hike, with some steps as much as 18 inches tall, and heads back down. Andrew had it easy, riding the whole way in an Ergo baby carrier on my back. Despite the crowds, we enjoyed hiking on a bit of (restored) history and the view from 1000 feet above our starting point.

The China Daily

The China Daily is the national English-language newspaper. No ads, and just 12 pages long. I expected it to be packed with commie propaganda, but instead it seems to be more focused on politically benign and often unimportant tidbits of news. Here's a sampling of some of their recent, earth-shattering front-page stories:
  • Free newspaper launched in Guangzhou [a city near Hong Hong]
  • Thai Princess unveils country's first royal blog
With just 1 page of international business news, they stick to the important stuff, such as
  • Joe Blow named new CFO of Progressive Insurance Co. [in the US]
That one really rocked the international markets!

Here's another good story: the Chinese government has launched a campaign to improve the manners of Chinese people travelling abroad.
Uncivilized behavior is becoming a real embarassment for China. Spitting and littering top the list of behavior among Chinese travelers.
Travelers are also being admonished not to talk too loudly and to respect queuing rules. Can't they launch this campaign in the homeland first? Please!

In the interest of fair and balanced journalism, there are a few things we Americans could stand to improve, too.
  • Look around - is anyone else in your host country wearing short-shorts, obnoxious T-shirts, plunging neck lines, or exposing their belly buttons to the world? No? Well then you shouldn't be, either. When in Rome...
  • I don't care how many people speak a little English so they can more effectively overcharge you for crappy souvenirs. Learn how to say at least "hello" and "thank you" in the local language

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Old Mao good, new Mao bad

Our audio guide at the forbidden city described October 1, National Day, as the anniversary of the liberation of the nation; the day when Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China from the Meridian Gate at the forbidden city, the place where the famous, huge portrait of Mao hangs today. I expected a greater show of nationalistic fervor in the capital city of this single-party nation. The only noticeable signs of the holiday we saw, apart from the massive throngs of people, were a tiny number of people carrying cheap, paper PRC flags. No fireworks, even. There did seem to be a big crowd pouring out of Tiananmen square after the early morning flag-raising ceremony.

Back in Hangzhou, large fireworks displays were a daily occurrence near the holiday - as late at 10:30 pm and as early as 6:30 am!!! -- but I've learned that these are for wedding celebrations and have nothing to do with the holiday.

We did notice a number of people wearing red armbands, reminiscent of the Red Guards from the openly-despised Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 which brutally supressed expression, culture, and religion. Most of the people wearing them were middle-age or older. Many of them were sweeping trash from the street and in the forbidden city, and a few of them were sitting and talking in front of their homes or small shops. I asked my co-workers about these folks, and was told the modern-day Red Guard are volunteers who agree to keep the city clean and safe. They're also somehow associated with the communist party, but my friends weren't able to quite explain how -- due to their limited English, not a reluctance to discuss it, as far as I can tell. I've openly discussed a few other politically sensitive topics with the Chinese, and they don't seem to shy away from it.

We hired a pedi-cab (rickshaw) driver to take us through Beijing's famous hutong, a complex web of narrow alleyways and crowded courtyard houses which at one time comprised most of the city. He spoke very limited English, but was able to clearly communicate his disdain for the cultural revolution. Interestingly, he had mixed feelings for Mao himself, the ultimate architect of the cultural revolution and the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward, a soviet-style economic experiment which was at least partly to blame for the starvation deaths of an estimated 30-60 million Chinese. The pedicab driver's quote:

Old Mao good, new Mao bad.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Living in an authoritarian state

It's sometimes easy to forget that I'm smack dab in the middle of an authoritarian state. Capitalism is sweeping China, but democracy and human rights are not. The Newsweek article Silent Games is grim reminder that I have no freedom of speech here, and the government exercises tight control over what information I can get my hands on. Fortunately, the internet is difficult to completely control. I can read the Newsweek article, for example, and western news outlets like CNN are accessible on the web, too -- at least today it is.

Google on the term police state, and the first link is the wikipedia entry. Somebody wanna let me know what it says? I can't read it because the wikipedia site (which is a fantasic, free on-line encyclopedia) is blocked in China. No doubt the entry on Tiananmen Square isn't too flattering to the People's Republic.


China is very different from my expectations. Having traveled through Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos I had expectations of what an Asian country should be like and China is very different.

Rules: I had expected that a country with an authoritarian government would be populated with people who are used to following rules and regulations. It seems that as long as you stay out of politics there is very little you can't do. Go ahead and smoke in front of the no smoking sign, only Andrew will ask you why you are smoking when the sign clearly says not to. Ride your bike over the bridge with the huge sign with the slash through the picture of a bike. And it is most definitely not a problem to pass a police car on the shoulder of the road while going double the speed limit.

English: I expected more people to speak more English. There is usually someone around to help translate when it is necessary and if there is really a problem we can use the cell phone to call one of Brad's co-workers to translate, but your average waiter or salesperson does not speak English. When we were traveling before finding someone who spoke English was never a problem. I think this largely has to do with being on the tourist circuit. We did not have this problem in Beijing, but we were in an area heavily traveled by foreign tourists.

Clothes: Apart from costumed waiters at theme restraints and on tourist boats the only people I have seen wear "traditional" clothes are monks. People wear western style clothes and I have no problem finding any style I want from sweatpants to couture. What is different is the way people match their clothes. People's shirts are often very loud and flashy and women's shirts frequently have beads or sparkles. It's no problem to wear that orange shirt and purple pants together. In SE Asia it was more common to see people in traditional or at least partly traditional clothes.

Shoes: My comments on shoes are largely the same as clothes but bear special mention in that most Chinese women are slaves to fashion. There are tablets at the Great Wall with a quote from Mao stating, "You are not a man until you have climbed the great wall". What if you do it in high heels? You're probably not a man, but it's a feat I witnessed none the less.

Buildings: While the palaces and temples of Beijing are colorful they don't hold a candle to the flashy temples of Thailand. Though there is more splashes of color and intricate designs in the architecture surrounding Beijing the buildings elsewhere are more reminiscent of East Germany, utilitarian rectangles. Very functional, but not very pretty. Most of the newer buildings (which in Hangzhou is many) have more style with curves and key holes and other modern flair, but there is very little of what I would consider "Chinese" architecture.

Shopping: I was prepared to buy our daily goods at an open air market. There is no need, I simply walk a block to the local chain grocery store to get my everyday goods. If I want something exotic, like cereal or low fat milk, I just take the bus downtown to Carrefore (a French chain similar to Super-Walmart).

I'm surprised by how much my life is the same. Andrew goes to school and I work. In the evenings he plays with the neighbor kids before or after dinner. Brad goes to work every day. I go shopping for food and clothes. The biggest change is that we don't get to see our extended family regularly. Also, I feel really uninformed. We listed to radio streamed on the internet over breakfast and every now and then I checkout MSNBC online, but I don't get nearly as much US or international news and I can't understand the local news.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Beijing's Forbidden City

Our first stop in Beijing is the vast palace grounds for two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing (pronouced ching). This opulent and heavily fortified palace was the exclusive domain of the emperor, his family and his entourage of officials, concubines, and eunuchs for 500 years. Today, it's official name is the Palace Museum and it's open to the masses for a small fee. The massive Meridian Gate (below) guards the southern end of the compound.

The grandiose site names are guaranteed to instill awe, and perhaps a few chuckles too:
  • The gate of character cultivation
  • The gate of divine military genius
  • Hall of preserving harmony
  • Hall of supreme harmony
  • Palace of earthly tranquility
  • Palace of abstinence
The last one at least has an interesting story. Prior to certain ceremonies, according to our British-accent English audio guide, the emperor was compelled to abstain from onions, garlic, alcohol, and sex -- no doubt a difficult proposition with the harem right next door. Interestingly, the emperor actually increased his consumption of meat during the period of abstinence in order to increase his strength for the impending ceremony.

All the buildings in the forbidden city are capped with yellow roof tiles; this color tile is reserved only for the royal palaces and sacred temples.

This photo shows a sample of the fancy artwork adorning the temple structures.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Night train to Beijing

Last Saturday (Sept. 30) we took the non-stop overnight train from Hangzhou to Beijing. Via airplane, we would have lost at least a half day each direction, but with the train, you travel when you'd normally be sleeping anyway. You sleep on a comfortable bed, and wake up at your destination, relatively refreshed and ready to go. Except for the few passengers who ignore the no smoking signs, I have no complaints.

Andrew had fun playing with a 9-year-old girl who shared our compartment. Andrew and Betty (her English name) had lots of fun running up and down the corridor. Andrew sang while she played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on her flute. In the morning, after saying goodbye and walking thru the train station, we came across a distraught Betty who was in tears because she had to leave Andrew. He's breaking hearts already.

We're staying at the Crowne Plaza in Beijing, a 5-star hotel and one of the nicest hotels I've ever stayed in, for only $65 a night. Gotta love it.

The cafeteria

One of the 'perks' of our office in Hangzhou is daily free lunch served in the building cafeteria. This seems to be common practice at large office buildings. Think back to your high school or college cafeteria and imagine if it was located in a dreary windowless basement (dungeon?) and you'll have a good idea what it's like. Get in line, get a tray, point to what you want, and someone with a hair net and surgical-type face mask (a legacy of the SARS outbreak?) dishes up a portion of the mediocre fare.

In an unexpected capitalist twist, they have 2 companies serving grub competing for your business. At least there's some incentive to make the food decent.

This is one case where the setup in Bangalore (where I spent 3 weeks with my last job) was far superior. There, the company hired a catering company to fix a tasty lunch every day just for the 30 or so people in our office.

Dining in China

Dining in China is usually done family style, and round tables dominated by a lazy suzan are common. Dishes are brought to the table in random order throughout the meal; just when you think you're finished another one appears. The plate of melon slices is the only sure way to know that your dining experience has come to an end. Unless the dish is a soup, your own chopsticks also double as serving utensils, so you can't be too squeamish about your neighbors' chopsticks touching the food.

Chopsticks are a fun novelty for the occasional visit to a Chinese restaurant back home, but let's be honest -- unless you're eating sushi, forks are the way to go. Have you ever eaten a serving of soy beans, one at a time, with chopsticks? Or how about soft, slippery tofu? The Chinese have a short cut for these situations - hold the plate to your mouth and shovel it in with your kuaizi (Mandarin for chopsticks). Loud slurping sounds are perfectly acceptable, especially for long noodles, by the way.

You had also better get used to bones. Fish, poultry, frog, pork, beef -- it's all served with plenty of bones. Whole bone-in chicken is commonly chopped into half-inch cross-sections, so dodging jagged bits of bone is a necessity with every bite. (Anyone remeber the Simpons episode where each of box of Krusty O's cereal features a bonus of jagged metal Krusty O's?) Many types of fish are so packed with annoying little bones that's it's just not worth the effort to eat - especially with chopsticks. In another case of western ettiquete clashing with eastern, the Chinese seem to favor the technique of spitting out the bony bits after chewing.