Friday, August 31, 2007

Another of those "What have I missed?" street scenes

Taking a turn around the neighbourhood just now, I passed a portly middle-aged chap slumped against the wall beside the door of a large restaurant. He was looking dazed and distressed, and had a deep gash across the top of his scalp. Beside him, and partly covering him were the remains of a small ornamental tree and the clump of soil it stood in. The substantial earthenware pot which had held it was neatly split in two vertically. An ambulance had just arrived to take our man away.

Now.... what on earth can have happened here? My first thought would have been FIGHT. They are a disturbingly common piece of street theatre here (the Chinese fondness for excessive alcohol consumption + the Chinese genetic intolerance of alcohol + the ridiculous cultural imperative of 'face' - any culturally established norms for defusing or substituting for violence = old friends coming to blows over the most trivial of imagined insults on an almost nightly basis). The trouble with that hypothesis was: no assailant. And no crowd of onlookers/supporters/inciters of the two combatants. Now, I suppose an attacker might have run off when he realised he'd hurt the other chap badly enough to risk incurring substantial medical bills (it's financial penalties like these rather than the threat of criminal prosecution - very rare in cases of this kind - that seems to get folks in a flap). But usually two drunk combatants will keep on circling, goading and taunting each other for quite some time after the fight is over. And, even if they didn't have mates with them in the first place, they'll almost always somehow attract a band of ad hoc seconds to rally behind them. No sign of any of this here.

And no sign of the police. If they'd come, they wouldn't have left again before the second protagonist had been loaded into the ambulance.

And it really was quite a BIG pot plant. I can't readily believe that someone could have picked it right up off the ground to hit someone over the head with it.

Equally, from the disposition of the body and the debris, I couldn't see how this was merely an accident - a drunk tripping over the pot as he exited the restaurant.

So, what then? Had he been trying to carry the pot on his head, or trying to headbutt it, in some foohardy display of toughness??

Alas, we shall never know.

But weird shit like this goes on all the time around here. This is (perversely) one of the reasons why I love living here so much.

The Foreskin Post

Yes, it's a nasty concept, isn't it? One pictures a wooden stake plunged into the ground, Neolithic warriors folding their foreskins over the tip of it, shuffling backwards to see how far they can extend the elastic flesh, their faces a grim mask of concentration in denial of pain. Ah, yes, the toughest of this tribe are distinguished by foreskins they have to drape over their shoulders or wrap around their thighs to avoid tripping over them when they run through the rainforest on their hunting expeditions. Oh, fatuous macho displays! Nothing good can come from such freakish distortions of nature.

Of course, one doesn't want to picture such things.... but one can't help it. Once the phrase is sitting there in the 'title' box, the images follow of their own accord.

My apologies, gentle readers.

I blame Leah, who suggested a while back that mentioning f*skin was a surefire way to woo Googleperverts to the blog. I'm not sure that I really want to entice hordes of Netperves here.... but then, I do want someone to start reading this. So.... I am patiently experimenting with all the means at my disposal, with all the cheap tricks that anyone proposes to me. Let's see what this one brings.

You can also blame Moonrat, who a couple of months back published a squirm-making (but, as it turns out, apocryphal - phew!) story about young boys in a remote part of the Phillipines being ritually circumcised by having the end of their boy's-best-friend repeatedly bashed with a rock. Silly Moonrat, that's how simple peoples do their laundry. It's not how they improve their young men's penile hygiene. Not if they want to perpetuate their race, anyway.

Although I think that Moonrat was genuinely interested in the story, rather than cynically trying to boost her blog profile in the way that Leah recommends.

Well, I wonder if anything will come of it. Perverts, are you there??

The Kebab Boy would be proud of me!

I accompanied my new boss on a two-day business trip this week.

He's a South African, from Capetown, new to Beijing. He was telling me he missed his house on the beach back home, the chance to go surfing whenever he felt like it.

"I like to be able to look out of my window and see sand dunes," he said.

"Maybe Beijing's the right place for you, then," I replied. "Just give it a few more years."

And it occurred to me that arch-China-curmudgeon Nanheyangrouchuan would have been proud of me. The inevitable desertification of the whole of north and central China is one of his favourite disaster scenarios. Go check out his new blog if you don't believe me.

A regional China haiku

Chopped chilli garnish
And lashings of chilli oil:
Szechuan cookery.

Yep, there's hot, there's stupidly hot - and then there's Szechuan, which just veers off into unimaginable, comic-if-it-weren't-so-painful-and-pointless extremes.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chengdu deathrace blues

Wow, I got home on time.

I'm still alive.


It's been a while since I visited one of the "less developed" parts of China. Whatever complaints I may have made in the past about people in Beijing or Shanghai often betraying a flabbergasting obtuseness, lack of foresight, tunnel vision, etc...... well, it's 10 times worse out in the sticks.

The University I'd been visiting had arranged a car to take me back to the airport. I had a little bit of time in hand, so a couple of the girls from the International Programs Office offered to take me on a short sightseeing tour. All very nice.

They knew what time I needed to be at the airport. They knew what time I wanted to leave the vicinity of the campus to set off for the airport. They knew - or ought to have known - how long it takes to get to the airport (quite a long time, since it's the other side of the major nearby city of Chengdu).

You wouldn't think, then, that one of the girls would casually suggest - at the very last minute - dropping her off at home in the centre of Chengdu: a detour of at least 10 miles each way. I had to say no as politely-but-firmly as I could and drop her off on the outskirts of the city to catch a bus.

You wouldn't think that the driver would only realise as we were setting out for the airport that he was almost out of fuel. But he did. And his grotty little car had been converted to run on LPG. There was, apparently, only one service station for miles around which sold this. And, since this is what all the taxis are required to use these days, there was a queue a mile long for it. No, I exaggerate: the queue was only about 200 yards long - but several taxis were cutting in ahead of us, so the queue didn't actually move in the 10 minutes we tried waiting in it.

A few frantic phone calls later, the driver had ascertained that there was another station selling LPG..... on the outskirts of Chengdu. On the way to the airport. Not too much of a detour. And good news for the girl from the Uni who was trying to scab a free ride home. And we'd only wasted 15 or 20 minutes so far.

Unfortunately, after dropping the girl off and refuelling, my numbskull driver got a bit lost, got on the Expressway going back the way we'd come. When we approached the next toll-gate, he gazed at the road-signs above the booths in horror and disbelief..... and slowed right down to read and re-read and re-read them again.

Yep, after about 30 seconds of crawling along the middle of an Expressway at a few miles an hour (admittedly the road wasn't very busy, and traffic should have been slowing down in the approaches to the toll-booths..... but you can't really rely on that in China, and I was fully expecting someone to slam into the back of us at 70mph any minute), he had nearly reached the toll-lanes, so..... he came to A DEAD STOP, while he pondered his next course of action. Yes, that's right, in the middle of the road. Without even putting his hazard lights on.

Then, he pulled sharply sideways, across three lanes of the Expressway, to drive into the yard of a building at the side of the road.... perhaps thinking that there might be another exit from this enclosure which would allow him to bypass the toll-gate. No such luck. So..... after vainly negotiating with one of the toll-keepers for a few minutes to see if they would let him go through for nothing, he hit upon a new plan, quite staggering in its impetuosity. He reversed back into the Expressway, then turned across it, perpendicular to the direction of the traffic, parked in the middle of the outside lane, and got out. What could he be up to, I wondered to myself, as I noted a coach about a quarter of a mile away, bearing down on us at high speed, and eased myself out of the car to seek the comparative safety of one of the toll-lane dividers. Of course, he was going to try to remove one of the concertina barriers of the central reservation, so that he could make a U-turn into the opposite carriageway (at least there were toll-booths on that side as well, so there wasn't too much danger of being T-boned at maximum speed). Obvious, really. Equally obvious that the policewoman on duty beside the toll-booths would be having none of it.

So, eventually, much to the driver's chagrin, we had to reverse again down the Expressway, go through the toll-booths, and turn around at the next exit a couple of miles further on. We encountered a similar problem there because - thanks to one of the unfathomable stupidities of Chinese road design, the route back on to the Expressway in the other direction was ostensibly blocked. Well, not entirely unfathomable, perhaps - the toll-booths were on the entry/exit ramp, and they were trying to insist that you go through the toll-gate before turning round to come back on to the Expressway. This time - there being no central barrier to get in our way - the driver was able to persuade one of the guys in the booths to turn a blind eye to our pulling a U-turn. Nevertheless, we still had to go through a further toll-gate a few miles further on (and then another one for the final section of Expressway leading to the airport), so I think my poor driver's navigational ineptitude cost him at least another 20kuai in road fees.

By this time, of course, we were a good half an hour behind schedule, and - since Chinese airlines tend to be rather strict about closing check-in precisely 30 minutes before the slated take-off time - I was starting to get a bit worried about the possibility of missing my flight.

My driver, to try to make amends for his previous errors, put his foot to the floor. I haven't driven at 100mph in China before. It's not nice. I'm pretty sure it must be well over the speed limit, even for one of these Expressways. And it was a good 20 or 30 miles an hour faster than anyone else was going. The man's steering technique was a bit wobbly at the best of times; when he had to grapple with his mobile phone to field an anguished call from my contact at the University enquiring as to whether I'd got to the airport safely..... well, I very nearly didn't: he was wandering all over the road - at 90+mph.

The girl at the Uni then sent me a would-be reassuring text message: "Don't worry. You will be at the airport soon. The driver's skill is trustable."

Oh yes, honey, I absolutely trust this driver to put someone in a coffin sometime very soon.

At least it wasn't me. Amazingly enough - having burned up the last 20 miles or so of road as if on The Cannonball Run - we got to the airport only a few minutes later than I'd planned, and I still had plenty of time to check in.

China, eh - what larks!

The "Weather God" comes unstuck again

It seems that - yet again! - I may have spoken too soon in welcoming the end of the summer swelter.

Arriving at the back of a long taxi queue at Bejing airport an hour ago, it was clear to me that today had been both boilingly hot and smotheringly humid. I'm glad I was away the last couple of days.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Barstool is calling you...

Well, I often get that feeling anyway....

Look, I know lots of people are 'on holiday' at the moment.... and the rest of us are terribly busy and all.... but fellow-blog The Barstool has been disappointingly overlooked in recent weeks. Listen, people, I have two blogs - if you like this one, you might like that one too.

And I'm going to be away on business for a couple of days, so if you're looking for some new Froogisms to read (hmm, froogismo - I like that: the germ of another super-frivolous post begins to grow....), go check out my 'drinking blog' - I've just posted another 'Favourite Posts' list for the April-June quarter. Lots to get your teeth into there.

OK, bye-bye, have fun. Don't trash the place while I'm gone.

Flatbread and mutton skewers

Such, I learn, is the intended meaning of the cyber-alias 'Nanheyangrouchuan' (or NH, for short) - the guy finally explained it in a comment on ChinaLawBlog a few days ago (it had been a tad obscure, partly because he's wilfully using a non-standard romanization of the 'bread' word, and partly because just about any word/syllable in Chinese can mean about 20 different things anyway).

Anyway, he was "in the news" over on CLB because he's finally started a blog of his own - Bad Bad China (or 'China, eat my lamb kebab!', as he captions it) - after some years of existing in cyberspace only as a guerilla commenter (a cackling, maniacal, 'Phantom of the Opera' figure) on several of the most popular 'China blogs'.

Now, I am a little hesitant to recommend this chap. He is extreme in his opinions: relentlessly curmudgeonly, unforgivingly vehement in his denunciation of the Chinese government, an arch-pessimist in his prognostications on China's immediate prospects. He's also outrageously confrontational, generally inclined, I think, to be scathingly contemptuous of his more China-friendly interlocutors. And I have a feeling that at times I may have detected currents of outright racism or sexism in some of his comments; although I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on that, because I can't now recall exactly when, where, or what he said to piss me off.

The scary thing is..... he's like my Evil Twin, a completely disinhibited alter ego who'll never pull his punches. Although I suspect he is a little too credulous of conspiracy theories, on most topics I find myself broadly in agreement with him. And, while I'm pretty outspoken on most things most of the time.... well, here in China, I do bite my tongue occasionally to avoid offending people or getting into messy arguments. So, watching The Lamb Kebab Boy LET RIP can be quite a cathartic experience for me. (There are far too many naive 'optimists' out here, or commenting from afar, who really need to have their rose-tinted spectacles knocked to the ground and stamped upon - and Nanheyangrouchuan is just the man to do that!)

Anyway, he kicked off his new blog in typically in-your-face fashion with a post about the imagined imminent collapse and fragmentation of China. NOTE: The meat of this piece is actually in the comments. (My own response was that I can also see this happening, and that it might well be a good thing in many ways - but that I see it as likely to unfold over a much longer timeframe than he seems to be envisioning.)

I think this is probably going to be a pretty stimulating read, so keep an eye on it. (Of course, if he carries on like this, he'll probably get himself properly 'blocked' - or deported! - before long. So enjoy - or be riled by - him while you can.)

Have you noticed how....

..... mooncakes are appearing in the shops very early this year?

Mooncakes probably deserve a fuller, explanatory post at some point, but I don't have the time right now. Suffice to say that - as far as I know - they have no connection with "my publisher", the illustrious Moonrat.

Monday, August 27, 2007

In Memoriam - my lost phones

I have often seen the figure cited (although I am duly sceptical of any statistic I see about the Chinese economy) that the average life expectancy of a mobile phone in China today is less than 6 months.

Now, a lot of this might be down to the emerging fashion-consciousness of the young urban middle-class, an inane "keeping up with the Zhangs" mentality, or a techno-geek itch to keep always on the cutting edge, etc. "There's a new phone out? Gotta buy it!"

But most of it is down to the very high rate of wastage. The build quality of modern phones tends not to be great (ah, yes, they're all made in China these days!), and most of them will simply wear out in under a year of heavy use. And they don't like being dropped at all! A single hard landing may kill your phone these days. Heck, in China, some of them give up the ghost within a few weeks of you getting them out of the box (and you've got bugger all chance of getting a replacement).

And then there's the THEFT issue. Pick-pocketing is rife here. Mobile phones are the one commodity that almost every urban dweller here now owns (even if they have very little use for one, and they can't really afford it - it's become a 'face' thing); it's the one thing they have worth nicking.

This, I think, is the major argument for not spending too much on a phone. Yes, sure, if it was going to be one-off, good-for-three-years purchase, I might consider getting an all-singing, all-dancing Web-connected MP4 camera-phone for £200 or £300. But - for me - that is rather a lot of money to write off in one instant of clumsiness, inattention, ill luck, or malign intervention. If I know that the odds are I'm going to have to shell out again for a replacement in under a year, maybe in just a few months or even weeks, then I am going to buy the cheapest possible phone.

I've actually been pretty lucky (or just careful), I think. I managed to make one phone last me for nearly 2 years. And the back-up phone that replaced it was with me a lot longer than that, although it hadn't been in continuous use. But when I review my overall record, I realise that I'm really not doing much better than the national average for phone longevity.

Here is the roll of honour.

My first phone - stolen from the bar in the old Get Lucky music bar at Taiyanggang. OK, it was dumb of me to put it on the bar, but it was right next to my elbow, in full view of two barmen, there was no-one else anywhere near me, and I only took my eyes off it for a few moments. I soon identified the thief (table-hopping furtively), but wasn't able to get any satisfaction in the matter since he was operating there with the full knowledge and support of the management.

My second phone - broke down, in stages, over a few months (it had been a "secondhand" one in the first place, never really giving peak performance). The coup de grace was my flinging it against a wall in rage..... but it was pretty much 'dead' before that.

My third phone (actually on loan from a friend - oh, the shame) - pick-pocketed on a bus up to Wudaokou.

My fourth phone - the really long-lived one: finally died of 'old age' just shy of its second anniversary.

My fifth phone - dropped in a taxi, and immediately appropriated by the driver. (I had noticed the loss almost immediately, ran after him trying to flag him down as he drove off, contacted him via his company within 5 or 10 minutes - but he was denying any knowledge of it.) Particularly galling, as I had only purchased it a few weeks earlier.

My sixth phone - the long-time back-up, elevated to principal use (somewhat by accident; only because I was unable to find anywhere selling a decent, cheap Sony Ericsson to replace No. 4), lasted a creditable 14 months...... until I dropped it in a cup of tea.

My seventh phone - still in use: I'm hoping this is going to be another long-term survivor.

My eighth phone - my brand new 'work phone', pick-pocketed in a 7/11 in Hangzhou last month.

My new, new work phone.

My spare phone, to provide instant replacement in the event of my next (inevitable) phone disaster. (Buying a replacement phone in China is an horrendous ordeal.... but that perhaps is a topic for another post.)

So, yes, 10 phones in 5 years. Admittedly, three of those are still in use (4, if you count the tea-dunked one, which still has some residual functionality, so I'm hanging on to it as an emergency extra spare); but I'm maintaining the average consumption rate nicely, and doing my bit to sustain the 'economic miracle'.

But I really don't want to have to be buying another one any time soon.

Bon mot of the week

"I'm not paranoid. But you all think I am!"

I love this line. It was reportedly part of the schtick used by legendary Glaswegian nutcase Jerry Sadowitz in his stand-up/conjuring shows at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. (I've caught his show there a couple of times in recent years, but missed the latest one.)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Poetry Corner

More from this afternoon's browsing, a nice little love poem this time. (I did wonder for a while if 'Tamer' is supposed to be a name; it looks Turkish to me.... but I'm not aware of any story the poet might have been referencing, and couldn't find anything in a quick Net search, so I suppose it must be just the noun from 'tame'. Bit of a disappointment, really!)

Tamer and Hawk

I thought I was so tough
But gentled at your hand
Cannot be quick enough
To fly for you and show
That when I go I go
At your commands

Even in flight above
I am no longer free:
You seeled me with your love,
I am blind to other birds -
The habit of your words
Has hooded me.

As formerly, I wheel
And hover and twist,
But only want the feel,
In my possessive thought,
Of catcher and of caught
Upon your wrist.

You but half-civilize,
Taming me in this way.
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.

Thom Gunn (1929-2004)

Egomania implodes

I have of late been trying to post a favourite film clip as a little treat for my readers (reader?) around the last weekend of the month.

I just turned up this great little scene from Spike Jonze's wonderful 'Beijing John Malkovich'. (In case, by some strange chance, you haven't yet seen this modern classic - Tulsa?? - the premise is this: downtrodden filing clerk John Cusack happens upon a magical 'portal' that allows a person to be transported inside the head of the famous actor John Malkovich [Malkovich, a good sport, agreed to play himself], to experience the world from his perspective - but only for 20 minutes at a time. Cusack tries to make money off his discovery by setting up a little tour business. Malkovich gets wind of this, and goes to check it out, posing as a client. This is what happens when Malkovich goes inside his own head - hilarious and terrifying at the same time.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Concluding my review of the week's comments - my buddy, The British Cowboy, was getting a little philsophical here the other day on the topic of the drudgery of work. (I rebuked him mildly; philosophy is my job.)

If we take 'pointlessness' as our topic, TBC, I think that - as so often - Mr Natural says it best.

For those of you who can't easily read the speech bubbles above (sorry I couldn't find a larger picture), the exchange is this:

Seeker after Truth: "What does it all mean, Mr Natural?"

Mr Natural: "Don't mean sheeit..."

Messing with the classics

And while on the subject of irreverent twists on the classics, I am reminded of another favourite - this time from a BBC Radio 4 skit show of the early '80s called (I think) 'Radio Active' (which featured - amongst many other names now also well-known, at least in UK TV circles - a very young, possibly still undergraduate Emma Thompson).

It was, quite simply, a trailer for an upcoming radio series called 'Shouting The Classics', and had a man reading a few sentences of 'Barnaby Rudge' VERY LOUDLY. Quite possibly the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life.

I think it was also on this show that they did a micro-skit called 'The Franz Kafka Laughter Hour', in which K was fronting a '50s-era American TV comedy show in the lugubrious style of Jack Benny. They were big on incongruity, these guys. I think there was only ever one series (maybe two) of 6 shows each - but I loved 'em. (Hell, I had some of them on tape for many years.... maybe still do, somewhere.)

Waving their arms about....

A classic piece of silliness (silliness about 'the classics') from Monty Python.... courtesy of my resident comment-freak, Tulsa, who dug up the link for me during a rare idle moment earlier in the week. I particularly love the little flags that pop out of the cradle, signalling, "Waaah, waaah!"

This research endeavour on Tulsa's part was prompted by a little exchange we'd had in the comments on a post way back (my first Friday haiku after my return from holiday the week before last). We had been discussing the marvellous Irish comedian Dave Allen, who had a long-running TV show on the Beeb throughout my childhood (and probably deserves to be written up as an Unsuitable Role Model over on the Barstool sometime soon). I had forgotten that Python had done this, and I was confusing it with my memory of a series of Cathy/Heathcliff skits that Dave had done.

I now find myself tormented by this question: Did Dave Allen's Heathcliff ever use semaphore flags? I feel convinced that he did; but maybe it ain't so? Does anyone out there know??

Friday, August 24, 2007

Blue sky paranoia

The last three days have been strangely nice in Beijing. Fiercely hot, but..... remarkably unhumid for the time of year..... blue skies (hazy, but you can see the sky - something often impossible for days or weeks on end in this most polluted of cities).... refreshing breezes. Nice.

It is uncanny. This is not August weather at all. Usually August is cripplingly humid, and as often as not overcast and smoggy as well. I almost begin to wonder if the traditional clearing of the weather (which always seems to happen, regular as clockwork, in the first week of September, ushering in the sunniest, pleasantest month of the year) has somehow turned up a whole fortnight or so early.

Of course, there are the conspiracy theories too. Good weather usually materialises whenever the IOC is in town - factories upwind for a a hundred miles or more are shut down, most government cars (nearly half of total traffic here in the capital) are pulled off the roads. It's remarkable how effective it is. I've even heard it suggested recently that the artillery batteries ranged around the western side of the city (upwind) which regularly bombard the clouds with silver iodide to ensure that we get some rain during the baking summers (and doubtless ensuring also that Tianjin and other points east of here get none at all) have changed their usual policy, and are now aiming to pop the clouds further away from the city...... to wash pollution out of the sky (and make sure that we don't have any showers to spoil our sunny summer days).

Would that really work?? I'm sceptical.

And would it rid us of the usual wretched humidity as well? Well, if it can, I'm all for it. Even though my more prudent and Gaia-concerned self might fret about the dire knock-on effects of tampering with the weather in this way.

Even if the Olympic bigwigs aren't around at the moment, it is entirely plausible that the Beijing authorities are having a dry run for next year's Olympic month - trying out their full armoury of climate- and environment-enhancing techniques to see if they really can render our city tolerable during the Games next year. Long-time residents like myself are mostly not optimistic - Beijing is just horrible in August! But this is a country where they can move mountains (usually for the most futile of reasons) when they put their minds to it.

There was an experiment earlier in the week to cut down the number of cars on the roads; but, according to this item picked up on Danwei, it was a somewhat limited success in reducing the air pollution.

Haiku time

The nights drip with sweat
And bad dreams haunt the fever.
August sleeplessness.

I really suffer through these summers in Beijing. The weather will break soon, soon.....

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What I don't like about my office

1) Neon strip lights.

2) The colleague at the next desk has THE WORLD'S NOISIEST KEYBOARD. Really. It has an action like an old-fashioned manual typewriter. And she does a lot of typing.

3) Neon strip lights.

4) Despite repeated promises, there is still no coffee machine.

5) Neon strip lights.

6) There is no functional air-conditioning in the lifts - so, even if I survive the 10-minute walk from the Subway without working up too much of a lather, the 60-second ride up to the 12th Floor usually has me breaking out in a muck-sweat.

7) Neon strip lights.

8) There are no decent food shops in the building. Searching for a decent, affordable lunch in the vicinity is becoming quite the Grail Quest.

9) Neon strip lights.

10) I am obliged to stay here until 6pm, even though I have no work to do.

Dawn of a new era???

In the early days of my new job, I only had a temporary desk and a temporary (and barely functional) computer.

But NOW..... I have my own workstation, a half-way decent laptop..... and lots of time on my hands.

Who knows what this may do to my blogging habit....


My colleagues on The Committee for the Denial of Age* have unanimously resolved that 'Beijing years' (which are the only ones that seem to count for any of us any more) are to be regarded as equivalent to 'dog years'.

This means that I am now 25 again! Feels about right.

Artful remodelling of personal histories and indefinite prolongation of youthful frivolity are our specialities. Preliminary consultation free of charge.

Talk about wishful thinking! That should, of course, have been "This means I am now 35 again!"

I may have to ask the Committee to reconvene to consider adopting the more flattering 5-to-1 equivalency for 'Beijing years', rather than the 7-to-1 ratio traditionally used for dogs.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Woe! Woe! Thrice and four times woe!

When you are slowly "recovering" from jet lag, you really don't want the day to pan out like this.....

A warm, sultry night it was last night (as most of them are at this time of year): air-conditioning would be needed. For the past few nights, I had been making do with a large desk-fan in my bedroom, but it had seemed to be getting both noisier and less efficient with each passing minute, and had been badly eroding the amount and quality of my sleep. After a major search, I finally relocated the remote control for the air-conditioner unit in that room. I realised that I had probably flung it aside in despair in the first place, because it is ridiculously over-complicated - with about 17 different buttons, none of which actually seems to do anything. Well, the 'up' and 'down' arrowed buttons, which you'd assume would adjust the temperature, certainly seem to be inoperative, having zero effect either on the display on the remote itself or on the temperature of the air (disturbingly warm) coming out of the vent. And it's a noisy bastard of a unit as well; that's why I usually try to get by without it.

So, there I was, tossing and turning, blaming my insomnia on the heat and the rattle of dodgy air-con (when probably it had more to do with ongoing timezone confusion, or with the fact that I had been up far too late the previous night and had then allowed myself the imprudent luxury of a lie-in till lunchtime to recover); alternating between air-conditioning, fan, air-conditioning and fan, or nothing at all; pondering whether I should try sleeping in one of the other rooms (the living-room, strangely, stays much cooler at night; the study has a much quieter air-con unit; maybe I'd even give the guest bedroom a shot..... although there's more traffic noise there, and equally rumbly air-con....). It had got to about 3am. Not good.

Then it got worse. The power went off. I assumed at first that a loose wire in one of the dodgy air-conditioners or fans had tripped a fuse, so went out on to the landing to re-set the master switch. After 30 seconds, the power went off again. And again. And again. To my horror, I realised that the master switch was being tripped by the meter: I was out of pre-pay! How the heck did that happen? I know the rates of usage pretty well now, after 3 years in the same apartment, and even with the high air-conditioning use during this sweaty period of the summer, I hadn't expected to run short for at least another month. I mean, I only topped up 6 or 7 weeks ago...... and I've been away for 5 of those! Something rotten somewhere......

When you can't recharge the smartcard for the meter until the banks open at 9.30am, 3am on the hottest night of the year is decidedly not a good time for your electricity to run out.

I went to sleep - or to try to - on a sofa in the sitting-room. Some time just after dawn, lying in a pool of sweat, I finally began to doze a little.

Shortly before 6am, the garden-wallahs set to work with chainsaws in the public park outside my window. No kidding! This is China.

Eventually, I got used to that racket and started to doze, fitfully, once again.

Shortly before 8am, someone rang on my doorbell. Now, why the hell would they do that? Nobody ever rings on my doorbell; certainly not at that ridiculous hour of the morning. Luckily, they went away before I could find something heavy to drop on their heads.

Realising that Fate was conspiring against me, I gave up on attempting to sleep, and tried to potter usefully around the apartment for the 90 minutes or so until the banks opened.

Strange how the brain (a sleep-deprived brain, especially) slips into such unthinking behavioural ruts. You'd think, wouldn't you, that the absence of electrical power would be easy to register, that you wouldn't keep being surprised by it every 5 minutes? "Oh! The television doesn't work!" "Oh! The kettle doesn't work!" "Oh! The Internet connector doesn't work!" "Oh! The bathroom light doesn't work!" And so on and so on.

First thing in the morning is usually a bad time to hit the banks. Everybody thinks they'll try to beat the rush, and starts queueing up 20 or 30 minutes before opening time, thus ensuring that this is the biggest rush of the day. I left it until 10am to try my luck, but the queue at my small local branch of the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China was stretching out of the door and down the street. I tried again an hour or so later: still no better. I tried again another hour or so later: still no better. Boy, I really picked the wrong day to run out of electricity credit.

I went on a long walk around town, partly to see if I could find another bank that looked as if its queues might take less than an hour to process. Eventually, I settled on the largest ICBC outlet in my neighbourhood. And queued there for an hour.

Pretty much the whole day wasted, then. But hey, at least all my comforting electrical gizmos are fully functional once again.

And I have some slight prospect of getting a little sleep tonight.......

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Expat Ladder

My announcement that I am about to pass the 5-year mark for residence in Beijing (and I've just signed a two-year extension on the lease on my apartment, so I'm not quitting any time soon) prompts some reflections on the patterns of expat life here.

Why is it that so many of my friends are also 5-year vets (or just about to become so)?

Well, as time goes on, you naturally tend to gravitate towards people with similar outlook and interests to yourself, and you are more likely to find this in people who also view their commitment to China (to Beijing) as an open-ended or "long-term" thing. The friends you make early on may be forced on you by Fate - teaching colleagues, neighbours, the first people you talk to in a bar. Gradually these are replaced, as you encounter people with whom you feel a deeper spiritual affinity. Or they just leave; most people do leave after a year or two or three. So, (for the past two or three years) the only people around me who I recognise from my early days here are, like me, of approximately 5-year vintage.

Of course, I do know a few people who've been around here even longer than that. And some who are more recent arrivals. But.... well, there is a pecking order to expat life, a strict ladder of seniority. I still feel comparatively lost and inexperienced here, still a little intimidated by those who substantially pre-date me. It is likewise a little difficult not to become occasionally a little patronising towards - or just bored, irritated by - the puppyish enthusiasms and the staggering naivety of some of the more recent arrivals.

And people of this 'younger generation', of course, often feel slightly awkward around us, slightly in awe of us - the 5-year guys! It's crazy, but it does happen. My pal The Choirboy commented the other day that we've reached the stage of actually being a little embarrassed by how long we've been here and will often fudge or fib about it: "Er, well..... I've been here..... quite a while now..... yes, well over.... a year."

Yes, I've done that myself. Most often, I think, it's prompted by a desire to not be socially exclusionary, to avoid the risk of younger acquaintances/more recent arrivals lapsing into reverentiality. Then again, it's often also partly born of humility, a recognition that 5 years is nothing and that we are still regarded with amused disdain by many of the real veterans here. Ah yes, and then there's the element of shame, the discomfiting realisation that after this long, perhaps we really should have made something of our lives - and found a way to move on, to escape. But that..... is a topic for another post.

So, anyway........

The Ladder

1) Less than 18 months...... Not even really on the ladder at all; not unless you have a definite commitment to stay longer. You're just a 'transient' - little better than a holidaymaker. Most people come here to take a Chinese language course and/or to try their hand at English teaching; and they stay for a year or 18 months, perhaps 2 years or so at most. This doesn't count - you're nothing, not on the social map at all.

2) 18 months to 5 years: Newbie. Wide-eyed and (mostly) optimistic, we earn some slight respect for forging through our 2nd year and hanging in for another and another, but..... basically, we know nothing, and are still largely excluded from more established expat circles.

3) 5-10 years: Medium-termer. It's impressive, but it's still not quite real 'veteran' status.

4) 10-15 years: Veteran. OK, now you've earned your chops, but.... you're still some way short of the pinnacle.

5) 15 years + : 'Old China hand'. Now, there might be some debate about this. Some might be willing to confer this status after only 10 or 12 years. Others insist that it should really be reserved for those who were here pre-1989. But this is the accolade we all aspire to.

6) 50 years + : Assimilated. Yes, if you spend your whole life here - and kiss arse enough with the CCP - you may just possibly be granted 'permanent residence'; and, in really exceptional circumstances, even Chinese citizenship. And a few really old hands are accorded the honour of being viewed as 'almost Chinese'.

A MILESTONE looms....

Tomorrow is the 5th Anniversary of my arrival in Beijing. This is such a momentous event that I feel I must announce it on both my blogs.

I have just discovered that, by an alarming cosmic coincidence, it is also the 5th Anniversary of the arrival here of my best drinking buddy, The Choirboy (though I didn't get to know him until a year or two later).

In fact, several of our friends are also reaching this landmark at some point over the next few weeks.

I think A PARTY is in order.....

Thought for the week

"Discovery is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no-one else has thought."

Albert Szent-Györgyi de Nagyrápolt (1893-1986)

A very good line, but I can't recall who is supposed to have said it, and don't seem to be able to find it on the Internet. It is one of the quotations posted above the the box office at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms during this summer's Fringe Festival - so I am hoping that one of my friends there will be able to check it out for me and let me know.

Thanks to the omnipresent Tulsa, I have learned that this quotation is from a distinguished Hungarian physiologist, Nobel Laureate in 1937.

In similar vein, he also once said:

"A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind."

I'd be curious to know what language he originally said these things in. The quotation websites all seem to be unforthcoming on this point.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Invented words

Don't you often think to yourself - happening upon some instance of mistaken word formation, some accidentally wonderful piece of invention (whether your own, or someone else's) - "Oh, that really ought to be a word."?

I do. Quite often.

The following short poem is, I think, a good illustration of the point.

The context is probably fairly self-explanatory..... but that's never stopped me adding unnecessary glosses in the past, and it won't now. Yes, I was mooching in my girlfriend's bathroom; I read - or misread - this rather wonderful word, that got me thinking..... And then it ended up in this piece of distilled heartbreak, where I was gloomily anticipating a long separation from her while she went back to the States for Christmas, and fearing (rightly, as it turned out) that this separation might prove to be permanent. It's one of my only pieces to be so 'personal' that I address it to someone in the Second Person; but I don't think that precludes it from being submitted to a wider audience.


Limelessness – the quality of being
Without limes.
A fine word: green and shimmering;
Musical, like the rustle
Of high tree branches.
Yet not a word at all, in fact;
Rather, a mental phantom,
A cognitive stumble
In reading 'Lime Essence'
On a jar of body-scrub
In your bathroom.

I miss these moments,
Scouring your apartment
For details of your history,
Your inner life;
Poring over books, CDs,
Ornaments, cosmetics,
To feel how they resonate of you.

I should go
And buy a dozen limes.
Their zest and fragrance may
Console me,
Give me some strength
To survive my long voyage
Across this bitter sea of You-lessness.

The acronyms strike again!

It is one of the often amusing, occasionally charming quirks of the use of English in China that no consideration ever seems to be given to the possible connotations of the combinations of letters they choose for acronyms.

For example, staff and students at the Beijing University of Science & Technology are invariably baffled that their school does not seem to command quite as much respect from foreigners as the capital's other seats of higher learning.

I've just come across a real beauty over on China Law Blog (yes, this is my recommendation of the month for people who might be looking for a more "serious" China blog), in a story about price-fixing in the instant noodle business. The price-fixing cabal goes by the delightful name of the International Ramen Manufacturers' Association - IRMA.


Sorry. I fell off my chair. I read this about 10 minutes ago, and I still have tears streaming down my face.

Emendation: OK, so the China Law Blog dude came all the way over here to tell me that actually IRMA is an international organisation, not just a Chinese one. That's lawyers for you - vigilant, meticulous, nit-picky. That's why I gave it up. It's still a pretty funny acronym, though, huh? (I just can't get the image of Shirley MacLaine in green stockings out of my head!)

Further Emendation:
The point I should emphasise here (becoming overcome with lawyerly guilt about my previous sloppiness!) is that it was not
IRMA that was recently busted for price-fixing, but certain Chinese members of IRMA. As far as I know, after further researches, IRMA is an entirely respectable and worthy trade organisation which does not condone or facilitate price-fixing. There.

Further note:
The problem with IRMA as an acronym is not only its inherent risibility (and, for some of us, a provoking erotic reminiscence of Billy Wilder's very silly but very sexy comedy 'Irma La Douce', in which a young and gorgeous Shirley MacLaine played a Parisian hooker of that name), but that it is so overused. There are dozens of IRMAs out there (and thus, dozens of organizations that might want to sue me for libel!), and the poor old Ramen Manufacturers are well down the list; the Irish Recorded Music Association has far better Google positioning. Of course, anything with 'International' and 'Association' in its title has a good headstart in trying to achieve that particular combination of letters for its acronym, but the first page of Google results also includes such exotica as L'Institut de Recherche Mathématique Avancée and Interreg Rhine-Meuse Activities. And the Australian Institute of Myotherapists (bit of a cheat - 'A' in the wrong place, and where's the 'R'?? Well, it's actually the Insitute of Registered Myotherapists of Australia.).

Friday, August 17, 2007

The 'man immune to jet lag' get his comeuppance

I am not usually much bothered by 'jet lag'. I like to contain the word in single inverted commas to demonstrate my disdain for the concept, and to assert my mastery over it - if not to disparage others who are more susceptible than me. Although I confess I am sometimes inclined to be uncharitably sceptical of those who complain most bitterly of suffering it, suspecting that the phenomenon generally owes more to self-dramatisation and self-pity than to actual physiological processes.

But.... here I go with the self-dramatisation and self-pity: this time, I have to admit, I am WRECKED.

Taking a flight via Dubai (the only affordable option this month!) was a bit of a nightmare: nearly double the flying the time, and a three- or four-hour layover in the middle of the night.

The timing of that layover didn't help matters: it's really not good to be having to force yourself to stay awake after a long day of travelling, waiting for your second flight which doesn't board until midnight UK time, 3am local time. Usually I like to try to start thinking in 'destination time' as soon as I get on a plane: I like that old trick of changing your watch immediately, so that you are constantly being reminded of what time of day it is in the place you're headed to. But that just doesn't work when you're waiting for a connection, and it's pitch black outside. However much you try to convince yourself it's nearly breakfast time in Beijing, your body just isn't having it.

And a further problem with that wee small hours departure is that everyone wanted to sleep (and keep the blinds closed) throughout the entire Dubai-Beijing flight..... so I didn't see any sunshine until shortly before we touched down in mid-afternoon. And by the time I got back to my apartment, there were barely three hours of daylight left. Soaking up as much sunlight as possible is the key thing in avoiding the dreaded jet lag, I'm sure. I much prefer to arrive early in the morning, and put in a full and active day, no cat-napping, stay up quite late; if I do that, when I finally go to bed I sleep the long, deep sleep of the utterly exhausted, and then wake up at a sensible time the next day with my 'body clock' pretty well adjusted to the new time zone. Late afternoon or evening landings are a bummer.

And it's not just the timezone, but the difference in the hours of daylight that befuddles one's internal sense of timing, I think. 5 days earlier I'd been in Edinburgh, where it stays quite light at this time of year until nearly 10 o'clock at night; here in the much more southerly Beijing it gets dark shortly after 7.

And on top of all that, I was returning immediately to work - putting in a full day at the office on Thursday and Friday (not hugely productive - dull-brained and irritable).

And, as I just mentioned, I left the UK on a day of no daylight; and my first full day back in The Jing was likewise a day of no daylight. That doesn't help.

The first night back, I went to bed late and drunk, and fell almost immediately into a deep, deep sleep. But I woke up only 3 hours later, and just couldn't nod off again. By early evening I was dead on my feet, but I forced myself to stay up - unpacking, tidying up, watching a DVD - until around midnight. I could have had a lie-in until 7, or 8, or perhaps even a bit later this morning.... but instead woke up at 5.30am! Well, that's about normal for me. Maybe I'm back on the right track. Still feeling pretty bloody rundown, though. I feel as though I could sleep all weekend.

The 'Weather God' gets his comeuppance

It was hubris, of course; but I had really begun to think - and to quip boastfully with friends - that I had become some sort of lucky charm with regard to the weather.

At the end of last month I flew back to an England that was suffering "one of the wettest summers on record" and was paralysed by floods or the threat of floods. Things were finally clearing up the day I arrived, and the sun shone brightly throughout the entire time I was there (well, apart from one grey, drizzly Sunday up in Edinburgh; you've got to expect some rain in Edinburgh!); it only ever rained (and not that much) overnight.

That is, until the day of my departure, which dawned as one of sunless, skyless, drizzly gloom. When I got back to Beijing (nearly a day and a half "later"), the sun was shining, and it was hot-but-not-too-hot; not quite a clear sky, but mercifully un-humid and un-smoggy - and there was a brief blaze of blue sky just before dusk. Again, this is pretty remarkable. The weather in August is usually cripplingly soupy; and apparently it had been grey and dreary as well for most of the last few weeks.

It would seem that I was, indeed, blessed. I was starting to tell people that I was a 'Weather God', that they should pay me to come to their barbecue parties to ensure clear skies, that they should beg me to accompany them on their holidays....

But it couldn't last. It lasted, in fact, all of about three hours after my return. Around sunset, the humidity suddenly went through the roof, and the saturation of the air has been around 90% for the next two days - it has been impossible to walk more than a few yards outside without gushing sweat from every pore. (And how I wish the air-conditioning in the lifts - and the lift lobby - in my office building actually worked...) Thursday was particularly grim: a day of choking fug and apocalyptic gloom, with light levels never getting above those of late dusk. At least on Friday we've got the sun back, although you've never really been able to see the sky.

So...... the next time I get a really lucky run with the weather, I'll keep my mouth shut about it.

Back-in-the-old-routine haiku

Dazed brain a victim
Of obstinate sleep cycles;
A timezone prisoner.

I don't usually get jet lag. Not usually..... but this time.... it sucks.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Is there anybody OUT THERE?

It would appear not.

Yes, I am back in Beijing.... but wondering whether I should continue with this blogging lark since, just at the moment anyway, I appear to have no readers at all.

This is one of the curses of the blog format: your readers tend to expect that you will add new posts regularly - if not daily! - and soon abandon you if you don't.

And August is a notoriously SLOW month here in Beijing..... pretty much everyone is on holiday just now.

And even my 'hardcore fans' have temporarily(?) forsaken me. Tulsa and The Cowboy have, apparently, been snowed under with tedious legal chores for the past month or so. (Tulsa, moreover, has been undergoing some sort of existential crisis: I can't really complain that she hasn't been writing on my blog when she hasn't even been writing on her own.) Leah's going on holiday. Moonrat and OMG, it would seem, are incredibly busy with their lives. Georg and Snopes and The Earthling are elusive creatures at the best of times, mysteriously dropping out of circulation for quite long spells. Caren's getting married (oh, the excuses they come up with!). And so it goes on.....

I think there are only about 25 or 30 regular readers here (and only a third of those ever leave comments), and they're nearly all long-time friends of mine. After nearly a year of diverse and often prolific output, I have scarcely attracted a single casual reader.

What else can I try, to get myself noticed?

Heck, I am top Google return for "panda abductions", "panda bestiality", "Zhongnanhai orgies", and "Chinese cooking sucks" - but this doesn't seem to have brought any traffic my way yet.

Any suggestions welcome, says a jet-lagged and disillusioned Froog.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Return of the weekly bon mot

"Personne ne peut se connaître. On peut seulement se raconter."

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)