Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The nicest apartment in Beijing?

Well, I think so.

It's not as swank as some, but it is very spacious, and has an extremely enviable location.

I'm just outside the North 2nd Ringroad, adjacent to the Shichahai district - one of the last parts of the city centre where a substantial amount of the traditional hutong-style low-rise housing still survives. I'm close to a subway station and some useful major bus routes (27, going west to the Zoo; 60, going south to the Wangfujing shopping district and the Temple of Heaven), only about a 15-minute walk to the historic landmarks of the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, and the attractive Houhai lakes area, and not very much further from Nanluoguxiang, these days one of the nicest bar and shopping streets in the city, and some very good live music venues (MAO Live House for rock'n'roll, East Shore for jazz, and some others too).

What's more, I am more or less mid-way between The Forbidden City (about a 40-minute walk due south), and the Bird's Nest Stadium (just a bit further away, north and east).

I have a large, L-shaped dining/living room, two large bedrooms (the second with an ensuite shower/bath), a further shower room/toilet/utility room, a modestly well-equipped kitchen (toaster, microwave, mini-oven, blender, coffee-maker, two-ring gas stove, extractor hood, large fridge/freezer), and a study which can serve as an additional bedroom (there are a couple of sofa-beds in the living room too). And a rather nice enclosed balcony which overlooks a small park. Nearly 1,500 sq ft in all. Air conditioning in all the main rooms.

It's on the top floor of a quiet, clean, fairly modern building. No elevator, but it's only 6 storeys. It is 'Chinese housing', so the level of decoration and equipment isn't quite what you'd hope for in a Western-style apartment, but it's perfectly comfortable.

I have a broadband Internet connection, and I am contemplating getting an international satellite TV hook-up.

An ideal place to spend the summer in Beijing! Is anyone still thinking of coming to the Olympics? Do you need a place to stay?

Drop me a line. I am looking to sublet for a while.

Update: Well, of course, no-one took me up on this offer. Just about no-one came to the Beijing Olympics from overseas. I wasn't really all that surprised.

And my rosy view of this apartment deteriorated rapidly over the next 18 months - mainly because of my landlord, who was a prize arsehole (even by the standards of Beijing landlords). Although the place was spacious and well-located, the standard of decorations and equipment was not so good.... and kept getting worse.... and the bloody landlord could never be persuaded to do anything about it. The wiring was unsafe: most of the light-fittings blew so regularly, or worked so intermittently, that I gave up replacing the bulbs, and - by the end of my time there - I was living in virtual darkness. There was no effective hot-water supply in the en suite bathroom. The (crudely stuck-on) ceiling in the kitchen collapsed. The traffic noise from the nearby 2nd Ringroad had developed into a serious, sleep-threatening irritation (there had been a huge increase in the traffic volume in the 5 years I was living there). And the place suffered its own internal noise pollution problem during the winter months, with the central heating system producing a continuous tap-tap-tap in the hot-water pipes. The final straw was that, immediately after the Olympics, the picturesque little park outside my window was transformed into a construction site. For a few months, the noise was frightful, and sleep was often impossible. Then, the work was abandoned for a long period, and then only half-heartedly (mercifully quietly) resumed: so, the park was - for an indefinite period of time - turned into an eyesore. And then my idiot landlord tried to ramp up the rent..... and I escaped.... to a smaller, but in most ways much nicer apartment (everything works, more or less) only a short distance away.

Gary's back! The 'Band Names' Competition is still alive!!

My thanks to the prolific band-naming genius, Gary, who has once again pitched in with a monthly contribution to my Possible Band Names game over on The Barstool.

I'll keep entries open till this weekend to see if anyone else can put up some decent competition for April's prizes.


I just confessed (though without much 'guilt') over on The Barstool that I had cancelled a class I was supposed to be teaching this evening.

I had a reasonable pretext. I also had the not unreasonable underlying reason that the timing of the classes (6pm-7.50pm: start in broad daylight, emerge in nighttime; miss dinner!!) was inexorably eroding my will to live.

However, I do fret that a further component of my lack of enthusiasm for this class is a general disenchantment with the whole field of business English teaching in China. I spend more and more of my time lobbying with clients, trying to persuade them that they don't really need English training at all (which, obviously, isn't great for business for me) - or that, if they're sure they do, they need to commit a serious amount of time and money to it in order to achieve some worthwhile and lasting results.

It's always the same. We (my more serious-minded and idealistic colleagues, I mean - there are a few of us) try to persuade clients to commit to a long-term, year-round training programme. They agree..... and then discover that they only have the budget for a short-term, one-off programme that's unlikely to be repeated more than once a year, and perhaps only once every 2 or 3 years. We try to persuade them that they need to allocate 15 or 20 weeks if they want to achieve any kind of meaningful improvement in their employees' English. They nod sagely, and then book a training session of only 8 or 10 (or, if we're really lucky, 12) weeks.

1 or 2 hours a week for 12 weeks is not going to get you anywhere. It's completely bloody pointless.

I taught once before at this small IT company where I'm working now; it was about 18 months or so ago. One of the students in my new class there also attended that former training. Despite having 10 or 12 weeks of my inspiring teaching, and despite making some advances (I like to think) in his English in that time, and despite my having given lots of tips on how to continue to study and practise English in daily life, and despite the fact that he works for a Scandinavian employer where English is regularly used in the workplace....... his English today is hugely WORSE than it was when I first taught him.

This is a depressingly common phenomenon. Most Chinese - even those working for foreign employers - have little free time to devote to language study, no real motivation to do so, and they are completely naive or unrealistic about methods of study and language learning goals. I think you'd probably have to give them several hours a week of intensive study for 2 or 3 years to get them to a level where they could communicate confidently and lucidly with native English speakers on work topics or, as many of them aspire to do, go to an English-speaking country for advanced study (that would be at least IELTS Level 7, ideally IELTS Level 8 - most of the people we deal with are Level 5 at best, but they really seem to think they can make the jump to Level 7 in 10 weeks!!).

Most Chinese HR managers haven't got a clue how to plan or budget for English training.

Most employers - Chinese or foreign - are unwilling to make language training any sort of priority.

Ugh. I'd better stop now...... before I start weeping and chewing the carpet.

A sinking in the heart....

And a spreading of the waistline.....

I was up at dawn today; and, having no work this morning, I was full of good intentions of heading out for a run. It would have been my first one in quite a while.

I looked out of my window and saw...... well, almost nothing. The visibility was even worse than the picture I posted a month or so ago, the new buildings half a mile from my balcony only shadowy spectres; the air is clotted with sand and haze. Just stepping on to my (enclosed, but not airtight!) balcony for a few moments, I could feel the dry, earthy taste in my mouth, feel the wretching, choking sensation beginning in my windpipe.

It would not be healthy to go outside in such conditions, certainly not for a run.

But damn, I am missing the exercise - it has become a necessary part of my life, and more for my mental than my physical health.

I have tried to divert myself and spend the morning profitably by reading a book. But every time I look out of the window, my spirits crash, and I start to think that I may have to leave this place.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Another Not The Daily Llama

Today's instalment brought to you in black & white..........

Bali & the ballerinas - an alliterative anecdote

I've always had a weakness for the ballet, and for ballerinas. Is it the grace and artistry, or simply the way they flaunt the length of their legs? Darcey Bussell will probably make it into my 'Fantasy Girlfriends' series one day. And Sylvie Guillem. And.......

One of my university friends, a slightly spivvy, gab-gifted, Arthur Daley-ish character called Nigel, was for a while dating one of the junior dancers of the Royal Ballet. Knowing my weakness for the form and its exponents, he often promised to try to set me up with introductions to, or arrange some kind of group date with his girlfriend's colleagues in the corps. Alas, it never came to pass - it didn't help that I was not then based in London, but working in my first job at a small private school down in Taunton.

I was particularly envious when I heard that he had met the great actor, John Malkovich, who was appearing in the West End at the time and had apparently started seeing one of the other dancers. "Never mind the ballerinas. I want to meet Malkovich!" I told my friend.

But I never got to meet him either. As name-dropping anecdotes go, this isn't really a very good one, is it?

No. I only introduced it, really, for its denouement. By the end of my winter term of teaching, Malkovich had flown back to the States, but my friend was still going strong with the ballerina, and still promising introductions to her friends. I really thought we'd manage to fix something up over Christmas or New Year...... but the girls all decided to take an impromptu holiday on the far side of the world. As Nigel succinctly explained in his Christmas Card to me that year: "Sorry about the ballerinas. They buggered off to Bali."

My dear Mum (I was still having to live at home during the vacations from this boarding school) was quite perplexed by this strange message, and, I fear, suspected that it might be code for something far worse.

Bon mot for the week

"Words are the most powerful drug used by man."

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bad omens??

Last Tuesday morning, I found it nearly impossible to get a taxi. There had been some overnight rain, but it had stopped (getting taxis in the rain is even harder here than in most other countries, sometimes next-to-impossible); so, there was no obvious reason why there should be a shortage of cabs; and I was setting out at 9am, when the worst of the rush hour is abating.

In fact, there was no great shortage of cabs. At least 4 or 5 of them - with their 'For Hire' lights on, no fares on board - cruised past me, refusing to stop. Driver No. 246616 pulled away as I was opening his door (I'd managed to catch him at a set of traffic lights), an extremely aggressive and dangerous thing to do. I've reported the bastard to the Taxi Supervision Bureau, but I don't suppose it will do any good.

It took me a full half hour before I finally got a cab - and even then, I think the guy was reluctant to take me. I had caught him as he was dropping off a fare, managed to jump in so quickly he didn't have a chance to drive away or protest that he was going off duty. Instead he feigned elaborate ignorance of where I wanted to go, hoping, perhaps, that I would lose confidence in him and cut the ride short. I didn't. I just toughed it out, and gave him detailed directions along the way.

Now, I try not to get too paranoid about episodes like this. I try to be open to other possible explanations. Maybe it was just an exceptional run of bad luck. Maybe the drivers who refused to stop for me were going off duty after working all night (that does tend to happen quite a bit). Maybe a lot of them had brought passengers in from the suburbs (more than normal, because of the rainy weather earlier in the morning), and were then eager to return to their regular patch and so avoiding picking up any city centre fares. That's possible, I suppose.

But that evening, 2 or 3 other foreigners told me they'd had a similar experience that morning. I didn't hear any Chinese people making similar complaints.

And, of course, Monday's papers were full of reports of the weekend's anti-foreigner protests. Cab-drivers seem to be particularly susceptible to shifts in the tide of media propaganda (when I first visited in the mid-90s, the British were getting a hard time because of the negotiations over the handover of Hong Kong; luckily for me, Clinton had just begun to try to link approval of China's WTO membership to improvements in human rights, so it was the Americans who were being vilified in the Chinese press, and the grudge against us Brits was temporarily forgotten - although I did find quite a few taxi drivers who tried to avoid taking me, until I was able to convince them I wasn't American). So, I think, on Tuesday morning they all hated us - us nasty, critical Westerners.

By Tuesday evening, they'd got over it again.

However, there is another cycle of protests scheduled (only in this country, surely, would "spontaneous popular demonstrations" be scheduled) for the May Day holiday. I think I'll try to avoid having to take a cab anywhere the second half of this week.

A Daily Llama


And a further reason why I don't learn Chinese.....


An attractive language. A sexy language. A language with a rich and diverse literature, both contemporary and historic. Spoken by more people, in more countries.

If I were going to make the effort to overcome the sense that my brain is too old and tired to learn another language, then I think Spanish - not Chinese - would be the worthiest candidate for my attention.

Arabic would be a very close second.

My brain is full

I have alluded before to the curse of the 'language Nazis', the people who are so self-righteous about the suffering they've put themselves through to 'master' Chinese that they are bitterly contemptuous of those of us who prefer not to bother - sometimes they will use the dread word "monolingual" as a term of disparagement. That particularly gets my goat.

I attained a high level of proficiency in Classical Latin and Greek, and also in French (at school I read substantial chunks of Voltaire, Zola, Flaubert and De Maupassant in the original). I have also, at various times, acquired (but then rapidly lost again!) at least a smattering of Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Modern Greek...... and Fijian. I can even speak a little Mandarin Chinese. Just a little.

I am not "monolingual" - I just happen not to find Chinese either attractive or useful, and thus can't muster any motivation to study it.

And it is much harder to learn new languages in middle age than it was when I was a young man. I wonder if the language centres of the brain may perhaps have a finite capacity..... and mine, I feel, are these days pretty much maxed out with English. I certainly know a few people here whose attempts to learn Chinese have produced little obvious result other than a slight deterioration in their English (my buddy The Chairman is a notorious example of this - although he's not the only one). I don't want that to happen to me.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Art, philosophy, music

I went up to the opening of this year's TimeOut 'Affordable Art Fair' in the Dashanzi art district yesterday evening. It was mostly a steaming pile, I'm sorry to say........ although I did quite like Guo Qipeng's grotesque porcelain babies, posing with rifles, toy tanks, soldier's helmets, binoculars, their angry visages and tiny penises such an apt metaphor for the swaggering impotence and insecurity of the government here (well, that's how I read them anyway - but I would, wouldn't I?). I was also rather tempted by Martin Barnes' playful send-ups of the Olympic fuwa mascots (I have some fridge stickers of this series already, but I think I might perhaps get a full-size print of one of them as well - genuinely affordable!): I particularly like the cutesy panda BeiBei rendered as a typical lao beijingren street-corner philosopher: pot-bellied, chain-smoking, red-nosed, stoked up on Tsingtao beer (although I really feel it ought to be be Yanjing) and erguotou.

I was reminded that a year or so ago a similar art exhibition visit prompted me to mention The Crash Test Dummies' song 'When I go out with artists'. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a decent version of that available on YouTube (only this - a good live performance, but with very low volume on the sound)...... so here instead is the video for their hit, 'God Shuffled His Feet' - a track I was tempted to mention at The Chairman's philosophy evening the other day.

Opportunity cost

Another reason why I don't learn Chinese......

It's just such a time-consuming undertaking that I can't see any value flowing from it that justifies the expense. Most of the reasons for learning the language I usually hear trotted out by people are, I think, entirely bogus or misguided.

I had a particularly obnoxious Australian woman berating me the other night on this point (my curmudgeonly drinking buddy, Big Frank, always maintains that the use of the word 'obnoxious' alongside 'Australian' is redundant, and I am often tempted to agree). She suggested that learning Chinese was somehow useful for learning about the history and culture of the country.

How??? Is there, in fact, anything worthwhile written about the history and culture of the country in Chinese? Even if there were, how many foreign students of Chinese actually attain a high enough reading level in the language to be able to read textbooks like this?

There is a lot written about Chinese history and culture in English. I am interested in these subjects. I read everything I can find about them. I wouldn't have time to do this if I were devoting 3 or 4 hours a day to trying to develop a rudimentary proficiency in the language. Trying to learn Chinese is, I feel, a waste of time.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Whose idea? Hu's idea!

I discovered the other day that one of my oldest Chinese friends here had been contemplating joining the anti-foreigner demonstration last Saturday.

I found this a particularly depressing reminder of just how effective the propaganda here is.

A reminder, also, of the shocking naivety of so many of the Chinese. My friend really had no awareness of exactly what he was to have been protesting against. Yet he seemed to believe very passionately in it, whatever it was. And he was completely convinced that this was a "spontaneous" event, organized by a group of his friends, entirely of their own volition. They just happened to be university students. And there was a very detailed programme of what they were supposed to do and where they were supposed to go, but it wasn't very clear where this had come from. And their plan to participate in the demonstration was called off - before it had even begun to happen - because the police told them to cancel it. But my friend really had no conception that this whole event might have been centrally organised by the Party.


This week's corkers from the studio

No great moments of Chinglish as such this week, but a few inspired spelling foul-ups.

At one point I was called upon to initiate a conversation by greeting my female partner, DD, thus: "Hi, Sop Hail!" Sophia, I imagine, had been intended.

A little later DD, playing a hotel receptionist, delighted in being able to tell me: "I'm sorry, you haven't been fisted under that name."

After that laughter break, we came upon the oddity of a passage about employment practices talking about "out of rice men". Completely stumped on that one. Any help, anyone? Brendan?? I wonder if it's perhaps a Chinese phrase for contract workers, outsourcing ("iron rice bowl" is the standard idiom for being a job-for-life salary man).

Oh yes, it's a fascinating job.

Haiku of the week

Haunting memory
Touching the untouchable
The coolness of skin

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy Birthday, Will

We're having a little party today (any excuse!) to commemorate the birth of the Bard.

DD, our hostess, compiled a charming collection of distinctively "English" images for the invitation - the most arresting of which was a rural phone box. Her pic, alas, is only a thumbnail, and I haven't been able to dig up the original on the Net. This one is a reasonable substitute, though. It does make me rather nostalgic for the old home land.

I dislike so many things about the place (chiefly the people, or at any rate the substantial yobbish segment of the population), but it is an exceptionally beautiful country (whereas China..... part desert, part rubbish dump, part rice paddy...... really is not very attractive, for the most part), and it has bequeathed so much of value to the world: the English language, cricket, the common law, a sense of fair play, rooting for the underdog, gin & tonic.

As the great man himself put it:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

And here are some more "icons of Englishness" (some good, some bad) that I just turned up.

I still like this one best.

Happy Birthday, Will. Cheers.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Another Not The Daily Llama

Yet more visual punnery. You were warned, Mothman, you were warned.

The Deafening Silence

We had a completely commentless week last week. On both my blogs. Boo-hoo.

My 'Big Four', Tulsa, Moonrat, The Mothman, and The British Cowboy all forsook me. For a whole week. Thank heavens for (the rarer, but perhaps more reliable?) OMG!

At least Moonie and The Cowboy have checked in again today. Is Mothman still lurking? And The Bookseller? And FG, HiK? And Tulsa - what has happened to Tulsa?! Where are you, my dear??

Bon mot for the week

"In the dim background of our mind we know what we ought to be doing, but somehow we cannot start."

William James (1842-1910)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Don't make a rod for your own back

Yet more free advice for the Chinese leadership

The narrow-mindedness of the Chinese government on the Tibet issue, and the heavy-handedness of its manipulation of the news coverage of related events, makes the problem larger, probably makes it unsolvable - and unleashes a whole wave of new problems too.

The official viewpoint - utterly inflexible, and dinned into the skull of every Chinese person from early childhood onwards - is this: The Dalai Lama wants independence for Tibet. China's strength lies in China's unity; therefore any attempt to separate one part of China away from the whole is an attempt to weaken China, and is EVIL. Anyone who shows any sympathy for the Dalai or for the Tibetans is in fact advocating Tibetan indepedence and thus the weakening of China, and is EVIL.

Unfortunately, of course, that means US - the foreigners, the outsiders, the waiguoren. All of us. We feel sorry for the Tibetans, we question the military crackdown, we suggest that perhaps the Dalai isn't such a bad chap, we worry about China's fitness to host the Olympics - therefore we are trying to destroy China and we are EVIL.

There was a pretty nasty demonstration outside one of the international schools in the Embassy district yesterday afternoon: a crowd of young Chinese chanting, "Death to foreigners!"

Way to go, boys! That's really going to enhance your international image and give a needed boost to Olympic tourism. Oh yeah. Target a school (in which there were, apparently, some kids having weekend classes of some kind), shout death threats. Classy. You couldn't keep it to "Keep your noses out of Tibet" or "Hands off our Olympics". Oh no.

Chinese nationalism is particularly virulent - a volatile blend of arrogance and insecurity, a massive collective inferiority complex. Nationalism is rarely a pretty thing, but in China it seems to me to be especially insular and xenophobic, especially unthinking and violent.

And it is consciously created and manipulated by the leadership: promulgating this rabid sense of national unity (and a sense of standing alone against an uncomprehending, disdainful, hostile outside world) is seen as the only way to distract the people's attention from the numerous shortcomings of the Party's rule. It really is all too uncomfortably reminiscent of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: the Dalai Lama is an Emmanuel Goldstein figure, the focus of regular doses of 'Two Minutes Hate'.

And one of the scariest parts of yesterday's ugliness is this: demonstrations like this do not happen spontaneously in China. No, they are centrally planned and co-ordinated by the Party, usually organized by the Communist Youth League and largely using university students (such, at least, was how the anti-Japanese protests were staged here a few years ago; and I have been told that the mobbing of the US Embassy after the Sarajevo incident was contrived in much the same way). People are told where to go, what to chant, and whether they can throw bricks. Really. There were simultaneous demonstrations of this nature in several Chinese cities yesterday - and they were being reported in detail by Xinhua News almost as they were happening. So, spontaneous expressions of popular feeling? I think not. But it is perhaps even more alarming that somebody at the upper levels of the Party thought that this would be a good way to respond to foreign criticisms of China over Tibet and the Olympics. It is, I'm sorry to say, startling evidence of just how criminally naive - and how morally backward - this country's leadership still is.

Very few people, as far as I can see, have openly advocated independence for Tibet. The Dalai Lama has specifically disowned the idea (and there is absolutely no reason to doubt his sincerity on this). Engaging in dialogue with the Dalai would probably do much to defuse the violence of Tibetans' resentment of Chinese rule; it would certainly do much to disarm overseas criticism of China and improve the prospects for a happy and successful Olympics this summer. It might be of benefit to all parties. It at least provides the possibility of a way forward.

But the Dalai Lama is Goldstein: he exists only to be derided and vilified.

And hence, on the Tibet issue (and thus on the Olympic issue) there is no way forward for China.

And perhaps this really is the thinking of the Chinese leadership: "Boy, we really seem to have painted ourselves into a corner on Tibet, and now it looks as if the Olympics are going to be a complete PR disaster for us. How did we not see this coming? Well, we can't let people start blaming us for this. We'd better make them blame the foreigners instead."

Unfortunately, when you whip up a frenzy of foreigner-bashing sentiment like this, things can very easily get out of control. Riot police were on hand yesterday - though more to emphasise the "importance" of the demonstration than because they might actually have been needed. If things continue like this, though, it might possibly one day lead to anti-foreigner riots. I think it certainly will lead to isolated instances of violence against foreigners here. We have all started to be a little more cautious when we go out - and that is a great, great shame, because China is usually a very safe country, a very friendly country for foreigners.

This is a very dangerous game the Chinese leadership is playing; it's a policy that could well explode in their faces. I mean, of course, in terms of creating public order problems which it may struggle to contain, and which may encompass other targets than the ones originally spoonfed to the people via the propaganda machine (once people start to riot, they discover that it's fun). In PR terms, it was an instant disaster anyway: many of the foreigners working here contemplate leaving; Olympic tourist bookings dwindle even further; the tarnishing of the Games with boycotts and protests becomes ever more inevitable.

But, it seems, they really don't care about making the problems worse; they only care about not being blamed for them by their own people. This is the mentality that must change - or China's rise to being a fully modernized country and a great world power may be delayed indefinitely.

Update: A journalist friend who witnessed some of Saturday's anti-foreigner demonstration in Beijing says that the protesters weren't shouting anything quite as bad as "Death to the foreigners!", that it was mostly more stuff like "Down with the French!" (The French are taking most of the flak at the moment, because they seem to be at the forefront of discussions about whether to boycott the Olympic opening ceremony. Moral leadership from the French?? Whatever next?!) He questions whether my original source could understand Chinese all that well.

I always felt it was intrinsically unlikely that the protesters (or, rather, the senior cadres who were scripting the event) would have been that intemperate in their language. But then, in this country, you never know. I don't think my sceptical friend was present during the picketing of the French school in Sanlitun. And one of the two warning text messages I received about this was supposedly passed on from a journalist who was at the scene and does understand Chinese well. I wasn't there myself, so I can't say for sure. I think it only fair to record that there is some doubt as to what was actually being shouted by the protesters.

I don't think there's any doubt that it was an unsavoury episode, fuelled by a generalised xenophobia rather than any reasoned critique of the French government, the hostility - and latent violence - of the crowd underscored by the deployment of the riot police (although, as I already observed above, I think this was part of the theatre of the event, part of the 'message' the leadership wanted to convey, rather than an essential precaution).

I also learned last night that a few foreign journalists working here have received individual death-threats (by e-mail, I presume), and that one of them has decided to take a break from the country for a while rather than put up with all the hassle here.

Things just keep getting worse and worse for the Zhongnanhai boys.

I wonder what June will have in store for us this year? Nothing good, I don't suppose.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It sounds like a whisper

Some (musical) free advice for the Chinese leadership

Hu and the boys are leading themselves (and, alas, probably the whole country) down a path to disaster. They really ought to come and hang with me at my local once in a while. That might help them to lighten up a little, and take on board some more diverse points of view.

We've been playing a lot of Tracy Chapman down there recently.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A better-late-than-never haiku

Anger, despair, grief
Sharp as loss of friend or limb:
Another lost phone.

At least I already had a spare phone waiting to go into service this time, and I've been able to transfer my old number on to a new SIM card relatively painlessly. However, I didn't have any electronic backup for the address book. I do have a written list, but it's not completely comprehensive and up-to-date; and the process of manually inputting all the numbers again seems to take forever. And I fear there are quite a few that I've lost..... one or two potentially rather important ones that I may not be able to replace (yes, my infamous Plan may have suffered a fatal setback!). Bugger, bugger, bugger.

Cab driver No. 199847, I hope you're enjoying my phone, you bastard.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Another sign of the times

'Facebook', I have just learned, has become a verb. As in, "I don't know if he's coming to the party or not. I facebooked him at the weekend, but he hasn't responded yet."

Now, while, in general, I cherish the English language's facility for new word formation as one of its great strengths (and one of its great advantages over Chinese)...... well, I do not think it is inconsistent or hypocritical of me to deplore the majority of neologisms such as this. By all means, let us all create new words on a daily basis. But let us not adopt them into regular usage or recommend them to our friends or lobby to get them included in a dictionary...... unless they really deserve such accolades.

'Facebooking' as a verb is crass, inelegant, unnecessary. And the phenomenon from which it derives will not, I think, be around for much longer. (Yes, I am holding myself up to the possible ridicule of future generations for that pronouncement. Perhaps Facebook will establish a niche for long-term survival; but I don't think it can possibly maintain the sort of pervasive, buzzword-of-the-moment attention it enjoyed in its opening months. And, frankly, I am dubious even about its survival prospects beyond the short to medium-term. The Internet develops so fast that, I suspect, almost all of today's hottest sites will be eclipsed sooner or later by something better - or newer, or just different. And Facebook always seemed a particularly faddish kind of thing to me. My impression is that it is already losing momentum. I seldom if ever get any new invitations to join any more; whereas, 9 months ago, I was getting a steady trickle every week. Most of the friends I have who once admitted to an 'addiction' now say they use it much more rarely. Quite a few have largely or completely abandoned it. Those that still use it do so only as an occasional adjunct or alternative to e-mail and E-Vite. In a couple of decades, I rather think it will be only a curious footnote in the strange, eventful history of the early Internet. That's my gut feeling now, anyway. Let history be the judge.)

Please, please, please - let us step away from all this Facebook nonsense. And keep the bloody word out of the dictionary!

(Cartoon from
Natalie Dee Comics)

Learn how to present bad news

Another instalment of free PR advice for the Chinese leadership

I had taken a rest from this theme for a week or so, but I feel I ought to keep up the onslaught of 'helpful tips' because, you know, occasionally someone may listen....... No, really: in the last day or so, most of the blocked bits of the Internet have been unblocked again. And obviously it's all down to me. Of course, it can't last long - the next big panic attack anniversary is barely seven weeks away.

I have made a point of watching the news and current affairs programmes on the state-run English language television channel here, CCTV9, a few times in the past couple of weeks. I've also taken several looks at the (usually worthless, laughable) English language newspaper, China Daily. It's hardly been a meticulous 'newswatch'; just an occasional scan here and there. There's not been very much about the situation in Tibet (except to say that the trouble's all blown over: "All quiet on the western front....."), little or nothing about disruptions of the Olympic Torch Relay (I'm told there have been a few mentions of it, but vanishingly brief - I would have liked to have seen them anyway, to see how they're approaching this topic), nothing at all, I think, on adverse public statements around the world by foreign politicians.

The essence of PR is handling bad stories. Promoting good stories is the relatively easy bit. Generating press attention for the run-of-the-mill stories is the daily grind of it. But the true artistry lies in damage limitation. China's PR approach, however, remains largely locked in the Cold War propagandist mentality: deny, ignore, obfuscate, distract. No actual engagement with the issue - ever.

If the Chinese leadership is really going to start embracing freedom of information in this country, it seems to me that this might be a good place to start - giving proportionate and honest domestic coverage to foreign criticism of the Tibet crackdown, while giving it the best spin they can.

And it shouldn't be that hard to gain some credibility, some sympathy from the Olympic Torch protests. The 'Olympic ideal' - bizarre and inappropriate though this seems to me - is of far wider import than is China's pride in being the host of the next games. It still inspires the interest and respect of a huge proportion of the world's population, and something akin to reverence from a very great many of them. Messing with the torch seems - to many people - crass, unnecessary, childish. And the kind of activists who do this sort of thing often come over as crazed, obsessive, self-publicizing, rather than rational, persuasive advocates of their cause.

It wouldn't be hard for a good PR man to come up with several good angles for the presentation of these events in the Chinese media. But I'm not a PR man, as such. And I'm fed up of giving my advice for free.

I'm sure the Chinese leadership's got some good PR men on board - probably both Chinese and foreign - but there's not very much their suggestions can achieve while the power structures and mindset of the Maoist-Communist past still persist so strongly in the Party.

A (Snoozy) Daily Llama

More Danegeld for Moonrat......

Monday, April 14, 2008

More Internet blues

For the past couple of weeks, I have been experimenting with the FoxyProxy add-on for the Firefox browser, which has been recommended to me by a number of friends here as a convenient and reliable way to beat the Internet blocking we've been suffering.

I found it a little tricky to download and install, and then it wouldn't work at all for the first couple of days.

Then it started working just fine. Then it started getting more and more cranky, frequently requiring me to 'Retry' 3 or 4 times before I could beat a 'time out' in navigating to the next page. Then, over this last weekend, it stopped working at all for Blogspot (which is the main thing I was using it for). And today, it also stopped working for Wikipedia (gggrrrrrr).

Up to now, I've only been using it with the 'Default Proxy' setting - and I imagine the earlier problems I'd been having might have been evidence of partial blocking or attempted blocking of that proxy address (or addresses) by the censors here (and perhaps of counter-attempts to keep the service running by introducing new mirror sites?). Will the FoxyProxy guys set up a new 'default' for us to beat this block? And will that automatically come into effect to restore the service, or will I have to install some sort of patch or update??

FoxyProxy does offer a formidable array of set-up options, including letting you use TOR as the default proxy. Unfortunately, for some reason I still haven't been able to fathom, TOR either doesn't work at all or is unusably slow (2-minute page downloads!!) on my computer. There's also the facility of designating particular proxy addresses for use with particular websites (I may have to look into this further, though it is a bit of a chore to scour the Internet trying to find lists of reliable proxies), and for defining websites or types of website to use proxies with (handy, because if, as I originally did, you just tick 'Default proxy for all URLs', it gets pretty darned SLOW once you have more than 8 or 10 windows or tabs open). There's more information on all of this here.

Anyway, for the past 48 hours or so I have been back in the position I was in for most of last month - relying on two web-based proxies. This is tremendously cumbersome for dealing with Blogspot, because one of them is kind of slow and doesn't allow you to visit 'secure' sites (so you can't access the 'comments' form), while the other is fast and reliable but - hugely gallingly - gets 'stuck' on a single proxified website page (i.e., it doesn't proxify any further pages you may want to navigate to, so you can't even move to other parts of the same site, if - like my poor little blogs - it is being blocked; and then there's the added vexation that you can't even go back to the original proxy page [which now only displays your target proxified webpage], so you have to open a new window for every single webpage you want to visit via it!); although this one does at least allow you to leave blog comments easily (thanks to the curious anomaly that the Blogspot comments pages are actually run off its sister site, Blogger..... which isn't blocked!). Having to constantly alternate between these two proxy services is A HUGE PAIN IN THE ARSE.

But..... AHA, salvation may be at hand. I deferred posting this earlier because I found there was an update to download for FoxyProxy, and I was hoping this might solve my problem. It didn't. However, that disappointment goaded me into investigating the other FoxyProxy options again. I have re-installed the TOR bundle (which includes the Privoxy and Vidalia applications, and automatically configures for use with Firefox)....... and this time it seems to work. So, I've switched FoxyProxy over from 'Default Proxy' to 'Tor Proxy', and I seem to be back in business! It's a bit slow, but I've got easy access to Blogspot and Wikipedia again. Whoop-de-doo!

I am wary of getting too excited. The dratted censors will no doubt soon be on my case again, contriving some new way to spoil my Internet fun. But for now.......

Well, for now..... I'll probably be spending the next day or two reading up on all the TOR bumf and trying to work out what the heck all these new buttons and icons on my browser mean and........

This week's bon mot

"A voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in finding new eyes."

Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The return of the Daily Llama

Something we have all been fervently wishing for, no doubt......

OK, maybe it's an alpaca. Same family. Still cute.

Are you satisfied, MR?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Game of the Names

The other week over on The Barstool, I was messing around concocting aliases for myself using a couple of amusing online name-widgets I'd found.

I do urge you all to take a look at that post, and give it a whirl yourself. I mean, how can you live without knowing your Pirate Name, your Porn Star Name, your Mexican Wrestler Name, your Mafioso Name, or your New York Cabbie Name? Hours of innocent fun!

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Lady Penelope

It is just possible that my very first crush - even before Rhapsody Angel, the willowy redheaded fighter pilot in her slinky white jumpsuit - was Lady Penelope here. Again, a fibreglass puppet! Damn - what was the appeal of those crazy Gerry Anderson shows?!

It is very hard to resist the allure of what we Brits call 'posh tottie': the aristocratic hauteur - and the isolating wealth - is daunting, yes, discouraging, alienating; and yet it's also very much a challenge. Oh, how often we have fantasised about wearing down that chilly reserve and taking these snooty glamourpusses for an horizon-stretching "walk on the wild side".

The great thing about our Penny - as I always liked to think of her - was, of course, that she was on the wild side already. Although outwardly a very prim and proper, not to say somewhat vacuous society hostess, she led a double life as a secret agent (probably the world's least plausible secret agent, but never mind).

Alas, I fear that Penny raised the bar way too high for all the subsequent flesh-and-blood women in my life. Beauty and charm are not enough for me: no, I expect my women also to have a shrewd intelligence and ruthless cunning, to be utterly unflappable in the face of danger, to be adept with firearms and skeleton-keys, and to be fluent in several languages. And elegant dressers too, of course. Being a multi-millionairess is a bonus.

Friday, April 11, 2008


I am ashamed of myself. I go to McDonald's here occasionally.

I abhor McDonald's - for all the standard 'political' reasons (poor nutrition, worrying additives, penny-pinching employment practices, promoting deforestation in South America), and for a few slightly more personal ones too (the soul-squelching homogenization of the English High Street, the slow demise of more traditional junk food outlets like the fish & chip shop, the insidious kiddie-targeted advertising onslaught), and above all simply on grounds of taste (it is vile, bland food - give me Burger King any day! Alas, they don't have Burger King yet here in China.).

I have boycotted McDonald's in the UK and the US for years; and, given the plentiful fast food alternatives usually available in those countries, I have seldom or never wavered from that resolve. Here in China, however, McDonald's is rapidly becoming ubiquitous. Other Western-style fast-food outlets are just about non-existent (except for the occasional KFC, and the odd local McDonald's copycat operation). And so, because most Chinese food is so disappointing, I do from time to time - for cheapness and "convenience" - find myself falling back on the McDonald's option.

"Convenience" gets the inverted comma treatment because the Chinese haven't really got the hang of the fast food concept yet. This is a country of ditherers and lollygaggers. It's a national pastime. In particular, dithering over the menu for ages is one of the key pleasures of the dining experience for the Chinese, and they're not about to sacrifice that pleasure just because they're in a fast food joint - and there are 10 other people waiting in a line behind them. Yep, the main reason fast food doesn't work here is the customers. I am quite partial to KFC back home; but I've only ever attempted to buy some here 3 or 4 times. Attempted. On each occasion, the counter wasn't very busy, only 2 or 3 people were in line ahead of me. On each occasion, after about 5 minutes of waiting in vain for the person at the head of the line to finalise an order, I gave up and walked out. Every sinew of your being is silently shrieking: "It's a chicken shop. It's all chicken. Just order some friggin' chicken, for chrissakes!"

Last night, having starved all evening because of the sudden inconvenient demise of the favourite Chinese snack stall I had been planning to fuel up at, I found myself once again going through the McDonald's China ordeal. My local one (at the top of Dianmenwai) is possibly the worst in the entire city. It's so bad, I really try to avoid ever using it on grounds of saving myself from the aggravation, rather than any stand of principle against the company as a whole (a principle which I wretchedly abandon, with increasing frequency, at several of its other outlets here in Beijing). There's been a huge improvement in the service standards at most of the McD's I've been to here over the past 5 years. When I first arrived in China, things were shockingly bad: crawlingly slow, incompetent service; no English spoken, no familiarity with the menu. On one particularly memorable occasion up in Haidian a few years ago (at the branch on the corner of Chengfu Lu and Xueyuan Lu, much frequented by foreign students), it took me about 5 minutes to ascertain - via a painstaking process of elimination - that none of the burger products was available. Yes, I had caught them at the end of their big lunchtime rush, but - a McDonald's that's out of burgers ("Meiyou niurou!")??!! That should not be possible. These days, thank heavens, most of the staff in most of the branches speak at least a little bit of English; most of them can now manage at least a modicum of efficiency and briskness in the filling of your order. The Dianmenwai branch has been strangely by-passed by this revolution. The time-and-motion trainers have not yet come to call.

Last night, I was desperate. I'd been working all evening. I hadn't really eaten anything substantial all day. I was ravenous. I was impatient. I was foolhardy. I looked in at the Dianmenwai McDonald's at about 10pm. There were about 5 or 6 young Chinese ahead of me waiting to be served. Only 1 of the 4 serving points was open. After about 5 minutes, the first guy in the line was still discussing his order. I kid you not. The girl serving him wasn't doing anything to hurry him along. The shift manager wasn't considering the option of putting another server on (by now, another 2 or 3 people had joined the line behind me). I decided to go for a walk, to vent my frustration, to check out if anyone I knew was in Huxley's, my local 'dive' bar just around the corner. There was no-one I knew in the bar. I was still ravenous. I couldn't think of any other quick eats I could get in the neighbourhood. I went back to the dratted McD's. About another 4 or 5 minutes had elapsed. There was still just the one girl serving, but she had finally managed to deal with all the people who'd been waiting (well, I think the guy just getting served when I returned was the one who'd been immediately in front of me; I guess the people who'd been waiting behind me must also have given up and walked out). It still took them 3 minutes to make my burger. 3 minutes. There is no rush on. I am now the only person in the place. 3 minutes! I really don't know how they manage to do everything so slowly! Even when my burger was finally ready, the middle-aged lady doing the bagging up (they had a separate person for this?! the server couldn't do it herself??) was moving in ultra-slow-motion, taking a good 20 or 30 seconds fussily folding over the top of the bag three times and then placing the folded till receipt on top of that - one of the longest 30 seconds of my life, 30 seconds during which my empty stomach seemed to be bellowing furious profanities at the poor woman.

So, that's nearly 15 minutes in total to purchase a Big Mac - in a branch that's almost empty. I think whoever is supposed to be monitoring quality standards on the franchise here needs to look into this.

Another one bites the dust

As if it's not bad enough that favourite shops and restaurants keep disappearing overnight (victims of Beijing's relentless modernization: either smashed by the bulldozer, or forced out by spiralling rent increases), the same is happening to my favourite snack stalls.

There was a great little hole-in-the-wall on my street when I first moved in here that did a couple of fried pancakey snacks I've never encountered anywhere else: a spinach-filled pattie, and a long strudel-like thing with spiced minced meat and onions inside. It was for a while my favourite lunch venue, but, alas, it soon disappeared (I mean, really, disappeared: it vanished so suddenly and so completely that I struggled to remember exactly where it had been; it was as though the place had never existed!).

My next favourite snack food in this neighbourhood is a large, round, flat pancake filled with minced lamb and chives. You buy it in quarters or eighths, like slices of pizza (although, since I am very bad with fractions in Chinese, they often con me into taking a full half of one, which is way too much). They're greasy as hell, but a tasty and filling mini-meal for just a few kuai. They're popular with Chinese punters too: there's always a gaggle of people queueing impatiently at the stall around 6pm, and the cook struggles to turn them out fast enough. Again, this is a unique treat: I've never seen anything quite the same anywhere else. And I have, alas, never gathered if there's any special name for it - all snacks of this type just seem to go under the generic label of bing.

Anyway, I hadn't had a slice of this for quite some time, and was starting to develop a real craving for it. I thought it would be an ideal quick fix for me last night, since the stall was on the way to the 6pm class I had to teach nearby. But guess what - the stall had disappeared. Well, the tiny shop it used to operate out of is still there, but that particular snack is no longer on offer. I have no idea if the meat pancake girls were just one of a number of snack concessions sharing this small space, or if it's a single business..... and they just decided to take the top-selling item off the menu. That's the kind of thing they do here from time to time, just to piss me off.

Teaching on an empty stomach - not good.

Haiku time once more

Bittersweet phantom,
The memory of a kiss.
Wistful self-torture!

Yes, wallowing in romantic nostalgia again this week.

One might suppose that 'bittersweet' is a relatively novel invention, but in fact it's pretty old. Nor is it a uniquely English concept: the same idea occurs in Classical Greek some 2,500 year ago - glukupikros.

I haven't flaunted my Classical education for a while, so, you know.......

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Not (Again) The Daily Llama

This visual punnery just keeps on getting sillier, doesn't it?

I only do it because it riles dear
Moonrat so. She wants real llamas. Patience, Moonie - soon, soon.

The Great fa piao Quest

The British employer for whom I've been doing all the presentations lately likes to avoid the bother of having to pay income tax for its small army of casual workers like myself by offsetting our fees against tax-deductible expenses. And almost everything is deductible in China: food, travel, even utilities bills and rent. Because of this, there is a huge black market in secondhand (or sometimes, no doubt, faked) receipts - or fa piao ('tax tickets') as they are known in the local lingo. They change hands for a small percentage of their face value, and there are usually touts buying and selling them outside the major train, bus, and subway stations.

Unfortunately, the British education company claims to be limited in the types of fa piao it can submit - food and transport only. Bit of a bummer for me, since I've just put a 1,000 RMB top-up on the chargecard for my electricity meter and was hoping I'd be able to submit the receipt for that.

They also claim (and I have no idea if this is really an official regulation, or just them playing silly buggers) that now that we have moved into the new financial year in April, the Beijing Tax Office is only accepting fa piao with a 2008 date. Really? Not for the whole of the preceding tax year?? It seems incredible to me, bafflingly perverse - even by the standards of PFU-ness we come to expect in China. But that's my employers' story, and they're sticking to it. I even got caught out on this with my fees for last month, because they weren't submitting their tax claim on them until this month. Damn!

This is a huge pain-in-the-arse. I have several thousand RMB worth of fa piao from 2007 (mostly taxi receipts), but hardly any from the first three months of this year (when I wasn't working much, and only going out in my local neighbourhood: my taxi usage had dropped off by about 70 or 80%). I have had to call around all my friends, cadging spare fa piao wherever I can.

This month, I have been using taxis far more (and remembering to keep all of the receipts, something I'd got a bit sloppy about in recent months), and making myself unpopular with restaurant owners by demanding fa piao whenever I eat out (most fa piao - the higher value ones, at any rate - have to be dated and made out to a specific payor; restaurants, however, usually have blank vouchers for their fa piao: undated, anonymous, limitlessly exchangeable! Unfortunately, this means that they're so valuable, the bosses never want to just give them away to people who merely happen to have spent a lot of money in their restaurant; no, you have to ask for them specially - and often quite forcefully and repeatedly.). Alas, I stand to earn some 3,000 or so RMB through this employer this month, and I am nowhere near to amassing enough fa piao to cover a sum like that.

I fear I am going to have to start transacting with the dodgy touts down at the railway station.....

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Last Saturday, I was once again doing my 'performing monkey' (sorry, I mean 'veteran English teacher'; no, wait, 'distinguished overseas educational consultant' - that sounds better) shtick for "the shrill girl", the maddeningly flaky Chinese publisher I complained of last week. Yes, it was the promotional presentation I discovered they were hoping to film for free.

Quite apart from that awkward little fracas, the event had already nearly miscarried because I'd initially gone to the wrong venue.

The shrill girl had told me "Zhongguancun bookstore"; but she hadn't told me if this was actually the name of the building, or if it was a sufficient description because this was the only well-known bookstore in the Zhongguancun district. She hadn't given me the address, or any directions on how to get there - but at least she had this time remembered to SMS me the address in Chinese, so that I could show my taxi driver. The driver appeared to recognise what I showed him - but evidently the "address" in Chinese was just as ambiguous as what I'd been told in English, and he took me to the wrong bookstore.

He dropped me off in Zhongguancun outside a huge building with 'Haidian Book City' emblazoned on the outside of it in English. "This is the place," he said confidently (Zhongguancun is a sub-district of the Haidian quarter of the city, so the address/description we'd been given seemed to fit). I called the shrill girl to let her know I had arrived. She said she would come straight out to collect me. 10 minutes passed. Nothing happened. I called her again. She was starting to panic. She wasn't sure where I was. I explained again. Another 10 minutes passed. I called again. I explained again where I was. Eventually, the penny dropped. Apparently, there are several large bookstores in Zhongguancun, and I was supposed to be at another one. Fortunately, it was only a few hundred yards away.

Strange, though, that it had never occurred to the shrill one that there might be some scope for misunderstanding with the imprecise "address" she had given me. No, no - this is China. This kind of shit happens all the time.

Yesterday, I was working for this bloody woman yet again; this time, speaking to some students at a university.

She had told me it was to be the Beijing Technology University (and had again sent me an "address" in Chinese to assist the cabbie). My taxi delivered me to the Beijing University of Science and Technology (an unfortunate acronym!). Now, there really are dozens and dozens of universities in Beijing. Many of them I do not know the names of. Many of them have dangerously similar names. I immediately began to fear that I might be in another 'wrong university' situation. Happily, this time I wasn't.

The Chinese rarely seem to have any awareness that consistency of naming or word-order can be so important in English; that, for example, the Beijing University of Technology might not be the same as the Beijing Technology University, and very probably isn't the same as the Beijing University of Science and Technology. Heck, Chinese being the lexically impoverished language that it is, I wouldn't be that surprised if 'technology/technological', 'science/scientific', 'machinery/mechanical' and 'engineering' could all be rendered by the same word. How many confusible university names might that give us? Quite a lot.

And yet Chinese people - well, the shrill girl in particular - never seem to pay much attention to repeating the names of buildings or institutions accurately, even in Chinese; and they are often completely ignorant of the offiicial English translations of these names.

It does make finding your way to a place for the first time an anxious and vexing business.

Hell Week

Gawd, I'm exhausted.

In the space of barely more than a week, I have finished off my gruelling series of late-evening classes on film studies at a distant university, put in 3 stints in the recording studio, begun a new series of business English classes at a software company (evenings again - oh, damn!), conducted 3 "Why don't you all learn English for the Olympics?" pep rallies for a local educational publisher, led a half-day teacher training seminar, and proofread a new "teach yourself business Chinese" textbook.

I worked every day of the 3-day long weekend holiday just passed (this year, the Chinese were, for the first time ever, given a one-day holiday for their traditional grave-sweeping festival of Qing Ming). Only a few hours each day, but that's a heavy psychological burden, enough to put a big dent in the day, to tear down the sense of 'freedom'.

OK, yes, that little lot only accounts for about 20 hours of actual 'work' - but trust me, teaching and lecturing, particularly in front of large audiences, requires a huge amount of energy; it's extremely emotionally draining.

And this particular spurt of work just past was especially taxing because it involved working for several different employers (on some of these gigs, for two different employers simultaneously - which is a whole extra layer of stress), in several different venues, scattered far across the city, and some of which I'd never been to before and had no idea how to find.

Moreover, alongside the actual hours of paid 'work', there are peripheral associated meetings, advance preparation, subsequent paperwork, extensive liaising via phone and text message and e-mail, all kinds of irritating delays and hold-ups and superfluous mid-session breaks and general faffing around..... and, of course, the seemingly endless hours of commuting in taxis and on subway trains. The total time I devoted to my labours over this past 7 or 8 days was probably way more than double the nominal number of hours on which my fees were calculated.

Such reflections are apt to induce depression. For the amount of effort I put in, for the passion and the expertise I bring to what I do, my effective hourly rate of earnings is really pretty dismal. However, I did just make nearly 7,000 RMB in one week, and that's more than enough to keep me going for the rest of the month. And it's more than twice what I was making with that dratted British education company last year. On balance, I suppose I do pretty well for myself.

Trouble is, it's always feast or famine around here. I have next-to-nothing lined up for the rest of the month......

Pick of the Month

For this month's blast from the past here on Froogville, I offer you 'The Secret Customer Service Manual', an early entry in my now discontinued 'Where In The World Am I?' series.

And over on The Barstool, I nominate 'The Vomit People' - a favourite story from my University days (and not as gross as it may sound, honestly). Hmmm, another possible band name?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Not the Daily Llama

I think you know what I'm saying.

Thanks to
Gary for suggesting this.

More winners in the Band Name competition

Check out this post on The Barstool for the March winners in my ongoing competition to find great (amusing yet plausible) suggestions for naming rock groups.

Dane Breath, Candy Rabbit, Billion Dollar Brian, and The Ale Marys were only the runners-up. Can you imagine what won? Go take a look.

And please add your suggestions for April here. There are prizes to be won.

Another bon mot

"It is not enough to have a good mind. The important thing is to use it well."

René Descartes (1596-1650)

Sunday, April 06, 2008

List of the Month - my next batch of ming pian

Business cards (in Chinese, ming pian) are a big deal in Asia. Everybody has them; even people with lowly, unglamorous jobs; even people with no jobs at all. And everybody exchanges them on first meeting, however casual and fleeting the encounter may be. I've got hundreds and hundreds of the sodding things littering my apartment.

Oddly enough, though, I haven't had any printed just for myself since my first or second year here. A succession of semi-full-time employers have given me industrial quantities of the bloody things, and - cheapskate that I am - I just keep using them until they're gone.

This has given me plenty of time to ponder what I might put on the next batch of cards I have made. I do such a broad range of things to earn a living out here that it could get a little complicated to explain. Anything for money is one tempting possibility. Miminalism is good, I think. High quality, plain white card: just the name - Froog - and a one-line tag. International Man Of Mystery has some appeal (except that Austin is such a twat). And I'm really tempted by the enigmatic If you have to ask..... I quite fancy Brain The Size Of A Planet as well; but I'm not sure how many people would get the reference; and I think I really ought to limit my self-descriptions to actor nouns. Blogger Extraordinaire, perhaps??

My old Oxford chum, The Mothman, I recall, always liked to jest (although I think he was repeating someone else's line, rather than claiming the ambition for himself) about being a 'Test Pilot' for the London Rubber Company (the UK's principal manufacturer of male prophylactics). Not quite my scene - but it does show you the breadth of the possibilities in this game.

Anyway, since printing is so cheap out here, I have conceived the plan - when I do finally, one day, maybe get around to printing a new set of ming pian - of getting 10 or 15 or 20 batches made at the same time, identical in style but each with a different description under the name. Then I can mix them up - and produce endless amusing distraction (or irritated befuddlement) at parties by giving a different one to everyone I meet.

A superb concept, no? I wonder, in fact, if I shouldn't try to market this idea, set up an online 'novelty' business card enterprise - the next of my Brilliant Website Ideas??

Well, I haven't quite finalised my thoughts on this yet, but here are the current leading contenders for my projected ming pian assortment. What do you think?

Decadent Intellectual
(This was once said of me by a friend in the 6th Form at school, a very cool Belgian kid who was on an exchange programme for a term or two. He pronounced it 'decayed-ent', which seemed even more appropriate.)


Film Buff

Dragon Sexer
(There's not a lot of call for it these days....)


Professional Backgammon Player
(This is in fact a semi-serious ambition; I used to be a pretty formidable exponent of the game in my youth.)

(Sadly, I fear, this may be the most accurate description of all.)

Pool Coach
(I'm not sure I could make any money at this; but I have trained a number of people in the game - including my college buddy, The Bookseller - sometimes from rank beginners to the point where they could at least occasionally beat me.)

Air Guitarist

Trivia Champion

Whisky Taster
(Oh, how I wish!)

Eternal Enigma

Joke Tester

Rejection Counsellor
(I have such a wealth of experience to draw on.)

Armchair Explorer

Sin Eater
(Don't ask!)

Wayward Genius

Raconteur & Wit

(There really ought to be such a word.)

Bar Critic

Saboteur Of Anecdotes
(I really try not to do this - to recognise someone else's story after the opening sentence, or to make too many amusing interjections, or to anticipate the punchline, or to trump it with a better one. But we all know people who do this, don't we? And I fear I may at least occasionally be guilty of it myself.)

Bon Viveur


And, my favourite (yes, it's a film reference - anybody spot it?).........

Freelance Subversive