Monday, November 30, 2009

Uyghur Time

I think the guys who helped me move last week were Uyghurs.  Or Kazakhs, maybe.  Three of the four of them, anyway, definitely looked Central Asian to me, rather than Han Chinese.  And they muttered to each other in a lingo I didn't even vaguely recognise.  And when I apologised for not knowing much Mandarin, one of them said, "Me neither."

One of the many petty crazinesses that the Chinese Communist Party foists upon this poor country is the arrogant insistence that everything must run on Beijing time.  In the far western province of Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs come from, the actual cycle of day and night is a good 2.5 or 3 hours off from that (maybe even 4?  I don't have Wikipedia available to check it at the moment); if they kept Beijing office hours, they'd be getting up when it was still pitch dark.  So, in practice, everybody gets up and works at a more sensible time; but, according to the clocks, they're being rather lackadaisically tardy about everything.  Lying in bed till 9 or 10 every morning?  Disgraceful!

It's a small act of rebellion that I've always found rather charming and inspiring.

However, the phrase "Uyghur time" also tends to carry a disparaging connotation that these chaps have a more general problem of being slow-moving and unreliable.  The Uyghur musicians I know in Beijing do seem to be particularly bad at turning up for gigs on time, but I wouldn't like to extrapolate too much from that.  Anyway, even if there is some truth to the accusation, I'd prefer to think that, rather than just being lazy or lacking in forethought, they have cultivated a magnificent indifference to the concept of time: they're not tardy, just unhurried.

My Uyghur removal boys, though, were threatening to undermine my efforts to put a positive spin on their reputation for flawed time-keeping.  I was on a pretty tight timetable that day (trying to move on Thanksgiving - what was I thinking?!), and when they still hadn't shown up nearly an hour after they were supposed to, I began getting anxious.  All the more so, because they had allegedly been on my street only half an hour late, but couldn't find my address (it's not hard); even when they were only 6 doors down from me!!

Even after arrival, they were worryingly slow to get started; but once they got a head of steam up, they did a brisk and efficient job, and I lobbed them a bit of extra cash for their efforts.

I'd like to visit Xinjiang one day.  Indeed, I'm tempted to move there permanently.  It's my 'Lawrence of Arabia' fantasy….

A backhanded compliment

One of the Chinese contacts for whom I undertake regular editing work sent me an e-mail last week, telling me that she and her chief editor had recently met up for dinner with the English woman who first recommended me to her.  (Why do I never get these free dinners from them??)

She was trying to tell me how warmly they had both praised my work to my English friend.

"Mr Froog usually manages to return the articles in only one or two days.  And amazingly, the editing is quite good."

I would have sulked about it…. if I hadn't been guffawing so loudly.

Bon mot for the week (the month?!)

"Against the disease of writing one must take special precautions, since it is a dangerous and contagious disease."

Peter Abelard (1079-1142)

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I have done this twice before in my life – bid a painful farewell to a store of memories.
Perhaps I dwell too much in the past sometimes, but I like my memories.  And I like mementos, the physical artefacts that become bound up with memories and help us to evoke them.
Hence, I never like to throw anything away.
When my father died and my mother moved into a smaller house, I had to perform triage on all the stuff I'd had stored in their garage for years.  There were dozens of boxes and garbage sacks full of it – mostly a record of my college days: every party invitation, every reproving note from my tutors, every message that had ever been pinned to my door; a montage of missed rendezvous and misfiring love affairs; a hoard of memories.  And I had to throw them all away.
When my mother died shortly after I moved to China, I no longer had anywhere to store my possessions (and they were too many for me to afford to ship them here).  Some of the more valuable things (my vinyl record collection, my hi-fi) I lodged with friends; others (a video recorder, a couple of small TVs) I gave away.  A great deal just had to be taken to the town garbage dump.  Worst of all, the fruits of a lifetime's book-buying had to be abandoned – none of the secondhand bookstores in the area could be bothered to collect them, and even my old school library declined them as a gift.  More than a thousand titles thrown away, each of them a memory of childhood or adolescence.  Heart-breaking.
And now I've just had to do it again.  I've moved into a smaller apartment this week, and spent the last several days packing – or throwing superfluous items away.  For me, though, it's difficult to treat anything as "superfluous"; even something with absolutely no utility may still be drenched in memories.  I had, for example, nearly complete sets of the main Beijing expat listings magazines going back seven years, dozens of 'nightlife' maps (a couple of which I've kept as interesting historical documents - how many bars were there around Houhai in spring of '03??), and flyers and posters for just about every gig I've ever been to (and a fair few I didn't go to).  It was quite a wrench even to let go of items as trivial and worthless as these.  I fear I have hung on to far too many of them still: I have something like 45 boxes to unpack at my new place.  The packing took me 50 hours; I am afraid the unpacking might take 500.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Film list - holiday treats

A very quick film list this month - without the usual year of release and director credits, because I don't have ready access to the Internet at the moment.

Since the holiday season is nearly upon us (and since I spent much of this last week in boxing up my enormous DVD collection), I have been reflecting on some old favourite films that I'd like to watch again.  And a good splurge of film-watching is a key part of the Christmas holiday for me.  I used to love the themed seasons they had on BBC2 in my childhood – you could watch a dozen Fred Astaire or Billy Wilder films in the space of one week.  Heaven.

These days, I try to recreate that happy feeling by shutting myself up indoors for a few days with my DVD player.  So I give you….


10 Holiday Treats for Christmas

Grosse Point Blank
One of the few DVDs in my collection not pirated, since I brought it with me from the UK.  A deliciously dark comedy about a professional assassin attending his high school reunion.  My favourite John Cusack film; and I love almost everything he's done.

Barry Lyndon  
The Christmas TV schedules usually feature a few lush historical epics, so this is the kind of thing I associate with my childhood memories of the holiday.  I acquired this in a Kubrick boxed set some time ago, and I realise I've never seen it.  I think it's the presence of Ryan O'Neal – who I find almost unwatchable – that has discouraged me in the past; but this holiday, I'm going to bite the bullet.  It is, I think, the only gap in my knowledge of the great director's work.

Hannibal Brooks
A charming wartime fable about a British POW working as a zoo-keeper, who, when the zoo is bombed out, leads his elephant to safety over the Alps.  I haven't seen this since I was a kid, but it is a classic feelgood film.

The Wizard of Oz
  Another holiday tradition, but I haven't seen it for yonks.  In fact, I'd lent my copy to a Chinese teacher friend a couple of years ago, and have only just got it back.

Music and Lyrics
One of the best romantic comedies I've seen in recent years, and threatening to become something of a personal 'Christmas tradition' – in that it was a present from my buddy The Chairman two or three years ago, and I find myself watching it again at this time every year.  It's full of sharp lines, and the two principals, Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, have enormous charm.

Team America
Damn, I watch this probably three or four times a year, but I'm about due again.  Warped genius!  "You are worthwhiff, Arec Bawrrin!"

  Garbo laughs!  My favourite romantic comedy of all time, and I only just discovered a copy in my favourite 'golden oldie' DVD store.

Groundhog Day
I haven't watched this for ages, either.  In fact, I didn't think I had a copy, but having discovered that I do, it has instantly risen to the top of the playlist.

2001: A Space Odyssey
The list has been a bit lightweight so far, so I felt I ought to include at least one 'serious' film; and it's been 5 or 6 years since I saw this.

  More Bill Murray!  Love Bill – I could quite easily have put 10 Bill Murray films on my Christmas list, but I appreciate the need for some variety.  This is one of the only films on a Christmas theme that I really like.


Friday, November 27, 2009

A pause

I'll probably be without Internet access for a few days (Chinese prisons not the most up-to-date, you know).
A rare weekend of silence awaits you.
Enjoy it while you can.  I'll be back.

A haiku for the week

Endless invention
In ways to cheat and chisel:
My greedy landlord.
I try not to wish ill on anyone, ever.  But for this guy.... I make an exception.  Come, friendly bombs....

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Happy Thanksgiving to you!

I shall be thankful just to get out of here in one piece...

A dispatch from the trenches

It seems my landlord doesn't want to give me my deposit back.
No big surprise there.  There's some kind of obscure code of dishonour at play, I think: no Beijing landlord in history has ever returned a deposit.
Mine, however, is cutting up particularly rough about it.
I think I'd better accelerate my schedule for moving out....
.... before he comes round to steal my computer.... or sends some boys with knives after me.....
[On the plus side, I find I haven't paid my phone/Internet bill for two months (why haven't they cut me off??), my gas bill for something like a year, and my water bill (they never come to read the meter!) in over two-and-a-half years.  So, I actually owe him maybe one quarter of the deposit amount.  That makes me feel a little better.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Something nasty in the cupboard

For a long time now a strange brown sludge has been dripping down the wall in my kitchen, and rendering a large patch of the topmost store cupboard (the one I can't see into) disgustingly sticky.
I cleaned it up as best I could, from time to time.  I had always assumed that it was an accretion of the sticky brown gunk that seems to coalesce from Chinese cooking oil - although it was a mystery as to why there should be so damn much of it in this one spot in the kitchen.
But no.
When I was having a thorough clean-out the other day, I discovered a large can of Del Monte peach halves on that shelf.  A can that, from the weight of it, appeared to be nearly empty; but it had never been opened.  And it made a strange, dusty rattle when I shook it. Of course, out of curiosity, I opened it up.  Inside, there were was about a one-inch layer of fine, dry-ish silt, and two or three small sticky brown lumps.  Nothing that even vaguely resembled a peach.
So, that's what the nasty, sticky mess was.  The peaches had somehow decomposed in a way which caramelized them.  And this caramel-like goo had somehow escaped from the tin (god knows how - no visible holes at all).
Any scientists out there who would like to try to explain this one for me? 
Was there some kind of microscopic hole in the can?  How could this happen?  How could the thick goo escape through such a tiny aperture?  What kind of bacterial action could bring about this remarkable transformation of my peaches?
I really would like to know.

Things I had to do this week

1)  Pack up everything in my apartment, preparatory to a move.
2)  Clean my apartment.
3)  Try to sort out ongoing problem with the billing from China Telecom (they appear to have started charging me double in recent months!).
4) Arrange for final meter readings, so that I can work out how much I have to pay on all the other utilities.
5)  Arrange - via a translating intermediary - for my landlord to come over and inspect the apartment.
6)  Lobby vigorously - via a translating intermediary - for my landlord to return to me at least some of my deposit this weekend.
7)  Arrange for a moving company to help me shift all of my stuff to the new apartment.
8)  Arrange - via a translating intermediary - for my new landlord to come over and take initial meter readings and show me how everything - gas, fuse-box, water stop-cock, etc. - works.
9)  Register my change of residence with the police.
10)  Maintain a modestly full schedule of normal working (a current affairs discussion group with a couple of lawyers, an advanced writing course with a friend; two or three sessions of voice recording; and two long articles to edit, 10,000 words +).
11)  Co-organise a Thanksgiving Day dinner for about 20 people, with attendant chasing down of recalcitrant replies and reminding and re-reminding people of pertinent details.
12)  Try to get a haircut.
13)  Arrange - via a translating intermediary - for my landlord to come and collect his keys (and, hopefully, give me most of my deposit back).
14)  Start unpacking and making my new apartment habitable.
15)  Organize a 'moving out party' at my old place this Saturday (with all of the attendant chasing of recalcitrant replies, etc.).
Well, something had to give.  It was Saturday's party.  With great regret (and a small amount of fuming) I decided to cancel it yesterday.... because none of my useless friends had bothered to tell me they wanted to come.  Grrrrr.
I really don't think I could have coped anyway.  It's been a very gruelling week...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why the China Daily is better than Global Times

Global Times is the new kid on the block for state-run English-language media in China, a daily newspaper that was founded 6 or 8 months ago.  It's aiming to be a bit more foreigner-credible than its elder sibling, China Daily: the propagandising is less relentless, the critical voice - just occasionally - given freer rein.
But the big difference between the two papers, I've just realised, is that China Daily is bigger.  Not quite a full broadsheet size, I don't think (gawd, it's so long since I've seen a proper newspaper, I can hardly remember), but getting on for it.  [I don't know when this change came about.  I'm pretty sure China Daily was a tabloid when I first moved here.  I suppose that shows how little attention I usually pay to it!]  Global Times, for all its more 'adventurous' reporting and commentary, is condemned to a tabloid format - no doubt as a shaming mark of its juniority (not a word, but ought to be).
When you're packing, the larger format is a godsend.
Unfortunately, I had far more copies of the titchy Global Times lying around the place....


I still have a daunting amount of cleaning and tidying and final checking of things to be done, but... the substantive packing is now completed.
Oh my god, I was beginning to think it would never end.  I have worked on it from dawn till dusk for the last four days with scarcely a break. 
I began the effort with a fairly full day last Monday, and was initially thinking that I could get on top of things by doing an hour or two each evening.  Foolish fancy!  No I was just too darn busy last week, and lost momentum on that plan almost immediately.
However, I was looking at work-free days on Friday and Monday, and I thought four full days would be enough.  Ahem.  Well, that got off to a terrible start as well: I allowed myself to be led badly astray on Thursday night: so badly that I slept in until mid-afternoon on Friday (and then, after noodling around indolently on the Internet for a couple of hours, felt the need to go out again for a 'hair of the dog').
How I have been rueing that lost day ever since.
Over the past few days, I've found my anxiety has functioned as a natural alarm clock, rousing me well before dawn each day.  I haven't always responded well to these promptings from my body - but I should have.  It's uncanny how my subsconscious knows how long a task like this will take me.... to a fairly precise number of hours.  And if I kept on taking time off in the evenings, three days wasn't going to be enough.
I'd made pretty good progress on Saturday and Sunday, but when I set to again on Monday morning, I had a nagging dread that I wasn't quite going to be able to get it all done in one more day.  So, I postponed my scheduled moving time from Wednesday morning to Thursday afternoon.  And then - as luck would have it - my regular Tuesday afternoon work appointment was cancelled at 24 hours' notice, and I found myself yesterday afternoon (after heroic efforts in the morning!) starting to think that the end was finally, sort of in sight..... and I now had two more full days to work on the problem.... rather than just Tuesday evening.  What a relief that was.  Of course, I went out and got drunk again to celebrate.
However, it became a matter of pride for me to try and get things finished in time for my originally projected moving time tomorrow.  I had another very early start today.  And I had sworn not to blog until the packing was done.
Now, after a shorter than expected stint of work this morning and the suddenly work-free afternoon, I have reached my goal (with only one minuscule blogging lapse): the packing is done.
I don't think I am ever going to move again.
Or, if I do, I am only going to take one case with me.

No blogging this week?

My move is now but 49 hours away.
That's after I put back my schedule by 28 hours!
And I'm still not completely confident I'm going to get everything done in time....
This tiny little break is exceedingly naughty of me!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move."

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

I am more often in Class 1 than Class 2, but this week, for once, I shall be in Class 3. Oooh, the excitement!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Vampires don't work (2)

My frivolous little post the other day on how vampires cover their expenses was but a prelude to this, what I think is the major implausibility about vampires.
Let us ignore the biology geek's objection about whether such a large and vigorous creature can sustain itself on blood alone (and, if it can, on what quantity of blood??).  I am prepared to accept that the vampire's diet is just 'magic': it doesn't necessarily get nutrition from blood in the same way that mortal creatures do; this is just a part of the way it is, a compulsion that it has to follow.
But vampires do drink blood.  From human mortals.  To the point of killing them.  Quite often.
How often, exactly?  Well, in some tales, like Dracula, the vampire can spread out his feasting on a single victim over several days, or even weeks.  In others, it is suggested that some vampires try to limit their murder rate by feeding on animals... or by stealing human blood from hospital blood banks.  But, in general, it looks as though they're killing someone at least once a month, possibly once a week; in some cases, considerably more often than that.
Now, even if a vampire takes great care in concealing the bodies of his victims, and preys only upon the lonely and destitute, people on the margins of society who are less likely to be reported missing.... well, even so, that rate of killing is probably going to become noticeable before long.  Even in quite a large city.  In a smaller community, the impact is going to be immediate.
In recent Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In there's a (highly unusual) murder, another attempted murder, a disappearance, and a (highly unusual) assault, all within the space of a few weeks, or perhaps just days, in one small town - in fact, all within the environs of a single housing estate - and the local people pretty soon realise they've got a serial killer on their hands (the world of this film seems to be one in which people don't know about vampires).
It can't really be any other way.  Vampires have a very distinctive and conspicuous way of killing people.  They don't usually take much care about concealing their victims' bodies.  And they surpass the headcount of any regular serial killer in quite a short space of time.
It's not just the attention this would attract that bothers me.  It's the demographic impact: even one vampire could exterminate a small community over the course of a few years. 
And usually we have multilple vampires.  Indeed, we conventionally have a situation where the victims of a vampire become vampires in turn.  Some writers have realised that if this were invariably to happen, there would be an exponential growth in the number of vampires - and vampires would eventually completely replace the mortal human population (what would they eat then?); so, they've tried to find ways of limiting the conversion of victims into new vampires - usually a suggestion that it is somehow the vampire's choice whether a victim becomes undead or simply dies.  Even so, most vampire stories do seem to have quite a high rate of conversions - vampires want company, vampires want sex, vampires want an entourage, vampires like the feeling of power involved in creating new members of their kind.
So, you have more and more vampires feeding on humans.  Where is it going to end?
Well, if any normal laws of nature were in play, I suggest it would have ended in the extinction of both species long ago.  Sorry, horror fans - vampirism is a potent symbol, but it's just not remotely plausible as a basis for a story.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Kate Beckinsale

I must confess to a bit of a weakness for the 'English Rose' type (indeed, it became a nickname amongst my friends for the girl who inspired one of the most protracted and most frustrating of my many thwarted infatuations here in Beijing; but that's another story...), and there are few more striking exemplars of this than the lovely actress, Ms Beckinsale.
I insist that I am not just jumping on an obvious bandwagon here.  Yes, of course she is now one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and, since her leather-and-latex outings in the Underworld series, establishing herself as quite the glamourpuss, almost a latter-day Emma Peel; but I knew her before she was famous; or rather, I knew of her before she was very famous.
She was an undergraduate at Oxford in the early '90s (beautiful and smart!), just at the time that I happened to be living there myself (scratching a living as a private A-Level tutor after a spell of ill health had forced me to quit my full-time teaching job).  She was a known name in England already, since her father had been a very popular comedy actor on TV in the 1970s (although he died of a heart attack while still only in his thirties); and within weeks of starting her studies, she was getting a reputation as the prettiest girl in the University.  Of course, everyone wanted to meet her (I was still in my twenties at the time, so aspiring to go out with a Fresher wasn't completely indecent).  I believe she was attending New College (not absolutely sure about that now), which, as it happened, was the place where I was hanging out most of the time (not my alma mater, but it had one of the best college bars, and I'd known all the staff there since my undergrad days a few years earlier, when one of my friends had been the Junior Common Room 'bar steward').  Thus, I thought, I had better hopes than some of achieving a fortuitous encounter with the gorgeous and talented young girl.  But alas, no.  I saw her on stage once, briefly across a crowded room once, on the far side of a busy street once - but there was never an opportunity to introduce myself and get chatting.
Ah, but then... fast forward another 5 or 6 years, to when her career in America is just starting to take off (with her appearance in Whit Stillman's The Last Days Of Disco).  I am in the throes of qualifying as a barrister.  And one of the quaint little rituals that involves in England is a short spell of 'marshalling' for a judge (basically being a book carrier: looking after all the cited authorities and passing them over to the judge as necessary).  I was lucky at least in that the judge I'd been set up with was a very smart and a very nice one (a rare combination on the Bench, I'm afraid); and the case we were hearing was a surprisingly engrossing tale about a bespoke punnet de-nester.  However.... each morning, before the main case started, the judge would have little bits and pieces of other court business to attend to: hearing submissions about upcoming cases, and delivering his judgements on cases he'd already finished hearing.  And it just so happened that one of these cases had been a dispute between Kate's stepdad, who's a film and TV producer, and a production company that had pulled the plug on a project of his.  So, when my judge gave his verdict in that case, the whole family came along to give the plaintiff moral support - including Kate.
Oh my good gracious, yes, the absurdly beautiful Kate Beckinsale was sat in a small courtroom with me, barely 15ft away.  And I'm up there in the position of power, at the front of the court, at an elevated desk, sitting right next to the judge: auspicious circumstances for making a strong first impression, you might think.  Well, perhaps if I'd been the judge!  But of course, I couldn't say a word.  I couldn't even really smile or attempt to make friendly eye contact - it would have been inappropriate to the decorum of the proceedings.  I just had to sit there, completely po-faced for 10 minutes while the learned judge explained his reasoning on the matter.  My exterior remained calm and decorous (I hope), but my head and heart were in a whirl.  I kept thinking, "Bugger me!  It's Kate Beckinsale!!"
That was one of the most frustrating experiences of my life.  I mean, not that I had any fond delusions that I could get anywhere with her (she was already dating the awesomely talented actor Michael Sheen, and was, I think, shortly to have a child with him); but it would have been nice to be able to say hello.  After eight years of long-distance admiration.  Sigh.
She does have a remarkable quality about her, an inner radiance.  On that day, she wasn't dressed up or wearing much make-up or playing the star; it was just a low-key - and, I imagine, rather tense and uncomfortable - family outing;  but she was absolutely breathtaking.
Even the judge later remarked on it: "Very pretty girl, that.  The daughter, I suppose."  Of course, he purported not to know who she was.
Now, a lot of the photographs of her out there on the Web are bit too raunchy for the genteel cloisters of Froogville, but I was rather taken with this one of her wearing her spectacles.
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses?
Pish, tosh!
I've always found glasses rather sexy.  Particularly when they're being worn by someone like Kate Beckinsale.

A pleasant surprise

One of the few moments of joy I've experienced during the mostly hellish experience of packing up all my worldly possessions over the past few days has been..... the discovery of an envelope full of money that I'd completely forgotten about.  Only 5,000 rmb, but better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
As I have remarked before, at moments like this I feel as though The Tooth Fairy is belatedly making good on a payment she overlooked in my long-ago childhood.  Ah, compound interest - it's a wonderful thing.
Alas, my initial happiness soon gave way to a creeping paranoia that there may perhaps have been several other such forgotten envelopes of money lying about the place that I've now thrown out with the trash.  Oh, please, NO.

Friday, November 20, 2009

China keeps finding ways to piss me off (2)

I'm on my way home relatively early.  I figure I'll stop off at a 7/11 to get a couple of beers to accompany a DVD at home and a packet of croissants for breakfast tomorrow.
The store is taking a delivery.  There's a big wheelie-cage stacked with cartons of various products parked just inside the door..... completely blocking the entrance.
I stand in the entrance for a while.  I make friendly "so, what-the-f***, how long is this going to take, are you going to move this thing or what?" eye contact with the delivery guy.  And with the clerks behind the counter.  They nod and smile and do nothing.  A Chinese would-be customer arrives, and goes through the same rigmarole.  They nod and smile and do nothing.  Three or four minutes have elapsed.  The Chinese guy and I both shrug and leave.
The delivery trolley is bulky, to be sure, but there is room to move it into one of the aisles; or at least to shift it a little further away from the door and the cash-desk, so that it is not completely blocking entry to the store. 
But NO - the shop is effectively closed down for 15 or 20 minutes because everyone is too lazy or stupid to move the trolley a matter of 8 or 10 inches to allow people to squeeze in past it.
You see this kind of mind-buggering thoughtlessness every day in China.  It never gets any easier to bear.

China keeps finding ways to piss me off (1)

I'm crossing the road on a pedestrian crossing.  No traffic light, but still a designated crossing place.
The guy driving towards me does not back off the gas at all.  He keeps on coming at a steady, too-fast speed - a good 35mph or so, I would guess.  If anything, he is possibly accelerating slightly as he nears me.
And he drives past all of about one foot behind me.
His judgement of his own speed, or mine, was not that precise.  He could not have known that I would not slow down, stumble, pause to tie a shoelace in the middle of the road, or suddenly step backwards for no reason at all (all things the typical Chinese pedestrian does fairly commonly).  And he would not have had the speed of reaction or the car control necessary to execute an emergency stop if I hadn't managed to get out of the way of his car.
Driving like that is reckless, stupid, and dramatically increases your chances of causing a serious, perhaps fatal accident.  And almost everyone in this country drives that way.


While I was working in Canada at the back end of the '90s I developed the habit of writing a weekly e-mail 'bulletin' to friends back in the UK as a way of keeping in touch.  (Yes, we had real, one-to-one communication back in those days, rather than just broadcasting personal information into the void via Facebook or Twitter.)  I continued to do this intermittently over the next couple of years when I'd returned to the UK (since I'd made a lot of new friends in North America; and I was working such stupid hours - and for so little  money - that I wasn't even seeing very much of the people I knew in London).

When I moved to China, communication by telephone became nearly impossible (bothersomely expensive, even with IP cards; and that 8-hour time difference is a bitch to work around), so the bulletins once again became a regular and essential means of sharing news.

When I started out, I was keeping them down to 700 or 800 words each, but they slowly grew longer (typically 1,200 words, but sometimes 1,500 or even 2,000) and, I fear, began to tax the patience of my friends.  Well, no - people just stopped reading them.  So I moved on to blogging instead.

However, I just happened upon my batch of 'China Bulletins' while copying over some files from my old computer, and I thought I might start to share occasional snippets from them on here.

This is one of my very first ones, from the beginning of September 2002 (I titled it The Searchers).


The early days of life in a 'third world' country (a label no doubt outmoded and un-PC, and one which the Chinese would take umbrage at...... but if the shit fits.....) are a constant quest:  even buying toothpaste can be a gumption-testing challenge (although I must confess that life in this respect is far, far easier than it was when I last visited China: there is a huge hypermarket that sells almost everything only about a 10-minute walk away; and almost all the packaging has some English on it these days.... so routine shopping is still time-consuming, but a lot less of an ordeal than it might be).

I spent most of my first week trying to track down a bottle-opener (having unaccountably left my beloved Swiss Army penknife behind in England), an item which does not appear to be for sale in any shop, and which is hard to enquire about when you don't know the Chinese for it (and my Chinese colleagues seemed strangely reticent about telling me - oh, how they love to tease the foreign devils!).  I thought my mime was pretty unambiguous, but it tended to produce only laughter rather than assistance.  I eventually persuaded the manageress of our nearest mini-supermarket to give me hers (using my patented shrug-and-smile method of communication), but what I had taken to be an international-goodwill-gesture on her part appeared to result in a hefty 15yuan surcharge on my bill.  I am assured by tittering Chinese colleagues that this is far and away the most expensive bottle-opener in China, but I don't regard the expense as too unreasonable, and it is now my most prized possession: it has talismanic properties beyond its immediate practical use.

I am generally rather scornful of those who cling to their Western comforts (in Beijing these days you can live a fully Western lifestyle if you have enough money: it is, for example, possible to get a pizza delivery in exchange for one of your less important limbs; most of the other teachers here are pursuing this course to some extent, presumably at the expense of their life savings or their credit rating), but I decided that I would allow myself only the indulgence of an occasional slice of toast.  I have located bread (now quite common, though not very good), margarine (butter also now quite common, but prohibitively expensive for regular consumption), strawberry jam (but, alas, no marmalade), and an electric toaster (an expensive Western import..... local consumer electrical goods are pretty cheap, but they haven't cottoned on to this one yet). Now, the one thing that continues to defeat me is a knife for spreading the jam'n'marge: still utterly unobtainable out here?!  I wish I had kept the Lufthansa cutlery from the flight out (surely the only airline in the world that is still providing large, sharp, metal knives with its dreadful inflight meals?).

I rediscovered the original Disappearing Restaurant that had been so sapping my confidence in ever being able to find my way around here, though I am still plagued by a nagging conviction that it is not quite where we had left it.  My latest bugbear as I struggle to master the amorphous local geography is the Disappearing Doughnut Shop.

At least these difficulties have provided plenty of ice-breaking activities for my class, as I set them to answer queries like: "Where can I get my hair cut?" (without being charged 50yuan and offered 'something for the weekend'); "Where can I go to the cinema?" (invariably provoking the incredulous response: "Why would you want to go to the cinema when you can watch VCDs at home??"); "Where can I buy English-language books and newspapers?"; etc., etc., etc.
Oh yes, it's a constant quest.

Haiku for the week

Seven years distilled
Memories pinned like butterflies
A life in boxes
Oh my god - the packing, the packing!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The 99 Steps

My projected date for moving out is now less than a week away, and I am suddenly starting to get a bit sentimental about the old place.  I am getting a bit teary each time I ascend or descend the 99-step staircase.  (I am going to miss this: it is, as I have commented before, an uncommonly nice stairwell.)
I wonder how many times I must have done this now.  Over nearly five-and-a-half years, it must be many thousands.  (Heck - when I was in serious training for the Great Wall Marathon three years ago, for a couple of months I was running up and down these stairs 20 or 30 times each day!)  I wonder how many more times I'll do it.  Only a dozen or so, I suppose.
I am reminded of the 33,333 Steps joke - the mother of all shaggy dog stories.  A guesthouse is improbably built at the top of a mountain, accessed by this huge flight of stairs with 33,333 steps.  The kitchen, however, is at the bottom of these steps, and there is no means of communication with the guests above.  So, the poor flunky responsible for room service has to rush up and down the 33,333 steps countless times each day.  It's more of a tongue-twister than a joke, really.  You spin it out for 10 minutes or so, with dozens of repetitions of the enormous number of steps - and the corny payoff is that you discover the poor chap has just done a spot poll as to whether cornflakes or rice crispies are the more popular breakfast food.  Very, very silly.  But it becomes a huge vogue for a while, around the end of Primary School.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why vampires don't work (1)

Pondering the well-regarded Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In for my review of it a couple of weeks ago, I realised that it exemplified one of the key implausibilities in the vampire mythos.
However, I'll spare that observation for another few days, because it immediately led me to think of this supplementary quibble (a little play on words, too - if you'll indulge this pet vice of mine).
The answer to the question in the post title here is....
Because they have independent means.
They must do, obviously.  It's seldom discussed - but they live quite extravagant lifestyles: they have big houses, fancy clothes, they travel a lot; they often have paid servants looking after them.  OK, they don't have to pay for food, but.... pretty much everything else they have to provide for themselves just as we mortals do.  And it doesn't come cheap.
Some of them, of course, come from 'old money' (Dracula being the prime example; although I suppose most of Anne Rice's characters do too).  And I suppose they may often be able to appropriate the property of their victims.  And in the Hammer cycle of Dracula films, the Count quite often had admiring young upper-class mortal acolytes who could presumably subsidise his considerable expenses.
But the economics of being a vampire are usually left rather vague.  It would seem to be beneath most of them to rob mere mortals of their wealth (haughty bunch, vampires - even if they're not from the aristocracy).  Nor would they stoop to engaging in business, surely.  And they clearly don't have day jobs.
Where does all the money come from?  Did they invest in steel or oil or railroads in the mid-1800s and then sleep for a hundred years??
These are the kind of thoughts that I amuse myself with during bouts of insomnia...

Bloody Vikings!

As regular readers (well, regular commenters, anyway) will have noticed, I have started being inundated with spam in the last few weeks.  Indeed, it seems to have been getting exponentially worse over the last few days.
I have therefore been forced to engage the 'Word Verification' widget on the comment form to try to cut this out.  My apologies for the inconvenience.  Please don't let those few extra seconds of squinting and bafflement deter you from leaving a comment.
I wonder why on earth this has suddenly started happening now, after three years of happy and (almost) entirely spam-free blogging?  It would be nice to think that this was some sort of accolade, an unwelcome but nevertheless flattering by-product of higher traffic or page-ranking or somesuch.  But I fear it is in fact just one of those random acts of unkindness that the Universe tosses our way on occasion.
"Well, there's spam, egg, sausage and spam.  That's not got much spam in it."

Monday, November 16, 2009


Moving day looms, so I have been packing today.  All day.
Despite having had an ayi in every few months to give the place a thorough clean (which, in China, usually means wiping everything with a damp rag, but not actually dusting or polishing anything in the way we know in the West), and despite attempting to clean up myself (including dusting, and hoovering) every month or so.... well, I find now that there are bits here and there that we've both missed pretty consistently for the last five-and-a-half years. 
Actually, in Beijing the air is so dusty (and the tap water too, come to that - I'm not convinced that the Chinese approach to cleaning actually makes things any cleaner at all) that the place gets pretty damned filthy within only a few days.  After a week or two, you don't notice it getting that much worse.  After a month or so, you're tempted to leave it for 3 months, or 6 months before you have a proper clean-up.
Yes, things get pretty disgusting, but... a sense of hopelessness takes hold in the face of the relentless griminess of the Beijing environment.  There doesn't seem to be anything you can do to hold back the tide, so why bother?
I was reminded by my exertions today (and by the coughing, sneezing, and itching which have inevitably attended them) that the great Quentin Crisp once said:
"There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse."
I can't remember which of his books that's from, and I just spent 20 minutes on the Web searching for it without success.  Ah well. 
 I suppose that should really have been my 'Bon mot for the week', but I'd already posted something else.  I've never taken to housework, and so this aphorism of Crisp's has a strong appeal for me.  But I have a streak of cleanliness and orderliness in me that rebels against the idea.  And I've seen friends who've lived like this, never cleaning for months, weeks, years - and the squalor they create is unspeakable.  And it does appear to keep getting worse year by year...
There are dark corners in my apartment where the dust - more grit and sludge, really - is over a quarter of an inch thick.  Ugh!

Chinese plastic

Moving day looms, so I have been packing today.  All day.
This is a process which threatens to be long and painful.
It wouldn't be quite so bad if I weren't having to use Chinese made plastic crates.  As I've mentioned before on here, Chinese plastic appears to be made according to a special formula which renders it super-brittle.
I've had two of my crates break on me today as I tried to pick them up.  Not just break; SHATTER into ten or twelve fragments.
I often fret that this is emblematic of Chinese manufacturing industry in general.  It's not just that the Chinese are slapdash and inconsistent in their working practices; it's not just that they're unfamiliar with quality control procedures, or so relentlessly penny-pinching and corner-cutting that they always try to do something to the minimum acceptable standard.  No, many, many times they will actually contrive a really mind-blowingly crappy way of doing something; they'll produce something so completely bloody useless that it should have no value, find no market.  And yet it does.  The Chinese consumer seems to accept worthless, useless, possibly hazardous crap as the inevitable way-of-the-world and keeps shelling out his yuan for it because..... well, who knows why?  Because there's nothing else, I suppose.  (Unless there's some perverse streak in the Chinese psyche that actually desires crap, that is.  It may be so after all: maybe this stuff is cannily targeting its market.  It does seem as if it would take more effort to create products with such remarkably little utility than to just, you now, copy the way everyone else around the world makes something - like plastic: robust, durable, easy-to-clean plastic.)
It's one of the most mind-boggling things about this country.  And one of the most depressing.
[Anyone who thinks I'm exaggerating has never purchased a Chinese plastic washing-up bowl.]

Bon mot for the week

"It is important to be able to sacrifice what we are for what we could become."

Mahesh Prasad Varma [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi] (1918-2008)

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I was caught out this year by Armistice Day falling mid-week, and the Remembrance Sunday events all being scheduled for the preceding weekend.  I usually like to mark the occasion with an appropriate war poem.
Here we are, then - better late than never - one of my favourite pieces by Wilfred Owen.  (People generally only seem to know a few of his better known poems - Anthem For Doomed Youth, Dulce et Decorum Est, and perhaps Strange Meeting.  However, that's just scratching the surface.  There's tremendous variety in his poems of the war, and an impressively high quality through most of them.)
The Send-Off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to village wells
Up half-known roads.

Wilfred Owen  (1893-1918)

Shuffling through leaves

The viciously cold weather of the last few days, and the sharp breezes, have brought down most of the leaves from the trees - before they'd even had a chance to start turning colour
(Hmm.  Actually, most of the trees in Beijing never seem to change colour anyway.  The wrong sort of leaves, I suppose.)
There are few finer pleasures in life than scuffing your shoes through dense piles of dry, rustly leaves.
I wish it wasn't quite so bloody cold, though.  Winter has shown up a full month early this year.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

List of the Month - I'm glad I don't work there any more

Given the rather patchy state of my personal economy at the moment, I should perhaps be avoiding confrontations with employers - even ones with whom I only work very occasionally, and from whom I seldom earn more than 1,000 or 2,000 rmb per month, and often nothing at all.
However, this employer has pissed me off so thoroughly that I am ecstatically relieved to have finally broken free of them.  My association with them goes back almost three years; and it has been misery all the way (nearly all of my 'I hate Work' rants have been about them).
So, by way of consolation and celebration, here are...
10 Reasons I'm Glad To Be Rid Of That Employer
1) The miserable rates of pay
(Scarcely better than a bog-standard teaching rate, and less than half what I usually get for comparable presentation work.  Less than a quarter of what I sometimes get!  And the rates have been downgraded slightly in the past year or so - without anyone telling us.)
2)  Constantly being asked to do things at the last minute
(This is China all over, of course; but these guys were particularly bad.  I hardly ever got more than a week's notice of an event; typically it was only two or three days' notice.  On at least a couple of occasions, they tried to get me to do something at less than 24 hours' notice - I said NO.)
3)  The amateurish PowerPoint materials they used to provide
(Although provided by a British education company, the presentation slides were almost invariably very poorly designed and organised.  And I'd usually have to proofread them to weed out embarrassing glitches of spelling and grammar.  Embedded video and audio clips never, ever worked [and these were often intended to be the basis of activities taking up nearly half of the total presentation!].  Most of the time, I'd use the provided materials just as an outline structure, and improvise 70-80% of the presentation based on my own teaching resources and experiences.)
4)  The total lack of advance information about the events
(They never provided a map of how to get to the venue.  Often they didn't provide the address.  Or they did so only in English, which is no help to a taxi driver.  Or they gave the wrong address.  Or the venue was changed at the very last minute.  Or...  Most of the rants I've written about my experiences working for these people have been about struggling to get to an appointment somewhere.  They'd never tell me anything about the partner schools hosting the events either.  Or the size or composition of the expected audience.  Or even, most of the time, the intended purpose of the event!!)
5)  The total lack of concern or awareness about IP
(On a number of occasions, I arrived at a venue to discover that video cameras had been set up to film me.  On one occasion, the partner institution had hired a professional film crew for the afternoon, and insisted that this had been OK'ed by the Beijing office of my employer.  [My contact there promptly denied having done so to me; but I'm pretty sure she was lying.  She then lied to the host as well, saying that it was fine with her and it was just me being obstructive.]  I was also frequently asked - expected - to hand over the PowerPoint slides accompanying the presentation.  This stuff might be pretty poor quality, but it still belongs to the British education company employing me, and they have to try to protect its value by limiting its dissemination.  Their Chinese employees simply do not grasp this concept.  I would be willing to bet that they are pretty routinely giving away restricted materials and condoning the filming of complete presentations.  They are quite possibly taking backhanders for doing so as well [I'd almost feel better about it if they were; as I've said a number of times before, I prefer criminality to stupidity].  But I fear they just don't understand the principle at stake, or don't give a toss about it.)
6)  The total lack of concern or awareness about education
(I recounted a week or so ago how one of their senior staff recently made a suggestion to me about marketing one of their exams which was staggeringly dim, ignorant, and unethical.  For me, it rather summed up my whole experience of working with them.  They haven't got the first idea what they're doing.)
7)  The preternaturally dim girl who was my main liaison there for the last year-and-a-half
(I think, in fact - would like to think, anyway - that she was not nearly as thick as she appeared; but there was a sort of bovine impassivity about her that I found utterly infuriating at times.  Whenever I tried, politely and patiently, to explain why something wasn't right, she'd just nod and smile... and completely ignore me.  As with so many of the other problems I had with other members of the staff there, I suspect it wasn't really a case of her not knowing or not understanding; she just didn't care.)
8) Giving me inadequate or inappropriate materials
(As if it wasn't bad enough that the materials were so poor anyway [see point 3) above], they'd often give me materials that just did not fit the audience or the event at all.  For one of the first jobs I did for them - a half-day teacher training seminar down in Shanghai - I found that the materials provided covered barely half of the allocated time, and I was expected to improvise a workshop on 'classroom activities for young learners' to fill the middle section of the morning.  Last month, I was given a rump of a presentation - at most 20 minutes, of introductory material only - for an event slated to last 3 hours, and was asked if I could "pad it out" on the hoof.  Really - I am not kidding.  The final straw came when they gave me a full-length 3-hr presentation [on Presentation Skills, as it happens] promoting one of their Business English exams.... and sent me to give a 1.5-hr class to a bunch of high school kids with it.  That leads me on to my next point....)
9)  Booking me for utterly inappropriate events
(These presentations and seminars I was giving are offered free to the host venue on the basis that they are a promotional exercise for the education company and its exams.  The understanding is, therefore, that - with the exception of the teacher training events - these should be run as recruitment exercises for courses leading to one of the company's exams.  In fact, almost every single one of these events that I've done has been delivered to an audience of students already enrolled on a course.... although, in many cases, not a course leading to one of my employer's exams.  And, on a few occasions, I've actually had host institutions request that I excise all the promotional material about my employer from the presentation and just deliver the teaching content.  Yep, my employer's Chinese staff are basically just giving away FREE LESSONS to anyone who asks for them.  Again, one wonders if they're taking backhanders for this, or if they're just doing it because of the subservient Chinese attitude to doing business - that clients must always be sucked up to unquestioningly... even if they're not actually clients!  Either way, I don't suppose the UK head office would be too chuffed to learn about it.)
10)  The lying
(The latest convoluted deceptions they've subjected me to about which pay scales are in force are, unfortunately, rather too typical of my interactions with them.  Whenever I confront them with a 'difficult' question or an uncomfortable truth, the response is always obfuscation, misdirection, and lies, lies, lies.)
Sorry, bit of a dull post for those not involved in the education business in China.  But it's good to vent sometimes.  Oh, boy, am I glad to be out of there!