Thursday, June 30, 2011

A strange dream

A few days ago - Tuesday, was it? - I awoke a tad earlier than I would have liked, and in a rather disordered state, and... a dream fragment stayed with me.

I had been in a Chinese restaurant. Not the kind of Chinese restaurant I usually frequent, but a modestly swanky affair, and one built on an industrial scale: one dining hall (of many) on one floor (of at least three or four, it seemed) was a hundred yards or more long. I seemed to be not actually eating in this place myself, nor even really 'present'; I was somehow floating through the restaurant unseen, like a fly-on-the-wall documentary camera recording scattered glimpses of the behind-the-scenes activity.

During a lull in food service (it seemed to be late afternoon rather than early morning - but the place was suddenly empty of customers) a squad of cleaning ladies appeared - almost as numerous as the wait staff, one to every four or five tables. In this particular room, the tables were - as is usual in China - round, but quite small, seemingly designed for only two, or at most four people. When their tablecloths were removed, they were found to be made of glass. And when the cleaning ladies began to mop and polish them with the damp rags which are the only common cleaning utensil in China, when they began to wipe around the edges of these thick glass discs.... well, the tables began to resonate, to hum with a bright, pure sound, as wine glasses do when you run a wetted fingertip around their rim.

Strange, no?

Although I suppose food and music (and, ahem, drink) are my principal obsessions in life; so, it is perhaps not so unusual that my subconscious would find a way of combining these interests into a single arresting image.

Coming up for air...

Gosh, the first three days of this week have been chock-a-block. And I worked on Sunday, too. And it's been a particularly heavy social/cultural schedule of late as well - music festivals, leaving parties, yadda-yadda. And I've been recovering from a particularly nasty attack of belly rot at the end of last week.

But today... today, I have almost nothing on. Well, apart from having to schlepp up to Wudaokou this afternoon for a three-hour class.

And tomorrow... I have nothing on at all: my first completely free day in about 4 or 5 weeks (apart from Saturdays; and I've mostly had 'stuff' to do even on Saturdays lately).

Heavens, this feels gooood.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The secret to a long life

I am not usually prone to stress. And when it does threaten, I think I deal with it pretty well.

But the lousy weather that blights much of the Beijing summer (clammy humidity, toxic supersmogs, flash floods) has been making life especially difficult just recently. Furthermore, I have had an insanely busy workload for most of the past two months (and having to use Beijing's public transport system too often, especially in the rush hour, surely has a hugely negative effect on anyone's composure, serenity, philanthropy...). I've been stuck in China, in Beijing, too long without a decent break, and I'm worn out: everything is bugging the crap out of me almost every day.

I have been getting dangerously close to a catastrophic implosion.

But now I have new role model, a new mantra: from now on, I'm just going to let it all slide right by.... like water off a duck's back.

[Thanks (yet again) to the inestimable JES for indirectly introducing me to this. Last week's instalment of his 'Midweek Music Break' series was a delightful B.B. King novelty song, One Shoe Blues. Immediately bowled over by the song's composer, the utterly wonderful Sandra Boynton, I went looking for more of her work on the Net, and soon found Be Like A Duck. As with the video of the B.B. King song, it's directed by Boynton herself. It features her four children - the lead vocalist is her eldest son, Keith Boynton.

There's lots more fun stuff to meander around on Boynton's website.]

Monday, June 27, 2011

A return to indolence?

Devoted followers of the blog may have noticed that I have been a bit snowed under with work over the past two months. Indeed, things reached a climax of intensity over the last fortnight, where I thought I might not be able to cope... and was actually deferring or declining additional jobs that were offered to me.

But then, all of a sudden... well, the day-long Presentation Skills course I've been doing for an SOE has had its final seminar moved forward a couple of days this week; and a repeat session, which was to have occupied the whole of July, has been abruptly cancelled (I think due to problems with student availability rather than any dissatisfaction with my delivery). The weekend class that's been so depleting my quality of life this month ended yesterday. I'm already at the half-way point in a 6-week series of Legal Writing classes I'm running for the first time (I had been stressing about this a little, as there is a chance of a lot of repeat work with this law firm; but I'd taken some time out to do quite a lot of the preparation in advance, and it's been going about as smoothly as I could ever have wished). And I'm into the home stretch with the long-term series of classes I've been giving up in the far north of Beijing for the past two months; I've got used to the unsocial hours (Tuesday mornings early, and Thursday evenings - preceding an early, early start on Fridays!); and we're now coasting towards the finish line, with the last three weeks being devoted mostly to preparation for a group presentation exercise to be used as a final assessment. A major new writing/editing position, which would have eaten up a good 8 or 10 hours of every week, has (unfortunately!) gone foop! as well... when it had seemed to be in the bag, a done deal, a sure thing just a few weeks ago.

But [Fanfare], most significantly of all for my psychological well-being, I've managed to wriggle out of my twice-weekly date-with-misery out in the desolate newtown hellhole of Wangjing.

So, at least 150 hours of work (and travel and admin and hanging around waiting for stuff to happen) that I had anticipated having to do in July has disappeared. And most of the 40 hours or so I have remaining is really pretty easy stuff, and should all be concluded within three weeks. I have scaled back from the 25-30 hours of training I was doing each week for the past few weeks to an eminently more manageable 8 hours per week. And after the middle of July I should be completely FREE.

It is quite a shock to the system - but a very welcome one.

But oh, wait, what's that ominous train whistle in the distance? Oh yes.... NO MONEY. Ah well - I don't care too much for money; money can't buy me love.

Bon mot for the week

"We are all geniuses when we dream. The butcher is the poet's equal there."

Emil Cioran  (1911-1995)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Film List - Great chat-up lines

Another little cinematic quiz for you, to end up the month.

This time, some of my most fondly remembered pick-up lines from the movies. I'll put the sources in a comment in a few days' time.

Well, OK, some of these are more flirtation between established couples than cold pick-ups. And one or two of the attempted pick-ups were spectacularly unsuccessful.

Quite a short list this month. Sorry - a bit braindead after recent ill health and poor sleeping. Will try to do better next time. At least I got it up to a nice round number - a Chinese 'lucky 8'.

Favourite Chat-up Lines from the Movies

"You like poetry? Come upstairs - I've got a poem for you."

"Girls who glide need men who make them thump."

"If I win, I get to take you home. If you win, you can come home with me."

"I'm just adjusting your breasts. They got all out of whack."

"Take me to bed or lose me forever."

"You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow."

"I'm kind of a big deal around here. People know me."

"Come with me if you want to live."

Friday, June 24, 2011

Recently, on The Barstool...

Gosh, it's been 7 weeks since I last did one of these roundups. There must have been lots going on over on the dark side in that time. Let me go and have a rummage through the archive...

Well, the first half of May was largely preoccupied with the looming round of polls in the expat magazines to determine Beijing's supposedly 'best' bars and restaurants. The Beijinger magazine's Bar Awards particularly vex me - I made suggestions for improving them, predicted the winners (with somewhat mixed accuracy!), and listed my own picks for nominations and winners in the main categories.

There was a brief spasm of excitement on May 24th, when long-time follower 'Gary' claimed the accolade of becoming The Barstool's 50,000th officially recorded visitor.

Then, in one of my trademark 'curmudges', I itemised the reasons why I have become so disenchanted over the past 18 months or so with music bar Dos Kolegas (previously one of my favourite hangouts in this city) - although I still wished them well for their 6th anniversary party at the end of the month.

June started most unhappily.... with me being forced to miss one of my favourite bands - Canada's finest, the Cowboy Junkies - performing in Beijing because I was almost dying of dehydration. That was the worst organised music festival I've ever been to (and I've been to some bad ones, especially in China).

I have discoursed further on the subject of hangovers (don't believe in 'em!). And we have seen the return of THE COIN.

On the music front, we've had a little blast of '80s nostalgia with Billy Idol, and just a couple of days ago I posted a ravishing demonstration of musical technique from the outrageously talented (and very beautiful) pipa player, Lan Weiwei.

Quite a lot to ponder on there. I particularly recommend the Lan Weiwei post - breathtaking.

A little heavy-handed on the 'Rainmaker'!


Beijing is basically a desert. We go for months at a time with little or no rain at all. But when it does rain, especially during the summer months - oh boy, it comes down hard sometimes!

From about 4pm yesterday it rained here for around 12 hours, pretty much continuously, and often very heavily. The first hour or so was torrential, a full-on tropical downpour.

Beijing floods very easily, because there's no storm drain system to speak of (and what there is gets clogged with the ubiquitous builder's sand and bits of tree within a few minutes - really, minutes - of a heavy rain beginning). The city was brought to a standstill yesterday, just at the beginning of the evening rush hour: many of the downtown subway stations were inundated and had to be closed down for a while. Blogger BeijingDaze collated some of the alarming photos of the situation that were being posted to Chinese 'microblog' site Weibo.

A large part of the problem, I fear, is that the city authorities here are so desperate for rainfall that they never just allow nature to take its course. Whenever a cloud ventures anywhere near the capital, artillery units are dispatched to shoot it full of silver iodide (or whatever the cloud-seeding chemical of choice is these days; the Chinese have probably found something cheaper and more carcinogenic). Even when it's a cloud the size of Belgium, and so dense that it plunges us into pitch darkness in the middle of the afternoon.

If they'd just let this storm front pass over unmolested, I imagine it might have rained fitfully for a day and a half, with much of the rain falling around the periphery of Beijing, or further downwind in places like Tianjin. But the cloud-seeders shot the shit out of it, and it dumped all of its considerable contents on Beijing in the space of half a day - perhaps a third of it, I would guess, in the first hour. And look what happened.

The boys in charge of the Weather Machine got their knuckles severely rapped 18 months or so back, when they initiated a massive snowfall early in the season, without thinking to notify any of the other city authorities first. I suspect there will be similar chidings and recriminations this time.

What larks.

Haiku for the week

Calendar glowers;
This date drags like an anchor,
Summons the darkness.

I always used to hit my annual depressive peak (er, trough) around late April and early May; but, for the last several years, I've tended to suffer a potent resurgence of this debilitating glumness in June, too. I fear it is almost certainly related to an unfortunate anniversary. Summer heat and heavy workloads don't help my stress levels either; but I'd be willing to bet that I'll be right as rain again by early next week.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

This is what if feels like...

Yes - like Roger Daltrey, I'm FREE!!!

I managed to squirm out of that dratted, awful, horrible class in Wangjing. Giving up 4,000 rmb has never felt SO GOOD.

[This is the best recording of The Who's classic hit I'm Free on YouTube at the moment, I think - from the 1970 Live at Leeds album, with a cool montage of photos of the band in their heyday. However, you can also check out their Woodstock and Isle of Wight performances of the song, and the sequence from Ken Russell's film version of Tommy.]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Turning up the temperature in HELL

So, I have a non-event of a class with a trio of especially irritating students in far-away Wangjing...

How much worse can it get??

Well... last Wednesday, a torrential downpour began half-way through the class.

The streets flooded. Taxis withdrew themselves from service. Buses became appallingly overcrowded with damp, sweaty, irritable people (such as myself).

But, you know, at least I'd managed to get on a bus within a few minutes of finishing the class. Not so bad, right?

Well.... the bus driver decided not to halt at the bus stop but 50 yards up the road - I assume, purely for the sadistic pleasure of seeing a dozen drenched office workers being forced to leave the comfort of the bus shelter and run as fast as they could - through a particularly deep puddle! - to reach him before he decided to close his doors again and pull away.

And my dipshit students had misinformed me about which bus stop to use, so I had unwittingly got on a bus going in the wrong direction. I had been alert to this possibility, but it took me a while to verify which direction I was going - because I'm not familiar with this part of town; because the bus stops in this part of town do not (as they do just about everywhere else) have their names written on them; and because the notification of the stops onboard, by both digital sign and bilingual pre-recorded announcements, had been disabled by the driver. I realised after one stop, by asking a fellow passenger; but was then stuck on the bus for one more stop....

And the bus stopped moving... Now, traffic over on the east side of Beijing gets pretty horrible in the rush hour at the best of times. And heavy rain makes things even worse (as everyone, for once, starts driving over-cautiously). But our problem seemed to be almost entirely down to an absurd piece of traffic management by the Beijing authorities: at the major junction we were approaching, the red light was against us for 5 or 6 minutes or more at a time, and then turning green for barely 30 seconds! I kid you not. Utterly f***ing CRAZY! It took us over 25 minutes to cover a distance of about 200 yards to the next stop.

And the driver - helpful, cheery, philanthropic soul that he was - obstinately refused requests from myself and several other passengers to open the doors and let us out. There was no safety issue: we were near the side of the road, and no other traffic anywhere around us was moving for minutes at a time. But the driver insisted on keeping us trapped inside the bus. It was a nightmarish experience; it had begun to seem that the ordeal might drag on for hours, forever. Had I really died and gone to hell this time?

When I did finally get out into the open air again, it was such a blessed relief that I was not too concerned about being LOST (very few street signs in Wangjing; and those there are, too small to read in such poor visibility), in the pitch dark (very few streetlights in Beijing; and those there are, heavily shaded by the ubiquitous goddarned trees), ripe for ambush by lurking potholes and ankle-deep sewage-tainted puddles. So, it's 8.15 at night, and it's pouring with rain, and I haven't eaten yet, and I'm 10 or 12 miles from home - but it's not that bad, right? I mean, it's not like I'm going to have to walk all the way home?? Er.... 

There were a lot of taxis around, parked near this junction, or sailing past - but they didn't want to take any fares. Not from a laowai, at least. Everyone, it seemed, either wanted to take a break while traffic conditions were so "dangerous", or was only interested in heading out to Shunyi (although the eastbound traffic was logjammed, while the westbound route into the city was remarkably empty). 

Eventually I found one enterprising shifu who was willing to consider taking me back to civilization 'off the meter'. Ordinarily, it would be a 35 or 40 rmb metered fare. 50 rmb would be a not unreasonable hei che rate. In these extreme circumstances, I was willing to consider offering him 100 rmb. But he asked for 200 rmb - and that, I thought, was taking the piss a little bit too much.

So, I gave up on that vain exercise. I got my bearings and started to walk. I was soon back in modestly familiar territory, and managed to duck into a bar for an hour to get some food, and shelter from the worst of the storm. Once the rain starting slackening off again, it actually started to feel quite pleasant to be the only person out on the streets, and to be making progress towards home - although it was now becoming soupily humid, and I didn't have a very good pair of walking shoes on, and there was still a long, long way to go...

However, after making such a good start, I probably should have persevered in my walking - at least until I got to a subway station.

Alas, just shy of the Third Ringroad, I unexpectedly managed to flag down a taxi. And this was really NOT the driver I needed to be meeting at the end of such an unusually stressful evening. 

He was the archetype of every complaint everyone - foreigner and Chinese - makes about the Beijing taxi service, a blackly comic exemplar of every imaginable negative cab driver trait. His registration number was 27****, one of the most recent ones, so my heart began to sink immediately. He STANK to high heaven (I don't usually like to comment on the personal hygiene of these folks, since I think laowai disdain in this matter is patronisingly overplayed; and I do have a lot of sympathy for how hard drivers work and how limited their opportunities to bathe are - but this guy was like a tramp, his body odour was making me gag!). He drove at a crawl, even when there was no other traffic nearby. He was reluctant to go into the city centre, and pretended not to know (or perhaps genuinely didn't know?) where anything was. When he was eventually persuaded to accept directions from me, he insisted on trying to correct my Chinese pronunciation every single time; indeed, he enjoyed this game so much, he started asking for confirmation of which way we should go at every junction, and would then correct my pronunciation of 'straight on' or 'turn left' two or three times with wry mockery - at every single junction, every 15 or 20 seconds. Jeez, that was a LONG ride!!!

I was VERY GOOD. I did not punch him in the face. Nor, indeed, did I punch the next three people who annoyed me unnecessarily that evening in the face. But I did fantasise about it very vividly. And I beat the shit out of my sofa for a couple of minutes when I finally got home.

I am lobbying for this bloody Wangjing class to be cancelled. If I am unsuccessful, and it rains again, expect to be reading reports of a foreigner running amok in north-east Beijing and strangling cabbies or bus drivers.

The special room in HELL just for me

Yes, I have to go to Wangjing twice a week for the next month. In the rush hour. 3 or more hours of travelling for only 2 hours of paid work.

How much worse can it be??!!


It's an abysmally 'designed' course. (Not 'designed' at all, of course. The school that set it up just plucked a textbook randomly off the shelf.)  It's a really crummy book I'm supposed to be using, and it can be covered in about half the number of hours timetabled.

The class isn't remotely quorate. You need at least 8 to 10 people in a lesson to generate some positive energy, and to allow for a decent variety of different activities. There were only 7 people listed for this class. 2 of them have left the company. 1 is frequently too busy with work to attend. And 1 speaks not a single word of English. You can't have a 'group class' with 3 people - it doesn't work.

No money. I took this on as a favour to a contact who has set me up with a fair bit of interesting work in the past. Alas, for this class, they're paying only a rock bottom rate. And (contrary to what they'd suggested to me before I started - based on frantic, uninformed back-of-an-envelope calculations!) I am being taxed on it not at 10% but at a swingeing 16%. This is supposed to be high-end business training for a prestigious MNC. Kindergarten teachers earn more.

No guanxi. My main interest in taking the gig was to try to establish some contacts with this very big, very famous company. But it turns out the training has been set up independently by one of the small work teams there; it's nothing to do with any of the senior managers, nor even with the HR & Training Dept. Very frustrating. Boo!

My contact there is the most annoying person I have ever met: she has quite good English, but otherwise appears to be a complete moron. She takes the Chinese predisposition towards inappropriate laughter to extraordinary new levels, being apparently incapable of opening her mouth to say anything without giggling. I am probably going to KILL her before this course is through. Or at least put duct tape over her mouth...

But wait, it gets worse....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Or Wangjing, as it is also known.

I have never liked Wangjing.

I have never liked the idea of Wangjing.

It is one of the first of the hideous 'new towns' to spring up outside the northern periphery of Beijing. And, being on the north-east side, the quadrant where most of the laowai live (conveniently en route to the airport!), it has been seen as an appealing location for the headquarters of a number of major international companies. In the past, I've taught training courses there for the likes of Siemens and ABB.

And I've absolutely hated every second I've spent in the place.

When they bulldoze one of the old neighbourhoods in downtown Beijing, the new constructions usually bear at least some faint vestige of the previous urban layout: a few of the small connecting roads remain, some of the old place names survive. Despite the colossal size of some of the malls and office blocks being put up, we yet manage to retain some sense of human scale - perhaps because these new developments are at least still interwoven with a few older, homelier neighbourhoods.

But when they build on a greenfield site, it's just horrendous. Wide roads, with few if any footbridges or underpasses to facilitate pedestrian crossing. Intricate, swirling road junctions that are even harder - all but impossible - to get across on foot. And block after block without any sense of a residential community; mile upon mile of offices, with little more than an occasional Costa Coffee by way of a retail/leisure/food distraction. It is a how not to model of urban planning. Walking through Wangjing, I invariably find myself contemplating the Zombie Apocalypse; indeed, I become convinced that it is already upon us.

Worst of all, it is the least accessible part of Beijing. Insofar as it was 'designed' with any intelligent foresight at all (which I rather doubt), it appears to have been designed for people who live in Shunyi (mostly well-off expats) and who have cars (and, usually, drivers). It's still not on any subway lines. (Part of Line 15 appears to now be open; but there are only two Wangjing stations, at the extreme ends of the development - the line does not penetrate into the heart of the office zone desert. The proposed new Line 14 may be slightly better, but not much, I think; and that's still 3 or 4 years away from opening.) There are precious few bus routes through there (most of them go up the Jingmi Highway towards Shunyi; if you want to get out to Wangjing from anywhere in central Beijing, you usually have to make at least one change). And it is very ill served for taxis (and the ones you find there mostly have out-of-town drivers who only want to do the shuttle to and from Shunyi or the airport, and don't know where anything else in Beijing is). Because so much of it is purely business rather than residential, you don't even find many hei che (the 'black cabs' - unlicensed privateers who, although they can be a pain to haggle with sometimes, are usually a boon in outlying areas starved of regular cabs).

From where I live, it takes about 1hr 20mins to get there by bus and/or subway, or at least 20-30 mins by cab. Getting back (in the evening rush hour!) takes more than 1hr 30 mins by bus/subway and ???? by cab.

Considering these dire logistics, I really should not have accepted a 2-hour teaching gig out there!

Oh, but wait - it gets worse.....

Monday, June 20, 2011

Technical difficulties

Continuing the Why I HATE working for Chinese universities series....

I've been doing a weekend class on Presentation Skills this month. The coursebook I'm supposed to use is largely based around audio clips.

So, it would help if we had a good sound system in the classroom.

But, in Week 1, I found that the amplifier made such a frightful buzzing, shrieking sound as soon as it was switched on (impossible to reduce by juggling the settings, and suggestive, I fear, of imminent meltdown) that the students and I found it intolerable to listen to. I had to abandon the coursebook, and improvise six hours of useful activities of my own instead (I wasn't too heartbroken; it's a terrible book, and I had planned to use a lot of my own material anyway).

In fact, I was pretty grateful, because the sound system in this room was almost impossible to access. There's a narrow daïs at the front of the room, a cement step less than 3ft deep. Nearly two-thirds of this is occupied by the equipment console. And the audio equipment is on the bottom shelf of the cupboard in this console - yes, on the floor. And there is barely room for me to get behind the console anyway. I have to get down on my hands and knees and crawl in sideways, wedged between the console and the wall, in order to reach the on/off switch for powering up the whining amp. An utterly, utterly ridiculous piece of design. And emblematic of the whole Chinese university problem.

And alas, most of the other activities I had hoped to use involved PowerPoint slides. And the PPT projector mysteriously lost power mid-morning and stubbornly declined to be revived. The IT assistant for the building was unavailable, because it was a Sunday. So, no audio facilities and no projector. Sigh. Improvise some more.

I badgered my teaching liaison to try to move us to a different room - with better equipment - for this week. She told me this was impossible, none of the other rooms were "available". More classic Chinese university nonsense! I checked last week, and hardly any of the 100 teaching rooms in this building were in use, but all of them were open. This must be some strange use of the word "available" with which I am not familiar; they look mighty available to me.

My liaison assured me that the equipment had been fixed. I didn't believe her for a moment. And I was right not to. The whining amplifier had in fact got worse. But we were spared any pressure to even try to make do with it by the fact that it was no longer connected to the computer's audio outlet. (At least the projector held out this week. A fuse problem last time, I surmise.)

Only one more week of this fiasco to endure.

Why did I ever agree to it in the first place?

Bon mot for the week

"The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life: 
Try to be Shakespeare; leave the rest to fate!"

Robert Browning  (1812-1889)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend - the bass player with VOM

I stumbled upon an almost completely unadvertised gig last weekend at the tiny What Bar - with breezy pop-punk Norwegian girl band VOM.

I was rather badly smitten with the one who played bass; the one on the left in the hotdog-munching scene below. She checked altogether too many of the boxes in my 'high risk' template: tall, a redhead, dazzlingly blue eyes, great legs, plays a musical instrument, tall.... 
They're playing in Shanghai tonight. I am tempted to nip down there!

The band, alas, have very low Web visibility (perhaps as a result of their songs - and thus, I assume, their publicity material - being entirely in Norwegian?), and I haven't yet been able to discover her name. Except that the YouTube page for the video below seems to suggest that they use jokey 'punk names', and that hers is Esel Rex ('Donkey' Rex, if Google Translate is to be believed!). Not the sexiest monicker in the world! But when you're that gorgeous, it hardly matters. And her 'anonymity' is probably part of the allure. Check out the video below: it is a lot of fun.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Haiku for the week

Summer haze descends,
Choking joy, stealing sunshine,
Drowning all in sweat.

Ah, the Beijing summer - gorgeous for the first five or six weeks, and then it turns to shit. When you know it's going to happen, you really ought not to be disappointed. And yet, each year, there's some part of me that remains obstinately in denial, foolishly hoping that somehow this year will be different. Of course not, you silly boy. Oh dear. Well, maybe next year?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A sense of self-preservation (and the Chinese lack of one)

The other day, I was waiting to cross a wide and busy road up in Beijing's university district when I saw a car approaching uncommonly slowly. I glanced up at the traffic light, thinking at first that it must have changed - although the dawdling car was still well over a hundred yards short of the junction.

No, the light was still green.

I speculated that the car must have some sort of problem - gearbox frozen, run out of petrol, wires from the alternator broken...? It appeared to have slowed to less than walking speed, just barely coasting along at no more than 2mph or 3 mph.

Then I saw the driver, phone jammed to his ear, rubbernecking agitatedly to the right - evidently trying to take directions on how to find an address or a side-road nearby.

Ah, I see. And I sympathise. Really, I do. I know how exasperatingly difficult it can be to find any address in Beijing; and how difficult it can be to spot any landmark along the side of the road when the ubiquitous trees are in full leaf during the summer months. I understand how anxious you might be about not wanting to miss your turn (and have to go all the way down to the end of the block, a half mile or so hence, to turn around).

But, you know, in this sort of situation, what you should do is pull over to the side lane, and slow down to a speed that is low enough to give you a decent chance of spotting what you're looking for but is also sensibly safe for other road users. Not hog the middle lane at 3mph!!!

Really - that's what this nutjob was doing. Bumbling down the middle of a busy three-lane boulevarde almost at a standstill. And without using his hazard lights, of course. And without paying any attention to vehicles coming up behind him.

Two cars closing on him at 35mph took frighteningly late evasive action, and honked furiously at him. Our driver seemed oblivious of them.

Or perhaps he did register this at some level, and finally realised that perhaps he ought not to be in the middle lane. So - he pulled over to the side, suddenly, violently (almost at 90 degrees across the road), and, of course, without indicating.... right in front of a bus, which had to do a lurching emergency stop to avoid a horrendous collision.

The idiot driver still seemed blithely unconcerned. He was now parked perpendicular across the outer lane of the road; but he was at least at the entry point into a fulu, the 'service road' alongside the main road which is mostly used by bicycles and pedestrians and thus where very slow-moving cars would not be such an outrageous safety hazard. However, this chap didn't like the fulu option. No, he backed up into the main road (without looking behind), and then continued to pootle along it at 2mph - although at least he was now in the slow lane, so I suppose that wasn't so bad.

I was tempted to run - er, walk - after him and suggest that perhaps he should STOP to consult a map and/or conclude his telephone conversation with his friend. No sense of self-preservation at all!!

This is the kind of person I find myself wishing an early death on, just to improve the quality of life - and the chance of avoiding death in a stupid accident - for the rest of us. Is that unduly harsh of me?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Summoning the Greys?

Now, this is just getting freaky.

One of my musical neighbours has this morning been incessantly playing that infuriating brainworm of a five-note theme from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. You know the one.

I thought at first it was being played on a bamboo flute, which would at least have had the saving charm of quirky incongruity about it. But it seems that it is in fact just some sort of electric organ, much like the one the NASA guys had in the film.

Why, why, WHY??? Is there a huge flying saucer hovering above us??

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Foresight (and the Chinese lack of it)

Another in my ongoing series, Why I hate working for Chinese universities...

I have just started teaching a class on Presentation Skills to a small group of mature students. It is arranged by a Chinese university (groan). It is taking place on Sundays (groan!!).

The idea was first broached to me well over a month ago, when I was so desperate for money that I felt obliged to say yes (in the time since then, I have become insanely busy, and am wishing passionately that I had turned it down).

The scheduled start date was June 5th. I didn't think anything of it at first.

Chinese holidays have a way of ambushing you - because the lunar calendar allows them to wander around so freely, often varying by at least two or three weeks, sometimes a month or more from one year to the next; and also because the government (at least until recently) would seldom decide very far in advance whether it would grant a day off, or a number of days off, for any of these holidays.

Thus, I got rather caught out by Duanwu Jie, the Dragon Boat Festival, falling on the first weekend of June this year. It's only in the last two or three years that the government has started acknowledging this traditional holiday at all - and surely it was much earlier in the year last year?

The university had evidently been caught out as well. Surely they wouldn't schedule the start of a new course over a holiday weekend?

I pointed the matter out to them.

They took two or three days to ponder it.

Then they e-mailed me back: "Monday 6th is a public holiday. Sunday 5th is just a regular Sunday."

Hello!!!! Three-day weekend?!  Do you really think our students are going to want to sit in a stuffy classroom all day long in the middle of a three-day weekend when they could, you know, be away having a trip somewhere, or meeting up with family and friends in Beijing? Why don't you ask the students what they think about this?

Reluctantly, they concurred with my suggestion.

Unsurprisingly, the students all gratefully agreed that they would much prefer the course to start on June 12th.

There, that wasn't hard, was it?

Well, yes, in China, it always seems to be.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance - under the prompting of a brave, determined spirit."

Mark Twain  (1835-1910)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

List of the Month - reasons to live in Beijing

I am trying to weigh up whether I should stay here much longer. Here, a window into my ruminations...

Reasons to live in Beijing

1)  I'm here already.
Ah, inertia - always an insidiously powerful argument, but also a rather shaming one!

2)  I used to like it.
Gosh, yes, I used to like it a lot. But the shine has definitely been rubbing off the place since about a year before the Olympics. I'm feeling rather jaded with it now.

3)  It's cheap.
Well, it used to be. And it sometimes still can be. But in the last few years, it's been closing the gap with Shanghai terrifyingly fast (indeed, according to Mercer, it has overtaken her!!).

4)  It's got a fantastic music scene.
Except that there hasn't been that much worthwhile new blood emerging in recent years, while old stagers have disbanded or started to grow a little stale. And the authorities - equating music, especially open air music, with potential mass subversion - have recently been stepping up their harassment of music bars, and making it next to impossible to stage festivals within the city limits. The 'scene' at present is a sorry shadow of what it was four or five years ago.

5)  There's a fantastic modern art scene here.
Except that - unlike most rock music - modern art genuinely is 'subversive'. And so, artists are feeling the impact of the government's current anxieties especially keenly. My friend Wu Yuren spent the best part of a year in prison for nothing. Ai Weiwei has been 'disappeared' indefinitely. Many of their peers are recognising the imperative for self-preservation, and keeping out of sight while conditions here remain so oppressive.

6)  I've got some amazing friends here.
Well, I have had over the years. The majority of them - both Chinese and foreign - have left now. And a number of the longest-standing fixtures in my social set are threatening to leave within the next few months. I don't have many people to go out with in the evenings any more...

7)  I earn good money here.
Or... I used to. Unfortunately, one of my main sources of income (voice recording) has almost entirely dried up in the past couple of years. And most of the other stuff I do (editing, training) is paying no more than it was when I came here 9 years ago (while the cost of living has nearly doubled in the same time). In fact, with the increasing insistence of Chinese employers on "paying tax" for me (they don't, of course; in most cases, they're probably just keeping the deductions for themselves), I'm often earning less per hour than I was back in my early days here.

8)  There aren't any truly inspiring alternatives.
Well, I've toyed with the idea of St Petersburg and Montevideo and Buenos Aires and Cartagena and Amman and Herat and Penang and Vientiane, but.... I haven't been able to make a convincing case to myself for any of them just yet. The dread inertia in another guise.

Oh, dear, things are not looking very promising, are they? Perhaps we should all revisit one of my most positive posts on life in China 
- 10 Things To Love About Beijing.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Haiku for the week

Volcano rumbles.
Life pours salt on open wounds.
Constant rage festers.

Yep, that again. I am probably going to punch someone in the face quite soon. I just hope it's a Young American rather than a poor bloody cab driver.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

CHINA RAGE moments

From time to time, just about every expat here reaches the point of complete meltdown suffered by Michael Douglas's memorable character in Falling Down.

There are just so many things about this country - and its people, and their 'culture' - that are weird, gross, inept, selfish, rude, dangerous, or just completely irrational and pointless. Hell, 'weird' doesn't begin to cover this place; it's bewilderingly, mind-buggeringly..... INSANE at times.

No matter how sensitive we are to 'cultural difference', and no matter how curious we are about it, and how tolerant of its more challenging manifestations.... there comes a point for all of us when we've had enough.

Luckily, automatic weapons are very hard to come by out here. When we reach an emotional flashpoint like poor old 'D-Fens', the very worst that's likely to happen is that we shout at an incompetent cab driver or piss on the hubcap of an improperly parked Audi. Most of the time, the extent of our catharsis is a bit of random muttering of obscenities under the breath or a theatrical beating of the palms against the forehead.

I've been muttering rather a lot myself these past few weeks. I need a break. Ten days in Malaysia at the end of February didn't do much to revivify the spirits, because it's not so far away geographically, and quite similar to China also in climate and development status; it was hardly like being away at all. Other than that, I haven't had a holiday of any kind in nearly two years. And I'm not sure that I'm going to manage to fit one in this summer, apart from a brief trip to Yunnan for a mate's wedding (nice, but still in China). I have found before that after an unbroken spell in this country of much more than a year, I start to get just a little bit crazy. After 18 months or so, I have no patience left for anything: absolutely everything pisses me off, all the time.

But there is some consolation in knowing that I am not alone. Two of my oldest friends have gone through rather more spectacular and thoroughgoing examples of the China meltdown recently, and have determined to quit the country for good (after having survived here significantly longer than I have).

And a friend recounted a story to me the other day, an overheard venting of steam that rather tickled me because it seems such an apposite summing up of the way we laowai feel on those occasions when this bizarre country completely gets on top of us. A well-dressed, middle-aged foreign male - it would seem perhaps a business traveller rather than a long-term resident here - got out of a taxi, slapped his hands against his head, and yelled (to no-one in particular), "God! It's like being in the world's biggest kindergarten!"

Ah yes, one of those days.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"It is much easier to forget what you remember than to remember what you have forgotten. That is why it is so important always to remember."


I've just added a link to my ongoing series of posts about the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen protests to the sidebar over there (down below the links about Ai Weiwei and Wu Yuren), and a separate link to the long piece I wrote two years ago on the twentieth anniversary of the crackdown.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Haiku for the week

Uneven struggle:
Behind barricades they wait,
With bricks against guns.

It's always seemed to me that June 3rd rather than June 4th should be the main focus of commemoration of the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing (and their brutal suppression). Orders to clear Tiananmen Square of protesters had been circulated during the day, and troops began to mobilize in the early evening of the 3rd - leading to a night of rioting across the capital as citizens poured into the streets and improvised scores of roadblocks to try to bar the army's progress into the city centre. The clearing of the Square was not accomplished until the early hours of the morning of the 4th, and sporadic shooting incidents took place in or near the Square - and across much of Beijing - for some time afterwards; but many of the most violent clashes had taken place relatively early on, as the armoured columns  began to move in from the outer suburbs - most notably at Muxidi in west Beijing, where troops fired repeated volleys into a crowd, killing around 200 people.

And sometimes it feels as though we're cowering behind the barricades still; but it's no longer about obstruction and defiance, it's just about hiding for self-preservation; there are mental roadblocks that people erect to prevent themselves from having to confront the truth. There's a lot of fear in this adopted home of mine - fear and apathy and denial.

Today - and tomorrow, this weekend, this week - is a time to reflect on what happened here 22 years ago. And it is a time to hope that it is not yet too late for China's leaders to acknowledge what happened, to apologise for it, to learn from it, to start to heal the wounds - and to pledge that the powers of government here will never be so abused again.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Bon voyage (and Good on ya, Sheila!)

Last weekend, my wise and talented blog-friend Cedra Wood, a New Mexico artist, departed for her summer painting trip to Australia. She'll be away for six weeks or so, I think, doing fieldwork out in the bush. Watch out for occasional updates on her blog.

Have a wonderful time, Cedra. I look forward to seeing your pictures of that astonishing wilderness.

New Picks of the Month

Some new 'best of...' picks from three years ago this month:

From Froogville I give you... the most devastating of all my 'fantasy girlfriends', Mrs Peel (from '60s TV show The Avengers).

And from Barstool Blues I suppose it has to be Marjorie Daw, an episode of frustrated romance that called to mind a literary reference.