Monday, October 31, 2011

The problem to all my answers?

Ha! Someone just sent me this job ad from Craigslist. I'm desperate, but I'm not quite that desperate.

Love the toll-free number, though.

EVIL GENIUS seeks minions to sacrifice their lives in world domination attempt. Must be prepared to work 24/7 for fascist psychopath for no pay. Messy death inevitable but costumes and laser death rays provided. No weirdos.

Call: 1-900-MWAH-HAHA

Compensation: unlimited
Telecommuting is ok.
This is a contract job.
This is an internship job
Principals only. Recruiters, please don't contact this job poster.
Please, no phone calls about this job!
Please do not contact job poster about other services, products or commercial interests.

Bon mot for the week

"The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true."

Robert Oppenheimer  (1904-1967)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Film List - more quotations

Time for another quick quiz. This selection is perhaps a little tougher than my previous film quotations challenges (here and here), in that the lines themselves are not that famous. But they are all, I think, very memorable - and deserve to be quoted more often. Also, in most cases, they give a strong hint as to which film they are from. However, recognising the character who speaks the line is sometimes going to be very difficult.  Good luck!

As usual, I'll post the answers in the comments below in a week or so.

Quiz  -  film quotations that ought to be better known

1)   "I'll have an answer, or I'll have blood!"

2)   "He had a voice that could make a wolverine purr."

3)   "There's a lot of statues in Europe you haven't bought yet."

4)   "Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."

5)   "In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns."

6)   "Imagine your loved ones conquered by Napoleon and forced to live under French rule. Do you want them to eat that rich food and those heavy sauces?"

7)   "I know I've made some very poor decisions recently."

8)   "All in all, not a bad guy - if looks, brains and personality don't count."

9)  "You happen to pull this shit while I'm in a transitional period. So, I don't wanna kill you, I wanna help you."

10)  "Avoid women directors. They ovulate. Do you have any idea what that does to a three-month shoot?"

11)   "I'm sorry. I have no time for piddling suggestions from mumbling job applicants."

12)  "I kick ass - for the Lord!"

Friday, October 28, 2011

The healing magic of blue skies

As you might have gathered from this morning's grumpy post, I have just about had it with Beijing, and a few days ago was seriously contemplating quitting the country for good within the next few weeks.

But today I've had an out-and-about sort of day - the first in a while, having been chained to my keyboard creating website copy for most of the week (no, not for the blogs, silly; for a paying customer!) - and the weather has been absolutely gorgeous.

And I'm starting to think that maybe Beijing isn't so bad after all, that I might try and stick it out for another year or two (to see just WHEN and HOW the BIG CRASH is going to hit this place). Sunshine soothes the soul.

Haiku for the week

All ruthless, greedy;
Everyone's a landlord now!
Perhaps Mao was right...

My pal The Weeble made the same observation to me a year or so ago when he was suffering similar apartment-hunting tribulations. Mao felt that the 'landlord mentality' was in the blood, and that anyone who came from a family which had owned property - even a few generations back - should be exterminated. It was a harsh position. But the more dealings one has with contemporary Chinese landlords, the more one starts to appreciate how wise and just Mao's policy may have been.

Prices for new property have levelled off, even begun to drop a bit in most places. It seems certain we are on the brink of a major downward 'readjustment', and panicky developers and speculative investors are dumping more and more rental property on to already over-supplied urban markets. I've heard vacancy rates being quoted as high as 28% for apartments in Beijing - and I suspect that's seriously under-reported.

So, you'd think that rental prices ought to be crashing, but... it seems to be quite the reverse.

I'm sure they will crash soon, but at the moment desperate landlords seem to be indulging in a final orgy of rapacious greed - trying to bump up prices by 15, 20 or even 25% (or, in my landlord's case, 35%!). This is a difficult time to be looking for a move.

I think one of the problems is that - as I observed in the frivolous little pome above - everyone is a landlord now. The banks here are crap, interests rates are paltry (far, far behind the currently galloping inflation rate), the stock market is too volatile for most people, and overseas investment options are not available to many, so.... buying property and/or renting out property has been the only way most people here can put their money to work for them. Many of them were able to get their start on the property ladder at a massive discount. I think my present landlord rents my place rather than owns it outright, but he got it through his danwei - 'work unit' - and so pays only a very nominal amount for it. Others were able to get huge low-interest loans when the government was first pushing the shift to private ownership a decade or so ago - and, in many cases, haven't been put under that much pressure to pay them all back (China doesn't like to acknowledge the concept of non-performing loans; but it has an awful lot of under-performing loans).

So, a lot of these first-time home owners were able to trade up almost immediately, moving into much larger new apartments, and more than covering their rent or their mortgage repayments by letting out their older city centre apartments that had cost them little or nothing. Many people, seeing opportunities for quick returns from investing in property, moved back into renting themselves rather than living in the apartments they had bought.  But now, landlords have started asking huge rent increases on these swank new apartments; and their Chinese tenants are used to thinking that they should be making an overall profit from their older, smaller homes, and so begin to demand increases that are even higher. There's an unfortunate domino effect that creates a distorted market, quite divorced from the realities of supply and demand - a cycle of greed.

Also, nominal vacancy rates really mean nothing here, because so many people have bought property purely as an investment. Many owners are only interested in selling on to take a profit after a few years, and view tenants as a potential impediment to that - more hassle than they are worth.  They are quite happy to let properties lie empty for years.

Prices have been rising so quickly over the past few years that property had indeed seemed like a very sound investment: people who bought in the first half of the Noughties and sold on after 5 or 6 years made a killing. But I think those days are over now. Yet the Chinese have developed this stubborn expectation that buying property will enable them to get rich quick, that they will double, treble, or quadruple their money within a few years. This deranged fantasy is about to implode, with potentially very messy consequences for 'social harmony'.

I think this is not a time to be signing a long lease.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Odd how things work out...

I hate taking money out of the bank, and so usually try to subsist on cash-in-hand earnings. This gets to be a problem, especially when I am being paid very little by either the unreliable Chinese bank transfer or the 'Oh Christ, I hope I don't lose this on the way home' envelope full of readies. In the last six months, I have survived almost entirely on writing projects - which are reasonably intellectually satisfying, and pay moderately well, but they tend to be few and far between, and the money for them often doesn't come through until months later.

Since I now find myself mired in the apartment-hunting nightmare, and likely to have to part with 20 or 30k in cash to secure a new pad within the next week or so, the slenderness of my under-the-mattress stash was becoming a source of considerable anxiety.

So, I was doubly surprised and relieved the other day to discover that.....

a)  I was actually going to get paid 50% in advance on my latest writing gig, developing the copy for a new corporate website.  (I've actually pretty much finished the job, before signing the contract for it; dangerously cart-before-house, but this is a reliable employer - not Chinese, obviously.)


b)  The employer had misfiled or forgotten about my bank details, and so impetuously decided to pay me in cash instead.  Woo-hoo!

I'm supposed to be picking up another big wodge for a couple of business articles tomorrow. So, I'll be just about sorted for persuading a potential new landlord of my solvency.

Fate, you are a tease, aren't you?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Who are you pointing at? [War on Chinglish - 20]

It is very common to hear the Chinese speaking of, for example, "those poor people in Africa" or "those foreigners studying Mandarin".

Oh dear. They have no idea how RUDE this often sounds.

I think this mistake arises because Chinese lacks articles, and so often uses zhege, nage - this, that, these, those - where English would use the (or a, or no word at all).

Those is a demonstrative adjective/pronoun – i.e., it calls special attention to something; it specifies a group of people or things as notable for some reason, distinct from the general group of which they are a part. It also very often implies a distancing from the speaker, and thus can suggest disdain, dislike, or disapproval

Chinese English speakers use those very commonly where they should just use the definite article the (for a specified group: “We should donate money for the earthquake victims in Sichuan”) or no article (for a general, unspecified group: “I feel sorry for homeless people”).

Saying things like “those earthquake victims” or “those homeless people” tends to sound patronising or contemptuous. Please stop doing it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Same old same old

The British Chamber of Commerce last week sent me a UK government summary of the European Chamber of Commerce's latest 'position paper' on China. It concluded with the refreshingly frank statement:
"The litany of foreign business complaints in China has barely changed in two years. There has been some patchy progress, but retrenchment in almost equal measure."

By coincidence, the very same day, a friend forwarded me a link to an item (on a China news site I hadn't previously known about) headed China is world's 3rd-wealthies nation (sic). Credit Suisse, apparently, is now predicting that China will overtake Japan as the world's second wealthiest nation by the end of 2016, although it will still have slightly less than half the GDP of the USA. Moreover, this report notes, just a mite Chinglishly, that, "accumulation of fortune will happen alongside the expansion of wealth gap"; i.e., the country's Gini coefficient of income distribution is going off the charts.

But, as the 'academic' I was editing for last week assures us, the Gini coefficient and other such indicators of economic and social instability are 'Western concepts' and DO NOT APPLY to China, because.... well, they just don't. China is different, OK?

The laws of physics only apply selectively here as well, a fact that has been much exploited in the construction of dams and nuclear power stations.

Bon mot for the week

"Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace."

Eugene O'Neill  (1888-1953)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Sheree J. Wilson

I have alluded before to my fatal weakness for red hair (I blame the Irish ancestry), and the lovely Ms Wilson is one of the prime exemplars of that type - at least in the one film I know her from, Sam Raimi's Crimewave. I don't think she's a natural redhead; she seems to have blonde or light brown hair in most later pictures I've seen of her; but in that film, she is the heart-melting paradigm of flame-haired beauty. Well, actually, her character is mostly rather annoying (all the characters in the film are rather annoying, which may be one reason why it flopped at the box office), but I have found myself lapsing into a crush on her anyway.

She has kept herself in fairly regular acting work for over 25 years, without ever breaking through to the big time. I don't think I've ever seen her in anything else (well, apart from the Coen brothers' Barton Fink, where I'd swear she has a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in an early restaurant scene, but that appears to be uncredited and doesn't make it on to her IMDB resumé). I gather she starred in the later years of Dallas (ha! I didn't even realise that was still running through the later '80s; thought it had been just a late '70s and early '80s phenomenon) and then had a recurring role in Walker, Texas Ranger (which, despite my many, many visits to the States over the last 20 years, I have managed never to see a single second of); and then a bunch of B-movies and made-for-TV fare. Crimewave may be the only 'proper' movie she's ever made; and that, unfortunately, became a notorious box office disaster. Here's the only clip I can find of her in it (looking ravishing in an evening dress) - suffering a date-from-hell with arch cad Bruce Campbell and then being ineptly "rescued" by well-meaning nerd Reed Birney (who looks disconcertingly like the racing driver Sebastian Vettel).

This was Raimi's first studio picture, after the huge success of his privately financed debut comedy horror flick The Evil Dead. He and his regular star, Campbell, have often bitched about how interference from the producers butchered the film they wanted to make (for example, in these interviews for Jonathon Ross's late '80s British TV series The Incredibly Strange Film Show), but it looks to me as if they have to take responsibility for the uneven script and weird concept themselves (it's a highly stylised, cartoonish black comedy, with a lot of rough slapstick in the style of The Three Stooges - challengingly sui generis). However, despite the film's slightly alienating oddity, if you give it a chance, it is darned good fun. There are a few sequences of pure genius in it, particularly those involving Paul J. Smith as the lumbering psychopath 'Crush'. This, for example...

This is a film I find myself going back to rewatch at least once a year, at times when I particularly need to cheer myself up a bit. And each time I watch, I have a little swoon over Sheree.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Recently, on The Barstool...

It's been a relatively quiet month or so over on my 'drinking blog', largely because I haven't been drinking.

However, there have been a few notable posts: a celebration of the centenary of Irish writer Brian O'Nolan (one of my great Unsuitable Role Models), an account of the farewell pub crawl for my friend JK (proprietor of the best bar in Beijing), and an approach to overcoming procrastination (or not).

We've also had music from the fabulous Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, from Brad Barr playing a wondrously strange guitar, from masters of Central Asian folk Huun-Huur-Tu (one of a pair of grumpy posts about how wretchedly awful Beijing's 'leading' live music bar Yugong Yishan is), and from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who played at the InterCity Music Festival in Chaoyang Park at the beginning of last month (yes, I included that in my last Best of... roundup too, but it's worth repeating; they are very, very good).

We've also seen my old buddy The British Cowboy emerge from a long hibernation to revisit the comment threads.

And, of course, we marked the 5th Anniversary of the blog with a new 'audience participation' thread on the topic What's Your Unusual Super-Power?

Go and see what you've missed.

Haiku for the week

Fatigue lies in wait
A mugger in the shadows
Pouncing, cosh in hand

Suddenly, I am very, very, very tired. I slept 10 hours last night, and feel I could sleep another 10. I don't think I'll be going out anywhere today.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Looking the other way

I wasn't going to post about this at first.

I try not to be too 'serious' on here most of the time. And I am averse to jumping on bandwagons. And there are going to be plenty of other people discussing this more thoroughly, more thoughtfully over the next few days.

Also, to be honest, I found my responses a little numb at first. I'm afraid we all succumb to compassion fatigue after a while. When living in China, we also develop outrage fatigue and disgust fatigue. These emotions are so over-exercised on an almost-daily basis that our threshold sensitivity steadily ramps up until we become inured even to the most horrific tragedies and injustices.

But there has been one dominant topic of conversation in China over the last couple of days, amongst locals and foreigners alike. There is no getting away from it. The spread of the Internet, and in particular the explosion of microblogging in the last 18 months or so, has meant that certain news stories can attain near universal awareness within 24 hours, even if they're not receiving much attention in the mainstream media.

And so it has been this week with the heartbreaking story of a two-year-old girl killed by a hit-and-run driver in Foshan, a city in Guangdong province.

No, a delivery van driver somehow didn't see her wandering around unsupervised in the lane ahead of him; and, though he noticed that he'd hit something and briefly stopped, he decided to drive on - running over the poor child with his rear wheel as well.

Nor did another delivery driver see her broken body lying at the side of the road when he ran over her for a second time a few minutes later.

However, debate over the incident has mostly focused not on the delinquency of her parents (why were they letting her wander around on her own in such a hazardous environment, how could they not notice her absence for so long?) or the lethal inattentiveness of two successive drivers, but the reaction - or lack of it - of pedestrians in the vicinity. This happened in the middle of a bustling hardware market (it's not clear from the slightly edited version of the security camera footage being disseminated online, but it appears that the mother was working in a stall just a few metres away), with dozens of stallholders and customers nearby, who surely must have seen or heard something of the accident or its aftermath. But no-one came to help. In fact, no fewer than 18 people walked or cycled right past the appallingly injured girl, paying her no attention at all. She  lay ignored in the road for 7 or 8 minutes until, finally, a middle-aged lady who scrapes a living salvaging trash around the market came along and decided to try to help her.

Almost more depressing than the incident itself is much of the online Chinese discussion that has been developing about it (some illustrative examples, in English, on ChinaSmack's post of the story). Many of the commenters, perhaps the majority, while acknowledging how regrettable the event was, nevertheless state that they would have done exactly the same thing - turned a blind eye and walked on by.

Yes, the point has been well made by some that this might not be a uniquely Chinese failing; social psychologists have analysed a so-called 'bystander phenomenon' - in all countries and cultures - where passers-by feel strangely inhibited about intervening in 'difficult' situations. However, I would think that in most of the developed countries - in my own experience, at least - this common reaction of hesitancy to intervene is chiefly conditioned by two factors: embarrassment (being unsure of the right action to take, or fear of doing something inappropriate) and lack of compelling pressure (we're fairly confident, in an urban situation, that someone - someone better able to deal with the situation - will step forward to help soon; if we encounter someone injured in the remote countryside, where we might be their only chance of help, I don't think we'd ever pass them by). In China, that second factor is evidently not in play: there is every possibility that, even in a busy setting, no-one will come forward to offer assistance.

And the main inhibiting factor is not mere embarrassment at one's possible ineptitude or powerlessness, it is fear of consequences. Hospital fees can be brutally expensive here, and there is a general - and probably not unreasonable - apprehension that anyone who takes someone to hospital, or even reports an accident, may find themselves being expected to foot the bill, and indeed may perhaps be aggressively pressed to do so by the police, or the victim, or the victim's family. There is a particular terror of possible criminal charges - so-called 'Nanjing cases', named after an incident in the southern city of Nanjing that became notorious on the Internet 5 or 6 years ago: a 'good Samaritan' took an old woman who had fallen or been knocked down in the street to hospital; subsequently, she rounded on her helper and accused him of having attacked her (perhaps through mental confusion about the incident, but more probably out of ruthless opportunism); when the case went to court, the numbskull judge pronounced that only a malefactor's guilt would prompt someone to help a stranger in this way.

That one outrageously irresponsible remark has entrenched a culture of passing by on the other side. Almost no-one here has the courage to try to assist an injured person. People die on the street every day in China; often the bodies lie there - dying, dead - for hours (one wag on that ChinaSmack thread observed, with bitter truth, that the lady trash-scavenger who called for help for this girl in Foshan "obviously doesn't read the Internet"). But I don't think that judge created this culture. His words - reprehensible though they were - reflected a prevalent Chinese attitude; they were an unfortunately accurate statement of a general truth. There has long been a culture of selfishness here, of narrow concern and narrow responsibilities: one looks out for oneself and one's family - and the extension of 'family' through the network of social obligations known as guanxi - but anyone outside of that gilded circle is a non-person and can be disregarded. The traditional religions and philosophies here don't seem to have established such a thoroughgoing moral infrastructure as the Judaeo-Christian legacy has in the West (in general, I deplore all religion as fatuous superstition; but if believing in a Celestial Policeman induces people to behave decently to each other, then perhaps it is worthwhile after all). I suspect the Mao era made things worse, as Communist ideology displaced so many of the ancient beliefs and the entire population was plunged into a brutal struggle to survive, with friends and neighbours turned against each other. And this trait of ruthless selfishness continues to dominate, as the burgeoning economy fosters an extreme materialism - these days, it's all about making money, by any means necessary.

However, a moral infrastructure grows not just from ideology and tradition, but from the public institutions of a country. China has the lowest levels of social trust in the world. If medical care were of better quality and more affordably priced, and if decent health insurance were more widely available, there wouldn't be so much reluctance to try to help road accident victims (and drivers running down a pedestrian wouldn't - as it is commonly thought some do - reverse to and fro over their victim to make sure that they are dead [compensation for a death being much less than the bill for a lengthy spell of hospitalization]). If there were a half-way decent legal system (with adequate training and supervision of judges, for example; so that people like our man in Nanjing could never sit on the bench), drivers involved in accidents might trust that they could be found non-culpable in some circumstances, or that promptly helping their victims would mitigate their punishment. But no - anyone who falls seriously ill or gets injured in this country is going to get screwed over by the system: hassled by the police (yes, I've seen a guy with a broken leg being interrogated on the sidewalk about how he managed to get himself run over), overcharged by their doctors, cheated by their insurance company (if they have one); and they can't expect any assistance from the courts, or from their 'representatives' in government. And any passer-by who tries to help them is likely to get embroiled in the same hideous mess; it's easier to just leave someone to die by the roadside.

This can change. A lot of people hailed the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 as a watershed in the development of Chinese morality. Prior to that, there'd been a lot of discussion about the country's moral atrophy, the prevailing culture of every-man-for-himself, the seeming lack of 'Western' virtues like charity and compassion - at least, for anyone outside one's immediate sphere of acquaintances or connections. But that tragedy touched people's hearts, and galvanised many into action, not just making cash donations to the disaster funds but in very many cases loading their cars up with supplies and driving hundreds of kilometres across the country to lend a hand directly in the rescue and relief efforts.

Perhaps this poor little girl, Yue Yue, who died of multiple internal injuries a few days later, can help the Chinese to take another step forward on this path of moral development. The shock, the outrage, the guilt, the shame that millions of Chinese are feeling at the moment are very strong. I hope those feelings can be channelled to good use. I hope that people angered by what has just happened in Foshan will recognise some of its root causes - the shambolic criminal justice system, poor driving standards, shortcomings in the healthcare and insurance systems, the lack of public education about first aid and appropriate emergency response - and start to demand that something be done about them.

However, I rather fear that this may prove to be another of the Internet's ephemeral causes célèbres, and that in a week or two it will lapse from the public consciousness, to be replaced by some new horror story of the day. I hope not. There is a chance for something positive to come out of this.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Time to move on

I used to think I'd been very lucky with my present landlord. And perhaps I have been.

I used to think he was one of the nicest, friendliest, most reasonable, most helpful landlords you could ever hope to encounter in Beijing. And he probably is.

I used to think he was one of the least crazily avaricious landlords I'd find in this city. And he might well be.

Well, I was a little miffed when I discovered he had bumped the rent up by about 10% over what he was charging the previous tenant, after assuring me he had frozen it at the same level. But that's not such an unreasonable increase in Beijing's bubbling cauldron of a property market; and perhaps that particular misrepresentation was more my letting agent's fault, anyway.

And it was a blow to find myself having to pay about the same for this place as I had for my previous apartment, which was nearly twice as big. But I had had a particularly sweet deal on that place, and had managed to hold the rent almost static for 5 years; Beijing property prices have gone through the roof in that time.

And, yes, I was briefly very galled indeed when I discovered he had removed the upright piano from the apartment (which he had promised to leave for me), just before I moved in, without telling me. Oh, I believed him when he told me his teenaged daughter had suddenly decided she wanted to learn the piano. And it's not as if I play the thing myself. But I had been tempted to have a try at learning it. And I have fond memories of banging away on a piano untutored in my earliest childhood. At the very least, I have a few friends who play a bit and would have welcomed the opportunity to come over occasionally to practise. And it's just a nice object to have around the place, a characterful adornment to a room. I'd been looking forward to living with a piano, dammit! I figure that was worth another 200 or 300 rmb a month off the rent, but....

On the whole, though, it's been a very comfortable two years here. For a reasonably modern and well-appointed apartment, in a very convenient location in central Beijing, I have been paying an extremely reasonable rent - by the outrageously inflated standards that now prevail almost everywhere in this city.

However, in the last few months, the din from the subway construction project away down the road has been getting so intense that it's difficult to sleep through it without earplugs. And just recently, a water leak from one of the upstairs neighbours wrecked the ceiling of my study and nurtured an efflorescence of mould (to which I appear to be violently allergic).

And government measures to cool down the overheating property market are starting to bite: price increases have slowed dramatically this year, with some parts of the country - and even some parts of Beijing - now reporting zero growth, or slight decreases. A catastrophic price readjustment will probably be averted somehow, but there's certainly a 'bubble' here - huge numbers of apartments that have been bought purely as speculative investments and are being left to stand empty - and prices can't keep going up forever; it seems likely property prices will soon be hitting a plateau, if not suffering at least a modest downward blip.

So, you know, I was expecting my landlord - the cheery, bumbling, ever-so-helpful erhu player - to ask for a moderate increase in the rent when the lease renewal comes around. That is perfectly standard, inevitable. I was not expecting him to demand a 35% hike.

I have 5 weeks to find somewhere else to live...

Monday, October 17, 2011

How they love to delude themselves!

I have been labouring for much of today over a particularly obtuse, garbled, and cliché-ridden "academic" article.

Towards the end, my author started to crow about the advances China has supposedly made in the last decade or so, not least in the advancement of its 'soft power' agenda and the increasing acceptance of the innate virtues of 'the Chinese way' in much of the rest of the world.

He asserted:

"Not a few people began to acknowledge the rationality, legitimacy and progressiveness of the Chinese political/economic system."

How I laughed! I giggled, I howled, I wept - I began to fear the teardrops falling on to my keyboard might short-circuit something.

With my usual editorial economy, I decided that deleting the initial 'Not' would be the easiest fix. Oh, and that 'rationality' had to go!

Bon mot for the week

"Youth would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life."

H.H. Asquith  (1852-1928)

"Every year I become a little younger... or, at any rate, a little more 'immature'. As my 'responsibilities' diminish, I think, ah, what the heck, let's just play."

Froog  (???? -  )

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A staring-at-oblivion 'Poetry Sunday'

The dismal tick-tock of the mortality clock, bringing too near the end of another year (Agh - this preamble is almost becoming a poem itself! Must... stop... rhyming! I would hate for my mid-life crisis to manifest itself in an attempt to become a rapper.)... Now, where was I? Oh yes, my imminent birthday is - as usual - filling me with gloom. So, I thought I'd better try to lighten my spirits with this piece of zestful silliness. I'm not sure when this was written, but I rather think I remember it from my own schooldays back in the 1970s, and certainly from my spell of schoolteaching at the end of the 1980s.

Let Me Die A Youngman's Death

Let me die a youngman's death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I'm 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party

Or when I'm 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber's chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns burst in
and give me a short back and insides

Or when I'm 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman's death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
'what a nice way to go' death

Roger McGough  (1937-  )

Friday, October 14, 2011

Driven to abstraction (2)

Following on from Wednesday's post, here are some more representative examples of my recent photography. I excuse any technical shortcoming by pointing out that I am currently without PhotoShop or a proper digital SLR.  I finally gave up on my dire D50 a few months ago and and sold it; so, these are all taken with a happy snapper - a Casio Exilim - which allows me little or no direct control over lighting, focus, depth of field (I have, through much trial and error, developed a knack for occasionally tricking it into doing what I want, but the control options are utterly bloody useless).

With China's low concern for maintenance, I find the profusion of decay on doors and walls and windows to be a particularly fertile source of inspiration.

That, and the bizarre little stencilled or handwritten advertisements you see everywhere. Who knows what these people are touting? I think I'm happier not knowing.

Peeling paintwork is a particular favourite of mine.

And ragged fly posters.

Put them all together, and....

And then here's an inexplicable streetside 'sculpture' that many of my modern artist friends would be proud of (not a very good photo, but a fascinating object!).

Grime, too, has an irresistible allure for me.

And finally - mirrors. Mirrors above a doorway seem to be quite a common custom in certain parts of China. I don't know what the tradition or superstition behind that may be. Perhaps there's a feeling that catching a glimpse of your own face may revive the moral conscience, that prospective burglars and other malefactors may be deterred from their nefarious enterprise by looking into their own eyes for a second. Or maybe it's supposed to nurture the irrational notion "If you can see yourself, perhaps others can see you." Maybe that's a quirk of human psychology that could be exploited even before the advent of CCTV cameras; now it gains added force from the thought that this might be a one-way mirror concealing a security camera. [And yes, this is about as close as I ever get to a self-portrait.]

Haiku for the week

Our dreams torment us;
That which we can't have provokes,
Gleams so much brighter.

Yes, still smarting over that job prospect that went foop...

At least I've rapidly moved on from the self-pitying phase... into the vengeful phase.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


When I reminisced the other day about all the exotic places where I might have worked, there was a strong undercurrent of frustration and melancholy in the post: those were all jobs I didn't get (well, in a few cases, I turned them down; but, for the most part, they were jobs for which I was ultimately rejected, despite having made it to a final shortlist of just a few candidates).

I noted in one of the comments, when a friend complimented me on my apparent capacity for detailed recall of the distant past:  
"I suspect there's a correlation between power of memory and a predilection for nostalgia. You need an emotional drive, a regular strong hit of 'positive reinforcement', in order to develop those habits and pathways of thought, that architecture in the brain - and the bittersweet pang of nostalgia gives you that. There's a danger with some of us, I fear, that it becomes a closed feedback loop - the better our memories get, the more we dwell upon the past, and so the better our memories get, and the more we dwell upon the past..."

Another reason, I fear, why I 'live' so much in the past these days is that it's so much safer than contemplating the future. At least the past is fixed, and even the less pleasant parts of it are largely robbed of their power to hurt us by being over and done with. And we can tour our memories selectively, avoiding the more traumatic episodes and concentrating on the times of happiness. There's none of that awful uncertainty - and cruelly disappointed hope - with which the future invariably taunts us.

I am particularly bad with jobs. I have an unfortunate habit of projecting myself into the role, imagining what I will seek to accomplish in the work, and how it might transform my life. Yes, up to a point, this is a good and necessary thing: it's valuable interview preparation, and a test of whether this is really a position that would suit me. But my imagination is just too darned vivid (and perhaps the desperation that drives it is too great, the hunger for a satisfying working life, some financial stability): I soon feel as if I've actually been living that life. And - if it is a life that I felt I would enjoy - having that dream snatched away can seem emotionally devastating. I have grown used to being rejected by women through long experience (I don't like it much, and I'm still probably rather inhibited by the fear of possible failure, but I'm aware of that fear and strive to master it); but job rejection, strangely enough, leaves me gutted every time; I find it far more debilitating than the snub of a woman to whom I am attracted. Hence, I find myself hesitant to apply for jobs - especially jobs I know I'll like and be good at - because I know the pain of rejection will throw me into a depressive tailspin for a week or more.

I've hit that time of year where, after the summer lull, I need to start proactively looking for work again. And, since most of the work I have been surviving on for the last 7 or 8 years has slowly evaporated post-Olympics (or is paying less than it was 8 years ago), I need to start looking for new forms of work. And, since the freelance market goes completely dead for three months or so every year here, from just before Christmas to the other side of the Chinese New Year, I really need to be finding myself a straight job with a regular salary, at least for the next six months or so.

And I thought I'd found one - an absolute dream job, a job I am eminently qualified for, a job I could do supremely well... a job with my name on it. And it paid rather better than I thought (not great, but enough to keep the wolf from the door; and with flexible enough working that I could keep up a lot of my freelance gigs). And it would have been mostly working from home. IDEAL JOB.

I allowed myself to get rather too excited about the prospect. And I didn't get it.

I didn't even get an acknowledgement of my application. But I gather the post has been filled - before the end of the applications window! I don't think there were even any interviews - they just gave it to someone they knew without bothering to go through a tedious selection process.

I am trying to bear my disappointment manfully, but my heart is a whoopee-cushion. At the moment, I am feeling as though that was THE ONLY JOB in this goddamned city that I wanted - or will ever want - and if I can't have that.... it may be time to go and live in a shack half-way up a mountain.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Driven to abstraction (1)

One of the reasons I don't post many of my own photographs on here is that I seldom take pictures anyone else finds all that interesting. I'm fascinated by geometry and texture and quirky light effects and bizarre found objects. And I tend to noodle around with extreme close-up views and odd camera angles, and deliberate fuzzy focus or movement blur. I'm into oddity. I  don't photograph people or buildings or views very much any more. In fact, it's become increasingly rare that I photograph anything that you'd recognise at first glance.

Hence this representative sample, from among the shots I took while on my hols a couple of months back.

This, for example, is a skewed view of the edge of the enquiries window at the entrance to the Yunnan Military Academy Museum in Kunming. I fancied there was a bit of an M.C. Escher thing going on with moulding of the corners here.

And this is a wrinkled napkin. I was hoping the ultra close-up, and the soft focus, and the natural lighting would completely conceal the texture of the fabric to render something really abstract - and perhaps evocative of a Martian landscape. I've achieved much better results with this kind of thing on other occasions, but this is the only one I seem to have in this particular batch of photos.

And this is the air intake of a jet fighter plane which is on display in the grounds of Kunming Zoo. 

These canopy roofs with large circular or oval cutouts seem to be quite a common architectural trope in China. This one's on the waterfront in Hankou. I snapped it mainly for the dazzling blue sky above.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Business realities

One of my occasional employers - a Chinese university (groan!) - is trying to badger me into taking on a course of classes on giving presentations.

Alas, the fee they are offering is woefully inadequate. Even with a travel allowance (small, and subject to tax) and a supposedly "enhanced" rate (too small an "enhancement" to be visible), it's still barely more than 200 rmb per hour after tax. I don't think anyone else - even Chinese universities - is offering anything less than 250 per hour these days, even for fairly basic business English teaching. In fact, most of the decent employers were paying at that kind of level 8 or 10 years ago (and the cost of living in Beijing has nearly doubled in that time). And teaching presentation skills is a high-level and demanding kind of training: it requires a lot of out-of-classroom preparation. You really need a highly skilled and experienced trainer for this kind of thing; and you need to be paying him at least 400 rmb per hour (post-tax).

Now, here's the thing. The client has booked this training at very short notice - even for China - because they'd already begun the programme with a different training company, but were dissatisfied with the trainer and/or the content and canned it after two weeks. And they'd specifically requested me, because I'd just done another seminar there and received excellent feedback from the participants. And I'm already signed up to do another series of - much less demanding, much less specialised - trainings there at a significantly higher fee.

So, my dipshit employer has all kinds of leverage over the client. How can they possibly accept a LOWER fee than that already negotiated for the other trainings I'm doing? Beats me. This is China.

Well, I put my argument to them about how much this sort of training was worth, and how much I would expect to be paid (less than 400 p/h; but more than they were initially offering). And even if they're too chickenshit to try to ask for a fee supplement from the client, I'm damn sure they're already getting paid a lot more than 400 rmb p/h for this - so, they could quite easily give me 300 p/h without destroying their bottom line.

But will they? Oh no. They are a Chinese university, so they are COMPLETELY INFLEXIBLE.

They would rather cancel or postpone the course because they can't find a trainer to take it on. Or fob the client off with some high school teacher who hasn't got much of a clue about business skills training.

It is baffling that such utterly inept outfits can remain in business. I surmise that it is only possible because the competitive environment is so weak: almost everyone else is just as crap as they are.

And this doesn't apply only in education and training; you find it in almost every sphere of commercial activity. China's vaunted 'economic miracle' still hasn't passed the able-to-hold-a-pissup-in-a-brewery test, as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"We stare at the brightness of a new page where everything can yet happen."

Rainer Maria Rilke  (1875-1926)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

List of the Month - Cities where I might have lived

Dreams - plans! - of leaving Beijing prompt me to reflect on some of the other places I might have wound up, if Fate had worked out a little differently, if I'd made a few bolder choices here and there, or if I'd enjoyed a little bit of good fortune at an opportune moment. It's quite an exotic list. (There's a fair bit of overlap with this early 'List of the Month' post on Jobs I nearly had.)

Places where I might have lived (and worked)

Cartagena, Colombia
In my first schoolteaching job, I quickly grew to resent the claustrophobic environment of the small boarding school and the small West Country town I found myself trapped in, and took to reading the overseas jobs section of the Times Education Supplement every week for solace. A post in Cartagena was one of the first that I applied for in earnest, but I only had a year or so of experience behind me at that point, and I don't think I even made the interviews.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Next up was a job at an exclusive girls' boarding school in the Argentine capital. Strangely, I did make the interview stage for that, although I suspect that I was a 'token male' included on the shortlist for the sake of maintaining an appearance of equal gender opportunity in the selection process. The other three candidates were all women, and it was one of them who got the job. I was relieved, in a way. As I sat in the London offices of the venerable education recruitment agency Gabbitas-Thring awaiting my turn for interview, they gave me a yearbook to leaf through: every single one of the girls pictured looked like a younger, prettier sister of Gabriela Sabatini (the gorgeous Argentine who was the sexiest tennis player of my college days). I began to wonder if this was a furtive part of the selection process: was I being scrutinized via a hidden camera, with my appreciation of the pulchritude of my potential charges being minutely studied, to my disadvantage in landing the job? Well, it's probably just as well I didn't get it; it might have been a bit too much of a temptation even for such an avowed asexualist as myself!

Port Stanley, The Falkland Islands
I didn't make the shortlist for this teaching job, either. These challenging postings must attract quite a large number of nutters. I suppose I was something of a nutter myself, even to have applied for it. Having been brought up on the heroics of Scott and Shackleton, I was fascinated by the prospect of living that far south for a while. However, I realised I would probably have gone stir crazy living in such a tiny community, and would not have lasted more than a year or two. I didn't fancy my moorland walks being inhibited by all the landmines and unexploded ordnance either. Also severely offputting was the 36-hour flight (possibly more) to get there on RAF transport planes, with a long layover halfway, at Ascension Island. Another lucky escape for me, really.

St George's, Bermuda
Now, for this one I made it to a final shortlist of two or three candidates, and still didn't get the job. Again, I am mostly relieved: I had formed a very negative impression of the excessive gentility and middle-class smugness of the island (a colleague at my current school, an ex-Navy man, had witheringly described it as 'The World's Biggest Country Club'). Perhaps I subsconsciously betrayed some of that distaste to the headmaster.

Durham, UK
Durham, on the other hand, I would have loved to return to. I'd done my teacher training course there a few years earlier, and formed a warm attachment to its many fine public houses. I'm not sure how I didn't get that job: the interviews seemed to have gone swimmingly, but...  Perhaps I was looking too obviously strung-out by ill health and mounting dissatisfaction with my existing position: I'd been plagued for two or three years with a not-terribly-serious but worryingly progressive-seeming disease (which might have been, but eventually proved not to be symptomatic of one of a number of rare cancers), and was about to suffer a catastrophic health collapse - perhaps as much mental as physical, after the emotional assault course of all those negative cancer tests - which took me out of the job market for a couple of years.

Leleuvia, Fiji
Not actually a city, just an island in the Fiji group. A very small island: in fact, just a fragile sand cay, rising only a few feet out of the ocean, and only half a mile or so from end to end, less than 100 yards across even at its widest point. But a veritable tropical paradise. I stayed there for a couple of days during my round-the-world backpacking jaunt in the mid-90s. This was round about the mid-point of my journey, and I was tiring of the road somewhat, after a particularly gruelling time in Australia: suddenly, the idea of settling down somewhere for a few weeks or a few months and getting a job to replenish my nearly exhausted cash reserves started to seem very appealing. And there were jobs going on Leleuvia, as jack-of-all-trade hosts/janitors for the tiny thatched hut 'resort' the island's owner had built: maintaining the cesspit, making runs over to the mainland every couple of days in an outboard-powered rowboat, entertaining the steady trickle of backpackers passing through (mostly twenty-something Swedish girls, it seemed: I was reminded of my discomfort in the  waiting room at Gabbitas-Thring!). It was a lotus-eating kind of appointment. I quizzed the two young Aussie pothead surfer dudes currently in the job about its pros and cons (they both mentioned the prodigious sexual appetite of young Swedes as not exactly a con): they honestly couldn't remember how long they'd been doing it!

San Francisco, USA
The South Sea islands would only have been a passing diversion; I couldn't see myself living there for an extended period - well, not in a place as small as Leleuvia, anyway. A month or two later, I found myself in San Francisco for the first time, and fell head-over-heels in love with the city (Mark Twain had warned me to expect the icy chill of winter in mid-summer there, but I was blessed with glorious sunshine for most of the two weeks I stayed there). One morning, wandering around Haight-Ashbury, I came upon - in quick succession (possibly on the same bulletin board, though I can't now recall) - small ads for a new housemate wanted and a job available as a 'barista' (the first time, I think, I'd encountered that silly word) in a neighbourhood coffee shop. I went to look at the house, and it was fantastic: a three-storey turn-of-the-century place, only a few blocks from Golden Gate Park. The other tenants - slacker types, recently out of college, but attempting to pursue creative endeavours or at least defer entry into the corporate ratrace for another year or two - immediately warmed to my "quaint English accent" and urged me to join them. I was tempted; mighty, mighty tempted. I blame my old Oxford buddy, The British Cowboy: he was getting married on the East Coast a few weeks hence, and I had promised to be there. I was so short of money that there didn't seem to be any way for me to come back again after the wedding. And I would have been becoming an 'illegal', outstaying my visa: I'm quite a staid and law-abiding fellow, really: I didn't fancy living undercover long-term.

Toronto, Canada
A few years later, I found myself working as a legal intern in the Canadian capital, as part of a student exchange scholarship programme with the UK. I knew my prospects for being able to make my way in the legal profession in England were bleak-to-non-existent, so I gave considerable thought to trying to qualify in Canada (and/or the US) instead; unfortunately, it would have taken time and money which I just didn't have to spare. I was hoping my host law firm in Toronto might throw me a lifeline by offering me a job as a paralegal while I studied part-time, but that didn't come off - too much hassle on the visa front, apparently. Perhaps that's just as well, too: I had been having a particularly bad run of romantic disasters during my year in Canada.

New Orleans, USA
A year or two later, I was visiting a friend in NO for the Krewe du Vieux carnival in February, and once again found myself being enticed to settle down there as an 'illegal'. The guy I'd gone to visit had done so successfully for many years, and had eventually been able to take advantage of an amnesty and get himself legitimate residence status. A number of our drinking companions in the characterful dive bars of the Vieux Carré had done likewise; and they assured me that casual - no-questions-asked - jobs were plentiful in that town, as barmen, tour guides... barmen. I think I might tire of New Orleans after a while; I don't think I could cope with its steamy summer humidity, for one thing; or with the ridiculous crowds of loutish college kids that Mardi Gras now attracts. But I would have loved an opportunity to live there for 3 months, or 6 months. I just didn't fancy the idea of being banned from ever entering the country again because of a visa violation.

Shanghai, China
A year or two later, with worthwhile employment in the UK proving almost impossible to find, I started scanning the overseas job offers in the newspapers again. And I did get offered a position as a 'canvasser' - prospecting for clients - for a wondrously dodgy little firm of 'financial consultants'. I didn't take to the company's owners. Nor did I fancy the job - dubiously legal, and certainly unrespectable. Nor did I fancy the mostly-commission remuneration package, or the prospect of having to share an apartment with another of their hapless drones. And when I did some research on the cost of living in Shanghai, I didn't fancy my prospects of attaining a comfortable lifestyle out there, however successful I might prove to be in the job. Even so, I was so desperate at that point in my life to escape somewhere that I did teeter on the brink of giving this job a chance.

Harbin, China
A little while later, I got approached to fill a teaching vacancy at a small private college in Harbin, in the far north-east of China (in effect, Siberia). Somehow or other, I'd got myself on to an e-mailing list for TEFL vacancies (I don't remember enrolling, but...), and they'd found me through that. Winter in Harbin lasts six or seven months, and temperatures are -20 or -30 degrees Celsius for much of that. One of their teachers (possibly more than one!) had got cabin fever mid-way through the academic year and done a runner. I was contacted in February, and asked to fly out at one week's notice!! A month, I could have done, no problem. Two or three weeks, I might have been able to manage at a push. But one week?! There's a visa to apply for, inoculations to get... notice to be given to my current employer... saying goodbye to family... packing. ONE WEEK??!! Ah, this is China (as I was to learn much more forcefully within a year or two).

Birmingham, UK
I might have been 'saved' from a life of globetrotting if this job had come through. I wasn't very enthused about the idea of living in Birmingham - one of England's least attractive cities, and least attractive accents - but it was my last chance to make use of my expensively acquired legal training. I was up for a post as a 'case officer' (assessor, investigator) for the Criminal Cases Review Commission - a government body which is the last avenue of potential relief for prisoners who've gone through all the stages of appeal in the courts. Very exciting and worthy work, inquiring into possible miscarriages of justice and abuses of the judicial process, and - just once in a while - securing the release of someone wrongly imprisoned for a long term. I made the mistake of allowing myself to get my hopes up about this rather too much. At the first interview round, I hit it off well with all the people I would actually have been working with; and the HR manager confided that I'd got the best scores they'd ever seen on the aptitude tests, and that I was a shoo-in for the job. A month or two later, I had to attend a second interview with the board of governors, and managed to piss off each of them in turn. Perhaps it was my distaste for Birmingham subconsciously sabotaging me that time?

Washington, D.C., USA
I was pretty devastated by the implosion of that CCRC prospect, but... another chance of salvation seemed to come up just a month or two later. I was visiting friends in the States, and an attractive young woman at a dinner party started telling me that I'd be just right for her company, and I really ought to apply to them. It was a business analysis firm, and they needed presenters to deliver the keynotes of their latest findings to their select clients in a jaunty lecture format. Ah, public speaking is my thing. This really seemed like a job I could do. Not a lot of room for creative input (the lectures mostly scripted for me), and rather too much travelling; but the starting salary was very nearly more than I had earned in my entire working life up to that point. I had a couple of interviews in DC, which went swimmingly well; and then another in London, which didn't; but I managed to keep the prospect alive by badgering the contacts in DC who'd liked me. They were on the brink of making me an offer, but.... this was only just after 9/11, and it had for a while become next-to-impossible to get any kind of visa, let alone a long-term working visa... even for a nice WASP like me. I still sometimes think about that salary: I think I really would have had difficulty knowing what to spend it on.

Edinburgh, UK
My last chance to avoid Beijing, in the early summer of 2002: not a job, but an offer of a free housesit. A couple of very good friends up in Edinburgh, after the birth of their first child, decided that this would be their last chance to opt out of the rat race for a little while and do something irresponsibly fun; so, they took extended unpaid leave, bought a beat-up camper van, and headed off for six months or so on an odyssey around Eastern Europe. I love Edinburgh to bits. And I'm sure I could have found a job of some sort up there. And I probably could have lived quite well on the dole for a while, since I wasn't having to pay for accommodation. And I was just about to come into a modest wedge of cash - withheld commissions from my last job, which I'd had to take legal action to recover - so a job wasn't such a pressing concern anyway. But... I suppose I have a bit of a work ethic hang-up: I really feel I ought to be working; and, ideally, in some sort of professional job, appropriate to my formidable educational qualifications. And prospects for work of that kind in Edinburgh seemed very poor. And I had already accepted a teaching position in Beijing, so I suppose I felt I should honour my word on that. Damn. A six-month free holiday in Edinburgh would have been peachy!

Suzhou, China
In my first year in Beijing, I was offered a job setting up a new language school in Suzhou - one of China's most picturesque old cities, full of parks and gardens and canals. I think I was a bit dubious about the company running the show, couldn't quite see why they'd be offering such a responsible position to someone who'd barely been off the plane six months. I was still finding my feet in China, didn't feel quite ready for such a challenge yet. And I was rather enjoying myself in Beijing, wanted to see out at least one full year here.

Changsha, China
Ditto the above. This "We love you on the basis of a five-minute interview: please be our new principal" job offer came up a year or two later. It was suspiciously good money, and a short-term contract only - "Just set the school up for us, then get out and let us keep all the profits for ourselves"; not the most satisfying arrangement, but at least it meant I could treat it as an extended - and supposedly high-earning - break and then return to Beijing (which I was still enjoying at that time). And Changsha, capital of the central southern province of Hunan, does seem to be the source of all the prettiest Chinese girls I have met. I can't remember why I passed up this one now; a faint stench of dishonesty about my would-be employers, I suspect.

Kunming, China
Kunming is generally acclaimed as one of the nicest cities in China - laidback people and a Goldilocks climate all year round. A private college I visited down there in the course of my job as a quality control inspector for a UK education company offered me a job running the UK company's courses. Since I was still working for the UK company at the time, I said no without a thought. I got sacked a few months later, and began to wonder if the offer might still be on the table. No. Oh, well, it was shit money. And the college wasn't actually in Kunming, but 20 or 30 miles outside. Still, it would have been a chance to move down to Kunming. If I were going to try living anywhere else in China, I think Kunming would be the likeliest bet.