Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why blog?

I’ve been asking myself that question increasingly often of late.

I’ve been finding it hard to think of things to write about, and the very urge to write seems to have diminished.

Admittedly, I’ve been operating under difficult constraints this month: huge amounts of time devoted to househunting/packing/moving, attendant stress and shortage of sleep, being cut off from the Internet for a week, and striving to observe a self-imposed word-limit on my posts. 

But I fear I may have burned myself out on this blogging lark.

It probably doesn’t help that so much of my work these days – virtually all of it over the past two months – is writing. If you’re bound to the keyboard for 5 or 6 hours a day to earn a crust, writing starts to lose its appeal as a restorative hobby.

Or maybe I’m just running out of stories to tell??

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Don't stand so close to me!

And don’t look over my shoulder, either!

A year or so ago, I was doing a course on “cross-cultural awareness” for a bunch of Chinese engineers, and started to compile my own set of notes on those quirks of Chinese behaviour which most bug the crap out of foreigners. It soon got to be rather a long handout.

A recurring keynote was China’s prevalent lack of respect for privacy – whether in regard to personal space, personal information, or personal property.

One of the things that I have against hiring a Chinese cleaner is that they don’t just clean, they routinely rifle through your drawers trying to find that embarrassing ‘white-eared elephant’ photograph from your college days.

In a classroom, students always come up and rummage through the papers on your desk during a mid-lesson break.

At the office, colleagues always take up position right behind you for an extended gawp at whatever’s on your computer screen.

When my old landlord summoned the building management flunkies to read my water meter the other week, three of them showed up – one to read the meter, and the other two just to go snooping around my apartment!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cruel and unusual

Having just moved into a new apartment, I am making rather too much use of the 7/11 just down the street. I haven’t stocked my larder very fully yet, I’m too exhausted by the cleaning-and-unpacking process to fancy cooking much anyway, and I haven’t yet had time to suss out the more substantial eating and shopping options in my new neighbourhood. So, I find myself dropping into the 7/11 a couple of times a day to stock up on basic household items (toothpaste, shampoo) or for impulsive snackage (potato salad, Garibaldi biscuits).

What turns welcome convenience into excruciating torment is the fact that they’re going so overboard on Christmas this year. They’re advertising a range of special items, including Christmas cakes, chocolate Yule logs, and what appears to be a 5kg hamburger.

And they’re already playing a tinny Christmas muzak selection in there - very loud, around the clock.

Bon mot for the week

"Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it."

Raymond Chandler  (1888-1959)

"Ability makes people jealous. Motivation intimidates them. Attitude pisses them off."

Froog  (from forthcoming business book, The Secret Of My Unemployability)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Film List - how not to impress a date

I’ve only ever been on two blind dates.

One of them was back in the mid-90s, at the end of my round-the-world backpacking year. I’d been given an introduction to a young lawyer in New York by someone I’d met in Hong Kong several months earlier. I didn’t know many other people in the city, so I decided to look her up.

Things didn’t start off well: it rained, she had to come across the river from Brooklyn, there were no cabs, she was very late. However, she had nominated a rather cosy little bar to meet in, so I was passing time happily enough. And once she showed up, the evening went extraordinarily well: we found we had a lot in common.

The only hiccup was when she asked, over dinner, what some of my favourite movies were. I considered fibbing, trying to ingratiate myself with some well-known, accessible, uncontentious, female-friendly examples. I considered that strategy for about half a second, before blurting out… Dark Star, Harold and Maude, and The Hairdresser’s Husband.

She hadn’t heard of any of them. 

But she respected my honesty and my passion.

[I’ve repeated that selection on here once before (OK, twice), but without mentioning this story.]

Friday, November 25, 2011

The weekly haiku

The wind howls like wolves
And bites as cruelly, sharply
Winter bares its teeth

Oh boy, we’ve had some brutally cold days here in Beijing this past week, with an icy wind raging down from the north-west. Soon the lakes will be frozen again, kicking off our annual frost-fair.

The little roof terrace outside my new apartment (my main reason for choosing it) has already become a miniature skating rink. It rained at the end of last week, and the terrace has only one drainage hole in the wall around its edge; and that – of course – set rather higher than the lowest point of the floor (‘the Chinese way’ yet again!!), so it’s impossible to get rid of all the water that collects there, and I now have an inch thick sheet of ice over half of it.

I wonder where I can buy myself some skates?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

No Thanksgiving for me this year, I fear. After the ordeal of last year’s aborted plans for a big meet-up, I lack the willpower to attempt any such organisational challenge again. And most of my American friends have quit China anyway. In fact, just about everyone I shared the holiday with two years ago – including folks of several different nationalities – is gone now. Such is the nature of expat life.

The fact that the only places I’d trust to put on a good spread of holiday fare are way over on the east side of town also discourages me from indulging in a turkey dinner today. I’m probably going to be having a quiet evening in.

What I have to be thankful for: my new apartment now being just tidy enough for me to cook in it, and satellite TV.

A Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Return Of The Son Of The Revenge Of The Chinese Way

I spent very nearly two hours last Saturday in the offices of China Unicom attempting to arrange the reconnection of the telephone and Internet services to my apartment.

And after all that protracted wrangling, the unhappy outcome was: phone, yes, Internet, no.

Turns out Unicom’s Internet wing, China Netcom, can’t give me an account at this address because the previous tenant had omitted to cancel his account there.

You’d think the landlord would be able to cancel an account registered at his property. But no. Because my predecessor had his Chinese wife pose as the landlord to authorise his setting up of the account, the real landlord is now unable to cancel it.

I have to wait until it expires of natural causes, through repeated non-payment – “two to three months” (assuming he didn’t pay a year or half-year in advance!).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crossing the line

I have just become a Dongcheng boy for the first time.

Well, nominally, I was a Dongcheng boy in my first year here too, but that always felt phoney. Dongcheng – the ‘East City’ – is plainly distinguished from the western half of central Beijing, Xicheng, by the meridian running through the nearby Bell and Drum Towers and on south to the Forbidden City, which it neatly bisects (oh, those fengshui-crazy Chinese urban planners!). There might be some sense in shunting the boundary sideways a little bit for administrative purposes, since the nearest major north-south road – Jiugulou Dajie – is 100 yards or so to the west of it. But my first digs were to the west side of that. The city fathers chose to steal the first row or two of houses on the far side of the street from Xicheng as well.

But now……. I’m definitely an eastsider.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Chinese Way Strikes Again

My moving day got off to the worst of all possible starts. In fact, it all started going pear-shaped the evening before.

I’d switched off my fridge-freezer to defrost it. When I came home that evening, I found that it was leaking its noxious-smelling coolant all over the kitchen floor.

I discovered one of the tubes had got badly kinked and developed a micro-crack in the middle of the fold. This had evidently happened long before I ever moved in, because someone had thought to try to seal it…. with a bandage of Sellotape. This obviously wasn’t the most secure sort of fix; but it seemed to do while the tube was also heavily crusted with ice. Once the ice melted, the Sellotape disintegrated and the leak got going again.

Ethical dilemma: should I volunteer this information to my landlord, and so forfeit my deposit?

Bon mot for the week

"The art of using moderate abilities to advantage often brings greater results than actual brilliance."

François de La Rochefoucauld  (1613-1680)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Lucy Akhurst

I nearly said ‘Sophie’ – the imperiously sexy executive assistant to a comic book baron she played a decade ago in Spaced. I haven’t seen Ms Akhurst in much else.

I wasn’t that much of a fan of the series, but I happened to re-watch it on DVD a couple of weeks ago, and found that it brought back a lot of dewy-eyed memories of my last days in England (this is one of the last TV shows I can remember watching back in the old country, sometime around the end of 2001 or early 2002), and, more generally and more powerfully, of those wonderful Friday night comedy line-ups on Channel 4 that kept me company – and kept me at home, away from the pub – at the end of the week for a nearly a decade.

Simon Pegg’s wastrel artist would never have got this lucky!!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Haiku for the week

Clutter fills the room
It will take hours to empty
A life in boxes

Moving day.

The packing is done. It was more or less done with 40 hours in hand, but…. the packing process is the ultimate exemplar of Parkinson’s lawthe work expands to fill the time available. Last-minute ‘tidying up’ chores consumed the whole of yesterday, and are still not yet quite done only an hour or so before the moving men are due to show up.

My present landlord, alas, has just gone all uncommunicative on me. So, I don’t know if he has informed the building management that it’s “OK” for me to move out. And hence, there is a danger of an angry confrontation between the moving men and my gate guards in an hour. This is a depressingly common scenario for laowai, but I don’t know that it ever happens to Chinese tenants.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On yer bike

It’s amazing what people will make websites about, isn’t it?

The other day, I discovered a Copenhagen-based “fashion” photoblog called Cycle Chic, devoted to pictures of people on bicycles. Apparently, it’s the work of passionate cycling advocate Mikael Colville-Andersen, also founder of the urban planning consultancy Copenhagenize, which stresses the value of cycling and pedestrian facilities in cities (see also the Copenhagenize blog).

Many of the photographs are rather good.
And even the more mundane ones are often quite appealing because… well, Denmark boasts an above-average concentration of beautiful women.

A recent post, though, has made me glad to be avoiding the northern European winter. Beijing gets fiercely cold, but it’s mostly very dry. Those shots of the snow in Copenhagen look thoroughly miserable.

Cycle Chic has achieved quite a high profile - written up in The Guardian, and supposedly named one of The Times’s '100 Best Blogs Worldwide'.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A refusal of commitment [Why I don’t learn Chinese – 14]

As I’ve observed before, Asian languages – especially those with a tonal system, and most especially Mandarin Chinese – are extraordinarily difficult for most ‘Westerners’ to master (at least, compared to French or Spanish, the most popular second language choices for English speakers).

Every laowai I know who’s attained a good level in their Mandarin… a) studied the language back home (usually as a major at university, and sometimes even back in high school); b) studied full-time for at least six months when they first came; c) continued with lessons intermittently over a number of years; and d) shacked up with a Chinese partner.

All in all, a very heavy commitment of time, money, and effort.

Many of these folks then left China, unlikely ever to use their Mandarin again.

Refusing to make that investment in the language reassures me I’m not going to be here forever.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A blast guffaw from the past

I was reminiscing on The Barstool the other day about… a favourite BBC Radio 4 comedy show of my youth called The Burkiss Way. (See also the Wikipedia article.)

One episode - Avoid Like The Plague The Burkiss Way - featured a recurring skit sequence in which a leading character was being stalked by a ghoulish figure. At the end of the show, the poor chap was finally cornered by the pursuing phantom in some underground vault - lots of dripping water and hollow echoes on the sound effects. 

The sinister figure taunted him in an ominous, booming voice, "You know WHO I AM, don't you?"

"Er... Death?" snivelled the terrified fellow.

"No. Death couldn't make it. He's playing in goal for Chelsea. I'm his friend, Sniffly Nose. Your hour of SLIGHT NASAL CONGESTION is nigh!"

I believe this sketch was written by Douglas Adams.

Monday, November 14, 2011


After three weeks of anguished househunting, I’ve chosen a new place to live next year.

I saw four places that were ‘contenders’: a quiet pingfang that was just a bit too far from the subway (but dangerously close to my favourite bar!) and gave me concerns about my privacy (I’ve never lived on the ground floor before); a hutong rooftop pad (huge roof terraces, but a bit small, and too far from subway), a penthouse duplex (exhilaratingly expansive, but a tad too expensive), and… the one I’ve actually plumped for: similar to where I live now, but a bit more airy, and with a large terrace.

It’s 2,000 a month more than I’m currently paying, 500 a month more than I wanted to pay, and probably at least 1,000 a month more than I can afford.

But it’s got satellite TV – that could well save me 1,000 a month!

Bon mot for the week

"Many a man thinks he is patient when, in reality, he is indifferent."

B.C. Forbes  (1880-1954)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Letting go

I lost a big wedge of cash at the start of the week – carelessly dropped it out of my pocket. (I’d been on my way to a meeting with a potential new landlord, and had been intending to use it as a deposit. So much for that plan!)

On realising this fact, the immediate physical reaction was potent – not quite nausea, but a devastating sinking of the stomach and a wobbliness at the knees. But quite soon, I got a grip on myself, and I thought…. Well, you’ve only yourself to blame. And there’s nothing you can do about it now. And, after all, it is only money. Far worse things can happen.

Before long, I was almost feeling cheerful about it: I must have made someone’s day, and they might well make better use of the cash than I would have done.

As Tom Waits put it….

Friday, November 11, 2011

The weekly haiku

Each room’s full of hope,
Different futures unfurling,
New lives imagined.

Househunting I find exhausting psychically even more than physically. 

Pounding the streets, fielding contradictory phone calls from dippy agents, pounding the streets some more, enduring countless cancelled or rescheduled viewing appointments – yes, that’s all very wearing. But the thing that really takes it out of me is finding a place I quite like and then agonising over whether or not to take it. As with job prospects, I am soon picturing myself in place, conjuring a possible new life for myself. There is a danger of becoming too emotionally invested in a prospect that’s not going to come to fruition. There is a danger, too, of the place that I do finally plump for proving to be a disappointment, falling short of my fond expectations.

I’ve seen several tempting places, but none that are quite right….

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unwelcome visitor

Well, I got a nasty shock the other day: my computer abruptly crashed, exposing me – for the first time in some years, I think – to Microsoft’s notorious Blue Screen of Death.

Yep, I believe this was the first time I’ve had such a problem with my new computer (now more than two years old), Windows 7 being supposedly so much more ‘stable’ than its predecessors.

What did I do to bring this calamity on myself? What, indeed?! I was trying to use Explorer. 

Yahoo won’t let me access more than one of my e-mail accounts simultaneously in the same browser (there’s probably a way around this, but…); so, I have my primary account permanently open in Google Chrome, and use Explorer to check my supplemental accounts from time to time. And Explorer always makes things glitchy as hell!

Still, we can laugh about it...

Or produce merchandising….

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Say what?

A favourite mondegreen

One of the things I liked least about trying to make my way as a barrister was the prospect of having to wear one of these for the rest of my working life.

Apart from looking silly, they are insanely hot and scratchy and uncomfortable. They itch like hell, they abrade the scalp, and I’m sure they accelerate the balding process.

In most of the rest of common law world, this old-fashioned custom has been abandoned. But in the UK, the legal establishment clings stubbornly to this ‘quaint’ tradition.

A friend happened to give me the CD Missa Luba - a collection of choral works performed by the Muungano National Choir of Kenya – while I was training as a barrister, and it has been a favourite ever since. I always thought the title of this song, Yesu Wayinyanza, sounded like, “We’ll sue the Lord Chancellor!”

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Chinese Way

My landlord finally got around to trying to take care of the damp problem in my study (a water leak from one of the upstairs neighbours a couple of months ago has to led to an efflorescence of mould on my ceiling; and I find that I am severely allergic to the spores!).

He brought over a trio of ‘workmen’ last Friday morning (none of whom brought any tools, or really looked like workmen). They hummed and tutted for several minutes without actually doing anything. I grew impatient.

I had to go out househunting, so left them to get on with things – or not.

When I got back, I discovered that they had…. whitewashed over the mould, broken the chair they’d stood on to do this, and… stolen my lunch (some potato cakes I’d dabao’ed from the excellent Yunnan restaurant Yun’er the night before).

This is China.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Just how uncertain are you? [War on Chinglish - 21]

Using maybe in almost every sentence is the quirk of Chinese behaviour which foreigners tend to find most irritating.

I assume it’s a product of the excessive – and rather fake – humility which dogs this culture. People litter their utterances in Chinese with similar markers of vacillation (可能, or 也许?) in order not to seem excessively confident in making a statement about something. But if this is something that is definitely within your knowledge – “What time does the train leave?”, “Do you like coffee?” – the ‘maybe’ tic is exasperating.

If you know, just say so. If you’re not sure, begin with I think

If you’re having to make a complete guess, begin with a phrase like It’s probably… or It might be… If you’re really uncertain, you can sometimes say perhaps.

But never, never, NEVER say maybe.

Bon mot for the week

"The secret of serendipity is keeping your eyes open."


Saturday, November 05, 2011

List of the Month - The Choices

The househunting has not been going well so far. In fact, I’ve been too busy with work and such this week to spend very much time looking. But the time I have invested has only served to make me more and more despondent about my prospects for finding something decent, more and more irritated with the flakiness of Chinese property agents and the graspingness of Chinese landlords, more and more disenchanted with the whole damn country.

My options appear to be these…

1)  Stay where I am (ah, inertia – dontcha hate it?!)

2)  Bolt back to England (or get the hell out of China, anyway)

3)   Plump for the courtyard place I saw yesterday

4) Plump for the nicer, more modern (more expensive!) place I saw this morning

5)   Stall, and spend another week looking

I fear it’s time to consult THE COIN again.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The weekly haiku

Choked in autumn smog,
The sunless city shivers,
Damp cold in its bones.

It all comes together: some of the dampest air we get all year, accelerated construction efforts on behind-schedule new subway lines throwing earth and demolition dust into that damp air, the biannual spasm of building maintenance adding to that pollution (probably throwing in some asbestos for good measure), the power stations going into overdrive to answer the increased demand for heating, domestic coal stoves being fired up (supposedly outlawed, but still commonplace in the hutongs), and the superstitious burning of fake paper money (and clothes) so that the departed ancestors will be able to wrap up well during the imminent winter.

Mid-October is pretty regularly the shittiest time of the year to be in Beijing. This year, these drab, joyless, throat-rasping, soul-crushing days of unbreathable air and sunless sky are dragging on and on.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Not so trivial any more

Over the weekend, as I was helping a friend to compile some questions for a pub quiz, I came to a shocking realisation: the Internet has made this a much harder task – or, at any rate, a much more time-consuming one – than it used to be in days gone by.

Paradoxical? Perhaps, but it is definitely so.

It is another phenomenon of the information overload with which our modern-day connectedness assails us. When I last set questions for a quiz (many years ago), it was just a matter of relying on what I knew. I seldom had to look anything up; and, if I did, the research would be ruthlessly brisk, not to say perfunctory.

Now, the bottomless rabbit-hole of Wikipedia can suck you in for hours at a time.

[OMF’s Tony has recently entertained me with a pair of quirky quizzes, here and here.]

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

New Picks of the Month

Time for another journey-through-time to rediscover what I was writing about three years ago this month...

On Froogville, there were quite a few compellingly weird little entries to choose from. I think I'll go for my piece about how the Chinese cope, or not, with fly-less underpants, one of my intermittent Chinese People LOVE Me! series. However, I was also very tempted by my jokey pitch for a non-fiction bestseller on Gin, my favourite-ever example of Chinese mispronunciation, my selection of 'Desert Island' albums, and my ruminations on the possible significance of an unfortunately risible Danish name I encountered.

And from The Barstool I pick the most poignant entry in my 'Unsuitable Role Model' cycle, Terry Collier (a name that may mean something to Brits of a certain age...). This poem on the perils of the 4th Martini was a close runner-up, though.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Traffic Report - the blog stats for October

Another pretty typical month: slightly subdued over on The Barstool, because I was not drinking for most of the month (although this did, of course, provoke a lot of short posts on the fact that I was not drinking), but surprisingly robust on Froogville, despite a heavy work schedule and the anxiety of suddenly facing imminent homelessness.

There were 35 posts and around 12,000 words on Froogville last month.

There 32 posts and just under 7,000 words on Round-The-World Barstool Blues.

Statcounter tells me that Romania and Argentina have been added to the list of countries that have looked in on us.

I have in mind a new idea for curtailing my effusiveness on here. Though I fear it is so crazy that it may end up costing me even more time and effort…

See if you can guess what it is.