Sunday, June 22, 2008

Working Class Hero
Never underestimate the power of the Chinese gossip underground. Faster than the Internet, I got a taste of it recently as I was leaving the office.

"Justin! Justin!" yelled a woman I'll call S, who works the paper's "Foreign Affairs Office" - essentially a group of Chinese assigned to babysit newly arrived "foreign experts" and help any others (like myself) when we can't do something like mail a letter, blow our nose or tie our shoes.

I froze. Sometimes it's not an entirely good thing when Foreign Affairs comes to you instead of vice-versa.

"Yeah, how can I help?" I said turning on the charm offensive.
"You are the HERO!" she said.
"Huh? Why? What?"
"The fire! You extinguished the fire. With BEER!"

Oh, that. It had happened the early evening the day before. I'd stopped at a corner shop for three cans of beer for a guest arriving later and as I got to my apartment I saw a literal pillar of flame coming from the battery-engine compartment of a small motorbike parked with dozens of bicycles at a rack. Two Chinese guys were watching it dispassionately.

Ignoring them, I ran to the apartment's security office to find ... no one. Running back I recalled the beer cans in my backpack and began popping and pouring and jumping back from the flames until the cans were dry and the fire was a sputtering low sizzle. Then one of the Chinese men came over and made a half-hearted effort to spit it out.

Two expats appeared on the porch of an adjoining apartment and I yelled at them to get someone or something other than a 12 oz can of Yan Jing to help me douse it completely. One returned with a fire extinguisher and almost threw it at me.
"Here, dude," he said. "I have no idea how they work."

This was the fun part. I pulled the pin. squeezed the lever and began furiously hosing foam over the smoking bike. When the fire was out, I picked up my pack and wandered back to the store, wondering if the bike owner might reimburse me sometime for the beer.

Between then and S's "you are the HERO" gush, I wasn't aware of anyone I knew seeing me in action, but obviously word had spread quickly of the valiant beer-touting, fire fighting foreigner.

"Aw, it was nothing," I told S.
"No," she said. "It was very kind. Three beers for the fire! I will write a letter. Perhaps you will be a Model Worker!" (China Daily awards this honor every 3 months or so; it's sort of a hangover from the old Commie work unit model and one I occasionally mock light heartedly)

"A working class hero?" I asked her, quoting the old John Lennon song. "Cool. That's something to be. Do I get new beer?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I Can See for Miles

I was with seven other work colleagues on a Sunday tourist excursion, gazing in awe and exhaustion from the heights of the Great Wall at the miles of forest below and beyond - all wrapped in the pollution gauze of greater Beijing - when one voice broke the spell.

"It smells like bathroom," she said. Well, yes, I guess the particular vantage point we were at did have a faint urine aroma, but though the Wall has been rebuilt repeatedly and the stretch we were on had some home grown tourist stops (including a live camel ride), Ming Dynasity restrmooms weren't part of the deal. Even the under-construction area our two hired drivers had parked in had prominent restroom signs which just proved to be a tease as the facilities themselves - pledged to be done by the Aug 8 Olympics - were still not done and we thought the whole area would be lucky to be done by the London Olympics in 2012.

But it was ultimately a good thing. It was my first time at China's premier tourist attraction and I'd been dubious after hearing tales of sections swarming with sweaty foreigners trudging and puffing in herds. The site we wound up at was virtually empty and still pristine enough despite the heavy machinery, mud, piles of yellowish dirt, trucks, Beijing Olympics signs and security goons to allow one to imagine it as it might have been in its heyday defending against dreaded Outsiders. Now it welcomed five barbarians and three more or less natives. We were like kind of motley UN group - a black guy from England; two white American dudes; four women: Korean-American, Canadian-Chinese, American-Chinese and China-Chinese; and an India Indian fellow.

Wimp and geriatric that I am, I fell back and chilled with three tourist-trap lady vendors in blue and white headscarfs and their camel after three very steep, long flights. The others including one in 4-inch heels (she'd come straight from a job interview) went into the clouds and returned and, like me, pay too much money to be photographed astride the two humped Mongolian camel. We declined the opportunity to pay more to dress as fake Mongols or PLA soldiers, though one of our group donned a faux Mongol helmet that made him look like a Star Wars extra. No picture of that immediately available, but seven of our group can be seen in our glory above.

We'd begun at the Ming Tombs, another historic area but one that has been so restored that it's sterile. Note to self: No more Ming Tombs. It's essentially an large cold, barren industrial gray basement down 87 zillion flights of steps in which rest several enormous red wooden packing crates.

The day ended on full stomachs of "nong jia fan," or farm-style food, for an early dinner. The family home cafe had virtually no running water, but included chickens pecking in the yard as the homegrown source for eggs and meat, and plenty of fresh vegetables from their garden. We tore through 10 dishes and five fried salty pancakes stuffed with green onions and bemoaned the fact that next year at this time Ma and Pa Wang's Diner will probably have been replaced by a McDonald's.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Watching the Detectives

My State-owned "foreign expert danwei" (work unit) apartment borders a large, affluent middle and high school, much like my Lucky Number flat did in Shenzhen. Monday-Saturday I'm usually awakened to the sounds of announcements, 1980s Jazzercise Lite calesthentics, the martial bombast of the Chinese national anthem (Mondays only, thankyoujeebus) and, if I'm looking down below with a can of cold "Mr Bond - I'm young ... I'm coffee!" from my ninth floor balcony, the sight of hundreds of students in blue and white track suit uniforms lined up in small-to-tall rows overseen by assorted teachers in street clothes.

I've watched them long enough to have picked out a few individuals - notably the miscreants or misfits, the slower fat kids, a few cliques who torment a nerd or two, and the ones who just listlessly go through half-hearted motions in the "naughty child" back rows as teachers circle making an equally half-hearted effort to correct them.

This weekend while C was visiting for the first time since I've arrived in Beijing, trained observer that I am, I saw that classes weren't appparently in session on Saturday. While returning with a load of groceries and passing the school I saw the entrance was blocked off with crime tape saying "Police" in English. Parents were gathered for about two blocks sitting on curbs and in chairs outside restaurants looking hot and stressed while chewing up thousands of sunflower seeds, swilling water and fanning themselves with advertising leaflets that had suddenly materialized thanks to pamphleteers taking advantage of the new concentration of humanity.

Cop cars blocked off the street for several blocks and from my balcony vantage point I noted another police vehicle in school grounds along with several other "official" looking autos and vans.

"Shit," I thought. "Someone's been killed." Thoughts of Columbine - on which I'd done some freelance reporting on in Colorado - came back, though no students here have access to even pellet guns, much less M16s. Most murders are knife or hatchet jobs, like the 7 people just killed in Tokyo, news of which was also on my CNN-Asia channel as I watched the school. My immediate response was to call someone at the paper to tip them off to mayhem in our backyard, but put it aside recalling how Chinese crimes usually aren't reported until the 'perp(s)are arrested, detained or sometimes until after they're executed.

With my imagination at full throttle, I awaited for C to return from an errand she'd also been running to see if we could hit the street to talk with some parents. About 5 minutes after she arrived, I looked out again and saw the children were all streaming out of the school, being greeted by what looked like very relieved parents.

"Look," I said. "They let the kids out. Cops must be done questioning them. Let's go down and see if anyone will tell us what happened."
She peered down and didn't reply for a minute.
"What is the date?" she finally asked.
"June 8," I replied. "Why?"
"There is no murder," she said, smiling a little at my ignorance. "It is the national college test day."

Oh. Yeah. Never mind. "Black June" is how a Chinese colleague in Shenzhen once described the annual nationwide test - a sort of mega Sino SAT that asks you everything you learned from K-12 and for which kids are primed beginning early in this rote education system. It often determines an entire future career and social path and the pressure to excell is enormous - so much so that the suicide rate reportedly skyrockets in China among students during this period.

"But why the police cars? Why do they block off the street?" I asked C.
"To preserve order," she said as she was explaining to a Certified Moron why it wasn't a good idea to stick your hand into a working blow torch.
"What? Why? Who is going to raise hell at an SAT test?"
"I don't know," she said. "It is always how it is done. Like with our teachers, we do not ask why."
Photo from AP Photo by Elizabeth Dalziel