Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cold Turkey
Yesterday was my fifth Thanksgiving in Asia, and aside from one in Hong Kong that featured Chinese waiters and waitresses dressed like elementary school pageant Pilgrims and Indians, perhaps the most memorable.

I had an invitation from a British woman, a longtime China expat who often hosts a Thursday night spaghetti bolognese spread at her apartment, but I told her it would be my treat this time courtesy of take-out from a pretty damn fine eatery in Beijing called Steak and Eggs, an American style diner run by a Canadian from Florida. Or something like that... Others invited included two French guys, a Canadian woman, two Spanish women and an Austrian couple. All "pilgrims" to China, though I regretted the fact there was no one from India to be the token Indian or, for that matter, any Chinese.

I ordered the basics: a roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and a pumpkin pie with my hostess supplying wine, potatoes, veggies and a couple bottles of honest-to-gawd "Karl Marx Champagne." We marveled at the concept, a one of a kind find she said when asked where to get more. The bubbly was pretty much what you'd expect, though it did help us cast off our social chains after a few glasses, and the label alone with a fine drawing of Mr Das Kapital was worth it.

Struggling with an 18-pound bird and fixings and 16 oz can of Ocean Spray cranberry sauce in my leather jacket pocket into her 5th floor place, I greeted the guests: "On behalf of the United States of America, I bring you our national holiday feast! I give thanks to Pamela for hosting us and you for joining us."

Questions followed as the Canadian woman carved the bird. The origin, what we do in the US now, etc. "Then after hosting the Indians and giving thanks, the Pilgrims gave them smallpox infected blankets in gratitude ... Oh, it's usually a low key day to gather with family, eat, give thanks for the 15-year-old daughter not getting pregnant, get drunk, watch football on TV - no, not soccer! - and fight with relatives."

"It sounds very much like our Christmas," sighed a French guy. "The food, the drink, the fighting ..." He sounded almost homesick.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wedding Bell Blues

I was at a western style Beijing cafe a few evenings ago with a 29 or 30 year old Chinese woman I'll call L who politely interrupted our conversation about editing her resume to take a cell phone call. A rather lengthy one it turned out, and in Chinese, but I could tell she wanted it to end long before it did.

"Do you mind if I ask who that was?" I asked.

"Oh, just some man asking me to marry him," L replied casually.

"Do a lot of guys propose over mobile phones here? No wonder there are 1.3 billion of you. So romantic!"

She laughed. "My parents' friend recommended he call me. I've never met him. Only on Internet. And I think I am not interested. I just want to be polite. I don't want to marry, but my parents are very worried."

Nearing 30, L has a lot of company here. Single, professional, educated, ambitious but with parents and relatives pulling as many strings as possible and putting the pressure on to get married and pop a grandchild. Now. Not later. I know four other women in similar situations - and it's not like there aren't a lot of men.

Men outnumber women due to China's one child policy, combined with a traditional preference for boys - something which has also contributed to its shadow export industry, baby girls. Know any American famiies with adopted Chinese babies? Odds are overwhelming that the children are girls; if it's the rare boy he was or is suffering from mental or physical disability.

But as a few picky and looking single Chinese women have explained to me it's akin to what a gal pal once said of the situation in Alaska. "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

I explained that to L who laughed, repeated it twice slowly and then wrote it down with a Chinese character translation. She isn't looking but has friends who are but are equally frustrated.

"One says she has two, how-to-say. suitors. One is very nice but only wants to be a calligraphy teacher." She laughed again. "Very cultural but maybe not a good profession in the 21st century. The other has a good job but a mother who is like his queen. My friend does not want two mothers or bosses."

We talked some more then her text msg beeped. L flipped the phone open, scrutinized it and winced a little. "It is my 'new husband' again," she said. "His goods are maybe a little odd, I think."

Monday, November 10, 2008

And I Bring You Fire (safety)

Fire continues to flicker as a theme here at the mighty Chinese news compound where I labor. In June (see: Working Class Hero, 6/22) I recounted my "heroism" in dousing a motorcycle battery electrical fire with only three cans of 3.6% Yanjing beer and more recently we had another hot incident involving a first floor apartment occupied by a New Zealand intern who was at bar when a cell phone call alerted him to the fact that his first floor apartment was on fire.

Damage was confined to a lot of smoke damage after a plugged in, but empty, unused water cooler that had been in his living room since he arrived had zapped, undoubtedly due to substandard electrical wiring. The cooler and a back pack next to it melted down and many of his clothers were uncleanable after the fire department arrived, broke a window and sprayed the place down.

The group responsible for foreigners here, though, would have none of the "substandard wiring" explanations and grilled him mightily about the cooler. It was unauthorized.
When had he bought it? Never bought one. It was here when he arrived. Was he sure he hadn't bought it? Yes. Trick question - how much did you pay for it? I DIDN'T BUY ONE. YOU DON'T PAY ME ENOUGH. Did he use it regularly? Never used it once. Why was it plugged in? It was like that when he arrived. Etc, etc.

Nonetheless, though he wasn't booted or punished, an awkwardly written email and paper copy along with photos of the smoke damaged apartment and warnings in Chinese were posted throughout the area warning that "due to extreme carelessness by a foreigner a fire becoming danger to life" and reminded us to unplug all our appliances before leaving the rooms.

More worrisome was the fact that another foreigner on the 9th floor had smelled smoke and begun running throughout the halls breaking all the fire alarms and looking for extinguishers. The alarms didn't work, nor did others he tried on lower floors before realizing the fire truck was arriving (alerted, we learned later by a security guard returning from a long noodle and tea break). And there are no smoke alarms in any of the apartments. An email to this effect was sent to our Foreign Affairs department which replied that the pyrowhining barbarian was simply wrong.
1. All alarms work.
2. Fire extinguishers are working and plentiful
3. A special unit of the Beijing Fire Department is on vigilant watch to deal specifically with fires at the aparmtment complex and will respond quickly in each and every incident.
4. A "fire safety" demonstration will be held at an uspecified time and place to further reassure us.
Not mentioned were the lack of smoke alarms in our rooms. That's harder to deal with because they can't pretend they work or exist so - obviously from their point of view - it's not an issue.

The whole thing was more or less forgotten until late last week when we were summoned to the front parking and entrance area for the demonstration. It was held entirely in Chinese, though rough translations were available for those who couldn't get the idea of the term "Chinese fire drill."

About 12 extinguishers were lined up beside seven men in blue jump suits and white hard hats. We listened for about 20 minutes of unintelligible safety yammer and watched in awe as the lecturer pointed at one junior fire safety cadet in safety goggles who ceremoniously removed a manhole cover with a crow bar, gingerly picked up an extinguisher, pointed it down into the manhole, slowly pulled the extinguisher pin, looked away and squeezed gently.

'Pfffft!' went the foam. A very short, soft burst and the extinguisher was whipped back and handed to another guy in goggles and a hard hat.

"Ahhhhh!" went the Chinese onlookers. "Giggle" went the foreigners. The process was repeated several times as a photographer documented it. Then a foreigner was selected. Me, in fact, perhaps due to my past rep as a fire extinguishing hero. Lacking three beers, however, I donned the glasses as instructed, pointed the extinguisher down pulled the lever hard, yelling "Yaaahhhh! Die fire" as the foam spewed like berserk cotton candy.

"AHHHHHHH!" went the Chinese. "Nice one, dude" said an American coworker. The extinguisher was taken from my grasp rather quickly and the lecture was over.

The lesson? "In case of fire, remove manhole cover..."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Chinese reaction to Barack Obama's historic US presidential victory went from mildly curious to ecstatic in two offices on the third floor of China Daily newspaper Wednesdy noon after the lone American employee on the floor went to the Holiland pastry shop on Huixin Dongjie street and bought two 64 yuan (US$9.35) victory cakes.

"Here," he said smiling and distributing tiny plastic forks and paper plates as CNN's election coverage boomed in the background from a TV hanging from the ceiling. "From Obama! My new president."

The Chinese staff laughed, grinned, looking up from the rice, pork and spinach dumplings, fish heads and "Jew's ear fungus" lunches they'd been scarfing from their tin and plastic lunch pails and clustered around the cakes.

"Really? From Obama? He won? Your new president? Thank you! Thank Obama!" one said.

"Well, not really from him. Me. But I pay American icome taxes with my Chinese salary, so it's kind of my tax dollars at work for you," I said. "Consider it my part to futher international relations and do my part to help stem the global financial meltdown."

Meanwhile my cell phone text message alert was beeping non-stop. Victory bonding messages from one Canadian, two English citizens, three Chinese and two other Americans from Beijing to Shanghai and Shenzhen on the Hong Kong border were flowing in. "Yabbadabba doo!" "PARTEEE!" "He won! He won!" "Congratulations on your country's good sense!"

"It's cool and weird," another American pal in Jakarta, Indonesia texted me via Skype. He'd been watching CNN too. "How could this have happened?. It's like an unbelievable dream watching people celebrate a black American president."