Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sleep in heavenly peace

I’ve been here so long now that Christmas in China is no longer a novelty. Just a reality, though events like my office Christmas party – scheduled at 7pm on Christmas Day (!) and featuring no booze, warm soft drinks, bananas, weird nuts and a staff fashion and talent show –and no Santa, but two people in large Bugs Bunny costumes (Year of the Rabbit coming up) still kinda makes me yearn for office parties gone by.

Like the one at the Denver Press Club where my newspaper's aging married-with-children editor got sloshed and tried to express his heartfelt Christmas wish by sticking his tongue down the throat of a startled and shocked 20something clerk.

He should've been canned, but cuz he was corporate he was kicked upstairs shortly thereafter and mostly wasn't heard from since.

The most moving Christmas Eve Ive had was shortly after the mother of my best friend died. I hadn't been to a Christmas Eve service before or have since but it was important to him and it was their church and another tender way to remember her.

We drove back afterwards talking about his mom through a very light Boulder snowfall, moon shining brightly and rounded a curve to see a doe standing by the side of the road, not startled, just being there as if it had been placed by Disney central casting as the white flakes fell around its tawny lithe body.

“It's a miracle,” he said. I'm not sure why he said it, but I felt it. He pulled over, stopped and doused the headlights as we watched it gracefully amble past before disappearing into a nearby cemetery.

Christmas Eve this year was a bit more surreal if you're old enough and politically ironic. A Chinese friend had an extra ticket to Swan Lake featuring a troupe from totalitarian post-Soviet bloc rogue state Belarus and the venue was the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square in the auditorium where the Chinese Communist Party National Congress normally meets.

Our seats were like school seats, each with a desk slot to hold important papers and not enough room to stretch or even doze comfortably. Ours were about 65 yards from the stage and probably normally occupied by a midlevel provincial boss of a State-owned toxic chemical and infant formula company. Not bleacher seat, not A-list, just mediocre. Like the performance.

When we emerged it was bitter cold, but clear and moon-swept and Chairman Mao's wax corpse was slumbering peacefully in its mausoleum across the wide street where 21 years and 6 months before things weren't as beatific.

Silent night, holy night...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Crosstown Traffic

Despite its mega subway system and buses, dependable transportation and Bejing are not synomous, My apt is about 2 miles frm the nearest subway stop which would dump me about a mile away from the mighty Global Times.

I've spent many months trying to decode the taxi matrix system to and from work but still it's a mystery.

Just when I think I've cracked it, everything changes and Im standing as a frozen loon feebly trying to flag down cabs with no success, frozen, standing and waiting thinking: "This is not forever. Really.I will wake up warm in my bed tomorrow no matter how long I stand here."

Winter is closing fast. Not the best time to be standing like a human Popsicle waving creaking and doing my best hitchhiker moves, which is why I made a deal recently as I was when a grizzled three wheeled motor cabby pulled up and recognized me as a sucker who once paid about three times the going rate to take me from my apt to work.

Fair enough. He knew where I lived and then began a plan. After I clambered in I phoned Chinese fluent/Global Times rock writer James Tiscione, late of NYC and Tucson, to see if he could seal a deal with Mr Motor Trycycle pick me up at 7pm Sunday-Thursday for a ridiculously inflated daily rate.

It worked well for four nights til the fifth as we were doing the death ride through crowded commuter traffic and pedestrians (vehicles rule over all people and over each other depending on size; a three wheeler only outranks a walking human or bicyclist) and he tried to squeeze in front of a bus.

Three wheelers are typically powered by worn lawn mower engines and strung together only with industrial rubber tubes, duct tape and faith.

Bad move. It went into slo-mo for me as I watched the bus loom. I've only been close to apparent death once before when a Denver hitchhiker pulled a gun on me and it was the same feeling this time: "Ok, this is where it ends. Sorry for messing up what I did and hope I did some good and will miss you Julian, forgive me for picking up this mofo, etc."

It was also a weirdly peaceful easy feeling. Accepting that my time had come and I couldn't prepare, but it was how it will be. I hope that's how it might be for many and maybe there is a brain chemical that mercifully kicks in to cushion it.

Enough shaky science. In this case, the earworm went from Jimi Hendrix's
"Crosstown Traffic" to "Hear my Train a' Comin' " and morphed into "I hear my bus a'comin' to squash me like a bug" and braced for the impact as the three wheeler managed to turn sharply and only scrape the behomouth bus. What followed was pure Two Stooges.

Lurching to keep steady and escape, three wheeler sped up to maximum 5 mph mower speed and I thought we were outta there, scattering pedestrians on sidewalks and bike lanes alike.

No way. Bus man, ignoring his primary directive to move passengers reliably and on time, braked suddenly to a halt, jumped out and in completely crowded commute traffic overtook us on foot and squared himself in front of the three wheeler hands on the hood. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Obscenities flew, bus man pounding on the three wheeler til my crosstown driver turned the cab off and emerged for what I thought might be a street fight.

Pedestrians and bored bus passengers emerged for the showdown as more traffic piled up behind us.

It was short and ultimately comical. Both frothed at one another, bus driver forcefully pointing to what appeared to be an invisible paint scrape and three wheeler ranting about bd's bad driving. Then as I thought I'd just better find another ride home, three wheeler takes a small wad of cash outta his pocket and hands it to bus driver who grins and gets back to his appointed rounds.

Three wheeler then comes back to his cab to ferry me unstably over sidewalks and against one way traffic as usual for an otherwise uneventful night in Beijing.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thing One and Thing Two

Unlike the usual modest and hesitant Chinese tap, the knock at my apartment door Saturday night was firm and forceful. It's either an unexpected expat or the Public Security Bureau, I thought as I eased the door open to find...

Two small Chinese women bearing plastic bottles of what looked like spray cleaning fluid. They didn't speak English, or I Chinese so I just stared at them as they tried to make themselves understood.

The next minute they were in the room like the Cat in the Hat's Thing One and Thing Two headed straight for the kitchen where they began furiously spraying my stove fan vent, rubbing it with a rag and babbling as I babbled back, “What the hell are you doing? The cleaning lady was already here. Who are you? Why are you cleaning my stove? Leave, please! Go home!”

Finally, I phoned a native speaker, coworker J, and described the situation.
“Two women. They look like migrant workers and are furiously spraying cleaning stuff all over the stove. I have no idea who they are or why they're here. The stove was already clean!”

I handed the phone to Thing One who spoke at length to J while Thing Two went to a wall light switch and began to spray and scrub grime from around the panel, all the while grinning and gesturing to me to notice how white and bright it was becoming.

Thing One handed the phone back to me and J explained that they were “authorized by the apartment management office” to demonstrate and sell the amazing multi-use spray cleaner.

(Note: This is the same apartment management office that can't provide reliable hot water service on a regular basis. Yet they can authorize strangers to invade your living space to randomly spray cleaning fluid.)

“How much?” I asked. “I just want them to leave. I will pay them to leave!”
We settled on two bottles for 50-yuan ($7.50) but emboldened by their unexpected success Thing One and Thing Two were ecstatic and trying to push more products at me until I more or less gently body blocked them out the door.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Games People Play

A younger US expat pal and coworker, JT, and I were walking on what passes for a sidewalk across from one of Beijing’s newest flashiest shopping malls recently when I almost stepped on several migrant construction workers who'd been laboring on one of the endless upscale apartment project nearby.

Weatherbeaten, weary and deeply tanned, they were squatting and playing and kibuttzing over a crude strategy game they’d thrown together on the walk on the early cool Saturday fall afternoon.

It was a chalk-drawn chess or checkers type square with pebbles and brick shards as one group and freshly broken twigs as the other. (Insert obvious cultural/ social irony detail here: at the same time, less than 100 yards across the bustling road jammed with late model BMWs, Audis and upscale Chinese autos, about 200 or more white collars and others were lined up; status and tech-hungry weasels salivating to buy the new iPhone in a mega Apple store.)

“Ask them what they’re playing, how it works,” I urged him. He’s wickedly fluent in Chinese, part of the New Blood Literate and Fluent Educated Foreign Sino Squad that will eventually (and justifiably) replace Fossils Like Me in China’s 21st century foreign job and social networks.

He bent down and, in what I assume was cool and polite Chinese, asked.

“He says, ‘ground chess,’’’JT replied. “But I think he’s being a little sarcastic Told me to stick around and watch and I’d figure it out.”

We declined but I began musing. “Julian!” I shouted to my son, though he is in Colorado and was presumably blissfully deep asleep at the time. “Sorry, but I can’t get you the newest Xbox for Christmas. But, hey! Here’s the new ‘Chinese Migrant Worker Play Station!’

"A piece of chalk, some rocks and twigs packaged in a nifty plastic bag endorsed by the China Intangible Cultural and Social Heritage Academy of Social Sciences.

”Also included is a half used pack of Dubao (“Derby,” one of the cheapest and foulest Chinese cigs. See: unfiltered Chesterfield or Old Gold) and two stained, sweaty small blue or blue and black camo caps for the complete migrant experience.

"Plus a ‘Seven Chinese Migrant Worker Secrets to Sleeping Anyplace, Anytime and in Any Position –From Horizontal on Hand Rails to Doubled Up Like a Fetus on a 9-inch Chunk of Broken Parking Barrier at the Height of Rush Hour!’”

There was admiration overall. For starters, JT and I could imagine few, if any, US construction workers playing ‘ground chess’ or any other strategy game – makeshift or otherwise - on their down time. “Pound down the beers chess,” maybe. But otherwise…nah.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The gift that keeps on biting

News reports, including one in the rag I toil for, indicate you're coming to China soon to sell newly minted Chinese million and billionaires on the idea of philanthropy a la the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As CNN recently reported, “but the fear of being seduced into giving up part of their fortunes might have scared some of the tycoons away from a dinner that the crusading US. billionaires are hosting in Beijing this month.”

That's because they're afraid of being put on the spot for donations with no promises of anything back, as in stock tips by Buffett or IT tradeoffs from Gates. And there's the strong numerology factor as well. No one would be ponying up millions or thousands or billions of $250 or $400 (god forbid $444) but more probably something with a lot of 8s if they were so inclined. That part is good, but don't hold your breath.

And giving for giving for givings sake simply isn't part of the culture here. I have some small experience in this matter – less than trivial actually, given what the Gates-Buffett Brigade (both widely idolized in China) are trying to do, but allow me to pass it on.

My first experience with public donations other than the money I give to beggars – and am usually chastised for doing so by Chinese companions – was at China Daily in 2008 shortly after the Sichuan Province earthquake. Foreign staff was alerted that their presence and donations were anticipated at the paper's large greeting hall.

Like most notices of these kinds, there was about a 10-minute deadline, followed by 60 minutes or more standing around, picking our noses before anything happened. We were lined up and as cameras were readied, pointed to a box that said “Earthquake Donations” in the middle of the hall. Single file we each dropped 100 yuan or whatever into the box.

The next day there was a color picture and small story on the bottom of Page 2 showing me and a couple other hapless barbarian employees dropping bills into the box under a headline that read something like: “China Daily Foreigners Care About China too.”

We made jokes among ourselves about where the money was really going as in the “Sichuan Cadres' Massage and Party Girls Fund” and left it at that, though, big surprise, several officials have since been put on trial for embezzling some of the charity money.

Fast forward to April this year at Global Times and another earthquake in Qinghai Province (with a heavy Tibetan population) and a“donations right now!” alert went out on our email system.

I was asked to marshal foreigners for support and could only do so half-heartedly knowing their mostly justifiably skeptical thoughts on where the money was really going. I did my best, threw in 250 yuan and forgot about it until the next day when posted on a company bulletin board was a complete list of every employee, foreigner and Chinese alike, and how much they'd given.

I saw I had donated slightly more than other “foreign experts,” and slightly less than my Chinese “bosses” but had preferred that my donation was anonymous. And I couldn’t imagine why the list had been so public. Hit me with the idiot stick. Turned out that I asked a few Chinese reporters I learned that the “donations” were compulsory (on top of their already underpaid salaries). Some had had to borrow from others just to make a minimal 50-yuan “contribution." It was a shame system, basic CCCP management style 101.

I also got smiling quiet questions about why I gave 250 yuan. “I dunno,” I said. “It was what I had and I needed enough left over for cab fare and dinner. No significance."

“Do you know what 250 means in Chinese?” asked one. “No. But probably nothing that will do me any good,” I replied.

Turned out that somewhat like 4 (sounds like death and is "inauspious" like 13 in Western countries) 250 also can be construed, if read in a certain way, as meaning “imbecile." Was I trying to make a clever point? That I'm an imbecile for giving or the company is an imbecile for asking?

“Uh. No. Neither. Honestly. You know my lack of Chinese. After 7 years here, I still can't ask for directions for the toilet. How am I gonna know the significance of 250? Like I said, just gave what I did and hopes it helps.”

I got a sly “we know better" smile in return and waited for the next disaster. As anyone vaguely familiar with international news knows, it was not long in coming.

Floods and mudslides of Biblical proportions followed as they do every time here this year. And the company email for donations was even quicker, though I'd been mercifully spared of having to beg my fellow westerners for money.

Still I shelled out something I hoped wasn't a double meaning amount and begged the clerk in charge of donations to keep my name and other foreign employees anonymous. None of us liked the exposure. Giving is a personal thing. We don't need our names on it. Just don't use it for happy endings and baiju for corrupt officials, thank you.

Wrong call. Two mornings later several Chinese coworkers greeted me, “You gave XXX! How generous! More than some of our leaders!”

WTF? There it was again – names, amounts all on the bulletin board again. I went into Ugly American overdrive to one sensible Chinese pal who tolerates my fits. “Loss of face!” I finally sputtered. “In the west, we can choose whether or not to have our names publicized if we give donations, whether it is $1 or $1 million. I do not want my name associated with what I have given. Just put 'Anonymous Foreigner' or something.”

Amazingly, after all the time it usually takes to settle issues – minor or huge – here, the list was taken down within 30 minutes and every foreigner who gave was listed as “Anonymous Foreign Expert.”

I'm not expert by any means, still learning after all these years, but be careful what and how you give and stay away from the sensitive numbers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Love and Tenderness

A Chinese colleague of mine, T, who is in his early 30s and from Hong Kong told me recently about a visit he'd just made to a Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor for consultation about his arthritis and the doc’s surprising prescription.

“He did some checks and then asked me whether I'm married,” T said. “I said, ‘no,’ and then he asked, ‘How often do you do it with your girlfriend?’

“I said I don't have a girlfriend. Then he asked about masturbation. Later he explained that according to Chinese medicine, kidneys are related to the bones and that ‘doing it’ is like exercising your whole body, which is beneficial to your kidneys.

“And finally he said: ‘Get a girlfriend.’”

“TCM prescribing TLC,” I told T. “I like it!”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Rings of Fire

Summer's here and the time is right for busting barbecues in the street in Beijing and other civic-minded localities. I was sitting at a very small table on very precarious chairs near a friend's apartment very early Friday morning sharing some cold Tsingtaos and generally solving the world's problems as we watched the late night/early morning bbq crowd ebb and flow around us.

Many neighborhood corners in Beijing and Shenzhen and other cities sprout instant ‘cue stands after dark when enterprising men and women throw some charcoal and wood on metal trays or inside a circle or rectangle of bricks, fire it up and start cooking chicken, corn, meat-you'd-rather-not-ask-about and sundry other edibles for midnight munchies.

As the smoke and smells of smoke and grilling meat drifts from the makeshift pits, men, women and children start squatting or pulling up cinder blocks and munchkin-size stools to eat, drink, gossip, play cards, argue and laugh often until 2 or 3 am.

Scorched sidewalks and trash greet the rising sun, shortly after which the female street cleaners - clad in baggy jumpsuits and some with oversized umbrella-like hats but almost always with some manditory feminine touch like a colorful scrunchie or sequined bow for their tied-up hair - sweep up the debris with brooms often larger than themselves, leaving only the scorch marks.

As Jeff and I watched from the three makeshift stands doing business near us, a large blue city government-looking van pulled up and disgorged three poker faced guys in blue uniforms and wearing what appeared to be oven mittens.

It was the cheng guan (municipal inspectors) or BBQ SWAT team as I like to call them. Many of these unlicensed food sellers and their crafts and jewelry counterparts often pay off scouts to give them advance warning of a coming bust. I’ve seen an entire small bridge or underpass market sweep up its hundreds of wares into large blankets and scatter within 40-seconds only a few minutes before the cheng guan arrive in, but tonight the spotters were MIA.

Silently and quickly crack bbq busters each sprinted to a stand, reached down and jerked the cheap aluminum metal trays of burning coals from under the grills and spilled the glowing embers on the sidewalk. They charged back to the idling van clutching the trays, tossed them inside and - wheels screeching as the driver ground his gears - left as quickly as they had struck.

Mission accomplished. Chalk up three unlicensed bbq stands that wouldn't be threatening Beijing society anymore - or would they?

Except for a profound "holy f*ck" from me and a "did you bloody see that, mate?" from Jeff no one else said a word before, during or after the raid - except for one cook who appeared to be asking someone where he could find a new tray for his coals. The bbq stand owners simply swept the remaining burning coals into individual piles, found new trays (another griller had a stash in a garbage bag, apparently for just such emergencies), shoveled the coals on them and resumed grilling.

Fifteen minutes later the same van pulled up from the opposite direction and the boys in blue repeated their work. As before, the owners stood by, waited until the coals were dumped and the van left, swept up the burning debris, found new trays and kept on smokin'.

Another 20 minutes passed and the mobile bbq prevention squad struck once more with the same results.

Jeff and I were - as the Brits say - gobsmacked and also amused at the charade. Emboldened by Tsingtao courage, we had loudly booed the blue meanies and flipped them off as they ran to their van clutching the illicit trays in their government-issued oven mitts for the third time in 45 minutes, but no one else even seemed to notice or much care.

"I'd hate to see those guys take down a crack house or meth lab," I remarked. Everyone else around us simply continued cooking, eating and gabbing. Just another small nightly ritual drama in which everyone from the BBQ Strike Force to the vendors and customers knew their roles and performed them flawlessly.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Last Waltz

After a year and a half since I’d last been there, I recently flew to Hong Kong for a three-day weekend with several missions in mind.

I needed break from Beijing where spring still seemed like a work in progress – or a fickle woman; warm, coy, flirtatious one day and an unforgiving ice-blown hag the next.

Farewells were on the agenda, too. Hamish, a young New Zealand pal with whom I shared a lot of beer and music and loose talk while I’d been living in Honkers was relocating to the US – Austin to be exact – with his Chinese-American girl friend.

And there was C to see – someone with whom I'd shared more than five years with until time and distance dictated otherwise. She's since found someone else (a mouth-breathing troll, but hey, everyone can’t be me) and some – forgive the term – closure was in order and she agreed to a friendly meet and greet.

There were also a few ex-coworkers from the Standard to check in with, including CY, a feisty Honkers native fighting hard against lymphoma. Despite pushing deadlines to frustrating extremes, she’d been a tough rare reporter who pushed her sources even harder and it had been a sad shock to hear of her illness. People like her aren’t supposed to get cancer – they’re supposed to chew it up and spit it out. And apparently that’s what she’d been doing.

“You look great,” I told her sincerely. Despite a couple chemo treatments CY hadn't lost her hair and seemed beatific, radiant even, surrounded as she was by five friends in her tiny apartment.

“When this is over you have to market the CY Miracle Cancer Beauty Diet!” I told her. It got the intended laugh and I hugged her and wished her well before hooking up with Hamish at a nightclub, Grappa’s Cellar. It was Hamish’s last Honkers gig – he was overseeing a multi-band lineup as a promotion for the magazine he was leaving and he and his girlfriend had their hands full.

I watched bemused as a Chinese electronica geek played remixes on his Apple laptop and then hit a button to pump out For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield. It was Stephen Stills singing, nothing unusual in the mix, though maybe the bass was jacked up a bit. Still, the crowd – mostly 20something expats and Honkers hipsters went mildly wild.

How weird, I thought. Maybe I should quit journalism and just sit in my living room and have people pay and cheer to watch me play a bunch of 1960s-70s Greatest Hits collections and call it cutting edge.

The next act was a real band – guitars, drums, live vocals, a post-punk group called The Yours, with a front man Jack Leung described on one website as a “visual merchandiser” who is the “outrĂ©-cool frontman of The Yours, and by day he dresses the windows of some of the city’s swankiest stores.” There was nothing outrĂ©-cool about Jack that night. He and the band were clearly trashed.
“You hate us and we hate you!” he yelled at the audience before launching into a jackhammer rhythm that quickly disintegrated into…well, here’s Hamish with the play-by-play.

“They had already had their time on stage earlier in the day, during their scheduled 5:30 pm set. They were playing to a smaller crowd, and I think they wanted a chance to play in front of more people, so they rushed the stage after S.T's set.

“I got up there and asked them to get off. They wouldn't budge, so I went to their friends – who were in the band due to take the stage at that time – and asked them to help me get them off. They still wouldn't budge, so I went back to the stage, by which time The Yours were already launching into a song.

“I thought, ‘Okay, one song. Let's watch them closely and hope nothing goes wrong.’ If Jack showed any signs of attempting to trash the stage again, I was going to get up there and stop him. And then fucker did.

“I thought, 'Right, I gotta get up there.' I grabbed his guitar just as he was attempting to attack an amp. He was so hammered he tripped over a couple of mic stands, taking them down with him. Meanwhile, the incensed sound guys, who owned the equipment Jack was fucking up, rushed the stage.

“While Jack was having a second attempt at one of the amps – and while I was gently encouraging the others to get the fuck off the stage – one of the sound guys got to him and hurled him from the stage. That was, I think, the most dramatic part.

“Meanwhile, one of my friends held back another sound guy who was intent on pummeling the crap out of Jack. If he got to him, the gig would have turned to mayhem. As it happened, we managed to ride the thin line between mayhem and relatively harmless rock 'n' roll run.

“Later, the frontman for the last band for the night, got up and said, "I know now why they're called The Yours. Because they don't fuck up their own equipment; they fuck up yours."

The next day was my D-Day with C. Or C-Day, I guess. She met me in a small Thai restaurant and bar in Wanchai and, damn, if we both didn’t begin to sniffle and tear up a little as we talked.

It had been more than eight months since she’d called me in Beijing from Shenzhen to tell me she was seeing another guy, although the signs some months before had not been auspicious. Terms of endearment had suddenly dropped from her text msgs and e-mails and communication was increasingly one-way - Beijing to Shenzhen, and since then I’d gone through the usual stages of grief: denial, anger, more anger, more denial, depression, rage, psychotic rage, disastrous rebound serial dating, arson and plotting insane revenge involving blow torches, pit bulls and his genitals on my successor.

But five years was a long time together – longer than many marriages – and now it seemed right to close the book and move on gracefully.

We spent some hours talking, walking, dining, watching her shop, reminiscing, going to Hamish’s goodbye barbecue and by midnight we were having farewell drinks next to the neon splashed sidewalk at another Wanchai bar.

“Just one kiss for old times,” I asked.

Then a song started in the bar – I don’t know it, but wish I did now because it would become our swan song.

I took C in my arms and we danced on the sidewalk as others looking for the heart of a Hong Kong Saturday night flowed past.

One last kiss, slow embrace, pan back and fade to black.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Baby, it's cold inside

I’d barely stepped into the shower in my unheated 40-degree apartment (commie government central heating was turned off several weeks ago because Marx-Lenin, Mao and President Hu Jintao all say it’s officially “spring” i.e. “warm weather”) and was anticipating the warm spray when … dribble. Drip. Blip. Nada.

Turned the spigot to “cold” and the near-frozen spray rushed out, forcing me to take a trembling, hasty, hypothermia-inducing shampoo and “whore’s bath” (armpits and groin only.)

I’d paid 100 yuan for “160 tons” of the hot stuff some months ago, but the supply appeared dry. China wants desperately to be regarded as a modern nation and, according to the recent constantly sprouting billboards, is “striving earnestly” to make Beijing a “World City” by 2020.

But I gotta say: “Hey, a country that treats hot water as a precious separate commodity ain’t gonna cut it except as an overdressed jester on the world stage despite how many “taikonauts” it ejaculates into space or Olympic gold medals it harvests with underage slave prepubescent athletes. And your plumbing? Bwah!

“Five thousand years of so-called civilization, inventing gunpowder and the compass, blah-blah-blah. The Romans did plumbing right 2,000 years ago and in 2010 I’m in a nation where even the capital city public cold water taps don’t work and signs urge toilet users to throw their paper away after wiping for fear of jamming the pipes. And, by the way, when was the last time I needed a compass and gunpowder to take a hot shower or relieve myself?”

Forgive me. I digress. The next step after checking for frostbite was to insert the “water card” into the unreadable grime encrusted water meter jammed under the sink and hope to mystically recharge the supply. What was I thinking?

Phone calls were made and 40-some minutes later I’d trudged half a mile in the wind to the apartment management office located in a bunker in the most inaccessible area possible in the complex where, thanks to more phone calls for translating help from my friend, J, I learned I needed to pre-pay for more tons of hot water and to buy a new water card for reasons that even she found inexplicable.

“I argued,” J said. “I said it is not your fault. But still you must pay.” She sighed. “I do not understand.”

“I love this farking country,” I replied gritting my teeth and cursing myself for all the irrational ill will I’d once had for the Public Service utility and water company in Colorado. We’d had some occasional issues, sure, but they’d never cut off my hot water or power or urged me to spread disease by tossing used toilet paper around public restrooms.

I surrendered the equivalent of half a month’s pay for a Chinese migrant worker to a sullen girl in badly permed orange hair and a sweatshirt that said: “Ferverent, Robust!” and slouched in an overstuffed chair and waited for the apartment bureaucracy to slowly grind out a new card and water supply for building 11, entrance A, room 208.

However, back at the apartment the new card failed to generate any joy – robust or otherwise. More calls were made to patient J who was able to get a maintenance worker over who also couldn’t conjure up any hot water hoodoo and left with my new card and promise to return with yet another one.

He made good, but Card III didn’t work either and I was soberly informed that the entire water meter is “broken” and it would cost me about US$50 out of my pocket for a new one. What choice did I have? The concept of “tenant’s rights” isn’t even a dim work in progress here so I paid and a day later played under the warm spray.

After all this loathing and fears of turning into a truly Ugly American, however, I found ultimate solace when a Chinese Hong Kong friend, S, who had just relocated to Beijing, met me for lunch and began telling me about her newest apartment problem. Last week it was cockroaches. This week it sounded extremely familiar.

“I suddenly have no hot water,” she said. “And my landlord said I must pay for 200 tons of it in advance as if it is some kind of valuable resource.” I perked up. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t crazy and the more she told me the better I felt in this new chapter of the Beijing Hot Water Support Group.

S is a business writer and a hell of an investigative reporter as well and after hearing the landlord out, did some in-depth investigating of her own. Ultimately she found herself cutting a covert deal with a low level employee of Beijing’s People’s Hot Water Affairs No. 12 who sold her 600 tons – enough for her and roommates until 2015, perhaps – for the price of 400.

By S’s reckoning the landlady had inflated the price by 200 yuan – but this way the landlady was cut out of the deal, the hot water employee skimmed some water and got a cut and S got more water and saved about 400 yuan.

“The landlady is corrupt. The hot water boy is corrupt. They are all corrupt!” she said.

“Now you’re part of the corruption, too,” I reminded her, smiling

“True,” she said. “But I’m also learning how business is really done in China.” She sighed. “And now I know why Google really left China. Hackers, censorship and probably hot water problems, too.”

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Animal Farm

I’m a proud father, but have only a select few select “funny cute son” stories to bore listeners with once we’ve reached the swapping family tales zone.

To save time, here are the punch lines: “Why you CLYING?”
“Father?” “Yes, son.” “I want to kill you.”
“Dad, what’s a clitoris?”
“Skorky changed colors!”

I have no cute personal pet stories, though I’ve had plenty of them, which is all by way of backing into a blog entry about my cat. Actually, my third cat in China.

People without children who tend to substitute pets for kids evoke the feeling in me that says: “gee, if you weren’t really someone I liked, I’d urge you to adopt or engage in increasingly vigorous intercourse to spare me hearing for the 27th time about the hilarious incident when you donned your rubber gloves and hip waders to give your pony-sized “Newfy” an enema in the bath tub.” (True story).

Anyway, I’m on my third adopted cat here. The last one given to me with all her trust before she had to leave China came from a Russian woman who then returned unexpectedly a month and a half after the adoption to find I’d let it escape (by accident, I swear!) and then spent nearly a week castigating me, crying, and printing and pasting up trilingual “missing cat” notices with color pictures and dragging me out after hours to search the apartment area’s floating feral cat population and field phone calls in Chinese about possible sightings.

The search did not go well though I’m assuming he’s still on China’s Most Wanted Lost Animals list in Chinese, English and Russian. So it was out of guilt, perhaps, that about a month and a half ago I heard pitiful crying outside my window on a (strike up violins) snowy Beijing night and found a half starved long haired frozen filthy orange and white cat crouched beneath a dim light, brought her in and set her up with the left-over litter, food etc that her predecessor had left behind.

She immediately made herself at home, gained weight and became a yowling love-starved monkey cat who also began pissing randomly in my sandals at night while I was in bed to show her gratitude. And yes, I was indeed ecstatic to put my feet into a puddle of cold cat piss while trying to stumble to the bathroom at 3 am with her winding around me feet and wailing like a banshee in heat.

“Want to go back outside in the snow and starve, you thankless tub of pissing furry guts!?” I’d scream at her as I squirted pints of “Mr Muscle” house cleaning disinfectant on my feet while multitasking on the toilet.

It was only this weekend with the assistance an unusually patient Chinese cat loving friend, S, that I finally decided to haul JCat or Gato as I alternately call her to a nearby non-English speaking vet for a thorough shower, shots and neutering. I’d been to two Chinese vets before.. One in Shenzhen where the vet was apparently trained on large farm animals whose spaying technique nearly killed the cat C and I had adopted. The other was with the Russian woman in Beijing, a thoroughly modern place run by a Chinese Canadian animal lover, but unfortunately way too many kilometers away for easy back and forth feline maintenance.

So I went with the local “Beethovin Beijing ILovePet Animal Hospital” a short distance from my apartment. I’d originally discovered it as the nearest source of the Most Expensive Cat Litter on the Planet and can’t say I was overly optimistic about the chances of getting the cat cleaned, claws clipped, immunized and neutered in one shot, but had delayed long enough.

Still under the distant glow of a Boulder style vet service (efficient Dr Takashi and her faithful animal loving young assistants Tiffany and Dylan) I bundled JCat/Gato into a cat carrier and with S’s assistance flagged down a feline phobic cabbie that nearly didn’t take us. He wanted the cat in the trunk or no ride, til I finally put the box on my lap, clutching it in a near fetal position.

At the vet things began to unravel fairly quickly. The “Tiffany” in my mind had been replaced by a a 14 year old sullen migrant worker who looked as if she’s prefer to eat the cat as much as clip its nails and wash it. A 30-pound Akita stuffed into a cage for a 20-pound animal yelped and barked incessantly near us, only adding to the general chaos as S, me, and the misanthropic teen struggled to hold down the squirming terrified cat.

Long story short. After a number of mishaps, including a nasty three inch scratch that drew blood across my left ring finger and palm (“Do you want a rabies shot?” S said the vet asked me. Sure, and gimme a kilo of swine antibiotics too, please) I agreed to have JCat/Gato knocked out for her beauty treatment and shots after signing a form that said there was “one chance in a thousand that the cat will die” and I wouldn’t sue for damages.

“Foreign or Chinese knock out medicine?” was the next question.
What’s the difference? Chinese is 30 yuan and it takes them longer to wake up. Foreign is 100 yuan and they wake up faster. I took the foreign option, she got the needle and then lurched around on four splayed quivering legs hissing at imaginary dog demons until she collapsed, just as a new customer came in with an unleashed lap dog that began sniffing and barking at her hairy prone carcass.

Come back in an hour, we were told. S and I repaired to a nearby Chinese fake German tavern that played bad synthesized Irish music and had some drinks while she told me about two friends of hers who had lost animals to bad vets – in the United States.

“Time to go back,” I finally said.
“Aren't you worried she'll be dead?” asked S.
“If I’m lucky, yeah...” I muttered still clutching a bloody napkin to stem my bleeding palm.

She wasn't dead but I did get an unexpected shock. The vet talked earnestly to S for what seemed like 10 minutes and then both laughed.

“It seems your 'she' cat is a he,” S told me. “Can't you tell the difference?”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"If you gotta warrant, I guess you're gonna come in"

Getting to work efficiently at about 9 am is never a sure deal from where I live. The nearest subway stop is about a mile away and taxi service is spotty at best. When I moved in about two years ago, there was a harmless, makeshift cab stand outside the apartment complex, but it was -- in classic inexplicable Chinese decision making style designed to make daily life just a little bit harder -- shut down about four months later.

I've since cut a deal with a group of three wheeler cab drivers, as in: "I pay you an ridiculous transportation fee to further the stereotype of foreigners as gullible rich suckers in exchange for one of you being out here between 9-9.30 am to take me to work in one of your rickety sputtering, wobbling death traps."

That works about 70 percent of the time. It didn't this morning and I'd already surrendered one taxi to a cranky granny and her grandchild. "Yeah, sure," I said when a slick black Honda pulled up and the passenger window rolled down to reveal another foreigner asking if I wanted to share his illegal ride to work.

The driver, a young chubby Chinese guy said 15 yuan (usual taxi rate is about 10-12) and I climbed in the back.

Similar to the old NYC gypsy cabs, unlicensed "black taxis" are rife in Beijing and were outside my Shenzhen apartment too. They generally charge a little more and I've used them many times with no problems, until today. Most of the car owners aren't from Beijing, but from small villages outside the capital who have bought the wheels with communal funds gathered by their relatives and friends to whom they remit most of what they make to pay off the loan and support their families.

About 15 seconds after I closed the door the driver began to turn to get towards the main route - bam!
A white sedan stopped in front of us, blocking further progress. No collision but the "bam" came from four plainclothes cops seeming leaping outta nowhere and hitting the black cab's hood and truck with their palms. Doors were opened without our assistance and we were rousted out. Me and the other passenger weren't in trouble, but the driver was.

He and I watched as the cops began flashing IDs and jabbered sternly at the melancholy driver, who I imagine was already saying goodbye to his livelihood and cool ride -- undoubtedly to be confiscated and turned into an "official" cop car or as a gift to the chief to give to his mistress or superior -- and wondering how he was going to pay whatever the hefty fine would be.

A cop came up to me, flipped open his ID wallet and barked: "I am police!"

"You are?" I asked, pretending to scrutinize the photo and Chinese characters. "I don't know. I cannot read Chinese."

"This is not taxi!" he said, his finger jabbbing at the Honda.

"I know," I replied, thinking on my caffeine-deprived feet. "He's our friend." I pointed to the driver who was surrounded by three other cops, looking resigned. "He takes us to work every morning. All of us work in the same area, right?" I looked at my foreign comrade and he nodded.

"Yes. Our friend, he's our friend," he said. "Our ride-to-work friend."

"FRIEND?" the cop replied. "What is 'friend's' name?"

I had to give him some points for that and began rummaging through my tattered mental Rolodex. "Uh..Li! Mr Li!" I replied giving him the most common Chinese surname. He went back to the driver, conferred for a second and damn if his name wasn't Li.

The subterfuge didn't last long, however. Further improvisation on my part failed to square with my old pal Mr Li's answers and my commuter impaired companion and I were left to find another way to the Central Business District.

"Damn," he said. "I just wanted to get to work."

"Maybe we should've just offered the cop 30 yuan to take us," I replied.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mud, blood and beer

“So what keeps you in China?” asked M, a 20something American (Erie, Pennsylvania) coworker, university certified Sinophile (and unlike me who after 5 years still can’t count reliably to 10) who is also wicked fluent in Chinese spoken and written.

I hadn’t been complaining, He was just curious. It was about 2am in a cut-rate drinks bar called Smuggler’s in Sanlitun, a largely expat, though not exclusively so, shopping, eats and adult beverages area in Beijing.

“Hmmm,” I mused, “Employment in a business that’s going down the tubes in the US. US creditors. The IRS. My Shenzhen girlfriend til she … never-mind-don’t-wanna-talk-about-it and…uh, knowing all sorts of cool, and sometimes off the rails mad batshit foreigners and Chinese. And nights like tonight. Better than movies.”

Smuggler’s is barebones with large wooden tables, benches, garage sale chairs and frequently reeking, vomit stained clogged toilets in the men’s room. It’s got a loose British theme, decorated as it is with large reproduction posters of random UK sporting events – “Football match, Swinesbury Tottenspur v Earl on Higglesbottom at Lord Marlsborough IV Greenswiddle Pitch, Shepherd’s Bush” – circa 1930something, old London subway maps, and the odd art school student painting of someone who might be either Keith Richards or just a mental patient’s self portrait.

Late weekend nights it’s often packed with a healthy mix of mostly Euro-trash and yup-scale Chinese, and that night had been especially fruitful for “chaos- and hilarity-ensued” alcohol-fueled incidents.

There were four tables in our area amd the fun began at one kitty-corner and comfortably out of bottle swinging range where eight burly male Chinese (non-orthodox) Muslims were celebrating a birthday party with many, many beers.

All seemed jovial, according to my friend who was randomly translating their loud, occasionally ribald male bonding jokes until seemingly out of nowhere one guy grabbed an empty Tsingtao bottle by the neck, swung it across the table and hammered it firmly into the chrome dome of another celebrant.

Yes, there was blood. A lot of it. And though the bottle didn’t break, some beer glasses fell and shattered on the scuffed, muddy floor as the partygoers began trying to wildly restrain the assailant while others began pressing napkins to the stunned victim’s forehead in a largely vain attempt to stop the blood spouting into the spilled beer and broken glass on the floor.

“Eww, nice one,” I commented as we watched the scrawny small Smuggler’s waiters (no bouncers, they) struggle to maintain order as the injured guy began slurring that he didn’t need to go to a hospital for what appeared to be an at least 25+ stitches gash.

We never figured out what sparked the sudden assault and no cops arrived as half the birthday celebrants began hustling the bottle swinger out, followed by another group propping up and pulling his staggering victim behind him.
Waiters began mopping and sweeping within five minutes it was as if nothing had transpired.

Twenty or 30 minutes later, two stylishly dressed and groomed men, one late 20s German and the other perhaps mid30s North American sat at the table next to us, locked eyes passionately and began talking excitedly in English, fingers fluttering just on the edge of bitch slapping. It was like tense foreplay, hard to tell if they wanted to suddenly kiss wildly, beat the bejeebus outta each other, or both.

“Kinky stuff,” my pal observed drolly. An Outkast tune on the sound system was cranked too loud to hear what they were discussing until the North American rose to shove and topple his Germanic Boytoy back-on-floor, ass-up in his chair.

Boytoy upped himself slowly, slipped briefly on his spilled beer, righted himself and confronted his swain with “I vill hit you hard!” before shoving back. A shove and half-assed punching match began between cries of “I love you! I hate you! You are my leader! I respect you but I vill hit you very hard!”

Damn, I thought. Where’s an HBO series scouting crew when we need one? Their table tipped over, chairs too, more broken beer glasses until I finally went to another room full of glottal drunken Euro accents and collared a Chinese waiter to come establish order.

He wasn’t too successful as the amateur Passion Play Lite kept playing. “I never said that!” “Oh yah, you did!”

Finally I roared in my best Colorado barroom bellow: “Take it outside!”

They did, but not before Boytoy rose on his toes to yell at his retreating partner: “You are, you are … (pause, draw breath to propel heatseeking Mach 12 in-your-face, whop-ass missile insult) SO STUPID! VERY STUPID!”

“You know,” I told M as we rehashed the havoc. “If I was back in Boulder at this hour, I’d probably either be bored in a Denny’s or asleep worrying about paying the cable bill. This is live, international and it’s free.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Broken English

One of the joys of turning Chinglish into English as a "foreign native English speaking polisher expert" are the times when the material's garble mystically morphs into prose that could be passed off as quasi-Bob Dylan or James Joyce genius.

More often its just a soundalike vocabulary or grammar slip as in a story about a ferryboat "collusion" rather than collision Or "From a distance the village looks like a piece of silver as many stoned houses makes the village look shining far away." The writer meant "stone houses," of course.

"Cold and worm dishes offer various specialties." Although, yeah, worm vs warm may not be such a stretch given the stereotype of (particularly southern Chinese) eating everything but the table legs at a banquet). Or "The colorful cultures of ethnic groups also add lust to the city." I think the writer mean "luster." Or maybe not.

And there are the times when the writer reaches for her or his trusty Chinese-English dictionary that was last updated in the 1970s by Russian editors. Overwriting is common as in this description of a charity fund raiser, not an orgy. "The evening was characterized by vibrant atmosphere ventilating godlike excitement as guests enjoy the coming together of friends."

Some may be awkwardly phrased but, yeah, you get the point. "Some netizens hold a similar understanding that 'Happiness is the feeling a cat gets when it is eating a fish; it is the feeling a dog has when it is enjoying meat, and it is the thing Ultraman feels when beating monsters!'"

And this from a description of an "ethnic minority" dance that could pass as square dance calling with a little tweaking. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—crash your neighbor's crotch and then going on to the music: one two three four five six seven.

"The more hard a guest of Primi minority was crashed on his crotch, the more warm welcome he received in our village. Three Primi young people dancing with their five Yi ethnic counterparts in the last program Dance of Crotch Crashing for the special performances of Guarding the Forest.

Outdated or terms so obscure that I can't tell if they are real or not often pop up as in "Venezuela has been declared territory free of analphabetism." I looked up analphabetism and found, no it has nothing to do with unusual sexual practices but is a real word that means illiteracy. How analphatbetic did I feel then?

A colleague of mine, James Palmer and I were discussing this recently and he came up with the "Is it James Joyce or Chinglish?" test Here's a sample Pick Joyce or Chinglish for each selection. No Googling allowed.

A.The creating cabin called as time tunnel. B. He lifted his feet up from the suck and turned back by the mole of boulders. C. He is easily taken apart from his hometown fellows when he makes some utterance. D. Wonder what kind is swanmeat.

A and C are Chinglish. B and D are Joyce.

In that spirit I offer the Dylan (who will bestow Beijing with his Bobness on April 4, thank you jeebus!) or Chinglish? quiz.

A. With 100 eyes of 100 Hamlets, the mountain crawls under the paintbrush of 100 artists. B. His hindbrain hit by electricity as he orders four treasures. C. The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face. D. With his businesslike anger and his bloodhounds that kneel,if he needs a third eye he just grows it.

A and B are Chinglish. C and D are Zimmerman.

Them sometimes it becomes near-poetry, or perhaps inspiration for a children's book. "Now the Changsha Zoo is selling tiger's whispers which raises citizens' curiosity. Some Chinese characters written with chalk on a blackboard in the zoo says, “There are some tiger’s whispers for sale, and specially for drivers and children.”

He meant "tiger whiskers" but I think tiger whispers is much better, 'specially for drivers and children. I'll take two boxes, please.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nothing Changes on New Year's Day

Worst New Year Eves ever – two in China.

1.Camp Casey, Tongduchon, South Korea, 1975. Pull frozen lonely guard duty at a 2nd Army Division ammo dump where I ring in the New Year politely defending “Freedoms Frontier” from a wizened mama-sans offer of “No 1 girl give you No 1 sucky-sucky good time.”
Resolution: Report for sick call and fake flu when assigned to guard duty on a holiday.

2.Louisville and Englewood, Colorado, 1989 Big fight about nothing in particular with soon to be ex. Displaying what can only be described as “remarkably poor judgment” I impulsively seek comfort by ingesting a dose of hallucinogenic mushrooms after domestic dispute and before we go to a party hosted by a couple I dont much care for. Spend evening ignoring wretched spouse, watching people’s faces melt and viewing MTVs Aerosmiths Rockin’ New Year with hosts’ 13-year-old son who periodically appears to catch fire.
Resolution: Get divorced before New Year. Restrict mushroom use to non-hallucinogenic salads and Campbells Cream of Mushroom soup.

3.Shenzhen, China, 2005. At 8:30 pm C impulsively decides we aren't going to a posh hotel overnight party affair for which Id already booked reservations and paid a deposit. She cites no particular reason, except “I don't have anything to wear,” switches on a Chinese TV soap opera and pouts in icy silence. I walk out without speaking and take a bus back to Hong Kong where the New Year arrives in a Wanchai bar amid forced revelry and Thai and Filipina hookers. At some point I drunkenly hit on a “lady boy,” realize my mistake and wake up guilt-ridden, depressed and alone.
Resolution: Buy C a new dress or prepare to scrutinize gorgeous flirtatious women carefully for Adams apple and stubble.

4.Beijing, China, 2010. At 1:38 am following a pleasant party sponsored by my employer at a cutting edge nightclub, my companion and I are preparing for bed at her place. My cell phone beeps with a text message alert. I open it and read New Year terms of extreme endearment from another woman of whom my gracious hostess was unaware until she “accidentally” looked over my shoulder and “accidentally” read the message. Emotional chaos and ill feelings ensue. Nobody's fault but mine. Resolution: Honesty is the best policy, especially when it comes to romance.