Author Archives: Katherine

About Katherine

Having graduated from University in the Midwest United States, with a degree in Physics, I moved to Beijing China. I am now looking for gainful employment, and in the mood of being unemployed and in an interestingly new location, have decided to at least take part in those small pleasures that one sometimes puts off when in school -- like say -- writing. Be forewarned, the topics may themselves be mundane, but the perspective of the little things in life are often unique enough when viewed in a foreign country. Especially one foreign enough as China.

Read Before You Sign

Always read before you sign.

Whoever said that never opened a bank account in China. For all I know, I just signed away all my worldly possessions and put a lean against all future earnings. I could be penniless at this very moment and not even know it!

I have to open a  local bank account for my job.  Apparently all one needs is a passport and 20 RMB (~2 euros).

But it is a creepy feeling. I suppose it’s okay because Bank of China is the second largest bank in China, and the 5th largest in the world (by market capitalization value) [quote from Wikipedia].  A bank can’t exist long if they start running profits by getting foreigners to sign away their first born child because they didn’t read all the papers properly.

That and this is where my employer told me to open an account.  I suppose there are English translations of every paper I signed.  There must be.  It’s just a rather creepy feeling to put your signature down about 20 times and not be able to read anything but the heading on the page.

We’ll see. If anything creepy or unnecessary starts happening, I’ll know where to start looking.

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The 50-cent Party

or “五毛党” (wǔmáo dǎng)
**a follow up to  “White Screen of Death”**

Apparently there is a ’50 cent party’ whose members cruise the internet, posing as normal citizens, who post on internet forums in the favor of government and The Party. For every pro-Party comment, they are allegedly paid 50 RMB cents (< $0.75).

It’s so Big Brother! Interesting that China boasts having the largest population of internet users (about 420 million), it also has the largest number of Internet Wardens and the most complex and ‘largest’ firewall (The Great Firewall of China).

The service isn’t exclusive to the government though. According to “Mercury Brief,” a news blog, for about eight thousand US dollars you can have a similar kind of online smear campaign against any of your major competitors.  In a matter of two months the first few pages of sites from a search engine referring to your competitors product can be made to be dominantly negative information.

In the US, of course, the Federal Trade Commission recently (oct. 2009) produced an 81-page document on the transparency  of word-of-mouth marketing.  My hunch is China doesn’t pay too much attention to these types of things.

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Behind the Great Firewall of China

The White Screen of Irritation, not to be confused with the ‘Blue Screen of Death’ (an occurrence seen less and less often as computers become more stable and crash less often). The White Screen of Irritation is the result of visiting a blocked website. Blocked, of course, by the Chinese authorities who deem certain sites unsafe for the comrades they seek to protect.

According to the Wiki page on the subject, China is rumored to have an Internet Police force of more than 50,000.  The Office for the Neutralization of Critical Online Opinion (yes, I made that one up) not only blocks specific sites, (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) they also monitor the activity of various blogs and online forums. A critical comment is said to have a life of only a few minutes.

I found it ironic that although Wikipedia is not outright blocked, the page on China Censorship is drastically cut down.  According to the ‘contents’ box there should be some 10 major points in the document.  My browser only loaded 2.

 

This is, of course, when it works. An even more common screen than the “Requested URL could not be retrieved” notice is the “Your connection has been reset” frame.  (Ironic that this screen pops up a lot when I’m looking for online commentary on censorship in China.)  I often wonder if these are the signs that a site has been blocked, but not so openly.

The irony of this is that it seems the only real result seems to be a drastically slowed down the internet. Pages that are allowed sometimes take a couple tries to load. Don’t think this is just because I am on a bad connection that I’m complaining.

 

If you want the information, is fairly easy to get at it in spite of the blocks. A simple proxy server can be found for free, or at a small price, and ‘freedom of information here you come’!  They may maintain the largest firewall in the world, but a wall can only block so much.  My inclination is that it blocks those people who they really shouldn’t be worried about — the casual surfer — but the true deviants are smart enough to get through. These are the ones that they should worry about. The fact of the matter is – if I can get on Facebook, and I’m no hacker, just about any normal person can.

Now, let’s see if I get some officers of the PLA knocking at my door.  Maybe they’ll just block this page.

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Have You Seen My Donkey?

These are the exact words – well, in Chinese of course, of the man pictured at below.

While out with a group for a weekend hike in the countryside surrounding Beijing, we stumbled upon this character. Apparently his donkey had escaped him. Perhaps it was the concept that ones transportation would up and leave you that made me chuckle. The pro’s of an electric donkey seemed all too apparent. Power him down and you’d never be caught unaware and with an escaped donkey again!  It was unclear how this particular old man had lost his donkey.

For the rest of the hike, every time we saw a donkey, we wondered if it was his.  Perhaps we should all take a moment and be thankful that, barring thievery, we usually find our car right were we left it the night before.

Donkeys are the predominant mobile working tool of the area. Usually there are only one or two for a village area – as far as I can see – but they are still very commonly used for lugging fire wood, clearing fields of branches and transporting heavy loads. In the hilly areas where roads are scarce, they are just the tool to get around the terraced fields.

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A Man and His Guinea Pig

There are some things you just shouldn’t get between.  A mama bear and her cubs, a football fanatic and the TV during the super-bowl but most of all, a man and his Guinea Pig.

Just another sight seen while out for Sunday afternoon dinner and coffee.

Small pets are something of a popular item in the city. When walking in the morning (and just about any other time of day) I often see old men walking their small dogs but this was the first time I’d seen a man and a guinea pig.

In the photo the gentleman gives off a slightly unhappy air. This is a mistake of the camera. When I asked if it was okay to take a photo, he proudly smiled and gestured with glee his approval of the idea. His pride that his guinea pig was being singled out for such an honor was very clear.  He encouraged me to come closer to get a better shot.  I must admit, it is a rather handsome guinea pig.

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Someone’s in Trouuuuble!

I don’t know who – and my hunch is it’s not the guy in charge – but in case you think this is how trucks are supposed to stand…  it is not.   Someone obviously didn’t properly counter-balance the truck with the load.

This is really not necessarily unique to China – but I thought it was an interesting moment to share.

 

The trick is…  how are they going to fix it? Although it’s probably unstable enough to swing back if you lifted up the extended bar with say a crane…  it would not be good for the truck to plop right back down the way it went up…

 

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But I’m Sure You’re Nice!

or:  America – The Country You Love to Hate

Europe According to American Sterotypes

 

I understand. It’s like that pretty girl in high school who didn’t notice you because you were too short and normal, maybe even geeky. She never gave you any pause, and you still hate her even though you’ve long since left high school and moved on to a successful career making iPhone apps.

This is how it sometimes feels to be an American, like I’m part of a snobbish beautiful family everyone loves to hate. Usually this jealousy is shown in good humor, but sometimes with only a guise at proper decorum.

The other day I was talking with a new friend from Down Under. She was an engineer and we’d hit it off talking about scienc-y things as we both had similar backgrounds. After having spent a good deal of the afternoon together, a Chinese girl came to join the conversation.

“Where are you from?” she asked.
“The US.”
“Yes, but where in the US?”
“Minnesota.”
[blank stare – she had no idea where that is. Even many Americans only know Minnesota as ‘one of those states between New York and California].
“It’s in the north, very near Canada. Very cold.” I answered.
“Ooh…” the Chinese girl said – maybe/maybe not understanding the picture.
“That’s why she’s normal,”  my ex-pat friend added, as if my proximity to Canada made me nearly a Canadian, and thus more palatable.

I assure you that I’m no more Canadian for living in the north, than I am Mexican, for having lived in California. I’m as pure-bred American as they come.

It baffles me the liberty with which the rest of the western world insults or bad-mouths Americans – to their face! Even ones they would also call friends.  So often it’s ‘Well, you know, American’s are big bullies who only act in their own interest, but I’m sure you’re nice!”

Thank you, but if it weren’t for us (and assume here I’m talking to a European, as I usually am) you’d all be speaking German! That’s right. Who pulled your butts out of WWII?  (This answer of course only works for a non-German. There are other appropriate responses for my dear Deutsche friends – like but not limited to, “Who financed the rebuilding of your entire economy after it was blown to smithereens?”)

It’s like insulting members of your own family. Ya, we all have some boisterous annoying relative we wish would change their name, but you’re going to insult me, based on their bad behavior, to my face? I would never, after having already established an amicable relationship, tell my new Aussie friend that “Man, You Aussie’s! I can’t trust you criminal bastard children with anything! But I’m sure you’re nice!” [Let us not judge our Aussie friends from their criminal colonial origins…] Nor would I tell a fellow French ex-pat “You’re all so lazy! When’s the last time you had a full length working day? – but I’m sure you’re not like that!”

Country stereotypes abound for every nation, not just the US, but I would never judge an individual based on his country of origin! And I would certainly never make such comments about his home to his face! So why is it okay to do so to Americans?

I only ever feel like this among western ex-pats. I usually don’t get anywhere near that kind of country-based antagonism from the locals. On their part it’s mostly interest and mystification. There are still few enough westerners in the area that the novelty of interacting with one hasn’t yet worn off — at least as far as non-professional interactions go. Also – I think they are less likely to separate the foreigners by country of origin. It’s usually more ‘Westerner’ vs. Asian.

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My Favorite Things: Noodles From the Basement

or

“Why it’s cheaper to eat out”

There are many fast and easy options for eating out here in China. My particular favorite take-out dish is pictured above. For a scant 6RMB (less than a dollar), you can get a generous portion of ramen like noodles, freshly juliened cucumber, and a deliciously light peanut sauce.  One of the charms of this dish is how refreshing it is. I prefer it cold.

In the beginning it was a trick to figure out how to get them to make the sauce. The grocery store puts out these little KFC style buckets with the noodles and cucumber, and then often has a plastic tub with small plastic bags of sauce next to them. You can pick up a noodle, and grab a sauce and you’re off. If, say, you get off work late and all the sauce is gone, but you still want the noodles, you have to ask the little guy behind the counter to make you more.

A trick.

If you are unfortunate enough to mis-convey the message to him, he might plop the noodles with some other vegetables in a water bath and cook them again – adding some other random sauce. Cooked cucumber isn’t very good, and it’s rather sad to watch it meet its end in a boiling bath.  Lately, I have been more successful and often get what I need. The little old man behind the counter is starting to predict what I’ll ask him.

Someday, perhaps when I leave China, I might try my hand at making the sauce myself. From what I gather it’s a mixture of peanut puree, vinegar, a touch of red pepper oil, a touch of soy sauce, and fresh crushed peanuts to top it off.

The simple truth is, usually it’s cheaper to eat out, or ‘take-out’, than it is to cook at home.  The majority of dishes in my arsenal are western, and thus need western type ingredients, which are naturally more expensive to buy here and are not always worth the price. I got cottage cheese once to make lasagna, and although it tasted okay in the finished dish, it was nothing I’d choose to eat fresh. That lasagna was probably the most expensive pasta dish I’ve ever made in my life!

If you can get a delicious meal-in-one dish in the basement for under a dollar, why spend a fortune on cooking? And when you’re tired of the noodles, you can always opt for a sit down dinner in a restaurant. Two people will set you back a whole $16. For a very nice meal, at an even fancier place, you might even pay $25!

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The Beijing Bike

 

China used to be a country where bicycle traffic jams were infamous.  Now that more and more people have attained an economic level that makes it possible to own their own cars, the sight of bicycles on the road is waning.  However, in comparison to any western city, Beijing still has a large population of bicycle commuters.

One thing that is especially popular, and perhaps is part of the growing affluence of even the lower classes of the city, is the electric bike. Never have I seen it in such numbers!  Most bikes look like they’ve really seen a lot in their time: sand storms, heavy wind, a few bangs and wrecks – yet through it all, a highly treasured possession.

For a mechanic here in the city, the hammer seems to be their favorite tool – out of alignment? things falling apart? Give it a good whack with the ol’ sledge, and surely everything will correct itself.  Along this vein the Beijing bike often looks like it’s been hammered and beat back together many a time. Perhaps as a later result of these do-it-yourself fixes duct tape and rope are heavily used to keep things together.

If you ever visit Beijing don’t miss the Forbidden City, and Tian Anmen Square – but also keep a sharp eye out for the locals transportation

***Note*** This photo may look like an extreme example, but I assure you – it is not.

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Come Magnificent With Me!

You can’t help but love Chinglish.  It’s so much fun.  I mean this in the most respectful and affectionate way.  The fact that so many things even have English translations is so very considerate. How often do you drive down the road and see a sign with Mandarin characters advertising a new park and child play area? That’s right. Not many.  The delightful way these signs and posters are often translated makes for a language almost its own. Of course, I’m speaking of ‘Chinglish’.

There are signs in English for a reason – if you’re going to advertise, you better speak the language of your target audience. If you want western tourists to use your travel services it would be best to not use exclusively Chinese.

It probably won’t be too long and the typo’s will be corrected, the grammar fixed , and all the signs corrected by a native speaker. Until then, I will revel in the mis-use of whatever online translator they’re using.

Walk down the street and see a little hole-in-the-wall store front with a sign “Cigarettes – Wine – Beer – Perfume – Firm “.  What on EARTH is ‘Firm’?  Firm what?? The friend I was walking with suggested maybe it had been a mis-translation (obviously) and they meant something like “Corporation” – not ‘firm’ as in the adjective (‘firm’ tofu), but the noun (law ‘firm’).  Even if this is so, it was a funny way to write the sign. “Cigarettes – Beer – Shop”.

The title of this post I saw on a billboard while taking a taxi across town. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to get a picture. The billboard had a cartoon character girl leaping in the air with the caption, “Come magnificent with me!!”  Apparently, magnificent-ing is exactly what happens when you visit a nearby park that features not just a playground but small amusement rides and paddle boats and whatever else one can do in a monster sized park.

Let me share some of my other recent favorites :

 

I couldn’t really decide if it was a translation flaw … or if it really IS a foot massage museum!  I really want to think it’s a ‘foot massage salon‘ or something of the type. I haven’t yet worked up enough courage to take the steps leading down the basement and find out – I’ll get back to you though. Perhaps it would be even more amazing if it were a foot massage museum. Apparently there IS a museum of ‘tap water’ (perhaps they meant ‘plumbing’?) – I saw it in a guide book.

 

While walking along one of the lake-parks near the forbidden city I spotted this sign. Interesting because according to the pictures one must “Not pollute the water”, then “Not leave your children unattended” and finally, “do not litter”. However according to what the text is telling me (as it is somewhat difficult to read from the photo) I must “Keep the lake clean”, and “Behave in a proper manner” (This phrasing is especially Chinese), and “Behave in a proper manner”.  Not surprising that in a culture where ritual and deference to one’s elders is so important, “behaving in a proper manner” is twice as important as not littering.

 

The third sign I found in the window of a woman’s clothing shop. Quite frankly, I’m more than a little baffled as to what it is trying to tell me. In their defense, it’s not so important what it says because the concept of walking in the shop and buying something was pretty self-evident. But these are the most confusing types of signs.  Sometimes you see words in English, and the message they’re trying to convey is just completely dumbfounding. “What do you suppose I’m supposed to do/not do ??”.

Frankly, I magnificent that I am daily entertained by the Chinglish language. I’ll probably be back to you soon with further discoveries. Until then, do remember to Behave In a Proper Manner!

 

****UPDATE****

I checked the Chinese characters for the Foot Message Museum – and guess what! It really IS a museum!  crazy! Apparently the last character, 馆 “guan”, means museum.

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