Category Archives: life in 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 End is Near: How Japan Will Nuke Us All – Or Not

Editor’s Update: Because there are times when sites like WordPress are blocked or difficult to access, KateWhitney occasionally cannot properly access the site to publish her posts. For this reason I help her upload photos, and sometimes repost things she emails me. Though I am listed as the author, the following is her work.

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CLARIFICATION: a Nuclear melt down is NOT when the fuel rods in a nuclear reactor become SO hot that they fuse together in a molten mass, and melt through their containment vessel, and continue to melt through the Earth until they reach the core of the earth, at which point we no longer are able to control their reactions. Which as a consequence of the lack of human intervention, they reach a critical mass and blow the earth apart in an apocalyptical nuclear explosion that ends life as our universe knows it. That last sentence is mine – it seemed like the natural progression of the idea.

This is the explanation I overheard in a conversation yesterday. Please, if you don’t know what something is, don’t make up an answer. It makes you look ridiculous. As Abraham Lincoln put it — “Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, then open it and remove all doubt.”

Frankly, if it the overheard scenario were the case, it would be most helpful for us if the spent fuel rods would sink into the core of the earth. It would solve all our problems. The earth would act as a natural barrier to the radiation, protecting us, and eventually when the rods reached the molten lead deep down, they would cease to be an issue.

This, my dear hominoids, is what Wikipedia was invented for; to eradicate ignorance and prevent the spread of its destructive influence. Phrases like “I’m not sure but I THINK….[insert baseless idea here]” should no longer be a part of our daily diction, as we have no excuse for not being adequately informed. If you find yourself too busy to keep up with the situation — just don’t talk about it! There’s no shame in just not sharing an opinion you haven’t yet had the time to verify.

As China is so close (~2,500 km) to the site of the Japan accident, there has been a sudden fear of imminent destruction by radioactive fall-out. Never mind that the wind doesn’t blow this direction from Japan.

But undeterred by this rational people have taken to rushing to the stores to buy salt. There progression of this idea is this: potassium iodide is the chemical compound used to treat people who are exposed to or will be exposed to iodine radiation. Potassium iodide also happens to be one of the chemicals used to ionize table salt. Thus it is found in minority quantities in any salt you buy.

If you buy enough salt, you consequently end up with the useful dosage of KI (potassium iodide). The question that remains to be answered, is how people intend to extract the KI to make it a useful dosage in the event of a meaningful amount of radiation floating across the China Sea? Salt, in large quantities, is lethal. For a 220 lb male, this is about 300 grams — or about 12 ounces of salt.

Table salt consists of something like 0.006% potassium iodide (wiki page on salt). This means that in 300 grams of salt, one only gets about 0.018 grams of KI. Incidentally, if my calculations are correct, this is roughly a single dose for radiation exposure. Unfortunately, if you we’re somehow able to intravenously ingest the salt, you also just killed yourself from your lethal dose of salt. ( I say intravenously because of course there was now way you were just going to swallow about 12 ounces of table salt!)

Really, what you should do is read this VERY helpful article on nuclear fallout and the use of potassium iodide.

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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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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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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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3’s and 2’s and 4’s Oh My!

Painting by Travis Coburn

In the US when you give out a phone number, the digits are arranged in a certain formula.  One digit country code, three digit area code, three digit local code, and four digit personal number.  Something like this: +1 (315) 234 – 1234.

Because this formula is universal in the US, it’s easy to see immediately if there’s a number missing. You also have a certain natural rhythm with which to say the number. Not to mention that a set of three numbers is a lot easier to look at than a list of 11.

I had an American number once that had three sets of doubles (e.g. 717 – 22 – 44- 55 – 9). I always thought it was rather clever to spout off the number like that – by highlighting the doubles. Saying it like this however created such turmoil I had to abandon practice.

“Are you sure that’s the right number of digits?!?” They’d ask, almost panicked.

It seems this pattern is absent here in China. The numbers are arranged in arbitrary sets – however the user has a whim to give them. Very often you see a phone number, and it’s just a list of 11 digits.  I have to use my finger to run over the number and make sure I’ve copied each one. A long list of numbers is overwhelming when jammed together (e.g. +8613898731789).   To add to this confusion cell phones have a different number of digits.

I encourage you to do some wikipedia-ing (not a good noun to verb… perhaps wiki-ing?) about the algorithm for how the numbers are determined and developed.

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The Russians Are Here

“Как вы сегодня?” he said to me.

The funny thing about Russian is – if you’re not expecting it and someone says just one phrase to you – it’s not overtly obvious that it’s not English. At least for a sentence that short.

“Excuse me?” I replied. I had just finished a long workout and was headed back up to my room to take a much-needed shower. Self-conscious of my smell, I took care to keep my arms down, hoping it would stop the odor from wafting up in the now crowded elevator.

“Angliĭskoĭ” he returned “uh – English?”.

“American” I replied – not sure if he’d asked my nationality or my language due to his thick accent.

“Ah, where do you live?” he said, after taking a moment to consciously switch over to speaking English.

“Here — ”.

“Yes – but I mean. In Amerika –”

It always sounds so Old World when people use America as a noun. The states, the US – both common words with which we lovingly call home. But America? It sounds like you’re getting off the boat at Elis Island. Since it is technically the description of all the land from those wanna-be’s to the north we affectionately call Canadians, to the ancestral lands of the Aztecks.

He’s was 50-something with that slightly wrinkly but completely hair-free kind of sturdy older man look that gives the strong impression he still has the juice of a 25 year-old. It looked like he and his slightly younger (40’s) associate were on a real-estate tour with a middle-aged Chinese woman. The fact that I’d walked on the elevator seemed to completely disrupt his conversation with the other two. The Chinese lady, after a quick glance at me, continued on her conversation with the other man, almost as if she was irritated that I’d caused the disruption.

Don’t look at me! I just want to take a shower! I thought.

“But where in Amerika are you from?” he asked, only to draw out this awkward moment.

“Minnesota – up north”  (If you must know. We’re Sister-Cities with one of your coldest Siberian cities – probably because we both have something for that insane cold.)  “Are you living in Beijing?”

“Yes. We have buzinezz,” he said to me while glancing over at his partner.

I don’t know if his friend really looked at me, or if it was just across the elevator at his older associate. If he did, it wasn’t for more than a half a second, but in that quick glance, and the one he gave his partner, I saw that “I know where this goes” kind of look. The ‘you’re as ruthless as a saber-tooth tiger, and as mean as a mama bear separated from her cub, but the minute a skirt walks by, you completely lose all focus’. The ‘I think you’re a fool, but there’s no stopping you’ kind of look.

“Well” I said as the doors started to open to my floor, “I hope you’re not too rich, or too powerful. I would imagine it a great weakness that your Achilles heal is so obvious.”  Unfriendly men would know all too easily how to manipulate you.

I left the cramped feeling elevator with a nod to his associate in a ‘good day’ kind of way and walked down my hall.  I laughed a little to myself because no one from their group had remembered to call their floor. The irritated agent leaned across the two men and pressed the button when she realized the absentee mistake.

Epilogue: All this is true. Except for my parting comment. It was exactly what I was thinking, but my floor wasn’t high enough up to make the ride long enough, to give me chance enough to say it. But how often do we get to say just what we’re thinking?

It is not too much of a surprise to run into a few Russians, and not even a Russian speaking Chinese lady. There is a substantial Russian community here in Beijing. Of course, as Beijing is the governmental center of China, all the embassies are in this city so in general there are a variety of ex-pats. However Russia, I imagine because of its strong ties of old, has probably the largest single body of foreigners.  Indeed, a good deal of Russians give the impression they’re second generation, and that they’re here to stay. (But don’t quote me. This isn’t a body of people I interact with too much).

There’s a whole section of Beijing, not too far from where I live, that is basically Little Moscow. There’s an entire shopping mall filled with shops that cater to Russians (furs!) and Russian restaurants. The whole area of town even advertises its shop wares in Russian, not Chinese or English.  It’s an awful strong nod to the days of not too long ago when China and Russia were palls and the West, specifically the US, were the enemy.

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Why I struggle to write chinese (reason #14)

My handwriting can be described as ‘school boy’ at best. Not in any way what I would think of as feminine. The grace and elegance I once tried to cultivate in other areas of my life have somehow eluded me when it comes to my pen.

This is of course nothing unique to me, when you consider it in light of my generation of techies. Where once school marms spent hours on the proper instruction of penmanship, I remember being set behind computer programs like “Mavis Beacon.” I scrambled to punch in numbers for an imaginary conveyor belt of food item prices, and fumble for the correct keys while trying to out-type an imaginary opponent in a virtual race-car that ran on words per minute instead of gasoline.

Needless to say, learning to type took over the time that would have been spent in the practice of attractive penmanship.  It’s more than that though. My typing speed outstripped my handwriting in those early years before adolescence, and now I find it ever so tedious to use a pen and paper – which means I avoid all practice. When it comes to writing out thoughts and stories – a pen is out of the question. Thinking is  easier when not hindered by the medium being used to record it.

Lately, I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend more time studying Chinese.  With the study of Chinese comes of course the study of the characters. Oh China, how you do torture me!  When I was studying French at least I could spell out the word, even if I hadn’t a clue what it meant. If I wanted to do more than just pronounce it I could easily look up anything in a dictionary. Chinese, on the other hand, seems very much a binary kind of language. You either know it or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, ya ain’t gonna fool no one.

You really do start from the bottom with Chinese. Although learning to read has always been difficult this is an entirely different planet. You either know it or you don’t. No sounding it out like a pussy. To it’s credit, once you’ve learned the first 500 basic symbols, there aren’t going to be too many more unknown words to you. Unlike in English, you’re much less likely to stumble across random words like sesquipedalian and poppysmic. Linguistic creativity is an art the Chinese language doesn’t look highly upon.

“You think Chinese is hard!!” my mandarin teacher told us once in class.

“You make English sooooo dIIficult!! Why so complicated!? Chandelier, giraffe?! All these extra words. In Chinese, we don’t have chANdelEAr. We use ‘fancy lamp’. And Giraffe!! What is girAAffe? We just have ‘long-necked deer’. So simple! You only need to learn first set of characters, and you know all language”.

It’s true. I never once sat in Chinese and thought ‘Dang. I wish they’d make it simple like English.’ It is all rather straightforward. That is, if you’ve got the rote memorization thing down.  That is a skill I, as a physicist, eschewed in my undergraduate career. Unfortunately. It’s also a skill that is no longer cultivated in American schools, and as a result…  I have a lot of practice to do.

So if you’ll excuse me…  I need to go memorize a list of characters.

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The Trial of Toiletry Purchasing

For the last couple of weeks every time I get into bed my body begins to itch violently from extreme dryness. Last night, before I could fall asleep, I filled my last lucid thoughts of how delicious it would feel to have a bath in a tub of olive oil.  The green grassy smell and the soothing quality of the ointment.

I’ve used handfuls of lotion lately but it doesn’t seem to help.  I’ve found the dryness of my skin is considerably worse after I’ve been in the chlorinated pool and hot tub.  No matter how I shower afterward to remove the chlorine, or the amount of lotion I lather on, I cannot find reprieve.

There is a scrub at my parent’s house that I would die to have here – I think it’s sugar  in a rich oily base.  There it seemed a bit excessive but here it would be perfect.

“So go out and get something,” you say.  I would, I’ve looked. But all the toiletry bottles only have  descriptions in Chinese. There is sometimes a two-word phrase on a bottle of whatever that gives the most basic sign of what it might be – conditioner, shampoo – but in general the mystery is so deep when it comes to personal hygiene products that it’s quite baffling.

I wanted a leave in conditioner for my hair, as it too is suffering, but I always find that ones that contain alcohol always do more damage. Good luck figuring that out on an ingredients label!

Next time you’re standing in the shower look at a bottle of shampoo and think how hard it might be to figure out if it was all printed in Chinese characters!

I ended up getting a brand I recognized of something-or-other, that was in a bottle I remembered seeing in the states, but who knows what it really was. Perhaps “hair straightener, guaranteed to strip all moisture out of hair and leave it stick straight”?

I consoled myself with the fact that most conditioners do about the same thing, it’s more how you use them.  When have you ever read a bottle that says something you don’t want?  “Moisturizing curls”, “silky smooth”, “weather repair” – in the end you realize it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not really the bottle of hair relaxer.

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