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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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 Culture of Smell

There’s nothing quite as delicious, comforting or cozy as the smell of fresh-baked cookies straight from the oven.

Or not.

We were at a potluck the other day with some friends. One of the ladies had come with a tin of freshly baked scones. Delicious no? She shared an entertaining story of their trip over.

She and her daughter had just finished making the scones – just pulling them out of the oven – when it was time to head over to our get together.

Picture that it’s evening,  you’re hungry,  you have a tin of freshly baked scones in your lap and you’re stuck in this hopeless rush hour Beijing traffic. What do you do? Why you pop open the tin, and take the edge of an otherwise irritating situation with a bite of scone.

Which is exactly what the two of them did. About ten minutes into the ride however, the taxi driver looks back at them in his rear-view mirror and exclaims in great disgust and irritation,

“Would you PLEASE put a lid on whatever you’re eating! I cant’ STAND that smell! It’s horrible!”

Freshly baked scones! Who on earth would take issue with freshly baked scones!

China, like many other countries, is a place where ones olfactory nerve will be readily assaulted by simply walking down the street. No doubt foreigners in the US often think similarly.

Here many street vendors sell a preserved tofu and if you’re unlucky to walk past you’ll be assaulted by its reeking odor (pictured).  People not uncommonly joke that it seems as if a lot of asian cultures eat just about anything. And all of it has a very foreign smell.

The idea that someone would eat preserved tofu (and obviously I have no proof that this taxi driver does, but there’s no reason to assume he doesn’t.) but complains about the homey goodness of fresh scones is pretty hilarious.

Just one more example of the effect of how culture trains the senses. I’ve never seen any Chinese avoiding the corners with the street vendors selling the stinky tofu – or smelly fish.  I’ve also never heard of anyone in the US complaining about the stench of a bakery in the morning. What you might have assumed was universal is … well maybe not so much. Have we just trained ourselves to like the smell of fresh-baked bread?

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Where’s my … Razor?

I know where the razor is but I need a new blade.  So I went shopping.  I needed some things for dinner, and as the local grocery store has a sizable section of toiletries, I thought I’d just make one trip of it and get it all in one shot.

Passed the aisle full of shampoo and conditioner, the aisle full of hair styling products, of diapers, and finally found the large section of men’s shaving needs, but when I continued to look I found nothing for women.  Where are all those fruity/flowery shaving creams, the pastel colored razors and the bottles of hair removal creams.

I decided that maybe I just need to go to a store with more options.

There’s an American style drug store in the basement of my apartment building.  They have everything – just like the one near you.  Creams, lotions, hair sprays, hair creams, makeup, age defiers, a teeny tiny section of men’s needs, and a whole ton of whatever else it takes to make a girl (and in this case, usually a Chinese girl) beautiful – such as skin whitening creams.

But again no women’s razor blades, not a single feminine shaving product.

What’s the deal? Do Chinese girls not shave their legs? Do they have hairy arm-pits?

I’ve never noticed that the women are very hairy.  Did I miss it?  Do Chinese women not have body hair?

I finally decided on a men’s razor and a musk scented shaving gel.  At least I’m assuming that’s what it is, since the bottles are all in Chinese.

If you happen to be in the marketing division of some feminine hygienic product line, I’d highly suggest tapping the Chinese market.  Apparently there’s 500 bajillion Chinese women who haven’t experienced the joys of raspberry flavored shaving gel!

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Hot Coke and Ginger

To me, it sounds like something spiked – something I wouldn’t trust.  When it was served to us at a small restaurant off the trail to one of the sections of the great wall, it looked like a brothy soup.

In China meals are almost exclusively served family style. Show up at a restaurant, and your group will be seated and presented with one picture filled menu – whereupon you decide together what you’ll all have for dinner. Then, throughout the evening various dishes will arrive at your table and served just like your mom would – as they’re ready and hot.  You then spend the meal picking with your chopsticks at various dishes – sometimes using a little plate you’re given to dish up a proper portion for yourself. But usually not. It’s a family thing.

After a winter hike on the great wall this weekend, our guided tour treated the group at a local restaurant where, among other traditional dishes, we were served a bowl of piping hot…. Coke. Like I said. I thought it was soup. When our little bowls were passed around and I tasted it, it was indeed warmed Coca-Cola, seasoned with ginger and a few other spices.

Amazingly enough it was actually kind of good! Something you might have at Christmas – like a mulled-wine or spiced cider. Of course all the carbonation had been fizzed out of it in heating, and to my tongue it was a bit syrupy, but the concept was quite unique and not unpleasant.  I was told it was a common beverage served during the spring festival and cold winter months.  As my feet were thoroughly soaked and cold from melted snow on the hike, it didn’t go unappreciated.

Someone else told me there was also a chilled version of the drink that is very nice in the summer – iced coke and ginger, where it’s served cold and similarly spiced.  I’ll get back to you in a few months about this one.

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One day I’ll wake up and….

I sometimes have the feeling that one morning I’ll just wake up and be able to speak and understand Chinese fluently.

This is, of course absurd.  Chinese, like any language, requires an immense amount of rote study and memorization.  In a lot of ways, Chinese is worse than most languages. The list of characters, although limited, must just be memorized. There are some clues to their meaning sometimes, but in the end, there’s no way around the heaps of memorization.

Why, you might ask, do I have this feeling? That someday I’ll just be able to speak it – or at least understand it?  This is what I mean.

There are roughly 12,000 syllables in the English language (this is by no means a scientific answer, but just my quick online research). Some are less frequently used, but for the most part English has a fairly varied phonetic structure, and leaves room for a number of ways to arrange letters to form a sound. Most letters can form both the beginning and ends of syllables (pal as well as lap are legitimate syllables), most consonants are allowed to be grouped together (squawk), and both vowels and consonants are legitimate beginners and enders of syllables.

Chinese, however, is much more strict. Only certain letters are allowed to be at the beginning of syllables and only certain ones at the end (usually a vowel, n or ng). The number of syllables that exist in chinese therefore shrinks down to around 400. 400 syllables – for an entire language!

But here’s the rub. Chinese is what we call a tonal language. Which means, if you say “Shi” with a vocal inflection upward, downward, flat, or down-then-up you can be communicating to your unsuspecting Chinese friend one of some 82 different meanings. 82! There are four different tonal marks for any syllable, and often (even usually) the same syllable with the same tonal mark can mean a few different things depending on context.

I dare you to check this out. Go to this website , and type in, say ‘shi’, and see what meanings you get out. Some two-thirds of the way down the list in the ‘falling tone’ mark you’ll see “is, are, am, yes, to be” – which is the most common meaning, along with, the number 10,  and “o’clock”.  You will notice though, that although the syllable you hear may be the same, there are again a multitude of different characters than can convey this sound when read.  It’s no easy feat.

Also, you can look at this site, which is an amateur, but fairly reasonable attempt to list out all the possible Chinese syllables. They can fit on your screen in one browser page!

What I’m getting at is this: for the untrained ear, (one that isn’t good at hearing the tones in the language – and let me tell you — It’s a trick!) when you listen to Chinese – you don’t hear too many sounds.  Along with this, I don’t usually get the impression that verbal creativity holds very much import.

In English the variety of the language lends to creative ways to say essentially the same thing, and thus makes it a very resourceful and imaginative tongue.  Chinese on the other hand, elevates the power of simplicity – the elegance of directness.  There simply isn’t such an overwhelming vocabulary in Chinese, and it seems ‘high-use’ words fill most of conversation.

So, if I just keep listening, (and golly I do a lot of listening!) one day I should be able to wake up and … you know… pretty much understand it!  Here’s to hoping!

Ha.

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City in Hiding

It’s official (my official conclusion). Beijing is unofficially (Beijing seems to be unaware of it) going into hiding.

I say this because for the last couple of days Beijing has become the victim of an enveloping haze.  City officials are apparently completely unaware, as the weather forecast (according to the official report printed and posted in the elevator of my building. How more official do you want?) indicates clear skies. It is not clear.  Au contraire, the city is slowly disappearing. The worst part is, no one seems to know why.

Sunday morning I was unable to see any kind of appreciable ‘skyline’. By the evening I couldn’t see more than a couple of blocks. Since this morning, I have been unable to see the buildings directly behind the first line of high-rise apartments on the opposite side of my street.  For the last two days you could have seen the sun clearly, but now there’s only an orange disk in the sky – like a floating egg yolk.

If the city weather committee are saying it’s ‘clear’, which, see for yourself from the photos it’s not, what is going on?  Smog? I am dubious. No doubt Beijing has its ample share of pollution and micro-particulates clogging our lungs and dusting every available surface. But if the smog were this thick, everything would have a yellowish tint. No. It doesn’t look grimy enough to be smog.

There’s no significant cloud cover – at least from what I can tell.  This weather seems to be for city-cloaking devices only.

My only thought is perhaps it’s some kind of dust-storm. I asked a local, and he didn’t think so.

“No – when Beijing gets sand storms, everything is covered in a thin layer of yellow-ish dust,” he answered.

This would imply the cloud would have a yellow tint. Which it does not.

Well folks. I don’t know what it is. The only thing I can say is, I hope we get some wind soon!

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Waiting for Spring

Walking around the park in the winter -- waiting for summer.

Beijing is mostly a summer city. Although it has lovely sections year round, it’s really about the summer when you can sit in the parks, go out on the lakes in the little boats, and enjoy walking through the temples. Most public attractions are, for all intense and purposes, outside.

This is a picture from Huhai lake, an area just to the north-west of the Forbidden City. In the winter people skate on the lakes, and even more commonly, use poles to scoot around on chairs with runners.  Now that it’s the end of February, as the ice gets a little less thick, I feel more and more that we’re all just waiting for spring. Summer dresses, and no more bulky winter coats.

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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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