Tag Archives: 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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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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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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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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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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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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Translating Your Money’s Worth

If you wish to save money, I’d suggest a job in China (one with a salary paid at western rates).  Expenses in China are relatively low – if you know where to buy and how to manage things.

You can get lodging for about 100-200 euros a month (I think that these places must not have western style toilets and the like… but if you WANT to live cheap… ).  Transportation is also quite cheap – 20 cents on the subway will get you wherever you want, except the airport, which is a comparatively extravagant at 2.50.  And if you aren’t above native fair, a tasty all-in-one dinner of noodles and vegetables can be found for an easy dollar(or less).  (All prices rounded and converted, for the readers convenience).

There are, of course ways to make life more expensive, but even if you frequent Starbucks the prices are cheaper than the same drink in Europe. But if you know where to shop, a months worth of food can be financed on 100 kuai – or 10 euros.  (Again, I round a little, for convenience. The above prices are generally given in euros, as it is about a 10/1 conversion. Add 20% for a USD).

If you want to buy western products and live off western style food, it will be more expensive, naturally, but not necessarily that much more than a typical allowance in the states.  Western products can often be twice the price as the same item found in europe or the US, but if you can use a local brand, life turns out to be quite cheap – and those indulgences that make life sweeter. You can eat dinner at a nice restaurant for $20, where the same meal could easily be 50 bucks back home.

Price Difference:

If you hand a 100 Kuai (~10 euro) note over at a grocery store, the cashier will sometimes check up to 3 marks of qualification to make sure of its legitimacy.  The note won’t even be excepted, but with some grumbling, by a taxi driver in the later hours of the evening (the 100 RMB note is the most commonly counterfeit bill).

An interesting situation arises when you start to become more familiar with the currency. As a merchant one would never look twice at a $20 note in the US – it’s too small for counterfeiters to make a meaningful profit on, and is relatively safe from that perspective. Twenty bucks is still a small enough currency to be quite missed, but not mourned, were it to be lost (depending, of course, one one’s own salary).  Comparatively, a 100 RMB is 1/10th the yearly salary of a well positioned professional Chinese, in a western company.

When I think about this, I begin to feel a bit differently about the note than just its immediate conversion value. I value a 20 dollar bill, and am sorry when it’s gone, but this is a larger amount of money than a 100 Kuai, and the 100 Kuai seems even more important.

It’s similar to when you learn a second language – at a certain point you stop translating words literally, and begin to have a feel for them in their own right. You stop using equivalence in your head, (“Ein bisschien = a little”) but start to feel the meaning of the word in its own language. I no doubt have a deflated sense of worth for the RMB than most Chinese, but I have started to notice a valuation of the money in it’s own right, separate from that of its USD equivalency.

Before I leave this note, I realize I should be more specific in the words I use for Chinese currency.  Kuai is the local Chinese measure word for ‘a dollar’ (“Ni you liang kuai ma” = “Do you have 2 RMB”), however the official term is the Yuan, and the more ‘financial’ term is the RMB (short for Renmenbi). Kaui = dollar, mao = dime, etc.

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