Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Technology night at Maison Terry and other stories

After my shopping expeditions I decided to address a couple of looming technology challenges. The first was the configuration of a little 3Com travel router that I had purchased back when I joined this program but for a variety of reasons had never bothered to turn on. I lugged it along on some of my earlier trips figuring it would give me the freedom to sit anywhere I liked in my hotel room, untethered from the Ethernet ports that are typically located by the desk. It was a nice plan that never came to fruition. Now though, with ample time on my hands I figured it was time to master the thing, and that was precisely what I tried to do. Up to the point where I couldn’t get off the configuration screen.

It’s unusual for me to be stymied by a piece of technology. I rarely read instructions preferring to forge ahead born on the wings of the firmly held belief that I am smarter than most gizmos and the design engineers that created them. And usually I am, but this one threw me a couple of curve balls and so I was reduced to searching the web for the instruction manual for a discontinued product, but there it was and after 15 seconds of reading it I was up and running.

The washing machine was another story. This place one and it’s a cute little R2D2 of a thing residing in its own little ceramic tiled vault off the kitchen. It didn’t look terribly threatening there squatting in its little white home, and of course a washer should be obvious enough, except the fact that the control panel is completely in Chinese. Well, except for the brand which is in English, the designer obviously feeling that it was more important to advertise the manufacturer in universal terms and less so how to run the thing. Having conquered the router though, I figured I had proven myself to be worthy of my spot at the top of the electronics food chain and so I hatched a plan to do an empty cycle by punching buttons and observing.

Easy enough, it only took an unmemorable sequence of this one and that one to get it to fill. On a roll, I decided to throw caution completely to the wind and toss some clothes in, why waste the water? Unfortunately, it didn’t like having its lid opened because it chirped three times and screeched to a halt. Okay, so I’ll close the lid – nothing. So I’ll push some buttons – nothing. It just sat there with my clothes floating in sudsy water and did, nothing. I decided to wait, standing there staring at the thing formulating my escape plans, things like calling the concierge and tossing my soap soaked socks into the tub in humiliation, but just when I was about to panic, it shook itself to life and started agitating. It did have a new tone though, one of “you think you’re so smart with that big brain case, don’t you?”

I went off and did some things and listened, realizing after a while that it was still agitating when it seemed like it should have been spinning or rinsing or something. So I opened the lid, was again chirped at and realized we were about to go into another cycle of me staring and it refusing to work. This time though I had its number and sure enough it started back up after a decent face saving pause. Tired of waiting, I pushed a couple of buttons and managed to move the illuminated LEDs a couple of steps to the right and sure enough it started to drain. From there, a rinse and a spin and the clothes were done. I’m not so sure what I will do next time, but it does seem that I am now minimally laundry capable.






One of the funny things about working over here on this side of the world is the huge offset in time relative to the West. Our day’s meetings begin at the crack of dawn, while they fall as the day is winding down home. The result is sometimes what I had today, a straight run from 6 AM until 9, and then nothing for the rest of the day. Not a problem, just a different way of managing your work day. Of course it’s funny when you’re sitting at your desk at 5 PM and it occurs to you that you’ve already put in a 12 hour day, part of which was spent in your pajamas eating breakfast.

Speaking of which, I had purchased some yogurt the other day (you might recall my sad story about some of it ending up on my shoes) figuring that it would make a perfect breakfast on days like this. Good reasoning until I discovered that my room has no spoons, and eating yogurt with a fork may be technically feasible with the products I’m used to, but it sure isn’t here. Chinese yogurt is more like syrup than the somewhat dense stuff we get at home. Yesterday I drank it, today I plopped it on a bowl full of Choco Muesli and rendered it forkable.

Part of this morning’s agenda was a trip to the Dalian port to inspect some computer crates that were reported damaged. It was an interesting trip; the area was a mix of residential towers on one side of the street and giant container ships and cranes on the other. Off on the far side of an seemingly endless expanse of apartment towers were the red roofs of one of the places I had inspected on my house hunting trip a month or so ago. Along the water a couple of old villages were holding out against the encroaching industry, half the buildings in ruins and the others still inhabited. Little dirt lanes wound between the buildings, populated by roving bands of chickens and the occasional mangy dog, including one sad Chow puppy, missing fur in most places and dangling a piece of broken chain. Dogs like this are heartbreaking here, because you can’t help them and you know they are more than likely not going to survive the day. You really end up just looking the other way.

As we drove along I scrutinized the balconies of the buildings, the day’s laundry out drying (or freezing) in the morning’s frigid sunlight. Joining the clothing at one home was a little group of a dozen Flounder, pinned to the line next to the sheets.

This area is on a small peninsula that sticks down from the main portion of the development zone. I had been sort of scoping it out on Google Earth as a place that might provide a decent cycling route, but having seen it now at ground level I was instantly reminded that the view from space often doesn’t tell the whole story. Between the trucks and the cars and the traffic in general there is little chance I’ll be riding down here.

Having mastered the entrance to the port facility (the guard had to leave his shack to show us how to use the entrance key card) we sped among giant warehouse holding bonded goods coming into and going out of the country. We ended up on the far side of one of the buildings, completely deserted and somewhat sinister, conveying the idea that we were a threesome of Corsican mobsters about to exchange a trunk load of heroin for a suitcase full of cash. The place just reeked of contraband, cash and top level crime, notions that were reinforced when a couple of cars showed up to drop off the guys who would let us into the building.

We returned to work just in time for lunch so we parked and headed across the frozen grounds to the college cafeteria. Our lunch is subsidized here and so it makes for a quick way of grabbing some food without involving the drivers or enduring the haul back to town. Today was my first time and it was an eye opener.

The first thing that grabs you is the fact that you’re once again trying to walk on shiny marble tiles covered in snow. The second is the big crush of students heading to the same place, up and over a steep pedestrian bridge that crosses the main road. That crush really assaults you when you get inside. The food is offered on three floors and the general consensus is that the second floor is better than the first. So up I went, in tow to the other, more experienced diners.

It was better up there, but I wouldn’t call it friendly to people that don’t like noise or crowds. You grab a pair of chopsticks from big tubs, the eating end sticking up and the holding end standing in gray water. One of the reasons for sleeves I guess. The food stalls are laid out in a big “L” and you jostle your way up to whatever one seems to have the food you want. Hot pots, regular Chinese fare, boiled salad, soups – lots of choices. I took the easy way out and ordered a beef hot pot from the first place I found. The woman behind the counter hands you a little plastic tab with a number on it and you wait until it’s called. Of course, she ended up taking pity on me and motioning me over when mine was done as there was no chance I would have recognized my number being called.

Word has it that you want to eat as early as possible because the cleanliness of the place declines as the lunch hour rolls on. I found that assessment to be true, if perhaps a slight understatement. The tables were composed of plywood circles, about 6 feet in diameter and set on legs that must have been used for something else in their past. The chairs came in pairs, held together by beams and shared frames, clearly meant to be used with a rectangle, not something circular. But they worked in their own little way. Our table was littered with shiny glitter from some sort of celebration. We sat down as three students finished up and departed, leaving the inedible parts of their lunches – bones, gristle, stems – in little piles next to where their plates had been.

My hot pot was delicious, a steaming concoction of thick glutinous noodles, strips of bean curd, slices of salty beef floating in a spicy broth featuring the distinctive flavor of Sichuan peppercorns. As a side, two hard boiled Quail eggs were offered. I ate on of mine the other being a bit smashed, and it was quite tasty.

I took these photos of the view out the window of my, a panorama from right to left showing the grounds of the university and the hills in the background. Yes, it is just as cold as it looks.







My after work goal was the resolution of the buying fresh vegetables conundrum, as in how to get things weighed at Trust Mart before going up to the check out. I had tried to figure it out last night and failed, as previously reported. This time though I would bring James along to interpret and so he picked me up and off we went. We had a long talk about daily products on the way over and discussed how Chinese people do not really favor cheese and butter, the latter of which was also on my list. We arrived, had another long discussion about which butter was salt free and then decided it was time to master the produce section.

In the end it was pretty simple, there are a couple of women operating scales in the middle of the department, and everyone grabs what they want and queues up. I sort of messed up my queuing, falling to recognize that there was a queue at all, but I did realize this at the last instant and thus avoided being pummeled by the other shoppers. It was sort of ironic considering the lack of orderly lines everywhere else in this country.

Butter, bananas, and a dish sponge in hand, I went off in search of bread and found a loaf of “fancy toast” that looked palatable enough. We checked out and headed back upstairs. On the way back to the hotel, we got talking about restaurants and James asked if I wanted to go out to eat. I said “sure” and after a bit of driving around we ended up at the other location of my favorite Sichuan place, Chuan Ren Bei Wei - 川人百味.

I ordered three dishes for us plus rice. We had three dished, a pork stir fry in a oily spicy sauce served with some sort of shitake-like mushroom, deep fried green beans bathed in garlic and a bowl of chicken stewed with cabbage, peppercorns and stir-fried red cellophane peppers. All three were fantastic, as was the opportunity to have a discussion with James about the love of Kentucky Fried Chicken by the youth of China, bicycles and exercise. Stuffed, he dropped me at my hotel, bringing my third day as an expat to a close.

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