Friday, February 20, 2009

Terry abandons after Stage 5

It was sort of a tough week for me, after a couple of months of deliberations my management and I decided that it would probably be best for me to take a breather in the US for a couple of months. We’d started this dialogue when I returned to China in January as the change to our program schedule had resulted in my crew being delayed in coming over for about six months. And while I did have a few people on site, the bulk of my work remained in the west and I was finding that it was pretty hard to stay on a western schedule while living in the east - too many late night meetings leading into early morning meetings. So I put the wheels in motion and made my plans to leave with an eye to returning when everyone else moves over.

It is funny how attached you get to a place. My emotions were all over the place, obviously glad to be going home but sad to be leaving people behind. And while living here can be tough, it can also be challenging in a fun and exotic way countered well with the tiring and grating ways. With the decision to go my focus shifted from going out hunting and gathering every evening to trying to figure out how I was going to fit four suitcases full of things into the two I had with me. You see, I had populated my place over the course of two trips and so now I was faced with 200 pounds of goods and two 50 pounds sacks. Confounding that further were the twin facts of a) my apartment would not be ready for at least another and so could not be used for storage and b) I had brought so much of my regular stuff from home and in order to return to life there I had to bring a lot of it back. Luxuries mostly, things like shoes and pants. So I threw myself into the effort right at the start of my remaining five days and finally arrived at a few logical conclusions – no pharmaceuticals, no winter clothes, no house supplies. Those I crammed into my ample supply of shopping bags and the one good sized carryon bag that I would not miss. I loaded them up and left them with a friend who had invited me over for an excellent dinner of green curry fish and stir fried vegetables.

As it turned out, I had a great week from a hunting and gathering perspective. Between friends feeling sorry for me and extending dinner invitations and Mexican Night at the American School my dining needs were met entirely and the latter was a very interesting experience from a sociological angle. One of the expat couples out there is from south Texas and so the wife of the pair decided to lead the school kitchen in preparing a big Mexican buffet. They do these topical food fests weekly, but this was the first which didn’t feature local cuisine. And it was packed with hundreds of people showing up, the allure of something from the other side being that strong. The food was good – red enchiladas, quesadillas, empanadas, ceviche, homemade tortillas and refries. Of course not up to the standards that I might expect in my home state, but darn good indeed. There was even a bottomless plate of bizcochitos. I went with Matt and his family and sat with a friend of theirs and had a great night of conversation and food over a couple of mugs of cold Chinese beer.

But the learning here was not about the food, it was about the people who are over here working alongside me. I spend a lot of time wondering how people stay sane in such a place, and I’ve written previously about my thoughts on immersion versus walling oneself off. This evening gave me a genuine glimpse into that alternative solution – the crowd, the conversation and the activity were no different than what I might have been doing 18 years ago at a parent’s night at my girl’s Montessori School. The thing that hit me most directly was that I had not been around that many westerners in a single place in a long, long time. And it was very obvious that for many people this represented their complete reality over here. No dealing with the discarded skewer sticks on the stairway outside Trust Mart, no looking at the beggars huddled in a pile of rags along Jin Ma Lu, no walking in the filthy passageways under the street. We were enjoying a clean, Caucasian, mid-western family gathering that could have been taking place anywhere in America, but seemed so very out of place here.

And then there were the children, their behavior representing the greatest departure from the aforementioned Montessori night - they were loud and completely out of control. One or two of the teachers made attempts to bring some sense to the chaos, but in the end the kids were sent out to the cavernous marble foyer to run and scream with abandon. I’ve read many, many things about children’s behavior these days, and I don’t want to sound like a crotchety old curmudgeon, but all of the bad things I’ve heard of were proven genuine in the two short hours I was there. And perhaps the most amazing thing is that given the marble surfaces and slippery floors, none of them were sporting 50 stitches in the forehead by night’s end. Once through with my food, I just sat there nursing the one beer I was allowing myself and made mental comparisons between the din in this place and the cacophony in the streets of Kai Fa Qu during rush hour shopping. They weren’t that far apart.

We had two days of snow this week. Both of the storms came over night which presented an interesting commute on those two mornings. For being a northern city, Dalian is woefully unprepared for even the lightest snow. I’ve heard rumors of a snow plow, but I think they are apocryphal. I’ve not seen it, instead I only seem to pass the trucks with men shoveling salt out onto the road, the women sweeping the streets with tree branch brooms and the occasional person shoveling a path with a piece of plywood nailed to a 1x2 board. I was beginning to wonder if snow shovels actually exist in this part of the world when I did see some uniformed men using one to clear the sidewalk in front of the light rail station. I’m going to venture a guess and say that while most plastic snow shovels are undoubtedly manufactured here, like so many other things they must be for export only. The same for brooms, something I have never encountered in their traditional form. Even the doormen at my hotel were using tree branches to sweep the marble parking lot. The net result of that effort was to leave just enough loose stuff to render the random highly polished marble tile extremely dangerous. Some likened it to walking in a mine field.

While the early parts of the day were gray and bleak, the sun did finally come out making the mountains look festive and turning the (guess what, marble) parking area in front of the temporary office even more treacherous than it normally is. But the rest of the place took on a slightly happier look excepting the two delivery trucks that made head on left turns into each other in the intersection at the bottom of the hill by my office.

And for some reason the cold and the snow increased the number of cars driving down the sidewalk in front of my place. That one I could not figure out.

I had dinner on my last night with some friends from home who live in a high rise by the name of Sun Mansion. Their apartment, rented from some Chinese with feet in both the local community and the US was something to behold. Their landlords had asked to leave it furnished and to my amazement, it was furnished in the very stuff that gave me a panic attack on my furniture shopping day.

Jabba the Hutt couches and love seats, lots of steel, glass and amazingly out of scale lighting fixtures. The couches were surprisingly neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, just sort of medium considering their overstuffed presentation. One room looked precisely like those rooms in the palace of some Eastern European president where you see Obama and Putin and Brown sitting and smiling for the cameras. Giant intricately carved wooden chairs that defied one to lift even a corner off the floor. A massive 2 meter diameter ceiling fixture bathed the whole room in hot yellow light. Inserted in the wall behind what appeared to be a throne was a window in front of a glass panel, back lit and painted with leaves in fall colors, attempting in vain to give the impression that you were looking outside at tree level. A feat given that we were on the 12th floor. Enhancing the illusion, a working set of mini-blinds was provided lest the artificial sunlight add too much brightness or heat to the room. All of it made me wonder how they had gotten it up the elevator.

The most interesting little detail though was the disco lighting installed in several rooms. Tiny clear glass cones protruded through holes in a false ceiling and when turned on they sent out rays of red, blue and green light creating little moving spots that rotated around the room. Take those and the mirrored bedroom closet doors and you immediately went looking for the steel pole, but alas it was not there.

The kitchen though was very, very nice and I think if you had a cot in the corner and a small bathroom you could just live there.

Dinner was great – grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup and a couple of Harbin beers; again, good conversation and laughter and a nice evening of comfort food to send me off.

I bid them adieu and went down to the lobby where the night guards were joined by what might have been their little brothers. The boys had spread a board game out on the marble floor in front of the doors and were busily setting it up. Rather than make their driver wait around, I had elected to walk home and on this short jaunt I managed to avoid falling on my face and losing anything. On cold nights like these the streets tend to be empty and last night was no exception. I crossed an intersection where three police cars sat idle, their emergency lights running for some reason and the officers standing around chatting and waving their arms to stay warm. I passed two men walking the same direction as I was while Kenny G played either across the street from us or from a radio that one of them was carrying. It was that song we all hate and it was loud and incredibly out of place.

I spent the rest of the evening packing and adjusting and charging up all of my electronic entertainment devices. My driver was picking me up at 6:30 for an 8:30 flight and so I went to bed knowing the morning would come early.

Henlly, the sales manager whom I met the day before had sent the bellman up for my bags as promised at 6:20. Things were falling into place. We went down and I handed in my keys and found my driver waiting for me in the lobby, early for a change and on a day when I genuinely appreciated it. I said goodbye to the two managers who had come down just to see me off. The bellman and my guy loaded up the luggage and just as I was getting in the car one of the managers came running out to tell me that I had unpaid charges. I was a bit surprised at this as the relocation company had checked me out the day before and I asked her what it was for and she suggested that it might be the mini-bar, reminding me that yes, I had accidentally drunk a bottle of premium water back in November. I went to the counter and collected the bill – 28 kuai, $4, paid it and over the continuous offers of bread, breakfast and something to eat, said goodbye again and went outside. We started out and the clock read 6:24, I was ahead of schedule.

Five blocks down Jin Ma Lu my local phone rang. It was Henlly and she was telling me that I had forgotten my DVD player. This was a surprise as I was sure I had collected everything but then she said it was “red” which stumped me even further because I was sure my red iPod was home in my nightstand drawer. I tapped my driver on the shoulder and told him to head back. The bellman saw me and asked me to wait so I stood by the elevators watching the floor indicators, trying to get a sense if she was coming down. Finally the car went up to 9 and started its descent, stopping for the longest time at 4 before appearing. Henlly came out carrying a cheap plastic folder that my relocation company had given me back at my original arrival. It had contained a lot of introductory maps and guides and now was pretty much empty. The DVD player as it turned out was the one the hotel had put in my room as a courtesy four months ago and as I knew, my red iPod was home in my nightstand. China was not going to let me out of its clutches easy.

My headroom completely blown, I was now back on the road. It was 6:35 and I was now more or less conforming to the schedule I had originally planned – 30 minutes to the airport, 90 to get checked in and through security.

We arrived in exactly 30 minutes and I jumped out. My driver asked if I was coming back which got me to thinking about the impact we the expats have on the lives of people like him. If I’m here, he works. The same with my Chinese tutor. When I’m gone they don’t work, or at least not as frequently. I for one am not used to having that kind of direct impact to someone’s livelihood and the feeling is not warm. I told him I would call him and handed him 300 kuai as sort of a tip for looking after me these last two months. I said goodbye and went inside.

Much to my amazement and consternation, the international departure zone was mobbed and I knew instantly that this was going to be bad. I parked myself in the line for Seoul and stood there for about 10 minutes. There were perhaps 50 people in front of me and the agent was moving at the way a glacier might have, back before global warming. I was beginning to get a bit upset when I took a look at the VIP line reserved for frequent fliers of a specific standing. It was mostly empty and while a member, I have no status whatsoever so in theory it’s not really an option. But I figured “what the heck, I’ll just go bluff my way through this” and I moved over.

Some idiot was at the head but once he and his family loaded their luggage and got the rest of their crap out of the way, the line moved. The man in front of me cut straight in front of the woman in front of him when she couldn’t get her cart around the giant electronic keyboard in a box that the original head of the line idiot had not yet managed. The cutting guy checked in quickly as did the woman and I was up.

Being a westerner does have some advantages here - people will rarely challenge you when you are doing something wrong. The agent asked me where I was going I said “Seoul” and then instantly corrected myself remembering my lost bag experience and told her “San Francisco.” She verified my flight with me and I was on my way. The young woman who had been in line in front of me before my brave escape had moved about 3 feet.

My immigration agent was a beautiful young woman in a snappy green uniform who stamped my passport and sent me on. Security was a breeze and I was in, one hour before departure.

I found a seat in the waiting area and sat down. All was fine there until some man came and sat next to me; his exhaled breath reeking of whatever it is these people eat for breakfast, sort of a rotten garlic smell and all too common. I took it for as long as I could and then got up, figuring I’d be sitting for hours so perhaps a little standing around in fresh air might do me some good. The gate continued to show that the current plane was boarding for Munich. When the announcement came it was pronounced with a “ch” as in “church.”

Thirty minutes before departure our announcement came and I was surprised to find that I actually caught it in Chinese. The scrum started and I positioned myself in the center. A few of the Chinese had got the drop on me but I was fairly well positioned to be early enough to find a spot for my two bags. I handed in my ticket and went through the door expecting to head down the jet way. But no, we were going to have a bus ride today so off we went down the corridor, the escalator and that last flight of marble stairs thrown in just to vex those with carryon luggage. I got in the bus and took a moment to decide which side the doors were going to open on when we arrived at the plane. No point in making it through the gate check early if it was all going to be blown by a bad bus door decision. I threw my lot with the far side and elbowed my way in front of some guy who was already there.

We took a nice long drive out to the plane, passing what might have been the luggage trolleys for our flight although I didn’t see my bags. Sure enough, we rolled up and my door opened – I’d made the right call. I jumped out, elbows akimbo to block anyone with the temerity to try to pass me and made it to the stairs, 5th in line.

The plane was some sort of weird miniature version of a Boeing 777 with a 2-4-2 configuration. Sometimes I think that Airbus merely steals Boeing’s design drawings and runs them through the copier on 85% instead of 100. The overhead bin size required a lot of adjustments and changes to get my bags to fit but the finally did. I settled in to see who might show up for my row.

Three more busloads resulted in a full plane. A guy sat next to me and it soon became apparent that he had had the same breakfast as the guy in the waiting area; here though there was no escape. We took off and I went to work on a crossword puzzle.

We were aloft on time and the meal cart came with sandwiches that I had no interest in. I had a Coke and all the guys around me had beers. It was 8:50 AM.

The flight was short, I took my time getting off rather than fight the crowd, made my way through security, this time delayed by the guard who made me take my GPS apart and went off to find a boarding pass. The United agent had a very strange way of speaking English, with tones that went up and down like an old roller coaster. He confirmed by Business Class upgrade and completely failed to understand my question about checking one of my carryon bags in San Francisco, choosing instead to describe the luggage flow there that I have done a hundred times.

From there, the lounge, one of the best of the bunch I frequent. Ramen, Diet Coke, little puffy pastries and brownies and some time for a Blog, off again in an hour.

I forgot to mention this week’s cell phone story. I was concerned that my phone would (once again) run out of minutes during my stay in the US so I decided to charge it up for five or six months. So I gathered my wits, girded my lions and went to the China Mobile store for one last bout of humiliation.

I got off the escalator on the 3rd floor and marched straight over to the girl behind the computer at the desk I went to last time. I told her I wanted to deposit money and handed her a piece of paper with my phone number on it. She looked at it, asked “how much” and I told her “five hundred kuai.” All in Chinese. She asked me my name, took my money, counted it, typed something in the computer and handed me a receipt – a nice, clean little transaction with no one laughing in the background and no burning red faces of humiliation. If only it could be that way every time.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Weekend Wrap-up, 15th of February

Saturday was pretty much wasted on a trip to the clinic on a minor note and washing my jeans two pairs at a time in my tiny washing machine. It’s amazing how long it takes to get 10 pairs through that undersized contraption between stopping to put in soap and waiting to put in fabric softener. It was also a bit of a challenge to find a place to hang those 10 pairs to air dry. The rack I have was good for 5, and the rest ended up over towel bars and the shower curtain rod and the backs of chairs. I was glad to be able to fold them up and put them away this morning, the clutter was annoying. I also had a walk down to the edge of town where the estuary behind the bay comes in between Kai Fa Qu and the peninsula that holds Dalian proper. I stopped to watch an almost fistfight between four people, one woman and three men. It was a little bit one-sided as three of them seemed to be trying to make the same point to the odd man out. It was at a bus stop and from what I could gather the one guy wanted to get on the bus and the other three were not in favor of it. They each took turns getting up close and yelling right in his face, even the woman stood there shaking her finger at him until one of the guys grabbed her by the collar and literally threw her out of the way. The put upon man for some reason got out his cell phone and made a motion to call someone – the police?, the bus company? – I don’t know but the others continued to yell until the bus driver decided to leave and the fight broke up when the aggressors got on the bus.

I turned around at a park by the road that comes into Kai Fa Qu. And interesting spot with stylized Olympic Rings framing a coal fired power plant. Flags of the world snap gaily in the smoky sea breeze. Across the street stands a big office building that lacks a center. At night it’s a blaze of color shifting neon. This time of day it’s merely green. Walking back I watched a boy picking up the remains of giant icicles that had fallen from the underside of the elevated train tracks running above the sidewalk. Looking up it made me wonder what it would be like to have that chunk of ice plummet onto your unsuspecting noggin.

This morning’s breakfast called for improvisation. I’ve made eggs here a couple of times, scrambled, and I’ve never been too happy with the results. The convection stove top is either too hot or not hot enough and so the eggs end up in little greasy particles from being half-cooked and then over-cooked. I didn’t think I could poach an egg in the woks I have, so I put on my thinking cap and came up with a brilliant solution - a small tea cup, a saucer, a few drops of water, the egg and 45 seconds in the microwave on medium. Not perfect, but darn close; if I received such an egg in a restaurant I might whine about it but I wouldn’t send it back. I also made my first foray into Chinese bacon which is a lot like uncured slices of pork and pretty much unlike what I am used to. The eggs were better.

Today I thought I would hike up to the base of the UFO hill where there is a pretty big bronze statue of a winged ox with a little kewpie kid on its withers The park is called Tong Niu, 童牛, which translates literally as “boy oxen” which is exactly what the statue is. I’m told that there is a legend, but I’ve not been able to find anything out about it.

I was sitting around my room waiting to go when the morning knock came from the maid and so I grabbed my things and left, passing a bride and groom entering the hotel for their wedding reception. A videographer was directing the action and a big white stretch Lincoln, bedecked in red flowers was out in the parking lot. When the wind hit me in the face on the other side of the revolving door I had an instant appreciation for that young woman in her strapless white gown making the dash from the limo to the lobby.

Sundays are busy here in my neighborhood with many people out shopping. It looks to me to be the busiest day of the week and I imagine that is because many people work on Saturday. I decided to start my day with a coffee at Starbucks so I crossed the street and headed in that direction and upon arriving was surprised to see that the place was pretty full. I did manage to grab the last table and got out my iPhone to play with my email. People came and went and the table next to me changed hands a couple of times. I looked up at one point to see an expat I know in passing, a pretty senior guy on the project. Fifty something I would guess, close in age to me. He didn’t recognize me probably because I was far out of context. With him was a 20-something Chinese girl, cute and petite and well appointed aside from her hair which appeared to be unfamiliar with the concept of a comb, a very strange thing for Chinese women who are always pin neat.

She sat down in the chair beside me while he collected their drinks. She was busy running her fingers through her hair, de-knotting it I imagine which wasn’t great for me. We were very close and every time she cleared a snag and shook her head, she brushed me on the side of the head with it. I moved closer to my table which helped but the proximity was still a bit too intimate for Starbucks.

He came back and sat down, removing his glasses. They began to have the most basic of conversations about this and that, he was speaking very slowly and enunciating every word I suppose out of consideration for her English skills. She asked him what he was going to do today and he replied that he would go back to his apartment and work on his puzzle (Sunday crossword I imagine) and that doing so made him very sleepy and that he would take a nap. He talked about what a stressful job he had and about how big his house in Shanghai happened to be. He said he was tired all the time. She asked, “How much sleep do you get?”

At that point I knew where this was going and it wasn’t going to take a crystal ball or help from the spirits of the netherworld for me to predict his answer with 100% certainty. No, I knew at that moment I was stuck in a $5.99 paperback with a blank cover that you buy in one of those stores with no windows on the edge of a light industrial park; the place that still exists for those few sad guys that don’t have internet access or a credit card.

Before he even opened his mouth, I had the words formulated and ready to be said for him. His answer – “Well, that depends on whether you’re over or not.”

There is something very strange about a place that won’t allow you to import R-rated DVDs in your personal shipment yet looks the other way at the fact that every masseuse you order up after 10 PM is a sex worker. A place where 50+ year old men bring 20-something children out for a morning after cup at the western coffee shop and then sits there and crafts a sentence like that, actually saying it out loud like the most unsophisticated 20-something frat boy. I understand that we all need to do what we need to do to get by in this world and I also understand that I am pretty much a Puritan. But I don’t understand how any man with a shred of personal decency, morality or heart could think that he was entitled to this little girl as a means to preserving his sanity. Looking back at the oil workers I wrote about a week or two ago at least their silent dinner partners were in the same age bracket and not someone undoubtedly in the peer group of his own children, back in the world.

I stood up slowly putting on my jacket and giving him a good look straight in the face but without his glasses he didn’t even know I was there. He was just staring fuzzy eyed across the room in a direction away from his bed-headed companion at something far off in the distance.

It’s a couple of miles down to the ocean and up to the statue, a route that runs through high-rise neighborhoods of intermediate quality. Not a lot of trashy lots, mostly neat residential enclaves composed of buildings on the slightly older side. I passed by what I think is a bar (judging from the Carlsberg sign) in the form of a traditional Dutch windmill. Buildings like this are not uncommon here but I’m at a loss as to why. A man sat out front selling bags of popcorn from a bicycle with a steel fire box on the front.

I was following my map and took a turn onto a completely empty street bordered on one side by an abandoned hotel and by apartment blocks on the other. A sole person came up the street towards me – a red-headed westerner – striking me as odd that the only other being here would be someone from the other side. I continued on expecting the street to make a jog towards the sea but was surprised to see it blocked by a gate – security for the next set of apartments. I turned around and headed back, finding an alley off to the left with a set of stairs down to the boulevard that runs along the beach.

The Chinese love whimsical things and this beach is loaded with them – a pirate ship, a giant conch shell, a mermaid and a woman astride a Blue Whale. I took a few pictures and moved on it was very windy and exceedingly cold. Off in the distance cargo ships sat waiting for their turn to come into port. A large double-decker ferry steamed out of port on its way to somewhere. The giant spider arms of a container port stood out against the skyline of Dalian far beyond.

Across the street from me a long line of dinosaur skeletons marched in the opposite direction formed by carved concrete on an exposed rock face. Some teenagers had climbed up to the highest head, standing on a little ledge with no railing fifty feet above the road below.

I turned the corner and was now thankfully out of the wind. This place is the other side of the UFO hill I wrote about last week and not nearly so steep a climb. I went up the road passing by men selling candied crab apples and bottles of soda from their bicycles. The crabapples are very common – it is literally impossible to walk a block without seeing someone selling them. Ten or so to a stick I’m told they are truly offensive but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone here from eating them.

Tong Niu used to stand on a forested ridge and it required some bushwhacking to get to it. But this being the Year of the Ox the government was kind enough to build a set of stairs up to it along with a nice wooden platform around its base. I went up the 105 steps and stopped to appreciate it and to take some pictures. A group of teen-aged boys was up there talking too loudly and smoking cigarettes, ignored by the girls they were with. A few other couples came and went while I stood there, exposed again to the wind, taking pictures and enjoying the view.

The Ox is pretty impressive from up close - polished hooves and wings and a look of determination and anger on its face. The Boy sits astride also with a look of determination, his little topknot flapping in the wind. He has the mark of the Third Eye on his forehead, making me wonder if this has some root in Buddhism but I can’t be sure. There is a plaque but without translation. As it is with all things like this, from below set against the sky it looks much bigger than it really is. Not unlike the full moon rising in a supercharged size only to shrink more and more as it reaches its zenith.

It was truly cold now so I headed back down the hill trading “hello” and “ni hao” and mad dog stares with groups of teens on their way up. For some reason they find this mild interaction amusing.

The trip home was pretty much the same as that over other than passing an elderly man leaning on a wrought iron fence throwing up while his wife was checking her cell phone. Such is this place where things we never see at home are on regular display every time you head out the door. Final tally, 6 miles and couple of hours.

(Click to enlarge)


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Definitive Discourse on Fireworks

I drove to work this morning through a mini-ice-fog. We were heading down the boulevard that runs parallel to the light rail tracks and suddenly the visibility fell to about 10 yards. Looking out the window I could see that all of the bare branches on the bushes in the median of the street were covered in clear, fresh ice. And the pavement looked to be a bit shiny too. My driver slowed down mainly because a police car with its lights on came across two lanes and merged into the not quite adequate space between us and the van in front. We went along for a quarter mile or so as a threesome, the van leading, the cop and then us. When we reached the intersection where we normally turn left, the policeman swung right, cut off a couple of cars, shot left across the intersection, did a sharp left U turn back so that he was facing traffic, stopped and backed up until the rear of the car was tight against the median on the perpendicular street. He got and stood there, on post, putting the fear of Mao into the oncoming commuters. We turned left and having gained about 10 meters of elevation were suddenly free of the fog.

But tonight’s topic is not ice-fog, it’s fireworks and it comes on the heels of an interesting story that wasn’t quite reported in the news - the fire that engulfed the not quite finished Mandarin Oriental hotel yesterday in Beijing. It seems that the employees of CCTV, working next door to the construction site decided to have a little fireworks display and in doing so set the building on fire. For a variety of reasons it managed to burn to the ground while being completely ignored in the local media. The irony I gathered from the New York Times coverage was that the TV network started the conflagration and then failed to cover it. In any event a story such as this offers little surprise to me having lived through pseudo-wartime for the last month.

Monday afternoon I was sitting in my room writing the furniture shopping blog when the noise began. It was about 4 o’clock and it went on for a couple of hours before I finally broke down and decided to go outside and see just what the story was. I pulled on my jacket and shoes and went downstairs.

The first challenge was to decide where to go because there were rockets shooting up over the buildings and into the sky in all directions. I crossed Jin Ma Lu towards 5 Color Town and once over, they stopped. So I crossed back over by the Bank of China and they stopped too. You see, there is virtually no limit to the kinds of rockets and bombs you can buy here and most of what’s being set off is being done so by regular people out in front of their homes. The only difference is these things go 150 feet in the air. Nothing is organized; it’s simply all these little rogue shows that end by the time you get there. I turned around and was heading back to the warmth of the hotel when I saw that something far grander appeared to be happening down the street and around the block. I cut across the hotel parking lot and down a dark alley turning on my camera and setting it to “video” on the off chance I might catch something interesting.

Coming out of the alley I stopped to shoot a short film. A guy across the street from where I was standing started setting off his own little display with a set of cannons that shot fireballs 30 or 40 feet in the air each one exploding in a ball of white light and giving off a deafening sound made worse by the echo off the apartment buildings. I stopped filming and went on as the one up the street appeared to be a big deal. Car alarms were being set off on every vehicle I passed due to the concussions.

I decided to film and walk and you can see the result below. Getting past the end of the Da Shang building I could see where everything was coming from. People stood around me talking videos with their cell phones. The noise was incredible as were the lights. Now bear in mind this was no sanctioned event, just a couple of guys setting off whatever they had bought right in the street in front of a department store in the middle of the dinner time shoppers.

The show went on here for 10 or 15 minutes and then abruptly stopped. Everyone went on about their business and I turned the corner towards the main intersection which was interestingly jammed with people. Putting 2 and 2 together and judging from the section of street closed up ahead, it was clear that something official was about to happen out in front of the Kai Fa Qu government offices. But I was freezing having gone out on a lark with too few layers so I picked up my speed and went back to the hotel for another jacket, gloves and hat passing by yet another small group of pyromaniacs setting off rockets among the cars parked in front of the office buildings lining the street. I stopped here to take a short movie capturing the din of the car alarms. My supplementary layers retrieved I headed back down the street and claimed a spot on the sidewalk which by now held several thousand people.

Only the extension of Jin Ma Lu beyond the intersection was closed so the evening traffic tried to continue to flow. Buses, trucks and cars moved at a snail’s pace, blowing their horns incessantly as though that would make a whit of difference. But this is China, and car horns are an important part of the communications fabric.

An old woman stood next to me bundled up in a long coat and wearing a knit hat. She checked her watch, it was 7:10 and the show began.

They had lined the north side of the street with carton after carton of explosives which now started to shoot rockets, their tails a shock of yellow flame up into the air. All of the regular things we see on the 4th, - starbursts, screamers, white balls of fire. One burst sent out hundreds of tiny red parachutes each carrying a tiny diamond of white flame. In response to the show people in the audience were sending up a steady stream of tiny hot air balloons crafted from plastic shopping bags and a cross of burning wood. The air currents took them up and over the buildings, doing somersaults and still remaining aloft as they disappeared into the night. No doubt headed off to start a fire in a park somewhere.

The show went on non-stop for a good twenty minutes and then simply ended. No applause, no cheering, everyone just turned around and walked away back to their nightly business. Cars that had pulled up into the lots were now driving down the sidewalk parting the crowds by blowing their horns. Yes, that’s what I said, cars blowing their horns to get the pedestrians on the sidewalk to get out of their way.

The celebrations went on until well beyond 2 AM, which was the last explosion I happened to hear while trying to sleep. I asked around work what the story was and it turns out that Monday night was the 15th day or the New Year and the night of the Lantern Festival. (The modern response to the tradition of lanterns was met with the floating shopping bags drifting up and over the crowd.) Traditionally the final night of the Spring Festival celebration after which fireworks are by permit only (a bit of a joke considering the noise I hear out the window while writing this.)

Yuanxiaojie is the name for the day and it’s at night when Tangyuan is eaten in celebration. A rice ball stuffed with red bean paste, nuts and rose paste is boiled in water and served with sugar syrup.

I’ve attached a few representative videos below to give you a tiny impression of what this particular evening was like.


Just outside the alley, looking down the street behind my hotel.

Up the street from the alley, where it was all happening. Sorry for the wobbly camera work, I don't have a Steadi-Cam.

The car alarm sequence, shot next door to my hotel. Those bursts are being set off by a couple of guys hanging around by the parked cars. Gives you an idea of just how big an explosion you can buy here.

The officially sanctioned show in front of the government offices.

The Grand Finale.

The morning after trash pile.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Buying furniture in China - it's not just an adventure, it's.....well I'm not sure what it is.

I exchanged email with my relocation consultant on Friday setting up an appointment at 9:30 AM on Monday to meet with her and my future landlord to go furniture shopping. Like everything here in China, dealing with apartments is a bit different than what I am used to. For one thing, I’m not sure the word “apartment” is correct as most of these places seem to be owned by the landlord. I think these would qualify more as a condominium in our country. I’ve had multiple experiences riding up and down elevators with the same person, going from unit to unit. It appears that people buy these flats as investments and then hang a big red banner in the most visible street-side window stating that the place is for rent. As a measure of how successful this process is, every building has dozens of red banners.

My relo person works through an agent who goes out and scours the offerings for units that might be suitable for a picky person like me. This tends to be a bit hit or miss as he usually overlooks things like the choking smell of mold, paint peeling in the elevators, lobbies that rarely top a temperature above -10 in the winter, the general reek of dampness and train tracks in the backyard. All deal breakers for me, but apparently acceptable to the people not renting these places now. Hmm, or maybe not? My daughter Gwynn happened to catch the same episode of a show on the Travel channel that I did, regarding a woman looking to rent a place in Hong Kong. She was wondering if it was accurate and the answer is “yes”, renting here is a game of trade-offs among things that would make you turn around and walk away if you were looking at such a unit in the US. No oven? Well, maybe that’s not so bad compared to the downspout that dumps out on the balcony.

You make an appointment and have a look at the place which is either partially or completely furnished. You decide what you want to keep and what you want to disappear and you negotiate. If the bathroom lacks any plumbing fixtures, you request that the big gap where a tub and shower would go be filled with such. If the giant red brocade couch with carved plaster golden dragons on the armrests offends your eye, you request that it be removed. The standard mattress of a sheet of plywood wrapped in straw is normally one of the first things to go and if you think the shower head in the center of the ceiling in the second bath will get everything wet – you ask for shower curtains. In short, it’s a dance between the prospective client, the landlord and the relocation service to see who will budge. It’s not a bad deal for the owner as my company pays for everything. However, some will refuse because western tastes are boring and they probably end up stuck with a house full of high quality but neutral furniture that no Chinese in their right mind would ever consider using. Which becomes a problem for them in a year or two when I head back to stretch out on my ever bland Pottery Barn sofa.

Getting out of the car on Friday evening I asked my driver what time we needed to leave to get to the store. I had already clarified that the relo person had called him and so he more or less knew what I was talking about, at least to the extent that we communicate at all. He told me 8:30 to be into the city for the appointment so I expected to leave Monday at that time.

But being the untrusting guy that I am I planned to go downstairs at our regular 7:30 time to see if he was there. I figured I could zip over to the office and drop off my stuff and then leave from there. Well he was there at 7:40 when I walked out and it was his plan that we leave for town right then. I asked what time we were supposed to meet and now it seemed that the answer was 9:00. Things like this tweak my radar – I am normally very accurate in my recollection about appointments. But I figured perhaps something had changed and so after asking if we could stop at the office and being told “no” I said – “zou ba”, “let’s go.” Even though it seemed that 1 to 2 hours of driving time was more than generous and would undoubtedly result in me sitting in a silent car waiting for people to show up.

It was a very uninspiring day – low gray sky, light drizzle – and the conditions made it even bleaker than it normally is at this time of day. I guess I was spoiled a bit by the blue skies this weekend allowing myself to think for a moment that perhaps we were in a trend. The drive to town wasn’t too terribly busy as it’s more or less a reverse commute in this direction. Traffic picked up a bit when we left the highway and I began to think for just a minute that it might actually take as long as he said. We drove on through an industrial area and I began to realize something about China; everything here looks as though it’s covered in a gray film of soot. You really don’t see things when you look at them, it’s as though they’re behind a semi-opaque screen. My thought was further reinforced as we drove on and on through one generic neighborhood after another, brand new apartment blocks right next to older, seedy ones. Everything just looked tired and dirty including the same little stores with the same unintelligible signs making up the ground floor for the long rows of high-rises.

We were now in a part of town completely unknown to me. We passed a large bronze sculpture of an Ox on a pedestal in the center of a roundabout with red ribbons tied around its legs and neck for good luck. One small ribbon was tied at the end of his outstretched tail. Scrubby hills defined the right side of our route and an endless sea of deep gray fog flowed off to the left. I recognized the names of the streets on some of the signs but still had no way of getting my bearings. Eventually we pulled off of the sort of highway we were on, made a couple of turns and pulled into an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned building. I could tell from my driver’s behavior that he was just as surprised as I was. I don’t think he had any idea if this was the right place or not. It was now 8:35 AM and I wished I had thought to bring a GPS.

I asked him if this was the place and he pointed across the street at a building which took up an entire city block. Running along its top were big billboards showing women in 17th century garb and a family threesome looking off to their left smiling at something in the undefined distance. Their dog, a gray and white Australian Shepherd was looking that way too, Dad pointing with his arm straight out over its head. I assume these pictures meant home furnishings.

I took out my laptop figuring we would be sitting here for another thirty minutes to an hour, depending on who was correct about the meeting time. People from the local neighborhoods were rushing past on their way to work. The silence was oppressive so I fired up iTunes to see what I could listen to. Odd collection on this computer, the soundtrack from “Immortal Beloved”, Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits, two Opera collections, Bach’s Easter Oratorio and a single tune by T. Rex, most of these having found their way here by way of CDs borrowed from co-workers and ripped a long time ago. I chose the chorale from Beethoven’s 9th and settled in to write my blog.

Honda seems to do a good job of insulating their cars because most of the street noise was softly muffled. Too bad they can’t do the same for the smell of garlic which would seem to be the top item on every driver’s diet card judging from my experience and the stories I am told. Time ticked by, punctuated by the explosion of fireworks somewhere down the street. I couldn’t see where, only their reflection in the little street sweeper’s hut at the entrance to the lot. The place where the legions of cleaners pick up their tree branch brooms and stop to warm themselves by little wood-fired furnaces. Another car pulled in and I was back in the “drug deal in the crappy part of town” screenplay which seems to come to mind here frequently. Maybe it’s because every part of town is crappy, and everyone looks suspicious. The driver got out and went over to the sweeper’s hut and went inside.

9 AM came and went and no sign of my relo person. 9:30 must have been the time, just as I suspected.

Sitting in a quiet car I was amazed at just how loud I type. Another round of fireworks, these much louder and in a consistent enough sequence to rock the car. The ongoing love affair with fireworks around this place makes me wonder what it would be like to live in a city in wartime. The 9th ended and T. Rex kicked in with “Bang a Gong”, as weird a transition as I have ever heard. Cars started to pull in and people got out, standing in the lot smoking and staring at the building as though their combined focus would be enough to make it open on time.

Around 9:30 my driver asked me for Maria’s phone number. As he was calling her I looked out the left side and saw her standing there talking on the phone spinning in a circle trying to find us as though she could pick up the signal directly. Have I mentioned that 90% of the decent cars in China are black four door sedans with deeply tinted windows? She finally picked us out from among the others and walked over.

It turns out that this was not the correct building; the proper one being located about 50 yards to our right. We drove over and parked, meeting the rental agent who found me the place I am renting. No landlord though, he had more important things to do. This furniture mart was also huge, perhaps a block in size and taller than the one with the giant poster of my dog Teddy with his new Chinese family. This one too was covered in giant advertising, the most eye-catching being the cherubic naked baby boy standing with his back to the observer arcing a long pee-stream into an open toilet. We entered the building through a door under his golden arch.

Shopping in China is very different than it is in the US. If we want electronics, we go to Best Buy where you’ll find everything from cell phones to refrigerators. If you want electronics here you go to the big building next door to the Kerren Hotel where you’ll find the same banquet, but being sold by hundreds of individuals in little tiny stalls. And in these buildings, things tend to be arranged by floors - groceries in the basement, cell phones, sporting goods and office supplies on the 1st, clothes on the 2nd, bedding and drapes on the 3rd, Ethernet cable, giant generators, Klieg lights and drill bits on the 4th. Not every building is arranged this way though, some specialize in specific genres and today we were visiting a furniture center.

True to form though, there was a specific arrangement here. We bypassed the 1st floor which specialized in flooring and headed up to the second to pick out a bathtub, a couple of sinks and the associated fixtures. It was hard for me to figure out the process which is bad for someone who is not a grazing shopper. Sensing this, the rental agent pointed me in the direction of one of the region’s most popular fixture suppliers, Todo.

There were plenty of choices and the shapes and styles mattered little to me. White, chrome, water doesn’t leak out – it’s all the same. I ended up with fairly modern and simple sinks and tub and went on to the next floor – furniture.

And here is where it got interesting, if interesting as a word can possibly describe the tableau before me. In fact I am going to say it straight out – I was pretty much at a loss to find the words capable of describing the scene at all. We got off the escalator and started to wander up and down the aisles, passing tiny showrooms specializing in styles and periods. There was the American Colonial booth followed by the 1960 Doris Day – Rock Hudson Bachelor Pad booth. Next was an Asian attempt at Danish modern and an entire store devoted to furniture painted in thick, glossy white paint. A few stalls featuring simple Japanese-inspired pieces caught my eye so we stopped and looked. But what overpowered everything were the stores selling popular Chinese styles. Even standing in Zen-like peace amidst the simple offerings, Chinese traditional loomed in the corner of my eye. Think the offspring of a marriage between French Provincial and Italian Baroque. Take those designs and put them in a copier and set the magnification to 125%, change the colors from pastels to vivid Earth tones, add some gilded trim, fur and render the whole thing in leather and you are starting to get what I am talking about. Gaudy is too small a word, bombastic might be closer but I think it underestimates the grandeur. If the couches and giant tables were not enough, the shiny gold horse and tiger statues might be called for. Or perhaps a grand pair of faux elephant tusks capped in gold and jewels? How about a giant 30 point stag head mounted above a My Little Pony canopy bed? This way sir and madam, allow me to show you our best selling piece – we call this “oversized sectional in five shades of pink with giant buttons rendered in nip and tuck maroon naughyde and accented with beige pillows trimmed in the same fabric Tammy used to make her crop tops out of back in the 60’s.” I was beginning to get worried because the only option that didn’t make me downright color blind was to pick something that would allow me to channel Joey Bishop at the height of his Rat Pack days.

But then I found a place that had a few things I felt I could live with, sort of a higher quality combination of waterbed style done in dark wood and wrapped around a futon motif. More or less Japanese, at least the choices were simple and they only came in two colors – brown and beige. We spent a lot of time with that seller and I came away with what I think I will be able to live with.

The thing that amazed me the most though was that none of this stuff bore even the slightest resemblance to what gets imported to the US. When we think “Chinese”, we think simple antique designs done in teak with inlaid dragons and cranes, screens, simple couches with angular lines. I spent some time doing a search to see if could find some pictures to borrow, but mostly what I found were things I wish I could have found here instead of Los Angeles. I did borrow a couple of fairly tame examples and added them below. Apologies in advance to those who may actually own these items, especially if you are in love with a sofa that looks as though it’s a skinned and stuffed version of Jabba the Hutt.

Furniture done, it was time to go and pick out a couple of mattresses as the ones that were being delivered with the beds I chose felt very similar to an ironing board. The lady at this store was very helpful, explaining that I had limitations on depth because of my choice of a platform bed and offering that westerners tend to prefer very soft while Chinese prefer sleeping on boards. I ended up with a couple of medium firm thin mattresses that I doubt will cause me much pain.

After choosing a desk chair in the office furniture quarter we moved on to lamps where I quickly discovered that while every lamp in the world might now be manufactured in China, they’re all clearly made for export. There were none, in store after store. My inquiry as to how people read was met with a simple answer “we use the overhead neon fixture in the center of the room.” Ah, I guess I understand. But there’s no way I’m doing that so after picking out a safe which couldn’t be opened by the store clerk it was off to Gomei, a giant department store on the other side of town where there were no lamps either. But we did find an adequate telephone.

I was beginning to wonder about my lighting situation when I was told that we would drive to yet another corner of the city to the place from which all the lighting supplies in Dalian emanate.

We worked our way out through some very crowded streets around what turned out to be the largest seafood market in Dalian. Judging from the crates and pens of ducks and geese, it’s also the largest wet market in town. Across the street, aquariums lined with abalone sat piled in store front windows. We finally cleared the traffic jam and headed across town to a place I have passed a hundred times on the way to the airport. I’d always assumed it had something to do with lighting because the street facing side was plastered with ads for Osram light bulbs, a brand I had not encountered since the olden days when I used to change light bulbs in microscopes. We pulled in and parked and went into the first store that would more or less pass for a lighting gallery in the US. More because it had lots to look at. Less because it was about 8 below zero inside. A group of women, owners or salesclerks, sat around in winter jackets. You could actually see your breath in this store. One of them got up to walk with us, stopping to turn on the power in various bays so that we could see the lights working. I was feeling a little depressed at this point, I’d left the furniture store in all its Renaissance glory and found my way to a place where reproduction Grecian and Etruscan urns were converted into lamps. But just when I thought it was hopeless I found a couple of extremely plain table lamps with a simple design made out of oxidized wrought iron. Not terribly unlike something I might buy at home. I ordered two of those, balked at some nice but expensive Tiffany reproductions for the bedside tables and settled in the end on three very simple wooden lamps with steel bases that more or less matched the wood of the furniture I had picked out.

All that was left to find was a desk lamp and some floor lamps for reading. We wandered through two or three more stores including one all done in black lacquer walls and gray shag carpeting that only sold chandeliers made with Swarovski crystals. Talk about high tech bachelor pad. One store featured more Italian Baroque including 6 foot wide ceiling fixtures made of drooping chains of beads and prisms. Here, the chandeliers were hung so that the bottom was about 5 feet off the floor. I had to walk bent over to get under them. I suppose that this suggests that Chinese women are the decision makers when it comes to lighting, and that the sellers want to make sure the buying experience is as intimate as possible.

I was about ready to give up and call it a day when I spotted one last store where I found a perfect desk lamp immediately inside the door. Stainless steel, nice quality, simple white lamp shade. I asked for a floor model and they had those too. I was done.

This day pretty much put into crisp perspective why I had originally planned to live in a completely furnished (with modern stuff) service apartment up the street from where I am now. I had visited it back in August and it was very well appointed. And it would have been an ideal choice had they not started to tack on three months delays every 5 weeks. As it stands today, I’d be living in the hotel for another 4 months before I had a chance of getting in there, assuming they don’t continue to slip. I knew from the start that it was probably too good to be true, as those things often are. And so I decided to strike out on my own and the result was yet another cultural experience. As though I haven’t had enough of those this month.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Weekend Wrap-up, 8th of February

Tonight I decided to write my weekend Blog from Starbucks. I simply felt like getting out of the hotel for a change of scenery. I’d spent the last couple of hours working on that annual odium – performance appraisals – and figured some traffic clogged streets, freezing fruit vendors and hot coffee would be good for my weary soul. So now I’m sitting by the window listening to Miles Davis, kindly provided by the company’s music programmers and listening to a couple of small groups of Germans talking about their day in Kai Fa Qu.

It’s been an interesting weekend in a boring sort of way. I began by being able to sleep in until 9 AM yesterday, perhaps an indication that I am once again on GMT +8. It felt good to be awakened by the sun as opposed to an alarm. I had set a goal of going to the gym on both of these days having not been there since the holidays what with the New Year’s holiday and my trip to Spain. Saturday was to be the 1st day of the rest of my expat life, one that offered a solid balance between Dove Bars and exercise.

I packed up and headed down the two block walk to the hotel which is the home of the fitness center. It was a really beautiful day, still on the cold side with a bit of a stiff wind but completely sunny and cloudless. I arrived and handed in my membership card and climbed the four flights of stairs to the spin studio. I checked the board to make sure there was no class scheduled and went in choosing my standard bike in the far, dark, out of the way corner.

The first thing I discovered was just how much of my fitness has gone straight out the window. My heart rate was high – I could barely keep it contained no matter how little I pedaled. But I figured I was on the road to recovery and unlikely to die there and then so I simply kept turning the cranks.

Lots of tours came and went and I was quite an attraction being the only foreigner in the place and off exercising alone. The Chinese don’t seem to like the bikes unless there is a disco fueled class going on so I have the studio 100% to myself aside from the occasional person who comes in to warm up for something else, and these tours where the gym managers drag prospective clients around showing them the benefits of Inn Fine membership. “Look there, an American is a happy member!”

I sat there watching a thin Chinese girl dressed from head to toe in white tights and top going through those same programmed steps you see the professional ballroom dancers doing on PBS. Over and over, back and forth, tiny little steps and much flailing of arms in some pre-ordained ritual manner. She finally quit and went off to do something else, out of my view. Things were rolling along; I was visualizing myself riding down the Bosque Path when suddenly the lights went out. Some other young woman had come out of the dance studio and in taking her breather had decided to lean on the light switch for the spin studio. She looked at me and smiled and did sort of a shrug and tried to find the switch to put the lights back on. She had no luck so she gave me a wave and walked away. I got off the bike and went looking only to find a single switch which when activated turned on the rotating colored light ball in the middle of my room. I turned that back off and went out to the desk where of course there was no one to help me. I made eye contact with a guy and girl sitting off to the side and they sort of gestured at some people out among the treadmills. Figuring that was going nowhere I went back to the switch. I pressed it once – disco light ball. I pressed it twice – black lights shooting around the top of the room. I pressed it three times – flashing strobes. I pressed it four times – disco ball and overhead lights. Five times was the charm – overhead lights. Leave it to Chinese ingenuity to use a single position light switch to control five different sequences.

Back on the bike, I continued to forge ahead even when the sound from the dance studio became so loud I could hear it over the music coming through my headphones. What finally drove me off was the time – I’d been at it for 1:45 and the two young men who came in to do a sound check on the equipment in my room. I guess they figured I would appreciate the extra bass layered on top of what I was listening to. They were wrong.

Walking home with my ear buds in I was reminded of all the arguments I’ve been in with people who insist that iPods are safe for cycling. I walked directly in front of a motorcycle cutting across the parking lot, didn’t see it or hear it, I was so engaged with my tunes.

I got cleaned up and had a snack and decided to go out for a walk. No real destination in mind, I headed in the direction of the seacoast and of the giant flying saucer that overlooks the city deciding mid-route on the latter. I got turned around a bit but finally figured out the correct way to go. I climbed up through some small neighborhoods surrounding what must have been some sort of service yard though now abandoned and completely strewn with trash finally reaching the base of UFO Hill I stopped to assess my challenge – a half mile or so uphill on what must be the world’s longest deck. Why they decided to build a boardwalk up a hill is perhaps a decision best lost in the sands of time.

There were quite a few people going up and down, including a few elderly doing the walk up backwards. I passed many small groups of teenagers, apparently out for a day of flirting and romance. A couple of young girls said “hello” to me a couple of times before I realized they were talking to me, so deep into oxygen deprivation was I. It was steep, really, really steep. And such a nice follow on to my just completed spin routine. As though I needed more exercise to further counteract those Dove bars.

I rounded a corner and looked down on a small reservoir with a Dutch windmill standing guard by its dam. For some reason, these European windmills are not uncommon here. I finally reached the 2/3 point and stopped to look at the big bronze bell and the view of the city which on so clear a day was pretty spectacular. But I wasn’t done; I still had a bit more to go up a closed road to the top. It was either that or the stair route and frankly that didn’t much appeal to me.

I walked for a bit in parallel with a guy exercising his dog. It saw me and started barking, blocking my path. Well, as much as a small black and white Tibetan Spaniel can block one’s path. He called it over just as I was hearing in my mind all those admonitions about rabies vaccinations. I’m guessing I could have kicked it 20 yards before it had a chance to bite me.

Near the top I stopped to take in the view. Off to one side was the sea with the giant cranes at the port looming on the fuzzy horizon like big steel dinosaurs. A seaward wind must have been blowing in the valley between the peak I was on and the next one over because a steady stream of those colorful Mylar party balloons was blowing through the gap on their way to the ocean and perhaps that giant trash vortex that twirls out there in the middle of the Pacific. A couple of pheasants were calling down below reminding me that if I was home I’d be hearing the same thing out in the back arena.

I went on to the top and spent some time looking at the view and then headed back down and back to the hotel.

Today was the same routine, off to the gym where I was able to get through my entire routine without any noise or lighting issues. As I was leaving a Chinese belly dancing class was getting started and I was a tiny bit sorry to not be able to stay and watch what was almost certainly a chance for cultural enrichment.

I met some friends for coffee and then extended that into lunch at Eddy’s where a good old cheese pizza fit the bill nicely. From there I went over to a shopping “mall” to help them shop for a ping pong table. An interesting place selling everything from sporting goods to clothes to the most amazing collection of hardware I have ever seen. I stopped for a while to talk to a young man selling cell phones impressing him with my iPhone. He’d seen the Chinese knock-off but never the real thing.

And so here we are at the end of another weekend, sitting typing and drinking coffee. The expat experience in spades.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

2-5, 15, 55

Sometime in the wee hours of this morning it occurred to me that not all was lost with my phone. It was gone despite the dream I had in which a short Russian with a platinum bleached brush-cut knocked at my door and returned it to me and then went off down the hall refusing to say how he had found me. But while I would not see it again, it became clear to me that I would at least be able to save my phone number and the $40 balance in my account. I would simply head back to the nearest China Mobile store and get them to assign a new SIM to my account. And then go back to using my Chinese Nokia.

And that’s just what I did; only I brought along Ben my 2-in-a-box partner on this project figuring that while I could muddle through, it would be far faster to do it with help. And while it was faster, it was still darn slow involving lots of discussion, passports, signatures, PIN’s, a guard who stared straight at me for the entire 30 minutes I was in the store and a long wait for a message to come back from the system stating that all was no longer rotten in Dalian.

Today was my birthday and anniversary and as you can see from the title there were lots of 5’s involved. Significant milestones and a consummate drag to spend them alone. But I did garner quite a few wishes on Facebook and a couple of really cool e-cards and much to my surprise a birthday kit left by the hotel staff including a sugar cream frosted cake, candles, a card signed by the managers, paper plates and a single pink rose denoting their undying dedication. It was a nice touch for a day that was 15 hours ahead of my friends and family back in the world - my day being over just as everyone else’s is beginning which made it even a bit stranger. I capped it with a couple of kind friends who bought me a spicy dinner at 川人百味 my very favorite Sichuan restaurant across the street in the shopping mall. I wish I could say that it only took a plate of crispy fried pork skins, deep fried chicken knuckles, red chile oil pork stew, garlic green beans, Sichuan noodles and three or four Qingdao beers to smother any feelings of melancholy that came from spending an important day thousands of miles away from the people I love. But as My Lovely Wife put it this morning, “we’re apart on this anniversary and we don’t have to do it again” and honestly, that’s the real emotion simmering here.

While walking home tonight I had a chance to observe one more interesting thing about vehicles in China – not many drivers feel that headlights are a critical part of motoring at night. More than one of my co-workers has told me the story of having to tell their drivers that headlights are a good idea and that they expect them to be used. In fact headlight lectures go hand in hand with “please don’t use the crosswalk to angle across 4 lanes of traffic” and “it really wasn’t all that considerate to squeeze that bicyclist between our rear fender and that truck.” But while we might feel unsafe riding in a car in the dark with no lights on, the real potential for mayhem is directed towards those – pedestrians, motorcyclists, scooter riders – who cannot detect the large, dark iron mass attempting to simultaneously fill the same space as they are. No, where you really gain appreciation for this little feature of Chinese life is when you’re on the outside, trying to cross the street at night during “bus hour” when all those big 6-wheeled boats are stopping to gather the thousands of commuters unlucky enough to have a car. At this point, it becomes a sort of quasi-astronomy problem – buses are black holes and you can’t detect them by direct observation. Rather you only know they’re there by their effect on the space through which they are passing. You position yourself on the curb and you look upstream. If you can see an unbroken palette of lights and objects, you’re safe to cross. However, if some pieces of the visual fabric seem obscured in an ever-changing pattern by a large dark rectangle, devouring the light as it passes between you and its source, it’s best to wait until the phenomenon has passed lest you meet the pavement in a far more painful manner than I did last night when my right foot got the better of me.

So now another year behind me I’m sitting here writing, listening to 70’s rock, watching last night’s “Lost” download and pondering the un-pondered – is the silence of my little washing machine trying to tell me it’s time for fabric softener?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

My continuing run of luck

Life ebbs and flows here. Some days you sit back and think it’s a wonderful experience and a challenge. Other days you wonder why you even rolled out of bed. I suppose it’s that way back in the world, but for some reason the challenging days make you re-evaluate your situation far more than you ever would in your normal life.

I had a dinner invitation to a friend’s house tonight and decided to walk over after work. It’s about a mile and right on the edge of an easy evening stroll, but as always I was not about to give in to using my driver for such a piddling distance. So I had him drop me off and hung out at my hotel until it was about 20 minutes before I was due there.

I gathered my belongings – local cell phone so I could call from the guard house at the entrance to his development, iPhone in case something went wrong in my real life and my flashlight – and I headed out the door. It was a bit chilly and the air felt like it was going to snow but I figured it was a short walk and I could always catch a cab home if the weather turned bad.

Past the Bank of China tower I turned left and headed east toward my destination. A block or two down the road I jogged across the street cutting across a side street to the next main drag. I was having a look at a couple of Korean produce stores thinking perhaps I had found a good source of fruit when I suddenly found myself face down on the brick sidewalk; I had caught my toe on the curb lining a driveway. Surfaces in this country are bad, they’re either uneven or slippery or rough or in any number of conditions that make sure to throw you down if you don’t pay attention. I did manage to break my fall with both hands, but when you’re nearly six feet tall and weigh 160 pounds and are 50+ years old, it is never fun to go down onto a hard surface. Frankly, it’s just too far to the ground.

I dusted myself off and had a look around to see who was laughing at me but I was more or less anonymous in my embarrassment as it was dark on this street. I went on a block or so, still checking my condition when I realized my local cell phone was gone. I turned around and went back to have a look but it was nowhere to be seen.

Now I had a dilemma. I could not call my friend because I did not have his number in the other phone I had with me. I was bruised and bloodied but halfway between my house and my destination. I was not completely sure that I had even picked up my phone when I left the hotel so the decision I came to was to head back to the hotel to clean up and to see if my phone had been left behind. I turned around and walked the half mile back only to discover that it wasn’t there. I changed clothes, got cleaned up and faced with the decision of standing up my friends with no apologies or trying to bluff my way past the security guard, I decided on the latter. Back off I went.

Just to be thorough I traced my path back and still found nothing. When I finally arrived at my friend’s house, he was waiting at the gate so my worries of having to argue with the guard were avoided. We had a nice dinner and I went on my way in order to make sure I was back in time for a 10 PM meeting.

On the way home I had time to ponder the situation and decided to go and have a look one more time. That detour came to nothing, it was clear the phone was gone which means I am now doomed to another trip to the China Mobile store to try and set myself up with another phone number and another mysterious plan which I am sure will mean more dead phones and more trips to the store.

I’m a little surprised that someone could have picked the thing up so quickly and I suppose I might have dropped it elsewhere. Nonetheless, some person out there somewhere now has a password locked Blackberry with 284 Yuan in its account.

None of the little events I’ve reported lately would be terribly devastating if I was sleeping in my own bed and eating my low carb breakfast every morning. But here, where one’s perception and emotions are always on the edge simple things take on an importance that is far, far greater than their actual import. I had a great conversation the other night with my oldest kid about her Peace Corps experience and we both agreed that no matter how hard you try unless you’re living in a quasi-western country the day to day weirdness is guaranteed to overshadow any joy you might get from challenging yourself to do something on the extreme edge of your comfort zone. If you don’t accept that you’re off the grid, the next step is surely a panic attack. Unless of course you’re capable of wrapping yourself in the expat cocoon and blithely moving along letting the locals do your bidding. But I think the choice is twofold – you get down in the streets and see what it’s really like to live here (at least to the extent that a westerner can ever understand that) or you isolate yourself completely behind a screen of drivers and maids and remain protected from stupid things like falling on your face and losing your cell phone. Everyone is going to do what makes them feel the most comfortable and I imagine that there is a strong argument for choosing to be protected when you measure the actual benefit from exposing yourself to one failure after another. I suppose my answer to that is this – if I'm going to live in a foreign country I'm going to try to live in a foreign country, not Kansas. Even if it means a dozen more blogs detailing cell phone problems.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Do you ever wonder why things can't be easy? No really, don't you?

Today started out in a less than elegant manner. The last words I spoke to my driver as I stepped out of the car on Saturday afternoon were “Xingqiyi qi dian ban” or “Monday, 7:30 AM. “ So you can imagine my surprise when I went downstairs at 7:45 and he wasn’t there. This made twice in a row, Friday he was late because he stopped to buy gas apparently figuring gas buying time would be taken out of my commute instead of his. At 8:00 I sent him a text message which immediately bounced back – my phone was dead again. So I stood and waited until he showed up at 8:10 upon which my query as to his lateness was met with a “Sorry.” Yea, I bet he was. It’s an interesting thing having a chauffeur, you might think it’s liberating when in fact it’s incredibly restrictive. And I don’t like it a bit.

I arrived at work and put one of my local fellows to work figuring out what kind of cell phone plan I had that turned itself off at the start of every month. When I bought this phone back in November, I thought I understood what James my previous driver had gotten me into. I thought as long as there was a balance, I would be fine. And I started to check the balance religiously when the phone was dead upon my return in January. As of last Friday, I had 121 Yuan in my account so I was quite surprised when the phone was once again useless. After much yelling in Chinese my compatriot returned with the answer – I was on the 128 Yuan plan which meant I must keep a balance of at least that amount in order for the phone to continue to work. In other words my phone had been turned off for about $1.

We messed around for another hour or so trying to set up my local ATM card for internet purchasing which would in turn allow me to buy more time on the phone. That effort came to naught and so I was stuck with having to plan another trip to the China Mobile store to buy more time. Last time went so well I could only imagine how wonderful it would be this time around.

Having had a major communications failure that required being saved by an English speaking stranger back in January, I resolved to walk in this time with the proper question. I knew that waving my phone would help; I also knew that I needed to write my phone number down on a piece of paper. I put my phone in an easy access pocket access and I stuffed a note in with it and then asked around as to what the proper question would be. I had learned “Wo yao qin qian”, “I want to deposit money”, but none of the native speakers liked that approach. We finally closed on “Wo yao zhong zhi”, “I want to add value.”

I was dropped off at my hotel at 5:00, went upstairs collected some money and went back out to storm the China Mobile store, arriving about 5:15.

This time I knew the routine, I marched straight in past all the blue clad saleswomen who were staring at me gape-mouthed and went up to a young woman at the back counter. I waved my phone, pointed at my piece of paper and recited my lines. What I wasn’t prepared for was the response – some rapid fire Chinese followed by her return to whatever she was doing when I walked in. I tried again – no answer. By now, all of the saleswomen were staring at me and I was completely flummoxed. Looking around I saw a guy down the counter smiling so I took that as a sign of helpfulness and went there. More Chinese and I wasn’t getting it so he picked up a desk sign and pointed to the English in tiny letters on the reverse side, “Business is Suspended.” They were closed, even though they were open. I pretended to be hurt and then desperate and nothing helped. He just kept smiling and saying the same thing over and over. The best I could muster was to confirm that they closed at 5 PM and he responded with “yes.” Several women were now giggling uncontrollably behind the counters, I assume at me, and so I turned around and marched straight through the gantlet of laughter and right out the door.

I’d really had it this time. I stood out on the street corner for a solid 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do completely at a loss as to why this was so hard. I was beginning to understand why all my expat pals just send their driver off, but I refuse to give in to that solution. If I’m going to live here, I’m going to figure out how to do it. Of course, I could just come back tomorrow before 5, but I was tired of this place and my complete inability to do something that should be simple. Finally I decided to take another approach – I’d walk over to the An Sheng Mall and try my luck at their cell phone store.

The place was really busy but I managed to find a salesclerk who told me to forget it. This was a surprise because I had been told that you can purchase these little scratcher tickets in specific amounts to reload your phone and in fact, this was how I loaded it up the first time around. But not this time. She did indicate that I should go to the 3rd floor, so I figured “why not” and went out to the escalator trying to understand if the 3rd floor was really the 2nd floor as it is in countries where the 1st floor is really the ground floor.

I got off on the real 3rd floor and wandered about through women’s shoes and household appliances until I spotted a telltale blue China Mobile counter just past the sandals. I went over to a young woman near a computer (indicating some sort of money collection and data entry) and gave her my speech. She looked confused for a moment and then smiled and pointed to a young man down the counter. I went there and did it again and success – I’d solved the Riddle of the Phone. He got it, looked me up, pronounced my name, smiled, collected my 300 Yuan and printed me a receipt. I was on my way. Riding down the escalator I sent a message to check my balance and off it went into the ether.

I suppose that all of this goes to show that if you take your time, retain your wits and say the same thing over and over, eventually you will meet with success. But I think that’s only occasionally true – I think if you do all those things you might meet with success some small percentage of the time. I think it’s actually the luck of the draw; sometimes your persistence if going to pay off and the rest of the time you need to get your driver to do it.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Weekend Wrap-up, 2nd of February

My goal for Saturday was to visit two of the three Carrefour grocery stores in Dalian. Up until Friday night, I was under the mistaken notion that there was only one, the store I was familiar with from many previous visits but my driver enlightened as to the existence of the others. My store is a few blocks up from the Shangri La Hotel and I used to go there once in a while to convince myself that shopping in China was not that different than shopping in France, Carrefour’s homeland. And it might very well be since I’ve never shopped in France. I will say it’s nothing like shopping in the US or in Spain, as I had made a point of visiting their store down the street from our hotel on La Rambla. There was nothing wrong with the original store, it is just not easily reached from my current digs and so I decided to see how the others compared in hopes that their location would make for an easier visit.

I collected my companion from his home (at the Shangri La) and we were off intending to stop at the underground electronics city on our way to the first stop. Well, it was closed for the holidays something we finally discerned after two walks through the underground Wall Mart which did little for my mental composure. That place is a mad house just as most of the underground shopping “cities” are.

Our arrival at the first store was heralded by a fireworks display, an event so commonplace here during the holidays as to be worthy of being ignored. In the West fireworks are a big deal - you go at night, you “ooh” and “ah” and everyone goes away all the richer for the experience. I remember lying on the Brighton football field with my high school friend Margaret Ryan and watching them explode overhead a long, long time ago. I also remember the holes burned in my tweed sports coat from the descending embers. Here though nary a day goes by without someone setting them off to celebrate something and during the holidays it’s not just every day, it’s all day, every day. Unlike us, the Chinese go for noise not spectacle so you see them equally during the daylight hours and the darker times. And no one seems to care about the residuals - ankle deep piles of red paper from the 30,000 pack of 1” Black Cats litter every gutter in town. You walk down the street avoiding the smoldering or even outright burning piles of paper hoping to avoid the handful of unexploded ordnance that might still linger in the ashes. Given the access the average Joe has to powerful explosives (these are not those 12” tall fountains we buy with 1” tubes, these are the size of refrigerator boxes and hold 40 or more 4” tubes) I wonder what the injury rate is. At home they would have the Parade of Handless Children as a message to irresponsible parents.

Carrefour #2 (as we named it, giving the #1 appellation to the original store) was on a grimy boulevard on the far side of town and nothing special. We wandered through unimpressed and were back outside in perhaps 15 minutes. We left and went on to #3 passing more explosions.

#3 was pretty nice – a good selection of everything but western cheese, few people, clean floors and best of all it was much closer to my place and very close to Metro, the Chinese equivalent of Sam’s Club. We had a hit!
I did a little shopping and then went on to Metro to spend some time browsing. I was there once before in the very beginning of my stay under the supervision of a young woman named Jane from the moving coordinators. She was so helpful as to make my shopping impossible and I left that day without buying much. And I’d not had a good reason to go back in the interim. On this day though I slowly wandered the aisles with a big cart, one of the ones with the casters for all four wheels that make you twist and turn your knees in ways that they were not designed for all in a futile attempt to keep the thing moving in a straight line. The pickings were good, good enough as to make you feel as though you were copping out by not shopping in a local store. Well, no one is going to challenge my Chinese street creds so I figured I was safe picking up a jar of Pesto, some Gnocchi straight from Italy, Land O’ Lakes pepper jack cheese and the very best of all - paper towels. This meant I would never have to clean up a dropped egg with one of my semi-plastic dinner napkins. Wandering around there was almost as good as being at home. Well, it was actually nowhere near as good as being at home. Not even close, but the package of Old El Paso flour tortillas made me feel better for about 30 seconds. I was heading home to a Quesadilla for lunch.

And that tiny glimmer of joy held all the way back to the Shangri La to drop off Mike and then all the way back to the Kerren. I unloaded the car, headed upstairs, unpacked, grabbing the pepper jack, opened a Coke and ripped into my bag of floury gems. They were moldy. Lunch ended up being cheese, peanut butter crackers and a tangerine. Another slice in the Death by a 1000 Cuts.

By now it was 2:30 or so and I had a couple of hours of daylight left so I decided to go trekking. I’d been told by several people about Da Hei Shan – Big Black Mountain and the stair step walk to the top. Using Google Earth I’d calculated it being about three miles and so I gathered my camera and GPS, a bottle of water, a map and a candy bar and took off.

My GPS had recently been made very much cooler to look at with the advent of a complete map set for China. Problem is the Chinese government is worried that I might be calling in an airstrike so they only deigned to allow sales of the maps with a built in offset and that offset is probably 500 meters, or about ½ to 1 city block. And only in the -X direction. So if you follow your track on the device your footsteps fall between streets when you’re heading north and line up perfectly going east or west. If you’re trying to do turn-by-turn navigation in a city, it’s really hard to know where you need to go when your position precedes the upcoming street by a long shot. Hence the paper map to support the 21st century solution.

The route took me up above the main drag of Kai Fa Qu through one of the industrial districts looking much like what we would call maquiladoras if we were in Nogales. Canon and Pfizer were the two more famous names I came across. Up and up I walked passing through districts completely new to me.

After successfully negotiating the crossing of a 4 lane road with no crosswalks and little safe space in the middle I was on the street that led to the entrance of the park. I turned at the brightest yellow factory I’ve ever seen and continued to climb up through neighborhoods that were getting slummier and slummier as I neared the top. I’ve not spent much time in China feeling at odds with my environment but this place just had a bad vibe. One side of the street held rundown apartment blocks, the other a trash strewn concrete arroyo along one side of which were little shanties constructed of miscellaneous rocks, pallets and boxes clinging to the side of the hill. A single file of big brown chickens walked along the edge of the channel and upon arriving at their roost took turns jumping up and in. I made it a point of crossing the street as I approached little knots of men standing around smoking; for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like taking any chances today.

Once out of the neighborhoods I was in the woods on a nice paved road that ascended hills covered with small pines and oaks. People were coming down on foot from up above and while they stared at me, the bad feelings from below were washed away by the clean smell in the air and the relative quiet. I passed three boys, 10 to 12 years in age carrying a box, fireworks I imagined. As children often do here, they said “hello” in English and I always reply in both English and Chinese, which throws them for a loop. We exchanged New Year’s greetings in both languages and I went on.

I started to hear familiar bird sounds and found myself in a flock of Great Tits working their way through the trees. The Eurasian analog of our Black-capped Chickadee, it is always nice for me to see and hear them. For a few seconds I could almost imagine that I was walking along one of the ditches in my little village back home.

Far up above I could see a stone structure on the top of a ridge commemorating some battle from long ago. Eventually I reached the top and stood in the parking lot having a look around. By now it was too late to consider climbing the mountain so I walked on a bit more, turned around and headed back down passing a few people jogging their way up.

It was getting colder now as the sun had just dipped below the far ridge. I stopped for a moment to watch some elderly people doing something in the rocky stream down below. They had bottles and we crouched down scrubbing them in small, unfrozen pools of water.

Continuing on I saw the three boys again standing in the center of a partially frozen pond that backed up behind a small concrete dam. “Funny place to set off fireworks” I thought and I was puzzled by the hole they had chopped in the ice by the box that was now on its edge. Slowing down, I had a better look. One of the boys opened the box and inside was a tiny white puppy, plastered into an interior corner with a look of abject horror on its face. The boys were planning to kill it by drowning it in the hole in the ice. Apparently they did not want to put a hand in the box as one of them was trying to drag the poor dog out with the stick. The other two stood there laughing and looking around as only boys in the middle of something evil can do. I was at a complete loss lacking the language to tell them to stop, being unable to go out onto the ice to save the dog and having no means to take the dog if I could get it away from them. And even if I could do any of those things, I was deep within enemy territory and about to challenge children. I can’t think of a time in my entire life when I felt more angry, frustrated, appalled and helpless in a single moment. I shook my head, pulled my collar up against the wind and went on.

This morning I had dreams of sleeping in, having a date at 10 for coffee with Matt and his family and a later date for the weekly expat hike. Around 7:40, a noise similar to gas forced hot air heating woke me up. It was quickly surpassed by the sound of a Boeing 747 landing on the street out front and that in turn was outdone by the racket of a thousand TOW missiles being fired against Iraqi armor – it was the Sunday morning fireworks display and I’ve never heard anything like it. The noise followed a consistent sine wave, rising and falling among the three volumes I’ve described and it went on and on. In the US a fireworks display like this would have cost $100,000 and filled the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Park. I pulled back the drapes and took a look outside – the buildings that form the other two sides of the courtyard I look down on were completely obscured by smoke. I opened the window to get a better listen and the room quickly took on the stink of cordite.

And 75 minutes later, it was over.

The rest of today was spent on a pretty hike along the seacoast. We left the parking lot of the local American school about 1 in the afternoon and drove up and over a hill towards the sea where we were dropped off. Our path, lined with long middens of empty shells all arranged by species (who knows?) led up and over a ridge and then down along a lane with a few farm houses. The beginning made me think of Mexico and the enormous piles of shells I crunch over when out birding in the desert. At one house, Mr. Li, the 82 year old owner came out to have a chat. I told him I admired his home. We went down the lane, eventually arriving at a rocky beach where a few of the local residents were working on small fishing boats or cleaning bags of shellfish. One of the women in our group is from here and she struck up a conversation with one of the women from the village who was walking a big black Akita. It turns out that a Chinese real estate development firm has bought up all of the land around this beach with the intent of building a resort. We were instantly saddened by the prospect of these poor people being forcibly removed from their land and dumped in apartment blocks somewhere closer to town. The woman’s answer surprised me – she was glad to be getting out of that hardscrabble place and set up in a home with heat, electricity and hot water. I think we tend to romanticize the plight of the poor peasants when it comes to stories like this and this particular woman made that point loud and clear. But it made me wonder how Mr. Li might feel.

The walk was not easy, lot’s of climbing on loose rocks along cliffs overlooking the sea. A small squadron of noisy fishing skiffs made its way past us heading out to work in the aquaculture pens sitting off shore. In the near distance, two trees, more or less upright bobbed in the sea. We were trying to figure that one out when they were obscured by a dense cool fog that came rolling in from pretty much nowhere. For the first time the air smelled of clean ocean and not that rotten sea smell you get being around places where shellfish are processed.

Eventually we came to a large collection of concrete buildings set along an inlet in the coast. One of the workers came along and we struck up a conversation. He told us that the buildings were used to grow Sea Cucumbers. They were hatched and brought up until they were ready to be placed in the aquaculture pens we’d passed back along the coast. In his words, lots of money to be made in the Sea Cucumber business and judging from the prices I’ve seen, often in the hundreds of dollars, he wasn’t kidding.

From there it was along paved roads passing by a few tombs set up in the woods above the roads. Poor people here cannot afford a decent cremation so they bury their dead in the woods on east facing slopes. You tend mainly to see the tombs in areas associated with the kind of villages we’d just passed.

The last leg was up and over a rise by way of some woefully uneven concrete steps, pitched in a manner that prevented me from developing a rolling rhythm. I’m not sure what this place was, but the old fading concrete zoo animals suggested some sort of simulated nature path for children.

And that was about it for the day and the weekend - a ride home, dumplings for dinner, messing around with my Mac trying to download TV shows I’ve missed and one more night thinking about life. Not a lot of wisdom gained about the whole weekend expat experience aside perhaps some insight into the nature of peaks and valleys: paper towels can be a life changer but there may always be a moldy tortilla to bring you back to a more gritty reality.

(click to enlarge)