Monday, November 30, 2009

What do you do if you look outside an you can't see anything?

It occurred to me tonight that I might have lost most favored patron status at Starbucks. I ended up there following a quick trip to the department store to collect a bottle of wine for a dinner invitation (tomorrow night) and a box of grape juice to get me through the rest of the week. I’m down to one last liter of Blutorange and I hate to open it knowing full well that whatever is left behind will almost certainly not survive the 5 weeks I am about to spend in the US. And given that to me it’s a treasured resource, I’m not about to sacrifice the lion’s share for a single glass on Friday morning. So out I went to pick up those items and to have an iced Americano.

The traffic for tonight’s commute was absolutely horrid, a combination of an uncountable number of company owned commuter buses hogging the center lane, a single dead car and the normal amount of crazy Chinese driving. It was tough too because I had a passenger and so I was unable to spend any time talking to Jiang. He dealt with his stress by putting on his Backstreet Boys/Carpenters CD which has precisely the opposite effect on me. The three of us sat there commenting on the fog and looking for opportunities to advance our position in the jam.

Eventually I made it home and in the time it took for me to microwave the rabbit a friend’s wife had brought me from Chengdu, the lurking fog we’d had all day intensified to the point where I could no longer see the ground from my 24th floor window. It was so bad that I couldn’t catch a photo either as the camera had nothing to focus on. Even the neon on the buildings across the street was completely obscured. I decided to go outside right then and there, figuring that there would be some interesting photo ops down at street level. But before that I had my rabbit to eat accompanied by a big pile of Green Giant French Style Green Beans. This rabbit was quite different than the legs and thighs I normally have. It was more or less boned aside from its limbs and spine and it had lost its head somewhere in the process. I guess it had been braised and then re-cooked with the normal set of Sichuan spices because the meat was a deep crimson, but in the preparation someone had also taken the time to flatten it leaving it with the look of having been run through one of those old wringer washers. At least I suppose that’s what a rabbit run through one would look like, having never actually seen such a thing. They say looks don’t matter though and in the case of squashed bunny they might be right because it was darn delicious.

I loaded up and headed down the elevator. Outside everything was slick with a thick coat of dew. The cloud bank was not as thick as it was up at the level of my apartment, but it was still pretty opaque. The almost full Moon I’d seen when I left work had beaten it for more accommodating climes, knowing that no one in Kai Fa Qu would be enjoying its glamour on this evening. In my experience deep fog like this often has a damping effect on the sounds of the city, just like a heavy snowstorm. Here though I guess that is too much to expect because it was just as noisy as ever. I walked down the street stopping now and again to take a photograph and to answer my phone which for some reason had the idea that I was suddenly popular.

Winter here in northern China is governed by one of two styles of weather – incredibly cold, clear and windy or intolerably thick, gray and depressing. The latter is far more common, the product of too many wood fires, too many houses heated with trash and corn sheaves and too many uncontrolled power plant exhaust stacks. The fog associated with those producers always bears the characteristic odor of things on fire and I was quite surprised tonight that this batch didn’t stink too badly. Instead it had a mild aroma of conflagration that was held in check by rotting cabbage, car exhaust and plain old moisture.

In terms of temperature it’s either cold or colder and living within that range can be a challenge given the lack of control of the heat in one’s apartment. Plenty of hot water flows through the pipes, but there are no controls available to tune it to your liking. These days in my house I take advantage of the sun I get on the south side assuming it’s not too foggy and the rooms remain quite mild. Allowing the radiant floor heating do its work during the night ends up par boiling you under your covers because unfortunately it works a bit too well. Most evenings when I tuck myself in I turn on the air conditioner in my bedroom and set it to 65 degrees so that between it and the floor heating, the cold air and the blankets I get a nice approximation of my winter time bedroom back home, minus My Lovely Wife. Of course I could just open the window but I don’t like waking up covered in ash.

After my stop at the department store where I used my Chinese to put the little cashier girl into red-faced giggle shock, I headed under the street to get my cup of coffee. I say “under” because here at the intersection of Jinma Lu and Binhai Dajie the city government has kindly installed underground passages that allow you to reach any of the four corners of the intersection without having to brave the traffic. Recently they added huge arcs of Plexiglas and steel that look like the carapaces of some giant insect in the process of burrowing down into the Earth, their purpose I guess is to stop the elements from raining down on the marble steps that descend to the tunnels hopefully preventing them from becoming dangerously slippery. As in just how they were the last two winters I was here. The shells are a nice improvement, but I’d have been happier if they fixed the perpetually broken escalators which would allow one to avoid the marble steps in the first place. But no, those still stand silent and the stair treads are just as clogged with wet black garbage as they ever were even if their moisture content is not coming from the sky. At least the rain won’t go down my neck anymore.

None of the people I know from my favorite Starbucks crew were on duty tonight so I was just a regular customer. The place was full of 20-something Canadian boys going on about their local teaching assignments, or perhaps I should say “aboot”. They were interesting to listen to - so knowledgeable and expert in how to work the system to get temporary teaching assignments all over the world. At the same time they seemed blithely unaware that this place is hardly one that any of their peers back in the world would consider glamorous. Mostly the effect their conversation had on me was to make me wonder what the heck I was doing sitting here listening to them. But I know the answer to that; it’s all about the money and the Sichuan rabbit. Tonight though it was additionally about drinking iced coffee, taking some pictures of the fog and waiting for the end of the week to roll into view.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Have a lumpy roux? Use a cheese grater.

Unlike a regular US Thanksgiving, our Chinese version turned out to be a moveable feast and a pretty full weekend to boot.

A day of work after our great expat evening out led to a night of music and Sichuan cuisine. I had plans to attend the most recent installment at the Kai Fa Qu theatre, a string group by the name of Trio Broz. According to the musician’s biography, they are specialists in arrangements of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which I thought sounded pretty intriguing. When my regular music companions were laid low with what seems to be getting everyone around here I made plans with some other friends to pick up tickets and for them to collect me about a half hour before the concert for the short ride down the road. Normally I’d walk, but we were in the middle of a wind enhanced deep freeze so I though a ride might be in order.

As it turned out I would have been better off on foot since standing in place outside your building in the sub zero temperatures and a roaring wind while waiting for someone to show up has the undesirable effect of really freezing you to the bone as opposed to the mitigating influence you get from a power walk. Live and learn I guess, sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be downstairs on time particularly when people don’t show up and your lobby is only a couple of degrees warmer than your parking lot. Eventually I was in the car but by then I was pretty much frozen to the core and we all know how hard it is to overcome that, minus a hot tub.

The concerts here have been very good but you would never know it if you based part of your assessment on the ticket sales. I’ve never seen more than 50 people in the theatre and I know it must be hard for these performers to come half way around the world to this grease spot and stand on stage to receive an ovation from that few people. Their agents no doubt tell them this is their grand tour of Asia and it might be grand in terms of scope, but it looks hardly so in terms of attention. Tonight was no different – our tickets were purchased on the day of the show and we had the finest row in the orchestra section entirely to ourselves; the remainder of the concert goers were spread around the main floor.

I have to admire the Chinese parents who take the time and spend the money to bring their children to shows like this. We attend quite frequently in the US and you never see grade school kids at such performances. Here though you see them regularly and if only the parents could figure out a way to get them to sit still and pay attention the cultural impact would be profound. Instead the little boys crawl around on the floor, sit upside down on their chairs and generally cast their attention everywhere but towards the stage. Gratefully they normally leave at intermission.

The program indicated no Bach tonight; instead string quartets by Beethoven, Dohnanyi, Sibelius and Schubert in an unspecified order. While my favorite young woman always comes out and announces the next piece, you have to pay close attention to her rapid fire Chinese to catch the name of the composer. Generally you don’t and if you are not familiar with the piece you’re out of luck. Not that it really matters unless you want to rush home and buy it from iTunes.

Before the concert I had checked the Trio Broz web site and discovered an announcement about their tour - “From November 19 to 30 the trio will be for the first time in China, engaged in a tour in the most beautiful and prestigious halls of some of the main eastern megalopolis.” “Beautiful and prestigious,” enough to make you laugh if it wasn’t so sad. Barbara, Gaida and Klaus Broz make up the trio, playing together since 1993. Pretty amazing that a single family could produce three world class musicians and that they’d be willing to spend all their time together.

They came out on stage and you could see right away that ashen cloud of disappointment that washes over these sad people who show up here, passing across their faces as they squint through the floodlights wondering why the applause is so tepid. It isn’t that the audience doesn’t love them, there just isn’t any audience. They sat down on their patio chairs and the announcer girl came on stage. She is probably my favorite part of any show because her choice of clothing is always so interesting. Tonight, a plain brown top complimenting medium brown skin tight leather pants that were a bit too clingy in the wrong places. Finishing the ensemble was a pair of 5 inch diameter silver hoop earrings. I think she’s so sweet and so na├»ve that I’d like to strike up a conversation and buy her a cup of coffee.

Off in the distance I could hear a rhythmic thumping, no doubt some techno bleeding through from the badminton courts downstairs. I hoped it would stop.

The Beethoven piece was first and it was pretty well executed and lovely to listen to. At the end they stood up to take the applause and the middle sister, Barbara I think, had one of those looks on her face that must get her into trouble all the time. I know, because I have one too, sort of a “You have got to be kidding me, I flew all the way here and ate at the Inn Fine Hotel just to stand here and take this abuse?” She must wear her heart on her sleeve, because here innermost feelings were certainly pretty evident from her expression.

Sibelius was up next, appropriate I suppose since it was pretty much Finland outside. I didn’t like it all that well but the team gave it a good shot and they were rewarded with another solid albeit muted round of clapping.

After intermission they launched into the Dohnanyi work and it really didn’t do much for me being a bit too modern and way too frantic. But there were a few technical flourishes that made it interesting to watch. The Trio pulled a fast one on us after the third movement though, raising their bows in the universal sign of “we’re done, time to applaud” but it was a feint – they weren’t done and they were only tricking us into clapping to show what a bunch of rubes we were. And it worked, they even caught me. Barbara’s wry smirk passed to Gaida and Klaus this time.

Schubert closed the show and again I was not moved beyond the execution. Halfway through the piece the announcer gal came and sat right in front of me. I couldn’t have been happier because it meant I could distract myself from the music by paying attention to her.

She took a few photographs, turned her camera off and sat there playing with her fingers which I thought were unnaturally small - kind of a normal size at the base but tapering up to tiny little pads on the end that didn’t look adult. Sort of if you took a kids finger and grafted it to an adults at the middle knuckle. Bored with those, she took off those giant earrings and put them on her wrist like bracelets. And then she started playing with the skin on her neck, pulling it this way and that way in little pinches and folds. She pulled some sort of pins off of her shirt front and stuck them in her hair bun. Just as she started violently rocking her head back and forth, the music ended and she got up and went off to give a boot to the little kids with the bouquets.

At the end Trio Broz bravely took their bows, received their flowers and left the stage, never to be seen again. There simply weren’t enough people in the audience to bring them back for an encore. I was actually relieved; I couldn’t bear to watch poor Barbara’s suffering. And I’m sure they were even happier than I was.

We went from there to a favorite Sichuan place for too much food and 8% beer. I had my favorites – rabbit and green beans – along with a new duck dish that was excellent. My companions turned their noses up at my choices while imploring me to try their Tofu which I thought tasted like a kitchen sponge. When I sat, I had placed my coat on the back of my chair and the waitress had covered it was a cloth bag, no doubt to keep the food off. Nice touch except that it prevented me from putting in on when the current of cold air snaked its way from the open front door across the place to my lap. My core was still frozen and this wasn’t helping. But eating warms you up, especially food that is loaded with red peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. Your mouth gets so numb and burned simultaneously that you pretty much forget you’re shivering. I escaped the cold of the restaurant to the cold of the night just in time and my woes were solved later by soaking in a hot shower before bed.

Saturday dawned cold and windy but not enough of either to keep me off my bike. I went out to take my favorite loop along the ocean and suffered accordingly. It’s a tough ride and I was not up to it having been off the bike for 3 weeks due to illness and travel. But the day was sunny and I persevered, stopping at one point to chat with a man who was tending his flock of goats along the road. They were up on top of a road cut, slipping and sliding on the bright orange scree, one billygoat standing nobly at the top watching his flock. I told the man that his goat thought he was one of his mountain cousins, and the man laughed. To kill some time and gain a few miles I rode along another new road towards the city that parallels the ocean. The wind was bad now and I was getting genuinely cold but I did get to see big flocks of ducks on the bay and a Common Bustard, cousin to our big hawks, flew low across my path making my suffering worthwhile.

My second Thanksgiving was on Saturday night, this time forty or more people and lots of kids. Everyone pulled out the stops on the dinner, desert and wines and it was grand. I spent my time drinking a white wine that I’d brought only realizing at the end of the bottle that I was the only person working on it. One of the cool things about cooking and preparing here is the improvisation that takes place in the absence of things we take for granted. A white flour roux strained through a cheese grader and a bottle of red wine cleansed of its cork bits with a French coffee press. Sometimes you do what you have to do to get what you want.

We had one last bike ride for the weekend that was too hard and too long, the wind and the hills getting the better of me. We availed ourselves of a stretch of the Jinshitan road that was closed to traffic instead being used by hundreds of giant trucks ferrying loads of fill dirt from a spot up the road to a place where they are expanding the port. We had the right lane to ourselves while the trucks barreled along on the left, blowing their horns and proving Doppler right as the pitch of the sound changed by their proximity and position. At the loading zone backhoes were busily taking apart an entire mountain and putting it in the trucks to be dumped in the sea. Someone recently asked me if the world’s oceans were rising due to global warming or because of all the dirt the Chinese are dumping into them. We had to get off and walk a bit here because the road was truly broken. On the far side and wonderful peace set upon us as it was still officially closed to traffic but now with no trucks. When you get silence in China you notice it right away because it’s completely unusual. We had the wind at our backs and it was so quiet you could hear the dried Plane Tree leaves skittering down the pavement. At one point I rode parallel to a small red mesh bag, decorated with gold filigree that was silently tumbling end over end, buoyed by the wind.

We rode along the beach which was completely deserted, not a single person out for winter’s walk. At the end of the strand we climbed up from and along the sea to a new suspension bridge that spans a canyon in one of the headlands here. On the far side of it our plan became suspect because we were faced with a long steep slog into a howling wind that about ended my day right then and there. At the top we divided an energy bar and a bottle of water and wondered what the hell we were thinking.

Approaching the dirt depot from the other side, we rode gingerly in among the trucks themselves trying to stay upright in the mud while avoiding getting run over by the behemoths going this way and that. I had to get off the bike to cross a tall dirt barrier and one of the drivers laid in hard on his horn lest I slow his forward progress.

On the home stretch we came upon an accident – a minivan had driven off the road and into a bridge abutment. The front of the car was destroyed – pieces everywhere and a gang of men were standing around looking at the ground. When I finally took the whole scene in I realized they were staring at a man stretch out on the pavement, no doubt pulled from the car; or perhaps an unfortunate pedestrian in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dead or unconscious, I don’t know, but he certainly wasn’t moving. I looked quickly away and rode on.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving in China, 2009

Tonight was my second Thanksgiving in China and it made me think about how that had come to be.

Last year Thanksgiving fell about a week after I’d arrived, and it was the topic of one of my first serious essays telling the story of my China adventure. I remember that I was just getting my feet on the ground and making the transition from the natural born isolated, anti-social me to the expat me, one with friends and a social calendar. I debated at the time whether or not going to someone’s house, a co-worker to boot for such a traditional holiday was something that I really wanted to do. But at the urging of My Lovely Wife I decided to do it and so I arming myself with 4 or 5 bottles of wine and a big bouquet of flowers for the lady of the house and off I went. As it turned out, I had to be the “dad”, the carver of the turkey and the organizer of the dinner because no one else there had ever filled that role. And I had a great time; it was a true family day and just what I needed at the time.

This year was different. Our favorite expat bar entrepreneur Wayne Hou conceived of the brilliant idea of a traditional Thanksgiving meal for his favorite patrons. So we made our reservations, aligned our tables and went into town, braving the rush hour traffic to try and capture a bit of home in this dark corner of Asia. On the way in I practiced my Chinese, attempting to relate the tale of how Turkey is a big deal and the father stands at the head of the table while every sits around and observes his carving technique. Minus the tones, it comes out along the lines of “Tamen zou zhou de pangbian, baba zhan qie houqi”. Remember that for next year’s meal.

Tonight was wonderful in its own way, conjuring up scenes of people around the world, far away yet carrying on in a way that brings some regular life to their situation and location. A couple of tables of people, lots of wine and beer and the feast – roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots and believe it or not, green bean casserole. Topping it off was as sophisticated an apple crisp as I’ve ever had. Between the laughter, the food and the drink, it was almost possible to forget where we were and why we were there. A great idea that bore itself out in the result, reminding me that real life can be just below the surface of this place. A thing that’s often hard to remember and yet one that can truly make or break any given day. A night like this will never replace being in my home with the ones I love, but at least it went quite a ways towards making this place seem just a bit better than it did yesterday.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Will Shortz pulls a fast one on me, my health suffers and the sun rises again

It was nice to be home even if most of my time was spent fighting off some strange Chinese flu-cold that would not respond to even the most nuclear medicines. Now normally I see some improvement in symptoms from any of the regular suspects – Benadryl, Alka Seltzer, decongestants – but this disease had a mind of its own. It laughed in the face of single doses and chortled louder when I doubled them up. And when My Lovely Wife came down with it and had the same response, well, I pretty much understood right then that we were not dealing with a dime store variety head cold. Who knows what it was, but at least it’s mostly gone.

I suppose it didn’t help my case that I laid around on the couch for a couple of days and then went off to a hotel in Phoenix. Even then things might not have been too bad had I not been given a room that had clearly suffered from some sort of environmental disaster. My guess is that a smoker used the room before me and the hotel responded by fumigating with some sort of cloying industrial strength de-stink-ifier which in turn put me into some kind of shock. For most of last week I couldn’t figure out if I was fighting the flu or my body’s response to chemical overload. In the end it didn’t matter, I came home after a couple of days returned to the couch and waited out the last of whatever it was that I’d brought home with me. At least my house didn’t smell like an engineered aroma. I took it easy and finally beat this thing back, all the while guiltily watching My Lovely Wife sink into despair as it took hold of her.

I’m a bit of a crossword fanatic, and because of my time spent away from home I had to develop a strategy to keep pace with one of my life’s loves – the Sunday New York Times puzzle. I’ve done it pretty regularly since my teens, with gaps here and there always closed by catching up on the puzzles I’d saved. This job though put me on the road so much that I simply couldn’t keep pace so an accommodation was in order. Thinking about it for a bit, I finally decided to copy the puzzles during spells at home and carry them around to do on airplanes. And this worked quite well until the other night.

I’ll admit to being about 3 months behind at the moment so my folder is a bit fat. When I left for Phoenix the other night, I only brought two forms of entertainment – my eReader and my folder of crosswords figuring I’d finish one up and start another on the short hop over. And the plan worked just fine, I completed a puzzle I’d started the previous week on the ride home from China and started another. Cruising through it, I came up to 77 down and realized that the clue was missing. Looking ahead, I found that the clues from 77 to 93 were simply not included on my sheet. I pulled out the next week’s puzzle and the one after that, eventually skipping ahead to the final copy I had, from the 1st of November. Lo and behold, they all had a huge gap in clues, 15 to 20 of the final “down” questions. Something had changed.

I pulled out the previous puzzle, successfully completed, and had a look – they’d changed the layout of the puzzle page in the magazine, increasing the puzzle square and extending the clues down the middle of the page. Essentially I had 22 puzzles waiting to go, missing a third of the clues. For grins I tried to forge ahead but found quickly that it’s tough to clean up the bottom of a puzzle when you don’t know what questions are being asked. Especially all those dozens of short on letters “down” words. The saddest thing perhaps is that the old way allowed me to copy the puzzle across the page in “landscape” which gave me a nice wide tableau to work with in my lap. The new design requires an upright copy and is far less lap friendly. Ah well, progress marches on.

So my special thanks goes out to Will Shortz for allowing me to copy a pile of puzzles that now reside in my scrap paper pile. I guess I’m glad I figured it out between Albuquerque and Phoenix and not San Francisco and Beijing.

Last time I flew out of Albuquerque I had the sublime experience of watching the early glancing rays of the sun catching the tips of the canyons and mountains of New Mexico and Arizona. Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera in hand and so missed recording them. Today I was prepared, taking my first picture of the bleak empty Albuquerque Sunport runway at dawn, a picture that pretty much sums up how I am feeling today. While today’s sunrise show was not as nice as last time’s – it was much hazier today – I did jump up and get a few nice shots of the Grand Canyon at first light. The Captain announced its presence on the right and I jumped out of my seat and headed over there, that row being thankfully empty. I spent a while sitting there soaking it in until the flight attendant who had snuck into the next seat scared the heck out of my by simply being there unexpectedly. She was wondering what I was looking at.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the 13th Part 2

I suppose a truly superstitious person would go into some sort of anaphylaphobic shock spending what seems like 48 hours stuck in a perpetual Friday the 13th. It makes me wonder why the producers of that particular horror movie franchise didn’t think of that - have the plane leave Asia and fly eastward into a perpetual date and wrap the hacking and slashing abound in the parts of the plane where drinks aren’t free and seats aren’t big. In other words the place I just spent the last 11 hours.

Lately when I’ve failed to hit the business class lottery I’ve made sure I had a nice bulkhead seat at the front of the expanded economy cabin. The upside is no one jams there seat back in your face and your leg room is bounded by a wall and not a low hanging metal bar on the bottom of the seat in front of you. The downside is that I rarely can avail myself of one of the little known perks associated with my status – empty seats are generally laid out next to people with lots of miles in the bank. My traveling companion ended up alone amid three seats on this trip, I got to sit next to Yao Ming’s cousin.

Boarding first is nice because you are assured of having enough overhead storage space. It’s bad because you sit there for what seems like an hour assessing the people coming down the aisle and prayer that the odious ones are not going to sit next to you. I will say that by and large I’ve been lucky over all these miles having only a couple of real bad row mates – one or two guys suffering from garlic scent, the guy that broke my knee cap by jamming the tray table in the seat between us down into it and the young fellow who pulled up his hoodie and spent 13 hours violently fidgeting to some sort of Death Metal soundtrack on “repeat forever.” Today my luck held until the very last minute when a couple of 7 foot tall fellows came down the aisle and planted themselves in my row.

We ended up being an odd collection in Row 17 – me, Skyscraper 1, a little Indian guy, Skyscraper 2 and a little American. Apparently these two were part of some large Chinese sport contingent judging from what appeared to be coaches who kept wandering up from the back to disturb me and the 5 or 6 dozen more diminutive fellows in green-trimmed navy running suits who also came by to stare. Most annoying was the female coach who came by three or four times to collect their passports in order to fill out their customs forms, something they were either too important to or incapable of doing themselves. The last visit was the best by far, we were in some sort of stomach churning turbulence patch, the pilot was demanding seatbelts, the coachwoman was going through the paperwork and a flight attendant was yelling at her to do so later. She kept on lecturing the boys in Chinese and acted as though no one was talking to her at all.

When I bought these tickets I happened to notice that the “special food request” button was checked, something I neither did not wanted but being the adventurous guy I am, I let it go. The mystery deepened when the agent at check in confirmed that I was in fact a “south Asian vegetarian”, a blatant falsehood that I made no attempt to disabuse her of. And when dinner came I was served not only first but in being so I was able to form an instant bond with the other genuine south Asian sitting in my row. While the others waited, we chowed down on spicy vegetable curry. I will admit though that my six pieces of melon did not come close to being as satisfying as the little block of chocolate cake the other guys got. You win some and you lose some I guess.

Back in the US, the airport sights always seem to rise up and welcome me back. A nice stack of buttermilk pancakes, a fat girl in a black spaghetti strap tank top with – I kid you not – the Chevrolet Camaro insignia tattooed between her shoulder blades and a tiny tech-ette busily typing away on her Blackberry while standing in line to get into the lounge as though her time was too valuable to waste talking to the desk agent who was trying to solve some kind of problem for her. Yes, China may have its charms but so does my homeland, uniquely absurd in their own right and yet common in their ability to amaze. At least in this airport I’ve yet to see a woman spit on the floor in front of her chair and then delicately attempt to rub the result into the marble. Here, we have carpet.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flying on Friday the 13th

Some call it madness, others say it's so outrageous as to wrap around into being a good choice. Whatever it is, my luck today has been pretty mixed, but at least the bad stuff has been funnier than maddening. I'm not particularly triskedekiphobic so I generally don't care, particularly if it means going home.

I left work a bit early yesterday to commence the Ritual Charging of the iPods. I travel with three Nanos, a Touch and an iPhone so I have to set aside a few hours just to fill everything up with electricity. I spent the afternoon doing that and watching the weather - a steady downpour that promised to add some color to my trip to the airport. I left instructions Jiang to come early if the roads were bad, but they weren't and he didn't and by dawn they were pretty much dry. After picking up a friend we made good time to the airport, delayed only by the time it took to get a boarding pass.

Ironically, the plane was leaving from Gate 13.

I've been sort of a Chinese drug mule on my last two trips, bringing home some of the art I've acquired during my stay. I like calligraphy scrolls and so I stopped by my favorite artist, once voted China's best painter of Tigers, and picked up a nice collection for home. The come in these flimsy 2-part green cardboard boxes, good for about one trip home and relatively unwieldy.

We boarded this morning not through a jetway but via the bus, and when we pulled up at the plane, I got caught in the human stampede. At which moment, one of the scrolls decided to fall out of its box. I grabbed it and shove it back in only to see it pop out the other end, straight through the flap. Now I'm embraced by humans, shuffling forward and trying to get the scroll back in the box and in doing so, I shoved it through the other end. A Chinese woman tapped me on the shoulder and warned me it was falling out, which was fine except it was falling out both ends. I delicately perfected a balance, handed the agent my ticket with my teeth and crawled up the stairs only to be stopped at the top by a howling Siberian wind. I told the flight attendants who were there to greet me that it was cold enough for me. She said it was worse in Beijing.

The flight was non-eventful, at least until I convinced myself that I had forgotten to pick up my computer in security. I worried about that until we landed and I was able to check and see that it was there in its little leather home.

From there all was fine and dandy until the rope handle came untied while I was on the moving walkway, spilling all of the scroll boxes on the rubber treads. Off to the side for a quick re-tie and then on to check in where I begged for some baggage tape in hopes that it would get me through to the next stop. At this point, the only thing left to worry about was the fraying rope, caused by the handle I improvised out of some parts left over from my gutter repair project.

I'm sure it will all work out.

Stuff is happening around these parts

There have been some pretty big changes around Jun Yue Ho Ting, my home away from home leading me to believe that either someone new acquired the building or that they’ve been reading a book about modern apartment building management. First of all they have seriously upgraded the trash situation. Previously we had a trash can down by the front door and it wasn’t much of one, the type you’d have in typical American pantry although just a bit taller. And of course that wasn’t nearly big enough to serve the needs of the 112 apartments in my tower. It always paid to get your stuff down there early lest it end up having to go on the sidewalk. And in the summer time it was pretty rank.

When I first moved in my relocation consultant stood in my doorway and stared at my hallway and told me that I should just put the trash in the stairwell. That didn’t make a lot of sense to me but sure enough a couple of days later my neighbor had a demure bag of wet garbage sitting on the floor outside their door. So I figured I’d test the system with all the cardboard from my IKEA furniture. I broke it down neatly and left it stacked in the hallway where it remained for several weeks. Finally I became so embarrassed that I started a collection of it behind the exit doorway and there it remained for a longer time, finally disappearing during one of my extended stays in the US. I finally figured out that the garbage dump was down by the entrance and not on my floor.

But there were a couple of problems with this process. First there is the floor in the elevator that becomes quite sticky with the drips from the dozens of garbage bags making the trip downstairs. That and the occasional lettuce leaf or little squashed pile of grape skins tends to downgrade the perceived quality of our domicile. And it makes for a lot of nasty stuff getting tracked into your apartment.

Secondly there is the embarrassment of the garbage itself. Discarding your trash is a highly personal affair, one that should not be shared with your fellow citizens and I always felt weird when I would head out in the morning, dressed for work with my messenger bag over my shoulder and my dripping bag of sink residue in my hand. I always made sure to drop the bag with a flourish and a flick of the wrist when I passed the steaming mound figuring if I showed enough disdain someone might notice and do something about it.

Eventually I went to taking the trash down under the cover of darkness, that change being precipitated by the cases of empty Pellegrino bottles I’d started to acquire. It was just too hard with my work stuff, my leaking bag and a box of glass to pull it off in one short trip

The other morning I was waiting by the elevator with a small bag of wet stuff when one of the cleaning staff took a look at me and came over. She said something to me in Chinese and beckoned me along to the stairwell where I found a brand new bright blue garbage can standing smartly in the corner, softly lit by the morning light – the trash process had been revised! She removed the lid and instructed me on how to drop my bag into the can, which I did. She praised my accurate aim and applauded my effort. We no longer have outside trash making me wonder what the hallway is going to smell like come August.

The second change of interest was the disappearance of the security guards. I’d become pretty good friends with a few of them, discussing the weather and the absurd (in their estimation) length of my bike rides. I’d come down in my spandex and they’d come out and admire my bike and ask me where I was going. When I would tell them, they would shake their heads in disbelief and say something to the effect that I was out of my mind. On Mondays they would give Jiang the whole story, so that he was informed about my weekend even before I got in the car. Their place in the lobby was different, a cheap Formica desk, an ashtray and cot. Often two of them would be sitting at the desk eating Chinese takeout (yes, they do it too) and smoking. One day the lobby was cleaned out and they were gone.

I still saw them once in a while, a hearty smile and a wave from whoever was sitting in the guard shacks out back manning the car gates or when they jogged around the building in the morning before coming on shift. In the latter case I imagine their sergeant didn’t appreciate it when they all broke ranks and waved and yelled. It was nice for me though.

Last night when I came home a makeshift desk was back, this time fortified against the cold with a couple of cardboard boxes and a heat lamp. A new guy was there, decked out in a surplus Red Army winter jacket and a big fur hat. I said hello and he responded but I’m not sure he was one of my buddies. The lights were out and it was hard to tell.

The last of news is my heat. I woke up this morning and my corner unit told me it was a toasty 71 degrees in my flat, a surprise since I had turned it off last night. I immediately ran to the kitchen and thrusting my head under the stove discovered that the water pipes were hot – the heat had been turned on a whole 3 days early! When I got in the car this morning I asked Jiang about it and he said that he still was freezing in his house. He told me that if enough people call up the government and complain, sometimes they turn it on early and I guess my neighbors were a persuasive bunch. I asked him why not everywhere and he said, “new houses first.” Not sure if that was true or just a guess but it didn’t matter, I am no longer walking on a glacier.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Personal Comfort Commissar declares that it shall be cold on November the 15th

I returned to my apartment after flying half way around the world and walked into an ice box. Well, that’s a slight exaggeration but it was 17 degrees C and in our western nomenclature that spells C-O-L-D especially when you’re tired, frazzled and 15 hours out of sync. Although some might consider 62 degrees to be just about right, I suppose it is if you’re sitting outside in the sun.

Part of the problem was that I had left the air conditioners running which although now pumping outside air had certainly contributed to the super-cooling that had occurred over the previous two weeks. Capping the enjoyment of my arrival was the fact that the place smelled like a combination of dirty babies and a fish fry. Imagine a diaper pail next to the deep fryers in the kitchen of a seaside restaurant in the Florida summer time and you get the idea. It wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t enough to make me throw up on the spot.

Now my apartment has no indication of any kind of central heating and we know it doesn’t have central air because I have 4 units scattered around the house. The wall systems in the bedrooms and my study are small, and reportedly scared of the refrigerator sized monster I have in the dining room. After bundling up and getting a bite to eat I decided to tackle the monster figuring anything that big can’t be simply an air conditioner. So I got the remote control and punched some buttons but nothing really changed and honestly, having just spent 27 hours on the road my brain was not up to the task. I turned it off, threw an extra blanket on the bed and went to sleep.

Wednesday morning I got up and it was colder yet so I had to act. I opened the slider to my laundry room nee sun porch and cranked up the dryer figuring the lack of an external vent would finally pay off for me. I did get the room up about 1 degree which caused the icicles on the dining room chandelier to start falling with a loud report.

I had to go to both the police station and the local government to register my return from the States and to re-apply for my Alien Employment License so I had Jiang waiting for me downstairs around 8:15. It was nice to go outside and warm up a bit and he must have been either reading my mind or the daily reports from the intelligence services because he had a tall Starbucks coffee waiting for me, what a great guy. On the way to the police station we had a chat about my heating situation. I had heard in the past that the heat in China is controlled by the government. As in they have steam plants scattered around the cities and they decide when it’s time to warm people up. And I’d heard an English language news broadcast while waiting for my plane in Beijing, a story centering around how angry the locals were because it had been pretty cold in the capital last week and the heat was not yet on. The government had explained that the engineers needed to clean the pipes and do some tests and everything would be flowing before anyone actually froze to death. Apparently that response was not popular since just about anyone might figure that perhaps the engineers merely needed to start a couple of weeks earlier. Jiang told me that November 15th would be Heat Day here in Dalian and that we’d just have to wait. He said the northern cities get theirs before everyone else and that meant the 1st of November. Dalian, being a “warm city” was down the list a bit. The prospect of existing at 62 degrees for two more weeks did not warm the cockles of my heart.

It turned out that my appointment was an hour later than I thought so I decided to head back home for the remaining 45 minutes. On the way there, Jiang convinced me that my monstrous dining room unit had to be a heater as well so I resolved to figure it out, being now of sound mind after a decent night’s sleep.

The great thing about Chinese appliances is that their buttons are in Chinese. I’ve been through this with multiple washing machines and the way I’ve arrived at clean clothes is to just punch buttons until the water flows and then walk away. A heater/air conditioner is a bit different because there is no water to come on. Air might flow but who knows if it’s going to be hot, cold or indifferent? And unlike my washer whose display was limited to times, this unit was covered with little illuminated icons that I could sort of make out under their smoky plastic covers.

I took the remote control and tried a few things, figuring I’d start with the air conditioning because that had been working quite well. I raised and lowered the temperature but nothing substantive happened – it kept blowing ambient air. I suspected that the “snowflake” icon probably needed to shut off so I proceeded to push buttons on remote. I did manage to raise and lower the fan speed, but air flow volume really wasn’t a concern at this point. One button turned on a cute leaf icon; I suppose indicating some kind of “green” power management. But the snowflake was obstinate and no matter what I did, it continued to taunt me.

I got a bit closer and looked at the other icons – there was one that said “power save” and one that looked like a chemistry drawing representing some kind of Oxygen processing. The was a big drop of water with a negative sign in it and a frying pan with heat radiating out of the center. A clock and something that looked like three hard boiled eggs standing on their ends under a bridge with waves coming out of their points rounded out the right side of the panel. On the left we had that annoying snowflake, the leaf, a fan and the universal automobile symbol for recirculation. Those, plus a sun.

Nothing I did with the remote was working so I switched to the buttons on the system. Nothing I did would illuminate anything on the right side so I concentrated on the left pushing one button after another and on in particular that seemed to cycle through the options. The leaf came on and the snowflake went off. The snowflake came on and joined the leaf. The fan and the recirculation light blinked off and on in concert. Finally the sun came on and the air stopped flowing. I adjusted the temperature to something absurdly warm and stood there – no air. I ran through the sequences again and the snowflake returned, newly emboldened and refusing to leave. I finally managed to get the sun to kick the snowflake off but still no air. I got thinking that perhaps the sun was for really hot days and so would give me even more cold air. All the while I’m doing this, the automatic vents at the top are opening and closing like the eyes of some giant cold water fish, nearly frozen to a stupor. I stepped back and watched, resolving to touch nothing for five full minutes. Four minutes and 15 seconds into my button pushing fasting period the fan kicked on and hot air began to flow. The sun was the answer and the lag was due to the internal nuclear furnace building up the heat necessary to flow – I was on my way to warmth!

Later that day I had a discussion with my Chinese colleagues about this whole heat situation. While I was now willing to accept the fact that the Worker’s Central Heating Committee of the People’s Republic of China was going to control the day that my place would be warm, I was not yet willing to roll over and let them control the temperature too. You see, my place has no thermostat. Everyone told me the same thing – “no”, no control. I sent a letter to my relocation consultant who at least cleared up the method – radiant floor heating adding that if I was not happy with the temperature or if any major leaks occurred, I should give her a call. I was not satisfied with this and so I asked around until finally I heard a tale, almost certainly apocryphal of valves and pipes, secreted away somewhere in every apartment, giving that tiny bit of control in this totalitarian society. I resolved to find them and following lots of crawling around, knocking on the walls looking for hidden panels, measuring rooms looking for unmapped spaces and peering in closets, I found the valve manifold – it was right there, under the stove.

And so now we have it – the water comes on the 15th, my dining room unit blows hot air on demand and if the two of them try to roast me, I can crawl under my stove and stop down the valves to limit the flow. Of course under there I will have to act on the main flow valves because the room pipes are not labeled but I suppose gross control is better than no control at all.

Can you imagine what it would be like in the US if it was up to your congressman to decide what day the heat came on? Perhaps the Tea Party and right wing talk radio people should shut up and count their blessings.