Miss Gioia

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shanghai in 80 minutes

For the past year and a half, I have been flying back and forth between Taiwan and the mainland, always having to change planes in Hong Kong. Beijing to Taipei took 10 hours; Shanghai to Taipei took six. It was awful. You can understand, then, how this NY Times article nearly made me cry today.*

"The planes will also fly in a direct line between cities over a route north of Taiwan. Charter flights between China and Taiwan currently take a longer route through Hong Kong airspace because of security concerns. Under the new routing, direct flights between Taipei and Beijing will take two hours, and flights between Taipei and Shanghai will take 80 minutes."

And then I thought about all of the tourists about to descend upon Taiwan, and I cried for real.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Since I Am Already Blocked in the PRC...

Here are a couple of plum news articles from the past few days.

For the Olympics, China designated "safe zones" where people supposedly can protest approved things. They were announced just before the games started, but you needed to apply for a permit to protest anything... which would take at least 10 days to process. HA. Apparently the three protest zones are hard to find and secretive.

And here is the kicker - two ladies* in their late 70s who applied for permits have been sentenced to one year in a reeducation camp. In the words of Ms. Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, no I am not shitting you. Let a hundred flowers bloom, right?

Some Americans - crazy as it would seem - decided to try to protest against China's "involvement" in Tibet even without a permit. And then were promptly thrown in jail. Granted, these people probably should be doing time in prison for just being exceptionally stupid, but still.

Oh China.

Those women must have lived through some crazy times. It is one thing to stand up against the government, but it is a whole other thing to stay brave and strong after you lived through the Great Leap Forward.


Friday, August 8, 2008

Olympic Opening Ceremony

Is it wrong that we ordered take-away Indian food to eat while watching the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony?

So I will be the first to admit that I have been disparaging the Beijing Olympics for months now. Beijing traffic sucks, and the pollution is absolutely unbearable.* Yeah, I have been pretty down on the China Olympics lately. "Everyone will see the problems there," I said. "Just you wait."

But tonight, watching the opening ceremonies, I softened a bit. It was beautiful. Really beautiful. The tai chi, the sand painting, the choreographed oar routines. Give China enough time to throw a thousand people at a goal and they will make it work. Chinese culture does have graceful, dramatic, inspiring elements. They all came together in tonight's show.

The parade of athletes was exceptionally fun because the countries were sorted by simplified Chinese characters, not by the Roman Alphabet with which we Westerners are so familiar. It was a big surprise seeing which country came next in the line-up. Another surprise: the US team's outfits. White newsboy caps? Really?

So fun. My only regret is that Gioia is not old enough to see this.

* For the record, I have lived in Manila, so me saying the pollution is bad means it is really awful.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Drive Through Immigration

I had to fly to Shenzhen yesterday. Well, kind of. You still can't REALLY fly direct to China from Taiwan, so I flew to Hong Kong and then had a car drive me to the Shenzhen hotel.

The crazy thing about the journey was this: the immigration check-points are drive-through. As in, you hand your passport and immigration form through the car window - first on the Hong Kong side to leave and then on the China side to enter - and then smile really big while the officer looks at your picture and then at you and then at your picture...

Five minutes, tops. And I didn't even have to get out and stand in the humid South China air. Um, yes, I would like an order of fries, a Big Mac, oh and permission to enter China please.


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Sunday, May 25, 2008

You Know Me Well

According to the stamps in my passport, I have been to Hong Kong eight times in the last twelve months. And that does not even count the times that I transited through on my way to/from Taipei before moving here last October. Thank goodness that the new government has announced that direct flights to the mainland will start in July. Only on weekends at first, but that is certainly better than the current state of play.

On a related note, we applied for a China visa for Miss Gioia this week so she can come with us on our trips. The process requires that she surrender her China passport so the powers that be can invalidate it. Neither China nor the United States allow for dual citizenship in this particular case, so I suppose we made the citizenship decision for her a long time ago. But still, the surrendering of her China passport made me very sad.

Even my secretary came back into my office after I handed her all of the paperwork and said: "Are you SURE!? Do you really want to do this?" Umm, yes, I have contemplated the repercussions and am sure about the decision, but thank you for making me feel worse about it.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Six Tree Temple

We are all sick today in the hotel room. Baby G gave us her cold, and she now is suffering from what seems to be a teething fever. Poor little girl. Therefore, I am just popping in to share some snippets from our touristy day yesterday.

So there was this guy a long time ago who came across a temple in southern China. He said - dudes, this temple has six banyan trees in the courtyard. And he picked up a tablet and wrote down two characters" "six" and "banyan tree." Ever after, the temple was known as the six tree temple, or Liu Rong temple. Seriously, I did not make this up.

Chris climbed the pagoda, but acrophobic me stayed below. While we waited, Gioia attracted some attention. Here is my sneaky snapshot of the ladies crowded around.

Silly temple movie is below, and more pictures are here.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Saturday in Guangzhou

We had a lovely outing on Saturday in Guangzhou. As usual, Miss G slept through most of it on her daddy's chest. After lunch at IKEA, we headed to the other side of town for a puppet show. I was expecting New Year's lions and cute little cuddly puppets - like singing frogs or something - but instead it was a Chinese folklore puppet show. Quite disturbing actually.

The essence of the story was this. There was a bad monkey warrior and a good monkey warrior. The bad monkey kept impersonating the good one, who was only trying to protect his good master on a pilgrimage to a holy mountain. The bad monkey stole the master's purse of gold, so the master's other companion (a pig with big porcine boobies) went to find the monkey. He found two, though, and couldn't tell them apart. So they went to seek enlightenment. First, to Kuan Yin, the female bodhisattva. She was no help. Then they descended into hell, where some officials looked in important books, but still could not tell the two apart. Finally, they all ascended to the BIG buddha, who discerned the true monkey from the false one through a series of profound questions. Then buddha told the good monkey not to hit the bad one (which was odd, because they had been stick fighting throughout the whole show), and then banished the bad one for 500 years.

The show had decapitation, hanging, hell, demonic smoke and lights, swordplay and other dark things. All for kids. It was a very interesting cultural experience.

After the puppet show, we took a stroll through Shamian Island, which is full of green trees and old European buildings. It is also where all of the adoption tourists normally stay (at the White Swan hotel), so no one was surprised to see a baby strapped to our chest. They did still ask us: "Is that a Chinese baby?" Perhaps they do not often see non-Chinese babies, so they do not know how to recognize babies of different ethnicities.

All in all, a very good day. More pictures here.

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Zoo Horror

In an attempt to alleviate the great boredom which comes from days upon days in a hotel room, we decided to go to the Guangzhou zoo yesterday. We bundled up, figured out how to get there using the subway and walking, and set off.

We made it to the zoo in high spirits, but the atmosphere quickly turned sour. Do you see the elephant in the picture below? Are you wondering why his trunk is reaching over the wall? Yeah, we were curious too...

He was reaching over the wall because the crowd of people were chucking items into the enclosure. Yes, they were all throwing food and other stuff at the elephant, who was busy picking up and eating whatever was tossed. Around the corner, a large bull elephant was standing near the fence. Every few minutes, he would get pelted in the head with an orange or something similarly round and hard. PELTED IN THE HEAD.

The animal areas were littered with trash, and most of it was plastic items that could cause sickness or death for the inhabitants. We saw a miniature deer chewing on a candy wrapper. And here you can see people ripping up shrubbery and tossing long leaves to the camels.

Besides that, we saw a very sickly kangaroo and a monkey with a tumor on his bottom that was larger than his head. We also saw a lost four year old girl wandering around the park screaming for her mommy. And no one cared. Not a single person looked down at her to see what was wrong. We stood by looking helpless until finally a park lady came and took her by the hand.

We are zoo people, so this was quite disheartening. Chris did research at a zoo in college, studying lemurs. So we always visit zoos when we travel, and this was by far the worst one. At the zoo in Bangalore, for example, everyone was incredibly respectful of the animals. And it was clean and orderly. The animals' habitats were not as fancy as some western zoos, but they were doing the best with what they had. In Guangzhou, though, it was a different thing entirely.

As Chris said when we were leaving, how could you stand to be a zookeeper and watch people treat your animals that poorly?

More pictures are here.


Friday, February 8, 2008

Happy New Year!

The Chinese New Year (aka Spring Festival) is fully upon us. Yesterday baby got her first hong bao. Not quite understanding what to do, she tried to eat it. Following another tradition, Gioia put on a brand new outfit. New clothes for the new year.

Thanks everyone for the formula advice! We will be eating solid food before the bottle from now on (except for the first one). From what I read, it seems she will be getting enough formula even if we cut back on one or two bottles a day. Phew.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chinese New Year Eve

It is the eve of Chinese New Year, and we are snug in our hotel room listening to the fireworks explode outside. We had a big outing today to try to find baby laundry detergent.* Along the way to the store, we walked through a very large festival and witnessed much revelry.

There were plenty of people buying plants. These mandarin orange plants are definitely a favorite. Apparently the little oranges symbolize gold coins, which is an auspicious sign for wealth in the new year. And they taste AWESOME too.

Another big favorite: pinwheels. Young and old alike, almost everyone had a pinwheel to carry around the fair. There were some inventive ones too, including some shaped like bees and fish.

Did you know that "mouse" and "rat" are the same word in Mandarin: "lao shu." So everywhere we look, we see Mickey and Minnie Mouse images this year. Most are illegal copies, like the balloon I am holding above (taken in Chongqing a few days ago). Chris tried to take a picture of the lady selling those balloons, and she immediately hollered "No No NO!" while pulling the bunch down to hide her face.

Happy year of the rat (mouse?), everyone! More pictures of today's festival are here.

*Before we came to China, I washed all her baby clothes in Dreft. But since we are here for so long, we have had to do some laundry. We used a guy on a street corner in Chongqing for two loads, and I am pretty sure he did not use hypo-allergenic laundry powder. Sure enough, Baby G was itching her head like mad yesterday - rubbing it back and forth on our chests for relief. We think that her lion hat (which was washed) made her head sweaty and caused a reaction. So we bought baby detergent ourselves to see if the hotel can wash her clothes with our soap. Hopefully.


Monday, February 4, 2008

Change of Plans

We got Gioia's Chinese passport today, which was earlier than anticipated. This means we can fly to Guangzhou tomorrow morning and try to make our medical appointment tomorrow afternoon. If the plane is delayed due to weather and we miss that appointment, it will set us back at least two business days next week. BUT - chances are good if the weather holds through the morning.

So we do not have to hang out here any longer waiting for the paperwork, and we can skip Chengdu. I do want to come back someday to see the pandas, but if we do not have to wait around here now then GREAT. Because this is what we see outside of our window everyday in Chongqing.

The city is cold, grey and wet. Not a nice combination. We have been venturing outside as much as possible so we do not go crazy in the hotel room, but the weather forces us back in really quickly.

Off to Guangzhou! Hopefully I have good news about making the medical exam to report tomorrow evening.

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Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Ones Left Behind

When we leave China in two weeks, we will leave with one baby girl. But we will be leaving so many behind. I was surprised that I did not cry at the social welfare institute when we picked up Gioia. As she was brought in the room, I just felt overwhelmingly peaceful and thankful. But when we took a little tour, I walked through two rooms filled with cribs. And those cribs held babies all bundled in blankets as protection against the cold. Then, I cried. For all the babies who have not yet found their families. For the babies who never will.

I am not sure if you have been following the news of China, but the southern half of this country has been hit by some record winter storms. In certain areas, power is down, water is not running, and food and coal prices have doubled or tripled, as no new supplies can get through on trains. This is very bad for China, but it is incredibly bad for China's orphaned children.

This afternoon, I read an email from Jenny Bowen, who runs a charity to benefit orphans in China. Her email (which you can read here) contains reports from orphanages across China in the aftermath of these storms. Many institutes are fine, but others are struggling with no water and no heat. Some places are asking for funds to help buy food, as prices have increased so dramatically in the past week. Some say "help other places first," and then go on to say, "but if you have 200 warm blankets for children, please send those."

I don't usually post about charities or causes to support, as we feel that giving is very personal. But today, as I watch my new daughter nap in her warm hotel room, I thought it was appropriate to remember those thousands (millions?) left behind.

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Monday, August 20, 2007


Beijing's 798 art district is a renovated factory area just outside of the fourth ring road. This place used to be remote, relatively speaking, but the creep of urban expansion has now encased it within the city proper. Originally, this area was a place where artists found cheap studio space within the crumbling walls of abandoned factory floors. Now it is closer to a community of gallery and restaurant owners, who are better positioned to pay the high rents and allow the commercialization that comes with popularity.

Art, especially political art, is hard to show and sell here. Some of China's best known artists work and exhibit only outside of China. But, times are changing, and either the government is getting more tolerant (mmm... not likely) or the global art community is looking for future potential. Either way, the buzz is that China's art is hot, full of burgeoning artists who are talented, if not controversial.

Chris and I toured the 798 space today. It was my birthday outing, and we had a really nice time popping in and out of gallery after gallery with concrete floors and whitewashed walls.

I think this is a definite "to-do" area in Beijing, once you have dispensed with the ubiquitous wall. The art was enjoyable. I particularly like big art - big sculptures, big canvases, big bronzes - and 798 did not disappoint. I was surprised by all of the military themed work exhibited. However, nothing really struck me as being cutting edge or bohemian. I guess you still need to go to New York to see controversial Chinese art, which is unfortunate.

Clearly, this is a nice community space, which will hopefully encourage Chinese artists to grow and test their boundaries as the scene here matures. I just hope the graffiti gets more sophisticated soon.

More 798 pictures here and here.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bad China Day

If you stay in China long enough, you will start to notice some of the expats grumbling about "bad China days," as in today is not a good one. Bad China days are days where the cultural divide is really hard to overcome. Days where you just do not understand why people are behaving the way they are. Days where you just want to sit down and cry. For me, today is a bad China day.

I left for the airport at 7:20 this morning, which was plenty of time for my 8:30 flight on a regular day. We live right by the airport. The main intersection by our house, however, had a broken traffic light due to an early morning storm. In the United States, drivers tend to behave quite civilly in this kind of situation, allowing one car after another to proceed carefully - in turn, in line. Not so here. There is no such thing as civil behavior when it comes to broken traffic lights. All people can think about is pushing ahead to make sure that THEY get through. The problem is that if everyone pushes ahead, no one can go anywhere. We all get stuck.

After 20 minutes of sitting in the middle of a crazy pileup in the center of the intersection, I got out to signal to the cars perpindicular to ours that they needed to wait a minute so that order could be restored. Despite my quite respectful request for them to stop (where I stood in front of the car and held up my hand), they gunned the engine once a spare inch opened up and crept forward, blocking us further.

At that point, I slammed my hand on the windshield and raised my voice. I needed to make my point, you see. After that, the driver started screaming at me saying that I am a waiguoren (foreigner) and don't know anything. Then my driver gets out to defend me (sweet man) and screams at them too. At this point, I am so livid that all I can do is yell YOU ARE RIDICULOUS at the van full of male workers. Which did not do much good because I don't know the word for ridiculous in Chinese.

Eventually the driver and I stormed back to the car, where we waited for 15 more minutes with the van right in front of us. You see, they gained a foot and blocked our path (and the 50 cars behind us), but they could not go anywhere either.

I made it to the airport, but missed my flight. Changing my ticket was another long complicated story, which involved three counters and several irate people trying to push ahead of me in line.

Because, obviously, they were more important than me.

Bad, bad China day.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Apparently I Didn't Get the Memo

One of my neighbors seemed to be throwing a house warming party this afternoon. That is my guess anyway, as people were walking up with big plants in their arms. As I passed the arriving people and rounded the corner to get to my house, I saw five black Mercedes Benzes lined up in a row. It cracked me up.

For the record, this is my weekend ride. And I love it.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Around my Neighborhood

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Monday, May 21, 2007


We have some friends here in Beijing who are helping to start a foster home. Their new home is for children who wait for adoption after surgery. It opened just this week with six children. Today after church, I asked if they needed anything. The response was: actually we need paintings for our bare walls.

Which was really weird because I had been feeling like I needed to paint something all week. On Saturday, I broke out the brushes and started on a picture FOR THEM. And it turned out it was just what they needed. I have a witness, too, because I told Chris on Saturday that it was for L&B.

The painting is not done yet, but here is a small peek.

Freaky, huh?

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hao Kan

Yesterday, I saw this adorable little boy near our house in Beijing. I asked the man holding him if I could take his picture. To my surprise, he was immediately passed off to another man (his daddy?) as I got my camera ready. That was too bad because the first guy had a great wizened old face, which would have made an excellent contrast to the little one's. But no matter.

In the first shot, the little one was very uncertain and shy. So I tried to tell him how beautiful he was. First I said - you are so pretty - "piao liang" - but he was only confused by that phrase. Ooops, I thought, probably not a good idea to tell a BOY that he is pretty. So next I said "hao kan," which means looks good. And then he broke into the most beautiful smile.

My Chinese is pretty crappy, but sometimes I get it right.


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beijing Restaurant Review: Cepe

Whenever people ask me how Beijing and Shanghai are different, I usually like to begin by talking about restaurants. Shanghai is a business city, where people like to make deals over a glass of baijou, wine or sake. If you ask me for a restaurant recommendation in Shanghai, I will counter with - what kind of food? Chinese (Shanghaiese, Dim sum, Szechuan, or Hot pot), Japanese (Tepankyaki, Udon or Sushi), French, Vietnamese, American, or Western fusion? In Beijing, where politics is king and expense accounts slimmer, choices are more narrow. I have only three or four restaurants that I will enthusiastically endorse in Beijing; that's it.

My repertoire just expanded, though. Chris and I spent an evening with friends at Cepe, which is the Italian restaurant at the Ritz. Cepe is a french word for mushroom (weird, yes). True to its name, this place specializes in mushrooms of all kinds, including truffles.

Wow. It was outstanding. Perhaps one of the best restaurants I have been to - ever. Really. One of our friends knows the chef, so we were well taken care of, but I am sure that the food would be excellently prepared for everyone. If you are in Beijing and need a restaurant for a client dinner, for a celebration or even just for a break from cheap Chinese food (yeah, you know what I am talking about), this is the place.

On the way out of the restaurant, the chef showed us the humongous house mushroom storage closet. It is a big cabinet with many drawers where the restaurant stores dried porcini, portabello, oyster, morel and also grows its own on big dirt logs. This closet looked like a sleek, floor to ceiling, stainless steel humidor, with piles of mushrooms instead of tobacco. It was the coolest thing.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Gifts from Afar

In China, people typically bring back little gifts from their vacation for co-workers. I really like this tradition because it reminds me of how Chinese people are very thoughtful and intentioned. However, it does mean that you have to be very good at remembering and buying something for your colleagues when you travel. When I had a small team, picking out gifts for everyone was easier. Now that there are 14 of us, it is more of a challenge.

Luck was with me this time, though. I found these wonderful embroidered bags in Ho Chi Minh city for US$1.50 each. Then I bought some specialties from Dalat to fill each pouch: strawberry and mullberry jelly candies, tamarind candy (oh so sour!), and artichoke tea bags. The end result is a very special token that is really representative of Vietnam, all for less than US$2.00 a gift.

Here is a closeup of the incredible embroidery on each little pouch. The quality is outstanding. Can you image doing all of that work for so little money?

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Frankie's Story

People are often suprised when we tell them that Frankie came with us to China. My standard response is - If Frankie didn't go, we weren't going. Frankie is family. There was no choice.

Getting him to China was suprisingly easy. At the time we moved, there was a one month quarantine in Shanghai, but it could be done in your house. So essentially we brought him straight to the apartment from the plane. We used Globy Pet Relocation. Best $600 ever spent. The US has no quarantine either, by the way, so returning shouldn't be difficult.

Once we settled in, however, things got weird. You see, Chinese people are not used to dogs. Not at all. I have seen an astounding number of grown men scream like little girls at the mere sight of Frankie. Dogs as pets is a relatively new phenomenon, so most people have had only intimidating experiences with country dogs. All this fear had led to some odd, even scary laws. For example, we are not legally allowed to walk Frankie outside during daylight. He must be licensed, which in Shanghai means paying the pet professionals $200 plus $250 in license fees to get the paperwork processed. If the dog is not licensed, then he can be taken by the police. Survival beyond 24 hours once that happens is extremely rare.

Less than a year after moving to China, we read news reports of serious dog massacres in two separate towns. There had been some rabies outbreaks, and the local leaders responded by ordering every dog killed - licensed or not, vaccinated or not. It was one of the most horrific, ignorant rulings I have personnally witnessed. We were very afraid for Frankie that week. But surely that would never happen in the big cities, like modern Shanghai. Surely.

Later that fall, we moved to Beijing where dog laws are much stricter. We were not allowed to live in the city center because Frankie is too tall; he is above 35 cm. Many people told us to not worry about the law - that many people keep dogs illegally in the city. But we are Americans, and we felt uncomfortable with the idea of non-compliance. So we chose a home far from downtown.

It was a good thing we did because, less than a month later, the Beijing dog killings began. Illegal dogs all over the city were ordered "cleansed." Some were beaten to death right in front of their owners. Others were taken away to be killed. Then we heard rumors that the police were coming out to our neighborhoods, where we were supposedly legal, licensed and safe, to check for big dogs. I have never been so frightened in my entire life. I spent one whole night lying with Frankie on the bed with my heart twisted in knots. If they had killed my dog, I would have lost my mind. Literally.

International pressure forced the President of China to reverse the death order less than a month later. It was an awful, awful time. Chris and I said that it was like Anne Frank for dogs, with everyone hiding their family members in the basement. Since then, things have been better.

Frankie is family, and I cannot imagine life without him. Sometimes China can be scary, bone numbingly scary. And now you know.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

You Know You Travel Too Much When

Your passport is less than a year old and it already needs new pages.

The only time you have to get new pages is during a business trip to Singapore.

You have memorized your passport number - and your China Visa number.

You know exactly which security line to pick in the Beijing airport for domestic flights.

You know which China airports have Starbucks and/or internet.

You avoid the first flight out of PEK because that is the one with all of the obnoxious American Chamber of Commerce tour groups.*

You know that taking the bus from HongQiao to downtown Shanghai is often faster than waiting in the taxi line. And it only costs 4 kuai.

You know that Air China Business is worse than Singapore Airlines Economy.

You regularly tell your driver as he drops you off at the airport that you have no idea when you will be back.

You buy all your makeup at the dutyfree stores in airports.

You intentionally buy two sizes of perfume: regular and travel.

You know which shops to hit at each airport during a layover - Jim Thompson in Bangkok, Liberty and Smythson in Heathrow, Khiel's in Hong Kong, the bookstore in Dubai, every single store in Singapore, and no stores in Bangalore**.

You recognize the Singapore Airlines flight attendants.

* No, I will not apologize for that comment.
** Worst airport experience ever. Well, except for the time in Guayaquil when the drug dog identified a ham sandwich in my bag. But that was situational.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

(Cheap) Art

When Chris' parents were here for Chinese New Year, we went to a big touristy mall to look at souvenirs and gifts for their friends at home. I found these cute little watercolors of kids that I bought for 12 kuai each (around US$1.50). Handmade art, for reals. We had them framed locally and, last week, we finally bought sticky hooks needed to hang them on the tile in Miss G's bathroom.

Well, three of them are bathroom pictures and one is for inside the closet. With framing and everything, these four pictures cost less than US$20.

All in all, I am quite pleased with them.*

* Notice the fingerprints? Yeah, I'm classy. Darn you, new SLR!

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Hotels I Have Known

Lately, there have been many. Some days I stay in nice hotels, some days not. Three weeks ago, it was the Four Seasons Shanghai and the JW Marriott the following week. Bliss, I tell you. Almost makes the whole traveling thing OK.

This week, however, I got to stay at the Shanghai Jian Gong Jin Jiang hotel, which was conveniently located near the office, but very Chinese. This hotel wasn't so bad, actually; the bed wasn't hard as a rock. But the bathroom had the weirdest stuff for sale on the counter, like Senior Woman Trousers (15 RMB) for example. Wha? Who is checking into the hotel thinking "Crap! I forgot my Woman Trousers!"

Also, there was this lovely little hygiene container, vending all sorts of items.

There was the requisite condom, of course, but there were also these odd little "sanitary" packets that claimed to kill all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases - one for men and one for women. Whoa - what kind of hotel was this? And do people really believe a wipe with a little sanitary goo will solve those kinds of problems?

Lastly, there was a weird circular container with a compressed towel. Now, I am a grown, married woman, and I have no idea what I would do with a compressed towel. No idea. But apparently they go with condoms and people need them when they stay at a hotel.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007


I went to Tianjin by train yesterday. As I waited to depart, I found these signs around the train station.

At least it is clear. I understood immediately that A) it was a hotel and B) it had a bath. Both are good things. Not sure, though, if I was needed to clean the bath to earn my keep or not...

Dude, wouldn't it be great if they actually did serve beer with the train tickets?

Beijing has a long way to go to get ready for the Olympics.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Revolution

Today I gave a presentation at a conference in Beijing to a small specialized group of around 20-25 people. As I was speaking, I noticed that all but three of the people in my audience were female. For some perspective, it is important to note that I wasn't speaking at a knitting* conference (although I would totally do that if ever asked). That is, the subject matter at hand was not a "chick" topic. All those women, so much power, in one room. Unusual, you would say, if it weren't in fact so common.

More examples for you to consider - When I first arrived in China, I taught a class to 35 new hires in Shanghai. All but two of them were women. That's right - all but TWO. Our team in Beijing, the majority of whom I played a role in hiring, is 85% female.

It's a revolution people. Or perhaps, it is the result of a revolution - hard to say. I could (and have) think long and deeply about the factors driving this phenomenon. Perhaps the ideals of the cultural revolution forced a high degree of gender equality into a system formerly known for horrific oppression. Perhaps introduction of strict population control policies in the early eighties led familes to invest all they had into their one child - female or male. Perhaps in an educational system where you suceed by following rules, memorizing books and saying what people want you to say, females "succeed" more often than males.

The more interesting question is this - what will this mean for the future of business in China? When these women have their own babies, will that shape the way we work? Will China, out of necessity, develop a business culture that embraces a bit of flexibility? Or will these kids be raised by their grandparents, like their parents before them?

It has been so neat for me to work with these women. Every day I am astounded at how intelligent, caring and beautiful my colleagues are. When Miss G grows up, I hope she is a proud and modern daughter of China, just like those I have known in Beijing and Shanghai.

*I do know that guys knit too. My husband knits, although not very often. I am not saying NO guys knit. Just that more women knit than men, empirically speaking.


Friday, March 16, 2007


I have been keeping my eyes open lately for Asian baby dolls for Miss G. I found a pretty cool baby in the Hong Kong airport once, so I have been on the lookout in airport stalls ever since. Mainland China airports, however, seem to have less attractive stock. On my way home from Shanghai tonight, I wandered by the toy section of a store in the HongQiao airport. A whole wall of dolls and almost every single one was blond and blue eyed.

I did find this one dark-haired doll hidden amongst the crowd.

Who had the bright idea to market the whore baby to the under four set? Why is it that out of all of those dolls, the only semi-Asian one I could find looks like she just strolled out of a hip hop club?

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

On Display

On Sunday, I took a little bike ride to get an adaptor plug for the new dryer. Apparently Whirlpool dryers sold for use in China come with European plugs. Yeah, I don't know why either.

On my way to and from the hardware store, I had several people do a double take as I passed. Usually, they would then break into a smile and say "Ni Hao! Where are you from?" Because I, apparently, am an oddity.

At one stoplight, a middle aged man and I had a conversation (in Chinese) that went something like this.

Him: Hello. Are you European?*

Me: No. I am from the United States.

Him: Where in the United States?

Me: Chicago.

Him: Where do you live?

Me: In a neighborhood up ahead.

Him: What are you doing in China? What is your business?

Now don't get me wrong - he was a friendly guy. But imagine if the same scenario occured in Chicago, for instance. Say a caucasian man does a double take upon seeing an Asian lady walking down the street and proceeds to ask all sorts of personal questions JUST BECAUSE SHE WAS ASIAN. Where do you live? Why are you in the United States? What is your work?

Some days, it is just plain weird around here.

*I don't fault the man for thinking I was European. I was, after all, on a bike with a bunch of flowers in the basket. He should have looked at my shoes though.


Thursday, March 8, 2007

I Stay in the Classiest Places

My hotel in Changsha. Well, really, one hour outside of Changsha - a place full of crazy truckers and lots of manufacturing. Oh, and meetings conducted all in Chinese.


Wednesday, March 7, 2007

China Technocolor

One of the things that I love most about China is the predominance of color in the everyday - bright, vivid color. It is creeping into my soul, I think, because the fabrics and other things I am buying for Miss G tend to be on the bright side.

These are spun sugar creatures (on a stick of course), formed in the shape of zodiac animals for new year celebrations. Aren't they fabulous?


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

CHEEPY Cheepy Cheepy

Wandering through the street fair last week, I heard a faint but distinct cheeping. Little birdies lost in the crowd - looking for their mommas. I glanced down, and there they were. Crawling all over each other in their exuberance.

A crate full of chicks in the middle of a Beijing street was suprising, I'll admit. People were buying them too. Little kids walked away cupping their hands tightly together, lest their little gift escape. Where are y'all putting these chicks in this big crowded, wintery city of ours? In the backyard?

Ah, but I wanted one. I would name him Noah, and he could hide under my pillow until Chris discovered his cheepy cheepys. Then I would convince him to let Noah live out his days on our patio. No one need know. Chickens, after all, don't need a license.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Teeming Masses of Humanity

We wandered into a street festival on Friday afternoon. Cotton candy, bunny ears, dancing concubines, Chinese opera, scorpions on a stick.... this place had it all. We actually just walked from one end of the street to the other. That was all we did. But BOY was it fascinating.

Did you think I was kidding about the scorpions?


Friday, February 23, 2007

Forbidden Starbucks?

There has been much uproar surrounding a little store in Beijing. A famous CCTV show host has let it be known that the presence of Starbucks within the Forbidden City - yes, inside the sacred walls - is something akin to colonization. He has amassed quite a following, and there is much talk around here about whether Starbucks should be allowed to operate at this location.

Today we took some peeps to the site in question because, well, everybody's gotta see it at least once. Of course, buying a tall macchiato was the first order of business. We barely found the coffee shop. It has absolutely no signs out front, and we had to peer inside some dim windows to see if the logos on the cups were indeed round and green. Last time we were at the Forbidden City, I swear there was a small, nondescript Starbucks sign, but it has since been removed. Once inside, I was thwarted from taking a picture (probably because of all the recent hullabaloo). When we exited, macchiatos in hand, several people stopped us to ask where we got the coffee.

If anything at all is allowed to be sold inside the Forbidden City, then why not Starbucks? Is a cup of western coffee more of an affront to the sanctity of this location than all of the cheap postcards and T-shirts saying the Chinese equivalent of "I HEART Beijing"? I actually do agree that it is somewhat demeaning to be selling things inside what was the center of Chinese government (and some would argue society) from 1406 to 1911. But if you say stop selling Starbucks, then you have to say stop selling everything. It is all inappropriate - no one item more than another.

Just so I don't appear to be a culturally insensitive boob with this post, I leave you with some other pictures of the visit. And I promise, no western imperialist beverages were drunk anywhere NEAR these guys.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Chun Jie Kuai Le!

Happy Spring Festival! Today is the first day of the Golden Pig year. A very auspicious year indeed.

Last night was crazy. We live in a suburban area of Beijing which has lots of open space for lighting of fireworks, so we saw quite the display. The booms echoed all night long, with a creschendo at midnight. Even now, at 9 a.m., fireworks are still going off in the distance.

Our plans to have dinner with friends fell through at the last minute, so we went off to have food by ourselves. We found a fabulous vegetarian restaurant next to a nearby lake. Not only was the food great, but we also had explosions of color going off above the restaurant all throughout the meal.

Chris and I set off some small fireworks - kids fireworks really - after dinner. Then the whole restaurant came outside and lit off *their* fireworks. Big huge boxes that sent up explosions of sparkles and light. Next door, a group of kids were setting off their own, smaller fireworks - bottle rockets and sparkly showers and hovering UFO spinners. Have you ever seen a four year old lighting a firework before? It was really crazy. I have a strange sense of detatchment here. If saw a bunch of kids in the States lighting fireworks, I probably would have called child services. But here... it is normal. Just like not wearing seatbelts in the back of taxis. After a while, you just stop looking.

This is a Chinese Zodiac hanging that is now diplayed on the inside of our front door. I bought it in some hotel shop in Xian while on a business trip. It is actually quite funny that this hanging came from such a cheesy place because I really like the handwork. It has a very folk art feel. Chris said that it reminds him of "Dia de Los Muertos" art, and I think he is right.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

731 - War Crimes

During our trip to Harbin last weekend, we spent a morning visiting the 731 Museum just outside of town. Many people have not heard much about what happened in China during World War II. While every American child knows about the Holocaust, the rape of Nanking and other horrors do not get much mention in textbooks.

Sometime around 1931, the Japanese imperial army established an outpost in occupied Manchuria called Unit 731. From what people have been able to piece together, this Unit was charged with performing experiments on humans in order to better understand germ warfare. They infected people with bubonic plague, typhoid, cholera, and yellow fever under different conditions so they could see how fast they got sick. People were put in vacuum chambers and watched to see at what pressure they would explode. People were intentionally shot in the head and then immediately operated on to see if anything could be done to save their life. People's extremities were frozen and then placed in baths of water to see what temperature was best for preventing frostbite.

As we learned all of this, I kept thinking about how astounding it was that humans did these things to other humans. The only explanation is that the Japanese solders did not view their prisoners as humans at all. They must have seen them as subhuman. In fact, records show that they did not use names for the prisoners, instead using the Japanese word for wood: maruta.

Historians estimate that between 3,000 and 10,000 people died in this facility outside of Harbin before the war ended. Approximately 300,000 more people died throughout China from bubonic plague, typhoid, cholera and yellow fever (sound familiar?) contracted from eating or using intentionally contaminated food supplies dropped from airplanes. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, Unit 731 evacuated and blew up the building, destroying much of the evidence. The doctors at this unit were never prosecuted. Ever. Some were still teaching at Medical Universities in Tokyo in the 1990s.

Chris and I had a hard time walking through this museum. It was sickening. In fact, Chris really doesn't ever want to visit something like this again. We are planning to go to Ho Chi Minh city in May, and he really does not want to see the war museums - just too hard to contemplate all of that sadness.

I think, however, that we have to see it, have to talk about it. After all, not many people know this happened at all. Did you know? Why didn't we know?

This is a picture of the crater where the central lab building of the 731 complex once stood. A big, vast, frozen crater where thousands of people, not maruta, were systematically tortured and executed. I hope we talk about this until everyone on earth knows what happened.


Thursday, February 8, 2007

On Tipping, Culture and Supremacy of the American Dollar

This post was inspired by some comments made one of my favorite authors in the blogosphere, whom I respect very much. The issue at hand and the subject of my musings is this: When (if ever) is it appropriate to tip in China? If you do tip, then how much? In dollars or in renminbi (RMB)? Before I spew forth on this issue, let me say that my interest is quite academic. I don’t really care if you are a tipper in general or not a tipper, if you are a cheap bastard or a benevolent philanthropist. I am more interested in the following questions:

- Why do different cultures have different ideas on tipping, what is appropriate, how it is done?
- What factors influence peoples’ decision making on tipping?
- How does culturally “different” tipping behavior impact the people involved, in the short term and in the long term.
- How do people’s assumptions regarding “correct behavior” evolve as economies change?

Let me also say that I am an economist by training, not an anthropologist or sociologist. So my perspective is definitely influenced by my profession. Finally, I do live in China right now, but that in no way makes me an expert on Chinese culture. As a third culture kid, I am probably not an expert on U.S. culture either.

Tipping in China

Generally speaking, there is no tipping in China. When I say there is no tipping, I mean that Chinese people usually do not do it. When you go to a restaurant, people pay the price on the menu, nothing more. In taxis, people pay the fare on the meter, nothing more. If one were to dine at an everyday Chinese restaurant and then leave a 20% tip, the staff people would either 1) try to give it back, 2) think you are less of a person for wasting your money, or 3) both. Note that this doesn’t apply to fancy foreign restaurants in Shanghai or Beijing, which operate on completely different norms altogether.

Chinese in general, and Shanghaiese in particular, are very frugal people. Personal savings rate statistics, by some estimates as high as 30% of disposable income, show that people in China do not part with money flippantly. As our Shanghai ayi would say, “Why buy bread in the morning when you know it always goes on sale at 6 p.m.?”This is may be one of the root reasons why tipping is not widespread here. Many people in China really value transparency in economic transactions. We bargain and decide on a price. It is what it is, nothing more. The contract is clear and everyone walks away with what they expected. Tipping, however, adds an element of uncertaintly to a transaction. After all, why would someone pay you extra if they didn't have to? If you could not trust them to pay out of benevolence, then why not just agree upon a fair price to begin with?

In contrast, tipping elsewhere in the world, such as in the United States, is often influenced by different norms. “Normal” restaurant tipping in the United States means leaving 10-20% of the bill for the server. If you leave less than that, then the server is often insulted. In addition, as minimum wage laws in the United States usually have exceptions for restaurant servers, these people really do depend on tips as part of their wages. That is, U.S. social norms regarding acceptable tipping behavior are so strong that they are codified into law.

When it comes to tipping, countries in Europe often operate somewhere in between these two extremes. Proper behavior in London when riding in a cab is to round your fare up to the nearest pound. In Germany, it is customary to leave 5% or so extra as a thank you for the server. Why not 20%? Well, one reason for this is that servers in Germany receive a fair wage without tips (by law). So customers do not feel obligated to leave more; they do not feel that they are impoverishing, taking advantage of or punishing the server with only a 5% tip. In addition, a service charge is often built into the price on the menu.

So, what then is right? How do we behave in different situations? Well, it is easy if you are German and in Germany – you will tip in accordance with established social norms, as will someone in China or the United States. But what do you do when you are outside of your comfort zone, say a China traveler dining in Italy? Clearly we see people behaving in both ways – complying with local tipping norms or adhering to the norms of the home culture (for better or for worse).

Now comes the tricky question. How does people’s behavior change in the following specific circumstance. The traveler in question is 1) visiting a location where tipping norms are different from home and 2) they are more wealthy (say just relatively speaking) than the server in question. What happens then? Is income disparity enough, in other words, to influence decisions regarding what is “right”?

Adoption Tours and Tipping Norms

For those of you not so familiar with the China adoption paradigm, most foreign adopting parents take a trip to China to pick up their child. They almost always do so through an arranged tour managed by their adoption agency back home. When on the tours from America, apparently it is an established norm for people to at least tip the guide and the bus driver and perhaps to tip everyone they see (not sure). The stated argument for doing so is that *tips form an essential part of these people’s income* so not doing so is effectively depriving them of their market-based wages.

If we know that, in general, there is no tipping in China, then is this argument plausible? My answer is, well, perhaps. Imagine with me the following scenario.

Year 1 of adoption tours to China (say 1995 or so) – Entrepreneurial tour operator sees opportunity to develop service package for visiting Americans. Hires bus, driver, guide at market rates. All goes well. Tour operator is earning a routine return on his investment.

Year 2 – Tour operator notices that tour guide and bus driver have new houses. Investigates and discovers that the American tourists are providing the employees with tips which increase the employees’ wages from a market rate to above market rate. Tour operator goes to employees and says that their salaries will be decreased as it is only “fair” for the tour operator to reap some or all of the tip revenue. Employees accept the salary decrease because they have no second best alternative. Employees are now earning the same amount as at the beginning of Year 1. The only difference is that now they are indeed dependent on the tips of the tourists to survive. The only catch is that the benefit of the tips ultimately ends up with the entrepreneur.

Years 3 and beyond - More and more entrepreneurs enter the market and the returns of all players eventually go to zero economic profit (i.e., everyone earns only a normal, routine accounting profit).

The question is this – if the first busload of American tourists knew what would happen, would they have tipped? If we revisit my original question about how perceptions of income disparity influence our decisions about tipping behavior, I would guess yes – even if, followed to its rational conclusion, the tip would result in no net improvement in circumstance for the recipient.

Since I have been rather long winded on this post, I will save the remainder of my thoughts for next time. Part two will focus on the persistent idea that Chinese people prefer to receive American dollars over RMB in tips. Preview here.


Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Great Hall of the People, y'all

Only in China would you receive a spontaneous invitation to go see a concert and realize at the very last minute that the performance is being held in the Great Hall of the People! This is where the People's Congress meets, where affairs of state are held, where.... well gosh. It is like going to see a symphony orchestra perform in the US Congress building. Check out the ceiling of the main hall.

Now the performance was crap - some visiting Western orchestra whose members should have retired long ago. But I...was...in...the...GREAT HALL.

For those of you who were wondering, refreshments at the Great Hall performance consisted of a water dispenser and dixie cups. But you know, it was exactly what I wanted.

But the best thing of all, and I am not making this up, was hearing the visiting laowai orchestra play James Bond theme music...in the Great Hall. Fabulous irony.


Tuesday, January 2, 2007

How to Buy Antiques in China

First, ask your driver to drop you off at the antiques store or market. We like Radiance in ShunYi because it is 1) nearby and 2) they do not try to raise the price by 200% once they see you are not Chinese. Second, pick out your pieces. Do not hold back if you like something because real antiques are getting harder and harder to find in China. Third, pay for your lovelies. Harder than it seems actually. Why? Because usually you need to pay in cash, and large amounts of cash are sometimes hard to organize, as evidenced by our past weekend's dash.

The Coke Family's Shopping Extravaganza

Day 1: Identify antiques on last day before parents return home. Shipping charges are quite reasonable, so all five coveted pieces are placed on hold with a verbal agreement to buy them once the cash is accumulated. Traipse to Bank of China for withdrawl attempt #1. I am sucessful, but the parents' cards do not work. No worries, we can handle it.

Day 2: Return to BofC with husband (and his card) in tow. My withdrawl works, but Chris forgets his PIN and almost has his card sucked into the depths of China's (ever efficient) banking system.

Day 3: Take smelly taxi to BofC again but neither card works. We can SEE the money, but we cannot GET the money. Despondently return home.

Day 4: Try again. As we stand in line at the BofC, we notice people in front of us struggling. The guy before us types many things before walking away with only 200 kuai. Sure enough, the machine has run out of money just as we walk up. Luckily, the Bank of Beijing next door worked fine. Phew!

Day 5: To be continued..... If all goes well tomorrow, then we will be done funding this round of purchases. Given our recent track record, however, I say our odds of success are about 50/50.

UPDATE - It worked! The Coke antiques are being shipped now, and a picture of our new addition will be shared as soon as it is delivered.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Holiday Madness

Believe it or not, this is not a Christmas post; it is about Holidays in China. You see, there are three "Golden" weeks in China in which the entire country gets 7 days off of work. One is in May for the international labor day holiday, one is in October for National Day celebrations and the best one of all is in January or February - the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year to us lao wai. To get the 7 days off, though, China's powers that be announce some work day rearrangements. You see, people do not get 7 real holiday days. They get 3 holiday days with 4 weekend days lined up nearby. In practice, this means that we are officially supposed to work either the weekend before or the weekend after the 7 day holiday period.

Chinese people do not bat an eye at this work day rearranging, but it would surely cause near riots in the United States. I mean, you cannot mess with a God-given right to a weekend! This week, the announcement came from HR that China has decreed December 30 and 31 as official workdays, with January 1-3 as holidays. So essentially, they moved the weekend to after New Year's Day. Jut because. And again, not a SINGLE person at work thought it unusual.

Now really, there must be a better way to boost your annual GDP estimate, isn't there?

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