First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Monday, July 30, 2007




Is this thing on?

Thank you for joining me today for this exciting unveiling.

As a marketer, it is my job to come up with catchy, slick branding to help products or concepts rise above the status of commodity.

It makes our lives better and richer. I mean, who wants carbonated food-coloring-and-sugar-water when you can have a Coke? And who would choose a hamburger sandwich and French-fried potaters when a Happy Meal is available? (It’s both happy AND a meal! I'm all over THAT action!) How can we possibly grasp the enormity of a whole generation or social strata without labels like Boomers, Gen X and Yuppies?

Well, I’ve been reading a lot of news lately, especially economic news, and it seems like we need a term for what’s happening in China. Sure, we’re regurgitating a lot of tired old phrases like ‘bubble economy’ and ‘Wild West’ – yawn! – but what we really need is something that captures China in all its crazed, frantic, optimistic, excess-liquidity, growing-pained, opulent, upwardly-mobile, occasionally corner-cutting glory. Something that’s easy to remember. Something that looks good on, say, the cover of Fortune or Time magazine.

Therefore, based on the depth of knowledge and expertise that can only come from spending 81 days in a sheltered existence in a foreign country, I have decided to brand this era of Chinese history. (No, no, that's OK, China, you can thank me later.) And you, lucky souls, are here to witness it.

Without further ado, I give you….



(parting curtain)


Yes, the Chubble, or “China-Bubble,” is the wave of the future. In just two syllables, it captures the enormity of 1.4 billion people in the worlds 4th (soon to be 3rd) biggest economy, a construction boom soaking up half of the world’s heavy-lift construction cranes, and a stock market that can gain or lose 6% of its value in a single day (sometimes both) without anyone batting an eye.

Chubble is expressive. Chubble is poignant. Best of all, Chubble is inherently funny because it sounds kinda like ‘Chubby.’

Proper Usage of Chubble

  • ‘Chubble’ should always be capitalized, since the ‘Ch’ stands in for the proper name ‘China.’
  • ‘Chubble’ is applied only to the overall economic and political burgeoning of China in the early 2000’s; as such it is ‘the Chubble’ not ‘a Chubble.’ It is singular.
  • In certain circumstances, it can be used to modify another noun, as in “Another Chubble aftershock was felt on Wall Street today when…”

Best of all, Chubble is extremely flexible as a word, as you can see in these Suggested Headlines:

  • For the Wall Street Journal, the next time China dumps $100 billion in U.S. real estate or stocks: “More Chubble Cash Floods U.S. Markets.”
  • For the New York Post, should a crash ever occur: “Chubble Chursts.”

The Broader Context of Chubble

If you’re like most of the world, you’re asking yourself “What does this mean? How should I feel about China’s emerging strength internationally? Is China a threat, or an instrument of world prosperity? Are they a partner or usurper? How will their internal politics translate to the world stage? Is this sustainable? Can it possibly come to rest gently on an even keel, or must any wave that crests so high inevitably come crashing down? And if it does crash, will it be on our—“

At this point, I’ll say “Shhhh! It’s OK!” and pat you on the shoulder and give you a juice box. Later, when you’re laying on the couch with your feet up and a cold washcloth on your forehead, I’ll give you my best answer to all those questions:

Who knows? Who cares? That’s for historians to decide in 20 years or so. For now, just strap yourself into the roller coaster and enjoy the ride!

You probably can get a more thoughtful interpretation somewhere if you want one. As for me, I’m in marketing. Packaging and varnish. What’s inside is irrelevant. So I beseech you, help me make Chubble the best new word of 2007.

How Can You Participate in this Linguistic Revolution?

Simple. Use ‘Chubble’ in everyday conversation, and when people ask what it means, explain to them with an air of condescension and pity. They’ll feel foolish for not knowing about it, and will use it with THEIR friends so THEY can feel superior.

If you know any journalists, tell them to use the word liberally. Clay Chandler, Asia Editor of Fortune Magazine, you enjoyed my traffic diagram, so I’m SURE you’ll love ‘Chubble!’ Any friends of Mr. Chandler reading this? Send this to him and tell him I’ll give him $20 (or 150 renminbi) to use the word in his blog! Like any good marketer, I’m not above sweetening the pot a little.

Any Wikipedia nuts out there? See what you can’t do about getting Chubble listed. I did a Google search, and there are a few instances of the word ‘chubble’ out there, but they’re mostly unenlightened fat jokes – how juvenile!

Please. Help me raise ‘Chubble’ to the status and prominence it deserves. Thank you for your time.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

China +80: Props Out

It's my 80th day in China, so at this point I think it's safe to say I'm going to survive this experience. In recognition that my ability to survive on the other side of the world has probably been improved by some of the companies I have dealt with, I want to give the following unsolicited 'thumbs up' to some things that have made my life in China better and easier:

Skype: If there's a way to invest in Skype, I want in. It is the greatest thing ever. If you don't know about it, it's telephone software for your computer. I have a local U.S. phone number that anyone can call for free, and with my laptop and a headset, I have been able to chat with family, friends, and most of all my wife whenever I wanted for pennies. I actually spoke to my wife probably twice a day on average, and without that I would certainly have been a wreck.

BeijingExpat.com: If you're going to spend any length of time here, I can't recommend this community highly enough. Before getting here, I was able to get a sense of life as a foreigner in Beijing by reading the message boards, and as I was preparing I would post my questions and get the unvarnished answers I needed from people like me. After I got here they helped me find grocery stores, shopping etc. If you're coming here, join the community there first.

SIRIUS Satellite Radio: I didn't bring the receiver, but I do have a virtual 'tuner' on my computer, and I've been able to listen to all my favorite music while I've been here.

iTunes and iPod: I've even been able to buy new music, and with my iPod, I brought my entire music collection, plus every episode of my favorite TV shows, which I have watched religiously. It's a full entertainment center in my pocket, which takes on special significance when you're pretty much cut off from all normal sources of entertainment.

Dell Computer: As you can tell from the list above, my laptop has pretty much become the center of my life here. Every touchpoint I have with my life back in the States goes through this computer. It's my TV, DVD player, telephone, videophone, news source; I've been able to keep connected with my work in Minneapolis; I've been able to write this blog. I know people can travel long-term without all this technology, but it really, really makes it all so much better. And my computer has held up admirably.

AT&T Wireless: I was impressed with AT&T and how quick and easy it was to get ready for China. They unlocked my phone so I could buy a China Mobile card and have a local phone number, and set my wife up with international roaming so we knew we were in touch at all times when she was here. We payed dearly for the feature (a minute of talk time cost $2) but it was worth it when we needed it.

MLB.com: One slice of home I've enjoyed has been baseball. Several times a week, I'd listen to the game that had just finished back home while at work. Of course, the Twins haven't exactly made that a GOOD experience lately, but it's surprising how nice even a little thing like listening to a ballgame can be.

Of course, the biggest thank you goes to my wife, who is neither a company nor a product. She had to talk me off the ledge about a dozen times, plus picking up all the balls I dropped when I came here. So if you see her, give her a hug for me.


Talk about indulgence. My Scottish colleague set up a Sunday brunch at the Intercontinental Financial Street Hotel on the west side of Beijing. Eight of us attended (as usual, going around the table read like a United Nations roll call) and feasted on... well, everything you can imagine. I was the odd man out in not being a fan of shellfish or sushi, but there was lobster, lamb, pork chops, omelets, fresh fruit, 20 feet of pastries, fish, pasta, a dessert spread with caramel flan, a chocolate fountain, cheesecake, ice cream and all the Verve Clicquot champagne you could drink.

Which, as it turned out, was quite a bit.

Afterwards we retired to the bar where some partook of cigars (I did not) and more champagne. Al told, we were there for more than 4 hours. The bill was astronomical by Beijing standards but in line with what you'd pay at a top-tier restaurant back home. But hey, how often am I going to be out for brunch at a five-star hotel in Beijing?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Brands You Trust: Smoker's Edition

Sometimes, a guy just needs a good smoke. If you're Chinese, 'sometimes' means 'all times.' This place is a smoker's paradise. You can smoke in restaurants, offices, on the street, pretty much everywhere. And so they do. I seriously don't think I know more than a couple people who don't smoke, and most of those who do are heavy smokers.

To be fair, it's hard to accuse them of fouling the air. Urban legend has it that breathing the air in Beijing is like smoking 2 packs a day, so they probably figure, why blow against the wind?

There are a number of good domestic brands (or so I hear), but sometimes what you really want is the richest, most satisfying smoke of all:

Smooth, satisfying Mardlero cigarettes. You can't read the small text in the logo on the left in this picture, but it makes a darn compelling argument: "Goods Smoking Gear."


Towards the end of the day yesterday, my Scottish colleague in the media buying group stopped by my desk and asked if I wanted to go for a drink. I did. It was actually a little bit of a disappointing day - I got to see the TV scripts that are going to be presented next week and none of my ideas made it. I know I wasn't expected to have a script in the mix and I'm just here to learn, and I've never done a TV script before and shouldn't expect to be proficient the first time out of the gate, but still, that was a lot of time and effort.

So I gathered my stuff and we headed over to Franks for a couple pints of Guinness and some small cigars. We were soon joined by the office managing director, another coworker from India and his Taiwanese girlfriend. Pretty soon we settled in for dinner (a burger again - I know I've said it before, but Franks makes really good burgers) and more drinks, graduating to Jamesons whiskey.

It was a long, pleasant dinner out on the patio. We had a wide ranging conversation about my time in China, some of my experiences, movies, global politics, macroeconomics, tattoos and more. When it came time to break up the party, around 11, my Scottish friend asked if I was up for more.

Sure, why not? We went to Browns, a happening nightclub with railings mounted above the bar to help people climb up on it and dance. And dance they did:

The music was overwhelmingly American, and mostly at least a couple years old - Hollaback Girl (again with that song!), Mambo No. 5 and the like.

More Jamesons, Kilkenny, Guinness. Then we took a taxi to Maggies, one of the oldest expat bars in Beijing. Totally packed, and a similar scene to the one at Browns.

The one difference between clubs back home and here that I observed was that the average age of the foreigners at least was probably a little older than what you'd see in America. Makes sense though. By the time your job takes you to Beijing, or you have enough money to travel and go clubbing there, you're probably a little older. And if you're a foreigner alone in Beijing, you probably do seek out other people when you can.

Interesting night, but by this time it was 2 am and I was a little tipsy, so I cabbed back home and woke up with a headache this morning. Doh!

On Thursday I was at my desk at about 10 in the morning, one of the few people there that early, when the HR director led a tour of about 50 people (I assume advertising students) slowly past my desk. Since I was the only one working, and I do stick out a bit, they all stared at me as they slowly filed past. It was surreal, like being in a zoo.

I bought another package of peanuts, though not Angry Shirtless Old Man Brand Peanuts, and found even more baffling text on it.

It's tiny little text that almost looks like a dot pattern, but when you look closely, you can read the following:

"Choiceness raw materiai with most up-to-date equipments and technique produced meticulous.
Taste-tempting best enjoyment suitable for men women and children give first choice.
Treasure produced meticulous best enjoyment quality guarantee.
Good taste the flavour remains healthy choice an excellent gift in all seasons help digest greasy food.
Good tastes for large masses series high foodstuff delicacies loved by all choiceness raw."

Oh, Feixiang Classics, you had me at 'Choiceness raw materiai!'

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You Wanna Know Who Has The Power In China?

The Commissioner of Putting In Manholes, that's who.

Even the lawns aren't safe...

(For the record, I was going to be more gender-neutral, but "The Commissioner of Putting In Sewer-Access Portals" wasn't nearly as funny.)


Literally 'in other news,' for once. I captured this headline and lead photo from a story on the ChinaDaily.cn web site. In case you can't read the headline, it says:

"Beijing tries to dispel rain for Olympic opening ceremony"

"You feelin' lucky, humidity?"

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What The Man Says, Goes

Hmmm. Feeling a little blue lately - probably a little homesick and a little run down. No big deal, because I know just the thing to cheer me up: A visit to my enthusiastic two-dimensional friend Nestle Coffee Poster Guy!


Seemingly overnight, almost all outdoor advertising appears to have disappeared from the neighborhood. This office park is ringed by the fence you see in the picture, and every 20 feet or so is a lightbox like this one. I easily walk past 30-40 of these along one block on my way to work, and now they're all empty.

The Makro Supermarket is bare too. Its 3-story exterior used to feature big billboards advertising some of the products they carry - now the building facade is bare concrete and mounting bolts trailing streamers of rust down the front of the building.

Yesterday I was riding back to the office from the recording studio with the client we were recording, and he filled me in: Apparently some official in the Beijing government decided they didn't like the look of all that advertising - not very OLYMPIC, you know - and ordered all businesses to remove their outdoor advertising. (I notice the bus kiosks still have it - maybe it's a city contract.)

So there you have it. Apparently these kinds of decisions can come down with no notice. Not that I'm in tune with the local news, but I never heard anything about it until it was done, and I work in an advertising agency. The client was a little annoyed, but nothing more: "Watch. In two weeks it'll all be back."

The funny thing is, I think this decision has made the area look WORSE. The Makro certainly looks worse for the wear, and all these empty advertising spots make it look more like a boarded-up ghost town than an ad-free paradise.


I was about to leave the office tonight when I was literally blocked by a coworker - the same one I lied to about my birthday - and apparently he was in the mood to talk. His English is fair - certainly light years beyond my Chinese - but not always clear, and he has a habit of inserting the word 'maybe' at the beginning and end of sentences, and maybe a few places in between for good measure, so I always feel like he's asking me a question.

Anyway, we had a nice long conversation about (I think) my beard, the nature of art vs. advertising, the price of drinks in Hawaii, the difficulty of the work I'm doing right now, the World Beard Championships, things I should import from China, an idea that I should give away my beard as a gift to coworkers, and assorted other topics, some related to my beard.

Then he mentioned that he had seen me talking with the other American in the office yesterday. This other American (who also has a beard) is roughly my same height and has the same hair color (although I think I have about 20-30 pounds on him. BOO-yah!) So my coworker tells me "I see you over the cube wall, maybe, and I see two heads with yellow hair, and I think maybe this means you are pure white."

I'm not sure if this was a question, but I was sorely tempted to tell him, "Yes, we are. You should see us dance." But then I decided that would probably require far more explanation than the joke was worth.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Riceometer Check & Tiny Beijing

OK, lots to cover today.


That's right, folks! 75 percent... although optimists would say I have 25 percent remaining.

Sometimes I wonder what you all think of me. I mean, sure, I've worked with many of you for years, and known others of you for decades. But do you really understand, deep down in my soul, what a complete and utter nerd I am?

Well, if not, I think I've got just the thing. On Sunday, I went to the Beijing Urban Planning Exhibition.

Now, before you picture some boring, empty place with exhibits on sewer infrastructure and insulating methods of the modern home... well, you're right about that part. But the place does have a redeeming factor in the form of its centerpiece exhibit: a massive scale-model reproduction of much of the city.

Where there aren't models, it's a giant aerial photograph. It's sort of a glimpse into the near future, with completed versions of the Olympic Village and their newest skyscrapers in addition to carefully arranged and minutely detailed versions of ancient landmarks.

Here's a view of the business district where many of the most recognizable towers are going:

And a look down the main east-west street. The funny thing is, I think this gets across the scale of the city almost better than any of the real pictures I've taken.

The dark rectangular building in the exact center of this photo is the Urban Planning museum itself. To the left and up is Tiananmen Square, and above that is the Forbidden City. To give you a sense of their attention to detail, inside the museum model is an even teenier, tinier city!

The Hou Hai neighborhood, northwest of the Forbidden City:

A detail of the new National Stadium, the showpiece of the Olympic Village, affectionately known as the 'Bird's Nest':

So how do I sum up the Urban Planning Exhibition? Quite simply, it is a fascinating perspective on the city, a humbling reminder of the great works which man can achieve, and a spectacular preview of the architectural marvel Beijing is fast becoming. Oh, and best of all, it lets you pretend to be Godzilla:

("But Godzilla is Japanese, not Chinese," some of you are exclaiming. I know that. So why don't you just lighten up and go back to saving baby seals or writing fan fiction for Ed Begley or whatever it is you do all day.)


This client farewell video continues to escalate. This morning, I went to a recording studio in the city to get voiceover tracks for the video, read by the client's marketing/communications director. He has an English accent, so of course it sounded good.

Despite never having done this before (I have recorded with my band, but not exactly the same thing) I was able to fake it pretty well, I think. I played the producer - "Let's try another take from paragraph two, OK? And try the emphasis on 'his' instead of 'has,' OK? Who loves ya, baby?" (OK, that's a bit far) - and I think it actually turned out quite well.

Eye of the tiger!


This was in the gift shop at the Urban Planning museum. It's a small commemorative Olympic-branded baseball bat, which comes in its own carrying case shaped like a small commemorative Olympic-branded baseball bat.

I may need six of these.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Basketball Diaries

Today I met up with three coworkers (including one new arrival from Singapore - he studied in Boston and is completely fluent in English, so it's nice to be able to chat) for lunch at the dumpling restaurant, then took a cab to a gymnasium in central Beijing to see our office team play a basketball game against a team from a competing agency.

The managing director had been subtly and not-so-subtly encouraging everyone in the office to show up and cheer. Even the leader of the Greater China region was going to be in town from Shanghai and attending the game. I wasn't sure I wanted to go, but let's face it, it's not like I have much else to do!

I could tell I might have made a mistake as soon as I got there. When you're tall and American, people assume you can play basketball. Worse, the opposing team had three large Americans on THEIR team, so I think she was having a little laowai envy.

As a result, I had some variation of this same conversation with at least a dozen people, including high-ranking officials:

THEM: You should be out there!
ME: No, I'm big, but I'm slow and uncoordinated. I really don't play very well.
THEM: Doesn't matter! Just go out and stand there!

The managing director even pointed out that there were some spare uniforms in the corner. (I had actually been invited to join the team weeks ago, but had declined, as the team's practices and first game fell during my wife and family's visit.)

In reality, I haven't played a minute of basketball in probably three or four years. These guys are all five to ten years younger than me, and they obviously enjoy playing. They're clearly better off without me.

Well, let's watch the game...

35 seconds into the game, and the other team (in white) has scored first, leading 2-0. Well, someone has to score first. Not a big de--

Huh. OK, 2:46 into the game, the other team leads by a score of 8-2. They're out of the gate fast, but let's just regroup, slow down the game a little, and get back in--

Halftime. 54-8. I'm sensing that our team's strength isn't a 'shut-em down' type of defense. Nor is our strength on offense. Nor passing, ball-handling, blocking - actually, let's just say that the fundamentals appear to be an area of significant growth opportunity.

The other team, meanwhile, runs a solid perimeter game, with sharp no-look passes, pick-and-rolls, steals that turn into court-length breakaways, three-pointers and high speed give-and-gos straight to the basket.

Start of the fourth quarter and the other members of my party need to leave, so I don't know how this game ended. I'll be on pins and needles until Monday morning to find out if we pulled it out, though!

One bright spot, though, was the women's team. Both agencies fielded a women's team that played a 10 minute exhibition during halftime, and I'm proud to say our team won, 10-5.

It was more exciting than the score might suggest, because what the women lacked in basketball skills - they actually seemed to play more as a team and ran some plays, but there was still lots of two-handed dribbling, air balls, balls dribbled off the feet and ill-advised and oft-intercepted passes across the court - they made up for by playing VICIOUS.

You remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the evil high priest of the bad guys reaches into his prisoner's chest, rips out his heart and shows it to the terrified man, still beating, before lowering him screaming into the lava pit? In this game, that was a basic pick.

Seriously, the whole crowd was into it, because every rebound turned into a mass of thrown elbows, kicking, reaching in and an assortment of hard fouls. Our team gave better than they got, spelling the difference between defeat and a bloody victory.


One of the Americans on the other team turned out to be one of the guys I climbed to the wild section of the Great Wall with back in June, and his girlfriend, who was also on the trip, was there as a spectator. The women's game was on when we said hello, and she gave me a new stereotype about the Chinese to file away: "Chinese girls LOVE to fight," she said, as we watched a player from my team practically throw her opponent to the floor trying to rip the ball away.


I'm just fascinated by these. Does anyone know why this would be an advantageous design? Seems like a rollover waiting to happen to me.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Number of the Day

Pretty much every day, we get an email with some statistic about China from someone in the company. It comes under the header 'Number of the Day' and is broken down by different categories - social, economy, media etc. It's a fabulous idea - it gets everyone's mind pondering some aspect of China, however briefly, at the same time every day. I'd like to see something like it in the U.S.

Anyway, today I'm feeling lazy, so I'm going to share a random selection of Numbers of the Day from the past few weeks. Enjoy:

Gender Imbalance
18 million more males than female amongst those aged 0 to 15 according to a poll by the China Youth Daily and QTick.com across 2,603 respondents from 29 provinces and municipalities.

Source : China Daily , 18th July 2007

Over 15% of respondents said many of their relatives and friends had used ultrasonic scanning to select the sex of their babies even though this is illegal in China.

Getting On Line
162 million netizens by end June 2007, according to the 20th report on the development of the Internet in China issued by China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). 75% of them have broadband access.

Source : China Daily , 19th July 2007

The survey showed that 76% of Internet users got information from web news and search engines, and 70% utilized instant messaging and 55% sent e-mail. Online music was listened to by 69% of netizens, while 47% played games online.

Global Top 500
22 companies on the mainland are in the 2007 Fortune Global 500 List, three more than last year.

Source: Crienglish.com July 13, 2007

Most of them are state-owned enterprises in energy, steel, automotive, telecom and bank industries.

Double Income Homes
53% of all Shanghai children under the age of 3 were looked after mainly by their grandparents according to a survey conducted by Shanghai population and family planning committee.

Source: China Daily, 13th July 2007

Grandparent generally focused well fed and warmly dressed the babies or toddlers, not much on the emotional and sensory development. Children raised by grandparents have difficulties on learning and adjusting to their environment.

4 billion Yuan (US$526 million) has been spent on upgrading Beijing’s old subway system for Olympics. The average waiting time will be reduced to 2.5 minutes from current more than three minutes.

Source: XinhuaNews, 9th July 2007

Beijing now has four lines totaling 114 kilometers, carrying 2.1 million passengers a day. The city will have nine lines totaling 200 km by 2008, and 19 lines totaling 561.5 km by 2020.

Social Circle of Migrant Workers
Only 3.7% of the migrant workers claimed they had a social life outside their working site according to a survey conducted by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences across 5,000 construction workers.

Source : China Daily, 9th July 2007

Most of the migrant workers felt that they were “looked down on” by the urban residents.

A number of you sent me the article about cardboard dumplings, and I want to say, that was TOTALLY false. Everyone knows you need to use newspaper to get that good 'mouth feel.'

But I was interested to see the following headlines, in this order, on the homepage of the China Daily web site:
Fake cardboard bun story tarnishes image of Chinese media
China warns US against "smear attacks" on imports
China vows to improve food safety
White Rabbit denies 'contaminated candy' claim
So we've got denial, anger, bargaining... They're almost through the five stages of grief! Good for them!

So anyway, I'm going out for dinner. Later!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Cell Phone Like This Will Get You Beat Up In Beijing

I mean, LOOK at it! The screen's not even in COLOR!

Since my own phone disappeared into the night in the clutches of an evil taxi several weeks ago, I've been using a co-worker's first-generation RAZR. But then he had to take it back so his wife could use it, and I moved down the totem pole to this ancient Nokia, which another coworker had lying around, possibly found at an archaeological dig.

Next week I think I'm going to be issued a Motorola Brick with a whip antenna.

The Nokia does have one cool feature, though: You can field-strip it in about 2 seconds flat.


When my family was here, I actually did come home for lunch one day to find that my mother had made me grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. It was delightful.

But they've all been gone for almost two weeks now, and I've been surviving on the stockpile of food they left behind (augmented by a few small purchases.) Last night, however, I came home and discovered my refrigerator contained the following:
  • Blueberry jam
  • Pickles
  • Soy sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Butter
  • A small amount of cheese
  • Baking soda (to keep my pickles from tasting like blueberry jam)
I was even out of bread, so I couldn't do ketchup, cheese, soy sauce and pickle sandwiches. I was just about to order in from Annie's Italian when I got a text message from my coworker, asking if I wanted to join him and some other folks at a restaurant in 798.

So I found my way through the darkened art district/light industrial area, past the shirtless men sitting on the sidewalk trying to keep cool, past the crowd gathered outside a small store watching soccer on a TV that had been set on the stoop, and joined them at the AT Cafe. Once again, as my wife pointed out, it sounded like the setup of a joke: An Englishman, a Scotsman, two Americans and two Indians. And once again, the other American made me feel like an ignoramus: he spoke Thai, Cantonese, French and Spanish. ("But I don't do Germanic languages," he conceded, obviously disheartened.)

I ordered some Singapore noodles, which were tasty but interesting - they seemed to be made with fettuccine, and had strips of what appeared to be luncheon meat in them.

Went back to the police station to get a new temporary residence permit, which will carry me through the conclusion of my stay. I believe that is my last bit encounter with government paperwork in China. And this time they even left my gender intact!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Angry Shirtless Old Man Brand Peanuts

Picked up a package of peanuts at Jenny Lou's last week based primarily on the fact that they were cheap and salted (seriously, why import Planters Dry Roasted UNSALTED Peanuts? Nobody in China is watching their sodium. Have you ever tasted soy sauce?)

I was about to tear into it when I was stopped by the steely gaze of the angry old man on the package:

I'm not sure what he's doing there, and I'm not sure why he isn't wearing a shirt. But I am sure he's very disappointed in me. "You kids nowadays," he seems to be saying. "You think you know what suffering is. Bah! I didn't take a bullet in the kidney during the war just so YOU could go traipsing around the world with your cell phones and your phat pants and your wallet chains. Here, look at the scar! LOOK AT IT! Bah, I say! Oh, and enjoy your peanuts."

The rest of the package is more ambiguous, but also seems to be more upbeat:

"A present first choose best enjoyment
Balance. Have it, you'll have the world."

They mostly tasted peanutty, but I think there was a HINT of life's natural in there.

For the record, I think he looks a lot like John Locke from ABC's hit show "LOST." Maybe this is a clue! Let the theories begin.

Actually getting a bit busy. I have a first review of my TV commercial storyboard/script tomorrow, along with some print executions. I've been kicking these around off and on for six weeks, so I guess now it's showtime. The first client presentation is August 2, so we'll see if any of my ideas survive.

We're also making final revisions for some print ads for a software client. All the work is taking place in Chinese now, so my role is to polish the back-translation - the work has to be approved by English-speakers, so it has to strike the tone that THEY want to hear while still being true to the original Chinese. Interesting balancing act.

The client farewell video I mentioned yesterday has swelled into a surprisingly complex little undertaking. The client wants 126 photos in the slideshow, and originally wanted each one up for 5 seconds. I was ready to throw in the towel but the account people had me meet the client and present alternative ways to organize it, and unfortunately the client loved the ideas. (That's not ego - he really LOVED the idea. So much so that it was almost a little unnerving.) So now we need to do it.

Eye of the tiger, people! Eye of the tiger!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The celebration continues...

Thanks to the International Date Line, it was still my birthday in Minnesota when I woke up this morning and received this picture from my wife:

So as you can see, my wife is handling my absence as well as I am. ;) (Just kidding, dear!)


So today I was asked to take on another weird little side project that I suspect no one else wanted, namely helping with a 'farewell' video for one of our clients here who is leaving China after running the business for almost a decade.

It's a little ill-defined, but basically it will be a slide show with music and a few video clips showcasing his time and accomplishments here. I guess I'm kind of coming up with a theme and structure for it, and may play a role in selecting the music, although the client is mandating the use of one particular song.

What song? I asked the account person in charge of the project.

It was a song she'd never heard of before. Something called "The Eye of the Tiger."

I can hardly wait to see the finished project.

I had to work late tonight. Someone called a general status meeting on one of the projects I've been involved with. At 7:00. But then delayed it until 7:30.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me!

Of course, I don't know exactly how to go about getting a birthday cake in Beijing, plus no one here knows its my birthday, so I made my own cake by frosting a balled-up plastic bag with shaving cream and sticking matches in it.

Just wanted to show you this to reassure all of you that my mental health in is FINE shape despite spending more than two months on the other side of the world!

IN ALL SERIOUSNESS: I've actually had a very nice birthday - the Intercontinental last night in Hong Kong was my official birthday dinner, and I even got to have cake and ice cream (well, technically a lemon meringue tart and ice cream, but I LOVE lemon.) I've been in touch with my family and even gotten some gifts remotely, so no need to pity me.

And whatever you do, if you're one of the people in touch with my employer in Beijing, DO NOT TELL THEM IT'S MY BIRTHDAY. I can't stress that enough. A couple reasons:
  1. I intend to celebrate when I get home, and really don't want to create an awkward situation where acquaintances feel compelled to do something that doesn't come naturally.
  2. Apparently the birthday boy is expected to pick up the tab for everyone else, and I'm a cheapskate.
  3. They had the office birthday party for July last Friday, and I really don't want to be part of that - it's like a tub of live bait, and the celebrants had to play some complex game involving pictures of people and posters on the wall, and I just don't want to be included in the August party and embarrassed in front of 100 people I don't know while trying to figure out what the heck is going on, and lastly,
  4. This is really juvenile, but I actually lied to a coworker about my birthday. He's a guy whose name I don't know, but we're on speaking terms, and at the party Friday he asked me when my birthday was, and I panicked because I didn't want to get dragged into whatever was happening, and I said March, and now if the truth came out, it would be really awkward.
So all I ask of you for my birthday, Lynn and Rachael and Laura and Tammy and anyone else with a line to Beijing, is your silence. Thank you! :)


I had to leave today, but I really had a great time. After a half day with their transit system, I felt confident that I could get wherever I needed to go by myself - a stark contrast to how I often feel in sprawling, taxi-based Beijing. Of course, Hong Kong has the advantages of a head start and its compact and attractive geography. Beijing can't and shouldn't try to be Hong Kong, but I think as Beijing moves into its place as a world city, they can take some lessons from Hong Kong.

This morning, before leaving for Beijing, I got a chance to stop in the Hong Kong office of my employer, where I was shown around by J.K., originally from New York. He came to Hong Kong last summer on the same exchange program I'm on now and loved it so much that he got transferred there.

Great, smart guy, and it was cool to see another office in action. Like many businesses in Hong Kong, my agency does little local business, instead acting as a high-powered hub for the region, doing business in India, Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

A shop across the street from my hotel in Hong Kong:

Personally, I think this stereotype the Chinese have of Americans as drycleaners is TOTALLY unfair.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hong Kong, Day 2: A Ferry Tale

You know, if more tourists could be satisfied with just riding public transportation, cities wouldn't have to TRY so hard.

Take me, for example. Today, my one full day in Hong Kong, I rode the subway 6 times and the ferry 5 times, and I had an excellent day.

It's late, so I'll spare you inconsequential details like my complimentary breakfast (eggs, rice, bacon, sliced pears, coffee and apple juice) and give you a rundown of some of the things I learned in Hong Kong today.

1. ) The Star Ferry is cool
It takes less than 10 minutes from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, but you get awesome views, a little breeze and a unique cultural experience all in one.

2.) Hong Kong, on the other hand, is hot
You've heard the expression about giving blood, sweat and tears? Well, all Hong Kong wants is your sweat. It was close to 100 today and EXTREMELY steamy. I would have sweat running down my neck in streams just standing there. I actually brought a bandanna with me, which I would occasionally use to mop my forehead and neck while saying thing like "My LAWS, it certainly is hotter than when that nasty ol' General Sherman burned Great-Grandmamars house in Atlanta, wouldn't you agree, Jethro?" Which is why I tried to spend as much time as I could inside.

3.) The Hong Kong Museum of History is also cool (and air conditioned)
A suggestion from Rachael back home, and an excellent one. After taking the ferry to Kowloon, I walked about a mile to the museum (leaving giant moist footprints to follow home, like a perspiration-soaked Hansel and Gretel.) I spent about two and a half hours there, learning about everything from the formation of the island (it has something to do with geology) to its cultural heritage (mostly Asian) to the occupation by the Japanese in WWII (Hong Kong still seems a teeny tiny bit bitter - don't think they're alone in that one) to modern history (best part was the display of cheap plastic toys to demonstrate their dominance of the toy industry in the 70's and 80's -- I could have sent them to my parent's basement.)

They even built a replica of a 19th century Hong Kong street, complete with shops, houses, a schoolroom and more. I was entertained to note that one replica of a warehouse featured one particular food item rather prominently:

4.) Mong Kok: Everything you need, lots more things you're afraid to touch
If you're like me, you often need a $15,000 Rolex watch. At the same time, you also often need to buy whole, dried fish in bulk from a cardboard box. If only there was some place where you could take care of ALL your most important needs at once! Well, dream no more, my friend. I have found your Shangri La.

From the museum I went north to the Mong Kok district at the suggestion of my boss in Beijing to look at cell phones. It was insane. There were cell phone shops EVERYWHERE. At one point I walked through a door between two small cell phone shops, and it was like the wardrobe to Narnia -- if Narnia consisted entirely of tiny cell phone shops crammed cheek to jowel (which I think was C.S. Lewis' original vision - he was way ahead of his time.) Seriously, there were at least 30 shops selling all kinds of phones. I looked at a couple models I'm intrigued by (the new Sony Ericsson s500i looks really cool) but didn't buy anything.

I walked around a little more, and not only found the Rolex/dried fish area (they were literally 2 doors apart), but also a Chinese jewelry store chain that had opened stores on three of the four corners of one intersection, plus another one less than a block away (apparently they need jewelry like we need Starbucks) and another person selling what I HOPE was dried fish - they were these leathery-looking fillets, some in a box, some artfully displayed on top of a mailbox to catch the discerning dried-mystery-flesh shopper's eye.

5.) Ferry Quest: Note to self : check the map first
I got back to Hong Kong island (via ferry, natch) by 4:15 and decided to take a ferry to one of the outlying islands. I had just missed the ferry to Lantau, so I bought passage on the next ferry to anywhere.

Well, it turned out to be a little further than I thought. An hour later, after passing Gilligan's Island, the Island of Dr. Moreau and the island where the LOST survivors are, we finally pulled into port at Cheung Chau, which can't be ALL that remote, since it has both a Circle K and a 7-11:

I was in Cheung Chau long enough to develop this comprehensive walking tour:

STEP 1: Come down the ferry's exit ramp to the street and take a left (north) on the harbor road.

STEP 2: Walk about 20 feet.
  • POINT OF INTEREST: To your left will be a person selling newspapers.
STEP 3: Take a left (west) into the ferry terminal entrance.

The ferry departed for Hong Kong less than 5 minutes later.

6.) Dinner and a Show is a good way to wind up
After freshening up, I went to the Intercontinental Hotel on the Kowloon side for dinner and to watch the nightly light show they do here. The skyscrapers synchronize their light and lasers and basically turn the entire skyline into a giant Laser Zeppelin at the Planetarium type of show. The Intercontinental (another Rachael suggestion) is a great place to watch it as they built their lobby bar and restaurant with huge panoramic windows that give a view of the whole harbor.

The Intercontinental is nothing to sneeze at, either. There was a Lamborghini in the parking area, if that tells you anything. It was cavernous but plush, with dim lights, low modern furniture, a jazz quartet playing standards and bossanova (and pretty well at that), and white-coated servers at attention. It was filled with Chinese (of course), Japanese, Arabs, Americans, British and Germans. Not a cheap place by any stretch, but for one night I felt like a jet-set hipster.

Here's a little video. Sorry, the audio isn't so good:

Oh, and that guy at the end is bringing me my Jameson's, no ice. ;)

7.) Take lots of pictures
A day in the life of Hong Kong and Kowloon, in 10 pictures:

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hong Kong, Day 1: Standing in Line

Greetings from Asia's self-declared World City!

I'm here for two nights as a result of China's visa system. For short-term visitors, visas are available for a maximum of 90 days at a stretch, but you can get visas that allow multiple entries. For people who are in China more than 90 days (like myself), the usual trick is to go on a quick turnaround trip to Hong Kong - it's a part of China now, but operates semi-autonomously, so going to Hong Kong counts as exiting China for visa purposes, so when I re-enter I'll get a fresh 90 days from China.

Not that I'll need 90 - I forgot to shoot a picture of the Riceometer before I left Beijing, but as of tonight I am officially 2/3 through my exchange - 33 days remaining.

Anyway, so far my Hong Kong adventure has consisted mostly of standing in line. I was up at 5 am and to the ariport by 6:15 for an 8:00 departure. I got to the counter pretty quickly (for some reason, the Beijing airport has customs before ticketing. I guess it doesn't matter that much, but I've never seen that before) and got stuck behind a couple of Americans who were apparently organizing their entire trip on the spot with the economy-class ticket agent. They also were going to Hong Kong, but they were also trying to talk the agent through connections on other airlines to LAX and Dallas.

After 15 minutes, I was quietly invited to the first class counter and checked in. Then I went to immigration - a long line snaking back and forth. Call it another half hour to get my exit stamp. Then the usual line to get on the plane.

I got an exit seat (yay!) but it had no window (boo!) But I did meet Daryl, an American-turned-Hong Konger, originally from Baltimore, and a professional DJ. He must be pretty good - someone flew him to Beijing for one night to spin at a fashion show. Fascinating guy - has a masters in engineering, has lived all over the world (of course) and just following his passion, and apparently making a decent living at it. He comped me into his show in Hong Kong tonight, but I was too tired to make it. I'm so lame!

But anyway, in Hong Kong it took almost an hour to get through immigration. There were probably 8 queues, each snaking over maybe 200 yards, and in the line I chose, the officials with the stamps apparently were reading every word in each passport, memorizing it, reciting it to a stenographer, then taking a quiet moment to reflect on the nature of beauracracy before finally stamping the person through.

So I got through that and got to the bus that took me to my hotel in Causeway Bay. Nice place. Small rooms and not much of a view (I'm only on the 18th floor, so not very high by Hong Kong standards) but very polished and modern and well appointed.

Hong Kong is really a beautiful city in a lot of ways. It's a huge, polished metropolis with gleaming skyscrapers, of course, but people forget that it's stunning geography as well. It's a series of small, steep islands and peninsulas connected by magnificent bridges. Hong Kong island itself is heavily developed, of course, but with a tall central peak, much of the land is too steep to build, so you get this skirt of skyscrapers around a green center.

After settling in and a very short rest, I went exploring. I took the subway to the Central district and wandered for a bit, then decided to take the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak in the middle of Hong Kong island.

Beautiful, but more lines. The line to get up was about an hour (the tram ride itself takes 7 minutes) and a solid 50 minutes to come back down. But the tram is kinda cool - it's been in use since the 1880's and pretty much goes straight up the side of the mountain. It feels like the start of a roller coaster, with a 45 degree angle in places, but you're sitting in these rail cars.

After getting back down, I walked to the Lan Kwai Fong area in Central, which is packed with bars, restaurants and tourists. (It's actually where Daryl was playing, but 11:00 was too late.) I ate at an American-themed place called Al's Diner - overpriced, but at least the service was slow, so I couldn't order too much. Then subway home (the Hong Kong subway is EXCELLENT - clean, efficient, not too crowded, and easy to navigate even for a corn-fed Midwestern rube like me - "Subway, huh? How do you get the cattle in?") and laying low.

Sooooo verrry tired.

Anyway, here's some pictures and a video. More tomorrow!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Count the Green Guys

China is home to some 1.3 billion people. Based on my personal observations over the last 2 months, I would have to estimate that about 350 million of them are employed by some outfit called Beijing Security - or, as I affectionately call them, the Green Guys (and occasionally Green Girls).

They are EVERYWHERE. Their uniforms are distinctly military-inspired - green trousers, shirts, shoulder boards, peaked caps or berets and sometimes Sam Browne belts that are worn over the shirt and strapped over one shoulder. They don't appear to be armed, although some have radios.

I'd put the average age somewhere between 'embryo' and 'prepubescent,' and I'm not sure exactly what they do - the ones in my apartment building are on duty 24 hours to open the door and occasionally deliver the water to the rooms (remember, you can't drink from the tap), and sometimes carry bags for residents.

Others man booths at the entrance of parking lots. They don't take the money, mind you - that's the Blue Guys' jobs. The Green Guys just watch. Still others stand at attention in vacant lots. My office has our own personal Green Guy who stands at the entrance (actually 2 or 3 - they take shifts), and I'm guessing every office in Beijing has at least one guard per floor.

They actually seem quite friendly - I'm on smile-and-nod terms with 6 of them who work in or near my apartment, and the afternoon guy at the office always hits the 'down' elevator button for me. But I cannot FATHOM how bored they must be 99% of the time.

I asked a coworker about it and he chuckled. "Don't let the uniforms fool you," he said. Apparently the Beijing Security Company, a private (or maybe semi-private) business, has contracts with all of these property owners to supply security. I'm not sure if the property owners WANT so many guards, or if the level of security is mandated somewhere, but whatever the reason, you can't swing one 15-year-old Green Guy without hitting three more.

So today, I played a little game called Count the Green Guys. This is absolutely no exaggeration - the way you play is, walk down the street, and count the Green Guys you actually SEE with minimal effort - no assuming that they're there, even when you know they are, and no going out of your normal path to get a better view into a lobby.

Here are today's results. My path, in red, is .45 miles, or .73 km, from my apartment (at top) to my office (at bottom).

Click to enlarge

The total for today is 32 Green Guys! A pretty good showing. I didn't even count the six Green Guys in the armored car waiting to empty the ATM on the first floor of my building - they carry guns and wear helmets and flak jackets, so they may be a different breed of Green Guy.

So let's do a little mathemagic. I walked 730 meters. Let's assume I could see 50 meters in every direction, so we add 50 meters to each end of my path for a total of 830 and multiply by 100 - so we're assuming I saw a swath of the city amounting to about 83,000 square meters. With 32 Green Guys in that area (a conservative estimate, mind you) that means an average of one Green Guy for every 2,593.75 square meters.

Beijing Municipality is about 16,800 square kilometers - or 16.8 million square meters. At one Green Guy per 2,593.75 square meters... let's see, carry the one... divide by pi...

As I suspected! There are 6,477,108 Green Guys in Beijing - about half the population.

Take THAT, unemployment!

(Fascinating sidenote - the large square white-roofed building just a little north of my office is the Makro Supermarket, where I had my banana-buying difficulties!)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Coming Soon to a Cheap Softside Suitcase Full of Pirated DVDs Sitting on a Battered Folding Chair On The Packed Dirt by the Side of the Road Near You!

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about buying a copy of the movie Babel, during which I commented that my tastes normally run towards comedies and mindless big-budget action flicks.

Well, my dear friend Pat shortly thereafter was considerate/bored enough to whip up a cover design for the fictional movie I referenced:

Now how do I break it to Pat that it's already for sale on the street here for 32 cents a copy?


Well, after all that buildup yesterday, the Crazy Ad showdown was a bit anticlimactic. My boss gave the interactive team a brief chewing-out about following proper protocol, then I showed my idea, everyone bought off on it, a designer was assigned and I guess I'm done, unless the client comes back with changes. The good news (for me, at least) is that it's supposed to go live August 6, while I'm still here, so I hope to get a capture of my very first published Chinese ad!

Also, at 6:00 tonight, out of the blue I was told that the TV commercial I've been sitting on for weeks is a go, and the kickoff is in 2 minutes.

Most of the meeting was in Chinese, but I didn't need to speak the language to understand what my boss was shouting about when we got to the schedule: after waiting a month for approval of the brief, the schedule gave us 1 week to develop an integrated TV/print/outdoor/radio campaign that will launch in December.

I didn't get whether that was resolved, but even with an extension, I think things will be picking up. Which is good news.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What I Do All Day

First lesson of big-budget, global client, integrated media campaigns: It be SLOW. I've been assigned to one client who is shooting a China-market TV commercial, and I've been getting ahead of the project by drawing up storyboards and concepts while waiting for approval of the creative brief.

Well, that's taking a lot longer than expected. It hasn't been changing the substance of what we're doing (at least, not yet) but until everybody from New York and Atlanta and London and Shanghai finishes dotting their e's and crossing their lower-case l's, we can't officially start work.

So things have been dwindling a little until finally, last week, I asked for and got permission to throw myself at the mercy of the entire office, doing whatever anybody needed.

So that's helped pick things up, and it's actually a great way to learn a lot - in many cases, I'm actually proofing English-language presentations, which is an easy way to get an overview of a lot of different clients and different aspects of our business.

I also was approached last week by some account people in the interactive division. One of our clients, a large computer component manufacturer, needed a special one-off interactive ad unit (for my coworkers back home, it's basically a 900x550 page-takeover, 8 seconds and 200k.) Back home we call it 'Rich Media;' here they call it 'Crazy Ad,' which I actually like better. I'd like us to use that terminology in the future, FYI.

Anyway, I showed them some ideas today, and they basically said "Great! We're presenting to the client Friday! What approvals do you need and who will be doing the design?"


So I stalled and went to my director. And guess what? I'm in the middle of a little spat! You see, my boss oversees all traditional media creative, but has to approve online, but the budget is handled by online, although the trafficking and scheduling goes through offline, and -- oh, let's go to the org chart for this one:

As you can clearly see, they did an end-around. Perhaps they did so because my status, which you will note is a little ill-defined. I am something of an ethereal being, more substantive and corporeal than a ghost, but less than, say, the office bird:

Anyway, I'm sure it will all work out. I'll keep you posted!


Guess which sock got thrown in with my new Chinese t-shirt? Go on, guess!

Actually had a high, clear blue sky today, the first I've seen in a couple weeks. Here's a picture for proof.

Hope it's as nice wherever you are!

Monday, July 9, 2007

More Bonus Features of My Apartment

I know I can sometimes be a little sarcastic -- no, no, don't protest! I know it's true! -- and can sometimes be a little snide and snarky, as I was when I made the case that my apartment was trying to kill me.

So today, in celebration of the second wheel snapping off my office chair and skittering across the floor like it had something better to do, I am going to laud some of my apartment's more charming features.

1.) Easy Access Wiring
If you're like me, you are ALWAYS tinkering with electricity. But in our modern housing, it can be so difficult to get at the wiring, what with all the walls and plaster and whatnot. But not in my apartment! "Now, where do you think that wire is? Oh, yeah, it's STAPLED TO THE FLOOR!"

2.) Cupboard of Mystery
When I first got to the apartment, I thought "Wow! Lots of cupboard space in the kitchen!" I was half right. There are a lot of cupboard DOORS in the kitchen. Several of them, however, have no bottom - just easy access to the plumbing. But if I ever need to quickly dispose of something, I know where to go.

3.) Do-It-Yourself Wading Pool
Wet baths have become more popular in recent years. Rather than putting in a shower stall or tub, the idea is you tile everything and put a drain in the floor. Done correctly, it's a simple and elegant way to get the most out of a small bathroom space. It does, however, require one basic bit of engineering - the floor MUST be sloped towards the drain (at lower right of the sink in this picture.)

If it slopes the OTHER way, as we discovered when my family was staying here, the water runs to the two-inch-high stoop and fills the bathroom.

4.) 'E-Z Exit' Doors
Don't you hate the way you have to turn the doorknob to open a door? And don't get me started on locks! But that will never be a problem in my spare bedroom, as my wife and I discovered when we moved in there to let my parents have the master bedroom. The engineers thoughtfully made the door about 3 millimeters wider than the doorway, eliminating the chance of the door ever latching shut!

  • The needle-sharp tacks poking through the carpet by the kitchen, to make sure I'm fully awake.
  • The pre-split seams on the couch.
  • The ever-so-delicate dining room set, which seems sturdy until you apply the slightest pressure backwards, at which point the matchsticks and Elmer's glue holding it together start to give way. Imagine a $7.95 Ikea bookshelf, but without the attention to quality materials and durability.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

From Polite to Pushy: How China Transformed My Family

Editor's Note: This title is courtesy of my sister.

Sing along! "I'm so lonely...so lonely... so lonely and sadly alone!"

Yes, I am once again a bachelor. My parents and sister flew out two days ago, and my wife just left this morning, meaning I'm once available to regale you with my stories about purchasing fruit and crossing the street - a much better life than spending time in the company of loved ones!

But I'm happy to say everyone had a great time. I won't go through all the details, but today's post will feature a few stories from their trip.

The second day my wife was here, I wrote that we had gone to the antique market and bought some things and I commented that we weren't very good negotiators. My wife read that last night and scoffed - over the past few weeks, China has hardened her into a VERY good negotiator.

Probably the best example came last Wednesday, the day after the got to my apartment. I come from a large family, and my parents wanted to bring back souvenirs for all of their grandchildren - all 27 of them.

They decided to buy Beijing 2008 Olympic baseball caps - gender neutral, relevant for the next year, and relatively easy to find. But then there were some difficulties - the shops in the hotels were grossly overpriced; the street vendors wouldn't have 27 at once; and low-quality knockoffs abound.

Near my apartment, though, is a small 2-story market where vendors sell, well, pretty much everything. Upstairs they found a t-shirt and hat shop with a good selection of decent quality Olympic hats. The bad news: they were priced at 85 yuan, more than $11.

Of course, everyone knows that's a joke. The way it works is, you walk into a shop, and whoever is there yells at you "HEY LADY! (or HEY MISTER!) YOU WANT(insert product here)? GOOD QUALITY!" In a market like the one we were at, you can have up to 6 people yelling at you at a time. The more aggressive merchants actually try to force something into your hands while yelling at you, or grab your arm to pull you in.

If you pause to look, you will be engaged. If you actually pick something UP, the dance begins.

First they ask how much you want to spend. You ask them to name a price. A large calculator appears and they punch in a number. "Just for you," they say. "Anyone else I charge twice as much."

Now you laugh at them - a deep, disbelieving laugh, as if they just asked for your liver and one kidney, plus $100. Say "Tie gway luh" - (too expensive) - take the calculator and punch in maybe 15% of what they entered. They laugh at you, and so it goes until you settle in the 40-55% range. Often you'll have to walk away more than once, and go through two or three rounds of 'best price, period' on both sides. But if all goes well - presto! - you're the proud owner of a non-color-fast t-shirt.

Except when Shannon's driving the calculator. I wasn't there, but apparently it was an epic battle, and when the dust cleared, my parents walked out with a garbage bag full of hats - for 12 yuan each, just 14% of asking.

When we visited again a few days later, at least 4 vendors recognized her.

Now, keep in mind, my mother is the sweetest, most nurturing woman on the planet, and I'm not biased at all. But her constant smile and friendly temperament are like a siren's song to everyone looking for a buck. Vendors, beggars, everyone comes like moths to a light simply because she's too nice to say no. Or at least she was when she got here.

At one point on their tour, a girl came to my family's table with a tea mug and a toothpick holder and some kind words about what a nice family they were. "How nice!" my mother thought, even briefly assuming this might be a gift.

Well, of course it wasn't, and my mom didn't really want to buy anything, but she didn't want to be rude either. So they kept talking, which the vendor took to mean my mother wanted MORE cups and toothpick holders, which she would occasionally run back to grab. Round and round the conversation went, with more and more mugs and toothpick holders appearing, until the table looked like this:

Needless to say, my mother bought one, but the vendor had to have been disappointed.

But what finally turned my mother was the panhandlers. They are like the vendors, but ruder, louder, more persistent, and if you give to one, the others will hound you incessantly. They will chase you as long as they can, grab you, yell at you - one little boy even hit Shannon in the back when she looked through her pockets and came up with nothing (she really didn't have anything).

Now, before you write me snide ivory-tower comments about fat uncaring Americans, let me be clear: Yes, I know that I have so much by their standards. Yes, I know these people are probably desperate. No, I'm not making fun of poverty. And yes, I probably could give them my loose change and never miss it.

But the reality is that eventually, everyone living in Beijing develops that thousand-yard stare and ability to hold a conversation over the head of someone who is grabbing your belt with one hand and hitting you in the stomach with a cup in the other.

As we were leaving Franks on July 4, there was an older woman waiting for us. She had hit us up earlier in the day and was probably just doing her rounds of places foreigners go. We kept walking as she tried to get underfoot for me, yelling "MONEY! MONEY! MONEY! HELLO!" as loud as she could. Then she saw my mother walking parallel to me 10 feet to my right.

Like a flash, the panhandler charged my mother, making her case - "MONEY! LADY! HELLO! MONEY! MONEY!"

It was then I knew my mother had had enough. My mother actually broke into a run, jogging down the street, the panhandler chasing her for a full block until we got into a taxi.

We are Midwesterners. The only thing we hate more than uncomfortable encounters is physical contact. But China is a good cure for that.

Forming a line is still a strange concept to many Beijingers. The city actually will name a day "Waiting in Line Day," and on that day, observers will go to intersections and crowded public places and encourage people to wait their turn in line, rather than just make a beeline for the place they want to go.

My sister got a lesson in the old-fashioned way of getting places at the Summer Palace one day last week. The situation: Two people are walking side by side away from the observer down a long path. A four-foot tall grandmother is walking in the same direction but at a faster pace behind them.

She reaches the couple, places her left hand on the right hip of the person on the left, her right hand on the left hip of the person on the right...

...and pushes them apart...

...saving her from having to veer ever so slightly to one side.

By the time I saw my family, they were practically shoving old people out of the way like big, American snowplows.


I know there are some other stories as well, but I'm still hoping Shannon will write a guest entry about her experiences with the transportation sector, and I don't want to spoil all the fun. So until next time, adios, amoebas!