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

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Oh, what the hey, one last traffic graphic...

ADDENDUM, SEPT. 24, 2007: Thanks to everyone who has commented, I now know that this phenomenon is known as The Chinese Dragon, The Dragon, or The Car Dragon and is practiced in Taiwan (and probably other places as well.) I LOVE that this has a name. It just goes to prove, as poster gr82cu observed, that if everyone plays by the same rules, even things that look strange or even dangerous to foreign eyes are perfectly safe and logical.

Even knowing that people don't get killed doing this (as I presumed when I first saw The Car Dragon), I hope you enjoy the read!

ORIGINAL POST: OK, one last traffic post for old time’s sake. On one of my last days in Beijing, I saw this one which, as the great Dave Barry would say, I SWEAR I am not making up. I call it:

Synchronized Insanity


Another left turn situation at a stoplight. Two lanes of traffic in each direction pass under a bridge. There are barriers separating opposing traffic, except under the bridge itself. Frontage roads run alongside the elevated highway, and the cars in column [A] want to get on this service road.

Step 1:

The light turns green – yay! Column [A] pulls forward, the lead car nosing a bit into the northbound lanes, sniffing for an opening. And they’re in luck – car [C] (not yet in the frame) has failed to adequately tailgate car [B], a near-mortal sin in the world of Beijing traffic.

Step 2:

The danse macabre begins. The lead car, [A1], lurches in front of [C], who slams on his brakes, stopping the left northbound lane.

Step 3:

Like roller Rockettes, every car in the column that is past the inter-lane barrier, from [A2] to [A6], simultaneously takes a sharp left, filling the dead space behind [B] as he passes. Meanwhile, [A1] has successfully blocked [D], stopping all northbound traffic and freeing him to complete the left turn.

Step 4:

With the precision of a drill team, [A2] to [A6] now turn right. [A7] follows as he passes the barrier – southbound cars are now starting their left turn a full 200 feet before the road they want to end up on.

Step 5:

But revenge is sweet. Since column [A] is now heading SOUTH in the far-right NORTHBOUND lane, [C] now has a clear shot up the left northbound lane, and his own band of minions eager to cut someone off. Column [C] accelerates, with opposing traffic whizzing by on both sides. And an impure element has infiltrated column [A]…

Step 6:

It’s car [E], who – and this is absolutely insane – actually wants to continue south. In the southbound lanes. Can you imagine? Anyway, this frees column [C] to exploit the opening and prevent any additional cars from column [A] from turning at the barrier.

Step 7:

The last cars from the lead [A] element are reaching the frontage road, but now have to drive quickly and carefully to avoid [D], who has crept forward in a fit of pique, a sort of slow-motion game of chicken. The following members of [A] follow [E] – the rule among Beijing drivers is ALWAYS do ANYTHING that gets you as close as possible to your final destination, even if it means –heaven forbid – staying in your own lane and not running anyone over.

Return to Step 1:

Lather, rinse, repeat.


  • As of this writing, since I started tracking stats on this site on June 6, there have been 4,056 visitors, who have accounted for 6,836 visits – a small group of regulars, and a lot of one-time visitors.
  • By far, the most popular single post has been Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn, with 3,320 views. 2,194 of those visits have come since August 26th, when the post was picked up by some China-centric blogs. Since then, it spread to many other blogs – as a web guy by profession, kinda cool to see.
  • The post has been translated into Cantonese, meaning I am now published in at least two languages around the world! (Thanks, 暗黑的卡夫卡!)
  • According to www.business-opportunities.biz, a site that has a cool feature that computes the value of web sites by simply entering the URL, my blog is worth $21,452.52. Whoever wants to give me that money, please write – I need to buy a new furnace and windows for the house.
  • My blog comes up #15 in a Google search for ‘Beijing traffic.’ In a search for ‘chubble,’ I’m number three.

So long for now! It’s been fun!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Travelogue Epilogue

Wow. Time flies when you’re getting back into normal life. I’ve been home almost two weeks now, and today was my third day back in the office in Minneapolis. I’m right back in the mix – I’m out to LA for a presentation next Tuesday, have a pitch a week later, and I’m working on a site that’s in a ‘sprint’ process, which essentially means build and design on the fly and fix it later. We had a fair amount of turnover in the creative department – 4 departures, 5 hires, so a busy summer.

Took me about 5 days to get over my jet lag. Fortunately I had the week off, so I could kind of adjust naturally. Been reading a lot, doing some lawn care, long walks with the dog (she was very excited to see me), spending time with Shannon (I was very excited to see her), had a dripping faucet repair project quickly spiral into a three day crisis that involved replacing all but one pipe under the sink, went to a noon Twins game last Wednesday, and just generally got back into the swing of life stateside.

Of course, everyone has a ton of questions about China, and upon a little reflection and constant retelling, I can say this was one of my top experiences ever. I’m glad I got to go there, and I’m glad I got to go now. Beijing at this moment in time is unlike anything ever before or since; in 2 years, I would have a totally different experience.

I will miss and treasure the experience a LOT, but to be honest with myself I have to say I handle settled environments better. I can deal with crisis and fluid situations, but to be at my best I need to have traction, which is hard to gain in a shifting landscape. I really admire the people I met who can roll with the punches while jumping through hoops, an ability that comes in handy in Beijing.

I learned a ton about my industry and about myself, so I guess that makes it a successful exchange. I only hope the Beijing office and my new friends got as much out of me as I did out of them. I haven’t been good about writing since I got back, but I will keep in touch – thank you, instant messaging!

People ask what I missed, if it was tough to readjust. You know what? Not really. I didn’t come home craving anything except the ability to speak the language, but that quickly becomes routine. Driving is fun (it cost about $300 to get the car in shape – new tire, new battery and some engine tuneup.) The air is cleaner here, and I really notice that.

People ask about the Chinese government and what it’s like in a Communist country. To be honest, on the one hand, you can’t tell. People are basically the same the world over, and for the most part people are far more worried about everyday life than who’s in charge – sound familiar? – and as a rule people are decent, honest and hardworking. Jerks exist in about the same proportion wherever you go.

Nobody talks about the government, at least not to me. My family talked with some Chinese on their tour who said most older people are just happy for stability – live through a few revolutions and anyone who keeps the peace is A-OK. The younger generation, I surmise, knows opportunity when they see it, and they’re more than happy with a system that gives them access to everything they need, the creature comforts they want, and constant opportunity for advancement. And who can blame them? How many of us in America really look any deeper than that on a day to day basis?

On the other hand, yes, I could tell it was a different system. We complain about our media here in the U.S., but when you come from America and read Chinese official news, you can tell the difference. Good news is everywhere. Bad news is couched in the assurances that it isn’t THAT bad. Honest analysis is very hard to come by.

And the scary thing is, no matter how cynical you are, it’s easy to not notice what isn’t called to your attention. Just a lesson for y’all. A lot of ugly stuff comes with a fairly free press, but the alternative has its own issues.

I had to be on file with the local police. When I casually made conversation like ‘Have you been to [name of place outside China]?’ to local Chinese, there would be an awkward silence, then ‘Well, it’s not easy to leave.’ Even though the Chinese government isn’t omniscient, certain topics – Tiananmen, Taiwan and Tibet, in particular – only came up furtively and in places like moving cabs, and only with other expats. Little things like that say a lot.

In fact, I’m pretty sure this blog was read by officials (censors, maybe?) in Beijing – I watched the stats, and despite being blocked in China, I would get a couple people who would consistently visit from Beijing every few days. Must have been government to be outside the Great Firewall.

But this is not meant to be a critique. It’s a different system and certainly was the only way to get China where it is today as quickly as it’s grown. Will there be repercussions? Probably, but I’m not going to place ANY bets on what they will be.

Probably the number one thing people ask about is the food, and despite the fact that I enjoyed 90% of what I had, they only want to hear about the other 10% - the chicken feet, the cow stomach, the century eggs. Human nature, I suppose.

In the final analysis, I guess I can only speak for myself, and I can say I loved it and I hope to back someday. So take that for what it’s worth.

Thanks for reading along! It’s been fun! In a few days, I’ll probably reverse this blog so it reads from beginning to end. If you enjoyed this, check back every now and again – if I start a new blog abut my continuing adventures, I’ll link to it from the top of this one.

Until then: Zai Chien!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Safe at Home!

I think I'll do a wrap-up post some time over the next few days, but for my coworkers and friends and family I wanted to say I got home safe and sound Thursday afternoon. Sorry I haven't been in touch - gonna be fighting jet lag for a few days, I think. But all is well. Hope the same is true for you!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

So I'm Going To Minneapolis

Goodbye, China! And to everyone back home, I'll be seeing you soon!

China +97: Last Hurrah


It's my last evening here in Beijing. I have had a full day of packing - I seriously don't know how I have this much stuff. I came over with two large suitcases, full, but certainly not bursting, and I'm going home with those same suitcases ripping at the seams (seriously - I think we need to buy some new luggage, Shannon - sorry!) and a duffel bag also overflowing, plus my computer bag and carry-on.

It took a lot of jiggering and rejiggering to make it work. Just as I was starting to get it under control, I got a call from work, telling me they were couriering a goodbye gift to me. Naturally, I'm flattered and grateful - but it turned out to be a glass-fronted shadowbox with miniature Beijing Opera masks in it, about two feet wide, 15 inches tall and five inches deep. Very cool, but I can't exactly put it in a pocket. So one bag got pulled apart, another got stuffed a little more, and I made it work - as my sister is fond of saying whenever we have to load a car or truck, "Always plenty of room!"

Right now I'm having dinner. I ordered in Annie's Italian, so I'm dining on chicken tortellini, a Caesar salad and garlic bread. In a little while I'm going to meet some friends for a drink at Frank's (only one - I have a VERY early day tomorrow) and then it's to bed for the last time in Beijing. I'll wake up at 4:30, shower, make my last blog post from Beijing and a car is picking me up at 5:45. Flight takes off at 9:05 local (8:05 pm on the 15th back in Minneapolis), and a mere 17 hours later I'll be home!

Mixed feelings, to be sure. I'll miss the energy and the feeling that I'm doing something adventurous. But I look forward to wife, family, friends, dog, clean air, driving and water I can drink from the tap. Oh, and HAVING A CLUE ABOUT WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON AROUND ME.

See you soon!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


You know how horror movies always have the false ending? Where you think everything has wrapped up nicely, and all the conflicts are resolved, and then BAM! a knife-wielding clown bursts through the floorboards? That's a little how I'm feeling about lunch today.

During this trip, I have already eaten century eggs, chicken feet and eels, so I really didn't feel like I needed to prove myself any more. Sure, there's lots more scary stuff out there, but now that I've tried all those things I feel like I can just pass on certain things without feeling like a coward. And since today was my last day, it really seemed like I was past any risk of coming across anything too unusual.

My going-away lunch was attended by eight coworkers, including the executive creative director and the office managing director. We went to the same restaurant where I had the chicken feet (not a good sign), but it's a nice place, even if the decor is a little, as one coworker put it, "Country Kitchen."

The place specializes in spicy foods, so there were lots of peppers and lots of good hot food - tofu with pork, spicy green beans, noodles, chicken, fish soup, and the final dish was a whole grouper, including head and tail, that had been deep-fried.

That wasn't the scary bit.

The scary bit came when the managing director pushed one plate towards me and said I should try a bit. It was a beige sliced white meat that had a complex latticework of raised ridges on one side. My first thought was octopus tentacles, but I was trying to be a good sport so I tried a bit.

As I chewed thoughtfully on the rubbery, flavorless meat, it was revealed that no, thank goodness, it wasn't tentacles.

It was a cow's stomach.

My brain, thankfully, decided to protect itself by pretending it hadn't heard that, so my reply was a semi-interested "Hmm!" and I was able to finish the meal without incident, probably to the disappointment of my coworkers, who I noticed weren't exactly digging into the tripe themselves.

But at least that's another one I can scratch off the life checklist.


Just generally a quiet, professional exit today. I cleaned my desk and computer, sent out my contact information to friends and walked around saying goodbye. No big speeches, no tearful hugs, but a lot of sincere goodbyes and hope-we-meet-agains. The account service group gave me a very nice gift - a cedar box containing a set of seven handmade ceramics representing the seven fortunes: happiness, inner-peace, prosperity, longevity, joy, health and contentment. It was actually very touching, very unexpected and very nice.

I went out for dinner with the executive creative director and one of my Singaporean friends. We went to a very upscale Korean barbecue, where they cook your food for you at the table over a charcoal pot. There had been talk of a crazy night, which wasn't what I wanted at this point, but fortunately both of them had to go back to the office to work after we finished eating at 9:30, so I was off the hook.

Tomorrow I pack, probably have one more dinner with my friends, and then I'm coming home. Two days and counting!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Regrets? I've had a few...

...but then again,
too few to mention.
So why did I
Ev'n bring it up?
Must love the sound
Of myself speaking!

We are officially in the 'wind down' period of my trip. Tomorrow is my last work day, which will involve packing up papers, doing an exit interview, turning in my security card, making sure my paperwork is in order, cleaning the computer I've been using of any passwords and then going out for dinner with some coworkers.

Today, however, wasn't nearly so action-packed. So I will devote today's blog to my few regrets: the blog posts I wanted to do but never quite got around to writing. At the same time, I want to make sure I capture these things, because they did make an impact on me, even if that impact was limited to "Ha ha! Lookee there!"

So here they are - The Lost Blogs:

Bellies of Beijing: When the weather gets warm, men in Beijing make their ultimate fashion statement: They hitch their t-shirts up under their armpits and go struttin' down the street as if saying "Look at me! I have a large, sweaty stomach, and I'm PROUD! See how it glistens? Drink it in, people!" And for the record, these are generally not the lean, muscular Jet Li types. Not that I am, of course, but I DO keep my shirt down.

Why It Didn't Get Written: It's a visual thing, and there was really never an opportunity to get the kind of pictures that would do the phenomenon justice. It usually would strike like lightning - I'd be walking along, minding my own business, then turn a corner and GOOD LORD! HAVE YOU NO SHAME, SIR? There it would be. Hard to discreetly get the camera out and snap a picture.

The Great Wall Street: I've done enough economy-related posts to mark myself as a geek, but the Chinese stock market really is something to behold. It's increased in value by 80% in the last 7 1/2 months, which is Chubble if I've ever seen it. But what's even more remarkable is that it's driven by individual investors, not the huge institutional buyers you find in other markets.

I wanted to capture a snapshot of that. You see, every morning when I get to work at 9:30, I am nearly run over by retirees - the women in cotton print dresses and slippers, then men in shorts, tank tops, black socks and flip-flops, and most of them EASILY over 60 - shoving their way into the elevator with me, sometimes even pushing the 'close door' button in my face to avoid missing precious seconds that could be spent playing the market in the brokerage on the third floor of my building.

I've poked my head out, and it looks like an off-track betting parlor, right down to the grimy plastic chairs, the electronic ticker that everyone stares at, the overflowing ashtrays and the cashiers behind the counter, buying and selling shares of whatever with the life savings of these survivors of the Great Leap Forward.

My Scottish friend smirked when I mentioned that. "One big difference," he said, "is the people at betting parlors have some idea what they're doing." And that's not condescension - even the government agrees that the markets suffer from too many people chasing fortunes without proper planning, but they don't know how to shut it off without bursting it. They keep putting out warning signals, and the market crashes for a few days or a few weeks, but then they put their flip-flops back on and head to the third floor to get on the money train.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Again, a visual story, and I was too sheepish to walk around taking pictures of people, especially if they happened to be losing money that day.

The Alcoholympics: The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games have three official beers plus an official wine ("Greatwall - the wine in a bottle that tastes like wine in a box!") Somehow that seems a bit excessive. I also liked that Greatwall's official title was 'Official Supplier' - as if the marathon stations would have water, Gatorade or a delightful dry Cabernet Sauvignon. I was thinking of maybe doing a taste test and review of all the official Olympic booze.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Well, for one thing, it seemed like kind of a one-note joke. And if there's one thing I INSIST upon, it's that my posts all have depth and poignancy. For another thing, publicly advertising that much drinking alone just seemed a little off.

The Olympic Green: On a more serious note, I really wanted to get onto the site of the Olympics and get some pictures of the buildings under construction close-up. My company has contacts high up with the Olympic hierarchy since several of our clients are major sponsors, and I was hoping that would help me get past the barricades.

Why It Didn't Get Written: There's only so many strings to pull, and only so much time, and it just didn't work out for me. But I will be watching the Games next year with great interest nonetheless.

What Has He Seen?: On a couple occasions, I saw people who just stopped me in my tracks for one reason or another. They tended to be old, with the kind of lined and care-worn faces that were made for arty black-and-white photography. The first one I remember clearly. He looked like he was about 90, and couldn't have weighed 100 pounds. He was pedalling an ancient bicycle slowly - I was walking, and he just barely got past me. Suddenly, like magic, the sidewalk was clear, and he started swerving back and forth, looping the bike from side to side, almost letting it tip before putting the handlebars hard the other way and swerving away. In short, he was having fun.

My first thought was, how charming and quaint! My second thought, and I have no idea where it came from, was, My God, what has that man seen in his life? Eighty years ago China was a chaotic republic. Seventy years ago the Japanese were bombing and burning cities and conquered much of the east coast. Sixty years ago was civil war. Fifty years ago it was the Great Leap Forward era of Mao's Stalinist dictatorship. Forty years ago was the Cultural Revolution, with its purges - tens of millions dead over those two decades. Thirty years ago China was opening to the west. Twenty years ago you had the democracy movement, and what came after. And in the past ten years it's basically become a capitalist consumer society at breakneck speed.

It just made me wonder, what has he lived through? What role did he play? What did he think when it was happening? I think that all the time when I see older people now. I wonder what they think of me, someone they probably were taught was the enemy a few decades ago, and now Beijing is crawling with laowai and their vices and their toys. Just makes you think.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Well, I guess it just did. But again, it would have been better if I could have gotten some arty black-and-white photos to go with it, and the opportunity never presented itself.

Playing Tourist: Summer Palace and Ming Tombs: Those were the two big tourist spots I never made it to. But if I had to trade, say, Gun Day in order to have people try to sell me postcards at those sites, I would take Gun Day every time.

Why It Didn't Get Written: Because I never went there. But Shannon did, so at least between the two of us we've got Beijing pretty well covered.

So there you have it: my list of regrets. But at least I can look back and say I experienced China... my way.

(Ba-dum BAM!)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Laziest Man in Beijing

So how did I spend my last weekend in this vast, fascinating, exotic land to which I may or may not ever have the opportunity to return?

Well, on Saturday I did some laundry, listened to the Twins get shelled by the Angels, talked to Shannon, watched some movies and an episode of LOST, tried to salvage the music library on my crashed iPod (quite annoyed about that - thank you SO bloody much for your fickle software, Steve Jobs!) and otherwise managed to not leave the apartment, even for a minute.

Today I was a little better - went downstairs to buy some water, ran 4 miles on the treadmill in the workout room, and went out for Singaporean food with my two Singaporean friends. It was fantastic, for the record - kind of an Indian/Chinese fusion. Then we went to Frank's Place for a couple pints of Guinness, and now here I am.

No regrets for the lazy weekend, either. It felt good to relax, and frankly, if this one weekend was the make-or-break point of my three-month stint in China, I'd probably have squandered the trip already.

Two work days left. If I can avoid spilling scalding coffee on the managing director, I'll probably get to call this a success. Wish me luck!

Friday, August 10, 2007


(another Google image - not my actual meal)

Might be better known to some as 'Peking Duck,' but 'Beijing Roast Duck' is the full translation of the Chinese name. Needless to say, it's a bit of a specialty of the city, and Beijing Roast Duck restaurants abound.

I usually use 'breaking culinary news' to announce something upsetting or unusual, so this time I thought I'd give equal billing to what was an excellent meal.

Last week I mentioned to some friends that I hadn't yet had the dish, which is practically a crime for anyone who has spent more then 12 hours in the city. Neither of them had either, so we made plans with a couple of longer-term Beijing residents to go out for dinner tonight.

The restaurant itself, Li Qun, seems fairly authentic. It's an old, old courtyard house in a pretty battered looking hutong that must be a couple hundred years of age. From the piles of new bricks, the neighborhood looks like it may be in line for a renovation, but it certainly is REAL Beijing, from the tall grasses growing out of the roofs of the houses down to the kids playing in the street and the residents gathered in small clusters sitting on the sidewalks.

On the other hand, the restaurant is probably only 4-5 blocks southeast of Tienanmen Square, and I think it's become one of those 'authentic' places that gets 'discovered' and then fills up with 'tourists' as the 'prices' go through the 'roof.' This impression was borne out by the review my coworkers were reading during the hour cab ride to get there through rush hour - the phrase I recognized was 'laowai hen dwah hen dwah' - many, many white people.

There certainly were a lot of tourists, but hey, can't blame them. The ambiance was appropriately shabby (real Chinese restaurants don't spend much on atmosphere), and the kitchen, visible as we walked in, was doubtless set up to make one dish over and over and make it well.

I don't know if I ever had Peking Duck back home, but if I did, it certainly wasn't like this. It takes an hour to make (although here I'm sure they just keep pumping them out) and comes out whole, glazed to the point where it glows a radioactive orange and glistens like lacquer. For the five of us, we ordered two. The chef brought them out on a dented aluminum tray, showed it to us, then WHACK! Off with their heads. (I couldn't help but think of Daffy Duck saying "You realize, of course, that this means war!")

The chef then deftly cut the breast meat into thin slices maybe an inch square, making sure each piece had a bit of the glazed skin, which is the prize of the meal. Only the breast was served - the rest of the bird was whisked away.

Plates full of meat were put on the table along with a sweet, strong sauce, green onions cut into strips, small sliced cucumbers, a bowl of raw sugar and stacks of paper-thin pastry sheets maybe six inches across, like small thin tortillas. To eat it, you take a pastry, put a piece of duck dipped in sauce on it, add other toppings, and wrap it up like a tiny burrito. It was delicious. The sugar was surprisingly good, too - just a pinch really brightened up the flavor.

Also at the table was steamed broccoli (not normally my favorite, but I enjoyed it), scallops served on fried taro strips, and some excellent fois gras. I suppose the last makes sense - if there's one thing the place probably has a surplus of, it's duck's liver. I ate more than I should have, but hey, it's not like I eat it every day.

So I was enjoying the meal and thinking, "Hey, this is pretty darn good! And it's an authentic meal where I'm not picking out bones or worrying about what it is or anything!"

And then the remains of the ducks we had just eaten came back out of the kitchen, like duck zombies.

Imagine taking a whole duck, stuffing it full of firecrackers, dunking it in a deep-fat fryer and then exploding it. That's what the bowls set in front of us looked like. There were random bones, necks and blasted pieces of meat sticking out of it every which way. It actually smelled pretty good, and I was able to find a pebble of meat that wasn't seared to a bone and tried it - like all fried food, it was pretty tasty. But I've been here too long to have to prove myself, so I pronounced myself full and let it pass.

I was actually amused by this (if you haven't noticed by now, I'm easily amused.) Serving the meal this way is like them saying "And for you, monsieur, we serve ONLY the very FINEST parts of the duck. Oh, and then we serve you the rest of the duck."

There were plenty of leftovers from the Bowls 'o Duck Bits, which were unceremoniously dumped into a clear plastic bag for us to take home. I passed.

But at least I got to eat the Beijing specialty and have a last Friday night meal with my friends. Good times!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

New Chinese Stereotypes

I’m a sensitive liberal-arts-degree-holding kinda guy, so there’s nothing I hate more than the tired old stereotypes we hold about different groups of people. It’s insulting to the people being stereotyped, and it limits the thinking of those who buy into them, potentially closing off our minds to wonderful new experiences that blah blah blah.

That’s why I’ve come up with some exciting NEW stereotypes about Chinese people that you can use in your everyday lives!

1.) The Chinese are highly efficient sleepers. Almost every time I’ve been in a cab or on a bus with a Chinese person for a trip that would take more then 20 minutes, they’ve said “I’m going to close my eyes for a while,” then leaned their heads back and nodded off. At work, many people keep pillows at their desks (this is no joke; actually, it’s quite a good idea) and will just put their heads down on their desks for a 15-minute power nap over lunch. During the hottest part of the day, it’s not unusual to see people – including businesspeople - laying on park benches in the shade and taking naps. Being a hot city, I suppose it bears a lot in common with siestas in Mexico, Spain and other warm areas. Just didn’t know that was a Chinese thing too.

2.) Chinese look great in heavy black-rimmed glasses. Not everyone can pull this look off, but for some reason, the Chinese can.

3.) Chinese people move SLOOOOOOWWWW. This actually might be a Beijing thing and not a Chinese thing, and it’s far from universal, but more than once I’ve passed bicycles while walking briskly, and if I’m in a hurry, it always seems like everyone in Beijing is sleepwalking. I usually end up swerving in and out like a skier through a slalom, and I feel like I’m moving that fast, too. To illustrate this point, I’ve drawn this picture of me being run over by a glacier while trapped behind a crowd of Chinese.



I enjoyed what I assume to be a totally legal and legitimate copy of Die Hard 4.0 and was pleased to see that this movie wears its heart right on its sleeve:

Nothing like a prominently placed exploding helicopter to help you know exactly what kind of movie you’re in for.


This should strike fear into the hearts of all of the designers I work with back home. It's a sample of some of the work I've been doing here. Now that I’ve had a taste, I don’t know if I can go back to being just a copywriter ever again.


Work has pretty much dried up after a long day yesterday (client call at 8:00 pm), and I don’t expect to see much more Beijing work (if any) before I leave. On the other hand, I’ve been getting some details about some work in Minneapolis, so I’ve spent some time pondering that.

The new business pitch I was working on was presented today (I wasn’t there – Chinese presentation) and apparently it went well. The farewell video I was working on was shown at the client’s farewell dinner last night, and apparently the honored guest enjoyed it very much, so that’s all good. (Oh, by the way, when I was at the American restaurant yesterday, I saw him having lunch. Probably a Yippie-Ki-Yay Burger or something. Kind of funny to recognize him from putting together the slideshow while he had NO IDEA who I was.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

America, Olé!

Went out for lunch with my Scottish coworker today. He’s heading to Shanghai tomorrow and then on to Bangkok for a long weekend, so we wanted to catch a meal before I take off.

Since it was a special occasion, I simply HAD to go to the American-themed restaurant I’d heard about at Lido Place a mile or so away.

Two words: Cowboy hats.

To be fair, it fit the overall theme, which was really more Tex-Mex than straight-up American. But it was still a little strange seeing the entirely Chinese staff wearing cowboy hats, boots, checked shirts (fringed shirts for the women) and jeans. The walls were decorated with serapés and sombreros. The music was, I actually don’t know how to describe it, but maybe romantic Country? Very low energy and as bland as a doughy tortilla.

Speaking of which, the enchilada was a bit substandard – stringy beef in the aforementioned doughy tortilla, topped with – well, imagine if you could somehow melt a carton of cottage cheese. And I mean the WHOLE CARTON, plastic and all. Kinda like that, but greasier.

The salad bar was a bit odd, too. It was made to look like an old chuck wagon, and while it had iceburg lettuce and salad dressing, there wasn’t much else there with which to construct a salad. There was a pasta salad that had what looked like strips of luncheon ham in it (ran into that in some noodles once before here, too) and what I think they thought was potato salad.

Deconstructing it at the table, it seemed to consist of large chunks of potato, salad dressing, pickles, bacon bits and paprika. (“What the heck IS this?” I asked my friend. “You tell me, you’re the American,” he replied, as if it were some national delicacy of ours.)

So not exactly a four-star meal, but I was amused by the décor. (Would have gotten pictures, but hey, no camera left.) I have to say, I bet that when Chinese tourists eat at many Chinese restaurants in America, they probably have a similar reaction. (“And where were the bones? It just creeps me out!”)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Riceometer Check

That's right, boys and girls. 90%. I have ten days remaining in Beijing (a little less when you consider my flight leaves early on the 16th.)


Take a look at the Riceometer picture. Does it look a little blurry to you? It should, thanks to the pickpocket who lifted my new Olympus camera out of my backpack yesterday, leaving me with just my low-resolution webcam as the last way I have to take pictures.

(Remember, my cameraphone was stolen after I forgot it in a cab in June. I say stolen because, while it was my own fault for forgetting it, when I called it moments later, the person who picked it up clearly knew it was forgotten, and knew they could answer it and perhaps get it to its rightful owner, but instead turned it off and took it. I accept some responsibility for that one, but I still say stolen.)

I'm not sure where it happened, but I suspect it was at the Silk Street Pearl Market, a six-story bazaar in central Beijing stuffed to the rafters with counterfeit bags, jeans, shoes, jewelry and more. I had gone out for the day shopping with two Singaporean coworkers. We went first to Panjiayuan, the huge antique market I visited twice in June, for some last-minute souvenirs, then to Silk Street for one of my coworkers to buy a bag.

Both are well-known for pickpockets, since they attract a lot of tourists, but in Silk Street we were constantly bumping people due to the narrow aisles, and the laowai are especially dense - like fish in a barrel.

I'm kicking myself, of course, because I knew better. I've been very careful about what I carry and where. As I was throwing my bag together for the day, I even looked at the camera in my hand and thought "I don't need this today." But then I think I got distracted and dropped it in an outside pocket with a water bottle.

Then I forgot about it. I remember feeling people bump me - at one point I even turned and asked a friend if I was still zipped - but I remember thinking "Well, if they want my water that bad, they can have it." Only later, when I realized it was gone, did I remember that I had brought it after all.

So yeah, I'm kicking myself - but I'd rather be kicking the thief who took it from me.

I will not miss sticking out as an obvious foreigner, and I will not miss the way foreigners are viewed by part of the population here as a source of easy money. There's the pickpocket, who probably also steals from Chinese but probably prefers to steal from foreigners because, even if I noticed, what do I do? I can't make myself understood. Then there was the vendor at Panjiayuan who gave my Singaporean (but ethnic Chinese) friend a starting price of 150 yuan for an item, then gave me a starting price of 280 when I asked about the same item a few minutes later. Or the panhandlers, who were especially on last night, following me and tapping my feet with their sticks for - seriously - at least 5 minutes (I was waiting for someone), totally ignoring the locals who walked by.

I know that's just sulky carping, and I know I should be more generous since they need it more than me, but I can't help feeling insulted. And I'm bitter about the camera.

Still, I'm talking about a tiny minority of the population in very specific places. I know perfectly well that every city has pickpockets and scam artists and panhandlers and worse - really I have never felt unsafe in Beijing, and I'm not going to let a little petty larceny ruin what has been a fabulous experience. I just don't like being marked as an outsider, but I guess knowing what that feels like is a valuable lesson in empathy for me.

As for the camera itself, at least I had moved almost all of the pictures to my computer (maybe a dozen were lost, nothing significant) and at least it happened after I had seen pretty much all of the tourist sites. And a replacement will cost less than $200 - a kick in the teeth, to be sure, but it's not like buying a new car.

So there you go! Sunshine and rainbows, everybody!

One thing I noticed at Silk Street was that, while many of the vendors don't speak English, they all know all the brand names. There's a large number of Chinese whose introduction to our language starts with "Louis Vitton," "Rolex," "Nike" and "Dolce & Gabbana."

I don't know why that struck me. Maybe because it seems so trivial, or because it's a shame that foreigners come to Beijing, and that's all they want to talk about.

(To be fair, the bags I saw carried a badge that said "Dolge & Gabbana," and every one of them, regardless of whether they were made of leather, canvas or vinyl, was marked "Genuine Denim.")

About a week left, and NOW they pile it on.

The farewell video saga continues, with rewrites coming in from various parties on the client side, requiring a re-recording. I had to rewrite and edit parts, but fortunately got to skip the studio because I was at a meeting for:

The new business pitch on Thursday. Myself and one of the Singaporeans presented three conceptual ideas with extensions in 4 media. A Chinese team presented 2 more. In the end, two of the ideas I worked on are moving forward. But since the presentation is in Chinese, I don't know what more I have to do.

Then there's the print campaign that was my first job here - I was told I'll be spending part of the week coming up with online extensions.

And as for the TV commercial that is being art-directed by about 40 people on 4 continents, the call Friday was as painful as I feared. Frankly, I'm keeping my head down, other than informal discussions with a couple people, because I don't want to get sucked into that with just a few days left.

Mostly, though, I just want everything to wrap up nice and quiet-like. I've made it this far without a serious meltdown or crisis, and (knock on wood) I'd just as soon keep it that way.

I'll see you all soon!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The One-Way Money Valve

Today I am going to bore you.

As some of you may know, my roots are in business journalism, and I am fascinated by business and economics. Since getting here, I’ve read a lot about the Chinese economy and I’ve been trying to piece together some broader image of it in my head. Recently, I felt like I had a light-bulb moment where, at least to me, some chunks of the puzzle seemed to fit, and I thought that, since I’m here to learn about China, I might capture those thoughts here.

WHAT THIS MEANS TO YOU: Nothing funny today. If you want humor, I suggest you try the official Family Circus web site and check back with me later.

DISCLAIMER: I am WAY out of my depth here and I freely admit it. I have never taken an economics course. I state the following as if I know it, but the truth is this is just how I’ve pieced it together from reading Chinese and American news stories on the subject. However, I think it’s worth taking this stab at it, even if I don’t know what I’m talking about, because:

1.) This is a blog, and if there’s one thing blogs are good at, it’s misinformed pontificating; and

2.) My blog tracking stats indicate that fewer people visit on Saturdays, so this is a good time to sneak a long, boring post in.

With that out of the way, here’s my macro-view of China’s One-Way Money Valve.

Grossly oversimplified, but I think it goes like this: Chinese products are sold overseas. Those dollars and euros and yen are converted to yuan as they enter China and distributed to the exporter, and from there down the chain to the company, the marketers, and eventually into people’s pockets. Yay! More money!

They go to spend it, but it’s expensive to buy foreign goods (the government keeps their currency cheap – I won’t delve into the politics, but it’s true.) So THEY buy mostly Chinese goods too, which is good, because that means more local manufacturing, more taxes collected, more salaries paid.

Companies want to spend too, but the government makes it hard to invest overseas (you can’t grow if all the money flows right back out; hence foreign firms “in” China are really minority owners of joint ventures that are Chinese controlled), so they make many of their investments in locally made equipment or real estate – and suddenly there’s a real estate boom, meaning more work, more salaries, more of everything.

So somehow everyone’s getting paid, and it all traces back to exports. But every time money gets changed coming into the country, they have to print more yuan, and relatively little of the existing yuan is leaving the country to pay for imports. And as long as exports outstrip imports, it’s a spiral, with more and more money stuffed into the system and more and more internal spending.

Adding cash to a closed system means more money for essentially the same number of people who all want the same things. So if I’m a merchant, I can raise prices as high as the market will bear – capitalism, right? And it’s not evil - it builds wealth for the merchant and the merchant’s employees, so yay, more money for everyone again! And there you have inflation – the same stuff costs more today than it did yesterday. As a result of the system I described, inflation is very high here, and it spikes easily when there are shortages, as has been happening with food lately.

The government tries to lower inflation by soaking up some of that ‘excess liquidity’ – their term for cash – by forcing banks to essentially lock up huge amounts of cash rather than lending or investing it (which would put it out for someone to spend it, worsening inflation), or by raising interest rates so people won’t borrow so much and will keep more in savings (also to keep it from being spent).

One interesting side effect of turning all that foreign export money into yuan is that the Chinese government ends up holding the foreign currency, to the tune of more than $1.2 TRILLION in foreign cash. They’re trying to find ways to use it - remember a month ago when Blackstone went public and China bought a chunk? That was $1.2 billion or so of their foreign exchange reserves leaving the country.

Interestingly, if I read this story right, they’re going to let Chinese people buy bonds backed by the foreign currency the government holds. If the Chinese government investments (like the one in Blackstone) make money, it will grow the wealth of investors. But better still, the investors buy these bonds with their yuan, which takes more cash off the streets to help curb inflation.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave….

Basically, my impression of the whole kit and kaboodle is that it’s like a balloon being tended by a very smart but very nervous man. The government wants the balloon to fill as quickly as possible, because with it comes a high standard of living, wealth and economic power, so they hooked it up to an air hose. But they’re also trying to keep it from popping. They don’t want to slow the airflow (which in my tortured metaphor represents money), so a pinhole here, a piece of tape there, maybe a rubber band to constrict it over there. All very nerve-wracking and very much sweaty-brow kind of work, because too much and too little interference are equally catastrophic.

In China, of course, these decisions are made by a small group of people. Governments set a lot of the structure everywhere in the world, but in a freer market economy, well, if the Japanese can make cars better and cheaper and take U.S. dollars back to Japan, too bad for GM and Ford. (Yes, I know it’s not that simple, but you get my point.) Here, on the largest scale, it’s not the decisions of consumers at the cash register that decides where money goes and when. (Not that we usually think about it at all, of course.) It’s decided by MBAs and PhDs of economics who are working to a plan.

None of this is stupid, and none of it is crazy. These are very smart people who I actually believe are trying to better the lives of an entire country as quickly as possible. But because it’s never been done, and because it involves not only the interlocking and inherently unstable global economy, but also the psychology of billions – well, obviously, no one knows how this will end.

Why does this matter? Of course, because it’s not just the Chinese. On the other end of that air hose feeding into the Chinese balloon are other balloons that are being squeezed by purchase-happy consumers – the American balloon in particular. And the American government is trying to use ITS pins and ITS tape and – if worst comes to worst – a tourniquet to keep its balloon properly inflated. We're connected, so if the Chinese balloon pops or deflates, it'll affect the air pressure on our side too.

(And with that that, my metaphor groans weakly, rolls on its side, curses the cruel and unfeeling fate that brought it into being, and dies.)

To anyone who knows economics, any facts I may accidentally have listed above are obvious, but this has been kind of a revelation for me. I think I KNEW some of this intellectually, but something about living here has brought it into focus. (At least I think it’s in focus. I welcome corrections of fact, though not of my opinions.)

Here endeth the lesson!

Friday, August 3, 2007

Front Page

I wasn't entirely surprised to see a picture of the bridge collapse on the front page of the China Daily newspaper. After all, it is right now the number one story internationally (it's still leading CNN's Asia News report), doubtless because of the unbelievable nature of the disaster, the loss of life, the dramatic images and stories, the fact that it ties into deep-rooted fears of people, and let's face it, because even international media has something of a U.S. slant.

An expat coworker offered another perspective on why it's big news in China's state-run media: because they can point to America, supposedly the most advanced nation in the world, and say 'See? Their bridges fall down, too.'

That seems cynical, but he may be right. The media here does play a tit-for-tat game. When concerns about Chinese food imports were raging back home, the discovery of tainted pistachios and chicken feet from the U.S. by diligent Chinese inspectors, and a threaten to boycott the U.S.'s unsafe agricultural products, was front-page news the next day.

A quick look at the other headlines does seem to indicate that these are government proclamations as much as they are news:

Foreign Media Enjoy Greater Access [read: we have a free press]
Top US Economists Rap Protectionism [read: even Americans support China's economic policy]
Party Graft Busters Uncover 900 Cases [read: corruption is under control, thank you very much]

The last story you can't see below the fold is about the rescue of 69 miners who were trapped in a flooded mine. We get those kind of feel good stories too, of course; the difference here is there's no sidebar questioning mining practices or safety.

The economist story is quite typical. The Chinese press LOVES writing about Americans who side with the Chinese in disputes. It undercuts the American government position in what is presumably a fair and balanced way (See? It's not us saying it, it's them!) and I assume makes U.S. policy seem less sure of itself and less stable. Which would give credence to my co-worker's theory.

But it is just a theory. This is big news no matter what, and we don't question why it's on the front page of newspapers in other countries. But I thought it was worth sharing.


Well, I have just seven work days remaining, and it seems like things are starting to wrap up a little. This week at work, I have:
  • Been involved in that software print campaign I was in the kickoff for my first day here and presented my second week; it's moving along but won't be in print for weeks or months.
  • Reviewed and given opinions on the online extensions of that campaign.
  • Developed a rough layout for a bilingual HR brochure about our agency mission and structure.
  • Sat in quietly on the presentation of the concepts for the TV commercial I took a crack at but really have no current role in since my ideas weren't used.
  • Started developing concepts for a new business pitch next Thursday. Kind of a rush job, and we'll see how it goes. Internal review is on Monday.

Right now, I'm waiting to dial into a 10 pm Beijing-time conference call with peers in London getting their feedback and the client's feedback from the TV commercial presentation. I saw their written comments, which were quite brutal, so I'm glad I'm a silent observer. Those close to me know how much I hate tension and uncomfortable conversations (Conflict makes me gassy!), so I may have to turn the volume down very low and do something else if it gets too awkward.

Hope your Friday night is better than mine!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Thinking of you in Minneapolis

First off, to everyone back home, I just want to say I hope you are all safe, along with your family, friends and loved ones. I know many of you, like myself, crossed that bridge regularly. Please keep me posted.

This has been kind of a surreal day. When I woke up, the first thing I did, as always, was fire up the computer to talk to my wife and read the news. The web was down, which is very unusual. Since my computer is my phone here, I wasn’t able to call home. Then I got a text message from a coworker here, asking if I was watching CNN.

My first thought was that something quite bad had happened in Beijing. It was a punch to the gut to see disaster, ruin and flames back home, to see my city on the news – I haven’t even seen any images of home in months, of course – with Wolf Blitzer asking obviously shocked eyewitnesses, complete with the Minnesota accent, to describe the collapse.

I’ve spent the whole day in a little bit of a daze. I called Shannon on my cell, international rates be damned, and was glad to talk to her because, as went through all of YOUR minds, you just never know who ran an errand or took a different route or whatever. So I reassured myself that my family was safe, called my bosses back home to get news about coworkers (thank God for working overtime!) and checked in with friends.

To me, it’s been like a mini-9/11. (Not to diminish this disaster in any way by calling it 'mini', of course, but you know what I mean.) All day I’ve been reading everything I can and trying to imagine what it looks like. I’m combing my memory for the last time I went over the bridge and under it – going under it, especially, it always seemed like such an erector set, and the sound of the traffic always sounded like it was roaring out of a tin speaker.

Most surreal, of course, is that while I’m having these feelings, hardly anyone around me knows where I’m from, much less that something bad happened there. They’re acting the way I imagine all you acted when 500 Chinese died in mudslides last month, or how I acted a couple weeks ago after watching a report about a building collapse in India.

That’s no critique of them or you or me or even human nature, which after all is what I’m talking about. But it really has driven home to me that every disaster is a local disaster.

For my own sake, I wish I was home. But I am thinking about you, and I’m right there with you. Take care.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

...and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!

Actually, it might be my wife's new T-shirt (sure, I try on her clothes. What? What are you looking at?) I personally LOVE teal, coral and lavender, but it's a titch too small for me.

I'm still not quite sure why I bought this. Maybe the words 'Memorable Summer" jumped out at me - it certainly has been, after all! It's not the funniest Chinglish ever, but I think I liked the completely generic "Tropical Beach Style" coupled with the very unenthusiastic "Memorable Summer Vacation." It really doesn't sound like something you'd want to commemorate with a t-shirt.

Person 1: "So how was your tropical beach style vacation?"
Person 2: "Oh, memorable."

Some other shirts I'd like to see:

"Major City: You should really visit it once, just to say you've been."
"Music-Themed Bar & Restaurant: Same food you can get everywhere, but overpriced."
"Sports Team: Meh, it's a rebuilding year."

And if nothing else, whenever i see my wife wearing it, it will remind me of the memorable summer I spent in Beijing. (And I actually mean that in a good way - this wasn't exactly a vacation, so 'memorable' is a very fair adjective.)