I am about to go

I am about to go on a much needed trip, ten entire days out of the country. There will be no entries for at least a day or so.

Thanks to everyone who’s come by. Chun Jie Kuai Le!


Art, North Korean Style Click

Art, North Korean Style

Click here for actual posters you’ll find on the streets of Pyongyang. Incredible. Astonishing. But then, kind of predictable, too.
I’m going to try to upload them but they seem to be resisting….

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Hong Kong Hubris China Hand

Hong Kong Hubris

China Hand has some great insights into the Hong Kong people and why they are in the mess they are in today and why they are finding it so difficult to get out of it:

“Talking to Hong Kong people confirms a deep despair that little is being done to rescue this ailing economy whose fundamental problem is grossly over inflated wages and property prices. As indicated before China Hand believes this was a result of the money pouring down from China as well as fairly adept politics which conspired to convince Hong Kong people they were the smartest in the world and Hong Kong was on a roll which would never end…Hong Kong people have always had a feeling of separateness from the rest of the black, hair, black eyed, yellow skinned people. The Chinese students in Australian universities right from the very early days quickly divided into two groups: Honkies and the rest.Honkies of course were a cut above the Taiwanese, Malaysian, Singaporean, and mainland students. Of course it was obvious. I’m not saying they learned their aloofness from their British masters but it did often appear to resemble the superior arrogance of the expatriate Brit.”

So well said and so true. Having lived there for a couple of years myself, I was shocked at the contempt Honkies displayed for Mainlanders, Singaporeans, Malaysians and just about everybody else. As the sun sets on HK’s glory days the SAR finds itself increasingly eclipsed by Shanghai; that HK would find itself so overshadowed so quickly would have been utterly inconceivable just two years ago. Gone are the days when foreign firms felt they needed to set up shop in HK in order to make their way into China proper. Now they go straight to Shanghai in increasing numbers. (This was, quite frankly, the reason I decided to leave. I know a sinking ship when I see one, especially when I am on one.) So to all those Hong Kongers who found it vastly amusing to make fun of the uncouth oafs from elsewhere, it seems the joke may have been on you. It’s certainly sad to see a great city (city/state?) fall into decline, but their renowned smugness makes it harder to feel much compassion for the Honkies’ situation. That said, many of the most wonderful people I have ever known are Hong Kongers. I miss them deeply and would do anything for them.

China Hand makes some sensible suggestions for reviving the economy by facing reality and, among other things, raising certain taxes. We’ll see. Taxes are for the politicians in the SAR what Social Security is to their counterparts in the USA.


Earth to Sullivan, Earth to

Earth to Sullivan, Earth to Sullivan: Please Come Back

Andrew, can’t you tone it down just a little bit? Sullivan is having multiple orgasms over Bush’s SOTU speech (which needless to say was not broadcast over here in the People’s Republic) and one can only wonder how he manages to control his paroxysms of ecstasy.

Actually, he scarcely can control them, as he himself admits as he begins his gushing tribute: “I’ve been thinking in the few minutes before I sat down to write how to temper my admiration for the speech I just heard.” Andrew, maybe this will help: Think about the evil right-wing religious nutcases the object of your drooling jubilation has recently appointed/nominated to commissions and courts. That should certainly bring you down a notch or two. Not enough to cool your burning enthusiasm? Then go here to read about His Majesty’s latest appointment. Here’s a sample:

“Following quickly on the heels of its effort to appoint a hateful anti-gay bigot to its commission on HIV and AIDS, the White House has announced George W. Bush’s intention to add a notorious crackpot doctor to the Food and Drug Administration’s long-dormant Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee.”

“Dr. W. David Hager is a barely-credentialed proclaimed “pro-life” obstetrician/gynecologist who refuses to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women. He believes that unmarried women who engage in sexual intercourse should be compelled to quite likely to become pregnant against their will — and then be forced to give birth.”

Andrew, you’ve got to deal with this sort of thing, just like you have to deal with the upsetting fact that the Catholic Church you so love and revere and to which you have given so much of your life wants to see you made a persona non grata, ineligible for the priesthood, relegated almost to criminal status. I know you are flying high right now, intoxicated with the warm and fuzzy words of our leader, but someone as smart as you has to come back down to earth.

Last comment: Sullivan should also read this, a somewhat different — and far more rational — take on last night’s speech from America’s smartest columnist.


NY Times banned in China?

NY Times banned in China?

Sorry to sound like a broken record on China’s Web censorship, but this is truly alarming: I’ve been trying to access The New York Times and the Washington Post all morning, only to get the Cannot Find Server message for both sites. This has never happened before (at least not on my watch), so I wonder what’s motivating it now. Maybe it’s just a fluke, but that’s what I thought the first day of the blogout. There are very few flukes here. Things are as they are because someone wants them that way.

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Cigarettes and Me I just

Cigarettes and Me

I just came from a taxi ride in which the driver reeked so disgustingly of tobacco that, despite the sub-Antarctic temperature and Siberian winds, I had to crack open the window and press my face up to the freezing and feeble stream of air in order to breathe. Last summer, when I decided to move to China, tobacco was something that had me quite worried. I was afraid of being tempted both by the ubiquity of cigarettes and their ridiculously low price. And those fears were justified.

I never smoked cigarettes when I was young, aside from a few months of experimenting with them when I was in my late teens, a popular way of asserting one’s adulthood. It was many years later, when my friend Roy got sick with cancer (scroll down to my Jan. 20 post for the story — I can’t hyperlink it because of my archiving problems), that I started to “smoke.” (I use the quote marks because I never thought of myself as a “smoker,” since I smoked so little and detested every puff.) Cigarettes seemed to give me an outlet for my tension during those torturous weeks when all we could do was stand around and wait for Roy to die. It started when an older woman at the company became my sounding board. She was one of only two or three people in the office who knew the truth, about Roy, and she would go out with me in the parking lot and I would empty my soul about what Roy was going through. She smoked Parliaments, and I began to smoke with her, maybe one or two a day.

This was totally out of character for me, the former opera singer, but it definitely did something for me, perhaps simply by giving me something to do instead of just waiting. A few weeks into our meetings, she started walking over to my desk with her hands cupped. She’d uncup them, showing me two cigarettes, her way of silently asking me to go have a smoke with her. And thus it started. (It was only months later, after she had gone and Roy had died, that I was to discover she was pumping me for information, which she then transmitted to a rival who would soon try to steal the company away from its dying founder.)

Roy died after three months, but I kept up the bad habit of smoking a few cigarettes every day for the next 11 years. Sometimes, if I was in a particularly procrastinative mood (and yes, I am allowed to create new words in here) I would smoke as many as 6 a day. It seemed to wake me up from sleepy moods, though this “up” feeling was always short lived. I hated it. I hated the smell, the taste, the pain it caused my throat, but I decided the “therapeutic” value made it worthwhile.

Ironically, my cigarette smoking increased with the next tragedy I had to deal with, the death of my older brother in 1996 — from lung cancer, no less. I am convinced the sheer absurdity of the situation, of my ultra-healthy, squeaky-clean brother contracting lung cancer made me so hedonistic, so convinced that nothing mattered and we may as well do what we want when we want, that I moved from one-to-three cigarettes a day to three-to-six. My per-day record was eight.

It took me more than two years to cut that amount back to two-to-three, and at times I felt I was going to burn a hole in my throat. But getting back to China…. Cigarettes here are available for as cheap as 4 kwai — less than 50 cents. There are no health warnings on the boxes. Nearly all Chinese men seem to smoke, even in the elevators, in the bathrooms (especially in the bathrooms), in the fire exits, wherever they go. Many offices allow smoking, and their conference-room tables have ashtrays everywhere. Only Western-style restaurants have no-smoking sections. My own company has four local male employees, all under 30 and all of them smokers.

In Hong Kong, where people also smoke compulsively, my friends were shocked when I would light a cigarette, although very few except my best friends there ever saw me smoke. I managed to stop for about two weeks, but I always found an excuse to buy “my last pack.” Usually it was for an emotional crisis, some problem that necessitated a cigarette. Still, I cut the habit way back and was down to one to two a day when I decided to move to China.

Friends warned me that China is NOT the place to go if you want to stop smoking. Little cigarette shops abound, each selling a dizzying array of brands, most of them the cheap local ones. In the face of such temptation I was fairly proud that I kept to my regimen of about two a day here in smokers’ paradise. Then, after 11 years, something happened. I got a bad case of flu back in November and I remember waking up and going to light a cigarette. With a burning sore throat and cough, the pain was atrocious, and it just struck me: the cigarettes owned me, I had no power over them, even though I hated them and there was no pleasure they afforded me, no benefit. I told myself if I wanted to live I could stop, if I wanted to die I could smoke. Since then, despite many temptations, I have not had any cigarettes. Soon it will be three months, and I can’t describe how much better I feel, mind-wise and body-wise. One of my colleagues started a bet that I couldn’t last three months and on February 10 he’ll have to pay me 100 rmb.

I suppose there is no purpose to this post except to celebrate out loud my victory over a habit that I have cursed and hated for more than a decade. I am happy to say that now the very thought of a cigarette makes me feel sick, as it should. Now I can move onto some other bad habits I need to work on, like drinking too much coffee and spending too much time on the Internet. But those pale in comparison to smoking, the most insidious and most disgusting of all.


Blogging will be extremely slender

Blogging will be extremely slender as the Peking Duck gets ready to travel out of Beijing for the Chinese New Year. I still don’t know where I’m going but I’m on several wait lists. (My travel agent promises me I’ll get on one of the flights.) Wherever I go, it will be somewhere south of Beijing, somewhere warm, somewhere without snow or icy winds that slice across your face. We are enjoying yet another cold wave here, so this trip can’t come too soon.

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This just in…. I just

This just in….

I just got an email from the US embassy in Beijing that takes a few very long-winded paragraphs to explain that this is just the ordinary every day email they send out every ordinary day and there’s nothing to be concerned about. BUT, it goes on to instruct Americans living in China to (the rest is directly copied from this everday email):
— Assemble all vital documents such as passports, birth and marriage
records, vaccination, insurance and bank records in one readily accessible
— Check to be sure your passport and any necessary visas are valid and
that you have registered at the Embassy/Consulate with your current address and
phone number. If you need to obtain a new passport or to update your
registration, please do so at the Embassy as soon as possible.
Make or update as necessary a complete inventory of your household
in duplicate…
Maintain an adequate supply of food, water, and necessary
medications in your home. Make sure your car is in good working order. Keep the
gas tank full and check oil, coolant, tires, and battery.
We do not want American citizens to become unduly alarmed.
These are
precautionary measures only. Given the potential for acts of violence,
terrorism, anti-American demonstrations, or natural disasters, all of
which could necessitate an evacuation from a region or local area, we
believe it is important for all citizens to maintain readiness for all
possibilities in case of an emergency. We will promptly inform you of any
significant developments and advise you

End of cut/paste.

Okay. This may indeed be just an everyday email that the State Department sends out because they are afraid there may be an earthquake or a flood someday and they want to make sure I have enough bottles of Evian water and cans of tuna fish in the cupboard. Or it could be that they received some terrorist threat that scared the absolute shit out of them and they feel its believable enough that they’d better cover their asses just in case something really bad happens and they get accused of failing to let us know. I have no opinion either way. But you can sure tell as you read this email that the writer was absolutely squirming, trying to say in one breath there’s no cause for alarm, and in the other to tell you you’d better be ready to run and run fast. Most unusual.

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Say it isn’t so! The

Say it isn’t so! The Big Bad Blog Blackout Barrels Bleakly Back

I’ve just tried logging onto three separate blogspot sites, including my own, and guess what? Yes, that most dreaded of all screens popped up each time, “Cannot find server….The page cannot be displayed.” We are back on the seesaw, with The Powers That Be blocking, then unblocking, our sites in China. At first it was chilling, then infuriating, then frustrating. Now it’s just….boring. What’s the point? I mean, do they believe this stops us from communicating, do they think we won’t look elsewhere, do they think they can stop a flood with a thimble? Hu knows? I just wish they’d take all the energy they expend imposing these blockades and use it to make CCTV just a tiny bit less tedious. (There’s actually only one program I’ve found on CCTV that’s really worth watching, and that’s their show for learning Mandarin. So when do they put it on? Midnight and 6am.)

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Elevators as metaphor…. Is my

Elevators as metaphor….

Is my company elevator a microcosm of all China? Often I think so. You would be surprised at the number of expatriates who, when describing the unique way of doing things in China, put riding on elevators at the top of their lists of cultural anomalies.

First, there is getting into the elevator. I was at first rather startled in Hong Kong when some of the people barged into elevators without waiting for others to exit, and I have to admit I never fully got used to it. As is so often the case, you can take this Hong Kong tendency and multiply it several times to arrive at the scenario in China. I have literally pushed people, sometimes as hard as I could, because they simply refuse to let me out of the elevator here. They feel an odd compulsion to charge in, which only slows down the process for everyone, including themselves. After all, people still have to get out, only now they have to squeeze and push and slither in order to do so.

But that’s just the beginning. Then there is the way people here interact with those little buttons you press for the desired floor. As always, the button lights up after you touch it, indicating the floor has been selected. And yet, for reasons that remain unclear to me, many people here feel they must push the same button again and again, often with extreme vigor. At first I thought it was a fluke, then I realized I was seeing it all the time. As though hitting it again and again would guarantee a faster ride.

Many elevators (if not most) in the US don’t have a Door Close button, only Door Open. This would be inconceivable to the Chinese, for whom the Door Close button is sacred, an integral part of their elevator-riding experience. I can state as a categorical truth that I have never ridden an elevator in China in which other riders have not insisted on pushing the Door Close button repeatedly. Usually one person in every elevator has the unspoken task of pushing the Door Close button. As the elevator stops at different floors to let people on and off, it is this person’s task to keep his or her finger pushed firmly against the Door Close button at all times. It appears to be an extension of the tendency here to do everything as quickly as possible. You barge into the elevator. You hit your floor button again and again because maybe, just maybe that will help get you there faster. And you constantly hit the Door Close button because you might shave a few fractions of a second off of your ascent/descent time.

On a rare occasion when I was alone in my company elevator I had a unique opportunity to test whether these actions, performed with such zeal, truly made a difference. I hit the button for my floor five or six times, but oddly enough it seemed to move at the exact same speed as when I hit it only once. Then I pressed the button for the floor before mine, and after the elevator stopped I did something that few if any Chinese have ever dared to do: I just stood there and I did not touch the Door Close button. Know what? The door still closed, after exactly the same time that it does when you are slamming mercilessly on the Door Close button. Since then I have wanted to share my discovery with others in my building, to tell them that they were only wasting energy and fooling themselves. But they’d laugh at me and say I was crazy. This is just the way they do it here. Standing up in the airplane and grabbing your hand luggage before the plane even touches the ground doesn’t get you off the plane any faster (nor is it very safe). But that’s how they do it.

I was recently delighted to learn that I am not the only foreigner who has made observations like these. My colleague sent me to this site, which had me laughing for days (though if you haven’t lived in China, it might not be so funny).

Almost 3 p.m. Time for me to barge into the elevator, push the Door Close button and get some coffee. I swear it’s rubbing off on me.

NOTE: I just discussed this piece with my Chinese colleague Amy, because I was afraid some might misinterpret it as an “attack” as opposed to what I intend it to be, i.e., an observation. Amy said I wasn’t strong-worded enough. “If you ever went to the bus station here and saw the kicking and the shoving when people are fighting for a seat you would not believe it,” she lectured me. She told me it would take a few more generations before the process of getting on a bus or an elevator becomes kinder and gentler. I don’t know; the fact that she is so aware of it, as are so many of the young people I work with, gives me a lot of hope that China may emerge as a class act sooner than one might suspect.

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