Bird flu stages a comeback

Remember how dazed and crazed everybody was over bird flu not so long ago – all that talk about the next global pandemic and tens of millions dying? It was so captivating, allowing us to fully indulge in our perennial quest for extreme sensations. All those experts were lined up saying we were long overdue and that this looked like the real thing. And then…radio silence.

I won’t predict that the experts were correct. But I will predict we are about to be hit by another, even more overwhelming avalanche of bird flu news, prophesying and hand-wringing. And I also predict China will be at the center of the maelstrom, though certainly not alone – Indonesia will continue to hold center stage for the foreseeable future.

This isn’t based on fancy or whim, nor is it based on science. I just tend to watch the media and the blogs and listen to lots of sources, and I’m sensing a renewed concern over the disease, this time with a bit more panic added to the mix. Today’s news from Japan reminds us the virus is alive and well and loves to travel, and Indonesia’ s had four new bird flu deaths in the past two weeks alone. I attended a presentation by a renowned journalist and author specializing in China last weekend, who said bird flu is one of the CCP’s biggest concerns, because if anything could threaten the nation’s [veneer of] harmony and stability it’s a devastating pandemic that would make SARS look like an irritating skin rash. Suddenly, bird flu is back on people’s minds.

And to clarify, since I always seem to get misquoted: I’m not saying we are necessarily on the cusp of a pandemic. I’m saying that the hysteria (which may well be warranted) we all thought was over is about to be revived and the decibel level increased. Bird flu is coming back as a dominating issue.



This is now the third time in seven years this has happened to me. In a nutshell:

1. The guests in the hotel room across the hall from my own turn their television on full-blast.

2. They then open the door all the way so everyone on the floor can hear their TV at maximum volume.

3. They then carry on a conversation, shouting at one another so they can hear themselves over the blaring TV set.

This goes on forever – or at least until I stick my head out the door and scream in Chinese that they should shut their door and their mouths. After I did this, they did as I requested and were much quieter.

The fact that I’ve now seen the same thing three times tells me this may be more than a coincidence. Maybe it’s a feng shui technique to drive bad spirits from the hotel room? Or maybe it’s just something Chinese people like to do when they’re at a hotel? Or…?

I’ve experienced this twice on the Mainland and once in Hong Kong. In the latter case, I presume it was Hong Kongers making the noise, as they were doing their shrieking in Cantonese.

It’s funny to write about it, but it’s not so funny while it’s happening.


Where’s Richard?

I know, I know – I’ve been delinquent for a month, failing to meet the criteria I set up for this site a long time ago: lots of posts every day, each one wittier and more insightful than the last. And to make the situation even more shameful, I haven’t said a word about the most dramatic event of my life in years, my move back to Beijing.

I’ve now been here an entire week, but four days were spent from dawn through dinnertime with my new client; I had my phone turned off and saw no email the entire time. And this state of affairs is likely to continue. My new job is unlike any I’ve had before, and I simply cannot get distracted by extraneous compulsions, like blogging, eating and sleeping. I will try to set aside an hour every day to put something up, but those days of ten new posts in a single day are over for now. That demanded copious amounts of time surfing for news, not to mention then coming up with something special to say about it. All those links on my blogroll – I haven’t clicked a single one in a week. For the next 18 – 24 months, my life is going to be like this. I’m not complaining; it’s the opportunity of my life and I still can’t quite fathom how it came to me. But it calls for a new lifestyle, a new discipline. I have no choice.

About Beijing…. Despite the crisp temperature and usual aggravations (mainly the agonizingly slooooow Internet) , I am loving it. When I lived here during SARS I had no one, no friends to speak of, no one to ask questions to or hang out with. In terms of relationships, this blog is a miracle worker. I now have so many friends here and in Shanghai, so many offers of help that I’m really overwhelmed. I spent this morning at an event a reader invited me to; that reader and others are helping me find an apartment. Instead of drifting in the freezing wind, I feel I’m part of a community, and that makes all the difference.

Beijing never looked so good. I know it’s cloying to repeat the hackneyed phrase that “China is changing,” and yet there’s no way to avoid it, not when the change is this radical. Beijing has become, in many ways, a sophisticated urban center with many of the amenities – and freedoms – you’d expect in New York or Amsterdam. At the same time, the people of Beijing, who kind of scared me a few years ago, seem infectiously nice. I don’t know if this reflects their maturity or my own, and I admit I’m mystified by it. I had so many ugly experiences in 2002 with nasty cursing taxi drivers and people who tried to rip me off. This time, it’s been a wholly different experience; I feel that I’m not in the same Beijing. Of course, I’ve only been here seven days, four of which were spent walled off in a conference room at the city outskirts. But still, I’m seeing tangible, dramatic examples of transformation everywhere I look. Needless to say, I’ve still had a number of “only in China” experiences, but this time they’re making me laugh, not cry.

So I’m loving Beijing and feel that somehow fate brought me back here, as though it knew I had unfinished business here. Three things prejudiced me when I was here last: a record cold winter, being all alone and SARS. I think it was the aloneness that hurt the most; even if (when) the temperature plunges, and even if bird flu arises as the next SARS, having friends will make it all small stuff.

Meanwhile, I won’t be able to be here responding to comments all the time and replying quickly to emails as in the past. I think the site will survive: It’s morphed into more of a forum than a blog and I hope fewer posts won’t kill it off. As usual, as the number of posts drops, site traffic has disintegrated in recent weeks, but I simply can’t worry about it. I’ll probably never stop blogging, but it’s got to take a lower place on my list of priorities. Thanks for sticking around and for bearing with me. And let me repeat: I’m loving Beijing and am so glad i came back.


China On Notice, January 13, 2007


image courtesy of The On Notice Generator and Baby Bear Colbert

Evolution: Scientists recently found a skull that is the first fossil evidence of the Out of Africa theory. I’m warning you, “scientists”, don’t go messing with the multiregional hypothesis. You might as well call the Yellow Emperor a monkey.

Monolinguists: dementia will set in earlier for you, according to a Canadian study. So that explains why all those poor English students stare off into space…

Flash Gordon: The Scifi Channel is bringing back Flash (AAAAAAAH! Savior of the Universe!) Gordon in a new TV series. No word on whether Sammo Hung or Chow Yun Fat will play Ming the Merciless of Mongolia – I mean Mongo. Hey, while we’re at it, can we see Fu Manchu as the new host of “The Apprentice”? Being invested with “all the cruel cunning of the entire Eastern race”, he’d almost be as insidious as the Donald.

Giant Mutant Rabbits: North Korea says “sanctions, schmanctions” – we’re gonna dine on giant East German rabbits! Apparently somebody in China is interested too, which leads to the question: are there good Chinese recipes for rabbit?

Water: Virtual China pointed out Baidu’s list of Top Ten Why, How, What and Should Questions for 2006. #3 “Why” was “Why do we need to drink water?” Yeah, why do we need to drink water? What’s up with that? Wouldn’t you rather have some milk tea?

Fast Changing Society: China Daily shows us a survey of teenage sex habits in Beijing. Average age for losing your virginity was 15 years old and 40% didn’t use contraceptives their first time. Researchers “can only conclude that it is a result of a fast changing society”. Way to pin it down, guys. Society, we’re watching you. Slow down, or you’ll be “Dead to Me”.

Ugly People: and anyone who is short, married, female, and guys named Meng. 85% of 3,424 respondents in 10 urban Chinese cities claimed they were discriminated against when applying for jobs. Hey, it’s not employers fault that all Beijing people are lazy.

Sexy Milk Tea: No wonder all those teenagers are getting it on like giant mutant rabbits. They’re drinking naughty milk tea that goes against “social morality”!


Slouching Towards Bethlehem

So, President Bush proposes to not only “surge” in Iraq but expand the war to Iran and Syria.

Because, you know, things have gone so well so far.

The staggering hubris and stupidity of this “plan” are difficult for me to put into words. Here’s a Los Angeles Times article that provides a little perspective on how this is going over in the region (though the title, “Mideast shaking its head” seems a bit of an understatement. “Shaking its head”?!).

Keith Olbermann has a few words as well. If you can’t access youtube, try this crooksandliars link.

A few other words do occur to me, words from John Kerry, who was not always as verbally obtuse as he is now. You’ve probably heard them before.

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

We had to burn the village, etc.


How’s Your Internet Access?

THIRD UPDATE, MOVED TO TOP: It’s been two weeks and a half since the quake, and there are reports that the Internet is still screwed up. Here in Fujian, access has become semi-normal – quick enough that I can blog here and surf without much trouble, though I haven’t attempted to download or upload anything bigger than a meg or two. What’s your status in your neck of the woods?

Reporting in so far:
Quanzhou: Meh, ok.
Shanghai: Ditto/suck.
Bangkok: so-so.
Beijing: Ack.
Beijing Wireless: Wheeee!
Nanning: E-Mule OKish, Google bearable, Hotmail slow, Yahoo slower, Rapidshare kaput.
Southern Sichuan: atrocious
Tianjin: Yahoo Mail crawling, iTunes soooo slow,
Nanjing: 50-75% normal (normal being “bottom of the barrel” ADSL)
Korla, Xinjiang: Crap.


I Wish I Read These in Introductory Chinese

I recently found another article that I wish had been given to me as a must-read when starting to learn Chinese. I’ve regretted that no one told me to read at least the first chapter of John DeFrancis’ The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy at the outset. Similarly, I laughed ’til I cried when I read David Mosers’ Why Chinese is So Damn Hard. But there’s certainly some Chinese texts that ought to be handed out in translation the first day of class, such as Lu Xun’s “On the Swear, ‘Your Mother'” (论“他妈的!”), translated here at From a Singaporean Angle. Anyone who can quote Zhuangzi when remarking on the “richness and subtlety of the national swear” being “limitless like the Milky Way” gets major points from me. Or remarking that the Japanese translation of the Russian equivalent for “your mother” (“your mother is my bitch”) is “just too obscure–in my estimation.” Pure gold. This is core curriculum material, ladies and gentlemen.

Note: apparently two bits are not translated, one because Huichieh isn’t certain how to best go about it.


This job would be great if it wasn’t for the f**king customers

A video store clerk gets fired after blogging about his argument with a nasty customer named Tucker Carlson. If you’ve seen Clerks (or Clerks II), blogger Freelance Genius is a real live Randal Graves. He lost his job, but Tucker lost his dignity. A snip of the argument:

Tucker: If you keep this shit up, I will f**king destroy you.

The Genius (Me): Whoah, perhaps you would like to take this outside where you can continue threatening me without disturbing the other customers.

Tucker: *Looks out the window, then back at me* I am not threatening you.

The Genius: You just said you would f**king destroy me.

Tucker: No, I didn’t.

Did you know his bowties double as deadly ninja throwing stars? Paul Begala isn’t alive, he’s just someone Tucker Carlson spared from destruction.


Ain’t it true?

From a favorite on my blogroll, indexed, titled “You’re online? You’ll be okay”, a sobering reflection on our current internet woes:

You're online? You'll be ok

UPDATE: Onemanbandwidth, a.k.a. “An American Professor Teaching in Guangzhou China Expat SEO Trade Consultant Blog” a.k.a. “AAPTIGCESTCB” has a post that nicely dovetails with this: lists of new experiences excerpted from a Chinese 24 year olds first visit to North America. Most notable: “tap water” and “taking a sauna in a house”.


Don’t Call Us…

WARNING! This is a rant, and an off-topic rant for TPD. Read at your own risk!

Okay. I’m a good liberal. A progressive, even. I’m “PC” in that I believe one should err on the side of politeness and respect. I think globalization is inevitable, and I heart immigrants.

I’m a multi-cultural kinda gal, you know?

But as the Animating Spirit of the Universe is my witness…



It’s a combination of things. Poor language skills, lousy phone lines, and a lack of cultural fluency that generally turns what should be simple transactions into bizarre and frustrating parallel monologues, often compounded by the fact that “Justin” and “Sophie” are reading from canned scripts that only sometimes match the situation you’ve called about.

I once refinanced my mortgage because the bank I’d been using outsourced their customer service overseas. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not comfortable discussing my property taxes with someone in Bangalore who I’m not sure understands what I’m trying to do and what I need.

Two recent examples.

I wanted to bundle my phone and internet service and keep both my old phone number and my email address. My email provider said they could do that and save me something like seventy bucks a month. What’s not to like?

Well, for starters, there would be suddenly not being able to receive calls and getting a robot “Extension (your phone number here) is not available” message if you tried to call me. My service had been switched without warning, but only halfway.

I spent about two hours on the phone trying to straighten this out, to a call center that I’m guessing was in India.

The first representative told me that my phone service had been switched, but not my DSL, and that according to their IT engineers, they had to be switched at the same time. Therefore, my options were:

1. Change my phone number.
2. Switch my service back to my original provider, and then put the order in all over again, and make the switch in 4-6 weeks.

My response was: “Unacceptable. I am not changing my phone number. Unacceptable. I don’t know how long it will take for my current provider to make the switch. Unbelievable. I don’t understand why the voice and DSL can’t be switched at separate times.” And, further: “You created this problem, not me. I am your customer. You are not giving me confidence in your service. You need to fix the problem for me.”

Her response boiled down to: “I am very sorry for the inconvenience.” Repeat ad infinitum.

After going around and around, even getting on the phone with my old service provider and confirming that I couldn’t even talk to anyone until Monday, and it would be a new order, I finally said: “I realize this isn’t your fault, but I want to speak to a supervisor.”

More time on hold to the canned strains of Vivald’s 4 Seasons. Eventually, a supervisor “Vivian,” came on the line.

Now here’s where I make an exception to my loathing of overseas call-centers. Vivian was really good. She explained the situation, what had actually happened (I won’t bore you with the details) and that the DSL switch was scheduled for January 15th.

“Ah-HAH! So you CAN switch them at different times. I knew it!”

So I asked if there was any way to access the voice mailbox and change the message to let people know that my phone was wonky and to call me on my cell. She thought maybe that could be done. She also said that she could have my calls forwarded from my land-line to my cell phone until the problem was fixed.

We couldn’t change the voicemail message, but Option #2 worked like a charm.

Credit where credit is due – Vivian, wherever you are, you rock!

But apparently, that’s why she’s a supervisor, and it took two hours of my time to find her and get some help.

Here’s another example. This just happened tonight. I was booking my plane ticket to Beijing on the internet. I got a great fare, on sale. The sale lasted through Jan. 9. I selected the flight, the seats, clicked to purchase, and all of the sudden, my ticket was $100.00 more.

This cannot be, said I. I refused to accept it. I called the airline.

Somewhere in Bangalore, “Jonathan” took my call.

“Maybe the fare is over,” he suggested.

“No,” I insisted. “It was $667.00 when I chose it and selected my seats, just now. Then I went to purchase, and it was $775. The sale goes through January 9. It is still January 9 where I am.”

“You have to call web support. I cannot see the information. I will transfer you.”

After sitting on hold for ten minutes or so, I decided Jonathan’s solution was b.s., hung up and called Reservations again.

This time I got someone in the States. She was extremely helpful. She looked up the flight and said, “Oh. That should be $667.00. I don’t understand what the problem on the web was, but I can book it for you.”

The whole transaction took maybe ten minutes, and it only took that long because I was so pathetically grateful to deal with someone who could actually help me achieve my desired outcome, and I told her so.

“I’m not really allowed to say anything negative,” she told me, after hearing my tale of woe. “But we hear this all the time. And I’m just sorry you had to go through that.”

Let me be clear about this – I blame American companies who think they are saving money by outsourcing customer service overseas. Maybe they are saving personnel costs, but they are costing me, their customer, time and a considerable amount of goodwill, and they are creating aggravation and anger at a level that has prompted me to change whom I do business with. Oh yeah, Capital One. I’m talking about you! Citibank, you too!

One more.

I was trying to find a business I’d used in the past in my area. The number on the web now belongs to a private individual. So I called information to see if I could find an updated one.

I got an operator in freakin’ India.

“There is no listing for this business in…(“hiss!” “crackle!”) Santa Monica.”

Here’s the thing: back in the day, if you called an operator, they frequently were people who lived in your area. They might even know something about the business you were trying to find. They were local! Neighbors!

Okay. I know that there’s a price to be paid for a 24 hour world. I was dealing with my phone problems on a Friday night, from 9 PM until after 11. Maybe in the Olden Days I just would have been S.O.L. until more normal business hours.

But it’s like I said to the second airline customer service representative. I expect language barriers when I travel overseas. That’s part of the package. And if I don’t understand what’s going on, that’s pretty much my problem.

But when I’m sitting on my couch in Los Angeles, California, trying to get some help with whatever it is I’m dealing with, I want to deal with someone who is at least on my continent.


Okay, since this is an off-topic rant for TPD, feel free to use the comments as a space to vent about your customer service frustrations of any and all sorts.