It's that time of the year...where we all struggle to make it through the holidays rushing from place to place, store to store, and still trying to retain the true spirit of the season. For those of you who don't have email, I'm writing to you from Beijing (or as in the old way, Peking), China. I've been here since June after wrapping up my work in Jamaica in late May. The folks in Montego Bay opened up the Ritz-Carlton in late October but the bean counters and big brass are still fighting over the final cost. That is one headache that I'm glad I'm not a part of. For those of you that do have e-mail, I apologize for the repetitiousness.
We're adding on to and renovating the American Embassy. It's a project that keeps growing in cost and duration. Part of my job is figuring out that cost and duration. My best guess, subject to change in the next five minutes, is that I will be here until April 2001. After that...standard answer...who knows? I'm beginning to gain comfort in not knowing what the next destination is...no sense in fighting it. I have to admit, the company has been good in keeping me busy.
Our labor force is primarily American. The Chinese built the shell for the addition and do a great deal of the exterior work. We pay about $3.75 per hour. These are migrant workers so room and board along with their employers' cut is taken from that gross amount. I'd imagine that their net pay is half of the gross amount.
The Chinese, like most underdeveloped countries, would rather replace a machine that does the equivalent work of twenty men in the interests of giving everyone a job. Like some backwards nations, they post policemen at stoplights to mimic the actions of the stoplight. People freely litter the streets knowing that someone will be there the next morning cleaning up.
One huge cultural difference is the Chinese reverence for its' older generation. In the early morning, you see them exercising in the public parks. In the evening, they're socializing openly in public. In the US, one mugging and the parks would be cleared. A coworker had two elderly visitors who tore up the local tourist seen. Everywhere they went, people openly greeted them and wanted to have their picture taken with these two old ladies.
After the sun goes down, the Beijing skyline turns neon with as many colors as an artists' palette. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning while it's still dark, the neon lights and even the streetlights go out. China is a nation that is starved for energy. Anything to conserve electricity is considered standard. FYI, China is another of the many nations that does not observe daylight savings time.
Is there Christmas in China? That's hard to tell. Obviously, December 25 happens everywhere but do they celebrate it? With all the neon, it's hard to tell what is festive and what is normal.
The Chinese postal service is spotty at best. We've had packages come through from the US and some not come through and returned to the US because we did not go and pick them up…we had no way of knowing that we were needed at the post office as there was no indication of such from them. We can send and receive letters through the Embassy. This is a big blessing as most of the time, we're stuck with the company mail which goes out every one or two weeks. Packages…well, you can send them via the Chinese mail but your package may be a bit lighter before it reaches its' destination.
Medicine, well, we have an expatriate clinic that is basic in nature. Any complex cases or surgery is sent to Hong Kong. A friend was sent there for kidney stones. An associate was directed there to have cartilage removed after a broken thumb. The Embassy has a clinic that we, the general contractor, are not supposed to use. I go there to get my monthly blood pressure readings regardless of the rules. They know me. There are plenty of local hospitals but nobody has been daring or desperate enough to try them. While they are public and free to the Chinese, word has it the service is very basic and you have to pay through the nose to get proper attention.
Depending on your resources, Beijing has around 12-14 million people. It was a belief that if a family has many children, the children would take care of their parents in their elder years. Since the early eighties, the Chinese government limits the majority of the Chinese women to one child they schedule periodic checkups to verify. In spite of the family size limit, in 2000, China will grow in population by 65,000. You never have to worry about being alone anywhere around here.
The only place I can be alone is my own apartment. I live on the nineteenth floor of a twenty-two-story hi-rise. This is the third different apartment I've lived in since I moved here. It's a small two bedroom and the basic amenities with some cable (CNN, sports channel, HBO, and other Chinese and Japanese tv stations). The bed...ever tried to sleep on plywood? For the lovers of the firm mattress, China is the place. The kitchen is a bit cramped but has quite a few modern appliances including clothes washer, hot water pot, microwave, gas stove, refrigerator, and rice cooker...important when you're in China. The couch is too small to lay down on so I've moved one of the beds into the living room to watch tv. There's a small gym with treadmills, rowing machine, stationary bicycles, free weights, and a weight machine downstairs. There's a barber and masseuse too. I have two maids (in China, a maid is called an Ayi "IE"). One Ayi, furnished by the company, cleans three times a week. The other, I pay for the remaining weekdays at about three dollars a visit.
You may call me a slave driver until I share with you a story I read in a local magazine. A local construction worker was being interviewed in one of those everyday people type interviews. He was eating something when the interviewer asked him what he paid for his meal...about a quarter times about six to eight per day. He made about three dollars a day. Three dollars less two or one and a half left him one dollar to a dollar and a half per day to live on. That isn't much folks! Now, if I pay one Ayi, three dollars for an hour to two hours worth of work, and she can go find more, she's not doing too bad.
Beijing does have several tent cities formed by workers coming from the rural sector to earn a living. It costs considerably more to live in the larger cities than the smaller ones so the tent city workers generally work for less. Our labor broker recruits workers from the rural sectors to work in the big city.
Other than the change in time (13 hours), the biggest thing that I had to get used to is simply crossing the street. The biggest conceptual obstacle is never to allow the oncoming motorist, bicyclist, or pedestrian to know that you've seen them. Once they know that you've seen them, you have to stop and you'll never get to where you're going. It sounds strange but it's true and very scary. There are so many pedestrians and bicyclists that a car has to weave in and out of the crosswalk to get through. It's like trying to get out of a sold out concert or football game...constantly.
Conformity is, in this case, adoption of the local standards as being the norm. In most countries, you walk on the same side of the sidewalk that you drive on. In Jamaica, it drove the American tourists nuts as Jamaicans drive on the left side of the road. Out of habit, Americans walk on the right side. I adopted the local standard and walked on the left side and made the tourists walk around me. Here, they drive on the right but walk on both sides of the sidewalk...even bicycles and motorcycles in spite of having a separate bicycle / motorcycle lane. Even the pedestrians walk on the bike paths. It's absolutely maddening. These folks are raised as conformists but can't see fit to adopt a sidewalk standard! I know, coming from a non-conformist this sounds a bit hypocritical but it's something they really need to do.
Once I got over the fear of being a pedestrian, about two to three months, I bought a bicycle and not just any bicycle, the Screaming Yellow Banana. You can't miss this one with its' blazing yellow color. I've taken it a number of places but its' usage is dwindling as I don't like riding here in the dark.
I do a great deal of walking. We have a bus that takes us to and from work but I like my exercise so I walk home after work frequently. It takes about thirty-five to forty minutes from door to door.
The big name auto manufacturers in China are Jeep, Volkswagen, and Audi. You can buy Buick but I don't know if they're made here. The police drive German cars, Jeeps or their Japanese equal, or Japanese motorcycles. In China, there are two levels of production qualitythe stuff that's high quality that gets marketed overseas and the crap that they sell local. I've ridden in the local crap and it's not good.
If I drove a car in China, I'd be in jail after succumbing to road rage. These folks follow too close and cut each other off but rarely if ever show emotion except for a toot of the horn. No body ever gets miffed. If it were me, I'd keep a machine gun at my side so I could blast the many suckers who routinely cut each other off.
Taxies are the main fare in China. 99 percent are red economy cars that I don't fit very well in. If you can't find a taxi in Beijing, you're not looking or legally blind. I'd estimate that ninety percent of all cars are taxies. I navigate by handing them a card with the destination written in Chinese. The driver usually indicates that he knows or doesn't know where you want to go. If you're not sure where you're, get out and find anotherthere will be many coming your way. Once you get close, you may have to do some pointing. I navigate in English and they respond in Chinese. The tone of voice indicates whether or not the driver is headed in the right directionanother one of those concepts that you'll just have to accept but don't understand. The Chinese taxi has a protective enclosure for the driver. Given the large size of the cage and the small size of the car, I have to sit in the front seat diagonally with my back to the door. The seat belt is impossible to fasten as the latch is inside the cage. The drivers only wear theirs when they pass an officer who's checking traffic. Then they release them. Fares start out at slightly over a dollar for the first two to two and a half miles. After that, depending on the size of the taxi, it's about a quarter to 40 cents per mile. Be ware, at the tourist traps, cabbies will try to nick you for double fares if you're not looking.
There is a beautiful subway in Beijing. It's a one-tier fare at about 40 cents. It has limited coverage but it is being expanded. The only good subway maps are those posted inside the subway. I look at the map and count stops.
Busses are everywhere. Most are poorly tuned spewing out thick, black, diesel smoke adding to the polluted skyline. Some are double-decker. Several have human barkersfolks who shout out the routes and encourage ridership. Others have PA systems. Public transit is crowded making you thankful that the Chinese are a clean people. Hang on to the valuables as thievery is known to happen in crowded transit venues.
For the old-fashioned, there is the rickshaw.
The NBA is big here. I can catch several tape-delayed games on TV. The Japanese cable stations carry some of the NFL and Major League Baseball but the NBA crushes any other American sport. The NBA sent some retired / washed out players to play the Chinese national basketball team. The NBA players looked comatose running up and down the court. Still, the Geritol generation took two of three games from the Chinese.
I haven't picked up much Chinese. Most of the Chinese that are trying to get ahead in the world are dying to learn English. They can have a better standard of living by learning to speak English and working at locations that have lots of foreigners rather than just any old government job. There are many jobs for native English speaking persons wishing to speak Chineseno knowledge of the Chinese language is necessary.
Frankly, the Chinese language is very nasal sounding. Of all the places I've been, it's the language I find the least attractive.
Shopping in China is a hoot. Most stores are akin to the flea market. Each booth is a separate business. The articles from booth to booth are pretty much the same so the clerk promises you that special price for you, their best new friend. In the government department stores, you find what you like, the clerk draws up the paperwork, you walk over to the cashier who endorses the paperwork, and return to your clerk where you get your purchase bagged up and ready to go. The clerks darn near smother you when you express interest in something. Few speak English so you're left with the instructions on the package if you're lucky to find something in English and Chinese.
Clothing is interesting. Most clothes are made here. Generally, clothing is tagged one size larger. If it's a large shirt in the US, it's extra large here. Like every other foreign country, they wear the same stuff as the US but the older generations stick to the polyester / couch cover line.
Electronics, as long as they are made here, are real cheap. Like everything else, you have to watch out what you buy. Japanese electronics are very pricey. Surprisingly, electronic technology, in spite of being made here, is like many other countriesabout six to twelve months behind state-of-the-art technology. You can buy computers real cheap but the menus are all in Chinese.
Most retail outlets have to compete with the outdoor markets and folks working out of the back end of their three-wheeled bicycle. Rather than being hassled, I pay the premium and hit the department stores. Generally, they sell the quality stuff that the Chinese normally export.
I spent the first couple of months scouting out grocery stores finding the right cooking ingredients. It's definitely a challenge. The majority of labels are in Chinese. Many are a combination of English and Chinese. You have to go to the high priced stores to get most of the few available American products. Coke, Pepsi, Oreo, Lays, Chips Ahoythey can be obtained anywhere. Most of the goods are the same from store to store. Poorly organized, I'm sure it's to keep the customer in the store buying more goods. We, who work at the Embassy, are blessed to have a commissary on the grounds. It's good for a few things especially spices.
Meat is the hardest thing to get. If they sell beef, something normally outside the Chinese diet, and if it's ground, the fat is completely trimmed away leaving nothing to cook the meat with. You have to be careful when selecting meat. They eat strange things here...snake, eel, octopus, common birds such as sparrows, and other strange 'delicacies'. I recently attended a store that sold mostly seafood...strange kinds of seafood. They scraped the ocean reefs for sponge. Eels, snakes, lobster, crabs...all live...were on the sales rack. The place reeked. Content to keep the water on the floor, you walked on elevated grates to keep from sliding on the sludge congregated on the floor...nasty.
In my old apartment was an urn left there by an associate who failed his security review so I got his apartment. For months, I didn't know the purpose of this cylindrical glass urn until another associate clued me in. You fill the urn with Chinese herbs and dead type creatures the Chinese thought were of the healing variety. Fill it the voids with some sort of alcohol and it becomes an aphrodisiac. Ick! I gave it away to a friend who was curious about it without ever using it.
Piracy is rampant in China. Right by our office is the tourist laden Silk Alley where you can buy counterfeit articles of anything you want...clothing, CD's, DVD's. You ask the proprietor their price on a product. You return an offer of about 60 percent less and work your way to a deal. CNN, in all their infinite knowledge, recently did a story about the counterfeit items at Silk Avenue. Frankly, everyone here knows they may be buying overstock or bogus goods, or at best, products that don't make it past the quality engineer so the buyer is taking a chance. Most of the CD's have flaws but play well up to the end where they tend to crap out. You can get current top selections for around a buck. Current American movies ,sub-captioned in Chinese, go for about three dollars. Bartering is mandatory. Rule of thumb, counter with 40 percent of their initial offering and walk away when they refuse to budge. You'll probably pay about 50 percent of their original offer.
Recently, a friend asked me to go to Silk Alley to buy a couple of pairs of lined, black leather gloves. Frankly, I'm one of the many who are intimidated by the scene so I worked myself up into going there. First by traveling there in the early morning before the maddening crowds and pushy sales folk. He wrote a description of the gloves he wanted and said if they fit me, they'd due for him. The bidding started at slightly under twenty dollars each pair (two different shops). I countered with an offer of six dollars (all currencies were local). They dropped a couple of dollars and I started walking away. We settled on about ten bucks a pair. I figure that I won as I got closest to my number than they did.
The Chinese currency is the RMB or "qwi". We convert our cash at the Embassy as we're limited by security clearances to convert at banks or the Embassy. They don't have service charges. The normal exchange is 1 US$ = 8.265 qwi. It's been very stable only varying about 0.002 qwi in the six and half months that I've been here.
The qwi denominations are confusing. Sizes and colors vary. Smaller denominations are found in both coin and paper. The Chinese penny (.01 qwi) is a coin or a bill that many upscale stores don't bother to charge or return as change.
I detest the CD sales folks or the other street vendors who bug you trying to push an aggressive sale. They don't know that yesterday's no to their sales offer isn't like to change since you've told them that for the past six months. I got a chuckle the other day watching these folks dash for the nearest getaway after some authority figure made their presence known. China is combating their forgery problem but so many folks re into it, it will be hard to get rid of them. Most of these folks speak a little English...enough to barter with. I tried something new to counter their pressure techniques...can you tell me the Chinese word for "Police"?
There are millions of restaurants around the city. A number of chain restaurants exist in Beijing; Kenny Rogers, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, McDonald's, TGI Friday's, Dairy Queen, Hard Rock Café, Schlotsky's, Domino's, and A&W are the major players. There's also Baskin-Robbins and Starbuck's. The beauty of living in a capital city is that the culture is so diverse so the cuisine has to match. You're almost guaranteed to find your favorite ethnic food. We're told that in the hotels and more modern restaurants, it's safe to drink the water. Otherwise, bottled water is recommended. We're warned that contracting hepatitis A is a common byproduct from consuming food at the local restaurants.
Tipping is confusing. Some places build fifteen percent into your tab. When it's in Chinese, you have no way of knowing. I don't like automatic tipping but will tip if one is not built in. Unfortunately, many times I've raised the question of whether or not the service charge was added but the waitperson can't understand enough English to understand the question so I've given up tipping. Some restaurant help will chase you down to return a tip left on the table. Others will chase you down for not leaving one. Go figure.
I'm not much for dining out. I'd rather cook in my kitchen..a huge stress relief / weight gain tool. Like I was in Jamaica, I'm not much for the nightlife here. I save myself the aggravation of being hit on by the rental models and stay home and sleep. Face it, one American male equals many dollar signs. I'm old fashioned; I'd rather fall in love in lieu of paying for itup to $100 per night. Obviously, wherever the high paying customers are, the rental models will follow.
To watch the Chinese dance in front of a band is an experience. They dance by themselves comparable to country line dancing. The bands do a decent job of singing songs in the English language. Be prepared for one or two corny ballads from bands such as the Captain and Tennille. When the DJ kicks in, it's dancing to rap songs as usual.
I'm getting appreciably better with my chopstick technique. The only thing I have problems with is rice. Rice is not rich in taste or calories but seems to be a major accompaniment to most Chinese cuisine. When the law of diminishing returns kicks in (i.e. expending more calories trying to catch the rice than I'm gaining by consumption), I chuck the lumber and go for the soupspoon. Again, be careful for what you order may not be something you ever wanted to eat. I've been daring and eaten fried scorpionjust like burnt bacon.
OK, time to step on to the pulpit. You've all heard of the US normalizing trade relations with China. This trade agreement is dependent upon China becoming part of the World Trade Organization which is approved by the United Nations. This is expected some time this spring. My guess is that the bulk of the trade will be one way with the Chinese doing most of the selling and the US doing most of the buying. You just can't compete with folks who earn a couple of dollars a day. They don't normally eat, drive, or wear what Americans wear. Still, US firms will persist in selling their US made goods in China. If there is a market for a US product, they will probably be undercut in price by some local manufacturer. In order for the US firms to win, they will have to switch their production to China. Explain to me, how the US will benefit. I'd guess, only the middlemen, the vendors, and retailers will win from this arrangement. Only our technology is marketable here. The Chinese aren't innovators. They're imitators and do a heck of a job copying modern technology. Truth be known, the US is only playing catch up to the many countries who've been trading with China for decades. OK, down from the box!
China is pushing for the 2008 summer Olympics. They're one of the eight semi-finalists. As part of grooming their country and people for the Olympics, they told the public to smile at the tourists and refrain from spitting. They should have kept going with the manners thing. I've got some suggestions.
Picture this. You're walking down the street and you hear a whistle. You look and a parent is holding the hand of a young child. The child is squatting, relieving himself or herself through crotchless underwear. Chinese train their children to relieve themselves at the sound of a whistlethus solves the argument of cloth versus paper. The boss' nanny tried to train his children to do the same. Now picture yourself walking down the street whistling a tune and fifty children squat to pee.
Many houses have no plumbing so they use public restrooms. The public restrooms aren't exactly military clean. Without ever seeing a sign, you'll smell them and know you're in the neighborhood. Many venues charge to use the facilities. The true public facilities are free. Not many have the modern sit-down toilet. You have to squat over the toilet and drop the bomb. BYOTP and don't touch anything! A friend wants to ship one of these porcelain thrones home to another warped friend who wants one as a novelty. I look for the nearest McDonald's and there are many "Temple Of The Golden Arches".
There is organized religion in China. There are five million Catholics in China. I go to Mass every Saturday night at the Canadian embassy. The Chinese Catholic diocese have no association with the Vatican as the Pope supports the Dalai Llama and he's from Tibet who are at odds with the Chinese. Yes, China will tolerate religion so long as it does not preach against the government. Those that do so or practice things contrary to popular teachings, are referred to as cults and the government will shut them down as best it can.
It's sad to report that the Chinese government is slowly tearing down the old neighborhoods and the character that goes with them and replacing them with sterile skyscrapers that clutter the horizon.
We hit paydirt this time...we had some of the major US holidays off including Labor Day, Thanksgiving (the first one I've had in four years), and probably Christmas. Currently, I have no plans for travel for the holidays. Lots of reasonslots of excuses. I've done some looking into places but now it's too late to go anywhere. Outgoing flights are swamped until the end of January. The youngest sister is penciled in for a visit in January so I may do something then.
Thanksgiving was interesting. The company paid thirty dollars a plate for a benefit traditional Thanksgiving dinner complete with the trimmings at an affair arranged by the embassy. The food was good but the portions were Chinese sized. Many folks went out after dinner to eat. The irony of all of this was that I was eating lunch contemplating getting more food when my friend said to save room so I can eat more turkey. I calculate we paid around a buck a bite.
We use the term 'templed out' to describe the feeling you've seen too many Chinese temples. I can truthfully say that I'm templed out. Beijing has a number of temples within its' city limits to see. The Great Wall is about a two-hour drive. My first tourist venue was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Beijing has lots of temples, homes of famous people, and other history venues to see. After a while, they all start to look the same.
The weather in Beijing; the summer has stifling humidity caused by automobile exhaust and the summer heat. Clear skies are a rarity in the summer except for a couple of hours after a rainfall. Generally, it's hazy smog. The winter has a dry cold that dries and cracks the skin. Some of the dryness actually gives a burning sensation. To date, we've had a couple of small snowfalls that melted that day. The wind kicks up and scatters the dust and makes walking absolutely miserable. Generally, there isn't much precipitation.
With problems of overpopulation, a growing economy, and private ownership of the automobile increases as it becomes more affordable, China has faced and will continue to face crowding conditions and increasing pollution. I've seen numerous symptoms of repertory problems in the short time that I've been here. From my perspective, the answers to the questions aren't easy as current ideas don't seem to be working.
Although I hear plenty of reports of thievery, I've never felt unsafe walking at any time in Beijing. Undoubtedly, my large frame has something to do with that but others report the same. I've heard of one acquaintance who got pick-pocketed.
If the truth be known, I miss my Sunday diving and beach sessions but hope that my next project will be a bit closer to the ocean and warmer climate. I bought a wet suit for diving in cooler waters around China but have little opportunity to make the long trip to the ocean.
I haven't seen any of my Husker games but I do wake up in the early hours of Sunday to listen to the broadcast over the Internet. Talk about loyalty, these games start after midnight on Sunday and I usually catch the second half.
Besides going home between projects, I made it to Atlanta for Easter weekend. I saw the Braves win in a frigid spring game and got to experience civilization for three days.
In the previously mentioned Thanksgiving day dinner, the speaker said something that really hit home. As I've written before, the most patriotic Americans are those who are overseas and have seen what they had in the US and what they don't have here. He added that the beauty of being American is that we all can have a second chance...look at my buddy Clinton. In many countries, you don't get a second chance. Think about it and I'll stop climbing back on the pulpit.
I'd encourage you to visit China before it becomes too modern. There are several historical places you can still see. Plane fares are less than a thousand dollars round trip and you have a tour guide as long as I'm here.