Bluelou...The Uneasy Rider

'Tis the season. It really didn't seem like Christmas as I hadn't started my annual Christmas / Best of the Bluelou Times edition. Usually, I start around Thanksgiving but I've drawn writer's block.

The Christmas issue goes both over the electronic waves and through the snail mail. This time, I'm trying the Chinese post…works for packages. As is always the norm, I apologize for the repetition.

Before I go much further, I need to tell you what brought me here. We're building an American Embassy. At $280 million, it's called a security project with a bit of construction thrown in. It's also the most expensive American embassy to date. I'm the scheduler with a little bit of engineering on the side. With this being my seventh embassy, I'm one of the elder statesmen on this project. I can't do much posting of pictures but if you Click here, you can get a brief overview of the job along with a nice photo of a model of the job. I hope the link works…can't check it from here. Let me know…

Lord willing, I'll be here for four years. I call it my great experiment. You see, I'm debating what I want to do when I grow up…if that ever happens. Since I graduated from college many moons ago, I've never stayed in one place for so long. Right now, I've grown accustomed to living abroad…many say I've “gone local” meaning they think I behave and eat like a Beijinger. I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not. My Chinese sucks and I still haven't developed the crudities of the average Chinaman. Who knows, I may want to leave before the job is over but right now, I'm in it for the long haul.

Right now, work seems like a vacation at only fifty-five hours a week…five tens and a half-day on Saturday. Perhaps, that will change some day.

From my balcony, I can view the project. It's about a fifteen-minute walk. We have a pool and a gym…even a grocery store and bakery downstairs. Word has it that this place burns more electricity than any other place in Beijing….it ain't cheap but the company will provide. I live in my own unit with my office mates living in other apartments in the same building. The apartment is a posh place with all the amenities furnished. My unit is rather smallish but if I don't have roommates, I'll deal with it. We're right on the edge of the high end shopping area. Let me know and I'll send you the link.

I haven't been much of a tourist in the seven months I've been here. Sure, I ride around and view them from the outside. I do go and hang out at Tiananmen Square on sunny days to watch the people. Last time I was here, I heard about an airplane hanger built into a mountain. I had to find it…and did go. I was more curious about the construction of the facility rather than the history or airplanes. I've made a return trip to the Chaoyang Acrobatic theater.

Since the last Christmas issue, I've left San Antonio and I'm back in Beijing, China. It's a return trip for me. A lot of the things are still the same but much, much, is different. China was awarded the summer 2008 Olympic games and they are getting a fast start on them. The tower crane is more common than the stoplight. Many of the shops and businesses that I'd patronized or passed by just three years ago are no more. The construction is so intense that the Olympic committee that oversees the development of Olympic venues told Chinese officials to cool off construction. It doesn't seem to have much of an impact. China is like the new superstar who doesn't know what to do with its' newfound wealth. Much of that money is in building construction.

I wish some of that money would be spent on roadways. To try and get anywhere between 0800 and 2100 is just plain gridlock…including bike paths. Streets are as bumpy as if you'd driven down a gravel road…mainly due to potholes and humps of asphalt paved over new utility installation. With the newfound wealth, many folks are driving. The automobile manufacturers are lusting over the Chinese people like there's no tomorrow. There are significantly more cars on the roadways that when I was here three years ago, mostly private though taxis are still an easy find.

The outdoor shopping markets are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Even the world renown Silk Alley is going to be inside a new building shortly. It takes away some of the romance.

Many of the old ways still exist here in China. Much of the work is still done by hand in lieu of machine. Much of the work seems to create more work. For example, a crew of laborers shoveling dirt out of a truck. They could easily aim it and place it so that one toss would be sufficient. No, they shovel it in a pile and therefore, have to shovel it one more time…go figure. The Chinese aren't fond of individualistic thinking. Reminds me of the Borg from Star Trek fame…resistance is futile…we will assimilate. To ask an individual for a decision is about like asking them to cut off an appendage…just won't happen. It's a cultural thing…individualistic thinking is wrong.

Still, the cheap Chinese labor is wreaking havoc on many economies include that of the USA. There are a lot of rich folks around here making their living off the backs of the commoner.

Technology doesn't seem fair. For many, they adapt. Most likely, those that adapt are in the younger ages. Those that don't are typically older. The opportunities that arise from knowing technology seems to pass the older generation by. It's true for the many places I've been and especially here in China. The economic divide between the haves and the have-nots seems to be especially large.

This past summer, I went to a Whitney Houston concert. Tickets went for $20-200. I'm not a big Whitney fan but I'd heard that seeing a concert in China is a must. We paid slightly over $100 for seats. We sat in the middle of a soccer field. The seats in front of us were far from empty. Somebody's making money around here. There are lots of import dealers in my neighborhood…Maserati, BMW, Mercedes…My old Harley Dealer moved to a nearby location and the folks at Humvee took over. No, I don't own a Harley…just the T.

The concert was an experience. It didn't liven up until Whitney challenged the security folks and said you could stand up, sing, and dance. The security folks looked dejected and emasculated…this WOMAN took away all their power and nowhere in their book did it say anything about allowing all of this fun….exactly, what is fun? I've never seen that many people glued to their seats in my life…at least until Whitney gave her blessing to start the party. I thought lightning was going to strike when she said that it was God that allowed the Chinese to build the wall. I didn't see the headline but I'm sure some hardliner will blame Whitney for causing anarchy in Beijing.

While I don't have a Harley, I do have a couple of bikes that garner stares wherever I go. The first…Big Red. Born in Taiwan, it moved to Virginia, Alaska, Armenia, Alabama, and now China. It's complete with lights good for night riding…don't really need them, as I'm the only one that rides with them and air horn for attracting the attention of absent minded operators and pedestrians…or giving them cardiac arrest. I brought it from the US because I missed it that last time I was here. It's the perfect Beijing bicycle.

The other, I bought here…Kilowatts. It's an electric bicycle made by Giant. It's a pedal assist model. It only powers if I pedal. Top speed is around 20 mph. I bought it an air horn as well. I ride early in the morning and / or late at night when bicycle and car traffic is manageable.

Once a week, the company offers Mandarin lessons (the dialect of Chinese here in Beijing) I've been taking them ever since I arrived here in Beijing. Truth be known, I've traveled internationally on and off for the past ten years. English has gotten me by very well and the last time here in China it did me well enough. Since I'm going to be here for four years, it might help me understand the culture better. I'm a firm believer in the old dog / new tricks but I'm doing ok. We're a bit embarrassed to practice our lessons with our local help…they laugh and we cower back to our English. I do have fun with my limited Mandarin with the local laborers, guards, and taxi drivers. Knowing a bit of the language makes life a bit easier.

In my limited studies of the Chinese language, it seems to be the converse of English. Dates for example: Americans say month/day/year. Chinese say year/month/day. Every month in English has an individual name. In Chinese, January is 1 month, February 2 month, March 3 month…get the idea? Weekdays follow the same pattern except they throw you a curve for Sunday…instead of seventh day, Sunday has it's own name. Instead of saying hi or hello, it's 'ni hao' (“knee-how”) literally translated as “you good”.

I still go to Mass here in Beijing. For a truly cultural experience, one must go to the Cathedral here in Beijing, Click Here. I've been there a few times. The massive crowds are a bit much for me. The acoustics make it hard to hear. When you can hear, the accented English is hard to understand. My regular venue used to be the Canadian Embassy until 44 North Koreans disguised as construction workers hopped the walls. They're living in the auditorium we used to call a church until someone grants them asylum. The rumor mill has a recent development that the Koreans have left and hopes are high that we'll go back to the Canadian Embassy soon. Currently, I go to the Argentinean Embassy where Mass is in English and Spanish. I'll probably move on to the British Embassy.

We have drivers that take us from the apartment to the office and back. I walk for the most part. It's a 45 minute walk to the nearest subway stop. Taxies are my transportation of choice when I'm not walking. I know most of the Chinese names of my favorite stops and I have a book that helps me with the Chinese names when I don't know them. If the driver gives me a dumb look in spite of the book, it's either navigate or get out and find another driver.

Need a Rolex? Our favorite market here in Beijing is the Pearl Market, Hong Qiao. The name is a misnomer as it has a fantastic selection of toys, North Face (“North Fake”) coats and pants, computer stuff, and artistic stuff. It has a wonderful seafood shop downstairs but it smells musty like the ocean so I can't get anybody to go in with me. I've been inside. I've sent home two sets of pearls and several fake Rolex watches. The pearls were real. Someone took a 'Rolex' to a jeweler in the US to have the band altered. The jeweler couldn't tell it was a fake. The set up was interesting. With little result, the police are on the prowl for fake products. We had to go away from the masses to a remote office where out came the high end imitation watches. Reminds me of the entertainment industry where some shady character opens up the sleeves and long jacket revealing his watch shop. I sent several back home. Go to Rolex.com and check out your watch.

The big difference between Beijing and many of the other places I've been is that in Beijing, you could probably visit a new place every week and still not visit them all in the four years you're here…choice. There are so many places to shop and see and things to do that if you muster up the money and the energy, the choices are infinite.

We just got our first snowfall…a frosting for the grassy areas. Otherwise, it's a mix of overcast and warm or cold and clear.

For a brief review of the past year, I left you while I was in San Antonio. I got to see my once mighty Cornhuskers beat Michigan in the Alamo Bowl. I caught many of the concerts and sporting events San Antonio has to offer including the NCAA Men's Basketball championship game between UConn and Georgia Tech…my first championship game of any sport…tickets off the street.

I spent several weekends flying home to visit the folks including one trip to watch baby sis graduate from college after over a decade and three kids to boot…my hero.

In May, after many postponements, I finally left for China but I already had plans in the works to return home…baby sis got married and I got to give away the bride! I loaded up on toys and tunes…home is home.

The family…Barb…newly engaged to Bob…someone she met at Georgetown. Gigi…just married and honeymooned in Hawaii. Theresa…not much new…busy playing housewife and mom. Lisa and Eddie should be moving into their new house that they've been working on for the better part of the last half-decade. Michele and Pat moved back from Saudi and are living with the folks for the time being. Pat is going to school to be a teacher and Michele is working at the UNO Med Center. Ma and Pa are still plugging along in Millard. All of us 'kids' are fixing up the Blair house so we can sell it…anybody need a place?

Christmas…I'd hoped to go to Hong Kong but we couldn't get confirmed hotel reservations. We decided to go to Sanya…a coastal community on the South China Sea for a bit of beach time. It's just an extended weekend. I'd hoped to go home but last time I went home for a week (more later) it ruined me. 13-14 time zone changes times two is a bit much on the body. I'll go home at the end of the contract.

There is some Christmas spirit here. Since our hotel is full of expatriates, it was one of the first to decorate. Mostly, if the clients are expatriates, it has Christmas decorations. I have seen some Chinese Christmas greetings. Some decorations are pretty much celebration-neutral and will remain up until the Chinese New Year in early February. They Grinch in me says the Chinese should have celebrated their Christmas when they shipped their goods out of here to the US and the rest of the modern world…about July. That was their present.

For New Year's, we'll be doing the original Peking duck restaurant on the eve and a couple of social gatherings with the coworkers…my evolving pseudo-family.

Merry Christmas!

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