Friday, February 27, 2009

Shopping with Chinese Characteristics

(Thanks to my good friend Ken for inspiring the title of this blog entry.)

So last weekend we went to the Lufthansa Shopping Center to see about buying some cardio equipment for the house, since J2 no longer has time to go to a gym to do cardio now that he works 10-hour days four days a week. When we got to the sporting goods department we found a very appealing stationary bike right away, which we were able to order and arrange to have delivered on Monday. But I also wanted a rowing machine for me to use, since they are hard to come by, even in gyms. The guy at the Lufthansa Center said that the same people who make our bike also make a rower, but they did not have one for me to look at. I did not feel comfortable buying the rower sight unseen, so the guy said he would find a place for me to see one and give me a call on Monday.

On Monday, as planned, the salesman called to say that I could see the rower at a hotel gym in the western part of the city. I was going to be near there on Tuesday morning, so I figured I'd stop by and check it out. Tuesday morning I popped in to the hotel, explaining that I was checking the hotel out for my brother who was planning to visit China on business and wanted to stay in their hotel, but who is a gym rat and asked me to check out their equipment. Sure enough, they had the rower, it looked good, and I phoned the salesman to tell him I would come over later in the week to order it.

Later that day he phoned me again to say that the model I saw in his brochure was the Model 2 rower, which was not available immediately, but the Model 1 rower was, and that was the version that I saw at the hotel. However, I told him that the hotel's was a Model 2, based on the big number "2" on the side of the thing, and once again, I would not buy a rower without seeing it, so the "1" was a no-go. A bit later he phoned back to say that the only difference between the "1" and the "2" was the color, which I found hard to believe. But I told him I did not care about waiting for the "2", so I would put a deposit on the thing and have them deliver it when it was available.

On Wednesday during lunch I went to the store to make my deposit. There, another salesman told me that he did the research and the only difference between the "1" and the "2" was the color and that the "1" was slightly longer. He also told me that the "2" is not even available in China, despite the fact that I saw one at the hotel. That being the case, I told him, I would accept the "1", which they said they could deliver by Saturday. But when I got back to the office I did a web search and found that there is in fact a huge difference between the "1" and "2" models--the "1" has no computer console to tell you your speed, heart rate, time, etc. So I phoned the original salesman and told him that the "1" was not acceptable, and that he needed to make sure they did not deliver one to me on Saturday, but instead ordered me a "2". (Confused yet??)

Not long afterwards he phoned me back to say that the "1" has been discontinued since 2006 and is no longer available in China, and that the only rower I can buy is the "2", and that they would deliver it by Saturday. I said that would be fine, but deep down I was pretty sure I'd end up seeing the wrong rower show up at the house.

Today the store called to say that they were delivering the thing this afternoon, so when I got home I was ready to be surprised to see a big "1" and no computer console on the rower. Imagine my surprise, then, when it was a brand-spanking new Model 2!

It is unclear to me why I had to go through this nonsense with them not knowing what they were selling, but this is not unusual here. Thought it was a good example of what it's like to go shopping in China.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No Wonder they Can't Drive Here

A couple of weeks ago I decided it'd be a good idea to get a driver's license here, since it may one day be desirable to rent a car and drive somewhere, and my US driver's license is not acceptable for that. So I asked some colleagues what the process is, and on the face of it it's not too bad--you pay a couple hundred RMB to get the driver's manual, which is available in English, and then you pay another couple hundred RMB (800, to be exact, or more than $100) to the agency that takes care of foreigners here, leaving them your passport, foreign driver's license, five (yes, FIVE) photos, and residency certificate for a week while they process your application. (If you don't want to leave the passport and d/l for a week, you can pay them RMB 1500 for "expedited" service.) Then you wait three weeks, and go somewhere in the middle of nowhere to take a written exam on China's driving rules. If you pass (96% correct on the exam), you get told to return in three days to collect your license.

The cumbersome process is par for the course here, though, so that's not the point of this post. Instead, I wanted to share with you the ridiculousness of the book that I had to read to prepare for the exam. It's broken down into several sections, each covering a certain aspect of the world of driving in China. The format is the same throughout the book--the questions are presented as multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank statements about something or other, with a few true/false questions thrown in at the end. There's always three choices in the multiple choice section, and more often than not one of them is completely off the wall, so it's really only a choice between two answers. Often, particularly in the section about driving etiquette (yes, they do have such a concept, at least on paper), one answer is much, much longer than the others, and this one is always right.

As if that were not dumb enough, many of the questions cover things that seem to me irrelevant to the question of whether the candidate is going to be a safe driver. Among these are questions about which government agency is responsible for administering justice to violators of traffic rules, about what the fine will be for violating these rules (shouldn't that be part of the police officer exam?), or what the correct way to treat an injury that involves the protrusion of a bit of an accident victim's small intestine through a gash in the abdomen is (turns out you should cover it with a bowl and tie the bowl onto the victim using a cloth band). An inordinate number of questions focus on the proper time and manner for using the horn, and on how to drive in the vicinity of cattle-driven carts.

Reading the book is an object lesson in how people in China actually drive, more than in how one actually should drive. Hundreds of the wrong answers describe in minute detail things that I see on the road every single day, including turning right on red without so much as slowing down, expecting pedestrians to get out of the way; failing to slow down when going through puddles in the presence of pedestrians; and spitting through the open window of a car.

I'll be taking the exam sometime in March, I believe, so I'll report then on how it turns out.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Meddlesome Foreigners

I don't usually dabble in politics on this page, but I saw something recently that bears spreading around a bit. It seems that the Chinese vice-president (and among the likely contenders to step into the lead position one day) was in Mexico recently on an official trip, and while there he spoke to a group of overseas Chinese at some sort of a forum. During the speech he lashed out at meddlesome foreigners "with full stomachs and nothing better to do" (吃饱了没事干的外国人) who wag their fingers at China finding fault. He retorted that China neither exports revolution, nor hunger and poverty, nor makes trouble with "you", so why do "you" still want to complain?

While the speech itself seems interesting to me for the level of rudeness it betrays, and for the amazing level of support that it has generated among Chinese internet denizens, what I find even more interesting is that the speech has been so sparsely reported here in China. In fact, the only reason I learned of it, other than from seeing a group of Chinese Facebookers who started a group called "foreigners with full stomachs and nothing better to do" (in Chinese) supporting the VP, was because of a blog I read that dissected the meaning of the phrase "折腾" that he used in the speech. (It means literally to turn from side to side, but also means to wreak havoc.) I wonder why the Chinese press would not be all over this speech, seeing as how it makes China look like it's standing up to all those furners who love to find fault with China.

We'll now return to our regular fluffy programming.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Who Wants to be a Concubine?

I read about this on Kenneth in the (212), a blog I read occasionally, and thought I would share it here. One of the things I love about China is the ridiculous crimes that people get up to here. They really need to watch a LOT more Law & Order in this country and learn how it's supposed to be done:

China tycoon's mistress contest ends in tragedy: report

3 days ago

SHANGHAI (AFP) — A married Chinese tycoon who could no longer afford to support his five mistresses during the economic slowdown held a contest to decide which one to keep, local media reported Tuesday.

The contest took a tragic turn when one of the mistresses, who was eliminated based on her looks, drove her former lover and the four other women off a mountain road in an apparent fit of anger, the Shanghai Daily reported.

The driver died in the December 6 crash while the man and four other women were hospitalised, the report said.

Initially, it was thought to be an accident, but then details of the bizarre contest emerged in a letter left by the dead woman, a 29-year-old former waitress surnamed Yu, the newspaper said.

The woman met the entrepreneur, surnamed Fan, at the restaurant where she worked in the coastal city of Qingdao in 2000 and became his lover, the report said.

Fan later introduced her to the four other mistresses -- two of his employees and two former clients -- with all given a 5,000-yuan (733-dollar) monthly allowance and rent-free apartment, the report said.

However, when Fan's business ran into tough times, he decided to lay off all but one woman, the report said.

Fan hired an instructor from a modelling agency to judge a private contest he held at a hotel in May, but he did not tell the women about his intentions.

Yu was eliminated in the first-round beauty competition and a woman surnamed Liu eventually won after dominating the drinking round, the report said.

When Fan told Yu she was dismissed and that he was selling her apartment, she decided to exact revenge during a group outing.

After the accident Fan paid Yu's parents 580,000 yuan as compensation for her death. His wife divorced him after learning of his affairs, the report said, adding the other four mistresses also left him.

The tale was reported in other Chinese media, but none gave further details about Fan, such as his age or profession.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spanish Night

Very often when we return from a trip we decide soon thereafter to throw a dinner party featuring the cuisine of the place we just visited. Having purchased several cookbooks in Spain last month (including one in Catalan, a language that I cannot really claim to speak, though it's similar enough to Spanish that I can get by) in preparation for possibly having a Spanish theme for this year's Christmas party, this seemed like a good opportunity to try out some of the recipes and see what might work come December.

The other pretext for holding a dinner was that a new colleague just joined the hospital. He and his wife moved here from Maine, and over the months since we first interviewed him I have come to like them a lot, and I thought it would be nice to invite them to a dinner and introduce them to some other people. The only problem was to figure out the guest list, since I wanted to have a mix of people that they already know and are comfortable with, but also give them some new people to meet. Finally I put together what I thought was a great group, and we got to work putting together the menu and getting ready.

However, I seem to have a chronic problem when it comes to counting the people whom I have invited. We are limited to having 12 people at the table but I somehow have a habit of inviting 11 or more guests, causing J2 to go into panic mode about how to seat people on the one hand, and what place setting to use for the extra people. Sure enough at 2pm or so we realized that I had forgotten to count ourselves among the guests, so we'd be 14 people at the table. This time, however, I decided to take the bull by the horns and actually ask two people whom I had invited if they would not mind taking a rain check, and they were gracious enough to accept. It was only later that it dawned on me that these were two single women and here it was Valentine's Day so I was relegating them to solo evenings. God will surely punish me for this (in addition to the punishment that my friends will surely mete out on me....).

Anyway, back to the dinner. We decided to do a selection of tapas first, followed by a paella and some sort of main dish, and then dessert. It was not too difficult to find several tapas that I wanted to make, even given the limitations of available ingredients in Beijing, and even the paella was no trouble (especially since we brought paella rice with us from Spain), but the main course was a challenge. One of the reasons for the challenge was that we had a non-pork eater, but a bigger reason was that we just did not find that many main courses during our trip that really wowed us. In the end, I wrote to a guy whose blog I read who is opening a Catalan restaurant in San Francisco, and he was kind enough to make some suggestions. Thus I ended up making spiced chicken with pears, a dish that I had heard of but never eaten (though usually it's made with duck, I decided that ducks might not stretch easily enough to feed 12). So here is the final menu:

The guests started to arrive around 7pm, way early for a Spanish meal, but since none of them was actually Spanish (though one couple, two Germans whom I met through a cooking class that I took some time ago, used to live in Valencia) I did not think they'd mind. The group dynamics went very well, I think, and the evening was a success, though as usual there was too much food (fortunately I was able to pawn off some leftover paella on the German couple, whose kids adore it, apparently). Interestingly, almost no flan was left over, even though I made two. But, as J2 says frequently, my flan (which is actually my friend Cindy's flan) is the best he's ever had, and we're always disappointed by flan in restaurants, so we've stopped ordering it when we go out. Perhaps our guests agreed!

Here are some shots of the food and the party:

Thursday, February 12, 2009

About that Fire

So of course there are loads of conspiracy theories about the fire that destroyed the soon-to-open Mandarin Oriental Hotel here in Beijing the other night. Some would have us believe that the M-O people themselves started the fire so that they would be rid of the headache of a new five-star hotel in a city with a glut of five-star hotels that cannot attract guests. I am not so sure about that, though it is just lurid enough to have a grain of truth in it. In any event, the Chinese press is not really covering the fire very much, and certainly there are no photos of the building in its current state in any news outlets here. So in case anyone in China is reading this, here is a photo:

As you can see, it's pretty much a total loss. Apparently, CCTV, the Chinese national TV network that owns the building and whose extravagant fireworks on Lantern Festival are being held responsible for the blaze, has been widely criticized for the fire and is drawing a lot of public rebuke for their spending, their slanted coverage of the news, and for lying to the Chinese people for so long. Of course CCTV is only telling the people what the government tells them to say, and the citizenry know this, so I guess this is really a criticism of the government, not a commonplace thing here.

I guess the year of the ox is set up to be a rather interesting one.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lantern Festival Mayhem

Last night was Yuan Xiao, aka the Lantern Festival, the night of the first full moon of the lunar new year. Two things characterize the holiday--the first is the innocuous consumption of little rice dumplings with a sweet filling called "tang yuan", which are lovely, and the second is the setting off of fireworks. It seems to me that the holiday is an excuse to use up all the fireworks that had not yet been used for the New Year celebration, since the government forbids the lighting of fireworks during the rest of the year. Regardless of the reason, venturing out on the evening of Lantern Festival in Beijing means exposing yourself to an indescribable cacophony of explosions all over the place. As though the noise was not bad enough, the fire risk is enormous, since Chinese people have absolutely zero common sense when it comes to the matter of lighting fireworks (I reported on this last year, too). Last night I watched as a huge string of fireworks went off under a bone-dry row of hedges at the entrance to our building complex, and, in another location, as a child lit a huge box of fireworks under someone's window.

I wonder if the fact that one of Beijing's new showcase buildings--the Mandarin Oriental hotel adjacent to the show-stopping CCTV tower down--burnt down as a result of stray fireworks last night will lead the city government to restrict the fireworks mayhem next year. Probably not...

Photo is from the New York Times. My photos (of just fireworks, not the building fire) will come later on.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Spain Photos

The Spain photos are online. Please click here to see them.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Barcelona to Beijing, Day Nine

Saturday, January 31

Our last day in Spain saw the first rain of the trip, so it was a good thing that we had not planned to do anything much today. I woke early enough to be able to go to the gym before heading out to the Boqueria Market to do some last minute shopping, during which J2 would stay in the hotel (I find it easier to roam markets without him, since I feel I have to hurry when he’s tagging along). In the end, I spent a good hour roaming the halls of the market, finally setting my sights on the offerings of one particular stall called Mas Gourmet (stall 680), where the very friendly and helpful Rosa gave me tastes of several of the types of sausage, ham and cheese she had on offer, each of which she described in some detail. When I finally decided what I wanted to get (some Manchego cheese, some blood sausage, a piece of jamón ibérico and two pieces of jamón serrano) she then sealed them in thick vacuum bags and gave me cotton cloth to wrap them in once they are opened. Since she said they would last at least a year in the fridge, we seem to be set for our Christmas party, which will take place on December 12.

Back at the hotel, J2 and I got our things together and headed to the airport so that we’d have time to go the tax-free to get our VAT refunds for our clothing purchases and do some last minute duty free shopping. When we got to the airport we had a hard time convincing the Lufthansa check in clerk that really am entitled to premiere treatment, owing to my 1K status on United, their partner. But in typical German fashion, she would not give me the priority treatment without my United frequent flyer card, which I don’t normally carry. Then I had a similarly hard time talking our way into the business class lounge, though I did manage it in the end. The flight from Barcelona to Munich left on time and landed early, so we had nearly a four hour layover in Munich, and again I had to talk our way into the lounge . Then finally our flight from Munich to Beijing left the gate on time but then sat on the tarmac for a while while the engineers came on board to fix the toilet system. Then once they fixed the toilets they had to load more fuel on board so that we could fly at a higher altitude to try to make up the time.

We landed in Beijing an hour late, so I guess they did not make up too much of the time we lost in Munich. Then as we waited for our luggage I saw that the customs people had a beagle on patrol, which made me a bit nervous, since I was not sure if he was there for drugs or for food. If it was the former, we were golden, but if the latter, we might have a problem since I had a few kilos of ham, sausage and cheese. Sure enough, the beagle came over to our cart as we waited for our second suitcase to arrive and sat down. This I knew was not a good sign, and the patrolman with him asked if we had any food with us... We showed him the duty free bags that we picked up in Barcelona, which included one wheel of queso da cabra cheese, two boxes of Spanish cookies, and a few bottles of sherry. They took the cheese and asked if we had any other food (we said no...) and with that they left. Another passenger (Chinese) told us that milk products are not allowed to be brought in to China, to which I could not help but ask if that was because of the vaunted purity of Chinese dairy products.

Whereas yesterday we were saying that it felt like we’d been gone for ages, now it seems that the trip has gone by quite fast. But it’ll be good to get home to the dogs and to our friends, and before long it will be time to pack again for our trip to South Africa!

Once we get our photos organized, I'll get you a link!

Barcelona, Day Eight

Friday, January 30

Thanks to a comfortable bed, thick drapes and the absence of church bells in the vicinity of the hotel, I was actually able to sleep in this morning, waking only at 8am or so (those things had disturbed my sleep in the three hotels we stayed in during our drive around Catalonia). So we went to the gym to try to work off some of the meals we’ve been eating and then went out and had breakfast at El Mos near the Rambla where we had eaten several days ago. We then set out for the Palau de Música Catalana to see about taking a look at the inside, but they only allow guided tours and the next one with available tickets was not until 2pm so we spent our time doing some more shopping.

Up until now, most of the clothes we had found were nice, but not exciting. That changed today, since we popped into a shop called Desigual that had really interesting things. Like everywhere else in Spain, Desigual was having big sales, and they were into their second reductions, so we found some really great deals, including some very unusual shirts and trousers. The sales, combined with the tax rebate we can get as non-EU residents, almost made it reasonable to go shopping here.

We dropped our purchases off at the hotel and had a very light lunch at a little tavern nearby (La Bodegueta) before heading back to the Palau. The interior of the Palau did not disappoint, being truly beautiful and dramatic, with stunning stained glass, sculptures, and little details. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed, so you’ll have to take my word for it. And besides, a photograph would not do justice to the acoustics of the hall, which we experienced when the guide activated the large organ in the center of the hall and had it play Bach’s D-minor fugue. Amazing.

After the visit we continued to wander around, more or less at a loss for what to do since we had picked up some more clothes at another branch of Desigual and did not want to walk too much with our purchases loading us down. So instead we headed back to Zanpanzar, the Basque tavern on Passeig de Gràcia where we ate on the weekend, for another quick bite before returning to the hotel to start putting our stuff together in preparation for tomorrow’s flight home.

As the dinner hour approached, we thought long and hard about where to go for our last dinner in Barcelona. We considered some of the famous restaurants like Cal Pep, which is supposed to be one of the ones that a true foodie has to try when in Barcelona, but in the end we decided to go back to our favorite place--the Cerveseria Catalana just a block from the hotel. We got there relatively early (by 8pm) so it did not take long to get a table (we opted not to sit at the bar this time), though it took long enough for us to be able to have a glass of sherry and a tapa of four kinds of cheese (manchego, gorgonzola, brie and queso de cabo) melted on a piece of bread with a bit of tapenade on top. Also as we waited we reviewed the array of tapas on display at the bar, thinking what we would make for the Christmas party if we decide to have a Spanish theme this year (seems likely).

For our meal we opted to have several of our favorites one more time: fried squid rings, sliced fried artichokes, little sandwiches of beef with a pepper on top (solomillos de ternera), and fried pimentóns, along with a new thing--a little skewer with five kinds of sausage on it, including my favorite, blood sausage. It was all excellent.

When we finished our meal we went wandering for a place to have something for dessert, but we could not find anything that tempted us. Eventually we found ourselves back in the University area where there is a preponderance of gay bars, but today, unlike yesterday, they were rather busy even at this early hour. We had a drink at one until it got too smoky, and then went back to the one we visited yesterday (Plata Bar) but in the end we decided to just walk back to the hotel and call it a night.