Archive | September 2004

Taking a shower

After several days of beautiful Southern California weather, it started raining hard and the flooding began. The streets filled with water, as did the sidewalks, dirt alley ways (through which I need to walk to get to the main street) and the cracked and potted sidewalks lining the street. Everything was filled with water and old men stood at the entrance of their shops waiting for the deluge to subside, just itching to start sweeping.

Sweeping?? Why sweep? Well, after it rains the streets and parking lots are always flooded. There is not a very good drainage system in Beijing, seeing as in order for gutters and drains to work, the water must first be able to reach them – and since many of the roads and “flat” ground is anything but, the water just sits in pools…everywhere, and stagnates. Solution? No 10 million dollar repaving projects necessary, thank you very much. All that is needed are about 10 million brooms made of grass and some old men. All over the city, in near unison, they start sweeping the water into the nearest drain – wherever that may be. Pure genius, no?

But the sweeping, in all its efficient and ingenious glory, had not yet commenced and so there I was, standing in a puddle trying to get a taxi. Traffic was heavy. Buses (with their brakes nice and wet, providing for pleasantly ear-shattering friction when they are applied) screetched by and cars honked maniacally at each standstill as though someone up front would hear them and say, “oh, someone is frustrated and unhappy behind me. I should really make a conscious effort to move quicker, as I am purposely going slow so as to keep from arriving home in a timely manner.” I scanned the solid line of passing cars through the rain for a taxi, but none were available. Each taxi had a lucky (warm and dry) man or woman happily inside, oblivious to the desperation that was building up in me…I was almost late for work. I walked back and forth scouring the cars. I walked up the block to the bus stop then to the university. Then across the street. Then back down the street. There wasn’t a taxi to be hailed.

What was that?? In the distance! A taxi with his available light on!

I ran full speed up to him and when I arrived, I noticed that someone was already in it. He just hadn’t turned off his light yet.

I continued to wait until miraculously, a taxi pulled up in front of me and a man got out. I quickly hopped in and showed the taxi driver the address.

“I can’t,” he said (in Chinese). He pointed to his windshield wipers – “They don’t work.”

“Plllleeeeeasssse!!!” I begged. I showed him the directions again. I looked around and said the Chinese words for “No taxi anywhere. I here 30 minutes!” (give me a break, it was in Chinese).

He looked torn. Money vs. Safety (and perhaps our lives). It was raining hard. I was begging.

“Ok le,” and we were off. We both squinted through the rain drenched windshield. Once we got over 20mph we couldn’t really see anything. He pulled over and swathed a rag over the glass. It didn’t help. We basically just drove really really slow but I eventually arrived to my class – 30 minutes late.

When it came time to pay, I handed over a 20 yuan note and when he went to give me my change, I said “yours” and went to get out. He insisted, showing me the money. Was I just going to leave with out it??! I pointed at him, then to my pocket and said “thank you.” I figured that 6 yuan (70 cents US) was the least I could give for him risking his life to get me to work.

So what else is new? Not much. I’ve just been livin’ la vida loca and keepin’ it real, you know? I have a busy schedule coming up these next few weeks and will be teaching at a University nearly every day in addition to evening classes. I met a girl on the subway the other day and me, my friends, her and her friends will get some dinner tomorrow evening. My GMAT book also arrived from yesterday so I’ve been studying all day from that. My first practice test through I scored a 600 (max is 800 and the avg. is 530), so I think it will be pretty easy to achieve my goal of 790 for the actual test. I’ll study for three months and take it here in Beijing before I continue on so that I can just focus on working for a few years when I get back and then hop right into an MBA program. I don’t think the GMAT is really going to be that hard. The math is really simple and the English parts are just arguing and reasoning. I say that now. We’ll see how I do on the real thing (I’ll settle for a 780).

It dawned on me today how difficult it is to get napkins in a Chinese food restaurant. Why is that? I have no idea. Seeing as I don’t know the word for “napkin” (although I should really learn it), it’s always quite an ordeal to get one of the damn things. And when you finally do get one, they dole them out like sheets of gold. It’s incredible.

Hmm…I just thought you guys should know that. Just in case… You need napkins when you come to China.

Sleep, where are you?

Sleep can be a fickle thing sometimes, eh. (Please note, the “eh” is not said like a Canadian, as in “eh?” It’s said like a New Zealander which is said not like a question, but with emphasis). I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s really hard to get to sleep for me sometimes. When I want to sleep, I can’t. I just sit there thinking. My brain spins and spins and spins and I can’t shut it off. Sometimes a random lost memory will pop into my head and I will relive it for 5 minutes before the next one. Sometimes I remember someone I forgot about. There are a billion memories trapped in my brain and sometimes it feels like they are all biding for attention, particularly when I want to go to sleep.

What am I supposed to do? It’s hard to read with your brain spinning. You can just sit there and think and hope your brain gives up, which it eventually does. I’ve been trying to sleep for 3 hours now, lying in my bed without success. But that’s how it is when you stay put and give your brain time to think. When you are traveling, you barely have time to eat. You just run from place to place, catch your breath and then move on. You collapse into your bed each night and wake up the next morning in time to catch the next bus or see the sunrise. But when you live somewhere, everything has time to creep back. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s really a bad thing. It’s good to remember everything and a trip without memories would be pretty pointless. But, I can only imagine how it will be when I get back home in a little over a year. The memories will tower over me like a 100-foot tidal wave with me standing on the sea-shore, staring up at it in awe.

I found out something interesting the other day. For the past three months, I thought that I had been asking people stuff correctly. I was saying “Qing wen”, which means “please let me ask” – if said correctly. It’s very important that you notice that I say: if said correctly. I found out that I was actually not saying it correctly. I changed the tone on the “wen”, so I have basically been walking around saying to people something like this (I will show the conversation with both possible interpretations of what I said):

“Please kiss me, how do I get to the bank?”

Or, one could have interpreted what I said like this:

“Please let me slit my own throat, how do I get to the bank?” (my favorite).

Hmm…that explains the confused looks. So yeah, tones are pretty important. I was saying it with a rising or dropping, then rising tone and its supposed to be a dropping tone. Be warned.

Chinese is a very interesting language. While teaching English, you learn a lot about Chinese by the mistakes they make. For instance, when talking about bikes, you will hear a lot of people talk about how many bikes they have “lost” in their lives.

“I’ve lost my bike 4 times!”

That begs the question: how the hell do you lose a bike?? It’s not a set of keys, after all. It can’t fall out of your pocket. My buddy Alex in University was the only guy I ever knew who could actually lose a bike. He would randomly ride his bike on some days and not others, chain it up somewhere, go to class, leave class and randomly walk somewhere else and maybe walk home and forget his bike. The next day he might decide to walk and over the period of two days, he would literally forget where his bike was. He would lose it. But that’s the only person I know who could lose a bike. How could so many Chinese people lose bikes?

In Chinese, they don’t have a word for something being stolen – they just have one for you not having it anymore, translated to “lost”. You don’t know where it is, so it’s lost. You lost it. Interesting, huh? That’s how they lose their bikes. People always get their bikes stolen in Beijing.

They also number the toilets in Beijing. Not the sit-down toilets, but the stand up guy toilets. You will be standing there, staring at the wall, doing your business and take note that you are using urinal 3. How does that system come into place? Does it really save time to number the urinals? Is there some call center somewhere that dispatches repairmen to specific urinals and they need to know which one so that they may shave a few seconds off of their busy urinal repairing schedules by going directly to the faulty one? Maybe different people clean different ones. I don’t know. Not all of them are numbered in Beijing, but they are in the WangFuJing Oriental Plaza. I honestly would like to know the story behind it.

And how is it that there are no stray dogs in Beijing? In South America, they are everywhere – even in the cosmopolitan Santiago and Buenos Aires. Absolutely everywhere. They don’t eat them (all) here, I don’t think. Although you can buy dog in the street stalls and in restaurants, they raise them specially for that purpose. They don’t snag them off the streets. I just want to know why.

Lots of people don’t iron their new shirts nor do they wash them before going to work. They aren’t wrinkled or anything, but you can see the heavy creases from the box still distinctly in huge squares all around the shirt. It’s quite funny to see and so many people do it that it’s not anything strange to them. Maybe it’s a status thing. “I can afford new shirts. This shirt is new.” Maybe everyone just agrees that a new shirt need not be ironed. I’m not sure about this one either.

Yes, indeed. There are lots of questions left unanswered. But, luckily, I am feeling a little tired. I may be able to get some sleep, after all. I think I’ll give it a go as I have to get up for work in 5 hours to teach a class.

Stop! THIEF!

I really never expected to get robbed. I haven’t felt unsafe since I arrived to China and, of course, feel that I’m “street smart” enough to avoid dangerous situations having been doing so for over a year now. But, as usually happens, you get lazy over time and take security for granted. Today would have cost me $700 bucks if not for my theif’s failure to wear a little deodorant.

But let’s back up.

When my brother visited me in China several weeks ago, I was just finishing up a class for Siemens which entailed class with the same 13 people for 10 days straight, for 6 hours a day. After that, I hurried to the Berlitz Center to teach for another 2-3 hours before getting home exhausted each day. The stress built up and I could see it affecting me in my every day life. Little things really got on my nerves because I was so busy and didn’t have time I usually do (and usually quite enjoy) to “play the third world” game – which entails running around in circles, lots of hand gestures to convey what you need, and sweat. Lots of sweat.

And so, that class ended and since then, I have had only evening classes. It’s been rough, let me tell you. I stay up late watching DVD’s, sleep in until 10:00AM, study a little Chinese, watch a DVD then leave for class so that I can teach students I geniunely enjoy teaching and spending time with. I’ve been having a great time and can usually be found walking around with a big grin on my face just because. The brilliant weather each day has made for incredibly blue skies which beckon one from his 5th story apartment and out into Beijing just to see what happening on the streets.

Yesterday, I took to said streets and ended up at a park that I pass by each day in the bus on the way to work. It has always looked nice but I had always been busy or the weather was always bad and so I hadn’t yet visited. It struck me as beautiful because of the wide river it had flowing through it with, complete with concrete walkways and large shady trees on either side of the water. I walked along the stream and eventually found a nice spot on a bench where I read Thoreau’s Walden, ate my lunch, and watched the old men dangle their fishing poles into the calm water. It was a peaceful scene indeed. Occasionally, a guy or woman would ride by on a bike, smile and say “HELLO!” to me, to which I responded with an excited “HELLO!” (I try to say it in exactly the same way as they say it to me, back to them) and a smile each time.

After finishing a chapter, I made my way through the park and past the old men flying kites (there are always old men flying kits in large open spaces in Beijing) and over to the Beijing TV Tower: a huge and lumbering structure that stretches high into the sky (over 900 feet). Would I be able to go up and see Beijing from the top? I didn’t know, but I was going to try. I walked up the stairs and to the door where a woman asked me if I had a ticket. I said that I didn’t and asked where I could obtain said ticket. She pointed to the big building that said “Tickets”. Revelation. I bought my ticket for 50 yuan and was soon on an elevator to the top of the tower. When I arrived at the top, I stepped out onto the viewing platform and was blown away.

The metropolis I saw sprawled out before me was nothing short of incredible. In all directions stood buildings like soldiers of all different heights and colors, single-file, poised and ready for action. The city is remarkably flat and so, you can see it all – especially so on such a clear day – far, far, far into the distance where the mountains started and the power plants spewed smoke into the air in the west. You could barely make out downtown, as it wasn’t that much more densely populated with buildings as the other parts of town and something about the way the sun cast its light on the fronts of the buildings gave the entire scene a surreal feeling. The perspective I had was like something you would see in a movie just before a giant comet came and smashed into the city. It honestly didn’t look real.

Just below, I could see where the river I had just visited led to, which was a much larger park and a series of small lakes. I made a mental note to visit it before I left Beijing and sat high above the masses for about 20 minutes, trying to take in the incredible beauty of what I was seeing, before I went to the indoor viewing area just below. Inside there were 20 or so couches around the room right in front of the huge windows looking down (in the outside viewing area, you cant really see below you as your view is obstructed by the platform that extends out in front of you, past the guard rail). I made another mental note that I would come here again on an evening that promised to bring a beautiful sunset and stay until nightfall so that I could see Beijing “light up”, so to speak.

That night at class, I discovered that I would have the next day (today) free because my two classes had been canceled (since I teach for companies, they sometimes cancel class for a meeting or for the sake of some project deadline being met). And so today, I decided to pay a visit to the park I had seen yesterday from the tower. I remembered seeing a gate at the front, which meant that there would be an entrance fee and seeing as this is an area with very few westerners, everything was in Chinese and I therefore had no idea what to do, how much to pay or where to go. After consulting the ticket lady, I was informed that the entrance would be 2 yuan (about 30 cents), which I paid happily as I was expecting it to be more.

I spent about 30 minutes walking around the winding pathways, past the lakes and ponds, past the trees and flowers, past tea restaurants and young couples sitting on the lawns in each others’ arms and eventually found a nice little bench right in front of a beautiful pond filled with water lilies, lotuses and ducks swimming around and looking for trouble to cause. I took out my book and commenced to read, occasionally looking up to observe some people walking by or some birds flying by. An old man walked by and stared at me to which I responded by smiling and nodding my head and he did the same, saying “HELLO!” And there I sat for quite a while.

Suddenly, the aroma of body odor whiffed past my nose. Strange, I though. It cant be me. I wear deodorant. It was also quiet – no one was walking by, which was unusual, because usually someone was walking by. I suddenly got the feeling that someone was right behind to me and I turned around to look and see. I caught a guy quickly walking away with a camera in his hand.

“Strange,” I thought. “What the hell was that guy doing? Taking a picture of me reading?”

I have been known to try to snap pictures of people without them knowing if I have seen a beautiful picture before me which would be ruined if the person knew that I was going to take a picture (they look at the camera or act differently and it ruins the natural feel of the photo). But this was just me reading a book. He wouldn’t have needed to get so close (remember, this guy stunk, I could smell his BO despite it being fairly windy outside) to get a nice picture of someone sitting on a bench reading.

As he walked away, I noticed how similar his camera looked to mine. They looked identical.

I glanced in my open bag to the right of me and didn’t see my own camera which I had placed in the pocket not 20 minutes before. I didn’t have time to figure out how he snagged it without my knowing, or even if he didn’t even take it – maybe it was just buried in my bag. I just grabbed my bag and ran, barefooted, after him.

My heart was thumping and tiny rocks dug into my feet as I jetted towards the guy. I could see him sprinting down the trail (we had water on either side of us and were both on a little semi-island between the lakes) and he wasn’t too far ahead of me.

He saw me running and started walking, as if to make it look like he was just a normal guy taking a stroll through the park.

I walked up to him, put my hand out and said, “Alright. Hand it over.”

He didn’t move and so I looked around and yelled “Police!” I didn’t know what else to say. I don’t know how to say “police”, “thief”, “help” or any of those important words in Chinese. Everyone looked.

The guy was just a kid, maybe two years younger than me, fairly skinny and I knew I could pretty easily take him down if I had needed to. But I stayed pretty calm and just repeated myself.

“Hand it over.”

He didn’t move and looked blankly at me and so I spotted my camera in his pocket, pulled it out and gave him a look of disgust and disappointment. I imagine that it was like a look that you would give your best friend if you found out he was stealing from you.

“Why?” I asked as I shook my head in disgust.

“Pathetic. Remember that word. Pathetic,” I said. And I walked away.

The old Chinese men and women sitting on the surrounding benches looked at me and gave a thumbs up and shook their heads in disappointment. The whole way back to my bench, where my sandals lay, everyone looked at me inquisitively (they had seen me sprint past moments before) and I showed them my camera and pointed at the guy. They all shook their heads and smiled as if to say, “way to go!” and at the same time embarrassed that someone had done such a thing to visitor.

I sat back on my bench and was presented with the perfect opportunity to philosophize on the events. How often are you nearly robbed and then given the opportunity to immediately sit in a beautiful park, alone and think about it? So I thought.

I had said the words “pathetic” and “why?” to him, both of which were unnecessary. Did I think he was pathetic? No, I don’t even know him. Maybe he was starving and wanted to by food. I highly doubt that though, seeing as he paid money to get into the park and seemed to be a perfectly able bodied young man. Maybe he just wanted to buy some deodorant. I can understand that. He could have bought a lot of deodorant with the proceeds from my camera. In that case, he was only trying to better himself. By robbing one man, he would be able to avoid robbing countless others of fresh smelling air.

No, I didn’t think he was pathetic. Nor was I disappointed. I know that certain people are thieves. Everyone knows that. Crime is a necessary evil in any society. People have been stealing ever since the onset of the idea of private property.

Did I really want to know “why”? No, I knew why. He was a thief. Maybe he was a hungry thief, but I see thousands of people each day who are able to provide for themselves by their own meager means. Some guys sell bottles of water, some guys sell sweet potatoes on the street that they cook on a bike with a big drum / barbeque welded to the back, some guys drive taxis and some guys work for big multinational companies. Seeing as this kid was even younger than me, had no apparent physical handicaps, and was quite bold (you would have to be to sneak up behind someone in a quiet park and quietly pick through the bag he had sitting right beside him as he read), I am fairly confident that he wouldn’t have had a big problem finding an honest job in China – Beijing, no less. I am pretty sure that he didn’t need the camera any more than about a million other people in this city who go to work every day and work hard at that, and so I can therefore logically conclude that since they work, he can too. In that case, I didn’t really want to know why he took it.

And so, I was left with nothing to say to this guy. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t sad or disappointed. My feet did hurt from running after him, but I was sure that would pass. I’ll just keep a better eye on my bag from now on. I sat there for another 20 minutes and then continued walking around the park.

A landscaper looked up as I passed, smiled and yelled, “Hello!” and then so did his buddy. I did the same with a smile.

Since the sun was about to set, I sat down on a bench overlooking the lake and the Beijing TV Tower I had visited the day before and watched a beautiful sunset unfold before me. People swam and fished as the sun went down – and they chose to do so in front of the signs that explicitly said “No Angling, No Swimming”, ironically. I left the park and went home.

Yep. All in a day’s work. Or, in my case, a lack thereof.

It’s been one year now

Every day, before I left for this trip, I would go to work at Beer, Beer & More Beer which just so happened to be right next to some train tracks. These train tracks were notoriously busy and could easily add 10 minutes on to your commute as you waited for the massive train to pass by in front of you. It was always the same…you drove up to the tracks, with a bit of trepidation, staring at the railroad lights starting to blink and the arms coming down. You were trapped and there was no escaping. Sometimes, the train would just stop and you would be stuck sitting there at the huge Maersk cargo containers in front of you, waiting for the train to go again.

I used to sit there and stare at those cargo containers when I was stuck like that. It happened quite a bit. I used to imagine where they had been. “They probably started in China,” I thought. “Some girl at the Maersk office in Beijing organized a shipment with some guys in California and gave the order for a bunch of underpaid Chinese guys to work all day and cram a thousand Maersk containers on some huge boat in Shanghai. After two or three weeks, the ship arrived at Long Beach Harbor and the containers were unloaded onto this very train right in front of me. And off the train set, throughout California, causing thousands of minutes of delay to thousands of commuters as it chugged along its merry way.”

And so, let’s fast forward a year.

I sat in class, waiting for my student to arrive. The classroom was small, like a 4 or 5 person conference room with a whiteboard on the wall. I stared out the window at downtown Beijing from my 8th story window. Thousands of cars sped through the winding highway like little ants carrying food home to the nest. In the distance, I could see 20 or 30 new skyscrapers being built, towering over the city like massive redwoods in a forest recently burned down by fire – but where rain had washed away most of the black ash, leaving a melancholy greenish-grey in its place.

The setting sun had left the sky ablaze and pinks, oranges and reds twisted and danced together in the smoggy horizon.

And in came my student. I started the lesson, taught for a little while and eventually, we go on the topic of work.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“Oh, I work for Maersk. Have you ever heard of them? I’m in charge of shipping,” she replied.

And with that, my trip came nearly full circle.

On that note, today marks the 1 YEAR ANNIVERSARY of my leaving the United States for Ecuador, where I started this trip. Crazy, huh? It doesn’t seem like it’s been a year. It seems like it’s been a week, and I’m nowhere near coming home. In one year away, what kinds of things do you miss? I suppose it’s different for everyone, but for me, I miss getting in my truck or motorcycle and driving anywhere I wanted. I miss my wiener dog Mojo. I miss Capone’s Pizza. But I don’t miss much else. You don’t really miss people if you can talk to them all the time. I talk to my friends and family every day on the internet. I don’t get to talk to my dog though. You get the idea.

So how are things in Beijing? They are going really well and the weather has improved dramatically. When I first arrived, the sky was always grey and I didn’t see the sun for weeks. It rained a lot, too, and the heat and humidity were almost unbearable.

But now the season’s are changing. The weather is calming down and the humidity dissipating. Nearly every day for the past week has been perfect: with perfect blue skies, nice temperature and clean air – you couldn’t ask for more. It actually reminds me a lot of California. When you are outside, it just feels cleaner and crisper. It’s amazing how differently you perceive the weather if there is a blue sky.

Simon and Kat left yesterday. We spent our last night together checking out an English pub right next to my work. It’s really cool and has free pool, so I think I’ve found a nice place to go out with friends after work. We managed to get one last tourist sight in before they left, The Old Summer Palace, and spent the day wandering around there and getting burned by the sun. It’s actually quite nice – in my opinion, even nicer than the new Summer Palace. For one, it’s not as popular so there aren’t as many people there and because of that, it’s much quieter and more peaceful. There were these ruins from some sort of colonial buildings there and I got quite a few photos of those. After that, we went to all you can eat sushi for 6 dollars each and I stacked the plates up high. It was great. I ate 25 dollars worth of Sushi if I had paid separately. And mind you, we are in China, where everything is cheap.

We said goodbye and promised to meet up in London, where I have a free bed when I arrive at their place (central London, woo!). And that was that. Luckily for me, the semester is starting for everyone at the university right next to my apartment, so I have been seeing lots of foreigners walking around lately. It’s been quite weird seeing so many after three months of not seeing a single one, but I’m getting used to it. I’ve made quite a few friends and imagine that I will make quite a few more. It oughta be pretty cool.

One year…crazy, huh?