Archive | October 2004

Let there be heat!

It’s getting cold here. Really cold. The nights drop down to about 40 degrees every night here. My feet take about 2 hours to warm up in my sleeping bag and big blanket each night after going to bed. I leave my computer on for warmth. In a genius effort to save energy, the Chinese government prohibits any building from turning on the heat until November 15. Everyone has a big metal coil in their rooms and when the heat turns on, you can’t turn it off. It’s a recirculating system, so any effort to turn off your heat would prohibit anyone else from getting heat. Even then, it would be either on or off. So how do you regulate your heat? Simply open your window and let the biting cold in. Too hot still? Open your window more. Like I said, it’s devilishly clever and efficient.

And Beijing is slowly changing. Whereas in the summer, each day attacked with the ferocity of one million angry bees, the beautiful blue skied autumn mornings begin with a sharply cold-freshness. As I walk to class each day, bright orange and red leaves casually float down from Beijing’s many towering trees and land where they please. Millions of multi-colored leaves dot the green fields and cracked sidewalks; roses bloom with a humble yet vibrant intensity. And I am left in awe at the beauty around me as I meander through the tiny and chaotic streets. People with bright red cheeks hurry by, sometimes bundled up in three or four sweaters and a jacket, and the old men (of course) skate around on bicycles with their morning trash finds tied to the back.

And the hocking up of vast amounts of phlegm from the back of nearly every Chinese person’s throat echos through the morning.

Oh, you don’t know about the phlegm? Well, it’s quite simple, really. Lots of people Chinese people like to spit – Everywhere and extremely loudly. Massive globs of snot dot the sidewalk in every which direction (in stark contrast to the natural beauty of the leaves) and you casually have to reroute your path around them as you go. You can’t avoid it and it alone drives many westerners nuts here. People hock (imagine the loudest possible way you could hock phlegm from the back of your throat) and loudly “phfleww!” it out of their mouths from wherever they happen to be: the bus window, the front door of a store, the toilet – I’ve even had a taxi driver stop and open the door to spit.

I just got back from a haircut. It’s quite a process and is always draining. Today has been pretty relaxing, seeing as I got back from a Halloween party at 1:00AM and slept until 3:00PM (that’s right, I slept 14 hours!). I had lunch, got coffee where I ran into some girls I know from Spain and chatted with them for a while. Then I got a haircut.

A haircut in China is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced (especially if you don’t know Chinese. You walk in, sit down and have them wash your hair while you are sitting in a chair. They put shampoo in your hair and squirt water in it while they massage your scalp for about 20 minutes or so. Then they take you to the sink, rinse your hair, then take you back to the chair and give you a massage for about 30 minutes and try to talk to you (which doesn’t go over too well seeing as I can say about 6 words). Then you finally get your hair cut, your hair washed and scalp massaged again and your hair blowdried. The whole process takes about an hour and 20 minutes and you spend a considerable amount of time with 3-4 people. And at the end, you pay a whopping 15 yuan (about $1.80).

In other news, my roommate came up with a GENIUS solution to our water problems. You may recall that we have been having problems with the shower. It just randomly shuts off in the middle of your shower for minutes at a time. But there is a faucet in the bathroom that always has water pressure. The problem was that the water heater is all the way in the kitchen, so how were we to get the water from the bathroom to there without any plumbing knowledge. Solution? Reinforced tube and scotch tape, my friend. I came home one day to find that Brad had bought a bag of Y-joints, tape, fittings, clamps and reinforced tubing. I came home the next day to find that he had run the reinforced tubing through the wall, over the pipes leading to the kitchen, through the cabinet and hooked it up to the water heater via a Y-connector. A tear almost came to my eye at the sheer beauty of the whole system. Granted, it does drip and we don’t leave the pressure on when we are gone just in case the clamps burst under the pressure and fill the apartment with water – but it solved the problem and we now take uninterrupted showers (although it still changes from hot to cold occasionally). I LOVE IT!

Did you hear? Colin Powell just visited Beijing! He crashed at my place for a few days but I eventually had to ask him to leave after he outstayed his welcome. From what I gather, he was here to discuss the Taiwan issue. In case you weren’t aware, tensions are high between Taiwan and Mainland China. China says that Taiwan in part of China, and Taiwan says (off the record) that they are an independent country. The US is an ally of both China and Taiwan and is trying to play a friend to both at the same time.

So if you ask your average Chinese person what they think about the whole thing, they will most likely reply that Taiwan is a part of China and that they are all Chinese. It is as simple as that for them.

So I’ve been asking around. I’ve met a few people (some Communist party members, even) who say that there is a lot more to it than that. More than anything, it is in China’s strategic interest to maintain open and free access to the Pacific Ocean. America already has China boxed in so to speak in the northern area with South Korea and Japan and is trying to do the same with Taiwan.

China has stated publicly that it will not let the Olympics in 2008 stop them from pursuing Taiwan if they were to publicly state that they were a separate country. But it is more likely that any drama would wait until after the Olympics.

What’s my opinion? I haven’t one. All throughout history, power has prevailed. What will happen with Taiwan? It depends on whoever’s alliance is the most powerful. What should happen with Taiwan? “Should” doesn’t exist. Should the leaves fall from the trees?

Should the sky be blue? Whatever happens, happens. Whatever is, is. I am merely an observer.

It’s funny. My speech has changed since being in Beijing. For one, I use a lot more UK English words. “Bloody”, “clever”, “quite”, “has got”, and “ill” (to name a few) are all everyday words for me now. In addition, I also speak in the present tense a lot more. Most languages use the present tense a lot more than we do in English. As do the Chinese, and it’s a constant battle to get my students to think in the past or future tenses. But now I catch myself saying “so where do you go now?” or “what do you do now?” instead of “where are you going to go now?” It’s pretty funny. It’s always a challenge when teaching English to correct actual mistakes. It may be that the student merely learned UK instead of American English. One big difference is the UK people’s tendency to say “the group/team/government/country have (instead of has) said that they will change their policy”. They say “have” or “do” instead of “has” or “does” when referring to something that comprises of many individuals – even though it’s just one group or team. Crazy, eh? So when a Chinese student says that, it could be that they are either mistakenly conjugating the sentence, or are using UK English.

Well, it’s time to watch a DVD and read The Economist. HAPPY HALLOWEEN

Take me for a ride, sir.

“That cheeky bastard!”…I thought to myself.

My taxi driver was silent, driving diligently ahead. He missed the turnoff for the “quick” way to the office. He had then missed the turnoff for the “semi-quick” way to the office. And he was now driving a new way to the South, but I kept quiet and left it to him. After all, he was the “professional” and maybe he knew something I didn’t. Maybe there was traffic on the other ways or maybe this way was actually quicker, but no one ever took this way. I thought back to the map of Beijing I have stuck in my head. Beijing, much like Santa Cruz in Bolivia is laid out in rings. First Ring Road goes around Tiananmen Square, Second Ring goes through the city in a wider loop and parallels the subway, and Third Ring Road makes a much wider loop and I happen to work in the north-east corner of it. There are lots of other rings, but I never go out there – and as you can imagine, the traffic is considerably less on every ring further out.

My driver kept driving and I glanced at the meter. 32 yuan.

I was fuming, but kept my cool. The whole ride should be no more than 27 yuan at most and we weren’t even close yet. I always try to think of the story behind sayings for class and I was now experiencing the old saying, “he was taken for a ride.”

“Wo men zai nar?” (Where are we?) I asked.

“Zai nei biar,” (It’s over there,) he explained.

I pointed at the meter.

“Shenme??? 32??” I said incredulously. I shook my head in disbelief.

He just looked straight ahead in silence. I sat for a moment and quietly took out my famous pad of papers from my back pocket and wrote down his ID number and supervisors telephone number and put the pad away.

He acted as though he didn’t notice and continued driving.

By the time we arrived, the meter was at a whopping 51 yuan. That’s almost as much as it costs to go to the airport! I got out, wrote down his license plate number and got back in the car to pay him.

He silently leaned over to me and whispered, “Si Shi” (40 yuan).

At that point I knew I had him. His taxi plaque looked a bit weathered which meant he wasn’t new, so he did know the better ways. He also was down for negotiation, which meant he knew that he was in the wrong.

“Bu, wo gei ni 51” (Nope, you get 51), I said. I gave him a hundred and he gave me my change. I silently pointed at my notebook with his info on it, smirked and nodded my head.

I wasn’t quite sure if he would get in trouble. My roommate Brad had told me that they do get in trouble if you report them. So that was my plan. Hah. Like I care about 11 yuan. Berlitz pays for my taxis anyways.

When I got home, I asked Brad to call the guy in and he did. The manager apologized and said he would address the issue and get back to us the next day.

So get this…

Brad has informed me that the taxi driver has been suspended for three days from driving (and if you don’t drive, you don’t make money), they would refund my entire 51 yuan and I could even meet with the taxi driver and the manager for an apology if I wanted. He also wanted to know if he thought that punishment was sufficient…

JESUS CHRIST! This is China! Stuff like this doesn’t happen. It’s an entire country of people trying to wring money out of you for everything possible. If you get frustrated, they don’t care and will take it as an opportunity to wear you down and wear you out. You have to keep fighting. You have no power and they have no consequences. It’s a huge system of people who don’t care because if you refuse to go back, there are plenty of others who will.

Except the taxi industry, apparently. I was floored. I couldn’t believe it.

I asked Brad to relay to the manager that I didn’t want the money back – I just wanted to make sure that the driver didn’t do that to anyone else. I thought it was fitting punishment. He gets in trouble and all the other taxi drivers are on edge too. I’m sure news like that travels fast.

It’s so strange, too. Why the taxi industry? They are privately owned and from what I gather, there are many different companies running them. And you can’t distinguish between them before getting in the cab. They have no reason to try to prevent cabbies from cheating people, because you can’t, in your head, blacklist certain companies. It won’t improve business and they get nothing from the taxi drivers always driving the right course, anyway. They might actually lose money because they would driving less.

People here really are embracing western ideas, like customer service. They then apply them blindly to anything in hopes of progress. When you see a place with efficient and friendly service and quality products, you are blown away. It’s so out of place, but that is the future. Western consultants abound, this place is slowly but surely rising out of its “don’t innovate or try to make a difference” mentality installed in the people by the former hardcore communist government. People are slowly but surely being encouraged to think for themselves (to a certain extent, at least) and innovate for their own betterment and enrichment.

Anyway, I don’t think that guy will be taking me for a ride much longer. I’ll keep my pen and pad of papers on me just in case.

The Quest for Deodorant

Stuff is easy to do in the US. Oh, I need a new shirt? I’ll go down to the Mall and buy one. Oh, I need a new hat. I’ll just go to the HAT STORE. Oh, I’m out of deodorant? I’ll stop by Vons and pick up a new stick.

Nothing is that easy in China. Nothing. It takes me 4 hours of work to find a new shirt, then another hour to actually buy it. I have been looking for a new hat since mine got stolen in Argentina. Deodorant? Ask any Chinese what deodorant is. His response will be, “What’s that?”. You know, it’s ironic. All this stuff that is so easy to get in the US is ACTUALLY MADE IN CHINA. But try to find it here, dude. It’s impossible. Anyone who has read my previous postings knows of the Great Deodorant Search 2004. I finally found some at an expat store in near my work. So I ran out of the stuff I bought and went to go get some more and (of course), they decided to stop carrying it. The only stuff they carry now is some sort of foul smelling liquid that mixed with your BO when you sweat so you smell half stinky and half chemically. Very appealing, no? I panicked. What would I do? I don’t like to stink, mind you. I called my friend from work.

“Oh, I’ve got quite a stash from when I was home. I can give you some. What kind do you want?”

I got some spray on stuff from him, but that stuff isn’t that much better. I wanted a bar with the solid powder stuff. I’m a guy so I don’t care if it makes my arm all white. No one sees. It works great and that’s what I wanted. I was running out of his spray stuff anyway. I turned to the internet. After two hours of searching, I found some deodorant online. But, of course, they couldn’t ship to China. I kept looking and finally found a place. $21 bucks to ship four bars of deodorant to me in China via Fedex 3 day.

Problem solved, right? No. Keep in mind that I LIVE IN CHINA.

While eating lunch the other day I get a phone call.

“as;dfj;sdjksd Casey Cobb? asdkfhalkjsdhjsdaf,” said a muffled voice.

“Yes? Hello?”

I listened to people talk in the background and no one said anything to me so I hung up. I later realized that they couldn’t find someone who spoke English. 20 minutes later I get another phone call.

“Casey Cobb?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“We have a package for you.”

“Oh, great. Who are you, by the way?”



“We need your passport so your package can clear customs.”

“Of course,” I said sarcastically – although I’m sure she couldn’t tell, “what do I need to do?”

“Just fax it to us and it will take 2-3 days processing IF it clears customs.”

“HAHA, ok. I will send you my passport,” and with that I went to an office supply store, spent 10 minutes trying to explain to some random girl there what a fax machine was (I walked over to the printer, put my paper on it, said “BEEP BEEP BOOP BEEP” and pretended like the paper was going through). She then faxed the paper and I tried to call the woman at Fedex, but only got her voicemail so I left a message saying I had sent the passport.

Problem solved, right? Nope. Remember, I LIVE IN CHINA.

Fast forward a few hours to 8:00PM when I am at work. I get a phone call.

“Casey Cobb?”


“Umm…are the contents of this package for personal or commercial use?”

I chuckled to myself.

“Personal use,” I said. What the hell would I do commercially with four bars of deodorant, I ask you?

“Ok…well, we can’t figure out what the purpose of these things are.”

The Chinese really don’t know what deodorant is. It has only appeared on the market here in the past 5 years and very few people use it. So I gave the phone to one of my students to explain. He handed to phone back to me.

“Mr. Casey, we need a copy of your passport so this can clear customs.”

“But I sent one already. I even left a message confirming it,” I responded.

“Hmm…well I didn’t get it.”

“Of course not. I’ll send it again.”

So after class, I sent it again and called to confirm. This time, however, she decided that she didn’t want to speak English. After several minutes of me talking some Chinese and English and her speaking Chinese, I said “OK. Any problems? You call me if problems?” “No problems,” she responded. So that was that.

I followed the status anxiously on the tracking section of the Fedex website: As of today, October 10th, the package has been delivered! YES!

So, remember how I used to be frustrated and stressed out while living here in Beijing? I have noticed now that I am back to my normal, confident, and quick to laugh self. I find myself laughing a lot, nearly the entire day. I’m teaching a class at Tsing Hua University: “The Chinese MIT.” I’m teaching four classes each with about 21 students with two other instructors, who each have their own four classes. One of them is a Dutch guy, Hans, who’s been living in Beijing for about 10 years and speaks fluent Chinese and is absolutely hilarious. I’ve also met a German guy, Maurizio, who is equally hilarious. My roommate Brad is incredibly funny too and so, I basically spend my day walking around with a big smile on my face. In China, you have to get used to people looking at you just about everywhere you go. They look at you as they walk by, on the subway and usually just steal a glance. But some guys stare, especially old me for some reason. My answer? I look right back at them, give a big smile and say “NI HAO” (hello) and about 90% of the time, they smile and say hello right back. It’s great. I’ve been experimenting with a new philosophy lately. Instead of letting things happen the way they happen, like letting someone take advantage of you or make you feel awkward, I make a conscious effort to “mould” the encounter into what I want it to be. What do I mean by that? Well, for instance:

When we first started teaching at Tsing Hua, my boss (Val), who is an incredible lady and just so happens to be really funny as well, told us that there was some hostility between us and the instructors paid by the University because they didn’t understand why Berlitz was teaching there. So the staff set up a meeting between us all so we could meet. The other two instructors were a little unsure about this and thought that it was going to be a stressful encounter. My response? “We are good teachers. The school wants us here. Just be confident and everything will go great”. It did (of course) and we got free pizza out of the whole deal. Does life get any better?

The other day, I got in the Taxi to go to work. I’ve practiced the tones and know exactly how to say where I need to go. I got in the taxi, told him where to go and we were off. I watched Beijing zoom by for 20 minutes and realized that we had passed the University.

I pointed at the meter and frowned.

“Wo men qu Tsing Hua ma?” (Are we going to Tsing Hua?)

“Tsing Hua?” He then explained to me (at least, I assume that this is what he was saying) that I had told him Tsing Hua with the wrong tones. He was taking me to the Tsing Hua that sounds a lot like Tsing Hua but is said differently. He said we had to turn around and got off the highway to do so, but the meter was still ticking. Now…I know that sometimes words sounds alike and there can be some confusion, but I also know that there would not be another famous University called Tsing Hua Da Xue with a one tone difference so close to Beijing. This was the first really smooth taxi driver who was trying to rip me off, and I knew it. He wanted to squeeze a few more yuan out of me. Maybe like 30 more (the ride should be 20 yuan total). I got mad and embarrassed but kept my cool. I didn’t say anything more for about 2 minutes. I quietly took out a piece of paper, looked at his ID card mounted on the dash and wrote down his ID number. Then I wrote down his supervisor’s phone number. I held the paper up to verify the numbers, folded it and put it away. Then sat quietly and looked ahead.

I was bluffing.

I am a westerner in a suit. I don’t know Chinese. But from his perspective, the chances are that I probably know some important people. I didn’t flaunt the fact that I wrote down his number and so he probably then thought it was guaranteed that I knew someone and that this little exploit would probably cost him his job.

He just as quietly reached over and stopped the meter.

We arrived at the school 20 minutes later and the meter still read 22 yuan. He pointed out that he had stopped the meter to which I responded that I knew and had seen it. I paid him the 22 yuan and he refused 2 of them. He handed me back the two 1 yuan notes and smiled sheepishly. I nodded, took my receipt and got out of the cab. He probably still thinks I’m gonna call him in.

It really is incredible how much control we let other people take over what happens to us and how easy it is to take it right back where it should belong.

People also are more willing to laugh at a lot of things that you might think if you take things too seriously.

Every time I get into a cab, I give the cab driver a big smile, apologize for speaking bad Mandarin, tell him where I want to go and we are off. Sometimes they try to talk to me, despite the fact that I tell them over and over that I don’t understand and can’t really speak Chinese. Like yesterday, for example.

The guy kept telling me something. He really wanted me to understand and I just didn’t. But finally, I caught a word: “Yue”, which means “moon”. This during the moon festival day, I pointed up and said “yue?” and he got really excited. “I UNDERSTOOD!”

I found in my book the whole name for the moon festival and showed him and he was really happy that I understood. He gave me a tour of all the places that were decorated on the way home, pointing out little spots of interest. It really was interesting. Beijing has got lights all over the place. The week long holiday (for National Day) is just starting and during the moon festival, everyone gives each other these fruit cake-like pastries called “moon cakes”. They are filled with all sorts of random stuff and are actually pretty good. I’ve eaten quite a few of them, one of which had a long hair baked right into the center of it (god bless China!) and people give them as gifts all over China. It’s quite interesting to see tons of Chinese people running around with these huge bags of moon cakes everywhere. People get pretty excited about them too, “Casey, have you eaten a moon cake, yet? You have to eat one today!”

So everyone is gone for the holidays and no one is taking English classes. I havema week off to do whatever I want. I got a new business idea so I am going to check out some leads with that (I’ll spare you the details right now since it would add another two pages to the post) and will also study for the GMAT. It’s going to be nice to just relax for a while.

Here’s something that you hear quite often, and to a certain extent, I agree with it: “All Chinese people look the same.”

Why is that? Let’s think about it for a moment. Nearly all Chinese people have black hair, dark eyes, and narrow eyes. Most have the same skin color (although there are many darker skinned Chinese that I never saw in the US before coming here). They usually don’t have facial hair, have similar builds (there are a few fat people, but not many), and similar height. All the things that Westerners use to distinguish one person from another back home are the same with the Chinese. So we come here and try to use those features to distinguish them and can’t make any sense of it. That’s how my theory goes. I’m sure that there have been studies on this, but I haven’t read any of them. I just like to come up with theories on stuff like this.

So my roommate Brad was telling me tonight at dinner how all Westerners look the same to him. I laughed and asked him how that was possible. We all have different hair color, builds, skin and eye color. His response?

The Chinese don’t use those things to distinguish between each other!

It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Why would they use those things if they are all the same? So what do they use then? Brad tells me that they use the distance of space between the eyes and the eyebrows. Imagine that. They also use the specific shape of the eyes and mouth. Brad told me that one of the most difficult things about learning English was learning to describe people by the color of their hair and things like that because he never looks at those things when he meets a person. CRAZY, huh?! It makes such perfect sense.

Here’s another thing I find really interesting. While teaching English, you see how the Chinese make many of the same exact mistakes in their speech. A lot of this you can chalk up to the fact that they were taught by non-native English speakers, poor quality text books and the fact that they are doing a direct translation in their head which doesn’t work because the structure between the languages is different. For instance, most Chinese have real problems with the plural form of a noun. It’s really common to hear things like “Many computer”, “two tree”, “most of the animal were there”, etc… But one thing that really intrigues me is the tendency to say a completely different word than the one they are reading when the book is right in front of the persons face. Someone might read the word “usually” as “usual” or “computation” as “computer”, especially if the word is a new word with which the person is unfamiliar. Why is that? I recall reading something in “The Economist” about how people who speak languages which use symbols (like the Chinese) use completely different parts of their brains when reading and speaking than people who use western languages. Chinese is based more on recognition and western languages require you to read the whole word for comprehension. The interesting thing was that there is a lower percentage of dyslexics among Chinese speakers than among speakers of western languages (something like 5% vs. 2%). For some reason, the region of the brain used in Chinese speakers is less prone to the dysfunction. The other finding was that native English learners of Chinese (or vice versa) tend to continue using the same region of their brain as they use for their native language when they learn a new the new language.

So here is my theory. The Chinese are still using recognition when they are learning English. You can’t just switch this hard wired circuitry off. They see a word that they think is the one that they know, their brain triggers “recognition” and they say the word they think it is (even if it is not), without even reading the entire word. It would be interesting to see if this could be proven scientifically, but I see it in action over and over every day.

I’m telling you, there are opportunities abound for learning on this trip. It’s like a never ending class – but you can’t skip school if you don’t want to attend or are feeling sick. There are no breaks: you have no choice but to learn.