Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Shoes

I haven't written here in a really long time.  I didn't feel like it.  Probably not writer's block.  I think that would mean that I wanted to write something, but couldn't.  I just did not want to.  Now I do.
It's been a pretty eventful time, but not exactly a fascinating time.  There hasn't been a lot of exotic, unusual travel, no grand adventures.  Just mundane life.  In China.
Christmas, to virtually all Chinese, means nothing.  A few folks with money give gifts.  The few Christians that are here have a religious observance.  Everyone else goes about their daily business.  If school lands on Christmas day, they all go.  I have always insisted that I get 3 days off, and made sure that it was in my contract wherever I worked.
However, on the day after Christmas, the Education Bureau for the region was hosting the finals for the primary school English competition, and I had been invited to come help facilitate--for a generous fee.  I accepted.
It was to be held at a school at the other end of the city, so I needed to leave in the early morning, catch a bus, meet my assistant, then take a taxi the rest of the way.  The weather was cool and rainy.  I dressed in nice, semi casual clothes, which included a pair of nice, casual shoes that I had bought here years ago.
It was raining as I began to walk to the bus stop and the pavement was wet.  A few hundred yards from my apartment, just as I was crossing the street something did not feel right with my right foot. It felt like something was flappy.  The sole was coming off of my shoe!  Crap!!  
I couldn't go to the competition like that, so I headed back to my flat, as fast as I could with one sole flapping.  It did not flap for long, since it more or less dissolved.   The left sole soon followed. I had nothing on my feet except the uppers and a thin, fabric sole. My feet were getting wet from the bottom up.  I raced up the five flights of stairs to my home, changed socks and shoes, then hurried to the bus stop.  I called my assistant and told her what had happened and that I was running a little late.  She said, "Oh, that happens all the time.  It's happened to me before."  Really? 
I had apparently only worn those shoes in the time I had owned them during dry weather.  I was blissfully ignorant of the walking time bombs on my feet!  Some dickhead  unscrupulous factory owner used some kind of paper pulp product as an injection molded shoe sole, knowing perfectly well that thousands of innocents were going to experience the same thing I did.
This is nothing but a slightly amusing story involving a pair of twenty dollar shoes, but is something that happens on a much more dangerous scale involving dangerous chemicals, adulterated foods, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and countless other situations where people are endangered so that someone can make a buck.  It happens in China.  It happens everywhere in the world.

Friday, December 19, 2014


We are approaching the sixth anniversary of our move to China.  It some ways it doesn't seem that long, but when I read some of the early entries of this blog, I realize that a lot has happened.  There have been many changes here in this city.  Many places are hardly recognizable.  Ramshackle buildings and open space have been replaced by 20+ story apartment buildings.  Dozens and dozens of them.  More keep going up.  I still have no idea who is going to move into all of them.  There is a new building soon to go up that was advertising apartments for 6700 RMB per square meter.  How much is that in dollars per square foot?  You can do the math, but it's a far cry from the peak price three years ago for places a block away that were scooped up by investors for 10,000 RMB.  I doubt they are feeling like smart shoppers now.  Prices keep going down, and eventually they will reach a price that normal middle class professionals here can afford.
But I digress.  This is supposed to be about condiments.  Six years later, there is little change as to what can be gotten for the homesick expat longing for a decent jar of mustard.  I still have to go to this seedy restaurant supply store to get little jars of French's. I have seen it in some tony new supermarkets, but the price is dear.
I can get little shaker jars of Kraft Parmesan cheese there too.  You can get Heinz ketchup in most supermarkets.  I guess everyone likes that stuff.
At this point it's time to discuss mayonnaise.  This is a major part of European/American cuisine.  The average American family goes through at least a bathtub full a year.  We buy it by the quart, unless we're in Costco, then it's by the gallon.  Chinese like it too.  They really like a fruit salad slathered in the stuff.  Do they have quarts of mayo here?  Mmmmm, nope.  No Hellmann's, no Best Foods, no Kraft.  It comes in a 200g jar, and it's a brand called Kewpie.  220g is by weight, but it looks like it might be close to a cup and a half. We're talking maybe a third of a quart at the most.  That's it.  The biggest you can get, at least in this city.
This is just sad.
A couple of months ago we went to a movie, and and afterward made a grocery stop at the spiffy newish supermarket downstairs. I saw a jar of Hellmann's "cooking mayonnaise".  It was in a really big jar.  Needless to say, I scooped that baby right up, and sent a group text out to all the expats in my phone sharing my discovery with them.  The next day, I made egg salad for sandwiches, with a heavy dose from my fatty treasure trove.  I schlepped it onto the bread, licked my finger, and let out an angry expletive having something to do with unlikely reproductive activities.  It was the Hellmann's version of Miracle Whip, that sickly sweet slime that is only good on baloney and white bread sandwiches from the 1960's!
I'm still angry about it two months later!!
It's not the only time I've been burned by false labeling here.  The local Wal Mart, carries all kinds of packages that contain nothing like the labels proclaim.  They have begun to carry an expanded cheese section, which means that they have a refrigerator section about a foot and a half square that has some small packages the alleged  product.  I bought a 250g package of something called "European Cheddar".  I got it home, cut the opaque outer packaging and discovered that I had paid five bucks for some individual slices of processed Velveeta like crap that left a nasty film in your mouth. 
The only reason I had been going to Wal Mart at all, was their liquor department.  They have a modest selection of foreign liquor at a reasonable price, something that does not exist anywhere else here.  This was an OK arrangement for me.  It's only a ten minute walk from here.  I guess I should say it was OK, until a bottle of vodka that I put in the freezer, froze, which is not what it is supposed to do if the alcohol content is where it should be.  I pretty much don't go to that foul shopping place at all now.
Through the years I have adapted to a more oriental style of eating. China has great condiments, just not stuff that you would slather on a burger.  There are a jillion different chili sauces.  I love that stuff! A lot of them would be great mixed with some sour cream as a chip dip.  Except they don't have sour cream.  Or tortilla chips.  Or coffee that isn't instant Nescafe.  
You can get jam, except it's usually that Kewpie stuff in a little jar. It's good, though, especially the mulberry jam.  That stuff is really good!  
So is coconut jam.  It comes in a can, and has the consistency of honey.  It's awesome with peanut butter, or on French toast.  You need it for French toast because there is no way you are going to get either real maple syrup or Mrs. Butterworth's GMO corn syrup based yummy stuff.
And its quality is assured by the Overlord of Coco!!

However, I have finally found some bread that didn't come from the Wonder Bread school of baking.  There is a bakery chain here that started selling a nice whole wheat bread that comes in small bags that have four THICK slices.  Thick slices is very cool. Americans should take a hint from this.  I'm sure the Chinese do this because they don't know better, but having a peanut butter and coconut jam sammy on two thick slices of whole wheat nutty bread is a nice meal!
Soy sauce gets used a lot in my kitchen.  I like the black vinegar they make for dipping dumplings into.  Oyster dipping sauce is good.   I buy giant chunks of ginger for small change.  On my return trips from the US I bring sizable bags of herbs and spices from the bulk food sections of any good hippie market.  Gotta have chili powder, oregano and basil.  They do not have them here.
Another thing they don't have is central heating.  There is some idiotic rule of thumb that anything built south of the Yangtze River does not get heating.  Nothing is insulated either.  The buildings are concrete and brick.  Once the weather cools, like it has now, the buildings cool along with it.  You can't get them warm, so don't bother trying.  It's in the mid 50's right now, and my office is slightly warmer.  An enterprising contractor could make a small fortune insulating the outside walls and ceilings of these stone caves.  It does not appear that anyone has figured that out yet.
They would save a fortune in air conditioning bills, and they could actually get their homes warm in cold weather.   Their coal fired power plants would be operating at a lower capacity reducing air pollution and carbon emissions.  Free advice, China.  Oh, and you need bigger jars of mayonnaise. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Great Expectorations

I am generally a pretty upbeat person.  I have a pretty positive attitude, and am not prone to grumpiness.  But I do occasionally fall into a kind of agitated state.  It seems kind of cyclical, almost monthly.  If I was a more introspective person who kept a daily journal. covering all of my moods and thoughts, I might be able to ascertain a pattern.  Instead, I'll just rely on my gut, and say it could be a lunar cycle, and call it Periodic Malaise Syndrome.  I had it bad last Sunday morning.
Weekends are my busy time.  I have classes starting early Saturday morning and ending at 8:30 Saturday night.  I have to be back with the rugrats at 9:30 am on Sunday for another long day.  Last Sunday, I woke up very early.  I couldn't get back to sleep.  My head hurt.  My muscles were sore.  I was excessively snappish.  I was dreading a day with lively Chinese children, a few which have behavioral shortcomings that would challenge even the most doting grandmother.
We have moved our class to a small apartment which is on the 12th floor of  a nearby building.  I get there by walking 10 minutes down a pedestrian street.  On Sunday mornings, this street is pretty crowded.  Like Wal Mart Christmas season crowded.  It's China, there are 1.3 billion people, it gets crowded!  
It takes a certain frame of mind to be able to deal with constant swarms of people without having a massive fit.  Zen calm, and a kind of psychic Great Wall are optimal.  Unfortunately my inner beast was struggling to escape and I had only a fingernail grip on it. It was hot, November 2nd, muggy and hot.  The air was hazy. Everything felt dirty, in fact it was dirty,  the flagstones on the pedestrian street covered with dust, spit, old gum, dropped sodas, and dead ice cream cones. 
A man was walking right behind me, trying mightily to clear his throat as only a chain smoking Chinese peasant can do.  I visibly flinched at every slimy hawking sound this wretch was making.
No matter how fast I walked, he kept pace, all the while making rasping, strangled, gargling noises.  These sounds would please a vulture that was waiting for a meal.  Kind of like the ding on a carrion eater's microwave, but it was not pleasing to me.  He eventually brought up the vile contents of his lungs and proudly let fly a projectile to add to the scuzz on the street.  
I walked even faster, weaving around the various clusters of people, and dodging the bikes.  (Pedestrian street in China means that there are no cars, and fewer motorbikes.)  I'd worked up a good sweat by the time I reached the building entrance.  Of course I had to wait for the lift. (It's much easier to say than elevator.  Just saying "elevator" that morning would have pushed me over the brink.)  It's a tiny box.  There are two of them, but the building owner only keeps one of them going at a time, in case one breaks, I think.
The door opened, and a puffy eyed, no neck, flat top douche smoking a shitty smelling Chinese cigarette, stepped out.  I managed to refrain from spitting on him and hauled my sweat soaked, edgy self into that wobbly Third World conveyance.  As I rode up, alone, I hoped for a few moments of quiet in the classroom before the kids arrived, so that I could try to attain some kind of semblance of niceness.  There was a good chance of this since I was 10 minutes early, and many people here are chronically late to everything, especially their kid's English lesson.
However, my assistant was already there, along with every kid.  She was surrounded by mothers and grandmothers, who were all talking loudly at once, as only women here can do.  The kids were running amok all over the place, screaming, scribbling all over the board, jumping, and throwing things.  All the while, the adults were carrying on with their near shouting conversations, blithely ignoring them.  There were a couple of kids who were quiet, but were most likely taking a moment to plan evil deeds.
I set up my computer, and ran the guardians out.  We got the kids seated.  They were wound up.  They were ready to commit mayhem.  There were two boys in particular that were goggle eyed and fidgeting, ready to spend the next hour spazzing out and bringing the rest of the class along for the ride.  I gave them The Look.
The Look is something I got from my father.  He grew up during The Great Depression on a bleak ranch in eastern New Mexico.  He had been a Marine.  He was a warm, charming man, but if need be, he could intimidate a rattlesnake.  With The Look.  My version is a pale imitation, but I have his eyes, and since I'm such a lovable teacher, and never use it, it is highly effective.  They shut up.  They calmed down.  They were good kids!  They were fun, good kids! Class was fun.  The next class was great, too.  When I went home for lunch, the weather had changed.  The wind was blowing from the north and it was 15 degrees cooler.  I'd gotten past my male PMS and all was well.  I was back in my Zen state, and the Great Wall was back up, so that I could handle the crowds with ease.  I enjoyed watching the folks through my wrap around shades.  They were smoking, laughing and spitting.  A toddler almost peed on my foot. I was enjoying it again. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

More Snotty Behavior

OK, we were out to lunch with a friend today, and saw a male customer in the restaurant hawk a loogie onto the carpeted floor.   Complete lowlife douche. This does not happen in the USA!
However, in the USA, people go batshit crazy over a very difficult to catch virus, that has a near zero chance of becoming an epidemic.  Americans are gripped in a mass hysteria caused by irresponsible media, craven politicians, and a complete disregard for science.  
Because of this pissy pants panic, people returning from Africa are being quarantined and shunned.  It's irrational and plain wrong.  Way to go Home of the Brave!  There are hundreds of ways that an American is more likely to die, including lightning strikes and choking on a Chicken McNugget.  
This massive panic attack is causing its own bad behavior.  Knock it off, America.  Get a grip!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Autumn is the Beginning of the Phlegm Season

The dog breath days of summer are finally gone, and Autumn is upon us.  It's the nicest time of the year here.  The oppressive humidity has vanished, leaving us with sunny days in the mid 80's, cooling to around 70 at night. (Since most of you are American, I'm keeping our archaic Fahrenheit temperatures.  You foreigners can go look it up.)  This occurred during the latter part of the National Day "holiday", the seven day long kind of holiday, beginning October 1, celebrating the anniversary of the Communist Party's rise to power.  Of course, two of those days are just days that are borrowed from weekends that have to be made up leading up to, and following the time off. Plus two of the days are also a Saturday and a Sunday, so they really only get three real holidays. But hey, it's seven days off in a row, so time for a billion people to have some fun!
Since more and more people are rising out of poverty and can afford to travel, they do so.  All the highways and railways become jam packed with people going to popular destinations, which become overcrowded masses of humanity, rendering those places nigh intolerable.  Smart people stay home.
People with more modest means wander around town looking at stuff.  If they are lucky, they may see a foreigner!  

One day, we joined a group of our friends at the big park outside of town to enjoy some beer and everyone's favorite chicken. This also enabled us to experience some "real China"--that is riding in an ancient bus, jam packed with holiday revelers, whose holiday has just been enhanced by having foreigners to gawp at.  There are two bus companies (I think) that serve the city.  One has most of the routes, and is constantly upgrading its fleet with new buses.  They are modern, well air conditioned vehicles with WiFi. The other company has two routes, and has a fleet of stumpy, rattletrap jalopies which may have seen service at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution.  They belch out enough black smoke to make one wonder if they run on coal. They have air conditioning in the sense that the air is changed to a different condition than it was previously in. The air vents exhale a vapor that has a strong essence of radiator coolant. The brakes screech and grab, causing the bus to shudder to a stop (at least it stops).  The clutch slips and the gears grind. Many of the hard plastic seats are cracked and held together with wire.  Sitting on those is to guarantee one a pinched bun cheek.  They have generous legroom is one is a double amputee, or if one remains standing.  These buses are not fast, which is not a problem on a holiday, since they spend the vast majority of time idling in traffic. They do that fairly well, with only an occasional spasmodic vibration that rattles the windows.   We eventually lurched to our destination and enjoyed an afternoon of eating, drinking and visiting.  The high point was the final massive tropical deluge of the season, which lasted much longer than usual, and resulted in the exodus of much of the crowd.

As I mentioned earlier, the weather has cooled and the air has become drier.  We can now spend most of the day with our apartment window open, which brings wonderful northern breezes in and has the added bonus of making us much more intimate with our neighbors.  Mostly it just enables us to hear a lot more.  Some things, we kind of wish we didn't have to hear.  
There are the usual morning noises, with Opera Man and Boss Communist dominating the morning sounds. But there is another, one of my favorite sounds, which comes from (mostly) men.  
One of the less appealing personal habits the Chinese have, one that annoys people in other countries who encounter Chinese tour groups, is the practice of loudly hawking and spitting anywhere they happen to get the urge.   Since smoking and eating deep fried street food are such a big part of many Chinese men's lives, and since many of my neighbors are elderly, much of their morning exercise consists of efforts to expel the byproducts of tobacco and gutter oil consumption.  It's a veritable symphony of savage coughing and expectoration. The Phlegm Concerto in D mucus.  Of course, cooler weather exacerbates this condition, and since the windows are open,  we'll be privy to all of the most intimate bronchial episodes our neighbors can provide.  Is this another example of "real China"?  No, it's snot.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gutter Oil

Watch this video:
Did you watch that?  If not, watch it.  Disgusting! Gross!  Blech!  
Gutter oil is one of the less delightful aspects of living here.  Gutter oil is very common.  It even has its own Wikipedia page!   However, it can be pretty much avoided by not eating in cheapo establishments, shunning street food and avoiding "great deals" on cooking oil.  Everyone knows about it, but people keep eating in cheap places, even though they are most likely aware that they are consuming pure nastiness.   I guess when you have the highest percentage of male smokers in the world, a little carcinogenic grease is just an extra bonus.
The reason it exists at all is because there are low life rat bastards that don't give a damn about anyone but themselves, and are willing to do pretty much anything to make a buck no matter who it harms. And they have people who need a job to do the dirty work.  ("I'll be able to build a new house in my village!")
It's pretty easy to decry China for such things as gutter oil.  What kind of culture is it, where such a practice is common?  Actually, most countries and cultures.  In the US, just this year, Freedom Industries in West Virginia had a massive chemical spill into the the Elk River, poisoning the water supplies for over 300,000 people.  This was due to the company using very old storage tanks next to the river, which failed.  Their lax storage practices saved them some money and they put people's health at risk.  They're making gutter oil.
When banks make predatory loans, they make money and people suffer---gutter oil.
When banks and Wall Street crash the world economy to make some bucks---gutter oil.
When politicians do the bidding to the same polluters, banks and Wall Street because they accept massive campaign money from these groups---gutter oil.
The human race is breeding, polluting, and consuming at a rate that is unsustainable.  The climate and environment are degrading at an alarming rate, and yet nothing is being done about it.  We are producing gutter oil on a global scale.
Of course, there is a solution to the gutter oil issue in China. Biofuels could be produced.  The oil collection system is already in place.  Will anyone try to make the change?  I doubt it.  Ditto on the world's "gutter oil" problems.  Humans are massive gutter oil producers.