Sunday, February 7, 2016

Still Here, or There Depending on Your Point of View

We’ve been here for seven years.  Kind of amazing when you think about it.  Obama has almost completed two terms, and entire social trends have come and gone without my noticing.  But a lot of things have changed here, too.
Smart phones are everywhere and almost everyone has one.  Just like everywhere in the world, you see people hunched over their devices chatting, or surfing, or doing whatever.  Whatever. 
Traffic has gotten much worse, but drivers are a little less bad.  A few years back the head of the DMV here was busted.  In order to get a driver’s license you had to pay him an extra stipend.  In return, the driver’s test consisted of little more that fogging a mirror with your breath.  Drivers have to take a fairly rigorous test now so the competence level has risen a bit.  Don’t worry, they still suck, just less so.
Gas powered motorbikes have been replaced with electric ones, and there are a lot more of these, too.  The three wheeled “san mou” taxis are gone, outlawed, banished to smaller cities.  I miss those; they were an excellent alternative to taxis and buses. 
We have Uber now, or a Chinese version of it.  It’s very convenient, especially during the late afternoon rush hour, since that’s the time that the taxi company changes to the evening shift.  The busiest time of the day, and they are completely absent.  I never could understand the reasoning behind that.   An English friend of mine, who has been doing business here for many years, loves to say that business decisions here are frequently not about making money.  There are many other motives that defy logic, and I think this is a pretty good example.
To use the Uber service, you absolutely need a Chinese person to secure the ride.  It involves far too much fluency in Chinese writing, geography, speaking, banking, and internet for any occidental to attempt.  It has greatly enhanced getting around, though, and it’s great to see the idiot taxi company take a hit.  In Ghangzhou, where the taxi drivers are especially larcenous, it’s pretty common to see a lot of empty cabs now.
Internet shopping, which only a couple of years ago was distrusted by all but a few hearty souls, has gone batshit crazy here. 
Chinese citizens are much more free to travel outside the country now, and speaking of travel, (this is a segue) we are now in Sri Lanka for the Winter Holiday.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Squatty Potties and Exploding Balloons

This year was kind of mundane, or at least as mundane as a life in Bizzaro World can be.  I guess I mean that my own personal experience here has been less than thrilling.  Work is good, and we moved to a nicer flat.
Flat.  Since I haven't lived in the US for a while now, and have a few friends from the UK and Australia, I've started to use a few British words that roll off the tongue a little better than words like "apartment".   It doesn't really matter whether I use the word "lift or "elevator" when describing how the locals use this conveyance.  What matters is the lack of decorum involved.  When waiting for a lift, people jostle each other and gather right in front of the door.  As soon as it opens, they attempt to get on before others have a chance to get off.  It's an impressive fustercluck of humanity with one crowd trying to fill a full space while the other tries to get out so there is place for the outsiders to go.  Eventually, they manage to get to where they need to be, either out of the elevator, or inside it.  This mob rule method of entering and exiting a lift is something that is also found at least half of automobile drivers and is the number one cause of traffic jams.
The new flat is nice.  It's only on the third floor, and was designed by a person who utilized "logic", and had some notion of aesthetics. It also has a squatty potty.  

Our old place had a western toilet. Western toilets are generally preferred by Westerners, since that is what they grew up using, but I'm more of a "traditionalist" when it comes to this matter (traditional in a hunter-gatherer kind of way). I've never been one of those take a magazine into the loo kind of guys.  I like my business done in a brisk, efficient kind of manner, and I have good knees, so squatting works to my liking.  
There's also the matter of Western toilets adapted to Chinese infrastructure that makes them less appealing.  For starters, when a throne is installed, it's usually just plopped on top of an existing squatter with some silicone sealant around the bottom to more or less secure it to the floor.  This makes for easy clogging, which is made even more adventurous, since plungers are a scarce commodity here.
The second drawback is the fact that everywhere I've lived has been in a somewhat older building with shoddy plumbing.  Rust particles end up clogging the fine little valves and fouling the other moving parts in the tank, which result in slow fillings, faulty flushes, and more clogging. I've had enough of this pathetic attempt at trying to introduce unnecessary modernity to a basic biological function.
The Western world is becoming more attuned to how using a throne to poop is not necessarily the best way to get the job done. An American company has come out with a simple device to put you into a more "natural" position.  It's called "Squatty Potty".

That's the high point of my year, getting an authentic Chinese toilet, but things have been much more eventful for the country itself.
There has been the less than thrilling ride of the stock market, a massive chemical explosion, a massive mountain of construction debris collapse, and horrific air pollution.  None of that happened where I live, but I don't really need that kind of excitement in my life.  We get some smoggy days, although the level of pollution on a bad day here would be considered OK in Beijing.

There was an unfortunate local incident that happened at an event for preschool kids that happened nearby at the end of the year. The company that I used to work for, that has several kindergartens, had a big sports event involving all their schools.  It was held at a high school sports field a block away from here.  I was invited, but due to laziness I opted out.  Look what I missed!  (You can use Google translate to get the gist of what happened).  Apparently there were a bunch of balloons filled with hydrogen that exploded when they were ignited accidentally by a father, who was smoking.  It's bad enough that the guy was smoking around a bunch of preschoolers, they do it all the time here, it also caused a bunch of people to get burned.
After much inquiry, I discovered that filling kids balloons with hydrogen is a common practice here because it is cheaper than helium.  It also does this:

Needless to say, the few bucks saved using cheap gas is dwarfed by the medical and legal bills ahead, as well as the damage to their reputation.
During holidays and at festive venues you often see someone selling balloons.  I'm giving them a wide berth in the future.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Typhoons Are Not for Sissies

Typhoon Mujigae

Every year on October 1 China takes a week to celebrate the founding of the People's Republic.  I had the week off from work and had a pretty good itinerary of festivities lined up with trips to beaches and islands as well as get togethers with friends.  Of course, these events were weather dependent, and the weather looked like it might try and delay a couple of beach forays.  There was a tropical storm brewing the other side of the Philippines, and it was headed our way.
We've been through numerous tropical weather events here.  There have been enough that they seem pretty old hat.  You lay in some food and recreational beverages, fill some extra water jugs, and make sure the flashlights work.  This storm was categorized as a tropical storm, and would fluctuate between that and a category 1 typhoon as it made its way here.  It looked pretty mundane, the forecast called for a few inches of rain and wind gusts up to 80 mph.  Nothing special, a day spent indoors watching movies, a day for cleanup, then off to the beaches!
Typhoon Mujigae (the name means "Sneaky Asshole") arrived Sunday morning.  Our new flat is on the third floor of an eight story walk up nestled snugly among other buildings and is pretty sheltered, so we didn't have a great view as to what was going on, although we could see that this storm was exceeding expectations.  Trees were bending over nicely and there was a lovely chorus of e-bike and car alarms which always go off in high winds.  A friend of ours, who has a much nicer view from an eighth floor apartment was sending us videos of the mayhem, with lots of debris flying around.
At 12:30 the power went down.  It was dark.  The two lovely flowering trees in our courtyard were looking sad.  The big one was down and the smaller one had pretty much disintegrated.  There was a period of calm as the eye of the storm passed over.  Our friend went out and took some photos which he sent to us.  I urged him not to stay out too long.  He got back home in time to watch one of his windows get blown in.
We got out a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle, since it didn't look like we'd be watching any movies that day.  It turned out we weren't going to be watching any movies for several days.

At the time, we didn't realize just how bad it really was.  We were in contact with friends via phone, and knew that everyone had no power or water.
The next morning I went out to view the damage and to get some easy to cook food.  We live near a pedestrian street which, for the holiday, had dozens of vendors in tents selling BBQ, various foods, cheapo toys and other gimcrack.  Or at least they were up until the typhoon struck.

 The day before the typhoon and all is fine.
Mmmm, not so fine... 

 Enterprising lady selling chestnuts amid the disaster.

 The regular cleaning crew awaiting instruction.  It was going to be a long week.

 Our street.

"It ties the room together."

A friend let us know, the day after, that the authorities said we might not have water or power for four days.  It was time to go into urban tropical camping mode.  I was a little concerned.  How would people here react to this?  Were they as prepared as we were?  Did they have enough water?  Would there be riots?
We fortunately had gas, so cooking was not a problem.  We also had enough water, as long as we kept squatty potty flushing only for #2 events.  We were mostly out of touch with friends, since the phone service was completely overloaded. We managed a few text messages now and then.  I kept my phone mostly off to preserve the battery.  I read a real book, reserving Kindle for nights.
It was sticky and steamy.  Fortunately our flat has good ventilation, so what little breeze we had, managed to make it through.
The worst times were after dark.  Our bedrooms face a high rise apartment building.  They ran generators to keep the elevators working.  The lobby was lit, and this attracted people.  Chinese people in groups have only one volume for normal conversation, a kind of low volume shouting.  It doesn't matter what time it is, or where they are.  1 am is not too late for some group confab when you are recovering from a natural disaster. Someone eventually figured out that if they turned the generators off, that the crowd would disperse, and they did.   However, since it also gets extra muggy at night here, sleep was less than satisfying.
The third evening after the storm, the power came on.  Oh, joy!  I plugged in all electronics, turned on the air conditioning, and saw that the internet was working. I got a couple of emails off and read about the storm.  There were tornadoes, and utility crews from all over the province were working to get power and water restored.  Then the power went off.
It came on again the next morning.  And then went off.  It came on again in the afternoon.  And went off.  It came on in the evening, and we turned the AC on in our bedrooms set at really cold temperatures so that when it went off again we could keep the windows closed so we didn't have to listen to the convershouting next door.  It did go off, but we could at least sleep with windows closed.
The power finally came on for good the next day, so we were able to have a comfy temperature inside, but still no water.  Our friends in various locations in the city were having mixed luck as well.  You could take a bucket to a nearby building, which did have water, if you needed to.  During one morning deluge, I managed to fill a large bucket with water from a downspout from the roof.  It's always nice to have an extra flush or two.  The loo was getting a pretty nice pissy smell, although with the power restored we could at least keep the exhaust fan on.
On Wednesday a friend called to joyfully declare that he had water.  We should be getting ours soon.  I saw that the building next door did too, as indicated by the large amounts of laundry hanging from the windows.
Thursday came around and still no water.  We were greasy, sticky and stinky. Our friend offered us his shower, so in the midday heat, we strolled over to his place, climbed stairs to the eighth floor and went in only to find that the power and water were off.  
However, there was water on in the apartment that we use as a classroom, so we managed a shower a shave in the crappy shower there.  That was good, since I had a class that evening, and I did not want to subject the tykes to my disgusting, barbaric self.
On Friday we finally got water.  For some reason there are two sources of water in our place.  The laundry room had no water.  We do have a top loading machine, so we hauled water back there to do some laundry, and both took showers.  I began to get ready for the epic cleaning job ahead of me.  Then we lost water.  It came back on a few hours later, and I filled some big jugs again, just in case.  We did the epic cleaning and finished just in time for the water to go off again.
The water eventually came back on for good, as well as the laundry room water the next day.  After wallowing in our own filth for a week, life is more or less back to normal.
This storm took everyone by surprise with its severity.  It was the worst typhoon to hit the area since 1996.  The damage to crops, and infrastructure is massive.  There were some injuries and deaths, mostly to people who should have been inside.  But people here are resilient. Most of the trees around here have been trimmed and propped back up.  They always make a pretty good comeback.  Trash and debris have been removed.  Businesses are open and windows are being replaced.  It's a good time to be in the window business.
Bottled drinking water was available immediately, and to the small local store owners' credit, there was no price gouging that I observed.
By next typhoon season I want to add a few things to my survival kit including an LED lantern and another jigsaw puzzle.  Maybe a couple of more big buckets.
I had enough vodka, though!
A few parting shots from the news:

 Fishing boats

 The new sports stadium across the bay.

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.