Sunday, December 4, 2011

Report #31

Last October I was sleeping on a couch, confused about what to eat for breakfast, searching for housing, taking Beijing’s busiest subway to work everyday (something I vowed never to do again), and unsure of how I fit into this new world. I’ve come a long way since then. I found an apartment, started taking Chinese lessons, switched to a better job, but I somehow ended up on that damn subway again. A two-hour roundtrip commute is doable when you have to do it, but it is on my list of things that are deal breakers between Beijing and me, like:

-sanctioned smoking in the stairwell and bathroom at my office
-coughing and sneezing without covering one’s mouth
-snorking, hacking, and spitting (indoors and outdoors)
-polluted air
-the neighbor child who cries at 5:30a and 11:30a and various times in the day
-non-yielding motorists

When I think back to the decisions that brought me here I was zoomed much farther out. I thought it would be interesting to live in another country for a year. It has been. I also wanted to learn another language, which I’ve been working on although I’m nowhere near fluent as I naively predicted in my cover letter to OPEN. I think I told them nine months…I guess I mistook working at architecture firm for an intensive language immersion program of fulltime study. But the last ingredient in all of this was that I had no office experience at an architecture firm. Finding work in China was easy compared to the States when the health of each economy is on opposite ends of the spectrum. The first place I applied to in Beijing hired me, and so the story the goes.

People call what I’m doing a ‘great experience’, which is rhetoric I bought into as well, but now I hold it at a distance with some suspicion. Perhaps this is particular to me, but what has been the encompassing experience of living here is a form of resistance. The first couple of months were like being thrown out to orbit where everything was foreign and all of my routines were uprooted. Vacations are like that to some extent where you put yourself outside your daily routine, but it’s usually pleasurable because you don’t have to work, you spend at least three to four times the amount of money you would on a normal day, and you’re probably somewhere of visual interest. In short, vacations are like being rich for a week or two in a nice place. Here in Beijing I feel like I’m rich, even though I probably only square up on the middle-class rung of the ladder, but the place is not that nice. Interesting is a better word for it. And what I’ve found myself doing since I got my feet on the ground was trying to reestablish my routines in some form or another…this has been my form of resistance.

It starts with the basic things like figuring out what food you like and where to get it, then shelter –my apartment was a huge victory on the resistance front. Finally comes the creature comforts –the internet, the ikea bedding, the wireless router, the microwave, the space heaters, the water dispenser (and the men who laboriously carry the bottles up five flights of stairs) and so on. While I was sitting in my apartment the other day something dawned on me, which was that I was completely insulated from Beijing. If I didn’t look out my window I would have no clue that I was in China…I have everything I need and it is all very familiar –internet, good food, comfortable space, etc. For me, the ‘experience’ of Beijing is not augmented by living in some beat down apartment and having to eat dumplings on the street corner. While that may call up a more authentic experience westerners imagine it is not my reality. However if I want to walk around some dilapidated hutongs and eat street food I can do it, but on my own terms and it has an off switch.

When I started thinking about this notion of resistance and how it’s really a form of control it seemed neurotic. But I actually think it is the process of ‘experience’…. getting thrown into something (deliberately or accidentally) and getting out of it or getting back into your comfort zone. Figuring out a routine in a foreign place is the experience and the irony is it’s precisely the antithesis of the place. Just looking at my progression in grocery shopping is telling of this transformation:

-Early Days at Carrfore: I show up with big ikea shopping bags on foot, and wield a full size cart around the crowded aisles. I’m nervous about giving the old peasant ladies my receipts when I leave. What would they want with them? Identity fraud?

-Junior Days at Carrfore: I show up with a granny cart on foot, and thread a small shopping cart around the aisles with the granny cart ingeniously placed on the cart as though the two were married. I start giving my receipts to the peasant ladies. They just need bonus points.

-Senior Days at Carrefore: I show up with the granny cart in tow on the back of my bicycle, I’m in and out within 30 minutes for a week’s worth of food and I tow it home with my bicycle. I only give my receipts to one peasant lady in particular, whom I have adopted in my mind as my Chinese grandmother, and have even started stashing pocket change inside the folded receipts.

While I’ve successfully figured out the basics of living here and continue to find comforting ways to do so, what I’ve failed at is really living here. This has always been a temporary project that had an end date off in the distance. Living in anticipation of the next thing is something I’ve been doing for almost as long as I can remember…I guess it’s inevitable when you’re trying to get into school, then going to school, and starting new jobs etc. But this leaves you with blank apartment walls, no possession too big to put in a suitcase or too expensive to abandon altogether, and a general level of disconnect that prevents full engagement in a place. I can see why Buddhism is all about living in the present…it’s a much healthier way to be in the world than counting days on a calendar and combing through job postings, although I might still be possession-less with blank walls if I become a monk.

Zooming out again, I have accomplished the things I set out to do by moving to Beijing; the year in another place, the work experience, and some new language skills, but not all was gained without losses. The one thing that I cannot reengineer into my routine is proximity to friends and family. Being far away from those you love is probably the most difficult thing. I find myself thinking about all the people I want to see when I get back home, all the visits I’ll make, old friends I want to look up and familiar places I want to revisit. Nostalgia.

Many people have asked me if I’ll miss Beijing when I leave and I’m quick to answer no. Not because I’m miserable here, but I’m really not in love with this place either. The one thing I do think I will end up longing for is the routine I’ve established because it’s simple and authored in isolation. It’s the kind of routine that leaves evenings open for anything, yet my energy levels have waned to the point that the internet often overpowers my motivation to read books or do anything of creative worth. I’m sure I’ll look back and wish I’d done more outside of work because the only positive thing about being away from friends and family is that there are no distractions. This is as close as I’ll get to being on a writer’s retreat, but I’m ready to go home now.

I’ve crossed the threshold I made up in my head: just get into December and it will be down hill from there. I have four weeks of work left starting now. Four weeks I can wrap my head around in the same way a little kid understands Christmas Eve to be just one night to get through before Santa comes. Waiting for the Camino to arrive last summer was felt with the same anticipation…and it came…and it went. While part of me doesn’t want to fully develop the skill of comprehending large chunks of time the way old people can throw around years like days, it would be nice to have right now. But I’m also happy to accept my position closer to the squirmy, writhing kid that can’t wait for his birthday to come around or only understands sleep as closing his eyes all of a sudden it’s morning…which is much closer to living in the present where pain is great and joy is greater, because those are the moments in life you really remember.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Report #30 Podcast #5

A self-organized flea market in the northeast corner of Beijing persists over the years despite its status as an illegal market.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Report #27

Consider this Report as notice that Reports From Beijing is currently on vacation. Ellen and I are walking the Camino de Santiago for a second time and I will be migrating over to that blog, which is also linked at the top of Reports From Beijing...just follow Peregrino on the Camino: a 500 mile walk across northern spain. Once there, please sign up for email delivery, which will feed each entry into your inbox when I make a post. If I can get really advanced...I will make a new domain name, like and point the blog that I´m currently operating under to the home page. More on that later. But for now, please follow peregrino on the camino, and sign up via email. And so it begins....

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Report #25

As a creature of the night you’re either prey or predator. At least that’s how I feel during my long walks around Beijing. I’m training for the Camino and my evening strolls are pushing the three-hour mark at this stage in the schedule. By the time I finish with work, go home, eat dinner and check my email, I’m hitting the streets past nine or ten at night. And with that, I’ve really learned my area, which I won’t deem as a neighborhood because there is nothing remarkably characteristic of it, just never ending sameness. My area covers roughly an 8 mile diameter, and is growing wider as my schedule demands more time.

The area is surprisingly quiet past 11p. The traffic wanes, pedestrians are few, and often I’m the only one on the sidewalk. This is especially true if I let my route take me through a park, like it did tonight. I wasn’t feeling like charting new territory beyond the current boundary so I stayed close to home winding through the long park that runs parallel to the airport expressway. The parks in Beijing are well manicured with brick-paved paths and pruned shrubs. Despite the tamed landscape there is still something wild about the isolation it affords in such a bustling city.

On this particular night just after a long rainy day, the park was foggy and smelled clean like a forest. Headlights from cars shone through the trees and cast jesus style beams in the air. I turned along one of the meandering curves and spotted a small sapling that I mistook for a person. Chills ran through my body and I wondered to myself, why am I so freaked out?

I was, like I always am during these walks, listening to This American Life podcasts through headphones. My brother gave me all 400 episodes that he downloaded and I started at the bottom working my way up. The nightly walks have me moving through the episodes at a steady clip. But as a creature of the night, and as a species’ with poor nocturnal eyesight, my only other worthwhile sense is sound, which I’ve obfuscated through this podcast habit, and most certainly rendered myself as prey. My body knows this.

It wouldn’t take much for me to kick into full flight mode and shriek like a schoolgirl if someone or something jumped out of the bushes. I actually consider this a possibility and speculate on the availability of weapons the park has to offer like stacks of old paving bricks. I also question my ability to run, to run really fast, faster than most predators. Would I even notice the weight of my own backpack? Or would I chug along the way an obese person is encumbered by excess? Of the few stray cats that crossed my path tonight, each one gave my heart some extra juice. This got me thinking as I looped back and forth along the linear park. What would it be to take up the role of the predator? Speed? Yes. Arms flailing? Yes. Growling? Yes.

On my long walks there are others like me too. Often it’s a couple, enamored with one another on a park bench feeling like they have the whole place to themselves, and I approach stealthily only breaking the silence with the scuff of my boot on a lump in the path or kicking a stone to cause them to jump. Arrrghhhhhrrrrooowllllllalalalalala! I run towards them, flailing. That’s all it would take. That’s all you need to simulate a predator, and then I’d just keep walking like nothing happened, while they considered death in a gust of fear. A boogie man, who prowls at night boogifying unsuspecting strangers; feigning an attack, but swooping away reducing his victims to nervous rodents narrowly missed by the grasps of talons. I could do that. I could really scare people in the park, and I would no longer be prey.

Jesus. What two hours in a desolate park will do to the mind.

I think I’ll stick to the streets next time….

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Report #24

(This story makes the most sense if you listen to part 2 of my last podcast)

It’s funny how we put things off…like the battery that you know your car needs and promise you’ll get soon, just after the engine barely turns over. You accept this lurking threat but keep hitting the snooze button of ‘later’ to prolong the inevitable. And then, when you go out one morning, it just clicks when you turn the key…and you think, damn, why didn’t I get the battery?

To append my last report, Podcast #3, the saga of the electro-magnetic door continues: it started working again. I noticed the LCD display next to the keypad was turned on last week. Someone had also taped cardboard over the metal part of the doorframe to keep the electromagnet from engaging. It seemed appropriately tailored to my needs; my key swab still didn’t work as I verified by swiping across the sensor and confirmed the audible quadruple-beep as ‘denied’. No problem, that’s why the cardboard is there…

A day later the big piece of cardboard had been traded for a smaller piece that wasn’t taped to anything, just wedged into a little gap in the frame. It still did the job, but looked sneaky and far less official. The next morning on my way to work the door was locked and the only way to exit the building was to hit the button to release the door for a few seconds. I looked down and saw the hopeless piece of cardboard on the ground. I naively wedged it back into its previous home, tested the door a few times, and left for the office. We were in the middle of deadline for the Lagos Hotel.


It’s one in the morning, and I’m in the exact same predicament as before. This time there are only two neighbors with lights on: the annoying neighbor and someone two floors below him. Now that I’m explicitly aware of my two neighbors apartment numbers I make sure to get it right this time. I dial the annoying neighbor and it just rings and rings and rings. I hang up, hating him even more. I sit. I think. I think about climbing. I think about electrical wires and why my building has so many and how they could be old and frayed. I call the annoying neighbor again and nothing happens. Then I watch his light go off and stay off. I try calling the neighbor at 303 and it rings and rings, and then someone picks up…

I run my script, the same one that worked last time.
“Ni hao, wo joo zai wu bai r how, kuyea kai ma?” (Hello, I live at 501, could you open?)
“Um, Ni hao, wo joo—“

Click. He hangs up.

I sat out front for thirty minutes not ready to accept the fact that I had put off the inevitable; that this wasn’t going to work, not twice. I had actually gone home early that night. Back at the office, 4 of my co-workers were still going hard. T.T, a Chinese girl with hair down to her waist, was acting as DJ and rocking out to her death metal music, which is basically fast drums and lots of growling. The other three, Flavia, Liqiang, and Ben just sat there motionless, staring at their computer screens, clicking away as if there was no music at all. It felt like I had walked into a dream. It was loud and certainly not conducive to sleep. I couldn’t bring myself to do work, at least not real work. Instead I cranked out an essay for an internship application that was due the next day, one that I had threatened myself I would get to but kept hitting the snooze button on.

Locked out of my apartment, sleep deprived, satanic growling in the background. Snoozing was no longer an option.

This story continues….

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Report #22

Dear Chinese Neighbor,

Our walls are thin and you must know this. I can hear your TV so you should be able to hear mine. I find this acoustic problem troubling because one night when I angrily banged on the wall I nearly crippled my hand against the concrete. Yes! Concrete! You’d think we’d be sealed up like prisoners in solitary confinement alone with only our thoughts behind walls like these. Maybe our ceiling is made of straw. I don’t know. In any case I need you to pipe down a bit, especially that girlfriend of yours. How can you stand her whiny voice? I liken it to a mosquito or a crow cawing at sunrise. You’ve been inviting her over more frequently these past few months and I can tell it’s not going very well. She seems to do all the talking and sometimes her whininess becomes so intense it sounds like you’re arguing with a child over there. I suppose with all that stress you’ve taken to smoking an occasional cigarette in the hallway. This is the real purpose of my letter, to inform you that our little platform at the top of the stairs is no lounge. Actually it’s not the street either, so for god sake don’t spit on the ground and don’t ash your entire cigarette where we walk. I should also inform you that in addition to our building’s thin walls we have large cracks under our doors, which act like high-powered air intakes. I get about 25% of your cigarette under my door if the little window in the stairwell is shut. Damn you for this. I’ve tried to catch you in the act, but when I smell the scent and explode out of my door unprepared for what I might say to you, you’re gone, just a plume of smoke, ashes, and spit.

I have little hope for correcting this cultural fault of yours, but do note that in 40 years or so this act will be considered a faux pas and with luck will get you kicked out of the building. You see, in America, we used to be able to smoke everywhere too, in airports, grocery stores, restaurants, even bars! But then people realized that only smokers like smoke. Your days are numbered.


Your neighbor

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Report #21

It is rare to find individuals who are uniquely their own character. I think the Coen brothers can say this better than me:

Now this story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early nineties--just about the time of our conflict with Sad'm and the Eye-rackies. I only mention it 'cause some- times there's a man--I won't say a hee-ro, 'cause what's a hee-ro?--but sometimes there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here-- sometimes there's a man who, wal, he's the man for his time'n place, he fits right in there--and that's the Dude, in Los Angeles.

I went out on the 2nd ring again, this time to the Northwest section at Xizhimen. There is a large public plaza that spans across the entire highway as it dips below grade. On top of this land bridge are kite-flyers scattered throughout the square and a few kite vendors. There were also inline skaters blasting dub-step through a tiny boom-box while they weaved in and out of plastic cones and did fancier versions of hockey-stops. Four or five tricycles with boxed enclosures rolled up and began unloading dozens of roller skates and inline skates, laying them out in an orderly array. These were mobile roller skate vendors, unaffiliated with one another, but cooperative in that they kept their prices fixed: 5 RMB for a pair of skates for the evening.

The real treasure of the visit was this Dude, an old Beijing man who also had a tricycle (pickup truck style, no box) with four ‘Wangtong Birds’ tethered to a homemade perch on the handlebars. At first I was drawn to the birds, which are a cobalt blue and grey with bright yellow beaks, a little bigger than a cardinal. It wasn’t clear whom they belonged to until Jenny spotted a man casually strolling about 10 feet away from the tricycle who was wearing, not by accident, a blue and yellow jumpsuit. This man was in his 70’s, his white hair wind-blown, but he was fit and the jumpsuit and fanny pack he wore made him look the part too. He had the swagger of guy who was completely at home.

We wanted to get a photo of him with the birds to show the matching outfits, but his purposeful vibe made him seem unapproachable. Then he walked over to his four birds and took one off from the perch, grasping its body in his hand. He took out some sort wooden tube, which he stuck under his bottom lip pointing it up in the air. With both hands he hurled the bird into the air and it began to fly about 30 feet up. He blew into the tube and bird came flying back to his hand. It was though the bird was attached to string like a yo-yo. Once it returned to his hand he fed it some seeds. We watched this routine several times until it was clear that the tube was actually a miniature blowgun and there were no strings attached, the bird is trained to catch a plastic bead that the man fired into the air, return it to his hand, and get a reward of seeds.

The man went through his birds one by one, giving each one a turn. He put away the blowgun and took out a slingshot from his fanny pack, and hurled the bird into the air. This time the bird really took off. It flew about 100 feet up in the air making large circles around the plaza. The man walked about 20 paces away from his trike and fired the sling shot straight up just as the bird was circling around. Its wings flapped haphazardly for a moment and it maneuvered off course, then loyally flew back to the man’s hand as he walked back with his arm extended not even looking as the bird approached from behind.

This was his act. He didn’t have a tip jar asking for money, he just did his thing, and then rode home. Jenny and I tried to interview him, but he wasn’t very talkative, which my white face and long microphone didn’t make any better. We did manage to get a few tidbits out of him: he’s retired, he just does this when he feels like it, he lives in the neighborhood, it takes a year to train one of the birds, and his birds are about 4 years old. There wasn’t enough time before he began riding away to ask: How did you become so cool? Do you wear the jumpsuit all the time or just during your routine? Are you a wizard? Do you want an apprentice?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Report #18

Hong Liang came to work for OPEN shortly after Stardy was fired. Both interns have made appearances in Reports from Beijing; most recently Hong Liang was a guinea pig for my first podcast interview. Unlike Stardy, whose charm and confidence made for fast friends, Hong Liang was slow to emerge from his shell. At first he was quiet, very serious, and I only knew him as the guy that picked out all the peanuts from the salad at our evening dinners. His English wasn’t very good, actually the worst in the office. During his first three weeks he was hunkered down over a model with the overbearing supervision of Li Hu. He was modeling Li Hu’s personal house that had already been built. This was just fluff to have in the office, an object to photograph for the website, and therefore had to be perfect. And three weeks later it was. Hong Liang was then freed up and ready to be put on another project; that’s when I got him.

We had a weird project come into the office for a large development in Ordos, Mongolia called 20+10, code named for twenty architects to build twenty buildings in 2010. They had an impressive line up of a well know architects. OPEN was asked to participate later, which is like being the unpopular kid that gets invited to the party to fill in space. We were given a tortured site, severely eroded from years of rain and hastily routed drainage from the adjacent highway. Li Hu saw this and was enamored by the “nature”. It was a gorge to be sure, and he wanted to preserve it. This wasn’t a real project for us, no money in it up front. The developer was the Ordos government itself, and they wanted to create enough hype to attract private investors. So this thing was kind of joke, which is how I got put in charge.

In architecture school you’re taught to work iteratively. You make a sketch, build a model, sketch the model, draw in the computer, make a diagram, and on and on. It’s like the way a cow chews cud. The process is supposed to refine the design. In my situation, Li Hu delivers a vague sketch and we start chewing cud. The first few days were a little bumpy. I didn’t really know how to deal with Hong Liang.

We quickly moved into the model making stage, which was like a vacation in the office, and easily my most enjoyable time thus far. It was one of those rare moments when you think wow I’m actually getting paid for this (albeit not very much). Hong Liang and I cranked out model after model. It was easy to communicate with him over such basic tasks like ‘make this drawing into a model’ as opposed to trying to simplify the instructions to make a collage in the computer that has the look and feel of ‘nature’…

After awhile Hong Liang came out of his shell and his funny sense of humor emerged out of a very limited vocabulary. It was fun working with him, and I was sad to him return to school just before the Chinese New Year. He had made a lot of friends in the office, and before he left we urged him to make a facebook account so we could stay in touch. And that’s when he asked me to name him.

Hong Liang wanted an American name for his facebook account. I tried to persuade him to keep his Chinese name.

“Hong Liang, you don’t want an American name. Your name is good. It sounds weird when I meet a Chinese person and they say, ‘hellro, I’m Paul’. It seems fake.”

He wasn’t convinced.

I have also gone through the naming process, but stood my ground and held onto my American name, which sounds like ‘Marc-uhh’ in Chinese. Ying was the biggest proponent in the campaign to give me a Chinese name.

“But Marc-uhh doesn’t really mean anything.” She protested.
“Neither does Marc.”
“It doesn’t?” She seemed disappointed. Chinese names are notorious for translating into warrior like poems, like ‘Strong Horse Lucky Tiger’, things like that.
“No Ying, my name is just Marc. I was named after a metal recycler, I guess.”
“What? What does that mean.”
“My mom’s friend. He spelled his name with a C.”
“But in Chinese Marc-uhh means like a marker, or a mark on the wall.”
“Yeah, it’s the same in English.” I think Ying felt embarrassed after that, and I am to this day known in the office as Marc-uhh, or sometimes Mar-gong, which means ‘architect marc’…not really a warrior or anything.

Usually when you name a person it’s at the beginning and the name bears an optimism of who the person will become. It’s hard to say whether or not a person lives up to their name, but often enough there seems to be some correlation, I think. My first instinct was to find a name that bore some resemblance to the sound of ‘Hong Liang’, and I wrote down Homer, and Javier for some reason. Then I thought whom does he look like, who is his character? Simon. No, maybe an Alex. I read off my list of names none of which he liked, except for Alex, but he couldn’t really pronounce it.

“Arrex”? He asked.
“No, Alllllex, la, la, llllllllaaa, Alex.” I tried correcting.
“Arex” he said confidently.

I imagined him introducing himself to people, using his American name, and the problems that would ensue. It’s like when you meet someone with an unusual name in a noisy bar, and it takes several exchanges before you get it right. That should be avoided if possible.

Mengyi shouted out “Toby!”
“Yes!” I said in agreement. She hit the nail on the head. Hong Liang is a Toby, through and through. He seemed to like it, and he could say it fairly well.

We took him out dinner as a going away celebration before the Chinese New Year and before I left for the states. We went to his favorite restaurant ,which he always talked about being ‘sooo delishurrrrse’, and it usually came up during his criticism of the food Ying orders for the office dinners….because ‘that food is not so delishurrrrse’.

A couple weeks later I got a friend request from (Toby) Hong Liang Shen.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Report #16

Other Jobs I’ve heard about in China, and Imagine myself Pursuing:

1) I’m dressed in a slick black suit that was hand made to fit me by a child with nimble hands. I feel overly proud for once in my life, to be white. My only task today is to be present, because, after all I’m a business escort. Not the kind that performs unspeakable things for cash, but the kind that accompanies Chinese businessmen to meetings in order to gain credibility. I’m the symbol for western modernity, a white face, and for this I charge 1200 yuan / hour. Riding around in the black Audis is nice, except for all the smoking. This I’ve had to adopt because it’s customary for cigarettes to be exchanged during a business deal. While I thought this career move would eventually lead to a deeper understanding of high stakes business I’ve absorbed nothing because most negotiations occur in Chinese. During these talks I drink bitter green tea and burn my mouth.

2) Before me are eager adult faces ready to learn like children. I teach English as a second language and make four times as much as a junior architect. I cannot speak Chinese and feel sheepish that my students are gossiping about me under my nose. I embrace myself for the call that will get there attention “Hi yo Ho Hello!” This is gibberish and means nothing but it sounds like a mix between English and Chinese and quiets them down nonetheless. I zero in a younger student giggling and feel uncomfortably warm like I’m turning red.

3) I borrowed $40,000 to buy a BMW in the States and sent it to China. I can do this once with the right kind of visa. Back in China I sell it to a nouveaux riche Chinese guy who is willing to pay $60,000 because BMW’s are in short supply, and he can’t easily go to the States like I can. This job is easy, and has earned me two years of comfortable, work-free life in Beijing. Now I spend my time like a free-spirited artist unencumbered by everyday affairs. I make strange things out of fabric and take photographs as though I am a visitor from another planet. This mushy life has both softened my palms and my speech. I can also touch my toes once again.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Report #15

There are some stories that must be told:

My toilet seat broke the other day. Without getting to graphic, there are those who stand and cleanse and those who take care of the job while sitting. I fall into the latter category, which requires some weight shifting. And with that said, ‘Snap’, my plastic toilet seat cracked underneath me, and a big fragment of the seat fell into the toilet.

Now, my toilet is not like others. There really isn’t any water in it, except way down the hole, past where the eye can see. It flushes like regular toilets, swishing water across the bowl and making everything disappear. This design has its advantages and disadvantages. For one thing you have act fast on the courtesy flush, otherwise your small bathroom quickly turns into an outhouse at summer camp. The only advantage of the waterless bowl is there is never, ever any back splashing, which easily outweighs any disadvantages.

This could have been worse with a conventional toilet; it might have even clogged it. When the chunk of seat when down the hole I was in the safe zone in terms of the flushing sequence, just paper, which I tried to flush past with limited success. The fragment was too big to flush down, and even though it was far enough down the hole that I couldn’t really see it, there is no doubt it would cause future problems. So, with rubber kitchen gloves on, I went in and pulled out what looked like a white jellyfish. That was my first gross encounter.

The seat was still usable, although with the big chunk missing it gained the ability to bite and gnaw at your thigh like a lobster. To my disappointment, Carefour didn’t carry toilet seats. The only other place I knew would have it was taobao, the Chinese eBay, but this required the help of a Chinese person.

“Ying, I need a new toilet seat.”
“What? Why?”
“I broke it.”
“How did you break a toilet seat?” she asked.
“It just broke.” I said, trying to avoid going into details about the two different camps.
“But what size, there are probably different sizes?” she said. I was afraid of this. “You should probably measure it.” She suggested.
“Okay, well maybe you can just look on taobao and see if they are different sizes.” I pleaded.

Two weeks went by and the lobster claw pinched me many times, and never followed up with Ying. I also never got around to measuring my toilet seat, and even I had remembered to bring a tape measure home, the seat mounting screws were hidden from the top. And that’s what is really important when it comes to toilet seats, the seat mounting screws.

My apartment has been very reliable, but lately the bathroom is cursed. The next thing that went in the bathroom was the fluorescent light. This seemed easier to deal with. I pulled the cover off the ceiling fixture and unplugged the compact tube. It looked advanced but it seemed like something Carrefour would have in their aisle of light bulbs, but they didn’t. I had gone back to Carrefour for a second time that day on a return visit to stock up on Chinese candy to bring home when I head back to the States at the end of the month. I had my granny cart loaded with bags full of little candies from the bulk section. There are a lot of souvenirs one can bring home in trying to sum up a culture, but for some reason I think candy does a good a job, especially for kids.

On my way home with the granny cart in tow, I paid special attention to the strip of stores across from where I live. I see people out there making vinyl windows from scratch, and welding window cages for apartment buildings. In their tiny square storefronts you can see building materials like large looms of wire, PVC pipe, and bags of sand. I never really considered this strip of little stores to be hardware stores; it seemed more serious like a lumberyard where only professionals are allowed. I walked slowly past each glass window, peering in for clues that might lead to a D2 light bulb or better yet, a toilet seat. I went inside one of them that had lots of electrical wire. There were two women and two children behind the counter, lounging on a day bed. This is common to see in small stores, which double as the family’s apartment as well. I pulled out the D2 light bulb.

“Je ge Ni yo, ma?” I asked (do you have this?)
“yo” she replied (have)…this is a funny thing in Chinese, where you can just answer with the verb.
The store lady said more things in Chinese, of which the only thing I caught was something about ‘cheaper’. She pulled out three different brands of D2 light bulbs each a different price. I went with the middle of the road one. Next, I was going to try for a toilet seat. I didn’t see any in the store, which is no bigger than 8x12 feet. I waved my hand in the air for a pen as I gestured in a scribbling motion. This took longer than it should’ve, and finally they understood. While my mandarin is slowly improving, my ability to sketch thumbnails pic-tionary style has increase three-fold. I drew a toilet seat, which was easily understood judging by the eight-year old boy’s hysterical laughs. Actually, they were all laughing. The lady went in the back of the store and fished out new seat. I opened the box to check the seat mounting screws and was relieved to discover that they were universal, adjustable in fact. Twelve dollars later I was in business.

As I was leaving I realized that I had in my granny cart what was the equivalent to pirates treasure for kids, candy. I pulled out a bag and turned to the little boy and offered him a couple pieces. He declined in an almost automatic way. When the two ladies saw the candy they encouraged him. His older sister, probably ten, came running from the day bed behind the counter and gladly took some. I unrolled the bag and let them take their pick…. and he slowly took one, two, three, then four…the mothers were laughing and I could tell they seemed a little embarrassed, but it was funny.

Back home, I put in the light bulb and once again could see in my bathroom. I carefully put on my rubber gloves. Just when you think you’ve cleaned your apartment from top to bottom and all things disgusting are gone, you remove a toilet seat. I was careful to keep one sanitary hand for tearing off sheets of paper towel and administering spray cleaner. I scrubbed through the nastiest, gummy brown rectangle that was the extents of the toilet seat hinge. I felt clean and fresh putting the new seat on the now, completely white porcelain rim. I disposed of the old seat in the empty box, treating like evidence from a crime scene. My rubber gloves were retired after that episode, which concludes my second gross encounter.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Report #14

Short Accounts of Things I’ve Seen Recently in Exactly 100 Words:

The white painted walls in my office are made of concrete, which makes them thumbtack-proof. Chinese tape sucks and Beijing air dries out the sticky-ness, so hanging drawings on the wall is limited at best. Enter the Chinese carpenter man who screwed 4x8 sheets of soft, dense foam to the walls for a pin up space. He does good work, but what is even more impressive is when he mounted the 6’ folding stepladder like one would a horse, legs over each side, feet on opposite rungs, and started walking across the room as if he were on stilts.

I heard an explosion like a bomb went off, and then smoke filled the air and poured into my apartment as I leaned out the window to investigate. A small hair salon three buildings from my apartment had gone up in flames. I think the fire happened first and the explosion came later because when I joined the mob of onlookers in the street to watch the firemen hose the flames, they only seemed concerned about pulling out mangled furniture, not bodies. The roof was gone, and only the walls remained. Now, three weeks later, the salon is completely rebuilt.

One night I rode my bike to Sanlitun to meet some friends for a drink. On my way there I saw a large group of people and police cars gathered next to a canal below the airport expressway. People were yelling and pushing one another around. The subject of the dispute was a body on the bank of the canal between the water and the road covered with a tarp. When I rode home, the crowd and the body were gone, what remained was a wet spot in the dirt in the shape of the person who drowned that night.

It hasn’t snowed in Beijing this winter. Not once. However last weekend I went snowboarding with some friends an hour outside of Beijing where they don’t have snow either, just artificial snow blown onto the slopes. This makes for a strange scene in the landscape….drab brown then bright white slopes. Normally when I ride a chairlift at great heights and think of horrible things like falling or getting stuck for days, the jump down to the white blanket below seems feasible, even safe. Riding a chairlift over rocks and scrub brush makes one explicitly aware that chairlifts lack seat belts.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Report #13

No carts were available at the Carrefour grocery store, only a few stragglers at the front entrance that were either crippled or just passed up; because who wants to push a cart half a block when you can get one at the door? Not today. I doubled backed and rescued one of the castaways. Inside it was crazy. Carrefour was having a huge New Years Day sale that made Black Friday look tame. I suppose their weekend sale was perfectly timed with the first of the month. Unlike the states, where people seem broke on the first because their rent is due along with many other bills, in China today is payday. Most salaries are dished out in monthly installments, not weekly or bi-weekly as we’re used to. And people don’t pay rent here every month, most pay quarterly or bi-annually.

I visit Carrefour once a week to stock up on food and other necessities. It’s a two-story building with a grocery store on the first floor and a department store above where you can get almost anything. A ‘Report’ dedicated to this large grocery store is long overdue.

My first few visits to Carrefour were stressful and produced much anxiety. I just wasn’t prepared for the noise, the number of people, or the tactics required for actually gathering food. I’d leave exhausted, sweating from the winter clothes I didn’t need inside, and keeled over with a heavy Ikea bag to lug home. I dreaded going to Carrefour. Everything about it seemed awful.

The entrance is a wide and steep concrete ramp that leads up to carwash-style octopus cleaners, except they’re not blue and soft, they’re dingy, hard plastic and you have to fight your way through a slit opening to get inside. If you’re afraid of germs on a public door handle, this like getting the full body treatment if you’re not careful. The entrance foyer is flanked with official-looking people behind several different service counters. I’m not sure what they do, but it seems financial and large lines form from these service areas. It has the austerity of customer service or layaway. There are two ways to actually get into the store, a narrow path along the corral of check out lines, or up the long ramp to the 2nd floor, which deposits you into the electronics section with an empty grocery cart.

The scene inside is like a crowded subway car where everyone has a cart and they’re all shopping. One might think this scenario would produce anger or violence, I mean it certainly would in the states. I can just imagine impatient soccer mom’s wielding oversize carts around saying, “Excuse me! Your cart is in MY way.” That was my first problem -I was the impatient soccer mom, trying to bob and weave, and getting frustrated. But I quickly learned when to be aggressive and when to lay back and just flow with through the store with the sea of people. Below is a FIELD GUIDE that I should’ve been given upon first entering the store, it would read: “ADVICE TO WESTERNERS”

FRESH PRODUCE: First you must find the lone roll of plastic bags (this might take 10 minutes). And because there is only one roll, you must pull it like a careless toddler pulls toilet paper, getting your entire supply of vegetable bags in one go. Don’t bother sorting through piles of produce with all the Chinese people, their sorting and identification techniques are far superior and you’ll be left with bruised and blemished veggies and fruit.

Just watch one of them go through the miniature oranges, you’ll see no rhyme or reason why they choose one over another. Try it yourself and you’ll be disappointed with what you bring home. Your best bet is to stick with pre-packaged produce that the grocery store prepares. You’ll pay a little bit more money for a really perfect pair of spinney cucumbers because their hand picked by the best sorters, and 50 cents isn’t that much extra. Plus you can skip the line to weigh and price produce.

THE LINE TO WEIGH AND PRICE PRODUCE: Avoid this at all costs because it’s cutthroat. You’ll quickly learn that Chinese people cut in line, but it’s not the same as where you come from; a place where such blatantly unjust acts would be cause for verbal assault, or even violence. Here there are no managers to call, no customer service to soothe your temper. You just wait a little longer. It’s like “Oops, I guess I shouldn’t have looked at those apples for two seconds.” And the other guy is like “Ha, ha, foreigners are so slrrow and rlazy.” And everyone walks away happy. If you make it as far as the weigh machine, you’ll have to get into gear and start firing bags of fruit and veggies to the scale-lady, who is a teenager. Quickly hand each bag onto her scale, use both hands because it’s go time! She won’t look at you and wont touch anything in your basket. It’s kind of like interfacing with a human robot. She just weighs, bundles, stickers, and hands off. It will feel like the bottle return machine at Kroger with someone grabbing each one and crushing it with their hands before you. And no matter how fast you go, the ‘overload’ alarm will never sound.

PREPARED FOODS SECTION: This is worse than old country buffet, but equally fascinating. Lot’s of yelling happens here and you won’t be able to understand any of it. Just know they’re trying to sell stuff, even though you know that shouting out what can be imagined as “Get your greasy-boiled-spicy-pig’s-feet-liver-stomach-noodles. So tasty and delicious!” is no way to sell anything in a super market. But this where you’re wrong and the FIELD GUIDE is right; Carrefour has 50% of their staff loitering at every aisle and every corner to sell you something, by yelling. Avoid the prepared foods section, except to take photographs and send to your loved ones back home.

MEAT, FISH, AND POULTRY: This is very raw. The butcher shop is front and center, and while all of the land-animals have already been finished, it will be more than you’re used to seeing in the deli section back home. You’ll be tempted to buy one of the turtles for a pet, saving its life, but this is a bad idea. You won’t be so sympathetic to the carp because they’re carp and as Westerners we despise these fish for being gross and trying to get into our Great Lakes. With that said, same advice on the meat as the fruit and vegetables: go for the pre-packaged, unless you want to ladle through a pile of boneless chicken breasts. Also, don’t be alarmed when you see someone put a whole rack of ribs into their cart, unwrapped. Why waste a bag? You’ll also be impressed by how inexpensive meat is. What might cost you $11 dollars for boneless chicken breasts back home will only cost $1. It’s the same for beef and pork. At first you’ll be excited, and then a little nervous as you wonder why this price differential is so large. The FIELD GUIDE has no answer.

YOGURT AISLE: This is the one of the most happening spots of the whole grocery store. It just has that look and feel like something’s going on. There are big banners of yogurt-like Chinese models, eating yogurt, and feeling great about yogurt. You will also see what look like 60’s go-go dancer / anime pop star girls offering free samples of yogurt. They all wear brightly colored mini-skirt dresses, white leather boots, and microphone headsets, which project their voice x10 from a small speaker worn on their hip. They also wear medical facemasks. The go-go anime pop-star girls don’t work for Carrefour, they work for big-yogurt and are there to cut deals, like buy 5 get 1 free. The sample girls never turn off their hip-mounted loudspeakers even when having a conversation with a potential buyer, which really helps with the theme of yell-to-sell.

WINE AISLE: This is where they put the lowest-functioning aisle sellers. Chinese people don’t drink a lot of wine, so it’s basically a dead zone. The wine aisle seller will follow you but remain silent due to the language barrier. Once you make your selection they’ll mutter something and point to an adjacent bottle, which is a little more expensive. That’s it. That’s the wine aisle.

CHECK OUT LINE: This is where your ice cream will melt, so let it be the last thing you put in your cart before getting in line. Here you can observe a wide a cross section of Chinese people, short ones, tall ones, fat ones, old ones, every kind. It’s almost as varied as the ecology of Walmart shoppers, but fewer degenerates and outright wrong creations. You can observe the rising obesity epidemic among Chinese children here as well. The checkout line is almost as hurried as the line to weigh and price produce. There are no conveyor belts, just a little shelf to place your basket onto. This is where strategy counts. Of the three grocery vehicles: lone basket, cart that accommodates two baskets, and classic cart, the cart that is a frame for two baskets is ideal. Keep heavy items in one basket and light-fluffy-delicate things in the other. This will help ensure you get all the heavy stuff first because there is no time for sorting in the check out line. Unlike the States where the checkout ladies and gents seem deficiently slow or hopelessly depressed, the Carrefour workers are like black-jack dealers hopped up on Vegas oxygen. There is a manager that cycles through the check out lanes, but not to do overrides or price checks, it seems that this person’s job is to yell at the cashiers. You’d think that a public display of verbal abuse would be cause for protest amongst the sympathetic shoppers, but that’s just soft, western ideology. Quickly load your granny cart with the heavy stuff first, and then the light stuff on top. The granny cart is a nescessity for the 15-minute walk home. Don’t bother using a big shoulder bag or a backpack, use gravity and leverage to your advantage.