Feb 27, 2009

Doesn't it suck...

...when somebody steals your stuff, and then sells it to the highest bidder? It's kind of like when you're minding your own business on a beautiful day in a park in Beijing, only to notice later that you got dipped and your three hundred dollar digital camera is gone forever, traded around on the black market. (True story!)

Sounds like a case of what goes around comes around.

Feb 25, 2009

McDonald's cows

I had a craving for Chicken McNuggets with sweet n sour sauce the other day. I'm usually good with the 5-piece, but this time I doubled up and got 10 pieces.

You know how when you do your own oil change for your car, you drain the old motor oil out of your car, dump it down the sewer, change the filter, and pour in several quarts of fresh, clear motor oil? After that, verything looks so clean and fresh, and the engine is happy to be all lubricated. I swear that's how my mouth and my gut felt after my McNuggets and fries. Nice and greasy from all the fat and oil.

I was a little freaked out by the McDonald's placemats they have recently. I asked the cashier chick to give me an extra one so I could scan it. Check this out:




The right side says something like, "lively beef makes you more lively". (Note: 活力 means "vitality" in English, which I think is close enough to "lively" or "energetic". But it would sound like Chinglish written by a third-grader if I translated it as "the vitality beef make you more vitality")

I guess McDonald's is promoting how lean and healthy their beef is, so they've created some anthropomorphic cows. The cute cows stare at you from your paper placemat with their big brown eyes, doing human activities like skateboarding, lifting weights, and aerobics. I don't think I would have been able to finish my meal had I ordered a hamburger. It makes you feel like you're a borderline cannibal, devouring these cuddly, relatable cows. As it were, I was eating tasty processed chicken chunks that resemble nothing close to a living creature, so I was ok.

I have no desire to become a vegetarian, but if someone was on the fence about it, these humanlike cows might just tip them over the edge. Check out some better images I borrowed from this blog:





Feb 23, 2009

People Under The Stairs

People Under the Stairs, a hip hop group from LA, did a small show at Yugong Yishan here in Beijing recently. Great live show, nice audience interaction, and high energy. The overall vibe was kind of like a George Clinton show on a smaller scale. Here's a full review with some photos.

I'd love to see one of their shows in California. At Yugong Yishan, I smelled just one or two people lighting up in the audience, and it seemed to be quickly extinguished. I reckon that the owners of the club are extremely paranoid about getting hauled off to a Chinese jail for 12-36 months. There was a drug raid in Beijing before the Olympics in Sanlitun, and the owners got some jail time for consenting to drug use on their premises. Strange to go to a hip hop show and not getting at least a contact buzz from the big cloud lingering above the audience.



Anyway, it was good music and a great show. I think I'll put some of their stuff on rotation on my iPod in the coming weeks.

[Photo borrowed from here]

Feb 19, 2009

How to make cowboy coffee

If you ever travel to Chinese cities outside of Beijing and Shanghai, the so-called second- and third-tier cities, this is a useful video. It's a little clip on how to make "Cowboy Coffee". Essentially, you dump your ground coffee into some boiling water in a tin cup, wait for the coffee grounds to sink, and then you can drink it.



Why is this applicable to traveling in China? When traveling outside of the largest coastal cities, you enter the Real China, where coffee is hard to come by. Yes, there are more are more SPR coffee shops (the Chinese knock-off of Starbucks) springing up in the smaller cities, but they're not open early in the morning. And when they are open, you need to wait for a half hour to get a simple cup of espresso, and it's going to cost you double what you'd pay in the US.

All you really want when you're traveling is to be able to wake up in the morning at your hotel and have a nice cup of joe. Of course, in China, all you can at the hotel buffet is rice porridge and soy milk. In your hotel room all they have are tea bags and an electric hot water kettle.

When I travel outside of Beijing, even if it's to the Beijing suburbs overnight, I make sure to bring some instant coffee. To me, the ubiquitous soy milk tastes like latex paint. I just can't get used to it. I tried it for the first time back in my college dorm cafeteria, and I try it every so often in China. Instant coffee, as you may know, tastes inferior to the freshly brewed kind, and the caffeine content is noticeably lower.

Next time I travel, I'll not bring my instant Nescafé, but instead a little bag of Dunkin' Donuts coffee or some other drinkable brand. When I'm in my hotel room in the morning, I'll plop some grounds and water into the electric kettle, turn it on, and five minutes later, voilà, coffee just like home. I suspect it may be a little gritty tasting, but it's a reasonable compromise.

Now, the next guest that stays in that hotel room might complain about a coffee-like aftertaste to their boiled water. However, I would argue that I should get a little leeway seeing as I've put up with the stains on the bedspread and cigarette burns on the carpet.

Feb 17, 2009

Haircuts during lunar new year

One of the Chinese superstitions during lunar new year is that if you cut your hair during the first fifteen days of the new year, you'll end up negatively affecting your uncle's luck for the year.

Keep in mind that this doesn't apply to just any uncle though, it only applies to your jiu jiu (舅舅), brothers of your mother. (The whole list of titles for relatives is here) So you'll see Chinese people getting haircuts during this time period, and it probably means that their mother has no younger brothers. Or it could mean that they're not superstitious.

In the interest of observing local customs, I try to observe this particular superstition. The 15th day of the lunar new year was Feb. 9, 2009, so it's about time to get a haircut finally. I'm getting close to looking like some combination of Nick Nolte's mug shot and Rod Blagojevich, so I'm glad the 15th has already come.

Feb 15, 2009

Buying beer

In the movie Harsh Times, there's a scene where the main characters buy some 40-ounces at a liquor store in Los Angeles. They pull out a pack of cigarettes, unwrap it, and proceed to tell the Korean owner that they want to buy just a few individual cigarettes. The owner gets very worried about getting fined again by the police.

I think about this movie scene when I buy cans or bottles of beer here in Beijing. In the US, it seems like except for extra-large sized bottles or high-priced brands, you have to buy beer in a 6, 12, or 24 pack. In Beijing, however, you can buy one can of beer, three cans, or fifty cans; it's still the same price per can.

The other week, my local supermarket had a little sign next to 24-can cases of Harbin beer, 57.60 kuai ($8.43) for the case. I did the math, and of course, it came out to 2.40 kuai (35¢) per can, which is exactly the same price as if I were to buy them individually. It's the same story for any brand of beer. It doesn't seem to matter if you're at a big chain like Walmart, or at one of the smaller local chains.

Should I feel grateful that the retailers have given me this flexibility with my beer purchasing, or should I feel frustrated that I'm unable to get a Costco bulk discount when I buy a case? I suppose it's nice to be able to just buy a few cans.

Like the guy says in the movie when he's buying "singles", if he buys the whole pack, he's going to want to smoke them all. He just wants a few smokes to go with his beer.

Feb 8, 2009

Cleaning lady musical chairs: part 2

I wrote about my challenges in finding a stable cleaning lady back in October. After I wrote that blog entry, the ayi (cleaning lady) agency ended up sending me a more stable girl, this one from Gansu province. She's somewhere between 20 and 25 years old, if I had to guess, and she's very quiet.

The Gansu ayi was one of the more consistent of my cleaning ladies, and she showed up for work on time faithfully for a about 3 months straight. What I've discovered from my experience about ayis is that each one has a major trade-off. There's a big positive but also a negative that goes along with it.

For example, one of the first ayis that the agency sent me was great. She was a 40-something lady from Hebei province, as a I recall. This woman put lots of elbow grease into cleaning my aparment. My shower room would smell like Scotch-Brite pads afterwards because she was scrubbing so hard. One time she even cleaned off the brown crud that accumulates on my Sonicare toothbrush recharging base. It's a tough task that I've failed at myself. That brown gunk hardens and you have a hard time scraping it off, even using a putty knife.

One small downside of the Hebei cleaning lady was that during the process of cleaning and scrubbing so thouroughly, she would inevitably break something. Each time she came over, she would break something new. Never anything expensive, usually just some drinking glasses or similar. I always told her, it's okay, don't worry about it. Her major downside, however, was that she was too good for a one-a-week job at my apartment, so she ended up moving on to an employer that could hire her as a full-time ayi.

If the Hebei ayi moved through my apartment like Hurricane Katrina, then my Gansu ayi moved through like a mouse. She's very careful to clean everything slowly and deliberately. I can't imagine her ever breaking any glasses. In fact, I can barely hear her knocking on my door when she comes. I think she's afraid she'll damage it.

So my quiet Gansu ayi up and disappeared a few weeks prior to lunar new year to go to her hometown, but she put me in contact with her friend, a very presentable, considerate girl in her twenties. This friend of hers cleaned for me a couple times, and she did it as well as the Katrina ayi, but without breaking anything. It wasn't meant to be, though. To start with, she could communicate very well in standard Chinese, she looked young and energetic, and most importantly, she was pretty smart. Cleaning lady was probably not high on her dream job list, so she moved on very quickly to a retail sales job.

I'm now onto another ayi, a 40-something woman from Henan province. This one puts pretty decent effort into the job, more like a bear than a mouse. She hasn't yet cleaned my Sonicare charger's disgusting brown gunk, but she's doing a great job for 10 kuai an hour. We'll see how the situation goes as time goes on.

Feb 3, 2009

Frozen body in Detroit

Here's a heartwarming news story from Detroit, and the picture to go along with it:



Someone needs to come up with a clever new slogan about this that they can put on t-shirts. The classic slogan is still pretty good though:



Note: if you want to see more of that book suppository where this happened, check out this Flickr collection from one of those urban spelunkers that goes around exploring abandoned buildings.

Feb 2, 2009

New Year Turds

Check out this blog post on TheBeijinger.com. It's on these inflatable cow turd toys that were being sold during the lunar new year holiday:




I saw these turds in abundance a the temple fair we visited in Beijing. These turds, however, pale in comparison to the most popular souvenir of all: the New Year Crack Pipe







This shady looking guy with dirty finger nails was lurking around in the trees of the temple fair.

It's more like a mini-hookah than a crack pipe, but still better than an inflatable turd.

Feb 1, 2009

Tianjin

During the Spring Festival week long holiday, we did a day trip to Tianjin. One thing that Tianjin is notable for is that it was home to a bunch of concession territories (租界, wikipedia map).

These days, there's not a whole lot to see in Tianjin, but it's a good place to go for the day and eat at some of the local restaurants. It makes me think of the movie In Bruges: it's a great day trip, but it wouldn't be fun to have to reside there for any significant amount of time.

The last time I went to Tianjin, it took almost ninety minutes on the train. However, with the new bullet train, which supposedly travels at 200 plus mph, you get there in about thirty minutes. The ride was so silky smooth, you could probably pee standing up without even holding onto the lavatory walls. Of course, the trip is very short, there's no need to even use the restroom. In fact, my cup of coffee I bought in Beijing south rail station was still warm and drinkable by the time we got to Tianjin.



One of the local snacks is a fried dough twist called a mahua. I'm not a big fan of them, but we bought some anyway. The traditional mahua flavors are things like sesame, rock sugar, ginger, or osmanthus.

Knowing this information ahead of time, I of course had to do the smart aleck routine with the sales clerk, a fifty-something, rather serious-looking woman:
"Do you have chocolate flavored mahua?", I asked her with a straight face.

"No, just sesame and the other ones you see here", she replied.

"Well, do you have vanilla flavored mahua?", I asked.

"No, not here. We just have these flavors", she answered as she pointed to the display case.

"What about cinnamon flavor?"

The sales clerk was getting a little annoyed with me. "That's a different brand. We only have these flavors here."
Then she turned her back to me to ring up another customer's purchases. With that I moved on. Sometimes I get this urge to pretend I'm Ali G doing an interview, and I can't help myself.

In conclusion, if you're in Beijing for an extended period, I'd highly recommend a day trip to Tianjin. The pace of life is noticeably slower than in Beijing. If your language skills are reasonable, you'll notice that the locals talk just a little funny, but not so funny that you can't understand them (sort of like Ohio). Tianjin's cars give pedestrians a few extra seconds to cross the street before they run them down like dogs. The bullet train is a nice novelty. And of course, Tianjin has some great food, if you know where to go.