May 20, 2009

China mysteries: swingin' arms

Compared to what I've observed living in America, there are more Chinese folks that wildly swing their arms when they walk. Don't get me wrong, everyone swings their arms to some degree when they walk. It's natural. But regular people seem to limit the swinging to a 90 degree arc or less. What I'm frequently observing in China is some wild arm swingers who do a 120 degree arc or more.

These big arm swingers are in the minority, for sure. In Beijing, you'll notice them when you're walking briskly along a moderately crowded sidewalk. As you pass a stranger from the side, their swinging arm connects with your crotch, causing you to curl up in a ball of pain.

Remember the Seinfeld episode, "The Summer of George", where Elaine's co-worker (played by Molly Shannon) walks without swinging her arms naturally?
Walter: What's with her arms? They just hang like salamis.
Dugan: She walks like orangutan.
Elaine: Better call the zoo.
What I've observed is the exact opposite thing -- this relatively small group of people who swing their arms so much it's odd. The only way I can explain it is that it could be a way to get extra exercise while out and about.

Maybe the explanation to this specific China Mystery is that in America, many folks are confined to their cars, eating Burger King and watching themselves slowly get fatter. There's no opportunity to watch them walking and swinging their arms, because they don't really walk much at all. This means I don't really have an equivalent sample data set in the US to compare to China. Perhaps if I were in New York City or some place with a lot of pedestrians I could gather some anecdotal evidence and do a better comparison.

May 18, 2009

China mysteries: way too early sunrises

In your city, what time does the sun rise in the summer? 5:30 AM, maybe 6-ish? Sounds pretty normal.

In Beijing, in the middle of summer, the sun rises at 4:45 AM. If you're a study-abroad college student, that's about the time you're coming back from a night of hard drinking and rave parties. The last thing you want to see is sunlight.

Here's a sampling of some major world cities in the northern hemisphere, along with their respective sunrise times on June 14, 2009 (from this sunrise calculator)
  • Bangkok: 5:50 AM
  • Paris: 5:47 AM
  • Los Angeles: 5:41 AM
  • Zurich: 5:29 AM
  • Dubai: 5:28 AM
  • New York City: 5:24 AM
  • Chicago: 5:15 AM
  • Beijing: 4:45 AM
It's pretty well-known that China has just one gigantic time zone for the whole massive country; what people don't usually notice until they spend the night in Beijing is that the summer sunrises are ridiculously early.

What's the attraction to having such an early sunrise in the summer? Why not implement daylight savings time so people can have a little more sunlight in the evenings? Kids would enjoy the extra hour outside.

Another great mystery.

May 16, 2009

China mysteries: absence of Slurpees at 7-11

There are more 7-11s in Beijing and Shanghai than you can shake a stick at, but not one of them offers Slurpees. Or coffee. (Although they do have pre-canned coffee, with sugar and milk already added, sitting in a heated display box)

I think a 7-11 without Slurpees is like a hot dog without a bun. Another big mystery.

May 14, 2009

China mysteries: the black Audi A6

Spend any amount of time in Beijing and you'll see many black Audi A6s. In every case they've over-tinted the windows. You'd be ticketed if you tried to tint your windows that much in California.

In Beijing, this car is so ubiquitous, it's become about as much of a status symbol as wearing a pair of Keds is. If you're in the market for a black Audi A6 with tinted windows, you've got to ask yourself several questions:

  • Why spend $45,000 on a car that's just like every one else's? Where's the individuality?
  • If it's not bad enough you're buying the same make and model that every else has, why would you want to get the same color -- black -- as everyone else? For 2009, Audi provides a bunch of stock colors for the A6: black, white, dark grey, medium grey, light grey, beige, silver, grey blue, red, and blue (note that the colors called by some cute marketing names if you go onto Audi's website)
  • Why purchase an Audi A6 when you can buy a much better large luxury car for pretty much the same price? For example, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, or a Cadillac DTS or STS.
Of course everyone has the right to spend their money as they see fit, but it's 2009 already, guys. No need to be a lemming.

Who knows, maybe we'll see some brave soul get extra bold and start driving a grey or -- even more shocking -- light grey Audi A6 in Beijing sometime soon. Maybe they'll even leave the excess tint off the windows.

May 12, 2009

China mysteries: high-end bicycles, no clip-ins

The past couple years I've noticed a big increase in people riding well-equipped mountain bikes and road bikes. I'm happy to see mountain biking as a sport is growing so much in China. I've seen plenty of riders with high end frames, nice derailleurs, suspension forks, disc brakes, and even someone with an Airzound, a product I'd personally recommend.

You'll see people riding high end bikes, sometimes on the streets around Beijing, and also in the countryside areas. A lot of the time, they'll also wear a cycling jersey with some famous sponsor listed there. They look very professional.

So you see a nice high end bike, a rider that looks like he's really into the sport with a fancy jersey, and then you look down and you see --- wow --- this guy's wearing tennis shoes, and he's got cheap plastic pedals, like you'd get on a Wal-mart bicycle, attached to his cranks.

Below: a mountain bike should never be this shiny and clean

If I was putting together a new bike, one of the first things I'd do is slap on a pair of clip-in pedals, or at least some toe clips. How can you splurge for all this great riding functionality, disc brakes and Rock Shox and everything, but then you forget about pedals, the main way you're connected to the bike?

Don't leave me comments that Chinese bicyclists are worried about flipping over and staying attached to the bike. This poor sucker wasn't clipped in, and he's still eating pavement:

If you endo at high speed, it's going to suck whether you're clipped in or not. It probably sucks worse if you're trying to ride a bicycle and hold an umbrella at the same time though.

May 10, 2009

China mysteries: headlight habits of car drivers

If you do any significant amount of driving yourself around China, you'll quickly notice some of the headlight habits of the local population. Namely:
  • No headlights used during rain (standard operating procedure should be to always turn the headlights on whenever you use the wipers, no matter how light the rain may be)
  • No headlights used at all during the day time (Turning your lights on during the daytime can make your car more visible to oncoming traffic on windy country roads. It's surprising that no one in China has their lights on during the day given that automatic daytime running lights are a standard feature these days in new cars.)
  • High beams used at all times by around 80% of the cars driving at night (There's nothing like being completely blinded whenever a car passes you in the opposite direction. I guess the driving schools omit the lecture on considerate use of high beams.)
  • Motorcycles don't use their lights during the day (California motorcycle safety class would teach you that you should always run with your high beam on during the day for increased visibility)

So in summary, there's less headlight usage during the day than there should be, and way too much headlight usage at night. Bizarre.

May 8, 2009

China mysteries: biscuits at KFC

I was at a KFC in Beijing the other day. It occurred to me that they've left two of the best things off the menu at KFCs in China: biscuits and coleslaw. These two sides go perfectly with greasy fried chicken. At KFC in Beijing, I usually go with a small mash potatoes and gravy, which is tiny compared to what they give in the US, and a corn salad. The corn salad is made with carrots, corn, and celery mixed with a mayonnaise-based sauce. It's not quite up to par with the regular coleslaw.

I think Chinese consumers would really dig biscuits and coleslaw. It's a shame they've left that off the localized menus here.

May 6, 2009

China mysteries: hot dog buns

I have a cast iron grill pan that weighs around 5 pounds. It's great for cooking the occasional hot dogs and other stuff. It recently occurred to me that I've gotten used to the fact that it's really tough to find a reasonable hot dog bun in Beijing.

You can go to any local Chinese supermarket (as opposed to an import grocery store, like Jenny Lou's), and you can pick out probably three different brands of hot dogs. They're just like the one's back home, made with lips and a-holes, and tasty too.

But try finding a hot dog bun. I seen some rolls that look like hot dog buns at Wal-mart, but it turns out that the buns either had coconut and sugar infused with the bread, or radish trimmings mixed in. Needless to say, I've had to get by like a poor man by rolling my hot dogs in white bread. It's just not the same as an actual hot dog bun.

I sometimes throw the white bread on my hot grill pan for a short time to soften it up and give it some more flavor, but I'd much prefer a hot dog bun. Even the cheapo Safeway-brand ones would be fine.

And the other thing I can't understand is mustard. Chinese supermarkets seem to always have three brands of ketchup, but no yellow mustard. I've seen wasabi, you know, that greenish Japanese horseradish, but that's the closest you can come. I have to get my mustard at an import grocery store.

So, in summary, supermarkets in Beijing typically have:
  • hot dogs
  • ketchup
but they don't have:
  • hot dog buns
  • mustard
Now I'm all for learning more about other cultures and expanding my horizons, but I just don't understand this difference. How do sell just hot dogs, and forget to sell half of the necessary accompaniments for them?

You know the scene in Father of the Bride where Steve Martin freaks out in the supermarket because they sell hot dog buns in packs of 12, and hot dogs in packs of 8? I feel just as frustrated sometimes. Having to eat my hot dogs on toasted white bread just rubs it in even more.

I have money to take a cab. I've got money to buy hot dog buns and mustard, too. If only Wal-mart and my local Chinese supermarket chains would start to carry these necessities.

May 4, 2009

Mexican roundup

There's been some news reports recently about Mexicans arriving in China being rounded up and put in quarantine as a precaution against swine flu. I suppose it makes sense from a disease-control perspective, but you'd think they'd go the extra mile to make it more comfortable for them.

The Wall Street Journal article mentions they've stuck some of these unfortunate folks in the Guo Men hotel (国门饭店) in Beijing, out near the airport (map). I was curious what type of place it was, so I did a quick search. Here's some links to reviews by travelers:
Let me tell you, this sounds like a hotel you'd be sick of after one night. It'd be hard to imagine staying there for however long this quarantine business is going to take.

The first review of the Guo Men hotel on the web site is:
"Very very old hotel. It's so old it's unimaginable, not to mention the hotel is difficult to find. Service is so-so. Anyway, it's not worth the price."
The review is sort of funny:
"in all 5 continents I visited the last 50 years I have never been in such a run down and dirty shack, not even in Africa or South America."
Seems like a bad place to be stuck for a quarantine. I would bet good money they don't have HBO and ESPN in the rooms. Definitely no Telemundo or Univision either.

The thing is, Beijing over-built hotels for the 2008 Olympics, and there should be many places with extra rooms these days. You'd think they could find a wing in a nicer place to seal off and accommodate people.

Next time you're traveling and you get stuck on the runway for three hours, or your flight is weather delayed to the next day, think about this story. It could always be worse -- you could have sat on an airplane for 12 hours, been evaluated in a foreign hospital, and then sent off to a hotel that's ready to be condemned for an unknown period of time.