Mar 31, 2010

Why McDonald's doesn't kick the bums out

I now have an answer to my complaint about passed out stewbums in Beijing McDonald's.

McDonald's employees don't mess with these guys because there's a very serious risk of being stabbed to death:
A 24-year-old employee in a McDonald's restaurant in city's downtown Xujiahui area was stabbed to death early in the morning, police said.
The employee, surnamed Li, was stabbed as he tried to stop a customer sleeping in the restaurant
Yikes! That is absolutely horrible. I would totally support McDonald's employees being given tasers so they can tase these passed out, crazy bums.

Mar 29, 2010

Encounter with crazy antisemitic, anti-American man

I was browsing the Chinese Proficiency Test section at a small Beijing bookstore with my girlfriend recently. As you would expect to find in that particular section of the bookstore, there were a handful of Westerners and other non-Chinese-looking folks there, flipping through the books.

Suddenly, from ten feet away, I heard a middle-aged Chinese man start to rant loudly in semi-intelligible English. The man was had long shoulder length, ratty hair, and sloppy, partially dusty clothes. He was angry about something, and very disturbed. Using my Jason Bourne-like insticts, I rapidly identified escape routes, items I could use in our self-defense, and physical vulnerabilities of the irate man, all in a matter of seconds.

The crazy man started ranting at first with the f-word in English, which he followed with some unintelligible gibberish that could have been English, a Chinese dialect, or heavily accented Mandarin. He then ranted something in English something about "Americans". The crazy man yelled to no one in particular. He sprayed spit while he shouted, and you could see he was missing one of his front teeth — maybe he started a fight with the wrong bouncer in Sanlitun.

The crazy man appeared to be staring directly at one specific person. He directed his comments at a college-aged blond girl standing right beside us, who was also perusing books. The crazy man continued his rant to anyone that would listen, and the blond girl explained to everyone standing nearby that the man had tried to hit on her, she didn't pay attention to him, and then he became irate.

The crazy man ranted loudly for another three minutes or so. He switched between English, waidi ren-accented Mandarin, some type of countryside Chinese dialect, and finally German. The German really surprised me. He essentially repeated over-and-over these phrases:
  • "F-ck Americans!"
  • "Don't help Americans!"
  • "别帮美国人!" ("don't help Americans" in Mandarin)
  • "Jews!"
  • "Juden!" ("Jews" in German)
The anti-American comments are nothing to be surprised at, but the antisemitism is unusual. I can't say that I've ever personally encountered anything like that in China. It was very bizarre.

My Chinese friends tell me that mental health care in China is still developing. After seeing this kind of wild behavior, I believe it. It seems like there's a real need for accessible counseling. If he can speak three languages, this man must be a a pretty intelligent individual, but he's in need of some basic counseling, and maybe daily antidepressants.

I think this experience was indicative of a need to improve mental health care resources in Beijing and in China.

Mar 27, 2010

Boiled goose!

I didn't pay much attention to Lonely Island's "Boombox" song when I first listened to their album. After the accompanying video aired recently on SNL, I just can't get enough of the song:

This music video is what I watch on TV first thing in the morning and then again last thing in the evening.

"Boiled goose" just sounds so unappetizing. Is there any kind of poultry that wouldn't lose it's flavor after boiling? I love the visuals that go along with the boiled goose lyrics:

It occurred to me that Chinese cuisine has a lot of boiled meat dishes: 水煮鱼 (hot and spicy boiled fish) and 水煮肉 (hot and spicy boiled beef) are the first that come to mind.

After a quick image search for "boiled goose" in Chinese (水煮鹅), I have to say, the Chinese chefs make this dish look a lot more presentable than those nasty goose carcasses in the Lonely Island video. Five thousand years of research on how to boil meats has it's advantages!

Check it out:

I know which boiled goose I'd pick.

Mar 25, 2010

Man vs. Wild: China

If you're a little disappointed with No Reservations: Harbin, I highly recommend the Man vs. Wild episode from couple months back. It looks like they filmed it in Guangxi or Guangdong in the jungle.

This was one of my favorite Bear Grylls adventures. I'll not spoil the whole thing, but here's the highlights:

  • Bear Grylls running like a mad man through an alley and down a busy Chinese street to hop a ride on a pig delivery truck

  • Bear making a tennis racquet out of wood and vines, and using it to swat some bats down for his supper

  • Catching a live frog, pulling the skin off, and eating it raw

  • Making a rodent trap out of logs, which catches a bamboo rat, and then roasting it for his breakfast

I'm sure some of these things were planned out and staged, but it's a great show.

Mar 23, 2010

No Reservations: Harbin

I've been to Harbin in the winter before (old posts here and here), so I was very interested to see Anthony Bourdain's take on the city during the latest episode of No Reservations.

I like this narrative from the beginning of the episode, as Bourdain is gobbling down some ice cream:
I have to say, the cold is not the only factor here. There's a sort of constant haze of coal smoke. Gives it sort of a stuck-in-the-garage feel to breathing here. It's the carbon monoxide that makes it delicious.

When I visited Harbin, we found it hard to find any decent food. My Chinese sources tell me that up until a couple decades ago, northeast China basically had no fruits and vegetables. People there lived mainly on meat and grains, so it's natural that their culinary advancement has been stunted.

Since good food was hard to get, I was very curious what culinary delights the No Reservations team would find in Harbin. After watching the episode, I can say that Anthony Bourdain seems to have had pretty much the same experience as I did in Harbin.

Bourdains' local tour guides were just average. Here's a quick sampling of where they took him:
  • Boiled dumplings and beer at the Ol' Dirty Dumpling House. Look at Bourdain's thrilled look:

    Bourdain's guide, the Chinese guy with a comical Irish accent, was kind of amusing.
  • This young couple, who took Bourdain to a kebab joint, was as exciting as a pair of socks:

Why they would take Bourdain to a dumpy kebab place is beyond me. Greasy meat on a stick served over a plate covered with a plastic bag taste good only after a night of excessive drinking. When you're sober, they're just no good.

To top things off, the exciting couple gave Bourdain a skewer of silk worm larvae. This is gross, nasty stuff. Chinese people go out of their way to eat silk worm larvae, so why would you give it to Bourdain? Anthony Bourdain is big into organ meat — sweet breads, brains, stomachs. Bear Grylls is the guy that's always eating disgusting bugs and worms.

Notice that the guides always gave Bourdain that horrible Snow Beer to drink. (consistent 'D' rating on Beeradvocate).

I think the best part of this episode of No Reservations was when they go ice fishing at the end. Check out the episode's web site. The whole episode is on YouTube.

Mar 21, 2010

My views on: "What do Chinese want from a car?"

I enjoyed this post entitled "What Do Urban Chinese Youth Want From A Car?". The quick summary is that they want:
  • input ports for their MP3 players
  • cup holders in front of air conditioner vents to keep beverages cool
  • sunroof
  • steering wheel with lots of buttons on it
The post provides a good assessment. But let me give you my off-the-cuff list of what Chinese folks really want in a car. I'm pretty observant, and this list comes from what I've seen of the cars of Chinese in China, as well as in other places like California.

My list: What Chinese folks really want in a car
  • Solar powered, moving Flip Flap Plant on the dashboard

  • Stylish seat covers

  • windows tinted enough for vampires

  • random junk dangling from the rear view mirror

  • Huge "实习" (new driver) sticker on the back

Anything left off my list? I was going to have "Box of Kleenex in a fancy holder by the rear window", but that could happen anywhere.

Mar 19, 2010

"Hey, Laowai, no comparison shopping allowed!"

Funny story recently:

I was killing some time in Sanlitun Village browsing around a branch of this new electronics store called Sun Dan. It's the closest thing I've seen in China yet to Best Buy.

I was interested in some of the new 3G cell phones. Sun Dan has a great selection of floor models, so I walked around, looking at different phones.

As I played with each cell phone, I would make notes on a scrap of paper so I could review later on which phones were my favorite.

I was happily playing around with these cell phones for a while, when out of nowhere a homely sales chick comes up, gets all in my face, and says, "你不能写。" (You're not allowed to write.)

For those of you that speak Chinese, you'll notice that she used the familiar second person "你" and not the formal "您" that normally gets used between a salesperson and a customer.

Another quick language fact: "", the verb in that sentence, can mean "allowed to", or it can also mean "able to", as in the sentence Spider-Man is able to detect impending danger with his spider-sense.

Making use of the multiple meanings of 能, I looked up at the sales girl, and I say, "Really? But I am writing right now." My implication was, "Hey, you're claiming that I'm not able to write, but here I am, writing."

The floor manager was standing within earshot of us. I walked over to him and politely suggested that he focus a little more on managing his sales associates.

I find it bizarre that a store would be paranoid of customers doing a little comparison shopping while they browse. It's every more bizarre that a sales person would risk their commission by irritating a potential sale like that.

Mar 17, 2010

Gauging your accent in Mandarin

As a Westerner speaking Mandarin as a second language, have you wondered how funny your accent sounds to native speakers? Chinese people tend to be very nice about judging foreigners' accents. Unless you're very good friends with a Chinese person, they'll probably not tell you that your accent is horrible.

As in any foreign language, students of the Chinese language typically make progress from one level of fluency to the next. Here's my list of how I think our laowai Mandarin Chinese sounds to native speakers as we progress through the levels of fluency:
  • Level 1 (beginner): to native Mandarin speakers, your accent sounds like Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal, Viktor Navorski (before his English improves, during the first part of the movie).

  • Level 2 (intermediate): to native Mandarin speakers, your accent sounds like The Festrunk Brothers (the two wild and crazy guys from SNL).

  • Level 3 (advanced): to native Mandarin speakers, your accent sounds like Borat Sagdiyev .

After you get to the Borat level, you're very fluent, but with a pretty obvious accent. The nice thing about Mandarin, however, is that since so many wai di ren (transplants/out-of-towners) speak horrible Mandarin, you won't be identified as a Westerner over the phone. Native speakers will often be fooled into thinking you're some random wai di ren.

I think I'm somewhere in the Borat level currently. If I ever get to Level 4 (super-advanced!), I'll come up with a fictional foreigner from some American movie or sitcom to equate that level to.

I've got Level 5 (super-duper advanced) figured out already: the equivalent accent is Christoph Walz.

Mar 15, 2010

Wedding reception anecdote

Some time ago, I was at a Chinese wedding luncheon in Beijing. Everyone sat around large, round tables of about 14 people each, with a Lazy Susan in the center.

At one point during the meal, I summoned one of the waitresses over.

"Could you please bring us one of those bottles of red wine over there?", I asked her, gesturing to the beverage selection across the banquet hall. Keep in mind that our conversation is completely in Chinese.

The waitress nodded, and briskly walked over to the beverage area. She returned a couple minutes later with a room temperature two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. It appeared that my spoken Chinese ability was not quite as good as I had hoped.

I smiled and politely rephrased my request to the waitress, again in Mandarin, "I'm sorry, I actually was hoping for some red wine. Would you mind bringing a bottle over?" My friends at the table smiled at me politely.

While the waitress was away, I tried out an off-the-cuff, self-deprecating joke. Addressing the dozen or so Chinese acquaintances at my table, I said in an exaggerated tone, "I wonder what was wrong. Do I speak with an accent or something?!"

My joke totally bombed. Not one laugh. Not even a chuckle. Just straight faces and serious expressions. If I had any aspirations of doing stand-up in China for a living, they ended right then. What I though was brilliant observational wittiness was not humorous in the least to my table mates. What could be funnier than a foreigner asking for wine, being misunderstood due to poor pronunciation, and being brought room temperature Coke? That's comedy gold there.

I thought I had good joke material: it made fun of my own poor language abilities, and it had a sarcastic tone on top of that. I'm thinking that maybe my timing was off. I'll try with another audience next wedding reception I go to. I'll need to try hard to slur my words, though, because I'm like the American Dashan.

Mar 13, 2010

Chinese armored car guards: scary or not?

There are lots of banks in China. I have a pretty short commute to work, and I pass by about a dozen banks. In the course of passing by these banks, you'll often encounter armored cars, each of which contain a crack team of security guards. These guards, who appear to have just recently finished junior high and not started to shave yet, each has a menacing-looking shotgun. Here you go:

I've seen plenty of armored cars in America, but it seems like there's ten times as many in Beijing. I would attribute this to:
  • A larger, more densely populated urban area
  • An almost completely cash-based society. They don't use personal checks here. When I pay my rent, I give my landlord a thick, sweaty wad of 100 kuai notes.
I think that all the armored cars in Beijing are run by one company, called Zhenyuan. It's a pretty normal occurrence to be walking near a bank in Beijing, and then a dark green armored van pulls up. A half-dozen pubescent boys holding shotguns pop out like gophers, and they encircle a skinny fellow who carries either a briefcase or little bag of cash. The guards try to appear as serious and menacing as possible as they escort the customer into a bank or other financial institution. A few minutes later they all come out and hightail away.

Here's one pubescent guard and a skinny fellow with some valuable loot in his hands. Maybe bearer bonds? (Hey, it's just like Heat!)

Here's another fellow with a briefcase. Notice the armed guards covering all potential angles of attack. (I wonder if you could rent out one of these teenage guard units to escort you to your bar mitzvah/prom/wedding. That would give a guy some face!)

Here's a husband-wife pair toting suitcases of cash. (What business are these guys in? I want to learn more! I want suitcases of cash too! These two really need to learn about electronic banking.)

I've always wondered what kind of ammunition they have in those shotguns. Is it rubber buckshot? Bean bag rounds? Or do they have actual shot/slugs?

To get answers, I've tried to strike up conversations a few times with the security guards while they're waiting around outside the van. I guess they're under strict instructions not to chat with bystanders, because they completely ignore me. I'll be like, "Hey, how you guys doing today? It's a hot one, huh? Say, what kind of ammo do you guys carry? Can I touch your gun?" (Just kidding about the last question.)

Here is one such security guard that takes himself way too seriously:

Look at the mug on this guy. I bet he could play the lead role in the Chinese version of Observe and Report.

Anyone out there know what ammunition these youngsters are using? I'm pretty sure the government here wouldn't give them actual rounds that they could use in an uprising against the Party. Leave me a comment if you can find out. My personal guess: the shotguns are completely empty, they don't even have less-lethal ammunition. The extra shells on their holsters are inert, and it's all for show. Who really knows, though?

Mar 11, 2010

Mexican food night

We had Mexican recently at Luga's in Sanlitun. I like their happy hour booze selection and the sports bar feel of the place, but their food leaves something to be desired. My desire for better-tasting Tex-Mex food inspired me to make some of my own.

I've been making my own tortillas for a few years, and this time I was able to improve on things by using fresh lard. I've not seen lard being sold in Chinese supermarkets, but I discovered that it's easy enough to make. You can pick up loads of pork fat at your local produce market / meat market, and then render the fat yourself. While visiting my regular meat lady, I asked, "Hey, you got any pork fat?" She poked around in her freezer for a few seconds and pulled out chunks and chunks of skin and fat.

Below: prior to rendering fat in Fight Club

I cooked Emeril's Mexican rice for the first time, which also includes a healthy dose of lard. I thought it turned out ok, but Emeril calls for too much stock. I'd recommend using 3 cups instead of 4.

The enchiladas I made using my homemade tortillas were good. They made up for my Luga's enchilada experience, but it's slightly more work to do it yourself. I'd highly recommend getting a hold of some pork fat to make your own lard. It seems to really improve the taste of everything.

Mar 7, 2010

Broom closet man

Check out my masterpiece video about a surprise hidden in a broom closet beside the men's room.

Mar 5, 2010

Stupid words that expats use

At some point during the past couple years, more and more clever expats have started referring to Beijing as "The 'Jing". Does that term bother anyone else living here? Fortunately it's mostly limited to the Internet, and hasn't really crossed over to every day speech yet.

The college students in the Wudaokou neighborhood of Beijing call their home "The Wu". This term bothers me a little, but not as much as The 'Jing. I would say that to most Americans, The Wu makes us think you're talking about The Wu-Tang Clan.

The third annoying word that expats use is chuan'r. The Chinese character for kebab, or barbecued meat-on-a-stick, is 串, pronounced "chuàn". In Beijing, the locals add lots of r's (儿) to their speech, and it can sometimes start to sound like a bunch of pirates to the newly arrived. The result of the r-accent is that the "n" sound becomes an "r" sound, and chuàn is pronounced in Beijing as "chuàr" (串儿).

Expat writers are always spelling this word in English with both the "n" and the "r", which aren't ever pronounced together. When they write "chuan'r" in an article, it's confusing and incorrect.

In written Chinese, kebab is just 串. There's no 儿 involved; that "r" sound only comes out when speaking. If they're phoneticizing the Beijing pronunciation, they should write chuàr, and if they want to write the standard pronunciation, it should be chuàn.

Hope that they can start writing the correct word in the future.

And for all the expats, go ahead and say "The Wu" if you must, but avoid saying "The 'Jing".

Mar 3, 2010

To bus or not bus your tray

Whenever I'm in a McDonald's in Beijing, I'm reminded of the Mr. Pink "Tipping Scene" from Reservoir Dogs:

This scene reminds me of the tray-bussing habits of McDonald's customers in Beijing. I keep thinking of these couple lines of dialogue:
Mr. White: You don't have any idea what you're talking about. These people bust their ass. This is a hard job.
Mr. Pink: So's working at McDonald's, but you don't feel the need to tip them, do ya? Why not, they're servin' ya food. But no, society says tip these guys over here, but not those guys over there. That's bullshit.
When you go into a McDonald's in China, 90% of the people leave their garbage and slop on the table after they're done eating. They can't be bothered to take dump their trays out in the rubbish and clear the table for the next person, even if it's during the lunch rush when the McDonald's employees don't have time to clean up after them. There are always a few McDonald's workers around that will eventually clean off the table, but it's common courtesy to clean up after yourself. For some reason, manners go out the window at McDonald's.

I think we can all agree that McDonald's is a cheap, quick, fast food joint. Now, there are a half dozen quick and cheap Chinese-style cafeterias around my office for lunch. I'd reckon that they cost about the same as McDonald's. They're maybe $1 cheaper on average. At none of these cafeterias would anyone ever leave their disgusting filth on the tables after they're done eating. At the Chinese-style cafeterias, each and every person considerately takes his or her tray, dumps their rubbish in the trash, and return the tray to a central area in the cafeteria before heading out.

Like the fictional Mr. Pink, I'm very curious about this behavior: why do people bus their trays and clean up after themselves at the inexpensive company cafeteria, but they leave a huge disgusting mess and a table full of rubbish over at the inexpensive McDonalds? Both places are cheap and serve sub-par food. There are workers at both places that would clean up after you if you don't have the manners to clean up after yourself.

I can't figure it out.

[Photos from here]

Mar 1, 2010

McDonald's Mandarin lesson

Here's some handy Chinese to help you while you're ordering at McDonald's in Beijing.

(Don't pretend you're too authentic and local to eat at McDonald's. We all go there. I'm usually there once or twice a week myself.)

Here's the McDonald's phrase of the day:
  • In the US you say: "Supersized Double Cheeseburger value meal for here"
  • In Beijing, you would say this as: "双吉套餐。大号。在这儿吃。" (shuāng jí tàocān. dàhào. zài zhèr chī.)
Memorize that one so you can say it with speed and accuracy. Make sure you pause for half a second where I put periods, otherwise the cashier might not parse your sentence properly.

Don't be the laowai pointing at the picture menu and spitting out zhe ge zhe ge ("this one, this one") and nei ge nei ge ("that one, that one"). Be the smooth connoisseur of fast food who knows exactly what he wants, and order it with no hesitation.

Remember that in Beijing McDonald's and KFC, the bulk of the cashiers are real, local Beijingers, that usually speak proper Mandarin and Beijing-hua, so you've got a real chance to improve your pronunciation and accuracy every time you're in there.