I got through this winter without getting sick (not more than a few sniffles, anyway), UNTIL two weeks ago, when spring arrived and I got hit by a horrible cough, condemning me to long coughing fits every morning and evening for over two weeks. It was the kind of cough that I thought was “getting better” every day, until evening hit. It was bad, but not bad enough that made me go see a doctor. And it’s now finally almost faded away, about 15 days since it started. (You’ll notice I haven’t been blogging for this same time period.)
But this got me thinking about my own immune system in relation to China. After 16.6 years in China, has my immune system been “trained” at all? I don’t think there’s any way to definitively answer this question, but I’ve got a few thoughts, and I’m hoping others might share their experiences.
Growing up in Florida, I was a pretty healthy kid, especially once I got into my teens. My mom was fond of saying, “you rarely get sick, but when you get sick, you get really sick.” I barely remember getting sick at all in college, including the year I studied in Japan. After that I came to China.
My first year in Hangzhou, I had the obligatory newbie food poisoning incident and it was really bad, which ended with me getting an IV in a hospital (as so many illnesses in China tend to). And then as time went on, I would get colds more frequently in China than I had before. I still get hit by the “China germs sucker punch.”
I would expect, after moving to a new environment with a fairly dense population, swimming with a whole new world of germs, to get sick a bit more often than before. And I think this is what has happened, leading up to gradual new “China immunity” layer in my body’s defenses. And over a decade later, I feel that I do get fewer colds, provided that I don’t get too behind on my sleep. But I don’t feel at all confident anymore saying things like “I rarely get sick” now that I live in China.
All this leads me to a few questions I’ve been thinking about:
Do most expats from the USA (or other relatively sparsely populated western countries) get sick more frequently after moving to China?
Are most long-term expats able to build up a stronger immunity to Chinese germs?
Does a long stay in China lead to a permanently stronger immune system in other countries?
Do Chinese immigrants to the USA get sick less often in the USA than they used to in China?
It would be hard to answer these questions through research, and I realize there are quite a few variables involved (I’m no longer in my twenties, for example) but I’m interested in hearing my readers’ anecdotal evidence. So how about it: in your experience, is China an immunity training ground, or does it simply have its way with you until you’ve had enough?
I’ve recently commented on how the sudden rise of app-driven bike rental services in Shanghai is fairly staggering. From a casual look around the downtown area, it’s clear that Mobike and Ofo are currently the top dogs, and Ofo seems to be doing all right with its “cheaper” business model, despite its late entrance to the market. But I’ve recently learned that Ofo’s service has some pretty glaring flaws when compared to Mobike.
How Mobike and Ofo Differ
Both services use apps, but Mobike’s bicycles are more high-tech, and that makes a big difference. Mobike bikes have tracking devices embedded, and the bike locks are unlocked remotely through the network. Ofo bikes use simple combination locks that you can request the code for through the app.
So the Mobike service works like this:
Use the app to find bikes near you
Unlock a particular bike by scanning its QR code with the app
(The bike’s lock automatically unlocks after a few seconds)
Use the bike
Park the bike and manually lock it
Mobike’s services are informed the ride is over, and the bike’s location is made available to other users through the app
…and the Ofo service works like this:
Find a bike yourself (no tracking devices)
Send the bike’s ID number to Ofo via the app
Receive the combination to the mechanical lock
Unlock the bike with the combination
Use the bike
Park the bike and manually lock it
(Note: I don’t use Ofo myself, but I’ve spoken with people who do. Ofo bikes also have QR codes on their bikes, but they’re for the purpose of advertising the app, not unlocking the bikes. The Mobike QR codes serve both purposes.)
It seems like the Ofo system is fairly straightforward and would save a lot of money, right? Oh, but it has problems…
Ofo’s Locking Problem
Because Ofo uses combination locks, none of the bike locks are truly locked unless the last user changed the combination after closing the lock. And, it turns out, a lot of people don’t. A good number of Ofo bikes on the street are actually unlocked, if you just press the button on the lock.
When I first heard this, I was skeptical, but the very first bike I tried was unlocked. Later, I checked a sample of 20 bikes in the Jing’an area, and 4 were unlocked. So, 1 in 5. That’s a lot!
As it turns out, this isn’t Ofo’s worst problem, though…
People Are Publicly Stealing Ofo’s Bikes
Ofo bikes are locked with combination locks, and those combinations don’t change. So if you save the combination and can find the same bike again, you can use it for free. The only thing keeping you from using the same bike again is the sheer number of bikes out there and the other people using them. And the way that other people use the bikes is to request the combination through the app. But what if they couldn’t get the combination for “your” bike? To get the combination, other users need to read the bike’s ID number. But if this number is missing or unreadable, no one else can get the combination.
So this is how people are “owning” Ofo bikes. They’re getting the combination to a particular bike, and then scratching off or otherwise removing the bike’s ID number. I did a bit of hunting for “owned” Ofo bikes parked on the street, and did find a few. Logically, though, the “owned” bikes are probably going to be parked in less public places. I really wonder how many Ofo bikes have disappeared off the street.
I also wonder if this aspect of the “cheap bike” strategy has already been taken into account. Ofo has ample funding, after all. How many bikes can Ofo afford to lose and yet still have lower costs than Mobike, with its fancy high-tech bikes? Or, how many Ofo bikes need to be stolen before people realize that it’s easier (and not at all expensive) to just leave the bikes in the system? How long does it take before “owning” a ripped-off Ofo bike is uncool and/or shameful? Hard to say… and there are a lot of people in Shanghai!
Strange Competitive Practices
The other day near Jing’an Temple I snapped this shot of a few guys slowly escorting a “cargo tricycle” full of Mobike bicycles. The strange thing was the two of them were riding Ofo bikes!
I was in a hurry, so I didn’t even try to ask them any questions, but the guys were wearing clothes which read 特勤, which is probably short for 特殊勤务, something like “special forces” (a division of the police).
At least one Chinese person I showed these pictures to thought the uniforms looked fake, but who knows?
Ofo in Chinese Is “O-F-O”
Just a final note on the Chinese names of these two companies：
Yes, Ofo in Chinese is spelled out, just like the word “app” is spelled out in Chinese as “A-P-P.”
I noticed at the end of 2016 that Mobike seemed to be really taking off in Shanghai. But when I came back from Florida in January, it was a whole ‘nother story… Not only were there more orange Mobike bikes on the streets than ever, but yellow (Didi-backed) competitor Ofo was suddenly seriously competing, and even baby blue 小鸣单车 was upping its game. I’ve been seeing so many rows of Mobikes on the sidewalks of Jing’an District that I’m guessing there now must be nightly redistribution efforts going on to properly seed the city center. Now that the Uber war is over, this seems to be the new battlefront.
A few shots I snapped last week:
And one photo I downloaded on WeChat (not sure who to credit), which was labeled “#VCfunding“:
I just recently did an interview with SmartShanghai: [10-Year Club]: John Pasden of Sinosplice and AllSet Learning. It also has a tagline: A trip down memory lane with long-time Shanghai-based language specialist John Pasden. Dude speaks Chinese with the intensity of 1000 exploding Da Shans. That “exploding Da Shans” line cracks me up for many reasons.
Long-time readers of this blog will probably appreciate this answer I gave:
SmSh: I know you get this a lot — speaking specifically to your job, what are some tips for people trying to learn Chinese?
JP: You have to get out of your comfort zone. I know a lot of people that get out of their work “expat bubble” and talk to Chinese friends, but they’re only talking to Chinese people with pretty decent English. Not enough discomfort! Try talking to your ayi about her kids, or ask the fruit stand guy how much he pays for rent, or try to convince the guard in your apartment complex to stop smoking. You may think your Chinese isn’t good enough, but you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Look up a few words or phrases in Pleco, and give it a shot. Those are the conversations that will NOT be comfortable at first. You will likely fail hard at some of them, but those people are not going to switch to English, and they’re likely to have more patience for your bad Chinese than you do. And if they laugh, just assume that it’s because you made their day by even trying to talk to them in Chinese.
But rather than simply sharing this list, I thought it might be useful to give my sincere answers to these questions, because none of them are really stupid questions. They’re just kind of hard to answer briefly. So I’ll answer, but occasionally take the easy way out by linking to old entries of mine.
So, without further ado, here we go…
1. “So what is China like?”
This is the most common and hardest one to answer. It would be interesting to see a bunch of different long-term expats answer this in 200 words or less. Or maybe in haiku form. Anyway, it’s a tough question because it’s way too broad. But I actually do get why people ask this, and I think the motivation is good, so I’ll attempt to answer (and you can also see what people say on Quora).
The one time I really tried to answer this question was in a blog post I wrote in 2006 called The Chaos Run. In that post, I described “a near-perpetual state of excitement.” This place really is seething with energy.
Obviously, living in China is not all fun and excitement. Expats complain about life here a lot, and don’t tend to stay too long. An apt description of life in China is that these are “interesting times.” Just as the supposed Chinese curse implies that “interesting” is not always positive, neither is life in China. “Interesting” is good food, amazing work opportunities, and great people, but it’s also food safety issues, pervasive pollution, and infuriating social interactions. How much of the good and the bad you end up with depends largely on where you live in China, what you do here, whether you’re here alone or with a family, what you expect to get out of your stay here, and a bunch of other factors. And, of course, there’s the element of luck and the undeniable role of your own attitude about the experience.
But it’s definitely interesting.
2. “Wow, that must have been a really long flight!”
Yeah, I typically fly 13-14 hours just to get to the States from Shanghai, and then another 3-5 hours in the air to get home to Florida. I have learned that flying into California is no good, because I always need two more flights to get to Florida, and adding in the layover time, that will nearly always results in a trip over 24 hours! (It usually takes me 20-22 hours to get home, though.)
3. “Can you speak Chinese?”
Yes. I knew some broken Chinese before even coming over in 2000, but I wasn’t even conversational, really.
I also run a company called AllSet Learning which helps move highly motivated individuals closer to fluency every day.
5. “What made you decide to go to China?”
I wanted to see the world and learn languages while I was young! I kind of got hung up on the first country I stopped in, though, and I’ve been here ever since. No regrets.
6. “I heard the pollution in China is really bad!”
It is very bad. Beijing and other northern cities are way worse than Shanghai, but it’s not great anywhere.
I am personally not bothered by it here in Shanghai on a daily basis. I’m not as sensitive as some people to the pollution, even if I’m breathing in potentially harmful air 24/7. I would not want to live in Beijing, however, mostly for this reason (it’s a very cool city otherwise).
7. “I heard that in China [insert widely reported misconception]. Is that true?”
I don’t really mind questions like this too much, because I frequently hear crazy things this way that I’ve never heard while living in China. And honestly, truth is stranger than fiction. I hear bizarre stories every day about what’s going on in China. (It’s “interesting” here, remember?)
Websites like Shanghaiist cover this aspect of life in China pretty well. If you want more serious China news, check out Sinocism.
8. “Can you use chopsticks?”
I hear this question from Chinese people much more than from foreigners. Chinese people who don’t have much contact with foreigners are often surprised to see a foreigners using chopsticks. I usually inform them that it’s pretty easy to learn chopsticks, lots of foreigners can do it, and then I quickly change the subject.
9. “Do they have [insert foreign brand] over there?”
Some of the most common western brands you see everywhere are: Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Nike, Apple. This topic is too big for me, though. Here are a few articles on the topic:
Not really. I do have my bad days in China, but that’s to be expected, right?
I’d say it’s probably a good idea to expect culture shock, but actually, the less you expect at all, the less shocked you are. I arrived in China as a wide-eyed 22-year-old full of wonder, and just took it all in.
11. “What do Chinese people think of [insert foreign brand/person/country]?”
The state may control the media in China, but it doesn’t control the opinions of individuals. Sure, you’ll meet lots of people that parrot the party line echoed in the media, but you’ll also meet lots of people with their own ideas.
So what I’m saying is: you’ll find all kinds of opinions on any topic. That’s why the Sinosplice tagline is “Try to understand China. Learn Chinese.” The more people you can talk to, the more you’ll be able to appreciate the diversity of opinions and ideas here in China.
14. “So how much longer do you think you’ll stay over there?”
Most expats arrive in China without expectations to stay too long, and most only last a year or two. (The “interestingness” can get overpowering.) I was originally my plan to only stay 1-2 years as well, but eventually I decided to stay indefinitely.
I anticipate I’ll be spending some part of the year in China for the rest of my life, but I do plan to spend more and more time in the States, as I have started doing in recent years. I want my kids to spend more time with my parents, and to absorb some more American culture. Trips to the U.S. are also becoming increasingly important for my businesses, AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.
One common trend among expats in China is that once they have kids, they tend to leave so that they can put their kids in school in their home countries. (Even the Chinese who can afford it are trying to put their kids in school outside of China, and it’s becoming really common for high school, even, among families that can afford it.) My kids are 5 and 2 now, so there’s not a huge rush, but it is a factor too.
15. “When are you coming back for good?”
Once you marry into China, there’s no “coming back for good,” as far as I’m concerned.
16. “But really… are you ever coming back?!”
These questions are starting to sound like my mom.
How much would you pay for a little plastic box of Nintendo nostalgia? In the US, the NES Classic is going for around $200 on Amazon, while the Euro version is selling for around $230, and the Japanese version for $140 (which you better read Japanese for). I’m not sure how guaranteed the device is to be in stock, even at those prices, however.
So I was a little excited to find stacks of these things at a game shop in Shanghai on West Beijing Rd. (北京西路), near Jiaozhou Rd. (胶州路). The price for the Euro version is 900 RMB (about $130 at current exchange rates).
If you’re in Shanghai and want to seek out the shop, stay on the south side of the street east of Jiaozhou Rd, and look for a blue Playstation sign.
I’ve been back from ACTFL for a while, but immediately upon returning I discovered that a bunch of my websites (all hosted on the same shared server) had been infested with malware. So I had that to deal with, in addition to a mountain of other pre-Christmas things.
The server was likely infected because an old WordPress install (that should have been deleted) was exploited. The best fix was a clean wipe: change passwords, export WordPress content via mySQL database dump, re-install WordPress, and re-import each website’s content. Fortunately, my web hosting service, WebFaction, was really helpful. They detected and alerted me of the malware in the first place, and provided useful guidance helping me clean it up. WebFaction is not the best service for anyone relatively clueless about tech, but if you can handle SSH and, like me, don’t mind Googling Linux commands occasionally to get stuff done, it’s really excellent.
But back to ACTFL… It was great to talk to the teachers I met there, and although I was there representing Mandarin Companion this time, I also met teachers familiar with Sinosplice, AllSet Learning, and ChinesePod. It was invaluable to get this rare face-to-face teacher feedback.
Here are my observations from the conference:
I was last at ACTFL in 2008, when almost all Chinese teachers in attendance were university instructors, with a sprinkling of teachers from cutting-edge high schools. Now there are plenty of high schools, middle schools, and even primary schools represented. So one unexpected piece of positive feedback was that even middle schools can use Mandarin Companion’s graded readers, and the kids like them.
In 2008, pretty much all Chinese teachers in attendance were ethnically Chinese. The only exception I can remember was my own Chinese teacher from undergrad at UF, Elinore Fresh (who was a bit of an anomaly, having grown up in mainland China). But now many of those non-Chinese kids that studied Chinese in college and got pretty good at it have become Chinese teachers themselves, and are also attending ACTFL. I’ve always been a proponent of the learner perspective in language pedagogy, so this is a fantastic trend to see. Chinese and non-Chinese teachers can accomplish so much more by collaborating.
There’s a strong TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) faction at ACTFL, the lead proponent for its application to Chinese pedagogy being Dr. Terry Waltz. I got a chance to talk to her about her methods, as well as other practitioners such as Diane Neubauer, who contributes to a great blog dedicated to TPRS for Chinese called Ignite Chinese. It’s very encouraging to see classroom innovation in this space, and I am researching TPRS more.
Boston is a pretty cool city. I regret that I didn’t have the time to check it out properly.
When I attended ACTFL in 2008, I met the guys behind Skritter, which went on to become a world-class service. I didn’t make any similar discoveries this time, but there’s no substitute for direct communication with all the teachers back in the USA working hard to prepare the next generation of kids for a world that needs Chinese language skills more than ever. I expect to be attending ACTFL pretty regularly in the coming years.
I’ll be connecting with a few people at the convention, and meeting up with my Chinese teacher buddies. I also get to visit my sister Amy and high school friend Steve. If you’re a Sinosplice reader and you’re at ACTFL, though, please seek out Mandarin Companion and come by and say hi!
It’s 2016, and I thought my days of using a fax machine were well behind me. It turns out, however, that Hillsborough County in Florida allows mailed-in ballots and faxed-in ballots, but not emailed-in ballots. And due to the unreliability of regular post (I find that a lot of letters and packages simply never arrive these days), my options are down to fax or using an international delivery service like UPS or FedEx. But since those two each cost over $50 to send in my ballot, I opted to go the more archaic route: fax.
Since any major hotel in Shanghai has a “Business Center” (商务中心), I figured going to a nice hotel would be a good place to fax a document. Sure, it wouldn’t be the cheapest faxing option, but it would certainly be much less than $50, and I could get the help of the professional staff of a five-star hotel.
After calling ahead to the Jing’an Hilton and the Jing’an Shangri-La Hotel (both within walking distance of my office) to make sure both offer international fax services, I set out Friday afternoon to fax in my ballot.
Reality was a bit more complicated. The staff of both places (as well as a third, Yan’an Hotel, which I tried out since I was walking past it anyway) were actually not very familiar with using a fax machine, much less sending an international fax. Every trip resulted in a polite affirmative from staff that they could fax the document, followed by lots of calls on how to send an international fax, multiple attempts, and ultimate failure. The worst part was the way the fax machine’s “failure to send” message result was worded: “no answer or the line was busy.” “Or”?? Seems like in this case, the result could be clearer.
I began to suspect that the fax machine was only on during business hours, and also decided to take a friend’s suggestion and use an app. So I scanned my document, got it on my phone, and used an app called Genius Fax to send it in Friday night at around 8:30pm. Success!
I honestly thought that going the more human route would be easier and more certain, but when it comes to using an increasingly outdated technology, which relies on another increasingly outdated technology (international telephone calls), it just didn’t work out. I still don’t even know for sure if the main issue really was simply one of business hours and time difference, but at least the fax went through in the end.
So if you’re voting abroad, a few pieces of advice:
If you can’t vote by email, vote by fax. You have to waive your right to secret ballot to do this, but at least you can be fairly sure your vote has been received.
If you use the fax option, use an internet-based service. I used Genius Fax, but friends on Facebook also recommend FaxZero and HelloFax.
If you’re voting from abroad and you’ve received your ballot, it’s not too late to vote. So even though today is the official voting day, you still have time, especially if you choose the fax option. Votes from abroad can decide a close election!
Hopefully this helps somebody. Get your vote in! Coming from the state of Florida, I felt additional pressure to be sure to vote in this presidential election, and getting that “successfully received” message from the app was quite a relief.
My daughter is almost 5, and she has a penchant for “riddles.” At first, these started out super simple, such as, “what animal can fly?” or “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” Over time, they started to get more and more complex, morphing into questions such as, “what animal can fly but isn’t a bird?” or “what animals swim in the ocean but aren’t fish?” or “name three animals that live in the ocean but have no eyes.” These games are good linguistic exercises, reinforcing the vocabulary my daughter is picking up in the books we read her. In most cases, she can even do these riddles bilingually, and she enjoys quizzing her mom in Chinese on the ones I give her in English that she is able to answer.
Occasionally I’ve asked her to give me a riddle, and it’s usually something super simple, similar to the afore-mentioned “what is up in the sky during the day and gives us light?” one. Fair enough… I don’t expect the riddle of the Sphinx from a 4-year-old. But the other day she asked me this one:
What has 5 legs and lives in the sky?
Pretty certain that no animal has 5 legs, I figured she got the number wrong, and was counting a tail as a leg or something. So I guessed “dragon” and “pegasus” and the like, but she said those were wrong, and she knows a tail isn’t a leg. I was stumped!
The answer to the riddle is “a star.” (She’s most familiar with the 5-pointed star, which she’s always getting in sticker form.)
I was kind of blown away by this, because it’s a pretty cleverly crafted riddle. Trying not to be too quick to declare my daughter a genius, though, I gave some thought to what might be going on in her bilingual mind.
In Chinese, a 5-pointed star is called a “五角星,” literally, “5-corner-star.” But here’s the thing… “foot” in Chinese is 脚 (pronounced “jiǎo,” exact same pronunciation as 角 above), and it’s a word sometimes used to represent the whole leg. She hasn’t officially started learning Chinese characters yet, and she definitely isn’t aware of how the two Chinese words are written. So in her mind, is it all the same “jiǎo”? Is a Chinese five-pointed star a “five-legged star” to her?
I tried to investigate this question, but my daughter didn’t have much patience for my line of linguistic questioning (a trait she probably inherited from her mother). In the end, I got her to answer like so:
Me: Do you know what the 五角 in 五角星 means?
Her: It means “five legs.”
Her: [thinks for a minute]
Her: …or “5 corners.”
I’m not sure if she thought of that second meaning when she was devising her riddle, and neither is she. Language acquisition is a largely unconscious process, and that’s especially true for kids. She hasn’t come up with any similarly clever riddles since. We’ll see what happens.
As I write this the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump is underway. I tried hard to view this debate, but in the end I guess I just chose a place with a lousy internet connection. (Despite the ubiquitous use of VPNs, internet issues like this are still a source of daily frustration for foreigners living in China.)
The other day a question on Quora caught my eye: How are the Chinese media covering Trump? Good question! I am not an avid consumer of Chinese media. I do scan headlines and read occasional sources, but for issues like the American presidential race, I tend to stick almost entirely to English language sources. It’s not an easy question to answer objectively, that’s for sure, so it’s nice to see a variety of responses:
I did a research by going through all of Trump-related reports on China Daily since August. And here is what I found. Out of 711 articles under the section of “US and Canada”, how many times has Trump’s name made headlines? 11. One of them, technically wasn’t related to the election per se, it went Trick or Trump: The Donald, Pizza Rat among top Halloween costumes. And just out of curiosity, how many times has Panda Bei Bei? 4. Not bad, Bei Bei!
Trump is a comic star in Chinese media. Many people, mainly from two groups, wish he will be the next president of the U.S.
The first group are the rubbernecks. There is a saying in Chinese: 看热闹的不嫌事大. Basically, it means rubbernecks like to see boisterousness and do not care how serious the consequences would be. A typical comment from this group would be like “we would have four long years of comedy to watch if Trump wins.”
The second group believes that the best gift you can have is a stupid opponent. Typical comment is “I can’t wait to see how badly Trump can mess the U.S. up.” Though Trump has many hostile sayings about China, his capacity of doing anything of real harm is questionable.
Xiao Chen also links to this article which includes some very interesting poll results, essentially asking those polled which candidate they personally prefer, and which candidate will be better for China. Results below:
I noticed these posters near my home a while back:
They’re propaganda from the Changning District police department, telling people not to tolerate 10 types of illegal behavior. But the first 7 of the 10 items in the list relate specifically to 机动车 (motorized scooters), including illegal parking, blocking lanes of traffic, reckless driving, etc. All are extremely common on the streets of Shanghai.
These 机动车 are often blamed for bad accidents, and the drivers of motor scooters can be seen to flagrantly ignore traffic lights and other traffic rules all over Shanghai. The drivers frequently do not even have legal plates. Many in Shanghai (especially drivers of cars, but also pedestrians) have been hoping for a police crackdown for quite a while, but normally very little is done. There are rumors that Shanghai may eventually ban them entirely. I sure wouldn’t mind.
But what’s with the fists in the graphics above? Is this some kind of subtle suggestion that violence is the answer? It definitely feels odd. (Although the graphic of the fist punching through the wall sums up pretty well how the drivers of these motor scooters can make other residents of Shanghai feel.)
Here’s one that seems a little less extreme (and more in keeping with the usual propaganda style):
Here’s the text of the 10 illegal behaviors (same on all 3 posters) if you’d like to study it:
Note: This article originally mistranslated 机动车 as “electric scooter,” when “motorized vehicle” (normally referring to a scooter, not an automobile) is the correct meaning. “Electric scooter” would be 电动车 or 电瓶车 (both normally referring to scooters, not electric cars). Thank you to reader E.T. for pointing out this mistake!
It’s almost that time of year again: China’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival (or as the Chinese like to call it, “Chinese Thanksgiving,” without all the thanks giving and turkey). It’s that time of year when people eat a little snack called a mooncake.
Like many foreigners (and many modern Chinese), I am not fond of the mooncake (despite once participating in a mooncake-eating contest). Yes, I am aware there are many kinds. I have long since tried all the traditional kinds, such as 豆沙 (sweet bean paste) 莲蓉 (lotus seed paste), and 蛋黄 (egg yolk), as well as the fancy new kinds made with ice cream or Japanese mochi. Not a fan. But then I just recently had a freshly baked (not sweet) meat-filled mooncake, and I am a fan:
Yes, it took me 16 years in China to discover a mooncake I liked. It wasn’t exactly top-priority. The filling is referred to as 鲜肉 (it’s pork).
So, if you don’t like mooncakes, I feel your pain. But this kind (fresh!) is actually decent. I hear that is the kind people line up all day to buy.
It’s quite the cliche to talk about “the Uber for x” in the startup world. Those types of businesses tend to not work when they’re not Uber (and Uber itself had a had time in China). But there’s one that I really like: Mobike, AKA 摩拜单车. Like Uber, it’s app-based, and you open up the app to see not where drivers are, like Uber, but to see what parked Mobike bikes are near you.
Then you use the app to unlock the bike and pay 1-2 RMB for each ride. Lock the bike somewhere public when you’re done. So simple!
If you live in Beijing or Shanghai, you can even try out the app (without riding a bike) just to see what how many bikes are parked around you. There’s usually a decent number wherever I am in Shanghai. Once you know what a Mobike looks like, you’ll start seeing them everywhere in this city. (The new “punch buggy”??)
The only “catch” is that you have to pay a 300 RMB deposit to start using the bikes. That’s fair. Coincidentally, 300 RMB is also my “cheap bike budget.” It’s the amount I’ll pay for a bike that’s “good enough” to ride but is not likely to get stolen. Not a bad price for never having to worry about your bike getting stolen again.
Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting attitudes toward public spaces here in China. One of the most perplexing, from a western perspective, is one where one’s own home is kept as pristine as possible, while public spaces are treated with much less respect. Taken to the extreme, you might even say public spaces are sometimes treated like a dumpster: littering, dumping of liquids, and worse.
What blew my mind about this “public spaces don’t need to be kept clean” (AKA “the world is your dumpster”) attitude was how clearly and finely the line can be drawn. In some cases, I’ve seen apartment residents treat the hallway right outside their own apartments with this kind of total disregard for cleanliness: stacks of garbage, leaky garbage bags, and other jetsam dumped right outside their own apartment doors. (The idea is that it will be disposed of later, either by the resident who dumped it, or by the cleaning staff of the building. In either case, the garbage is kept out of the clean home, and anyone else who has to share the hall just has to deal with it.)
But I’ve also noticed a less common phenomenon that’s kind of the opposite: claiming public spaces for personal use. To use the “public space” of the apartment hallway as an example again, a resident might discover that the building storage closet in the hallway is not normally locked, and then store some of his own (not so valuable) stuff in that closet.
I noticed a pretty weird example (not at all typical, I’m sure) of this “the world is your closet” attitude just behind my Shanghai office building. Take a look at this apartment building:
See the stuff stacked outside the window? Yes, the roof has been turned into a closet.
I’m not sure how well this works, considering how often it rains, but there you have it.
In 2004 I wrote a blog post called To Stay in which I shared my intention to stay in China “indefinitely.” I can’t think of it as anything but a great decision for my career and my personal life. Since then, I’ve gotten married, had two kids, gotten my masters degree, had a good run at ChinesePod, and founded AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.
Is life in China challenging? I guess… Internet issues are the #1 (almost daily) frustration, but obviously pollution and food safety are major concerns, especially now that I have children of my own.
What I totally didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of seeing my parents grow old from afar. In that previous blog post, I even acknowledged that “the years before [my parents are] actually old were dwindling,” but I don’t think I fully appreciated what that meant. How could I?
This is the reason for my recent silence, pretty soon after resuming writing in June. My parents are now old, and my father’s health is suddenly not good, so I’m trying to get back to Tampa more often to see him (and my mom). Once a year no longer cuts it.
So I’m working a few things out, but I’m hanging in there. “Indefinitely” hasn’t changed, but I think I’ll be taking a lot more plane trips now.
I keep reading about how Pokémon Go is so wildly popular everywhere, and I tried to play it in China, but it just doesn’t work. I managed to use a VPN to create an account using my Google login, and I even caught one little creature (I think it was just part of a beginner tutorial), but then the virtual world (in China) was a vast wasteland… nothing to play. Later, I couldn’t get the app to connect to the server over 4G while I was out and about. Still later, the app acted like I didn’t have an account anymore.
I see now that there is already a Chinese Pokémon Go clone. This is one of the things that disturbs me so much about using the internet in China. It’s not just that we’re so often forced to use cloned apps instead of the real deal (although that, too, is annoying). It’s that we’re cut off from the rest of the world’s users, isolated.
Which is, of course, exactly the point. Even for Pokémon Go.
In March 1985, Wham! took a break from recording to embark on a lengthy world tour, including a ground-breaking 10-day visit to China, the first by a Western pop group. The China excursion was a publicity scheme devised by Simon Napier-Bell (one of their two managers—Jazz Summers being the other). It culminated in a concert at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Beijing in front of 15,000 people. Wham!’s visit to China attracted huge media attention across the world. Napier-Bell later admitted that he used cunning tactics to sabotage the efforts of rock group Queen to be the first to play in China: he made two brochures for the Chinese authorities – one featuring Wham! fans as pleasant middle-class youngsters, and one portraying Queen singer Freddie Mercury in typically flamboyant poses. The Chinese opted for Wham!
It would be cool to see those two brochures, if they still exist. (They’re probably in hilariously bad Chinese, if in Chinese at all.)
So how did the concert go? The Guardian gives an amusing account:
According to Simon Napier-Bell, the band’s manager, Michael tried to get the spectators to clap along to Club Tropicana, but “they hadn’t a clue – they thought he wanted applause and politely gave it”.
He said some of the more adventurous Chinese did eventually “get the hang of clapping on the beat, even learnt to scream when George or Andrew waved their butts”.
The diplomat reported that “there was some lively dancing but this was almost entirely confined to younger western members of the audience. Some Chinese did make the effort, but they were discouraged in this by the police.
This is one of those things that’s quite commonplace in Shanghai, and you even forget how bizarre it is. Take a look at the scene of this accident, which I photographed myself on Wulumuqi Road (乌鲁木齐路):
You can see that two scooters and two people are lying on the pavement. It might look like the people are holding their heads or even writing in pain, but actually they’re both on their phones. Bystanders seem unconcerned for their well-being mostly because the two people on the ground seem totally fine.
So why are they lying on the ground like that?
This is standard operating procedure in Shanghai: if you’re on a scooter or a bicycle of any kind and get hit, never get up. Lie there until the police arrive, and make sure that you obtain some kind of compensation to cover your “injury.” Get your cash on the spot, and don’t get up off the street and leave until you get it.
This “system” is super annoying, because every little accident results in a much worse traffic jam than necessary. It points to a serious systemic problem, though: this is what the common people feel they have to do. They have to look out for themselves, even if it means lying on the street and faking or exaggerating injuries, because no one else is going to.
Shanghai Disneyland officially opens for business on June 16, 2016, but Disney has been making a limited number of tickets available for many weeks for “testing” purposes. I actually wasn’t planning on ever going to Shanghai Disneyland (I’m from Tampa, just an hour away from Orlando, home of Disney World), but recently everyone I know has been scoring tickets through their personal connections, and my wife was no exception. She scored some tickets through our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s pre-school connections (those guanxi start early!), so the three of us did the Shanghai Disneyland soft opening thing on a rainy May 29th. 30,000 other visitors still showed up.
I’m not going to do anything remotely approaching a full review; this is just a collection of my own random observations.
Everything Looks Nice
For now, anyway, everything looks nice, meeting the standard I would expect from Disney. I do wonder how well the park is going to wear, with a projected 60,000 visitors shuffling through the park daily once it officially opens. Still, it all looked impressive enough to inspire me to take this lame selfie:
One thing that struck me as really weird, though, is that Disney seems to be dying the water in its artificial ponds and streams. Why?? So bizarre.
The Marvel Presence
Disney owns Marvel now, and while there were no major Marvel “rides” or characters strolling the grounds, there was a “Marvel Cinematic Universe” installation. It was there that I witnessed this impressive display of American soft power:
OK, this is Disney, so expect long lines. At one point, in a very brief period of insanity, I got in line for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster even after being told the wait was 3 hours. (My wife and daughter were going to go do the Peter Pan ride.) After I was told the wait was actually 4 hours, I snapped out of it and went and joined my family for the scant two-hour wait for Peter Pan. (Hey, at least we were together!)
One thing that impressed me about Disney was the ubiquitous wheelchair access that is still fairly uncommon in China. It was good to see people in wheelchairs also getting the Disney experience.
I should mention that there is a “Fastpass” option that allows ticket holders to skip long lines if they show up for the designated ride at the right time. I had thought these were for sale in Disney World (adds a nice class struggle aspect to Disney’s lines), but in Shanghai you just have to line up to get them, until all the time slots are gone for the day. So you have to choose between lining up for hours to get on a ride and lining up for hours to get a Fastpass.
For the first half of the rainy day of waiting in lines, I was sort of regretting coming at all, but two things happened to brighten my mood. The first was a random Chinese high school kid giving me an extra Fastpass for the Tron lightcycle roller coaster. I was waiting in line, alone (the line was down to “just” two hours later in the day), and he targeted me to give away his extra Fastpass, practicing his English at the same time.
Yeah, as modern as Shanghai is, there are still plenty of inconveniences that piss off us cranky laowai residents. But then this kind of thing happens. It really improved my mood, and probably my whole opinion of the day at Disneyland.
The Tron lightcycle ride was a lot of fun.
Thanks, random Chinese high school kid!
The other thing that inexplicably brightened my mood and threw me into a bout of irrational childish glee was running into Darth Vader on patrol with two Storm Troopers. The great thing about him was not that he was tall, or that he was commanding, but that he was in character. He didn’t shake any hands or pose for any pictures. He was all business. There was a little boy trailing around behind him, dying to steal a moment of his attention. Vader brutally ignored him.
Then when Darth Vader reached an overlook, he angrily shook his fist at the park below. I liked to imagine that was him resenting his new overlord, the Disney corp.
OK, so there’s this parade everyone seems to make a big deal out of. It was almost canceled because of the rain. The parade was better than I expected, and I found the Frozen ice monster to be the highlight:
Troops of Chinese girls in blond wigs was also kind of amusing (here’s just one):
I mentioned that I’m most familair with Disney World which is, by the way, quite old already. So it was interesting to see how Disney would make use of new technology in its most modern park. The answer? Liberal use of projectors. Projected images on walls, on ceilings, on water, even on a whole castle. It works well, and it’s even quite cost effective. The final light show, which used to be mostly fireworks, now makes a whole lot more use of projectors and lasers. (Also better for the environment.)
Would I go again? No way. At 30,000 visitors, the park already felt very crowded. Lines were ridiculously long. And the projected visitor volume once it officially opens is 60,000 people. That is insane.
The sad part of this is not only that visitors will feel ripped off by their unexpected visit to LineLand, but also that the Disney staff, so carefully trained, are definitely going to have the cheery enthusiasm pounded out of them by the relentless onslaught of Chinese tourists. My wife observed how most Chinese guests coldly ignored all the Disney-style friendly greetings offered up by the staff.
I wish Disney’s famous service could be a shining example for China, but I’m not too optimistic about that.