A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):
> Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.
> Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.
> Friend:I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.
> Tutor: …
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)
How poisonous would the very air you breathe need to be to drive you away from a city you otherwise love? The question seems kind of absurd, but I would think it has become very real to the residents of Beijing (especially the non-locals).
While the article is about Beijing, this paragraph definitely reminded me of some of the things I’ve also felt about Shanghai:
> Beijing, after all, has much going for it in these heady days. Possibilities abound. Opportunity knocks. There’s a buzz here, a palpable energy. It’s a city with edge, full of quirky characters doing interesting things. Change is the one all-pervasive constant. The Beijing zeitgeist is a shape-shifting polymorph, the city a suitable setting for self-reinvention. It’s impossibly big and yet it offers the intimate charms of a small town – that sense of community that many of us found missing back home.
Those that have taken root in Beijing probably might be forgiven for assuming that this feeling is not to be had in Shanghai. I’d say the main difference is that Shanghai is not “impossibly big.” Part of its charm is that the “downtown” city area (obviously, Pudong is not included) is actually relatively small.
It’s been a while since I got my copy of Tales of Old Peking. I’ve taken my time going through it. It’s a patient a book, its contents largely magazine-style, most articles only indirectly related to each other. A book like this doesn’t demand your attention or keep you frantically turning those pages until the end. But it’s still a fascinating collection of accounts of old Beijing, through the eyes of foreigners. Below are a few of the quotes I enjoyed the most:
On the City
> I visited Peking about thirty years ago. On my return I found it unchanged, except that it was thirty times dirtier, the smells thirty times more insufferable, and the roads thirty times worse for the wear. —Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, The Breakup of China, 1899
> … But in spite of so much that disgusts and offends one in this wreck of an imperial city, who can deny the charm of Peking, that unique and most fascinating city of the East! –Lady Susan Townley in My Chinese Note Book, 1904
> …if you have once lived in Peking, if you have ever stayed here long enough to fall under the charm and interest of this splendid barbaric capital, if you have once seen the temples and glorious monuments of Chili, all other parts of China seem dull and second rate… when you have seen the best there is, everything else is anticlimax. –Ellen N. LaMotte, Peking Dust, 1919
I may be a member of the Shanghai faction, but I’m not totally immune to the charms of Beijing either.
On Foreigners in China
> As I am here and watch, I do not wonder that the Chinese hate the foreigner. The foreigner is frequently severe and exacting in this Empire which is not his own. He often treats the Chinese as though they were dogs and had no rights whatever – no wonder that they growl and sometimes bite. —Sarah Pike Conger, Feb. 1, 1899
> He has been in Peking nearly four months now, in a comfortable Chinese house studying Chinese history, smoking opium in spite of the prohibition, and frequenting only the Chinese with whom he appears thoroughly at home. He is really very original.–D. de Martel & L. de Hover, Silhouettes of Peking, 1926
The more things change, the more they stay the same?
I just got back from a business trip to Beijing. I was representing ChinesePod at the Hanban’s recent “Exhibitions of Resources of Confucius Institutes and World Languages.” Despite having lived in China for over 9 years, it was my first time in northern China in the winter. Here’s what I noticed:
– Chinese 暖气 (central heating) is awesome. I’m used to winters in Shanghai, to only being warm for short periods of time during the winter, to the floors being freezing for months on end… so I was not prepared for my hotel being “boxers and a t-shirt” warm the whole time. And the floors weren’t cold at all. (Now I also see why visitors from the north are so wimpy here in the winter.)
– Wow, the former Olympic Village is a desolate ghost town (but the “You and Me” theme song is still playing on a loop there). It’s such a huge space; you’d think that it would be utilized a little better post-Olympics. The exhibition I attended was in the “National Conference Center,” but drivers didn’t even know where that was; when I asked to be taken to the 国家会议中心 (National Conference Center), I was invariably taken to the nearby 国际会议中心 (International Conference Center). I guess even the massive new conference center isn’t getting much use yet.
– The world’s largest LED screen at “The Place” is impressive… but it’s kind of sad. That mall doesn’t seem to have a ton of traffic still, and the screen already has more than a few dead pixels. (The screen faces downward, by the way, and it’s only on at night.)
– When I ordered a “Hawaiian pizza” at a cafe, I got a pizza with spam, dragon fruit, banana, apple, and kiwi fruit on it. Yikes.
(Normal blogging to resume soon… Recent spottiness is due largely to lots of time spent on some “new research.”)
I was delighted to discover churros in Beijing, and with ice cream! (Sure, why not?) But the second English name threw me for a loop: “Kyrgyzstan Things Fruit.”
I don’t know why “churros” wasn’t enough, but apparently this is another casualty of horrible character-by-character machine translation. So we have a case of:
> Foreign word → Chinese transliteration → horrible machine translation to English
> churros → 吉事果 → “Kyrgyzstan Things Fruit”
Why go all the way to machine translation when you started with a foreign word in the first place? Did someone think that the machine translation of a transliteration might help out English speakers? Why is Kyrgyzstan the default translation for 吉?? There are no answers here… moving on.
I thought this was a rather clever bit of signage:
In context, and especially next to its “opposite” icon, there’s absolutely no question what the above icon stands for. Out of context, though, it can be a bit puzzling. I showed this to a few Chinese friends (out of context, of course), and they didn’t get it on their own.
(Hint: No, it has nothing to do with any characters in WALL-E.)
During our recent trip to Beijing, conversation naturally turned to comparisons of Shanghai and Beijing. I don’t want to rehash that tired topic (again) here, but there were three particular anecdotes told by Chinese friends which I found amusing. All involved interactions with the locals in which the storytellers’ values clashed with the locals’.
I’ve recreated them below, in spirit, at least, and translated them to English, but I’m not revealing the cities. See if you can identify the city from the story.
> I wanted to take the bus to the nearest supermarket, so I asked a middle-aged person on the street. The conversation went something like this:
> Me: Excuse me, which bus can I take to the supermarket?
> Man: Bus? What do you want to take a bus for? It’s not that far, and you’re young! Just walk. The weather is great. Go straight up that way 5 blocks, then turn left.
> Me: Thanks, but I’d like to take a bus, so…
> Man: I’m telling you, it’s a great walk! You don’t need a bus! Just walk up that way 5 blocks…
> I wanted to buy a bottle of water in a small store.
> Me: I’ll just take this bottle of water. All I have is a 50.
> Shopkeeper: I can’t change a 50.
> Me: Well, I don’t have change, so…
> Shopkeeper: I told you, I can’t change a 50. Come back when you have change.
> I needed to buy a lighter, so I sought out a nearby convenience store.
> Me: I’d like to buy a lighter, please.
> Cashier: A lighter? You don’t want to buy that here.
> Me: What do you mean?
> Cashier: Lighters are way cheaper at the shop down the street. You save 2 RMB!
> Me: Thanks, but I’d like to just buy one here, so….
> Cashier: I’m telling you, they’re cheaper down the street! You don’t want to throw money away, do you??
My wife and I spent most of our time on Bei Luogu Xiang (北锣鼓巷) or Nan Luogu Xiang (南锣鼓巷). We stayed in a nice little 四合院 hotel in the area called 吉庆堂. Thanks to Brendan, we ended up at a bar called Amilal both nights, which was a pleasant 20-minute walk from our hotel.
We had a good time, and my Shanghainese wife is liking Beijing more every time we go.
Yeah, I’ve had exactly two experiences whereby hair was removed from my head in Beijing, and both were less than satisfactory. So I feel complete confidence in making this huge generalization: no one in Beijing can cut hair.
The first time was when I was doing the tourist thing with my parents over the summer. I decided to try to get a shave from a barber shop rather than do it myself. Big mistake. I should have been clued in by the hesitation when they replied that “yes, they can give me a shave.” Maybe it was my morbid sense of curiosity as to how well they could do it. (Not well, as it turns out.)
They knew it involved a hot wet towel, some form of lubricant, and a razor. (Yes, a new, clean razor.) They didn’t use shaving cream, so I think it was some form of lotion (or maybe hair gel… ha). The shave was kind of painful and took waayyy too long. They didn’t have chairs that reclined to the right angle, so one of the barber shop guys’ job was to hold my head during the shave. (That must have been tiring… I have a big head, and it’s relatively full of stuff.)
Anyway, it took over 40 minutes, and I was left with a shave that looked OK, but was clearly a bad shave if you touched my face.
Last Thursday night in Beijing I decided to shave my head. I had been attempting to grow my hair out a bit, but I was getting tired of it, and I also came to the startling revelation that I am not a hippie. So Frank Yu and I ended up in a tattoo/piercing parlor at midnight, where the guys said that shaving my head was no problem.
Photo by sandyland on Flickr
The thing is, their electric razor choked and cut off about 2/3 of the way through shaving my head. The front was still long. They got the razor working again, just long enough to give me the traditional Chinese little kid haircut, and then it quit again. (I like to think it was my thick, manly shock of hair that choked the feeble device, but realistically I think they just didn’t charge it well enough.)
Anyway, what should have been the simplest haircut ever ended up taking over an hour as they struggled to get the electric razor working. In the end, the barber had to finish the job with scissors.
So, after living a lie on this blog for over a year, probably, my haircut once again matches the one in the picture at the upper right corner of Sinosplice.
The whole Shanghai vs. Beijing debate is somewhat tired, I know, so I’m not interested in rehashing it. I’m not going to bash or gush over either city. Rather, I’ve had sort of a change of heart about Beijing, and I’d like to tell why. To be honest, the more time I spend in Beijing, the more I like it. But I doubt I’d ever voluntarily relocate to Beijing.
Still, if I found myself in any of the following scenarios, I’d definitely choose Beijing:
– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with the Beijing accent or couldn’t stand hearing other dialects (there are many such students, I know)
– If I were a student of Chinese that insisted on only the very best in Chinese pedagogy that the mainland can offer
– If I were a student of Chinese enamored with xiangsheng
– If I were really interested in Chinese politics
– If I were really into the Olympics (this one has a shelf life of only a little over a year, though)
– If I were an artist or musician of any kind
– If I were really into Beijing’s hutong and siheyuan culture
– If I had a love of baijiu, that vile white rice wine
– If I liked big cities but couldn’t stand the pressure of living in a very fast-paced city
– If I were rabidly anti-corporate (I’ve noticed that international chains like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut are much more widespread in Shanghai than in Beijing)
The only one that comes close to describing me is the last one. I’m not real happy that the restaurants which surround my apartment near Zhongshan Park are nearly all chains; it’s hard to find a good, privately-owned restaurant around here. I noticed about Beijing this last visit that there are so many little cafes and bars still. (One of the things Dave misses about Beijing most, it seems.) The only bar in Shanghai I’ve ever really felt comfortable in is the old Tanghui, and it’s long gone. None of the others have that vibe, and most aim for a bigger, “higher class” crowd.
Another thing that does make a difference to me is the fast pace of Shanghai. I don’t like it. It gets under my skin and in my bloodstream. I can feel it happening, but I can’t seem to prevent it. Hanghzou was totally relaxing, and Beijing is a lot closer to Hangzhou in that respect. And yet, in that easy, relaxed atmosphere I feel like I could float along forever and never do anything with my life. One of the main reasons I choose Shanghai is closely related to the fast pace, I think: Shanghai is a better place to get into business. And because I’m in China for the long haul, I’m very interested in where work prospects are best.
I’m not the kind of person that makes a huge deal about where I live. I feel that I could be happy in most environments, if I’m there to do something I want to do. The bottom line is that I choose Shanghai because my wife is here and my work is here. I’m happy here. But every time I go to Beijing I see more reasons to love it, and I think that in another life I could easily see myself in the Beijing camp*.
*Worth mentioning: I’ve never been in Beijing in the winter or during a dust storm.
Just got back from Beijing. I have more thoughts on that city, for those that can stand them, but I’ll be posting them in a few days. In the meantime, you can read Brendan’s account of my little meetup with him.
> The landlord was sweet as pie. She was wonderful. Her boyfriend was charming, all smiles, a real modern guy with “Starbucks” latte in hand. And then in walked “Auntie.” She was a dumpy, troll-like figure with a sour, peasant visage that betrayed no sense of warmth or mirth. It was quite a miracle when I saw her face actually begin to brighten into a grin when she met me… if only I knew.
Last Monday I had the pleasure of meeting Wen Ling (温凌) of Ziboy.com in the flesh. Although I interviewed him once upon a time, we hadn’t communicated much since then. I was happy, then, to get an e-mail from him out of the blue saying he was going to be in town and did I want to meet up.
I was hoping that he was going to show up with a camera around his neck, because the only angle I could possibly recognize Wen Ling from would be the absolute profile shot. (He never posts any other photos of himself.) He didn’t show up with his camera out–and in fact I never even saw his camera–but he had no trouble identifying me.
Talking with Wen Ling, I found out he has a personal connection to Shanghai. He thinks of himself as a Beijinger, but he actually spent some of his early years in Shanghai, his mother’s hometown. He even understands quite a bit of Shanghainese. Still, he wouldn’t want to live here. Beijing is his home.
There was one point in our conversation which, to me, made Wen Ling feel distinctly non-Shanghainese in his outlook. He told me he no longer works as a photojournalist, even though it paid well and he really enjoyed it. He quit the job because what he wanted most was to pursue his art. As a photojournalist, he simply never had time for it.
I know this type of person exists in Shanghai too, but they seem so marginalized here. Somehow in Beijing pursuing art is just natural…
Last Tuesday and Wednesday I was in Beijing on ChinesePod business. I can’t really talk about that, but hopefully our reasons for being there will all be public by the end of the month. This trip was significant for other reasons, though — I got to (briefly) experience Beijing as a non-tourist for once, and to finally meet some guys I’ve been communicated with over the internet for years (that’s hard to believe) without ever meeting.
The last time I was in Beijing was 2001. I visited twice that summer, once with my friend Ari as part of a big long trip, and the other time with my little sister. It had been 5 years since I saw it last, and with all the preparations for the Olympics, I was looking forward to seeing all the changes. I didn’t get to see any, though. My last visit to Beijing had been as a tourist, and this time I didn’t go to any of those same places. Geographically, the visits didn’t overlap a single bit. Even points of arrival and departure were different; this was my first time flying to and from Beijing. So without any physical overlap, I couldn’t really compare from a chronological perspective at all.
My impressions of Beijing were very good this time, though. The weather was great, and the areas of Beijing I spent time in were all pleasant. I think what impressed me most, though, was the laid back feel of the city. I know that Shanghai is extremely fast-paced and business-oriented, but perhaps I had thought Beijing was too, at least to a greater degree. To me, Beijing felt more comparable to Hangzhou in that respect. In Hangzhou, people go to West Lake to just sit around and play cards all day long. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Shanghai.
I met up with Roddy (Chinese Forums, Signese) first, and a little later Joel (Danwei) joined us at a cafe/bar on Houhai. Brendan (Bokane.org) organized a get-together at a bar called Sandglass (a very predictable selection, according to Roddy). There I met David (AdsoTrans) and Jeremy (Danwei, Danwei TV).
It’s always interesting to meet in person the people you only know through online communication. There were some differences between my expectations of these guys and what I actually experienced.
I have chatted with Roddy a lot over the years, and we’ve helped each other out with online projects more than once. I was already familiar with his sense of humor. Although I didn’t know exactly what he looked like before I met him, there weren’t any surprises there.
Joel has been an extremely helpful commenter on Sinosplice over the years, and has helped me out with various translation issues. As any reader of Danwei knows, the man is an impressive translation powerhouse, and he’s an all around good guy as well. (He even bought me an ice cream.) No real surprises here.
I had actually met Brendan once before in Shanghai, but that time was brief and alcohol tinged. This time I got a better feel for the guy, and I think he’s pretty much exactly like his online persona with one big exception: he’s more cheerful in person.
What does one expect of a computational linguist who developed a free, impressive online machine translation system? A quiet, geeky guy, that’s what. I had chatted with David over IM multiple times, but I guess I didn’t get a good feel for his personality. In person he was funny and outgoing and didn’t look at all like what I expected. Also, he’s Canadian!
I have a lot of respect for Jeremy, but somehow I got the impression of a rather formal, business-like person. Was I unfairly stereotyping budding media moguls? Anyway, Jeremy turned out to be a really funny, gregarious guy. It was really good of him to stop by after just getting back from a blogger conference in Hangzhou. I imagine he is quite bloggered out now.
Hopefully I’ll be making trips to Beijing more often in the future. Shanghai is the place for me for the foreseeable future, but Beijing is definitely a place I’d like to spend more time.
Man, I was just in Beijing Tuesday and Wednesday, so missed out on the free physical affection and its fallout. What I didn’t miss is the sociopolitical and cultural implications, thanks to Greg’s brilliant editorial on the incident: China Says “No” to Half-assed Attempt at Affection.
I’ve mentioned Danwei TV on my blog before, but I think it’s about time I devoted a post to its praise. I liked some of the earlier episodes, but with the arrival of the extremely entertaining Sexy Beijing hosted by 苏菲, the Danwei team has really raised the bar. The show’s parodying of Sex and the City–from the name to the appearance of the host to the “typing on the computer” bedroom scenes–is not so subtle, and it works beautifully. This is what good alternative media looks like, people.
In the latest episode Sexy Beijing tackles a topic that many China bloggers have covered before: Chinese people’s crazy English names. (Read my Name Nazi post for my stance on this.) The way this episode is done really breathes new life into the issue.
The People have spoken through their partner, The China Daily, that unrivaled bastion of integrity on a never-ending quest for Truth. There has been a new survey on the top 10 most livable cities in China.
I am compelled to make a few statements.
1. What number is Beijing? Oh, I see… it’s not on the list. It’s at a distant #15. (Take that, Roddy, Brendan, and Eden!)
2. Hangzhou is #6. True, it’s not number one, but modesty is a very Chinese virtue, you know. (Plus with weather and transportation like Hangzhou’s, it really doesn’t deserve to be #1.)
3. Continuing with the modesty trend, Shanghai is sitting pretty at #8. Also, 8 is a lucky number in China. (Score!)
4. Speaking of lucky numbers, there’s an unlucky number too, and it’s 4. Due to unstoppable homophonal forces, 4 is the Chinese number of death. Which city got the place of death? Chengdu. (Take that, Chengdu!)
5. Tianjin is not on the list at all. What a shame. (Take that, Micah!)
6. Xi’an is not on the list either! (Take that, Matt!)
7. So #3 on the list is… Mianyang? Mianyang? Huh?
8. The #1 city is Dalian. I have a friend who used to trumpet Dalian’s wonders to me nonstop, until he forsook it for Hong Kong. I guess a lot of people agree with you, buddy. (Take that, Derrick!)
Thanks to chinochano for discovering this story before me and writing about it in a post with more CSS image floats than you can shake a stick at.
The other day I had this IM conversation with a friend:
> 没有空: you got plans for [the October holiday] week?
> John: I was thinking of going to Beijing
> 没有空: 哦。 [Oh.]
> John: You ever do any traveling around China? No interest?
> 没有空: 我反对旅游。太费力，太费钱，太麻烦。 [I’m against travel. It’s a waste of energy and money, and it’s too much hassle.]
> John: you sure you belong outside the USA?
> 没有空: there’s a difference between moving someplace and staying for a while, which I’ve done many times, and short term travelling.
> John: Yeah. Travelling is fun. Moving is difficult and stressful.
> 没有空: 切 [as if!]
> 没有空: moving is purposeful and noble. travelling is useless and ignoble.
> John: How is moving noble??? It’s just necessary. That doesn’t impart any nobility. Travelling is much more noble because it represents a voluntary effort to become more familiar with an unfamiliar place — to better understand the world you live in.
> 没有空: and waste time and money and disrupt the work you should be doing.
> 没有空: 只有超级英雄喜欢搬家！只有流浪痞棍喜欢旅游哼！ [Only superheroes like moving! Only vagrant scoundrels like traveling!]
> John: work is not life. Any life of your own outside the workplace is a disruption of work.
> 没有空: not workplace work. One’s own work. Travelling, like drinking, is a way to hide from one’s responsibilities.
> 没有空: how can you 为人民服务 [serve the people] if you are traipsing around tourist sites?
> 没有空: nice 吹ing牛 [bullshitting] with you but I got to get to work…
While it’s true that my friend doesn’t really like travelling, I know he was partly just being facetious. I can’t really fathom how people can dislike travel, though.
I want to travel more.
P.S. I should be arriving back in Shanghai this afternoon, completing a 27-hour train from Changchun. Mission accomplished! (sort of)
Since I personally verify every blog that is added to the China Blog List, I see a lot of blogs. Unfortunately, I have very little time these days to read blogs, and I’m not really looking for new ones to add to my reading list. One that nevertheless caught my attention, though, was Talk Talk China. I especially like DD’s entries.
There are not a lot of entries up yet, but these are the ones I liked:
– Language Rapists. Another variation of a familiar theme. Worth reading. It has a great closing line. (Here’s my version of this rant.)
– No, You’re Not Really Tone Deaf. Sometimes I feel this way, but I’d never write something like this. …but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it when someone else does!
– Beijing Cab Driver Excuses. Pretty funny. Read the comments… I found the comparison between Shanghai and Beijing cabbies to be kinda interesting.