Tag: personal


Dec 2004

Legend of the White Ferret

You ever hear the stories about the alligators in the New York City sewers, or the monkeys and boa constrictors living in the wilds of the Florida Everglades? What would you say to a story of a white ferret living in the bushes surrounding an apartment complex in downtown Shanghai?

The white ferret of legendI probably wouldn’t pay much attention if I heard such a story, but I never did hear it. Rather, I’ve seen it multiple times with my own eyes, scurrying from one clump of bushes to another, always at night. Unmistakably a ferret.

I’m moving into a new place in Shanghai next weekend (there’s a post about that coming soon), and I’ve been thinking about what I’ll miss about my current place. I’ll miss its convenient downtown location. I’ll miss the view of the city lights out my bedroom window. And, I suppose I’ll miss the mysterious white ferret.


Dec 2004

Untested Cooking Scheme

Back in the days before I had an ayi to cook for me, I taught spoken English classes at ZUCC in Hangzhou. I had a pretty nice apartment there with a full kitchen. I could have easily hired a cook there too, but never did. I rarely cooked myself, besides boiling frozen dumplings in instant soup and then dousing them with sweet and spicy sauce. Most of my meals were spent with my awesome co-workers at ZUCC.

Still, in my last semester at ZUCC I hatched a plan. It was cunning. It was brilliant. It was never put into effect. But maybe there’s still hope for some enterprising teachers in China if I share it in my blog.

OK, let me lay it out for you.

  • When I was there, the teachers at ZUCC liked home-cooked meals, but they were lazy. For some reason they were also unwilling to hire a cook.
  • The students ate in the cafeteria day after day. They longed for home-cooked food, but had no cooking facilities. Some of them were even great cooks, but had no way to share their gift.

Do you see where I’m going with this? You may think you do, but it gets better.

The process goes like this:

  1. Announce to each class that you’re holding a cooking competition in your own home. Students who wish to enter should enter in teams of 2 or 3. Have them sign up and include what evenings they’re free. Share with them your judging criteria and tell them what cooking facilities/supplies you have. Tell them they will be cooking enough food for 4-5 people.
  2. Create a schedule for the teams. There are several ways you can do it. If you have a lot of classes, you might want to assign a whole week (Monday through Friday) to each class. Each night of that week one team would come to your place and then cook and eat with you. Alternatively, you could assign a day of the week to each class, and a different team could come every week.
  3. Tell the students they have a 20rmb budget for the dinner (which is plenty). They know what they’re going to make, so they need to buy the ingredients and then show up at your place to prepare it. Unless you’re a jerk, you should reimburse the students the 20rmb. You might have to fight to make them take it, but you really should. If they spent less than 20rmb, they’ll give you the change. I really doubt any students would try to “make money” by making a super cheap meal.
  4. Stay out of the way while your students prepare the meal. Two or three people is plenty to get the job done. When the meal is done, take pictures of it with your digital camera.
  5. Around this time, the “guest judge” of the evening arrives. That’s your friend. (If you want, you can even charge him 10rmb for the meal or make him help with the dishes.)
  6. After the meal chat with the students for a while and then secretly write down your judgments.
  7. Your students will probably try to wash your dishes for you (but not in every case). Handle that how you see fit.
  8. Put the pictures online with a description. You might want to include the judges’ scores. That’s your call.

I think originally I had it all worked out to the point where I could even make money on the scheme, and everyone was happy. Perhaps it’s better that it never went into effect, though. It had all the makings of a scandal.

Sooo… who’s gonna try it?? (Let me know.)


Oct 2004

China made me do it!

A few months ago I was chatting with Aaron on AIM and he mentioned that he has two monitors hooked up to his computer, running at the same time, independently. I had thought a dual monitor setup like that was pretty complicated, but he explained that with Windows XP it’s actually really simple; all you need is a second (PCI) video card and a second monitor. It’s a snap to tell windows where the monitors are relative to each other so that you can stretch your desktop over both monitors’ screens, the cursor gliding effortlessly from one screen to the other with a twitch of the mouse.

As something of a technophile I was intrigued by the idea, but I quickly concluded that I’d never have a dual monitor setup because it’s pretty expensive for being nothing more than a frill.

Then last week my monitor suddenly went bad. Some diagonal static coursed across the screen, and then it went black. The light next to the power button indicated that the monitor was on, but nothing appeared on the screen. What’s more, it couldn’t be turned off. Unplugging from both the wall and the computer and replugging didn’t fix it. Looked like my monitor was dead, and the warranty had expired a few months prior.

The next night I found myself lugging a 19″ Samsung monitor home. It barely fit in the taxi. As I stumbled through the front door, I saw light coming from my room. Strange, I thought, I was pretty sure I didn’t leave any lights on. I walked into the room, and there was my old 17″, glowing angelically as if it had never malfunctioned.

So then I had two monitors. In China when you buy something, you can’t return it just because you don’t want it. Any time you hand over money, you’re going to be very hard pressed to get it back. If the merchandise is actually defective, they’ll usually swap it for you (if you can find them again), but you won’t see that money again. So when you buy something, you need to be sure you want it.

So what was I to do? I had just spent about $200 on a new monitor that I didn’t need after all. My old monitor seemed to work fine, but who knows when it would crap out on me again.

The solution? Sell one? No…. I spent another $40 on a PCI video card so I could use both monitors at once.

dual monitor setup

I’m really enjoying having two monitors, but I honestly didn’t intend to do this. China made me do it.


Oct 2004

Hospital Acupuncture

Recently I mentioned that I had been in the hospital. I’ll share some of that experience now.

The reason I went to the hospital is that over the past year I have developed a case of varicose veins in my right leg, behind the knee. I’m not crazy about going to the doctor in China, but since it has definitely gotten worse over the past year, I decided it was time to have it looked at. There’s an “international” hospital near me I’ve gone to before that seems very clean and professional, so I decided to go there again.

When I showed up at reception they asked me in English what trouble I was having. I had done my homework, so I told them in Chinese that I thought I had varicose veins (静脉曲张). That sure surprised them. I guess they don’t get many Chinese-speaking foreigners, let alone ones that diagnose themselves in technical terms using Chinese.

The doctor took a look and did a few simple tests. She concluded I had varicose veins in my right leg. She sent me down to another floor for a more thorough ultrasound examination to make sure I didn’t have any major problems with other veins or arteries inside either of my legs.

So then they put some clear gooey stuff not unlike vaseline jelly on their ultrasound probe and ran it over various parts of my leg. The woman running the ultrasound machine was communicating the results with another woman in Shanghainese, so I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying. But I sure perked up when she started giving special attention to my left leg (the one that was fine) and saying “wa te le,” which is Shanghainese for 坏掉了 or “it’s gone bad.” She was saying that one of my blood vessels in my left leg had gone bad, which, it’s safe to say, pretty much freaked me out.

I went back to the first doctor, and she interpreted the ultrasound results. “You have varicose veins, but your deep vessels are fine,” she told me.

“But the lady downstairs running the ultrasound machine said that one of my blood vessels in my left leg had gone bad!”

“Really?” She looked at the test results again, frowned, and excused herself to make a phone call.

I grabbed the test results and took a look myself. They seemed to indicate that everything was normal.

The doctor returned, telling me, “no, your deep blood vessels are all fine.” That was a relief, but I felt like going back downstairs and smacking that other woman.

That resolved, the doctor finally got to the bottom line. “Your varicose veins are not serious enough for surgery. They won’t get better, but you can do some things to prevent them from getting worse. You’re not in pain, so there’s no reason for surgery, but if they do ever get really bad, surgery is an option.”

“Is that surgery expensive?”

“Well, what do you consider expensive?”

“I don’t know… about how much does it cost??”

“Around 20,000 rmb [$2,500 US].”

The things I could do were (1) avoid standing for long periods of time, (2) wear an elastic band around my leg, (3) take the medicine they gave me, (4) — optionally — acupuncture.


The doctor told me she didn’t know how I felt about acupuncture, but that it could possibly help my condition. They had their own acupuncture specialist there in the hospital, and I could have my first session right away if I wanted to try it.

I think I’m a pretty open-minded individual, but I’m definitely skeptical about a lot of Chinese medicine. Still, I don’t lump acupuncture together with tiger penis soup and that sort of “Chinese medicine.” After having been told that my condition wouldn’t get better, I was eager to try something that might help. So I agreed to it.

A nurse guided me into the acupuncture room. She had learned that I spoke Japanese, and for some reason liked to talk to me in Japanese. So, with a douzo (“please”) I was ushered into the acupuncture room.

The acupuncture doc was a thin, oldish Chinese man. He seemed very confident. He asked me to lie face down on the bed. It was one of those beds with a hole for your face so you don’t suffocate. Then he asked me not to move.

The doctor proceeded to insert five disposable acupuncture needles into each of my legs behind the knee. The first few in my left leg I hardly felt. Then he stuck one into the nerve. I felt like a powerful electric shock was surging through my lower leg, from the knee down. My leg jerked wildly, but I managed to restrain the rest of my body.

“Ah, you’re sensitive,” the doc observed. Cute.

The right leg went a little more smoothly, but there was still a bit of discomfort accompanied by an involuntary jerk when he inserted the needle into the nerve.

The needles inserted, I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure what was next, but I figured the worst was over.

Then, to my horror, the doc brought out some clunky electrical device and started hooking it up to the needles. “You may feel a little something,” he told me as I braced myself.

I was not at all prepared for the electric shock that came next. It was even more powerful than the insertion of the needle, and my leg went into involuntary spasms. I think I might have cried out a little. The doctor quickly turned down the voltage, but not before I decided that he was an evil, evil man and I hated him. He then repeated the process with the other leg, the second electric shock being just a bit less violent than the first.

He adjusted the voltage so that the current kept my legs involuntarily twitching, nonstop. It was very uncomfortable. It kind of felt like I had had too much caffeine and was all jittery, but I couldn’t move around and work off the energy. Plus I was very conscious of the feeling that there was an electrical current running through each of my legs. Twitch, twitch, twitch went my legs.

I was able to bear it, though. I asked the doc how long he needed to leave the power on. I figured I could handle five minutes of it. “Half an hour,” he said cheerfully as he left the room.

Needless to say, it was a very long half hour. I can tell you from experience, your body doesn’t get used to an electrical current flowing through it. My legs twitched nonstop for the whole 30 minutes. The doctor put on some classical music, but it just seemed to taunt me.

By the end of that treatment, I was sure I would not be back for more acupuncture. It also turned out to cost way more than I had understood. 400 rmb ($50 US) for each session! Not continuing the acupuncture treatments was the easiest decision I’ve made in a while.


Oct 2004


Coincidences are a mathematical certainty, I suppose, but they never cease to amaze.

My most mind-boggling coincidence happened to me a few years ago when I was living in Hangzhou. I was on the 3rd or 4th floor of the computer market, browsing computer software and MP3 compilations. Just wondering around, I bumped into my old anthropology professor Dr. Smith, who had taught me 4 years previously in Osaka, Japan.

* * * * *

This morning I went to church, to an English service I hadn’t been to in a while. I ran into a group of friends from my old church in Hangzhou, whom I hadn’t seen since moving away from Hangzhou, 10 months ago. They were in Shanghai for the holiday.

Later that day I accompanied Wayne on some apartment hunting. He was talking about meeting up with a new friend of his. As we were leaving an apartment we had just checked out, we ran into that very friend. She just happened to live in the same complex.

After apartment hunting, we were on our way to meet Micah at a cafe when I heard someone calling my name from across the street. It was ZUCC’s friendliest Japanese teacher, Noriko, in Shanghai for a visit. She just happened to notice me as she wandered the streets.

* * * * *

Saturday I made a trip with some friends to a park on the outskirts of Shanghai. We met up at the “travel bus station” (they’re not tour buses; they’re buses that run specifically to tourist locations). The four of us got in line to buy tickets. Our tickets were going to be 23 rmb each.

When we were near the front of the line, a woman came over offering us a deal on 4 tickets. What a coincidence — the tickets were for our exact destination, and there were four of us. She was offering them for 20 each, a small discount. Although it was tempting, we decided we better not risk getting bad tickets for such a measly savings.

As were were declining the lady’s offer, the ticket seller saw what was going on and asked the woman what she was doing. The woman explained to the ticket seller that she had just bought the tickets but couldn’t use them. The ticket seller told the woman she could get a refund for them, and promptly refunded the tickets, laying the four unused tickets on her desk.

We were up. When we told the ticket seller four tickets for our destination, the seller replied, “here — take these four” and shoved toward us the four tickets we had just declined the discount on. Of course, we paid full price for them.


Sep 2004

2 weeks

What have I been doing for the past 2 weeks (besides trying to get my site back online)? It seems like a lot of nothing, but the list goes something like this:

  • Plowing through my Chinese intro to linguistics text. (Surprisingly, I’m learning a lot of really useful non-linguistics-specific vocabulary.)
  • Reading short stories by H. P. Lovecraft. (And, frequently being disappointed by the endings.)
  • Killing time going through the archives of Nuklear Power. (OK, I know it’s lame; I can’t explain it! But FF1 was my favorite game of all time, so that must be part of it.)
  • Expanding my music collection. (Huddle Formation by The Go! Team is awesome happy music.)
  • Visiting the hospital again. (More on that adventure later.)
  • Deciding not to go to India for my October vacation because the plane tickets are just not cheap. (Still not sure what I’ll do.)
  • Thinking.

Yes, I’ve dicovered that when my internet usage goes down I end up reading more and getting more sleep. Good thing I solved my hosting problem. No telling what I might be capable of if I were well-rested, well-read, and well-thought out all the time!


Aug 2004

Off Again… (and ROACHES!)

Friday morning I’ll be on a plane to Qingdao (青岛). I’ll have just missed the beer festival, but that doesn’t matter. I’m sure Qingdao is not out of beer, and the city’s still there to be seen. I’ll take Monday to do just that.

Tuesday I’ll fly out to Yinchuan (银川), capital of Ningxia (宁夏) Province. I’m told the agent is going to take us sightseeing there. Yinchuan is next to the Gobi Desert and mountains, and there’s supposed to be cool stuff to see which I might know more about if I were a good Lonely Planet-reading tourist (but I’m not). It’s not like I have lots of time or freedom this time anyway, so I’ll just see where they take me.

In unrelated news, my apartment has recently come under assault by massive cockroaches. Three sightings in the past three days. The first two were terminated by good old fashion smashing the hell out of them. The third one escaped. The third one was the most disturbing because I spotted it taking a stroll across the curtain rod over my window in my bedroom while I was on the phone. I got off the phone for a sec to try to destroy it, but it escaped into the folds of a nearby blanket! How nasty is that?! I had to finish the phone call, and when I got off it was long gone.

I went right to the supermarket to get roach spray and hotels, but they didn’t have any roach hotels. The majority of the insecticide they had was for mosquitoes. And almost all of it was Raid brand. Raid seems to have the Chinese insecticide market cornered.

So then I did the intelligent thing and went home and sprayed the hell out of my entire bedroom. (It doesn’t say anything on the bottle about the fumes being poisonous…) Maybe I’m being squeamish, but the roach was big, and I gotta sleep in that room.

I don’t know what’s going on, because I’m very good about keeping food in the kitchen, and my ayi keeps my place pretty clean. I never spotted a single roach before these.

I’m going to bed soon. I’m trying to make myself believe that the roach either escaped my room through some unknown portal or that it was hiding under the couch when I let a fumigation storm loose under there, and it has long since twitched its loathsome little legs for the last time.


Aug 2004

Looking to Guoqing Vacation

The first week of October is a national holiday in China. It’s the “National Founding Day” national holiday, or 国庆节 in Chinese. In order to celebrate the founding of the PRC, everyone in mainland China gets a week of vacation. Ironically, that “everyone” doesn’t include the true proletariat. Workers and service industry people in cities, rather than getting a break, have to work all the harder as the white collar Chinese pour in for their vacations. Oh, and then there’s also the matter of the “week” of vacation not really being a week for most companies.

But back to the point. It’s kind of hard to decide where to travel for this holiday, because most of China’s tourist destinations are just overflowing with Chinese tourists. Add to that the fact that my job takes me to a lot of tourist destinations for free and during non-peak season, and I start to look outside of China for a vacation destination.

I’ve pretty much decided on India. It’s nearby, it’s cheap, and I even know someone there. I know I can’t see much of India in only a week, but to be honest I’m not sure I’d want a real long stay either. But it’s certainly a country I’d like to see a bit of. I’d appreciate any recommendations anyone might have; I’m still in the planning stages and I’m not going to buy the stupid Lonely Planet.

Note: The guy I had lined up to do my job along with me fell through. I’m still looking, and it’s urgent! See the original entry as well as the Sinosplice Jobs description.


Jun 2004

To Stay

This last time that I went home for a visit was a special one. Not because of who I saw or what I did, but because of the message I bore with me that time. It was a message that was a long time in the making, slowly gaining substance and taking on a concrete form. It was a message that had to be shared with my family, and I wanted it to be done in person.

In the very beginning, when I first decided to go to China, I told people that I planned to stay for a year or two, to get a feel for the language. In reality, I knew it would be longer than a year, and likely longer than two. I had experienced life abroad in Japan, and I liked it. I knew any proficiency in Chinese would take time, but I also had a special feeling about China, even before I had ever been there. Still, I didn’t really expect anyone to understand those things. It seemed best to keep telling everyone that I planned to stay for a year or two.

Well, year two came and went, and as I expected, I was not ready to leave China. Friends back home would ask how long I intended to remain over there. I usually gave an elusive “maybe another year.” I didn’t want to say that I had no idea when I would be ready to leave. That would make it seem like I had no direction. The truth of the matter was that the longer I stayed in China, the more direction I felt I had. But again, I found it hard to explain. “Maybe another year” was an easy answer, and most people didn’t really need to know anyway.

Still, I had conflicts. I knew that my main interest was Applied Linguistics, and the program at UCLA looked appealing. I knew I could get in and do well in that program, and I wanted a Masters from an American university. But what after? It seemed logical that after I had my degree it would be time to settle back down to life in the United States, time to “get a real job.” The only problem was that I was not ready to leave my life in China behind, and that was what going for the degree seemed to represent for me.

The summer of 2003 a friend who was also teaching English visited me from another part of China. We got to talking about our lives in China and our plans for the future. What he said shocked me. “I’m staying here. I’m going to make a life for myself in China.” Up to that point, I had never seriously considered such an option. It was a possibility I would mull over for some time.

Throughout my own confusion, I had no problem giving friends vague answers, because the truth of the matter was that my own plans were still pretty vague too. I longed to share some of my thoughts with my family, but I wanted to sort everything out for myself first. The question I found to be the hardest to bear, though, was one that I really only got when I visited home. It was always asked innocently, yet in complete earnestness, and it pinched my heart every time. It was my mother’s quiet, “John, when are you coming home?”

I think it was that question, more than anything, that put definite pressure on me to adopt a real plan in lieu of a “take things as they come” philosophy. I needed to know for myself too.

I weighed the factors. What did the USA hold for me? Family. Old friends. A miserable job market. What did China hold for me? Passion in my life. Excitement. A society that would never fully accept me. The possibility of a real, promising career in the very field I was into. And a love relationship I was not willing to leave behind.

I think it’s obvious which I chose. Yet to feel good about it, I felt that I really needed my family’s full support. I knew my sisters would support me, and that my parents would tell me they wanted me to follow my dreams, but I wanted more than that. I wanted them to understand why I was doing it, and I wanted them to support me with their hearts, because I already found it so difficult to see them a little older every time I went home. The years before they’re actually old were dwindling, and I couldn’t continue my life in China and be with them at the same time. I didn’t want there to be any resentment or disappointment on anyone’s part that I had spent those years in China.

On my recent visit home I had a talk with my family. It was really hard for me to do. And they gave me the support I hoped for. I know that they’ll miss me as I do them, but they understand what I’m doing, and they would never ask me to do anything other than that which I love.

Now I am ready to confidently proceed with my life and my career in China. I still plan to go to graduate school in Applied Linguistics, but it will be in Shanghai, in Chinese. My life here is more full of promise than ever.

And when people ask me how long I’ll be in China, I know my answer.



Jun 2004

Dashan in Shanghai

Ever since he wrote to me, I’ve been in communication with Mark Rowswell (AKA Dashan) via e-mail. Well, this past weekend he came to Shanghai to shoot a few commercials, so we got together for a chat.

As a public figure, he really has to watch his image, and there’s a lot he doesn’t talk about publicly. It was really interesting, then, to meet Mark and hear some of his opinions. We talked about a range of topics, including English education in China, the meaning of the recent loss of the Stanley Cup to Canada (go Tampa Bay! — I guess), what it was like to be a student in Beijing in 1989, and running a website (he manages his site and all its content all on his own).

I spoke with him on the set of his commercial in between shots. I have to say that observing the shooting of a commercial is both interesting and very boring. Once is enough. I’d hate to have to do it to pay the bills.

After the commercial he treated my girlfriend and me to dinner. I never would have guessed where he wanted to eat — Malone’s! It’s quite the expat hangout, and although it’s not the cheapest, the burgers are really good.

I was also curious if he was going to be recognized as we walked the streets of Shanghai. He wasn’t, for the most part, although I did hear some of the staff whispering as we went into Malone’s, “isn’t that Dashan??”

Dashan shooting a commerical in Shanghai With Dashan in a Bar Dashan and me in Shanghai

Anyway, it was good to meet someone so high profile and yet so poorly understood as Mark. We also discussed some small projects we may be collaborating on in the future. Stay tuned.


Jun 2004

Trip Labels

Today my friend Dan became the happy husband of a beautiful girl named Mya. It was a nice ceremony full of great people. I was a groomsman. It was the first time since high school prom that I wore a tux. Someone remarked to me that I probably wouldn’t be wearing one again until *I* get married. That may very well be true.

I’ve noticed that every time I come home, there’s often a different atmosphere that blankets the nation, and it gives my visit a theme. This time I came home for these specific dates because I wanted to attend Dan’s wedding, but there were larger forces at work coloring my stay. Pop culture and marketing forces. This visit was the Low Carb visit.

This is not to say, of course, that my eating habits were at all low carb. Far from it. I value each and every meal at home too much to be more than just remotely concerned about petty “health” issues. Besides, I was looking to gain a few pounds. So no “low carb Doritos” for me (although I did try the new guacomole flavor — yum!).

So the themes went something like this:

  • Summer 2001: The first visit back. The country wasn’t significantly different from what I remembered yet, and the focus was “so how’s china?”* and “how long do you think you’re going to stay?”**
  • Summer 2002: The Post-9/11 visit. Quite a bit of time had passed since the actual terrorist act that rocked the nation, but its effects were still quite evident to someone who had not been in the U.S. when the attacks occurred and was not there for the subsequent aftermath.
  • Winter 2002: The Surprise Christmas Visit. The country was basically the same as during the Post-9/11 visit, so I concentrated on the surprise element to spend Christmas with my family.
  • Spring/Summer 2004: The Low Carb Visit.

So now that the latest visit is over, I return to Shanghai. I think I started to miss China a little at the 12-day mark. Or maybe I just miss my “mission” and life there. In any case, I’m headed back and will write more frequently once in Shanghai.

* Probably the single most frequent and annoying question I get. I believe that it is usually asked out of genuine interest, but the question is just too big!

** This is a question that won’t go away, but I finally have more definite answers. I’ll be writing more about this very soon.

wedding monkeys

P.S. My site was down for about half of yesterday because the hard drive on which my site was hosted crashed. All data has been recovered, and now I expect no more down time ever again. Ever!


Jun 2004

America Revisited

This past weekend I helped my sister Grace move into her new apartment in Atlanta. Atlanta seems like a cool city, and the area she’s living in really impressed me as being so green. Trees and grass galore. The really bad part about life in Atlanta seems to be the horrible traffic.


I hear from different people about “reverse culture shock,” a phenomenon experienced after one acclimates to a foreign culture and then returns to one’s home country. Since I’m not home to stay, but only visiting, I don’t think reverse culture shock applies in this case. But after spending almost four years in China, there are certainly aspects to life in the US of A that stand out.

There are two big ones that slam me in the face as soon as I arrive at the airport, and they can be summed up in a word each. Diversity and Obesity.

America: strength in diversity. When I taught a college-level American Society and Culture class in Hangzhou, I used to emphasize the role of diversity in American culture. It really is pervasive. It explains much of our mindset and behavior, and I think it’s something that’s hard to understand if you live in a mostly homogeneous society such as China’s. China’s “56 ethnic groups” really pale in comparison to a society built by people from all over the world.

And yet when I return to the United States and see all the different skin colors and body types, when I hear four different languages spoken within a span of five minutes and it’s nothing unusual, it doesn’t cause me to reflect upon the various achievements of such a diverse population. It just makes me feel warm and cozy inside. Because America is like that — it’s diverse — and diversity is good.

America: land of the obese. This is a topic that’s been discussed to death, but I find it so fascinating to revisit it again and again because it’s so complex. It’s about our advertising industry, our food culture, our image as a nation, our societal subcoscious. Every time I come back to the United States, I’m confronted physically by the same old question: Why the hell are Americans so damn FAT?? There’s no simple answer.

Today in the car on the way back from Atlanta, I was listening to some comedy on tape. The comedian was talking about diet programs, and one in particular that he’d like to market. It was called the “Stop Eating, You Fat Bastard” program. I have to admit, that’s largely the way I feel about the issue after having lived in China for so long.

Besides those two staples, I’ve had some other minor observations. All the greenery in Atlanta was one of them. It was so refreshing.

I am also very unused to strangers greeting me. You know, the random guy you pass on the sidewalk that looks you in the eye, and for no reason at all just gives you a “how’s it going.” In America, strangers say hi to you for no reason at all. Crazy.

And then I was eating in a deli-style restaurant with Grace on Saturday. I was almost done with my drink when I stopped to ask her, “are there free refills?”

Looking at me like I was a bit simple, she responded with, “why wouldn’t there be?” Ah, America, Land of the Free Refill, I have missed thee…

After that meal I got chastised by Grace for leaving my tray on the table. Oops.

In a week I’ll be back in a country where restaurant staff are bewildered by customers who clear their own tables.

But I don’t quite miss it… yet.


May 2004

Preparing for the Cook

Recently I decided to hire a housecleaning ayi in Shanghai. I used to hire one every two weeks or so in Hangzhou to do a thorough cleaning job of my apartment to supplement my own occasional half-hearted attempts at sanitation. It cost 8 RMB ($1) per hour, and they would usually stay for two or three hours each visit.

I’ve talked to some foreign friends in China before who feel bad about hiring someone to clean up after them in their own home, and for such a low wage. I, on the other hand, feel great about it. I don’t feel like I have a lot of spare time these days, so it’s a great way to give myself some more free time without even spending much money. Plus I’m giving someone some honest work. I don’t set the labor prices in China, and it’s not a slave wage. (For comparison, McDonalds in China only pays 3 RMB an hour to start.) Those that engage in housecleaning are usually people from other poorer parts of China who really need work. I’m nice to them and I chat with them, and I usually tidy up along with them as they clean. I see no problem with it. Win-win.

Anyway, I recently had an epiphany. I decided to hire an ayi not only to clean, but to cook for me regularly. She will come every weekday evening for 2 hours and cook a meal and clean up a bit. I will pay her 250 RMB per month, plus the cost of the meals’ ingredients.

My new ayi came tonight for the first time and cooked an awesome simple meal. Stir-fried pork strips and jiaobai (茭白: Wenlin translates this white Chinese vegetable as “water-oat shoots,” whatever that means), garlic mixi (a vegetable which is like pink-pigmented spinach; ayi said it’s written 米西), egg and tomato soup, and rice. It was really good! Not too salty, not too oily. This woman is a genius. She’s from Hubei Province. That meal was 6.2 RMB in ingredients. This new plan of mine is not only going to keep my place a lot cleaner, but I’m going to eat better and save a lot of money!

OK, so I admit I was completely lazy up until now. I never cooked at home. That means yesterday I had to buy all the ingredients for my ayi so that she could cook most dishes. In the USA, you would need to have milk, butter, salt, flour, oil, etc. So what do you need in China? This is what I bought:

  • vegetable oil (very important!!!)
  • soy sauce
  • MSG
  • salt
  • sugar
  • rice (a nice 10kg bag for 41 RMB)
  • rice vinegar

Those things are all pretty much indispensable in Chinese cooking (note: no milk or butter in that list). In addition, I also picked up:

  • black pepper
  • hot sauce
  • ketchup (the Chinese actually use it a fair amount for certain dishes)
  • jiang (some kind of soy paste)
  • starch

I also gave my ayi a list of things I hate eating so she could easily avoid them. My list was:

  • xiangcai (the vile weed cilantro)
  • animal organs
  • chicken feet
  • fish with a million harpoon-like tiny bones in them
  • thousand-year-old eggs
  • stinky tofu

Note that in each case, I determined that I didn’t like the above items after I tried them. Some of them, such as stinky tofu and cilantro, have been given many, many chances but fail miserably to meet my high standards of delectability each and every time.

Anyway, this ayi deal is looking mighty sweet.


May 2004


I think I’m a really atypical American. I’ve never owned a car. I’ve never used a credit card in my life. I’ve used a debit card with a Mastercard seal on it, and I’ve owned a credit card, but the credit card was eventually cancelled because I never once used it. Well, despite my personal history, I recently applied for a credit card at a major Shanghai bank.

Traditionally, Asia has been slow to catch on to the credit card trend, preferring cash. I remember that the first “credit cards” sporting Visa and Mastercard logos in Japan were not actually true credit cards at all, but rather debit cards which could automatically exchange currencies to make overseas payments more convenient. Early Chinese “credit cards” strayed even further from the model, since not only were they only debit cards, but RMB were not even freely exchangeable on the international market, so they could only be used within China.

Well, all that seems to be changing. This new credit card I applied for is not only a real credit card in that you can buy first and pay later, but it also allows for international purchases through automatic RMB-US Dollar exchanges. Cool!

So I applied. I had to provide a letter stating my monthly pay, stamped with my danwei‘s (my company’s) offical seal. That was sure not to be a problem, as I was making easily twice as much as some other Shanghainese people that have this kind of credit card.

The thing is, I got rejected! I was really shocked. I can’t know for sure why I was rejected, but it’s probably because I seem like a risk. I could easily run up a debt and then leave China.

It’s interesting to be discriminated against in a way that actually matters. This isn’t people maniacally yelling “hello” at me on the street, this is a financial issue. I can’t really be angry, because I understand the bank’s viewpoint. I’m sure that there really are quite a few unscrupulous laowai in Shanghai that would, indeed, rack up a huge debt and then flee.

But now I can’t get my credit card. Bummer.


May 2004

Sitemeter, Hair

Is it my imagination, or is Sitemeter now blocked in China? That is just downright annoying. If it is now permanently blocked, I need to get it off all my templates, because it’s slowing my page load way down.

In other news, I recently shaved my head again (I do that from time to time) and I’m growing my beard again. So I look something like a convict. I look a lot like I do in this picture from a few years back. I’m too lazy to take a new one.

Brad, Carl, Jamie, and I recently made a trip to the barber shop supply section of town. Apparently that’s the only place to get clippers for shaving one’s head. We also picked up some of that temporary spray-on hair dye. I tried white hair out Thursday. I’m really not sure how the so-called “temporary hair dye” differed from spray paint. It had the little marble in it and everything. That’s what we get for 8rmb ($1) a can.

So I had a spray-painted head for most of Thursday. My hair was stiff like a wire brush. Brad tried it out too, but then aborted because his hair is too short and he realized he was just spray painting his head. As far as I know, Carl and Jamie completely wussed out. They skipped town rather than following through on their promise to be badass crusty spray-painted hair brothers on Friday.

From the Sitemeter site:

SM5 Server Status

Friday, May 7th

Dear Valued Customer:

Today the hard drive of the SM5 Site Meter server, where your account
is located, failed. When we attempted to restart the server, the hard
drive in it would not boot.

We have setup a new server and are currently working to recover the
files from the old server and will have it back up as soon as possible.

Thank you for your patience during this process.

We appreciate your business.

Well, crap. I guess that explains it, though. (I should really stop being so quick to suspect a blocking every time a site goes down temporarily…)


May 2004

May Holiday

I’m in the middle of my “Labor Day” week of vacation, and enjoying it immensely. I am no longer sick, and have managed not to pick up any more pets. I’m working on my site and working on my book (that will be published some day!).

And now Carl and Jamie are visiting from ZUCC.

The only damper is that I have to work this weekend, and then all next week. Why? It’s the Chinese way. They still don’t get the whole “vacation” idea. (Refer to my explanation from last year.)


May 2004


I had been resisting naming my rabbits. I guess it was because I never really expected them to live long. But as the end of week one rolled around, I decided I should name them. The vendor said they were a male/female pair, so I figured I should name them as a pair. They’re Chinese rabbits and I’m in China, so Chinese names seemed appropriate. I named the girl Tai Tai (台台) and the boy Bo Bo (伯伯). (These names may seem a little strange, but they have their roots in Chinese culture — anyone get them?)

Here are some pictures I took to emphasize their smallness:


Yesterday my rabbits presented me with my first “birthday surprise.” I came out of my bedroom and took a look at their cage. The first thing that came into my head was, “that’s a funny way to sleep.” Suddenly realizing that the rabbit could be dead, I examined her more closely. She was alive, but seemed completely unable to move. And I had to rush out the door because a had an activity with a client kindergarten to get to. I had no choice but to leave my little rabbit to die.

When I got home, she was, indeed, dead. The other one was just fine. The worst part was that there was no good way to dispose of her little body. I could only wrap it up and chuck it in the trash. I felt bad about that.

To be honest, I couldn’t be sure that it was Tai Tai that died and not Bo Bo. Rabbits are not easy to sex when they’re that young. But I liked the name Bo Bo better, so I decided Bo Bo was the survivor. If I was wrong about which one it was, I could confront my mistake down the road and just hope that my little rabbit wasn’t left with too much of a gender identitity crisis.

(Incidentally, Bo Bo was also the name of a girl I went on one date with in Hangzhou years ago. We met on the internet. I remember that date very clearly because (1) she took a good picture of me that I used on this site’s main page for two years, and (2) we ended up talking about her mother’s death a year previous. Very heavy for a first date. I never saw her again. She was a nice enough girl, but I could never go for a girl with a moustache.)

Last night I had fun playing with Bo Bo. It was good to see that he was healthy at least.

This morning I got to sleep in because it was day one of my week-long May Day vacation. No work for seven days. When I came out of my bedroom, I saw that little Bo Bo was sleeping in too. Only he wasn’t ever waking up.

Part of me is relieved because I no longer have the responsibility of trying to raise rabbits in a city apartment. Now I’m glad I really did my best to keep them healthy, but I’m baffled as to what did them in, when they seemed so healthy but then deteriorated so rapidly without warning or apparent cause.

No more pets for a while.

Expect more (less depressing) site updates this first week of May. I finally updated the About Page recently and the picture in the upper right of this page to reflect my new home. More to come. Also, Adopt a Blog is not dead, just stalled.


Apr 2004

Sickness and Pets

About two weeks ago, I took a walk on a sunny day following some days of rain. I came upon a manhole cover sunken in the sidewalk, holding an inch or two of water. In that little bit of water, I was amazed to discover some 40 to 50 tadpoles swimming sluggishly around. Right on the sidewalk!

I had recently discovered that in China, it’s a common childhood thing to keep some tadpoles as pets and watch them develop. When I was younger, I had had rabbits, mice, dogs, lizards, fish, and even a snake. But never a tadpole.

The water in the manhole depression was slowly but surely evaporating, and there already wasn’t much left. I decided to rescue some of them.

I managed to get about 20 out of the depression using a spoon and a plastic bowl. I bought a little glass fishbowl and some fish food (for 7rmb total). When I fed them, they gobbled up the food greedily. Up to that point, they had been cannibalizing the weak.

Keeping the tadpoles alive proved to be harder than I expected. I’m not sure whether the water got a little too dirty or what, but they were slowly dying off.

Then last Friday I got sick. I woke up early with a case of diarrhea that was completely painless but utterly sincere. I was rushing to the toilet every 5 minutes, it seemed, and I was losing a lot of water. I had to call in sick to work. By evening I had a fever, and my girlfriend insisted I go to the hospital. So I did. It was 10:30pm.

It took forever to get treated because I had taken an anti-diarrheal and thus couldn’t supply the sample they wanted. Eventually they took blood. The Chinese medical solution to virtual any malady seems to be an IV, and this was no exception. It was midnight before I finally had the IV in me, supplying my bloodstream with vitamins and antibiotics.

For this IV treatment I was seated in the emergency room. My girlfriend kept me company for a while, but she had class in the morning, so had to leave. Being right in the emergency room, I saw all kinds of people come in. Most of them ended up with IVs.

One guy was almost catatonic, brought in on one of the cargo tricycles used all over China to transport goods. His family must have been pretty poor, not wanting to resort to hospital treatment unless absolutely necessary. About an hour later, the awful sound of a woman’s wailing came from the back of the hospital. “Someone died,” the people around me whispered.

Another woman was brought in writhing, and laid out on a gurney. She was there on an IV nearly the entire time I was, and never seemed to get much better. Eventually her husband took her away.

One guy was brought in completely unconscious by some friends. Alcohol poisoning. Baijiu, his friends said. The vile white rice wine. I’m not sure what happened to him, but his friends wondered around the room drunkenly for hours.

For a while an old man was seated next to me for his IV. At one point, he had to go to the bathroom, so the people with him unzipped him, stood him up, and had him go into a plastic bag right there.

Around 3am it started to get cold in the room, because inconsiderate people would leave the main door open. Around that time two women arrived with a man. The girls look like the type that sing at karaoke bars. Very pretty. Only one of them had been battered badly across the face. Her face was all black and blue, her eyes swollen shut. Later, hearing her talk to her friend, my suspicions were confirmed — some man had done that to her. Two of the guys in the room tried badly to hide smirks when she came in. Why, I can’t imagine. But I wanted to punch them. The girl got an IV too.

Soon thereafter, more loud sobbing seemed to indicate that someone else had died.

According to the doctor, my IV (2 bottles) was supposed to last 3 hours. They ended up lasting 5. I couldn’t sleep and had nothing to do but watch sick people. I got home at 5am. The hospital bill was 150rmb (under $20). No medications were prescribed.

I had decided to release my remaining tadpoles into the pond in Jing An Park. It seemed like a good day to do it. I waited for my girlfriend to arrive first. When she showed up, she surprised me with a gift of two cute little white rabbits.

It was a nice surprise, but also an impulisve, irresponsible purchase. I was not in the best position to care for rabbits, and I did not want to be responsible for their deaths. The vendors that sell rabbits and other little animals don’t tend to sell them in the healthiest condition to begin with.

Still, she had bought them and given them to me, so they were my responsiblity. The remaining tadpoles (less than 10) were freed. But now I had rabbits.

I was stunned by some of the “advice” I was given by various Chinese people on how to care for rabbits. Some of the things I was told: “Rabbits can’t be given water. It’ll give them diarrhea and they’ll die.” “Don’t give them vegetables, or they’ll get diarrhea and die. Give them bread.” “Don’t let them eat much grass or they’ll get diarrhea and die.”

Exactly how do these people think rabbits live in nature?! Unbelievable. Anyway, under my care, two sluggish little rabbits have become lively. They actually have both solid and liquid waste now, too, which didn’t happen for about two days, owing to their previous diet. The new diet: grass and water.

Yesterday, the evil diarrhea come back at 5am. I couldn’t go to work again. I returned to the hospital, but not the emergency room. This time I went to the part of the hospital “for foreigners.” The hospital has one big building devoted to plastic surgery. One floor deals with ordinary medical cases like mine.

To make a long story short, I was not given any clear explanation as to why I was sick. It wasn’t food poisoning. But the hospital was much cleaner and more orderly. Everyone was friendly and spoke English (until they realized they didn’t have to). I was given an IV again, which took five hours for two bottles again, but this time I was in a bed the whole time. I walked away with 4 different kinds of medication to take. The total bill was 850rmb (over $100).

So I’m feeling better now. And I have rabbits. I wonder how those tadpoles are doing…

Related entry: Verbal Horror


Apr 2004

Couldn't Resist…

For all I know, this has been floating around for years already, but I just got it via e-mail (thanks Penny!). Not obscene.

Chinese cutie

I briefly pondered over whether I should be disturbed or just amused. I went with the latter reaction.

(NOTE: For more similar juvenile humor that’s almost obscene but not quite, check this out too.)

Page 6 of 10« First...45678...Last »