Archive for July, 2010

A cup of speed

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Our home’s very own Aston Martin dealer (funnily pictured here with a Lamborghini delivered up its drive-way) has moved out beginning of the year. They are now located in a much larger showroom somewhere else, generating a much larger income. So, for a few months it was rather quiet on the ground floor.

They kind of tried to compensate the sudden departure of the Vantages and DB9s with putting up large full-wall posters of Aston Martin’s newest little baby – literally a little baby: The Cygnet. That one is in fact nothing but a weeny Toyota IQ under the fancy hood and the only reason to build it is the new European average fleet CO2 emission law for a car maker. But it’s not decided yet whether it will ever hit the roads. The only thing that’s decidedly clear is that its poster cannot replace the lost proximity of its breathtaking brothers.

However, the long time of  wait-and-see is over. Something’s happening behind the covers. They finally found a worthy replacement. Apparently it wasn’t easy. What could possibly follow in the rubber footsteps of a racing Brit?

The answer, mind you, directly shoots up the nose. The smoking black round’s odor is replaced by a steaming black round’s temptation: It actually looks like they are going to open up a Nespresso shop.

And it seems as if they’re stacking it up with all the same features that a European Nespresso boutique has. On top they’re even adding red doors with golden capsules, looking very much like Forbidden city. That’s quite a clever localization. So they actually switched my most favorite car brand with my most favorite coffee-at-home brand.

What a warm and comforting gesture from the green tea country towards the bean-loving foreigner!

I suppose in the future I’ll be client in my own house quite for a bit more than before.

But one thing stays to be seen: Following the Aston Martin – Lamborghini episode: when will we see a Starbucks delivery truck in front of the Swiss capsulator’s red-golden doors?

Long line to relaxation

Monday, July 26th, 2010

It is a bit spooky: lined up in long winding curves, small flickering lights are hanging over Beijing.

UFOs? Frozen shooting stars? Morse lightning? When you’re one or two blocks away from it, and you haven’t run into this before – you might not be able to find an explanation for it until you get closer.

Eventually though you will be standing in front of a square, usually a larger one, to which those light columns seem to be coming down on. And then you suddenly realize: Mister Li is having his leashed-up night beer.

When taking the time to sit down with him, something very rare and interesting happens: you relax.

At first the mind tries to confront the situation with logic: What on Earth is a grown-up man doing at this time of the night (9 p.m.) on the street, fiddling with kids’ toys?

And then you witness Mister Li clipping small LEDs onto the rope. And in a very skilled manner he places them almost exactly at even distance. Very seldom only does he have to get up. And then it’s usually not because he needs to correct the trajectory of his kite, but rather because he needs to help young aspirants master the first few meters into the air. And that, as it becomes apparent soon, needs quite a bit of practice.

Two hours later the total kite count above Beijing is substantially larger. It’s a windy night and Mister Li and his line-gang are well prepared. With their professional-looking reels they appear more like open sea fishermen than guys with toys.

Those very smooth-running wheels have nothing in common with the rope-around-a-piece-of-cardboard memories of Western childhoods. By the way – the line itself doesn’t either: An ultra thin, remarkably tough synthetic fibre piece which weighs almost nothing. This allows the kite to go up into the air much higher than it would be allowed in London or Berlin. But Beijing has no helicopters and therefore it’s no problem to fly a kite a few hundred meters above ground.

Being asked for the reason of sitting here, Mister Li says that this kind of evening requires kiting. A dragon night so-to-speak. And then he nods very meaningfully. Without context this sounds a little strange.

What Mister Li wants to say, is that you can play Xiang Qi (a Chinese form of chess) at any given evening. But when it has wind and it’s warm and – on top of it – a night without much smog, you just have to to go and fly a kite! How shameful to let an opportunity like this pass by.

As I gather my things to return home, Mister Li is still comfy on his folding chair, directing the kite traffic with his mates as if there were no tomorrow.

For the same time I was sitting next to him, I could have watched a movie at home on the couch. But somehow you’re not half as relaxed after a Hollywood flick as you are after flying kites with Mister Li. And it’s not the Chinese beer that’s responsible for this. Rather, it’s the down-to-earth and calm atmosphere. Sometimes even in Li country less is more

The Writings on the Wall

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Let’s remember – when I came here, I found there was no graffiti on the walls.  It took a while to actually come across this fact. Somehow everything just seemed to be so clean. Sure, I was only running around in the central business district area, but still – it was obvious that something was different. It’s actually surprising to see how used one gets to all that walled tagging and nagging back home. It’s on just about anything.
“Somebody has sprayed onto the Eiffel Tower!” And in other news today: The world is still turning.

It’s a nasty thing. And no posh new age term like “street art” can hide the fact that most of it is not only ugly, which would be arguable, but it’s more often than not plain illegal and damages somebody else’s property or life quality.

We have become acquainted to everyday life’s painted mumblings and so it’s almost a disturbing sight to stand in front of long walls without the usual drippings of wackiness.
And in Beijing the walls are as clean as the first day. Or so I thought.

It took me another while, just as long as the first one, to discover things aren’t as un-sprayed upon as I thought. Only, around here you’d have to look out for something different.

They are small, usually black or red, and they contain long numbers. They are on walls, on the floor and on side curbs. What people put there is not a helpless outburst of hello-world-I-am-here-please-notice-my-existence-please-please, it is rather a sense of making business. We’re in China after all.

Need a new ID card? A Hukou (registration) or some other official form of identification? Let a brother help you out. ‘Lost’ your driver’s license? Sob no further. Whatever it is you are having trouble with getting the official way-the spraying powers can provide you. Certainly though, you won’t be given a receipt or find a customer service department on the other end of that phone number. But you probably guessed that by now.

Interestingly, most of the phone numbers are painted over. There’s obviously a substantial number of people responsible for crossing them out. Funny enough though, they really only paint over the numbers. You’d think they should cover it all (why take away the number and keep people be interested in the luring offer of a shiny new driver’s license?) and sometimes they do that, but often they don’t bother. And sometimes the paint is so thin that the number below easily shines through. But hey – we covered it, so don’t tell us we didn’t do our job!

So in a strange poetic way the city is filled with thousands of proposals to change the person you are.

Once in a while you also see people riding a bike and dropping little papers onto the sidewalk. With the most innocent facial expression in the world they look the other way, but the trail of cards behind them unmistakably originate from their pockets. It’s another layer of shady offers, much more temporary in existence, but no less illegal.

Luckily all my papers and documents are in order at the moment, so I have no need for any such services. However, I’m still waiting for an offer for more leisure time and tranquility. That would certainly be a remarkably valuable offer.

The order of things

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

A is before B. And U before me. Cz is pronounced “tsh”, but you’ll still find it under C.

The alphabet is great. Not only does it allow us the verbal and written communication – it also gives us the possibility to create completely new word-creations.
However, one talent of the alphabet is completely under-rated until you arrive on the other side of this planet: it’s ability to bring order.

Whether it’s sorting the file cabinet, the CD- or the book shelf – lot’s of people would have a hard time without that alphabet. It eases the checking of the attendance list in class and provides for a clear structure in the mobile phone’s address book.

Want to sort according to the first or the last name? One click and you know where to look for – and find – your friend’s numbers.

But what if you’re not about to sort Tamara and Aaron into some list, but need to deal with 静 and 建国? (let’s ignore for the moment that in China you wouldn’t sort by the first name, but rather by the last name – well, if we can call it “last name” anyway)

Looking for answers we firstly run into the usual Chinese traps: one asks a direct question like, let’s say: “how do you sort things in China?” and wakes up about an hour later, being stuck in an exhausting and hot tempered discussion. A discussion without any foreseeable end or a definite answer.

Still, I’ll give it a try to summarize it from a European point of view:

Luckily, the old times (about 50 years or so ago) are over. Back then pretty much anyone had their own way of sorting. And you don’t want to try and put logic to that. Nowadays two main systems have survived: sorting by pronunciation and by the number of line strokes.

The former is easy to understand: 静 will be sorted under J, because it’s pronounced “Jing”. 建国 will also be found under J, because he he will hear his name being called “Jian Guo”. Unfortunately though, my research was not able to uncover whether Jian Guo would be sorted IN FRONT of Jing, just like we would do it according to our alphabetical understanding. You never know – after the first letter everything could be Chinese-like chaotic…
By the way – most computer systems also sort files this way and therefore, surprisingly, they follow the alphabet. At least phonetically. Except when they don’t, which also happens sometimes. And you guessed it – nobody knows why that is.

Stacking variation #2 refers to the line-count of the Chinese characters. By this system we will find 静 under 14 and 建国 under 8. From a European point of view this is quite weird. Chinese, however, are used to the proximity of letters and numbers. It’s how they look up unknown characters in the dictionary.

China developed a counting system, because of the fact that naturally nobody is able to pronounce a character they have never seen before in their life: So they count the line strokes in the main part of the character (somehow Mister Li and his bunch are able to determine this). And with this information they quite quickly can find the character in the dictionary, which has a look-up table for this purpose. That’s quite a handy thing.

Only our structure-loving Mister Meyer is wondering about two different systems existing in parallel: “But that would mean having to always first check which kind of system is used!” Exactly, Mister Meyer, you got it! And Mister Li casually adds “….so?” and keeps chewing his chicken foot.

If your last name is “Li”, order and regulation are not exactly the main purpose of life. And it doesn’t matter either, people still survive. Our bureaucratic Mister Meyer on the other hand is still startled and orders another beer.
By the way: just like in the West, beer in China is sorted into the belly. Ah, we’re not so different after all. Ganbei!

Main dish on the side

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

“Ok, so we’d like the fried something-fish, those spicy little chicken pieces in the basket, the green beans with tiny minced meat, those pinkygreen cold cucumber slices and the pork with green pepper strips. Honey, what was it that you wanted?”

Mister Meyer raises his head from the menu. His wife however is terribly busy talking with Miss Johnson about the pros and cons of buying fake handbags. “Oh, right”, he remembers, ” we definitely need this potato mountain. You know, the dwarfy fries if you will. Those are just to die for”.

The waiter, a distant brother-in-lawish cousin of second degree to Mister Li’s aunt in the mother side of the family, is duly noting down the order and then returns to look at Mister Meyer with great attention. Mister Meyer, being done with his order, just sits there and looks back at him, not showing any signs of adding something. The waiter is obviously confused. But the reply he gives not only confuses Mister Meyer. It has the same effect on Mister Johnson and would even confuse the ladies, if only they were less busy with their topic.

“And for main course”?

Mister Meyer is slightly helpless. Well aware that an uncomfortable pause is beginning to build up, he quickly tries to find a solution for a problem he doesn’t even understand.

“Ehm, well, so we’d also like the lamb with coriander.” It almost rather sounded like a question than another order. As Mister Meyer looks at the waiter again, his confusion is quite tangible. How many dishes would he need to order until it’s acknowledged as a valid meal?

The waiter on the other hand is just as helpless. But he eventually heads off to the kitchen. Another one of these weird foreigner orders…

Here we were able to witness a scene which every day takes place in this country in one way or the other. Our culinary quartet from the West will shake their heads upon leaving the restaurant. They don’t understand why in China people need to order so many main dishes that it’s impossible to finish the plates. The clearing waiter on the other hand is also shaking his head. And it’s because of the foreigners who always order so many side dishes while forgetting so many other important parts of a meal.

The yummy tummy reader probably guessed it: once again everything is different in Li country.

In the West we have gotten used to a very clear food order: Steak with fries, chicken with rice, lamb with sauteed veggies, red snapper with salat on the side. Neatly following formular t as in tasty we call the dish by the meat part and treat the herbal part as secondary level. It’s on the side any way and therefore not too important. But noone cares too much about this, because at the end of the day, in the West we are served a pre-arranged meal all on one plate for a single person.

You may order a starter prior to the main course and that could be anything: hot, cold, meaty or veggie. Being a starter, it has no further description like, let’s say, side-dish-starter or main-hors d’œvre. And nobody cares should you not order any starter at all.

In China people expect you to be able to compse a dinner. You don’t get your all-on-one-plate servings, but need to order every food category yourself. Oh, and of course not only for yourself, but for the whole group. The plates will be gathered on the turntable in the middle and everybody enjoys everything. If it’s tasty. And if it’s composed with sense.

There should be a soup in order to warm up the stomach. A cold starter (there aren’t really any warm starters) should be on the table and of course a number of dishes, covering at least two meat categories. And certainly some veggie plates as well. After all that we turn to the main course. This is usually constituted by a bowl of rice, Baozi (a dough ball with filling) or noodles. Something with starch. Being a foreigner, this can certainly mess up your sense for what terms to use for food. A small bowl of plain rice….and that’s supposed to be a main course? You’d never guess if noone tells you.

Tea is also a must on the table. Or beer for that matter. A clear choice. And with both there is a single principle: The host (we’ll learn who that is in a minute) refills. And refilling means to watch out closely that no cup or glass is ever less than half way full. That constitutes a problem for the peace-loving European who likes to empty the glass or is looking forward to the drinkable temperature of the tea. It’s like consumption stress: much too often will he drink and also way too much, because the glass is always full.

The person to refill the glasses also has to watch out for one more thing: never to place the tea can facing any of the guests. That’s rude, will bring heaps of bad luck and constitutes the beginning of the end of the world. The only strange thing: this seems to be limited to the guests on the refiller’s own table. Nobody gives a chicken foot, should it point directly towards 120 other people in the room.

The host in the role of the refiller needs to be very much up to speed. Should he fail to fulfill the filling, he will be perceived as being stingy and inhospitable. Optionally this arguable fame falls to the younger generation who are required to take care of the oder ones. Regardless of who is the host.

And that brings us to the topic of “who is the host?”. Let’s assume that Mister and Misses Meyer have called up Mister and Misses Johnson to go and have dinner with them. In the Chinese mind, everything is set from that very moment. Mister Meyer is expected to book the restaurant, choose the dishes (at least 2 more than anyone can eat), watch over the drink supply and at the end of the day to pay the bill. Mister Johnson’s task on the other hand is to act like he wanted to take on the check. After that, both should fight for a short moment, only to have Mister Meyer prevail. This enables Mister Johnson to express a friendly “next time it’s on me”.

Subsequently that’s something he should do. And everything starts over from the beginning. With or without main course.