Saturday, November 29, 2008

view from the roof

the weather was particularly nice today, so i took the opportunity to head up onto our roof and snap a few shots. views to the west, north, northeast (across our development) and west, respectively.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

to the hills


a few weekends ago, in a bizarre bout of fitness, clark, durrell and i decided to head out hiking in the hills to the west of beijing. we abandoned an initial plan to head way up north, and instead after aggressive use of google earth we managed to decipher some guy's blog, at least by picking out the names of the places we were supposed to go and the bus we were supposed to take.
king coal in western beijing

the pingguoyuan subway station was as crowded as ever with people dressed to the gills in all the latest hiking outfits out for a saturday. our bus was jam packed with a group of twenty or so people that had met up online on a hiking web site. i chatted with one young guy i was squeezed up next to on the bus who spoke near perfect english. he said he was a tour guide for more adventurous foreigners. i said that sounded like a fun job, and he said not during a global recession. he hasn't had a tour for two months.

building new houses in jiuyuan

luckily, the blogger posted lots of pictures, because we hopped off the bus really in the middle of nowhere. from the picture we were able to identify a decorative archway over the road we were supposed to take, as well as the mysterious "pointing tree" that showed the way. where we were was an easy access point to this ancient road through the western hills, and the small town at the base was clearly attempting to reinvent itself as a local tourism point. several small "resorts" were being built, the road was newly paved, and there was a row of villa-style houses being built. the place i believe is anticipating rising local affluence leading to more people driving out there for something to do on a weekend afternoon, and i think they bet well. there was a good number of other people, mostly families, that had drove up to see the sights.

durrell tries to make his way through the underbrush

unfortunately, the sights were not quite what we anticipated. after about five minutes up the road, we reached the top, an arch that i think i read online might have been part of a qing dynasty nunnery. it was here that we made the worst decision of the day. based on past hiking experience in guangxi, we decided to just head out off the trail and make our way across the terraces on the hills. unfortunately, from far away what looked like grass and shrubs turned out to be six foot high weeds and impenetrable brambles. we spent a good hour stumbling around off the trail, at times fashioning crude weed whacking devices out of sticks. at one point we saw people hiking high above us in the mountains, clearly enjoying the unimpeded freedom of a trail.

durrell was making this face for most of this part of the hike

eventually we stumbled out of the brush and back onto the original road, at which point we fortuitously noticed an actual path off the road. after a quick break, we set off up a steep access trail to perilously placed high tension power wire towers. the trail ran straight up a ridge, and we probably rose a couple thousand feet over the valley floor before it flattened out into a rather nice trail that followed the contours on one side of the ridge. we eventually ran into some guys eating lunch (and throwing their garbage everywhere), who directed us down a different route we had taken up. after a steep descent we popped out into a terraced persimmon orchard and the town we started out in, ready to take the bus back. also, it snowed! pretty exciting stuff, even though the flakes melted as soon as they touched anything.

finally enjoying the view

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

politics by other means

Recently, Ben and I were discussing the United States Postal Service. I think it's rarely considered that this is a government agency whose executive, the Postmaster General (awesome name by the way), is endowed with the extra-constitutional ability to negotiate treaties with foreign powers. After all, I can only assume that it's the Postmaster General who decides whether little Julio or Ahmed can or cannot receive tins of American cookies while abroad in Cuba or Iran (China is not part of that axis, fyi, wink wink...) Ok, so we're talking postal treaties here, nothing too sexy, and of course the embargoes on Cuba and Iran were in fact decided by the president and congress, but just think of Tuvalu -- we send mail there and someone has to decide whether and how we should do it. So I think the principle is very intriguing and deserves some more aimless open-mouth daydreaming -- which I'm good at. Just think about it some more and you'll begin to see the implications with mail exchanging hands between two countries. Tampering with mail is a federal offense. Is it still a federal offense to tamper with mail outside US borders? Are there extradition treaties to handle this? It's a hypothetical black hole (which are, by nature, hypothetical...)

So you can imagine that I found an article in today's New York Times announcing that the FDA will open a permanent office in Beijing to be both interesting and relevant. Again, I'm not certain what the precedent is here, but to me it seems to be a rather significant event for American foreign policy. A Secretary of U.S. Health and Foreign Services is quoted in the article sharing this belief: "We're opening up a new era, not just new offices."

What will be the mandate of these officials, described as "inspectors?" How is this fundamentally different than the UN installing weapons inspectors in a sovereign country -- surely something that China, as well as many other nations, would not agree to. What does the Chinese government think about this new office? Clearly they're not wholly opposed to it if office plans to open soon. Perhaps this is a bit of good PR and also a chance to inject some new ideas and manpower into the unfolding and ongoing food safety crisis here.

This article also seems to dovetail nicely with recent opinion piece in the New York Times suggesting that problems with melamine contamination are not limited to China -- although the issue is much less severe in the US, and arises for far less nefarious reasons.

I do hope that this new FDA office is successful in at least beginning to address the problems with food safety here. It would be nice to be able to pour some milk in my coffee soon without thinking twice about it. And God forbid I start to take my coffee black.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

baijiu makes you angry, exhibit 1

durrell and i were eating dinner at our favorite xinjiang place the other night when we witnessed a great example of why you should never ever drink baijiu, the horrible chinese alcohol i'm sure we've written about before. the place is narrow and long, with two person tables lining each wall and a column of rectangular four person tables down the middle. we were seated at one of the two person tables against the wall, about three feet from a group of three people, two guys and one girl, probably a bit older than us. one on side of the four person table was one guy, with the other guy and girl on the other side. they were hitting the baijiu pretty hard, but that happens and besides a snicker or two we thought nothing of it.

about halfway through our meal, which was quite delicious, making this story even more tragic, i notice one of the chinese guys stumble to hit feet and reach drunkenly for his baijiu glass, spilling alcohol all over the table. then, all of a sudden, he grabs the glass and with a shout smashes it against the table, sending baijiu and probably small shards of glass all over us and our food. the restaurant went silent, and after a second or two the other guy jumps to his feet and throws his glass against the table, once again dousing us in alcohol. i don't remember what they said to each other if anything, but the girl jumps up and starts screaming and pushing away the guy who was sitting next to her.

at this point everybody is watching the three people, and we're too shocked to even complain about being soaked in baijiu. then, the one guy who was sitting alone on his side of the table shouts a well known obscenity, and all hell breaks loose. the other guy jumps him, with the girl still in the middle, and all three fall against a table and to the ground. the two guys are vainly trying to swing punches, while the girl, squashed between the two is screaming. At some point the one who shouted the obscenity gets to his feet, and hurls a small ceramic tub of vinegar at the other. when he misses, instead bouncing the thing off my shoulder and dousing the left side of my face in vinegar, i turn to durrell and say "let's get out of here." i grab my things, and my half finished can of sprite, and we clear out along with everybody else in the restaurant.

i've said it before and i'm saying it again: i'm never drinking baijiu again.

Friday, November 07, 2008

On Account of the Economy

I've been asked several times by those back in the States if it feels that China's economy is slowing down. My response is still that I have no anecdotal evidence from daily life here that the economic situation is deteriorating. In fact, quite the opposite; I see many signs that the average Chinese, at least in Beijing, are not concerned about a slow down at all. A friend is going out to buy a car this weekend. The owner of the apartment next door to us is completely gutting the place and renovating. Sometimes when I'm leaving our apartment in the morning I get a peek of the progress inside the door and it looks quite nice. It appears someone else in the neighborhood a few doors down is also renovating, from the new stack of supplies I see outside their entrance every morning.

Still, Wen Jiabao issued a statement last week that this could be "the worst in recent years for [China's] economic development," according to a recent New York Times article. The article also quoted several economists following the situation, and they all sound very bearish.

However, the article mostly focused on evidence from southern China, the country's main exporting region. After the burst of the 2001 tech bubble, cities like San Francisco felt a much more severe economic pain than the rest of the country. I wonder if in a country of 1.3 billion people, it's possible to have regional recessions that are even more isolated and separated. You've also got to realize that the slowdown these economists are predicting will still mean a whopping 5-6% annual GDP growth. To the naked eye will that even seem like a slowdown? I have no idea.

I am astounded, though, by the number of high-end commercial construction projects you can see by standing in just one spot here in Beijing. Ben -- and his superior JLL real estate insight -- says that projects are tripping over themselves to line up retailers like Gucci and Prada in order to establish themselves as a premier shopping location. There are only so many $8,000 man-purses a guy can buy for himself. This does not seem sustainable.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

election day

i hate to preempt all my other pending posts, but i think the election is worth writing about. it was indeed not a bad way to follow the election. cnn called pennsylvania pretty much right after i got into work, and then they called the election right before lunch. i spent most of my time at work listening to npr via the web site of the san francisco affiliate. once everybody went to sleep on the east coast they switched back to local coverage and i got to follow the california elections, complete with bay area traffic and weather. i think there's always an accident on 101 south near cesar chavez (moved to the shoulder, but traffic is still sluggish from the bay bridge).

the day itself was pretty enjoyable. it happened to be my boss's birthday, so we went out to lunch at the local TGI Friday's, his treat. treating people on your own birthday seems to be a peculiar tradition here. i don't think as much meaning is really placed on birthdays as we do in the states. people don't seem to give gifts on birthdays. it's more of an excuse for the birthday boy/girl to eat and drink a lot. we also had cake in the afternoon.

later in the night we all went to saddle, the most popular spot of last summer, and one of the core american hang outs. it also happened to be their monthly "cinco de drinko" event (half off, though apparently rounded up to the nearest 5), and so it was fairly crowded. and by fairly, i mean very. but everybody seemed to be in good spirits. nobody was drowning their sorrows. and durrell and i split some delicious nachos.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Writing on the Wall


Apparently, the Obama campaign had ad dollars to spare... in China.

The HTSICC (WRT) staff would like to announce it's full support for BARACK OBAMA!! That's right, we're setting the new trend in political endorsements: announcing it after the election! We're no dopes.

So let's the HTSICC (WRT) official party line was that we did not have a dog in this fight... even one with lipstick on... that can miraculously play hockey. Despite its name, THIS IS NOT A POLITICAL BLOG. So fear not, this post will ride the fence!

It was a very strange experience dating documents on November 4th but knowing that it wasn't election day -- being that China is currently 13 hours ahead of New York. But in a sense, it made for an ideal election watching experience. When I left work on Tuesday evening the polls had just opened. When I woke up the first results were just beginning to roll in. I was able to cut out those 12 hours of Wolf and AC yapping their heads off. It was great.

It's a widely observed fact that most of the non-State Department expats in Beijing were very pro-Obama (as demonstrated by the street art depicted above). Many of the expat bars advertised election parties beginning quite early on Wednesday morning. I made it down to The Rickshaw by 9:00am and it was already packed. By the looks of it, people must have been there as early as 7:30am. I ordered toast and beans to watch CNN in widescreen while standing at the bar. Pint after pint of Tsingtao kept flowing past me. I guess some were already starting to celebrate.

I'm going to take a moment and brag about how good of an American I am. Being abroad meant that I had to apply, receive, fill out, and then mail back my ballot. This was a complicated multi-step process, especially when you don't technically have a home address to receive mail. FedEx was sponsoring a program to overnight ballots for free -- which was great -- but it was only available at a single FedEx location in the entire city. Of course I didn't know this at first and visited 3 FedEx locations (each promising the next could handle it) before finally making my way to the 798 Art District from Donsi Shitiao... on bike! Those who don't know Beijing won't appreciate this feat, but it was really far, at solid 5 miles each way at least. I was on my bike the entire afternoon and my butt was so sore I couldn't sit down for the next day. But I did it, and a week ago my ballot arrived at Durrell's office. This time saved my butt the agony and paid for DHL to mail it back.

Overall it was very interesting to experience the election abroad, especially among the Chinese. A New York Times article today taking the perspective of non-Americans watching the election described it this way:

"From far away, this is how it looks: There is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, select as their leader a black man of modest origin, the son of a Muslim. There is a place on Earth — call it America — where such a thing happens."

I mean, yeah, if you stop and think about it, even the unremarkable elements of this election could seem so unique from the outside. The last 3 elections have been incredibly contested -- dividing families, making for heated conversation fodder at dinner parties. Yet when the day is done, and the chad are counted, we accept the outcome and move on. We take this for granted, but it's actually pretty cool if you think about it. Go America.

You know what Mao said, right?: "An Election is not a Dinner Party."

And I was at a dinner party with a lot of locals where I "believe" (I say this because I was only keeping up with about 60% of the Chinese conversation) they were casually discussing if the Chinese people could ever manage an equally civil outcome, if (big if) China were a d---cracy. A Chinese man well versed in American history started to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (this I'm sure of). His point: America's had its own progress towards civility in politics. The general consensus was "ehhh, maybe it could be for China, but maybe not." And then the conversation moved on to another topic as smoothly as we picked up American politics.

>>>>>>>I'm going to hop in right here and add some more thoughts since I originally made this post, based on a conversation I had with a Chinese woman at Ben's above-mentioned Saddle (awesome place by the way... try the nachos!)>>>>>>>>>

I asked her what she thought about the election we had today. Of course I didn't know how to say election, so it was more like:

me: you towards us country today cast votes choose new president event have what opinion?

her: the new president you chose is really handsome.

(OK, fine I thought -- not the first time that looks played into a voters opinion. I think we're all a little guilty about that.)

me: yeah, well it's a tough comparison to McCain because he's so old, but I'm sure he was a handsome dude in his youth. but what about that Palin, she's kind of foxy, right?

her: yeah, but she's the kind of foxy that you don't believe anything's going on upstairs

(Ok, I thought, so she's been watching her fair share of John Stewart's Daily Show recently. I decided to kick up the conversation a notch...)

me: so like, what do you think, would this sort of thing be suitable for China...?

her: no, I don't think so.

me: oh really, why not?

her: our country has no tradition of this sort of thing. we have so many people who are incredibly poor, so so many problems with corruption and bribery already, that it would inevitably lead to bad policies and people trying to buy votes. in America, there's a meritocracy. people are elected into power to have ability, and they choose administrators also based on ability, mostly. in China, familial connections are everything. parents and grandparents in power would nominate and appoint sons and grandsons, regardless of ability, in order to strengthen their base. this would reduce our system to warring factions and nothing would get done. right now things are going pretty well. the economy's expanding and people expect this to continue. so no, i don't think it would be suitable for China.

She was born in a neighboring provice and now works at a very nice hair salon in Beijing.

Expressed in one way or another, this was the theme I heard from several Chinese about the election. There was a general sense of interest, but detachment. Everyone was aware of the election, and perhaps even had a favorite candidate for one reason or another. But it was very much viewed as an American phenomenon. To the Chinese it was "so that's your system, this is ours."

I think there is this immediate tendency to think that whatever's good for the goose is good for the gander (flying right towards a Beijing Roast Duck eatery!!!)... which doesn't mean we're not right perhaps, but means we probably consider that this is a major assumption. I'm not saying that our systems doesn't have MANY merits over China's (because it does), and that there aren't serious failings here that need to be fixed (because there are). But it's a very complicated picture for people who live here and people who govern here. I think that many in the Western press tend to overlook this. There are so many moving parts here. If it were that black and white, some one would have fixed it by now, we'd only have one political party, and you'd only need one version of charger to power the many different types of cell phones.

I'm still holding out on that last one. But so it goes.