Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Unintended-Consequence Hell!

Dalian traffic is a nightmare. The city grew from a patchwork of little villages snuggling up against hills and mini-mountains and surrounded by an irregular coastline, so there's nothing remotely resembling a street grid. Indeed, the map more closely resembles a bowl of spaghetti thrown up in the air and allowed to fall to the ground as dictated by chance.

However, up to now I've been able to avoid too much gnarly traffic as long as I refused to drive at rush hour. It's a nuisance when I have 8AM classes, but if I leave home at 5:30 and drive home between 10AM and 3 PM, all has been well. This semester has been a breeze so far, because almost all my classes are between 3:40 and 8:30 PM. It's not fun working that late, but at least I never had to deal with bad traffic.

Until today, when traffic was an absolute war zone even in the heart of what is normally smooth sailing. We left home this morning at 9:00, and I didn't make it to campus until 10:30. Coming home again at 2:45, it took a bit more than an hour. (Should've been 45 minutes, tops.) And the time delays tell only part of the story: that's an hour of constant stress and near-misses, as opposed to a leisurely 45 minutes.

I was scratching my head trying to figure out what was going on. There weren't any accidents anywhere along the route, nor is there any big event going on in town. (At least not that I know of. Government conferences aren't always publicized in this country.)

Then finally, Ma Lei figured it out: I was stuck in two hours of unintended-consequence hell.

You see, the local government recently decided to "solve" the traffic problem on one of the main highways into town by instituting alternate-day driving: on even-numbered days, people whose license plates end in odd numbers will get an expensive ticket if they drive on the freeway. Vice versa, on odd days.

Once she mentioned that, I looked around at the morass I was stuck in the middle of. And sure enough, every license plate I saw ended in an even number (today's date being March 25).

So thanks a lot, Dalian City Government! You sure did a wonderful job on that traffic problem.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


This morning I took the dogs outside. When we got on the elevator, there was already a dog there, along with an old guy who looked like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride. (To be fair, an awful lot of old Chinese dudes look like Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride.)

The dog was a brown poodle, male, un-neutered. Chinese people never neuter their dogs. He was half-again the size of Qizai or Mimi — but they've studied from Ma Lei, so they know how to put someone bigger in his place.

The poodle hopped over and tried to get dominant with Mimi, till she went "Yipe!" and nipped him in the ear. He responded to this rejection as all men do, by going to the back corner of the elevator and lifting his leg to pee against the wall.

I believe my response-time has been quickened and my inhibitions lowered by living in this particular part of China, because rather than standing there, mouth agape, I instantly whipped out a leg and kicked the dog, just hard enough to stop him from peeing. He only managed to make a little coin-sized mark on the wall before my foot met his butt. (I am not a proponent of kicking dogs, but I'm even less fond of allowing them to stink up a public elevator.)

I shot a glance at Wallace Shawn, who was watching the whole thing with his trademarked grinning equilibrium. Of the two logical responses to this situation — either to chastise his dog for pissing in the elevator, or to chastise me for kicking the dog — he chose neither. He just grinned dumbly. So I figured "hey, that's cool!" and grinned right back at him.

When we reached ground floor, the old man wanted to go one way, while we were going the other. His dog, of course, totally ignored him to go with us. (Neuter your male dogs, people!!!) At the structural column halfway to the door, the dog again lifted his leg before I could call out HEY! and make him stop.

We went on our little ten-minute walk, and as we were coming back toward the building, there once again was the brown poodle with Wallace Shawn. The dog once again tried to make a pass at Mimi, then at Qizai, and once again got nothing but snarls and yipes. 

(Yeah, dog, I understand. I've been there, and I feel your pain. But you really need to stop trying. The third time is definitely NOT the charm.)

The old man, still grinning, said "Your dogs are really lihai."

For my friends who don’t know, Lihai is a word in Chinese that doesn't translate very well into English. It's as multivalent as the word "pride," and can similarly be used as either a compliment or an insult. A man with a well-deserved position of high authority might be described as lihai. A cowardly, nasty man who beats his wife is also lihai. The guy who always comes up with the best ideas at office meetings is lihai. So is the snarky guy in the back cubicle who cusses everyone out for no reason. Women are almost never lihai, except my wife. She’s lihai on steroids.

But when somebody out of the blue says your dog is lihai, it’s almost always in the bad way. Dogs aren’t supposed to be lihai, in this country, unless they’re guarding your front door.

By this point, I'd had enough of Wallace Shawn's dumb loser grin, and I was feeling just a little bit lihai myself, so I unsheathed my rapier tongue. Sometimes it’s nice, but dangerous, to speak reasonably good Chinese. As I used to say of my Spanish, “I know enough to get myself into trouble — but not enough to get myself back out again."

I said harshly: "Lihai?! You think my wife's dogs are lihai?! They don't piss on the elevator, they don't piss in the hallway, and they sure don't bully other dogs. And if they did, I wouldn’t just stand there like a monkey with a smile on my face.” 

He just stood and listened, though his dumb grin had slackened a little with surprise.

Lihai, my ass! As the Chinese would say, fang ge pi lihai! (No good translation, but it basically comes out as “you say lihai, I say fart.”)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bar of Babel

I had an interesting experience on my way home from work today, the first day of the new semester. 

You may know that I’m now living out in the Dalian Development Zone, about an hour’s drive from the university campus where I teach. My drive home takes me right past Five Color City, the bar district in the Development Zone. Today was my LONG day of teaching (8 AM to 8:30 PM), so I decided to stop in for a beer to reward myself and relax a bit. I’ve only been to that district a few times, so generally when I go I like to have one drink at a bar I already know, and one at a bar I don’t know.

The first one I stopped (the bar I know) at was a really nice little bar called Tiffany’s Girl Bar. The name is sadly misleading, as there should be a hyphen between “Tiffany’s” and “Girl." It refers to Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — “Tiffany’s-Girl” — whose pictures are all over the walls. The first time I went there, I was somewhat hopeful that this would be a girl-bar owned by someone called Tiffany. But no, that would have been a very different experience.

The manager is a really cool woman with whom I enjoy conversing in Chinese. In fact, the only reason I went in that bar in the first place, a month or so ago, was that I saw her out front on at opening time on an evening when there’d been an ice storm. She was down on her hands and knees, carefully chipping ice out from between the bricks of the walkway to the bar. That kind of attention to detail is unbelievably, extraordinarily rare in China, a country where the guiding philosophy seems to be “There are too many of you, so who cares if you slip and kill yourself?” I was sufficiently impressed that I decided to reward this fastidious bar manager with a sale. I was even more impressed with her professionalism as I saw how she ran the bar. If I ever had a business that needed a manager, I would try to hire this woman.

Anyway, I had my one beer there, then went to check out the bar just across the street. It was a somewhat intimidating place without any windows, just a big, heavy-looking metal door that looked like it might be the back alleyway door to a warehouse in the Bowery. I almost didn’t want to go in, but I figured what the hell, if it was too scary inside I could always leave.

Inside, it turned out to be a beautiful, inviting space done up in Japanese style, and indeed the only customers were two relatively elderly Japanese guys drinking sake and chatting with two beautiful waitresses. I sat down next to the Japanese guys, and there ensued my strangest Tower of Babel experience to-date.

The younger of the two waitresses (also the prettier — stunning, to be precise) spoke reasonable Japanese, but had forgotten most of her English. The other one spoke a little more English, but not quite as much Japanese. One of the two Japanese guys spoke a tiny bit of Chinese, and a tiny bit more English. The other guy seemed to know little of either language.

The Japanese guys clearly were regulars, and big spenders, but all four of them were happy to have an American join the mix. So the stunner occasionally would interrupt her conversation with the other guys to try to talk to me — but invariably she would bust out with a string of Japanese, the only language in the room that I don’t know. 

The one Chinese guy would then translate her Japanese into broken English. Then the other bar girl translated the first girl’s Japanese into Chinese (which, after all, was BOTH of their native language, so it would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if the first girl had just spoken to me in Chinese!).

All four of them enjoyed trying out little phrases of broken English: “What-a you-ah name-uh?” “Drink-ah wine!” None of them really spoke enough to be conversational, though the one Japanese guy came closest. (He did have that stereotypical Japanese lispy accent, though, with “flied lice” and w’s for r’s.)

I had some reasonable conversation with the two bartenders, especially the one who wasn’t trying so hard to speak Japanese. 

Then the other girl with the good Japanese would translate into Japanese, the guy with some English would take a stab at re-translating it into English and/or do his own Japanese translation, and the bar girl would either confirm or deny the accuracy of his translation. Once in a while one of them would turn back to me and ask a question in English or Chinese, to make sure they’d understood. Or the Japanese guy would ask the Chinese girl a question in Japanese or Chinese, when he didn’t know some of the Chinese vocabulary I was using. It was like a linguistic Escher drawing, or an other-worldly echo-chamber.

“You speak-a Chinee welly fast-uh,” the Japanese guy complained teasingly, with a big, complimentary smile on his face.

I’ve had conversations before that were half in English, half in Chinese, because there was some other foreigner there who didn’t understand Chinese. I’ve had plenty of conversations in Chinese that probably should’ve been in English, because the girl I was chatting with had better English than I have Chinese. (I’m often selfish that way: I’d rather work on my Chinese than help her work on her English.) But this was the first time I’ve experienced that bizarre crosshatch of mismatched linguistic incompetencies.

Actually, it was kind of sweet. Everyone was relaxed and playful and having fun. I was beginning to think I should make this a regular hang-out, until I finished my beer and asked for the bill.

The first bar charged me about $4.50 for a single bottle of Qingdao beer — pretty steep, but not totally out of the question. The second bar charged, for the same beer, a whopping 70 rmb — something like $12!!! So sadly, my new Japanese friends will have to drink without me from now on.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Now that we're finally back in the slightly more technologically-advanced world of the Development Zone (aka home), I was finally able to upload my movie-producing debut to YouTube. I think the results are okay, considering that it’s a first-time effort.
Video processing is clearly SLOW work! My Mac is only a couple of years old, and it still took the greater part of an hour to convert the iMovie file to mp4 format, and then a whopping 8 hours to upload to YouTube! Granted, our internet speed isn't that great, but wow! Editing the movie, by contrast, was lickety-split! Even though this was literally the first movie I’ve ever edited together, the whole editing process took maybe four or five hours. Now that I’ve got some experience, I could probably knock it off in half that. In other words, it took considerably less time to create the video, than it did to upload it to YouTube. So much for the computer being faster than the human brain!
This is pretty obviously my first-ever video, or at least my first since high school. You can see some pretty awful camera work, especially in the early part of the fireworks display. Still, it's pretty amazing what you can do with an iPhone and a Mac these days. The last time I edited video, it meant endless winding and rewinding of VHS tapes, and the timing was always just a little off. I think to make a video about this long in high school, my buddy Rob Tracinski and I spent two or three entire DAYS editing, from dawn till dusk. Granted, that was with 1985 technology.
I noticed after uploading to YouTube that I'd left off the first musical credit. It was a song called Stars, from George Winston's Autumn album. (Also of mid-80s vintage, coincidentally.)
Anyway, this should give you some idea of what Chinese New Year is like in a farm village in Northeastern China.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The anti-corruption, pro-Xi juggernaut

Yet another kingpin going down in Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign. (A factional enemy of Xi Jinping's, of course.)

This one is especially interesting, because he's the first major figure who's still active in the government. The others so far have all been minor officials, or else retired heavy-hitters. That Xi should go after a currently-active government official, signifies a major tipping-point in the anti-corruption campaign. If he's successful in taking this guy down, it's deuces wild for the whole lot of them.

Part of me thinks Xi Jinping should actually be thanking this guy, not taking him down. If this guy's son hadn't slammed his Ferrari into a restraining wall on one of Beijing's ring roads in the wee hours of the morning, Xi's goal of eradicating the influence of Hu and the other retiring leaders would have been essentially impossible to achieve. After that event two years ago, the entire Hu Jintao faction was massively embarrassed.

Nonetheless, as one commentator said in the NY Times (I think it was), Xi almost didn't have a choice but to go after this Mr. Ling. Having pushed his hand so far, if he stopped short of going after Ling, he'd have been seen as just another pretend reformer.

Some evidence is starting to emerge that Xi has run his course, and that the military in particular has lost its patience with his anticorruption campaign. Nonetheless, he's already worked the Chinese political system far better than I would have considered possible. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to hold out against the enemies he has created for himself, but so far he has been incredibly deft and crafty at taking out his rivals inside the Chinese system.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Peccadillos and evils

Peccadillo is a wonderful word which gets used too frequently. It comes from Spanish, meaning "small sin" or "small error." "Pecado" means "sin," and the "illo" ending means "small."

Smoking in the elevator is a peccadillo. Forgetting to repay $5 to your buddy is a peccadillo. I don't believe there's an equivalent term in Chinese, but there definitely should be.

Peccadillos are small things, not evil in themselves, but steps on the road toward much larger evils. And there's a huge amount of empirical evidence that peccadillos in fact metastasize and become full-on evils.

China is full of peccadillos, and if they want to reduce major corruption, I would submit that the peccadillos are the place to start. Common manners would be a good first step.

There are many, many examples I could draw from, as I've written about in the past. Today, I had just one other set of experiences that made me think about the issue once again.

My students sometimes ask me a forlorn sort of question, to the effect of "when will China take its rightful place in the world?" I.e., when will China be a world leader?

My answer always surprises them.

China will be a world leader when old men don't hawk and spit on the sidewalk.

China will be a world leader when children don't pee inside the building.

China will be a world leader when its bathrooms don't reek.

China will be a world leader when men stop hitting their wives.

China will be a world leader when manners become common.

Here's an example:

In China, it's quite common for every public doorway to be covered by these huge, heavy, army-looking blankets to keep out the cold air. They work well, but they're filthy-disgusting, and they are really heavy to lift. I always get a little allergy twinge after walking through one, and I definitely feel like washing my hands if there's anywhere to do so. (There seldom is.)

I try to avoid walking through such doorways as much as possible, but today I had occasion to go through six or eight of them, including one on the way into the Walmart.

I happened to be doing so during daytime hours, today being my day off teaching, so most of the other customers were women. As an American, I just naturally expected to hold the giant-army-surplus-blanket for women, as we always do in America.

But that particular bit of manners requires a bit of reciprocality. The woman needs to expect that the man will hold it for her, and quicken her pace to fit with the rhythm of his giant-blanket-holding. She's also expected (in both my culture and the Chinese) to say a quick thank-you.

My wife gets super-pissed when I hold doors for people and they don't reciprocate in any way. It happens often enough in China, that I'm actually afraid to hold doors for people when my wife is around. If they blow me off, it's just one more little thing adding stress to me... but she gets ready to cuss someone out.

I think we have the same standards, we have very different ways of processing the frustration. I usually just say "Aw, hell, it's China!" But she goes to rip someone's head off. My way is more peaceful, but the stress gets internalized a lot more. I'll get high blood pressure long before she does.

Today, of the six or eight women for whom I held the blanket, exactly one quickened her pace and said thanks.

Three that I can remember were too busy on their phones to pay any attention or quicken their paces, so I gladly dropped the giant thing right into their faces. I'm not going to wait all day.

Two pushed right past me, ducking under my armpits without so much as a "fare-thee-well." They were at least alert enough to get that I was holding the blanket for them, but not polite enough to acknowledge it.

So I'd say Dalian's manners quotient for the day was about ⅕. 20% is probably a good estimate of the not-totally-ill-mannered population in this city.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Heating in China

They've turned on the heat in Dalian. Actually, in most of China. It's all scheduled by government decree: if you're north of the government-defined Mason-Dixon Line of China, you get heat on such-and-such date, and it gets turned off on such-and-such date. South of that line, there’s no heating. By common assent, the coldest you’ll ever feel is living in an apartment on the wrong side of the heating-line of China.

In the old days, the heat was provided by the government, but nowadays it's from a company (probably government-owned or government-sponsored). You pay the equivalent of about $250 by a date-certain, and you get radiator heat throughout the government-defined winter. If it's cold before or after the pre-defined dates, tough noogies. If it's warm before or after the pre-defined dates, open your windows. If you don't pay by that date-certain, you don't get heat. Just like Obamacare, if you don't enroll in time, you pay the penalty: in this case, a long, COLD winter.

We paid, of course, and our radiator is nice and warm. But it was making a lot of noise the other day, so Ma Lei opened an escape valve to let some air out. The water that squirted out with it went into a little watering jug, but got quickly poured down the drain. I figured we should use it to water the plants, or give it to the dogs, but she'd already disposed of it before I even had a chance to ask. "It's not safe," she said. I sort of shook my head at that. What do you mean it's not safe?

Ma Lei told me that the residents of her former apartment used to collect water from their radiators to wash their clothes, in order to save a few pennies on their water bill. With the whole building doing so, the company that was responsible for steam heating was losing money, so they started putting antifreeze into the radiator water. The first few people who didn't recognize what they were washing with, ruined their entire wash loads. I hope no one gave it to their dogs to drink.

In other heat-related news, Ma Lei's Little Brother told her that the guy at the head of the company supplying heat for the apartment complex just behind where Little Brother lives, absconded with all the money the residents had paid for their heating. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that's probably about $150K, perhaps a bit more. Once the money’s been paid and stolen, that’s it: they’re all going to be freezing this winter. And for what?

If the guy managed to escape down one of the tropical wormholes south of here, he could live on that for a while. But really, it's not much of an annuity for the entire rest of one's life. And if he doesn't manage to escape the country, he's going to find it was a very bad bargain. And also, he can never return to China. 

The Chinese government isn't very efficient, but it has a long memory. The papers are full of stories of people who absconded after committing crimes, then 25 years later they returned for what they thought was a brief visit — perhaps a parent's funeral — only to find themselves quickly clapped in irons upon their arrival.

Maybe the guy had already been collecting illicit money for a while, and he just needed $150K to top off his retirement fund. But seriously, I can't believe it was worth it.

Nevertheless, the people in the apartment building are well and truly scrod. In China, if your money didn't get to the proper authorities, it's not going to be the authorities who lose out. Get yourself a lawyer, try to raise a court case, protest all the way up to Beijing, and all you'll earn for yourself is an illegal detention for being a troublemaker.