Saturday, October 25, 2008

Grocery Shopping Must Be Dangerous

I've been shopping for groceries at the Jingkelong grocery store on the corner of Gongti Beilu and Gongti Donglu for months now. Now that I live nearby I am in much more regularly. Every time I go in there is at least one man in a SWAT uniform, often walking around in a hurry, as if he just popped in to pick something up on his way to a crisis, but sometimes just standing around, watching.

The final exam for my business statistics class will be tomorrow. I needed a study break, and I was out of good portable snacks to eat during the exam, so I went to Jingkelong for a late night grocery run.

Tonight there was a whole SWAT team in the store. Most of them were standing around looking bored but a few were guarding the entrances.

I know this neighborhood has a lot of embassies, but is the grocery store really that much of a target? Really?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Banking Frustration

The world we live in is not yet quite as paperless as it could be.

J.P. Morgan Chase let's me do most of my banking online - moving funds between accounts, paying bills, an a few other things. I just looked at a credit card statement and saw something that I didn't recognize, phrased in a way that is ambiguous enough that I'm not sure if it is valid or not, so I called the credit card company, via Skype, to investigate further.

I was quickly connected with a man with an Indian accent. He wasn't able to give me much more information about the charge but offered to start dispute proceedings. He put a note in the computer system and then said he would mail me a form to complete. I quickly told him that I would need to receive the form via email, since I am in China and am not receiving ground mail. He doesn't have the option to send the form via email. Instead, I have to call back later, when the fraud investigation department opens, to discuss how to proceed.

J.P. Morgan has my email address. I know, they send me email regularly. I even had to agree that anything sent via email has the same legal weight of anything that would have been sent via U.S. postal service. Sending me a form via PDF should not be a problem.

This is part of why I do most of my banking with ING nowadays. They are much more electronically inclined. As an added benefit, ING also pays higher interest rates.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


My official absentee ballot has not yet arrived so I'm filling in my write-in absentee ballot.

I wasn't certain which offices, other than President/Vice-President, are up for election in my district this year, so I started by going to the New York State Board of Elections website to look at the list of general election candidates. When I vote in person I just have to choose from the names on the ballot but I have to write the names in on this ballot. My handwriting is not usually clear so I took my time time and wrote slowly and carefully, to make certain it would be legible.

I'll be near a FedEx office today so will send my ballot from there - FedEx is sending U.S. ballots for free. It's a wonderful example of corporate social responsibility.


My next class, Business Statistics, starts on Saturday. The textbook comes with a PC full of Excel data files and PHStat2 software. My computer can read the Excel files without a problem, but there's a small issue with the statistics software. It's written for Windows based computers, and my computer is a MacBook.

I love my MacBook, and I've even created complicated Excel spreadsheets on it, but have not needed to do any statistical computing so have not had this issue before.

I'm not going to buy a new computer for one class. Instead, I made a few phone calls. One friend is traveling right now but has an extra PC laptop, with all software in Italian, in his Beijing apartment just in case his main laptop fails. I now have it sitting in my living, though the charger is with him in Tibet (due to a packing mistake) so I would need to go to a computer market and find one that works in order to be able to use it. Another friend has a PC laptop that she is willing to loan me, with all software in Chinese, that she is going to leave at her office for me to pick up tomorrow.

I'm going to take the statistics software with me when I go to get the laptop, so that I can ask someone in her office for help if the computer asks me something in Chinese as a I load it. Other than that, I should be fine.

In an ideal world all software would run on a Mac. I don't live in an ideal world though, so it's nice to have backup plans, and friends who are willing and able to loan me extra computers.

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 8

Kindness comes in many forms.

This evening I had to take cabs to and from a distant neighborhood that is not well served by public transportation. As usual when I'm taking a cab by myself, I sat in the front passenger seat. My cab driver didn't seem very interested in chatting so I called a friend to clarify when we would see each other next and tell her my frustration du jour, about software compatibility. We laughed through much of the phone call, most of the conversation in English but occasional phrases in Chinese, and my cabdriver was amused by my laughter. When I ended the phone call he asked if I was English, I clarified that I'm an American, a New Yorker, and confirmed with him that he is Beijingren (a person from Beijing).

When my driver dropped me off I asked for a copy of the fa piao (receipt) when I paid him. I use the receipts to help me track my spending. Many other people, especially expats, collect receipts because part of their compensation is reimbursement and they can only receive it if they submit receipts. Some people buy receipts on the black market for a fraction of their face value, to be reimbursed at the full value. People have asked me for my receipts when I've left grocery stores, especially large ones frequented by foreigners on expense accounts. Some people just save receipts they don't need and give them to friends who can use them - I've been at lunch and dinner gatherings where one person pulled out a pocketful of receipts to give to another.

When my driver gave me the receipt it was still attached to several others, from previous passengers. I went to rip them off to give them back, so that I would only have my own. No. The driver insisted that I keep them. It was a form of generosity.

And a form of kindness. One I don't think we would recognize in the U.S.

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 7

Last night was the birthday of one of my amici italiani (Italian friends), celebrated by a birthday dinner in a western-style cafe and restaurant in a hutong near the Lama Temple. Getting there required a taxi (or an hour and a half walk), at one of the busiest times.

When I left my building I head to a street where it's usually fairly easy to get a cab, then stood on the corner and watched taxis driving past with passengers. There was a man in front of me, who had been waiting about the same amount of time, and as an empty cab drove by he waved for for me to take it. Yes, I wanted the cab, but I didn't want to leave someone who had been waiting longer standing there. I asked if he was sure, he said yes. Then I said where I was going and asked if he was going in the same direction. After a short back-and-forth I convinced him that it was ok to share the taxi.

Usually my taxi language lessons come from conversation with the driver. Not this time. The man with whom I shared the cab speaks no English, is from Beijing, has lived in Shenzhen but now lives in Xi'an. He's here now visiting his parents. He's heard of New York, has never been to the U.S. but has visited Germany and speaks some German.

We had a pleasant 20 minute conversation, in Chinese. It was very repetitive, and basic, and there were long silences, but it was good.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Choice

Autumn is now here and this past Sunday I was able to participate in one of my favorite Beijing activities: rowing on a dragonboat on Houhai. As the weather gets colder our activity on the water will be cut back, so it was one of the last times this year I'll be able to row.

I'll miss this week and next because of school. The following week there is going to be a dragonboat competition, in Ningbo, south of Shanghai. It's the same weekend that Kanye West is going to be performing in Beijing, a five minute walk from my apartment. I'm not a huge Kanye fan but it would be fun to attend his show here.

I have to choose. Argh. Right now I'm leaning towards the dragonboat competition.

Beautiful Day

It's a gorgeous autumn day. The sun is shining in a beautiful pale blue sky, with an occasional fluffy white cloud, and there's a slight chill in the air that makes wearing a light jacket a welcome option but not a necessity.

This morning I went for a long walk, exploring areas of my new neighborhood that I don't already know. I found a large outdoor produce market across the street fro the south side of Worker Stadium. There I bought some tangerines and a papaya. There were some beautiful flowers for sale as well, snapdragons and roses and some other things, but I don't have anything that I can put them in yet so decided against brining them home.

After exploring the market I wandered along some other streets, into a bicycle shop where one of the attendants told me "Obama hen hao" (Obama very good) after he found out that I'm American, then into a local branch of Red Hero, a chain of locally designed and produced clothing that usually has things I like. Their autumn line is now out but most of it is cut for much slimmer bodies than mine so I left empty handed. On my walk back north I saw two beautiful motorcycles, a late 1950s or early 1960s BMW and a late model Harley, parked in front of a German restaurant. A well dressed local man standing next them and I had a short chat, and we both agreed that the Harley was nice but the BMW was jinliang (the best, gorgeous). Then again, he said he works for the dealer so he may be partial.

Now it's back to sitting on my patio with a cup of tea and my statistics book. Class starts on Saturday.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Oatmeal and sunshine

I've been here for eight months now and the weather is once again turning chilly.

Yesterday at the grocery store I bought that most perfect of perfect cold weather breakfast foods: oatmeal. This morning I used the pan that I brought from New York to cook a bowl of oatmeal, which I dressed with chopped pear and lemon honey. I sat in the sun on the patio afterward and ate my oatmeal, with half of a papaya on the side, while looking out at the trees. It was a perfect autumn breakfast.

I'm going to have to buy a saucepan and other cookware before I can cook much more, but decent quality items are difficult to find here. In the meantime, I can at least prepare breakfast at home.


Along with moving into a new apartment comes a lot of cleaning. Even though I'm not really working right now I am busy, studying, attending events, doing research, socializing, etc. so rather than doing the cleaning myself it makes more sense to hire a cleaning woman to do it for me.

The word ayi has several connotations here, but two meanings are most common. One is 'auntie,' or a general honorific used to address any woman of your mother's generation or older. When I smile and wave at children in the park or on the subway their parents tell them to 'say hi to 'ayi,'' meaning me. My landlord also used the term to address my next door neighbor when they chatted through the window. The other meaning of ayi is a female helper - nanny, babysitter, cleaning woman. In China, when we speak about female help in the third person people don't usually use their name, just the word ayi.

The going rate for an ayi is 15 RMB (between $2 and $2.50) per hour. My friend who will be moving into the apartment has a great ayi that her grandmother knows, Mrs. Z, so she is here right now, dusting, mopping, wiping down the wooden furniture and doing other things that need to be done to keep the local dust and dirt at bay.

Now that I am living in my new home it's time for me to get serious about school again. Our next class is Business Statistics and we'll squeeze an entire semester's worth of stats into one week. I want to get the textbook, or at least the chapters that the professor plans to cover, read before class starts. I'm sitting at the living room table with the book in front of me now, as ayi is cleaning.

Most ayis in Beijing prefer to scrub floors on their hands and knees, but I was glad to see that Mrs. Z chose to use the mop that was among the cleaning supplies I bought last week. In the living room she mopped around and under me, with both of us laughing (at least part of my laughter being from discomfort at the idea that it probably looks like I'm being a lazy sod while she's working). After she finished mopping the entire apartment she came back to me and asked me to give her the slippers I was wearing so that she could wipe the bottoms of them - that way I won't track dust through the nice clean apartment when I get up. Then she brought the nicely cleaned slippers back to me so that I wouldn't need to walk around slipperless.

I feel spoiled, and completely bourgeois.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I've been living in the new apartment for a couple of days now but do not yet have internet.

A local bar called The Rickshaw is showing the CNN broadcast of the second Obama-McCain debate live, over breakfast. I'm sitting in a room full of Americans, about 30 of us, watching the debates and sharing comments while sitting under posters advertising Brooklyn lager.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hong Kong Dollars

In Hong Kong, different banks still issue their own bills, which are legal tender and can be used anywhere in the country. At one time I had three twenty dollar bills, all drawn on different banks.

I'd heard of this previously but it seemed like something out of another time. Seeing the bills in my hands felt like seeing the history of currency .

Besides, Hong Kong has pretty money.

Mr. Softee

There are some things that just seem to me to be purely American. A Mr. Softee truck is one of them, so it took me by surprise when I came across one on the streets of downtown Kowloon, in Hong Kong.

The serving size was small by American standards, and it was served in a sugar cone instead of the Mr. Softee standard waffle cone, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Ke Yi

After checking into my hotel room I wanted to log onto the internet to check email and post a blog entry but I wasn't able to get online. I called reception to inquire how I could connect.

A man answered in Chinese. I asked, in Chinese, if he speaks English: "Ni shuo Yingwen ma?"

His response? "Ke yi." (Yes.)

I should have expected it. Next time I'll just ask in English.

There are room charges for internet use. I'd rather go out and explore than sit here and surf the internet for the next couple of hours so I'll wait to post.

Hong Kong is Green

My visa only allows me unlimited entries into China, for up to 120 days after each entry. Today is day 120 so I need to leave the country or risk penalties.

This morning I boarded a plane to Shenzhen, from the gorgeous and grand new Terminal 3 in Beijing airport. Today is the second day of a national week long holiday so many people are traveling. In the airport security line I ran into a friend who was on his way to Tibet. After arriving at Shenzhen airport I learned that there is only one ferry to Kowloon, in Hong Kong, each day and it does not leave until late afternoon. There are more ferries to the Hong Kong International Airport, but you must have a plane ticket or confirmation of a reservation to be allowed on. I want to be in HK before then then so I hopped onto a bus to the border. My first images of Shenzhen were of rows of backhoes and skyscrapers under construction, which I expected to see, and trees and flowers along the sides of the road and in the distance on the mountains, which I did not expect to see. The first sounds I heard after leaving the confines of the airport were of local workers with a Shenzhen accent.

The bus ends at the Shenzhen train and bus terminals, and the maze of walkways that leads to the border security check. At one point I went up to a police officer to ask directions. A Chinese couple who reached him before me had pulled out a notebook for him to write something down. I made a joke under my breathe in Putonghua (Mandarin), and they turned and excitedly asked me if I speak Chinese. "Yi dian dian," (a little) I said, and watched their faces fall. When Mandarin speakers think they can get me to translate from Cantonese I know I'm not in Beijing anymore.

More tunnels, lined with stalls selling SIM cards and phones and food and all manner of other things, led to the border checkpoint. It felt a bit like Times Square, circa 1992, so I held my bag tight. Exiting China and entering Hong Kong were quick, taking about 15 minutes. The most noteworthy part of it was that the Hong Kong immigration officer, a woman, smiled at me as she took my passport. Chinese immigration officer did not like my passport and shot me dirty looks so I was happily surprised at my welcome into Hong Kong.

After stopping to exchange some Chinese Renminbi into Hong Kong Dollars I stopped at a bakery and picked up a portuguese egg tart. It was a yummy first bike of Hong Kong. Then I joined the queue at a ticket machine and bought a first class ticket to Kowloon on the Hong Kong MTR (Mass Transit Railway). The first class car is clean, has comfortably cushioned seats, and is air-conditioned. The train pulled out of the station into an expanse of green, tree covered hills, with occasional blocks of residential buildings, on its way towards the urban expanse of downtown Hong Kong.

There's a lot of green.