Sports Fandom is the Same the World Over

I went to a soccer game in Beijing (Beijing vs. Chengdu) and my takeaway was simple: sports fandom is sports fandom and intense, crazy fans are all over the world. It’s universal. Nothing felt as global / common as the soccer game experience.

Village Outside Beijing and Spending Two Hours in a Police Station

I took a 2.5 hour bus from Beijing to a village outside the city, aiming for a couple days of relaxation and reading. City life, especially a day as large and hectic as Beijing, can be draining, and a village in the mountains sounded like a nice reprise.

I packed a backpack with a few clothes, some toiletries, a copy of my passport, my Kindle, and a couple old-fasioned books, and set out for the subway which would take me to the bus station on the outer western side of the city. Unfortunately, with no access to a printer (truly unfortunate when you need to print out Chinese characters), I had only the pinyin name of the village.

It was my first time riding the subway alone which means I had to decipher the signs and figure out my route. It was easier than expected, with much additional English signage added in preparation for the Olympics.

I arrived at the subway station, exited, and tried to find the bus stop for bus 192. This proved more challenging. I asked a couple people, got pointed in a direction, and eyed the signs for the 192 stop. Eventually I found it, but I was already pretty tired, and I noticed the sky go from grey-from-smog to grey-about-to-rain, and I considered turning back and abandoning my village trip and just staying in Beijing to read.

At the 192 stop there were lots of taxi hawks and other people hassling me, screaming at me in Chinese, etc. The usual fare. When the bus arrived, I boarded, showed the ticket lady my destination. We tried to communicate. She pointed out of the bus and ahead on the road, as if I were not on the right bus. This confused me — two locals I had asked on the street said 192 in this direction was the right way, as did the online guidebook I consulted. The taxi hawks followed me onto the bus and started screaming “No! No! No!”.

I got off the bus. I walked ahead in the direction the woman pointed, as much to get out of the sight from the touts as much as to find the right bus.

Luckily, up ahead I found another stop, and waited, and a bus came. This time around, the ticket man looked at my destination and told me to come on-board. I gave him my pen and notebook (which I always had at the ready) and he wrote down the fare. 16 RMB. I paid and sat, awaiting the two hour bus ride ahead.

By this time it was already about 5:30 PM and darkness was approaching. Not good, because I was to arrive in a small town, and then find a taxi to take me to the village. Harder to do in the dark.

The ticket man tried to talk to me as we approached my destination — what he was saying, I have no idea, I just prayed he wasn’t trying to tell me the town was sketch or that there were no taxis or something.

I got off in Zhangtaing (sp). By now it was 7 or 7:30 PM and pitch dark. I couldn’t see anything, let alone any taxis who would be able to take me to the village that, while somewhat known, I did not have written down in characters so all bets are off. I decided 10 seconds after arriving in the town that I would go to the village the following day, and stay at a hotel in the town.

It was drizzling rain and there were puddles. I had to badly go to the bathroom, and I was also starving. The first people I bumped into started harassing me, of course — what they said, I have no idea, but it does pretty tiring to always be accosted and sold to.

I walked into a restaurant — their door, like so many restaurant doors, is not a door but rather vertical, cut pieces of plastic that you push open and through. Everyone at the restaurant turned and looked at me and laughed or talked amongst themselves while pointing at me. In small towns, away from a big city, they don’t see many tall, white men.

I made the eating motion with my hands (mime the hand sipping soup with a spoon by my mouth), the “waitress” nodded and told me to sit. A few people stood by my table and watched me. I flipped through the menu, which luckily had pictures, and once again faced the predicament of eating alone at a Chinese restaurant. Since everything is family style, it’s hard to pick dishes for just one person. You usually have go to with dumplings or noodles. Because I was feeling hungry, I ordered two full family style dishes.

After placing the order, I tried to ask how to go to the bathroom. In most parts of the world, saying the world “toilet” does the trick, but not in China. After a good full minute of body language miming, they figured it out, and pointed outside the restaurant, and across the street. That I was not going to do. I did not know whether I should fully trust the restaurant staff, and frankly the darkened shack across the street looked intimidating. So I held on.

I ate the food, paid the $1.50 it cost me, and then wrote the word “hotel?” on my notebook and showed it to them. They did a translation or figured out the word and made a phone call. Then one of the guys led me outside, to the left, and to the front of the police station. At first I hesitated. The last thing I wanted to do was deal with the police, and I thought they had maybe misinterpreted my request for a hotel. Then I remembered that Chinese law says foreigners are supposed to check in at a town wherever they spend the night.

This is where the real clusterfuck began. No one in the police station spoke the slightest bit of English. Not a single word or sound. As usual for China, it was wildly overstaffed, with about eight officers sitting in their chair, doing nothing.

They asked for ID. I first gave them my California iD card. Not, they needed more ID. Then I gave them the copy of my passport. No, they still weren’t satisfied. Then I realized that I was majorly screwed without my real passport. I considered bringing it, but decided against, thinking there was an above-0 chance I just stay the day in the village, and when it’s on my person and I’m robbed, I’m really screwed.

They talked among themselves and tried to communicate to me but failed. I didn’t really know what the hold-up was. One cop called a friend who spoke very broken English, and he got on the phone with me and told me, “They must require you passport.”

This was the problem. They kept thinking I had my passport but wasn’t showing it; in fact, I was trying to tell them I only had a photocopy. We were in a standstill. No one knew what to do.

I finally got the phone and called my contact in Beijing who spoke both languages. She explained my situation to the cop. They went back and forth a bit. Then the cop called his supervisor in Beijing who spoke a bit of English. They agreed I needed to leave the town right away and return to Beijing to be with my passport. “According to Chinese law it is illegal to travel without your passport.”

I got on the phone with the supervisor. We had an exchange, and then he said sternly and weirdly solemnly, “Sir, it is in your best interest to leave the town immediately.” For some reason this kind of freaked me out — I sensed some subtle warning in his voice, like if I didn’t leave the town something was going to happen. Something bad. So I agreed to leave, but how? It was almost 10 PM and Beijing was three hours away by car. The supervisor told me to take a 100 RMB taxi. He then checked with the local cop if there were any taxis…but no. There were none.

So they told me I was to stay the night at a hotel, but leave at 8 AM the next morning. I agreed. They walked me to a hotel. I paid 200 RMB and go on my bed and read.

The next morning was grey and drizzily. I left my hotel at 8:30 AM, wandered around the streets of the town a bit. Nobody was working. Dozens of people standing on the street, doing nothing. Not exactly surprisingly — there are few businesses in the town, other than a hotel or two and a restaurant or two. I’m guessing unemployment in the town is 40% or so.

Then I went to the bus stop, and went back to Beijing. No village, no reading getaway. Just some time in a bus and some time in a police station.

The Scale of China

It’s really, really hard to convey the scale of China. My usual strategy is to talk about the number of cities that have, say, over 10 million people in them, or whatever.

Here’s one fun fact we learned the other day: the best hospitals in China have on average daily outpatient numbers of 10,000 people. 10,000 outpatients every day. The biggest hospital in the world is in China: 5,000 beds.

Also, there are 470 million pigs alive in China right now.

Sanitation and Health in China

The country is going bizerke over Swine flu. But there are so many things that could be done to improve sanitation and health in the country….instead they’re installing more temperature-reading devices at the airport.

Hand soap in bathrooms are rare. Paper towels are even rarer — the drying device of choice is the hot air blower. These, of course, almost never get the job done, so people are disinclined to want to wash their hands in the first place.

Then there’s food cleanliness — in particular cleanliness of plates and dishes and tables. This is an area of weakness all over the third world.

My Current Moment

I find myself using the handle of a disposable hair comb to scoop peanut butter out of a mini, emergency jar of peanut butter, given to my new friend when he went to Sichuan Province (“I’m afraid you might starve,” he was told), and then the jar of peanut butter was passed onto me.

So, to recap: in Beijing, using a hair comb (the handle part) to eat peanut butter right out of the jar.

It is my first taste of peanut butter in five weeks. And it is glorious.

Etiquette at Dinners

We learned about Chinese business etiquette at meals. It’s remarkable how hierarchal and authority-driven it all is.

American etiquette, vis-a-vis power and status, might call for the most important person to sit at the head of a rectangular table, collect the check, and initiate a toast if necessary.

Chinese etiquette is so much more elaborate. The most important person sits facing the door and then people sit in different positions based on decreasing levels of importance. If you chime drink glasses with someone of higher status, your cup is to be slightly below theirs when the cups connect. There’s much more. It’s complicated.

Eating in China

What’s the history of family-style eating? You know, the method of food serving where it’s all put on communal plates in the middle and each person helps himself.

I’m told that this became the Chinese-way originally as a way to save / conserve resources and food.

Is it possible that this style of eating somehow reduces overall individualistic tendencies or culture in a country in general? (I strongly prefer individual plates to family style.)

Other observations on Chinese eating: there is usually a single bowl or plate and all food you eat gets managed from that bowl (usually filled with rice on the bottom). The idea of side plates or bowls is uncommon (I even asked Chinese people about this and they confirmed that extra side, empty plates for bread or other food are rare).

Given the smallness of a typical plate or bowl, you inevitably have to put some food directly on the table (not on a plate). Or some food just spills over. Given how unclean most of the tables are, food gets dirtier more easily.

Chopsticks get the job done most of the time but there are times which call for a knife. But knives aren’t used.

As in all poor countries, Coca-Cola is more common than water at meals. Anything but water is served at meals.

Napkins are not a big deal, and sometimes not offered at all at cheap places.

A Rural Village Outside Beijing

In any country it’s true: the big city doesn’t represent the whole country. California is way more and way different than San Francisco and Los Angeles alone. New York is not America.

In China this is important to remember. How many tourists have visited Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai, and then report back home on “China”? Really, they saw Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. Not China.

Yesterday, we drove four hours north of Beijing to a small village admittedly ready to accept tourists but still pretty basic. It was beautiful countryside. Less polluted, more breathable than Beijing proper. We hiked around the village, around water, up a mountain of sorts, and took in all the natural beauty. And it was beautiful, the rolling hills, sun off the lake, the grass and trees. I’ll post pictures later to make the point.

At night some of us lay on the top of the castle and watched the stars, to the play-by-play astronomy commentary by a budding astrophysicist. I haven’t done that in awhile — stargazing. I should do it more often. On a clear night, in a non-urban place, with meteor-showers in the sky: this is quite a tranquil experience. If you ever want to feel unimportant and small, just spend a night looking at the stars (lying down — on your back — do it right for the full experience).

The following morning we went to the less touristy part of the Great Wall. I was at the Great Wall three years ago, but the section closest to Beijing, and so packed with tourists (and thus, touts). The section we went to this time around was remarkably uncrowded and therefore more pleasant. What to say about the Wall? The great Richard Nixon put it best, perhaps, when it said something to the effect of, “It is, indeed, a very great wall.”

I appreciated the beauty of the non-cityscape, but found myself itching to return to Beijing, oddly enough. I think this was for the high speed internet connection and showers that awaited me; I’m guessing if I had those amenities in the village, I would have wanted to stay a great while longer.

Back in China

“Get me out of here.” Those were my first thoughts upon landing back in Beijing after the pretty painless 12 hour non-stop from San Francisco.

It’s not the first time I’ve had moments of instant regret of sorts when arriving in a place that’s dirty, dangerous, poor, or some combination. It’s usually followed by some immediate action toward following through on the regret — checking to see if I can change flights, change hotels, or in some other way improve my situation. I remember settling into my “bed” in the hut that was planted in the water deep in the Amazon jungle in 2008, bugs all around me, and thinking, “Why oh why did I leave behind my nice lifestyle in the U.S.?”

Usually, though, things improve, and I look back and feel proud and glad I did it.

In Beijing, I think my early discomfort stemmed from sleep deprivation more than anything. I’m still recovering from South America. But there are also real things about China that make life difficult, and no matter how good the “moments” are, China will never be one of my favorite countries. The smog and pollution in Beijing is insane; the language is absolutely foreign to me and I have trouble communicating even basic things; the food is decent but usually too spicy, even in the east (the west’s cuisine is crazy spicy); there are holes not toilets.

My first two weeks in Beijing I will enjoy the soup-to-nuts services of my hosts and fellow delegates here. Thinking back to when I was here solo in 2006, I am absolutely amazed I got around and functioned on my own. I think once you have a host or someone who knows the ropes, you immediately cede control of the situation and become pretty helpless on your own. You’re in “follower” mode. Had I landed in Beijing knowing I’d be fending for myself, my attitude would be different and more aggressive toward making myself get to where I need to go.

In 2006 I was in China in October. Now it’s August. Then, the weather was pleasant, save for smog. Now, the weather is miserably hot and humid. If I’ve learned one thing through travel, it’s that I really do poorly in extreme temps in either direction. I’m a man of moderate temperature and regular fog.

The good news: I think I’ve gotten most of my negativity out of the way, the sky is actually blue today in Beijing, and I’m beginning to get some sleep on my rock-hard mattress of sorts. I feel like better times are on the way.

Impossible Loads on the Rickshaws – Pictures

My friend Geoff Workman sent me this link to incredible pictures of people carrying impossible loads on a bike or rickshaw. I couldn’t capture these sights on my own camera, so I’m glad there’s a web site that does it so well itself.

Link: Lords of� the Logistic.