How Chinese People Choose Their English Name

“How did you choose the name Alan?” I asked a Chinese guy named Alan. His real, Chinese name existed in characters and now, due to modern developments in the world, in pinyin. But his parents never assigned him Alan.

“Oh, my English teacher in school gave it to me.”

“How did he choose Alan?”

“He said I looked like an Alan.”

Then I remembered Peter Hessler (as described in River Town) doing the same thing when he taught an English class. He went around the room on the first day of school, gave everyone an English name, and that’s the one they carried for the rest of their life.

Wouldn’t that be fun? “Ok, you’re a Chuck. You, well, you look like a Dick. Yep, I think Dick is just about right.”

India's Democracy Prevents It from Doing What China Can

China displaced more than a million people to build three gorges dam. The government basically said, “Get up. Move. We’re destroying your villages and local culture because this is a national interest.”

In India a politician proposed to move a slum out from beside a freeway and try to develop the area a little bit. Outrage ensued and the people exercised their voice and vote. The slums remain. The freeway is still a joke.

China wanted to develop Shanghai at the cost of moving some current residents. Residents protested. Government: “Fuck you.” 10 years later Shanghai is one the most developed skylines in the world.

China’s authoritarian rule allows it to affect change quickly. One reason they’ve been growing so much.

In India, a democracy of a billion people slows decision making to a crawl. Meanwhile, the infrastructure here is still a joke.

In the long run India’s political system is more sustainable, I think, but in the short term — if you view people as numbers and GDP as God — it’s clear which system is working better.

You're So Good at Chopsticks!

If you travel to China and Japan or any other country that uses chopsticks you’ll find the locals always compliment you on your chopstick use.

It’s like they think no one else in the world uses chop sticks to eat their ethnic cuisine.

They may also race over a fork, even if you haven’t yet picked up the chopstick, because your white skin shouts “I hate the sticks, gimme the metal.”

I’m not a big fan of chopsticks. I didn’t know how to use them effectively prior to my Asia trip. Nonetheless, I have come to appreciate their utility. Certain small nuts are well suited to the chopstick.

Still, all in all, it’s hard to beat the fork and knife combination when it comes to sheer versatility, grip, and predictability.

Laying Low in Kunming

My brief stay in Kunming reiterated for me the benefits of a big but not crazy big city. San Francisco is only 800k population — this is pretty small compared to most “big cities”. It maintains a homey feel while still thriving as a metropolis. One reason why I adore the City by the Bay. Kunming is a big city in Yunnan Province but is nowhere near as chaotic, loud, and polluted as Beijing and Shanghai.

After my first full day of tourism with my host, Alan, during which I hit the big sights, I spent the next two days laying low, writing, working online, and exercising. I did wander around a bit and caught some ethnic minority singing show, pretty cool, and also found myself in the rougher outskirts of Kunming where the living standards were the lowest I’ve seen in China. In these parts you’ll see mushrooms everywhere — mushrooms are a big export of Kunming — but instead of being stored in sanitary conditions, they’re spewed all over the dirty back alleys. There also were endless people frying, stirring, mixing, and generally cooking a variety of food on the street. I wouldn’t touch it for the life of me. I was tempted buy some fruit one guy was selling (watermelon and cantaloupe) but remembered the sage advice of my guidebook which said they douse the fruit with tons of water to keep its veneer exterior. I wish I was invisible so I could take lots of pictures, but unfortunately, this is impossible to do when everyone is looking at you… to pull out a $300 digital camera in the midst of the scene would be awkward. I can stomach some awkwardness — say, being able to hail a cab whenever I want and escape back to the nicer part of the city, while the skinny rickshaw bikers pull unimaginable loads, or the pushing-70 years-old woman who lives based on how many shoes she can shine on the street — but taking pictures seemed too hard.

One street I crossed contained a truly horrible sight — a disabled, homeless man lying in the middle of the street. People walked around him and cars dodged him. People just didn’t give a shit. Can you imagine a guy lying in the street with mangled arms and legs and no one doing a thing?

If I had more energy I would have made the five hour bus trek to Dali, which was my original plan, or the 45 minute flight to Lijang, both beautiful cities that attract most of the Kunming tourists who aren’t golfing. Alas, I preferred the small neighborhood of my hotel, two solid workouts (though no ping pong, despite an earnest second try), internet, and my iPod.

Nearing the one-month mark, most weary travelers can relate to the sense of accomplishment each day brings. It takes so much energy to simply live each day and complete the small tasks, especially when you’re solo and on a modest budget, that any extra perk — an interesting cultural experience, a funny conversation with a local, a solid two hour workout — is worth celebrating. A large task, like a five hour bus ride, can crush you.

Written on Bangkok to Mumbai flight, Thai Air

Asking for Water in China

I gave the Europeans a hard time over the summer for their assault on h2o.

China is worse.

First, you can’t drink from the tap. A pain.

Second, asking for water in a restaurant is too challenging. I ate at Steak King across the street from my apt in Shanghai two days in a row. Same waitress. On the first day I asked for water, and pointed to “water” on the menu (which had the corresponding Chinese characters below the English phrase). It cost 4 yuan so I assumed it’d be mineral water or something.

She brought me a mug of boiling hot water. No tea, no flavor, just hot water. Might I ask what anyone would do with a cup of boiling hot water? I told the waitress, No, I want cold water. She didn’t understand. I said, “Ice”. She brought me back the SAME MUG except with ice cubes in it. Now I had a cup of boiling hot water with ice cubes. Two counteracting forces fighting vigorously for what they believe in. 10 minutes later the ice won and I drank lukewarm water.

The next day I went through the same routine with the same waitress. Only this time i made it clear when ordering, “COLD water. ICE!” She nodded. She brought me a mug of boiling hot water. I sent it back. I said, “ICE”. She brought it back boiling water w/ ice cubes.

I know I’m doing something wrong…when Eisen ordered for me I got a tall glass of cold, iced water. Not boiling water. Maybe I should ask for boiling, hot water?

All I Want to do Is Play Ping Pong

You can probably imagine how excited I was to get in several good games of ping pong, my favorite sport, while I’m in China. But I haven’t seen a SINGLE PERSON playing. Apparently it’s only big in universities.

With only a couple more days left here, I resolved to find a game. In my hotel there’s a ping pong table but, alas, I have no one to play with and no one was around. So I headed over to a gym that was recommend to me. Sure enough, there was a table and paddles. First I did my workout (bike, treadmill, weights, elliptical) and then I resolved to find a playing mate.

No obvious candidates in the sparsely populated gym. There were of course 15 staff / trainers standing around doing nothing. I went up to one of the trainers and told him I wanted to play ping pong.

Six of them gathered and talked to decide how to fulfill my request. They said, “You want ping-pong?” I said I wanted ping pong, yes. The English speaking trainer came back and said, unfortunately, their boss won’t let them play ping pong with me because they’re supposed to be working.

I would have fought harder but I had already used my negotiating power to lower the daily fee from 98 to 50 yuan (my first successful negotiation in China).

Then, oddly, she came back and handed me two rackets and a ball. I walked over the table and waited awkwardly for five minutes. WTF is going on? Why can’t one of them just take a break for 10 minutes and give me their best stuff? Finally a woman came over and said “I’m very sorry, we’re not allowed to play since we must work.” I said, “Couldn’t you ‘train’ me on how to hold the racket?” She didn’t understand. I gave her back the paddles, embarrassed, and left the gym.

I feel like that kid who goes around and says “Will you be my friend?”

I’m sure if i was 5 inches shorter and 30 lbs lighter i would have had an opponent within minutes. What some call “our boss won’t let us” I call “the intimidation factor.” 🙂

Welcome to Real China

I’m in Kunming, China in Yunnan Province, about a 2.5 hr flight west of Shanghai. Yunnan Province borders Southeast Asia and is a quick flight from Thailand, Vietnam, etc. I’m happy I’m here because, while Kunming is still a big city (6 million people and growing), it’s small and more remote when compared to Beijing, Shanghai, Guanghzo, and Hong Kong.

The best part about Kunming is its ethnic minorities. About 50% of the city is the majority Chinese race (Han Chinese) and 50% minorities. Most of the minorities have dark skin but some, near Russia, have pale white skin.

My contact Alan, who’s lived in Kunming his whole life and is the husband of a friend of a friend, met me at the Kunming Airport this morning and drove me to my hotel. I dropped off my stuff (I’m glad I upgraded hotels from the piece of shit place I had a reservation at….Dalian taught me to pay more and get English speaking front desk staff) and then headed back out with Alan. I didn’t really know what Alan had in mind for me or how much time he was going to spend with me.

Our first stop was to a local, authentic Yunnan restaurant (Yunnan cuisine is famous). While eating we watched the big stage in front of us while various ethnic minority dancers performed. Amazing stuff. All the dancing is built into the restaurant. "Now THIS is different," I told myself while slurping noodles and meats out of this big bowl of steaming soup which cooks the meat. The dancers from Tibet and all over China were dressed in stunning clothes with bright red and orange colors.Restaurant

Next we headed to Alan’s office so he could show me his work. He works with Kunming Municipal Government, so given my experience working with dozens and dozens of local governments we could chat about Chinese vs. American styles. He works in import/export, trying to get people in other countries to buy Kunming company products or set up manufacturing in Kunming. This place is growing like mad and there are tons of investment and development opportunities.Rest2

Then we drove to a beautiful, lakeside park and wandered through an art gallery. It’s all by this one famous local artist. The second floor is a tribute to America. Yep, a tribute to American troops who helped Kunming fight back against the Japanese during WWII. Pictures of American troops and Air Force planes.

We then took three cable cars up this huge mountain to get a birds eye view of Kunming. Beautiful! We hiked around in this mountain where paths and steps are carved out of rock. Nestled into the rock are various Buddhist and Taoist shrines. Kunming is already at a high altitude and going into the mountains made the air even thinner.Cablecar

All this brought us to dinner time where we dined at another local Yunan restaurant. Unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy the food because I had to go to the bathroom so badly. I tried to go to the bathroom but found it without toilets. It was the squat method. Having not done my homework, I freaked out and decided to hold it until back at the hotel. Oops. I did manage to hold it, but I was uncomfortable throughout our dinner.Meingarden

Kunming day 1 proved adventurous thanks to the generous hospitality of Alan. I’m here two more nights and will probably work on my book some, since cookie cutter tourism opps are scarce, but I will try to wander around a bit and try to get my head around western China.



Live Chickens in Shanghai

My Mom freaked me out when she told me I should expect to see a lot of live chickens running around in China.

It hasn’t been the case but in Shanghai I did, for the first time, see a guy biking with about 10 chickens on his back. A cop was giving him a ticket so it was probably illegal. I mean, they were hardly covered and if I wasn’t careful I could have been given a good peck and probably would have picked up some disease. Click the picture to enlarge.

Is It Dead or Is It Dinner?

Welcome to the East.

Bye Bye Shanghai

My five nights in Shanghai was the longest I stayed in one city.

I’m glad I did. I met some tremendous people and had a lunch and/or dinner every day during my stay. I will summarize all that I learned from these A+ people in a later post.

Outside of meetings, I walked along the Bund, the #1 tourist spot. The Bund is a walking area along the main river which separates the Pudong part of the city from the Puxi part. Most tourism is in Puxi and that’s where my apartment was too. I did go to Pudong for one meeting in the Citigroup building but there’s not much to see there other than amazing skyscrappers, which are better seen from across the shore.

The Bund was good but not great. I don’t think it’s worth the hype. It’s certainly a beautiful skyline though.

I also wandered through Old Town and a couple gardens. People’s Square is a nice bamboo enclave from the traffic. I finally checked out the Shanghai Museum, highly recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. Good stuff. Lots of good Chinese landscape paintings, which I like, and some jade and bronze sculpture. The English audio guide is worth the investment.

Not once in Shanghai did i use public transit — taxi everywhere. It’s so cheap. To flag a cab costs about a $1.50 and it stays at that rate for the first several minutes. Plus, they’re omnipresent.

The food scene in Shanghai is solid and cosmopolitan. With locals I ate authentic Shanghai dumplings and noodles and tried as hard as I could to stay away from spicy stuff, which I don’t like. On my own I patronized Pizza Hut, which was fantastic, and the place across from my apartment at least three times. "Steak King" serves Western food and Chinese food. I often got both: some dim sum plus a steak, for example. And who knew kiwi juice could taste so good? One night I ate with Eisen’s family in their apartment, sans Eisen since he was traveling. The Mom is so nice and so Taiwanese. I love how every Chinese family has a massive rice cooker which seems bottomless.

Two of my days were punctuated by lengthy workouts at Fitness First in Plaza 66. It’s a huge facility and one time I got lucky and watched "Meet the Parents" while on the elliptical. So many great lines in that movie.

The one frustration with my apartment was the lack of breakfast. Each morning I trekked out and tried to find breakfast. (I also searched in grocery stores for cereal to stock the fridge but with no success). Until I found a hole in the wall buffet style Chinese breakfast, this caused daily morning stress. I also had to eat a LOT of food because I now know my malaria medicine only works on a really full stomach and lots of water (I take my pills in morning).

All in all, Shanghai is the business and financial center of China boasts tons of tourist infrastructure, and is relatively easy to navigate. This doesn’t mean it’s exempt from all the troubles which plague China (more on that later), but I can see why many expats choose to live and work in Shanghai. As i’ve said before, some cities are good to visit, some good to live, some both. Beijing has more slam dunk tourist attractions, Shanghai may be a better living destination.