Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hong Kongers in Beijing

It's Golden Week in China and some people from Hong Kong have come up to the Chinese capital to see the sights.

As I was on my way to meet my parents' friends at a hotel just off Wangfujing, there were not only hordes of people all over the shopping strip, but also tour groups from Hong Kong.

Some of the guides pointed out the sights, while others counted numbers to make sure everyone was there before moving on.

My parents' friends and their relatives are from Hong Kong and they quickly admit it's horrible listening to Cantonese people speaking Mandarin.

"We can't roll our r's like the mainlanders," said one.

Another observed the culture of politeness and proper habits still hasn't taken a hold in China. "It's going to take a long time," he said. Perhaps he was disappointed that even after the Olympics, basic manners still weren't being observed.

His wife gave an example.

"We were in the Forbidden City today, and I needed to go to the washroom," she explained. "It cost 1RMB so fine, I gave the washroom attendant the money. But then the attendant snuck in five of her friends into the bathroom to use the toilet first.

"I quickly admonished the woman -- I said, 'Why are you letting these people go first? I paid, didn't I? I waited didn't I?'" she recalled, with a flash of indignation still lingering.

It was no use -- she still had to wait her turn despite having paid the requisite amount.

And while this small group was crossing the road, a car didn't wait for them and tried to turn right. My parents' friend didn't let the driver get away with it and smacked the car with her hand to let him know what he was doing was rude.

Despite these warnings, most Chinese here just shrug and carry on with whatever they were doing.

But really, wasn't that what all those "civilized" campaigns were all about in the run-up to the Olympics?

Or now that the big party is over, no one cares anymore?

For many Hong Kong people, it's a rude awakening, that their cousins to the north are not as civilized as they are.

And it just reinforces stereotypes people have of mainlanders, creating a greater rift between "us" and "them".

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Other CPI

China likes to release its monthly consumer price index (CPI), constantly referred to in many business stories.

The country's provinces also have CPIs which seems excessive. But then again China is a big country and perhaps it's a somewhat way to measure provincial economy.

But there's another CPI -- the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Transparency International (TI) recently released its 2008 report, and the anti-corruption watchdog said donor countries should address the problem by carefully targeting aid.

The index ranks 180 countries and territories according to perceived levels of public sector corruption.

The CPI scores countries on a zero to 10 scale, with zero indicating high levels of corruption, and 10, low levels.

Sharing top spot are Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand at 9.3, followed by Singapore (9.2).

The United States is ranked 18 and Canada shares 9th spot with Australia with 8.7.

Hong Kong is 12th with Austria (8.1).

And China? It's 72nd out of 180 countries with 3.6, sharing the spot with such countries as Bulgaria, Swaziland, Mexico and Trinidad.

The worst countries are Iraq and Myanmar at 1.3, and Somalia 1.0, respectively.

TI says regardless whether the country is developed or developing, the challenge of reigning in corruption requires functioning society and governmental institutions. "Poorer countries are often plagued by corrupt judiciaries and ineffective parliamentary oversight," says the press release.

"Stemming corruption requires strong oversight through parliaments, law enforcement, independent media and a vibrant civil society," said TI chair Huguette Labelle.

"When these institutions are weak, corruption spirals out of control with horrendous consequences for ordinary people, and for justice and equality in societies more broadly."

The Berlin-based watchdog estimates that unchecked levels of corruption would add $50 billion, or nearly half of annual global aid outlays, to the cost of achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals on combating poverty.

The current milk scandal in China is an excellent example of why it is ranked where it is; the lack of transparency has not only hit companies on their bottom lines, but has also devastated families with babies who have died, or the tens of thousands whose young children, their only child, with possible permanent damage after drinking melamine-contaminated milk.

When Premier Wen Jiabao says the government is not covering up anything in the milk scare, then how does he explain why all Chinese media outlets are only using Xinhua stories and parents who tried to speak out were silenced?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Multi-tasking Footwear

Wish you had time to clean your floors but too lazy to pick up a mop?

Now a Shanghainese entrepreneur gives you no more excuses as you waddle around in your apartment.

The business section of China's only English-language newspaper has published a story about floor-cleaning slippers.

Li Mi, who thought of this idea, sells this domestic footwear at 5RMB a pair, which have soles made from the same material used for mops.

But don't think these slippers should only be used at home -- they're also being used in some Shanghai offices so that employees can keep the floor clean just by shuffling around.

And you thought you had enough stuff to do at work...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Chilling Tennis Action

Summer seems to have left abruptly, leaving many of us wondering what we did to offend her.

In the last week, the temperatures in Beijing have dropped so much, that I am already wearing sweaters and jeans.

Over a week ago there was a giant rainstorm that has pretty much plunged the capital into chilly autumn weather, if you're into that.

So I had to dress extra warmly for the Beijing Open that is on this week. Last night my colleague and I got tickets to the semi-finals.

We got the cheapie tickets at 200RMB ($29.21) each and at first thought the event would be held in the new tennis courts for the Beijing Olympics.

We were wrong when I looked more closely at the ticket and realized it was all the way in Fengtai, southwest of the city.

So we snuck out of work a bit earlier and took the subway Line 5 all the way down to the second last stop Yizhuang and got out of exit D.

Subway station staff told us to take that exit, go west and then turn left at the first set of lights.

The directions were clear enough and after about 10 minutes of walking, we saw the bright lights of the Beijing Tennis Center.

There were many scalpers outside asking if we wanted tickets, but organizers were still selling them at the door.

After our tickets were scanned, we went through a haphazard security check that was half-hearted. The woman only half wanded me.

As we had about an hour to go before the match started, we wandered around the grounds.

At the practice courts from a distance we could see Zheng Jie, China's last hope in the tournament, practicing with her husband. My colleague hoped we would see her in action. I took pictures in case we wouldn't.

Then we spotted KFC and grabbed a bite to eat.

The selection there was few and far between -- we got spicy chicken burgers and chicken wings -- but no fries available!

We quickly ate our dinner and wandered around a bit more. All the sponsors seemed to offer video games on tennis for people to try which was boring. But it was the only way people could win stuff.

Instead we opted to do a good deed and I bought two used tennis balls from the tournament at 10RMB each with the proceeds donated to a youth charity.

It was a good idea, and wondered if I could get the rest of the balls for my tennis group...

We weren't allowed into the stands until just after 7pm which was annoying, as we had to stand outside and wait.

Finally when we were allowed in, we were high up, but it was close enough to see the tennis stars in action.

First up -- Andy Roddick against German Bjorn Phau.

As crowds were still filing in when they started the match, Roddick shouted out many times at the stands for people to be quiet. There were many noisy people, mostly at the back, and didn't realize the game had already started.

Roddick easily won the first set 6-2 in less than 20 minutes. I thought the game would be over in an hour.

But Phau refused to be beaten that quickly, and came back in the second set, despite having more enforced errors. At one point they were going back and forth at deuce for about eight times. Phau finally won 7-6 (7-4) in a tie-break.

Losing that set made Roddick throw his racquet down -- the first of three times in the match. The second time he did it, the racquet bounced back up at him, which almost caught him off guard.

But he quickly channeled his frustration and won the third set 6-1, but not without a good fight from Phau.

At times we shouted, "C'mon Andy!" in English and "Andy, jia you!" in Chinese.

When he won just before 9pm he looked relieved and finally looked up at the appreciative crowd.

He also shot some autographed tennis balls into the audience too before he left.

After a short break, China's Zheng Jie was on the court with world no 4. Russian Svetlanda Kuznetsova warming up.

Zheng had beaten Ana Ivanovic to get here, and she had recently beaten the world No. 2 at Wimbledon.

Although smaller in size, Zheng makes it up by trying to keep her legs moving and tries to play different angles on the court.

And right from the beginning, Zheng began grunting, that was quickly followed by Kuznetsova.

Everytime Zheng won a point, the crowd cheered. And when they took breaks, the audience got into a chant, "Zheng Jie, jia you!" which we all enthusiastically joined in.

It looked like a pretty even match, with Zheng firing a few winners, and Kuznetsova having a few errors here and there.

The first set ended in a tie-breaker, with Zheng losing 7-6 (7-3), signalling she didn't want to be put down that easily.

There were times when Zheng broke Kuznetsova's serve and periodically (men) would shout "break her!" which got laughs from the crowd.

But in the second set Kuznetsova slowly wore Zheng down, placing the ball in open areas that she couldn't run to in time.

Zheng tried really hard to hang on, but in the end it wasn't enough, and lost the second set 7-5.

She got a big cheer from the crowd just before she left center court and she waved in appreciation.

I have to mention that throughout both matches, we were all freezing. And when the players took breaks, I got up and jumped around or jogged on the spot to keep my blood circulating, despite wearing several layers of clothes. Others who had been to the tournament earlier in the week were very smart and wore winter down jackets.

The game ended at 11pm and we rushed out to snag a taxi, which we eventually did. It was tiring to stay warm, but the tennis was exciting.

Patriotism from Space

Yesterday morning us foreigners turned the TV onto CNN to watch the US presidential debates live at 9am Beijing time.

But in the afternoon the television was commandeered by our Chinese colleagues to CCTV watch the country's first-ever spacewalk at 4:30pm.

The control center explained the exercise would take 20 minutes... and it pretty much did.

After presenting endless shots of the control center with an army of men in baby blue lab coats sitting at their desks staring at computer monitors, there was finally a shot of the astronaut Zhai Zhigang in his $4.4 million Chinese-made spacesuit and ready to go out.

However, he seemed to have some difficulty unlocking the door and everyone gathered around the TV had anxious looks on their faces.

Would he be able to open the door? Would he let the entire nation of 1.3 billion Chinese down?

But then after a few minutes he was finally able to open the circular hatch and everyone cheered.


The hole looked small for him and his suit to get out. Again we all waited with baited breath as he seemed to struggle to get out. Again shouts of encouragement from my colleagues, as if he could hear them.

And then he popped his head out, and then like a choreographed move, he turned to the camera positioned outside the Shenzhou VII spacecraft and waved.

"I am greeting the Chinese people and the people of the world," Zhai said in an echoed voice.

Everyone cheered and clapped.

His next step was to actually get out. But just as he was doing that, the feed cut into colour pixels and then immediately we were shown shots of the control center again.

We all groaned and wondered what was happening.

A few minutes later the feed cut back to Zhai already out and his colleague Liu Boming popping his head out.

Zhai held a Chinese flag and waved it to the 1.3 billion people watching below.

Not only had the Chinese waved the flag on summit of the world's highest peak, but also in space in one year. Both are pretty impressive feats.

He then handed the flag back to Liu and Zhai continued on, hooking and rehooking himself to various bars to move further out of the Shenzhou VII spacecraft.

When he floated past the camera, the feed was cut again, probably knocking something.

But soon after, the images showed him just outside the hatch. He retrieved some rectangular block and gave it to Liu... and then went back inside.

Later my coworker said while she was so excited about China's first spacewalk and was really nervous, she was disappointed Zhai didn't venture further outside the spacecraft or spend a longer time outside.

Nevertheless, it will be a moment implanted in her brain, and in the minds of millions of others who witnessed it for years to come.

Zhai has become a national hero and will be forever remembered in history and text books.

The making of an icon.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Change of Diet

At lunchtime I saw a new notice on the bulletin board near the canteen.

It listed the three dairy producers and every one of their milk products found contaminated with melamine.

They range from baby milk formula to liquid milk.

The buzz here is that Beijing dairy producer San Yuan is safe and its shares have shot through the roof after reports said no melamine was found in its milk. It's hard to say if absolutely no melamine was detected. Some think it's because San Yuan is a supplier to the central government so it ensures there are no contaminants in it.

Hard to say.

When I talked to a group of colleagues this afternoon about the milk scandal, most had stopped drinking milk altogether and changed to soy milk. One coworker even told me her mother sent her a soy making machine that churns the drink out in about 10 minutes. She tried to persuade me that it was easy to do and better to make it yourself.

Others are so used to drinking milk everyday, that all they can do is change brands. One is still drinking a brand that was found to have contaminated milk. She admits that maybe she's not scared enough to change her ways.

On the whole they are all upset about the milk food scandal. They are concerned about the babies and children who died and the ones that are sick with urinary tract infections because their parents wanted to give them the best nutrition.

They know the government should step up to the plate to revamp the entire dairy system, but stop short of actually criticizing it in front of me, perhaps not wanting to look unpatriotic in front of a foreigner.

I tried to ease the accusations by explaining Canada is still dealing with a listeriosis outbreak that has killed 18 people, and there are 48 confirmed cases. The situation is very similar in that there was a time delay in warning the public about the meat contaminated with the bacteria.

They were shocked when I told them Sanlu, the first dairy company responsible for the four deaths, is also the official drink for the astronauts.

They thought that maybe they couldn't drink the milk because it would give them gas. Or that liquid is difficult to drink in space.

But I said, since they're only in space for 68 hours, the chances of them drinking that much milk is pretty slim.

Even though there are no cases of adults diagnosed with kidney stones from drinking melamine-laced milk, one wonders how long it will take before a large crop of people are found to have kidney stones made from the chemical.

This issue isn't going away anytime soon.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Restoring National Pride

Just in time to distract people's attention from the devastating milk food scandal that is spreading almost around the world, China launched Shenzhou VII, a spacecraft carrying three astronauts into space tonight.

With so much media attention covering it, everyone tuned in to watch the historic event, broadcast live around the world.

Almost every detail (save for confidential information) was revealed, including that the three astronauts, called taikonauts in Chinese, were monitored carefully and staff weren't even allowed to shake their hands for fear of spreading germs to them.

In the last few days there were pictures showing control centre staff checking every piece of equipment that seemed to look on the antiquated side.

And there was lots of pride about the "indigenous" space suit, but really most of the research was helped out by the Russians.

But the highlight will be the spacewalk on Saturday afternoon, called an "extra vehicular activity".

The astronaut will basically retrieve a piece of lubrication material on the outside of the spacecraft, only to prove the Chinese can do this, not because a procedure needs to be completed.

Nevertheless, the launch at 9:10pm has given the Chinese a brief but optimistic view of the country's advance into space.

So if they can send an astronaut on a spacewalk, making sure people can drink safe milk should be a piece of cake.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Back to Normal

Since Sunday the alternating odd/even license plate numbers ended, with cars driving on the previously forbidden Olympic lanes.

Yesterday morning I took the bus to work in the morning and overall traffic wasn't too bad, I thought. Perhaps I could continue taking the bus...

After work I went by subway to Chaoyangmen area and for the first time since the Olympics, I saw vendors on the streets, selling street food and baby booties.

Things are slowly getting back to pre-Olympic days.

I thought it would be more convenient for me to take the bus home than walk back to the subway station, go two stops and then get the bus home. Now I wonder if it was the right decision.

While I got on the 420 bus right away, it then began inching its way through the streets. One of the bus assistants made someone give up their seat because a middle-aged woman was car sick. She hung onto the bars next to her and rested her head on her arms.

Since this bus usually takes an hour to get home from Wangfujing, near Tiananmen Square, I thought it should only take me about half an hour or so.

In the end it took three times as long.

Luckily I had eaten half a peanut butter sandwich and a mini Snickers bar to keep my hunger at bay.

But after I ate it I read domestically-made chocolate bars could contain melamine, which has caused a huge scandal in the Chinese dairy industry.

Oh great.

Today I went to my colleague's desk and saw she had packets of Mengniu milk, one of the top brands also found to have used the deadly chemical.

"Are you drinking that?" I asked, pointing to the accused milk.

"Yes. I have to," she replied. "Everything we eat and drink in China has some chemicals in it anyway. We have no choice so we have to eat it. And if we get sick, we get sick. And then if it's time, we die."

It was such a matter-of-fact comment she delivered half sarcastically and half in jest.

People here have no recourse when it comes to expressing their anger and concerns about food quality, or anything worth complaining about.

If they get too fired up, they will be put down, either by bribes or by some kind of civil detention for no real legal reason.

It's just all interesting how this is all coming out after a pretty well-executed Olympics and Paralympics.

Things really are getting back to normal.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

For most of the Chinese, the Paralympics was an eye opener in terms of seeing the ability of athletes with disabilities to push themselves physically and mentally.

Seeing amputees, those with vision impairments, and those in wheelchairs swim, run, play basketball, rugby, and lift weights forced the public to see them in a new light.

But will this change in perception be a lasting legacy?

Li Jia thinks so.

In his late 40s, Li was diagnosed with polio when he was three months old and lost the use of his legs.

Speaking with very good English after 20 years of study, Li credits the love of his friends and family for helping him along every step of the way.

He recalls when he was young, his classmates would literally carry him on their backs so he would make it to school since at that time there were almost no accessible facilities.

And because of everyone pitching in, Li managed to graduate from high school but was practically barred from trying to get into university, as he says, "there was no chance for people with disabilities."

His father told Li he had two options: Either repair shoes on the street, or learn English.

Probably because he didn't want to lose face, Li chose the latter, saying for him it was the only option.

Today he works for a joint venture called Capital Club, reporting to a French boss who hires him to translate documents into Chinese and English. And because of the nature of his work, Li is able to work from home.

"Working at home is good for people with disabilities," he explains, dressed in a red and gold T-shirt and grey slacks. "It is inconvenient for people with disabilities to move around even with the help of a wheelchair and even with an accessible environment."

Li admits he hardly goes outside his home. "It takes a longer time to exercise more power to finish your trip even when you have a friendly environment," he says. "Moving a wheelchair isn't as easy as walking."

As a result, he depends a lot on his sister and friends to help him with shopping and getting things he needs. He tries to laugh at his being used to being dependent on others.

But then he pauses and puts his hand on his face, perhaps overwhelmed by the truth of his words.

"For almost 20 years I didn't take the bus..." he says.

Nevertheless, he thinks the Paralympics has significantly improved for people with disabilities in terms of acceptance and awareness.

"If people are aware of our difficulties and then try to help you, then that's OK," he says. "We're not as well developed as America or Europe in terms of accessible environments. But if you have the awareness of disabilities, you can offer to help us. Now that's big, big progress."

He says he's met other people with disabilities from other parts of the world. For example a woman from the UK tells him that she has a pension so she doesn't have to work.

"But here in China it's different. We have to work to support ourselves," he says. "China wants people to be more self-reliant, more self-esteem, more self-dignity."

Nevertheless, the father of an eight-year-old son says there is still a kind of unspoken discrimination.

"Twenty years ago, when people with disabilities walked down the street, some boys would run after you and call you bad names," Li recalls. "Now there's no discrimination like this... children are taught to treat people equally. But in their mind there is discrimination when people like me try to find jobs."

His optimism is mixed with reality, believing that while China has progressed greatly, there's still much farther to go.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rockin' Rolls

I checked out a favourite restaurant of sushi conoisseurs in Beijing. Called Hatsune, it's a block north west of Shin Kong Place, a block south east of the new CCTV building.

As you walk up the stairs you immediately get the feel of a minimalist place with the stark stairs and white cubes along the stairway.

But inside it's far from austere. The sushi chefs at the bar are all wearing baseball jerseys that say "Hatsune" on the front, each with a different number, and then their surnames at the back. Very cute.

Each table setting has a miniature ceramic pot with the head of a red carnation flower. And then you're not just given chopsticks -- you can choose from a selection of them on a wooden tray, each pair of chopsticks look different, and carefully tied together with paper and string.

The most famous (and best value) items here are the rolls. The Mota-roll-ah rolls (75RMB) are considered the best, with crabmeat and mayonnaise rolled with cooked salmon and topped with a thin slice of tuna, avocado and roe.

It was also drizzled in mayonnaise which was a bit over the top for taste, but probably added to the drama of the presentation.

I also had the Rainbow roll, which was basically California rolls topped with a selection of tuna, salmon, cooked prawns and avocado and presented in a semi-circle. That was clean and delicious.

There are lots of other creative rolls (and their names). One is the Dragon (50RMB), which has tempura shrimp with salmon roe on top, the Engen (65RMB), again with tempura shrimp, spicy tuna, avocado, unagi and green onion.

But perhaps the funniest name of all is the Pimp My Roll (85RMB), which is a combination of soft-shell crab, avocado, topped with seared salmon and albacore tuna, with a spicy sauce.

What was disappointing was the Agedashi tofu, that came very deep-fried thanks to what was probably a very thick batter. I've never encountered an Agedashi tofu quite like this one.

Another sore point was the lack of wines by the glass, even though there was a small selection of half bottles. I had to settle for a bottle of Tsing Tao instead.

Nevertheless, it's pretty good value for money considering it's higher than average quality ingredients and presentation.

Definitely worth checking out again.

8A Guanghua East Road
He Qiao Plaza, Building C, Floor 2
6581 3939

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dairy-Free Diet

Since I first arrived in China, I've been regularly using soy milk in my cereal, but occasionally would drink a small box carton of UHT milk if the hunger pangs arose.

Luckily the brand I drank most of is San Yuan, which so far hasn't been found to have any melamine in it, which has caused a huge scandal in the Chinese dairy industry.

So far four babies are dead, and over 6,200 diagnosed with urinary tract infections like kidney stones after drinking melamine-laced milk powder from Sanlu for the past three to six months.

But now 22 other companies have been found doing the same thing, including Yili and Mengniu. Yili was one of the official sponsors of the Olympics and Paralympics, stocking their milk and yogurt in every food stand.

I ate some of that yogurt, but officials say any food supplied to the Olympics was strictly checked and deemed safe. So does that mean there's a double standard when it comes to food products for foreigners and athletes, and those for 1.3 billion Chinese?

And now it's found that milk powder wasn't the only product contaminated -- Hong Kong officials found a yogurt ice cream bar had melamine in it and 10 percent of liquid milk has been found with melamine in it too.

How did this happen?

Apparently farmers sell their milk to collection agencies. And sometimes the milk they sell isn't of a high enough standard. So instead of refusing the milk, allegedly some buy it at a lower rate and then add melamine to "boost" the protein content of the milk before selling it to the dairy companies. Others dilute the milk and then add melamine to make more profit.

And apparently the dairy companies are unaware of this practice so they don't test for melamine in the milk they get. According to Fonterra, the New Zealand dairy company that has a 43 percent stake in Sanlu says no one in the dairy industry tests for melamine... because no one would ever think of adding it.

There are lots of questions of who knew what was going and when. Heads rolled in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei Province where Sanlu is based. Allegedly five of the officials there, including the mayor, knew of the problems but did nothing about them because the Olympics were on at the time or about to happen.

Regardless, it's interesting to wonder who owns the other 57 percent of Sanlu... and if pet food and toothpaste were laced with melamine last year, and now milk this year, what about the other food products we're eating? What about the soymilk I'm drinking?

People have lost faith in the government again to protect them from tainted food. But so far the government hasn't stepped in to actually look at the problem and regulate it by creating an entirely new system of how the dairy industry should be run.

Instead on Friday President Hu Jintao called for officials to take more responsibility in their work.
"Some officials have ignored public opinion and turned a blind eye to people's hardships, and even major issues that concern the lives of the masses of people.. We must learn a painful lesson from the recent accidents" that have caused great losses to people's lives and property, Hu said.

He was apparently referring to the recent mudslide in Xiangfen, Shanxi province, which killed nearly 270 people, and the milk contamination incident which has killed four children and caused urinary tract problems, including kidney stones, among more than 6,200 infants.

"Only when we strive to solve the pressing problems facing our officials and always put people first... can the Party lead the people to achieve a moderately well-off society," he said.

Hu is vague in his words as a huge hint to officials to smarten up, but at the same time doesn't want to be seen as making promises that he could be held accountable for later.

However, as children are dying or getting sick from milk their parents thought would make them healthy and strong, the government is ultimately responsible.

And not to be seen as caring for the people to create a harmonious society is the wrong approach to this incident.

In the meantime the rest of us are running out of things to eat... and only those with deep pockets can afford imported foods to stay alive.

Entertaining the Masses

I don't watch Chinese TV that often... there usually isn't much on that's interesting unless you like dramas about the Chinese revolution, imperial dynasties or silly comedic humour.

But while we were in Xian we flipped to a channel that had three young foreigners on a variety show... speaking perfect Chinese... much to my shame.

One was a black girl from the United States, a Caucasian guy from Canada, and a Chinese-Filipino guy who was on the chubby side.

There were four hosts dressed in variations of white and turquoise outfits, young and curious about what foreigners think about China.

The trio made observations that I have as well, but they articulated them well to much hilarity to the studio audience.

For instance, when people outside of China finish a telephone conversation with someone, they usually say, "Bye", or "talk to you later". But here in China, they usually grunt "en" and then hang up. "What's with that?" the girl asked.

Everyone laughed because it was true.

They also talked about how local people drop their jaws when they speak Chinese... but I also did a double take impressed by how fluent their Chinese was. The girl said she learned most of it from singing Chinese songs and started belting out "Shanghai Bund" which thrilled the crowd.

The Filipino guy, dressed in a Chinese-style silk top and black pants, played up his portly size and tried to do some Chinese dancing with one of the female hosts.

He also competed against one of the hosts in writing as many Chinese characters as he could for the pronunciation of "ai" in a set period of time. I think it was practically a tie.

It's too bad the Canadian guy didn't have much to offer besides his language skills. He wasn't too funny and didn't have any witty remarks to make. He almost looked like those kids I see in Hong Kong trying to convert people to Christianity, dressed in a white shirt, black pants and black tie.

But the black girl really has potential to become the Chinese Oprah. She's funny, entertaining and has lots to say and not afraid to say it.

Hope the Chinese TV stations are thinking of this idea. She could host her own show and be a big hit.

Watch out Dashan! You've got some competition...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Special Treatment

When we arrived in Xian we took a taxi into town which cost us about 130RMB ($19) for a 45 minute ride.

But we smartened up and on the way back took the airport bus at 27RMB ($3.94) each.

We just happened to pass by the Melody Hotel near the Drum and Bell Towers where we saw the airport bus and inquired for details (leaves every 30 minutes at the top and bottom of the clock).

And it's on time, your suitcase is labelled and you get a luggage tag and then you get on the bus and it takes almost an hour to get to the Xian Xiangyang International Airport, stopping at two terminals.

We got there a bit too early and weren't allowed to check in more than two hours in advance... something we found out the hard way (waiting in line then turned away when it was our turn).

While we were waiting we saw a Chinese man have his luggage opened up and an officer pulled out a large pop bottle that was obviously opened and filled with a different colour liquid in it.

What was that liquid? It didn't look like a drink. The officer questioned him and even got his colleague to come over for a second opinion, opening it and smelling it.

We were sure the bottle would be confiscated for its suspicious appearance.

But no, they let him go and even put the bottle back in his suitcase.

I hoped he wouldn't be on our flight.

After we checked in, this time in five minutes, we had to go through an identification check and go through security checks, the standard metal detector and hand luggage X-ray.

We lined up with everyone else, but after the security officer realized I had a foreign passport, she made me go to another line that I didn't even know existed.

Our bags went through the X-ray machine fine, but after I went through the metal detector -- that seemed to be very sensitive -- I was wanded.

But this wasn't enough. I was asked to take my runners off and put them through the X-ray machine as well.

Excuse me?

It seemed us foreigners were not trustworthy enough and had to go through extra scrutiny that was bizarre considering moments earlier a Chinese guy was carrying a weird liquid in his suitcase.

While the security staff were polite, the double standard was a strange experience. Were the extra security measures in place meant to make us foreigners feel safer or feel more alien?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Riding the Wall

Xian's city wall is a 13km perimeter that today only encompasses part of the urban area.

Nevertheless, it's one of the oldest and best preserved city walls in China.

Construction of this wall began in 194 BC and lasted for four years.

And nowadays, the touristy thing to do is rent a bike and ride around it... if you can get up there.

It took us a while to figure out how to get up onto the wall at the south gate. There is no signage to give even a hint of where the entrance was. It wasn't until we saw people coming out in between the two gates with traffic passing through did we realize that was where we had to go.

But that entailed having to cross a busy intersection -- with no lights. This is far from pedestrian-friendly, let alone tourist-friendly. Eventually we gingerly made it across, paid our 40RMB ($5.85) entrance fee and climbed up to the top.

The view from 12 metres up gives you an overview of the surrounding areas, but then it fades into a sprawling haze thanks to the pollution.

That day the bike rental place was very popular and we finally got a tandem bike for another 40RMB for 100 minutes, and 200RMB ($29.27) as a refundable deposit.

What's funny is that for some reason the path on the south side is slanted so at first you think you're wobbly on the bike. But we quickly got our stride and began riding east at a leisurely pace.

For the most part the wall is flat (slightly bumpy thanks to the bricks) and there are the odd ramps in between, usually at the corners.

It's great riding up there as for the most part there's hardly any traffic to look out for, save other cyclists, ambulatory tourists and golf carts carrying people too lazy to peddle or walk.

Peddling is relatively easy on this bike with no gears, but you do work up a sweat. As we passed people I began waving at them and they waved back too. We were all having fun on the wall.

There isn't much to see cityscape-wise around the wall, save for one of the oldest gates which says "first gate" on it. Down below I saw a woman playing with a small kite.

And amazingly our 100 minutes were almost up by the time we reached the bike rental place. We were going to ride one more time down the south side, but we were pooped and our butts needed a break from the less than comfortable seats.

Nevertheless it was loads of fun and definitely recommended to anyone visiting Xian.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Taste of the Silk Road

Xian is the start of the Silk Road from China and there's an area called Muslim Street or hui min jie west of the Drum and Bell Towers in the centre of the city.

And walking in there is almost like entering another world.

There are street markets lining the narrow roads, selling halal meats, piles of dried dates, apricots, kiwis, persimmons, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, cookies, and fried dough cakes.

If you're daring, there's lots of street food to try. The naan bread (2RMB) is very fragrant. Like small pizzas, the middle is poked with circular designs, brushed with oil and a hint of onion flavour. When they're fresh out of the brick oven they are crunchy and hit the spot.

There's also lots of specialty dishes in Xian to try.

One is called yang rou pao mo. We went to one that served niu rou, or beef (9RMB).

You're given a big bowl and two quarter slices of a dense flat bread. Then you sit at your seat and for the next half an hour you're ripping the bread up into small pieces. Apparently the smaller the better. That's why it takes that long.

When you're done the labour intensive part of the dish, you bring the bowl back to the kitchen and they fill it with an oily broth with slices of beef, some vermicelli and diced spring onion.

You eat it with chopsticks and it's interesting for the first while, but then it loses its flavour and you also get filled up from all that carbo. I couldn't finish mine and it was also partly because gimmick of having to tear up your own bread had worn off.

On another day we wanted to try bian bian mian -- where noodle makers bang the noodles on the table as they make the dough turn into fine strings, hence the name bian bian. Shops advertising this dish should have a giant Chinese character with lots of strokes in it.

But apparently there isn't a shop like that in the Muslim district.

However, we did try noodles made from dough sliced with a knife and they were fantastic (5RMB). They were cooked in a slightly oily clear broth with thin slices of beef, with some vegetables, chopped coriander and spring onion and a touch of chilli to give it a subtle kick.

Aside from food, there lots to look at. We saw the carcass of an animal freshly cut up, leaving giant bones behind. Children ran around, saying, "Hello!" to us. Some vendors put out trinkets to sell, animal pelts, and a man made animals using warm liquid brown sugar, blowing into them like glass objects.

Most of the Muslims here are from the Hui minority. My friend told me they originally had their own language, but lost it and kept their religion instead, practiced precariously under Chinese Communist rule.

Nevertheless, they offer a colourful insight into their culture, and offer an interesting dimension to what is otherwise almost another Chinese city.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Where's the Polisher... in Xian

After finishing seeing the terracotta warriors, we spotted this sign pointing the way out... except we don't quite understand what it means in English... do you?

It says: "Asks you on own initiative to walk according to the scenic areaturnover [sic] line... Thanks the cooperation".

The Main Attraction

People go to Xian to see the terracotta warriors and of course for me it was a priority.

We weren't quite organized about getting there; I'd read you could take a bus from somewhere near the train station, but I forgot to take down the details.

So instead we were taken for a ride -- practically a staple in Chinese tourism.

As soon as our hotel bellboy heard we wanted to go see the bing ma yong (terracotta warriors), he said he could get us a car and it would cost us 300RMB (US$43.80). At first my friend was annoyed with the price, but relented as I thought it would be the best way for us without having to worry about how to get there and back.

So we waited... and waited... and waited...

Finally a mini van pulled up and we were told it would be 350RMB. We firmly said 300RMB and the driver backed down. Or so we thought.

Then we headed south instead of east to pick up a "free" tour guide. Maggie was nice enough, chatty and tried to tell us more about Xian and tourist sites in Mandarin which in a way was a good lesson for me in trying to understand as much as I could.

We hadn't had breakfast yet, and asked to be taken to a bun or snack shop along the way so we could eat in the car. Again the driver and Maggie said OK, but then later said they'd take us to a restaurant at the terracotta warrior site.

The road to the area was quite bumpy and not properly paved. There were also many tolls along the way the driver had to pay. You'd think with all that money collected from tourism that the government would put some of that money into fixing the road to the top tourist attraction of the province.

When we got there we were taken to a quasi fancy restaurant, as the driver said we should go to a "clean" place. It was relatively clean but ridiculously expensive. When I asked for napkins, the waitress said it would be 2RMB each, even though our meal consisted of two bowls of noodles with a bean sauce, a plate of vegetables with mushrooms, and a steamer of dumplings that weren't that great.

Maggie and the driver claimed they had already eaten and he lingered in the restaurant as she took us to the entrance of the terracotta museum. Obviously he was collecting some kind of fee for taking us there.

As we walked to the entrance, Maggie said she didn't have a proper tour guide license so she wouldn't be able to give us more explanations. But we were more than happy to just wander around on our own at 90RMB ($13.14) each.

Upon entering, you have to walk through this park-like space which is nice, but, doesn't really do much except make you wonder when you'll get there. But it does make you wonder what the fields looked like in 1974 when farmers were digging a well and then made this amazing find.

There are three buildings and none of the signs translated into English. I thought the grand-looking one on the right would be a good start, but it turned out to be an exhibition of some Chinese artist's impressions of the terracotta warriors.

The canvases were hardly inspiring and one wondered how he got to show his work there in the first place.

We immediately fled the scene and headed to the second building which turned out to be the second pit.

It was a giant area divided into several rectangular cells that revealed mostly broken pieces of the terracotta warriors and their horses.

It was fascinating to see the giant pits that even had brick floors. From the illustrations there are estimates of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 calvary horses.

The first emperor of China called Qinshihuangdi had these soldiers and horses made to guard him in the afterlife.

Apparently each of the soldiers looks slightly different and while I didn't look too hard, it did seem they all had a slightly different appearance. Four statues that were in excellent condition and behind glass revealed their facial expressions, even fine grooves to show hair, and buttons on their uniforms were amazing details to see.

The first pit was also dramatic -- with hundreds of soldiers standing at attention in front of visitors. The entire pit wasn't opened, but one could get the idea of a giant army buried below. It's just too bad people can't get down to the same level as the pit and see the soldiers a bit closer behind glass.

But when you walk around to the back of the pit, the railing is quite low and easy to cross. It was here in 2006 a German art student, Pablo Wendel, had such an interest in the terracotta warriors that he dressed up like one and jumped into the pit with them.

It took a while for security guards to find him, as he stood just as stiff as the statues.

After he was caught he was given a severe warning but not banned from the country, as he'd demonstrated such a love of ancient Chinese culture.

We then headed to Qinshihuangdi's mausoleum which is nearby. At the entrance are real men dressed as the soldiers posing, while another beats a large drum. How cute.

The mausoleum is under a giant hill that we climbed up and had a panoramic view of the area. There were also many butterflies dancing around us and the hill had many pomegranate trees and rose bushes.

Unfortunately there isn't much more to see there, but a pleasant stroll in a garden-like area.

Maggie asked for our ticket stubs, probably to get some more kickbacks. She later tried to talk us into seeing a place that makes terracotta warriors, but we politely but firmly declined and she had to give up the sales talk.

We made it back in good time, only to have them demand 350RMB -- the extra 50 for the tolls.

At this point, we could have argued out of principle, but decided to just pay the total and finish the deal.

Unfortunately experiences like this are systemic in China's tourism industry; it would take a herculaean effort by the central government to regulate it. The chances of that happening are slim, so you pretty much have to accept it -- just make sure you're not fleeced too much.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Keeping Commuters in Line

These past few days I went to Xian to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.

This year China changed the public holiday calendar so that people could have a day of rest after staying out with family on Mid-Autumn Festival day that fell on Sunday this year.

Xian seems to be under a constant haze which can make the city seem dreary.

On the road from the airport to the city, the streets are narrow, with two-way traffic, from cars and bicycles, mopeds and trucks trying to squeeze through.

Roadside stores don't seem to offer much, with people lingering outside them waiting for business.

But once you get into the city, past the north city wall, Xian starts to resemble what Beijing probably looked like 10-15 years ago.

Strange modern buildings harking back to the 1980s stand proudly, with lots of bank buildings for some reason. There isn't much of an industry except for tourism, thanks to some farmers who discovered some terracotta warriors on their fields in 1976.

Xian is laid out on an axis much like Beijing, but on a smaller scale so it's relatively easy to figure out where you're going.

We walked a lot on the streets, but currently with subway construction happening (long overdue, but still won't be open until 2012), there are periodic jams, as the construction sites disrupt traffic, and there's no thought of foot traffic trying to get through safely.

But what impressed me most were the traffic wardens, a group of about five standing at each major corner of an intersection.

They're mostly elderly men, wearing green uniforms, sunglasses, a hat and white gloves. Their other major pieces of equipment on the job are a red flag and a whistle.

They use their flags to direct people when they should cross the street and they keep people and vehicles in line by sharply blowing on their whistles.

They have no shame in berating pedestrians or drivers for either standing in the wrong place or driving through a red light.

I wonder if they get demerits on their work performance or if it's an important part of their work mandate to make sure their corner of the intersection is safe.

It certainly gives people like me a sense of relief to know I'm crossing an intersection safely when they're there.

But they're not at every single street corner in Xian and there are some intersections with no lights or traffic wardens at all, leaving everyone to precariously cross the street.

Nevertheless, these traffic wardens are too cool. Beijing needs more of them, especially their militant attention to road safety.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Taste of Hong Kong

The Village in Sanlitun is a new development from Swire, a Hong Kong-based company that also owns Cathay Pacific.

And the retail complex is a crazy piece of architecture that's funky for a city that loves straight lines and big boxy buildings.

It has jagged edges sticking out and coloured glass with shades of orange, red and mauve.

It houses stores like Apple, Nike and Adidas, Starbucks and Uniqlo.

And if you've had your shopping fix, you can get some Hong Kong grub at the Herbal Cafe.

The Cantonese restaurant promises no MSG, and less oil which is music to the hears of Hong Kong expats who have a hard time adjusting to Beijing's generous lashings of oil and chillis.

It's a nice, upbeat setting, and tonight there was a cool breeze going, which would have been perfect to dine al fresco, but all the tables outside were taken.

Nevertheless we sat inside in a booth and I had fun looking up periodically to a big screen showing short movies and crazy animation shorts.

The menu is almost strictly Cantonese. The steamed shrimp dumplings (18RMB) are pretty good, and sweet and sour pork with pineapple (38RMB) was OK.

We also had stir-fried broccoli (22RMB), and Hainan Chicken (52RMB), which was more meaty than flavourful, so it was a bit of a letdown.

But the best was the soup -- Cantonese style.

Called "8 Hours Essence Soup", there is a large selection, but unfortunately only one is available as the soup of the day.

Today it was Almond, Sea Coconut and Pork Shank Soup (33RMB), and it arrived in a thermos. You poured the broth into your bowl and it was piping hot, just the way it should be.

It wasn't oily and tasted delicious -- practically like homemade soup.

The thermos was good enough for over two bowls of soup. And as my friend didn't want the rest of his portion, I was left drinking lots of soup.

I've been craving Cantonese soup in Beijing for a long time so this was a welcome relief. Soups in the Chinese capital are practically non-existent, or taste more like water than soup.

Looks like I've found my new hangout for my soup fix.

Herbal Cafe
The Village at Sanlitun
S6-33 Third Floor
19 Sanlitun Road
6416 0618

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Creative Recycling

Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics was also touted as the "Green Olympics", some television shows have taken it upon themselves to tell others how to creatively recycle things.

I saw two episodes running on the screens on the buses on my way home from work.

The first and most recent one shows other uses for plastic bottles.

But you can't just use any bottle -- they have to be the wide-necked ones because they show you these containers are great for storing things from dried sticks of noodles to pasta, beans and other condiments.

A guy shows off why these bottles are so great, by putting one filled with dried beans on the edge of a table, and pushes it off and it falls to the ground.

"See! Isn't it great! It doesn't break!" he exclaims.

Then he picks it up and does it again. And again.

OK, we get the picture.

The second and earlier episode gave a beauty tip.

It showed a woman taking a finished plastic cup of yogurt with its peel-off lid still on it.

The lid still had some leftover yogurt on it so she took some of it and applied it on the back of her hand.

Not only did she apply it like a moisturiser, but then she applied more pressure and rubbed her skin harder and harder until flakes of dead skin started appearing.

After she wiped the dead skin off, she then explained how much softer her skin was and suggested others do the same beauty treatment.

I never thought yogurt would be a good exfoliator, but then again anything's possible.

So if you have any leftover yogurt and nothing else better to do with your skin, rub it on.

You read it here first.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The English Lesson

My two expat colleagues and I sat in the nosebleed section of the National Stadium, or Bird's Nest last night watching the athletics events for the Paralympics.

We were really impressed by the athletes with disabilities, overcoming many physical obstacles to compete against the best in the world.

As we watched, a group of young Chinese men sat in front of us and soon after one turned around and started chatting up one of my coworkers.

Wearing an army green shirt and silver matte glasses, this guy surnamed Chen was eager to practice his English.

My colleague, just a bit older than this university student, chatted with him for a while, but then really wanted to watch what was going on in the stadium so I was left to carry on the conversation, in a mix of Chinese and English.

Chen asked me as a native English speaker if I could tell the difference between British and American English, in terms of their accents. I said yes, but tried to encourage him, saying he could too if he listened to a lot of oral English.

He shrugged and said they all basically sounded the same to him.

I praised him for his pretty good English, and willingness to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but he said, "That's only for about an hour's practice. It's not enough."

Then what about watching movies, I suggested. Again he explained the dialogue sometimes went so fast he could barely catch what was going on. "You know the movie, The Matrix? All I could hear was, blah blah blah OK... OK was the only thing I could understand."

Soon after our exchange, my two colleagues wanted to leave, worried about a stampede of people leaving the Bird's Nest en masse.

Chen was sad to see us leave, and hoped we'd bump into him again. "I hope you can recognize me!" he exclaimed as we walked down the stairs.

Now that I think about it, his English level is about the same or a bit better than my Chinese.

But he was the one who had guts to start a conversation.

As a friend of mine has told me many times before, "The ones who aren't afraid to ask are the ones who get ahead."

Although Chen feels he's behind compared to some of his peers who managed to go to the University of Toronto to study, he's miles ahead of his friends sitting with him, who were too shy to say anything to us in English.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Running with No Legs

My fellow expat colleagues and I got tickets to watch the Paralympic athletics tonight at the National Stadium, or Bird’s Nest.

The tickets were easy to get – one of my co-workers literally ordered them online, promptly took a taxi to a Bank of China branch and was practically second in line to get them.

But if only getting to the venue today was that easy.

We snuck out of the office half an hour early at 5pm and thought we’d make it in time to watch South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, also known as “the fastest man with no legs” or “Blade Runner” in the men’s 100m final T44 at 5:52pm.

The taxi took us to the one of the closest entrances, but then we encountered a massive lineup for security checks. On top of that it was raining and we had to dodge umbrellas to avoid being poked in the eye or have rainwater dripping on us.

The lineup snaked up and down; there was no way we’d get into the stadium on time to watch Pistorius. We joked we’d probably see the medal ceremony.

While people periodically complained to the Paralympic volunteers they’d been waiting in line for ages, or that they were getting soaked, the three of us constantly watched the big screen TVs on a tall building near us, broadcasting the events in the stadium.

During the Olympics I don’t remember the lineups being so heavy. Some tried to jump the queue, as volunteers feebly tried to stop them. Perhaps because the Olympics was over that they weren’t as strict, or maybe everyone’s patience was wearing thin with the rain.

But the line would move periodically and you had to follow quickly otherwise others would usurp the empty space in front of you. My colleagues, used to a more civilized lining up procedure were promptly left behind – this was definitely a China experience.

And when it was 5:50pm, I looked up at the screen to see Oscar Pistorius waving to the crowd as he stood near his block. He was the only competitor with two prosthetic legs – everyone else had one.

They got ready at the blocks and then American Jerome Singleton had a false start.

After they got back to the starting line, the gun fired and they were off.

Singleton was up in front and Pistorius way behind. Was he going to make it?

Perhaps it was his running style of coming from behind, or the rain that made him cautious but then more confident, the man with no legs just powered ahead in time to dive for the finish line in first place.

At 11:17 seconds it wasn’t nearly as fast as Usain Bolt, but it was definitely fantastic to watch, albeit outside in the rain in the security lineup.

When we finally made it into the Bird’s Nest, everyone was scrambling for seats because it was free seating. And at practically every entrance to the seating area, volunteers stopped us from going in because they kept saying that area was full.

We had to go up to the nosebleed section and climbed up to the top… just in time to see Pistorius get his gold medal.

And despite many Chinese people’s concerns or na├»ve preconceptions about Paralympic athletes, everyone in the stadium cheered for the competitors. They were especially loud when the Chinese ones were in the lineup.

A few medals were handed to China and the crowd proudly stood up to sing the national anthem. Some waved flags of various colours, others were eager to pose with a Chinese flag they’d brought with them.

It was great to see everyone appreciating amazing physical feats like blind runners, wheelchair sprinters and those with disabilities doing long jump and shot put, but also celebrating the power of the human spirit – together.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Electing to Stand Up

Hong Kong had its legislative elections this past weekend.

And contrary to political pundits' estimates that pro-Beijing forces would make a sweep, the public decided otherwise.

The pro-democracy camp won 24 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Council, down from 26 in the current legislature.

However, the democrats got 19 of the 30 seats the public could vote for, and five of the 30 chosen by business groups, the professions and labour unions.

That means the pro-democracy groups still have a strong veto power in LegCo.

Sadly though, this election saw the exit of many political heavyweights.

Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan bowed out this time, along with Liberal Party leader James Tien, and Martin Lee.

It's too bad not to see these strong figures on the Hong Kong political scene, but perhaps it's time for the next generation of activists to take on the mantle.

Some say it's the economic downturn that inspired the low-turn out to vote more in favour of pro-democracy politicians, who promised a minimum wage and pledged to reduce pollution.

Others think Hong Kong people are now realizing their identity and are more confident and proud about being Hong Kong Chinese, despite the Chinese government recently trying to create a sense of nationalism with the recent Olympics.

“I don’t feel Hong Kong is a part of China,” said Law Yiu, a 60-year-old Chinese herbal doctor. “The Chinese government is merely using the same tricks with the Hong Kong people as they use with the people in China, giving out periodic sweets to the Hong Kong people in an effort to keep them calm and docile.”

That's why the public is still giving the democrats a fighting chance in LegCo.

Nothing gets by Hong Kong people.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Driving Face

Last night after dinner I took a taxi home and was surprised to find I had flagged down a hybrid one.

It was nice and roomy inside, had a GPS screen to show us where we were going and overall was quiet and smooth.

There are 50 of these such vehicles by domestic car maker Chery on the streets of Beijing.

I asked the driver what he thought of the car.

"Hai xing," he replied. Not bad.

I asked how much these cars were, but he explained these were only test vehicles used during the Olympics and Paralympics.

It was disappointing to hear this -- you'd think hybrid taxis would be a great idea for the city, consuming much less gas and hopefully influencing others to buy new technology cars.

This kind of short-term thinking is not what the Olympic legacy is about.

But obviously the powers that be are only thinking of their face than honestly what is best for Beijing and the country.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Seeing Both Sides

A colleague who took 10 months off to study in the UK recently returned and we met up for lunch today.

He looks a bit skinnier from last July, but his eyes show he has seen a lot.

Before they went, they were anxious about how expensive London would be, wondering if they could survive in a foreign land so far away.

But it seems their experience has opened up their eyes to the western world, how things are done, how societies are governed and the difference in living standards.

They thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle, jogging in the many parks, wandering through the free museums like the British Museum and the Tate Modern, and the Thames River.

With their savings, they traveled as much as they could through England, going to Oxford, Cambridge, and mistakenly discovering a nude beach area in Brighton.

Living costs were expensive for them -- they calculated things were 15 times more expensive than in Beijing, with transportation particularly hitting hard in the wallet. But when they said a monthly tube card cost about 720 pounds, it sounded about the same as other major North American cities and I told them so.

They kept costs down by cooking alot, and in the end vegetables and meat were just a bit more expensive than in Beijing.

He observed people there live with dignity. "A construction worker is happy with his work, he's paid well, enough to feed himself and his family," he said. "Not like China, where migrant workers are paid dirt wages and work with blood and sweat to put up buildings."

He also said the government there was to serve the people. I explained that's because they have elections -- once they don't do what the public wants, they will vote them out in the next election.

"In China, the government serving the people is only on paper," he said, shaking his head. He didn't mention corruption, but we all knew what he was talking about.

They said that when they came back two months ago, Beijing had completely changed. Although it looked green for a "Green Olympics", it seemed like the city was only looking nice for the Games, planting flowers and trees for looks and diverting water from places like Hebei Province as well as electricity from other parts to ensure enough power for the Chinese capital.

When the torch relay went through London, they were very proud of China and debated people, defending their homeland.

But when they came back, they were dismayed to find the country hadn't progressed as fast as the cosmetic changes and felt contradicted about China.

On the one hand they are proud of China as it is their homeland, but on the other they are disappointed to see its weak points, making a long list.

They are mulling over the possibly immigrating to another country, but feel their lives will be difficult, trying to integrate, but at the same time they are young, and if and when they have children, they will live better lives.

Their observations are so interesting as they are starting to see things to way I do. I didn't point it out, but they probably realized that.

And this would never have happened if they hadn't gone away.

I wonder those who are so eager and desperate to leave China realize they will see the gap between what they perceive the country to be and what they will see from a distance.

It's the biggest lesson they will learn about China, but have no solution for it.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Transcending Myths

The 2008 Paralympic Games start tomorrow.

While there's a lot of buzz about it in the city, it's shockingly mostly negative.

I've heard comments like, "they [the Paralympic athletes] must be in pain", or "they will hurt themselves more easily so I can't watch".

And that's why they don't want to watch the Games.

What's ironic is that Paralympic athletes are trying to show others they can compete in high-level international sport just as well or even better than able-bodied people.

That's the message I have to constantly tell my local friends and colleagues.

Tonight one of my friends with a naive view of disabled athletes went to get a foot massage with me. And as we had reflexology done on our feet, we watched a television show about a blind person.

He was blind from birth, and now works as a masseuse. He also had a knack for computers and even created a software program to help the blind massage clinic he works at to manage the business.

It was so successful that he tutors other people online in using his special program.

My friend was quite impressed.

We also saw some footage of sit-down volleyball, where amputees and others with other disabilities sat on the floor as they volleyed, bumped and spiked the ball over the net. What was even more amazing was watching a one-legged cyclist and a one-legged high jumper.

While China is dragging out its 83 million disabled people out of the woodwork, at least its media is now busy doing a number of stories on some interesting individuals.

Media reports say over 70 percent of tickets for the Paralympic Games have been sold. It'll be interesting to see how many people actually attend the events.

And then they can see for themselves these people who have overcome amazing obstacles just to show they're just like one of us, if not, even more.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hitching a Ride

Today I did a very Beijing thing -- I rode on the back of a bicycle.

As it's Thursday, my colleagues and I planned to play tennis after work.

There were four of us eager to hit the ball, three of them had bicycles.

One offered to let me ride on the back of his bike, but since I'd never done it before, he was worried.

But once we got downstairs to his electric bike, he asked me if I wanted to try and I said, "Why not?"

I slung my bags and tennis racquet on my shoulders, sat down on the bike, and then used my right arm to hold onto his waist, my left hand on him as well to steady myself.

When he started off I felt unbalanced and he asked if things were OK. I steadied myself, and soon realized it wasn't too difficult. I crossed my ankles and kind of held them forward a bit so my feet wouldn't hit the spokes, as I had seen other girls do that.

An electric bike can go fast, but he went at a steady pace.

At first it was a bit unnerving seeing a car following behind us. But the view from the back of the bicycle was fantastic.

You definitely see the city -- or in my case -- the neighbourhood from a different perspective. Riding at the back was a slower pace than a car, so you could get a lingering look at everything.

We passed through a hutong area where some people were selling vegetables like leeks, a baby with split pants playing with his mother, a dog wandering around, the sweet smells of slow roasted fatty pork... then the public washrooms...

I tried not to hold onto my colleague too much, and as I grew more comfortable with sitting there, I lessened my clutch. I'm sure he appreciated that.

And in about 10 minutes our ride to the tennis court was over.

I wouldn't say I'm a pro, but have definitely got the hang of riding on a bike. Can't wait to hitch a ride again soon.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Politically-correct Dignity

Today my colleagues and I were talking about the upcoming Paralympics.

They admitted these Games probably won't be as popular as the Olympics, despite news reports that lots of tickets have been sold out, especially at the Water Cube and the Bird's Nest. That's what they said... at the Olympics too.

Nevertheless, my coworkers had questions about what you call these Paralympians. Do you say disabled? Handicapped? Physically-challenged?

I cringed when I heard them say these words, but it's not their fault.

There is much of a public education around people with disabilities in China. And part of that is because they are practically hidden from view. That is in part because of the public's lack of awareness and acceptance of them, as well as the lack of facilities made accessible to them.

A foreign colleague remarked to me the Paralympics will be a real challenge to the organizers and the domestic media who are confronting the issue of how to deal with and cover people with disabilities.

Another coworker told me Paralympic volunteers are having a hard time, watching the disabled athletes try to manage on their own. The volunteers have been taught not to offer help unless asked, and so many stand by, helplessly as the athletes do things on their own.

But back to the vocabulary. I explained to my colleagues the different kinds of disabilities and the different terms -- vision impairment, cerebral palsy, and amputee.

I also tried to say some athletes may have been born with a disease leading to their disability, or were in accident, that led them to be in a wheelchair or become an amputee.

They shrank in horror over the possibility of a disability, but this is the reality of life for some people around the world.

I reminded them the Paralympics is about them celebrating their efforts and everyone of them have an amazing story of how they got here.

Hopefully that has inspired some of them to see for themselves the determination of the human spirit in the next few days.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Olympian Army

Last night I turned on the television and on Beijing TV there was a talk show featuring the coaches and some of the children in a state run sports school specializing in gymnastics.

In the TV studio, the hostess, not a very motherly one -- chatted with the kids, dressed in nice gym clothes and the little girls in bright pink with their hair up with colourful hair accessories.

She would invite them over one at a time, ask them to perform a pose or demonstrate a skill, and then she would reward them with either a stuffed toy or candy.

And interspersed throughout the show were scenes shot inside the school.

The little boys were practically in their underwear, no shirt, and the girls in a one-piece outfit, hanging on beams and counting to see how long they could stay on it. They did flips in the air, some landing well, others not.

But there were also images of young girls, as young as four or five doing the splits on a hill of mats and their teacher pushing them down even further. One cried of pain, but the instructor ignored her pleas to stop.

There were also kids who were expected to climb up a pole and they wailed that they were tired or that they couldn't do it anymore.

It was riveting to see this local station was able to show these unedited scenes. I had to keep watching.

Meanwhile the coaches hardly had much reaction to the pain and tears, as they probably went through the same training when they were children.

They claimed they tried to make the training as fun as possible for the kids, letting them experiment with the equipment.

But even if they didn't like it, it was pretty much a job, as they trained all day long, everyday. Many of them didn't give the impression they were having fun, as many didn't smile.

Even though the children were so young, they were already expected to lift their own weight easily. Just seeing their small arms support themselves in various poses was amazing and mind-boggling to watch at the same time.

There was one scene of the female coach visiting a school on a recruitment drive. She asked kids to jump up and down for her and then she would feel their leg and hand muscles through their thick clothes. She was looking for candidates whose arms and legs were straight because a gymnast needed to look good this way.

She proudly said one of her greatest finds was Zhang Nan, who won bronze in Athens.

Meanwhile, another piece of footage showed a young boy was able to demonstrate his ability to swing his legs around a pummel horse. And how do they keep their legs straight when doing this?

Their feet are placed in a giant bowl that is hung from the ceiling and it rotates as he moves his legs (together).

This image was then put side by side with a Chinese Olympic champion on the pummel horse.

An Olympian in the making.

This is how China wins gold in gymnastics. Schools like this brings up many ethical and psychological issues which the hostess of course didn't ask.

But it makes one wonder with so many children going through these schools, only a few actually make it to the national level. What happens to the rest of them?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Driving the Discussion

During the Olympics Beijing experienced unprecedented weather -- granted the first few days were as critics like myself expected -- swampy-looking skies.

But after heavy rains, the skies cleared up and produced some fantastic weather for most of the Games.

Local residents were also thrilled to see blue skies and find out the air in the city was the cleanest it has been in 10 years.

That was partly thanks to the serious enforcement of taking half the cars off the roads from July 20-September 20.

And now that the Games are over, many Beijingers are breathing easier and want to keep the sky as clean as possible. They are debating online whether the strict car ban should continue after the Paralympics are over.

Some 400,000 weighed in on an online discussion, with nearly half suggesting the car ban should be made permanent, while those who opposed it were the frustrated car owners.

"Only after the government makes great progress in improving public transportation should we discuss whether to keep the restrictions. I love blue skies very much. But I had to drive a car because I could not stand being packed in a bus for six hours a day," said an anonymous netizen.

Sound familiar?

An op-ed in an English-language newspaper suggests if the ban was made permanent, it would not help the situation, but exacerbate it because car owners would probably buy a second car so that they could drive everyday. Some even bought another car just before the Olympics because they couldn't stand the thought of taking public transit.

The article says up to 100 million households in China can afford a car, but only 20 million have actually bought one.

But there isn't much of a push for car buyers to look into purchasing low-emission cars or hybrids. So far I've only seen one or two Toyota Prius on Beijing roads, but many SUVs and even the odd Hummer.

The government should really push for car companies to create more low-emissions vehicles, and impose more taxes on SUVs and other gas guzzlers.

There is also the suggestion of making car drivers pay tolls when entering the city centre, and raising parking fees. Right now it's only a few yuan per hour, barely $1 an hour.

So the government has many options -- a mixture of all those measures would be greatly appreciated. The long-term effects are too beneficial to ignore.