Sunday, November 9, 2008

On Campus

As most of my friends know well, I have been living like a graduate student since, well, since I was a graduate student. Not much has changed since I moved to Beijing. My wife and I keep late hours. Part of it is because it’s easier to work in the evening, sans the normal 9-to-5 distractions. Part of it is the desire to stay out of traffic and crowds by keeping an off-peak commuting and dining schedule. PKU has almost 20,000 students (undergraduate and graduate combined) and so peak hour dining is a mob scene. The dining scene at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is a little better, since there are much fewer students, staff and faculty, but every cafeteria keeps strict hours: 11-1 for lunch and 5-7:30 for dinner (we never get in early enough for breakfast so I don’t know the breakfast hours). The new CAS campus at Datun is also located in a fairly new neighborhood, right between the Olympic Park and the Olympic Village, and consequently there are very few on-campus services (restaurants, cafes, teahouses, supermarkets, …), so my wife has to keep a regular, 'normal' dining schedule.

Fortunately for me, PKU has quite a few more dining options. The closest cafeteria to the classroom buildings is Nongyuan, between Xue 2, 5-4 (for May 4th) Athletic Field and the Centennial Lecture Hall. Nongyuan has 3 stories, with a one-stop cafeteria on the first floor --- very much like any American campus cafeteria, you get in line, pick up stuff and then pay (with a PKU dining card) at one of 2 exits. Nongyuan’s third floor is a restaurant, with a main hall and private rooms. The acoustics of the main dining area on the third floor is awful --- the walls reflect too much. To order à la carte, you go to the southeast corner where every dish is on display. The food shades to the Shanghaiese. Here you pay in cash or you have an account.

Nongyuan’s second floor is more like a food court, with multiple food windows/booths/stalls, each with their own ‘specialty’ and their very own dining card reader. When I dine here I usually go to the window with guozhai (锅仔), or little wok. The guy at the counter takes your order. I usually order either the cola pork ribs or the chicken with mushrooms (the third option is the duck) and a bowl of rice. The guy then puts some Chinese cabbage in a small wok and then add, say, a stew made of pork ribs and cola, tops it off with some water and then puts the small wok on a flaming stove top (there are near 2 dozens in the little stall). He then puts a wok ring and a bowl of rice on a dining tray to his right (my left) and punches what it costs into the card reader for me to swipe. A minute later the stew is done and he puts the wok on top of the ring in my dining tray. It’s a not-so-small balancing act for me to find whomever I come with and a free table, even with a wok ring.

Further afoot to the west is YanNan and Xue 5. YanNan is more like the second floor of Nongyuan, with more specialty counters. But no guozai, so I usually go to the Sichuan window and ask for ½ portion of jiang beans and pork, ½ portion of something else, and 150 grams of rice (rice is served in bowls and in increments of 50 grams --- 1 liang). Some times I ask for 1 portion of fried rice vermicelli to go (from the counter with various types of fried noodles and rice). Xue 5 has two main windows where you can ask for 2 items plus rice. The other windows feature zhushi (主食), what the Chinese call their carb dishes/items. The main dining areas of Xue 5 and YanNan are upstairs. During peak hours you would be hard press to sit with the friends you come with. If I go to YanNan, I usually try to go between 12:30 and 1 PM, so as to avoid the rush. (PKU morning classes end at noon and afternoon classes start at 12:30.) But when I come too late (12:45-1), there may not be any choice items left.

That’s usually when I head south to the Campus dining area, a series of 4 cafeterias that have late dining hours. First, there’s the noodle shop, with its 4 windows. The 2 windows with Jiangxi sliced noodles and Lanzhou pulled noodles (in beef broth) have the longest lines. Noodles are sliced into finger-length pieces from a football-sized piece of dough. Or they are pulled into the suitable thickness. The pulled noodles are much softer. But the Jiangxi sliced noodles are served in this flavorful broth. The middle window has the rest of the menu, various noodles in broth or with various sauces and stews. Noodles cost 5 rmb (for the large) and 4 rmb (for the small bowl). Adding a fried egg costs 1 rmb. The last window is for soymilk and shaobing (烧饼). At each window, there are usually 2 lines, one for ordering and paying (swiping with your dining card) and another one for pickup. At peak times, even the ordering line for sliced noodles can get more than 10 deep. And the amount of slurping reminds me of scenes from the movie Tampopo.

The next cafeteria is the jiaozi (饺子, or dumpling) shop, with its 3 windows. The main one serves (whatelse?) jiaozi. Usually there are 2 types of dumplings ready to go. There are the usual combinations, pork with cabbage, pork with chives, … Pork with lotus root is surprisingly good. You can order by 50 grams increments (starting at 100 grams). The server scopes up the amount you order, puts it in a suitable dish and then puts it on a dining tray along side a bowl of congee and small side dish of pickled vegetables. The various condiments are just behind you after you pick up the dining tray. The other window has zhengjiao (蒸饺, steamed dumplings), shaomai (烧买) and wontons in soup. The last window is for appetizer size vegetables and meats.

The third cafeteria is an American food café, burgers, fries, coffee, shake, … I usually go there for seating or to pass through to get to the last Campus cafeteria, which serves single ‘dish’ meals, e.g., stews, curries, … I usually go for the beef stew, or the chicken curry. There are also steamed rice (served in a bamboo steamer) with various vegetables and meats and glazed pot dishes, if you come early enough.

Lately I have been going to the baozi (包子, buns, steamed or pan-fried) shop just south of the Campus cafeterias to pick up some baozi for snacks. The shengjianbao (生煎包, pan-fried baozi) costs 0.70 rmb each (so that’s a little over ten US cents each). After dinner, I bring my tupperware, ask for 6 shengjianbao to go, take a leisurely stroll on campus, and then get back to work, knowing that whenever I get hungry, I can always eat a baozi or two.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Paralympics --- Two Games, Equally Exciting I : Parking, Parking, Everywhere

Back in Beijing, after a short trip to Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Didn’t think I would miss being in the hustle and bustle of Olympic crazed capital city, but so glad to be back in the be-drizzled 'Jing.

During the few days we were away, the city said goodbye to the Olympic athletes from 200 nations, and prepared to welcome the Paralympic athletes. The new slogan was unveiled: 两个奥运,同样精彩!(“Two Olympic Games, Equally Exciting” is my own alliterated translation. ‘Same Splendor’ just sounded too pompous to me.) The Olympic Village was officially renamed “Disability Olympic Village.” (The Chinese translation for the Paralympic Games is 残奥会, or more precisely, the Olympics for the Disabled.) The various Olympic traffic lanes now have newly installed signposts with the 3 color Paralympics logo declaring ‘IBC/MPC’ or ‘Reserved for Disabled Olympics’. The one reminder of the Olympics was the 5 Ring Olympics logo painted directly on the various restricted-traffic lanes (besides the endless replays of Team China vs. whoever is in her way on CCTV-5).

Since it was way past midnight when we got in, I didn’t notice some of the other improvements until the next morning when we went for a short walk around the neighborhood. First, there were only a few cars parked on the sidewalks. You may ask, why would there be cars parked on the sidewalks? Initially, I thought that people had taken their cars out for weekend outings, but then my wife noticed the freshly appeared short metallic stumps (in yellow and black bee stripe colors) that now prevented cars from driving directly onto the sidewalks. You see, the sidewalks along both sides of the road that passes our apartment complex is flush with the road. In fact, the sidewalks are level with the cycling lane, which is separated (by planted bushes) from the 4 lane main road (2 lanes in either direction). In the past, many drivers have presumed that this means they can drive onto the sidewalks and park there. Thus the sidewalks have been turned into parking lots that allowed parking for free.

My wife had actually complained about this a few times. The first time she called the local traffic police station, the officer who listened to her complaint told her that they did not have enough personnel to police this. The second time, she was told that there was no law against parking on pedestrian sidewalks and hence they could not ticket these cars!

On our stroll, we ran into the guys who were putting in the stumps. These guys go around these streets and look for ‘spots’ where the previously parked vehicle had pulled out and then put in the anti-parking stumps. They kept on hearing complaints. There were those who said they cannot possibly do this, as this took away their ‘benefits’ (of free parking!). There was an old man who told them that one driver was on out-of-town business and wouldn’t be back for weeks. Occasionally, the stump crew would find that they did not come soon enough after a car had left; in the interim, another driver would find and park in the ‘spot’. My wife suggested that they just bar all the remaining cars in and then leave notes on these cars to let the owners know whom to call to be let out. But the crew wouldn't go for that...

Over the last 2+ weeks, the number of parked cars has gone from over 50 to over 20 to 10 to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and has been stuck at ONE for the last week. The ONE, the last offending vehicle, presumably driven by somebody on out-of-town business, is a silver Citroen Elysee, has the license plate 京 J19352 (京 for Beijing), and is parked just east of the side gate of our building complex.

In the mean time, one of my wife's predictions came true. So where would people park now? Certainly not in the parking lots around our neighborhood. So they are parking in the cycling lanes and right lanes. But at least the sidewalks are back to being sidewalks...

Friday, September 12, 2008

A New Yorker in Ningxia

We flew to Yinchuan (which literally means Silver River) a few weeks ago for a short getaway right after the Olympics. We were hoping to go to Dunhuang from Yinchuan, but didn’t make it, since the train ride was over 19 hours and ran only on alternate days.

For those of you who have never heard of Yinchuan, it is the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Ningxia is part of the northern route of the Silk Road. The Yellow River reaches its northern most bend in Ningxia. For me, the city of Yinchuan came to me in the pulp novel Tian Long Ba Bu by Louis Cha. (Louis Cha, Zha Liang Yong, pen name Jin Yong, deserves quite a few blogs from me, as I have always joked to my Chinese friends, “Everything I know about the Chinese, I learned from Jin Yong.”) But I could not locate the Xi Xia (Western Xia) palace, with underground cellars of ice. In any case, we did go see the royal tombs of XiXia Kingdom. But they were nothing like the Ming Tombs outside of Beijing and looked like big dirt beehives or haystacks that were about the height of 2 persons.

Not much in the city of Yinchuan itself. We stayed in the old city, which is not very old, and the new is, well, just new. The city itself is this 25 km long narrow strip that joins the old part of the city with the new, which had the train station and km's and km's of condos and gated communities. In the old city, there are two famous Buddhist temples and quite a few mosques. The northern temple HaibaoTa dates back to 500 A.D. The western temple ChengTian Si used to house the Ningxia museum. The mosque next to the (old) city square was under renovations, presumably for Ningxia's 50th anniversary as Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region in November. In the city square, there is a mini-Tiananmen, complete with scaled-down Mao portrait. I kitsch you not!

As in many Chinese cities, the city (and here the Ningxia regional) government occupies the newest and biggest office buildings and complexes. Unfortunately, these new buildings looked rather ugly to me and remind me of Soviet style buildings. One night we took a ~3 km stroll along the main street, passing by the main shopping districts, with malls that looked like Hong Kong malls (and probably built by HK developers), to get to a lamb restaurant, GuoQiang, across the street from the Ningxia regional government complex. There was certainly a lot of lamb to eat. And the roasted lamb-on-a-stick (not quite kebobs) in Yinchuan has a distinct flavor from the ones in Beijing (which are supposedly more of Xinjiang origin). My wife thought the lamb in Yinchuan is more heavily sauced and greased.

Besides the abundance of lamb, there’s sour milk (yoghurt) everywhere. The sour milk in Yinchuan is the best I have had anywhere. There are plenty yoghurt stands along the sidewalks and in the public parks. These stands sit underneath tents, each with a handful of tables, each table coming with its own share of empty yoghurt containers. 3 yuan for each yoghurt. These ubiquity of these stands sort of reminds me of NY hotdog vendors; only with tables along the sidewalks and the offering is yoghurt and drinks (both soft and beer). The analogy would have been more apt if there were kabob stands everywhere, but there must be restrictions on the types of sidewalk vendors. We did not see a single lamb-on-a-stick vendor anywhere.

The main local crops seem to be corn, sunflower, and millet. We passed a sliver of a shop featuring seed roasting, and bought 6 yuan's worth. They were on the smoky side, but quite tasty. The shop was right next to a lamb-in-a-bun shop. The bun itself was toasted and crispy. The lamb was flavored with green chilies. Mouth-watering when I think about it.

See what writing this blog has done to me! Now I’m hungry! I’ll write about our venture out of Yinchuan to XuMi Shan another day. But first, let me go find myself some lamb-on-a-stick.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympics: What's on (CC)TV?

Three more days to go till the Closing Ceremony. I’m sure you’ve followed the Olympics, at least to a certain extent: Phelps’ 8 Golds, Bolt’s Double, China’s rise to the top medal list (not the NYT list), … Here, in China’s capital, there’s nothing else in town! (unless you’re one of the people who applied to protest, but that’s for another blog and you can read about it in the NYT, Washington Post, The Guardian, …) Everybody is following the Olympics, virtually all the time. My wife’s students have their IE browsers pointed permanently on at any one of the web channels (basketball, football, volleyball, ping pong, badminton, swimming, gymnastics, shooting, weight lifting, track and field, taekwondo, wrestling, judo, archery, tennis, fencing, field hockey, boxing, handball, baseball, softball, cycling, …)

So I’ve been trying to tape some of the Games for my buddies in NYC, especially those with HiDef channels but with no hopes of viewing Olympics Table Tennis. There are 4 CCTV channels that are covering the Olympics (almost 24-7): CCTV1, CCTV2, CCTV5 (now CCTV Olympics, with their logo the 5 Olympics Rings in white), and CCTV7 (showing mostly taped events from the day before). I taped the OC (of course), the post-OC news conference, and quite a few of the morning CCTV1 8:30-9:45 AM program (review and overview of each day) in the first week.

Recording Table Tennis turned out to be non-trivial, complicated by my trip to Shanghai during the first days of the team competition. First, the cable box program listings and listings did not always agree. This was trouble since I had to set the cable box to show the specific channels during the particular time-slots. Luckily almost all table tennis coverage was on CCTV Olympics, so I did not have the unenviable (impossible, you may say) task of trying to convince my wife to go home during the workday to switch the channel manually.

There was still trouble after my trip to Shanghai, as the Teams preliminary round ended and the elimination round started. This meant that the coverage (mostly of the Chinese teams) was not determined weeks in advance (as the preliminary round matches were). There were a couple of evenings when I tried to find the taped versions of table tennis coverage (after having missed live coverage), and had to rely on programming announcements running on the bottom strips of one of the CCTV channels. However, even that was somewhat unreliable. While the channel information was correct, the announced start and end times were not always reliable. I can understand how live coverage time slots could change, but taped programming, in the wee hours of the morning? (I suppose few people are watching, much less recording the programming, but …)

Further trouble with setting up pre-programmed recording the last couple of days. Since I no longer rely on listings provided by the cable company, I use the CCTV online listings. However, there were a couple of times when the online listings were changed between midnight and the following morning. Certain specific programmed time-slots would disappear, and instead of table tennis, other events would be shown. Again, to give these CCTV programmers the benefit of a doubt, presumably the order of play is not fixed at the beginning. Since they show almost exclusively the Chinese players (and the extremely cute ‘Fuyuan Ai’, i.e., the Chinese pronounciation of ‘Fukuhara Ai,’ the 19 year old Japanese player), there must be some just-in-time re-programming involved. So I have gone back to recording mainly the taped programming, shown after midnight.

Anyway, some of you will see how I managed a workaround of the mismatch between the cable box program listing and the actual programming. I had to select the appropriate cable box program slots to include the actual CCTV program. So if during an intense ping pong rally, the transparent yellow box pops up, announces the start of the next program, and asks for confirmation or cancellation, you will know whom to blame.

[And, finally, I would like to thank Bill for getting me the Archos 605 to make all the digital recording of Olympics coverage possible.]

Friday, August 8, 2008

OC Countdown III: We Need Now the ‘East Wind’

Less than 2 hours to the OC of the XXIX Olympiad. The palpable excitement this morning has abated a bit in the languid heat of this Friday afternoon. Probably my adrenaline is running low after weeks and weeks of anticipation. I’m sure the humidity and the heat also have something to do with it. It’s been foggy most of the day, visibility very limited. By 9 this morning, a long taxi line had formed outside our apartment complex; on any normal work day morning, you would be hard pressed to find any taxis at 9 around here. Most people have taken the day off. My wife left her mobile phone charger at work and so we had to make our way into the traffic restricted section right next to the Olympic Park. (A new campus of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is on the west side of the Olympics complex, directly across Beicheng West Road, i.e., North Star West Road).

Our attempt to use the Datun Road tunnel going underneath the Olympics complex was foiled. Our taxi was not allowed through (for the first time this week). We got on a bus and managed to make it to the CAS campus without trouble. My wife picked up her charger and we’re off the 798 arts areas to meet Alice for lunch. On the way back across the tunnel, the bus driver kept reminding us (and other riders) that traffic restrictions were about to start (11:30), and there would be no traffic going to or from the area immediate to the Olympic site. No matter, we were through the tunnel with minutes to spare. The rest of the trip around town was smooth. Very light traffic everywhere. Our taxi drivers kept telling us that they were not doing much business and plan to pack it in for the day right after lunch time. After all, just about everybody will be in front of the TV; except the lucky few (90,000), like Alice, who get to go to the OC.

Recently I have been repeated reminded of the “Three Kingdoms.” Not because of the blockbluster film “Red Cliff” (the most famous battle from ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’) that came out recently. And not because the media attention that it had garnered --- quite a few TV programs on the historical “facts” behind the fictional version of the Battle of the Red Cliff. And no, Peter, it is not the tale of Kong Ming ‘borrowing’ arrows, which I will return to in a future blog. (Even though heavy fog does appear now in Beijing and then at Red Cliff.) But it’s the more famous tale of Kong Ming borrowing the East Wind. Here’s how the story goes.

Zhou Yu, the commander of the Wu forces, was inspecting troops one morning and noticed that the strong west wind had tore up some flag poles. It immediately brought trouble to his mind. He coughed up blood and fainted right in front of the troops. Lu Su, one of the consigliore of the commander, started to panic over this and expressed doubt in front of Kong Ming about the upcoming battle. Kong Ming told Lu Su not to worry and that he knew exactly what ailed commander Zhou and how to cure him.

That night, Kong Ming made it to Zhou’s tent and asked to see him. Kong Ming said that he knew what caused Zhou’s ailments and how to cure him. Zhou wouldn’t believe him at first, so Kong Ming offered his prescription of the ‘East Wind.’

[Earlier, Kong Ming and Zhou Yu had agreed to use fire as the main weapon against Cao Cao’s forces. Unfortunately, the prevailing winters winds were from the west and the Wu forces needed a southeast wind to stay upwind of the Cao forces.]

So Kong Ming asked Zhou to set up a temple for prayer and promised to deliver the East Wind on the morning of the battle. And so off he went, prayed night and day for 3 days, with no palpable result. That is, until the morning of the battle. Kong Ming’s prayers were answered by a strong southeast wind. Zhou was astounded and feared so much Kong Ming’s apparent prowess (he could conjure the wind, seemingly) that he sent troops to behead Kong Ming right away. But, of course, Kong Ming, always a step ahead of Zhou, had arranged and managed a quick getaway.

The last 8 words of Kong Ming’s prescription were


(a rough, literal, translation, “Everything is ready, except for the east wind!”)

Anyway, everything is good to go. Now if only we had the winds to clear Beijing of this ‘fog’…

Thursday, August 7, 2008

OC Countdown II: We Are Ready

Part of the media frenzy is reflected in the TV ads, both 'official' and commercial, leading up to 8-08-08. One of most aired aids on BTV (Beijing TV) channels in March and April was “We Are Ready” (lyrics in English). Movie, TV and music stars gathered to sing “We Are Ready”. The first time I saw the 7 minute ad in its entirety, I was appalled. I was already pissed off by the exclusively English lyrics. But the ad also showed that we were very much Not Ready. Most of the times, the mouth movements did not match the audio track. You know what it reminded me of? For those of us who grew up in New York in the 70s and the 80s, WWOR (which is still channel 9 in present day NYC) used to show kung-fu movies on Saturday afternoons. Back then just about all the imported Chinese films were dubbed, and not only were the translations hilarious, the lip movements never matched what you heard.

So I have been trying to find excuses for this. Well, most foreign movies shown on Chinese TV are still dubbed. Ditto for a good portion of the pirated foreign films on DVD or VCD. Even more egregious are some of the TV serials. You ask, “Why would they dub Chinese over the Chinese?” These days most of the high profile serials involve Chinese stars all around the world. For instance, the two male leads of Huo Yuan Jia (the most recent movie version was “Fearless” and starred Jet Li) were both Cantonese (one actually from Hong Kong), and since the real historical characters were from the north (Tianjin and Beijing), they had to dub Mandarin over whatever they spoke on the set. I have a feeling that most Chinese are not very bothered by the mismatch. Hell, it even makes the ‘acting’ easier! The actors don’t have to remember all their lines!

I must say that the most recent ads are much improved. The music video that is most played these days (at least on the various BTV channels) is “Beijing Welcome You” (lyrics in Chinese). It shows many media darlings singing in the various Beijing locales and tourist spots. And Beijing is indeed as beautiful as the video!

I do hope some of my friends back in the US are taping the US ads for me. Here, one of the most popular is the series by Adidas, featuring real Olympic athletes (in red) and regular Chinese (in black and white). In one, with the Chinese women's volleyball team, when the Chinese players jumps to block, the other non-athletes behind them jump with them. "Impossible is Nothing" is the Adidas tag line. Adidas is going head to head with Li Ning's sportswear company ("Anything is Possible"). Both have contributed heavily (roughly 10 billion yuan each) to the Olympics.

But my favorite ad is the one by Nike, and feature the song "Heroes" sung by David Bowie. Unfortunately, it was shown in the spring and I haven’t seen it in a few months. It showed Olympic athletics preparing and practicing in Beijing. Some in their homes. Some using the local Beijing athletic fields, courts and gyms. These video segments of athletes were juxtaposed with segments of common Beijing folks running, swimming, kids playing basketball, soccer, teenagers hopping & styling on mountain bikes, ... There was even one swimmer shown diving into Hou Hai (one of the series of ponds next to the center of the city; also one of my favorite spots). Part of the fun for me was in identifying the athletes and the locale. And all this while David Bowie sang (We can be) "Heroes".

Here's the refrain from "Heroes":

Though nothing
Will keep us together
We can beat them
For ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes
Just for one day

We can be Heroes, …

At the very end of the ad, the gold-medalist hurdler, Liu Xiang looked straight on and spoke in earnest


(a particular translation from an on-line version of this ad: "It's just a game. You decide how to play." but I prefer a more direct, though less literal,

"It's how you play the game.").


Let the Games begin!

OC Countdown I: There are Some Things Money Can't Buy

Less than 2 days to go till the Opening Ceremony of the XXIX Olympiad. Everything seems to be primed and ready to go here. The excitement can hardly be contained. The last legs of the torch relay started in Tiananmen Square yesterday morning. Supposedly by this afternoon, it will wind its way in and out of the city and end up at 101 high school (which my wife attended, back in the day). 101 h.s. is situated right next to Yuan Ming Yuan, part of the scenic summer palace gardens north of PKU and Tsinghua U.

The very last leg of the torch relay into the Olympic site has not been announced publicly yet. I will write more about the torch relay and the 19,400 torch bearers later in a different blog, but first, here is a quick look back at the last few months leading up to the Opening Ceremony that even Nicholas Sarkozy will be attending.

By now, most Chinese elementary school kids can probably list the top Olympic events and venues. Quick! Which event will be at the Peking University gymnasium?! (Hint. It's considered the national sport.)

Yes, that's right. Table Tennis. A beautiful, brand new, gymnasium was built at PKU for the event. Since mid May, the area has been roped off, including the May 4th Athletic Field next to it. By mid July the entire section of PKU housing the gymnasium has been roped off, including the Southeast Gate to PKU. Ticket and security checkpoint has been set up. Easy-to-spot yellow signposts announce directions in Chinese, English and French. At the same time that Beijing started traffic restrictions, entrance into PKU has been restricted to staff, students and Olympic volunteers. Just before dinner time last night, more internal checkpoints were set up. Apparently, my office is located in a more secure part of campus. (Why doesn’t that make me feel better?) I can walk to the cafeteria, but coming back, I needed to show PKU ID.

These days, for most of the day, PKU seems like a ghost town compared to the usual hustle and bustle. Two Fridays ago, the last of the Olympic tickets went on sale. Near the booth next to the Southwest Gate, there were so many people queued up that extra security had to come to rope off that portion of the road. A couple of the students I knew stayed in line for 2 whole days (they took turns queuing) and, luckily, did manage to get tickets to the Team Semi's (for Table Tennis).

Looking further off campus, much of the service roads and pedestrian sidewalks along the Fourth Ring Road were systematically repaved over the last few months. Beautiful potted plants, numbered in the 10s of millions, now line a good portion of the major roadways. These plants are sprayed regularly. 3 new subway lines opened up on July 20th. Another (the Number 5 that runs near our apartment) has been running since last October. I have seen quite a few cabs equipped for the handicapped. And the Olympic shuttle buses are electric. Compared to the Beijing 2, 3 years ago, Beijing at the present is decidedly Greener. There are trees and potted plants everywhere. Even the gasoline has been improved. I no longer smell hints (some days stronger than others) of sulfer in the summer humidity. Unfortunately, the city has suspended recycling in the last month. Partly because many trucks are banned from entering the city. But perhaps a stronger reason is the recycling collectors. If you’ve been to Beijing public parks recently, you must have seen retirement age folks picking up plastic bottles from garbage cans. Some even wait patiently for you to finish your drink. Some others are more aggressive and ask you directly if you are done with the drink. I’ve always found this to be a very efficient recycling ‘system.’ (Well, it’s built on cheap Chinese labor, like most things in this world.) Some studies supposedly show that it takes plastic bottles less than 3 days to make it from garbage cans in the middle of the city to the recycling plants outside the city in Hebei province. But for now, these recyclers have gone the way of the street vendors.

These days, I see Olympic volunteers everywhere: On campus, at info booths, on the street, at traffic intersections and at some security checkpoints. A couple of times when I walked past one of the info booths, I had to resist having a little fun speaking English (or Spanish or French) with the student volunteers. One of our friends showed us the volunteers' manual. On the first page, there were greetings in 23 different languages. And for some reason, Russian was not one of them ... (but other Slavic languages were there. hmmmm....) Supposedly there are over 1.5 million volunteers. And their getup (uniform, ID card, ...) costs 4,000 rmb per person!

Reminds me of a possibility for a commercial. Imagine an out-of-town Chinese tourist arriving at the new terminal at PEK and the voice-over starts

Terminal 3 at PEK: 20 billion yuan

(as her taxi rushes along the Fourth Ring Road, past the Olympic site with the Bird's Nest in the background)

National Stadium: 3.5 billion yuan

(and when she walks on site and is greeted by the volunteers)

Uniforms for 1 and 1/2 Million Volunteers: 6 billion yuan

(and finally, a shot of her at the Opening Ceremony, with the camera pulling back for a full view of the packed stadium)

Hosting the XXIXth Olympiad: Priceless!

[Any suggestions for the stylized Mastercard logo?!]

(FYI, 6.85 rmb/yuan = 1 US$)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

An 'Extra'

So my wife and I were in Changping, just north of the city, for a weekend retreat. I was approached with an opportunity to be in an internal training video. (Someone at HR of this hotel found out we were going to be there and asked if I was willing to be an 'extra' in this video.) I thought it might be fun, so I agreed.

We started filming in the hotel lobby. The first scene involved me entering the lobby carrying more than I can handle. In the 'wrong' version, the bellhop ignores my plea for help, and then runs ahead of me with my stuff after he realizes I need help. We took a few shots of this and the 'correct' version, before moving on to the front desk.

At the front desk, the 'wrong' scene involves me being ignored by the desk attendent. In the 'correct' version, she makes eye contact even though she is on the phone.

Finally, we shot a scene involving a maid and our hotel room. In the 'wrong' version, the maid knocks at the door a few times and then enters without waiting properly for a response.

I hope that 1) I get to see this video and 2) it makes a difference (however small).