Monday, March 30, 2009

Ancient Capitals

Shortly after we were engaged and just before Spring Festival in 2007, Jia and I took a trip to Thailand. We headed around Bangkok, Ko Samet, Chiang Mai, and Ayutthaya during our two-week visit.

After seeing quite a bit of Bangkok, we hopped a train to the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya that dates back to 1350. The capital was later abandoned when the Burmese invaded in 1767. We had to take an un-air conditioned ride about an hour and a half north of Bangkok. Our tickets were not numbered and we were not guaranteed a seat, as we discovered after two stops when someone told me to move from the hard seat. Jia got lucky and no one came to claim her seat.

We arrived in Ayutthaya before noon and had to take a ferry across the moat that surrounded the ruins of the old city. Upon entering the city, we saw bikes to rent, but I thought we should walk around a bit first and find a cheaper rental--big mistake. There were no other bicycle rental shops the entire time we walked through the streets. Under the intense sun on a fairly clear day I cursed my judgement--and I'm fairly sure Jia silently did the same.

As we approached the ruins of Khmer-style architecture, we found that all the sections of the ancient city require individual entrance fees for foreigners. Most of the tickets were cheap, so we didn't mind paying--we just wished there was an all-inclusive ticket to purchase. A few times we walked into parks without realizing there was a ticket booth, but no one stopped us.

All the sites were filled with tourists and Thai school children, yet there was very little noise as the people were very respectful toward what was once a mass of temples. It was rather peaceful wandering through the parks--spending most of the time in the shade of banyan trees. We passed through most of the parks in the center of the city, but there was plenty we didn't manage to see as we had to make it make sure we didn't miss the train back.

We were exhausted by the time we arrived back at the train station of Ayutthaya--we had walked for at least six hours. Fortunately, we had seats on the train back to Bangkok.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Where's the Crisis?

I would've never guessed there was an economic crisis going on by viewing the scene yesterday. We drove to Woodbury Commons in New York to walk around and possibly buy something if the right deal came around. Really, we just went there because the weather didn't look good enough to go into Manhattan for the day--and we really wanted to go to a museum.

Woodbury Commons is the high-end shopper's paradise. It's a strip mall that is enormous--we walked around for four hours and didn't see everything there. There was not a single empty storefront--it was mostly luxury-brand outlets like Gucci, Calvin Klein, and Armani. It was pretty much everything that I couldn't afford even with huge discounts. But I'm not their target market.

Almost everyone walking around the shopping center--and there were hundreds of people packed in there--had bags from various shops. Quite a few of the people going around did not speak English--I overheard French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and German, as well as a few I couldn't identify. It was almost as crowded as walking through a shopping mall in China (without all the annoying staff shouting "Hulloooo!" at me).

I suppose this shows that the wealthy have nothing to worry about, and it's just the average folks who are getting screwed by the recession.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chinglish Spam

Over the last couple months I've noticed an increase in the amount of spam I've received on my main e-mail address. Most of the spam has been from electronics manufacturers in China. I guess they think I want to buy the junk that American companies no longer want to purchase.

Today, a line caught my attention. "maybe it cant ends the hateful and horrible economic crisis,cooperating with us,however,you would save partial expense.dont hesitate,let'go shopping with happiness!"

I never knew the economic crisis had a hateful personality. And how much would I actually save with only a "partial expense"? The quality of writing in this e-mail (complete with Chinese phone number) is far worse than most of what my students used to hand in (plagiarized assignments not withstanding).

Thursday, March 26, 2009


China has voiced concern (yet again) over the biased reporting on Tibet by foreign media. According to China Daily, China wants foreign correspondents to "carry out reports on Tibet in an objective, comprehensive and truthful way." This was in response to a video online of Chinese police beating Tibetans.

The Chinese government seems to believe that this video is fake and possibly editing by supporters of the Dalai Lama.

How exactly does the government think it will achieve objective reporting on Tibet and Tibetan regions if it forces all foreigners (reporters included) to leave the region? This leaves foreign media with no other choice but to speculate on what is happening there or using phone/online conversations to fill in details. Without open access to the region and its people, there can be nothing but hearsay when reporting on Tibet.

And China Daily is not considered a trusted name in news in other parts of the world.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Setting the Bar High

Jia directed me to some news from Lanzhou (article in Chinese, with pictures). It seems that university students are now flocking to Moba (摸吧) or touch bars. At these bars, the patrons pay ten kuai to feel up the xiaojies for three songs (the patrons don't get to choose the songs). There is supposedly no sex involved, but the patrons get to let their hands roam wherever they please.

No word on if these touch bars have migrated south to Shenzhen.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Things I'll Miss About Shenzhen (3)

I've been looking into cell phones in New Jersey. I'm now wondering how Americans can put up with the service here--it's expensive and reception isn't all that good. I can't even use a cell phone in my neighborhood because we get zero reception here.

I had students at the university who complained about the high price of cellular service. I laughed at them. I knew it was cheaper in China, but I didn't realize just how good I had it then.

I don't think I ever went anywhere that didn't have decent reception--even when hiking through Jiuzhaigou or the Fujian countryside. And I had all of that for about 50 kuai every six weeks (I didn't use my phone all that much). With that plan I got more than enough text messages, free incoming calls, and could call the US for about 6 cents a minute.

Here in the good ol' USA I can get a phone for $40 a month with no text messages and only 400 minutes of phone calls. And I can't make international phone calls, unless I pay some ridiculous extra monthly fee.

I'm going to see how long I can last without a cell phone.

Friday, March 20, 2009


While we were busy moving out of our apartment in Shenzhen, it became apparent that our landlord was an idiot.

Months back Jia got the idea that we should pay the landlord rent from our deposit. We managed to convince him to use half the deposit, so we got out of one-month's rent. He seemed to also agree that he'd give back some of the other half after inspecting the apartment.

In the days running up to our departure the landlord decided he wouldn't give us anything back. Not only that, but he was demanding the keys to the apartment before we left. He went so far as to visit my mother-in-law and wife at 10pm the night before we were leaving to demand the keys. He was screaming up a storm as I entered with my friends who were going to take some of our stuff. Just to shut him up, we gave him one key and told him to get the rest after we left.

He left unhappy. He even tried to threaten my mother-in-law and wife by claiming that he's part of some dangerous gang in Shenzhen (takes a big man to intimidate two women). My comment was that I'm from New Jersey and I could probably get him fitted with some cement shoes. I also figured he was just being a blowhard since no one in an illegal gang would actually claim to be in one. I was tempted to call the cops on him--I'm sure they'd love to get a criminal off the streets.

Fortunately, we all departed from the apartment well before the idiot returned. My mother-in-law didn't even bother to stick around to see if he'd change his mind and return part of the deposit. I don't blame her for not wanting to deal with that scum.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I got to watch sports history last night as Martin Brodeur won his 552nd game--at the Thirsty Moose. I had wanted to go to the game, but wasn't sure if I could even stay awake after just recovering from some horrible jet lag (I think I'm finally over it). It's a good thing the Thirsty Moose has the Devils channel (you have to pay to watch them in New Jersey). They also have nice staff and a nice selection of beer that doesn't include Tsingtao.

It was great to see my first hockey game in a long time (I got to watch a couple last year when Jia and I visited my parents for Spring Festival). The last time I got to watch a Devils game in a bar was just before I moved to China back in 2005--at the very same bar. Things would've been better if the Moose wasn't so far away or if I didn't have to drive there.

Other experiences from our time home have included wasting time at the Social Security office. It seems that we never had to go and fill out an application--we just have to wait a month for Jia to get her card. Until then, we'll just continue applying for jobs wherever we can find them.

We also stopped by the local library to get cards there. I love that there are a lot of English-language books on the shelves (think I've been away too long). I took advice from a former co-worker and decided to go through the fiction section in alphabetical order by taking one book from each shelf (never repeating an author). It seems I made a poor decision on the first book though--after a couple pages I already don't want to continue. Maybe I'll pick up something else today.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Safe Returns

Jia and I arrived back in the states late Friday night. I love being able to get into the first-class lounge at Hong Kong airport with a coach ticket. Asiana was a decent airline--though the food was better on the way to Seoul than it was to JFK. The first eight hours from Seoul to New York was the most turbulant flight I've ever experienced. But at least we're home.

I had to wait more than an hour for Jia to make it through customs with all her immigration paperwork. They had to send her to a private interrogation room before allowing her to pass through. From what she told me, they were making sure her application was accurrate and our relationship is genuine. It didn't help that I had no clue what was going on, and I wasn't sure if I had accidentally taken any important documents through customs.

Monday we'll plan to send out plenty more job applications in the hopes of finding work soon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Review: Wolf Totem

Recipient of the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize, Jiang Rong's novel Wolf Totem is a cultural and environmental journey through a fictional region of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. While the translation by Howard Goldblatt is culturally enlightening and filled with beautiful descriptions, it is tedious and slow moving.

Wolf Totem centers on a group of students from Beijing who are sent to live in Inner Mongolia. Chen Zhen takes the lead role in learning nomadic Mongolian lifestyle and educating the locals in Mandarin. Chen and the other students also pass around foreign books to read and pass the time, without any concern for the fact that they are banned by the government. He and the others are taken care of by the village elder, Bilgee and his family. Bilgee takes a particular interest in teaching Chen about Mongolian beliefs and respect for the wolves and nature.

Chen's fascination with wolves leads him to capture a newborn and raise it. His plan is to study the wolf and, with luck, mate it with the Mongolian dogs to breed a stronger dog for sheep herding. The young wolf's life then follows a similar pattern to that of the nomadic people and the modernization of the region.

As time passes, more Han Chinese move into the grassland and damage the ecosystem, causing more problems with wolves, which leads to the near extermination of wolves in Inner Mongolia. The students and locals raise their concerns about the forced life changes that they must make in order to welcome all the new people and work for the government. Of course, their concerns and objections are ignored and the grassland turns to desert.

Jiang Rong's novel is rather anti-Han. Aside from the Beijing students, every other non-Mongolian is villianized for the destruction of the grassland and disrespect toward the Mongolians. At one point, Chen asks a Han migrant what he'll eat next year if he continues to kill all the animals. The migrants response is, " 'Didn't you people call us migrants? Migrants, migrants, mindless immigrants....We go where there's food and never worry about the year after that.' " There are plenty of instances of the students witnessing what they perceive as disrespect for the land. Each time they see something they don't like, there is a confrontation that ends with the Han migrants acting apathetic.

The novel begins with strong scenes and explanations of life on the Inner Mongolian grassland, but does not maintain that same level of interest throughout the 524 pages. Much of the narration becomes tedious and repetetive--it's unfortunate that so much needs to be explained about the Mongolian life in order for huge sections of Wolf Totem to make sense to a reader, thus making it read like a textbook.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Odd Discoveries

I'm still searching around for odd things around my neighborhood before moving back to New Jersey. I know I probably won't find a lot of this stuff when I leave China.

The first one is a bag of Four Seas terriyaki eel rice sticks. The flavor wasn't too bad, but the texture resembled a soft cheese curl...without the cheese flavor. Note to producer: please make this snack crunchier.

The second one was of the pirated DVD variety. One of the vendors had a copy of The Erotic Adventures of Pinnochio. It's not uncommon to find pornography in a country that bans it. The illegal DVD vendor was just down the street from the prostitute shop and sex toy shop. The most amusing part of the DVD was the cover--it had a picture of Pinnochio next to suggestive picture of Brittany Spears from an issue of Rolling Stone. I'm sorry to say, there won't be a review of this film as I didn't purchase it (my friend did, I'll ask him to write a review).

Last Taste of New Food

Because Mr. W. couldn't make it to our big going-away dinner at the Xinjiang restaurant for a whole roast lamb, he took us out last night. Jia suggested we try a Mongolian restaurant near the Penninsula off Houhai in Shekou.

The decoration of the restaurant was colorful and inviting, with a large bust of Ghengis Khan at the entrance and various Mongolian items hanging on the walls. The menu was huge--it took a good fifteen minutes or so to order--and had a nice variety of meat and vegetable dishes. There were quite a few dishes I would've liked to try, but Jia insisted that we not because they were deep fried. We did end up with some stir-fried cabbage with peppers, beef with peppers, lamb ribs, wasabi peppers and cow(?) stomach, and lamb baozi (which were so good we ordered seconds).

They also had entertainment, which was nice but typically loud for China. During the singing, we had to shout to hear each other. The prices were reasonable (average of 30 kuai for most dishes). If we weren't leaving soon, we'd definitely go back. J. is already planning a trip back.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

In Style

Last night we decided to go out in style...sort of.

We had another going-away party (we've now had four with more to come) with quite a few of our friends at the Xinjiang restaurant across the street. We went all out and order the whole roast lamb. It weighed in at 14 lbs. and came with four side dishes (laohu cai, cucumber and garlic, and some noodles). The lamb was tender with thin crispy skin. We had to tear it apart and dip the pieces in a variety of spices (cumin, chili powder, chili sauce, and combination of cumin, chili and other spices).

With the number of people we had, we also had to order a few more vegetable dishes and nang. Because we've been in there rather often for the last year, the boss even gave us some soup and a very large fruit platter (with yellow watermelon?). It all tasted great along with a bit of Tsingtao and a bottle of cognac.
When all was said and done, we were thoroughly stuffed and the bill only came to about US$100--far cheaper than if we had chosen to eat one of the more popular buffets.

Jia's brilliant idea after the long dinner was to head down the road to Good Friend Health City for foot massages. We checked it out a few days ago, and they said it was 38RMB for an hour. Somehow Jia managed to get us a group discount, so the foot massage only cost us 30RMB each. I got comfortable next to two of my friends who speak decent Chinese, and we had some fun talking.

The girls giving the massage were quite amusing. One kept commenting how much more work she had to do with D.'s enormous feet. She also said something about his hairy legs, which was more amusing considering mine are hairier. All three girls laughed at I. for drinking beer during the massage--he kept trying to offer them some, but they refused. For some reason, the girl giving me the massage was very polite and made no odd comments about me--it was much appreciated.

The only one who didn't quite enjoy the massage was J. He managed to get the girl who gave an unwanted rough massage in a rather tender area when moving up the leg.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Crimes Against Nature

Who eats this stuff anyway?

I decided to try some of the bizarre-flavored snacks that are offered at the grocery stores before I move. When else will I get the opportunity to eat barbecue eel and seaweed corn sticks? Yesterday it was odd flavors of American snacks.

It started with American turkey flavored Cheetos. It didn't taste like turkey and it didn't taste like Cheetos, but it wasn't bad. After finishing off the small one-kuai bag, I was rather sick of it (appropriate size for the snack, I suppose).

Then it moved into something I knew should not exist--it's just an abomination of nature. I tried Lay's lychee potato chips. I passed up the blueberry flavor because I heard how awful that was. I can't imagine blueberry being any worse than lychee.

We chalked the awful taste up to the fact that foreigners are not the intended market. So I made Jia try it (she thought I was stupid for even considering buying such a snack). We then offered it to the staff at the Xinjiang restaurant. We couldn't find anyone who liked it. Who is the intended market of these horrifying flavors?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Literary Happenings

For those of my readers whom I have not informed, I have begun a new project that has been in development for the past few months. 

Terracotta Typewriter: a literary journal with Chinese characteristics, was created in December and the hope is that the first issue will be launched online within the next month. Submissions will be accepted year-round. 

I would like to thank a few people who have helped with the development of the site: Xiao Er Jing, Dao By Design, and Onemanbandwidth have been very supportive and provided some technical feedback. I'd also like to thank my friend Tony in Pittsburgh who was kind enough to host the site.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Past on the River

It was my second trip outside of Shenzhen (and only about my fifth time outside of Bao'an district). Jia and I had been dating for a couple months and decided to spend the long Spring Festival holiday together. Being that my Chinese was almost non-existant, Jia made all the plans. Our first stop was Guilin and Yangshuo, where tourists gaze upon beautiful jutting mountains that have been painted repeatedly by Chinese artists over the centuries. This was the scenery I had envisioned when I arrived.

We took a boat tour down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo--five hours in the cold, light rain to stare at the mountains as we floated by. Zhong Yi, our Red Army driver and guide, would meet us at the dock to take us around the town.

In the winter, the river is low and locals collect rocks from the exposed riverbeds. This is not the time of year that is most picturesque, but there were still plenty of tourists on the boat. Of course, I was the only waiguoren on board.

There were announcements over the PA system to call attention to particular mountain formations or areas of interest, like the mountains that looked like a camel. Jia had a difficult time translating everything for me--it still sounded like gibberish to me. Every twenty minutes or so we were told to go upstairs on the deck to view the scenery through the mist and fog. Everyone would take a dozen photos and then head back down, only to re-emerge twenty minutes later. It was tiring jostling for prime photo-taking positions, and the weather didn't help.

As we passed villages along the Li River, bamboo rafts would drift alongside and men would try to sell souvenirs through the windows of the ship. I decided to follow the captain's orders to
ignore the hawkers and enjoy the scenery.
Halfway through the journey, I was tired of climbing the stairs and pushing through the crowd. The rain was heavy at times and I wasn't interested in pneumonia this early in my stay in China. The mountains began to look the same and I didn't take many more pictures unless instructed to do so by Jia. It was better to remain in the slight warmth of the ship and watch the river through the window.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived in Yangshuo. Zhong Yi drove us around to see the countryside, which was difficult in rain. It let up for brief moments and we got out of the car for more photos and to walk around.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Things I'll Miss About Shenzhen (2)

The night after our fun out in Bao'an district, we headed out to Shekou to meet with my soon-to-be-former co-workers. Last week they planned to take Jia and me out for dinner and I suggested a Sichuan restaurant near Sea World, figuring everyone would find some food that'd suit their tastes. Unfortunately, we were short one co-worker as she had to stay home and care for sick family members--but she was there in spirit.

I've been to Fonsun once before and knew the food would be good. I think we ordered a third of the menu--some chicken, duck, tofu, fish, eel, vegetables, beef, and who-knows-what-else. Everything we ordered was good.

This was the first time that I was surrounded by colleagues and we were speaking mostly Chinese. Unfortunately, I'm slow in speaking, but my listening skills are pretty good. They're all very nice and usually talkative at the university, but I found them much more lively when speaking Chinese. They probably saw me as the opposite--I didn't speak much last night, but I'm usually talkative at the office.

My co-workers have made the past year and a half much more enjoyable and far easier to cope with. I hope I'll have the opportunity to see them again when Jia and I travel back to China.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Things I'll Miss About Shenzhen (1)

With two weeks remaining on time in Shenzhen, Jia have places to go and people to see. Last night we took a trip out to Bao'an district to Face Alive to say goodbye to Mr. Tian, the owner. He insisted we make the trip outside the Special Economic Zone one last time. We haven't been there much since moving out of the district. It was an easy decision to make as he's been very generous over the last few years--we've rarely paid for drinks the past few times there.

We invited some friends who've never been there before as well as some older friends whom we haven't seen much lately. Mr. Tian invited us to sit out back where it was much quieter than inside the bar (the music is so loud you have to scream just to have a conversation that might be audible). He greeted us a bottle of Macallan 1985 private reserve--a nice single malt scotch that they don't serve at the bar. Mr. Tian had gone out to buy this just for us. It was a very nice send off.

Fortunately, Mr. Tian travels to the US every now and then to visit relatives. We told him he must let us know next time he's there so we can try to meet him.