Friday, September 29, 2006

Cow Tipping (explained)

Haha... my Dad made a comment on my last post, pointing out that people from outside of the US probably don't know what cow tipping is.

Cow tipping is the act (generally in remote, farm-land areas in the US) of sneaking up on a sleeping cow (they sleep standing up), and pushing them over... tipping them, if you will. This activity is usually reserved to drunk teenagers living in the midwest to help them cope with extreme boredom.

If you'd like a more proper scientific explaination, check out the movie Tommy Boy with Chris Farley and you'll see what I'm talking about.

French Cow Tipping

I have just gotten back from the French equivalen of cow tipping.

First, I've got to tell you, Saint Amand Montrand (the town I am currently in) is a very nice place, but it is in the middle of nowhere. After a goodbye dinner tonight for two of the French staff, everyone announced that we were going to drive into the woods to listen to the deer. I didn't quite understand, and I wasn't quite sure they were being literal, so we crammed into my rental minivan and drove off into the countryside.

Half an hour later I found myself sitting in the woods in the middle of the French countryside listening to the very loud mating calls of the local deer (or reindeer perhaps?). All I know is that our deer in the US don't make these noises. From every direction in the pitch black around us you could hear load grunts and moans of French deer getting it on. It was a veritible deer orgy.

One of the coolest things was that there wasn't a light for miles in any direction. You could see the Milky Way perfectly.

I think it is funny that I've been living in China for over one year now and one of the strangest things I have done in the past year was in France.

Understandable, to a degree...

(sorry, this is a long one)

Well, I am in the middle of France about 200 km South of Paris. The last week or so has been both exciting and very stressful. I thought I would take a few minutes out of the day to breathe before my head explodes, and also to post so that I don't fall of the CBL top 10! Haha.

After our bomb squad experience in Frankfurt, we took the train to Hanover for the IAA exhibition, the worlds largest commerical vehicle (trucks and buses) exhibition. This was the start of a bad trip.

The three of the four Chinese guys with us made the trip to Europe for the purpose of going to this show. Unfortunately, almost all of the companies that they saw two years ago were not in attendance this year. This was disappointing for them, but the show was still interesting (well, about as interesting as truck containers and buses can be). Oh well... at least the Mercedes booth included a huge light and show production with singers and dancers.

One of the Chinese staff has been in a terrible mood this trip. One the first day he broke his glasses, making it nearly impossible to see. We tried to get him new glasses but we were told it would take at least one week, so we couldn't. After a few days he stopped leaving the guesthouse hotel (really just some lady's house where we stayed). Things got worse for him when he left the frames in the hotel when we left, and then two days later his cell phone broke!

Apparently many people in Europe are rather hostile towards Chinese people in the manufacturing business. The general feeling is that they copy and steal western designs, thereby stealing jobs from the US and Europe. At the show we were insulted by quite a few people saying, "god damned Chinese copiers", etc. This negative attitude was taking its toll on everyone, but especially the Chinese guys... what a personal insult!

After four days in Hanover we drove the length of Germany and crossed into France, near the Swiss border. We were visiting a company that we are in the process of purchasing, but the owner was insistant that the Chinese staff not enter his factory until the deal had gone through because he was scared they would just steal the designs and then we'd run. Consequently, three of the four Chinese staff had to sit in the car for the entire day! I would go out to check on them occasionally, and you could tell they were fed up. They couldn't even go for a walk because it was pouring.

Our next stop was Saint Amond Montrond (where I am now) in the center of France. We were planning on using this place (a company belonging to a friend of my boss's) as a staging area to visit many trash truck factories and garbage processing facilities (I know, doesn't it sound interesting?) around Paris that would be of interest to the Chinese guys (half of our company makes these trucks.) The appointments had all been made, but much to our surprise they were ALL canceled one or two days before! The reasons were never really given, but it was understood by everyone that it was because the factories were having second thoughts about having a group of Chinese walking around inside. One of the main reasons for these guys making the trip had now just vanished.

Since we couldn't take the Chinese guys to the factories, we brought them with us to the offices while we worked. Sitting around an office is a lot better than sitting in a car, but after six hours the guys needed to get out. They went for a walk outside, and wandered onto private property of the factory next door. Before you knew it, we had a very angry owner pounding on our door, demanding that the Chinese guys delete the photos they had been taking or he would have them arrested for trespassing on private property!

It was then that things got really bad. One of the cameras was handed over, but the other guy (the guy already in a bad mood from above) refused to acknowledge that he had a camera. I was yelling at him to give it to us so that we could avoid anyone being arrested (and causing bad problems for my boss's friend), but he just played dumb even though he clearly had a camera in his pocket.

The whole incident ended when I (furious at this point becuase I was just trying to help him) launched myself at him, restrained his hands, and struggled with him for the camera! I finally got it out of his grasp and I handed it over to the factory owner for deletion.

As much as I didn't like it, I understand his reaction. After 1.5 weeks in a country where clearly no one trusted me, and would not even conduct business with me because of my ethnicity, I think I would be slightly pissed off also. He had reached his breaking point and didn't care anymore.

We decided to put the Chinese guys on a train today to Paris so that they can spend the rest of the trip sight-seeing in Paris. At least its a whole lot better than sitting around an office all day doing nothing!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

15 Minutes

That’s how long we were in Germany before we were nearly deported. There was a yellow “Police line, do not cross” and everything. Special units were called in. Oh, you think I am joking… alas, no, I’m not.

Ok, backing up for a second. I must say that traveling with a group of Chinese certainly has its moments. The shear torrential downpour of blog-worthy events is priceless. I don’t think I could make this stuff up if I tried.

When I arrived at the airport in Beijing to meet Aaron and the three Chinese engineers going with us I immediately noticed the large amount of luggage the group was carrying. I’ll be the first to admit that I pack extremely lightly, sometimes too much so (symptom of too many years hiking with the Boy Scouts… what you don’t bring, you don’t have to carry), but the amount of stuff that they were carrying was definitely beyond the norm, not to mention of course that it was all packed in those obligatory Chinese plastic canvas bag things. Side note: you would think with the amount that some of my ex-girlfriends would pack for a two day beach trip, (read: enough to move to a foreign country for five years) that I would be accustomed to people packing more than necessary… but no, I am not. I never understand people over packing; it just makes it more inconvenient for you. But, I digress like usual…

I questioned Aaron about the excess baggage and he told me “food”. I hoped he wasn’t being literal, but when he opened one back I knew the horrible (absolutely hysterical) truth… they had packed 2 suitcases full of food (ramen noodle, sausages, vacuum packaged fish, etc) and a WHOLE NOTHER suitcase full of water! Yes, they had a suitcase full of water bottles!!!

Even though I knew the answer before I asked, I questioned Aaron as to why, on a travel-heavy trip, they would pack what had to be an additional 50 lbs of food & water. The answer? “Water is very expensive in Europe. It costs 1 or 2 € per bottle!” Well, I guess he is right, when you compare it to the 0.10 € it costs in China. The best part that truly does defy all logic? They had to pay extra at the airport check-in for carrying too much weight! Kinda defeats the purpose is all I’m sayin’…

Ok, so after check-in, our flights were pretty uneventful. Beijing to Dubai was a good 6-7 hours. After a three hour layover, the 6 hour flight to Frankfurt was not all that welcome. Anyway, moving on, we arrived in Frankfurt, collected our bags, and too the shuttle to the train station to go to Hanover…

…when Aaron realized the bag with the video camera and two digital still cameras was missing. Retracing our steps in his mind, he decided they must have left it in our baggage cart at the shuttle stop. Aaron and I raced back to the shuttle and waited impatiently (move you geriatric bus driver!!!) as the shuttle neared Terminal 1. As we approached, I knew my worst fears had be realized. Aaron had seen how worried I was on the trip and thought I shared his worry… that they had just lost thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment (try paying for that our of your salary when you only earn $120 per month). What I hadn’t told Aaron was my primary fear what that the unattended bag would be treated as a bomb and the bomb-squad would be called in.

Traffic had been cut off from the Terminal loading area. All passengers still inside the terminal were being evacuated to the other side of the building. Police tape was being laid and the bomb squad showed up in about 30 seconds flat. Heavily armed men in flack jackets were everywhere and a small vehicle was unloading a bomb robot.

As our shuttle slowly creeped forward, I finally convinced the driver to let us off. Just as I exited the bus, the police had realized that their bomb was just some idiot leaving their bag behind, and had begun to clean up the tape. I looked over and saw the bomb squad chief holding the camera bag. Before I could say anything, Aaron said, “That’s my bag” and I suddenly found myself sheepishly trying to explain that I was traveling with a group of Chinese men, some of which had never left the country before, and we had so may bags that we accidentally had left one behind.

I can honestly say I was shocked when the handcuffs didn’t come out. I really though we would be taken somewhere and put back on a plane to China. After a very stern lecture form the captain about how expensive and disruptive false alarms like these are (damn it, Aaron, stop smiling! Try and look sorry and not just happy that you have your bag back!!) he wrote down our information and said we could be on our way.

Well, it is time to go to bed now. I am in a guesthouse in the outskirts of Hanover and am pretty stuffed. For dinner tonight I had ramen noodles with fish cakes and sausages. It was actually pretty good!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Preparing myself...

...for reverse culture shock.

Today I am flying to Europe and will be traveling around for three weeks.

Reverse culture shock? For those non-expats out there (read: people to sensible to leave the comforts of their western homes), reverse culture shock is the phenomenon where people returning to their homeland feel like things are strange and backwards. I have heard many stories of this from grizzly old expat teachers... the kind of people who haven't stepped foot in their country of citizenship since the days of the Vietnam war.

I suppose I should back up and explain "culture shock" to some of you. Sure, you have all heard the term, but do you really understand it? Do you know how to recognize the various stages of it?

When most people come to another country for an extended period of time, they go through a series of rather predictable reactions. (Oh, and to clarify, I am not talking about making the move from US to England or something equivalent... I don't care what you say, that is not culture shock. I firmly believe that culture shock is directly linked to the number of still-living organisms a culture eats in its daily cuisine) Anyhow, I digress...

Stage One - During the first stage, visitors often feel excited (OMG, you can buy DVDs for $0.60) . The new country is interesting, the people are friendly and helpful, and the future looks promising. This is called the novelty stage and affects almost everyone. You can recognize these people by the frequent number of photographs they take, particularly of funny translated signs and strange foods that they are served. It should be noted that people in this stage are often mocked by people who have further progressed into culture shock (read: insanity) and are refered to as "newbies".

Stage Two - Problems! School, language, shopping — everything is difficult. Things that were simple back home require more effort in the new country (buying milk, going to the bank, telling the prostitute who works in the hotel you're staying in that you are REALLY not interested). It seems hard to make friends, and at this point, foreign visitors may begin to believe that the local people are unfriendly (read: you become certain that the only goal in their life is to screw with you). Homesickness begins (along with that annoying tick), and along with it complaints about the new country ("God damned guy walking down the street was LOOKING at me! I mean LOOKING!!! WITH HIS DAMN EYES!!! The nerve on that guy! I hate this country!!!!). This is the stage we hear referred to as "culture shock." It is also the stage where people begin to understand how wars begin.

Stage Three - Recovery. The foreign visitor begins to use the language more fluently, so communication with locals becomes easier ("I am only looking. No, I don't want that. Please leave me alone."). Customs and traditions become clearer ("I don't really have to eat everything to be polite."), and slowly the situation passes from impossible to hopeful. Minor misunderstandings which were stressful in stage 2 become manageable.

Stage Four - Stability. Eventually foreign visitors begin to feel more at home in the new country ("What the hell is that NEW foreigner doing in MY country? Who do they think they are?"). What they do not like about their new country no longer makes them so dissatisfied and unhappy (Your leg muscles have finally gotten used to squat toilets). Life has settled down, and they are now able to find humor in the situations in which they find themselves ("...and then the taxi driver parked in the middle of the highway and started chasing the guy, leaving me stuck in the car!)

Anyway, this has been a long post and I need to wrap up (I am leaving to go to the airport in the next 5 minutes). I am hoping to see how "reverse culture shock" affects me in the next few weeks. I look forward to having plenty of good posts to write about my perceptions now that I have been in China for over one year.

Alright, gotta go! I'll post later from Hanover, Germany!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Oh, I forgot to mention

You know, it is strange. The longer you live here, the less you are amazed by things. What would totally dumbfound a newbie volunteer teacher here is old hat (Yes, that is a family of 4 on a moped) and I often fail to mention thing many of you would like to read about because it seems relatively commonplace now.

Anyway, I thought I'd add to the list of strange foods I have eaten. I didn't think there were many more to be tried for me in Yantai, but I was wrong. Last week at a dinner I had battered fried wasps (or perhaps honey bees) with a side helping of fish liver.

Great Chinese Quotes

"You know in China we say, 'In back of successful man, there is successful and intelligent woman.' But, not me. My wife is very stupid lady. She not successful. And she ugly. But is ok, she good mom."

~The owner of a stone company I had dinner with last night

Saturday, September 09, 2006

WTH Conversations Part II

Me: Hi, I would like to buy some electricty, please.
Teller: You're card does not seem to be working.
Me: Ok, I am busy now, I will come back later.

Me: Hello, this is my electicty card (actually my friend's card). I would like to buy some electricity. Here is 200 yuan.
Teller: Here you go. Please take your receipt.

Me: Hi, I was in here earlier this morning. I lied to to you and said my friend's card was mine and bought 200 RMB on it because my card it bad. It did not work. May I please have my 200 RMB back?
Teller: Ok, but you will lose 5 yuan.
Me: No problem. Can you put 200 yuan on my card? Here you go.
Teller: Your card it not working.
Me: I was here last week and it also did not work. My card is bad and I need a new one.
Teller: You don't know that! I will come with you to your house and try myself!

Teller (at my house): You have a bad electricty card and need a new one.
Me: Yes, I know. I told you that one hour ago.
Teller: Let's got to my office.

Teller: Here is a new electricty card. I have put your 200 RMB on it.
Me: Xie xie.

Me: Oh my god, its still not working... I am going to kill that teller. Driver, it is late let's got to the factory, I will do this tomorrow!!
Driver: Tomorrow is Saturday, you must wait until Monday.
Me: But I don't have enough enough electricity to last me until then!!
Driver: We will go on Monday!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

WTF Conversations - Part I

Location: Bank of China, Yantai
(almost identical to Whyguoren's post, but he had a better outcome)

Me: Hi, my ATM card is not working in the ATM machine. Can I please take some money out with it?

Teller: Yes, of course... oh, no. Sorry, this is a debit card. Debit cards will only work in the machine.

Me: Yes, but it is also a credit card. See the VISA logo? It is both.

Teller: This card will not work. It is a debit card and debit cards will only work in the machine.

Me: I know that. Please run the card as a credit card, not as a debit card. It is also a credit card and will work.

Teller: Hold on.

Manager: I am sorry, this is a debit card and will only work in the machine.

Me: It is ALSO a credit card. It is both! I can use it as a debit card OR a credit card!! Please, just try running it as a credit card and you will see I am right!!!

Manager: We cannot. Please use the machine.

WTF Conversations - Intro

As I have already mentioned a few times, and Nick at Whyguoren has pointed out, in China you often find yourself having conversations with Chinese people that just make you want to scream WTF and go bonkers like Yosemite Sam does at the end of every episode of the Bugs Bunny Show. These conversations are usually held with people who are supposed to provide you a service (hotel, bank, store, police, etc)... and they make it very clear they have no intention of doing so. At some point in the conversation, I can guarantee you will hear meiyou (don't have), bu zhidao (don't know), bu hui (cannot), or even blatently bu yao (I don't want).

Their reasons for this vary, although I believe it is often tied back to communism of 20 years ago. The book Mr. China gives a fantastic picture of what it is like to live and work here. I highly recommend you pick it up in the bookstore. It will make you laugh out loud. Anyway, the book explains how under the communist system, people got paid whether or not their business was sucessful whatsoever. In the late '80s (and still sometimes today) you could walk into an empty hotel, ask for a room, and they would tell you they are full because they don't feel like doing the work to sign you in. Why should they care if people actually stay at their hotel if they will not gain or loose anything either way?

Now, I am not saying the dingy lingering aroma of communism is always to blame. You are often given the same attitude by younger people, who are clearly too young to have been affected by the "why-should-I?" attitude that communism creates. Often it is a result of the Chinese educational system. If you grow up in a society that looks down on questioning anything, it is understandable that you will only do things exactly the way you are told to.

I know quite a few western teachers here of both English and business. When Chinese students are asked to depart from the typical rote learning they are accustomed to, actually form an opionion themselves and take a position, they are often unable to. During their entire academic lives, they have been spoon-fed information and asked to regurgitate it. There is no individual thinking, it is a group-thought mentality. So, when you ask the bank teller to do something that they CAN DO, but is a little out of her normal routine, she says that it cannot be done even though it is clear she must just think a little and realize it can be.

Anyway, I will be posting a series of posts called WTF Conversations. I will post the first one after this, but it is almost identical to the one Nick at Whyguoren posted.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Visa Woes part deux

Would you consider not being allowed to leave a police station until you pay a massive fine as being under arrest? If so, then I was under arrest by the Chinese police yesterday.

In the morning, Sophia (one of my staff) and I went to the Muping District police station to get my visa sorted out once and for all. We had gone the previous week (before my visa expired) to do this, but they sent us away with a list of forms we had to produce, many of which I was never issued in the first place. After many phone calls and running all around the city, we finally collected all of the forms we felt we needed.

It was clear from the second we walked in that the woman at the visa desk didn't like us. As Sophia was standing there, reviewing my documentation, the woman at the desk was glaring at her as if Sophia had just strangled her pet dog. You could practically see the hatred seeping out of this woman. Sure enough, when it was our turn the woman grabbed my documents, looking at each one for 2 seconds before yelling, "Wrong!" and throwing it back in our faces!

We explained to her that we had obtained every document on the list that SHE had given us just last week.

She explained to us that because my visa had expired since the last time we came in, I would not be allowed to leave the police station until I had paid a 500 yuan per day fine! 4,500 RMB is about $560 which I certainly didn't have on me, nor did I feel I should pay because we had been in the week before!

Sophia left me at the station, went back to our factory, and brough back our accountant Maurice (keep in mind, all of these names were give to our staff by my French boss, Max). If there is one thing that Maurice excels at, it is yelling at people. Within a few minutes he had caused a absolute screaming match, and I'm sitting in the corner sure that the Chinese officers are going to come barging in a formally place me under arrest and deport me!

After a few minutes of yelling, Maurice seemed to realize he had met his match. He changed his strategy and started apologizing, saying that we were entirely at fault. It is amazing how much effect giving someone a little face can have in this country. Before I knew it, the woman's temperment had completely changed and she said I could leave but we must come back later to pay the fine.

When I got back to the factory, I asked the Chinese upper management to help me. I've since been told that Lou, the Chinese president of our company, will "take care of it" and that I should not worry anymore. The fine would most likely be reduced drastically, and I will receive my visa extension.

Now, if some Italian guy named Lou in Northern Jersey told you that he would "take care of it", it would probably mean that someone was going to have some broken fingers or just disappear entirely. In this country, when someone powerful like Lou says they will "take care of it" it means that the head of the visa department will probably be treated to a banquet dinner somewhere and a KTV evening afterwards and the evil woman from the office will probably received some money at the next Chinese festival.

I was later told that the reason they gave me such a hard time was because they felt Sophia's clothing and manner was "inappropriate". Yeah, and that's a great reason to screw over a foreigner who is helping to bring significant investment to your community that will creat many jobs. That's just plain childish!

Thank you, JP

My attempt at a fresh new "Chinese" template has been a little annoying. JP has helped me fix many of the things wrong with my page, but until I get it completely the way I want it I will be reverting back to my old blue page.

Again, thanks, Jon Paul for the help. Once I work out the remaining kinks, I'll put it back up!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

New Template

So, I decided to make my blog look a little more Chinese as it is, well, a blog about living in China. I wanted something different from all of the Blogger pre-made templates, so I found a freeware template and modified it a bit. I ended up choosing red and gold colouring because in China if something is red or gold it is either considered lucky, luxurious, or important. Hopefully my blog will be one of those.

Problem is, my HTML skills just about match my Chinese conversational skills (read: a drunk monkey smashing the keyboard with a tire iron could have done better). So, some questions for those nerds... umm... I mean, HTML literate people out there.

1. How do I make my blog centered on the page again like it was before. I've scoured the code and tried changing every instance of "left" to "center" but that didn't fix it. I'm guessing something with margins, but I don't know anything about those.

2. How do I fix my description at the top of the blog? It overflows on each end and I would also like to raise the title of my blog a few pixels so that it is not on top of the symbol in the title block.

Any comments with ideas or suggestions would be appreciated!