06.30.07

Professional Recycling

Posted in Barbershop, Business 'n Economics, Fujian at 1:41 pm by Benjamin Ross

One summer when I was 10 years old, I heard a rumor at summer camp that there was a grocery store in my neighborhood which would pay cash for recycled aluminum cans. For the next 4 weeks, I collected all of the aluminum cans from fellow campers until I had nearly filled an entire garbage bag. At the end of the summer my dad took me to the grocery store. I proudly showed the clerk my bag full of cans which was nearly half my size. He told me I was a responsible little boy for caring so much about the environment, and then handed me $1.29 cash for my summer worth of can collecting.

5 years later, I started my first real job, working as a sacker in a local grocery store. I was paid $4.25 per hour, which was the minimum wage in Kansas at the time. It didn’t take me long to figure out that labor is worth more than materials in the USA.

recyclers bicycle
A professional recycler hauls the days findings through the streets in Fuzhou.

While I was working at the barber shop, three or four times per day, a middle aged man or woman would rummage through the trash can in front of the store. There was a man who would collect bottles and cans, a woman who would collect the plastic disposable cups we used to serve the customers water, and there was even a lady who would come every few days to collect all of the hair. By the end of the day, there was hardly anything left in the trash.

To a casual observer, these people might seem to be beggers. Fuzhou does have its share of panhandlers, but these are not the same people who are digging through the trash Rather, the people who collect our disgarded items are professional recyclers.

In Fuzhou, recyclers can collect .07 RMB for an aluminum can and .1 RMB for plastic bottles. At this rate, it would take about 109 aluminum cans to equal 1 US dollar. This rate is not too far off the one I was given that summer I collected cans at camp. The return is still not high, but when you consider a low-level service industry job requires 4 hours of work to earn 1 US dollar, the prospects of making a living off of recycling suddenly become more attractive. Add that China’s densely populated cities make the process of bottle collecting more efficient than they would be in the US, and it is not surprising why professional recycling is such a common profession in China.

In addition to recycling cans and bottles, professional recyclers also collect and/or buy used electronic devices, books, magazines, cardboard, CDs, and virtually anything else which at some time had value. Some of it is resold, and some is broken down for scrap. The recyclers ride their bikes through city streets with big signs placed in front of the handle bars which read 高价回收 (high price recyclying) and contain a list of items (usually household electrical appliances) which they will buy.

The future will only tell how much longer recycling will remain a profession in mainland China, and presumably as the price of labor rises, the draw to professional recycling will recede. But as barbershop workers are still making only 24 cents an hour, recycling stands to remain a viable profession for the near foreseeable future at least.


 

06.26.07

People Mountain People Sea

Posted in Society at 12:51 am by Benjamin Ross

There is a Chinese idiom (人山人海 ren2 shan1 ren2 hai3) which literally means “people mountain people sea.” The figurative meaning of this is “There are a lot of people” in a particular area. As one would guess, this idiom is used quite often in China. Every so often I like to remind myself how truly enormous the population of China is. Here’s a little statistical analysis where I ranked the world’s most populous countries, but counted each Chinese province as its own country. The listings in red are Chinese provinces. The rest are all independent nations. Statistics courtesy of wikipedia.

1 India 1,169,016,000
2 United States 302,500,000
3 Indonesia 231,627,000
4 Brazil 186,800,000
5 Pakistan 163,630,000
6 Bangladesh 158,665,000
7 Nigeria 148,093,000
8 Russia 142,499,000
9 Japan 127,720,000
10 Mexico 103,263,388
11 Henan 97,170,000
12 Shandong 91,800,000
13 Philippines 88,706,300
14 Vietnam 87,375,000
15 Sichuan 87,250,000
16 Guangdong 83,040,000
17 Germany 82,400,996
18 Ethiopia 77,127,000
19 Egypt 75,498,000
20 Turkey 74,822,000
21 Jiangsu 74,330,000
22 Iran 71,208,000
23 Hebei 68,090,000
24 Hunan 66,980,000
25 Anhui 64,610,000
26 France (including overseas France 64,102,140
27 Thailand 62,828,706
28 Congo-Kinshasa 62,636,000
29 United Kingdom 60,209,500
30 Hubei 60,160,000
31 Italy 59,093.092
32 Myanmar 48,798,000
33 South Africa 48,577,000
34 Guangxi 48,890,000
35 South Korea 48,244,000
36 Zhejiang 47,200,000
37 Ukraine 46,205,000
38 Spain 45,116,894
39 Yunnan 44,150,000
40 Jiangxi 42,840,000
41 Columbia 42,770,000
42 Liaoning 42,170,000
43 Tanzania 40,454,400
44 Argentina 39,531,000
45 Guizhou 39,040,000
46 Sudan 38,560,000
47 Heilongjiang 38,170,000
48 Poland 38,132,277
49 Kenya 37,538,000
50 Shaanxi 37,050,000
51 Fujian 35,110,000
52 Algeria 33,858,000
53 Shanxi 33,350,000
54 Canada 32,934,400
55 Morocco 31,224,000
56 Chongqing (municipality) 31,220,000
57 Uganda 30,884,000
58 Iraq 28,993,000
59 Nepal 28,196,000
60 Peru 27,903,000
61 Venezuela 27,657,000
62 Uzbekistan 27,372,000
63 Afghanistan 27,145,000
64 Malaysia 27,140,000
65 Jilin 27,090,000
66 Gansu 26,190,000
67 Saudi Arabia 24,735,000
68 Inner Mongolia 23,840,000
69 North Korea 23,790,000
70 Ghana 23,478,000

Food for thought:

-Of the 70 “countries” on this list, 23 of them are Chinese provinces.

-Henan, Shandong, Sichuan, and Guangdong all have larger populations than the most populous European state, Germany.

-Fujian has roughly the same population as Canada.

-There are 8 Chinese provinces with populations larger than France.

China is definitely people mountain people sea!


 

06.24.07

Curious English in the Capital City

Posted in Beijing, Curious English, Travel Log (Asia) at 5:09 pm by Benjamin Ross

In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has launched a campaign to rid Beijing of all improperly translated English signs and replace them with correct ones. Based on my recent trip to Beijing, it appears they still have a lot of work to do.

My parents get their first taste of curious English just outside the Forbidden City.
Once we were inside the Forbidden City, I took immediate alarm to the impending perilous hills inside.
Behold…the Perilous Hills!!!
Fortunately, there was a “way out.”
Everybody likes to get noticed from time to time, even this lonely sign at Badaling.
.
Anybody know where I can find a “help protect the railings” bumper sticker?
This shot was taken 2 years ago at Simatai, so I’m not positive whether or not it is still there. Nonetheless, it takes the cake.

note: Did anybody else notice that in the aforementioned China Daily article they misspelled “Chinglish” in the first line? Irony at its best.


 

06.22.07

I must have a chip in my ATM card which says “Give Me Fake Money!”

Posted in Business 'n Economics, Chinese Bank Rants, Personal Anecdotes at 8:51 pm by Benjamin Ross

It happened again…I was having lunch at Fuzhou’s newest (and only) Indian restaurant today, and after receiving the bill, I handed the waitress a 100 RMB note from my wallet. A few minutes later, she meandered back to my table, handed my 100 back to me, and using the typical face saving protocol kindly asked, “Do you think you could give me a different bill?”

Knowing exactly what she was implying I felt the bill in my hands. “Wow, this is definitely a fake.” I told her. “I had no idea. Sorry about that.” She smiled back at me and I gave her a new bill.

fake 100 RMB ren men bi Chinese yuan
One of these bills is real, and the other is counterfeit. Both came from ATMs.

The bill in question had come from an ATM. This is not the first time I have received fake money from an ATM in China, nor the second, nor the third. It’s the fourth time in three plus years. At this rate, the Bank of China is probably distributing more fake money per year than the Parker Brothers. The general rule of thumb in China is that if you receive fake money, you must say so before you walk away from the transaction. Otherwise, it is your own responsibility (read: fault). Therefore, it is not uncommon to have your money turned down for various reasons, even if it is real. Last week a cab driver refused to accept a 100 from me because a chunk, literally smaller than one square centimeter, was torn of one corner. On several occasions I have been the victim, or the attempted victim of hit and run fake money scams, usually involving taxi drivers with fake 50’s.

I like to group counterfeit money incidents into two groups 1) my fault and 2) not my fault. The last time I received fake money was from a Chinese fast food (快餐)joint where I was having lunch. I did not realize that the 50 RMB note they gave me as change was fake until I tried to deposit it at the bank and it was confiscated. This instance was my own fault since I accepted the bill and walked away without saying anything. This is the way things are done in China, and I am more than willing to play by the rules so long as I can use the rules to my advantage when it is appropriate.

However, I find it hard to deem myself responsible when fake currency is dispensed from a state run bank. I must add that since my last episode with fake Chinese money, a Chinese friend has clued me in on how to report it if you catch fake money coming from an ATM. Apparently if you count your money while standing in front of the ATM, and receive a fake, you can call the police from your cell phone. If you do not move away from the ATM until the police come, the security camera images will then provide ample proof that your counterfeit currency came from that particular ATM. This seems like a feasible solution assuming there isn’t a crowd of people waiting behind you to use the same ATM. In a country of 1.3 billion people, this is rarely the case. Personally, I have no problem examining my currency whenever I am handed change from an individual, but I do not think I am out of line when saying that this step should not be necessary when using state run banks’ ATMs.

However, the most annoying part is not the fake money itself, but the fact that no Chinese people believe me that a Bank of China ATM could give me fake money, even though it has happened 4 times now (counting one from the Agriculture bank) in 3 plus years. “That is impossible.” “Counterfeit money doesn’t come from banks.” “Somebody must have given that to you.” “You are a foreigner, you just don’t know the difference.” These are the kinds of responses I get. The reason I am positive all of these fake notes come from ATMs is that 95% of all the 100’s I use come from ATMs. There is no bill larger than the 100. I usually go to the ATM, withdraw 800 RMB (since it is mentally like 100 U.S. dollars), and then break those 100’s down into change as I buy things. Whereas fake 50’s often come from change, this is impossible with a 100, since it is the largest denomination of Chinese currency. Every time I have received a fake 100, I have traced it back to an ATM.

I doubt that Chinese ATM’s are sophisticated enough to dispense disproportionate amounts of fake currency to foreigners, but you never know. Has anybody else been getting fake money from ATM’s lately or have even the ATM’s now been trained to specifically rip off the lao wai?


 

06.21.07

Competition Around the Block

Posted in Barbershop, Business 'n Economics at 11:43 am by Benjamin Ross

Last week I went with my friend Mary to get her hair cut and help her translate. The barber shop she wanted to go to was a new one located just a block away from Mr. Zheng’s barber shop where I had worked for a month. From my first step inside I could tell that this new barber shop was far ahead of ours in terms of ambiance. The walls were decorated in a modern black, red, and white motif, and there were live plants placed around the shop’s perimeter, adding to the modern look and feel. The hair wash beds and barber chairs were of higher quality than those in our shop and appropriately matched the walls and decorations. But what stuck out more than anything was a row of brand new computers with LCD monitors set off to the side of the store. Sitting in front of the computers were customers gleefully enjoying a game of counterstrike or chatting on QQ as they had their hair washed.

Mary enjoys a pre-cut massage as she checks her e-mail.

For me, this is the perfect answer for a problem I have long had with Chinese haircuts and hair washes…they take too damn long. Put me in front of a computer with Internet, and suddenly sitting in a barber shop for an hour becomes a lot more appealing.

But what was the most striking of all was the price. A hair wash was 15 RMB, (as opposed to 12 RMB at my shop), but the price of a hair cut was exactly the same, 30 RMB. Had I been a regular customer, and not had any allegiance to my former employer, it is likely I would never go back to Mr. Zheng’s shop again. The new shop was clearly a better atmosphere, and with the added bonus of computers there would be no turning back.

This should spark some concern for Mr. Zheng as his shop is already competing with four other barber shops on the block. As China transitions to a market economy, competition has been rapidly transforming the way Chinese businesses operate. In some sectors, this change has been slow, but in the hairstyling industry, the competition has been vicious, with the result being high standards of service and tight margins for improvement.

I remember one conversation I had with Cheng Qing in which he told me, “There are three factors which will determine the success of a barber shop. First is the ability and technique of the barber, this is 30%. Then there is the service: How friendly are the little brothers and sisters? Is the barber pleasant to be around? etc. This is another 30%. Finally there is the environment in the store. This is accounts for 40%.” If Cheng Qing’s words are accurate, then Mr. Zheng will have a difficult time competing with this new store, regardless of how talented his barbers are.

Young customers battle through levels of Counterstrike as their scalps are massaged by little brothers.

Unlike many other sectors of the Chinese service industry, most hair salons (in Fuzhou at least) provide excellent service. In my time working in the barber shop, I never once saw an employee take any action towards a customer which I would consider rude by either Western or Chinese standards. This is absolutely not the case with Chinese hotels and especially restaurants where staff are often negligent at best.

When Mr. Zheng asked me to give a speech about service standards in American barbershops and how our shop could improve based on the American model, I was at a loss for content. If I had been working in a restaurant, I could have easily spoken for hours: come back to tables to check on customers, don’t hustle customers when they are ordering food, memorize the contents of every dish on the menu, smile once or twice a day, et cetera. While this may not be the case in cheaper barber shops, I can honestly say that the service in our shop (which is considered mid-level) is equal if not better than what you would get in the United States.

With competition having already driven up service standards, and the negligible difference in barber’s abilities (I still do not even believe the 30 RMB barbers are any better than the 10 RMB barbers) the only option left is to innovate. Without any innovation of their own such as in-store computers, I see a bleak future for shops like Mr. Zheng’s.


 

06.20.07

Which Wall is Greater? Si Ma Tai vs. Ba Da Ling

Posted in Beijing, Travel Log (Asia) at 9:57 am by Benjamin Ross

The Great Wall is unique. Of the various tourist attractions I have seen around the world, the Great Wall is one of the very few for which I had high expectations, and I walked away feeling my expectations had been met. The only other place I can think of like this is the Grand Canyon. In terms of Chinese tourist attractions, I believe even the Forbidden City and especially the Terracotta Army in Xi’an all pale in comparison to the world’s largest security system ever built.

This past week, I took my parents to visit the Great Wall. When I first visited the Great Wall in 2005, I went to Si Ma Tai which is 3 hours outside of Beijing. This time I took my parents to Badaling. Here are some pictures to compare the two.

For the most part, Si Ma Tai has been left untouched by restoration efforts.
Badaling has been restored to look all spiffy and new. They even have cool Ming Dynasty security cameras on top of the towers.
The Wall at Simatai has been left to fend against the forces of nature.
At Badaling, nature has been cleared away to make room for droves of tourists who visit daily.
At Simatai you can meet locals like this old Chinese farmer.
At Badaling you can meet Korean tourists dressed up in Chinese monk outfits and rice paddy hats.
Here’s a long view of the Wall at Simatai
…and a similar one from Badaling, check out the cool ski lift!
Simatai was peaceful and quiet. I felt all alone with the Wall.
Badaling was…well…let’s just say I didn’t have to look too hard to find an “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt.

For more pictures from Simatai click here.


 

06.15.07

When a cell phone is more than just a cell phone

Posted in Barbershop at 9:14 pm by Benjamin Ross

Xiao Jing is a little brother in my barber shop. He is 20 years old, and has been working in the shop for almost 2 years. According to Mr. Zheng, he is one of the customers’ favorite little brothers. He has excellent hair washing and massage technique, and customers enjoy his personality. But when Xiao Jing is not busy with customers, he is busy with his Sony Ericson cell phone. I often see Xiao Jing bouncing around the shop taking pictures and videos of other employees with the 2 mega pixel camera on his phone. When he’s not taking pictures, he’s playing games or sending text messages. Xiao Jing bought his phone last year and it cost him 1800 RMB (approx $220 USD). This may not seem too expensive at first, but when you consider his monthly salary fluctuates between 800-1000 RMB, this means that he had to spend an entire 2 months salary, just to buy the cell phone (not including talk time). That’s 1/6 of his annual income!

Johnny and Xiao Fang watch on as Adamum battles to the next level of Jet Wars.

Xiao Jing is not atypical. Every single employee in the shop owns a cell phone, except for Johnny who accidentally ran his through the washing machine. Most of their phones cost about the same as Xiao Jing’s. My phone, which cost me 800 RMB, is by far the cheapest of any of the employees.

The fact that non-wealthy Chinese people will spend so much money on a cell phone used to strike me as odd. Sure, there is a status element to it, but working class Chinese people have always struck me as too practical to buy an expensive gadget just to show it off.

As I mentioned before, my phone cost me 800 RMB. It is a Chinese brand, and comes with most of the same features you would get in an expensive foreign model. When I bought it, I bought it for two reasons: Make phone calls and send text messages. I wanted to buy the simplest and thinnest phone I could find, and it just so happened that it had a whole slew of features I never planned to use.

However, in this past month I have customized my ring tones, mastered the puzzle game, sent over one thousand text messages, reorganized my phone book, taken pictures of all my coworkers, associated those pictures with their profiles on my phone, and loaded my phone’s SIM card with a collection of new Chinese songs recommended by my coworkers to listen to on the phone’s MP3 player. Working in the barber shop, I probably spent more time in front of my cell phone per day than my computer.

Cheng Qing and Xiao Xie also pass their idle work time on their handheld entertainment centers.

What I have learned from a month in a Chinese barber shop is that a cell phone takes on whole new set of functionality when you work a job which requires you to sit around on your ass for 3 to 5 hours per day. When you look at this as 90 to 150 hours per month of downtime, suddenly spending 1800 RMB on a cell phone starts to make a lot more sense.

With China’s massive labor pool, many of whom work jobs with considerable down time, it is no wonder that the world’s cell phone manufacturers have gone to such great lengths to target the Chinese market. Buying a cell phone in China is almost like buying a car in the US. There are literally thousands of models to choose from coming from a multitude of brand names, and even some illegally made phones with no brand at all. In addition to functionality Chinese consumers also judge a phone based on its aesthetic values.

During my third week at the barber shop, Xiao Xia purchased a new Nokia phone for around 2000 RMB. While the phone came equipped with numerous state of the art features, the first comments out of other employees’ mouths were “啊很漂亮” or “oh, it’s so beautiful.” Most of the employees at the barber shop have very few possessions. Many of them have only 3 or 4 sets of clothes, and their phone provides them with a unique chance at self-expression of personal tastes. Calling a cell phone beautiful sounds odd to Western ears where most of our adjectives relating to our handheld devices deal with functionality and form factor. Yet in China, a cell phone is not just a cell phone. It is entertainment for 3 hours a day. It is a fashion accessory, and an expression of one’s own tastes. Sound similar to how we buy cars in the West? That’s because it is. In 3 years in China, I have never owned a cell phone which cost more than 800 RMB. However the longer I worked at the barber shop, the more I found myself itching to pick up the latest Nokia 3000 RMB pocket dragon. Now if you don’t mind…I have puzzles to get back to.


 

06.14.07

Attack of the Chinese Phone Bomb

Posted in Culture Clash at 8:16 pm by Benjamin Ross

note: I wrote this piece with a small dose of anger and several large helpings of humor (hopefully) and sarcasm…please try not to take me too overly serious on this one.

Whether it’s the spitting, the bones in the fish, the public urination, or the “beefsteaks” with fried eggs and macaroni, Westerners on the whole have a lot of grievances about daily life in China. In my time in China, I feel I can honestly say that one of my personal proudest accomplishments has been coming to terms with most of these “annoyances” and being able to either dismiss them as culture difference or to attribute them to the hyper-sensitivity inherent in my own native culture. I have also tried as much as possible to prevent this site from becoming another “Oh my God, I can’t believe the Chinese (insert specific behavior)” blog, which there are already enough of out there..

All that being said, there is one habit of my Chinese brethren which still drives me bananas, and which I have yet to find some kind of sociological or economic reason to justify. And this habit is the very reason I am awake right now writing this entry.

As you might already know, my parents are in China right now. For several completely unrelated reasons I have slept an average of 4 hours the past 4 nights. My parents, due to their jet lag are quite exhausted as well. After a day at the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, we all decided to go back to the hotel and retire for a late afternoon nap. An hour and a half later my cell phone rang. I was not expecting a call from anybody, plus I’m on vacation, so I just let it ring, figuring I would catch some more much needed sleep, and call whoever it was back when I woke up. After about 20 rings, the phone subsided…ahh, back to sleep in my comfy, comfy hotel bed….But No!!! One minute later the phone starts ringing again. Knowing if I got up to see who it was I would not be able to return to sleep, I lay in bed, trying to block out the racket of the unanswered call. Again, after twenty or so rings, it subsided. And then sure enough, just as I was regaining some hope of getting back to sleep the phone rings…AGAIN! I get up, check the call history, and sure enough it is the same person who has called me three times in a row! Is this really necessary??? This is not an isolated incident. It usually happens two or three times a week, usually when I am alseep, and the culprit is always a Chinese caller.

Ok, now before I get really angry and turn this into another merciless China bashing post, let’s backtrack and lay down some facts for those of you who have never lived in the Middle Kingdom. Firstly, cell phone and cell phone technology are neither new nor uncommon in Chinese urban areas. 99% of the Chinese people over the age of 18 whom I have ever associated with own cell phones. (Those who don’t are primarily rural people, who would have no reason to call a 6 foot Jewish honkie from the Bible Belt anyway). I have never seen a cellular phone in China which did not have caller ID and a call history. In other words, WHENEVER I MISS A CALL, I KNOW EXACTLY WHO WAS TRYING TO REACH ME AND CAN CALL THEM BACK AS SOON AS IT IS CONVENIENT. In case you are wondering, I did not accidentally hit the caps lock key. I am authentically on the verge of (defecating) a brick.

Secondly, and maybe I am the oddball here, but there certainly are times during my day when I absolutely do not want to answer the phone, period. These occur mainly when I am sleeping, in the middle of a meeting, playing basketball, having what Bill Clinton might refer to as “relations,” or doing any one of a number of activities which I consider more important than blabbing away into my portable digital leash. If I sound bitter and nostalgic for the good ‘ol days before no one toted cell phones except professional athletes and drug dealers, that’s because I am.

So…here is my question. If you call me once, and I don’t answer…why, why, why must you keep calling me again and again ad museum until I pick up??? Why is your phone call so important that I must answer it immediately or else get phone bombed for the next 5 minutes? Are you afraid I will not know you called? That my caller ID has suddenly malfunctioned? That a cell phone virus has destroyed the remaining remnants of my call history?

One minor reason might be that in China, nobody uses voice mail. While I do find this a bit strange, I have come to accept it and adapt, especially with the assistance of a brilliant and far less intrusive technology known as text messaging. Unlike voice mail, text messaging is quite common in China, probably even more so than it is in the US. If I don’t answer the phone, why not send me a text? What could it possibly accomplish, other than annoying the (excrement) out of me by calling back over and over?

So here is my suggestion. Call me once, any time, any day, anywhere. I might be annoyed to be woken up in the middle of the night, but I can live with a single call. If I don’t answer, you have one of two options. If you are the very patient type, just hang tight. As soon as I return to my cell phone (which like most homo sapiens usually occurs in intervals no less than every 5 minutes) I will see you have called me and call you back as soon as I can. Or if you are of the impatient stock (i.e. yours truly), or if your call is of an urgent nature, send me a TEXT MESSAGE. Tell me what the issue is or any other pertinent information. I will gladly contact you back. If somebody is dead, has contracted Ebola, or has been run over by a bus, please call me repeatedly until I answer. Otherwise, ONE CALL IS ENOUGH!!! Alright, I’m going to try to get back to sleep.


 

Big Brother is Watching

Posted in Announcements, Travel Log (Asia) at 12:57 am by Benjamin Ross

The past two days some of you in China may have had some trouble accessing the comments in my last post about ba guan (Chinese fire cupping). After being shut out myself, I finally was able to track the source of the problem down to a particular comment which contained one sentence, written in jest, but which was blatantly in violation of umm…well…let’s say proper Internet conduct for mainland China. The comment has since been deleted, which in itself was a hassle, since I could not do it from within China, and everything should be working ok now. The true irony of the situation is that I was trying to delete the comment myself but could not even access the page I needed to make the necessary changes..

Now I am not trying to spark a political debate, but please, please, please for the sake of me not getting my site blocked by the Great Firewall of China, do not leave anything in the comments section which is overtly negative about the ruling Chinese authorities. If you have any questions about this, feel free to e-mail (bensinchina at yahoo dot com) and I will gladly clarify.

One of my favorite things about writing this blog is reading all of the insightful comments that people leave, and I by no means want to sway people away from commenting. The individual who is responsible for the comment in question has since been notified, so in case you’re worried, it’s not you.

In the meantime, I just got into Beijing this afternoon to pick up the parents. They have not been outside of North America since the Nixon administration, so shuffling them around China for two weeks should be a nice little adventure. We will be checking out the tourist attractions in Beijing for the next few days and then next week heading down to Fujian, where I plan to introduce them to Mr. Zheng and crew at the barber shop, not to mention temporarily doubling the Jewish population of Fuzhou. Hopefully will provide for some interesting blog material in the coming weeks.


 

06.11.07

Ba Guan, Chinese Fire Cupping (拔罐)

Posted in Barbershop, Health and Medicine at 4:45 pm by Benjamin Ross

On my second to last night in the barbershop, I was giving a massage to one of our regular customers who is a good friend of Mr. Zheng. She asked me to pull down her shirt a bit in back, and have a look. There was a long red scar going down her back. “It’s from gua sha. Have you ever had one?” she said.

Gua sha (刮痧) is a Chinese medical treatment in which a smooth edge is rubbed up and down the back after applying a lubricant. The result is a red bruise which makes the recipient look like a torture victim. Last week I had seen Xiao Wang perform an amateur gua sha on Adamum in the store, and insisted I would never get one no matter how good it felt.

“No, I’ve never tried gua sha. How was it?” I replied to the woman.

“It’s great. You really should try it sometime. What about ba guan?” she asked.

Xiao Wang gives an in-store gua sha to Adamum

Ba guan (拔罐) also known as “fire cupping,” is another Chinese medical treatment in which a vacuum is created by fire in glass cups which are placed on the patients back. The resulting suction is believed to cleanse toxins, and also provide treatment to diseases such as pneumonia and the common cold. If you have ever seen people in China with large circular purple bruises on their back, this is what it is from.

“I haven’t tried that either.”

“Wanna try?” she asked. By this time Mr. Zheng was listening in on our conversation. “How about I take both of you out to the sauna after work and you can try it out,” she continued.

Now up until this point, I had been steering away from any activity or benefits which might separate me from the other employees, but I must admit I was also quite interested to try out ba guan for myself.

“Sure, why not. Let’s do it,” I told her. By this time, several of my coworkers had been listening in, and began questioning if me if I really thought I could go through with it. Chinese medicine has a reputation for pain and bad tastes, and foreigners (probably rightly so) are often perceived as not being able to take it. Putting on an arrogant air of machoness, I told them I could take the pain and would come back the next day with the scars to prove it.

The plate of glass cups which will momentarily be heated and placed on my back.

The woman drove Mr. Zheng and I to a sauna near the barber shop. Like any Chinese sauna, the men and women have to separate and you go into a locker room where you are followed by a little Chinese guy wearing a tuxedo top who stands next to you as you strip down naked. After you take a shower he hands you the sauna clothes, a loose-fitting pajama-like garment which comes in a top and a bottom.

After we took a shower and put on our sauna clothes, Mr. Zheng and I were led into a massage room. Mr. Zheng had opted out of the ba guan, and instead ordered a massage. A few minutes later, a young girl came in and began massaging Mr. Zheng’s back. I must add that the thought of having a massage is ten times more appealing after you have spent the day massaging other people. But I had chosen my destiny, and it was too late to back out now. Just then, my server walked in the door. But instead of a cute little massage girl, it was a young guy with a full plate of glass cups and metal tongs. Let’s call him Frank out of convenience.

Frank gets everything prepared…Do they use these kinds of tools in Western medicine?

“Just tell me if it’s uncomfortable,” he said which is Chinese for “This is going to hurt like hell.”

Mr. Zheng confirmed with me once more that I really wanted to go through with the process, and fearing the embarrassment of having come this far only to return to the barber shop the following day without a back looking like a detainee at a torture camp, I decided to proceed.

The massage bed had a hole for the head, so I lay face down, with my head in the hole, and could not see anything which was going on. First Frank applied an ointment or lubricant to my back. After this, I began to feel the suction of one of the cups on my back. The suction is created by a flame which is ignited inside the cups before they are applied, so when the cup was applied to my back it was still hot, but not hot enough to be uncomfortable. I could feel the flesh being sucked up in the cup, when all of a sudden…”pop.” He pulled it up. The process was then repeated over and over again. A hot cup was placed on different spots on my back, and then removed a few seconds later, providing a rhythm of “pop’s” up and down my backside. After about five minutes of this, I began to feel a hot scraping on my back. It felt as if somebody was running a smooth stone down my back and scraping off the skin, although not quite that painful. At this point, I did have to chicken out and ask Frank to stop. I still have no idea what he was actually doing, as the whole time my face was stuck face down in the head hole in the bed. As Frank moved on to the final stage, I could hear the hot flame igniting the cups as one by one he placed each of the hot cups in different points along my back. After ten minutes, my entire back was covered in hot cups, all simultaneously sucking upwards on my back skin. It was a little awkward, slightly painful, but one of the more relaxing sensations I have ever experienced. Generally speaking, I do not take pain too well, and I am not a masochist, but the pain on my back actually felt good. I lay face down on the bed, with my back being sucked up by the hot cups for ten minutes before Frank came back to remove them pop by pop.

My back is completely covered in glass cups.

“Don’t take a shower for the next 12 hours, and if it itches, it is best not to scratch it,” he told me as he removed the cups. After we were finished, Mr. Zheng and I went back to the locker room, where the first thing I did was look at my back in the mirror. I had done the ba guan, my body felt great, and I had the large circular red scars on my back to prove it to my coworkers. From what I had heard they would be turning purple within the next day or two.

The cost of the service was 40 RMB, though I have heard it is cheaper if done at a more rustic venue. Although my understanding of ba guan and Chinese medicine as a whole is quite limited, I would recommend ba guan to anybody who is interested in trying something new. (And if anybody out there is more familiar with Chinese medicine, and can elaborate on ba guan’s effects that would be great). Although the effects were nothing extraordinary, my back felt great afterwards, and it was not nearly as painful as it looks from the pictures.

After the cups are removed, I am left with these lovely bruises. This shot could really freak out a mother if not placed into context, eh?

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