10.29.08

Barack Obama Targeting Chinese Voters?

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Translations at 8:32 pm by Benjamin Ross

During a routine walk through Chinatown today, I noticed that (like most neighborhoods in Chicago these days) the streetscape was blanketed with Barack Obama signage.  Chinese Americans are not usually viewed as a critical voting bloc, but apparently the Obama camp thought they were significant enough to put out this poster.

Barack Obama Poster in Chinese

It reads:

Please cast a vote for Obama
Strong Reforms
Lower taxes, more benefits
Whole-heartedly save the economy

Regardless whether or not Barry O. can garner the Chinese vote, his hold on the state of Illinois is a formidable force not to be reckoned with.  My own guess is that the sign is not targeted at Chinese American voters, but rather at “regular” Americans, as if to say “Look, Obama is multi-cultural.  He even attracts the Chinese.”  As for me, the sign had no effect.  I sent in my ballot last week.

伟大的导师,伟大的统帅  伟大的领袖, 伟大的舵手

奥巴马万岁,万岁, 万万岁!

*Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom does not give explicit endorsements to any candidate or political party.  However, you are encouraged to give deep, thoughtful consideration to any candidate who may have a mother from Kansas.


 

10.20.08

To Fuqing and Back…我的中国老家

Posted in Fujian, Travel Log (Asia) at 7:44 pm by Benjamin Ross

For those of you who have followed my blog since its inception, you probably remember when I lived in Fuzhou.  In posts, I often cite that I lived in Fuzhou for 3 years, but this is not completely accurate.  In fact, my first 15 months in the Middle Kingdom were spent in a town called Fuqing, a county-level city (县级市) under the jurisdiction of Fuzhou, but an hour outside of the city proper.  This past summer, I spent 6 days in Fuzhou which included two day-trips back to Fuqing.  Here are some pictures I took to give you a little taste of my adopted Chinese 老家.

In terms of size and city layout, Fuqing is very typical Chinese city, containing a population of several hundred thousand people cramped into an area which can be traversed by bicycle in about twenty minutes.
My original reasons for going to China were to experience a foreign culture (and learn its language) in a developing country, and do so by being completely isolated from my own.  When I first arrived in Fuqing in March of 2004, I did not see another white person for my first three months.  Today still, the sight of a foreigner is uncommon on the streets of Fuqing, and bound to draw attention.
Fuqing is dysected by the 龙江 (Dragon River) and several bridges connect the old downtown (background) to the new downtown and surrounding areas.  The building seen here is the 天河酒店 (tian1 he2 jiu2 dian4), a hotel/restaurant/KTV which is the tallest building in town.
Up until about 2005, this is what most of Fuqing’s housing stock looked like, rows and rows and rows of the infamous bathroom tile style buildings.
This is the infamous ICBC branch which formerly had frozen my assets.  For all the flack I give ICBC, the one thing they are good is managing to open a branch in every single imaginable stretch of civilization across the Middle Kingdom.  I’ve never looked this up, but I would not be surprised if ICBC had more branches than any other bank in the world.
At the center of Fuqing is 街心公园 (jie1 xin1 gong1 yuan2), which translates romantically into English as “Street Center Park.”  As is the case of central parks/squares in many small Chinese cities, 街心公园  serves as a community center for many of the locals, especially the elderly.  When weather conditions are favorable, crowds gather in the park to play card games or Chinese chess, smack around a shuttlecock, sell items ranging from remote-control cars to kitchen utensils, or just chat and enjoy the sun shade.  It’s the place to go to have your shoes shined, bust out the megaphone and promote your new product or service to the masses, or simply to catch up on the latest gossip and people-watch.街心公园 will always bear a special significance to me as my de facto Chinese classroom.  For the better part of 15 months, I would spend 3 or 4 afternnoons per week hanging out in the park and conversing with the locals.  The beauty of this arrangement was its symbiosis.  Most elderly Fuqingers can probably count on one hand the number of Westerners they have encountered throughout the course of their entire lives.  Chances are, even if they have seen Westerners, they had never had the opportunity (nor the ability) to communicate with them.  Therefore, the sight of me chatting with a random local would often draw a small crowd to eavesdrop on our conversation.  Before I knew it, I would often be surrounded by a mob of Chinese senior citizens, eager to ask me all sorts of personal questions about my job, my salary, George W. Bush, how many Chinese women I had slept with, etc.

Under normal conditions, this would have been quite an annoying situation.  But since my main goal was practicing the language, and their main goal was drawing as much information out of Whitey McForeigner as possible, it was the perfect match.  To this day, I can still objectively point to afternoons at 街心公园 as my most valuable Chinese language training.  And as a side note, I usually didn’t respond to the sexual inquiries.

Speaking of Whitey McForeigner, 街心公园 also sits adjacent to Fuqing’s one and only McDonald’s.  Like most single-McDonald’s towns in China, Fuqing’s McD’s is located right smack dab in the middle of the downtown.  It’s on the second floor of one of Fuqing’s most expensive pieces of commercial real estate.  McDonald’s is one of Fuqing’s hipper establishments, especially for youth, and a common spot for dates and social gatherings.
No introduction to Fuqing would be complete without a thorough disclosure of the 福清光饼 (fu2 qing1 guang1 bing3).  While there are countless bread creations across the Middle Kingdom referred to as 光饼, Fuqing’s 光饼 are distinct in their hardness…typically not a quality sought after in bread.
In and of themselves 光饼 are nothing to write home about.  However, it’s what is put inside them that make them so unique, and mouthwateringly delicious.  Jokingly referred to as the 福清汉堡包 (Fuqing hamburger), the 光饼夹 (guang1 bing3 jia1) is a sandwich created by slicing the 光饼 in half, and filling it with marinated pork and tofu.  Hot sauce is optional, and highly recommended by yours truly.  The 光饼夹 is possibly the tastiest street food concoction I have ever encountered anywhere in the Middle Kingdom. This is a distinction I do not throw around casually.
光饼夹 cost only 1 RMB each (approx 15 cents USD), and they can ONLY be bought in Fuqing.  There are vendors in Fuzhou who sell what they claim to be Fuqing 光饼夹, but in fact they are the 光饼夹 from another town called Jian’ou, and are completely different from (and disappointingly inferior to) the Fuqing ones.  To find the real 光饼夹, simply go to 街心公园, and look for elderly countryside women seated near over-shoulder baskets with the 光饼 in one, the pork/tofu/spice goodness in the other  (see picture above).  Unless it is raining (or an Olympic Opening Ceremony is taking place on Chines soil) they will always be there.
Fuqing is only 15 miles from the Taiwan Strait, and thus its topography is full of small rivers, creeks, and canals.  The coast near Fuqing has bountiful stone deposits, and thus nearly all buildings (like these pictured above) are constructed from stone or concrete.
One benefit of living in Southern China as opposed to the North is that air pollution is much less severe.  To be fair, I took these pictures on a day which was extrordinarly clear for Fuqing.  Even so, on an average day in any town of Fujian, the air quality would be much, much cleaner than an average day in say, Henan or Hebei.
An additional benefit of living in a small town (this goes for North and South) is that cost of living is cheap…dirt cheap!  Cab fare to anywhere within Fuqing city limits is 6 RMB (approx 90 cents USD).  It was 5 RMB when I lived there.  And due to Fuqing’s dearth of nightlife and quality dining, it is virtually impossible to spend much money, even if you tried.  That is, unless you are one of the locals who wear Japanese designer clothes and live in luxurious 6 story mansions.  Due to its large contingent of residents working in kitchens of Chinese restaurants abroad, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the recent boom in Fujian’s export market, Fuqing’s people have amassed enormous amounts of personal wealth over the past two decades.
The funny thing about Fuqing however is that after taking a casual stroll through the city, one would never realize it was one of the wealthiest cities in China.  Since much of the Fuqing elite’s income comes from graft, undocumented international employment, and other mischievous means, the city itself is not nearly as wealthy as the people whom it governs.  This is quite apparent by examining the public infrastructure, especially in contrast to the private homes which it supports.
Back when I lived in Fuqing, it’s most heinous eyesore was probably the Dragon River itself.  With its stench of feces, endless flow of trash, layer of industrial oil floating on the surface, and complete lack of fish or any other livng aquatic creatures, I had never seen a more polluted body of water in my life before.
However, since the time I left, a massive cleanup effort has been undertaken by the city government, and the Dragon River is actually starting to look like…well…a river again!
In addition, much of the infrastructure around the river is being replaced as well.  That tall structure in the background is a pagoda from the Ming Dynasty, one of the very few standing relics of Fuqing’s past.  I am assuming it won’t be torn down in the latest wave of construction.
Another one of Fuqing’s older structures (although not nearly as old as the pagoda) is the Min Opera House which like most of Fuqing, also sits on the bank of the Dragon River.  At the Opera House are regular live performances of 闽剧 (Fujian Opera).  The performances are all done in the local dialect with a flashing sign off to the side of the stage displaying subtitles in Chinese characters.  Even if you can’t understand what is said, it is still worth stepping in for a few minutes to check out a performance.  You can usually hear them from across the river as well.
 
 
Throughout the time I lived in Fuqing the downtown area was always the center of daily life and commerce.
 
 
However, during the time I lived in Fuzhou (05-07), the Fuqing city government began rapidly developing an entirely new downtown on the other side of the Dragon River, to the west of the old one.
If there is one thing that China can do better than anyone, it’s rapidly throw up new buildings.  This patch of real estate went from farmland to high-rise mega-commercial development in a period of less than 12 months.  It was also given the Chinglishly hilarious official English name “Long Wang Great Town,” translated from 龙旺名城.
Sites like Long Wang Great Town were nowhere to be seen in Fuqing when I first arrived.  Keep in mind, that was only four years ago.  My recent trip back to Fuqing underscored the fact that you don’t have to live in China very long before you begin to notice drastic changes in the landscape and architecture of familiar areas.  Contrast that to the neighborhood where I grew up in Overland Park, KS, which looks virtually identical now as to how it looked when I my family moved there in 1985.

Of all the various locales I have visited in the Middle Kingdom, none will ever have the same personal significance as my first Chinese stomping grounds.  Fuqing is generally not viewed as a desirable destination in the eyes of Chinese from other cities and provinces.  Most of my students at the university where I worked would tell me that Fuqing was dirty, ugly, boring, and that the people were rude and uncivilized.  I was frequently informed by cab drivers that out of the thousands of Chinese cities, I was stupid for choosing to live in Fuqing.  One student even told me that when her parents dropped her off her freshman year, she cried at the first sight of downtown.  But for me, this is exactly why I loved Fuqing.  There was nothing whatsoever which would have attracted anyone to travel there without reason.  To me it was a beautifully intact Chinese city, completely spared from the effects of tourism and large-scale Western influence, the perfect spot to begin my journey through the Middle Kingdom.


 

10.13.08

Glad to be back in America

Posted in Random Goofiness, Society at 7:48 am by Benjamin Ross

As interesting as life can be in the Middle Kingdom, it’s scenes like this that remind me why I love the good ol’ US of A.


 

10.11.08

More Scuffles with the Bank, Part 4: My ‘Happy Ending’

Posted in Chinese Bank Rants at 5:41 am by Benjamin Ross

cont’d from More Scuffles with the Bank, Part 3:  Assets still Frozen, Hope on the Horizon

A recent e-mail from a reader (thanks Evelyn) alerted me to the fact that I never concluded the story of my latest ongoing feud with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).  Well, the reason why I forgot to wrap things up is that surprisingly, the situation resolved itself quite smoothly.  After the seven day waiting period, Da Sen was able to withdraw my money in Fuqing, and then transfer it to my new ICBC account in Beijing.  I was able to withdraw it, and use the funds to pay for most of my trip to Jinan, Qufu, and Qingdao.  (1500 RMB, roughly $200 USD goes a long way in the Middle Kingdom).

What I learned from the whole endeavor is that when a banking conflict arises in China, more often than not, you will get your money in the end.  However, the amount of aggravation and bureaucracy you have to deal with is often so much that it makes you question whether or not it was even worth wasting your time on in the first place.  At a standard laowai rental/tutor rate of 150 RMB/hr, I probably would have been better off allotting the time I spent on getting my money back to working an hourly job.  Of course, things would be quite different had it been a considerably larger sum of money in question.

Another thing I learned, or should probably say already knew but was reinforced, is that Chinese banks (and institutions as a whole) tend to err on the side of over-security.  Over-security to the point that it’s often the rightful owner who is locked out, rather than a potential thief.  I have made this same observation several times when logging on to Chinese websites as well, which often require a far greater deal of verification for password retrieval than their American counterparts.  More often than not, you end up having to set up a new account (I must have at least 3 Tianya accounts by now).

But most importantly, in these times of great financial crises, rest assured your money is safe and secure within the confines of the Chinese banking system.  You just may never be able to get it out in the event you make one small mistake.


 

10.10.08

Homeland Security Update

Posted in Announcements at 1:55 am by Benjamin Ross

I hate spam!…as I am sure most of you do too.  However, over the years it has become an annoyance which I have come to accept and realize that I am just going to have to deal with it.  For those of you who are also blogers as well, you know how intrusive spam can feel when it is your own blog (not just your inbox) which is affected.

For the first few months of it’s existence, Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom chugged on with just one or two spam comments per day.  About four months into the endeavor, the penile enlargement vendors and mortgage brokers of the world came to the realization that my humble blog was an ideal vehicle to transmit their own messages.  The spam picked up to the point where I was regularly receiving and deleting 20-30 spam comments per day.  The pace gradually increased until this summer when I was having to remove a solid 100 spam comments per day, still annoying, but manageable.  About a week ago, this number abruptly exploded to the point where I was pushing 500 per day, and moderating comments was becoming a serious drain on my spare time.

Now the real problem with all the spam is not just that it wastes my time.  More importantly, during the process of moderating all of the comments (99.5% of which are typically spam) there is always the possibility that I may accidentally delete a legitimate comment.  I am sure this has happened on several occasions.  So to alleviate this problem I have implemented a plug-in which will now require you to enter a word from a graphic every time you leave a comment.  This is to ensure that you are in fact you, and not a robot from Bahrain trying to solicit ‘male enhancement’ supplements.

Personally, I have always found these extra spam protection mechanisms to be quite annoying, and in cases when they have malfunctioned, they have precluded me from leaving comments on others’ blogs.  So I want to go ahead and apologize (ironic I’m doing this on Yom Kippur, eh?) for any inconvenience or annoyance this causes to potential commenters.  If anybody has any problems with the new system, please e-mail me at bensinchina at yahoo dot com to let me know.  Likewise, if it seems to be working properly, leave a comment below to test it out.  The last thing I want is for this extra splash of homeland security to prevent you from leaving your comments.  To all those who are fasting (but apparently still using their computers), may you have a meaningful fast.  To everybody else, enjoy your full three meals.  By the way, I am curious if anybody knows of any endemic traditions of fasting (outside of the monastic order) in the Middle Kingdom?  Whenever I have explained Yom Kippur to Chinese friends, they are baffled by the precept of not eating for an entire 24 hours.


 

10.03.08

Caption/Translation Contest

Posted in Random Goofiness at 12:50 am by Benjamin Ross

This one comes from my day trip to Tianjin this past June.  Ironically, I found these guys just a few blocks away from that infamous Tianjin vending machine.  Let’s see what you can come up with.

成人玩具吧

Best caption wins a free item from whatever it is these two 小弟 are advertising for.


 

10.01.08

Tokyo, in 18 Pictures

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 6:24 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s been almost two weeks since my most recent repatriation, and I wanted to give a final pictorial recap of my brief stopover in Tokyo.  Enjoy.

cylinder of Japanese beer
On my first night in Tokyo, my American friend asked if I wanted to go out for a “cylinder” of beer.  Originally, I thought this was some new English slang phrase I which had yet to make its way into my lexicon.  But no…in Tokyo they do in fact serve beer…in cylinders.
Japanese Internet Bar
Here’s a shot of a cubicle from a Japanese Internet cafe, basically the same setup as a Chinese net bar.  You can see the computer, webcam, headphones, a food menu to order from, and so on.  The only things missing were the clouds of cigarette smoke, the grime on the keys, the cacophony of pop music, and the empty peanut soup cans filled to the brim with cigarette ash.  Other than that, it was just like any old Internet Cafe in the Middle Kingdom.  The cost was roughly $3 USD per hour.
Tokyo House and Skyline
You can’t really see it so well from this picture, but Tokyo is easily the cleanest major city I have ever been to.  Even down the restrooms in public parks, Tokyo looks as if they have an army of Japanese Danny Tanners running around the city 24/7.
conveyor belt sushi
One of the highlights of any trip to Japan is the food.  Sometimes I find myself seriously wondering why more food isn’t served via conveyor belt.
sashimi in Tokyo
Sometimes I also wonder why the human race ever came up with the crazy idea to cook its fish.
chinese baozi steamed buns
In addition to all of the endemic Japanese snacks, baozi have now fully been thrust into the Japanese culinary radar.  In Chinatown, those lovable steamed buns are now the hot item sold in every nook and cranny, as shown by this Chinese woman preparing her baozi for Japanese patrons.
Tokyo Street Festival
Outside my friends apartment in Ikebukuro, I had the chance to experience this Japanese street festival.
Groups of men and women, each dressed in matching outfits, carried several of these sedan chairs through the street, as the surrounding people banged drums and other musical instruments.
My knowledge of Japanese folk customs is quite lacking, so if anybody has more insight into what is going on, please feel free to comment.
Yokohama Railroad tracks
Tokyo has the best rail-transit network I have ever seen in Asia, and arguably the best one in the world as well.  Train tracks, such as these, run all throughout, above, and below the city, making it so that virtually any destination is conveniently reachable via public transit.
Signs in most stations are written in both Japanese and English transliteration, making the subway system easy to figure out, even for those who don’t read Japanese.
Tokyo Subway car
The one downfall of the Tokyo transit system, and this is a major downfall, is that the entire thing shuts down from midnight until 5 am.  Since a cab ride in Tokyo can cost as much as a routine surgical operation in China, a typical night out in Tokyo forces the decision to either stay in one’s own neighborhood, be home before midnight, or party until 5.
Japanese Wendy's
It’s really a shame that the main frame of reference for a “hamburger” in the Middle Kingdom is KFC and McDonald’s.  After three months in China, I couldn’t help myself, and had to splurge on Wendy’s in Tokyo.  If by chance anybody within the Wendy’s organization is reading this, will you please, please, please, consider expanding your operation into mainland China???
smoking on the street is prohibited japanese
Like my own country, Japan (or at least Tokyo) is vigilant on the anti-public smoking trail.  In order to light up in public places (city streets included) smokers must do so in designated smoking areas.
Japanese traffic deaths sign
Every day, Tokyo police stations publish a count of how many traffic fatalities and injuries occurred during the previous day. The figure in red is for deaths, and the one in black for those injured.
Japanese pachinko
The big gambling rage in Tokyo these days is Pachinko, which according to Wikipedia is a “cross between pinball and a video slot machine.”  Day and night, Tokyoers can be seen staring at the screen, following the balls, and playing for hours on end.
Nincompoop Capacity
This is the name of a clothing store.  I am at a loss for more words.
Shibuya night shot
And finally, one of the busiest street corners in all of Japan.  This view is just a few feet from the exit of Shibuya Station. Possibly my all-time favorite venue to people watch, Shibuya is one of the hotter, trendier areas in Tokyo for night life and shopping…definitely a must see on any Japanese excursion.

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