China and Mitch Hedberg…It’s Gotta be the Face.

Posted in Culture Clash, Society at 8:28 am by Benjamin Ross

The late, great comedian/philosopher Mitch Hedberg once quipped:

An escalator can never break:  It can only become stairs. You would never see an “Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order” sign, just “Escalator Temporarily Stairs.” Sorry for the convenience.

chinese escalator stairs
An immobile Chinese escalator…aka stairs.

The funny thing is that in China most escalators are in fact…stairs.  However, this is not necessarily because poor construction causes them to break down frequently.  Rather it’s due to the Chinese tendency to err on the side over overbearing fiscal responsibility when it comes to electricity.

Yesterday, as I was passing an immobile escalator in a Shanghai suburb, I made a comment about the escalator/stairs to my Chinese assistant.  Her immediate reply was “Duh, the elevators are built for face.”

Without being overly ethnocentric, it’s difficult to asses the use of funds to finance a value (face) which is virtually valueless in one’s own culture.  However, one has to wonder at what point spending money on face is deemed less important than spending on projects of a more functional value, such as say…electric devices which will actually be turned on from time to time.

For more insight from 老Mitch click here.



Graffiti in the Middle Kingdom

Posted in Pop Culture at 1:28 pm by Benjamin Ross

While certainly popular among certain circles of Chinese youth, hip hop culture hasn’t quite achieved the cultural relevance in the Middle Kingdom as it has in say…the middle-class Midwestern 99% white suburb where I grew up.  So it came as a pleasant surprise to see this collection of Chinese graffiti sprawled across the walls of an underpass on the campus of Shanghai Jiaotong University.

chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti
chinese graffiti

Interestingly enough, one country where hip hop culture has caught on among the masses, and is the preeminent form in Western cultural diffusion, is Mongolia.  Teens listening to rap music, graffiti (seen below), hip hop fashions (also below), and corn rows (unfortunately not pictured) are an everyday sight in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, and considerably more prevalent than in Mongolia’s powerful southern neighbor.

mongolian graffiti
mongolian hip hop kids



Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

Posted in Business 'n Economics at 5:46 pm by Benjamin Ross

There may be no better space to advertise than one where you are guaranteed to have thousands of eyes constantly staring at every day of the year.  Unlike most blatant examples of commercialization, I have to say this one actually blends favorably with the environs, especially with the cloudy Shanghai skies.

shanghai bund advertisement
advertisement on huangpu river
floating sign in shanghai
floating sign on huangpu river

By the way, the Gumbyesque character appearing to the right of the electronic board and on the board of the last two pictures is Haibao, the now ubiquitous mascot of Shanghai World Expo 2010



Chinese, Japanese, Shanghainese, Look at these!

Posted in Immigration, Society at 9:11 am by Benjamin Ross

Well, I’ve been in Shanghai for closing in on one week now, and just as my sleep is beginning to acclimate to the time difference, I thought it would be appropriate to give a little update of what’s going on.  The first two and a half weeks of this month-long trip are going to be mainly work related, and so far work has been consuming much of my time.  Unfortunately, without completely violating the trust (not to mention the NDA) of our client, there really isn’t much I can say about the project I’m working, other than that it deals with young Chinese video game enthusiasts.  (Trying to Chinese youth who play video games is about as difficult as finding Chinese people who like to eat rice.)

This is my fourth visit to Shanghai, and every time I come what sticks out more than anything is the level of Westernization.  I’ve always maintained that Shanghai is by leaps and bounds, the most internationalized and cosmopolitan city in China  (Beijing is a distant second.)  This manifests itself in the locals’ mannerisms and attitudes (basically everybody else in China, Beijingers included, are yokels), the clothes they wear (this is the only place in China where I have ever felt under-dressed or out of style), and the cornucopia of Western products they embrace (On my street alone there is a specialty Greek foods shop, a fruit store which sells fruit 3 times more expensive than the vendors who hang out outside the store, a golf course, and multiple golf pro shops.)

All this is great if you are, say, living in a small town in Fujian, and want to experience Western amenities without purchasing a $1000 plane ticket home.  But when you live in Chicago, and are trying to suck up as much China as you can fit into a one month excursion, it’s not quite as appealing.

Thus it came to my absolute delight, when yesterday afternoon I discovered, hidden away behind all the modern glitz and Japanese hair salons, an old “village” which today houses a community of recent immigrants.  In the US when we think of “immigrants” we are often implying those who come from other countries to seek a new life in America.  In China, when we speak of “immigrants” we are usually referring to those people who come from outlying rural areas to the big cities in search of better work and opportunities.  Like many immigrants in the US, Chinese immigrants frequently form their own local communities, and live lives almost entirely separate from the local population.  Thus, while the street on which my hotel lies, (the one with the golf course and the Greek foods shop) caters almost entirely to the Shanghainese and foreigners from Western countries, the “village” is populated almost entirely by migrants from poor rural areas in China’s interior.

Here are some pics of the village.

shanghai village street
One of the main drags in the village.  I must say I like the uniform paint which uniformly tinted the entire row of buildings.
green chinese building
An old residence in which the bottom level has been converted into retail space.
clothes hanging on the line in china
Another residence; Often houses such as these are only ten or fifteen years old, but appear much older do to wear and tear, and poor construction.
old shanghai house
Several gated villas such as this one stand out among the other architecture of the village, and possibly pre-date their surroundings.
shanghai alley
Most of the residences open up to alleys, since the actual streets are lined primarily with storefronts.
Chinese Mike burger Mcdonalds copy
Unlike my street which only five minutes away has virtually every Western fast food chain known in China, the migrants have to settle for “Mike burgers” when they want to sample western cuisine.

I think I know where I’ll be spending a good amount of my free time during the remainder of my stay in Shanghai.  More to come soon from the “Paris of the East.”



Caption Contest

Posted in Random Goofiness at 9:03 pm by Benjamin Ross

This image is begging some kind of explanation.  It comes from the wall of a Hunan Restaurant.  FYI, the English script just above the girl’s knee reads “Get well soon.”

menorah fruit guy and girl chinese poster

…and yes, in case you were wondering, that is a Hanukkah menorah on the right.



What do the Chinese eat for breakfast?

Posted in Food and Drink at 8:17 am by Benjamin Ross

As people travel the world, one aspect of their lives which is usually the last to become assimilated to their new culture is their breakfast.  There is no place this is better exhibited than in the globalization of food over the past century, which focuses disproportionately on lunch and dinner cuisine.

China is no exception to this rule.  For most foreigners living in the Middle Kingdom, acclimation to Chinese lunch and dinner cuisine takes but a matter of weeks or months.  Breakfast, however, is a completely different matter, as foreigners often either stockpile a cache of foreign breakfast products at the nearest Wal-Mart or Metro, or simply skip breakfast all together, and take their first food of the day at lunch.

The same generalization can be applied for Chinese living in Western countries as well.  I can honestly say I have had several Chinese people tell me that they have never tasted anything more disgusting in their lives than a donut (except maybe cheese).  Most of my Chinese friends in the US either stick to Chinese fare as best they can in the morning, or reluctantly subsist on toast until lunch.

So what exactly do the Chinese eat for breakfast?  The continental breakfast at my hotel in Shanghai provides a typical sampling.  Here it is.

chinese tea eggs
In the first steamer, we have tea eggs, a common breakfast snack in most parts of the Middle Kingdom.
Next we have 2 kinds of baozi (steamed buns).  The first ones on the left have pork balls inside, while the ones on the right are stuffed with vegetables.
stir fried breakfast cabbage
This unappetizing-looking dish is stir fried cabbage.  It actually tastes a lot better than it looks.
breakfast sweet potatoes and chinese fried bread
boiled sweet potato (left) and fried Chinese bread (right)
chinese porridge
Probably the most common mainstay of the Chinese breakfast is white rice porridge, which consists of nothing more than rice, and a lot of water.
porridge toppings pickled radishes peanuts tofu
To give the porridge flavor, porridge is usually topped with a variety of toppings, such as (clockwise starting from bottom) peanuts, fermented tofu, spicy pickled radishes, and pickled mustard.
black porridge
In addition to the standard porridge, there is also dark porridge: It has a little more flavor than the white stuff so it usually doesn’t require any toppings.
soy milk fruit juice
Although the Chinese stay close to their roots for their morning meal, elements of Western cuisine are beginning to seep in, as we can see from the morning beverages which include soy milk (traditional Chinese drink) along with fruit juice and milk (both relatively recent imports from the West)
toast peanut butter and jelly
In addition to beverages, other common Western breakfast foods have becoming more and more common in Chinese breakfast as well, especially in large cities like Shanghai.  Here we have toasted white bread with peanut butter, jelly, butter, and a sugary dairy spread (not sure what to call it in English) which I find quite tasty.
chinese breakfast
For my own breakfast, I have generally been combining the Western and Chinese elements together like so.  Bon Apetit!



Follow me on Twitter

Posted in Announcements at 9:50 am by Benjamin Ross

Well, I’ve been in China now for a good 72 hours, and due to a busy work schedule and jet lag, have been a little slow on the blogging. I am, however, updating my Twitter pretty regularly, so if you’re interested in more rapid and brief updates, add me on Twitter. (Ben Ross). My sleep schedule has just gotten back on schedule, and I should have some new blog material up in the next 24 hours. In the meantime, enjoy some self-serve shao kao.

Chinese shaokao meat



Siberia Pics

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 4:36 pm by Benjamin Ross

Made it into Shanghai about 12 hours ago.  Weather is cold and rainy, but still considerably warmer than Chicago.  Here are some pictures of Siberia taken from the plane.

siberia from plane
siberian mountains
vertical pic of siberia mountains



Fly to China Roundtrip, Now for Less than $800 USD!

Posted in Business 'n Economics, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:23 pm by Benjamin Ross

The economy’s down, times are tough, and corporations across the globe are fighting tooth and nail for your expendable income.  With all the lost income and doomsday talk, people often overlook the greatest virtue of recession:  The cornucopia of steal-of-a-lifetime deals on everything from resort hotels to toaster ovens.  Case in point…plane tickets to China.

Whenever I shop for a plane ticket to the Middle Kingdom, my first step is to check United Airlines’ website for a rough gauge of ticket prices.  On first shot, tickets usually price anywhere between $1400 and $4500 for a round trip ticket  (does anybody know who actually purchases those $4500 tickets?).  After searching around online, finagling with the dates, and consulting with various travel agents, I’m usually able to come to a deal somewhere in the range of $1100 to $1300…Which is why it took me completely off guard when I did the old United Airlines cold check last week, and the first round trip fare that came up was $790.84!  Yes, that’s $790.84, United Airlines, tax included, direct flight, round trip O’Hare to Pudong, leaving 2/17 returning 3/19.

After a little tinkering around with the dates, I was able to find fares as low as $720.  Since my travel dates for this trip are not flexible, (and since I’m not paying for the ticket myself anyway), I ended up booking the $790.84 ticket.  For comparison sake, my roundtrip flight this summer from Chicago to Beijing came to a walloping $1850, granted this was a) summer b) when fuel prices were considerably higher, and c) around the time of the Olympics.

As of now though, it seems the earlier the reservation (in other words, the more last minute) the cheaper, generally speaking.  There are still fares in the $700s and $800s for February, and March, but move up to April and it jumps up to the $1400 range.  My best guess is that what’s probably happening is that the airlines know the economy is in the crapper, and that people aren’t buying plane tickets to China.  In a last ditch effort to fill up the planes, they are offering seats at ridiculously low prices.  This also probably means that most flights will be half empty, thus enabling passengers to sprawl out across multiple seats, an invaluable luxury on a 14 hour flight.  I would also imagine, that prices for flights later in the year could drop considerably as well, provided no miraculous economic recovery occurs within the next few months.

So for anybody in search of  an international vacation but not wanting to cough up a lot of dough, right now may be the best time to head over to China.  And for anybody planning a trip for later in the year, it may be advisable to wait and see if fares continue to drop.  Then again, the pricing for US airline tickets has never really had much rhyme to reason to it anyway, so take anything I’m saying with two grains of salt and a heaping teaspoon of MSG.  I’ll be in the Middle Kingdom from February 18 until March 19.  See y’all on the other side.



Quick Winter Trip Back to the Middle Kingdom

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, I knew it wouldn’t be long, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so soon. Later this month, I’m going to be heading back to China for a quick month-long stay.  A couple weeks ago, I got the call from Pacific Ethnography, and they’re going to be sending me over to Shanghai for a three week consulting gig.  Unfortunately, I can’t blog much about the project without violating my NDA, but like projects I’ve worked on in the past, it centers on Chinese mobile technology users.  The project will take place entirely in Shanghai, and while the dates have yet to be set in stone, I should be there from around Feb 18 until March 5.

shanghai pudong skyline
Here’s a shot of the Shanghai skyline (facing Pudong) from my first trip there in 2004.  By my own estimations, I’d guess the skyline has probably at very least doubled in density since then.

Since I’ve already visited Shanghai multiple times for both leisure and work, I’m going to try to augment my trip with some personal travel. My goal this time around is Nanjing and then rural Anhui, two Middle Kingdom locales to which I’ve yet to travel.  Also, as most of you who have followed this blog for a long time probably realize, there is a definite correlation between an increase in both the quality and quantity of the material in this blog and me actually being in China. So I’m looking forward to bringing the blog back up to proper speed for a few weeks, and I’ll be sure to update as the details solidify and the trip draws near.

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