The trip is over, camera’s gone, back in Beijing

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Travel Log (Asia) at 12:28 pm by Benjamin Ross

I knew it couldn’t last forever. What was five days of spot-on seamless travel, turned into virtual disaster. Maybe disaster is too harsh a word, since I’m back in Beijing in one piece, but nonetheless, the final three days on my Dongbei trip have to go down as my least successful Chinese travel experience ever.

It all started several nights ago in Yanji when I met two recent college grads who were traveling around China following the torch relay and selling Olympic T-shirts. They had invited me to come along with them to Dalian, and eventually Shandong to help hack goods and see the country. On the day we were supposed to leave, some unexpected work related issues arose, and had to remain in Yanji for a full day working out of a netbar. The boys had already booked their train tickets to Dalian, and I had decided that if I stayed back, worked for a day, and then took a bus, I could still meet them there (the bus only takes half as long as the train). I spent the entire day in the netbar, rushing through my TPS reports, and when I finished, I went to the train station to book my Dalian ticket for the following morning. Once I arrived at the station, I was informed that the Dalian bus service had temporarily been suspended. I would have to take a bus to Changchun, and then from Changchun go to Dalian. This route was still faster than taking the train would have been. I spent the entire night on a bus to Changchun, arrived at 6 am, checked out the town for about three hours, and then at 10:30 am, boarded the bus to Dalian.

While I was on the bus, I received a text from one of the T-shirt sellers telling me that Dalian was in a state of torrential downpour, and that they were going to continue on to Shandong. They had offered to wait for me, but being that I wanted some time to explore Dalian, and that I felt bad having them change their schedule around me, I told them not to wait.

When I arrived in Dalian, it was about 9 pm. I strolled around downtown for a few hours, but was so exhausted from all the bus rides, that I found a sauna house, took a hot shower, and passed out. The following morning, the rains had returned. Usually, harsh weather doesn’t faze me too much, but I had come to Dalian to sight see, and it was raining so hard I could barely see anything. I spent two hours in an Internet bar hoping for the weather to clear up, but all to no avail. After checking the forecast, (something which would have made much more sense to do BEFORE I went to Dalian) it became apparent that it was probably going to rain for the next three days. I decided to cut my losses, and head back to Beijing.

I took a bus to the long distance bus/train station area, and after wading through the crowds found the Dalian to Beijing bus. There was an overnight sleeper bus, which would give me the rest of the day to explore if things were to clear up, and then I’d be back in Beijing the following morning. I went to the ATM to withdraw money to pay for my bus ticket, content with what I had seen in Dongbei, and ready to go back home. Then I looked down at my camera pouch around my belt. It was empty.

It was immediately apparent what had happened. Long distance bus and train stations are the number one most common place to get pick pocketed in China. I’ve probably walked in and out of Chinese train/bus stations over a hundred times. Each time I have anal retentively placed my wallet, phone, passport, and camera in my front pockets, with both hands directly on them. Recently I had bought a Swiss army backpack with a pocket on the top. At previous destinations I had put all my valuables in the top pocket and swung the bag around on my front side. A thief would literally have had to pick my pocket right from under my nose.

For some unforsaken reason, this time at the bus station, the thought of protecting my valuables hadn’t even dawned on me. I had also been carrying an umbrella, something I rarely if ever do, which had required the usage of one hand. Not to mention my camera was stowed in my belt loop “I have a camera, please steal me” pouch. But more than anything, I just wasn’t paying attention. The interesting thing is, in all my travels ever in China, this is the one and only time I have ever spaced out at a transit station, and I got taken right away. Between the long bus rides, the rain, and now my camera gone, I had had enough. I bought a ticket to head back to Beijing that afternoon.

In the back of my mind I like to think that I was going to be hit by a bus last night, or maybe fall down an uncovered manhole. Maybe getting my camera stolen was fate’s way of intervening on my behalf. On the bus ride back to Beijing I was reading Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans.” I was at the part where the narrator is revealing in detail the horrors and monstrosities of life during the Cu1tural Revo1ution. Reading about all the merciless denunciations, beatings, and carnage helped make my problem seem more trivial.

My camera was expensive, but replaceable, but more than anything, I am going to miss all the photos I had taken, the old European Harbin buildings, the Jewish cemetery, the pictures of North Korea taken from across the border, shots of all the random Dongbei food I sampled, the torch parade through Yanji, just to name a few. All in all, there were over 100 shots, and if the punk who took my camera were here today, I’d gladly hand him over an extra couple hundred kuai just to get my memory card back. In the next few days I am going to try to recount as much of my photography as I can through words, as this is probably the best way to make something positive come out of such a situation, and as I did mention before, there are much worse things that can happen on the road than losing a camera and some pictures. Then again, it still stings.

This was actually the first time I have ever been pick pocketed, and I with all the traveling I do, I was formerly quite proud of this small feat. Some people like to say things like this are bound to happen when you travel a lot. I disagree. They happen when you aren’t being careful and have your head stuck up your ass, which is exactly why it happened to me.



Harbin, initial thoughts and observations

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Travel Log (Asia) at 3:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

I’ve been in Harbin about 24 hours now, and here are some quick first impressions and thoughts.

-Everything here is extremely cheap, even for China.  Last night I stayed in a small hotel for 20 RMB (about $3 USD).  I had a tidy single room, with TV and fan, plus a clean bathroom with 24 hour hot water, shower, and a western toilet.  I was totally stoked by this find…until I got an 18 RMB half-hour massage and realized I could have just slept at the massage place and saved my 20 RMB I paid for the hotel room.     

-People here are big–taller, stronger, and wider than your average Chinese.  No doubt an influence of all the Mongol and Manchu blood mixed in with the Han here. No wonder Dongbei guys have the impression of being 很男人 (manly men).

-Most of the foreigners here are Russian.

-This is the first city I have ever been to which has a public park named after Joseph Stalin.  (Disclaimer:  I have never been to the former Soviet Union.)

-I saw a group of people in Stalin Park gathered around a tree watching a man trying to catch a squirrel.  As the man lumbered through the tree branches, people below were throwing sticks and rocks up in the squirrel’s direction.  My first instinct was to intervene on behalf of the squirrel, but then I remembered from my Midwest upbringing that it is virtually impossible for a human (or most other animals for that matter) to catch a squirrel with their bare hands…especially in a tree.  My deceased family dog Abbey, who was faster and more agile than any human save for maybe Liu Xiang, tried valiantly for 15 years and never even came close.  I watched for about 20 minutes, until the squirrel eventually made it back to the ground, and whisked off, leaving the frustrated mob behind.   

-Near Stalin Park I encountered a Uighur man selling round, sugar-topped, bread snacks for 1 RMB.  It was hands down the tastiest pastry I have ever eaten in China.

-Harbin is famous for its European turn of the century architecture.  I can’t speak for what’s already been demolished, but what still stands is remarkably well-preserved.  Zhong Yang Da Jie, the main pedestrian street in old Harbin, is still paved with cobblestone and has maintained a distinct European feel, even though most of the Russian residents are long gone.

-I spent half of my day today exploring Harbin’s Jewish history.  There are two synagugues still standing, the “Old Synagogue,” built around the turn of the century, and the “New Synagogue,” built about fifteen years later.  The New Synagogue has been restored and converted into a museum of Harbin’s Jewish history.  The exhibits include hundreds of photos and paintings with detailed inscriptions about their historical significance.  They also have a mock Torah scroll which records the demographic history of Harbin’s Jewish community in Chinese.  Interestingly, other than the Torah scroll, the only other item which does not contain English translations is an extensive exhibit on “Jewish Einstein.”  As for the Old Synagogue, it’s now a mini-shopping center of sorts, with a coffee house, pizza shop, and a boutique selling Nepalese and Indian jewelry.  The exterior still very much looks like a synagogue   

by the way, if anybody knows an Internet bar in Harbin with Photoshop, I am willing to pay top dollar!



Michael Jordan and the Great Wall

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Pop Culture at 10:07 am by Benjamin Ross

Whenever you are a foreigner out walking the streets in China, you usually get asked where you are from at least about 1.5 times per hour. When I would tell people I’m American, the next logical question is always “What city?” This is when things would get complicated.

“Kansas City,” I would reply. (Hardly anybody in China has heard of Kansas City, just as hardly anybody in the US has heard of Fuzhou).

“Kansas…you mean Texas, right?” was the most common reply. The Chinese word for “Kansas” and the word for “Texas” are somewhat similar, so it’s an understandable mistake. Ultimately, many Chinese people have in fact heard of the state of Kansas, but they have never heard of Kansas City, which by in large is in Missouri.*

To make matters simple, I decided on this trip to just tell casual inquirers that I am from Chicago. I’ve only lived there 10 months, so I am far from being a native, but it’s simpler than explaining that Kansas is not the same as Texas, and that Kansas City is actually located in Missouri, not Kansas. So far, I have not run into a single Chinese person who hasn’t heard of Chicago. However, when it comes to Windy City, nobody makes mention of the Sears Tower, Michigan Avenue, or even deep dish pizza. From school children to cab drivers to the guard in front of my apartment complex, the first words from the mouth when Chicago is mentioned are invariably 公牛队 (gong1 niu2 dui4) and 乔丹 (qiao3 dan1), “The Bulls” and “Michael Jordan.”

Michael Jordan is such a household name in China that I shouldn’t have been surprised the other day when I saw this item selling at the Mutianyu Great Wall.

Michael Jordan China

In the middle of the image, next to the stone carvings of dragons, tigers, the Great Wall, and other sino-imagery, you can see one of MJ yelling to his teammates. He is the only athlete whose bust I have ever seen on such a souvenir. I couldn’t even find one of Yao Ming. The fact that this rendering of an American athlete, at China’s most famous tourist attraction, certainly speaks volumes about his popularity in the Middle Kingdom. The rage over basketball has exploded in China over the past few decades, and Michael Jordan, willing or not, has become its de facto cultural ambassador. While many Chinese fans today identify more with Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan is still viewed as the face of the game, and thus its him, not Kobe or even Yao, who gets his face on the Great Wall souvenir.

*Technically, there is a Kansas City, KS also, but the main urban center is Kansas City, MO. Many Americans don’t seem to be aware of this either.



Chinese Vending Machines: Peanuts and Condoms and Sex Toys…Oh My!

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Random Goofiness at 9:24 am by Benjamin Ross

In a country where raw materials are proportionately more expensive than labor, it doesn’t make much sense to invest in machinery to take the place of human work…yet. At least not as much as it does in more developed countries with higher wages (see vending machine situation in Japan). Accordingly vending machines still haven’t made much of a dent in the Chinese market. This is why several days ago I was quite surprised to see two vending machines right smack dab in the middle of a busy intersection in Tianjin. Until that point, the only vending machines I have ever encountered in the Middle Kingdom have been the ones in the Shanghai Pudong Airport which sell bottles of water and Snickers bars for 20 RMB.

chinese vending machine
The machine on the left sold the usual mix of cold drinks…Coke, Sprite, Red Bull, fruit juice, and so on.
But the machine on the right was no ordinary vending machine. Here are some of the products I found inside.
snacks, including peanuts, dried peas, and Japanese rice candies
home pregnancy tests
men’s “long lasting oil,” little fish ornaments to hang from your cell phone, Wrigley’s Doublemint gum
cigarettes and various inuendous objects such as the “Spicy Sister” women’s wet towel
playing cards and “sexy underpants”
and even cute little bear toys for the kids, right behind the sexy underpants
I’m not exactly sure how to translate the product on the left, but I can tell that it is some kind of oil (anybody know what 神油 is?)…and then my own personal favorite, a Japanese product called “The Magic Finger.”

…And who is to say that the Chinese aren’t “open” (or extremely efficient for that matter)? At least now you know where to go the next time you and your partner want to play cards and eat peanuts while chewing Doublemint gum, and then have a wild long-lasting, well-lubricated, sexual escapade (with protection), smoke a cigarette afterwards, and then call each other the next week with fish-ornament-draped cell phones to find out the results of the pregnancy test.



How to Obtain a 90-Day Chinese Tourist Visa

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:47 pm by Benjamin Ross

As an American, securing a Chinese visa can be a real pickle. I use the word “pickle” rather than “nightmare,” because 9 times out of 10, I have been able to obtain the visa I needed, but only after jumping through a series of arbitrary hoops which rarely have anything to do with my stay in China in the first place. The first rule about obtaining a Chinese visa is this…There are no rules…at least none which have much consistency to them.*

Back in 2005 when I was teaching English in Fuqing, I decided to spend the first half of my summer vacation, the month of July, traveling to Xinjiang, Gansu, and Qinghai, and then return to the US in early August. Because my contract (and thus my Z visa) expired on June 30, and my flight home wasn’t until August 4, the cadres at my university had told me that I needed to apply for two separate 30-day travel visas. They had been told by the PSB** that 30 days was the longest travel visa which would be issued to Americans. Therefore, I would need to apply for one visa, and then in another week or two, apply for a second one which would cover me through the end of my trip.

Ted O’Brien, the other foreign teacher at my university, was in the same predicament, and the cadres had agreed to help us the best they could to obtain our visas. On a Monday morning, they loaded us into the university car, a jet black VW Santana with matching black seats and black tinted windows, and escorted us to the local PSB. When we arrived, we were told that there was a policy in place for Americans applying for travel visas—we would each be required to prove that we had over 25,000 RMB (roughly $3000 USD at the time) in our respective bank accounts. For comparison’s sake, the average pay for the Chinese teachers at my university was around 1,500 RMB per month. To necessitate spending 25,000 RMB in 30 days in Fuqing I would have had to shack up in a 5-star hotel, eat shark fin soup for breakfast every day, employ a full-time maid and butler, receive daily therapeutic massages, and hire a personal car and driver for the weekends.

Neither Ted nor I had 25,000 RMB in our accounts, but we did each have around half of that amount. The cadres suggested we take a walk across the street to the Industrial and Commercial Bank. At the bank, I was to transfer all of my money to Ted’s account, and then Ted would request a statement indicating his balance of over 25,000 RMB. After Ted had his statement in hand, he would then transfer all of the money in his account to mine, and I would request my own statement showing that I, too, had 25,000 RMB on hand. Finally, I would return Ted’s share to his account, and we would walk back across the street and apply for our visas.

The cadres’ plan worked like a charm, and upon returning to the PSB, we handed our passports and freshly printed bank statements to the PSB officials. Although it was blatantly obvious what we had just done, they told us that processing our visas would be no problem, and politely asked us to pay 140 RMB ($17) and return in 4 days to pick up our passports.

Two weeks later, I was in Urumqi, where I was to apply for my second 30-day visa to cover my final week of traveling in China. Remembering the policy for American visa applicants, I had already arranged with a friend in Fuqing to wire me enough money so that I could print a bank statement showing I had 25,000 RMB. When I arrived at the PSB in Urumqi, I asked the officer what the requirements were for an American to obtain a 30-day travel visa. “Requirements? What requirements? Just leave your passport with us, pay the 140 RMB charge, and pick up you visa in four days.” I did as I was instructed, and four days later picked up my visa with no questions asked.

So it was with a slight bit of trepidation that two weeks ago I applied for a 90-day Chinese travel visa. Recent reports have indicated that China has tightened up their visa requirements in preparation for the Beijing Olympics, and many foreigners have encountered roadblocks obtaining travel visas, especially ones longer than 30 days.

While I am no authority on the issue, I was able to obtain a 90-day tourist visa this time around. Based on my experience, there is no sure way to obtain a Chinese visa, but I would like to share the process I went through to get mine in case anybody else is planning an extended stay in China this summer. Note that the way I applied for my visa worked for me as an American citizen at a Chinese consulate in the US. Chinese visa requirements are not always the same for people of different nationalities.

To apply for my visa, I went, in person, to the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago. Along with the visa application (available at the consulate), my passport, and one passport photo, I submitted a letter detailing my travel itinerary in China (including my flight information and locations I would be staying), a copy of my round trip flight itinerary (it doesn’t necessarily have to be booked yet), as well as signed letters with ID card scans from Chinese friends whose residences I will be staying at. The letters just stated their name, address, and the dates I would be staying with them in China. (Apparently, printed hotel reservations will suffice for this requirement as well). This is exactly what I had been told to do by the consulate when I had inquired several days before. The officer had emphasized that, “You must be sure to include all documentation including travel itinerary, housing arrangements, and round trip flight information.”

While the cost has gone risen considerably to $130, I was given a 90-day Chinese travel visa, and I didn’t have to prove I had 25,000 RMB in my Chinese bank account either. Even though this method worked for one person, experience tells me that this does not guarantee it will work for everyone. However, it does appear that as long as all of your ducks are in a row, the Chinese authority is willing to allow extended stays for foreigners in the Middle Kingdom this summer.

*To be fair, I should also mention that it is even more of a hassle (and shakedown) for Chinese nationals attempting to obtain visas to the United States.
**The PSB (Public Security Bureau, 公安局) is a branch of the Chinese government, which among other responsibilities, is in charge of issuing visas to foreigners.



Sweet Home Chicago (personal update)

Posted in Announcements, Personal Anecdotes, Sino-US, Relations and Comparisons at 12:13 am by Benjamin Ross

Generally when blogging, I try to keep myself out of the spotlight, but it’s been a while since I’ve written a personal update, so I wanted to scribble down a few words to let readers know what I’ve been up to of late.

As most of you probably know, I moved back to the US in late August, and then moved to Chicago in late October. It is hard to believe that I have already been here 5 months. Overall, I have been extremely pleased with my decision to move to Chicago. I came here for two reasons primarily. Firstly, I wanted to live in a large cosmopolitan city, but also wanted to remain in the Midwest. Secondly, after being abroad for 3 years plus, I wanted to be close to friends whom I had rarely seen over the past few years. Coincidentally, most of the people I care about (excluding immediate family) all live in Chicago. Thus, the Windy City was the logical choice.

Chicago is an excellent city from both a cultural and a practical standpoint. With its history of immigration, Chicago, like New York City or San Francisco is a salad bowl of cultures from around the globe. On any given day, I could eat dim sum, have a conversation in Mandarin, buy chilies at a Mexican grocery store, drink Zywiec in a Polish night club, get a ride from an African cab driver who speaks 6 languages, go out for Korean BBQ, overhear a conversation in Fuzhou hua, buy tamales from a street vendor, and the list goes on. It has been reinforcing my image of what it means to live in America.

I have also been enjoying the convenience, financial freedom, and sense of ecological and social responsibility which comes along with not owning a car (something which is not possible in many American cities). Chicago’s rapid transit, while old and dilapidated, is also one of the most extensive systems in the country. I live a 7 minute walk from a subway line which in another 10 minutes takes me downtown, from which point I can get virtually anywhere in the city via the 8 different lines. Rarely is there a location within the city which I can’t reach on the train.

As for my employment, I am currently working 2 jobs. I spend my days as a medical interpreter for a company based out of Cincinnati. Several days a week they send me to different hospitals in the Chicago area where I am an interpreter between doctors and Chinese patients who can’t speak enough English to get through their appointments. In the evenings, I work 4 nights a week as an English teacher at a local training school, not so different from the ubiquitous 培训学校 in China. My students are all adults and come from a variety of backgrounds. The largest percentage of them are Polish, but I also have students from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Austria, Mongolia, Thailand, Korea, Turkey, and Benin. It has been an interesting and completely different experience from teaching Chinese students, and I plan to elaborate on this more in a future entry. Needless to say, I have learned more about Eastern Europe in the past few months than I had in my entire life.

Even though I am back in the US now, I am doing my best to keep in touch with my life in China. People often ask me if I miss China, and I my answer is “no.” This is the same answer I would give people in China when they ask if I missed my life in the US. To me, my life in China has always seemed separate from my life in the US, like an alternative universe. When I am in the US, I think about the US and when I was in China, I thought about China.

That being said, in the past few weeks I have not been able to help myself from thinking about the events which have been transpiring in China. And the more I think, the more frustrated I become, not so much with the events themselves, but with the way they are covered by the media, both Western and Chinese. While the Chinese media does its typical song and dance of selective reporting and damage control, the Western media continue to feed us the same over sensationalized, one-sided, Hollywood dribble we’ve come to expect in post 9/11 America. Neither side is lying, yet nobody is reporting the whole truth. With one side seeking to numb the masses and the other in dire need of sales and ratings, the true losers are the readers. The resulting ignorance on both sides only provides more fuel for the fire, and I fear this trend will continue throughout the impending Olympics.

With all this in mind, I am going to do my best to take a trip back to China for the festivities this summer. While plans are still up in the air, and by no means definite, it is my desire to keep current on the country I spent nearly 1/8 of my life living in, and besides, if the proverbial shit hits the fan, I plan to be there to pick up the droppings. In the interim, I’ll be in Chicago, which for now, and the foreseeable future, is home.



The Year of (Eating) the Rat

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Food and Drink, Local Customs, Personal Anecdotes at 7:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

In 2007 we saw the coming of the year of the pig, the main source of protein for China’s mass population. In 2006 it was the year of the dog, and dog ownership in China skyrocketed like never before. 2005 brought us the year of the “cock,” and I don’t even want to go there. But what do we get from the latest beast, the rat, which the Chinese Spring Festival has dragged through the gate? What can be done with a small rodent which for most of human history has been regarded as nothing more than a pest?…The answer is the same as what you do with most animals in the Middle Kingdom…you eat ‘em!

Yes, you heard me correctly. I said you eat the rats. Although most of the world (as well as most of China) would never even consider eating these small furry rodents, the practice does go on in some areas. One of which is Western Fujian in the cities of Sanming and Longyan.

Chinese pork gall bladder jerky
When bought in a store, rat jerky usually comes packaged like this bag of pig gall-bladder jerky (another one of the “8 big jerkys.”)

To be fair, I should add that the word for “rat” in Chinese 老鼠 (lao3 shu3) in common speech is an umbrella term which includes both rats and mice. The “rats” most commonly used for human consumption in Fujian are what we would refer to as “field mice” rather than the sewer rats which are so common in most Chinese urban centers.

My ex-girlfriend was from Sanming and had told me that one of here favorite childhood memories was “eating rats.” Mice would be trapped in fields, killed, dried, and then made into “rat jerky” (老鼠干) which is considered one of the “8 big jerkys” (八大干) of Western Fujian. I had remained incredulous, so when we took a trip back to Sanming last spring, she promised me she would inquire if rat jerky was still around.

On our first day back we asked my ex’s grandma if there was some place in town where we could buy rat jerky. She told us that these days it is becoming less and less safe to eat the stuff. Because most of the field mice have been killed in recent years, scrupulous farmers have begun making jerky out of sewer rats, which are prone to disease. However, it turned out we were in luck, because earlier in the week, she told us, she had gone to a market in a neighboring town and picked up some fresh (non-jerkified) rat.

frozen mouse to eat
The mouse which came out of my ex-girlfriend’s grandmother’s refridgerator

Cultural sensitivities aside, I’m not sure I was prepared for what I was about to see, as the old woman pulled a completely intact frozen mouse out of the freezer. It was about 3 inches long, and placed on the table, it looked just like one of those mice I used to chase out of my apartment when I was in college.

That night for dinner, the mouse was chopped up into morsels, and cooked into a dish with hot peppers and garlic, and it tasted surprisingly wholesome…like beef, but with much smaller bones. Had I not known what it was I would have had no idea I was eating a rodent. Who woulda thunk? 祝你鼠年快乐Happy Rat Year!

Addendum: At the tail end of my trip to Sanming I was able to find several stores which sold rat jerky, and later on a Western Fujian specialty shop in Fuzhou which sold it as well. It comes in several flavors, most of them spicy, and is usually priced at least twice as expensive as the equivalent weight in beef jerky.



Skiing and the Art of Chinese Toiletry

Posted in Culture Clash, Personal Anecdotes at 12:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

Last week I spent five days in Colorado for a good friend of mine’s bachelor party. Part of the bachelor party itinerary included a day of skiing. For those of you who have never enjoyed the sensation of downhill skiing, it is one of the most intense lower body workouts one can experience. First-time skiers often gripe that they use muscles that they never even knew they had, and a single day of skiing often leads to several days of soreness from the quads all the way down to the feet. The more one skies, the more their leg muscles gradually acclimate to the new positions and flexes that the sport demands. If one continues skiing throughout the season, the leg pains diminish to the point where they are hardly noticeable. But as soon as one takes an extended break from skiing, the pains and cramps start right back up again the next time they hit the slopes.

So for me it came as quite the pleasant surprise, when after a 4 year gap in skiing excursions, I completed my first day back on the mountain with my lower body feeling almost exactly as it had when I had woken up in the morning. To be honest, I was actually looking forward to the soreness, the feeling that my body was tired from the muscular workout, but it never happened. Usually the soreness of skiing doesn’t fully set in until the following morning, so I waited…and woke up the next morning…nothing. There was a slight soreness in my calves, but my quads (where the majority aching usually occurs) felt as if I had not even skied at all.

This was odd. Not only had I not skied in 4 years, but thanks to the Chicago winter, I had barely even exercised in the past 2 months. After pondering my lower body muscles’ sudden acclimation to extreme stress, I finally figured out the culprit…my Chinese toilet!

chinese toilet
A typical Chinese toilet…in this instance, the hole is submerged in toilet paper.

Unlike the toilets common in the Western world where a toilet’s ergonomics are designed to represent those of a chair, a traditional Chinese toilet* is designed to represent a hole in the ground. Typically, the hole is at one end of a porcelain oval. The user squats over the oval, does their business, and then pushes a button that releases a stream of water which whisks the remnants down the hole. The most difficult aspect, however, is balancing oneself over the porcelain oval, which like skiing, requires one to use muscles they never knew they had—not to mention superb balancing skills, unless there is an available guardrail nearby.

When I lived in Fuqing from March 2004 until June 2005, all I had in my apartment was a Chinese toilet. Using it effectively was one of my greatest challenges upon originally moving to China. It wasn’t that I had any cultural or sanitary aversions to popping a squat, but rather that after 3 or 4 minutes of squatting over my new throne, my legs would give out. I was forced into timing my excretions so that I would enter the bathroom just before the impending droppage moment. I also had to relinquish my preconceived idea that my time in the bathroom should be relaxing. Rather than turning the pages of a magazine, my arms had now become balancing aids, and the limitations of my leg muscles no longer afforded me the time in the bathroom to finish reading the latest sports scores.

How did the Chinese do it? Why would any people design a toilet which was so physically demanding to use? The more I thought about it, the more incredulous I became. I knew from traveling and college anthropology classes that the squatty potty had been the default toilet for the majority of the world (not just China) throughout most of human history, and that it was probably a misnomer to refer to it as a “Chinese toilet” since it was Westerners who first began molding their porcelain goddesses in the image of a chair. Therefore, it would probably be more accurate to refer to our toilets as “Western toilets” and to my little porcelain oval as simply a “toilet.”

As I traveled around China, I noticed that Chinese squatting occurred in more arenas than just that of the bathroom. I would see Chinese workers spending their breaks squatting in the streets, reading the newspaper in squatting positions, playing cards in squatting positions, and on several instances even sleeping, leaned against a wall in a squatting position. How was it that they were able to relax in this position, one that I could barely even hold for 3 minutes, merely for the sake of carrying out one of nature’s most basic functions?

As the months wore on, I began to notice my legs were no longer giving out as quickly on me in the bathroom. The pain that I once felt in my quadriceps had diminished, and I found myself able to remain squatted over my porcelain oval for increasingly longer periods of time. My balance improved as well, and one day, during my first summer in Fuqing, I undertook the bold task of attempting to read the sports page of the China Daily while in a squat position over my Chinese toilet. With a little practice, and several near catastrophes, I was finally able to balance myself well enough and long enough to actually start enjoying my time in the bathroom again. As time passed, I was able to remain in the squatting position longer and longer, and not just on my toilet. I would squat when I had to pick something off of the ground, squat when chatting with the migrant workers around my building, and on several occasions even squat while eating street food when no tables were available. After a year and a half of daily squatty potty usage, I was able to remain in the squatting position for nearly an hour before my muscles would begin to cramp up.

Now fast forward back to my ski trip. Even though I have not used a Chinese toilet since August, it seems that the muscle I built up from squatting in China is still present in my lower body. Otherwise, I can think of no other possible medical explanation for my lack of soreness from my first day of intense skiing after a 4 year layover. This wouldn’t be the only benefit of defecating Chinese style, as squat toilets are generally more sanitary as well as easier on the colon than those in which one sits. But if it truly is my Chinese toilet which has led to my apparent increased lower muscular endurance, then maybe the U.S. ski team should adopt a policy of using only Chinese toilets.

*Thesedays most newer Chinese buildings are equipped with the same sit-down toilets found in the West



Do You QQ?

Posted in Personal Anecdotes, Society at 4:02 pm by Benjamin Ross

Tencent QQ penguin

Do you have QQ? Chances are if you live in the People’s Republic of China, you have heard this sentence multiple times…in the past week. If you have never been to China, you probably have no idea what I am talking about. QQ is one of the world’s most widely used Internet chat clients, yet most people outside of China have never even heard of it.

QQ was originally known as OICQ, presumably as a ploy on ICQ. Since the name change, the letters “QQ” (a loose transliteration of 酷酷, a slang Chinese word which roughly means “cool”) have been popping up all over Chinese pop culture. Chery, a Chinese auto manufacturer now makes a low-end car called the QQ, and QQ奶茶 (QQ milk tea) has been popping up on the menus of Chinese restaurants and kiosks. Even more ubiquitous than the initials, may be the QQ penguin, who seems to appear on billboards, TV advertisements, and public events all over China.

The QQ software itself is garbage. It’s buggy, unstable, and contains a plethora of annoying flashy advertisements and bonus features which crowd the interface. From time to time, when logging in to QQ, users are greeted with a message that the server is overloaded and that they will have to login again later. To make matters even more complicated, QQ is not written with Unicode. This means that to get the Chinese version of QQ running on an English version of Windows, you have to switch the default non-Unicode program language on your computer to Chinese. (Originally I tried installing the English version, but removed it when I found it would not let me type Chinese characters, thus defeating the point of using QQ in the first place). Additionally, I have also heard numerous reports of spy ware and viruses being contracted through QQ. Yet QQ offers one distinct advantage over any other chat client, and that is everybody (I mean EVERYBODY) under the age of 30 in Mainland China has an account (if not 3). Walk into any Internet café in China, and you will likely notice that cute little penguin in the corner of the majority of the patrons’ desktops.

Because of its widespread usage in China, QQ is an integral tool for developing and maintaining a Chinese contact base. While older and more business savvy Chinese professionals are coming to prefer more “mature” chat clients such as MSN or Skype, it is still not uncommon for them to maintain QQ accounts as well, if not only for that same reason that everybody else in China seems to have one. My own personal QQ buddy list is chalked full of former students, friends, business contacts, and random folks I have met in crowded hard-seat cross-country trains, many of whom without QQ I would have lost contact with. Another advantage of QQ is that it is an excellent tool for obtaining and/or maintaining Chinese literacy. For me, I try to spend at least 15 minutes of my day on QQ, if nothing more than just for a quick Chinese character refreshment.

So it came to my dismay, but not to my surprise, that when I got my new computer I found the old version of QQ which I had been using (QQ 2006 Beta2) was not compatible with Windows Vista. I promptly went to qq.com and downloaded the new version (QQ 2007 II) which according to the website supports vista. I ran the install file, which installed halfway, then gave me an error message telling me the program I was running was not compatible with Windows Vista. Turns out, the new version of QQ is only compatible with the Chinese version of Windows Vista. I guess I should have seen that one coming.


Update: I finally got QQ to work with Vista, but it wasn’t without the token roadblocks. I got the new English version to install properly, but as soon as I sent my first message I received an error which read “Your flash player version is too low, in order to display normally. Please click here to download the latest version.” Only when I clicked “here” it was a broken link. I updated my flash player manually, and it seems to be working properly…for now.



Robbed in Chicago…Lenovo to the rescue

Posted in Personal Anecdotes at 2:46 pm by Benjamin Ross

Just wanted to write a quick note to apologize/explain the recent lack of content on the blog. I was having an excellent holiday season until my apartment was burglarized the day after New Years. Fortunately, all they took from me was my laptop, a 3 year old Gateway with a broken CD-ROM drive, a busted fan, a battery that lasts 4 minutes, and an LCD display with a broken hinge that was on the verge of falling off the body of the computer. They also took my laptop bag which was probably worth more than the computer itself. My roommate wasn’t as lucky, as he lost his 6 month-old laptop, an expensive watch given to him by his uncle, and a 46 inch LCD TV. Insurance should be covering most of the loss, but the most annoying part was being without a computer for a week. Luckily, they didn’t take my external hard drive which had all my data backed up. The KMart near my house has a free Internet cafe, but the time restrictions, and lack of access to my own software and files drastically limited my online activity.

So as of yesterday, I am now finally back online. I picked up a Lenovo Y410 Laptop, and am quite curious to see first hand how China’s most poignant encroachment into the American electronics scene shapes up. So far so good, and I can’t imagine this Lenovo laptop could be any worse than the Gateway I foolishly purchased 3 years ago. In honor of my new computer’s national heritage, I have also decided to leave the protective plastic covering on it for at least the next 6 months.

« Previous entries Next Page » Next Page »

china china china mandarin mandarin mandarin beijing beijing beijing shanghai shanghai shanghai chinese chinese chinese China Chinese Mandarin Taiwan Beijing Shanghai Taipei Lhasa Tibet Asia China travel Chinese lessons Mandarin lessons learn Chinese Hong Kong Xi'an Great Wall China tours