so that’s that then

December 19th, 2014

I’m done. Finished. Well, not quite, but….

Yesterday morning was my last ever lesson taught at this university. Or in China. I had lessons scheduled for yesterday afternoon and this morning, but those times were given over to final speaking tests. Now I have two writing tests on Monday and a pile of papers and recordings to grade and paperwork to be done and submitted.

Then two New Years’ celebrations (one of the advantages of running two calendars at once… ), two months and five days and we’re on a plane out of here, making our way down to New Zealand to start a new life.

Fifteen years of teaching English in China has come to an end. I’ve seen, heard, felt, experienced a lot. Maybe even learned a thing or two. Now I need to put fingers to keyboard, pixels to screen…

getting information out

October 7th, 2012

I found Matt’s take on Weibo’s place in Chinese civil society quite intriguing, but there’s one aspect he skips over, one way in which I’ve found Weibo really useful, and that is as a source of information from various government departments. No, seriously. No, really, stop laughing, it’s for real.

I follow a variety of Beijing government departments on Weibo, and although a lot of their posts are little feel-good stories, perhaps a kind of soft propaganda trying to create a tender, caring image of the various departments, many of their posts are useful and timely information that is actually really helpful. For example, @pinganbeijing (平安北京, official Weibo account of the Beijing Public Security Bureau (police, in other words)) has often posted reminders of upcoming rotations in Beijing’s traffic restrictions (next rotation starts tomorrow) or road closures or other temporary traffic management measures for big events like triathlons, marathons, or road cycling races with links to more detailed information. And over this Golden Week holiday period the Beijing Municipal Transport Commission has done a pretty good job of posting updates of traffic conditions on the expressways, warnings of accidents affecting traffic flows or queues forming at toll gates, and this morning even warnings of road closures and reopenings due to fog in Tianjin.

And it’s not just Weibo. Both the Transport Commission and the Beijing Municipal Traffic Management Bureau have frequently updated maps of traffic conditions, and Baidu Maps has a traffic conditions setting. Notice how I didn’t link to Baidu Maps? Well, despite the economic orthodoxy drilled into us for so many years now that private enterprise somehow magically does everything better than government just because it does, so shut up and obey, private enterprise magically good, government inherently evil, I’ve found the government maps actually more useful than Baidu’s. Baidu’s advantage is that you can zoom in to a very local level, while the two government maps only cover main thoroughfares. But at the start of the holiday we had to travel into The Place (and yes, I did shudder as I typed that) to collect some mooncakes (no, really, these ones are good – ice cream in a dark chocolate skin – off to pinch another one before I continue typing… ). I opened Baidu Maps, zoomed in to The Place, and groaned at all the roads highlighted in orange and red. Brilliant, holiday or not the traffic’s going to be as bad as always. But when we got there, there was hardly another car in sight. And of course, The Place opens at 10 am… So where did Baidu get its information from?! The Transport Commission’s map seems more accurate, so far, although I haven’t known about it for too long so I can’t be sure. But its big disadvantage is that it covers only the central city. The Traffic Management Bureau’s map, like the Transport Commission’s, only covers main thoroughfares, but it covers a much wider area – central city main roads, all the Ring Roads including the 6th, and expressways in some cases right out to the provincial border (although it only covers the G6 into Yanqing County and the two very limited sections of the G7 included are always grey, meaning it doesn’t yet have any information), and best of all, the information generally matches what I experience when I get out on the road.

But there, of course, lies a major problem. The information I check, whether on Weibo or the Transport Commission’s or Traffic Management Bureau’s websites is automatically out of date once I step out the door. I’m driving on a “last I heard” basis, and traffic is a very dynamic beast. There are the large electronic signs along the Ring Road and Expressway networks, but no matter how timely their updates they’re just as prone to the situation changing as I pass them as Weibo and the official websites. Sure, Weibo can be checked via cellphone, and the Transport Commission has apps for those with iPhones or Android phones (I have neither), but they’re no good unless I have a navigator to keep an eye on the phone or I’m irresponsible enough to use a phone while driving. No, I’m not that irresponsible, and I only sometimes have somebody capable of acting as navigator.

So, none of this is perfect, and it does nothing to fix the myriad other problems with governance in China, but it is nice to be able to step out the door with information up to date at that moment on traffic conditions I’m likely to face. Any information is better than no information, and more information is better than less information. This holiday I was able to plan our journeys to and from the village based on experience of the roads twixt here and there and logic (tourists will be heading out in the morning, back in the afternoon, so we’ll head out in the afternoon and back in the morning) backed up with near-real time monitoring of the road network in the days, hours and minutes leading up to each journey. Had an accident occurred on one of the roads I planned to take and reported by the Transport Commission on Weibo before I set out, I would have been able to plan a detour around the problem before setting out. I’m pretty confident in my navigational skills, but this extra information was a nice extra boost.

I’ve noticed a lot of government departments at provincial, municipal, and even district and county level have official Weibo accounts, with the ones I follow at least being quite proactive at getting information out and dealing with netizen enquiries. I’m not saying they’re perfect, and of course, Weibo provides a new platform for the old practices of ‘information management’, obfuscation, and worse just as much as it provides a platform for openness and transparency, but they’re there, proactive, and frequently useful. And Weibo now seems to be running ‘provincial theme days’ featuring a selection of official Weibo accounts from different provinces each day. They certainly involve a few steps sideways, perhaps even backwards, but there are areas in which they’re making definite steps forward, and that I am liking.


August 30th, 2012

I was recently reminded, indirectly, that this happened eight years ago. Clearly the older you get, the slower you move, because time has perceptibly sped up. It was not long after we moved to Tongzhou. I got home and my wife said, “I finally found a good restaurant in the neighbourhood!” Our first experience of restaurants in the area had been being told to bugger off because they were closed for the afternoon. Great way to run a business. But this place she had just found was really good. We’d show up at any reasonable time and be fed. They were friendly. When business was slow they’d sit and chat with us, and not just “polite, meaningless words”, to rip Yeats’ phrasing way out of context, but chatting like we were actually friends, because we were friends. We could sit there for hours if we wanted, just passing time, as you do. Then one day after spring festival they were closed. The next day open. Day 3, closed, but them all hanging around but expressions as closed as their restaurant and as cagey as a third-rate crim caught in the act and trying to weasel out. Eventually, just closed. Gone. Who knows where. Never came back, at least, not while we were living in the area, or not to that area.

A few days ago I went off for a walk. I strolled through a neighbourhood I often stroll through up to their north gate. Something had changed, drastically, but drastically in a way that made me stop and look. Two rows of shops on either side of the lane just inside the north gate had vanished, to be replaced by gardens. I wondered if it had really been that long since I’d strolled through the area – well, yeah, it had been, for a variety of reasons – the business of the end of last semester, summer humidity, travel, and so on, the usual list of excuses why I hadn’t been through. I used to always stop in one of those shops to grab a drink on my way out or back. Vanished, struck on the head with the magic wand of some malevolent old hag of a fairy tale witch and transformed into rather mediocre, already tired-looking gardens.

Today I was off to get some takeaways for lunch. Ma had put some rice on, but there was precious little else at home to eat. The campus muslim restaurant, the closest restaurant, still hadn’t opened. Around the corner, grab a newspaper for the wait. Bumped into the boss of my favourite local restaurant. Again, a very friendly guy. Happy to chat, asks after the family, plays with my daughter when I take her there, super proud of and caring for his own wee girl, as soon as I walk in he plonks a cold Yanjing on the table, he knows perfectly what I like to eat, just one of those beautiful, genuine souls who’d take good care of anybody who happened to stumble his way. “I just closed my restaurant” was the first thing he said. What?! “Yeah, I closed it up, it’s going to become an Old Beijing hotpot place and I’m going home to Henan to do business there.” His daughter, who’s nearly a year younger than mine, gave me a big, sweet smile. He said he’d be back in Beijing fairly regularly and would call me when he is here. He offered to buy me lunch, but I said no, I’ve got to take it home, and went off to look for an alternative. His restaurant wasn’t just closed, the new owners had already gotten a decent start on the renovations.

See, I’m a creature of habit. Human, in other words. But here’s how it works for me: I like to cultivate shops and restaurants and so on. If I get good, friendly service one place, I’ll go back, and keep going back so long as it lasts. I let them get to know my particular foibles. I take my wife and daughter along. I let the owners and/or staff (as the case may be) get to know me and I do my severely introverted best to get to know them. I like walking into a restaurant and ordering a dish only to be told, “No, you don’t want that, the broccoli’s got bugs in it.” See, that’s good business. When they tell me that, I know I can trust them, I’m going to be back. This gets us to a point where, if I’m short of cash, I can tell them so and say I’ll just pop over to the ATM and be back in 2 minutes, and they trust me. This is the way it should be.

But my buddy Mr Zhang has shut up shop and will soon be leaving town.

Yanqing Roaming

August 1st, 2012

July 21, the day of That Big Rain, the storm that wiped out Fangshan, we piled in the car and drove up to the National Convention Centre up by the Olympic Green. It was mostly a waste of time, this so-called toy exhibition. But we wandered around, had a look, got some lunch, then the mother in law, the Wee One, and I got back in the car, while lzh jumped on the subway. Our plan had been to go to this exhibition on the Saturday, then on the Sunday for Ma, the Wee One and myself to head out to Yanqing for the week. But lzh heard of heavy rain forecast for Sunday, so we decided that we’d head out on Saturday to try and beat the rain.

July 21 dawned grey and murky. Hardly dawned at all, the haze was so thick. When we got to the exhibition centre very light rain started to fall. We tried to leave just before lunch, but the rain had become much heavier and we’d had to park at the shopping centre next door because the Convention Centre carpark was full. So we got lunch. The rain lightened up, and I made a run for the car while the others walked down to a convenient corner where I could pick them up. Then the three of us set off for the peace, quiet, and comparative cool of our village, while lzh trundled home, alone, still having to go to work on Monday.

Being so close to where the 4th Ring meets the G6 was a bit annoying. Normally, I’d take the Jingcheng Expressway out to the North 6th Ring, thence across to the G6, as that lets me avoid all the traffic heading for the real estate scams along the G6 in northern Haidian and southern Changping, and traffic at the Qinghe tollgate is awful on a good day. But that didn’t make any sense from where we were, and the alternative routes would have traffic just as bad, but with traffic lights. So, bite the bullet I did and got us on the G6. Fortunately, the traffic does generally lighten up as you work your way northwards, but it takes time.

I guestimated visibility to be about 200 metres and turned the foglights on, and then got annoyed. Everybody southbound had their foglights on, but northbound there was only me, and a few with their hazard lights on. We got through the tollgate ok, but then it happened. The heavens were rent asunder, as if some celestial woolly mammoth had sucked all of Lake Baikal up into its trunk and sprayed it over Beijing. That was not much fun to drive in, and made worse by a certain few idiots who could not see any need to adapt their driving to the crap visibility and multitude of opportunities to go hydroplaning.

Ah, whatever, we got to the village ok, and the Wee One found it great fun watching the water go shwoosh! up all over the walls lining the village lanes that had been turned into torrents of muddy water. The father in law met us at the gate with umbrellas so we could get inside relatively unsoaked, we unloaded, we settled in, the rain stopped.

Later that evening I heard how bad the rain had gotten down in Beijing and especially Fangshan. It was a little surreal, because I’d just been driving for the better part of two hours through that storm, including along a narrow, windy old road across the mountains, but had seen nothing beyond the behaviour of other road users to give me cause for concern. Clearly the storm had gottten much worse as it made its way south.

So the Wee One spent her week out in the village much as 16-month olds do: Eating, playing, visiting friends, hanging out with the other toddlers who gather on the village square. I had given myself two missions:

  1. Get out and see some of these interesting-seeming places around Yanqing that after all these years I still haven’t gotten around to visiting. Stop being such a bloody recluse, in other words.
  2. Get some recordings for Phonemica.

Both were achieved, although I would’ve liked to get a few more recordings.

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the ghost bus of Beijing

April 22nd, 2012

This week I got my students to tell me stories about mysteries. Two separate students in two separate classes on two separate days both whipped out their cellphones and Baidu’ed them up an old story they obviously knew about, but couldn’t remember all the details of. Here it is, based on my memory of what these two students told me:

One night back in 1995, the last bus of the night left Yuanmingyuan bus station bound for Xiangshan. It picked up a few people, including an elderly couple and a young man. It was an unusually quiet night with very few people around. Then three people were seen waiting for the bus, but the elderly couple noticed something odd – these three people had no feet, they were floating there. So they told the young man, “Hey, those are three ghosts waiting for the bus, let’s get out of here”, and they and the young man got off the bus. The bus went on its way.

The next morning the bus was found in the Miyun Reservoir with three people dead on board. Nobody could figure out how it got from its bus route from Yuanmingyuan to Xiangshan on the northwestern fringe of Beijing to the Miyun Reservoir in the far northeastern rural exurbs.

Now, I suppose I could get on Baidu and rustle up some more details and figure out how much factual basis there is to this – was there really a bus in 1995 that was fished out of a reservoir far from where it was supposed to be? Is the mystery really unsolved? But my daughter is probably going to wake up soon and we’re home alone, so I thought I’d just put it out there, let whoever reads it make their own decision.


January 16th, 2012

Sometimes I’m tempted to think you can get just about everything in Beijing. Sometimes the only exceptions to the “Beijing has everything” rule I can think of are limited to things specific to little known island countries in the Pacific. But every now and then Beijing manages to throw a solid brick wall topped with shards of glass and razor wire at you.

We bought my daughter a carseat, the smallest of a Japanese brand’s range. It was supposed to last until she’s three – at least, that’s what the advertising said. All I can say is Japanese three year olds must be minuscule if a 9 month old half-Pakeha/half-Han lass can’t fit inside this thing. Well, she fits in, it’s just the straps are getting a bit too tight, and there’s no point using a carseat if she’s not going to buckle up.

So my wife found a German brand carseat online and ordered it. It seemed to check out, and my logic is German kids are probably of a fairly similar size to Kiwi kids, so chances are it won’t suddenly turn out to be too small. The car seat arrived, it’s big, but not too big for our tiny Suzuki, got stacks of space for the baby, the design looks pretty good – a big, solid brace to hold her in, side impact protection, including for her head, and the whole thing clearly designed to absorb shock like a bike helmet. Sweet.

Then we were taking her to the hospital for a check up and vaccination on Friday afternoon, went down to the car, took out the old carseat, put the new one in, baby in the seat, brace in front of her, and….. the seatbelt was 5cm too short. Bugger. So the poor thing had to be squished into the old carseat. Fortunately it’s only a short journey. We probably should’ve just walked, even.

So I got online and poked around Google a bit. Yes, seatbelt extensions are available. Sweet. So I told my wife to see if she could find them on her Chinese shopping websites, and yes, searches drew results. Sweet. We only need an extra few centimetres.

On Saturday I popped up to Carrefour to see if they had them in their little car accessory section. No, but they did have these odd little buckle things that plug into the regular buckle, then the seatbelt plugs into them. Three or four of them would do the trick. But they didn’t look very good – you know how sometimes metal just looks cheap, and when you get up close and personal it shatters like thin glass? And besides, multiple buckles struck me as being somewhat akin to overloading electrical circuits with multiple multiboxes. Yeah, not the most rational assumption, but that’s what it seemed like.

Now, one good thing about driving in China is the 汽配城/qìpèichéng – large markets for car parts, accessories, repairs, customisation, basically anything you could want or need to do to your car. They’re awesome and fascinating. So on Sunday we went down to the nearest such market, the place where we’d already gotten a few bits and pieces and our windows tinted, and we probably would’ve gone straight for the very store there we’d used before, they’re good people. But to get there meant driving through a multitude of markets, and once we entered the market area, what we saw did not inspire hope. All the markets on the way there had been torn down, even the very new buildings. We got down to where the qìpèichéng and it was also in the final stages of demolition, with just a few remaining sections of framework still visible. Once again, bugger.

“Shilihe!” my wife suggested, and I gave her a bit of a surprise by asking “Where’s that?” See, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation among my in laws and those of my wife’s friends who’ve seen me drive for knowing Beijing’s roads backwards and my navigational skills. For example, on the way back from Yanqing after New Year I gave my wife and her mother a bit of a surprise. I wanted to get petrol, but I wanted to go to a particular petrol station that I knew to be cheaper than the Sinopec stations that seem to dominate rural Yanqing, but I wanted to avoid traffic and take the most direct route. So I did. And just as we were about to pop out at the southern edge of the county town, my wife and her mother suddenly realised they had no idea where they were. But I met the main road from the county town to Badaling and the Expressway exactly where I wanted to and my favourite petrol station just 500m south of there. But I knew which nearby part of Beijing she was referring to, I was quickly reminding myself 3rd or 4th Ring Road (3rd, if you’re interested) and thinking how to get there from where we were. And besides, I’d seen similar establishments along the inside rim of the southeast 4th Ring Road just downstream from where we were. So we wound up at the market at Shibalidian.

My wife ran through all the shops selling things related to seatbelts. No extensions. She phoned the company we got the carseat from. “Well, most European and American cars these days have long enough belts.” Yeah, but not liking to waste our money on absurdly high petrol bills and constant repairs, we drive a Japanese car.  “Oh, go and ask them for a longer seatbelt.” Ok. Except the staff of every shop laughed in her face. Who the hell wants seatbelts?!

Now, I generally drive as close to the maximum (some Chinese roads also have clearly signposted minimum) speed limit that road, traffic and weather conditions allow. I have to say it is quite distressing to be driving down the expressway and see in the car passing me somewhat faster than the speed limit or a prudent speed for the conditions a family’s only child standing in the wheel well of the front passenger seat playing with toys on the dashboard, unrestrained. What’s worse is how often I see this. But I don’t think this lack of attention to basic road safety is going to last. A few months ago the Beijing police posted to their 平安北京 Weibo account a video of crash tests simulating what would happen to a child held in a parent’s arms in the front passenger seat in a crash at only 40km/h. I showed it to my wife and made her describe it to her parents, and since then I have heard not even a single suggestion that my daughter might not need to be strapped in to her carseat. On Weibo a few weeks ago I saw that Beijing had announced it had installed and was about to turn on new high definition cameras that could see, among other less surprising things, whether the driver and front passenger had their seatbelts on, and fines would be in the mail to those who don’t buckle up – and since then I have noticed a lot more drivers with their seatbelts on. My wife recently came across a news story online in which a woman had been holding her 3-month old baby in the front passenger seat when a tire burst. The baby went flying through the windscreen and did not survive. That sealed my wife’s conversion to road safety. Publicity is out there, the police want to improve the situation.

It was suggested to me yesterday that the market for children’s carseats and seatbelt extensions here is composed of Westerners. I disagree. Carseats and other safety devices are easily available from websites, stores and malls targeted, not Jenny Lou style at Western expats, but Jingkelong style at local Chinese. This suggests to me that even if most Chinese families take a “she’ll be right” approach to their children’s safety on the roads, there certainly is a Chinese market of Chinese buyers for children’s car safety products. So I’m surprised and frustrated that we couldn’t get that seatbelt extension or a longer seatbelt.

Oh well, on the way out of the market my wife came up with an ingenious solution that should do the trick. We tested it when we got home, and it seems to work. Still, I will keep my eye out for a proper, decent-quality seatbelt extension, as that would leave me a little more comfortable.

a month

November 7th, 2011

My mum was here for a month, went home on Saturday. It’s always interesting watching newcomers and how they react to China (well, relative newcomer in this case. Mum did spend 10 days here four years ago), even more so when the prime motive for the trip is childcare. But none of that is the point of this post.

Trouble is I seem to have gone and misplaced the point of this post. Or at least, all the ideas I had to write about have gone and gotten all jumbled up or gone AWOL or have otherwise eluded me.

So I’ll start with the airport. Mum’s flights were on China Southern, which seems to have learnt the magic trick of leaving late but arriving early. But that meant Terminal 2, which I have to admit these days I approach with a certain apprehension… or perhaps the kind of quiet dread one experiences inserting a horror film into the DVD player. But no, the evidence presented by my five senses assures me nothing has changed there. Well, a KFC seems to have gone missing, but otherwise, it’s the same trusty old terminal it always was. Getting out to the airport to pick her up would’ve been easy, but it was the National Day holiday and the traffic restrictions didn’t apply. So I left an hour early for a trip that should only take half an hour, and the combo of holiday traffic and China Southern’s new leave late/arrive early magic meant that I’m pretty sure – about as sure as a mere pleb in a bare basics Suzuki trying to rush up the highway as fast as possible can be – that I saw Mum’s plane fly over just as I left the tollgate. The arrivals board confirmed that the plane landed a few minutes before I’d parked the car. It was the time taken to get from the plane to the baggage claim that allowed me to catch my breath, and the time taken for the baggage to make the same journey that allowed me to get really bored waiting.

Taking Mum to the airport on Saturday was much easier. Just an ordinary weekend – no traffic restrictions, of course, but no holiday traffic. But on the way out we saw the traffic trying to head back in to the city was jammed almost solid from the 5th Ring Road most of the way back to the airport. So having sent Mum through the security check, we piled back in the car, and off we went. An electronic sign informed us – not that these signs are always entirely accurate, but never mind – that the traffic was still jammed up ahead. So I took the turn off for the Jingping Expressway and my wife and I collectively had one of those “Are we still in China?” moments. Three lanes stretching out in front of us, and almost entirely empty. On either side fields and trees stretched into the distance. Somewhere in the haze to the south what looked like the edge of a city rose.

But, having been not terribly familiar with the place names on the signs for the ramp heading in the other direction, but recognising the names on the sign for the ramp I had taken, I’d made a mistake. And it wasn’t just an “Oops, I took a slightly longer route” mistake, either. I had taken the offramp for the G101 to head back into the city, but the G101 as it passes under the Jingping reminded me too much of the roads around the western edge of Taiyuan when I lived there, so I got back on the expressway. That meant joining the Jingcheng Expressway at Huanggang.

“Where’s your receipt?” said the woman at the gate.

“What receipt?”

“Well, where have you come from?”

“The airport.”

“Which terminal?”

“Terminal 2.”

And she gave me a ticket and we went on our merry way. Two kilometres down the track we met the main tollgate.

15 kuai?!

15 kuai to drive a measly 2km down the Jingcheng?! On a weekday it’s 45 kuai to take the Jingcheng to the North 6th Ring, thence to the G6, thence all the way out to Kangzhuang. That’s the better part of 100km. The Airport Expressway these days only charges 5 kuai, and that’s only on the way out. And for a measly 2km of the Jingcheng I was charged 15 kuai.

Oh well.

So the signs (as trustworthy as they aren’t) said the 3rd and 4th Rings were jammed, so I took the 5th Ring. It was a bit slow in places, but ok. Just before the interchange with the Jingtong Expressway there’s a sign saying citybound traffic can also take Guangqu Lu, and although I’d noticed that odd little wallflower of an offramp sitting there all quiet and unassuming in the shade of a quarter-finished set of bridges and ramps, I’d never used it before. But that is a more direct route than going all the way down to the G1 then doubling back. So I tried it.

And so this quiet little ramp led us down the side of an interchange whose construction started some time ago, but has since stalled, past rather healthy crops of weeds, between a powerstation that’s been there some years and what looks like a powerstation under construction, and onto one of those odd roads east of the 4th Ring which is still partly industrial grime and old housing, and fancy new real estate developments. Except that this road has the standard construction site steel blue fencing all the way down its median strip and in several patches along the side and what look like the pylons for future overbridges poking up from the middle. So who knows? Maybe to complement all the fancy new apartment blocks Guangqu Lu east of the 4th Ring will turn into a fancy expressway and that abandoned baby of an interchange on the 5th Ring just south of the Jingtong Expressway will be revived and completed?

Now, in a note completely unrelated to my adventures in the wilds of Beijing’s road network, and as I may perhaps have hinted already, it’s been interesting watching how my mum has reacted to certain Chinese baby-raising practices.  Cross-cultural baby-raising is not something I really want to write about, at least not yet, but one of the biggest problems I have found is that coming from a small country makes it especially hard to get my own culture equal time and space. And one advantage of having a parent come over to visit, other than the extra cultural support, is that she can bring stuff. Like books, for example. Kiwi books, in particular.

See, if you go searching on sites like Dangdang and other Chinese online shopping sites, it’s easy to find the likes of Dr Seuss, Richard Scarry, Beatrix Potter, and so on. But I don’t necessarily want my daughter to grow up speaking Yank or Pom, or thinking that Christmas is actually supposed to be in winter, or other such nonsense. So shop on New Zealand sites! Well, sure, but that requires the means to get money from me to them, and all that we can do in that respect for the time being limits us to China. The internet is good and useful, of course, but babies grabbing a hold of computer screens is just not as much fun as babies grabbing a hold of books. Trust me on that. My baby loves playing with Daddy’s computer. The results can be interesting.

Does anybody else remember that rather morose and morbid old children’s song that revolved around the charming lines:

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly.

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.

Perhaps she’ll die.

Yeah, lovely. Just makes me want to listen to Radiohead.

Well, anyways, in that fine old Kiwi tradition of reworking northern hemisphere stuff to suit our purposes, it has become:

There was an old woman who swallowed a weta.

I don’t know why she swallowed a weta.

She’s never felt better!

And it ends:

There was an old woman who swallowed a Kiwi.

Now she’s in jail, silly!

How’s that? None of this melancholic warbling about some silly old bat who swallows a bunch of animals until finally it’s a horse that kills her. Nope. Instead, a lot of good, clean fun – well, and smearing kiwifruit jam on a jandal freshly torn off some poor kid’s foot to whack the bat. And tuatara marinara. But certainly none of this morbid Canadian bollocks.

And you know what? This time I’m going to limit the randomness. There’s a couple of other things I want to write about, but I’m actually going to try and unjumble them first and save them for other posts.

electric taxis

May 20th, 2011

So as it turns out, it’s actually old news, dating back to March 1 this year, but nobody had told me, I hadn’t seen them in the news, and I saw them ‘in the flesh’ for the first last weekend – and then was too busy this week to follow up on them.

Yanqing County has electric taxis. Purely electric, that is, none of these half-arsed hybrid jobbies. The real thing.

So late last Friday afternoon as we were on our way out to the village we pulled up at the back of a queue at a red light – from memory, at the north end of Nancaiyuan, the last traffic light before the Gui River on the way in to the county town from the Badaling direction. We were waiting to turn left and scoot along the south bank of the river before crossing the new little bridge and zipping along the back road, a much shorter route than the old G110, although it is becoming more and more popular, unfortunately. And just up ahead of us in the queue was a taxi.

That’s not unusual. A lot of people from Yanqing work as taxi drivers in Beijing and many of them pay for their trips home working the queue for the 919 rounding up people who would rather pay a little extra than wait for the bus. But this was an entirely different kind of taxi. It was in a pale blue and white livery of an entirely different pattern from the regular Beijing taxi livery, for starters. More importantly, instead of the usual Citroen ZX, VW Jetta or Hyundai Elantra or any of their larger cousins, this was an entirely new vehicle (well, to my eyes), the same basic shape as your traditional London cab, but clearly a new design. And with Beijing licence plates and signs clearly identifying it with Yanqing, it obviously wasn’t one of those occasional taxis that floats in from Hebei or Tianjin. And then I was told, “Oh, these new taxis are all electric”. Indeed, they move with only the faintest of electric motor whining sounds. And having spent a bit of time around the county town last weekend, and again this morning, I’ve seen a lot of them around.

Well, there should be 50 of them, Foton  according to the article linked to above, which also informs us:

据了解,迷迪纯电动出租车最大输出功率60千瓦,百公里耗电15千瓦时,在城市正常路面满电续航里程为140公里。采用快速充电桩半小时可充满80%的电 量。按照北京市出租车年平均行驶10万公里计算,对比燃油车,每年在花费上可节省3万余元,并且每辆纯电动车减少的二氧化碳相当于每年种植1100多棵 树。

Most of that is covered in this article, which is the best I’ve found in English so far:

As introduced, the Midi electric taxis are self-developed by Beiqi-Foton, BAIC’s commercial vehicle arm, and have a peak output power of 60 kW and an electric consumption of 15 kWh per 100 km each. All the vehicles are equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS) which is connected to the company’s control center where the taxis can be scheduled and monitored.

Currently, a charging station installed with 25 charging poles with a floor area of 2,205 square meters has been built at Yanqing. By using a magnetic card for self-charging, it takes six to eight hours for the taxi to be fully charged in a slow charging mode but a half-hour of quick charging can electrify the car to 80 percent.

But those two articles diverge on their approach to cost, with the Chinese one pointing out that based on the average Beijing taxi running 100 thousand kilometres per year, the electric taxis can save over 30 thousand yuan in expenses and provide a reduction in CO2 emissions equivalent to planting 1100 trees per year.

The Chinese article is better in that it places Yanqing’s electric taxis in the context of Beijing’s plan to push new energy vehicles:



According to Beijing Municipality’s “Green movement plan”, by 2012, will have 5000 new energy vehicles in demonstration use in fields such as public transport, environmental protection and taxis, and will encourage enterprises to set up “green fleets” for transportation, forming a 30 thousand-strong goods distribution “green fleet” by 2012. At the same time, Beijing will encourage private citizens to buy new energy vehicles, with the highest subsidy per vehicle being 120 thousand yuan.

According to reports, in the next 3 years Beijing will build 36,000 slow-charging electricity poles, 100 fast-charging recharging stations, 1 battery replacement station and 2 battery recycling processing stations.

And to that, all I can say is:





May 6th, 2011

You just know that a day that starts with you being woken just after 5am and told “Get up and go light those firecrackers” is going to be exhausting. And that was how May Day started for me. It’s not just that I’m this family’s Fuse Lighter In Chief, not this time. That, and that I’m the father of the baby whose first month was to be celebrated that day. The first two strings of crackers went off without a hitch. Sparks from the third string set off strings four and five, creating quite a nice roar, leaving the sixth string as a pleasant denouement. Then my wife suggested I lie back down on the kang and get a bit more sleep. Too late, I’m wide awake now. There are reasons why I’m Fuse Lighter In Chief, and those reasons don’t stop at me being the only one either dumb or crazy (or quite possibly both) enough to get that close to explosives with short fuses carrying a naked flame.

Fortunately in the waiting that followed CCTV News broadcast one of those rare programmes actually worth watching, a documentary about five plays based on five of Lao She’s short stories in whose production Lao She’s son had been involved. Of course, watching this programme was interrupted several times by the demands of a month-old baby, but it seems these interruptions come with the territory.

Our daughter reached 满月 at the end of last week, one month old. Exactly which day depends on which calendar you’re using. This is a big deal here, and it’s not hard to imagine why. It’s not that long ago that, even in the fabled Western developed countries, life, especially in its early stages, was a very precarious experience, somewhat analogous to walking on ice at the top of a cliff. Chinese tradition requires a celebration.

Also, reaching 满月 means my wife and daughter are allowed outside again. One month’s confinement makes no difference to the baby, as she doesn’t know the difference, but it takes quite a toll on a woman who was never suited to the old-fashioned housewifely life. Fortunately a couple of her close friends did come to visit during that first month, and the improvement in my wife’s mood on the arrival of her friends was dramatically heartlifting. If she couldn’t go out, at least a little contact with the outside world would help stop her from going stark raving mad.

And here’s what bugged me about the process: Explaining to other non-Chinese that my wife was 坐月子/in her month of confinement after childbirth generally met with a “Oh, the Chinese are so superstitious!” response. And yes, that is as true as any other gross generalisation. And I was going home to a wife and child who, according to the strictest versions of the traditions, were not allowed to wash in any way for a month. And sometimes it got all a bit too much and my tongue bears the scars of much biting. How can the child of one born and raised in Wellington, of all places, be scared of wind?! And yet the confinement, wrapped up as it may be in so much superstition, fundamentally makes sense. A newborn baby has no immune system – that’s what colostrum is for. Giving birth is a stressful experience, and stress damages the immune system. Keeping mother and child away from the world for a time while they (re)build their immune systems strikes me as a pretty smart thing to do.

And so Friday I bundled my wife, daughter and mother in law and the requisite supplies into our tiny little Suzuki and drove them out to my wife’s home village where the official celebrations were to take place.

Mid-morning on the day that started early with firecrackers some of the extended family started gathering at my parents-in-law’s house, great aunties clucked and cooed over my daughter, debating which of us she looked most like, the paleness of her skin, and exactly what colour her hair will turn out to be. Uncles preferred to hang in the courtyard smoking and shooting the breeze. Cousins alternated between chatting with parents, uncles and aunts and chasing kids. At some point I was taken away to do chauffeur duty, first carting a few cartons and crates of drinks and smokes down to the restaurant on the other side of the old highway at the other end of the village, then to collect and deliver to the restaurant some of the elderly and less mobile members of the tribe. In other words, much driving through narrow village lanes, at super-slow speeds ready to stop at any sudden emergence from a gate or even narrower side lane – often putting the car in 2nd gear and leaving my right foot hovering over the brake, touching the accelerator ever so slightly where an uphill run required just that little bit more than an idling engine and 2nd gear could provide. There was much delicate easing between parked vehicles of varying descriptions and brick walls or power poles. I am glad, for many reasons, that we bought a small car.

The restaurant wasn’t much to look at from the outside. A one storey, probably brick coated in plaster and paint, building on the lower side of the old highway, a functional paint job and a sign pronouncing its (now forgotten) name. The front room was an iteration on the standard local restaurant theme, tile floor, plaster walls with minimal decoration, counter at one end behind which stood a shelf bearing the baijius on offer, wooden tables of the 4-seater size and matching wooden chairs in rows along both walls. Stepping through a door brought me into a large – note, not cavernous, as in those restaurants around the fringes of inner city Beijing that specialise in the wedding trade, nor even gigantic as one can find in such restaurants in Yanqing County Town, just large – room with three rows of five 10-seater sized tables and at one end a low platform with a permanent wedding decoration with gaps for the names of the new couple on the wall above it, and at the opposite end the kitchens. Apart from plastic vines trailed up the columns and along the base of the raised, skylighted ceiling, the decor was identical with that of the front room – pleasant and functional. A door led somewhere further back, apparently into another one storey brick building visible through the windows along the south wall that seemed connected to the restaurant.

And this, at three tables along the inner wall of the large room, is where the tribe gathered. Some so old they needed to be driven to the door, helped out of the car, and escorted to a seat, others so young they had no idea why they were here, but could see space to run around and soft drinks and good food. Everybody but she whose first month of life we were celebrating, her mother, and her mother’s cousin.

And it’s probably best that way, as when the uncles gather it’s not just baijiu that flows, but smoke too. So leaving my daughter at home, my wife there to take care of her, and one of my wife’s cousins to take care of my wife left the uncles free to celebrate as best they know how. And they did, trust me on that. I found myself pouring out baijiu for three old codgers, subject to the usual friendly ritual humiliation senior men dish out to their juniors, sticking to Sprite myself, still being on chauffeur duty, and glad for it knowing the livers of these three old codgers. Baibai is not dumb, and a bit of a trickster, but not quite as smart as he’d like to be. When he’s getting wasted he likes to hassle others, but in a friendly way, but he tends to lose track of just how far gone he himself is. Dagufu I don’t know very well, seeing him basically once a year at Spring Festival and then at big family gatherings as they happen. The tribe isn’t big enough that I’ve seen him more than twice in one year. Laogufu likes his drink just a bit too much, but he’s one of those fundamentally decent blokes with a slight protective streak who you know will call enough when enough has been reached. Sober he’s silent, and the drink brings him out, but in his eyes you can see the desire to nurture. Two of those three are grandfathers, and seeing them with their grandsons is a veritable picture of grandpaternal warmth.

A big, hearty meal, country-style, more food than the tables could hold, solid food, the kind that has good, strong flavour and plenty of fuel. A good meal, in other words. Then the crowd dispersed a thousand times quicker than it had gathered. Rural life gets you no holidays, no days off. The elderly were ferried home, not being up to walking to the other end of the village, then those who were too busy hosting finally got a chance to eat. Then we packed up the leftovers and headed home.

And after two hours of sleep, I still felt exhausted.

But our daughter’s first month of life was properly celebrated and, as exhausting as it may have been, it was a lot of fun.

two weeks and two days

April 16th, 2011

Two weeks and two days ago my daughter was born.

Well I think it’s fine, building jumbo planes.

Or taking a ride on a cosmic train.

Switch on summer from a slot machine.

Yes, get what you want if you want, ’cause you can get anything.

One thing I think nobody bothers to tell you is just how icky the birth process is. Blood and other fluids and mess and pain and terrified, powerless husband sitting there watching doing what little he can to help. And then this head pops out looking for all the world like something out of one of those alien horror movies and you’re thinking “How the hell does something so collossal get squeezed through such a tiny hole?” And the eyes and mouth are screwed shut in the most extreme discomfort. And then there’s that first tentative, plaintive cry and you realise you’ve been holding your breath and your heart starts beating again and your brain melts under a tsunami of relief and love and happy neurotransmitters. Then she finds the full force of her lungs and expresses her displeasure with the ordeal she’s just been squished through and the doctor says, “It’s a girl” and when they’re done cleaning her up they hold her up bottom first so we can see it’s a girl and tell us again just to make sure we believe both what they’re telling us and what we’re seeing. And having watched her produce your first child your respect and love for your wife is instantly magnified so many gazillions of times even a mathematician couldn’t count.

And two nights and a day of contractions and pain and cold, impersonal staff and running from counter to booth to plastic bench in the corridor to eventually a bed and up to the birthing suite for 17  hours forced separation with no information and messages not delivered and brutally dismissive staff and pacing the corridor, occasionally steeping outside for fresh air and to cool off because you’ve caught yourself making careful note of the positions of the security cameras for when you decide to explain just how angry you are with the lack of information and bad attitudes, catching what snatches of sleep can be caught on the plastic seats around the walls of the lobby and final reunification in the delivery room with me calling out for a doctor or somebody, anybody professional to come and help and more coolly impersonal but at least professional staff to finally deliver the baby, all of that is forgiven, forgotten. Temporarily.

3618 grams. I run to the door to tell my mother in law, who asks how much is that? Fortunately the brother in law has arrived, saving my addled brain from having to multiply by two. Seven jin two liang. My mother, on the phone later that day, asks the same question. Oops, I’d forgotten to do the calculation, so I do it later and email the result to her. Seven pounds fifteen ounces. 52 cm long. Nobody needs that converted into older measurements.

And then it’s quiet and we’re left alone with our daughter lying in her cradle, eyes wide open sucking all she can see, a sceptical look on her little face as if she’s carefully noting everything and filing it away for later analysis, and she looks so perfect and fragile and vulnerable and complete even the least religiously minded could understand the full meanings of the words ‘blessing’ and ‘miracle’.

And you roll on roads over fresh green grass.

For your lorry loads pumping petrol gas.

And you make them long, and you make them tough.

And they just go on and on, and it seems that you can’t get off.

And after four days in a small, overcrowded room in the ward and still more bureaucracy I pile them into a car made very warm by the sun, and believe me, I’ve never driven more slowly and carefully since I was a learner driver, except this time, of course, it wasn’t a nervous lack of confidence in my ability to handle the vehicle. I was acutely aware at every second of that little life in her carseat so completely dependent on my actions for every aspect of her health and well-being.

But we’re finally free of that horrible hospital. The one friendly nurse, who is warm and friendly to the point of getting just a bit too intrusive for my tastes, only serves to magnify the generally cold, impersonal, bureaucratic production line nature of the hospital and I hate it. I hate it so much driving out the gate that last time felt almost as good as the last step I took out of the gate of my high school. I’ll have to go back to get my daughter’s birth certificate, but I’ll cope. And it’s one of Beijing’s better hospitals. We know that because of the crowds. And no staff trying to hawk milk powder. And their insistence on natural, vaginal birth unless the medical circumstances actually render a c-section the safer option.

But they’re home now, my wife and daughter. Home and enrolled in the local hospital where she’ll get her vaccinations. Home where they belong, where they have space and privacy, where we can settle in to being a family.

Why do they call newborn babies a “bundle of joy”? That’s far too simplistic. Joy, yes. And confusion and frustration as we try to decipher her cries and find where the instruction book was hidden. And disturbed sleep. And terror. This life is so fragile, so vulnerable, and so totally dependent on us. My wife has enough trouble taking care of me and now I’m a father. I’m terrified I’ll do something wrong and break her. And then her big, dark eyes look up at me and around the room and suck in all the information they can get. Or she smiles. And ‘joy’ just doesn’t cut it. ‘Joy’ just doesn’t even come close to describing that feeling.

Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air.

But will you keep on building higher ’til there’s no more room up there.

Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?

Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

And I don’t think Cat Stevens and I are the only two to have ever mourned the loss of a simpler innocence in which children could simply be children. I don’t think we’re the only ones to have ever felt lost and overwhelmed and drowning under the weight of concrete and steel and copper and plastic and technology. My mind somehow desperately retains a memory, battered, withered and fading, of grass and bushes and trees, riverbanks and seashore, sunlight, rain, a gentle breeze and wide, open space in which every step is adventure. Well, Tolkien seems to have felt a similar way. And this idea has become so utterly cliche’d it is now all but impossible to express, since expression requires a recipient on the other end to not nod off in boredom.

I know we’ve come a long way,

We’re changing day to day,

But tell me, where do the children play?

And that’s what I’ve been asking for months as my wife’s belly has swollen. And it’s what I ask every time I look at my daughter and at the world we’ve brought her into. Because to be honest, I don’t think I’ve even started to begin understanding what’s going on out here.

And then I find myself wondering if that innocent time ever even existed. Was it just a dream? Have we been lied to? Does it perhaps exist in some alternate dimension to which a few of us have somehow managed to maintain just barely enough of a last vestigial spiritual link to keep the dream alive, even if in a drastically weakened state, a dimension to which artists and poets and prophets occasionally open a tiny, smudged, blurry window? Or is it just the wishful thinking of those too weak to cope with the hardness of the modern world? Or the wishful thinking of those too strong stubborn to give in?

I don’t know, but I look around and it bugs me. Is there anywhere left for my daughter to play?

[Quotations, but I suspect you all know this, from Where do the Children Play? by Cat Stevens.]