Archive for the ‘Culture and Habits’ Category

Free Falling

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

I’m still undecided whether, in net, living in Shanghai is safer than, say, New York City.  Sure, there are plenty of random chemical smells.  Yes, my office in the outskirts of Shanghai is right next to a nuclear power plant (“The…. Siimmmmmpppsons…”).  But personal safety (vis-a-vis violent crime) is much better in Shanghai than in most major US cities.  There’s, after all, no allowance for widespread gun ownership.  And in general things just feel much safer.  You can walk most places at night without feeling in danger.  You’re much more likely to be hurt in Shanghai by the general disregard for health and human life than by violent crime.

Then again, once in a while you run into things that make you think twice.  I spoke to a coworker in Beijing last week who, while living in Park Plaza Hotel near Zhongguancun, entered an elevator that fell 17 stories when its cable snapped.  He stepped in, heard some elevator workers overhead, then suddenly experienced a loud snapping noise followed by 12 stories of free-fall.

This was no amusement park ride.  This was Life in Shanghai.

After falling 12 stories, the emergency brakes kicked in near the fifth floor.  The elevator slowed a bit from its blistering downward path, but not enough to prevent a hard impact at the bottom of the shaft.  He bounced off the floor hard, getting cuts on his scalp, lips, and face.  He then staggered out of the elevator, bleeding everywhere, and simply went up to the concierge.

“You should really get that elevator fixed.”

And he limped away.  For several days afterwards he took the stairs.  But he’s now back to normal.

This is probably the closest first-hand account of a near-death experience that I have ever personally run into.  I’m amazed and fascinated by the possibility of being confronted with only a few seconds of time to square one’s life away and prepare for instant death.  This coworker of mine took it remarkably well.

It of course doesn’t help that I’ve stayed at the very same hotel in Beijing.  Perhaps next time I stay there, I’ll be sure to ask for a room on the lowest floor possible.  Then again, maybe that’d be a mistake:  since the elevator’s emergency brakes took 12 stories of free-fall to kick in, it’d probably be wisest for me to ask for a room on the highest floor possible, thereby giving the brakes a bit more time to work their magic.

Mama Said Knock You Out

Monday, October 13th, 2008

I’m told Spartans were pretty rugged folk.

Mongols weren’t exactly wimps either.  You don’t amass the largest continuous-land-mass empire in human history by smoking peace pipes.

I briefly considered this today as a taxi driver was being punched and kicked by three people at the airport on my way to Shenzhen.  Hongqiao airport is one of the two airports serving downtown Shanghai.  There were more cops there today than usual directing traffic.  I figure it’s because it was a Monday morning, with lots of commuter traffic.  They kept things moving along as well as could be expected.

It occurred to me that the safety barrier normally erected between a taxi driver and his passengers — presumably for the driver’s safety –could in limited circumstances become a liability.  Sure, barriers keep bad elements out.  But they also lock you in.  And therein lies the problem.  Three people pull open your door, start shouting, and swiftly decide to supplement their point of view with fists and boots.  The cops might be too busy to help you.  Or they might frankly not see it as their job to intervene.  There’s a lot of traffic that needs directing.  Or perhaps they subscribe to one observer’s comment that you probably deserved the “lesson” you were getting.  If this was Taxi University, class was definitely in session.

I haven’t decided whether the passenger — who not only fled when class began in earnest, but also got back into the taxi once class was dismissed — was wise, cowardly, foolish, or just incredibly efficient.  After all, you don’t pay a new fare when you continue with a taxi after stopping.

It’s hard for me to imagine those first few sentences when getting back into the freshly-educated driver’s taxi, but perhaps that’s why my future’s not in fiction.  I’d guess it’d be a meek congratulations on the continuing education credits, then off to Concourse B.  The guilt would tempt me to tip a bit more.  Then again, you made me late.

I didn’t get out to help, though class was in session a mere two meters from me.  You can decide whether I was wise, cowardly, foolish, or just incredibly efficient.  My flight was leaving in an hour.  I was not yet at the gate.  Traffic was made worse because people were conducting class in the middle of the airport entrance.  This was definitely not adding up to leaving for Shenzhen on time.

I’m told a woman was once beat to death on a crowded bridge stopped with traffic during rush hour in New York City.  If memory serves correctly, class went into overtime during that session, lasting much longer than usual.  No one helped.  Perhaps everyone was acutely aware that they had not registered for the course, and so would not want to intrude on what was rightfully someone else’s education.  No one even called the police.  I’m not sure if anyone called nearby friends.

It’s commonplace to encounter belligerent shouting in Shanghai.  You might be at a supermarket.  You might be at a bus stop.  You might be in a five-star hotel lobby.  The location doesn’t seem to matter much.  Escalation is lightning quick.  WHAT!?  My coffee is late?!  What sort of two-bit joint is this?!  You moron!  I’m convinced I derive less titillating pleasure than many folks from these encounters because I don’t enjoy Jerry Springer.  I could probably lighten up a bit about the visceral aspects of human nature.  If it’s good enough for Ultimate Fighting Championship, it should be good enough for me.  Call me high-brow.

Being a suburbanite, it’s hard for me to know whether this tendency towards shouting and mano-a-mano combat is simply an urban phenomenon or one that’s especially acute in the Chinese culture.  I’ve not lived in the heart of any major American city, though I can easily be convinced that LA or New York might be like this.

What I mostly think about when I bring the kids out — to, say, the park or the shopping mall — is what they’ll learn from all the shouting and fighting.  And, in a rare moment of honesty, what they think about my efficiency.

Standards of Cleanliness

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

One thing that’s a little different from the US about China is its standard of cleanliness.  Here are several nations on the International Scale of Cleanliness:

China -> US -> Canada -> Japan / Singapore

When I lived in the US, I thought some places were pretty dirty — say, Gary, Indiana.  Canada always seemed a bit cleaner.  Japan and Singapore are probably in a dead heat for first place, though I’ve never been to Singapore.  Japan, however, I have been to.  You can pretty much bet that any country where hotel toilets have 12-16 separate buttons/knobs/functions is going to be a pretty clean country (from bottom up, so to speak).

But in China the standards and expectations of cleanliness are different.  Everything seems just a bit grungy.  The outside of buildings might have black mold or gray scuff marks.  The windows in a glass elevator might have a thin film of mildew evenly filtering the sunlight.  Bathroom counters might have nondescript unevenness in color.  How, after all, are you going to clean things if the water itself is slightly yellow?  The cleanest you could possibly get a “white” linoleum floor is light yellow, unless you’re willing to mop with, say, bottled water.  So the entire country seems just slightly less clean than some other parts of the world.

This was driven home to me yesterday in the company cafeteria.  The checkout lady was about to hand me my napkin (yes, napkins are tightly guarded in this cafeteria) when she spotted an insect crawling on the counter near the register.  In one smooth motion, she dropped the napkin, smashed the bug with her palm, and handed my napkin to me while saying the Chinese equivalent of, “Thank you for your patronage.  Come again!”

The food tasted good.  I used my single napkin with pride.  It’s not often that you know where your dinnerware has truly been.

But of course this sort of thing happens in the US as well.  In the company cafeteria in Seattle, the cook making my panini spotted some gunk on the spatula he was using to make my sandwich.  He swiftly banged it once or twice on the inside surface of the nearby trash can, then immediately used it to shovel my panini onto a plate.  So yes, there are horror stories to tell about food service everywhere in the world.

But as a generalization, China’s accepted standards of cleanliness are lower than the US.  I’m sure in the coming years as the Chinese populace gets ever more wealthy the expectations for cleanliness will rise.  In the meantime, my sincerest wishes to you on receiving a bug-free napkin at your next meal.

"It’s Not Fixable"

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

In the course of getting the house repaired, the ADSL repaired, and a variety of other things fixed, it’s become apparent that there’s a trend in Shanghai of repairmen saying things can’t be repaired.

Situation:  House window won’t close.  Big 2″ gap potentially letting the cool breezes and the occasional enterprising burglar into the house.
Repairman:  “Can’t be fixed.  That window can’t be closed.  Not fixable.”

Situation:  Phone line not working upstairs.  Repairman takes a look inside the wall, discovers several long wires, and sighs.
Repairman (mind you, the phone company’s repairman):  “Can’t be fixed.  Actually, it’s not even my job.  You’ll have to do without.  What’s wrong with using the one phone in the foyer?”  (I’ve been practicing doing two flights of stairs within four rings of the telephone.  I think I’m close.)

Situation:  Internet not working.  The line gets disconnected every 2-3 minutes.  As you know from my previous post, I’ve already entered the magic numbers that should make it work.
Repairman (Internet Specialist):  “Can’t be fixed.  I mean, look at this jumble of wires!”  (He shows me, clearly expecting my years of phone-repair experience to empathize.  I nod knowingly.)  “Can’t you just use the Internet from somewhere else?  This won’t work.”

Some of these issues were only fixed after intense cajoling and negotiation of the Can’t-You-See-That-I-Need-A-Telephone, I-Can’t-Walk-To-An-Internet-Cafe-Every-Time-I-Check-Email variety.  Through this, I’ve learned two things:

  1. In China, there’s an expectation of negotiation during repair services.  It’s not that things truly can’t be fixed — it’s just that the repairmen, like good actors, want a good reason for trying.  “What’s my motivation?”  You’ll find that most are reasonable after they are convinced of your predicament.  “Really — and here I’m not joshing you — it’s pretty hard to use ‘The Internet’ when the superhighway shuts down every 2-3 minutes.  Can you imagine all the data backups and fender-benders?  This is what I’m saying, my man.”
  2. There’s a chance you may not be burgled immediately.  I mean, look at us:  our window’s been “irreparable” for at least a few weeks here.  We’re still “open for business,” so to speak.  When a repairman won’t be convinced, no amount of logic will sway him otherwise.  “The window must have worked at some point, right?  Like immediately after installation?”  These arguments ring hollow to repairmen of great faith.  Don’t tempt them with facts.  It won’t work.

Instead of just caving in whenever someone says something can’t be done, I’ve learned to push back a little.  “Really?  This will never again work, in this house, ever?”  “If it’s not the telephone company’s job to fix the telephone line, could you help me find the right people to contact?” 

I truly don’t believe repairmen do this to be malicious.  I think debate and argumentation is an expected part of the social contract between homeowner/renter and repairman.  I now almost enjoy the prospect of this near-guaranteed confrontation when anything needs to be fixed.


Almost fixed, that is.  Some things still don’t work.

"Call Me Direct If You Need Anything…"

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

The ADSL Man made a big point of telling me, at least three times during his visit, that I should call his cell phone directly if I have any problems in the future instead of dialing the general China Telecom help line.

[For those of you in Shanghai, the China Telecom help line is reachable by dialing 10000.  They even have English menus and English speakers available!  Quite helpful.]

At first, I chalked this eagerness up to a heretofore unseen level of customer service.  I’ve never had a repairman insist multiple times that I can call him anytime, day or night, on his personal cell phone nonetheless, if I should ever have any problems with my ADSL.  This, coming from the same man that previously refused to give me the access code to connect to the Internet.

Turns out it’s a bit trickier than that.  I’ve independently verified from third party sources (read: “Native Shanghai Folks Who Aren’t Easily Duped”) that the ADSL Man’s easy availability comes at a price.  Here’s The Deal:

If you call China Telecom directly, they assign a local contract repairman to your house.  It’s a free service.

If you call the same repairman directly, China Telecom has no idea that you’re getting something repaired.  The repairman, at the end of his Personal Repair Service, will ask for payment, presumably of the I’ve-Just-Painted-Half-Your-Face-At-The-Cosmetic-Counter-So-Why-Don’t-You-Pay-For-The-Other-Half variety.  “I’d hate to see your ADSL not work, ever again, but I sure will give fixing it another go if you could help defray my travel costs today.  I took the Mag-Lev train to get here.  Nice desserts on that train, you know?”

So:  Call 10000.  Do not call the repairman directly.  That’s The Deal.

ADSL Setup in Shanghai

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

So here I am trying to set up an ADSL connection in the place we moved into.  The owner had been paying for ADSL for quite some time, so presumably it worked.  But neither of the two Ethernet connections in the house seemed to have signal in them, so I ended up calling the ADSL repair folks.  In Shanghai, this means China Telecom.

The repair guy comes over, tests both Ethernet ports, and verified that there indeed weren’t signals coming out of them.  He then goes into the phone panel in the house and begins disconnecting all sorts of wires.  It’s a mess in there, a veritable bird’s nest of thin-gauge technicolor wiring.  But no matter.  He starts cutting and ripping them all out.  Finally, he connects two tiny wires together.

Back upstairs.  Now testing the phone jacks.  Doesn’t work in the office.  No worries, let’s try the guest bedroom.  Ah, the phone line seems to work there.  Let’s now connect an ADSL modem to it.

Great.  Everything now works from the guest bedroom.

Me:  “Great!  Can we now get it working from the office?”
Phone-Love:  “How about you just use the Internet from here?”
Me:  “The guest bedroom?  I was thinking of using the computer from the office… it’s the one with the Ethernet port, right?”
Phone-Love:  “The port’s not working.  The phone line there’s not working either.”  It, by the way, doesn’t seem to cross his mind that his chop-job in the garage might have had anything to do with this.
Me:  “But isn’t the point of the Ethernet port that our network connection should come through it?  Can’t we get that working?  Or at least the phone line in the office?”
Phone-LoveDead serious, with no self-detected I’m-From-China-Telecom irony.  “That’s not my job.  The phone line upstairs is broken.  Not sure what that Ethernet port was for.  Why don’t you just use the guest room to access the Internet?”

If it’s not the China Telecom guy’s job to get a phone line working, I’m not sure whose job it is.  But no matter.  Here I am, coming to you from the guest room.  That’s not all — there’s more.

I bought an ADSL modem from Metro City, a mall in Xujiahui that sells all sorts of computer goods.  (It also has a fabulous food court in the basement for those marathon shopping trips.)  If you’re going to buy an ADSL modem, I’d highly recommend getting one that has an English interface.  The local brand, TP-Link, does not have English menus.  So good luck there — you’ll probably recognize one or two familiar-sounding terms, like DHCP or NAT.  But the rest won’t be usable.

I pat myself on the back for being smart enough to get a D-Link, whose interface is indeed in English (mostly).  Herein begins the fun.  I plug in the ADSL modem, enter my username and password, and nothing happens.  No Internet.  I look around the menus and discover that I might need to modify “VPI” and “VCI” numbers (which apparently vary from carrier to carrier).  Onto the phone to China Telecom speedy helpdesk.

Me:  “Hello, I’m trying to get an ADSL modem configured for use on your network.”
ADSL-Love:  “You don’t need to configure anything.”
Me:  “I’ve put in my username and password, but there’s still no connection.”
ADSL-Love:  “Oh, right, you do need to put those in, but then it’ll work.”
Me:  “It doesn’t.”
ADSL-Love:  “It’ll work.  You don’t need to configure anything.”
MeAt this point, instead of trying to articulate the reality of the absolutely nothingness that was going on in my office guestroom, I take a different tack.  “What are the VCI and VPI settings for China Telecom’s ADSL?”
ADSL-Love:  “You don’t need to know those.  You don’t need to set them.  You know, for those settings, you should call your modem manufacturer.”
Me:  “But aren’t those settings carrier-dependent?  The manufacturer wouldn’t know those, right?”  “Carrier-dependent,” by the way, is a gross exaggeration of what I said in my second-grade-level Mandarin.  The literal sentences were probably something more like, “Aren’t those switches which I here set modem only you know?  Not modem maker?  You have numbers?  VCI, VPI?  Capiche?”
ADSL-Love:  “No, you don’t need to set those.  Your manufacturer can help you.”

As you’ve probably guessed, D-Link has absolutely nothing to say on this subject.  Rightfully so, since those settings are indeed carrier dependent.

To save you new-to-Shanghai folks some ADSL Love of you own, here are the critical settings you need to know:

Protocol:  PPPoE
Channel:  PVC0 (that’s channel zero)
VPI:  8
VCI:  81 (decimal, or 51 hex, depending on your router)

These settings will only work in Shanghai for ADSL.  Other parts of China are sometimes run by different carriers.  The parts that are China Telecom outside Shanghai may have different VPI/VCI settings.  In those cases, you don’t need to configure anything.  It’ll just work.  Or you could call your modem manufacturer.  Heheh.

For a full (though possibly outdated) list, search online for “china telecom vci vpi.”  There are a variety of sites that list ADSL settings worldwide (primarily for Linux drivers, apparently).

"Next Time I’ll Bring a Knife"

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Overheard on the elevator today while going up to work:

Man:  “I think it’s my third time here.”
Woman (colleague):  “We’ve been here four times.  But you missed one of the meetings.”
Man:  “That’s right.  A total of four times, but I missed one.  I can’t believe after all these meetings that we’ve still not reached an agreement with them.”
Woman:  “Tell me about it.”
(This is a rough translation, since in Chinese the literal phrase “tell me about it” doesn’t mean what it does in English.  If you want to imagine more of a Chinese flair to this conversation, just roll your eyes and lament, “AYE-yoh,” or you could use the popular, “AYE-yoh-eh.”  Let your arms flap a bit in exasperation.)
Man:  “Well, if we don’t get an agreement with them today, next time I’ll bring a knife.  ‘Oh, Mr. Chen, I think we should discuss…’ POW!!<Mr. Chen makes a forceful stabbing motion in the elevator>  “That’ll show ’em.”

The good news is that Mr. Chen, Deal Closer Extraordinaire, got off the elevator one floor before the Microsoft offices with his yet-unperturbed colleague.

This conversation got me thinking.  It used to be, say, in the early 1990’s, that these sorts of jokes would be lightly chuckled at and filed away in the Dark Humor section of water cooler lore.  But somewhere in the last decade in the US, these jokes stopped being funny.  We’ve essentially applied the famous airport TSA sign — “All jokes will be taken seriously” — to our lives.

Has this change happened in the US because of all the workplace violence, all the Going Postal, the last few years?  Or is it just I that thinks these jokes would no longer be funny if said in an elevator in the US?

Let me know your opinion.  A barrel of laughs?  Nervous staring and shuffling in the elevator followed by a quick call to building security once you’re out of Mr. Chen’s earshot?  Which would happen in the US?  Has our culture changed?

POW!!  (Just kidding.  Plastic butter knife.)

Labor Force One Billion

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

One very obvious difference when you walk into Shanghai stores vs. stores in the US is the number of employees.  Stores in China tend to be chock full of employees.  It’s far more than you’d ever see in the US.

I once spotted six uniformed employees standing in one aisle of a supermarket.

The supreme hilarity with all this excess, however, is that not one of those employees were eager to help me.  Sure, they’d begrudgingly answer questions, but they weren’t about to offer any assistance on their own.  Give them a break — they’ve got five other buddies to attend to.

You’ll see the same sort of excess in ritzy shopping malls.  Several of the local malls cater primarily to foreigners, charging ridiculous amounts of money for shiny little products.  On any typical weekday, you’ll find that the mall is mostly empty except for all the employees standing around everywhere.

I speculate that there’s all this excess because of the great differential in earning power between the rich in China (or the West, for that matter) and the average Chinese person.  At the supermarket, you can easily find small pieces of beef that cost more than a day’s wages for one of the supermarket’s employees.  With that sort of differential, it’s no wonder there are a bunch of people standing around.

Form Line! Form Line!

Monday, May 19th, 2008

I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Whoever created the stereotype of the Chinese proprietor shouting “Form line!  Form line!” at disorderly customers obviously hasn’t been to China.  Because in China, people don’t form lines.

In fact, in some places there’s a veritable free-for-all.  For instance, take Xujiahui subway station, a reasonably large (count them:  14 exits), quite crowded subway station in a Shanghai business district.  It’s nothing compared to Shinjuku station in Tokyo, but still — more people travel through it every morning than probably inhabit most small cities in the US.

I was standing in Xujiahui station at one of five ticket counters, four of which were manned.  One person was ahead of me, busily talking to the attendant.  There was about one customer per attendant, so you could say that I was the only customer “in line.”  In fact, in the US, you’d say I was “next in line.”

In China, you’d just say I was “stupid.”

As the patron in front of me finished his business, I began to move towards the now-freed-up attendant sitting in her booth.  Mind you, there was very little gap between me and the person that was in front of me.  In the US, you would have said that I was standing uncomfortably close to him.  You’d say perhaps we were more than friends.  Or maybe I was covertly directing his moves with a hidden gun.

But it was apparently Too Much Space.  Too Much Gap, Indicating Not Enough Interest In A Ticket.

As I moved towards the attendant, another man jumped right in front of me and began to buy his ticket.  I rolled my eyes, chalked it up to Being In China, and waited patiently.  But I inched even closer.  At this point, I could  — I am not making this up — feel the heat from his body.  I was seriously that close.  Between needing to be disturbingly close and being without a ticket, I chose to risk all hygiene and propriety.  I was not going to get cut in front of again.

But oh, I was.  As the man in front of me (let’s call him “Steamy”) began to leave, and as I began to close the less-than-a-foot gap between me and the ticket booth, a woman jammed her hand, full of coins, into the opening of the booth to purchase a ticket.  There wasn’t enough space for her to fit bodily between me and the booth, at least not enough to prevent Whisperings And Talk, but there was apparently still enough for her to jam her hand in front of me in line.  That, my friends, was enough to buy her a ticket before me.

Fool me once, shame on — shame on you.  Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.

I was not going to let propriety or personal space get between me and a subway ticket again.  When the lady in front of me (let’s call her “Hands”) finished her business, I immediately jammed my hands into the hole in the booth, even before I was close enough to do this without awkward stretching.  This thwarted the next customer, who was probably otherwise puzzled about why I had been standing near the booth so long without indicating any desire to purchase a ticket.

So when visiting China, just remember that There Is No Line.  Even if you think there is, or perhaps that there should be.  What you need to do is to get closer than you ever would to anyone in the US, and furthermore, exploit any gaps that you can.  When there’s an opening, jump right in.  Elbow old ladies, knock old men over.  Self Before Others.  Live the dream.