Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Land of Root Beer and S'more

Week before last, my Chinese co-manager and I made the four hour journey from the fog-shrouded riverbanks of Chongqing, to the fog-engulfed basin wherein lies Chengdu.

We had been summoned by our masters, She-Ra and He-Man (actually Nancy Shen, Executive VP of my division, and Craig Nisbet, a Canadian of some repute) to the Aston English Southern Regional Conference 2007. Whoo-eee!

Actually, I was excited, but not for the conference. Chengdu is a notoriously foreigner-friendly city. A tourist hub for mountainous Sichuan province, as well as a waypoint for those moving t0-from China and SE Asia, Chengdu also has a few large, famous universities with many foreign teachers and exchange students. Thus, the area immediately around the school where our conference was held had a foreign food store containing manifold varieties of cheese, mexican/italian/american/australian/et al. ingredients, marshmallows, graham crackers, A&W root beer and cream soda, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch amongst other cereals. Also: Subway (I bought three footlongs in four days), Indian restaurants, pizza parlours, and a famous Tex-mex joint--serving up vast burritos and pies that melt in your mouth--can all be found within a three or four block radius.

Not to complain about Chongqing (a Belgian restaurant recently opened up down the street from our school), but the locals are just too proud of their spicy traditional foods--including hotpot--that sear the tongue and inflame the nether regions. Talking to a few local owners/managers of foreign food restaurants, it seems this makes the Chongqing market much more difficult to break into. I say damn you hotpot, to the oil-doused, over-spiced netherworld from whence you came!

On a related note, a few of my co-workers and I are considering the merits of opening up our own DQ and/or Subway in Chongqing. Jon and I found a three-year-old article about the joys and despairs of opening Subway franchises in Beijing. One foreign customer kissed the floor as he entered a Subway, there. I know that it's an oasis amid the oil-slathered, roach-infested chao mian places, but I wouldn't exactly recommend going that far.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Another Experiment

I've noticed that when I drink water fresh from the tank, it tastes just fine, but leave it out for even half a day and it begins to taste like the calcified scum in a half-century-old pipe. My hypothesis is that the airborne particulate matter (ie, pollution) that is so much greater in China than most other countries must be gently drowning in--and defiling--my otherwise pure cup of water. I've decided to leave a cup of water out today with a paper across the top. We'll see how it tastes, later this evening.

The True Price of Inflation (and Other Experiments)

Today at the Carrefour supermarket beneath my living-center one person was trampled to death and several others were injured. The direct cause of this tragedy was a sale that Carrefour had announced for cooking oil (which the Chinese drown their food in)--perhaps some 15 Yuan ($2 US) off the normal price. Given the massive inflation that China has been suffering lately--inflation partly due to the Chinese government's stubborn refusal to revaluate the Yuan currency more fairly in foreign exchange--many people may have figured that this might be the cheapest oil price they would be seeing... perhaps, ever. So the harpies descended upon Carrefour where their combined reckless spendthrift crushed several of their number into shelving units and the white-tiled floor. Such factors--thrift, competition, and rudeness--combined with the sheer population density in China can quickly turn otherwise merely reprehensible situations into dangerous ones.

Situations of such desparation wrought from relatively little reason do seem to be yet more proof of the moral decay present in China. I find it hard to imagine (especially not having been at the scene of the disaster, myself) whether it was the older generations or younger ones who caused the problem, or both, but perhaps there's less difference than one might think. Between those who lived through--and participated in--Mao's cultural revolution and their more materialistic descendants, there lies a common thread: the devaluation of the human being.

In Mao's time, the Chinese people were mere pawns in a grander scheme of deification, the results being a horrifying period in which millions were starved, tortured, forced to torture, and generally set against eachother. While a sucessful strategy for Mao, this resulted in a profound numbing of the Chinese people to politics, aesthetics, and humanitarian concerns, while encouraging natural competitive impulses to their extremes.

Since Deng Xiao Ping's capitalist reformation of the PRC, many economic, societal, and even environmental reforms have taken place, but even as materialism replaces political idolatry, there hasn't been anything to fill the vaccuum created by the displacement of traditional and religious moral systems by communist theories (which have also disappeared almost without trace from the hearts and minds of the people). The competitive disregard for others stoked in Mao's time has not been replaced by 'Harmony' but rather engorged and fueled by an economic boom-time in which the fittest, most ruthless, most connected sorts get to feed themselves to bursting, and the rest are left to fight for scraps or starve.

If there is redemption for China, it may rest in the enduring connections of family. People stay close to their relatives and friends (if only for survival and guanxi). But family is in turn sustained by cooking oil. And thus people get trampled in the supermarket aisles.

Edit: The story is now today's second most popular on, and has spread to other news agencies. Three dead, thirty-one injured, seven critically injured. My Carrefour is now closed until further notice. Apparently it was a tenth anniversary sale (I guess I now know how old my living center is) which had people lining up at 4 AM with a thirst for rapeseed distillate.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Advent of Mortality

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again. The advent of a certain itinerant wanderer, a rogue Michigander, and possible reincarnation of the original terrorist, Guy Fawkes.

A quarter of a century old, and an expatriate living in an ancient land reinventing itself at the speed of fiberoptics. I guess I couldn't have hoped for a better place to be, when I was a decade or two younger and wondering where I would be and what I would be doing at this unfathomably old age. The young Bruce, with his notorious monkey-smile, lives on. Today is an unseasonably warm and sunny day in Chongqing and I'm off to enjoy it.

Charitable donations in celebration of this advent are accepted. All proceeds go to the 'Die, College Loans, Die! Fund'. Address: 264 East 35th Street, San Bernardino, CA 92404.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Zombies in Mao Suits

(although today's more fashionable young Chinese zombies are actually wearing 'A Bathing Ape' t-shirts or Abbercrombie).

I often do try to imagine what a zombie apocalypse would be like in such a crowded country as China. And then I realize... the zombie apocalypse has already arrived and gone in the Middle Kingdom: the era of Mao contained hordes of shambling undead (or not-quite-living). They wore the same bland clothes; they ate undifferentiated food from the same commune caffeterias; they moaned the same brain-dead propaganda; they had no special goal, except to multiply and engulf the world. True, they didn't hunger for brains, but what is tofu if not a lower cholesterol, vegetarian substitute for that cranial nectar that zombies so dearly love to munch upon?

Today, although freer, China still sometimes seems beholden to the zombie gods of conformity. If one ever boards a train in the greater train stations of Beijing or Zhengzhou, you can see for yourself the masses shamble (there really is no better word for that slow, steadily rocking march forward) through the ticket gate. Opinions held (particularly of the political variety) have all the intellectual weight of "brains! brains! we need more brains... to eat." Clothing worn, although far more colorful and strange than the more conservative zombies would care to imagine, is still fairly conformist within its new boundaries.

So here I am, without a chainsaw, a shotgun, or even a trusty axe. I'll just have to hope that I can verbally reason with these plaintive cries for neurological sustenance.