Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hair Do's and Don'ts

The bashful sun had been hidden behind a cloak of smog for almost two weeks, but today the air above Beijing finally saw some improvement. And along with it, my cold and my mood also improved. What better day than today to get a haircut? Googlemaps revealed a plethora of barber shops just up the street from my apartment building. Not knowing where to start, I went to the one place nearby that I was sure I had seen a barber shop before. What made it so memorable was the one weekend morning I biked by to see all of the barbers outside the shop doing what seemed like an aerobics class, with music blaring.

Sure enough, a little exploring uncovered one more barber shop on the floor right above in the same building, and on the floor above that, two more barber shops. Price comparison was never so easy. But apparently, just because it's easy to compare prices doesn't mean it's obvious to do so, since even in this building the shops aren't operating in perfect competition. One store wanted 40 RMB, the next 50 RMB, the next 80 RMB, and the last one said that a haircut there would either cost 30 RMB or 60 RMB. When I asked what the difference between the two haircuts were, the attendant responded, "One of them is 30 RMB, and the other one is 60 RMB." I'm sure something got lost there by my less than ideal Chinese skills there, but not willing to take my chances, I settled for the 40 RMB one on the ground floor. True, not as cheap as the 10 RMB cut one of my classmates said he got at a university shop, but that place was a bit far, and this shop did aerobics.

I entered, was seated in the barber's chair, and was immediately offered a drink. That's the first time I've been offered a drink at a barber shop. Admittedly, though, it wasn't as surprising as what I was offered during my one barber shop experience in Mexico city two summers ago. When I sat down in the barber's chair that time, I was asked if I wanted to read a magazine. I was only used to reading magazines before getting a haircut, not during, so I politely declined the opportunity to keep my eyes distracted while the barber waved his scissors around my head. "You like girls, don't you?" the barber asked a few minutes into the cut. "Sure, girls are nice," I replied. "What's your favorite type of girls?" he insisted. "Um, the nice ones." I didn't realize what he was getting at until a local middle-aged man sat in the seat next to mine, dutifully accepted the magazine, and began to page through what was a full-on porno mag. I couldn't believe my eyes, but was also astounded at the ingenuity of sneaking naked ladies into one of the few 15-minute increments where men probably won't be anywhere near their wives.

Anyway, back to China. The haircut started with a "dry" shampoo that came out of something like a hand-sanitizer bottle and was lathed into my hair with an accompanying scalp massage. This being China, they apparently didn't give up the chance to sneak in a massage. Then I was ushered into a darker room where I laid down and put my head into a basin and they washed my hair out. It was then that the attendant asked if I wanted an actual massage. The experience so far, coupled with my previous experience in Mexico, reminded me of a story one of my friends here had told, about how a teacher of his had come to a small city in China, wandered into a less-than-reputable looking hair salon, asked for a hair cut, then got what had to be one of the worst haircuts ever from a person who clearly had no idea what she was doing. It was only later that she learned that the "hair salon" was actually a front for a brothel in the back rooms, and that that was probably the first haircut that that "stylist" had ever given. I couldn't think that a brothel-cum-hair salon would ever have its employees do aerobics on the street, so didn't suspect my current barber shop too much. But just to be safe, I still declined the massage.

Next I was taken to my third seat within ten minutes. This is when the actual haircut started, and it was performed by a completely different person than the shampooist. Once that was done, another new person took me back to the basin to re-wash my hair (why did they wash it before I got the haircut if they were just going to wash it again afterwards?), then back to employee # 2 and chair #4 for a blow dry. Paid at the counter, and that was that. All-in-all, a pretty decent haircut and a pretty unique experience for $6.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Scaling the Wall

On my Air China flight into Beijing one month ago, the inflight movie was The Social Network. It's a great movie, but it was pretty hard to understand because they kept bleeping out the word "facebook" whenever the characters mentioned it.

Okay, so that last part isn't exactly true, but what is true is that the Great Firewall of China is really annoying. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, most blog sites (including this one) are out of the question unless you have a VPN program to skirt around the Wall. Then there are websites that sometimes you can access and sometimes you can't access depending on how the Wall is feeling that day, it seems, or based on where you're accessing from. It seems that the internet in my apartment is much more willing to access Google sites than the internet on computers in Tsinghua University. Given Tsinghua's close ties with key political bigwigs, that might not be such a surprise.

I've talked to some Chinese people about it, and they don't seem to mind it so much. After all, there's many Chinese versions of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and blog sites out there already, so there's no reason the typical Chinese web user would pine for using foreign versions of the websites they already have at home, in Chinese. If you ask the average American how they would feel if RenRenWang or Youku were blocked from them, they'd probably not even have realized that they had access to those sites in the first place.

The commonly stated reason why the Chinese government blocks all these foreign websites is because they can't keep tabs on potential dissidents or the otherwise unauthorized organizing of people. And that's a reasoning that certainly easy to accept. One of the most noticeable aspects of Cuba, which I visited just before coming to China, was just how deeply the government was afraid of its own people, and there's no reason to think that China should be much different. It seems that without procedural outlets of participatory government, access to justice, elections, etc., the major for people to make their voice heard is through protests or violent opposition. And so the government, realizing this, lives in constant fear of its people and tries to suppress interactions it deems out of "harmony." 

But I met an American interning at Baidu, the Chinese answer to Google, who said that the most surprising thing about her experience has been just how little the government interferes with the day to day operations of the company. So maybe it's more economics than politics that is behind the Wall. After all, this is a country that limits the number of foreign films that can be shown in theaters, and requires many foreign companies to basically hand over their patents and trade secrets after a set grace period of domestic operations. So just as the real Great Wall was built to protect the interests of Han dynasties from nomadic tribes for hundreds of years, the Great Firewall might just have been built to protect the interests of domestic companies against foreign competition.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Traffic Cycles

Before coming to Beijing, I had read article after article about China's newfangled car culture and how it's overtaking the throngs of bicycles that once crowded the streets. But once here, I was pleasantly surprised to find that though cars are indeed doing most of the crowding, there are still plenty of bicycles around to put even the most bike-friendly U.S. cities the shame. Bicycles are parked everywhere, and I've spotted bicycle-specific rain ponchos with long slits down the sides, so that you can lift the front up and cover your legs and arms while biking (I want one). Apparently, bicycling as a percentage of trips in Beijing dropped from 60 to 40% between 1990 and 2000, then down to about 20% by 2009. That's a drop, but that's still 20%, a lot higher than Portland's 6% or so that tops U.S. statistics. 

And it's clear that city planners have incorporated bicycles into their road designs, which, apparently, they've been doing since the very first Five Year Plan. Most major roads--and most roads here seem to be major roads--have bike paths separated from major traffic with   bush-lined infrastructure. Smaller roads have bike lanes protected with the ubiquitous little white gates that I'm sure the City of Beijing has a patent on. Even some of the smallest roads in the darnedest places still have painted bike lanes.

Which is all well and good, but doesn't mean much of anything, because nobody seems to bother to honor the intentions of the city planners. If wishes were bicycles, civil engineers would ride. Bikers ride both inside the bike land and outside, with and against traffic. Pedestrians walk inside the bike land and the road, too. Nobody seems to pay much attention to traffic lights. And of course, the king of the road is the car, which gladly runs through both bike lanes and sometimes sidewalks, honking at anything with less than four wheels that dares get in its way. I've been honked at by a car while walking on the sidewalk twice so far. I never knew walking on the sidewalk could be such an audacious act. 

My roommate calls crossing the street in China a game of frogger, and that's about right. People will walk into the street and walk forward and back across it, dodging honking cars and buses, all the while with babies and dogs in tow. At my school's orientation, the teachers advised us to ignore traffic lights and just follow the crowd when crossing the street. And that has a certain type of logic to it, especially considering how every single road seems to be an eight-lane arterial not conducive to easy crossing. I wish I could say that there's a sort of chaotic beauty to it, too. But traffic fatalities are already the leading cause of death for Chinese under 45 years old, with the death rate doubling in the past 20 years, and that's not even counting unreported traffic deaths which may amount to even more than reported ones.

There's a certain logic to following the crowd, but there's also a logic to being the iconoclast by obeying the rules. These past few days I've been eschewing my school's advise to instead wait at the intersection, perched atop my flying pigeon, watching the crowd scuttle forward as I wait patiently for the little green man and the little green bike (Beijing is cool enough to have traffic lights just for bicycles). I've noticed that now I don't get honked at by city buses barreling at me before making their left turns anymore. That's a good thing.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Flood

During the subway trek back from Chaoyang last weekend, I read a great short story by Kobo Abe about a philosopher who spots a man melt into liquid before his eyes, and rightfully predicts that people will keep melting until the world is consumed by a great flood. Little did I know that while I was reading it I should have been predicting Beijing's own flood to come later that week.

The air in Beijing is really bad. My first week in Beijing I got a headache every time I went outside. Sometimes you can barely see down the block, and on really bad days buildings across the street even look hazy. In New Haven I was happy to see the blue sky, but here I'm pretty content with just seeing an actual cloud. Any cloud will do. One of my classmates says that at her old school an English student once asked her, "What color is the sky in your country?" I've heard rumors of an American track and field athlete who came to Beijing, kept running outside everyday, and after just one year got black lung. After being in Beijing for a couple of weeks, that doesn't seem like such a crazy story.

The Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection tracks the pollution in the air over Beijing, but for a number of reasons I've been avoiding their readings and looking mostly at the feed from the monitoring station above the U.S. Embassy. I check it all the time I'm at my computer. It's my new home page. And for most of the time I've been here those reading have vacillated between "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups," "Unhealthy," and "Very Unhealthy." The worst day so far was this past Wednesday, when particulate matter readings went up to a "Hazardous" 459. That's on an index that only goes up to 500. The Chinese index, by the way, rated that Wednesday as only "Slightly Polluted." Their reading always seem range from "Excellent" to "Good" to "Slightly Polluted." Though to give the Chinese monitoring agency some credit, it seems as though they are indeed trying to update their pollution measurement index.

As if to punish the city for its emission sins, the day after that "Hazardous" reading a huge evening downpour fell upon Beijing the likes of which, apparently, it had never seen before. My campus was flooded, streets outside campus were flooded, and water even managed to flood some subway lines. Those who didn't take hours upon hours to go back home from work or school ended up swimming back. The upside though, is that the rain seemed to wash all the gunk out of the sky, and we were blessed with a beautiful blue sky weekend perfect for picnics in the park and my very fist morning run around campus. But since that weekend, the air pollution readings have expectedly been creeping back up.

The saddest part about this whole story is that none of the Chinese here actually seem to mind the air quality all that much. Any foreigner around would gladly moan about the air at the drop of a hat, but Chinese people seem much more inclined to complain about traffic or crowds or real estate prices before mentioning air, if at all. I met an American PhD student working at a lab in Tsinghua who said none of her student labmates seemed to notice that there was anything wrong with the air, or think that it affected them. Tsinghua is supposed to be the top science and engineering school in the country, by the way. "Haziness" generally seems to be accepted as if it were a natural phenomenon, beyond the control of mere humans. The New York Times reports, with tongue in cheek, of locals trying to deal with the pollution by eating more vegetables, putting on more makeup, or fanning themselves with paper. Meanwhile, about three quarters of China's population live in areas that don't meet WHO air quality standards, air pollution causes at least 300,000 premature deaths annually, and cancer--most commonly lung cancer--is now the leading cause of death in China.

My best guess is that the good majority of people that check the U.S. Embassy's air quality twitter feed are expats living in the city. Twitter is banned in China and you have to sneak around the internet censors to see it. The Embassy might be all the more effective if it posted the air quality stats on Weibo, the Chinese version of twitter that every Chinese and their mother seems to be on. Weibo isn't banned. And once more people start to realize that the haze isn't just that thing that blocks the sun's rays and means you can keep your parasol at home, then maybe Beijingers will no longer have to be drowning in a flood of air.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Death and Life of Great Chinese Apartment Complexes

I moved into my summer apartment last week, and it's a doozy. From the air directly above, I suppose the residential complex looks like any standard subdivision in the U.S. Many cookie-cutter buildings dot the insides of a square subdivision lot, almost exactly like the neighboring complex right to the north. But swooping down from the bird's-eye view you can see that those cookie-cutter buildings are in fact high-rises of some 10-15 stories. And going down even further you find that there are an unbelievable number of shops and businesses on the first floor of each high rise.

In my complex there are quite a few parks, many with exercise equipment for the old folks, a cafe, a sundries story where you can buy jugs of water, and a combination fruit seller/laundromat (?). But that doesn't hold a candle to the bigger and comparatively less shoddy complex to the north. There you'll find a Korean grocer, a bookstore, a musical instrument store, a few cafes, a decent-sized gym with a pool, some real estate brokers, and oh so many massage parlors. I counted seven (seven!) massage parlors on the way home today, the first not that far from the last one, and all within the complex premises. I'm confident that if you stand in the right spot, you can have all seven of them in eyesight. I know Chinese like massages, and they certainly and luckily are cheap, but seven!

Sure, that complex isn't blocked off from outsiders, so non-residents--like me--can easily come and go. But it is a residential complex none the less, and you won't just wander in here from off the main drag. It's baffling to think that just the residents in one complex can support seven (!) nearly identical massage businesses. They and all the other shops seem to be doing well enough. I've only seen one closed business in the complexes so far.

While my two apartment complexes have been around for years, the rest of Beijing is abuzz with brand new, luxury residential development. You can usually tell an apartment's luxurious by the number of times its ads show up in in-flight magazines, and by the word "International" squeezed into its name. I gather "international" must be code-word for dead, because none of them seem to have any of the ground-level stores that ensure that people are out and about, bringing life to the lot. Then again, since complaining about crowds and traffic seems to be the local pastime here, maybe it's worth it to those who can afford it to escape from the throngs, even if it means sacrificing convenience and community along with it. 

In the meantime, though, I'll happily keep exploring my older, more traditional residential areas. Given the Chinese penchant for everything eight, I'm sure there's got to be another massage parlor hidden around here somewhere.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

No Photography

On my first full day in Beijing, I came face to face with "Essence of Kangaroo." It was a smallish silver box, much like a Rogaine box, and with a dapper Western man with a full set of luxurious hair smiling on the front, again much like a Rogaine box. The major difference was the kangaroo standing just to the man's left, behind the sign that said "Essence of Kangaroo." I had never seen anything this absurd, so naturally my first inclination was to take a picture of it.

But just as I was about to snap the photo, a store clerk came over and put her hand in front of the box, saying I couldn't take a picture of it. It wasn't until a second store clerk came over to tell me the same thing that I realized she was serious. And it wasn't until I was walking out of the grocery store, dejected and photo-less, that I realized there might actually be bits and pieces of kangaroo inside that box.

At first I chalked up their insistence against photos to the kangaroo bits, since we Westerners eat chickens and fish and their babies and cows and turkeys and ducks and deer and lobsters and crabs and lamb, but we don't eat kangaroo testes, so naturally have the right to judge those who do. Maybe kangaroo testes is a touchy subject across cultures. But then I kept seeing "No Photography" signs in stores selling things as innocuous as Adidas shoes. Instead, then, maybe stores selling legitimate goods are just trying to prevent people from taking photos of them, and using those photos to make their own knock-offs?

At any rate, in a fit of instant karma as strong and full of vitality as the kangaroo, my camera was stolen from my pocket while aboard a crowded Beijing subway, just two days after the incident in the grocery store. That was the first time I'd been pick-pocketed in my life, which was no fun. But lo and behold, all the Adidas stores and grocery clerks in the world can't stop me from finding the exact image I want on Google. Why take your own pictures, when you can just take somebody else's from the internet? Who needs a camera anyway? P.S. did you know that the research has found that male Kangaroo produces twice as much semen as a bull? Thanks, Google!

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Last week I was fortunate enough to visit Cuba for the first time in my life. It was the first time for most of my family too, except for my mother, who was born in Havana but hadn't been back in 52 years. We were greeted at the airport not only by our cousins, but also by billboards that proudly touted Cuba as the land where "the past and the present coexist." The ad's proclamation is painfully clear after just a few minutes in Havana. Except for a few blocks of the old town spruced up for tourists, it seems like the entire country has collectively forgotten how to both build and maintain buildings. It's like walking into a fifty-year old photograph, except that buildings themselves, instead of the photograph paper, are tattered and creased and worn. Cuba is where the present and past coexist because you can't find the future there.  

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Beijing. If Cuba lost its future, then China must have found it. I arrived in an airport as shiny and pristine as the myriad new cars and residential compounds advertised in the in-flight magazine. It has that new airport smell. And the new airport only opens up to roads lined with new high-rise residential buildings leading to a Central Business District with new office skyscrapers.

One of my relatives in Cuba was trained as an economist and now works in the Ministry of Construction, which is sort of a joke because nothing ever gets constructed in Cuba and he's bored out of his mind at the job. Meanwhile in Beijing construction is so widespread it even has its own bank, the China Construction Bank. Everywhere you turn there seems to be something new being built. The air is thick with construction. It tastes like dirt and metal.

The government is the ultimate owner of all urban land in both Cuba and China. In Cuba, the law is biased towards returning empty property to the government. Private land transactions are in realistic terms next to impossible, and in order to inherit a home one must live in it for ten years after the passing of its previous owner. Any unoccupied property is condemned by the government almost instantaneously. Houses and apartment buildings stay put for decades. But in China municipal governments have realized that property can be multiplied if the real is made liquid, and seem all to eager to raze the hutongs of old to make way for luxury high rises and their promise of copious square footage per acre. Outsiders are left to marvel at both the timelessness of Cuba's stagnancy and the rapidness of China's transfiguration. The issue of old and new doesn't have to be an either/or question, of course, and the past and future can certainly coexist. But coming from an America that likes both historical districts and flashy new football stadiums, I'm struck at just how much each of these countries seems at first glance to be choosing sides.