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.