No cigar

What a heartbreaking loss for the United States…

Again, Joh and I woke up at 2:00am today to head to the office and watch the soccer game. This was the Confederations Cup championship game, and the U.S. faced off against Brazil. Now, the first game we stayed up to watch in the tournament was against Brazil and it was a terrible 3-0 loss. After the big upset over Spain, we thought the Americans had it in them to surprise the world again.

We walked up to the office and passed the same groggy security guard in the lobby on our floor. He was at his usual post, laying across the couch by the door, certain to pounce on any dangerous entity who decided to approach from the elevator. He didn’t look happy to see us, but he did let us pass without harm (whew!) and we set off to our desks and turned on the TV.

About 45 glorious minutes later, the U.S. side was up 2-0. It really looked like a win, until reality struck.

Three and a half goals for Brazil in the second half. One was a half because it should have been a goal, but the official didn’t see it cross the line. Didn’t matter anyway…

We walked home during the sunrise again, looking forward to at least getting two more hours of sleep. I wrote another article about the game. Surprisingly, this innocent article really brought home to me the fact that I’m working as a journalist in China.

There’s a line in the story: “In Act 1, Brazil was dressed like it was a cold day in Antarctica and the United States played like it was a cold day in hell.” When I actually wrote that, I used Tibet instead of Antarctica. This, apparently, was a no-go. I didn’t use it to grind an axe or anything – I hardly think referring to Tibet as a cold place is political – I just figured I’d refer to a cold place nearby as opposed to, say, Maine. Maybe Siberia would have worked…

Anyway, my editor was very nice when she asked me to explain the reference – actually everyone we work with is about as nice as a person can be. I explained that the Brazilians were dressed in a lot of clothes and they looked like they were playing someplace much colder than South Africa. She said she understood, but that it would be better if we changed the reference. It’s a small thing to get bent out of shape over, and I didn’t, but it is an interesting indicator of the kind of eggshells people have to walk on over here.

R.I.P., King of Pop

What terrible news to wake up to yesterday. For some fluke reason, I decided to get on the Internet before I got out of bed. My homepage is the International Herald Tribune, and it had this huge headline, “Michael Jackson dead at 50.”

Huh?

I was never really a huge Michael Jackson fan or anything, but the man could put out some catchy tunes. And man could he make a music video. Michael Jackson just doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could just die, y’know? When I was a kid, my brothers and I would always try to do the moonwalk on the kitchen floor. Everyone knew all the words to his songs, everyone wanted to be able to dance as well as him… People like him can’t just die…

Anyway, it was a big deal in China too, which says a lot because I haven’t noticed Chinese people really listening to Western artists, aside from the Carpenters. The TV’s in our office were all tuned to CNN, which our company pays extra to receive. Our friend Pang Li, who took us to see “Transformers 2,” is a huuuuuuuge MJ fan. He actually had tickets to one of the concerts in London, but had to sell them a while back when the dates changed. Well, we all offered Pang Li our condolences in the morning and took him out for a beer after work in honor of the King of Pop. I doubt MJ was a drinker, but it seemed like an appropriate enough way to commemorate him…

Football!!!

Where was I at 2:30 this morning? Joh and I were at the office. The U.S. national soccer team played Spain, the best team in the world, in the semifinals for the Confederations Cup, which is a warm-up tournament for the World Cup.

If you haven’t been paying attention, the U.S. got creamed against Brazil and Italy earlier in the tournament, then ran over Egypt to miraculously advance to the second round. I wrote an article about it here. Good news to advance, bad news to have to play Spain, who was unbeaten in their last 35 international games.

Well, they didn’t make it to 36.

Did you watch the game? Please tell me you did. It was inspirational. The best soccer game I ever watched. The United States played like the 1980 U.S. Hockey team. They never looked intimidated and they never stopped hustling. Tim Howard was amazing in the goal, the defense played well, the offense took advantage of their opportunities. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful 2-0 victory for the red, white and blue. I wrote an article about the game here.

Anyway, Joh and I were already pretty wiped all day yesterday because of the Transformers movie. We ate dinner right after work, then went home and went to bed at about 7. I woke up at about 1 a.m., woke Joh up at 2 and we headed off to the office, since we don’t get the sports channel in our apartment.

We rolled up to our floor in the building and there was a guard or maintenance guy or something sleeping in the lobby. When we turned on the TV, he came out and kinda watched with us for a second, then asked Joh to turn it down. We had to contain ourselves as the U.S. held on to the win even though the Spanish kept getting opportunities to score. It was totally worth missing out on sleep for.

This time, when we went home, the sun was up. I hate having to go to work on so little sleep, especially as I notice all the errors in the article I wrote about the game, but I guess that’s the price of being a fan…

More than meets the eye

China Standard Time is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, which kinda sucks for things like keeping in touch with friends or calling home. It’s kinda cool when a movie comes out here the same day it does in the U.S. because it means I get to see it before my friends do. I guess that’s not all that cool since I’m not really a big movie buff, but it was cool today when we saw the midnight premiere of “Transformers 2.”

The movie was in English with Chinese subtitles. I’m told the theater was in the university district, so maybe a lot of people wanted to see that version to practice their English. We were the only Americans/Westerners in there, which got us several looks. It was interesting because we would laugh about three seconds before everyone else during the funny scenes.

I thought the movie was terrible. It was full of canned lines that I’ve heard a thousand times before, tired jokes about bureaucrats, tired humor from Tyrese Gibson (actual line from the movie: “We shed blood, sweat and precious metal with these guys.” Seriously?), tired usage of Megan Fox as nothing more than a girl with supple lips… you name it. That said, it was a good summer movie, in that it had lots of explosions and good special effects. Just don’t expect to get lost in the plot… And don’t go with anyone who’s prone to seizures.

The tough part was getting home. The theater, like everything else, is on the other side of town from our place. We had five people and it was almost 3 a.m. by the time we left the movie. Not a good set of circumstances for hunting a taxi. So we walked through the streets of Beijing, which were surprisingly busy for the time of day, trying to find a taxi that would take five passengers. We walked about a mile before we even got one to stop for us. Of course, he stopped in the far left lane so we had to stand in the middle of the road to beg him to take five people. I took advantage of the situation and laid down in the middle of the street, which is something you don’t often get to do in Beijing.

By 3:30 we had to give up and split up the group. Will and Catherine went home first since the only address we’ve learned how to give to taxi drivers leaves them a 20-minute walk to their apartment. Then Joh and I searched for another taxi with our friend, Pang Li, who lives near us. We couldn’t find one anywhere until I saw one coming on the other side of the street and ran out to the median to get him to make a u-turn, which he did, passing several other people who were looking for rides. I think he liked my beard…

We finally got home at about 4:15, just as the sun started to rise. With an 8:30 start at work, it has not been a good day…

Bad(minton) to the bone

So as you walk down the streets of Beijing, one thing you’ll notice is a ton of people playing badminton. They play everywhere – sidewalks, alleys, grassy knolls, badminton courts (gasp!). I’m surprised I haven’t seen anyone play ping-pong – excuse me, table tennis – anywhere yet. They’re all playing badminton.

So, in our quest to do as the Romans are doing, Joh and I bought some badminton racquets at the market. She did all the talking – in Chinese. I don’t know if it’s better to negotiate in Mandarin or not, but it was kind of impressive to watch her work, even if it made me feel somewhat inadequate. Her Mandarin is definitely getting better, but I think it’s best when she’s negotiating…

Anyway, we got our racquets pretty cheap and walked down the street to explore the Embassy District, which we hadn’t visited yet. We found this place called “The Place,” which is a mall with this pretty big courtyard and an LED screen that’s about 200 feet long. Cool thing is, the screen is on the ceiling of this enormous overhang above the courtyard, so you look up to see all these cool little images and music videos playing above you. It’s a pretty cool thing to see.

People were playing with these big disc-shaped balloon things when we walked up, throwing them in the air and letting the breeze carry them far away before they drifted back down. We decided to grab a spot and play badminton. The light from the screen made up for the setting sun as we pelted about half of the Chinese population with our errant shots. By the time we were done playing, the little logos that had been painted on our bogus racquets had already started peeling off, although the shuttlecocks withstood the greater-than-normal amount of collisions with the stone floor. We’re looking forward to more games on the streets of our neighborhood with all the other badminton faithful. There’s also a Wednesday-night badminton club at our office, though I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet. A tip for the potential travelers to China – brush up on your badminton skills before you come…

Keeping tabs

Not a day to tell a story, except to say that I am guilty of having taken the U.S. media for granted. I’m trying to keep up with the planned protests in Iran today and it’s so tough to do. Our Internet is too slow to stream live video (not that I can find any news orgs that are streaming live video anyway) and we don’t get any English language news channels in our apartment.

I’m listening to WUNC (NPR) through their Web site, and I’m a little disappointed. Right now, while the constantly updated blog on the New York Times site is mentioning reports that tear gas is being used to disperse crowds in Tehran, NPR’s Weekend Edition is discussing the FDA’s new authority over tobacco. Way to go…

A big deal in Tibet…

Today I know what it feels like to be a rock star.

Catherine, one of the interns from Appalachian State, and I went to the Beijing Convention Center to cover a tourism expo. It didn’t sound like a big deal but they wanted a video story, so I kinda had to go since the other videographer was working on something.

It started off like a normal convention. There were exhibitors from a bunch of Chinese provinces, several Asian countries and a few countries from Africa and Europe. I was walking around with the decrepit video camera provided by China.org when I happened upon a Chinese man playing a couple of hand instruments I’d never seen before. They looked kinda like little nunchuks but sounded like maracas. Anyway, I start to tape him while he’s just messing around with these little things. He sees me and just perks up and starts singing this little song. I didn’t need the footage but I kept taping because he looked so happy. He finished his song and did the polite bow and started tanking me profusely. It was kinda cool…

Then we rolled up to the booth for Lhasa, Tibet. Admittedly, the booth first caught my eye because they had some gorgeous women standing out front. We found out later that two of them will be competing for the Miss Asia pageant. As soon as we walked in we were greeted by Tibet’s director of tourism. He shook our hands about 476 times and kept telling us to visit Tibet and said he would be our tour guide and we could eat dinner at his house and pet his dog and borrow his car and all this – offered everything except his daughter’s hand in marriage. We talked for a long time, then he disappeared. Another guy, who looked so anxious to talk with us that I thought his eyes would burst, walked up and started to talk with us about where we were from and what we were doing in China. Then a nice lady started talking to us… it felt like a line was forming to speak to us.

Anyway, the tourism director came back with these white scarves called katas which he wrapped around our necks. I understand they’re a traditional gift for people who are leaving on a trip, which fits in with how convincing this guy was in trying to sell us on a vacation in Tibet.

Well now we’re kind of celebrities and everyone – everyone – starts coming up to say hello to us. There were about 15 or 20 people working at the booth and they all spoke English. They all wanted to take their picture with us. Another videographer who was doing a story on the expo started taping me taping stuff (awkward). A girl named Isabelle – it seems common for people to have an English equivalent for their name – came and introduced herself to us and really hit it off with Catherine. I, of course, kept trying to talk to the Miss Asia girls. The tourism guy kept walking off, then coming back just to shake our hands and say something funny.

They gave us books, shook our hands, shook our hands again, took our pictures, then shook our hands some more. They danced, they sang, talked to us about Tibet, then they shook our hands. Once I figure out how I can load pictures from China, I’ll post some of the photos because it was a really cool thing. One of my favorite experiences so far… I hope I get to go to Tibet while I’m here.

Is there a breeze in here?

OK, there’s a story I’ve been meaning to tell you, but I don’t remember what it is. So I’ll move right along to what I did today, with the promise that I’ll fill you in soon on whatever it is that I’m forgetting.

No, WAIT. I just remembered…

So there was a bowling alley at the hotel we stayed in last weekend. Well, the night of the KTV fun I just told you about was also a night of bowling and other fun activities. It was a group of five of us hanging out at the beginning of the night – Joh and I, Scottish David, and William and Catherine from App State. In the first game of bowling, I wrecked shop. We had a bet going that whoever got last place had to serve drinks at breakfast the next day. Sadly, my roommate lost.

Well, I kinda had a little swagger entering the second game, so the bet was that the loser had to wear a kilt to work the following Monday. It started as a bet between the whole group, but then when we realized that it was kind of unfair to include everyone, the field narrowed to just William and me.

I lost. William’s a dirty sandbagger…

Now, I’m always one to pay on my bets, but I must lodge a complaint about my payment: somehow between Saturday night and Monday morning, “kilt” turned into “entire Scottish outfit.” David showed up to work Monday morning with the kilt, the socks, a wool military jacket with lace trim, a leather ammo pouch lined with fur, all kinds of belts and a set of bagpipes.

Ok, kidding about the bagpipes…

Let me tell you, even with the breeze that a kilt provides – a pleasant breeze with which most men are not familiar – this outfit was making me melt. That wool top had a mandarin collar and did not breathe all that well, and it kinda made me want to die. Plus, if there’s one way to make sure everyone in China will stare at you, It’s to wear a kilt. Who knew?

Anyway, now just about everyone in the office has a picture with me wearing my kilt because kilt day was such a rousing success. I’ll tell you, if I knew this was the icebreaker that would thaw the office, I would have done it a long time ago.

Then there was lunch, which requires a walk on a bridge over one of the busiest roads in our area. I’m sure a few of the drivers were digging the outfit as I walked by. It’s also a pretty busy pedestrian area and the people along the route weren’t shy about pointing at me and giggling. Even the security guards – and it seems like half the male population in China works in security because every establishment in the country has a guard – were getting a laugh out of it. Glad I could brighten everyone’s day…

So much for my gambling career.

Karaoke – bringing people together

So last Thursday was our office’s karaoke night. In case you haven’t heard, karaoke is a lot different in China than in the U.S. First off, karaoke, or KTV as they call it here, is done only in the company of friends. You bring a group and rent a room with a screen, a computer, a big table and a big leather couch. Our room was perfectly sized for the ten people we brought along. You have control over the system and waiters go room to room serving food and drinks. It’s kinda cool not being in a smoky bar with a bunch of miserable singers trying to belt out “Don’t Stop Believin” (like I normally do), but it’s also a little intimidating being in front of such a small group.

So we’re there and we’re singing and the four Chinese people are singing Chinese songs, the five Americans are singing… actually, no, they aren’t singing… and David, our Scottish representative, is singing the Carpenters (they’re a big deal in China). It’s kinda like an eighth-grade dance in the way it’s all separated so I decide to roll out some “Philadelphia Freedom” to break the ice. I like to sing that song in my car, and it always seems to sound better there…

Anyway, we get some food and a couple of beers (drinking is not a big part of KTV) and the Americans loosen up and we’re having a good time when we’re informed that there are judges involved in this whole affair to pick the best singers from our group. Apparently our whole company, which is pretty big, is having this “Chinese Idol” competition and each department will send one or two representatives to the next round of the competition. Ok… So our two interns from App State team up with Suzi, a UNC alumna, to sing a pretty, um, unique version of “Sexy Back.” Joh teams up with a Chinese staff member to sing a traditional Chinese song, and I, well I don’t just sing, but perform the “Stray Cat Strut,” complete with me walking right by with my tail in the air.

Needless to say, I have advanced to the next round. David’s version of “Jambalaya” was good enough for him to advance too, but he’ll be heading back to the U.K. unfortunately and will miss the big day. So much for our plans of a duet…

It’s good that I had this opportunity to hone my karaoke skills, because I had to rely on them again over the weekend. Our company took us on a retreat to a town called Huangloo — or, at least, there’s a temple there called Huangloo — and put us up in a pretty sweet hotel that had a bowling alley, a pool, billiards, table tennis, and, of course, KTV. At the end of the night, the select few who hadn’t gone to bed yet went to the KTV room to check the scene, and received a standing ovation upon entering. It was pretty crazy. The room was being rented by a bunch of Chinese rail workers, and they all had been drinking. Aside from that, I didn’t know much about them. But they definitely liked to drink.

They also definitely liked the Carpenters. I know this because David requested “Yesterday Once More” on karaoke, then promptly disappeared. The workers handed me the mic and ushered me to the center of the room, where I “sang” the song as best I could while taking a few intermittent breaks to yell “DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAVVIIIIIIID.” He finally came back and took over and I returned to a crowd that seemed much more happy than my performance deserved. Great time, even though it was tough to communicate. People would come up to me and say “Where are you from?” I’d say “United States. Where are you from?” then they’d smile… and nod… and leave. Not because they didn’t like the U.S., but because that’s all they knew how to say in English. Most of our communication consisted solely of clinking beer bottles…

You know, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a good amount in my 20′s and I have to say that experiences like that are the best part of travel. I’ve seen sights and I can honestly say that there are few sightseeing expeditions I’ve been on that were any more satisfying than just looking at postcards. Normandy is the only example I can think of… It’s experiences like singing karaoke in Huangloo with a bunch of railway workers or watching your friend challenge a 12-year-old Turkish kid to a dance competition in Cappadocia that make travel worthwhile. When you go overseas, experiencing the culture easily trumps anything you can take in with your eyes.

I’m a little behind, so I’ll try to add more stories soon.

Dinner Theater

OK, I may have explained this before, but getting to this site is so difficult at times that I don’t feel like checking, but Joh has been totally spoiling me on this trip. I speak nary a word of Mandarin. I’ve picked up a couple of phrases but I haven’t really been trying to learn much because Joh speaks it well enough to get me by. Verbal communication isn’t that necessary for things like transportation, but it is essential for eating in my neighborhood. Again, we are far from the tourist areas where people speak Chinese. Here, the menus are covered with the beautiful Mandarin characters for everything and usually an accompanying photo and the only English you hear comes from the translators in my office or the occasional “Hey, dude” I get from people on the street. When there aren’t any pictures, Joh asks the waitress to help with the menu because she doesn’t read Chinese that well. Either way, we always get a good meal becasuse she’s got it under control.

Well, Joh fell asleep early tonight – like right after work – so I finally had to go and brave the dining world on my own. It was inevitable that this would happen so it’s not like I’m all that shocked. And it’s not like I’ve never been forced to order food in a language I don’t understand that well; my first time ordering pizza in Germany was interesting (try ordering a pepperoni pizza in Germany and see what happens). Armed with my translation book and a few yuan, I go walking down the street to seek a simple meal.

In our neighborhood, sunset brings an army of food vendors out to the sidewalk. They have their little grills for cooking skewers of meat and vegetables, coolers for selling beer, and big pots for boiling dumplings. There are all off these little tables on the sidewalk and people just go outside – because the nights are very pleasant – and grab a snack and a Yanjing. One of our first nights in town, Joh and I grabbed a snack of our own out there and it was nice. For every one of the intermittent groups of tables, there’s always one table with a Chinese checkers game going on, and there’ll be a group of old men standing around two guys playing. At least, I assume two guys are in there playing. Normally it’s such a large crowd you can’t see inside the circle. Then there’ll be a couple of tables with guys sitting alone, probably people who had to work late. Maybe a group of 20-somethings at one table… you name it. It’s a good environment and it’s something I haven’t seen in the tourist areas, which makes me glad to see it here.

Well, I walk up to one of the vendors and confidently say, “yangroo,” which is a mispronunciation of “yangrou,” which means “lamb meat.” Apparently the “r” is kind of a half r-sound and half y-sound and the “ou” is acually prononced like a soft ow-sound (we won’t even get into the inflection…). Well, the lady undersrtands anyway. I hold up four fingers, then point at the eggplant and hold up three fingers and away she goes. I feel good. Perfect execution.

Then her husband shows up.

Then two pretty girls walk up.

Her husband starts talking to me like we grew up together in Shanghai. I’m smiling and nodding and my face is getting red and he’s talking and talking and then he’s waiting for a response and I say, “uhhhhhh. Wo bu mingbai.” I don’t understand.

He stares at me. Stares, stares, stares. Then, out of nowhere, he makes this big smiley face like a used car salesman in a TV commercial, gives me a thunbs up and says… well, I don’t know what he said but it sounded nice. He pulls my food off the grill and starts seasoning it, puts it in a container and hands it to me. I wait for him to tell me how much and he holds up his hand, makes a fist and sticks up his index figer and makes a hook of it, which is how they say “nine” with their hands. I hand him a ten, he hands me a one and he says, “BAD-ood-ja.” I spell it phonetically in the hopes that someone out there can tell me what it means because he just busts out laughing, his wife is laughing, the two pretty girls are laughing. I start laughing because I’m a sympathetic laugher and I walk off with my food.

The skewers were delicious, but I’m still hungry. And I think I should start practicing my Mandarin…