Dandong abbreviated

I’m so busy at work that I really don’t have much time to write. Let’s just say Dandong is a cool place to visit. In fact, if I had to live in China, I think I could handle that town. Joh and I passed our days and nights just walking up and down the waterfront. We met musicians and stopped to listen to them play. We looked through binoculars at North Korea. We walked across a bridge that only extends halfway across the river that creates the border between China and North Korea. I ran along the waterfront in my Army jogging shorts and I swear I was followed by two people in a black Chevrolet. It was all quite an experience.

Monday morning, just before we checked out of the hotel, I decided to take a swim in the river, which is something a lot of the locals do. It’s totally polluted, but I went all the way to Dandong and I figured it was necessary to get as close as possible to this secretive nation I read about in the New York Times every day.

The water was cold as can be and it was tough to get in. I started swimming toward North Korea and when I brought my head out of the water and looked around, I realized the current was pulling me downstream pretty rapidly. I kind of freaked out and high-tailed it back to the shore. In the midst of my panicked heavy breathing, I swallowed a little bit of the water. Ewww. Coincidentally, I feel really sick now.

Or it might have been the train ride home that did it. Those hard seats we bought – miserable. It was like riding 14 hours in a train car loaded with cattle. Every seat was full. Some people didn’t have seats at all. It was impossible to sleep for those of us who did because we were sitting as upright as kids in an old-fashioned Catholic school. I had to get up to use the bathroom and the aisles were packed with people sleeping on the floor. People were sleeping on the floor outside the bathroom. People were playing boomboxes, there was trash all over the place. It was just nasty. Easily the worst 14 consecutive hours of my life.

But, we got home. I’m still having trouble loading pictures onto the blog from here, so here is a link to some pictures we posted on our Web site. Before you criticize, I have nothing to do with the terrible way the site sets up the navigation between photos on these kinds of stories. Antiquated design…

I have to get back to work. Friday is my last day of work and I have a ton to do…

Ding dong, Dandong

Dandong is a city in Northeast China. It’s hardly a tourist attraction, but it’s known for one special thing – its view into the world’s most elusive nation. Johanna and I took a long weekend to go and see China’s gateway to North Korea.

Traveling by train here is terrible. Let me go ahead and get that out of the way. Tickets only go on sale four days ahead of time and travel agencies only have access to a limited number of tickets to sell. We were able to buy bunks on the sleeper train for our 14-hour trip to Dandong, but we started the trip without having tickets to get home. We were kind of worried that we would have to write a story called “Stranded in Dandong” as one of our features.

That didn’t happen. The first thing we did when we got to Dandong was buy return tickets – which is apparently always easier to do in the city you’re visiting. Problem: the only tickets available were for hard seats. Could be dicey.

So here we are in Dandong. The train ride up was nice. The hard sleeper cars have several little rooms with six bunks in each. There are blankets and pillows and you get a place to stow your luggage. The bathrooms are totally nasty though, I guess because the bumpy ride causes people to lose their ability to aim. They don’t have Western toilets either, which makes for an interesting trip for girls, I imagine.

Either way, we made it. We hopped into a taxi and realized we didn’t know how to say our hotel name in Chinese. Johanna reached into her bag and handed our driver the reservation confirmation sheet and pointed to the phone number. She asked him in Chinese to call them for directions. So he did.

“Blah blah blah blah blah…” he said. Johanna started laughing. I looked back at her.

“He just said, ‘I have these two foreigners in my cab and they asked me to call this number. Who are you and where should I take them?’” she said. I about lost it.

So he got directions and struck up a conversation with Johanna while I groggily looked out the windows. Dandong looks like any other Chinese city until you get near the Yalu River, which is the border with North Korea. As we passed it, the driver tapped me on the shoulder and pointed over. He knew exactly why we came to Dandong.

Right now we’re at the hotel cleaning up. I’ll post as the vacation progresses.

There’s two o’s in Goose, boys…

Well, Jerry Lee Lewis has done me good. I was informed Monday that I came in third place in Friday’s Karaoke finale. I didn’t really understand how that happened, since my score wasn’t even in the top 10, but that’s what I was told. Then they told me I had to attend an awards ceremony on Wednesday, and that I would once again have to perform “Great Balls of Fire.” Not good news for me…

I went to the ceremony with a couple of other guys from the office who were also finalists. One of them sang Peking Opera in full garb: makeup, platform sandals, a brilliant blue robe/thingy and a really big hat. The other guy sang a Chinese pop song called “One Night in Beijing.” I think he was a favorite with the ladies. They were both really cool guys.

We got there early and watched the stage get set up. The 715 hosts were sitting in the front of the auditorium talking when one of them saw me and called me over. He was the one who talked to me about American music backstage during the semifinals. We talked about the States and North Carolina, and about my new-found celebrity status within the company. He said he was really impressed that the company allowed such a fun event to happen.

“Ten years ago, this would have been impossible,” he said. I know there was another karaoke competition 12 years ago, so I asked him what he meant.

“This is so relaxed. Everyone is having a good time and the songs are popular. People liked your American song. Ten years ago, every song would have been a patriotic song about China. It would have been very serious.” That was an interesting thing to hear.

I had to open today’s show once again, which was fine, except the audio guys started the song before I was even given a mic. It’s a tough song to pick up like that, but I tried – “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain!” – then they started the song over. I looked over at them and gave them a stop gesture with my hand, then a little wave to tell them to start over. They did, but that brief four-note intro blended in with the part of the song that was going already, so I didn’t catch it. Then they started it again, but by then I was all flustered so it got all jumbled up. I was really sad my last performance had to start like that. Also, the front row was filled with all of our corporate gurus who were most definitely the most serious-looking people on the planet. It was really intimidating. They weren’t getting into the song, no one was clapping along. It was like performing in a morgue. A total reversal of what it was like the other times I performed.

It got better as the song went on. I sang it a lot better this time – not well, just better – since my throat wasn’t feeling as bad. I fell to my knees to sing the last line again and threw my arms out on the last beat, which people liked. Then, since I knew the crowd hadn’t really felt the performance, I yelled, “Zhong guo jia yo!” (Go China!), which made everyone cheer. I think it made up for the lackluster beginning. Gotta know how to play to your crowd…

After another performer, they called a group of us onto the stage, and it then made sense how I got third place. Actually, eight of us got third place – very communist. I finished 12th overall in the competition and the people who finished eighth through 15th were considered the third place group. The top three all got first place and fourth through seventh got second. I got a bouquet of flowers and a big red award folder that actually doesn’t have anything in it. They said I would get my prize soon. I’m dying to know what it is.

At this point, I have to say that this KTV competition has been the best part of this trip. I’m sad it’s over. So far in China, I’ve seen some sights and met some people. I’ve done most of the cliché tourist stuff. I ate the food, experienced this and that, but getting to be a part of this event was really an honor and definitely something unlike anything I have ever experienced. I could go home tomorrow and be satisfied with my experience here based on that alone.

Great Balls of Fire!

Goodness gracious, the karaoke finals were stressful. I don’t even know where to start, except to say that those clues should have given away the song I chose to sing…

I was told on Tuesday that the competition had been moved to Friday, which cut the time I had to prepare in half. Of course I woke up on Wednesday morning with a cold. My throat hurt, my head hurt, my nose was running. Work sucked, and of course everyone decided to go grab a couple of beers at the end of the day. I had to sit out, which made me sad. I also couldn’t rehearse my routine because I just went to bed after work. I was worried about being underprepared, but I at least had to make sure I would be able to talk on Friday.

Well, I didn’t wake up Thursday feeling any better. The morning was busy, then I had to go do a story on another hamburger restaurant in the evening. I didn’t get home until it was too late to practice again, so on the eve of my big performance, I still hadn’t done any rehearsing, except that which I had done in my head…

I still felt bad on Friday morning, but I bought some medicine to help. The competition was at 1:30, so I spent my morning in the conference room practicing my dancing with my iPod on. I didn’t really have the whole thing planned, but I did have a couple of parts choreographed. I couldn’t sing in there though because the walls aren’t quite thick enough to shield my voice from the poor souls trying to work.

Being heard would have been less embarrassing than what really happened though, as two of my Chinese colleagues walked into the room while I was doing the twist on a table (I was wearing socks and doing it on the carpet was hurting my feet). Man, I was getting into it too. My headphones were on, so I couldn’t hear anything. My back was to the door and it was the piano solo of the song so I was just going all out – my right leg was twisting like crazy, my butt was shaking right in their direction. I turned around to lip sync the next verse and… There they were, staring at me. There I stopped, looking down at them.

Awkward pause.

“KTV!”I shouted, which is what the Chinese call karaoke. I jumped off the table, grabbed my shoes and bolted back to my desk, which I then hid under.

Celine, one of my Chinese colleagues, drove me up to the Karaoke venue after lunch. It was raining like crazy outside so I was just wearing a t-shirt and some shorts. I brought a suit with me – one that I bought here for a pittance – to wear for the performance. So I went back to the dressing room to change. I was feeling sick to my stomach and my throat was really dry. Some of the other competitors were getting ready, and they all knew my name, which was awkward for me since I didn’t know any of theirs. Sometimes it sucks to stand out…

I had the distinct privilege (curse) of being the first performer. While the 13 hosts were doing their intro, I was pacing backstage, going over the lyrics again, trying to test just how well I could hit the high-pitched parts with a cold, which was not well at all. I walked out on stage, grabbed my microphone and said hello to everyone in Chinese again, but didn’t take a picture this time. Then, as I was standing there, I had the awful feeling come over me that my fly was down. Tough start…

The folks in my department made signs and they were going nuts and there were about 72 studio cameras in my face, including one on a crane. I think the performance went well, even though I don’t really remember most of it. I finished well, hit the high note one good time and swung my arms out on the closing beat. The crowd seemed to like it and I think old Jerry Lee Lewis would have been proud. I got some good applause and people on the aisle were giving me some jibber jabber that I interpreted as positive feedback as I walked to my seat. They gave out scores as the competition went and I got a 97.87, which gave me the lead for a good bit, but the guy who went 10th had four pretty girls in short skirts do a dance behind him, which was good enough to knock me into second.

That didn’t turn out to matter though. I’m pretty sure my overall score was something like 15th in the competition. Yeah, there were that many people in the “finals.” Actually, there were 36(!) performers. 36! It took forever. The auditorium was freezing and everyone sang a Chinese song except for me and a nice woman who sang (surprise!) the Carpenters, so it was tough for the American contingent to keep up with what was going on. I’m still not totally sure who got the highest score.

But, it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event. It was something I’ll never forget, and it’ll probably go down as my favorite memory in China. Once I get copies of the photos and the videos, I’ll be sure to share.

My mom’s gonna be so proud…

So I mentioned a while back about how karaoke brings people together. I wasn’t lying.

Friday was the semifinal round of the China International Publishing Group’s karaoke competition. I thought it was actually the final round, so I had planned to practice a lot, choreograph a little dance or whatever and just rock out. Those plans never really materialized. The first round a few weeks ago was really laid back, so I kinda thought this was gonna be the same kind of thing – just a few people in a dark room with a little karaoke machine and some food. I wound up not really practicing or anything and I just went to work in a UNC t-shirt and some jeans.

So Joh and I left the office after lunch and met with Li Shao, a really sweet girl we work with. She was our escort to the CIPG headquarters building, where the competition was going down. We had to take a cab across town to this kinda crappy looking building, which, of course, had four security guards in front of it. I swear half of China’s employed citizens are security guards. We walk in and there are these banners in the lobby advertising the CIPG celebrity contest or whatever they were calling it. There was a list of something like 100 names on it – all the people who were competing. I kinda got the feeling that this was a bigger deal than I had thought.

We walk through the lobby and up a little staircase and Li Shao points off to the right and says, “This is the dressing room.”

Yes, there was a dressing room.

In it, people are wearing these fancy dresses and stuff. There’s a guy in there doing makeup for a few of the girls. A bunch of people are standing around in suits and gowns. There I am with some grubby jeans and a gray shirt. I was a little surprised. Then this strange woman just says “Hi, Chris.” This really freaked me out at first but then I realized I was the only American in the competition, so it really wasn’t all that weird. The 19 emcees come over and ask me if I want to rehearse.

I kinda realized this was a little bigger than I thought it was going to be. I didn’t want to rehearse, but I did look at the stage and the auditorium. The stage had all these crazy lights and this enormous red backdrop advertising the third annual CIPG idol contest or something. There were about 400 seats or so in the auditorium and a couple of high-end video cameras set up in the aisles. I seriously thought this was going to be in an empty boardroom with a Casio boombox and 10 people hanging out. Not quite…

Anyway, the competition starts at 2:00 and the seats are pretty full. Most of the performers are wearing jeans and stuff, so I start to relax a little. There were actually some really good singers in the competition. But here’s the thing – and this is great advice if you ever happen to be involved in a corporate karaoke competition with a bunch of Chinese people – they don’t really perform. There’s no motion or dynamism to their routines. So you have to exploit that if you want to win. Oh, and Chinese people seem to really love volume in their karaoke. The louder, the better.

Friday’s competition – the semifinals were actually done over several days – featured about 40 singers. There was a 20-minute intermission in the middle. I was the ninth person to go after intermission. I was feeling pretty good, sure that the fact that I was gonna dance around a little would make up for my lack of singing ability. Being the only American in the competition was sure to help also.

My song was “Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I wanted something upbeat but not too hard to sing. While the eighth person on the lineup was walking on stage, I rolled backstage to get ready. One of the emcee’s was back there and he actually spoke English.

“You nervous?” he asked.

“Yeah, a little.”

“You will be fine.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Pause. I was kind of bouncing on my heels to work off nervous energy while I went over the lyrics in my mind. Rooster hits the washboard…Blinky thumps the gut bass…

“I love American music.”

“Oh yeah?” I responded, still bouncing.

“Yeah. Michael Jackson. He’s the best.”

Pause.

“I like American rock and roll too,” he continued.

“Yeah? You ever heard of the song I’m performing?”

“Sorry. No.”

No love for CCR over here. Anyway, number eight wraps up and one of the other 18 emcees starts introducing me. I go out on stage and people immediately start clapping for the white guy. I say “Ni hao” (hello) to them and they all yell it back to me. The real winner though was that I pulled out my camera and took a picture of everyone in the crowd. They really ate that up.

“That’s for my mom,” I said. I’d bet about four percent of the people there understood that.

The song starts and I start clapping to the beat. Everyone starts clapping along. The guitars kick in and I start jumping and people are going nuts. I start singing and I can barely hear myself. So, I start singing louder. By the time I get to “courthouse,” the 12th word in the song, my voice starts cracking like ice in hot water. I’m literally screaming into the mic, people are waving their hands, I’m jumping up and down, camera flashes are blinding me, I still can’t hear myself singing… I don’t remember much, except for thinking about how terrible it must have sounded.

I walk off the stage and a girl gives me flowers. Another colleague of mine is at the bottom of the stairs and she gives me a high five. I can’t even talk anymore. I go to sit down and one of the emcees takes my flowers away(!). A couple of minutes later, after a few other people have sung, they reveal my score. 97.12, which puts me in the lead. This guy who works downstairs from me went a couple of spots after me and he came in second. He and I will go on to the finals next Tuesday.

I’ll admit it – I was absolutely, undoubtedly, irrefutably the worst singer out there that day. I think taking the picture helped, as did the jumping/dancing. Being the only non-Asian person helped a lot too.

I want to make sure that my performance for the finals is so good that if I win, it won’t be because I’m a foreigner, but because I smoked it. So I’ve spent a couple of hours today checking out songs on the Internet, trying to find the perfect song that I can boogie to while at least putting down a respectable vocal performance.

Suggestions?

Internet blockage

I’m working on editing my hamburger story today, and it’s coming along slowly. Since my last post, I’ve taken a couple of breaks to walk around the office and I swear more people are using Facebook now than before China blocked it. The big talk on MSN Messenger, which everyone in the office uses to communicate with each other, is a debate over who has the best proxy server to get around the blocks. I’m very proud of my coworkers today…

Culture through response to unrest

So you may have heard about the protests going on in Northwest China right now. I’m not sure how much publicity it’s getting in the States, but people are talking about it here and seeing it all unfold from here is interesting.

We woke up Monday morning and saw a couple of headlines on the news sites about unrest in Xinjiang, which is north of Tibet. It’s an area with a majority population of Chinese Muslims, called Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs). You might remember Uighurs being in the news a couple of weeks ago when several were released from Guantanamo Bay and sent to Bermuda and Palau against China’s wishes.

Well, the initial reports were that three or so people were killed in rioting on Sunday and the impression we had around lunchtime was that Chinese security forces had pretty much gotten things under control. Then someone turned on CNN International after lunch, and it was showing images of overturned police cars and fires in the street. The number of deaths rocketed from three to 140 or so, and these numbers were coming from Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency.

A group of us all joined around the TV to see what was happening – I get the feeling domestic civil unrest is very intriguing to people here – and one of the employees says, “Now they’re going to lock down Xinjiang.” He was right. They imposed a curfew and sent in extra security. The restaurants closed early and the government limited communication.

Communication control started Monday when I couldn’t get on Twitter at work. It’s common for sites like Twitter and YouTube to get blocked – they were blocked in the days surrounding the Tiananmen Square anniversary too – but we get “special” Internet access at the office, which allows us to access certain sites other Chinese Internet users can’t. We get YouTube. We get Wikipedia. We can search for Falun Gong on Google. I can access my blog from my office computer. These are all things that are blocked on our Internet connection at home.

Interestingly, I can still post this blog from work today. I just went to YouTube and looked up the Xinjiang stuff and watched videos of it. I just googled Falun Gong – no problem. But still no Twitter, and in the latest development, no Facebook. They took that one down Tuesday night at about 7:00 China time. That’s a pretty big step and it means they’re getting serious. They really seem to be going out of their way to not only end the protests, but to prevent people from even talking about them.

One of our duties here, aside from doing stories about hamburgers, is to polish the English on stories done by Chinese reporters and translated by folks in our office. You should see the stuff coming across our desks today (Wednesday). I’ll try to keep my opinion about the situation to myself here, but the stories I polished yesterday and today have been really anti-protest and far from objective. The shutting down of a lot of these social media sites, which have proven pretty effective in proliferating information about events in Iran, looks to be China’s way of making sure that kind of information is the only kind of information available.

Celebrating America

Happy Fourth of July, all.

To celebrate America’s independence, I went to work. For eight hours. On a Saturday. After working 12 hours on a Friday. This only happens to me on holidays.

Interesting thing I learned: fireworks are illegal in China except for during the Spring Festival. Weren’t fireworks invented here? The people who invented them didn’t even realize the military potential of what they had concocted (gunpowder). They just wanted pretty things to look at. Seems like fireworks should be sold at all the street vendors. Of course, there’s a burned-out building downtown next to the CCTV Tower that is a good example of what happens when fireworks go wrong.

Not that it matters much anyway; the smog was so bad on the fourth that you wouldn’t have been able to see a firework go off any higher than 10 feet above your head.

At about 5:00 on Saturday we headed to Sanlitun, the central area for expats, for some chili dogs and a couple of beers. Funny that the best chili dog I have ever eaten was at a restaurant in Beijing. I hit the streets armed with my newest Chinese phrase – I don’t know how to spell it correctly so I’ll give you the phonetics – “doo lee yeur quai le.” That means “happy Independence Day” in Mandarin. I learned how to say that while we were on the subway. I did my best to say it to just about everyone I saw, which got me several interesting looks. Most people didn’t even pay attention, except for one guy who respond by saying “thank you.” So much for that.

Burger time

So, today we got to do some real journalism. It’s a story Joh and I have been cooking up for a couple of weeks now.

What’s something that the average American would eventually miss during an extended stay in Beijing? Baseball? Sure. Apple pie? Probably. Youtube? Fair enough.

Even more would be that crown jewel of the American menu — the hamburger. (Not that I dislike Chinese food. I just started hankerin’ for a burger somewhere around week four here…)

You basically just read my script for the story. Joh and I are touring the city and stopping at the restaurants that serve American-style hamburgers. We do stories about the restaurants, get some shots of the kitchen, talk to the chef, interview a few customers, and, of course, we eat their hamburgers. Today was our first installment – the Blue Frog.

Pretty cool place. It’s in the Sanlitun district, which is pretty heavily frequented by expats. There are all kinds of Western stores there, bars, restaurants… Going there on a Saturday night is like leaving China for the weekend. Just about the only Chinese people out there are the bartenders and street vendors. And in a lot of the bars drinks are probably more expensive out there than they are in the States.

Anyway, Joh and I rolled up today with our liaison, who comes with us any time we do stories – just in case we need to interview someone who can’t speak English. Her name is Susie and before today she had never eaten a real hamburger. Actually, while we were interviewing the restaurant manager, who is British, we learned that he had never eaten a real hamburger until he moved to Beijing. Kind of an interesting tidbit.

So we ate the Montana Burger, which is an imported beef patty with imported bacon, homemade barbecue sauce, imported cheddar cheese, lettuce and onion rings on a toasted bun. And it came with french fries. It was like heaven on a plate.

If I could have done more stories like this, I never would have left journalism.

Joh loved hers too, though I don’t really know how she ate it. The thing was about eight inches tall. I had trouble taking a bite and I can fit my whole fist in my mouth. I’m pretty sure the burger was about as big as her head.

Susie, on the other hand, didn’t seem to like hers. She just had a regular hamburger – gotta start with the basics. She was so nice and she told me she liked it because she knew how excited I was to see her take her first bite, but she could only eat about half and she took the other half home.

So, we’re hoping to do two more restaurants this week. I have to figure out how to keep the stories from getting redundant though – nine or 10 stories about hamburgers will get a little old if I don’t spice them up somehow. It’s kinda like how Ferris Bueller had nine sick days in one semester and figured that if he were going to go for a 10th, he would have to barf up a lung…

As long as I keep getting to do stories about food, I think I’ll be happy…

In front of the camera

I used to work in broadcasting, if you didn’t know. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I was ever going to be able to make a living of it. I’m a teaching assistant in video courses at UNC and I think I’m pretty good at teaching it. Anyway, they’ve gotten me involved in the video aspects of the site. The other day I sat in on this big panel discussion that what shot in the China.org studio and they asked me if I would like to host the next one since the usual host would be out of town. For some reason, I said yes.

Even when I worked in video, I hated being in front of the camera. Being behind the camera is a lot more fun. The worst part is that I had to shave my beautiful beard just before it turned three months old. I guess I didn’t really have to shave it, but the only guys who have pulled off the beard on TV are Al Borland and the late, great Billy Mays (R.I.P.) and I’m not ready to put myself up there with those two.

So I interviewed the Shillong Chamber Choir, which is a fairly well-known choir from India. I did my research on the group and prepared some questions for them. We set up in the studio and I have the choir’s director, his father and two members of the choir in there with me. I gave them my normal schpeel about how it wasn’t live so they could start over if they messed up or whatever since we were just going to edit it all together anyway. Then we got started… and I messed up the intro.

Then I messed it up again.

Then we got through the interview, with none of them messing up once, and we had to re-shoot the introduction.

Again, I messed it up.

Five attempts at the introduction. In my defense, two of the last names I had to say were Besaiawmout and Nongkynrih. Not simple. I imagine I can edit something together… Just don’t tell any of the kids in the classes I’m TA’ing next semester.

I will say that choir was off the charts and it was great to talk with them. They sang a few songs for us, including two original songs from the director’s opera. Absolutely fabulous. Of course, no one told me my tie was crooked in the last shot when I introduced the songs. Sweet…