Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Stormy Weather
As the cliche goes in the barbarian world, "everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it." As foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I have often complained among ourselves, here no one here even seems to talk about it and forget about even reporting about the weather unless it's drastic and you have permission from authorities. And even then the info is lacking.
To boil it down, I 've long since learned that small talk in China doesn't include subjects like "hot enough for you?" or "how was your weekend?"
Attempts at these seemingly harmless queries and subtle varitions of such have mostly met with blank stares and abrupt changes of subject equivalent to being on a crowded elevator with a coworker in Denver on a workday morning and loudly musing: "Wasn't the weather a little snowy/rainy/hot/humid this weekend/yesterday when the Broncos/Rockies/Avalanche lost/won while you had sex with mentally challenged lab rats/your grandmother/the mayor?"
The SZ Daily and the Hong Kong TV stations I follow approach weather reports very lightly. For instance, unlike their western TV counterparts, which boast the virtues of Doppler XXVII+3Z and have no problem breaking into the latest Queer Eye for the Straight Guy segment with news of hail stones the size of snot in Hygiene, Colorado, weather reports here are always at the end of the news cast and mostly summed up with the word, "fine."
"How was the weather today, Amy?" one of the coanchors chirps 30 seconds before the newscasts ends.
Amy Ng, on the blue screen, drops down like a disembodied head into the studio.
"It was fine! (Meanwhile it's spitting acid rain). I'll give you details in a moment!"
Details, following a public service ad reminding viewers to use clean chopsticks and to wash their hands before and after eating, include the high and low temps that day and then the announcement: "Here's Freddy!"
Freddy is a caucasion cartoon figure whose animation skills make the likes of Johnny Quest or Steamboat Willie look like a Matrix extra. He walks like a stroke victim until a cloud or sunshine appear. Then he lurches to a halt and exclaims: "OOOHHH!" if it's sunshine or "Uhhh" if it's a cloud. Occasionally, if the weather is extra nice, a flower lurchingly rises and blooms in front of him and then he gets really excited but we don't get to see if he pollinates it or not.
But I was really excited on Tuesday night when SZ experienced a rare, heavy thunder and hail storm and we ran a two paragraph story and a front page picture of a couple under an umbrella warding off the wet.
The story lacked some details, like how much rain and what the size of the hailstones were; details I was used to knowing back home, and determined as I was to try to push western news standards as far as I could , I kept asking.
"Was the hail the size of golf balls?" I asked. "Or small appliances? Or spring plums?"
"Why? I don't know," the reporter replied.
I knew from experience that no reporter likes doing weather stories, but I kept pushing.
"The size of shrimp or pork dumplings? Our readers would want to know!"
"No. They were not dumplings. It was hail. They are gone. I don't know."
OK. On to the picture.
It was a good shot. An attractive man and woman huddled under a wind and rain blown umbrella in the midst of the storm. The caption before the description read: "Rain hits city." Accurate, but a little blah, I thought, so inspired by old Dylan I changed it to "Shelter from the storm."
Big mistake.
"Why did you change it?" asked the page editor. " 'Rain hits city' is correct. They are not seeking shelter. The dictionary says shelter is a structure. An umbrella is not a structure. And why 'Shelter from the storm' instead of 'Shelter from storm'? We have to save space. You and Jeff always say that."
"It's more poetic," I replied. "Rhythmic. Poetic sounding. Harmonious. It's also the title of a popular Western song."
"I don't know that song."
"Our Western readers will." I paused for a moment and recalled many years ago when a then-coworker and still-pal at the Rocky Mountain News had suddenly pulled a compelling argument out of his white ass for the calcified, whiter, troglodyte News management to make the case that Marvin Gaye's death deserved front page mention because "Marvin Gaye was the black John Lennon."
"It's like referring to something like The East is Red is in China. But we can't say the 'East is Wet'. That would be disrespectful, right? But this is OK for our target readers. It's familiar and respectful, I promise." Then I fibbed bigtime. "Every foreigner knows this song and will relate to it."
That did it. Probably one of my proudest professional moments here. Thank you, Bob - and Rob.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

"Hmmm," I wondered through my phlegm clogged haze. "Would tincture of dried turtle help ease my cough, congestion, headache and fever? Or perhaps some of what appears to be part of an unfortunate small mammal's paw combined with whatever is in this box that has a picture of a grimacing fat man with cartoon arrows shooting out of his head...So many choices and they all look so promising."
I had finally roused myself from sweat soacked sheets at about noon on Saturday and armed with my Lonely Planet phrasebook dragged myself across the street to a Chinese drugstore to try to gather together the equivalent of a bottle of Nyquil or Alka Seltzer Cold and Flu Medicine.
The employees were nothing if not helpful. I knew they were professionals, too, because the man wore a white lab coat and sported one of those headbands with a reflective metal disc that cartoon doctors wore in the 1950s and early 60s, and the two women were dressed in nurse costumes. They were either medical professoinals or professionally dressed for a doctor/nurse threesome porn shoot. In my sorry state it was hard to tell.
I began by pointing to my various symptoms in the book and doing a lot of grimacing in order to win sympathy. The choices were staggering and largely in Chinese and incomphrensible to me. They ranged from herbs, potions and powders to dried mammal, reptiles, and amphibians.
And because prescriptions apparently aren't necessary I was also offered a box of amoxicillian as well as one of the few English language labeled remedies: "Madame Pearl's Cough Syrup" in a box that bears a "1954" portrait persumably of the Mdm. herself that looks as if it came from a Sino-U.S. traveling medicine show circa 1901. While persuing it I also noticed it contained a hefty amount of codeine. In lieu of Nyquil, I immediately put it aside and kept searching.
Ah ha! Buried beneath several boxes under the "Liver and pure bile" category, I found a dusty package of Tylenol Cold that only expires 7 months from now.
It went next to Madame Pearl's potion, along with a box containing 10 small glass vials filled with a brown herbal liquid that the Chinglish instructions swore would "eliminate bad humors and upper reservoir infectionanaries."
Why not? methought. It's all in the interest of scientific research.
As I waited to make my purchase, ahead of me was an elderly stout man with his equally elderly and stout wife purchasing two red, gold and black small luggage sized boxes of "Magic Stag Love Vigor and Life Enhancer." In other words, he was buying Chinese Viagra and, unlike a counterpart in the U.S. who would probably be averting his eyes from the pharmacist, snatching the bag and bolting, he and his wife and the staff appeared to be openly and merrily discussing the merits of Magic Stag. I know the missus looked postively thrilled and the "nurses" appeared thrilled for her.
My next stop was the grocery to assemble fixings for chicken soup, despite dire warnings from a few Chinese pals that chicken soup only aggravates colds.
"Only bird flu," I told them. "Otherwise we call it Jewish penicillian."
My soup ingredient choices were more orthodox, except for the chicken. The cooler contained both white and "black" chickens. The black ones do indeed have dark flesh and I had also been told that they were considered tastier. In my altered state, I decided to take the plunge while murmuring loudly to myself, "Once you've had black, you'll never go back, once you've had black you'll..." A crowd was beginning to gather.
I double checked to make sure there was no feet or head attached, none appeared to be and I quickly retired to the Lucky Number where I swallowed twice the recommended dose of Madame Pearl, popped a Tylenol and chugged the bitter herb cleanser and began to make the soup.
Madame Pearl was beginning to work her magic, enveloping me with an artificial glow of well being and so it was that when I fully got around to opening the chicken package and discovered two severed claws and a head carefully tucked beneath the body, I didn't even wince. You could say I didn't chicken out. I just chucked them out without thinking. Thank you, Madame Pearl.

Monday, March 22, 2004

"Tongue-tied and twisted"
Lilly, our long suffering but eternally patient secretary, just called. She had a "request" for me from the SZ Daily's editor-in-chief who has been on a tear lately to institute an "English Only" policy in the newsroom.
While it's obviously no immediate problem for foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I, neither one of us is thrilled with the edict and the staff is dealing with it by ignoring it until the editor-in-chief is spotted in the newsroom (his office is across the hall) and they suddenly lurch from Chinese into English with all the aplomb of a 12-year-old palsy victim switching gears on an 18-wheeler.
He's noticed though and according to Lilly he thinks posters with a snappy slogan will do the trick. That is apparently where I come in.
"He wants a saying, like 'Speak English' but that is too direct," Lilly said. "Can you think of one?"
I stalled for time, said I needed to think about it and then began frantically scanning my tangled, frayed nuerons for inspiration.
"English - it's not just for breakfast anymore."
"English - the other white meat."
"Behold the power of English."
"English. It's what's for dinner."
"Got English?"
"English: Don't leave home without it."
"Nothin' says lovin' like English from the oven."
"Promise her anything, but give her English."
"Wouldn't you really rather have English?"
"English, take me away."
"Nothing comes between me and my English."
"The best part of waking up is English in your cup."
"Loose Chinese lips sink ships."
None of these seemed quite right. So I called newly arrived foreign barbarian James hoping he could help out.
He told me that he'd taught at an English language school in Japan where the same rule was in force and his Japanese boss had used an identical motivating tactic.
"What did the signs say?" I asked, hoping against hope that I could crib from it.
" 'No Japanese!' '' he replied, laughing. "So some students walked in, read that and turned around and walked out." He also suggested one I really liked, but it might be a hard sell: "We're going to have to speak English until WE rule the world."
I'm still stuck and Lilly just called again asking for my bright ideas.
Meanwhile, remember that "English melts in your mouth, not in your hand..."
English only sloganeering update. After a third frantic phone call from Lily I cobbled together two proposals based on old ads. From "Bayer works wonders" I crafted "Speaking English works wonders" and I adroitly reworked "If you say Budweiser, you've said it all" into "If you speak English, you say it all."
The bootlegged Bayer version is now pasted in black two foot letters on a bright yellow background on one wall and also on a fat support column.
But this being China, what I proposed came out slightly different than the way it was intended. It reads: Speaking English. Works Wonders.
So several coworkers were naturally confused and said so in English.
"These are not complete sentences," noted one astute reader. "It makes no sense. What does it mean? What wonders are worked? Who said that?"
"Chairman Mao," I retorted. "Little Red Book. Page 47, fourth paragraph."

Saturday, March 20, 2004

"Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name."
Meet China Southern United, Inc.'s merchandise director: "Justiu Mitchell." That's what the business card says, complete with typo. Justiu's the name, furniture's the game. No, the slogan wasn't on the card, but my latest scam as a foreigner-for-rent had me playing that role at an annual furniture expo held in SZ this weekend
I don't think Hank - or Jake Jabs, Denver's furniture pitchman and king - did it this way, to badly parapharse Waylon Jennings on a completely different topic. But how could I refuse?
K, a friend of Peter-the-SZ-fixer has some scam going involving grandiose export plans and the southern China furniture design and mfging. market and he needed a handy foreigner who could walk the walk, if not talk the talk.
K tried cracking the expo last year but discovered that vital information, such as manufacturer catalogues, prices, availbiltiy and volume quotes and even the show's overview catalogue were off-limits to native Chinese, though disemminated freely to anyone with white, black or brown skin who appeared to fast talk English and had a business card identifying them as connected with the sofa et al trade.
"I'll order your card, you dress up a little and I am your translator. I will tell you what to ask, you ask, then I translate," instructed K. No problemo. After a little brainstorming, we created a biz card and had 100 copies - only 10 of which I actually wound up passing out - made at a quick-print/photo shop housed between a barber shop-by-day/whore house-by-night and a noodle restaurant. Of course they screwed up my name, though my Lousiville, Colorado address and phone number - vital to the "U.S.A" connection - was right.
"Is that a western sounding name, anyway?" K asked after he gave me the cards 15 minutes before we arrived at the expo.
"Not really. More Chinese sounding. But it might work: ' Just-you' " I rolled it around my tongue for a moment. "Just you and me. Just you and me and my classic cherry wood fiber veneer side tables, baybee. Gimme 200 for our outlets in Fort Collins and make it fast!"
The sad fact is that I actually became obsessed with my new ID and found myself scoping out stuff like Italian leather sofas for $650 US and goosedown, silk covered embroidered pillows for only $20 US when all K wanted to do was find cheap furniture sets with traditonal Chinese designs - of which there were precious few.
The unholy spawn of a Jetsons-Fliintstones coupling meets Marie Antoinette in a Danish trailer park circa 1956 was more like it.
I played my part, though and acted as K's ventroloquist dummy as we wandered from exhibit space-to-exhibit space in bldgs. A and B1-3.
"Where do you sell in the United States?" I asked with some of K's prompting as I traded business cards with a naive manufacturer eager to unload his bedrooom and dining room sets and mass produced paintings to places he'd only seen via dubbed televison and movies.
"Miami, Florida? No! It isn't where it's happening. Have you heard of Adams County, Colorado? Perfect for these particle board beds and mass-produced, sofa-sized paintings of hermaphrodiitic jesters!"
And if I was too bored there was always the 8-page expo promo magazine with articles like: "Analysis of abnormal phoenomena in furniture design in China" and descriptions written by companies who'd paid for ad space that extolled the virtues of "Zhenrong Furniture: No unpleasant smell at all" and went on to add that their furnishings "combine product with healthy and occasional life."
Honey, the easy chair is getting occasionally frisky again. It was licking my instep...

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Are You Experienced?
Through no designs of my own, I've been wielding power lately. The paper is planning to expand from 12 to 16 pages at a date to be named later and suddenly the newsroom has been full of job applicants. As such, second-in-command Alex has shanghaied me twice at the last minute to help interview and evaluate them.
Having been on the receiving, but never the giving end, of more job interviews than I care to recall, it's a role I'm not completely comfortable with yet but I've given it my best shot.
I wondered, too, what these job hopefuls - all dressed in severe, starched interview attire - thought of the bleary eyed foreign authority figure clad in his finest Otto-the-bus-driver duds who asked them to explain why 8 years as an IT troubleshooter and web page designer would make them a good reporter or page editor.
All but one had no previous journalism experience. But since few, if any, staffers excepting foreign barbarian coworker Jeff and I previously worked as ink stained wretches, it isn't a big concern - at least not for managment. The exception, both Alex and I were a bit startled to see, was a nationally known TV personality based in Beijing. She hosts a weekly English language China lifestyles and travel program that I've caught a couple times. But her appearance here was a bit like Katie Couric or Connie Chung showing up at the Mountain Ear weekly in Nederland, Colorado and begging for a job, any job.
But, as she explained, she's doing it for luuuuv. Her fiance is moving here and she's following. She has the spoken English chops - and in a country where looks also count when it comes to employment (all resumes contained flattering photos) she was not unseemly to behold. Unfortunately, her written translation skills didn't match her oral abilities; but Alex and I agreed, as we picked our tongues off the floor, that she could be trained. Oh, yes.
A couple other applicants were equally candid, even too much so, about their qualifications and aspirations.
"I would not be happy writing about anything but business. And I want to become rich and powerful," said one.
Thank you. We'll be in touch. Next!
"My current job has no future and I am getting married soon," explained one guy who was asked why he wanted to work here. This IT worker and translator didn't stop there, though. He hastened to add that though he "has never read the Shenzhen Daily a former classmate who works here told me about the job and said it is a good newspaper."
I just hope he's a better husband than an interviewee.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

School Days
Saturday was the first time I've been complimented on my "clear English accent."
The high praise came from a "Miss Li" who had hired me to work one Saturday morning a month teaching English to about 30 14-15 year-old students at a middle school in a small town called Longhua about 30-minutes outside of Shenzhen. We were riding to class in a school van in which she'd picked me up because I had no idea how to get there or exactly where we were bound.
We'd exchanged some preliminary pleasantries when she asked me were I was from in England.
"Well, I'm not," I said. "I'm from the United States. A state you probably haven't heard of called Colorado."
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "But you have such a clear English accent. Usually I cannot always understand an England person because of their accent."
"No, not English. Just your typical midwestern American accent," I replied in flat, slightly nasal tones courtesy of my parents' Illinois origins. "But I can do one if you want, say wot? Cockney? Fancy a li'le bi' of breab wiv a bi' of bu'er on i'?"
Miss Li laughed politely, but I don't think she got it. Just as well, as I had no bread or butter.
She had also described her school as "small " and her students' English ability as "poor" so by the time we got to the large, modern looking facility that holds 6,000 students and features a somewhat crudely cast bronze statue of an enormous American Indian on his back pulling on a bow at the entrance, I wasn't also surprised that most of the students also seemed to have a decent command of English basics - at least in China.
"Hellohellohello! Howareyou! Whereareyoufrom?"
I was mobbed upon arrival and almost immediately surrounded by hordes of small blue and white sweat suit clad urchins eager to learn more from a real, honest to-gawd living and breathing foreigner.
I tried to imagine a similar Saturday morning scene on at a U.S. school -- "Hey, Britney, Dylan, Kimberly! Guess what? We've got a real Chinese man coming to teach Chinese at 10 Saturday morning! We know you'll blow off sleeping in and the mall to be there, right?" -- and it was sooo not there.
It was a joy. I took them through a basic "Social Introductions" segment (lesson plan courtesy of recently arrived barbarian teacher James) and then was literally escorted by three teachers who formed a flying wedge to get me through the grasping masses to the teacher's lounge.
"I guess you don't get too many foreigners here," I ventured, as the doors to the lounge flew open and about 12-15 kids watched in awe as the foreigner talked, drank bottled water and smoked.
"We had two who taught for a month at a primary school two years ago, but they left with disappointment," I was told.
"What kind? Yours or theirs?"
"Theirs and ours. They were young and their travel documents were not in order. And they also smoked, but not cigarettes." She looked shamed at the memory. "There were many questions about them."
"It's hard to find good help, I know," I replied, as I accepted a pot of cut flowers as a present from the school's flower arrangement class. One wanted to know why I didn't have have blue eyes.
"All Americans have blue eyes," she said flatly. "Are you sure you are American?"
I assured her I was and explaned and that my mother had them, while my dad has brown eyes. Little sister got the blues, I got the browns.
"And some Americans have gray eyes, green eyes and hazel eyes. Different colored hair and skin, too." I began an impromptu elementary genetics lesson dredging up what I could recall of Mendel and his peas, but realized it might be lost on someone in a country where everyone has the same color hair and eyes. Besides, it was time to return to class.
While I was supposed to do Introductions Part II, another teacher had invited her class to crowd into the room and the lesson plan went out the window as I answered more questions for 50 minutes.
They ranged from the usual about Chinese food, chopstick dexterity, the Michaels Jackson and Jordan, the NBA, soccer and my hobbies to some very unexpected ones.
"What numbers do you consider lucky?"
"What is your faith?"
"Will you live here forever and teach us more?"
It was a moment like that made me wish I could say "yes." But I told her I'd be back next month.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Everybody's Talkin'
The staff just got word that the paper is instituting an "English only" policy in the newsroom. Except for personal business, all other oral in-office exchanges are supposed to be conducted in English.
It follows a strong suggestion made recently by the SZ mayor who seems hell-bent on his vision of SZ becoming an "international, civilized city" that "average Shenzhen citizens" conduct their business in English. It's laughable, of course, because despite what hizzoner might want to believe, the "average" SZ resident speaks about as much English as the average American speaks Chinese.
Virtually all the SZ Daily staffers speak fairly fluent English, and they aren't taking any of it too seriously. Indeed, a senior reporter who missed the English-only meeting just laughed when I relayed the news to him. "They have done that twice before at the paper," he said. "It never works. It is unnatural."
But if the mayor is serious he might want to start with the printed word in some of SZ's businesses. At lunch today I was handed an "English" menu that featured these appetizing descriptions:
"One plate of suburb greasepaint will be offered."
"Meal is also offering one cup of overdone routine soup."
I laughed, but after my meal I concluded that I had to give them credit for truth in advertising.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Fishin' Blues
It turns out that loonballs wanting to get press for their aluminum foil hat theories aren't confined to Shenzhen's expat population.
Yesterday I logged on and called up the day's first story. It was a "science" article with an unfamiliar Chinese byline for part of a special section we publish on Wednesdays for Chinese middle and high school English students .
The proposed headline immediately caught my eye:"Human speech originated with fish".
For a moment I thought I was back at Weekly World News.
I read further and learned that contrary to what I'd gleaned from Mrs. Grill and Mr. Bender, my junior high science teachers, prehistoric fish were "phonetic speakers" who formed "tribes" and "talked" with one another. And because human beings "evolved from fish", our power of speech is due to them.
Well, sure. Kind of a unique Chinese theory of de-evolution, I guessed, as fish - except for Nemo and his pals and Charlie Tuna - no longer talk and Flipper didn't count cuz he's technically a mammal.
Further investigation revealed that this exclusive scientific news came to us courtesy of a close friend of the SZ Daily's top dog. My Chinese coworkers whom I consulted agreed that, yes, it was also a unique theory that they'd also never encountered but since the head honcho wanted it printed, we'd better go ahead and do it.
But worse was to come. Did this "friend" have any scientific or academic credentials?
Well, no. Actually, he's a railroad manager. And by the way, he has another article for next week.
"Here it is. I do not think you are going like it," warned my coworker, as she handed me a fax.
She was right.
"USA moon landing was 20th Century's biggest lie!" What followed appeared to be the usual hodgepodge of psuedo-science ripped directly from the plethora of ameoba-brained websites devoted to the topic.
"We can't print this," I sputtered. "This guy is nuts. This isn't responsible journalism. It's garbage. The paper will lose face if we print stuff like this."
I was told that the top editor was unavailable for consultation and urged just to "polish" the talking fish story and forget about it until later.
"Maybe the writer will get a promotion if he has a story published," ventured one colleague.
"It's not our job to get him a promotion, is it? Besides, what does running a railroad have to do with talking fish?"
She just smiled apologetically and went back to her desk.
Over lunch another coworker told me that it's best not to rock the boat.
"In China journalists have to do many things we don't want to do, but we are paid better than the average person. We just do what we have to do and then go home. Do you know what a journalist is called here?"
"Scumbag? What? No, I do not know that word. 'A king without a crown.'"
Fellow crownless barbarian coworker Jeff went ballistic when I told him about the fish and the NASA hoax stories shortly after he arrived for his night shift.
To make a long fish story short, we formed a Gang of Two and appealed to the Comics Lady (who also oversees the Wednesday school kids section) to appeal to the editor.
"What is wrong with the story?" she asked.
"It's all bloody rubbish is what's bloody wrong!" Jeff said as his voice rose.
She asked me to underline any facts in the story.
I underlined two. The guy's byline and one estimating the geologic era in which scientists believe fish first emerged.
"That is all?"
"Assuming that's his real name, yes, that's all."
She disappeared with the story and returned about 30 minutes later with good news.
"We will use another story. The writer will be told he must have more proof if he wants us to publish this."
In other words, he's going on another fishing expedition.

Monday, March 08, 2004

I'd Love to Change the World
One was a prematurely balding curly haired late 20-ish Canadian guy with a potbelly, "Lord of the Rings" T-shirt and slightly soiled khaki slacks. He wants to change China's mostly abysmal sanitation systems and Shenzhen's traffic nightmare and his 193-page, single spaced essay is the key.
Another was an American doctor in his late 50s who works a couple times a month in Guangzhou, the capital city of SZ's province, and at other hospitals in southern China. He was neatly groomed, wore gray slacks, a light, tan sport coat, white shirt and tie and was shocked to discover that nurses in Chinese hospitals aren't always what they claim to be. Though all wear nurse uniforms, some aren't registered nurses and have only high school educations. Some of the drugs are counterfeit and some of the doctors are also counterfeit. A good story, perhaps, until he also revealed that the Queen of England is conspiring with the Chinese government to replace him with a double cloned from a nail full of skin tissue that his Singaporean ex-wife scraped off him 20-some years ago during a "misunderstanding."
The third was a lanky barely 20s Brit with a stringy pony tail and a handful of photos on discs he'd taken of UFOs over SZ. "Shenzhen is at a cosmic universal crossroads and these pictures prove it." How he could shoot them through the mostly constant smog and haze was a greater mystery to me, but I kept my mouth shut.
All found their way up 37 floors to the inner sanctum of the Shenzhen Daily with their revelations. They all also had the seemingly requiste silent, obedient looking Chinese wives/girlfriends trailing behind and sittting quietly and patiently in spare office chairs for hours as their wise men folk unfolded their revelations. The guys all had the 1,00 yard stare of someone not quite comfortable with reality as most know it.
I mostly avoided their readjusted, brief 3-foot stares at the only other foreigner they saw during their visits, though I admit to being tempted by the UFO guy. My best friend is a UFO aficiando and I toyed with the idea of asking to know more, but decided to let the Shenzhen saucers rest as I didn't want to encourage future contact.
U.S. papers I've worked for were magnets for folks like this and I've even worked for one that actively fed their fantasies - Weekly World News - but it was both a pleasure and a little creepy to see that the breed abides in several nationalities and has found a home, if not an outlet, halfway across the globe. I thought of the self-admitted convicted felon who urged me at the Rocky Mountain News to reveal that Barbra Streisand was the messiah and of "Racine Wisconsin" - a scrawny, elderly guy apparently from Racine who was usually attired in an olive green army blanket and not much else - who haunted a newsroom in Lincoln Nebraska where I once worked. The Queen of England was his nemisis, too. She does get around, that Lizzie, screwing with the welfare systems in Nebraska and Wisconsin one day and concocting clones in Singapore and Shenzhen the next...
The difference, though, is that the SZ Daily staff is unearringly polite and patient to these deluded expats who make the effort to find an outlet for their stories. Chinese journalism is one-way for the most part. While in the U.S. there's still the illusion that one can go to a paper and make a case that might see publication eventually, it's mostly futile here unless the story has already been approved in octupulate in advance, beginning with local officals and continuing all the way to Beijing and back again.
The doctor and the UFO expert spent a lot of time bending the ear of third-in-command Paul, who - despite his aversion to any foreigners except Germans and despite the fact that he understood perhaps 40% of what they said - kept nodding and clearing his throat in seeming agreement until they'd made their case, collected their female arm candy and left.
The Canadian was more persistent. He had multiple copies of his "Cure for China's Ills" manifesto and dropped one on my desk as he left, just in case. Among other revelations, I was shocked to learn that some Chinese don't clean their dishes with boiled water.
Honest. It's on page 113.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

If I Were a Carpenter....
....I'd be bigger than the Beatles in China. Way bigger. As I've noted before, rarely a day goes by that I don't hear some version of Yesterday Once More, or as most Chinese call it "Sha-la-la" in reference to the chorus.
Yesterday I heard it once more three times - the original version on a bus and in a restaurant and again as a clarinet instrumental in a piano bar.
I hear it in my sleep. I used to find a guilty pleasure in occasionally singing along to Karen's throaty croon, now there are moments where I think I'd kill her if she weren't already dead.
Karen died in 1983 and Yesterday Once More hasn't been on the U.S. or U.K. charts since 1973, but there's no putting a stake through the heart of this song that refuses to roll over and stalks relentlentlessly through China like a zombie troubador army of the living dead.
Meanwhile, I've grown used to not being startled when a Beatles or Elvis mention elicits a uncomprehending stare and politely shrugging off the helpful CD store clerks who shove a Carpenters compliation under my long nose as I'm obviously thumbing through genres like metal, jazz or the odd Canto-pop accordion hip-hop fusion section.
Karen and Richard's continued popularity and particularly Sha-la-la's was a mystery I was determined to unravel. Let other China watchers scrutinize behind-the-scenes power struggles in the National People's Congress, or debate the Taiwan issue, I wanted to get to the bottom of why every shing-a-ling-ling still shines for young and old alike in the world's most populated nation.
In a completely unscientific survey conducted over a matter of months and usually after several beers and polite requests to "please turn that damn Sha-la-la off!" I'd only learned from about 15 English-speaking Chinese ages 22-50 that it was the first Western song they'd learned and grown to love.
But why? They looked at me as if I had questioned breathing, sunrise or Deng Xiaopeng Theory. How could I not understand? How could I not know? Aren't the Carpenters equally revered in their homeland?
So I finally e-mailed Kaiser Kuo in Beijing. He's a Chinese-American musician, writer and reporter who has lived in China for many years and rates at least a long footnote in the history of 20th century Chinese popular culture as a founding member of one of the country's first heavy metal bands, Tang Dynasty, in 1988. (He also has a kickass recipe for making pico de gallo salsa and chili verde chicken from scratch using Chinese ingredients. For the recipe and more about him, check out his blog, the Unbearble Lightness of Beijing: http://www.livejournal.com/users/kaizor/).
Kaiser graciously replied and shed some light on the mystery. It turns out that the Carpenters were one of the first western groups to penetrate China legally. In other words, I should just be glad it that it wasn't the Osmonds.
"You're absolutely right," Kaiser wrote. "(The Carpenters) dwarf the Beatles in popularity. Part of it is simply that The Carpenters' Greatest Hits was about all there was back then. Before piracy really became an issue--I'm talking the mid-80s to early 90s--the major Chinese music distributors ... really only had that cassette -- that, Richard Clayderman and some old John Denver (Country Roads rivals Yesterday Once More as best-known English song) -- that they could legally distribute.
"Yesterday Once More is the first tune on that compilation, and while connosieurs might prefer Rainy Days and Mondays or Superstar that was the tune that really stuck with people.
"That aside, people in China uniformly love Karen's deep, sultry voice: It stood out then and stands out now as something totally unlike the vocal stylings of any Chinese singer. The very simple melodies are also appealing. My very cool, very hip friends who listen to metal, to hardcore hip-hop, to whatever still profess a love for the Carpenters and can't imagine that they're sort of a joke to most young westerners."

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

"Get the picture? Yes, we see!"
We were knee deep in the staff Monday morning newspaper critque/self-criticism/re-education session and it was looking like fellow barbarian coworker Jeff and I might get out of there within an hour with minimum damage.
Third in command Paul had finished his torturous, syntax-wracked fulsome praise of the way the SZ Daily had faithfully reprinted the latest propaganda screeds from Shenzhen city hall and Beijing and wrapped it neatly up with his routine diatribe about America's latest atrocities and Taiwan's "illegal puppet government." (Since only 28 governments, 14 of which are in Central and South America, recognize Taiwan, I've often resisted the urge to ask Paul if it's Paraguay, or perhaps Ecuador, who is pulling Taiwan's strings.)
Reporter John Woo had pompously addressed three editing "errors" in his thumbsucker of a story promoting a "four star" hotel's Mardi Gras night - none of which, Jeff and I were happy to point out, were errors at all. They were corrections to grammatical and factual errors he had made in the story.
For instance, were you aware that "Mardi Gras was founded in the 1963 and is a traditional American holiday in the spirit of the Christmas in which all families throughout the U.S.A. get together to sing songs and eat turkey and spicings'?
If so, that must of been news to the bead-bedecked human swine who were projectile vomiting their breakfasts of King Cake, gumbo, Jax and Hurricanes on Bourbon Street last month.
"Perhaps you would prefer just to bypass the copy editors?" I finally asked as calmly as I could. "It is difficult, I know, when native English speakers cannot match the wealth of knowledge found in Chinese dictionaries, almanacs and hotel press releases representing a 5,000 year old culture."
"Perhaps we will move on to another subject," interjected second in command Alex, anxious to avoid a Sino-U.S. diplomatic crisis.
The other subject concerned a photograph we'd run of a recently disgraced ex-governor of a nearby province who had been bounced from the party and was facing a prison term - or worse- for taking bribes.
Neither Jeff nor I saw anything wrong with the simple file photo - a head and shoulders color mug shot of a guy sporting oversized black frame glasses like those worn by Chinese President Hu Jintao (requisite eyewear for vision-impaired, ambitious party bigwigs and wannabes), but we were soon educated. There was a detail we'd overlooked.
Behind him, signifying his once exalted status, was a solid red background. But it wasn't the proper backdrop for a man who'd since fallen from party grace.
"It is a mistake show him with a red background," top editor Jeffrey said solemnly. "A small error, but the color should have been changed to perhaps gray or white."
There was a general murmur of agreement and a vow to photoshop in a neutral color should his sorry puss ever have to be reprinted again.
I wonder if they'll change the glasses, too. Some Elton John specs circa 1976 might be nice.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Turning Japanese
Yochan and I had a question about our bill at an Italian restaurant in Shenzhen last weekend and there was a communication glitch. "Restoranti Italiano" is one of many western style eateries in a district of Shenzhen called Shekou. I don't frequent Shekou a lot because it's muy expensotivo and becoup clickometers from el Apartamente de el Numero con Beuno Suerte. And - as newly arrived fellow barbarian James puts it succinctly - there are too many damn foreigners.
But as Yochan wasn't eager to sample Chinese cuisine during her stay we spent some serous chow time in Shekou where we shopped for Japanese snacks and drinks at the equivalent of a Japanese 7-Eleven, ate at Japanese restaurants, inhaled burgers, fries and salads at an Irish style pub called McCauley's that features rebel music on the sound system (best feature besides Guiness on tap - a Chinese waitress singing along to Back Home in Derry: "A rebel I came and I'II die the same...") and also had some muy excellente Italian fare at the afore mentioned restaurant where the question about the bill came up.
Though she speaks Swedish and English, Yochan speaks about as much Chinese as I do and after the 238th time she was addressed here in Chinese she began whipping out a handwritten note that said in Chinese characters: "I am Japanese."
The Italian restaurant's Chinese waitress's English was about as good as our Chinese but thanks to Yochan's sign and the fact that she'd also overheard another one speaking Japanese to a group of fellow diners we got got around the communcation break down. We asked for the other waitress and our question about our Chinese bill in an Italian restaurant was settled in Japanese.
Grudging correction: Yeah, I might have had more fun at the Splendid China theme park than the Feb. 25 post implied. To see the other side of the story and to see pictures me making a fool of myself that I am unable to post, please visit James' site at http://home.earthlink.net/~thebarefootfool/.

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