Friday, December 29, 2006

So, tagged eh?

Thanks(!) to J at the Granite Studio for tagging me. There are an awful lot of China blogs out there now and, most of them have more readers than this one so it's nice to think that I've managed to make someone chuckle...

The assignment was "7 successes in 2006" or "5 things most people don't know about you". I was already working on the successes as a round up of 2006 so that's probably too easy so I'm going to take on both tasks at once.

7 Successes

1) This one's too easy - that has to be the birth of Frankie. OK, one could argue that my part in the whole process was very straightforward compared to the part YY had to play in the overall process but one can hardly list ones successes and miss off one's first born child.

2) Likewise, the fact that I am, as of today, again (darn you Christmas) technically no longer overweight. In addition to 24th December this is only the second day of my adult life that I'm not, technically overweight. Ironically I also managed to stumble across this article which implies that by dropping my BMI just below 25 my risk of Parkinsons disease actually increased.

3) A related success is the fact that I can run 10km. Not quickly I'll grant you but most importantly, I can run 10km. You can't do that when you weigh 290 pounds. Or, at least, I couldn't.

4) I have driven 7255km, in China, without doubt the country with the poorest average standard of driving that I've had the misfortune to drive in. I have (reaches for the nearest bit of wood) managed this without so much as a scratch on the car whereas I'd always imagined that I would have a trail of mangled bicycles, wheelbarrows and pedestrians in my wake.

5) I got accepted onto an EMBA course that the FT ranked #3 in the world this year.

6) I've participated in the winning of two sporting trophies (Softball and 10-pin Bowling). To my recollection that makes my lifetime total, er, two.

7) I hope I've managed to wean myself off television in record time. In only 8 days since I've realised the true extent of my upcoming time dilemma I've simply gone cold turkey and, I don't miss it at all.

So, onto 5 things you don't know about me.

1) I've always blamed Charles M. Shultz for the reason that I stopped playing the piano when I was a child. Something that I eternally regret. Lucy made a comment to Linus about her liking "Bach's Toccata and Fugue in Asia Minor" and, being too young to get it, I tried to show interest in my subject by using what I thought was a clever reference, only for her to be completely bemused. It was shortly afterwards that I realised the gaffe on my part and somehow never regained my composure.

2) I really, really don't understand poetry. I might, in the past, have said that I've enjoyed some poems. In reality, that's a lie.

3) There is a drawer in my kitchen that, for some reason (probably relating to the fact that it's China), contains a small ball bearing. Every time I open the drawer, the ball bearing rolls to the front of the drawer and makes me jump, thinking there's some horrible creepy-crawly in the drawer. When I'm done, I shut the drawer without removing and discarding the ball-bearing.

4) The mere sight of capers makes me feel nauseous.

5) Despite the fact that my favourite music includes such illustrious metal bands as Rammstein, Metallica and Linkin Park, I have an inexplicable soft spot for the musical Oklahoma. Not only is it the only musical that I enjoy but I deplore all others.

So, time to spread the joy.

Argy Bargey - As my small band of regular readers will know JP was knocked down by a bus recently and has been on blogging hiatus since then. Hopefully with a quick tag he will spring back into action.

Troubled Diva - One of the most interesting, witty, and long established, bloggers I know.

Anchored Nomad - By her own admission, a bit of a mommy blog over the last few weeks but who hasn't posted a fair bit about the birth of their first born daugher, ahem. I've been a regular reader since this post.

Reluctant Nomad - Because I like nomads

Triviality - Far for me to come up with a list with no China related content...

You're it.

Oh, and a special mention should be made to Magnús who appeared recently in my comments about Getting Married in Lanzhou. Magnús, I don't know if you blog or not, as your profile is private, but, if you are, I for one would like to read how you're getting on.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

How do you make a 3 day holiday?

If you had to decide how best to implement a three day holiday out of a weekend (December 30th and 31st 2006) and a public holiday Monday (January 1st 2007), how would you do it?

Me, I'd think, "That's handy, the holiday is right next to the weekend so all I have to do is leave well alone".

Sadly like, er, almost everything in China, Nature is not being allowed to take its course. No wonder baiji never stood a chance.

Instead of working 5 days (Mon-Fri) this week, having the weekend and bank holiday off and working 4 days next week, the government has stipulated that the holiday is actually Jan 1st-3rd this year so most Chinese-Chinese companies (i.e. not ours) are working 7 days this week, including Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st, and then having Monday to Wednesday off next week.

It's completely mad. So, perfectly normal then.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Cool Yule

My Family, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

Merry Christmas everyone. Well, of course it's only Christmas Eve but, tomorrow is a working day here in China (and will presumably continue to be one for a long time).

As the only British person over the age of 1 in my house, it fell to me to prepare Christmas dinner which took a fair bit of planning. As expected, I'm pretty sure the only person who really enjoyed the meal was me but I think the others fared reasonably well. About the only thing missing were crackers but you can't have everything.

Despite being in China, with the help of the City Supermarket in Shanghai and two hotels I managed to put on a fair imitation of Christmas dinner. I do have an oven but only as part of a combination Microwave so I can only cook one thing at a time, as long as its small but the biggest limitation was the size and design of the average kitchen in China so that I have a two-ring hob and four square feet of ultra-low (back-breaking) worktop to work on. As, rather than preparing one-dish-at-a-time Chinese cuisine, I was aiming for the simultaneous presentation of...

Turkey (OK, this came from a hotel as per previous article)
Sausages wrapped in bacon
Roast Potatoes
Mashed Potatoes
Brussels Sprouts with bacon
Turkey Gravy
Bread Sauce (made from bread that I baked)
Cranberry Sauce
Garlic and Chilli Mushrooms
Sage and Onion Stuffing
Chestnut Stuffing

As you can imagine, this leads to an awful lot of juggling of plates, cooking and reheating and, at the end of the day, it all kinda worked out.

Everything was done properly - full use of tablecloths, the entire set of cutlery, and napkins. I even managed to persuade everyone that it was the ideal time to turn the TV off and listen to some light music. The whole thing was all very Christmassy - we even had trifle for dessert. Shame Frankie doesn't know what's going on yet, but next Christmas should be more fun!.

Probably the greatest irony of this Christmas is that I finally arrived at my target weight - 87.7kg - yesterday and was, officially, no longer overweight. Shame that.

Happy Bloomin' Christmas, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


So I've mentioned that I'm going to start an EMBA in the new year (I have just 4 weeks of 'freedom') left and have been working on ideas and approaches to get me through. Obvious thoughts are:

1) I am part of a study group (6 others plus myself) spread across parts of Asia and appear to be 'The IT Person' in the group. There is, therefore, some onus on me to propose the use of tools. What I'm thinking we need are:
  • An instant messaging solution of some sort which facilitates team communications (for my sins I use MSN messenger for friends/family but with 7 people talking at once, questions posted by one person will disappear off the screen and it will be pretty ugly trying to follow the threads).
  • Web-based collaborative tools to facilitate study and sharing
  • Repository
  • Other tools that I haven't really thought through yet (an example might be a bibliography manager but I think it's too early to tell).
None of the tools I currently use seem to fit the bill for these so there's a fair amount of work to be done to evaluate, test, propose and implement some of these tools.
2) I'm trying to organise myself better for the upcoming 'second job' that I will have to do and am working with David Allen's "Getting Things Done" to try to improve my ability to capture everything that's going on around me. P is on a similar path and has me intrigued with tiddlywikis as a means to capture everything.

The idea of capturing 'everything' that I have outstanding is extremely appealing. I do suffer from the 'ooh' realisation that I've forgotten something and just remembered it (sometimes in time, sometimes not) all too often. It sounds like a very cathartic process!

3) I do of course need to find the time to do all of these things. So, some sacrifices are called for. Things in scope for sacrifice are:
  • TV - I don't know why I bother some times. These days I mostly watch DVDs of TV shows but even ones I enjoy (for example CSI, Alias, Stargate SG-1) aren't exactly a good use of my time.
  • Blogging - clearly going to take a bit of a back seat
  • Browsing the web - slightly at odds with 1) but a 'quick look for something specific can easily turn down a myriad of side roads (as the 23 open tabs in Firefox would indicate)
  • Chinese Lessons - still debating this one - I spend 3 hours a week doing this and I find it interesting and rewarding but it can probably wait for 14 months
  • Working from home - I don't mean in the 9-5 sense, I mean the fact that I will all-too-often combine TV and 'keeping on top of my email' in the evening. Doubly so because I'm in China working for a UK company so all my UK colleagues start work at 5pm my time.
Things out of scope are:
  • Family - YY and Frankie - obviously
  • Exercise - I've simply worked too hard this year to let it all go
  • Sleep
  • Listening to Podcasts - OK, at the moment this is typically restricted to time whilst I'm cycling but it is all useful stuff, mainly Radio4, the excellent Manager Tools, and other factual casts.
This is going to take a fair amount of discipline to break out of old habits, but probably what I need to be more effective.

Any of my readers with any suggestions/contributions to how to achieve any or all of the above are most welcome.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Our Office Toilets

Our Office Toilets, originally uploaded by Ambling Sheep.

I mentioned before that our building management were refurbing all of our toilets. Well.

Because our company now occupies the entire floor they had simply declined to refurbish ours with the argument that 'all of the other toilets were shared but our floor is just for us'. Arguing that we're one of their biggest tenants and pay the same management charge per sq.m. as everyone else has resulted in this.

I got back from paternity leave to discover that the building were proposing this 'compromise'. They have stripped out the old toilets. That's it. They've saved us the strip-out expense. They expect us to refit the new toilets at our expense and, in the mean time, they killed our toilets.

This is rather like the time I asked our builder for a quote to replace an external door. Two days later I came to work and the door and half of the wall were missing. Two days after that the quote for the new door came through. It's a good way of ensuring the business.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Am I the only one?

Who thinks that this fine fellow (Lǐ Yǒng - a very popular television presenter who is here advertising floorboards) looks like a vampire?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

When is a Turkey not a Turkey...?

So, Christmas is coming and I live in China which means, amongst other things, life without an oven. My lovely new apartment will have one capable of cooking a turkey but as of right now, that's not the case.

So I contact a friend of mine who works in the nearby 5 star hotel who assures me that I can order hot, fresh-cooked turkeys through their main bar. Approaching the bar I was greeted in English so tried asking if I could order a turkey. Reply was 'No'.

So, switching to Chinese I asked the same question. Turkey in Chinese is 火鸡 (huǒ jī - literally fire chicken - don't ask me how that came about!) to which I thought I heard a reply of "啊,大火鸡" (ā, dà huǒ jī = Ah, big turkey!) and started fishing around under the bar, looking for the order forms I assumed.

Not being a smoker, I didn't know the vocabulary 打火机 (dǎ huǒ jī) - cigarette lighter - so was surprised when she reappeared with a box of matches. D'oh!

You come across people who won't listen to you because you're foreign (to whit, I parked in my local Carrefour supermarket and to get free parking you're supposed to tell your licence plate number to the attendant when you arrive (don't ask why he can't just read it off the car when you drive past him). I waited while the two people in front told him their numbers and he wrote them down. I then told him my number. And then again. He looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues and then shoved the piece of paper in front of me and gave me the age-old 'jabby finger' to write my own number down. This in trickier than it sounds because it begins with '浙' - one of the many, many characters I can read but not write. So I have to argue with him to write it down - at some point during this process, he obviously realises I was speaking Chinese and acquiesces.

Other people treat you as if you're simply senile or retarded. I purchased a kettle in the local InTime department store and the assistant carried out the whole transaction as if she were a mime. I did, to be fair, let her continue to do so by not speaking to her until the end as it was quite amusing. My favourite bit as she unboxed the kettle was that she got the instruction booklet out and then pointed to part of a page that was all in Chinese that explained that there was a two year guarantee on the product. I had to chuckle that she's not said a word on the assumption that I can't speak Chinese but then assumes that I can read it.

I guess you need the odd "Turkey=Cigarette Lighter" incident to remind you that you're not easy to understand after all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Cordyceps Sinensis

I have seen boxes of Cordyceps in the "Expensive Chinese Medicines Boxed as Gifts" section of the supermarkets here (that is, a tiny amount of Chinese medicine in a huge, otherwise empty, box - it's not the value of a gift that counts here, size is important) but I'd never really paid much attention.

One of my colleagues recently received (and hastily returned) a box of Corsyceps Sinensis. I've been intrigued as to what they are exactly as they look a lot like a dried caterpillar with a stick up its arse. I don't know why I was surprised to find out that that's pretty much what it is, only even more sinister.

The Chinese name on the box was 冬虫夏草, that is Winter Insect Summer Grass. Doesn't sound too bad does it.

Wikipedia puts it like this: ... the fungus infects the caterpillar... Once inside the fungus mycelium ramifies through the host tissue, eventually completely consuming it and replacing the caterpillar body with fungal tissue. At this stage, the fungus grows a usually columnar fruiting body that reaches the surface and releases spores.

So, the medicine is actually the shell of a caterpillar that has been consumed by a flesh eating fungus. Sounds tasty. If you're contemplating eating some, perhaps you might like to watch this video about Cordyceps first. Yum.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

One Country, Two Airport Systems

It would be lovely to think that one of the things that might have come from Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 would be some of the best practices.

There's no wonder that Hong Kong airport keeps winning 'World's Best Airport' awards - it's certainly in my top 3 along with Singapore and Copenhagen.

Chinese airports, and not just the airport but the entire system, is far from ideal. The levels of pointless bureucracy and lack of inter-agency cooperation serve to make the life of the international traveller more miserable than necessary. That's before we get to the issue of the airports themselves being amongst the most tedious airports in the world.

Hangzhou airport is miles outside of town. I'm sure there were good reasons to choose farmer's fields that they did to build the airport on, rather than the farmers fields that you drive past for a full 25 minutes before you arrive at the airport.

Arriving at the airport this morning we couldn't get up the 'departures' ramp because of a taxi slowly discharging its passenger, the cacphony of car horns failing to disturb the two adjacent policemen from the chat.

Then the outbound paperwork. You have to fill out the customs declaration - in theory you fill out two identical copies if you're taking valuables (laptops are specifically mentioned) out of China that you intend to bring back. This morning, I had to explain to the customs officials that they're supposed to stamp one and give it back for use when I return as they merely tried to relieve me of both copies. Invariably, if I fill in one copy I get the 'jabby finger' that points to the fact that I should have filled in two.

That done, there's the departure card and (from time to time when they feel like it) there's an outbound medical questionnaire.

Return is the same - customs declaration, arrivals card and this time definitely a medical questionaire. You can't help but wonder as you sit down and write your name, address and passport number down for the umpteenth time, just why the relevant departments can't at least cooperate and give you one form for all 3 purposes. What on earth do they do with them all anyway?

Hong Kong manages to get away with a single form - with built-in carbon so you don't have to fill in your personal details twice.

I sail through immigration with my 'Frequent Visitor Card' (a far cry from arriving in Pudong airport where all the European flights arrive almost simultaneously so you just have to join the herd), bag on the conveyor by the time I get there and straight onto the waiting airport express train.

Please, Hangzhou and Pudong airport officials. Go to Hong Kong. Watch. Learn.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


5km in 30 minutes. Must be a lifetime PB.

Speaking Foreign

I don't know what it is that divides the polyglot from us mere mortals, but I don't really understand how people can cope with a working knowledge of multiple languages.

I used to be able to speak German. Not fluently, you understand, but I was quite comfortable with speaking and comprehending German.

These days I believe I can comprehend German almost as well as before. I can still read spoken German aloud and know how to pronounce it. But, I can't "Speak German" to save my life.

This morning, I walked past some Germans speaking German which prompted me to wonder if they could speak English and, if not, if they could speak Chinese. I tried, simply for the fun of it, to produce in my head the German for the phrase "I can understand some German but find speaking German difficult". The phrase I came up with (at the first pass) was "Ich verstehe yi dian dian Deutsch dan shi ich juede spreche Deutsche sehr nan". Hmm. That's not going to fool anyone.

I'm convinced for the non-polyglots amongst us our brains tend to have 'native language' and 'foreign language' sections and that doing something like moving to China having studied German for years at school and evening classes simply leads to the 'foreign' section becoming overwritten. I definitely had some of this problem when I was at school trying to deal with French and German side by side but the virtual non-use of German for the last 4 years (apart from singing along with Rammstein tracks) has left my German ability corrupt and unusable.

The supporting evidence for the 'native' and 'foreign' brain components is also quite ably seen. I know I do this myself but have evidence from others that the act of being 'abroad' switches on the 'foreign' component, even when you don't want it to (e.g. pete saying 谢谢 to people who opened doors for him in Osaka, and basil asking the hotel receptionist about 'le petit dejeuner' when we were in Bologna).

It may well be that this afflicts British people quite badly as we are generally not reknowned for our superior language skills, instead typically relying on other people to be able to speak English but it is jolly irritating.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Roller Coaster

Even with the (sort of, curse you Blogger) live blogging, I don't think I fully captured the range of emotions I went through whilst in 'The Vacuum' that is birth via surgery taking place in a foreign country in such a way that you can't see what's going on and you have no information.

Honestly, you can't help it after a while. I admit that I was pretty upset the first time that YY disappeared downstairs and it was a relief that she briefly came back so that I could at least say what I wanted to say before she went for surgery.

I do, as is probably clear from my blog, tend to 'overthink' things. This meant the following:

Hour 1:
Trying not to worry about it - all perfectly normal at this point. They do this sort of thing all the time. Etc.

Hour 2:
Surely they should be back any minute. Didn't the people in the next bed say it took just over an hour? Does this mean there's a problem? What if there's a problem with the baby? Will they just bring the baby back and tell me bluntly? What if there's a problem with the operation.

End of hour 2:
My baby's arrived. It's a girl! Knew that ultrasound couldn't be trusted. But, where's YY. How can I enjoy this when I don't know if my wife is alive or dead. There must be hundreds of cases where the baby is delivered OK and then there are complications with the woman.
I'm sure that having my brand new baby here should be fantastic and exciting and it is but... how can I possibly enjoy it not knowing if my wife is alive or dead. When would they tell me if there was a problem. Argh!

End of hour 3:
She's back. They're both back! Floods of relief. More so than happiness at the new baby is the joy that everyone's alive and well.

Everyone came home on Saturday so we've been settling in and slowly getting back to normal. Obviously, this is the 'new' normal that includes Frankie as she didn't really appear in the 'old' normal.

Anyone following the Flickr links will be able to follow the veritable fashion parade that Frankie's been going through, including this little ensemble. Well, the doctors did say it was going to be a boy...

Frankie for England! 2006/12/04

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Getting Married in Lanzhou

I don't normally take requests... but as Magnús asked so nicely so here (to the best of my recollection) is a guide for a British person marrying a Chinese person with a Hukou of Lanzhou.

Clearly the whole business of getting married is the subject of much confusion. To my wife’s family, the part in Lanzhou where we obtained the marriage certificate was a mere formality (and one that most villagers might see as an unnecessary expense) but, clearly to the British Consulate, the fact that we’d had a big banquet whilst dressed in new, red clothes wasn’t quite formal enough.

There is information on the British Embassy website that was of use to me but that seems to have been simplified over the last year. This being China, it would seem likely that the It also wouldn't surprise me if the rules in China didn't change regularly, and for that matter, be interpreted differently by different officials. Amongst the things that we produced (based on warnings posted on various websites) that were not needed were:
  • A set of translations of every single document we had
  • A document from the British Consulate confirming the nationality of my ex-wife
A quick trawl of the web also reveals all sorts of documents that we didn’t need:
To actually get married in the Lanzhou 民政厅 we just needed the following:
  1. Cash: not sure how much but it’s not a huge amount
  2. Photos of the two of us - actually a single, wide photo of the two of us side-by-side. The photo shop in Hangzhou we went into knew what was required. At least three photos (one for the marriage bureau and one for each of the two marriage certificates - you get one each!)
  3. ID: Passport, ID Card, Hukou booklet - you will need photocopies of these so take copies of every page with personal info on it. We didn't and, despite the presence of a photocopier in the room next door to the marriage bureau, we had to go out in the street and find a shop with a photocopier (if you fall foul of this, come out of the Lanzhou marriage bureau building and turn right. There's a little signwriter's just after a small road junction with a photocopier.
  4. Letters of eligibility to marry. YY obtained hers from the PSB office in her home village and it was just a hand written note. I had to obtain mine from the British Consulate in Shanghai (although it would have been doable via a registry office in the UK). The process is slightly complicated that you (just the British Citizen) need to attend the Consulate or Embassy after you have been in China for at least 21 consecutive days, then you need to wait for 21 days before they will issue the certificate (although you may leave China during the 21 days after application). A quick look at the US embassy website implies that this process is peculiar to British law as there’s no mention of waiting for 21 days.
What you need to apply in the British Consulate (it would seem likely to be similar at
other consulates) is:
  • Your full name and place of residence.
  • Your partner's full name and address in English.
  • Chinese partner's name and full address in Chinese characters.
  • Details of your marital status, i.e. bachelor / spinster / divorced.
  • If you have been previously married or you are a widower, we need to see an original divorce decree or death certificate.
This will clearly be different if you apply in your home country and, unlike the consulate, they won’t produce a version of the certificate in Chinese so you will need to take the certificate you your local Chinese embassy or consulate for translation and notarisation.

With all of that, there’s not really much to it. Fill in a form or two when you’re there, wait in a soulless little grey office and then without any ceremony of any sort, you get your marriage certificates and your done. Seems very matter-of-fact for such an important life event.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Correct Answer

(note: to prevent any confusion - this post is referring to my car. Sorry History Elephant...)

5. There's something wrong with the air intake which, thankfully, took 15 minutes to diagnose and fix.

Kangaroo Tucson

Q: When is a Hyundai Tucson not a Hyundai Tucson?

A: When it's a kangaroo.

Firstly, however, the important news... YY and Frankie continue to do well. YY's struggling a bit now the anaesthetic is all out of her system but is making good progress. Poor little Frankie got bitten by her first mosquito yesterday but is still a lovely little thing. I am finding it to be difficult to be as happy as I thought I would be simply because YY is in a lot of pain at times.

Last night the car decided that it wanted to impersonate a kangaroo and hop away every time it started off from stationary. Aside from the unpleasant feeling it leaves in the stomach, it seemed likely that this was a precursor to something worse.

Research on the web came up with nothing for kangarooing automatic cars. I have so far assumed that likely problems are:

1. Low quality fuel

2. Clutch problem

3. Gearbox problem

I have just arrived at the car dealer where I bought the car where I have been presented with a new option:

4. I'm an idiot and can't drive an automatic

Now, I might have accepted this were it not the fact that I was perfectly capable of driving an automatic yesterday morning and at all other times over the course of the preceeding year and don't believe that I simply forgot last night.

Fuel quality doesn't seem that likely to me as I drove about 200km since I refuelled on Friday without incident and adding more fuel seems pointless as I still have half a tank.

The idea of breaking down with Frankie in the back in the increasingly cold weather (down to 10 degrees C yesterday) seems an extremely unpleasant one.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Signing Off

Well, what a day. I'm back at home and YY and Francesca are settling in for the night in the hospital.

I'm afraid Blogger turned out to be a fairly useless product for live blogging from a Blackberry and I'm a bit disappointed that this entry (done through the Blogger interface) will appear long before the last three or four entries that I emailed to Blogger.

Suffice to say that Francesca was born in good health by Caesarian section. YY eventually was returned from the Operating Room and appears in good health and good spirits, albeit absolutely knackered and with no feeling in her legs.

Thanks for the well wishes received thus far and apologies to anyone who didn't get an email or a text thus far.

We Are 3!

At last, YY is back, Francesca is where she should be and we are one, small happy family.

At times like this life really is sweet.

She's Still Not Back

It's 3 hours since she went for the op but YY hasn't yet returned. A doctor has, thankfully, appeared and said everything's OK but I'll be only able to relax when I can see her for myself.

Our daughter (see pics on Flickr) has barely stopped crying since she turned up an hour or so ago. Hopefully that's not an omen for the future.

It's a Girl!

So much for ultrasound.

8 pounds 2 ounces.

Information Vacuum

8pm and all's, er, well I have no idea. We have no information at all.

No, Really

There's going to be a big groove in the floor before much longer! 7.30pm and no sign.

The suspense is killing me

And The She Was Gone. Again.

Done properly this time.


And Then She Was Back!

No sooner had I finished my previous lament then she was back. No, I'm not that slow a typer, she was kicked off the operating table to make room for an emergency. Apparently the other person was screaming the place down so it was probably a good call.

Not that I'm complaining. At least I can do it properly next time.

FYI, it has just turned 6pm here. The date and time on the entries are not this timezone but, presumably that of Blogspot HQ, in turn presumably in California.

And Then She Was Gone

Heartless bastards.

I had nipped to the loo only to find YY on a trolley being wheeled away. I managed to catch up with her just as the lift doors were closing only for the nurse who had wheeled her in to block our (me and YW, YY's sister) and say "You can't come". And the doors closed completely.

I didn't manage a "Good Luck", "be brave" or an "I love you" before she went. For such an important life event, the 'lack of care for the feelings of the others' that is often shown in China really sucks.

Damned French Fries

The doctor has just been in and said that YY can do the operation now but... The OR was booked for 2.30 and now they're all full.

Time ticks by. YY has suggested that to avoid me getting too tired, I should go home now and come back and see my child tomorrow. In this respect, there should be a picture of her in the dictionary under the definition of 'stoic'.

The same can't be said of her stomach, the emptiness of which is troubling her to the point of distraction. I swear that the Chinese could have taken over the world centuries ago if they didn't have to stop every 6 hours for a hot, cooked meal.

Still Waiting

One similarity of hospitals everywhere I guess. They tell you a time. You wait until that time and then. Nothing.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Argh. YY managed to steal two French Fries, unbeknown to anyone else, but has just admitted it to the nurse. To be safe, they're delaying the op until 4pm (now 2:30).

Contractions are increasing in frequency and intensity so its happening today one way or the other!

What is it about eating and anaesthesia? Is it just the risk of puking or does the anaestetic actually affect the anaesthesia? Is it the same for all anaesthesia (I can imagine it might have an effect for gaseous anaesthetic, but an epidural?)


OK, now we're in ECG while YY gets a pre-operative check.

As with many administrative functions in institutions throughout China we're waiting for the one working operative to come free. Of the other 5 staff members present, 2 are fiddling with a computer, one is sending text messages and the other two are braiding each other's hair. The idea that time has a value has yet to come to China!

Well, not quite

Back at the hospital and YY's been tested for allergy to the epidural anaesthetic and is just waiting, witing, waiting.

Of course, as lunchtime rolled by she fully engaged the Pavlovian reflex of so many here and became absolutely starving - a problem which is now 'worse than the pain of the contractions'.

I'm told that there's no chance I'll be allowed to attend the C-section, which is a bit irritating, but she's perfectly happy with that so I don't want to force the issue and cause her any more stress. I will, of course, be on tenterhooks if anything seems to going wrong and noone tells me anything or, worse, as I can't see what's going on if people babble excitedly in Chinese so I can't understand what they're saying.

Nearly there

Well, actually I'm in KFC at time of writing getting some sustinance for the events to come. After numerous tests, a Caesarian section has been scheduled for 2.30pm local time. It's getting quite exciting!

Babywatch T+3

Well, the book (Pregnancy for Dummies - we're a bit short of English language bookshops here) warned it's not necessarily a sudden and obvious process.

The floodgates haven't opened, she hasn't given birth in the car on the way to the hospital but, it looks like things are moving. Having no frame of reference we've been relying on the "How to tell if it's false labour" section and it doesn't seem like it is. So we're in the waiting room now.

As Chinese hospitals don't ban the use of mobile phones (the doctors all use them) some degree of 'live blogging' may occur.

Thanks to the wonders of the lovely Nokia N73 and Flickr, I can upload directly into Flickr from my phone. Any photos will be accessible via the Flickr link on the right hand side of the blog. The Flickr badge shows the last 3 photos I uploaded so if you see pictures of a baby that's probably good news!

Unless this is false labour in which case I'll be back at work shortly...

Babywatch T+2

Well, this is proving to be a bit of a damp squib...

It's 2 days past the due date and all is well but, still no sign of a baby. Whilst it's a bit anticlimactic, I guess I should be grateful that I've already had 2 more nights of decent sleep than I anticipated.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

New Ayi, New Danger

Xiao Hu, for all her faults, had one saving grace for me, in that she had her own home so for more than 12 hours every day, she wasn't in mine.

Zhou Ayi, on the other hand, doesn't. She's moved into our spare room/nursery - only for the next 6 weeks or so until we've established a routine as, frankly, I know as much about baby rearing as one would be know about how to disassemble and reassemble a Mark III Cortina having read the Haynes* manual and I'm not sure YY knows much more.

Now, I normally find cooking to be quite a pleasurable experience. Starting from recipe and ingredient selection, preparation, cooking, eating (of course) and then clearing up. Unfortunately it very rarely works like that here. I don't think people have the same concept of cooking for the sake of cooking any more than people understand that I like going cycling for its own sake, rather than because I'm at point a and need to get to point b.

If ever I try to cook (which hasn't been that often as the kitchen setup makes it fairly unenjoyable) then I always get offers of 'help' from the ayi. Fending off offers of help with whatever I'm doing just leads to her getting on with something else (ok, you don't want me to chop the veg, I'll wash up the implements that you've used...) rather than simply going away.

This morning was the first time this has happened to me over breakfast and, whilst it's a fairly simple affair, breakfast has more significance to me in that it really is my 'me time'. I potter about the flat, 5 days a week, from 6 o'clock on. Sometimes leaving for work at 6:45, sometimes not until 8. Sometimes YY will get up, other times not. It's all good.

This morning I was faced with Zhou Ayi and her determination to 'help me' by trying to wrestle me away from my simmering oats and not-quite warmed up espresso machine. We settled on a draw in that she made the coffee and I carried on the oats to completion, but inside I know I lost.

I hope she's going to be kept occupied when the baby comes because I don't want to go through this battle every morning. I think whatever I do, I'm going to end up losing face because cookery, after all, isn't "a man's work".

*Actually - the Haynes manual crack isn't as silly as it sounds as looking for the hyperlink I see there is a Haynes manual for baby rearing...

Babywatch. T+1

Still nothing.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Babywatch T-0

The countdown today reached zero. Nothing happened. More news live, as it happens.

Who Ate All The Pies?

I spotted an article in the BBC News Magazine the other day about the use of the BMI measurement to determine people's status about whether they are; underweight, normal, overweight or obese.

The reporter found some 'men on the street' who were on the fat side and weighed them. Most were 'surprised' to learn that they were obese and gave a series of tired old excuses that they were either 'a good size for their height' or 'big boned' or the old chestnut 'well, muscle's heavier than fat'. All this is, of course, rubbish. Even scarier, there were a number of reader comments backing up these claims and saying that the men looked just fine.

Its not really a surprise to me. As I've mentioned before, as I'm sure others have, when you live in China and return home to the UK everyone (ok, not everyone - there are a large number of shapely Eastern European immigrants) appears enormous.

If the survey is anything to go by, the main problem with obesity in the UK is that people are accustomed to flab. Everyone else is fat so you don't feel fat and convince yourself that the scales are misleading and the BMI scale inapplicable.

This is, clearly, a particularly vicious circle. As people get fatter, fatness becomes more socially acceptable so the pressure to lose weight fades. And the queues at the diabetes clinics get longer and longer.

In order to lose weight, I can recommend a low carb, calorie controlled diet with lots of excercise.

In order to get it into your head that you're not actually 'a good size' but are, in fact, 'fat as a pig' I recommend you move to China.

However, you'd better hurry. Globalisation brings with it KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut and a correspondingly high carb diet. Its only a matter of time before "Fat Camp for Kids" starts screening here.

Fortunately I got here just in time. Today marks a loss of 40kg since this time last year. With a BMI of 25.9 I have 4kg to go to reach the top end of a 'normal' weight. It's notable that people here are just beginning to say 'You should stop losing weight or you'll look too thin'. When I was 16kg heavier in July, people in the UK were saying the same thing.

Friday, November 24, 2006

An Ayi for an Ayi

Today I came home to find Zhou Ayi settling in to the spare room which was a bit of a surprise.

Xiao Hu has been with us for about 2 years now. She is somewhat bereft of common sense but has, over the years, picked up the ability to cook Chili-con-carne, Spag Bol, Chicken Tikka Masala and Fajitas which, at the end of the day, has stopped us replacing her until now.

Unfortunately for Xiao Hu, we don't have faith in her child rearing skills to want to let her loose with the new baby. I don't know what she knows about babies but as I only just learnt that her daughter, who is 15 now, has been living in a flat on her own in Sichuan province, 1000 miles away, since Xiao Hu moved to Hangzhou 3 years ago, her childcare skills are in doubt.

Ayis, like imortals, seem to follow 'there can be only one' maxim. I'm sitting typing this in the living room while one hovers in and out of the spare room and the other in and out of the kitchen. If they think about coming out at the same time they repel like magnets. The tension is palpable.

As the time drew close, I'm kind of reluctant to let Xiao Hu go but I can't live with this tension for long. Hopefully the handover will be smooth and swift.

Extreme Water

James Randi's website contains a lovely critique of Xooma X2O extreme water. I couldn't help noticing that, as Mr Randi points out, the list of elements includes Cadmium and Thallium:

Cadmium, according to Wikipedia: "has no constructive purpose in the human body. This element and solutions of its compounds are toxic even in low concentrations, and will bioaccumulate in organisms and ecosystems."

Thallium. In the news a lot lately as a suspect in the the recent poisoning in the UK of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. According to the venerable BBC Thallium can "...attack the nervous system and internal organs... also cause hair loss, vomiting, and diarrhoea."

A Xooma website (Xooma does very much appear as a 'get rich quick from home' kinda organisation so pinning down the real home of Xooma isn't that straight forward) says their product has these qualities:
  • Cleanse the kidneys, intestines, and liver
  • Protect your body from free radical cell damage
I can't help thinking that there's something a bit odd about the marketing strategy for a product that lists two known toxins in the ingredients list for a health product. OK, I'm sure lots of products contain all sorts of toxins in tiny amounts that can't be eliminated, much like the fact that many products contain insect parts which are virtually impossible to eliminate. The key difference is you don't see "contains 36 insect parts per 100g" as part of the advertising!

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Oh dear. I fear my child will be in line for footwear trouble in future life...

YY had a scan yesterday during which the doctor said that the baby's feet seemed unusually long. As I'm no stranger to this phenomenon myself (taking a UK 14/US 15/Eur 49.5 shoe) this should probably not be a surprise but as YY takes a Eur 36 I was hoping my child would be spared the pain of not being able to find shoes.

It's bad enough in the UK where you're considered a freak if you go over a size 11 but in China, where most of my shoes are manufactured, it is virtually impossible. As reported in the local newspaper, a local Nike goods distributors said "Why would be stock anything over a size 47 when there's no market for the shoes".

The doc refused to comment this time on whether it was a boy or girl so we are still in limbo. Anyway, we expect to know for sure within the week as the due date is only 2 days away!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Blogspot Unblocked?

From my site statistics, it looks like access to blogspot blogs has been unblocked, again.

I wish they'd make up their damned minds at the "Great Firewall" HQ as I've just shelled out the money for 12 months web hosting to move my blog away from ''

Monday, November 20, 2006


There was a thread of this title on the, now late-lamented, TalkTalkChina. In it people reeled off tales of terrible toilets (of which China has many). God knows, the public toilets in our building are particularly rank and malodorous.

When my boss visited China, one of the best things to happen was for him to see the public toilets "swimming with piss" (his words) and to let me build some private toilets for our company. Our toilets have cleanliness, translucent windows rather than transparent, aircon, hot water and soap to wash your hands with, and paper towels. The public loos have none of these.

I had thought the public loos were typically fairly bad - there is at least one guy on our floor (not one of ours) - I don't know why he bothers even standing in front of the urinal because he then proceeds to unload directly onto the floor so that it runs backwards between his feet (nice slope for drainage) all the way across the room and into the floor drain.

Faced with that, it's hard to imagine that things could get much worse but... They're refurbishing the toilets at the moment and this weekend they were on our floor replacing the pipework in the ceiling of our toilets that serve the floor above. You might imagine that they'd have drained said pipework before they started but...

I've just popped into the loos on the floor below ours and went quickly through "wow, the stench is worse than normal", "how can anyone pee onto the top of the urinal?", "hang on, there's pee on top of all the urinals", "uh-oh - it's not just pee".

Looking up at the ceiling all I could see were hundreds of liquid droplets, all poised to fall. One has never finished one's business so hurriedly...

If there's an outbreak of Cholera on the second floor, at least we'll know why.

Cool School Transport

How cool would it be to have gone to school like this! You even get to do your homework on the way!

School Bus

Friday, November 17, 2006


Life. Don't talk to me about Life. Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask me to insert pretty much anything I had to do this week with regard to work. Call that job satisfaction? 'Cause I don't."

Everything, and I mean everything, is a bit nuts at the moment - hence the lack of posting this last month.

1) Work - I'm sure it's not an actual conspiracy but, I'm short-handed in the world of management at the moment so the wierdest combination of events has inevitably transpired in a time-sucking, head-in-hands kind of way. Managing a company in China really can seem like herding cats at times.

2) Apartment - Fitout of my apartment is pressing on. I'm not on top of it as I'd like and, given the expense, I'm conscious that if doesn't end up how I'd like it I'm going to be very unhappy. The few visits I've made to my apartment aren't particularly helpful because the work that's going on is so chaotic, I've no idea how it's going to end up. For example, witness my living room from a couple of weeks ago. If you count carefully, there are 8 people just in this room!


3) Baby! In theory there's just over a week to go! It still seems unreal that I'm going to be a dad in just over a week (or a couple of hours - the uncertainty adds to the excitement). We're accumulating a large number of baby items that only time will tell whether they are, or are not, useful - no thanks to "The ultimate shopping experience for new and expectant parents" as they style themselves, who have singularly failed to impress me in any way with their approach to getting the stuff I've already paid for from the UK to China.

4) The car has transpired to go a bit wonky - slight problem with the steering which thankfully has been fixed now and only stole half a day of my time. Driving continues to be a slow and frustrating experience, such as the picture below - one of the cars up ahead has dinged the bumper of another so we sit, and sit, and sit, until the policeman (pictured, thankfully) releases the scene.


5) My Neighbours are definitely conspiring to deny me a satisfying night's sleep at the weekends. It's Saturday and I'd like just a little bit more sleep than usual, but no. The apartment above mine actually houses a company which supplies greeters, girls that stand by the door of shops and events wearing a qipao. This morning at about 6:30 a gaggle of greeters arrived and proceeded to run back and forth across our bedroom ceiling wearing high-heeled shoes. Going and complaining gave us about 5 minutes of respite before they started again...

6) I've just been accepted to an Executive MBA programme, which is fantastic but does mean from January I'll have less spare moments than ever! There will be more on this later, I'm sure.

7) Fitness regime continues. I am, again, lighter today than any day in the last 20 years. I'm working with a personal trainer at the gym, getting out on my new road bike at least twice a week (although winter is fast approaching...) and managed to run 2 miles in 20 mins twice this week. Whilst not a huge feat for a vast number of people, I'm really not convinced that I have ever run that far, that fast. If proof were needed that I've pushed myself further than ever I had, what I realised (unfortunately - did take the edge off it a bit) that I was experiencing a state of euphoria shortly after the first run. Still - 38kg down, 5.9kg to go!

8) Blogspot has been blocked again (surely it can't all be the fault of Chinabounder) so I'm in the process of setting up Ambling Sheep as its own site and off of Blogspot. Apologies to anyone trying to go to as there will be a brief delay as my chosen hosting service neglected to mention that in order to set up, they had to post you an activation code. Seems a bit mad to me that an internet company has to send a piece of paper half way round the world before they can give me service! I'll look forward to hours trying to get that to work.

Sorry for the long "What I did in the last two weeks" diary entry - it seemed more interesting in my head. Normal service at some point...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

First Night

As you know, JP was hit by a bus. Fortunately (!) it was right outside our office so people at our company knew about it straight away.

Apparently the ambulance was delayed getting to the scene enabling journalists to arrive there first. This, obviously, made the Hangzhou Bus Company very nervous because they committed to having someone from their company present at the hospital at all times and to foot the bill for any treatment.

JP did go to the Tongde hospital where (contrary to the newspaper article) he did not undergo surgery, only a CT scan, and was rapidly moved to the Zhejiang #2 Hospital which is larger and apparently where the Bus Company send all their top officials. By the time I got there, they were going to take him for a new CT scan.

So, we went with him (on a trolley, his head and hands covered in blood) to the CT room which involved going up two floors in a lift. Which stopped 2 inches higher than the floor so thud went the trolley and 'Ow!' went JP. Bizarrely we then had to go down a steep ramp and hope JP wouldn't slide off the trolley.

In the CT scan room, there was one attendant who told us that we'd have to move him onto the CT machine ourselves as he couldn't do it so, trained IT staff and bus company officials that we were, we carried out the move. As they'd installed a drip (it's a default reaction in Chinese hospitals - you've got an injury, they put you on a drip - you've got a cold, they put you on a drip - etc.) they just left one of our staff in the room holding the bottle and ran away themselves to avoid the x-rays.

The really exciting part happened when the results came back and the neurosurgeon came to review them. He said "There's definitely bleeding in the skull and contusion to the brain which is causing swelling. It might be best to wait a few hours and repeat the CT but there is a risk if the bleeding continues. Alternatively it might be best to operate now to relieve the pressure but there's obviously risks associated with operating on his brain. What do you want me to do?"

The straightforwardness of that question simply stunned me. So, the consultant neurosurgeon says "It might be a good idea to operate, or it might be a good idea to wait" and then says we (a bunch of his colleagues) are expected to make the decision, without him expressing any opinion as to which way this should go. We protest that a) we're not his family, so it's not our decision to make, b) we're a bunch of IT people and aren't equipped to make that decision and would expect him as a brain surgeon to make a recommendation.

He refused, several more times, to even hint as to which direction the decision should go. JY, a Chinese colleague explained that obviously this is a terrible dilemma and we shouldn't be in this position, but the neurosurgeon is in fear of his career because the press already knew about this 'story' so if anything went wrong his career could be over. I explained that in my opinion, if the Neurosurgeon wouldn't make a recommendation, I believe that, in itself, would be an act of gross negligence on his part.

Fortunately we had a backup plan - what a wonderful investment the insurance was. We were very quickly put in touch with a Dr. Vargus based in Beijing and were able to photograph the CT scans which I emailed to Dr. V.

It was a breath fresh air to get the call saying "I've reviewed the CT scans and there's no need to operate immediately - wait and get another CT done in the morning" - not only was it the voice of common sense (accepting responsibility for the decision) but also the result we were hoping for as we still hadn't tracked down any of JP's family by that point.

My biggest question in all this is, if this happened to me, and if I was in some random part of the city where my family and colleagues didn't know I'd been injured, would the bus company officials be the ones making the "Should we operate or not?" decision and, more worryingly, would they actually do so?

JP is Back!

To everyone's relief, JP is back in the UK and even back at work (in case you don't know what I'm talking about, read this first).

I have refrained up to this point for blogging more about what was happening as:
a) The outcome wasn't clear so it all seemed rather morbid
b) Friends of JP read my blog and what I had to say would probably have worried them silly
c) I wasn't clear whether JP would be happy with me writing about him in such detail

Happily, now he's back and has said "Write what you like" then I shall. More shortly.

Wednesday Night Madness

I understand the spirit of sharing that must exist in remote country villages - that whole 'everyone knows everyone else, no-one locks their doors, look out for each other thing' - I'm sure that works very well in the village itself. Unfortunately, again, another madcap situation has just arisen from this thinking.

Remember that YY is 3 weeks away from her due date and is massively pregnant (she's only little and that she's gained 25% in mass over the last 8 months). This was known by the man who just rang us from her home village in Gansu province but he obviously thinks the request he made of YY to be perfectly reasonable.

Tibetan Mastiff
Originally uploaded by o2ma.

His plan is to go from Gansu to Tibet to buy two Tibetan Mastiffs. According to Wikipedia they are one of the largest dogs and can weigh up to 200 pounds (although one hopes his plan would be to buy puppies).

From Tibet he will come to Hangzhou where he is trying to invoke 'village privileges' on getting YY to help him out. Not only does he want us to put him up for an unspecified period, he wants us to put up the two Tibetan Mastiffs, in our apartment. Then he would like YY to go with him to a variety of places where he might sell the dogs.

Obviously it's not happening but if anyone has any suggestions as to how to decline in such a way as to stop him talking trash about us back in the village (where her family still live) gratefully received.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Animals, Tasty

There's a good, balanced article on where I found these dictionary definitions from the current Xinhua Dictionary (Xinhua is the Chinese government's official news agency).

I thought I would post some of their dictionary definitions here because it emphasises some of my earlier posts with regard to the poor treatment of animals.

鲳 [butterfish]: Flesh is tender and fatty with a delicious flavor.
翅 [fin]: Fish fin; refers to the fin of a shark, a delicacy.
蛏 [razor clam]: Flesh has a delicious flavor.
狗 [dog]: as in 狗腿子 [dog's leg]: thug, running dog, one who performs evil tasks for a powerful person.
貉 [raccoon dog]: Skin is highly valuable. 一丘之貉 [a hill of jackals] tarred with the same brush, refers to bad people.
牛 [cattle]: Strong, useful for plowing fields or pulling carts. Flesh and milk are edible. Horns, skin, and bones can made into things.
兽 [animal, beast]: Figure of speech for barbaric or immoral: 兽欲 [animal desires], 兽行 [brutality].

Sunday, October 08, 2006


The Chinese people I know couldn't be described as barbaric or inhumane. Far from it.

China is not a place where you routinely come across random acts of violence towards other people - in fact the streets of Hangzhou are undoubtedly vastly safer than the streets of Liverpool.

I still believe that the average 'westerner' probably doesn't have much of a view on the Chinese as a people although this will change as China's growing economy means it attracts more and more media attention. So, with all this new found attention, why does China do little to stop the western media portraying an image of China as a barbarous and uncivilised place where life is cheap and unrespected? China does do a fine job of presenting just enough material to the outside world to allow itself to be portrayed that way - mostly by not even thinking about it.

No country stands in isolation on the modern international stage and China could do well to start taking account of critical opinion from other quarters. So why isn't China more responsive to these criticisms and why do some things seem to be getting worse?

This week I've come across some great examples (in no particular order) and it seems unlikely that these things fall under the oft-used (by many countries) category of "“how dare foreigners tell us how to run our country. We'’ve been running it this way for (insert time period here) and we're not going to change just because outsiders tell us to"” -– all of the things highlighted below are new phenomena that are being held up by foreign media as examples of China'’s '“barbarism'.

1) Shanghai Zoo's Animal Olympics
This is only the 4th annual event and is attracting headlines such as "China's cruel animal Olympics reach new heights".

2) Changchung Wildlife Park
Shoving a goat into a cage with a lion and a cow into a cage with a tiger to 'hone their hunting skills'?

3) Selling the organs of Death-Row inmates
Again, organ transplantation is too new to make this a 'cultural' issue.

4) Execution Buses
The figures bandied about by the media are that China executes more criminals than every other country in the world put together. Faced with external concerns that some of these may be unjust, this is clearly a PR disaster in the making, let alone compounding it by creating a "“Death Bus"” brochure that can get into the hands of the foreign media. Anything that enables the finger to be pointed to say that the process is being changed to make it even faster and therefore more likely to be open to injustice is surely not worth it, whatever the internal justification for doing so (Sky actually claims it is to speed up the organ removal so that just compounds the PR problem).

It seems entirely incongruous that parts of the government clearly care a great deal about China'’s image - there's an awful lot (and certainly billions of dollars) riding on the Olympics to bring a positive spin to China's 'face' - yet doesn't seem to focus on curbing things that get reported negatively. With this increased positive attention comes a large number of journalists looking for a sensational story.

There'’s been a lot of flak in recent years about the roles of spin doctors in the west, but is that exactly what China needs now? Perhaps China really should sign up a good PR agency so that they can start pointing out that when it comes to a evaluation of the facts from the perspective of non-Chinese, you can't hide behind "culture" and "tradition". Trying to get Chinese tourists to behave considerately is a small step in the right direction.

Like so much in life, perception is king. China could do worse than to start off by cutting down the amount of ammunition it hands to the foreign media to enable them to do it harm. Fair enough to tell the US that China'’s currency valuation is an internal affair and they won'’t back down to external pressure - that'’s the job of government - but death buses, honestly...…

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mooncake Day

Phonecalls from distant in-laws typically mean trouble.

Festivals are a good reason for family to get in touch and today is the Mid Autumn Festival which meant double-trouble. YY's immediate family are great, but her more distant family have a tendency to call when they want something. Typically favours are small or easily dismissed (requests for loans, or help getting a friend's daughter into Cambridge university) but occasionally they're much more interesting.

Today, a cousin (表姐) called. She is about 7 months pregnant, the same as YY but she already has a daughter. She has presumably heard that we are (probably) going to have a son. She honestly and plainly put forward the following proposal.

If she has another daughter and we do have a son, she wanted to know if we would swap.

Apparently this sort of thing isn't entirely uncommon in the countryside, although YY has educated her in the fact that this isn't common or, indeed, acceptable to us city folk.

Another cousin (表妹) also called. She surprised us a few weeks ago by ringing to say that she was married to some fellow that she'd met 4 weeks earlier. At the time, she said she didn't like him particularly but felt that as she was heading into her mid-20s it was time to get married. Oddly enough she'd rung to say that they'd got into a fight, that she hated him, and she wanted a divorce.

Clearly arranged marriages might have been a thing of the past, in a time when husbands could do pretty much anything they wanted and wives sullenly accepted their lot. Clearly an awful lot of women in China today are (given the increase in divorces) stuck in the middle of two competing imperatives. They still feel they should get married before they're 25, quickly have children, etc. on the one hand, but they also are better educated and have higher expectations than previous generations. This is probably going to result in ever increasing divorce and indeed murder rates...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Foreign Exchange

The banking system in China is a mystery to be revelled at. According to a book on China banking that I have the big 4 banks (Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial, Agricultural and Construction) have only 1600 customers per branch on average. Most branches that I've seen have somewhere between 5 and 100 staff so if you assume an average of 20 per branch that's 80 customers per employee.

So, you might wonder when you're 53 rd in the queue for a teller and 3 out of 5 windows are closed, what the hell do all of these bank staff do?

Possibly they're out creating ingenious banking products. I did talk to Bank of China about credit cards and they explained that they have two varieties:

1) an RMB based card that can only be used in China for which you had to pay a 20000 RMB deposit, then you could spend money as a normal credit card up to the preset limit which may, if you're very good, be over 20000 RMB
2) an RMB based card that can only be used abroad but not in China. This didn't have a deposit but you could only spend money that you have previously deposited in the account.

Yes, I know option 2 is a debit card, not a credit card, but they kept denying this when I pushed the point.

So, these are of no use then and it's hard to imagine anyone wanting one.

Savers are allegedly still predominantly stuffing money under mattresses rather than into banks, people tend to borrow money from relatives rather than banks (and my own experience is that banks don't want to lend money to you anyway) so, what do all these people do?

I had thought that today would be a good day to go to the bank (lots of people are still off work from the holidays) and indeed the queue was very short. As I'm about to pay for my apartment fit-out I've transferred money from the UK to China and need to convert it to RMB.

Normally you can convert USD 10,000 but today, I was told, only USD 1,000. Why? Because today is 双休日 (the weekend). But it's not the weekend, it's Thursday" just got a blank look. The answer to the next question: "When can I change USD 10,000 was", of course, 星期日(Sunday).

OK, I can handle the fact this is part of the bizarre weekend swapping arrangement (the public holiday is only 3 days long (1st, 2nd and 3rd) but they make it a full 7 by swapping weekend days around the holiday with working days so a lot of people will be off 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th but will work 30th September and 8th October to compensate for the two lost weekdays.

What I can't quite get my head round is the fact that what I was asking for was for a value in GBP in the computer be reduced, and a value in RMB be increased. No cash was harmed in the making of this transaction. So why at the "weekend" would you only be able to convert 1/10th of the amount you could do this coming Sunday?

I think the lack of understanding by the bank staff as to just how irritating the slow queues, form filling, manual processes and arbitrary rules truly are would be addressed if they realised that I can transfer money from the UK to Singapore and convert it from one currency to another from the comfort of my office. I guess when you're accustomed to half of your customers queueing up to deposit or withdraw huge bags of cash you just accept that each transaction could take 20 minutes.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Journalistic Marvel

I'm happy to accept improvements to this translation from anyone with better Chinese than mine...

This is a translation of the article about JP that was it yesterday's "今日早报" newspaper. Most of the 'facts' about JP are made up, I assume most of the facts about how wonderful the airport personnel are are designed to please the person who passed the photo to the journalist.

Bear in mind that Hangzhou as a city is home to 5 local TV stations, 6 regional TV stations and several newspapers that are all desparate for news (I've seen "1818 黄金眼" - the local reality news show follow the story of the lady who purchased some shoes she later deemed unsatisfactory, and got a camera crew to accompany her to the shop to watch her complain about the shoes and receive a refund). Given the potential newsworthiness of this story, I don't understand why they didn't bother finding out any of the facts about JP.

(For a quick JP update: I'm told he's doing much better today).

Air Ambulance from Hangzhou flies straight to Hong Kong

Hangzhou Border Inspection Completed Very Quickly, Young Englishman Badly Injured in Vehicle Accident Successfully Transferred to Hospital

Morning Newspaper reports that yesterday morning around 9 O’Clock a young Englishman, James Patricks, seriously injured in a traffic accident, was transported by ambulance from the Zhejiang #2 Hospital to Xiaoshan International Airport where a specialist Air Ambulance was waiting.

Border Inspection personnel rapidly processed them through the green channel. In a very quick 8 minutes the Air Ambulance had completed all inspection formalities and James successfully boarded the Air Ambulance.

The young Englishman unfortunately had a traffic accident. [note - every paragraph in this section contains an untruth]

James Patricks is 29 this year. In Mid-September, he received an invition from a friend in Hangzhou and took annual leave from work to travel alone to Hangzhou.

On September 26th, James was a passenger in a tour bus as it passed through Wen San Road and unfortunately had a traffic accident. James’ entire body suffered many injuries. His brain and vertebrae were seriously injured and he was taken to Tongde hospital.

After three hours of surgery, James’ life was temporarily no longer in danger.

On the second day, James was moved to the Zhejiang Number 2 Hospital to continue his treatment. There doctors immediately carried out an urgent examination which led to a specific plan of treatment. James was still in a state of unconsciousness but basically remained stable.

The air ambulance arrived in Hangzhou yesterday.

James’ parents on hearing of the accident immediately came to Hangzhou from England. They requested their son be relocated to Hong Kong to continue treatment because of the possibility of language barrier problems.

Zhejiang #2 Hospital Doctors did an examination and found James to be stable and able to withstand a short two hour flight so agreed to the hospital transfer.

The day before yesterday an English insurance company received an emergency application to charter the plan and immediately through a Beijing international assistance organisation contacted Golden Deer Aviation. After much coordination, Golden Deer Aviation dispatched the plane yesterday morning. The Air Ambulance rushed to Hangzhou to carry out its urgent mission.

Hangzhou Border Inspection Completed Very Quickly

On the afternoon of September 29th, the Hangzhou Border Checkpoint received a related urgent notification. According to protocol, a flight that is not a scheduled flight should apply to the Civil Aviation office of aviation for approval at least two days in advance.

Clearly there was not enough time. Because of this situatuin, the Hangzhou Border Inspection Supervisor specially approved this charter flight and requested the airport police urgently use the ‘green channel’.

Yesterday morning at 9:30, an ambulance sped to the Xiaoshan airport airport parking area. Workers carefully lifted James down. Border Inspection officials processed the papers of the entire flight crew extremely quickly. From beginning to end only 8 minutes.

20 minutes later, the special plane took off as scheduled, carrying the blessings of many Chinese personnel, and sped to Hong Kong.

By the time the reported completed this article, James had already successfully arrived in Hong Kong. He is expected to be in Hong Kong for a short time for treatment and will return to England before too long.

According to airline personnel, the plane charter fee is approximately 300,000 RMB (20,000 GBP).

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Hardest Post Ever...

It is very easy ranting on about various aspects of one's life but, as I've mentioned before, with a single blog that's read by family, friends, colleagues, people interested in China and people not interested in China, it's hard to work out where the line should be. I've contemplated splitting off into different blogs for different audiences and this is a perfect example of where an entirely anonymous blog where you can just scream into the aether would be lovely.

This last week has been incredibly tough on a wide variety of people who are colleagues, friends and family of JP. The sentiments of both Troubled Diva and Reluctant Nomad on this issue will give you a good idea what I'm talking about.

Our mutual friend, JP, was hit by a bus at 8pm on Tuesday outside my company's offices in Hangzhou. Since then those of us in China with JP have been going through the panic of being with him through tests, doctors conferences and staying with him 24 hours a day in intensive care. In many ways that was probably easier than the suffering of his close friends and family in the UK who will have first heard that JP had been knocked over by a bus and then been in an information vacuum waiting for the start of the next UK day to get more information.

Since then there have been highs and lows. The worry of tests, of potentially having to break bad news to loved ones and family, of being the closest thing to family he has on this side of the planet.

It was a relief for us when JP's partner, J, arrived so that at least he had some family here in China. It's hard to imagine what J was going through both with JP being incapacitated, but also in coming to China and having to deal with us.

Think about it for a second - JP had probably spent 6 months in China over the last 3 years and JP is such a fun, gregarious, friendly kind of chap that he has lots of friends here. Over the course of the first 12 hours this situation we'd organised shifts of people to spend time with JP, translate for the medical team and to communicate with the insurance company in the UK, doctors in Beijing and family back in the UK. For J to have to come into 'our' family, where he doesn't know anyone must be really rough. I can only hope we did our best to welcome him into our family at this time.

No sooner had J arrived that we got word of the doctors that work for the insurance company that they intended to airlift JP to Hong Kong to get a world-class standard of care. Of course, it's the right thing to do but a further worry for us that J was then being moved to a location where we weren't able to support him as we had been doing here. I was much relieved when D volunteered to go to Hong Kong to support him.

The last prognosis I had from a doctor was 'optimistic' so I can only hope and, from afar now, that JP proceeds with a speedy recovery. He hasn't had to have surgery which must be a good thing and I truly believe that he's now in the best place to help him recover.

I'm sure JP will be disappointed for missing the opportunity to share Hangzhou with J when he's feeling more like himself, but hopefully he will be amused by the factually challenged article from the local newspaper which doesn't exactly show him from his best side. At least he'll like the fact they say he's 29 years old...

Good luck with your recovery, JP. We're all thinking of you.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Unbusinesslike Behaviour

It has been suggested that things shouldn't surprise me after 3 years of living in China. It's true that most questions that begin with 'Why?' are probably best answered with 'Why not?' but some of the things people have done to get my business are simply crazy.

At work, we were looking to buy a new fire evacuation system. We've been using company A for some time and invited their rather effite representative to a meeting with our building manager and, despite being asked not to, proceeded to take 7 incoming calls during a 30 minute meeting - so much so that he wasn't paying any attention to anything that was being said.

At the end of the meeting, I insisted that we should find another company and get a second quote (OK, I know that's a good idea anyway but we were under a lot of time pressure), largely because I was so displeased. A few days later when both quotes came in - for the exact same make and model of equipment, company B had actually quoted a price that was 30% cheaper than company A.

So far so normal. We asked company B to come in and prepare contracts for us to sign but they came not with contracts but with news. Company A had got wind of the fact they'd been outbid, probably from the fire evacuation equipment manufacturer. Company A had asked the manufacturer not to supply to company B at all but they weren't comfortable with that so they agreed to increase the price!

I can't imagine what they were thinking but they actually told all this to Company B who told me. I can only imagine that their thinking was 'If we don't supply it at all we'll lose the sale so we'll just put the price up by 20%' but to tell the person you're ripping off out of spite (and by proxy too) seems too illogical for words.

Needless to say, we didn't buy that manufacturer's produce at all and won't be using their equipment, or the services of company A, ever again. I don't know what the Chinese solution would be, but going elsewhere is certainly a valid British reaction.

On to today.

As I mentioned before, we've been looking round kitchen showrooms for some time. One of the companies we quite liked was called Bloom. We actually sat down with them for a good half an hour a couple of months ago to get their idea of what they could do for us. Apart from the fact that we subsequently came across Wellbom kitchens that we preferred, they might have got our business. However, they've become thoroughly irritating since the day we first met them.

They ring YY up every few days and have tried:
  • Ringing up and being very nice, offering all sorts of discounts that they can't quite quantify on the phone.
  • Saying "We've finished the design you asked for so when are you going to come and order" - odd we thought as we hadn't got the keys so they didn't have the dimensions of the kitchen.
  • Saying "We've been talking to your designer" (who they had actually managed to track down by ringing around!) "and he has told us your requirements and that you'd like to use us". Lies, all lies.
and so on. It's getting quite irritating so last time YY called them and said we'd decided to use Wellbom. They clearly won't give up at that though so today they've sunk to new lows and called saying "We've got two customers who have just 'returned' their Wellbom kitchens and come to buy new ones from us. You really shouldn't buy a Wellbom kitchen. We can get the customers to talk to you to tell you why"

Aside from the fact it's really quite irritating both cases seem to illustrate the fact that their actions, rather than encouraging you to buy their products are actually encouraging you to never buy anything from them ever again. I don't know if that's a British thing?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sudden Realisation

On my drive to work earlier this week I had a particularly bad journey where I nearly ran people over on three separate occasions. Not deliberately, you understand, but three occasions where people {stepped off the kerb without looking/cycled out of a side street without stopping/weaved violently from one lane to the other/watched me approaching at 60kph and decided that I was far enough away that I'd just about be able to stop if they got in front of me/got off a bus and walked in straight line from the door across the road/etc./etc.}* so I had to {brake/swerve/brake & swerve}* to avoid killing them.

This notion that the driver of the car is always at least partly to blame for any accident seems to drive people to the verge of suicide. Some people absolutely have faith in this rule (particularly visible as the older people that flap one of their hands at you as they step into speeding traffic in a "Ha! You've got to stop!" kind of way - regardless if the laws of Physics render that an impossibility.

On this particular morning, it occurred to me as one pedestrian whistled past my wing-mirror, that it doesn't even worry me as much as it did. Driving here one has so many near misses that there comes a point when you concede that having an accident and probably killing someone is, more-or-less, inevitable. In fact rather than worrying about near misses as I did when I started driving here, they now simply tend to annoy me.

It was quite sobering on that particular day for one of my colleagues to say that she'd seen an accident - as indeed we all have - the day beforehand but this was a 'body trapped under a car in a large pool of blood' type incident. I guess the fact that I'd reconciled myself that I might kill someone crossing the street meant that I'd only reconciled what I'd be destroying (i.e. some person who is unknown to me) not what I'd be creating (i.e. the bloody aftermath).

They did have a road safety campaign that didn't hold back in terms of the message (if you want to see what sort of pics they published they were like this - don't look if you're at all squeamish) but that doesn't deter people from the hand flapping. Personally, I'd rather be alive and wait until it's safe to cross than dead but certain that I had the upper hand legally.

* - Delete as appropriate

Friday, September 15, 2006

Let Him Have It!

There is a famous case in British Legal History of Derek Bentley where a large part of the case effectively hinged on the phrase "Let him have it!" - a rather confusing phrase in English as it could easily have meant "Give him the gun and surrender" or "Kill him!". The interpretation that it was the latter meaning lead to Derek Bentley being hanged in 1953.

It's not particularly comforting to learn that, despite the dissimilarities, Chinese suffers from just the same sort of ambiguity. Should you ever hear someone say "wǒ yào wěn nǐ " you might want to make a quick judgement call as to their intention...

我要吻你 - I'd like to kiss you
我要刎你 - I'd like to slit your throat

Hmm. Given how few different sounds there are in Chinese, there must be plenty more where that came from.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Applying for a Job

I have, for a while now, been contemplating writing a guide for prospective employees about how to get a job with the company I work for (or any western company for that matter). As others have discussed recently on TalkTalkChina, it's clearly apparent that:

a) A lot of people don't know what western employers are looking for in their employees
b) Those that try to research it on the internet aren't using reliable resources from actual Western employers so even they get it wrong
c) Universities clearly abrogate their responsibilities to help people get a good job and don't bother teaching them these skills.

An example of why this is so important for people to get right...

I interviewed a guy recently for a relatively low level Unix developer role - based on his 9 page CV (or Resume for speakers of American) I had to walk through the positions he had had, largely because there were no dates on his career history and no way of distinguising projects from employers. Whilst he was walking me through his career he revealed he was a Certified Oracle DBA (there was no mention of any Oracle skills), then that he had two years Java development experience (again, no mention).

This guy was lucky to have got close to an interview simply because his CV was atrocious.

Before I launch into this, it should be noted that there are dozens of books available on 'writing the perfect CV' or 'getting that job' - applicants could, if they really cared about their application, obtain a copy of one of these. All I'm doing here is listing some points which, to me, are obvious - but to many of our applicants, they're not.

The absolute fundamentals of CV (resume) and Cover Letter Basics:
  • Look at the CV. Does it look good? Is the text all lined up neatly? Is it all in the same font? Headings for individual sections? Is it a sensible length (I would suggest 2 pages if you've got less than 5 years experience and NEVER more than three)? Is it easy to read? Does it have the 'key' information in a place where it's easy to find?
  • Check all spelling and grammar. Ask several people (preferably a native speaker) to read your CV and give you feedback. Don't forget to check that you have spelt the name of the company you are applying for correctly! Poor spelling and grammar make me, as an employer, think that you can't be aren't really interested in working for my company because you don't think it's worth the extra effort.
  • Don't copy draft CVs from the internet. Most of them are flawed. For example - Google for the phrase Have a good command of both spoken and written English. Past CET-6" - the wording is incorrect yet I've seen dozens and Google has hundreds of CVs with the exact same phrase.
  • Does it contain all of the relevant skills for the job you're applying for? You should consider tailoring a CV for every individual job you apply for.
  • Have you written a cover letter (or email) to send in with the application? Have you paid the same amount of attention on the letter as you have on the CV? If you haven't you should rewrite it.
  • Bear in mind that employers often get hundreds of applications for a single position. If your CV is 10 pages long, filled from edge to edge with text in 5 different fonts and I can't understand the first sentence I read, it's not going to get through the initial screen of CVs because lots of the other applicants have made that effort.
  • Print your CV off and look at it (I know this was my first point but it's so important I'm going to mention it again). As a manager, I'll often see your CV only on paper. Does it look good. Are you proud of the way it looks? If not, go back and try again.
CV Content

  • Opinions do vary as to what should go into the introduction but think about your audience.
  • If you're applying for a job as a Java developer, why would I care about your weight, height, political party affiliation and what message are you trying to send me with your photograph?
  • Make sure you provide all your up-to-date contact details, and that the cellphone number you supply is correct!
  • Think about your email address. If you use your personal address and it's 'tequila_tony@...' am I going to think 'Software developer' or 'wannabe party animal'?
  • Personal summary - You should include a section at the beginning. Don't copy one from the internet (e.g. one that says you're Aggressive - that's just wrong). You need to try and sell yourself to me (and this is where a native speaker will help) . Be relevant to the position you're applying for. Enthusiatic but not annoying. Believable but not uninteresting. Write in the first person.
  • Keep this section simple:
    What dates did you attend University. What qualification did you get? Only go into much more detail if its relevant (e.g. if you have an IT degree and are applying for an IT job, then you might want to list relevant course modules you did as part of that degree but if you've got a mechanical engineering degree I probably don't care)
  • Don't go into too much detail on projects. I don't want to know what you did in great detail. I want to know what you achieved and what skills you gained
  • Do you have any relevant industry certifications or awards?
  • This is the most important section (certainly for an IT employer). What I want to know is: What can you do? How well can you do it?
    If the only mention of Unix is somewhere in your three pages of 'projects I have done' later on, I might miss it completely. If you've got 3 years Unix experience, 5 years Java, 12 months C#.Net, tell me!
  • Keep it simple - a table is best - Skill - length of time working with this skill - experience level (familiar/knowledgeable/proficient/expert).
  • Management skills/project management - put them down here and back them up in the next section.
Career History
  • Where have you worked? What have you learned? How much experience have you gained? What have you achieved?
  • Make sure you include dates so I can follow the timeline.
  • Include information that shows you have initiative (project you proposed to your manager), flexibility (volunteered for role in Ulaan Bataar for three months), intelligence (had your proposed solution adopted), enthusiasm (a desire to do more than you've been asked to do)
  • DO NOT include details of every aspect of a project, where you just did the work people asked you to do, without any details of what you actually achieved (worked on the XYZ project - a 10 man project to implement Zebra functionality in the Kazoo system) as that doesn't tell me anything. Are you telling me you were in a 10 man team in the hope that I'll think you managed it? If so you're wrong. I'll assume you're trying to make me think that.
  • I want to know what you did, not what your team did.

Don't waste my time and yours by lying:
1) Language skills - if I'm looking for someone that can speak English, and you really can't speak English, don't waste time getting your friends to write a really good English language CV and tell me you're fluent.
2) Certifications - yes, we do check to make sure you've got them. In the worst example I've seen someone claimed both Microsoft and Cisco certifications and in interview was forced to reveal that he didn't actually have either and hadn't got any skills in either area.

Do you really want to get an interview with my company only to have to reveal that you don't have the skills you say you've got? Thought not...

Other Information

Include any other information you think is relevant and will make me want to hire you. If you like going to KTV and watching TV - think 'what would this potential employer think of that?' (Answer - you would be better off not telling me). If you like mountaineering, scuba diving and are involved with a local charity, tell me because that's interesting.

I'm sure there are plenty of other opinions out there and advice I can add but I guarantee you, if you are a good candidate for the jobs you are applying for an heed the advice above, you'll be more likely to get through to interview than a lot of the other applicants.