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