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This article doesn't really have anything to do with software, except that it documents the recent experiences of a programmer. And it's an interesting diversion...

[Publisher's Note: This is a tongue-in-cheek look at someone's trip to China. It contains humour, opinions and observations about a foreign culture seen from a Westerner's perspective.]

A Programmer Returns To China

By Dino Fancellu
February 1, 2004

After my previous trip, many people had assured me that my negative experiences must have been the product of my own deranged imagination. So naturally I had no hesitation in returning. On returning to China, I resolved to see everything with a much more positive outlook and to try to find the inner beauty in all things, even ugly things.

 

Getting There

On the flight over there, I noticed that the SAS air stewardesses were quite old, e.g. 40-60. My left arse cheek was numb for 8 hours, quite an odd feeling. The seats were definitely not as comfy as Virgin (who I flew with last time), but Virgin don't fly to Beijing.

Brown, Beige-Ing. However the sky is very blue, cloudless most of the time, which makes it even colder. Brrr.

The air here is very dry, creating lots of static. I regularly got zapped when touching metal; got sticky-up hair etc.

The traffic was still as insane as I remembered. Traffic lights mean nothing here. They might as well be disco lights.

 

The Hotel

We stayed in the Novotel Xin Qiao in Beijing. The hotel was nice-ish, but the staff never smiled. If I started off happy and determined to enjoy myself this time, the hotel staff soon brought me back down to the brown beige earth. It soon became obvious that no one gave a shit, or tried to pretend otherwise.

The bath plug hole didn't work, so the bath couldn't be used as a bath.

The coffee tasted horrible (super super strong and evil), the tea was weak; no milk was supplied; like something out of The Matrix, there were no spoons; the peach/tomato juice was odd (in fact we just couldn't find any nice orange juice in China); the bacon was wet, baked beans huge (some type of broad bean), very few westerners, maybe 2%.

My advice: stick to fruit, pastries, things they can't mess up.

Internet access from the hotel was messed up because the popup blocker kept closing the provider's popup window. So their Internet connection was self-defeating, meaning it was surprisingly difficult to get connected - brilliant!

When I could get connected from the hotel, Internet access was expensive: 15 minutes cost £1! I much preferred the hotel in Hong Kong that charged by bandwidth used. This meant you could be always on without worrying about the cost mounting up.

The network access was also very slow (via ethernet but felt like 56K). It really highlights how much spam I'm getting. Downloading 86 emails to get 4 real ones on a slow link is a bit depressing, especially when you pay for every minute online.

China has the same(ish) electricy as the UK, 220v, so the laptop was easy to recharge. They tend to have about 5 different plug types(!) so you may need to use a simple mechanical adapter. It should work for the US too I'd imagine, as most laptop power adapters are in the 100-240v range.

 

Television

TV is 40 channels of Chinese, plus CNN/HBO, i.e. very little entertainment for English speakers. (Natives are not allowed CNN at home, only foreigners!) The TV was much better in Xian/Shenzen, at least there were more English programs to watch. The programmes consisted mostly of historical soap operas, i.e. old Chinese, but little in the way of action. Oddly enough, there were very few martial arts movies; the genre seems more popular in the south. In fact there were very few movies of any kind, mostly just soap operas and game shows.

Bizarrely, each morning there was an endless stream of adverts for medicine on TV. Supposedly that's because old people get up early. There were adverts for things that make you taller (?!), including "grow-taller shoes". They have no advertising standards as such, so they can make whatever outrageous claims they feel like. There were also adverts for skin whitening products, and a disproportionate number of adverts for stuff to make your hair silky.

The TV adverts also jump in with no warning, i.e. one second you are watching a film, a microsecond later you're watching an advert. Very jarring.

They have an odd habit of using the same footage repeatedly in one advert, or having the same advert play 5 times in the same commercial break. It's rather twilight zone until you realize it's not your imagination. Most adverts are hard sell, so simply repeating the same message is in line with their rather mindless marketing skills. Instead, though, it just drives you into a fury whilst you sit through the 10-minute advertising breaks, suffering the same adverts and jingles again and again.

In a similar vein, whilst walking around Beijing we saw girls standing outside shops, simply clapping slowly with long faces. Supposedly this would convince you to go into their shop and buy stuff!

 

Eating Out

Beijing has way fewer restaurants than Shenzen or Xian. Most seem to close at 10PM. Amazing! However KFC and McD's open till late. My impression, though, was that even if they were open, the variety would be very little; you really have to hunt restaurants down.

When you do find nice places to eat though, the food tends to be plentiful and very cheap. For example, in the Forbidden City we had a very nice lunch at a cafe, huge portions, £3 for 2.

We discovered a lovely 'home style' restaurant, just turn right outside of the hotel (Novotel Xinqaio) and it's the first restaurant you see. Just don't go late, as it closes before 10PM I think. Anyway the food there is cheap, plentiful, and good. A little salty, as is most Beijing food, so ask for less salt.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City

Of course if you don't have a Chinese speaker, like my wife, you may have issues. There is no way I'd go to China alone, but that's just me.

As I said in my previous report, stick to pork or vegetables. Chicken and beef tend to be a bit ropy. I experimented by getting chicken dishes, but was disappointed. It's also very hard to get sparkling water: the choice is still or still. Never mind.

Chinese people tend to eat noisily, mouths open, lips smacking, teeth gnashing, and with gusto. Slurp slurp, oink oink. Try not to stare.

If you want a good coffee go to Starbucks. Everywhere else is pretty horrible, no real clue as to what coffee should be like. Similarly, don't bother eating Chinese chocolate, even obvious clones of Western brands. The worst ones taste like powdered gravel.

Some more advice on eating out in Beijing can be found here. Looks like she had better luck finding a restaurant.

 

Sightseeing

There weren't any pigeons on the street, they'd probably get eaten. (I later discovered that they come out at night and crap like troopers).

The Forbidden City was large, very cold, quite boring. Less than 0.1 % westerners at this time of year. Same ratio in Beijing, there are loads more Asians in London or Sutton than Westerners in Beijing. At least people don't fall off their bikes staring at me, like in Xian.

There's a little undergound train system in the centre of Beijing, 2 lines, line 1 and line 2. It's useful for getting around the centre but doesn't cover the majority of the city.

We saw some cool acrobats at the Chaoyang Theatre, and got their DVD too. The acrobats were all Chinese (Schezuan), unlike the acrobats in Shanghai who were mostly Russian.

We went to the Great Wall of China. Very cold. Climbing up the wall, which is far from horizontal, is knackering. The wall looks steep in photos: and when you're there, you realize the photos weren't lying. The effect on our legs was a bit like doing Hindu squats. We were feeling the effects for the next few days.

We saw "Shaolin Kung Fu" troop. Ok, lots of flashy moves, some iron shirt, not really kung fu, but still impressive: I know I couldn't do what they do.

Beijing has very few bookshops, people tend not to read books like in the UK. My wife's parents don't have a bookcase, even though they are University Professors.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

A very common 'problem' here is that people think that they can speak English, when they can't. This leads to horrible translations and to tour guides who are impossible to listen to due to their very strong accents. It's actually painful to listen to, as your brain recognizes something like English and tries too hard to translate it. It's much easier when people just speak Chinese, as then my brain doesn't even try, it's more like music, or a dog listening to humans, I only recognise when I'm being talked about.

I had to pretend to be asleep so that the guide didn't try talking to me. The poor Frenchman in front of me got the brunt of her mind terror attack.

Chinese organisations should ask a native English speaker if what they produce is correct before 'going live' with the text. Do not rely on home grown translations from your 'English expert'. I would imagine any Chinese text created by an English speaker would be equally mad.

A quick guide if you want a Chinese accent whilst speaking English: change every vowel to 'ar'. Bus becomes bars, dog becomes darg, wall becomes warll. It's not perfect but it gets you 90% there. The state of spoken English is terrible. This seems to be due to 'Chinese Whispers', where Chinese people teach Chinese to speak English. They never seem to refer to the source, e.g. English people speaking English. Pronunciation of English is like Chinese, so I rarely am able to tell when they are speaking English. My wife's sister teaches English at a Kindergarten which prides itself on teaching English, yet I can't tell what she's saying most of the time. And if she tries to correct the headmistress who makes many mistakes, she gets slapped down, as face is everything. If only they'd refer to an original source once in a while. By the way, "Kitty" is an English cat, "Katty" is an American cat.

We didn't see a single dog for the whole trip. People need an expensive license to own one, but still it was odd seeing no dogs at all. Actually the same for cats too.

We went to Beijing Zoo in the Xicheng District. The zoo houses many rare animals, both indigenous to China and from around the world. The Macaque monkeys seemed pretty happy, but most other animals seemed depressed. Quite a few were pacing back and forth in a tight loop, i.e. stereotypical behaviour. We didn't see a single keeper interacting with the animals.

Soldiers are very visible on the streets and on TV. In the UK, when not on duty the soldiers wear normal clothes, yet in China they only seem to wear uniform. It's quite common to see soldiers walking down the street, or as contestants or judges on game shows. Quite odd to my eyes. Perhaps they don't have any other clothes.

Something about China makes me go to sleep early, wake up early. This is good, but I have no idea why it happens. My sleep pattern is similar now that I'm home. I'm refraining from having tea (caffeine) in the evening, just in case it's that.

 

Xian

Xian
A street in Xian

We stayed for a while in Xianyang, a little city outside Xian. The air quality there is very poor: not only dry, but super dirty. I developed a nasty cough like the natives within 2 days. Many factories around pumping out toxic plumes. Cannot be good!

Lots of overstaffing, lots of people standing around looking bored in shops or chatting to friends. Like Beijing, Xianyang is a smile-free zone, no please and thank you, just orders barked. At the local supermarket, the checkout girl argued with us, refusing to give us more plastic bags because "you kill the environment". No, we just have bags that look like pregnant cats.

Internet cafes in Xianyang are very crowded, extremely smoky and extremely slow, e.g. 2K/second. Yack, I'd rather be without the Internet, it's that bad! Thankfully a friend of my sister in law has an office with broadband, heaven.

The streets of Xian are littered with beggars. They usually work in twos: one sleeps, the other kneels and head-bangs whilst shouting. It seems infectious as the other beggars do the same. Poor things!

Drivers tend not to wear safety belts, as in, I saw none. As always, risk is a very vague concept in China. Bad things happen to other people, always.

When in a taxi do not look where you are going, you will find it far too stressful looking death in the face for so long. You will blink first. Best look away, go to your happy place, pretend it's all a dream.

We stayed with my sister-in-law whilst in Xian. They were right next to railroad tracks, which wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't for the trains and their incessant horn blowing. And not just one beep, but little melodies, like from Close Encounters. Or sometimes I'd hear trains calling to each other like love sick whales, 24/7 e.g. 3AM, 15 second songlets flying back and forth between various trains. Ha fucking ha.

 

The Journey Home

The flight from Xian to Beijing was uneventful. But then the fun started...

We were supposed to go back to London via Copenhagen, but found out that this flight was cancelled, and had been for a few days. We had to run around to find the SAS offices to sort things out. When we finally found them, we were asked if we wanted to fly today. "Yes!" we replied, surprised.

We were booked onto another flight, but got to the next ticket counter on another floor to be told that the flight was already full, ho ho. After lots of faffing around we managed to get booked onto an Air China flight via Frankfurt.

Air China was rather shit: there were no individual seat-back screens, and most of the in-flight entertainment was in Chinese with no English soundtrack (although being Air China, that was understandable!)

Oh yes, the flight was an hour late, so we missed the connecting flight in Frankfurt. We were not actually told this, we just had to note the discrepancy between the 10 hour flight, and being 6 hours into our connecting flight with 5 more to go. Eventually we arrived an hour late, no announcement even given that it was late. We got to the Air China desk to be told that if we ran we might catch the flight. We ran like lunatics, I could taste the blood in my mouth I was running so hard. Then we got to the gate and were told that the flight had left ages ago.

Eventually we got booked on Lufthansa which was a quick and painless flight. Also note that we NEVER saw a smile from staff in our entire time in China, yet the Lufthansa people were very friendly, one woman startlingly so.

On this flight, when the plane landed at Heathrow everyone stayed in their seats as requested. This NEVER happens in China; they always undo their seatbelts and rush to the exits as soon as rubber hits tarmac. Even during the 5 minute taxi to the parking slot no one got up from their seat on the entire plane. Well done, it was nice to see some self discipline for a change.

Glad to be back to obesity, rain, grey clouds and a devious left-wing government.


(The message forum is now closed).

Books and Things About Beijing

If this article has whetted your appetite and you'd like to visit Beijing, these guide books and fictional DVD might help (links to Amazon.com):

Lonely Planet Beijing

Lonely Planet Beijing (5th Edition)
Tastier than birds-nest soup, Lonely Planet's Beijing will have you shopping like an emperor, feasting on Imperial cuisine and scaling the dizzying heights of the Great Wall.
[amazon.com]  [amazon.co.uk]

Lonely Planet China Lonely Planet China (8th Edition)
Just as the authors describe China as "massive and endlessly fascinating," so is the material they have collected in this guide--an important travelers' opus, it says here.
[amazon.com]  [amazon.co.uk]
Beijing Bicycle Beijing Bicycle (DVD)
The Chinese version of the Italian film Bicycle Thief. A captivating coming-of-age movie filmed in Beijing.
[amazon.com]  [amazon.co.uk]

 

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