Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The things I notice

Scott summarizes in thirteen words what I have been writing so far
Luca is filing travel reports from Beijing, where apparently the food is excellent.

Where were his powers of synthesis when he was writing his thesis?

Is there anything else to write about China except the food? Surely there is. What about the shortage of unskilled labor? Is the increased funding of higher education and research a preparation to a future when more skilled, and better paying, jobs will move to China? If so what can we do to keep these jobs in America? What's going on in the West of China, with peasants rioting in the countryside against developers grabbing land with the help of corrupt politicians? How are people dealing with privatized health care? What will the consequences be of an increasingly independent judiciary? And, most importantly, what's up with the Chinese patriarchy in these post-colonial times?

These are all good questions, but I'd rather talk about cell phones and security guards.

A typical undergrad gets about \$60 a month from his/her parents as an allowance (the university provides room and board but the \$60 must suffice for clothes, entertainment, dining out and so on). A typical salary of a recent college graduate is in the range of \$200 to \$400 a month. Some jobs in the private sector, or in profitable state companies run like private ones, pay much more, but they are relatively rare. Even so, everybody, even the undergrads who subsist on \$60 a month, has a cell phone. While making calls is comparably expensive, text messaging is very cheap. So, everywhere, you see people typing messages in their phones, while they wait for the bus, while they walk, in clubs, in restaurants, while they are talking to you. (How do you type in Chinese using a 10-keys keyboard? I'll let you guess.) Hoeteck procured a local phone for me, and so I too could be seen walking around typing into the phone like a local. A cute note is the use of '88' as an abbreviation for 'good-bye'. That's because the word for 'eight', 八 ('ba' in Pinyin), is pronounced 'pah' with a high-pitched tone, and 'pah-pah' and 'bye-bye' are close enough. The wonderful thing is that, in a place where everyone has a phone, it never happens that, at a very bad time, you hear a ring and then someone says loudly "Hello. No, it's not a bad time at all."

The Chinese have a thing for uniforms. In every shopping mall, in every parking lot, most everywhere, somebody is standing in a military-looking uniform, even if he is just the security guard or the valet parking attendant. Tsinghua is an exception: the security guards wear dark suits and go more for a secret-service vibe. All these people, and, even more so, the real soldiers, have a small built, and, especially, they have really thin waists, that are emphasized by tight belts worn outside their coat. As Hoeteck noticed, they also all look the same, with fine features and very narrow eyes. The look seems to get more extreme the more important is the place they are guarding. The soldiers at Tiananmen square hardly had any eyes or any waist at all. Even the Tsinghua guards have this uniform look, and the day I was sent from one security guard to the other, all dressed in dark suits and looking the same, it felt like the scene in the Matrix will all the clones of Hugo Weaving. To me, these guys look adorable, but this must be a matter of cultural dissonance, it cannot possibly be the vibe that their employers want to give. I have wondered if this look might actually read as menacing to the locals: maybe the narrow eyes are read as aggressive, and being thin is read as being fit. More likely, these guys are just seen as elegant in their uniforms, and the purpose of a security guard is not to protect a building, but to decorate it. If you break the rules, the subtext may be, you are going to be in such big troubles that whether the security guard will hurt you or not will be the last of your preoccupations. In any case, I am sure even the smallest of those guys is trained to kick ass if the need arises. And I cannot shake the suspicion that they always also have, out of sight, a bunch of huge ugly guys that will come out if trouble starts.


  1. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/05/2006 03:41:00 AM

    How do you type Chinese with 10 keys? I assume each chinese character has a corresponding number? But how do you remember so many numbers? Also, how do you type Chinese characters on a normal computer keyboard?

  2. Blogger Luca
    4/05/2006 11:45:00 AM

    No, that's not it.

    I mean, ultimately, any system to write Chinese with 10 keys will associate a number to each character, but you are not supposed to remember the numbers.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/05/2006 12:09:00 PM

    usually you type in the pin yin (using roman letters) for the character, and then select from a list to disambiguate the pin yin.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/05/2006 06:49:00 PM

    You mentioned that you lost weight in China despite eating a lot. Nati Linial reported the same. He does not eat ANYTHING in Israel as he is afraid to gain weight, and he ate a lot in China and was surprised to see that he also lost some weight. I wonder - is this phenomenon more widespread?

  5. Blogger Luca
    4/05/2006 07:42:00 PM

    There are at least two things going on in the Beijing Diet(TM): one is that in fancy places you are not supposed to eat rice. Rice is a filler, so ordering it in a fancy dinner is like saying that the food is not enough, a terrible insult. Even if, as an ignorant Westerner, you do order rice, they will bring you a tiny cup. With very few exceptions, there is no dessert, so for a week I ate almost no starch or sugar.

    The other things is that between the hike to the Great Wall, the walking in the other sightseeing tours, the clubbing, and so on, I had much more exercise than I am used to. (I am sure this does not apply to Nati who exercises a lot all the time.)


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