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March, 2010:

Trashy in Vancouver, almost home

Stuck here in Vancouver for another coupla hours… looooooooooooong lay-over. I hate long lay-overs. The flight to Ottawa doesn’t leave the gate ’till 16:30 Pacific Time… sux. So close (yes, I think of Vancouver as being close) yet so far.

I slept for a few hours on the flight over and that’s a good thing. What is not a good thing is this bloody headache that won’t go away and this has been a signature characteristic of my return trips. Dunno why. I’m well hydrated, fed, yadda-yadda… might be the pressure diffs… who knows.

Rolling into home at about 1 am, EDT, I’ll try to be quiet, but the Resident Love Goddess will wake up briefly. Try to show that she is happy to see me home, and then realise that she has to work in the morning before crawling happily back into bed.

On the last trip, I cuddled into bed with Subunit A. I wasn’t really tired, but wanted to be close to my kids… and since Subunit O is in a toddler bed, bunking with him was not an option. Maybe I’ll do the same tonight.

That’s the hardest thing about these extended biz trips; I miss my loved one lots.  Between dealing with the time and culture change and the hectic nature of our skeds in Beijing, I can pretty much put the loneliness to the back of my mind. But when I get this close to home, I really just want to have the trip over and done with and hug everyone that is dear to me.

Soon. Very soon.

In the meantime, here is what I’m looking at.


Your move, Stevo…

Hilary Clinton wrapped up her short “summit” in Canada with these parting words:

“You cannot have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion,” she said.

“I do not think governments should be involved in making these decisions. It is perfectly legitimate for people to hold their own personal views based on conscience, religion or any other basis. But I’ve always believed the government should not intervene in decisions of such intimacy.”

That is pretty damned pointed. And especially – in spite of what neocons will claim – when compared to Canadian politicos, Clinton is to the right of both Grits and Tories of bygone years (Martin, Mulroney, Clark and Chretien, for example) so access to abortion is not just a “lefty” thing…

Of course, Harpy and his happy gang are more of the George W / Dick Cheney ilk…

Now the Harperites find themselves in danger of being stranded between what their best buds – the Americans – are looking for and what their core, anti-choice religious zealots are pushing.

Rock, meet Mr. Hard Place!

The picture is priceless. It looks like,

You put that hand on me you grease ball & I’ll knock you back to the caves from whence you came!


Trashy in China.2, Day 9

As I did on my last voyage to the Middle Kingdom, the post written on my last day consists of a miscellany of random thoughts thunk and observations made over the past little while.

Driving: After my 120 km/h cab ride down Conroy on the way to the airport, I shouldn’t really be too critical of Beijing drivers. In fact, I admire them! They drive like rabid maniacs – but controlled rabid maniacs. I have yet to see an accident on the main thoroughfare between the hotel and the building where the meeting are held. And when you realise that in a driving environment where a near miss is when two fenders only just brush against each other at 80 klicks, there are very few dented bumpers or others signs of collision – well, that’s pretty good!! In fact, 99% of the vehicles are in immaculate shape. No rust, of course – no salt and little rain. But the overall shape of Beijing’s vehicle fleet puts that of any North American fleet to shame.

Food: Again, I am obsessed by and impressed by the variety and quality of the food here. There really is something for everyone, though if you are a vegetarian, your chances are a bit more limited. And cheap! My colleague and I grabbed a simple dinner at a noodle place behind the hotel and the grand total was 62 Yuan – about 9 bucks… beer, noodles and dumplings included…

However, I think that like at home, when in Rome, don’t eat Greek. Would you order a Chinese stir-fry from a road house? No, right? You order a burger and fries. or maybe fish and chips. It’s something they know and likely do fairly competently.

That being said, I’ll maybe grab a slice of pizza for lunch before the bus comes to fetch us tomorrow afternoon. I’m told that it’s pretty good!

The Built Environment: I think I noted last time that everything here is so damned over-the-top BIG! And much of it is visually appealing from an aesthetic standpoint… at least in my uninformed opinion.

To the Chinese, image is paramount. So much so that functionality might be surpassed by appearance. But man, they are really good at appearances. About 3/4 the way up a 50-odd story building on the side of the street across from the hotel a square concave area of about 30m by 30m that actually changes colour somehow.

The Language Barrier: This is huge. Yes, one’s lack of knowledge of Chinese can be largely supplemented by the use of sign language and pointing, but the language barrier does come into play every single day.

This is apparent at the market while negotiating a price. But most of the salesfolks with whom I have interacted have had a passable version of English – at least enough to haggle. But it is a different case when engaged in complex and technical negotiations. We use interpreters, yes, and they seem to be very good at what they do. Yet from time to to time, I get the sense that something is being lost in the translation.

Negotiating: Remember the Ferengi from the old Star Trek series (I forget which one)? They were masters of negotiations and unabashed embracers of the the profit motive as a basis for every day to day decision. Now imagine those ugly, big eared Ferengis as cute little Chinese sales girls. And yes, they are 95% women. THAT is what you deal with when negotiating a price for a given good in one of the markets. You are flattered, smiled at, and cooed to. The price starts at something outrageous, makes a quick nosedive after initial resistance and then you haggle over the last 20% or so. Depending on what kind of money you’re talking about, the 20% may be worth dickering over, or not. Twenty percent of a 50 Yuan gap is only a coupla bucks.

For example – here’s how it went for my custom-made pants:

Start – 350

Me – 100

Them – 250

Me – 150

Them – 200

Me – I started to walk out, then she grabbed my arm and said 175. To which I countered 165. And we were done. That’s about 24 bucks. And it all took about 5 minutes. Not bad.

That’s all from China this time around. I’ll likely pen the next post on the flight to Vancouver and publish it while in the airport lounge.


Trashy in China.2, Day 7 & 8

Sunday was a shopping and walkabout day. Another warm beautiful yet a bit hazy Beijing morning greeted us as a few of us made the traditional trek to Jenny’s pearl shop in the Pearl Market. We took the subway this time. The damned cheap and extensive subway, that is. And no smog underground – unlike the last time I visited.

Numerous other missions have done the heavy lifting and found a shop whose prices are reasonable and haggling is not really necessary. The good thing is that you know you are getting quality. The bad thing is that well, I guess there isn’t really anything bad. Unless you count how hot the shop can be due to the lighting. But jenny gives out free bottles of water, so it was all good.  I bought a selection of earrings, pendants and necklaces all for under $150 – total.

Here is one of Subunit A’s best friends, Lion,  frolicking in the pearls:

He looks happy, doesn’t he? Yes, those ARE all real pearls. And those three drawers represent only a small portion  of what one sees at Jenny’s. And hers is only one of scores of pearl shops. There are  at least a dozen of them on the top floor of the Market… and the rule about these markets is that the higher the floor, the better the quality.

Even better, there is a balcony off the top floor where, looking out over the street, you can see the Temple of Heaven in the distance.

Unfortunately, what was a very good day didn’t end well. A group of use had dinner at an Indian spot not too far from the hotel. It was pretty good at first, but at about midnight, my stomach rebelled and the rest of my night was not well spent. Somehow, I managed to make it out of bed, to the meetings and remained coherent enough to lead much of the discussions for the workday on Monday.

Feeling much better now however, after a nice blandish dinner of noodles and dumplings.

Here’s a neat tidbit. Something I hadn’t noticed on the last trip was the Chinese, and apparently Asian penchant for drinking hot water. One of my colleagues who has lived in China said that the roots for this likely lie in the fact that boiling water kills disease-causing bacteria. Makes sense to me. I guess there may be a lot fewer than 1.6 billion Chinese if much of the population had been drinking contaminated all these years. I have seen elsewhere that hot drinks after a meal will also prevent oily foods from clotting and hindering digestion. Who knows?

Oh, and I still have yet to see a firetruck in this city. They don’t have uncontrolled fires here?

Tomorrow is our last full day in Beijing as we leave for the airport at 1:30 on Wednesday.


Trashy in China.2, Day 6

Saturday was our first true “free” day on this mission. Beautiful and sunny skies, a relatively smog free atmosphere and warm temps made for a perfect time to get outside and explore.

Of course, shopping came first. I hate shopping, but not here. Gotta live the dickering, man. It’s in the blood somewhere. But it is sure not for everyone.

After pulling ourselves away from the Silk Market, we grabbed a cab (woulda taken the subway, but cab fares are obnoxiously cheap here – 40 Yuan (about $6) for a half hour trip… ) and headed for the main Olympic venues, including the Beijing National Stadium. The 90 some-odd thousand seat stadium is an impressive architectural feat. I was awestruck when thinking about the number of welded connections that would have been necessary to erect this thing. “The Bird’s Nest” contains 36 km of steel sheeting!

We just missed by a few weeks seeing the largest ski hill in Beijing… inside the freakin’ stadium! When you look at the pics below, that is what the snow on the floor of the facility is all about.

As well, we saw the water cube – the place where all of the aquatic events were held. Pretty cool, but it was closed due to renos so we couldn’t explore inside.

Along this line, one of my colleagues noted something, and I agreed, and that is it is to wonder what these stadiums will look like some 10 years down the road. Even after only a year and a half, there are signs of disrepair. Peeling paint, missing bricks, broken pavers are commonly seen. I guess the government’s priorities are elsewhere now.

I’m glad I had the chance to see it before it deteriorates too much.

Had some awesome Thai food last night in a part of town close to the Canadian embassy. Nice to have a change of pace.

Off to the Pearl Market today to get the obligatory – you guessed it – pearl-related gifts. Then we are visiting the Temple of Heaven, which is conveniently located right across the street from the Pearl Market. The Chinese think of everything!


Trashy in China.2, Day 5

After a long and final day of the week’s meetings, the bunch of us were yearning for some relaxation.

My main presentation went well and despite a couple of hiccups and surprises, I think the final formal meetings on Monday will be a success. What I am involved in amounts to international negotiations and as such progress is measured in small increments and very carefully. This is the third major international project I have been involved with and if there is one thing I have learned it’s that progress is still progress, even if it is at a glacial pace.

So back to the  need for some relaxation. After leaving the meeting, our most awesome bus driver greeted all of us with a can of Tsingtao beer – warm, yet deeply appreciated after a day inside four walls!

A favourite spot to chill after a hard day’s work is the bar in the hotel called Charlie’s. If it wasn’t for the cigarette smoke, the horrible music and the poor selection of beer, it wouldn’t be a bad place… um, yeah, we really should find a better place to have a pint…

But Charlie’s does have Happy Hour when beer is two for one! Woo-hoo!

After our smokey and warm beer, we wandered aimlessly into the early evening looking for a place to eat. After much indecision, we ambled to a booth in what would be the equivalent of a, um, Denny’s in Canada. Food was very cheap – as was the beer – but not very satisfying. Still, for a dozen or so dishes and a half dozen large beers for 339 Yuan (about $50), whaddya want? 8 bucks a pops for dinner ain’t bad.

Of course, we couldn’t leave it at that and go back to the hotel, now could we? Nooooo… we had to do some exploring around a part of the city that was not really that far from the hotel but was on the OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET – a side that we were utterly unfamiliar with!

Hilarity ensued when we wandered unmolested by guards into a gated community. One that didn’t have an unlocked gate other than the one we used to enter. So after much more aimless wandering (though we did find a very bizarre 7-11), we did make our way past a bathhouse back to the hotel. And the good night sleep that I had will not go wasted as the group of us are meeting in 15 minutes to decide where in fact we will aimlessly wander this morning.


Trashy in China.2, Day 4

T’was a very, very long and difficult day yesterday. The meetings themselves went extremely well and progress was made on fronts that we did not anticipate, but physically? Trashy was trashed.

Unlike the day before when it was clearly a problem with fatigue, yesterday was a day chock full of overwhelming exhaustion, nausea and headaches. I recall the same thing happening the last time I was here. At about the Day 4 or 5 point, my body tries to make the full shift to Chinese realities.

All is good this morning however, as I slept for almost a full 8 hours! And other than being a bit dopey (yeah, yeah – I can hear you!), I’m 100% better today! Good thing too, as it’s my turn to take the reins at the meetings and lead was will be a day long presentation.

Too bad about yesterday though, as last night was traditional banquet that the Chinese hold for us on each mission. The banquets are quite an occasion and it is considered to be an honour to be a guest at one of these events.

A couple of dozen dishes are placed on the giant lazy susan (above), which slowly spins around allowing each of the diners to pick off what they want when it comes around. Squid, yummy chicken (with the head still attached!), yams, shrimp, a spicy beef dish… lots of things to please any palate. There was also a served portion of the meal that consisted of a 6″ prawn,  fish soup and a crisp salad… a little surprised about the salad. I think they included that for us.

During the meal, a number of toasts are made. First by the host and then by the guests. The toasts are made more or less in order of rank at the table. Rank is a big deal for the Chinese.

One can either toast with wine or juice, but the guests,  especially the men – are often asked to toast with a shot of baiju, which is a strong liquor with a 52% liquor content! Normally, I would be at the front of the line with these toasts but due to my blah stomach, I only partook in two toasts… just to be polite… which is also very important to the Chinese. It is considered very bad form to refuse a drink or a taste of an exotic dish even if you feel like crap!

Enough for now. If I’m back in my room in time tonight, I’ll scribble together another post about the happenings of today. I do, however, have to make some time to pick up the custom-tailored shirts that I had made the other night. Only $18 a shirt! Woo-hoo!


Trashy in China.2, Day 3

A funny thing about travelling is that your body can be all up and at ’em, raring to go one day and then for no readily apparent reason, feel like it has been dragged through a phalanx of ReformCon Christian zealots armed with Tasers the next. And, since I am here on business, ya gotta suck it up and make your way through the work day.

And today (yesterday for most of you) is not one of the more pleasant days.

In spite of lots of sleep, no undue stress, nothing out of the ordinary at all, I feel ten times worse than I did yesterday. Travelling across many time zones is like that. Not only does the ol’ bod have to adapt to completely different food, water and air, it also has to deal with day being night and night being day. And you really can’t do a lot about this other than getting as much sleep as possible, not overeating and laying off the booze a bit.

But in spite of feeling crappy from time to time, one is very reluctant to let up on the gas very much. This is China! And things can happen that may result in this being my last visit so everyone wants to take advantage of being here as much as possible. Priorities change and all of us are quite aware that the proverbial rug could be pulled out from under the project at any time. This is only my second mission here but even those veterans who have been over here 7 or 8 times still want to take advantage of being in a place that they may well never get to again. So we are reluctant to turn down a dinner at a new restaurant, a tour of some temple or a trip to a new market. This enthusiasm about taking in as much as possible doesn’t help one’s physical well-being, but it sure is good mentally.

Work-wise, this has been a trying day. Without being specific, we have been listening to our Chinese colleagues talk about the functionality of a very complex database that they have developed. Very exciting stuff. Yeah. On Thursday afternoon, we move into the subject responsible for my being here so things will perk up quite a bit.

About the meetings themselves, they are very long – twice as long as the actual content since translation is not simultaneous. One of us speaks for 30 seconds or so, stops, and then one of the two interpreters repeats what was said in the other language. As is the norm on international trips like these, one has to use diplomatic language using terms like “we suggest”, “perhaps you would consider”, “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand”, etc. We are addressed and address our colleagues as “Mr.”, “Mrs.” And “Ms”, and the seating arrangements at the meetings and the banquets (this mission’s is being held tomorrow night – I’ll go into the whole banquet thing in a later post) reflect the relative stature of the attendees.

At the meetings, tea is served and frequently refilled throughout the day by a couple of girls wielding very large thermoses filled with boiling water. This is pretty cool.

On this particular mission, we take lunch in the department’s cafeteria where we are treated to copious amounts of noodle dishes, meats of different (and often unidentifiable) varieties, mushrooms and fungi, and fried veggies. Not bad grub but, as I noted above, it does not pay to over eat… you feel very heavy later in the afternoon and staying awake can be a challenge.

After lunch, the group of us usually goes for a walk to settle down the food, and then we return, meet until 4 or 4:30 then the bus takes the bunch of us back down the main drag to the hotel.

And that, folks, is my workday in Beijing. And I’m feeling a bit better now. The walk at lunch did its trick.


Trashy in China.2, Day One

The first full day in Beijing has been very uneventful. Three of us hit the grocery store at the Silk Market to stock up on water and munchies for the rooms. And then we returned and went back to start on the ol’ shopping thing.

Never have shopped for women’s shoes before today. And now I have! Hopefully, I did the right thing and they last more than a month!

Back to the room for a three hour nap and then off to our fave duck spot for way too much food.

One thing about China that always serves as a source of amusement is how western culture is interpreted. This, for example, is their ode to easter:

The meetings begin bright and early tomorrow. Hopefully, I’ll have a bit more to write about.


Trashy goes to China.2, arrival

Made it!

I’m a bit too tired to scribble words of great wisdom, or even clarity, so I’ll keep this short and sweet.

Another longish flight, but everything went amazingly smooth at the airport. Even the traffic from the airport to the hotel wasn’t so bad this time… for Beijing.

The group of us is meeting for dinner in a little while, then it will be back to the room for a – hopefully – OK sleep. But, if the pattern holds true, I will be wide awake at around 2 am. So don’t be surprised if you see another post around mid-afternoon, EDT.