Saturday, June 11, 2011

Random Faces... and the end of Chopstix

I've never been particularly fond of pictures or cameras. This China trip was where I seem to have made a significant exception and clicked anything and everything... mostly for the sake of this blog. Still with the country being what it is, it's impossible to capture it completely in all it's hues and energy. Reminds me of Irrfan Khan chiding his young son (in the movie adaptation of 'The Namesake') for having forgotten his camera on the beach while adventuring deeper in the sea... 'well then.. no camera... we must just look carefully and take memories along!'

Lots of memories... the faces on the street speak a million emotions... here are some random Chinese faces (and may have a few Japanese/Koreans because of my own limitations of identification). The China 13 team should be able to identify quite a few.

A trillion emotions in a country of a billion...

The end of Chopstix... no more to eat :)

Note of Thanks

So it's pretty much the end of the road for the Chinese adventure. This blog was never supposed to be a diary and was only to be a documentation of the experiences. A quick thank you to all those who were a part of this wonderful experience.

China 13 team... it's been great knowing each one of you. Susanna, Denis... thanks for all the support. Tom/Dan.. thanks for the wonderful time spent in Club M and all the intellectual discussions we had. Sue.. thanks for being there for me on my birthday when the clock struck 12:00. Duli: I'm going to remember you for your persistent search for 'flexibility' and also admire you for your theory around Indian body structures. Any trouble I get into in India could be on account of you. Carlos/Thiago... you owe me one for saving your marriages :) (by repressing freedom of speech and visual expressions). Andrea... you owe me HotPot in the US sometimes; I'm going to remember it. And Shruti...our experiments with speaking in Hindi just for the heck of it made me realize how screwed up my grasp over my so called 'mother tongue' is. 

Stay in touch guys. 

Some more folks who deserve a mention:

The massage girls who defy the laws of physics and exert more force psi than humanely possible. Those elbows are lethal weapons and could cause serious harm if used the wrong way. 

The room cleaning lady who kept the 'home' clean and the 'club' functional. Thanks for taking out the trash everyday. And thanks for not judging me by the bottles removed everyday :)

The pancake guy: Can I just call you mommie? You fed me some of the best food in SHJ... food almost at par with what my mom makes. Must have been the love in it. I did get you an extremely loyal clientele eventually. Thanks for the lovely food!

The 'Ni Hao' receptionist girls. These were the pleasant girls on whom I practiced the only Chinese phrase I managed to pickup.

The Support System

 Lucy... a BIG THANK YOU for everything. I being your closest room-mate, could often sense the exasperation in your body language at handling these 11 grown up kids. You did a fantastic job. Thank you so much! 


Em 'n' M
And lastly Emily - who complained that she wasn't given enough of a mention in my blogs. When friends back home told me that I should pick up a Chinese doll for my house, they could have well been talking about this one. One could really gift wrap and get this cute girl back home, but for the potential run-in with Indian Customs. By 'Customs' I really don't mean the authorities at the airport... rather I mean the socially prevalent 'Customs' that entitle a wife to drive you out of the house if you get a  live Chinese doll home! Hey thanks for everything Em!

Friday, June 10, 2011

General Ramblings # 2 (HotPot)

My blog cannot be complete unless I have at least one post on the marvel called HotPot. The chef in me cannot think of a better food preparation given that we're not even talking about food that is actually prepared when it is served.

The HotPot meal comprises of a simmering broth on your table (either individual or community), and raw or semi-cooked food being circulated all around. The intent is to pick up your food, and cook it on the table itself. Additional condiments/sauces can be ordered to further customize your food to your taste.  

For those of you who have ever encountered one true love in live, the HotPot is pretty much like one..... it demands 100% of you at the table and then demands more. Distractions can be disastrous, social conversations totally unnecessary, any sneaking eye on a neighbouring 'mistress' pot strongly discouraged. In a respectable HotPot environment, a HotPotter and his HotPot meld together into one single entity, with creation and consumption happening in one single continuum - in a natural flow that can only be described as incredibly beautiful. If you pamper your food, it returns the favour by delighting your senses; if you tease your food, it plays to your charms and acquires a different mood; if you ignore your food, you end up with pasty muck in your mouth! Every morsel is customized... every bite is different...

I can almost hear my mom yelling...'don't play with your food'... what would she say of a food style that begs to be played with? What is designed to be played with?!

There are one or two folks from China I'm going to miss tremendously... but other than that, HotPot is what I'm going to miss the most. We have nothing like this in India and I can't imagine which Indian preparation could potentially be HotPotized. Medhu vada or idli in a pot of sambhar..!! Nah!! Not even close!

Needless to say my HotPot fascination wasn't really shared by everyone and I couldn't really get my fill of this divine meal type (it's not really a solo meal exactly). Two of the most memorable HotPot meals were:
Dry HotPot date with Emily: Sort of pre-cooked and more open to social conversations over the meal.

Conveyor HotPot date with Andrea: Food flying by on a conveyor belt...requires immense concentration to grab your food and cook it. Amazing!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Goodbyes at the Univ.

After the entire fiasco around language issues with the students of the University and the ego-beating that I took, with my confidence in my English skills crumbling at every step.... finally it was time to say goodbye. I suddenly realized that with some basic human emotions - like the pleasure on meeting and the heaviness in goodbyes - there was really nothing lost in translation. These  are universal and universally understood.
The students were genuinely distressed to see us go. A few interactions alone had forged a bond that they were reluctant to break. Even though the students from our University (girls or otherwise), never sent me text messages asking me to 'play with them' (as did some evidently playful young girl students from Dan and Tom's University!), still it was clear that they seemed to have got some sort of value from our sessions and really made us feel special when it was time for us to leave. 

The students gifted Andrea and me with some lovely hand made cutouts and some calligraphy art in Chinese (in equally elaborate handmade envelops). I really appreciate the gesture though I had to take 4 pictures of the calligraphy in all possible orientations and mail them across to Emily to figure out which 'side was up'.  
The picture doesn't do justice to the calligraphy
Apparently the calligraphy has to be read the way it is pasted above and my professional interpreter helped translate this as follows: "A bosom friend afar brings a distant land near" (she insists that I acknowledge the translation as copyright Emily Li Meng and I do so gratefully). I've not used the phrase 'bosom friend' since quite a long long time and age has corrupted me substantially to give me busty pornographic visions when I read the phrase.... clearly best to attribute it to someone else to inspire innocence :-)

The last engagement with the University was a formal dinner thrown in our honour. It was a lavish spread with some extremely good Chinese wine that did not fall into any of the categories I had listed in this blog earlier. There was an amazing amount of food, and phenomenal food presentation. Profs W & Z had - earlier in the day - conducted an elaborate 8 stage selection process in the University to identify faculty members who could potentially interpret and hold communication in an Indian-English environment and managed to select 4 such individuals who were ready for the challenge. And just in case they could not meet the challenge, there was always the wine to fall back upon.

I understand that it is a strange Chinese custom to try and get your guest drunk (gosh.. I so love this country... every pleasure is a custom!), but it's possible that the makers of such a custom never accounted for a Punjabi Indian guest. I played along till the bottle was over and Prof. Z had professed his 'friendship' for me nineteen times (from his third drink to his sixth). I had almost resigned myself to the fact that he was taking me home with him when, fortunately, the 20 course meal concluded with some waitresses singing some songs for us. 

Prof. W gifted us a silver coin each with the University's name and seal on it. A great reminder of what we had accomplished here. Thank you Prof W, and thank you Prof. Z.

The Dinner Party
Folks I would be being less than honest if I don't confess that the entire project was really very gratifying and left a sense of achievement. Students are students everywhere... eager to lap up any grain of wisdom thrown their way and eager to internalize it for their future consumption. The language barriers were pretty minor in hindsight and the efforts they  made to comprehend and participate were really commendable. I wouldn't claim to have changed any lives in Shijazhuang, but I sure hope I left a little bit of myself there anyway. 

And of course I picked up a QQ number: 224 656 0679

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

General Ramblings

This blog is going to ramble a bit now since frankly it's on it's last legs and does not have more than 2-3 breaths of posts left in it. Let's talk a little about takeaways from China and things that I would remember for a long time:
  • I spent 28 days in Shijazhuang without ever once using the name of the city. I was confident that I would never get it right, and even while in sessions with the students I often told them to ‘use the facilities in this city’, and ‘your town is so wonderful’, ‘this place has so much to offer’ etc. 
I was at 'this city's' railway station :)
  • I must have been the only one in the entire team who refused to learn how to count in Chinese. The more accomplished ones could create really complex equations, while almost everyone else could manage from 1 to 10.
  • I established the fact that negotiating or haggling (predominantly Indian term... not very flattering), does not require any degree of language familiarity. In other words the art of negotiation communication is global. I acquired significant respect amongst my colleagues on some of the ‘deals’ I closed. 
There were 6 (or was it 7) media player units bought from this lady.
  • I'm shocked at the number of days I wore my red T-shirt and looking at my pictures now, it's really embarrassing (see image above). This is really something I need to throw away now.
  • China is a land of extremes. In one of the blogs I've talked about extreme toilets that we observed in China. There were some other extremes too. The Korean BBQ restaurant in Shijazhuang had urinals that seemed - to the casual observer - to be out of order. A closer look indicated that they actually had a built in filtering mechanism.
Pubes' filter? Really?
  • While in Shanghai we saw some that required a user-manual to operate. Not really something you would like to use if you were in a hurry. 
Please punch in your 18 digit user id, your 26 digit alphanumeric password, your grand mother's maiden name, your place of birth; subsequently type the letters you see. After that you may proceed to use the toilet.
  • China left a deep mark on me: The last of my many 'cupping massages' two days before we left didn't go too well. Anxious to show that there were SOME impurities that could be pulled out from my pristine clean-as-my-character-body, the girl left the pots on longer than required. Band-aids were not included in the treatment.
Forced to remember China.
  • When in China be as the Chinese: I got seven people in India - including my boss - comment on how I had started to look Chinese. Hey, I'm proud to be an Indian... and while the ability to 'blend-in' and 'make relationships' etc can be useful in any country, I do remain an Indian and prefer to look like one! 100%! Also if I begin exhibiting the extremely common and inexplicable Chinese roll-up-your-shirt-and-display-your-torso behaviour, it would be fairly obvious where I come from! I love China, but every hair on my chest cringes if I'm called Chinese!
Look mama... no hair!
Will the real Chinese please open his eyes?!
  • In China, easier to find inner peace than to find jam: The breakfast time scramble for the two teaspoons of jam was a perpetual social discussion topic. It's incredible the amount of discussion 11 'managers' from a multinational organization can have over something like jam! 
Dan for Jam: Doing an Oliver Twist
Sue: Always intrigued by the 'green egg yellows

  • English is a foreign language: A walk down any tourist location can be fairly entertaining sometimes.


  • The most haunting image of Shijazhuang: When you stare at something like this 200 times a day, it becomes - like it or not - the one thing you have nightmares about. The Great Firewall of China had the final laugh on us eventually. As one rolled out of bed in the morning, the 'Ping' command was issued before the teeth were brushed. And if it were those 15 mins of the day when 'ping' threw up something other than 'request timed out', then everything else in the world - everyone else in the world could wait.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Why we should not mess with the Chinese!

One week after the project began, I had had enough of hearing the health conscious folks in the team going on and on about the wonders of the park alongside Motel 168 and the pleasures in morning walks. These were obviously the folks who slept in the night and thus could walk in the morning. For me a morning walk was typically a walk back from the club!!
Anyhow, with superhuman effort I managed to do 4 days of morning walks - the conventional style - and got a glimpse of what the Chinese do in the mornings. Apparently they're all getting ready for war! The degree of physical exercises can really not be justified by conventional 'getting rid of a beer belly' or 'grinding off my celluloid' or 'getting that stiffness in my neck out' kind of reasoning. These were full fledged military styled drills. Line dancing, Feng Shui and other martial arts, vigorous/aggressive/destructive moves - all designed to inspire awe. Even the music practice sessions seem to have some kind of military preparedness about them. And this was no one off park... the entire country seems to be possessed with a similar culture.

In comparison, a walk in the park in either a mofussil town in India, or even a respectable metropolis would expose pot bellied hairy people (yes, both men AND women) sipping large cups of sickeningly sweet tea, eating deep fried paranthas with dollops of white butter, and having belching contests (with points for volume, odor, and 'character' in each belch).

Here are some videos I captured of the class apparently graduating from cadets to captain in one of the parks in China. 

I understand there are border disputes, and there are policy disagreements; but I would really caution anyone from  messing around with the Chinese. They seem just too well prepared.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A picture is worth a thousand words. A picture of a picture? 1000,000 perhaps!

So people told me that the Chinese language and script is fairly interesting on account of the fact that it is pictographic in nature. How tough could it be to understand a picture, I had asked myself early on in this assignment. It’s just a question of learning what picture means what, and one is home and dry. 

Turns out I had over simplified the challenge at hand. After two weeks of staring hard at every Chinese sentence construct and waiting for the hidden picture to emerge and make sense, the only thing that emerged was migraine – a good deal of it. Clearly the Chinese picture art had not kept pace with picture technology. Over a 100 years since Eastman revolutionized photography, we’ve seen the transition from grainy yellow monochromes, to pretty high resolution artworks. Clearly the concept of pictures has changed radically, and it would befit the Chinese to replace the 40,000 odd characters with more contemporary pictures so that everyone can make sense. 

Here is an example:
is the symbol for a pig… and is visible everywhere there is pork on the menu. What prevents them from using the more modern pig symbol?

Don't be a Pig... use me instead!

You get my idea?

Also the Chinese-English-Chinese translation seems to befuddle me every time I hear any translation. Somehow the most concise statements in English (try something like ‘not possible’) seem to have a 20 minute translation in Chinese. We experienced this time and again, and I’m intrigued at how this actually works.

During our various travels in China, we also came across signboards in Chinese and in English. Again, the sheer length of the Chinese text is puzzling. Take this example:

If I had to illustrate “Please keep off the grass” in some pictographic script, I would have grass with two human feet and a red cross on top of it. The Chinese equivalent possibly talks about the definition of grass, the concept of gardening it to pristine health; the ability of human beings to walk, as also the ability to walk over grass; and finally, the fact that this is strongly discouraged. 

Clearly something is lost in translation from English to Chinese... or rather something (some very big thing) is added in the translation. Rumor is that Tolstoy wrote "War and Peace" in Chinese and it was a 20 page short story. His publisher suggested a change of language and that is how the remaining 1680 pages were added!

Exposé: Dirty laundry in public

So Lucy sent across a mail to publish the pending laundry costs to be recovered from the team. This being an insightful communication, it deserves to be shared with the rest of the world.

Hi team,
I list everyone laundry costs below, tomorrow night I'm going to collect laundry money.  Thanks!
Name      Room #  Total Amt.  Due Amt
Thomas      8801     269     -169
Carlos      8802     259     -159
Thiago      8803     303     -203
Andrea      8805     355     -255
Susanna     8806     281     -181
Dulith      8807     96      +4
Shruti      8808     233     -133
Denis       8810     190     -90
Dan         8809     304     -204
Mukul       8701     185     -85
Sussanne    8811     77      +23
Best regards

The following are the observations:
  • Clearly the Americans - those born and brought up in the US or North America, and not counting immigrants who've spent only 21years in the US - have a greater need for laundry. This could be due to multiple reasons... maybe they dirty easily, maybe they pack less clothes for travel, or maybe the fact that they're spending on laundry gives them some sort of first-world gratification.
  • The Brazilians need to spend money on getting to the kind of women-swooning responses they get on the streets. Maybe not as much as the Americans, but still good money. I would say that's money well spent. 
  • The Indians are perfectly optimized laundry-mature individuals. They seem to be aware of the fine trade-off between hygiene and the detrimental impact that laundry has on the ecology etc. These are the folks who will save the world yet! 
  • The Sri Lankans in the US tend to not use much of laundry at all, and often try to divert attention from their clothes by wearing extremely dark glasses. There is a short story of interest here too. As Duli/Tom and I went shopping for a hard-disk and I was in the middle of a heated negotiation, the shop girl looked at Duli and began giggling. It took a bit for us to get off the negotiation frame of mind and look at Duli's inside out T-shirt (Exhibit 1, 2 below). Duli nonchalantly dismissed this as intentional and not-a-great-deal ho-hum and a bit of you-wouldn't-like-to-see-what-I-do-with-other-garments-inside-if-any. I made a last ditch opportunistic bid to secure third-world poverty sympathy from the shop girl but without any success. Well anyway, Duli's laundry savings were put into the hard-disk purchase.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2

The perfect coverup for clothes being repeated for the 8th time. Duli got the traffic to a halt with this outfit... mostly because the vehicles waited for him to take out a cane and tap his way across the road. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Did we really go to Shanghai...!!??

The boys (most of us anyway) decided to have a weekend in Shanghai – the global city – instead of discovering more of ancient China in Xian like the girls did. The logic being that historic places are like good wine, the older they are, the better and more overwhelming their experience. Thus Xian would be much better 6 months or 2 years or 10 years down the line whenever we get a chance to go there again.

Shanghai is surreal...enigmatic and the Shanghai experience is like a blur difficult to explain. Shanghai cannot be described and attempting to do so I draw a big blank! It may be because the city defies any attempt at explanations, or it may just be the being wasted at clubs and bars!!

The German insisted on a Bavarian meal instead of a Chinese meal like I wanted...
I thought I could count on Tom for help on writing this blog. With a dirty stomach infection, he was out of the club and bar scene and could potentially help piece together a bit of ‘What Happens in Shanghai’. My hopes were dashed when I talked to him for research! 67% of his memories of Shanghai are of being in a room with a better bed and more comfortable aircon. Another 22% of his memories are of the washroom right next to this room, leaving around 11% memories of anything else. This wasn’t really going to help.
... and he paid a price :)

As a last resort, it’s the pictures that tell the story.

Carlos is the good samaritan and goes out of his way to help random needy people. There IS some sorta pattern though!

 In Shanghai downtown, it is impossible to take picture in landscape mode.

In a make believe surreal city, it made perfect sense to move up a few notches in status by buying Rolex watches for ourselves and pampering ourselves a bit. It was also the easiest way to get rid of the swarm of touts selling just about anything under the sun. From massages, to iPhones, to handbags, cushion covers... you name it and they had it or could 'walk you somewhere where you could get it'. I half expected the watch to read 'Rolecks' but was pleasantly surprised when the spelling was correct (though the print slightly off), and off course the chronograph dials were paint-ons!

Moving up in life to Rolex: While the watches may be fake, note that the brown skin is the centre of attraction!!

Sure I've met people with magnetic personalities.. hey.. even I am one of those :-). But it's the MagLev (Magnetically Levitated) train running over a 30 km stretch in Shanghai, with speeds touching 431 kms/hr that really takes magnetism to a whole new level. The train journey is not really for a quick date or a quick snooze (unless your idea of a quick date/snooze is 8 mins).

Who wins the magnetism contest?

There is something about men that makes them stare at globes anywhere!!

The Shanghai Adventure!
Sorry folks.. that is all that I can piece together from the pictures (that I can share!). Shanghai deserves a longer visit.. clearly a weekend cannot do justice. Tom, Dan.. anyone for another quick trip? I heard that Duli is already there anyway!