Sunrise in Shenyang

Friday, July 2, 2010


For many younger Chinese, learning to speak English is an important personal goal, because it opens doors to jobs in multinational companies and is thus often linked with one's status in Chinese society. Today, many parents regard it as a vital life skill for their children; there are English classes for British English, American English, and even English classes for parents to enroll their babies and toddlers. Many Chinese spend their educational careers studying English. However, English is drastically different from Chinese, and there are few opportunities for Chinese to interact with those who are truly fluent in English. Therefore, due to both the importance of English and the lack of fluent speakers, the improper use of the English language and grammer runs rampant across the country. Fine specimens of Chinglish are exemplified across the country, on street signs, public reminders, and restaurant and shop fronts throughout giving those of us who know English a good laugh or an insight to the Chinese culture or language. Below are a few examples from my travels:

Emeishan, Sichuan

Shenyang, Liaoning

Bird Park, Anshan, Liaoning

Aquarium, Shanghai

Bird Park, Anshan, Liaoning

Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an, Shaanxi

Ok, well the last one doesn't qualify as Chinglish...its just ironic because well, its Shenyang. ;)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Going Home in a Flood

A while back, after a major rainstorm, I made the mistake of missing the work shuttle. And thus began the epic journey of my way home from work.

It began with the lack of an umbrella, and waving desperately at any taxi that passed by without any luck for 15 minutes while being soaked by the rain. Finally, an approaching taxi began to slow down. Regardless of the fact that there was already a passenger in the front seat, I gladly jumped in the back and told the driver my destination.

"I just have to take him home, and then I can take you," the taxi driver said.

Sure, fine I thought... anything would be better than waiting in the pouring rain. So we continued, in the opposite direction from where I live, slowly in the pouring rain.

Now, I have to explain to you that Shenyang has a terrible drainage system and is not in any way prepared for heavy rains. In fact, a major downpour causes many more traffic issues than a snowstorm, including traffic jams, flooding of roads, and even people drowning.

30 minutes later, I found ourselves approaching some smaller roads where the water level was at least 2 feet high. Before me, people were wading with their bicycles with their pant legs pulled up in a road that had become a shallow river. Just before the river got really deep, the taxi came to a stop, and the passenger in front paid and got out.

To my dismay, however, the driver continue down the flooded street, our taxi transforming into a little boat in the middle of a river.

As the water level approached the bottom of the car window, the ignition went off and the driver had to restart the car. But he was determined and we continued slowly forward.

Suddenly, I heard a loud "TWaaacckkk" and the car came to a stop. The driver got out, and when I looked behind me, I saw the the bumper of the car floating away and the driver going after it.

A few minutes later, he returned, bumper in hand, and tried to fit it in the trunk. The trunk was one of those trunks that you can reach through the rear seat. After trying several times without success, he asked me to help. I looked at him in disbelief when he asked me to hold on to the bumper as he continued to drive, but at that moment, I was farther away from home than when I began, and sitting in a taxi whose bumper just fell off, in the middle of a flood, so I found that I had no other choice.

So I agreed. And slowly, we continued on, eventually making it to higher ground, where he made a few phone calls, stopped in front of an apartment building, and left his car bumper at the front door. Then we continued on towards my apartment, where I found myself, after a cold, wet, and adventurous 2 hour journey, promising myself to never again to miss the work shuttle during a rainstorm.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Inner Mongolia


For Alain's birthday, we crossed the border of Liaoning province into Inner Mongolia to spend the weekend in a small village called "Da Qing Gou", or Big Green Valley in Chinese. Inner Mongolia, not to be confused with the nation of Monglia, is an autonomous region in the northeast of China (see map below for the section of Northeast China), and approximately 200 kilometers by car.
map from

Upon our arrival in Da Qing Gou, our shuttle bus pulled up to a tourist driven Mongolian-style yurt park, where we were given tours of several yurts. Yurts, are a tradition form of housing for many Asian cultures, that look a bit like a round tent-like hut. We were told that the small yurts could house 4-8 people, the medium sized yurts up to 12, and the large yurts up to 20 people.

Even though there were only eight of us, we chose the largest yurt, for the cost of 200 yuan per night (30 dollars), so that we would have plenty of space not to breathe on each other while sleeping. With the yurt, we were provided with some tables and small stools, blankets, pillows, a television (complete with Karaoke mikes, of course), and some small mats to sleep on. The owner of the yurt then took our order for dinner later that night, which included a whole lamb, that she later had her husband buy at the market, and the cook killed, cleaned, and cooked it for us.

After settling in, we went horse back riding for a few hours, to get a view of the local terrain in the sunset. We rode 14 kilometers, through rolling grass plains and sand desserts. The view was spectacular.

We went to a local light show later that night, where local performers sang and danced in Mongolian, under a chilly clear night (that we don't often see in Shenyang). Towards the end of show, everyone from the benches got up, and danced around the fire in the middle of the stage.

We finished the night eating and playing poker, before climbing into our own blankets in the early dawn hours.

The next day, we ate a quick breakfast (lunch), before going rafting in the freezing river that runs through the valley of Da Qing Gou. There, we bought shorts, slippers, water guns, pots and pans (for water fights, not for cooking) got into our rafts, and sprayed each other in a full out water war. After the first 5 minutes, we were all so cold that it hurt, so we stopped and floated peacefully down the river.
On the way back later that afternoon, we stopped in the nearby city for dinner, where everything is bilingual. In Inner Monglia, the children are taught both Mongolian and Mandarin in school, and all the signs in the city can be seen in both these languages.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paying the tab: a cultural reflection

A few weeks ago, I sat in a German pub eating dinner with a co-worker, when we started to discuss the cultural differences in splitting (or not) the tab at dinner, depending on the country we're in. In the US for example, when going out with friends, more often than not, if the server hasn't already split the bill, then each person at the table would check the receipt, and pay for exactly what he/she ordered. In contrast, in France, the bill would be split evenly between all the people eating. That is to say, if the bill is 40, and there are 4 people, each person would pay 10, regardless if one person ordered a 20 dollar meal and the others ordered meals worth much less. In the third scenario, in China, if one dines with friends, he/she should be prepared to have one person foot the bill, as it would be offensive to ask to split the bill. However, it is an unspoken rule that each person should take turns in paying the entire bill at subsequent dinners together.

These practices have a direct correlation with the culture or governmental structure of each country. The American ideology, for example, emphasizes individualism. Each one for his own, and you pay for what you eat. The French practice is somewhere in between. It balences individualism with shared responsibility. It's sorta like the idea of paying more taxes and sharing the wealth. On the other hand, the Chinese practice puts an emphasis on reliance on each other, and the importance of building trust between friends and other relationships. It is important to remember which country one is in, so as not to affend those that you dine with.

In China, this emphasis on trust and relationship building over time is reflected in the work place and in private life. For example, in many Chinese companies, people are promoted based on the years of experience with the company, rather than by performance and results. Loyalty to the company, as well as to friends and family is hard to earn, but highly valued. For me, it is something that I keep in mind daily as I work with my Chinese counterparts. It is difficult to develop relationships here, but at the same time, the friendships that one is able to form are truly worthwhile...

So, the next time you come to China to visit a friend, don't worry if someone pays for the entire check. Just offer to do the same the second time around!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Xi’an Part 2: Hua Shan

Written April 08

Hua Shan, known as one of China’s 5 greatest mountains, famous for its steep slopes and beautiful scenery, is located an hour outside of Xi’an by train. Unfortunately, the tickets that we bought were seatless, so we tried our usual tactic of going into the dining room, where you have to pay extra for the food, but more importantly, seating. So at 7 in the morning, Alain and I found ourselves in the dining room, being served a bland breakfast of Chinese congee (watery rice), man tou (steamed bread), a boiled egg and salted vegetables, that made me think of the military camps (in the movies), where you are served portions of crappy unflavored unidentifiable food and you are expected to eat it. We ate our bread from the bakery on Hui Ming Jie instead.

Upon arrival in the city of Hua Shan, we boarded an overloaded bus that took us over dirt roads into the valley of the mountains. The majority of the people on the bus got off at the first stop, where you can take a cable-car halfway up the mountain. Only 4 of us chose the second stop, where you hike up the entire mountain.

So, wondering if we’d made the right choice, we ventured up the hill, through the entrance, and began our hike up. Our goal: to climb up to the 5 peaks (South, North, Middle, East, and West peaks) and back down before sunset. I think it was better that we didn’t realize just how far we had to go.

The scenery was beautiful as the fog began to clear and the sun accompanied a beautiful blue sky. There were sections of steep and narrow steps where you had to hang on to the rails on each side. We climbed thousands of steps, before we reached our first peak, the South Peak, which is more than 2000 meters high. The view was indescribable. It was an incredible feeling to look around, and see the mountains surrounding us and below us. It was 5 PM by the time we’d climbed all 5 peaks, and began our descent down.

Since our train was at 7 o’clock, we were worried that we wouldn’t make it, so we literally ran down the mountain. The people that we passed surely thought we’d lost our minds, because as they climbed down backwards, step by step, while holding onto the chains, we jogged and hopped down them. We reached the bottom within an hour, and found ourselves on a train after a quick bite to eat. Thoroughly exhausted, we were disappointed to find that we again didn’t have seats, and we had to walk 6 cars to the dining room, where we paid, were served cold food, and fell asleep. Suddenly someone was yelling at me to get up, and get out, because there were other paying customers who wanted to eat. Alain and I stood the remainder of the time, about 30 minutes, found a taxi after many tries, and rested our tired, sore, and limping legs.

Xi’an Part 1: Terracotta Warriors, City Wall, and Chinese Muslim Street

Xi'An Clock Tower
(Written April 08)

Last weekend I went to Xi’an, one of China’s oldest capitals where emperors lived for dynasties before they moved to Beijing. On our agenda: the Muslim district (Hui Ming Jie), the Terracotta Warriors, the Ancient City Wall, the Big Goose Pagoda, and climbing one of the steepest mountains in China: Hua Shan.

The Terracotta Warriors, sometimes known as the 8th Wonder of the World, is the main attraction for tourists going to Xi’an. There, protecting the tomb of the first Emperor for the last 2000 years, are more than 6000 life-sized warriors, each unique in face expressions, dress, and decoration.

On Friday morning, we headed to the train station to take a bus to see the famed warriors. We went to our bus stop and got in the back of the line. Or at least that was the plan. In fact, we followed the line of people around loops and turns and under the city wall. There were literally hundreds of people waiting for the same bus, a side effect which we can only attribute to 1.3 billion people living in one country.

We decided to get a taxi. We negotiated for 100 yuan (15 bucks), and we were on our way.

The soldiers were well worth the trip. There are 3 large pits that are now protected by rooftops. As you walk into the first and largest pit, you see hundreds of warriors facing you, some smiling, others intent, but all-together breathtaking. The floors of the pits are built with bricks, that after 2000 years, are still sharp edged and in tact. Some sections of the pit have been damaged by fires and natural disaster, but the majority of it has withstood the test of time.

Back in Xi’an, we found our way to the south section of the City wall, where we rented bicycles and rode along the top of the city wall at dusk, for about 14 kilometers. Xi’an is one of the only cities in China with its city walls in tact, still protecting all four sides of the original city.

We ended the night on Hui Ming Jie, the famed Chinese Muslim street of Xi’an for souvenirs and xiao chi, or street snacks. It was past 9:00 PM, and the street was packed with locals and tourists. There were stands selling sweet rice cakes, different breads filled with lamb and beef, noodles, soups, dried fruits, skewers of meats and vegetables, and different cakes.

Walking on the street is quite dangerous, despite the fact that there are no cars on the road, because of the san lun che, or tricycles, that come flying by you almost silently, driven by people dressed in traditional Muslim attire. On a side street, we bought some knock-off polo shirts for 40 yuan (6 dollars), and browsed for replicas of the terracotta soldiers, before purchasing our breakfast for our hike in Hua Shan (Hua Mountain) the next morning, and finally retiring to our hotel room.

House Inspection

(Written May 08)
Due to the upcoming Olympics and the recent Tibetan riots, security as been tightened around the country. The other night, I was cooking dinner in my apartment when the doorbell rang.

Usually, the doorman downstairs calls me if it is someone they don’t know coming to visit me, to get my permission to let him/her up. If it is a friend that they recognize, they are allowed to come up without ringing.

So I assumed incorrectly that the doorbell meant that a friend was waiting, as there was no call from downstairs. I opened the door, however, and there stood 2 men in uniform, asking me for my identification. I asked them to please wait outside, and I closed the door and locked it. I first called the person from our company who is responsible for expatriates and asked if this was normal procedure. She confirmed that it has happened more often lately due to the heightened security.

Meanwhile, I heard the officers go next door. I opened my door up and saw that my Chinese neighbors were giving their ID numbers and personal information as if it were normal procedure. Then I called the management of my apartment to confirm that they were legit. My doorman confirmed called me to confirm.
(I didn't take a picture, but the green uniforms and face expressions are pretty representative...)

So in the end, after 5 minutes of stalling, I gave two strangers who knocked on my door my passport number, date of birth, address (obviously), and cell phone number, and I was left to finish my cooking with an uneasy feeling that I broke a number 1 rule: to not give your personal information to strangers, especially if they are the ones to solicit it, and especially if they come knocking on your door. Somehow, this tightened security makes me feel less safe than ever.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Guilin, Yangshuo, Longji

Guilin, one of the most beautiful scenic areas of China, is known for its mountains and rivers. For the week of Labor Day, Alain and I hopped on a plane from Shenyang, and found ourselves in a humid and hot climate at a little airport in the city of Guilin. On our itinerary: Guilin, Yangshuo, and Longji.

The first night in Guilin, we took a walk in the park. The area in chinese is called "Lian Jiang Si Hu", meaning two rivers and four lakes. There, we came across traditional style towers that are now converted into tea houses, light and water shows, and many walkways along the river.

Teahouses in Guilin

Fresh coconuts on the street

The next morning, we took a 4 hour boat cruise down the Li River to travel from Guilin to Yangshuo. The section of the Li River is one of the most sections. We carried my miniature-sized Clemson umbrella up to the upper deck and braved the rain and fog, in hopes of seeing the mountains that were so famous.

Fog on the Li River

After landing in Yangshuo, we walked through a fake market and came upon our guesthouse, that cost us only 60 yuan per night (9 USD!). The same night, we went to the famed light show, directed by Zhang Yimou (director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and House of Flying Daggers). The view was amazing. We sat on a stage overlooking the river, with mountains in the background, where more than 600 actors put together a show about the local life in the region.

The next day, we rented bicycles for 20 yuan each, and rode into the small villages along the river. Along the way, we saw many water buffalo and rice fields. We ended the night by watching comorants fishing. The comorants lead the fishermen in their rafts, and swoop into the water to catch fish.

Rafting on the Li River

A farmer and his water buffalo outside a small village. He told us that the buffalo cost him 5000 yuan.

Village outside of Yangshuo

Fisherman and his comorants

On our third day, we kayaked along the Li River, to make up for the rained out cruise.

View from the Kayak
We wrapped up our visit in Yangshuo by shopping in the fake market, where I bought some jewelry, a watch, and art, and where Alain bought an entirely new wardrobe of fake polo shirts, a polo jacket, a timberland belt, and fake Levi's and Diesels (because we can't find european sizes in Shenyang).

Fake Market and Mulitudes of Lao Wai (foreigners)

Early the next morning, we took a bus that took us north of Yangshuo and Guilin, into the Longji Rice Terrace and the Ping An minority village, where the Yao minorities live. The women of the village have the World's longest hair (seriously, according to the Guiness Book of World Records), because they only cut it once around 16 years old. After that, they put their hair on top of their heads. We were also told that it is custom for the girls to pinch the guys' butts that they are interested in.

Hong Yao Women

After we hiked up the terrraces, we enjoyed a meal of bamboo steamed rice and chicken, before heading to the terrace.

Bamboo Lunch

Clouds coming in on the 9 Dragon 5 Tiger Terraces (We couldn't find the tigers, but there were 9 ridges that were name the 9 dragons.)

Ping An Village and the location of our hotel

I'd always wanted to go to Guilin, because of a song I'd heard my parents play when I was young. The lyrics go something like this:

Wo xian qu Guilin, ya/Wo xian qu Guilin/Ke shi you le shi jian wo que mei you qian.

Which means: I want to go to Guilin, ya/ I want to go to Guilin/ But when I have time, I don't have money.

So I'm grateful to have taken this trip, as many Chinese do not have the opportunity to see it within their lifetime.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Feng Huang Shan

Last weekend I went hiking with a few friends in some mountains called FengHuang Shan, or Phoenix Mountain. It was 2 and 1/2 hours by train from Shenyang, to the eastern border near North Korea. The original plan was to go to Benxi, but our new friends on the train advised against it, so we changed plans, extended our tickets, and headed to Phoenix City.

The train is great for getting travel advice if you speak the language. Everyone has their opinion about where and when you should go and how you should get there. For the two hours that we were on the train, the man sitting across from me, who'd traveled all over the country as a salesperson, gave me travel advice, solicited or not. By the time we'd arrived at our destination, the people sitting around us had planned enough vacations for us to last all our remaining weekends, holidays and vacations in China.
FengCheng (Phoenix City) was a small city of 700,000 people (there are hundreds of cities in China with a population over 1 million). When we got off the train, we found a bus that would take us to the mountains. It was a rickety bus that cost each of us 1.5 yuan (30 US cents). There weren't any bus stops; the bus drove slowly and people simply waved it down if they wanted to hop on, and told the bus driver when they wanted to get off. Bicycles went faster than us.

(This wasn't our bus - the bus is in the background. This could have been our ride up into the mountain though...)

The mountains were great. The spring winding down the mountain was still frozen, and we walked along it until we reached the major trail. Many parts of the climb were more like rocks with steps carved into them, and we climbed up vertically and sideways.

In the evening after our hike, we warmed up at a local restaurant with "Sa Guo", a local dish which is a pot placed on top of fire, with broth, noodles, sour cabbage, pork blood, and pork. We also ordered eggplant, chicken, beef, and the local Yalu River Beer. The people in FengHuang Shan look different than in Shenyang; they appeared heartier, more traditional, and were definitely very interested in my "lao wai" (foreigner) friends.

We took the train back at the end of the evening. It was so crowded that many people were standing and all the seats were taken, so we walked to the end of the train cars and upgraded (2 USD / person) for the dining room, where we had the entire cabin to ourselves to play cards and drink coffee, until we were back home, at least for now, in Shenyang.