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这个 means “this,” and 那个 means “that.” Together, they have the same “this or that” meaning that we use in English. The textbook pronunciations are something along the lines of “juh guh” for this, and “na guh” for that. On the streets though, no Chinese actually use the textbook pronunciations.

Colloquially, 这个 and 那个 sound remarkably similar to jiggah and a certain n-word that rhymes with jiggah.

Hmm, not the best of coincidences.

Even worse, Chinese use “that”, 那个, as a filler word the same way we use “uh”, with an even higher frequency. Asking for directions, you might say “Do you know where that, that, Russian restaurant is, near that Dongzhimen?”

In a short sentence, you’ve already thrown out three n-gah’s. Oy.

For an unknowing American like Victor, walking around the streets of Beijing, all he hears are Chinese people throwing n-gah this, n-gah that every other gibberish that he doesn’t understand. He asked me why do the Chinese have to be so racist all the time. I told him that maybe they were all secretly rap gangstahs.

(Interesting side note, the n-gah pronunciation of “that” is only in colloquial Mandarin, so you would only pick up on it in Beijing. In my dialect, the pronunciation is more like luh-guh, nothing worth noting, at least not in American English.)

heartless, sometimes


In a city of 13 million people, what are the chances that you run into someone you know randomly?

Deviating from my normal lunch-around-the-office-block routine, I met up with an old college friend at her apartment complex outside of the East Third Ring. We stopped in at her favorite bakery for a late lunch, conveniently located on the first floor of her complex.

Coincidentally, I ran into someone whom I met this past weekend at a bar in Sanlitun, a friend of a friend of my roommate’s.

He was also deviating from his normal lunch routine, visiting his favorite bakery because he happened to be in the neighborhood checking out a factory for work (I’ve actually heard this factory line from a surprising number of people here).

What an unlikely, and welcomed, coincidence in a city that has appeared heartless for a few days now, in fact, heartless since the day that I met this guy. It was at that Sanlitun bar that my iPhone bamfed from my purse, most likely a victim of the deft thieving that Beijing (China) is known for.

With that one event, Beijing instantaneously lost its luster. This same city that had been so full of excitement for the whole past month suddenly became soulless. Instead of looking forward to new happenings, I reminisced last week’s events, events at which I still had my phone. Timelines were re-defined as “before-phone” and “after-phone.” Instead of wanting to go out exploring, I wanted to wallow and watch movies on the internet at home.

Thus, it was nice to randomly run into this new friend today, managing to restore a tiny bit of humanity back to this fair city Beijing.



I bought a pair of silver earrings and necklace today on my way home from work. From a street vendor, both pieces combined cost me 20RMB, a bit less than $3. I’m pretty sure I got a great deal on them, even relative to Beijing standards, but I didn’t feel good about it as I walked the rest of the way home.

Maybe it was because the woman was from Tibet, and all her jewelry had that ethnic silver or turquoise look about them. Or maybe it was seeing the many tattered cotton layers she had bundled on so as to stay warm in the dark. Or perhaps it was hearing her resigned voice when she told me, as she gave me change, that she has never sold those earrings for less than 15RMB, and I believed her dark round eyes.

Or maybe I am just simply too easily fooled …

I felt like shit for having bargained hard, like a good Chinese person. I don’t think she was out to swindle me, and even if she were, what’s another 5 or 10RMB to me? The pieces would have still been a great deal, even if they turn out to not be silver (you never know).

Contrast this with my shopping experience a couple of weekends ago at the Silk Street Market. I have absolutely no qualms about being unreasonably cheap and treating those vendors harshly.

Silk Street specializes in counterfeit name-brands (anything from polo shirts to Louis Vuitton bags, the most popular). The asking prices are usually 10 to 15 times the actual price, and the vendors almost always get away with it. The hordes of Lonely-Planet-carrying foreigners are usually beside themselves with joy when they manage to “haggle” the vendors down to 40%, or even 50%, of the asking price.

I need to remember that most street vendors are not Silk Market vendors. Most street vendors are not locals. Most street vendors do not speak English.

Most of them are from faraway places, hoping to make some money in Beijing that they can send back home.

After sitting at home for a while, I went back out to find the Tibetan woman. I wanted to buy something else from her, at whatever her asking price.

Unfortunately, the sidewalk was completely empty already.

the notorious GFW


The Great Firewall of China doesn’t need much introduction. Western social networking in China has essentially come to a halt this year, with the most popular sites (Blogspot, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter) all behind the firewall. Of course, many continue to visit these site with VPNs and proxies, but having to turn on my VPN before watching a Youtube video is a seemingly-minor annoyance that is, in actuality, quite inhibitory.

Do I really want to watch that video? Nah, not really. How badly do I want to respond to this or that Facebook comment? Eh, I can live without.

There is not much I can add about the firewall that’s not already out there, but what I have found to be surprising and interesting are:

1) the ever-changing nature of what I can access day-to-day,
2) what sites are blocked, and perhaps more so, what sites are not.

When I first arrived in Beijing, I continued to read blogspot posts through my Google Reader. RSS feeds were, surprisingly, not behind the firewall despite the fact that the blogs themselves were. Then, last week, Google Reader threw errors for all of my blogspot subscriptions. Turning on the VPN promptly fixed the problem. I thought the censors had finally wisened up to the RSS work-around.

Except, by the next day, access to all feeds had been restored. The catch? Pictures embedded in posts no longer display in RSS feeds.

So now I also ask daily, “How badly do I want to see that blog post picture?”

Then there are the blocked sites that completely baffle me. Doing some research at work today, I wanted to access a series of .org websites, one site for each study commissioned by the EU on a specific consumer product. All of these sites were blocked. Why? I can’t come up with any logical reasoning.

Then, on the other hand, Flickr access is still free as a bird (knock on wood).

the Christmas spirit


My apartment is in 东直门 (dongzhimen), a highly commercialized, white-collar area. Raffles City is a new mall (built within the last couple of years) on the southwest corner*.

Starting last week, the otherwise quiet and low-trafficked mall is now filled with a looping playlist of Christmas carols. An impressive Christmas scene also went up in front of the mall last week (see full Flickr set). Behold:

Men working on the display last week

Poor reindeers

The completed scene

Raffles City, December 2009

Ahh, global commercialization.

*Locations in Beijing are usually referred to by their relative cardinal directions to other buildings/landmarks. Meeting a Chinese person yesterday for dinner, she gave me the following directions: “There is a XXX Center that is easy to spot on YYY Street. YYY Bank is west of XXX Center, and the restaurant is slightly west of YYY Bank.”

the good air, the not so good, and the bad


The view out of my office window on three different days over the last week or so:

Blue skies Beijing yesterday!

A so-so day last week

And a day early last week … an optimist might call this fog

That last one was probably the worst day I’ve seen so far. A friend said that it smelled like kerosene outside. My initial thought was that it smelled like being on the wrong side of an big BBQ grill, except there weren’t any burgers to eat afterwards.

the first faux-pas (that I know of)


I went with my boss to a meeting yesterday. After everyone came into the room (6 total–me, my boss, and the 4 people we were meeting with), it was business card exchange time.

But the Chinese actually present their business cards, rather than the American nonchalant hand-off. They use both hands to hold the top two corners of the card, face the card toward you, bow a little, and read their name out as you take the card.

It’s actually quite practical. As they say their name out for me, I can look down and read along on their card.

In the US, I mostly just shove business cards in my purse when they’re handed to me. It can then get confusing later trying to match up cards to faces. The Chinese way, I match their name to their card to their face in the presentation process.

Back to the faux-pas. Of course I had no clue that I should have been presenting my business card. For the first couple of people, I took their cards with one hand while handing them my card with the other hand. I didn’t realize the mistake until I saw my boss, an Italian, present his card with two hands.

In my haste to recover, I held out my card to the next person with both hands! Unfortunately, they held out their card for me first. Humans don’t have enough hands to present our own business card with both hands while simultaneously receiving someone else’s card.

If only I had four hands. Or better timing.

the advantages of a 2nd common language


I have two roommates, an American and a French, and we speak English in the apartment, but both roommates also speak Chinese.

Yesterday, while talking about visiting a construction site, the American asked the French if he had to wear a hard hat. The French didn’t understand the term “hard hat,” which is probably a very American English expression.

As I thought of ways to gesture and describe a hard hat, the American roommate simply said, “You know, an 安全帽.”

Literally, “You know, a safety hat.” What the Chinese would say for a hard hat.

The French immediately knew what he meant, saying “ah ah ah,” and the conversation carried on. That’s pretty cool.

a “things-i-did-today” kind of a post


I think I’ve got a morning routine down. Alarm set for 7:30, snooze until 7:50, call Victor, get dressed for work, and out the door by 8:40/8:45.

On my way to the bus stop, I buy two pork buns at the 7-Eleven (1.20RMB, or $0.17, each), which I eat while waiting for the bus. Buses are super frequent. Thus far, I haven’t had to wait more than just a couple of minutes (knock on wood).

My work computer, which I got today, is thankfully set up with an English operating system. The default input language upon startup, however, is Chinese using Windows Microsoft Pinyin input.

I switched to Google Pinyin Input on my own laptop a couple of weeks ago without much fanfare. If I hadn’t been forced to clunk my way through Microsoft Pinyin today, I may have never come to fully appreciate just how much better Google’s input engine is.

In other news:
1) The cab that I took to dinner smelled like pot. That confused me.
2) One of the more expensive menu items at the Japanese restaurant tonight was called “Pimp My Roll.”



And … I am in Beijing. It took about 22 hours door-to-door, Boston to Chicago to Beijing. Since the flight was arriving in Beijing in the late afternoon, I tried not to sleep that much on the plane to get started on fighting the jet lag. In turn, I got some pictures of the amazing views out the window throughout.

Lake Michiganlake_michigan

Swirling clouds somewhere over Canadaclouds

Ice crystals on the window glassice

The Arctic Oceanarctic_ocean

Somewhere over frozen Siberiasiberia

Mountain peaks, still over Russiapeaks

Some rivers coming off of the above mountain rangerivers

Gorgeous basinsflat_tops

Flatter terrain, though it’s hard to tell how flat it actually isflatter

First signs of civilization amidst all the white!civilization

Cold cold settlements in the mountains about 30 minutes before Beijingtowns

Geometric settlements in the outskirts of Beijing (terrain is now very very flat)geometric

Health inspection booths are before the immigration countershealth

Home! Looking out my bedroom windowhome

My aunt and uncle came up to Beijing from Hangzhou to meet me at the airport and help me settle in. I now have a phone, internet, and leftover Peking duck in the fridge. I also successfully took the bus to work this morning, though I had a hard time waking up on time (bye bye jet lag?).

Final note: it is COLD here. I’ve yet to derive any meaning from Celsius temperatures, but I’m told it got down to -5C yesterday. I converted that to 23F before responding, “Oh wow, that’s below freezing.” Hahaha.