Hello dear friends and family,
I've heard it said that only God can make a tree. But actually it turns out that Chinese construction workers can too. We were walking through our apartment complex recently and saw blue sparks coming from the central park area. We had a closer look, and found a team of construction workers welding together a full-sized artificial tree. Go figure. Over the next few days they added a platform and a slide to the tree for kids to play on, and later they planted bamboo and some smaller (real) trees in the park area. The park looks quite attractive now, but I no longer trust that Beijing's beautiful trees are all real!
The weather here is getting warmer every day. This weekend was sunny, maybe 12 degrees, with a slight breeze. Trees are blossoming (those must be real) and the pollution levels have been low lately. Our tap water is an alarming red colour lately, but let's not be negative.
A couple of weekends ago we visited the Fragrant Hills, a large complex of parks and temples about 30 minutes away from the city by taxi. We stayed in the Fragrant Hills Hotel, designed and built 20 years ago by the noted architect I. M. Pei. The hotel was billed by a travel guide as the "worst 4-star hotel in the world", which turned out to be accurate. The hotel was beautifully designed, but badly maintained and incompetently staffed. When we got there the hotel sales manager introduced himself and said: "Welcome to our hotel! Why did you come here?" In the end, we enjoyed our stay, although the hotel restaurant was mediocre and we had a comically bad experience trying to order drinks in the lounge.
The Fragrant Hills parks are enormous and beautiful. Something like Gatineau park near Ottawa, except that no matter how far into the park you walk and no matter how high you climb, there are crowds of people singing, playing their radios, laughing, and so on. Also loudspeakers are installed in the trees every few hundred feet, playing relaxing music. Impressive technology feat, but when it comes to parks I think silence is golden. (In an attempt to make the ambient music seem more natural, some of the speakers are disguised as rocks on the ground. If you look closely you can see that the rocks are plastic and have holes where the sound comes out.)
While we were there we visited the nearby Azure Clouds Temple, which is now my favourite Beijing temple. You explore the temple by walking from room to room, passing through rock gardens and climbing stairs as you go. Most rooms feature enormous statues (usually of Buddha) and other decorations. You exit each room by walking behind the statue display, through a small exit doorway, then on to the next garden and staircase. By the time you get to the last one, you've climbed quite a bit and get a beautiful view of the city.
The Buddha statues are usually seated upright, but the nearby Beijing Botanical Garden has a temple room featuring a very large statue of a sleeping Buddha. We visited there, and saw several enormous pairs of shoes nearby, which were apparently donated by various emperors over the centuries as offerings to the sleeping Buddha. Some of them looked like they were too small for the Buddha's feet. If I were Buddha that would annoy me when I woke up, but what do I know. Anyway he's still asleep, so I guess the emperors have gotten away with it so far.
On the same weekend we visited the Summer Palace, which is not far from the Fragrant Hills. It was beautiful, but crowded with tourists. And I'm pretty sure my cell phone got stolen there. As we exited the palace, a group of vendors crowded around me, trying to sell me postcards, kites, and so on. One guy blocked my way and held a briefcase full of "Rolex" watches right up against me as he tried to convince me to buy one, while at the same time several other people were crowded around me. When I got home, my cell phone pouch was flapping open and the (expensive) cell phone gone. I was extremely upset. It was a Motorola Timeport P280 that I'd semi-permanently borrowed from Kim.
Fortunately, China Mobile was brilliant, and was quickly able to reassign my phone number (along with my remaining airtime credit) to a new SIM chip. So I didn't lose my phone number, and came away impressed with China Mobile's service.
Our Mandarin classes are progressing nicely, although I'm mentally exhausted all the time from memorizing characters. Here's an example of something you may find interesting: The word "shang" means "above", and the word "xia" means "below". So for example - since the word for table is "zhuozi" - you can say "zhuozi shang" which means "on the table".
But the same words are used for time, in which case "shang" means "before" and "xia" means "after". So for another example - since the word "wu" means midday - "shang wu" means the morning, and "xia wu" means the afternoon.
I find it curious that "shang" means "above" with respect to location, but "before" with respect to time. For some reason that seems backward to me. Maybe a cultural difference between east and west? What do you think?
In English we sometime use positional metaphors to refer to time, but usually we use front/back rather than above/below. For example we say that the future is "ahead" of us, and the past is "behind" us. Although we also sometimes say that the future lies "before us", even though "before" normally means in the past. I imagine all of this would be quite confusing to someone learning English as a second language. I'm getting confused even as I write this!
Anyway, let me move onto less serious matters.
In a local store we found some microwave containers adorned with cute bunny rabbit drawings. That's normal enough - most Chinese products feature cute animal decorations. But written on the side was: "Petty Rabbit by Bettyix Botter". Took me a minute to figure that one out. [*]
Another display in the same store featured wooden Kleenex dispenser boxes. Written on the side in capital letters:
I AM CERTAIN SHE IS HAPPY TO HAVE A MAN
LIKE YOU TO BE DEPENDENT ON
Now wouldn't you want that in your bathroom? The text suggests a story involving at least three characters - the author, the man, and the dependent woman. Maybe it's for people to give to henpecked husbands.
I'd also like to report on a huge billboard that we saw on the side of an apartment building near Madeleine's. Here's a photo. Seeing is believing!
You can amuse yourself by coming up with captions for the businessmen in the picture. Here's mine: "Eddie, you can have your genital wart inspected on the 14rd floor of that building over there. It's really nothing to be ashamed of."
Finally, today's Chinglish example. It's - ahem - a little coarse. So if you're easily offended, please stop reading right here and I'll say my good-bye. Zaijian! (Mandarin for "good bye".)
Still here? Okay, I found this one in an office supply store near our apartment that sells calculators, paper, staplers, and so on. There were some boxes of printable mailing labels (like the Avery labels we can buy at home, but a Chinese brand). Each box was neatly labelled:
DON'T FUCK THE GUM LABEL TO PRINT THE PAPER SKETCH MAP
All our best wishes,
- Joe (and Kim)
[*] Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter. Why that character is on a microwave container, I have no idea.
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