March 2009

March 24, 2009

Beijing Fender Bender

Categories: China

Given the swirling mass of cars, bikes, and scooters here, I guess it was bound to happen; I was in my first little car accident in China today. It was a totally minor thing where another car changed lanes into my car; we were stopped and the other car was moving about three miles per hour -- just enough to put a little dent in my left passenger door.

The more interesting thing was what happened next. After we got out of traffic, my driver and the other driver started chatting (mostly amicably). The other driver was new as was his car -- no plates or insurance yet (the plastic was still on his seats). A policeman who was directing traffic nearby came over. As I sat in the car, I watched some more chatting, a few phone calls, then the other driver handed my driver 400 RMB (about $60 USD). We then drove off.

Since the other driver didn't have insurance, everyone agreed to an on-the-spot cash payment. The estimate for our damage was about 300 RMB (about $45 USD) so my driver asked for 400 RMB to be sure. (It's amazing how cheap car repair is here. The same damage would easy have been $400 USD in the US and maybe more.)

I have to admit, it was pretty cool how quickly everything was resolved. There were no police forms, insurance claims guys, etc. Apparently, this kind of resolution is pretty common.

Posted March 24, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

March 12, 2009

Microsoft Campus Now and Then

Categories: Random cool stuff

When I first joined Microsoft in 1990, I was given a postcard of our corporate campus. The company had been in that location for about four years and had just over 5000 employees. I’ve scanned the photo and included it below on the left. For a comparison, I have included the Live Maps 3D view of the site today. The maps view is even a little old since there’s building 37 on the right side now (the dirt construction in the maps view.) (BTW, I used DeepZoomPix to display these photos; this is a new technology from Microsoft’s Live Labs. You can drag the photos below around and zoom pretty deeply into them.)

You can see the how we have more buildings and fewer soccer fields, big trees, etc. It’s also interesting how much the trees around the parking lots and driveways have grown. Of course, there are many many more buildings on campus now that aren’t in view. The area behind campus had a lot more trees before; it’s all houses today.

[Updated 4/18/2009 to point to the new DeepZoomPix (formerly PhotoZoom) location]

Posted March 12, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (34) | TrackBack (0)

March 9, 2009

No Smoking. Please.

Categories: China Photos

This is a picture of the gas station next to my office. Michelle pointed out the "fire equipment" at the station: three shovels and two buckets. I'm not sure how useful those shovels and buckets will be if that tanker truck goes up.

Gas station in Beijing with paltry fire fighting gear next to a tanker truck.

Posted March 9, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

March 8, 2009

"I Love the Whole World" as Sung by Halo

Categories: Random cool stuff

Two of the things Andrew (11) and Michael (8) love most are Halo and the Discovery Channel. So, they were delighted when they saw this parody of the Discovery Channel's "I Love the Whole World" commercial and insisted I post it here.

Posted March 8, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Happy International Women's Day!

Categories: Random cool stuff

March 8 is International Women's Day. Until two days ago, I had never heard of this international holiday. According to Wikipedia, this holiday was originally a Soviet holiday, spread to other Soviet-bloc and Communist countries (including China), and is a recognized holiday in few other countries that begin with the letter i (e.g. Israel and Italy. Notice that United States does not begin with i.)

As I understand it, when March 8 falls on a weekday, at least Microsoft gives female employees in China a half day off (I imagine this is true across China - can anyone verify?). This year, since March 8 fell on a Sunday, the company handed out flowers to all of the women and gave them an Amazon gift card. Here's a picture of the admins handing out flowers to all of the women as they entered our building.


I would have been more impressed if some of the senior male leaders had been down there handing out the flowers -- maybe next year...

Just for the record, there is also an International Men's Day. Some might question the need for a holiday to recognize the role of men in a male dominated world, but to each his/her own.

So, as a man who has a certain fondness and much respect for women, I'd like to wish all of the ladies a Happy International Women's Day!

Posted March 8, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

March 6, 2009

The First 100 Days

Categories: China

Today marks our 100th day since we moved to China. It's been a fun, if not always smooth ride so far. I alternate between how-did-we-wind-up-in-China days and I-totally-belong-here days. I think the vast majority are the latter, but sometimes it still feels like we're here on some kind of long vacation.

I think we were pretty well-prepared when we came, but of course there were still lots of little surprises. I thought I'd share a few of those surprises (in no particular order).

  • The milk is really good. We moved on the heels of the milk scandal, so milk quality was a huge concern for us. We quickly discovered an local organic brand called Wondermilk. It tastes much "milkier" than the stuff back home. They even deliver to our house. The only downside is that it only comes in 500ml (just over a pint) containers, so we have a lot of package waste.
  • The produce is really fantastic too. I love our co-op farm back in Seattle, with their delicious carrots, but the carrots and other fruits and veggies out here are even tastier. This is especially true when we go to local wet markets to buy our food. They have these little tangerines here, in particular, are really to die for. Most fruits and veggies in American groceries are pretty but tasteless by comparison.
  • The brooms in stores are all really short here; I'm talking 3-4 feet high. It actually makes sweeping very hard. Fortunately, our ayi (the woman who helps around the house) does most of that (and she's shorter than I am.) The only American-sized brooms I've seen were silly expensive brooms imported from Germany.
  • Not all foreigners here speak English. This seems obvious, of course, since there are a lot of Germans, Koreans, and others here. This fact means there are surprisingly good or even great German, Korean, Persian, etc. restaurants here. (No good Mexican food yet, though.)
  • There is a big (40% I think) tax on most imported goods, so domestic stuff is usually a much better value. This is by design, of course, and very irritating.
  • There are a lot of Crumpler (sling bags and backpacks) and Crocs (the nasty, ugly plastic shoes) shops here, usually together. It seems like every mall has them.
  • On cold nights, Shunyi (our suburb) smells like a bag of charcoal briquettes. In the city, people heat their houses with low-emission coal, but outside the Fifth Ring Road (where we are), they can burn the cheaper normal coal. The result can be really bothersome and even visible, with a thick haze over the road. Thank goodness for our IQAir air purifiers.
  • Many locals I've spoken with approve of the job the government is doing. I kind of expected everyone to be quietly itching for a more democratic government, but there seems to be a pretty common patience here and acknowledgement that China has some way to go before it's ready for democracy. I suspect as long as people have jobs, food, and a brighter future for their kids, they don't care much who is in charge.
  • Even in the early 1980's, Beijing was mostly confined within the Second Ring Road. Today, the Central Business District (where the CCTV Tower and our temp housing was) is a bustling land of skyscrapers between the Second and Third Ring Roads. Less than thirty years ago, it was apparently little brick factories and farms (kind of like Shunyi today.) The city is pushing out past the Fifth Ring now and still going (there's already a Sixth Ring Road too). I had no idea the city grew so much so quickly.
  • I often have to be pretty pushy to get what I want in restaurants. On my previous visits I used to think people were just rude to the staff, but it often seems to be the only way to get served.
  • That said, service (outside of restaurants) can often be awesome. Lots of free delivery and other places where people will just do things for you.
  • The water is nasty tasting (even when filtered) and is so hard it leaves white powder near the humidifier.
  • There are a lot of dogs here, and, contrary to popular belief in the US, I don't mean on menus. It's very common, especially in the country, for people to have dogs as pets. For some reason, I didn't really think of China this way.
  • A lot of people think the boys are twins. They do look a lot alike, but they're three years apart, and Andrew (11) is a head taller than Michael (8). I think it's because most Chinese families only have one child due to the single child policy, so their default answer when they see brothers is "twins".

Well, that's enough for now. I'm sure in a year or so, all of this stuff will just seem normal, but for now, I'm enjoying the differentness.

Posted March 6, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

March 3, 2009

World's Best Caramel

I don't really have much of a sweet tooth, which surprises some people since I love pretty much all other kinds of food. It's pretty much the one class of food to which I can say "no".  I like sweets, but I just strongly prefer salty stuff. So, it should come as no surprise, then, that my favorite confection in the world is Fran's Gray Salt Caramels.

Fran's Gray Salt Caramel

Fran's is a Seattle-based chocolatier who makes a luscious caramel, robes it in rich chocolate, and the sprinkles a few grains of gray salt on top. The salt really brings out the yumminess (sorry for the technical term) in the caramel and provides a nice balance to the sweetness. They also make an equally great smoked salt caramel.

These little morsels of love are one of the few things we've had friends bring to us from Seattle to China; pretty much everything else we've been able to find here or live without. Michael (8) is especially fond the "salties", as he calls them.

If you can't wait to try them (and really shouldn't be waiting) and you don't happen to live in Seattle, you can order online right now. Too bad they don't deliver to China...

Posted March 3, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

March 1, 2009

Icy Fun in Beijing

Categories: China Kids Photos

It's March 1 and spring is in the air (or is that just coal smoke?). One of the surprises for me about Beijing was how cold it really gets, especially since Beijing and San Francisco are roughly at the same latitude. Unlike in SF (or even Seattle), in Beijing, the lakes and rivers freeze over, and Beijingers head out onto the ice.

One popular place to play is Houhai, the lakes behind the Forbidden City. In addition to ice skating, the locals have other ways to enjoy the ice. One popular older form is to sit on ice chairs and propel themselves with sharp poles. According to our driver, they did this originally because many people couldn't afford skates.

Couple enjoying an ice chair on Houhai.

A newer toy is the ice bike. I think the back wheel must have studs on it.

Kid riding an ice bike on Houhai.

Nearby, vendors sold animals (usually ones from the Chinese zodiac) blown from blobs of sugary dough. (The art is called nie1 mian4 捏面 in Chinese, meaning "knead or pinch dough".) These were super cool, but they kind of sagged and melted when brought into the warm house. I've seen some people eat these, but I don't think that's advisable since the dude worked the dough with his hands and then blew into it the blob.

Niemian vendor near Houhai.

It was definitely a popular place and, like all fun things in Beijing, crowded. (The big tower in behind the lake is the Gulou or Drum Tower.)

Houhai ice scene with Gulou in the background.

We weren't dressed to play that day at Houhai, so I took the boys skating at a rink near our house. Well, Andrew (11) skated and Michael (8) ran around on the ice.

Andrew chasing Michael on the ice.

Eventually, Andrew dropped his skates and started ice bowling (with himself as the ball).

Andrew hurling himself toward a pile of traffic cones on the ice.

I can't remember the last time I skated or even walked on a frozen lake. It's definitely been 25-30 years (crap, I hate the way that sounds). Skating on the bumpy, grooved ice is definitely a different experience than smooth arena ice (go, Zamboni!) but we all had a great time.

While I'm looking forward to spring, I'm sad we didn't enjoy the ice more while we had it. We'll have to play more next winter.

Posted March 1, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)