August 16, 2008

Soup for Me!

Of course when I finished shopping, it was time for lunch. And even if it hadn't been, it would have been. I was determined to eat real Chinese food while I was out in the real Chinese world.

After I left the Pearl market I walked down an alley to see what was around. I found two different Starbucks-like coffee houses filled with tourists. Not what I wanted. Then I saw the Quan Xing Ju Restaurant. It was on a main street alongside an alley. It looked kind of sketchy from the outside (and I'll admit, that was part of its appeal), but it did say it had English menus and there were real Chinese people inside.

I walked in through the strips of plastic that are used in countries that have flies and bugs but where it's too hot to have a door, I guess. I've seen it before, like the butcher shop in Sardinia. They were nice and let me sit at a table right near the air conditioner. After a few minutes, I moved a little farther away because it was freezing. Hard to imagine too much of a good thing, but there you go.

They gave me a menu and it had about three pages, two for food and one with drinks. I decided to have the hot and sour soup with dumplings. It was 15 yuan (a little over $2) and it was a lunch-sized bowl of soup. The waitress came over, I pointed to the picture, we were all set.
I discovered later on, when a Chinese couple sat next to me, that the real menu is about six pages long. There were lots of pictures on their menu that were not on my menu. My menu wasn't Westernized, by any means, but it sure didn't have the breadth of the other menu. I guess, like most Chinese restaurants I like to go to, these things were "not for you" as the waitresses always say.

And if I may digress .... this happened to me when I was in San Mateo with my girlfriend Ursula Liu. We went to a Shanghainese restaurant there with her father and his girlfriend, and Randi did all the ordering in Chinese. She would argue back and forth with the waiter and I discovered from Ursula that they were talking about what kind of food the White girl would eat ... Several dishes they ordered were "not for you." And they were right. Not for me at all.

Anyway, the hot and sour soup with dumplings apparently was for me and it was delicious. The soup had chili oil, leaving a bit of a sheen that the flash on the camera seems to have captured. It was broth with seaweed and what I thought were seeds -- maybe squash seeds. But no, upon closer inspection the seeds had teeny little eyes. They were teeny little shrimp, folded in half when they cooked to come out the size of a watermelon seed. Teeny shrimp, heads, legs and all. They weren't half bad actually. But the concept was a bit odd. I ate all of them, except for the few I tried to save for a photo. It didn't come out very well but the shrimp and the soup are on the flickr site.

I asked for some napkins about halfway through. There weren't any on the table, and I worried that napkins weren't available. But then I saw a guy come in off the street with his shirt pulled up to expose his belly. He walked in, grabbed a cup, poured himself some tea and then walked over to get a napkin to wipe his mouth. So then I asked.

When I was done the waitress made the world-wide pantomime for the check, I paid my 19 yuan (I had a water, too) and I left satisfied. It was such a treat.

I decided to take a taxi back to the MPC. It took a little less time, but nobody stepped on my toes. Taxis are pretty inexpensive, and the ride cost $7.

It was a pretty good day.

Public Transportation, Part 2

I decided to go shopping today. No work to be had, feeling kinda funky; it was time to get out and about.

I asked the information volunteers about my shopping options, and they gave me a few: I could go to the Hongqiao Pearl Market or to the Silk Street market, among others. I'm guessing they're all pretty much the same. But I saw a nice ad for the Pearl Market and thought I might like to get some pearls and there you have it.

I had two options for getting there: taxi and subway. The concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel, which is attached to the press center, suggested a taxi. He didn't want me to have to contend with a line transfer (there were two, in fact). The information girls never even broached the topic of a taxi, probably because for me, the subway is free.

I figured I could handle the subway. The Metro was a daily part of life in Paris. How hard could it be in Beijing? Turns out not very hard at all.

The Beijing subway and the Paris metro have three things in common: They're easy to use, packed with people and everybody pushes trying to get on and off. But in China, the cars are air conditioned and there's not much B.O. There's probably some correlation there. So all those lessons the government has been giving the people, teaching them to queue up and not to push? It didn't really reach the folks on the subway.

In their defense (Is there really any defense for this? I don't happen to think so, but it isn't exclusive to Asia, that much I know) there were hordes of people trying to leave the Olympic Green area at the same time I was trying to go shopping. I probably could have timed it a little better.

The first part wasn't so bad ... three stops on the new Olympic line to get to a main line. That's when it got out of hand. hordes of people trying to go down one staircase, albeit a wide one, and taking tiny steps. I don't worry about getting crushed, but I do worry about tripping on the stairs in a crowd. I worry about tripping on the stairs when there's not a crowd. Also I like to be near the railing, especially when I'm wearing a long skirt. The woman to my left was walking with her arm extended in front of her, trying to protect her baby. But I'm not sure it was a really good idea. (Pushing the crowd or taking a baby into it)

After a few stops an elderly woman, who had herslef shamed someone into giving up his seat, offered one to me when someone got up. She motioned to me quickly, and the woman on the other side scooted over. Now is the time when you all make jokes about my American bottom fitting in between two Asians. Are you done yet?

They announce the stops in Chinese and in English, there is an electronic image of the subway line, so you can see what direction you are traveling and what stop is coming up and there's also a tv screen by the door that flashes the same information. It's kind of a no-brainer. So I paid attention, got off where I was supposed to and arrived safely at my destination.

The down side is it took me 15 hot minutes to get to the subway, the location of which isn't obvious on the Olympic Green. And it took two transfers, 15 stops and 45 minutes.

I followed the exit listed in the guidebook for the store, but once I got onto the street, I didn't see it. I showed the book to a policeman, who took me around the corner of the station and told me to cross the street. He was friendly, helpful and even spoke some English -- all of which was far more than I expected.

At the corner, I noticed some people weren't crossing, which is odd because people in China cross when they feel like it, regardless of the light. So I crossed; the light was green. But three quarters of the way across, I saw why. I thought a car had been pulled over by the police. But no, a car hit a moped and there was a guy on the ground. I don't think he was dead, but he wasn't moving either. I wanted to take a picture, but I was afraid the crowd wouldn't appreciate a foreigner taking a picture of a maybe-dead guy.

When I got to the other side, I sort of stood and watched, but nothing seemed to be happening and it was kind of hot. And if I wasn't going to take a picture -- what was the point of gawking?

So then I went into the store.

Big Day Out

Mostly I bought a few gifts for various kids -- Britt and Drew and Rebecca. And a little something for me. And a Mao watch for Paul. He won't wear it, but it amused me nonetheless. Plus, because I didn't want to buy it the price dropped to about $5. Even if it stops working tomorrow, and it will, it's amusing to have.

The Pearl Market is listed in the Beijing Official Guide as a "Discount Brand Market." I'd been to a shopping center like this before, in Shenzen, just over the border from Hong Kong. This one specializes in pearls and jewelry but has lots of other things, including some very impressive counterfeit (I assume) goods. The Shenzen store specializes in counterfeit goods (I know) and has some very nice jewelry. Six of one, half dozen of the other, I suppose.

On the first floor was electronics. Cameras and phones and mp3 players. I saw an iPod nano that was about the size of the shuffle. I'm not averse to counterfeit goods, although I should be because a. it's illegal and b. it's illegal and, oh yeah, c. it's illegal. All right, also because counterfeit stuff is usually crap.

And I didn't need a new iPod.

The second floor was purses and luggage and watches and eyeglasses. I like the idea of the eyeglasses; I know you can get a good deal. But I'm not clear on buying frames without lenses and my French eye exam was awful; I'm not trying it in Chinese.

The girls who sell are hard-core. Seriously hard-core. They all speak enough English. Prices for almost everything are posted, but they have no basis in reality. Used to be, when you haggled for some goods you would counter the seller's price with 50 percent. These days, things are so marked up you have to counter at 10 percent. And if you're not used to doing that, it's hard. You feel cheap and petty. But if you don't, then you feel like a patsy. The first thing I bought had a price of 680 yuan (or about $99) and the woman offered it to me for 400-something, I think. I countered back at 100. She went down to 320. I went to 150. She went to 280, I stayed at 150. She kept coming down, I kept telling her my final price was 150.

In my experience, I almost always overpay for the first thing I buy, because a. I usually want it and b. I'm not entirely clear yet how the haggle goes in any particular place.

Because she started so high, it was hard for me to go much lower, but I should have started lower. My final price was actually too high, even though I had to walk away to get it. But then that's where the rich American guilt comes in; how do I in good conscience haggle over what amounts to a few dollars? It's like the sales person saying $20 and I'm stuck on $18. Just get it over with.

As I picked up a few more things I realized just how low most of the vendors would go. I didn't want the Mao watch. It started at 220 yuan and it finished at 35. I never countered. I did, however, manage to get a free gift box and ink to go with my 20-yuan personalized chop (a cylindrical or cube-shaped stone that makes an ink stamp) by telling the woman that today was my birthday.

On the third floor were the pearls. Not the high-grade fancy ones, but some nice ones nonetheless. Pearls and chinatown crap. An odd mix. The prices on the pearls were good, and I only haggled a little, because I thought the prices already were reasonable.

The whole thing was overstimulating. Each stall was about six feet wide and there were a hundred stalls on every floor, easy. And every one of them had a girl calling out "Lady, lady, you want ...."

So I quit while I was ahead.

August 15, 2008

Sneezing and Wheezing

The Chinese are, understandably, sensitive about their air. Growing up in the San Bernardino Valley, I never liked the constant reminders about how smoggy it was where I lived.

But I like to think after growing up there, and then living in Paris, hardly a smog-less city, I would be used to it.

It's not looking like it.

And the funny thing is, yesterday and today have been just beautiful days. Clear, sunny. There are mountains in Beijing. Who knew? It's bright, and the colors are shiny. Just glorious.

But after the rain of two days ago, I've been having what I usually call allergy issues. Dry hacking cough, wheezing. It's like the rain stirred up a bunch of stuff (which is entirely possible).
On the other hand, I've been inside a tremendous amount, so maybe it's the constant air conditioning? I don't know, and I suppose it doesn't much matter.

I have some cough drops handy, because I know I cringe everytime someone in the pressroom (and there are so many someones in the pressroom) coughs or sneezes, and I don't want to be one of those people. I suppose I also have access to Paul's albuterol if it really gets tough.

But mostly I find the whole scenario annoying. I am strong! I am immune to the vagaries of the weather!

Apparently not.

August 14, 2008

This New-Fangled Technology*

Some of you may have noticed I put a photo "widget" on the left side of the blog. I don't know if this will prove useful or distracting.

In any case, I'm trying to upload photos to flickr, where you can see some of the things that have caught my eye.

You can find them here

Normal people have addresses that are easily identifiable; I'm sure one of you will write to tell me how to accomplish this.

Sucks getting old.

*Thanks to John, below, who told me how to change the address. It's ...

The Hypermarche

You'd think, this being China, that there would be tacky Olympic souvenirs available everywhere. But this isn't really so.

There are some small shops outside the venues, but nothing obviously available on the street. For a country that often has the new Harry Potter (book or CD) on the streets the same day it comes out in the theater (or store), there's a surprisingly law-and-order aspect to souvenirs here.

Yesterday we went to the big Olympic Super Store. It's a souvenir store located in the middle of a pavilion of corporate exhibits. There are no large advertisements, no big signage. We had to ask about it, and someone in the press center gave us directions.

When we got there, there was a line to get in. I'm not usually a big fan of waiting in line to spend money (during the soldes in Paris it always made me feel like I was in Moscow). But I did want some souvenirs and the tiny store in the press center only has super-upscale items like silk scarves and commemorative coins.

This is a pretty giant store, maybe the size of a standalone Gap? Paul estimates it as 50 yards wide, and 60 yards deep. (So, Gap-sized for women, half-a-football field for men)

Anyway, it was packed. There was stuff on every wall and lots of little doo-dads and things. We didn't come close to seeing all of it because a. it was crowded and b. I was with Paul, so shopping is kind of a targeted thing: Figure out what you want, get it, leave. I might go back to look more carefully.

Most of the people in the shop were Chinese tourists, and we saw a handful of Kazakh women's volleyball players. But people were certainly not in a hurry. The sales staff was friendly and helpful; we asked what a few things were, and the clerk demonstrated.

We picked up a few things -- including an Olympic Swatch for my birthday -- and went over to the checkout stand. Signs everywhere reminded us that, just like the TV ad says, at the Olympics they only take VISA. (I liked the part on the very long sign that indicated if your credit card doesn't begin with a 4, it won't work).

At least we didn't need to use the ATM.

Who Are You Calling Homer?

They say that all news is local (don't they?)

Americans have complained for decades, at least, about the Olympics on television. The most common gripe is: What about the athletes from other countries? I'm here to tell you it ain't as bad as you think. At least NBC occasionally shows athletes from other countries in events that are big. At least as far as I remember.

You get to see the gymnastics, even if the Americans aren't doing well. You get track and swimming. All the "big" sports -- and I'll bet NBC even does a feature on the smaller, odder sports like Greco-Roman wrestling, fencing and archery.

But the prevailing attitude is: Wouldn't it be great to get another country's Olympics feed? Well, no. Rumors on the web abound that CBC, the Canadian network, shows fair, all-encompassing coverage. I kind of doubt that.

In France, one could be watching an exciting basketball game only to have the state-run television network cut to judo, because hey, there's a Frenchman competing. Or worse, team handball. Have you ever tried to watch team handball?

In China it's the same thing. In our hotel room, where we have China Central Television -- all 30 channels of state-run programming -- they show the Olympics on four or five channels at night and it's all-Chinese all the time. Sure hope you like weightlifting. And shooting. And if it's team sports you're interested in, you'll get to see whatever event China is in. Big soccer game between, say, Argentina and Brazil? Sorry, you're out of luck.

But we did get to see China and the Dominican Republic in ping pong.

I'm so excited!

August 12, 2008

(No) Cheering in the Press Box

There is a universal code of conduct in sports journalism: No cheering in the press box. As a journalist, you can be a fan at home but never in public.

At least that's what I thought before I got here.

I'm a mixture of astonished, appalled and disgusted at the homer-ness of the foreign journalists. I sort of expect it from the Cubans and Russians, who wear team gear every day. But the Brits and Aussies?

I asked my friend and former colleague Peter Berlin, the sports editor of the International Herald Tribune, if British journalists generally followed the same no-cheering rules. He said yes and noted that at the tennis venue, "When Andy Murray played a Taiwanese at tennis the Taiwanese cheered every point their man won."

This is just bad form. And it's cringe-worthy. I first noticed it the other day, when a Spanish rider won the road race. A great roar went up in one corner of the press room. We chalked it up to Latin excitement (and first assumed it was Italians). The next day, when the British woman won her road race, another great cheer went out. It's not supposed to be like this.

The Chinese journalists were cheering on their basketball team against Spain, the Aussies howled when their swimmer out-touched a competitor.

I don't know what to make of this. But I've followed this rule for so long, I don't think I'll ever get used to it.


They tell me this is an Olympic thing, but this experience is oddly placeless. If you didn't tell me I was in China, I almost wouldn't know it.

From the media center, which is in a convention-center type building to our hotel in the conference center to driving on the highway -- we could almost as easily be in Northern Virginia. The conference center, surely a draw for city-dwellers, has nothing to distinguish it from conference centers I've been to in the U.S. and abroad, other than the dining room decoration.

I'm told that one press center is like every other; same thing with the venues. You take a bus from hotel to venue to press center, and do it all again the next day. Because you're generally in a secure zone, there isn't any extraneous culture.

I heard some journos commenting on this on the bus ride over, and started to give it some thought. The best way to describe it is telling someone they're going to Paris, then parking them in the modern suburb of La Defense. They've seen the Eiffel Tower on television, but all they see in the immediate vicinity is generic office buildings.

I've seen some beautiful tourist sites on the television, when they were airing the bicycle road races. I hope I get to see it. For now, I might as well be on the 60 freeway in Los Angeles, passing through the Chinese neighborhoods of Southern California.

Snack Time

We all need a little sugar rush now and then. Here at the press center, they are offering snacks between 10 and 11 a.m., and 4 and 5 p.m. Paul tells me this is unusual.

It seems to be sponsored by Coca Cola, and on offer there is usually cookies and fruit, tea, coffee and orange drink. (I thought it was orange juice, and I was very wrong)

The cookies are good -- about six different varieties of Chinese cookies. And the fruit is varied: some beautiful-looking peaches that were unripe and thus inedible, bananas that are green but taste ripe, the occasional plums and lately Asian pears.

This is a nice gesture, and people seem to appreciate it. In the afternoon, there are lines of a dozen or more people waiting their turn for cookies. Is it that the treats are free? Or that everyone needs a little buzz in the afternoon?

I don't know. But I'm not one to turn down a free cookie.

Casual Friday

Before we left for China, the publisher of the beleaguered Singleton-owned Los Angeles Daily News issued a memo about a dress code for the newsroom. Clearly they don't have any more pressing issues -- like layoffs or crushing debt.

It lasted about 24 hours due to all-out rebellion.

On the sports blogosphere, there was much debate about it, with the prevailing opinion that deskies are pigs. As a deskie, I take exception to that, of course. My view always has been that if you make me work nights and weekends, I get to wear what I want, within reason. I don't deal with the public, and nobody can see what I look like when I answer the phone.

So you can imagine my surprise when I got here and discovered that Casual Friday is every day at the Olympics. When I was packing, I was a little nervous. I haven't worked in an office in a long time, and I wanted to dress professionally. Or at least I couldn't see myself dressing in cargo shorts every day.

Well, that would make one of me.

To put it in perspective: Paul (who always dresses neatly, don't get me wrong) in jeans is the dressiest guy in the room. Paul in cargo pants is the second-dressiest guy. There are several thousand journalists here and almost to a man (and a lot of women) they are casually dressed. T-shirts and shorts are de rigeur. Flip-flops? You betcha. Warm-up pants? Absolutely. If your shirt has a collar on it, you're a fancy boy.

Granted, it's hot outside. But the majority of these guys aren't covering events outside, and the only outside they see is between the press center and the bus and the bus and the venue. And these guys do interact with athletes and the public.

I've never believed that how you dress, in this business, makes you a better or worse writer. But yeah, I'm surprised.

And don't even get me started on the "Olympic beards."

August 10, 2008

Shiny Happy People

There are estimated to be 100,000 volunteers here. And they are all young. In a country of 1.3 billion people, there's no shortage of labor -- even for free.

But what gets me about these volunteers is how eager they are. How earnest. How hard they try. They have rehearsed and practiced their scripts and even the lowest of volunteers and works will say "hello" in English. It's amazing. And if they can't help you, they find someone who does.

We have a new bus volunteer, and each day he has become more bold with his announcement. He's polishing his routine. Ad-libbing a bit. "Hello! I am your bus volunteer. Today we are making two stops the MPC and the IBC. The trip will take 15 to 20 minutes. Please ask me without hesitation if you have a question. Remember to take all your belongings."

We figured that by now, day six or whatever (really, I've lost count) that the smiles would fade and the attitudes would appear, but that hasn't been the case at all. Whatever we need there is someone -- or several someones -- available to try to help.

It's kind of cool.

This New York Times story paints a pretty accurate picture.

Taking the Bus

Paul had told me that Olympic life, for journalists, revolves around the buses. It's not that I doubted him, but I'm starting to see it first-hand.

When we leave the hotel we go through what the journalists call mag-and-bag, a security screening where we press our credential to a computer to prove it isn't counterfeit, and then to go through airport-type security screening. This means that once we leave the hotel we are entering a secure area -- namely, the bus.

Thus, when we left the MPC today to take a bus to the Judo venue, we didn't need to be screened because it already had been done at the hotel. I'm under the impression that a. this isn't how it usually works and b. this is better than how it usually works. At events stateside, clearing security at the venue just mucks it up and everyone is in a hurry. Here, it's just part of the routine, and nobody seems to mind.

So we get to the Judo and my plan is to go out into a "real Chinese neighborhood." The venue is at a gymnasium on the campus of Beijing Science and Technology University. I couldn't get into the venue, because I have the wrong credential (it confines me to the MPC) but I was able to take the media bus.

The accredited journalists headed for the gym and I was too nervous to try to sneak in. Plus, the last thing I need to do is have my credential revoked. The working journalists have E on their credential, and down lower the number 4. I have Ec on mine and no numbers, so even if you don't look closely, it's kind of obvious.

Because the area was secure, I couldn't easily walk over to where the spectators were entering. So I left the secure area, walked around the block, and re-entered as a spectator. I looked around for some tickets, and there are zero. No scalpers, no ticket box office, nothing. I walked into the venue (nobody stopped me) through the spectator entrance and then thought huh, maybe I can just stand in the doorway. I got through a door but then one of the half-dozen volunteers standing there looked like they were going to scrutinize the credential. So I scrapped that idea.

Then I decided to take in the spectator experience. I had heard there was a public viewing area, with a big screen. I found that, but the screen was dark and nobody was around. I wandered around the University campus and it's mostly older block buildings. It looked like it was mostly housing/dorms and lecture halls, but without any students heading somewhere specific, it was pretty quiet.

The campus is nice, what I saw of it. I went past a few shops: a bookstore, a mobile phone store, a mini mart, two fruit-and-vegetable vendors, a key place. It wasn't interesting, and Chinese, and really had nothing to offer a tourist. I don't know what I was looking for, exactly.

It had gotten kind of warm by this time, and I'd walked around several blocks so I thought I'd head back to the nice air conditioning of the press center. I figured out how to get back to the media entrance and thus onto the bus. I had to go through mag-and-bag, and then I'd be home free.

Except I don't have the right credential. I put my badge on the machine (sort of like the hand print match machines you see in a James Bond movie) and it blinked red. Hmmm. So the guy sees it's a media credential, takes out a magnifying glass and checks the hologram sticker to make sure it isn't fake. It looks good to him, he sends me on my way and I'm about to put my bag on the security belt and another guy stops me. He wondered why the badge hadn't cleared and so he asked to see it again.

I knew I was in trouble, but sometimes I can talk my way out of these things. So he says, with incredible sincerity and deep regret, that he's afraid I can't go through. I just want to get on the bus, I say. He says, apologetically, that he realizes that, but my credential won't allow it. I tell him I came on the bus, and it seems to make sense that I could leave on the bus. And then he brings up the part about the bus being secure. See, when I left the MPC I had already cleared security, and by leaving the venue proper, I had been contaminated.

The volunteer couldn't have been nicer about it. He told me where to get the City bus that would take me back to the MPC. That was a whole other ballgame, taking a city bus. I followed his directions and found the Special Olympic Bus Line No. 8 but it didn't clearly show that it would take me where I wanted to go. At this point, I'm finally in the middle of "real Chinese" people and they find me a curiosity. What am I doing there? What does my badge mean? Half of them are staring at me and the other half seem willing to help. I show them my badge. No good. I take out my handy MPC flier -- the one that tells a taxi driver where I want to go in Chinese.

This causes several people to have a spirited discussion about where it is I really want to go. After about five minutes of this (and I am now secondary -- the more important thing appears to be who is right) they tell me I want the No. 630 bus. They show me in Chinese where I want to go. This is no help. But I don't have too many options. I'm not panicked, I'm just sort of curious.

Then, a Chinese student who also has a badge gets involved. He asks me where I want to go, in English. His English is better than my Chinese, but fairly limited. He says he is working at the Olympics too, and he can show me where to go. He says I want to take the No. 430 bus. When the No. 630 bus arrives, the bus wrangler frantically motions me to get on the bus. But the student had told me different, and frankly, I trusted the student more. So I gesture to the student, who gets involved in the discussion.

We settle on me getting on the No. 430 bus. I ask him how many stops and he says four. While on the bus, he sees two other students with badges and asks them where they are going. It turns out we are going to the same place, so he tells me when to get off the bus, and to follow the other two.

After a 5 minute walk, I see the MPC. Back in familiar environs! But really, I'm just amazed at the people here (separate post on volunteers to come) and how willing they were to help me. Even the ones who stared at me curiously.

At the end of the day, I'll go out to the bus stop and take the MA05 bus back to the hotel. I'm more aware than ever of the importance of the buses.