More Red Tape Than a Communist Christmas Party

Chinese moneyIs anyone seeing a theme here?
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I knew when I decided to register a business in China that I would have to deal with way more than your average amount of red tape, but somehow I had imagined that once I received my business licence (which I finally did in December), that would be the end of most of the trouble. I was wrong. Very. Wrong.

After spending almost 3 months to make a simple transfer of the start-up capital from my bank in Australia to my bank in China (neither of whom ever wanted to talk to eachother, or listen to me, but were happy to just keep on pumping me for fees and telling why they couldn’t do A, B or C), I finally made headway at the bank when the money actually arrived in my account.

That joy was very short-lived once the confusion about how to withdraw money from my account in China began. Certainly, it didn’t help that I forgot the word for “cheque” in Chinese, and was baffled when they kept telling me I had to buy some “paper tickets” to withdraw money. It turns out you have to write yourself a cheque, and additionally that has to be in Chinese (Problem #1) and the figures have to be written in traditional Chinese (the old complicated style which makes it harder for people to change the numbers later) (Problem #2) and the bank staff themselves weren’t allowed to write the cheque for me (Problem #3).

Up until now, I’d almost boasted about the fact that I couldn’t really read or write any Chinese characters, but I could get along fine in everyday life, and actually really had no need or desire to learn. That had come back to bite me in a big way, and I finally felt what it must be like to be illiterate.

Finally, after much discussion, the bank agreed that the customer service lady could help me write the cheque (thank you, how kind!?) and I thought I was home free.

China has a long tradition of using chops (essentially stamps, usually with sticky, red ink) as opposed to people signing their names. I now have 5 separate chops for my company and very little idea of what they’re for and when to use each one. It turned out that my cheque required stamping with the same two chops on both sides, but because they’re old-style stamps they need to be used with an ink-pad (rather than being self-inking and quick dry). I had to spend about 10 minutes sitting in the bank waving the cheque around so it would dry on one side so I could then stamp the other side.

Finally, all stamping finished and dry, I went to tear the cheque out of the cheque book to hand it over to the teller. But wait, the cheque book was not perforated between the cheque and the stub. Oh, of course not! They had actually bothered to even print a “tear” line on the cheque, but for some perplexing reason had never followed through with perforating it.

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Silly Dog

Mercury, my old dog

Mercury, my beautiful old dog

I’ll never forget laughing at my friend’s story about the dog that got stuck in the elevator with her in her apartment building. Getting in at the first floor, for some reason, a dog followed her in, but the owner did not. Obviously unable to request his floor, the dog decided to follow my friend out when she departed on the 20-somethingth floor. My friend and I rolled around laughing as we pictured the owner walking up 20 floors, stopping to check for their dog on each floor.

Arriving home from work one day in a rush to head back out to meet friends, I startled a dog who had been sitting in front of the elevator doors on my floor when the doors opened behind him. Needless to say, I was quite startled myself, especially as there was something eerily human about him. He stood near the elevator peering after me as I headed for my apartment (which is down a half-flight of stairs), and as I got my keys out and opened the door, I knew I was going to be freaked out if I turned around and he was standing there staring at me. I rushed in and shut the door. Peering out through the spy-hole, sure enough, the dog had walked over and was standing at the top of the stairs looking down at my apartment door.

With only a little time left before I had to go meet friends, I quickly got ready and contemplated what to do if the dog was still there when I left my apartment. Sure enough, he was back waiting at the elevator and as the elevator doors opened, normally as anything, he walked into the elevator. I stood not knowing what to do. Tried to coax him out. And finally came to the realisation that I was going to have to get in the elevator with him.

We arrived at the ground floor and I walked out of the elevator quickly. He hesitated, and the people waiting for the lift all looked a little confused too. I took off quickly to make sure he wouldn’t follow me, and finally looking back, saw that he was sitting by the rubbish bins staring off after me sadly. I felt bad.

Well, it seems that this isn’t as unusual a story as I had thought, as a few days later, it happened again with a different dog. This time, leaving my apartment, I found a dog waiting in front of the elevator, and now, having experience in these matters, I simply got in and pressed the button for the ground floor as if he was just another lift passenger. Arriving at the ground floor to a lobby full of people, my conscience got the better of me and I exclaimed “its not my dog!” before once again taking off quickly so it couldn’t follow me.

My cat, Mikki

My cat, Mikki, who is now the grand old age of 20!”

These stories are kind of sad, in that, it seems like the people that owned these dogs had no idea where they were, and maybe didn’t even care too much. Living here, I’ve begun to realise that attitudes towards animals really is a cultural thing – in Australia, I think we treat most animals, especially pets, as almost human, or second to human – in that we expect they feel pain and that they need human love and people to look after them etc.

Attitudes here can be really different sometimes, maybe from a lack of understanding or experience – like the time my boyfriend’s brother yanked a cat’s tail to get it off my lap (OW!!!). Sometimes its hard to reconcile these things, such as the “dog hotpot” restaurant down the street from me (which doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the “penis hotpot restaurant” I’ve seen advertised).

In a taxi on a small street one day, my taxi driver was annoyed by having to slow down for a dog walking in the middle of the road as its owner walked on ahead unaware. As I went to say “what a bad dog owner!”, the taxi driver exclaimed “what a silly dog!”

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More Toilet Tales

Snowy Chinese Doorway

Beautiful old-style Chinese doorway behind my apartment building

We are officially snowed in here today – it started snowing the night before last and started again last nite and its still going today. I’m all giddy with excitement – we’ve never had this much snow in all the winters I have been here! Temperatures are set to go as high(!) as -11C and as low as about -20C, so its looking like a lot of indoor time for the next few days.

I don’t want to get stuck on the toilet theme, but there has been an uncomfortable development in the situation in my office toilets. On my last day there before the holidays, I ended up in the worst cubicle situation – cubicle numbers 2 and 3 (the ones half-covered and fully-covered by the shower curtain) were occupied and I got stuck having to use cubicle 1 – the “no-cover” one. To top it off, my new friends from the beauty parlor were the occupiers of cubicles 2 and 3 and not only did they want to have a good ol’ friendly chat while we were all paying a visit together, but my next-door cubicle mate kept poking her head around the wall to continue the conversation. Awkward to say the least. I was so uncomfortable, I could barely concentrate on what they were saying and had to keep asking them to repeat themeselves, in response to which, the head kept popping round the wall more and more often.

The Bell Tower, Beijing

The Bell Tower, Beijing, by night. This is the view from just outside Jiangjinjiu Bar and to the other side is the Drum Tower. Standing outside the bar looking at these two amazing structures reminds me of one of the many reasons I love this city so much.

This is obviously just a huge cultural gap and contrasts greatly with a situation I found myself in with a good friend on a visit to the toilet together. We’d gone to watch my boyfriend’s gig at Jiangjinjiu Bar (a local bar near the Drum Tower), and, being a local bar, it didn’t have its own toilet. On entering the local toilet, we realised it was truly local, in that, the squat toilets were spread around the three walls of the room with each simply divided by a waist-high wall and no doors, so that, as soon as we walked in, we could see a girl sitting on the toilet. As I turned to my friend to discuss what we were going to do, I saw the door closing behind her as she hightailed it out of there and yelled out to me, “That’s ok, you go first, I’ll wait outside!!”. Needless to say, the local girl already on the toilet didn’t bat an eyelid or seem horrified by the situation in the way that we were. I’ve since learnt that its best to go to the bathroom alone at that bar!

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Getting the Hard Sell on a Squat Toilet

So its been 2 and a half years since my last post! I’ve finally realised there is too much entertainment going on here in Beijing to not write it all down on a regular basis, so here goes…

Most friends and family have probably heard about the sorry state of my office’s public bathroom. Our office management, having not really planned the bathrooms very well when setting up a shared office space, didn’t leave enough room to put doors on the individual toilet stalls in the ladies bathroom (and these are squat toilets!). After about a month of my daily complaints, they finally came up with a solution – a shower curtain, One shower curtain that now covers 1 and a half of the 3 toilets – not even the toilet closest to the door.

Squat Toilet

Not my office toilet, but not far off it (and at least these ones are clean)

As such, I’ve taken to putting my head down and focusing on the ground until I can find an empty toilet cubicle. Last week, I’d happily perched myself on the last cubicle (the one with the most privacy) when a little voice popped up from the cubicle next door…



“I’m from the beauty parlor out the front”

Oh yes, I know the place

I’d actually met a bunch of the beauty parlor girls in the toilet a few days earlier while washing the dishes. Of the two girls who walked in together, one of them was obviously surprised to see a foreigner in the toilets, seemingly without even meaning to, she blurted out the standard “Hello!” and I responded in turn. I was then highly amused to hear her sit down on the toilet next to her colleague and tell her all about how she just said “hello” to the foreigner.

As they finished up and prepared to leave, the cheeky bugger inside me couldn’t resist asking her “So, did you want to say anything else to me?”

"No shitting" sign above a nasty ol' toilet

Seems like drainage problems are pretty common here – you see these kinds of signs more often than you’d expect!

She looked surprised, and asked me what I’d just said. I repeated and added, “well you just said hello, so I thought you might want to say something else”. She looked a bit embarassed, so I took the chance to make good and started chatting with the two of them and then two subsequent workmates who came in. I guess, one of which, was the one now sitting next to me chatting on the toilet a few days later.

“So, do you want to lose weight?”

Not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I just said “Well, who doesn’t?

She continued “Because we offer weight loss services and I thought you work so close by, it would be really convenient for you, you could come on your lunch break or after work…”

How kind of her to have been so considerate to think of me. I think her boss would be glad to hear she’s even using bathroom breaks as a sales opportunity.

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As easy as Toast

A tale of cooking misadventure

One day when I was home sick from work, my lovely boyfriend was so worried and wanted to help me feel better so he offered to make me something to eat. He is quite a good cook when it comes to Chinese food, but as I wasn’t feeling well, I wanted something simple and not too oily. “Can you make me some toast please?”

A flash of hesitation zipped across his face, and he thought for a second, “Ok!”.

A few minutes later, he came back and asked me how to make toast. I was confused, as it seemed a simple request and I had already heard him put the bread in the toaster oven. “You cook the bread, then put the butter on” I said, stating the obvious. He looked disappointed with that answer. I went and peered into the toaster oven. Yep, he had buttered the bread then put it in the toaster oven.

That was many months ago. Today, he wanted toast for himself and I wasn’t having any. He toasted the bread and then took it out of the oven. “Can you help me butter it?”

“I’m a bit busy, can’t you butter it?” – after much to’ing and fro’ing he was still hesitant to butter the toast. I got the butter out of the fridge and gave it to him. He started trying to butter the toast (admittedly with very hard butter straight from the fridge) but the way he tried to spread it just looked so unnatural. Then finally he looked up and said “so now I put it back in the toaster, right?”

haha. And we thought making toast was the easiest of all things to make!

I won’t mention the time that I had to teach him how to use a can-opener though, that would just be embarassing!! (canned food is pretty new here)

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Great News for Donut Lovers and some Juvenile fun

Its been a huge few weeks for me, as everything seems to happen at once, but as I have barely left the house in recent weeks, sadly I don’t have as many ‘on the street’ hilarious happenings as usual.

But I do have: Great News for Donut / Doughnut Lovers. My friend actually found a place in the lobby of an office building which sells lightly sugar-coated donuts in packs of two for 6 RMB (AUD$1), AND, they actually taste like DONUTS!!! Yay!! Prepare for me to turn into a donut very soon from eating too many. Though I am still lusting after those hot cinnamon ones that they do so well at Donut King in Victoria (Fountain Gate is my favourite branch!).

Also, I’m hoping that with the growing popularity of National Donut Day (where? you guessed it, the good ol’ USA!!) that maybe the loving donut companies in the developed world will suddenly all come to the realisation that China needs donuts, and start moving in here big time. Why not, its happening with everything else here.

On one cultural note, I have learnt a LOT in the past 2 weeks about the Chinese cultural phenomenon of rocking up unannounced on your friend/family’s doorstep from another city far away, ready to stay for the night. Yep, 8am one lovely morning I was fast asleep in bed when there came a persistent knocking at the door. After choosing to ignore it for 5 long minutes, the persister would not give up, so we finally caved in and opened the door. It was the boyfriend’s friend who had stayed with us 1 month ago on her way to Nanjing where she was staying for 3 months. Yet here she was on our doorstep only 1 month later with all her bags. Turns out she had left early and not thought to call ahead and at least make sure we were in Beijing, luckily for her, we were. Three days later came another knock at the door. The bf’s nephew who lives in a city about 1 hour away had come to Beijing to buy a computer, but had forgotten to bring his ATM card, had only a few dollars on him and had also run out of credit on his phone. Foreign friends here have told me similar stories since then, of entire Chinese families showing up unannounced and ready to stay the night. I guess its a huge cultural difference for us, and pretty hard when ‘the right thing’ to do here, is drop everything and act as though its no imposition whatsoever.

Finally, on a juvenile but laugh-out-loud note, we have – World’s largest penis erected – where? oh, come on, of course China!!! Check it out here:

And on that note, have a good weekend!

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where am I?

Sitting here at my desk with the window open, I can currently smell roast lamb. Well it smells like that to me, but its almost certainly not. I’ve already eaten a big dinner but the smell is still making me hungry. Its times like this that I forget I’m in China and I feel like going out to a pub and ordering roast lamb (impossible).

Sometimes in the mornings, when I get up early enough, I look out my kitchen window and see lots of young guys practising kung fu, I think they must be from a proper school because they are very good. Its great to watch, and its times like this that I KNOW I am in CHINA!

Other times, like the day I went to “Pinnacle Plaza” out in the suburbs where the rich foreigners live, I think I am actually in Australia. Pinnacle Plaza could be any little local shopping area, with all the signs in English and nothing at all around giving you the impression you are in China. I spent the whole day there for an exhibition once and when I got on the local bus to go home I was surprised to be back in China so suddenly.

Its amazing how so many things in our life are so entwined with things we were brought up with. For me, a stop-off at a petrol station always means soft drinks and lollies or icy poles on the way somewhere. Here though, you are lucky to be able to buy water and the only snacks are unappetising, plastic-looking meat in vaccuum sealed bags (like pig snouts, yum!) and rice snacks. As any long-haul bus I’m on approaches a petrol station here, I find myself having to banish my dream of the “Aussie Petrol Station” – slurpees and icy poles – and replace it with the Chinese one – where you’re lucky if the toilet has a door to keep out prying eyes, let alone toilet paper or the ability to be flushed. Squatting down on that toilet, making sure I don’t fall in, and trying to avoid any ominous looking puddles, I know for sure, I am in China!

Another non-Chinese person asked me the other day if I go to Starbucks or McDonalds to remind me of home. I do go there, because its convenient, and YES, I like the food. But it sure doesn’t remind me of home. The last time I went, my fries were cold, and when I asked the guy to replace them he just stood there looking at me (he was the guy who has served me and understood perfectly weel when I was ordering, so it was not a miscommunication issue). Finally the manager looked over and asked what was wrong, then told him to replace them. He brought over a new one and said “are these good enough? Because if they’re not then you should just return them right now and get your money back”. I was so stunned, I took the new, also barely warm ones and went and sat back down. The time before that, while waiting for our second packet of fried to be brought over, my friend and I started eating our burgers instead. When the lady finally brought our fries, she walked off, then looked back and came back over. “You two are really wrong you know!!”

We looked at eachother, worried about what we had done wrong…

“You should eat your fries first or they’ll go cold!!!” and she walked off. At that point, I knew 100%, I was in China. (I also started to get the inkling that these were all signs I should stop going to McDonalds)

After all the craziness of a day in Beijing, when I lay down to sleep in my little apartment and, through the very thin, cracked walls I can hear the guy upstairs snoring, then without a doubt, I know I am in China!

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Disturbing the Peace

Its been a big week, with the national May Day holiday here in China (what a great idea – let’s let everyone in the most populous country in the world all go on holiday at the same time!). My boyfriend’s nephew came to stay for a few days, so we took the opportunity to go to the Forbidden City, one of my favourite places in Beijing.

Everyone on the way there advised us against it “it will be too crowded!”, “everyone will be there today” – the first taxi we got in to go there refused to even drop us off nearby, saying he would drive us a block past there and we had to walk back!

We finally arrived and it was nowhere near as bad as what everyone had been saying. And besides, it was a beautiful, sunny day with a blue sky, and that doesn’t happen often in Beijing! For those of you who haven’t been yet, I’m sure you’ve at least seen pictures of the red, Chinese building with the portrait of the “Great Leader” on it. Well, trying to get a photo of that was a feat in itself. As soon as we stepped on to the bridge to walk towards it – the guards barked at us through megaphones, “KEEP WALKING!! DON’T STOP!!! NO STOPPING!”. I tried to pause and take a photo – they wouldn’t have it. My boyfriend demanded an explanation – “THERE’S TOO MANY PEOPLE!! DON’T STOP!!” – We looked behind us, there was no-one there (all those people had probably listened to everyone else’s advice and avoided the place, or were already on their way home). I suspect it had been much busier earlier in the day, but surely commonsense would dictate that, now that it was no longer busy, we could stop and take a photo? Oh that’s right, common sense is like a bizarre Western import still stuck at Customs.

(I particularly like this photo, cos I think its hard to tell whether its a real building behind a screen, or a projection on to a screen. The screen was up cos they are currently doing some restoration work, and I’m still not 100% sure whether it is the real building or a projection!)

Late the next day, as my boyfriend was performing with his band at one of our local bars – in walked Mr Plod – the local copper all dressed up, like he was about to go on tv, in full jacket and everything (usually when you see cops here, they are in short-sleeve shirts and often drinking too). And if Beijing had had donuts, he would have probably eaten them all. As soon as he opened the door, the music stopped abruptly and everyone turned around to find out what was going on. “Its 12 o’clock, you have keep the noise down, TURN IT OFF!!!” and few other statements to that effect.

Just as he turned to leave, I turned to my Aussie girlfriends and said, “Who’s hoping right now that he’s the stripper!!?” – they erupted in laughter. I was half worried he might come back in and make me explain the joke. It looked like the evening was done, until someone actually looked at their watch and proclaimed, “Its only 11:45!! We still have 15 minutes” and with that, we got a few more songs.

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Backstage Crack

Having always dreamed about getting backstage passes to a rock concert, when my brother-in-law told me I could volunteer with him to help out at a music festival, I jumped at the chance.

It started out even better than I had hoped – free t-shirt, free beer and a pass to wear round my neck to make me feel special! Then we hung out with one of the local bands who I had heard about a lot before but never seen play before. Our main job was to guard the media/VIP entrance – and the instructions were simple, if they’re media and/or photographers – let them in! They wanted lots of publicity about the event cos it was the first of 5 nights of shows. Eventually a massive crowd of foreign guys came through, shaking our hands and being really polite, followed by a tiny little meek-looking Chinese girl. “Who were they?” “That’s the guys from Soundtrack of our Lives” – the biggest band playing at the festival and all the way from Sweden. And the little Chinese girl? – Their translator.

The female singer from the local band I’d been wanting to see was a cute little tomboy in a bright red dress and long white necktie. With short hair, shaved on one side, she really did look like a tough punk chick, but as soon as she opened her mouth, she was just a really sweet chick. I was worried though, her voice seemed to be a bit croaky. As soon as they took to the stage, I realised I needn’t have worried, instead of the poppy-punk music I was hoping for, it was more like thrash metal – way too heavy for my taste – and now I understood why the singer’s voice was so croaky.

The last band was a foreign band, “Rock Hard Power Spray” and I ducked backstage to watch from the sidelines. After so many years of dreaming about being backstage, I was saddened to find the only extra view I got was the 5cm of butt crack displayed above the clearly-visible underwear on the guitarist. Nice.

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life in my alternate universe

First of all a big shout out to my best mate Donna in Australia – happy birthday mate!!!

Today was one of those days where I remembered I am living in an alternate universe. It all started when my boyfriend rushed in the door announcing he had to get dressed up and get me to take photos of him for an application for a week-long gig he and his friends wanted to perform at. Only this was most definitely not “dressing up” western-style. I had to ask him to say it three times so I could make sure of what I was hearing was correct – “like a pirate…kind of hawaiian theme…gotta put a towel on my head…the crazier looking the better…lots of different patterns…”

I tried so hard to be the supportive girlfriend and rifle through our clothes, knowing full well we didn’t really own anything like that.

He pulled out a piece of stripey material and tied it round his head. It seriously clashed with the stripey long-sleeve top he was already wearing, but he looked proud of himself.

He pulled out his bright red singlet and put it on over the top, and proudly marched over to the mirror to check himself out. I politely pointed out that it really clashed, but he seemed to think that was a good thing. Thankfully, I talked him out of the singlet.

We took a few shots, but not satisfied that his outfit was enough of a pirate-hawaiian-crazy-clashed theme, he went back to the cupboard for more inspiration. He found a piece of material I had bought long-ago with a hawaiian theme, and wrapped it around himself, sarong-style, added my pair of sunglasses and with the head scarf, stripey shirt and all, checked himself out in the mirror again – he gave his reflection the nod of approval.

That’s when I lost it. I started laughing so hard that tears came rolling down my face. Luckily, he is the kind of guy that can laugh at himself and he had a bit of a chuckle too, not quite matching me nearly wetting my pants laughing though.

Crazy Pirate Hawaiian Guy 1Crazy Hawaiian Pirate Guy 2

I’ll let you know next week if they got the gig!!

To all of you in Australia, enjoy the ANZAC holiday. I’m not jealous, because we have one week holiday next week (ok, and I’m unemployed anyway, so life is one BIG holiday!) but there’s a music festival on too and, as of exactly Wednesday last week, it is now SUMMER!! Let the sweating begin…

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