I spent the summer of 2008 in Beijing. I lived 4 blocks from the Olympic village, and I had front row seats to the colossal transformation leading up to the games. I acquired an electric scooter and explored the various parts of the city, biasing my direction towards places I hadn’t been before.
One sweltering day in Beijing, when we were out on another non-specific exploratory scooter patrol with RJ, we came across a peddle powered vehicle with an unbelievably large load. This wasn’t in itself unusual. You see these guys everywhere in Beijing and they make it into all of the tourist photographs. But being right there on the scooters next to such a load presented us with the very real possibility of discovering where all this stuff actually goes.
We tailed this vehicle for a few blocks, riding circles around it in traffic, examining the contents. The driver was dark from spending all his time in the sun and grimy from the Beijing air, beads of sweat reflected the sun on his forehead, his clothes were shredding from wear and acrid sweat. The insides of his knees were calloused from an improper peddling position which undoubtedly also hurt his knees.
His cart was fantastically overloaded with computer monitors, cardboard boxes, sundry electronics, water bottles, stacked tall and precarious. On the top was a slight middle aged female. She was the captain steering the upper story of the ship while the peddler focuses on the chug of the peddles, (in the engine room.) She was a skillful jockey corralling the amorphous pile of stuff, banking it into turns, using her arms and legs as dynamic counterweights, to adjust straps, and to hold on herself.
I’ve seen many such carts but this wasn’t the usual kind. The two person technique allowed them to be particularly ambitous.
We made a northwards turn near Tsinghua University Science and Technology (TUS) park, and passed tall office buildings which house the likes of Google China, Microsoft and Baidu, fancy restaurants, and a language learning boutique called “Wall Street English”.
On the road we spotted several more recycling vehicles, and we started to swim faster that the current chasing down the next and the next one. There were all kinds, electrical, gas, or peddle powered, and even some drawn by donkeys.
When we crossed the train tracks the recycling trickle became a recycling stream — half the vehicles on the road were loaded with recyclables, and when we rounded the next corner, we merged with the main vein of traffic through the heart of a neighborhood we dubbed trash city. The vehicles were no longer driving, but lined up in a long queue.
(This is a video of this crossing, but going in the opposite direction.)
At the head of the line was a weigh station, which the vehicles would mount, get weighed first and tarried after. The load was examined by an inspector whose stomach was exposed by a rolled up blue shirt. (This was the preferred way of cooling oneself.) He would issue a receipt to the driver who now rolled his empty cart onward in search of more filling. A few shouts (or was it signals using gongs and bells and some form of morse code) would summon the relevant section peddlers. Immediately, the monitor kid would run over with a wheel barrow, and the cardboard guy with his donkey, etc.
The economy of the whole neighborhood is dependent on recycling, and the physical layout of the streets and the people that lived there, constitute the recycling factory. If you followed the wheel barrow full of monitors, you’d soon find yourself in an unpaved alley where the disassembly process unfolded in the open air. What used to be whole, now became parts, and the parts were handed down different alleys and eventually out the back on large trucks. I do not know how money flowed through this system, or how much pay the receipt entitled the driver, but we could follow the trail of the material.
The first intersection on Monitor street branched into Plastic Alley left, Monitor Glass Road to the right. Going straight on Electronics Way led to a Circuit square which was also fed by a few other disassembly pipes of electronics from computers, radios, and cellphones.
If you tossed a gps transponder into such a cart anywhere in the city, you could probably track it through the maze of Beijing streets down to trash city, a brief pause at the weigh station, and a short leg to the point of its final transmission. There, typically a young kid would wrench out the critical circuit and toss it in a bin with others like it, and pick up the next circuit board and do the same. And there would be right here, in Circuit Square.
The boards themselves along with other scraps back in to Smelter Cul de Sac and are transmuted to hazardous fumes and a little bit of precious metals.
This place has a remarkable counterpoint in other parts of Beijing in the form “cell phone repair” stores where older masters and young apprentices micro-solder damaged components using stereoscopes. Here, they rip these components off and toss them into sorting bins, to be transported somewhere else. Disassemble and reassemble. Large Motorized Diesel Trucks filled to the brim left from the back of Trash City directly onto the highway.
Trash City had the appealing character that you could return and discover more. You could come back to a place and ask for someone you met there last time, and they would turn up. You could be invited into the run down communal homes where there are no doors to hide behind, but everyone’s business unfolds in full view. In the first room by the entry, there would typically be a computer internet and several people sitting on benches waiting for their turn to use it, to play games, chat or watch videos.
You could come there at 2AM, buy a large beer for 2RMB (then 25 cents) and play a game of pool on the street. There would be kids in their underwear, and people in pajamas crossing the street, brushing their teeth, or walking to the communal toilet around the corner.
The kids and the grownups never let themselves be separated from their most valuable possessions. The cellphone coordinated their work in the day and illuminated their way at night. Everything that was workspace by day was living quarters by night.
RJ and I returned to visit (and photograph) our friends on several occasions. Once, I got a call from RJ telling me to come see another part of Trash City we hadn’t seen before. And it was true. A disjoint orbit, with a different entrance way! The Prosthetics Quadrant and Mannequin Circle, and in the middle of it all was a peculiar kind of mannequin leg jousting match. (Rarely do the kids arm themselves with a prosthetic arm or a hook, as those are actually more complex instruments to wield and not so much suitable as fighting toys.)
Everyone in China has a cellphone, so I need a cellphone.
I go with Zack, who’s helping us get settled. He did my fellowship to China last year, and is going to leave to Taiwan in a week to do it there this year. He studies psychology at Berkeley and specifically cultural impacts on cognition, so that’s how he gets to swing this serial international thing.
You get to pick your own cellphone number from an available set, but you have to flip through a three ring binder where they are written in by hand. It’s semi-meticulous bookkeeping, as it only represents that they may still have this number which they have to shuffle through the whole pile for.
Next to each number is a different price because better numbers cost more money! Lucky digits are 6 and 8 and they drive the price of the number up, while 4s bring the price down. To get a sense for the significance of the number, 8 consider the fact that the olympics are starting at 8/08/08 8:08pm
I got, 150 10 900 940. I kinda like it and it was cheap, since it’s got a 4 in it. To me and probably to you, it’s good because it’s got more 0′s consequently easy to remember. I wonder if lucky numbers are easier to remember for Chinese, though remembering cellphone numbers is pretty useless.
Everyone has a cellphone, and many people have very fancy phones which seems to always be out and played with, for tv watching, internet surfing, or playing music. I’ve seen one that’s worn like a wristwatch accompanied with a small bluetooth device.
Text messaging is ubiquitous, especially among students, since it’s cheap. I later learn that China Mobile made 1.2 billion US$ from text messages during the last Chinese new year. Take what you will.
I had to purchase a ~35$ (220RMB) handset since my US carrier did not unlock mine. I see advertisements for gold plated/diamond studded hand sets for more than my US salary — not that that’s saying much. I’m a graduate student.
7:40AM everyone’s on the bus in time. We’re sleepy and in probably our best shorts, but excited to see what the Ministry of Science and Technology has in store. Ushered into large conference hall that is overly formal yet has a dusty grey feel to it. We’re seated as if it’s going to be a 40 person panel discussion as each of us has a personal mic — the kind you press the button to activate and then the light indicates you can no longer talk without talking to the whole room. There is a cup on each table with a lid and the waitresses come around to serve tea, which is refilled more or less every time you take a sip.
The six hosts of the morning affair arrive in suits and ties and take their places at the podium in front of the stage. There is a representative each from the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese National Science Foundation, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The is a Science and Technology Secretary from the US embassy. These are long institution names, and they get repeated a lot. This is an official press conference style meeting. Feeling is we’re here for show. There are photographers and photographs. Immediately we’re invited to the stage for a group photo. The photographer seems a little disappointed in our inability to self organize according to height for the photo, this is in contrast to our Chinese counterparts who are remarkably good at self-organization.
Return to seats. Short speech from each panelist. Each solemnly reiterates and thanks every ministry name involved on the US and China side. We are told about the beginnings of great collaborations. Some phrases I recorded verbatim:
“I commend the students and professors participating in the summer program with the unwavering help of [names of ten institutions]. You are the ones that will light the torch of science and technology collaboration. Together we shall conquer the sorrow and step out of the shadow caused by the disaster [sichuan earthquake] and rebuild our homeland.”
Two alumi of our program are invited to give a speech. They remarkably follow the format set by the hosts of contentless thank yous. Then our attention turns to the man with the powerpoint, who we are told is Mr. Li. He excitedly announces “This presentation has a 100 slides.” … and probably a million words. This pattern repeats at several other future visits, (as does the content , since it’s all from the national statistics office whose job it is to make such master presentations from which all others are assembled.) He reads through the entire presentation with his eyes and finger fixed on the screen of the laptop, tracking the text, starting from “Introduction to China: Science and Technology Development”
I doze off and imagine the powerpoint theory lesson that made this all be, “Every slide needs to be interesting! You must insert a logo, at least one other image, a graph, and a table. Fill in all empty space with bullet points. Make the text small so you can fit more of it in. Something must twirl.”
It has statistics about science investment, 5 year plan meeting goals, graphs about attainment of targets (with strange metrics like, high-tech independence is at 41% up from 26% just 5 years ago!) This is done for every science related discipline/field/administration/whatever you can imagine. I think the presentation strategy is to overwhelm us with thoroughness, and we are overwhelmed. The stresses are that China wants to move up the production value chain and bring technology and innovation to the fore, and that it’s doing it here, here, here, … and here.
Once he flips the last slide, the meeting host announces, “That’s all for this ceremony!” And like that, they disappear.
We wander unremarkably back on the bus which chauffeurs us back to the hotel at 11:30AM. Good bye. Enjoy your first day in China. See you tomorrow at 7:40AM! This feels delightfully unrewarding and sobering.
I fill out my arrival card in red ink — only pen I had on the plane — but the immigration official reprimands me, “You should use black pen next time.” I’m flattered by the possibility of a next time, and maybe this accounts for my reply that the red ink’s in honor of China.
On the ride to our hotel at the Institute of Mining Technology, it’s hard to make out anything country specific. Everything is new. Airport terminal, new. Cars, new. Big highways, new. New trees. New grass. Shiny electrical infrastructure. The whole scene is assembled from fresh pieces. We drive by the Olympics stadium, the birds nest and the water bubble, and within 10 minutes arrive with our bags in the lobby.
Now we’re back on the channel I thought I was watching. It’s a grey cement slabbed building with a fruit shack on the side and lots of parked/piled bikes. Students are making merry and loitering since it’s the last day of exams. A young girl asks me to sign my name and hands me a wad of cash wrapped in brown paper — supposed to last for the next two months, but doesn’t — and then asks for 10 RMB back as a deposit on the keys to my room. Says to meet in the lobby at 7:40AM.
My single room has THREE beds but no internet. Each bed is one third the size of my lofted nook in SF however. I push them together to make a master bed by the window. As I move the beds, I uncover mounds of sunflower, pumpkin and roasted watermelon seed shells — the work of previous occupants. I hide my wad of cash behind the radiator. (It’s no longer there as it is spent.)
Note about energy efficiency of hotel — after opening the door, the key is placed into a slot by the door to complete the electrical circuit. When you leave the room and take the key, the circuit is broken. So you can’t leave the AC blaring while you are gone. This also renders your refrigerator useless. All of us (fellow fellows on the hall) independently come up with a strategy to permanently close the circuit so that we can leave anything on while we are gone, such as chargers, rather than be constrained by the key nanny.
Hearing Chinese everywhere feels unusual. Feeling big eyed, confident and timid. Some of us trickle to the lobby or to the steps outside. Others are still trickling in from delayed flights. Jonah, a paleontologist, hands around a bottle of duty-free scotch. Sleep finds us soon and Ambian helps overcome jetlag.
I hope these cultural amusements do not stop. Today, we received a schedule for our first day in China. Following evening arrivals from 15 hour flights, we are expected to:
> Please meet at 7:40 am on June 16 at the lobby of hotel to take a bus to the Ministry of Science and Technology. The latest one would be invited to sing a song on the way. : )
What a public affair, and at the same time, what a great idea?! The public character of the punishment is a collective deterrent for future lateness but this also serves to increase the individual alertness in the over-sleeper.
Since I’m an over-sleeper this is likely to be me. And since I don’t have a singing voice, I choose to see this as a reward in disguise — I get some institutionally controlled practice for the inevitable Karaoke evenings while having the privilege of providing amusement for my peers, while saving face because “I’m only doing this because I have to”.
Question, does anyone have song suggestions for the occasion?
fifteen minutes before the opening of the afternoon visa session, i joined the loose assemblage of peoples around the chinese consulate. returning veterans of the morning session clued me in:
i must queue on the right
for the deli machine
which dispenses the numbers
that determine the order
of being seen.
so, i took my place by the entrance, seemingly at the head of the line. yet before i know it, there were 20 people competing for the spot i had occupied alone, an amalgam of me and 19 elderly chinese.
on the other side of the glass doors two security guards were preparing for the onslaught. i could make out the russian names on their tags. the shorter one ‘A.’ had braces, the other ‘R.’ a cigarette in his mouth, and neither was older than 20. their clothes were oversized and since they huddled behind the machine which dispenses the numbers, i imagined them as meat clerks by the deli counter.
there is an old politically incorrect russian jokes that goes:
do you know how chinese people name their children?
they throw some silverware down the stairs and name the child by the resulting sound.
well, as an american liberal arts enlightened student, i dismissed this as culturally insensitive nonsense.
but just now, i dropped a spoon in my room, and my flat mate (whose chinese name I cannot pronounce and out of sensitivity for the shortcomings of our pronunciation he introduces himself as john) suddenly responded from his room down the hall, ‘yes’.
bewildered, i thought, is there anything to this? does it deserve a follow up experiment?
update: 3 hours later.
my friend was over this time, so i say this with the weight of 4 ears. i accidentally clanked my cup on the table. this time john was in the kitchen. ‘yes’, he said but then walked over to the door and checked to see if anyone was there.
it must be that he has sensitive ears and timid quietly knocking friends, which actually is the case.