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May 31, 2006

We contribute to a Chinese business sign

Have you looked at our Photo Gallery, linked to this Weblog? Terry has filled an album ("Say What?") with photos of Chinese signs with English translations that might sound odd to the ears of native English speakers.

Well, this past weekend, we gained some sympathy for the composers of these would-be bilingual signs. We dropped in on our friendly neighborhood pharmacist, Ms. Shen, to get a refill on Terry's traditional Chinese herbal concoction for lowering blood pressure. (Terry has been neglecting her weblog responsbilities, but the short story is that this medicine tastes terrible but works great, to her pleasant surprise.) Ms. Shen and her son, Ji Yang, showed us a drawing of their planned new business sign. The Chinese characters were written boldly across the top, followed by slightly smaller pinyin (characters in phonetic form) text below. Ms. Shen proudly crossed out the pinyin and told me she wants to replace it with an English name for her pharmacy. The only problem was that she didn't know what English words to use; nor did Ji Yang, even though his English is at least as good as my Chinese. So, they asked Terry and me to provide the best translation we could. Hmmmm. The last two characters were no problem -- yaofang is one of several names (depending on size, I think) for a pharmacy. I was not familiar, however, with the first two characters -- xiang3 and shou4 (that's "xiang" with a third tone and "shou" with a fourth tone). One of the problems with written Chinese is that there are no firm guides as to which characters go together to form 2- or 3-characters words. In this case, for example, the two characters CAN be construed as one word -- but the dictionary meaning is "at the age of." So, we split the characters and came up with "enjoy" + "longevity." Terry and I discussed the options and finally settled on a recommedation of "Enjoy Long Life Pharmacy." Ms. Shen and her son seemed quite pleased. We are looking forward to taking a photo, as soon as the sign is finished and installed. -- Norty

Posted by now at 02:44 PM

May 09, 2006

holiday travel in China

My company’s chairman, Jim Kaplan, and machine shop manager, Jeff Weston, were in Nantong the week before this year’s May Day holiday. Jim wants to learn how to travel between cities by himself, and I said I’d teach him. Instead, we all learned some different lessons. (Skip to the end, if you just want the lessons.)

We anticipated heavy holiday traffic. So, I bought bus tickets a day ahead of time for the 2-1/2 to 3-hour trip from Nantong to Shanghai, instead of letting Jim buy his own just before the trip, which is the normal way. (Buses run every half hour.) I gave him notes on how to interpret the tickets, especially distinguishing between the gate number and the seat number. I typed out for him a Chinese message he could show a taxi driver in Shanghai, asking to go to the bus stop in front of the Railway Station for the #5 shuttle bus to the Pudong Airport. My plan was to stay with Jim and Jeff until they got to the #5 shuttle bus stop, in case anything went wrong, but to let them do everything themselves. I expected to catch a noon or so bus back to Nantong, work for an hour or so, then ride my bike home and have it for the weeklong holiday.

Leaving Nantong at 8:40 am, we got our first inkling of trouble. Instead of the usual 15 minutes, it took almost an hour of fighting traffic to get out of the city proper. The ferry across the Yangzi River and the highway driving to Shanghai were normal, and we relaxed. Then, we hit terrible traffic on the outskirts of Shanghai. By the time we got to the bus station in Shanghai, it was 12:40, instead of 11:30. Jim’s flight was earlier than Jeff’s, departing at 2:55 pm. The shuttle bus normally takes 45 minutes to get to the airport. We decided to skip the rest of the travel lesson and take a taxi to the airport. I went along for the ride, in case of any problem. Initially, I asked the driver whether we could get to the airport faster if he took us to the high-speed magnetic train, which goes right to the airport. He said that would actually slow us down, and I believe he was right, since he would still have to drive us out of downtown Shanghai and across the Huangpu River into the Pudong (East of the Huangpu River) section of Shanghai, where the train starts. He assured us he’d get us to the airport in less than an hour, and he did. Jim later told me it was close, but he made it onto his plane in time.

Ready (I thought) to relax, I caught the #5 shuttle bus back to downtown, walked 15 minutes to the bus station, and approached the ticket window to buy the next available ticket to Nantong. There, I heard the ominous words “duibuqi, meiyou piao.” Sorry, no tickets. The next available tickets were the following morning. I took a few minutes to weigh my options – spend the night in Shanghai, including dinner, and catch a bus home the next morning; or, take a taxi or unofficial taxi home right away. I figured either option would cost about 500 - 600 rmb ($60), so I tried to hale a taxi. There were 10 would-be passengers competing for each taxi, so I paid attention when a slick, well-dressed guy asked where I wanted to go. He told me the normal meter rate to Nantong was 700 rmb, and that’s what he would charge me. He might have been right, but I counter-offered 400 rmb. After ten minutes of negotiating, we settled at 500 rmb and he would give me a “fapio” (the formal Chinese invoice I needed for my expense report). That’s probably the market rate even on a normal-traffic day, but this guy came out ahead by taking multiple passengers. Initially, he loaded a young woman into his clean, black VW Passat and dropped her at the Hongqiao Airport (the older, domestic airport on the west end of the city). Before we got that far, though, he insisted that I pay him in advance. I was just as insistent that I would pay him upon arrival at my home. He asked to see my money, and I said my wife had it. He didn’t trust that story, so I had him to take me to an ATM, where I withdrew 500 rmb. He again asked me to pay him, and I again refused. While I was making my withdrawal, the driver got really lucky and found another young woman, this one with a baby, who wanted to go to Nantong. She signed up for 600rmb to go to Tongzhou, north of Nantong. About this point, I realized that I really didn’t have the option of staying overnight in Shanghai: I hadn’t thought to bring my passport, and you can’t stay at a hotel in China without either a domestic ID card or a foreign passport (not a bad policy in the age of terrorism, I think).

After we dropped off the first woman (a high school teacher, who was interested to know that my wife had been teaching English at Nantong University), the ride went smoothly for an hour. Then came the next surprise. The driver parked on the far side of a toll booth and told us, “I have to meet a friend. I’ll be right back.” I saw him randomly trying to flag down cars and realized that he had some special plan. I assumed he wanted to find another Nantong-bound passenger to occupy the empty front seat. After half an hour passed, I started lobbying my travel mate for the three of us (including her baby) to get out and try to find a legitimate taxi to take us to Nantong and Tongzhou. By splitting the fare, we’d have both saved money. Just then, our driver showed up with another guy and told us we were going to “huan che” (change vehicles). Ah, so this was the plan! Our driver found someone who was going to Nantong anyway and who had room in his vehicle. The new driver had an even more comfortable mini-van. I’m pretty sure he was a professional company driver, who had just delivered someone from his company to one of the Shanghai airports and saw a chance to earn a little extra money. Yet again, the first driver asked me to pay – “don’t worry,” “no problem” – and yet again I said I’d pay (now, the new driver) as soon as I got home. I couldn’t count the bills, but the second driver paid the first one at least 400 rmb. Except for the fact that he drove over 130 kg/hr a lot of the time (I think that’s almost 90 mph) and that the ferry was backed up so badly with traffic that we had to go all the way west to Wuxi and cross on that bridge, the rest of the trip was actually fine. The baby was extremely well behaved. I got home at 10:00 pm, and Terry had a nice dinner waiting for me.

The two lessons of this day: 1) Don’t travel in China during the three national holidays, unless you really can’t avoid it. 2) Always carry your passport when you leave town. (As to #1, we traveled during two holidays in China without this degree of trouble. I guess we were lucky.) -- Norty

Posted by now at 02:09 PM

Dog Bites Man

In the United States, “Dog Bites Man” isn’t newsworthy. It isn’t in China, either – for Chinese. For me, though, it was another new adventure.

Two weeks ago, I left our factory office building at the end of the day and headed for the bicycle parking area. On the way, I passed the two dogs that belong to our landlord (who uses one of the two factory buildings in our compound). The dogs were not in their usual spot. The big one was on a chain, but one of the landlord’s employees seemed to be playing with him, so I just walked ahead, not trying to avoid the dog (which I could have done). Well, the big dog lunged at me and bit my leg – not seriously, but just enough to break the skin on both sides.

Next, I learned how China deals with the threat of rabies. The country does not compel dog owners to routinely update their pets’ rabies vaccination, as is the case in the Unite States. Instead, each city has a special rabies clinic, and everyone who gets bit by a dog and doesn’t want to worry about getting rabies goes to the clinic for a series of injections. I had never detail firsthand with a rabies threat, and I knew the situation was potentially serious, so I didn’t want to rely on my own Chinese and the presumably similar English of the clinic doctors to clarify decisions about treatment. One of my colleagues, Xi Jingyou, accompanied me to the clinic and explained a course of six injections I could get. First, the doctor directed my colleague to wash my leg with soap and water for ten minutes. This episode was interesting. The soap was a communal bar. The basin was a rusted enamel sink. When I finished, I looked for something to dry with, and the doctor gestured to a stiff gray rage that was hanging from the window guard. I went with the drip-dry method instead.

Xi Jingyou then said the doctor wanted to know whether I thought I needed the injections. I replied that I was relying on the doctor for good advice. During 20 minutes of back-and-forth discussion, I was getting phone calls from my colleagues tao Hong and Liu Sheng, from my boss Jim Kaplan (who was in town) and from my wife. Terry was on the internet and wanted to know why I wasn’t getting offered immunoglobulin. Finally, I signed up for the injections and got the first one. But the consensus at work the next morning was that Chinese dog bit victims do get immunoglobulin. So, Liu Sheng took me back to the clinic, where a new doctor was more informative and gave me that (fairly painful) one-time injection. I had to sign a statement acknowledging that I understand I was going to be injected with a “blood product.” (You sign statements like this in the U.S. whenever you have surgery or go skydiving – “Shit happens, and if it happens to you, it’s not our fault.”)

For injections #2 and #3, I successfully got to the clinic on my own. I always enjoy successfully doing something new independently. The first time, I had yet another new experience “shunlu” (literally, “on the way”). After I had waited half an hour, the number 13 bus still hadn’t arrived, and I wanted to get to the clinic before it closed down for a 2-1/2 hour lunch break. So, I finally caved in and accepted a ride from a “modi.” There isn’t anything exactly like this in the U.S. A “modi” is a guy (I’ve seen only guys, so far) on a motorcycle who hangs around bus stops or supermarkets, offering to provide transportation at a lower cost than a taxi. (This was the first day of the May Day holiday, and there were no taxis available.) So, I hopped aboard, told my driver where I wanted to go, and arrived with no problem. He provided a “helmet” of a style that is popular in China – sort of a hardhat with a short bill. (There are also good motorcycle helmets, and the “modi” drivers usually wear them.)

The landlord is paying for my medical costs – a little over $200, about half for each kind of treatment – and I don’t have rabies yet. So, the outcome is fine. -- Norty

Posted by now at 12:29 PM