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Staring into the ‘Jing

August 31, 2009 Leave a comment

To live in an Asian city is to have your perceptions changed of young people. I know that when I lived in the UK, I didn’t see young people anymore. I saw youths – the same way they’re described in police reports. Scrawny, underfed spawn that mill about mindlessly who you’d rather stab in the eye with your housekeys than say hello to. Living in Beijing or Osaka, or taking a trip to Kyoto to see people getting together in a park, dancing, drinking, rollerblading, kung-fuing is a refreshing experience.

For a long time I saw China (especially Beijing, the city where I had illogically chosen to make my home for 2 years) as the cowshit-covered, nose-picking, idiot older brother to the Henry Miller reading, Chablis drinking, smoking jacket clad Japan. I ached to get to Japan where things would be more comfortable, cleaner and a whole lot better. The general fact of the matter is that although it isn’t untrue, it’s a lot less true that you’d imagine. China had been like living in a country that was held together with duct tape, and I fantasized that Japan would be like living inside a Rolex.

The fact of the matter is that Japanese people aren’t crazy. The Japanese themselves have pegged themselves as crazy, and they’re not. It’s true; there are a lot of Japanese problems that have been solved by Japanese people for Japanese people that strike outsiders as odd. They may not be the best solutions in the world, but according to the myriad social rules of public conduct in Japan, they make perfect sense. While Chairman Mao was declaring that “women hold up half the sky”, the Japanese were only just getting to grips with the fact that women could and should go to work – the Japanese women have done their best to paint themselves as weak and feeble in the workplace, but it hasn’t washed well with the Japanese government – and fighting their wars with exactly the same death-to-the-enemies-take-no-prisoners attitude that were taught to the samurai on the streets of Kyoto 200 years ago.
Unsurprisingly, they lost to the Americans. Twice.

To say that China has a better, freer, more open society than Japan is to make a bold statement indeed. But having lived in both countries, it’s obvious that the two have more in common with each other than they dare admit. The moment that I found out that one of Japan’s political party had only been defeated twice in the last 60 years of democracy in the archipelago, I decided that I would be better off in China.

When someone pointed out that there are a lot of pointless rules in Japan that no one follows, I made my mind up to leave the country – if things are going to be like this, then I may as well be somewhere where the beer is cheap. Things are just as “crazy” in Beijing. As you walk on through Bei Hai, you might be lucky enough to see a portly gentleman walking on the wrong side of the lake railings, cheerfully taking his dog for a swim. There’s not really any ‘normal’ in Beijing, and the longer I stay here, the more normal that becomes. Seeing sixty people gathered together in a park with a battered stereo, ballroom dancing the night away is something you would never see my local park. The tourists take photos, I just walk past them, and I secretly wishing that I could dance like that.

The only real thing that I’m rather biased towards is anything medically traditional in China. I think it comes from the time when I was suffering from diarrhea that could only be described as “epic” after eating chuanr of dubious origin and was subsequently given a mysterious bottle of green lozenges that I was told would take three or four days to take effect (deciding that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any bones left, I went to a better pharmacy and bought some better medicine).

In the long, seemingly endless summer of 2008, some enterprising young men got together and started producing pirate copies of official Chinese Olympic memorabilia. Even last Christmas, a visit to the Olympic Stadium would almost always in end with someone trying to sell you something Olympic related. When the government said that they had enough stockpiles of almost everything to ensure a safe and enjoyable Olympics, they were including in the two Eiger-shaped mountains of Fuwa plushies. Chinese people are able to reel off four thousand years of history, but seem utterly bewildered when you ask them what their plans are for next week. When you do ask someone what’s changed in whichever Chinese city you left, the answer will, more often than not be, “nothing special”.

One thing that even the casual China observer will notice is that the Chinese often fire criticism at what seems to be the wrong target. While their own news services are censored and monitored by the propaganda department, people set up anti-CNN websites. While people still protest the Japanese prime minister visiting a WW2 war memorial, they ignore the memories of the millions of people who died during the Cultural Revolution. The (mis)representation of Chinese and Japanese in movies has been another sore point, and one that often degenerates into the most pointless of misguided arguments. The uproar over Chinese stars taking on Japanese roles in Memoirs of a Geisha should give you some idea of the average IQ of these mindless, Internet-addicted morons, many of who I daresay would benefit enormously from a sound beating at an internet addiction rehab clinic in the countryside.

The huge gulf between the invading foreign devils and the Chinese that were already living there when the British decided to get them all addicted to opium hasn’t gone unnoticed by the powers that be. The Chinese are too proud and the foreigners are too set in their troublesome western ways. It’s a state of affairs that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chinese themselves. Last week, I went to a public toilet in Sanlitun’s new shopping district, “The Village” and saw a sign in both English and Chinese that people should not stand on (and thus squat Chinese style over the bowl) the lavatory to use it. Staff at a local hotel run by a English friend are astonished by the fact that foreigners prefer cold milk on their corn flakes in the morning.

One of the things that you’ll find about Beijing is the wealth of things that you can actually do. It’s something that you’d miss if you traveled to Xi’an or Chengdu. Take the food, if you don’t like Chinese food, so you can go to an Italian restaurant, if that’s full, then you can get Japanese. Despite the out and out hatred that Chinese people foster for the Japanese, there’s a number of sushi restaurants that have sprung up, Yoshinoya is here, and so is Kyo Nichi. Beijing is a place to get fat in, there’s an obsession with food – have you eaten? Will you eat? What did you eat? When did you eat? Where did you eat? If you’re not full you should eat more…why aren’t you eating? Are you full? Is your food ok? Is the food good? .

I’m still not really sure what to make of the city – even nearly three years on. Walking down the street, as summer draws its final breaths, the government is clamping down on Internet porn sites and the girls are digging out their skimpiest, tiniest, tightest and unusually sexiest clothes to strut around in. Long ago, I arrived at the conclusion that Beijing annoys the living hell out of me. It annoys me like no other place on the planet, but there’s no other city I’d like to be annoyed by.

Welcome To Take Beijing Taxi

August 26, 2009 Leave a comment

A little knowledge is very dangerous, and that’s true of the person who knows about as much Mandarin as the average Chinese four year old. People talk to you. In Chinese. Even if you only know how to say the address of your hotel or apartment properly, taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, will talk to you. Some of them talk about the building work in Beijing, others practice their English, but mostly they yammer on to me in Chinese about everything and nothing. All I’m able to do is offer an appreciative “yes” or “ahhhh”, and hope that it looks like I understand and sympathize.

Because of my horrendously low level of Chinese, most interactions with taxi drivers are short and to the point. I know how to direct someone to my apartment (go straight ahead a little…you see the little road on the left? Ok straight ahead, left here and stop), and I’m particularly good at the old mobile-phone-with-handy-Chinese-directions-on-it trick, but that’s about it. I know nothing of their lives, they’re probably largely more interested in my life as most Chinese people are, and I’d like to know about them, but we’re separated by the huge, bulletproof, reinforced concrete barrier of my own ineptitude, my ignorance and disrespect of Chinese culture.

Sometimes I have a great taxi driver, like the guy a few weeks ago. He seemed, as they often do, rather happy to have a foreigner in the back. Once we’d established that my Chinese was pretty much worthless, and that my girlfriend could speak both Mandarin and English, we quickly fell into the routine of my girlfriend explaining something in Chinese, and then the taxi driver checking his pronunciation on me.

According to the Beijing Olympic website, nearly 90,000 drivers are learning English, and will be able to “chat with foreigners about the NBA star Yao Ming, or Beijing snack[s]”. If the drivers struggle, then there’s still no need worry, as taxi companies are installing computerized translators in their cars. The website doesn’t elaborate what’s going to happen if you know nothing of the NBA (like your average British person, who, is, admittedly, more likely to shout directions twice at the poor man, before smashing the car up). Xinhua news releases me always make me nervous, for some reason – especially the use if the word “chat” in the sentence above.

There are two things that foreigners talk a lot about in Beijing. The first thing is mostly about public toilets, ex-pats and tourists alike swap stories about them like war veterans. The second is usually the smell inside a Beijing taxi, largely the smell of a mouth that has been washed with green tea for most of the day, lightly peppered with the smell of aged garlic. The smell problem has caught the attention of the Olympic mandarins and they assure me that only the most fragrant taxis will be available for sports fans this summer – they will conduct extensive smell tests to make sure quality is maintained.

Getting into a taxi, and, a few hours later, when you’ve had a couple of stiff drinks and have worked up the courage to actually take a ride in one to your destination is a watershed for both the tourist and foreign worker. As mentioned, even though the taxis are the lifeblood of the city, not many of the drivers can speak English. They’re being forced to do it for the Olympics, but given their attitude of picking and choosing who to pick up and where to go, I wouldn’t be too optimistic about them all getting their heads down to study after a 12 hour shift ferrying drunken foreigners to and from Sanlitun.

Under normal circumstances – that is, if I didn’t live in Beijing – I would say that the taxi driver has to put up with a lot of grief. Having been booted out of innumerable taxes simply because the driver doesn’t want to go where I want to go – I assume it’s something along the Chinese version of “I’m not going south of the river this time of time of night, you’ll stink up the cab with your kebabs” – I’m going to say that they don’t have that much of a hard life outside of working on national holidays.

Beijing is a crowd surfing city, built on a shifting sand of people. You meet people in Beijing, and then pretty soon, they leave. The Chinese guys usually go back to their families, taking two day train journeys back home. The foreigners soon ache for something different, somewhere where you can breathe air you can’t see, a green field, a flower or two that isn’t choking on car fumes. Maybe the attraction of English-speaking Hong Kong draws them south, or cooler climes of the north take them to some one-horse village in Gansu. China owes it’s economic success to the migrant worker, and it’s the migrant workers that make up the bulk of Beijing’s taxi driver community.

Weather they liked it or not (and it’s more than likely not), Beijing taxi drivers were the front line of the city’s personality drive for the Olympics. The hardened, dour-mouthed resident would argue that trying to give a city like Beijing a personality is akin to bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted, failed to run, been shot and turned into the contents of a glue pot, but still, you have to give points for effort. Taxi driver might need lessons in hygiene, customer service and basic Beijing geography; they were the first and last people that Olympic visitors were likely to see.

One such driver, a former pig-dung shoveler, laborer and electrician (the connection between the three isn’t very clear) isn’t optimistic about his prospects, “My monthly income was about 3,000 yuan (£195) two years ago. Now it is 2,000 yuan (£130).” he told a Guardian reporter, “I expect it will go even lower in the future,” he says. “I don’t get any days off. I want to cry.” So says Xia Shishan, Beijing taxi driver of four and a half years. He has to support a daughter at university, and a sick mother.

Compared to his own youth, when he only had flour, sweet potatoes and tea leaves to eat, things are now undoubtedly much better. Shishan and his family eat meat on a regular basis, compared to the times when meat was confined to special events like Spring Festival, but still there is the worry. His worries are not those politics, or social stability, banned movies or songs, or imprisoned journalists. He is more concerned about supporting his family, while surviving on one of the lowest rungs of Beijing society. Already the Olympics have affected him personally – “Developers are going to knock down my mum’s home. It’s part of the project for South Beijing railway station. They offered compensation, but it is only enough to buy a bathroom. We can appeal for more, but ordinary citizens don’t have much power.”

The Olympics fired the imagination of everyone in the capital. Xia Shishan reckons that “China is an ancient nation with 5,000 years of history. Thanks to the Olympics, we can show how great our country is. We will finish top of the medal table. There is no doubt about it. And when we win, I will be so excited my blood will boil.”

Of course, not all the taxi drivers are this nice. In 2004, Li Pingping was executed for murdering prostitutes in Beijing, he killed three of them from November 2002 to April 2003 – he also managed to stab his ex-employer, his wife and their 12-year-old daughter to death. He killed the hookers because he believed they made money more easily that he did, and his wife was sent to the slammer for fifteen years for helping him.

When you do a little research on the Beijing cabbie, you tend to see why Pingping blew his stack. As well as having to cope with ever-changing rules and traffic regulations, the ever-increasing price of petrol, and the fact that the drivers have to pay their management companies anything from 2000RMB to 6000RMB while they earn a maximum of about 2000RMB – which doesn’t leave a whole lot of cash to live on. Add to that a compulsory English test for the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that there are obligatory price hikes, you get a much clearer picture of what’s going on. It becomes more and more unfathomable as to why I routinely get told that a destination is too far, or is in the wrong direction, or perhaps the drivers have accepted the inevitable, and have just given up on trying to offer some kind of recognizable customer service. When you consider that the Beijing taxi will be the front line of the welcoming committee for the Games, then everything becomes even more unfathomable – the city authorities should be doing things to keep them happy, rather than poking them with a pointy stick. Repeatedly. For no good reason.

Everything came to a head two years ago, when the driver arranged a mass “go slow day” in Beijing, throwing the city into mild chaos. While it fell short of an out-and-out strike, the message was pretty clear – the drivers were not happy. Foreigners and Chinese alike were forced to stand…waiting (people do not like to wait for much here in Beijing) for a driver to take them somewhere and they did take them. Very, very slowly they took them.

Ok, so no one forces them at gunpoint to become taxi drivers, but when these people have very little else in the way of employment options for them, you can hardly blame them, and they do get a bum deal. Most of them sign on for four or five year contracts, and get paid less that Ghandi’s personal assistant.

What is lacking is a clear, thought-out strategy. The Olympic Games are a great source of national pride, and if there are few smiling faces to ferry around the fresh-faced tourists, then it will largely be the fault of a government that, while it wants to be accepted, is more preoccupied in taxing heavily, and dreaming up kooky new laws that serve only to confuse and bamboozle the average Beijinger. Instead of reveling in their red tape paradise, perhaps the powers that be should focus on giving the workers reasons to be cheerful beyond the pipe dream of a harmonious society.

Unflat Japan: Living in the Shadow of the Dragon

August 22, 2009 1 comment

There are many things that a trip to your old stomping ground can do to you. Some people lose themselves in remiscences, others realize why they left in the first place, and others just give up and acknowledge that nothing is going to change much no matter how much they hope they will. I belong to the latter group, with a little dash of the second. Over the Japanese Obon holiday I got the chance to return to the Beijing after nearly a year hiatus.

With my ex-girlfriend badgering me on MSN to check her university paper, and adverts for the 2008 Olympics playing constantly on the subway lines, I could’ve been forgiven for thinking that the plane had inadvertently shot itself through a worm hole over the South China Sea. Given that the plane appeared to be piloted by a drunken eight-year-old, the worm hole and the ground were probably the only two things that we did manage to avoid on the Air China flight.

Due, in part, to the fact that I’m close to finishing Thomas Freidman’s excellent The World is Flat, and mostly due to the astonishing sense of complacent insulation that a lot of Japanese people seem to be hardwired with, it seems clear that something bad is going to happen to Japan and it’s people sometime soon. The problem is, as Friedman would put it, Japan is not flat.

Flattening of the world, for the uninitiated, comes about when technology enables people to communicate and do business with other people in other countries. When call centre jobs are outsourced to India, there is flatness – cheap fiber optic cabling allows someone to be routed from their home in New York to a call centre halfway across the world in Bangalore. Software engineers in China are writing applications for Dell, IBM and Google – three programmers in China can be paid twice the national average wage and still be three times cheaper than. Flattening, and therefore increased globalization (and thus increased interaction and competition with a global ecosystem) comes about through one thing: cheap tech. In Japan, there’s no such thing as cheap tech.

Yes, Japan has one of the world’s highest penetrations of broadband internet in the world. Yes, Japan’s Internet access is both cheaper and faster than anywhere else in the world, and yes, I know that Japan is one of the first countries to completely move to a 3G mobile phone network. I know these things, but, the problem comes about when you realize that innovation in Japan is not encouraged from the bottom up. In Japan, gadgets, gizmos and toys are doled out by closed companies that only conform to their own, closed, proprietary network or format. A Docomo phone works on the Docomo 3G networks with which you can only access the Docomo website, i-mode. To get onto the Docomo network, you can’t just use your cheap Softbank phone, you have to go out and get a Docomo phone with a new Docomo SIM card. Everything is branded, stamped, sealed and walled up.

You might think that this is all well and good, that this is nothing new, and why should Docomo allow free roaming Internet access on its mobile phones, anyway? No one else does. The problem isn’t the mobile phones or the business model, it’s the Japanese population, which is shrinking, and it’s shrinking fast. The over 65’s now account for nearly 45% of the entire populous, and if there’s one thing that over-65’s do not do, it’s play around on i-mode hoping trying to get a dancing panda dance in time with the music. The people who spend the most money on mobile phones are the teenagers, the ones who desperately need a mobile phone to stay in touch with the people they see every day, and have a large disposable income. This pool of rich kids is rapidly diminishing, and so are the profits of Japanese fun-providers everywhere.

There are two important factors that will contribute to Japan’s economic downfall. The first is that the Confucianist culture that promotes the second: top-down innovation. This essentially means that instead of people going out and grabbing tools – be they lathes, scythes or laptops – the companies and government tell people what they can use and then make available a series of models to choose from. Giving people the widest possible choice of how to do their business – or bottom-up innovation – is what has driven economies since the first industrial revolution. When I went to buy a mobile phone, I was told that there were only 4 models that were available with my pre-pay SIM deal. Two of the models were out of stock and the two remaining choices were a black Samsung and a white Samsung.

Compare this with an American going to Starbucks, where the customer is able to create his or her own coffee, mixing and matching from various items on the menu – regular milk or soy milk, low fat or high fat milk, sugar or sugar free, caffeinated or decaffeinated. You can argue that a mobile phone is not a cup of coffee, but the principle of giving choice to the customers is exactly the same. In China, mobile phones are cups of coffee: you can go to a China Mobile showroom and buy the handset of your choosing, then go to the shop on the corner and buy a SIM card (all Chinese phones are unlocked by default) for the network of your choosing. There’s a wealth of choice and payment plans. In Japan, people tell you “these are what we’ve got” and you have to make do with that.

The best example, however, of a flat world (or an unflat Japan) is the actual booking of the flight (for an expat) in Japan to…well, anywhere else in the world but Japan. A local travel agent, No. 1 Travel, takes out adverts in the local press almost every week (every day in the daily English language newspapers). Obviously, they plaster their lowest theoretical ticket prices all over the adverts, and usually the actual price you pay can be double or triple that. The main problem with this particular travel agent was that they add a 5000 Yen fuel surcharge to all their tickets. Thus, a ticket that costs 74,000 Yen can end up costing nearly 80,000 Yen.

So, over Obon, I wanted to fly out to Beijing on the 9th and return on the 16th of August. I was duly informed that because of the busy holiday period, there were no inbound Japanese flights available on the 16th August, and that a ticket on a two and a half hour flight would cost somewhere in the region of 85,000 Yen. I wasn’t particularly happy with this, and spend about an hour scouring the local expat web forums for any website that might be able to give me a cheaper deal. I came across the ANA website, and found that not only were there flights to and from Beijing on the dates that I wanted; there was also no fuel surcharge. In addition, I was able to pay for the ticket at my local convenience store using the same technology that allows me to top up my pre-pay phone credit.

That’s flatness – someone somewhere was offering a cheaper deal that I had to use my laptop to get. Not only did I give my hard earned to the flatter operating business, I took my hard earned away from another, unflat business. If everyone did what I did, sooner or later, the unflat business will be in trouble. And that’s just what’s happening in Japan everyday – unflat, traditionally run companies are being run out of town by flatter companies that are doing Japanese work, but might not be actually located on Japanese soil. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to Dalian and see how many Japanese businesses are outsourcing to Chinese workers.

All this boils down to one simple point: The Japanese economy is in trouble and is going to continue to be in trouble because the tools that people need to compete in a global economy are held in an iron grip by companies that are failing because they won’t give the people the tools they need to compete in a global economy. There are people hungrier than they are who are studying ten times as hard in an effort to race them to the top. In China, there’s evidence that this is happening already, with Japanese companies outsourcing huge tracts of business to Dalian – so much so that the local universities are offering degree courses in Japanese. Of course, the Chinese people in Dalian are also learning English faster and to a higher degree of competence than their Japanese counterparts, so now there’s a labor pool in Dalian of Chinese skilled workers, who speak Chinese, Japanese and English.

These students came from families who worked on farms 60 years ago, and today, they’re leaving behind their contemporaries in developed countries at light speed.

Like many English teachers who work in Japan, I’ve come to both hate the Japanese school system and pity the student drones that it produces. Typically, the average Japanese child goes through about 10 years of English study. This is half the number of years that I studied Spanish at high school, and I could probably get by in Spain on that, some 15 years later. After ten years of English study, Japanese people still have problems asking the time in English (for the record, I can ask the time in Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and English). This lack of decent, effective second langauge education is disempowering every child in every developed country, but not all have a country like China on it’s doorstep. The demand for international English speakers wasn’t created by native English speakers, it was created by domestic and international economic forces – those who spoke English suddenly found themselves in the international market, able to make pots of money, and others wanted to do the same. For the vast majority of Japanese, they’ve been tragically let down by the Japanese education system when it comes to learning English. An Asian school and university system that produces adults who have to think about starting to study English when they’re 22 years old when their counterparts have been studying since they were 12 years old is a school and university system that is falling way short of what is needed in the 21st century.

As the undisputed leader of the great tigers of the Asian economy, Japan is probably in the most dangerous, not the most comfortable, position because China is starting to catch them up, and they’re three times hungrier and three times more likely to study harder in order to become Japan. Pretty soon, products that have “Made in China” stamped on them will be designed in China too. As Thomas Friedman points out several times in his book, developing countries are not racing developed countries to the bottom, they’re competing on the most level playing field that’s ever been available to race us all to the top. Whether you’re untouchable in terms of a skillset when the time comes, is up to you.