Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Jing and a Prayer

My Beijing weekend was a busy one. After the Friday evening drive to some key sights, Jing went home to Shanghai and I met with some people from the Gao lab for a weekend exploring Beijing. We took the subway to the Temple of Heaven. The subway was an adventure in itself, far more crowded than any subway so far. Just getting to a subway car required plowing through a crowd so dense I could have lifted my feet off the ground and still been propelled forward at the speed of the mob, probably without anyone noticing. Getting on to each car required shoving and twisting and then fighting to get the rest of the party on the same car. However, the cars were air conditioned, which made a huge difference. Overall, much nicer than the Brussels metro, and certainly the line for the taxi stand under the Beijing train station. (Jing and I ditched the taxi stand and took a bus one station to find a taxi. The taxi driver waiting there said, yep, I get a lot of business right here, for that reason.)

The Temple of Heaven was magnificent. Like Central Park and many others, it was a massive park inside a metropolis. Unlike Central Park, it has Chinese buildings all over it. We went to many of the sights, including the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The temple included a “70 year old door” with a cute story. The door was built when an emperor turned 70 because it shortened his walk from the temple. However, the emperor decreed that nobody else could go through it until turning 70, lest he become lazy. Since then, no emperor ever reached that age, and hence, nobody has opened the door since then. A great story, but suspicious. Nobody ever opened it, not even a wayward guard or someone who bribed him? We got a picture of us pretending to kick the door down. Then, they would have had to edit their story to say: “Oh, and also, some fucking American tourist went through the door in 2011.”

Being helpful and obedient tourists, we decided against kicking down the door. We did pray for a good harvest at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, kneeling in the archetypal Christian fashion and praying insincerely, in English, exactly like the Chinese must have done for over 500 years. We must have got it right, because it promptly rained. I think the Chinese owe us for their incipient good harvest, but I’ll let it go. Swan le.

We proceeded to the Pearl Market, where Westerners are targets. Floor after floor of little shops, and every one opened with an absurdly high price and insulting appellations of sincerity and authenticity. No, I don’t believe an ancient Chinese coin that you’re trying to sell me for 20 RMB is authentic, partly because I just watched you sell a bag of them to that (Chinese) customer for 1. A real IPod for 300 RMB? But you like me so much I can have it for 250? Wow!! Since everyone sold the same stuff, I just went from shop to shop and played them off against each other. I usually lied about the price offered by the last person, without raising the least suspicion, which confirmed that I was still nowhere close to their breaking point. It worked for me when I was a teenager in San Felipe, when I wanted the cheapest possible fireworks and everyone on the street sold the same ones. I did get lower prices, but still way above a fair one.

The next morning, I was up at 6 to meet some people from their lab, and then met with Prof. Gao at 8.30 before flying to Kunming. After a few days in Kunming, my brother and I took the bus to Dali, and this afternoon, we’re off to a Torch Festival and hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Sinodining I

Have you ever wanted to order way more food than you could ever eat, loudly shovel food directly into your mouth, burp loudly, and spit bones and offal on the table or floor? No? Freud would call it denial, and I would just call you a liar. Of course we all want to, but Western culture represses us. The Chinese do not, which makes meals really fun. One drawback is that you must have a lot of faith in the table wiper, and at low end restaurants, I don’t. I’ve been to a range of places, ranging from street food to really cheap restaurants to fancy banquet halls. Nicer restaurant have tablecloths and more formality, but still support loudness and overordering. Initially, it seems kind of sloppy, until you realize it is just easier, more relaxing, and socially fluid. Which culture is more advanced: one that creates the illusion of order and grace through rules and disapprobation, or one that avoids unneeded constraints?

The Chinese are so perspicacious as to immediately notice that I don’t look like them. They don’t notice that I am nonetheless fluent with chopsticks. In most meals, they politely bring me a knife and fork, even though I am shoveling slippery noodles and peanuts like everyone else. I even drew two compliments on my chopstick skills. Yeah. Picking up slippery nuts is hard.

Waiters earn their title like nobody else. They just wait. While you are looking over your menu, they just stand there, patiently, until you order. This is unnerving at first, but you get used to it.

In the cheaper restaurants, all plates and cups are on the table, wrapped in plastic. They often serve 2 cups. One is for your tea, and they assume you will first pour in tea, rinse your glass, and pour it into another glass, because you don’t trust the dish cleanliness. Uh. Well, if the locals don’t trust it, then I sure don’t.

Many dishes are much cheaper out here. A full Beijing Duck with all the trimmings is about 9 euros. Tea costs 1 euro, as does a slice of fancy cake for dessert. A bottle of water is about 30 cents, and many filling meals cost under 4 euros. And these are prices in a sit-down restaurant. Oddly, though, across many different places, here and in Shanghai and Suzhou, cappuccino costs the same: 25 RMB, or a little under 3 euros, about the same as in Europe or America.

My parents often told me that customers in Hong Kong really liked fresh fish. Restaurants would have fish tanks, and you could point to the fish you want. I saw this happen. Then, the waitress brought the fish, still gasping and flopping, in a clear plastic bag to the table. The diners inspected it and nodded, and the fish was taken to its execution. A bit personal. Carnivorosity hinges on a strong separation between the horror inflicted on the victim and the pleasure of eating it in a sanitized and impersonal way. You can’t make people look at cows before eating them. (This was an old SNL sketch with Dan Aykroyd.) Ducks, maybe. I’d enjoy taking out the loudest quacking duck. Teach you to keep your mouth shut.

I had to adapt to the European tipping way – much smaller tips. I still tip more than the locals, and the recipients gracefully accept larger tips. The Chinese abhor tips. They expect a specific amount of money and get confused if you offer more. Admirably direct, but confusing.

Chinese toasts are much more hardcore than others. Rather than wishing you health or something abstract, their toast translates directly to a tangible, actionable order. Drain your glass. I’m told they will even sometimes look in your glass to confirm that you drained it. The American drinking game “You chug” is the closest equivalent, and it is only for college students who are alcoholic even by their standards. (And our old friend Chris Kanaar.) Unsurprisingly, Chinese drinking events are much shorter than Western ones. The table gets plastered within 1 or 2 hours and everyone goes home and pukes or collapses or whatever.

What would you guess is the most common dish in a Chinese restaurant? Assuming you are Western, you’ll probably answer “steamed rice.” They serve it with everything. It is a default side dish with most main dishes in Chinese and other Asian restaurants all over America and Europe. I haven’t seen it served once in China. Really. The Chinese eat very little steamed rice. They do have it with sizzling rice soup, but that is about it.

Pizza Hut and KFC are prevalent in China, like everywhere else. Like elsewhere, KFC is fast and cheap. Unlike elsewhere, Pizza Hut is a fancy restaurant. They are owned by the same company, and so I wonder why they decided to upgrade Pizza Hut in China. Perhaps they hoped that most Chinese don’t understand that “Pizza Hut” is pretty far from “Pizza Palace” or “Pizza Mansion.” “Hut” is closer to words like “shack”, “shanty”, “lean-to”, or “shithole.” At least the suits who made the decision didn’t also try to inflict Taco Bell out here, since it is also owned by the same company. Toxic Hell is widely considered among the worst of American fast food chains, barely above Whiskey Ted’s Puke Bowls. Perhaps that is unfair. Alcoholic puke can’t be that bad.

I did say, many times, that someone should open a Mexican food place, such as a taco shop or Chipotle, near a major university in Atlanta or many places in Europe. I was walking from my hotel to the Wudaokau subway station and passed “Avocado Tree Mexican Grill”. I told my newfound buddies about it while we cruised around the Temple of Heaven, and we were excited to go. Being a good tourist, I led my colleagues in prayer. We knelt before the Hall or Prayer for Good Harvest, clasped our hands in a Christian style prayer, and pled in English for a good harvest, just like the Buddhist monks surely did. It promptly rained, so we escaped to Pearl Market and then to Avocado Tree. The fuckers open on Tuesday, one day after I leave. To further taunt me, they let us go in, where we all agreed it is a blatant ripoff of Chipotle. They even have avocado. And it is much, much cheaper. I tried to bribe them into miracling some food right there, but no luck. We settled for curry.

Table of cultural dining norms






Spitting food

Totally cool


Nunca, cabron!

Is anyone watching?

Order delay

Waiter waits. At your table. Until you order….

Waiter unavailable; must yell or get lucky with gesture

Like Germans, but laid back about ignoring you

Waiter discreetly leaves until you decide, then helps


Order way too much

Order correct amount

Order tapas until full

Order way too much

Then what?

Waste it. Leftovers are for losers

There won’t be any restilessen. If so, waste leftovers

Yankee stupido, why did you order so much?

Doggy bag! If you can finish meal, you were underfed


Very polite (to foreigners)

Very polite. Please, thank you, would you like, etc

Waiter instead commands you to order: “digame”

Generally polite, like Germans. More chatty, though

Food to mouth


Half a meter

A little less

Is anyone watching?

Toast word(s)

Drain your glass




Toast action

Bang glass on table

Look each person in eye while clinking each glass

Much less formal

Look toward middle, clink glass in central mess


More popular in the south

Single chili flake produces tears

Similar. Spain ain’t Mexico

More popular in the south

Fish freshness

Fish alive until you pointed at him, asshole

See any map. Hope you like fish from river or Baltic Sea

See any map. Very fresh but often octopus

Varies by region; San Fran fresher than Denver

Free refills?

Unlimited hot water with each teapot

Don’t even have refills. New glass every time

No free refills; maybe a new glass

Free refills on tap water, most nonalcoholic drinks

Weird meats

You name it

Cow lung soup


Rocky Mtn Oysters

Table settings

Plastic wrapped

On plate, knives inside forks, lined up neatly

Similar but more variable

On table in specific pattern cuz Emily Post said so


OK, round-eye.

Default at Asian restaurants.


Default at Mexican or Asian restaurants.


Ubiquitous and cheap.

Fairly common. Pretty cheap

Don’t really know.

Yessuh. Why, we even have Kentucky!

Pizza Hut

Fancy. Also serves steak, Chinese food.

None. “American” pizza has corn, broccoli, salami


“Hut” is a glorification. Bad pizza and little else.

.5L water bottle

30 cents


€2, but cortados are better for €1

$2, and they always bring free icewater


About €3

About €3

About €3

About €3

Payment type

Cash is king. Fuck plastic

Cash or credit

Lo mismo

Cash or credit, but cash tip preferred


Did you misread the bill? Huh?

Round up to nearest euro

If that. Cortados are damn cheap

15-20%, unless they violate above

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bullet wanes

Amidst my positive impressions about China, I am less than overjoyed about the Great Firewall. A few days ago, I could at least post to my blog. That feature now seems to be disabled, along with all blog-related functions. Brilliant. They delayed and disrupted my efforts to post material, to a blog that 3 people read, fawning over this otherwise glorious rising star. The fact that you’re reading this proves they didn’t actually succeed, only wasted my time trying to figure out how to set up a tunnel proxy until I thought of a much lower-tech solution. Ha ha.
Back to what I can recall of an immensely dense trip. After Suzhou, we hired a driver to take us to Shanghai for 30 euros, figuring it would be faster and easier than the train. We also figured they would send a driver who knew Shanghai. None of these assumptions were correct, but since we had already paid the driver, we ended up with a free tour of Shanghai in an air-conditioned car, marred only by periodic stops by our driver to puzzle over a map. My hotel turned out to be a 5 star, which was more than enough to keep me happy. The room cost about 70 euros per night, and food, taxi, etc are also generally really, really cheap. Unfortunately, the same applies to academic salaries, which is too bad. I could work out here. They certainly have some great BCI research, and a much more promising future than Europe or America.
There were many hints in this direction, and I knew before coming to China that it is rapidly overshadowing the west. Still, it’s emotional seeing it splayed over countless thriving metropolises. Shanghai, a city of almost 20 million, had the same spirit of megalopolitan modernism and futuristic optimism that I vaguely remember from American cities in my youth. The skyline is new, architecturally magnificent, and boldly opulent. In one example, the Shanghai Expo looks like an innovative design, and the locals think it is, but it is in fact a blatant ripoff of UCSD’s Geisel Library. Just bigger and redder. Were it not for the Great Mirewall, I’d post pictures.
I got a high-impact tour of Shanghai in a delightfully novel way, in the sidecar of a motorbike designed by the Germans around 70 years ago. The driver was a professional tour guide with a special motorcycle license, my brother was on the back, and I just sat there and absorbed all I could. Before our trip to the Bund and the skyline reflecting off the river, we cruised through the old city, seeing things I never would have seen without a guide. Street after street of shanties and street food, and countless friendly people saying hello at us. Many of the buildings had a red symbol indicating they would soon be demolished, which made me sad, but c’est la progress. I doubt there’s such urban renewal in, say, Atlanta.
Two other things remind me of Atlanta. It is miserably hot and humid, and all the locals insist the weather is far better than usual. I told them that people from Atlanta (not Atlantis) would often joke they have to swim to work; when one of us left the lab, our labmates would say: “brace yourself!” Natives would often joke that, if you don’t like the weather, just wait – it changes!! This is just stupid for so many reasons. Aside from being untrue, what if you do like the weather? The Chinese weather changing approach is superior. They aggressively air-condition everywhere, which helps, but I do miss naturally good weather. The second Hotlanta flashback is the odd experience of being the only white person around. This hit me in Atlanta many, many times (and there were no Chinese people either). Many times, I looked around a big restaurant or public square, and saw only the Chinese.
Changing the subject, the Chinese word for “that” is spelled “nega”, but the e sounds more like an i. People point all the time and say something innocent that sounds quite different to a Western ear. I explained this to my friend Jing. “You should be careful with that word,” I said. “In some places, you will have trouble if they think you are saying ‘nigga.’” (I did not mention that someone would replace the word with “slave”, as per one of my best blog posts.) I said to Jing that it is OK here, but if you go to Atlanta, never say nigga, please. He asked what it means. I said that it was like the word “nigger.” He asked what that word means. How do you explain all that this word means?
Yesterday, I took the bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing, only a week after it opened. I remember seeing science shows when I was a kid, touting the imminent construction of bullet trains. The show presented maglevs that would crisscross America by 1990 and could go from New York to LA in a New York minute. In 2011, America still has no bullet trains. In the last few months, I’ve been on bullet trains in Austria, Spain, France, Belgium, and China. They all peak around 300 kph, and I hear the Japanese one is 400 kph. Not quite faster than a speeding bullet, although it does beat the muzzle velocity of the BB gun I had as a kid. Definitely faster than Amtrak.
I just got back from a great evening with Jing and his local friend, following my rule of following locals as much as possible. He and his wife took us to dinner, where we got my third Beijing duck since arriving. I didn’t ask for it, but did not mind, cuz it is really good. They asked if I wanted more, but I told them that I had eaten all the ducks in Beijing, and we would have to be content with beer. They were cool with that.
They then drove me around Beijing, not in a sidecar, but a nice Lexus, whose excellent sound system was somewhat offset by my host (and then me) singing along with his CD, a mix of Righteous Brothers, Berlin, Richard Marx, and other sappy singers. Yes, just like in Europe, American music is everywhere. We saw Tian An Men Square, which (to the Chinese) is most famous as the place where Mao launched the Communist Party in 1949. Censorship works disturbingly well. We also saw three famous sights - the bird’s egg, leg, and nest. The last of these is the Olympic Stadium, a gorgeous building that looked especially cool at night, with indirect red lighting shining well-earned Chinese pride. Across from that, they had a series of hotels.
“They are seven star hotels,” Jing said.
“I thought they only went up to five.”
“No. This is seven star. Also one in Middle East.”
“Do they have a six star?”
“How is it better than a 5 star?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, this ruins the whole star system. Why not have an 8 star, or 34 star? Let’s invent the kilostar and megastar.”
“It is very good hotel. Beer gets there.”
“So? You can get beer in most hotels. I got a beer at a zero star hostel once.”
“No. Beer gets stayed there. He was guest.”
“Who is beer gets”?
“Reader of Microsoft.”

I had a great meeting with the Gao lab in Beijing. My talk went well and we discussed many ideas. Amidst it all, I did have a certain detachment. For so many years, I wanted to see all the top BCI labs, break open hybrid BCI research, and publish papers with all the top people. I accomplished the first two, and am writing a paper with Professor Gao that will consummate the last one. Perhaps my work in the BCI community is done. As always, we had a slew of good ideas, some brilliant, but there’s quite a chasm from idea to published study, and it’s filled with a lot of bullshit and not enough money or appreciation. “Crossing the chasm” is a well-known catchphrase among people who make way more money than any academic. Inspiringly, the Chinese do have appreciation, but it ain’t enough to get me to work for less than 1000 euros per month. And, it would be lonely being the only guy of my race. I am indeed “that” out here, even more than Austria.

Monday, July 11, 2011


China, and the Chinese, continue to impress. I just spent the last 90 minutes in bed with a lovely woman whose services I purchased for a mere 198 RMB, or a little over 20 euros. Only a few minutes into it, she had me straddled masterfully and was stimulating muscles I forgot I had. Probably the most fun I ever had in bed with any woman while lying on my stomach. I knew that Chinese massage included walking on your back, but not all the little knee maneuvers she knew. I think I can remember some of them, while a few were unfathomable and others require more dexterity than I'll ever manage, A lot of moves were familiar, even though my 2 years of massage class were over 15 years ago. And that was just the Chinese style massage; they also have Thai and Japanese, also really cheap. And 24 hour massages without any appointment. I shall return.

Such luxury is a testament to the generosity and kindness of my hosts, my friend Dr. Jin and his boss Prof. Wang. They put me up in an undeservedly opulent 5 star hotel, and I had to keep reminding Jing that I'm not really all that important in BCI-land. Several hours ago, we had a feast. They tactfully managed to get a lot of new stuff without anything remotely unappetizing; no chicken feet, tripe, fish heads, blood soup, or other legendary options. Certainly the best tofu I ever had, and some masterful fish chunks, and tasty broccoli with ham and sauce. (Partly oyster sauce, but other stuff too.)

My hosts have further impressed me by allowing my brother Steve and his fiancee Marika to join us for dinner. This really added to the feast, since they speak Mandarin and greatly animated the evening. Tomorrow, I will give a talk and then work on our new hybrid BCI, then we have another dinner plan and then a motorbike tour of Shanghai. This would normally be sweaty and horrific, but the weather in Shanghai is considerably cooler and windier than expected, offsetting the humidity somewhat. And the nearly ubiquitous air conditioners help too.

However, the Great Firewall is neither generous nor kind, and does not impress. I'm allowed to edit my blog, even make new posts, but not read my own posts. This is understandable, I guess, because who knows what people might find on blogs. Just imagine how many yammering yahoos get a blog, and post all kinds of narcissistic nonsense just cause they think themselves clever, perspicacious, or eloquent. We cannot see anything on YouTube, which is also understandable. Other denials make no sense. It censors some pages on IMDB and not others, with no apparent cause. For my last post, I was trying to look up the quote from Airplane! saying that the survival of everyone on this plane depends on finding someone who did not have fish for dinner. That was blocked, due to the subversive elements in that movie that I evidently missed. Perhaps the scene beating up the Hare Krishnas might somehow inspire disrespect toward Buddhism, or convince some jackass that Shaolin monks aren't really so tough. Perhaps Kareem seems out of place after Enter The Dragon. That's forbidden? Why? I mean, it's not like I tried to search for the infamous

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ni How?

The flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai was uneventful. It began with the map that is so often shown on the inflight monitors, with your location and a dotted line leading to your destination, always represented by 2 concentric diamonds. And my heart rose to the thrill, heading to a new country and continent, and a destination several thousand miles away from anywhere I’d yet been. Most of the people on the flight were Chinese, and the guy next to me spoke no English. However, the poor inflight service provided a promising bonding opportunity.
The flight attendant forgot my coffee, which is an important element of my “shock and blah” assault on my nervous system to maximize sleep about 2-3 hours later. I let it go, but my newfound buddy bitched at her in Mandarin and I got coffee. OK, I thought. I’ll remember. About an hour later, after a meal of such bad fish that it could have inspired the key plot element in “Airplane!” we both asked for wine. She got us one, and he looked at me and smiled. I remembered I am not totally illiterate in Chinese, having learned to toast properly from Jing Jin. Gan bei, I said, and my new friend smiled and raised his glass. We asked for another glass and she scuttled away quite gracefully. His efforts to secure a second glass failed. With over 9 hours left in the flight, we faced the prospect of trying to sleep in an airplane seat nearly unsedated. Fortunately, although it took me over a year to work out, I had finally learned that the greatest gift one can bring from Graz is neither chocolate nor pumpkinseed oil, but schnapps. I have over 3 liters in various size bottles scattered within my hotel room. Bonus feature: the Spar at the airport sells 100 mL bottles, which happen to be the exact size allowed by security. Said bottle was soon being unscrewed in front of my wide eyed friend, who seemed totally enthralled by it any had to show it to all his friends. (This worried me, as I had planned on dividing 100 mL among 2 people, meaning 2 shots each.) But he then returned the bottle toward me, most deferentially. I shook my head and pointed to his cup. Gan bei, I said. He got it. We slept well for a couple hours, until he had to go to the bathroom a few times. After the second time, I wondered if it was my fault. I was then kind of glad we couldn’t really communicate.
I am in my hotel, a 3 star that cost under €20 per night. Everything so far seems really cheap by western standards. The room has enough packages of noodles to feed me for most of my trip, as well as a plastic display selling underwear and condoms. I can’t remember seeing any of these things just sitting there in a hotel. The noodles make sense. Condoms – there are also several cards for prostitutes sitting in the room. But, like, underwear? It seems to be a non-consumer item, unlike the other two. Unless they use it differently.
The Chinese are master consumers. They consume, like the obedient citizens of industrialized nations must and forever will, until of course we can only consume each other. They wield air conditioners and neon lights like chopsticks, and anyone who can invent a more energy-efficient version of either would do a great service to the world and whichever Chinese manufacturer steals his idea. Some Han Chinese also seem unabashedly fascinated by Westerners, gawking and staring and sometimes repeating the last word of whatever we just said in English. Fortunately, since I’m traveling with 2 people who live here, we can establish a little bit of street cred, which I absorb by proxy.
Among many things, I learned which Python movies are considered funny here. Life of Brian, no. But Holy Grail is pretty funny to Chinese students, except that they mistranslate the word “ni”, which may not matter. The Chinese say ni how? I asked, which is a homonymous with a really, really stupid question.
Today was spent between gardens and the Suzhou museum. Suzhou is one of the most ancient cultures here, the springboard of many others, and hence a delightful place for my first full day in China. It was horribly hot and humid, as I’d been warned. Although the gardens offset this mugginess somewhat, the Suzhou museum was nicer, as it was air conditioned as aggressively as everything else. We got a feast of street food for the equivalent of 6 euros and then were perhaps the first to pair it with marillen obstler, aka Apricot schnapps. Not bad. Further experimentation shall ensue.