Naked Marriage

In Beijing, sky-high housing prices have left many couples who want to get married without the traditional requirement: an apartment they own. There’s a term for those who get married anyway: naked marriage. They are literally unprotected against rent increases. More abstractly, they are less comfortable than a couple rich enough to buy housing.

Two Chinese Idioms.

Beijing Street Vendors: What Color Market?

Black market = illegal. Grey market = “the trade of a commodity through distribution channels . . . unofficial, unauthorized, or unintended.”

In the evening, near the Wudaokou subway station in Beijing (where lots of students live), dozens of street vendors sell paperbacks ($1 each), jewelry, dresses, socks, scarves, electronic accessories, fruit, toys, shoes, cooked food, stuffed animals, and many other things. No doubt it’s illegal. When a police car approaches, they pick up and leave. Once I saw a group of policemen confiscate a woman’s goods.

What’s curious is how far vendors move when police approach. Once I saw the vendors on a corner, all 12 of them, each with a cart, move to the middle of the intersection — the middle of traffic — where they clustered. At the time I thought the traffic somehow protected them. Now I think they wanted to move back fast when the police car went away. Tonight, like last night, there’s a police car at that corner, the northeast corner of the intersection. No vendors there. The vendors who’d usually be there were now at the northwest corner. In other words, if a policeman got out of his car and walked across the street, he’d encounter all the vendors that he’d displaced.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Steve Hansen and Gary Wolf.

Restaurant With No Menu

Today I had lunch at a Beijing restaurant with no menu. You choose dishes in discussion with your waiter. The restaurant’s theme is kung fu. Somehow having no menu is kung-fu-like. A sword hung on the wall and there were other martial-arts decorations. As we left, the wait staff said an ancient Chinese good-bye loudly in unison. It meant “the mountain and river will still be here [a metaphor for enduring friendship], let’s make a concrete date to meet again.” Only one of our two dishes was really good but I’ll go back.

Assorted Links

  • Vision therapy
  • Omega-3 and brain health. “Participants were 280 community volunteers between 35 and 54 y of age, free of major neuropsychiatric disorders, and not taking fish oil supplements. . . Five major dimensions of cognitive functioning were assessed . . . Among the 3 key (n-3) [poly-unsaturated fatty acids], only DHA [was] associated with major aspects of cognitive performance.”
  • The rise and fall of Beijing restaurants

Thanks to Steve Hansen, Tim Lundeen, and Eric Meltzer.

How Long To Build a Subway?

From New York:

1972: Workers use cut-and-cover to break ground on the Second Avenue subway line; only a mile of tunnel is completed before the seventies financial crisis halts construction. . . .
2007: Ground breaks once again on the Second Avenue subway, to be called the T line.

Slow, yes, but not  off-the-charts slow:

Between 1965, when construction of the Beijing subway began, and 2001, workers laid only 42 km of track.

Faster is possible:

By next year, Beijing aims to have another 100 km of track up and running.

As I searched for Beijing subway info, I came across this surprising blog on the Beijing City Government English website. It reminds me of something that happened to me in Alaska. I went to visit a glacier. Near the glacier was a visitor’s building, which had a small room with a slide show. The taped narration told how the glacier shrank during the summer and grew during the winter and described the animals that lived nearby. It was all very bland but you could tell the narrator really cared about the glacier. I was struck how rare that was: To see that someone really cared about something other than themselves and their family. I suppose this is why I was impressed how much Penn State students love Penn State. This blog gave me the same feeling. The writer likes (or rather liked) living in Beijing and, much more impressively, manages to convey that. I nominate it for best blog on a government website. Unfortunately it has stopped. It’s so much easier to learn when the person you are learning from really cares about the material. There’s a lot I can learn from that blog.

A nice video about building Beijing’s subway.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Oskar Pearson and Dave Lull.

Beijing Hot Pot

Beijing has far more hot pot restaurants than you’d ever guess from Chinese restaurants in America. There are about ten restaurants on the Tsinghua campus; one of them is a hot pot restaurant. Judging from this passage in an article about Beijing hot pot restaurants, some aspects of restaurant reviews (“don’t forget”, semi-humorous derogatory comparisons) are universal:

And don’t forget the wan or spheres of hashed protein, often how fish and seafood find their way to the table.Wise up in cheaper establishments and be warned that some meatballs [i.e., fishballs] can have a texture as if they bounced off the courts of Wimbledon, so avoid them unless you’re in a reputable safe house.

My Theory of Human Evolution (Beijing furniture shopping)

I am moving to an unfurnished apartment in Beijing so I went furniture shopping at a huge “furnishings plaza” with hundreds of furniture showrooms. (Not to mention showrooms for mattresses, doors, stairs, security systems, curtains, light fixtures, and interior decorators.) It was more like a trade show than anything I’ve seen in America or Europe. I think it had more furniture choices than the whole Bay Area. I loved wandering around it, partly because it kept reminding me of my theory of human evolution:

1. The huge choice included a big range of styles, including  European, Chinese Traditional, modern, and “flat-plate” (meaning flat pieces of wood). At least 90% of the stuff struck me as ugly. Garish, too ornate, too simple, clunky, chunky, bad colors, bad patterns, and so on. Of course there were buyers for all of it. That there is such diversity of taste (“no accounting for taste”) supports a diversity of technological development. Exactly what a healthy economy needs.

2. Almost all the furniture was decorated. (If you don’t want decoration, you shop at Ikea.) Decoration is unnecessary from a functional point of view — you can sleep on a bed whether it is decorated or not — but is obviously pleasant. (Which is why I wasn’t at Ikea.) Decoration is difficult, so the demand for it supports technological innovation.

3. I write a lot sitting up in bed. After I saw a bed with a cushioned headboard, I realized I wanted a bed with a built-in cushion for sitting up. I found something better than I knew existed — the headboard cushion is detachable and cleanable. Having chosen the bed, there was pressure to buy matching furniture — the side table, the wardrobe, and so on. The furniture that matched my chosen bed was not especially attractive by itself but would become more attractive when near my bed. Because we like seeing things match. Our preference for matching stuff at first glance is paradoxical since it seems to push for less diversity rather than more. Why do we like seeing things match? The evolutionary reason, I believe, is so we will put similar things side by side to get that effect. Notice how clothing stores and many other stores are decorated. Why is that good? Because when we put things side by side it is much easier to see little differences and thus little ways one of them can be improved. When you start to notice these little differences, you become a connoisseur. Connoisseurs pay more for hard-to-make stuff than the rest of us and thus support technology that produces hard-to-see improvements.

4. Few Chinese bedrooms have closets. Clothes are hung in wardrobes. The wardrobe that matched my chosen bed wasn’t the loveliest wardrobe I saw. But the loveliest wardrobe I saw didn’t match the bed I wanted. The loveliest wardrobe I saw had something unusual: decoration of several sizes. We like a combination of large-, medium-, and small-scale decorative detail more than one size alone. This creates further challenges for artisans: There is pressure to be skilled at a wide range of sizes. So you don’t just develop technology for making small decorative details, you also develop technology for making larger details. Again, human nature promoting diversity of technological development.

5. The more expensive stuff looked better than the cheaper stuff, yes. But a lot of the expensive stuff wasn’t so much beautiful as expensive-looking. You might or might not like it — but no one would disagree it was expensive. Presumably people buy such stuff to show off, the way we do so many things to show our status. That we use difficult-to-make possessions to display status (thus creating demand for such things) is yet another way that human nature promotes technological innovation.

Back to the (Recent) Past

My work is all about how the past was better for us. People stood more; so they slept better. They ate more animal fat; so they slept better. They saw more faces in the morning and fewer faces late at night, so their mood was better. Their food had more bacteria growing on it, so their immune and digestive systems worked beter. And so on.

Past meaning 100,000 years ago. In Beijing, I am moving from one apartment (A) to another apartment (B). Apartment A is in a modern building, Apartment B is in a building maybe 40 years older. To my surprise, Apartment B is clearly better than Apartment A. The biggest improvement is that Apartment B has all-incandescent lighting. Apartment A was all-fluorescent. Exposure to fluorescent light in the evening can interfere with the faces-mood effect because it can resemble sunlight. Incandescent lamps are so much cooler than the sun that the light they emit is very different. Another improvement is that Apartment B, unlike Apartment A, has a sun deck. So it’s easy to get lots of sunlight in the morning — important for sleep and for the faces-mood effect. The third improvement is that Apartment B, like Apartment A, is on the sixth floor — but Apartment B is a walk-up. Walking up six flights of stairs will tire out my legs so that when I do one-legged standing (to sleep better) I won’t have to stand as long before getting exhausted. When I lived in Apartment A I could have taken the stairs, but I never did.

The Post-It Restaurant

Two of my students took me here, which one list said is the best fish restaurant in Beijing. (Based on our meal, that’s plausible.) Its specialty is grilled fish “Wushan style”. Wushan is a mountain, not a province (like Sichuan or Hunan), so the restaurant may have invented the term. The menu is short. There are a bunch of cold dishes and the grilled fish, which comes in seven different flavors (hot & spicy, chinese sauerkraut, etc.). Unlike any other Beijing restaurant I’ve been to, you need a reservation. (Call a week ahead.) The restaurant, which wasn’t large, was packed. The walls were covered with Post-It notes. One said: “I wish I find my dream girl and me and my friend Bob have a safe life.” Another said: “Very spicy, very tasty, makes me feel very good.” A third said: “We had to wait a long time, so we ate a lot.” I wrote one saying what one of my students suggested: “We didn’t have to wait a long time but we ate a lot anyway.”

A Chinese Joke

In a Shanghai apartment, the phone rings. A friend of the occupant answers the phone. “It’s someone from a rural area,” he shouts to the occupant. (Shanghai and other dialects are quite different.) “I’m from Beijing,” says the person on the line. “It’s someone from Rural Beijing,” the friend shouts.

This joke is told by people who are from neither Shanghai nor Beijing.

The Bike: X Invented It. Y Perfected It.

The bicycle is far from the most influential invention ever — that would be the printing press — but it might be the most perfect, at least where I live. As I rode home last night I reflected how curiously great it is (where I live):

1. Low cost. A friend gave me hers for free. Perhaps it would have sold for $5. A new bike costs as little as $20.

2. Durable. They never wear out, although parts need replacing. I could have the bike I have now 20 years from now.

3. Ages well. Unlike almost all commercial products, bikes improve with age. They look less and less desirable so the probability of theft goes down. My bike, which looks worthless, will never be stolen. (As my students confirmed for me today.) I took to fake-locking it because I couldn’t get the key out of the lock. One day someone managed to get the key out leaving my bike locked and possessing the key. Whoever did that didn’t bother to take the bike. I got the lock sawed off a block away for $1. I bought a new lock for $2.

4. Great service. When something goes wrong, I can bring it to a bike shop that will fix it in minutes. There are lots of bike shops in my neighborhood.

5. Convenient. You can always park your bike close to where you’re going.

6. Green. Zero pollution, zero fossil fuel.

7. Exercise.
8. Quiet. The Tsinghua campus is full of bikes yet is always quiet. Because of the bikes, cars are banned from large chunks of the campus.

9. Safe. My neighborhood, like elsewhere in Beijing (but unlike some Chinese cities), has plenty of bike lanes. It feels perfectly safe to ride in them. In Berkeley I wear a bike helmet but at least in my neighborhood I haven’t been able to see the need — it would be like wearing a helmet while walking.

10. Facilitates exploration. Most of Beijing is no fun to walk in — things are too far apart. But it is fun to bike around. You can easily bike from one interesting place to the next and whenever you get somewhere interesting you can get off your bike and walk around it.

Beijing Air

Yesterday was really windy. Lots of bikes fell over, including mine. I thought my sheets, hung to dry outside my apartment window, had blown away. I searched for them around the building. I eventually found them — in my closet. I got a piece of dirt in my eye that I noticed for several hours. It was my first significant bad encounter with Beijing air this time around (since August). I was in Beijing last fall, too, and then the dirty air really bothered me. I felt better after I got an air filter for my apartment.

When I was a freshman at Caltech, Richard Feynman came to our dorm for dinner. I asked the first question: “What do you think of the air?” He looked at me as if it was a stupid question. I think his answer was, “You get used to it.” After living in Beijing last year, I said over and over I liked everything except the air. Now I find it hard to complain about the air. In my apartment I have one big air filter per room that runs constantly; they are quiet and turn red if the air is dirty. They hardly ever turn red. Last year, after a week without dusting, you could write “lung cancer” in the fine black dust that had accumulated. Now it isn’t there. Through my window the visibility is usually pretty good; I can see the lights of buildings in the distance.

Yesterday someone told me Beijing air has gotten much much better. “Ten years ago your hair would get filthy” from coal dust, he said. The hutongs had coal-burning heaters. Now they are gone. Measures of air quality have even improved since last year, I think he said. I met someone recently arrived who was bothered by the air but she felt much better after I gave her an air filter.

Overall, I think four things have changed: 1. The air in my apartment, where I spend most of my time, is much better (compared to unfiltered). 2. Outside air is somewhat better. 3. Due to fermented foods, my overall health is better. 4. Due to learning about hormesis, I don’t worry about a small amount of air pollution.

James Fallows on How I Survived China. The bottled water at a Buddhist restaurant came from a garden hose.

Beijing Subway Security in Action

A comment on BoingBoing:

I cannot believe that I am still being asked to take my goddamn shoes off every time I want to go on an airplane, but I am able to board mass transit trains without anyone checking me for explosives at all.

Have I told you about the time I took a cleaver on the Beijing Subway? The Beijing Subway has security: They screen all bags. It started before the Olympics and, after the Olympics ended, kept going. At Wal-Mart, I bought a cleaver/cutting board/chopstick set (enclosed in plastic), put it in my laptop bag, and entered the subway. I was stopped. The cleaver had shown up on the scanner screen. The guard was pleasant and after I showed her what it was I was quickly sent on my way.

Miso Shopping in Beijing

In Beijing I have no kitchen, just a microwave oven. Which is enough to make miso soup. Which I can eat happily day after day.

But I need miso. In Tokyo I bought miso far better than what I used in Berkeley and now cheap miso isn’t good enough for me. Finding high-quality miso in Beijing is turning out to be hard, even though there are many Japanese students in my neighborhood. Today I went to a Japanese-owned department store with a food market. They had hundreds of Japanese foods, including plum wine, natto, Japanese pickles, sushi ingredients, seaweed crackers, and black milk (whatever that is). But they didn’t have miso. I have no explanation; the local hypermarket (Carrefour) had low-quality miso.

If you know where to get good miso in Beijing, please let me know.

Beijing Wal-Mart

To buy a refrigerator, a friend suggested I try a store called Vollna, to which I found references online. When I got to the right subway station, however, no one had heard of it. She’d meant Wal-Mart. The Beijing Wal-Mart has many interesting features:

  1. They sell live turtles.
  2. A whole display case is devoted to sea cucumbers.
  3. Like any upscale American or Beijing supermarket, they have a sushi case. The prices are half what they’d be in America, but the pieces of fish are much thinner.
  4. They cut up meat in front of you. A whole pig was being butchered on a table. A roast duck was being sliced for packaging.
  5. They had pairs of escalators (actually sloped moving walkways) going in the same direction. For heavy traffic, I guess. I’ve never seen such a thing anywhere else.
  6. It’s extremely convenient, right next to a subway station. In America, as all Americans know, Wal-Marts are almost never convenient. Which is why I’ve been to an American Wal-Mart only twice, in spite of the large selection and low prices.
  7. The refrigerators were hidden behind large stacks of what looked like flour.
  8. After I bought a blood pressure monitor, the salesperson added batteries and showed me how to use it. Such product verification/education has happened before to me in Beijing, never in America.
  9. A staggering number of food samples. Maybe a hundred. Other Beijing supermarkets are like big-city American supermarkets; some have samples, some don’t. This was a full-court press. Every possible sample. The roast duck was the best, the yellow kiwi (sweeter than green kiwi) the most unusual. I got tired of sampling and stopped. I can’t remember that happening before.
  10. The prices were ordinary Chinese prices. Not unusually low. To bring flaxseed oil to China I’d bought a very large duffel bag from Land’s End, so large I had to drag it. (Which ruined it.) It cost $70 plus shipping. Wal-Mart had a more reasonably-sized large duffel bag, better-made and with wheels for $20. Ugh. It was the wheels, not available at Land’s End, rather than the $50 difference, that pissed me off. My too-heavy duffel bag was a pain in the butt because I had to drag it (at the same time carrying other luggage). This made me never want to shop in America again for anything I could get in China.
  11. Cigarettes are in a special booth off to the side. About 200 choices.

They can’t compete on price in China, of course. So my guess is that they are trying to compete on selection, convenience, and customer service (thus all the sampling). That you can return stuff was very clear.

What One American Thinks of Beijing

She loves it:

1. The vibe. It reminds her of New York and London.

2. The range of Chinese food. You get food from all over China here. (At all price points, I might add.)

3. The atmosphere. The air isn’t so bad. She spent two years in another Chinese city, never saw a sunrise.

4. The bike lanes. You can walk comfortably. In the Chinese city where she lived before there were no bike lanes and no bikes. Everyone had a motor scooter, which you were constantly dodging. (The bike lanes also make it easy to bike, I might add.)

5. The balance between international and Chinese. Shanghai is basically all international, you can get around without a word of Chinese. Poorer cities are all Chinese. Beijing isn’t the only city with a balance, it’s just done especially well here.

6. The people. Strangers are friendly, if you ask for directions, they’ll make sure you get there.

7. The vast amount of culture. The 798 art district, for example.

She doesn’t like the weather; it gets really cold in the winter and the air is very dry (bad for your skin).

Beijing Air: Not Dirty Enough

I’ve been back in Beijing a week. I’ve been eating lots of fermented food, which is easy to get, including fermented eggs (10 for $1.50) sold at a stand in a shopping mall. There is a bigger yogurt selection here than in Berkeley. Tsinghua University sells its own perfectly good yogurt (20 cents a serving). Every supermarket has a big pickle selection.

In Berkeley, as I blogged earlier, a few months ago I noticed that my nose was no longer runny. My Kleenex consumption, which had been about one box of Kleenex every month or so, was reduced to almost zero.  (A reader of this blog had a similar experience.) No doubt this was due to eating much more fermented food. The runny-nose-absence has continued in Beijing.

Last year in Beijing, I had a runny nose. I used about one tissue packet per day. I ate almost no fermented food. So far so good. The interesting twist is that dirty city air has been linked to less runny nose. Air pollution, in other words, can have the same effect as fermented food. Last year, apparently, Beijing air wasn’t dirty enough to get rid of my runny nose.

I’m not joking. After I realized this, I felt a lot better about Beijing’s air, which I have long said is the worst thing about living here. Someday I will blog about the health benefits of smoking, which suggest the same conclusion.

Spectacle Practice

Late last night, on my way home, I came across a huge crowd of Tsinghua students next to the campus stadium. More than a thousand. There was no event at the stadium. All of them were dressed in a casual uniform, in varying colors. “What’s this about?” I asked one of them. “It’s a secret,” she said. Another one told me they were practicing for the upcoming National Day (October 1), which is China’s Fourth of July. This particular National Day will be the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the current system so there will be an especially big celebration. The uniforms said “60” on the shirt. There were going to be at least 9 practices. This particular night was the first night they would practice in Tiananmen Square, where the event would take place. Every one of them had a square with different colors on the two sides; like a giant LED display they would make different displays. “It lasts all night,” the student told me. “It ends at 6 am. We don’t sleep.”

And, indeed, at 5:30 am the next morning, a police-escorted convoy of 45 buses, each with about 60 students, came through the campus gate near my apartment. An article about the Tiananmen practice says it involves about 200,000 people. That’s a lot of buses.