June 2008

Beware of fake Chinese money!
Always be on the lookout for counterfeit money, especially 100 and 50 RMB notes.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are sure to bring hordes of tourists to the Northern Capital. If you count yourself among them, prepare yourself for an amazing time! Beijing , and China, while generally quite safe and relatively crime free are not without hazards, and its best to prepare yourself in advance to maximize enjoyment and minimize nasty surprises. Before settling in Beijing, I had traveled the world quite a bit and learned through the school of hard knocks to be on the lookout for scams, so I have managed to avoid most of the scenarios listed below. However, I have heard countless stories from less wary (and perhaps less jaded) visitors who were completely taken in. So, it is my hope that my humble list will save a few people from embarrassment or worse! So, with no further ado, here is my official Top 10 List of Survival Tips for the Beijing Olympics and beyond!

1. Cars always have the right of way. While by no means the law, and certainly showing signs of recent improvement as more considerate drivers take to the roads, it is a fact that if you are behind the wheel in Beijing, you are seemingly entitled to act as though you own the road. While this may express itself through arrogant maneuvers such as blocking all traffic in every direction as you brazenly attempt a U-turn from the center lane at a traffic light to avoid waiting your turn in the left turn lane, it is vitally important for pedestrians to register this fact, as they are granted no rights to the road what-so-ever, beyond that of obstacle. One might assume, for example, that when the little green man lights up across the street that it is OK to walk across the street. What you should actually do is look toward the flow of cars turning around the corner that will not even consider stopping for you, if anything speeding up to try to be the last one to make it before traffic is inevitably stopped. Eventually critical mass will be reached and through pedestrian solidarity, you may claim the crosswalk.

2. Only take an official taxi from the airport. The line at the taxi stand may be miles long, but if anyone approaches you at the airport offering you a ride please resist the temptation to negotiate with them. You could lose your luggage, all of your money, your pride, and in the most extreme, though exceptionally rare cases, even your life. I’m sure that security will be beefed up around the time of the Olympics, but these people are remarkably tenacious, so I’m sure you will be approached. Resist at all costs!!

3. Beware of the calculator. If anyone ever gets a calculator out to show you a price (unless you are truly off the beaten track and they are doing it for expediency’s sake - not the case if they are otherwise speaking relatively fluent English) be prepared to offer them an initial price of about one tenth of what they show you. If you can get it down to a third or less of the original price, you are a good bargainer. One half is acceptable for a novice. Any more and you should be prepared for the eventuality that you will find the same thing for much less somewhere else. In my experience, those who eschew the calculator are usually more likely to offer realistic prices, and my negotiation will be less aggressive.  You can avoid the haggling altogether by sticking to department stores where prices are fixed.  The Silk Street Market and other tourist traps are the worst!

4. Beware of art students. If anyone comes up to you telling you they are art students and asking if you’d like to see a private art show, avoid them like the plague. Unless you enjoy paying over 10 times over any reasonable value for mediocre art. I have always been naturally suspicious of them, so I have never actually gone with them, but this story has been verified on many occasions.

5. Beware of lady bars. I am personally quite wary of anyone who approaches me on the street to solicit me for anything, especially on a bar street, but I have heard many a sad tale from those who have fallen prey to the “lady bar” scheme. Inevitably you are taken to an extremely over-priced bar that may or may not have any “ladies” and liberated from all of your cash.

6. Beware of offers for tea. As innocuous as this sounds, many people have been lured into having innocent tea with some charming young ladies, only to be charged hundreds of dollars for a single pot! Rule of thumb, unless you are used to being approached by charming young ladies and asked out on a regular basis in your home country, be very wary if it happens to you in Beijing.

7. Beware of counterfeit money. There is a very good reason you will witness people checking all 100, 50 and even 20 rmb notes you offer with suspicion, and it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the watermarked image of Mao from the start. Many of the fakes are shoddy and easy to spot, but if you end up with one, it is best to accept the lesson rather than attempting to foist it off on someone else, as they may take it personally. Do you really want to attract that kind of karma anyway?

8. Beware of spit. OK, this is not really that big a deal, and one’s length in China can often be measured by the degree of lack of reaction when hearing a loud hawking sound, but it can be very bothersome to some people. If you have kids, be warned that all of the tiny puddles on the ground are actually spit, so if that grosses you out, be prepared to spend most of your trip staring at the ground. It is not considered necessary by many spitters to find some location off to the side toward which to expectorate, nor is the loud noise they make in preparation for such a rite considered unduly bothersome. After all, they are simply ridding the body of impurities, the air of which in Beijing supplies in plenty. More thoughts on spitting here.

9. Be prepared for assaults on your sensibilities. There are some things which simply come as a shock to newcomers to Beijing, and an open mind is the best defense. Traffic bothers nearly everyone. Once you realize that everyone is following the same “rules” and that there is order in the chaos, you can (maybe) relax. Other things simply confound the observer, such as crotchless pants for toddlers. I have witnessed the boggled eyes of many a conservative visitor at the way in which children’s private parts are put on public display, and the subsequent blank expression that ensues when no suitable explanation arises. It is a fact that Chinese kids are toilet trained lightyears ahead of those in the US because they are taught to pee on command, facilitated by kaidankuzi, or crotchless pants, sparing the landfills inundation with disposable diapers. At least so far. It seems that disposable diapers are catching on with the burgeoning middle class. Also, remember that pushing and shoving and general rude behavior in cities is a human trait, not a Chinese one.

10. Get a subway pass. The best way around town in times of traffic is the increasingly convenient subway system. However, it can get very crowded at times, and the lines can get long. It is a good idea, therefore, to avoid single use tickets and get a pass that allows you to scan in and out of the subway multiple times. You can top up the card as you go along, and save time. You can even use the same card on city buses, which have the added bonus of charging you less if you use a card! Some buses that use distance-based fare systems require you to swipe again when getting off.

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Zongzi is popular on Duanwujie
Zongzi is a tasty treat gobbled up on Duanwujie.

My daughter Blysse handed me a note to sign on Friday morning for her school which stated that in celebration of Duanwujie, (Dragon Boat Festival) the students would all get three days off from school: Saturday June 7th; Sunday June 8th; and Monday June 9th. My guard was up immediately. (You can see my thoughts on the unique Chinese method of allocating holidays from a few years back in my article, “What?! School on Sunday?!?!“)

My suspicion aroused, I asked, “OK, if they are specifically stating that you have Saturday and Sunday off, which you already had, does that mean they are going to add extra days next week and make you go to school on Saturday and Sunday?”

“No,” she replied, “But we do get Monday off.”

“Then why are they telling me that you are getting three days off, when in fact, you’re only getting one?” Blysse responded with a shrug that has become typical when I demand an explanation for something about Chinese culture which, from my American perspective, defies description. I brought the subject up with several Chinese acquaintances, and it seems I am not alone in noticing this ironic bequeathing of that which we already had. This year marks the commencement of a new holiday schedule, which saw the shortening of the Golden Week period in early May, and the addition of several shorter holidays throughout the year. The total tally is basically unchanged, but everyone gets more frequent breaks. To accomplish this, they have taken some traditional festivals and elevated them to public holidays. Duanwujie is one such holiday.

The most widely accepted version of the origin of this holiday is that is commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan, who rose to fame during in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of Chu royalty, when the king allied with the rival state of Qin, Qu Yuan was banished for his vocal opposition of the alliance. Throughout his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, and when the Qin eventually conquered his beloved Chu capital, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional lunar calendar, which falls on June 8 this year.

The three most widespread activities for the Duanwu Festival are preparing and eating zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats. Some also adorn their house with images of guardian Zhong Kui, hang up mugwort and calamus, take long walks, and wear perfumed medicine bags, leading some modern researchers to conclude that the holiday was superimposed upon an ancient traditional holiday designed to ward off summer disease and evil. The festival has certainly been popular for a very long time, and is celebrated in various forms throughout many Asian countries. Now that it is an official holiday, it may rise in significance, though not perhaps for the reasons intended.

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