The Essence of Caitlin

Being the cool cat that I am, I decided to follow the latest Facebook fad of looking up your name on Urban Dictionary. What I found was hilarious, mildly offensive and definitely worth sharing.

The definitions started out making total sense:

And then proceeded to enter the land of crazy:

Ya think some of these authors had a personal vendetta against a Caitlin in their life? Check your name on Urban Dictionary if you dare — I just learned so much about myself!

Escaping China

I officially moved out of China July 28, 2009 — how weird! In some ways I’ll really miss China, but my last day ensured that I wouldn’t be too heart-broken to leave.

In short, my landlord tried to stiff me on returning the deposit since he figured I was an easy target, and it took several hours, a Chinese friend, and eight menacing foreigners cornering him in my apartment to get the deposit back.

And then I zoomed off to the airport with not a minute to spare and just made my flight to Japan.

I’d give you the details, but I’d rather not dwell on it. I don’t understand how some people can treat others so meanly just for money. So instead, I’ll post this picture of a kitten.

Oink oink, I’m in jail

So China is a little bit freaked out about swine flu, and I’m under quarantine. I don’t have a flu, or a fever, nor did I have any contact with someone who did, but just the same, I’m not supposed to leave my apartment for seven days. Apparently anyone coming from a country with swine flu faces the same inconvenience. I get called at least once a day by an official who asks if I have a fever or other symptoms. Sometimes he says he’ll come over but he hasn’t actually come over yet. I feel like a criminal, which is how I often feel here as a foreigner.

Reportedly if you sit next to someone with a fever or swine flu on the plane here, you’re whisked away to a seedy hotel and kept for seven days.

I dislike the government right now.

The Unappealing truth

I have three vegetable peelers:

The first veggie peeler came with a knife set. The set included three knives, a peeler and a small cutting board for 35 kuai, so I wasn’t expecting much from it. It at least took off skins plus chunks of flesh, but more because of blunt force on my part than it’s own merit.

Needless to say, I thought I could trade up, so I went to the market and bought the most expensive peeler there (about 8 kuai). Since there aren’t any recognizable brand names — miss those Oxo Good Grips kitchen utensils! — when in doubt, pay more. If possible, this peeler was even worse than the first one. The pivoting head made it impossible to aim, and it wiggled all over my vegetables, hardly removing any skin at all.

But it’s number three that finally made me crack. I bought number three at HEC, the restaurant supply store. Figuring all their peelers would be decent since they supply the pros, I got the second-most expensive peeler. It was about 4 kuai, and the most expensive one was over 30 kuai. When I got home, I was barely able to contain my anticipation of using it to easily peel several pounds of potato for potato leek soup. I took up my first potato, and slide the peeler along the skin — and nothing came off. I mean, the peeler didn’t even make a little slice in the skin. It grazed off of it as as if I was attempting to peel the potato with a kitten. Frustrated, I pushed harder, angling the blade more — still nothing. Finally, close to rage, I dug the peeler in and liberated a chunk of skin plus a large hunk of potato.

Disgusted, I threw the disgraced peeler in the trash, and moved on to my tried and true method of peeling veggies:

About a minute later, I pulled it out of the trash, penitent, took a picture, and promised myself to blog about my wayward peelers.

That’s one thing about China — you really can’t take shortcuts we take for granted in the States, and the weirdest things give you a new perspective on life. It’s actually kind of liberating to realize you don’t really need all those fancy tools and premixed foods; all you need is patience and elbow greese. It surprises me how many recipes call for premade ingredients that I just can’t get — premade doughs, cake mixes, spice mixes, bread crumbs… the list goes on and on. But it’s been really fun experimenting with the abundance of fresh ingredients I can get. I’ve made homemade apple sauce, bread, pasta sauces, whipped stiff egg whites without a mixer (admittedly poor Jeff did the heavy lifting on that), made my own chilis and curries — and it’s all been a really fun adventure. I don’t even mind peeling my veggies with a knife, with the exception of apples, whose round shape is the devil’s work.

Communications cutoff?

Skype appears to be blocked on the mainland right now, and for some mysterious reason I can’t dig up anything about “Skype” and “China” newer than 2005 on a google search. Folks back home, fill me in on what’s going on! Caitlinpedia Brown needs YOUR help!

Burning dreams at New Year’s end

Living in Beijing, it’s sometimes hard to see the effects of the economic crisis here, but in the past few days I feel there’s been a shift in atmosphere.

As you may have already read, a large part of one of Beijing’s signature architectural complexes burned down on Lantern Festival, the last night of Chinese New Year. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which was part of the CCTV complex housing the famed Underpants Building, was to open in a month’s time, and the entire complex has been a source of Beijing pride for a good year ahead of its completion.

The circumstances of the fire were a little unclear at first. Although fireworks, which are let off hyperbolically even in dense downtown areas, were an obvious suspect, officials were strangely mum for about a day. CCTV, which owns the complex, later took responsibilty for the fire, claiming their own fireworks show from the roof of the unfinished building caused the fire.

But it all seems a little — I don’t know — convenient. As one of my friends pointed out today, they were unlikely to make money on a luxury hotel in these economic conditions, and insurance money can only be recouped in accidents. It was just too poetic for the building to burn down on the last night of Chinese New Year after 15 uneventful days of fireworks all around it. Regardless of the true cause of the fire, it’s a little uncanny how completely expected and unexpected the destruction of the hotel was — after all, something was bound to burn down with so many fireworks set off in the city by amateurs. But it’s still hard to believe that this iconic building was the one that burned down; imagine the Trans-America building burning to the ground and you’ll see what I mean.

I fear that the fire is a powerful metaphor for the chaotic times China is facing, and unsettling omen of Beijing’s future. Last year we saw a boom for China in many ways. National pride was soaring, construction around Beijing was racing to keep up with Olympic demand for hotels, restaurants and attractions, old buildings were being torn down to make room for luxury condos for the new generation of business owners and expatriats. Although there were concerns about a world economic downturn, many felt as if China was invincible.

Especially during the Olympics, it was impossible to imagine China tumbling down off of its pedestal along with the rest of the world. Beijing was in a dream world, and we, as witnesses to the Olympics, were privy to a view of China’s future. It was modern, clean, polite and above all, luxurious. The Olympic venues were without blemish, and the Olympics had spurred a flurry of new buildings, including one of the world’s few seven-star hotels.

Six months later, I’m wondering if “one world, one dream” was just a lie, and Beijing will soon discover the cruelty of reality after enjoying such a sweet reverie. The Olympic venues, which symbolized so much, have even fallen into disrepair a scant four months after the games’ closing. When I visited the Olympic Green recently, I tried hard to ignore the fact that the Bird’s Nest stadium was covered in dirt, that the water cube bubbles were wrinkled, that lamps were falling off of lampposts. However, recent events have brought the scene of desolation at the Olympic Green to my mind.

Last week Citigroup announced that in order to finance the maintenance of  the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium — a cost of $8.82 million USD annually — it would turn the complex into a shopping plaza in the next few years. It’s sad to see a symbol that really meant something to so many people seemingly get thrown aside by its owners and the Chinese government. Initially, the stadium was to house Beijing’s soccer team, but they have pulled out of the deal. Currently, the Olympic Green is open to tourists, an alleged average of 20,000 to 30,000 per day according to the tourist authorities. Take this figure with a heaping truckload of salt — Beijing authorities release misleading numbers often, and the two separate times I’ve visited the Olympic Green since the Olympics I may have seen 100 tourists, combined.

Strolling through the empty Olympic Green, it was somehow impossible to recapture the feeling of harmony and hope I felt while I was attending the games. Now, bereft of the crowds that it was meant for, the green feels like an empty mockery of China’s hopes. It speaks only to an excess of ambition and a disregard for pragmatism. How could they tear down homes and businesses to build this gigantic park without a fool-proof plan for its preservation and continued usefulness? How could something once so great now be so empty, falling apart and covered in dirt?

I suppose time will tell if this is truly the beginning of the end, if the destruction of these iconic Beijing landmarks really is an omen. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like the paralyzingly fast destruction of the Olympic Green and Mandarin Oriental Hotel buildings are inextricably intertwined the the economic problems China is facing — or not facing, depending on how you look at it.

The government continues to deny and downplay the economic situation here, but there are signs if you look for them. Construction, which was buzzing all about the city before the Olympics has come to a standstill — many buildings stand as empty shells, paralyzed now for months. Estimates put unemployment at about 20 million people nationally right now, but estimates are usually low. In addition, the government puts growth at about 6.8 percent, while independent analysts from other countries put it at zero to 1 percent. I’ve seen a lot of people on the streets recently with “seeking employment” signs, and friends have commented on a distinct tenseness in the atmosphere. One friend has seen several fistfights break out over nothing, and recent shutdowns of stalls at the horrid Silk Market have caused near riots by sellers. In the South, which depends more on exports and manufacturing, riots have become increasingly common.

It’s going to be an interesting year, that’s for sure. As always in China, this could be a time of incredible social unrest, unlike anything China has seen in many years — or, it could be nothing. Only time will tell.

Spamateurs

Like most people, one of my least favorite things is spam. The evolution of spam — more of a devolution, actually —  is quite fascinating, however.

In the 1990s, the most common spam I remember was the “Nigerian Princess” meme. As I’m sure anyone Internet-savvy enough to read this blog knows, this involved an elaborate plea for money to save a Nigerian royal, who would return the favor by adding millions to said spamee’s bank account. Even at twelve, I knew this was a load of crap, but apparently, lots of people fell for it. Currently, many online companies do not accept transactions coming from Nigeria, so I suppose it caused quite a bit of antipathy. While these spam efforts seem flimsy, at the very least their goal is clear. They do use some amount of logic, providing a clear path from their e-mails to a spamee’s pocketbook.

Oddly, in the years since these e-mails were rampant, the logic of spam has inexplicably deteriorated. When I got a Gmail account, the most common kind of spam I got was simply filled with gibberish. I’m not really sure what this was supposed to accomplish. It never seemed to be selling anything, and if it contained a virus, my little Mac was never affected. As useless as these are, they don’t really hurt anything and are pretty tame.

However, most recently, I have come to see how far the brilliant intellectual exercise of spamming has fallen. This brings us to my current blog, which garners a completely new kind of spam — the spam comment. I don’t really understand spam to begin with, but this is really mind-boggling. I think that the point of a spam comment is that it will appear on my site, and visitors will click on the links, creating some kind of revenue for someone. However, since all comments need to be approved, this is quite unproductive, and a huge waste of my time. I’ve found that since being in China, the number of spamments I get per day varies, ranging from two or three to over 20.

These spamments come in four varieties:

1. Run-of-the-mill gibberish. These comments contain links and random numbers and letters. They’re pretty intellectually harmless, and at their most productive could plausibly be made into postmodern poetry.

2. Run-of-the-mill Viagra advertisements. I don’t have a penis, and I certainly don’t need Viagra, but apparently I’m still worth the spambot’s time. I really don’t get this.

3. Run-of-the-mill porn advertisements. Pretty self-explanatory.

4. Really, really sick porn advertisements. Explanation likely not desired by readers, but here‘s a sample if you’re curious.

It’s category four that really gets my goat. As I’ve previously stated, it’s incredibly unlikely that a spamment like this would appear on my blog. But even if it did, it still has to be one of the dumbest attempts at spam in the history of the universe. And it’s the most numerous of all four categories. That’s right. On a given day, I go through up to 60 of these ridiculous comments, deleting tens at a time.

Here’s the thing. If you’re attempting to spam someone out of money, you’re up against pretty big odds. Most Internet users today are pretty aware of spam, and can easily spot the signs of it. Accordingly, to improve their odds, spammers need to reach a huge number of people in hopes that a select few will actually believe that some girl with large breasts really is waiting to chat a stranger up online, or a Nigerian prince truly trusts his future to some housewife in Nebraska. To do so, they often appeal to our human weaknesses of pride, sexual appetite and/or greed.

The Nigerians clearly grasped this concept, in that their offer appeals to pretty much everyone. It offers both the ego-stroking idea that one could be someone else’s savior, and the bait of millions of dollars. Motivation-wise, it’s pretty solid. Run-of-the-mill porn spamments also pass the motivational test, since most people do have libidoes, and certainly some will click out of curiosity.

However, very, very few people are into beastiality and incest — or even more specialized categories within those categories. So what exactly is the logic behind my really sick spamments? They use a method — commenting on a family blog — that is highly unlikely to succeed, and they use bait that few people find attractive. Who exactly thought this scheme up, and who approved it? It just doesn’t make any sense. I know I probably shouldn’t be upset that spammers seem to be getting dumber, but I’m someone who believes in evolution and progress. Is the devolution of spam really a victory for us as a species, or does it speak to an unstoppable slide into complete idiocy?

Apologies if I ruined anyone’s appetite with this post. Now you know what I deal with every day just to keep my blog “family friendly.”

Bass Ackwards Education

While talking to some of my new foreign friends from school, I learned something truly mystifying. If you are an undergraduate foreign student at BNU, you are subject to many rules about which classes you can take, when you can take them, and so on. This seems pretty logical, after all, they want to make sure that the foreign students go to the right level of classes and get a fair shot at a good learning experience.

However, one of the rules is that you must take three years of classes within the school for foreign students. You see, foreign students usually cannot take classes with regular university students. Instead, they take language classes, of which there are more or less four years’ worth. Now, when you get to the university, everyone takes a placement test and starts classes accordingly. You’d think that placing very highly would ultimately be good. In my mind, if you placed highly enough, you could skip out on the language classes, which are kind of boring, and start off taking real university courses. And wouldn’t that be a great way to really get fluent?

That’s where the three-year rule rears it’s nasty head. If you place too highly, you run out of foreign student courses before three years is up. In order to fulfill the requirement, you have to take classes from a lower level. Again.

That’s right.

One girl in my fourth-year class is in this situation. Next year she’ll be taking second-year Chinese.

Ok, so I know that really, when it comes to languages, reviewing can only help. But a whole year in a lower-level class seems like torture. I can’t understand why they have such inflexible rules, and why they seem to try as hard as possible to keep foreign students from taking classes within the other university departments.

Luckily, I am an exchange student, so I can do as I jolly well please since I’ll only be a pain to them for one year. Life just isn’t fair, is it?

Oh, that conniving government

Even if you don’t know your garlic press from your pasta maker, you can probably recognize this brand as a leader in knife sales. But you may be surprised to know that Henckels does not always sell knives, at least not in Beijing.

Let me draw up a time line for you, and we can see understand this problem with more clarity.

August 8, the Beijing Olympics begin

August 9, an American tourist is stabbed in Beijing, incurring increased security measures

August 16, I move into my new apartment

August 24, Beijing Olympic games close

September 17, Beijing Paralympic games close

Like most people, I began shopping for needed household items as soon as I moved into my apartment. One of the most important things to me was to get my kitchen up and running, so I began buying all my pots, pans and the like. Unlike grocery stores in the U.S., most stores in China are more like Costco — they sell virtually everything you need for your house. So, I began what would become a long and tiresome search for a knife at Wu Mart, the giant chain grocery store near my house that sells everything from lingerie to kitchen stoves to fresh-cut fish. I cruised down the silverware and kitchen utensils aisle, looking desperately for a kitchen knife, to no avail. Thinking it was a fluke, I asked an employee, only to get a terse “no knives” answer. So a few days later, I went to Bonjour, a competing large supermarket. Again, “no knives.”

Figuring I must just not know where Chinese people buy knives, I started asking around. Most people seemed bewildered that I couldn’t find one. So, I visited several malls and went to their home wares sections, only to continually get the “no knives” response. Weeks passed, Jeff and I went traveling, and I arrived back with the Olympics over and a renewed hope in my heart that I would be able to find a knife. The shelves at Wu Mart remained empty, and the local malls had nothing for me.

This is where Henckels comes in. While out with Jeff and my parents in mid to late September, we went to the most upscale mall district in Beijing. Jeff marched me into a Henckels store, almost demanding that knives be sold. We went to the salesgirl, and I asked her whether they had any knives for sale. Her embarrassed reply was “not right now.”

I’m sorry, “not right now?” What does that mean?! Also, this is Henckels. They shouldn’t sell anything but knives! But the store shelves were devoid of anything sharp. I asked the other stores there, and got basically the same answer. Finally, I started a new strategy: “When will you be selling knives?”

“September 20th”

Now, often when something inconvenient or sort of stupid happens in Beijing, it is blamed on the Olympics. This time, it really was the Olympics’ fault. As it turns out, stores across the city were banned from selling knives. Most people never noticed, because you only need to buy kitchen knives a few years at the most. I, however, spent over a month unable to really cook anything or eat fruit that required chopping, all because the government is crazy paranoid. Let the record also show that to get into the games and all subway stations, you have to go through screening, so a knife wouldn’t get anywhere anyway. But let’s not get fooled by logic.

On September 20, I tried again to get a knife, only to get the same responses from salespeople — no knives. Annoyed, I put forward the claim that it was September 20, and I knew knives were allowed. But, the salespeople said they hadn’t gotten the official OK yet.

So, finally on Sept. 28 or so, I finally found a knife at an upscale store. It was more expensive than any knife I’ve ever owned — over 200 kuai, or about $40 USD — but I decided to just get the dang thing.

A few days ago — as in early October — Wu Mart started selling knife sets with cutting boards and honers for 35 kuai. I was rather upset considering that the cheap knives were put back on the market way later than the expensive ones, but bought the set anyway since it was useful, and I had this nagging compulsion to stock up on knives.

Beijing bureacracy really does something to your psyche sometimes.

I guess the lesson is: the government can stop you from cutting up veggies for dinner, but it won’t go out of it’s way to prevent you getting kidney stones at breakfast. What a safe Olympics!