The trip to the airport was entirely painless. I left the hotel in Shenzhen around 7:00 AM and caught a (27 yuan) taxi to the Guangdong border crossing. When I climbed out of the taxi a tout with a manbag over his shoulder approached and asked if I was going to the Hong Kong airport. He pointed me to the end of the taxi stand and produced a roll of stickers and a ticket and asked for 150 RMB. All of which, including the price, was in line with what I expected. I paid up, and about 15 minutes later (I think we were waiting on additional passengers to fill the shuttle) I was going through customs which took all of five minutes. It literally took longer for the shuttle folks to pack five passengers’ bags into the back of a Toyota van than it took to get through customs. The van took us straight through to the airport, and from the time I left the hotel to the time I reached my gate in Hong Kong International it took under two hours.
The flight to Beijing was supposed to leave at 7:45 Friday evening, but we ended up being delayed a couple hours. On the one hand, we knew we were going to be landing late and that meant getting to the hostel late, but on the other hand Shenzhen has what may be the nicest looking airport in the world. It’s new and modern and has more in common with an upscale shopping mall than it does a place like La Guardia or Philly. Including the overpriced food, but the free wifi made up for it.
We touched down in Beijing around 1:00 and the first thing I noticed was the cloud of orange smog. It was so thick I could barely see the planes 200 meters away. Then the smell hit me. An acrid, industrial stench, part jet fuel and part diesel fumes. The wretched stink of it snaked its fingers into my nose and into my lungs, and I was sure I would be breathing fire for two days. American cities have smog that wears tacky pants and makes you mutter about kids these days. Beijing has smog that doubles you over with a fist to the gut, takes your lunch money and leaves you with a wedgie.
Getting from the airport to the hostel turned into a bit of an adventure. The metro was closed, so our plan of taking the train to the subway and the subway to the hostel wasn’t going to work. And there were no cabs. First we tried getting a ride from one of the “private taxis.” The guy assured us he could fit five people, so away we went, following him through a parking garage and out to the street on the other side. It was dubious enough that we were going to let a tout take us, but when the lights flashed on his Maxima, we collectively decided to find something else. This turned out to be a really nice van with an older, grumpy Chinese guy driving. It wasn’t cheap (well, it was super cheap, but not by Chinese standards), but it took us to the hostel.
The hostel. I had never stayed at a hostel before. It’s located down the sketchiest alley in Beijing. Actually, it’s probably a very pleasant alley, but I come from a part of America where we don’t do alleys so much as we do giant fields full of cows. The alley was narrow and dark with buildings on either side that were older than my country. I have never seen so many rusty bicycles and scooters. The hostel itself was clean and simple and smelled like Shenzhen. Also it was cheap. And full of nice people. On the balance it wasn’t bad. Definitely an experience worth having, though not one I’m in a hurry to repeat. (Ten years ago sure, but I’m growing softer as I grow older.)
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear and I slept right through it until about 10:00 since we didn’t reach the hostel until around 3:00 AM. By the time I did go outside, it was still bright, still clear and if I hadn’t known I was in Beijing, I wouldn’t have believed it. There are only so many perfect spring days that a person gets to experience in a lifetime. A few dozen, maybe. The kind of day where you don’t have responsibility, the weather is clear and 75 degrees and the whole world is just a short hike over the nearest hill. The weather for my two days in Beijing qualifies as two of the most gorgeous days in the history of days. And there’s a lot of history in Beijing.
I know because I saw some of it.
Our plan was originally to go to the Great Wall on Saturday. It involved taking the subway to a train station and an overland train to the wall. It was already pushing noon when we made it to the station, and we realized (with the help of some friendly Americans we ran into), that we weren’t going to have much time at the wall by the time we got there. Their advice was to go to the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City instead.
And so we did.
The Summer Palace is a combination of nature garden, Buddhist temple, and tourist trap. We did the tourist part first, but quickly found the garden part. Hilly trails wander amongst the blooming cherry trees, and a lake sprawls behind it all. It’s the kind of place a body could go to spend a day and wake up a hundred years later. Excuse me, this is China. A thousand years later.
Shenzhen is undeniably Chinese, but it doesn’t have the sense of history that Beijing does. Shenzhen has only been around for about 30 years as a real city, but every building and every street and every alley in Beijing carries a weight of history upon its back. The demographics in Beijing skew much older than Shenzhen, and even the bicycles look like they’ve been around for 50 or 60 years. The saying is that America has space, but Europe has history. Europe has nothing on China. The English and the Germans were just tribesmen throwing rocks at the Italians while the Chinese were building a civilization.
We made it to the Forbidden City around 4:00, and learned that it closed at 3:30. Because of course you close your cultural attractions in the middle of the afternoon. I’m shaking my fist at you, China. I know you’re old and have an early bed time, but this is ridiculous. On the plus side, Tiananmen Square was magnificent. I saw the giant picture of Mao, but the whole time all I could think of was the image of the rubber ducky stopping tanks in the middle of the square.
Tiananmen and the area around the Forbidden City is chock full of people selling things. Hats and postcards and green cans of Tsingtao. I’m not very good at bargaining with vendors. My idea of shopping is to either order it online (after hours of careful research) or let my wife buy it for me. So when the little old lady told me 30 yuan for a snazzy green army hat, I did the quick math and decided it was worth five bucks. No big deal. A few minutes (and a few vendors) later, one of my American coworkers starts negotiating with a vendor. The bastard got his hat for 15 yuan. And then the other American guy got one, too. Two hats for the price of my one! I’m still bitter. That’s two whole dollars and fifty cents I’ll never get back.
We wandered past Wangfujing (I think; we literally just wandered past it) and saw the stalls full of scorpions and spiders and centipedes. No one was brave enough to try them, though I was kind of tempted by the octopus. I’ve had grilled octopus in NYC and it was heavenly, but something about trying it from a random vendor in Beijing made me hold off. Well, that and the Americans at the train station telling us that when they’ve had food there it’s made them sick. (Thanks again random Americans! Even if you are Cubs fans.)
Dinner was at Da Dong, the same place Michelle Obama ate a week before us. And it was good. Amazingly good. So good that all other duck is forever ruined for me. Thanks, Obama!
And then there was Sunday. And Sunday was Mutianyu. (Following in First Lady Obama’s footsteps again.) The Great Wall of China. More like the Great Staircase of China. I don’t know how the other sections of the wall are, but Mutianyu is in the mountains. Big, jagged peaks. And the wall just climbs right up them. The cherry trees were in bloom, and the air was clear and crisp and cool. We took the cable car to the top and a giant freaking toboggan back down. (Seriously. A toboggan. I even fell out and skinned my knee like a kid.)
The wall is worth seeing. Go once. I’m not sure there are words for it. It’s long and it’s steep and it’s a testament to the willpower of a civilization to not just build it, but to keep rebuilding it over the centuries. Stone upon stone, kilometer upon kilometer.
It reminds me of Times Square more than anything. Just jaw dropping. There only a few places I’ve been that have just left me in awe, and standing at the top of a guard tower on top of a mountain and seeing the wall snaking away into the distance is definitely one of them.
I’m 1500 words into this and I feel like I’ve spent longer typing it than I actually spent in Beijing. China is a different world, and Beijing is so very different than Shenzhen. One of the folks I met at the hostel told me that he’s been here a year and a half, and he felt like it took a year to really get a feel for the country. I can believe it, though I wonder what he’d say a decade from now.
It’s about a 16 hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong, and I left Chicago around 3:00 PM on a Thursday and landed in Hong Kong at 8:00 PM local time on a Friday. (7:00 AM Chicago time.) I dozed for a few hours on the plane, but it was a very restless sleep. Economy seats on Cathay Pacific’s 777 were similar to the economy seats on the US domestic 737s that the major airlines fly everywhere, i.e. they’re cramped at the hips and feet, and they don’t recline well.
After landing in Hong Kong, I traveled to Shenzen and managed to get to bed around midnight and slept for another four and a half hours with the help of 5mg of melatonin. Saturday was a long, fatigued day, and while I desperately wanted to take a nap in the afternoon, I forced myself to stay up until about 9:00 PM. Five milligrams of melatonin and I was able to sleep pretty soundly until about 5:30 AM Sunday. The jet lag hit HARD on Sunday, but again I stayed up all day, including a couple hours of (admittedly light) soccer with the other Americans here. Ten milligrams of melatonin Sunday night saw me drop like a sauce covered dumpling and sleep through from around 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM.
In the end, it took until about Wednesday to feel fully adjusted, but I was able to go out and do some shopping and eating the day after I landed, and play soccer two days later. I haven’t needed any melatonin since then, and I’m going to bed around 11:00 and getting up around 6:30, pretty much like I do at home.
I’ve been asked to provide some pictures and commentary on daily life in the city, but unfortunately my daily life so far has been work and food with a little time for writing and a little more time for calling home. It looks like I’ll have some time to explore this weekend, but until I do, here’s more food.
One of the first things I noticed when I met the Chinese team at work was that they all go by American names. It seemed unlikely that folks born and raised in China to Chinese parents with Mandarin as a first language and English as a second language would be named things like Larry or John, and after talking to the team over lunch, they explained that their English names are chosen based on translations of their Chinese name or a nickname from college or a character in a movie or—in my favorite case—on a powerful weapon from a video game. One of my American coworkers made the comment that if he had that option, he’d just go by BFG9000. It seems to me that it would be more appropriate that the American folks go by Chinese names while we’re in China, but that’s just not how it works here. If I get to pick a name, I’m going to find something nice and simple and humble. Anyone know how to say “Super Ninja Software Master” in Mandarin?
The day after I first arrived the American folks that were already here took me out to lunch. Somewhere along the way one of them explained that in the first two weeks he was in China he lost about 10 pounds while he learned how to use chopsticks, where the good places to eat were, and what kinds of things he liked. So far I am having none of those problems, and certainly not *losing* 10 pounds. I think I just ate four pounds of noodles at dinner, and that was after a smorgasbord at lunch. We went to the park on Sunday and played soccer for a couple hours, and I’m going to have to put in a few more shifts on the pitch if I want to go home without finding the 10 pounds the other guys lost.
Aside: There were three of us on the soccer pitch Sunday. We walked down to Shenzhen Stadium and “asked” (it may or may not have involved kicking gestures) a helpful policeman where the soccer pitches were. He pointed us around to the back of the stadium, so off we went (right through the middle of the Shenzhen International Car Show, because why wouldn’t you have a car show in the parking lot of a soccer stadium?) When we found the practice pitches, we also found a couple dozen Chinese kids having soccer practice. There were a couple empty pitches, so we slipped around the edge and started kicking a ball around, no big deal. Every time we mishit a ball (often), and someone went to retrieve it, the little heads on the pitch turned to follow us with wide eyes. It’s a very strange experience for me as a white guy that lives in the Midwest to draw so many “you don’t belong here stares.” Strange and humbling.
The food here is outstanding. The last two days have included dumplings for breakfast, a feast of a dozen dishes for lunch today, a bowl of beef noodle soup for dinner tonight, and finally (finally!) some actual chocolate from a little bakery down the street for dessert. (As we left the bakery they were getting their eggs delivered. Two milk crates FULL of gorgeous brown eggs.) I’ve now been to three group dinners where we ordered a number of different dishes and sampled from each, and I’ve been able to sample and enjoy plenty of new things. The only negative is that I don’t actually know what anything is called, so I have no idea how to order again. My favorites have included a braised pork belly; roasted goose; a seafood bowl that had about four heads (not cloves, heads) of garlic mixed in with the fish, squid, onions and peppers; and the aforementioned piece of chocolate cake with raspberry filling.
One of my other favorite dishes is something the American folks call “The Larry Special.” We went to lunch at a little place near the office and found a table near the back. The menu was on the table, and it had items ranging from 25 yuan on down. The leader of our merry band pointed to the menu and held up four fingers. After some pointing and some smiling and saying the word “four” a few times we had ordered four of the fourth item on the menu. The Larry Special. It came out on a sizzling, steaming cast iron plate. A healthy mound of rice dominated the middle, but I could barely see the rice for all the onion and vegetables and gravy and beef that surrounded and covered it. The Chinese are big on mixing textures, but this thing had it all. Tons of flavor from the beef and peppers and anise. Lots of texture from the rice and the vegetables and onion. The Larry Special was a win.
As we were eating, they explained that they had come to the restaurant with one of the Chinese guys from work, and he had ordered that item. As soon as they saw it, they wanted it, too, and once they had it they loved it. Thus we trek to a hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint, point to the Mandarin menu, and confidently inform the proprietor that we want the “Larry Special.”
(All names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
As I write this it is Sunday in Shenzhen, and I’m still battling with jet lag. Went to bed last night at around 10:00 PM local time, but woke up around 2:00 for half an hour, then back to sleep until 5:00. It’s difficult to get any writing done when my body can’t figure whether it wants to sleep or be awake. Everyone tells me to avoid naps and to force myself to go to bed at a normal time. I’m trying, but by noon I’m dragging like a plow horse.
I’m on the 6th floor of my hotel, and the windows hardly block the sounds of the street below. At first I thought that the birds in China were both extremely loud and extremely persistent, even in the dark, but I learned yesterday that what I thought were birds were actually scooter alarms. Many of the scooters have proximity alarms and they chirp at passersby just for walking near them. Presumably if you were to try absconding with said scooter, the alarm would wail even louder.
I’m in the Futian part of the city, and it reminds me of being in New York City in Queens. Many of the buildings are in the six to 10 story range and storefronts occupy the ground floor adjacent to the wide sidewalks. There’s a certain city odor that’s more pronounced here than in New York. Eau de toilette? Or perhaps Eau de Urine. One of the tricks I’ve learned is to not flush the toilet while the sink is unstopped. I think they handle black and gray drain plumbing differently here.
The other major smell is the food. It more than makes up for the city odor. I’ve eaten a few meals at local places, though I have yet to have actual local food. My coworkers that are more familiar with the area have been making the restaurant suggestions, so on Saturday we had Chinese food from a place that makes food from the northern part of the country. The place makes a salad that has bean sprouts, julienned red and green bell peppers, and some kind of ginger sauce. It has this amazing crunch with a blast of sweet and spicy and sour; I will be returning there soon. We followed that up with dinner from a Korean BBQ place and lunch today from a chain that I think is the Chinese version of Qdoba, but instead of a burrito you get a bowl of soup and noodles. Even if my food hasn’t been locally authentic, it’s been quite good, and I’m looking forward to trying more.
We made a trip to one of the local stores yesterday. It turns out that the “local” store is actually a Walmart. It’s just down the street from the McDonalds, in fact. It was a lesson in global trade: America exports stores; China exports goods. The customer service here is very different. There are people on many of the aisles to assist customers. The Dove representative helped us pick out some body wash. A kind lady in the liquor department provided us with complimentary bottle openers. I’m not sure what the folks on the baby food aisle do, but I’m told they ensure that people aren’t buying formula in bulk.
Today some coworkers and I made a trip to a tailor to get sized for a suit. That involved a quick cab ride to Luohu, a shopping area with a massive train station beside it. The tailor is in a five story mall, and as I walked there I met my first tout. These are folks that stand in front of businesses and try to get you to come inside to buy goods. Or they stand in the middle of a giant concrete concourse and try to sell you watches from a paper flyer. There are touts in New York, but they’re nowhere near as aggressive as they are here. One guy followed us a quarter mile trying to sell watches. Once we were in the mall, another lady followed us up a couple floors. In between these two folks were another half dozen that were less persistent. I assume they must be making money doing this or they wouldn’t expend so much effort, but I don’t understand how.
The language barrier is immense. Not only can I not speak the language at all (shame on me), but I can’t read it, either. The street signs have recognizable letters, but most everything other than a few brand names is in Mandarin. I now have more sympathy for my pre-schooler back home that’s working hard on reading. An amazing amount of communication can be accomplished by pointing, however, and I’ve become an expert pointer. My conversations all consist of ni hao(hello), some pointing, handing over some cash, and xie xie (thank you) to finish. The other folks here have also mastered “bing shui” for ice water, though we mangle it horribly and half the time the folks at the restaurants need hand gestures to understand what we want. It really puts into perspective how terrible we are.
Overall, it’s been exciting and exhausting, and I’m only the second full day. The coming days are going to be busy with work, and next weekend we’re planning a trip to Hong Kong. I plan to stay busy enough to keep the homesickness at bay, at least for a while.
January was a lousy month for writing. I wrote a short story for the William Ledbetter contest, and that’s it. I started two novels, and while I do want to finish them both, they won’t get finished with the plot or characters I had mind. C’est la vie.
On the other hand, January was a great month for reading.
War – Sebastian Junger
My Story Can Beat Up Your Story – Jeffrey Schechter
Wired for Story – Lisa Cron
Big Red’s Daughter – John McPartland
Scrapyard Ship – Mark Wayne McGinnis
On Basilisk Station – David Weber
Terms of Enlistment – Marko Kloos
Armor – John Steakley
Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Redshirts – John Scalzi
Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
Sand – Hugh Howey (incomplete)
Clockwork Soldier – Ken Liu
The Wrong Foot – Stephanie Burgis
Pastry Run – Nancy Fulda
Cannibal – Chuck Palahniuk
The Jackal’s Wedding – Vajra Chandrasekera
That Undiscovered Country – Nancy Fulda
The Lamplighter Legacy – Patrick O’Sullivan
Taking the High Road – RPL Johnson
Letting Go – David Walton
She Who Lies in Secret – Steven R Stewart
Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls – Richard Parks
Not many of those were published last month, let alone last year, but this is about when I read (or re-read) them, not when they were published. I do intend to finish Sand, but I found myself distracted by non-fiction. The “I should be writing” guilt doesn’t way on me as heavily when I can justify my procrastination on “research.”
Messrs. Dunning & Kruger sent another letter this week, but they signed it “Neil Clarke.” I shall continue with my correspondence in the hopes that the responses grow longer.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and that’s a reflection of priorities and forgetfulness. I’m busily writing away under a non-SF/F pen name, and I’ve also found that my short thoughts are more easily encapsulated on twitter, where I can be found as @dbrentbaldwin.
Today’s post, however, concerns books on writing. I’ve read a couple dozen books on the subject in the last few years, and some have been much better than others. Here are five of my favorites.
On Writing by Steven King – Half autobiography, half book on craft, it offers much sound advice for the beginner, but more importantly it offers a considerable amount of inspiration. It’s hard to read a chapter and not find myself wanting to sit down and dive headlong into a new story.
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block – These chapters are taken from Block’s long-running series of articles he wrote for Writer’s Digest, but they cover a gamut of topics, and they also a good amount of practical for the beginner and the working writer both.
Story by Robert McKee – The best of the screenwriting books I’ve read. It gets into more detail on what makes a scene work and what makes a story work than anything else.
On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels – It covers romance for sure, but it also has good chapters on character development, conflict development, inner and outer conflicts and just practical things any storyteller needs to know.
Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card – If only for the MICE quotient, but he also covers very good ground here with regard to points of view, narrative distance and ways to really get deep down inside a character.
Amazon has today announced that select print books, when purchased new, will include a copy of the e-book for somewhere between free and 2.99. The program is called . There’s not a hard number of books, or–as far as I can tell–a full list of what’s in the program currently, but in principle, I love this.
As a reader, this is amazing. This program includes books purchased all the way back to 1995. I suspect it won’t include all of my purchases, but I already see Neal Stephenson’s Anathem on the list. That’s one I’d like to re-read, but since I’ve taken to reading on my Kindle in the last few years and I only have it in hardback, I haven’t gotten to it. (In other words, I really love e-readers and they have changed the way I consume books.)
As a writer, I’m still good with this. I just saw an email come through from Amazon informing me that I can go to my KDP dashboard and set the promo price for my titles. That’s something I’ll be doing “real soon now.” Now granted, everything I’ve published to date has been self-published, but there are still STRANGERS reading things I’ve written (howdy, stranger), and if those STRANGERS have not yet embraced the wonder that is electronic books, I’m thrilled that when they inevitably do, the transition will be easier, at least from my end.
This is exciting and I’ve long wanted to convert my print catalog to an electronic catalog, and this is a better way to do it than converting by way of the dark corners of the internet. It’s a win for readers. It’s a win for writers. And it’s probably even a win for publishers.