Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

January 06, 2007

Horse horse, tiger tiger

In a discussion about phrases this morning, Michael told us that a Chinese term for "so so" is "horse horse, tiger tiger." In other words, if you ask somebody how their day is going, instead of responding "Oh, just so so," (which makes no sense taken literally), in Chinese you respond "horse horse, tiger tiger" (which also makes no sense).

So, we were riding a cab around Shanghai this afternoon. The cab driver knew no English. Lance asked Michael to ask her how her day was going. She responded in two syllables, "Ma Ma, Hu Hu." Michael translated: "Horse horse, tiger tiger." We all burst out laughing, since we had been laughing about the phrase all morning, and to hear it actually used was a delight.

Faux pas. The taxi driver thought we were laughing about her, and that Michael had made fun of her to us. It took some fast talking by Michael to convince the woman that we weren't being mean. He was still shaken when we were dropped off, as he doesn't want to be seen as rude.

Laughing Buddha

This statue of Buddha is over 1,000 years old, carved during a time when Buddhist equanimity was seen as approaching all of life's problems as if one were fat and happy.

Winding down in China

Tomorrow, we fly out of Shanghai to San Francisco, Denver, then Minneapolis. The reports of this trip on the weblog have been sporadic due to the cable outage in the Pacific. Perhaps that was fortunate. I spent more time enjoying the trip and wasn't so preoccupied with reporting daily.

Cousin Roy has been a great host. He is a teacher at heart. In 1985, after a trip to China, he abandoned his other historical interests to study Chinese history. It has been his passion ever since. He has taught Chinese history to Chinese graduate students, so he was more than equipped to give us the tour of a lifetime.

Little escapes his sweeping intellect. We have been treated to lectures on everything from Mao, the Ming Dynasty, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, down to details of the markings on the trains, the way to spot a good taxi, the personality differences of people in different Chinese cities. I observed to Roy that I can't imagine that anybody save for a high government official has been able to say they experienced so much of China in such a short time as we did.

We were also accompanied by Michael, Roy's friend and our Chinese guide. Michael is savvy. He knows how to bargain, how to deal with taxi drivers, how to get the right food at the restaurants, where to find the good deals. He knows Shanghai in and out. He has made a living navigating its tough streets, an gentle soul in a not-so-gentle underworld. Michael is caught in the bind of modern China: How do you honor your family in the home town thousands of miles away, which would require him to move back home and take care of his aging parents, who literally live in a cave carved out of a cliff, after you have tasted the modern city of Shanghai, a metropolis which makes New York City seem sleepy?

Today in a random encounter, I met a Mr. Yu. He is in his mid-eighties, and he stopped me on the street in Hangzhou, thinking that I might be a speaker of English. We spent an hour visiting this morning, until I had to return to the hotel to catch the train with Lance, Roy and Michael. That visit was priceless, and included Mr. Yu's experiences in World War II and the Korean War. He pulled out notebooks full of notes on English, and asked me to clarify several phrases. He is learning English by charming tourists into spending time with him on a park bench, and it is working. Because he is so old, he can get people to talk to him. We have learned that anybody younger who comes up to a tourist asking sweet questions is after money and nothing else.

Yesterday, we were the guest of the "best English-speaking driver in Hangzhou." I said I was from Minnesota, and he right away said, "Ah! Home of the Forestwolves!" meaning the Timberwolves basketball team, we eventually figured out. The driver took us out to an authentic tea farm on the slopes of the mountains south of Hangzhou. A big tea farm consists of 10,000 sq. meters of tea trees. That is all one family can handle, and that much will make them rich.

January 03, 2007


The internet has been very sporadic in Beijing, so I have not been able to post until this morning when suddenly we could connect.

Beijing is a completely different city than Shanghai. The totalitarianism is evident. Soldiers everywhere. Wide avenues, huge Stalinist government buildings and a generally grim appearance.

Yesterday, we went to the Great Wall. I have enough pictures to post for a month.

This evening, after spending the day in the Forbidden City, we will take an overnight train to Hongszhou where we will stay on beautiful West Lake.

There is so much to write about, I think I will spend the grim months of January and February sorting through the pictures and posting them in a gradual way.

December 31, 2006

Two scenes from Suzhou

This is the scene on one of Suzhou's main drags at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning. Meanwhile, in the quieter back alleys, one can find older people sitting outside their homes with a cup of tea.


Suzhou is a city of canals. The oldest surviving city map in the world is a paper map of Suzhou from over 900 years ago. The downtown of Suzhou is still on the same plan.

However, Suzhou has developed on either side of the old town to the point that one-quarter of the world's laptops are built in the city. The picture of the beggar boy below was taken on a street lined with luxury cars and restaurants.

Tai chi

As day breaks on a cloudy morning in Suzhou, retirees gather in the park for their early morning exercise session. The picture was taken through the hotel window.

Proud Chinese grandma

New camera

My mother, a veteran of two trips to China, warned me that my big SLR camera would be unwieldy in China. Cousin Roy and his Chinese friend Michael were of the opinion that one should probably not be taking pictures directly of the faces of Chinese people, which is only common courtesy.

So, I went out and bought a point-and-shoot camera from the girl below.

I would have been ripped off blind, but for Michael, an experienced negotiator. Bargaining is a way of life in China, so he started gibbering with her and we got some knocked off the price of a Canon. In the end, the price was similar to what I would have paid in the United States. Some things are a bargain in China, others are more expensive.

However, the way Michael got the price down was interesting. There are several levels of purchase. If you are a tourist, you pay full-price. And you get a receipt. If you are willing to go without a receipt, then the price goes down--because you can't bring the thing back if it breaks down.

So, Michael negotiated a no-receipt price, and then immediately negotiated the right for us to bring the camera back in a few days if it didn't work.

Okay, now time to hand over the cash. We had to walk with the girl to the cashier, who counted to bills at least six times and inspected each one for counterfieting. Then we went back to the camera department, finished the purchase, laughed with the staff through Michael's translations, and then completed the last ritual of the purchase: Walking to the front door where a different woman yet gave us a plastic bag so we could get out the door with a camera but without a receipt.

Got that?

It wasn't a few minutes later and we were on a subway. I spotted this beautiful girl across from me who I wanted to photograph. I didn't know how to work the camera. I was fiddling with it, and the flash went off. This was the result.

Jinmao Tower

Atop the world's fourth tallest building, we looked out over the construction of what will soon be the world's tallest. Notice the size of the cars far below.

The Jinmao Tower is glitzy and glamorous. The escalators in the lobby sparkle.

From the fortieth floor upwards to the top of the Jinmao Tower, there is a Grand Hyatt Hotel. It has a 33-story atrium, seen here from top down. Notice the lobby far below. Those are arm chairs. Each circular stripe is a balcony on one of the hotel's floors.


You always wonder at what age Chinese children learn to eat with chopsticks. About the same time we learn to eat with forks, it seems.

This little kid was an expert. He also spoke both English and Chinese to his mother.

Shovel it in. That's the only rule of etiquette for eating in China that I can discern.

Suzhou boy

This little boy was begging on the street using a plastic yogurt cup. It was sobering to see.

Internet returns

This morning, internet service was non-existent between Asia and America. Tonight, it seems perfectly fine. So, I will be able to post again.

It is difficult to know where to start. We just returned on the train from Suzhou back to Shanghai. We spent last night in Suzhou after touring the old city. Today, we went to a 1,000-year-old garden and then a recently built art museum.

But the real thing we do all the time is eat. We eat three times per day, and we always, always, always, eat very, very, well. The food is spectacular.

Last night, we ate out in Suzhou. The traditional restaurant in that 2,500-year-old city puts each party in a private room with a dedicated server. So, we were well-taken care of. We were guests of a teacher and former colleague of cousin Roy at the Suzhou Middle School, a modern-sounding name for a school which recently celebrated its 1,000th anniversary.

Amongst the items on the menu last night: Squirrel fish, jellyfish, eel, and a whole bunch of vegetables I have never eaten before. Each day brings new adventures in dining, and all of them have been good.

Today, the four of us ate at a dumpling place in Suzhou. We had perhaps 10 dishes, including 60 dumplings. We spent an hour eating and drinking coconut milk and wheat tea (a drink made from roasted wheat--very good). The total cost for the meal was under $9.

So, life is good in China. Tomorrow night, we go up to Beijing. It is colder there, so we might have to pick up some long underwear.