I’m sure this TLA already exists for my intended usage but in case you can’t work it out it is not (for the investors among you) an Open-ended Investment Company but rather Only In China. I’ve become somewhat inured to most OIC experiences which is unfortunate but I’ve got one stored up from today which has inspired me to pay attention and compile a list for later publication.

The OIC for this post however concerns my most recent trip to the hospital. As a consequence of the dratted lingering cold I have been quite hard of hearing for over a week now, persisting far longer than would be the case with a standard British cold. So I made my fourth trip to the hospital yesterday morning to see an ear nose and throat specialist.

Dr Ji pulled at my earlobes and squinted down into the depths of my eustachian tubes using only an over the eye round mirror with a hole in the centre. According to Wikipedia this is a pretty standard piece of medical equipment despite now being obsolete where most of my esteemed readers are from. Although I have been around a while and I had my fair share of childhood ear infections I cannot recall ever having been examined with one before. Maybe that is because I have been around a while mind you.

To complete her investigations Dr Ji stuck a pair of dividers up my nostrils, prising them open for a good look, and did the usual wooden spatula on tongue and say ahhh thing. Aside from the spatula everything else was made from stainless steel and retrieved from a steel tiffin for use after which it was dropped into a steel mug for sterlisation (I sincerely hope).

She gave me quite a turn by telling me, bluntly, that my eardrum was sunken in. Thank goodness for the internet since this is apparently quite common after a cold and usually rectifies itself naturally, however she didn’t tell me this at the time and, rather, suggested I go to the best large local hospital for a hearing check up. Only when I looked quite disturbed did she go and fetch the standard ear examination magnifying glass with a light built in for a further examination. I don’t know why she didn’t just use that in the first place but I’m guessing it was someone more senior’s toy (or perhaps less skilled) since it lived some way from her consultation cubbyhole.

This achieved little beyond confirming what she already knew but it gave her time to suggest that she try an alternative remedy. It took a few attempts to explain but I finally realised she wanted me to go and buy a bottle of mineral water from downstairs and come back to see her. Duly armed I returned, expecting her to perform some sort of flush. Even as she put tape around the nozzle of a straw attached to a squeegie ball I had no idea what she was going to do.

It wasn’t until I had taken a mouthful of water as instructed and held it until told to swallow while she shoved the straw up my nose and squeezed the ball that I understood the mechanics of her remedy. I was sufficiently shocked as the eardrum reflated not to go with her suggestion that she give it another go, even though it did have some sort of discernible outcome. My right ear momentarily returned to full capacity while my left ear enjoyed the pressurisation slightly less.

Regrettably full functionality in the right ear was fleeting and turned out to be accompanied by feedback at high frequency sounds; my General Chinese teacher’s voice, which I usually enjoy for its precision, is now decidedly uncomfortable. Evidently the feedback remains and the tinnitus I usually manage to ignore is also ringing away at full volume. Left ear hearing about 85%, right ear 75% plus 10% tinny dolby stereo effect.

I am confident that all of this is temporary and if someone had just given me some decongestant then I’d have been fine ages ago. As it is I have had all sorts of mineral and floral remedies. Not knocking them as I’m considerably better off throat wise. I just don’t think I’ll be going to see another ENT specialist even at Beijing University’s reknowned hospital. I fancy my chances better with a bit less intervention.

Hospital Pass

I took a trip to hospital last week to see the doctor about a very sore throat, the hospital being the only place on campus we can see a doctor rather than an indication of severity of affliction. Mind you one week later and I’m still so bunged up I can’t hear properly and every morning is a coughfest. I feel a pollution rant coming on; suffice to say that while I’ve had lingering colds in the UK, there’s been nothing like the persistent feeling of congestion I have experienced here and I’d be willing to bet that’s because my lungs aren’t getting any fresh air to clean out all the gunk.

The upside of last week’s visit was that it was timed perfectly to coincide with the flowering of the peony beds by the lake. At 9:15 on a Saturday morning there were already numerous families out admiring the flowers and an impressive collection of photographic equipment at hand to record the moment. I didn’t know peonies have such a sweet fragrance, which must have been quite strong if I was able to appreciate it. I was also fortunate enough to catch dance practice in the lake pavilion: on one side a group of women went through a traditional routine while on the other couples were waltzing to the same Beijing opera aria, conveniently in three time.

Peonies with special Chinese characteristics

Peonies with special Chinese characteristics

Scratch and sniff not enabled

Scratch and sniff not enabled

Waltzing with special Chinese characteristics

Waltzing with special Chinese characteristics

My hospital visit reminded me a bit of the only hospital trip I made in New York a few years back: multiple checkings in and payings of account along the way until you were ejected at the other end clutching several boxes of pills. Here I had to pay my 40p consultation fee, have a chat with the doctor in a room with three other consultants and their patients (good job it wasn’t anything embarrassing), go out to the girl in the hospital entrance to check my temperature (yes, she really did mean stick the thermometer in my armpit), back to doctor, over to cashier again for medicine fee (£7.50), over to dispensary for pills and then, in my case, back to doctor for clarification on dosage.

The other upside beyond peony and culture appreciation has been the addition of a new realm to my vocabulary. I now know a few more ways to say “dose” in Chinese than I thought possible – the language is quite specific about the difference between a pill, a round pill, a pellet and a tablet, but then I suppose I’ve just illustrated that English can be too. My favourite however has been 鼻涕虫 or “snot bug”. In my current state this could easily refer to me but it is in fact the colloquial term for a slug. I love that Mandarin says it like it is.

Backstreet Diver

Every time I come into the hutongs I breathe a sigh of relief and I remember what drew me to Beijing in the first place. Today I took a cookery course in the old Gulou area. Walking to class at 9:40am down Luogu Alley feels a bit like walking down Portobello Road at setting up time. A few early tourists are catching the shop keepers and stall holders arranging their collapsible tables, or lining up for jian bing: pancakes filled with finely chopped leeks and various thin sauces spread on with a paintbrush, finished by the addition of a piece of deep fried batter. The whole is then folded and the crispy batter slab filling expertly broken up with a few chops of the spatula without piercing the pancake. It’s not exactly a balanced meal but I’ve had it for lunch more than once and it’s surprisingly good, especially with added pickled veggies. This morning was a bit early for that though so I forked out an inflated £2 for a Nutella pancake instead. Given that the traditional version costs about 50p it’s a nice niche that canny kiosk has carved out.

My class was tucked away in a residential courtyard or siheyuan. This might bring to mind an open courtyard with four buildings on each side and traditionally that was the high end set up. Now they are more like gated warrens with every square metre occupied by small rooms squashed together.

It is a dilemma for those who want to preserve the traditional hutongs: they are overcrowded and often dilapidated. The electrical systems wouldn’t get any safety certificate back home and most of the dwellings don’t have bathrooms. I had to use one of the public loos a few weeks back and was surprised to find a row of unscreened holes in the ground. Why waste money on partitions, I suppose, but I hadn’t seen anything like that since travelling in the countryside on my year off.

Sparky's dream

Sparky’s dream

Without trying to pretend that there is romance in a communal bathroom this enforced intimacy might contribute to the friendly family feeling in the hutongs. I rolled out of the class into more back streets, heading down dead ends and chatting up the locals about the beautiful roofs. It feels so peaceful to me and the character of the winding alleys is so intimate after the huge multilane ring roads. One of the residents demurred however “not peaceful any more: too many people”. All said with a smile and a cackle of “English!” when I said where I am from.

Far from the madding crowd

Far from the madding crowd

I intended to head to the Drum Tower, now surrounded by bustling redevelopment, though thankfully not on a ring road traffic island like some of the other old buildings. I got diverted instead to Houhai, the lake behind the Forbidden City. It is teeming with Chinese tourists. Never mind Bond Street, the Chinese are touring their own country like never before. I tagged onto a group following a flag in one of the preservation areas. A little old lady from Hubei was in the group with her son (who took the obligatory photo of the laowai with his mother) and her grandson. The lucky old bird has another two children, a boy and a girl, though they were both too busy to join the tour.

Houhai - pedalboats Beijing

Houhai – pedalboats Beijing

I still love the people here. It feels unusual for them to be snappy, grumpy, rude or shifty. Even the cabbie this morning, who took me the wrong route to my class, stopped the meter early and apologised profusely when he realised he had taken me the wrong way. And that from a guy who was quite bolshie and aggressive with the other traffic and really seemed quite scary at the outset.

Trawling the tourist areas comes at a price though. I’m now eating a £3.80 brownie while sipping a £3.00 flat white. It’s a rare treat, but for pretty much London prices it’s still not quite London quality.


The word “coolie” in English is a transliteration of the Chinese 苦力 (kuli) meaning bitter toil or hard labour. Every day I am struck by how many people even here in the capital know what it means to eat bitterness (吃苦). Just as in London where many of the lower end jobs are done by immigrants from all over Europe, much of the kuli here is done by outsiders. Unlike London however there is no social security net so the labourer could as well be a Beijinger as from Shanxi.

Our campus alone has an army of labourers keeping it in shape. For the first week of summer a large green canteen tent was pitched by the tennis courts and rows of barrels lined the basketball courts. Every day as I ambled to classes at midday a couple of men were hard at work spreading noxious sealants over the surfaces, one on spiked platforms making fine adjustments to marks made by the other as he dragged a large brush along. The men lived in the tent for over a week while they mixed and spread the green and red chemicals until the shine set for summer.

One of my classmates observed that a lot goes on on campus in the wee hours. I somewhat dismissed it thinking most jobs would be delayed to avoid disrupting classes during the day. But as I came back late one night the heavy duty trucks were nose to tail into the main gate bringing in materials for one of our construction sites; for these guys it was peak hour. En route I had also passed a gang of men painting the white barriers down the middle of a main road. The smell was enough to hurt my head as I sped past in a cab; they had half the fence left to paint and no breathing protection.

Kuli has plenty of daily grind. Every evening around the exercise fields we see people riffling through the rubbish bins for their recycling collections. Our textbooks list this as something that students can turn to to supplement their income. They also suggest you check first though as there are existing armies of elderly recyclers who have territorial rights and rely on the job for their livelihood. On a walk through the hutongs one weekend I passed two women standing over a third squatting outside her rooms. She was cheerfully counting her day’s haul of plastic bottles. At 2p each she had made the princely sum of 26p in the time I took to pass and she had almost completed her stock take.

The hutongs are a hive of enterprise both traditional and modern. In scattered bedroom/work units mom and pop suppliers cut white plastic door and window frames down to size, clouds of lung clogging dust filling the air. In a busy lane a young family cooked facing the street behind their new kitchen window pane as a man welded together a bicycle rickshaw next door, his naked eyes inches from the torch and his customer huddled in to watch.

My most thought provoking kuli labourer was the man watering the main entrance road to the campus on a hot, dry day. He had filled up his barrel at a tap outside the main gate and had inadvertently left the barrel “on” so was already watering the pavement as he set off. A crowd of men loafing around where he filled up yelled at him helpfully as he lowered the barrow bars to go back and open the taps “it’s already open!” Wordlessly he returned to his handles and plodded into the oncoming traffic. I know they have trucks for this job in Beijing as I got sprayed by one the other day. I guess he must either be cheaper or more accurate.

Those employed by a middleman boss have the worst time of all. They are paid only once a year and are frequently exploited by unscrupulous bosses who fail to pay them at all. Suicide is not unheard of among those who have already had a rotten existence and then don’t get their measly few hundred quid to take home. Makes our first world complaints look quite trivial.

Four Legs Good

A friend sent me a note the other day about our recent food issues and it came up again in class today. The context was somewhat different as my teacher used the global frenzy for milk powder to illustrate China’s rising spending power, along with the fast one the matriarchs of China pulled on the gold shorters over the May holidays. The Chinese consumer has the ability to spend where she wants to.

Five years after tainted milk first hit the headlines in China, HK airport is playing regular public broadcasts about the two tin export limit and the global infant formula market is in disarray. It still amazes me that in an industry where consumer confidence and quality assurance is paramount a brand like Mengniu, implicated in the scandal along with its peers, still exists. Moreover if the valuation is anything to go by foreign investors still love it for its market potential. This even as their valuable mainland customers remember with bitterness management’s reassurance to the HK market that product sold there was not the same shoddy quality as that sold up here. As if the mainland consumer can’t understand Chinese.

The issue of export quality versus local goods is not particular to China. The Australians for example keep all their best stuff for their home market (certainly hope that’s true of their wine, as they claim). The South Africans definitely don’t let their best wine go offshore. The Chinese however keep second rate goods for the home market and save the best for everyone else. In the days of restricted product choice exports in oversupply sold back into the domestic market were known to be better than local market items; “export turned import” stickers were considered to be a mark of quality.

This week’s scandal involves ginger which has been stimulated with fertiliser that pumps up the tuber like it’s on steroids but unfortunately leaves poisonous traces. That’s the stuff for us. You needn’t worry if you’re buying ginger from China as the farmers themselves have been applying quality control: toxic ginger gets piled up for domestic sale and innocuous ginger goes abroad.

Consumers are peeved. Comments on Weibo vary from “are our lives worth less?” to “who is supposed to be in charge of this?” My friends say sotto voce I am lucky to be able to come and go at will and I shouldn’t consider staying long term. Those with children are relieved if their offspring can find jobs with foreign companies that might get them out. If you’re not growing your own food you have no idea what is in it, so everyone just chows on with something that seems like apathy but is really impotence. I suspect that also explains why Mengniu hasn’t disappeared into a crater: there is still a big enough market of people who have no alternative to cheaper domestic goods.

We now cannot eat pork, duck, chicken or ginger. The last of those even makes a vegetarian diet challenging since ginger goes into pretty much everything. As you know however rat, fox and mink are all available. I had a pie on my way home from a night out last week. It was a “meat gravy pie”. It was quite yummy but it tasted like nothing from the animal kingdom I’d eaten before. I might be sticking to instant noodles and fruit for a while.