Friday, October 24, 2008

Ironic? The plastic bags case

Back in January, I wrote a post about activists in city of Vancouver, Canada, trying to convince the local authorities to eventually impose a ban on plastic grocery bags. It is certainly a great idea, as plastic grocery bags have proven to be harmful to the environment (low biodegradability, pollution of waters, etc).

No wonder that this kind of ideas are promoted in a country like Canada, and more specifically from the province of British Columbia, where inhabitants boast about their green practices, such as recycling materials and utilizing cleaner transportation (trolleybuses, bicycles, buses that run with biofuels, and so on). Interestingly, even though lots of British Columbians already own reusable grocery bags and use them routinely, it is still very common to see patrons who prefer to avoid paying CAD$0.99 to buy a reusable bag. Instead, they still choose the standard plastic bags, which stores happily provide for free... and which, of course, won't be reused in most of the cases.

Whilst Canada is highly regarded as one of the cleanest countries in terms of green living habits, China is regarded as exactly the opposite. Discharge of industrial waste into rivers, uncontrolled emission of greenhouse gases, and lack of recycling programs in place, are some of the issues that have given China its fame as a non environmentally-friendly country.

Now to the ironic part: since June this year, the Chinese authorities have started a campaign to shift the peoples' habits from choosing plastic grocery bags to leaning for reusable types in the very short run. Even though reusable bags are not readily available for purchase everywhere in China (as opposed to what happens in Canada), grocery stores apply a fee to new plastic bags for customers! Of course, the purchase of plastic bags is not mandatory, but it is a standard practice across the country. The result? People are avoiding the use of plastic bags, and they are carrying their groceries in other non-disposable items (such as backpacks). Their strategy is definitely working!

The question is: why can they succeesfully put in place these practices in China (a country that traditionally doesn't emphasize a lot the preservation of the environment) in an accelerated fashion, whereas in Canada it is progressing in slow motion...? Just an idea to think about.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Learning survival Chinese, the hard way!

I seldom use my blog to write about personal experiences. However, I will have to make an exception for this post, as my story today is really worth of posting on my site. I think that, other than doing nice dramatic novel, the story reflects the taste of issues of life that some people have to deal with when traveling and living in foreign lands. Enjoy.

Shanghai, 5:50 am. It's still dark outside. As a result of the jet-lag, I wake up early on a Sunday morning and decide to check my email and checking whether any friends are available for chat prior to taking a shower. If I only knew of how messy would be my first morning in Shanghai...!

I send a couple of emails, check my facebook, and surf the web for a bit. At about 6:50 am, I see that it's not that dark in the street anymore, and decide that it's a perfect time to take a shower. Hum... last night, when I took a shower, I remember that for some reason the water heater was not working properly, so it would probably be a good idea to see if I can fix that before having to take another cold shower, just last yesterday. I approach the electric heater, and notice that it's indeed connected, so everything should be working. But hey!! What are those two valves (one blue, one red) below the heater? Maybe they are for turning it on? Let's find out. I'll start by turning the blue one... geez... it's hard... maybe I can try to turn it harder... success!!! I finally moved it... but wait... What the...?!!

"Houston... ehh... we've got a problem here!!". Indeed, I just popped out the valve, and now I have a beautiful fountain inside my apartment, furiously throwing out water and flooding the place! Great! Now, WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Step 1: Remain calm. Breathe deep. Now, time to think fast... what to do?
Step 2: Try to fix the problem yourself. Well, if popping off the valve started all this problem, just putting the valve back will solve it. But the pressure of the water is so high, that it's just impossible to put it back. The water itself will just push it off forever!
Step 3: Shut down the water stream coming from the street!. Great idea!!! Now, where the hell can I find the valve to shut it down...?! No clue!!
Step 4: If you can't fix the problem yourself, just ask for help!

Okay, so here I go. While my apartment is getting flooded by tens of liters of water per minute, I run out and the first thing that I decide to do is to knock my neighbor's door as loud as possible. No answer. Is anybody living there at least? Who'll know? At the end of the day, yesterday I was so tired after my 12 and a half hour-long flight that I didn't really feel like going out to explore the surroundings here. Big mistake.

As no one answers next door, I come back to the apartment to admire the flooding there! Ok, if things are to get screwed up, at least let's try to make the best out of it. I take my whole luggage lying on the floor and throw it outside the apartment before the furious water reaches the area where I left it since the night before. Of course, I didn't have time to close the suitcases properly and make sure that things would remain inside of them, so there you have clothes flying to the hall outside my apartment and making a mess outside. But at least, my luggage was not getting wet.

Ok, my stuff is safe for now, but that's not even close to a solution for the problem here. What now? Let's go downstairs and ask for help! Barefoot, but well equipped with my pyjama, my keys, my wallet, and the little booklet of "survival Chinese" phrases, I rush downstairs and run to the entrance of the complex (yes, I live in a complex of 5 buildings) to seek help. I don't find anybody, except for the security guard, who seems to be enjoying a lot his Sunday morning. I enter his office, and take out my Chinese pocket emergency phrasebook to utter some words that let him know that I am in trouble.

"Jiu ming a!" ("help!", according to my booklet) I yell, to which the guy leans back on his chair, smiles at me as if he was enjoying seeing my agitation there, and calmly replies something in Chinese (something like "bu duo", who'll know?), which I assumed meant "I don't understand". I try to give him some keywords that would hopefully make him understand what's the matter. Almost playing charades, I explain "wo de... jia... you shui...!!!" (my... house... has... water). The guy keeps smiling, and he replies something in Chinese that of course I couldn't understand, but from his behavior I assume that he did not get a hint of what was going on. Given my failure to obtain any help from this guy, I just rush to my building, and then up to the apartment, to see if I can make a skype call to my landlord. When I walk inside, unsurprisingly, I find out that the water keeps raising its level, and now it is about to reach the area of my bedroom and bathroom. Isn't that cool.

Well, people normally don't enjoy to work on a Sunday morning if it's not absolutely necessary, so the landlord decides that he wants the day off, and the best way to make sure that people won't bother him is to turn off the cellphone. On his end, turning it off proves to be a great success, since he is not bothered by my calls asking for help! On my end, it is just a prolongation of the wet tragicomedy in my apartment.

So what other big ideas come to my mind? Well, try knocking another neighbor's door to ask them for help! There is another apartment across the hall on the floor I live in, so hopefully someone will come and give me a helping hand. I rush there, knock the door desperately, and some voice inside says something in Chinese. I ask for help in English, hoping that the person inside is a foreigner and can finally understand that I have little problem to take care of. But my hopes vanish quickly, as after explaining that my place was getting flooded, the same voice replies again in Chinese, saying something that I can't understand, but which clearly suggests that he won't open the door, let alone giving any help.

7:00 am. Just about ten minutes, which appear to be more like hours, have passed since the incident began. The flooding, of course, keeps getting worse as time goes by, and I am already in an act of desperation. What else can I do? I have no choice but to rush downstairs again and trying to convince the security guy, who is about the only person around, to come and see by himself what is really going on, which I cannot explain in Chinese. So there I go. Nicely dressed with my colorful pyjama, I run across the yard and find again the security guy leaning on his chair. He looks at me and makes a gesture that I understand like if he was saying "You again?! What the hell do you want?!". Given the fact that he does not understand English whatsoever, I try to come up again with some keyword that picture my case there: "Wo de jia... you shui... qing lai jian!" (my house... has water... please come to see!). Just like before, the guy smirks and replies something like "bu duo", and then starts talking very long sentences that of course I don't understand. But clearly, he doesn't seem to be interested in coming to see, even though I am waving my hand, signaling him that I want him to come. It looks that body language is also not effective for these matters.

Then, the security guy finally gets his rear off the chair and he appears to be eager to do something. "Maybe he did understand this time!!" I thought. He yells something, for which he gets an answer from some guy who was in the backroom of his "office". Then they start making a conversation, replying forth and back to whatever they were saying, until their conversation comes to an end when the two of them start laughing (probably at me!). Again, he starts talking to me something in Chinese, and I just keep saying the words "jia... shui!" (house... water!). The guy heads off the "office", and comes into his washroom, where he turns the knob of his sink to show me the running water. He points at it and says "shui?", as if he was trying to make sure that I knew what was I saying. I nod, so he goes back into the "office", picks up the phone and calls some number. After his conversation on the phone, he gives me some instructions in Chinese, from which I only understood the words "zheli" (there) and "wu" (five), which I thought might mean that someone would be coming to the building number 5 (which is my building) to take care of my case.

I rush back to the entrance of the building to wait for the help to come, but no one appears to be coming in this direction. So I rush up again to see the progress of the flooding, and hopefully to come up with the bright idea that will get me out of my little problem here. When I reach the apartment, naturally, i discover that the water has already reached even the bathroom and bedroom. Of course, water keeps coming, and coming, and coming, and coming...

07:05 am. My desperation is extreme. Since no one appears to understand that there was a problem here, I just start yelling "HELP! HELP!" across my floor, hoping that someone, either at my floor or from a nearby floor, will at least be attracted to come out and see why is there someone shouting that early in the morning. Then suddenly, the doors of the elevator open, and a Chinese guy, also dressed in a pyjama and smoking a cigarette comes out. It was the help that the security guy called before (and probably just like you, I have no idea how he knew what floor exactly to come), so I quickly wave my hand so he can walk inside the apartment and see what is going on there. He follows me and sees the beautiful mess that the flooding was causing inside, to which his immediate reply was a lengthy, yet calm "ooooooooooooh!" exclamation. Then, clearly unimpressed by the scenario, he walks out of the apartment, and with his hand signals me to follow him. I do so, and he shows me a little door in the opposite side of the floor, which he opens. Inside, there is a knob that he turns, and as soon as he does so, the sound of the water coming out of the water heater ceases. Then, in a perfect Chinese accompanied by some charades, he explains to me that, whenever I'm ready to resume the water stream into my apartment, I should just turn that knob. I tell him a number of times "Xiexie! xiexie!" (thank you! thank you!), and with all the calm of the world he gets inside the elevator and leaves.

I spend the next couple of hours drying up the place. First, I need to "shovel" water with a dustpan into the sink or into the shower, since those are the only sewers in my house. While I am doing that, someone knocks the door of my apartment and, since the door was already open, just walks in and starts talking to me in English (at last!). It is my neighbor, the guy who lives in the apartment next door, where I thought that probably no one lived... another foreigner, this one from England, in China. He sees the mess, asks me about what happened there, and apologizes for not coming out to help before. But at the end of the day, I was feeling good that at least I could talk to someone! We agree to go sometime for a few beers. The rest of the morning I would have to spend it waiting for the landlord to come, bring some people to fix the heater, cleaning up... and who knows what else. But I feel great that the problem is under control now.

The morale of this story, is that learning some "survival language" when traveling to a foreign country is crucial. I saw myself in big trouble with this problem, and the desperation of not being able to explain to people what exactly I wanted was utterly frustrating. That's probably the key drawback of living as an expat, and I learned that too quickly in this trip. I am sure that I'll find myself in many other situations in which language barriers will be an issue, so I'd better learn quicker some survival phrases. My recommendation? Instead of learning things like "hello" or "my name is Eddie" in the local language when visiting a foreign place, it is best to learn things like "help!", "I need a doctor", "does anybody here speak English?" or "call the police". I am just learning it the hard way.

For now, it is noon, and I still haven't had my shower...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Go Bills!

It has been a while since the last time I wrote something about the Buffalo Bills. This doesn't mean, of course, that I don't care about them anymore. In fact, I would like to mention that their performance so far this year has been pleasantly surprising, a 4-0 record to start the season is something that Buffalo wasn't able to achieve since 1992, year in which they reached the Superbowl. Thus, we (the Bills' fans) have some hope that this will be their best season in the last decade. If they manage to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999, then we can say that their improvement is for real.

At the end of the day, it is not a coincidence that the Bills have been having a good season. During the last 3 years, coach Dick Jauron and his staff have been working hard to put together a dynamic team of young players to conform a solid team. The inclusion of quarterback Trent Edwards to the offensive starting lineup has brought more dynamism and accuracy to the passing game, which, along with the receiving capabilities of Lee Evans and James Hardy, make an effective air play for the Bills. But also in the ground, an improved offensive line and the strength and speed of runnerbacks Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson have had great results so far.

The defensive line is also improved. All of the defensive players have made a great effort to keep Buffalo's defense ranked as one of the top 6 in the league; some outstanding work has been done by Paul Posluszny, Terrence McGee, Jabari Greer, Aaron Schobel, among others. This is a very big difference when compared to the previous couple of seasons, when Buffalo's defense was steadily ranked among the bottom 3 of the league.

Of course, last but not least, the special teams have been performing well. This is not uncommon; in fact during the last few seasons, the special teams in Buffalo have had a very high performance under the direction of special teams coordinator Bobby April.

This might be the year in which we can witness the long-awaited return of the Buffalo Bills to the elite group of teams contending in the playoffs. Hopefully that will be the case, although it is still early in the season and there's still a long way to go before calling the current year a successful one. But, even if they don't manage to go all the way to the superbowl, at least giving their fans a playoffs ticket for this season would be good for now.