July 28, 2009

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

When not instant messaging, napping, working, or watching subtitled episodes of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants on their computer, Chinese cubicle dwellers often play a web-based game that involves planting flowers and watering them. Occasionally another player comes along and steals a plant, upsetting the victimized player who has been robbed of a chance to smell the roses. Having never played it myself, I presume the social aspect of the game is what makes it so captivating.


"Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land."
- Chairman Mao

July 26, 2009

Training Day

I completed an epic 24 hour train journey from Beijing to Hong Kong. In the process, I saw the Chinese landscape through the windows of my compartment and felt the warmth of the Chinese people through my heart. Most of my trip was spent on a long distance train from Beijing to Shenzhen. Fellow travelers took great interest in the presence of a foreigner, especially one of such indecipherable origins and universal appeal. Intrigued passengers gathered around from nearby compartments to see what the hullabaloo was about.

Through the help of an interpreter I explained all the exotic foods I wished to eat while in China. The men roared with approval while the women squirmed in disgust. One chap led me to his compartment so I could practice English with him. He was going overseas for the first time to give a presentation to some Germans and was understandably nervous. Since I understood most of what he was saying, he was relieved and a great burden was lifted from his back.

Located directly north of Hong Kong on the Pearl River delta, Shenzhen is China's first Special Economic Zone (SEZ). In a SEZ many legal restrictions are lifted or eased by the government, allowing business to flourish. Shenzhen has developed rapidly from a small fishing village to a busy megapolis in three decades. From the Shenzhen train station, it was only a short walk to the subway which would take me to Hong Kong. I went through customs before hopping on board. This 40 minute subway ride pushed my total travel time to a day. My journey from Beijing to Hong Kong had come to an end.

"Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting."– Robert Thomas Allen

July 23, 2009


I was returning to work after having lunch. I had just eaten noodles, accompanied by chrysanthemum tea and several coworkers. As we approached my office tower, one of my colleagues pointed out a large gathering of beautiful women in the lobby area. All the security guards had gathered around the flock of fetching females, their jaws on the floor. Since I focus on the inner beauty of a person, I had not immediately noticed that they were all stunners. About 30 eager young women in high heels and full make up were present for the ARNABabe auditions.

I had not organized the event, nor had the Beijing chapter of my fan club, so I approached a cluster of cuties to determine why they had suddenly appeared in my midst. No response was given. They were completely speechless. Some surmised the blank looks on their face were a sign of adoration for the Indo-Canadian Temptation. Others mistook it as a visual display of their confusion at hearing English words for the first time in real life. My colleague, whose Chinese language skills surpass mine, was able to find out that they were trying out for roles in advertisements for either Trojan condoms or BMW automobiles. He was unable to ascertain which.


"We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting."
- Kahlil Gibran

July 18, 2009

A Good Egg

On my first weekend in Beijing I got on the subway and headed in the direction of Tiananmen Square. There were two stops in the Tiananmen area on the line I was riding on - East and West. I got off at the Tiananmen West station and wandered around. I could not find the actual square,but I did stumble upon a peculiar egg shaped building. It turned out to be the National Center for the Performing Arts.

Designed by a French architect, the modern building stands out in an area that predominantly boasts traditional Chinese architecture. The controversial structure is surrounded by a pool of water. Titanium and glass form the yin and yang of the building's dome. It took me around twenty minutes to circumnavigate the complex. The sun set as I completed my round, with observers witnessing my bold silhouette framed against the backdrop of the glistening egg with awe and anticipation. A new chapter in China's storied history was about to begin.


"If the stone fall upon the egg, alas for the egg! If the egg fall upon the stone, alas for the egg!"
- Ancient Proverb

July 15, 2009

The Bird's Nest and Other Olympic Venues

I emerged out of a subway station on the Olympic line, swapping my spectacles for my shades in one smooth motion as I entered the sunlight. A host of architectural wonders stretched out around me. Directly in front was the Bird's Nest, Beijing's showpiece for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Officially the stylish mesh of steel pillars is known as the National Stadium. The largest steel structure in the world can hold 80,000-90,000 people, but it has been lying largely dormant since the conclusion of the Games. Both the opening and closing ceremonies were held here.

To the west of the stadium was the translucent Water Cube and the iconic Pangu Plaza. The National Aquatic Center gets its distinct shimmering look from the ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) polymer that was used to construct it. The plastic material is much cheaper than glass and also much lighter. 25 world records were broken in this pool, but its exquisite appearance is what draws the attention of the masses.

The highest tower in the Pangu Plaza is shaped like a dragon's head. In Chinese mythology, Pangu was the first living being and the uniter of heaven and earth. In neighbouring Korea, pangu means "fart". To the north of the Bird's Nest is the Olympic Forest Park, an open space with an artificial lake in the middle. The public is not allowed to walk on the grass here.

"Tender fragrant grass. How hardhearted to trample them." 
- Warning sign posted within the Olympic Green

July 14, 2009

Dumb Bus, Smart Bus, Empty Bus

In Beijing it is not an uncommon sight to see a caravan of identically numbered buses arrive at a bus stop one after the other. For example, bus #31 will be immediately followed by another bus #31 and yet another bus #31. This is often followed by a very long wait until the next cluster of buses arrive.

Each bus departs their starting point at regularly scheduled intervals, say every 10 minutes. At the first stop the mass of transit users converge on the first bus and try to get on board before everyone else. The pushing and shoving lasts approximately 1-3 minutes. Traffic also moves at an Arnab's pace in Beijing. During this time, the second bus on the same route has left the bus station and is now only around 10 minutes behind. Repeat this pattern a couple of more times, and by the second or third stop on the route the two buses are together. Another one to two stops later, all three buses will be within striking distance of each other. The cycle repeats after every 3 buses since by then another huge group of riders has gathered at the bus stop.

The swarm that enters the first bus leaves it packed to the brim. People are squashed against the windows and doors. All the seats on the second bus fill up quickly, but there is room to comfortably stand for the stragglers. The third bus obligatorily stops at each designated spot, but since 95% of the passengers have already boarded one of the two previous buses that arrived in the past minute it is left mostly empty. It is difficult to predict the change in arrival times that would take place if ridership was evenly distributed amongst the three buses, but at the very least the ride would be a lot more comfortable for most people.

"I'd rather go by bus." - Prince Charles

July 13, 2009

Hockey Morning in China

Hockey Night in Canada is a national institution. Every Saturday night, millions of hockey fans gather around their TV sets to watch the action on the ice and listen to a belligerent Don Cherry rant on Coach's Corner during the intermissions. As China is half a day ahead of Canada, I had the chance to catch a few of Vancouver's playoff games live the following morning. The Irish Volunteer, a pub in Beijing, was showing the games on TV using Slingbox video streaming technology. I watched the final two losses of Vancouver's season as they were eliminated by Chicago in 6 games after blowing a 2-1 series lead.

Vancouver's National Hockey League (NHL) team is called the Canucks. 'Canuck' is slang for 'Canadian'. The professional hockey team has a storied history of losing since it joined the league in 1970 as an expansion franchise. It has twice reached the Stanley Cup finals, but failed to secure a championship on either trip. The Stanley Cup is the most difficult sporting competition in the world. Four rugged rounds of best-of-7 series are played over a two month span, with the athletes playing through a myriad of injuries (broken bones, cracked ribs, concussions, etc.) for a chance to lift Lord Stanley's Cup. Power, skill, teamwork, and determination are demonstrated by the players of the coolest game on Earth on a nightly basis.


Canadian Guy #1: I cannot believe that you didn't bring your hockey gear with you when you came to China!
Canadian Guy #2: My luggage had weight restrictions.
Canadian Guy #1: You could have left your wife at home then.

July 12, 2009

The Terracotta Warriors

I arrived in Xi'an on the same day that the excavations at the final resting place of the Terracotta Army restarted after a gap of over 20 years. After getting off the train and finding a hostel, my fellow travelers and I caught a bus to the necropolis. We saw thousands of life sized figures as soon as we arrived, but they turned out to be tourists.

A long walk awaited us before we finally reached the three pits containing the Terracotta Warriors. After entering a large warehouse, we came face to face with rows and rows of terracotta soldiers and horses. Discovered by peasants digging a well in 1974, the figures were constructed two centuries before the birth of Christ. The Terracotta Army protects China's first emperor in his journey through the afterlife. The statues have different expressions on their faces as craftsmen sculpted each uniquely. Many have lost body parts or weapons. Some of the horse figurines have lost their tail, leaving an embarrassing hole in their posterior.


"It's worth much more than you pay for it." - Slogan on poster seen within the Terracotta Army tomb complex

July 02, 2009

Lonely Planet

After my presentation at Peking University concluded and before my Q&A period had commenced, I had been instructed by the organizers to ask the audience a trivia question related to my speech to make sure they had been following what I had been mumbling.

In true Slumdog Millionaire style, I provided four multiple choice options. Many hands went up in the crowd. I selected one eager individual and he answered my question correctly. One of the event organizers came up to me and handed me a Lonely Planet travel guide. The chap who had correctly answered my query ran up to me and vigorously shook my hand. I reciprocated before waving to the adoring audience and walking off the podium.

They immediately burst into laughter.

The Lonely Planet book was actually the prize for the person who was first to answer my question properly. I handed the book to my hand shaker, who was still waiting on stage to collect his reward. A female fan later told me that I had a severe case of the ARNABlushes during the incident, with my ears turning bright red.


"The world, I found, has a way of taking a man pretty much at his own rating. If he permits his loss to make him embarrassed and apologetic, he will draw embarrassment from others. But if he gains his own respect, the respect of those around him comes easily."
- Alexander de Seversky

July 01, 2009

Q and A

After my speech at Peking University concluded I ate Indian food with chopsticks for the first time. A newly opened Indian restaurant in the student area had generously provided dinner to all the attendees of the seminar. After finishing my meal and posing for a few photographs, I was rushed back on stage. It was time to answer some questions from the audience. The Q&A portion of my inaugural lecture at an institute of higher education drew great interest.

1. What is the religious composition of India?

The computational knowledge engine known as Wolfram Alpha spit out the following facts:

80.5% Hindu       
13.4% Muslim                                          
2.3% Christian
1.9% Sikh
1.9% Others (Buddhist, Jain, etc.)

They were in line with the estimates provided by myself using the computational knowledge engine known as the ARNABrain.

2. Are there really cows on the street? (The girl asking this warned me beforehand that it would be a "cute" question.)

Yes, there are many cows to be found on the streets of India. Delhi is supposed to have at least 40,000 holy cows wandering its streets alone. The blessed bovines are revered by Hindus, so they are free to roam the roads unharmed. 

3. Why does India have significantly more developed IT and bio tech sectors than China?

This was the toughest question of the bunch, warranting further investigation. I muttered a convulated answer about how China has much greater infrastructure than India and equivalent educational instituitions, but is severely lagging behind in English language skills and in the free flow of information and knowledge that is continually transferred between India and the West.


“He must be very ignorant for he answers every question he is asked.” -  Voltaire