Thursday, January 27, 2011

Passports and visa applications: how bad can it be?

Here is an unusual look at Chinese power, considered through the power of a Chinese passport. The gist of it is that while China is supposedly wealthy, its passport almost never allows for visa-free or visa-on-arrival entry. There are only a handful of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia that allow easy access to Chinese nationals, most notably Iran, Indonesia, Thailand and Kenya. Contrast that with the ability of those from wealthy countries to travel around the world without much trouble.

I agree that China is not a very popular country, but there are surveys to prove why is that not a good metric. Consider this poll from last year, where 38% of people from around the world judged China to have a negative influence on the world. Compare that with 13% who felt that way about Canada, 17% about the European Union and 32% about the United States, which was waging two wars outside its borders compared to none for China. The only countries to rank higher than China were Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

Much of what makes a country easy to enter is wealth. The system works best for people from rich countries going to other rich countries, or possibly a poor country where a lot of rich people go on vacation. A Canadian would have an easy time going to Belgium, Japan or even a comparatively poor place like Thailand, but not China or Russia. As powerful as China might be, it is certainly not as wealthy as Western Europe, North America or other parts of Asia.

The other part of it is reciprocity. China is pretty good at giving tourist visas despite being authoritarian to say the least. On the other hand, when China puts foreign visitors through the wringer, what interest does the rest of the world have in treating China well in this regard? Granted, it's far easier for us to get a Chinese tourist visa than it is for a Chinese person to get a Canadian tourist visa, but that's another story I'll get to in a bit. Here, again, China's unpopularity combines with its wealth to make it hard. A non-wealthy but likable country like Thailand fares much better.

My first encounter with the absurdity of visa requirements was my first visit to China. A Chinese tourist visa costs about $50 depending on where you are, unless you're American, in which case it's about $150 (I've heard as much as $180). This, apparently, is because of American requirements to visit China, though fees for Canadian visas for Chinese people and Chinese visas for Canadians are not the same, and the process is certainly easier for Canadians, who don't have to prove that they'll leave after their trip.

But then, China isn't even that bad. There was Kyrgyzstan, which asked me to pay 80 dollars, preferably in American currency, even though I was in Korea. Then there is Pakistan, which processes tourist visas in three days but requires all tourists to answer questions such as:

- blood group
- religion
- identifying marks
- name, address and phone number of your boss
- the names and nationalities of your parents
- the name, address and phone number of your spouse's workplace, if married
- bank account information in Pakistan, if any account exists
- a list of all countries visited in the last two years, mentioning date, purpose and duration
- for those who have ever served in the armed forces of any country, a separate form is required, answering questions such as rank, duties, the type of unit, commanding officer's name and rank, and the number of soldiers supervised

Worse still is India, at least for people like me, who are Westerners of Pakistani descent. Since Pakistani citizenship can't be lost, we have to either apply on a Pakistani passport, a process that literally takes up to a year for a simple tourist visa, and that's once you procure the passport of a country you might not have visited in 40 years. However, there is a way out.

Here is a step-by-step guide to applying for an Indian visa on a foreign passport for those of Pakistani descent:

1) Visit a Pakistani consulate or embassy to renounce your Pakistani citizenship. You need:

a) a notarized copy of your American passport
b) four notarized copies of the application form
c) Pakistani ID card and (an undetermined number of) photocopies, a certified police report if this has been lost
d) $30 for the renunciation, $100 to cancel your ID
e) FIVE, not four or six, but FIVE photographs on a light blue background (not blue, not dark blue)

Estimated cost: roughly $200-400 (five or six notarizations, $130 in fees, passport photos)

2) Hopefully, you will receive a piece of paper proving that you are no longer a Pakistani citizen. You should take this piece of paper and certify it, whatever that means, presumably notarize it.

Estimated cost: $10-50 depending on the notary used

3) Then, take an affidavit available from the Indian government and notarize it.

Estimated cost: $10-50 depending on the notary used

4) Take #2 and #3 along with you Canadian passport to the Indian embassy, and fill out an application form twice and give two photocopies of your Indian passport. Even so, there's no guarantee you'll be treated like a human being.

Estimated cost: $62 for a tourist visa, plus a processing fee of $19.25 from a third-party company

Estimated total cost: $300-$600, not including actual travel to India


Here are some of the nicer questions asked on an Indian visa application:

1) Have you, either of your parents or either of your grandparents ever been a Pakistani citizen?
2) Parents' and spouse's names, nationalities and previous nationalities
3) What countries have you visited in the last ten years?
4) Two references in your country
5) A vow to leave India if found "positive of AIDS", for those applying for long-term visas (presumably targeted at those that are HIV positive)
6) A summary of the visa form needs to be filled out if you're applying in Canada but are not a Canadian citizen

By comparison, here is the comparatively lightweight North Korean visa application, North Korea being the international gold standard for disagreeableness. Korean speakers will notice the strange spelling and question number 6, which asks for 'orginal nationality' (sic) in English but appears to ask for ethnicity in Korean.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Separate but equal, alive and well in Korea

As Korea tries to accommodate the two percent of its population that is made up of ethnic non-Koreans, both resident and citizens, it is taking a variety of steps. They're always well-intentioned, but sometimes they're comic debacles and other times they're sorely-needed improvements. For a lot of people I know, these improvements are great, but I worry that these improvements, instead of allowing non-Koreans to integrate into society, are creating two parallel societies.

A while back I wrote on Twitter about going to Starbucks, trying to use the wireless and being rejected because access required a Korean citizen's ID number. A number of people wrote on Twitter that they'd been using wireless at Starbucks with their ID for a long time, and even Starbucks wrote back with a perplexed but polite email saying the same thing.

Lo and behold, it turned out that there were two versions of the wireless page. The Korean version was only set up to accept Korean ID numbers, and I needed to go to the English version to be able to use my ID number. As an aside, I suspect though I'm not sure, that given Korea's penchant for trying to attract blue-eyed foreigners with "foreigner-only tags", the English page won't take Korean ID numbers.

Banks, along with Internet laws that would make China proud, are a bane of my existence. I'm not the only one who feels this way. So, naturally, banks set up "foreigner-only branches", VIP centers, "global centers" and other gimmicks. You might see where this is going. If there are foreigner-only branches, doesn't that mean that all other branches are Korean-only branches?

When I complained to Shinhan bank that I signed up for an account only to be summarily refused a bank card, some cheerful soul suggested that I vist "the Shinhan Bank Seoul Global Center to guarantee consistent English-speaking VIP service every time." That would be nice, but wouldn't it be better if I could be treated like a human being in Korean at the branch 1200 metres from my house?

On the other hand, wanting to be treated like a human being in Korean isn't as marketable as opening up an English-language branch. I'm obviously a minority in trying to use services intended for Koreans in Korean. Nine out of ten people, I'm sure, when trying to use wireless at Starbucks, simply click to the English part to get away from the gobbledygook.

What this does is create two societies and two sets of services. If this model spreads, Korea will have two sets of services: one for the 95% that are ethnic Korean and one for everybody else. In its defense, this is similar to the sort of multiculturalism we practice at home. We don't make Chinese immigrants learn English, we have bank tellers that speak Chinese. We don't condemn parents who can't speak English, we send home school notices in English and Punjabi.

The problem, I feel, is that while these parallel services make everything convenient for those non-Koreans who: a) speak English b) live in central Seoul c) have relatively simple problems, they don't really solve the problem. The problem in so many cases isn't language, it's an unwillingness to try and deal with non-Koreans and their needs or problems. We are, like it or not, difficult customers, and the response we often get is a bald-faced lie or some other bizarre excuse ("you must bring a letter from your principal notarized by the Taiwanese consulate in Paraguay in order to be able to buy more than a dozen bananas on a Tuesday").

Imagine if you took an elderly Canadian woman who came from Sri Lanka to a CIBC branch to make an account. The teller photocopied all the documentation the woman brought, and then asked her to simply visit the bank whenever she needed to withdraw money. Then you told CIBC about the summary refusal of basic service, and they didn't apologize, but suggested that the woman visit their branch that specializes in Sri Lankan customers in Scarborough, which would be nice if she didn't live in Milton.

Korean multiculturalism is something to be applauded, considering the nearly Canadian increase in foreign residents and immigrants over the past decade. Yes, there is still obvious racism, provincialism and other head-shaking problems, but didn't we in Canada persist in referring to East Asians as Orientals until the not-so-distant past? It is clear that Korea will try many things to serve not only foreign residents, but the many mixed-race and new citizens of different ethnicities, and it will both succeed and fail in doing so.

If the trend is going to be to do things like this, where Korea simply makes new schools instead of dealing with racist tendencies which prevent mixed-race kids from going to school, the result is going to be a large underclass of disaffected, rejected citizens. Such groups can end up causing more problems for the state than they would have solved by adding to the work force and tax base.

Put some dirt on it

The most telling part of yesterday's football games was Jay Cutler's injury and the subsequent reaction. This wasn't the first time that a quarterback has left a playoff game, but it sure seemed like it. Analysts and players piled on to comment, largely on Twitter, that Cutler was faking, exaggerating his injury or weak. Ross Tucker noted that Philip Rivers of the Chargers had played in the 2007 AFC championship with a torn ACL.

I also piled on to criticize Cutler, though sober opinions today from writers are in his defense. The decision, Cutler said after the game, was made by medical staff. He didn't pull himself out of the game. A sprained in the ligament today made Cutler standing on the sideline seem even more reasonable.

I don't know that Cutler's injury was severe and outside observers are not correct in saying that it wasn't severe enough for him to leave the game. In the absence of evidence, it's reasonable to take the explanation given by Cutler and the Bears at face value. It's also worth remembering that Rivers himself was out in 2007 when the Chargers were playing a road playoff game against the Colts. When you're done, you're done.

This piece on CNNSI points out the meatheadedness of many of yesterday's responses, and the way reckless endangerment of personal health is closely tied to masculinity among the old guard of football players, coaches and analysts. Part of what makes the NFL exceptional is that players put forth tremendous efforts, but I think the current state of players who "couldn't even put [their] right hand on the ground" is not what we want.

I don't think anyone is advocating for the sort of dull, nauseating "listen to your body" feel-good pablum that dominates recreational running, as well as health and medical advice for the middle-aged. I hope that we won't see football games played on basketball courts or reduced to 30 minutes because of heat, snow or post-Christmas weight gain. But I do hope that we'll see players at least consider taking better care of themselves in what's a brutal sport.

The games yesterday good though not great, but worth watching for defense. BJ Raji's Leon Lett-like interception and touchdown return, along with William Gay's fumble return for a touchdown were some of the more interesting plays. Raji's return was moronic for the way he was holding the ball out in one hand well before reaching the end zone. A slight miscalculation could have cost the Packers seven points. It was, however, impressive to see a massive man drop into coverage, make an interception, and then score.

Perplexing to long-time Bills fans was the entrance of Todd Collins after Cutler left. Collins was designated to replace Jim Kelly way back in 1997. He failed. He has since been a good back-up, obvious considering that he's now 39 years old, but he's not someone you want to be playing when down 14-0. Unsurprisingly, he managed to two passes that were nearly intercepted, before being replaced by Caleb Hanie, who almost completed a fantastic comeback.

This marks the end of the fun part of the football year. From here on out, it's two hyper-corporate games in warm, neutral locations at odd times and in odd contexts. Of course, the Super Bowl could yet be fun, but it's not the normal fare that we're used to. Four great defenses playing in cold weather was a good way to finish, though if the Bears or Jets had completed their improbable comebacks, it would have been better still.

The Super Bowl might be the last game we see for a very long time, unfortunately. It's stunning considering the success of the NFL, where for the tenth straight year, a different NFC team is going to the Super Bowl. The owners see this as a chance to force a change in the current situation, with time and money on their side. Here's a good look at the details of the situation.

I am now 5-5 in my predictions, or as good as random chance.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

NFL playoff predictions, part 3

The second round of the playoffs is always the best. It's better than the wild card round because the teams are better, and better than the Super Bowl and the conference championships because there are four games on two days. Using the newly-minted cognitive skills I discovered during the World Cup in June, I was able to look at the quarterback and the coverage downfield on the same play. Previously I'd had my issues with trying to identify, locate and track multiple moving objects, part of the reason I can't watch hockey, and which explains my fondness for baseball.

At any rate, the season really ended for me last weekend. I got to see four great defenses play each other and I got to see the Patriots lose in the playoffs, with the bonus of five Tom Brady sacks. Anything after this is a bonus, sort of the way the Red Sox realized, after beating the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, that there was actually a World Series left to play. I was also, of course, stunningly wrong about how badly the Jets were going to lose, but I don't mind.

Both games this week are hard to pick. The Packers are the obvious trendy pick on one end, and it's hard to dispute that they looked better than the Bears in putting up 48 points on the top seed in the conference. On the other hand, they have a potential to play a lot worse. The Bears also have a potential to play worse, and wouldn't hold up to the Packers in a shootout. They have the ability to make this a tougher contest, but if it comes down to it, the edge has to go to the Packers because of Aaron Rodgers.

I'm biased toward the AFC, and the Jets-Steelers game will be great. I like watching teams with good defenses that play in cold weather, and these teams fit the bill nicely. The Steelers would be the obvious pick, but didn't the Jets just beat the best team in the league? Meanwhile, the Steelers appeared for a time to have met their match in the Ravens.

Ben Roethlisberger is better against the blitz than Tom Brady, on the other hand, which should count for something. The Jets, despite the abuse I've hurled this way, seem to have been talking big because of how seriously and how well they prepare. Watching last week's game against New England showed that the Jets took the time to devise a game plan on defense that used man coverage on the outside and a flood of zone coverage over the middle, without many blitzes.

The Jets risk a letdown this week, but a team that's been talking about the Super Bowl since August hopefully won't settle for a trip past the second round. More likely is the Jets getting beat by the Steelers for any number of reasons. After having beat the Colts and Patriots in the playoffs, it's hard to say that they're going to lose to a superior team, but the past is no guarantee of the future. As much as I can see the Jets winning this, I think Pittsburgh is more likely to win.

I'm 3-5 so far in the playoffs so far, so these picks are less reliable than random chance.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Starbucks, fuck yeah!

If you watch this video, you'll be able to get a sense of just how much of our daily life is the product of American culture. In my case, I use American software and drink coffee from American franchises while typing on American websites about American football. Of course, it goes both ways, like the instructive email forward I got about shoddy Chinese products, no doubt written on a computer with Chinese-made parts inside a house filled with Chinese-made things.

I spent a month in China a while back, but the sort of assholish bullying I saw in Xinjiang province seemed more like a strong country proving its strength, basically a person at the DMV lording whatever power they have over you, but in the form of a country. My three hours in Shanghai, dutifully if not alarmingly detailed in this space, were more of an eye-opener.

All of a sudden, America didn't look so bad, for while its border guards are also unmitigated assholes, at least they're professional assholes. I don't mean professional in the sense of being upstanding or concerned, but professional in the sense of being people who are assholes for a career. Chinese state-sponsored assholes, I found, were often confused, lacking in knowledge and generally were not backed by a system that allowed them to be assholes to their full potential (which is immense).

At any rate, Andrew Sullivan here reports on the new Starbucks trenta, a 900 ml drink that exceeds the capacity of the human stomach. As much coffee as I drink, I've long been flummoxed by people who order the largest size (I can't bring myself to say that term) at Starbucks. Barring people who work in a circus because of their ability to drink scalding-hot liquids, by the time you finish 600 ml of tea or coffee, it will be lukewarm at best, and that's assuming all you do is sit there and drink it.

Unsurprisingly, the drink is only available in America for now. Only cold drinks will only be dispensed in thirty-ounce cups, if only for safety reasons. A lot can be said about this representing a further decline in Western society, which personally felt more decadent when I watched TV. By many measures, we're more moral today than we have been in the past, though this generally doesn't fit by-the-number op-ed pieces about moral and societal decline.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

True grit, true grime

When my family moved to Brampton this fall, it brought to an end 16 years of life in Malton (well, I really only lived there for about 11). For the uninitiated, Malton is a first-ring suburb of Toronto that could charitably be called working-class, and is otherwise a cross between Michael Moore's Roger and Me, a Boyz II Men music video and the low-quality Bollywood movie of your choice. Brampton is where those people move when they become affluent, to live in the McMansions of second-ring suburbs.

I went to high school in Brampton, of course, but this is north Brampton, in many ways the frontier between relentless development and farmland. The snowy ravine behind my house lead to a thoroughfare, across the road is an Esso gas station...behind which is the Heart Lake Conservation Area, where so many of my high school races happened.

Ironically, as much open space as there is in Brampton, much of it admittedly snowed and frozen over at the moment, life in Brampton is best when you never really have to deal with anybody else in Brampton. This is a city where you can walk from your living room to your garage and drive until you reach the underground parking lot of your office.

The moment when you have to interact with the others is where it all starts to break down. I had the pleasure to catch the Coen Brothers' True Grit last night at the Trinity Commons SilverCity. Since there's really nothing else to do in Brampton once the big box electronics stores close down, movie theatres seem absurdly busy. Lest one race feel superior to another, there are equal helpings of brown trash and white trash on display, mutual in their love of quadruple-extra-large parkas with fur hoods and unsightly facial hair.

The movie itself was a nice trip back into American history, actual history, not the sort you hear about on Glenn Beck. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon personify the eternal American conflict between rugged individualism, however imaginary and flawed, and seemingly dowdy federalism, with its advantages.

Bridges is the US marshal who shoots first, asks questions later and unceremoniously kicks natives. Damon almost reprises the roly poly character he had in The Informant. He is overly formal, legalistic and verbose, the American state uniforming eyepatched individualists like Bridges. The characters are obviously relevant to America's reprised struggle between the individual and the state, conducted through the prism of historical myths.

A great feature of True Grit is its attempt to recreate contemporary dialogue. It is set in 1878 and the characters more or less sound like it, at least more so than virtually any other historical movie I can remember. Consider that we produce historical movies invariably in English and invariably present-day dialogue. If the movie is really old, they might pick up British accents, but generally watching a movie set in the past is like watching a middle school conception of history.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Trot Thursdays: the first of many?

It's not unusual for bloggers living in Korea to have the occasional post with a music video from YouTube, but I would like to buck that trend by posting a video no self-respecting resident of Korea would ever admit to watching. Well, unless they're a taxi driver over the age of 50 with a 30-cent paper cup of instant coffee in their drinkholder:

There are lot of ways to describe this style of jarringly kitschy music, which I love for its unique position in between the eternally ancient Korea of classical music and the garishly modern, blaring neon lights of K-pop. One of my favourite bloggers, noting its use as propaganda directed at North Koreans, describes it as "[t]he South Korean version of country music known", which "does not usually evoke the word “sophistication"".

Trot first started to grow on me along with the old-style restaurants at the bottom of mountains in northern Seoul, often less than a half hour from central Seoul but rendered imposingly remote by the mountains. Hiking, especially in the winter, opened up a whole new side of Korea, far from frustrating schools, immigration offices and $6 lattes. It was quiet, amusing, unpretentious and uninterested in impressing me, which is precisely why it impressed me.

People who know me well know that I have no taste. I'll eat just about anything, sleep just about anywhere, drink just about any sort of coffee and travel under just about any conditions (so long as its on land). That also probably helps to explain my fondness for trot, instant coffee, middle-aged taxi drivers and french fries.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

NFL playoff predictions, part 2

So the first round of predictions didn't go as planned. I thought that two of the games were toss-ups and two of them I was sure about. I was wrong about both toss-ups in the Colts-Jets and the Eagles-Packers, and I was certainly wrong, as was everyone else it seems, about the Seahawks-Saints game.

The salient points of the weekend for me were, in no particular order: the Colts continuing ineptitude in the playoffs, the Seahawks' surprising adeptitude in the playoffs, the Ravens' defense, and the Jets as a whole.

Rex Ryan has gone out, after declaring his goal to be the Super Bowl well in advance, and said that this week's Jets-Patriots game will be a personal game. I'm not sure that professional athletes with as much playoff experience and as much seriousness as the Patriots need what's termed "locker room material". But self-manufactured media controversies no doubt detract focus.

Sports of any kind are not won with the passion of Rocky theme songs and ACDC. Passion is just one ingredient along with preparation, focus and many other skills and personality traits. No team gets so fired up, either the Patriots from any perceived aggression from their opponent in a game that consists of nothing but physical aggression nor the Jets from having their coach behind them, that they take a game.

When it appears that players rallied behind or around a player or coach to win an important game, it was a game between two evenly-matched teams where one team was lucky from a momentary lapse or momentary excellence.

Rex Ryan is an idiot for doing this and the only thing that could make it easy to watch the Patriots mop the snowy grass with the Jets would be that he lost, not that it's likely to cower or temper his remarks in the future.

There are also the Colts. Peyton Manning joined the Colts in 1998. He first made the playoffs in 1999. The only year since 1999 that wasn't a playoff year was 2001. This means nine straight playoff appearances, 11 out of the last 12 years and 11 out of 13 years in Manning's career. Seven of those eleven playoff appearances have been one-and-out.

In 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008, and now 2010, the Colts have lost their first playoff game. That's astonishingly bad. I think the Colts, to put it simply, can't take the heat. Peyton Manning thrives on timing and practice with his receivers, but comes across as awkward and unsure when in the playoffs, while excelling at predictable situations in the regular season.

From what little athletic experience I have, watching Manning come up flat in the playoffs is like running a race. Training runs are out your front door in either a routine or a time of your choosing. I get up at 6, drink coffee while watching Frasier reruns on YouTube until 6:30 and then go for a run. Races are unpredictable. They're either out of town or involve getting up early or sleeping until later, at weird hours, with weird people that you don't normally see or talk to on Monday mornings at 6:30. They're nothing like training, in short.

Of course, after a few years, it should become apparent that a 38:52 10k would be a 38:52 with or without all that. The key things are probably not running 25 kilometres the day before, drinking coffee in the morning and the temperature being under 30 degrees. Making small talk with an acquaintance on the subway ride over or trying to find toast instead of soybean stew aren't going to make much of a difference.

Manning, it seems and I emphasize the 'seem' because I don't know why he or his team don't do well, doesn't do well in non-standard situations. Often the match-ups aren't great with respect to the teams the Colts end up playing, but it's still inexplicable why the Colts look so formidable in the regular season and consistently ordinary in the playoffs.

This year there were injuries and so on, but why can't the Colts ever overperform? They can either do as well as expected or worse, but if the Seahawks can take a 7-9 start and then win in an upset, why can't the Colts do better than expected?

At any rate, this week's predictions are all home teams: Bears over Seahawks, Falcons over Packers, Steelers over Ravens and Patriots over Jets. I only feel confident about the Patriots beating the Jets, but even that seems unpreidctable just because I feel confident.

The Bears are a classic paper tiger, but then, the Seahawks are worse than that. The Packers are good, but the Falcons are great. The Steelers-Ravens game is really a toss-up that I wish the Ravens would win because they're a much more troublesome match-up for the Patriots, who I hate. The Patriots should make quick work of Mark Sanchez, who looked good in the final minute against the Colts, but wasn't as efficient last weekend as he needs to be this weekend.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Weeks 6-8 of Seoul International Marathon training

I haven't abandoned training for this marathon the way I did the last two Januaries. Week 6 was a good week without a lot of mileage but two good workouts, week 7 and 8 had one good workout and not many runs due to a lot of travel, for work and for fun. I did get a nice run around the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo where I felt great.

After eight weeks, I would say that at most I'm in 1:31 half shape, which is basically the 1:32 I ran a month ago with better pacing. With the race ten weeks away as of yesterday, a sub-3 looks more or less impossible. On the other hand, I think there's a chance I could pull it out by getting in great half marathon shape (1:24 or faster), but it would take a lot of miles between now and then. The good news is that I'm more or less on vacation until then.

The bad news is that big gains, for me, often take time to show themselves, so even if I got in eight weeks of training and then spend another three weeks doing nothing, I feel like I would stand a better chance. On the other hand, I would be happy to walk away from this race with a PB (currently 3:10:24), which would mean running overall is going in the right direction.

I've been happy enough to compete the last few months more than I've been happy with times. Sports are, of course, about success and failure, victory and defeat, but even defeat is better than not playing at all. That's not to say, of course, that I'm a winner for trying, or for being the third-fastest male between the ages of 20-29 who also wasn't one of the top three finishers.

Racing, at my level, comes down to whether you're the hammer or the nail. I don't run to complete races, but I also don't run to be 17th versus 16th. Really, it comes down to the last third of a race, when either you have the strength to leave the others behind, or you sputter and get left standing still. This fall, I tended to be on the nail side of things, but even being humbled has its fun.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

NFL playoff predictions

I suffered and laboured all season to watch NFL games in bits and pieces, here and there, while writing and marking tests, streamed on my tiny netbook. When I finally get a chance to watch pro football on the over-hyped, over-decibilized stage of the playoffs, I get treated to the Seahawks and Saints?

Yes, I realize that the games have already started, but take my word for it that I would've picked the Saints to win even if they weren't up 10-0 right now.

I also pick the Colts, Ravens and, as much as I hate Michael Vick for the never-ending, uncritical hype heaped on him by commentators, the Eagles. I have to confess that watching games from overseas all year has made me rely more on what I read than what I see, except for teams like the Colts, Jets and Patriots, so that probably makes me more likely to be accurate than previous years.

I think the Saints and Ravens are likely to win, but the Colts-Jets is as unpredictable as it is likely to be entertaining. This is definitely the highlight of the week, obvious from its being scheduled on a Saturday night. Both teams have excelled this year at finding ways to lose, particularly their quarterbacks and particularly in key situations, so it'll be interesting to see which team just does not make plays.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


It's telling that shanghai's major airport means "shit" in two different languages: Pudong International Airport. This was my second time here, and my first time back in the fantastic People's Republic of China since that cold afternoon in August 2009 when I exited via a remote border crossing 5,000 kilometres away in the west.

That day, about a dozen border policemen stood around doing nothing but checking my passport over and over, as well as my luggage and the pictures in my camera. Like a teacher whose lesson has ended well before the bell and has to make up something in a hurry to keep kids busy, they pretended to make themselves look important and busy, but without much success.

I've had layovers in six different countries now: Canada, Japan, America, Thailand, Taiwan and now China. Any country important enough, or one that thinks itself important enough, will make you claim the baggage you checked earlier and check it again. The idea, i guess, is that a passenger who checked a bag in some sleepy airport like Kathmandu or Bishkek shouldn't get a free pass to have that baggage exit some advanced country full of wealthy, light-skinned people.

The reality is absurd. No safety is added by passengers retrieving their luggage from one conveyor belt and placing it on another, but maybe this is just a form of free labour for airports. Of course, no one ever went broke, looked bad or lost an election being a berserk, over-the-top, shit-flinging paranoid monkey when it comes to airport security. I've had the pleasure of retrieving and promptly checking baggae in Canada, America and Japan. Today i had the pleasure of doing this in China.

I landed at Shanghai's Pudong Airport at about 3 pm, with a connecting flight to Toronto at 5:45. Pudong Airport is named for its location east of the river (dong means east). The part of Shanghai west of the river is called Puxi. I'll let you figure out on your own why that's a bad name for anything. hint: 'xi' is pronounced like 'she'.

After i got off the plane, I walked through a corridor where one sign pointed left to "arrivals" and "baggage", the next one to "domestic tranfers" and the last one to "international transfers". When i arrived at the sign for international transfers, it was really just a desk for certain airlines to offer information to transferring passengers. There was no one at the desk or within about a half mile. I walked back to the domestic tranfers sign, which was even more deserted, before descending to the immigration line for "arrivals" and "baggage".

I asked a man if this was the place to transfer. He said it was, though what he really did was to make a sound that was a hybrid between hissing and clucking. He was too busy herding a group of middle-aged Korean women like cattle, their having made some unfortunate mistake.

When I got to the immigration officer, she asked for my arrival card. I was told that they were only for people actually staying in China, and why not? There were sections for an address in China, the length of my stay in days, and the purpose of my visit (transit not being an option). But, whatever, I filled out the card and returned to the officer, who scrutinized everything enough to make it seem like she was doing a job.

Then she asked me to come with her. I sat down in a small lounge in the absolute center of the 50 or so desks in this hall. A few other people joined us. "I think they're trying to get enough people together so that they can personally take us to our gate," a woman from Hong Kong explained.

After about fiften minutes, as people came and went and I raised my hands in disbelief that met with averted stares, I asked someone what i was waiting for. "You are wait for stamp," she gruffly said.
"What stamp?"
"Just please wait," she tried to summon up the politest English she had learned with her middle school education.

After another five minutes, some frog-like man said with an amused grin that said he had never worked at an airport before, "Your flight is from Hong Kong, so--"
"No it's not."
"We are wait for list of passengers so that--"
"Why? You already cleared me over there," I gestured to the officer at desk 43.
"We need list of passengers--"
"It is Chinese law, we--" he launched into a proud explanation, but I realized that about the only recourse I had in this situation was to be rude enough to not give him the satisfaction of making up whatever story he had.

After about 45 minutes of waiting, he said with the grin of someone who was now my best friend, "hey, it is now okay." The glare i gave him was startled him a little. It was like watching a nerdy kid who realized that not everyone is as interested in discussing homework at recess.

During this time, of course, my baggage carousel was now empty. I found it by the information booth. Since I've only used this suitcase once before, I made sure it was mine.

"hey, this is not your suitcase," a smartly-dressed woman looking like a napoleon impersonator came running from the China Eastern desk. Her accent and face indicated origins far from Shanghai.
"Huh? How do you even know who I am? Who are YOU?"
"This is ASIANA AIRLINE! Not your suitcase."
"Yeah, right, I came on an Asiana flight."
"Is this YOUR suitcase?"
"Yes it is."
"Baggage tag? Your baggage tag."

I gave her my baggage tag and she walked away without an apology or another word.

I walked out with about 1,000 people through the customs line, which was really just a door with nobody there. I was free to go anywhere I wanted in China, which was not what I expected. I walked through the hordes of men and hotel touts with name cards for people, but also selling hotels to me and, in one case, a sim card. This is That China Smell, I remarked to myself, which seems to consist of body odour and cigarettes, one trying to mask the other. I should say that I don't really mind it that much. Don't ask.

As an added insult, I went to the Air Canada counter to check in. The check-in process was abruptly interrupted when the hillbilly working the computer advised by the better-polished hillbilly asked me to wait by the side, while her better-polished counterpart went running with my passport.

"Uh, what is this? Why am I waiting?"

After about ten minutes, I managed to track down the senior hillbilly, who said something about another passenger on the plane having "similar information to you, so we need to check the information." After another ten minutes, this was all done. She gestured and said something about the baggage check. When I realized I had no boarding pass, I went back.

"Miss, there's no boarding pass here."
"Yes, you need to check your bag and then I give you the boarding pass."
"What baggage? I just checked it."
"You need to check your baggage."
"I just checked it.
"Follow me."

Trying to pull out the finest manners she had learned, she held open the cordon for me. We walked into a barely-visible "baggage check room", where a man in an ill-fitting uniform had me open my suitcase. He squeezed the clothes a few times and zipped it up.

When I went to get my boarding pass, everyone was gone. The new woman looked at me like I had three heads. She found the old women, who took me back into the room where everyone sat around talking for a few minutes, with the upshot being that no one had any idea what was going on. She took the time to explain how to board a plane to me in excruciating detail and a barely-comprehensible accent.

"You are really, really bad at your job," I said slowly in place of a swear word, and walked away. Later on, I regretted saying that, particularly when I got an immigration officer going out, who worked so hard to get a high rating on the rating buttons Chinese airports have for immigration officer. Many of the people standing around the duty-free shops and airline counters looked like they had worked really hard to get what was a middle-class occupation in a big city, and were sincerely trying to cope with the demands of being a world city.

On the other hand, after writing all this, I feel like I should have pointed out the absurdity of the situation in a more detailed rant on the spot, at least to the Air Canada employees. China is hopping on the airport excess train like other countries, but there was an immense number of dim-witted workers who lack enough knowledge to be asshole rule-based automatons of the sort found back in the West.