Monday, December 31, 2007

Impressions from China - 366

The Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium

It's been a year & a day since we landed in Beijing. The first few months seemed to drag on, due to occasional bouts of homesickness & frequent attacks of frustration as we slowly got used to the different ways of how things work here & the very different mentality of how Chinese think(I use the word "Chinese" here in reference to mainland Chinese as opposed to ethnically Chinese) .
Then as we made friends & discovered where to go to buy safe meat, & got used to having to wash vegetables & fruits so that we don't get poisoned, & figured out the best & cheapest massage places to go to & found things to do in school & with friends, the time has flown by.

These are things that I have realised in our time here (in no particular order)...
  • I have yet to learn how to cross a busy Beijing street without going through a panic attack...
  • I have learnt to watch where I step to avoid dubious-looking splotchy patches on the ground which, more often than not, turn out to be emissions of the oral, hacking kind...

  • I have learnt to be patient with Chinese excuses & reasons they come up with when something goes wrong in the house that they can't readily fix...

  • I have learnt that an electrician here may not neccesarily know much about electricity, & a plumber here may not know much about the priniciples of piping...

  • I have learnt that if I add a "rrrrr" to the end of every noun/phrase/sentence, & pretend that I have marbles in my cheeks, I can do a halfway decent Beijing accent...

  • I have become more confident in my use of Mandarin as my ears slowly attune to the local accent, although I am still far from proficient...

  • I have learnt that Northern Chinese food, dialects & even facial features differ greatly from the Southern ones that I am used to in South East Asia...

  • I have learnt that being Chinese is not a homogeneous condition, but something far more complicated than what has been argued about in Singapore (i.e. learning how to speak Mandarin does not neccesarily automatically make one more Chinese)...

  • I have learnt that the mainland Chinese & the Overseas Chinese may as well be two distinct cultural entities altogether, for all their differences & despite their similarities (as I said...complicated)...

  • I have learnt to apply lip balm at least twice a day to prevent chapped lips in the very dry & very cold Beijing winter...

  • I have learnt that when one is deprived of good TV programs & good movies, one's attitude towards pirated DVD's drastically changes. (I think Hollywood movie studios/producers have to approach this "problem" from a different direction)...

  • I hate the fact that most restaurants still do not have "no smoking zones"...

I'm not sure how much longer we will be here. At the moment, I am still ambivalent about staying here long term. The air quality & health issues certainly play a part in how I feel. (Last Thursday/Friday, the air quality index apparently reached a horrendous 421!!!) On the other hand, I know that if we do stay on, it will be an enriching & eye-opening experience.

Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Season of Cheer

It's strangely quiet now after two weeks of a full house filled with the sounds of, well... just family. It's amazing how one gets used to the ambient noise of chatting, xboxing, guitar-playing, cooking that was present during the two weeks when family was here visiting & spending the festive season with us in chilly Beijing.

The below freezing temperatures were not enough to temper the hearty warmth generated by family love & togetherness.

Home truly is, where your heart is...& mostly, one's heart is where one's family is, no matter where you are geographically.

Have a Happy 2008 everyone.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Tis The Season

Christmas is...

...Good Food...
...Good Company... matter where in the world you happen to be, if you are with your loved ones, Christmas is always more meaningful.

Wishing everyone out there: Love, Family, Warmth, Togetherness, Presents, Good Food, & Good Company this holiday season!

Monday, December 10, 2007


It is a sad day indeed when one seems immune to feeling anything when something like this comes up in the news. Especially when it happens within a week of this.

How many more will it take before America wakes up?

The right to bear arms indeed.......tell that to the victims' families.

Impressions from China - First Snow

Woke up to a blanket of white this morning...

A lot of it has already turned to gray slush especially on the streets because of the traffic & the salt that was strewn over it.

Here's hoping for a White Christmas!

Impressions from China - I Beg Your Pardon?

...Pidgin English...

To me, the common thread in the above 3 variations of "English" is the fact that it is, for the most part, incomprehensible to foreigners.

A typical example of a telephone conversation here in Beijing:

Customer Service:

Uncertain pause...
"Uh, hello? Who's this again?"

Customer Service:

Another uncertain pause...
"Can you please repeat in Mandarin?" (spoken in Mandarin)

Not only do they tend to link every single word & every sentence together without any punctuation whatsoever, but add the Chinese accent to the mix & they might as well be speaking a foreign language altogether.

I admire the fact that many Chinese are learning English in an attempt to keep up with the rest of the world; and there are many who speak excellent English. But then there are those who are not quite up to par as far as spoken English is concerned, which leads to a lot of confusion when they attempt to do so, from the foreigners' point of view.

Similarly, many foreigners in Singapore (including family & friends of mine) who cannot understand the "English" spoken by the average man-in-the-street/waiter/salesperson in Singapore. And it saddens me to hear the repeated insistence by certain circles in Singapore that speaking Singlish should be something we should be proud of.

I don't think we should abolish Singlish. It is a unique "dialect" & instantly recognizable by fellow Singaporeans wherever you may be in the world. However, if the children of Singapore speak Singlish at the expense of knowing & speaking proper English, then it IS a problem.

MOE's introduction of teaching English to pre-school teachers is a good first step. I just hope that they are taught PROPER English, both written and spoken.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


“Better” is a book written by Atul Gawande. He is a general surgeon working in Boston & also an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School & the Harvard School of Public Health. He writes about performance in Medicine, what it takes to be better at what we do as doctors, and how do we measure this ‘goodness’, for lack of a better word.

He uses real-life examples to explain his points of view, which is one reason why this book is so immensely readable, especially for doctors. It could be you or me that he is talking about.

An interesting issue he raises is that of litigation. As we all know, it has become an almost nightmarish situation for doctors practicing in the USA as far as litigation is concerned. Malpractice insurance premiums have skyrocketed especially for specialties like obstetrics & neurosurgery.

On the other hand, there ARE patients who have suffered as a result of medical errors. What recourse do they have if not for malpractice suits? Gawande highlights an approach that has been used by vaccine manufacturers which seems promising.

See, previously, the vaccine manufacturing industry was threatened by lawsuits from patients who had suffered from side effects of vaccinations. Out of the millions of patients helped by vaccination, one in ten thousand is affected by side effects. Like anything in medicine, there are always risks involved, even for the most mundane procedure. These victims would then file for damages (talking billions of US$ here). Because of these lawsuits, some vaccine manufacturers went out of business, prices of vaccines hiked up, stockpiles dwindled (you get the picture).

So the US government came into the picture. A 75 cent surcharge was imposed on each vaccine. This money went into a fund for children who are harmed by the side effects. A panel of experts had come up with a list of known injuries from vaccines, & whoever suffers from any of these injuries would be compensated, whether the injury is due to negligence or bad luck. Those still unhappy can still sue but apparently, few have.

Putting this in practice for physicians is a monumental task. Who would qualify for compensation? How do you put a dollar amount to an injury or disability or death due to medical error? Would doctors buy into such a scheme?

Another interesting issue he raises is that of falling income of doctors, mostly due to the fact that health care costs are managed mainly by insurance companies. Doctors not only have to deal with managing their patients, but now are faced with having to tread through the oftentimes obstacle-ridden course of managed care. End result: they lose money. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening in Singapore as well. Ironically, without insurance, many, including the well-to-do, would have a hard time covering health care costs. Medical care IS expensive. I don’t know the answer to this dilemma.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Picking & Choosing

This is an interesting article about recruiting & retaining physicians.

This was written by an American author for the US scenario, but I wonder how much of this would be applicable to the Singapore situation. With the "shortage"of doctors here, can the employers be so picky & use the guidelines listed in the article? ("Employers" here meaning the large group practices in the private sector & the two clusters that run the government polyclinics, which all seem to have a perpetual shortage of doctors).

I really doubt it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Winter - a random post

I like Winter.

It's a refreshing change to feel the crisp air after a summer of drenching humid heat.

Except when it gets too cold & the chill goes right into your bones & your teeth can't help but chatter & you can't help but shiver to generate more heat to keep warm.

Layering helps. Except that when you enter a heated building, you have to peel off your gloves & scarf & hat & heavy jacket & sometimes your sweater, so you end up with your hands full which makes shopping damned inconvenient.

No, I really do like Winter & am actually looking forward to the first snow of the season, whenever that may be. Especially if I can look at it from the inside through the window of my toasty warm house.