June 2009


Dear Starbucks,

You may have noticed that your company is in serious trouble. Your labor force is acting up, McDonald’s is gobbling up your market share, you’ve cut almost 20,000 jobs in just over a year, and in the middle of recession your customers just aren’t willing to spend $4.50 on a mediocre latte. Given all these problems, it might be time to stop sticking your thumb in customers’ eyes by charging them for Internet access.

I’m typing this from a small, local coffee shop less than a block from two of your locations. To be honest, I’d rather be sitting sitting in one of those comfy recliners in your stores than this wobbly hardwood table. You cafes are quieter and more comfortable than this place, and the coffee is just as good at pretty much the same price. But you want me to pay to use the Internet, so I’m spending my money over here instead.

Look, this is the 21st century. Everyone and their dog has a laptop or tablet, and virtually every other coffee shop I’ve seen in major urban areas offers free internet access. That’s why the cafe I’m sitting in now is filled with people (ranging from poor college students to business people to some guy who looks like a trucker) typing away. Yeah, there’s a recession and maybe the apple pie and cherry cheesecake sales are suffering, but at least people are here. Your locations are completely empty.

Starbucks, for a few years there you looked like the poster child for the vitality of American commerce. Now you’re crumbling. It’s not that you flew too close to the sun–it’s that you’re trying to squeeze every last penny out of your customers and we just don’t care for it. In the words of Stringer Bell, “ya’ll actin like you got an inelastic product when you don’t!” Email me if you ever get your act together. Until then, I’ll be over here.

Sincerely,

Sled Dog

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I’d heard the pollution in China was intense. The entire global media establishment was writing stories about it shortly before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but the nothing I read even came close to describing the real deal. My first day in China, I sat in the window seat on a flight from Beijing to Xi’an. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but the smog was so thick that five minutes after takeoff I couldn’t see the ground. I didn’t see blue sky for the first 12 days, until a major thunderstorm cleared out the air for while.

The air actually feels icky on really bad days. After an afternoon walking around sweating in the heat, I felt like I had grainy coal particles coating my skin. Some days the smog is so thick it could be a traffic hazard. Visibility drops to maybe 150 meters. Past that, all you see is gray. I cannot imagine having to breath the stuff every day for a lifetime.

Seeing firsthand how bad the air is in China makes me laugh at the feeble climate change initiatives being considered in the US. If we really want to cut carbon emissions in a meaningful way, we’re going to need cold fusion or something similar. Cap and trade just isn’ t going to cut it for a country with a population of 1.6 billion and GDP growth rates topping 8% a year. I’m pretty convinced it’s time to start investing in levees.

056While a week in Xi’an and another in Beijing hardly makes me an expert on traveling in the People’s Republic of China, I think it puts me a step ahead of most people. My time in China was a hell of a lot of fun, but it would have been better if I’d known a few important things beforehand:

1. Be prepared to bargain: as a general rule, price tags are just opening offers. That goes for souvenir shops, obviously, but also for bars, restaurants, clothing shops, and pretty much everywhere else. As a general rule, the higher the ration of westerners toChinese in a particular spot, the more inflated the initial asking price. In Beijing’s silk market, for example, a pair of knock-off Ray-bans will fetch an opening offer of between 400-500 RMB . You shouldn’t pay more than 60 or so. In touristy spots, your offer should probably be less than 10% of the asking price. The vendor will probably act insulted and knock 5% off the price. Then you say something like “well, we’re not going to be able to work anything out” and walk off. They’ll chase after you if you’re even in the ballpark.

2. There is no such thing as “original art” in China: On at least three different occasions, I was hustled into “art studios” where folks tried to sell me original works by struggling local artists. The three studios had completely identical prints. Some of them are very beautiful but unless you watch some one paint it, it’s probably a reproduction.

3. Use your hotel/hostel’s bathroom: You don’t want to be wandering around the hutongs looking for a public restroom. Even if you find one, you won’t want to use it. The only places you’ll find toilet seats are at your hotel, the airport, and maybe some upscale restaurants (like Pizza Hut!). Same goes for toilet paper.

4. Carry a map and a business card from the hotel: If you’re looking to explore at all, you will probably get lost. Most of the street signs have pinyin translations, but the sounds aren’t familiar so they’re very difficult to memorize. For example, it’s pretty tough to keep a word like “dongjiaominxiang” rattling around in your brain, especially after a night of knocking back 25 centTsingtaos . And even if you could, you probably couldn’t say it with an understandable accent anyway. But if you have a map and a business card, you can get acabby to drive you home despite the language barrier.

5. Worry about getting scammed, not getting mugged: I have yet to hear a story from any westerner I met in China about being the victim of violent crime. The police apparently just won’t tolerate it. If you’re walking down a dark alley by yourself, fear not! It’s far more likely your cab driver overcharged you than some one will rob you at knife point.

6. Fast food in China is even grosser than fast food in the US: McDonald’s and KFC are easy to find, but not worth eating. If you’re desperate for some familiar food (and you probably will be), scope out a Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut is, inexplicably, five star dining in China. It’s also very affordable. For non-pizza alternatives, look around the popular touristy bar districts. I found a place in theSanlitun district of Beijing with a Mexican theme. I had a delicious qeusadilla.

7. Stash a bottle of fresh water in your room: after a long night of too much fun at various bars, I stumbled into the hostel only to discover all the local markets were boarded up and there was nary a bottle of clean water to be found. Tap water is undrinkable, so I got to spend a long night with a parched mouth staring at a spinning ceiling. Big mistake.

8. Avoid fresh veggies and fresh fruit: after a week of eating salty, vinegary Chinese food, you will probably be pretty tempted to buy dirt cheap produce from a local open-air stand. Don’t. Or if you do, wash it thoroughly with boiled water. Otherwise,diarrhea is virtually guaranteed. The only way to be 100% safe with local produce is stick to things you can peel yourself, like oranges,lichee, dragon fruit, etc…

But despite the warnings above, I have to say that my time in China was remarkably easy. I don’t speak a word of Chinese and before this trip I’d never left the United States, but I got around just fine. I highly recommend it.

Hey all, I’ve been out of town the last couple weeks on a trip to China. I will get back to posting as soon as I recover from jet lag.