Contrary to common belief, Beijing does have gorgeous days of clear and blue skies; the mountains in the above picture are probably 50 miles away or more, and rather clearly visible. This is, however, a couple of days after a sandstorm.

In this trip, it was decided that I needed a Tsinghua university id card and so one dusty morning I went off with a secretary to the university HR offices. After walking about a mile (the campus is rather big), we got to the oldest and prettiest part of campus, the one where one expects administrative buildings to be. We walk into an office, where the secretary has a short discussion with the person in charge. Then we move to the office next door, where an administrator prints some documents and stamps them with official red-ink stamps. We take the stamped documents, and go three doors down, where we drop off one of them. Finally, we go to another building, where the id-making guy sits.

(This sounds a bit convoluted, compared to the American approach of going directly to the id-making person and showing him/her a driver’s license, but it is positively streamlined compared to getting anything done at the University of Rome. Incidentally, at no point was I asked to prove my identity, which seems the one important step in the process.)

The id-making guy’s office has a stool facing a professional camera and lighting, the machine to produce the id, and… a desk full of glasses. I would guess the glasses are fake (that is, have no corrective lenses) and are meant as props for taking pictures, but I couldn’t understand how. Was the idea that someone who does not wear glasses would take his id picture with glasses? So that he doesn’t look too much like his id? Then why not have fake mustaches? Or maybe it’s for people who don’t like their own glasses? But it’s not like the ones on the desk were particularly fashionable.

I elect to take my picture with naked eyes, but a new problem develops. Like the superstitious sports fan who always watches games wearing the same clothes he wore the last time his team won a big game, I was wearing the same shirt I wore the last time I had a good picture taken of me, which is the one on my home page. (For context, previously I had on my home page a picture taken at my first communion party, which was the previous picture to come out good.) Apparently, however, that shirt is “white,” and this is no good because it would reflect too much light on my face.

So I take the picture with my overcoat on, covering the offending shirt. “Good,” I am told, after taking the picture, “your eyes are open.” Apparently the previous foreigner to have his picture taken had closed his eyes when the flash came on, on three consecutive attempts. The bar for acceptable foreigner’s pictures having been so lowered by my colleague, the id is printed, and the secretary keeps it “for safety.”

On my last night in Beijing I experienced firsthand a startling Chinese driving convention. As we are stuck in traffic in a taxi, another car rear-ends us quite hard. The driver gets out, the occupants of the other car get out, and haggling begins. In this kind of situation, that is, the offending party pays some money, negotiated on the spot, to the offended party, so that everybody can drive off quicker, and not bother the police and the insurance company. The other people start at $3, and after much haggling, with the meter running, they settle for $7. You have to love a country where you can bump into another car and drive away like that. After we get to our destination, we haggle ourselves for the part of the fee wasted in waiting. We get $.50 off.

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