Monday, December 22, 2008

Paying the Rent

Today I paid my rent all by myself. It feels silly to be proud of something so mundane, but I am.

My landlord wants to be paid via bank wire transfer, and the information is laid out in the lease. He uses the same bank that I do, just a different branch.

This afternoon I went to my branch, with a copy of my lease and five figures worth of RMB, in cash. Everything is cash around here, and few places take credit cards that I haven't had to sign my name in public in months, so that isn't a big deal. I showed my bank card, and my lease, and told the bank manager (the only person who didn't giggle uncomfortable or just stare at me when I walked in) that I needed to make a wire transfer. He used my lease to copy the account information onto the transaction slip while I stood by and watched, grateful for his assistance. I'm willing to fill out the slip but I can't read it, and if I tried to write in Chinese characters the bank teller probably wouldn't be able to understand it. After the manager filled out the slip I was given a paper slip with my queue number and went to the waiting area.

When my number was called I handed the paper slip and the large pile of 100 yuan notes to the teller, along with my bank card. He placed the cash in a counting machine to confirm the amount, typed the information into the computer, had me sign a slip confirming the transaction and then gave me the receipt. Fairly simple, really, but still daunting without language skills to facilitate.

Cold

The mercury is dipping lower and lower on the thermometer recently. Apartments are warm, often overheated, but so dry that your skin itches unless you slather on moisturizing lotion almost constantly. Someone I know has five humidifiers set up in his room but his skin still hurts.

Yesterday I ventured out into the cold to look at winter coats and the streets were almost empty. Friends are canceling social engagements so as not to have to venture out into the wind.

The blasting cold will only last a few more days before we get some respite. I hope. In the meantime I'm wearing lots of layers and have developed a new appreciation for some of my warmest clothing.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Expat Life

This weekend I was at a dance party filled with expats from around the world. One of the DJs is the boyfriend of a friend and the music promised to be good. The dance floor was crowded with people from all over Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, North America and South America. The dance floor was still crowded when my friends and I left, shortly after 4am.

At one point in the evening a friend pointed out that one of the usual expats was missing. He had gone down to Thailand last week for a beach holiday. Usually that's entirely unnoteworthy. However, Thailand has been experiencing a lot of political unrest and the airports were shut down. In an attempt to return to Beijing the man we know took a 14 hour bus ride from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, where he and others who had been stranded in Thailand tried to book tickets on overcrowded flights into China.

He was never in any physical danger, just inconvenienced. Still, his experience is a good reminder to all that we need to be mindful of political realities as we plan our weekend trips and short jaunts to fun places.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I hope everyone who celebrated had a good holiday, surrounded by family and friends. Thursday day I bicycled between several different markets to buy ingredients for fruit salad, a green salad, and brownies. My oven doesn't heat up properly, so even at the highest temperature it took over an hour to bake brownies that should have taken twenty minutes, but it was still fun to bake.

That evening some friends came over for a girls' night of frivolity, planned without that that there was a U.S. holiday: we ate pizza, salad and brownies, and watched Sex and the City on DVD. It took us a few minutes to figure out how to change the language track to English, but it was amusing to hear the characters speaking Chinese while we matched wits with the remote control. It was a fun evening overall.

This afternoon I went to a holiday charity bazaar at the German embassy, a ten minute walk from my apartment in brisk air under a clear sky. There was a row of BMWs parked outside and a bevy of foreigners, mostly German, packed inside - most eating sausages and drinking mulled wine. I grabbed a perfect pretzel and covered it with mustard to enjoy while I strolled around, looking at the wares. I picked up a holiday present for a German-speaking friend (who will be very curious about it after she next checks in here) and some yummy potato bread to eat with dinner while watched downloaded American television.

Tonight I join some other friends for a belated turkey dinner. I'm taking the green salad. Afterwards I'm going to a party celebrating African culture at Club China Doll, where I'll see several different groups of friends - Italian, German, British. It will be a fun night.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Airfares - and taxes and fees

I'm currently planning to do a quick trip back to the U.S. at the end of January. That means spending time in NY, with a couple of days in MA and FL. I've spent this morning looking at airfares. One of the better deals I found was on British Airways, with the option of an eight hour layover in London on the way back, which would allow me to go into town for lunch and see what's up at the Tate and the Royal Museum. The airfare is US$699, which is several hundred dollars less than most other fares right now.

The expensive part isn't the fares. When I clicked through to find out the total cost it was more than double the actual airfare. Taxes and fees came to $807.70, for a total of $1496.70. That's insane!

I didn't book it. I couldn't bring myself to pay that much. I'm going to keep looking.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dots

Much of last week was spent studying - either hunched over textbook or computer - and my shoulders were pinched and extremely tight by Sunday evening. Monday during yoga class it hurt to hold my arms out parallel to the floor. I knew that massage alone would not open my shoulders back up so I decided to once again go for baguan, the Traditional Chinese Medicine practice that is know in English as 'cupping.'

There are a number of Traditional Chinese Medicine hospitals in Beijing, but I went to a blind massage center in east Beijing where I have gone for massage on several occasions and where I know that they also do cupping. They don't speak English though. I walked into the center on Tuesday afternoon and told them what I wanted. I was taken upstairs to a room and given a top to change into before the doctor came into the room to consult.

I explained (mostly through pointing, body language and pidgin Chinese) what I wanted and he looked at my back, then explained that I needed a massage first to loosen up the muscles. I agreed and then relaxed for the half hour oil massage. When it was done he wiped the oil off of my back, then I turned my head to see him wheeling the table filled with the round glass cups over to the side of the table, and setting fire to something pinched between the ends of a long metal holder. My first thought was that I didn't want my hair to catch fire but then I relaxed as I saw him use the flame to heat the inside of a glass cup, then he attached it to my back along the edge of one of my shoulderblades. He repeated the process seven more times, until a total of eight cups were attached to my back, in strategic places where the muscles were pinching me most. He asked several times how I felt and I told him honestly that yes, it hurt, but only a little, it wasn't bad, and I breathed deeply to relax. He sat watching the cups and the way my skin was sticking into them, then started to remove them.

There were indents in skin on my back where the cups had been placed but my shoulders could move freely, they were no longer pinched, they were relaxed, and I had my range of motion back.

Today I was on a Skype video chat with a friend in New York. I was wearing a tank top and turned around. There were a series of round bruises, about 3" across, on my upper back. My friend saw them and yelled out "You have polka dots."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Day to Celebrate

After hours at the Rickshow watching election returns, a concession speech and an acceptance speech that acknowledged the landmark occasion of this election, my friends and I moved up the street to Saddle Cantina for a lunch of Tex Mex food and conversation before parting ways for the afternoon. Several of us have to study for the class starting this weekend.

Today I was in a room with more Americans than I've seen in one place since my last flight out of Newark five months ago. A few were waving flags and one young man was walking through Sanlitun wearing a large American flag. Usually if I'm out and in a group that's majority English speakers I'd bemoan the lost chance to practice at least a few words of Chinese. Not today.

I am still in awe of what has occurred, of what we, the American people, have done. Obama jia you!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama Jiayou!

The crowd in Rickshaw is mostly American, a handful of Chinese, and a mix of Canadian, Brits, Australian and others. Everyone is excited. Some people are already drinking champagne but others are being a bit more conservative and sticking to beer until there are enough official returns to call it.

An amica Italiana just Skyped me: Obama jiayou!

The Eve of Another Camelot?

Is this what it felt like for Catholic Americans on the eve of the Kennedy election?

Some people have had to leave Rickshaw to head to work, to offices where they'll be wired and watching the election online. Their seats are quickly filled by the many people standing, watching over the shoulders of the rest of the crowd as cheers go up.

Interesting that Fox News called Pennsylvania for Obama before even CNN did.

Election Morning

With the recent time change in the United States, New York is 13 hours behind Beijing. At 7:30am I was able to grab the last table in a crowded bar full of Americans. I'm at the Rickshaw, the same place where I came to watch the debates, and I've never seen the place this packed. Everyone is routing for Obama.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Grocery Shopping Must Be Dangerous

I've been shopping for groceries at the Jingkelong grocery store on the corner of Gongti Beilu and Gongti Donglu for months now. Now that I live nearby I am in much more regularly. Every time I go in there is at least one man in a SWAT uniform, often walking around in a hurry, as if he just popped in to pick something up on his way to a crisis, but sometimes just standing around, watching.

The final exam for my business statistics class will be tomorrow. I needed a study break, and I was out of good portable snacks to eat during the exam, so I went to Jingkelong for a late night grocery run.

Tonight there was a whole SWAT team in the store. Most of them were standing around looking bored but a few were guarding the entrances.

I know this neighborhood has a lot of embassies, but is the grocery store really that much of a target? Really?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Banking Frustration

The world we live in is not yet quite as paperless as it could be.

J.P. Morgan Chase let's me do most of my banking online - moving funds between accounts, paying bills, an a few other things. I just looked at a credit card statement and saw something that I didn't recognize, phrased in a way that is ambiguous enough that I'm not sure if it is valid or not, so I called the credit card company, via Skype, to investigate further.

I was quickly connected with a man with an Indian accent. He wasn't able to give me much more information about the charge but offered to start dispute proceedings. He put a note in the computer system and then said he would mail me a form to complete. I quickly told him that I would need to receive the form via email, since I am in China and am not receiving ground mail. He doesn't have the option to send the form via email. Instead, I have to call back later, when the fraud investigation department opens, to discuss how to proceed.

J.P. Morgan has my email address. I know, they send me email regularly. I even had to agree that anything sent via email has the same legal weight of anything that would have been sent via U.S. postal service. Sending me a form via PDF should not be a problem.

This is part of why I do most of my banking with ING nowadays. They are much more electronically inclined. As an added benefit, ING also pays higher interest rates.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Voting

My official absentee ballot has not yet arrived so I'm filling in my write-in absentee ballot.

I wasn't certain which offices, other than President/Vice-President, are up for election in my district this year, so I started by going to the New York State Board of Elections website to look at the list of general election candidates. When I vote in person I just have to choose from the names on the ballot but I have to write the names in on this ballot. My handwriting is not usually clear so I took my time time and wrote slowly and carefully, to make certain it would be legible.

I'll be near a FedEx office today so will send my ballot from there - FedEx is sending U.S. ballots for free. It's a wonderful example of corporate social responsibility.

Computers

My next class, Business Statistics, starts on Saturday. The textbook comes with a PC full of Excel data files and PHStat2 software. My computer can read the Excel files without a problem, but there's a small issue with the statistics software. It's written for Windows based computers, and my computer is a MacBook.

I love my MacBook, and I've even created complicated Excel spreadsheets on it, but have not needed to do any statistical computing so have not had this issue before.

I'm not going to buy a new computer for one class. Instead, I made a few phone calls. One friend is traveling right now but has an extra PC laptop, with all software in Italian, in his Beijing apartment just in case his main laptop fails. I now have it sitting in my living, though the charger is with him in Tibet (due to a packing mistake) so I would need to go to a computer market and find one that works in order to be able to use it. Another friend has a PC laptop that she is willing to loan me, with all software in Chinese, that she is going to leave at her office for me to pick up tomorrow.

I'm going to take the statistics software with me when I go to get the laptop, so that I can ask someone in her office for help if the computer asks me something in Chinese as a I load it. Other than that, I should be fine.

In an ideal world all software would run on a Mac. I don't live in an ideal world though, so it's nice to have backup plans, and friends who are willing and able to loan me extra computers.

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 8

Kindness comes in many forms.

This evening I had to take cabs to and from a distant neighborhood that is not well served by public transportation. As usual when I'm taking a cab by myself, I sat in the front passenger seat. My cab driver didn't seem very interested in chatting so I called a friend to clarify when we would see each other next and tell her my frustration du jour, about software compatibility. We laughed through much of the phone call, most of the conversation in English but occasional phrases in Chinese, and my cabdriver was amused by my laughter. When I ended the phone call he asked if I was English, I clarified that I'm an American, a New Yorker, and confirmed with him that he is Beijingren (a person from Beijing).

When my driver dropped me off I asked for a copy of the fa piao (receipt) when I paid him. I use the receipts to help me track my spending. Many other people, especially expats, collect receipts because part of their compensation is reimbursement and they can only receive it if they submit receipts. Some people buy receipts on the black market for a fraction of their face value, to be reimbursed at the full value. People have asked me for my receipts when I've left grocery stores, especially large ones frequented by foreigners on expense accounts. Some people just save receipts they don't need and give them to friends who can use them - I've been at lunch and dinner gatherings where one person pulled out a pocketful of receipts to give to another.

When my driver gave me the receipt it was still attached to several others, from previous passengers. I went to rip them off to give them back, so that I would only have my own. No. The driver insisted that I keep them. It was a form of generosity.

And a form of kindness. One I don't think we would recognize in the U.S.

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 7

Last night was the birthday of one of my amici italiani (Italian friends), celebrated by a birthday dinner in a western-style cafe and restaurant in a hutong near the Lama Temple. Getting there required a taxi (or an hour and a half walk), at one of the busiest times.

When I left my building I head to a street where it's usually fairly easy to get a cab, then stood on the corner and watched taxis driving past with passengers. There was a man in front of me, who had been waiting about the same amount of time, and as an empty cab drove by he waved for for me to take it. Yes, I wanted the cab, but I didn't want to leave someone who had been waiting longer standing there. I asked if he was sure, he said yes. Then I said where I was going and asked if he was going in the same direction. After a short back-and-forth I convinced him that it was ok to share the taxi.

Usually my taxi language lessons come from conversation with the driver. Not this time. The man with whom I shared the cab speaks no English, is from Beijing, has lived in Shenzhen but now lives in Xi'an. He's here now visiting his parents. He's heard of New York, has never been to the U.S. but has visited Germany and speaks some German.

We had a pleasant 20 minute conversation, in Chinese. It was very repetitive, and basic, and there were long silences, but it was good.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Choice

Autumn is now here and this past Sunday I was able to participate in one of my favorite Beijing activities: rowing on a dragonboat on Houhai. As the weather gets colder our activity on the water will be cut back, so it was one of the last times this year I'll be able to row.

I'll miss this week and next because of school. The following week there is going to be a dragonboat competition, in Ningbo, south of Shanghai. It's the same weekend that Kanye West is going to be performing in Beijing, a five minute walk from my apartment. I'm not a huge Kanye fan but it would be fun to attend his show here.

I have to choose. Argh. Right now I'm leaning towards the dragonboat competition.

Beautiful Day

It's a gorgeous autumn day. The sun is shining in a beautiful pale blue sky, with an occasional fluffy white cloud, and there's a slight chill in the air that makes wearing a light jacket a welcome option but not a necessity.

This morning I went for a long walk, exploring areas of my new neighborhood that I don't already know. I found a large outdoor produce market across the street fro the south side of Worker Stadium. There I bought some tangerines and a papaya. There were some beautiful flowers for sale as well, snapdragons and roses and some other things, but I don't have anything that I can put them in yet so decided against brining them home.

After exploring the market I wandered along some other streets, into a bicycle shop where one of the attendants told me "Obama hen hao" (Obama very good) after he found out that I'm American, then into a local branch of Red Hero, a chain of locally designed and produced clothing that usually has things I like. Their autumn line is now out but most of it is cut for much slimmer bodies than mine so I left empty handed. On my walk back north I saw two beautiful motorcycles, a late 1950s or early 1960s BMW and a late model Harley, parked in front of a German restaurant. A well dressed local man standing next them and I had a short chat, and we both agreed that the Harley was nice but the BMW was jinliang (the best, gorgeous). Then again, he said he works for the dealer so he may be partial.

Now it's back to sitting on my patio with a cup of tea and my statistics book. Class starts on Saturday.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Oatmeal and sunshine

I've been here for eight months now and the weather is once again turning chilly.

Yesterday at the grocery store I bought that most perfect of perfect cold weather breakfast foods: oatmeal. This morning I used the pan that I brought from New York to cook a bowl of oatmeal, which I dressed with chopped pear and lemon honey. I sat in the sun on the patio afterward and ate my oatmeal, with half of a papaya on the side, while looking out at the trees. It was a perfect autumn breakfast.

I'm going to have to buy a saucepan and other cookware before I can cook much more, but decent quality items are difficult to find here. In the meantime, I can at least prepare breakfast at home.

Ayi

Along with moving into a new apartment comes a lot of cleaning. Even though I'm not really working right now I am busy, studying, attending events, doing research, socializing, etc. so rather than doing the cleaning myself it makes more sense to hire a cleaning woman to do it for me.

The word ayi has several connotations here, but two meanings are most common. One is 'auntie,' or a general honorific used to address any woman of your mother's generation or older. When I smile and wave at children in the park or on the subway their parents tell them to 'say hi to 'ayi,'' meaning me. My landlord also used the term to address my next door neighbor when they chatted through the window. The other meaning of ayi is a female helper - nanny, babysitter, cleaning woman. In China, when we speak about female help in the third person people don't usually use their name, just the word ayi.

The going rate for an ayi is 15 RMB (between $2 and $2.50) per hour. My friend who will be moving into the apartment has a great ayi that her grandmother knows, Mrs. Z, so she is here right now, dusting, mopping, wiping down the wooden furniture and doing other things that need to be done to keep the local dust and dirt at bay.

Now that I am living in my new home it's time for me to get serious about school again. Our next class is Business Statistics and we'll squeeze an entire semester's worth of stats into one week. I want to get the textbook, or at least the chapters that the professor plans to cover, read before class starts. I'm sitting at the living room table with the book in front of me now, as ayi is cleaning.

Most ayis in Beijing prefer to scrub floors on their hands and knees, but I was glad to see that Mrs. Z chose to use the mop that was among the cleaning supplies I bought last week. In the living room she mopped around and under me, with both of us laughing (at least part of my laughter being from discomfort at the idea that it probably looks like I'm being a lazy sod while she's working). After she finished mopping the entire apartment she came back to me and asked me to give her the slippers I was wearing so that she could wipe the bottoms of them - that way I won't track dust through the nice clean apartment when I get up. Then she brought the nicely cleaned slippers back to me so that I wouldn't need to walk around slipperless.

I feel spoiled, and completely bourgeois.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Debate

I've been living in the new apartment for a couple of days now but do not yet have internet.

A local bar called The Rickshaw is showing the CNN broadcast of the second Obama-McCain debate live, over breakfast. I'm sitting in a room full of Americans, about 30 of us, watching the debates and sharing comments while sitting under posters advertising Brooklyn lager.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hong Kong Dollars


In Hong Kong, different banks still issue their own bills, which are legal tender and can be used anywhere in the country. At one time I had three twenty dollar bills, all drawn on different banks.

I'd heard of this previously but it seemed like something out of another time. Seeing the bills in my hands felt like seeing the history of currency .

Besides, Hong Kong has pretty money.

Mr. Softee


There are some things that just seem to me to be purely American. A Mr. Softee truck is one of them, so it took me by surprise when I came across one on the streets of downtown Kowloon, in Hong Kong.

The serving size was small by American standards, and it was served in a sugar cone instead of the Mr. Softee standard waffle cone, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Ke Yi

After checking into my hotel room I wanted to log onto the internet to check email and post a blog entry but I wasn't able to get online. I called reception to inquire how I could connect.

A man answered in Chinese. I asked, in Chinese, if he speaks English: "Ni shuo Yingwen ma?"

His response? "Ke yi." (Yes.)

I should have expected it. Next time I'll just ask in English.

There are room charges for internet use. I'd rather go out and explore than sit here and surf the internet for the next couple of hours so I'll wait to post.

Hong Kong is Green

My visa only allows me unlimited entries into China, for up to 120 days after each entry. Today is day 120 so I need to leave the country or risk penalties.

This morning I boarded a plane to Shenzhen, from the gorgeous and grand new Terminal 3 in Beijing airport. Today is the second day of a national week long holiday so many people are traveling. In the airport security line I ran into a friend who was on his way to Tibet. After arriving at Shenzhen airport I learned that there is only one ferry to Kowloon, in Hong Kong, each day and it does not leave until late afternoon. There are more ferries to the Hong Kong International Airport, but you must have a plane ticket or confirmation of a reservation to be allowed on. I want to be in HK before then then so I hopped onto a bus to the border. My first images of Shenzhen were of rows of backhoes and skyscrapers under construction, which I expected to see, and trees and flowers along the sides of the road and in the distance on the mountains, which I did not expect to see. The first sounds I heard after leaving the confines of the airport were of local workers with a Shenzhen accent.

The bus ends at the Shenzhen train and bus terminals, and the maze of walkways that leads to the border security check. At one point I went up to a police officer to ask directions. A Chinese couple who reached him before me had pulled out a notebook for him to write something down. I made a joke under my breathe in Putonghua (Mandarin), and they turned and excitedly asked me if I speak Chinese. "Yi dian dian," (a little) I said, and watched their faces fall. When Mandarin speakers think they can get me to translate from Cantonese I know I'm not in Beijing anymore.

More tunnels, lined with stalls selling SIM cards and phones and food and all manner of other things, led to the border checkpoint. It felt a bit like Times Square, circa 1992, so I held my bag tight. Exiting China and entering Hong Kong were quick, taking about 15 minutes. The most noteworthy part of it was that the Hong Kong immigration officer, a woman, smiled at me as she took my passport. Chinese immigration officer did not like my passport and shot me dirty looks so I was happily surprised at my welcome into Hong Kong.

After stopping to exchange some Chinese Renminbi into Hong Kong Dollars I stopped at a bakery and picked up a portuguese egg tart. It was a yummy first bike of Hong Kong. Then I joined the queue at a ticket machine and bought a first class ticket to Kowloon on the Hong Kong MTR (Mass Transit Railway). The first class car is clean, has comfortably cushioned seats, and is air-conditioned. The train pulled out of the station into an expanse of green, tree covered hills, with occasional blocks of residential buildings, on its way towards the urban expanse of downtown Hong Kong.

There's a lot of green.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Uuuhhh

Citibank has been told that I am in China. I've told them on at least two occasions, once when I called from New York and once when I called from here a couple of weeks ago to have a block taken off of my account. I don't use the card often but I recently used it to buy a baby shower gift from Toys R Us and have it sent to a friend in Connecticut, and also to buy something at the grocery store here when I'd forgotten to put more cash in my wallet. I just logged on to the Citibank website to pay my bill and saw a message that I need to call in to Citibank due to some 'high-risk activity.' I opened up Skype and called.

After listening to the usual recorded Citibank messages I heard a pleasant woman with an Indian accent say that the system is down for maintenance, could I please call back later. I have things to do today that preclude my sitting in front of the keyboard indefinitely so decided to see if I could avoid having to stay online by having someone call me back. I asked "Are you a human being or a recording?" From the other end of the line I heard someone say "uuuhhhhhh."

That's a human being.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 4

I have a home.

Friday night S and I signed a lease on our fabulous two bedroom apartment in Sanlitun. Well, Stephanie was the one who signed, but my name is on the lease as an occupant. This was important because I want to make sure that there is not a problem with my registering with the police at that address, or coming and going on a regular basis.

The lease was written in both Mandarin and English, with a clause saying that if there was a discrepancy then the Mandarin version is the one that will prevail. In the lease there is a Force Majeure clause protecting the landlord from responsibilities if there are problems due to riots, war or Acts of God. That caught my eye and made me wonder.

Friday morning I went on an expedition to Carrefour, the French supermarket, to buy cleaning supplies and other things to prepare the apartment. I haven't been shopping for anything other than food for awhile but I quickly remembered how much I hate shopping here. The low cost of labor here means that there are numerous employees all over the store. Every time I picked up a broom or a mop to look at features there would be four or five or six people who came forward to show me a different version and yell at me to tell me that I should get the other one. It resulted in my having to sculk at the end of the aisle, trying to visually find an item I wanted and figure out which version of the item I would think best, then dashing up the aisle to pick it up, look at it, and dash back out of the aisle to my shopping cart before anyone started yelling at me. I know how to choose a mop, thank you very much, please stop yelling and shoving things in my face.

Customer service is very different here than in other countries. It was a bit better during the Olympics but they are over now and I want to avoid all stores again. I wasn't able to buy all of the things on my list (I don't have towels or sheets yet) because the selection wasn't very large and I felt like I'd run the gauntlet enough that day.

Yesterday the real estate agent had two ayis (cleaning women) in to clean the apartment, and I made several trips from where I've been staying with my suitcases, books, and other things, including the cleaning supplies I had bought at Carrefour. Today I won't be able to go to the new apartment, but tomorrow I'll take one or two more trips over and buy bedsheets and towels so that I'll be able to move in and start actually living there by the time the weekend arrives.

I have an actual apartment now. After eight months living out of suitcases it feels strange to know that I'll be able to unpack everything soon.

Traffic

Last night a cab ride that should have taken me 15 minutes instead took over 45. The special traffic rules for the Olympics are gone. I miss them.

My new apartment is located minutes away from places where I go regularly, and about 15 minutes from the subway. I've been living close to a subway line, but one that doesn't go places I usually go so I would need to transfer several times to get to my usual destination.

Taxis and subway are good. Traffic is annoying. I'm looking forward to buying a bicycle now that I have a place to put it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 3

I think I found a home!

I've looked at several more apartments with my wonderful Chinese broker who speaks almost no English. Yesterday afternoon he took me to view two apartments on the back of his electric bicycle. Neither of them were anywhere near as welcoming to me as the first place he had shown me, which was fabulous but overpriced. I loved it, but don't want to knowingly overpay.

Last night I was on my way to meet my friend S, a Beijing-born Chinese-American woman, when she called and asked if I'd mind looking at an apartment with her. We're both home hunting, both plan to live alone, and have gone to look at some apartments together then shared our opinions of the buildings, apartments, furnishing, and decor - or lack thereof. If she didn't like the apartment last night she was going to renew the lease on her current apartment. I was just along as a prelude to our dinner and to give another opinion.

We met close to where we had previously planned to meet, in the Sanlitun embassy area, a few minutes walk from an English-language bookstore, a good local grocery store, the yoga studio where I like to go, and lots of good restaurants. We met the broker on a street corner opposite from Beijing's Worker Stadium, a central landmark and the location of the Olympic soccor semi-finals and finals. Only a few minutes walk away we turned into the courtyard of a Chinese apartment complex where only three weeks ago S and I had both commented we would love to get in but the rents would probably be insane if any Chinese retirees were willing to sublet.

At the entry to the building we met the landlady, a Chinese woman in her thirties, then walked up four flights of stairs and waited while she opened a heavy metal door right off to the landing. The heavy metal door led to a private outdoor patio and another metal door, behind which was an indoor patio and a hallway into a place we never would have expected in a building that is over thirty years old. Spanish tiles in the entryway. High ceilings. Modern light fixtures. A bathtub. An oven (small, but still large enough for a brownie pan, cookie sheet or lasagna dish). Built-in bookcases. Generous storage space. Crown molding. Front and back patios. Southern and norther exposure. Views of green courtyard areas. Over 120 square meters of floor space. Two large bedrooms. The complex was built by the Soviet Union for senior communist party officials working in China in the late 1960s and it was made to last. Its location in the embassy area means that heat and power are reliable. All at a price well under market, maybe one third less, because the landlord wants someone they trust who won't be a problem.

The rent on the apartment is at the cap of what I was willing to pay, but for this apartment, the location and the space I would be quite happy to pay it. So would S. Such places are almost impossible for outsiders or foreigners to get into (no, we're supposed to want to live in overpriced, modern luxury monstrosities with all the character of an overcooked potato and filled with other foreigners), but S has local origins and guanxi (a network of relationships and connections) that are hard for a newcomer to access, and a friend connected her with this broker. As we looked through the apartment we kept commenting on the same things, or exclaiming for the other to look at some detail (crown molding!). We've decided that we'll share.

We're going back on Friday afternoon to take a look at the apartment during the day, check the water pressure and sign the lease. Last night over dinner in a nearby cafe we started to discuss decor and house rules; today we discussed them further and agreed to have a written agreement that clearly states financial responsibilities and some other information. Our next step will be to get a housekeeper in do a deep clean. If all goes well I'll be living there in under two weeks. I already know the area and have friends nearby, and will have easy access to most of the places where I go regularly.

Wish us luck!

Recovery

Last week was nine days straight of 18+ hour days. We did the classwork for two different semester-long MBA classes, Financial Accounting and Organizational Behavior. Anyone who slept more than six hours each night was considered an anomaly. Several classmates and I have tentatively decided that MBA programs are synonymous with sleep deprivation torture.

Our class is made up of over 40 professionals, men and women from China, the U.S., Canada, Germany, Isreal, Columbia, Chile, and other countries around the world. One brave woman is doing this while pregnant, due to give birth in a few months. Several program participants arrived in Beijing from North America or Europe only three or four days before class started. All in the group are driven to perform, though we have different strengths and weaknesses. In our first week we had brilliant professors, both of whom have earned success in the business world in addition to their recognition in the academic world. One of them is dean of the undergraduate business program at Rutgers and the other teaches accounting at some of the top business schools around the United States.

We learned a lot in our first week. And we realize that over the next fourteen months we'll be learning a lot about time management and group dynamics, not just the subjects listed in the class syllabuses.

For now, we recover. Classmates who are not working spent Monday in a shell-shocked state. Yesterday I emerged from my bubble and met a classmate for kayaking on Houhai, the lake where we usually go for dragonboating. I needed that after nine days sitting at a table and almost no physical activity.

Now we have two and a half weeks before our next one-week intensive and we have to prepare.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 2

My apartment hunt has been temporarily put on hold, pending the end of my first intensive week of classes next week. This morning, however, I received a call from the friendly, non-English speaking broker at Wo Ai Wo Jia. He had two apartments to show me. I scheduled an appointment to meet him this afternoon.

After my frustrations while looking at apartments last week I put together a list of things that are important to me to have in an apartment. I wrote it down, then a fabulous translator friend typed it in Chinese. We printed it out and now I can show it to Chinese brokers so that they know what I want:

"I am looking for a 2 bedroom furnished apartment, preferably in a Chinese complex (not an international compound), in Dongzhimen, Dongsishitiao or Yonghegong, with a one-year lease.

The apartment should have:
24 hr hot water
heat included in the rent
a western toilet
an enclosed shower (shower cabinet) or a bathtub
natural light during the daytime
tile, parquet or wood floors (no wall to wall carpets)
elevator if above the third floor (24 hrs)
air conditioner
high speed internet access
An oven (for baking) would be nice but is not a requirement.

I am ready to move in immediately upon identifying an apartment and signing the lease but do not need to move until I find the right place.

I have Chinese and foreigner friends who speak and read both Chinese and English and can help me understand the contract before I sign it."

You may have laughed when you read the list. Some older homes here don't even have running water, so I want to make sure that a realtor knows that it's important to me, and that I want it 24 hours a day. The hot water in some places turns off after a certain hour, so again I decided to specify. Many apartments have bathrooms with 'open' showers, which means the shower head is just a spigot or a handheld showerhead mounted on a wall, with no tub or compartment to separate the 'shower' from the rest of the bathroom. It can be a nightmare to clean, and one that I saw had the showerhead pointed right at the toilet, with not enough room to stand up or turn around. No thank you. Some buildings with elevators turn them off after a certain hour. I don't want to ever have to make a decision to leave somewhere early, or to stay out until five or six in the morning, because of an elevator being turned off.

High speed internet access is necessary because, well, because I want internet access at home and it can take months to have installed if an apartment does not already have it.

This afternoon the broker took me to two apartments. One had two bedrooms, two living rooms, a long enclosed porch and lots of great light. Unfortunately, the shower looked, um, 'nasty,' there were plastic grape vines and bunchs of grapes attached to the ceiling of one of the living rooms - a dusting nightmare, and the apartment required climbing seven flights of stairs. The second place had an elevator, two bedrooms and a view over a small hidden park with a lake from the master bedroom. The pitfalls were that the second bedroom and the living room both faced an unpleasant looking airshaft, there was very little light, the furniture was old and dark, and the layout made the place feel smaller than it was.

I explained to broker, in bad Chinese and with lots of hand gestures and laughter, that I like to have friends over but few would walk up seven flights, and that the other place felt very dark. Now he has my email address so he's going to take photos of places and send them to me. I also pulled out a calendar and explained that I'll be 'studying' all next week, from morning until night. We're going to resume apartment viewing after that.

It's an adventure, but I know I'll find a place I love if I'm patient and keep looking. If not, there's always the luxury foreigner ghettos.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Scrabble Update

I asked a friend who spent her childhood here about how Scrabble is played in Chinese. It's not.

Local schoolchildren don't have time for games. They're working too hard. The most commonly used learning method is memorization, and students have to memorize a lot. There is little time for any type of extracurricular activities.

Rutgers

I have news: I'm going to get an MBA. From Rutgers. In China. Business Week ranked the Rutgers Executive MBA program in the top five for strategy and top six for finance globally.

This is a fourteen month intensive program, with classes being held over a one week period approximately once each month. For each week, we will be in class full time on the beginning and ending weekends and two evenings during the week in between. Classes are taught by the same professors who teach in the program in the United States. The program costs US$41,000, including textbooks and refreshments, a bargain compared to the over US$100,000 tuition and fees charged to out-of-state students taking the same E-MBA program in the New Jersey.

Life sometimes offers us interesting paths to take. I often find ones I'd never even thought existed. This is one of them. I had not imagined this as part of my plan in China but it's an amazing opportunity. I have learned something new every day since I arrived here and I know I will continue to do so.

Right now I'm trying to read as much of the 900+ pages of Accounting and Organizational Behavior textbooks, case studies and readings as I can before the program starts on Saturday. The classes are only one week long so I know I can make it through.

At this point I'm still waiting to hear back from the federal government about student aid. Anyone have an extra $41,000?

Exchange Rates

Most apartments that I am looking at are priced in the local currency, RMB. Some apartments listed online are priced in dollars. I'm now at the point where I have to convert the cost into RMB, as that is the currency that I use most frequently.

You know you really live somewhere when you have to convert prices in your own country's currency into the local currency to assess whether a price is reasonable.

Hot Chocolate at the Grand Hyatt

The Grand Hyatt hotel is located in the heart of Beijing, on Chang'an Avenue in the Oriental Plaza shopping and apartment complex, and is generally considered to be the finest luxury hotel in town.

Yesterday evening I stopped into the Grand Hyatt to pick up a package that was left for me by a visiting friend. After claiming it from the concierge I sat in the lobby to read. I also splurged on a hot chocolate. It was made in the American style, with milk, whipped creme on top, and marshmallows, biscotti and a chocolate-dipped bread stick on the side. Yum!


One noteworthy thing that I observed was the presence of a service charge on the bill. Waitstaff are certainly deserving of being paid for their services, but tipping is not the norm here in Beijing. Some premium restaurants and lounges (read: ones frequented by foreigners or ultra-wealthy locals) now charge a service fee on all bills. If it were used to reward waitstaff for good service I would respect it, but the service fee is kept by management and never makes its way to the people who are actually providing service. Remember that the next time you see a mandatory service charge in China.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Apartment Hunting - Chapter 1

Now that the Olympics are over it is time for me to find my own apartment.

I started this by reviewing online ads on two popular websites for expats. There were a number of ads listed that looked promising so I sent off emails. Their apartments were in areas close to where I spend most of my time and were in my price range. Most of the ads were placed by English-speaking real estate agents, who then respond and try to steer me into buildings and apartments they think I would like.

As I am a foreign woman, it is obvious to the agents that I want to be in one of the large luxury compounds that are filled with foreigners from around the world. I've looked at some of the apartments there and felt like I was looking at condominiums in Connecticut, right out of a cookie cutter. They are sterile and there is very little sense of community. Agents stress the club house and the gym facilities, but I have no use for a stair machine since I am already active physically. They tell me that the buildings are safe; Beijing is one of the safest places in the world for foreigners, especially foreign women, and the only time I've ever felt unsafe in the slightest was when I was with foreigners. The realtors look shocked when I say that I want to be in a Chinese compound, but I want to be somewhere with a real sense of community, where English is not the lingua franca.

Yesterday afternoon I'd had enough of politely arguing with the English speaking brokers and walked into a Chinese brokerage firm - Wo Ai Wo Jia, or I Love My House. The brokers weren't sure what to make of me at first, and communicating wasn't easy, but I now feel much happier about the whole process. Plus, I'm learning some new vocabulary words.

When I walked in and the agents looked up at me I said I wanted a, um, (darn it, how do I say rental?), then I pointed at the rental ads in the window so that they would know I didn't want to buy a place. That would be a lot more paperwork than I'm willing to do right now and I don't feel I'm ready to do that here yet. They asked how many people, how big, I explained that the apartment is for me and I'd like one or two bedrooms. I told them the areas where I'm looking. One realtors knew a few words of English ('how much' and 'rooms'), so he quickly became my main point of contact. I told him I didn't want to live in the big international complexes, I want a Chinese complex. He had something else to do so he told me to return in an hour. I asked for his business card, then his name. When he gave me his card he pointed to his name, and I had to explain that "Wo bu kan Zhongwen" (I don't read Chinese). As my vocabulary is smaller than that of most three year olds my inability to read didn't come as a complete surprise so he said his name and wrote it out in pinyin on his card.

When I returned to the brokerage after an hour I waited for him for a few minutes and his colleagues gave me warm water while I waited. When he walked in, he had a set of keys and he and a female colleague told me to follow them. We walked about twenty minutes to a Chinese complex and I was happy to see all of the trees and the retirees sitting outside chatting together. The apartment was a two bedroom, with lots of light, view of the courtyard below, an enclosed shower, a renovated kitchen (no oven, but that's normal here) and a piano in the dining area. It was beautiful, but I told the realtor that I would like something closer to the main street (and the subway). He said something that I didn't understand, then he and his colleague made cars sounds to explain that apartments closer to the street would have a lot of traffic noise. I still wanted to see another apartment, so asked him to find me something else that I would like.

As I walked out of the compound I took a different route, down a tree lined street, and saw that the building was only a few minutes from the street, much closer than I had thought. That night I went back with a friend, and a woman stopped her hacky sack game to tell me should would be my neighbor. It was a homey apartment, comfortable and cleanable, in a great location.

The next day I had a friend call the realtor to speak in Chinese and say I'm interested, but the price was several hundred RMB too high. It turns out that the place would be a sublet. The current tenant signed two months ago, at the top of the market, and would only come down 100RMB per month. I queried friends, locals and foreigners alike, to hear their estimates of what the apartment is worth. The tenants reduced price is still several hundred RMB higher than the apartment is worth in the current market. I liked it, but I'm not willing to pay for someone else's lack of knowledge about real estate prices. I'm going to keep looking.

Random Question - Scrabble

Chinese characters are mostly complete words unto themselves. There are some characters which signify a sound, not a word, but by and large most characters have meaning.

This leads me to ask:

How does one play Scrabble in Chinese?

We play scrabble by building on letters in one word to spell another word. If each character is already a complete word then we can't build on it. True, we have compound words, but those are usually composed of two or three characters (telephone is made up of the two words "dian-hua," or "electric/electricity-speak/language"). We could play by transcribing words but we'd have to find a way to include tones in our writing.

The question popped into my mind as I was on a late night stroll last night. Now I'm curious and am going to have to find out.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Opera Update

I missed the spring opera in New York, and I'll miss the fall, but right now I'm not feeling bad about it.

Thursday night was the fourth concert of the Divas in Beijing series. The concert took place in the Great Hall of the People, the main entrance of which faces Tiananmen Square. Renee Fleming, Sumi Jo, Ramon Vargas and Dmitri Hvorostovsky all appeared on the same stage. They performed a range of material, including Rossini, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Verdi.

Tenor Ramon Vargas has a voice like a dream. He was a replacement for another tenor who was not able to make the show, but he is headline worthy in his own stead.

For me, however, the top moment in the show was during one of the encores. Conductor Nicola Luisotti played piano accompaniment to Renee Fleming, who sang a jazz version of Gershwin's Summertime - and sang scat.

Yes, opera fans, Renee Fleming sang scat. It was a showstopper.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Stories

The Olympics are upon us and I have been lucky enough to get tickets to some of the events. I've turned down others that didn't work with my schedule but expect to get more by the end of the games.

It's been a very busy week but I'm having a wonderful time. Pictures from the events I've attended and from the competition area are posted online.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Olympic Games: Handball

Tonight I attended the Olympic handball preliminary match between China and Poland. I'd never heard of handball before I was offered the tickets (for the unbelievably low price of 30RMB each, approximately US$4) but a bit of research revealed that is it played on a rectangular court with goal nets at each end, with two half-hour periods, and is sort of like soccer played with your hands, on a smaller playing area.

The final score was Poland 33-China 19. China scored several goals in the last several minutes of the game to come up from behind but it wasn't enough to make up for the lead that Poland had created in the first half.

The Chinese team was obviously much less experienced and playing at a disadvantage against a much more mature Polish team. One of the stars of the game was Chinese goalkeeper Wang Long (whose name means Dragon King). Whenever he was on the court the crowd could count on him to energetically attempt to defend his goal.

http://en.beijing2008.cn/sports/handball/

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Opening Ceremonies

The Olympics are finally here.

Friday night I joined friends and a few hundred other people at the Casa Italiana Coni, in Beijing's Haidian district, to watch the opening ceremony and eat pasta and gelato while sipping Italian wine.

The party was to start at 7:30pm. We anticipated much traffic so we got into a taxi at 6pm. As we drove north from Central Beijing we were surprised to see few cars on the road, mainly taxis and buses. The third ring road, one of the main beltways around the city, was blocked off and our driver had to take an alternate route. The Casa Italia is only a couple of miles from the Bird's Nest, the site of the main Opening Ceremonies. As we came close to what was then the most secure place in the world, holding over 90,000 people, we saw guards wearing helmets and bullet proof vests. This is not something we usually see around Beijing, where some military personel look scared when I approach them to ask a question.

The lack of traffic meant that we moved quickly and arrived at the venue before 7pm in spite of the distance and a difficult to find location that required our driver to stop several times to ask for directions. When we arrived at the Casa Conti there wasn't yet a line and we were able to obtain our tickets quickly, after the attendants looked at our passports and matched our names to the list of people submitted by the Italian Embassy. We took advantage of our early arrival to get front seats.

The ceremony started at exactly 8pm. As we saw the fireworks exploding over Beijing some of us took deep breathes until we confirmed that it was only fireworks, not acts of terrorism. Ooohs and aaahs swept through the room as we watched the performers. Many of the people in the room live here in Beijing but we were still in awe at the magnitude of the performance.

As the athletes marched into the stadium, cheers went up whenever someone in the room had some allegiance to a country whose team was entering.

Hours later, at midnight, friends and I poured into taxis to head back towards the center of town, back towards home. When the ceremony was ending we again heard the explosion of fireworks going up all over the city. It was a glorious celebration, a glorious evening.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Today's the day!

Today is Friday, Augst 8, 2008. Also known as 8.08.08. Tonight, at 8:08pm, the opening ceremonies for the XXIX Olympiad will begin.

This morning was hot, muggy and overcast. Now, at shortly before 1pm, some blue sky is starting to peep out. We're expecting a blue sky afternoon.

I've been told that there will be fireworks at 36 different places around Beijing tonight. There will be festivities all over the city. The chambers of commerce, embassies and pavillions for many nations are hosting festivities for their citizens and friends. I'm planning to be up at the Casa Italia.

Have fun and enjoy the festivities!

Divas in Beijing - Angela Gheorghiu

Last night was the premier of the Divas in Beijing concert series, which began with a performance full of energy, spirit and amazing Soprano sound from Angela Gheorghiu. The Romanian soprano is called the most gifted and glamorous opera singer of our time and her talent was on full display. The program included inspired renditions of opera classics, including Puccini's "Un Bel di Vedremo" (from Madama Butterfly) , and Verdi's "Pace, Pace," as well as an a version of the Cuban standard "Siboney," during which she had the audience clapping together in time as she danced across the stage during an orchestral section of the song. The entire house rose to it's feet as one in an ovation as that ended.

The concert series will continue next week with performances from Sumi Jo; Renee Fleming; Marcello Giordani, Salvatore Licitra and Ramon Vargas, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Performances will take place in both the magical new National Center for the Performing Arts (Beijing) and the historic Great Hall of the People, which faces Tiananman Square.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Security

There is heightened security all over Beijing. The local news includes features about how this is an effort to reduce the risk of terrorism.

It's nowhere near the level of security we experienced in New York after the 2001 terrorist attack but it's still interesting to observe and experience.

There are bag checks in the subway. Depending on the station and the staff my experience has included walking right past the security line and not being bothered, having a large bag x-rayed as i was headed out of town for the weekend - and being asked to take a sip of my water to prove that it's not an explosive, and sticking my bag on the x-ray machine conveyor belt and calling to the tech so that she'd look at the bag (I was in a hurry and didn't want to play games, or to have to do it again).

Getting into some Olympics-related parties requires a passport. Others also require that your name be on an approved list. I'd been leaving my passport at home recently but am now carrying it again just to be sure I won't have a problem.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Parties Begin

Last night I attended my first Olympics-related party.

The Italian contingent has set up the 'Casa Italiana Coni' in an exhibition center in the Haidian district of Beijing. Last night they had a party to welcome the Italian athletes and fans to the Beijing Games. To get there we took the new 10 subway line to the last stop then spent half an hour trying to get a taxi. When we arrived at the venue we had to show our passports to prove our identities and allow security to check our names against the guest list. Then we had to go through a security check - our bags went through an x-ray machine and we had to pass through metal detectors, then be patted down by female security guards.

The party was scheduled to start at 10pm, my friends and I arrived at 10:30pm but the room didn't feel crowded until well after 11pm. The main room of the party had sofas and chairs all around, a variety of Italian wines flowing freely, coffee drinks, and a gelato stand. A live singer and guitarist performed on stage until midnight, then were replaced by a DJ.

At one point we walked around the exhibition center and saw an exhibit of Italian Olympic-related art. There were also booths set up with information about different Italian companies, mostly sports related. There was even a Ferrari on the exhibition floor.

There were a couple hundred people at the party, including volunteers in blue shirts with "Italy" written across them and a rocketship theme. No one we saw appeared to be an athlete. Then again, most athletes in Beijing right now are probably focusing on getting into tip top shape for the upcoming events.

I'm going out of town for a couple of days, starting tomorrow. It will be nice to get away from the Olympic craziness for a little while. I'll be back before the end of the week though, in time for the opening ceremony parties.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dragonboating - The View From the Front

This morning my plan for today was to spend a few hours in the office finishing up a project, then go out rowing on the dragon boat and have dinner with the rest of the crew afterwards.

Midday I received an email from the dragon boat captain. He wasn't going to be able to attend practice tonight. Am I going? Can I help out? I responded with an affirmative to both. I had planned to attend, of course I can help out. What could that mean? That I'd be collecting the fees or leading the warmup?

Five minutes later I saw an email to the group - "Alicia will be our coach tonight."

Tonight was my fourth time on the boat. I arrived at the boathouse early enough to watch some Chinese tourists rowing on a dragon boat, complete with drummer, before our practice. It was nice to watch a boat from the shore, to see what it looked like, but I wanted to be on the water.

Different members of my group slowly arrived. Some people had seen the email, some hadn't. Some were friends of mine, some were people I'd never before met. There were a couple of experienced regulars who were helping with management of the group - steering the boat, collecting the boat fees. We started with warmups, then it was time to get into the boat. As we set out I knelt in the front of the boat - on the prow, watching the rest of the team in the almost full boat. We started slowly then built momentum and were quickly out in the middle of Houhai.

We did different drills. We passed under the bridge into Qianhai (the lake to the south of Houhai) without any incident. I made suggestions to a couple of people on how to improve their posture and their strokes. Onlookers cheered us on with shouts of 'jia you!' We were the subject of much interest, as locals and tourists alike watched the boat, filled with mostly Chinese rowers, being captained by a woman who is quite obviously not from around here. Some tourists asked if we were practicing for competition and we said yes, since we're looking forward to going to a few races around the country after the festivities in Beijing in August. Then they asked if we were prepping for the Olympics. We chuckled: we're not *that* good.

After a couple of turns around Qianhai we headed back to Houhai to pick up some latecomers. There was the usual traffic jam of boats under the bridge and I scrambled across the prow to unhook us from a gondola-like boat in front of us. We did some more drills and made our way back to the dock, where some of our rowers left us for other commitments and we gained a number of latecomers. The second time we left the dock the boat was completely full.

Some of the new rowers were brand new. I later found out they were American college students studying in Beijing for the summer and they've only been here for five days. After asking for a show of hands to see who had not rowed before and seeing that half of my boat was inexperienced I gave a quick lesson on how to hold the oar and how we row. I also explained that in a dragonboat it isn't really important how fast or hard we row, what makes us go fast is when we row together, as a team. This time we started rowing even more slowly so that the newcomers could get the feel for moving with the rest of the group. As we sped up I reminded them to watch the person in front of them and synchronize their movements. We did some more drills.

It felt great to sit at the front of the boat, to watch everyone move together under my direction and to feel the breeze as the dragon boat glided over the water. Everyone was encouraging and there was no threat of mutiny - though I felt the need to listen carefully whenever non-English speakers conversed to make sure that my name and the Putonghua words for 'water' or 'lake' were not uttered together, as Houhai is not exactly pristine and I don't want to be pitched into it. I missed getting to row but know that on Sunday I'll be back on a bench with an oar in my hands.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Smile!

Beijing is now teeming with local Olympics volunteers, greeters and hostesses.

In order for women to qualify as Olympics hostesses they must meet a number of requirements, including that they have slim legs, and they must smile for their entire shift. (Think about this when you are looking at the media coverage of Beijing and see the many smiling hostesses.)

For the last couple of weeks booths with signs saying "Volunteer" have been sprouting up in tourist-heavy spots around the city, with groups of Chinese volunteers standing talking, waiting for the throngs of global tourists to descend and ask questions about how to find shops, restaurants and hotels. There are even information tables set up in subway stations, often near the new X-ray machines that have been put into place to make the increased security more visible.

No, I don't have tickets. Prices are high and I don't want to be fleeced by scalpers. If something becomes available from a trustworthy source I'd love to go - preferably for any of the water sports, archery or track and field events. During lunch after dragon boat practice yesterday some of us were making the wishful argument that we should be allowed to watch the Olympic rowing events in order to learn how to improve our performance. If we get tickets, great. If not, there is going to be plenty of entertainment on the streets of Beijing. As always.

Eating in Diplomatic Communities

I recently started doing some volunteer work for a well-respected international non-governmental organization. Their office is located in one of the many gated diplomatic communities in central Beijing.

I was warned that there aren't many Chinese restaurants nearby but I didn't really believe it. Today at lunch time I asked someone sitting near me to recommend a place for me to get food. I was directed towards a nearby 7-11. On my way there I passed a Haagen Daz ice cream shop and a Sizzler. There was a T.G.I.Friday's next door. In the 7-11 there was the usual selection of sodas, single serve ice cream-like products, instant ramen noodles, sweetened flavored yogurt and white bread sandwiches overflowing with mayonnaise. Ick. I avoid those places when I'm in the U.S. and see no reason to eat in them while I'm here.

I was hungry so I finally selected a cold noodle salad, with japanese buckwheat noodles, shredded cucumbers and an oil-based dressing. Next time I go in I'll take lunch with me.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Planning

One of the biggest challenges for me has been adjusting to the fact that there is very little planning done here. Things are often pulled together at the last minute, and people don't communicate ahead of time to facilitate things happening in a certain way or at a certain time.

It's Monday morning. I just received an invitation, from an American couple, for a cocktail party on Friday night. I know they'll have a full house.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tiffany's

There's a Tiffany's store in the Oriental Plaza shopping mall in the middle of Beijing, next to the Grand Hyatt. This week I went in to find out how much it would cost to have the crystal of my watch replaced (it cracked recently when it fell out of my pocket, and now there are several lines running across it and a 4 mm hole in it). The staff made some inquiries and told me that it would cost 1500RMB (approximately US$220) and take over six months, as the watch would need to be sent to America.

There's a great watch repair stand in Grand Central station that replaces watch crystals in a matter of days, at very reasonable prices. If I can't get a good watch repair recommendation here I'll be taking my watch to NY to be fixed. I'm not sure when exactly that will be, but on my next trip to NY you can expect me to find my way to Grand Central.

Maybe I'll combine the visit with a slice of Junior's Cheesecake in the basement.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Apple Store


China's first Apple store opened yesterday (Saturday) in the middle of an outdoor shopping mall in the Sanlitun neighborhood. The line started the night before, with people camping outside the store in order to be at the front of the line. The store opened to applause and excitement at 10am, and by 10pm over 6,000 people had passed through it's doors.

The store entrance is on the ground floor, with computers, iPods and other items on display. The Genius Bar, software and other items are on the second floor. Apple brought U.S. employees to Beijing to train local staff in customer service and the 'Apple way.'

Sunflowers

The man at the local stand where I buy fruit recognizes me now. He knows I'll look at other fruit, maybe buy a few peaches or a papaya, but I'll also pick up a few watermelons to tap them and listen to the sound before I choose which one I want to be eating for the next couple of days.

As I was paying for my fruit yesterday I looked at a nearby table to see curious-looking round flat black disks. It took me a moment to realize what they were. Sunflowers, with dried petals.

Stores do sell sunflower seeds in pre-measured plastic bags here, just as in the U.S. However some places also sell them dried but still on the flower. Why bother with plastic when this package is ready for the compost pile?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ben & Jerry's

There's a grocery store in the basement at Oriental Plaza shopping center in the middle of Beijing, right next to Wanfujing. There are a lot of imported foods. They even have Been & Jerry's. Chubby Hubby, Vanilla Heathbar Crunch, Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, Butter Pecan, Chocolate Fudge Brownie - all in pint-sized containers. I wasn't looking for it, indeed I was only there to accompany a friend who is staying in a nearby hotel. But it was Ben & Jerry's, sitting there in the freezer section and looking out at me wondering where I've been all these months.

My sweet tooth has been taking a holiday recently so I didn't feel motivated to buy ice cream and try to transport it home without it melting. That's just as well. At 75 RMB per pint, Ben & Jerry's would be an expensive habit to take up ($10.98/pint, at the current exchange rate of 6.833RMB/$1).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Long and deep and hard - hai!

This morning I went out rowing in a dragon boat with a group of 13 others, a mix of Chinese and foreigners (Aussie, Dutch, Canadian and U.S.). The group met at a restaurant at the north edge of Houhai (one of the manmade lakes in central Beijing), which has a variety of boats and kayaks for rent. After stretching out, being given our oars and having the correct way to hold the oar and row demonstrated for us it was time to board the boat, regulars in front and newcomers in the back. We sat, two to a row, behind each other on hard wooden benches, with life jackets underneath us as seat cushions.

After we pushed off from the dock we got into position, with one hand on the end of the oar, another right above the paddle, and when the boat captain told us to row we bent forward at the hips and put our oars into the water, pulled them back behind us and up, then repeated the entire motion. As the captain counted we all attempting to row in time, following the paddling rhythm of the people at the front of the boat. Splashing the people in front of us and behind was inevitable, but it's a beautiful warm day, and we could see the sky, so the occasion splashes felt refreshing as we paddled around the lake.

At various times we did different rowing drills or the the captain shouted rowing chants. When he yelled "Long and deep and hard" we replied "Hai." When he yelled "Jia you" (translation - add oil) we yelled back "Jia you!" As we rowed around the lake onlookers cheered and shouted us on: "Jai you!"

Our captain moved me forward in the boat twice, once forward one row, then forward two rows and to the other side. After we were out of the boat and changed into dry clothes he commented that this was only my first time, I just need to practice and I'll get better. I'm looking forward to proving him right.

The dragon boat crew meets twice each week during nice weather. Usually they compete in games all across China during the summer, with sponsors paying the travel costs. Unfortunately those types of games are not permitted this year because of the upcoming Olympics, but it would be fun to compete as part of the crew next year. In the meantime, I look forward to going back to play again.

Jia you!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

KTV

Many Chinese people enjoy karaoke, called KTV here. There are karaoke places all over town, chains or independent locations, where people go with colleagues, family and friends. The experience is different than in the U.S. Here you aren't in a large room for everyone in the place to watch, laugh and point as you publicly humiliate yourself. No. Instead, you are taken to a small room, the size dependent on the number of people in your party, with sofas, tables, a large screen in the front of the room, menus filled with many food and drink options, and a computer screen from which you can peruse the extensive library of song options. Some places have panels in each of the walls of the rooms with buttons to raise or lower the volume, skip a song, or call our waiter or room attendant.

The group I was with was made up of some Chinese-Americans here on business, some of their local Beijing colleagues and another local friend; she and I had both been introduced to one the visitors by a former classmate of his, an Italian friend who is out of town this month. I was the only non-Chinese and non-native Chinese speaker. Putonghua was the main language for the evening, though some of the Chinese-Americans switched between Mandarin and Cantonese.

After our group of nine was shown to a small room and settled in (we were given tokens, similar to gambling chips at a casino but round with the thickness of a Fender guitar pick, which we could exchange for food and beverages; my understanding is that the number of tokens we received was based on the room type and the length of time we'd be there) we ordered drinks (Tsingtao beer, soda and water) from our waiter, and people crowded around the computer to choose songs. At first I didn't see any in English, but that was because you needed to be able to page through the menu and read enough Chinese to find the English songs. At a later point in the evening a friend found them for me, after one of the men kept taunting me that "you aren't really Chinese until you've sung KTV." Most of the English songs were from modern artists whose music I don't know well (Britney, Ashlee Simpson, Boyz2Men, Linkin Park, Celine Dion) but I did eventually find two songs I thought I'd be able to sing.

As each Chinese song came up there were shouts, hoots and hollers as people jockeyed for the microphones. They were good. I felt like I was the only one in the room who didn't know all of the songs. As I watched the characters float along the bottom of the screen I was excited if there were any that I could read ('bu,' 'shuai,' 'zi' and 'yi' were all used repeatedly). Some songs had repetitious choruses that I was able to mimic, though i had to ask friends to explain what the songs were about. Most of them were sad and somewhat sappy ballads but there was one fun song about a crazy kid that had a good beat, a fun video and a significant amount of repetition. One of my new friends said she's going to look into getting me a CD of some of the songs so that I can learn the lyrics and be able to sing along better on our next outing.

When my two songs came up I quickly learned that karaoke labels cannot be trusted: the song listing may have said that "Paint It Black" was by the Rolling Stones and "Whenever, Wherever" was by Shakira but the videos showed Chinese singers performing them and the lyrics written on the screen did not match the lyrics in the versions I usually hear. I tried to follow along but it was a stretch.

Some Chinese songs had two sets of lyrics, one set written in blue and another in pink. I asked if one was for a woman and the other a man. No. One was for Mandarin and the other for Cantonese. Um, aren't both languages written with the same set of characters? Yes. But sometimes the song doesn't sound as good in the other language with the original lyrics so they are changed to fit the language and the music. That's something I could only learn in a karaoke booth filled with Chinese friends.

Another noteworthy observation was that some of the characters shown looked different, more detailed, than most of the characters I'm used to seeing. Many of the karaoke videos are produced in Taiwan, where traditional Chinese characters are still in use. In the 1950s the government created a set of simplified characters, made by decreasing the number of strokes and simplifying the characters, in an effort to increase literacy. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and many other overseas Chinese communities still use the traditional forms. This meant that the foreigners in my group could read the characters on the screen but one of the locals couldn't.

Later in the evening some of our group went off to order more refreshments. The waiter soon came by with trays filled with more Tsingtao, glasses of fresh watermelon juice and lemonade, and bowls of noodles for a few in the group who were feeling peckish. The watermelon juice tasted fresh. It was good.

At one point I saw two of the men in a corner, shouting in fun and saying things I couldn't understand and pushing their hands in front of them while changing the number of fingers shown. It looked similar to Rock, Paper, Scissors. I leaned over and asked my neighbor for an explanation. It's a drinking game. One guy yelled a number (zero, five, ten, fifteen or twenty) and both splayed their fingers to indicate a quantity. If the total number of fingers shown equaled the amount shouted then the point went to the challenger. If they didn't then the point went to the leader. Two lost rounds in a row meant you had to drink. I should be able to follow that so I listened closer. Nope, I didn't understand. I turned to my neighbor with a look of confusion on my face. The guys were playing in Cantonese. Oh.

The experience was actually....fun. I'll be doing it again. In the meantime I need to practice, so does anyone know where I can go to download some Chinese karaoke videos, preferably with pinyin below the characters and a soundtrack with vocals?

Monday, June 30, 2008

Job Hunting

I'm nowhere near fluent in the local language but that's not my main barrier to looking for employment. No, for me the biggest challenge is that I'm not seeking work as a professional psychologist, since my college degree is in psychology. China is one of many places around the world where it is expected that your career is in the same area as your undergraduate degree. Years of experience in finance mean nothing to most Chinese companies and hiring managers.

One local company that had me in for several rounds of interviews, and whose Finance department considered me the lead candidate for the position of Foreign Financial Adviser, has reposted the job. The job requires finance skills but they also want someone who preferably speaks some Spanish and/or French and with knowledge of Latin, African and/or Arab cultures. It's not that they don't want to hire me. It's that my degree isn't in finance so I obviously know nothing about financial management, analysis, modeling or making projections. The dapartment has been told to find a candidate with a Finance degree so that the executive who gives final approval can compare me to them. After they've done that they'll let me know. Oh well, I may have found something else before they find that person.

Most of the well-renumerated ex-patriots in China were hired by their multi-national companies in their home countries and shipped over here with well-cushioned ex-pat packages. My last job was with an American municipal government, one that does not have an office in China, so I knew that I'd have to relocate myself if I wanted to be here. My salary will take a cut at first but over time I expect to return to a salary level comparable to what I was making before, or better. No matter what, I'm in an environment where I am learning a lot, which has value in and of itself.

Employment laws here are opaque, which is a barrier to part-time work if I want to be certain of avoiding problems (and I do). I've turned down some work with a training center where I was placed as part of my volunteer assignment because I'm not certain that I can legally work part time with the class of visa which I am holding. A few hundred RMB is not worth the risk of being arrested and possibly deported. One Chinese-speaking laowai I know went to two different government agencies to confirm what is legal and was told two different stories. Even if we could get confirmation of what is permissible the rules might change tomorrow without advance notice. I've also turned down a few things that were not interesting, were in parts of the city that are inconvenient and pay little - there's no point taking a job where I know I won't want to stay for three months, let alone longer.

It's more important to me to find a job that is a good fit, something interesting in a well-run organization where I'll be learning, than to find something quickly where I won't be happy. Most recruiting agencies that I've found which cater to foreigners and place people in non-entry level jobs are either looking for people who are conversant in Putonghua, which I understand and respect, or for senior, C-level executives. There are a number of employment websites which I visit several times each week to review listings, including the Chamber of Commerce sites for the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, and I've also visited websites of NGOs and multinational companies that have offices here and post job listings in English (some organizations only have Chinese on their China site). Many companies are looking for attorneys, engineers or Chinese nationals (foreign companies are required to hire a certain number of Chinese citizens if they have a footprint here), but occasionally I see postings that look interesting. One manager to whom I submitted my resume replied almost immediately that he'd already filled the post but would like to forward my resume to colleagues who might have an opening that could use with my skillset. (Go Deloitte! That guy just earned them more respect in my book, both for responding and for thinking about how to help colleagues (and possibly me).) I'm also trying to be social and meet new people - just as in New York, many jobs here are filled by internal candidates or friends of friends before they are even posted.

This entire process is educational. I'm learning a lot about modern Chinese workplace culture as I speak with hiring managers and recruitment agents. Many don't want to share any information or answer questions about the job or organization until the interview, but they want your resume, photos, a picture of your passport, a picture of your degree, and other information before they even consider speaking with you. I'm not keen on sharing my passport with people I don't know so I've created a .jpg image with my passport number and certain other information blacked out. My understanding is that they request the passport image to confirm identity, nationality (there is a presumed hierarchy of foreign countries here) and that the passport holder is documented, here legally and has enough time left on their passport to meet the needs of the employer, so I left my name and the expiration date on my passport visible and covered every thing else. Hiring managers can use the image to screen for their needs and I can feel like I'm maintaining control over information that could possibly be used for fraud.

The other day I received a call from an agent at 8pm, requesting some additional data on me on behalf of a client. She wanted it immediately. I explained that I was out, in another part of the city, entertaining visitors to Beijing, and would be out late. Her response was to ask when, when, when...by 9pm? by 10 pm? 11? I said possibly very late, but I would forward the files when I arrived home. When I did get home there was an email reminding me to send it before 2am.

So I'm still looking. And exploring. And learning a challenging language. Oh, and enjoying every moment of it.

Soy Sauce Overload

In the city there are a large number of western-style grocery stores, some locally owned and some, like Carrefour or Bonjour, are foreign-owned. Dry goods, produce, meat, fish, beverages and other items of all sorts, can be purchased in securely wrapped packages from aisle after aisle of displays under bright light. Some of them are easily recognizable, some are not.

The Kraft logo is easy to recognize even in Chinese but I'm trying to buy local brands whenever possible. Today was the first time I bought eggs, a half dozen labeled 'ecological' (local speak for organic), because I've been anxious that I'd accidentally pick up duck eggs or some type of treated eggs that are popular here but which I have a hard time eating (thousand year eggs, anyone?).

Tonight I wanted to buy soy sauce. I was naive when I thought it would be easy. I knew that there would be more options than in New York but I was taken aback by the sheer number of options. Instead of one or two different brands there was an entire aisle - different brands and styles, glass bottles and plastic bottles and plastic bags, light and dark, northern style or mushroom. I thought about asking someone which one they buy but no one was nearby.

I ended up picking up a 500ml glass bottle of HaDay Golden Label Superior Soy Sauce. I'll admit that I mainly chose it because the logo looks similar to Kikkoman, a brand I know and trust. It's not organic but there's an ingredient list in English and it doesn't say MSG.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Paying the Bills

As much as my time here often feels like a surreal extended vacation, there is reality. And in reality I need to learn to do lots of new things, like pay bills. Yes, they are mundane, but they are a part of life and they must be done. I can't just walk around the lake, study Chinese, do yoga, read and go see films with my friends all of the time.

I am currently staying in a mid-sized (from a New York perspective) two bedroom apartment in a mostly Chinese complex in central Beijing, near the Lama Temple and the drum and bell towers, walking distance to both Houhai and Sanlitun, that is being rented by my friend C., who is currently out of China visiting friends and family in her country. There is running hot water, a western toilet (yay!), a shower, refrigerator, sofa, tv, dvd player, western beds, high speed internet, etc. There are two gas stove burners built into the countertop. As in most Chinese apartments, the stove has no oven, however C. bought an electric oven that sits on the countertop, large enough to toast two bagels or bake a small lasagna or pan of brownies (one of these days I'm going to have to find a baking pan).

Just like in most of the western world, tenants have to pay for water, electricity, phone and gas. Unlike in the U.S., I can't just log onto a website to do it or send a check through the mail. This is a cash based economy, people don't trust the internet with financial information and there is an avoidance of credit cards (which I've heard attributed to the high rates of tax evasion as well as to a lack of trust). To pay the bills it is necessary to take cash to the bank or another specially designated public outlet.

Yesterday I took the invoice for the water bill that had been slipped under the door earlier in the month and the name and phone number of the landlord (for the phone bill) and went to the Bank of Beijing (I am avoiding Bank of China after an uncomfortable situation at one of their locations earlier this week - some of the local people were getting so upset about having a long wait that they started yelling and the anxious -looking lobby guard had to call a more senior armed guard; one of the women explained to me afterwards that the wait was so long (1 hour +) because the Bank of China is handling ticketing issues for the Olympics, so windows normally used for customer services had been redesignated for Olympics-related transactions; she also told me that they normally treat their customers poorly anyway). As in most banks, in the Bank of Beijing there is a computerized kiosk at the entry where you enter the type of service you need then take a number. There was no option for 'pay bills' so I walked over to the guard and showed him the receipt to indicate my reason to be there, and he came to the machine to show me that I wanted 'Customer Services.' After a fifteen minute wait my number was called, and I saw it flashing on the electronic display above one of the tellers.

I sat at the chair in front of the window, with glass extending from the top of the window down to the counter, showed the water bill and the phone information to the teller, then slipped them to him through the sliding drawer at the bottom of the window.

The water bill covered a time period that was at least five months, possibly six months, and the amount was clearly stated on the invoice. The phone bill is calculated by the bank from computer records, and the teller puts a telephone company specific form into the printer for an invoice to be printed. The teller told me the total for the two bills and I slipped the cash to him through the drawer. He counted the money, put it aside, stamped the invoices for the water and phone bills with several different red stamps, then slipped copies of the paid invoices back to me under the window. "Xiexie" (thank you), I said, "zaijian" (goodbye).

So simple, really, but not like in the U.S.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Rain in China Falls...Mainly Whenever They Want

This morning I woke before five a.m., to the sound of blasts and bangs and thunderbolts and falling rain. It wasn't the first time I've heard these sounds together, but usually I hear them in the evening.

China places great weight on what happens at the upcoming 2008 Olympic Games. Landmark stadiums and dormitories and a variety of other buildings (including the much-admired CCTV tower) have been built over the last several years, replacing traditional dwellings and other structures, all to showcase how modern the country is becoming. Billions of dollars and the efforts of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people have been aimed towards making the event successful, even down to the weather. The government is not willing to risk rain at the games, especially during the opening ceremonies or other high profile events, and has a multi-million dollar Weather Modification Department ready to combat rainclouds.

The Chinese have had programs to manipulate the weather for several decades now. The science usually involves seeding clouds with silver iodide or liquid nitrogen. For the last several years the government has been preparing for the Olympics by practicing their response to possible rainclouds. One positive effect of these man-made storms is that they temporarily clean Beijing's notoriously smoggy air, making it easier to breathe.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Update: Peaches

Yummy, firm, large, juicy peach goodness, the nectar of which ran down my face and hands.

Yes, it was worth the two dollars.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Peaches and RMB

I just paid $2 for a peach. 12.48 RMB, with the exchange rate at 6.9029 RMB to the dollar.

All of a sudden I don't regret having taken an extraordinarily long time sniffing at all of the peaches on display and feeling them to make sure they weren't still green, and that softness was not rot instead of the yummy, juicy peach flesh which I wanted.

I do feel silly, however, for the fact that I didn't transfer the majority of my savings from dollars to RMB (Ren Min Bi, or 'people's money') when I arrived in February, back when rates were higher. On February 13 the rate was 7.1952 RMB to the dollar.

Now for every hundred U.S. dollars I exchange I receive 29RMB less than I would have then. That 29 RMB would buy almost 3 taxi rides, almost 15 subway rides, 20 copies of China Daily newspaper, or 72 of the yummy vegetable baozi (steamed buns) of which I like to have 3 or 4 as a mid-morning snack.

For me this is a simple belt tightening excercise. For people back in the States you can think about the cost of goods imported from China, of which many are sold all over the U.S., and how costs are skyrocketing in terms of both the sinking strength of the dollar and an increase in shipping charges.

That better be one good peach!