Monday, February 25, 2008


I'm sitting in a crowded cafe drinking jasmine tea and catching up on email before meeting a new friend for dinner this evening. There are so many things to tell everyone about but I'm already feeling challenged to decide whether to accept amazing invitations that come my way or stay home and write about the things I've already done. I'm making notes so that I can write later and tell you all about everything.

As I sit here I am continually impressed with the Chinese attitude towards service. I wanted to change tables an hour ago, to one with an electrical outlet, and the staff came running over to help me move my tea, my computer, my coat. With great apology the manager just asked me if I could move to another, shared, table to make room for a large party. I agreed and started to gather my things. That brought anxious looks and shaken heads, and one waitress looked like she would cry when I started to lift my teacup myself - my things were gathered for me and moved to my new perch, and an adapter brought over so that my charger would fit into the plug. Once I started typing again I took a sip of tea, with hand under the mug to catch some of the water dripping from the bottom (from the staff having generously refilled my mug to overflowing, multiple times) and someone came charging over with napkins to dry the saucer. He saw that my mug was almost empty and brought over more hot water, put the porcelain strainer with tea leaves back in my mug and again filled it. Verbal thanks often bring expressions of surprise.

At work I have been stopped from cleaning up after myself. I am not to put away pens or pencils, paper or books that I've used. On Friday I was preparing for a meeting that I thought was in the office and was politely bundled into my coat and taken by black car to an office a few blocks away. The idea that I would walk anywhere brings surprise. When I mention to the CEO the high level of service and attention to any detail that I bring up, she tells me that the administrative staff are there to help me so that I can focus on doing my work and don't have to worry about anything else. She also says that they've seen that I notice all they do and express appreciation, something rarely done by foreigners.

Even the family in the open air market from whom I buy my morning scallion pancake snack smile at me as soon as I walk in and get excited when I pronounce a new word correctly in Mandarin. My cab drivers patiently try to teach me new expressions in Mandarin, or repeat the same word multiple times so that I can hear the correct pronunciation and practice saying it.

I feel spoiled, pampered. It's nice. Then again, I'm told that that's the point.

Friday, February 22, 2008

How to (not) make someone who speaks another language understand you

In the U.S. I've often seen people raise their voice, or actually shout, at people who don't speak English. The theory seemed to be that if you talk loud enough the people will understand. It never made sense to me but I've seen it done many times.

A couple of days ago I was on the receiving end. I was in a restaurant, in a city an hour away from Beijing by train, and apparently the family had never had with foreigners in their business before. The owner/cook was a sweet man and ended up making me something special that wasn't on the menu. He seemed to subscribe to the same theory as many others around the world - he raised his voice and started yelling when it became apparent that I didn't understand what he was saying.

I resisted the urge to break out in laughter and instead pulled out my Mandarin notes. He, his wife and son were very interested. The written characters were helpful to use to explain that I'm allergic to meat.

Shouting didn't work. Smiling, laughter, facial expressions and drawings did.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don't always believe what you read...or, what things say is not what they mean

If I had to find out that there's an issue with my visa to be in China I'm glad I found out now and not a day or two before it expires. That's something to be grateful about.

I have an F visa, issued to business people or people here on a cultural exchange, with permission for multiple entries. The period of time on my visa is one year - it expires January 17, 2009. The visa also states the 'duration of each stay.' The duration listed on my visa is 120 days. My experience with the English language and various legal documents had led me to believe that this actually meant that I could stay here up to 120 days each time I came into the country. Naive me.

While talking with some other laowai (foreigners) recently I learned that this language actually means I am allowed in China up to 120 days in total on this visa. When I come back here after going to visit the U.S. in May I will apparently only be able to legally stay here for another couple of weeks, not another 120 days. In addition, I am told the Chinese government is no longer issuing F visas that allow people to be here after mid-July. F visas allow visitors to do things (start a business, etc.) that holders of tourist or student visas are not allowed to do. After the Olympics the visa office will resume business as usual but for now they are limiting the Fs.

This means that I am going to be limited in my job-hunting to looking at companies that will be able to sponsor me for a Z visa, used for foreigners who are working here legally. I don't expect it to be a problem but it does limit my options.

Like I said, better to find out now that three months from now.

Cultural Differences - Technology Edition

I bought a cell phone today.

It wasn't as easy as it sounds. I like to read the technical specifications on any type of technology that I'm going to buy, and know the going rate so that I don't overpay, and I'm functionally illiterate here. Over the last several days I've been in several cell phone shops and looked at various models, writing down the names of models that seem appropriate. Last night I stayed up late researching different phones on CNET, finding one I like, the Motorola Z3, a quad band GSM slider model, and making sure that it is listed on the Motorola China website. I couldn't read the specs there but I could read the CNET reviews and the Motorola USA website (as well as the Motorola UK website, which has a slightly different layout and a different ad campaign, but that's a completely different issue).

This afternoon I headed to Xidan, the shopping district, and the Xidan technology shopping center. There are a lot of shopping centers in Xidan, most of them focusing on clothes or jewelry. I went into a couple of different shops and saw the phone in a few places. I picked it up to weigh it, to make sure it wasn't too light and didn't feel flimsy, but also looked around at some other phones. Not being able to read about features reduced my willingness to seriously consider other models. The first place had the phone priced at about 1900RMB, but when the attendant went to check on availability told me that the phone is no longer available (or at least that was the general meaning of what they said - the conversation took much longer that necessary due to the ever-present language barrier). He tried to show me other phones, most of which were much more expensive (in the 6-7000RMB range) and had many more features than I'd actually use, and I became adept at saying "tai gui" - too expensive - or just saying 'bu' - no.

This took place in a couple more stores and I started to consider coming home empty handed. I found one more shop, a "PC Mall" on the fourth floor of another shopping center. After starting out looking at the Z3 there, then being told they don't cell them, the attendant helped me look at a number of other models. While I was looking at a Samsung phone that felt flimsy the attendant went to help someone else and his manager came over to help me. We looked at a number of phones together. I mimicked "my fingers are too big for this one," "this is going to break" and "this is too light" and he started looking at other phones and nixing them without any need for me to say the dreaded 'bu.'

The store manager realized that the phone I wanted was the only one that was going to work for me. We tried to have a conversation about it, which involved my pulling out my Mandarin notes for vocabulary reference. He was amused when he saw I had pages in my notebook that were filled up with my practicing writing Chinese characters. He showed my practice to all of his coworkers and read the characters aloud to them. I was thankful that he could read them - it meant I wrote them correctly. We had a laugh together, at my expense. This worked in my favor though - he made a few phone calls and located a working Motorola Z3 at one of the stores I'd visited earlier (where the price shown was over 1800RMB) and he sent one of the attendants over to get it. I didn't know exactly what was going on, he just had me sit and kept pointing to the floor model and to me, saying something and smiling. We tried to chat some more but it was frustrating.

At one point while we were waiting the man wrote out his name and phone number for me and wanted mine so that he could practice his English with me. My response was to say 'wo bu you' (I don't have) and point to the phone number. After all, I was trying to buy a phone. If I already had a phone - and number - I wouldn't be trying to buy one now. This conversation went on for quite some time and seemed futile.

After a box holding *my* new phone was delivered I had to go to another store with one of the clerks to pay for it. My final price was a little under 1500RMB - a little more than the same phone costs in the U.S. but less than they originally quoted me and much less than the prices I'd been quoted earlier, plus I know it's not a knockoff and I have a warranty (that's why I didn't buy off the street). I paid for the phone and then was taken to sit down with someone who spoke some English so that he could set up my phone for me. He opened it up and asked me for my number. Um, huh? "I don't *have* a number. Now that I have a phone I'm going to buy a SIM card."

Apparently this is not how it's done. In the U.S. I've never had to purchase a SIM card. Whenever I've purchased a phone it came pre-configured and for the last several years I've had phones with Verizon, which is behind the rest of the world and uses CMDA, not GSM, technology. The staff of the store here were in shock that I didn't know you are supposed to have your SIM card before you got your phone. (This is why the store manager thought I had a number earlier. Misunderstand now cleared up.) Oops. When I said that I was planning to get one they looked relieved and someone brought over a notebook with a list of SIM card numbers that were available.

(A side note about mobile phones here: most foreigners use pre-paid cards with cell phones. We aren't allowed to open up non-prepaid accounts unless we are sponsored by a Chinese citizen or a company and pay a deposit of approximately 5000RMB. The cell phone companies think that we'd run up huge international bills and then skip the country.)

I've been told that the Chinese are superstitious about numbers, and they avoid phone numbers that include the number four - the word in Mandarin is 'si' fourth tone, which sounds like the word for death - 'si' third tone. Buildings don't have fourth floors. I hadn't thought about how this affected the market for goods involving numbers. Phone numbers with auspicious numbers in them, like the number eight (eight is 'ba' first tone in Mandarin, which apparently sounds like a good luck word), cost more. Phone numbers with four in them cost less. The difference was 400RMB.

I *like* the number 4, always have. It's a square, a simple yet mathematically perfect number. My new phone number ends in 'death.' Mwah-hah-hah-haaaah.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Making Plans

Some days I plan what I want to do before I walk out the door. Some days I just go out with a loose idea of what I want to see or do. Sometimes any plans quickly become a memory as something more interesting pops up.

Yesterday I walked out my door to go to work and wasn't even out of the apartment complex when something interesting caught my eye as I was saying 'ni hau' to the guard: a block of frozen squid. These weren't wrapped in plastic, paper or cardboard, just frozen together in something that looked like water and sitting on the pavement in back of a restaurant. As I was considering the health implications I heard something moving from a few feet away. A white Styrofoam cooler held a green net bag full of fat frogs. Live frogs. They were moving around their bag but not really making much noise. The guard walked over to see what had caught my eye. He smiled as I took pictures. Then I put the camera down and held up a finger and pointed to ask the guard if I could touch the frogs. My sign language didn’t get a negative reaction so I touched. The frogs weren’t slimy, just moist, and raised no objections to some gentle poking. They were destined to be someone’s meal last night but yesterday morning they were my object of curiosity.

After a quiet night in last night I set out this morning with a list of several things I really wanted to do, or felt I should do, and one errand I thought I’d maybe do, if the planets and my path through the city made it easy. That errand got done: I am now in possession of an annual museum pass, costing 80 RMB, that will get me into 88 museums/parks/attractions for free or reduced admission. The passes can be ordered over the phone and delivered to your home or office if you are in the central area of the city, which I am, but you need to be able to communicate over the phone, which I am not. They are also for sale at larger branches of the post office. With the guidebook that told of it’s existence in my hand and open to the appropriate page I walked up to the counter and asked the attendant “Qing wen, nin you…?” (Please, do you have…) and pointed to the Chinese characters in my book. She smiled and replied that she did as she reached under the counter to bring one out for me. It includes passes to various places within the municipality: art museums, an apiary museum, a watermelon museum, the Beijing eunuch culture museum, military history museums, botanical gardens, science centers, an aquarium and many other interesting attractions. The book included the names of each attraction in English but the rest of it was in Chinese so I may be in for some surprises.

After acquiring the pass I wanted to go to the Summer Palace so I got onto subway line 2 and rode to the station where riders transfer to subway line 13, which would take me close to my destination. The subway here is clean. It’s fast. And line 13 is above ground and its route is a giant loop to the north of the city. From my seat I could look out and see apartment complexes for miles in some places, gleaming white or off-white buildings with small patios along certain lines, like a new Co-op City in the Bronx but extending forever. Occasionally these lines of new buildings were broken up by blocks of hutongs, the traditional courtyard houses which are being razed in much of Beijing to make way for apartment complexes and luxury shopping malls (gentrification takes place all over the world). I decided to ride the entire loop of the subway line, leaving Summer Palace for another day, and was excited to see that the rows of apartment buildings did finally end, allowing the mountains to the west of the city to be seen.

My joyride over, it was time for me to think about running some other errands. I transferred onto the 2 train, which runs in a loop around the center of the city, and got off at a station in a part of Beijing where I hadn’t been before. It was quieter and less hurried than in other parts of the city but there were plenty of people around. It took me a few minutes to find my location on a map (I’m functionally illiterate here and it makes things take longer than in cities where I can easily read street signs) then I started walking down a street which had a lovely wide sidewalk and trees. As I moved down the block I could see clumps of people gathered around bicycles. The bicycles were old and didn’t seem likely to attract attention. No, the object of attention were birds, in cages or leashed to sticks that were on the bicycles (yes, you read that right: some of the birds had collars and were on tiny leashes). These birds were for sale. One of them was a born performer and went through a series of poses for the camera. He almost came home with me.

Towards one end of the plaza men were holding birds in one hand and tiny beads in the other. They would through the birds up into the air and then throw the beads or blow them up after the birds using a straw-like piece of bamboo. The birds would catch the beads then land on nearby trees. The audience would applaud as the birds returned to the men when called.

From the plaza with the birds I could see another collection of people near the edge of a parking lot. People were selling puppies and an occasional cat from the backs of their cars. A few nearby stores sell pet supplies. This area of the animal market gave way to another where small antiques and collectibles were laid out on the ground, and a middle-aged man sat behind a table holding coolers full of crickets in tiny plastic containers with screens placed into the lids to allow airflow. Cricket fighting is a popular pastime among many people here and these contestants were available to take home.

At the end of the day I had only run one errand but I’d seen a lot of interesting things in my new city. It was a great day.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sticky Rice Treats

When I was 17 and lived in Boston one of my roommates was a young British-Chinese woman who introduced me to the pleasures of sticky rice desserts. Sandra would probably be pleased to know that I still remember her whenever I have one that is really good. The last couple of days have been filled with fabulous sticky rice treats and she has been in my thoughts.

After work yesterday a friend and I walked past a bakery we had not seen before. Beijing is filled with bakeries, many specializing in Western European-style baked goods, albeit with a Chinese twist (bread roll with ham baked into it, anyone?). The bakery we saw yesterday had croissants, it had meringue cookies, it had truffles. One thing it also had that I hadn't yet encountered in the past week and a half (has it really only been that long?) was STICKY RICE DESSERTS. They had breads made with sticky rice. They had bite sized morsels of sticky rice dough. They had sticky rice bite-size donuts. They also had samples.

My friend and I each walked out of Panamie with a sticky rice ball, still warm from the oven. They looked sort of like Dunkin' Donut Munchkins but they were much, much better. In New York's Chinatown they are often dripping with oil, with sesame seeds all around. These had no extra oil and the sesame seeds were left off. They weren't needed. I bit into the sticky rice - it was sticky enough to require proper chewing, it almost stuck to my teeth but it stayed on my tongue without melting the way a wheat dough will, letting the flavor flee from your mouth before you've been able to truly experience it. No, I could taste the rice, perfectly sweetened and flavorful. At the center was a subtly sweetened red bean paste. This was sticky rice dessert nirvana and I have now experienced it.

Panamie offers baking classes. They're in Mandarin. I expect my cooking vocabulary will be getting better very shortly.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

An interview and a restaurant

Today I had a meeting with a company about a job. The initial part went well and I was taken to meet the founder of the company. After introductions were made and the door was closed the dialogue began like this:

Him: Languages?
Me: English, Spanish, some French

Him: Birthplace?
Me: Massachusetts

(He nodded his head)

Him: Heritage?
Me: French and Irish

After that the exchanges became much more conversational. I was quizzed about my experience working on I.P.O.s, and told that I might get to work on one for the company.

Not bad for a meeting that I didn't know about until shortly before it was to take place.

When I got back to my neighborhood I was hungry and didn't feel like cooking. There are many restaurants nearby where I can eat for under 15 RMB (A little more than US $2) without feeling that I'm wasting money. One place where I'd eaten last week was a Mongolian restaurant next to the canal near Dawanglu, across the street from the open air produce market near my apartment. The place is clean and the food was good (and their menu has pictures on it) so I went back. As I was sitting down I heard a man and a woman from the next table say 'hello' without a Chinese accent. I walk buy this restaurant every day and had never seen non-Chinese here so was startled and pleased. We started to chat and when it became clear that they were struggling with English I asked where they were from - the Democratic Republic of Congo. My broken French came in handy.

The young boy who was my waiter came for my order but was upset when I pointed out what I wanted. The sign for the restaurant is in Chinese and Arabic so I'm doubly unable to communicate with him. At first I thought that he didn't understand what I wanted but one of my neighbors interrupted to interpret for us - the restaurant was out of bok choy. That's an easy problem to fix: I chose another vegetable. It turns out that my interpretor is with his country's embassy. I have good luck with interpreters. His friend and I spoke more and we may be doing a language exchange - she'll help me with my French and I'll help her with her English.

They soon left the restaurant and their table was taken by a party of three - two men and a woman, all of whom looked local. One of the men tried to start a conversation but that was the extent of his English and my Mandarin does not yet support chatting. He asked the woman to interpret - she speaks Russian. That wasn't going to work. Sign language and facial expressions it was going to have to be. The man indicated for me to show him my hands. He looked closely at them, following the lines with his fingers, then pointed at a spot near the base of my right hand, pointed at me, put both of his hands to his lower back and grimaced (to indicate that I've had serious pain in my lower back). I was shocked but nodded at his spot-on read. He tried to tell me a couple of other things but they required words. Our meals were enjoyed with smiles and laughter but little conversation.

Never a dull moment...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Subway and Taxi Adventures

The subway in Beijing closes before 11pm. I learned this by walking into a subway station at 10:55pm to go home. The attendant wouldn't let me enter until I communicated to her where I was going (by using a map). Then she said a few syllables I didn't know but which I took to understand as "the last train going there has already gone by." Too late. I decided not to risk whether or not she would understand the syllables I considered uttering.

Walking out of the subway station by myself gave me the perfect opportunity to play on the escalators. They slow down to conserve energy when there is no one on them, then each speeds up again when someone walks onto it.

Since I was over an hour by foot from home and the wind is razer sharp tonight I decided to splurge on a taxi. I had the business card from the day spa in my apartment complex with me, with the address written on it in characters. Unfortunately the cabbie didn't know where the address was. I had my trusty map with me and was able to show him on the map where I wanted to go. The exchange took a couple of moments but it resulted in him speeding me home via the most direct way possible (I've walked it by foot and am familiar with the route). When he turned the meter off it read 26 RMB - pricey for a cab ride around here but appropriate considering the distance traveled. My wallet discharged a twenty (er shi) and a five and a one. Unfortunately the number six doesn't automatically register in my brain in Mandarin yet so I had to count on my fingers like a three year old (yi, er, san, si, wu, liu) and then looked up and said liu (six) aloud to the driver, laughing. He'd been watching the whole thing with interest and waiting for me to laugh before he would laugh out loud.

Winter Wandering

Right now the city is empty compared to it's usually population, or at least that's what I'm told. At times I can be walking down a large street and feel completely alone as I look at skyscrapers halfway built. Construction projects stop during the cold and windy Beijing winters so there are many cranes sitting around the city, marking the spots where construction will begin as soon as the temperature goes up. I discovered a museum, the Today Art Museum, a quick walk away from where I'm living but will need to wait for it to reopen after Spring Festival before I can explore it.

Beijing will come back alive over the next week. There will be plenty more exploring to do.

Keeping Evil Spirits Away

Fireworks are set off during Lunar new Year to attract the attention of good spirits and to frighten the evil spirits away. Any evil spirit left in China right now would need to have a talisman against the blasts, for they are everywhere. They go in bursts, sometimes small firecrackers that sound like pop guns, sometimes large fireworks displays that sound more like howitzers or landmines.

This evening after yoga class it took me half an hour to walk the two blocks from the yoga studio to the bookstore. Granted, some of that time was used admiring the beautiful displays of light but most of the time was used avoiding exploding things on the ground and burning papers falling from the sky. At one point I turned down a side street and had to quickly find shelter when I saw some well-dressed men lighting the fuse to a large box of fireworks - I spent the next couple of minutes huddled around the corner of a nearby building, hands over my ears, looking down to avoid getting anything in my eyes while the two guards standing next to me watched the display, with hands over ears, and stomped on small pieces of paper that were still burning when they touched the ground. At one point one of the guards gave me an all-clear signal, then looked up and immediately signaled for me to put my hands back to my ears. We laughed as the boom went off and more burning paper rained down.

The yoga teacher tonight led the class in English and in Mandarin, giving direction in first one language, then another, all punctuated by explosions. During the class she commented that tonight would be the last night of fireworks. The displays of light have been fun but I'm looking forward to being able to look up as I walk around at night.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tui-Na Goodness

Tui-Na, for those of you who are uninitiated, is a Chinese form of massage that helps tight muscles to loosen and tense people to relax. It's very popular for people to have done regularly and there are places that offer it on almost every block, some fancy and some not. Between spending time in the office and exploring Beijing last week, and there being a week-long holiday for which most people leave the city to go to their home cities and spend time with their families, I had not been able to have a massage until last night.

The building where I am living right now is part of a high-rise complex of five buildings with a courtyard garden in the center. There are two buildings that face the street and they have businesses on the ground floor - real estate agents, a restaurant, a dry cleaner, and a day spa called Chlitina. I'd walked past the spa earlier in the week and seen the pictures of a woman having a facial. Unfortunately it was closed for Spring Festival until last night. On my way home I took the path by the building and saw with glee that it was open. The comfortable sofas and light interior (albeit all coated in shades of pink) beckoned. First I went home to drop off my grocery bags and change out of my work clothes, then I went back and walked in to what I'd been waiting for all week.

The first thing that I had to do was explain what I wanted. This involved my saying 'tui-na' several times, with different tones. When I've seen it written there were never any tonal marks so I didn't know which of the four tones to use for each syllable. After several attempts the women who worked there all smiled "Tui-Na, yes, yes" and I relaxed knowing that the most stressful part of the evening was over.

The next order of business was for me to take off my shoes and put on slippers to walk upstairs to the massage room. My feet are a European size 41 and the first three pairs of slippers the attendants brought out didn't reach my heals. Finally they found a pair pair of leopard print slippers with a Hello Kitty logo embroidered on them that almost fit me.

The massage room upstairs was well heated and had two massage tables draped in sheets and soft towels. It was nice to feel perfectly warm for once, a rarity in the cold Beijing winter. After we walked into the room the massage therapist, Wei-Wei, made motioned for me to disrobe. Usually when I'm getting a massage the massage therapist will leave the room while I do this. Not here. After each item of clothing came off she nodded for me to continue. When I was down to my underpants she brought out a package of gauze paper panties for me to wear. My first thought was "What the...?" but they soon made sense.

After I lay down on my stomach on the table she covered me in towels and then began. She started by warming oil and spreading it over my back. As she kneaded and pulled my sore muscles the tensions of the last week started to drop away. It was good. As she moved on to my legs and my arms she used more oil - my wind and cold battered skin greedily absorbed it all. Any fabric touching me got oil on it (hence the paper panties) but most of it went right into my skin. After making all of the muscles in the back of my body relax Wei-Wei told me to turn over so that she could begin on my front - arms, legs, belly. The loud explosions of firecrackers right outside the building became distant as I relaxed completely.

By the time the one hour session was done I could barely move. Wei-Wei brought me warm tea while I contemplated getting dressed and walking across the courtyard back to my building. It would be bared 100 steps, I decided I could do that. Before venturing back out into the cold I sat in the reception area and drank some more tea while chatting with Wei-Wei. It turns out she spoke more English than she'd let on at first. She's from Harbin, a city about 30 hours away, and moved here last year. Now she lives about half an hour away from here by taxi but only goes home once each week - for her one day off. While at Chlitana she stays close by when not working (10:00-22:00 are the business hours). It's a very different life than any I could imagine. She didn't get to study much English in school so she studies on her own, with books and movies, knowing it can help her have a better life.

This is perhaps the best 99RMB I've spent so far. It is going to be part of my weekly routine.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Fig Yoghurt

My local Carrefour grocery store has a respectable dairy section (read: similar to what I've seen in some large suburban U.S. groceries, with a variety of different cheeses). The yoghurt flavors include some things I expect (i.e.-berries, kiwi) and a few surprises: red bean, soy bean and fig.

The fig is yummy. I just had some for breakfast with granola and a banana.


Beijing is full of gated communities with high walls and nattily uniformed guards standing next to gates that pull across entryways. They can be inconvenient when you want to cut through an area to get somewhere else but I'm already used to them.

It may, however, take awhile for me to become accustomed to the security mechanism that prevents me from reading what I've written here after I've hit the 'publish post' button. The phenomenon which Peter Cohen recently referred to as "China's OTHER Great Wall" also blocks BBC news (and Wikipedia). The Economist, Le Figaro, Granma, Al Jazeera, the New York Times, El Pais and even CNN are accessible so I can still get news from all over the world.

I'm sure I'll get used to it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Xin Nian Yu Kuai!

It's Spring Festival here in China. Fireworks are going off everywhere. They are sold at temporary stands put up on sidewalks all over the city. Last night the sky was lit up with multicolored blossoms of light and this morning we can hear blasts going off in all directions. I'm told this will go on for about a week.

Yesterday I met up with a college student who interns at a finance firm in Shanghai with the former colleague of a friend. She's home in Beijing to celebrate the holiday with her family. She came out to meet me at the program I'm doing here and invited me to celebrate with her and her grandparents at their home last night. We took the subway to the eastern part of the city, then a bus, and after a ten minute walk arrived at the housing complex for retired military personnel where her grandparents lived. The buildings were decorated with red lanterns and banners, and the driveways were full of cars of visiting family members. Everyone had children or grandchildren visiting and it was fun to see all of the people bundled up warm and walking around. The fireworks were banned inside of the complex so it was safe to walk without worry that we would be struck by an exploding firecracker.

The young woman's grandfather, Lao Lei, was a military artist before his retirement and he is still creating and showing his work in galleries. After we were shown into the living room, with some of his paintings and enamel works hanging from the walls, and our coats were off we sat down and he brought out several books of his work to show me some of his sketches and paintings. Many of the works were breathtaking and he knew enough English to understand my appreciation without his granddaughter's translation.

Dinner was had at table. Many small dishes were laid out around a boiling central pot, around which little plates of needle mushrooms, fish and shrimp balls, cabbage and noodles were placed for cooking. Also on display were sliced eggs; the whites were a translucent black and the yolk was a dark green-grey. These were the first thing offered and I was wary. My first bite was very small but they tasted very similar to regular boiled eggs so I was able to enthusiastically finish it. After this contents of the various plates were put into the boiling pot to cook while we drank peach nectar, talked and ate. The fish balls are something I've enjoyed on various other travels and in New York's Chinatown and they are always yummy. At first different things were dished out onto my plate, then I was encouraged to take things directly from the pot with my chopsticks. One trick to not spilling was to hold a spoon in one hand underneath the food as I moved it from the pot to my plate.

After dinner we returned to the sofa to watch a CCTV special celebration for Spring Festival and to look at photos of my trip to Morocco last fall - my new friend had said earlier that she would like to go to Casablanca one day. They enjoyed looking at pictures of my trip and of my family. The pictures of my sister and me on camelback were especially popular. Grandfather laughed when I told them that the French word for camel is 'chameau' - it sounds like the Mandarin word for desert.

Today I am off to explore a new part of the city.

Xin Nian Yu Kuai!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Beijing in Winter

I arrived Saturday afternoon to a cold and grey city. It's the middle of winter and everyone is bundled up. My flight went well, customs and immigration were quick and painless, and I found the person meeting me fairly quickly. We had to wait for several other people to arrive before we could go into Beijing so it was around 8pm before I saw my new apartment. It is on the 11th story of a building in the south of Beijing, inside the fourth ring (Beijing is divided by 'rings,' concentric circles going out from the center of the city) and not far from the China World Trade Center. After arriving I had to go to Carrefour to buy bedding but I was tired from the long trip and didn't have the energy for exploring at that point. The bed is much firmer than I'm accustomed to sleeping on but it was a welcome respite after 24 hours of travel.

On Sunday I woke up early and relaxed. At 8am I went out for breakfast with a colleague - he ordered a fried egg and ham while I ordered the congee (rice porridge) and a yummy hot chocolate-like drink. When the congee arrived I was surprised to see that it had meat, so we switched part of our meals. After that we slowly wandered north, making our way to the Sanlitun neighborhood and Worker Stadium and walking past multiple Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets and a Hooters restaurant so that I could attend my yoga class at Yoga Yard. The class was taught by a young woman from New Zealand, and there were students from Wales, Hong Kong, India and other parts of the English-speaking world. It was a wonderful way to stretch out, shake off the airplane trip, and start to find my bearings in my new city.

A woman from the class directed me to a nearby English-language bookstore afterwards so that I could pick up a good local map. The Bookworm has a literary festival planned for March. I'm looking forward to attending.

That was followed by a slow wander south, broken up by a leisurely lunch of green leafy vegetable cooked in a garlic sauce and some steamed rice. Picture menus are wonderful things to have when you aren't literate in the local language. After leaving the restaurant I aimed myself back towards the apartment. A few times I attempted to ask for directions. Right now that means showing someone a piece of paper with my destination written in Chinese characters and saying "ching ching, na li?"(please, where?) in a very friendly tone. One time a guard didn't know the address so he showed it to a cabby. The man proceeded to give me detailed directions which I didn't understand, until I heard the word 'lu' (for 'street') and realized that the several syllables before lu were the name of the street where his hand signals indicated I should turn. When I repeated it back he got very excited, nodded and started talking even faster. I thanked him and moved on, finding the street and making the turn and ecstatic that we'd been able to communicate with each other.

My biggest frustration so far is powering my MacBook. I'm wary of plugging anything in after have my surge protector blow twice. Today I went to a shopping mall in the center of Beijiing called Oriental Plaza in search of the Apple Experience store listed in the Insider's Guide to Beijing. The store is actually called "Lifestyle Experience" and they are an authorized reseller. I used my MacBook charger to pantomime that I needed one that would work here. It took a few moments, and some laughter, but then they realized what I meant. Unfortunately they sold me a charger for the U.K., not China. I'll be returning it. Back at the office I was able to plug my charger into a surge protector/adapter that allowed me to finally use my computer. My apartment doesn't have Internet and the neighbors have passwords on their accounts so I suspect I'll be spending lots of time at cafes with Wifi connections.

After finding the Apple vendor I did some exploring with colleagues and we walked past vendors selling scorpions on a stick while going down an alley off of a main shopping street. This city is an interesting blend of international city and Chinese culture.

Much of China has been blanketed by snow and ice but Beijing has not been touched by the storms. It's cold here, but it's the beginning of February and that is expected. The streets are packed with people wrapped up in winter garb, both western style winter coats and traditional padded cloth coats. Street vendors selling hot boiled corn, baked sweet potatoes and other warm treats offer a delicious way to warm up while eating a snack. There are also many 'meat on a stick' options but they aren't nearly as appealing.

Right now I'm sitting in a cafe/restaurant called IS Coffee, with coffee and tea drinks and a small food menu, about a mile from my apartment. They have wifi and a very friendly and helpful staff. My computer ran out of power while I was typing this and a waiter was nearby. He noticed me looking for a plug, went into the back and came back with a surge protector so that I could plug in. That level of service is a great way to inspire customer loyalty.

Friday, February 1, 2008

I'm Off

The last several days have been a whirlwind of seeing friends, packing, putting things into storage and selling or giving away things I'm not keeping. It's been a quick exit from a city I love.

I'm on my way!