Monday, March 31, 2008


Beijing feels like one of the safest places I've ever been, anywhere in the world. I can walk almost anywhere, at any hour of the day or night, and rarely feel like I need to have any concern about my physical safety (odd 'photo-opportunities' aside, of course).

There are People's Liberation Army (PLA) guards in many areas of the city, and municipal police and traffic police and security guards and just about any other type of public safety enforcement you might imagine. As a laowai (foreigner) I know that I receive special treatment, a veritable carte blanche to behave less well than the locals, to do almost anything I wish, with minimal response - providing I don't commit a felony, of coarse. I try not to abuse the privilege, other than for practicing the New York art of jaywalking.

It has been pointed out to me that the police and PLA guards are more scared of me than I am of them. They don't want to arrest a laowai. It means piles of extra paperwork. It would likely mean losing their job. And, it would also probably mean being sent out from the city to a rural village for some assignment much less pleasant than patrolling city streets.

On Fear

People in New York and in Beijing tell me they'd be scared to quit their job, give up their apartment and move to the other side of the world. They say it as if I wasn't. As if I'm not.

I am scared of what I've done, of what I'm doing.

However, if I never did things that scared me I'd rarely get out of bed in the morning.

I'm scared to be starting my life all over in a new city, a new country, a new culture, somewhere where I don't speak the language.

But, I also know that I would have been dreadfully unhappy to stay in New York and not be living the life I want to live. I love New York, and I can go back. I love my friends there, but they will still be my friends no matter where I am in the world. It is far better for me to be far away and happy, exploring a new country and culture and learning new things every day than for me to have stayed in New York and feel like I am mentally stifled.

Yes, I'm scared. I'm also exhilarated by the life that I am living and grateful that I am one of the lucky people in this world who can make the choice to do what I have done.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 4

I just had my first ever disagreement with a cab driver in putonghua (a.k.a. - the common language, Mandarin).

My friends and I left a dance club at 4:30am. They were all going in a different direction so I took the first taxi by myself. I told the driver that I wanted to go to Chaoyang Lu, near CCTV, and that he should turn right at the corner and drive east. He turned left and drove west. I stopped him and gave him the mingpian (namecard), complete with local map, for my destination. I reiterated that I wanted Chaoyang Lu, pointing at the name of the street, a 10 lane road, on the map and at the marker for the new CCTV building - a major landmark that anyone who has been in Beijing for more than two days usually knows about. The man made a few more turns, still going west. I stopped him again, pointed at the map, and started telling him to go left, go right, to get him driving in the correct direction. When we drover past the major construction site that is the new CCTV building I pointed it out to him. "Oh," he said, "sorry." I hadn't been speaking to him in English but the English apology seemed to be an admission of mistake on his part. He apologized again when I got out of the car.

I don't plan to go around having arguments with cab drivers. Most of them are very patient with my bad putonghua and teach me new vocabulary or point out items of interest. It just feels good to know that I can have a disagreement with a cabbie about where things are located and be right.

Cash Recycling System

Cash rules in China. Many places geared to the local community don't accept credit cards, and I saw some nervous faces on shop staff the one time I made a purchase using one. The many luxury shopping malls take plastic, yes, but I don't usually spend much time in them.

Most of the expats here carry around relatively large amounts of cash. I take 1500-2000 RMB out of the ATM and leave most of it at home, carrying about 200 RMB with me whenever I leave the apartment. Yesterday I realized that I was down to my last 100 RMB (about $14, which would cover expenses for a week for many of my local coworkers) but I wasn't near an ATM all day and I didn't get home until late so I couldn't take out more money. I regularly take cabs for hour long rides costing about 50 RMB, for which I am reimbursed, but I need to have enough cash to pay for them.

This morning I stopped by an ATM before I got into my cab. I put my JP Morgan Chase card in, punched in my PIN code, indicated that I wanted to withdraw 2000 RMB, waited several moments while the computer thought.....and then saw an error message saying I didn't have enough funds. I tried again, attempting to withdraw 1000 RMB. Same response. This had happened to me last week as well, when I wanted to take out funds so that I could indulge in a massage after dinner with friends but wasn't carrying enough cash on me and didn't want to go home and then back, but I checked my balance online as soon as I arrived home and was reassured to see that there is indeed the amount of funds I expected in my account. I thought it was a fluke, as I've withdrawn funds several times in the last two months. I was wrong.

I rushed back upstairs to grab my other ATM card, for my ING account, but then realized it was somewhere else for safekeeping. I quickly grabbed US$200 from my emergency stash of U.S. currency so that I could go to a bank later and exchange money if my ATM continued to not work, and hailed a cab - hoping that there wouldn't be much traffic and that my cab fare would be less than the 70 RMB in my wallet. The roads were clear and the ride cost 46 RMB.

While in the cab I spoke on the phone with a couple of friends. One told me that not all banks accept foreign ATM cards, and sometimes one ATM will accept a foreign card but the one standing right next to it won't, so I need to try a few different banks. When I arrived at the office I spoke with several other foreigners, all of whom said the same thing.

At lunchtime I walked across the street from my office to one of many Bank of China locations in Beijing. Their ATM, under a sign saying 'Cash Recycling System,' gave me cash.

The bills don't appear to be recycled.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


With red skin and little skinlike flaps with green edges coming off of its body, dragonfruit is one of the most dramatic pieces of produce I've seen. It is a thing of beauty. The flesh is white specked with black seeds, similar to the way green kiwi flesh is speckled, and has the consistency and mouth feel of a firm, juicy watermelon.

Unfortunately the pleasure of viewing a dragonfruit does not carry over into eating one. The fruit has no fragrance and is tasteless.

It was my biggest culinary disappointment since eating at the 21 Club in the fall of 2000.

Friday, March 21, 2008

It rained!

Beijing is very dry. The canals that flow through the capital were built centuries ago to bring water to the city.

Yesterday at work one of the men mentioned that it was going to rain. I asked if he was kidding. Some of our colleagues laughed. I checked There was rain forecast. I sent instant messages to some of my local friends and they didn't believe me.

This morning I woke up and looked out the window to see that the ground was wet and people were carrying umbrellas. It rained! It really rained! Everything was dry within a matter of hours but it was nice to see that sometimes we do get rain.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pork (Not Politically Correct)

I'm a vegetarian. That poses a challenge when I travel or live in an area where meat is a large part of the local diet. One way I address the situation is to learn the word for 'meat' so that I can say I don't eat it or that I'm allergic to it.

The word for meat in Mandarin is rou (fourth tone). When talking about meat it is best to be specific - jirou (chicken), niurou (beef), yangrou (mutton).

The word for pork is zhurou. It is pronounced jew-rou.

I find that incredibly ironic. Kosher food laws prohibit observant Jews from eating pork.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sorry, I Don't Work Like This

People in Beijing have been very friendly and polite with me, barring the occasional morose teenager, waitress or security guard who has been warned that all laowei (foreigners) are evil. I'd be willing to trade some of the friendliness and politeness for professionalism and directness.

Yesterday I arrived in an office where I go several days each week for a regularly scheduled meeting. After 20 minutes I was still the only one sitting in the conference room so I sent a text message to the meeting organizer to find out what was going on. He immediately called me to say that the meeting had been postponed because a couple of other people and I were going to some type of photo opportunity that involved cake. One of the marketing assistants was going to take us to the place together in about an hour. Someone was supposed to have called me. Oops. Oh well, I put on some lipstick and decided to make the best of the situation.

When the group was assembled, me and three foreign men, we were taken via subway to a building parking lot near the Hong Kong Macao Center Sofitel and then our keeper, S, called for someone to come and get us. She could only tell us that we were going somewhere to have our photo taken and didn't have any more information. That felt odd. When a thin young woman wearing a lot of make-up, form-fitting clothes and high heels arrived she spoke to S and then led us into the building via the back entrance and into a freight elevator. We walked out of the elevator into a sub-basement and were led along hallways smelling of overly sweet baked goods and lined with boxes to a room and told to go in. When I put my head into the room I realized that the room was filled with five or six young men sitting around talking and smoking, and enough cigarette smoke to make it difficult to see (or breathe). I backed out to let the others enter before me, thinking I'd stand in the doorway. S saw me back out and asked if I was bothered by the smoke; I just smiled. She told the others that the room was too smoky for me and our group was taken into a dingy conference room lit by bare lightbulbs.

I reiterated to S a statement that I'd made earlier: this whole situation feels really dodgy, sketchy, cagey, like there's something illegal going on, like drug-dealing or slave trading, and I don't like it. One of the men in my group said it reminded him of a situation in India a few years ago where some people tried to get him to run drugs and he ended up being kidnapped and his embassy (Great Britain) had to rescue him. Even the other men in my group were feeling uncomfortable with the situation. I told S that I wasn't going to let my photo be taken unless I had more information, I don't want to be seen as advocating something if I don't even know what is going on, and I was considering just leaving. The men voiced their agreement. The British man explained to S that foreigners like to be told what is going to happen, what the details are of a situation, before it happens; it makes us feel safe. S called our agent on her cell phone to confer in Mandarin and then handed the phone over to me. He explained that the people here were looking for someone to be in a photo opportunity regarding some type of cake. He apologized and admitted that yes, this was not a professional way to do things but unfortunately things in China, in Beijing, are not usually very professional (I've been here six weeks, I figured that out awhile ago). Ok, that wasn't very helpful but at least it was something and I knew that someone knew where we were. I let someone take a digital photo of me sitting in a chair.

Someone in the non-communicative group decided that it would be better if they took us to another location, so we were trundled back into the sunlight and put into taxis (me with one of my male colleagues and the thin assistant in makeup and high heels). She didn't speak very much English and my limited ability in Mandarin meant I could only ask her for her name. We ended up in a complex in south Beijing, near Fourth Ring Road off of Baiziwan Lu, and walked up a flight of stairs into an office with no lights to sit in an empty office lit only by natural light. When I asked S why it was so dark she asked someone else and was told that there was no electricity in the building that day. Then, the men and I were each taken one-by-one into another room for inspection. No more information was given, no introductions were made. S was told to tell me to take my sunglasses out of my hair so that people could see my hairstyle. It was obvious that she had no more information than I did, and if I asked any questions or didn't comply she would get in trouble. I put on a forced smile and took my sunglasses off, looking only at her and at a Chinese man who had also been in the first building and had seemed to be in charge previously. He looked at the floor. I put my sunglasses back on top of my head and gave the rest of the group my best "I'm being polite, but f*** you" smile before walking back out to the waiting room. I know I was being obnoxious and rude but I didn't feel safe or comfortable and I don't want to participate in anything that feels so very dodgy unless I have enough information to feel like I'm making an informed decision.

I have a pretty high threshold for odd and uncomfortable situations but this was ridiculous.

Language Soup

Beijing is an international city. There are people here from all over the world, using many different languages. On any given day my conversations include at least two or three languages, and at times four or five. This results in some amusing language gaffs.

Over the weekend I was speaking with Italian friends and the words "je ne parle pas Italiano" (a French/Spanish combination) came out of my mouth. In an office on Monday I was speaking with a non-English speaking coworker in French about the water quality here and said "le shuai de Beijing" (French and Mandarin Chinese).

I remember from learning Spanish in my mid-twenties that this is just how my brain assimilates languages, melding them all together to express an idea if I can't say something entirely in one language. This is going to last for awhile, until my French and Italian are good enough for me to speak in whole sentences and I have enough Mandarin to not feel like an illiterate three year old when I'm trying to communicate.

Until them, I am cultivating the ability to laugh at myself. I'm also avoiding the Russian and German areas of town.

Coconut Yoghurt

I've been being rather unadventurous with food recently. I've only been buying the brand of yoghurt that I like, in the flavors I like (fig, berry, peach) and not looking at other options. Last night a friend convinced me to try a different brand, in a tall cardboard container. They make coconut yoghurt.

Diced pieces of young coconut are suspended in a lightly sweetened, coconut flavored yoghurt. It's good. Try it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Beijing Birthday Celebration

Last Friday was my first birthday in Beijing. Friends of mine here put together an evening of dinner and dancing to celebrate. We started the evening at Middle 8, a Yunnan restaurant off of Sanlitun Bar Street, near the embassies, for dinner. When the friend who was doing most of the organizing told me that the reservation was for twelve people I started laughing and said that I don't even know that many people in Beijing. Her response was to start to list names - and to remind me that some other people would have liked to join us but were out of town. She was right; I know more people here than I had realized.

Our table of twelve shared a lovely meal of eggplant, subtly spiced fish, potato pancakes and other dishes, accompanied by five-flower tea tasting of fruit and other berries and a bamboo carafe filled with Yunnan rice wine.

Dinner conversation was conducted in a mix of languages (English, Italian, Chinese, Spanish) and our table was visited by some other friends who were in the neighborhood and wanted to wish me well. After the meal was over we were relaxing, enjoying each other's company and conversation, when I was surprised with that ritual of birthday celebrations worldwide: a birthday cake and flaming candle. I should have expected it but I didn't. A German bakery up near Chaoyang Park named Konstanz Bakery made the very rich sacher torte that we all ate with glee.

After the restaurant closed a smaller group of us walked two blocks to Salsa Caribe, a latin and Caribbean themed dance club. The house band performed salsa, merengue and bachata (I can't even fake dancing to that one) and a DJ spun reggaeton and other dance beats from Latin American and the Carribean.

After dancing until the wee hours I left my friends and walked home, a forty-five minute walk that was mostly along the eastern side of Third Ring Road, during which I walked by numerous construction sites that are operating around the clock in order for new buildings to be ready for the world to decend upon Beijing during the Olympic Games in August. It was a beautiful early spring evening, pleasant for walking and observing the city around me.

It was a lovely celebration.

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 3

This morning I won the Beijing taxi lottery. The cab driver looked at the mingpian (name card) for the office where I was going, a location that makes most cab drivers look at me in hostility for having to drive somewhere so far away, confirmed the location by reading aloud the address and saying 'ok' to me, for me to respond by saying 'ok' back, then started to drive.

At first it looked like he was taking the regular route but then he made a turn onto another major street I know, one that goes through the area where most embassies are located. I don't (yet) have the vocabulary to protest so I just watched familiar places go by and wondered why we made the turn. It soon dawned on me that this route was missing most of the traffic I usually experience on this ride. This route cut 10 minutes and 10 RMB off of a ride I usually dread.

In addition, this driver actually knew how to drive. All of the cars I've ridden in here in Beijing have manual transmissions. In theory that's great - I like to drive good cars with manual transmissions. Unfortunately, sitting in the backseat of a car when the driver doesn't know how to change gears without the car making a hideous grinding sound can be both nauseating and scary, especially considering that the roads of Beijing are populated by many other cars with drivers just as bad. A cab driver who doesn't grind the gears is a rare find, the Beijing cabbie gold standard. If he would have accepted a tip I would have gladly given one to him.

The man didn't have a card. When I asked his name he just pointed to the Beijing Taxi Driver Service Supervision card with his photo on it that was attached to the dashboard, similar to the way New York cabs have cab driver identification posted. His name was written on it, but it was in Chinese characters. That didn't help me. The receipt had a phone number on it so I asked if it was his (zhege shi ni?). No. He finally took the receipt back from me and wrote his cell phone number on it.

The next time I want to go somewhere far that requires a taxi and I can make arrangements beforehand you know who I'll be calling (or, actually, having someone else call on my behalf). I'll have to find out his name.

Fresh Air

Beijing is said to be the second most polluted city in the world, after Mexico City. There is a growing environmental movement here in China but that hasn't yet changed the fact that Beijing residents don't often get to see the sky. Parents here are relieved of answering a question that plagues many American parents: "Why is the sky blue?". In a ploy to try and see the sky, and breathe some fresh air, I joined the group Beijing Hikers for one of their full-day hikes outside of Beijing City.

I met up with over 30 other hikers from around the world (China, Germany, U.K., Italy, France, Australia, U.S.) in the Starbucks Cafe in the luxury Holiday Inn Lido Beijing in northeast Chaoyang district at 8:30am on a recent Sunday morning. There was a large, clean comfortable bus waiting to drive us the hour and a half to the trailhead. As we embarked we were presented with snacks: fresh bananas and Snickers bars. During the ride we were given a map of the trail we'd be taking and the cell phone numbers of the hike organizers, just in case we wandered away from the group and needed help. We were told that the woman leading the hike would mark the path with red ribbons along the way and the man who would be at the rear of the group would be taking the ribbons down. The two of them would communicate with walkie-talkies as we went along, to communicate any information about anything interesting or any safety issues (once it was to warn of a rabbit trap right next to the trap, to ensure that no one stepped on it).

The hike started when we disembarked from the bus on the side of the paved road and started to walk along a gently sloping dirt path. After a few minutes we were out of sight of the road and could see only nearby scrub brush and trees in the distance, and a few power lines nearby. At the end of February the ground was still frozen and the bushes were still barren so the landscape was various shades of brown and beige, interrupted by evergreens in the distance. As we proceeded over gently rolling hills we walked past a small village and could see other hills off in the distance. A nearby schoolyard had exercise equipment, a basketball court and a pingpong table. After we passed the town we saw a small chicken farm, with white chickens pecking their way around a fenced in pen, then a large greenhouse for growing produce during the frigid winters. While passing through empty farm fields we encountered a farmer and his herd of goats, foraging for edible remains on the ground. After this the terrain started to change and the hills became steeper. From one we could look down at an area reservoir, which at 20 meters below the usual levels gave us a strong visual indicator of the drought affecting the Beijing area.

When we reached the road after four hours on the trail our bus was waiting to take us to a local restaurant in a nearby town. There was a dining room set aside for the vegetarians, more than ten of us, and we feasted on vegetable dumplings, noodles in broth, peanuts, cold tofu salad, a salad of a red radish like vegetable and chili oil, steamed rice, tomato omelette, a bean salad, and a number of other dishes, all accompanied by tea, beer and Coca Cola, before we were told that we could visit the other dining room for coffee, hot chocolate, nuts and cookies. After we'd eaten our fill we were ushered back onto the warm bus for the ride back to Beijing, arriving at approximately the time that had been estimated for our return.

Cloudy weather on the day of the hike prevented my seeing a blue sky. I still consider it 300 RMB well spent. I'm looking forward to more hikes in the future.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Think that your job seems futile?

There is an ever-present coating of dust over the City of Beijing and in the spring there are dust storms that coat the entire city with red dust, much of it blown in from the Gobi Desert. People in Beijing do not leave their windows open when they go out. That type of foolhardiness is rewarded with a layer of dust over everything in your home upon your return.

Yesterday I was walking around the Chaoyang District, exploring, when I walked past a new shopping mall, most windows covered but some already displaying the wares inside. A Staples store posted a UPS logo in its window. On the sidewalk were two men, squatting in their uniform of black pants and white jackets while taking stones out of the street tree pits, putting them in buckets of water to soak, scrubbing them by hand, laying them to the side to dry, and then putting them back into the pit.

Labor is cheap in China. The minimum monthly wage in Beijing was recently raised to 730 RMB (~$100). There are always new arrivals from distant villages and that amount is more than many of them could make at home.

Those stones, cleaned by hand, will be coated in dust again in a few hours.

Friday, March 7, 2008


If there is a perfect creampuff it has a light and airy pastry, with slightly eggy dough that melts in your mouth as you bite into it. The cream filling is sweet but not cloying, creamy but not too thick or too liquid, and is perfectly proportioned inside of the puff so that you can taste it at the first bite but it doesn't completely overcome the pastry.

These can be found at a little Chinese bakery called Jinmaixiang, on Andingmen Dongdajie, on the north side of the street just east of the Andingmen subway stop and a short walk from Lama Temple. I've been twice now and wanted to cry from happiness both times as I bit into the cream puffs. On my first visit I spent 20 minutes watching one of the pastry chefs decorate a cake with beautiful, perfectly formed delicate frosting flowers, all done by hand. On Monday I took an Italian friend and she had to agree with me that the cream puffs there were perfect.

The same friend is now lobbying for me to move into her apartment complex when it is time for me to find my own place here. It's a 15-20 minute walk from Jinmaixiang. That will be dangerous.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Language Practice

There are many young Chinese women, from all over the country, working in the office where I sometimes spend the day. There are a lot of giggles and much laughter whenever they take a break. One of the young women sits in a room with me, away from the others, and was just in their office talking to them about work when I decided to take a break and pop my head in.

We all started to discuss weekend plans and where we are from. I tried to practice my Mandarin and was grateful to receive positive feedback. I asked my officemate something and everyone started giggling. When I asked why I was told that my Mandarin is better then hers. This is impossible for me to believe, so I asked why they said this. It turns out that she is from the south and her local dialect is different enough from Mandarin to make it difficult for her to have casual conversations with them.

I asked how long she's been here. She said 'half year.' I said 'liu-ge yue?'. She looked around for a translater and someone else said 'six months' in English. My pronunciation was off though so some of the girls spoke the words so that I could mimic them. When my office mate tried to say it she said 'niu' instead 'of 'liu.' Her dialect doesn't use 'l.' Some of us started to say 'liu' for her to mimic but her efforts results in 'niu' and laughter from the coworkers.

I looked her in the eyes, took her hands, smiled, and walked her back to our office so that we could practice without an audience. 'Liu' is difficult, too many different sounds, so we broke it down into l - i - u.

She's now sitting at her desk, practicing the 'l' sound. She says it perfectly every so often and I start jumping up and down excitedly, letting her know that she's got it.

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 2

This evening I was going from my apartment via taxi to a friend's building. I forgot to put a mingpian (name card) for the building, with a map and the address in Chinese characters, into my pocket before I left but I thought I'd be able to give directions for the fairly simple route there without a problem.

I got into a cab and said "Chaoyang Lu" and the cabbie started to drive, making the right turn at Xidawang Lu. When we got to the next major intersection he turned right onto a road leading to the Fourth Ring Road - an 8 lane highway with multiple levels. This was *not* part of the route and I started to make unintelligible noises, wondering what he was doing. My driver then explained that it would take a long time to get through the traffic and by making this turn he could bypass it. "Wo dong, xie xie" (I understand, thank you) I replied. The cabbie then decided to give me an in-depth explanation of the detour. I quickly said "Wo bu dong, dui bu qi" (I don't understand, sorry). He looked disappointed but laughed at the situation with me.

When we were past the detour we arrived in a place I'd never seen before and I didn't see any of my usual reference points. This blog has a wide audience so I won't type the expletives that started going through my head. The cabbie asked me which way to go. He turned to me expectantly. Swearing wasn't going to help, so i just said "Na li, CCTV?" (Where is CCTV?) and the cabbie understood that I was looking for the award-winning Rem Koolhaas-designed headquarters for Central Chinese Television that is now under construction, a building that looks like it might be a second home to Star Trek Voyager's borg queen (for my Mandarin speaking friends: Yes, I know, 'na li' is not the appropriate word for 'where' in that context but it was the word that came to mind and the cabbie understood what I was asking). He pointed left. I pointed left and indicated that that was the direction he should turn.

As we got closer I pointed to my friend's building and said 'zhei ge' (that one) and the cabdriver turned and left me right in front. Sweet success!


There are latkes in China. I don't mean traditional, New York-style potato pancakes made with onion and egg that I'd get at B&H Dairy on Second Avenue with apple sauce and sour cream. No, these were Hunan-style potato pancakes, with shredded chili, on the picture menu in Impressions of Yunnan, an elegant Hunan restaurant on East Third Ring Road, in north Beijing's Sanlitun neighborhood, close to many other wonderful restaurants, some bars and clubs, and most of the embassies in Beijing. When I saw the picture my eyes lit up and I just pointed to it, speechless, until I could verbally communicate to my friends that this was one dish we were definitely going to order.

My friends suggested the restaurant because it has good Chinese food, which I always want, yet is would also be acceptable to people in the group who don't like local food and are in Beijing for professional reasons only. In addition to the potato pancakes, the menu included fried goat cheese with a side of chili powder for dipping, stir fried vegetables, spring rolls and other laowai (foreigner) friendly dishes, in addition to a number of dishes that included frogs or other things not usually seen on a menu in the the U.S. or Europe. The staff are friendly, the bathrooms clean and the light and airy space provide a wonderful atmosphere in which to enjoy an evening out with friends or family.

By the way, picture menus are wonderful things. I keep finding restaurants where the food looks wonderful as I walk past but I don't know how to ask for it when I go in. Most dishes you find in local restaurants have names that are lyrical and beautiful when translated into English yet don't give you any idea of the ingredients. Picture menus usually make it easy to order - you can point at the picture and say 'zhei ge, xie xie' (that, please). It doesn't always work, of coarse, but it goes a long way towards enabling me to order food if there's no one around who speaks a language in which I can communicate.


When I left New York I thought I'd be giving up cheese. Not true. Very much not true. Hunan cuisine includes a fried goat's cheese dish. Another regional cuisine that I tried in a hutong restaurant has eggplant cooked with a cheesy tomato sauce.

In addition, Beijing is host to restaurants and grocery stores featuring the cuisines of many western nations. Abella on Laitai Lu has amazingly soft, melt-in-your mouth, gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce, prepared for me without the usual bacon. La Fattoria in Phoenix Center has pasta sauces with cheese, including a homemade fettucini in a light pomodoro sauce with ricotta (they also have a pinot grigio that complements the dish perfectly). The beautifully elegant, Thai influenced vegetarian restaurant Pure Lotus in the complex of the Holiday Inn Lido Beijing, staffed by Buddhist monks and with separate tea and food menus so exquisitely styled that they could be the headline items in a gallery exhibit, has a cheese fondu that made me want to eat it dripping from my fingers. There is a chain of grocery stores called Jenny Lou's, mostly frequented by Beijing's large expat community, with imported foods from around the world, including French and Italian cheeses, and other specialty foods stores can be found in neighborhoods around the city.

Don't expect me to come back to New York for my visit in May skinnier than when I left.

I Don't Understand

When I left the office this evening and was waiting by the elevator I was asked, in Mandarin, if I worked for the company whose office I had exited. I responded in the affirmative. Then I was asked if I had a business card. "I'm sorry, I don't have a card," was my response (in Mandarin, using the correct negative for the verb 'to have,' which is different from the negative used for most other verbs).

Bad idea. I should have just shaken my head and pretended not to understand anything. The man started to speak to me in rapid Mandarin, assuming I understood every word he said. When I interrupted to say that I didn't understand he looked crestfallen.


Beijing Taxis

Yesterday I took an 11 RMB cab right. I didn't have exact change so I gave the cabby a 20 RMB bill. He gave me 10 back. I tried to tell him that I didn't have a single and he just smiled, told me it was ok, and said 'Zaijian' (goodbye).

Um, ok. Thank you.

As demonstrated above, most Beijing cabdrivers are *very* friendly. At times I get frustrated when they get lost, especially in situations like one last week in which I'd given my cell phone to the driver after calling the restaurant where I was going for lunch and asking the Chinese hostess to please explain the location; he still had to stop twice to ask strangers on the street for directions, then I finally just paid and got out when I saw the name of the shopping complex on a building a quarter mile away, in a neighborhood that would be difficult to navigate by car. The fast pace of change here means that office buildings, luxury shopping complexes and high end apartment complexes are being erected faster that the cabdrivers can learn about them.

My sympathy goes out to anyone coming here for the Olympics and needing to take a cab without having the mingpian (name card) with the name and a map of the location of their destination to show the cabdriver. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the pronunciation tutoring and language lessons I receive gratis during almost every ride.