Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Happy Mayday!

Today is May 1st, a.k.a. Mayday. Most offices in China are closed, today, tomorrow and Saturday. The government reorganized the work schedule so that workers would have three days off together, then work on Sunday. That will make next week a six day workweek. This holiday is usually over a week long but it was changed this year - depending on who I ask why I am told this is to reduce traffic jams and pollution or to decrease the number of days off and increase productivity. Either way, it's a three day weekend and many people are getting out of town to enjoy it.

My plan for the day was to play tourist, seeing a couple of sites that I haven't yet visited. When I woke up this morning and looked out the window I was greeted by a sea of white smog. That's not something I want to breathe a lot of so now I think I'll try to find a movie theater showing Forbidden Kingdom, the new Jackie Chan/Jet Li flick, with English subtitles. Some people I know here do some work with Chan and made a quick call to his office when they heard me lamenting having to wait until I went back to the states to see it if I wanted to understand the story. They confirmed that film is being show locally with subtitles. Many movies in China are made with English subtitles for release in the Hong Kong market and some of the bigger theaters in Beijing show those versions as well as the Chinese-only versions. Last night a Chinese friend and I both tried to find online movie theater listings with showtimes, preferably in English, but no luck. My plan is to go to the theater, check out the times, then sit in a pastry shop or something else nearby and read while waiting for the next show. Later in the day I'll meet up with friends for dinner and conversation.

Beijing live music fans are bemoaning the last minute postponement of the annual Midi Music Fest until autumn. That festival was the reason I hadn't planned a weekend trip. Four days of up and coming Chinese bands from far flung places across the country. I look forward to attending the event in October.

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 6

My cab driver this afternoon was a woman wearing white fabric gloves. The majority of the drivers here are men, many of whom also wear gloves, but there is an occasional woman.

When I got into the taxi I showed her a piece of paper with the address of my destination. She wasn't sure and asked me something. I'm not sure what, but it seemed to amount to the location of my destination. I tried to tell her the street name, and that you would make a left from Dongsanhuan BeiLu (East Third Ring North Road). She drove, then made the left early and took a loop that resulted in our going in the wrong direction. Oops. I started thinking about alternate routes, and decided that we could probably take the main road next to the canal down to Donsihuan BeiLu (East Fourth Ring North Road), then turn right there and go over the canal to my destination without too many more detours. No one had ever taken me this way before so I wasn't 100% sure the route wouldn't have a diversion that would land me across town but I decided that it was worth trying.

It worked! I arrived at my meeting on time, and proud that I now have enough knowledge of some streets to come up with alternate routes on the fly.

Don't expect me to be able to do that anywhere else in town, or in a hutong (alleyway or courtyard area) for quite some time.

Haochi Jaozi

I had said I was going to cut back on my food intake. My pants are all fitting tightly, which is uncomfortable, and clothing shopping here is less fun than a root canal due to the 'enthusiastic' assistance of the shop attendants. In Beijing I have not been able to keep up my New York schedule of swimming three times each week and walking everywhere is not an option due to the pollution levels. That, combined with the abundance of amazingly good food - both foreign and domestic - has resulted in some weight gain.

A Chinese woman with whom I spend a lot of time told her mother and maid that I like jaozi (dumplings). Last Thursday they surprised me - bowl after bowl of spring onion and egg jaozi. The dough was perfect, blended from wheat flour, egg and water, and the spring onion and egg filling melted in my mouth, teasing my tongue with the texture and the taste. I tried to stop after two bowls but I couldn't.

The maid was proud to continue bringing me more of the wonderful dumplings, happy to see how much I enjoyed them. My usual 'xie xie' (thank you) would not suffice to communicate proper gratitude for the special treat and the hours of work spent preparing it for me. "Zhege jaozi haochi, xie xie!" (These dumplings are delicious. Thank you!) The words and the tones fell out of my mouth like bricks but she understood and laughed, blushing and giggling at the praise.

Before coming to Beijing I was a little worried that as a vegetarian I might be limited to a regular diet of rice and noodles. Not at all. Instead, much of the time I feel like a goose being fatted for foie gras. A vegetarian goose.

China ♥'s Linux

This afternoon I was chatting with a young web designer about all the reasons that we love Mac computers and not Microsoft-driven PCs. I mentioned Linux as another possible option. He coyly told me that the government of China runs its computers on Linux. They suspect that Microsoft operating systems would leave a backdoor through which someone could gain access to non-public files.

China ♥'s Linux.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Halliburton is Hiring

This afternoon I spent some time reviewing the jobs posted online at and I came across the ad below. At first it sounded relatively benign. Then I looked at the email address. Halliburton.

No, no and no.

Also, does anyone else wonder what Halliburton is doing here?

A Fortune 500 Needs English Language Trainer
A Fortune 500 Company is hiring a Native speaker as full time English Language Teacher in Beijing to provide one-on-one/more training to 30 project members. Contract period is 6 months, about 30 hours a week. If interested, please send CV to: or call 13911883572
ASAP Thanks

Monday, April 28, 2008

Massive Attack - Safe from Harm

Yesterday morning I woke up early and turned on my computer to play some music through iTunes. I also opened Skype then minimized it - there was no one on at 5:30am. Then I started to read the news.

After a couple of minutes my Skype phone rang. It was a friend back in the states. He wanted to make sure I was ok. Of course I was ok. Why the worry?

He said that my Skype account displayed the message "Massive Attack - Safe from Harm."

It took me a moment to realize why. My Skype settings display the name of the band and the song which I am playing. The song I was listening to was 'Safe from Harm,' by Massive Attack.

I'm safe. No harm. I'll be more careful with Skype from now on.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Yogurt Emergency

On Thursday a friend and I planned to have a quiet dinner together, enjoying a gift of Russian caviar. I was in charge of the menu. Since I've been eating a lot of heavy food recently I decided to keep it light: thinly sliced pumpernickel bread, boiled egg, chopped onion, a crudite platter and yogurt dipping sauce. This should have been fairly easy.

In the afternoon I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the ingredients: pumpernickel bread, onion, celery, red and yellow peppers, asparagus and other vegetables, and some plain yogurt. I expected to have a relaxing and unrushed evening so I checked my email before I started prep work and put on some music. As the eggs boiled I poured plain yogurt into a bowl and added freshly chopped parsley, mixed Italian herbs, a little bit of olive oil and some black pepper. I've made this dip many times before and know how to get a flavor I'll like.

After mixing the ingredients together I took a taste. ICK! It was wrong. Very wrong. It was sweet. The yogurt was sweet! I quickly realized that there was going to be no way to save that batch - sweet yogurt and savory herbs don't mix well.

The disaster went into the sink and I called my friend, a longtime Beijing resident. She laughed after she heard my story. She'd had a similar type of experience when she first moved here. People here like things sweet, so even plain yogurt is sweetened. Since my heart was set on having a light, and savory, yogurt dip we discussed which of the foreign-foods stores would be most convenient for me to visit on my way to her apartment. I ended up at the Friendship Store in Sanlitun, a holdover from a time when foreigners were first being allowed into the country after the Chinese Communist Party took over. The Communists had plain yogurt. I was grateful.

When I arrived at my friend's apartment I quickly made another batch of dip, this time tasting the yogurt before adding other ingredients, and we had a lovely and relaxing evening together enjoying caviar and crudites. It was GOOD.

The next day I realized I still had a problem. Fig yogurt and coconut yogurt and berry yogurt (and others) are all good but sometimes I don't want something that's been pre-sweetened. I ended up at a local outlet of the French-owned Bonjour grocery store. They had some imported Australian yogurt in the 'foreign foods' section. Chinese labels were pasted over the English ingredient lists, so I ignored the fruited yogurt and put a container of 'natural' in my cart, hoping that I'd be safe.

That done, I headed to the Chinese dairy product section, and the wall of yogurt products. I picked up a number of containers, waxed cardboard containers, plastic bottles and plastic bags all containing yogurt. Finally I located one that had the ingredients listed in both Chinese and English. I used this to find the three characters that mean sugar. I then picked up a container of each and every brand of yogurt that didn't have a picture of fruit on the front and searched for those three characters. They seemed to be everywhere.

I asked a shop assistant to help. I pointed at the yogurt: "wo yao zhege" (I want this), then at the three characters that mean sugar: "bu yao zhege" (I don't want this). She appeared to understand, then started doing what I had done. She picked up every container of plain yogurt and looked that the ingredients, said "you" (this has it) and put them back down. She did that until she located sugar free yogurt, then showed it to me with a smile on her face. I happily yet warily looked at the lable. Aspartame. That's worse than sugar. "Zhege bu hao" (this is not good).

There was no way I was going to be able to explain it was a cancer causing agent so I just told her it wasn't good. Every Chinese yogurt that didn't have sugar had aspartame. Since there was nothing else to be done I asked her to read the Chinese characters on the Australian yogurt and confirm there was no sugar or aspartame. She did. 46 RMB later I had a pint of imported sugar free yogurt. A similar sized container of the Chinese yogurt would have cost 7 or 8RMB. I bought it anyway. I really wanted, needed, craved something that wasn't sweet. The silky, creamy, sugar-free goodness was worth every fen!

Now that I've learned my lesson I've found somewhere else to buy sugar-free yogurt at a more reasonable price. Jenny Lou's sells a pint of Chinese sugar-free yogurt, produced near Beijing, for 7.9 RMB. I'm stocking up.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The more things change...

I'm up early, enjoying the beautiful morning and preparing for the week ahead so that I can go out with friends later without having to worry about things this evening, with Monty Python
playing on iTunes.

Their "Contractual Obligation Album" was released in 1980. One of the songs is entitled "I'm So Worried" and the refrain includes this little phrase:

"I'm so worried about
the baggage retrieval
system they've got at Heathrow."

That was 28 years ago. Some things never change.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Beijing Taxis, Chp. 5

Taxis are ubiquitus in Beijing. They are inexpensive and readily available at almost all hours. Trying to find an empty one during rush hour can be impossible but other than that you usually don't have to wait very long.

When I say they are inexpensive I mean it. The base fare is 10 RMB, less than $2.00 at the current rate of exchange, for three kilometers. After that the meter goes up by 2 RMB (or 35 cents) for every kilometers or five minutes in traffic. A sign in Chinese and English on the windows in the back seat of the cab informs passengers about the cost.

In addition to a ride to your destination, the fare usually also gets you a fabulous language lesson from one of the best Putonghua (Mandarin language) teachers in China - a Beijing cab driver.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ribbit, Ribbit

Some friends and I recently had one of those experiences that make you lose your appetite. It was at one of our favorite restaurants, somewhere we eat weekly if not more.

The ultra-relaxed Chinese fusion cuisine restaurant Luogu (Drum & Gong) is located on Nanluogu Xiang, a rebuilt hutong alleyway area in the Dongcheng district that is home to many cafes, restaurants and shops that cater to laowai (foreigners) and well-heeled Chinese. They serve one of my favorite Chinese dishes: a Sichuan-style whole carp that's been simmered in oil and broth, covered with red chili peppers and black peppercorns. When the fuyuan (waitress) brings the dish to the table she removes many of the peppers with a slotted spoon to make it easier to access your fish. There are many small bones to beware while eating but the flesh is incredibly delicate and the flavor is delicious. Other favorite dishes include fried pumpkin strips and a mouthwatering eggplant dish that is simmered with onions, tomatoes and cheese. It's not listed on the new menu but the waitstaff know the dish when we order it.

On Saturday we finished eating our meal, with a plate of broccoli and garlic sauce to provide some green and offset the affect of the grease on everything else, when we noticed a member of the kitchen staff standing near the large aquarium along the wall. His hands were full. At first we weren't sure what he was holding but then it hit us.

The menu has several dishes with croaker and bullfrog in the name. Some of our fellow diners had ordered one of them.

The frogs were large and fat, probably very juicy.

Cultural Differences - Employment Edition

My three month introduction to China is almost over and it's time for me to get serious about finding a job here. This past Saturday there was a free job fair for foreigners organized by, a China-based job search site. I went with a friend, both of us with resumes in hand, to see if there was anything interesting.

The majority of the jobs were for English teachers. I've done that. It can be interesting but it's not something that I want to do full-time for an extended period of time unless there was something else about the job that makes it attractive to me. Lenovo is hiring additional local staff for during the Olympics, with long-term potential. A Chinese oil exploration company is looking for a finance person. China Daily, the state-owned English language newspaper, is looking for editors and writers; I'd get to indulge my inner news geek. A prestigious local university is looking for someone to teach algebra and statistics in English; when I told the hiring manager that I was a teaching assistant for statistics in college her eyes lit up - and my friend shook her head at the realization that I really am a math nerd. I don't have anything set up yet but it was good to start talking to people about positions available for foreigners and to get my resume into circulation.

One well-known English-language teaching school, English First, had a large booth at the front of the room. I didn't speak with them but read a part of their posters. One of the listed reasons to work for the company was "Don't get deported," accompanied by a line explaining that foreigners in China who are found to be earning money here while on a tourist or student visa can be fined and/or made to leave the country. In the past this regulation had not been strictly followed but now it is being enforced. Perhaps the line was someone's misplaced attempt at a joke but I'm not laughing. I wouldn't consider working somewhere that considered that to be an appropriate motivator for potential applicants. Many English language programs in China are so hungry for English teachers that they are willing to hire any Caucasion applicants, including people who barely speak English. That doesn't exactly speak well of their level of professionalism and the services they provide to customers.

In my review of local job postings I've been struck by several features. Most postings request that applicants submit a photograph along with their resume; this is common in parts of Europe and South America (I'm not sure about Africa) but not in the United States. Many postings also list the preferred gender and age range for applicants; U.S. employment laws bar this information from being used for employment considerations. In postings for English-speaking Chinese employees I've seen statements that applicants should be 'western-looking.'

As my friend and I were leaving the job fair a young woman who works for the organizing company came up to me and asked if I was looking for a job. She was representing a local country club, 'very prestigious' (as is said about many companies here), and they are looking for a new Member Relations Manager. They want someone who looks professional and mature. She thought I'd make a good applicant. The online posting requests a photograph.

This is definitely interesting.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Don't Worry. You're an American."

It was an interesting night.

The last couple of weeks have been filled with lots of good food, some good hiking, time with friends and work. Today was a relatively mellow day: a friend and I were able to leave a daylong event early and have lunch, then I had some time to do some errands before meeting friends in the evening.

While getting ready to meet friends for dinner I received a phone call. "Make sure you have your passport. There was an anti-foreigner demonstration in front of the French embassy today and the police are arresting foreigners without the proper documentation." Last week there had been a sting operation on a number of places where the police suspected there was drug activity by foreign nationals but now the focus was becoming more general. Usually I carry a photocopy of my passport and my police registration (everyone here is required to register their location with the local police and we are supposed to keep a copy of the stamped form with us at all times) but tonight I pulled out my passport so that I'd be prepared if I was stopped and the police decided that photocopies weren't sufficient. I asked a friend to carry it so that I wouldn't have to hold a purse while I was dancing. I also called several other foreigners to pass on the tip.

Dinner was at Impressions of Yunnan, with fried cheese, Yunnan latkes, shrimp, asparagus and other amazing food, followed by drinks at the Rickshaw. Conversation during both was carried out in a combination of English, Italian, Pidgen English, Yoruba, Spanish and some Chinese, and covered global politics, today's demonstrations and arrests, child poverty in China and how it is being addressed, and the global diaspora of Africans. Light topics, all.

After the clock struck twelve our group headed over to Salsa Caribe, our usually Saturday night spot for dancing to a live Cuban band and recorded music spun by a fab Cameroonian DJ. A number of local dance clubs have been closed down in the past week or two so the dance floor was much more crowded than usual. Based on the unusual composition of the patrons tonight, the clubs that were closed were popular with the African and gay communities in Beijing.

At around 3:30am a friend tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that another friend had to step out: "A friend of his was arrested because he didn't have his passport with him. S. had to go get it and take it to the police so he would be released." It suddenly struck me that the friend holding my passport had left an hour earlier and I hadn't thought to get it back. Oops. Oh well, what was done was done and there was no point waking someone up unnecessarily; I'll get it back first thing in the morning. I kept dancing. The dance floor became more and more crowded and my dance partner, a foreign reporter who has his pulse on just about everything that happens with the expat community in Beijing, decided that we should head next door to somewhere a little less packed. When we arrived I said that I wanted to be careful, I didn't have my passport. He asked me to repeat what I said, unsure that he had heard me correctly, so I did. He laughed.

"Don't worry. You're an American. The Chinese might do some crazy things but they still respect your country."

I know he's right but I still prefer to be cautious.

The music wasn't great so we headed back to Salsa, a packed dance floor and good music. Shortly before 5am some of us decided it was time to leave. We walked en groupe to the street and got into taxis, with the agreement that we text message one another when home safely, 'just in case.'

I'm fine. I'm safe. I'm here completely legally and am not breaking any laws (other than occasionally jaywalking). But at the moment I feel like I have a slightly greater insight into the concerns of the many foreigners living in the U.S., both legal and illegal, who are constantly worried that they might be stopped by the authorities and deported.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Great Wall - Mutianyu

The Great Wall is actually broken up into a series of segments in northern China, some refurbished and some not, and several close enough to Beijing to be visited for a day trip. On Saturday I had my first encounter with "The Wall," along one of the unrefurbished areas close to the village of Mutianyu. Beijing Hikers organized a 15 kilometer hike along and on a part of the wall connecting fifteen guard towers, with many verticle ascents and descents of rock, mud, dry dirt and pebbles along the way. The hike had originally been planned for the previous weekend but wet weather conditions meant there were ice and snow on the wall. The hike was precarious enough in some places without those added dangers.

The day of our trip was one of the usual Beijing haze, and even though we were two hours outside of the city, in the mountains, our views were obscured. Still, the temperatures were in the 60s (Fahrenheit) and we could see the areas around us so we were glad to be out of the city and breathing the (relatively) clean air.

The ascent started out fairly steep, and within minutes my heart was working overtime and my eyes were stunned by the view of the town below us. We could look ahead and see dilapidated guard towers in the distance. Parts of the hike looked relatively flat but they were deceptive.

After two hours of heart-pumping careful stepping we stopped for lunch and sat along a narrow segment of the wall between Tower 11 and Tower 12, looking out over the valley beneath us while we caught our breath and enjoyed our sandwiches for half an hour. In another thirty or forty minutes we reached our goal, Tower 15, where the haze and cherry blossoms prevented a good view of the valley below. We paused briefly and then began our speedy descent. Looking back up at the peak it seemed unreal to think that we were able to descend so quickly from a place where it had taken so long to reach.

In areas along the trail we could see bits of green fighting to grow through the dry earth. Much of the trail was bordered by dry scrub bushes, with spring cherry blossoms providing the only hints of color from blooming trees. In the middle of the path along the descent back to the village there was a purple flower growing up out of the dirt, catching the attention of all who bothered to look down.

Many of the areas of the Great Wall, such as Badaling, have been refinished and are tourist friendly, with cable cars and rope rides to make the ascent and descent easier. I'm sure I'll visit those areas one day but I'm glad that my first experience on the wall was here.

General photos from my hikes in China, including many more of this hike, can be viewed here.