Saturday, May 31, 2008

I'm Packed!

Two suitcases sit beside me: one weighs 48 pounds, another weighs 49. They are both under the weight allowance of 50 lbs per bag. I just hope that there isn't a problem and I don't have to leave anything behind. Some of my friends in Beijing have never had a real New York bagel and I want to rectify that.

My mouth is full of toasted sesame bagel and scallion cream cheese from Bagel Works on 1st Ave. I can't think of a more appropriate last New York meal.

My flight leaves at noon. I'm looking forward to being back in Beijing.

Last Day in Town

Today is my last full day in New York until....I'm not sure when. Tomorrow I'll fly out on a one-way ticket.

The day started with breakfast at Barney Greengrass, fried eggs and a side of lox on a toasted pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese, accompanied by wonderful companionship and conversation from a good friend and her husband. From there I went for one last visit to my storage space, then back to the apartment where I'm house-sitting to pick up some things which I'm giving to a friend this evening.

This afternoon I'll see the Sex and the City movie with one friend for a dose of absolute silliness, then go off for dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant with others. There are still a few more errands I need to run (i.e. I've only been able to fund one tube of Alba Terra Tints lip balm in 'Blaze' and that will not last me more than a couple of months so I'd like to buy another one, unfortunately almost every store in town seems to be out at the same time - I think I bought the last one in Manhattan.)

It's been a good trip back, though busy: a wedding, meetings, tea at the Waldorf Astoria, time with friends, restaurants (Ethiopian: Queen of Sheba; Indian: Madras Cafe and Curry in a Hurry; Mexican: a tiny place in Astoria whose name I forget even though they were good; Macrobiotic: Souen; New York bagels: 2nd Avenue Deli and Barney Greengrass; Vietnamese: Nha Trang; cheesecake: Junior's), a Broadway show (Nathan Lane is fantastic in David Mamet's new play November); shopping for clothes or other items that I can't easily find at a reasonable price in Beijing; and finding time on the subways and buses to read a copy of Katha Pollit's Virginity or Death that was waiting for me at the Tompkins Square branch of the New York Public Library when I arrived in town. There are people I didn't get to see, restaurants where I wasn't able to eat (how oh how did I not have dinner at Picholine while I was here?), and things I wasn't able to do but all in all it's been a good visit back.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Wired - or Not

It feels odd to me.

In Beijing I had regular access to the internet, either at friends' homes or in cafes. Here I am in NY, and my access to the internet is irregular. Most friends have wireless but not all. One apartment where I'm staying has none. I'm sitting in the Union Square Whole Foods to write this.

Two weeks sounds like a lot of time but it's not. I'm enjoying my trip, though I won't be able to see everyone whom I'd like to see - or eat at all the new restaurants I'd like to check out. The wedding that I'm here to attend is this evening and I'll see lots of friends there. Over the next week I'll see a few more people. Still, there isn't enough time to see everyone.

In a week I'll be on my way back to Beijing, where I'll have regular internet access again.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Cafe Triskell, Astoria, Queens

There's a little French cafe in Queens called Cafe Triskell, with a chef named Philippe Fallait from Brittany who makes the most amazing crepes, one by one. This morning I had a savory buckwheat crepe filled with Swiss cheese and covered with sauteed button mushrooms. The experience transported my tastebuds to Bretagne and they will now be loathe to ever again eat the doughy concoctions masquerading as crepes in most of the rest of the world.

Cafe Triskell is on 36th Avenue, between 31st and 32nd street, half a block away from the 36th Avenue stop on the N and W trains. If you aren't in the neighborhood it is well worth the trip out.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Back in New York City

I'm back in New York.

The flight went well. Continental appears to be the only major carrier that has not moved to Beijing's beautiful new terminal three restaurant/shopping/airplane extravaganza, so I flew out of terminal two. The airport security people were friendly and efficient; after a security guard had patted me down to ascertain that the only item I was carrying with metal was my heavy black leather boots she thanked me, said I was done and could step off of the stand and leave, I pointed at the carpet and said 'dirty,' she smiled, said 'sorry, one moment, please' and brought me my boots from the x-ray machine so that I could put them on before stepping off of the stand. That would never happen in the states

Continental is now giving metal cutlery with in-flight meal service. It's nice not to eat with flimsy plasticware. They also have a new inflight entertainment system, with several hundred movies, television programs and games from around the world, all starting or pausing at the touch of the screen on the seatback in front of you.

Customs and immigration were painless. It was under half an hour between when I walked off the plane and when I walked out of Newark airport. As I'm writing this I'm sitting on the shuttle bus back to Manhattan, where I'm going to drop my luggage with friends uptown before heading downtown to spend the night at the home of another friend. I'm feeling globally homeless right now, but in a good way.

Tonight: friends, kitty cats, and perhaps some pinball. Tomorrow: more friends, bagels, perhaps a concert. It's been a long time since I haven't had a home here. Now it's no longer completely home but it's definitely good to be back.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

New York Bound

Tomorrow I get on a plane to visit NY for two weeks. I'm excited to see friends, and to have a bagel. Sesame or pumpernickel, toasted, with cream cheese and novi. Yum.

Earthquake Damage

The latest that I'm hearing is that over 12,000 people have been killed and 60,000 people remain missing. There are reports of an entire town, north of the city of Wenchuan in Sichuan, disappearing. The Wolong panda reserve, close to the epicenter and home to 86 rare Giant Pandas, had still not been reached as of last night. Last night there was also heavy rain, creating mudslides, adding to the weight of the rubble, making search and rescue operations even more difficult. Some people in the area are posting to blogs that airlifts are the only way in right now.

Some schools and other buildings that are only ten years old collapsed, killing many, while buildings decades older neighboring them are still standing. This is raising questions about builders cutting corner to save costs and corrupt officials siphoning funding meant for public works for their own personal use.

Here in Beijing the people I know are sharing stories of what we know. Some of the first news is whether Chinese colleagues/friends/staff are affected.

One friend's ayi (the word literally means 'aunt,' but it is used in several ways here: to refer to female household staff (maids, nannies), or as a polite way to refer to a woman who is your mother's age - when I start playing with children their parents often tell them to say hello or wave to ayi, me) reached her family in Sichuan by telephone after many hours of trying to get through to learn that her husband and son were not injured and their home is still standing, but there is major structural damage. She said she wanted to return home to be with her family but her husband's response was "No, we don't need a girl. Send money." Women from rural areas can often earn more as household servants in the major eastern cities than their husbands can earn in construction, building or other tasks of physical labor, so leave their families to come east and send money home. Some women don't see their families for years, difficult under the best circumstances, but disaster such as this makes it much harder.

The Chinese government has committed over $52 million to earthquake relief, and is emphasizing that saving lives is their top priority. The Red Cross Society of China is also mobilizing to provide aid to those in need. The American Red Cross is accepting donations to support their efforts. Some local Chinese aid organizations are also collecting funds but I don't know about their reliability or their ability to access the area now to provide aid so I am refraining from posting their information.

Monday, May 12, 2008


This afternoon there was an earthquake in Wenchuan, in Sichuan province, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. At least 107 people have died, and almost 900 students were buried when their school collapsed. Minutes later there was another, measuring 3.9, in East Beijing. Friends in high rise office building had to evacuate their offices by stairs but most people on the ground didn't feel anything.

I was in the center of the city when the quakes occurred, walking through the Forbidden City, and found out about them through a text message from a friend. I hadn't experienced anything and was surprised to learn what had happened.

China's Premier, Wen Jiabao, flew down to Sichuan this afternoon to oversee rescue work.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Going to the Movies

Forbidden Kingdom, the new Jackie Chan-Jet Li pic, has been out for two weeks now and I really wanted to see it here in China. The cinema in Oriental Plaza shopping mall, on Dong chang 'an Jie right off of Wangfujing Dajie, is showing it with both Chinese and English subtitles. The mall is large, the equivalent of several blocks long, and on two floors. The cinema is towards the eastern side, on the lower level. Thursday afternoon I walked up to the cinema feeling oh-so-confident about being able to get a ticket easily. Hahahahahahaha.

The writing on the electronic display above the ticket counter was all in Chinese characters. Since I'm still illiterate, and likely will continue to be for quite some time, my hopes of getting into the movie were dampened. The only scrolling words not in Chinese were "English & Chinese subtitles" or "Chinese subtitles," depending on the cinema and the movie. There were no laowai (foreigners) around to ask for directions or help, and no one came up to me and asked in broken English if I wanted help. I was on my own.

Movie posters were displayed on the walls here, as in movie theaters worldwide. I walked up closely to see if any were for Forbidden Kingdom. No English. Just Chinese. One of the posters showed Jackie Chan and Jet Le, their familiar faces beaming out, in a scene that I've seen in the media. There were several Chinese characters written in large font on the poster. I analyzed the characters and made note of the most prominent features then turned back to the electronic display. The announcements under theaters one and three showed those characters, along with the words "Chinese and English subtitles." There was a screening at 13:20. The clock said 13:18.

I got on line to buy a ticket, loudly clearing my throat when someone tried to cut in line. They got behind me and watched the interactions of the two people in front of me with the ticket vendors while I waited. When it was my turn I said "Ye ge, ye, xiexie" (One (quantity), one, thank you), trying to communicate that I wanted one ticket, for theater one. The young lady brought the theater up on the tabletop screen so that I could choose my seat. The house was about half full, with all of the center seats taken, so I pointed to a place midway back through the house, on the side. The attendant told me the price, I gave her the money and she gave me my ticket. It was 70 RMB (approximately US$10), pricey for China. This is a modern theater in one of the most expensive areas of Beijing. Of course it was going to be pricey. I could have gone to a local neighborhood theater and paid less but the theater would have been dirty and the subtitles would only be in Chinese.

I took my ticket and walked to the escalators descending further underground. There was an attendant at the top who looked at my ticket, tore off part and returned the stub, then ushered me downstairs. When I stepped off of the escalator another attendant approached, looked at my ticket stub and pointed me to theater one. An attendant at the door again looked at my ticket then walked me inside and handed me to an usher who walked me to my seat. Commercials for cell phones and iced tea drinks were playing as I sat and made myself comfortable. After a few more ads, and a message from the state film board which I could not understand because everything other than the name of the agency was only written in Chinese, the opening credits began to roll.

The opening and closing scenes of the movie are set in South Boston. The conversation is in English. There were subtitles - both English and Chinese. They were good but not always accurate. It wasn't until later that I realized why - the English subtitles are translated from Chinese. This results in an English subtitle of "Will he be okay?" when the words spoken were actually "Is he going to be okay?" There were other places where there were similar errors. It didn't change the meaning by much but it affected the tone, and it would have been frustrating for someone learning English to try to follow along and not be able to match the sounds to the written words.

The entire movie was also subtitled in Chinese. There are many regional dialects across China, and while Putonghua (the so-called 'common language') is supposed to be used in schools and offices across the country there are many who do not speak it and cannot understand it. Movies and television shows broadcast in Chinese are all subtitled to enable people who don't understand Putonghua to follow along. The Chinese subtitles were placed just below the English subtitles on the screen but were obviously added on afterwards - at times they covered part of the English so that anyone trying to read them would have to make out the words by the top halves of the letters.

Forbidden Kingdom is a fun movie. I won't spoil your enjoyment by giving away the storyline but I will say that the movie is based on a Chinese story and there were some great kung foo scenes. There is also some gorgeous scenery. Go. Enjoy. And, enjoy the English subtitles.

Words Without Borders - China Edition

The online international literary journal Words Without Borders devoted their April issue to China. Take a few moments to read some of the short stories.