Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dragonboating - The View From the Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 28, 2008


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

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

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

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

Eating in Diplomatic Communities

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2008


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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2008


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

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

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

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Apple Store

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

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


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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ben & Jerry's

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Long and deep and hard - hai!

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

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

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

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

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

Jia you!

Thursday, July 10, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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