Friday, June 19, 2009

A Quiet Friday Night at Home

Life has been, busy. Full of work, school, friends, travel. Last night was my first quiet night in, my first Friday to relax by myself, in a couple of months. I stayed home, read, and around 11pm was lying on my bed thinking about sleep when I heard a flutter and a screech and saw something fly by.

There was a bat.

I quickly ran out of the room, book in hand, closed the door and went into the living room. What do I do? How do I say 'bat' in Chinese? (The last time I dealt with bats was in the Dominican Republic in 2005; I didn't know the Spanish word but when I said 'vampiro' my friend immediately knew that I meant the black things flying in the air all around us as I pulled her out of the ruins we had been exploring.)

My clothes, my computer and my phone were all in my bedroom, on the side of the door where the bat was flying around. I wasn't about to walk the streets of Beijing in my nightgown to look for animal contral. My flatmate and my best friend here are both out of the country right now. Even if I called the local version of 911 I wouldn't be able to tell them my emergency. Oops.

Using my towel as a shield, I carefully cracked open my bedroom door to peak in and watched as the bat flew in circles, apparently trying to find an exit. I'm not sure how it got into my room in the first place but suspect it's entrance would also be the best exit. I slipped my hand in through the crack in the door and turned the ceiling light off.

I settled in on the sofa for the night with my book (a collection of classic short stories by European and American writers), my towel as a cover, and a fresh glass of water from the kitchen. This morning my room was quiet. I'm sitting on my bed now. There's no evidence of the bat. I hope it found an escape. Tonight I'll put my computer in the living room, just in case my visitor is still here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fast Trains and Google Maps

I now travel several times a month for work. Last week when I flew to Shanghai I landed at Pudong Airport, where I was able to take the maglev high-speed train to downtown Pudong, in only eight minutes. The train reaches a speed over 440 km/hr for about two seconds before starting to decelerate, and a group of passengers stood in front of the digital display, cameras in hand, ready to snap their photos when the train reach its peak speed. This evening I needed to reach Beijing Capital Airport quickly because of time constraints so I took the bullet train from Dongzhimen station in downtown Beijing. The 20 minute trip, covering a shorter distance than the Pudong run, was not nearly so comfortable and wouldn't have saved me much time at all if it hadn't been rush hour and I'd had a good driver.

When my flight reaches its destination tonight I'm prepared to tell a cab driver the city where I want to go, about an hour away, and I have the phone number of my hotel and a pdf copy of a map as backup. The original plan had been for a driver to pick me up from the airport and drive me to the hotel, but the cost turned out to be exorbitant. Last week I sheepishly asked an assistant to email me a copy of the hotel address and a Google map, with all information in Hanzi (Chinese characters), just in case of a last minute change in plans. When a colleague called tonight to ask if I'd have a problem getting from the airport to my final destination by taxi instead of limo I was able to tell her not to worry, I was prepared. Long live contingency plans!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Best View in Shanghai

This week I'm in Shanghai for a conference. After today's sessions I headed into downtown Pudong for some exploration. The area has changed extensively since I last walked along the waterfront in 2005. Then there were some skyscrapers and many cranes, part of the construction boom. The cranes are still there, but there are many more tall buildings.

One of the most eyecatching is the 88 story Jin Mao Tower, completed in 1999. Like many landmark buildings in Asia, the bottom floors are used for retail space. Office space inhabits the floors above that. Floors 54 and above are used for the Grand Hyatt Hotel, with a bar named Cloud 9 on the 87th floor.

Quiet and sleak luxury is the general feeling when you walk into the space. The decor plays second fiddle to the view of the Shanghai riverfront and the nearby Oriental Pearl Tower, and acknowledges that with understated elegance. At 9:30pm I was one of a handful of people in the bar area, though tables around the corner from us were filled with couples and small groups of friends. The bartender knew what he was doing an made a perfect dirty martini, with just a hint of vermouth.

It was a lovely evening.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Blue Skies

Beijing has had blue skies for the last several days. More than usual. It's lovely.

Yesterday I ran into a friend and we both remarked on the beautiful day that was beckoning us outside, and that we've seen more beautiful days this year than we did last year. We're not the only ones who have noticed the trend.

The economic downturn has resulted in fewer exports from China, which has caused factories all around the country, including the areas around Beijing, to shut down. Fewer factories mean less emissions. And blue skies.

We're enjoying the blue skies.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sunshine and Joy

Springtime is here, for real, at long last.

Heat in most (non-luxury) Beijing buildings was turned off on March 15. While we had a couple of warm days after that we've spent most of the last week with low temperatures, shivering in our apartments. I've been sleeping with my electric space heater on high, heavy wool socks on my feet and a second comforter on my bed.

Today, however, spring has sprung. I broke out a new linen shirt that I had seamstress make for me, based on another shirt that I brought from the U.S. last year, rode a bicycle to run an errand, then met a friend and her two young children for lunch at a hidden noodle bar for lunch, with the sunshine streaming through the window.

We don't know the name of the place, only that to enter it you need to go into an unmarked door off of a back alley, but the noodles were fresh and delicious, and mine came with eggplant and green peppers. Afterward, we went for iced tea and played with the children before taking a short walk in the sun.

Last week I bought several plants for the apartment, in an attempt to counter some small part of the pollution that I am breathing. A lavender plant and two small cacti for my bedroom, a lemon balm plan for the living room. By Wednesday the lemon balm was wilting. At first I thought it didn't like the cold so I brought it into my bedroom (I have a space heater going at night, since it's been quite cold for the last couple of weeks), but Thursday it was even worse. Ayi (cleaning woman) put it on the patio, but it still got worse. Yesterday I was showing it to my language tutor, who had seen it healthy and lush after i bought it, and realized that it was light. I watered it last week but apparently not enough. The poor thing was dry as a bone. I gave it a pitcher of water and by the time I got home from pizza and movie night at a friend's house it was looking much better. This morning it appeared back on the track to providing lots of leaves for lemon mint tea this season. I had to cull a bunch of leaves but I'm glad I managed to save it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Never a Dull Moment

The new job is going well so far. Challenging. Interesting. Good people.

This week I visited three different cities, in different provinces, and attended six banquets. It's now shortly after 1am on a Friday night and I just arrived home after a day of long meeting in Chinese, banquet, an exhibit tour on renewable energy, and five company tours. Saw some amazing things (like how the blades for wind power turbines are made, solar powered hot water heater construction, and how geothermal heating units work) that I'm excited to share and help develop. Another banquet. Drove for three hours of a six hour drive home, on American-built highways with toll booths situated regularly, then napped in the backseat while my interpreter/colleague drove the rest of the way and chatted with our coworkers.

It's good to be home. Now I'm going to get some sleep before getting up for class at 9am. This is a school weekend. NEXT weekend I get to sleep in.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Life Keeps Getting Better

If you've been questioning my sanity in moving to China without a job lined up, or for turning down positions that were offered but did not interest me, I invite you to relax: I have an amazing job.

Against my better judgment, last summer I posted my resume to one of the more promising local job boards, called Matchdragon. In January I received an email from someone who found my resume online and was interested in talking with me about a position with a major international NGO (Non-Governmental Organization), working in economic development, clean energy and finance. At first it sounded too good to be true, so I did some research and asked friends in Beijing and around the world with connections to the NGO if they had any knowledge of the particular group or of the position. A week after, late Friday afternoon, I went for my first interview. One friend had advised me that interviews within this organization tend to emphasize teamwork, intercultural awareness, technology and several other issues, which helped me to be prepared with appropriate discussion points.

I had already planned a trip to the U.S. for the following week, which I mentioned. Tuesday evening, when I arrived in the U.S., I received an email notifying me that I was chosen for the second interview, to take place several days after I returned to China. I met the head of the office and we discussed the position and my background.

Last Sunday afternoon I received a phone call officially offering me the position. Monday morning I started working, and late in the week I went on my first official trip - to be followed by many others. I need to improve my Chinese drastically, and I've already started telling people that I'm allergic to alcohol (to avoid having to drink endless rounds of baijiu (a local hard liquor)), but the people in my office are smart and motivated, and I'm going to be doing a lot of work in areas that interest me.

Balancing work and school is going to be a challenge but I am thrilled by the wonderful opportunities I am encountering here and the work I will be doing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Beijing is not a city that sees a lot of snow. Even if I didn't already know that fact from having seen the seasons change, I would have known it from watching the city this evening.

This morning I woke as the sun was rising to the sight of fluttery white snowflakes sneaking past my window, disappearing before the hit the ground. An hour later I went out to walk in this most tangible sign of winter and to feel the flakes on my eyelashes as I walked down Sanlitun Jiubajie, the ground wet with the melted memory of the freeze. By noon it had stopped.

This evening I sat in a conference room with fifty others, listening to a presentation on international trade. At one point I glanced past the window and saw flurries (actual snow flurries!). By the time we walked out of the building after class there was snow on the ground. Not enough to build a snowman, almost a centimeter, but it was still enough to catch on our shoes and make people wearing shoes with no grip thing about snowboots.

A friend gave me a ride home. As her driver navigated through traffic that was curiously slow for that hour of the evening we watched as cars slid on the rode. A city bus rolled past us, pulled by a tow truck. Drivers here are not used to the wet, even if only rain, and that fact is aggravated by the lack of any traction on most tires.

I'm home now, cuddled up in cashmere, with the humidifier blowing moisture into the air and a cup of tea by my bedside. It would be lovely to see snow again in the morning, but for now I'm happy to have seen my first real Beijing snowfall.

Friday, February 13, 2009


After lunch on Thursday some friends and I retreated to a nearby cafe for tea and conversation, including a brief overview of what I ate while I was in the U.S. and what I brought back in my suitcase. No one was surprised to hear that I had bagels with me.

In addition to bagels, clothes, shampoo and lotion, I brought back four books: Joy of Cooking (a version issued prior to the inclusion of microwave directions), two poetry anthologies, and my high school copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, the writing guide known and loved by many. The conversation turned to WHY I would need or want it while in China.

Here, much of the English that we read is poorly written, grammatically incorrect, riddled with syntax errors and misspellings. It's annoying, and gets in the way of understanding meaning, but it's something with which we have to deal. Unfortunately, it also results in our writing getting sloppy.

A Venezuelan friend who spent many years in the U.S. commented that her native English-speaking friends had commented on her command of the language deteriorating during her time here. Other friends laughed as we told similar stories. I noted that I've caught myself sending emails with dangling participles and incorrect use of its/it's. We know better.

Long live The Elements of Style, and clear writing.

Back in Beijing

Wednesday night I arrived back to Beijing after a three week whirlwind tour of the east coast - five U.S. states, many relatives and friends. I didn't get to spend time with everyone I would have liked but I was able to see a lot of people. I also at a lot of great food: grilled oysters in Florida, a burrito at my favorite dive Mexican place in the East Village, Goan food on Second Avenue, bagels on the upper east side and in Queens, seared sea scallops at Cafe Des Artistes.

Beijing welcomed me back by embracing me with a gray sky and heavy air. My lungs felt tight as I walked to and from yoga class Thursday morning, but rain fell (for the first time in 110 days) while I was at lunch with friends (Hua Jia Ya Yuan on Gui Jie, Ghost Street, for shui zhu yu, carp wrapped in foil, pumpkin medallions and plum juice), clearing the way for easier breathing and a blue sky today.

When I went to the police station on Thursday to register my presence (required within 24 hours of arrival if you are in an urban area) I was told to come back today, which I did. I presented my passport and a copy of the form from the last time I registered, and the police woman entered my information into the computer. She then gave me the new computer-generated form (in triplicate) and asked me to look it over. The form includes information for the date by which you are required to leave China. My current visa allows me to stay in-country for up to 120 days after each entry, which means I need to leave for a day or longer before the middle of June. The form had an August date, probably due to a typo, showing that I can stay for 180 days. I got the attention of the officer and explained that I have a 120 day visa, 180 days would be lovely but it's longer than I'm allowed to stay on my current documents. She looked, confirmed that there was an error, made a manual correction and had her colleage double stamp it, then handed me my copy of the form. My required exit date was still incorrect, which I pointed out. We both laughed and she apologized as she corrected it manually on my form, which I would need to show to a police officer, along with my passport, if I were stopped in public and they requested it.

Glad to know that I haven't forgotten all of my Putonghua in the time I was away.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Zhege...he nege...Financial Crisis

My MBA group is in Financial Management class right now. Good professor, interesting material. The class is approximately half Chinese, half expats from around the world.

I love listening to the different discussions. It's now breaktime and I just told the classmates sitting and chatting behind me how much I enjoy hearing long streams of Chinese broken up by financial terms in English.

Zhege..(Chinese, Chinese, Chinese) discount rate....(Chinese, Chinese, Chinese) financial crisis....

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Cold and Colder

Winter is here, and Beijing has been cold enough to keep all but the hardiest and most well insulated Beijingers indoors recently. My apartment is well-heated (thank you to the Soviet building engineers and builders who put up the five story complex in the 1960s), and I can sit indoors in a tank top and shorts while watching people shiver in their jackets outside.

Tomorrow morning I'll leave my warm cocoon to head further north, up near the border to Siberia, to Harbin - a city known for its brutal winters. My friends and I plan to see classical Russian architecture, visit a Siberian tiger preserve, drink vodka and take part in the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, an annual event featuring full-sized buildings designed out of blocks of ice lit from within.

Hand and footwarmers are already packed. Several are located in my carry-on bag so that I can access them easily before we leave the plane on our arrival.

Girl Kill Girls and Sainkho Namtchylak

Girl Kill Girls are an all-girl Chinese rock group, and Sainkho Namchylak is a 50-something singer with a seven-octave range who is a world renowned throat singer from Tuva. Last night Girl Kill Girls opened for Sainkho at Yugong Yishan, a popular Beijing nightspot where I've gone in the past for film screenings and parties with DJs I know, to a crowd made up mostly of Chinese fans.

Girl Kill Girls have a strong stage presence and play well with and off of one another. The three young women are all professionals, their music has a lot of energy and it was easy to imagine them filling larger houses. Lyrics were in both Chinese and a heavily accented and at times difficult to understand English. Their music has influences of Boston area girl-groups the Breeders and Belly, and at times they were reminiscent of the Bangles or Shonen Knife.

With a career spanning decades that has taken her around the world, Sainkho is a down-to-earth matriarch in whose glow the entire audience basked. She started her performance with some traditional throat singing, reminiscent of what you've heard on NPR in the past, then moved into a blend of throat singing and vocalization using her entire vocal range, with instrumentalization provided by a young male accompaniest/DJ working from a MacBook and a turntable. At times her music felt like it came straight from a rave hall, at other times it was out of a dream. The crowd loved it and demostrated their appreciation through enthusiastic applause, which is rare here.