Sunday, December 5, 2010

Funds Transfer

Lesson learned: When filling out a form at the bank in China, do not put an 'X' in any box. The correct way to indicate your choice is to use a checkmark. Using an 'X' results in having to fill out a new form.

Filling out forms at the bank always takes more time than you want, especially in China. Today I had to fill out a number of forms. This was the first time I've transferred funds from China to an account in the U.S. I did it without an interpreter, but relied heavily on assistance from a bank employee who speaks English. I was only allowed to transfer US$500, which I was told is the daily limit, and the staff recommended that in the future I have a Chinese friend do the transfer for me. They said there is not a limit on the amount Chinese nationals can transfer.

The process took over an hour, in part because of the language barrier. The woman who was helping me explained that this branch doesn't do transfers very often so the staff took extra time because they are unfamiliar with the process. In the future I may just ride my bicycle to a larger branch, five minutes away, where they do more international transfers, and save myself a lot of time in the bank.

I gave the bank the SWIFT code, A.B.A. and account numbers for the U.S. account where I want my funds transferred, an address for the bank and a phone number, as well as my address in New York. They told me the money should be in my U.S. account in two to three days. If it works it will be faster than some U.S. to U.S. bank transfers.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Beijing Marathon

The Beijing Marathon was this morning. Thirty thousand runners started at Tiananmen Square and ran through Dongcheng, Xidan and Haidian districts before finishing the race in the Olympic Village.

The conditions today are cool, wet and blustery. That didn't stop people from standing at the side of the road and cheering though. The route passed right in front of my building. After watching the first runners from the warmth of my kitchen I bundled up and went outside to cheer for the non-elite runners and add my voice to the mix of fans yelling jia you. There were athletes wearing jerseys from the U.S., Italy and Thailand, as well as a number of Chinese universities. A small group of students from China Agricultural University and I stood together to cheer - they told me the names of the Chinese universities and I told them, in Chinese, the countries of the foreign runners wearing their countries' names in English (or Italian).

For the first several hours the roads were closed to vehicle traffic, other than the buses that picked up injured or over-tired runners. At 11:30 the cars started coming. The last runners didn't pass by until noon though, making it a dangerous spot for the back of the pack. After the road blocks came down the cheering squad and I went and stood first by the road, then on the sidewalk to cheer runners from close up and hand out bottles of water that we took from the race organizers, since the hydrating stations had been taken down. One foreign runner asked where I was from - he was another New Yorker.

Jia you and congratulations to all the runners! They did a great job!

Sunday, October 17, 2010


The temperature yesterday was chilly enough to keep most dragonboat paddlers away from practice, even though the air quality was not bad. A few of us did show up for practice though, followed by a lazy end of season dinner at a local noodle house we started visiting this year.

Instead of our usual routine on the water we hung out on dry land at the boat house and kicked a shuttlecock around. We were perfectly happy doing that until a news crew for CNC, a Chinese-owned news channel that broadcasts overseas, showed up and asked to get footage of us on the water. After a few looks at one another we decided to oblige. The British reporter asked me a few questions on camera then we untied a boat, got our small (seven-person) crew loaded and helped the reporter get comfortable in sitting at the front of the boat. We did a few circles around the lake with her before dropping her back on dry land. She was surprised at how fast we move and was curious about our team when I explained how many of our expat members previously paddled on teams in their home countries.

There were only a couple of other small boats on the lake so we had a clear practice ground and took the boat down under the bridge to Qianhai, the smaller lake just south of Houhai, the southernmost of the three lakes that make up the Shichahai area. I stopped paddling for a few moments out of shock - the water was the cleanest I'd ever seen it, we could see the bottom of the lake in some places. Under the bridge the water is fairly shallow. There's lots of seagrass, which I expected, but there were also bottles, credit cards, plastic bags and even a few children's toys partially buried in the mud. After we paddled around the island once we headed back up to Houhai and the boathouse in the dark.

Many of the trees in the area are willow trees, but the Gold Sailing Boathouse also has a pomegranate tree on their grounds. While relaxing and warming up for a few minutes inside a few of us shared one of the freshest pomegranates I've ever eaten. The seeds were bright red and tasted amazing.

Paddling and the cold temperature piqued our appetite for a good dinner, which last night mean Zhajiangmian, or Old Beijing style noodles, tossed with a soybean paste sauce and vegetables. We also ordered several of our other favorite dishes: textured tofu in a sweet sauce with peanuts, radish salad, shredded cabbage with jellyfish, small fried fish that are lightly battered and served with a cumin powder dip and one of my favorites: green beans fried with garlic, Sichuan peppercorns and chili peppers. Yum!

While we waited for our meal we enjoyed a snack the one of the guys bought from a street vendor: roasted chestnuts. The only time I'd eaten chestnuts before last night was in Paris in 1993, and I hadn't like them: they'd tasted bitter. Everyone was digging in last night though so I tried one. They were much sweeter than the ones I ate in Paris, and meatier. Totally worth the effort to peel.

A good practice on and off the water with teammates. Great food. Perfect afternoon.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sunday, Cloudy Sunday

The Mid-Autumn Festival is over and temperatures are dropping. Houhai (the lake where my dragonboat team practices) will freeze over soon and our practice season will be over. This afternoon will probably be one of our last paddling sessions for 2010. We've had clear blue skies all week but today the skies are grey.

We'll still paddle today though. The weather is grey but the air quality is 'Moderate' according to the U.S. Embassy's Twitter feed. Last Sunday the 'Air Quality Index was over 300, which counts as 'Hazardous,' but the pea-soup quality of the air when we looked out our windows made that obvious. It was the worst I remember it for months, if not this year, and we canceled our dragonboat practice.

Today we paddle under a cloudy sky. Jia you!

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Last week I had a wonderful reminder that we should never assume that people don't understand what we are saying in English.

I was taking the Line 13 subway train from Dongzhimen, near my apartment, up to Wudaokou, the university and technology hub of Beijing. It was crowded when I got on but I was able to get a seat and started reading, glad for the comfort of the air-conditioning in this ridiculous heat wave. After a few minutes I heard two people speaking English but ignored it...until I heard the woman say "You look so good in that T-shirt, I could totally do you." Her tone was pure comedy, and it caught my attention. As I started to laugh they both looked over, appalled to realize that they weren't the only foreigners on the train.

Nice couple. They were going to the same station so we chatted the rest of the way, about life in China, politics, language...and never assuming that people won't understand what you say.

Silent Spring

This morning I attended the opening session of the 3rd annual World Environmental Conference, held at the Asia Hotel on Gongti Beilu in Beijing. Like many conferences here, it was a showcase for Chinese officials to discuss what they are doing and what the goals are. One Chinese official, Cheng Siwei (成思危), Vice Chairman of the 9th and 10th National People's Conference Standing Committee, surprised me by referring to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's 1962 classic that was an alarm bell for the environmental movement. He mentioned the book as one of the first calls for action and environmental sustainability, and went on to say that we need to change our path, on a global scale.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Summer in the City

Beijing is in the middle of a summer heat wave, just like most other major cities in the northern hemisphere. Last month we had several days in a row in which temperatures hit 40 Celsius, over 100 Fahrenheit. Few people I know like the weather this warm. In Beijing, the discomfort is due to more than just the temperature. It's hot, it's humid, and it's polluted.

Prior to the Olympics, the Chinese government limited traffic in Beijing and closed factories close to the city in an effort to improve air quality during the games. That was my first summer here, but friends who have lived here for years tell me that the number of blue sky days was higher than in recent years.

Blue sky days. Those are the days when we look up and the sky is blue, with perhaps a few clouds in the sky. We've had a good number of them this year, but we've also had periods over a week long when the sky was just gray and we could tell it wasn't due to the weather. In the morning you can usually look outside and see what the weather will look like, but there's also a Twitter feed that broadcasts information on the air quality in Beijing. Twitter, like Facebook, blogs and other social media, is blocked within China but some people are still able to access it to get the latest information on the air quality. We can use this information to moderate our exposure to the pollution, limiting our time outside on days when the air quality is bad and spending more time outdoors on days when the air quality is good.

Today is a a blue sky day and the air quality is good. I'm going to go sit under a tree by a canal near my apartment and read. I hope you can go and spend time outdoors with safe air too.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What Color is Your Hat?

Last week was Duanwu Jie, known in English as Dragonboat Festival. To celebrate I traveled to Miluo, Hunan Province, with the Beijing International Dragonboat Team to compete in their annual competition. Miluo is famous as being the birthplace of Duanwu Jie, during the Tang Dynasty, where the government official and poet/philosopher Qu Yuan jumped into the Miluo River from the shame of being accused of corruption by jealous, and corrupt, colleagues. The local people respected and admired Qu, so they took to their boats and tried to save him. When time passed they tried to prevent his body from being eaten by fish by throwing rice into the river. This eventually turned into the annual tradition of dragonboat races and eating zongzi, cooked rice covered in bamboo leaves.

My team had traveled to Miluo last year as well, and competed in nonstop rains, so this year we had some idea of what to expect. There were 11 teams, nine Chinese team and two 'international' teams. My Beijing team, composed of paddlers from China, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, is proud to be able to travel around China and compete against local Chinese teams and international teams from Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Singapore and other places.

In Miluo this year the other international team was made up of foreigners living and working in Changsha. Their paddlers came from Pakistan, Iran, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Kenya, Gambia and other countries. Their captain, a friendly Iranian man who lives in Changsha, is married to a local woman and runs an Arabic restaurant there. He caught my attention, and that of a few others, because he was wearing a black scarf, decorated with large green marijuana leaves, on his head. China has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drugs, and I've read in the papers of foreigners being put to death for drug dealing or use, so I was surprised to see the marijuana leaf design being worn so openly. One of my teammates asked about it. Apparently, the Chinese don't care about the design. The headwear does generate comments though. The local custom is that men will wear a green hat when their wife is cheating on them. It's a low-drama way to draw attention to the situation and cause shame.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World Cup

The games are on.

In Beijing, crowds assemble in the evening in open spaces with large electronic displays. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs have either televisions or projectors screening the matches on walls. Friday night I attempted to walk home from the subway by cutting through The Village shopping mall in Sanlitun, which has a large open plaza in the middle. I had to walk around the tightly packed crowd gazing up at the monitor that usually displays the latest fashions in stock at local shops or listings for the cinema in the basement.

Last night friends and I started out the evening with dinner at Vineyard, a British-owned cafe, where diners glanced up at the game on the television. From there we went to an Italian cafe, Aperitivo, where we had espresso or aperitivos as the Argentina-Nigeria game started amidst cheers and groans. After greeting other friends there we made our way to nightclub Kokomo, where friends were DJing and we planned to spend the rest of the night dancing to mark the summertime departure of a good friend. A projector had been strung above the dancefloor using wire, a piece of flat cardboard or plastic to hold the projection unit, and plastic twine to hold it all in place. A group of Beijing's Nigerian residents danced while watching the end of the game, which their country lost.

When the US-England match started a group of people placed themselves on the dancefloor so that we'd have optimal viewing positions. Cheers went up when England scored their goal, minutes into the game, and everyone knew who supported which team. At some point some dancers knocked the projector out of position when they had their arms raised. Groans went through the crowd as we tried to watch the action now displayed against the speakers or the top of the DJ's head. There was widespread relief when the projector was shifted back into its optimal placement, in time for everyone to watch U.S.A. score against England and bring the match to a tie.

Last night, even more than usual, the question everyone asked new acquaintances was 'where are you from?". The World Cup celebrations, and citywide displays of national pride by Beijing's many groups of foreigners, will continue until July 11.

Monday, May 31, 2010


The time difference between New York and Beijing is 12 hours. It takes longer than a day or two to adjust to the time change.

Physical activity and sunshine help immensely, but I know from experience that it is possible to fall asleep while in the middle of an afternoon 3,000 meter dragonboat competition. Still, pushing through and remaining mostly upright until after dark helps move my wake-up time past 3am.

When in America...

There are things we take for granted in any country. This includes what passes for manners. When we go somewhere else for an extended period of time our norms change. I had to remind myself of this as I recently returned to the U.S. for several weeks.

When in America:
  • Tip the waitstaff in restaurants - in the U.S., restaurant waitstaff earn low salaries, tips are an important part of their renumeration.
  • Do NOT loudly yell 'fuwuyuan' when you want the server's attention in a restaurant. It's considered rude. Catch their eye and wave. Say 'excuse me, miss/sir' if you need to use your voice.
  • Used toilet paper should go in the toilet and be flushed, not placed in the garbage. Plumbing pipes used in the U.S. are wider and do not (usually) clog when toilet paper is flushed. Used toilet paper in the trash can is considered unhygienic.
  • Americans have and use voice mail. If someone does not answer their phone we can leave a voice message with the information we wanted to deliver and they can then call us back at their convenience.
  • People of European descent are not called 'foreigners', 'laowai', 'waiguoren' or 'foreigner'. Usually they are called 'American' or 'local', unless they are a tourist.
  • Most people understand English, whatever the color of their passport or their skin. Be mindful of what you say when other people are within earshot.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Springtime in Beijing

The snow and ice are gone, the temperature has changed from freezing to scorching in a matter of weeks, and there are huge white balls of fluffy pollen in the air outside of my window everyday. Springtime is officially here.

So far, springtime means bicycling through the hutongs, sitting at sidewalk cafes eating ice cream sundaes or slurping pots of Beijing yoghurt and dragonboating. Recently we've even had a string of blue sky days, perfect for bicycling across town and up through the university campuses in Haidian and looking at fountains in the park.

My plans for dragonboat paddling practice tonight were changed at the last moment - due to a spring downpour. Lightning and open water sports don't mix.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

春节快乐! Chunjie kuai le! Happy Spring Festival!

Today is Chinese New Year, also the beginning of the weeklong Spring Festival (Chunjie/春节). Fireworks abound and many of Beijing's masses have left the cities to visit family and friends in their home villages. Those of us who are here are celebrating by spending time with friends, visiting temple fairs and avoiding the omnipresent explosives. Last night, as midnight loomed, there was over an hour of nonstep blasts as neighbors set off their fireworks to mark the new year. Some were colorful and bright, all were loud.

This is the year of the Tiger. Roar!