Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I appreciate being able to log on to my blog and Facebook without setting up the VPN. I appreciate being able to brush my teeth and drink the tap water. I appreciate being able to cross the street. I appreciate seeing holiday lights that aren't pink and purple. I even appreciate channel surfing.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Homeward Bound

Just as the new apartment is completely set up and the cat is somewhat settled, I’m heading off to the States for Christmas. In some ways, it feels too soon to be going home since I didn’t get here until the end of Halloween. In other ways, though, I’m very much looking forward to:

  • an Internet that actually works
  • snack foods that don’t taste like shrimp or seaweed
  • seeing the family that didn’t decamp to China
  • hanging out with friends
  • drinking good wine
  • directions all in English
  • ravioli, cavatelli, and my sister’s braciole.

I’m also actually looking forward to the 13-hour plane ride since it will be the first real down time I’ve had in months. That might sound odd to folks who tell me they could never travel that long in the economy seats, but I figure it’s like this: I won’t be lugging a terrified cat, I won’t be feeling any deadline pressure, and I’ve got a well-stocked Kindle and iPad. Maybe my expectations have diminished somewhat – thinking in particular of just how excited I was to buy a box of Swiss Miss hot chocolate in April Gourmet – but that just makes me appreciate everything a little bit more.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two If By Sea

We got our sea shipment on Monday and it was a glorious moment. There were my boots, my potholders, my comforter for my bed, my dining room table. It was like a reunion of old friends and the only moment that caught my heartstrings was when one of the movers pulled out a picture of my parents.

I also learned a little something about my priorities: I spent much of the day organizing my kitchen. I thought I might be diving into my box of boots, but instead I was figuring out where the enormous quantity of bakeware, serving platters, dishes, and spices should all go. I can’t even express how happy I am to see my curry powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, parsley.  I could probably find most of this stuff in Beijing but it would be a matter of sniffing and guessing.

Our apartment is lovely, even if the bed turned out to be kind-sized, which means our sheets don’t fit, and there’s a really bad smell coming from Joanna’s bathroom. These are small matters. What’s great is that our new sectional sofa looks custom-matched to our rug, and the Asian-themed coffee table that Bob’s parents had made back in the 1960s fits very well with the rest of the furniture.

We’re closer to the ground floor on floor 3, but we look out onto a play area that has tiled walls that remind me of Barcelona, and is surrounded by trees.

We also laughed at some of the decisions we made back in August. We didn’t need blankets for the beds, apparently, but we have enough yarmulkes for a country-wide Passover.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Good and the Bad

Living in China certainly has its downsides.
Getting around, for instance, is a hassle. Taxi drivers do not speak English. They are usually not from Beijing which means that they know the city even less than you do. If their cab is pointing north, they refuse to go south. If their cab is pointing west, they refuse to go east. If you’re the last fare of the day, you’re probably not going in the right direction.

Washing machines exist, but dryers are a rarity. In the temporary apartment, our washer actually has the ability to dry clothes too. Instead of turning the button to the right for washing, you turn it left for drying. But if you have more than a couple of shirts in there, two cycles of the “dryer” won’t do the trick. After two cycles (and we’re talking a good hour each time), I hang the clothes up on a rack for the final drying. It’s a multi-step process. You can’t imagine how much I miss my good old American washer and dryer.

Dishwashers. I’m the dishwasher. Hard to find an automatic one in a Beijing apartment, unless you count the ayi. But she comes only twice a week (yes, I know how that sounds) and I do the dishes the rest of the time. It’s not terrible, but it is one more thing to do.

The air. Even when the sun is out, I can tell by that little tickle in the back of my throat that the air quality is “very unhealthy.” Thinking of volunteering my services to the American embassy’s Twitter account.

The good stuff is a nice compensation, though.
For example, there’s Mr. Mu, my sometime driver. Mr. Mu specializes in taking around journalists – I got his name from a photographer who shoots for the NY Times – and speaks very good English. He’s super nice as well, and we had a conversation the other night about Christmas traditions in the U.S. He mainly wanted to know how much time people got off.

Awesome street food. Bob and I just had this amazing treat. Start with an 18-inch crepe, crack an egg over that. Chop up the egg so that it kind of cooks into the batter. Toss on cilantro and chopped scallions. Flip it over. Put on some brown sauce and some red peppers. Add lettuce (this may have been a mistake – but so far, so good). Put on a long, flat rice cake. Fold half the crepe up over, cut the rice cake, fold again. The result is a delicious sort of breakfast sandwich for 4 quai (63 cents). It was so huge that Bob and I split it and I won’t feel hungry for the rest of the day.

The service sector is pretty impressive. I ordered theater tickets for a play when I first got here, and they wanted to know where they should deliver them.

And yesterday, Joanna and I went to get manicures. As we were leaving, the owner came over to tell us that the manicure place, which is also a coffee shop and a bar, would come to our apartment to do manis and pedis, at no extra cost. Manicures cost 70 quai, which is $11. So I could get a pedicure while eating pizza and drinking beer, or a mani and a mojito. Imagine what something like that would cost in the States, if it were even available.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Qi Effect

I got cupped today.
At this moment, 14 circles decorate my back, larger ones following my spine, smaller ones filling in the gaps everywhere else. I’m working on a story about traditional Chinese medicine, and decided that I need to experience cupping if I was going to write about it.

Actually, that’s not true. Joanna and Bob decided that I needed to experience cupping. I was perfectly happy to be an observer. But they convinced me that I needed to go and do it myself. Not that they were around to hold my hand through the process.

In any event, my TCM “fixer” took me to a place with a name as long as the procedure itself: the Beijing Traditional Chinese Medicine Health Preservation Research Center: the BJTCMHPRC. Really, that’s what it says on the card of the director. There’s something to be said for trying to get a job at a place where your card reads, in part, BJTCM.

But I digress. When we showed up for an appointment at 2 today, I knew it was going to be a long afternoon, because nothing the Chinese do is quick and easy. We sat down with the director for tea. We took a detailed, painstaking tour of the entire facility. Every room, including the loo. And then I was diagnosed by two TCM doctors, who held my wrist to check my pulse and asked me to show them my tongue.

You’re tired, the first guy said to me (in Chinese, translated by another person). Yes, I’m tired, I answered. (I’m thinking: I’m middle-aged, I’ve just moved halfway around the world, I’ve been living out of a suitcase since August. YES. I AM TIRED. But I just nodded. This politeness I feel cajoled into makes me even more tired.)

Do you have digestive problems? he asked.

Do you get warm easily? Not especially, I answered.
What about getting cold easily? Okay, I said. Yes, I get cold. (Let’s remember, though, that a Beijing December is bone-chilling cold.)

The next doctor did the same with my pulse and my tongue.
Are you tired? He asked.
My husband snores, I answered.

Do you have digestive problems?
NO. My digestive system is fine.

Maybe you have digestive problems but you don’t realize it yet, suggested my TCM fixer. Hard to know how to answer that without getting incredibly scatalogical.

In any event, the solution to all this was a tuina massage followed by cupping. I had come for the cupping but agreed to the massage.

This was a different sort of massage, more of a pressing and a pressure-point poking than an oily, clothes-off massage. And yet it ended up feeling pretty good, since it lasted an hour, and I nearly fell asleep. I guess I am tired. In fact, it was so relaxing that I think if the doctor had next set me on fire, I don’t think I would have cared.

Instead, he had me lift up my shirt in the back, unhook my bra, and wait. Before I had a chance to get nervous, I felt a gentle pressure along my back, one after the other. I lost count of how many. Then the nurse put a warm blanket over the cups, and I half-dozed on the couch. Even though my skin was being pulled up into the cups, it didn’t hurt.

After about ten minutes, she pulled the cups off. A nearby photographer showed me the results: pink and red circles all over my back. Quite the effect.

I had another cup of tea, chatted more, paid for the treatment (400 quai, which is about $75), and walked home, getting lost in the windy dark.

By the time I walked into the apartment, I felt dizzy and weak and really really tired. If my qi had been blocked before and that had caused fatigue, I don’t know what’s happened to it now. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Virtual GNO

Five of my best friends – Jennifer, Susan, Alka, Anne, and Shelley – had the audacity to hold a girls’ night out even though I’m in China. The occasion was the D.C. arrival of Alka from Delhi, one of the Asia members of our far-flung gang. (I’m the other one.)

In any event, I logged onto Skype to call my mother, and there was a little green light on Jen’s account, and there they were, sitting around a table at Guapo’s, drinking margaritas, and all talking at once. And there I was sitting in my Beijing apartment in sweatshirt and sweatpants, with mussy hair and feeling as much a part of the group as ever.

They passed Jennifer’s iPhone around the table and we all talked about all sorts of things. I watched them sipping their drinks, tallying up the bill, and laughing.

Coffee is no substitute for tequila and being there in person is no substitute for a Skype chat, but it was certainly better than nothing at all. Real time contact, evening or morning or both, makes being on the other side of the globe in some ways not nearly as remote.

And a Hair Update

It could have been worse. I've always wondered what I would look like with red hair.

And By the Way

Smudge is healed. Whatever she sprained seems to have been a temporary thing. I think she overheard me talking about trying out acupuncture on her.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

More Adventures in Hair Coloring

Don't look for any photographic evidence of what I am about to describe.

But I do want to remind folks of my June adventure in which I decided to try out a Chinese hair salon for coloring. Despite my best attempts at pointing at a moderate brown color for my hair, I ended up with Party Leader Black. It looked kind of goth, which is not a look that works well for a 54-year-old Italian with sleep issues, so I immediately went out and bought a box of hair color to try to rectify the mistake. Then I went from Party Leader Black to Black-Red. Nice people said they liked the change. They were being nice.

In any event, I’m understandably nervous about venturing into a different salon for a color, so I decided to go out and buy a box of hair color. All of my L’Oreal in a box is in the sea shipment. So much of my life is in that sea shipment. But I digress.

The local supermarket, Wu Mart, does sell hair color. But the choices there, and I kid not, are: black-black, black-red, black-deep brown, maroon, and something called mocha. I opted for mocha, thinking, how bad could it be?

But here’s another lesson I learned today: Don’t assume that just because you’ve done this before and just because you don’t read Chinese, that you should just skip the directions in the little box.

I found out late – too late – that the directions also had a little stick figure mixing the stuff together in a way that I would have understood. Instead, I mixed stuff, but left out the crucial little vial that contained the mocha color. A few minutes after I applied some mixture to my hair, I realized nothing was happening.

I panicked, thinking that maybe I’d end up with hair stripped of all color. White, maybe. I jumped in the shower faster than you can say chachi (Mandarin for mistake), and hoped that I hadn’t done irreparable damage to my hair.

Luckily for me, and less entertainingly for my readers, this story has a happy ending. I’m back to my usual brown hair with gray roots and a few wasted RMBs. There are worst mistakes than this. Here's me about a week ago before the gray started winning.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

It's Always Something

Somehow Smudge has managed to injure herself in our tiny two-bedroom apartment. We're not sure what happened, but she can't seem to put any weight on her right paw, and hobbles around pathetically. If she doesn't start improving soon, I'm going to have to take her to a vet.

And since I'm working on a story about traditional Chinese medicine, I thought I might suggest acupuncture. I'm sure she'd hold still for that.

It does seem as if as things start to fall into place, other things get more complicated.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Smudge Again

Smudge seems to be the family member who most likes China, especially in contrast to her very limited life at the Alexandria Marriott.

What she likes: the fact that she can sit every morning on her little bed, which is on one of the armchairs, in a spot of sun.

The quiet of being on the 25th floor, where no one walks down the halls, and the ayi only comes twice a week.

Chinese cat food. She never liked Whiskas in the States, but here she eats every morsel. Either that or she is just getting her appetite back.

Being around me. I’ve never given her as much attention as I have these last few months.

The windows of the apartment. She can look out, but no one is looking in. Right now she’s gazing out over a “hazardous” air day.

New options for perches.

The fact that I now keep the bedroom door open at night, which gives her the opportunity to wake me up in the morning and sleep on my feet at night. I’ll open one eye and see the cat sitting on the floor staring at me. After a few minutes she’ll be two feet closer. Next she jumps on the bed. If that doesn’t work, she’ll walk up by the pillow. Since she’s not a vocal cat, she has to find nonverbal ways of getting my attention. That usually works.

I used to fret that I couldn’t be sure that at her advanced age, Smudge would ever make it back to the States and have a chance once more to sprawl in the sun on our patio, or sit in the windowseat and watch the garbage men come down the alley. Now I realize that for a cat, less is sometimes more and a mao is a mao.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Little Women

This will be hard to explain to those who don't hold Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in the same estimation as I do, but I think it's worth trying.

I think I've adjusted pretty well to a city that is a challenge each day and lots of freelance work that has me reading up on my own chi, about the ethos of cities, and about law firms and all in one day.

But in order to do this, I need also to find ways to take care of myself, to relax and to get my head in a different place at the end of the day.

That place is Concord, Massachusetts, where "Little Women" was set, and where each night I take a trip to a story I read hundreds of times when I was a girl. It was a book that formed my own sense of fairness and honesty, and -- even at its preachiest -- I loved the sense of moral certitude and sisterly love that comes through.

The last time I read the book, years ago, I read it aloud to my own children, who groaned as I cried when Beth died. When I read Geraldine Brooks' novel "March," I sent her a fan letter, saying she had brought back my old friends. I tell people I probably had Louisa May Alcott in the back of my head when we named our own Joanna May (and for real "Little Women" aficionados, extra bonus points if you know who Joanna is in the book).

Today, I switch on my Kindle and smile as Daisy and Demi are given names, and I identify, as always, with awkward Jo. They were my friends for so many years, and now they're reminding me that I can be as far from home as I've ever been, and still feel the comfort of somber silk gowns, Jo's mane of hair -- her only beauty -- and Laurie's loyal friendship.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Let's Merry

I’m surprised at how much the Chinese (in Beijing, at least) embrace Christmas, or maybe it’s just Christmas decorations. ‘Tis the season, I guess (looking at you, KJS).

We started seeing evidence about a week ago, and now I see Santa’s fat face – mostly over the words “Merry X-mas” everywhere. Santa often sports his own bling, with things like the detail I saw this morning, a flower-shaped glittering purple decoration on his hat. Even the Starbucks in the China World shopping mall has a snowflake-adorned sign that says, “Let’s Merry.”

So let’s.
The artificial Christmas trees are all going for bling. The one outside the gym at our health club, for instance, is a sparkly mess of shiny ornaments, with the occasional Valentine heart thrown in. All the stairs are wound with garlands of magenta, green, red, gold. In the big shopping malls, the trees are giant and silver and gold, like something out of Snoopy’s tree in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

There’s even a Santa pavilion at one mall, which looks like a pink and blue carousel. I haven’t seen a live Santa yet, but I’m hoping I see one soon. I even heard a "First Noel" cell phone ring on the subway the other day. Ho ho ho.

What you won’t find here: cozy country Christmases, with logs on an open fire, felt and pinecone decorations, or anything remotely subdued or tasteful. But that’s in keeping with China. Why buy a plain sweater, when you can add a little fake fur, sparkle, a belt, ruffles, sequins, or all of the above?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Almost Like Black Friday

So we went furniture shopping yesterday, with the inestimable Wendy, who wanted us to get the best prices for the sofa and beds we needed to buy.

She took us to a warehouse-like shopping mall across the city, the kind of place where you had to push through thick insulated mats blocking the door – no frills here. Inside, the place was an unheated hodgepodge of furniture and mattress stores. It was so cold inside that all the sales people wore overcoats. It was impossible to tell who was a shopper and who was an employee until they came over to you.

Without Wendy, we would have been lost. First of all, I was kind of overwhelmed by the cacophony of colors – pink, purple, orange, red. And almost everything seemed to have a little added bling attached, like one deep purple sofa we saw where each tuft was decorated with a rhinestone button. The place looked like something out of a cross between Pee Wee’s Funhouse and Astoria, Queens.

If a couch was on the plain side, it often had little added features like an attached head rest at the top, looking like something you’d find in a car.

After hours of looking and more conversations in Chinese, we got a rather subdued sectional sofa – muted green and tan – that came in several sections just in case our new living room turns out to be smaller or differently set up than we remembered.

The bed, though, is more Chinese-style, with a tufted headboard. The saleslady was disappointed that we chose a simple tan for the fabric. Here's what it looked like in the showroom:

She thought the red or bright blue would have been prettier, so we chose a blue for Joanna’s headboard. In that case, we ran into problems because the sections of the pillow in her headboard turned out to be four.
Here's the Chinese flashier version of the bed:

After about ten minutes of conversation, we asked Wendy and the saleslady what they were discussing. “We don’t like the number four, so we were thinking you shouldn’t have four pillows in the headboard,” Wendy said. Four, remember, is too similar to the Chinese word for “dead,” so they tend to avoid the number at all costs.

Joanna got a headboard with three pillows, and the day was saved. All in all, it was a successful venture: we got a sectional sofa, a pullout bed for the study, two beds, and two mattresses for about $1,000.

Here's our sofa bed in a setting with some of the other purple, turquoise, pink, and greenish choices behind it:

For those of you who don’t already know this, you can get yet another take on the experience – and all our experiences -- on Bob’s email list for his “in lieu of blog,” at We're not competing or anything.

Friday, November 25, 2011

It Worked

So the Thanksgiving work-around was a success, right down to what I’m renaming the not-too-sweet pumpkin pies. We even got our Chinese friend Lingling into the act. Since she insisted on helping out I gave her the job of mashing potatoes, which was doubly difficult because we didn’t have a masher, just a slotted spoon. But she gamely mashed away, and the potatoes, a mixture of white and sweet potatoes, were good, especially with the added cream and the big slab of butter we mixed in. The turkey wasn't too bad either.

All in all, it was as traditional a meal was one could get here in China. 

The only thing missing for me was Brussels sprouts, which don’t seem to be popular here. But green beans were a fine substitute, and the cranberry sauce had a nice citrus tang, thanks to the oranges Joanna mixed in, and the gravy was watery but flavorful.

You can’t ask for anything more than that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Thanksgiving Work-Around

So, our preparations for Thanksgiving began with a big double shop, first at Wu Mart, the local Chinese grocery store, and a follow up shop at April Gourmet for whatever Wu Mart lacked.

Turns out Wu Mart did pretty well – we even found olive oil, leeks, sweet potatoes, and more mushrooms of so many varieties that I can’t wait to try the stuffing.

We only needed a few things in April Gourmet: fresh thyme, butter, milk, and we found cinnamon sugar, so I have to retract the recent post about not being able to find ground cinnamon in China. Sorry China.

Somehow, though, we got out of Wu Mart spending a little over 200 yuan (about $31) for a ton of food, and spent more than 300 at April Gourmet for a whole lot less. Maybe it was because we impulsively bought a bottle of Amarullo to drink with dessert. Nothing like a South African desert drink to go with our American holiday meal in China.

I started with pumpkin pie. I have a large can of pumpkin, so I’m going to make two small pies, one with a graham cracker crust and one with a traditional crust.

One challenge: I don’t have measure cups or spoons, so I measured out the flour for the crust (we’re pretty sure it’s basic wheat flour, but who knows?), with a soup ladle. Years of measuring have made me pretty good at this. Salt and sugar were easy guesses, and then I needed a half cup of butter (New Zealand butter, which just sounds good), which I again sliced off a block and worked into the flour with my hands, peasant-style.

I used a round wooden stick to roll out the dough.

And pressed it into a cake tin (closest thing I could find to a pie tin).

This is what the recipe suggests at this point: “With the remaining pastry make decorative cut-outs (leaves, pumpkins, etc.) and with a little water, attach them around the lip of the pie pan.” Maybe not.

Now I have to figure out how this extra-large can of pumpkin works with how many eggs and how much cream. The eggs in this country are smaller than the medium sized eggs in the U.S., so I have to tweak that proportion a bit.

(That's ginger on the left) Okay, five eggs, a mess of heavy cream, some lumpy brown sugar that had a molasses smell, cinnamon sugar and grated cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, ginger – all mixed with pumpkin, poured into two crusts and ready to bake.

This was exhausting. I’ll post tomorrow about how it actually tasted.

Home Sweet Apartment

Thanks to some diligent work and hard negotiating by Wendy, our delightful real estate agent who is a dead ringer for Doonesbury’s Honey, we have a place to live, cat included.

It’s on the third floor, which means that we’ll look out into the trees and a nearby playground, rather than out over the smoggy air from the temporary apartment on the 25th floor of Building 14 in the complex. (A side note: the floor is actually the 21st floor, because the Chinese don’t like to name floors using the number “four,” which sounds like the word for “death” in Chinese. So, the elevator goes: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25. The number 13 is also left out for more universal unlucky reasons.)

There are a few tricky parts beside the rent, which is more than we wanted to pay. One, there are no beds. We need to go out and buy beds. Oh, and there’s no sofa either. What’s ironic is that the landlady is happily offering her dining room set, her coffee table, and all sorts of things that we already brought. Get ready for a post about the Beijing Ikea, which is one of the wonders of modern China, I’m told.

But no matter. By mid-December or so, at just about the time that I’ll be getting set to head back to the States for a short visit, we’ll be moving into a sweet little place, close enough to the ground that Smudge should be entertained by the activity outside and attractive enough that I knew instantly this was our new home the minute I walked in the door. Must have been the feng shui.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving

So, Thanksgiving approaches, and I can’t help but remember the stress and the hassle of our Thanksgiving in Brussels back in 2001. The Belgians only really ate dinde, turkey, at Christmas.

But because there was a big expat community, there was a guy who supplied turkeys. I called the guy. He said he’d reserve me a turkey. I drove out to his store, which was apparently a dry cleaning shop. I announced myself to the woman behind the counter. The guy wasn’t there.

When would he be back? Not sure. So I sat and sat at the dry cleaner, thinking of all the stuff I had to do, pies to bake, stuffing to make, all that. After about 45 minutes and no guy, I stormed out.

“I hate this country,” I said to Bob. My good friend Marcia, who spoke better French than me, came up with a turkey, and the rest of the planning and the day was a blur of shopping, baking, planning, and a lot of friends and family around the table. So what if I broke a glass bottle of olive oil on the tile kitchen floor minutes before guests were to arrive and then cut my hand rushing to pick up the glass? That’s what wine is for.

Here in Beijing we live in an area that has a fair number of Americans, and the expat grocery store April Gourmet sells frozen turkeys, canned cranberry sauce, and even canned pumpkin, all of which I bought the moment I saw them just to be certain to have them.

The turkey now sits thawing, slowly, in my small frig. It takes up the good part of one shelf. The rest of the meal is still somewhat open-ended.

“Have you found good any recipes yet, Mom?” Joanna asks me, knowing I’ve done some pretty creative things in Thanksgivings past. But here I’m thinking simplicity and the good old work-around system. For instance, forget finding something as ubiquitous as ground cinnamon in April Gourmet. But we did find cinnamon sticks and a jar of ground nutmeg. So we have spices of some sort for the pies.

Forget finding something as basic as a pie tin. (Remember, all my kitchen stuff is still sitting in a container somewhere.) We did find two options: a Pillsbury graham cracker crust, and a dish that’s probably more for an 8-inch cake than a pie. But they’ll do. Two small pies, coming up.

How will I mash the potatoes? I guess I’ll use a combination of forks and various larger spoons and hope no one comments about the lumps.

How will I serve the stuffing or other side dishes? We found some disposable aluminum tins in April Gourmet.

When the 14-pound turkey takes up the entire oven, how will I cook the rest of the stuff? The answer is that not everything will be piping hot. I shudder to think about making gravy.

Will there be a Thanksgiving day freakout? I think I need to keep up that tradition, after all. And again, there’s always wine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"You Are Very Very Kind"

Here’s the lesson from yesterday. When a man comes to the apartment to tell Joanna that “the electricity will be off from 2 to 4 p.m.,” what that really means is, “the electricity will be on but the internet connection for all laptops will be off all day.” Oh. I’ll have to remember that next time.

The saga of the family who turned us down for an apartment because of Smudge continues. Here’s part of the email we received from the woman’s daughter yesterday:

Good morning Bob,
I feel very sorry for the renting house yesterday. Your wife fetched the money from our room yesterday, but i was not there at that time. My mom's English is very limited and she told your wife that she is your friend.
I would like to say I also would like to be you and your wife's friend. And I would like to assist you and your family in China both on renting house and other things that you may need. Like go to somewhere or how to use some appliance...

I know this thing is not very nice to you. You went to outside to withdraw the cash and ran back.... We saw, we were moved so we feel upset and very sorry because we did not reach the contract finally. If you trust me and if you allow, I would like to do something that you need as a kind of compensation.If you need me currently, please let me know. If you will need my help someday, please feel free to contact me. I like you and your wife, you are very very kind and I also like cats. I hope I can be your friend. My place is nor far from seasons park, it is very convenient to come over for your need. No problem.I will feel less guilty if I can do something for you and your family.

For anything that you may need, related to seasons park or unrelated to it. I would like to be there.
Best wishes to you and your wife.(Please let her know my letter, because I don't have her email address. Thank you! )
Have a good day!

So maybe we did make some friends after all. Huh. 

And later in the day, another email:
Dear Bruno,
It is very nice to become friends with you and your family:)
I felt bad because I felt sorry for you and Bob. He is maybe around 70years(maybe much more younger), in order to sign the contract, he ran to withdraw the money. But we did not reach the agreement. I feel very sorry for him. And we have the feeling that you and Bob are very kind people, well educated. We don't have any doubt for that.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

More Cat Tales

Even though this seems to be a story about hunting for an apartment, it’s really a story about the cat.

We thought we had an apartment, on the third floor of the very building where the temporary apartment is. It’s a small three-bedroom, and right on top of Middle School 55, which starts its morning exercises precisely at 7:20. We thought the one problem might be the noise in the bedrooms, so we went with the real estate agents this morning at 7:15 to listen to the noise.

I didn’t realize that the landlady’s daughter was sound asleep in the master bedroom, so I opened the door and walked in. Oops. But the landlady said I could stay in there, although Bob couldn’t.

Talk about awkward. I’m standing by the window of the bedroom watching the middle school kids, while a young woman slumbers in the bed. She stirs. Now how am I going to explain this one? I ask myself. But she smiles at me as I apologize and she speaks English. She dresses quickly and leaves the room, while I watch the middle school students (think obedient sixth-graders more than sullen adolescents) play what looks like a giant game of “Simon Says.”

So far, so good. We decide to make it work. The landlady, a somewhat persnickety sort, decides that since there was another tenant also eager for the place, we should put down a deposit NOW to lock in the deal.

Bob runs out to take 6,000 yuan out of the bank – not the full rent but the limit on what he could withdraw each day – as we wait in the apartment. The landlady writes out a laborious contract in Chinese, and then copies it over twice. Her daughter then copies a version into English.

Let’s keep in mind that I have not had coffee, a shower, or anything to eat. There is much discussion in Chinese of matters relating to the contract.

 Two hours pass, and we’ve finally at the point where the money was paid, the contract – both Chinese and English versions – signed and hands shaken. And then the landlady asks, “Do you have any cats or dogs?” (I flash back to the moment in “Alice’s Restaurant” where they ask Arlo Guthrie, “Have you ever been arrested?”)

For a split second, I wonder if I should lie. But then I decide it’s not worth the worry. So I say, yes, a small cat, an old cat, who never scratches and hardly comes out from under the bed.

“Can I see her?” she asks (in Chinese).

Sure. We – two real estate agents, the landlady, Bob and I – all traipse upstairs where we find Smudge (unsurprisingly) cowering under the bed. Cute, quiet, harmless.

The landlady announces she needs to think about it all. She goes off, and we find out later that she has consulted her extended family, including her own mother. Now we’ve got three generations of Chinese weighing in on Smudge.

The verdict: no. And when an extended Chinese family gets involved in a decision, there’s no arguing.

But Bob tries, countering with more rent to cover potential cat damages. No go.

So I have to go back to the landlady to get my 6,000 yuan back. I sit down, she hands me the money, which I count out, and I sign a receipt. She leans anxiously towards me.

As I stand to leave, she looks me in the eye and says, “You. Are. My. Friend.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Chatting with Amy Tan

It's fascinating to me how my life veers between the mundane and the truly thrilling:

Fun at Carrefour

Joanna and I ventured out to Carrefour today in search of a better litter box for Smudge. The one she has right now barely contains her and it offends me that she’s come all this way to crouch in what looks like six inches of space.

So in lieu of Walmart, we tried a Carrefour instead, which is just the French version of the big box store. But still very much China, with all the chaos, lots of salespeople shouting, and aisle after aisle of brightly colored packages of some kinds of snack food. What, we weren’t sure. I was hoping to avoid seaweed-flavored snacks. I certainly didn't see any croissants or good cheese.

First order of business was finding a litter box, which we finally found with the cat food and some toys. Done.

Then Joanna wanted to get snacks. We looked at spicy duck chips, little panda-shaped cookies, and all sorts of packages that had lots of colors and lots of words in Chinese, but no real indication about what they were. For instance, we bought what may or may not be pumpkin seeds. They were in a section of pumpkin seeds, but cheaper. We’ll know when we open the bag.

And I bought a box of what looked like the Chinese version of Pringles. I never even buy Pringles in the United States, but here, snack foods are an adventure in themselves. And these are certainly different. Judging from the picture of the steak on the package, I think I may have just bought steak-flavored chips. They certainly taste kind of steak-y.

We got Bob a box of Cheerios, and I found a tiny tiny little box of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime tea. Score!

After about an hour of the noise and lights and utter chaos of the Carrefour, I kind of froze, and needed to retreat, so we paid for our stuff and took a cab home.

It was a different kind of adventure than my interview with the beautiful, funny, and gracious Amy Tan (I’ll post the link to the story soon), but an adventure nonetheless.

Oh, and when I finally got the litter box home, I realized it was, oh, maybe an inch and a half larger than the litter box we had before. That’s the end of that quest. Smudge will just have to make do with less space, just like the rest of us.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Beyond Brain Freeze

We got our air shipment today, and it was a happy day for Joanna and Bob. For me, it solved one mystery: why I had no no recollection of what I had decided to include in the air shipment. I couldn't remember because I hadn't packed anything at all. No clothes, no boots, no jackets, no saucepans, no books, nothing. Joanna got two suitcases packed with almost all her clothing and her laptop, and Bob got his winter coat, more shirts, and an entire box of shoe polish. Why did we feel there might be an urgent need for shoe polish? I have no idea.  Talk about brain freeze. All of my things are sitting in a port, probably Tianjin, waiting for us to get our "permanent" resident visas and to decide on an apartment. So there's a little pressure on me at least to lower my standards and just find a place. So far, we've been shown three two-bedroom apartments (even though we made it clear that we needed a three-bedroom) and just two three-bedrooms. One was nice but on the third floor overlooking the middle school which starts its day -- loudly -- at 7 a.m. Another was so filthy I couldn't imagine it until it was cleaned.  So here we are. I can make do with what I have now and can do a little shopping to fill in the gaps. Thanksgiving should be interesting, as I make turkey, gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and pumpkin pie in a kitchen half the size of my small galley kitchen at home and with one tiny saucepan, one frypan, and four ceramic 9x12 baking dishes.  But not impossible. In fact, one of the biggest lessons I've learned so far in China is that there are solutions to almost any problems, especially if you employ creative work-arounds, resourcefulness, and determination. I was going to say unflappability, but that wouldn't be honest. I meet a problem, I generally freak out, then I solve the problem. (see under: thanksgiving in brussels freakout)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Simple and Sincere Account

Before I get to the point where I don’t notice things anymore, I’m going to record some of my observations about strange things here in Beijing.

  1. Sidewalks. Google maps is worried about the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian pathways for us. Whenever we try to create a walking route on Google maps, we are warned that we may not have a sidewalk. I’ve never seen such an inconsistent country in terms of what pedestrians need to finagle. You could be walking down a paved, somewhat stable sidewalk, and suddenly you will be facing one of any number of obstacles: a giant tree box taking up three-quarters of the sidewalk; a parked car or a line of parked cars; an 18-inch dropoff to dirt; a phone booth (which are odd hooded things looking like something Mighty Mouse might use to make a pay call); a noodle shop’s tiny tables and stools set up for customers; a bike-repair stand; a food cart; a magazine stand. No wonder no one much uses strollers for their kids. And then suddenly you could come to an open paved area that seems to have no other purpose than possibly the nighttime line dancing that the older women seem to love.
  2. Dancing. Chinese people tend to have a grim expression on their face as they march down the (non)sidewalks on their regular business, but put a boombox and any kind of music in front of them, and the smiles start. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve discovered either a crowd of 50 or a single woman happily dancing to music in public. And they’re usually smiling and seeming to enjoy themselves.
  3. Smells. The weather is getting colder so the smells are less pungent than they were in the summer, but they’re still there, and walking down just one block can bring a series of smells: noodles from the shops, burnt sugar from the candied dates on sticks, exhaust from a cart without any kind of muffler, strong Chinese herbs on sale outside subway stops, incense, whatever strong spices are used in cooking (coriander? Star anise? Cardamom?), dog poo, pee, smoke from fires, roasted corn, and the general metallic scent that the air in Beijing has on very polluted days.
  4. Sounds. The Chinese like noise. As I type this I can hear the song “All Over the World” being blasted on a loudspeaker somewhere, followed by chimes for the hour. At 7 a.m., the kids from Beijing Middle School No. 55 line up outside and do a half-hour of calestenics, led by a guy counting for them into a microphone. The Chinese also like to shout into their phones or to their friends across the street. Even when they’re having a conversation, it sounds heated to us. To them, it’s probably just a measure of enthusiasm. Then there are car horns, bike bells, and beggars shouting “hello!” when they see westerners.
  5. Lights. There’s a crazy amount of neon on stores and restaurants, but the streetlights seem about half the intensity of those in the U.S. You walk at night down sidewalks where there is some light but it’s still dark and gloomy. If I were in D.C. or New York with that kind of lighting, I’d get ready to be mugged.
  6. Drivers. Pedestrians have no rights. The philosophy here is, “I have the bigger vehicle, so I win.” You should never assume that a “walk” sign crossing the street is a signal to blithely set forth. You can start, but first look behind you, to both sides, and LET THEM WIN. What I do in the States sometimes is use my body as a way to slow down crazy Maryland drivers using our neighborhood as a commuting shortcut. If I see a car speeding down the block, I’ll step out and sloooow down, so that they actually have to stop at the stop sign rather than lightly tap the brakes. I would never ever do that here. And I would never assume that because a particular lane is set up for one direction only that there might not be bikes or scooters going in the other direction.

Another Day, Another Adventure

My first WWD adventure was dealing with the French. Today, I got the Italians. And the Chinese, of course.

I was asked to interview the head of Hogan, the Italian shoe and handbag designer. Of course my context was that Hogan was the name of a law firm. Anyway. I go off to this interview wearing my trusty Nine West boots, an Ann Taylor Loft skirt (oddly tighter than the last time I wore it), and a Target top. You know, urban chic.

All was set, except for the part where Joanna and I tried to figure out just how long it would take me to walk from the subway station to the Park Hyatt, where I had the interview. She figured five minutes. She was off by a good 40 minutes, and as I charged down Jianguomen Wai, the PR person for Hogan, a lovely young woman with the name Irene Pun (no pun intended) kept calling my cell to ask where I was.

“Just five minutes!” I answered her, although judging from the pulsing blue dot on my handy iPad map, it was a good deal farther than that.

I started to run. This is not something that women in a too-tight pencil skirt do in Beijing’s central business district. I got stares, although I don’t know if the surprised looks were more related to my running or to the fact that I had an iPad tucked under my arm, an iPad I would open and consult every three minutes as I speed-walked and then sprinted past Beijingers out for a lunchtime stroll.

I was 15 minutes late for the interview. Ms. Pun had actually promised them (why, I have no idea) that I’d be early, so I felt doubly late. I rushed into the giant office building that housed the Park Hyatt, knowing I needed to get to the hotel’s lobby on the 63rd floor. Odd, the elevators only went up to 52. I figured I could go higher at 52, so I zoomed to the top.

“Where are you?” Irene Pun was calling again.
“In the elevator!” I said.

Turns out that I was in the wrong elevator, so I had to make a mad dash out of one office tower to another. By this point I was drenched in sweat, completely ruining any semblance of my so-called urban chic.

Anyway, I got to the Hyatt lobby and met Ms. Pun, who promptly informed me that she had lied to the Hogan people that I had had too much coffee and was in the bathroom. Whatever. I was a mess anyway.

Andrea Della Valle, the head of Hogan, was of course a smooth, polished, trim, handsome, lightly tanned man who looked as though he had never had a hair out of place in his life, and worth several billion dollars more than the messy journalist sitting before him feeling the sweat trickle down her back and trying not to focus on just how scuffed her Nine West boots have become.

But the bottom line was that I did the interview, wrote the story, and am sitting here in sweats, drinking tea and sneezing, since I have a cold. And feeling a newfound appreciation for Steve Jobs, iPads, and pulsing blue dots that can guide me in a faraway land.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Introducing Dai Nuo

I am a feminist. When Bob and I were married nearly 30 years ago, I made a royal stink over the fact that I would be keeping MY name, despite the best efforts of some family members to willfully ignore that and address letters to “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Davis.”

I found it infuriating, until I had children and would be addressed by my kids’ teachers as “Mrs. Davis.” They could call me anything at all as long as they were kind to my kids and gave them a good education. But to the rest of the world, I was still Debbie Bruno.

Not in China, though. Today, Kersten Zhang, the Wall Street Journal’s efficient and graceful office manager and news assistant, annointed me with a new name, Dai Nuo. The first part is Bob’s family name, a kind of Chinese version of Davis, and it’s a kind of honorific, I’m told. Says Kersten, “It can make words as love and respect, or as a verb pull on or wear.”

The second part, Nuo, is my given name, and it means “promise.”

It looks really pretty, and Kersten threatens to test me on my ability to write it out.

So, this is what comes of agreeing to be what many call a “trailing spouse.” In this country I’m a Davis.

I had agreed to the idea of moving to China with Bob because I thought it would be a fresh start to a career that was rapidly turning into long days of managing and mentoring in place of writing. And so far, the interest in China has meant that I think I’ll have more work than I can begin to handle.

The tradeoff, I guess, is a small setback in the feminist department. I’ve lost count of the number of forms I’ve filled out here that ask for occupation. “Spouse,” I write dutifully. Sometimes I elaborate: "Spouse of reporter." Bob finds all of this hysterical, like he somehow won. We’ll see about that.

So I’m going to focus on the idea that I’m the living embodiment of the word “promise.”

I promise to keep my own identity, not just as trailing spouse.
I promise to write as often as I can.
I promise to stay in touch with all my family and friends.
But I also promise to serve up a Thanksgiving dinner,  keep the apartment tidy, do laundry, and buy the Raisin Bran and peanut butter we so desperately need.

I guess I see my name Nuo as a challenge as much as a promise. I’ll tell myself, “Just say Nuo.” (I couldn’t resist.)

Renunciations of the Affluent

Last night we went to a vegetarian restaurant called Pure Lotus that was over the top in a Buddhist kind of way. If Buddhists could be over the top. The menu had items like "Rumors of Dragons Steam Buns," "Eight Renunciations of the Affluent Pancake-Wrapped Peking Roast Vegetarian," (a fake Peking duck, and very yummy), "Longevity Rolls," "Bamboo Stick Threads the Heart," (we had that too, but it was just grilled veggies on a stick), "Love You No Doubt Chrysanthemum Eggplant," "Self-Contained Stewed Dofu," (tofu), "Meeting of Souls Seven Mushroom Soup Cup," (I had that, kind of boring), "Terracotta Warriors Unearthed Dumplings," and "Golden Bridge Realization One Heart Heading Toward the Dao Noodles."

Clearly they were aiming at tourists, but it was still fun to read the menu. We were greeted by a monk, possibly, who pulled back a heavy blanket to let us enter the restaurant, where we were greeted by about six people. They poured some kind of scent in our hands, and led us to our table. The place was a kind of odd mixture of draped cloths, dozens of candelabra with real candles, a wall playing a constant loop of what looked like Forties-era cartoons from China (or someplace Asian), a giant bamboo model in the center of the room of what I assume was some kind of Chinese house. At our place were huge lotus leaves with a giant shell on top of them.

We ate and ate. Besides the delicious Renunciations, we especially enjoyed a "Silk Road" dish which turned out to be a yummy peanutty curry with lots of veggies and tofu floating in it.

When we left, we were each handed a giant lotus bulb, which now sit somewhat forlornly on our dining room table in a glass waiting to bloom.

Speaking of "Eight Renunciations of the Affluent," we’re starting to look at apartments. With the rapidly rising costs of apartments, we may end up with something smaller than we expected, which may impact our ability to house more than a guest or two at a time. But stand by for that. One thing I’m insisting on is a kitchen with an oven. I don’t think that’s being unreasonable, but most apartments designed for Chinese people don’t have them.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Back to the Wall

We hiked another section of the Great Wall yesterday, an unrestored section like the one we did with William Lindesay in May. Again, we joined a group – this one a cheerful mixture of French, Belgian, German, British, Irish, Americans – and set off in the rainy cold morning.

Two and a half hours of driving got us out of the smog and out of the rain, although we never saw the sun all day. No matter. The Wall never disappoints.

Although the hike was described as an “easy” one, you need to keep in mind that there’s no getting around the climbing and descending part. After all, the Wall was built on mountaintops to keep out the barbarian invaders. The watch towers helped to spy out possible encroachment too. So we climbed.

The advantage of being up high is the panoramic view you get on the mountaintop. At this spot, called Gubeiko, the Wall dipped in and out of the craggy vista for miles and miles. Far off in the distance, mountain ranges went on and on, getting hazier and bluer as the distance grew.

Because this was the unrestored part of the Wall, there were moments where the path was a narrow wedge with crumbling wall going down many feet into the valley below.

After a fair amount of hiking, we descended into a local village with a restaurant that served dish after dish. When the first dish was a big bowl of chicken, feet and head mixed in with other parts and sliced potatoes, I worried that vegetarian Joanna would go hungry. But so many dishes came out that no one left the table unsatisfied.

No diamonds, no Chanel No. 5, and no smoky-voiced actresses on this trip, but it was a heap of fun, and no one fell off the Wall.