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.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Chanel et Moi

I've had my first reporting adventure, covering an opening of a Chanel exhibit for Women’s Wear Daily. These are not words that one would normally associate with me. Maybe Target, Payless, Ann Taylor, Talbots. But not Chanel, and not the bible of couture.

But thanks to the lovely Kate McLaughlin, the queen of freelancers in Beijing, I had an assignment as a stringer for WWD.

The adventure began with getting a cab during rush hour on a Friday evening. I was rocking a Calvin Klein dress, Nine West boots, and some glass beads I picked up at Ten Thousand Villages in Alexandria. That was the best I could do with the limited offerings my suitcases could provide. Remember, we’re still living out of those suitcases from August.

To get to the National Museum of Art China, where the exhibit was held, I accosted at least three cabbies, all of whom seemed to be gesturing to me that since my destination was in the other direction, I had to cross over a major street and get the cab on the other side. Finally I found a cabbie who deigned to at least consider taking me as a fare. “70,” he said. In RMB, that’s only $11, but in Beijing, that’s highway robbery. As Bob says, no cab in the inner city costs more than 20 RMB.

“20,” I countered.
He laughed. “60,” he responded.
“You’re ripping me off!” I said. He laughed again.
“30,” I offered.
“70,” he responded. (Whoops, we were going in the wrong direction)
“Okay, 60,” I answered.

I got in the cab, steaming but also worried that he’d try to get even more out of me when he landed me at the museum. He turned out to be good for his initial ripoff amount.

I entered the throng of beautiful Chinese people flowing into the museum until I was stopped by the guards. “Press pass? Invitation?” they asked. I had neither. Heck, I had been in the country for all of three days.

I tried to call Chanel’s PR person but her phone didn’t seem to be working. “Sorry lady,” the guard said.

And then this is where I passed one of my biggest hurdles so far in China: I actually bullied my way into a press opening. I doubt very much a Chinese person would have been able to convince the guards, but I think they figured I was western and I looked determined, so, what the hell, wave her in.

In I went, into a throng of more beautiful Chinese people and a small handful of westerners. Now the task was to find the Chanel PR person. I did what any normal westerner would do: I walked up to a couple of young non-Chinese women and asked them if they knew the PR person. Of course they did. And yes, they would point her out to me when she came by. So I waited, drinking champagne and watching the crowd. Nearly everyone was wearing black, and there was a scary amount of Chanel on the thin frames of the beautiful people. The air was thick with Chanel No. 5.

After a while, I realized that standing around was getting me nowhere, so I again accosted another couple of western women, who turned out to be with Chanel and who were expecting me. After that, the evening was golden. I spoke French with the Chanel folks, including the handsome curator who wanted to wax eloquent about the artistry of Coco Chanel. I interviewed an impossibly tall actress who played Chanel in a French movie. She was beautiful but painfully thin, with a voice that made her sound more like a transvestite than a woman. Must have been lots of cigarettes.

The Chanel PR person assigned to me painstakingly walked me through the entire exhibit, and I tried to enjoy the experience even as I knew I only had 200 words to devote to the whole evening, and that I had to file those words that night.

After I made my apologies and slipped out, the next hurdle was getting a cab to get home. I raised my hand, a cab started to pull over, and a Chinese guy started to walk toward MY cab.

“Oh no you don’t,” I said, and jumped in the cab before he could steal it from me. Then I had to convince the cabbie, who was quite possibly illiterate, that the piece of paper I was holding was the key to getting me home. He was clearly confused. Meanwhile, the guy who tried to steal the cab from me was waiting for me to give up and give him the cab. I called Bob: “Can you talk to this guy?” Bob made it more clear where I wanted to go, and the cabbie somewhat sullenly started to drive.

I got home, paying less than half of what I paid to get to the exhibit, wrote my 200 words, filed the story, and had a small snack. All in all, it wasn’t too bad an evening, kind of a debutante ball for my first official soiree in Beijing’s high places.

The next day I got up at dawn and hiked the Great Wall, wearing an outfit that could only be described as very much not WWD. But more on that later.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Today's Adventures

After such a successful trip to Walmart, I should have known the coffeemaker might be a little too cheap to actually, you know, work. I now see why:

The good news here is that I'm getting pretty adept at work-arounds, so I have had my coffee today. It's even possible I may have over-caffeinated. I'm talking a lot to the cat, who is keeping my company in the UNHEATED living room. (Yep, over-caffeinated).

Smudge, at least, is calm:
 (Note to those who don't know Smudge: This is calm.)
Tonight's adventure is my first freelance gig: covering an opening of a Chanel exhibit for Women's Wear Daily. Because, obviously, when you think of Chanel and WWD, you think of me.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Adventures at Walmart

After the coffeemaker in the apartment spewed coffee all over the countertop, I realized we desperately needed a new coffeemaker. So today Joanna and I ventured out to find a Walmart. Beijing has at least six of them, but we found the closest one and took the subway there, Joanna coaching me on buying a ticket, figuring out the various lines, and navigating the system.

We actually found the Walmart surprisingly easily (it's always a surprise when anything is relatively easy in this country), and entered just at lunchtime. We were greeted by a stand inside the store selling steamed buns and potstickers, and I was suddenly ravenous. I bought a bag of delicious potstickers and Joanna had a bun and we devoured them near the checkout lines. "China Walmart 1; U.S. Walmart 0," Joanna proclaimed.

We walked past rows of rice cookers, juicers, water heaters and other oddities until we found a tiny section devoted to drip coffee makers. We found a Eupa brand (nope, never heard of it) that looked promising (that'll be tomorrow's adventure), and wandered through the store. Joanna had to go tutor, so she left me to my own devices.

I picked up a packet of what looked like napkins, with a cute panda face on the cover, and a bottle of Dove something -- either body wash or lotion. I also found a small packet of Oreos for Bob, some dishtowels and what seem to be hand towels or washcloths.

Then I tried to take the subway home by myself. The only problem was that the machines in the station wouldn't take my 5 yuan note, and didn't take bigger amounts. I eventually gave up and grabbed a cab on the street. I handed him my piece of paper saying "Seasons Park" in English and in Chinese, and got back to the apartment.

I opened the "napkins" only to discover they were tissues. And I'm still not sure if the Dove thing is lotion or soap. I'll take it in the shower tomorrow and see if it lathers up. But these are minor glitches in what I'm going to consider a successful outing overall.

Tales of the TigerCat Mother

I’ve always had cats and, since I’ve become an adult, my cats go where I go. For much of my life, that has meant easy moves, one apartment or house to another. We did take my cat Smudge with us to Brussels, which I thought of as a big deal at the time. She glared at me from her carrier underneath the seat in front of me for five hours and promptly went into hiding in a temporary apartment on Avenue Louise in Brussels. On the day that we were to transition into our townhouse, Smudge really disappeared. The kids were terrified that she had jumped off the third-floor balcony or taken the elevator down and out of the apartment building. Finally, she appeared, down from a ledge where she had been hiding up inside the fireplace, covered in soot. Smudge, indeed.

Ten years later, a much-older Smudge is facing a new challenge: coming with us to Beijing. Most folks fall into one of two camps: those who think we are out of our minds to go to the trouble and expense of bringing a fearful, overweight, elderly cat halfway around the world, and those who get it because they’d do the same for their pets.

In any event, the process of getting Smudge to China has had to be one of the most challenging, expensive, and complicated tasks of my life.

About four days before we were supposed to fly to Beijing, on Sept. 3, Smudge had an appointment with the vet, who awarded her an international health certificate costing $350. Then I had to FedEx the certificate to an office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Annapolis, with a check for $36 and a FedEx envelope so they would send it back. Then I had to reserve a spot for Smudge in the cabin of the United flight to Beijing, knowing that she would then head into 30 days of quarantine on arrival.

Smudge might have been stamped and certified, but we weren’t. The Chinese didn’t produce our visas, saying they were really busy but were “working on it.” So we went into hotel living, where Smudge again spent 95 percent of her time under the bed, not eating, not drinking, not using the litter box.

Two months after we moved out of our home, we received our visas. Since Smudge’s first certificate had expired ten days from the time of her appointment, we had to go through the process all over again: $350 for the vet exam, then the stamp from USDA. This time, though, the vet discovered that my 12-pound cat had dropped down to 9 pounds from the stress of hearing people walking down the halls and the maid changing towels and other terrifying events. And this time, instead of FedExing the certificate to Annapolis, I drove it there myself, had it stamped, and drove back.

The vet told me that rapid weight loss could kill her with a problem called fatty liver disease. And quarantine – if she was the kind of cat that stopped eating in extreme stress – could really be the end of her.

This is where the story gets really complicated. We could avoid quarantine if we flew into another Chinese city, the high-priced pet relocation experts told us (yes, there are companies that specialize in getting your pet from one country to the next). All we needed to do in our case was fly into Tianjin, a city an hour and a half from Beijing, and then drive to Beijing.

Of course, there are no direct U.S.-Tianjin flights, so we needed to fly to Seoul, South Korea, and then to Tianjin and Beijing. The only problem with that is that the connections didn’t work in one day. Any flight from the U.S. arriving in Seoul came in too late to make a connection to Tianjin.

We thought we were back to the first option, Beijing and quarantine, taking our chances on her surviving 30 days of stress. But Bob took one look at my puffy eyes and splotchy face the day after we made that decision, and he got on the phone.

Here was another option, even more complicated than earlier plans. Fly United to San Francisco then Seoul with the cat in her sturdy carrier in the cabin. Stay overnight at a pet-friendly hotel in Seoul, which doesn’t have quarantine issues. The next day, fly a different airline to Tianjin.

One wrinkle is that KAL and Asiana airlines both require that animals in the carrier weigh less than 5 kilograms, or 11 pounds, including the weight of the carrier. The pre-move Smudge would not have made weight. But with her recent weight loss, we had a window. There are silver linings to costing your cat one of her nine lives, I guess. The only problem was that her regular carrier was heavy enough to put her over the limit.

I found a lightweight carrier online, something called the Twist-N-Go, which weighed less than a pound. So her total weight on the Asian leg of the flight would be about ten pounds, give or take a few cans of tuna. We ordered the Twist-N-Go from Amazon, with overnight delivery.

The new lightweight carrier was certainly light enough. When we looked at it, we suddenly realized why it had been advertised on hamster pet websites. Smudge could possibly fit, although she might look like one of those cartoon cats that get squished into a box so that they’re as square as the box.

We decided we’d better have a backup plan so I went out and bought a hard-sided carrier in case Smudge had to travel in the cargo for the Seoul-Tianjin portion of her trip. Now we had three carriers – a sturdy mesh Sherpa carrier (free from my sister), a lightweight nylon thing that resembled those collapsible laundry hambers ($20 plus shipping), and a large plastic bin that snapped together like a kid’s playhouse ($40).

The costs were rising, especially counting the hotel in Seoul ($150 a night, moldy bathtub included), the fee we paid the pet relocation folks ($985 to handle the arrival in Tianjin), and the extra fees airlines charge for cats in the cabin ($150 on United, $225 on Asiana). Oh, and the extra flight from Seoul to Tianjin ($125 for two people plus cat).

This is where we are. Tomorrow morning at 4 I’ll need to get the cat in the Sherpa carrier for the longest part of the journey. I rationalize that she may be stuck in the carrier for more than 24 hours, but she often spends days under the couch at home. It’s not like she’s missing a good run in the park.

So we’ll see. Stand by for the next part.

Tigercat Mother, part two

At 3:15 this morning, Smudge was sleeping happily on a blanket on the couch of our room in the Marriott; at 3:20, she was inside the cat carrier, having been a victim of the element of surprise when I walked over to her in the dark and scooped her up.

Then we gathered up our multiple and heavy suitcases and the hard-sided cat carrier and went out in the gloomy rain to Dulles airport.

We got through security, even the part where I had to take her out of the carrier and walk through the detector, where she clung to me and then was happy to be tucked back in the safety of the carrier.

Now she sits by my feet on the plane to San Francisco, curled up against one end of the carrier and peering curiously at me whenever I unzip the door to check on her. I've even gotten her to purr a little, a purr I couldn't hear but could feel when I put my hand on her throat. So far, so good.

Later, San Francisco to Seoul

Time to destination: 9 hours, 22 minutes. Now the cat pries her head out of the zippered opening when I peak in to check on her. She's more curious about what's out here. In the airport in San Francisco, I poured some water into her bowl and tried to get her to drink. No go, so I drank the water from the bowl myself.

Much, much later

We have 4 hours and 14 minutes left. I can't look my cat in the eyes.


We make it to Seoul, get her out of the airport with only a tiny bit of hassle, and check into the airport hotel. We install Smudge in the bathroom, where she promptly decides the bathtub is the safest place for her. She spends the night huddling in the tub.

We get to the airport in Seoul, and the staff of Asiana airlines suddenly balks at the idea that they might allow Smudge to get into China. “Where are her quarantine papers?” they keep asking us as we stand surrounded by all our suitcases at the check-in counter. “We don’t need them for Tianjin; it’s all been taken care of,” we tell them. They don’t seem convinced. In fact, they seem more concerned about the issue of quarantine than the Chinese do. I start to wonder if our grand scheme is going to end in an airport in South Korea. I feel sick to my stomach.

I make a “hail Mary” call to Kiki Chen, the Beijing-based pet relocation expert, and Kiki tells the Seoul folks that all is well. It turns out to be what amounts to a $1,000 phone call since it was the most useful thing the relocation folks did for us. Seoul defers to Beijing, Smudge makes weight, and we get on the plane. I can feel her trembling through the thin nylon of her lightweight carrier.

We arrive in China, where we stand nervously on the line for immigration. We pick the slowest line, of course, so by the time we are up to the agent, there is no one else in the room. I hold the cat in the carrier down by my side, and my arm aches from the weight. The agent stamps my passport, and I walk into China.

We retrieve our luggage from the baggage claim area, and walk through customs. Nope, we don’t have anything to declare. I hold Smudge from the handle of the luggage cart so that she hangs by my mid-section like any other bag. The customs agents barely glance in our direction, and we leave security.

Waiting for us are two people: Kiki’s agent, who shakes my hand, congratulates me on passing through, and disappears, and Mr. Dou, the WSJ driver, who grabs our suitcases and loads us and them into his car.

We get to Beijing, get our things into the apartment, and I settle Smudge in the bathroom so she can get to know the apartment one room at a time.

As I sit on the floor of the bathroom, Joanna arrives to greet us, and I run out of the bathroom, shutting the door hard behind me. It’s only when I want to show Smudge to Joanna that I realize I’ve locked the door.

She’s made it 7,000 miles in silence and dignity only to be stuck in a bathroom. We call a handyman who thinks it’s terribly funny to drill the lock out of the door only to be face to face with a terrified gray cat high on a windowsill over the bathtub.

Today, Smudge sits contentedly by me on the couch as I type these final words of her journey. It’s chilly outside and the Chinese don’t believe in turning on the heat in apartments until mid-November, but we’ve come so far. What’s a little chill after the adventures of the last few days?