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.