Thursday, December 20, 2012

I'll Be Home for Christmas

I'm sitting here in Beijing just waiting to head to the airport, where travelers yesterday reported huge delays and difficulties.

But I figure that the end of the world didn't happen, so that bodes well for this flight. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, China engages in a last-minute bling-a-thon to herald the season. I've noticed that the large pictures of Santa are as likely to say Christmas Merry as the other way around, but who's counting?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Snow in Beijing

Beijing doesn't always get a huge amount of snow, so Beijing-ren are taking advantage of the first real snowfall of the season. You can tell what kind of snowman it is by the shop it fronts.

This one was in front of a beauty parlor:

This one was in front of a flower shop. Note the flower petals, the fronds for hands, the Chinese eyes, and the little boy in the jacket with ears:

And last night in Sanlitun, I found a scene that gave the Christmastide good cheer a little thrill of danger. Wolf statues prowl in front of a big tree:
When China decks the halls, it goes all out.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Another Reason to Study More

I had convinced myself that I was making progress in understanding Chinese. Why, the other day, I actually figured out that my ayi was telling me that on Wednesday, I needed to stay home because someone would be delivering a new packet of coupons to buy bottled water, for which I needed to have 800 RMB handy.

Impressive, right? So I dutifully stayed home all day Wednesday, with my 800 sitting in a neat pile on the coffee table.

Except that I was mistaken.
It turns out that what my dear, helpful ayi was trying to tell me was that on Wednesday, the water to the toilets would be turned off during the day.

So the bottom line is that I picked up two words from her “conversation” with me the other day: “water” and “Wednesday.” There was also some “conversation” about buying a new packet of coupons for our water bottles, but apparently, that information was not related to the information concerning the toilets.

When I couldn’t get the toilets to flush on Wednesday, I went over to the Seasons Park management office to see if there was some outstanding bill for toilet water we needed to pay. (Don’t laugh: China charges different rates for tap water and toilet water. Since the tap water is undrinkable, I can’t even imagine what that says about the quality of the toilet water, water that Smudge enjoys drinking when I’m not looking. It’s either going to kill her or preserve her in a kind of formaldehyde-like state.)

I used my vast reservoir of Chinese words with one of the management people. “Mei you shui,” (no water) I said, making a flushing gesture with one hand. Then I realized that the toilets in our apartment flush with a button on the top of the tank, not with a handle, so I may have been making the wrong gesture.

But I was immediately understood. She said, “Jintian repairs,” mixing Chinese and English in a way I could easily understand. “Wu dian,” she added. Okay, so the toilets would flush again at 5 o’clock.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s a good life lesson, or at the very minimum, a Debbie lesson: Don’t embroider, don’t exaggerate, don’t assume, and don’t feel smug that you know something in China.

Because you don’t.

As for the mysterious water coupons, I’m still waiting.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I Stand Corrected

Oh, we have Christmas decorations now. Here's what greeted my pre-caffeine eyes in our gym this morning:
And on the outside of the actual gym:
And then, when I walked back to our apartment, a light snow was falling:
Of course, the air quality is hovering between "very unhealthy" and just plain old "unhealthy" so that gray you see is pollution mixed with snow. Ho, ho, ho.

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like....

Jingle bells, season's greetings, ho ho ho, and all that. I'm sitting here in gray, polluted Beijing where it's beginning to look a lot like...winter.

Some of the shopping malls are doing their best to entice shoppers, with candy-cane colored trees and fake garland. But for the most part, there's not a whole lot around town to put me in the spirit of Christmas. Or Hanukah. Or Divali.

There is the occasional odd-looking, inadvertently religious advertisement stuck into a sleeve in the back seat of a taxi:
And you do run across workers putting up a somewhat subdued tree:
But for the most part, city life is business as usual. Of course, that business can be rather entertaining. This is the sign that my friend Rachel and I came across yesterday when we were wandering around:
There will be a special reward for the first person who can tell me what this means. I'm hoping it's something both hot and, well, heftily.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Postcards from Cambodia

10K runners head through a gate at Angkor Wat
21K runners push for position at the start of the race.
It's time for a sunrise photo at Angkor Wat.
Sunrise, December 2, 2012

Monday, December 3, 2012

Why I Love My Ayi

How could I not love this woman?

I came home from Cambodia with a raging cold, sniffling and sneezing all over the house. My ayi saw that I was drinking lemon tea, and she said something to the effect of: Don't be drinking fruit tea. And then she searched through my frig and cabinets until I figured out that she was looking for ginger. I produced some ground ginger, and she dug up some old brown sugar. She mixed a heap of brown sugar with about a half a jar of ground ginger in a saucepan, boiled it for a couple of minutes, and served it up to me in a big mug.

It isn't what I'd normally use to treat a cold, but I feel very nurtured right now.

Update: My ayi wasn't satisfied with that. I heard her leave the apartment and return about 10 minutes later. She had gone out and bought a huge piece of fresh ginger root, chopped a portion of it into fine bits, and boiled more of it with brown sugar. Now the smells of ginger waft from my kitchen and my throat really is soothed by this sticky, gingery concoction. 

Race Day in Cambodia

There are the elite runners who stand frozen at the starting line, looking only ahead, waiting for the start, ignoring the glorious sunrise as it appears in pink and salmon behind Angkor Wat. And then there are the rest of us, adventure-travel runners who use the excuse of a race to visit a location that is exotic and on our list. Angkor Wat fit that perfectly although the heat even in December is oppressive and worrisome. Some of us, ahem, nearly missed lining up for the start because we were too busy taking photos of ourselves in front of a glorious sunrise coming up behind Angkor Wat. We started lining up at dawn and were done before the tropical humidity could cause serious problems. And unlike the scene at the Great Wall marathon last May, I saw no one who had passed out and needed to be carried away on a stretcher, only tired runners getting free oil massages of their legs and feet. There were, inexplicably, runners in giant bear suits and one fellow wearing a kilt below and a Santa costume on top. There were people running with artificial legs, and one white woman with the word Kilamanjaro tattooed on the back of her shoulder. I managed to get past Kilamanjaro in the final 1K, and hearing the cheers of the spectators at the end, also managed to sprint, really sprint, for the final 50 feet. I'm such a sucker for accolades. That may be the reason my right hamstring feels a little tender today. Along the route brown skinned urchins with bare feet stared at us and collected our empty water bottles for recycling, while pencil thin Cambodians, held back from their morning commute on bikes and motorcycles, watching with thinly veiled annoyance as runners of all size and shapes, but mostly with far more body fat than them, slogged past. At the finish, race organizers gave out cans of a sport drink, water, and sweet Cambodian bananas, while a DJ played the song YMCA in Cambodian, and hoards of tuk-tuk drivers waited to take the runners back to their hotels and guest houses. We saw runners from Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Sweden, America, Canada, Britain, Australia, and China, with many opting to walk at least part of the race, even though most of it was in shade and flat. We jogged slowly past ruins and working temples, with orange-robed monks lighting incense. We passed a sign for an elephant crossing with tourists being offered rides. At the very end, Bob, who wrote and sent out his own blog post about the day before I could get my iPad to cooperate (who's competitive? I'm not competitive!) claimed to be looking for the medical tent when he couldn't find me. But I did just fine. Such a great life lesson: go at your own pace and you can achieve what you want to achieve.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Potty Parity of Sorts

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Street Poetry

Seen on the side of a bus the other day: an advertisement for Greenness Milk Popsicle (Tianbao Green Food), Snow Gentleman Miracle Ice Cream, and Xi Ke Soybean Ice Cream (cherry flavor).


Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Scary

Sometimes the juxtaposition of things here makes me wonder just exactly what I'm doing.

Last night was a perfect example: I went to a good performance of King Lear by the British TNT Theater. It was a compelling performance but Lear was played by an American actor who had clearly played Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." So the tragic ending was tempered somewhat by my sense that the guy was going to thrust out his arms and burst into "Tradition!" at any moment. Not reverent, I realize. I did wonder if the Bard ever imagined, in his vast and sweeping imagination, that immortal phrases like "ripeness is all" or a hand smelling "of mortality" would resonate in an unheated Beijing theater in November, in 2012.

And then in the cab ride on the way home I had a creepy cab driver who kept trying to put his hand on my knee, which was frightening both because he had to reach into the back seat and take his eyes off the road, and because it was 11 at night and I was alone in the cab. I don't think "Keep your hands up front" was any kind of English he understood. I was about ten seconds away from bolting out into traffic. When I paid him on the end, he offered his hand to shake. I took it, not wanting to be rude, and he tried to kiss it. At this point I was home, so I bolted inside, shut my apartment door, and poured myself a stiff scotch.

Today, I burnt some toast in the apartment. As the rooms filled with smoke, I realized there was no working smoke detector. Opening windows to air it out meant more of a balancing of atmospheres, because the PMI 2.5 was at 200, or "unhealthy."

Most of the time I feel very safe in China. Some of the time, though, I would like things to be just a little bit easier.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Diary

7:30 a.m. – I drag myself out of bed. The air quality is 289, very unhealthy, creating a foggy look to the city. I call Mom, who is tired from making rolls and pies for her Thanksgiving feast.

9 a.m. – I attempt to take out the trash. The new Walmart trash bags are crepe-paper thin. I gingerly lift the bag and carry it out to the hallway, only to discover that the neighbors are too lazy to put their trash inside the bin, piling it up on top. As I try to move their trash, it spills on the floor and I knock a recycling bin down one flight of stairs. Wake up, Beijing! I’m an AMERICAN and I’m making Thanksgiving dinner!

9:30 a.m. – I discover that the new microwave is too small to hold any kind of casserole dish, foiling my plans to reheat the potatoes gratin later. Need. More. Coffee.

10 a.m. – I put together a potato gratin, sans bacon so that my vegetarian daughter can eat it. Bob follows me around the kitchen, trying to tell me about a new report on breast cancer. The “Car Talk” guys on my iPhone drown him out.  I distract Bob by handing him the leaf for the dining room table and we put it in.

10:30 a.m. – I start wrestling with the turkey. It’s still a little frozen inside. Uh oh. In dragging out the giblets, I further ruin my manicure. Not that it was good before. I try to check my email. I think everyone here must be trying to get on the Internet at the same time. The little circle moves slowly, so slowly. I see that Bob has also emailed me the breast cancer story. I still need to take my shower.
11 a.m. – I can’t get the VPN to connect, which means I can’t get on Facebook. It’s probably for the best because there are still people posting pictures of golden autumn leaves, sending a stab of longing to my heart. Dirty green leaves still cling to the trees in our apartment complex. Witopia tells me it’s “building an encrypted tunnel” and I imagine little elves digging under the Pacific from LA to Beijing. Go little men, go! I need to get back to the kitchen anyway. I think the little men are stuck in their tunnel – no luck.

11:30 a.m. – The directions say to peel the baby carrots, which look exactly like the bunch of carrots that Captain Kangaroo was always trying to keep from Bunny Rabbit. When I peel them, though, they become smaller than baby carrots – infant carrots. I should have left them unpeeled. I get out my “good” tablecloth (only one hole, no discernible stains). Someday, I’ll be grown up enough to have matching napkins and tablecloth.

12 noon – I sit down to check email again. Loading, loading. I’ve told guests to come at 5, so now I’m in the beat-the-clock countdown. This is the time when mistakes are made, so I tell myself to move like the Internet here. Still no VPN.

1:15 p.m. – Turkey is in the oven, roasted vegetables ready to be squeezed into the sides around the bird. Bob brings me a giant bouquet of mums, which he was proud to order up in Chinese. This is a good thing since it’s keeping him out of my hair. He also brings a tuna sandwich, which stems that low-blood-sugar feeling that had been growing on me. I find my turkey baster, which was stuck away in a drawer next to the pastry cutter that I had accused the ayi of hiding. Whoops.

2:30 p.m. – The table is set and looks nice. I’ve removed 431 pomegranate seeds from a large pomegranate. My back is starting to hurt and I think that I might need to have one of the beers in the frig. The cat is hiding under the armchair, like she knows something is up.

3 p.m. – I’m supposed to baste the turkey with the juices released, so why are none in the pan? I wash dishes for the fourth time today. My hands feel like sandpaper. I break out a Lucky Beer.

3:10 p.m. – Lucky Beer tastes like molasses. I throw it out and close my eyes for a moment.

4:30 p.m. – The phone rings. It’s Joanna and she’s on her way over. I look at the clock and stifle a gasp, as Bob has just been bragging to Daniel that I haven’t had any freakouts. I change into nicer clothes. Somehow, a blouse that I had been planning to wear shrank in the closet. I switch to a creamy off-white blouse. It plays into my risk-taking side. There will be no gravy mishaps.

4: 45 p.m. – Smoke is pouring from the oven. I ignore it.

5 p.m. – Some of the guests arrive, but not all. We ply them with appetizers and wine.

The rest of the evening is a blur. But I think it’s accurate to say that the food was delicious and the camaraderie of joining together for an all-American feast in a place so far from home made every effort worthwhile. And there were no gravy mishaps. That's a heck of a lot to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Getting Ready for Turkey Day

So, it's almost that time again -- time for a blog post describing my "adventures" in trying to recreate a proper Thanksgiving dinner here in Beijing. I did it last year in the temporary apartment with almost no utensils, so I imagine that I can do even better this year.

Last year, I remember Joanna asking me which creative recipes I'd want to make, and thinking that I needed to stick with the standards. This year, I'm venturing into new territory. There's this salad with pomegranate seeds and roasted acorn squash and beets that looks good, and all of those (if you substitute miniature pumpkins for acorn squash) are available in the local wet market, named Sanyuanli.

Sanyuanli is not for the squeamish. It's a covered market with more than 100 different stands, including a few miniature hardware stores, a whole section specializing in tofu, a couple of pricey expat stands with peanut butter and coffee, an entire meat and fish area, and then the vegetables. I've learned that if I want to snack on one of the delicious steamed buns from a stand situated between the fruit area and the meat, I need to plant myself and eat the bun on the spot. Otherwise, I'm eating a bun and staring face to face with the ghostly head of a goat or enormous pigs' feet or chicken carcasses with feet and head still attached splayed on an unrefrigerated counter. I'd rather look at fruit.

Last week when I was at Sanyuanli, I spied a couple of stands with fat turkeys all wrapped in plastic. I figure they're imported from the States, so they'll be pricey. The trick is to get one that's not frozen solid but also to determine that a thawed turkey is not the same one I saw sitting on the unrefrigerated counter last week. It would be a shame to poison my ten Thanksgiving guests with spoiled turkey.

I have a can of pumpkin. I'm glad I snatched it up last week because I have yet to see cans of pumpkins in the April Gourmet or Jenny Lou's, the expat stores where you'd expect to see them. I paid 24 RMB for it, which is $3.84. Not cheap, and I could have just bought fresh pumpkin and made it myself, but there's something Thanksgiving in buying the can.

I also have a can of cranberry sauce. My usual cooking ventures do not involve so many things in cans, but there are my rules and then China rules. I've learned to let China win from time to time.

(Although -- digression ahead -- today I let a woman at the gym have it. "Do you think everybody in here wants to hear your TV show?" I shouted at her across four treadmills. "I have my earbuds in and I still can't hear anything over your show. TURN IT DOWN!" I yelled. She glanced at me and was gone in two minutes. I have no idea if this woman, who looked ethnically Chinese, had any idea what I was saying or if she thought she needed to get away from the crazy woman laughing maniacally at "The Office." I don't care. Debbie: 1)

Okay, I'm back. So I have a tiny oven, which means the other trick will be to find a turkey that actually fits in it. I don't even begin to imagine that I'll simultaneously cook something else at the same time, so the microwave will come in handy for reheating the potatoes gratin, and later the apple crisp.

Stand by for the next "adventure." At any rate, I know it will be "interesting." I promise photographic evidence too.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Wining, Dining

Bob makes a toast at Jamie and Alison's dinner. But what is so funny?

Joseph and Bob, hungry
Me and Shirley, enjoying being waited on
These are the good moments. And then there are days like today, with hazardous air quality, no VPN on my laptop (using Bob's), and spending the moment painstakingly downloading New Yorker magazines, which isn't working. I get 1 MB, then 1.2, then 1.3, and so on. And after a half-hour and I'm up to 14 MB of a 340 MB issue, it crashes.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Just Another China Day

I started out the weekend feeling pretty good about life in China overall. There was nothing particular, except that the apartment heat works, I've been doing a lot of writing, that sort of thing.
But keep in mind that the Internet has been nearly impossible to use lately, thanks to "shi ba da," or the 18th Party Congress. Shi ba da literally translates to the Big 18. But what it means to me is that emails go out like snail mail, Google searches are mostly blocked (thankful for Bing), and I have to use Bob's work VPN to get on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog. I mean, how will I know whose puppy is especially cute today, or what the weather has been like in California?
But then it got worse. In pouring rain yesterday, two friends and I (and one baby) hired a car to take us to a furniture warehouse, since it was out in the suburbs and impossible to find. We called the owner of the place because in China you can never be sure when things are open. After she talked to our driver, we suddenly found ourselves picking her up along the side of the road. Now we have me and the driver up front, and my two friends, plus baby in car seat, and the woman squeezed into the back of the car. We got out there and walked through a huge, freezing warehouse full of beautiful reproduction antique Chinese furniture. Most of it was far too big for me since my house in DC isn't that big and my apartment doesn't need it. But I found a cute table that would make a side table. 
It took another 15 minutes to get them to actually tell us the price of the furniture. As for a tiny occasional table, they wanted 2400 RMB -- around $300. I wasn't going to pay more than a couple hundred RMB. I think they thought they could gouge the Americans. So we got out of there and since we had a driver decided to go to Walmart. I needed a microwave since ours had broken (which is another odd China story, but never mind). I found a microwave, we carried it home through the pouring rain, I plugged it in...and nothing.

So, at this point I was not feeling so great about China. Things break, and what would have taken me two hours in DC took nearly my whole weekend here. 
Today, I experienced the other side of China. Bob and I schlepped the microwave back to Walmart where they took it back, no questions asked. (Good thing I had saved the receipt) We got a new one and brought it home and it works. Bonus points: we conducted the whole interaction in Chinese. Baby Chinese, but still.
Later, a guy came to fix the dryer part of our washer-dryer. Turned out that something was unplugged, so he charged me just 100 RMB (around $20), and told me I had a good machine and that I should have it serviced once in a while. I know he told me this even though he was speaking Chinese.
Baby steps, I tell myself. I've only been here a year. Won't be long now before I quit my whining. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Don't Get Around Much Anymore

Because of "Shi Ba Da," or the Big 18 -- China's 18th Party Congress -- I can barely send an email.

But I can still joke! Today saw a new milestone: I made a joke, in Chinese. Granted, it was a joke that landed at about a six-year-old's level, but it counts. A cab driver was charging 18 rmb for a cab ride. I said, "Shi Ba -- da!" He actually chuckled.

I'll be here all week folks.

Proud Again to be a Meiguoren

No matter how you voted, no matter who won (okay, it does matter, but you get my point), we had the choice.

Some perspective: I've spent all day today trying to get on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog to write about and read about the election.

What are you afraid of China? A little free speech? Some democracy in action?

Every vote and every voice counted in this election, and it sounds sappy to say it, but when you live in a place where citizens are told how many children they can have and who is going to run the country for the next ten years, you see what a precious thing we have.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pasquale Bruno

Pasquale Bruno lived life large and enthusiastically. One of four sons from a humble immigrant family -- my father was one of the others -- he was the only one to leave home and the first to recognize both the joy and the lucrative benefits of his Italian heritage.

From his base in Chicago, where he moved a generation ago to work for Sears, he made himself into a chef, a 27-year restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, a five-time cookbook author, and a salesman of items like a pizza baking stone and a garlic press.

Ironically, although he was the son to make his heritage profitable, he was also the farthest removed from the actual reality of home: the extended family, St. Patrick's Church, Athens, his childhood. He rarely came back, preferring to look at his childhood through the lens of distance and a touch of nostalgia. On Christmas, as all the rest of us sat around Nana’s table, laden with ravioli, cavatelli, eggplant, sausage and peppers, and meatballs, everything would stop at when the phone rang at 1 p.m.  Nana would rush to the phone and Uncle Pat would wish us a “buon natale.”

That’s about as much as I knew of him when I was a kid, and it wasn't until I was living on my own and embarking on my own adventures in Italian cooking that he became a part of my life, especially after the popularity of email. He may have been of my parents' generation, but he embraced technology and stayed in touch that way.

In fact, it was only when the Washington Post wanted to write about Christmas traditions and I was interviewed about our Italian pasta feast that I began a regular correspondence with him. He emailed after the article appeared the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2007: Debbie: great story. Now I am going to make ravioli for our Christmas dinner here. The story brought back so many good memories. Thanks for doing it. And thanks for mentioning your Uncle Pasquale. Happy Thanksgiving.
Two years later, when he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he did what all good writers do when they’re trying to make sense of things: he wrote a rambling, funny, tough-guy memoir about the experience. This is how it started:  “I will not consent to die this day, that is certain. Shakespeare: ‘Measure for Measure’
Here is how it happened. How I took a wicked punch from the Big C without going down for the count. Not yet anyway. 
I had been out for lunch with a couple of friends that day, December 23, 2009.  I had braised short ribs with a side of mac 'n' cheese and iced tea. The short ribs were flavorful but too fatty. The mac 'n' cheese, on the other hand, was creamy-rich, the campanelle pasta the perfect shape to capture the lushness of the cheeses—four in all.
I took a cab home from the restaurant and settled in on the sofa. I read for a while. Dozed off. My wife came home around 5:30 p.m. We were going out to dinner later on. She sat down on the sofa next to me to discuss our dinner plans. And that’s when I heard the knock on the door.
Unusual, I thought. We weren’t expecting anyone.  I went to the door, opened it and, wouldn’t you know it? There he was. The Big C. The bastard had a twisted smile on his face, a “gotcha” smirk that really ticked me off. I said, “bug off” and slammed the door in his face.
Later, he describes a scene in the hospital with his usual bravado:  The tumor was a little bigger than a golf ball,” the surgeon said. “Titleist or Srixon?" I mumbled.  He laughed.
 I said, “I’m a food guy, Doc. Was it smaller than a peach; larger than a plum?”
“Somewhere in between,” he answered.  
“So the hole I always knew I had in my head just got a little bigger,” I said. 
 Damn, whatever they were pumping into me was making me feel really good; almost as good as I felt the first time I smoked a joint.
 “Your husband has a good sense of humor," the surgeon said. 
 “Don’t encourage him," my wife said.
 How about those apples?   Glioblastoma multiforme. Sounds like something they play around with at the Kennedy Space Center.

Two years after his initial diagnosis, a version of that essay, where he sounds like a combination of Dashiell Hammett and Jimmy Cagney, appeared in the Washington Post with the headline, “Brain cancer at age 77 doesn’t stop writer from going on with a good life.”

After it appeared and his story was picked up by a Chicago television station, he wrote me, Deb, the response has been humbling and amazing.

In his Post essay, Uncle Pat looks at his diagnosis and treatment with spunk and calm: Recently a good friend asked if I had a bucket list. “I never even thought about it,” I answered. Not being smug about it, but I really don’t know how much of a list I could put together.
“Bad luck”?
No. Good luck.
Present cancer excepted, I have had a whole lot of good luck. I have managed to throw together a veritable minestrone of good times.
He goes on to list things like teaching Oprah to toss pizza dough, meeting a young Elvis, cooking with Jacques Pepin. Leave it to Pat Bruno to take a bucket list and turn it on its head so that it becomes a catalogue of joys, triumphs, and quiet moments.
In one of his last emails to me earlier this year, he describes what turned out to be one last round of chemo to keep the cancer cells at bay:   Full day at the hospital on 'feb 16; 7 a.m. MRI, 8 a.m. labs, 8:30 oncologist (he will give me the MRI results), 9:30 chemo infusion (one hour), 11:30 out to lunch, because I will surely be starving.  Probably we will go to Coco Pazzo Cafe, which is a block from the hospital.
love and all that
Uncle Pat

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Happy China-versary to Us!

It’s hard in some ways to believe but today is our one-year anniversary of arriving in China, our China-versary. (Joanna, for the record, counts both an Asia-versary as well as a China-versary. She’s one of those people who do those sorts of things. You know who you are.)

Just a year ago, we were flying with a terrified cat into Tianjin, where we were welcomed to China by Mr. Dou, the Wall Street Journal driver, and taken to our apartment in Beijing, where I immediately locked the poor cat into the bathroom. Good times.
One of our earlier Wall hikes

It’s been a year of adventure – biking off bridges in Vietnam, hiking the Great Wall more times than we can count, and eating dim sum in Hong Kong, Kobe beef in Japan, goat cheese in Yunnan, and enough Peking duck in Beijing to fill a lake of quacking ducks, just not Donald, Joanna’s temporarily adopted pet.
Gang of Five at the Wall

I’ve met incredible characters – a doe-eyed bull named Optimus Prime, a 93-year-old dynamo named Eleanor who shows me around Beijing, a poet who made me think about postmodernism and surviving the Cultural Revolution in a new way, the sexy leader of an Italian designer clothing company, the skater Apollo Ohno, and my sweet Leah, the baby born here who lifts my spirits every moment I’m around her.
Me, Eleanor, and Karla at Tuesday Trotters

Jen and I visit the Summer Palace.
We’ve celebrated birthdays at Maison Boulard, made deconstructed ravioli for Chinese guests, entertained some of our best friends in the world who were brave enough to take on China, had Thanksgiving, Passover, a Yom Kippur break-fast, and a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras dinner. I belong to a book club, a bowling league, the Beijing International Dragonboat team, the Tuesday Trotters, the Friday Morning Group, and the International Newcomers Network, not to mention the Australia New Zealand Association, membership in which allowed me to dance on the Wall. (And yes, this is starting to sound like my Roll Call farewell email, so I’ll keep in mind that not everyone enjoys the cataloging.)

I’ve flown that long flight home three times already, each time falling in love anew with America as I remember what is wonderful about our country. But I’ve also finally become a Beijing-ren, happy to be here, happy to see where the next adventure might lead.
Visiting 798 in Beijing

Monday, October 29, 2012

Exciting News

Our landlady has agreed to raise our rent!

But not as much as we had worried, so we're staying put in tower 22 for another year. Yesterday we looked at a place in another tower that had clearly been decorated by Elvis' ghost, with bluish lights coming from five-foot-wide chandeliers and so much bling and ornamentation that my head hurt for hours afterwards.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Harmonious Enough

We celebrated Halloween in Seasons Park last night. The kids gathered in the amphitheater for a rowdy 45 minutes of snacks and photos. 

 A couple of expat parents stood with cans of beer, but in general the crowd was happy and clearly not much of a protest, unless you count the little boy who refused to don his incredibly cute homemade helicopter costume, preferring to push a stroller down the sidewalk. He'll be a rickshaw driver instead, his mother said with a shrug. Many of the little ones seemed to find their capes from the same store, like this little one.

I did notice a man in a dark suit walking officiously away toward the end of the gathering, which drew about 200 people, mainly Chinese. I heard that the organizer, decked out in purple balloons to look like a bunch of grapes, was told it had to end at 5:15 promptly. And it did.

We immediately got several rounds of trick or treaters, who yelled "HELLO!" and grabbed handfuls of candy from the bowl I held out even as I said, "yiga! Yiga! Just one!" Their parents stood in the elevator door snapping pictures of the whole scene. I guess it's all rather new to them. We got just one American kid, Super Marco, although there were several rounds of French kids. One kid asked me to put a Snickers bar in his backpack.

We started to panic that we might run out. This was no Burlington Place, where the neighborhood kids skip our block to visit the very elaborate haunted houses on Chesapeake and Brandywine streets. Bob suggested we give out those sesame wafer cookies we like, but I didn't think that would fly.

Smudge, of course, was nowhere to be found. She hates Halloween here as much as she hates it in Washington, as it disturbs her social order and is not harmonious.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Beijing-Style Recycling

Spotted in Beijing on a Saturday afternoon: just your average recycling cart.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Where Do I Begin?

I had one of those a-ha moments today when I was pushing my way onto and off subway cars. With apologies to Ali McGraw, living in China means never having to say you're sorry. It's just not done. I think part of the reason is that no one really takes offense if your bag is digging into someone's ribs, or if you bump into another person's elbow as you try to keep your balance.

I've noticed that Americans who visit me tend to walk around murmuring, "sorry, sorry," as they are bumped and shoved through crowds. I don't do that anymore.

And yes, it means that I'll almost certainly run into problems when I'm home again. I remember I once brushed past a guy standing on the escalator into the Metro in D.C. and the guy followed me into the station yelling that I had touched his arm. Here, if you reacted every time you had someone breathing on your neck or leaning on your arm, you wouldn't last long.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Now That's Spooky

Our apartment complex in Beijing is getting ready to celebrate Halloween, and one local mother has organized a party for the kids. They're to meet next Saturday in the amphitheater outside our apartment building to have a healthy snack and see everyone's costumes, and then they're going to go door to door to collect candy.

In China, only those parents who have signed up to distribute candy will get visits from the little goblins.

But what's also different is that the woman organizing the event wrote that the gathering will be short this year because the management "is concerned we will look like a protest in the election year and somebody could call the police."

Now, that's scary.
Happy Halloween!!!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

It Takes a Village

Technology is a wonderful thing. Just this morning, I got up, went to the gym and ran on the treadmill while watching a junky TV show on my iPad (don’t ask which one…okay, it was “Sister Wives.” I’d like to see you try to drown out the sound of a man hocking into a paper cup.), then called my mother on Skype, and tweeted my way through the second presidential debate while Bob kept me updated on the score of the Yankee game that he was watching on his laptop. Then I got a text on my new iPhone about meeting for lunch, texted another friend to join us, and filed one story and one invoice on my spiffy new laptop. Productive!

But what it took for me to get to this point – and not counting the moment where China kicked us temporarily off the server when I was just about to respond to a Romney comment about a “fake Apple store in China” – required a real village of support staff.  I thought I’d introduce everyone to my honor roll of technology helpers that are keeping me plugged in whether I’m climbing the Great Wall, sitting at my desk in Beijing, or running a 10K in Angkor Wat.

·         Nora. She came with me to the China Unicom store to help me set up my data plan on my new iPhone, offering support when I wasn’t being understood and showing the very patient China Unicom lady my address in Chinese. Later she made some great app suggestions, especially the livestreaming NPR music that I can listen to on insomniac nights.

·         Carlos. He spent three hours on Saturday and one hour on Sunday patiently helping me transfer my iTunes from my ancient, dying laptop to his phone and then over to my new laptop, thus enabling me to update my iPad (IOS 4, can you believe it?), load my VPN on my iPhone, and sync it all. More amazingly, he didn’t get at all snippy when I made stupid comments or suggestions.

·         Ryan, Beijing son #1. Ryan offered tech support enabling me to download apps from my iPad to my iPhone and offered reasons why my VPN still wasn’t allowing me to log on to Facebook or Twitter. He wasn’t technically right in the second instance, but I’m still grateful.

·         Witopia. Their online help, both in email and chat, is cheerful, practical, useful, and works every single time. They make my life in China possible by selling me a VPN system that bypasses the Great Firewall of China and allows me to post inane comments on Twitter, silly photos on Facebook, and these rambling thoughts on my blog.

Someday I may be able to figure out these sorts of technical problems on my own, but for now, I’m grateful for the team.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remembering Dad

Today is the anniversary of Dad’s death, and he’s been on my mind all day. In fact, I woke up this morning hearing just the faintest sound of his whistling, a sound that left me almost as soon as I registered it in my sleepy consciousness. I think it means that I need to spend more time remembering the happy moments of his life, the times when he was content with all and cheerful.

For a deeply religious man, Dad spent a lot of time shaking his fist at the universe and trying to control the outcomes of things he couldn’t possibly control. When things got tense during a Yankees game, my mother would recall him standing closer and closer to the TV and shouting directions, as if his proximity would somehow carry his voice over the wires to Derek Jeter’s ear. If I got a bee sting on my toe while I was walking in the backyard, I shouldn’t have been wearing sandals, even if it was an 80-degree summer day. If milk was spilled, fingers were pointed.

And yet, when he was cheerful, he made it feel as if nothing could possibly ever go wrong. He was at his most chipper when he was doing something useful around the house or talking to one of the grandkids. And for a deeply religious man, he was at his most cheerful walking OUT of church, on the Sundays when we’d pick up a loaf of Italian bread and the Daily News and go to my grandparents’ house for a feast. That’s when you’d catch him whistling, and that’s a memory that will last me a very long time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Rejected for Ambiguous Reasons

Yesterday I went to get out money from the ATM machine just outside the gates of our apartment complex. But instead of delivering me my usual stack of crisp 100-RMB notes, the machine whirred and rumbled and nothing happened. Then this message appeared:

“Rejected for ambiguous reasons.”

I tried again. Again, “Rejected for ambiguous reasons.”

I moved on to another machine that seemed to be unambiguous, but the first rejection got me thinking about what message China was trying to give me. Here are some of my theories:

1. China hates me and wants me to go home, but can’t say that directly and so decides to use a slow process – drip, drip, drip – of gradually wearing down my resistance until I give up, back my bags, shove my cat into her carrier, and throw myself on the mercy of United Airlines. In this category I place incidents like the rumors flying that our landlady is about to raise our rent to some astronomical amount, the fact that she refuses to fix the dryer element of our washer, and even the fact that the modem mysteriously unplugged itself on Thursday, rendering me useless and shaking in anger like an addict without her fix. It’s also possible that China overheard me shouting profanities into my cellphone, blaming it for my unplugged modem. (“We’ll fix you,” China muttered darkly.)
2.  I’ve been rejected for larger cosmic reasons, having to do with various sins I’ve committed in my life, including but not limited to refusing the PTA presidency when my kids were at Janney Elementary, finding something or someone to blame when the basic rule of “shit happens” tends to apply, and eating the last Ho-Hos of my roommates in college without telling them who stole the Ho-Hos.

3. The ambiguity is cosmic, the rejection is not. In other words, the universe is ambiguous and if we spend our lives trying to figure out the “meaning” of it all, we’ll find ourselves banging our heads against a dusty ATM outside a store selling traditional Chinese medicine and drinking wine at lunch. But if we just embrace the ambiguity, the stars will align, the sun will come out on a day with clear air, and Justin will give me a lovely haircut for 20 RMB. For now, I’ll embrace the ambiguity, at least until the next crisis hits.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Back to China

I'm back in Beijing (more on that in a bit), and the only souvenir I've brought (other than, don't laugh, Japanese cat food for Smudge) is a set of observations about Japan:
1. It's impossible to remain in a bad mood. Too many people are smiling at you all. The. Time.
2. The deer of Nara are charming. I'm still thinking about them. Even as I was fumbling in my purse for a cracker, one tall doe stood before me bowing her head in a graceful sweep and then looking at me with her big brown eyes. Impossible to resist.
3. Tokyo is the most orderly large city I've ever seen. And much greener than I expected, with little pockets of trees, bushes, and flowers squeezed into parks, medians, building terraces and roofs, the side of the road. I suddenly understood why the Japanese love all things Disney. It's the same vision: tidy streets, orderly lines, smiling faces, and nothing disturbing or bad. There are signs that prohibit smoking while walking. There are signs that ask you not to talk on your cell on trains, subway cars, and buses. And people obey. When pedestrians cross the street, cars wait for them to cross. They wait.

None of these observations are new to anyone who has traveled between Japan and China before, but they're still remarkable. Yesterday, on the plane from Tokyo to Shanghai, there was this transformation before my very eyes. Moments before, I seemed to be sitting with a planeload of Japanese tourists, quiet, calm. We even were served sushi and little smoked mackerel fish for lunch.

Then the plane landed in Shanghai. It's true that no one jumped up the minute the wheels touched down. But once the first guy stood up to pull his bag down from the overhead bin, the mood changed and suddenly I was being shoved from behind as I stood in the aisle, people were shouting into their cell phones in Mandarin, and the entire plane seemed somehow transformed from polite Japanese to loud, crass Chinese.

I sat in the Shanghai airport in my own little bubble of culture shock. I moved three times, twice to get away from Chinese who plopped themselves over several rows of seats and proceeded to shout back and forth, and once to get away from a bunch of people eating such a strongly scented dinner it seemed as if the smell would get in my clothes.

And my re-entry to Beijing was also a little rough. I took the train from the airport, which was nice, but was met at the Dongzhimen station by a rowdy and rather aggressive group of taxi drivers who wanted to know where I was going. "Home!" I yelled at them, trudging past them with my suitcase. "No? No?" they said somewhat threateningly.

Down the street, a bunch of guys had just left a karaoke bar, and were drunk, weaving, and peeing into bushes. I just went home to be greeted by a very happy cat. Today, though, my internet suddenly stopped working. While I grumbled and made horrible assertions about China, I learned late in the day, after the very patient Mr. Zhang was badgered to come here, that one plug had been ever so slightly dislodged and disconnected the modem.

Now how I could do email earlier in the day and then suddenly find it disconnected when there was no one in the room is beyond me. Gremlins, I guess. But I really in all honesty have to say I can't blame this on China. My stupidity carries the day.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Zen and the Art of Toilets

The difference between China and Japan might be best illustrated in the stark differences between toilet facilities.

China's facilities are more often than not squatter toilets, simple holes in the ground where one squats and does her business. I can now manage these without feeling I may topple over or pee on myself, although I sometimes have to place a hand on a not-so-clean wall for balance. (For my squeamish readers, there is no cause for concern. This is as graphic as I get, and there will be no photos.) You also need to remember to bring tissues, since toilet paper is often absent. And don't throw the paper in the hole or -- in cases where you might be lucky enough to score a western toilet -- in the toilet. The paper goes in a bin next to the toilet.

There are smells. There are insects.

And then there's Japan. Here I rarely think about whether I should use the loo before I set out because the toilet facilities are abundant and spotless. Over the top, even. For instance, the other day we were visiting the manga museum in Kyoto, a museum celebrating Japan's famous comic books. I needed to use the ladies room. Inside was a high tech toilet with about 12 options for use: cleaning with a thin stream of water, cleaning with a spray, increasing or lowering the temperature of the seat itself. And then a picture of a musical note next to the word "flushing." Music to flush by? I was intrigued and figured that this option wouldn't leave me soaked.

So I pushed the button. Flushing noises ensued, but no actual flushing. Was this to hide the impolite sound of using the toilet? In a place like Japan where a cab driver apologizes for having one of the few cabs where the door doesn't automatically close, it's entirely possible.

So I stood there listening to the flushing noise and looking at my still-unflushed toilet. How to turn off the noise? How to actually flush? I was afraid to push more buttons and briefly considered sneaking out under the camouflage of flushing sounds.

Finally, I located the off button for the noise. And there, on the side of the toilet, was an old-fashioned handle. D'oh! Mission accomplished.

Later, Bob told me he had used the facilities in the same museum and the seat was almost painfully hot. He couldn't figure out how to lower the temperature. Arigato, Japan.

Friday, October 5, 2012


We went to a town called Nara earlier this week. Inside Todai-ji, the largest wooden building in the world (or so they say) is one of the largest Buddhas I've ever seen. And behind that Buddha is a wooden column with a hole in it. Popular legend says that those who can squeeze through the hole will achieve enlightenment.

"I have to try this!" I say. "I'm small!"

"You think you're as small as Japanese schoolchildren?" asks Daniel, ever the skeptic, looking at the long line of excited children waiting to crawl through the hole.

I decide against trying, not because I didn't think I would fit (even the chubby kids were making it with a little tugging) but because I didn't want to wait in a line of screaming kids for an hour.

"Maybe the true enlightenment is realizing you don't need to squeeze through a hole to achieve enlightenment," says Daniel.

Now that's wisdom.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why Can't China Be More Like Japan?

This is not fair to China, since China is much poorer and much less developed than Japan. But it's hard to be in Japan without feeling as if you're in an Asian country that works.

Today is a good example of how smoothly things can go. We're in Kyoto but decided to do a day trip to Nara, a town about a half-hour by train from Kyoto. We take a cab to the train station from a lineup of about 8 cabs sitting patiently in front of our hotel.

We get to the train station, wait in an orderly line, and buy three round trip tickets to Nara, speaking English to the clerk. We get on the train and it efficiently deposits us in charming Nara, where we are given a map in English and spend the day looking at stunning shrines and temples, eating sushi, walking under crystal clear skies, and generally enjoying ourselves. Then we walk back to the train station, visiting clean restrooms on the way, get on the train and end up back in beautiful Kyoto.

It rarely works that way in China.
I mean, China has its charms. There are no strong smells in Japan, unless you count the incense in the temples. There are not as many outrageous outfits, or people staring at us, unless you count the cute little school boy in the yellow cap who clearly needed to interview foreigners for a school project. "Hello, my name is (fill in a long Japanese name here). Where are you from?"

We consider telling him Beijing but know that it would totally mess him up. "America!" I chirp. "And you?"

He squirms. I'm going off script, so I decide I won't ask him if he plans to watch the first presidential debate.

Anyway, he's charming, as are the Chinese people we see in Beijing and everywhere.

But what I mean is that Japan is orderly and spotless. We visited a local coffee shop two days in a row, and now we're considered regulars. All the taxi drivers want to chat us up. It takes me half a day to find a trash bin to throw out trash. There is no trash and there are no bins. Does Japanese trash just magically disappear?

Even the deer in the park at Nara have learned to bow their delicate heads when they want a biscuit. I want to come back in my next life as a sacred deer in Nara's parks, watching the hoards of schoolgirls in sailor dresses and knee socks squeal as they slip a deer wafer in my mouth.

I'm hoping that I won't be too sad when I land in Beijing and taste the metallic air and ride in a hair-raising cab trip home. Meanwhile, I'm appreciating Japan's gracefulness and beauty.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Japan So Far

Bob, Daniel and I have been in Japan for about three days, which I figure is about enough time for me to make sweeping generations about two nations.

There are huge differences between China and Japan. If China is the crude old uncle who spits on the sidewalk and has stains on the front of his shirt, Japan is the delicate geisha who bows constantly and seems genuinely delighted to have you visiting. Here's what I've noticed so far.

1. On the street in China, people don't smile. If you stop them, they're all smiles, but outward appearances seem to indicate they're in the bad mood when they're probably not. This does not count those who walk down the streets in Beijing singing at the top of their lungs. On the street in Japan, people seem to be smiling all the time.

2. Toilets: Let's just say that China has toilet facilities, if you count troughs and holes in the ground. I'll never forget the one tour we did near Pingyao where one of our group said she saw something moving below her. In Japan, the toilets are so high tech it's sometimes hard to figure out the flush button. The seats are warm and clean, and you can do interesting things with water.

3. Lines: In China, if you see a door or a place you want to get to, you just go. There's not really the concept of lines. I got myself in trouble a couple of times back in the States when I just didn't see a line. In Japan, people line up to enter subway cars, they wait politely even when, say, you're buying train tickets and your credit card doesn't work and someone decides to call VISA to see what's up.

4. Greetings: In China, there's the all-purpose "ni hao." In Japan, they say a lot of stuff when you come in, and then there's all this bowing. The bus attendant at the Tokyo airport bowing as our bus left, the hotel bellhop bowing and backing out of our room.

5. Clothing: In China, women love bling and other adornments, so that I have often seen outfits that combine shoes with glitter and high wedges, stockings with sequins, dresses with enough ruffles to satisfy a three-year-old, and fake eye glasses. In Japan, you're likely to see women in kimonos waiting for the subway or buses. The girls wear knee-high socks and short skirts, unless they're in a suit.

6. Cell phones: In China, if you get a call on your phone, you SHOUT into it, no matter where you are, including a crowded subway car. In Japan, you take your phone into the space between cars so as not to disturb others.

7. Cleanliness: Let's just say I haven't seen any spitting here. Or trash outside bins. In fact, we saw people scrubbing benches and streets to make them so clean you could eat off them. In China, babies defecate on the street, dogs defecate on the sidewalk, and people tend to toss their wrappers as they walk along.

8. Taxis: In China, getting a taxi to stop is a triumph. Getting him to go where you're going is a second achievement. Granted, the ride won't cost more than a couple of dollars, but the number of times I've been stranded without a ride are many. In Japan, there are taxis every three feet, spotless cars with lace covering the seats, drivers who won't go until you put on the seatbelt, doors that open and close automatically, and drivers who want to tell you the best sights to see in their fair city. In China, drivers take you on a hair-raising route through city streets, bearing down on the horn as pedestrians scurry out of the way, and making you wonder if you'll make your destination alive. In Japan, taxis wait patiently as pedestrians amble across the street. I have yet to hear a car horn. Of course, the ride costs as much as $35 each time you go, but it's almost relaxing.

So to say that I'm in a bit of culture shock is an understatement. We're off today to see more of what delightful Kyoto has to offer.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

When Words Fail

I'm back in Beijing, and mostly enjoying the relatively simplified life I live here.
Even with the hassles: a washer that used to dry clothes, and now has decided not to dry clothes. (China: 1)
Air pollution in the "very unhealthy" range, which I can smell and taste. (China: 1)
A cab ride across the city that costs as much as coming from the airport. (Debbie: 1 -- at least we got a cab)

We're enjoying the visit of Jen and Bill, and yesterday we managed to visit both the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.

It was only when we decided to take them to our favorite Xinjiang restaurant that the day fell apart a little. We ordered about six dishes -- green beans, wild vegetables, nan bread, nan bread with ground meat on top, some grilled chicken and beef.

But what appeared on our table first was an odd cold turnip thing. How do you say in Chinese, "We didn't order this?" I don't know. Best I could manage was "bu yao" -- I don't want. The waiter helpfully showed me that I HAD ordered it by pointing to the Chinese characters on the receipt. Oh, okay. Maybe I pointed wrong, I thought.

Then another dish we hadn't ordered came out: some dark blue pickled eggs. I know I didn't point to that. And then another dish: grilled shrimp. Again, I was certain we didn't even go near the seafood section since Jennifer doesn't eat fish.

So I had a bit of a meltdown, or as much of one as I could do with my limited language. "Bu yao! Bu yao!" I yelled and placed the shrimp and the eggs on a table across the aisle.

Meanwhile, the green beans turned out to have some sort of spice that made Jennifer gargle with beer. I've never seen anyone gargle with beer before.

As I'm watching her gargle, the waiter comes over and puts the eggs back on our table. At this point, I give up. China: 3, Debbie: 0.

After a few minutes, the waiter came over and said something in Chinese that sounded contrite. I mumbled something back -- I'm going to assume it was an apology. Did they take the unordered dishes off the menu? I have no idea, but the final bill was only about 158 RMB, or about $25, and that included three big beers. So I paid up, while the waiter continued to shoot me doleful looks. I think we got him in trouble, and then I probably compounded the insult by taking my change with my left hand.

I still have so much to learn.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What It's Like to be Back

So I'm back in Beijing and in general delighted to be home.
But China keeps winning little victories, just to remind me that I'm not in Kansas anymore (sorry, Nora).
The dryer part of our washer-dryer is not working.
The internet connection is so slow it's taking me a while to post on my blog.
The ATM was out of service for a chunk of the day.
I've been shoved off the airplane, nearly run over in the street, and shopped in the local Wu Mart that reeked of spoiled fish.

But I'm home.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dear America

I'm just finishing up a lovely three-week visit with you, and I want to tell you what it's like to visit you after living in China for almost a year.

You need to appreciate what you have here:
Blue skies
Food that you can eat without wondering if it will make you sick
An open Internet
Roads that are paved and smooth
Air conditioning
Stores that sell anything you could want to buy
Elections where voters actually get to pick their next leader
Drinkable tap water
Green parks, green roadways
Lakes as clear as tap water
Ice cream
Newspapers that can write the truth
Maine blueberries
Garbage cans
Good coffee
Living anywhere you want to live
Crossing the street without having to look in every direction
Rain storms that don't flood your cities
Clothes dryers
Shirts without sequins or ruffles
Blue skies
Body lotion that doesn't whiten the skin
Lobster rolls
Good beer
Kayaks on pristine lakes
Blue skies
Air that smells of cut grass, not machines
Raisin bran for $2 a box
Sugar free gum
No one spitting in the gym
No one spitting on the sidewalk next to you
Blue skies 

Trust me on this. We're pretty lucky. And we tend to take it mostly for granted.  

Monday, August 27, 2012


So I have a crush on a fellow named Optimus Prime. He has big brown eyes and likes me (I think) because I gave him a fancy apple.

OP (he didn't ask me to call him that, but I could tell he kind of liked the nickname) is a champion fighting bull, Yunnanese style. The way bullfighting is done in these parts of the world is quite different from what I know of bullfighting elsewhere, with its blood and gore and Hemingwayesque characters and death of critters who did nothing wrong but happened to be born bulls.

In Yunnan, bulls fight each other and the match is determined by which bull runs off first. When we went to Yunnan to see this phenomenon, I have to say I was both surprised and pleased that this kind of fighting was far less bloody and lasted sometimes only seconds.

The town of Damogu in northeast Yunnan has a kind of natural amphitheater, surrounded by the craggy volcanic rocks the region is known for. Spectators perch on the rocks or dangle their legs over the wall built around the pit where the bulls fight.

On our first day of bullfighting, we watched a good four hours. Organizers started with the less fierce bulls. Two bulls would be led into the arena. The first few bulls needed a certain amount of prodding and whipping to goad them into charging each other. Even when they did, you had the sense that they weren't fully engaged in the spectacle. Quite a few of them saw a mud pit in one corner of the arena and ran right over there to roll around in the mud like a puppy off the leash. Others, left to their own devises, would stick their noses up in the air sniffing and studiously ignoring the other bull four feet from them, until out of the blue, one bull would turn in an instant and butt the other guy. Sometimes that would result in a head butting battle with locked horns (so many cliches come from bullfighting!) but more often, one bull would suddenly charge away from his opponent, losing in an instant. Once when two bulls of unequal size were matched, the smaller bull took one look at the behemoth in front of him and took off in a gallop. Can't say I blame him.

What's also fascinating is the number of wirey young men who watch all this from the pit itself. Their main job is to stop the winning bull from continuing to charge the loser: the minute one bull runs off, the match ends. But sometimes the winning bull seems to want to make a further point and continues to gallop after the loser, both of them panting and splashing through the mud in the hot august sun. The men chase after both bulls with nothing but a rope and a hook to capture the bulls. Some of them end up sailing along with a tenuous hold on the horns, Chinese cowboys.

At today's event the crowd is enormous. A woman with a fur-trimmed fake black leather jacket, high heeled sandals, and black three quarter leggings that end in lace sits under a parasol next to me on a hill overlooking the arena. When her baby cries she lifts her black top and sticks a nipple in his mouth.

 I sit under a parasol too, but the day is still blazingly hot.

The highlight of the day was OP. And he was well worth the wait. Before OP fought, his handlers threw a red blanket over his back and he became the Muhammed Ali of bulls. As he walked majestically down from his prime shaded waiting area, the crowd began a low roar. And unlike other bulls who had to be goaded into fighting under the blazing Yunnan sun, OP burst through the gate like a freight train, throwing off his handlers and his blanket in one stride and charging toward the other bull like he hated him. The first bull he fought, number 3, met OP's challenge for a split second and then turned tail and raced around the arena with a look of terror on its brown face. I had never seen one of these majestic creatures look frightened, but 3 galloped several laps around the arena with his tounge hanging out and his eyes rolling, outrunning all the wranglers who were racing to catch him.

The second match was much like the first -- gate opens, charging bull heads straight for the other bull standing there minding his own business, and it's all over in seconds. I kept waiting for OP to say he could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Meanwhile, some perspective. I've been baking at the bullfights since 1 that afternoon, and even with a pink parasol, a wide brimmed hat with a pink ribbon and bow, sunglasses, sunscreen, and plenty of water, I had had it. So when I heard that OP was fighting three more times, I bailed on Bob and his entourage of videographer, translator, and all-around-fixer. Sorry, OP. I knew you didn't need me there to cheer you on.

I went back to the restaurant where we had had lunch. It was packed with diners, so I convinced the staff to sell me a large and COLD bottle of beer, which I took outside and sat on the steps, drinking. It's hard to overstate just how much attention a laowai in a pink bonnet, purple tee shirt, and bright pink face attracts when she grabs that bottle of beer and sits on the stoop drinking.

When I first sat down on the dusty stoop, I was alone, but soon I was surrounded by people who had finished their dinner and left the restaurant. The children were the bravest, and they ran by me again and again peering curiously at me as I read and typed on my iPad. But the others got braver as time passed, and they casually strolled by me on my stoop, glancing over my shoulder as I typed. I'm used to being stared at in the rural areas of China. As Bob said, they've seen bulls before. They probably haven't seen many foreigners.
Later I hear that OP has taken down all the competition and even rolled a few hapless fellows. Losing bulls are often sent to the slaughterhouse, I’m told, so although there isn’t the same amount of visible gore (unless you count the severed donkey’s head I saw at one donkey-meat stand on the way into the arena), it’s still a life and death kind of situation. I’m still glad I saw the spectacle, which also included a woman with bound feet picking her way through the crowd, a poor pensioner begging our leftover cold noodles, the sight of giant horned bulls grazing peacefully amongst the throngs of people, and a ten-year-old smoking a cigarette with the aplomb of John Wayne. And, of course, one more opportunity to look ridiculous in hats.