Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Just Another Day

Just this morning, I happened to look out my living room window. In the small amphitheater between the buildings of Seasons Park, our apartment complex, was a huge blue sign: Air Defence and Disaster Prevention, Civil Defence For The People.” Also on the sign were pictures of firetrucks shooting water at a high rise building, men in uniforms on bikes, and hard hat men standing around.

Speakers were set up, Chinese music started playing, and clusters of older folks started standing around gazing at the scene, the way retired people do anywhere in the world.

This could be interesting, I thought, and I have a bird’s eye view of the scene. So I waited to see what would happen.

What a letdown. I thought maybe there would be fire escape drills or even a lecture against public spitting (you know, the “air defence” part on the sign). Instead, there were speeches, bystanders were given colorful goody bags, little children dressed in police uniforms did some strange gestures with their arms in unison, and people started drifting away with their bags.

The last thing I saw was a volunteer from the audience who got to have a cotton scarf wrapped around his arm, I guess in case he was bleeding profusely or something.

I expected more of China.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

How Not to Cook

A near-disaster was averted before my first dinner party on Saturday when I realized at the last second that the "granulated sugar" I was about to use in my bread pudding was actually MSG. So I didn't poison my guests.

Friday, February 24, 2012

My Own Private Beijing

I want to try to describe what it’s like here. Right now I’m sitting in the study (with Smudge curled up on the couch nearby) typing up notes from my second interview with the 92-year-old poet Zheng Min, a woman who was one of the true founders of modern Chinese poetry. Because she studied at Brown in the 1940s, she speaks perfect English and has a fascination with life that would make many retired people look like slugs. I’ve already spent two afternoons with her in her apartment and we’ve talked about T.S. Elliott, Rilke, postmodernism, life in Mao’s China, and so many other things. It’s been like a graduate seminar in the Chinese literary world. In fact, I think I could say that my conversations with Zheng Min have been the highlights of my first four months in China.

And yet. It’s still a challenge to prevent the homesickness to slip in from time to time. I would like to walk down the street and have a conversation IN ENGLISH with a neighbor. I would like to listen to NPR when I wake up in the morning and watch “The Daily Show” as I fall asleep at night. I’d like to be able to jump in a cab and tell him exactly where I want to go.

That’s a good example of both the oddness of my life and the successes. The other day I had a destination that was listed both in my handy Beijing Taxi Guide and on the map on my iPad. So I flagged down a cab (which is a small triumph in its own right, although less of a challenge in the middle of the day). I showed the cabbie the destination in my little book and he nodded somewhat begrudgingly and with a slightly confused look on his face. So I decided to back it up with a look at the map on my iPad, which had both our origin and destination, connected by a solid blue line and a pulsing blue dot showing us exactly where we were.

He was not impressed.
“iPad!” I said.
He nodded ever so slightly.

After about ten minutes of driving, he started to pull over. That’s when I realized he had seen the words “Lufthanza Center” in my book. The problem is that the Lufthanza Center was only the general location and my destination was another good half-mile down the road. So I showed him the blue dot again. “I-gi-zou,” I said, remembering that’s what my friend Karla said to her driver. Go straight.

He very begrudgingly pulled back out into the street. I kept showing him the pulsing blue dot and he kept not looking at it. I’m sure he thought he had a crazy laowai (foreigner) in his cab who had no idea where she wanted to go.

We ended up exactly where I needed to go. I handed the guy his money, thanked him profusely, and got another very slight nod in response. Joanna may be able to charm the cabbies but I think I mainly make them nervous.

Here’s another example: I’ve discovered these TED talks, which are fascinating lectures that I can watch on my iPad while I run on the treadmill. It takes me hours and hours to download them, but they're worth it. Tasmanian devils, the study of brains, the way children learn: all fascinating. But picture this: I've got the iPad propped up on the monitor for the treadmill. It's so dry in the gym that, even with two humidifiers running, I still get little shocks in my ears from the headphones. Run, run, ow, run, run, ow.

Would I rather be racing from Westmoreland Circle down Mass Ave in the cold dawn? Yes. But you go to war with the army you have, and my army right now is a little depleted. I keep wondering why I feel so tired, but I think it’s often just the way everything (with the exception, maybe, of cheap and excellent manicures and great Chinese food) is just a little bit harder, a little bit stranger, and a little bit Not Home.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Birthday Week

We celebrate birthdays in a big way in this family, especially for the three of us with February birthdays. Joanna starts with her Valentine's Day birthday. This year she marked it with 18 of her closest friends in a Manchurian restaurant down the street. I'm not sure what kind of cuisine Manchurian is, but I think it means: only-half-the-menu-is-available-and-then-only-until-the-gas-for-cooking-runs-out. But they still had a great time.

For my b'day I celebrated with two friends (hey, I'm not Joanna) who took me shopping and out to lunch. Shopping involved going to a kind of speakeasy place behind the pearl market, an unmarked metal door that mysteriously opened as we approached: they were watching us on the security camera. Inside was a market with rock-bottom prices, no negotiating. That was fun. Lunch afterwards was 110 RMB for four big dishes. Later that day Bob, Joanna and I went to a documentary about Nixon's visit to China in 1972, because nothing says birthday like a little Nixon in China. After the movie, I craved anything but Chinese food. Down the street was a TGI Friday's. Yes, we did. And yes, it was a mistake.

First, the cosmo I ordered, had NO booze whatsoever, just pink liquid with a lemon twist. The burger and fries were passable. Joanna noticed that the place offered a free dessert for anyone celebrating a birthday. I should have been nervous when the waitress asked us if we wanted our dessert first or later. What I know now is that we should have had it brought out right that moment, because after dinner, when the so-called mudpie came out, it was a rock-solid chocolate cube, so hard that we couldn't even piece it with a fork. Bob kept trying, though, nearly sending the chocolate cube skittering across the table.

So even with that ignoble ending, it was a fun, oddball birthday. Sunday we celebrate all three birthdays with a visit to Maison Bouloud, near Tiannanmen. Now if we get a frozen chocolate cube for dessert there, there will be hell to pay, in three languages.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why I'm Distracted

I’m reading an interesting book on willpower, in which the writer says that the more decisions you have to make, and the lower your blood sugar is while you’re doing it, the less likely you are to resist temptation.

This explains why I’ve been picking away at the Valentine candy that doesn’t even belong to me. I don’t want to sound like a complainer but I think I might be doing something wrong here.

  1. I have five real journalism projects in half-baked stages, leading me to forget which editor I corresponded with over which article, and to do an incomplete job on other projects.
  2. I’ve been trying all afternoon to download a Ricky Gervais podcast. For the last four hours, it’s been loading at the pace of a glacier, crashing every 20 minutes or so. At the point at which I get the “download error” message, I hit the “tap to retry” spot on my iPad and start all over again. Just a moment ago, the iPad told me it couldn’t play Ricky on it. But he is sitting there in my podcasts, waiting to entertain me on my next treadmill run. I hope he’s worth all the trouble.
  3. I can’t get my gmail to run other than on the html version, which means that it doesn’t automatically update. If I hit “refresh,” I can see who might be trying to reach me.
  4. I get depleted just setting foot outside the door, where cars appear from nowhere as you walk down the edge of the street because the sidewalk has just disappeared. Pedestrians don’t bear right if you meet up with them on the sidewalk. I mean, they might bear right, they might bear left, or they might just head straight at you, arm in arm with another pedestrian. It seems to me that other countries (like America) have an unspoken tradition: If you encounter another person on the sidewalk, you bear right, like the cars. Not here. I find myself doing a little shuffle every ten feet or so.
  5. For destinations that require something other than walking, I still find the process beyond daunting. Yesterday I took a subway ride that had me more intimately connected to other human bodies than I thought was possible. The guy facing me was breathing into my face, but at least he didn’t sneeze. And yet the subway runs, something that doesn’t always happen with taxi drivers. There were three waiting outside the apartment the other day. Guy one laughed at my request (shown to him on my handy little taxi guide book) and passed me on to driver two. She just shook her head. Guy one flagged down a third taxi, who took me to the Beijing Hilton, a process that all the drivers thought was quite funny for some reason. They can laugh at me all they want if they just take me where I want to go.
  6. Food and cooking still present a challenge. I decided to whip up a little cake for Joanna’s birthday yesterday, until I realized that I didn’t have nearly enough butter in the house to make anything baked. I resorted to a good old Duncan Hines mix and prepared frosting, something I would have been loathe to do in the states. I look at recipes from Epicurious, but they all call for things like crème fraiche, or barley, or pizza crust. Impossible.
  7. Laundry works okay, as long as I do it All. The. Time. The machine drum holds three pairs of socks and one towel. If I put in more than that, the clothes don’t dry in the so-called dry cycle.
  8. I want to stay healthy, so we’ve signed up at the health club in our apartment complex. This is a process that involves having your Seasons Park residency card, cash up front to pay, and a passport-sized photo to submit. You’d think I wanted to adopt a baby or something.

These items are the reason I sit here writing blog posts, rather than doing something more productive, or more lucrative, like finding lawyers to interview or figuring out trends in packaging. And yes, I did have an editor on Saturday ask me if I could write a 500-word story on trends in packaging (you know boxes and bags) in China. By Monday. And yet that seems easier than trying to explain to the cabbie that I want to go to the East Gate of Beijing Normal University. (And meanwhile, it’s taken me about 45 minutes to log onto my blog, with the VPN, to even post this whining tirade.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Day in the Life

The speed of technology in China is beyond frustrating. Picture this: I'm sitting here with my laptop directly in front of me as I wait for Google to load. So far, it's taken about five minutes.

To my right in my iPad, where I'm patiently trying to download some TV shows. I got about 1/8 of the way through "Modern Family" when it crashed. Now I'm trying "The Daily Show." So far: 12.5 MB of 230 MB. Make that 12.6. Yes, it's that slow.

To my left is my trusty Kindle, where I'm 4 percent of the way through "Born to Run." People who use only fancy devices don't live in China, where having a good old-fashioned Kindle loaded with lots of books provides reading material that will never crash. And while it's true that a real book with real pages would also do the trick, I like the idea of having three screens going at once, kind of like I imagine an air traffic controller does. Right, Glenn?

When Google Translates

I shouldn't complain because it's a free service that works instantly if imperfectly, but I wanted to share a correspondence I had recently. I had been told the woman understands English. She does, but doesn't write English. So here's the response I got to an email, and then the translation of that offered by dear Google. Not sure just what she means by a "letter children," but I guess it's "all the better." This is far more useful than the menu offered in the "Chinese Folk's" restaurant we tried last night, where the items included "Students Love the Mutto" and "Hot Pot When." When what? We never learned. But here's today's correspondence:




I would like to interview outline will not have to improvise, but the older,
The memory is not accurate. Maybe I can find her chronology to give you.
So that you understand the information about her life
The time and place.
Day, given by you in advance to give me a letter children. For now, all the better,
No special arrangements.

Greetings to you and your family!

Everyone Talks About the Air

I have to weigh in on the main topic of conversation here in Beijing. I slipped in a "great leap forward" line towards the end:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Beijing Taxi Guide

Yesterday, I bought a Beijing taxi guide, a nifty little booklet that I can carry in my purse and use to show cabbies where, in both English and Chinese, I want to go in this vast city.

But there's an additional entertainment value in the guide in the phrases it suggests you might need to say to taxi drivers. In fact, these phrases can reveal everything you need to know about life in the Big Gray.

* Do you know this place? (okay, that makes sense)
* Are you absolutely sure?
* Use the meter
* Is this the slowest traffic light in Beijing? (okay, so now we're making chitchat?)
* I know your way is fine, but please take my way (sensing the oncoming confrontation)
* Where are we going?
* What a traffic jam!
* Where is the seatbelt? (here some nervousness is creeping in, although asking for a seatbelt is a sure sign of a newcomer)
* Could you turn on the heater? (again, that's a good one)
* Please, do you mind not smoking?
* Please ask someone for directions
* Do you have change?
* All I have is a hundred
* If you don't have change, that is your problem, not mine

And the day continues to fall apart:
* It's not permitted to drive this way
* We can't take a right here (another sign of a newcomer)

And the last three "useful phrases:"
* There is a cop!
* Traffic jam!
* accident

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Giant Beginning to the Week

Just back from the James Joyce, an Irish pub advertising a "Supperball Party" with Irish breakfast, Guinness, and "one refer" of coffee. Sadly, it meant a refill of coffee but it was still fun to sit in a smoky, dark pub and drink my refer while the Giants pulled from behind and made the Patriots look like a bunch of amateurs. And after that I walked over to the Bookworm and bought a giant amount of tickets for the literary festival. So after a rather rocky return from Vietnam, this was a much better start to the week. The fireworks continue, since today is lantern festival. We'll see what that means but I hear it's a lot about using up leftover fireworks. Yay. I'll imagine them as a celebration of the Giants.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Strange Legacy

Vietnam in 2012 is as bustling and commerce-driven as any western country, despite the ubiquitous face of Ho Chi Minh in every modest home, on many billboards, and even on tee shirts.  Yet the legacy of the war remains in odd ways. I had read that the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War, for obvious reasons, but our tour guide at My Son called it the Vietnam War.

That was the place with the most apparent sense of the war. Bomb craters everywhere, with small farmers turning them into duck ponds, perfectly round. And the ancient temples at My Son were almost completely obliterated by bombing. "I want to ask you, why the Americans did this?" our guide asked. I could only imagine that Viet Cong were hiding in My Son. Our guide said that was wrong, that the VC hid in tunnels, although later he admitted that at least some of them had hidden at My Son. I found myself in the odd position of wanting to explain the bombing even as I found it horrifying.

Every tourist shop sells tee shirts with the Robin Williams phrase "Good morning, Vietnam!" And one bar had the "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" line from "Apocalypse Now" in a giant painting on the wall. If you fly into Danang airport you see old half-circle airplane hangars, empty, although I could have sworn I spotted some old bombs sitting in the corner of one, by the side of the runway. 

Many more people here speak English than in China, and a fair amount speak French. Bob wanted mustard for his sandwich but couldn't get the waitress to understand. I said, "moutard?" and he got his mustard. We bought a copy of the movie "The Quiet American" in Hoi An because we had been told a lot of the scenes that were supposed to be set in Saigon were filmed in Hoi An. Now we couldn't help but see the strange and sad legacy everywhere. So that's why it's kind of amazing to see the warmth and welcome from the people of Vietnam, a place where every time I stop to coo at a baby, the mother hands me the baby and I find myself nuzzling a tiny Vietnamese face.