Friday, March 30, 2012

Another Day, Another Clustersomething

I’m a day out from this week’s “adventure,” so I can chuckle at the craziness of it all. And not even search too hard for someone or something to blame. Although playing the blame game is part of my birthright. When I was growing up, if a glass of water was knocked over, or if a bee stung someone on the toe, we only had to wait – five, four, three, two, one – and fingers were pointed, blame assigned.

But never mind. Yesterday’s experience wasn’t about who was at fault for what went wrong. Or not totally.

So Women’s Wear Daily wanted me to cover a textiles show -- very sexy -- and hired a photographer to go along with me. He mentioned to me that the show was kind of far out of town, by the airport, so we hired the wonderful Mr. Mu and set off. When we got there Thursday afternoon, something was not right but we assumed it was the usual Chinese mass confusion. Workers were hauling out the detritus of the show as we made our way inside. In the hall, naked mannequins tilted forlornly on the floor and boxes were everywhere.

The show was closing down even though it was supposed to be only the second day of a three-day show. Did that make us stop and think? No, not right away. I hurriedly interviewed some folks who spoke English, got some quotes (at that point I was happy to have any quotes at all) and Jonah, the photographer, took some hasty shots.

But then we encountered more strangeness: We couldn't find the press center. And then when we found it, they told us they were closing down. But wasn't there supposed to be a press conference at 4, we asked? Confusion. Remember, too, that few people speak English well enough to be really helpful. Lots of blank looks. Press conference? Press briefing? Media? Journalist? Interview? I kept asking them.

Finally, I pull out one of the press releases from the show so I could call the flack and ask her what the hell was going wrong. And then, only after a good hour at this other show, it hits me. We've gone to the wrong convention. Yes, this one was also fashion (it being Beijing fashion week and all), but the one we wanted was back in town. An hour back in town.

I called Mr. Mu, who was relaxing over lunch at a nearby McDonalds, and he booked over and headed back into town. Traffic ensued. We finally got to our convention at about 3:30, went through the complicated process of getting registered as press (my card read Womens Eear Daily), and got into the show. I interviewed some nice people from a Portugese exhibit, and then went to a rather uninformative press conference. 

Promptly at 5, the show shut for the day. Making my way home was another story, but one that has been covered at length in some variation on this blog. A slog to a subway, a packed subway at rush hour, a long tired walk home after trailing through a Dongzhimen station that is about as large as a D.C. neighborhood.

But then where the three of us went out to a great Yunnan meal. Yunnan is my new comfort food. The day ended with a nice, spicy thunk. Then today I looked back at the press release, which said:

China New Internatioanl Exhibition Centre
6 East Beisanhuan Road, Chaoyang District
Beijing 100028, PR China

Wouldn't you think that that meant the convention was at the NEW exhibition center? You would. And we did. But it was at the OLD one. Close to home. What a waste of time and RMBs.

Back to blame: I’m not blaming China on this one. I’m blaming PR types who can’t take the time to make sure they have correct information on press releases. And it’s not just Chinese speakers, of course. A final note comes from a Portugese textile association:  “To do that, they carry in their luggage competences in the art of weaving that crossed already two centuries…”

After this week, I feel as if I’ve crossed a couple of centuries myself.

Monday, March 26, 2012

This is a Place With Jambience

Our mailbox had a flyer today from the Haisheng Restaurant, which is the club restaurant on the grounds of Seasons Park where we live. The club, as described in the flyer, “is a comprehensive service site withhing-end meals, body building, swimming and SPA, children’s playground and exhibition hall ingold positions.” In addition, “it has a pleasant and quite Jambience with a widevision,” says the flyer.

To whet your appetite, some of the restaurant’s signature dishes are listed. There’s “fried seaweed algae,” “marinated large Yeh,” “salad of red wine” (for the record, my favorite kind of salad), “Chrysanthemum fresh fungus,” “dry pot bacteria” (hungry yet?), and Joanna’s personal favorite, “authentic pretenders.”

“They’re authentically pretending to have a decent restaurant,” she said, referring to the one unhappy meal the three of us had at Haisheng. It was overpriced, slow, and not very good, all things that rarely happen in China. Most of the food here is cheap, fast, and good. 

Some people might think that making fun of the listings in Chinglish on menus is like shooting fish in a barrel. I tend to think of it as shooting the “Lake Organic big head” in a barrel. The description: “Lake of wild big head, a head of the king’s reputation, Growth in natural waters in the Lake, Eight to ten years to catch, nutritious, organic food is a rare, exclusive restaurant has the right to operate, innovation in the restaurant under Chef Xia Yuliang, widely praised by customers.”

Kind of says it all, in a widevision kind of way.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Outdoor space is prized in Beijing. Our apartment looks out onto a pretty amphitheater, which seems to be used nearly every moment of the day. At dawn, there's the group of three or four older folks doing tai chi with a leader, looking ghostly and mysterious in the fog of morning. As the day begins, the dog walkers, strollers, and even the occasional jogger circle on the sidewalk outside the amphitheater. Right after school, children gather there for an ongoing game of soccer which lasts just until they're called inside for dinner. On weekends, you'll see men batting tennis balls against the wall, toddlers riding tiny push cars, a man jumping rope, and children learning how to ride a bike or use roller blades. On the one Sunday it snowed, a father and his two children were able to scoop up enough snow to pummel each other with snowballs. In other words, there's always entertainment for me and for Smudge.

We have what we call our "patio," a glassed-in alcove where we've put two chairs and our tile table from Italy. In the morning as the sun streams in, I call my mother from my iPad and drink coffee. Later I have breakfast on this patio. It's not the same as a front porch, but it's pretty pleasant.

And the other good news is that it’s starting to feel like a neighborhood. I’ve run into friends more than once just out and about on the street, and that helps make everything feel a little bit friendlier. Five months and counting!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

It Is a Great Wall

Bob, Joanna and I did yet another hike on the Wall today, and once again my old friend didn't disappoint. Aside from one Austrian woman who seemed rather surprised that she had to climb UP to get to the Great Wall and that it was quite a scramble once we were up there (I even heard her grumbling about how in her country they would have repaired the crumbling wall), it was a congenial group.

 The day was windy and cold but with sunshine. We had a nice time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What You Learn from the Classifieds

The Beijinger magazine has an online classified site that can be a fascinating window into the interaction between the expat community and native Chinese. I looked through two days’ worth of classifieds today, and besides the usual selection of English instruction, Chinese instruction, personals (and some creepy mixture of language instruction plus personals), there were some ads that caught my eye:

  • “Blonde hair dye kits bought in Australia. Extremely hard to find in Beijing.”
  • “Be a character in a videogame – looking for expat teenagers & adults. Stormglass, a video company targeting audiences in the USA, is currently seeking Beijing expats to appear as characters in a videogame.” The ad describes the characters: Tim, 14-15, male, honest; Malcolm, 14-16, male, sinister; Dr. RS, 30s to 50s, male, sneaky; Dr. JS, 50s to 60s, distinguished scientist. It also says that the “roles primarily demand posing for still photos before a green screen.”
  • “White guy needed for boardroom meeting. We are looking for white actors to sit through boardroom meetings. There will be around ten meetings each lasting about 5-10 mins over a four-hour period. You do not have to say anything or do anything apart from sit there, so this job is pretty laid back.” The ad offers payment of 500 RMB plus lunch. “I am ideally looking for white males or females who are over 30 (preferably 40+).
  • And then this: “hello, we are a model company which needs urgently white foreign models (female&male) based on our fast developed business need, the salary is at least 5000rmb per day. If u are interested in being high-paid models, pls send us your resume and following info to
performance vedios:
modelling experience:
job experience:
educational background:
TEL number:
height :
weight :
hobbies :
“plus, we welcome those yong people who are new in this industry but have very outstanding appearance, spirit and personality, we do not mind if you have no modeling experience, as long as you are passionate, dedicated,potential and smart, we are happy to find more talents and fresh man to join our fun team which leads to our team members' brighter future and surprising financial reward.”

I don’t think I need to offer any commentary at all here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Cautionary Tale

I spend my days on the lookout for stories that I might use for my freelance career or for entertaining the readers of this blog. But then I come across something that just stops me cold, especially when I realize I’ve now gotten to the point where I don’t have my heart in my throat when I cross Beijing’s traffic-clogged streets.

Lesson: Maybe I should keep my heart in my throat and my wits about me. Just today a friend grabbed my arm as I started to march across a street without looking. What gets me about this story is that the guy hit a traffic cop so hard he actually flipped onto the roof of the car. And the police let him go. They let him go.

I’m wondering if it’s just a matter of time before I find my own body sailing up across the hood of a car that just didn’t see me.

Traffic cop hit by absent-minded driver
Global Times | March 18, 2012 18:48
By Agencies

A video showing an incident in which a traffic officer in Nanning in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region was "hit and sent flying" by a car making a left turn at an intersection has over 1.5 million views on popular Chinese video-sharing website Youku.

The accident happened around 7:50 am on March 7. Traffic police officer Ding Jie was standing in the middle of the intersection to guide traffic, helping many morning commuters make left turns onto Minzu Road. Out of nowhere, a gray car suddenly accelerated and hit Ding.

Ding said when the car hit him, his reflex was to use his hands to launch his body onto the hood of the car, preventing him from being run over.

The bumper left a scratch on his feet, and a subsequent medical examination showed that there were no other injuries.

The driver said he was rushing to work, and was trying to pass others on the inside. As a result, he was paying attention to the car on his right and failed to notice the police officer on his left.

After chastising the driver, the police let him continue on his way.

Global Times - Agencies

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Great Ravioli Debacle

Now I've made ravioli many times in my life. I've even made them in front of a Washington Post photographer and reporter who were doing a story on holiday traditions. I mean, I feel so confident about my ravioli-making skills that I venture to compete with my little sister at Christmastime to see who makes the best ravioli. And she's no slouch in the Italian cooking competition. I'm still thinking about her braciole.

But I digress. I just want to say that I know my ravioli. I've made traditional ravioli -- meat filling, cheese filling -- and more creative ones like mushroom filling or artichoke and sun dried tomato filling. No problem.

So when I wanted to impress some Chinese friends who so lavishly entertained us last year in their Beijing home, I knew that I had to make them ravioli. Easy.

I set aside Thursday for my work, and soon the kitchen floor was covered  in flour and my ghostly footprints were tracking all over the dark hardwood floors of our beautiful apartment (sorry, ayi).

I used a flour called Dr. North. Sounded both interesting and appropriate. I mean, flour is flour, right?

Oh, hubris, thy name is ravioli queen.

I slaved all day over my mushroom ravioli. So what if I didn't have room in my freezer to store them the way I usually did? I figured they would stay fine in the frig.

Today (Friday) I checked on the seven dozen or so ravioli.

China: 1
Debbie: 0

The  mushroom ravioli were a soggy, stuck-together mess. My howls brought the ever-sensible Joanna to the kitchen where she convinced me that a second-day visit to the freezer might just salvage them. It certainly couldn't make them worse.

Stand by for the resolution to this debacle. In the meantime, I cooked up a mean tomato sauce and a killer cake: called the Procrastinator's Drunken Monkey Cake, ideal because it called for FIVE ripe bananas. You know, the now-you-have-to-show-the-apartment bananas. So what if that recipe called for flaming some dried fruits in rum? Piece of cake (so to speak) compared to soggy ravioli.

And tomorrow I'm going to whip up a quick batch of fettuccini as backup, and I'll pay extra for imported American flour so that I get the right stuff.

And here's the good news: the next dinner party I'm doing is a Passover Seder. No flour problems when you don't cook with flour.

The Grand Finale

Saturday afternoon I made fettuccini and meatballs, both relative successes, especially compared to the soggy-then-frozen ravioli.

As Saturday evening approached, I filled two big pots with water, one for the Plan B fettuccini, and one for the ravioli.

As the water reached a boil, I took the ravioli out of the freezer. Instead of a soggy mess, they were a rock-hard mass, attached to the wax paper that separated them. When I tried to gently separate the pasta from the paper, the ravioli cracked like splinters of glass, exposing their mushroom innards.  I called Joanna into the kitchen, but she quickly removed herself when she saw that I was not allowing her to crack the ravioli apart.

In desperation, I placed the entire mass of frozen ravioli and wax paper in the boiling water, and tried to gently tug the wax paper from the ravioli as they softened, succeeding only in ripping little shreds of paper from the mess.

In the end I managed to retrieve about six "deconstructed" ravioli from the mess, and abandoned the rest of the wax paper/ravioli/mushroom stew.

The dinner party was a success and I suddenly realized that filled pasta might not be worth the time and angst. After our guests left, I started the cleanup by dumping the wax paper/pasta/mushroom stew into a trash bag. Anyone who has lived in China knows where this story is heading. For some inexplicable reason, garbage bags in China are tissue-thin. I didn't know plastic could be that delicate.

The stew ended up spilled all over our kitchen floor, looking a lot like the contents of a stomach of a high school kid who -- I don't know, just making up something here -- had a big pasta dinner before drinking too much and then smoking a cigarello. Say, in 1974.

Anyway, there's a lesson in here somewhere but I'm too tired at the moment to figure it out. Maybe it's just the comeuppance of a pasta snob who thinks that 7,000 miles and a freezer the size of a loaf of bread won't throw off her ravioli game. You win this one China.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Just Breathe

Beijing is notorious for its horrible air quality, and any expat here spends a good portion of the time monitoring the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter feed on air quality, talking about the air with friends, and debating the health effects of air that can be seen, smelled, tasted, and actually felt. The only sense I can’t use is sound – I can’t hear the air pollution.

As a result, I’ve developed a system that goes beyond what the Embassy describes in its reading of fine particulates. Who needs to sign on to the VPN and check Twitter when our own bodies can give us a reading? Here’s my scale:

Good: Going outside on a good air day is like going outside anywhere. The sun is usually shining and you take deep breaths of air. You look at the sky with an appreciation that you’ve never had before. If you are chatting with a friend, you stand in the sun. Life is good.

Moderate: The air still looks about the same, but stepping outside the door of the apartment makes your eyes water a little. Something is a little off but you can’t quite say what is wrong. You get annoyed by cars that nearly run you down.

Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups: There’s a faint smell in the air when you step outside the door, and you find yourself sneezing a lot more than usual. There’s gunk in your nose and if the wind blows, you start to seep more water from your eyes. More and more people are wearing face masks. You start to mumble threats to the cars that appear to want to turn right into your torso.

Unhealthy: You step outside and have a metallic taste in your mouth. Buildings 50 feet away appear in a haze as if air-brushed, and the sun may be out and round in the sky, but filtered through the smog. You clear your throat a lot as if you’ve been laughing. But you’re not laughing. Oh, you’re not laughing.

Hazardous: You taste the air inside your apartment the minute you wake up in the morning. Your cat’s fur smells funny. Outside, the world seems muffled and the tickle in your throat doesn’t go away. In fact, it extends down into your lungs and rests there like a tiny gremlin. Your eyes burn and your skin feels coated with grime. At night, the world seems blue, as the lights from apartment buildings peek through the darkness. You start to plan trips out of here: Japan, D.C., the moon maybe?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

More Fun With Translation

So our kitchen sink was broken, and my task was to go to the building management people and ask for a repairman to fix the faucet, which is no longer attached to the sink.

I thought to use my handy “Pleco” translation app on my iPad. So I looked up the words, “kitchen sink.” Here are the suggestions: “guotai: the top of a kitchen range; wei zhe zhuan: to be tied to the kitchen sink;” “wo bu xiang dang jiating funu, yi beizi wei zhe ~ zhuan: I don’t want to be a housewife slaving away at a hot stove all my life.”

Well, okay then. Now there’s nothing wrong with these statements, but I’m trying to imagine announcing that to the baffled building management folks.

So I looked up the word “sink.” The translation: “aoxian: cave in; sink;” “dimian: the ground caved in;” “shuang jia: have sunken or hollow cheeks.”

Oh, China. You’re so dramatic.

Finally, I found the word for your basic noun for sink: “xidicao: washing tank.” Close enough. And the girl at the management office, while she didn’t understand what I was saying in English, did understand that. And promised to send a workman in an hour.

Now I have no idea if he’ll show up with lightbulbs or dumplings to help me with my sunken cheeks, but at least it’s a start.

Update: not only did the workman show up and fix my sink in about 3 minutes, but he spoke English and didn’t charge a single RMB. Thank you, China.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Banana Update

While Bob, Joanna and I gamely try to eat one or two bananas a day, I thought I should update you all on the strings that were attached to our gift from the real estate folks.

Yes, we had the bananas. And yes, the real estate agents called me when I was at dinner last night to see if they could bring by some potential renters to the other apartment.

What could I say? I had taken the bananas and run. So I said yes, somewhat begrudgingly. Then today, I got a text: “good afternoon, daby. The plan has been changed and the clients won’t visit your apartment, so u can work without being bothered. Enjoy your day!”

Something tells me this story will last a lot longer than the bananas.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

China and America: Good Friends

Here’s a good example of the kinds of things that happen here.

A couple of weeks ago, our doorbell rang. It was a local real estate agent who, in broken English, asked us if he could show our apartment because the layout was the same as another apartment that for some reason wasn’t available for showing. Bob said yes, which I found kind of annoying as I was cooking up a storm in the kitchen getting ready for our first dinner party.

But the group came through, snooped around, and left. They came again a couple days later, the same group, and I let them in.

They showed up again a couple of days after that. Enough, I said. I’m working at home and this is disturbing me, I told them, although it was clear that the message wasn’t getting through to the guy. Go away; I’m working didn’t seem to translate well into Chinese.

They called a friend who spoke English and I said it again, rather bluntly. So they went away.

Just today, a Sunday afternoon, the doorbell rang. And rang. And then it rang again. On the fourth round, I decided that maybe this was the kind of emergency situation that I needed to check out. But there they were – the real estate agents, this time with a young woman who spoke English.

“We wanted to thank you very much for letting us show the apartment,” they said. “The Chinese people who saw the apartment were really interested in it, so we wanted to thank you.”

And they handed me a huge bag of bananas and apples, which they mimed was fresh by pretending to climb a banana tree.

“Where are you from?” one agent asked me.

“America,” I said.

“Oh! China and America – good friends!” he kept saying over and over. I apologized for rudely turning them away. And then when they asked for my phone number so they could call me and check with me the next time they wanted to show our model apartment, how could I say no? I guess that means that a little bit of guilt and a mess of bananas will melt my heart to these Chinese people any day. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bowling Night

I never thought I’d turn out to be a person who has a bowling night, especially not one who very much looks forward to bowling night.

But one of the good things about the expat experience is that you find yourself doing things you might not do back home, either because you’re too busy or less open to joining new things. But it’s fun here. We joined an international group that bowls every Tuesday night – the Beijing International Friendship Bowling League at the Gongti 100 alley, a 15-minute walk from our apartment. The group is mostly all expats with the occasional Chinese person mixed in, and the bowling alley is a standard one much like those in the United States, except bigger (oh, China) and except that smoking seems to be allowed and a fair amount of beer is consumed. Do they still allow beer at bowling alleys in the States?

So, you walk in, get your shoes – smooth-bottomed ancient shoes that don’t fit all that well – and find out where your lane is. This week we were matched to another pair to make a team of four, and we played against a group from the American embassy, who seem to be the reigning champs. They all had their own balls and their own shoes and bowled with a ferocity that was something to see. One guy kept his ear buds in the whole time he was bowling.

After making several overtures to his non-responsive head, I decided to get in his face – literally, since it was the only way to get his attention – and talk to him. He admitted that he used the music to psych himself up for bowling. I have to say, it seemed to work as he bowled strike after strike. But I got him to take out the ear buds and talk to me a little bit about his approach and even coaxed a smile out of him, so that was a triumph. There’s nothing like someone who comes off as hostile to bring out the extroverted jump-in-everyone’s-lap part of me. Win!

I was certainly more successful at that than at actually bowling. But it’s just a game, right? And, unlike various other physical reminders of my youth that I’ve tried recently, I didn’t actually fall or hurt myself. (Okay, so there were no bridges. And just like the dear U.S.A., I still have scars from Vietnam.) 

I even got a higher score than Bob in the last game of the night. Bob, however, had his own triumph. He came up with a clever name for our new team: the Lane Brains. It says everything you need to know about the newest team of the Beijing International Friendship Bowling League.

P.S. Thank you to those who were guilted enough by my last post to send me a personal email. It was a cheap ploy for personal attention, which I feel slightly guilty about. But not enough not to want you to keep those cards and letters coming!

Monday, March 5, 2012

So, What's New?

Dear friends who are not in China:
I’ve noticed a pattern recently, as I check in with friends I haven’t heard from in a while, not from email, nor Facebook, nor Twitter. You tell me, “Oh, I’m up to date on your life. I keep up with your blog.”

That’s wonderful. I’m always amazed at the number of shadow readers I have out there, and it makes me feel as if there’s an audience for my descriptions of life in China.

But the problem is that the blog is kind of a one-way communication. Yes, there are the loyal friends who Skype, post comments, or send emails regularly, but most of you seem to read the blog, smile, and go about your business.

So, what’s new with you? Who’s writing books? Where are people going on vacation? Who’s switching jobs? How are your kids? What’s the weather been like? WHAT AM I MISSING?

Just wondering.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Zen and the Art of Transportation

There are advantages to taking a cab around Beijing. And living where we live, I’ve noticed that there are cabs lined up just outside our apartment gate most of the time. It’s hard to resist a waiting cab when the weather is nasty and it’s just sitting there with the little red light on, signaling – taunting almost – that the driver is free.

So I rationalize that taking a cab helps me get my internal GPS in place, especially when I bring along my iPad and I follow along with the little blue dot. The dot will very reliably show you just where the car is going and it will reaffirm your faith in the honesty of Beijing taxi drivers. 

Of course, you still have to deal with the possibility of death. For instance Beijing drivers seem to have their own version of “priorite a droit.” I’ll never forget learning that the heart-stopping way in Brussels when cars would just careen out of a side street like they were coming from the biggest highway in Belgium. Here, there seems to be an unspoken understanding that drivers turning right at an intersection don’t feel they have to slow down or yield to pedestrians or bikes. They have priorite. I’ve never actually been in a cab that’s hit a person, but I have been in ones that have been a hair’s breadth away from some.

So there are advantages to taking the subway. Taking it on a Friday in particular can be fascinating. Migrant workers jam the cars on Line 1 with overstuffed duffle bags, wearing dusty coats and looking at their surroundings with the ruddy faces of farmers that make them look like extras in “The Good Earth,” or like living models for posters from the Cultural Revolution. I'd take a picture of one of these fellows, but they're already staring at me, the foreigner.

Also fascinating is what is listed on the sign for exits. Exit B on Line 1’s Dawanglu station, for instance, helpfully advertises a pole-dancing school alongside the banks and office buildings. On Line 2, I can always remind myself which exit I want at the Dongsishitao station: I look for the listing that puts the two-story McDonalds on Gongti Bei Lu right on top.

The subway, in fact, captures the contractory elements that make up China today: people one generation from farmers in Mao jackets walk past a listing for a pole-dancing school. It doesn’t get much curioser than that.