Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Rain, Rain Go Away

It's raining again. I've never in my life cancelled something because of rain but today I decided I didn't want to traipse across town to do an interview.

Rain here is no joke. The epic Saturday rain of a couple of weeks back killed 77 people in Beijing alone. And now it's coming down in buckets, and I'm glad our apartment is on the third floor.

At least we got in a night of bowling last night, where we snacked on chips that were "ethnicican flavored" and drank beer that had the finish of motor oil.

Please keep these facts in mind when you all back in the States post your pictures of stunning sunsets, pristine beaches, drinks by the pool, views from mountaintops, and frisbee in the park.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fun with Chinese Characters

My Chinese teacher Yanfen feels that it’s important for me to learn to read and write Chinese characters if I’m ever going to learn this language. As for me, I’ve been content to take the whole process of communication slowly, using, for instance, the all-purpose “wo yao” (I want) and then pointing – those dumplings, that knockoff Bottega Veneta purse, those shrimp-flavored potato chips – as a basic means of communication. It gets me farther than you might think. But Yanfen wants me to understand the culture, and maybe even determine whether a street sign says “Temple of Heaven” or “Danger: Do Not Enter,” so we’ve started working on the basics of Chinese strokes. I feel like a three-year-old writing the letter “A” for the first time. But the difference is that in the U.S. we don’t especially care if the kiddos write the left-hand side, the horizontal middle, and the right-hand side in any particular order. An “A” is an “A.” The Chinese, though, care about strokes, the building blocks of characters. Strokes have their own names, a fact I find daunting. Even more daunting: Before I begin, I have to remember the following rules: horizontal lines goes before vertical; downward left goes before downward right; left goes before right; top goes before bottom; outside parts before inside parts. And then it gets even more complicated: You do the outside lines, then inside strokes, and THEN you close off the outside part. But before you commit that to memory, remember this twist: a middle stroke goes before two sides. Now, that might seem to contract the “from left to right” rule, wouldn’t you think? And that’s just the beginning. Let’s start with the character “ma,” which stands for “horse.” It’s also the building block for other things. For instance, a “ma” at the end of a sentence indicates one is asking a question. What this has to do with horses is beyond me. (Digression: My grandmother called the bullet-shaped pasta we ate “horses,” but that was because the Italian word for horse, “cavallo,” sounds something like the Italian word for the pasta we ate, “cavatelli.” Now that makes perfect sense.) In any event, this is the character for “ma.” 马 Now, this is the simplified character. The ancient symbol looks a tiny bit like a horse rearing up on its hind legs. For the modern character, well, use your imagination. And maybe some Lego blocks. In fact, employing a very healthy imagination is useful for lots of Chinese characters. The character for six, for instance has four strokes: 六 It’s supposed to look like a horizontal line of three fish, with another fish on the top and two on the bottom. Get it? And good luck trying to remember them. There are about 3,000 in SIMPLIFIED Chinese, and few of them use just one character to form a word. The day that Yanfen told me that a character got modified – usually the right half is kind of sliced off and sometimes changed nearly completely – when it gets combined with another character or even more to form a word, I looked at her incredulously. If I didn’t respect her earnestness and honesty, I would have thought I was being punked. I’m trying not to take the Chinese language personally – I mean, I’m sure the Chinese have something better to do in their 5,000 years of history than to punk an expatriot American in 2012 – but sometime I wonder. For instance, the feminist in me can’t help but to remember this darling little character: 女 That’s the symbol for “female,” and the ancient character it’s based on looks like a woman kneeling subserviently. Hey, thanks China. Sure, women are equal, except in that dainty little kneeling-like character. But at least it’s easy to remember and fairly easy to write with just three simple strokes: you make the kneeling stroke, kind of a sloppy “L,” then you crisscross that, and then you put the horizontal line across them. That order of strokes is taken directly from my book, “Kuaile Hanyu,” or “Happy Chinese.” (Am I happy yet? Do I look happy?) But adding the horizontal line last contradicts the “hortizontal before vertical” rule. If that doesn’t sound like someone being punked, I don’t know what does. If you ever start to feel proud of your own intelligence – maybe you understood what the Supreme Court was trying to say about the health care law, for instance, and didn’t dump inane comments all over Twitter in the first ten seconds – just try writing a few Chinese characters while your teacher is looking on. Get them in the right order. And the right direction. And then write them about the size of a Times New Roman 14-point type. I haven’t even started on the subject of tones, or of sounds the Chinese can make that my mouth does not seem to want to form. Let’s just say that I’m waiting for the weather to cool off before I make any casual conversation about the weather, because the word “re,” (hot) is pronounced something like a cross between a French “r,” a “je” sound, and something both gutteral and “r” at the same time. At least that seems easier than writing the word for hot using Chinese characters: 热 I think I’ll just wait. The bitter Beijng winter is just around the corner.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Spring and Company

We had Chinese guests for the past five days, which has been an interesting experience. Steve is an English teacher from Daniel’s first Chinese city, Changzhou. He brought his wife, Spring, who speaks about as much English as I speak Chinese -- limited. Their 14-year-old son Mike speaks English but is hobbled by the fact that he’s 14. So he speaks with adults in any language with great reluctance. I wouldn’t say he’s sullen -- that seems to be a special talent of American 14-year-olds-- but he only speaks if he has to.

Despite these somewhat daunting handicaps, it's been a good China moment. Steve is easy, affable and chatty and rousing his family first thing in the morning to go see the Beijing sights. I made dinner the first two nights they were here. As we sat around the table, Steve said, you can ask me anything. So we talked about education, the study of Mao, politics. A couple of days later we covered Ai Wei Wei (Steve had never heard of the world’s most famous artist), the Cultural Revolution, and other seemingly sensitive subjects.

That was actually easier than communicating with a quiet adolescent. But I found a way:  through the universal language of Fruit Ninja on my iPad. I actually think I'm something of a 14-year-old when it comes to silly games that involve slicing fruit so it makes a nice splat. For the first day or so, I beat him. And then he figured out that if he wrapped a tissue around his finger, he could swipe the fruit much more smoothly. His record of 511 is going to be a tough one for me to beat. But the grin on his face was worth my defeat.

As for Spring, the communication was harder. She wanted to make dinner for us one night. She bought most of the ingredients she needed, but kept asking for things I didn't have. My pleco app on my iPad helped me figure she needed cornstarch. And spicy tomato sauce.

In any event, I watched Spring and now can make jiozas: filled dumplings. This is not so different from making ravioli. In fact, it's a little easier because you buy the dumpling wrappers and then just need to do the filling.

The other way Spring and I communicate is through massage. Every time I sit down, she offers to give me a shoulder and neck massage, and I never refuse. One afternoon when the boys were all out having a ping pong tournament, Spring clearly wanted to tell me something. I pulled out my handy Pleco. She carefully picked out words in pinyan that then translated into Chinese characters and English.
Nimen: you
Ganxie: thanks
Bangzhu: assistance.

Oh! Thank you for your help! I understood.
Whenever Spring tried to type something on the Pleco, she’d say “ABC! ABC!” so that I could make the English keyboard appear. It worked really well.

Her son, Mike, was “haixiu” – shy.
I told her Mike’s English was “xianjinshuiping” – on an advanced level.
She told me I was “congming” – clever – to be able to communicate this way.
I’m not sure I agree that I was particularly clever, but I do think the technology is pretty cool. The interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel says that God made the people of Babel speak a different language. Genesis says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

And God had a problem with that? My feeling is that if I can tell a Chinese friend that her son is smart, her jiaozi are delicious, and her shoulder massage feels great, something good is happening. I also think that if the communication involves making a bright watermelon go splat, that works too.
Just connect.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Today's Lesson

You know how they always say, “When life gives you lemons, write a blog post?” Today was one of those days.

Bob and I woke up to a dark apartment. Since there were monstrous storms moving through Beijing last night, we figured the entire complex was dark. Not true. It was just us.

Coffee-less, I marched over to the Seasons Park management office at 7 a.m. The door to the office was ajar, and it was dark and quiet inside. “Ni hao?” I inquired. Silence. And then I turned a corner and found a young man asleep on his computer keyboard. It’s a common sight in a country that doesn’t really have many limitations on working hours.

In any event, I managed to communicate to him that our electricity was out. He wanted to know if we had paid up. I stood up straight and said, “Of course we’ve paid. There’s something wrong with the electricity.”

So they sent a fellow over in five minutes where he discovered….we hadn’t paid up. I guess now that it’s summer and we use a lot of air conditioning, we use more electricity than before. And in China, when the money on the card is used up, the power shuts off. It’s possible that someone tries to notify us that we’re low on juice, but they’re probably doing it in Chinese. Of all things.

Getting the power turned back on involved going to a local shop for traditional Chinese medicine that also lets you put more money on your electric card. After we loaded up the card and I looked around at all the products that either cured cancer or grew me another ear, we went back home and tried to swipe the card and power it up. No go.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Today was a cooking day – a big Italian feast cooking day – in honor of a special VIP guest invited by Joanna. I had promised much. Bob was thrilled since my enthusiasm for cooking has, well, let’s just say it’s waned since our arrival in China. I make no apologies. I just don’t seem to enjoy cooking in a kitchen with four square inches of counter space, in a country where you will probably need to hit three stores and two markets if you have very specific ideas of items you must have. Like Brussels sprouts. Or mozzarella cheese.

In any event, before we could get our electricity up and running, the AC guy showed up. When I tried to tell him that we couldn’t get the electricity on, he was ready to bolt. I believe he said in Chinese – “Not my job. I’ll come back when the electricity is back.” So he left, the electric guy came and opened a special door with a special key that switched the power back on, and then we had to get the AC guy to return.

It was a multi-step process that delayed the baking of the cookies, the cooking of the sauce, the making of the braciole, and the slicing of the eggplant for eggplant parmesan by several hours. I am now in a race with time. There have been other hurdles – for instance, I don’t have string, twine, or thread to hold together the braciole. I used dental floss, which may or may not make it a little waxy-tasting. The cookies don’t have that nice buttery crispness that my cookies usually have, but they taste okay. The sauce – that I hit out of the park. And no, I’m not even going to attempt to make ravioli this time. If the VIP guest is still a VIP guest after a couple more months, he may get to try some of my ravioli.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

There Be Dragons

Up until this weekend, I had only rowed in a dragon boat on Houhai lake in the heart of Beijing. Dragon boats are long and narrow, and for practices, one is prevented from tipping over by a kind of pontoon rigged at the back. Rowers sit in twos, and the idea is to be in synch with the first two rowers who set the pace.

The movement of dragon boat rowing is different from any other kind of rowing or paddling. You corkscrew your body and push forward with your torso, holding your arms stiff, and letting that motion propel the boat through the water. It's not a natural movement, and if you don't get the hang of the forward lean and thrust, each pull sends a searing pain through the shoulder.

And when we practice, many of us are dragon-boat novices. What that means is that often the rower in front of us will send algae-laden water spraying back on our faces. I try not to swallow it even as I watch Chinese men swim and float through the brown-green waters.

And then our team, the Beijing International Dragon Boat Team, got invited to a race: the 2012 Bacheng Cup China Longzhou Open. Of course, we started the weekend with the typical scenario that is flying in China, especially if there is any hint of rain. Our flight to Shanghai was one of those times. We boarded the airplane on time and then sat on the runway for an hour. This would have been bad enough on a packed plane, but they turned the AC off. Finally, we took off and flew through bumpy skies. At this point it was late so I fell asleep, waking only on landing.

The pilot made an announcement in Chinese and there was suddenly much chatter and loud cell phone calls. Turns out we landed in Hefei, a city about an hour by plane from Shanghai. We waited there on the runway for another hour, the scene in the un-air conditioned plane starting to feel like a combination of the set of “Waiting for Godot,” “12 Angry Men,” and “Snakes on a Plane.”

By then time we landed in Shanghai it was 1 a.m Talk about being Shanghaied. And by the time we got to Kushan, the site of the race, another hour or so by bus, it was 2. We had to get up at 6 for the races.

So we got a couple of hours sleep, put on our nifty team tee shirts – a brilliant blue with a kind of Rorschach test of a parallel dragons in yellow on the back – and grabbed our paddles. There were teams from Thailand, the Phillipines, Macau, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Gongzhou, and elsewhere.

Heming, our stalwart team leader had decided I had the job of hitting a gong in the middle of the boat, not rowing. Some might consider this a demotion. Others saw it as an easy way to have the fun of being on the boat without actually killing yourself with effort. Bob thought the power would go to my head. "You don't know what you've done," he told Heming.

In any event, each boat is led by a drummer who faces backwards and looks at the rows of rowers, calling out strokes and pounding a big drum. The gonger, though, sits in the middle of the boat and  hits gongs alternating with the drummer. In the first race I couldn't find anything to hit the gong with so I used a plastic bucket that was supposed to be for bailing water out of the boat. The sound it made -- and the fact that I couldn't quite get the alternating bang, gong, bang, gong rythmn right -- made for a cacophony of sounds. It was so noisy out there on the water I don't know how anyone heard anything.

Plus, I felt kind of stupid just trying to hit a gong. I was literally not pulling my weight. I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that we lost.

For the second race I got a wooden stick to hit the gong and it sounded much more sonorous and pretty. Plus, Heming decided I should time my beats to go with the drummer, which was much easier.

But I felt useless. Who needs a gong? True, it was a return to my cheerleading days when my job was to get the team going.

But before the third race I approached Heming. "Coach, I want to row," I said. He smiled. And for the rest of the weekend I was off gong duty. Who was given gong duty? And who considered gong duty a demotion?

Let me just answer that his new role was not a reflection on his power or stamina. But Bob, who is newer to dragon boat racing than me, has been struggling with timing. Of course that raises other questions, ones I'll leave for him to answer. In fact, if you want his take on it, send him an email (bob.davis@wsj.com) and he’ll put you on his “in lieu of blog” list.

The fact that we were disqualified in two races because gongers are not supposed to row at all doesn't really matter since we were dead last all weekend.

That doesn't matter either. What matters is that we all did finally row as a team -- Chinese, Americans, Australians, Turks, and one German -- and that there is something amazing about being out on a wide lake in a boat with a dragon head, rowing to the beat of a drum -- and sometimes a gong -- while we all yelled in unison, "jai yo" -- add gas.

What also matters is the fun we had as a group. After Saturday's races and dinner, we were all looking for something fun to do, and Kunshun is not known for its nightlife. We ended up in one of the hotel’s karaoke rooms, where we took turns belting out “Poker Face,” “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” and -- for the old folks – “Mr. Bojangles,” “Proud Mary,” “Sweet Caroline,” and a rendition of “I Got You Babe” that Bob and I nailed.

Then Heming jumped up on the glass table to dance. I couldn’t let our fearless leader dance alone, could I? There is photographic evidence, but you won’t see it here.

The next day was the 5,000 meter race, which was five laps around a section of the lake. To say it was a killer is an exaggeration, but to say that as the winds picked up and we heard thunder I may have wished for a capsize because we would have been able to stop is no exaggeration at all

The good news is that we finished. We came in 16th. And as Bob later said, if there were 17 boats in the race, we would have come in 17th. No matter.

Later we attended a banquet that -- even without baijou -- evolved into a bacchanal of sorts: people grabbing the microphone to sing songs  in Japanese and Thai, teams moving from table to table to toast each other with warm beer and Sprite, speeches made in honor of friendship, a Kung fu demonstration from our teammate Rhoda, and then a dance party on the stage overlooking the restaurant, where we all ended up in a weaving conga line and one wiry guy from Thailand did a back flip. And then, of course, the group photo.

So we may have been the Bad News Bears of dragon boat racing, but we did finish the weekend without disaster and we had an awful lot of fun.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Things I Love About China

  1. Babies. Their faces are so round, their eyes so beautiful, and their black hair sticks up like they’ve been shocked.
  2. The old people. They dance at night; they put on their pajamas after dinner at 6 and stroll through the streets, they play cards and sing in all the parks, and they stare at foreigners the way I would stare at a man with two heads.
  3. The smells. Some people think the pungeant smells are disgusting, but I love having the experience of encountering a olefactory cacophany of smells – sewage, spices, baking bread, steamed dumplings, vinegar, more sewage, coal burning, grilled meat, sliced pineapple – at every step.
  4. The cost of beauty procedures. I can get my nails done for 30 RMB, my hair cut and blown out for 20 RMB, and a foot massage for 36 RMB. I have no excuse for looking sloppy, ever.

The Things I Hate About China
  1. Looking up things on the internet. I mean, really, China. Do you have something against the thesaurus? Doing work on the internet should not be this hard. Learn to love Wikipedia the way I do. And six hours to upload a photo? You must be kidding.
  2. Nearly getting killed every time I try to cross the street. The cabs, bikes, cars, trucks, motorcycles, pedicabs, and people bearing down on me are not literally trying to kill me – as evidenced by the screeching of brakes when I make a mistake and step too close to them – but it certainly feels that way.
  3. Spitting. Having guests makes me more aware of the wind up hocking noise and the ensuing spit on the ground. What makes the experience more interesting is when the spitters are in a public place, like inside an airport terminal. Wind up hock…wait for it…where will he spit it, you ask, not wanting to see but not being able to stop. Finally, the spitter finds a waste bin – but is the phlegm recycleable or non-recyclable?