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.