Sunday, April 29, 2012

How China Makes Me Strange

They say that moving to another country changes you. What they don’t tell you is that it will change you in ways you might not be able to predict.

1. How much water I drink, for instance. I have this paranoid sense that if we don’t finish up one of our bottled water containers in time for the ayi to change it out, we’ll be stuck with nothing to drink, even though we always have a backup bottle. Nevertheless, I find that on Tuesday and Friday mornings, I become a water fiend, chugging to the point of water intoxication. This morning, for instance, to use up the water, I refilled all the bathroom water bottles, drank two cups of tea and poured myself a tall glass of water, all before noon. I feel very….hydrated.

2. Oddly enough, there are other days when I am probably dehydrated, especially on those days when I know I’m going to have to use a squatter toilet. It’s kind of unavoidable here, so my plan is always to get better at bladder control. It doesn’t mean I get to skip the squatter, but it sometimes means I only have to use it once. This point seems a little contradictory to my first item, but it actually works as long as I am selective about which days are about hydration and which about dehydration.

3. My pedestrian habits. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve never had a problem with car-pedestrian altercations even when I’m the pedestrian. Bob says my epitaph is going to say, “She had the right of way.”  Back in my old Tenleytown neighborhood, I used to slooooow down at a stop sign to hinder the progress of those cars with Maryland plates ripping through our neighborhood. You know, use my body as a kind of traffic-control device. Here, though, I never have the right of way, and I’ve come to accept it. A car is turning in front of me, nearly running over my toes? No problem, it happens. A motorcycle driver is speeding the wrong way down a bike lane? Step aside. Joanna accuses me of sometimes darting into traffic like a lost dog, but while she is watching me, she’s missing the opportunity to cross a street with a break in traffic.

4. My hobbies. If someone had told me that I’d someday be spending my Sunday afternoons learning how to paddle a dragon boat under the polluted skies of Beijing or my Tuesday evenings ferociously trying to improve my bowling score wearing smooth-bottomed, ancient bowling shoes (size “si”) in a local bowling alley, I’d be surprised. Then again, never in a million years would I have imagined I’d be living in China one day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pratie Makes Perfect

I love my new t shirt.
For 35 RMB ($5.55), the entertainment value is endless.

On the front is a picture of a sultry girl in a yellow floppy hat. Above her head are the words: RACLES SOMETIME

Below her picture is the following:
As ralph waldo Emerson said, who you are speak loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying. Challengin are times when ethiics important than ever be

These words are on the back of the shirt:

For the front of the shirt, I have this mental image of the Sage of Concord shouting into an early phonograph but trying to impart wisdom at the same time.
And the back of the shirt? Oh, that sounds suspiciously like the text of a certain friend drunk-emailing us from a restaurant in Boston. Although this time there is no mention of walking the dog.

Let’s add this to news I just read today:
The University of Southern California has received a $40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to produce a video game based on the work of Henry David Thoreau.
According to the release, “The player will inhabit an open, three-dimensional game world which will simulate the geography and environment of Walden Woods. Once developed, the game will be available online.”
I’m thinking Emerson and Thoreau are laughing somewhere. Or, as Emerson would say, “Speak loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying!”

A final note: When I tried to find an appropriate Emerson quote to wrap up this post, China kept blocking me. So that might explain how the Sage of Concord was transformed into the Raging Lunatic of Concord.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mystery Solved

Here’s some breaking news for those of you who were wondering why those mysterious real estate agents still kept showing up at our door and calling me.

Our landlady wants to sell our apartment.

Did she tell us this directly?
Instead, she had the agents make up a story about an apartment that looked just like ours and we ended up letting several groups of people (now we know they were potential buyers) traipse through the place.

So not worth the bananas.

The drama came to some kind of climax last Saturday when Bob and I were out shopping. We had treated ourselves to a jian bing on the street and as I was eating the steaming-hot crepe-like meal, my phone rang.

“Are you home?” a voice asked without introduction. “We’d like to show the apartment.”

“I’m not showing the apartment,” I said, and hung up.
My phone rang a second time. I ignored it. Cells in China don’t have voice mail, so they tend to ring and ring until China Unicom decides that the receiver has had enough of a chance to answer it.

My phone rang a third time. This was really affecting my jian bing enjoyment. Bob answered the phone. “You lied to us, we’re not showing the apartment, and don’t call this number again!” he yelled into the phone.

And that was that. We haven’t heard again from anyone, although something tells us this story is not over.

At some point, we’ll need to let people in to see the apartment. But since our lease ends in early December, I don’t see why we need to be accommodating before then. And even then, I might take up a suggestion from one of our friends to sour the deal: Tell potential buyers that I think the place is haunted. Suggest that maybe somebody died in one of the bedrooms. Chinese people have a special aversion for ghosts. This is not a lie; it’s certainly possible that something untoward happened here, I mean other than the ravioli debacle.

And in the immortal words of Charlie Bruno, I’ll fix them.

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Earth Day

Earth Day in Beijing was marked by "very unhealthy" air all day, the kind you can see and that stings your eyes when you're out in it.

And boy, was I out in it.
I was back at Houhai, the Beijing lake that back in January gave me an instant cure for jet lag. Now, of course, the lake is no longer frozen -- spring even comes to places like Beijing -- and a Sunday afternoon brings out boaters of all stripes. Including dragon boaters.

I am now a dragon boater. I went out with a boat of ten rowers in a long boat with painted dragon scales on the side and a pontoon on the end. We raced from one end of the lake to the other until my shoulders felt like they were on fire. And even though my hands are blistered and my lungs feel a little tubercular, it was a fun day.

We were mostly westerners in the boat, a fact that caused great hilarity to the Chinese people spending a day in the park. Why were funnier than the older Chinese men in Speedos swimming across the lake is beyond me. When the Chinese ventured out on the lake, it was in paddle boats with a cigarette in one hand and a camera in the other.

A good time was had by all.

Friday, April 20, 2012

How to Talk to a Playboy

I had an assignment to interview Lapo Elkann, the grandson of one of Fiat’s founders and a man known for, well, just about everything: drugs, transvestites, crazy wealth, being on best-dressed and sexiest lists, and so on.

This is so obviously my beat. I mean, don’t you think of me when it comes to Italian playboys?

Of course the obvious question was what to wear. I decided that since I was in China, where there are no rules, not even for a Women’s Wear Daily stringer, I would bling it up.

Okay, I mean bling it up the way a middle-aged small-town girl who’s possibly gained a few pounds since eating her way across China and much of Asia can bling it up.

Here’s what I wore: a cute LBD from Talbots, a tiny bit form-fitting but as long as I didn’t breathe when I looked in the mirror, I think it worked. Black tights. Black Nine West pumps with a giant buckle on the top that I call my Minnie Mouse shoes. A cute pearl bracelet, courtesy Susie.

And to top it off, my piece de resistance: a sheepswool jacket with a dramatic fur collar, found in the Coxsackie, N.Y. antiques center. Smokin.

As I walked out to grab a taxi, pick up the photographer, and make my way to the art district of Beijing, I did get a few looks. But getting looks in China is more the norm than the exception, even in an expat-centric part of town, so I didn’t mind.

The interview went well. Lapo (he told me to call him Lapo), kissed me on both cheeks in greeting and in farewell, sat close enough that I could smell the smoke from his favorite Marlboros on his breath, and seemed impressed with my outfit, even if he didn’t say so directly.

Lapo wore a pale blue suit and white shoes, making me feel just a bit somber. I guess I could have gone even further on the bling.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Finally Spring

Spring has arrived in Beijing, and not a moment too soon.
Now if we could just do something about the "very unhealthy" smog today.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

It's the Journey, Right?

It should have been a sign that when Bob and I got to the airport Thursday afternoon, and he realized he had forgotten his passport and had to go home to get it that this trip was jinxed. 

It should have been another sign when we made it onto the plane....and sat on the runway for another two hours waiting to take off.

It should have been yet another sign that the flight was so turbulent I couldn't read, the words on the iPad screen jumping around like ants.

Now we've Wuhan, which is nowhere near Guanzhou. And all I can think of is beer. I've craved a beer since this morning when I walked around in the hot sun at a beautiful park and had more fun watching the Chinese embrace a beautiful spring day with dancing and singing and eating and shopping than I had looking at the trees. It's been a long long day.

After a long wait in Wuhan, we took off again, finally landing in Guanzhou at about 3. By the time we got our bags, it was even later. We found a black cab, thinking to pay more but bypass the hugely long taxi line. Meanwhile, our cabbie -- who already had another passenger in the front seat -- started circling the airport, clearly looking to stuff yet one more body in his tiny car. How do you say WTF in Cantonese? I told Bob I was sure he spoke the universal language of Pissed Off and after threatening to jump out of the cab, we finally headed to our hotel. By this time, the night was almost over.

We eventually found our hotel, which was doubly hard to find because it had shut off all its lights. When we staggered in to the darkened lobby, the two clerks at the reception were sound asleep with their heads down on their keyboards and none too thrilled to check us in. Why are you so late? they asked us suspiciously. As if we preferred to check into hotels at 5 am, when most of the night was over.

Anyway, we got into the room, slept for an hour, showered, and grabbed a quick breakfast in the KFC next door. We went to Daniel's classes as "special guests," which was worth all of the craziness. Lots of applause, lots of compliments and funny questions -- what color is your cat, where have you gone in China-- and quite the lift from being treated like a celebrity.  We hopped on a train to Hong Kong, so tired that it was hard to watch the tropical green countryside whiz by. Now we're here in Hong Kong, which is truly a cosmopolitan place: world class sushi at world class prices, shopping opportunities on every corner, and this great colonial foreign correspondents club where we downed several gin and tonics while I hungrily worked my way through the IHT, the WSJ Asia, the NYT, USA Today, and Cosmopolitan. Not necessarily in that order.

Hong Kong feels like a cool mix of Manhattan and London, and the only people who shove me here are the mainland Chinese who come to load up on Prada and Apple products and scream at each other in the lobby of our hotel.

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Faucet is Loose, Not Me

Again, maybe not Pleco’s best effort.

We’re once again trying to get our sink fixed. This time, Bob and I traipsed down to the Seasons Park management office, trying for three things: getting the sink fixed, getting our frig colder, and getting windows cleaned.

As far as the sink, we managed to express that it was broken. But I wanted to say that the faucet was loose. Pleco translated “loose” in the following ways: baoyang, as in loose clothes; bo, informed; fei, illegal means or income; feida, large or fat; huangtang, preposterous or dissipated; huoluo, loose tooth; langman, unconventional, bohemian; shushong, porous; song, slack; cuanxi, to have loose bowels; dangfu, a loose woman or prostitute; haiduzi, to suffer from diarrhea (along with about five other ways of describing loose bowels and loose women).

Never mind.

The refrigerator, we were told, is our landlandy’s issue, not theirs. And Bob tried valiantly to ask them whether they’d be coming through to clean the windows on the outside. Looking up the word for “dirty” in Pleco led to a lot of references to clothes that were filthy, ugly, abominable, foul. Seemed a tiny bit extreme to describe windows that needed cleaning.

Later, a workman arrived and “fixed” the sink. Luckily, Yanfen, my Chinese teacher, was there, so she was able to translate that he said the sink was broken and the landlady should replace it.

Then he wanted to know the location of our broken window so he could fix that.

China won this round, but I’m not done yet.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Elijah Rang the Bell

Last night's Seder was a success despite the fact that I burnt out the transformer using the food processor to chop the haroseth. Today, though, the doorbell rang and there they were: the pesky real estate agents/Elijah. Joanna let them in, which was annoying because I was sitting down enjoying the last of the Passover wine. I guess she's more open to the possibility that we really were visited by Elijah. Elijah had no bananas. Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, I've got a brunch and then some dragon boat rowing in the afternoon. As long as I can get my sister on the phone for some hymn singing, that sounds like a pretty nifty Easter Sunday to me.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land

After the last dinner party, normal people would probably take a hiatus from cooking adventures. Normal people are boring. And normal people don’t invite 12 for a Passover seder without checking to see just how many wine glasses they actually brought with them. (Answer: 14. That leaves one for Elijah and a backup in case there’s breakage. Living on the edge.)

In any event, the seasons wait for no one. My decision each year about whether to host a seder is based on how much work responsibility I have, what day of the week it falls on, whether Bob might be in the same country, and how many good recipes my Bon Appetit offers.

This year, of course, the first night falls on a Friday. So what if we’re living in the land of pork? So what if Bob’s quest to find the kosher-for-Passover aisle in the local supermarkets was futile? “Not even one box of matzoh?” he kept asking. But the local Chabad people sold us five monster boxes of matzoh, which should keep us in dry crackers and crumb-sweeping for the ayi for quite some time, horseradish, gefilte fish, macaroons, and matzoh meal for baking and soup.

Ready to roll. Shank bone? I’m baking a chicken leg, which is good enough. Parsley? Done. I couldn’t find beef brisket but I did find flank steak. None of the local stores had a decent fillet of salmon so I’ll be piecing together smaller portions and hoping nobody notices.

Also on the menu: matzoh ball soup, potato kugel, tzimmes, haroset, a chocolate-walnut cake, coconut macaroons, along with a green vegetable brought by Jamie, fruit salad supplied by Rachel.

I don’t want to count my brisket before it’s sliced, but so far so good. The brisket is cooling in the frig, the chocolate cake promises to be not too dry, and the stock for the soup is simmering away. Other than the difficulty of finding ingredients, the Passover work-around is much like the Thanksgiving work-around. I can use my food processor and my hand mixer, for instance, but not at the same time. I plug one into the transformer, use it, then unplug it and plug the other devise into the transformer. That and having about 6 inches of counter space to manage everything, and there are a few challenges that slow down the process.

Bob, meanwhile, decides that my cooking day is a good day to get all chatty by email. So far today I’ve received 16 emails from him. I consider it part of the challenge and a testament to the strength of our marriage that I don’t actually respond to the one where he asks what our anniversary date is.

I’ll report in after the seder, when we might open the door for Elijah and find those real estate agents hoping to show our apartment one more time. I’ve had stranger things happen on Passover.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Beijing's Grubby Charm

There are cities you love because the trees form a green canopy over you, the air smells sweet, and the rivers sparkle in the sunlight. That’s not Beijing, and I’ve been trying to figure out how those who live here and love it have fallen in love with the Big Gray.

I think I’m beginning to understand. Beijing is a home-brewing expert with bad teeth but a kind smile. It’s a sidewalk that suddenly ends in a gaping hole, making you pay attention to every step. It’s a dark alley that you walk through at night without any concerns at all. It’s a smell that mixes stinky tofu with grilled chicken and star anise. It’s the look of round-faced babies who stare and stare and suddenly break into a toothless grin. It’s the fact that people are outside all the time, strolling, eating, napping, playing cards, watching cars go by. It’s a three-wheeled cart so laden with bags and boxes for recycling that it looks a little like its own circus wagon going down the street. It’s a manicurist who can give you a great manicure without messing up her own sparkly nails. It’s the fashion choices – bling upon fur upon sparkle upon tottering heels – of so many Chinese women.

It’s the Wu Mart employee who wants us to tell her the names of the colors of sheets on sale – pink! purple! yellow! – because she loves English. It’s the cilantro flavor of the jiang bing made fresh for you just outside the Wu Mart. It’s coming out of a concert in the chill of a Beijing December and eating a piping hot sweet potato from a vendor sitting there waiting. It’s the old folks walking down the street and pounding themselves on their shoulders and torsos to get the circulation going. It’s making friends from Germany and Australia and Beijing.

And it’s also the little alarm clock I bought today – chartreuse green – for 12 RMB ($1.90), some nail polish remover for 5 RMB (79 cents), and a manicure Joanna and I got for 30 RMB ($4.76). After that we bought soft ice cream cones from the McDonald’s next door for 3 RMB (47 cents). And then there is the haircut I get from my guy Justin (with the boy-band mop hair) for 20 RMB ($3.17). That includes hair washing, a cut so careful I think every hair is cut individually, and a blow dry.

There are plenty of days when everything goes wrong – my sink, for instance, is still broken – but then you start to notice the grubby charm. Plus, my home in D.C. has mice in the kitchen and squirrels in the attic. I’ll wait.