Thursday, December 19, 2013

Let Nothing You Dismay

It's gotten bitterly cold here in China, but that hasn't stopped our intrepid group of Wednesday hikers from heading out to wander the mountains around Beijing. So as I look forward to a day of family and pasta next week, I wanted to share with you some of the sights around here. Far outside the kitsch of Beijing, there's nothing but Great Wall, rolling hills, and some very chilly hardcore hikers.

And no wise-guy comments this time. The Wall was broken before I got there.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Setbacks for No-Grudge Smudge

So I have good news and bad news concerning Smudge.

The good news is that she's been started on the process of exiting the country, which includes her rabies shot at the vet, as well as a microchip implanted under her skin, something China insists on for pets leaving the country.

Why, you ask, would all pets be required to have a microchip? I don't have an answer, but I can say it does play into the general paranoia all expats have here. If I hear her start to buzz or talk into her "sleeve," I'm going to be concerned.

Especially since she now seems to be a card-carrying red book holder. The vet gave me her little red book, which shows all her immunizations and vaccinations, and proves that she's not going to be leaving the country with an infectious disease.

But we also got some bad news.
Smudge apparently has kidney disease, which explains her fascination with drinking out of the toilet. The condition is irreversible, and will eventually kill her. What we don't know is when that might happen. The vet suggested that I could take a series of steps to keep her hydrated and make her comfortable, things like giving her a subcutaneous injection for additional hydration.

For those of you who know Smudge, you can stop laughing now at the image of me chasing her around our Beijing apartment with a needle. In addition to what is virtually impossible, I'm not sure I want Smudge's last months (if that's what they are) connected to the idea in her head of me as the one sticking a needle under her skin.

But my friend Danielle, who came with me to the vet the other day, dubbed her No-Grudge Smudge after that experience. Did Smudge blame me for chasing her around the apartment, shoving her into her cat carrier, driving her through Beijing, and then forcing her to huddle on a cold metal examination table while two vets attempted to take her blood pressure by putting a teeny tiny blood pressure cuff on her leg, and then on her tail? No, she did not.

I would like to think, like Danielle, that it's because she holds no grudges. But the truth is that she's not smart enough to make the causal connection between bad stuff that happens to her, and me, her Number One Human. That, of course, argues for the possibility of me actually being able to inject her down the line. Maybe I could wear a mask?

In any event, we're taking it one day at a time, which is what we do anyway here in China. For the moment, Smudge seems delighted with her little catnip mouse that I got her at the vet, my lap for sitting, and the treats I give her every time I go into the kitchen.

Santa is going to bring her a cat water fountain, so that she can have more drinking options. Whether she'll be terrified by it or enjoy the extra drinking is an open question.

Overall, except for a few moments where I felt sorry for myself and even sorrier for Smudge, I think we're okay. And in a few days, I'll be back in the land of Christmas decorations that are not purple. Now those are some tidings of comfort and joy. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmastime Is Here Too

Of course there is a lot less evidence of the whole Christmas spirit here in China -- and I'm not even talking about the attempt to kick out half of my journalist friends or the near-death experiences I face each day I try to cross the street -- but I can report that there is some sign of the holidays here.

Just don't expect it to be, well, the usual. In front of Bob's office building is a giant spring green unicorn creature with a Christmas tree where the horn normally would be. The other day I saw an entire Christmas tree made of white and purple hearts. Because you know nothing says Christmas like a purple heart.

And here are a few other gems I've collected over the last week or so. Be warned: this could wring the Christmas spirit right out of you. Ho, ho, ho.
Okay, you can have a creche, but it has to have a silver tree with purple ornaments too. Mary wanted that.
Another winning combo: tree plus windmill. Because, China.
Lonely tree in the basement floor of a mall.
Silver tree wrapped with ugly red and blue fence.
So cozy, so welcoming.
CD tree, courtesy Mengfei
And finally, the perfect Christmas gift: a real stuffed dog. Imagine finding that under your tree Christmas morning, kiddos.
And a bit of cuteness, the possibly saccharine kind, but better than stuffed dogs.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

And Then There Are Days Like This

Living in China is an emotional roller coaster. One day you feel exhilarated; the next day you plan your escape, right down to the Celestial Seasonings you'll drink and the marathons you'll run when you're back on home turf.

Today falls into the second group. There are the journalist issues -- so many friends are waiting for their press cards, the first step in getting their visas renewed for the next year. Some predict that they'll get kicked out but the conventional wisdom is that China will renew them at the last minute, December 31, ruining many a holiday plan. (For the record, we have our visas, so we're good for a year.)

There are daily life issues. One friend reports her rent is increasing by 50 percent: highway robbery. Beijing, after Hong Kong, is becoming one of the most expensive cities in Asia, at least where housing is concerned.

There is pollution. Another friend reports that Shanghai is having a record beyond-index pollution day, around 500, as she drives to the airport to move back to the States. It's so bad that her plane may not actually be able to take off.

There are strange illnesses. Rotavirus seems to be going around the neighborhood, with at least one toddler and one thirtysomething with confirmed cases. It's a high-fever, vomiting, diarrhea kind of illness that lasts a week if you're lucky.

China is like the honey badger. She don't care.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why I Love China

Yes, there are days that are beyond frustrating. And then something like this happens.

I'm having lunch with a friend when I realize that the strap across my shoe has come apart and it's hanging off my shoe with the button dangling by a thread. I pull the button off and put it in my pocket, starting to walk home.

I'm stopped by a policeman. (Normally, that kind of sentence might strike fear into one's heart, but the lack of guile in most Chinese on the street -- even those in the uniforms -- brings a sense of trust that I don't think I've found anywhere else.) He points to my foot and, I assume, tells me my shoe is falling apart.

That's another thing about China: everyone minds everyone's business. That is, unless they've fallen and are hurt on the street. But gain a few pounds, get a haircut or need a haircut, wear something too warm for hot day or, much worse, too cool for a cold day and you will hear about it. I think it's considered a general public service.

Anyway, I thank the cop and tell him I know my shoe is broken and go on my way.

Twenty feet down the street is a little stand which offers shoe repair, bike repair, and probably assorted other services. I hobble over to the guy, hand him my shoe, sit on his tiny stool in the pale near-winter sun, and wait as he sews the button and strap back on my shoe.

Done. It costs me 5 RMB. That's 82 cents. Doesn't seem like much, but that same 5-kuai note could also buy me a jianbing (with change leftover), or two baozhis, or a small baked sweet potato on the street. So basically the guy just earned his lunch.

Does an 82-cent shoe repair mean I want to stay here forever? No, but it certainly makes things a little nicer in the meantime. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Gobble, Gobble

It was a dinner that began with a near-disastrous dump of the turkey on the not-too-clean kitchen floor and ended with something called hokey-pokey ice cream. In other words, it was perfect.
Thanksgiving in Beijing has been much covered in the press this week. Read to the very end here and also check out this (item #12).

So what could I possibly add to that cornucopia of fun, goodwill, love for all creatures, and excess?
Well, there was the sight of my dear husband studying up on his Chinese so he could explain to Li Na, Lingling’s adorable mother, the whole Hanukkah, festival of lights theme before our party began. I believe he looked up the words for freedom, rebellion, and some other terms that are not commonly bandied about in the Middle Kingdom. And there was three-year-old Marco, who discovered he had a stash of stuffed animals hidden here, causing him to toss toys across the floor wantonly. And then there were two babes in arms, adorable two-month-old Gianna and adorable three-month-old Dou Dou, who we decided should marry some day and make ultra-adorable babies. There were my Beijing son and daughter, both happy to have a real American meal in a setting that they described as “not China.” There were some issues with my overheating the sweet-potato latkes, and with forgetting (I’ll admit it now) to strain out the rosemary from the pear-rosemary pie, but in general, the whole durn thing was a blast.
Here are some fun photos of the days leading up to the big feast, plus the feast.

The lovely couple who sold me my Thanksgiving turkey.
The lovely lady who sold me apples and pears.
The lovely lady who sold me my Thanksgiving vegetables.
It turned out great. And for that, I give thanks.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Don't Tell the Ayi

The last time I had a head cold, I made the mistake of sneezing and sniffling around her, and she acted like the world was coming to an end. She immediately ran out and bought pears, brown sugar, and these white ear mushrooms, cooking them all together in a nasty soup that she sat in front of me and forced me to eat.

This time when I got a cold, I was determined not to let her notice. Before she came today, I drank three piping hot cups of herbal tea, and sucked on vitamin C drops. I would blow my nose only when I could hear she was in the other room.

My strategy worked until about 30 minutes before she was done. She was in the study, where I sat, and I had to clear my throat.

Her head whipped around. “Gan mao?” she asked.

“Yi dianr,” I admitted. “Mei wenti.” I didn’t want her to think the cold was too bad. She offered to make me tea, which I refused.

“But you have a cold!” she said in Chinese.

“Yes, but I’m okay,” I said back in Chinese. Since she was done with her work for the day, she was forced to accept that and leave.

Debbie: 1

Ayi: 0

Monday, November 18, 2013

How to Really Speak Chinese

I had a revelation today about speaking Chinese. It can serve a whole other purpose in my little expat world, I discovered when WeChatting with a couple of friends.

To preserve their privacy, I won't name these friends.

But one of them offered me a glass of wine at her house the other day. Another unnamed friend's little one eyed my red wine and yelled out "SHUI!" (water)

"No, honey, that's Mommy Shui," I said.

Another friend admitted just now that she told her ayi she was going in the bedroom to "study" when she was really planning to nap. Why she needed to keep that information from the ayi is not clear, but it gave me an idea for a new term.

"Xue xi" -- naptime. After all, studying a language is only as good as the uses you can put it to.

Now I'm going to get a glass of water and study. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

More Fun with Chinese

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m trying to study my Chinese, even though the air is clear and it’s not that cold out yet.
But I’m being virtuous. Even so, I’m stymied by the bizarro nature of the conversations that the protagonists of my book, “New Practical Chinese Reader,” engage in. I realize that these are not REAL conversations, but it’s distracting.
Our hero, Ma Dawei, wants to buy a CD (a guangpan). Yes, I know, who goes out and buys CDs anymore? Anyway, he runs into his friend Wang Xiaoyun in the CD shop. He tells him he’s buying an English music CD. His buddy talks him into buying a Chinese music CD, “liang zhu,” which is “butterfly lovers.” (Thank you Google.)
And then the conversation gets really weird. Suddenly Dawei asks his friend if he could also buy books and newspapers in that store. Right, Dawei. You can’t fool me. You’re just trying to make sure that the students remember shu () and baozhi.
I put away the ever-engrossing “New Practical Chinese Reader” and get out my iPad, which has two good apps: Writer and trainchinese. Trainchinese in particular likes to give examples of the way a word is used in context, and the more you dig into that well, the more you learn about what’s really on the mind of Chinese people.
Take, for example, the word “ji,” which means engine or machine. You get all the iterations that use ji, and as you scroll down the list of examples, you start to get longer sentences, like this: “The airport was forced to be closed due to the heavy rain” and “Chances only favor those who have got well prepared.”
Trying another word, I look at bao, newspaper. (Keep in mind that bao, same tone and same character, means “to report, to repay, to revenge.” And other versions of bao with different characters and different tones mean to hug or carry in the arms – little kids will scream “bao bao!” when they want to be held – and also, with a different character and different tone “treasure or baby.” But I digress.)
Bao the newspaper’s example sentence is: “They have reported about this incident on the newspaper.”
I have no comment.
I move on to jiao, to teach or instruct. Here’s one usage: Jiao shi you bei cheng zuo yuan ding. Teachers are also called as gardeners.
And then I find this: Jiao cai zhong de hui hua yao sheng huo hua. The dialogues in the textbook should be lifelike.

Hear that Ma Dawei?

Update: I realized today that I got two Chinese words confused: baozhi (newspapers) and baozi (buns). I'll never learn this language.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thailand Idyll

We're just back from a week in Thailand and, despite the usual travel hassles (I hate you Air Asia, you deceptive, money-grubbing, runway-hugging, hard-seated excuse for a business), the rest of the trip was a respite, a rest, and a revelation.

The sensory delights of Thailand will linger in my head: the careful and graceful way an elephant will grasp a bunch of bananas in her trunk and toss them carefully into her mouth. The look in an ellie's eyes when I scratch her behind the ears. The guttural crunching of a small watermelon as an elephant chews.

The array of colors in Chiangmai's wats, dragons made from tile, and Buddhas covered in gold. The smell of incense.

The soft sand on Railie beach, against the volcanic rock that juts from the earth, the same mountain range we've marveled at in Guilin, Halong Bay, El Nido, and now Thailand, those karsts that seem to be made simply to make you smile. The blue-green water that is so warm your body enters almost without noticing the transition from dry to wet.

The curries and noodles and spices that make Thai food the world's comfort food. The welcoming warmth of Thai people. The blue skies.

Here is a rather long photo record of the trip. I've done enough on Facebook.

First night at Puripunn hotel in Chiang Mai

One of Chiang Mai's many, many wats.

Ancient wat,  blue skies
Blue skies, white wat

Leaving Chiang Mai: comfortable seating for monks only.
A beautiful day for elephants
How to water an elephant.
Mud baby
Elephant on the right is saying, On Wisconsin!
Our cottage at Railie Beach

Railie Beach

Railie sunset

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy China-versary to Us!

Two years ago Friday, we flew into Tianjin with a very frightened and skinny kitty, a couple of suitcases filled with not-warm-enough clothes, and a certainty that whatever it was that we were about to embark on, it would not be boring.

How true that was. And now that we’re marking two years into our time here, I want to write a short summary of all the good stuff and all the bad stuff, and what it all adds up to in the long run.

The good: Chinese people are unfailingly warm and interested in everything we do, even if they’re laughing at us much of the time. It’s not mean-spirited. Chinese food can be delicious, especially Yunnanese cuisine. Living in Asia has given me a different sense of the world and most particularly the contrast to life in free, clean, wealthy, blessed America. I’m learning every day about China and yet even if I lived here the rest of my life, I’d never fully understand this place. And yet I enjoy trying to understand, from the courtyard living that is so different from DC’s front-porch culture, to the arid craggy mountains outside Beijing where I’ve been hiking recently.

Living in an apartment has freed us from the sorts of weekend house-related chores that prevented us from having as many adventures back in DC. I’ve made some incredible friends here in China, people I hope I’ll have as friends forever. Some of those friends have little ones who are truly the light of my life. And the travel has been wonderful, from the northern reaches of China to its tropical south, as well as Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Korea, and Cambodia.

But the bad: As I type this, my internet is balky and slow, and it’s taking me five minutes to send through each email all day long. Facebook and Twitter are blocked and when I want to post something on my blog, I turn on my VPN – which refuses to stay connected.  It can take me hours online to do what takes me minutes elsewhere, like download an issue of the New Yorker or stream a video. And earlier this week, the air was hazardous for 24 hours, causing my head to pound and my eyes to itch. I have barely been outside today. I’m staying indoors with three air cleaners blasting. Even so, I wonder what I’m doing to my lungs and if I’m setting some kind of DNA groundwork for cancer later on. And speaking of being indoors, I also have two space heaters going because the heat won’t be turned on in our apartment until November 15. When I try to figure out what to make for dinner, I immediately reject half the things I used to make in the US because I don’t know about food safety: chicken, pork, beef, fish. All could come from very very dirty places. I eat lots more vegetables but I don’t know how coated with pesticides they are.

So the sum is lots and lots of good, and lots of bad on top of all that. I think the answer – or at least the answer that works best for us – is to make this a limited adventure. Some expats here say that the three-year mark is significant: people either extend their stay or decide to go home. I think we have already made that choice.

Bob tells me that I’m in danger of idealizing and sentimentalizing our life in America. Since that’s kind of my natural tendency anyway, I’d have to say he’s got my number. But I still do look forward to sitting on my front porch and reading an actual newspaper. I look forward to channel surfing. I look forward to getting in a car and driving somewhere, wearing a seat belt. I look forward to seeing blue skies every single day. 

Meanwhile, I’ve got a lot to do in the next 365 days.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween Fun and Games

This year in Beijing we were invited to three Halloween parties: one “China Moment” party, one traditional party, and one “super sexy” Halloween party.

I embrace any opportunity to dress up, especially with the added potential of making a total fool of myself. And thanks to social media like Facebook and Twitter, I can still successfully embarrass my children even if they have fled China. I think they call that a triple threat.

The “China Moment” party was first. For those of you who haven’t experienced the wild creativity, the What Not to Wear-ness on steroids, that so many Chinese women flaunt, the party was an opportunity to capture that.  First, Rachel and I hit the stores. The hodgepodge of individual stalls under the Wu Mart on Gongtibeilu offered a wealth of possibilities. I kept buying things, until Rachel very practically said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stuff, Debbie?” Excellent question, but also irrelevant. I enjoy the sudden appearance of a hat so blinged out it hurts your eyes, the Chinglish t-shirts, the colors not found in nature, the overall awesomeness of so many over-the-top choices, added to the chance to haggle merchants down to 25 or 30 RMB. It’s all in good fun if you keep smiling, and especially when you might bring along a cherub who chirps out “Ayi!” to every Chinese woman who passes by.

I scored: leopard print stockings, a leopard baseball cap with little cat ears, and other animal-print items. For the first party, I decided to go the stockings-under-the-short-shorts route, a very popular year-round look for Chinese women who have great legs.

For me, the task was to find a pair of shorts that – how can I put this – actually fit. Granted, some of the shorts that sit in my summer attire drawer are as old as some of my young friends here in China. I finally found a pair that fit, and wore them with a fake fur sweater that I actually love and a sparkly yellow top, both straight from my own closet. Then I used the cool fur-and-diamond short boots that I bought for last year’s China Moment party, and topped it off with a sparkly headband in blue. This was actually a fairly subdued look compared to what I’ve seen walking the streets around Dongzhimen, but good enough.

Then Seasons Park hosted a Halloween event for the kids. Before trick-or-treating, the kids gathered in the amphitheater below our apartment. I would say it was 90 percent Chinese, and 80 percent of them were witches, all made with costumes bought from the same basic designer, capes and hats embossed with gold.

We had quite a few come to the door – many more than on Burlington Place – and one big group of about 10 kids banged on the door and then just poured into the apartment. Two big boys in the front refused to move out of the way when I gave them their candy and started snatching from the bowl. I actually took one candy back from one kid. Then I looked over and a tiny boy -- dressed, I think, like a tiny emperor -- was standing at the door of the kitchen just looking into the kitchen.

Parties two and three were on the same night, so I decided it was sexy all the way. I wore more animal prints than I’d ever worn: leopard print stockings, leopard print low-cut top, leopard print bow tie a la Playboy bunny, leopard print earrings, leopard print kitty ears, and a leopard print tail. All of that leopard, plus a short black skirt and high short boots added up to – you guessed it – a cougar.
The first party had amazing costumes – the Dude and Maude from The Big Lebowski, Khaleesi and John Snow from Game of Thrones, and a couple portraying Beijing’s blue-sky and hazardous air days. If political costumes are a sign you’re in DC, costumes portraying the actual air are classic Beijing. At the second party, billed as the sexy one, we had one belly dancer costume, a policewoman in fishnet stockings, a Playboy bunny, a caveman, and, my personal favorite, a woman in a green wig who was the absinthe fairy, pouring generous rounds of absinthe to all. (Note to self: absinthe plus South African-recipe punch, plus prosecco = bad idea, even for a cougar.)

In any event, I was named a “finalist” for sexiest costume, but I clearly won in the over 50 category, since Bob (the emperor) and I were the only boomers in attendance. All good fun, even for those Aussies, Brits, South Africans, and others who complain that the American tradition of over-the-top Halloween festivities are too much for them. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Do You Say Drip-Drip-Drip in Chinese?

Today was another adventure where I could have used a few more language skills.

We needed to have our heating-cooling system switched over from AC to heat. Now mind you, this does not mean we actually get heat now, even though the temperatures have dropped into the 40s many days. Apartments in China don't get the official heat turned on until November 15, which is almost a month from now. We do have a nice space heater or two, but we're also solving the last days of that problem by heading off to sunny Thailand for a week.

Anyway, the fellow came to switch over our system this morning. While I was FaceTime chatting with Joanna, he was trying to get my attention. He pointed to two places where water was dripping, one from the system that sits in a cage outside our laundry room, and one underneath the pipes in our bathroom. Then he handed me a piece of paper that had English on one side and Chinese on the other. It said:

"Kind reminder
Dear tenants, Seasons Park was built has reached 10 years, the original warranty had expired. As a result most of its interior decorations and facilities have slowly started to deteriorate. Among it, the air conditioning equipment (including hosts, fan coils, valves, and expansion tanks) are particularly vulnerable to failure and leakage incidents which may cause a lot of inconveniences and damage to you and your family."

The letter went on to suggest we buy insurance so that this kind of damage to our family was covered. I mean, why should we expect anything in China to work after ten years? That's a lifetime to most other places.

So I called the 24-hour hotline that the paper helpfully provided.
"Do you speak English?" I asked the guy who answered the phone.
"No," he said with an embarrassed chuckle.
I proceeded to explain that our "shui" was dripping. I don't know the Chinese word for drip, and I couldn't make a dripping gesture on the phone, so I just said:
"Drip, drip, drip."
Then, in Chinese, I told him our apartment building and number, and he asked me something else, the gist of which I heard to be "xianzai" -- now?
"Dui, xianzai," I agreed.

I emailed Bob. "Okay," I wrote. "I may or may not have asked for someone to come. But maybe I just ordered a pizza. Who knows."

"Impressive if you did it by phone," he answered.
Within minutes, another fellow showed up at our door. You might be able to criticize China for many things, but the rapid response of workmen to fix a problem is impressive. In the U.S. I'd be arranging for someone to come a month from Sunday.

I showed the guy the problem, but when I opened the door to the outside cage, the dripping had stopped. Of course.
"Mei you wenti," he announced to me. No problem.
I showed him the other leak. Again, no more dripping.
Then he said to me in Chinese that when you switch over the AC, there's always water. At least that's what I think he said. He may have been wondering what time the pizza would get here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Beautiful Labagoumen

Just a few shots from a mid-week hike, proof that China can be as beautiful as Meiguo.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What a Difference a Dou Makes

I imagine (in my delusional way) that my many readers are waiting anxiously for the next installment of Debbie Versus the Bureaucracy.

So here's the rest of the story. Actually, in China, it's never the rest of the story but I'll get to that later.

The Wall Street Journal office manager, the amazing Kersten, took pity on me when I told her yesterday about my experience at the PSB. And so she ordered up Mr. Dou, the Wall Street Journal driver, to take me first to the local police and then back to the PSB to finish up the visa process, less for the driving and more for the translation and guanxi (relations) Dou has with the bureaucrats.

Dou is a cheery, slightly heavyset guy who makes the assumption that anyone who can speak a few words of baby Chinese is fluent and he can just speak to them at a normal pace. But the best method for Dou is just to follow him and hope that it all works out.

First stop was the police station, where he parked and marched in, knowing exactly where to bring all my papers. He immediately started chatting up a police woman, most likely doing a little flirting too since she had a smile on her face the whole time. Five minutes later, we were back in the car.

Next was the Public Security Bureau. This time Dou parked about a block away and then walked so fast to the PSB that I nearly had to run to catch up.

"Ni hen kuai!" I said to him. (You're very fast.) "Zhonguoren zuo lu hen maan," I said. (To those who actually speak Chinese, apologies for slaughtering the language.) Chinese people usually walk slowly.

Dou immediately slowed down.

When we got in the PSB, Dou tried to use his connections to jump the line, but I actually knew more than he did at this point, and caught the eye of the young woman who dealt with me yesterday. And ten minutes later, she had taken both my old and new passports and told me to come back in a week.

After that, I'm supposed to go back to the police to do something to update my residency again, but I think that should work out okay. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

How I Spent My Thursday Afternoon

In a slightly complicated but terribly interesting (to me) development, I recently learned that my passport, which expires next August, is not good enough. When we apply for our visa at the end of November, we need to reassure the Chinese that we both have passports that are good for the full 12 months, not 9 months and change.

You'd almost think the Chinese don't want us to stay.

So I went to the U.S. Embassy a day before the government shutdown to apply for my new passport. I always love getting a new passport every ten years so that, unlike Dorian Grey, I can really see that whole aging process. Anyway. The good news is that the shutdown in Washington does not prevent passport processing. Phew.

New passport in hand, I marched over the the famous Public Security Bureau, the entity that decides whether foreigners in China get visas or residency permits to stay longer than a few days. The place has that whole unfriendly feeling of a DMV in Washington, D.C., with the added color of multiple languages being shouted all at once. I also could have sworn somebody was smoking pot in there, but it could have been moxibustion instead. Look it up.

After some confusion caused by the fact that I stood for a good long while in the wrong line (I think I said to Bob, "I don't need a Chinese speaker with me! I can do this myself!"), I finally got a number to wait for the visa folks.

There were only 200 people in front of me.

The afternoon passed. The seats provided were this hard metal, totally uncomfortable for people who might be suffering from what I call Rickshaw Butt. So I stood and studied Chinese, read email, and listened to "This American Life" on my phone, all of which wore down my battery big time.

Finally, I got to my own visa person, a sweet-faced young woman who could not have been more than 17. She stared at my documents for a few minutes, and then said, "Can I use your phone? I need to call the local police."


My phone had about 11 percent batteries left, and I thought it was odd that she needed to use my phone. After having me wait a few minutes, which translated means about 20 minutes in China, she informed me that I needed to go to the local police station to register FIRST, then come back and get my visa.

I was seeing my vacation to Thailand, supposed to begin Nov. 2, disappear with the wind that was blowing through Beijing that day. I mean, I could leave the country, but I didn't know if I could get back.

You'd think...

As I left the PSB at rush hour, I decided I would walk home. Besides, there are rarely cabs at rush hour, and my bottom was resisting the idea of being subjected to another bouncy rickshaw ride. And my reward was a lovely sunset. Now this is not the Hudson Valley or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or Bali, or any one of the many gorgeous places my Facebook friends show in their pictures. But it was a sweet treat after a headachy afternoon with bureaucrats. Dante knew nothing.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Scenes from Golden Week

A dead bird in Sanlitun. Is this commentary on the bird flu? Sesame Street? Maybe this guy collapsed on his way to where the air is sweet. 
It's Golden Week here in Beijing (and, judging from the news, Horrible Week back in DC), so I thought I'd share a few photos from our wanderings yesterday.

It's possible these drumming mimes at Chaoyang Park came from New Orleans, but I don't know.
This is how some foreigners make money: paint themselves red and charge for photos.

And yet I see that compared to the rest of China, Chaoyang Park was relatively peaceful yesterday:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

China Moments

Moments from the week:
·         A friend at lunch, leaning over and asking if I might be going to New York soon, so that I could deliver a morin khuur to her son, a giant horsehead guitar that supposedly makes a sound like a horse neighing.
·         Me taking a giant spill along the Liangmehe canal, after momentarily losing my concentration in staring at a woman with bright purple hair. Her yippy little dog barking at me, as she barely pauses to make sure I’m not dead.
·         Achieving a whopping 182 in bowling, with five strikes and about four spares.
·         Bouncing around in the crisp fall air on various bicycle rickshaws, and a ride in one in the rain where I liked the fact that I couldn’t see outside the quilted red blanket that covered the entire seating area. No need to see the danger.
·         Marching past all the Chinese citizens lined up outside the U.S. embassy looking for tourist visas, and feeling privileged just by being able to wave that precious blue passport book.
·         Strolling the grounds of Biyun Temple (Temple of Azure Clouds) outside Beijing on a day when the clouds were puffy like cotton and the sky was azure.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Smudge's Little Red Book

Yesterday I began the process of trying to understand the steps it would take to get Smudge safely repatriated. I know, we have a good long time before we head back to our beloved Meiguo (13 months, 8 days, but who’s counting?), but I figured that if there’s one thing I learned in China, it’s the power of Murphy’s Law. If something is going to go wrong, it will, and at the least convenient time at the greatest expense.

Faithful readers will recall the expensive and elaborate process that it took to smuggle Smudge into the Middle Kingdom to avoid quarantine, a process that involved hiring a very expensive pet relocation company that gave us decent advice but not much else, flying to Seoul and staying overnight in a somewhat seedy pet-friendly hotel near the airport, flying to quarantine-free Tianjin and marching through immigration like it was nothing, and then driving (thank you, Mr. Dou) to Beijing in the Wall Street Journal’s car. And then locking poor Smudge in the bathroom. For the record, I believe she has forgiven me for that.

Here in Season’s Park, Smudge spends about 50 percent of her time under our Ikea armchair (where I’ve helpfully put a little pillow for her), 20 percent of her time staring at me (making me wonder if she is a spy), 10 percent of her time eating rather unenthusiastically, 10 percent drinking water from the toilet, five percent looking out at the Siberian magpies and pink-dyed poodles that pass by below, and 5 percent just doing that cat thing of staring off into space, preferably on my lap, even on days when it’s 100 degrees outside.

Getting her home seems slightly easier than getting her here, even at her advanced age of 15. I got all the details from the ever-helpful Mary Peng at Beijing’s International Center for Veterinary Services. In a free seminar, “Exiting from China with Pets,” she detailed the process of convincing China to let my kitty go (when it’s not entirely clear they even know she’s here).

First order of business, making sure she’s in good health. Mary told a scary story of a family she knew who had lived in Beijing with their beagle, had faithfully taken the beagle in to the clinic for his vaccinations, but had declined the blood work. With a week to go, they brought him in for his Chinese health examination to find out he had diabetes and the Chinese decided that he couldn’t leave in case his blood work was also evidence of other, possibly infectious diseases. The family left without the poor dog, who stayed with friends until someone in the family could come back and fetch him after his blood sugar got back to normal. Moral of story: Never leave things until the last minute, especially not in China. Plus, don’t get diabetes.

Since Smudge is elderly and has a toilet water addiction, I need to have her examined. So I’ll make an appointment, get her examined, and, at the same time, have the clinic insert a microchip in her shoulder (needed for departure from Beijing) and a rabies vaccination. The rabies test needs to be done within a year of leaving, so I’m waiting on all that until December of this year to be on the safe side.

I may have started feeling slightly panicky at this point in the talk, but I certainly seemed to have fewer problems than the young woman who wanted to bring her husky to Taiwan, which basically doesn’t allow anyone to bring in animals at any time, it seems, and especially not from the People’s Republic of China.

Which brings me to Smudge’s political affiliations. When she gets her rabies shot in December, she will be given a Little Red Book of vaccination records, otherwise known as the official Beijing Animal Health and Immunity Certificate. I don’t think she’ll be expected to quote from it, though.
After she gets all healthy and up to date on her shots, we wait until 7-10 days before our departure, when we have to show up at the “government-run Entry-Exit Inspection & Quarantine Bureau animal hospital,” a place that takes no appointments and that runs on government hours: 8:30-4:30, with a big chunk of time in the middle of the day off for lunch. No one there speaks English, of course, but Mary assured us that we could show up with our pet and they’d know what to do. Hmmmmm. If I had a kuai for every time I trusted that things would not go wrong, I’d be rich. I think I’ll bring a Chinese-speaker with me.

Assuming Smudge passes her tests, she gets a certificate for exit, which, with a “concierge service” costing about 300 RMB can be delivered to your home, allows her to leave.

That, of course, leaves one other wild card and that is the flight. We’ll need to make sure United will allow us to carry our cat in the cabin, because they’re one airline that doesn’t let you check the animal as “excess baggage,” which would mean they go in a special area of the cargo on your flight.  Instead, being the totally service-intensive airline they always are, United insists that if you’re not bringing your animal into the cabin, you must check your animal as unaccompanied freight, marked as “live animals.” You leave them overnight in some warehouse, and yada yada. I’d rather change airlines and fly through Pyongyang than do that.

So, if all goes well, we’ll get on that direct Beijing-Dulles flight with Smudge in the cabin, doing what she’s done on our Brussels sojourn and then coming here to China: looking up at me with doleful eyes and not making a sound.

Mary had a cat that wailed for four hours from Beijing to Tokyo, making her vow never to take a cat in the cabin with her again. Smudge isn’t that kind of cat. But I wouldn’t be surprised if having a microchip implanted in China, a little red book, and the habit of watching me around the clock means I’m actually bringing home a little red spy. I mean, what IS in that toilet water?

Always watching....

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fun with Ma Dawei and Lin Na

I’m starting to learn to read Chinese characters, and it’s been a fun, if demanding, exercise. It seems as if every time I work out in my head a reason to remember a certain character – “okay, that has a mouth character in it, so it probably has something to do with speaking” – I am stymied by a character that seems to have absolutely nothing – NOTHING – to do with its reality.

The word “ball” is a perfect example. You might think that the character would have something round in it. Nope. The character for ball is: .

Yes, I know. Looks like a ball, right?

But, despite all odds, I’m starting to pick my way through my textbook, “New Practical Chinese Reader.” It’s not as fun-sounding as my previous book, “Kuaile Hanyu,” or Happy Chinese, with its pictures of children running through parks, kicking soccer balls, playing ping pong, going to concerts. This next book is just…practical.

But something in reading characters is starting to make sense, especially if I read them in context, rather than trying to identify characters from a game on my ipad, where they just appear randomly. And even the practical book has a couple of ongoing characters. There’s Ma Dawei, a 22-year-old American student, who wears a somewhat creepy trench coat with a mug of something in one hand and the other hand in his pocket. And then there’s Lin Na, a 19-year-old British student wearing slouchy boots and carrying some kind of shoulder bag. There are others, too, but these are the names I most easily recognize.

The reading is exactly like the kind of reading I did when I first learned to read English. Then I would sit on Christine’s front steps, and we would pore over our Dick and Jane books. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!” There was this magical moment where it started to make sense and we started to devour books, one after the other.

Here in Beijing, I’m happy to read just basic stuff. Here’s about the level of character-reading I can do these days (translated into English, of course):

Lin Na, how are you?
I’m very good, how are you?
I’m also good.

These are not profound thoughts, and the chapters that follow move on to important topics like whether their professor is busy, who wants to drink coffee, do you want to eat something (a crucial topic in China), and what country someone is from (an even more important topic).

I’m wondering, though, when we’ll get to humor. There was a rather brilliant moment in the Dick and Jane books when their cat, Puff, was perched on the television set.

“Jane, look! Puff is on TV!” says the ever-playful Dick. (Dick would never wear a trench coat and keep his hand in his pocket.)

Jane, of course, comes running, and sees that Puff is on top of the TV, but not “on TV” literally. It was the first actual joke I ever read, and I remember feeling blown away by the clever word play and my equally monumental brilliance for understanding it.

I am light years from this stage here in China. If the “xiao mao” ever climbs on top of the “dianshi,” it’ll be a miracle. Our TV is flat screen, and Smudge’s adventurous days are long over. Plus, I haven’t learned the characters yet for cat or TV. But maybe soon.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Beautiful Country

Just back in Beijing after a three-week visit to the U.S., I can't help but catalog the variety of places and things I've done. In fact, I've been telling people it could almost be a "Best of America" tour, if such a thing is possible, and if one could actually pick a best out of so many treasures.

Let's start with the locations: lake and seaside Maine; Hudson Valley and Catskills of upstate New York; Washington, DC; Denver and the Rockies; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Let's move on to the food: lobster and blueberry pancakes (hat tip Lori Bruno); sweet corn on the cob; risotto (Uncle Richie's finest); grilled peaches; Brooks barbecue in Oneonta; delicious latkes; Guapos guacamole; blueberry coffee cake (hat tip Carol Conlon); Maryland crab cakes; restaurant week meals at Jaleo (patatas brava and flan) and Siroc; Pete's clam pizza; Cafe Ole's sultan’s stew; Hudson valley cheese; macaroni and cheese and fried chicken at a wedding; pappardelle in Denver; spinach salad on the grounds of Denver's beautiful botanical gardens, scallops from the Outer Banks in Chapel Hill.

And the little ones: my cousin Maria's sweet Quinn and Declan; the Davis kiddos, all five darlings, all five perfect; Sufi, with his easy smiles and extroverted personality.

And the experiences: two bonfires (hat tip Tom Bruno and Josh O'Leary); one wedding (elegant and beautiful Tricia); swimming in one lake and one pool (hat tip Lori Bruno and Jennifer Taylor); one Rocky Mountain drive through a pelting hailstorm; one latke bake off; one afternoon of corn hole; jogs by the Hudson River, the Susquehanna river, the pine-scented hills of Chapel Hill; and to the Iwo Jima memorial in DC; a chance to toss a nickel on the grave of Buffalo Bill; a look inside the home of Thomas Cole; being in Washington on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington; putting a large decal tree on the wall of Daniel's apartment.

I've spent time on three college campuses: my own Oneonta, looking spiffy and landscaped; beautiful University of Denver, with its red rock buildings and curving sidewalks; and even more beautiful UNC, with its ancient trees and colonial brick buildings, southern charm at its best.

As always, I've been just overwhelmed with the generosity of friends and family who have picked me up from airports, put me up, fed me, and taken time to have a breakfast, coffee, lunch, drinks, or dinner with me.

I haven't had much time to write or study Chinese, and there's a new baby who just joined our Beijing "family," so I'm also looking forward to getting back to my life in China (and especially to wow Smudge with the 20 cans of cat food I've brought her. I'm sure she'll be grateful.), but this break has been everything a vacation should be: relaxing, fun, caloric, with plenty of time and laughs with people who mean so much to me.
Maine sunset
Lobsta time
Mom and Dan
Billy, Lori, Mike, Jane
Family on the dock.
All the Davis cuties.
Tricia was a beautiful bride.
Soaking up the sun in Denver.
Recovering from running in Chapel Hill.