Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A China Moment

I’ve been pretty down on China lately, starting from our where’s-the-runway, polluted landing return Tuesday from Thailand. Getting body-slammed in the airport and then fighting a monumental headache thanks to the hazardous air pollution didn’t make me love the country much either.

In the gym yesterday, three treadmills were out of service. I chose one, and started to jog while watching an episode of “Modern Family.” In comes a Chinese man who stands on a treadmill next to me, turns on the TV, and leans back against one of the bars of the machine while watching CCTV.

Next he takes a phone call on his cell, and starts yelling to his friend. I catch his eye, do a Charlie-Bruno-style “what the hell are you doing?” shrug with raised eyebrows, and he leaves. After I finish I see him chatting up the girls at the reception desk with a cigarette tucked behind his ear. I guess I should be grateful he didn’t start smoking in the gym.

But now I feel a whole lot better about things, chiefly because my friend Danielle is having a “China Moment” party where we are all supposed to come dressed up in our best Chinese fashion. Joanna helped me shop, and we scoured the shops under the Wu Mart today, coming up with some excellent finds.

1.      Gold glittery nail polish for my nails, 30 RMB ($4.82).
2.      Short boots, fake-fur-lined, with a fat belt of silver and gold gems across the top, 100 RMB ($16).
3.      A gold-studded red baseball cap, 30 RMB.
4.      Star-shaped cougar-print earrings, a splurge at 50 RMB ($8).
5.      Purple and black leopard print leggings, lined, 30 RMB.

I’ll add my “Pratie Makes Perfect” t shirt and I should be ready to party. You want to see photos, you say? Oh, there will be photos, just wait. Meanwhile, my new saying is, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
China: One
Debbie: One

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The King and I

Yes, we climbed these.

I do love me some lions.
Ronald doing the "wai," the traditional Thai greeting. 
Wat Arun, with Bob acting all Chinese
Even the Buddha is relaxed.
We got home last night from four days in Bangkok, and of course my short visit to the Thai kingdom allows me to come to some sweeping and cliched conclusions about the entire country. (See under: Japan's cool toilets; Vietnam flashbacks)

Thai people are very much the way the tourist propaganda describes them: perpetually smiling, unfailingly gracious, and eager to be helpful. In our first couple of hours wandering around Bangkok we encountered a doctor, a lawyer, and a working man who all went out of their way to direct us to attractions and draw instructions on a map. True, all three were mainly invested in pointing us to shopping opportunities, but I had the sense that they simply wanted us to get the deals and bargains Thailand is famous for.

The other thing that came up in conversation with nearly every Thai person was an affectionate reference to "my king." Not "our king" or "the king," but always MY king, as if the citizen had a personal relationship with the king. At the moment he's ailing and in the hospital and it felt as if the entire kingdom was holding its breath and hoping for the 86-year-old king's full recovery.

What makes this fact even stranger are the enormous billboards and murals everywhere with pictures of the king and queen, him a scrawny man in owl-size eyeglasses, seemingly incapable of cracking a smile, alongside a wife who could be twice his size with a pasty white face and a matching grim expression. The day before we arrived a newspaper editor had been given ten years in jail for running an article that supposedly mocked the king, lese majeste (or injured majesty. So thin-skinned, these royals).

I don't get it, but then again the Thais as a nation seem infinitely more cheerful than the Chinese -- or the Americans for that matter -- so maybe they have a point.

Or maybe it could be the delicious food, the tropical climate, and blue skies, all very welcome after Beijing's winter of bitter cold and hazardous air.  As far as I can tell, Thailand is an easygoing country, as long as you don't dis the king....or have a balloon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


I'm not bragging or anything, but last night I received my bowling trophy. It's hard to make out the text in the glass, but it says:


I guess that makes me a trophy wife now.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What's This About Global Warming?

I have a confession: I've become a global warming skeptic, like all the looneys who also think the earth is 5,000 years old and that God wanted the Ravens to win.

It's possible that part of my brain froze over in Harbin this weekend. I used to live in Boston in the bottom half of a house where the landlord never let his mutt inside. Max was a sweet animal, but dumb as a rock, which we figured was caused by the cold winters creating a permafrost segment inside his skull.

I identify with Max now. I've experienced Harbin, the coldest place I've ever been. Because I haven't been to the South Pole like a certain person who did manage to slip his Antarctica trip into the conversation more than once in Harbin.

How cold was Harbin? So cold that even though I basically put on every item of clothing in my suitcase and jammed foot warmers in my boots and hand warmers in my gloves, I was cold.

It was the kind of cold a kid experiences when she's been building snow forts and sledding down hills for an entire day, until suddenly her feet hurt so much she can barely walk on them. It was the kind of cold that made you think twice about taking your fingers out of your gloves to take a photo, the kind that made the carbon dioxide stink of our tour bus seem almost pleasant because at least it was out of the cold.

It was 20 degrees below zero, a cold that made the snow a squeaky crunch under your feet.
But, you know what? It was also fun, if you remind yourself that you'll never pass this way again. Ever.
Why are the dwarfs covered in red? Because it's China.
It's a scary snow elephant.

This baby's bottom is cold. So cold.
One of the sponsors: Bank of Inner Mongolia. Of course.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


One of the constants in our lives is our bowling league, baoulingqiu in Chinese. Every Tuesday night Bob and I meet at a Subway sandwich shop in the basement of East Gate mall not far from us, where we order our usual tuna subs loaded with vegetables and a bottle of water, and then head off down the hall to the underground bowling alley.

It's a very Chinese setting in some ways. While smoking is technically not allowed inside the bowling alley, men gather in clumps just outside the open glass doors, standing so that they pretty much block the doors with both smoke and their bodies.

But when we push our way in, the place could almost be any bowling alley in America, with the noise of balls knocking down pins, beer for sale (10 rmb Chinese beer, which many bowlers buy five or six at a time), and bowlers giving each other high fives after every strike or spare. I get my shoes, size si, or four. Bob gets ba, 8.

We greet the regulars: a team of gay Chinese men who make the approach to rolling a ball down the lane look like a cross between ballet and Cirque de Soleil;  a team of Filipino men; another group from the American embassy, and then a whole lot of mixed-nations groups: Brits with Turks, Chinese with Spanish, Australians with Germans, and so on.

We've bowled so much with all of them that I know who has a mind-bending spin on his ball each time, who plunks the ball in the lane as if she were dropping a block of concrete, who takes little stuttering steps, and who nearly falls each time he bowls.

I am known for my....enthusiasm, which is a hard-won happiness that comes from the fact that I'm a damn mediocre bowler. If I get a spare, I hiss out "yes!" And if I get a strike, it's always a "woo!" Then I get in a generous round of high-fives among my team, the opposing team, and often teams in the next lane if I can catch their eye.

Bob's bowling has improved beautifully over the year, and his most recent games have been some of his highest ones yet, strike after strike delivered in his low key way. As for me, I'm what you might call inconsistent. I'll get a strike and a spare and then a gutter ball and a 4. There's no evidence that I learn from my success or have more than a passing sense of what I did wrong. I don't even really know if I should use a heavier ball to knock down more pins or a lighter one for better accuracy.

I think a lot about these things.

Tuesday was what was called a "fun night" for the league, meaning that our scores didn't affect our rankings. We always have fun. And as always, I had mixed success, one decent game, one middling, and one bad game. I drank no beer although the fellows bowling with us downed plenty and had lifetime high numbers, so I'm wondering if maybe I should rethink that part of my strategy.

At the end of the evening as we tallied the scores, Beth, one of the league organizers, handed me a large tin of butter cookies. Somehow I had scored second place among the women. First place winner got Belgian chocolate.

A few facts. There were three women bowling that night, and it appears that Beth, who consistently bowls 200 games, had taken herself out of the running as the organizer. That left me and Hannah, who also has a nice way of getting those last few pins. Add in my massive handicap, and my score doesn't look all that bad.

But I felt my tin of cookies was unfairly earned, a sugary reminder that gender and the ability to start the season with just shameful scores creating an enormous handicap can actually bring a reward, a guilty reward.

It didn't stop me from a little gloating on the walk home. "You had all the strikes, but who got the cookies?" I asked Bob. "Where are your cookies, Bob?"

Not that I'm competitive.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Afternoon with a Poet

I spent Monday afternoon with the poet Zheng Min, the 93-year-old writer I profiled in the Wall Street Journal last year. (

The last leaf of the Nine Leaves school of poetry is, I'm happy to say, alive and well and living in Beijing. I brought with me Xin Ning of Rutgers, a scholar of the Nine Leaves school, plus Zheng Min's biographer and another of her students, who now does research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Our conversation was wide-ranging, from the Cultural Revolution to German poets to the Bible to family ties to Mo Yan. Xin Ning, whose great aunt was married to another of the Nine Leaves poets, Mu Dan, opened a book of poetry to some of Zheng Min's works, talking to her about ideas of solitude, romanticism, modernism, and voice in poetry.

We returned to some of the same themes we covered in the other two afternoons I had visited the cozy apartment she shares with her daughter, the poet Tong Wei, just north of the campus of Peking University. How did she survive the Cultural Revolution when so many intellectuals were lost to suicide and despair? Zheng Min's answer was that she knew who she was, and stayed true to herself, trusting no one but herself. She had, she said, a larger sense of history. This too shall pass. She also never challenged the ruling powers, for to do that was to draw attention. And those who, then and today, made martyrs and examples of themselves, did not live to prove their tormentors wrong.

Zheng Min did. She was discovered as a young woman whose poetic voice was fresh and open and leaned upon the modernist traditions of the west. And then she was utterly silent for 30 years. She started writing again in the late 1970s, after the death of Mao and China's opening. She was in her late 50s, and one of her iconic poems from that period begins, "O poetry, I've found you again."

That same spirit remains. It's not significant that she doesn't really remember people from one visit to the next or that as the afternoon darkened into evening, her English mingled more and more with Chinese, so that the conversation sounded to my ears more and more like this: "Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, cultural revolution, Chinese, Chinese, Chinese, post-modern, Chinese, Chinese, TS Eliot."

What was significant was her strength -- as my energy waned, I had the sense that she could have continued talking into the night. And when I hesitated to give her a hug and possibly pass my head cold on to her she said cheerfully, "Oh, I have a strong immune system!"

"I don't know how many days I have left," she said casually, the way someone else might wonder how long it takes to drive from point a to point b.  In fact, her age didn't much seem to worry or burden her. What mattered to her was the life of the mind, her sense of how the past mingled with the future and her certain knowledge of having lived a good life, or the best life she could have managed under the circumstances. For Zheng Min, it was enough.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Breathing Lessons

Most of the world has now heard about Beijing's weekend of hazardous air. It's a gray and gloomy haze that makes it seem, at 11 in the morning, as if the day is ending, or never really began. Which is not that far from the truth.

I spent too much time outdoors yesterday, walking to Sanyuanli market and back, and today I woke up with a throat so sore I could barely swallow. I'm tired. I'm sick of feeling trapped indoors. I miss the blue sky.

Our solution is to plan our various escapes. Next weekend is Harbin, bitter cold but with magnificent ice sculptures. Then four days in Bangkok. Soon after that we head off to the Phillipines for some beach time. We've just sketched out a cool Yunnan/Tibetan region spring trip with Frank, our amazing link to southwest China. We've got the Ghenghis Khan race in Inner Mongolia in July. And just last night we decided that a trip to Burma in the fall would be just the ticket. And for me I've got several more trips home, one in April and one in August. I'll try to catch my breath, literally, in all those places.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Alternatives to Hibernating

My instinct this time of year, when I wake up to temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit, is to curl up with the New Yorker on my iPad and the cat on my lap. Especially when Beijing’s dry air makes the skin itch no matter how much lotion you use and when pollution and cold make the eyes tear up the minute you step outdoors.

Today, though, Rachel convinced me to go ice-biking on Houhai Lake, and I’m glad I did. I went with the International Newcomers Network a year ago, and it seemed fitting that I should make this an annual jetlag-fighting strategy.

Challenge number one of course is getting anywhere in Beijing during morning rush hour. We decided to take a pedicab, one of those red chariots pulled by a motorized bike, outfitted for winter with a quilted red cover. This means we rode across town in a dark chamber, hearing only car horns blare as the driver wove in and out of traffic. At one point, he peeled back the quilt and asked us, by gesturing, whether we were going to slide on the lake. “Dui,” I answered, and he chuckled. (Crazy laowai, I could see him thinking).

I realized at some point that we could be going anywhere, but suddenly the driver pulled back the flap and there was Houhai, with its ice bikes and ice chairs, frozen solid.

We met up with a group of international women who were bundled for the cold, and got out on the ice. Few people were out on a Thursday morning, so Rachel and I raced at breakneck speed up and down the lake. She won the first race, and I got the second.

There was also a tall ice slide. Who can resist an ice slide, especially when there’s no line and the fee is 5 RMB – 80 cents? I sat clumsily down on a Styrofoam sled and went down in a teeth-jarring flash, squealing the whole way, to the amusement of Chinese onlookers. Maybe one doesn’t make that kind of noise in public? Didn’t care.

Chinese people tended to rent ice chairs, which seemed to be basic kitchen chairs fitted with runners. You sat and pushed yourself on poles across the ice, which meant that you couldn’t get up to any kind of satisfying speed. But most Chinese people seemed to use the chairs as photo-taking opportunities, taking shot after shot of their cherubs bundled up against the cold as they sat on the chairs.

It’s funny to think that just a few months ago I was dragon boating on this same lake, trying not to get any of the snot-green water in my mouth and desperately trying to keep up with the pace of the other rowers as onlookers shouted “Jai yo!” What a country.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Meddling, Plus My Return to the Middle Kingdom

The contrast between my placid, hybrid-car-fueled, lane-respecting ride to Dulles airport on Sunday and my chaotic, gasping-at-near-misses return to a very polluted Beijing yesterday is symbolic of the differences between the U.S. and China. But I'm happy to be home, honestly, and I spent some of the 14-hour plane ride yesterday thinking about my trip home and how I've changed.

It occurred to me about 10 days into the trip that I had developed a habit of meddling in my friends' lives. I nearly ruined a lunch on New Year's Eve by bugging one friend about quitting smoking. I asked a newly married couple when they were going to have a baby. I asked someone when she and her boyfriend were going to get married. I told a friend to go for a new job that probably paid less but would have been far more satisfying. I tried to play matchmaker for a couple of single people.

Why was I doing this? I suppose I thought that these changes would make them happier.
Then, on my final day home, a friend told me she wanted me to become her personal nag. Asking family members would only tick her off, she said. I was to bug her about starting a new project, something that had many steps but none of them insurmountable. Before then, she had had a hard time getting going on it.  We figured out a plan and I said I would email her once a week to check in.

Suddenly I was being encouraged to meddle, to insert myself in someone's habits, daily activity. Maybe I should become a life coach, I started to think, since it's always easier to tell other people what to do than to do those things myself.

I was still a little puzzled, though, about why I had evolved into one of those people who can't seem to resist telling people what to do. There was a time when I thought: live and let live. You don't bug me, and I won't bug you.

Finally, I was sitting on the plane about to take that 14-hour trip back to Beijing. The flight, as usual, was filled with Chinese people. I took off my heavy boots so I could be comfortable. Suddenly, the man across the aisle from me pointed to my boots, which could barely fit with my purse under the seat in front of me. He gestured that my boots were not fully stowed away.

Why was he telling me this? The flight attendants were leaving me alone. And then it hit me. Few people in China can resist meddling. They love to tell you what you should do with your life. I've picked up the habit from them.

Two more years in China and I should be able to start an advice column.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Being Home

I've been back in the U.S. for almost two weeks now. I've filled two suitcases, had multiple delicious meals, visited as many family and friends as weather and health issues allow, and just generally had a lovely time.

It always amazes me how many people are willing to help make my visit home something like jumping into a mosh pit of comfort and love. Pam, who uncomplainingly picks me up at Dulles and then drives me to Silver Spring, Bill and Carol, who have "my room" ready for me and who bring me to BWI. Bill and Jen, who not only let me stay in their home but who give me a business class ticket home.  My brother Tom, who picks me up at the airport and who does so much to take care of my mother. My sister Lori, who thinks nothing of popping over from New Hampshire, and who understands all. My brother Glenn, who upgrades my Kindle. The people at my mother's church, who tell me they have me on their prayer lists. My mother's church, where I can sing Christmas carols and soak in the peace of a small town.

So many friends, who make time in their lives for breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner, shopping, tea, walks, and phone calls. The friends who are gracious when I don't have the time to see them this time. The friends whom I could tell, "Next time, I'm staying at your house" and they wouldn't blink an eye. The ones who, like Patti and Ron as well as Bill and Jen, put together dinners. The ones who, like Susan, decide it's time for the Janney moms of Daniel's grade to get together. The Roll Call buddies who are happy to have drinks.

I won't be sad to get back to Bob and family back in Beijing, and to start planning our next adventures, with the distinct sense that if the first year flew by that fast, the next two years will also go as fast as a Beijing taxi driver racing to the airport. But I'm cherishing these moments: quiet jogs as I listen to NPR, sunsets with clear skies, grocery stores full of every imaginable food, downloading the New Yorker in two minutes flat, and so much cheese.