Sunday, March 31, 2013


I’ve been accused of being the anti-Chamber of Commerce for Beijing, but in my defense, I call ‘em as I see ‘em. And sometimes the truth as rough-edged as China itself.

Today is a good example of both the good and the stuff that makes for good blog posts. I needed to get to an interview at the Park Hyatt, which is in the center of the central business district of Beijing. And it’s a major hotel, so how could this be complicated, right?

I hired (for 30 RMB) what some people call a carbon-monoxide mobile, a tin-can-enclosed vehicle that is kind of a cross between a motorcycle surrounded by an aluminum box and a teeny-tiny van. Sometimes you face forward but most of the time you face backwards. Here’s a recent ride I took.

And then today I got one that faced forward. The car seemed to hit every little bump as if I was actually sitting on the pavement, and had about as much power as a human-pedaled machine, groaning through intersections, up bike lanes, and across giant lanes of traffic. Same old same old.

Then things got interesting. When we got to my “destination,” which I had shown him on my handy Beijing taxi guide app, he clearly had no idea where to take me. He started asking me questions in Chinese, and all I could do was show him where I wanted to go on my iphone map. He grabbed the iphone and set out to accost passersby with questions about directions. I worried that he might take off with the phone, even though I was sitting in his parked vehicle. I’m figuring the unlocked iphone I bought back in the States is about equal in value to his vehicle.

But like all Beijing drivers I’ve met, he was honest and he came back with the phone. He pointed across Jianguomen, indicating we were on the wrong side of the street. And then he turned the buggy around and started heading back the way we came. We were riding in the bike lane, but going in the wrong direction. It was at this point that I kind of wished I was facing backwards so I couldn’t see my imminent death. I’m a pretty cool customer in Beijing transportation, but this scared me.

And as we crossed against traffic in the intersection, an enormous two-section bus roared directly at us. He swerved just in time and finally deposited me on the other side, half ignoring my pleas to let me off right there. 

I arrived at my interview just a few minutes late, with my hair all wild and my bag a jumble of items. It seems that there’s an inverse relationship between my level of dishevelment and the polished nature of the person I am interviewing. Today’s interview was an etiquette instructor. Yep, we were a study in contrasts.

But the interview was fine, and on the way home I tried to chat up my driver – in a regular yellow taxi this time. The minute I said that today the air is good, he looked at me with such surprise I thought he might drive off the road. And after he enthusiastically agreed, he started singing. Just the fact that I had chatted with him seemed to make him insanely happy. And that’s what I love about China. I challenge anyone to send me evidence of their DC or NY cab driver serenading them.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter Weekend

We went to a concert last night by a rocker named Xie Tianxiao, a Mick-Jagger-thin guy who was staging a kind of comeback from his grunge music of a good eight or so years ago. The idea, which came from our friends Rachel and Scott, was that we had to experience at least one rock concert during our time in Beijing, especially since Workers Gymnasium, the concert venue, was just down the street from us.

The experience was slightly more subdued than I expected. I had come to expect a whole lot of technical razzle-dazzle from Chinese performances, glitz, sequins, dancers, lights, sound. But Tianxiao seemed to be taking a page from the Bob Dylan playbook: don’t talk much to the audience, don’t make any kind of big lead-up to songs, don’t show any facial expression, and don’t ever smile.

The audience also seemed rather subdued, at least at the beginning of the show. They sat there and bopped their heads and their light sabers – the entrepreneurial spirit is strong in China – and they even seemed to know all the words to all the songs.  But they mostly stayed in their seats.

Then I figured out why. As what must have been Tianxiao’s most popular song started, some of the kids near the stage started dancing wildly. It was too much for the goons in green khaki lined up at the front, and they grabbed the kids, wrestling them back into their seats. It was all over in a moment. Eventually the kids towards the front did manage to retrieve their enthusiasm, and stood waving their arms for different songs, but I think the incident kind of toned them down just a bit.

One highlight was the use of traditional Chinese instruments, which started out sounding like something from Beijing Opera and moved into a straight rocker song. Here’s a video of part of it. (Please ignore the thumb that pops up toward the end.) I tried to capture the goons earlier, but they had stopped the action before I could start taping.

Bob beat me to the description of the whole event, so I’ll just add that Easter Sunday began with a chill in the air (about 37 degrees) and air pollution that soon rose over 200. So even though there are a few cherry blossoms around town, I’m looking at them through an eye-stinging haze that makes me a little depressed.

On a positive note, my journey to retrieve the thumb drive I left at Friday’s conference resulted in several full conversations in Chinese with drivers. These are still fairly basic themes – how the city has grown, how old my children are, what the weather is like today – but it’s definitely measurable progress. And every driver is delighted to know I’m from America. “Meiguo, hen hao!” they all exclaim. Can’t argue with that.

Friday, March 29, 2013

How Can I Blame China For This?

Today was kind of a typical day: I got to the gym, and most of the treadmills were in use. The ones that were left over were clearly out of service, so I had a minor temper tantrum right there in the gym, saying to the attendants, “We pay a lot of money for this gym! You have three – SAN – treadmills that are bu hao!” (My Chinese kind of falls apart when I’m mad.)

The attendants answered me in Chinese, which I heard as “something, something, something, meiguo, something, something.”

This could mean several things:
1.      We’ve ordered new treadmills from meiguo (America) and are waiting for them to arrive.
2.      This is not the kind of gym like the ones you have in meiguo, where things actually work.
3.      If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to meiguo?

Eventually, I found a working treadmill, had my workout, and headed back home. As I popped in the elevator, I noticed there’s a man already inside the elevator, smoking a cigarette. I had another tantrum. “Really?” I said, pointing at the cigarette. “You’re smoking in an elevator? You should smoke OUTSIDE!” I said, as I pointed to the outdoors. He just looked back at me with a blank expression, and I stomped off.

When I got home, I jumped in the shower. The shower door fell off. Seriously, it just rolled right off its track and water poured down on me and I wrestled with the glass to get it back on the track. And yes, I did have enough sense to turn off the water before the door-wrestling, but not before getting thoroughly drenched. That was fun.

My day improved after that. I went to a conference not far from home and had a nice chat with the taxi driver about the weather, the air quality, and generally what it’s like to drive a cab in Beijing. (Okay, I made that last part up. He was talking about driving a cab – that much I understood – but what his feelings were on that and how that related to the air quality were just a bit beyond my comprehension. I pretend to know what they’re talking about and they all compliment my Chinese, in the same way I complemented my little Leah the other day for clapping her hands.)

The conference was fine, but the main reason I went was to load some photos for a story I want to do on a thumb drive. Done. Until I got home and realized I left the thumb drive sitting on the table at the conference, which means I have to make yet another trip to retrieve it.

My first reaction was: How can I make this China’s fault? There’s been a lot of talk in the press here lately about whiny foreigners who are leaving the country because of the air pollution, the food safety, the 20,000 pigs in the water, the Facebook-blocking, the usual. Not to mention the no-heat-in-apartments, the lack of decent baked goods, the dog shit on the sidewalks, and the fact that no one lets you get off the elevator or the subway before they try to push on.

So with the accumulation of bad stuff, I can just put my lamebrain move in the same column. China makes me stupid.

But it also makes for great material. It’s true I might be clogging my brain with Mandarin, ruining my gut with gutter-oil-cooked food, and coating my lungs with dust, but I’ve got such great material. Smudge is at this moment sitting in the window and looking out at the Siberian magpies in the leafless trees and the pink-sweatered miniature poodles on their afternoon walks, and I realize that things could be worse.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Walk on the Wild Side

Beijing is the kind of city where you'll see elderly folks being pushed in wheelchairs right in the middle of the street because the sidewalk is nonexistent, bumpy (and by bumpy I mean gaping holes), or filled with objects impossible to get around. Better to chance the stray car or scooter running down Grandma than to have to deal with so-called sidewalks that make walking an adventure all its own.

In the last couple of days, I've randomly shot scenes in my neighborhood so that people who don't live here can get a small sense of how taking an evening stroll can be as thrilling as a carnival ride. This isn't even touching on the topic of actually crossing the street, which is an altogether different sort of adventure. Today we'll start with Beijing's sidewalks.
Example one. This is one of the widest-open sidewalks I've seen, complete with the all-important yellow stripe intended to guide blind people. Wait, there's a car in the middle of the sidewalk? You haven't seen anything yet.
We've stepped up the game here. So what if there's a car parked in the middle of the stripe for blind people? It's still possible to squeeze past through the bike, the tree box, and the car. Easy.

Yes, this is a car parked right across the crosswalk. Added challenge are those black and yellow poles jutting up from the sidewalk. I think they may be to prevent people from parking there. I'm just guessing.
Slightly more of a challenge here. The car covers both the yellow stripe all the way to the tree box. Pity the poor trees that have to grow out of concrete mesh. But it's easier to step on that than on the mud inside a tree box.

Ahead you have a phone booth, a newspaper kiosk, and behind that a subway station. Pedestrians who have a destination on the other side of these things must weave around them.
What I love about this arrangement is the way the stripe for the blind person kind of juts around the telephone pole in the middle of the sidewalk. 
Now things are getting interesting. Do you squeeze between the parked cars, or do you step way out into the narrow street and hope you don't get run over? If you're pushing a stroller or a wheelchair, good luck.
You win, car.
And you win too, bike delivery guy. And this is why I'm a jaywalker.

Monday, March 25, 2013

What Passes for Passover

I've done multiple holidays and celebratory dinners in Beijing, including two Thanksgivings and now my second Passover. This, apparently, has given me the impression that I could step up the game a bit, go a little fancy on this Passover meal. For instance, Bob still talks about the year I made my own gefilte fish. And a matzo ball soup is always better with homemade chicken stock.  No matter that there isn't exactly a kosher for Passover aisle in the supermarket, and things like matzo meal and horseradish need to be ordered from the local Chabad network.

Okay then. The Passover Challenge began with a visit by the Three Pengyous to Sanyuanli market. We three Pengyous -- me, Rachel, and Nora -- set out with our bags, our warm winter hats, and a long list. Other than specialty items like capers and semi-sweet chocolate chips, I found everything I needed. Brisket, sea bass for the gefilte fish, dried apricots, rosemary, thyme, parsley, dill, fennel bulbs, baby potatoes, and mulberries in place of blackberries for the coulis that would be served with the chocolate torte.

This was coming together nicely.

That is, until I actually started cooking. Purée the berries with sugar in the food processor, said the recipe. So I loaded up the food processor with mulberries and sugar, plugged it into the transformer, and turned it on. Pffffit. Blew a fuse in the transformer, which was odd because I've used it that way before. I replaced the fuse and tried again. Pfffffit. Blew my last fuse. Now I had a half-smashed pulp of mulberries in the processor and no more processor. Could it be because I had the oven running, the washing machine going, and the heater going in the living room because China has turned off our heat? Possibly.

I used my frustration to mash the mulberries and later to whisk the eggs for the chocolate torte. But how I hand-chop the sea bass into gefilte fish is still to be determined. Stay tuned. I haven't given up yet. I also haven't figured out how to keep our ten dinner guests warm with one space heater that has the power of a hair dryer. Eat more, drink more, I guess. And when we tuck ten-month-old Leah to bed in the study, she's getting the heater. This might make for the speediest Passover in history: 7 plagues instead of 10 and three questions instead of four.

Update: So the Seder worked out well, except for a few glitches. (For Bob’s take on the strange person he calls Rabbi Bruno, ask him to put you on his In Lieu of Blog list:
Glitch one was the beef. I’m done with beef in this country. I bought what I thought was a nice brisket. And you know how you can cook brisket until it’s falling apart and it’s delicious and tender? Well, my so-called brisket had the consistency of shoe leather. Actually, shoe leather would have been better. But my fish cakes tasted good, even if they kind of fell apart in the process. Everything else was satisfactory.

And Bob went out and bought a second space heater, although there may have been, ahem, a guest who ended up putting on a coat towards the end of the dinner. I guess it depended on where you sat around the table.

I’ve had better dinners and I’ve had worse. Next year, roast chicken.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Let My Laowai Go

As Passover approaches, we all recall that we are strangers in a strange land. And boy, are we. This will be our second Passover in Beijing, but even so, we find that the strangeness of this strange land doesn’t necessarily diminish with time. In fact, it can get stranger and stranger.

We celebrate Passover in our household by ordering kosher-for-Passover items from the city’s Chabad network, shopping at the local wet market for items like parsley and apples and walnuts, gathering every Jew we know, and celebrating the Jews’ victory over Pharaoh with a festive dinner that will be cleaned up by our ayi, cleaning lady, in the morning.

In many ways, Passover in China is a new exile in the wilderness. “Let my people go” becomes “Just let me get on Facebook.” The Four Questions become “Why does the heat in the apartment get turned off on March 15?”, “Is jian bing, the ubiquitous street pancake, kosher for Passover?”, “Does Sichuan food count as bitter herbs?” and “Why are the Chinese chairs so damned hard?”

And yes, there are the plagues. In place of the traditional plagues, I think this year we’ll offer up a Chinese version for 2013. As we dip our fingers in Great Wall wine and spill the drops on our plates, we’ll recount these ten plagues.

1.      (Blood) HIV patients turned away from hospitals when they need surgery.
2.      (Frogs) A frog invasion in Wuhan spawns fears of another earthquake.
3.      (Lice) Parents treat head lice with Traditional Chinese Medicine in place of Nix.
4.      (Wild beasts) Giant pandas head to extinction.
5.      (Disease of livestock) Dogs are painted to look like giant pandas.
6.      (Boils) Whitening agents fill body lotion.
7.      (Hail) Spring sandstorms hit Beijing.
8.      (Locusts) Mainland shoppers hit Hong Kong. 
9.      (Darkness) Beyond-index air pollution makes noon look like night.
10.  (Death of the firstborn) Death of the firstborn daughters results from the one-child policy.

In the story of Passover, God turns Aaron’s rod into a serpent and the Pharaoh’s sorcerers turn their rods into snakes, which then get swallowed by Aaron’s serpent. Since this is the year of the snake in the Chinese calendar, that symbolism is appropriate, although the Chinese have a knack of making their snakes look like chubby cherubs, less to smite the Egyptians than to satisfy the endless hankering for kitsch.

We don’t know how long we’ll be in exile here, but I’ve lost count of the number of times I do think “Dayenu – it would have been enough.” What I tend to say, instead, is “bu yao.” Don’t want. Next year in 耶路撒冷.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Where's Justin?

Once again, I have been baffled by the elements of sudden change and uncertainty in this country.  Beijing is the kind of city where a restaurant you ate at one night can be closed the next day, where a three-month-old bookstore could close for renovations, and where many shops seem to be in a permanent state of half-renovation.

I went to get my hair cut at what I like to think of as Justin’s salon. I figured I could spring for the expensive hair coloring at Julie’s, but there’s no reason to forgo a 20-RMB haircut that is perfectly lovely.
But today, I walked into the salon, and there was no Justin. Where’s Justin? I asked.

“Mei you,” answered the shop owner. No Justin.
“Is he coming back?” I asked.
“Mei you,” he said.
“Okay, but can you cut my hair?” I asked, gesturing.
“Keyi,” he said. Yes he can.

So I proceeded to get my hair cut by some non-Justin, silent but efficient, who took as long to elaborately blow out my hair as he did to cut it. The end result was fine, and so I decided I could live with returning to the salon.

“Wo de mingzi,” I said after it was all done. My name – I knew I had a fair amount of money prepaid for various services like eyebrows (which won’t happen because Serena is also gone somewhere else) and hair color (which won’t happen there because Justin botched the job last time. I see now his heart was not in it.) Turns out I have more than 500 RMB left on my account. It’s going to take me some time to spend that down 20 RMB at a time.

And then the mystery was solved. I came home and Joanna and her friend Jamie were baking in the apartment. I told them Justin was gone, and Jamie said she had Justin’s phone number (lots of people were Justin fans). She texted him. He answered immediately: He had gone home for the new year and decided to stay in his hometown of Changsha, in Henan province. Mei you Justin. Jamie texted Justin that she was going to miss him. He texted back a picture of a big bouquet of pink flowers.

Joanna’s theory was that Justin’s parents told him it was high time for him to stay home and get married. It’s not entirely clear which team Justin plays for, but I think that any boy who is sweet enough to text a big bouquet of flowers is decent husband material.

And he sure could provide a lovely haircut. Chinese fails me in this case. In fact, English does too. Au revoir, Justin. C’est dommage.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Signs of Spring in Beijing

Yes, even Beijing gets spring – a brief, sandstormy, season that sometimes means an improvement in air quality and the chance to be outdoors. Washington, D.C. and Kyoto might have cherry blossoms, but we’ve got signs of spring here too. (Revised with items I forgot -- thanks Joanna!)
1.      The spit no longer freezes on the sidewalks, melting into tiny glistening puddles that almost sparkle in the sunlight.
2.      The mannequins in the windows of the sex shops show more of their alabaster skin through their peekaboo negligees.
3.      The gardeners inside Seasons Park trim the trees and bushes to within an inch of their lives.
4.   The ayi decides to pack all your boots away inside the closet
5.      The Advent calendars with stale milk chocolate inside are finally on sale for 10 RMB at Jenny Lou’s.
6.      The local dive bars are hiring (but only if you’re a foreigner).

7.      The smell of chuanr, grilled meats, fills the air in the evenings from stands that pop up everywhere with their ubiquitous neon signs.

8.      Round baby bottoms start to peak out from their split pants.

9. The heat is turned off inside the apartments on March 15.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

More Clean Air

Here's the latest: a new and working air purifier was delivered to our apartment on Sunday, and it's now plugged in and whooshing away in the bedroom.

Ironically, Saturday's sandstorm, which left a layer of gray grit on my face, also seemed to push away the air pollution, and the air all day today has been good. I figure the purchase of an air purifier might have had the intended cosmic effect of making the air pollution leave, in the same way that it rains as soon as you wash your car. But $960 is a small price to pay for that.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Once More Into the Breach

I'm feeling defeated. I'm trying, I'm really trying to make my way here. And I'm studying Chinese, so I can't be accused of being one of those foreigners who lives in a bubble.

But today really hit me a little hard. First I was proud of myself for finally getting an air purifier, particularly when it arrived on a day when the air veered from hazardous to very unhealthy and spring sandstorms were in the forecast.

The purifier (a whopping $960) arrived just before I headed out the door to lunch. I counted out a fat pile of 100-rmb notes and sent the courier on his way. It wasn't until later that I got the chance to open the box and wrestle the long machine out. I finally got it out without ruining the box in the process (always a good idea in this land where Murphy's law was probably created), and plugged the baby in, waiting to hear the whoosh that would tell me it was working. Nothing.

I sent a text to the sales rep who called me immediately. Did the filter beep when I pushed it in? Nope. Was the light going on? Nope. We had, sitting elegantly in our bedroom, a very expensive piece of modern art that -- with its lime green trim -- actually matched the odd wallpaper.

Adam, the sales rep, said I should box up the machine, which was clearly defective, and a courier would pick it up and deliver a new one. In China, things break a lot, but the silver lining is that there's always someone to arrive to replace, repair, reinstate, and restore.

My doorbell rang and there stood a young man, clearly in a rush. He started barking orders at me in Chinese, thrusting a form at me. Adam meanwhile had emailed instructions but between the courier barking orders, and Adam trying to explain how to fill out the form, I was lost.

The courier took a look at my hastily filled in form and handed me a new blank one. At this point he was close to shouting, a scene made even more odd by the fact that Smudge watched tranquilly from the couch, as if she knew this had nothing to do with her.

And then he was gone, leaving the old machine sitting in the hall.

An hour later he returned. I handed him the new form, which he perused as he shouted into his cell phone and paced up and down the hallway. Would I pass? I stood in the door of the apartment for ten minutes while the courier paced and shouted, occasionally handing me the paper and then taking it back. Finally he pointed to a place where he indicated I should write my name -- I understood that much at least -- and he took off with the form and the machine.

Right now I have no RMB and no air cleaner. You win this one, China.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Here Comes the Sun

Just in time for spring, we've had a few days of relatively clean air and sunshine. Sunshine! Smudge is content.