Tuesday, April 30, 2013


One very big difference between living in China and living in the US is the number of conversations I have. I have moments in China where I feel as though I'm in an isolated bubble. People around me talk, but I only understand snatches of words and phrases. Few would dare to engage me, seeing my western face and assuming I spoke limited Chinese. (And they'd be right). If I have to take long walks, I put in my earbuds and listen to a podcast, which almost drowns out the sound of traffic, shouting, horns, and general noise that is part of life in Beijing.

So when I come home for a visit, I'm suddenly bombarded by random conversations in a way that is both pleasant and exhausting. Suddenly, I'm finding myself in short chats as I wait to board a plane, or as I stand on line at the store. English is everywhere. It takes some adjustment.

Yesterday was an interesting example. I fell into conversation about Kindles with a guy waiting to board the southwest flight to BWI. We also chatted about choosing the right middle seat, since we were in the C boarding group. As we filed onto the plane, he said, "Everything happens for a reason." I don't remember the context but I remember thinking it was kind of an odd thing to say.

Looking forward to an hour of uninterrupted reading, I found a middle seat between two people who looked neither like armrest hogs or talkers. All went well until the plane took off and we hit some very minor turbulence. Suddenly the man next to me grabbed the armrest and part of my arm. I looked at him and he was pale and shaking.

"Are you okay?" I asked.
"No, I have a problem with flying," he whispered.
"Would it help if I distracted you by talking?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"Well," I said. "I live in China."

And for the next hour we talked about everything under the sun: China, travel, triathlons, children, Paris, dragon boats, Cambodia, life. I told him how we came to live in China, how our children also lived there, and how life works out in ways you can never imagine. 

As we finally landed, and he took a deep breath, a woman across the aisle handed me a card that said: "The world needs more people like you." On the other side of the card, it said, "Reiki Appreciation Card. This card was given to you by someone who appreciates you. Please take time to accept and savor this appreciation. And when the time is right, pass this card on to someone else."

I didn't do much but talk. I wonder what would have happened if I had been sitting next to someone who didn't speak English. I guess I would have patted his arm.

I never did get his name. But I have been sneaking peeks at my Reiki Appreciation Card and looking forward to my chance to pass it on. I just hope they don't ask me about Reiki.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

More Ayi Chronicles

I’ve begun to realize that my ayi doesn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to negotiate China, and has appointed herself my personal liaison between China and me.

She doesn’t think I’m smart about temperature. If I sit in the study with the space heater shooting hot air in my direction, she’ll tell me it’s too hot, and that’s not good for my health. When the calendar hits a certain date in April, she’ll “retire” my heavier sweaters and sweatshirts, tucking them away high and far far back on a shelf in my closet. When she cleans the bathrooms, she opens the windows, year-round, which I now realize is the reason for the demise of my sad little orchid. A small and sickly orchid with two leaves is no match for winds from Siberia. In the summer, if I try to venture out in the sunshine without any kind of covering, she’ll hand me an umbrella.

She also has opinions about where I store things. In fact, I think she either changes her mind about where the casserole dishes, socks, wine bottles, and framed pictures belong, or she gets bored with cleaning the same thing in the same spot each week and changes it up. This would be fine except that I then have a nearly impossible task of finding things. Right now, I have no idea what she did with my plate that holds deviled eggs or my heavy green sweater. I don’t have enough Chinese to say, “Where did you put my deviled egg plate?”

In the pantry, she moves thing around at random, meaning that yesterday I found the cocoa powder up with the coffee and tea. I usually keep cocoa powder with my baking supplies, but whatever. If items start to empty out of a container, she’ll remove them and put them inside a plastic tupperwear style container. At the moment, we have enough raisins for about a year since we keep buying more raisins when she hides the old ones.

She tries to teach me Chinese. She has a very low opinion of my ability to use tones, and so even though what I am saying is clearly grammatically correct, she makes me repeat it until I get the tones exactly right. I do the same thing with my teacher, Yanfen. I can mimic what they are saying when they are saying it, but once that moment ends, I’m back to what must sound to them like a monotone. Ayi never stops trying though.

When she leaves for the day, she hands me a cup of tea. She knows I like herbal tea and becomes very concerned if I get close to running out of some. I don’t know how to tell her that the teabags in the wax paper bags are my stash of Celestial Seasonings tea I brought from home last time. This week she had to resort to green tea, which I assured her I also like.

When the Wall Street Journal was closing out its temporary apartment and I was called over to see if I wanted any items, she was in a flurry of activity, grabbing clothes detergent and can openers and other items for me as if her life depended on it. “Yao bu yao?” she kept asking. I knew if I said I didn’t want something, she’d be disappointed, so I ended up taking more than I needed.

And I dread getting a cold, because she really goes into hyper-drive with her TCM concoctions that taste funny. I don’t even dare clear my throat these days.

But all in all, having an ayi like her is a comfort. She is a liaison and a good one at that. I wonder what she’d do if I brought her back to DC with me.

More Pengyou Adventures

One of the best things about being a freelance writer in the Middle Kingdom (or anywhere for that matter) is the freedom to ditch work on a sunny day and go out and have adventures. The difference, though, is that China is the kind of place where you don’t need to work hard at all to have crazy stuff just happen right before your eyes. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you shrug your shoulders. We’re grateful for the good experiences and see anything less than good as material. Win-win, as they say. Every day is an adventure, and I’m grateful for every day, especially when the air quality is good.

Yesterday’s adventure was an attempt by me and Nora to get me a facial and some facial threading (for those of you unfamiliar with female beauty procedures, it’s a form of hair removal). In a way that is both typical of China and inexplicable to anyone who values common sense, this salon was located on the second floor of a dingy office building, a building in which one had to know the code to enter. I mean, why should you make it easy for customers?

We eventually entered, and Nora tried to indicate that I wanted a facial like the one she had, but I also wanted some threading. We were not getting through. I pulled out my translation app and tried to look up the word “thread,” but all I came up with was “luosikou,” thread of a screw (what’s that? No idea); “luowen,” another thread of a screw, and more rather unhelpful definitions. Nora tried looking up the procedure on her iPhone, coming up with a collage of teeny-tiny images. You could see someone was doing something to someone’s face, but that’s about all you could make out in these little photos about an inch wide.

Finally, they seemed to understand. Nora wished me luck and headed out, and I was led into a back room. One woman indicated I should remove my sweater and bra. Odd, I thought. I guess the facial might be a little messy. Before I knew it I was face-down on a massage table looking through an opening in the table at a metal bowl that held water, some coins, and one rather bored goldfish. I was given a very energetic 20-minute back and neck massage, the kind that feels good when it stops but that made me grunt in the direction of the fish for most of the massage.

Next was the facial. It was a lovely facial, with many lotions and masks and a long head massage while I waited for the mask to harden. And when it was all over, they said thank you, and I paid up (twice what Nora paid, but she didn’t get a massage), and was offered a bowl of boiled sweet mushrooms, the same kind my ayi gave me when I had a cold, and some tea. I ate some of the food, even though I’m coming to despise this dish, a traditional Chinese medicine thing that seems to be a cure-all. Anyway, I chalked it up to experience. Or inexperience.

Today was yet another adventure. Rachel and I decided to wander around the neighborhood, visiting a charity bazaar run by a French school (where I managed to have conversations that mixed French, English, and Chinese in a way that I’m sure no one understood. Esperanto, where are you when I need you?), and then went to the markets under the Wu Mart in search of a Chinglish tee shirt for my brother and other fun gifts, if possible.

Spoiler alert: If your name happens to be Tom Bruno, stop reading now. I got a tee shirt that has these words on the front, along with a picture of a red VW Beetle:
Trek through the most rugged mountains
After so long you have been by my side
We will eventually reach that dream of the future.
All of this sounded pretty good. Then, the words got a little more mystical:
Is this the life
To rhythm
If time could go back
How do I life trio
Do not just wait for you
Re-re-head struggle
life is like that journey
who knows after
the turn of the scenery
see the sun after
the rain only sunny tears
And then finally, in capital letters at the bottom of the shirt:

I think these caption writers might just fall off a cliff or something. Or maybe they run out of letters.

Anyway, that triumph would have been enough but then I spotted another item I simply had to have. Claudia Bruno, if you’re reading this, stop reading now.

It was gray sweat pants with a panda head peeking out of the pocket, sewn on so that it looks as though a stuffed animal was tucked in. 

Doushao qian? I asked. How much?

85 kuai, the shopkeeper answered.

No, I wanted to pay less. I got her down to 50 RMB.

As I was digging through my purse for my wallet, all hell broke loose. Another Chinese girl, who had been looking through items on the rack, turned to me and started saying something to me about 40 RMB. It sounded to me like she was saying that I shouldn’t pay that much because SHE was only paying 40 RMB for her sweat pants.

Ah, I see. She didn’t want the meiguoren to be ripped off.

“Si shi kuai,” I said to the shopkeeper. I was going to pay 40, and that was it.

Instantly the woman I thought was the shopkeeper and the other woman started screaming at each other.  The second woman turned to me and said, in Chinese, these are my clothes! She tried to take the 40 RMB out of my hands and shove a different pair of sweatpants at me, ones that had no cute panda in the pocket. (Rachel, meanwhile, is helpfully standing off to the side and laughing.) Other people are starting to gather in the aisles, and it’s about 85 degrees in there and I suddenly have this feeling this could turn against us.

I start to think that maybe I should just walk away, when suddenly shopkeeper number one takes my 40 RMB, shoves the panda pants at me, and I skedaddle out of there, as dozens of the other shopkeepers in other stalls watch in puzzlement.

We still don’t know what happened. I do know that for $6.47, I inadvertently caused a scene that will stay with me for a long time. I guess the motto of the day is “how do I life trio.”

Monday, April 15, 2013

Conversations with Ayi

Today I had an interesting conversation with our ayi, who was in the midst of her twice-a-week cleaning of our apartment. I thought I’d volunteer information and get a little ambitious about the topics. I mean, you can only discuss the weather (tianqi), the air quality (kongqi), and the arrival of spring (chuntian lai le) just so much.

So I decided to tell her the cat had hurt her leg when she tried to jump over a blanket this morning. She does this every once in a while and it leads to her limping for a few days and favoring one leg. She is 15 years old, after all.

“Wo de xiao mao teng,” I said to her, which I believe loosely translates to “my cat is hurt.” But I kept pointing to my arm. At this point a look of alarm appeared on Ayi’s face. I realized she was trying to figure out just which kind of scary concoction to cook for me since I clearly went outside, fell, and hurt my arm. Nothing that a little boiled pear couldn't help.

She rolled back my sleeve and pointed to my arm. No, no, I said, “wo de xiao mao” not me.

Ayi looked at me, and then looked at Smudge, who was sitting impassively on the rug. “Keep me out of this,” Smudge said. (I actually speak cat better than I speak Chinese.)

I went back to my computer. In a few minutes, I heard Ayi trying to talk to the cat, which she does by saying “miiii, miii” and chasing her around the apartment. I left my desk, hoping for a little cat-Chinese translation. Ayi looked at me like I’d lost my mind. Smudge also looked at me like I was only going to make matters worse. But then Smudge actually obliged me by limping to another spot on the rug and holding one of her paws just slightly off the ground. Ayi nodded knowingly. At least I convinced her of the injury, although I don't know that there's a traditional Chinese medicine solution for my cat.

I tried to look up the word “fell.” My options were fa, fell or cut down; kanfa, to fell trees; daofa, to fell trees unlawfully, yiju, one fell swoop; sheng ju mu duan, a rope can cut through a log, little strokes fell great oaks.

Never mind.  I made my point, even if it meant getting the cat irritated with me. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spring Weekend

Finally, we've got spring! So we went with friends to a new park on Saturday, Jingshan, which overlooks the Forbidden City. It was a typical Chinese scene, with cute kids, singers who were not at all self-conscious, and a hazy view over what was once forbidden.
As a little boy poses for his parents, another woman gets a closeup shot of cherry blossoms.

The Forbidden City as seen from the park.

And on Sunday, I went dragon boating: first time on the water this year. If that's not a sign of spring, I don't know what is. Today my shoulders are sore, but yesterday we were powering our way down Houhai in the brilliant sunshine. As I watched the ducks paddle, I have to admit that I tried not to get any water in my mouth or eyes as some of the novice rowers drenched me with their rows. I'm sure these cute little fellows weren't carrying bird flu, but I didn't want to take a chance.
Tristan gives paddling instructions while balancing on the narrow boat.

The view from the boat.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Adventures of the Sige Pengyous

Thanks to a plan devised by Rachel to have fun with a morning treasure hunt described in Time Out Beijing, one of the local magazines, four of us – me, Rachel, Nora, and Sarah – set out to explore the hutong neighborhoods near Lama Temple. It was a brilliant spring day, with blue skies, a brisk wind, and the hutong-ren out in force. A perfect day for an adventure.

The theme of the day turned out to be “weishenme” – or why?

Why did the statue of Confucius at Confucius Temple have his hands crossed over his chest? Nora posited that it was the universal sign for choking and that maybe someone was supposed to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

Why was the Vineyard Café out of baked potatoes when we wanted them for lunch?

Why did that café need seven – seven! – signs in its tiny restroom reminding patrons not to put toilet paper in the loo? We actually had the answer to that, since there WAS paper in the loo.

Why would another hutong restaurant think that “tender stewed potato noodles with duck blood tofu” would draw in hungry diners?

Why, my friends asked me, would I venture to have my qi rechecked in a fortune-tellers’ courtyard? It was hard to resist: for 20 RMB I had a short session with a reflexologist who, according to Time Out, “claims to be able to identify any diseases you have, from touching your hand alone.”

“Debbie, what if she gives you bad news?” Rachel asked.

“I need a second opinion from the fortune teller I had in India a few years back who said I was going to live to 82 and who considered that a good deal,” I said. Yes, I know this is mucking with karma, tempting fate, and challenging the gods. But I sat down anyway.

The woman, a tiny older woman with hair cut in a short pageboy style, sat down and said it was 30 RMB for the session. “No, the sign says 20!” I argued. So she nodded, and took my hands, looking into my open palms.

Suddenly this felt more like fortune telling than a health checkup, but I was game, that is until I realized that whatever English she claimed to have was extremely limited. She resorted to pointing to English words on a sign: hair, stomach, liver, kidney. Everything had a parallel place on the hand. Okay, so I was getting a short lesson in reflexology. But that’s not what I wanted for my 20 RMB.

Eventually, she pulled out a sheet of paper and gave me the diagnosis. She pointed to heart: “hen hao!” She pointed to kidney: “hen hao!” And then she pointed to the word “knees.” “Bu tai hao,” she said (not so good). Well, that was right: my knees have been giving me a bit of trouble lately. Then again, it might be a good guess to take a look at a 56-year-old woman and figure she might have creaky knees.

Even so, I nodded enthusiastically. Then she gave me my prescription, written in English on a faded sheet of paper. I must soak my feet in hot water in the summer and make sure to get enough exercise in the winter. If I did that, she said, I’d live a long life. I might even make it past 90.

Sometimes in China, it’s not necessary to ask weishenme. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Beijing Spring

Spring has finally arrived and thanks to a one-day rain, the forsythia, jasmine, and green shrubs are in bloom. Because the air quality was good (mind you, at 75 it would still be of concern to you weaklings in the U.S., Australia, Saudi Arabia and other outposts of the Beijing expat diaspora), I decided to take a run along the canal.

As usual, I got smiles and greetings and the occasional surprised look. What’s funny about this is that I was running past sights that would garner a huge reaction in the U.S.: a man taking his caged birds out for a little sun along the canal, an older gentleman pounding himself on the shoulders (to help with circulation, of course), and several people singing at the top of their lungs. Babies toddling along the sidewalk, children kicking soccer balls in the amphitheater, and old ladies sitting in their wheelchairs in the sun – this is Beijing spring.

Here are a few shots I took around the neighborhood today.
The jasmine is still a little ragged, but coming along.
The blooming trees by our gate.
The local gardeners are putting in new shrubs.
This guy saw me taking pictures and asked me to take his. I told him he was handsome: haokan.