Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fun at the Fabric Market

Most folks think of a 95-degree day as an opportunity to hang out at the pool, go to the beach, or stay cool inside an air-conditioned home.

As for us, we like to head across town to the Muxiyuan fabric market. It's a giant market, rows of covered arcades with hundreds of individual fabric stores, many of them filled with leopard prints, hot orange, and patterns that have never been found in nature. But you can also find beautiful raw silk, tweed, cotton, and brocade, gorgeous if you're willing to wander and to dig.

And Joanna waited until the very end of her two years in Asia to decide to have something made. So on a blazingly hot Sunday afternoon we set off to Muxiyuan, a place I discovered thanks to Rachel and her friend Kate, a veteran seamstress.

It's a very Chinese sort of place, with little bare-bottomed children wandering around, motorcycles roaring through, and every vendor unfailingly polite as we slid open their glass doors to poke our way through mountains of fabric. Some shops reeked of fish that the workers must have had for lunch, others were filled with smoke from cigarettes.

The last time I was at Muxiyuan, I found fabric for a bedspread and more for a blouse within the first 20 minutes. I'm decisive that way. Joanna needs time to ponder, so we circled around and back and looked at pretty prints, and finally bought a couple of meters of fabric to make two dresses for her and one for me. The cab rides there and back cost almost as much as what we paid for the fabric, but it was all part of the adventure.

On the way home, we got one of Beijing's classic taxi drivers, a cheery guy who had only a vague sense of where we were going but was clearly delighted to have a couple of foreigners in his cab. He started shooting questions at us. We understood roughly half.
Where we we from? (that's always the first question)
Are you from Russia?
No, Meiguo, we answered.

Our Chinese was good, he announced. (That's always the second comment, no matter how bad your Chinese is.)

Then he asked us how long we had lived in Beijing, what we did for a living, was I married, did Joanna have a boyfriend, how old were we, and did I have a son?

Yes, I told him. I have a son and a daughter.
That drew a big thumbs up from our driver, who twisted around in his seat and gave me a big grin. Chinese people think that having one son and one daughter is about the best thing you can do on this earth, and congratulate me as if I've accomplished something impressive. I guess if you're facing a one-child policy, it is impressive to have two of any gender.

With every answer, he smiled. When he asked us something we didn't understand, he cracked up, every single time. It's hard to imagine why it's so consistently funny that a couple of Americans can't quite follow the rapid questions from a Beijing cab driver, but he found it endlessly amusing.

Joanna imagined the guy going home to his wife and telling her about the hysterical fare he had this afternoon. So funny!

The whole experience reinforced my idea of most Chinese as relatively cheerful people. They put up with a lot, standing in long lines to wait to get on a crowded bus, living in apartments with no air conditioning, eating street food that may or may not be contaminated, and never having much peace and quiet in a city of 20 million people.

Every time I encounter a child when I get on an elevator, I say hello, as much for the shy "ni hao" I get back from the babies as it is for the beaming look on the grandfather's or ayi's face as I clearly recognize the wonderfulness of this child.

The default here is a smile. The chance encounters are always pleasant. It's my silver lining in a place that can try the most patient among us. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

We've Got Seoul

We just got back from a long weekend in Seoul, which was a welcome respite. Seoul is a city with coffee shops on every corner, and even though it's surrounded by mountains, it doesn't suffer the pollution inversion Beijing faces. We were also lucky enough to stay in a lovely hotel with a great shower (you know you've been in China too long when you get excited that the shower is not situated over the toilet), a great gym (lap lanes in the pool, and treadmills where it isn't even possible to blare your individual TV screen), and coffee in the room. Coffee in the room.

When we could tear ourselves away from these delights, we did explore Seoul. The highlight was our daylong trip to the DMZ, a place Bill Clinton called the scariest place on earth. As we rode in our tour bus north out of Seoul, we started noticing barbed wire along the Hangang river, a waterway that connected north and South Korea. It started to feel more like a war zone, especially after we got our first sight of North Korea, where our guide told us the hills had been denuded of trees since the people used the wood for heat. It looked green and hilly, kind of like South Korea, although also spooky in some way that probably had more to do with our imaginations than anything.

The trip nearly ended on the bus for me. I had decided that Seoul's heat meant I should wear a skirt. I did see that the (unexplained) dress code for a visit to the DMZ listed no sandals or open-toed shoes (not wanting the North Koreans to see our decadent pedicures?), no miniskirts, and no faded jeans. I chastised Bob for his ratty, faded jeans. Meanwhile, when the South Korean soldier got on the bus to check our passports, he spied my knees peeking out and muttered something to our tour guide. I had broken two rules: I was wearing a sleeveless top (I forgot that rule) and my skirt was too short.

"You're too sexy for the North Koreans," Bob said.

"My skirt is NOT too short!" I said and stood up to show the guide the modest length of my skirt.

"Does it cover your knees?" she asked.

This is my Seoul look, pre-DMZ bag lady. There will be no pictures of that.
Right-hand side: South Korea. Left-hand side: North Korea.
Looking toward North Korea.

"Um, no," I said. But after she walked away I tugged the waistline down so that it sat lower on my hips. This was some sexy look: black and orange New Balance sneakers, a wrinkled white skirt that now looked more like a white garbage bag, and my sleeveless top covered up by Bob's windbreaker. Bag lady visits the DMZ. Or maybe I could call it Revenge for Gangnam Style. In any event, it passed muster with the humorless South Korean soldiers, who stood like statues facing the direction of the border with elbows slightly flexed and fists balled up. Bob dared me to dash over the concrete line separating north and south, which made me wonder just how much life insurance he could collect on me.

We were able to go into a building that straddled the line, and technically walk into North Korea, but the moment seemed anticlimactic after the Skirt Incident.

And that was that. The day before, we had another quasi-encounter with North Koreans on the flight from Beijing to Seoul. I noticed that the flight seemed to have an unusual number of short-haired young women wearing white blouses, and I kept mistaking them for flight attendants. But as we got off the flight, we noticed a line of security guards meeting us as we got off the plane, and then another mob of police at baggage claim. Suddenly I saw that all the young women had donned black blazers with some kind of pin. I couldn't get close enough to see what kind of pin. When we exited the baggage claim area, there was a giant scrum of cameras.

"Who is it?" I asked a security guy at a desk.

"North Koreans!" he said in an excited whisper. "Football!"

We found out it was the North Korean women's national soccer team.

Guards wait for the North Korean women's soccer team to file out to their bus.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like for them to arrive at Incheon airport, one of the most modern airports in the world, and drive past the giant phallic rocket model lit up in pink and purple in the summer night, and then to see (if only from their bus) a city that was wealthy, orderly, friendly, and quiet, the evenings disturbed only by fiesty rallies from Falung Gang protesters or demonstrations of Tai Kwan Do, and billboards with pictures of Chanel, movie stars, and Outback Steakhouse.

I'm a westerner living in Beijing, and I couldn't believe how excited I was to order Dunkin Donuts coffee. These girls probably didn't get a chance to try a green tea frappacino, but I like to think they were not that far away from that variety of capitalistic decadence either.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Genghis Khan-ing That Place

We didn't imagine that we'd be like Genghis Khan in Inner Mongolia, casting destruction and havoc everywhere. But we did hope to conquer, at least, the modern-day equivalent of looting and pillaging: descending on the town of Xiwuqi -- a couple of hours from the not-so-big town of Xilinhot -- for the Genghis Khan Grasslands Extreme Marathon.

Let's just say we came, we saw, we were conquered.

Xiwuqi is a town that feels as if it wants to grow into its ambition: six-lane roads, fountains with interesting sculptures everywhere, but not enough people to actually people it, it feels. And foreigners walking around the town get treated like celebrities. "Hello! HELLO!" all the children yell, and then their parents tap your shoulder and ask to take your picture. It's charming the first hundred times, and then you try not to make eye contact. The grasslands outside Xiwuqi are beautiful: rolling green, dotted with farms that have yurts and brick barns. The sky is vast and blue, and the air smells like it should smell. Joanna said it smells like Athens.
Before the race, all smiles.

But the race was not what we expected. I chose the 10K, which was actually an 11.5K. At one point I had a semi-conversation with a guy who told me he was Mongolian, and then said his name. It sounded like he was clearing his throat, so I asked him again. He did it again, and I realized that was his name, in Mongolian. But we were running pals for a while until I realized I was alone in the middle of grasslands with a total stranger who could kill me and bury me before the next runner came along. So that's why I walked.
Me and my Mongolian running buddy

I told myself that I would just run what I wanted to run and walk the rest, and was doing that for much of the race until I was passed by a person who, how can I say this, was not in shape. Times ten. And I thought, "Oh no, you don't," and ran the rest of the race. I don't know why people (Bob) get the idea I'm competitive. I was about #19 in a field of maybe 30. Definitely did well in my age category.

Bob was just as triumphant, meaning he finished his first half-marathon. Jamie and Alison, friends from Beijing, also made it through what they said was a very tough half-marathon.
Alison finishes!

Jamie finishes!

Bob finishes!

And then we waited for Joanna and Christian, our marathoners, first-time marathoners, to finish. We waited. Four hours passed. Five hours. Six hours. The blazing Inner Mongolian sun started beating down on us, and Bob and I started imagining injuries.

Seven hours later the two of them dragged past the finish line. The trail was not well marked and they got lost. I have never seen two people look that tired. I was exhausted just waiting for them in the hot sun and trying not to imagine terrible things that could have happened. (What actually did happen -- such as facing down a ground-pawing, snorting bull on their path -- didn't even enter my mind.)

But they finally triumphed. They probably ran another 10K at least, which makes them EXTREME marathoners, in my mind. And someday I'll figure out how Joanna can be my daughter and still go through something like that without any temper tantrums.

Anyway, we next dragged out to the Mongolian Khan Village, a cheesy collection of concrete huts shaped like yurts, for the festive banquet dinner. Bottom line: the beer was scarce and warm at that, and the centerpiece of the dinner was an entire roasted sheep, who was paraded through the room triumphantly before pieces of him were slapped on our tables, looking very fatty and as unhappy as he was when he realized his fate was to be killed, roasted, and then ignored by some very tired runners who would have preferred pizza. I stuck to the steamed bread. Sometimes no taste is better than certain tastes. And when the music started, the room started to empty out.

It turned out that Mother Nature had a better show in mind. As we were staring at the roasted sheep, the rain had been coming down, and now it stopped, leaving a spectacular sunset and a double rainbow. I think that's double happiness to the Chinese.
The Mongolian Four
Mongolian rainbow

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What I Do When Editors Don't Get Back to Me

1. I update my blog so that it's now connected to Google+, which I'm TOLD makes it easier for folks to make comments. Ahem.
2. I read one friend's blogs -- all ten of them -- and feel unproductive.
3. I wait for the AC repairman to come...again. After he fixes the system, he tells me in rapid Chinese something, which could have been one of the following messages: a) open all your windows because it's only 93 degrees outside today and you shouldn't be using the AC; b) the AC might feel cold but it's actually not fixed; c) I'm a political prisoner and I want to ask your country for asylum (okay, maybe the heat is getting to me).
4. I check out Facebook, seeing the usual gorgeous sunsets, baseball games, exotic beaches, icy drinks, and fun everybody is having.
5. I try to think of something clever to say about the fact that while most of my family will be spending the Fourth of July by a pristine lake in Maine, I will be running in the Genghis Khan Grasslands Marathon in Inner Mongolia, which is pretty much the same thing.
6. I send emails to editors on the ruse that my Internet has been acting up, so maybe THAT'S why they haven't gotten back to me. Silence.