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.