Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy China-versary to Us!

Two years ago Friday, we flew into Tianjin with a very frightened and skinny kitty, a couple of suitcases filled with not-warm-enough clothes, and a certainty that whatever it was that we were about to embark on, it would not be boring.

How true that was. And now that we’re marking two years into our time here, I want to write a short summary of all the good stuff and all the bad stuff, and what it all adds up to in the long run.

The good: Chinese people are unfailingly warm and interested in everything we do, even if they’re laughing at us much of the time. It’s not mean-spirited. Chinese food can be delicious, especially Yunnanese cuisine. Living in Asia has given me a different sense of the world and most particularly the contrast to life in free, clean, wealthy, blessed America. I’m learning every day about China and yet even if I lived here the rest of my life, I’d never fully understand this place. And yet I enjoy trying to understand, from the courtyard living that is so different from DC’s front-porch culture, to the arid craggy mountains outside Beijing where I’ve been hiking recently.

Living in an apartment has freed us from the sorts of weekend house-related chores that prevented us from having as many adventures back in DC. I’ve made some incredible friends here in China, people I hope I’ll have as friends forever. Some of those friends have little ones who are truly the light of my life. And the travel has been wonderful, from the northern reaches of China to its tropical south, as well as Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Korea, and Cambodia.

But the bad: As I type this, my internet is balky and slow, and it’s taking me five minutes to send through each email all day long. Facebook and Twitter are blocked and when I want to post something on my blog, I turn on my VPN – which refuses to stay connected.  It can take me hours online to do what takes me minutes elsewhere, like download an issue of the New Yorker or stream a video. And earlier this week, the air was hazardous for 24 hours, causing my head to pound and my eyes to itch. I have barely been outside today. I’m staying indoors with three air cleaners blasting. Even so, I wonder what I’m doing to my lungs and if I’m setting some kind of DNA groundwork for cancer later on. And speaking of being indoors, I also have two space heaters going because the heat won’t be turned on in our apartment until November 15. When I try to figure out what to make for dinner, I immediately reject half the things I used to make in the US because I don’t know about food safety: chicken, pork, beef, fish. All could come from very very dirty places. I eat lots more vegetables but I don’t know how coated with pesticides they are.

So the sum is lots and lots of good, and lots of bad on top of all that. I think the answer – or at least the answer that works best for us – is to make this a limited adventure. Some expats here say that the three-year mark is significant: people either extend their stay or decide to go home. I think we have already made that choice.

Bob tells me that I’m in danger of idealizing and sentimentalizing our life in America. Since that’s kind of my natural tendency anyway, I’d have to say he’s got my number. But I still do look forward to sitting on my front porch and reading an actual newspaper. I look forward to channel surfing. I look forward to getting in a car and driving somewhere, wearing a seat belt. I look forward to seeing blue skies every single day. 

Meanwhile, I’ve got a lot to do in the next 365 days.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Halloween Fun and Games

This year in Beijing we were invited to three Halloween parties: one “China Moment” party, one traditional party, and one “super sexy” Halloween party.

I embrace any opportunity to dress up, especially with the added potential of making a total fool of myself. And thanks to social media like Facebook and Twitter, I can still successfully embarrass my children even if they have fled China. I think they call that a triple threat.

The “China Moment” party was first. For those of you who haven’t experienced the wild creativity, the What Not to Wear-ness on steroids, that so many Chinese women flaunt, the party was an opportunity to capture that.  First, Rachel and I hit the stores. The hodgepodge of individual stalls under the Wu Mart on Gongtibeilu offered a wealth of possibilities. I kept buying things, until Rachel very practically said to me, “What are you going to do with all this stuff, Debbie?” Excellent question, but also irrelevant. I enjoy the sudden appearance of a hat so blinged out it hurts your eyes, the Chinglish t-shirts, the colors not found in nature, the overall awesomeness of so many over-the-top choices, added to the chance to haggle merchants down to 25 or 30 RMB. It’s all in good fun if you keep smiling, and especially when you might bring along a cherub who chirps out “Ayi!” to every Chinese woman who passes by.

I scored: leopard print stockings, a leopard baseball cap with little cat ears, and other animal-print items. For the first party, I decided to go the stockings-under-the-short-shorts route, a very popular year-round look for Chinese women who have great legs.

For me, the task was to find a pair of shorts that – how can I put this – actually fit. Granted, some of the shorts that sit in my summer attire drawer are as old as some of my young friends here in China. I finally found a pair that fit, and wore them with a fake fur sweater that I actually love and a sparkly yellow top, both straight from my own closet. Then I used the cool fur-and-diamond short boots that I bought for last year’s China Moment party, and topped it off with a sparkly headband in blue. This was actually a fairly subdued look compared to what I’ve seen walking the streets around Dongzhimen, but good enough.

Then Seasons Park hosted a Halloween event for the kids. Before trick-or-treating, the kids gathered in the amphitheater below our apartment. I would say it was 90 percent Chinese, and 80 percent of them were witches, all made with costumes bought from the same basic designer, capes and hats embossed with gold.

We had quite a few come to the door – many more than on Burlington Place – and one big group of about 10 kids banged on the door and then just poured into the apartment. Two big boys in the front refused to move out of the way when I gave them their candy and started snatching from the bowl. I actually took one candy back from one kid. Then I looked over and a tiny boy -- dressed, I think, like a tiny emperor -- was standing at the door of the kitchen just looking into the kitchen.

Parties two and three were on the same night, so I decided it was sexy all the way. I wore more animal prints than I’d ever worn: leopard print stockings, leopard print low-cut top, leopard print bow tie a la Playboy bunny, leopard print earrings, leopard print kitty ears, and a leopard print tail. All of that leopard, plus a short black skirt and high short boots added up to – you guessed it – a cougar.
The first party had amazing costumes – the Dude and Maude from The Big Lebowski, Khaleesi and John Snow from Game of Thrones, and a couple portraying Beijing’s blue-sky and hazardous air days. If political costumes are a sign you’re in DC, costumes portraying the actual air are classic Beijing. At the second party, billed as the sexy one, we had one belly dancer costume, a policewoman in fishnet stockings, a Playboy bunny, a caveman, and, my personal favorite, a woman in a green wig who was the absinthe fairy, pouring generous rounds of absinthe to all. (Note to self: absinthe plus South African-recipe punch, plus prosecco = bad idea, even for a cougar.)

In any event, I was named a “finalist” for sexiest costume, but I clearly won in the over 50 category, since Bob (the emperor) and I were the only boomers in attendance. All good fun, even for those Aussies, Brits, South Africans, and others who complain that the American tradition of over-the-top Halloween festivities are too much for them. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Do You Say Drip-Drip-Drip in Chinese?

Today was another adventure where I could have used a few more language skills.

We needed to have our heating-cooling system switched over from AC to heat. Now mind you, this does not mean we actually get heat now, even though the temperatures have dropped into the 40s many days. Apartments in China don't get the official heat turned on until November 15, which is almost a month from now. We do have a nice space heater or two, but we're also solving the last days of that problem by heading off to sunny Thailand for a week.

Anyway, the fellow came to switch over our system this morning. While I was FaceTime chatting with Joanna, he was trying to get my attention. He pointed to two places where water was dripping, one from the system that sits in a cage outside our laundry room, and one underneath the pipes in our bathroom. Then he handed me a piece of paper that had English on one side and Chinese on the other. It said:

"Kind reminder
Dear tenants, Seasons Park was built has reached 10 years, the original warranty had expired. As a result most of its interior decorations and facilities have slowly started to deteriorate. Among it, the air conditioning equipment (including hosts, fan coils, valves, and expansion tanks) are particularly vulnerable to failure and leakage incidents which may cause a lot of inconveniences and damage to you and your family."

The letter went on to suggest we buy insurance so that this kind of damage to our family was covered. I mean, why should we expect anything in China to work after ten years? That's a lifetime to most other places.

So I called the 24-hour hotline that the paper helpfully provided.
"Do you speak English?" I asked the guy who answered the phone.
"No," he said with an embarrassed chuckle.
I proceeded to explain that our "shui" was dripping. I don't know the Chinese word for drip, and I couldn't make a dripping gesture on the phone, so I just said:
"Drip, drip, drip."
Then, in Chinese, I told him our apartment building and number, and he asked me something else, the gist of which I heard to be "xianzai" -- now?
"Dui, xianzai," I agreed.

I emailed Bob. "Okay," I wrote. "I may or may not have asked for someone to come. But maybe I just ordered a pizza. Who knows."

"Impressive if you did it by phone," he answered.
Within minutes, another fellow showed up at our door. You might be able to criticize China for many things, but the rapid response of workmen to fix a problem is impressive. In the U.S. I'd be arranging for someone to come a month from Sunday.

I showed the guy the problem, but when I opened the door to the outside cage, the dripping had stopped. Of course.
"Mei you wenti," he announced to me. No problem.
I showed him the other leak. Again, no more dripping.
Then he said to me in Chinese that when you switch over the AC, there's always water. At least that's what I think he said. He may have been wondering what time the pizza would get here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Beautiful Labagoumen

Just a few shots from a mid-week hike, proof that China can be as beautiful as Meiguo.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What a Difference a Dou Makes

I imagine (in my delusional way) that my many readers are waiting anxiously for the next installment of Debbie Versus the Bureaucracy.

So here's the rest of the story. Actually, in China, it's never the rest of the story but I'll get to that later.

The Wall Street Journal office manager, the amazing Kersten, took pity on me when I told her yesterday about my experience at the PSB. And so she ordered up Mr. Dou, the Wall Street Journal driver, to take me first to the local police and then back to the PSB to finish up the visa process, less for the driving and more for the translation and guanxi (relations) Dou has with the bureaucrats.

Dou is a cheery, slightly heavyset guy who makes the assumption that anyone who can speak a few words of baby Chinese is fluent and he can just speak to them at a normal pace. But the best method for Dou is just to follow him and hope that it all works out.

First stop was the police station, where he parked and marched in, knowing exactly where to bring all my papers. He immediately started chatting up a police woman, most likely doing a little flirting too since she had a smile on her face the whole time. Five minutes later, we were back in the car.

Next was the Public Security Bureau. This time Dou parked about a block away and then walked so fast to the PSB that I nearly had to run to catch up.

"Ni hen kuai!" I said to him. (You're very fast.) "Zhonguoren zuo lu hen maan," I said. (To those who actually speak Chinese, apologies for slaughtering the language.) Chinese people usually walk slowly.

Dou immediately slowed down.

When we got in the PSB, Dou tried to use his connections to jump the line, but I actually knew more than he did at this point, and caught the eye of the young woman who dealt with me yesterday. And ten minutes later, she had taken both my old and new passports and told me to come back in a week.

After that, I'm supposed to go back to the police to do something to update my residency again, but I think that should work out okay. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

How I Spent My Thursday Afternoon

In a slightly complicated but terribly interesting (to me) development, I recently learned that my passport, which expires next August, is not good enough. When we apply for our visa at the end of November, we need to reassure the Chinese that we both have passports that are good for the full 12 months, not 9 months and change.

You'd almost think the Chinese don't want us to stay.

So I went to the U.S. Embassy a day before the government shutdown to apply for my new passport. I always love getting a new passport every ten years so that, unlike Dorian Grey, I can really see that whole aging process. Anyway. The good news is that the shutdown in Washington does not prevent passport processing. Phew.

New passport in hand, I marched over the the famous Public Security Bureau, the entity that decides whether foreigners in China get visas or residency permits to stay longer than a few days. The place has that whole unfriendly feeling of a DMV in Washington, D.C., with the added color of multiple languages being shouted all at once. I also could have sworn somebody was smoking pot in there, but it could have been moxibustion instead. Look it up.

After some confusion caused by the fact that I stood for a good long while in the wrong line (I think I said to Bob, "I don't need a Chinese speaker with me! I can do this myself!"), I finally got a number to wait for the visa folks.

There were only 200 people in front of me.

The afternoon passed. The seats provided were this hard metal, totally uncomfortable for people who might be suffering from what I call Rickshaw Butt. So I stood and studied Chinese, read email, and listened to "This American Life" on my phone, all of which wore down my battery big time.

Finally, I got to my own visa person, a sweet-faced young woman who could not have been more than 17. She stared at my documents for a few minutes, and then said, "Can I use your phone? I need to call the local police."


My phone had about 11 percent batteries left, and I thought it was odd that she needed to use my phone. After having me wait a few minutes, which translated means about 20 minutes in China, she informed me that I needed to go to the local police station to register FIRST, then come back and get my visa.

I was seeing my vacation to Thailand, supposed to begin Nov. 2, disappear with the wind that was blowing through Beijing that day. I mean, I could leave the country, but I didn't know if I could get back.

You'd think...

As I left the PSB at rush hour, I decided I would walk home. Besides, there are rarely cabs at rush hour, and my bottom was resisting the idea of being subjected to another bouncy rickshaw ride. And my reward was a lovely sunset. Now this is not the Hudson Valley or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or Bali, or any one of the many gorgeous places my Facebook friends show in their pictures. But it was a sweet treat after a headachy afternoon with bureaucrats. Dante knew nothing.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Scenes from Golden Week

A dead bird in Sanlitun. Is this commentary on the bird flu? Sesame Street? Maybe this guy collapsed on his way to where the air is sweet. 
It's Golden Week here in Beijing (and, judging from the news, Horrible Week back in DC), so I thought I'd share a few photos from our wanderings yesterday.

It's possible these drumming mimes at Chaoyang Park came from New Orleans, but I don't know.
This is how some foreigners make money: paint themselves red and charge for photos.

And yet I see that compared to the rest of China, Chaoyang Park was relatively peaceful yesterday: