Sunday, January 26, 2014

Meet the Jiaozi Empress

You in America think the holidays are long gone, but we here in China feel the anticipatory air all around us: China is getting ready for its biggest show on earth, the celebration of the new year.

It'll start Thursday evening and last for six million hours, as 19 million of Beijing's 22 million citizens set off fireworks, starting at midnight Thursday. These are factual numbers. Look it up.

We decided, this year, that if you can't beat them, join them. So we're hosting a party on Friday night, and, thanks to friend Betsy, the apartment is decorated with red lanterns and silken red chili peppers. I'm not sure of the reason for the chili peppers except that they're red, although it's also possible Betsy was re-purposing them from a Cinco de Mayo party.

Speaking of re-purposing, China is not a country to let festive decorations go to waste, so at least one locale has taken the traditional Christmas tree and made it into something else.

And we Americans have invited a good portion of Beijing to a party at our house to celebrate this festival. We'll have Americans, Chinese, Swedes, Finns, Austrians, Australians, Indians, Filipinos, Russians, South Africans, Dutch, and even Canadians.

And addition to my usual go-to party fare, I'm making vegetarian jiaozi, or dumplings. It's easy to buy the wrapping part, jiaozi pi, or dumpling skin. And I found a delicious recipe for vegetarian dumplings online, so on Saturday, I bought all the veggies -- mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, onion, chives -- and cooked them to a small mound.

Then I spooned a bit into each round, pinched the edges shut, and voila, I had tiny little jiaozi that looked like cute stegosaurus backs, all ready for freezing. I am no longer the Ravioli Queen. I am the Jiaozi Empress.

I'm starting to think that my bad winter is taking a turn for the better, although of course there's no telling when there's another disaster on the horizon. I don't want to be guilty of counting my jiaozi before they're steamed.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How China Makes Us All Crazy

My friends and I have had endless discussions recently about the various ways that China gets in your head and makes you wonder and worry about everything.

Granted, there is reason for concern. Just today, for instance, the air in the city hovered between "very unhealthy" in the high 200s and "hazardous." Just as I was about to walk out to meet a friend for lunch, the numbers tipped into "hazardous," so I pulled out a face mask for the walk to the restaurant.

I think my head is too big and my face too small, because the whole thing was unpleasant.
The elastic that was supposed to go around my ears pulled my ears out, making it tough to put a warm hat over my head, and the mask went all the way up to my eyes, making my mascara start to smear.

Nevertheless, I set out. A few minutes of walking and I realized my nose had started to run. Instead of taking the mask off and blowing my nose, I just sniffled my way down Dongzhimen. Just before I got to the restaurant, I realized I had to sneeze. "Do not sneeze," I ordered myself, imagining the snotty mess inside the mask.

Anyway, I got there, wiped my nose, cleaned up my mascara, had a nice lunch, and decided that I would skip the mask for the walk home. The air was only 280 or so -- "very unhealthy" -- and I just couldn't stand the discomfort.

Earlier that day, I had an ongoing IM chat with a few friends who will remain unnamed. In one case, we had an exchange about being able to spot the air "trends." In other words, some days the air is not good but you can tell that it's "trending" in the right direction. One friend admitted that she not only had an app for the Weather Channel to get the temperature, but she also looked at the wind speed and direction, in a scientific way to see if the wind might blow away the pollution.

"I found that chances are the pollution clears up generally when the winds are more than 5 mph," she wrote to me. As we were chatting, the wind picked up to 7 mph, for about 5 minutes, which clearly wasn't enough to blow away the bad air, since it went up to 360, hazardous.

The friend set off to pick up her son at his school, which didn't provide air purifiers indoors.

Suddenly she sent another text. On the way to pick up her son, she was having a beer at a local bar. "Mother of the year," she wrote. Another friend wrote, "the best mother takes care of her own mental health so she can better take care of her kids."

"Getting the check now," she wrote. "Going to get him. For real."

Unless another local bar is open, she added.

And that -- along with chocolate-chip cookies, binge-watching TV series, being excited about each new restaurant that opens, having endless discussions about where to buy meat and fish and fruit -- is how we pass so many hours. How will we ever amuse ourselves back in the USA?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

So after falling and cutting up my head and all that, today I decided to do something I knew deep in my heart I should not do. I just knew it and I did it anyway.

I went to Ikea. On a Saturday. Just before Spring Festival. To buy cheap wine glasses.

Even before I realized what had happened, I looked around and realized that Ikea in Beijing on a Saturday is one of Dante's circles of hell. Crowds, pushing, chaos.

But it wasn't until we were in the cab on the way home that I realized just which circle of hell I had experienced. Fraud. The eighth circle. Because as I reached into my purse to put my hat and gloves inside I realized it was unusually light. My wallet was missing.

Not only was I out about 600 RMB, but I lost all my credit cards, my driver's license, and all those other little things that make life easier. As we got home and started calling banks, we realized that the thieves had already tried to use the cards. We stopped that. And the good news is I still have my passport and my dear iPhone.

Now those cheap wineglasses were going to cost us a little more than I expected. But then I put it in context. This week my brother lost a dear friend to a sudden heart attack at 54, and Bob lost a childhood friend, also to a heart attack, at 62.

So, yes, it was a shitty week all around. And just earlier today I had been talking about how China requires you to keep your guard up, all the time. I guess I should start taking my own advice.

But in the grand scheme of things, a stolen wallet is just a stolen wallet.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hiking Fail

This seems to be the week of “what not to do.” We won’t go into details about how I tried to re-cook a half-boiled egg in the microwave the night before hiking. Let’s just say the exploding egg could have been worse.  Bob didn’t even come into the kitchen when I screamed. I guess he’s used to screams from the kitchen.

But yesterday’s hiking adventure was a bit more attention-getting. For the record, I do NOT do these things because, as a certain spouse suggested, I was envious of all the attention he got when he broke his ribs on a hike in Yunnan last May. Not at all. That hypothermia-inducing six hours down off the mountain after Bob broke his ribs was not something I wanted to re-create.

The hike started beautifully: blue skies, a congenial international group of Australian, Brazilian, Swedish, Austrian, and one American. A great spot up and down and mostly down the mountains. Funny Chinglish signs for entertainment. 

An odd moment where a man at the watch tower on the top of one mountain tried to engage me in his dislike of Japanese (Danger, danger: do not discuss politics when your Chinese is more along the lines of “the weather is nice today” and “I have two children and I’m from America!”).
Beautiful views for a lunchtime break.

We came down off the mountain, where we were supposed to go to Da Jue Si, a beautiful old temple, the descent was steep and long and I was very careful to take the downward climb, over boulders and gaps where maybe water once ran, slowly. Finally we came to a more-even path, with just a few rocks, so I picked up the pace.
I tripped over a rock and landed hard on my knees, palms, and forehead. In a brilliant move, my forehead met up with a sharp rock that jutted out of the earth. I yelled something not in Chinese.
Rose, who had been hiking behind me, came up running. I saw from the look on her face and the blood on the ground that it was a bad cut, but with her tissues and Bryony’s gauze and snappy blue wrapping, I was okay for the final 20 minutes off the mountain. 
What's so funny? I had just asked for no pictures!
The scene of the crime. If you look carefully, you can see the blood on the rock.

It really became a team effort: Johan trying to be funny to keep me from dozing off in the car on the ride home, Marcio carrying my backpack for me, and Yutta having her driver – and herself – take me to the SOS clinic in Beijing, where I was carefully stitched up by a nice Chinese doctor.
“Yi, er, san,” I heard him counting as he slowly sewed stitches into my forehead. My visions of a hot bath and a glass of wine changed to some ibuprofen and an episode of “Homeland.” His nurse put a tight mesh headband on my head to keep the dressing pressed down, which makes me think I could start a new fashion trend here in Beijing.

Here's a look at the gash.
And he's sewing...
Patched up.
Home again!

Today I woke up to no headache, just some tenderness, and knees that are a whole lot less swollen. And the air is drifting between “hazardous” and “beyond index” so it’s a good day to stay mostly inside.
I’m drinking “Natural Detox” tea from my friend Dawn, who also supplied me with “Tension Tamer,” “Chamomile,” and “Sleepytime.” At first I thought she was sending me a message with her tea gifts, but then I realized she got it exactly right. And that’s the kind of friends I have.

The next day, I went back to SOS to have my dressing changed and (I suspect) to make sure I'm not going to pull a Miranda Richardson on them. 

This time I get a French doctor. After the nurse removes the bandages and the steri-strip, he pronounces the results "perfect." 

"When can I wash my hair?" I ask. 

"Now," he says. "As long as you dry it."

"And can I drink wine?" I venture.

"Of course," he says with a Gallic shrug. Then he reconsiders. "As long as you bring me a glass too." And this is why I love the French. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Beyond the Ravioli

Of course, there was ravioli.
But there was a whole lot more about this Christmas trip home that made it so lovely. I’m afraid I’ll forget someone or leave some moment out, so I hesitate to come up with a comprehensive list, but there were highlights:
·         The first Christmas in five years that my children and Bob were able to be together at Christmas.
·         The discovery by Joanna of four years of my prom dresses, which caused her to realize that vintage isn’t always synonymous with hipster.
Yes, this was my prom dress.

·         22 for dinner on Christmas day, including cousin Trish from Chicago. Plus a default win for all of my ravioli, a detail that we won’t discuss here. Because that would be unfair and unkind. And the braciole was almost as good as last year’s braciole. Not to mention the cavatelli.

·        Seeing Bob Irwin play guitar.

·         Visits to our homes-away-from-homes, seeing friends and family, catching up.
·         Five different kinds of Celestial Seasonings tea.
·         Getting to Mom’s church twice, with the added delight of getting to sing “Once in Royal David’s City” the Sunday after Christmas.
·         Lunch with Mom, Kim, Lisa, and Uncle Bob.
·         Fried bread dough at Uncle Richie’s house.
·         Lunches, dinners, and parties with friends in DC, plus shopping adventures that allowed me to score just enough items to fit in my suitcase without going over the weight limit.
·         Jogging in both Athens and DC. Seeing the sun rise over the Hudson. Being able to run for five miles in DC without once having to negotiate around a car driving down the sidewalk at me.
·         Singing – or trying to sing – “Java Jive” at Jennifer’s house.
·         Realizing that maybe there’s a beagle in my future, thanks to my quality time with sweet Zoey of 44th Street, who trained me well.

·         Managing to bring back to Beijing an assortment of oddities: a drinking fountain for my cat, a chia pet for my cat, a suitcase full of cat food, coffee, Trader Joe’s coconut body butter, not to mention an entire list of items too ridiculous to name here. Let’s just say one could draw some really interesting conclusions about a person whose bag holds home-made caramel candies, a plastic purple watch, wind chimes, tamoxifen, and tums.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Uncle Peter

My Uncle Peter, Dad's older brother, joined him last night. He was a good man and although very much a Calabrese, he loved his family, his home, and Italian food. That's why I'm thinking of him now, first to sit down at the long table at my grandparent's house, enjoying his ravioli, braciole, and horses. Today he and Dad are getting caught up on family news and the Yankees, and Uncle Pat is telling them to save some appetite for the pizza he's about to put in the oven.

And since this is heaven, there's always appetite for one extra bite. Rest in piece Uncle Peter.