Thursday, June 26, 2014

Our Neighborhood

Hanging out at the Peking duck place across the street.
Our kids tease us about the fact that in the evenings, we rarely venture far outside our little neighborhood, a mixture of all kinds of Chinese restaurants -- Sichuan, Peking duck, Yunnan, dumplings, noodles -- plus all kinds of other Asian restaurants -- Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai -- plus a decent selection of western restaurants.

Being western, we tend to lean heavily toward the western. One is called Frost, and the chef/owner is always experimenting with new dishes, some of which work and others that fail. But his tofu skin lasagna is great, especially for those avoiding gluten. It's possible it's because he loads the tofu skin up with cheese and good sauce, but who cares? Across the alley from Frost is the second of what Bob calls the "holy trinity" of restaurants we favor, called Big Smoke. There, we'll get the chimicurri chicken and the beet salad and the very good guacamole.

And finally, the third place in what others called the Bermuda Triangle is Great Leap Brewery, which offers a respectable caesar salad and very good burgers, plus good beer.

But in addition to having a good basis of western comfort food nearby, the neighborhood is really and truly a neighborhood. Now that we've lived here almost three years, we realize it's virtually impossible to go out into the neighborhood and not run into friends, neighbors, and the kids we know, from our own offspring to the little ones of our younger friends. Our apartment complex has one of the few decent playgrounds in the area for kids, so it becomes a hangout, and I feel only slightly creepy when I walk out of the complex by way of the playground on the chance that I might see one of my little ones.

Daniel laughs at us because the alley we like to frequent is actually not that pretty, just a short side street lined with tippy tables, hard chairs, and a pet shop where overbred cats and dogs wait out their days in sad mesh cages. Cars manage to squeeze down this alley because there's a well-known hotpot restaurant also tucked away in it, meaning that if a driver in a big Mercedes is trying to take his boss to the restaurant, he'll lay on the horn to make sure that pedestrians, little kids, and tiny dogs get out of the way. And I wonder why I have ringing in my ears.

In any event, it's not that much to look at, but when the weather is good, it's the place to be. Back in DC, we certainly run into friends at the Safeway, Starbucks, and CVS, but it's more spread out. Bob compares it to the years he lived in Oneonta, where he did know just about everyone in the place. Funny that a city of 22 million can be that intimate.
Bob at Big Smoke.

This is the Seasons Park playground intended for adult "exercises." The woman is standing on a disc that goes in circles. What this does baffles me, but it makes a fun seat for little ones.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Cab Conversations, Continued

Today I encountered one of Beijing's chatty cab drivers. I could tell I was in for an experience when he corrected my pronunciation of my street -- Chuxiulu. I always say something that sounds like TWICHN-CHOO-LU. Actually, the real way is to say TWICHN-CHEEYU-LU. See the difference? Me neither.

Anyway, after he corrected me and I apologized for my poor Chinese, the questions began. (This is a conversation all in Chinese, so apologies for the parts where I half imagine where the conversation is going.)

Where are you from? he asks. It's always the first question.
"America," I say. "Of course."
"But where in America?" he asks. "I have a sister living in America."
"Where?" I ask.
"Luo shan ji," he says. (It's not until now that I figured out that Luo shan ji is Los Angeles.)
"I live in Washington," I say.
"Shenme?" he says. What?
"The capital," I say. (Jing!) "Obama!"
OBAMA! he responds.
"Oh, do you like Obama?" I ask.
"No," he responds. "Do you?"
"Yes," I answer. "Why don't you?"
(Here he mutters something about other countries. It's the place where my language abilities fail me. Dear UN -- not ready for translation work yet.)
"I like Old Bush," he says. (Lao Bush, which is what the Chinese call HW Bush.)
"Do you like Xiao Bush?" I ask (Little Bush, or W).
"No," he says.
"Me neither!" I say. We laugh companionably.
"Do you have children?" he asks.
"Yes, a son and a daughter," I say.
That gets me the thumbs up and a big "hao!"
"Do you have a husband?" he asks.
"Yes," I respond. "He's a journalist." (Keep in mind that my natural tendency to volunteer information to complete strangers is abetted by my limited vocabulary. If I know a word, I will use it, sometimes occasionally to ill effect. But you all know that about me.)
"Where are your children?" the cab driver asks. "America?"
Now, I realize the conversation is getting slightly complicated.
"No, my son is in Beijing. He's studying Chinese," I say.
"Hao!" he says. "And your daughter is in America?"
"No, she's also in Beijing. She's working," I say.
This so suitably impresses the cab driver that he runs out of questions for me and we drive along nearly mowing down pedestrians in companionable silence again.

When I get home, I realize that my ayi has cleaned and then left me a half-warm and overly sweetened cup of tea to greet my arrival.

These are the nice things about life in Beijing. I'll end with a few photos from the week.
Sunflowers in the alley.
Hiking to a water hole.

Nothing more fun than photobombing Danielle.
A butterfly landed on my shoe. That's good luck, right?
You don't get days much nicer than this.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ill Met By Moonlight

We now have both children in Beijing, something that we never imagined would happen a second time in our run here. But it's been great so far.

Last night the four of us went to a performance of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream," produced by the actor Tim Robbins at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, otherwise known as the Egg. It was a fun, lighthearted performance. It was probably good that the theater troupe performed with basically no set, since the idea of a Shakespearean verdant wood seemed odd in a place just steps from the cold barrenness of Tiananmen Square.

During intermission, I heard Joanna say, "Hi!" and saw that she was talking to Tim Robbins, who was standing nearby.

He was smiling. "Where are you from?" he asked Joanna.

"Washington, DC," she said.

I popped my head up. "Hi!" I said.

Bob looked over. "Hi!" he said.

Daniel looked over. "Hi!" he said. "Hey, I have a question. Is there no one Puck character? Why are all the actors speaking Puck's lines?"

Tim Robbins said, yes, there was no one Puck character. Then he got his look on his face that I swear was something like: I was talking to a pretty girl and suddenly I'm talking to her whole family. He slowly backed away, smiling. I never even got the chance to explain how our grown children landed in Beijing this summer, although I'm sure he would have been delighted to get all those details.

Later, Daniel, Bob and I stayed longer after the performance as Robbins and the cast answered questions about the show and about his life as an actor. When we left the NCPA, there were no cabs to be found. The moon was full and shined an odd, polluted golden.

We jumped on the subway, knowing that it was about to close but hoping that our luck would last. (The subway in Beijing closes long before midnight, because why would it be convenient for your citizens?)

We got as far as Jianguomen station where we wanted to change to Line 2. No such luck, so we exited the station where we were accosted by a gauntlet of pedicab drivers. Since there were three of us, we turned them down, still hoping for a cab.

Eventually we decided that we would split up: Daniel would take one cab and Bob and I would take a second. Our pedicab driver was driving one of what we call tin cans, or death-mobiles, or carbon-monoxide mobiles. Added to that was that this driver was quite elderly. He agreed to take us to Chunxiulu, but as we rode along, it dawned on us that he had absolutely no idea where Chunxiulu was.

He kept shouting questions at us over the roar of the cab, in a heavy Beijing accent. So even if our Chinese was perfect, we probably wouldn't have been able to understand him. Bob and I kept saying, in Chinese, "Take us to Chunxiulu!"

The driver drove about at a walking pace (was the battery about to run out?) and stopped three different times to ask people where our street was. All of them gave him detailed directions, and yet he still seemed baffled. Then he paused, pulled out a cigarette, and started to smoke. The smoke wafted into the back of the cab, blocking a bit the smell of carbon dioxide.

The evening was taking a bad turn. Others have had stories of pedicab drivers who deliberately took their fares to places to fleece them. My only consolation was that this guy didn't seem bright enough to pull that off.

Finally, finally, we got to the head of Chunxiulu. We hopped out, paid him his 30 RMB, and walked the last few blocks home, happy to be breathing 184-AQI air instead of the inside of this guy's pedicab. As we walked into the door of our apartment, a line from Puck came to me:

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

But now I only have two questions: was it all a dream? And who, exactly, were the fools last night?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Two of My Favorite Things

This week in China brought me two of my favorite things ever: a new baby in our Beijing "family," and yet another visit to the Great Wall. And we've also got Daniel here for the summer, plus a run of good air (which I've now jinxed), and lots of fun things on the horizon.

I'll stick to a photo essay today to illustrate the week a bit.
Leah waits for her baby sister's arrival.
Daniel and I meet sweet Naomi.
Is there anything better than holding a newborn?
Once more to the Wall.
The spring rains have made the land green.
Marcio and Maxie take in the scene.
Two of my favorites are moving. Happy trails, Rose and Yutta!
Hard to believe, but this is even more stunning than it looks in a photo.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What I'll Be Able to Put on My Resume

When I return home from China, I'm going to be incorporating a few new skills into my updated resume:

1. The ability to research an article even as Google is blocked. Today, for instance, I can write on my blog, look at Facebook, and send gmail, but Google searches give me a blank stare. Why? Who knows?

2. The ability to understand what it means when you send an email to a Chinese person and you get back this response: 我已收到你的来信会尽快回复你,谢谢。

3. The knack for finding locations that are not marked, using a mixture of Chinese and simple English, in enough time to conduct an interview. Or to hire people who can help you do that.

4. The patience not to get discouraged when editors ignore me and people who appear to be good sources suddenly decide that it's not in their best interests to talk to a reporter.

5. The imagination to figure out how a conversation with a friend or a trip out of town might just lead to a good story.

6. The talent for creating a good article out of an interview conducted in English so garbled it wasn't entirely clear it actually was in English. Here's one quote from a recent interview:
"Because you know another work from Magritte, the idea is also from that book, so after Magritte finished his work, which was so famous. Because my work is connecting with Magritte, somebody think so, and the master gallery from France, the master gallery, they sell Picasso, Magritte, modern art, but they moved to Hong Kong opened a new space for contemporary art. So I just asked the owner, Eduoard Malinggue, why – I did an exhibition in New York at an art gallery, why in Hong Kong? So we had to find some special thing, that can give us the reason."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Visit to Tiananmen

It seemed, on June 4, that every foreigner in Beijing wanted to head to Tiananmen Square, to see if there would be any evidence of the 25th anniversary of the massacre, and to pay their respects. I did too.

The plan was to meet the hiking group down there and walk around Tiananmen and Legation Quarter, which was once the only place where foreigners were allowed to live.

It took about two hours for our group to gather, partly because of miscommunication, and partly because the security was so heavy that long long lines formed for people to get into the actual square. I watched as hundreds of people jammed up at every entrance, police running each bag through a scanner and then individually examining each bag. Maybe three or four people got in every 10 minutes or so.

Our part of the hiking group eventually gave up on going into the square. I did entertain the idea of just leaping over the fence and hoping that no police would see me. Just as I had that thought, a young Chinese guy leaped over the fence and dashed away. A few minutes later, I saw him standing under a large umbrella and talking to the police. Nabbed. I doubt it would have gone so smoothly for me.

Next we went to a place that was both oddly appropriate and bizarre to visit on June 4: the Beijing Police Museum, just behind Tiananmen on Qianmen Street in, oddly, the old Citibank building. Outside were parked giant police trucks that looked more like rolling houses, and, chillingly, a dark blue tank.

Inside the museum was an assortment of propaganda: "In order to prevent disruption and sabotage of public security and information work in Beijing, and acting with heroic and selfless spirit, Peng Zhen, secretary of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party, wrote six copies of so-called confessions like this when he was in prison, taking onto himself all the blame for colluding with the enemy. He thus protected the physical safety of public security officers and policemen who were working undercover."

If that makes sense. Then there was another display behind a mannequin wearing white pajamas that read: "In numerous times, Comrade Liu Ren was awoken in the night by the policemen who came to report the works. In case of saving the time, he usually listened to the reports and made instruction with his pajama on. Such a good leader, who made great contribution before the liberation and worked hard for the legal system later, died uncleared with a false charge in the Culture Revolution."

Small comfort: At least your pajamas are on display, Comrade Liu.
The museum even had a small tribute to several police who died on June 4, 1989. They were killed by "ruffians" while they were "performing a mission," the museum said in a section called Beijing Police Martyrs.
Lie detector dummy. I may be a little paranoid today, but doesn't this guy look western?

Descriptions of Beijing's "police martyrs."
After that experience, we walked through the Legation area, stopping for lunch at a Chinese restaurant that was housed inside the former French post office. Adding even more to the bizarre nature of the day, we were being filmed by CCTV for a program about the connections between Brazil and China (thanks to our hiking leader today, a longtime Beijing person who was born in Brazil).

One of our last stops was St. Michael's Church, where we pounded on the metal door until a custodian opened it up for us, and where a very puzzled priest, Father Francis, watched us as we marveled at the pretty church, with statues of Michael the Archangel, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. In the center of the church facade was a dragon head spout, much like those that grace so many roofs in Chinese temples.

Back in Tiananmen, the crowds continued to stroll through the hot June sun, the police milled around on every corner, and life went on.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

More Serious Matters

Life in China is not always fun and games. Today is the evening before the 25th anniversary of China's massacre of its own students at Tiananmen Square, and the mood in town is nervous. Internet access is extremely spotty and the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China reports that journalists have been warned and hassled about reporting on the anniversary. Below is a roundup of the various difficulties faced:

"The FCCC condemns the increasing harassment and intimidation of overseas media and their local staff by Chinese authorities in an apparent effort to block reporting about the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square.

The FCCC is deeply concerned that correspondents and their local staff have been summoned by Public Security officers to their office to be given videotaped lectures dissuading them from reporting on the anniversary. Some of the journalists were warned of serious consequences should they disobey the authorities.

This effort to deter news coverage is a gross violation of Chinese government rules governing foreign correspondents, which expressly permit them to interview anybody who consents to be interviewed.  

The FCCC calls on the Chinese government and police to halt their harassment of foreign reporters and to abide by their own rules concerning the international media.

Examples of harassment:
“We showed the iconic photo of “Tank-Man” (a civilian who stood in front of a tank during the military crackdown on June 4th 1989) to people on the street in Sanlitun and tried to interview them about the events 25 years ago.
After 10 minutes police showed up and stopped our reporting. They ordered us into their police car and brought us to Sanlitun police station. They told us they had orders from PSB to do so. After one hour PSB officers showed up and interrogated us. They searched my handbag against my will. They took out the photos, put them in front of us and filmed the photos with us in the background. They took away two business cards of my contacts and photocopied them. We had to hand over the chip from our camera, which had no images on it. They separated us and questioned us for hours while video taping everything. The officer said: “You were speaking about a sensitive topic. You know that the topic is sensitive and the government don’t want people to speak about it.” I asked which Chinese law I broke. He answered: “It’s not a matter of law. It’s a matter of culture. The culture is above the law.”  They brought us back to the corner where we did our interviews. We had to show them where we interviewed people. They videotaped us showing the places. They kept our press cards and ordered us to come to the PSB the next day. We were released at around 9pm after six hours of interrogation.
The next day at the PSB two officers questioned us while another one was videoing. They accused us of “disturbance of public order”. We had to go in front of a video camera and they recorded our statements. We had to admit that we did something “very sensitive” which could cause “disturbance” and  we had to promise not to do what we are accused of in the next days. We got our press cards back and were warned that next time police will keep the press cards and our visas will be canceled.”

-- French Broadcaster

“We were reporting on the strict security in central Beijing ahead of the June 4th anniversary.  In a span of two hours, police asked me for my documents five times. The next day two policemen came into my flat, which also serves as my office. They came with two women, who didn´t wear uniform. These women recorded my house with some mobile phones while the police asked us for documentation. The police said the documentation was for internal use.”
-- European broadcaster

“I was called to the (police) Entry and Exit Bureau (which issues visas), and basically told this year security will be specially strict during the "sensitive period", in "sensitive areas", and with "sensitive interviews" related to the June 4th anniversary. They asked me to convey this to the bureau chief and other journalists in our bureau. They said that this is a second warning for me personally, and if I do not abide Chinese law, I should ‘expect the most serious consequences."
-- North American Media

“I found it very difficult to interview people this year regarding June fourth anniversary. Several well-known intellectuals, including people who are not considered dissidents, refused to be interviewed. They expressed concern for their own freedom or fear they would not be allowed to travel or to continue their work. Two had already been approached and specifically told not to give interviews on the topic. I had to cancel one interview in person the day before the meeting, since the interviewee told me the police was showing up to every appointment. The person later confirmed that the police showed up at the entrance of the compound as well as at the door at the time we were supposed to meet, and left only after been told I wasn't going.”
-- TV Correspondent"

As for me, I'm actually somewhat curious about what would happen if, say, I might show up at Tiananmen tomorrow. Interestingly, my hiking group had a similar idea and is organizing a "city hike." One of our leaders sent an email earlier today: "The security will be tight, but we are not forbidden to be anywhere tomorrow. Let's make it easy and relaxed! I am sure we will enjoy everything....1st the Tiannamen Square and them we will east. In our way we can visit the Police Museum, a church, the old city wall, and Mosque and if we still have energy and luck, we can see some nice temple."

At the same time, Bob is saying that the talk around the bureau is "if you wind up at Tiananmen that the cops will assume you are reporters and follow, if not hassle you. They advise people to bring ways of leaving quickly that doesn’t depend on subways because the cops can follow you there – ie bicycles etc."

Since I don't bike, my way of leaving quickly will be to walk away. After all, no one said it was illegal to explore a city, right? I also think it's a nice way to pay my respects to the brave students who were gunned down on June 4, 1989. Tomorrow I'll wear black and remember their bravery.