Saturday, August 23, 2008

ChinesePod Ren...Zui Hao De

Whenever you meet celebrities, you have to expect that they may be a bit different in person than how they portray themselves in the media. This can stir up uneasiness, because you may carry expectations that may be swayed after your meeting.

This was certainly not the case yesterday when we dropped by the ChinesePod studio in Shanghai to meet some of our zhongwen laoshi (Chinese teachers). These individuals, along with Hsin Taitai back home, definitely have celebrity status in the Balla household. Almost no day goes by when we don't listen to the wonderful voices of Ken, Jenny, Amber, John, Connie, JP, and all the individuals who make ChinesePod the ideal when it comes to learning this truly challenging language.

So we show up (a bit early) and are welcomed in a way that not only fulfilled our need to put the personalities with the people, but also sealed in our minds the love they have for spreading the philosophy that is Praxis Language. They are interesting individuals who are a blast to talk to. It didn't have to be that way, but thankfully it was.

Thanks to all of you at ChinesePod (and, of course, a special shout-out to Adi who hooked us up big time) for taking the time to meet us and make us comfortable in your new digs. Not only does your teaching inspire us, but your genuine, welcoming nature will undoubtedly drum up very positive thoughts when we tune in for our daily dose of ChinesePod.


The Keyport Fishery of Shanghai

The scene is a familiar one. I'm hanging out with family on a hot summer day. I'm sitting on a bench chowing down on the local delicacy.

This time, however, I'm not down at the Jersey shore enjoying a flounder platter, looking out over the bay and the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Nope, this time I'm pondering Shanghai's juxtaposition of Imperial architecture and hyper-modern skyscrapers, all while being stared at by tourists from the provinces and devouring xiaolongbao after xiaolongbao.

Xiaolongbao is (are?) the food that Shanghai and this region of China are probably most well known for. Essentially, xiaolongbao are tiny dumplings filled with meat (usually pork). When they are steamed, the inside of the dumplings fill up with juice from the meat, making xiaolongbao mouth-watering in a literal sense. (It was easy to spot people who had just bitten into xiaolongbao that were too hot for their tastes. Just look for the pained grimace. It's a face I've made myself too many times to count.)

As different as these two foods and locations appear to be, there are lots of things that bind them together. Local flavor. Family. The outdoors. In a way, the world is looking smaller already. And we've only been here a week...


Friday, August 22, 2008

Here Comes the Obligatory "I Just Arrived in China and Got a Kick Out of These Signs" Post

(Click on the pictures for full effect.)

First Picture: Anybody want to attempt a translation?

Second Picture: No, Steve did not try this dish...yet...

~Desi and Steve

Speak to Me in Chinese, Please

An average "talk to Julie" situation...

Daddy is talking to someone in Chinese.

Daddy misses something that the person says, but I catch it and respond.

The person, whoever it may be, figures that since I responded, I must know more Chinese than my dad, so they begin talking to me at a rapid pace.

I, obviously knowing less Chinese than my dad, am often found saying, "Shenme?" and looking at everyone else for help.

Although this situation may sound tough (and believe me, it is challenging!), I enjoy it very much because it allows me the chance to practice my Chinese. This is exactly the kind of situation I have been waiting for in all of my two years of learning Chinese. It is the exact type of immersion anyone learning a foreign language needs to become better at conversation. Like everyone I have told about our China travels has said, I think all of our Chinese speaking abilities should improve drastically by the time we return to the US.

Another situation that we experienced today, was the "stop in the middle of a random place and chat" situation. As we strolled through yu yuan today (an area in Shanghai that has all the trinkets you can imagine), a group of Chinese students from Xi'an and other places came up to us and just began talking. I am not even sure what happened, but all of a sudden I was having a discussion, in Chinese and English, with three or four Chinese, one of whom was a working man from Shanghai who came along to try out his English on the waiguoren. It was a lot of fun for me because I got to try out all the Chinese I know, but I didn't have to depend on it since the students knew enough English to go on.

All in all, it was another language enriching experience that I know could have only happened with a spontaneous spirit. This type of situation is one of the many things I love about living in China...speak Chinese any time, any place, and to anyone.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Now There's Something You Don't See Everyday

No, I'm not talking about me hanging out in a tea house. I've been known to whittle away an afternoon at Ching Ching Cha, sipping orchid oolong and eating jiaozi. It's the thing that's in my hand that was, shall we say, an unexpected development.

The scene is Huxinting Teahouse, which is located in the heart of the old Chinese quarter of Shanghai (tucked away amidst a seemingly endless offering of alien-looking skyscrapers). To get to Huxinting, you have to walk past blocks of vendors hawking mostly modern wares in Imperial style buildings and then cross a bridge to the middle of a small lake. (The bridge is built in a crooked zig-zag pattern, a feng shui device to ward off bad spirits, which can only travel in straight lines.)

Once inside, the environment is totally laid back, thanks not only to the idyllic surroundings, but also to the middle-aged guys who bring out and refill your pots of tea. (We had some nice green and jasmine teas.) When they are not sauntering slowly about, these fuwuyuan are chilling out on stools, smoking and carrying on amongst themselves.

There was one guy in particular who I was bantering with off and on while were pouring and sipping. He was happy to see that Huxinting is featured in this tour book that I was carrying around. And he was happy to show me pictures of some of the famous people who have been to the tea house, including Margeret Thatcher, Jiang Zemin, and Gerhard Schroeder. (Apparently, Bill Clinton has been there as well, but they didn't get a picture.)

Our bonding culminated with fuwuyuan offering me a smoke from his pack of Shanghai brand cigarettes. I politely declined, but he was very persistent (luckily this wasn't baijiu we were talking about). The next thing I knew, I had a cigarette in my mouth and he was lighting me up. As my amused and horrified family looked on, fuwuyuan and I blew some smoke and chatted a bit more until, eventually, we decided to head back out into the muggy Shanghai air.

Never did I imagine that learning Chinese would turn out to be such a dangerous habit!


Beauty across the Bund

When Steve and I were at Disney in 1985 for our senior class trip, I was so disappointed to see that Cinderella's castle was gray. From the Wonderful World of Disney, I thought that it would be white (and that the building I had laid my eyes upon had to be the witch's castle).

Fast forward 23 years and today was just the opposite.

In one of those crazy Balla contests, I was the one who spotted the Pearl Tower. It was like Dorothy spotting the Emerald City. While I had seen pictures of this place in travel books, it was so much more impressive and beautiful in person. It is so modern looking!

If you've ever seen Men in Black, you'd be convinced that it's a rocket awaiting an alien evacuation. In any case, it is part of an incredible skyline that helps to make Shanghai a stand-out mega-city.


The Great Train Adventure

Since the Fulbright meeting is in Shanghai, we had to go from Beijing to Shanghai. We decided to take the train to Shanghai. Getting the tickets is a whole other blog, but still we got them. [Editor's note: It was a cash exchange on the street with a person we never met, with the transaction taking place all in Chinese.]

We took the bus from our house to the subway. A few stops later, we were at the train station. First, we stood around, looking to see what our train info was. After a while, we went inside.

First, we went to the wrong area. Then we went looking around upstairs for it. Finally, we figured out where to go. Daddy and Julie went to McDonald's. We ate and waited.

Finally, we got to board. Julie and I were jumping up and down a lot as we walked because we were excited. When we boarded, we put our stuff away and chose beds. I chose the top bunk and so did Julie.

We mainly looked out the window and talked before bed. Bed was awesome! There were huge blankets and comfy pillows. We woke up at around 5:30 am. We looked out the window and talked some more.

When we got to Shanghai, we took a cab to our hotel and checked in. [Editor's note: After three tries, we finally have toilet paper!]


Me and My Mop

In Maryland, I'm a Swiffer girl. They are convenient and take care of business when the floors need cleaning. As a result, I haven't used a mop for years...until this week.

You see, plumbing in China is a bit different. With showers that don't have a stall or tub to contain the spray, and a washing machine that empties through a tube into a drain in the floor (you lay the tube by the drain when you do the laundry), the mop has become my buddy. Swiffers don't exist here, but if they did they wouldn't be equipped to handle these situations.

I'm looking forward to figuring out how to better confine the water in our apartment to it's appropriate spaces. So far this has not been the case. Until I do though, my handy-dandy mop will be by my side, keeping us dry.


85 Steps...But It's Pink

When I heard a few weeks ago that we were going to be living on the 6th floor of an apartment building in Beijing, I wasn't concerned. Surely there would be an elevator, right?


You see, stairs have always been my Dante's Inferno. I imagine myself on the seventh circle of you-know-where climbing stairs for all eternity. Apparently, I'm in for an attitude shift. I can make myself feel better by thinking of the health benefits. I can tell already that I'm getting more fit because I make it a bit farther each time. I'll let you know when I make it to the top without stopping (shopping bags excluded, of course).

On a more colorful note, our apartment building and the entire complex for that matter is pink. To Julie and me, this is great, given our affinity for everything pink. And while apartment architecture here is a bit "communist block style," the color (and the beautiful trees in the courtyard) make it very pleasant. Day and night, there are always people walking about...from elderly women doing tai ji quan to people buying fresh produce from others who have set up make-shift stands...but it is surprisingly quiet and peaceful for a city of 17 million. Not a bad place to set up housekeeping and acquire rock-solid calf muscles for the year.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Our Olympic (Mis)Adventure

So we woke up this morning and looked at the schedule of events for today's Olympics. The only event this morning was the men's triathlon. Now since I didn't qualify for the competition, we figured we might do the next best thing and check out the event in person. This was the start of quite an unexpected chain of events...

We couldn't find a taxi to take us to the event. Now, mind you, taxis are everywhere in Beijing. There is even a little taxi stand (more like a random cluster of cabs) right in our apartment complex. It didn't faze us too much when there wasn't a taxi to be had locally, but half an hour and half a mile of wandering later, we still hadn't nabbed one. Just when we were about to give up and move on to plan B, Desi saved the day and the craziness went on...

Our poor taxi driver. This shifu had no idea what he was in for. After telling him where we wanted to go, off we went on a nearly hour-long journey out to the Ming Tomb Reservoir, where the triathlon event was to be held. Now, by this time, you may realize that we had no tickets for the event. We figured we might be able to watch the athletes go by on the street during the cycling part of the competition. Or perhaps we might score some tickets for the event itself.

Upon arriving at the north entrance of the venue, though, we were told by security guards that we could go no further without tickets. "Well is there a place we can catch a glimpse of the race?" Turns out the south entrance is the place to go for wannabes like us. I asked the driver if it is far from one entrance to the other. His short answer said it all, bu jin. It isn't close.

This is when things got really crazy. At one point, after twisting and turning through some county roads (and backing up after a wrong turn), the driver pulled the cab over to the side of the road in a local town we were passing through. Desi asked if we had arrived. Nope, I said, the shifu is getting out and asking for directions. Now that has to be a Beijing first!

After a lot of hand gesturing, our little journey continued. But it wasn't long before we were over on the side of the road again, this time talking with some police officers who were standing around while their car was being washed. Satisfied with the answer he received, our shifu made a u-turn in the middle of the road and off went we again.

Finally, we pulled up to an umbrella on the side of a road at the edge of town. More directions? Nope, this is where the road ends, at least for taxis. So we said goodbye to our shifu and got on the "Special Olympic Bus" that would take us the rest of the way to the south entrance.

Now this has to be the strangest bus route of all time. Most of the riders were not going out to the venue to see the event. They were simply locals who were taking advantage of the new mass transit connection between their homes in the countryside and the nearest town (where they work, do their shopping, and so forth). I guess when the Olympics are over, they will dust off their bicycles.

After a few minutes, the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road and told us that we have to get off and walk the rest of the way to the south entrance. What a mysterious place, this south entrance!

After walking up the hill, we finally catch sight of the south entrance. It does exist after all!

But where are the scalpers hawking tickets? Turns out we were not the only ones asking this question. There were a bunch of foreigners standing around, doing the same thing as us. And then there were groups of locals, sitting, squatting, and standing around under various shade trees. Why there were there is anybody's guess. Their presence contributed to the feeling that this could not possibly be the site of an Olympic event. But the helicopters circling overhead confirmed that the triathlon was indeed going on just yards away from where we stood.

Defeated (in a good-spirited way), we jumped back on the "special" bus and headed back to town. From there we figured out that "regular" bus 345 could take us back into Beijing. And so for a grand total of about $2, we made the hour-long trek in reverse (minus, of course, all of the wrong turns and direction asking).

Now, can anybody tell us who won the men's triathlon?


Monday, August 18, 2008

Our Windows on the World

So we've posted pictures of the inside of our apartment. Here is what things look like from our two balconies.

My favorite vantage point is the balcony off of what will be my and Desi's room. (Julie's still sleeping on the sofa in there until the mattress for her bed is delivered.) Out in the distance is the Summer Palace (click on the top photo to enlarge the image), the old imperial retreat that was used by generations of emperors seeking to get away from the heat of Beijing. (It's an interesting sign of the times that Beijing has sprawled so much that the Summer Palace is now considered to be at the edge of town.)

From the other side of the apartment, off the kitchen, we can look out and see the mountains that ring Beijing to the north and west. I keep thinking that somewhere out there is the Great Wall, just beyond my sight.

In the coming days and weeks, one of my goals is to unlock the mysteries of the area that surrounds our complex, to flesh out those buildings and landscapes that are essentially two-dimensional images to me today...


Before Ikea

We just got back from an Ikea run, stocking up on basic household items. Pillows and sheets were high on the list, as we have been laying our heads on rolled up sweatshirts and sleeping on whatever materials we could find. Towels were also big; no more air drying after showers!

With the apartment beginning to take shape (and beginning is the word to emphasize), here are some photos of what things looked like when we first moved in. We'll post some "after-Ikea" pictures when things are better organized.

Bonus points for the first person who can guess what the device in the upper right-hand corner of the middle picture does.


Olympics with Chinese Characteristics

An afternoon out at the Olympic Green was in some ways a pretty typical experience that would be recognizable to anyone who has been to a major concert or sporting event. We could have been in Atlanta, Sydney, or Athens. Hordes of people, flowers planted everywhere, ticket scalpers (who, by the way, were hawking triathlon tickets for RMB1500 each...that's over $200 a ticket...are you crazy!?...even assuming I would negotiate away half that price, it is still no bargain...I guess that's another similarity with Games past...).

There are some Chinese characteristics, though, that not even the corporate feel of the Olympics can eradicate completely.

A road is meant for walking. Throughout China, cars and bikes are parked on sidewalks and people walk in the road. Why should the Olympic Green be any different? We had great fun joining the crowd and scampering up an embankment, so we could jump onto the street and get a better look at the Bird's Nest. The security guards were hopelessly outmatched (and probably didn't really want to stop anyone anyways).

Let's take a picture of the waiguoren. Some people were subtle, trying to take our picture or video us without us noticing. Others were obviously trying to get up the courage to approach us. And then there were those who knew enough English to make an inquiry...and then get surprised by our responses in Chinese! These were the real Olympic moments for us...the group pictures where everyone (including us!) got caught up in exchanges that transcended culture and competition.


And the Winner Is...

Desi! While I was busy trying to orchestrate a picture, Desi made her move and caught a glimpse of the Bird's Nest from around a bend in the road. She now has the Huanhuan charm of her choice hanging from her cell phone...a real Chinese girl now!

Gongxi ni!


Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Real Reason I Came to Beijing

As a kid I used to age myself during each Olympics, projecting how old I'd be during the next ones. When it was every four years, it was kind of neat to think, "wow, during the next games I'll be 16...20," or, "I'll be driving next time...or voting!" Now that they're every 2 years, it's not quite as big of a deal, which may be a good thing since the concept of aging is not as appealing.

Steve and I have been together now for quite a few Olympic Games and while we both share similar views on the games (since they went "pro" both of us are a lot less enthusiastic), it's still interesting enough for us to peek in at an event or two on the tube. Unfortunately this has led to a bit of a conflict in our household. Since the Olympics are usually held in a different time zone, the results are posted before the event appears on US television. As we watch, Steve will sometimes make allusions to the winners, as he has already viewed the outcomes on the Internet. THIS DRIVES ME CRAZY!

My solution? Come to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games so that Steve has to watch them live!

And you thought I was in it for the cultural experience of it all...


Name That Olympian

We have not been to the Games yet (hopefully that will change today), as we have been preoccupied with figuring out basic life things--like how to eat (we found some good baozi on the street yesterday) and which buses to get on to go to places like the bank (we are now account holders at ICBC, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China).

In the meantime, we did have a close encounter with an Olympic athlete at the airport. It wasn't Michael Phelps, Celia...sorry about that! In fact, we have no idea who he was. All we can tell you is that he attracted quite a bunch of TV cameras and reporters. As you can see, we decided to get in on the action. As this picture was being taken by Desi (who thinks the guy is here for the taekwondo competition), the media folks were snapping away as well. So we may very well be in the paper (or maybe even on TV) in some place like Thailand...