Saturday, August 30, 2008

My Introduction to Yanjing Pijiu

All throughout the streets of our neighborhood, there are guys riding these big tricycles with wooden cabs on the back. These cabs are loaded to the brim with empty bottles of Yanjing pijiu, remnants of the previous evening's alley and restaurant scene. It seems that, once the sun goes down, every little nook and cranny is filled with men sitting on stools knocking back these gigantic bottles of beer.

So it was the other night that I decided to get in on some of this action. Not hanging out with the boys (not yet, anyway!). But grabbing myself a Yanjing and chilling on the balcony with Desi and the kids. This deal was sealed when I asked a street merchant how much a bottle runs. Liang kuai wu was the answer. Translation...less than fifty cents!

At a price like that, it isn't hard to see why there is such a brisk business for the trike-riding, bottle-recycle guys. Definitely the cheapest ganbei ever!


Friday, August 29, 2008

We Mainly Cursed (But Maybe Writing This Post Will Help Me Laugh)

So we got off the Te Liu . The bus let us off in a small commercial strip, teeming with private cars wanting us to hire them to take us some place. (Where would anyone want to go, out here past the edge of Beijing city?) Xiusha, Desi, and I started walking, all three of us (it turns out) unsure of precisely where the infamous Bureau is actually located. Along the way, I unsuccessfully tried to take some cash out of a bank ATM (I wanted to make sure we had enough kuai on hand, on the assumption the Bureau would not accept either my American or Chinese debit cards).

Once we left the strip, the surroundings quickly became rural. Could it really be the case that every foreigner who is living in Beijing has to come out to this remote location for a health exam? Xiusha asked for directions a couple of times. There was this laobaixing who took the job really, really seriously, and spent what seemed like forever gesturing and giving out instructions in the typical Beijing way (not using left and right, but using north, south, east, and west).

Eventually, we centered our trek upon this gray building in the distance, coming up out of the sparsely developed landscape. I was skeptical the whole way. After all, this was the only place in Beijing where there were extremely few people to be found. But, sure enough, when we finally walked up (in a brief rain shower, for good measure), the first thing we spotted were tons of waiguoren hanging outside the building. Many of these folks (from all around the world by their accents) were saying the same kinds of things we were thinking. "This place is waaay out there." "My cabbie didn't even know how to get here." (One young woman was being scolded by several others for having hired a private car to take her out on her own.)

Final confirmation of our arrival came in a sign that directed us to a specific entry for "Physical examination for aliens." Ladies and gentlemen, I present you Desi and Steve, two aliens from the distant planet of Washington, DC...

Once inside, it was kind of like going to Six Flags...except rather than being rewarded for standing on long lines with a cool roller-coaster ride, our payoff was some sort of pseudo-medical procedure. There were six doors. Behind each door was a person or persons charged with performing some kind of check on each alien who walked in. The six doors were labeled like this...

Internal Medicine (What are they going to do to our innards?)

Surgery (Yikes!)




Taking blood

Each room had a line of winding waiguoren coming out from it. So we joined the queue. As far as the blood test goes, they seemed to be really interested in giving us an HIV test. Radiology involved a chest x-ray (ours came back, "no abnormal findings in lungs or diaphragm"...well, that's good news...).

The E.C.G. essentially involved taking your top off and getting all of these little "probes" attached to your chest and various other body parts (now I was really starting to feel like an alien). Much more of an issue for Desi and other women than for a guy like me. The payoff was a cool print out of one's heartbeat, just like in all of those doctor shows on TV. Desi and I spent the wait on the next line arguing over whose picture was prettier and indicative of better cardiac health...

E.NT. was really bizarre. We had to do the color blind test, as well read letters off a chart on the wall with one eye covered (by a device that had not been sanitized since the last person used it!). Why on earth does the Chinese government care about my eyesight? Am I now eligible to drive a car?

Surgery, despite its moniker, entailed getting our height and weight measured by this contraption that looked like something out of the Jetsons. (I really wish I could have taken a picture of it.) Inside this room, there was an yishen (I'm calling him a doctor, but I really have my suspicions...) whose job it was to have person after person stand on the scale and then record their information. Assembly line health care at its finest...

That leaves internal medicine. In this room, there were a couple of people working on the deepest insides of our taking our pulse and blood pressure. These people were so good that they were able get a definitive read on Desi through this hoodie she was wearing. (No need to roll up your sleeve or anything like that.) I guess that's the skill you can develop when, hour after hour, you do not nothing but listen to blood pulse through aliens' bodies...

Did I mention that, after all of this, we had the option to come back in three days to pick up the results? Well, we opted to give the Chinese government yet another 30 kuai of our money to have the paperwork delivered right to Beida, where Xiusha would know what to do with it. (You can imagine what Desi and I would like to do with it!) Between all of the various fees we had to pay, we were out about 1400 kuai, real money even for us rich meiguoren like us. All in all, it was the kind of experience that really makes you wonder why it was that you wanted to come all the way around the world in the first place...


Spontaneity and Unwelcome Surprises

One of the things we love about China is the short notice with which things can happen. Just the other day, a Beida representative booked a seat on the same return flight to Beijing that we were taking...on the night before the trip!

But there is a downside to all of this quick action. As I write this, I am sitting on the Te Liu (the "special" number six bus), heading out to the Beijing Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau. This ominous sounding agency is where we need to go to get our health certifications, which we need in order to apply for our residency cards and work permits. Makes standing on line at the DMV sound like a piece of cake!

Now, there have been hints at various points along the way that a Chinese health check might have to occur. But, then, at like 9 pm last night, I received a text message from another university official (the unflappable Xiusha), saying that it is "urgent" for Desi and me to go take care of business...first thing in the morning! A quick call to the US Embassy confirmed the need to follow through on this. I am on the Te Liu . Are we heading in the right direction? We have been told, at various points in the past 12 hours, that the Bureau is located in two different parts of the city. (Have we mentioned that Beijing is not small?) In a few minutes, I will either be laughing at the craziness of Chinese life or cursing the ridiculous transaction costs of living and working here...


My First Day of School

Today, Julie and I started school at BISS (BISS stands for Beijing International School). We woke up 5 am and took showers, brushed our teeth, got dressed, and went out the door. We got breakfast at our usual youtiao stand. Then, we walked out of our complex and onto the main road. There, we had a little trouble finding a taxi, but once we got one, we were on our way.

Finally, after a 15 minute, 31 kuai taxi ride, we had arrived. Through the fence, Julie and I saw kids everywhere! Julie and I saw the homeroom board and went to see which class we were in. I was in Ms. Reason's class and Julie was in Mr. Saunders' class.

When the bell rang, Julie and I went to the third floor to ask where our room was. They were almost directly across the hall from one another. My class had ten kids in it; 5 boys and 5 girls. Julie's class had 11 kids; 6 boys and 5 girls.

We started the day off with two periods of homeroom activities. Then, we unpacked our supplies and got our locker keys. Then, another teacher picked us up and took us to the annex. There, we did three activities and then had break. After break, we went back and did six more activities. Then, some teachers spoke to us about student council. After that, we were sent to different classes and did a project. We made a poster, a skit, and a short song.

At lunch, Julie and I did not bring any lunch money, so Julie worked and I played. Finally, the day was over.


First Day at BISS

A new country, a new school, new teachers, new classmates, and new school supplies (one of my favorite parts!). The first day of school is always exciting, but this year, this day was of special importance. After 10 years (for Z, eight years) at the same school, Z and I just had our first day of school here in Beijing at BISS (Beijing BISS International School). It was quite an interesting day; trying to figure out a new school was harder than I thought.

Although we did not have a regular school day today, we did get our lockers and I met a lot of the other 8th graders. I also met my homeroom teacher, who handed out our bags of supplies. I had a really great first day of school, and I can't wait until I settle in completely into this new year of experiences!


If You Really Want Something, You'll Figure Out How To Get It

So Steve and I had a date today. The kids were at school and we did what we do best: explore. After walking, say, 5 miles around Beijing, it was time for some lunch. In Beijing, many of the food gems are hidden inside buildings that wouldn't get a second look in the States. (Or they're right in front of you at a stand on the street!)

In any case, Steve and I were looking for a place to sit, relax and chi fan. Today we found a tiny place that specialized in steamed dumplings. The menu was completely in Chinese, so since the name of the place had the word "dumpling" in it, we ordered what you'd expect. When we went to the back room (Sounds seedy, no? It really isn't at all!) to pick up our lunch, we noticed that they had other things on the menu, obvious from what others were eating. One of the items was something I used to enjoy very much at A&J's Dim Sum in Rockville. It is a "cucumberish" dish with chili peppers in some type of delicious sauce.

"How can we get some of that?" I asked Steve. In the meantime I looked up and saw a picture of it on the wall. I was psyched to see that the Chinese characters were right next to it! I took a picture so that I can memorize it for next time. Steve pointed to it and asked the counter person what it was called. He said it over and over as he went back to the front of the restaurant to order it. He brought the digital camera with him just in case he needed to show them (he didn't). He came back to the food area and presented the slip to the counter person. Voila! Hen hao chi!


Star Status!

The other day we were sitting in the Shanghai airport. We were waiting for the flight to Beijing when an airport attendant asked Daddy if he would let Julie and me be photographed by a professional photographer. Then, she went off to find him.

When she came back with him, she was carrying props. A fake VIP pass and a 2008 Olympic flag. She gave me them and took out a magazine and put it on her lap. Then she started talking to us.

During our conversation, the photographer was snapping pictures of us. When he was done, our dad gave his email address so they could send us the pictures. We think they might also come out in a Shanghai magazine, but we don't know for sure. I can't wait to see the pictures!


Thursday, August 28, 2008

In the Studio

A few days ago, we were in Shanghai for the Fulbright orientation. We decided to visit the ChinesePod office. Daddy had been keeping in touch with people like Amber and Jenny, and they arranged a time for us to stop by. We caught a taxi to their office (in a brand new building) a little bit early just in case it took a long time to find. It took only a few minutes to find where we were supposed to go and, before long, we were stepping out of an elevator on the third floor.

When we walked in, Amber, JP, and Tabasco (from SpanishPod) were sitting and laying on the couches in the front. Adi came over to give us a tour of the office. Adi first introduced us to JiaoJie and Connie, who were sitting at the table closest to the front door. We also met John Pasden (who was really tall!). Adi also took us to see where Amber, JP, and Connie were going to record their latest podcast. After taking a few photos in the studio, headphones included, Jenny came over to catch the action.

The four of us, plus Jenny and Adi, left the recording studio. We then met Hank and Ken Carroll, who are the starters of ChinesePod. We had the best time talking with all of them and laughing about everything, from the first podcast we ever listened to to peoples' reactions when they hear that Daddy works at Beida (people really do look up to professors who work there!).

After a good hour and a half was spent, we said goodbye, knowing that the people who work at ChinesePod really are as nice as they sound on their podcasts!


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Our First Chinese Garden

The traditional Chinese garden, I am learning, is dominated not by flowers, as is customary in the West. Rather, rock formations are the central motif. In that vein, here are some shots of the Yu Yuan gardens in old Shanghai. I'm sure there will be more gardens and photo opportunities down the line...


I Might Just Stay Here...Forever (Or Maybe Not)

The Chinese believe that the higher up you go, the closer to paradise you get. On the 18th floor of the Portman Ritz-Carlton, I felt pretty close.

Normally, I'm good-to-go with Motel 6. Fairly priced and convenient, I don't mind them...especially when traveling cross-country. Now, though, I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to stay at a Ritz-Carlton at some point in their lives. (Preferably on someone else's dime...)

Fluffy beds, beautiful decor, and fastidious attention to detail make this place a must-stay. We enjoyed all the amenities, including bath and bathing products, fresh fruit, and an indoor-outdoor pool (joined by an underwater tunnel and open until 11!). A smiling, courteous staff was always ready to take care of us. I liked that very much!

Yet while I enjoyed this brief peek into a different world, something that quickly entered my mind was the cost of all of this. There is certainly a price that is paid for this type of accommodation. As I looked around the place, I saw primarily business people and the occasional mom and kids scenario...hinting that dad must be engaged in meetings, business dinners, etc. In the end, I decided that while the Ritz-Carlton was a treat beyond compare, I'll stick to Motel 6 if I can keep my family all joined at the hip.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Let the Negotiations Begin!

A few days ago, we found ourselves at the Yu Yuan market. Walking along one of the streets, I saw one of the coolest things ever! Little pigs that go SPLAT! I really loved them, so I decided to buy them the next time I saw them.

We kept walking, and finally ended up at the Bund. At last we had come across a place that sold the pigs. I went and asked how much they cost. Five kuai each. I walked away, because the one at the bizarre was five kuai for two. We kept going.

I came across another one. Five kuai each. We kept going. We found another one. Five kuai each. Finally, we went back to the hotel.

The next day, we went back to Yu Yuan. We found the first guy again. I got him to sell me two pigs for four kuai. Now I have the pigs!


Monday, August 25, 2008

上海博物馆 (Shanghai Bowuguan)

The Shanghai Museum came advertised to us as "the one museum in China you absolutely have to visit." After spending a chunk of a day checking out the exhibits, I can say that it was definitely worth the trip. Beautiful dynastic furniture, colorful minority clothing, and other highlights of Chinese history and culture from neolithic to present.

Deep down, though, I can't shake the feeling that the museum ranks fairly far down the list of collections I have ever visited. Maybe it is a problem of expectations that are too high, but my recurring thought is, "this is the best China has to offer?"

The counterpoint to this depressing feeling comes in the realization that this entire country is a museum. All of those bell and drum towers. The Great Wall. All of those temples and gardens. The terra cotta warriors. Now, these are museums I really can't wait to visit...


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ritz-Carlton Kids

This is what I'm talking about. Now this is what I'm talking about...