Saturday, September 13, 2008

I'm Thinking of an REM Song...

...It's the only "feel good" song they've ever written...got it?

~Steve

Imperial Succession

If you were ever one of my bio students (I hope some of you are out there!), you know that one of my favorite topics in the ecology unit is succession.

Today, I have a new type to show you. Call it "variation on a theme." The picture to your right is what I call "Imperial Succession." While it has nothing to do with the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was taken at the Forbidden City. As you can see, those Pioneer Species like grasses and weeds can, and do, grow anywhere. Secondary succession at its finest.

~Desi (Mrs. B)

The Hidden Forbidden City

One of the nice things about being in a place like this (or Washington, DC for that matter) is that you can delve deeply into the city's culture and history. You know, go beyond the "A-list" set of spots to check out.

The Forbidden City is, no doubt, on the "must see" itinerary for anyone setting foot in Beijing. And so, in 2004, we passed through with our group. Unfortunately, as is always the case for tour travel, we were told be our guide we had "five minutes to take pictures" at each location before moving on. Understandable, as we had a tight schedule. But we knew there just had to be more than the handful of gates and palaces we were taken to.

So there we were, finally back in the Forbidden City...on our own terms. Plenty of time to take breaks and eat the snacks we had brought (chips, wafers, peaches, cookies, carrots). Plenty of time to watch the crowds wing by. Plenty of time to check out a few off-the-beaten-path spots buried deep in the Forbidden City. Like...

Nine-Dragon Screen. We've now seen two of the three such screens there supposedly are around China. Looks like it's off to Shanxi province!

The concubine's well. Legend has it, that when the Nationalists were closing in on the Forbidden City, the Empress Dowager Cixi ordered one of the palace eunuchs to throw this one concubine down a well and drown her. (Others say she jumped in rather than be taken by the rebels.) Looking at the size of this well, I'm skeptical about this rendering of history. But it does add to the lore of the Forbidden City...

~Steve

Oh, To Be the Chairman

This was, and still is, one of the strangest places we've ever been. You might wonder, then, why we were compelled to make a return trip to the mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Why is anyone drawn to a place like this?

In '04, this tourist spot was actually the only place we went in China where the people formed an orderly line (for two hours). Now that so much has changed in China and people have been repeatedly asked to do things like "queue up courteously" for the Olympics, people do so almost everywhere, so this wasn't a surprise today. Happily, the line was only 15 minutes today.

The presentation of the Chairman, though, was a bit different. Last time, we could buy flowers (which, when piling up on carts in front of the Chairman, were wheeled back to trailers for resale) and place them right in front of his preserved body. Because of this, we felt the need to buy a few bouquets so we could get a closer look this time. No deal. Now you have to put them in front of a statue of him in a different room. They're piled up by type, no doubt so they can be gathered easily and resold for two kuai each, just like in '04. You know we were bummed in more ways than one.

From our perspective, he "hasn't changed a bit." Neither has my feeling about this viewing process. I'm glad we stopped in, but I think our "need" has been more than satiated. Enough said...

~Desi

Even When You Thought You Did, You Didn't

We're doing just fine communicating our wants and needs to all of Beijing. We can get a mattress delivered, get a taxi to take us where we want or need to go. We can even get a travel agent to meet us on a street corner to exchange yuan for tickets. This past Friday night, we got in over our heads.

We weren't expecting to be schooled in the Chinese language as innocuous as a restaurant, but we had our hands full (and luckily, later, our tummies).

Long story short, after three waitresses came over and tried to explain the menu to us, they brought over a contraption that had hot coals in the bottom and water in a trough. They dumped some seasonings in and presented a variety of vegetables and meats like chicken and beef. Ahhh! Hot pot! We weren't expecting hot pot, but we got it. And we were delighted.

Hot pot is a communal type of eating. You dip or dump pieces of raw meat, veggies, and uncooked noodles into boiling water, leave them there for a minute or so, and take them out so you can dip them in a delicious peanut sauce.

Three funny moments that occurred during dinner...

(1) When I chucked a large clove of garlic, the waitress came running over to have me take it out. Apparently, the garlic is to be opened and put into the peanut sauce. It is already cooked and pickled (and yummy on its own volition).

(2) Somebody put some veggies in and couldn't find them. Ten minutes later, they said, "oh, there it is" as they fished it out of the bottom.

(3) Julie grabbed some raw meat with her chopsticks and accidentally dropped it on her plate. When the waitress saw this, she practically fell over herself to get to Julie to tell her not to eat it that way. Of course, she had no intention of doing so and yes, she got a new plate.

Even after feeling dumb for a bit, there is no way we won't be returning to that place. The food was outstanding and even Z ate heartily here!

~Desi

I Don't Have a Driver's License, Though

One of the major hassles both pre- and post-departure has been accumulating the various identifications and permissions needed to live and work here in China. Renewing passports. Getting the right kind of visas. Securing ID cards allowing entry to Peking University. Going for the infamous health examinations. All of this is culminating this week, when we supposedly get to go to the Public Security Bureau to pick up our residency and work permits.

In the meantime, though, I have reached an apparently important milestone. I have become a foreign expert. Out of the blue one day, Xiusha handed me a passport-looking book with the words "Foreign Expert Certificate." Here's what it says inside...

This certificate is valid in the People's Republic of China. The bearer of the Certificate is a foreign expert confirmed by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs of the People's Republic of China or the administration departments of foreign experts affairs of provincial people's governments. The bearer is entitled to conveniences and treatments for foreign experts provided by the government of the People's Republic of China.

Conveniences and treatments...cool!

~Steve

Low Overhead

One of the perks we're enjoying very much in China is the low overhead costs of living here. While our apartment is not fashioned in the Natuzzi and Danker tradition that we love in Maryland, it is quite easy on the upkeep. Since it is not "museum" quality, very little cleaning is required. A couple of dished here and there and a weekly mop of the tile floors...and we are good to go. This leaves lots of extra time for fun.

In addition, transportation costs are extremely low. Despite the crazy gas prices everywhere, public transport here is almost free. Since we have bus passes, it costs .40 kuai per trip. I can't even calculate how cheap that is! The subway is two kuai per trip (30 cents). And taxis aren't bad either...our trips have mostly been between 15 and 45 kuai (2-8 bucks).

Simplifying costs (both time-wise and cash-wise) is not easy back home, but here we're taking advantage of it every chance we get. Now, if only our doorway didn't have such a low overhead. Right, Steve?

~Desi

I Have No Idea What I Just Ate

Really. It looked like a sweet potato when we bought it at the corner market. And despite the seller's chuckle and "no, that's not a potato" (in Chinese, of course), I washed it well and stuck it in the microwave. I figured that maybe they don't call sweet potatoes "potatoes" here.

When the microwave bell went off, I got out the butter and was ready to go. It didn't quite smell like a sweet potato, but it was close enough for me. I cut it open and it looked nothing like I expected. It was more like the consistency of a squash. I thought, what the heck, and put some butter on it. Very tasty, but definitely not a sweet potato.

Just goes to show...sometimes you just don't know what's inside.

~Desi

Bad(minton) Boys in the 'Hood

As some of you know, my dad and I had a main game in the US...tennis. Sadly, we could not even fit our rackets in our space bag. They were not coming to China. We would not be playing tennis.

A new hope had sprung into us when we saw some people playing the closest thing to tennis...badminton...China's equivalent to tennis. At the Five Star Market, we treated ourselves to two rackets and a birdie. Finally, a few days later, we started playing badminton. It is awesome!

Surprisingly, Daddy and I are pretty good. I can't wait to compare tennis and badminton in the US. Song Wei, here we come!

~Zoli

Let's Compare

So the other night, after spending the day touring Beijing, we decided to treat ourselves to a fantastic dinner at a place you may have heard of or seen on Andrew Zimmern's bizarre foods show. It's called Fu Jia Lou and by our guestimation its a 3 Star restaurant...good enough for Mr. Zimmern! Four deliciously prepared and presented dishes (plus a white rice for Z, a big bottle of coke, and a pot of green tea), served on plates that I didn't have to wash and cleaned up by someone other than me. All totaled, 94 yuan. (That's 15-16 US dollars.)

Tonight, after spending a day hunting and gathering, I had the pleasure of cooking for the family. Spaghetti, sauce (butter for Z), rolls, two drinks, and pickles. All totaled, approximately 47 kuai. (That's 7-8 US dollars.) Keep in mind, I had to cook it and clean up and wash the dishes (no, we do not have a dishwasher).

All things considered, while it was a treat to have some Sunday night pasta, it is pretty evident that eating out is the way to go in China.

~Desi

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Beijing Bicycle

Well, that was an adrenaline rush! I just returned home from my first-ever bicycle ride here in China. I started out from my office and made it back in about 15 minutes. Here's how it all came about...

For some time now, I've been asking local bike repair guys (you can find them on seemingly every other corner) if they would sell me a lao che (an old bicycle). You see, I was not initially inclined to buy a new bike. It is legendary in these parts that good bikes are stolen as soon as they are left unguarded (even locked). Plus, pretty much everyone has a dusty, greasy bike...new ones are few and far between, at least to my eyes. So why not join the throngs in that regard?

The only problem was that, every time I asked, I was given the old mei you response. Essentially, the guys were telling me that they don't sell used bikes. "Well, where can I get an old che?" Same response...mei you. Apparently, there are no used bikes for sale anywhere in Beijing. I guess the only way to get a used one is to do what the bad guys do and grab one for yourself.

That not being an option for me, I was happy to stumble upon an area of campus where new bikes were being sold. The students are returning, and this means many news kids coming to Beida in need of a set of wheels. I decided to splurge (about 50 bucks) and get a new one, preferably black, so as to better fit in with the old bike set.

Trust me, it's nothing fancy. No gears. (Luckily, Beijing is as flat as a pancake.) The real funny part? I'm just a bit taller than the average Beijingren. Implication? There is no standard bike that is really big enough for me. I basically took the biggest one I could find, and had them hike the seat up as far as it went. (Not very far.) I guess I'll spend the next year "low riding."

And so it was out onto the streets I went, wearing my helmet. (Thanks for the encouragement, Bill!) At first, I was wondering why everyone was staring at me. Then I realized it had nothing to do with the whole waiguoren thing. It was all about the maozi. (That's the word for "hat." What the word for "helmet" is I have no clue.) I may ride all year and not come across another biker wearing a helmet. Unless, that is, Desi at some point gets up the nerve and joins me in the mad rush of bikes, scooters, cars, and buses...

~Steve

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fly On In...

...to the Bird's Nest and you'll be overtaken by its structural significance.

Ever wonder how birds construct their intricate homes? Ever try to build a nest as a kid? Impossible, right? Well that's what I was thinking when we witnessed first-hand the steel beams that give this "National Stadium" its distinction.

Inside, not eggs or chicks, but a sea of humanity cheering joyfully and politely. For the track and field events of the Paralympics all (or at least most) of the 80,000 seats were "General Admission." Could you imagine this at Giants or Ravens Stadium? A near capacity crowd (the stadium holds 100,000) not cussing opponents but cheering on all the athletes (Of course a little louder for the "home team." Just ask Steve about his "Zhongguo Dui Jia You" cheer that fired up our section.). And it could have been any section. See a few people get up and you can take their seats. Front row, back row. Anywhere you like, mei guanxi (no problem). This was quite a different experience from what I'm used to.

Now for the competition...javelin, shot-put, and long jump on the periphery. Main events like the 400m and 5000m races were the attention grabbers. The wheelchair races were unbelievably fast and exciting but the most compelling race we watched was the 5000m finals that was run by blind athletes. (They have a runner who can see attached to them at the wrist). The highlight came in the last 200m when the record-setting Kenyan was passed by a Chinese runner. The Chinese runner literally sprinted by the Kenyan and won by a huge distance. The crowd went absolutely wild. The sound was deafening.

Since there were so many events taking place and many competitions in the "finals stage," we were able to see a nice number of medal ceremonies. It was very moving to watch the expressions of the athletes when their country's flag went up the specially designed poles (at the top, fans blew the flags so they stood straight out) and their anthems played. Time and time again, everyone stood respectfully as the national anthems played beautifully through a sound system that probably rivals the Met.

All in all this was a very different experience from the ping pong competition we experienced yesterday. At the Birds Nest, the intimacy of the Peking University Gymnasium was replaced by the thunder of the flocks. I feel fortunate to have been able to attend both... now if only we can drum up some Water Cube tickets...

~Desi

What's Black and White and Read All Over?

It's the newspaper that the man in the background is holding. (See him over there on the bridge behind Desi?) More about the man in black in a minute...

Over the past few weeks, we have walked down plenty of streets that have been regular old Beijing dajie. Nothing unusual or interesting about them to a person who lives here. (Now, a total newbie would be astounded to walk down any avenue...spitters and nose pickers everywhere, Olympic "volunteers" whittling the day away on tiny stools, motor scooters whizzing by with little kids standing in front of their driving parents.) Our mantra has been to just walk, because you never know when an ordinary place is going to turn into something really special.

This happened just the other day. Desi and I were walking through the neighborhood near Julie and Z's school. By now, our eyes are trained well enough to know that down this one alley there seemed to be a park. (Trust me, we would have walked right past it when we first got here.)

The park turned out to be a real hidden gem. A beautiful lake filled with lotus. Ayis kicking around a Chinese-style hacky sack. Some guys playing the erhu. (That awesome Chinese string instrument...you've heard it...) A tea house that serves delicious oolong to drink and Beijing snacks to eat. (The closest thing to Ching Ching Cha we've come across.)

Then came the real treat. We were sitting there watching some little buddhas being fussed over by their parents and grandparents. There was this guy sitting nearby, dressed all in black, who didn't seem to fit the scene. Then, when we got up, he also got up and headed in the same direction behind us. After an hour and a half in the tea house, there he was, chilling outside, enjoying the weather. When we stopped to take pictures, he also took a break and admired the trees. Were we about to be detained? Nah...this just seemed to be a weird kind of thing that might happen to waiguoren walking around a park that is far, far off of the tourist trail.

Anyways, at one point, we decided that it would nice to have a photo of the two of us in this picturesque place. No need to search around for a willing paparazzi. There he was, hanging out just a few yards away. Which is where he remained until we finally decided to head out of the park and back out into the streets of Beijing, looking for the next everyday looking place that might be hiding a treasure well worth seeking out...

~Steve

All I Can Say Is "Wow!"

I knew we'd all be inspired by attending Paralympic events this week. How can you not be when you witness first-hand what these individuals have achieved despite their disabilities. What I wasn't expecting, though, was how exciting these games would really be and how innovative these individuals are in their approach to competitive athletics.

When we arrived at the Peking University Gymnasium, the first first ping pong stadium in the world (so we've heard), we were greeted by throngs of Chinese high school students waiting to get into the games. The stadium is beautifully constructed. It is bright, open, and airy, and the views are great from everywhere. There's even a huge ping pong ball that emerges from the top of the building and it lit at night.

The first rounds we viewed were interesting to watch. Eight games at a time. It was difficult to concentrate on one when there was so much going on. Later, though, was the real excitement. Two separate matches that rivaled any competition I've ever seen...

(1) Italy v. Brazil. Two men in wheelchairs who needed to band the paddles to their hand, hitting hard and strategically lobbing the ball in ways unimaginable. Even though we were cheering as loud as we could, it was difficult to choose who we wanted to win. Both fought so hard that it went to five sets, with Brazil as the victor.

(2) Germany v. Brazil. Probably one of the most amazing displays I've ever seen. The German man has no arms and only one leg. The other leg, from what we could see, was prosthetic. His paddle was strapped (by him) to the shorter than elbow length stump on his left side. He bounced the ball on his paddle to ready himself for serving. He was fast and furious. His serve was hard and he moved from side to side of the table effortlessly. I get chills and choked up just thinking about this. This man won in straight sets. We couldn't stop watching him despite our plan to leave so the kids could finish their homework.

I offer no further commentary, except to say that there are people doing BIG things out there with a lot more obstacles than I have. No doubt that leaves me with a lot to think about.

~Desi

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Being Catholic in Beijing

Growing up in New Jersey, it seemed as if there were a Catholic church on every corner. Even during our years in North Carolina, we could make it from our house to Immaculate Conception in a matter of minutes. No matter how few Catholics there are in the South, there are (it goes without saying) way, way, way fewer Catholics here in Beijing. As a result, the simple act of just getting to Mass can be quite an adventure.

You see, in a city of 17 million, there is a grand total of something like five Catholic churches. And all of them are located in the central city. My guess is that these churches were established by westerners who, at various points in the past, had set up diplomatic or economic enclaves here in Beijing. No reason to spread cathedrals all over the place when the goal was to give yourself a visible place to worship near your quarters.

What this means for people like us (who live out at the edge of town) is that, to make it to Mass, we have to do the equivalent of a trip from, say, Frederick, MD to downtown Washington, DC...without the benefit of owning a car. The other day, we decided to take the bus to the subway, as a nun here told me about this one cathedral that is located right at a metro stop. We left with the intention of making it to the 4 pm Mass...and ended up attending the 6 pm service...at a different church altogether! (Have we mentioned that Beijing is a big city!?)

Not wanting to repeat this fiasco, we hailed a cab to take us home after Mass let out. (Memo to Father Mike and Father Greg...homilies here seem to last 20 minutes...) Unfortunately, the driver, who seemed to know exactly where we wanted to go when I gave him instructions, took us to the wrong location...apparently there's a place with a name similar to our apartment complex. (Mental note for the next time we end up somewhere that doesn't look familiar...) So it was no bargain getting home, either. For sure, we need to find a logistical solution that is sustainable over the long haul.

~Steve

Monday, September 08, 2008

My Thinking Cap

You know me. I am an impulse buyer. This time I was not, or at least I don't think so. This time it was a hat. Not just any hat, but a hat made out of paper. It can change shapes. It is very colorful. We got two of them for five kuai at the Great Wall. One for Julie and one for me. It is like a vase when it is not on your head. I think it is one of the best things I have bought so far!

~Zoli