Saturday, September 20, 2008

BISS Bus Bloopers

Ever since we started school at BISS, we had been taking a cab to school each morning. The reason no school bus came to our house or neighborhood was because, each year, only one or two people from our district (Haidian) went to this school. We live in a very "Chinese" area of Beijing, unlike the more Western area of Beijing (Chao Yang) where our school is located and where most of the students live. Beijing is such an immense city that it would have been pointless for a bus to pick up two people and then drive all the way back to school. This year, however, five of us now live in Haidian, which seemed to give the school reason enough to start a bus.

The first week or so of school, the nus wasn't ready because it was going to be a new addition to the system. So a new driver, ayi, and bus had to be prepared. Last week, everything finally shaped up. On Tuesday, we were told that the next day we would be able to take the bus home, but we would have to make our way to school on our own in the morning so the driver could figure out the best route. Wednesday afternoon comes, and with the ring of the bell, I am outside trying to figure out which bus I am supposed to get on. I see a small van over to the side of the other buses where two women and one man are standing with what looks like lists of some sort. I walk over, figuring this must be the new bus. One of the women introduces me to the other man and woman, who will be our driver and ayi (her job is to take care of us on our bus rides). They only speak Chinese, but I am very happy about this (extra Chinese lessons!). Once the other four bus riders join me (Z, two sisters, and one other girls), we are off to Haidian on the other side of town.

As we start off, we are going the same way as all the other cab drivers and buses take us. Eventually, we peel off to an area I don't recognize, to get to the place where the two sisters live. By now, I had already spoken to both the ayi and the driver in Chinese, and so they now assumed I was the bus translator and that I am the only one who speaks Chinese. So when the bus driver is lost, the ayi begins frantically asking me questions. Of course, not only is my Chinese, shall we say, not fluent, but I also have no idea how to get to the place where we are going. Obviously, the driver hadn't used his morning to find the route, because he had no idea where to go.

This moment was like one quick blur. First, the ayi wants me to give her directions to where the girls live. Next, I am asking them and giving the ayi the same response over and over, "They don't know where we are either." Then, I am on the phone with my dad, asking him to tell the ayi where to go. When this fails, I begin giving the ayi the directions myself, only to find out the driver got out and is asking people on the street where to go. Person after person he asks, they all point in different directions. Finally, I know where I am. We have been here before. This is the Western supermarket, right across the street from Renmin University's East gate.

No, I tell the ayi, this is the East gate. We need the West gate. More directions are asked. Te girls are on the phone with their dad, and he has managed to find an Olympic volunteer who will tell the driver where to go. These instructions don't seem to be enough, so the driver is out of the van again, asking for directions. I am still trying to face the ayi's rapid fire of Chinese when we finally reach a place the girls recognize. "They know this place," I shout to the ayi, "Continue straight."

Forty minutes of non-stop, on-the-spot Chinese practice for me, and we have finally made it to destination number one. We are now off to destination number two. The other girl on the bus knows where to go, but I am, yet again, on the spot to tell the driver where to go. This proves to be a lot easier than the first part of the drive, so I get a rest before Z and I have to figure out how to get to destination number three, our house. I am still on the phone with Daddy, and am still yapping instructions in Chinese when Z and I finally figure out where we are. We know how to get home from here, so we begin telling the driver exactly where to go. I am still not sure, but we did get home that day. I guess a little Chinese goes a long way.

After this event, the ayi loves to talk to me on the bus rides, and she loves to brag about my Chinese to the other ayis. I am still the resident bus translator, this has built a nice relationship between me and Z and the ayi. The bus is now one of my favorite parts of the day, because there is always something I need to explain to the ayi. Practice makes perfect, so I am always ready to try out my Chinese on anyone.


Friday, September 19, 2008

I Just Ate Swedish Meatballs With Chopsticks

A proud moment for me today...I made it to and from Ikea...on my own!

It's one thing when you travel as a group to feel comfortable and secure. It's another thing entirely to fly solo. Today, I decided I was ready to take to Beijing and show it who was boss. Now lest you think I'm getting a bit cocky, realize that I'm reporting after my successful trip. I'm very much aware that the title of this blog could have been, "Lost in Beijing."

Happily, it's not. And happily, I was able to find two very patient taxi drivers, who listened to my broken Chinese and dealt with my hand motions, indicating my destination on my map and my Beijing insider's guide.

I guess what I'm most excited about (not that my new Ikea treasures aren't enough of a reward) is the fact that I recognized where I was almost the entire time. I felt that I could give the driver accurate directions, at least from the fourth ring road, and that I was actually able to provide enough information to negotiate both to and fro.

Ahh, progress. Next up? There's no telling!


All Fun and No Work Make Steve...

Some of you may have noticed that there has been very little said about Peking University and the duties that brought us to China in the first place. Well, there is a very good reason for this. With Beida hosting the ping pong events and with security being the number one Olympic concern, the School of Government has not been a very lively place, to say the least.

In fact, it wasn't until last week that I was actually given the key to my office. And it wasn't until earlier this week that the books I shipped over arrived at their final destination. And, believe it or not, it wasn't until yesterday that classes at long last started. It was definitely nice to hear the voices of students echoing through the halls and to see those throngs of black-haired heads bobbing down Beida's wide streets between periods.

As for me, my class meets every Tuesday evening, so I still have a few days to go until I formally spring into action. In the meantime, I have been working on the production of an article I finished right before we left, and getting going on the first draft of an article I am supposed to present at a meeting in DC the month after next. (That all sounded very convenient when it was originally planned!)

And, yes, I do have a bathroom in my office...


Blue Sky, Gray Sky

Speaking of the Summer Palace, here are two pictures of Longevity Hill that were snapped from our balcony on two different days.

For those of you who are curious, we have had plenty of bright, blue sky days. Way more than one would expect, given all the attention paid to the air pollution issue in the run up to the Olympic Games. Over the course of a month, the weather has been way more good than bad. Every time heavy, gray air has settled in, a big storm has quickly materialized, with pleasant air close on its heels.

Just when we were beginning to scoff at the nay-saying Western media, we met a life-long Beijing resident, who had some sobering predictions for us. First off, she congratulated us for arriving in Beijing during the Olympic period. "We haven't seen such blue skies in years." These were pretty much her exact words. And then the prediction. With the end of even-odd license plate days, the gray skies can't be far behind. Sounds like our fun in the sun is coming to an end...


PS: A funny little sidebar. This driver who was taking us around town locked our backpacks in the trunk of the car (this was so they weren't on our was a small car). When we arrived at our destination, he couldn't get them out. He had no idea how the lock worked. Turns out this was because the car he was driving wasn't his. He had borrowed someone else's, so he could stay on the road. You see, it was an odd day, and his car has an even license plate.

Camp David of the Far East

Like the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument, the Summer Palace was about to become one of those close-by landmarks that people take for granted. We couldn't let that happen, so we began our love affair with this wondrous site this past weekend. While we had visited during our '04 tour, scratching the surface on that trip would be quite an overstatement.

Yiheyuan, as it is known in Chinese, was the summer retreat for the Emperor, Empress, and their court since the Jin Dynasty. At the time, it was outside of the main city. Of course, with the size of Beijing now, it has been gobbled up by the city limits.

This place, which we can see from our balcony and walk to in around 15 minutes, has many gems within, including a water body called Kunming Lake (which supposedly freezes in winter and hosts many a skater), the Long Corridor (which really is long and has 10,000 painted scenes), the infamous Marble Boat (commissioned by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who used the money she was supposed to use to fund her navy to construct this most decadent vessel).

In the midst of weeping willows, rock gardens, and paddle boats, many a day can be spent wandering through seemingly endless expanses of beauty. It is not a surprise that this was such a special place for the imperial rulers. No doubt, it will become a special place for us as well, as it has already left us looking forward to a return trip.


Playing B-Ball With Paralympians

Today at school, we were surprised in math class by being told that we would be meeting some paralympians. We went down to the track and were even more surprised when we saw the German rowing team and youth national basketball players by the basketball court.

There was a scoreboard, and our PE teacher was the ref. There was going to be a game between some BISS students and the wheelchair basketball players and one of the rowers. The PE teacher came over and picked five people to come play. Guess who was one of them? ME!!!

I went on the court and played for about five minutes before he switched us out. I did not get any shots in because I had the tall guy on me. I got the ball a few times, but I did not shoot. There were cameras filming there too, so I will probably be on TV.

After it was all over, I got autographs and a picture of one of them. I also got to eat lunch with a few of them. That was really an awesome surprise!


My Nangua Fix

As we get more adventurous with our eating, some of the picture menu items are becoming less "foreign" to us. At first, we wouldn't have ordered them if you paid us. Now, almost anything goes.

Take the last few nights. We've been frequenting the alley restaurant scene, but we've been branching out. Even tonight, we tried a couple of new dishes. My new favorite food? Pumpkin! Who would have thunk it?

It all started out with nangua tang (pumpkin soup). Then, nangua bing (pumpkin cakes). These tiny dessert rounds can be prepared in different ways. I have a favorite type, and I went to the restaurant that makes them the way I like them, and got it to go. The waitresses cracked up, since this is definitely not a Chinese take-out!

Tonight, batter-dipped, fried pumpkin. Even the Great Pumpkin would enjoy these. I'm not sure if these are exactly the same kind of pumpkin found in the Charlie Brown special. When I see them in the market, they are smaller and a deeper orange color.

As a non-pumpkin pie eater, I am pleasantly surprised to find a variety that is really tasty. I keep telling Steve that I must be craving something in pumpkin, but he isn't buying it. In any case, since access is unlimited here, pumpkin will definitely be my "food for fall."


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

This Is Our Neighborhood

Here are a couple of pictures we snapped while walking through the neighborhood the other morning. It was a good time for a photo shoot. Not a lot of people around, so we didn't feel like we were intruding on anyone's private space. (Does such a thing exist in China?) This also made it a bad time to take photos. There was no way to capture the way the alleys come to life (which happens especially in the evenings, when the chuanr is cooking and the pijiu is flowing). Maybe we can be a little more daring down the line, when we have more street cred...


PS: The top two pictures feature restaurants we often go to, while the bottom photo is of the action around a local mini-mart. Blow them up...

Listen For Me On BON TV

Today seemed like any old Wednesday. Get up, take a shower, eat, get dressed, and go out to the bus. But it wasn't.

After school today, I went to a studio to do a voice over. A voice over is when there is a video playing of someone, but not their voice. Someone else does the talking (in this case, me!).

When I came out of school today, I dropped my stuff off with Mom and Dad, and then went to tell the bus ayi that Julie and I were not coming. Then I went to find Julie. She had gone out to the bus, but the ayi told her we were waiting for her. When I found here, we went out to the gate.

At the gate, we waited for about one minute for the car to arrive. There was a woman and a guy in it. They drove us to the apartment where the studio was. The driver stayed outside when we went in.

Inside, there were two levels. One was a studio. Two guys were working at the computers. I got my lines and went into the sound-proof room. For about a half hour, we kept recording. I had to say, "But when we go to China, can I still play tennis?" And, "Do we have to go?" And, "But I want to play for the Stanford tennis team. How can China help me?" This was for a new TV station that is coming to the US. It is called BON.

I cannot wait to hear it! I also can't wait for my next one! :)


Steve and Desi's Excellent Paralympic Adventure

Over the past several days, metal blockades and police lines have been put in place on the street outside my office. Squeezing through and ducking under, I gave a moment's thought to them, but that was all I could offer. There is so much here that presents itself as a mystery. I really just have no mental space to devote to solving the small cases.

Then, this morning, at about 8:30, I noticed a change in the pattern of noises coming from the street below. Usually there is the constant roar of buses and the chatter of automated station announcements. All of a sudden, though, I began to hear the voices of real people, getting louder and louder. I looked out the window. Hmm...lots of police. buses. Hmm...the roads are completely deserted. Huh?

Then, of course, it hit me. What a dummy I've been. Today is the last days of the Paralympics. What is the last event of every Olympic meet? The men's marathon (in homage, I suppose, to the ancient history of the games). I bet that's what's going on. I'm at the Paralympics, and I didn't even know it!

Sure enough, the cops eventually restricted access to the bridge passing over the road outside my office. And then the "jia you" cheers started rising from the gathering crowd. And then a roar, as the first wheelchair athlete sped by. This scene repeated itself over and over again for the next hour or so. First, more wheelchair racers. Then different types of runners. The last groups passing by were all in pairs. At first, I had no idea why. Dummy again! These were the blind runners and their guides.

Wow! That was really cool!


So I'm meeting Steve around 10 am at Beida so we can run a few errands, and I'm ahead of schedule. Since I'm quote "into" walking a lot, I decide it would be a good day to walk from our apartment to Beida, to see how long it takes. It's 8:30, I'm thinking one and a half hours, so I get my sneakers and get ready to head out the door.

Phone rings. It's Steve. He's calling to tell me all about the hoopla out his window. Apparently, the Paralympic marathon is heading up Zhongguancun Lu, and he can see everything. Cool. I tell him I'm walking and I'll see him in a bit.

Great day to take a walk...

Since security is so high during the Paralympics, vehicles are restricted from the roads that host Olympic events. Around 15 minutes into my walk, I notice that all the traffic has stopped moving. Primarily buses, which would have been my normal transport mode, were stopped in their tracks because they have set routes. This route was off limits...for the next half hour!

As I walked, I thought of Chinas it once was...before all the buses, taxis, and cars. In front of me were tons of people walking and riding bikes. They seemed to be enjoying this break from the 683, the Special #6, and all the other monsters that jet up and down this road.

As I approached Beida, I heard cheering (jia you!) as the final two marathon runners (both blind) made their way up Zhongguancun Lu. Within minutes, the throngs who waited patiently behind police lines filled the street, hoping to walk unencumbered before the buses reentered the road.

I can only imagine what I would have been thinking if I had gotten on a bus this morning. Instead, I was delighted to catch a glimpse of the final Paralympic event and get a nice 45 minute walk in to boot.


Monday, September 15, 2008

All Moon Cakes, All the Time

One of the aspects of life abroad I've been looking forward to ever since we originally got the word from Fulbright was living through a cycle of holidays that is quite different from what we are used to in the US. I've imagined myself walking down the street to Christmas Mass while the rest of Beijing goes about its business like any other day. I've informed the kids that they will be going to school on Thanksgiving Day. And I've had all kinds of happy thoughts about the lack of over-the-top displays come Halloween season. (I would bet that CVS is just about now starting to get that infamous center aisle organized around candy and costumes...)

I was rudely awoken from my nice dream about two weeks ago, when moon cake displays began appearing everywhere, from shopping malls to alleyway markets. What are moon cakes? Moon cakes are these little round, highly decorated treats (great description, huh!?). They are filled with a variety of, uh, fillings (I'm still struggling, if you haven't noticed). Just take a look at the pictures...hopefully, they will give you a rough idea...

Moon cakes are the food that is traditionally given and (perhaps) eaten around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as the...Moon Cake Festival!). It is quite an industry, preparing and selling all of these moon cakes. In anticipation of the holiday, Peking University presented me with a box of moon cakes from the Shangri La Hotel. We were told that these are the best moon cakes in all of Beijing. Each night, we have eaten one of the little treats. (In Chinese class, Z learned about the "proper" way to cut and eat moon cakes, so he has been our leader in this regard. Of course, he doesn't eat any!) With the exception of maybe one of them, the moon cakes have been good to eat. The other one I would describe as "interesting."

The Mid-Autumn Festival forms a three-day weekend, so the kids had no school this Monday. (Makes up for missing out on Labor Day this year!) As far as we can tell, the holiday is an excuse to spend time with family and friends, eating, drinking, and of course looking up at the full moon. (We are convinced that local authorities used those cloud bursting missiles they have in their arsenal. We had this killer thunderstorm last night, and then everything was as clear as can be for tonight's moon watching.) Deep down, not really much different from many of our holidays.

Up next, a week off from school around the October 1 celebration of the birth of the People's Republic of China...