Saturday, October 04, 2008

I Can't Believe He Did That!?

I am sure you all have already heard about the perspectives of Mom and Dad. Well, yes, now you get to hear from me! The topic? Fire cupping! My perspective is a little different from the others. I can't believe he did that!

I thought he was joking, but he went in and took his shirt off! So the guy told him to lie face down on the bed. He convinced Dad to also do scraping. He started out by massaging Dad. Then he got out some kind of horn and was scraping his back. It looked like a bunch of hickeys. Then he lit the flame and put the cups on. It looked so cool! Finally, he took them off and there were circles all down his back. It looked so cool!

Well, Dad...what's next!?


My Op-Ed Piece

I signed on for the fire cupping. I wasn't sure of the purpose (and I'm still not), but it looked innocuous enough...a couple of higher-order hickeys.

When the guy got out the animal horn and started scraping, the line was crossed. It's difficult to express how upset I was, except to say that I was very unhappy with the procedure that was being "performed" on Steve and was not quiet about it. (I'm sure the other practitioners in the place were wondering what my problem was.) My main concern was the breaking of the skin and the chance of infection. Would we be spending the evening in a Beijing hospital?

Don't get me wrong, I'm very excited about experiencing Chinese culture. TCM has piqued my interest too, but this experience was over the top for me. While, in the end, there was no broken skin and no residual pain of any type (it looks much worse than it feels), I still cannot look at Steve's back without cringing.

I'll stick to the foot massage, thank you very much.


Scraping and Cupping

A few weeks ago, Desi and I were strolling through this upscale hutong. I spotted a place where they practice TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). It looked clean and well kept among all the gentrification. So, I figured, when we come back with the kids, I might go for some fire cupping. This is a procedure we've seen done on TV. My curiosity had been piqued...

So there I was, laying face down on this table. After an opening massage/diagnosis (as you can tell, I know nothing about TCM and was in it for the cultural experience rather than the healing), the practitioner (what do you call a person who performs TCM?) convinced me that I should get scraping done as well. Actually, there was a whole list of procedures he recommended, but I held the line at that.

Scraping involved this animal horn being roughly moved up and down my back. I don't have much to say about it other than, yeah, it kinda hurt.

Then we moved on to the much anticipated fire cupping. How to describe it? You take these round glass containers. You hold them right above the patient's back. You stick a fire into the cups, and then quickly suction them onto the patient's back. You leave the cups there for a few minutes, before popping them off. The dominant feeling? Not heat, but a pulling sort of pressure. It's mildly uncomfortable, is how I'd put it.

I'm sure Desi will have more to say about the whole experience...


Friday, October 03, 2008

Play Balla Blog "Jeopardy!"

Answer: So the neighborhood dogs don't pee on their hubcaps.

The question?


Green Guy Update

New places that the Green Guy has been...

The Terra Cotta Warriors.

The old city wall of Xi'an.

The Summer Palace.

The Forbidden City.


The Sting of the Scorpion

Four years ago, our Beijing tour guide took us to this night market where they sell all kinds of street food. As newbie westerners, the vendors all tried to ply us with some pretty tame foods, like lamb, pork, and chicken skewers. (These are made in the Beijing style, which is very different and not nearly as good as the Xinjiang style that we love so much.)

While all of this was going on, all of the Chinese around us were eating foods that are, shall we say, a bit more exotic. Starfish. Silkworms. Squid. Cicadas. Sheep penis. It turns out that all of these foods (and more!) can be placed on a skewer and dropped into a boiling vat of oil.

At the time, we were appalled. It looked disgusting. It smelled disgusting. Lisa, in fact, started heaving in this one particularly heinous place. (Hi, Lisa!)

Fast forward four years. We have been raring to get back to the night market, this time to dip our toes into the culinary possibilities. And so we ate our way from one end of the market to the other. Pot stickers. Roasted corn on the cob. Pumpkin cakes. (You know Desi couldn't pass that one up.) Muslim baked bread. Candied apples and strawberries on a stick. A nice nosh session.

And, then, there I was. Looking at the cicadas and the silkworms. What do they taste like and feel like in your mouth? Could I eat them without barfing?

Eventually, the boys convinced me that the scorpions on a stick would be a better choice. I insisted that I needed someone to go buy a drink before I actually ate one. But then, in the meantime, I decided I'd better act before I chickened out. All of a sudden, there it was, a skewer of three scorpions in my hand. Sniff, sniff, sniff. It doesn't smell so bad. You know what...I can't wait for a drink. So grab a little creature in my teeth, slide it down the stick, and dig in. Hmm... not so bad. Before long, pretty much everyone else in the group had grabbed a small piece. Julie's take? "Tastes like paper."

Maybe it'll be sea horse next time...


Your Beijing Hosts

While we stayed put during this past Golden Week, other Fulbrighters took to the air, rails, and road. Some of our fellow Beijingren went on a Yangtze River cruise. That left us "back home" to welcome visitors from Xiamen and Nanjing, two other cities where Fulbright families are stationed. This turned out to be an absolute blast.

Although we've only been here a month and a half (Wow! Has it been that long already!?), we have some routines that we were very happy to share with out of town travelers. A familiar pattern emerged. Family decides to go to the Summer Palace. Either on the way in or the way out, family meets up with the Ballas for some chow at one of our little alleyway restaurants. We all crowd into a private dining room (these are ubiquitous in China). We all share "war" stories.

It's funny. Although we are all having our own unique experiences, there are some common patterns. I've been pretty mystified at the slow start at Beida. Turns out, though, my trajectory is not off the charts. Others are, to varying degrees, having difficulties along the way as they try to get established in their new professional homes. We were told that it might not be easy to make this happen, and it was soothing to hear that I'm not alone in this regard. A good recharging of the batteries, you might say.

But back to the food. Last night, we went across town to meet up with Jim, Irene, and Marcus and head to our favorite little Xinjiang restaurant. The dan pan ji was delicious as always. But it was the ji rou chuanr (chicken kebabs) that were the real highlight of the meal. We ordered fifteen skewers when the boys indicated they both wanted to eat some serious chicken. Turns out, fifteen was not nearly enough. We placed a second order for ten more (yes, that's 25 skewers altogether!). Between Marcus and Z alone, I think they polished off something like seventeen kebabs.

As we sauntered back to the subway after dinner, in no hurry to part company, I realized I had seen a fellow Fulbrighter every day this past week. I also realized that we have constructed new lives here, new lives that we are really happy to share with others. Treat that as an open invitation...


A Sea of Black Heads

Over the course of this past week, tens of millions (more?) of Chinese have traveled around the country. The days around National Day comprise one of China's "Golden Weeks." These are extended vacations where many workplaces shut down, not unlike the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

This year, as always, Beijing is a popular destination. Actually, it's probably more popular than ever before. Tourists have flocked to our new hometown, many wanting to see, of course, major sites like Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. (Living so close to the Summer Palace, an A-list attraction, has caused the local bus system to essentially break down under the strain of so many tour buses added to the already congested roads. Ask Desi and the kids. While I worked quietly in my office, they contended with scenes of drivers turning off their buses, getting out, and hanging out in the "parking lot" with their fellow shifus.)

In addition to these familiar scenes, new patterns have emerged this year, in particular Olympic inspired tourism. The Games produced such an outburst of pride here in China that many people have organized their first post-Olympic vacations around seeing and walking through the venues. Tickets to go inside the Bird's Nest and Water Cube were very hot properties, apparently going for serious cash out on the streets. (To my chagrin, the Water Cube is being used to house some "Music, Water Spectacular." No doubt, people will love it...)

On National Day itself, we decided to head down to Tiananmen and watch the soldiers take down the flag. (A big event even under normal circumstances.) Emerging out on to Chang'an Da Jie, we realized that we were not the only ones to have the idea! (In fact, we found out, some folks had spent the night sleeping in the Square so as to get good spots. Beats paying for a hotel, I guess...)

Desi's response to all of this madness? "Remind me, at the next Golden Week, to go grocery shopping and not leave the apartment!"

Hey, at least we didn't actually try to travel...


Monday, September 29, 2008

You Can't Just Jump in the Minivan

So, we need to go food shopping. Mother Hubbard's cupboard is bare after a few days away in Xi'an. Back in Maryland, we jump in the car, head to Giant or Shopper's Food Warehouse and load up.

Give up driving for a year and all of this changes. Shopping is a planned which requires timing and selectivity (after all, there's some walking and a crowded bus ride to contend with). Do you need some necessities from the Merry Mart on the 332, or will it be some niceties from the Western market at Modern Plaza?

Today, the need for Barilla pasta won out, and it was off to the bus stop to wait for the 683. Armed with our four recyclable blue Ikea bags, we ventured to the basement of a mall whose parking attendants wear cowboy hats. (?)

Here, we loaded up on pastas, which we cook up when we're just too tired to go out, some milk (imported from France...yes, we've heard...), microwave popcorn, and our biggest score, mozzarella cheese (from the US). Given the prices on these imported products, we head to this Western market around once every three weeks. For the most part, we're enjoying the treats that China has to offer, but once in a while, that farfalle comes in handy.

In all, it's a lot of fun to look at all the different types of products found at both the Chinese and Western markets. It's interesting to see the variety of tastes across the cultures. We do choose new things to try each time we go, but not too many at a time...remember, we do have to carry it all home!



As the season changes from summer to fall, one of the major differences between going to a place for vacation and living there has become relevant for us...the temperature changes. A few days before our Xi'an trip, we started to notice the change. We had gone to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner one normal summer night, but by the time we left the restaurant, there was a cool breeze and Z and I we're both shivering. It was also pretty cold in Xi'an, even though it is further south than Beijing, because it rained and there was a cold wind.

Now I am wearing pants and a jacket and enjoying the complete change from summer to fall. Living in China is completely changing my hot and smoggy view of the weather here. It will be really amazing when the first snow comes along!


Our First "Treatment"

Remember my foreign expert card? This is the credential that promises me access to all of the "conveniences and treatments for foreign experts provided by the government of the People's Republic of China." Well, the other night, the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs made good on its promise.

It was definitely a "treatment." (Not very convenient, though, as you'll see.) The four of us were invited to a concert by the China Philharmonic. The occasion? A celebration of National Day. (What, you didn't know the People's Republic was founded on October 1? You knew the year, though...right?)

We met up with a bunch of other foreign experts from Peking University. (Desi talked with a nice woman who is teaching English.) The school's luxury bus had a seemingly simple mission...get us over to Century Theater in an hour and a half. This concert hall is not that much farther than Julie and Z's school. Plus, it was Sunday evening. (Oops...falling into Western thinking again. Haven't we told you that there really is no sense of weekend here. I mean in the sense of noticeable differences in traffic patterns and flows of people. All the days kinda just lump together.)

Well, there we were, an hour and half later, basically sprinting to our seats to make it in time for the beginning of the performance. As for the concert itself...very nice. We left wondering if China has any better to offer. (A similar feeling to when we left the Shanghai Museum. Is this really the best?)

Hopefully, we will get to find out...when those other treatments (hopefully, this time with conveniences attached) come rolling in...


PS: 1949.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Yesterday, we went to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an. We took the bus to it. The weather was not the best. was bad! Cold and pouring rain! But "toughness" runs in the Balla blood. :) We got there through it all.

Dad heard of a cool fountain show. It went on every two hours right outside the pagoda. It was almost time for one, so we waited. When it started, I decided to go down into the middle of it like some other people. Julie came too. We stood on one of the platforms that separates each pool. We stood there and pretended to be the water and make the movements it made.

I had a GREAT time! I thought it was very cool.