Saturday, October 11, 2008

This Is What's In My Wallet At the Moment

China is, of course, much more of a cash driven society than the United States. This in some way makes daily transactions on the street seem more fun and meaningful. You give me some youtiao and assorted other breakfast delights, and I'll give you a couple of kuai. (No, this isn't another "everything is so cheap in China" posts...) For lack of a better way of describing it, there's this sense of relationship that comes out of the passing back and forth of little chunks of money.

But then there are those times when all of this cash can be a hassle or make for some funny exchanges. Like whenever we buy train or plane tickets from this travel agent. We tell them where we want to go, when we want to go, and how we want to go. They then tell us how much all of this will approximately cost. (Why they just can't give us the exact dollar amount still escapes me.) And they tell us they will be delivering the paper tickets to, say, my office...the next day. (Which is usually like the day before we are traveling...It's that "things happen in real time" phenomenon again...)

Now, altogether, our travel to and from Shanghai, Xi'an, or wherever will end up costing us several thousand kuai. What this means is that I need to have a wad of cash that is big enough to pay the bill. This can happen in one of two ways. I can go the the ATM and take money out of our account back home...but there are limits to how much and how often this can be done. Or I can go grab the money out of our Chinese bank account.

Either way, I end up walking away with this thick stack of cash. You see, the biggest denomination of money here in China is the 100 kuai note. This is like no more than 15 bucks. Imagine paying for plane tickets with ten dollar bills!

With all of this cash flying around, people who work at banks, travel agencies, and other places where big transactions take place have developed this expertise in counting bills really, really quickly. Here I am...100...200...300... By the time I get that far, they have rifled through a stack of hundreds of bills. Plus, they have these little machines that can count the precise number of notes in a large stack in something like two seconds flat. I suppose these are the kinds of machines that we have back home inside ATM machines. The difference here is that these devices are on desktops in stores all over the place.

By the way, guess who's picture is on the 100 kuai note? Chairman Mao...

How about the 50? Chairman Mao...

The 20? Uh, Chairman Mao...

The 10? Yep, you guessed it...

The 5? You've picked up on the pattern by now, haven't you?

The 1? Hey, if you don't believe me, just blow up the picture...

~Steve

Cars

I've been getting increasingly fascinated by the phenomenon of cars here in Beijing. There's that well reported statistic that something like 1,000 new cars are being added to Beijing's roads every day. (I think I have that right...)

This, in combination with the ridiculous size of the city, makes for some really interesting logistical experiences. Like Friday night, when we hired a driver (first time doing that on our own...a fun negotiation!) to bring us home from Yabao Lu, where we were eating our favorite Uighur food. An hour and a half later (plus me smoking another cigarette while bonding with the shifu, plus a number of "how did he thread that needle?" moments), we were back at Yan Bei Yuan, safe and sound (maybe a few minutes taken off our lives...).

Then there is the issue of how the government is responding to all of this traffic, pollution, and other car-induced problems. There was the well documented "even-odd" license plate restriction that the city imposed during the Olympic period. This apparently worked so well in making the skies a little bluer and the traffic a little lighter that a reprise is on the way. Beginning this week, and lasting for six months, this is what will happen...on Mondays, cars with license plates ending in 1 and 6 will not be allowed on the roads. On Tuesdays, it's 2s and 7s, Wednesdays 3s and 8s, and so on. (I'm betting that there's not much reporting of this in the West, now that the Games are long gone...) This plan is supposed to speed the average trip by something like 8-9 percent. We'll see...the kids' bus ride is usually our best gauge of things like this.

Then there are problems that occur, shall we say, more "on the ground." These are issues that are not dealt with by government officials, but by everyday people. For example, where do you park your car when you are going to this little shop or market that was built with pedestrian, not car, traffic in mind? Answer...I don't think we've seen a sidewalk without parked cars on it since we've arrived! Actually, I don't think we've walked on a sidewalk since we've arrived...that's what streets are for!

This influx of cars into a society designed for foot and bicycle traffic has led to the construction of all kinds of barriers. Barriers that prevent cars from driving into parks, barriers that prevent cars from going the opposite way down a street...basically barriers to stop drivers from going places that they definitely would go if they weren't physically prevented.

And where to park all of these vehicles? No assigned parking spaces in our apartment complex, that's for sure! It's pretty much a free for all, like the rest of the car experience here in Beijing. Pretty much the only thing that puts a halt to this "state of nature?"...more barriers! In fact, that's what I think these little devices in the picture are for...I'm thinking about bringing a couple of them home to stop people from parking in front of our house while we're out. (If we remember how to drive, that is...)

~Steve

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Grape Garden?

We were at Mass, in Chinese, the other day at Xuanwenmen Cathedral. (Just to reiterate Desi's earlier point...lots of early arrivals and lots of loud singing.) We had not taken a look at the readings ahead of time in English, so we were flying blind, so to speak.

The Gospel kept mentioning the phrase 葡萄园。 The term is putaoyuan, which translated literally is "grape garden." The priest, too, during his homily, kept talking about 葡萄园。

So, while all of this was going on, I was puzzling over what garden might be known in Chinese as "grape garden." I was thinking of some actual place. Can't be the Garden of Eden, can it? Gethsemane?

It was only, days later, when I was reading Fr. Greg's homily on his blog, that I finally got it...it's a vineyard!

Oh, the joys of language learning!

~Steve

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

In Case You Were Wondering...

...this is what scraping and cupping looks like five days later...

~Steve

IKEA Update

With winter upon us (see previous blog for more info), today was the day to venture back to IKEA to purchase some nice, thick blankets and a few other comfort items. Actually, although the days are really nice right now, the nights do get a little chilly. Our apartment, which is known for its great feng shui, will not be heated for several weeks so the breeze that we enjoy so much on a warm day sends the thermometer down a couple of degrees more than we'd like on the cooler days.

Now that I'm so much more comfortable with the layout of several areas of Beijing, I'm a bit more confident when I hail a taxi. Knowing the general direction of IKEA, I can offer the shifu a few tidbits of information to assist him...well kind of. In this morning's episode, we got to the main district (Chaoyang) on the 4th Ring Road when I spotted Taiyang Gonglu on a sign. I motioned to the driver to exit but he turned a bit too soon. I could see the big blue building off to the right but we were heading a bit off course. Quickly, I asked him to pull over and "told" him that where we were was fine. But when I went to pay him the 41 kuai with a 100 kuai bill, there was a problem...he didn't have enough change.

Never a dull moment.

Without missing a beat, the shifu motions to the right..."a bank." He says "hello" to me (I guess this was his way of asking me to get out of the taxi and follow him to the bank), and we walk to the ICBC. He has a quick argument with some guys who are apparently guarding the parking lot (they didn't like where he "parked"), and we head in. He goes to the teller, gets some smaller bills, gives me my change, and we part. This leaves me with a couple of blocks to walk...good exercise before I get ready to shop and dine on some of Sweden's finest.

I love it here! Even the process is exciting!

~Desi

Yesterday I got "yelled" at...

...by an elderly lady who was not happy with my leg exposure. No, I was not trying to cause an international incident. I was comfortably dressed in a sweatshirt and athletic capris. Apparently, since the afternoon temperature now dips into the lower 60's, wool pants, fleece hats, and down vests need to be worn. (Perhaps to protect my yang from too much yin). I politely explained to her in "broken" Chinese that I know it is getting colder but that I was close to home. She gave a shiver, smiled, and went on her way.

After explaining this to Steve and warning him against his usual "shorts through the seasons" approach, he decided to keep his tradition and throw the neighborhood into an uproar. C'mon, Steve, what will the neighbors think, you crazy Meiguoren?!

~Desi

Monday, October 06, 2008

Things Are Starting to Heat Up

All of a sudden, my barren professional schedule has filled in considerably. But that's the way things tend to happen here...all of a sudden.

Just today, I received an invitation from my home department, the School of Government at Peking University. The school is hosting the Third Global Public Policy Network Conference...in two weeks! I'm chuckling as I receive e-mails about American political science conferences that are taking place six months from now. ("Deadline Extended!") Luckily, this is one event where I can sit back and listen to others "speechify." Or at least that's what I think is going on.

But before then, I have work to do of my own. Just yesterday, I was invited to give a lecture...next week! (Are you picking up on the theme of this post?) Here's the e-mail...

On behalf of Central University of Nationalities, I am very pleased to have the honor of inviting you to deliver a lecture at our university as part of the Fulbright Guest Lecture Program. We would like you to speak on "The 2008 U.S. Presidential Election and transition to a new administration".

We would like to arrange the lecture for October 15, 2008 at 7:00 p.m. We are expecting an audience of approximately 100 undergraduate, graduate students and faculty from the English Department of School of Foreign Languages and of course this lecture information will be spread throughout the whole university and audience may come from various schools and departments.

We will provide transport between Peking University and Central University of Nationalities. Please let us know if you will require any audio-visual equipment or additional technological support.

Please feel free to ask me if there is anything unclear to you. I look forward to meeting you at CUN.

Nothing unclear about that!

Other upcoming destinations?

(1) Shanghai Jiao Tong University. On October 23-24, I will be presenting a paper at a conference in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Reform and Opening here in China. (Look it up...) My paper topic? Regulatory review in the United States. The connection? It's a government reform that has happened in the past 30 years. Got it?

(2) Tongji University. As soon as I am done at Shanghai Jiao Tong, I move over to another leading school in China's biggest city. On October 27, I get to deliver a lecture on the presidential election. Hopefully, not much will have changed since the speech I gave twelve days earlier!

(3) In late November, it's off to Wuhan, an inland city located on the Yangtze River. Still talking about the presidential election. But since the election is over by now, I need to come up with some new material. Cabinet selection...stuff like that. And the big temptation? Fly into Chongqing and take a boat down the river to Wuhan, past the Three Gorges. Oh, and past that big dam that was recently built...

(4) In December, it's time to fly south, to sub-tropical Guangzhou. No idea yet about the topic, but hey, there's plenty of work to do between now and then.

And I haven't yet mentioned the paper I was supposed to circulate to a group of international researchers on October 1. When that deadline passed, I had written the introduction...

~Steve

Enjoying the Diversity of Chinese Culinary Delights

Back in the US, probably the most common type of Chinese food is Cantonese (from Guangdong Province). Once in while, you can find a good Szechuan (actually, Sichuan) or Hunan establishment, but unless you really do your homework, that's where it ends.

In China, though, that's not the case at all. With twenty-something provinces, regional cooking is fairly easy to come by. A new addition to our repertoire occurred on Saturday, around lunch time. While most of you were sleeping, we were braving a rainy, chilly Beijing afternoon, chowing down on some Yunnan vittles at a restaurant called Cai Yunjian.

Found in the Southwest of China, the cooking that emerges from Yunnan is a delicious combination of familiar foods, including potatoes, rice, noodles, and chicken. Our particular favorites were the pineapple rice (served in a fresh pineapple), potato balls (basically, small rounds of mashed potatoes, deep fried...even Z liked these!), clay pot chicken (the broth was incredible!), and "crossing the bridge" noodles (a soup and noodle dish prepared table-side by our fuwuyuan).

This restaurant was a great place to spend a lazy Saturday, sipping tea and eating Chinese comfort food. Hey guys, I hear this Thursday is supposed to be lazy, too. Any takers?

~Desi

And They're Paving a Stairway to the Mountain Top

For weeks, we've been staring out from our balcony at the mountains in the distance, talking about how one day soon we would get out there and hike to a summit. So there we were, finally, at the entrance to Fragrant Hills Park, just a short bus ride from our home, ready to go for it.

Walking inside the park (after paying the admission fee...death, taxes, admission fees in China), we were immediately impressed. Nice landscaping. Beautiful walkways. A park that was up to what you might call "Western standard."

And then we started the ascent. A huge difference between being outdoors in China versus in the US? In America, we hike on dirt trails. Here in China, it's concrete, stones, and stairs the whole way. All of that pavement makes it somehow feel like it's not "real" hiking. (Or maybe it's all of those women in high heels speeding by...)

Frankly, though, man-made pathways can be more taxing to the body than off-road hiking, especially on a wet day. (It had rained that morning.) Just ask my coccyx. Climbing down a particularly steep section, my feet slid out from under me and I fell flat onto the stairs. Trust me...that hurt like a thousand times more than any TCM treatment, both at the moment and after the fact.

Aside from the pain, I'm afraid that the whole "pave the mountain" mentality is something I will grudgingly tolerate, but never come to appreciate. For me, it seems to feed into this mentality of speeding up to the top, taking your photos, and heading right back down the freeway. Or maybe it's just that you are constantly surrounded by thousands (or more) of your closest friends, which makes it easy to get sucked into the "race" that's implicitly going on.

Lesson for next time? (We'll definitely be back.) Just do what you always try to do...slow down and enjoy the process...and be careful going down the stairs!

~Steve

Buying Clothes

No matter where in the world I am, shopping is fun. It doesn't matter if I am in Kohl's, Limited Too, or Target. But shopping for clothes in China is just as fun, and maybe even better!

One of my first purchases in Beijing was at the Alien Street Market. On the second floor of the store, they have an entire section for clothes. Walking up and down rows and rows of vendors, I kept seeing this beautiful red jacket. I just had to have it. I tried it on and it was mine. The price...125 yuan...around 20 US dollars. (After bargaining...)

After that, my next purchase was a white hat. A market next to the Beijing Zoo was where I found it. After a few minutes of bargaining, the price was cut in half (to about 6 US dollars).

In Xi'an, walking down the street in the Muslim Quarter, I came upon another jacket. This one was orange with big silver buttons. Mommy and I both loved it, so I bought it for 5 US dollars.

Out of all the clothes I have bought, one of my favorites so far is a t-shirt that was 90 yuan (15 US dollars). It is red with white letters that say "China Chick." Between this shirt and the Chinese style jeans and pants I bought, I am starting to feel like a real China girl.

Shopping in China is just as fun as shopping in the US, but it has the added fun of bargaining. I love living here, and shopping is one of my favorite added bonuses.

~Julie