Saturday, November 08, 2008

Getting Detained?

Everyone knows that it is my greatest desire to get detained. Well, I nearly was.

It was a normal school day. Get up. Get in the shower. Eat breakfast. Get dressed. Head out to the bus.

We were in the bus, on our way to the next stop. Suddenly, our bus stops. Julie and I turn around and see a police officer walking toward our bus. The driver comes in the back and pulls out his backpack. He gets out of the car and starts talking to the police officer.

After ten minutes of conversation, writing, and pulling out papers, the ayi and the driver get back in the car. The driver was nervously laughing. Finally, we set out for the next stop.

So close! So close!!! Julie and I were almost detained!


Friday, November 07, 2008

Subtle Glimpses of China's One-Child Policy

While Steve and I were out on a date the other day, I was struck by something simple, yet very indicative of the mixing of Chinese culture and politics. We were in the gift shop associated with the cloisonne factory and I was browsing through all of the trinkets, vases, ginger jars, and...chopsticks...chopsticks decorated with beautiful enamel flowers and swirls. While these were certainly a wonderful demonstration of Chinese handicraft, what was odd to my eye was the way in which they were sets of three. So used to even numbers, twos, fours, and sixes, which is the way many things are packaged and sold back in the US, it was strange to see three pairs of chopsticks in a box. Then, of course, it dawned on is a tiny, yet very visual display of Chinese family pair for ma ma, one for ba ba, and one for xiao hair.

Later, as we headed back home on the subway, my attention was drawn to two large billboards in the station. Each one depicted a "happy" Chinese family...Mom...Dad...and child. What was compelling here was that, in both advertisements, the child shown was a daughter. Given the gender imbalance issues that are part of China's current state, the focus on girls as part of a happy family is subtle, yet apparent once you know what to look for.


China's Time-Honored Brand

A few weeks back, I stumbled upon a list of factory tours one can take here in Beijing. Jackpot! You see, Desi has a soft spot for outings like this...think Hammond's Candies in Denver.

Not only that, but four years ago, a visit to a cloisonne (spelling?) factory was a memorable little part of our whirlwind spin through the city we now call home. This was such a blast that a return trip was definitely on Desi's list. But how do you find a location that isn't mentioned in any tour book we have seen? There's certainly no "Cloisonne Factory" metro stop to make the task any easier!

Without telling Desi where we were heading, we jumped onto a bus and then two subway lines, making our way to a neighborhood that we had not yet ventured to. Walking through the streets toward our destination, I almost choked when Desi observed a bunch of tour bus and remarked there must be some sort of factory tour nearby.

It wasn't, though, until we arrived at the alleyway (yes, alleyway!) where the Beijing Enamel Factory is located that Desi knew for sure what I had cooked up for the morning. It's so funny how a place we had been to only once in the past, and only for a few minutes at that, could leave such a vivid impression on us. There was no doubt that this was the place. We could almost see ourselves stepping off the tour bus, wearing our yellow hats with red brims.

Inside, things were just as familiar...except this time we got to stroll through the factory on our terms. We spent quite a while watching one worker use her syringe to put a new coat of enamel on a piece that had been fired at least once already. Her routine was almost mesmerizing...

Squeeze the syringe while holding it in a small bowl of green enamel.

Gently squirt the enamel onto the green portions of the vase, letting the precisely designed and placed copper wires do their work as the boundaries between colors.

Place a small tissue onto the sections that have just been painted, to soak up the moisture and allow for quick drying.

Pick up the tissue and squeeze the water out onto the floor.

Outside the production area, the scene was mesmerizing in a totally different way. You see, this is the reason why so many tour groups are herded through the factory in the first emerge into a glitzy series of rooms stocked full of cloisonne pieces for sale. There are huge vases on display, but these are really there only for picture taking purposes. Most visitors, including the two of us, go for the pots, animal statues, and other little mementos that line glass case after glass case.

With all of that learning and fun under our belts, I can't wait for that trip to the Yanjing Pijiu factory...


Street Food Seasons

One of the things that I know I'll miss most about living in China (no, I'm not getting nostalgic already!) is the ability to eat on the run...literally. The street food in China abounds and, depending on the season, the choices are varied and plentiful.

Knowing that fall is upon us, I was waiting for the appearance of bai shu. That's sweet potato to you and me. I had heard that this was a popular autumn snack, so when I saw the first street vendor I was ready. Set up on his bike with some sort of 50 gallon drum with a hole in it (and most likely containing coal), he roasts these beauties perfectly. Just pick one out and he'll weigh it on his make-shift scale and charge somewhere between 3 and 5 kuai. No need for butter and salt. Just peel away some skin and take a bite of autumn.

Other current selections include chestnuts roasting in a pile of heated stones, tiny Chinese hawthorns and other fruits candied and on a stick (bing tang hu lu), an autumn fruit called shizi, which we've purchased but have not yet figured out how to eat, grilled sausages of different shapes and sizes, and steamed corn which is a holdover from the summer (vendors carry the cooked ears into tourist spots in huge bags and hordes of hungry travelers take advantage of this convenient snack!).

Can't wait to see what winter has in store!


The Search For a Chinese Tutor

Here in Beijing, it goes without saying that we are surrounded by millions and millions of native Chinese speakers. A good number of these hao pengyoumen are also fairly competent at English. So how should we narrow things down when searching for a new Mandarin tutor?

Our approach? Post an ad to the Weiming BBS, an electronic bulletin board frequented by students here at Peking University. For one thing, this approach would greatly increase the likelihood that our prospective tutor lives nearby. (Have we mentioned that Beijing is a large and congested city? Oh, we have? Bear with us as we continue to belabor this fact over and over...) Also, there's something that just feels right about putting our tutoring cash in the pocket of a student from "our" Beida. (Despite the fact that there's no basketball team, at least none that we know of, we're still getting very attached to the place. Z has already added PKU to the list of colleges he's applying to...)

Literally within minutes of posting, my GMail inbox began filling up. I would be reading one reply, and before I could get all the way through it, another response would have already arrived. All told, there were about forty applications. Now, how to choose from among the pool?

When reading through the e-mails, it was hard to not want to hire every single respondent. For starters, I admired the honesty with which so many students assessed their own English abilities.

Honestly,I am not very well in english...if you still don't have a qualified teacher, perhaps you can pick me.

I hope I can help you and your wife and the two children. But to be honest , I don't think my English is very good and I don't have any teaching experience. I would like to try my best.

And then there were plenty of descriptions of personality traits, which made these faceless (well, I did receive several photographs...) students that much more endearing.

If yor are Iooking for a experimented, easy-going, spirited and gentle lady tutor, I believe I am the person!

By the way, I'm a girl sunny and easy going.

Many applicants, naturally, have English names. And since I just received my Chinese name (which, by the way, I still can't pronounce clearly...every time I introduce myself that way, I just get puzzled looks), I am keen on checking out what names people choose for themselves when going the other way. Here are some examples...



Cecelia (no surname Girolami, though)



Joan (two, actually)



The ever-present Lily


So who did we end up hiring?

We went with experience. Here's a partial resume of our new teacher...

PKU-McGill Chinese Language Enhancement Program 2008 ; lecturer of Class 2 (elementary)

PKU Short-term Mandarin class for Japanese College Students (Waseda, Keio etc) in Spring Semester ; lecturer of Class 3 (elementary) & Class 6(intermediate)

PKU-Yale Joint Undergraduate Program ; Chinese lecturer (written Chinese and Chinese character, advanced)

"Spoken Chinese (beginning level)" in CIEE(US) language study program ; lecturer

LanguageCalls company/Tahugroup company( Hongkong) ;on-line Mandarin tutor(one-on-one)

Wish him luck!


Thursday, November 06, 2008

Then and Now, Part I

Same kid? You betcha'! Both of these photos were taken at the same spot in the Forbidden City. The first in July of 2004, the second just a few weeks ago.

As the fascination with this grating continues (its purpose eludes us), so too does the growth of Z-man.



Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Remember our theory that people prop pieces of metal, wood, and other materials against their hubcaps in order to prevent neighborhood dogs from peeing on their tires? (You can see the original photo here.) Well, I think this picture, taken at our xiao qu (apartment complex), provides all the confirmation we need...


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How Long Will It Take The Chinese To Tell An American Who Is President?

With an obvious Obama victory only hours away, representatives of both the traditional and new media are making it clear that they will not hesitate to project the winner early on election night.

Here is what CBS News is saying...

We could know Virginia at 7. We could know Indiana before 8. We could know Florida at 8. We could know Pennsylvania at 8. We could know the whole story of the election with those results.

Slate has put it somewhat more colorfully...

Our readers are not stupid, and we shouldn't engage in a weird Kabuki drama that pretends McCain could win California and thus the presidency.

What all of this means for us here in Beijing is that when we wake up Wednesday morning, it won't be long before the result begins to circulate. Now, as it turns out, Desi and I will be heading out on a date right after the kids leave for school at 7 am. We will be moving around the city right as the race is called.

So here is our little experiment. At what time will the news reach our ears that Obama has been elected president? Indeed, how long will it take the Chinese to tell these two Americans who their new leader is?

My sense is that there is much greater uncertainty over the timing of this event than over the calling of the election itself. So for those of you itching to stay up late election night, stay tuned...


Sunday, November 02, 2008

I Feel The Heat In Winter

With the arrival of November comes the thermometer dip. In Beijing right now, the lows are somewhere around the two degrees Celsius range. (Yes, Fahrenheit is a thing of our past...and future). Similar to New York and DC, the chill is on, especially in the evening. I write this as I listen to the wind whipping outside our window. Did we mention that our apartment has great feng shui?

Back in Maryland, this is the time of year I crank up the heat. Steve would often come home to find two panting dogs and wondering why there wasn't a cloud over the front door, where the cold air mass meets the hot air mass. Here, this is not an option.

In Beijing, the heat is turned on on November 15th. There is no thermostat in our apartment, so we have no control over the radiators that are present in the bedrooms and the dining room. (I haven't seen radiators since I lived in Linden in the 1970s!) So how are we doing on November 3rd?

Actually we're doing just fine...

Apparently, one of the perks of residing in a Peking University apartment complex is that they turn the heat on around two weeks early for their residents. As a result, the warm air started radiating on Friday night. (October 31st!) First, that "heat smell" permeated the room. Then, ahhh...put those long johns back in the closet.

Now, of course, the temperature in our apartment is nowhere near what I would set it at back in the US. But you'll get no complaints from me, since it is very comfortable both day and night. Whoever has their hand on the "Great Thermostat" is doing a fine job!

And that silk blanket doesn't hurt the cause, either!


PS: A note of "thanks" to Andrew for his assistance with this title!

Fall On The Wall

There we were, a few weeks removed from our last trip to the Great Wall, emerging up onto the street at the Dongzhimen long-distance bus station. Once again, as we wandered around looking for the route number, we were shadowed by an aggressive driver. We crossed the street. She crossed the street. We turned the corner. She turned the corner. After something like half an hour of this, we finally found the bus we were looking for. And I didn't even lose my temper for a second...ahh, progress!

What awaited us at the other end of the bus ride was a beautiful, windy fall day at the Mutianyu section of the Wall. It didn't take us long to remember why we had come, and to reinforce in our minds that it is all so worth it, no matter what hassles Beijing and its transportation industry might throw at us.


I Finally Lost It

Note: Whenever you take mass transit to the Great Wall, you inevitably find yourself surrounded at the bus stop by drivers trying to convince you to jump into their private car instead. This is what happened a few weeks ago, when we found ourselves trying to fend off one such salesman...

I'm ashamed to admit that, after two months of being stared at, called a waiguoren, and having people try to rip me off, I lost my temper a bit. This was not a rage of anger, or anything remotely approaching that. I just got a little peeved, against the better judgment I normally try to exercise on the streets.

Here's the scene. We were trying to take a bus to a nearby section of the Great Wall. In advance, I went to this Chinese website that listed all the stops of this particular route. It took a while, but I thought I had a pretty good handle on where to go. So we jumped in a cab and headed out to the location where I thought we needed to be.

That was where things got confusing. We couldn't find the stop we were looking for. We saw the bus we wanted, but it was speeding by without stopping. An ayi on a passing bus simply told us bu qu. "You can't get to the Wall from here."

As I as trying to figure this out, a guy came over, asking where we wanted to go. I told him. I was also suspicious of him, knowing that he was hanging out at the bus stop trying to find people, like us, who need to go places the buses won't take them.

In our case...JACKPOT! Not only are we waiguoren, but we also wanted to go far away. He made an offer of a few hundred kuai for a trip that would cost us six kuai each for a one way bus ride.

I said no, just like I've done to hundreds of hawkers. He persisted. "The bus won't take you there. Take my car." As he kept on saying this, I was trying to concentrate on reading the Chinese characters on the bus sign and getting us out of there.

My train of thought busted, my voice started to rise. Now, I really don't know how to speak forcefully in Chinese. "I know we can't get there by bus. Stop talking!"

I quickly caught myself, but felt like the damage had been done. He was just trying to pressure a person he saw as being in a weak position. I, in turn, wanted to prove that we were not so weak at all. Of course, I should have just ignored him. That would have been a much better show of strength.

After we walked away, I apologized to Desi and the kids. None of them, however, seemed fazed at all by what had just happened. Inside, though, I felt like I had let them, and myself, down.