Saturday, December 13, 2008

Our Chinese Christmas Tree

Today, we bargained at a market by our house for a Christmas tree. The price started at 100 kuai. We badgered the lady until she gave it to us for 60 kuai.

The new Christmas tree is fake. Back home, we always get real trees, so this was a first.

We lugged the parts of the tree back to the bus stop. We boarded a virtually empty one. We took the bus one stop back to our apartment. After dragging it up six flights of steps, we were home.

In the front room of our house, I put our tree together. After "foofing" it up, we had to decide on a place to put the tree. I was in charge of this, too.

After maybe an hour, we decided that the best place for it is on the table in the front room. We set it up with a red blanket over the base.

Up next, we have to decorate the tree. We don't have our lights or ornaments yet, but I guarantee those will be our next purchases.


Friday, December 12, 2008

The Bar Scene In Beijing is Weird

A couple of researchers I met in Wuhan were up here doing some work in Beijing this week. This gave us an opportunity to get everyone together for dinner at one of our favorite little alleyway restaurants. Desi and the kids were happy to have the chance to meet my "dog eatin'" buddies.

One of the guys also doubles as my "drinkin' buddy." So when Li Zhenxi suggested we go out after dinner for a few beers, I was game...except for the fact that I know absolutely nothing about night life in Beijing. No worry...Li Zhenxi took charge, and before I knew what was happening, there we were in a cab, heading to Sanlitun's bar street.

Yet again, the sequence of events that followed boggled my mind...

Upon entering the bar of Li Zhenxi's choice, we were greeted by the sight and sound of two young women and a young guy up on a stage, belting out Chinese songs, both classic and modern pop. These were not your ordinary karaoke crooners, but rather "professional" performers, trying to get the party started and, most importantly, bring in business.

When the karaoke set was finished (after a truly phenomenal number by Li Zhenxi and a regular old off-key performance by another, not me!), down came the equipment, and up onto the stage came two new "professionals," this time a male and a female both dressed in knee-high leather boots. It was only then (between sips of my 80 kuai beers...that more than 10 bucks a pop, for those of you keeping score at home) that I noticed the two poles on the stage. You may recall that, before moving to China, I posted about the pole dancing craze that is currently taking Beijing by storm (click here for the story). Well, I got to see the hype unfold in person. Kind of reminded me of an Olympics gymnastics meet, or a performance by a troupe of Chinese acrobats, complete with athletic spins and well-choreographed moves. I just couldn't disassociate the whole activity from its unsavory American context (and those leather boots were an ever-present visual in that regard).

Then there was the young woman who, seemingly out of nowhere, appeared at our table and sat down next to me. She proceeded to ask Li Zhenxi, in Chinese, if I would like to have a drink with her. My answer came rapidly and emphatically...

A little while later, as we got up to head back out into the cold Beijing night, the karaoke trio were back on stage for their next set. One of the female singers began to belt out, in heavily accented English, a song you may have heard of..."Hey Jude." Great song....absolutely crazy context...


Alright, Brogan, Bring It On!

Let the pepperoni fly!


PS: If you're wondering why I'm talking trash about pizza, I'm really talking football. You see, Rutgers will be taking its place in bowl history in a contest with those canines from North Carolina State. Yes, red will meet red when the Scarlet Knights take on the Wolfpack. Hey, it's not a fruit bowl (or even a rice bowl!), but after all those years of drought, it's nice to earn an extended season.

PPS: Thanks for filling me in, Scott! "See you" on the field at the Papa John' Bowl, December 29, at 2 pm (that's 3 am Beijing time), Birmingham, Alabama. To the loser goes the anchovies!

The Winter Palace?

One of our family goals is to see many of Beijing's tourist attractions in each season...because we can. Spending a whole year here gives us opportunities to experience the differences in the "feel" of these places, as well as the "look."

Yesterday I decided to check things out at the Summer Palace. Since it's only a 15 minute walk, it's almost a pity not to go there weekly. Since it had been a few weeks, I was not expecting much of a change, but was delighted that the place was almost unrecognizable. It was a winter wonderland!

Kunming Lake, the natural gem of this landmark, was frozen over. Not ready for skating, yet (as the guard at the water's edge will tell you), but well on its way. The surrounding trees were free of their leaves and created a beautiful, albeit stark, outline with the white smog and orange glowing sun as their backdrop.

In addition, the crowds who usually keep the palace bursting at its seams were modest at best. Those who did "brave" the elements were bundled as if they were on the frozen tundra, equipped with their warmest parkas and, in some cases, Manchurian-style hats with flaps of fur over their ears.

To walk amid this beautiful gongyuan (park) with inspirational Christmas music playing through my iPod, truly put the sparkle of the season in my mind and heart.

We'll all be heading back this weekend, no doubt!


Field Trip!

Today we went on a really fun trip. In English class, we have been studying pottery. Now, since it is the end of the unit, we took a class trip to 798, an outside art place here in Beijing.

798 is a strip of little buildings along about four streets. Each building was a gift shop. You could look at items or buy them. Our task was to find three pots or sculptures, and then describe them. Then you had to draw a picture. When you were finished, you had to write a reflection.

During our time at 798, we went to three buildings. We took pictures and bought stuff. I bought Julie and me each a Chinese zodiac plate. When we left, we went to McDonald's. Finally, we got back to school.


This Place Is For The Birds

On a walk from the Jinsong metro stop (Line 10) to the famous Panjiayuan antique market, I came across an odd sight. While parks and open spaces are well used by Zhongguoren for activities like taiji, ballroom dancing, jump roping, and story telling, what I observed was definitely in a class of its own.

At Panjiayuan gongyuan, I watched men carry covered cages containing song birds into the park, hang them from tree branches, and proceed to go and hang out with each other (the men, not the birds). I've heard of dog parks, but bird parks?


Taishan TV

When we checked into the Taishan Overseas Chinese Hotel, there was no doubt that we would be requesting a room facing the main drag. With curtains pulled open, we returned to the big screen that is "TSTV."

On our last trip, we spent hours looking out the window, just watching life go by. People "doing their thing" in this bustling town. We'd take a peek in the morning, afternoon, night, and even late night. From the third floor, we could see everything...including the "cigarette lady" who set up her stand at 10 pm every single night and the "food guy" whose treats we failed to sample until our very last night (definitely our loss!).

This time, while differences in "programming" were inevitable the "picture quality" was as fine as we remembered. And even though we had only a little more than 24 hours in this place, we somehow found a way to catch a glimpse of the quiet morning, the busy afternoon, the wild night, and the peaceful late night (after 2 am, that is).

Now this is what we call reality TV...


Monday, December 08, 2008

Main Street, Taishan

Walking down the main shopping street of Taishan, you would never get the idea that boosting domestic consumption is the next big economic challenge the Chinese government has to confront. People everywhere. Music blaring from speakers. Bright lights. Sure, some of the spending is at the "2 Yuan" store (China's answer to the dollar store). But there also appears to be continual action at the stall where plasma TVs are sold.

The main promenade itself is quite a sight to behold. Stone patterned streets, a nice contrast to the badly-poured concrete of much of the rest of town. Refurbished building facades, a nice contrast to the crumbly-looking faces found above store fronts in other neighborhoods.

As for us, we spent hours walking up and down the street, basically following Julie from store to store. She tried on some shoes...No luck. Thirty-nines were the largest size, and Julie wears something like a forty-two. She looked at some scarves. At 50-60 kuai a piece, tai gui le (too expensive). Wallets. Hair stuff. Not unique enough. Nothing really stood out.

In the meantime, I came across a most unusual scene. Right in the middle of the street, there was a Christian church. Stepping in to have a peak, I stumbled into a chapel full of people, all rehearsing Christmas carols. Before I knew what was happening, I was cleared a space in a pew, given a hymnal, and doing my best to join in on Chinese versions of songs like "Silent Night."

Right outside, the night was anything but silent. Strolling back out into the street, I was once again engulfed by the crowd, thankful to be along for the ride...


This Is Their Neighborhood

Just a few steps away from the central shopping district of Taishan, you can find yourself face to face with a small herd of water buffalo grazing along the river bank. Actually, there's a whole community down there, oblivious (at least in appearance) to the constant game of chicken going on mere yards away on the streets of Taishan.

There are the people, living on boats that look, to the uneducated eye, like they could sink at any moment. Obviously, we know very little about such things, as we recognized some of the water homes, essentially unchanged from the last time we saw them four years ago.

There are the animals. Right now, two litters of puppies are being raised at the water's edge, under the protective instincts of their mothers. We saw some chickens get a little too close to the fur balls. That's a mistake they presumably won't make again!

There are the crops. Lots of fall cabbages and other greenish vegetables being grown in small plots.

As we gazed out at these places and scenes, I know I kept thinking, "This is their Matey Road." I know this is not a profound thought. It is not meant to be. Just a simple reminder that even the most exotic looking places can be "no place like home..."


Real-Life Frogger

Go Z, go!



Although there are a few buses and taxis in Taishan, the most common form of "mass transit" in this small town is the motoche. Everywhere you go, from the bus station to busy street corners in the shopping district, you'll see middle-aged men idling on motorbikes. Are they bored? Are they fascinated by all of the passing traffic?

No and no. For a few kuai, you can hire these guys to take you wherever you want to go (we have pretty much walked from one end of Taishan to the other). You just jump onto the seat behind the shifu. Then you put on the second helmet he keeps on hand. (Notice I didn't say "strap" on. Although everyone in Taishan wears helmets, almost no one actually buckles them under their chins.) As Desi put it, it is the "used" helmet aspect of motoche that makes the whole thing a non-starter for her. Let's put it this way...We've never seen a driver disinfecting his helmet between customers.

Actually, there is one group of Taishan residents who you never see wearing helmets...children. It is a common sight to see little ones standing in front of, or sitting behind, their driving parent. As you watch these bikes whiz by, you can't help but wonder (if you're me, anyway) what combination of law, enforcement, economics, and culture has produced this combination of professional shifu, rotating helmets, and children with their black hair blowing in the wind.


My Quads Are Hurtin'!

Yes, that's what a good hour or two of crouching down in a defensive position will do to you, especially when you haven't played a competitive game of hoops since probably the last time you were in Taishan.

Once again, Z and I plied the marketplace for a four dollar basketball and headed to Taishan's central park. Before too long, this guy who is a bit too old, and his son who is a bit too young, were in the midst of a game with some Kobe Bryant-admiring Chinese teenagers.

There were the customary "oohs" and "ahhs" from the gathered crowd every time the waiguoren made a nice basket. And there were a series of aspiring hoopsters who wanted to match up with the tall, sometimes physical player from the land of David Stern.

As they shuttled in and out of the game, I wanted to remind them that I am more than twice their age. But I resisted the temptation and played hard until the last shot fell through the rim (there are no nets in public parks like this).

As we walked away, one particularly enthusiastic player came running up and asked if we'd be back next Saturday. Unfortunately, no...but we plan on swinging by next February. If my quads have recovered by then, that is...


My New Haircut

I have put it off for weeks, but today I was cornered!

We were walking in an alley in (台山) Taishan. We just came out of an old market, one that we went into in 二00四 (2004). We were looking for a good bakery. On the other side of the road, we saw some guys in a barber shop. They started yelling to us. They wanted me to get my hair cut. Dad finally convinced me to head over. We went across the street and into the shop.

There I was, surrounded by a group of guys. The guy who had the wackiest hair looked like the laoban (boss). He did my cut.

The laoban sat me down in a chair, put a towel and one of those tarp things on me, and began.

He did a gemenr (dude) cut. Flame-like edges on the back of my head, short sides, and good "spiking" hair on top. He spiked it by taking a hair dryer and putting the back part on clumps of hair, to actually pull the hair into the dryer. He hair sprayed and finished drying it. It is the first "whole head spike" hair cut that I have ever had!


PS: I did not like it at first, but now I love it!

Missing Lisa and Peter

Spending time in "Kang Kountry" without the Kangs was definitely a different experience for all of us. In '04, though, they taught us well that we were able to negotiate our way around town and feel truly comfortable during our time in Taishan. We thought of them often and retraced many of the paths we shared with them. We found ourselves saying things like, Remember when Lisa said this? Remember when Peter did that? We reminisced about our adventures with Qi and her family and friends, and fondly remembered places like the spot where we saw Agong getting his hair cut. To see him on his own turf was a very happy and moving experience.

Considering that none of them live in Taishan anymore, we discussed the choices they had to make in leaving the comfort and security of their homeland for the opportunities of the US. Our biggest hope for them is that their reward is as great as the sacrifice they made to do so.


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Old Taishan, New Taishan

It was obvious to us that Beijing 2008 was going to be very different from the city we experienced four years ago. The Bird's Nest. The Water Cube. Blue sky days. The list could go on and on, thanks, of course, to the Olympics.

But what about average, everyday China? What about an out-of-the-way place like Taishan? Would it be like stepping into a time warp? Or would the place be unrecognizable to us?

The overall answer? Taishan today is very much like the Taishan of 2004. We'll be hitting the highlights in other posts...busy streets filled with motorbikes, dim sum twice a day, the river, the main pedestrian shopping mall.

Speaking of shopping, the most visibly striking change in Taishan has been the addition of two huge plazas, right in the center of town, taking the place of an old amusement park and an equally downtrodden movie theater. A definite plus for the good people of Taishan.

On the minus side, we were disappointed, although not at all surprised, to find that Cloud Nine, our favorite place to sip gongfu cha, did not stand the test of time. Luckily, right across the street, is a restaurant that essentially replicates the Cloud Nine experience. No need to be oolong-deprived!

One thing, however, you cannot replicate is people. And here is where Taishan has, quite naturally, changed the most. The Kangs were not with us in Taishan. Xiao Ming and family have moved to San Francisco. Lili lives in New York City. Others we met in '04 now call Ohio their home. It was funny for us four wayward Americans to spend a few days bumming around this great little town while so many its former residents now live and work on the other side of the world. For us, weirdly enough, the best way to see our favorite Taishanren is not to spend a year in China, but to go on another one of our cross-country trips...