Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Update On Z's Eating

We have been telling everyone that Z has been, if anything, eating better here in China than back home. He has continued eating the few fruits and vegetables that he likes. In fact, he thinks the huluobo (carrots) taste better here than in the US (no jokes about "night soil," please).

Also, we finally settled on a milk that Z will drink on a daily basis. (Desi even picked up some powder, so I...yes, I...can make some strawberry milk for myself.)

And then there is the sheer variety of ways in which chicken comes prepared here in Beijing and beyond. As has already been noted, Z has turned into a real chuanr fanatic, often pushing us to go to Xinjiang restaurants near and far, so he can grab a dozen or so skewers.

Z has always loved ripping a good piece of white meat off the bone (nothing like a good quarter chicken white at La Brasa, right Z?), which has served him well here in a land where boneless breasts are an "exotic" cuisine. It's just the accompanying pieces that we have not yet been able to convince him to give a try...

~Steve

And We Don't Even Own A Cat!

For a moment there, Desi and I were kind of wondering about our Chinese teacher.

It all had to do with a simple little word...pai (sounds like "pie"). This single syllable led Desi and I to two very different places...one mystifying, the other downright disturbing. But it all had a humorous ending. The joke, it turns out, was on us...yet again!

Now, I should begin by saying that our Chinese lessons have been going fantastically well. Yanke is a downright first-rate teacher. He came in that first day and assessed the heck out of me. By the end of an hour, I felt really humbled about my ability to speak, read, and comprehend Mandarin. And three times a week, he really puts us through our paces...right Desi? From vocabulary to grammar to ancient Chinese stories, our sessions run the gamut...and all have proven useful in some way. Just today we were out in the marketplace, bargaining over winter boots. I could have managed the transaction BY (before Yanke). But there were definitely some phrases the seller used that I have picked up recently. (Including when she started mumbling under her breath about how we were ticking her off. I think she was really just acting...We probably overpaid...My guess is that she and her family are right now having a nice dinner out courtesy of the waiguoren.)

At the end of every lesson, Yanke e-mails us 10-20 Chinese sentences that we are supposed to translate into English. Here's how one of those sentences went...

我不高兴的时候,总喜欢拍我的小猫的头。 (Wǒ bù gāoxìng de shíhòu, zǒng xǐhuan pāi wǒ de xiǎo māo de tóu.)

The first part of the sentence, Desi and I both found, was easy enough...When I am sad...

The question was, what exactly does this person do when they are sad? The word mao means cat...easy enough. So this person does something to their cat. What is that something?

I quickly came to the conclusion that it had something to do with taking pictures. Wrong pai...And anyways, the sentence doesn't make sense with "taking pictures" as the verb. When I am sad, I always like to take pictures of my little cat. This translation left me mystified.

Then Desi entered the picture. No, she argued, it's this other pai...the pai that means "beat." The sentence reads..When I am sad, I always like to beat my little cat. Now, I am a well-known "not cat lover." But, even for me, that sentence just struck me (and Desi, of course!) as more than a bit weird.

It was only, a little while later, when sitting at my office desk, supposedly working on something else, that it hit me. It's not a "hit" that we are talking about...It's a "pet."

When I am sad, I always like to pet my little cat on the head.

Phew...While this is not one of my favorite pastimes, it certainly is a reasonable way for a person to cheer themselves up. And, more importantly, it certainly is a reasonable sentence for Yanke to ask us to translate. As Yanke himself put it, when we came clean about the whole story..."I give you interesting sentences to translate...not weird ones!"

No, Yanke, we're the weirdos!

~Steve

Monday, December 15, 2008

We Have Chocolate Taped To Our Walls

So what do you do when you can't run out to Trader Joe's for an Advent calendar? And what do you do when the neighborhood market doesn't stock Advent wreaths?

Although both of these items can be found, with a little effort, here in Beijing, we decided to go in some different directions. Actually, it was Z who came up with the idea of making a calendar out of paper and then stocking it with Dove and other fine chocolates. Turns out this was a "win-win" strategy...The candies are bigger and tastier and they cost less than the pre-made calendars at the Western market.

For her part, Desi continued the "tradition" of making paper decorations as the various holidays have approached over the past several months. This time around, it was a wreath. Normally, we use clippings from our Christmas tree and real candles. Neither were possible nor seemed like a good idea given our current living arrangements. Why introduce an unnecessary fire risk when we have only one way out, down six flights of 85 stairs?

The only weakness in our Advent preparations? Apparently, the paint on our walls is not the most adhesive. With each piece of chocolate also comes a chunk of white paint. No jokes about lead paint, please...

~Steve

Past Their Prime?...Not in China!

When was the last time you heard the "ding-dong" of "Avon Jenny?" (Yes, growing up, that was the name of our Avon Lady...right, Dawn?) While I'm sure you don't remember the last time you bought a bottle of Skin So Soft (probably because that bottle was so big it's still in the back of your linen closet), that may not be the case around here.

Same is true of those ol' American institutions that seem to have lost their hold on American attention. While KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken...or Kentucky Fried Children, as the kids like to say) is the absolute closest "restaurant" to our house in Silver Spring, I can probably count on one hand the number of times we've stepped into the place.

Yet places like KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald's seem to have had a re-birth in the Far East. Although these may serve "fast food" for a fairly low price in the States to a declining number of consumers, they are all the rage...and quite expensive. For example, in our neighborhood of Yan Bei Yuan, it is rare to spend more than around 70 kuai ($10 US) for a meal that leaves us bursting. Yet a medium pizza, a Pepsi or two, and maybe a tiny order of garlic bread costs over 150 kuai! Very "Western"...therefore, very expensive, relatively speaking.

Add to the list companies like Amway and Mary Kay, whose billboards can be found on even the most posh malls and shopping streets. These businesses obviously have marketing geniuses working for them. With a potential clientèle of, say, 1.4 billion people, they know exactly what they're doing.

~Desi

PS: For the record, a very attractive young Chinese woman gave me her Mary Kay business card in McDonald's the other day...really!

The Ever-Changing "Face" of Beijing

This morning I took a walk in the central business district of Beijing. What I observed was change...right before my eyes. The construction that is taking place all over this city is fast and furious, and the buildings that are being built sometimes seem to appear overnight. Not only are these monoliths going up at lightning speed, but also some of the architectural designs are like none I've ever observed before. Some seem to defy the laws of physics! Take the new CCTV building, for example. When I look at this building, I think to myself that there is no way this structure can remain standing. Yet its finishing touches are being added as I write. In all, these new, modern vertical skyscrapers juxtaposed with (and sometimes even replacing) the traditional horizontal mazes of the alleyway communities that exist just blocks away from them are a visual display the mixing of past and future that makes China a very exciting place to be presently!

~Desi