Saturday, January 17, 2009

If I Were A Dust Bunny, Where Would I Live?

In Beijing, of course, because I'd have lots of friends there!

No matter what I do, I just can't seem to keep up with all the dust here. I'm not even sure where it comes from, since we seem to be sealed up tight (to keep out the cold).

Steve often says that the ayis in his building at Beida are always sweeping or wiping. In his words, "No floor in Beijing goes unswept for more than twenty minutes." I think I can see why.

Could I have discovered yet another type of succession? Or perhaps the true reason for the fall of the Qing dynasty? (Maybe it is even dust from the Qing dynasty.) While I may not win a Nobel Prize for my firm grip on the highly obvious, I can tell you that much too much of my time is spent dancing with my broom and dust a never ending battle.

Did I mention that vacuum cleaners are not a common appliance in China? If only Mr. Kirby or Mr. Hoover knew...they could make a fortune over here!


So What Exactly Is Miao Hui?

Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Miao Hui. Then I started asking some of the locals--taxi drivers, small merchants, teachers at BISS--what kinds of things we should anticipate doing come Spring Festival. (Spring Festival? That's what the holiday surrounding what the West calls "Chinese New Year" is known as here in the Middle Kingdom itself.) One answer kept rising to the top of the list, over and over again. "You should go to Miao Hui." "Miao Hui in Beijing is great fun."

As first, I simply nodded in agreement, having no idea what the speaker was actually talking about. I figured I had time to decode the mystery before the festival itself. What exactly is this Miao Hui? When is it held? Where does it go on? Slowly but surely, the answers have come into focus.

The "where" of Miao Hui. I guess the way to translate this phrase is "temple festival." So that helps out a bit. We need to be on the lookout for cool things going on at temples. Only problem? There are, like, how many temples in this monster metropolis known as Beijing? We could literally search for weeks and not find the right temple or temples.

Then, yesterday, we were in a cab and I struck up a conversation with the driver. Turns out, he's a Beijingren. So, I ask him, what about Miao Hui? He mentions that a really good one takes place at Ditan Gongyuan (The Temple of the Earth...Where emperors used to make animal sacrifices...Thankfully, not anymore...We saw enough of that in Harbin!) This response echoed what I had heard from at least one of my other sources (Z's Chinese teacher). As it happened, we were right in the vicinity of Ditan, so we decided to walk over and check things out. (Anyways, we had never been there, so it would be a new experience no matter what.)

The "what" of Miao Hui. This little excursion turned out to be a great "field trip." Before we even got inside the park, we could see all kinds of decorations...paper lanterns in trees, drums along the side of the path. As for the park itself, let's just say that preparations are in full swing. There are workers everywhere. It looks to us like there will be tons of food stands. We also saw the beginning stages of a "midway," complete with "shoot the ball in the hoop" contests. And there looked to be performance stands being erected. So our current thinking is that Miao Hui is kind of like the North Carolina State Fair with Chinese characteristics.

The "when" of Miao Hui. So when do we need to come back for the event itself? I decided to try out this new phrase that Yanke had just taught us. Xiang nin da ting yi xia. Essentially, this is a very polite way to approach a stranger and ask for information. Spying an unsuspecting nai nai (grandma) shuffling along, I broke this question out and then proceeded to ask when the Miao Hui is scheduled to begin. She told me the 25th, which is the day before New Year's Day. When I followed up by inquiring about the duration of Miao Hui, she was stumped and so brought another couple into the conversation. Eight days was the verdict on that consultation. Minutes later, though, another passerby suggested it was a 15-day event. So we're still not quite sure about that answer.

So, yes, we still have some gaps in our understanding of Miao Hui. But we have enough to go on. All that remains is for the big day to arrive and the party to really get started...


Friday, January 16, 2009

Why Are There So Many Six-Story Apartment Buildings?

You've got your facts learned real good by now...We live on the top floor at Yan Bei Yuan, 85 steps up in the sky. And we are not alone in living this way. All around Beijing, and beyond, this style of housing is ubiquitous. Sure, there are plenty of skyscrapers in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, but the dominant form remains the humble and functional (some would say ugly) block-style apartment.

"Why such persistence?" you might ask. The answer is actually quite simple...There is a law here stating that any building over six stories in height must come equipped with elevators.

So even though eight is a lucky number in China, you're not going to see any eight-story buildings go up any time soon. When it comes to city planning, public policy trumps traditional belief.


Bells And Drums

We recently had the chance to climb to the top of Beijing's drum and bell towers. Great views of the city in all directions, from the CTTV tower to Jingshan Gongyuan to Xizhimen to the Olympic "torch" building.

But what was the original purpose of these structures? And why do so many ancient Chinese cities have them? Turns out they were the central time-keeping locations during a number of dynasties.

Apparently, at 7 and 9 pm, first the drum was beaten and then the bell was struck. At 11 pm, 1 am, and 3 am, only the bell was struck. (Even at that, I'm thinking it was tough to get a good night's sleep. Did I mention that when the bell was rung, it was struck 108 times. Why 108 times? That's another ancient story...) Also, at 7 pm, as the bell was struck, the city gates were closed and traffic was stopped for the night.

As for how the time itself was kept, it involved things like water running through a small opening and metal balls rolling through tubes.

And then there was the time, in 1900, when the Allied Forces came through and destroyed almost all of the drums. Everywhere we go in Beijing, it seems, we are walking in the footsteps of those marauding foreign forces. Never would I have guessed the impact that those times of great weakness still exercise on the Chinese psyche, even right down to something as simple as how time was kept and announced...


Thursday, January 15, 2009

In China, If You See A Line, Get On It...

...And most of the time you'll find something really interesting or maybe even really tasty. The people in China know where all the good stuff is, and they're willing to wait for it.

Take NLGX, for example. The other day, Steve and I had a date wandering around through the hutongs. We ventured down one of the more popular and trendy alleyways called NanLuoGuXiang. We had been there a few times before, and each time noted that one xiao tanr (small shop) had a rather long line protruding from it. On those occasions, we tried to find out what was so appealing (one time, we got as far as to find out that they sold some type of "delicious desert"), but were never willing to invest the time to find out for sure.

As we passed by the stand the other day, there was no way that we weren't stopping. The line was fierce, but our curiosity even more so. Time on line? Around twenty minutes. The prize? A delicious taste of one of our Guangzhou favorites...shuang pi nai. Rather difficult to describe, 双皮乃 means "double skin milk," which doesn't really sound appetizing. In reality, it is what I would call a milk pudding, smooth and sweet and undoubtedly worth the wait. Rest assured, we'll be "lining up" again sometime very soon. After all, we want to do our part to let others know that this is the "place to go."


Suan Nai

For months, there's been this street food here in Beijing I've been meaning to try. It's just that every time I've walked by a stall that carries it, I've never been hungry. Finally, the other day, during a stroll down NanLuoGuXiang, a hip, refurbished hutong, desire met opportunity.

Now, the food itself is not particularly exotic. In fact, it's just yogurt. What's distinctive is the way the yogurt is served and eaten.

For a few kuai, you get handed this glazed ceramic container. There's a paper cover over the top. The cover is fastened on the container via a rubber band. You also get a plastic straw that you jab into the container, through the paper lid.

With this set up in place, you stand there and sip the yogurt out of the container. This is not really a "to go" item, as the container is meant to be left, when empty, on the front shelf of the stall. I suppose that, perhaps at the end of the day, the containers are all brought back inside, washed out, and made ready to be filled with the next day's batch of yogurt.

Neat little food experience...


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

And This Time I Wasn't Even One Of The Combatants!

So there I was this morning, at about 7:30 am, jumping on to the 438 to make my way down to campus. It was, as usual, a crowded bus. I was able to get inside the middle door of the bus, up to the top of the steps, and that was about it. A wall of humanity surrounded me on all sides.

The bus pulled out of Saoziying and I was standing there with my headphones on, listening to today's ChinesePod lesson. As we rolled down Yuanmingyuan Xi Lu, I noticed the sound of raised voices from up toward the front of the bus. I looked up and it appeared as if two women were having some kind of argument with a man.

Figuring that I might learn some good "street" expressions, I paused the podcast and listened in to what was happening on the bus. Sometimes, these kind of arguments die out as quickly as they spring up. (Like when I had my chaojia with our would-be driver.) This one, however, actually took a turn in the opposite direction. Before I really knew what was going on, the "conversation" began to get more heated.

And then it started to get a little physical. The women started wagging their fingers right in the face of the man. He aggressively returned the favor. Then it turned into a battle of who could most quickly and emphatically whack the other side's finger away from their head.

At this point, a passenger sitting next to the combatants intervened. It sounded like he was rendering his just and fair judgment on the events, as often happens in arguments, car accidents, and other public disagreements here in China. An end seemed near, as I read the situation.

Wrong again! The two women began walking away from the man, right toward the door where I was standing. As they walked, they screamed, over and over again, a phrase that sounded to me like, Cong nali lai? "Where are you from?" Obviously, I was completely off with this translation, as the phrase served only to enrage the man. He began yelling at the top of his voice in return. I have no clue what he was saying, but it was clearly not a pleasantry, judging by the even more heated verbiage and finger pointing that emanated from the women, who were now standing right next to me in the stairwell.

Add to this mix of loud voices the efforts of the ayi to bring law and order back to the bus. She powered on her microphone and began calling out, over and over again, things like, bie shuo le. "Stop all of this arguing!" The only effect of ayi's efforts were to increase the decibel level of the proceedings.

Unable to take it any longer, the man decided to come after the women. He advanced down the aisle, toward them (and me). Now, let me make it clear that I had no stake in the argument. I had no idea who was in the right and who was in the wrong. I didn't really even know what they were at it about. But I definitely did not want to see things get too violent. So, as the man came motoring toward the women, I stuck my arms out, to keep the parties separated. Both sides tried to get around me (the women, for their part, were definitely not backing down), but I was not budging.

Then the man retreated, turned around, and came charging down the bus. I grabbed on to a support railing and braced myself, using my whole body as a shield. He tried to burst his way through me, but it wasn't working. I held the line steadily.

Then he discovered the one flaw in my defenses. He stepped to the side and hurtled over the support railing, right down into the stairwell, feet first, where the women were standing. I tried to use my arms as barriers, but the three of them were all a blur of fists and kicks.

Just then, the bus arrived at Xi Yuan. This was the women's destination and they spilled out of the 438, with the man in tow. There, on the curb, the altercation continued. The man tried to get back on the bus, but one of the women grabbed his shirt. In the meantime, the man's female companion was rushing back and forth, presumably deciding whether to stay on or get off the bus herself.

For a few last moments, one of the women's (rather large) purses began flying and whacking at the man. (Think Pete Townsend doing his best windmill. That's kind of what the whirling purse reminded me of.) The man finally moved away and back onto the bus. The ayi shut the door and the driver began to pull away.

My last vision was of the two women, standing there at the bus stop, still waving their fingers furiously and hailing invectives at the man, who was now "debriefing" loudly with his female companion.

My work done, I found a seat, turned Jenny and John back on, and continued my morning commute...


Monday, January 12, 2009

The Big Party

By now, you are probably floating blissfully on or drowning in (depending on your political persuasion) a sea of inauguration coverage, now that Barack Obama is only a week away from being sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

What about us here in China, you might ask? Is it all inauguration, all the time? What is the level of media interest in our adopted homeland about an event that will bring millions of people to our adopted hometown? (By the way, does anybody out there want to rent our house for the week?)

To get a basic sense of media saturation, or lack thereof, I went to the New York Times and the People's Daily, the "papers of record" in China and the United States. Specifically, I searched on both papers' websites for the terms "Obama" and "inauguration."

For the New York Times, I limited the results to today's listings. Failing to restrict the search in this way produced in excess of ten thousand results. Even looking just at today, there were more than two hundred matches, covering everything from the pace of fundraising for the inauguration to the Smithsonian's plans to open early for out-of-town visitors to a recently announced ban on strollers during the festivities.

As for China Daily, there was no need to restrict the search by date, as overall there were only thirty three matches. The earliest of these stories goes back to September 3, 2007, and obviously has nothing to do with the big event. As far as stories that are current and deal with the inauguration itself, these tend to cover things from international angles, such as a girl from Chengdu who has been invited to attend the ceremony.

My guess is that if you asked the average Chinese person who the American president is, many of them would respond "Barack Obama." In other words, there is not much of a sense on the streets of the impending swearing in. But this is just a working hypothesis, perhaps to be tested another day. And, I suspect, there will be some coverage and pictures on the day after the reins of power have been handed over.

But even this attention, I suggest, is likely to be very limited and fleeting. You see, right now China is in a fury, building up to this country's main event...the Lunar New Year, which will be rung in on January 26th. A search in China Daily on the term "new year" produced more than 7,000 hits. Current topics include the crush of travelers who are beginning to descend upon the nation's transportation system, a crackdown on counterfeit money (which is a big problem this time of year), and an increased emphasis on food safety during the upcoming festival.

Imagine what it is like in the United States in the days leading up to Christmas. People rushing around shopping. Students trying to get home from college. (The three attached pictures capture the scene this morning at a plane and train ticket office.) Families enjoying quiet time together. That's pretty much what is going on in China right now. Events that are taking place far away, no matter how momentous they are abroad, are simply washed away in a sea of homemade jiaozi and CCTV variety shows.