Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Most Practical Tourist Site You'll Ever Visit

Lugou Qiao is a bridge that is nearly one thousand years old. Marco Polo once described it in this way..."a very fine stone bridge, so fine indeed, that it has very few equals in the world." Centuries later, Lugou Qiao was the site where the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, as it is known here in China, saw its first shots fired.

Now, all of that history is certainly noteworthy, as are the more than 500 stone lions that line Lugou Qiao. But, honestly, what captivated me the most is the way in which the bridge is used today. Although it was closed to automobile traffic decades ago and has since been a protected historical relic, Lugou Qiao lives on today as a means of commerce, transportation, and recreation for nearby villagers.

As we meandered our way back and forth, we found ourselves easily outnumbered by people on bicycles and motor scooters. (We also met up with a woman walking her two dogs, one of which lifted up its leg and peed on the bridge. Luckily the dogs were little, so the stone lions were out of range!) Many of the riders who zipped by were carrying fresh vegetables and other items they had obviously just purchased from a nearby market.

Here was a tourist site, I quickly came to realize, that we paid an admission fee to enter and that the locals simultaneously use (presumably for free) as an integral part of their daily lives. Ancient history, 20th century warfare, and laobaixing (regular people) on the outskirts of today's Beijing. Lugou Qiao is an interesting and offbeat site that mixes old China and new China...with typically befuddling results!


Friday, January 23, 2009

I'm Not Normally One To Talk About The Weather...

...But I just feel compelled to offer a brief report on the current situation here in Beijing.

The past few days we have had high temperatures in the -8 degree range. Yes, this is measured in degrees Celsius...but still...that's kind of cold! For their part, nighttime lows have been hovering at around -18 degrees.

Throw in, on top of these air temperatures, gale force winds blowing down from Siberia. These are the kinds of winds that have been rattling the windows and giving us "freezer burn" on our faces. It really has been brutal.

And so there we were, walking around the Olympic Green...An open plaza that has essentially been serving as a wind tunnel during all of this weather madness. It must have been a collective "brain freeze" that took us out there in those conditions!


Marina Is In The House!

Seattle-based adventurer Marina Tunes-Nichols arrived in Beijing a few days ago, right on schedule. (Actually, her flight from Tokyo landed a few minutes early.) Here's the warm welcome she received from me...A one-hour wait sitting in Terminal 2 while I wandered around Terminal 3 looking in vain for her.

This was not an easy mistake to correct, actually. Terminal 3, you may know, is the largest in the world. By itself, it is larger than Heathrow in its entirety. It even has its own separate exit off the airport expressway, miles away from the rest of Beijing Capital International Airport.

No such missteps on Marina's part. Indeed, Marina came armed with a suitcase full of Webkinz, marshmallows, t-shirts, toy and some beef jerky!

Al least we have over a week to make it up to her!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Nian" Comes To BISS (A Story Of How Chinese New Year Came Along)

Once upon a time, in a small village in China, there lived very peaceful villagers. Then, one day, a monster called "Nian" came and terrified the villagers. While the monster was searching the village for would-be victims, the villagers hid in their huts and prayed to the Jade Emperor.

When the Jade Emperor found out about Nian, he became very angry. He sent his most powerful warrior down from the heavens to capture the monster. The warrior captured the monster and put it in a cell in the heavens. He never gave him any food until the last day of the year, when the Jade Emperor decided to send the monster back to the village. The Jade Emperor told Nian that he could eat as much food as he wanted.

When Nian reached the village, he chased the villagers. One old lady was running with a pot. The monster cornered the old lady because she was slower than the other villagers. Since the old lady was so scared, she accidentally dropped the pot. Nian jumped back in fright and left the old lady alone. The old lady realized that Nian was scared of loud noises.

While the monster was moving away, he saw another villager and ran at her. She held a bowl with fire and coals in it. When the monster saw the flames, he went away. The lady replaced the fire with red paper because she believed that the monster was afraid of red.

Nian came back one day and was going to eat all of the villagers, but they were prepared. Every door had red paper to keep Nian away, and the old lady created fireworks. The monster was scared away and never came back.

From then on, these traditions have been passed down and continued to modern day China.

Now, why am I telling you this story? It really does not affect you. Well, as a class, we performed this play. There are only eight of us in our Chinese class, but you can still put on this play. Now, the big question...Who did I play?

Let me tell you this. I am good at acting and making strange noises. What character would you put me as?

Not a villager.
Not the Jade Emperor.
Definitely not an old lady.
Not a warrior.
You got it...Nian!

One day at school, our Chinese teacher asked us if we wanted to sing a song for the school Chinese New Year celebration. We gave her a big "No!" She told us the story of Nian and it was decided. We would put on a play.

I was directing it, technically (with help from Elizabeth). I told our teacher, who was the narrator, what the lines would be. We gave out characters, and got costumes and props.

Now, imagine a yellow lamb. Put it on two legs, with a human face and brown horns. Add on a tail, and you will know what I looked like.

Eventually, it started coming along. People learned their lines, got their cues, and got prepared. After one final Saturday practice, the play was ready.

Julie did our makeup. All I had was black eye shadow and wrinkles. We went to the side room of the courtyard where our celebration was taking place. After a few actions and some words from the principal, we were on.

The play ran smoothly. It was awesome! No one forgot their cues. Everybody loved us! We performed for the younger grades, and then for the secondary school.

Well, what did you do for the Chinese New Year celebration?


Signs Of The Times: Fireworks By Panda

For the past week or so, we have been hearing fireworks going off pretty much every night. These blasts, we understand, are merely the precursor to the big event on New Year's Eve. We've been told to be prepared to be kept up all night under a constant barrage of noise and light. In the meantime, we can (possibly) contribute to all of this mayhem by purchasing fireworks of our own at any of the scores of stands that have been popping up seemingly on every corner. No word yet on how the anticipated tussle between Mommy and Daddy will work itself out!

As for why fireworks have such a long and important history in China (have you heard they were invented here?), Z is our resident expert when it comes to that little tidbit. So stay tuned...


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Signs Of The Times: The Ghost Town Formerly Known As The School Of Government

Here is a picture I just snapped from outside my window on the fourth floor of the School of Government building. Although it doesn't really look like a parking lot, that's exactly the function this strip of concrete serves. On most days, when I arrive at the office, usually around 7:30, there are already a number of cars occupying spaces. And, by now, several hours later, there normally isn't a space to be had and cars are even banned from entering.

The place is so deserted that one of the custodians felt compelled to walk over to my office and take a peek inside, presumably to make sure the door was open for a good reason. I got the impression she was a bit startled to see someone in here, still working it even though the holiday season has really begun to wind up.

Thankfully, I can still see and hear the buses rumbling down Zhongguancun Lu, or else it would actually be kind of spooky in here all by myself.


The Hardy Boys #59: The Mystery Of Yuquan Shan

For months, every time he visited the Summer Palace, Frank Hardy, bald and forty-one years old, looked out at this pagoda in the distance, standing dramatically on the top of a nearby mountain. Then, on a fairly mild January day, he invited Callie Shaw, a brunette with big New Jersey hair, and always his favorite date, to jump on the 634 with him and go check the place out. Their aim was to scale the mountain and enjoy great views of Beijing together. What happened instead was a series of events that presented Frank and Callie with one of the most difficult Chinese mysteries they have ever been called upon to solve.

The first clue that things would not be as simple as they had imagined was when they discovered that, apparently, no bus stops at Yuquan Shan, nor, for that matter, in the nearby vicinity. With no bus even going up the mountain road at all, Frank and Callie jumped off the 634 and walked along the shoulder instead, past crumbling neighborhoods and public toilets, until the pagoda was within the reach of their worn feet.

It was then that they discovered their second clue. Rather than come upon an entrance gate to a park, Frank and Callie ran smack dab into a ten-foot high stone wall, right at the foot of the mountain. The only way through the wall was blocked by an ornate red gate, guarded by an official standing on a box and decked out in a People's Liberation Army coat. Telltale signs of an official government site, our sleuths surmised.

In their continuing quest to find a way through to the pagoda, which was, tantalizingly, just meters away, Frank and Callie decided to walk around the perimeter of the mountain. As they circled, it became ever more obvious that the day was not going to one of mountain climbing. More high stone wall. The occasional gate, with a guard peering out at them through a glass window, as if he knew they were coming. At one point, they crossed paths with a walking PLA soldier, complete with a handgun in his holster.

Any little view Frank and Callie could sneak through the gates revealed immaculately kept grounds, surely another clue of the presence of the Communist Party, they thought. Beyond this observation, however, our detectives were stymied, for they soon reemerged onto the main road, and jumped back on the 634 for the ride back into town.

In a Hardy Boys first, readers are now being asked to help the kids from Bayport write the ending to this story. What is this place, Yuquan Shan?

~Franklin W. Dixon

Signs Of The Times: Where Are We Going To Eat?

As the Year of the Ox gets closer and closer, we are beginning to observe its effects on our daily lives.

This is a picture of one of our local neighborhood restaurants...shut down tight for the holidays. And this is not the only closure. Tonight we are going to head to a place just around the corner, for one last meal before the family that runs it heads back home to Inner Mongolia. We'll be without their good food and company for nearly a month.

And then there is one of my go-to guys for buying soda and Yanjing pijiu. He and his wife have already locked up their xiao tanr and made the long trip back to Anhui province. I'm sure it will be a while until we see them again.

Thankfully, there are other alleyway merchants who are hanging around for the Spring Festival, rather than going back to their hometowns. So far as we can tell, there is no immediate need to stockpile the toilet paper...


PS: That's a brand new sign outside of the restaurant. Fresh signs are actually popping up all over town. It seems as if the last thing people do before jumping on a train is spruce up their businesses. It kind of presents a weird invitations to dine in establishments that are boarded up tight. The idea, I guess, is that it really will be a "new" year when things pick back up next month.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Adventures In Language Learning: Don't Bu Liao Me!

Let me start by saying, in my defense, that bu in Chinese usually means "no" or "not."

So I've been on a bit of a weight-loss kick these days. Walking somewhere between two and seven miles a day can dramatically change your endurance as well as your weight...but that's the stuff of another blog. For now, let me focus on the task on hand. That is, to explain one of the finer nuances of trying to communicate and understand language on someone else's turf.

It has been my goal that at the halfway point of my weight loss I would buy myself something I have had my eye on for months. Near the Xizhimen subway station is a large wholesale market that has a shop specializing in what I'd call "Tibetan-style" clothing. Mostly jackets and baggy cotton pants. Julie had purchased one there a few weeks ago, and it is both stylish and comfortable.

So I'm thinking that it's my turn. I know that most of Chinese fashion is designed with the petite Chinese figure in mind, but the cut of Julie's jacket is such that even I can wear it. In fact, I tried it on before I left the apartment. Keeping in mind that I'd have to get one in the same style, I headed on the infamous 438 bus (all was quiet for a change) bound for Xizhimen.

When I arrived at the 4th floor and stepped into the shop, it was the same-old, same-old. The store attendant, a woman in her late-twenties or early-thirties, was on me like a hawk. I refused to quicken my pace of looking through each and every jacket. In the past, I had always felt intimidated by the overwhelming attention I have been given in shops but this time I was on a mission.

Jacket after jacket, all beautiful, but not what I was looking for. Finally I went into my Putonghua bag of tricks and pulled out a few phrases (with accompanying hand motions, of course!) to explain that my daughter had bought a jacket here and I was looking for one like it. I mimed to her the cut of the front and she pointed me to another rack that had a different style. I also asked her about sizes and from what I could understand, they only carry smaller sizes.

I head to the other rack and start looking, the woman still at my heels. I find one that looks close. Excitedly I take off my coat and say to her, Chuan chuan, keyi ma? Hoping that I just asked her if I could try it on, I await her response. Bu liao, she says. Feeling that she has just told me "no" and translating it in my mind as "no, lady, you're too big for these clothes so don't even think about trying it on," I put my coat back on and leave the store, quite dejected.

As I headed out of the market, I text-messaged Steve about where I was and told him that I was never going back to that place. Fair to say, I was less than happy. I also mentioned that the woman had "bu liao'd" me. How embarrassing, I thought.

So what's the lesson? (Or should I say, "the punch line?")

I head home and sit at the desk to work on my Chinese homework. There's a great web site that we can use to look up words, so I was on the site for help with my translations. I thought to myself, "I've been bu liao' least let me see what it actually means in Chinese..."

It means "cotton."

Enough "said."


PS: Yes, I'm heading back there next week.

It Can Be Very Draining

Imagine the drain in your bathroom. Now imagine if there wasn't just one in the tub or sink, but also one randomly placed in the floor. Oh, I forgot, you have no tub...just a shower head coming out of the wall. Put up a shower curtain somewhere in the middle of the room, from wall to wall, and you're all set. As long as you're in the bathroom, you're also in the shower. (Just don't go into the bathroom with socks on after someone else has just showered...)

Now step into your kitchen. Somewhere near your kitchen sink, imagine a drain...not only in the sink itself, but also one in the floor.

When we first moved here, I thought the placement of these drains was rather odd. Actually, I couldn't understand why on Earth one would need a drain in the floor of any room. Now I realize that Chinese builders and architects are actually much more clever than I had given them credit for.

There are times when I observe the actions of Chinese people, or even the methods they use to solve everyday shiqing (issues), that seem to make absolutely no sense. Then I step back and consider the context of what I am seeing, and suddenly the "fog" disappears and it all becomes clear. The old adage "necessity is the mother of invention" rings true in Chinese daily life.

So back to the floor drains. While not aesthetically pleasing, both the bathroom and kitchen floor drains do serve a purpose. Both provide a convenient way to remove liquid substances from the room. In the bathroom, for example, a hose from the washing machine (which also happens to be there) can be run from the machine to the drain so as to provide a receptacle for the water from your dirty clothes. In the kitchen, there's no need to spend a lot of time mopping...Just throw some water on the floor and squeegee it down the drain. No worries about overflowing sinks and such here...It all goes "down the drain."


Go Marina, Go!

For the upcoming Spring Festival, families in China go through great lengths (literally, as we posted about a few days ago!) to find ways of having "reunions" in their laojia (hometowns). Since Beijing is our Chinese laojia, we have decided not to take part in the largest annual migration in human history.

This decision was made all the easier by the fact that we will be having a family reunion of our own, right here next to the fifth ring road. As we speak, Marina is getting ready (hopefully not too frantically!) for the trip around the world.

Hey Marina...Do they fly up over the top of the Earth, like when we travel from the East coast? Or do they head straight across the Pacific?


PS: The last time we got together with Marina, those fake glasses and mustaches were our key accessories. How do you think they'll go over in Beijing?