Thursday, May 14, 2009

Zai Lai Yi Ping!

For those of you who are living in China right now, and who enjoy drinking bing hong cha (iced tea), you may have noticed that in the last several weeks, new signs for this tea have been appearing all over the country. These signs are for the company's latest promotion...Zai lai yi ping, or "give me another bottle."

I have switched my drinking habits to this kind of tea for the sole purpose of checking the underside of the cap. If yours happens to say 再来一瓶, run back to the xiao tanr you just stopped at and collect your prize. The stores must get paid for the bottle caps, because they are always excited to give you another bottle. Of course, there are the "Thank you for playing" caps, but at least half of the bottles I have opened have been rewarded with an extra drink!

There are actually four different flavors that are part of the zai lai yi ping promotion...The iced tea, the green tea, and two other herbal teas.

To me, the purpose of 在俩一瓶 is so that people all over China can hear kids running through the streets calling "zai lai yi ping!" I can only imagine their faces when they hear two xiao laowai chanting it!

~Julie

You Have Got To Be Kidding Me

Although I have been careful about washing fruits and vegetables well before we eat them in China (just as I am in the US), I have definitely become less concerned about the potential risks associated with Chinese produce. We've all enjoyed the seasonal products that abound in Beijing...In fact, pineapples, watermelons, and mangoes are highlights of all the corner markets right now.

So what is one to think when one develops a strange rash around one's mouth, and later on one's chin....And then one's cheek? One just chalks it up to good ol' poison ivy.

That one is me, and that poison ivy allergy rears its ugly head (sometimes systemically) about once or twice a year. Yet, while we have toured much of Beijing lately, the selections have not really been in nature-type settings. The hutongs don't even have trees.

So today, I'm racking my brain trying to figure out where I have picked up this rash. Did Z walk through a patch, and did the oil get on his shoes, and when I put them away yada yada...You get the picture. Faced with the potential hassle of having to go halfway to New Jersey (i.e., all the way across Beijing) to a clinic for some prized prednisone, I've raided my medicine cabinet instead. First Benadryl, then A&D Ointment, then Caladryl. All help, but none answer the question.

Then I examine my "new food memory."

Mangoes? That's the only food I've introduced to my diet over the last couple of weeks. They are so incredibly good here that I had vowed to eat one a day until I can't find them at the market anymore.

Then I did what most 21st century moms do...Type it into Google...

"MANGO ALLERGY"

As my Mom likes to say, "Bingo!"

There it is...

"mangoes are unique in that they belong to the plant family that also contains poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac. Contact with the skin from mangoes, such as with eating a mango like an apple, can result in contact dermatitis around the mouth. These symptoms may include redness, itching and flaking on the areas of skin that the mango touched, and look much like a poison oak reaction."

Who would've thought mangoes could be related to poison ivy!?

Oh well, I guess "A mango a day and the rash will stay!"

~Desi

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fast Food Hot Pot

Once we discovered how hot pot "works" here in China, it quickly became one of our family favorites. Holiday celebration meals including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter have all taken place at fine hot pot establishments in Beijing and Chengdu.

But what about a daily dose? Since a formal hot pot experience can take around two hours, it is sometimes difficult to find (or justify) that expanse of time on, say, a weekday.

Discovery: Xiabu Xiabu

The winding counters of Xiabu Xiabu (resembling that of a 50s diner but decked out in bright orange) were a mystery to us early on. Found mostly in malls, this restaurant is always crowded, but it was not clear to us, passing by, what is actually served. So when Nathan heard of our query (thanks, Nathan!), his expertise in this line of dining shone through. All he had to say was, "fast food hot pot," and we were there!

Xiabu Xiabu is an incredible place. Plate after plate of fresh veggies, thin-sliced meats, and all of the accouterments can be seen whizzing by, carried by enthusiastic young wait staff. Tons of twenty-somethings (and even a few teens on lunch break) can be seen cooking up their own combinations of "yum."

At Xiabu Xiabu, each person receives his or her own pot, thus the communal act of double-dipping your kuaizi in a pot with all of your best buddies becomes a non-issue for the squeamish. You can even choose the pot that is right for you alone. For Steve and Julie, it's mala de (spicy). For Z and me, it's bai de (not spicy, but clear).

It's fun to watch what the people across from you order. Our items look much different from those chosen by many Chinese customers. For us, the colors orange and white seem to dominate our plates, as our selections usually include sweet potatoes, chicken, potatoes, pumpkin, carrot, noodles, frozen tofu, and hot pot dumplings. For the Chinese, green is the color of choice. Piles of all types of greens shrink to a fraction of their raw size as individuals boil them up for good health. Different meats, mostly lamb and seafood, are also on their menu. We make a point to order foods out of our comfort zone each visit. Our latest taste bud-tickler is ou (sliced lotus root).

If I had the opportunity to bring one franchise back to the US from China, there is no doubt that Xiabu Xiabu would top the list. It might be cost-prohibitive, though, since the prices of fresh vegetables and meats would probably be to high in the States for this type of establishment. For the four of us, a meal costs around 70 kuai (with drinks!) The drinks alone would cost that back home!

Our solution? Get it while we can. My personal goal is to eat at Xiabu Xiabu once a week and no one has complained yet!

It's chopstick-lickin' good!

~Desi

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rock Star, Folk Star

I recently did an on-camera interview with Reuters here in Beijing, as part of their current series on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Sichuan. I was specifically asked to comment on the role that Premier Wen Jiabao played in the aftermath of the earthquake, and how his acclaimed performance may affect his future political prospects. Below are some of the notes to both the footage and text of the broadcast. (The complete notes can be accessed at http://rtv.rtrlondon.co.uk/2009-05-11/1eec0ee6.html.)

BEJING AND CHENGDU, DUJIANGYAN, WENCHUAN, BEICHUAN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA

DURATION:03:27

HEADLINE: Chinese PM Wen's popularity remains strong among quake survivors.

China's Premier Wen Jiabao is greatly admired by many quake survivors--Wen flew to the disaster zone almost immediately after the quake hit, led the rescue operations and now he directs rebuilding efforts, one year after the tremour battered southwest China and killing over 80,000.

SHOWS:

BEIJING, CHINA
1. CHINESE PRIME MINISTER WEN JIABAO CHANTING AT EARTHQUAKE MEMORIAL CEREMONY
2. GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS CHANTING AT EARTHQUAKE MEMORIAL CEREMONY
3. WEN CHANTING

WENCHUAN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA
4. PEOPLE RUNNING THROUGH DUSTY STREET
5. SOLDIERS IN LINE RUNNING
6. PEOPLE EVACUATING TO SAFE AREAS

CHENGDU, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA
7. VARIOUS OF WEN WALKING DOWN FROM AIRPLANE

DUJIANGYAN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA
8. WEN TALKING TO RESCUE WORKER
9. WEN CLIMBING UP BUILDING DEBRIS
10. WEN TALKING TO VICTIM ON AMPLIFIER
11. WEN SHAKING HANDS WITH PEOPLE
12. WEN WALKING WITH OFFICIALS
13. RESCUE WORKER RESCUING CHILD TRAPPED UNDER DEBRIS
14. WEN HANDING MEDICAL APPARATUS TO RESCUE WORKER

WENCHUAN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA
15. WEN TALKING TO INJURED CHILD
16. WEN TALKING TO CRYING CHILD
17. CHILDREN CRYING
18. WEN STROKING CHILD ON HEAD

BEIJING, CHINA
19. ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, STEVEN BALLA,
WORKING ON COMPUTER
20. BALLA TYPING ON COMPUTER KEYBOARD
21. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT GEORGE WASHINGTON
UNIVERSITY, STEVEN BALLA SAYING: "If Barack Obama is the rock star of international politics, Wen Jiabao is more like the folk star in that, he is not playing in front of large admiring audiences, but he is quietly strumming away in his acoustic guitar in a small coffee house somewhere. People still love him but they don't love him in the sense of mass adoration that you see for some leaders in the west."

BEICHUAN, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA
22. MAN TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS OF EARTHQUAKE RUINS
23. TABLE WITH EARTHQUAKE MEMORABILIA ON SALE
24. DVD FEATURING CHINESE PREMIER WEN JIABAO IN EARTHQUAKE ZONE ON SALE
25. (SOUNDBITE) (Mandarin) 34-YEAR-OLD VENDOR, HAO JIANMING, SAYING: "Every time Premier Wen comes to Beichuan county, he is very friendly to everyone. Every time he leaves, his car will slow down and he will wind down his window to wave to everyone before he goes off. When the people see him, they would rather stay behind and not have lunch. They will wait for him to leave before going home to make lunch."
26. VENDORS NEXT TO FENCE
27. VENDOR SEWING SHOE NEXT TO MAKESHIFT STALL
28. COMBINATION OF PHOTOGRAPHS SHOWING PREMIER WEN IN THE QUAKE ZONE
DISPLAYED ON STALL
29. (SOUNDBITE) (Mandarin) 42-YEAR-OLD VENDOR, MU SHUXIAN SAYING: "I feel Premier Wen has done well. He has us, the earthquake victims, in his heart. I feel the country has done well, if it was not for them, we would all be beggars now, don't you think so?"
30. STALL OWNERS AND VISITORS STANDING ON CLIFF
31. VENDORS TRYING TO SELL VISITORS EARTHQUAKE MEMORABILIA
32. RUBBLE AND RUINS OF BEICHUAN TOWN

STORY: China will mark the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake on Tuesday (May 12), a disaster that battered the south-western province and killed over 80,000 people.

But the tragedy heralded an unusual turn of events for China's Premier Wen Jiabao.

Just hours after the 8.0 magnitude tremor shook the region, Wen flew to one of the hardest hit regions and appeared on national television consoling mourning families.

He was often shown to be at the thick of the relief work, encouraging rescue workers and talking to people trapped under rubble.

Within days, Wen's page on the social networking site Facebook had become an online attraction worldwide. More than 14,000 people had joined Wen's page, which was created by an unknown user, making him the tenth most popular politician on Facebook.

Steven Balla, associate professor of political science, public policy and public administration at George Washington University, believes that the public surge of support for Wen signifies a growing 'westernisation' of the Chinese political leadership.

He says Wen's skill in handling media opportunities combined with his charismatic approach to leadership resembles that of the United States' President Barack Obama. "If Barack Obama is the rock star of international politics, Wen Jiabao is more like the folk star in that, he is not playing in front of large admiring audiences, but he is quietly strumming away in his acoustic guitar in a small coffee house somewhere. People still love him but they don't love him in the sense of mass adoration that you see for some leaders in the west," said Balla who is doing an exchange programme at Beijing's Peking University.

Wen is no stranger to natural disasters. In 2006, he was the political face on the scene at a giant chemical spill which threatened to leave millions of people in China's northeast without drinking water.

When the worst winter storm to hit China in decades stranded hundreds of thousands of train passengers in 2008, Wen made a public statement of sympathy and apology from the train station floor.

His prompt appearance at disaster sites has made him one of the nation's most popular political figures.

Enterprising stall-touts at the site of one of Sichuan's worst-hit towns have even started selling DVD and photograph souvenirs of the Premier's trips to the quake zone.

"Every time Premier Wen comes to Beichuan county, he is very friendly to everyone. Every time he leaves, his car will slow down and he will wind down his window to wave to everyone before he goes off. When the people see him, they would rather stay behind and not have lunch. They will wait for him to leave before going home to make lunch," said Hao Jianming, 34-year-old vendor.

Many people in China call him Grandpa Wen and see him as their personal hero.

Mu Shuxian, a 42-year-old vendor in Sichuan, said he believed Wen's visits have helped the earthquake survivors rebuild their lives. "I feel Premier Wen has done well. He has us, the earthquake survivors, in his heart. I feel the country has done well, if it was not for them, we would all be beggars now, don't you think so?" said Mu.

At present, his reputation speaks for his rampant support throughout the nation. But analysts say that Wen's future, in part, depends on how he reacts to any future crisis.

According to a survey done by China's Tsinghua University, the massive earthquake from last year had toppled over 380 buildings across the Sichuan Province. This consequently left up to 4.8 million people homeless.

Even though the government launched a mass reconstruction programme and a one trillion yuan (147 billion U.S. dollars) stimulus plan, a significant number still face an uncertain future.

~Steve

Monday, May 11, 2009

One Year Later

Today is the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Sichuan that took and damaged so many lives.

~Steve

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Beautiful Day

While Mother's Day is not widely celebrated in China, Steve, Julie, and Z did not let that stop them from making my day special! It all started with a new twist on breakfast in bed. Since usual breakfast products are a bit of a challenge to come by, pancakes with fresh mango, orange nectar, and a hard-boiled egg carried in on a contraption designed by Z and resembling the vehicle that ancients used to transport the Emperor, were on the menu.

After enjoying this scrumptious meal befitting no less than the Empress Dowager herself, it was off to the hutongs for a little exploration (affectionately known as the "hutong hustle"). First walking, then bicycling on rented tandems, we covered a lot of ground weaving in and out of some of Beijing's most interesting housing units. While many are crumbling, a nice selection still remain. Some are in fine condition, some have even been renovated, and all provide a glimpse into the courtyard lifestyle popular in Beijing before the introduction of the high rise. Alive and bustling, the community aspect of this type of living is refreshing. People talk to each other, spend time helping one another, and enjoy leisurely activities together. I find it especially positive when considering the elderly who can continue to partake in the past times that they have grown to know and love with the people they have grown to know and love.

In the midst of our travels, a delicious lunch and some people-watching at a restaurant in Houhai was a perfect way to spend the afternoon. Then off to the Northern Cathedral for a wonderful evening mass and some spiritual renewal.

I am truly blessed! For me, Mother's Day is everywhere, every day!

~Mommy/Desi

The Clicking Of The Walnuts

Walk by a middle-aged or elderly man here in China, and chances are you will hear a faint, strange (to your waiguoren ears) kind of scraping noise as you stroll past. This is especially likely to be the case in parks and other areas where a sense of leisure fills the air.

There are visual clues as well, but these are equally as subtle as the sounds. Look closely at the man's hands, which he may be holding behind his back as he meanders along. If you get a good glimpse, what you will see is a pair of walnuts. Yes, walnuts. Watch and be soothed as the man uses his fingers to rotate the walnuts in his hand or to otherwise move them back and forth in his palm.

Now fast forward to the cacophony of Panjiayuan, one of Beijing's biggest and loudest markets for antiques, porcelain, and just about any kind of junk you can imagine ever wanting to own. For me, a trip to Panjiayuan is primarily about two things...

1. Practicing my Chinese as I go from stall to stall bargaining with the assembled merchants, usually on Desi's behalf. Memorably, it was at Panjiayuan where I purchased a lovely piece of crystal for fifty kuai, down from the original asking price of five hundred. (Yes, you really need to push hard out there on the mean streets of Beijing!) As time goes by, however, the need for my Chinese is getting less and less. Z, in particular, has taken over more and more of the negotiations as his oral comprehension has skyrocketed in recent months.

2. Looking for a product that I myself would be interested in buying. This is an especially hard problem for me to figure out. You see, I simply don't like most "stuff." So how do I occupy myself while Desi, Julie, and Z excitedly troll Panjiayuan for stuff they will always cherish?

On our last jaunt, I decided to focus on walnuts. What is the cheapest price I could bargain for on a pair of walnuts that would be my "meet in Beijing" walk around companions?

This turned out to be a lot more complicated than I anticipated at the start of the day. It turns out, you see, that all walnuts are not created equal. Apparently, there is a lot to consider. The two walnuts you select have to be reasonably close in size to one another, or else they do not make for comfortable spinning partners in your palm. And then there is texture, color, and other dimensions along which walnuts naturally vary.

Still, I figured, how difficult could it be to find a suitable pair, especially for a newbie like me who doesn't appreciate most of this nuance, at least not at this early point in my walnut consciousness?

I'll tell you how difficult...

When I started asking around about price, I got a litany of answers that together boggled my mind, even after all of this time spent living in China.

Thirty kuai...Fifty kuai...Five hundred kuai...One thousand kuai...

No, those last two prices are not typos. My ears, though, originally took them as such. When a merchant replied to my question with yi qian kuai, I stood there kind of befuddled. Truth be told, even though my ears understood the sounds, my mind couldn't process the answer. A thousand kuai!? Nah...I just must have heard wrong...

The seller pressed me a little. "I can go cheaper. What is your price? These are really pretty walnuts!" All I could do was mutter something incoherent under my breath and move helplessly along.

Fully aware that there was no chance I would be able to make sense of all of this variation in walnut quality and price, at least not today, I shifted gears pretty quickly. I instructed Z to see if he could get this one particularly cheap pair for ten kuai, which, predictably, he pulled off in a matter of seconds.

Now, though, as I meander along, making that crunching noise that drives Desi absolutely batty, I can't help but wonder if my fellow walnut-toting Beijingren are snickering about the poor quality accouterments that crazy waiguoren is carrying around like an amateur.

Along these lines, one guy out near the Temple of Heaven came up and asked me how much I paid for my walnuts. When I told him, he replied, hen pianyi. "Really cheap." Before I could feel good about this score, he blurted out, jia de. "Those are fake." I nodded in agreement, throwing in a kending jia de ("definitely fake") for good measure.

The sad, embarrassing part about that exchange? I have no idea what was really going on there. Are they fake walnuts? Are they walnuts of some type that no self-respecting Chinese man would be caught using?

For now, though, I prefer to spin away in blissful ignorance...

~Steve

Xiao Pengyou (Finally!)

Finally I have been accepted into the "club." I now have my first xiao pengyou. My Chinese friend is nine years old, has black hair and black eyes, lives in building 303 on the first floor, and introduced me to other friends.

The first day went like this...

1. I get out of the shower and the door bell rings.

2. Next thing you know there is a Chinese voice on the other end of the line, wanting me to come play.

3. He won't take NO for an answer.

4. We play ball in a courtyard.

5. We go up to my room.

6. His friend comes over.

7. We play Chinese games, like Xiang Qi.

8. We go to the playground and play soccer until Mom, Dad, and Julie come down for dinner.

WHEW!!!

NEXT DAY...He wants to play again.

Now, here is the funny part. We were going to have Chinese class in our house.

1. Dad and I leave to meet Yanke at the bus stop.

2. Xiao Pengyou comes up to our house and walks right into my room.

3. Not seeing me, he asks Julie, "齐曼在哪儿?"

4. He goes out on his bike and finds me.

5. I tell him I can't play until next weekend.

Right now, while I am writing this, I am wondering when he will ask me next.

~Z

PS: He has followed us to lunch twice. The first time, he followed us on his bike and waited for us outside. The second time, he followed us and checked in on us every ten minutes.

Address Frenzy

I don't really have an address right now. I mean, technically, I know my apartment number, building, and zip code. But the place we all have our snail mail sent to is Steve's office, because there is actually a mailbox where he can retrieve it.

And speaking of addresses, the numbers (if there are any) marking the buildings in Beijing make absolutely no sense to me. In the US, there is rhyme and reason to address...Odds on one side, evens on the other, and...They're in order! In Beijing, that is certainly not the case, as evidenced by the two "addresses" that were photographed right across the alley from one another.

And speaking of alleys, so many of the housing units don't even seem to have numbers assigned to them. Do they ever get mail? If they ever give directions to someone to get to their place, how do they go about doing so? Not to mention firefighters and rescue squads!

No wonder some Beijing cab drivers seem a little grumpy!

~Desi

Yashow Nails

We don't normally feel the need to venture into eastern Beijing, but last week, Mommy, Z, and I took a ride to Sanlitun for a few errands and pleasure.

Our first step was at Peppe's Pizza, and then we walked to another store to fill up on some new DVDs. Next, we walked into Yashow to look at some Tibetan jackets and traditional shirts.

On the fifth floor of the market toward the side wall, there is a nail salon where most people go to get their nails done in Beijing. Mommy surprised me by plopping me down in one of the big chairs for a manicure and pedicure.

While Z and Mommy walked around the market, I sat being pampered. I think I almost fell asleep while my nails were painted a light red. Now I can actually wear my new flip flops!

~Julie