Saturday, June 13, 2009

Wayne And A Million Of His Closest Chinese Friends

There's nothing like a ride on a jam-packed 814 to get a visceral sense of what it feels like to be a cog in the wheel of 17 million Beijingers. This picture was snapped after many people had already gotten off the bus and there were actually seats available.


Sensible Footwear, The Sequel

We never cease to be amazed at the women's shoes we see sported at places like the Summer Palace and Great Wall. This picture was snapped in the Forbidden City, where cobblestone, marble, and stairs, some hundreds of years old, are what you find under your feet.


Past, Present, And Future

I first met Wayne at the tennis courts behind Rahway High School. I was maybe twelve years old, and just falling into my tennis obsession that carried me through my teen and college years.

I first met Will last fall in Wuhan, at a restaurant where we ate dog meat together. I was forty-one years old and just a few months into my year of living in China.

This is what it looked like when two very distant, in time and space, parts of my life came together. I looked at Wayne and thought about all of those years and places of shared experiences that Will cannot possibly conceive of. I looked at Will and thought about all that has happened in the last year and how I have changed since the last time I was in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, or DC.

Come on this train...


A Classic Beijing Day

We spent June 13th in the heart of Beijing, strolling through Tian'anmen Square, viewing the body of Mao Zedong (sorry, no pictures allowed!), eating Peking Duck at Quanjude (the holy grail of Peking Duck restaurants), and exploring the vast expanses of the Forbidden City.

Another Balla death march...Add Wayne to our list of victims!


PS: Ask Wayne about his experience with Chinese etiquette the day before at the Bird's Nest...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gucci Girl

During our stroll through the Summer Palace (I can only imagine how ridiculous we must come off as tour guides!), there was a woman hawking fake Gucci bags. Actually, there were a lot of women selling the stuff, plus all of these guys with boxes full of Rolexes. (When I asked a Rolex dude, zhende haishi jiade?, "Are they real or fake?", he responded, zhende...uh...bu zhen bu jia. In English..."They are real! Well...They are neither real nor fake!")

Seeing one of the bu zhen bu jia Gucci bags, Desi gave us a job. "See if you can get me the brown one for thirty kuai." The opening offer by the seller was one hundred twenty kuai. As usual, we were far apart!

As we strolled down the Long Corridor, past the Marble Boat, the woman (and some other sellers) persisted. Eventually, they were down to fifty kuai, but there we all reached an impasse.

Approaching the park exit, with desperation levels rising, our girl finally came down to thirty-five kuai, a deal we decided to take.

End of story? Not quite. Here are your words of warning for the day. When you get a low price, beware of a few last tricks street merchants have up their sleeves.

The product switch. The bag we had been looking at was in good shape and well made (yeah, right!). Surrounded by the Gucci women, they made an attempt to switch "ours" with an identical bag that had really been through the ringer and looked like it was about to fall apart. Tucking the good bag under her shoulder, Julie ran off away from the crowd while the exchange was taking place.

The counterfeit pass. When we handed the seller a fifty kuai note, she gave us a five kuai note, plus a twenty spot. Now, this was strange on two fronts. First of all, twenty-five in change was too much. Secondly, the twenty was clearly not legal Chinese tender. When I made the case that the bill was fake, the response we got was that it was xinde. "It's one of the new twenty kuai notes." Needless to say, we did not go for that one, and wouldn't accept the phony.

Then, in the bustle, the seller lost her edge for a moment, and gave us a real twenty kuai note. Relieved to have the deal over, we grabbed it and went on our way, oblivious (for the moment) that we had received ten kuai too many.

A few minutes later, the group of bag sellers came running up from behind. We quickly realized their mistake, and refunded them their ten kuai. The last we saw of our friends? They were standing there, arguing with one another over whose ten kuai the bill was. That was one negotiation we were happy to not be a part of!


China Is Wayne's World

We all have to give it to Wayne...He got it done, morning, noon, and night, on his first full day in Beijing.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wayne Does It!

More than two years ago, Desi, the kids, and I met Wayne for dinner in Chinatown in DC. There, under the arch, I told Wayne I was applying for a grant, and if I got it, we would all be moving to China.

Wayne's response? "If you get this grant, I am coming to visit you!"

Ever since then, we held out hope...But, truth be told, we had our doubts. I mean, it's a long way to come, it's a logistical hassle, and it costs real money.

Then, a few months ago, the e-mails started coming in...

"It's time for me to plan my trip to China." (We still were doubtful.)

"OK. I'm applying for my visa." (Is he really going to do it!?)

"I just purchased my ticket!" (Wow!)

Well, as you can see, the big day arrived, and, easing our last minute doubts, there Wayne was, strolling out of Beijing Capital International Airport. He did it! He actually did it!


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Fading Into The Background

It's amazing what we don't see anymore...The wonders of assimilation!

Lately, I've been taking a mental tally of some of the everyday Chinese oddities that have become commonplace to us, and found it is actually work to do so. It seems that things that would have shocked or surprised us when we first moved here now seem totally normal and rarely merit a second glance.

For starters, take the laundry hanging everywhere. If there is anything that resembles a pole or a line, there's most likely something hanging from it. It doesn't matter where or when, the Chinese way (ultimate energy efficiency!) of drying underwear to outwear, blankets to bras, you name it and we've seen it flying high.

Next up, means of daily transport. To see three or even four people on a motorbike (sometimes including a baby) doesn't even faze us anymore. The last che I gave a second look to was a horse and cart galloping down a street adjacent to the Temple of Heaven.

Group gatherings and the leisure activities that coincide with them are almost expected. From the small group of nai nai and ye ye (grandmas and grandpas) who gather outside our apartment building for their daily does of taijiquan to the hordes that can be found at virtually every public space, especially parks, flying kites, singing patriotic songs, ballroom dancing, or twirling flags, their absence rather than their presence is what causes surprise. People appear so happy to be alive, enjoying the day with others who like to do what they like to do.

How about those card players and Chinese chess players? Any time, anywhere, you'll see men and women engrossed in gaming. And if the stakes are high, or the competition looks fierce, you'll see a circle of people form around the players. Simply commonplace.

Yet, for new eyes (as ours once were), these occurrences might draw raised eyebrows. Once perplexed by them, we now delight in them. And so we await the fresh of Wayne. We'll welcome the opportunity (in just a few short hours!) to once again experience the newness of China, through his experiences...Not that we take a single day for granted!

Hopefully, Wayne will too delight in...

Babies with split bottom pants.

Tanks of fish, frogs, and turtles at neighborhood restaurants.

Funny looking light switches and plugs.

Firecrackers at 6 am on a weekday.

Chopsticks. Every meal, every day.

How about dumplings, noodles, and buns for breakfast?

Street food on every corner.

Webs of wires strung everywhere.

The prettiest hair I have ever seen on a man. (The trendy guys have bigger hair than me!)

Squat toilets.

Audi after Jinbei after Santana.

Sanlunche parked outside our front door.

Pigeons flying in formation over Saoziying.

Little dogs everywhere.


PS: By the way, for those keeping score at home, that's 2-0 for the groom's side...Come on bride's side!

Z's Beach Capsule Project

Somewhere at Golden Sand Beach near Qingdao there is a note buried underground. This note is the brainchild of Z, who decided to leave a fingerprint of sorts for others to find. Here's what the note says...

Dear friend,

Right now, I am staying in Qing Dao. Excuse me, I have not introduced myself. I am Steven Z. Balla, age 12, and I live in Beijing. I am from Washington D.C., USA. I have an older sister and she is age 14 on June 4. I love china!


Steven Z. Balla

Go to our website at:


Monday, June 08, 2009

Scenes From Qingdao Beaches, Part II

So what about all of that action around us that give Qingdao's beaches their Chinese characteristics? Here is a partial list of what we found distinctive...

Hardly anyone wears bathing suits. Most people come to the beach in jeans and full clothing. Invariably, the jeans get hiked up as the irresistible call of the water gets louder and louder.

There is no concept of the beach blanket. Apart from the four of us, everyone else was sitting or laying right on the sand. Many beach goers really enjoy covering themselves in sand and rubbing it all over their bodies.

There are way more men than women at the beach. It was hard to miss the male dominated crowd at the beaches we visited. There were groups of young and middle-aged men having fun rolling in the sand, digging holes, and flopping around in the surf. There were groups of older men, usually dressed only in bikinis and sporting deep tans, sitting around and chatting with one another.

Women at the beach are most often sitting under umbrellas. White skin, the paler the better, is seen as a sign of beauty among Chinese women.

There really isn't much in the way of food. There are some drink stands, but don't go to a Chinese beach expecting pizza, boardwalk fries, or anything like that.

You can rent speedboats! No, we didn't actually take advantage of the opportunity to have a driver whip us out into the open ocean, but it sure did look like fun. There are also a ton of hawkers roaming the beaches with cameras, offering to take photos at a price. At one point, a young guy came up to Desi and me, and used up one of his purchased pictures on these two old waiguoren.

The beachcombers are looking not for buried treasure, but for trash. The beach is full of people, strolling back and forth, collecting drink bottles, paper wrappers, and whatever other garbage is left in the sand by beach goers. One of these beachcombers, an older man, spent some time squatting next to us, asking questions, and generally watching what we were doing. When it comes to the Ballas, the people watching goes both ways! We are happy to be the watchers and the watched!

Speaking of being watched, once the word spread that the waiguoren can speak Chinese, a small crowd gathered around us. There were people from all over China, including Tibet and Harbin. There were a lot of questions about what life is like in the United States. This encounter really encapsulated the position we currently occupy between the society we come from and the society in which we live and work. We spent the day telling ordinary Chinese about America...And now we blog about the day so that average Americans can learn more about China. We think hard every day about how to do justice to both sides...Even at the beach!


Scenes From Qingdao Beaches, Part I

In some senses, a beach is a beach is a beach. There is water, sand, and sun. For the four of us, a few outings at various beaches around Qingdao provided nice opportunities to do what we normally do down the shore...sunbathe, dig some holes, take a few dips.

It was the action all around us that constantly reminded us that we're not in Hilton Head any more...


The Banquet Circuit

As we have traveled from university to university, there have not only been lectures to deliver, but banquets to attend as well. Over time, we have accumulated a series of observations about how this particular form of Chinese hospitality unfolds.

It all starts with the baojian, or private room. From the host's perspective, enjoying a meal behind closed doors is a sign of respect for the honored guests. It signals the idea that not just any old table is good enough for the occasion at hand. As fans of the noise and chaos of Chinese dining rooms, this aspect of banquets has required the four of us to put aside our personal preferences, and spend the time celebrating as our hosts have deemed fit.

As for the food itself, it has invariably turned out not only to be delicious, but to be way too much. Once again, there is some "face" at work in this aspect of the Chinese banquet. To order more than is possible to eat is seen as a way of stressing that no expense will be spared on behalf of the visitors. The upside of this generosity is a wealth of dishes to sample from. The downsides? Well, there is the waste of leaving all that food behind. And then there is the idea of pacing. If we know there is a series of banquets (such as a lunch followed a few hours later by a dinner) being offered on our behalf, we take steps to pace ourselves, so we have room for what's to come. (Augustus! Augustus! Save some room for later!)

When seated at the table, there are a few small protocols that dictate the flow of the meal. For example, the seat located opposite the door of the private room is considered the place of honor. When the dishes arrive, usually one-by-one, the fuwuyuan will place them on the Lazy Susan and spin them over in front of the person occupying the special seat. Not a good location to be in if you do not want to lead the group in the sampling some of the more, to Western palates, exotic dishes that can make appearances at banquets!

And then there are the drinking rituals. For example, how high or low you hold your glass when toasting with the person next to you is a function of your place in the hierarchy of the occasion. This has led us to go to great pains, almost comically, to barely raise our glasses off the table come toast time...Not an easy task for Westerners who are used to throwing their arms way up into the air!

Overall, we have found banquets to be fun, fascinating...and exhausting!