Saturday, June 26, 2010

There's No Stove...

...But you can't beat the location...

Nestled on Zhongguancun Lu, snugly between our old digs of Yan Bei Yuan and all the attractions we love to frequent in central Beijing, our apartment is already serving us well. Equipped with a spiral staircase (the kids' favorite) that connects two floors, our new place seems to tower over the city. Reportedly on the 15th floor, although the elevator (yes, elevator) seems to be missing a few floors, when I count from the ground windows to our apartment, we seem to be on the 12th and 13th levels. We can see for miles, especially on a clear day. Aesthetically pleasing with its modern furniture, huge east-facing windows, and key-less entry, the same old quirks of Chinese living exist...no stove (just a one-burner hot plate...guess that means I don't have to cook!), no dryer (now you know what those big windows are for!), no dish washer (again, happily we eat almost every meal out anyway). Absolutely no complaints here because, as I found out last time, these luxuries are somehow just not as critical here.

It seems that most Chinese use their homes as a place to keep their stuff and to sleep. Most of their time is spent out and about. And while the comfort of our new apartment is not standard fare (it really is quite nice), we are no exception to the "out and about" rule. Something draws us out...The excitement of the hustle and bustle makes us want to be ground level.

~Desi

We Still Got It!

We may be getting older as a family, but there it is...Our first picture with random Chinese people, in this case a couple of guys visiting Beijing from the western part of the country.

~Steve

Fun At Yuanmingyuan

Living across the street from the Old Summer Palace for a year gave us the feeling that Yuanmingyuan is kind of like our neighborhood park (The Wheaton Regional Park of China!). Z is in fact on record as stating that it is his favorite park in the world. And so, on our first excursion back, we were not so much interested in the park's infamous (from the average Chinese person's point of view) ruins, but rather hanging out in some off-the-beaten-path spots, just having family fun on a weekend afternoon. For Z, fun is running through the hills above the pathways, spying on us and attacking me with pines cones and other natural weapons. As for Julie, fun is dipping her toes in the ponds and watching the water bead up on lotus leaves. Speaking of which, there really is nothing like the beauty of Yuanmingyuan's lotus in bloom...

~Steve

Adventures In Chinese Banking

Two years ago, when we first moved to China, we opened up a local bank account. We thought it would be kind of cool to have a Chinese bank account. (Not as impressive as a Swiss bank account, of course!) Plus, we reasoned, it would be nice to have access to significant amounts of cash, rather than just be limited by the amount we can withdraw at one time from an ATM machine.

When we moved back to the US, we decided to leave the ICBC account intact. And so one of our first orders of business was to restock the funds in this account. Walking into our neighborhood branch with a wad of US dollars, I took a number and found a seat on one of the many pleather chairs in the lobby. No queuing at Chinese banks. It is kind of like the deli counter at Shop Rite...You had better be ready when your number is called or they will move right on to the next customer!

My transaction took all of two minutes, as I explained that I wanted to deposit some American dollars into my account. It was two days later that the fun began...

Wanting to replenish the cash in our wallets, I stuck my ICBC card into one of the bank's ubiquitous ATM machines...And was promptly informed that there were "insufficient funds" in our account. In fact, the "advice" (this is, for some reason, what the voice in the ATM machine calls a receipt) stated that there was the equivalent of about $50 available for withdrawal.

Later in the day, I strolled back down to the local branch and tried to straighten things out. When I explained that the account supposedly has only about 300 yuan in it, the teller nodded in agreement. Looking at the screen in front of her, she said, "Yes, you have 300 yuan in your account."

But what about those two thousand US dollars I deposited the other day? "Yes, you also have two thousand US dollars in your account." Eureka moment for this silly waiguoren!

I had assumed that it didn't matter if I deposited money into our account as renminbi or dollars, that either would be available for withdrawal as Chinese currency. Wrong! So now what I need to do is go back to the bank, take out those two thousand US dollars, convert them into renminbi (probably right there in the bank lobby), and then deposit those notes into the account. At least that's what I think I need to do!

~Steve

Friday, June 25, 2010

Jet Lag

Now I am sure you are all waiting for an update on the status of our jet lag. Well, here you are...

Before we left, I put our family on a three day anti-jet lag diet. It worked two years ago when we moved to China, so we gave it a try again. We also tried to switch our sleeping habits to China time while on the plane. Although everyone did nap a little bit during the flight (which was daytime in China), we all kept to the schedule.

So were all of our preparations helpful?

I would say yes.

Even though we all woke up a little earlier than normal on our first day, we managed to make it through our first full day without a single nap! We all seem to have adjusted perfectly to the time change and haven't wasted any time getting back to our regular places.

While we might not always be hungry at regular times these first few days, I have no doubt that we will be doing our Balla death marches ASAP!

~Julie

Editor's note: Ah, youth! It is before 5am when this post is being typed...

Li Ayi And Tianzuo Guoji

On our first full day in Beijing, it was time to check out of the Jinjiang and head over to our home for the summer. Our apartment is owned by Haotian and Yuan, a young couple who are in the US working on their PhDs. With rough directions in hand, and unable to sleep because of jet lag, we hit the streets of Beijing before the clock struck 6am.

Two hours of walking later, we had passed through a great zaoshi (morning market) and by the front of Wutasi (one of our favorite Beijing temples), but had not succeeded in finding our apartment. Then, returning to an intersection near where we had started, we looked up and there it was...天作国际 (Tianzuo Guoji). A typical Balla Beijing misadventure!

Scheduled to meet Haotian's mother, Li Ayi, at 10am, we loaded our bags into a pair of taxis and took the short ride over to Zhongguancun Lu. Tianzuo Guoji is a strange (to our western eyes) collection of residences, offices, and a shopping mall (yes, a shopping mall!). We dropped our stuff in what looked like the main lobby and waited. At a few minutes past ten, I pulled out my cell phone, which had miraculously come back to life after a year's vacation in America, and dialed Li Ayi, who informed me that we needed to walk over to the entrance of er hao lou (Building #2). Z and I wandered out the door and started asking around. As we zeroed in on our location, there she was, waving her hand out the window, calling, "Bai Xiansheng! Bai Xiansheng!" Mr. Balla! Mr. Balla! The game was on...

Moving up to the fifteenth floor, or more precisely the floor numbered fifteen (for whatever reason, the numbering system isn't consecutive), Li Ayi and I set about going through the details of the contract and how the apartment works. It was great to hear real-time Chinese and actually understand most of it. (It also helped that Li Ayi is originally from Luoyang, an old city in Henan Province. Read...She is not from Beijing...No marbles in her mouth!)

The most confusing part came when talking about electricity and hot water. It turns out that there are these cards. You go down to the wuye (apartment manager) and pre-pay for each of these amenities, using the cards as identification. A bit of an unusual system from our perspective, but, hey, it works!

In the meantime, Desi was over at the table working on assembling the cash to finalize the deal. We hadn't had a chance to deposit money in our Chinese bank account yet, so we had exchanged dollars for renminbi at the nearby Friendship Hotel. Naturally, we had forgotten about the security deposit, so Desi was left to scramble through Julie and Z's money, as well as any spare yuan we had lying around. Saving face for us, Desi managed to cobble together the full amount in the nick of time. And so here we are, fashioning 1503 Tianzuo Guoji into our home for the next two months...

~Steve

Wonka Bed

Grandpa George, Grandma Georgina, Grandpa Joe, and Grandma Josephine had nothing on the Ballas as they pulled into Beijing for their first night back. Since our apartment plans fell into place (in full Chinese fashion) around twelve hours before our departure, we had planned on at least one night at the Jinjiang Inn (China's Motel 6).

Steve had made an online reservation before we left, but, as usual, when we arrived the question that emerged...Two rooms, right? You see, hotel rooms at the Jinjiang are, shall we say, on the small side. Never fazed by this, since living like hamsters has never been a problem for us, our response is usually something like, Liang ge xiaohair, liang da ren. Yi ge fangjian xing bu xing? (We have two adults and two kids. Is one room OK?) Then we wait tensely as he looks us over. Xing.

Phew!

Now, normally the accommodations are textbook. Two single beds. A TV. Desk. Bathroom with toothbrushes, soap, and, unfortunately, one small roll of toilet paper, which we inevitably upgrade to two in the first ten minutes. This time, though, we were surprised to find only one bed (somewhere between a double and a queen). Mei guanxi. (No problem!) In fact, this may have been better than we could have hoped, for combined with the exhaustion of traveling halfway around the world, there was much more room per capita sleeping Wonka style, so we had no trouble conking out.

Somehow, though, a little song from long ago kept running through my mind...So they all rolled over and one fell out. There were four in a bed and the little one said, "Roll over, roll over."

~Desi

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You Know You're Flying Air China When...

(1) You encounter cardboard cutouts of chengwuyuan (flight attendants) the second you walk into the terminal at JFK.

(2) About a minute after that, a chaojia (argument) breaks out at the check-in counter, giving us our first opportunity in many months to bend our ears to "street" Mandarin.

(3) While waiting to board the plane, you spy the inevitable group of middle-aged guys playing cards on the ground. (Have we ever told you what an absolute rage card playing is in China?)

(4) The plane is full of that sea of black heads, all watching the same movie on a big screen at the front of the cabin (personal entertainment consoles are apparently yet to be introduced).

(5) As for the entertainment itself, it was that inexplicable mish mosh of east meets west, with everything from Sherlock Holmes to Xi Yang Yang.

Ah, it's great to be back...

~Steve

Scenes From The Top Of The World

We have arrived safe and sound in Beijing! As we get our lives set up, here is what it looked like as we crossed over the permafrost from west to east. And, just to prove that we are indeed here, that's Z obeying the seat belt sign in the taxi cab ride from the airport into town...

~Steve

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Here We Go!

Here's exactly where we will be today, beginning at 4:50pm and lasting for the next 13-14 hours. (We'll say hi to Santa and Rudolph for you!) Stay tuned for updates from the other side of the world!

~Steve

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sichuan Pavilion

Thanks to Songwei, we recently discovered about the most authentic Chinese food we have eaten since moving back to the US.

Let me be a bit more specific, given that there really is no such thing as "Chinese" food. With all of the regional variation in cuisines, what I am talking about here is food prepared in the mala style that Sichuan province is famous for.

Mala translates as something like "numbing spiciness." Indeed, it had been nearly a year since my tongue felt that familiar, distinctive sensation. Good practice for this summer!

Our recommendations include...

Tudou Si. This shredded potato dish was Julie's favorite, judging by the way she polished off the entire plate nearly by herself. (I believe this was the first time we had encountered tudou si in the US, even though it is one of the most common dishes in China, something you can eat every day if you want.)

Shui Zhu Niurou. This Sichuan classic is pieces of beef boiled in a spicy concoction. We thought it was pretty close in preparation to what we have eaten in the alleyways of Saoziying (Restaurant #2 specializes in Sichuan dishes).

Yuxiang Qiezi. Desi did the honors of leading the way on this dish of eggplant cooked in a sweet, spicy, sour sauce.

La Zi Ji. My personal favorite, this chicken dish is seasoned to the max with an assortment of peppers. I actually preferred Sichuan Pavilion's version to what I have eaten in the past. The reason is that it is impossible to get this dish served without bones in China, so you spend your meal gnawing on diced bones in an effort to get the meat off. It was nice to just grab a piece of meat with my chopsticks and enjoy the flavors.

A bowl of plain noodles served in broth. It was definitely good practice for Z, as he will spend the summer trying to convey to puzzled fuwuyuan that all he wants is noodles and soup. No meat. No vegetables. No cilantro. No nothing.

~Steve