Saturday, July 03, 2010

A Typical Fourth of July?

Spending part of the holiday weekend at an amusement park is, of course, a pretty standard American pastime. It is just that when the amusement part is located in Beijing, there are certain Chinese characteristics that end up coloring the day. For example...

There are very few people at the amusement park. Remember the days of waiting for hours to ride Roaring Rapids at Great Adventure? Well, we have never been to a crowded Chinese amusement park. And many of the people in the park are not actually riding the rides. It is not uncommon to see groups of people, often young guys, standing there and watching the particularly scary rides in action. In fact, the roller coaster that Z and I rode did not start up until there were enough people to make it worthwhile for the operators. (The magic number? Z and I were the fourth and fifth people, respectively, and as soon as we arrived, it was a go.)

Chinese people do not like to get wet on water rides. I wore my Under Armour to the park, so I would dry off pretty quickly after getting doused by any water rides that we might go on. As Julie, Z, and I got set to board the big flume, the attendant tried to hand us plastic ponchos. Everyone else was definitely wearing them, but we said, bu yao. "We don't want them." Then as we passed by the next attendant, he asked us where our ponchos were, and we again indicated that we didn't see any need for them. After conferring with the first attendant, he was satisfied that this was indeed true and let us get in the car. There we were, us three crazy waiguoren, surrounded by screaming young Chinese people, all of whom were covered head to toe in plastic (blow up the middle picture to get a glimpse of the scene).

Hey, happy Fourth of July everyone!


What Is This A Picture Of?

Take a close look...


And The Answer Is...

...The Marble Boat!

In a nutshell, in the waning years of China's last dynasty, funds appropriated for the country's naval defenses were used instead to build a decadent marble boat at the Summer Palace, the imperial get away outside of Beijing. The boat is a sort of icon of the decay that characterized China in the 19th century. Today, of course, it is a must-see attraction on the Beijing tourist circuit...


Friday, July 02, 2010

The "In the Know" Phenomenon

Yesterday morning, I ventured on my own to our new "breakfast people." New neighborhood, new choices. While I usually send Z to run down and grab some guotie (steamed pork dumplings), he was snoozing and I knew that they close up shop by 9am so it was time to go it alone.

When I reached the big red umbrella, around two blocks away from our apartment, I placed my order by pointing and asking for yi fenr (one order). Then I asked the woman (part of the husband-wife team who were preparing and selling several different varieties of dumplings) what the name of my type is. Jiao shenme? I said. She replied with words that were highly accented and that I could hardly understand. While I know them as guotie, she said something with a "jiao" in it so I just shook my head and smiled (thinking that I guess I'll just point and ask for yi fenr again next time). Anyways, as I stood and waited, the man (the husband part of the team) asked me a question which, again, I could hardly understand. The only part of the query that I recognized was when he held up his hand in a motion that showed "tallness" and mentioned the word gao which means "tall." "Ok," I said to myself, "he must be talking about Z." Since all of us had stopped there on our first morning walk, I figured they had made an association between Z and me. I answered in very poor Mandarin...ah, ta xiaoxi. What I meant to say was that he was asleep (shui jiao) but, in fact said that he's "news." Thank goodness I put my hands next to my face and tilted my head and closed my eyes. Sign language definitely worked better than my Chinese this time, but I refused to give up.

Next the woman seemed to ask me where I was living. While not exactly sure if this was her question or not, I decided to tell her anyway. "We live at Tianzuo Guoji," I said. This seemed to be the right answer so I continued (in better Chinese since I had used these lines before) that my husband is working at Peking University. "Ah," she said. When her husband followed up, "A teacher?" "Yes," I said, adding that he is actually "a professor."

This where the phenomenon begins...

So I continue to wait for my dumplings (which needed to be steamed a bit more) and an ayi (middle-aged woman) from the neighborhood wandered over to the stand. She smiled at me and said something to the man and woman that was, again, unrecognizable to my ears. I smiled back at her and then continued to listen, knowing exactly what was to come next. The conversation that ensued between all of them went something like this...

"Oh, yes, she lives over there in Tianzuo Guoji. Her husband is a professor at Peking University." Obviously this couple was "in-the-know" and proud to spread the word about their new hao pengyou. With more smiles and chuckles, this was a very positive and happy exchange...but not one that was unfamiliar as this was the type of exchange that happened over and over again when we lived here. It seemed that whenever we struck up a conversation with someone, whether we actually knew them or not, any information we provided them was happily disseminated to later passersby.

By the way, the dumplings (whatever they are called!) were excellent...


Pan Ting

Last summer, living in the neighborhood, Z and I had the opportunity to make several Chinese friends. You may have read Z's posts about Xiao Didi and Xiao Gainan (fondly known as Xiao Pengyou, or "little friend"), so now it's time for my Pan Ting story.

Pan Ting (the middle girl in the accompanying photograph) was my first friend in Yan Bei Yuan. She too was fourteen and in 8th grade. I didn't meet her until the summer last year because she was going to school in the village where her dad works and then came to Beijing for the summer (where her mother lives adjacent to the neighborhood public bathroom). But as soon as we did meet, we spent almost every evening walking through the park with a few of the other neighborhood girls, getting to know each other. Even when Z and I were homeschooling, Pan Ting and Z's friends would come and call up to our window every day to see if we could come outside. Of course, most of those days we had to wait until after we were done with our lessons, but Pan Ting and I still spent hours last summer talking.

Now leaving China did leave me with some doubts as to if and/or when I would ever see Pan Ting again. She doesn't have a computer or e-mail and so the only thing I could give her was my Chinese cell phone number. Returning a year later, my only hope was that Pan Ting would come back to Beijing for the summer.

Well, our first days in Yan Bei Yuan showed no signs of a Pan Ting/Julie reunion. But I was still hopeful. We were thinking she might not get out of school until July 1st. So I waited patiently.

One day, while we were eating mala tang in Saoziying, we saw Pan Ting's mom. I went over to see her and found out that Pan Ting has stopped going to school (permanently) and now works at the Wu Mei (a convenience store in the neighborhood). Z and I ran to go see her immediately, and found her working the cash register and dressed in an oversized red uniform shirt.

After her shift ended at 8:30pm, I finally was able to catch up with Pan Ting (we went on our usual walk through the park). She told me all about these rumors she had heard about our return and how much she had hoped they were true.

It's good to be back!


Thursday, July 01, 2010

Is Beijing 2010 More Polluted?

Since arriving back in town, Desi and I have been having a sort of running argument about Beijing's air quality. It has been going something like this...

Desi: Man, it is really soupy out there. I don't remember the air being this bad for so many days on end.

Steve: I don't think the air is any worse than last summer. Remember, we were living here for a whole year, and there were lots of blue sky days, especially in the fall and spring. After the middle of June last year, we didn't see the sun for the last two months we lived here.

Desi: I don't know about that. It seems that there were some breaks last summer, days where the sun and blue sky came out.

Steve: You're remembering it that way because we took a couple of trips away from Beijing last summer. A few days in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and at Wei Ziji's house gave us breaks from Beijing's smog.

Desi: Even so, it has been really bad out there for a week now, much worse than I expected. Maybe it is just because we are on the 15th floor and so are much higher up in the thick of the soup.


PS: It rained off and on all day yesterday, setting the stage for our first sort of blue sky day of the year...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Balla Blog Jeopardy, 2010 Edition

Answer: It is a symbol of national humiliation in the eyes of millions of Chinese citizens.

And the question is???


To Translate Or Not To Translate

This picture shows the booth at the back of the room where presentations at the Chinese Internet Research Conference are translated from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English. One decision I found myself having to make at this bilingual conference is whether to put on a translation head set or not.

On one level, this is an easy decision. My Chinese is nowhere nearly good enough to follow professional lectures given in Mandarin.

My decision, however, was to eschew the headset and use the time, with dictionary in hand, to work on my comprehension skills. I settled on this approach because I have the abstracts and the papers, so I can later go and read any of the research I find particularly interesting. Toward this end, I found myself able to follow the general thrust of the lectures. Helping me in my quest was the fact that the presenters all spoke much clearer than the taxi drivers and restaurant servers I am used to conversing with. That said, many of the details went over my head, as the vocabulary, grammar, and sheer speed of speech was too much for my brain to handle.

It was just another adventure in language learning, one that helped me add a lot of academic and information technology vocabulary to my mental list. Let's see how long it stays there...


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Michael Anti Thinks My Data Are Fake!

After finishing my presentation at the Chinese Internet Research Conference, it was time for questions and answers. What soon followed was a brief brush/encounter with a global Internet celebrity. Here's how it unfolded...

A young guy in the front row asked me a very pointed question. Actually, it was more of a statement than a question. And it was a good one...

"How do we know that the government did not delete any comments that were opposed to the health care reform plan? [My paper was an analysis of online comments that were submitted by individuals on the Chinese central government's health care proposal.] If negative comments were deleted, then the results of your analysis are all fake."

Like I said, a great point, especially when dealing with a government known worldwide for its Internet censorship. Before it was my turn to respond, the panel moderator noted to the audience that the comment had come from none other than Michael Anti.

Who is Michael Anti? Michael Anti is a Chinese blogger and journalist who became famous around the world when Microsoft, presumably at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party, deleted his blog in 2005. Since that time, Michael Anti has continued to press his case for freedom of the press here in China and the need for professional journalistic standards.

All of a sudden realizing who my critic was, I decided to take a fairly aggressive approach in constructing my response, more aggressive than I normally would be at an academic meeting. Using phrases like, "Let me give you another reason why we should note throw my data out," I tried to mount a vigorous defense of the work.

In the end, Michael Anti's point was a valid one that deserves some mention in the paper. And so the Chinese Internet Research Conference has definitely been a productive, if unusually contentious, meeting for this wayward American scholar.

Thanks Michael Anti!


Xiao Pengyou

During the year, no one sees any kids above five years old and below sixteen years old. However, on July 1st, they all come out when school lets out for the summer. Before this time last year, Julie and I had no Chinese friends our ages. Then, finally, on July 2nd, we made our first friends. My friend's name is Xiao Gainan, or Xiao Penyou (little friend) as I like to call him. Every few days, I would go over to his house and we'd play video games. When we left China, we gave him a lot of stuff that we were not taking with us.

A few nights ago, I went to find Xiao Pengyou. It was getting dark, but I saw dad's bike and thought he might be home. So I walked to his back door and shouted, "Ehh, Xiao Gainan!" He peeked out the door and said, "Bai Qiman!" He ran back inside to tell his Dad I was there. Meanwhile, I was left standing outside. When he let me in, he took out a chess set and we began to play.

While we were playing, I made a move to sacrifice a piece. When he saw this, he called his dad in and they examined what I had done. Then he asked me if I knew how to play and why I didn't move the piece somewhere else. In the end, I beat him.

After that, we played again, but after the first three moves, he gave me back all my pieces and took his because he was losing.

Then he brought out ice cream and we began playing again. I won again. Finally, it was time to leave. Turns out, I left to meet Mom, Dad, and Julie a half hour early, so I went back to his apartment. He was eating dinner, so he put me in a room by myself to watch TV. Although it was a little weird, it is great to be reacquainted with Xiao Gainan!


Monday, June 28, 2010

My New Office

Here are a few shots of my new office, which is located in the Leo Koguan Institute for Business and Government in the Peking University School of Government. Yes, Hongru, you're right...We could have used sleeping bags on the floor if we hadn't found an apartment!

I call the pleather couch!


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Special Treatment

As we make our way back through all our old food haunts of Saoziying, we have been greeted happily and hospitably by the people who had made our culinary experiences so enriching last year. And with each glorious return not only do we recall the foods we loved but also the way in which they were served...sometimes quite differently than to our Chinese neighbors.

Case in point...One of our favorite places in the alley is a mala tang restaurant that took us months to build up to. Despite passing it every day, we were unsure of exactly what the people who were sitting at outside tables were eating or how they went about ordering. You see, at some mala tang places, you choose the skewered meats, veggies, tofu, and noodles you want and put them into a basket. Then you hand it to the person who is manning the pot. He or she will place the kebabs into a metal basket that is sitting in spiced boiling water and when they are done, remove the perfectly cooked delicacies and put them into a bowl, adding sauce and, on request, hot pepper. This is where a noticeable difference takes place...

Last year when we finally got the nerve to try out this place, the greeting we received made us feel very welcome. Perhaps the restaurateurs had seen us walk by, say, hundreds of times. In any case, when our bowls were ready for serving, they were brought to our table looking quite different from they people around us. While everyone else received a bowl wrapped in a plastic bag (which could be easily discarded when they finished their meal...not the bowl, just the plastic), our bowls did not have the bags on them. Our food was served in the bowl itself, suggesting that they were making a special exception for us...that they didn't mind cleaning our bowls so that we could eat their food in a way that was more "normal" for us.

And so time and time again we ate at this place, noticing each time that our bowls had no plastic. In other words, it wasn't just a one-time fluke. They were really concerned and while we definitely wouldn't have cared if the bowls were covered or not, it did make us feel special.

So fast forward ten months. The mala tang place high on our list, we made our way there in quick fashion. Question...Would they remember us and if so, would the "special treatment" continue?

Check out the picture for your answer.

Ahhh. Life is good!


Xiao Didi

Last year, one of our most common places to eat was at Pang Shifu, the "Fat Chef." The family that owns Pang Shifu has a son who was about two years old at the time. Xiao Didi ("little younger brother") loves to play with cars and just loves everything having to do with cars. During the day, Xiao Didi likes to have someone take him out to the nearest main road to watch the cars go by. Throughout the year, I looked for anything having to do with cars that I could give to my Xiao Didi.

When we moved back to the US, I noticed a box full of Matchbox cars that I had stopped using years ago. I then decided to bring these cars back to Xiao Didi.

The other day, I brought the car in two big CVS bags to Saoziying, where Xiao Didi lives. After we finished eating dinner, Julie and I went to look for him. Of course, he got scared and ran away! I gave one of the many cars to the woman who was watching Xiao Didi to coax him back.

Later, when we went to look for him again, we found Xiao Didi playing with the car with another boy. Xiao Didi got excited when he saw us and then went running down the alley. The other boy started shouting and explaining to Julie what Bakuguan is.

Meanwhile, a guy about 20-25 years old came up to me and started talking to me. We got into a whole conversation about why we are here and how we got here. Then I had to explain to him how government grants work. Of course, I don't know any government language, so I had to do my best.

Then, when we were done talking, I walked down to Pang Shifu and gave the two bags to Xiao Didi's sister. When Xiao Didi went inside, his sister showed him the cars and he came back and stuck his head through the door and said, Xie xie, Xiao Gege! "Thank you, big brother!" It was worth it to bring seven pounds of cars halfway around the world, just to hear Xiao Didi say that!


Registering At The Police Station

Foreigners living in Beijing are required by law to register at their local police station within a few hours of arriving. And so, not wanting to be at risk of getting fined, once we had squared things away with our apartment, we jumped into Li Ayi's car (landlords are also subject to fines if they rent to unregistered foreigners) and headed around the block to the neighborhood public security bureau. The office, it turns out, is located on the campus of Nong Ke Yuan, the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, which is adjacent to our apartment building.

As we pulled up, we were greeted with the sight of a man squatting on the ground, sharpening a meat cleaver on a whet stone. Hmm...

Walking past the cleaver and into the building, we were greeted by a woman in uniform sitting behind a desk. It was almost as if she was waiting for us. I guess that's a good thing about 1.3 billion people...There always seems to be a service person waiting to take care of whatever needs you might have.

As we chatted about peonies and other topics, the officer checked out our passports and filled out some paperwork. We are now fully documented and free to roam about the city!

One last note, just to give you an idea of how seriously the registration process is taken. On the day we moved in, as we stumbled into the lobby with all of our bags, the doorman, seeing a family of four waiguoren who were obviously about to become tenants, immediately escorted me over to a sign near the elevator and pointed to it. Assuming we couldn't speak Chinese, it was his way of communicating to us the non-negotiability of public security registration. Now there's one Chinese law that doesn't suffer from lax enforcement!