Friday, August 20, 2010

Fulbright Past And Present


Startled to hear my name being called out in the middle of Beijing, I looked up...and who was standing there but Dennis Johnson and Pat Petrash. Crazy!

Dennis is a colleague of mine at GW, and he and Pat are at the very beginning of their year of living in China, courtesy of the Fulbright program. Back in June, before we headed back to Beijing, Dennis and Pat were gracious enough to have us over their home for dinner and hours of Balla storytelling, as a small part of their preparation for moving to the other side of the world.

And so who would have guessed that, two months later, there the six of us would be again...this time meeting up by a city of 17 million...

Like I said...crazy!


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blazing Badminton

One day, the four of us decided to take a trip to the man-made hill behind the Forbidden City called Jingshan Gongyuan. The hill is actually made from the dirt dug out from the moat around the Forbidden City. The surrounding park is great place to play games such as shuttlecock, badminton, and "paddles" (we don't know the actual name of this particular game, where two players use wooden paddles to hit a feathered birdie back and forth).

At a specific spot near the base of the hill, Dad and I always play badminton. After several minutes of playing, a man came over and asked if he could play. We said, "Of course!" So he picked up a racket and he and I began.

The next thirty minutes were a blur. I could barely return any of his shots. He started out at an incredibly fast pace, serving, smashing, and volleying so quickly that I could barely see his racket. Next to his shots, mine looked like weights flying through the air in slow motion.

At some point, he realized that I could barely keep up. Even with him slowing down a little, my mind was filled with, "watch the birdie," "smash it," "forehand," backhand," and so on. I was only aware of the man, the birdie, and me.

After maybe ten minutes of playing at a "slower" pace, I began to get comfortable with his techniques, and so he once again began to hit it a little harder and a little faster. I am still amazed at how he could slam the birdie toward me extremely fast with seemingly little or no effort.

Now, by this time, I was able to return several of his shots at a time. Now and then it even looked as though I might have scored a point. Because of the man's skill, I nearly jumped for joy every time I returned a shot.

After what seemed to be years, he decided that he was ready to take a break. We both walked back to our families, drenched in sweat. He had a drink and then walked over to hand me back my racket. As he walked away, I was startled and amazed at the state of the racket. Four strings were broken and the handle was bent in a 160-degree angle in relation to the racket head. I then packed up my things, wiped my head with a towel, chugged a drink, and headed out...


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On A More Delicate Topic

Let me start by saying that I think Steve asked me to write this blog because I don't have quite the same personal attachment to this subject as he does.

Recently, we decided to check out a few of the less visited, perhaps more eclectic sites of Beijing. One that had recurred in our conversations and therefore made its way to the top spot was that of the eunuch tombs. While still not quite sure why a young man would volunteer for this position in service to the emperor, the memorial to one of the most famous eunuchs and a few of his disciples was fascinating on its own merits. A graveyard of sorts, with a couple of burial mounds, steles, and two goats commissioned with keeping the grounds well kept, was located on the outskirts of southwest Beijing in the middle of a thriving, working class neighborhood.

On opposite sides of the cemetery were two sets of stairways leading down around ten feet to what was noted by the Frommer's Guide as mausoleums. Unclear to us was if this was actually where the eunuchs were buried or if the burials mounds were their final places of rest.

Given the hundred-plus degree day, we decided to venture underground for a while to cool off and check things out. Despite a creepiness factor of around ten, as we were the only visitors to that site at that time, we spent some time inspecting the walls which had openings that looked like coffins might have been placed inside, the doors which were made of stone and Steve enjoyed closing to put a scare in me, as well as a rectangular box on the floor, of which the purpose was unclear to us. We remained there until we were cooled down enough to emerge. Then we visited perhaps a stranger complex, somewhat like a makeshift museum.

Inside a series of rooms dressed in imperial architecture were descriptions, photos, artifacts, and displays about such topics as "the last eunuch" (who died in 1996) and "how one becomes a eunuch" (literally...perhaps the most disturbing display I've ever seen), as well as a real corpse (also a bit disturbing) of a man whose identity we are unsure of. Suffice it to say that his bottom half was covered with a sheet, allowing us to infer possible eunuch status.

So if you're looking for a place to get away from the crowds, experience a bit of the stranger side of Chinese history for around a dollar-fifty per person, you won't be disappointed here.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Several weeks ago, our landlady asked us if we wanted to go to the wushu (martial arts) festival. We, of course, said yes. So several mornings later, we got up, got on the subway, and went to the festival. We walked down the road to where the wushu was. We think it was being held at the Olympic building where the martial arts was held, out in the middle of nowhere.

When we got to the building, we took out our tickets. When no one went to check them, we just walked in.

The festival was set up in three sections. To the right were all little kids. To the left were elderly contestants. In the middle was the middle-aged group. The most interesting group was the middle-aged group. They had the most skill in their moves.

I personally thought that the events where there were weapons were the best. These events combined jumping, lunging, and parrying.

While we sat there, eating snacks and watching, we narrowed the competitors down to the best. Our favorite was a middle-aged man who competed in multiple events. He used a spear, a sword, nunchucks, and a mace. When this man competed, it was if he was fighting against an enemy that the audience could not see. Once, it looked to me as if he were fighting a dragon, dodging flames, slashing it's neck, and keeping it on the ground.

Eventually, we decided to head out for lunch. On our way out, we were lucky to bump into our favorite competitor. Dad's desire to take a picture with him was fulfilled.

After lunch, on our way back to the subway, I decided that I wanted to buy one of the martial arts swords that were being sold outside the building. After several minutes of negotiation, I bought a one-edged blade for thirty kuai. Once Mom saw that I had bought a sword, I was required to buy a case for it. The case was also thirty kuai. Luckily, I was not held up or arrested in the subway station on our way home...


Monday, August 16, 2010

Leon And Leonna

Have you ever wondered what to do if you cannot fit into a taxi? How about if you are taking a picture of your girlfriend by the lake and she accidentally falls in? You make a bus explode by stuffing a rag into the exhaust pipe? You mistake your dog's "waste" for your girlfriend's hairpiece and end up with it all over your face?

No? You have never experienced any of these incidents? Well, just in case you need advice, you can always ask Leon and Leonna, who have experienced all of the above and more.

Leon and Leonna are two characters who you see every time you get on the Beijing subway. Their short cartoons are featured on the TV screens found in both subway stations and on the trains. Each clip either gives a lesson about transportation in Beijing or is meant to make you laugh. No matter what, though, Leon gets in trouble and is defeated by his girlfriend Leonna in some kind of competition that resembles a video game.

Leon is a green frog, while Leonna is a pink frog. Sometimes a yellow frog flirts with Leon and Leonna gets really angry with Leon. Other episodes include a big brown hippo who is often associated with criminal activity.

Every episode guarantees laughter or confusion, but I would like to leave off with probably my favorite...

Leon and Leonna are sitting in a movie theater eating popcorn. When they get down to the last piece, Leon picks it up without looking, but before putting it into his mouth, he realizes that he should give it to his girlfriend. As he reaches over to put it in her mouth, something happens in the movie and he accidentally stuffs it up Leonna's nose. He realizes that she is suffocating and looks for something to help wash down the popcorn. The first thing he finds is a bottle of liquid on the ground, but from Leonna's expression after she drinks it, it can't be water. Leon looks over to see that a baby was just peeing into that bottle and knows that he is dead meat. Leonna wins by drowning Leon with a peeing boy statue and the screen says...GAME OVER.

Now for the rest of Leon's adventures, you will just have to go to Beijing and see for yourself (or check out