Friday, August 15, 2014

Zai Jian Haizi!

Our 100-percent-Chinese-family-summer is about to come to an end.

When Bob and I first talked about moving to China, our thinking was that it would be an adventure and a way to see Asia. We knew that Daniel had been teaching in China but weren't sure how long he'd be staying. And Joanna was working at a good job, fighting the snow of Wisconsin, and off on her life.

What a surprise, then, when Daniel stayed in China for a while longer and Joanna came to visit (after quitting her job) and stayed. I've told this story many times, but it's a fun one to repeat. One month became two, two became six, six months became a year, and a year became two years. It was a good thing.

Then, last summer, both kids left China to go to grad school in the States, both choosing schools and cities that were as un-China as could be imagined, Daniel in Denver and Joanna in Chapel Hill. We said goodbye to them and re-started life as parents of children who lived on the other side of the world. FaceTime helped enormously with that, and Christmas this year was a great reunion of all of us.

Then, to our delight, both kids decided to land back in Beijing this summer, Daniel to study language intensively and Joanna for an internship (and for a certain fellow who may have had a role in her choice of cities). It's been a lovely summer, even with all my complaints about heat, pollution, the lack of any place comfortable to sit in this entire country.

I have to value the fun times: dinner at Chi for Daniel's birthday where the chef's surprise cuisine turned out to be Japanese, a choice we loved. A visit to the National Center for the Performing Arts to see a Shakespeare production. A pengyou party with our visiting friend Anne, where I  made mac and cheese. Nights of watching "True Detective," "Game of Thrones," "Mad Men," and "Sherlock."  Walking through the neighborhood trying to make out the Chinese characters on buildings, and arguing over that. Bringing Joanna with me on one of my hiking days. Doing Heyrobics with her. Losing at Tumbling Towers to Daniel.

When we move back to the U.S., Bob and I will be based in DC, at least for a while. That's home. But where the kids land after their master's degrees is an open question. So I don't know if there will be a time when we'll all be living in the same city again. It's unlikely, anyway, that that city will be Beijing.

So zai jian, hai zi. I'll have to find other ways to embarrass you in the States, since I can't say that there will be any line-dancing of Chinese grandmas for me to join there, or scarf saleswomen at the Pearl Market to scold.

But I'm sure I can come up with something. See you at Thanksgiving.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Summertime, and the Living Is....

As we work our way through summer in Beijing, I think often of the line attributed to Henry James: "Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

Mr. James never spent a summer in Beijing.

Granted, some of my whining today is the result of my upbringing. I have to blame my parents, who had the audacity to be schoolteachers. For them -- and by default for us kids -- summertime meant lazy days at home. "It's a beautiful day -- go outside and PLAY," my mother would order, and we would. Summer is the sound of crickets, Little League games being announced at the green, the put-put of boats going down the river, and the smell of cut grass.

And some of my whining is the result of the house we own in DC. There, a summer afternoon often meant sitting on the front porch with an iced tea and a pile of newspapers. Or if I was "working," sitting on the patio with a laptop and a cell phone.

Beijing summer is the antithesis of all that. On bad air days, it might as well be winter because most of us linger indoors with air cleaners and air conditioners simultaneously running, amusing ourselves with television series and long whiny blog posts. On good air days, you still have to deal with the heat and humidity. It's impressive that a city that can get so bone-chilling cold in winter can switch around and be so oppressively sticky and hot in the summer.

Rare are the days when both the air quality and the temperature are right. But even on those days, there's yet another dilemma: no front porch. If I want to be outside, I have a couple of options: one of the hard benches lining the sidewalks at Seasons Park; a bench or a wooden chair at a local restaurant, where I might be influenced to start drinking beer at 2:33 in the afternoon; or the Seasons Park pool, where there are four already-occupied lounge chairs and a flagstone patio that is harder than any other matter known to man.

Yesterday I opted for another option. We have a lounge chair, bought a couple years back to solve the seating problem at the pool. It's heavy and unwieldy, but I lifted it out of the closet and took the elevator down to a little pergola area not far from the front door of building 22.

I set up my chair, opened my iPad to the New Yorker, and read for about an hour. I may even have dozed off a bit. Did I get a few strange looks? No doubt, but I get strange looks anyway much of the time. Was it a Henry James moment? No. The ambient noise was construction work, car horns beeping, and old men spitting on the sidewalk.

One of these mornings, I'm gonna rise up singing. Until then, I'll just hush.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Day in the Life

I know that many of you are sitting back home and asking yourself, “I wonder what Debbie’s day-to-day life is like?”
Okay, here it is. Enjoy and try not to be too jealous.

7 a.m. – I’m awake. I grab my ipad and iphone to see what kinds of messages have piled up over the night. The ipad informs me that it can’t access my gmail, so I turn on my VPN and check Facebook while I wait for gmail to load. Facebook posts are from the night before, which means that’s not loading either. I reread old posts, which weren’t that interesting in the first place.

7:15 a.m. – I get up and feed the cat her imported and ambassadorial cat food. I exercise. Most days that means I half-heartedly lift weights in the living room because the air is too bad for running outside and because I’ve finally called it quits with Seasons Park’s terrible, horrible, no good gym.

8 a.m. – I call my mother. This phone call – my skype to her land line – may or may not be cut off mid-sentence. I retry the call. It’s busy because Mom hasn’t realized that I’ve been cut off and she’s still talking. I keep trying, and finally I get through.

8:30 a.m. – I have breakfast, usually yogurt mixed with fruit and muesli. I wash the fruit first in tap water and then clean bottled water. I make coffee.

8:45 a.m. – Uh oh. Stomach issues. Was that pear coated with pesticides? Hard to know.

9 a.m. – I get back on the VPN. If I leave my devices – computer, ipad, iphone – for longer than a few minutes the VPN goes away and I have to restart it. I get to choose my fake location, from Washington, D.C. (hello DC ren!) to Phoenix (hello Mark Athitakis!) to Las Vegas (hello Jessica Estepa!) to Los Angeles (hello Anne Reifenberg!). Yes, pathetic that I do this, but also kind of fun. Where should I go today? Miami? Sounds good.

9:30 a.m. – I work my way through emails, check Facebook again, check my Hotmail account.

9:45 a.m. – Whoops. Back to the bathroom.

10 a.m. – Damn. I was in there too long and I have to restart the VPN.

10:15: -- The cat wants attention. She wants to know why I’m not sitting on the couch so she can sit on my lap. That’s where she gets her best sleep, she tells me.

10:30 a.m. – Shoot. I forgot I have a Chinese lesson at 11. Must review. Must at least find the book.

10:45 a.m. – Then again, there is a really cute video on Facebook that involves babies and puppies.

11 a.m. – My teacher arrives. What ensues is a bit of a train wreck. How could I forget the characters from chapter 12 when I’m on chapter 20? Oh, because I didn’t study while I was hiking in the high altitudes near Tibet? Luckily, my teacher is kind and understanding, but I still develop a bad case of flop sweat during the lesson.

12 noon – Nothing in the house for lunch. Since I’m “working” I opt for finishing off a half bag of stale tortilla chips. The ayi mutters some comment about what I’m eating. The ayi is judgmental.

1 p.m. – We’re out of milk. I really should go out in the hazardous air to pick up a few cartons of longlife milk that is alleged to be from places like Germany and New Zealand, places where the cows are happy and no one, I hope, is putting other substances in the milk. Instead, I log back on the the VPN (hello, Kansas City!) and see what the Twittersphere is chatting about.

2 p.m. – Maybe I shouldn’t have had those chips for lunch. Stomach is unhappy again. I grab a paperback book because the internet connection in the loo is bad and I am NOT one of those people who simultaneously posts on Facebook and sits on the toilet. Nope, never done it.

2:15 p.m. – Kicked off VPN again. No one is answering my emails or texts. No one picks up when I call, because in China there is no voice mail on the phones, for some strange reason. The American side of the globe is sound asleep.

2:30 p.m. – I check Facebook anyway. Hello, insomniacs!

3 p.m. – Maybe I should review the lesson I had today in Chinese. Why do all these characters look alike? Why is the textbook offering characters in tiny tiny tiny script. Is there an extra line there or not? I CAN’T SEE IT!

4 p.m. – I get a text from Joanna. “Want to get nails done?” she asks. Yes, yes, I do.

4:30 p.m. – Joanna and I meet at the nail salon in the neighborhood. A lovely manicure there is 45 RMB, or $7.28. And the air conditioning unit no longer threatens to almost topple on her head the way it did one time.

5:30 p.m. – So many bars in the area have happy hour specials. I really should be working.

6:30 p.m. – I text Bob: “I’m having a beer with Nora. Where do you want to eat?”

7:30 p.m. – We choose dinner in one of the local western restaurants. I get a Caesar salad. The lettuce is brown, the chicken is so coated with pepper it’s nearly inedible, and I don’t taste any dressing at all. I complain to the waiter and he shrugs.

8:30 p.m. – Odd. My stomach is not right again. We’re almost out of toilet paper.

9 p.m. – Folks in the U.S. are starting to wake up and check email, and I hear from some, but not all, of the people I’ve been trying to reach.

9:30 p.m. – Bob, Daniel, and I watch an episode of “True Detective,” bought at our local bootleg DVD shop. Now, that’s relaxing.


10:30 p.m. – I get in bed, checking Facebook one more time. I download five or six NPR news segments and fall asleep listening to the soothing sound of the NPR voice. 

Smudge and the Ambassador

This story falls under the category of hard-to-believe and hard-to-explain. But I'm game to try.

As my faithful readers know, Smudge is drifting into her golden years. She remains with five feet of me at all times, she jumps on my lap even as the outside temps approach 100, and she eats like an anorexic model. I had Daniel bring a five-month supply of Fancy Feast when he arrived from Denver in June, and she's been appreciating that, if by "appreciating" one can say she eats it with some slight enthusiasm. Before Daniel surprised me with the amount of food he was bringing, I did ask others to bring cat food, if they happened to be coming in the next few months.

Yesterday, I was sitting in the Subway in the basement of East Gate Mall waiting for Bob and preparing to go bowling, when Bob showed up with a giant plastic carton full of Iams cat food.

"It's from the ambassador," he said.

"Say what?"

Turns out that I might have mentioned to Ambassador Max Baucus's aide that I was in need of cat food. That piece of information got passed on to the Baucus family. Somehow they ended up in Beijing with no cat but an enormity of cat food. Bob didn't get the story completely straight, mostly because he was in partial shock at being handed a giant tub of kibble. By the ambassador.

No matter. We now have, courtesy of a cat who has been discussed in the highest levels of diplomatic channels, a supply of dry cat food that is likely to last longer than Smudge. I did worry, too, that Smudge might reject this ambassadorial gift. I'm not sure of her political affiliations, but I do know she is in possession of a little red book.

Luckily, though, Smudge seemed to enjoy the first half-cup of her gift. And I enjoy the story of how China makes us all resort to strange behaviors. Interestingly, not a single person at bowling last night asked us why we were sitting there with a giant tub of cat food. In the grand scheme of China moments, this one was barely worth mentioning.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Almost Tibet

We're just back from a visit to northwest Yunnan, a corner of China that is home to more ethnicities than almost anywhere else in China. This visit was very Tibet-intensive, since many of the people in the area of Lijiang and Shangrila were ethnically Tibetan. Their homes were Tibetan, their food (think yak, yak, and more yak) is Tibetan, and their faces looked Tibetan to me.

Even more interestingly, we saw many pictures of the Dalai Lama on the walls of homes and temples, a face that in other places in China could get you thrown into jail. Some theorize that Yunnan has such an important and growing tourism business that it makes no sense for the Chinese to bully the Tibetan Buddhists there. Others operate under the ancient philosophy that "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away." Although these days the outside world is getting closer and closer.

To aid in the growth of tourism and to harness the powerful and raging waters of the three rivers area there -- the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween (or Nu) rivers -- a gigantic dam is being planned on the Nu. The immediate result is dirt roads carved out of the sides of very unstable mountains. We lost count of the number of times a rock or mudslide had wiped out most of the road, forcing cars and trucks to maneuver through on one very precarious lane. All of us were praying that the giant boulders we'd see sitting in the middle of the road wouldn't descend just as we were passing through.

Speaking of prayers, the area is a fascinating mixture of religions, too: Tibetan Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian. We watched as Qilin, our Tibetan driver, murmured prayers as he drove us along. Our Muslim host on Haba Mountain, Mr. Bao, served a potent form of his homemade baijiu, although he didn't imbibe himself. And the Catholic church in Cizhong was a peaceful oasis where a grinning deacon wearing a large wooden cross around his neck showed us the church and told us he heard confession and gave out communion. The community of several hundred Christians met for worship four times a week -- on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

We also visited other ethnic villages -- a very poor Yi village in which farmers lived in log cabins where the outside could be seen through the gaps in the walls; a bizarrely unfriendly Lisu village decorated with posters warning about the danger of cults (did they think we were proselytizing?), a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery where the nuns had shorn black hair and smiled shyly at us.

There was so much mud and so much rain, but all that moisture produced more wildflowers than I've seen in three years here, glorious puffy clouds in the sky behind which the snow-capped mountains peeked, and green everything.

Here we have a truck driver who has stepped out of his truck either to clear the road or to see whether more boulders were descending. When he started to run back to his truck, I said to Bob, "Get back in the car! Now!"
Hiking near Meili. It looked like the set of Avatar.
The view from our window at the Songtsam Meili. Hard to leave.
More stunning views of the Baima mountains.
A Tibetan monk and his water bottle.
The view from the nunnery. 
Since I'm a rooster in the Chinese zodiac, I love these beautiful fellows.
After dinner with a Tibetan family, we saw this stunning rainbow. Hard not to think the heavens bless this special region.
And then the grand finale: a torch festival in Shangrila. How lucky that we've had two chances now to wave around burning pine sticks and smear ashes on each other.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Numbers Game

Today the temperature outdoors is higher than the AQI. It's 95 fahrenheit, but only 63 aqi. Normally in Beijing, if the air quality registers in the double digits, we all rush outside like hostages suddenly released.

Today presents a challenges to the parents in particular. "Should I let Leah play outside?" My friend Rachel texted me.

"Maybe just for a short time," I responded.

Earlier today, I had an interview to do, and it was tucked away inside one of Beijing's hutongs. My taxi driver decided to drop me off at the end of the street that was most convenient for HIM, which meant I had to speed walk up Nanluoguxiang, a busy hutong, dodging garbage carts, people posing for pictures, young men carrying their girlfriend's enormous purse, motorcycles, bikes, and even the occasional car, which forced me to step up on the doorway of a store to avoid the crushing of my toes.

By the time I got to my interview I was dripping. Here I was, trying to make eye contact, take notes, and sound interested when the sweat was stinging my eyes, my hand was sliding around on my pen,  and my legs were sticking to the back of the chair. For women of a certain age, there are different heat reactions: the initial, normal, whew-it's-hot reaction, and then, as many as ten to fifteen minutes later, a second wave that comes out of nowhere and looks really stupid because it seems unconnected to what's happening at the moment. I suppose it could be called a hot flash, although it's more like a hot aftershock.

I finished my interview and then could not find a cab to get home. At one point I was standing next to a stick-thin schoolgirl who was also looking for a cab, and I had the uncharitable thought, "I could take her."

I finally did get a cab, a blessed air-conditioned cab. I went home, ate some watermelon, and typed up my notes. I eventually stopped sweating too.

Taking a break, I decided to sit on the couch, and Smudge decided that she needed to curl up on my lap. She's a little obsessed with sitting on my lap and I don't have the heart to turn her away. It's hard to believe she wants warmth, but possible she's looking for comfort because she doesn't feel well.

So that's love: sitting with a skinny, gray, purring heating pad on my lap on a 95-degree day while I type on my iPad and pretend to study Chinese. Pretty much sums up the incongruities of my life in China.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy July Fourth!

I may end up sounding whiny on this post, but that's only because I am.

It's days like today that can make Americans feel homesick and so far removed from the U.S. We woke up to hazardous air which, coupled with high humidity and heat, creates an almost literal soup that we walk around in. Yesterday I had to cover a talk, which required me taking a pedicab to the Norwegian embassy (required mainly because I was too lazy to wait for a cab).

As we careened through the streets, cutting off buses and shooting the wrong way down bike lanes, I wondered if reporting on the natural gas pipeline from Russia to China was worth my limbs and lungs, and how Bob would fit all these details on my tombstone.

I did make it, and covered the event. Today, when I went to write it up, I realized that I was no longer able to get on Google to check just how many miles the pipeline ran or what John McCain actually said about Russia (He called it a gas station with a government. Good one.). This was even though I had my VPN on and I could access Facebook, Twitter, and even the New York Times. I finally figured out that I could do Google searches on my iPad. Shh, don't tell China.

All this is happening while I'm watching Facebook posts of friends at beaches, lakes, watching sunsets, sitting outside, celebrating our country, complaining about the weather. It's hard to take, but I guess the purpose of Facebook is to make others jealous. Well done then.

I know our country isn't perfect and that we've made so many mistakes. But I miss the place where the mistakes are also MY mistakes, and the stupid things said on the Internets are American stupid things, not other country's stupid things.

Happy birthday America, the land of red, white, and blue cakes, idiotic rom coms, cars the size of an elephant, and ice-cold water at every table. Stay real.

Update:
Well, I found some Americana in Beijing, thanks to, you guessed it, Great Leap Brewery down the street. I will not comment on the fact that a pub named for one of China's most horrible moments made me feel all warm and happy. Until we couldn't get in and satisfied ourselves with burgers at Big Smoke instead.