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.

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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Our Neighborhood

Hanging out at the Peking duck place across the street.
Our kids tease us about the fact that in the evenings, we rarely venture far outside our little neighborhood, a mixture of all kinds of Chinese restaurants -- Sichuan, Peking duck, Yunnan, dumplings, noodles -- plus all kinds of other Asian restaurants -- Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai -- plus a decent selection of western restaurants.

Being western, we tend to lean heavily toward the western. One is called Frost, and the chef/owner is always experimenting with new dishes, some of which work and others that fail. But his tofu skin lasagna is great, especially for those avoiding gluten. It's possible it's because he loads the tofu skin up with cheese and good sauce, but who cares? Across the alley from Frost is the second of what Bob calls the "holy trinity" of restaurants we favor, called Big Smoke. There, we'll get the chimicurri chicken and the beet salad and the very good guacamole.

And finally, the third place in what others called the Bermuda Triangle is Great Leap Brewery, which offers a respectable caesar salad and very good burgers, plus good beer.

But in addition to having a good basis of western comfort food nearby, the neighborhood is really and truly a neighborhood. Now that we've lived here almost three years, we realize it's virtually impossible to go out into the neighborhood and not run into friends, neighbors, and the kids we know, from our own offspring to the little ones of our younger friends. Our apartment complex has one of the few decent playgrounds in the area for kids, so it becomes a hangout, and I feel only slightly creepy when I walk out of the complex by way of the playground on the chance that I might see one of my little ones.

Daniel laughs at us because the alley we like to frequent is actually not that pretty, just a short side street lined with tippy tables, hard chairs, and a pet shop where overbred cats and dogs wait out their days in sad mesh cages. Cars manage to squeeze down this alley because there's a well-known hotpot restaurant also tucked away in it, meaning that if a driver in a big Mercedes is trying to take his boss to the restaurant, he'll lay on the horn to make sure that pedestrians, little kids, and tiny dogs get out of the way. And I wonder why I have ringing in my ears.

In any event, it's not that much to look at, but when the weather is good, it's the place to be. Back in DC, we certainly run into friends at the Safeway, Starbucks, and CVS, but it's more spread out. Bob compares it to the years he lived in Oneonta, where he did know just about everyone in the place. Funny that a city of 22 million can be that intimate.
Bob at Big Smoke.

This is the Seasons Park playground intended for adult "exercises." The woman is standing on a disc that goes in circles. What this does baffles me, but it makes a fun seat for little ones.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Cab Conversations, Continued

Today I encountered one of Beijing's chatty cab drivers. I could tell I was in for an experience when he corrected my pronunciation of my street -- Chuxiulu. I always say something that sounds like TWICHN-CHOO-LU. Actually, the real way is to say TWICHN-CHEEYU-LU. See the difference? Me neither.

Anyway, after he corrected me and I apologized for my poor Chinese, the questions began. (This is a conversation all in Chinese, so apologies for the parts where I half imagine where the conversation is going.)

Where are you from? he asks. It's always the first question.
"America," I say. "Of course."
"But where in America?" he asks. "I have a sister living in America."
"Where?" I ask.
"Luo shan ji," he says. (It's not until now that I figured out that Luo shan ji is Los Angeles.)
"I live in Washington," I say.
"Shenme?" he says. What?
"The capital," I say. (Jing!) "Obama!"
OBAMA! he responds.
"Oh, do you like Obama?" I ask.
"No," he responds. "Do you?"
"Yes," I answer. "Why don't you?"
(Here he mutters something about other countries. It's the place where my language abilities fail me. Dear UN -- not ready for translation work yet.)
"I like Old Bush," he says. (Lao Bush, which is what the Chinese call HW Bush.)
"Do you like Xiao Bush?" I ask (Little Bush, or W).
"No," he says.
"Me neither!" I say. We laugh companionably.
"Do you have children?" he asks.
"Yes, a son and a daughter," I say.
That gets me the thumbs up and a big "hao!"
"Do you have a husband?" he asks.
"Yes," I respond. "He's a journalist." (Keep in mind that my natural tendency to volunteer information to complete strangers is abetted by my limited vocabulary. If I know a word, I will use it, sometimes occasionally to ill effect. But you all know that about me.)
"Where are your children?" the cab driver asks. "America?"
Now, I realize the conversation is getting slightly complicated.
"No, my son is in Beijing. He's studying Chinese," I say.
"Hao!" he says. "And your daughter is in America?"
"No, she's also in Beijing. She's working," I say.
This so suitably impresses the cab driver that he runs out of questions for me and we drive along nearly mowing down pedestrians in companionable silence again.

When I get home, I realize that my ayi has cleaned and then left me a half-warm and overly sweetened cup of tea to greet my arrival.

These are the nice things about life in Beijing. I'll end with a few photos from the week.
Sunflowers in the alley.
Hiking to a water hole.

Nothing more fun than photobombing Danielle.
A butterfly landed on my shoe. That's good luck, right?
You don't get days much nicer than this.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Ill Met By Moonlight

We now have both children in Beijing, something that we never imagined would happen a second time in our run here. But it's been great so far.

Last night the four of us went to a performance of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream," produced by the actor Tim Robbins at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, otherwise known as the Egg. It was a fun, lighthearted performance. It was probably good that the theater troupe performed with basically no set, since the idea of a Shakespearean verdant wood seemed odd in a place just steps from the cold barrenness of Tiananmen Square.

During intermission, I heard Joanna say, "Hi!" and saw that she was talking to Tim Robbins, who was standing nearby.

He was smiling. "Where are you from?" he asked Joanna.

"Washington, DC," she said.

I popped my head up. "Hi!" I said.

Bob looked over. "Hi!" he said.

Daniel looked over. "Hi!" he said. "Hey, I have a question. Is there no one Puck character? Why are all the actors speaking Puck's lines?"

Tim Robbins said, yes, there was no one Puck character. Then he got his look on his face that I swear was something like: I was talking to a pretty girl and suddenly I'm talking to her whole family. He slowly backed away, smiling. I never even got the chance to explain how our grown children landed in Beijing this summer, although I'm sure he would have been delighted to get all those details.

Later, Daniel, Bob and I stayed longer after the performance as Robbins and the cast answered questions about the show and about his life as an actor. When we left the NCPA, there were no cabs to be found. The moon was full and shined an odd, polluted golden.

We jumped on the subway, knowing that it was about to close but hoping that our luck would last. (The subway in Beijing closes long before midnight, because why would it be convenient for your citizens?)

We got as far as Jianguomen station where we wanted to change to Line 2. No such luck, so we exited the station where we were accosted by a gauntlet of pedicab drivers. Since there were three of us, we turned them down, still hoping for a cab.

Eventually we decided that we would split up: Daniel would take one cab and Bob and I would take a second. Our pedicab driver was driving one of what we call tin cans, or death-mobiles, or carbon-monoxide mobiles. Added to that was that this driver was quite elderly. He agreed to take us to Chunxiulu, but as we rode along, it dawned on us that he had absolutely no idea where Chunxiulu was.

He kept shouting questions at us over the roar of the cab, in a heavy Beijing accent. So even if our Chinese was perfect, we probably wouldn't have been able to understand him. Bob and I kept saying, in Chinese, "Take us to Chunxiulu!"

The driver drove about at a walking pace (was the battery about to run out?) and stopped three different times to ask people where our street was. All of them gave him detailed directions, and yet he still seemed baffled. Then he paused, pulled out a cigarette, and started to smoke. The smoke wafted into the back of the cab, blocking a bit the smell of carbon dioxide.

The evening was taking a bad turn. Others have had stories of pedicab drivers who deliberately took their fares to places to fleece them. My only consolation was that this guy didn't seem bright enough to pull that off.

Finally, finally, we got to the head of Chunxiulu. We hopped out, paid him his 30 RMB, and walked the last few blocks home, happy to be breathing 184-AQI air instead of the inside of this guy's pedicab. As we walked into the door of our apartment, a line from Puck came to me:

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

But now I only have two questions: was it all a dream? And who, exactly, were the fools last night?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Two of My Favorite Things

This week in China brought me two of my favorite things ever: a new baby in our Beijing "family," and yet another visit to the Great Wall. And we've also got Daniel here for the summer, plus a run of good air (which I've now jinxed), and lots of fun things on the horizon.

I'll stick to a photo essay today to illustrate the week a bit.
Leah waits for her baby sister's arrival.
Daniel and I meet sweet Naomi.
Is there anything better than holding a newborn?
Once more to the Wall.
The spring rains have made the land green.
Marcio and Maxie take in the scene.
Two of my favorites are moving. Happy trails, Rose and Yutta!
Hard to believe, but this is even more stunning than it looks in a photo.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What I'll Be Able to Put on My Resume

When I return home from China, I'm going to be incorporating a few new skills into my updated resume:

1. The ability to research an article even as Google is blocked. Today, for instance, I can write on my blog, look at Facebook, and send gmail, but Google searches give me a blank stare. Why? Who knows?

2. The ability to understand what it means when you send an email to a Chinese person and you get back this response: 我已收到你的来信会尽快回复你,谢谢。

3. The knack for finding locations that are not marked, using a mixture of Chinese and simple English, in enough time to conduct an interview. Or to hire people who can help you do that.

4. The patience not to get discouraged when editors ignore me and people who appear to be good sources suddenly decide that it's not in their best interests to talk to a reporter.

5. The imagination to figure out how a conversation with a friend or a trip out of town might just lead to a good story.

6. The talent for creating a good article out of an interview conducted in English so garbled it wasn't entirely clear it actually was in English. Here's one quote from a recent interview:
"Because you know another work from Magritte, the idea is also from that book, so after Magritte finished his work, which was so famous. Because my work is connecting with Magritte, somebody think so, and the master gallery from France, the master gallery, they sell Picasso, Magritte, modern art, but they moved to Hong Kong opened a new space for contemporary art. So I just asked the owner, Eduoard Malinggue, why – I did an exhibition in New York at an art gallery, why in Hong Kong? So we had to find some special thing, that can give us the reason."