Thursday, February 9, 2012

Plaid, Planes, Phuket

Look at my husband.  Ain't he the cutest?

Sure, he seems unassuming in his plaid-pattern mixing (don't worry, he doesn't leave the house like this) snacking on his saltine cracker.  But little did you know that Jason takes his status as an ISFJ (Meyers-Briggs... have you taken it?  It will reveal the multitudes Whitman talked about) and uses it to great advantage.

Jason has planned a super-rad trip for the two of us from here to Malaysia, then island hopping up to Phuket (PS Potty-mouths... that's pronounced Poo-Ket.  Not... the thing you're thinking).  "Planning a trip?  Easy Peasy!" you may be thinking.  Not this trip, friends!  Oh, no!

Here is our trip in numbers, according to Jason's major J-induced planning ("J" stands for "Judging" on the Meyers-Briggs.  It doesn't mean he's a bigot, it just means he thinks there's a right way to do things, and feels comforted by planning).

1: number of nights we'll stay in each hostel en route to Phuket
3: number of ferries we'll be taking between Thai islands
4: the subway line we'll be taking to get to Beijing South train station
12: approximate check-in time at our first hostel in Kuala Lumpur (as in midnight)
24: number of pages of Jason's homemade itinerary/travel guide to Kuala Lumpur and southern Thailand
30: amount of minutes it will take to get from Beijing to Tian Jin via bullet train
1200: approximate amount of RMB saved by taking a flight from Tian Jin to Kuala Lumpur rather than flying directly from Beijing (yay, Air Asia!)

I'm so excited!  Thai iced tea!  Ocean!  Curries galore!  Ocean!  Warm weather!  Cheap coffee!  OCEAN!  Did I mention I love the ocean?

Beijing, I think we're close enough friends for me to be brutally honest with you and tell you that I will NOT miss you at all while I'm basking in the glorious sunshine and soaking up all that good Thai hospitality.  Sorry... but not really.

A flood of gorgeous, scenic photos forthcoming!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Chang Ping Adventure!

Beijing is HUGE.  Just when you think that you've figured out your bearings around this city, a new suburb pops up, or you end up lost in all of Beijing's winding hutong alleys.  As of late, I haven't strayed far from my west side student-populated pocket of the city, but given all the time we have with the Chinese New Year holiday, my friend MLK and I decided to venture north into Chang Ping-- a suburb in northwest Beijing. 

The journey north begins on the special Chang Ping subway line, which conveniently connects to Beijing subway line 13.  As soon as you board the Chang Ping line, the Chang Ping theme of everything being miniature begins.  The special CP line cars are about the same size, but everything feels just slightly smaller, narrower, and just a little mini.

On our way up, it was hard to believe that we were still in Beijing.  The CP line travels through stretches of countryside and rural areas, plus a forest of construction cranes.  Looks like those vast expanses of countryside won't be around for long.

When we finally reached Chang Ping, we boarded a minibus to get into town.  The bus was tiny!  It probably seated about 15-20 people, and ambled along the eerily empty streets of Chang Ping district.

When we got into town, we'd arrived a bit earlier than our friend and Chang Ping resident, Amanda.  Fortunately for this American, our bus stopped right in front of Chang Ping's lone McDonald's, where I indulged in a quick cheeseburger snack.  MLK has a personal vendetta against McD's, so she resigned to sitting with me whilst shooting me a disapproving look.

Outside, street vendors sold snacks equally processed, though perhaps slightly less clean.

After meeting up with Amanda, we spent the evening eating tasty Chinese hot pot, chatting, eating Amanda's home baked goods, watching Nacho Libre, and marveling at our matching headwear.

The next morning, we awoke to a lovely view of the mountains surrounding Beijing that we rarely get such a clear view of because of the pollution and density of tall buildings.

After a lazy morning of chit-chatting, we headed out to an early lunch at a French restaurant around the corner from Amanda's.  Yes, you read that correctly-- a French restaurant.  Not a French-themed restaurant with Chinese food and kitschy waitresses in berets.  I mean a real, legit, true blue (or bleu) French restaurant.  The restaurant is called 6'eme (Sixth in francais) and is run by a few local Chinese former students who went to Paris and got their diplomas at Le Cordon Bleu.  They started 6'eme as a start-up restaurant to practice their skills in a low-rent area, and eventually take their restaurant model and menu into the city.  We were glad to be guinea pigs in their little experiment.

Goat cheese, apple, and honey salad with bacon.
French onion soup!  Baaaaahhhhh.... look at all that cheeeeeese!
MLK with her bacon and caramelized onion tartlette.

Amanda and Beouf Stroganoff French style

Sometimes, it's easy to forget that you're in China when you live in Beijing.  Foreign goods are readily available, English-speakers are everywhere, and especially when it becomes your home, you forget about what country you're in.  It's good to be reminded that this city alone is so much bigger than what I see day-to-day... and a relief to see that it still comes with cheese.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why?-- Chun Jie Edition

"Why?" is a question that comes up often here in China.  Why are all security guards in China either 12 year-old boys or 70 year-old retirees?  Why are condoms always sold front and center, right next to chewing gum and Snickers bars at the check-out line?  Why is it that one mooncake will be wrapped in fifteen different layers of packaging, when it's just the same nasty mooncake that's sold on the street?  Why do we have to pay for pharmacy goods separately from our grocery items?

Many of these 'why' questions are left unanswered, or with the ubiquitous shrug and, "This is China."  Neither is very satisfying, but it's what we've got.  Actually, "it's what we've got" is also a pretty common answer.

Anyway, in my few years of living here, I have found a few very satisfying answers to my 'why' questions related to Spring Festival (Chun Jie 春节) or Chinese New Year, as it's often referred to back home.  Here are my findings:

Why the fireworks?  Every year, China erupts into mass chaos at midnight to ring in the New Year.  Fireworks are sold at street corners for two weeks prior to the big event, and the volume of fireworks has led to a few hazards in the past.  That seems commonplace enough, but what most people don't know is that the fireworks, firecrackers, noisemakers that sound like bombs, and every other irritatingly loud noisemaker will go off before every meal time over the course of the following week.

I've learned that the reason for this is that fireworks, firecrackers, and noisemakers aren't just something Chinese people use to celebrate.  The light and noise from these things are meant to scare away evil spirits that, I suppose, are only active at the one major holiday of the year.  These 'evil spirits' are also more present at meal times, which is why the works are always set off just before meals also.

Why the red paper around the doors?  Ah yes, the red paper around the doors.  For those of you who don't know about red paper around the doors, they are sort of like China's version of Christmas lights that stay up year-round.  Walk up any apartment building stairwell, and you'll see fading, tearing strips of red paper stuck to the door frames, usually emblazoned in some sort of Chinese greeting in gold foil. 

Turns out that this tradition also stems from the same vein of guarding from the evil spirits.  Red is the color symbolizing good luck in Chinese culture (hence, why red is freaking EVERYWHERE in this country), and they are keeping bad luck out and good luck in.  I find this absolutely fascinating because it totally mirrors the story of the last plague on Egypt, when the Israelites were able to keep the Angel of Death from entering into their homes by painting the red blood of a lamb sacrifice over the tops and sides of their door posts.

Why the TV specials?  Ask any Chinese student what they do at New Year's, and you'll probably receive the same answer:  watch TV.  CCTV puts on a number of New Year specials featuring magic shows, some song-and-dance numbers, a lovely hostess in a flashy outfits, and cross-talk... which is sort of like China's version of stand-up comedy.  These specials will often go late into the evening, and I have to admit that I've never seen anyone get so excited to watch TV until 3 AM.

From what I understand, there isn't much to do on New Year's.  Everything is closed, the dumplings have been wrapped, boiled, and eaten, and the fireworks have been set off.  At that point, there's not much else to do but gather 'round the old telly and be entertained.  I heard that this year's specials left much to be desired, but then again-- I haven't been one for hours of Chinese kitsch and comedy I don't understand.

For how long I've lived here, I've learned comparatively few answers to all my 'why' questions.  The truth is that even many Chinese people don't know the answers to these questions, but that is part of the beauty of living here.  To simply exist in a seemingly insane system of traditions and ways of doing things, and appreciate the aspects you enjoy, and learn to deal with the aspects you don't.  In any case, here is to wishing everyone a joyful new year!  新年快乐 xin nian kuai le !

The Year of the Dragon

Happy New Year, everyone!

I suppose for folks living in China, it is obligatory that I post something about Chinese New Year's on our blog.  We're now almost at the official end of Spring Festival Week, which went by too quickly, as holidays often do.  It's still been an amazingly relaxing time, free from classes and full of slept-in mornings.

Considering that Spring Festival is the biggest holiday of the year (imagine Christmas, Thanksgiving, Boxing Day, and New Year's Eve all rolled into one), the majority of the city shuts down.  Major malls, public transit, and chain supermarkets stay open for business while the rest of the Beijing turns into a Chinese version of the set of a zombie apocalypse film... or just a reasonably populated city in a Western country.  For us laowai, it's a dream come true-- free reign of the streets without having to worry about colliding with someone every five minutes, and quiet for extended periods of time.  For our Chinese friends, it's strange.  Where are all the people?  And why is it so eerily quiet?

In our case, our celebration was eerily quiet-- even for laowai.  We made plans to hang out at our friend's 22nd floor apartment to watch the insane free-reign fireworks that go off to usher in the new year.  The photos don't do the event justice, but just imagine if every family in China made it their mission to hold their own personal Disneyland fireworks show at midnight-- and pulled it off.  That's basically what happened.

Here are a few photos:

Coming up... a laowai's perception of Chinese New Year traditions.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lost in Translation

The Chinese education system is a puzzling thing.  I've blogged about my student, Xindy, before.  Xindy is a whiz at memorizing words and chanting slogans, but she still doesn’t know why it’s probably not a great idea to rub your eye after that same finger was digging for gold in your left nostril just before.  Call me old-fashioned, but I am of the school that believes that manners should retain a place in everyday society.

Being cross-cultural, though, often makes teaching and learning manners tricky.  Not only do you have to translate cultures, but you also have to translate languages.  Here's a sticky situation I found myself in with Xindy.

Xindy leans back and rips a loud, long fart.
Grace:  (laughing)  Xindy, did you just eat lunch?
Xindy:  (learning back on the sofa with her arms tucked behind her head)  No.  Why?
Grace:  Well, after you do that, you should say, “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (brows furrowed, still lounging on my sofa)  I should say what?
Grace:  You should say, “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (sitting up)  What?  What does that mean?
Grace:  It is kind of like saying, “I’m sorry.”
Xindy:  But why I need to say this word?
Grace:  Because what you did is a little impolite.
Xindy:  What’s meaning this word?  Poligh?
Grace:  Im-po-lite.  It means "不客气的" (bu keqi).

And here's where I went wrong.  Technically, what I said was "not" (bu) and "polite" (keqi), but together, the phrase "bu keqi" is another way of saying "You're welcome"-- a phrase most Chinese students learn.  Now, I'm worried that Xindy will get them all confused, and the next time she farts, she'll try to be polite and respond by saying, "You're welcome," which in my home, would warrant laughter and joy.  Among mixed company, though, perhaps not so much.*

Our lesson in manners didn't end there, though.

Fifteen minutes later, Xindy is working on a dictation.
Xindy:  What you said before I should say when I… 放屁 (fart / fangpi)?
Grace:  Oh… “Excuse me.”
Xindy:  (smiling as a rancid smell fills the room)  Okay.  Excuse me.

*For the record, if you want to convey that something is impolite without saying "You're welcome," the correct term is "不礼貌" (bu limao).

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who is your daddy...

... and what does he do?

That became a topic of conversation today while tutoring my little six year-old student, Xindy.  She has become one of my cutest buddies in Beijing.  Jason keeps encouraging me to give up tutoring her so I can have a little free time.  Sometimes, I do consider it, but then I'd miss out on conversations like these:

Rumble rumble.  Splish splash.  Whiiiiirrrrr.
Xindy: (startled) What is that noises?
Grace:  It's the washing machine.
Xindy:  Washing for what?
Grace:  洗衣服的 (translation: for washing clothes).  Jason is doing the laundry.
Xindy:  (more startled)  WHAAAAT?  He is washing the clothes!?
Grace:  Yeah... well, he's putting it into the machine.
Xindy:  He knows how to do it?
Grace:  ... Yes.  Doesn't your dad know how to use the washing machine?
Xindy:  No!
Grace:  (laughing)  Really?  So only your mommy does the laundry?
Xindy:  Eat, sleep, play iPad.  That's all my daddy knows.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Work of Someone Greater

When I happen upon difficult times in this place, when the winters are too cold, the summers are too sticky, and the food too oily.  After I've long forgotten that skies are meant to be various shades of blue, and not fluctuate between white, tan, and gray.  Long after the bags are packed, tickets bought, and miles traveled, I will know it was all worth it.

Because of this...