Monday, November 24, 2008


I wanted to get an early start in Beijing, so I did something I've never done before-I took an overnight sleeper train from Chengde to Beijing. The train, leaving Chengde at 11pm, arrived in Beijing at the ever-so-convenient hour of 4am. I wasn't thrilled to be woken up at 3:30 by the turning on of my compartment's lights, but it was a relieft to know I'd be escaping the stinky, filthy train. A 62RMB (US$9) train ticket got me an upper berth bunk, however cleanliness and freshness were not included. The bed sheets were grease stained and my pillow covered in hair. The blanket was thick, the kind you know is too big to be washed often. The smell. . .how to describe it? A combination of garbage, dragon's breath, and discount soap. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the stench was determining its source. Was there garbage stowed under the lower bunks? Was it the body odor of the elderly man in the bunk under me? Could it be me? Sniff, sniff. Nope, not me. A good sign and one which allowed me to bury my nose deep in my collar, choosing to breath in thick, stuffy air over the nauseating stink.

I was happy to arrive in Beijing, despite the hour. What's it like to arrive in another city so early? Many of you may know the discomfort of being newly arrived somewhere in the morning. Judgement impaired by the fogginess of your waking brain. The cluelessness. The slight fear of being in a strange place at a dangerous hour. Luckily, these are feelings I never have to experience in Beijing. For a city of it's size, it is remarkably safe. And I know the city well-as well as can be expected of a constantly changing city of 17 million inhabitants that I no longer reside in. All I feel in Beijing is happiness. Happiness at the prospect that the only thing that stands between me and a Mocha Frappae is time (cafe opens at 7am) and not distance (distance from Chengde to nearest Starbucks=190 miles). The happiness of knowing that just about any food option is little more than a subway ride away. Tunisian, Kosher, Burmese, organic-the Beijing dining scene has much on Chengde's (McDonalds, KFC). Only problem is that I have a few hours to kill before I can begin to indulge on all Beijing has to offer.

The Beijing train station. . .at 4am it is uncharacteristically calm. It's still about as busy as most American train stations would be during the day, but that's a far cry from the usual pushing and chaos. Throughout the train station people are sprawled out on mats, soundly sleeping. I tiptoe past them and make way to the exit, moving about freely. Normally I am just part of the herd. Outside, touts are resilient as ever, pushing the newly published 2009 Beijing City Map.

"Yi kuai, yi kuai, yi kuai, yi kuai!" they cry, shoving a copy in my face. Only 15 cents. Still, I'll pass.

I successfully pass the first wave only to be greeted by the second.

"Lady! Hotel! Lady!" they yell, despite my diverted eye contact. Second wave gone. Third wave.

"Taxi! Taxi!" cries one man persistently, "Taxi! Ni qu na'r? Shuo hua!" "Where are you going? Talk!" he demands.

I turn, smile, point to the hostel across the street, and reply, "I'm going across the street."

His jaw drops. He abandons his annoying tout act and opts for treating me like an actual person.

"You should use the stairs over there," he directs me.

"I know, thank you!" I reply while walking away.

"Your Chinese is very good!!!" he screams after me. I almost believe him. Though I can't see him, I'm almost certain he is giving me a thumbs up.

I head over to the 24 hour McDonald's. It's packed with Chinese, most of them napping, others sipping tea. I look up at the menu board and to my disappointement they aren't serving breakfast. It's too early. At least I can get a coffee. I plop down and before long an interesting duo walks in. These two men clearly aren't a Chinese McDonald's typical patrons. One is wearing a large green coat that is commonly worn among migrant workers and young soldiers. The man has a wild look in his eyes and walks with a limp. His friend is poorly dressed and disabled, reliant on a make-shift set of wooden crutches. I am silently rooting for them to go to the counter and order a Big Mac, to prove all my assumptions wrong.

The man in the coat approaches the counter, making unintelligable demands. His friend approaches and the first man backs away from the counter, nearing me. He grabs at a stool that is firmly attached to the ground. Looking troubled, his eyes survey the room. At last he locates an unattached chair and brings it over to the counter for his friend to sit. The second man slumps into the chair, dropping his crutches to the floor, and pulls out a plastic bag. From the bag he extracts several large piles of 1 RMB (15 cent) and 1 jiao (7 cent) bills. The cashiers begrudgingly begin counting them. Meanwhile, his green-coated comrade leaves the counter. He casually picks up a cup of coffee someone left behind before he sits down. Though I know how this will play out, a part of me still hopes. Though the chances are small, the disabled man could his change to purchase extra value meals for him and his buddy. My hope is lost, however, when he leaves the counter the proud owner of large denomination bills.

The sun is finally starting to creep up and I can see the first signs of light outside. It's been a fairly interesting morning thus far and it's only 7am. I leave McDonald's and happily make my way towards my first indulgence-a Toffee Nut Latte.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

an auspicious number

Numbers are important in China.  The unluckiest of them being four, pronounced si (like the sound a snake makes).  The word death shares this same pronunciation, though with a different tone.  

The most auspicious number in Chinese is eight.  You want an eight in your phone number?  You pay more money.  You want to get married?  Best to do it in August, preferably on the eighth.  You want to host the Olympic games?  You schedule the opening ceremony for August 8, 2008 at 8:08pm.  Eight is a number that represents wealth and good fortune; the Chinese take these things very seriously.

My August 8th of 2008 went quite well.  I managed to find myself at a wedding, not surprisingly.  The number of people getting married skyrocketed that day.  Lots of eights and the opening of the Olympics. . .a day that lucky only comes around once in a lifetime.  

This was the third time I've attended a Chinese wedding.  This time I was attending the wedding of one of Ming's high school classmates.  Don't ask me his name, I forgot, as I usually do with Chinese names.  The whole ordeal lasted less than two hours.  Definitely not as fun as an American wedding-no Chicken Dance.  No Holky Polky.  And definitely no YMCA.  There was, however, plenty of alcohol.

We arrived at the hotel banquet hall just before noon and seated ourselves at a dinner table in front of a small stage at the front of the room.  On the table there was already a spread of appetizers, a plate of candy and nuts, a plate (?!) of cigarettes, two bottles of baijiu (vile tasting Chinese liquor), and a few 2 liter bottles of soda.  Mama cracked open the liquor and poured us a couple of glasses.  That woman doesn't waste any time.

A few minutes later the happy couple entered the back of the room.  Confetti and bubbles filled the air as they walked down the makeshift aisle on each side of which were half a dozen tables.  A short speech was made.  The couples parents were seated on the stage.  After the speech the couples took turns bowing to each others parents.  Then they bowed to each other.  Rings were exchanged.  Unity candle lit.  I don't think there was even a kiss. . . and waaa-BAM.  It was over.  All that was left to do was eat.  And drink.

The couples came around to toast us (as well as some annoying man with a camcorder.  I hate those people with camcorders).  The groom's mother also toasted us, but drank Apple Fanta out of a wine glass, which I consider cheating.  I toasted Mama and Mama toasted me, with biajiu, several times.  I began to feel a little woosy, thus switching to beer.  I stuffed my face with fried shrimp, meatballs, stewed beef and potatoes, fish, and fresh fruit.  The food at Chinese weddings definitely trumps American ones.  But there is no cutting of the wedding cake because there is no wedding cake.  No bouquet tossing.  None of the embarrassment of the groom trying to remove the guarder.  No sappy sweet father-daughter wedding dance.  By 1:30pm everything had wrapped up.  Ming had to go to work and I was left stumbling home to await the most awesome opening ceremony ever.  The Chinese may have got it right with the Olympics, but they still have a lot to learn about throwing a good wedding.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Potato Chip Gallery

I am truly amazed at the variety of Lay's Potato Chips in this country.   I've made it my mission to try all the odd flavored Lays I've been avoiding for years now.  I will be reporting in back to you.  

This all began with my discovery of Blueberry Lays a couple weeks ago.  Today I stumbled upon Mango, a true gold mine.  If you want to try any of these delectable flavors yourself, you're going to have to come for a visit.

Blueberry I opened the bag and smelt blueberry deliciousness.  The chips weren't blue or purple as I expected, however; just their normal golden potato color.  The flavor was strange, but manageable.  I have to admit that I'm pretty open minded to tasting new flavors-it's become a means to survive here.  To describe the blueberry chip, well, it tasted blueberry, much like blueberry flavored gum or candy.  It also tasty distinctly potato chipy, like a crunchy, salty potato chip.  The combination of these two separately delicious flavors was ok.  But salt and blueberry don't mix together all that well.  I don't really care much for salt with my fruits.  I do like that there is no aftertaste.  I give it three stars (out of five).  I'd rather stick to "American Flavor Lays" (plain, salted).  

Mango  Has an unidentifiable fruity smell and tastes a bit like a salty peach.  Also, no aftertaste.  I prefer the blueberry.  Two stars.

Cucumber  All this potato chip tasting has made me realize I need to start hitting the gym again.  But for Cucumber flavored Lays, the calories are worth it.  Delicious.  Other than Original American Salt Flavor, these are my favorite.  A little salty, a little vegetably, and no aftertaste.  Four and a half stars.

Lychee  What is a lychee? you might ask.  It is a Chinese fruit that tastes how a grandmother's house smells.  That is, it tastes like stale potpourri and death.  Not one of my favorite fruits.  And it's no better as a potato chip flavor.  It sucks.  One star.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Late Night Rendezvous

When your significant other's cell phone begins ringing at 11:30pm, certain things may cross your mind.  The first being, "Who the hell is calling?"  

Is there a crisis at work?  Some kind of family emergency?  Or worse, a call from a distraught secret lover?  

Where I come from, unspoken phone call etiquette exists.  If you think there is a possibility that the person has gone to sleep for the night, or still hasn't woken up in the morning, than don't call.  Of course there are exceptions to this-for example, all that 4am drunk dialing you did Freshman year of college was probably acceptable at the time.  But now that we are adults, there are certain codes of phone call conduct we must adhere to.  In America.  

In China, things are, as always, different.  For example, it is perfectly acceptable for one of my husband's coworkers to call at 1am asking for advice.  I realize he is the head manager at the hotel he is working at, but I don't think I'll ever find it reasonable for someone to call in the wee hours of the morning to ask, "Can Mr. Wang be given a 20% discount?"  When Ming answers with a furious no, it is not uncommon for a follow up call to occur two minutes later.  "Can we give Mr. Wang a 15% discount?"  To this Ming replies with a long string of Chinese curse words which I usually find highly amusing.  Though it's not so amusing after midnight.

While these calls are a little troubling, they are not as bad as the ones the require Ming to leave in the middle of the night.  Sometimes there's a problem at work that must be attended to, other times there is KTV.

"What is KTV?" you ask.  I'll tell you.  It's a phenomenon that has been sweeping Asia since it started in Japan in the 1970s.  It hit the American scene in the 1990s.  You and I know of it as karaoke.  To us, it's a fun and annoying past time that includes singing while intoxicated to songs like Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" in a cheesy corner bar full of strangers.  To the Chinese, it is something entirely different.

First, the Chinese don't sing in front of a bar of strangers.  KTV is found in what looks like a hotel.  A huge building filled with rooms of various sizes.  When you enter the lobby, you go to the front desk and request a room.  You can get a larger room if you have a big party or if you are a monied Chinese hoping to show off to friends or business associates.  Larger rooms are more expensive.  Rooms are rented by the hour and rates are usually more expensive on the weekends and at night.

Once in your room you will find a TV, a computer for selecting songs, two microphones, a couch or two, a table, and (if it's a nice room) a bar.  A waitress will come to take drink and snack orders.  Drinking beer is essential to KTVing.  So is chain smoking.

You might be wondering if I can even participate in such an activity.  I'm not much for chain smoking and certainly singing in Chinese is not easy.  Are English songs even available?  I'll have you know, they most certainly are.  The selection, however, leaves much to be desired.  What's on the menu?  A little Madonna circa 1985, classic Britney and MJ.  Oh, and The Carpenters.  Who are they?  Yeah, I don't really know.  I usually stick to "Baby, Hit Me One More Time" and "Smooth Criminal."

What's most different from American karaoke is not the venue, but rather the nature of karaoking itself.  While it can be enjoyed during a drunken night with friends, it is most often used as a way to form business relationships.  Meeting new people and establishing a relationship is key to survival in China, especially for men.  With such fierce competition in the job market, who you know is everything.  And what better way to introduce and meet new people than through a night at KTV?

Last week, I found myself without my husband late into the night after an 11pm phone call requesting him to go karaoke.  This happened twice.  I think most American women would find this somewhat infuriating, especially considering that Ming did not return home until 5am on Thursday morning and then went out again the following night.  But I just try to grin and bare it.  This KTV culture is a part of China that's unavoidable.  Often time I do get invited along, but I rather miss the endless hours of painful Chinese singing and ongoing requests for me to sing Mariah Carey's "Hero" or Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."  My time is better spend at home in the comfort of my bed. 

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Parenting in Tongues

It's 6pm on a Sunday night.  Ming's boss's son, Kai is here in our apartment.  He a seemingly well-behaved boy of seven.  Ping, Ming's daughter, age four, is also here.  And then there's me; that makes three.

I've never been afraid of kids, just like I've never been afraid of adults (meaning, people my parents' age) because I feel at ease around people who aren't my peers.  But living in China puts a new twist on things, as always.  Suddenly, I'm a bit terrified of both little and big people.  

These two munchkins have been perched in front of the TV since 2 o'clock.  Sitting a child in front of the TV has never been my style.  Even as a nanny I always tried to keep it to a minimum of an hour or so during the day.  But there's no arguing, TV gives baby-sitters and parents a great break from responsibility-clearly, or I wouldn't be writing this blog right now.  It's not a break I'm looking for, however; my downfall is my lack of words.

My Chinese has progressed to the point of being able to tell Ping to pick out a DVD, get dressed so we can go outside, and stop eating junk food because she's gonna have a tummy ache.  While being able to express such things is a great help, my inability to explain or reason with her still remains.  While I'd like to ask Kai what else he'd like to do besides watch TV, I'm scared he won't understand me.  Or I won't understand his reply.  Or I will understand his reply but won't be able to explain why that choice is unacceptable.  This leaves me mostly silent and it's a problem that plagues me on a daily level.  To get over the fear and to just speak is key to language learning.  I know that, but putting it into practice is difficult.

I don't always give myself enough credit.  When Kai came over he asked Ping (in Chinese, of course), "Can your mom speak Chinese?"  I was not looking forward to Ping's answer.  Ping, like most young children, is brutally honest.  She was gonna tell it like it is.  She was going to out me for what I really am, a wannabe-Chinese-speaker.  Afterall, whenever Ming speaks English Ping often cuts in, "Let mom say it.  You say it wrong.  You can't speak English."  Girl is way harsh; that's why her reply surprised me.

"Yeah, my mom can speak Chinese.  She can speak English too.  She can speak both."  A shining moment.  A burst of confidence.  Little good it's done.  I've been mostly keeping quiet this afternoon.  But the shyness isn't the worst of it.  The worst is the frustration.  And frustration hit me hard earlier in the week.  

It was about dinnertime and Ming's mom came over to cook.  She told me to go downstairs and watch Ping, who was playing in our apartment complex's playground.  She'd have Ming call me when he got home from work and dinner was ready.  

When I arrived at the playground, Ping was being watched by an elderly lady.  She pushed Ping and two other girls in a tire swing.  
"My mom's here," Ping exclaimed, waving at me.  A minute or two passed as I watched the group play.  
"Where's your mommy?" the elderly lady asked Ping.  
"She's right there!" Ping replied, again pointing at me.  
"Impossible!"  The old lady exclaimed.  
"Really, that's my mom!"  Ping insisted while pointing.  I began to wave.  
"Really?"  the old bag asked skeptically.  I looked her in the eye and began nodding. 
At this point, a whole posse of old ladies, waving their Chinese fans, began eyeing me.  Me, the impostor.  Me, the infiltrator.  Me, the foreigner.  But I held my head up high.

Ping got nearly a good full hour of playtime in when my phone rang and it was time to go.  She was playing with a few girls in a gazebo while one girl's father looked on.  I approached them.  I called Ping's name, praying she'd go without a fight.  She ignored me.  
"You're mother's calling you," the father told her.
She looked at me casually.  Then looked away and continued singing with the other girls.
"Ping," I said again, keeping my voice level.  No response.
"Ok, bye-bye!" I said, walking away.  It's a good trick.  If they think you're leaving, they're bound to follow you.  Well, it usually works.  When I looked back, she wasn't behind me.  She was still singing happily away.
Now she came running.  I grabbed her hand forcefully.  Everyone was looking at us.  We walked quickly.  I wanted to tell her that it was important to come when I called.  That grandma and daddy where waiting for us.  I wanted to tell her so many things.  And I probably could.  But my fear and anger silenced me.  

I'm not sure how to get over my silence.  Then again, maybe I don't have to.  It is now 6:45 and they have grown tired of TV.  They are playing make believe (school, and Ping is the teacher).  They are doing exactly what I want without me even telling them.  I only had to wait a few hours for it to happen.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Beijing 2008

Beijing Olympic Stadium, aka "The Bird's Nest," April 08

The final stretch is here, only 30 days left to go.  I remember standing in front of the Olympic Countdown by Tiananmen Square and there being well over 1000 days between me and the big event.  The anticipation is mounting.  The Chinese people have been waiting for their day in the spotlight; they have been waiting for nearly seven years-if not forever.   In July 2001, the International Olympic Committee announced that Beijing had been elected to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, beating Osaka, Istanbul, Paris, and Toronto.

But I don't even live in Beijing anymore.  Which is too bad, considering my blog address and name is Rosie in BJ.  Currently, it's Rosie in CD (that's Chengde, for those of you unaware of my current location).  On second thought though, I'm quite relieved to be living outside of Beijing.  It's a city hectic enough on it's own and with added pressure with the upcoming Olympics the place is utter pandemonium.  Everything too old is being demolished and rebuilt.  Everything semi-old is being repainted.  Every sidewalk is being redone.  Every sidewalk peddler is getting chased away by the police.  Where is the old Beijing that I had grown to love?  Everything is so sanitary and boring now.  It's nearly impossible to find pirated DVDs.  I hardly see the point in going to visit.  And I won't be, at least not next month.  I couldn't afford it.  My old stand-by, City Central Youth Hostel, currently charges 45RMB ($7) for a bed in a 6 bed dorm.  Next month they will be charging 270RMB ($42) for a dorm bed.  Just a bed!  And they are one of the most reasonably priced hostels in the city.

The price gorging of hostels, hotels, transportation, food, beverage, and entrance fees annoys me.  Yes.  But it is manageable, especially since I'm living nearly 200 miles outside of Beijing.  My most serious problem, a problem faced by all foreigners living and visiting China, is that of the visa.  The visa.  How this word has plagued me in my life!  First with Zhao Ming trying to get an American visa and now we me.  Me.  In the past the Chinese government has issued visa quite willy-nilly.  Never was there too much fuss over getting one.  I was even able to buy a new one without ever having to leave the country (I don't know if this is allowed in any other country in the entire world).  Things are different now.  Thank you Olympics.  Thank you for causing so much trouble in my life.

My initial freak out was back in April when I heard that the government was putting restrictions on visas.  It would be near impossible to buy a new visa in-country.  (I would latter find it was possible.  A one year business visa would set a person back $1500, probably about 8 times what it cost a year ago).  For most people, one would have to go back to her homeland and apply for a Chinese visa.  Visas were only going to be issued for one month stays and proof of accommodation (aka hotel booking confirmation) and onward travel (aka a roundtrip plane ticket) were required.  No extensions would be given on visas.  Would the Chinese government have mercy on me, given that I was married to one of there own??? I was afraid they wouldn't. 

The good news, they do make exceptions for us married couples.  Phew!  What a relief to know I wouldn't have to leave my home and husband behind for the summer.  Now I could focus on the next issue at hand, finding a job.  

Usually landing a job in China is easy for a girl like me.  I'm highly marketable.  Being female, Caucasian, and American usually scores me major points.  Since this is China, there are no regulations regarding hiring based on sex, gender, or ethnicity.  Not that I'm advocating this practice in any way, it just happens to work to my advantage.  Unfortunately, I currently have one major disadvantage, a definite strike against me.  I have a 6 month tourist visa.  I do not have a work visa.  Prior to these new Olympic visa policies, this probably wouldn't have been much of an issue.  Even if it had been, arranging the correct visa would have been easy.  Those days are gone.  The only way I can now arrange a work visa is by returning to America and getting the correct visa at a Chinese embassy or consulate there.  Would you care to guess the current cost of a roundtrip ticket from Beijing to Chicago?  Would you further care to guess how many months salary that would be for me?  (answers at end of blog).

I know many of my friends and family would love for me to come home for a visit, whatever the reason.  Considering, however, that I was just home four months ago, I will not be returning this soon.  I will try working from home and earn money through tutoring, writing, and editing.  I think this is a logical and happy solution, but I'll still be relieved when the Olympics are over.  I hope then things will go back to normal then, whatever normal means for China, I'm still not entirely sure.

Answers: Roundtrip from Beijing to Chicago this summer=$1495.  This equals about 2.5 months salary for the flight alone.