30 December 2012

it feels like home

We arrived at SFO Sunday around 9 a.m. SF time, around Monday 1 a.m. BJ time, after a 12 hour direct flight.  Lotsa logistical last minute things on the BJ end, but in the end things worked.  Even  requiring LiLi to manage a cart with two giant suitcases rolling down terminal 3 entry's slope.  LiLi was a champ.  Good thing those trolleys have brakes.  

Our BFFs met us at the airport with balloons and a couple of cars for the six suitcases and two carry-ons each.  They schlepped all those bags up our stairs and into our house, which was quite a bit worse for wear with the latest set of tenants.  LiLi was in tears in the first few minutes as the tenants' dog literally ate her special living room chair, and the tenant's kids did sticker things in LiLi's room.  In addition, everything seems dingy and well, dirty.  We'll really miss our BJ Ayi!

My friend made the kids some of the favored yet unavailable-in-BJ Annie's Mac n Cheese, and made me a cup of tea.  She had already stocked the fridge and pantry, and was amazing, working efficiently around my foggy brain.  Mostly, I got in the way.

After our friends left, LiLi and I climbed into my old SF bed with a pile of holiday cards from the mail that my tenant-house manager put out for us.  I couldn't really focus on the holiday news in the cards.  The bed is so so soft, and feels like a giant cotton ball that swallows us up.  Like, for good.  We may never be seen again.

Everything feels a bit surreal and like maybe we'll wake up in the morning and tell each other about a dream we had last night where we lived in Beijing for a year.   Maybe we'll say it was a good dream, but it feels good to wake up, too.

26 December 2012

Packing plus sadness

With essentially two more days to pack the apartment and deal with the utilities, banking, keys, and other ending what-nots, we've little time to indulge in the sadness.

I just dropped LiLi at her BFF-study-buddy's apartment for one last playdate.  The mom wanted LiLi there all day rather than the couple of hours I had in mind--and of course the girls were up for that--so the day's packing is left to me.  Better in ways because I'll want to stop, sob a bit, then start again, and can only indulge because I am alone.  ; )

25 December 2012

Merry Christmas

Christmastime in Beijing.  This is the Wall at Mutianyu where we brought my sister and her husband who came for Xmas.  It snowed a couple of days earlier so the scene was glorious.  Cold, though.  Very very cold at minus 14 C.  LiLi and I walked one tower's worth and went back down.  My sis and her husband walked 8 towers on the icy steps and finally turned around at one of those stone ladder -shallow-foothold ascents.  

I've been quiet during this countdown owing to a bad bout of the flu combined with hugely annoying  internet access problems.  We've been unbelievably lucky this past year with avoiding cold and flu bugs.  But last week, LiLi came down with a horrible flu that kept her out of school over a week.  She missed her last week of school, two slumber parties, two going away parties, movie day in class, and many other festivities.  She was so sick she didn't even care.  It was far from the week off from work  that I'd imagined:  me walking the frosty market lanes, buying fun Xmas presents and gifts to take home, stopping at cool cafes for lattes and reading a novel.  Oh, I had such a plan.  But none of that was to be.  Nor was the packing I figured would take place during that time off.  On Saturday, I started to feel bad myself and by Sunday at the Great Wall, I had a raging fever and chills, completely flattened  by Monday.  Oh, definitely not the last week in China I had planned.

My sister and her husband are very well traveled and troopers, though, so they set out on their own one full day, then we had a lovely Christmas morning together, and the afternoon out and about with them.   Since they saw Lenin recently they're committed to seeing Chairman Mao and will try the third time tomorrow morning before heading to the airport and the rest of their China travels.  They're getting used to things changing on a dime here, though, and know that like the last couple of days there is a chance the Great Helmsman will again be closed to the public.

Tonight is still Christmas so tomorrow I'll begin to think about the next...five days.

12 December 2012

Fairy tale

Snow had begun to fall when LiLi and I were waiting for her early morning bus.  The flakes were big and fluffy, wafting slowly down and sticking.  There is a nonprofit  way up in the suburbs of Shunyi called Roundabout and a mom in my parents group organized a van to take folks up there for a specific fundraiser for a poor kid who needs a bone marrow transplant.  All proceeds were to go to this kid's care.  Normally I'd not schlep that far into the 'burbs but since this mom made it so easy, it was for a good cause and I needed to get some Christmas gifts, I went.  I met a friend at the subway stop and we eventually hooked up with the van that slowly, slipping and sliding, made its way out of the city.  By the time we got up to Roundabout the place looked like a fairy tale:  

We're noticing now all the things we will miss.  Tonight, snuggling in the dark in her bed, LiLi wanted to list out the things she'll miss.  On her list:  her friends here; her room here; Ayi; the apartment.  On my list:  my friends; my work; my view of Chaoyang Park; Ayi; our urban proximity to everything we need and want (restaurants; markets; cafes); the feeling that anything is possible here in the center of the universe.  

18 days.  

08 December 2012

Three weeks

Our favorite market is our local one:  Tuanjiehu.  It consists of several one story buildings that contain a wet market with meat and fish, a produce market, and some buildings with individual stalls selling dry goods such as stationery, clocks and clothing.

We went yesterday to get some fleece-lined winter leggings for LiLi and begin to buy the gift items we will bring home for our peeps in the US.  We have some favorites such as the grumpy man who sells hair ties, fuzzy earmuffs and other small things: four for 10 kuai (about US$1.60).  The first time we went the man was very crotchety and had the "I hate foreigners" tone.  But since we're big hairtie-users we've been back to him many times.  After a year he is very welcoming and smiley.  Then there is the endless search for the perfect pen that LiLi and her buddies engage in at the roughly half dozen stalls that specialize in stationery.  Pens cost about 3 kuai (less than fifty cents US) so it's fine that the girls buy one or two a month.

On the way out one of the toilet paper stalls at the entrance was offering Christmas decorations and some small plastic trees.  LiLi was so excited her face was all lit up as she carefully examined the bags of ornaments and loose strings of lights.  At home in San Francisco (notice:  home), we have a tradition of a ceiling high tree, white lights and glass hand blown ornaments mixed with the kid-made ones we've developed over the years.  I loved a tree even before LiLi so our Christmas stuff is pretty extreme.  We put icicle lights in the windows and on the front deck railing.  We run strings of lights across LiLi's bedroom hanging-art wire.  We play endless rounds of Christmas CDs driving my (Jewish) ex crazy.  In sum, we go all out.

So...we wound up with a big bag of Christmas stuff and, after stopping at our usual hole-in-the-wall bao counter, we grabbed a taxi home and started decorating.  As a tree, we chose a giant ficus we got from the Brazilian woman who sold us most of her household of furniture nearly a year ago.  This tree has barely survived the bad air and little direct sunlight it gets here.  Lacking our CDs, we put some streaming carols on the laptop and did up the tree:

We'll celebrate Christmas here in Beijing with my sister and her husband who arrive just after school ends.

Three more weeks of this time, this life in Beijing.  LiLi is again talking about Paris.  I still feel drawn here.

07 December 2012


Our apartment view lake is freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, in the midst of its transition, its commitment to becoming winter ice.  We, too, are hanging out in the in-between.  I'm still unclear about coming back to China--the when and the if--and things are not falling into place the way they did when we moved here.  In flux are all the biggies:  LiLi's school; my work; our house.

It is an exercise in patience, this transition period.  I am resisting the impulse to do something or make a commitment one way or the other just because the un-knowing phase is so uncomfortable.  Some read it in me as feeling blue.  Others see me as confused.  Probably I am all those things but I'm also old enough, just, to recognize this phase of un-knowing, to remember that it passes, to see that it is like all that arises and fades away, to understand that forcing a decision often ends badly.

01 December 2012

Four weeks

We're heading back to San Francisco in four weeks after spending nearly a year here in Beijing.  I won't be ready to sum things up for a good long while, and imagine I'll need to hunker down in my house in SF for a bit, hiding under the covers.

I remember our return to SF the summer before last after we'd spend five weeks traveling around China.  I couldn't figure out where all the people were.  San Francisco's population is about 800k.  Beijing's is about 22M.  A good friend spends July 4th on the Lake Tahoe beach every year.  After a month in Beijing, she said the Tahoe celebration was not so well attended this year.  Her friends thought she was nuts and said it was the most crowded ever.  I remember that in SF it felt like a bomb had gone off or something.  I hung out in my front room library for hours staring out the window and during that time one person...ONE person...walked up my block.

We had our friends over for dinner last night, the ones with whom LiLi was in SF MI school.  We live on the West side of the park and they live on the East side.  The (very global) dad doesn't speak Chinese and was laughingly recounting some times when the kids go on strike and say, "I don't know how to say that."  We've experienced it a lot too.  Sometimes it's a general strike as in, I'm sick of translating and my brain is tired.  But oftentimes I think it is not knowing how to say the thing in the exact words we are using at the time.  For example, I know maybe 50 words that include:  good-not good; want-not want; can-can't; cold; hot; left; right; week; days of the week; hours; numbers; etc  (okay; maybe I know more than 50 by now).  So I can ask for things, or ask for not-things, but my sentences aren't pretty and are probably mostly wrong.  But I can get my point across, get around town, order at a restaurant, tell a taxi driver where to take us, etc.  But the kids, they think we mean:  translate this sentence into the exact sentence in Chinese.  "LiLi's not going to afterschool today and won't take the bus, so I'll need you to go up to school and get her in a car.  She gets out at 3:40."  LiLi might say, I don't know how to say that.   I'd say:  "LiLi school.  Want car home.  3:40.  Car.  Can-not can?"  Of course, it's also true that I taught myself to say, "I am studying Chinese.  My Chinese is very bad."  To which I invariably hear back, "your Chinese is good; I can understand you," even when it is clear that they do not.

Another factor is whether the person gets that I only have 50 words and uses those same words.  One can communicate a lot A LOT with just those basic words.  But so so many times I say my simple non-sentence and the person just starts talking a mile a minute.  I can say, "I do not understand; I do not know; I do not speak Chinese; she speaks Chinese, I do not speak Chinese; I understand a little bit of Chinese."  But many people, like our Ayi at first, cannot modify their responses to the simple handful of words.  Now, our Ayi knows about 25 English words, so now she gets it.  Between my Chinese words and her English words, and both of us keeping our sentences simple, we can communicate pretty well.

Four weeks.  It's been over a year since I made the decision to close up my house in SF, quit my jobs and move LiLi here.  For the longest time it was impossible to imagine myself back in my SF house, sleeping in my soft bed with all of its pillows, waking up to my SF view.  But lately I've been noticing those thoughts creeping in.   I've noticed that I've started using the word "home" to refer to San Francisco instead of Beijing.

My office mate is an attorney from Canada educated at Cornell who has been in BJ for many years.  She and her husband, both Chinese-North Americans, both work for non-profits here.  They have a couple of kids too so we talk about life here and in North America, on the East Coast, with kids and with our non-profit bent.  I found myself describing our humble nearly 113 year old house in SF, and my brother's 230 year old house in NY, and my other siblings' houses and our lives in different parts of the U.S.  After every one I found myself saying, we/they "have a good life."  And that is true here, too.  We have a great life here.  We have good friends, good work, a comfortable place to live.  Suddenly, in talking with my office mate, I realized that we have a good life anywhere.  We're so lucky to be healthy, to have each other, to get to make choices about where we live and what we do for a living.

I've heard it is an American thing, to think we get to be happy. Maybe it's our greed or sense of entitlement.  Maybe it's our good fortune to have resources (squandering them is the subject of another post).  Maybe it's that bit in our Declaration of Independence that somehow gets into our brains when we are young and sticks with us:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I love China deeply, profoundly and in ways I can't even reach with my rational mind.  Yet I think my dad gave us the greatest gift of all:  to be born Americans.

In four weeks we are going home.  

28 November 2012

太冷 Tài lěng

Tai leng...too cold.  It has been below freezing lately with bad air.  Last night the wind kicked in and blew the smog away, but made for a very very cold wait-for-the-bus wait at 7:20 a.m..  

The park lake out my office window is beginning to freeze over.  I remember when we moved here last January this lake was frozen solid.  Lacking a snowy-bank context, I didn't recognize it as frozen and thought I was looking at cement.

Today I say this:

Běijīng tài lěngle. Wǒ zhù zài jiāzhōu.
Beijing is too cold.  I live in California.

4 1/2 weeks.


22 November 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

At the office these days there are three Americans (and three Chinese staff and one Canadian staff, and a handful of interns) so we decided to celebrate Thanksgiving by ordering a turkey, and cooking the sides at the office.  The office is in a two story apartment in a mixed use building so there is a small kitchen.  I had Ayi go get LiLi in a hired car--not a black car--- and bring her over after school.  There were a handful of other kids too.  
After dinner we went to our friends' apartment for more pie.  They just got their moving shipment and the kids were having a great time opening the boxes.  We have so much to be thankful for in this life.  Sometimes you really feel it.  A friend who is a mom at our old San Francisco MI school, and who is often on the same wavelength,  sent this along for Thanksgiving Day.

Like I said:  So much to be thankful for.

21 November 2012


BEIJING    AQI 319    Hazardous


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

12 November 2012

A babbling brook

No, I'm not talking about meditation nature sounds.  This was the sound I discovered in my office this morning where the HEAT WAS ON!!!!!  The radiator made noises--loud ones--all day.  At times it was a relaxing babbling brook and at other times it sounded like someone peeing.  Still, I was thrilled to  not have to wear a sweater and down vest at my desk.  Here's the brook (the color being one of those Beijing mysteries):

10 November 2012

On the phone

One of my American friends told me her daughter said, "hey, Mom, look!  That person is talking on the phone on the sidewalk!"  My friend figured, well, yeah, so does everyone.  But no, her daughter meant on this:

A payphone booth!  Very few of these are left in urban America.
Like this, the cover of my Iphone.  I had lunch with a law professor who was unfamiliar with the image.  Not Andy Warhol's but the phone itself.  "What's that?"

I was recollecting what it used to be like to travel here (and elsewhere in the pre capital-D-Development days) and how "calling home" was a big, big deal.  You could put in a request at the hotel desk and then once the international line had been reached they'd call you downstairs to take your call.  You had to set aside the morning to get it done.   Just a long, slow, static-filled, crackly sounding, underwater voice, "Hi Mom!"  And you had to wait to hear back because if you started saying something when  Mom was responding back, you'd cut her off.  It was a one-way street back then.  And now:  Skype; Facetime; Vonage.  And grandma has an Ipad.  

06 November 2012

Eight Weeks

We have only 8 weeks left in China.  As excited as I am to see my friends at home,  I'm in a funk about leaving.  When feeling blue, make a list:

1.  Work:  Work is interested in keeping me on and I love it even though I need to work for a living and not for fun.  So I need a real job with a real salary.  Also, I need more kid-care kind of help to do the global thing well.  I need an au pair or partner or someone like that.  (Watch this space for my sun-and-moon-and-stars personal assistant ad.  I've written it and had it translated but haven't posted it yet because I'm still not sure.)

2.  School:  LiLi's school is still imperfect and too far away but coming from glowing parent-teacher conference comments last week I'm feeling more charitable toward the sweet, smiling yet brutal Chinese teachers.  Also, our school in San Francisco is imperfect too.  I'm planning to apply to a couple of privates in SF and tour some other schools in Beijing so at least I will have a bigger view.

3.  Home:  our apartment is a 3 br/3 ba and full of furniture we own so selling it or storing it is no small thing.  Someone from ministorage came to give me an estimate on Saturday and it's not cheap to store here, even getting rid of a couple of the larger items.  There's all that life stuff that would be time-consuming and expensive to replace:  dishes, coffee maker, wine bottle opener.  So if we're coming back, maybe in 10 months, or two years, we oughta dump it all.  If we're coming back in two months, we oughta keep it.

4.  Health (um, air):  We can see all our docs and dentists etc when we go back and not have to set those things up in China.  But the air.  Bad.  Bad.  Bad.   So bad that many of the air cleaning plants at home and all of them at work have died.  Dead air cleaning plants.  Bad.

5.  Life ease.  Okay so having:  an Ayi who can shop, cook, clean, do laundry, meet the school bus; a homework helper 4 days a week; a chef teacher; a heiche (black car) driver; a cheap closeby massage place and buddy to go with; a pool downstairs; a dry cleaning service in house; great restaurants and a new Thursdays jazz supper club; enough language to get around, all of that might, just might, make up for the fact that every chore, every single day, every single time we step out the door, is challenging and exhausting.

03 November 2012

Maizidian Community Center

In the Spring I was taking Chinese classes at our local community center.  

We live in the Maizidian area just West of Chaoyang Park.  Each of the little areas in this huge city has a government run community center, health center, several police stations, and more.  

The community center offers many services including childcare classes, preschool, help for old folks, and more.  It's a vibrant and wonderful place.  Since this area includes many of the embassies some of the signs are in Chinese and English!   

The free survival Chinese language classes are for local foreigners.  It's part of the government sponsored "harmonious society" program.  Our class's teacher was from a language school and was an actual professional teacher.  She was awesome and so patient with our diverse group of foreigners, all trying to pronounce Chinese but sounding German, French, Italian, Indonesian, American, etc.  

They also offer free haircuts to neighborhood retirees.  Local hipster hair stylists volunteer periodically to do the elderly trims:  

Here's the park square on the little lane that leads to the district buildings:


Yesterday the air was so bad (hazardous AQI) we could smell it: burned tires.  And taste it:  gritty poison.   We had "playground; cafe; store" on our list to do in the morning but the air was too awful.

When we were sitting in our complex's delightful European cafe (owned and run by an amazing Australian chef), it started to rain.  It poured the rest of the day, off and on.  Our dinner company arrived soaked having walked from the subway stop 10-15 minutes.  We wound up going to sleep very very late after our friend left.  So  I gave LiLi an 8 a.m. "earliest" for Sunday morning.  (On the weekends she'll happily get up at 6 despite that the weekday 6:30 wake up time can be challenging.  Hmmmm.)

This morning she came tearing out of her room and into my room ten minutes early to throw open the curtains and yell, "snow!!!!"

We decided to have coffee/hot cocoa before going outside but it seemed to be raining again so we hurried up to get out there, have a snowball fight and a build a mini-snowperson, urban style:

I love Beijing.  

02 November 2012

Random Beijing

This building is the home of CCTV.  It was completed earlier this year after many years and a few setbacks.  I've almost (almost) gotten over my fear of living in masonry in a seismic zone, but I don't think I'd ever feel comfortable enough for this.  Locally we call it The Pants:

A public and free thing one sees all over the city are these outdoor gyms.  There's even a mini version on the sidewalk near our apartment.  This one is just underneath our office building and is well used inside of Tuanjiehu Park.  But they are all over, squeezed into space wherever. 

Finally, this is the river, aka mosquito breeding ground, next to the 4th Ring Road just south of Chaoyang Park.  You can also see how smoggy that day was.  It's right next to the huge apartment complex called Park Avenue which is next to the one called Palm Springs.  I didn't even look at apartments at these two complexes mostly because they were too large but also because of their names.  

Liu niao

"Liu niao" or "taking your caged bird for a walk" is a familiar sight in Beijing.  It's a very old tradition that carries on today, even seen on my very urban walk to work.  Sometimes I'll see a cloth covered bird cage strapped to the back of a moped, or a old man with a shoulder-borne carrying stick with a cage on either end. 

31 October 2012

Beijing Chef

Our Ayi had a limited repertoire of dishes that we could/would eat.  In the beginning it was a huge problem because LiLi turned up her nose at much of the bland food.   After I came back from a work trip to Hunan reporting that I loved the Hunan spices, she started adding chili sauce and peppers and both LiLi and I were happier.  After several months there were a handful dishes that Ayi and I knew would be eaten so she pretty much stuck to those.  An Indian colleague offered to teach Ayi to cook our favorite chicken tikka masala and she declined to learn.  I tried to teach her to bake cookies when we first bought the table-top oven but it didn't stick.  So, I figured this was what we had and it was fine with me since I didn't have to shop or cook, who cares if we're eating the same things over and over.

But then my mom's group posted a cooking course for Ayis.  I thought that would be perfect so I asked Ayi.  She said she would be interested but we learned that it was very far away and would cost a fortune and an hour or more travel each way.  Then we discovered that the same school--which is also a catering company called Tina's Workshop--would send a chef to teach one's Ayi in one's own home.  Bingo!  Ayi was very enthusiastic about it, surprisingly.  So...in comes Chef Bai:

The first set of dishes I wanted Ayi to learn were seafood dishes.  Since I don't eat meat and since LiLi loves fish, this seemed useful.  Ayi doesn't know how to shop or buy fish, though, so Chef Bai wound up taking her to various markets.  Tina had had to order banana leaves for Vietnamese dish fish steamed in banana leaf.  She got them off Taobao which has everything.  They were beautiful and dried on our clothing rack.

Then the two of them cooked up a storm at our apartment.  It was fantastic!  We had him come a 2nd time too so she learned a total of 8 new dishes including chicken tikka masala and carrot cake.  So now we have an ayi who can cook awesome dishes, and shop for spices and fish.  I love Beijing.

30 October 2012

Heat Back On Tomorrow

Like Spring, Fall is a very very short season here.  We went from flip flops one week to boots the next.  The government controls the heat in Beijing and we are cold.  It got down to 1 degree C last night (low 30s F) and with no heat in the apartment we piled both comforters on one bed and slept huddled  together.  In the office my colleagues are wearing coats, scarves and fingerless gloves sitting at our computers.  We talk about the merits of long underwear and wool.  The weekend promises below freezing temps and precipitation.  What?  Um...snow.

Our expat apartment includes an extra four weeks of heat a year, two on the front end and two on the back end.  Everywhere else the heat comes on November 15 and off March 15th.  My real estate agent said we'd appreciate the extra two weeks when the time came and boy, do we.

The government's gongren (workers) have been checking the apartment pipes since the heat comes from hot water radiators.

Last night I came home and changed into sweats that hung on my bathroom door.  They were warm.  I felt the pipes on the wall behind the door, followed them to the radiator and...presto: hot!  I raced to the kitchen to tell Ayi the heat was on and grabbed the kitchen's radiator:  cold.  Ayi said (I think) that they'll come on tomorrow.  Yay!  Heat!  I love Beijing.

PS:  News says heat on earlier for everyone because of cold.

29 October 2012

Soundtrack for China


LiLi and her little girlfriends are very pre-teen-like and rockin' out.  At the Sanlitun Village last weekend there was even a car show Chinese performer doing covers of Adele, the girls' current fave.

When we first moved here, one of Adele's songs, Someone Like You, was the one we played over and over.  LiLi put that song on repeat as we cruised around that one bedroom service apartment getting ready.  I can still feel how cold it was when we arrived, and dark in the mornings when walked in the frigid air to the school bus.   Itunes keeps track of the plays: 338.   But now we're more into Set Fire to the Rain.

This is our sound track for China.

I've got a handful of Chinese pop tunes, too, from my heiche driver. I still need help finding the pinyin since I can't read the lyrics.   One of the CA moms in our old MI school mentioned learning Chinese listening to Chinese love songs.  I get that:

轻轻 我将离开你
Qīng qīng de wǒ jiāng líkāi nǐ

I'll part from you... gently

Qǐng jiāng yǎnjiǎo de lèi shì qù

Please wipe away your tears

In the endless nights, in the future days
My darling you, don't cry because of me
Qīng qīng de wǒ jiāng líkāi nǐ

Mànmàn chángyè lǐ
漫漫夜里 未来日子里
亲爱的你 我哭泣

Here's another from the CN set:


cong na yaoyuan haibian, man man xiaoshi de ni
from that distant seaside, you slowly disappear

benlai mohu de lian, jing ran jian jian qing xi
from a fuzzy face, has gradually become clear

xiang yao shuo xie shenme, you buzhi cong he shuoqi
want to say something, but don't know where to start

zhiyou ba ta fang zai xinti
only put it in the bottom of heart

xiang yaou shuosheng ai ni, que bei chu isan zai fengli
want to say love you, but it's dispersed in the wind

mang ran hui tou, ni zai nali
turn back ignorantly, where are you

And finally, there's this recent discovery--  Jack Savoretti Harder Than Easy:

At the end of the day when you're lonely
after begging to be left alone
You can look at this world as your kingdom
If you want you can make me your home