28 February 2012

This staff is on the move

Global staff.  One woman (Indian-American) is out of the country in Korea I think.  Might be a visa run.  Visas have 30, 60 or 90 day stays even many of the business ones.  An American guy is on his way to the Philippines today to participate in a sports competition.  One of the Chinese-Canadian attorneys is on her way to Hong Kong to visit family.  We might be heading for Cambodia next month.  LiLi really wants to go to Thailand because she watched too many of our old service apartment's infomercials and feels that Bangkok is the lap of luxury.  I just want a long weekend on a beach.  Every year since LiLi was two years old we've gone to the same beach house on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.  The house is right on the sand, owned by Mexican-American-Calfornians and has a small pool.  Also, like I said, it is right on the sand!  The town is tiny, almost no tourists.  Ever since the after-school non profit where we volunteer had a birthday party for LiLi when she turned 4 she's been famous in the town.  We love it there.  Alas, we are in China and missing our annual Mexico beach trip.  I'm shying away from Thailand because I've already been there and Malaysia several times but never to Cambodia or Vietnam and they are also warm now.  At the office's end-of-day chatting last night the staff was impressive in not only their, "oh, so and so is in Korea, and I'm off to the Philippines" type talk, but also their, "When I lived in Egypt...When I lived in Kosovo...When I lived in Cambodia" talk.  Wow.  That'll be us, too, in a few months...or years.

26 February 2012

Four Weeks In

We got here four weeks ago last Thursday.
12 Big Things Done:

1. A place to live.  We got an apartment with a view, bought enough furniture to live, outfitted the kitchen, got linens and other necessities, moved in, unpacked, slept in our own beds for 12 nights.
2. School.  LiLi started school, was assessed, met her new teachers (English Montessori and Chinese Nat’l Curriculum), made new friends, changed school buses, made more new friends, got used to school lunch, got used to having one fewer recess periods than public school in SF.
3. Afterschool.  LiLi started afterschool activities two nights a week (gymnastics on Tuesdays and homework club on Thursdays).
4. Ayi.  We got into a routine with Ayi.  Ayi meets the school bus which stops right in front of our apartment building—the first stop on the way home; the last stop in the morning on the way in to school---and brings LiLi upstairs where she’s supposed to have a snack but doesn’t, does homework, then gets to read her English books or do something on the Ipad for a ½ hour while Ayi makes dinner, then I get home from work and the three of us have dinner together, while Ayi cleans up I get LiLi’s bedtime routine going so that Ayi leaves while LiLi is getting her bath or shower (leaning toward the latter at almost 9 years old).  Ayi does the shopping before coming over and is supposed to do cleaning and laundry but that part is suffering from my inability to communicate effectively and I’ve back-burned the suggestions in favor of getting the after-school piece smoothed out first.
5. Food.  Dinner is easy because the Ayi shops and cooks during the week.  Even though we haven’t actually clicked with what she cooks--since apparently kids in China eat very very bland food and LiLi can’t stand most of it--at least it’s being taken care of.  Lunch is at LiLi’s school and at work usually someone orders out for everyone and we have meetings over lunch or eat at our desks.  A few times I’ve gone out.   Breakfast is the tough thing for LiLi.   She’s disinclined to have eggs or cereal or anything very easy.  We don’t have a microwave and I’m not sure if we’ll ever get one.  We don’t have an oven or even a toaster.  I’m into oatmeal lately but LiLi refuses that too.  Today we got pancake mix so maybe I’ll get up a few minutes earlier and try that.   For food shopping we have the chain of import stores close by and I walk by a fresh market, bakery and fruit store every day.   We haven’t yet ventured into a giant supermarket but I think there is one near here.   Walmart  (Wahmah) is close to where we were staying at the service apartment and has loads of food, like a huge supermarket, and live turtles and eels and things you might not find at one in the States.
6. Tutor.  Identified but not yet scheduled a Chinese tutor for me.  She’s the one the Brazilian furniture woman was using so impressively.  Identified and will get an on line program from another attorney at the office soon.  I started trying to teach myself and actually use one phrase a day but have not kept that up which is why I need the on line program.  This phrase is handy:  Nǐ huì shuō yīngwen ma?   你会说英语吗?  Do you speak English?  I can also say that “I don’t understand Chinese” in Chinese but I’m starting to get it, maybe 1%?
7. Work.  I started work and am starting to feel productive there though my lack of language is a huge, huge impediment in addition to being embarrassing. It’s a global staff (China, U.S., France, Canada) and I am the only one who does not speak and read/write Chinese.   We had a dinner meeting last week with a hugely important Chinese partner and despite that they tasked one of the staff to translate for me, I still missed more than 50% of what was going on.
8. Work commute.  After much frustration and many different paths, I’ve finally hit upon a fairly straightforward route to the office, and a somewhat less desirable route home.  I’m walking around 40 minutes, crossing the fewest death-defying roads possible, and even have some as-yet-bare trees enroute.  Yesterday I bought a new face mask to replace the surgery-like one I bought in the subway.  I had wanted one like what we saw last summer: a facemask with bling.  But the only ones we’ve seen were silly:  a monkey; a ladybug; a cartoon; or some phrase about love.  So I settled for a plain black one and will continue looking.   Maybe it’ll help the bad air and maybe it won’t but at least it’ll keep my face warm.
9. Rip-offs.  I should say, avoiding rip offs.  Though it’s likely I was ripped off in ways I didn’t know when at the market or with the rental, the only significant and known one involved being overcharged by a 三轮车  (Sanlunche) or what is sometimes called a tuk-tuk in other parts of the world.  Apparently these illegal taxis are notorious for rip offs.  They are three wheeled motorcycles with little enclosed areas in the back that fit one passenger.  They can ride along the side bicycle lane and bypass the main road’s gridlock.  One stopped and offered me a ride halfway to work one morning when I was late, charged 30 rmb when a taxi is 11, but I paid it and was delighted by the adventure, breathing motorcycle exhaust, opening the little sliding plexiglass windows, cruising along in the former bike lane, going the wrong way down the one way street, making better progress than a taxi or walking.  The people in my office said 30 kuai was too high and I should have negotiated up front for the fare to be around the same as a taxi.  So that night when I was late leaving the office, couldn’t get a taxi for a long time, and another sanlunche stopped and offered, I thought I negotiated 20 kuai.  Seemed right since 30 was too much and a taxi would have been 11.  Right?   Nope.  When I had the guy stop to let me off a couple of blocks from home so I could stop at the bank and so he didn’t have to make a left off  an 8 lane main road, he kept saying the amount was not the 20 I had in my hand.  I tried offering 22.  But no.  He wrote it down:  200.  He seriously thought I should have paid him 200rmb!   I thought we negotiated 20 but then I started to doubt myself.  Did he really say that up front?  Who in their right mind would pay 200 when a real taxi is 11?   But my Chinese just might be that bad.  Was it?  Then the guy started pawing for my purse so I gave him what was in my hand (another 40) and got out as he grabbed my arm.  I know this is a BJ moment and my friends all have similar stories.  But I felt yucky nonetheless, decided against stopping at the bank in case the guy was following me, and in general watched my back the rest of the way home.  There’s little violent crime in BJ for its size, but still.  Also, there’s the yuckiness.  So now, no matter how cute or how convenient, I will avoid the sanluches.
10. Laundry.  We got the washing machine to work at last, figured out the all-Chinese controls and obtained enough drying-rack supplies to have places to hang the wet clothes.  We have a routine for getting the favored school uniform dress washed and dried enough since for some reason the other school uniform choices are now roundly rejected in dark of the morning.
11. Technology.  I got a new unlocked phone sent from home, got a proper micro SIM card for it and got it to actually work.  Got a new Ipad and (mostly) got it to work too.  Got the wireless turned on at the apartment and working on the laptop, the Ipad and the Iphone.  The cost remains to be seen since we’re supposedly taking over the last (extremely slow) connection and starting our own faster one in March.  This one is pay by the minute and I’ve already forgotten and left the wireless on overnight twice so I may be paying the cost of a computer for the connection this month.   My realtor’s eyes bugged out when I told her I left it on overnight accidently.  Kinda a bad sign, I should think.  More in the tech dept:  The landlord provided a TV and though it was fixed last Sunday, neither LiLi nor I could make it function until we had a tutoring session from Ayi on Friday.  All the buttons on the remote are in Chinese and not words LiLi understands in that context.  So now it is working and LiLi is watching Chinese Sunday morning cartoons.
12. Music:  I can hear our upstairs neighbor playing piano and sometimes I can even hear a saxophone.  Though lovely, it’s not the same as having a stereo and wired speakers in most rooms like we have at home.  So, I downloaded some of my music from my laptop (now the mother ship) to the other devices  such that even though we still don’t have decent speakers or docking we can, at least, put on some music.  One of our more hilarious Siri moments (the I-phone’s personal assistant who just weirdly coincidentally appears to have been named after my late dog) was when we were asking her to play the Adele song “Someone Like You” again,  a song LiLi likes to listen to over and over to go to sleep, and she (Siri) couldn’t understand what we were saying:
Me:  Play the last song we had on.
Siri: You are not listening to music right now.
Me: No, Siri, play the one we just had on a few minutes ago.
Siri:  You are not running Itunes right now.
Me: No, Siri, I mean the song we had playing about a five minutes ago.  The most recent one.
Siri: You are not listening to music.  Perhaps you are hearing somebody else’s I-pod.

12 Big Things done.  Someone should say Yay.  Siri?  

24 February 2012

My morning commute

Some people take their dogs for walks in the park.  Other people take their caged birds.  Today I saw a man strapping two cages of birds to his bike's rear flatbed.  I saw many people exercising in the park.  I saw that the ice is slowly melting...

23 February 2012

Shouting over the lake

The other morning the air was crisp and clear, windy and chilly but not bone-chilling.  I sat in my 26th story office looking out on the park below where people stand around the lake and shout or sing.  It's some kind of exercise and there is an outdoor gym down there too.  I cracked the window because the government sponsored heat is too hot up in my office, and I could hear the shouters and also some music playing somewhere that sounded like it belonged on a boardwalk.  The sun was direct in my window.  It was beautiful.  

I asked the Chinese IT young man in the office what the shouting was about.  I thought it might be something like a yoga lung exercise.  He got very intense and said, "There are many people in China.  It is very crowded.  There are many people on the street.  Many tall buildings.  In cars in the street there is no place to park.  No space.  There are many buildings.  Look out there.  Look at all those buildings.  There are no trees.  No space.  Nothing green.  People feel nervous.  It is crowded.  People feel like there is something very heavy on their backs.  They feel depressed.  So, when they stand by a lake, with nothing in front of them but water, they feel so full of joy they shout.  It's a release.  They shout because they feel so light and happy to be standing there."  

22 February 2012

Dancing in the Park

I walked an hour and a quarter to work this morning.   I felt challenged morally because I wanted to take a taxi, and did try to catch one more than once, but the air was so horrible it felt like the wrong thing to do.  Ultimately, I took a longish route and thought I'd cut through the park right by the office:  Tuanjiehu.  It's a great little free park with a giant meandering lake that is frozen solid at the moment and looks, from my 26th storey office window, like it is cemented over.   But thinking I could experience a sweet little shortcut through the park was a mistake.  The paths meander like the lake and crossing it was no simple task.  I added about 20 minutes to my walking commute.

Last summer when we traveled around the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces we kept running into city open malls or minority village town squares where in the evenings people, often in full minority customary clothes, gathered together to dance.   We saw it over and over.  This morning, cutting through Tuanjiehu park around 9:30 in the morning, I saw it again.  I stumbled across no fewer than six sets of folks gathered together to dance with boom boxes and different sorts of music.  I'd have expected those folks to be maybe retired persons but they were from all age groups.  Just out enjoying the park, enjoying life, dancing in the morning.

20 February 2012

Hazardous Air

What more can be said. 


From the US Embassy air monitoring station:  


  • 2/20/2012 8:00:00 PM
    02-20-2012; 20:00; PM2.5; 254.0; 304; Hazardous (at 24-hour exposure at this level) // Ozone; 0.0; 0; No Reading

U.S Embassy Beijing Air Quality Monitor
The U.S. Embassy has an air quality monitor to measure PM 2.5 particulates on the Embassy compound as an indication of the air quality.   This monitor is a resource for the health of the Mission community.  Citywide analysis cannot be done, however, on data from a lone machine. 
Particulates less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM 2.5) are referred to as “fine” particulates and are believed to pose the largest health risks.  PM 2.5 is a standard recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and allows us to compare against U.S. standard measures.  PM 2.5 particulates are of concern since they are small enough to get into the lungs and even the blood stream.  For more information, please visit the EPA sitehttp://www.epa.gov/ttn/naaqs/pm/pm25_index.html

18 February 2012

Moving In

We wound up with the unfurnished apartment a few floors above the one we were almost in contract with last week.   The landlord’s agent got weird on the day of signing so we had to bail on that one.  I was done (as in:  Done) with the search and the wait and checked out the adverts on the Beijinger and saw ex pats leaving for home posting to sell and decided to make it work with the empty place.

It’s the same layout but is nicer, cleaner, higher, has a third bathroom, a wet one (meaning the shower is just in the tiled room w drain in the floor but w no curtain) off the Ayi (nanny/maid/household helper) room which is off the kitchen, and seemed fine.  I negotiated a slightly lower rent but the LL wouldn’t come down as far as I’d hoped.  Still, we went for it because, like I said, I was Done.  I signed the lease on Sunday. 

Our realtor took us to the inexpensive Chinese furniture mall (as opposed to the nearby gold gilt one we’d wound up in before) and we bought two very inexpensive beds and not-quite-hard-as-rock mattresses to be delivered three days hence.  

We answered some ads from the on line paper and wound up buying a sofa bed, small desk and chair, vacuum and other odds and ends from a dear couple (Brit/Chinese) who’re leaving for few months, and nearly a houseful from another couple (Brazilian/Danish) who’re moving to South America.  From the latter couple we got a fabulous hardwood with Danish dark finish dining table that seats 8, a matching bench, and five custom made hardwood chairs large enough for the tall Dane.   We also got a sofa that’s in three parts so it can also be a loveseat and chair and ottoman instead of the sofa with lounger, two tall bookcases, a gorgeous Chinese low cabinet they used as a TV table, a small café table with three stools for the kitchen, and two end tables.  Whew.   We did exactly what I didn’t want to do.  We bought a houseful of furniture. 

First you decide to do it, then you have to actually get it done.  I organized the delivery of the bulk of the new furniture on the same day the LL was planning to have a new TV and washer installed.  Those are considered standard fare here, like a refrigerator.  An oven is not, and unfortunately our new place does not have an oven.  Likewise for a clothes dryer.  In any case, coordinating it all was trying as it turned out that the TV would be delivered but then a separate set of workers would come to install it.  Same for the washer.  For the furniture, I had paid half of what we’d agreed upon so I had to go down there (near Guomao) to pay for the rest but I also had to be up at the new apartment for the other deliveries and workers.  I jumped in a taxi to get down there quickly and pay the Brazilian woman but the movers were late, delayed, late, and I wound up feeling like leaving and trusting that she’d put on their truck what we’d agreed (she did).  

Good thing I left when I did since as I arrived back there were two guys unloading a TV.  And so the rest of that day went.  No fewer than 9 sets of deliverers, installers, workers came and went.  The new beds arrived--san’s LiLi’s headboard that had been damaged in transit—and the four men who delivered them set about putting them together with lightening speed.  The beds were like Ikea furniture that takes hours and hours to put in those annoying little bolts and pegs unless you’re experienced and these guys were.  They were so efficient, so hard working and so strong they had those beds together, wiped down, and mattresses on them in no time.  Impressive.  LiLi’s headboard was to be remade and brought in two more days.  I held back RMB500 or my realtor cautioned that they might not come back with it. 

Like the headboard, there was some glitch in each task for the day.  The washer installer communicated that the water faucet was the wrong kind so I had to buy--for RMB 57--the correct one, the water wasn’t hot (re shui 热 水)  and apartment maintenance had to do something back in the utility closet, and finally, the washer needed an extension cord so we took it from the TV.  But then the TV installer didn’t have the  extension cord and additionally, was missing some other sort of cable that I also could have bought but declined.  Then the maintenance guy who was fixing a couple of the recessed lights didn’t have the correct sort of bulb, the internet installer didn’t have a router, and finally, the movers were hours and hours late to the Brazilian’s apartment and complained and shouted about the agreed upon price claiming that I was unavailable by cell all day.  It wasn’t true, of course, since first of all they weren’t dealing with me because I can’t speak Chinese so they were dealing with my realtor, and secondly, she was in touch with me all day nearly every half hour about the movers’ whereabouts.  I’d’a been inclined to give them the US$10-20 difference but got that doing so might have been a face-loss thing for my realtor who was on the phone with each of us and furious too.  But, in the US you’d never, never, let movers who had been in your house, know who lives there and how to access the building, go away angry.  I asked the property management woman, who showed up to help the TV guy with the missing cable, if I shouldn’t do something (pay $$?) so those guys didn’t walk out so steamed.  She said no.  Also, the TV guy had already left in disgust and without hooking up the TV. 

By the end of that day, we had a house full of furniture, beds to sleep on and a washing machine that could work.  Of course, with just one extension cord we had to choose between internet access, TV or laundry. 

I had had to decide the night before the day of deliveries whether we’d stay in the new apartment with only the fold out bed from the Brit/Chinese couple or wait for the other furniture.  The service apartment had moved us to a 2 bedroom when they accidently double booked our 1 bedroom so to pay the extra night would have been exorbitant and moving again would have caused my head to explode.  I decided to go ahead and check out of the service apartment and did so while LiLi was in school.  That night,  understandably, LiLi slept fitfully spinning a full 360 degrees on the lie-flat sofa bed.  I slept next to none. 

It was worth it though, because the school’s bus that picks up at the new place does so a full 35 minutes later than the Guomao bus.  Drops off earlier too.  So by this move, LiLi’s commute shrunk by over an hour each day!  That alone is worth the move.

I suppose the move sounds like pure irritation but it really wasn't/isn't.  I seem to have fallen into some sort of equanimity even though I'm not 100% thrilled with the glitches I am not being blown about by aggravation over them.  (Notwithstanding the head exploding comments)  And there are some moments so precious they're worth whatever brings them about.  For example, the Brit/Chinese couple we met.

After several days of follow up fix-its we are pretty much good to go.  Tomorrow the washer and TV should come on line after the LL’s visit.  We picked up some more household items today.  We’ll get a rice cooker tomorrow, hopefully.   A rice cooker.  Beds.  Sofa.  Internet.  Done.  

11 February 2012

Readers--over 1000 hits

Just a quick note to acknowledge that at some point this week this blog topped over 1000 hits and added the 6th continent (Africa) to the readership.  It's still USA first and then Russia, but folks from other countries are popping in to check us out.   I suspect we'll never get Antarctica though it'd be very cool if we did.  Still, I'm humbled and honored that, at least once, someone from such far flung places have clicked over here.  Very cool.

人山人海 ren shan ren hai

Last summer my niece taught me the phrase "ren shan ren hai" which translates literally "people mountain people sea" and means:  really really really...crowded.

I've been taking the subway to work and this phrase describes the scene well.  It is jaw dropping, the numbers of human beings commuting underground here.  Streams and streams of people heading for work, walking fast, climbing stairs, up and down, moving moving moving, all underground.  Vast expanses of tiled subway halls and platforms just filled with humans moving.  The sheer numbers, said to be over 7 million on a busy day system-wide, are staggering and being among them is like nothing I've experienced.

One of the days I went down to the platform and it was already completely full.    There was barely room to queue.   The train pulled up and it was already well beyond capacity.  100s of people got off and even more got on.  Uniformed subway or law enforcement personnel (or both?) shouted.  I was moved toward the train but the lines stopped when I was about four people from the doors.  I wanted to give up like I saw others doing as the neared the bottom of the stairs and the platform.  Many people took one look at the scene and reversed their course, heading back up the stairs.  But for me it was too late; there was no way back out.  There were too many people squeezed between me and those stairs now.  The next train came and the throngs of people moved forward again.  I was on the train but feared that I'd get pushed so far inside I'd not be able to get off in my only two stops.  I maintained my position and moved forward to be in line for the doors.  There was no possible way anyone could fall over, we were squashed so tightly together.  People avoid eye contact; look down; glaze over.  The train stopped and I got off, found myself up the stairs and up the escalator where I had to choose among several directions for the exits.  I chose the nearest one knowing it was not the one closest to my office.  Knowing I'd be popping up the wrong gopher hole.  I just had to get above ground, I didn't care if I had to walk another couple of blocks once  I did so.  Then I was up.  Whew.  Wow.  Beijing subways at rush hour.  Not for the faint of heart, for sure.

"Beijing Days"

...my friend's term for when things seem to go sideways.   Had many such days this past week:

  1. Service apartment double booked our little one bedroom so they moved us into a two bedroom abruptly.  We had stuff in every drawer and cubby so the re-packing to move down the hall took a frenzied few hours one night.  We couldn't do it in the morning since we have to leave at 6:45 to make the school bus and I've started working already.  
  2. Had to go to a hospital for some urgent issues.  Had really excellent care and am fine.  It was good to learn the ropes of that but wish maybe it hadn't had to happen so early in our stay.  
  3. Neighborhood banks couldn't let me withdraw from home so spent several mornings going from bank to bank [brings to mind:  my niece and daughter did a clapping game all summer as we traveled in China:  down by the banks of the yangtze yanks/ where the bullfrogs jump from bank to bank/ and the monkeys in the trees go whoo-whoo-whoo/their song means I love you/where the beep bop soda pop/hey mr. lilypad went kurplop!]  and sitting, waiting for my number to be called, then sitting with the bank worker, waiting for who knows what,  only to be told I needed to go to another branch.  In all, I visited five banks in three days.  The longest such visit was nearly 2 hours.  And I didn't get all the $$ I need.  Luckily I have friends at home willing to do the wire transfers to the new landlords, if necessary.  
  4. New cell phone sent from home got hung up in Fedex.  Apparently I am to pay the Fedex'er some huge amount of cash for the duty tax when s/he delivers the package.  Folks at the office says that means I will probably actually receive the package.  If it was disappeared, Fedex would never have emailed or called me back, they say.  
  5. And finally:  Our apartment deal fell through and went sideways in a way that didn't make sense so I am signing on the unfurnished one tomorrow at 2 (I hope), today bought a sofa, shelf unit and vacuum from a very sweet couple (Chinese-Malay-English and Chinese) who are leaving BJ soon, and tomorrow we are bed shopping.  
In spite of it all, or because of it all, LiLi and I are in good spirits.  It was great fun to meet the sofa couple today and we can imagine knowing them a very long time.   LiLi's latest plan is to stay in Beijing for three years and then move to Paris.  [She's been watching the service apartments TV ads and has decided that where their other branches are (Paris; Bangkok) are where we need to be.]   So we joked with that couple that maybe they'll end up in Paris too and recognize their old blue sofa bed in our Parisian apartment.  Who knows.  I love that LiLi's version of her life is global.  After only two weeks here. 

07 February 2012

An Apartment!!!!

I was dragging my feet on the two apartments I felt I had to chose between.  One was on the 21st floor of a stand alone tower (rare here), clean, nice furniture, great light and views.  Also, the landlady agreed to add an oven, a rarity in BJ.  However, the landlady had the reputation of being difficult and the building's management office was said --by at least four different realtors-- to be non-responsive.  So, though I loved the views, it felt like a potential hornet's nest.  It also required paying the utilities with a pre-paid card which is the system the newer buildings employ.  I'd heard that that is a pain because if you forget to top off your card, all of a sudden all the lights will go out or the hot water will off.   This was one of the first places I saw and though it looked good, it just didn't sit right and I kept putting off finalizing the deal.

The other apartment on my chose-between list was unfurnished, 10th floor, huge 3 bedroom, post-pay utilities, on the main drag outside the West gates of Chaoyang park.  This park is over 700 acres huge with lakes, an amusement park, boat rides, lots of green in the summer.  I've heard it called, "the lungs of Beijing."  The apartment complex has a gym and pool included in the fees, heat on for a month longer, and management that is considered very responsive.  While the view wasn't spectacular from the living room, the master bedroom's view was great overlooking a lake in the park and the main drag of commercial establishments across the street.

There was another apt  that was the same layout as the unfurnished one, just one floor below it, but it was occupied and unavailable until March.  I thought that the one month's service apt cost (US$115/night on Expedia plus various fees) would probably furnish the other place because all we really need are a couple of beds, a sofa, a table and a couple of chairs.  The rest we could fill in as we went along.  The realtor recommended a furniture mall and we went down there to price out the items.  Instead, we walked for miles and miles around this enormous mall looking at really dreadful Parisian wannabe overstuffed, oversized and overpriced pieces.  LiLi loved the gold gilt shiny massiveness.  So the next day I went alone to Ikea.  I figured out that in fact we could get the minimal pieces for just over the differential between the empty and the service apartment.  But as I sat on sofas, looked over upholstery options, matched chairs, I realized something:  I don't want to own this stuff.  What happens when it's time to leave BJ?  What on earth will I do with  two beds, a table, a whole household of furniture?   I'd rather just rent a furnished place.  So I started thinking again about the March place and told my realtor.

She emailed a few hours later and said there was a new apartment, just one floor beneath the March one, two floors beneath the unfurnished one, partially furnished, with an oven, and available now but with just a 6 month lease.   It was already dark and cold and I'd just come home from checking out two other places in a different area with a different realtor (they say to use at least three since they'll show you the same places but with different prices).   But I couldn't look at the place the next day because that was my first day of work.  So I got into a taxi and headed off to meet the realtor whose car was sidelined that day.  As an aside, depending upon one's license plate, the car is not to be driven within the city one day a week in attempt to reduce carbon emissions.  So my realtor had to get in a taxi too.  They were hard to come by that last night of CNY.  People were out and about celebrating.  Plus it was very very cold.   In any case,  my realtor and I finally met at the apt building and saw the new place:  same layout, one floor below, partially furnished, oven, clean.  It was Lantern Festival Day so the moon was full and in view over the lake from the master bedroom.  The main drag's cold wintery trees were lit up with lights and the shops and restaurants looked bright and festive.   The urban scene below was beautiful and exciting.

And it was clear to me:  This is it.  This is our new apartment.

06 February 2012

Lantern day today

Today is Lantern Day, the last day of the CNY Spring festival.  Gorgeous lights in wintery trees.  Red lanterns hanging all over.   And noise!  Fireworks and firecrackers everywhere, even on our tiny lane.   City streets toward CBD are in gridlock.   People just set off huge bunches of firecrackers on a random sidewalk, or maybe not so random, and step away so you can't even tell from whom they came.  There's an excitement in the air.  And it is cold: in the teens.  And windy with gusts up to 40 mph.  Faces need to be covered kind of cold.  Turtlenecks.  Fur collars.  Unfathomable in SF where temps were in the 60s today.  It's Beijing and it's fantastic!

04 February 2012

New school

Day one (Wednesday 1 Feb):  I don't want to go to a new school. I love my old school.  I have to learn 20 new names and they only have to learn one.  I want to be at my old school.

Day two (Thursday 2 Feb):  This school is fun.  I made four new friends today.  I like this school.

Day three (Friday 3 Feb):  I love this school.  I want to stay here.  Do we have to go back to San Francisco?

02 February 2012

Mandarin assessment

My third grader in an American MI program, albeit a new one, was evaluated at her new school and placed with the Chinese 1st graders in her BJ school.  We suspected 2 grades behind since in China the kids know so many more characters by the start of 3rd grade.  But still, it was a hard blow.  At least her friend is also in the class so that helps.

Interestingly, in the U.S. LiLi has a Mandarin afterschool homework-helper 4 days a week so she actually gets more exposure than many MI kids.  It has likely helped her accent since she seems to have a good one.  But didn't help the two-grades-behind issue.

Tonight the new Ayi helped her with her homework and since I haven't yet started working I was here to see it:  Bouncing off the walls and furniture, literally.

01 February 2012

Bookmarks bar

I've noticed that my bookmarks bar has changed dramatically in the nearly week that we've been here in Beijing.

It used to be:  my local SF parent yahoo group; a neighbor's blog about my SF 'hood;  my own blog (this one); another expat MI mom's blog 3 Asian Tigers; 5Q Mandarin Reading; Yellow Bridge; my kid's MI school site; her MI teacher's site; Youtube; SF Public Library; Apple; Facebook; Wiki; and my office email.

After a week of adding and deleting things, I now have:  BJ map; BJ air quality; SF timeclock; BJ subway map; The Beijinger; Google translate; Google pinyin; new work email; 3 Asian Tigers blog; my blog; Apple; Facebook; and still, my neighbor's Bernalwood blog about our deeply missed SF 'hood.  At some point I'll delete the latter but just can't yet.  Not just yet.

On the ground: Apartment hunting

We've been looking at apartments for days now and they're starting to blur together.  I didn't create a spreadsheet until I'd already seen several so I lost many details.  

Upkeep, even of new buildings, isn't a strong suit in BJ so buildings only a few years old look pretty run down.  Yesterday I looked at a three bedroom at the West side of Chaoyang park, my current favored 'hood, and there was a giant crack in the plaster of the dining room ceiling that ran about a half meter down the wall.  Like a 7.1 earthquake-sized crack.  I pointed it out to the realtor and on site agent and they didn't really register it except to say they don't have earthquakes here.  No mention, say, of whether it indicated some worrisome flaw in structural integrity.  No mention at all of repairing it.  

I'd been warned that rents are very negotiable and fluid and that three different realtors might show someone the same property but quote three different rents.  I've been experiencing that and also that the landlord's "friend" is really the on site property manager and that a realtor will show me one unit when another even on the same floor is also available.   Haven't figured out the "why" yet but have noticed these things.  One of our friends from Ghana warned me not to trust anyone and I think he might be right about that w/r/t real estate in BJ.  

Since there's no employer like Chevron or Mercedes or whomever to pay our rent, our choices are necessarily pretty humble.  Also, we're looking in buildings that are not predominately ex-pat because I want to have Chinese Mandarin-speaking neighbors.  

My little handwritten spreadsheet is down to three complexes.  I’m seeing a couple more tomorrow and then expect to choose among these.  It’s a bit of a rush job but I want to get out of this service apartment and start setting up a household, buying things like sheets and towels, and getting a subway, bus and Ayi schedule nailed down.  LiLi and I had a discussion this morning about what colors we’ll want for our bedrooms.  It is fun to feel like we are starting life anew. 

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my San Francisco realtor showed my house to a prospective tenant today.  Fingers crossed on that one.