25 March 2012

Visa run: Seoul

Seoul, Korea is a city of about 10 million, 20 million in the greater metropolitan area, bisected by the Han river.  Across the Yellow Sea from China, Incheon international airport is  just a 1 hour 50 minute flight from Beijing.  It makes a great weekend visa run.  Some people even stay in the airport then turn around and head back to China.  There is no requirement that you stay across the border for a day or two but that’s what we did.  We left Friday and came back Sunday, having a spa day on Saturday.  It was raining on Friday and that turned to snow on Saturday.  Owing to the weather, LiLi had zero interest in the nearby amusement park, green park, river cruise or pretty much anything other than shopping and spa-ing.  So that is what we did. 

I’ve changed planes in Seoul before but never gotten beyond that.  I was pleasantly surprised at the city.  Huge but with lots of water and green; not as dense as Beijing.  And also:  very very clean.   All of it:  air; streets, sidewalks, taxis.  Strikingly, awesomely, clean.  

Was odd that although I only have about ten phrases in Chinese I kept wanting to say them.  It was like when we first got to China and my mind kept popping up with Spanish phrases.  Some brain compartment access that brain behavior psyches can probably easily explain.  LiLi kept quiet in Korea but upon returning to China was a happy chatty-cathy talking up a storm to airport folks, the passport control guy, the taxi driver.  She remarked that she’d like to live in Seoul since it is so clean but would not since she didn’t speak Korean.  Her best friend at home is Korean American happa  so I said maybe they’d both live there one day and learn Korean together.  LiLi said, well, maybe not since first she wants to learn French and Russian.  And more Spanish.  So Korean is a bit farther down her list at age 9.   

On the flight back we sat next to a Korean woman who is teaching in BJ.  She said that Seoul wasn’t so clean until recently and that even just 15 years ago she said it was like BJ.  She thinks it was the Olympics there and that the same thing has already started to happen in BJ.  She thinks in 15 years it’ll be sparkling here too.  It’s a bit hard to imagine living in the gritty-grey-winter-spitting-smoginess of it all, but maybe so.   Maybe so. 

17 March 2012


A few days ago the gov't decided to leave the heat on for a few more days because they expected snow.  People said that was wrong, that it was still cold but there wouldn't be snow.  So this morning we woke up, LiLi came into my room and were hanging out in bed snuggling and telling stories.  We could tell the sun was coming up so I got up to throw open the curtains.  And look!!!!

Just when I'm so discouraged and smog-sick that I'm ready to pack our bags, this happens.  It's glorious!


Beijing Air is a continuous subject of discussion.  Neighbors waiting for a bus talk about it.  Strangers in an elevator talk about it.  Coworkers talk about it.  People post about various air filtering cleaners the size and cost substantially greater than those of a washing machine.  Do you have one in the kids' room?  What brand is it:  Alen or IQ or Blue Air or a Chinese brand?  Is it loud?  Do you leave it on 24/7?  Can your kid sleep?

One of my parents group's threads on the subject shared this TED video from a guy in Delhi India.  India’s air is even worse than China’s according to this recent article.  But this man has cleaned the air in his business using just plants.  It’s fantastic.  No need to use electricity to clear the air of the pollution borne from producing electricity. 

Here are the three plants that are said to clean the air:

1)  Areca Palm (chrysalidocarpus lutescens) Chinese name: SAN-WEI-KUI (spreadtail sunflower) or HUANG YE ZI (yellow coconut)

2) 庣毊鍏 Mother-in-law's Tongue / Snake Plant / (sansevieria trifasciata) Chinese  name: HU WEI LAN (tiger tail orchid) or HU PI LAN (tiger skin orchid)

3) 胯悵 Golden Pothos (epipremnum aureum) Chinese name: LU LUO (green luo) or HUANG  JIN GE (yellow gold ge)

Air quality is also oft discussed at my office.  Some days one of the IT guys runs a little Price Is Right type guessing game as to the AQI numbers. Once the other IT guy even opened the window and sniffed before submitting his number guess.   At some point I shared the TED video and we all discussed the merits and demerits of trying the plant method.  So one day a coworker and I went to the plant market

to buy some of the air cleaning type plants.  My colleague, a Chinese-Canadian who came to BJ via Cambodia and the U.K.,  speaks, reads and writes Chinese;  she brought the Chinese names of the three plants on her phone. 

The plant market is a huge indoor place full of individual sellers in stalls near the embassies in BJ.  Just walking into the place was relaxing.  It had the feel of a giant greenhouse, which in a sense it really is.   The air smelled sweet and felt moist, humid.  My colleague said she would always volunteer to go on that particular errand even though she’s an attorney with about ten projects on her desk right now; she loved the feel inside the place.  We shopped around a bit and wound up buying several of each of the three plants.  I bought some for home too.  

Yesterday morning we woke up to the haze of pollution so bad it looked like a heavy San Francisco fog.  Maybe it was both fog and smog and the fog was what kept the pollution from blowing away.  It smelled bad too.  Not like the smoky smell of some days reminiscent of a California forest fire.  But like a thick, gritty, poison smell.  Like we should stay indoors, keep the kids home, wear gasmasks.  Like we are all going to die soon, in a bad sci-fi movie, huddled inside our bubbles while our planet sizzles and pops, and implodes.   

I put LiLi on the school bus sans gasmask.  I went to work.  I felt ill and others at the office were cranky, irritable.  I checked the AQI several times and it rose and rose eventually topping 400.  That’s the highest it’s been since I’ve been paying attention.  Sometimes they say it goes above the highest measurement of 500.  About a year and a half ago the US Embassy comments normally:  moderate; unhealthy for sensitive groups; unhealthy; very unhealthy; hazardous, instead said, “crazy bad.”  That comment went viral, there was an uproar and the US Embassy took it down.

I sat in my office feeling vaguely nauseous and looked out at the  smog enshrouded buildings.   I googled “Alen Air Beijing” and called.  That’s the brand another coworker said she has in her kids’ room at home.  I ordered one small machine for LiLi’s room at a cost of just under US$800.  I figured we can see if it makes a difference; if we can feel the difference maybe we will order more.  This will be us:  Using energy to clear the air of what our use of energy has done to the air.  Crazy bad. 

I love China.  I love Beijing.  With all of its faults and growing pains, I am thrilled to be here now.  But. The. Air.  If we wind up not staying for very long it will be because of that.  Just that. 

08 March 2012

Erhu in the park

Walking home earlier this week I heard music coming from the other side of the lake.  As I rounded the lake heading toward the sound, I saw this man playing what might have been an erhu by the lake.  I couldn't get a clear look without disturbing him so I let him be after capturing this Iphone shot:

Calligraphy in Tianjiehu Park

There were several men doing this water calligraphy at the park today.  Walking commuters were ignoring it, sometimes smearing the characters.  I can't read so I stopped to snap a few photos.  What does it say?  Something about water, evaporation, impermanence?

Heat off in 6 days

March 15 is the day Beijing's heat is shut off by the government.  It is supposed be Spring, right?  But it's expected to get down to -5 C tonight with a chance of snow.  But maybe it won't be so bad.  I  took this photo about an hour ago and it offers some hope:

Short term rentals & summer camps

People keep asking about these and someone sent this article:


There are also loads of "Service Apartments" which are short term apartment rentals usually with daily maid service like hotels.  We loved the Ascott in Beijing and they also have Ascott Raffles and Somerset.  But there are many others too.

As for summer camps, the Beijinger (dot com) has lists of those but the dates might be off your school's summer since school here goes through June.  In San Francisco we were out at the end of May.

I'm toying with the idea of organizing a summer camp for MI kids.  The camp we attended last summer was for expats' kids and our US MI kids were advanced there.  Plus, we didn't really need field trips to the great first-time-visitor sites in BJ.  The kids were just hot and cranky at the Forbidden City.  Little kids would rather run around in the park or do some kungfu or gymnastics in Chinese than sightsee.  

I am enabling comments so chime in with where you're coming from, what's your kid's MI grade level, and when June/July/August you'd be interested in.  Also, would you want it to be in the heart of the city or would you be okay with the suburbs of BJ?

01 March 2012

Toxic snow

When we went out to meet the morning school bus it was snowing.  The air has been "hazardous" the last few days though so I don't think this snow is edible.  Toxic snow.