23 June 2012

Riding English in China

Last Summer we met the friend of a friend's colleague who owns a club just East of BJ called Sheerwood Equestrian Country Club.  We'd been trying to connect and visit and it happened yesterday.  We went out with our friend, a visiting MI family from SF, and our weekend driver.  It was about 45 minutes East of BJ in holiday weekend traffic.   We got there and stepped into another world

On tens of thousands of acres there are several outdoor rings, a jumping ring, indoor ring and paddocks.  We heard they have nearly 90 horses there now.  The buildings are Spanish style set in clusters around a central courtyard.  There are separate compounds owned by club members including our friend's which itself contained grand rooms, six gorgeous guest rooms, a kitchen, theater and game rooms.  Our friend had organized private lessons for the girls who are all horse lovers.

A club staff person took the girls to get outfitted in boots and hat-helmets.  LiLi's was exactly the hat I had as a kid with the big button top that looks like a little anthill.  LiLi's coach obviously thought she has had more experience than she's had and gave a real lesson, trotting and posting her very patient mount.  The lead trainer was working on jumping a drop dead gorgeous stallion and the rider himself was some sort of world wide champion.  We also met the head coach who is also apparently an Olympic equestrian judge.  After the girls' ride we got to walk around the barn and peek in and pat the horses in their stalls.  Gorgeous animals, all.

We'll probably pursue lessons for LiLi which is what I had planned to do in SF if we were there.  I figured age 10 or so is a good time to start learning to ride.   She's 9 so it seems close enough.

Who would have thought horsebackriding in China.  English style, too.

21 June 2012


When I first decided to quit my two jobs and come to China I committed to a contract gig with an outfit based in Geneva, and a BJ private school for LiLi, each for six months.  I wasn't sure how we would both do here, whether we'd want to stay for less time, more time, a lifetime.

I put our personal stuff in storage in San Francisco but left furniture, rugs, art, books, for our neighbor's parents who were staying in the house.  I figured I'd rent the house later if I needed to, and just risk the damage that might happen to my rugs or antiques.  I wasn't feeling very attached to all of that accumulated stuff at the time.  I even let go of a white sofa that had been emblematic of my marriage and our tiny Hollywood Hills cottage lo those many years ago, watching it being crushed in the jaws of the recycling truck and sobbing at the loss.  My poor (more-recent) ex kept saying, "I told you not to look, I told you not to look."  But I had the idea that after Freecycle resulted in no takers, that the recycling guys would cart it away for another life, intact.  Despite the momentary meltdown, I was still feeling happy to be starting a(nother) new life.  Once in BJ, I didn't miss the stuff at all.

Time has marched on as it does, and now if we were to go home as planned we'd be leaving here in about six weeks.  China would almost be over.

So.  Last week I renegotiated my work gig, extending it and school to the end of 2012.  I'll have tax complications, getting back into SF school complications, figuring out SF work complications, but I'd have some version of those no matter what.  I carved out a month of summer camp for LiLi and simultaneous intensive Chinese study for me.   Several of our nearest and dearest are visiting now, are enroute, or are talking about coming to visit.  Even my sister and her husband are thinking about coming in December.  So the world feels, or rather we feel, sufficiently accessible right at this moment.

And we are not done here.  Beijing still seems like the center of the universe, like change is happening every minute of every day, and like anything is possible.  It's exciting to be here now, in the midst of change I don't think we've ever seen or will see again in our lifetimes.  When we first got here I'd meet ex-pats and ask how long they'd each been in BJ.  I kept hearing the same story:  I came for a year and it has been three; I came for six months five years ago; I came for three years and stayed for 8 so far.

I was reading the requirements for a grant application this week and considered writing myself in as "key personnel."  I'm not ready for the four year commitment that would require, but I am signed on, now, until the end of 2012.

17 June 2012

What is 36 degrees Celsius in Fahrenheit?

Hot.  It got to 97 degrees F yesterday in Beijing.

We went to the Yonghegong Lama Temple and met our friends and had lunch at a vegetarian buffet restaurant favored by Tibetan monks.   The kids did okay considering it was so hot and also incense-smoky at the Temple.  They all bought prayer flags and fans across the street and put the latter to good use.

Yonghegong Temple

and then onto Jingshan Park.  The temple at the top of this human-made hill, the highest point in BJ, is lined up such that looking South one sees the Forbidden City


and looking North one sees the Drum Tower.  Lined up beyond is the Bell Tower.  There's a compass painted on the terrace indicating North.

The view of Beijing from here is spectacular and one can see and feel the ancient alongside the brand, brand new.  Forbidden city rooftops and shiny highrises.  This is Beijing to me.  The Maserati on the street in the same block as the hunched over guy pedaling his bike ducked down under his load of recyclable flats of cardboard.  Beijing 2012.

Out the West gate leads to Beihai Park with a huge willow-lined lake.  We rode a long tailed boat on a small portion of the lake, cooling off a little and watching the storm clouds gather.

We were nearly an hour away from home with traffic and it took just about that long to even catch a taxi so by the time we got back to our apartment for pizza and slumber party, the girls and I were totally exhausted and cranky.   After pizza the girls were raring to go and had a great, late, slumber party.  Unfortunately, they also got up at 6 after going to sleep close to 10.   The parents, our friends, came to collect them this morning and  after setting up some booby traps and pranks in my bedroom, inviting us in for a snack of rice, mixed with chocolate, water and peanuts and served with a knife, they took off to explore Chaoyang Park a bit more.   We're having some quiet blogging/reading/sewing time before heading over there ourselves for a bit more 90-something degree Beijing fun.            

15 June 2012

The Yellow Sea

I need to live by the sea.   Maybe even the Yellow Sea.

Qingdao, Shandong, China is a coastal city of over 8 million, situated on the Yellow Sea opposite Korea.  Qingdao is also spelled Tsingtao and is the home of a beer maker of the same name.
Inhabited by humans for 6000 years,  Qingdao was taken by Germany from 1898 to 1914.  There remain many areas of German architecture, churches and other colonial buildings.  I love that style.  (Despite the history, much like the US Southern plantation buildings with their horrible histories, the architecture remains and is lovely.   The antidote, I think, is having Chinese people here now own those German buildings, like when people of color own the plantation homes.)

We spent last weekend there with our friends from San Francisco whose two kids are also in MI in SF. They, like several SF MI families, are spending most of the Summer in China, traveling and staying put, touring and going it alone.  The kids are having varying degrees of practice seemingly owing more to the kids' personalities rather than the modes of travel.  Our two friends jumped in with both feet.  Neither parent speaks Chinese and both kids took over the translation.  They are just post third grade, are, like LiLi, 9 years old, and are fluent speakers who seem to feel comfortable and effortless in the language.  Sure, there are times when, like LiLi, they go on strike and say, "I don't know how to say that," when they do.  And when motivated, say by ordering ice cream, they suddenly find a fluency none of us knew they had.  Plus, now that I can understand a bit myself, I can hear when they're straying off course, saying things we grownups didn't ask them to say.

We took the bullet train from BJ's South Station, a huge well organized station rivaling many airports.  We made our ways to the station from different parts of BJ and hooked up via cell phone once there.  It's advisable to have a meeting spot since the station is so huge but we figured with both families wired we'd work it out.

We called our friends once we got to the drop off entrance and they'd gone ahead to a FF restaurant looking for coffee.  McDonald's is behind and above a Chinese noodle house so the signs that seem to be taking one to McD appear to wind up a the noodle house.  It's a bit disconcerting but also a relief:  McD serves noodles in BJ!   But no, actually, you keep walking and go up a set of stairs and there you are, golden arches.  LiLi has never set foot in a Mcdonalds at home and has been heard to say, loudly, "I don't like McDonald's or Burger King, yuck."  I know the time will come when she's out with friends and it will happen, but I didn't figure on it happening in Beijing, China.  Funny thing, our friends don't ever go to Mcdonald's at home either, and were shocked to find themselves there too.  Still, it was a good meeting place since we could all sit down together.

My Beijing mom's group had advised we get first class train tickets since they're not that much more than coach and are much more comfortable.  Plus, the sets of two seats swivel so it's possible to have four seats facing each other.  In China, with things changing on a dime as they do, one can plan for, for example,  a five hour ride in first class, soft sleeper seats in a train with a dining car, and wind up in 3rd class hard seat, smoking seats in a train with a squat toilet and no dining car... for nine hours, so we weren't sure how it would all work out.  Alas, the seats and train were as we thought.  The ride to the coast was smooth, bullet fast, and lovely.  The terrain is flat and farmed, with loads and loads of trees planted in hedgerows and any available space as a result of China's aggressive reforestation policies.  The farms may still be family owned, and do still include the tiny little mounds mid-field that are the family's dead, buried according to Feng Shui principles, in the best possible spots.  I love those little tombs in the middle of ripening crops.  So safe, so rich, so obvious a reminder of impermanence.

We got to Qingdao and enjoyed the historic (partially) train station and taxi-ed to our gorgeous hotel, Sea View Garden Hotel.  We stayed in room that did, in fact, have sea views, walked along the sea shore, bought and flew kites at May 4th square,

went to sandy beach #2, had jiaozi (dumplings) at a hole in the wall, took a boat ride around the harbor, went to the Underwater World aquarium, and drank a lot of Tsingtao beer.  I don't usually drink, and really not in China, but that beer was very yummy and quite a treat.  You can even get it cold in Qingdao.  Cold beer.  Wow.

The air in Qingdao was so so clean.  The sea breeze was renewing.  The sun felt good.  There is something about being on the coast, any coast, that just feels better.  Less crowded; less congested; less claustrophobic.

I'd rather live on the sea.  Maybe the Pacific.  Maybe the other side of the Pacific.
Or maybe the Yellow Sea.

05 June 2012

The Honeymoon is Over

I have a phone full of photos to download and blog about but never seem to find the time.  It's been a month since I last wrote and over four months since we arrived in Beijing.   Since my long history is that 3-4 months tends to be the honeymoon period (jobs, moves, houses, relationships), I'm checking in at this phase:  The Honeymoon is Over Phase

The big things:

1.  School.  LiLi's school is imperfect.  The Chinese side is the national curriculum crammed into half a day.  The teachers are, naturally, native M speakers.  Some of them have not entirely left behind the motivation-by-shaming they were likely exposed to as kids.  Perhaps even trained for.  This doesn't sit well in a lovely small sweet nurturing environment.  Nor does it sit well with me.  Parents are upset and complaining.  We have yet to see what the admin will do about it.  LiLi's Chinese is good but her confidence is failing as is her English.  I'm torn between just plopping her into the local school like another family from our SF MI school did.  What the heck.  If she's going to have to deal with the shaming, why not have her get the full time CN.  I'm torn between that and, on the worst days, packing our bags.  This is hard.  Much of parenting is hard and I've been super fortunate to have a relatively easy and fun kid  to parent.  But there are still these phases that feel like crossroads and feel like there is a "right" answer and I need to figure out what it is.  Complicating matters is that tuition went up and I just paid the huge huge tuition for the fall semester.   Again, maybe the local school?

2.  Work.  I still love my job and the work but some of the other foreign attorneys are on my nerves.  I remain impressed with the CN lawyers.  But I'm happy I never shared this blog site with work!  Hahaha.  I need to renegotiate my contract and figure out how much longer to stay, to commit to, here.  There is a lot of work to be done, it is great fun doing it, and I've gotten used to the maddening "things change on a dime" aspects of it all.  Things keep happening about which my boss, who is over a decade my junior, says, "I can't wait to see how you write this up in your memoirs."  I'm not quite old enough to be thinking about memoirs but it's also true that some of this stuff is pretty noteworthy.  Funny and weird and hard and sad and absurd and funny.

3.  Home.  Well, what does that even mean?  Someone asked me yesterday, shocked, that LiLi still thinks of San Francisco as "home."  There are so many layers to what constitutes "home" and it is very hard to live where you're not known.  I was so comfortable with being known, for years and years on a professional level, on friendship level by folks I've known for two decades, by my neighbors in my sweet SF 'hood, as a mom active at school, and in other arenas.   And I put myself in a place where I am not known at all.  I'm liking that part in a way, but it is also exhausting.

Then there is the home that means my house.   I had a lovely Sabbatical-ing couple in my house in SF but they're done at the end of this month.   I was fairly cavalier about leaving in January, packing our stuff but leaving my rugs, antiques and art.  For some reason I felt that it would work out.  This time feels less that way and I'm wishing I had moved it all into long term storage.  I have one gigantic painting that needs some sort of climate controlled storage that I got when I was much younger and darker.  It's an intense painting and I am not even sure I like it anymore.  Then there's all this other stuff that I love and when I look at pictures of my house I miss.  Oddly, I don't want it here though.  I talk to people all the time who move to BJ with shipping containers of stuff and I really don't want that. Which leads me to....

4.  Apartment.  We still like our BJ apartment but I wish I'd gone for the smaller unit with 2 BR and a better view.  We almost never use the third bedroom which has a huge desk (from a South African woman who was moving home) and sofabed (from that CN-brit couple who have actually slept on it here when they got back from Cambodia).  I envisioned working long nights in that room but I almost always work with my laptop in my bed instead.   Also, despite that the original stated plan (not sure I ever believed it) was to only stay 6 months, in month five I continue to buy furniture.  We just bought a second sofa bed, great Ikea bright red, from a mom from Tajikistan (or one of the other post-Soviets) who is moving to India, and another air filtering machine.   At this point we own furniture previously owned by folks from:  UK; South Africa; China; Tajikistan; Denmark; Brazil and others.   Our apt still has the feel of an open and not very well-furnished place, but it suits us.  If we were going to stay here longer I'd want to stay in this complex for its proximity the the park, shops, restaurants, but I'd want to be in the penthouse (if I, say, won the lottery or something.)

5.  Friends.  LiLi has a passel of buddies and even had her first slumber party last weekend.  I'm the one who is missing having friends.  I feel lonely and though I have lots of warm acquaintance relationships like in my CN class and at work, it's not the same as having someone to talk with who has known you for years and years, whom you can share the parenting worries like from my #1 here, relationship woes, and that kind of thing.  It's also true that most adults who are living the ex-pat life feel this way, and in a way we have each other.   I did go out in the evening over the weekend with a woman who is a contemporary, also CN-AM and roughly my age, at least in the same time zone, also divorced, etc.  She's not drinking so instead of drinks and dinner we had foot massage and dinner.  That was awesome and fun.  And has some potential.  I'm involved with a women's professional networking group too and have some potentials there.

Also, a set of friends from SF are visiting and we spend Sunday with them.  It was so comfortable and fun and reminds me how much I miss these friends in particular and just fitting comfortably in general.  We're going to Qingdao w this family via bullet train this weekend so it'll be a great break from BJ.

6.  Language.  My own acquisition of CN has gone much more slowly that LiLi's.  My class is two mornings a week for two hours and I've missed a handful because of work obligations.   But the whole set up is imperfect since I learn maybe 20 or so new words and sentences a lesson but then immediately go to work and begin working, reading, writing, meeting, etc so the new words just fly out of my head. Or maybe my hard drive is full and I need an upgrade.

I continue to make mistakes like, for example, we took our visiting friends out for Peking Duck.  Last time we ordered two plates of duck and this time we had a larger group so I meant to order three.  But instead of three "plates" of duck, I actually ordered three whole ducks.  I became alarmed when they brought the wrappers and sauces to the table and then the plates of duck started to arrive and arrive and arrive.  One of the moms speaks CN and asked the waitress why she didn't tell me my mistake, and the poor waitress said she tried.  In any case it was delicious and even still not very expensive.  And we've enjoyed having leftover duck with our Ayi, who has made more wrappers from scratch.

But obviously I need help with the language.  I'm planning to renegotiate my work contract to take an intensive language study course for a few weeks over the summer.  I feel pretty stuck and like I am not communicating but in a taxi with a summer intern yesterday, the woman said I was speaking CN and the driver who was understanding me.   So, perhaps there is some hope for me.

7.  This City.  I have to say that I still love BJ and China so I can't really say the honeymoon is totally over.  The bad air, the spitting, pushing,  and the dog-eat-doggedness are still terrible and some days I'm just sick of it all.  But the level of energy and excitement, the sense of a rumbling underground, the rapidity of change, the anything-is-possible, those things are addictive and I'm not done experiencing those things just yet.  Not yet.  :  )