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.