12 August 2013

Again: the air

Though there is a movement afoot to close the central city coal burning plants it hasn't happened yet to our neighborhood smoke-stack seen here from my rented bedroom window.   We've been asking random locals and it seems that this little plant is indeed burning coal to run the air conditioners we all use in this crazy hot and humid weather.  It's been in the high 30s (or 90s F) and about that in humidity as well.  Walking outside feels a bit like walking into the steam room at the gym.

There were many reports about the bad air setting records earlier this year.  I was trying to find stats on how many days were hazardous but I am not sure who is compiling that data or how to get my hands on it.  In any event, the air is bad and people are leaving BJ because of it.  Us, too.  

Though LiLi got into an excellent and close-by private international school, though we found a rockin' light-filled apartment in a complex we've coveted, though we're in a 'hood where we already know people including LiLi’s BJ bestie, I feel we simply cannot stay.  

Last week, while LiLi was in camp and I scouted apartments with friends, we had some blue-sky days.  My friends said if the sky stayed blue that week they figured I'd sign on to BJ for another year or two.  But the sky didn't stay blue and yesterday we had thick and gritty air that left us all feeling sick by the end of the day.  We hunkered down indoors with the air filter running at its highest setting.  It seems insane to sign on to living here when our other option has AQIs of around 35. 

I love BJ and the excitement of a city this large.  I love the center of the universe feeling.  That things change on a dime.  That we have a global community (our friends are from:  BJ; other parts of China; Ghana; Iran; England; France; America; Australia).  That traveling to other Asian countries is easy and inexpensive from here.  I love my plan to host regular foodie pot-lucks.  When we lived here in 2012 the food I missed most was Mexican so I envision hosting dinners where someone would bring salsa, someone else guac, someone else quesadillas, etc, and another time doing Malaysian, or Indian or other foods. 

But I can do that in San Francisco and I’m not sure why I don’t think of it there.  Maybe because life there already has so many layers to it.  So many obligations and so much pressure.  Even though daily life is hard in China, there’s a way in which it is not so complicated.  It feels cleaner.  It feels clearer, even through the smog.  

31 July 2013

Back in the Jing

We got into BJ last Friday evening after a five hour delay on United's 889--most of it onboard--turned the 12.5 hour flight into a 17 hour one.   Despite that, and an entire cup of water spilled in my lap early on, we did okay on the flight and even slept a little.  We missed dinner with my 36-hours-overlapping-in-BJ brother's family but my BJ-for-the-summer niece met us at the airport to help with the five suitcases (five!) filled with loads and loads of gifts and supplies for our peeps here.  

It immediately felt great to be back in BJ.  We're staying at friends' apartment East of the park.  We lived on the West side last year so it's very familiar territory and we love it.  On Saturday we're moving to a service apartment in the Lido area of Beijing  where LiLi and a buddy will go to a day camp while I do some networking and catching up with folks.

Saturday was a bad air day where drizzling clouds trapped the smog so we all felt headachy and sick by the end of the day.  That combined with jetlag caused the "why would anyone live here" feelings to arise.  But Sunday was relatively clear and I forgot again.  It's been 100 degrees or thereabouts, smoggy, humid and generally miserable all week.  This is why many expats go to their home countries for the summer, or to Bali.  At the moment it's not bad though:  BJ AQI 110; SF AQI 78.

We've seen most of our inner circle by now and I'm in the process of making networking appointments for next week.  I feel like I could easily stay forever.  Life is hard here especially for me and my bad Chinese, but there's a way in which life in America is difficult too, with complicated layers of responsibility and pressure.  We're lucky to have the opportunity to experience both and we don't have to decide anything long term, at least not right now, not today.  Today is okay. 

03 July 2013


We went to the Chinese consulate in SF today to apply for our visas.

Not changed yet.  The forms are essentially the same for now but the requirements and processes are expected to change, well, as of yesterday.  New categories including the M, R, Q and S visas.  If you're going to work on a work permit, you'll also now need a certificate of no criminal conviction.

Forms.  The forms can be saved and then typed and printed.  You still need your old visas along with one passport photo.

Return flights.  Last year we didn't need to show our return flight but today we had to go to the nearby J-town UPS store to print a copy of our tickets leaving China.  Many countries require proof that you plan to actually leave at some point but this was a first for me from China.  Of course, after last summer's crackdown for "illegals" in Beijing, it's not surprising.   It was a hair-raising period for me, but I didn't blog about my concerns or share them with LiLi, and then the 100 days passed.

Strategy:  It used to be that the visa line was around the corner outside the SF China consul and that the best strategy was to go 20 or so minutes before opening in the morning or right before the end of the lunch break to minimize the wait.  But today, maybe because it's the week of US holiday July 4th or maybe because folks still think there is a lunch break, there was zero line outside and inside the wait was only about 20 minutes.  The hours are now 9 to 2:30 with no lunch break.

We go back next week to pick up our passports hopefully sporting their brand new visa pages.  We travel in three weeks.

30 June 2013

Sharks and shark fin soup

From a friend:

Souring on Shark Fin Soup


15 June 2013

Putting our eggs in the English basket

I’ve not written in months because I’ve been in America struggling with the question of whether to return to China this summer or not.   Or rather, whether and for how long to return to China.  

In January, unbeknownst to anyone, I got us two frequent flyer tickets SFO-PEK for late July.  Two tickets.  One Way. 

The thing is, while LiLi’s San Francisco public Mandarin Immersion school has improved, in fact she’s not getting as much out of the Chinese half as she would in China.  The English half also improved, hugely.  I’ve been thinking that we should be putting our eggs in the English basket since, after all, she’ll be doing middle school and high school in America.  I know this is the struggle of many, many parents including many parents from our international bilingual school in China.  While I’m far from resolving the conflict, I’ve become clear about one thing:  LiLi’s education is the priority.  

The problem is that if I could choose, setting aside school, I would choose China.  It continues to call to me.  Nevermind that in America I live in an incredibly beautiful city, near amazing beaches, with decades’ old connections and deep friendships, in a coolly imperfect 113 year old house in which we’ve recently uncovered a trap door, and that we breathe 43/17 AQI  (now 170 in BJ which isn’t too bad, well, for BJ).  

I don’t mind hanging out with uncertainty but have been mystified as to why the Going was so clear and the Going Back is so not. 

Over the months of pondering I’ve simultaneously been searching for return tickets.  Last week some seats opened up for two days after school starts in August.  I got them despite their terrible routing (overnighting in Vancouver!) so we’d at least have the choice to come back to SF without having to pay summer fares.

I get to put all decision making on hold for a couple of weeks though because this weekend we’re off to Alaska to meet up with Grandma.  Maybe spending the summer solstice above the Arctic Circle will be illuminating.  

In the meantime, my soundtrack for uncertainty includes this tune from The Hereafter, Back Where I Was.

13 March 2013

Heat Off

The government controlled residential heating is set to turn off on Saturday in Beijing City.  It's 2 degrees C now; 36 degrees F.  Brrrrrrr.  

25 February 2013

Along the Things Change on a Dime lines

This fabulous blog was rec'd and I thought I'd share in case you've not stumbled across it yourselves.  I've found myself saying that in BJ, things change on a dime.  This seemed true professionally as well as personally, as plans--for big things, entire conferences involving many many individuals and logistics--- were made and unmade sometimes over the course of one working day.  And here, look:

The Asia Blog: What a Difference Two Years Makes (Away from China)

18 February 2013

Schools in Beijing

In case you are looking for a school in BJ, this came across my screen and I am reposting with permission:

Sent: Mon, February 18, 2013 7:26:32 AM
Subject: Seeking a Beijing school for your child this fall? Come to the beijingkids School Choice Fair March 3!

 Are you cross-eyed from researching schools for the upcoming academic year? Trying to decide between local, international, boarding, public, private, experimental, full-day, half-day, and local with an international department?

Struggle no more! The hotly-anticipated 2013-2014 beijingkids School Choice Guide is out! And to help you make an even more informed choice, we’re hosting the 2013 Spring School Choice Fair at Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Center's Jade Ballroom on Sunday, March 3 from 10am to 4pm.

The 2013-2014 beijingkids School Choice Guide features info on a whopping 62 local and international schools, as well features on bilingual options in Beijing, education systems, and expat families who have decided to send their kids to local Chinese schools.

To view it online or download a PDF, visit this link:

To request a printed copy (or to find a distribution spot near you), please email:

Families who attend the Spring School Choice Fair will have a chance to mingle with representatives from both local and international schools, as well as hear free lectures on education in Beijing.

Among those schools already signed up to exhibit at this year's fair include:

* Yew Chung International School of Beijing
* The British School of Beijing
* Beijing City International School (BCIS)
* Harrow International School Beijing
* Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB)
* International Montessori School of Beijing (MSB)
* Keystone Academy
* Dulwich College Beijing
* House of Knowledge International Kindergarten (HoK)
* Beijing BISS International School (BISS)
* Beijing International Bilingual Academy (BIBA)
* Beijing World Youth Academy
* Tsinghua International School
*  Ivy Group
* Muffy's Education
... and more to come!

Advanced signup is required for free entrance to the fair -- please visit www.beijing-kids.com/scf to sign up.

Hope to see you there!


Michael Wester & Toni Ma
Beijijngkids and Jing Kids magazines 

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11 February 2013

Xin Nian Kuai Le 新年快乐

Happy New Year, Year of the Snake!

We celebrated CNY yesterday at a vaguely Chinese restaurant in the small American beach town where grandma is a snowbird and my sister & fam live full time when not traveling the globe.  It is quiet here this time of year and since there are very few Chinese people in this part of America, there is no Spring Festival.  Except for us.  We cleaned and showered the day before, refrained from knives on New Years Day, gave red envelopes, and did our best to notice and honor the new year.

We received many Chinese email greetings including the straightforward message above and many with variations on Year of the Snake wishes, so google translate was put to good use.  One message from the friends who moved to BJ last summer included a little video they shot from their 15th floor livingroom.  The fireworks were set off inside their compound and burst into light right at the same level as their flat.  Amazing.  And loud.

Fireworks aren't normally allowed inside the Fifth Ring Road but during the Spring Festival they're all over downtown.  News reported that owing to the horrible January air, shooting off fireworks was restricted but that wasn't apparent from my friends' report.

LiLi and I have been missing BJ and China especially after showing our slideshow from the year there, and treating Grandma to a video of Beijing Huan Ying Ni (Beijing Welcomes You) which was produced for the Olympic Games in 2008.  We played and sang that song over and over before we moved, but once we were there we never thought about it.  Oddly.  Now, returning to America, we find ourselves singing or humming it again.  And seeing it sure made grandma want to jump on a plane.  She's been to China a few times and lived in Hong Kong but not for many many years.  Still, you see that video and must understand that Beijing is the center of the universe.  Or I do.  Also, there are parts of it that still make me weep.   :  )

13 January 2013

Lucky numbers


I'm in America attempting to get a temporary phone number for my unlocked Iphone 4S.  The whole reason my friend bought me this phone from the Apple Store was so I could use it in China and the US.  It's a big deal to have a phone that was never locked.  In China, I have a great China Unicom phone number that I had a say in choosing.  It has a bunch of lucky numbers.  But in America I'm limited to computer generated phone numbers.

Four is an unlucky number because the word four or Sì 四 sounds a lot like the word for dead or Sǐ  死.  Nobody wants a four!  Many of the buildings in China do not have a fourth floor, for example.  Many of the ex-pat buildings have no 4 and also no 13.  Also, no 14, etc.

Eight, on the other hand, is a lucky number.  Eight, or Bā 八, means prosperity.  So, we love our 8s.  Many airlines like the dreaded United have flights like its back and forth Beijing PEK to San Francisco SFO that are flight numbers 888 and 889.  In China, the little corner shack stores that sell SIM cards and top up your phone have little stacks of SIMs labeled, "NO 4s"  or just "8s."  You pay extra for 8s.

But here I am in America, unable to control the computer generated numbers and using the auto-phone-tree-change-your-number thing at Net10 over and over so many times that I locked my SIM and have to get a new one.  That's greed.  Greedy for 8s.

12 January 2013

AQI Beyond Index

BJ AQI 805

In our year there we never experienced it that high, that we knew.  They say schools will not open on Monday.  Everyone is trying to stay indoors.   The air, alone, may be the reason we don't move back.  Because otherwise, the longing is with us.  The missing China.  But the air.

Just breathe

Beijing AQI              472

San Francisco AQI     32

07 January 2013


On Friday we went down to the San Francisco Unified School District offices to re-register for Mandarin Immersion school in case we decide to stay in SF for awhile and go back to school here.  If they have openings one can only join a class above 1st grade if one tests in.  Nevermind that we left the very same MI school in 3rd grade and have spent the last year in, you know, Beijing.  The whole thing took over two hours and involved lots of paper forms.  A Spanish-speaking mom who is apparently a teacher in Oakland fumed because the tester didn't know the name of the test she was supposedly administering to the teacher's son.  I got even less from our tester.  SF schools' bureaucracy is the subject of much scorn.  But LiLi tested fluent and we got into school.  Waiting and annoyed, I kept saying to myself, "it's free...it's free...it's free."  School starts tomorrow but LiLi won't go for a few more days because we are still jetlagged and a bit wiggy with culture shock.  Or Mama is, anyway.

04 January 2013

Culture shock

1.  Empty.  There are no people.  Or there are few people.  On the roads driving.  On the streets walking.  Inside the stores.  We keep finding ourselves saying, "Look!  On this whole block there is only one person!"  This is 800K vs. 22M.
2.  Traffic.  I drove yesterday because LiLi had a dentist appointment.  It felt like a movie.  It has been a year so of course I can still drive.  But watching traffic and checking intersections...it felt very surreal and quite scary.  Today was much better but still:  at some friends' for dinner tonight I declined wine.  I figured driving home in the dark on SF's hills would be tough enough, I hadn't oughta be adding alcohol to the impairment mix of jetlag and culture shock.
3.  Seeing friends.  I find myself declining invitations and even LiLi says no to playdates and uses the phrase, "I'm feeling overwhelmed."  We're taking it slowly and seeing only one family at a time.  I have nothing to say and also so much to say.  My brain is fuzzy.  I'm profoundly inarticulate.  I need to be around people who are patient and forgiving.
4.  My house.  I'm still in love with my soft bed and great view, and am still annoyed with the long list of broken things from the tenants:  the special red chair half eaten by their dog; two shower curtain rods, two!; two floor lamps; my desk chair; pantry shelf; bathroom doorknob; wrecked finish on the antique Chinese bench coffee table; dog toe nail pock marks in my fir floors; food encrusted pots and pans; nonworking burners on the gas stove...etc etc.  It's all small stuff but like a friend says, a list you'd expect after a decade, not six months.
5.  Jet lag.  Last night was my first slept-through-the-night and a BFF called and came over early, two hours before our new normal wake up time.  We didn't nap this afternoon though we both wanted to.  Tonight I hope we both sleep through---knock wood.
6.  English.  Everyone speaks it here.  We heard Cantonese at a home store but haven't been out enough yet to hear Spanish and Chinese.  That will come.
7.  Sticker shock.  Fruit at US$7.50 a pint.  Cheapo casual lunch at US$17.00.  Plastic trash bin US$14.55 (made in China no doubt.)
8.  Two hands.  In China it is polite to hand passports, credit cards, money, with two hands.  While I was paying for something today, LiLi said, "Mama, you don't have to DO THAT here!!!!!"
9.  Breathing.  The air is so so so clean here.  I am still breathing it in and noticing.  I suspect in a week I will have forgotten.