Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Years

We spent New Years with some really wonderful strangers at their apartment and we learned a Spanish tradition:
When the clock strikes midnight, the Spanish eat 12 grapes, one with every toll, to bring good luck for the 12 months ahead.

Apparently there are a lot of Spainards in Beijing, because our host informed us that not only could he not find any grapes left in any of the grocery stores (he told us that he ran into another Spanish ex-pat who gleefully displayed the last bunch of grapes the store had in her hands as she headed off to the register to buy them), neither could his other Spanish guest who lives in a different area of the city. In the end, they did find some grapes, but not enough for everybody, so we ended up with 'designated grape-eaters.' This also meant that over the course of the evening, it was not unusual to hear, 'Were you a grape-eater?'

This whole endeavor was just made more amusing by the fact that we weren't watching the count down on TV or listening to it on the radio so the final countdown consisted of the hostess looking at her wristwatch and saying, '12, 11, 10, are you guys listening? I'm counting. Where were we? 11, 10, 9. Come on, come on! Eat quickly! 10, 9, 8, ' and so on.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Sink Repairs

When the maintenance dude showed up and looked into the kitchen, he immediately knew there was probably something going on. I guess that storing all of your cleaning and washing supplies in the middle of the kitchen floor is not normal, even in Beijing.

So we showed him the offensive drain-part with the crack running down the side. We had already taken it to the front desk because trying to explain to the receptionist over the phone that the drain for the kitchen sink was cracked seemed like a dangerous prospect. She told us to go back to our apartment and someone would come by. I guess that smelly dirty drains are not welcomed at the snazzy front desk. Then again, we weren't particularly excited about carrying it around, so this is not so surprising.

We were a little concerned about explaining the problem (in Chinese) to whomever showed up at the door, but this guy was geng bang! (kicks more ass than most) and not only immediately took away the old drain, when he showed up with the new one he also brought a new gasket and thread sealant tape. Additionally (and this really impressed Cara) Michael told the guy that we were able to install the new drain ourselves if he would just get us the part, and the guy understood and was okay with it!

The set up was a little weird, but it was what we had to work with
Look Ma! No leaks!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Lunch with Cara (and her Chinese classmates)

Today we played host to Cara's class of Chinese students, along with one of her (two) Chinese teachers. Cara did the lion's share of the prepwork and menu planning, but Michael was able to participate in the final cooking phase of the event (and, thereby, take undue credit for the end result =). Lunch consisted of chicken jalfrazi with saffron rice, pumpkin soup with fresh-baked bread, and Moroccan carrots, washed down with a selection of beers and teas. Our Australian guest, Jennifer, treated us all with hand-made chocolate-coconut sin (bon-bon type treats with rum, raisins, a bit of flour, and glorious amounts of chocolate and coconut), and the meal's appetizer (spiced peanuts) was provided by Magda, our Indonesian guest. Our Canadian guest, Brian, worked with Magda to do much of the vegetable preparation. At one point, we stupidly worried about having enough food. Suffice it to say that both the freezer and refrigerator are both packed to the gills (speaking of packed to the gills, neither Michael nor Cara had enough appetite recovery to eat dinner tonight). We counted the meal a success when Christy (the American guest) and Nana (our Chinese guest) separately asked when we planned to go into the restaurant business.

Most impressively, Mike the Cat was on his best behavior and didn't hiss or swat at anyone.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Going Native

Its hard to adequately describe driving in Beijing. The sheer volume of cars on the roads is astonishing, and then you have to add in all the bikes, pedestrians, and special home-made 3-wheeled vehicles. Upon arriving in the city, the road activity made walking across the street scary, let alone driving on the street (or sidewalks as the case may be.)
This picture is meant to demonstrate how the number of lanes is really a soft number entirely dependent on the mindset of the individual drivers and not on some silly lines painted on the road.

But Michael has become (and this is a little terrifying to admit) a natural driver here. His driving technique is entirely ... appropriate for the streets of Beijing. At this point, his driving technique is more authentic than his Chinese speech. We knew that he had really come into his own today when, not only did he successfully execute a left hand turn across 3 lanes of traffic from the right hand lane, he cut off a cement truck that was going straight in the process.

Just to put our North American readers at ease, please understand that while this maneuver is not exactly encouraged, it is far from being unexpected or uncommon and that the cement truck driver did not need to use his horn or brakes in this situation.

Now that's some impressive driving!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Out With The Old

There is a crazy amount of construction going on throughout China, and Beijing is definitely included. This was the view to the west from our apartment when we moved in.
Keep your eye on the bottom half of the picture.
This last week there were some major changes, and this was the view today.

Peanut Butter Sandwiches

We were very disappointed when we realized that while Chinese people eat a lot of peanuts and cook with a lot of peanut oil, they don't really eat much peanut butter. Oh you can find it in the stores, but it is not good. Just ask Michael.

We have been talking for some time about making our own peanut butter and we finally gave it a try... and it came out allllll riiiiiight. Tonight we ate our second batch of peanut butter on fresh baked bread with strawberry jam. We felt like slackers though since we didn't make homemade jam to go along with the rest of the meal.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Chinese Diapers - Not!

Au naturale is the way to go in China.

While this was taken a few weeks ago, the only difference now is that there is a lot more padding around the baby-butt-cracks, but they are still hanging out there.

It makes you much more wary of the puddles next to the sidewalks.

Apparently there is a Chinese saying that is something along the lines of, "Baby bottoms and old people's faces don't feel the cold."

You can go here for more information if you really want to.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Happy Hanukkah!

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah here in China; since it was also the day after Cara's birthday, we decided to have a little party to make the most of our weekend. Our guests for dinner and candlelighting included Emma, Steve, and Janice. Dinner included latkes (of course) with fresh-made applesauce, Moroccan carrot salad, mushroom curry, lemon-chicken soup, and fresh-baked naan. After dinner, Jenny, Anthony, Gwynn, and Benai arrived to share a few post-dinner drinks and chocolate-chip cookies straight from the oven.

Unfortunately, we never got around to using the camera. =(

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Beautiful People

From Cara's keyboard:
I have been helping with a group called American Education and Health Foundation for 10 days now. (10 days?!?! That's it? Wow they are getting a lot done in 10 days!) I wrote some about this before. Mostly I am updating an excel database for them. Excel happens to be one of my strengths so this is working pretty well.

Here is the really amazing thing - working with this group completely reaffirms my faith in humans. People from all over the world are donating money and their own time to help out this little boy after his story was printed in a few papers. The letters they are writing with their donations are so warming and caring. It is just amazing. I feel very lucky to get to help out even with the little bit that I am doing. And many of the people who are writing in understand that there are a lot more children who need their help and now that they know about AmEdu people are willing to help some of the other children also.

This is a pretty great planet we live on.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

You are what you eat

To help foreigners decipher Chinese menus, some Beijing restaurants (most notably the high-end ones) print menus with photographs of the dishes. In some rare cases, they will also provide English translations of the dishes. We think they might want to hire a native English speaker to help them with euphemisms. Here are some choice samples of Sichuan delicacies that are simply too attractive to resist:
(Click on the picture to enlarge)

That's right, the options are:

  • Pickle and Amorphophallus
  • Sichuan-flavoured eel paste
  • Homely spinous sea cucumber
  • Hot peppery goose guts
  • Hot fat intestines

  • We can't figure out why the 'homely spinous sea cucumber' is so expensive. Comely we could understand, but we just have to believe that finding un-attractive spinous sea cucumbers ought to be rather easy.

    Monday, December 19, 2005

    New Neighbors

    A new couple with a 1-and-a-half year old little girl moved into the apartment next to ours last week. Outside of two people we know from the American embassy, they are first friends we have made in our apartment building. In an effort to help them become more familiar with the area, Cara helped the wife and daughter take a taxi to Carrefour, a large French chain grocery store, today. However, because this is Beijing, the taxi driver took us to the wrong place. It was still Carrefour, but about twice as far away. Was still a good try though.

    To make this a little more challenging, our new neighbors are Japanese. The wife speaks a little English and more Chinese. Communicating has been interesting.


    Due to the lack of other options* we decided to try to make our own bagels. Apparently we let them 'proof' too long so they didn't sink in the boiling water and came out a little too fluffy for true bagel-denseness. But they definitely tasted like bread and that was the point of the exercise.

    Side note from Cara:
    It hadn't even occurred to me that bagels could be made at home. I was astonished when Michael suggested it - after all - wasn't there some sort of bagel magic that only happens in the special bagel stores? It was just another example of how Michael brings all sorts of magic home.

    *By this we mean that the Chinese just don't make bread like we think of back in the states. See 'bread' post. Sweet and interesting, but not exactly something on which to spread cream cheese.

    Saturday, December 17, 2005

    Let them eat cake!

    We went to Jim and Jen's home out in the Beijing suburbs for their Christmas party tonight. Jim and Jen hosted all of the language students and teachers from the school where Michael is studying Chinese, so the mix of participants made for some interesting experiences:

    - We saw one Chinese teacher sample a chocolate cake that someone else had brought. It was a lovely cake, but here's the odd thing: rather than cut a slice of the cake (she was the first to try it), she used a spoon to scoop out a bit from the outside edge, as if it were a cheeseball or similar item. It never occurred to us to try a cake in this way, and just goes to show you that food remains one of the great cultural divides.

    - The big surprise of the evening came at the end of the caroling portion of the night (all non-Christian guests (about half of the attendees) were offered lyric sheets to help out), when the acting director of the language program sang Edelweiss, and rendered a remarkable performance, with another teacher providing a simultaneous countermelody in Chinese. It was a unique and wonderful experience.

    Shabbat Shalom

    Friday, December 16, 2005

    Reading the Newspaper

    Walking down the streets of Beijing, we constantly pass glass-fronted stands with the latest free newspapers posted for anyone to read. In this context, free=government sponsored, so the articles may be a little biased. It is common to see at least a few people reading the articles. The especially popular reading locations are at the bus stops. After all, what else are you going to do while standing around waiting for who-knows-how-long since bus time schedules are not published?

    In defense of the local bus system, these schedules may be coded somehow into the bus signs, but we have not yet been able to figure out the subtlety if this is true. Then again, we also couldn't see where our stop was mentioned, so inability to decipher the sign does not count for much.
    Wait! Late breaking update. Just checked to see if I could find our stop using our person copy of the map book and we could! We are stop 18 on the sign for the express bus 107. Very exciting. That gives me more hope for determining bus times sometime in the future... maybe... if we spend some quality time with our translating programs....

    Its not clear how seriously the locals take these papers or what other sources of information are available to them. At least some of it must be entertaining though. After all, the one article that we came across that was partially in English was a column explaining American phrases like "power nap" and "working out". Now if that's not news worthy, I don't know what is.

    Thursday, December 15, 2005

    Our Latest House Guest

    Here are Jake, Julia, and their son Westley. Right now the three of them are off on their debut America tour.

    Unfortunately one member of their family couldn't make the trip due to some silly government concerns about a quarantine. So we are looking out for the little guy. To say that Michael is completely and utterly thrilled to have a cat in the house would be a huge understatement.

    This is Mike, one of the most talkative cats either of us has ever met.

    And this is Mike employing his own personal form of 'red eye reduction' for the picture.

    Tuesday, December 13, 2005

    Sunday Dinner

    The new recipe for the night was another fantastic creation from the talented Pamela Reiss. This time we tried 'Middle Easter Squash and Couscous Soup' from Soup: A Kosher Collection. Now, given that we live in China, certain things are hard to find, like couscous as it turns out. And acorn squash. The orange beastie on the left is the squash we used. We thought it might be acorn like, but it turned out to have an unbelievably tough skin. And we do mean unbelievable. We kept thinking we were wrong and trying to cut it again only to continuously re-discover that it really was that hard. We had to hit the cleaver with another object to work it through this monster. And it had green colored flesh - kind of creepy. We thought it wasn't ripe yet, but after sawing away at the sucker for about 30 minutes, we were doing something with it, so it might as well turn into soup. Turned out incredible! And it was even better today when we finished it off.

    The rest of the meal was made up of green beans with garlic, (we were trying to copy a common Chinese dish and didn't quite make it - but we will persevere) another attempt at naan, (getting closer but still not good) another successful round of chicken jhalfrazi, and some very nice applesauce gingerbread cake. Michael even made his own applesauce to put into the cake after we couldn't find applesauce at the grocery store.
    This fabulous meal is being shown to its best advantage by the lovely Maya. Let's everyone give her a big hand.

    This was the total crowd from dinner. There is Cherie, Maya, Michael, and Cara. We know Cherie and Maya from Friday night services. It was a good thing they were over, because it ended up requiring all four of us to make this dinner. If they weren't here, we probably would have given up sometime around 7pm and had some carrot sticks and oddly flavored potato chips for dinner instead.

    Monday, December 12, 2005

    Honk if you love me

    Michael is slowly acclimating to Beijing traffic. On the way to class this morning, his co-pilot (Mark, a fellow Chinese student and FSO) calmly noted that they were about to pass their highway exit. Undeterred, Michael glanced over his shoulder to check the tide of buses, and trucks, and taxis (oh, my!), then promptly drove across four lanes of traffic at an angle unseen on those pansy highways back in America. Nary a horn beeped, as this is the way most Beijingers exit the highway. In fact, the only mistake Michael made here is that *he* didn't honk his horn. It's considered polite to use the horn to let everyone else know you're pulling a Crazy Ivan on the freeway en route to a side street. Let it not be said that Beijing traffic is utterly without manners.

    The sign at the right is illustrative of the chutzpah of Chinese taxi drivers. The sign is located at the entrance to a city park that does not have roads cutting through it - only footpaths. That's right, taxis are forbidden from driving along the footpaths, which the park management suspects they might do to get around the logjams out on the paved mazeways of the city during rush hour.

    Sunday, December 11, 2005

    Cara has starting volunteering at American Education and Health Foundation. This organization has its base in Beijing United Hospital.

    The American Education and Health Foundation (AEHF) was created to provide healthcare to very needy children in under-served areas and populations of China. Because these areas are remote and often lack the most basic facilities, needed medical-procedures are often unavailable due to lack of trained medical staff, equipment and funding.
    By bringing AEHF-sponsored physicians to these orphanages, the physical condition of each child can be evaluated and the proper medical treatment prescribed. When surgical or more advanced medical care is needed, children are treated at a local hospital or brought to Beijing. Without this care, children considered ineligible for adoption are destined to become permanent residents of the welfare homes, with little hope for a normal life. The American Education and Health Foundation gives them this hope.
    AEHF is also helping organize donations and care for Cui DeJie. DeJie family was out of money to pay for his treatment, so his parents were being put in the situation of having to take him out of the hospital and home to die. His story was written up in a few international papers and people started contacting the paper to see how they could help. For the full store click on his name. While not their regular line of help, AEHF was contacted to see if they could work with people wanting to donate. AEHF, while not a big organization, of course said yes.

    We went to the hospital on Saturday so that Cara could meet with some of the AEHF volunteers and as a special bonus we also met Cui DeJie and his parents who happened to be in. Thanks to generous donations, his treatment will be continuing for now. His long term care and costs are still being calculated.

    Friday, December 09, 2005

    Got license, Got car, Got dip-plates - Be Scared

    We picked up our car yesterday! And it has those cool diplomatic license plates on it so people know not to mess with us. Michael has his license (Cara's is still being processed) and we are now able to drive on the roads of Beijing.

    Just to give you an example, these are the scariest roads I have seen in my entire life and that includes Boston, Jerusalem, and all of Florida. Street lights really are just a suggestion here.

    Last night we drove to Shabbat services. This is normally a 45 min brisk walk. It was 30 min by car.

    Thursday, December 08, 2005

    Cooking and Meals

    It has been pointed out that we have been delinquent on updating everyone on our latest cooking adventures. Please accept our apologies as this was not intended. In fact, we have had some incredible success recently in the kitchen and have even had the camera out on the table on multiple nights to remind us to take pictures and share, but apparently that was too subtle for us because 2 hours later, we promptly forgot why we had the camera out, ate our meals, and then realized that empty bowls don't really give the reader a good sense of what the meal looked like.

    You might argue that it lets the reader know that the meal tasted good, but that is not really the case as both of us have pretty healthy (see: large) appetites and pretty much any meal that is not atrocious will leave only clean plates behind.

    Having said all that, here were our latest attempts

    - Szechuan Spiced Tofu from Joy of Cooking
    Very similar to MaPoDofu but American-ized. Michael was worried that it would not be spicy and flavorful enough, but it turned out just fine and he didn't need to add any extra hotness at all.

    We have even made this a second time since it was so quick and tasted so good, but we used some red peppers from the store and they were a bit too much. Funny thing about those peppers, they were labeled exactly the same as the red bell peppers, but they were not the same beast at all. Now we know, and knowing is half the battle.

    - Chicken Jhalfrazi from Best-Ever Curry Cookbook
    Another rousing success. Chicken and spices and very, very nummy. We had hoped to make naan with this meal, but ended up cooking later in the day then we planned and the naan needed to rise for at least an hour, so we had rice instead. Michael did add a little orange zest (from an orange colored orange no less) which turned out well. Not spoiling this dish with naan attempt was probably for the best anyway. (see below)

    - 'Spiced Lentils with Spinach' and homemade 'Naan' also from Best-Ever Curry Cookbook
    Unfortunately this one did not work quite so well. We had slightly different dhal (Indian lentil) then the recipe called for and it absorbed the water faster than we expected so it got a little burned. And somehow the seasoning just didn't pull together, although we were able to fix some of that after we finished cooking by just adding things that made sense to us. Also the naan just didn't work at all. Instead of being puffed-up, flexible, yummy things, they were sort of a stiff, solid, doughy-mass things. It did taste all right as long as the person eating it forgot that it was suppose to be naan, or soft, or really tasty at all for that matter.

    All in all we are pretty happy with the trials. Even that last one. After all, we have to have at least a few mistakes so that we have something to learn from....right?

    We did get a one request to try to post the recipes so other people could also use them. Are folks actually interested in that? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Wednesday, December 07, 2005


    Last night we were watching the beautiful sunset from our living room windows. (No picture) Then Michael noticed that a planet was visible in the sky. (Very exciting picture to the left.) It was west of the moon and closer to the horizon. After prodigious use of the internet, we have learned the following items:
    - The planet we are viewing is Venus
    - Venus has phases just like the moon. Right now we are in the little crescent phase which is visible with the 45x magnification of Michael's spotting scope.*
    - The moon and Venus look like a perfect little matched set right now.

    We were extremely surprised to see any of the night sky let alone a tiny planet. Glad to know that the crazy howling wind has at least one benefit.

    *We would like to add a special 'thank you' to some of Cara's old working buddies in Florida. While the spotting scope's magnification was required to view Venus, we could never have held it in place if not for a certain 'digital' tripod that the team generously bestowed upon Cara before her trip to Washington. Furthermore, the tripod was put to its true use when an actual, 10x, 3.2 mega-pixel, (complete with its own leather carrying case) Pentax Optio took the picture above. Aren't you guys proud?

    Tuesday, December 06, 2005

    Birthday's in China

    Yesterday was Anthony's birthday. So how do a bunch of American's celebrate when in China? Go bowling of course. Well, first we went to an American style restaurant where people ordered good ol' American foods like meatloaf, chicken fingers, quesadillas, dark beer, omelets, burgers, apple pie, milkshakes.... and one curry chicken (you'll never guess who ordered that). Then we went bowling. We ended up eating later then we had planned, so Michael (who in addition to ordering curry chicken at an American restaurant, wakes up at 5:30am every day) joined the group for dinner but not bowling which is why he is not in the striking bowling action shot.

    Photo credits:
    Jenny, Matt, Gwynne, Anthony, Emma, Cara, Wiley

    Oranges... apparently

    This is a Chinese orange and despite its appearance it does in fact taste like an orange. We thought it was a lime - silly American's.

    Monday, December 05, 2005

    Cold Day

    This is how Cara dealt with the cold weather.

    Items of note:
    - Cool metal structure
    - Awesome 'Dr. Who' length scarf for maximum warmth.

    History of scarf: The scarf was knitted by Lisa, a mother of two and wife of an Army helicopter pilot (and former tanker). Lisa custom-made this scarf for Michael in 1998 and it has endured winters in Kansas, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and now China. Due to the crazy length (each scarf is about 10 feet long), it can be wrapped multiple times about the face and neck and still have plenty of length left over.

    Sunday, December 04, 2005


    Yes that is correct - winter has come to Beijing. We were not exactly blanketed in a layer of whiteness by the snowfall, but we did see a few flakes in the headlights of some cars as we were walking home Friday night. I guess that is all you can hope for when the city you live in is located in the center of a desert.

    The real sign of winter is the crazy cold wind that is constantly whipping through the city. We can hear it past our windows all night long. It is currently 21°F (-6°C for you crazy Canadians) but with that 20 mph (32 kph) wind it feels like 6°F (-14°C).

    Yesterday, it was cold enough that the camera refused to stay on. While we couldn't see the message it gave us when it turned itself off (My un-gloved hands were shaking too much to be able to read the little screen. Maybe that should have been a clue.) we speculated that it probably said something like, "Do you people not realize how crazy damn cold it is right now? It's like -4°F with windchill and you are trying to take a picture?!? Put me away and get into some shelter! Sheesh..."

    The upside, as we have probably mentioned before, is that all the wind blows away the pollution so we have actually been able to see the mountains around the city for a few days in a row!

    Friday, December 02, 2005

    Lama Temple

    On the north side of the city you can find the Lama Temple. This is an active Buddhist Temple.
    This picture is from from the walkway that leads into the main buildings. It was just a beautiful day!

    Near the top of the picture on the right you can see a bird with a long tail in the branches in the tree. He had a fantastic singing voice and was a pretty shade of blue.

    These are the nicest trash cans I have seen to date. Very classy.

    I am not sure what these are for. The large metal things have a shaft down the center and are meant to be turned by hand. There were signs at each one explaining which direction to turn it, and you could see where the metal was worn down from people's hands.

    Many of the people who were praying at this temple, were burning incense. It was amazing how much of it they could go through. In front of each building, there was a flame for lighting incense and a container for the smoldering sticks. You can see a small cloud of smoke in the picture, but it is nothing compared to the amounts you inhale as you look around.

    More cool lions and dragons guarding the grounds.

    And this is last picture is of two doorways. You can see in the picture the bar you have to step over to enter and leave. These raised doorways are found in every old Chinese building. Ghosts and spirits abound in the world, but luckily, they can not jump. These raised entrances were to prevent the spirits from entering houses. I pretty sure that it is not related, but I must confess that almost every time I try to step over one of these things, I trip.

    Thursday, December 01, 2005

    Blocked? Not Blocked? One of Life's Little Mysteries

    When we first arrived in China, we could post to our website, but not actually go and view it. (Bloggers may contain dangerous information you see.) Then about a month or so ago, we were suddenly able to view 'blogspot' (the website you are at as your read this message) so we could not only read our own posts, we could also go and visit our friends' sites. Today, the Chinese government apparently decided that their first instinct was correct and they are once again blocking blogspot.
    Urghhhhhh (sounds of frustration)
    We had read that this happens but that still doesn't quite prepare you for the frustration of it. So again we say, 'urghhhhhh'.

    Luckily, email still works and any messages that get posted to this site are emailed to us (though please remember to include your name so we know to whom we should respond). In the great scheme of things, this blog blocking is really not such a big deal. It is kind of funny though. Imagine, we can not view blogspot, but CNN is accessible. I had no idea that we were more corruptive than CNN. We will just need to learn to use our powers for good.

    December? Are you sure?

    From the keyboard of Cara:
    I just sent an early birthday greeting to a friend because it was the beginning of November and his birthday is at the end and I didn't want to miss it. In his email reply I was informed that it is the beginning of December today, not November, and that his birthday had already passed.

    How did this happen? We just got here and it is December already? That's amazing. I guess the world continues to move on even when we are not there to nudge it.