Sunday, July 30, 2006

TV Dinner

In the States, if you are feeling too tired to cook, you might pull out that old frozen dinner that you keep for just such an emergency and enjoy a night of pre-made turkey dinner with mashed potatoes and peas. Here, we pull out baozi, or buns. Usually we get jaozi, which are boiled, but this new variety meant we got to use our bamboo steaming basket! Very exciting.

The baozi are ready made, so we just take them out of the plastic wrap and put them right into the steamer. When we finished cooking we remembered that we actually have some steamer liners to prevent the buns from sticking to the wood. Luckily no buns were fataly wounded during the removal process - even without using the liners.

This is our special steamer wok. It's more rounded than the cooking wok so that it can hold a lot of water under a steamer basket. The sales ladies had a good time trying to explain the difference between cooking and steaming woks back when Michael was buying them.

And here is our dinner all plumped up with steam and ready to be eaten. Add a little spiciness, seaseme oil, and soysauce and we are ready to go! Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 27, 2006

What is it about Walmart?

Beijing has its very own super Wal-Mart that Michael has mentioned in the past because of its macaroon selection. The other weekend we decided to go and check it out together.
Now we go to the local store every week and while we are there we will wander the aisles and see if there is anything that grabs our attention that we didn't realize we needed. Rarely do we add anything to our cart.
Then we went to Wal-Mart and just like it use to happen back in the states, we discovered that we needed a dozen things that were not on the shopping list.

We are still not sure how this happened, or for that matter, what we bought.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Rainy Season

We have recently discovered that Beijing has a rainy season. Remembering how dry it is for the other 3/4ths of the year, this is something of a surprise. Almost every night it rains for a couple hours while we are sleeping. This past week there have also been regular afternoon downpours. It is the first time either of us have found cabs impossible to find - normally they are lined up for a block at every major landmark.

One of the fun things with the rain, is seeing how the locals deal with it. Watching how the cars deal with it is not fun as the car ride home took almost 90 minutes instead of the 30 that it usually takes during rush hour. But watching the bikes is pretty interesting. The most popular solution are person/bike rain slickers. They look like this or a group of people looks like this. Cara hasn't bought one of these outfits yet, but she is in the market and after conducting her consumer study, will report back.

Other than the rain slickers, the other popular option is to just take an umbrella with you - like this fellow. Notice that he also has a spare tire in case of emergency.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Practically Native

From Cara's keyboard:

While waiting for a light to change, on the way home from work, I overheard some poor foreigner asking one of the crossing guards how to get somewhere in Beijing. The reason it caught my attention was that he asked in English - and he was holding out a big ol' colorful map of course.
The crossing guard had better things to do and didn't understand English anyway, so he waved the confused fellow off. Since I was already stopped, I moved myself and my bike over to where the tourist was standing and asked if I could be of assistance.
Surprisingly enough, I could be.
I recognized the name of his destination and I was able to point out his current location and his goal on the map. I was also able to help him orient himself with respect to North and give him a little information about the streets he needed to walk down.

In total, I was able to tell him enough about the city that, as far as this guy knew, I'd lived in Beijing my whole life....although my lack of Chinese accent may have given me away.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Baijiu Anyone?

Bajiu is a potent Chinese alcohol most common in northern China, especially in Manchuria and the area around Beijing and Tianjin. The name "Baijiu" literally means "white alcohol" or "white spirits". It is a clear alcohol usually distilled from sorghum, although sometimes other grains may be used. In flavor and appearance it is similar to Russian vodka, Japanese sake, or Korean soju.

In other words - this clear liquid is some potent stuff and it tastes a lot like one imagines gasoline might taste like. It is something of a right of passage to have visitors to China try at least a shot glass worth of this stuff.

And today at the grocery store we found it in these easy to carry bags for about 4o cents US. We figure it is for those winos who don't like a lot of excess packaging. Posted by Picasa

Friday, July 21, 2006

Kitty Update

We just received new pictures of our kitties!
For your viewing pleasure, may we present
Cyrano Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Babies In China

This last weekend we were invited to Isabelle’s first birthday party. These pictures were taken after the party. You can see Isabelle and Michael sharing some philosophical comments while examining this very detailed cook book.

Jenny, Isabelle’s mom, and Cara spend a fair bit of time together and, as a result, Cara gets to see first hand how Chinese people treat other people’s children.

Now, Isabelle is a pretty cute little girl. In the States we would expect people to come up and smile at her and maybe pat her on the head or even possibly touch her cheek without asking permission first. Although it would also be okay for the parent to politely ask strangers to, ‘please don’t touch her’. But here, people are not so subtle. The first time Cara was holding Isabelle in a the store while Jenny tried on a pair of shoes, one of the salesladies came up and started trying to get Isabelle’s attention. As soon as Isabelle smiled at the saleslady, she TOOK Isabelle right out of Cara’s arms. TOOK – no asking, no nothing! Just took the child away. Cara, being a little startled, called out to Jenny, who took one glance and told her that yes indeed, this was normal behavior. It was not like the saleslady took Isabelle far away or anything. They stayed within the same room, about 4 feet away, but it still seemed pretty odd. It turns out that this happens any time you are out with small children. They are immediately the center of attention and any Chinese adult in the immediate vicinity has no compunction about picking up or even feeding the child whatever the adult thinks might be a good idea. Last weekend, one store clerk tried to give Isabelle a small, shiny, sharp edged piece of plastic that was about perfect choking size for a 1 year old.

Can you imagine what would happen in the States if someone tried to take a baby from their parent’s arms? Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Thirsty? Try some refreshing coconut juice!

This is a popular thing to find at many of the markets – fresh coconuts ready for the drinking.
Unfortunately, what we actually wanted was some shredded unsweetened coconut meat and a cup or two of coconut milk, but since we couldn’t find shredded unsweetened coconut meat we decided to cut some up ourselves. (Warning – This is a long and tedious process and ought to be avoided if at all possible.) And since we were buying the coconuts anyway, we could just get the milk from them... except it turns out that coconut juice and coconut milk are not the same thing. Coconut milk is actually created from shredded coconut meat and you may have noticed us just saying that shredded coconut meat was in rather short supply. Coconut milk, unlike the shredded unsweetened coconut meat, is available at many of the local grocery stores. So now what do we do with all the juice?
Apparently the only thing you can do with coconut juice is drink it. While we understand that some folks really like the stuff, 3 cups of coconut juice is really more than we can handle – and that was just from the first coconut!

In summary - Any exciting recipes that call for coconut juice would be very much appreciated. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Eradicating the Entropic Economy

From Michael's keyboard:
Paul Hawken, in his 1994 book The Ecology of Commerce, lays out a pretty simple argument: any system that generates true waste is not (by definition) sustainable. Think of a closed system. All resources are finite, and waste does not "disappear." Space must be made for it. Eventually, all your space is dedicated to holding waste, because that is the only universal product of systemic activity. Admittedly, the Earth is a big place compared to our daily output of waste, but over enough time.....

Hawken believes our goal should be to work towards a sustainable economy.

Okay, not so shocking. There are a ton of writers out there screaming about how Earth's environment is being polluted into oblivion, and a large body of lobbyists trying to convince the consumers of the world that our grandchildren will figure out a solution to today's pollution problems, so we don't have to worry about it in the here and now.

Why, then, does this book deserve your attention? Because Hawken takes the idea one step further than the other ideologues whose work I've read. He provides thoughtful approaches to fixing the ecological disasters of modern development. Sure, his head is in the clouds on more than a few ideas, but there are a slew of solid suggestions in this 219-page book, and despite being over 10 years old, it still reads as a current take on things.

This book was introduced to me by my good friend Justin (formerly a member of D8 and now a member of DoS), who gave me a copy of the book on the condition that I promise to pass it along. And so I shall. The next recipient will be my friend Will, who I expect can give it another bit of blogging publicity.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Yup - in China you can find knock-offs of anything, including KFC. This place is right around the corner from a real KFC. Its sort of like KFC Chinese style. The Chinese name sounds something like yonghe dawang which might translate into Yonghe (the name of a place) king. But then again, it could mean "forever with king". Anyone know how it is suppose to be translated?But more importantly than the name, is the face on the sign. Whatever would the colonel say ... Posted by Picasa

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Hey, check out what this crazy Laowai wants to buy...

Today at the grocery store, we went through our weekly routine - show up at the store right when it opens, and then divide and conquer. What we mean by this is that the grocery store occupies two levels (normal for supermarkets in Beijing), and it makes sense for us to split up at first and then meet up later. So Cara heads straight to the produce section on the second floor and Michael heads up to the third floor to get a grocery cart. Why do they not have grocery carts on the main (second) floor? A fine question, and one we are still unable to answer.

Michael has to work the grocery cart across the entire third floor to get to the escalator ramp that leads back down to the second floor, and then weave clear across the second floor to get over to the produce section where Cara is. Along the way he'll browse the beer and tea options, pick up some vacuum-packed peanuts (for making peanut butter), snag a few tins of tomatoes or garbanzo beans or coconut milk, and then rendezvous with Cara. Cara will then deposit her first load of fruits, at which point we part once more. Michael leaves the cart with Cara and darts off to pick up yogurt, milk, and soymilk. By the time he gets back to Cara and the cart, she has fetched all the needed vegetables to go with all those fruits, and it is time to head to the checkout lines.

This morning, as we transferred our groceries from the cart onto the conveyor belt, the customer ahead of us in line did something so completely Chinese that we knew it had to be the topic of the day's blog. He stared intently at the items we were preparing to purchase, saw an item of interest (Michael's "afternoon tea," a mixture of tea and coconut milk packaged in an aluminum can), and reached over to pick it up. No, he never made eye contact with either Cara or Michael, nor did he say anything. He just presumptively reached over and plucked one of our items off the conveyor belt and gave it a good once-over before placing it back on the conveyor belt. We are confident that such behavior would be unusual in the 'States, where the least such a nosy person could do after inspecting someone else's groceries would be to say "Hi" or "I was thinking about buying this item myself. Is it any good?" Not so in China. In China, privacy is essentially nonexistent, especially for foreigners. So to paw through our groceries is not only normal behavior for the Chinese, but there's absolutely no obligation to introduce oneself upon doing so.

On a side note: although foreigners rightly comment that products in China are incredibly cheap/affordable, it can sometimes be shocking when confronted with an items that is unusually pricey. Take, for example, cat litter pans. A simple, rectangular plastic basin. No moving parts, monochromatic, no logos, no batteries required. Just a pan. 298 Chinese yuan, at the grocery store. That's about U.S.$35. For a plastic bin in which cats poo. The mind boggles.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bye Bye Yeenyee

Another friend of ours is heading home. This time it is Yeenyee - one of the group that went out west to Xinjiang a few months ago. Will, Olivia, and Yeenyee came over for dinner Wednesday night so we could enjoy a meal together. Being from Malaysia, Yeenyee made beef rendang, a spicy beef dish with coconut milk, that is now one of Michael's top 2 favorite foods up there with vindeloo (which, if you know Michael, is saying quite a bit). We haven't cooked many dishes from that part of the globe, so we used the opportunity to try a dish called madura chicken that the cookbook implied would be a nice compliment. We also made a red dahl dish and dry-fried some cauliflower and potatoes. Olivia added some pappadums, which are a thin, flat, pepper flavored crispy crackers, for an appetizer which we ate with some left over mango chutney. And Olivia brought purple rice pudding as well as hawthorn candy disks for dessert.

It was a feast worthy of Yeenyee!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Right Way, Wrong Way, Get Out of the Way

It is hard to really appreciate the way different cultures approach roads and the rules pertaining thereto.
As an example, let's take the bike lanes along many of the main streets of Beijing. The bike lanes make up the outer most lanes of 2 way, divided highways and are supposedly set aside for bicycle riders. (They are also used as taxi waiting areas, bus stops, and pedestrian walkways, but the symbol painted on the road is clearly a bicycle.) Given that these lanes are essentially part of the road with only a white painting line for separation, it seems intuitive that any riders using the bike lane should be heading in the same direction as the automobile traffic. Seems intuitive - but it's not. Heading the wrong way down the bike lane is a very popular pastime.
This is probably due, at least in part, to the very large size of Beijing blocks and that you could conceivably need to go over a quarter of a mile out of your way to avoid going the wrong way down a street.
But whatever the cause, what is more interesting is that most people don't even seem to notice folks heading the wrong way.
When I am pedaling along and suddenly realize that there is someone heading directly for me, I tend to get a little annoyed. Occasionally, and this is under the extreme cases only, I may even grimace so as to give vent to my frustration. But I never notice other Beijingers reacting. Beijingers will even slow down and back off so as to allow the person riding against traffic right-of-way. And here is an interesting item, when riding against traffic, the correct location is closest to the curb – which is the left side. This means that even though Chinese people drive their cars on the right hand side of the road, and will ride their bicycles on the right hand side of a dedicated bike path (as opposed to a bike lane shared with motorized vehicles), when riding against traffic in a bike lane riders should keep close to the curb on the far left. It also means that, in case there is not enough room for the bicyclists riding with traffic to get around the against traffic riders, the with-traffic people get pushed into the car lanes and the against-traffic riders are safe at the curb.
Seems odd.
Maybe the (very) real danger of pedestrians leaping of the sidewalk and into the bicycle lane is considered a more fitting punishment for those who disrupt the flow.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


It may be just another fast food chain in North America, but out here KFC ranks up there as one of the great chicken eateries in the city - or at least one of the most often seen fast-food places. One of Michael's teachers back in the fall explained that it was really the sweet corn that brought in the crowds because most of the corn you can buy in Beijing is very not-sweet. (That first mouthful can be quite shocking if you have only eaten sweet corn your whole life.)
But whatever the reason, there is a KFC every few blocks - it is right up there with Starbucks. And, here in China World, a very swank area (if we do say so ourselves), there is a KFC in the front of the building. We have to admit we have not actually tried KFC ourselves yet, we are trying to save it for just the right special moment. Posted by Picasa

Monday, July 10, 2006

More Taste Testing

In the grocery store we usually go to, there is a large table where the grocery store piles green leafy vegetables and spices. This table usually has cilantro (most of the year) some form of bok choy and some very bitter large-leafed item. (There are many choices of vegetables under this last one. We keep trying things that we think are different plants only to discover that while they may have different names, they all seem to taste very similar.)
As with the rest of the produce section, with the arrival of summer this area now has a lot more choices. Every week we seem to find something new exciting item.
This week Cara went to the store on her own and found a long thin-stemmed item that sort of looked like green onions but was much thicker, flatter, yellower, and smelled very interestingly.
But what could it be?
Unable to figure out which of the 4 signs above that area of the table actually applied to the item in hand, Cara decided to just buy some and try to figure it out at home. Maybe it was lemon grass! Michael was often looking for fresh lemon grass. Maybe lemony was the interesting smell.

It wasn't until Michael spent some time deciphering the label that the produce-weighing ladies put on the package that we discovered it was actually yellow garlic chives. You can see a picture of them here. Do not be fooled by the regular green colored garlic chives - those, my friend, were not what we purchased.

These neat herbs have a garlic flavor and a chive texture. They also smell very, very strongly. Cara thinks they smell like exotic garlics. Michael thinks they smell like armpits. Depending on your opinion, this highly influences how you might react to realizing that it only takes one night before the entire refrigerator, as well as all the food contained within, to smell exactly like the garlic chives.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A Bit of a Break

Cara has been taking language classes since last November and on Friday had her final exam for Level 3. It is a little odd how the exam really doesn't match with the information learned during the class, but there you go. While she wasn't taking anywhere near the course load that Michael had been taking (he is also done with studying Chinese for the time being), she still found it pretty exhausting, especially now that her regular work has started. So, instead of moving on to Level 4, she is going to concentrate on just the job for now.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Don't You Have Somewhere To Go?

From Cara's keyboard
If you have ever ridden bicycles with me you undoubtedly remember that I am not exactly what one would call a fast rider, but here in Beijing I am lightening!
At first I thought it the bike I was riding which was my 30 speed Cannondale mountain bike from the States. That bike, while not exactly designed for road racing, does have 29 more gears than most of the bicycles sharing the road with me. But then when Jenny went back to the States, she gave me her Beijing road bike made by Giant. This bike has only the one gear, and while in much better shape than many of the other bikes on the street, is not hugely different. But I am still constantly passing other riders who generally ride at a pace about equivalent to a stroll through the park. A brisk stroll, but still incredibly frustrating if your goal is to actually get somewhere, which is what I am trying to do.

And its not that the other riders are carrying much heavier loads than I am carrying because I am not even considering the bicycles who have extra riders perched on the back, or in the space between the pedaler and the handlebars, or on the handle bars. And I am definitely leaving out the people who have enough things loaded somewhere on their bikes that you wonder where they put the anti-gravity machine. This is a simple comparison between me and other single riders who travel on the same road during all the various times of day.

So I have reached the following conclusions.
1) Most Beijingers are simply more patient that I am and are able to sit back, pedal slowly and just wait until whatever time is required to pass to reach their destination, passes. And if that means not trying to push a little harder for the last 40 yards before an intersection because the light is blinking and about to change and it is 6 minutes until it comes around again - well that's okay.
2) After one particular rider thought it was fun to watch me pedal so hard and made a game out of keeping up with me, I realized that it really is a choice rather than some greater inability that allows Beijingers to pedal as slowly as they do. This guy had no problem riding faster, as he demonstrated as we rode a few blocks together and tried ineffectively to have a conversation. But he was definitely going much slower before I passed him because I had no trouble catching up and passing him the first time.
3) Its boring to ride really slowly which I know because I thought that maybe I should try to change my attitude and try the snail pace that everyone else seems to enjoy and I had to give it up. It is just really, really boring.
4) The lack of interest in going fast may have something to do with a lack of significant difference in travel time because of all of the street lights and the lack of timing between them. But that is a rant for a different day.

So for now, I am content to wear the yellow jersey as I once again have the fastest overall time taking into account the many stages between my office and our apartment.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Biking in Beijing

As some of you have heard, Cara has been biking to and from work for a few weeks now. This is about a 30 minute ride each way.
At first glance, this may seem like a healthy cardiovascular exercise, but upon a second glance you would undoubtedly notice the thick layer of pollution that continuously covers this city and makes it hard to actually see Cara pedaling. In fact, that wasn’t even her that you saw during your first glance; that was the rider 2 people ahead of Cara who just happened to have long hair but you may now notice is a guy. Cara is the one in the florescent orange t-shirt from her ultimate Frisbee days who is passing all the slow pokes (thought that is a different blog topic 0 probably tomorrow's.)

Well, okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration of the pollution level. We did see a bit of blue-ish sky one day this weekend and visible distance also increased dramatically this afternoon from the measly 500 yards this morning to at least a couple of miles by this afternoon. But you get the picture.
In fact the American embassy actually recommends not exercising during many Beijing days because the benefits of the exercise are outweighed by the respiratory damage.

Interesting dilemma.

Still, biking to work is kind of fun and always interesting and as long as the other bikes and cars are mostly visible through the smog Cara intends to keep on pedaling.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


In honor of July 4th we were officially off work today. Cara decided to use her free day to get a foot massage with Maya. Now, we have mentioned these wonderful massage things before, but we have not given you a full description. Here is how it works:
- You show up at the lovely massage parlor of your choice. If you are Cara, you have most likely selected Bodi. The people manning the front desk ask you (first in Mandarin and then in English!) which massage you wish to have and then show you to your room. If you are getting the foot massage, as Cara and Maya were getting today, then you are shown to a room with two oversized armchairs.
- Then you are asked if you would like any of the complementary drinks, snacks, or meals. When Cara's sister was in town, they had lunch at Bodi twice.
- Next the masseuse or masseur comes in with a small tub filled with a hot herbal bath. If you are paying the full rates rather than the half-off daytime rates, there will be flowers floating in your hot herbal foot bath.
- While your feet are soaking, the masseur asks you (mostly in Mandarin using a lot of hand gestures) to sit on the ottoman so he can massage your neck, then back, then head, and might as well cover the arms too for about 30 minutes.
- Guessing that your feet are now well cooked, the masseur encourages you to go back over to the armchair, removes your feet from the still warm bath, and wraps one of them up in a towel to prevent it from getting cold while he starts massaging the other foot. And foot here means foot, toes, ankle, calf, and maybe thigh.
- At some point during this process, another employee of the place will come in with heated pillows for your neck and the small of your back. This is a good time to ask for more drinks if you are thirsty.
- Eventually the masseur will wrap up the foot he was working on and move to your second foot.
- At the end of this whole process (a total of 80 minutes has now passed) the masseur will let you know he is finished and is leaving. He then encourages you to relax and rest in your comfortable armchair with perhaps your hot ginger and cola drink and your heated pillows until you feel ready to move.
- Before you walk out the front door you stop at the front desk and pay nice people. Because this is an expensive place the regular rate is 156 RMB. Since we visited during the day, we gotten the promotional 76 RMB price. This is about $10 US.
- You leave feeling that pretty much everything is right in the world.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Leaving Your Mark

From Cara's keyboard:
As you might imagine, there is a fair bit of wet cement at a construction site. The other day while I was watching a crew pour in some fresh cement I asked the fellow standing next to me when the construction workers write their name in the stuff. It was clearly a joke given the officialness of the final building. Or at least I thought it was a joke...

The next day, as I walked onto the site, I had at least 3 people ask me various questions that in one way or another all related to having my name in some concrete. uh...

As I quickly learned, on that one particular slab of concrete my name is carved in THREE FOOT TALL letters. Its a little shocking and rather large and quite noticeable.

The good news is that it will eventually be covered up with dirt, ne'er to be seen again. The bad news is that it will be at least a month before that protective layer of dirt is added. Until then I enjoy the dubious pleasure of meeting new members of the team, having them read my name off my hardhat, and hearing them say, "Oh! So you're Cara!"

I had thought it would have taken me at least a month to reach this level of notoriety.