Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Of all the possible American influences to see in China....

Not exactly a pleasant representation of American free speech, but there are a few things that are worth noting here. First, we covered up a few letters, because we still like to pretend from time to time that this is a clean blog. Stop snickering. Every once in a while, it is clean.

The second thing to notice is that these photos were taken near one of the new-ish diplomatic sections of town - not far from where the new U.S. Embassy is being built, in fact. In short, a lot of old neighborhoods in this area - to include the one directly opposite this wall (behind the camera) - are being destroyed to make room for the new, up-scale development that is coming. Gentrification in Beijing usually begins with a sledgehammer and a non-negotiable notice for residents to clear out before the roof comes down on them.

The third point is that the commentary is not accompanied by any Chinese characters. Perhaps the thugs in question ("gangsta" and "thug" are synonyms, right?) thinks the barbed nature of the grafitti will escape notice by Chinese police due to the language barrier, but we think this unlikely. The f-bomb is one of the most globally-recognized English words. More likely, perhaps, is that the Yumeng Gangstas identify with American gangsta rappers, and those guys rarely use Chinese when verbally abusing authority figures.

The fourth point is (for Michael, anyway) the most interesting: when searching for a way to express anger at authority, these wallpainters decided to draw upon American culture to do so. More to the point, they drew upon angry Black American youth as their cultural inspiration. We'd be curious to know your thoughts on the issue.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Proper Horn Etiquette

Honking is handled differently here in Beijing. You don’t just honk to tell people to get out of your way, you also honk or beep or ring your bike-bell to let people know that you are behind them and that they shouldn’t suddenly jump in front of you and force you to hit them. Sometimes cars will honk even when you are walking on the sidewalk – this is the Chinese form of cautious driving. Cars will also honk to let you know that they are not about to slow down to give you time to cut them off so you had just better think twice there kiddie before stepping in front of them! The sad, yet not unexpected, result is that after a while everyone stops paying attention to honking cars because we hear them CONSTANLY.

In reaction to just that phenomena, we present you with the following song:
(Think "I Just Called To Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder)

chorus tune
I just honked to say I see you
I just beeped to let you know I’m there
I just honked to say I’m passing,
and I really hope that you stay in your lane…

verse tune
No right of way
No stops on red
No ones even heard of safe-following-distance

No helmet laws
Just ‘make way for the bus’
Its funny how quickly you grow to love the chaos

Everyone together now - Back to the chorus!

Friday, October 27, 2006

So you think you're eating bean curds

We have been a little amazed by the varieties of soy bean products available here. Not only is there the basic soft versus firm tofu, there is also fresh or packaged, different sizes and textures, and whole rows of assorted flavors and pre-made dishes.
What's a little hard on us though, is that we can't always read the package (looks like Chinese to me) so sometimes we end up with a bit of a surprise.

Take this picture for example.
Can you see the yellowish tinge and shiny/glossy finish to the pieces? We thought we were getting some plain, white, firm tofu but there you go.

Actually this worked out quite well though because we were trying to make a saag paneer and while we didn't have any paneer, this stuff was much closer than tradional tofu.

Turns out it tasted pretty good too. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Where did all the Godless Communists go?

This photo was simply irresistable. Unlike the church on Wangfujing in one of downtown Beijing's swankier shopping areas, this church looks so...ordinary. It looks like the photo could almost have been taken anywhere in Big City, USA. Assuming, that is, you don't get too distracted by the glowing yellow haze of a polluted Beijing sunset backlighting the structure.

While we will admit that this photo will not seem as jarringly odd to those of you who see this kind of sight every day, for a Laowai in China, it is a shocker. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

57 years old and counting

China National Day, like any other decent national day, celebrates the founding of a modern state by convincing everyone to wave a flag about and feel lucky to be a citizen. Unlike other Chinese holidays, China's National Day is marked according to a solar calendar (the other major holidays are scheduled according to a lunar calendar), and takes place on October 1 each year. October 1, 1949, is when the People's Republic of China was founded, marked by Chairman Mao Zedong waving the first-ever five-starred red flag of China in front of over a quarter million Chinese citizens in Tiananmen Square.

In the image at the top of this entry, you can see a large display of Chinese flags set up at the south entrance to Chaoyang Park. We took this photo a few days before National Day, so they were just getting things set up (see the picture below, which has a number of inflatable structures waiting to be pumped up with national pride). In the photo at the top of the post, you will see an elderly couple taking their morning exercise together, a relatively common site in Beijing's parks early in the day and one o Michael's favorite experiences in China. It is hard to imagine how much insanity this couple must have witnessed over the past 57 years of "red" China, with the latest crazy event being the instant modernization of China's cities. The countryside still has a long way to go (rural education has a wretched reputation in China, with underqualified teachers in ramshackle schoolhouses and crude supplies), but in the cities each day brings a new shiny building into existence. The starkness of the change is stunning. Tomorrow, we'll give you a glimpse of the other end of the scale. 

Monday, October 23, 2006

Cro-Magnon and the Saber-toothed Bison

In Paleolithic times, tribes recorded great hunts by painting simplified images of the hunters and the kill. Some of the more commonly depicted animals included a type of bison, pictured below.
Unfortunately for poor Cro-Magnon hunter-man, while the Saber-toothed Bison was no match for his spear, the Four-toed giant Slothcat was waiting in the cave and swallowed that hunter in one bite. Pictured here, the Slothcat is dreaming about an old woman who swallowed a spider that wriggled and squiggled and tickled inside her. Alas, that is another story, for another time. As for tonight, dear reader, we merely caution you to beware gargantuan Stone-age cats that look hungry.Stay tuned to this blog, for tomorrow we will share with you an image or three of China National Day, which is kind of like American Independence Day without all that over-rated freedom stuff to muck it up. Catch you tomorrow!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Another Triumph of Safety in the Workplace

Several posts back we shared an image with you of window washers in Beijing. Well, before you get to the point of having dirty windows, you have to put up a bunch of dirt-ready structures. Parts of Beijing appear to be little more than scaffolding, cranes, and miles upon miles of green fabric. Here you can see a couple construction workers assembling some steel scaffolding. From time to time, a third worker would toss up an object for the other guys to catch. We don't know what the objects were, but we're guessing they weren't safety harnesses. Perhaps the good news is that if one guy falls, there would be a decent chance of merely impaling himself on a steel pipe instead of smacking the pavement below.

Then again, maybe it would be safer to just learn how to wash windows. 

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I wouldn't drink the water

There are many canals running through the city. At first, many of them seem idyllic with overhanging trees and walkways right along the water.

But then you start to notice some funny things. For example - is the water really supposed to be that florescent shade of green?
Upon further examination the "no swimming" signs make a lot more sense.
Of course, we still see people swimming and fishing in these things. Then again, if a fish could survive in this water it probably has some very powerful evolution going for it, so maybe eating a fish like that will make you stronger. Assuming it doesn't kill you of course. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Haggling - A Way of Life

One of the things we are still trying to get use to here in China is that almost every purchase that we make requires some haggling. This is not to say that we can't buy things for the asking price, but if we do we are encouraging the crazy sky-rocketing of local costs, or at least the shellacking of foreigners. The given price can be anywhere from 20% too much to 200% and part of the trick is knowing which it is.

What is frustrating is that there are very few ways to just buy something for an appropriate price without spending time arguing - in a very friendly manner mind you - about how much it should cost. That is one of the draws of foreign stores, like the French owned Carrefour where we do a lot of our grocery and random household item shopping.

As an example:
Today, Cara was looking for some teacups that we had bought on the other side of town at something in a somewhat hard to get to location. We were able to get the cup sets for price Y with no haggling. (We were tired that day and the price was very acceptable, probably only 15-20% too much.) At a market near our apartment, Cara found the exact same cups and the saleslady/booth owner was even willing to put the cup sets in boxes that were EXACTLY SAME BRAND NAME. Then the saleslady quoted a price that was 80 times greater than what we had paid for the same item. Upon telling her that fact, she was willing to drop her price in half to a number only 40x greater. After walking away a few times, she went down to maybe 30x. At that point Cara left.

Its funny how "that's my highest price" translates directly into "keep harassing me and I will pay more".

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Children Are Children

Walking through some of the back neighborhoods, Cara happened to go by this school while the children were out. (recess? at the end of their school day?) Often we see little kids at the schools lined up or participating in activities that are not familiar to us, but these guys were skipping rope - and doing so quite well I might add. Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 16, 2006

Oh no! We've become The Man!!

That's right, we sold out and became neocolonialists last week. It was bound to happen. We live in a country where the irony of communism reveals itself: modern communist states don't do a particularly good job of prizing laborers. Invariably, communist states become bureaucratic disasters plagued with Gordian red tape, much like every other modern system of government. Unlike free market economies, however, the modern communist state is one in which innovation and hard work have not historically been rewarded or encouraged, and the end result is that the economy, generally speaking, is impoverished.

Ah, yes, we can hear your incredulity from way over here in Asia. Relax. Yeah, we know China's economy has been going gangbusters since 1980 and shows no signs of slowing down. That the average urban siheyuan (courtyard home) in Beijing doesn't come equipped with a toilet should tell you just how unbelievably poor this country was back in 1980 before 26 years of explosive economic growth.

But we digress. Our point is that labor here is cheap. Disturbingly cheap. We pay our aiyi (Chinese for Auntie, now also used to label a hired nurse or hired houseworker) less than 2 U.S. dollars per hour to do fairly skilled work. And - here's the shocker - we are paying her significantly more than the market requires. The average aiyi in Beijing only makes about $1.25 per hour. What does our aiyi do for this not-so-generous sum? She commutes 2 hours (each way) to cook our weekday dinners (she does the whole week on Monday morning and sticks it in the refrigerator for reheating at our convenience), and then makes that trip all over again on Friday to clean our house before the weekend comes.

For the past year, we've gotten by without an aiyi of our own. This means that our home isn't as clean as it probably ought to be and we definitely spend more time cooking and cleaning than we need to here in China. So a few weeks ago, when we were chatting with our good friend (and local fixer) Maya, she mentioned that her aiyi is skilled at cooking Indian cuisine. After noticing the drool beginning to form, Maya offered to set up a dinner party with Maya's aiyi as the caterer.

A handful of friends came by last Friday, and Li Aiyi deep-fried up a whole lot of samosas to kick-start our appetites (these were followed by a chickpea dhal, palak, and curried chicken with rice). We'd show you a photograph, but they didn't survive long enough for mere mechanical optics to capture. One bite into her first samosa, a guest turned to us and asked if Li Aiyi was interested in getting more work. That's right, Li Aiyi came by to cook a single meal and walked away with two jobs. The good news for Li Aiyi is that her new employers live in the same building (our friends Kim and Josh live a few floors above us), so we've made sure to overlap the schedule: on Mondays, she comes by our kitchen to cook up the week's food for us, then spends the afternoon up at Kim and Josh's pad to whip up a week's culinary delights for them before heading home.

And that, dear readers, is how Michael and Cara became The Man. In our defense, we resisted as long as we humanly could. But we are weak, and samosas are really tasty, so we caved.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Pictures of the city

Feeling too lazy to blog right now, so instead we will just leave you with some pictures from a trip to a park just north of the Forbidden City.

In this first shot you can see the north gate (from which you should exit) of the Forbidden City and a lot of the buildings that make up the city behind the gate.

Here is a close up of the gate which is in the center of the first picture.

And here is the space alien mother ship.

Oops. Turns out that is actually the new concert hall.
This is in the top right hand corner of the first picture to give you some perspective. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Magic Food

While we did not have to trade a cow for these beans, they were grown by monks and they are magic. Actually, the Buddist monks who cultivate the pesticide-free farm where these particular plants were grown, also grow plants just for the bugs to eat. After all, bugs are important living things, too.
These purple beans taste very similar to regular green beans, although they were a little tougher. They are also purple, which was sort of surprising. But then, when you cook them, something very odd happens - they turn green! We were most impressed
 Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Human Flies?

We've said it before: Beijing is a dirty, dirty town. Babies without diapers, dogs without discretion, dust storms from the Gobi, over two hundred thousand taxi drivers, 118 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, endless epic-scale demolition (and construction) projects, and countless other causes for the proliferation of debris all add up to a level of filth that is uncommon in American cities today. Except maybe in New Orleans, but that's a special case.

So how does one keep all of Beijing's spanking-new skyscrapers gleaming? Apparently, you climb to the roof, throw a rope over the side, grab a bucket and squeegee, and try not to fall to your doom as you repel for less than one U.S. dollar an hour. It makes one wonder what Beijing's glass and steel monoliths will look like once minimum wage rises up to levels more suggestive of a society that values its labor force. Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 09, 2006

Giant Bugs!

While walking through Chaoyang park, we came across this large insect.

But what was an 10 foot tall lady bug doing in Beijing? Maybe it was meant to go with the rabbits.

Upon closer inspection we figured it out...
...just helping to clean up the neighborhood. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Mid Autumn Festival

Tomorrow is the Mid Autumn Festival also known as the August Moon Festival. This is a time for families to get together and visit and have big meals. (Sort of like the American Thanksgiving celebration.) But here, instead of sharing fruitcake, people exchange moon cakes. Traditionally they are supposed to be made with an egg in the center, or so I am told. But nowadays they are made with all kinds of fillings. In fact, we had frozen yogurt mooncakes with Jonathan and Soyan at TCBY. (They used orange sherbert in the heart of each icecream moon cake to represent the egg yolk. We recommend the vanilla and strawberry flavors for anybody who wishes to try the TCBY options. But stay away from the green tea!)
The mooncake above was being given away at work. There were many flavors to choose from and I got a red bean paste. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

In case of fire, run like hell

While showing Jonathan and Soyan a nearby open-air market (a positively enormous one that runs about a mile from end to end and is punctuated by clusters of warehouses chock full of stalls selling goods), we happened to glance off to the side of the main thoroughfare and caught sight of the market's fire control system: a couple buckets and some short-handled shovels. Not to say that a single fire extinguisher would be adequate, either, but this system faces two distinct challenges: first, there are no water taps nearby from which one might draw water into the buckets; second, without a jackhammer there is no way those shovels are going to be able to collect enough dirt to throw on a fire. This set of shovels and bucket (complete with rack) is something of a standard, as we have seen identical sets elsewhere in Beijing.

The moral of this story? If it looks like a building has caught fire, cut your losses and get out of Dodge. Posted by Picasa

Monday, October 02, 2006

New Friends

One of the nice things about living in an exotic, far-away city (at least from the North American perspective) is that people have a tendency to want to come here, and then we get to see them! (That's right, it is all about us!) Our latest visitors were Soyan and Jonathan on their around-the-world tour. We had actually never met them before but we have a friend in common - Seth! And man oh man did Seth know what he was doing when he said we should get together while they were in Beijing.
So we took them to places that serve some of our favorite foods and tried to make sure they were stuffed silly. These first 2 photos are from a Xin Jiang restaurant where we had Da Pan Ji (big plate chicken - mmmmm).
And this last photo was at a local outdoor market area just south of our apartment. Michael couldn't resist getting a picture of Jonathan getting a picture of some of the kids.

We are sorry to see them go, but there is a lot more of the world for them to see and so little time.. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Well planned

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the Chinese people for being so conscientious of Jews. Tonight is the start of Yom Kippur that will then run all day tomorrow. This is a very special Jewish holiday that involves fasting and spending the entire day in prayer. To spend the day at synagogue usually requires taking some time off work, but here in China, the government has graciously started National Day today and the National Day celebration runs all week. In recognition of National Day the US Embassy is closed Mon-Wed.