Friday, December 02, 2005

That Thing You Do to Faces

Any of you who have studied a foreign language long enough to be disqualified as a beginner but not long enough to be considered truly proficient will be familiar with the art of talking around words. This is the skill that allows you to convey the meaning of the word without ever using the word itself, and it usually works like this:

“In the park there are machines that you sit on and they go up and down very fast to scare you. But they are for fun. You sit on them because you want to have fun. Sometimes they go very high. Like in that place in California that is famous for the little cartoon mouse. They have many of these scary machines that you sit on for fun. ”

Or, in instances that simultaneously humble and amaze you, it works like this:

“I’m looking for a cruciferous vegetable that is a verdant green. It has a very thick stem and a bulbous, rounded top. It is of high nutritive value and is a member of the same genus as the cauliflower. I am hoping to purchase it so that I can include it in a smorgasbord of salads that I whipping up for a casual gathering in my place of domicile this evening."

The art of the verbal pantomime is definitely not limited to language learners—those unfortunate enough to have to converse with us often resort to this tactic, as well. In their dealings with me, the patient denizens of Beijing have proved themselves to be surprisingly skilled in this arena. With the help of some dramatic gestures, inventive facial expressions and “international” sound effects, we manage to communicate with one another quite effectively.

All that aside, sometimes precision is priceless. There are definitely those moments when you need to know the right word, right away, and nothing else will suffice. This kind of moment might come, for example, in an emergency. Or it might come when you are in a real hurry. Or it might come, as it did for me this Wednesday, when you are naked and sitting a foot away from someone that you have only met twice before and who is also naked, and you are not in a bedroom, but instead in semi-public and there are two strangers wearing white jackets talking to you and looking at you. In moments like this, for instance, you don’t want to beat around the bush. In moments like this, you want to know the phrase for “turn over” so that you can turn away from your new acquaintance and the people in white jackets, hide your blushing face, stop worrying that someone is telling you to do a naked squat, and turn over already.

This Wednesday I treated myself to a facial and treated one near stranger and two total ones to a view of my bare, wintertime flesh. I am not confident my companions can say the same, but for my part, at least, the awkwardness of the naked non-communication incident was worth enduring in order to get to the pure luxury of a facial treatment so extravagant that it included a massage (the reason, in case you were waiting for it, that we had our clothes off in the first place), lasted one and a half hours, and left me so mushy and relaxed that I could barely walk—all for less than the price of a movie ticket and a bucket of popcorn back home.

When I returned to our apartment and asked Mark if my skin looked any different he told me: “Yes, it looks rosy. Rosy around the nose.” I can’t say I was delighted but I also can’t say I care. Because, here’s the deal: it’s not really about the skin. It’s about pampering. Some of you might scoff at the thought of paying any amount of money just to have someone rub you and rub stuff onto you. But trust me, you have an inner diva and it’s just begging to be indulged, especially if your outer diva spends its days in the grey grime and cold of Beijing. I am not a person who goes gaga over massage and I don’t pay particular attention to my skin, but just two days after this experience, I am already hoping for an outbreak of pimples so I have some excuse to treat myself again.

Those of you reading this in Beijing (and I know there are a few of you): don’t delay. Grab a friend and get to the salon. And if you don’t know how to say facial, try this:

“That amazing thing that you do with soft hands and sweet-smelling potions. When you rub the face and put cream and hot towels on it. And you also rub the back, and the shoulders and the arms and even the scalp and cause ordinary Americans to wonder if they should give up their homeland and take up permanent residence in Beijing just so they can come back to you. You know, that thing you do to the face.”

(Just remember, “turn over” is “fan shen”.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Happy Times Together

Over this holiday weekend, most Americans are focusing on two things: family and food. I’ve been looking for the right moment to share two fantastic Chinese views of American family time and American food, both encountered in Chinese-produced textbooks, and I’ve decided this is it. You can use your recent Thanksgiving experiences to judge their accuracy.

A Chinese View of American Family Life

(A dialogue from A Practical Course of English Phonetics, one of the textbooks Mark uses in his English pronunciation classes. Presented in full and precisely as it is in the text.)

“Happy Times Together I”

JP: In our family we often have good, happy times together. Sometimes the happy times are with the whole family and sometimes they are with the children.
DP: By doing so, we create a large back account of good memories. We arrange good memories for our family. Excuse me, Jennifer, I’m going to prepare cheese sandwiches for you.

JW: Thank you. Jim, what do you usually do to have happy times together?

JP: Well…, sometimes we go on short hikes, sometimes we go boating or swimming. Very often we just stay home together reading classic literature like Tom Sawyer.

JW: Do you often go on a trip?

JP: Yes, we often go on special little trips. Deidra and I also have special times alone for a weekend and let Brooke and Brittany have their own ways. It is very important in helping the children mature.

JW: So you keep your love for each other alive and let the children to be individual and independent.

JP: Yes, that is a part of solid family life.

A Chinese View on American Cuisine

(Excerpts from Chinese Listening Skills, the textbook for my Chinese listening class. Translated from the Chinese.)

In America, food is very casual. Although there are enough American restaurant names to cover the entire Earth, other than McDonalds, who can say what kind of food is distinctly American? Besides California Beef Noodle restaurant*, there are no restaurants with an American flavor.
Americans aren’t very particular about what they eat. For breakfast, Americans can eat whatever they want: if they want to eat cereal with banana slices and raisins, or if they want to eat buttered bread and a fried egg, who will know? As long as they fill their stomachs, they’re fine.

When Americans come to a Chinese restaurant, every person in the family orders the same one dish. They only talk about the atmosphere of the restaurant, the romance of it, and they don’t care about whether the chef is skilled or not.

The meal that takes Americans the most time to prepare is probably dinner, although you can’t say that it makes people too busy. For example, everyone buys pre-packaged food from the supermarket. Vegetables and meat are already fully cooked or half cooked when you buy them. You don’t have to prepare many dishes for dinner, either. The dinner you see most often is: a small bowl of soup, a main dish, something sweet, fruit and coffee or tea. The soup is usually canned soup to which you add a few spices that you like; the main dish is usually fried rice. You don’t have to spend time cooking the fruit and sweets. You can cook ring the dinner bell after 30 minutes. And this is the most complicated meal. Bachelors are even more casual. They can eat hamburgers and sandwiches every day without ever getting sick of them.

With the time they don’t spend on food, Americans can relax their pace of life—time that could be spent on household chores is instead spent on exercise.

Mark and I had happy Thanksgiving times together this Friday, instead of Thursday, and made a fantastic Mexican meal instead of Tofurkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie (or fried rice and canned soup). I hope that, no matter what you ate, or where, all of you and your families had the happiest of happy times together, too.

* Lost as I was in class? Apparently this was a Chinese chain restaurant once very popular in Beijing. What do they serve? California beef noodles, of course.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Injured Oreo

Up here in the north of China I’ve heard people have a chuckle or two about the Korean taste for canines. Unlike their Southern brethren, who are notorious for their willingness to eat anything with a heartbeat, Northern Chinese are more fastidious when it comes to the palate. So, here in Beijing, they don’t eat dogs. But, sadly, while they won’t eat them, they’ll definitely still beat them. Here’s the story of one little dog that, even if he wasn’t going to wind up on anyone’s plate, still came close to being lunch meat.

Mark and I were going about our lazy Saturday business, coming home from buying some vegetables, when we walked past a grimy restaurant and saw two kids playing way too roughly with a puppy perched a leaning table. We slowed down and looked sternly at the kids for a moment, then walked on. Moments later we heard a shrieking noise so loud and so repetitive that I was convinced that it must be coming from the construction site across the street, not from a living thing, a shrieking noise so terrible and earsplitting that it took over our other senses and made it hard to see and hard to think. We turned around to witness the same two kids hanging their heads while a grown-up scolded them holding a broken brick and the puppy shrieked in agony at their feet. It wasn’t hard to figure out what had happened.

But it was almost impossible to figure out what to do. Others on the street slowed down, and some clucked there tongues, but no one moved to take action. We mentally raced through a list of ideas (call the police, call the RSPCA, go talk to the dog’s owners) but kept stumbling against the same block (China, China, China). I knew I couldn’t count on my Chinese abilities—all my vocabulary had run away scared, leaving me to cry into my sweater with shock, frustration and the rage of impotency. After a few minutes, we walked away, distraught and shaken.

Fate dealt us our first lucky hand of the weekend when we arrived back at campus and bumped into one of Mark’s students, Hanson, who graciously agreed to accompany us back to the restaurant to check on the dog. We found the puppy, quieter now, and huddled on an ash heap behind the restaurant’s kebab grill. He couldn’t stand or walk. When we went inside and asked if he was okay, the owners laughed and told us that we could take him.

And so we did.

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By another incredible stroke of luck, there happens to be an animal hospital nearby the Sports University. So the fruit vendor next door to the restaurant gave us a cardboard box (we’d asked the restaurant for a box to carry the puppy in and they’d brought us a plastic rice sack), the puppy was deposited into it, and Mark and I carried him to the vet. All through the long and bumpy walk, as he was bounced and jostled, he was quiet. We arrived feeling very worried.
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Thankfully, these strips of meat weren’t hanging in front of the hospital until two days later, or we might never have convinced ourselves to enter. But they weren’t, so we did, and with my somewhat recovered Chinese, I explained the situation to a very old man in a very old white coat. He examined the puppy, which lay silently, and informed us that it did not have a broken leg but might have a broken ligament. While Mark ran home to get money, guide books, phone numbers and whatever else he could find to help us figure out what to do with this puppy that we could no way keep but couldn’t abandon, I paid, without knowing what I was buying, to give the puppy some shots of painkiller that seemed to cause him almost as much pain as the original injury.

The veterinarian and his assistant didn’t have any phone numbers or addresses of shelters that might take him, but kindly agreed to let the puppy stay there for one night, against their rules, while we tried to find him a home. We ran back to our apartment to start a frantic search.

Then, a gift fell out of the pages of That’s Beijing, which we had picked up just two days earlier: on page 134, an article on the Beijing Human and Animal Environmental Education Center, the one and only private animal shelter and protection entity in the entire country (yes, that’s right, the one and only, in a country almost the size of the United States). The gods were grinning at us.

The next morning, I finally got through to someone at the shelter, and in a broken-down gypsy cab we set-off to the outskirts of Beijing, driving on a road strewn with corn kernels set out to dry in the sun. Finally, after a wrong turn that took us past a field of ostriches (no lie) our personal yellow brick road brought us to the center’s door. We were greeted by a woman dressed in head to toe army camouflage, including a hat. While this sight didn’t exactly fill us with confidence that our tired little traveler would be treated with tender loving care in his new home, our worries were assuaged by the many photos of Jane Goodal visiting the center hanging framed on its walls and by the knowledge that the RSPCA has made it the center a “sister society”. (I mean, Jane Goodal! I wrote a report on her in the second grade and I don’t think my esteem for her has diminished at all since then.)

We filled out a little paperwork, made a donation, and then it was time to say goodbye. But before we could leave, we were asked what we’d like to call the pup. Mark had already dubbed him “Cripplespot,” in recognition of his resemblance to my old and weary Pound Puppy “Triplespot,” but we didn’t think that would fly at the shelter. Hambaobao (Hamburger) was nixed because they already had one (they also have a French Fry, we learned) so we settled on Oreo, or “O-Li-O”. When he’s all cleaned up, he’ll be a reverse Oreo—mostly white with a little black—but in his sooty, dirty state at the shelter, the puppy was like the real cookie deal. And so: Oreo.

We’ve been invited to visit him and we’re planning to do so soon. In the meantime, we’re hoping that his leg recovers, that he gets a new home and that he forgets almost everything that the last eight months of his life taught him. And that he barks! In two days, not one bark. Keep your fingers crossed for Oreo, folks. Unless, that is, you want to use them to send the incredibly necessary, life saving Beijing Human and Animal Environmental Education Center a donation! They need money to help feed and care for animals, and for their other efforts, like educating Beijingers (like the kids who abused Oreo about respect and care for animals. I’m waiting to hear if the center can accept checks from abroad, but in the meantime, if you think you’d like to help out, please let me know.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Poetry in Lotion

As a person with a pretty strict set of rules about what will go into or onto her body, I’ve definitely blocked-up more than my fair share of grocery and drugstore aisles while poring over lists of product ingredients. While I’ve long-since resigned myself to life as a label-gazer, and have even begun to take some pride in the vocabulary of obscure additives I’ve built over the years (do all of you know what imidazolidinyl urea or sodium tallowate come from, hmmm?) I’m still finding shopping a sometimes exhausting experience here in China.

Making sure I’m not purchasing something made with animal ingredients is extra-hard in a country where a) they eat everything, b) skin products enhanced with snake oil and sheep placenta are run of the mill, and c) I don’t read the language very well and my well-worn, portable dictionary doesn’t have the English definition for the words sheep placenta anyway

So, screening Chinese products for vegan-friendliness is time-consuming and bewildering, yes, but on the flip-side, thanks to most Chinese companies’ bizarre compulsion to include English on the packaging of products that will almost never be marketed to an English speaking public, it is also highly-entertaining. Witness, please, the skincare line that I stumbled across at our local ChaoShiFa. I am sure you will as moved (although not buy), as I was.

On the poignant futility of water:Posted by Picasa

I often wish I had some pure water of activation to suck on, don't you? Posted by Picasa

If your milk is dirty then this is not the product for you. Posted by Picasa

Ooh la la: Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Fun and Lively or Hot and Deafening?*

One of the delights of the Chinese language is its compound words. By some estimates there are more than 55,000 different characters in the Chinese language (now you know why I so rarely have an opportunity to post here). Each of these characters has its own, distinct meaning and stands as a word on its own, but the real fun begins when two or more characters are combined to make a new word. Some compound words are satisfyingly straightforward, such as when the words “fly” (fei) and “machine” (ji) come together to form (you guessed it!) “airplane” (飞机), and others are much more abstract. The more abstract compound words are my favorite—they’re like tiny little doorstops propping open secret entrances, letting me peek into this country’s culture, history and psyche and puzzle over a slice of view.

One of my all time favorite Chinese words has got to be “renao” (热闹), which means “lively”, and also “jolly” or “fun”, as in “let’s go check out the fun.” (Wait, we say that in America, right? I’m suddenly having a moment of English doubt.) The two characters that form “renao” can be directly translated as “hot” and “noisy,” respectively. This never fails to amuse me. Lately, I’ve been thinking of this word a lot because it seems so emblematic of an aspect of Chinese culture that I’m having a hard time adjusting to. To put it clearly, in my book, hot and noisy ≠ fun.

I mean, sure, I like the beach in the sun, rowdy conversations and the occasional raucous party, and nobody would ever call me quiet (indulge me while I don’t rule out the possibility of hot), but never in a million years would I think of combining these two adjectives if I was asked to make up my own word for a fun, lively atmosphere. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that most of my fellow Americans would probably agree that they often go out of their way to avoid hot and noisy situations.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the average Chinese citizen fantasizes about demolition derbies in the Gobi Desert. (I confess I’ve actually know very little about demolition derbies but they strike me as being very noisy. I’m thinking crunching metal and gunning engines?) However, Chinese people undeniably possess if not a definite preference for clatter and bustle in every day life, then at the very least a much higher threshold for noise and for hot, sticky crowds than the average Westerner. If the contents of my last entry are not proof of this enough, then hear the case of Beijing’s famous Summer Palace:

The Summer Palace is a former imperial park filled with winding paths, a multitude of elegant pagodas and temples, and a large lake scattered with lotus plants and traversed by elegant, bowed, white bridges. To celebrate the final departure of the evil bacteria that kept us indoors most of last week, Mark and I paid a Sunday visit to this would-be-idyllic refuge, hoping for a momentary escape from the audio onslaught that is Beijing. Imagine our surprise (or maybe imagine your own, because Mark and I are getting more and more used to things here) when we discovered that parts of the park are “enhanced” with piped in music and information.

Presumably, the park plays the music to improve the visitor’s experience. Now, what I can’t figure out is this: does the paying public really demand this extra stimulus, or are they just so numb they no longer notice it? (Or maybe they really can’t hear it? I once had a taxi-driver who told me, in all seriousness, that she was convinced that Westerners had better hearing than Chinese people because the all the Westerners who rode in her taxi spoke to one another so much more quietly than her Chinese customers did.)

As I write this, the Beijing Sports University is providing me with another example of the Chinese quest for “renao”: instrumental music is currently drifting in my bedroom window from the speaker outside. Its 10:14am—people were already properly awoken at 6am with Unchained Melody and lunch isn’t for a couple of hours. I can think of no explanation for the provision of this music other than someone on the school administration, someone very, very different from me, thinking that listening to it would be pleasant.

I promise that despite the fact that all I’ve managed to do here so far is complain about this country’s noise and bad plumbing (and you’re lucky, Mark has to suffer frequent diatribes on many, many other subjects), I’m actually occasionally very glad to be living in it, being noisy and adding to the heat of a billion-plus people. And though my Chinese studies have been exhausting and my progress up to now frustratingly slow, the language does give me little presents, like “renao”, all the time. Maybe in the future I’ll write about another old favorite “luluyouyou” (绿绿油油) or “greengreenoilyoily”. In the meantime, you can play me for a little while, and spend some time guessing at its meaning on your own. (Here’s a hint: it officially has nothing to with cooking, although I would say that it has everything to do with the Chinese palate. Good luck!)

*Mark wanted me to call this entry "Scrabble Would be Fucked-Up in Chinese". But he also suggested "Paperclips" and "Jizz Powder" so I decided I'd better come up with a title on my own.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Unchain Me

I’m like the marshmallow Fluff of light sleepers—it takes two earplugs with the highest possible noise reducing power and, until recently, a sleep mask, just to keep me from floating off the bed, so lightly do I slumber. I can’t deny that I am more easily roused than others by the going-ons of the world outside my bedroom window. But really, no matter how deeply and hard they might typically sleep, is anyone humanly capable of sleeping through the sounds of Unchained Melody being blasted from a loudspeaker outside their apartment at 6:15 every single weekday morning?

As surely as lonely rivers flow to the sea to the sea, those lucky individuals residing on the campus of the Beijing Sports University can be certain that their weekdays will begin with an involuntary dose of the Righteous Brothers. I’m still having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that:
a) I am not hallucinating, or actually dreaming about Patrick and Demi every single morning. (I confess that I vaguely remember once having a very long and convoluted Ghost-themed dream so this did seem like a distinct possibility for the first couple days.)
b) The school essentially has a mandated wake-up time for all its residents.
c) This wake-up time is 6:15. 6:15 AM. 6:15 in the morning.
d) This wake-up time is 6:15 in the morning EVERY DAY.
e) No one else is complaining about this!

Can you ever, even in your wildest possible dreams (dreams of the sort that are induced by the infiltration of Unchained Melody, for example) imagine a college in the United States that would not be met with a massive student uprising if it tried something along these lines?

Perhaps the daily military training that male sophomores are required to participate in is the school’s means of preventing such a student revolt. Thanks to morning marching drills, I am often actually awoken just a little before 6:15 by a ten-hut chorus of Yi! Er! San! Si!, ensuring that I am sentient enough to fully savor my Righteous Brothers wake-up call a few minutes later. However, in the unlucky circumstance that I might have missed the fist stanza because I am having a hard time pulling myself away from my restless, noise-infected dreams (about Ritz crackers that will light up if you plug them into light sockets and hanging out with Nicky Hilton, to name a few), I never have to fear: I can make up for the missed stanza and hear the song in its entirety when it plays again at noon!

Yep. At noon. It’s lunchtime, you see, and some students might not have a watch or a stomach, so the school kindly reminds them that it is time to take a break and feed themselves with another round of Unchained Melody.

Thankfully, especially considering my proclivity towards ear worms, the school sticks to the instrumental version of the song. Still, it’s not a short song. And I don’t need the words to remind me that time goes by so slowly and time can mean so much. Seriously, it‘s a sentiment that never rang truer than it does at 6:15 on a Beijing morning.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Beijing Dispatch

It's 8:44am on the start of my sixth full day in Beijing, and it feels really late because Mark and I have been falling in bed as early as 9 and waking up around 6. The days are exhausting, exciting, new, hard and long and the mornings come early because China wakes up at the crack of dawn. Many mornings, even on a Sunday, we hear the sounds of marching coming from the students doing military training on campus, and all students are required to attend morning exercises at 6am.

We kind of live out in the sticks--we have a map of urban Beijing and the Beijing Sports University is literally the last dot on the top left corner of the map. To get from our place to my school takes about 45 minutes in a taxi (and costs a whopping $2.50!). But that's mainly because of traffic—without it, the ride is only about 20 minutes. I think it's equivalent to, say, living in Queens and working in Manhattan. It's definitely a world away from my old Beijing neighborhood, with its Subway sandwiches and many street lights, its multitude of DVD stores and the expensive supermarket at the nearby fancy Western hotel where I could treat myself to delicacies like vegan margarine and Heinz baked beans.

Here, we are definitely the only Westerners walking around the streets, which means that this neighborhood, with its dirt and rough edges, is probably really good news for me. I keep worrying about how Mark will do, but he assures me that he’s taken a liking to our new digs. The campus itself is really pretty—green and quiet and filled with students wearing sports attire. It’s a nice respite from the extreme bustle of downtown Beijing. And there are dumplings made to order, and 20oz beers for 25 cents, and any fruit or vegetable you could ever imagine for pennies at the nearby market.

My Chinese is pathetic. Seriously. I get incredibly tongue tied speaking to strangers and my vocabulary is practically non-existent. I have hope that it will all come flooding back to me when classes start, but for now I sound like a toddler being strangled. This is especially unfortunate because we’ve had to tackle a whole range of unanticipated challenges, mostly in terms of our apartment, and things would have been faster, if not easier, if I my Chinese was better.

That said, I don’t think I ever knew how to say “There is a flood in my bathroom every time I take a shower because the floor is not angled toward the drain properly,” or “How do you plan to extract the Rock of Gibraltar from the pipe that leads to the sink?” This vocabulary is really important because the building that we live in is new, and all the marvels of modern Chinese construction are on display. For example, the aforementioned pipe for the sink: it was leaking, so we complained. In response, a man of average strength and size came and pulled the sink of the wall using just his bare hands in a maneuver that lasted approximately three seconds. After this sturdy structure had been removed, and the inside of the pipe made visible, and it became clear that there was a serious blockage in the pipe, one that could not even be slightly penetrated by a man of average size slamming the metal end of a broomstick using all of his average strength. Literal rocks, accompanied by lots of dust, came out of the pipe, but still the end of the broom stick could enter the pipe no more than an inch.

I was confused—how could there be such a blockage in a new pipe, in a new building, especially when our apartment is on the top floor? But Mark figured it out in an instant: the people constructing the building had clearly poured their leftover cement down the drain and it had dried there. This ingenious construction site cleaning technique stunned us momentarily, but was almost immediately rivaled by the action taken when we told the man working on our bathroom that the drain on our bathroom floor was also clogged. We watched in (diminishing) astonishment as he extracted the drain from the floor and then proceeded to clean it over the sink, washing handfuls of hair down the drain of the sink.

So, we’re living and learning, my friends. We’re taking things one step (and one drain) at a time.

* * * *

One of the many other blocks over which I have stumbled this last week is the discovery that Blogger is blocked in China. While I can still access the main site to post, I can’t view my blog, or any others on Blogspot, or on several other blog hosting sites. More importantly, nobody else here in China can easily view my blog. This discovery shocked and depressed me—the last time I lived here I had no difficulty accessing virtually any site. But I should have done my homework better; apparently Blogger has been blocked in China for the last three years.

So, I am trying to decide what approach to take with my blog. I am considering paying to get it hosted with some kind of webpage provider, but I am so utterly inexperienced with this kind of thing that I don’t know how, or how quickly, I will manage to do this. I would love to hear any suggestions that anyone might have. For now, I think I will continue to post here for now, but I just wanted to give a heads-up that I hope to migrate soon.