Monthly Archives: February 2011

Hot Coke and Ginger

To me, it sounds like something spiked – something I wouldn’t trust.  When it was served to us at a small restaurant off the trail to one of the sections of the great wall, it looked like a brothy soup.

In China meals are almost exclusively served family style. Show up at a restaurant, and your group will be seated and presented with one picture filled menu – whereupon you decide together what you’ll all have for dinner. Then, throughout the evening various dishes will arrive at your table and served just like your mom would – as they’re ready and hot.  You then spend the meal picking with your chopsticks at various dishes – sometimes using a little plate you’re given to dish up a proper portion for yourself. But usually not. It’s a family thing.

After a winter hike on the great wall this weekend, our guided tour treated the group at a local restaurant where, among other traditional dishes, we were served a bowl of piping hot…. Coke. Like I said. I thought it was soup. When our little bowls were passed around and I tasted it, it was indeed warmed Coca-Cola, seasoned with ginger and a few other spices.

Amazingly enough it was actually kind of good! Something you might have at Christmas – like a mulled-wine or spiced cider. Of course all the carbonation had been fizzed out of it in heating, and to my tongue it was a bit syrupy, but the concept was quite unique and not unpleasant.  I was told it was a common beverage served during the spring festival and cold winter months.  As my feet were thoroughly soaked and cold from melted snow on the hike, it didn’t go unappreciated.

Someone else told me there was also a chilled version of the drink that is very nice in the summer – iced coke and ginger, where it’s served cold and similarly spiced.  I’ll get back to you in a few months about this one.



Filed under food, out and about, seasons - winter

One day I’ll wake up and….

I sometimes have the feeling that one morning I’ll just wake up and be able to speak and understand Chinese fluently.

This is, of course absurd.  Chinese, like any language, requires an immense amount of rote study and memorization.  In a lot of ways, Chinese is worse than most languages. The list of characters, although limited, must just be memorized. There are some clues to their meaning sometimes, but in the end, there’s no way around the heaps of memorization.

Why, you might ask, do I have this feeling? That someday I’ll just be able to speak it – or at least understand it?  This is what I mean.

There are roughly 12,000 syllables in the English language (this is by no means a scientific answer, but just my quick online research). Some are less frequently used, but for the most part English has a fairly varied phonetic structure, and leaves room for a number of ways to arrange letters to form a sound. Most letters can form both the beginning and ends of syllables (pal as well as lap are legitimate syllables), most consonants are allowed to be grouped together (squawk), and both vowels and consonants are legitimate beginners and enders of syllables.

Chinese, however, is much more strict. Only certain letters are allowed to be at the beginning of syllables and only certain ones at the end (usually a vowel, n or ng). The number of syllables that exist in chinese therefore shrinks down to around 400. 400 syllables – for an entire language!

But here’s the rub. Chinese is what we call a tonal language. Which means, if you say “Shi” with a vocal inflection upward, downward, flat, or down-then-up you can be communicating to your unsuspecting Chinese friend one of some 82 different meanings. 82! There are four different tonal marks for any syllable, and often (even usually) the same syllable with the same tonal mark can mean a few different things depending on context.

I dare you to check this out. Go to this website , and type in, say ‘shi’, and see what meanings you get out. Some two-thirds of the way down the list in the ‘falling tone’ mark you’ll see “is, are, am, yes, to be” – which is the most common meaning, along with, the number 10,  and “o’clock”.  You will notice though, that although the syllable you hear may be the same, there are again a multitude of different characters than can convey this sound when read.  It’s no easy feat.

Also, you can look at this site, which is an amateur, but fairly reasonable attempt to list out all the possible Chinese syllables. They can fit on your screen in one browser page!

What I’m getting at is this: for the untrained ear, (one that isn’t good at hearing the tones in the language – and let me tell you — It’s a trick!) when you listen to Chinese – you don’t hear too many sounds.  Along with this, I don’t usually get the impression that verbal creativity holds very much import.

In English the variety of the language lends to creative ways to say essentially the same thing, and thus makes it a very resourceful and imaginative tongue.  Chinese on the other hand, elevates the power of simplicity – the elegance of directness.  There simply isn’t such an overwhelming vocabulary in Chinese, and it seems ‘high-use’ words fill most of conversation.

So, if I just keep listening, (and golly I do a lot of listening!) one day I should be able to wake up and … you know… pretty much understand it!  Here’s to hoping!


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City in Hiding

It’s official (my official conclusion). Beijing is unofficially (Beijing seems to be unaware of it) going into hiding.

I say this because for the last couple of days Beijing has become the victim of an enveloping haze.  City officials are apparently completely unaware, as the weather forecast (according to the official report printed and posted in the elevator of my building. How more official do you want?) indicates clear skies. It is not clear.  Au contraire, the city is slowly disappearing. The worst part is, no one seems to know why.

Sunday morning I was unable to see any kind of appreciable ‘skyline’. By the evening I couldn’t see more than a couple of blocks. Since this morning, I have been unable to see the buildings directly behind the first line of high-rise apartments on the opposite side of my street.  For the last two days you could have seen the sun clearly, but now there’s only an orange disk in the sky – like a floating egg yolk.

If the city weather committee are saying it’s ‘clear’, which, see for yourself from the photos it’s not, what is going on?  Smog? I am dubious. No doubt Beijing has its ample share of pollution and micro-particulates clogging our lungs and dusting every available surface. But if the smog were this thick, everything would have a yellowish tint. No. It doesn’t look grimy enough to be smog.

There’s no significant cloud cover – at least from what I can tell.  This weather seems to be for city-cloaking devices only.

My only thought is perhaps it’s some kind of dust-storm. I asked a local, and he didn’t think so.

“No – when Beijing gets sand storms, everything is covered in a thin layer of yellow-ish dust,” he answered.

This would imply the cloud would have a yellow tint. Which it does not.

Well folks. I don’t know what it is. The only thing I can say is, I hope we get some wind soon!

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Waiting for Spring

Walking around the park in the winter -- waiting for summer.

Beijing is mostly a summer city. Although it has lovely sections year round, it’s really about the summer when you can sit in the parks, go out on the lakes in the little boats, and enjoy walking through the temples. Most public attractions are, for all intense and purposes, outside.

This is a picture from Huhai lake, an area just to the north-west of the Forbidden City. In the winter people skate on the lakes, and even more commonly, use poles to scoot around on chairs with runners.  Now that it’s the end of February, as the ice gets a little less thick, I feel more and more that we’re all just waiting for spring. Summer dresses, and no more bulky winter coats.

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Filed under seasons - winter

The Russians Are Here

“Как вы сегодня?” he said to me.

The funny thing about Russian is – if you’re not expecting it and someone says just one phrase to you – it’s not overtly obvious that it’s not English. At least for a sentence that short.

“Excuse me?” I replied. I had just finished a long workout and was headed back up to my room to take a much-needed shower. Self-conscious of my smell, I took care to keep my arms down, hoping it would stop the odor from wafting up in the now crowded elevator.

“Angliĭskoĭ” he returned “uh – English?”.

“American” I replied – not sure if he’d asked my nationality or my language due to his thick accent.

“Ah, where do you live?” he said, after taking a moment to consciously switch over to speaking English.

“Here — ”.

“Yes – but I mean. In Amerika –”

It always sounds so Old World when people use America as a noun. The states, the US – both common words with which we lovingly call home. But America? It sounds like you’re getting off the boat at Elis Island. Since it is technically the description of all the land from those wanna-be’s to the north we affectionately call Canadians, to the ancestral lands of the Aztecks.

He’s was 50-something with that slightly wrinkly but completely hair-free kind of sturdy older man look that gives the strong impression he still has the juice of a 25 year-old. It looked like he and his slightly younger (40’s) associate were on a real-estate tour with a middle-aged Chinese woman. The fact that I’d walked on the elevator seemed to completely disrupt his conversation with the other two. The Chinese lady, after a quick glance at me, continued on her conversation with the other man, almost as if she was irritated that I’d caused the disruption.

Don’t look at me! I just want to take a shower! I thought.

“But where in Amerika are you from?” he asked, only to draw out this awkward moment.

“Minnesota – up north”  (If you must know. We’re Sister-Cities with one of your coldest Siberian cities – probably because we both have something for that insane cold.)  “Are you living in Beijing?”

“Yes. We have buzinezz,” he said to me while glancing over at his partner.

I don’t know if his friend really looked at me, or if it was just across the elevator at his older associate. If he did, it wasn’t for more than a half a second, but in that quick glance, and the one he gave his partner, I saw that “I know where this goes” kind of look. The ‘you’re as ruthless as a saber-tooth tiger, and as mean as a mama bear separated from her cub, but the minute a skirt walks by, you completely lose all focus’. The ‘I think you’re a fool, but there’s no stopping you’ kind of look.

“Well” I said as the doors started to open to my floor, “I hope you’re not too rich, or too powerful. I would imagine it a great weakness that your Achilles heal is so obvious.”  Unfriendly men would know all too easily how to manipulate you.

I left the cramped feeling elevator with a nod to his associate in a ‘good day’ kind of way and walked down my hall.  I laughed a little to myself because no one from their group had remembered to call their floor. The irritated agent leaned across the two men and pressed the button when she realized the absentee mistake.

Epilogue: All this is true. Except for my parting comment. It was exactly what I was thinking, but my floor wasn’t high enough up to make the ride long enough, to give me chance enough to say it. But how often do we get to say just what we’re thinking?

It is not too much of a surprise to run into a few Russians, and not even a Russian speaking Chinese lady. There is a substantial Russian community here in Beijing. Of course, as Beijing is the governmental center of China, all the embassies are in this city so in general there are a variety of ex-pats. However Russia, I imagine because of its strong ties of old, has probably the largest single body of foreigners.  Indeed, a good deal of Russians give the impression they’re second generation, and that they’re here to stay. (But don’t quote me. This isn’t a body of people I interact with too much).

There’s a whole section of Beijing, not too far from where I live, that is basically Little Moscow. There’s an entire shopping mall filled with shops that cater to Russians (furs!) and Russian restaurants. The whole area of town even advertises its shop wares in Russian, not Chinese or English.  It’s an awful strong nod to the days of not too long ago when China and Russia were palls and the West, specifically the US, were the enemy.

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Filed under china, life in china

Why I struggle to write chinese (reason #14)

My handwriting can be described as ‘school boy’ at best. Not in any way what I would think of as feminine. The grace and elegance I once tried to cultivate in other areas of my life have somehow eluded me when it comes to my pen.

This is of course nothing unique to me, when you consider it in light of my generation of techies. Where once school marms spent hours on the proper instruction of penmanship, I remember being set behind computer programs like “Mavis Beacon.” I scrambled to punch in numbers for an imaginary conveyor belt of food item prices, and fumble for the correct keys while trying to out-type an imaginary opponent in a virtual race-car that ran on words per minute instead of gasoline.

Needless to say, learning to type took over the time that would have been spent in the practice of attractive penmanship.  It’s more than that though. My typing speed outstripped my handwriting in those early years before adolescence, and now I find it ever so tedious to use a pen and paper – which means I avoid all practice. When it comes to writing out thoughts and stories – a pen is out of the question. Thinking is  easier when not hindered by the medium being used to record it.

Lately, I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend more time studying Chinese.  With the study of Chinese comes of course the study of the characters. Oh China, how you do torture me!  When I was studying French at least I could spell out the word, even if I hadn’t a clue what it meant. If I wanted to do more than just pronounce it I could easily look up anything in a dictionary. Chinese, on the other hand, seems very much a binary kind of language. You either know it or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, ya ain’t gonna fool no one.

You really do start from the bottom with Chinese. Although learning to read has always been difficult this is an entirely different planet. You either know it or you don’t. No sounding it out like a pussy. To it’s credit, once you’ve learned the first 500 basic symbols, there aren’t going to be too many more unknown words to you. Unlike in English, you’re much less likely to stumble across random words like sesquipedalian and poppysmic. Linguistic creativity is an art the Chinese language doesn’t look highly upon.

“You think Chinese is hard!!” my mandarin teacher told us once in class.

“You make English sooooo dIIficult!! Why so complicated!? Chandelier, giraffe?! All these extra words. In Chinese, we don’t have chANdelEAr. We use ‘fancy lamp’. And Giraffe!! What is girAAffe? We just have ‘long-necked deer’. So simple! You only need to learn first set of characters, and you know all language”.

It’s true. I never once sat in Chinese and thought ‘Dang. I wish they’d make it simple like English.’ It is all rather straightforward. That is, if you’ve got the rote memorization thing down.  That is a skill I, as a physicist, eschewed in my undergraduate career. Unfortunately. It’s also a skill that is no longer cultivated in American schools, and as a result…  I have a lot of practice to do.

So if you’ll excuse me…  I need to go memorize a list of characters.

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The Trial of Toiletry Purchasing

For the last couple of weeks every time I get into bed my body begins to itch violently from extreme dryness. Last night, before I could fall asleep, I filled my last lucid thoughts of how delicious it would feel to have a bath in a tub of olive oil.  The green grassy smell and the soothing quality of the ointment.

I’ve used handfuls of lotion lately but it doesn’t seem to help.  I’ve found the dryness of my skin is considerably worse after I’ve been in the chlorinated pool and hot tub.  No matter how I shower afterward to remove the chlorine, or the amount of lotion I lather on, I cannot find reprieve.

There is a scrub at my parent’s house that I would die to have here – I think it’s sugar  in a rich oily base.  There it seemed a bit excessive but here it would be perfect.

“So go out and get something,” you say.  I would, I’ve looked. But all the toiletry bottles only have  descriptions in Chinese. There is sometimes a two-word phrase on a bottle of whatever that gives the most basic sign of what it might be – conditioner, shampoo – but in general the mystery is so deep when it comes to personal hygiene products that it’s quite baffling.

I wanted a leave in conditioner for my hair, as it too is suffering, but I always find that ones that contain alcohol always do more damage. Good luck figuring that out on an ingredients label!

Next time you’re standing in the shower look at a bottle of shampoo and think how hard it might be to figure out if it was all printed in Chinese characters!

I ended up getting a brand I recognized of something-or-other, that was in a bottle I remembered seeing in the states, but who knows what it really was. Perhaps “hair straightener, guaranteed to strip all moisture out of hair and leave it stick straight”?

I consoled myself with the fact that most conditioners do about the same thing, it’s more how you use them.  When have you ever read a bottle that says something you don’t want?  “Moisturizing curls”, “silky smooth”, “weather repair” – in the end you realize it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not really the bottle of hair relaxer.

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Filed under china, life in china, shopping

Translating Your Money’s Worth

If you wish to save money, I’d suggest a job in China (one with a salary paid at western rates).  Expenses in China are relatively low – if you know where to buy and how to manage things.

You can get lodging for about 100-200 euros a month (I think that these places must not have western style toilets and the like… but if you WANT to live cheap… ).  Transportation is also quite cheap – 20 cents on the subway will get you wherever you want, except the airport, which is a comparatively extravagant at 2.50.  And if you aren’t above native fair, a tasty all-in-one dinner of noodles and vegetables can be found for an easy dollar(or less).  (All prices rounded and converted, for the readers convenience).

There are, of course ways to make life more expensive, but even if you frequent Starbucks the prices are cheaper than the same drink in Europe. But if you know where to shop, a months worth of food can be financed on 100 kuai – or 10 euros.  (Again, I round a little, for convenience. The above prices are generally given in euros, as it is about a 10/1 conversion. Add 20% for a USD).

If you want to buy western products and live off western style food, it will be more expensive, naturally, but not necessarily that much more than a typical allowance in the states.  Western products can often be twice the price as the same item found in europe or the US, but if you can use a local brand, life turns out to be quite cheap – and those indulgences that make life sweeter. You can eat dinner at a nice restaurant for $20, where the same meal could easily be 50 bucks back home.

Price Difference:

If you hand a 100 Kuai (~10 euro) note over at a grocery store, the cashier will sometimes check up to 3 marks of qualification to make sure of its legitimacy.  The note won’t even be excepted, but with some grumbling, by a taxi driver in the later hours of the evening (the 100 RMB note is the most commonly counterfeit bill).

An interesting situation arises when you start to become more familiar with the currency. As a merchant one would never look twice at a $20 note in the US – it’s too small for counterfeiters to make a meaningful profit on, and is relatively safe from that perspective. Twenty bucks is still a small enough currency to be quite missed, but not mourned, were it to be lost (depending, of course, one one’s own salary).  Comparatively, a 100 RMB is 1/10th the yearly salary of a well positioned professional Chinese, in a western company.

When I think about this, I begin to feel a bit differently about the note than just its immediate conversion value. I value a 20 dollar bill, and am sorry when it’s gone, but this is a larger amount of money than a 100 Kuai, and the 100 Kuai seems even more important.

It’s similar to when you learn a second language – at a certain point you stop translating words literally, and begin to have a feel for them in their own right. You stop using equivalence in your head, (“Ein bisschien = a little”) but start to feel the meaning of the word in its own language. I no doubt have a deflated sense of worth for the RMB than most Chinese, but I have started to notice a valuation of the money in it’s own right, separate from that of its USD equivalency.

Before I leave this note, I realize I should be more specific in the words I use for Chinese currency.  Kuai is the local Chinese measure word for ‘a dollar’ (“Ni you liang kuai ma” = “Do you have 2 RMB”), however the official term is the Yuan, and the more ‘financial’ term is the RMB (short for Renmenbi). Kaui = dollar, mao = dime, etc.

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Filed under life in china, money, price of living

Sugar, Tahini Paste, and Honey


The extent of baking in China - steamed dumplings

I could never find Tahini paste at the grocery store in Minneapolis.  There was one time, where I found it at a store far from where I normally shopped (and was amazed at how expensive it was), but never did I succeed in finding it at the Rainbow down the street.


I found it today.  It was next to the honey.  Perhaps that is where I was amiss before.  I was never to think it should be kept near the honey, jam and peanut butter. (If you’re not the ‘chef’ type, you may not be aware that Tahini paste, something made from mashing sesame seeds, is often used as a seasoning in things like humus and other eastern dishes.  Generally nothing at all to do with the toppings of ones morning toast.)

This is often a problem I find.  I think it is likely a result of having people stock shelves that don’t read English. There comes a product they can only make out from it’s label or shape and not knowing directly what it is or may be used for, they place it near other products that are shaped similarly and have similar pictures or writing. As it happens, the tahini paste was in a bottle very similar to the honey next to it. Even I, a native English speaker, had to take a second look to make sure it was what I thought it was, because it seemed to fit in so nicely.

It is always a trick to figure out a new grocery store. Like the Chinese alphabet, there is not always an obvious way with which to categorize items. Tahini, for instance, might go near the spice rack with other  seasonings.  Or perhaps with ethnic foods. One never does know, even at a traditional store in the middle of Minneapolis.

I remember once reading a book about a boy who gets stranded out in the woods after a plane crash, and he describes how he finally succeeds in hunting a certain type of ground fowl.  Instead of trying to recognize their color and feathers the way we superficially would try and find a human being in the forest, he learns to search for their shape and outline.  I will have to be prudent of this technique when I go shopping for something similarly obscure.

Or maybe not so obscure.

Sugar, for instance, I would look for in a baking isle.  This doesn’t exist in most Chinese supermarkets, and certainly not the one in the basement of my own building. The closest china gets to a traditional  baked item is a little muffin like bun that is steamed.

I once saw some baking mixes – cakes and brownies kind of thing – next to the bags of rice. There is a reasonable population of expats that live in this building, so I think the supermarket in the basement tries to somewhat cater to the market. But the sugar wasn’t in sight.

Interestingly enough I quite randomly found, for who would think to look there, frosting (the kind that Pillsbury produces in those little cylindrical jars) in an isle next to teas and coffees. Sugar wasn’t next to frosting either.  It turned out it was in its own section, next to soup mixes and fish seasonings and, get this, giant bags of MSG (again, they both look quite similar both being white crystals, and come in the same clear plastic bags).

Interestingly enough there was an enormous selection of sugars! Tablespoon sized mono-crystal sugar, almost syrupy thick brown sugar, raw sugar, large clumps of small sugary crystals, and dozens of different brands of normal granulated white sugar, all in similarly sized packets and going at the same prices.  It was a great surprise to me, once I did find it. I’d been looking for sugar the day before and had succeeded in finding only those individual packets or cubes with coffee and tea stuffs.

(Having decided on sugar cubes, thinking they must be useful ways to prevent the need of an extra spoon, later realized that the downfall is… quite obviously …. Sugar cubes are quantized, and so one cannot take but a pre-determined serving sized dose, no matter the smallness of ones cup of tea that is in need of sweetening. So be forewarned, if you have ventured to read this far, that although charming, you might find yourself wanting to sweeten a very small amount of tea, with a very large amount of sugar.  I’ll close my parentheses now).

When you move to a new place, there’s always a learning curve associated with figuring out where the nearest Target is, and where to find your usual items in the local grocery store. As of course you would expect, this curve exists when you move overseas.  It’s sometimes a bit more entertaining – if you’ll give yourself the chance to see it that way.

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Filed under food, life in china

China’s Diabolical Weather Scheme

Remember that movie (was it  X-Men?  Or another comic-book movie?) where the villain is controlling the weather — sending horrific hurricanes and scary snow storms to a city that has attempted to defy his power?

It all sounds a bit science-fiction-y, but yesterday China ended a 3+ month drought with it’s very own seeded snowfall.

I haven’t yet written my  laments about how incredibly dry this city is. I go to bed itching all over – in spite of the fact that I’ve practically bathed in body lotion.

It really was an amazing show. The night before everything you could feel the moisture in the air, then when the city woke up the next day there was a layer of 3-4 inches of snow, and steady flakes coming down, quite literally out of the blue.

This artificial snow fall (which was the first precipitation of any kind since the end of October) ended (or was part of?) the worst dry spell some parts of this region in China have seen in 60 years.

But Do Not Fear! China is working on perfecting their weather control capabilities! Zhang Qiang, head of the municipal artificial weather intervention office, (I want that title!) said his team has been seeding clouds with rockets containing the silver iodide material the last couple days, using (and get this!) Anti-Aircraft guns. I knew there was a peaceful use for those things. Just imagine what they could do with nuclear war heads!

You can see an official news article on the topic here.  The article also notes that it was a controversy to use this step  — last year the city was a veritable mess over the uncontrollable man-induced snowfall.

Beijing isn’t a city you want to get stuck with a lot of snow because there’s no infrastructure to deal with it (Think NYC in those blizzards).  Last year in the governments attempt to stop the drought caused it to snow almost continuously for weeks (ask the locals about the account and they start shaking in their boots over the stress and confusion it brings back).

They don’t have snowplows here, so instead they get whole troops of men to go out on the highway with large boards,  and by staggering them out across the lanes, they scoop up the snow with the boards and slowly clear the highways.

Thankfully, for the sake of the traffic, the roads were busy enough all evening to keep any significant snow from sticking to the roads.

As soon as I woke up I could see dozens of little men running around with brooms, or shovels or any improvised tool clearing snow from walkways, and later from any imaginably dangerous horizontal surface (I even saw men on the roofs of the buildings across from me, cleaning off what might cause a leak later).

Overall, the drought looks to be a bit of a bigger mess than the snow that had to be cleared yesterday afternoon.  The winter wheat crop seems to be almost non-existent. If you are a betting man, I’d short grain, as it looks like China may be going out on the market to supplement it’s own desperately lacking supply.

See this article on the dire circumstances that we’re facing here.


Filed under life in china, man made weather