Sunday, July 04, 2010

Back in the States

It's my first morning back in the States. I wake up early and go to a nearby park. I notice how their are so many trees here in the suburbs of Washington DC

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Blogspot Censored in China!

Since May, users of blogspot in China haven't been able to post. Many assume that this had to do with the 20th anniversary of the events at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989.

So, for those of you who have missed my blog posts--now you know.

Unfortunately, blogspot is still blocked in China. Tonight, I did a little research on the net and found a workaround and hope I can continue to use it.

To any of you who don't already know--while Chinese culture is beautiful and the great majority of Chinese people are kind and giving people--the government here is a racket.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Communist Party Member Infiltration

Yesterday, my English class was infiltrated by a member of the Communist Party Propaganda Committee. I don't know how he got in there. Here's what happened.

I was teaching an intermediate English class and the topic was "customs". We started by talking about customs of different cultures ("In Spain, people eat dinner late", "In Korea, diners slurp their noodles", etc.). And so for the speaking activity, I asked my students to pretend that they were giving a presentation to foreigners visiting China. What advice would they give foreigners to make their stay go more smoothly? What customs are specific to China that would be important for foreigners to learn about?

My students began their presentations. Bring a gift if you are invited to dinner. Give a red envelope if you are invited to a wedding. If you are a man and go on a date with a girl, pay for dinner. All very helpful.

And then suddenly, one student started telling us about another "custom" in China. He says: "In China, do not cut in line. You must wait in line."

This is a traditional custom in China? This is something that is different from Western culture that foreign visitors must learn about?

I almost fell to the ground laughing. I think after falling to the ground laughing, I would have begun crying from laughing too much. But I restrained myself.

I thought about all the times Chinese people have cut in front of me here. In stores, waiting in line for the subway, buying tickets. I have become used to it, and I don't even get upset about it anymore. It is just part of life here in China. Once, when I politely asked the guy in line behind me why a woman just cut in line he said: "When you live in China for more time, you will understand."

And so, how do I respond to the Communist Party member who has infiltrated my class? I tell him that "waiting in line" is not a traditional custom in China. I tell him that it is quite common for people to cut in line here. Despite the government's trying to educate people to "civilize" (wenming) themselves, people still spit and people still butt in line. Yes, this is government propaganda, but not a "traditional Chinese custom".

And so, as the teacher, I correct him. I tell him, "If you are giving advice to foreigners, here is what you can say: 'In China, when you wait in line, sometimes people will try to cut in, but don't get upset--just politely tell them to wait in line.'"

The Communist Party member operative who had snuck into my class was finished. It was time to hear the next presentation and learn about some more beautiful, strange Chinese customs.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Baseball Reflexes on Beijing Streets

Today, as I was walking on the streets of Beijing, I made two saves.

As I was walking near Ditan Park this afternoon, two boy were driving in their motorized cart when I bottle of water (one of many) came tumbling down. They stopped their cart and one of them got off. As the water was rolling toward me, I grabbed it and then I tossed it across the street into the arms of the boy. It was just like making a doubleplay in little league. The bottle looked like it bounced off of the boys chest and that he wasn't going to catch it, but he made his own save. He smiled and said thanks.

Then, later in the day, a women is playing with a golf ball in front of her shop when it gets away. I step forward to catch it and then walk up to her and give it back. She tell me in English: "Thanks!"

The Shitty Fruit Stand

In front of my apartment there's a small fruit stand, the Shitty Fruit Stand. Most of the fruit I get there is a waste of my money.

For example, the bananas, even when fully ripened, still taste like they're still green. I love mangoes, so for me it's torture to eat the shitty mangoes at the Shitty Fruit Stand. While they're beautiful on the outside, and even beautiful on the inside, they taste like shit. Their flesh is soft and gleaming in the light streaming into my kitchen, but when I bite into them, I'm always disappointed. They're slightly sweet. Do you know anyone who wants to eat a "slightly" sweet mango? I want my mangoes supersweet and tangy (which is why I'll never forget my first bite that I even took of a mango when I went to Florida on a trip with my grandmother when I was twelve).

The tangerines. Well, I'm not even going to talk about the tangerines at the Shitty Fruit Stand. The other day, I went through about four of them, peeling them, biting into them and then spitting them out. They were all very dry and tasted like fertilizer. Nevertheless, since I am a hopeful kind of guy, I kept trying them in hopes that I would get a good one. My hopes, however, were dashed.

Oh, by they way. The papayas are shitty, too. They taste like potatoes. I'm going to boil them and mash them and add butter and salt. I'll bet they'll taste great like that served with a steak.

I am sure my eighty year-old neighbor (who likes to look for recycling in the common trash can on our floor where everyone throws away their trash) wonders why I always throw fruit away. Last week, though, instead of throwing the tangerines away, I brought the ones I had leftover back to the old woman who works at the stand. "They taste bad," I say. She takes them and start to weigh them to figure out how much credit I should get for them. "Just give me a banana, that'll be fine," I say. So, she gives me a shitty banana and I'm on my way.

The other day, I found another fruit stand not too far from my house and bought some strawberries from them. They were sweet! They tasted like real strawberries! They weren't shitty!

And so today, on my way home, in the mood for fruit, I decided to head to this new fruit stand. The Non-Shitty Fruit Stand.

I pick up some bananas and the woman immediately asks what else I would like. This is Chinese service for you, very different from what we are used to in the West. I tell her I don't know what else I would like, I still need to look around.

There are some papayas, and I pick one. I pick up some mangoes and strawberries as well. I pay for them, put them into the basket of my bike and ride home, anticipating a fine fruit salad.

After I walk into my apartment, I put the fruit down on my kitchen counter. I pour some water in a bowl and dump the strawberries in it. Then, I hastily grab a banana and I chop it up using the only knife I have--a chef's chopping knife. I pretend I am a Chinese chef and chop it into 100 (well, almost 100) thin slices and throw them into some tupperware. Then, I grab a few strawberries and chop them up with the same pseudo-masterful technique and add them to the bananas. (Of course, I have to sample the berries and they are sweet. They're not rotten!).

It's time to get a mango. I cut it up and as I slice it into the salad, I sample some and I am practically on the floor writhing in ecstasy. It's been so long since I've tasted a real mango. I guess I'm too used to eating "pirated" mangoes (if you live in China and you've ever watched a DVD here, you know what I am talking about).

I notice in my haste to make my fruit salad that I'm still wearing my backpack, but I don't take it off. I finish my salad by chopping up the papaya. I mix all the fruit together and begin eating.

My ecstasy continues and I wonder why I've bought so much fruit at the Shitty Fruit Stand. Was it because it was so convenient? Because of that old woman's smile? Or maybe was I worried that I would get "caught" bringing in fruit from other stands as I entered my building?

I don't know the answer, but I do know one thing. I don't think I'll ever go back to Shitty Fruit Stand again.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Spring in Beijing

Two weeks ago, suddenly, it started snowing lightly in Beijing and I dug up my wool hat. Spring has been teasing us, as it surely has since humans began experiencing it (before that, who was Spring without her admirers?).

Returning from Israel last week, the last of those snowflakes have melted and I can walk around in a short-sleeves shirt (except for that wind). Spring, as Chinese people say, is like a stepmother. Sometimes oh so nice, and sometimes evil. This of course fits with the view of it in traditional Chinese Medicine. Both the wind and Spring are manifestations of the wood element, always growing and coursing nervously like the new branches, erratic).

Today, I am in Northeastern Beijing, Wangjing, and it's snowing again! Except this time it's pollen that is snowing. I've never seen anything like it. I'm not talking about a few dandelions shedding their seeds in the wind. It's like millions of dandelion seeds in the air. Honestly, Hollywood could come here and film a few heartwarming Christmas films (It's a Wonderful Life with Chinese Characteristics and Kaoya Roasting on an Open Fire).

This is poplar pollen. I'm in a Sichuan restaurant eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup and people walk in with specks of poplar pollen covering their hair. A girl walks by with her hand covering her face. It's particularly bad in this neighborhood.

Taking a cab back to the subway, I point to some floating in his car and the driver tells me it will all be gone in a few weeks.

The Stumbling Son

I'm in a taxi and we stop at the light. I see a thin old man with grey-white hair and his taller thirty-something son walk arm in arm slowly across the street.

I'm always amazed at how integral xiaoshun (孝順, filial piety) is to Chinese people, that a grown man would be walking his father across the street. I remember returning to the States and walking with my grandmother across a parking lot to go into a shopping mall. I instinctively held her arm. In that way, perhaps China has changed me.

I watch them cross and then upon closer examination, I realize the young man isn't walking his father across the street at all. I see that the young man has difficulty walking and his face is slightly distorted, tilted, and has a haze as if he has some musculoskeletal disease.

The father, however, walks upright with clear eyes, guiding his son as they slowly make the trek. As they approach the curve at the other side, the son stumbles a little over his own two feet and his father supports him, as he surely has been for a very long time.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Taiji Corrections

I'm doing taiji "cloud hands" near my building and a neighbor walks by me. I say good morning to her, a short woman with white hair, probably in her seventies. She smiles back at me and says something in Chinese. I don't catch it and ask again. "手跟着眼睛走," she says. ("Your eyes should follow your hands.")

I thank her for reminding me and practice the technique over again, the correct way.

The New Leaves of Spring

I get a text message from my friend Michael who lives in Beijing: "It's nice to see the trees are getting leaves!" I reply: "My English is getting pretty bad, too!"

Despite my joke-making, I wake up this morning (after the first spring rain) and notice that all the trees do have leaves on them, and it brings a sense of relief (yeah!), a burst of joy (yeah!), and hope (yeah!) to my heart.

I wake up and after my cup of tea and bowl of oatmeal, go outside to do my daily set of taiji. People walking in my neighborhood walk by and stare with perplexed looks and they sometimes smile.

Surrounding me is a yard full of trees and I notice their tiny leaves are just beginning to sprout. As I am doing doing taiji, I notice an old man behind me walk into the yard with a plastic bag. The yard is usually messy, filled with trash, and I am happy because it looks like he wants to clean up a little. But as I continue my set, I notice he's not cleaning up at all.

He walks up to a small tree with small greenish-purplish leaves and starts picking them and putting them into his bag. I assume he is just going to pick a few leaves, but he keeps picking.

I am curious and instinctively, want to stop him. I want to "protect" those young leaves. I stop my taiji. I wonder what he wants to do, maybe take the pickings home and grow them in glasses of water or something.

I decide to continue doing my taiji, but then I notice that he keeps picking those leaves. All those new young leaves are almost gone!

I stop my taiji and turn around to him. "Good morning!" I say. He is short, in his 70s, with white hair and thick-rimmed black glasses. He looks over to me. I ask him politely what he is doing and he tells me that you can eat these leaves. "Fried eggs," he tells me. They are good with fried eggs!

I ask him what that name of the plant is. He tells me and I thank him and go back to taiji.

He's finished picking leaves. I turn back again and look at the tree. It's bare and only the top most bunch of small leaves are left.

I guess someone will have some tasty eggs for the next few days.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Turkish Flavor

I flew Turkish Airlines to Israel and enjoyed getting a taste of the Mediterranean even before I got there. I have to say the food was excellent. Salads with cucumbers, olives, feta cheese, yogurt, spiced beef, dolmas. Please allow me to stop or else I might fall on the floor as I might not be able to deal with the ecstasy of it all...

I loved that when we landed in Istanbul, people started applauding! I remember as a kid, flying El Al to Israel, people would clap when we landed after our long transatlantic flight. But since then, have never heard anyone doing this. Landing safely after sitting on your butt for ten hours is definitely applause-worthy.

There was also another taste of the Mediterranean--the plane left Istanbul about an hour late.
Of course, living in China and having at least 78% of my "American-ness" forced out of me (and fortunately for me, it never really has been strongly rooted there anyway), it wasn't such a big deal.

Waiting for my flight to Israel from Istanbul, I got a chance to see hundreds of Turkish people on the way to their flights. This was my first time in a Muslim country and it seemed like everyone was dressed in traditional costume. Walking around the airport to find a water fountain (I never did find one), I remember seeing men (who could have easily been transported from one thousand years ago) sitting in their white dresses that were made from patterned towels, reading what certainly must have been holy books. All the women's heads were covered and some had their face covered.

On the way back to China, my flight from Tel Aviv to Istanbul was also delayed an hour. This meant that soon after landing, I unofficially broke the Olympic record for the 500 meter dash (with carry-on luggage) to gate 212 at the Istanbul airport.

I arrived panting at the gate not sure how late I was. I was curious to know what was happening, so I asked the Turkish woman from security if we were boarding. Her English was like my Turkish and as soon as I figured this out, I grabbed my carry-on and turned around to a Chinese guy and asked him in Chinese if we had already started the boarding process and he told me we hadn't.

I made my way into the small waiting area which was full of Chinese and Turkish people. It was good to hear Chinese again, and soon, I realized, I would be back in Beijing, far away from the flavor of Turkey and that good feta cheese.