Monday, April 30, 2007

Milk... Chinese style

I still can't figure this out. The grocery store and convenient stores sell packages of milk... in small bags. How are you supposed to drink it? Poke a straw in it? Cut a hole and pour the milk into a glass? What's wrong with a carton?

And speaking of cartons, the other day I bought what I thought was a small carton of milk (niu nai), opened it and it had a thick texture.

For a split second I thought I bought heavy cream. But then I looked at the carton again and it was yogurt!

It's runny plain yogurt. And you can also get small containers of yogurt that you drink with a straw. Strange but true.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Mao's Watching You

Driving the Rules out the Window

When I get into the back of a taxi, I have to pray I'll make it alive at my destination.

Beijing drivers are some of the craziest ones around. They are constantly jockeying for position, even if it means straddling lanes, driving on the shoulder or weaving in and out of lanes.

In the last few days I thought I'd have a heart attack -- more than once in one trip! The taxi driver wiggled his Jetta within inches of cars around him. And when he successfully got out of a tight spot, he'd turn around and look at me with a smirk of satisfaction on his face.

And I was trying to look calm and collected but inside thinking, "I didn't come half way around the world to die in a car accident!"

It's not just taxi drivers who do these crazy maneuvers -- everyone behind the wheel of a car does it. And if they want you to get out of the way, they honk you until you move. And some do a left hand turn into on-coming traffic without waiting for the cars to go by first. Such is the driving culture here.

People have asked me if I have a driver's license. I tell them I do, but I'd never drive here! I think I'd get into an accident the first day. No -- make that the first 10 minutes.

I'll just leave the driving to the experts... I think.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Word of the Day: Huli Jing

A huli jing is a woman who uses her looks to entice men.

Huli is "a fox", while jing means "fairy".

So when you're scoping out girls, you can ask your buddies, do you think she's a huli jing?

Beijing's Punk Scene

One of my colleagues asked me if I wanted to check out a concert with some "avant garde" musicians. Sure, I said.

So he took me to a place called M.A.O. at 111 Gouloudongdajie, near Hou Hai (literally "the back lake"). Interestingly it's on the same street as the Buddhist Lama Temple, a compound with ornate upturned roofs. I'll have to check it out another time.

And when we walked into the bar, it had a small corridor that led to a big room that was elevated at the back and had a relatively low ceiling. But it was soon packed with mostly men with long hair, mustaches and baggy T-shirts, smoking up a storm and drinking beer.

Finally at around 8:20pm the show started with a group called Miankong (face). The lead singer was an attractive guy with long chestnut brown hair past his shoulders that he swung around and wore a green military-like shirt. Flanking him were two guitarists who didn't sing backup but were soon sweating like crazy, and the drummer beat the heat by playing bare chested.

The music was like grunge or garage, with lots of screaming and angst pouring from the lyrics. While the lead singer was trying hard to rev up the crowd, they were pretty tame and for the most part, stood politely watching him.

The room was so smoky and hot that I ducked out early and missed the second group. My coworker admitted today it wasn't that good of a show so maybe I'll have to check in out again.

Friday, April 27, 2007

China's The One

Today the Beijing Olympic organizing committee announced a movie called "The One" will be made about China's first athlete to participate in the Games 75 years ago.

Liu Changchun was a sprinter who competed in the 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Although he didn't get past the preliminary heats, the current Olympic organizing committee is hoping to capitalize on this piece of history in the run-up to the games.

But Liu's story is far from glorious -- it was more like a test of his will to survive.

He was born in Dalian, in China's northeastern Liaoning Province and he was a star sprinter at the time. However, in 1931, the Japanese occupied Manchuria and established a puppet state called Manchukuo.

The Japanese wanted Liu to represent Manchukuo in the Olympics, but in an interview with a Chinese newspaper, Liu said he was determined to represent China, not the Japanese-declared state.

A patriotic general by the name of Zhang Xueliang heard about Liu and agreed to pay for his boat trip from Shanghai to Los Angeles.

It took Liu a month to get there by boat, and three days after he arrived, he competed on the track. For the 100m and 200m preliminary heats, he came in 11.1 seconds and 22.1 seconds respectively.

While he was there, he gained a lot of attention for being the first Chinese in the Olympics.

But after the Games were over, Liu spent all of Zhang's allowance, of about US$1,000 at the time. So Liu had to canvass donations from the local Chinese community in Los Angeles to buy a ticket back home.

When Liu came back to China and was virtually unrecognized for his efforts and taught physical education. He died in 1983.

Today his son was at the press conference, but he wasn't caught up in the excitement over which of the three relatively unknown actors would play his father.

We asked Liu Hongliang if his father talked about his Olympic experiences. He said at the time he didn't see much of his father when he was a child because when he came back to China, the Japanese wanted to arrest him for not representing Manchukuo. So his father was in hiding. When the family moved away from the puppet state, they were still monitored.

At times when Liu spoke, he wiped tears from his eyes recalling when the family went to Nanjing, his father couldn't get a job and they were destitute. "We suffered a lot when I was a child," he said.

He added his father advised him not to go into sports because it didn't get him anywhere. The younger Liu is now an academic, involved in research in environmental sciences, technology and engineering.

Liu's pleased a film will be made about his father, glad that he gets some recognition albeit 75 years later.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Beijing Traffic Blues

The Chinese capital's rush hour periods are completely unpredictable.

Some days (depending on the taxi driver) I can get to work in a record 20 minutes. But today has to be a record so far of 40 minutes. And I left before 8am.

What gives?

There's a "fact" that 1,000 new cars flood Beijing's already clogged streets everyday. I asked a taxi driver about it and he seemed to think it was true.

With the average salary at 3,000 RMB (US$389) a month, how can they afford a car?

One thousand people a day seem to scrape the money together.

But what I discovered is that cars here are much cheaper than in North America.

The cheapest set of wheels will set you back 20,000RMB (US$2600), all the way up to 120,000RMB (US$15,600).

Gas is cheap too, but at a much lower grade than in North America, which explains the pollution and the cars not lasting very long either.

And get this -- car manufacturers are starting to drastically cutting prices because the original prices are too high!

I don't know if the Beijing transport authority realizes they're going to have to either build more roads faster or jack up taxes to limit the number of cars on the road.

At this rate it looks like I'm going to get to work later and later....!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Beijing Friendlies have a Message for You

Here's a picture of the Olympic mascots, nicknamed the "Beijing Friendlies" on a poster on the back of the taxi passenger seat.

The translation is (from left to right):

Welcome the Olympics

Focus on Society

Start a New Trend

Maybe they should get together and figure out what their key message is.... three at once is a bit too confusing!

Snow in Spring

When I arrived almost two weeks ago, I saw these little wispy blobs floating through the sky.

Were they bits of raw cotton that escaped from a truck?

Or some sheep shedding like crazy?

Turns out they're called catkins, seeds from male willow and poplar trees trying to pollinate with female ones.

It's typical to see the fluffy pollen during April and May.

But not everyone is happy to see them. Some people hold their noses or shield their eyes from the "floating snow". Others find them a nuisance and complain how the catkins add to the dust.

There are some 370,000 poplar and willow trees in eight of Beijing's downtown districts and so you can imagine how much white stuff there is out there.

The Capital Greening Office has a plan to cut down on the catkin population. They will attempt to graft the trees's branches so that the wispy seeds won't have to travel far to pollinate.

But environmentalists think the plan is not a blooming good idea, saying cutting the branches will mean less shade during the summer, and that this is a natural process people should not intervene.

I just think these little white wispy blobs a wonderful sight, especially when a guest of wind blows by.

Exercise Your Eyes

When I started working, twice a day, I could hear a woman's voice clearly enunciating yi! er! san! si! wu! (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) to some 1950s Chinese revolutionary music in the background. I thought it was coming from a nearby park or courtyard where people were doing exercises.

The other when the music came on, I asked my colleague where the music was coming from. He said it was from the office.

The office?

He explained when the music came on we should take a break and do some eye exercises to give them a reprieve from the computer screen. I asked what kinds of exercises and he said you're supposed to use your finger tips to do a kind of massage around the eyes.

Then today as I was chatting with a younger coworker, when the music came on again and she giggled. She said in elementary and secondary school they would play this music too after every few classes to rest their eyes.

I wish you could hear it... it's a throwback to Mao and the good ol' days.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Taking the Bus

The traffic jams during rush hour here test the most patient of commuters. I don't live near a subway stop, so it takes me 30 minutes to get to work from my place and that's in a taxi. Imagine how much longer my travel time would be waiting for the bus and then traveling by bus!

My average cab fare is around 25RMB (US$3.24).

But to go the proletarian route and take the bus, it's only 1RMB (US$0.13).

When you get on the bus, you pay the fare to the driver's assistant, who wears a red jacket. He or she makes sure everyone pays and announces each stop. And if you get an electronic fare card (that you can also use on the subway), your bus fare can be even cheaper!

I need to get one of those cards.

Here's a view from the back of the bus past rush hour, so it's relatively empty.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Yummy Eats at the Mall

There's a slick mall about a 15-minute walk from my place. It's called Jia Run Shopping Centre. I was impressed to see Sephora, Hagen Daaz, Watson's (a Hong Kong drug store) and a giant supermarket downstairs that sells live turtles. I don't want to know what locals do with them...

BUT... there is a food court downstairs and one of the stalls is... Beard Papa.

It's a franchise store originally from Japan that sells awesome cream puffs. My cousin introduced me to them in San Francisco and there's a store in New York too. But there's one here in Beijing and it's only 6RMB (US$0.78)! For the uninitiated, it's a large cream puff pastry that's crunchy and as soon as you place an order, a vanilla custard is pumped into it so it isn't soggy, and then sprinkled with white icing sugar. It's so sinfully good.

And last night I checked out another stall where a guy makes noodles on the spot, pulling the dough into thin strands. I ordered niu rou mien (beef noodle) and it was a large bowl, filled with the freshly-made noodles, a few thin slices of beef, turnip and garnished with chopped coriander and green onion. The noodles were cooked just right, kind of a Chinese al dente. The only complaint is the MSG in it... but for 8RMB (US$1.04) you can't complain too much!

Beijing Huanying Ni (Beijing Welcomes You)

I arrived in Beijing just over a week ago for a media job here. It's a one-year contract so we'll see how it goes.

Everyone asks me why Beijing? I've been thinking about working and living in China for a while, and with the 2008 Olympics coming next summer, I felt now was the time to come and take the plunge.

So far I'm glad I made it here. As part of my contract I got rent-free accommodation. It's located in Wangjing, in the north east part of the city. If you want to find it on the map, it's near the Holiday Inn Lido Hotel, one of the four Holiday Inns in the city.

Settling in had some of its challenges -- I got an internet connection (ADSL) before hot water (but that was resolved in a day), the apartment wasn't as fully furnished as promised, and the washing machine broke down. But I did a major shopping spree at Ikea nearby and a guy came by to fix the machine by opening the bottom of it and letting some gunk collected after a few years' of use spill out.

The people here are friendly and helpful. When I open my mouth, Beijingers can't decide if I'm Korean or Japanese with my funny accent. But when I tell them I'm from Canada, they explain things to me, and I just get a gist of what they're saying with my elementary Putonghua.

I hope to use this blog to document my adventures in Beijing, from tasting the best xiaolongbao to discovering flea market finds and learning more about the city. I hope you enjoy the ride!