Some Reflections Now That Chunjie Is Upon Us

For any of you Chinese or Chinese-related students, you know that 春节 is fast approaching. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s Chinese New Year, which entails a two week shut down of basically everything, a mass exodus from the cities as people return home to visit their families, and massive amounts of eating, think of it like two weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas. You might be acquainted with the Chinese zodiac animals, this year being the Year of the Rabbit. Chunjie, for me, has historically evoked mixed feelings. There is excellent food, and the ubiquitous hongbao, or red envelopes filled with cash for the younger generations. There is also the lion dance celebrations, which my mother is a part of, and that I have volunteered for annually since seventh grade. A close friend from home and I share fond memories of parading around the streets of Chinatown from 11 AM until it gets too dark to see, stopping at each and every restaurant and store to perform and herald blessings and a lucrative following year. The dance includes the lion kicking up oranges and heads of lettuce high into the air, and shopkeepers tossing lit firecrackers right at us. It’s a fun, arduous, dangerous day, we go hours without eating anything but the oranges we can save from the dirty streets, it’s often cold and rainy, I can’t look at salad for at least two weeks after, and once I fell off the back of the truck carrying all our musical instruments, and chipped a bone in my wrist. Although back in the States it usually occurred right around midterms, I still have fond memories. I’m beginning to miss home a little bit, as the people here in Beijing start prematurely blowing stuff up.

Last Chinese New Years happened to fall on Valentine’s Day. My boyfriend at the time was in school in another city, and despite the fact that I’m no fan of the Hallmark Holiday, Valentine’s Day is a shitty day to be alone, what with all the sappiness on TV and going out impossible. So I hosted a little Chinese New Year dinner with a few friends and far too much food. It was great.

Recalling my celebrations from a year ago has got me thinking about the past 12 months. 2010 (and the first month of 2011) has certainly been one of the defining years of my twenty some odd on the planet. So many things have happened, changed, since then.
It wasn’t until mid-February that I started questioning my future. I had had all these vague feelings of unease and uncertainty, my then boyfriend almost managing to convince me that I would be unhappy with my international dreams. This is about when Bambi started calling me a robot who was not programmed to have fun and be social, and I realized how true it kind of was, and I made some efforts to get out more and make more friends before college ended. And then it did end, rather suddenly, and I still felt lost. Luckily, I had managed to get appointed to go to Taiwan on an international conference for students from all around the world. Before going, I had had a long discussion with my ex, who was worried that I might misbehave on such a trip, since I had spent such a “tumultuous year” there when I was 17 (but let’s be honest, who doesn’t have a tumultuous time exploring independence at age 17 and 18, and I certainly didn’t do anything harmful). I viewed the trip as a sort of last foray into traveling like that before settling down.
It was an amazing, expenses paid two weeks during which we were pampered, I made friends with some truly good and hilarious people, and a lot became very clear to me. Mostly, that I had been unhappy, and being in Taipei made me extremely happy, and there was no way I wanted to give up that sort of experience. There were all other sorts of realizations that lead to me breaking up with my boyfriend of 3 1/2 years. I haven’t talked to him since, and wish him well, I suppose, but it was absolutely the best choice for me. I’ve been in a much better mental state ever since.
I did a lot of traveling, Savannah, San Francisco and Long Beach, Florida, North Carolina, New York. Savannah was beautiful and I would love to have a chance to visit it again for a more substantial amount of time. I wasn’t a fan of Long Beach or LA, although those days allowed me to spend some time with a friend who had moved out there and also with my mom, who was there on a business trip. I saw more friends in San Francisco, ate a lot of good food and took a hike in some gorgeous redwood covered hills. Florida was…special, a post wedding ‘relaxation’ with my aunt, uncle, and grandmother. North Carolina was lovely, as I got to spend some time with another of my oldest friends, although disappointing in one aspect.

I went to Hawaii in September for two amazing weeks of beaches and sunsets and sunrise hikes, learning to surf, and snorkeled with sea turtles and jumped off a waterfall. I went to visit a friend, and ended up meeting more fantastic people. I was even persuaded to jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet, which may have been one of the most exhilarating, ridiculously exciting moments of my life. Frozen with fear, strapped to a complete stranger, in a tiny little plane bumping along past the clouds, gripping the metal bench so tightly my knuckles turned white. The instructor had to physically shuffle my legs forwards, and throw us out of the plane, but once I was falling, I felt free. A heartbeat of fear, every muscle tightening and tensing, then releasing, feeling nothing but the wind rushing against your skin, hearing nothing at all but a dull roar, below the islands are lush green against the azure ocean spreading out. Those few seconds of free fall seem to last a lifetime.
I have fallen out of love, in and out of infatuations, and even gone on a few really nice, mature dates (shocking, that something should be so normal in my life), seen two my-age relatives marry, cut my hair very short (and discovered that my short hair likes to resemble anime characters or emo-hipsters when I fall asleep after showering), moved to China and started playing Frisbee. I am even seriously contemplating buying and riding a bicycle in and around Beijing traffic.

Had someone took me aside a year ago and said, Hey, Robot, this is what you are going to do in the next 365 days, I would have laughed at and disbelieved most of that list. In some ways I see a very different person in the mirror now, someone who is hard to recognize, but mostly I hope I am moving in the right direction with my life. I certainly feel more like myself, happier, more independent, making decisions, doing all these sort of adult things, even if I feel like a thirteen year old in an adult costume.

Let’s add one last thing to the list of ridiculous stuff I’ve done that I wouldn’t believe. Even more ridiculous than riding on the back of a moped, even crazier than getting my own bike and riding it around one of the worst traffic cities I’ve ever seen, tonight on the way to dinner, I rode on the back of Bambi’s new bike ‘nu pengyou’ style, that is, sidesaddle on the little wire frame, like a proper Chinese girlfriend. Lots of people, mostly kids and girlfriends, ride like that here, but I dislike it even more than mopeds. Bikes are shaky, cars are large, and there are lots of them, I didn’t have a helmet, I have no control over balance, and nothing to hold onto-just a tiny wire to rest both my feet, holding onto the wire frame with one hand and clutching onto Bambi with the other. It was, at max, a five minute ride down the street without any turns. It accomplished nothing except to reaffirm that I will not repeat the experience and will get my own bike to avoid such a thing from happening in the future. At least Beijing is all flat, I don’t have to worry about falling down hills.


Fake Mountains and Beijing Nightlife

Have I mentioned this yet? In our apartment, we have these two very cute little reading nooks that take great advantage of the bright afternoon sun. They are perfect for spending a relaxing afternoon curled up with a steamy cup of tea and a good book. Or at least, one of them would be, if not for the fact that there is a giant stone basin. As in, a big stone pool about the size of half a bathtub, a bit more than a foot high, at least an inch and a half thick. It used to be filled with water, until our a-yi drained it, but even empty it’s far too heavy to move. The water was green algae and murky, and probably a fantastic breeding ground for mosquitoes in the summer. I wanted it gone. We asked the landlord, what ever could it be for, and can he get rid of it for us?

Apparently, the previous tenants used to make 假山,or fake mountains, out of mud, in this thing, and decorate it with little clay figurines and what not. Good for them for having a hobby-how the hell did they get that thing up six flights of stairs? The landlord insisted it was impossible to move now, and why wouldn’t we want to be able to make 假山?Or, we can keep it filled with water and put fish in it. The only good thing about it right now is that I can stand on it and reach the laundry drying rack, but it’s a risky perch and I’ll probably fall and hurt myself. Something, say like a sledgehammer, needs to happen to it, because it’s taking up some prime real estate.

Our Fake Mountain Basin

Friday I had three lessons with kids. I had a demo class to teach a grown man business Chinese, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he picks another teacher because he kind of smells terrible and I’m not at all confident that I can teach an adult. I am just really much better with kids than real people. After classes, I asked the girls at the front desk where I could find an international grocery store nearby. They didn’t know, but the boss man did, and he very kindly decided to walk me there. We had a good conversation in Chinese about how China has all sorts of specialized food from each province, but America doesn’t really have it’s own cuisine. I mean, clearly there’s an American way of cooking that is hard to find in other countries, but it’s usually some take on French or Italian or Mediterranean or Japanese fusion. It’s hard to think of anything that’s really American, besides maybe hamburgers, sandwiches, and boiled lobster. he was going to stay and shop with me so he could show me back to the main road, but I felt super awkward and insisted that I could find my way back myself, and hated to impose anymore.

Jenny Lou’s was small and expensive, but I got everything I needed. I also visited the fruit and vegetable market and spent less than 10 US dollars on a whole bunch of vegetables and chicken.
Having not cooked in a while, even though it was just for myself, I decided to make a big batch of bolognese sauce and sweet potato gnocchi that I could freeze for the future. I had found some green peas at the market, so I made myself a small dish of gnocchi in a lemon cream sauce with chicken and peas. The cream sauce was a little on the heavy side, since I still haven’t gotten the knack of how much flour to add, and it thickens too much, but otherwise the gnocchi were the best I’ve made to date.

Bolognese sauce is simple and one of my standbys. I dice up one yellow bell pepper, one onion, three-four stalks of celery, three tomatoes, several gloves of garlic, one-two carrots (depending on size). Season ground beef (couldn’t find any ground turkey at Jenny Lou’s) with a few dashes of Maggi seasoning. Soften the onion, carrots, and celery with a little sprinkling of salt, add the pepper and tomato and garlic, let that cook a bit. Saute the ground beef, making sure it’s all broken up and then add it into the big pot. Pour in maybe half a cup if not more of a decent red wine, one tin of tomato paste, add a few shakes of pepper and basil, and some chicken stock, and then let that simmer for a good hour or two, stirring every now and then.

Vegetables softening in the pot

Simmering away gently

Gnocchi is deceptively simple, although I guess it could be easy to mess up. I had a recipe but not real measuring implements so I was ball parking everything and going by feel. Since I wanted to make a huge batch, I got four large sweet potatoes at the market. Two of them were the golden, Japanese yams that I like better, they taste a bit sweeter and are supposedly healthier for you. Two of them were regular orange, but it really only affected the color, not the finished taste at all.

Ricotta and Sweet Potato

Tray 1 of 3. I am a gnocchi making machine!

The recipe I was using called for one pound of potato, 1/2 cup of ricotta, one egg, and 1 1/2 cups of flour. Since I was somewhere between double and tripling that, I added 250 mg of ricotta, which was the size of the container I bought (about a cup), and three eggs. I first cut the skinned sweet potatoes up and boiled it, then mashed them finely, and mixed in the cheese and egg. The flour I added by spoonful until I thought they were about the right consistency. This turned out to be a good choice, as the gnocchi ended up being lighter and fluffier than any I’ve made before, not too dense or floury.
Most I froze (separate on a tray, and then bagged once frozen so they don’t stick together) but a few I boiled until they floated to the surface of the water, and served with chicken and peas in cream sauce.

After a few hours of having fun in the kitchen, I met up with a friend I met at a conference in Taiwan this past summer. He had lived in Beijing several years ago and is back for some research project. We started off at Q Bar, which is a nice little bar with an extensive cocktail list (and apparently a nice roof deck open in the summer). Another friend of mine, Pintsize, from school, also having moved to Beijing, met us there. Pintsize is an adorably small girl from a similar background as mine, as we exchanged stories on our rather Catholic upbringing and New England experiences. These two had both been in Beijing before, and had some hilarious stories. Hearing that in my three weeks in Beijing, I had not been out to a club, just to some bars, they decided that I needed an introduction to Beijing nightlife, and brought me to Kai, a notoriously ridiculous club in Sanlitun. There are a few bars there that seem to cater to the 16 and 17 year old international kids, as well as some rather unsavory other types of clientele. They boast dirt cheap drinks, 10 kuai (about a dollar fifty US) per beer or mixed drink, and you can tell it’s because the liquor is fake, some backroom brew that really messes you up. We had a few beers there, until I could no longer endure the tiny, young looking high school kids so excited to be out and drinking, or the ugly old Chinese men and their equally skeevy looking prostitutes. My Taiwan friend had heard a rumor of an 80s night at Alfa, and so, in the mood to dance, we decided to go there.

Alfa was packed, and not because of 80s night, but because it was gay night. The music was still good so we stuck around, and I even ran into someone I knew, who will be known as Wingman from this point forth because upon seeing me, he made it very, very clear that he was just here as “a wingman” for his buddies. As it turns out, gay Chinese boys love me. Maybe it’s because I’m pretty tiny and adorable, or maybe the fluffy hair and boyish figure, or my very colorful aqua teal glasses, which at one point someone switched for a pair of shiny red rhinestone-covered frames. Packed clubs like that aren’t usually my thing, but every now and then I enjoy my dance parties and it was quite a bit of fun. However, my favorite point in the evening might have been waiting in line for the bathroom. There were two toilets, ostensibly one for men and one for women, and we were waiting in line behind a girl, who when the door opened, did not make it clear if she was going to use it or not. We were trying to be polite and asking if she was in fact, going in since she had been there before us, when one of the boys in the men’s line cut ahead of us, saying, “well, if none of you are going to go in..” At which point I got really sassy and retorted “Oh, no, we’re just standing around here for fun, just chatting. Please, cut in front of me, I don’t really need to pee at all.” Sure, not really scathing, but I can be a bit timid sometimes and I’m glad I actually said something. He then sort of sheepishly went back to the men’s line.

The rest of my weekend has been fairly quiet; grocery shopping with Bambi, watching a couple movies on my computer, arranging the apartment more to my liking, eating candy and watching the Australian tennis open with friends. I still have yet to figure out where to buy a cheap second hand bike.

Just A Laowai Girl

Along with our formerly misbehaving shower, which now mostly cooperates, our washing machine was leaky. The connection of the hose to the faucet is just…well, sketchy, at best. We called the landlord, and because 春节 or Chinese New Year is approaching, no workers could come by to fix it. The landlord came himself. The first time he switched the hose, but then after he left, when we ran the washer, the hose popped right off due to water pressure and sprayed water everywhere. Upon closer inspection, we realized that there was nothing holding the rubber gasket on the metal faucet.
My landlord doesn’t take me seriously, and I think he thinks I put up less fuss than Bambi, so he comes during the day when Bambi is at work and I am between classes. I tell him exactly what is wrong and he says, look I fixed it, but no, seriously, you didn’t.
He came by himself twice more, and each time shook his head and smiled and insisted it was fixed despite my explaining that the lack of screws or bolts or any kind of fastening device meant it was bound to fall off again. He seems like a nice man and not a bad landlord, but his whole attitude just screams, it’s ok, you’re a little laowai female, I know best and you’re silly. He just told me that if there were problems later, have Bambi call him. Oh the frustration. On his third visit I explained again, look, see, no screws, no bolts, you can’t just jam it on and expect it to stay. I honestly thought he was going to start patting my head with condescension, like, all right white girl, I’m the engineer here, trust me, I fixed it for you. Complete and utter fail. He finally found a worker who hadn’t gone on holiday, who replaced the rubber piece with a new hose that screwed on. So much better. No water spraying all over the walls! About time, too, because I was rather running low on clean clothing.

I went back to the Kitchen again on Wednesday, but the party canceled so I got to sit down and eat everything, as the owner simply invited a bunch of friends. Showing up early since I hadn’t realized there were no paying guests, Chairman decided to have me write up the menu in Chinese and English. I couldn’t read her handwriting, but she painstakingly explained each character to me in Chinese, so that I could figure out how to write it. Since I have trouble reading most people’s Chinese handwriting, my own characters are very precise, and Chairman commented that obviously I write that way because look how put together I am, as opposed to Dice. I laughed, since I’ve only been dressing up nicely to go to these dinners, and my handwriting in English is usually atrocious.

The menu at the Kitchen.

The food was excellent, again. They had a guest chef with a very thick accent I could barely understand, but I like having the practice.
The guotie, or pan fried dumplings, were tasty as always, with celery and pork. Guotie are different from jiaozi in that they are seared on one side, to make the skin crispy, and flipped over and boiled in a shallow layer of broth to cook them all the way through. Next, the salt and pepper shrimp were standard but tasty, served heads and shells on as is the usual in Asia. Mala duck was roast duck that had been braised slowly, and then pan fried and then served in the braised sauce. It was tender and juicy and excellent. The black and gold wood ear, frilly seawood-looking fungi, were well executed, if you like them, but I’m not the biggest fan. The beef shank and stewed pumpkin was great, very comfort food, like a Chinese take on pot roast. Broadbeans and mushrooms were unremarkable but a healthy vegetable dish. The pickled cabbage and glass noodles were surprisingly tasty. I’m usually not a fan of pickled vegetables, but the briny taste wasn’t very strong, having been sauteed, and the glass noodles gave the dish a very buttery texture. The chrysanthemum fish was beautiful in presentation: the guest chef had this way of cutting the pieces of fish so that once floured and deep fried, the strips blossomed out and look exactly like a chrysanthemum. It was served with a sweet and sour sauce. The fish was good, but I have a little bit of a fear of the fish in China, having done some research projects that revealed all the nasty parts of fishing farms here. The cumin lamb was really good, without the overwhelming spiciness that you sometimes get when ordering lamb in Beijing. And of course, the caramelized sweet potatoes with sesame ice cream was to die for. I could eat a whole tub by myself. Just cream, milk, bourbon vanilla, a little sugar, and crushed up black sesame, simple and amazing.

Afterward, some of us went to Mao Mao Chang, a little bar far down one of the hutongs in Nanluoguxiang, a hidden gem. Wednesdays are 25 kuai drinks. It was packed, also due to the fact that it was Australia Day. We tried a variety of very tasty cocktails, since Mao Mao has a large variety of infused vodkas. My favorite was the 麻辣 sichuan peppercorn infused vodka cocktails. Surprisingly good if a little numbing.
I met a gorgeous hapa, but he turned out to be gay (seriously, 2/3 of the beautiful hapa boys I know are gay. It’s so unfair.), although happily he is also rock climber, and will let me 刷 his 卡 at the climbing gym. I’m excited to check out what the climbing situation is like here, since I haven’t been on a wall since November.

The next evening I met a friend up in Sanlitun for dinner where we had xiaolongbao and noodle soup. It was a small, cheap place, but tasty, even if incomparable to Dintaifeng. We met up with more Frisbee players later at Kro’s Nest, a pizza joint and bar that hosts trivia night on Thursdays. I didn’t try any of the pizza, maybe next time, but beer and trivia was a lot of fun, even if I could only contribute one answer to my team (I recognized Edith Piaf’s Non Je Ne Regrette Rien from my recent jazz listening kick), and somehow we won, which netted us a pretty decent bottle of red wine.

Settling In and Icy Showers

Moving in on Friday night was…well, ridiculous. I came home from my teaching interview (during which I gave a twenty minute teaching demo to one little girl as the entire Chinese staff of about 15 stood in the doorway watching. Apparently my teaching style is by the book and very patient, and they wanted me to start teaching that evening. I told them I was moving and couldn’t, they offered to send people over to help.) and started to pack up. We didn’t have any boxes, so Bambi and I decided to just make several trips with our suitcases. I also ran down to the nearest China Construction Bank so I could get the last bit of cash needed to pay the rent. Along the way I saw a man selling skinned frogs from a plastic bag on the sidewalk. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t balk at eating frog or other unusual meats, but why would you buy a pre-skinned frog from a man who doesn’t even have a cart, he just has a plastic bag on the Beijing street.

Bambi was out to dinner with some Frisbee players, and I received this text “hey there’s going to be a bearded guy sitting on the front steps drinking beer. that’s my friend, let him in he’s going to help pack.”
So I opened the door and let the bearded drinking boy into the apartment and we found ourselves completely puzzled as to how best to safely pack wineglasses and kitchen ware in suitcases with a minimal amount of cushioning. More Frisbee guys came over later, but they mostly sat around drinking with Bambi’s roommate and laughing at us trying to pack.

Saturday was a bit stressful as I had to give three back to back teaching demos that I hadn’t really prepared anything for, but I seemed to do alright, as I now have several one on one classes to teach.

I came home around noon after the demos and cleaned for seven hours. The tiles in the kitchen changed color-I was basically wiping mud off the walls. I scrubbed and soaked and sprayed and sanitized and mopped on my hands and knees, I went through three rolls of paper towels, half a bottle of Windex and a full bottle of kitchen cleaner spray, and that was only for my bedroom and the kitchen.
Just before eight, I got a call to tell me to come to Baoyuan Jiaoziwu, if I was interested. Dumplings and beer? After seven hours of inhaling kitchen fumes and not eating, I very enthusiastically tottered out the door in haste to find a cab. So many dishes-more crack dumplings, filled with that crispy rice, and something we accidentally ordered, three colored tie-dye dumplings. Very tasty. We also discovered a quite decent wine bar, Inoterra, in Sanlitun, with surprisingly good and more surprisingly affordable, red wines. The evening’s highlight may have been discussing whether the very young, fairly good looking girl with the very strange, unattractive, much older man with inappropriate PDA at the table next to us was a hooker or not.

"Crack" dumplings with crispy rice filling

Tie Dye Dumplings

Sunday I got up early only to have my class canceled, so more cleaning, and I bought all the bedding stuff I needed, with the help of one of the workers who made sure I had the right size and one that wasn’t expensive and had me use her membership card to get a discount. I couldn’t get a cab, so I took the subway home (picture a tiny little person fighting rush hour subway carrying two pillows, a box set of sheets and a big comforter), and then, all flustered and running late, grabbed a cab to Nanluoguxiang to work at this restaurant.

It’s more of a private kitchen than a restaurant, I should say, with two big tables right there, open for private parties. The owner wrote a book about her experiences learning to cook in China, and then opened this place with her mentor and another chef. Chairman, her mentor, is this adorable, little old Chinese lady who knows about five things in English. “Thank you, it was delicious, we loved it, come again soon!” But she’s an excellent chef and it was great to watch her cook and ask her questions in really bad Chinese and learn new words. Also, the eating. So amazing. Since I was technically working, I didn’t take any pictures, but the food was delicious. First of all, family meal before the patrons come, a simple chicken and potato stew over rice. Tender, hot and filling.
When the guests arrived, they were served an extensive set menu. Chairman and Dice, the girl through whom I found this opportunity, put a bite or two of each dish aside for me to try. First, fried wheat gluten with mushrooms and black flower fungus, then a spicy leek, mushroom and coriander stir fry, and pork and pumpkin 锅贴 pan fried dumplings. These were really amazing, crispy skin and juicy filling, not to oily with a great consistency. After that there was hong shao (soy sauce braised) eggplant, hongshao pork belly (I love 五花肉), black pepper beef, snow peas with cured pork (basically bacon), and wok fried bamboo shoots. Chairman explained to me that the bamboo she was using is called 冬笋, since it’s harvested in the winter, and even though its the same plant in the spring, it’s longer and called by a different name in other seasons. Dice made a gongbao chicken with so many chilies, she had to take the pan outside to throw them in the hot oil, and when she came back inside, we all started coughing from the spiciness in the air.
Dessert was really the best, caramelized deep fried sweet potato with toasted black sesame and bourbon vanilla ice cream. Good ice cream is really hard to find, and this was fresh, homemade. I could have eaten a whole tub. Dice and I ate a whole bunch of left over food and more ice cream before I went home.

My whole body ached from standing for three hours, and all I wanted was a glass of wine, a long shower, and bed. I had my wine, but ended up helping move furniture and cleaning some more, and then, joy of joys, discovering how ridiculous our water heater is. There’s a little box in the kitchen and when you turn on the water, you can see little flames roaring to life, and you can try and fiddle with the dials, but whatever we did resulted in one thing and one thing only. The water would gradually warm up to a proper temperature, at which point I cautiously got into the shower, and then it would intermittently spike from scalding hot to icy cold with no happy medium. Unpleasant. The landlord has come to fix it so hopefully I’ll be able to not fear my next bathing experience. I was able to sleep well, however, despite a typically hard bed, now equipped with two pillows and a warm comforter, but the whole set is very, very pastel yellow. So much yellow.

Robot likes the bed but disapproves of how yellow everything is

I interviewed with another English school, right next door to the other one, which is very convenient. The rest of the afternoon was stressful and super annoying. School A had scheduled a lesson at 2 and a lesson at 3, and then canceled the lesson at 2. I asked, to be sure, if both of them were canceled or just the one at two. Yes, yes, no lessons today, both canceled. I got off the bus and went back inside and settled down for lunch. And then of course at three o’clock I get a phone call wondering where I am, so I run out the door, forgetting a sweater or scarf or even gloves, try in vain to flag down a cab, no buses in sight, run in down the road, holding my arm out for a cab, run far enough to hit the next bus stop, and get stuck in traffic. I was supposed to be back at home at 4 to wait for the internet maintenance man, but no luck. My lesson didn’t even start until 4, and then waiting for a bus at five o’clock right at rush hour? Ridiculous. What should be an 8-10 minute bus ride, 4 kilometers, takes 30-45 minutes, depending on how long you stand there waiting for a bus. It’s so frustrating, I’m giving serious consideration to getting a cheap bike. You can tell this is a bad commute for two reasons 1) biking in Beijing is dangerous and traffic is terrifying and 2) I don’t even bike at home in the nice quiet suburbs.

After this long afternoon of standing in buses sitting in traffic, I at least had a relaxing evening. I went out to dinner with Jersey, another Frisbee boy (I swear that team is like a cult). We went for Thai food at this place called Purple Haze on Dongsi Sitiao. We were the only table that night, and in a pretty big space that they have trouble heating, the waitress brought over a big, boxy, gas heater that looked fresh from the 1950’s and also looked as if an explosion might be imminent. Apparently the owner has another restaurant elsewhere that does very well, so he can run this place as he feels like it, and has live jazz on Wednesday nights. The food was pretty good, standard Thai, which I am a big fan of, we ordered shrimp spring rolls and Massaman curry, and a beef dish that was sub-par. Prices were cheap if you’re going by an American standard and high for Beijing scale (you can’t beat a meal for 10 kuai) with dishes ranging from 50s to 100s. I’ll go again, when i start craving Thai, but probably save it for more special occasions.

The Creepiest Heater

Today I started stocking my pantry. Went to the local Wumart and bought the requisite rice cooker-Bambi asked me why we couldn’t just cook rice in a pot. Excuse me? I had never even cooked rice in a pot until last year. My family and my house and wherever I live will always, always have a rice cooker. It’s just so convenient, and you can steam things in it, and here you can get one for US$12. Then I moved on to food products. I know I should be more familiar with my Asian sauces, but back at home there really isn’t a big variety of soy sauce. Light, Dark, and Low Sodium, even in some of the Asian supermarkets I haven’t seen much of a selection. Here, well, here there is Longfei and Beijing and Huangdou and Special Brew and Pure Brew and Old and Sweet and Preserved and Fermented and Noodle and Fish specific soy sauces. A whole supermarket aisle and a half dedicated just to soy sauce. I had no idea what to do! I spent ten minutes walking up and down the aisle, and then walked away to find other stuff, came back, made a few noises of frustration, and then asked a lady picking out her own bottle if she could tell me what kind was just regular, use every day to cook with soy sauce, what made all the bottles different. I’m not sure I said any of it correctly, since she told me not to go by price, because the higher price doesn’t mean its better, but use this kind this is what she uses. She was really nice, and seeing all the kitchen and cleaning stuff in my cart, also offered to let me use her discount membership card when I got in line. There must be some kind of deal with points or something, because why are so many strangers being so nice?

No Longer Homeless

Excellent news! We finally settled on an apartment, we’re going to start moving some stuff in tonight, sign the lease, pay the deposit, and be completely moved in by Saturday. I am so excited. We went with the 4 bedroom, even though for the moment there are only the three (actually, there are two of us for the next couple weeks). Our landlord seems like a really chill guy, he speaks pretty good English, used to be an engineer, and designed the apartment himself, so there’s none of the usual ridiculous Chinese design flaws. In fact, the only really Asian interior design is the chandelier, a purple flowery thing, that I’m sure his wife must have chosen. I am excited to have a fully stocked kitchen in which I can start cooking for real. And my own bed. I look forward to having a bed.

The only bad thing is that on top of the deposit, the real estate agency is insisting we pay three months rent up front, but didn’t tell us until two days ago. Since I don’t carry that kind of cash around with me, I’ve had to try and withdraw it from the ATM. I spent a very panicked half an hour yesterday when Bank of America told me that since I was in China, only a four digit pin would work, and since I had already left the States, I couldn’t change my pin and there was no way I could access my money from the China Construction Bank (which is the only one that doesn’t charge a fee for Bank of America accounts). Turns out to be false, as I immediately ran to the closest bank, an ICBC, where I was indeed able to get cash. But the ATMs have a limit, and on top of that, for some reason is only letting me take out half the limit. It’s all been very frustrating.

In other news, I’ve had two interviews, and am in the process of setting up more, which is promising. Although they’ve so far just been for teaching and translating, making money is a good thing. I look forward to having an income, although I think this might lead to an adventure in which I figure out how to open a bank account in China. My interview this morning was in Wudaokou, and it was pain to have to get out that far, and on top of it, I walked a lot of stairs with all the subway transfers and my knee is in an atrocious amount of pain.

Went back to Frisbee last night, and I’m sort of improving form, but I don’t think I quite warmed up well enough, or maybe just walking around in the cold all day was a bad idea, because my knee, which I hurt in New York two months ago, decided to act up again: it hurts to bend, to go up and down stairs, to take steps, and pain runs up to my hip. So after a short turn playing I called it a day and sat out and stretched.
The requisite post-game dinner followed, although this time we switched things up, instead of going to the Xinjiang restaurant, we went to the restaurant next door. The food was good, the beer was plentiful, the company was fun. More lamb chuan, which are always good, lots of (good, not drowning in oil) vegetables to accommodate the vegan with us, a really tasty braised chicken and mushroom, and disappointing eggplant. It wasn’t that bad, and in the states, I almost never order eggplant, but I’ve found that the 茄子dishes in China are generally really delicious, and this just wasn’t.

After my interview today, Bambi and his roommate were both home so we went out for lunch at this little Shanxi place a ten minute walk away. We all had, based on recommendation, 羊肉汤馍, the lamb and dough ball soup。 It was rich and flavorful and hot, so hot it burned my tongue, but I was freezing and starving so I kept eating, little bits of dough ripped up and chewy like dense noodles, and with glass noodles, and mushrooms, and chunks of lamb. It came accompanied with a small dish of pickled garlic, cilantro, and hot chili sauce, of which I only added the hot sauce. The whole soup tasted vaguely of lamb fat, and I had to try to not think about how much of the broth would congeal if the bowl was refrigerated.

Things to look forward to this week: more people that I know are coming to Beijing, which will help with the feeling-like-a-hermit-robot of being in a strange new city. Also, restaurants. Back at home, a very awesome chef that I met at a fundraiser took me under wing and invited me to hang out in her restaurant kitchen and see what its like to be a chef and let me cook things that actually went out to paying customers. Chef told my parents and her sous-chef, when explaining why I was in her kitchen, “I like to convert normal people into restaurant people.” While I don’t have any ambition to go to culinary school or open my own restaurant, I really do love cooking, and stumbled rather fortuitously upon a chance to work/intern at this restaurant here, hosting dinners in exchange for cooking lessons. I am pretty stoked for this.

Time to go wander the streets of Beijing until I find an ATM that will give me enough money for rent.

Ultimate Indoctrination

Since I last updated, it seems that China has decided I can’t access my blog, but after a few sessions with Witopia customer service, I managed to get a more functional internet. So I’m back.

After being locked in all day, Wednesday, Bambi felt bad and brought me out to his pick up Ultimate Frisbee game. Bambi and our other fellow alum soon to come to China are both ultimate players, and there is apparently a pretty well organized ultimate community in China and other Asian countries. Go figure. I have never played before-I don’t even remember the last time I threw a Frisbee. I ran track and cross country and high school and sailed a little bit during college, so I consider myself to be fairly athletic, but I have nothing to do with projectiles, no aim, no catching, and the last time I was on a team sport was sixth grade soccer. Still, I guess they want to recruit more girls, so out I went to see how this would go. All in all, I don’t think I did too badly. I’m pretty competitive, so I try pretty hard, and minus a few blunders and my absolutely horrid form, I didn’t make a fool of myself. At the end, after weeks of not working out and then sprinting hard for two hours, I felt destroyed, with a fifty percent chance of being sick, but really, really good. I miss being active and there’s no way I’m going to run outside in Beijing, regardless of my father’s advice (run outside, if a car gets too near you, hit it, scare the crap out of them with aggression, and then run away as fast as you can). I even went back on Saturday. I really enjoyed myself and I’m thinking I’m going to stick with this and see how it goes (the boys have successfully brainwashed me, I’m a Frisbee player now?). I’m also interested in finding out if there’s any kind of rock climbing scene here, which I was really getting into back at home.

Afterward, a bunch of us went to a little Xinjiang place near the gym, and with eight of us, we managed to decimates something like 10 dishes and 16 bottles of beer, all for about 30 kuai each, or about 5 dollars. Amazing. The food was fantastic, too, lamb and chicken chuan (skewers) covered in cumin and other spices, noodles in a hot tomato base fried, fried rice, big puffy naan bread to dip in the ‘dapanji,’ a giant tureen of spicy stew, spinach and eggs fried together, shreds of spicy pork with peppers and ginger and celery. I didn’t get any pictures since Bambi was all disapproving eyes at my touristy desire to photograph my food.

The next day when the boys were at work I was sent to pay their internet bill, as our internet had ceased to work. I went to the bank and filled out the form as instructed, with an account number, to no avail, the internet never restarted. After 24 hours of fail, I ventured back to the bank where I explained my situation to the nice information clerk. She had a terrible Beijing accent that I could barely understand, but I managed to get that I was supposed to call a number that she wrote down. After more puzzlement and calling the number and being confused by the person on the other end, we discovered that I had been given the wrong account number, and paid someone else’s internet fee. Bambi came back with me one more time since at this point I was vaguely embarrassed, and his conversational Chinese is better than mine anyways.
The information lady was quite taken with Bambi, telling me when he wasn’t paying attention, that he’s “很可爱” or very cute. But she was more than helpful, and got it all sorted out for us after a bit of pleading.

Bambi went out for a meeting and then I took the bus to meet him that evening at another potential apartment. As I got off the bus to meet him, my phone minutes ran out. Luckily, there was a young girl that I waylaid, and possibly because I asked her in Chinese, or possibly because I looked so distressed and panicked, she let me use her phone to track down his location.

On our apartment hunt over the weekend, Bambi and I stopped for lunch at what seems to be a pretty famous restaurant, called Fu Lou Jia, with statues of opium smokers in the front window. It was loud and jangly-nerve-wracking, with lots of yelling and crowds and hustling waitstaff, but the food was pretty good. It took too long, and the “疙瘩汤” or lumpy soup, that Bambi and his roommate are obsessed with and always order, had to be canceled. After this rowdy little restaurant, we met the real estate agent at the subway stop. This time, surprise and joy, he was on his moped and motioned for Bambi to get behind him, and he had brought a friend on her moped for me. Just exactly what I needed, to ride on the back of another stranger’s moped in China (last summer, Co-intern and I had been stranded at the far ferry in Dandong, on the border of North Korea, without a taxi for miles, and ended up being offered a ride by a shopkeeper’s husband. After we accepted the offer, we discovered he rode a moped. That day was one ridiculous event after another). With some reluctance, as I haven’t had the best of luck with mopeds or bicycles in general, I climbed on and held on for dear life. We weren’t even going that fast, and as surprise moped rides go, I suppose it wasn’t bad at all, even almost enjoyable, if I wasn’t so afraid of crashing every turn.

I survived the subsequent ride away from the apartment, and that evening we all went to a small Sichuan restaurant down the street, where the boys finally got their lumpy soup. It’s a tomato based broth, with egg and a little spinach and vegetables, and doughy bits like German spaetzle. The more lumps, the better, according to my lumpy-soup aficionados. We ordered a few bottles of Yanjing beer to go with the meal, and the waiter only brought two cups for the menfolk, I had to ask for him to bring one for the lady too. Honestly, you’d think enough foreign women drink here that they wouldn’t think it’s weird. (Side note, when I ran down to get a refill for our big bottle of fountain water, because I am a helpless laowai girl and not a big, strapping laowai boy, the water man brought the big bottle all the way into the kitchen and set up the tap and everything for me, and gave me a card to call him instead of having to walk downstairs. In all their time the boys had not received this treatment.) We got a few dishes, duck and vegetables similar to a mushu, to be stuffed in hollow steam buns was my favorite, and a fried rice that would be exactly amazing like my mom’s, only the peas and ham were poor quality.

After Frisbee on Saturday, during which the gym was double booked by a basketball tournament, many people decided to meet up for jiaozi (dumplings) at Baoyuan Jiaozi on Maizidian Jie. They have a large variety and colorful purple skins. Crispy rice dumplings, spicy dumplings, we ordered eight different kinds I can’t even keep track of. A mostly Frisbee people party followed at another ex-pat’s apartment, at which I met more people and enjoyed white wine sangria and strawberry pina coladas.

This Monday being a holiday back in the States, Bambi had the day off, and we looked at a couple more apartments, one of which is a possible contender. We’ve got two good choices, although we have looked at so many they are beginning to run together in my head. Some have had no guest rooms, some are dirt holes with no sunlight and in abandoned looking buildings that seem like they’d fall down with the next gust of wind. One is a decent four bedroom place that requires us to find another roommate. I just want to make the decision as soon as possible, since our deadline is looming, once the lease is up and Bambi’s roommate returns to America on Saturday, we’ll be homeless. I want a home, I want to start making a place my own, settle in, feel like a real person. I have a tentative job interview, so at least I can be optimistic that I may have employment in the future. I still sort of feel like I’m an extended vacation, all this suitcase living and couch surfing, feeling constantly like I’m intruding in someone else’s space.


I still feel like a bit of transient, living out of my suitcase and everything being very temporary. Bambi’s roommate is leaving in 10 days, and we have to find a new apartment before then.

After a bit of a lazy start Monday morning, luxuriating in a private, sparkling clean bathroom and a long, uninterrupted shower, I realized I was quite famished and decided to explore the neighborhood a little, have a little breakfast, maybe even find a grocery store and pick up some supplies.
This is about when the door would not open.

I must admit that doors sometimes give me trouble. I mean, there are some tricky doors and locks out there, stubborn things that don’t like opening, that insist you wiggle the key about, that require coaxing. I was hoping that there was just some little trick that i wasn’t getting, that I was in fact being utterly ridiculous and incapable, so after about half an hour of trying to escape, I reluctantly sent a text asking for help. Turns out sometime the spare key doesn’t work, so if whoever leaves locks the door from the outside, the spare key-holder still inside will be stuck there, and the a-yi, coming to clean the apartment that morning, had done just that. At least it wasn’t my fault.

Since I didn’t have anywhere pressing to go, I told Bambi’s roommate not to hurry home, and he suggested I look through the kitchen to see if anything was edible, although he highly doubted it. I ate a few chocolates I still had in my purse, and a spoonful of peanut butter, since I couldn’t find anything to spread it on, and rummaged through the illogically stocked kitchen. There were all these nice plates and cutlery and fantastically sharp Global knife set that I’m a little jealous of, a lot of nice liquor, some strange grains, and very little else. The fridge smelled just slightly off. Oh, boys, why? I managed to find some arborio rice, one egg, ginger and half an onion that didn’t look too old. I found garlic but it was dry and black and suspicious looking, and a very soft withered apple. So I dice the onion and softened it in a little olive oil, thinly julienned the ginger and threw it in with the rice and a generous amounts of water to make paofan, or rice porridge, and scrambled an egg (no whisk, used chopsticks again) to serve on top. I kind of felt like a refugee, but I made the best of my day, repacked all my clothes in my suitcases, did some laundry, wrote some letters.

Bambi finally arrived back in China after his stateside holiday visit that evening, and ten minutes after he arrived in the door, we dragged him out to have dinner. We met roommate’s friend in a cab and headed out toward Andingmen, on a recommendation to go to a Ningxia restaurant.
We ambled down a little hutong alley in the bitter cold and made our way to a small basement restaurant. Upon sitting down, the waitress, seeing us looking up stuff about the restaurant on aphone, informed us we were at the wrong Ningxia place. Embarrassingly, the boys decided we should go to the one they had read about. Way to lose face guys, everyone was staring at us as we rose and struggled back into our winter gear.
We found the actual place inside the Ningxia Jiudian. It was a nice enough restaurant. After spending all week with girls, it was nice to be out with a bunch of boys and have a beer to drink. The food was decent but not spectacular, lamb, and noodle soup with chicken, dried tofu with celery, another lamb dish with chestnuts but lots of fat and gristle. One the whole it was a good time, even if I knocked over my chair when we were leaving, because I’m a clumsy little thing who gets things like chairs stuck on my bootstraps.

Tuesday was a lazy productive day; I met Bambi’s Chinese teacher when we went for lunch, we spent some time waiting at the police station to register, where this adorable little girl with starry boots tried very hard to get Bambi’s attention. I don’t quite blame her. We went to dinner at a Xinjiang restaurant around the corner in the hutong, and the food was cheap, plentiful, and excellent. I had an eggplant and thinly sliced pork shreds over rice. It was steamy hot and filling. After eating we ventured to Dongzhimen, one of the neighborhoods we’re considering for our apartment. We waited in the subway entrance for what seemed like hours, to meet our real estate agent, long enough that by the time we got to the apartment, my hands and feet were literally in pain from the cold. Damn my poor circulation. The apartment seemed decent, three bedrooms, a little terrace, but the common space was tiny and the kitchen next to non existent. There wasn’t even counter space, just two little gas burners and sketchy ghetto sink. Best part? Possibly the porn that the current tenants had ALL OVER THE PLACE and the about one hundred empty beer bottles just piled in the entrance. Apparently it’s they’re a couple American and Canadians.

After dinner we went back to the Xinjiang restaurant, since some of Bambi’s friend had gone there for dinner just shortly after we left, a beautiful frisbee player from the states and his adorable and sassy Beijing girlfriend. I enjoyed their company immensely, particularly when the girlfriend deposited some vegetables in Bambi’s beer for being a jerk, even if most of the talk centered around ultimate frisbee and people that I haven’t met yet.

Today I didn’t wake up until both boys had left the apartment. I made arrangements to meet up with Co-intern to see the Bell and Drum Tower and maybe check out some Shaanxi cuisine for lunch. Unfortunately, after getting all dress up to go outside, what should happen but I discover, yet again, the door was locked, and the boys both busy working I didn’t want to bother them. So much for seeing Co-intern before she returned home. I spent the day being somewhat productive looking for employment, at least.

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