I made it out to Wudaokou last week to practice some throws with one of the girls from Frisbee. President Hu was at Qinghua University so we went to BLCU to throw on their field. We got to witness about two hundred students during gym class-that is, all lined up and marching in place to symphony music, and then doing all sorts of calisthenics in place. It was hard to keep from giggling.

Dina and I spent one afternoon at the Silk Market shopping, keeping my eye out for things to wear to a black-and-white themed Frisbee party and also for shoes and clothes for the office. I came away with a nice haul of cardigans, shiny new flats, and an adorable bow tie for the party. Later that evening I joined Bambi and Ginny at Ya Shou for another round of shopping, this time for our costumes. we decided on a team theme of spy vs. spy. Black and white fedoras, black and white ties, white jeans…it was quite the plan.

My computer then promptly crashed. Bambi tried to fix it but it was hopeless. I was quite worried that I would have to buy a new computer and lose all my documents and pictures, but as a last attempt, I spent most of Friday afternoon at the Bainaohui on Chaoyangmen Wai. It’s a big computer and electronics complex, a smaller and closer Zhongguancun, and on the third floor there were some repair stalls. It took a while, some muddled translation and communication, and a lot of poking around, but the girl there managed to get all the files and fix the hard drive, although she installed all these Chiinese programs, so I may have Bambi just fix it more. With a big sigh of relief, I left the Bainao, was walking down the street, when suddenly there was an ominous crack of thunder and the skies opened up. I half slid my way on the slippery side walks in my flipflops to the nearest Watsons for a little bit of shelter, and waited out the worst of the rain. It abated mostly so I started walking home, but the lack of precipitatiom didn’t prevent me from being splashed by a few buses and cars, or getting China all over my nearly bare feet. No where near s bad as Shenyang where on occasion, I had no choice but to wade down ankle deep rivers of muddy brown water flooding streets and sidewalks everytie there was a slight rain storm, but still gross. I came home, sulked a little bit and showered, then packed for my very first Frisbee tournament, as we were set to depart that night.

The Short Lived Battle Bike

China gives and China takes, is the lesson that I’ve learned over the past three months, but particularly in the past two days. The family watched the Little Mermaid and a fantastic episode of Top Gear in which they go to Vietnam (making me long even more to travel there), I’ve been going to the gym somewhat regularly, and today I got a job offer and a less concrete offer of interest and to see what they might have suitable for me within five minutes of each other. But two of my students (one of my favorites and the other my most frequent student, hence my money-maker) decided to stop taking classes for a while, and the real kicker, when I went down to go to the grocery store, I discovered that my bike was missing.

God damn it China. I liked that bike. It worked. It was new. It was fairly inexpensive. I had gone to the used bike store, been depressed by the options, and then some random sketchy man on the sidewalk wheeled it up to me like an answer to a prayer, and now it’s gone. I had it for less than three months. It was shiny and blue and had a basket and had BATTLE written on the side of it, which I think made it quite an apt ride for a Decepticon such as myself. It survived my incident with the car. I took great pains to lock it up inside the door rather than leaving it outside. Screw you, bike thieves. You suck. Shakespearian curses are fomenting in my brain right now, but I’m angry and not very eloquent so I’ll spare you the vulgar details. All the joy of being employed is being replaced by seething resentment against bike thieves. Now I’m going to have to go bake myself another cake and eat my feelings and ruin all the work I did at the gym. Thanks China. Thanks a lot. (And by that I mean I’ll get over it tomorrow and buy another, shittier bike since I sort of expected this to happen from the beginning.)

Cake For Days

I’ve had a quiet weekend, coming home after a long Friday and curling up with a good book and nursing a dirty martini (heavy on the olives). After about halfway through the extremely British Post-Captain the descriptions of rather delicious teas and social dinners got the better of me and I decided I needed cake. So I made one.

It was a bit of an experiment. About two cups of flour, a cup of sugar, some baking powder. Usually I put in one egg but this time I divided three eggs, whipped the whites arduously by hand until they were light and fluffy, and folded it in with half a cup of honey, the beaten egg yolks, and half a cup of milk. A dash of salt, vanilla and almond extract. I wasn’t really paying attention to the oven and accidentally set it to 200 C, which caused the crust the brown quite nicely while leaving the insides gooey. I cut off the just-deliciously-shy-of-burnt top, and popped it back in at 160 C, which cooked nicely. Ginny and I made short work of it (okay, Ginny had a few small pieces, I may have eaten three quarters of a cake by myself). The final result is a dense, chewy, moist cake that looks like cornbread but is infinitely more delicious. I eat it without frosting of any kind, which I think would only detract from it. I improvised the recipe years ago when i was trying to experiment with pancake mix and decided to see what would happen, and have been making some variation of it ever since.

An easy Saturday with no practice, since the team was at a tournament. Getting stuff done around the house, catching up on news, a little studying. Bambi and I met Ginny in Sanlitun where they insisted on eating at Subway (I declined to order anything), and then spending what felt like hours at a DVD store. We walked to Tuanjiehu Park, where a little birthday shindig was occurring for a friend of a friend’s. The park was beautiful, or at least, it may have been many years ago, and probably would still be if the water wasn’t so disgusting. We only stayed a short time, and then met up with some other people to go to dinner at Baoyuan Jiaoziwu on Maizidian Jie, home of the delicious crack dumplings. I don’t think I will ever get tired of these dumplings, although some Chinese people don’t like them because they aren’t “authentic,” they sure are amazing. Spicy peanut and pork, spicy pepper and sweet potato and lamb, glass noodle carrot cucumber tofu, crispy rice and vegetable pork…the variations are amazing. By the time we sat down I hadn’t eaten in 7 hours, and so even though we ordered a prodigious amount, we polished them off rather quickly. Sated and a little tired from all our walking, the family returned home. We toyed with the idea of going out, but ended up watching movies and relaxing instead.

Dina has started working at my English center which is great, someone to talk to who isn’t an officious Swede or strange faux-British-really-French guy is fantastic. After our morning lessons we wandered around the area, settling for lunch at Paris Baguette, which had some pretty decent sandwiches, garlic bread and pizza. After a long afternoon of little girls sobbing through class, and kids feigning illness to get out of aprticipating, and general rowdiness, I was ready for some adult social time.

I met AH near Ritan Park (I hadn’t ever been in the area, it is surprisingly Russian!) and we found our European socialite’s home with no small difficulty and a tad bit of dithering. It turned out to be a lovely evening with amazing little treats-irresistable tiny baozi and jiaozi, homemade yogurt with fresh fruit, and the best cake that I’ve had here, a soft and fluffy genoise filled with sugared pear and coated with a not-too-sweet mousse of some sort. It was amazing. I restrained myself to a tiny morsel instead of the half a cake I could have devoured. Our European socialite loves bringing together people from all over, so I mingled with entrepreneurs, Swedish fashion designers, Beijing LBGT film directors, South African hedonists…it was all quite fun. We stayed for a couple hours, then bid our gracious hostess farewell and departed. A girl could get used to a social life like that.

Beijing High Life

So Wednesday was a bit stressful and a bit awesome. It started with a 7 am phone call from my first student asking if we could move our class from 9 to the afternoon. I couldn’t, so we canceled class, and I gratefully went back to sleep for an extra two hours. With my free time, I did laundry, reorganized and cleaned my room, and prepared for my interviews.

I was ready and out the door by 2:10, but had a horrible time getting a cab-honestly, why was traffic so awful at two on a Wednesday afternoon-so at 2:30, I reluctantly got on a bus, my feet already aching in my heels and quite uncomfortably warm in my suit. After a cozy ride in bumper to bumper traffic, I ran my robot heart out and made it to the first interview just on time. Afterward, I managed to flag down a cab after only walking a block, and for the first time, someone actually let me take the cab instead of hopping in before I could. Still more traffic, so I just had time to freshen up and change into a fancy dress and a different pair of heels, before meeting my friend AH.

AH had somehow finagled an invitation to a exhibition and cocktail reception being held at a diplomatic residence, and did me a lovely favor by inviting me. We mingled with complete strangers, drank lovely European wine, strategically stalked the servitors with hors d’oeuvres trays. I was gratified to learn that AH and I share this fixation of fancy parties, and that I am not the only uncouth pretender obsessed with eating. I collected a few name cards, a few potential employment connections, and a very friendly socialite befriended AH and me, and has invited us to another upcoming fancy reception. Oh Beijing, where wealthy socialites, corrupt businessmen, diplomats, and unemployed/part-time English teachers can hobnob together.

We left early, since AH had later plans and I had another interview and didn’t want to drink too much of the delicious wine. Still hungry, I tossed together a quick mapo tofu dish, using bacon since I didn’t have any minced pork on hand. it was a little bit too spicy and salty, but not bad. Fingers crossed now for both interviews, we’ll see how my life goes.

A sunny day, bits of soft fuzz drift in the warm wind like a lazy snowfall. The scent of lilacs fills the air these days, masking the usual stench that characterizes Beijing. I biked slowly, indolently, having a good morning. Dina and I met up after lunch for an adventure to Ikea. I bought lots of glass bowls and bake ware and a table that took me two hours to assemble. Only 2 screws away from being complete, I realized that two of the first pieces were switched, and I had to take it all apart and reassemble it. We rewarded our shopping excursion with Ikea hotdogs and ice cream, then battled for a cab home. Dina stayed for dinner, ordering from the family style restaurant, and fiddled about with internet things while I struggled with my table. Ginny came home just in time to make some snarky comments about girls and building things, to which I had to reply with threats of deadly force.

Taco Night

What a long couple of days. Sunday I was out of the house for over 12 hours, leaving at 8:30and not coming home until 10:30. My students were even more rowdy than usual, and I taught a demo with a little boy who wouldn’t open his mouth to say anything the entire time-a wee bit frustrating. Almost every student was running late, so it wasn’t until 5:30 that I was able to leave, when I should have already been at the Kitchen getting ready for a dumpling making class. I biked my little robot heart out, cursing at the tourists clogging up the streets. I pulled into the hutong just heartbeats before the group did, giving me time to lock up my bike and throw on an apron.

They were a very convivial bunch of grad students from the South, happy to be here, happy to be drinking wine, happy to be making jiaozi. I was translating for Chairman for the most part, and generally being charming. After actually helping make the filling this time, I won’t have to guess the ingredients, now I know how to really make amazing dumplings at home. We made lamb and pumpkin, pork and cabbage, and spinach egg. After the group left, Dice and I powered through the leftover jiaoziand I made my slow and tired way home.

Monday started with my morning class with the chefs, which as usual ended with a delicious lunch. Scapes fried with Chinese bacon-like preserved pork, tofu with mushroom and cabbage stir fry, lots of rice. Simple, filling, and tasty. I biked quickly to the office afterward for another class, and stopped at Jenny Lou’s for some western staples, including Cocoa Pebbles since my roommates are 12 years old. I went to the vegetable market as well, and picked up all sorts of veggies, as well as venturing upstairs, purchasing some chicken and tofu, although I haven’t quite worked up the courage to buy lamb or pork, nor have I seen beef sold there. Perhaps next time. I do want to braise lamb shanks now that I have an oven, and oxtail stew. I had so many choices to make for dinner but settled on roasted Brussels sprouts tossed with olive oil, soy sauce and honey marinated chicken wings, and a red bean and pumpkin stew. I set the adzuki beans to soak for an hour as directed, but I think it needed more soaking or cooking time, as the end result was a little too chewy. The taste was good-pumpkin, carrot, celery, dash of soy, some herbs, chicken stock, but the vegetables were overcooked and beans undercooked. I marinated the chicken wings in light and dark soy, cooking wine, dash of Maggi and fish sauce, honey, sugar, pepper, minced ginger leek and garlic. Baked for 40 minutes at 210* C, flipped over once halfway, they came out really well.

Honey Soy Sauce wings, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Rice and Adzuki Pumpkin Stew

Again with the early morning class, this time Dina came to sit in and see what tutoring in China is like. The desk girls were jumping at the prospect of a new foreign teacher to hire, and quite impressed with her very proper British English. I hope it turns out well for everyone, especially if I have to start cutting back teaching hours. I also showed her the way to Jenny Lou’s and we stopped in and shared a moment of happiness for the feeling of home that that store brings.

I stopped for a noodle lunch with the boys, then spent some time trying to think of ways to engage my newest student. I realize that I have it so easy with Peach, who learns so quickly and is well mannered, very bright, and usually attentive. I gave myself an hour to get to the student’s house, thankfully. It should have only taken me half an hour, but I ended up waiting for my bus transfer for half an hour under a bridge next to a canal of some sort. When I finally arrived to their apartment, the little girl was napping! Her mom woke her up and reluctantly the learning commenced. We played some games, read some stories, traced some letters, and then I made the mistake of trying to read a Dr Seuss book to her on my iPad. I had thought that it would be an effective tool, since Peach never mashes it with her hands, but the little girl and her littler brother were a bit more rowdy and insistent, so I had to put it away and rely on old school methods of play. Her mom basically wants an English babysitter, not a teacher, to teach her a few letters but then play with her for two hours and let her absorb the English from me, so we went outside and played pirates (took me a while to realize that “haidao” meant pirate and not that we were on the ocean in a boat) and looked at the flower garden until it was mercifully time to leave.

I managed to flag down a cab (in the middle of rush hour!), narrowly avoiding being hit by a cab. My driver was pretty nice and tolerated me striking up a conversation, and informed me that the way I said to get to my house would allow other drivers to charge me more and be stuck in traffic, and told me the better way to get home. Dina came over and we made tacos! We may have cheated and used seasoning from a little packet and salsa from a jar, but who cares, it was all delicious. First we made guacamole-two avocados, about a third of a purple onion minced, three cloves of garlic, half a tomato minced, salt, pepper and lime juice. We caramelized some white onions, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, and browned beef. Since we had more ground beef than the package called for, I added liberal amounts of cumin and chili powder. Warmed up the tortillas in the wok, and voila! Messy, delicious, craving-quenching tacos. We were all happy, the boys particularly, although they repaid this kindness by making fun of me for acting like they are mostly useless in a kitchen, and are now constantly yelling “oh no, Robot, why are things on fire what did I do to make this all burn.”

Despite feeling hectic and busy and usually tired, things are looking like my life could be taking direction. I’ve got my fingers crossed and a freshly pressed suit and a fancy dress and a list of facts to process into my brainpiece.

China Hates Me

This week, China really didn’t like me. I was putting dishes away and a cabinet door nearly fell on my head. Then our washing machine hose exploded andpart of the tank developed a leak simultaneously, causing massive amounts of water to flood the hall and my bedroom. Then I came home from work on Friday and the electricity was out in the apartment.

Wednesday after work, I finally got part of my bank problem fixed (only part, there’s still a few hurdles I have to jump before I can access the money I’ve earned since I’ve been here), and decided to make dinner. As I was doing a couple dishes to clear the sink up, the kitchen tried to assassinate me with the cabinet door. I soldiered on. Wok fried green beans with minced pork and mustard root. Mince leek ginger and garlic of course, also the Sichuan pickled root vegetable, or mustard root, which is quite salty and looks kind of like a pale pickle-colored solid pepper. First, deep fry the green beans until the skin blisters-the Chinese have a thing about cooking the crap out of beans that they eat. Remove them from the oil. Leave a little bit of oil in the wok, add the minced pork with pepper salt and chicken bouillon, and then the ginger leek garlic. Make sure the meat is crumbled into little pieces, and the vegetables are minced very finely, so they all stick to the beans. Add in the mustard root, then the green beans. A dash of soy sauce, a quick toss in the pan, then plate.

I had two chicken legs that I de-boned with some difficulty with my cleaver, following Dice’s instructions, cut it into small pieces, velveted it with water, salt, and cornstarch, and stir fried it with carrot and pepper. Stir fry sauce: dark and light soy, dash of Maggi and fish sauce, vinegar, cooking wine and chicken broth and more cornstarch. The boys really liked it but it was a little too salty for me. After I finished cooking, I went to check on my laundry, and to my dismay, there was just water flooding into my room. Dinner was postponed as we mopped and squeegeed furiously.

Thursday after normal classes one of the desk girls took me out to a student’s house, which was past Jingsong. It took an hour to get back by bus in rush hour. The student was another 4 year old girl who was very cute, but a little less studious than my other little kiddles, and she had a boisterous younger brother. He immediately took a liking to me, and wanted to give me a massage, so while I was trying to teach the alphabet, this tiny little human came running over and started karate chopping my back. He also would shout out the answers before his sister and didn’t like not being center of attention.

I seem to be a bit of a godsend to this school-most of their teachers don’t like teaching the younger students and are weaseling their way out of the classes, but I have pretty infinite patience with young kids, even if I vent about it later. It also seems that my patience is to be rewarded by getting all the problem kids.

Friday was one class after another, although I did go back to my coffee shop for a study session at lunch. Ended the work day with dinner with my student’s family at their house again. I do like this custom of feeding your teachers. When I was a poor starving 17 year old in Taiwan, my student’s mom made me sandwiches like bricks or red bean pastries, and best of all, gave me a sack of zongzi, bamboo packets of sticky rice, that lasted me a week of meals. When we get our act together and hire a Chinese tutor, I think I will try to do the same. Anyway, I biked home slowly (yes, finally back on my bike after my little scare) with a whole list of things I was going to get done-lessons plans and studying and job applications. I opened the door and flipped the switch…and nothing happened. No lights. No electricity for anything. I tried the fuse box. Nothing happened. Bambi had never gotten around to paying the electricity. I gathered up all the candles I could find, found my flashlight, and wondered what I would do as the apartment quickly got dark. No internet, my iPad was nearly out of juice from using it all day, and at only 7 I wasn’t nearly sleepy enough to go to bed. I ended up reading Shogun by flashlight. I’m so glad I live in this time where we have electricity and don’t use candles to read and have the internet. Bambi came home eventually and we tried to put money on the electricity. But China doesn’t work like that: you can only add money to the card if there’s already money on it, if the money runs out completely you have to go to State Grid and make them fix it. At 9 on a Friday this wasn’t likely to happen. So instead of getting the work done that I had planned, I had what could almost be considered a romantic evening, a candlelit dinner. Except it was Bambi and me sitting on the couch eating messy takeout, trying not to set my hair on fire while reading, and listening to Bambi tell stories about crazy girls, and then going to bed early.

At least thing do seem to be looking up. We fixed our electricity, our landlord came and brought a worker to fix the washer, and also a few other small problems. Hopefully the week will keep getting better.

Tomb Sweeping Day

All in all, I had a pretty good “holiday” even if it wasn’t really a holiday for me.

Some of the girls from the Frisbee team decided that it might be a good idea to get together, take advantage of the nice weather and free time, and get away from all the, and here I quote “big swinging dicks and egos” that characterize practice with the boys. I made it to Chaoyang Park after my morning classes and managed to not get as terribly lost as I did the first time I went. We were a bit of a spectacle to the kite flying, badminton playing denizens of the park, what with our coordinated team plyos and running drills and whatnot, but it was a good day. We finished off with a (kind of pricey) lunch at Chef 2, an American style place. I got a ginger carrot soup and avocado and chicken salad, since I’ve been missing avocados lately. At home I used to buy a bunch and eat one whole with a little salt or soy sauce as an afternoon snack.

More lessons followed practiced, with an intensely awkward conversation with the Swede whose first words to me were America-bashing. He had seen me using an iPad, was inspired to purchase one for himself, and then under the guise of asking me to give him a tutorial to use it, attempted to act all superior and prove himself to be a wondrous master of shiny new technology. I remain unimpressed.

I cabbed to Gulou for an event that the Kitchen was working. This international company had hired an event company which hired us to give a dumpling making tutorial at Dali Courtyard, the Yunnanese restaurant I went to earlier this year. The event company was actually incredibly bitchy and made everything more complicated by micro-managing, but it ended up being a success, mostly because Dice is good at handling bullshit and the people at Dali are really great. I translated for the Chairman, demonstrated no mean dumpling making talent of my own, and was generally charming, despite being ravenously hungry. Most of the helpers left after our tutorial wrapped up, but I stuck around to help Dice and another intern, QQ. She’s local Chinese and just so eager about everything! What is it with these tiny humans and their over-enthusiasm (don’t get me wrong, QQ is a very nice girl, and I like her, I just happen to a cranky grumpster robot). Since the event had only half the people show up that they expected, and it ended fairly early, the Dali staff and us three descended on the buffet once they left. Dali has great food although on the more expensive side of the scale, and I very rarely turn my nose up at free food. Their grilled shrimp was on the menu, which I’ve had before, as well as fried rice, dried beef, tofu skins and basil, and of course, our many dumplings. We had four different fillings: egg and spinach, glass noodle and vegetable, pork and cabbage, and lamb and pumpkin, with corresponding wrapper colors in green, purple, white and orange.

Trays of dumplings because we are dumpling making robots

After snacking on the leftovers, we were still a little peckish. Dice took us to Amigo, just around the corner on Gulou Street, for decent Mexican (I wouldn’t go again if I was back at home, but while in China… it satisfied a craving, although i might have to experiment with cooking Mexican at home sometime). We introduced QQ to her first Mexican food, nachos, burritos and enchiladas. Highly satisfying.

Perhaps the best part of the day? Receiving a text from Bambi that said “friend is moving. oven for sale. I assume you want it? it’s ours now.” I am so excited, although I have no idea where we’re going to keep it, and I may just actually become the fattest panda. For the past three months I’ve been overlooking recipes that require baking…there is going to be an explosion of activity in my kitchen very soon…roast chicken and vegetables, braised oxtail and pork and lamb shanks, cakes, cookies, pies…

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