Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mama and Papa, with pictures!

Their first full day of China (last Sunday), Alison, M&P (Mama and Papa), and I essentially followed the guide established in a recent NYT article about "must-do" activities in 37 Asian Cities. After registering with the police (because we are law-abiding residents), we started off the day by going to the PanJiaYuan Market, where we both bought table patterns of the same pattern but different colors. Here's ours:We then headed over to historic Beijing to the Drum and Bell Towers. The NYT did not mention anything about eating, so we went by M&P's rules: if you don't have a place in mind, find a busy place without any foreigners. We ended up at a Shanghai-style restuarant, that was yummy but not delicious, particularly compared to everything else we've been eating. Nevertheless, we still managed to put together a feast:
Believe it or not, Papa is actually having a great time (side note, whenever I try to take pictures of them smiling or laughing, I seem to get the tail end or beginning of their "happy" face, with often hilarious results. To be nice, I won't post many of them.) We then went to the Drum and Bell Towers:Can you see they brought the Phoenix weather to Beijing? We walked around for a little bit before taking a historic hutong tour via PediCab. Alison and I were really excited because we had heard great things about it but never done it.We learned that in Imperial China, you could tell that the status of a family by the number of beams protruding from their doorway (12 = Emperor, 4 = aristocrat, 2 = less rich but maybe powerful, 0 = everyone else). They also had various marble carvings etched into the lions near the doorway so you could also tell what career the head of the household had.

The tour was initially fantastic but then at the end got sketchy when they took us into someone's home that had seats for us with merchandise for us to buy. So we left quickly but were still happy:For dinner, we headed to our favorite resturant, Da Dong Duck. Alison got so excited on the bridge, because the air was so clear that you could actually see that Beijing is ringed by mountains! In the picture below, I was supposed to block the sun so we could see the mountains.
I failed, and the halo I have makes me look like Billabong Jesus.

As always, the food at Da Dong was amazing: Papa and Mama chose all non-duck entrees, which we had never had before (and were delicious).
(Here Papa is, ordering.) Normally, someone comes to our table and teaches you how to fold the little tortilla into a very cute bite-sized rectangle. However, no one came to teach us, and before we could explain, Mama made a burrito out of the duck and accompanying spices:Nothing like bringing a little bit of the Southwest to Beijing!


Last night, we went to a delicious Yunnan restaurant for dinner (food from southern China); because it's a popular place, Adam called to make a reservation in advance. However, the person at the restaurant didn't speak any English, and Adam handed the phone to me...and I had a successful phone conversation in Mandarin!!!! It obviously helped that to know the context (you know what questions you'll be asked when making a reservation), but it was still very exciting and I felt accomplished when hanging up :)

Side note: She kept asking for my name and I repeated Adam: "A as in apple, D as in dance" but she would cut me off and ask for my name again. Eventually, she said she wanted my Chinese name so I had to explain that I didn't have one. Apparently, I have a perfect accent...? I'll keep dreaming! When we got to the restaurant last night, she had written Adam as ATM. Haha!

We are having a great time with Mama and Papa and look forward to a weekend in Shanghai!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Just when I thought things had changed forever...

Mama and Papa arrived Sunday night--their flight arrived an hour early at the old terminal (thank goodness for!)--and we've been having a blast. More details to come when we consolidate pictures to post about our adventures yesterday. (Today, Alison and I are both working while they do a city tour, and we're meeting for dinner.)

To surprise Papa with his favorite drink (sparkling water) and to support Mama's love to eat hard boiled eggs for breakfast (I'd tease her, but Alison and I eat peanut-butter-oatmeal with a banana for bfast, so who are we to judge?), I went to Carrefour to go grocery shopping. They finally changed the music from this orchestral smooth Chinese-jazz muzak that makes my skin crawl, so originally I was super happy. Then I noticed the songs they were playing were all American pop songs. Granted they were random (My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion, Baby by the Biebs, New York State of Mind by Jay Z, etc), but it was definitely not Chinese. The people in front of me in line were buying all imported goods--bacon, Ritz crackers, Cokes, and Oreos--and the couple behind me looked like the Chinese version of Brooklyn hipsters, complete with the lense-less thick-rimmed glasses, ipod headphones in, and skinny jeans.

Mama had visited China in the 1970s as part of an invited tour for American female lawyers and has been noticing how Beijing is basically unrecognizable compared to when she came. Because she has mentioned this a few times already, I think I was more attuned to how China is westernizing while it is becoming modern than before. But it is true: for example, when we moved into our apartment, there was one western restaurant and one bar, but now, in 6 short months, there are 3 restaurants and 3 bars! But just when I started to think I was in the midst of some big socio-cultural change, I was jolted back from my thoughts into the check-out line
when the cashier's shift ended, right when it was my turn to check out.

Cue an elaborate ritual where she counted the money in the register (the manager re-counted), counted the plastic bags she hasn't sold (the manager recounted), reprinted the receipts and put them in order with the originals, cleaned up her register area of the calculator, stapler, pens, etc, and put everything into her fanny pack...and then the next cashier did the same thing, but in reverse, to get ready. The entire process took 30 minutes (I timed it!), and seemed so old-school Chinese. As annoyed as I became, it also made me smile--you can westernize China all you want, but it will remain, fundamentally, communist.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Picture Update!

Here are a few pictures from the past few weeks...enjoy!

Chocojing (pairings of chocolate and beer--YUM!) with Sarah and her friend Andrew:

Making hand-pulled noodles with Janice:

Hilarious signage on Mt. Emei (near Chendgu, where we visited with Janice)
Clearly, grass is very important to these people.

A quick glance at the best part of my mornings...
(Ashley is in both of these pictures, but I just couldn't resist; Sarah (left) giggles nonstop when she's on that thing, and I thought Ashley and Simon sharing the little scooter was just adorable. And I want to take all 3 of this children home with me).

This week, I've been teaching the letter K. It has been quite relate-able, as there is at least one Kevin in every single we've been "counting Kevins." How many Kevins can YOU see?? (Don't forget "small Kevin" on the bottom right!)
Then we inevitably count Alisons. The kids had some trouble understanding how I could be in so many places at once, but the Chinese teacher helped explain. So cute!

We're supposed to have spring-like temperatures in the coming days, just in time for Mama and Papa! I hope everyone's enjoying spring back home!
(PS: A huge THANK YOU to Cathy and Herman's alma mater, U of A!!!! I love March!)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Internet, etc.

Not to keep harping on the same issue, but Internet has been insane the past few weeks. We have been rerouted from to everything from (Hong Kong) to (United Arab Emirates). Gchat has not been working, and with it, Google call, which was by far the best-timed tool Google could have come out with, right after we arrived in August. While Adam and I suspected it was just our crazy Internet or a VPN issue, we were validated upon reading this article about China meddling in Google's affairs. Thank you, New York Times!

In other news, the government turned off the heat across the northeast last week, so we're drinking delicious jasmine tea to stay warm on this chilly evening. We joined Sarah and her friend for ChocoJing, a night of Belgian beer and chocolate tastings; an unusual but awesome combination. One of my closest friends from college just took a job in New York, so we'll be neighbors once again! Carolina is in the Sweet 16 (!!!), Pitt lost (???), and the March Madness on Demand app is incredible.

Finally, along with the 5 or 6 children I plan to bring back to America (only a few...I don't want to look suspicious), Adam and I also decided on a pet:
He's quite cuddly, low-maintenance, and loves his bamboo! He's already preparing for the concrete jungle of 96th and Park (yes, we also have an apartment for next year!).

Our last visitors arrive on Saturday--Adam's maternal grandparents, Mama and Papa! While we're both super excited, it's also strange that they'll be our final visitors. Where has the time gone??

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Janice's 1st weekend

I've been absent from the blogging world as of late because my VPN was not as easily fixed as Adam's. Luckily, I got a pretty hilarious email from the company, sent to all China users, with steps to help repair the problems and a few snarky comments towards the Great Firewall. It's good to have real internet again!

It's already been a few weeks, but Janice had a great 1st weekend in Beijing. We started off our Saturday morning with a traditional NY brunch (bagels/cream cheese/lox--straight from H&H to our kitchen!! Thank you Janice!) in a less traditional setting--picnic at the Temple of Heaven. 
Notice the kid in the pink jacket in the corner? That's one of my students, Molly!  We were eating and people watching, when Adam said "Look at that little kid with all of her ponytails!" I looked up and realized "I know her!" So we're in a massive park in a massive city of 23 million, not particularly close to my school, and we run into 2 students! It was awesome; at first they were somewhat shocked to see me, but then burst into song--Days of the Week, ABC Song, and the Bumblebee song. At the top of their lungs. On the steps of the Temple of Heaven. I love my kids!!
Talking to parents while Molly and Lily scream the days of the week
We walked around the park a bit before picking up some snacks at Wanfujing and meeting up with Ben and Simon to explore a park and hutongs nearby. The park is apparently known for "random" meetings of parents who want to set up their single children, Fiddler on the Roof style. Unfortunately, it was pretty deserted when we were there,
so we rode the bumper cars instead!

My favorite part? The American-themed cars.

We ended the day with massages and dumplings, the perfect Beijing welcome!

We woke up early Sunday morning and met our friend Jeremy to go to our favorite place: the Great Wall. Because we've posted pictures from this exact hike two other times (though it was just as spectacular!), I'll spare the wall pictures and bring on the people pictures! Janice found the perfect spot for scenic shots
and Adam realized that he didn't have the quintessential "floating head" pic (see me and his parents).
I love window shots and suggested Adam pose by a beautiful view. His response: "Alison, we already have enough of us by windows on the Great Wall. I don't want to." But I insisted and this is the result:
Goofball :)

We conquered the Great Treadmill and Stairmaster (Cathy, thinking of you the whole time!) and were all very thankful for the lack of ice. After finally making it to the top, a group picture was definitely necessary!
By this point, it was windy and we were pretty high, which leads to all sorts of beauty:
Look at that frizz! We ended with a shout out to Amherst College and naps on the ride back to Beijing. 

Janice's final weekend was also fantastic--we explored the tea district, ate delicious Yunnan food, found an incredible silk shop, and drank cocktails overlooking the Forbidden City. What a great visit!

Chengdu: PANDAS

Janice just left, and we are once again all alone in our apartment...this time without heat. Big thumbs down. But, I found something to do: we've been so busy galavanting around Beijing the last few days that we forgot to post about the pandas! So, here goes!

After returning home at 10 pm after our 6-hour standstill-traffic bus-ride from hell, we basically crashed at our hostel. The next morning, we again woke up super early, this time to go to the Panda Breeding Center! We arrived at 8:30 am, just when they released the pandas into their enclosures (it was more like a zoo than a wild animal area). (Sid
e note: we learned a lot about pandas so will be adding fun panda facts into the post)

So basically, a few moments after we got there, this is what we saw:Little did we know this was the most movement we would see these adolescent pandas do all day--from inside to the bamboo pile. They then proceeded to start eating.
(You looking at me?) They only eat the shoots of this type of bamboo, not the outside hard part, so they do this really cute thing where they hold the bamboo and peel it with their teeth.It's pretty hard work to eat this way...especially because (fun fact) they only absorb/digest about 20% of the food they eat...and they got lazier, and lazier, until they basically were lying on their backs stuffing their faces.I love this picture because I think it looks like an Ewok, from Star Wars:
We then went over to the panda baby nursery. Turns out, pandas are born weighing 1/1000th of what they will weigh as adults, and they look like gross little white rats. Fun fact: their skin/fur doesn't turn black around their eyes until they're one month old! We didn't see any "fresh ones" (as Alison says about newly born human babies), but we did spend a long time watching a few 6-10 month old cubs (?) play.They were so cute! We loved how these twin cubs followed each other around, rough-housing.There was a third panda cub resting in a tree, looking all peaceful and angelic.Then the twins climbed up too and disrupted the bigger one from its slumber.
Turns out panda cubs are more acrobatic than we thought:We then went to watch a video about the panda breeding center and panda mating habits. What we learned is that basically the pandas would be extinct without human intervention: normally species live for about 5 million years and then become extinct, and the pandas have been around 8 million years. Then, they barely digest their food. And, if that weren't enough, female pandas are only in estrus for a short time, and are super picky about their mates, and...if a baby is born, 1/3 of the females do not know how to mother their offspring so it dies. (And, not mentioned, of course, in the Chinese propaganda video was the fact that almost all of their natural habitat has been destroyed.)

Luckily for pandas worldwide, this center has developed a new technique for semen collection that has greatly improved their artificial insemination program. As they said in the video (verbatim), in the 1990s, they only used electrical stimulation on the males, with poor results, but now they have "pioneered a new technique for semen collection, called 'electrical stimulation with massage.'" The three of us started laughing immediately; I wonder who has the job entitled "Panda Penis Masseuse"?

After the video ended, our trip returned to a PG level--we saw an few full-size adults in individual enclosures...eating.
Surprised? And we saw the red panda, which kinda looks like a raccoon. Much more active, but less impressive.
After we left the panda center, we went to a Sichuan hotpot, which is a super-famous eating style that is kinda like fondue at the Melting Pot: there's a burner on the table, and they put a vat of liquid broth/seasoning and give you what you order raw. Then you cook it yourself via boiling it, and it's all sorts of deliciousness.

We got 2 bowls of seasoning--one spicy and one not. After our first bite of the spicy, with faces that had already flushed to a bright red, Janice and I took out about 90% of the ma la (these spicy peppers that make you mouth go numb) so we could eat. We managed ok: my mouth felt like it had been burnt. As in, eating unseasoned rice was painful. But despite that, it was one of the best meals we've had in China.

We then went to a Buddhist temple that looked like all other Buddhist temples and headed back to the airport for our return to Beijing.

We're missing Janice but so thankful she was able to spend her spring break with us. Can't wait to see her back in NYC in a few months!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chengdu: Mt Emei and monkey madness!

We landed in Chengdu late on Friday night and met Janice for a drink near our hostel (Dad, you surprised?). Saturday, we woke up very early to go to Mt. Emei (pronounced, Uh-may). The mountain is famous for being one of the 4 holy Buddhist mountains in China, and we were excited to get there.

The mountain was definitely beautiful--even though it was cloudy, the views were still very impressive. And there were Buddhist temples scattered throughout the peaks, so, of course, Alison had to take what has now become standard, striking photographs of burning incense (this time with prayer candles behind)and of the peaks and mist through a doorway.

To be honest, this Buddhist te
mple seemed just like the others we've seen in other parts of China and Laos (how snobby we've become!)...though there were still some really unique parts. First, the monks were playing pingpong in the courtyard:And then we thought "keep off the grass" signs were hysterical:
Alison, Janice, and I were talking a lot while we were hiking about how the mountain was kinda surreal: it was dense jungle on the peaks, as in the background of this picture......but then we weren't hiking on any trails: everything was paved stairs or paths, and there were hotels "trail"side, as you can see here: If that level of development weren't enough, you could pay people to carry you between the temples!
We decided that this particular part of the trip was perfectly emblematic of the mountain: There was a beautiful stone carving on the side of the path commemorating the Emperor who commemorated this mountain as holy. It looked ancient and detailed, until you looked closely and saw it was actually made of cement! Look at the heron's neck and at the pole of the umbrella/bamboo to see the iron frame! Either way, it was still impressively made. The highlight for me, climbing up and down 100s of steps at a time, was the fact that they kept advertising a "ecologic monkey zone" on the mountain. You know how much I love animals, so I was really excited and anxious that we'd get to see one.

The first glimpse of the Tibetan macaque did not disappoint!
We were so happy and felt so lucky to have one so near. Then, we noticed a bunch of monkeys in the hill around the path, including one that was drinking from a water bottle.When we realized the monkeys stayed by the paths because they were constantly fed by tourists here, the whole thing was markedly less magical...but still pretty cool.
The monkey on the left actually tried to pickpocket Janice! That should have been forewarning to what was to happen but, hey, hindsight is 20/20, right? Anyways, as we were leaving the area, we went under a pseudo-pagoda, where two cute monkeys were grooming each other.When we got a few steps on the draw bridge, one of the monkeys jump
ed down, scampered on the rail past Alison and Janice, looked at me, and leaped on my arm. Janice had just finished telling us a story about how people she met in the hostel the day before were bitten by the monkeys, so I immediately flung it off me. It landed on the rail, bared its teeth at me, started swiping!

(Please notice that there are no pictures of this happening because Alison and Janice had already ran as fast as they could back to the near side of the bridge).

The monkey jumped on my neck, teeth bared, and I flung it off as hard as it could this time. When it started chasing me again, I gave up and sprinted across the bridge. I could hear Alison and Janice gasping, so I knew the monkey was following me...but then this old Chinese lady rushed past me and started swinging a bamboo stick.She saved my life! In the picture below, the monkey looks all relaxed, after nearly pulling a Mike Tyson on my ass...but remove that Chinese lady from the picture, and it would have attacked again, I swear!In hindsight, I am very happy it happened to me and not Alison or Janice because I have the international travel insurance, so I would have been able to get a rabies shot quickly had I been bitten (weird reasoning, huh?)...but still! Now, thus far, I've fallen off a camel (twice), been thrown off a horse (in Costa Rica), and been attacked by a monkey. Can you see why I didn't want to ride on the elephant's head?

We finished the hike laughing the whole time about my pseudo-near death adventure, and took a beautiful group picture near a bridge:We took a bus home through horrific traffic that made a 2 hour ride into more than 6...but that didn't dampen our spirits: the next day, we were going to see pandas!!!