Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Ambassador, the Whiffenpoofs, Dionysus, and other fortuitous events

[Don't be confused - this post is belated!]

     After a short lull following the push to produce the Nightline segment on Ai Weiwei, the drama of the Olympics has once again filled the news void. Maybe this year I've followed the Games more closely than I have in the past, but it really seems that there is an incredible amount of drama in London. On even just the Chinese team, a women's badminton duo was disqualified for trying to lose, hurdling champion Liu Xiang fell on the first jump and now has fallen from grace, 16-year-old female swimmer Ye Shiwen is apparently faster than Ryan Lochte and maintains she's not doping, diver Qin Kai was weepy because he failed the secure the final gold medal needed for a clean sweep...but drama aside, I am wowed every day by the athletic performances of the Olympic athletes. It's fascinating and compelling to watch them compete given the pressure they are under, and also to see how they deal with it once the results are out. 

     Speaking of Olympics and China, the article I wrote about the Chinese badminton team that purposely tried to lose was published on the main ABC site! This is a big deal because the articles I have written thus far have been for the ABC News blogs, and Gloria says I am the first intern (at ABC Beijing? that she knows of? in history?) to publish an article on the main site. (The context was a little vague, but I felt proud nonetheless.) 

     I went with my ABC colleague, Kaijing, to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China mixer event on Thursday, where I met a host of characters, including the team at “the other ABC” (Australian Broadcasting Company), a man who introduced himself as “the only Belgian correspondent in China”, a former “Reuterd” who now works at Bloomberg, who declared that Romney would without a doubt win the upcoming presidential election, and a journalist-turned-independent-filmmaker who asserted that diplomats are mindless government puppets, and that any allegiance to a news network, station, or paper is the sacrifices pure journalism to the confines of a bureaucracy. It was fascinating to meet this wide range of people each reporting from Beijing through the lens of their company (or independently funded-documentary). At the mixer, I learned about the jiantao, an idiosyncrasy of reporting from Beijing. In short, if a journalist gets in trouble with Chinese police while reporting (whether it be for doing an “illegal” interview or going he or she shouldn’t), the police will take the reporter and team to the station and require that they write jiantao, or self-criticisms. One of the mixer attendees recalled his peeved cameraman writing a defensive jiantao, and then at the reporter’s urging inserting honorifics with arrows (“I can’t believe they would respectfully defer to the decision to take our cameras…”) The Belgian correspondent told a much more sobering story about being severely beaten by police while trying to report on the AIDS villages in China, where entire populations are dying after dirty needles in hospitals and infected blood transfusions caused the massive spread of the illness. The police confiscated all but one of his teams tapes, and beat them to the point that the reporter thought he was going to die. While the police eventually returned the tapes (blank) and sent them money, so shaken was he after the experience that he has vowed not to return to the villages and avoided reporting more controversial stories. (This is the sort of tale I’m relieved my mom didn’t hear before I went to Beijing.)

With members of the Foreign Correspondents'
Club of China
With Kaijing

     The Saturday that followed can only be described as incredible, bizarre, and perhaps some of the most fun I have had this trip. I received an email from Gloria the previous day asking, “Would you like to join me and Jim [her husband, chief of staff to the US ambassador] to hear the Whiffenpoofs perform at the ambassador’s home on Saturday?”, clarifying that the Whiffenpoofs are a Yale a capella group and that Ambassador Gary Locke is a Yale alum. Even with that explanation, I was essentially clueless about what to expect, but frankly would have said yes to any chance to meet the ambassador. 

With Ambassador Gary Locke
(and his priceless artwork)
   Still, I would never have imagined that as I entered the ambassador’s Beijing mansion I would come face to face with a host of priceless works of art, including Lichtenstein and Warhol original works. As it were, the US embassies have access to an enormous art collection, and so when they moved in, Gary Locke’s wife decorated the mansion with their favorite pieces. (My jaw dropped later that night when Ambassador Locke joked that they needed to move a certain sculpture to make way for some Chihuly pieces—except he wasn’t joking.) Before the performance started, Gloria introduced me to Ambassador Locke, and we talked briefly about the need for American students to study in China (there are 170,000 students from China studying in the US, yet only 14,000 American students studying in China.) In talking with him one-on-one and hearing him speak about the importance of cross-cultural communication, it was instantly clear why he had been appointed to his position—he was both engaging and engaged, very genuine and overwhelmingly gracious.

The Chihuly is going here...
The Lichtenstein is above a photo of Gary Locke and his wife
chilling and thrilling with the Clintons on the campaign trail

Yes, that's the real deal!
     And then came the Whiffenpoofs—fourteen Yale men in tails and white gloves singing show tunes and spirituals. The oldest all-male a capella group at Yale, the Whiffenpoofs take a year off from school to travel the world giving performances. And they really were jet-setting—they went everywhere, from Bali to Madagascar (when we saw them, they had arrived from Japan and were leaving the next day for Cambodia.) They are phenomenal singers and showmen, and talking to them afterward dispelled any notion that their talent and smarts had gone to their heads. 

     After the concert, I grabbed dinner with Gloria, Jim, their nephew Austin, a junior at Columbia doing summer-study in Beijing, and his friends. After talking some politics and current affairs, Gloria and Jim took off, and Austin and his friends deliberated over how to spend the rest of their evening, inviting me to tag along. Apparently the Whiffenpoofs had made off with their women, and so they had to weigh the options: meet up with their female friends and have to compete with singing Yale men, or abandon ship and hit the club? We eventually came to the conclusion that "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and somewhat apprehensively ventured over to the Whiffenpoof after-party.

A drunken Whiffenpoof serenade at Chez Dionysus
     I got my first sense that this gathering was unconventional as we walked up to the apartment and spotted a Whiffenpoof coat of arms mural in the stairwell. Little did I know that we were about to enter the lavish four-story apartment of a Whiffenpoof alum and come face to face with the Yale Club of Beijing, the Whiffenpoofs, a wall covered with Russian Orthodox iconography, and the hosts themselves, a charming, neon orange oxford-clad middle-aged man named Dionysus and his partner. An international businessman and amazing host, Dionysus' work apparently takes him around the world, and so he had arrived from New York the previous day, was hosting the party that night, and planned to return to NYC the following day. The apartment was crowded with guests, and so I got to talk to a whole host of interesting people, from the Whiffenpoofs to Dionysus himself. The group did a second, somewhat tipsier performance for the new crowd, and I daresay a good time was had by all, including us gatecrashers. 

     The following day, Wurihan and I did something extremely typical of us and went out for delicious food. The theme of the day was "Food from the Lands of China's Ethnic Minorities", so we went out for lunch at a Yunnan restaurant and dinner at a Xinjiang restaurant. Food from Yunnan Province (south China) is characterized by herb usage, and food from Xinjiang Province (northwest China) is halal and uses a lot of mutton. Rest assured it was delicious and we ate everything.

     Monday last week was my last night swing dancing in Beijing, and it was kind of a bust because there were four guys who showed up, and at least three times as many girls. That kind of ratio doesn't really work for swing dancing unless the women know how to be leads. Still, I had a lovely time hanging out with Clare and my friend Yen, a Malaysian-Australian designer I've been friends with since entering the Beijing swing scene. I told them about my noise complaint story, which is rather embarrassing:
With Yen
With Clare
     Clare invited me to a solo swing dance class, where we learned the shim sham (swing dance's most famous line dance) and some fancy new Charleston moves. So inspired was I by these new moves that upon returning home I decided to practice...in heels. Big mistake. Around 12:30 am I got a knock on the door, and immediately knew I was in done for. Opening the door, I was met by a girl in her twenties or so who requested that I be a bit quieter, as there were elderly people living below me. "Do you understand what I'm saying?" she continued to ask. I assured her that I did, and was extremely sorry for causing so much trouble. She assured me it was no problemstill, the next day I received a call informing me that the family had reported me to apartment employees. Given how many times I have called the apartment workers with apartment issues, from repeated electricity outages to the three times I accidentally pushed the emergency alarm button, I'm sure the complaint just solidified my reputation as a total nut. (So thus ends the tale of my hard-soled in-home dance career.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Epicurean After the Storm

With Ai Weiwei
     Last week was a hectic one at work, as apart from covering the flooding (see the previous post) ABC Beijing was working overtime to produce a segment for Nightline on Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei. The piece aired last Friday in conjunction with the US premiere of "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry", an award-winning documentary about his art and activism. (It's a really fascinating and well-made documentary--I recommend you see it if you have a chance!) The team met him at his home and studio in Beijing, and I got the chance to be a fly on the wall during his interview. For someone the Chinese government considers such a threat, he's very level and calm, up-in-arms in the most unassuming of ways. We got to see his studio, the list of names of the students who died in the Sichuan earthquake he compiled, and his many cats, including the one that opens doors. Afterward, we all took pictures with him, and he gave us painted sunflower seeds (from his famous exhibition in London's Tate Modern). Before I got my photo taken with Ai Weiwei, he stopped and fixed my smudged lipstick--after that I was especially starstruck. ("One of China's most prominent political dissidents fixed my makeup! Ahhh!")
Inside Ai Weiwei's courtyard
Ai Weiwei and Gloria in front of the list of the names of
the students who died in the Sichuan earthquake
Inside Ai Weiwei's personal gallery
Making the magic
     After I wrapped up writing an article on Chinese students using forged materials to get into foreign colleges Friday night, I left the office and met up for dinner with my friend Aaron, who was in Beijing with his family after his brother's wedding in China. Aaron is from Austin, plays with me in the MIT orchestra, and was the one who introduced me to swing dancing. After having Japanese food, we were ambling down the street when, out of nowhere, we heard the strains of country music. Sure that we were mistaken, we crossed the street to a Chinese bar, following the sound of the music to its source--none other than an authentic bluegrass band, complete with banjo, harmonica, and a drawling singer. So blown away by the improbability of these circumstances, we decided to take full advantage of the situation and did what anyone else would--go up in front of the stage and dance to the blues under the spotlight. While I'm sure we astounded the bar's employees, clientele, and even the band, I like to think we livened the place up a bit (one couple came up and joined us!). When the song finished, we got a hearty round of applause and a "Thanks to the dancers!" from the band, and so we bid everyone farewell and booked it out of there. 

     In anticipation of the opening ceremony for the Olympics, Sha, Tianzi, and Peter (a Beijinger who also went to our high school) went to karaoke, and so Aaron and I joined them after leaving the band. As someone who has spent an extended period of time in Japan, the birthplace of karaoke, one would think that I have a natural inclination for the pastime. I'll just come out and say, though, that as I traveled toward the karaoke place, I couldn't help thinking, "Why would you ever want to hear songs sung worse than their original performances?" My reservations and disdain quickly dissipated after I found that what we all lacked in vocal ability we made up for with enthusiasm (and to be fair, Peter, who was in the high school madrigals and now sings in his college's choir, is actually a wonderful singer). We had fun cutting loose, and cheering on each other's attempts to capture the subtleties of Stevie Wonder, Selena Gomez, "Last Christmas", Bruno Mars, Frank Sinatra, Jay Zhou, and this gem:

     I unexpectedly received critical acclaim for my rendition of Beyonce's "Single Ladies"; other highlights included Aaron's freeform interpretation of an eighties song that randomly showed up in the mix, and Sha's duet with himself, in which he demonstrated incredible vocal range singing both male and female vocals of a Chinese pop song.

With Tianzi
     We must have had fun after all, as we left karaoke at three in the morning and went straight to bed headed over to the apartment to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics. (Unfortunately, London time doesn't line up very well with normal waking hours in Beijing.) While I wouldn't go so far as to say I was disappointed by the show, there's no doubt that the Beijing '08 opening ceremony set the bar extremely high (arguably too high for many, many reasons). While I thought that London's show was definitely more "human" and had fun and impressive elements (the James Bond and Mr. Bean sketches, the swing-dancing nurses, the torch design) I felt it lacked unity and fluidity. It seemed that the many individual aspects and people on display were scattered and at times distracted from the larger intent behind their performance--in other words, there was so much "stuff" going on that I was just confused a lot of the time. That said, it definitely had British flavor, just as the show in 2008 was decidedly Chinese.

Me, Tianzi, Sha, Peter
"We survived the Olympic opening ceremony"
     Anyway, we made it to the Parade of Nations (6 am) when everyone decided to "take a forty minute nap" and then get up for the lighting of the torch. As you can imagine, that didn't pan out as expected, and we ended up watching the replay when we all woke up later that afternoon (which in retrospect, would have been the obvious thing to do in the first place). Aaron, who was scheduled to meet his family at 7:30 that morning to hike the Great Wall had disappeared by the time we woke up. (We all agreed that two hours of sleep and then a polluted trek to the Great Wall was a recipe for disaster, but rumor has it that he's still alive.) Unfazed, Sha, Tianzi, Peter, and I went out for amazing Indian food for "lunch" (4 pm), and then parted ways. 

     The next day I went out with Wurihan for lunch and souvenir shopping. She and I get along so well for a long list of reasons, but our mutual love of good food is a not insignificant one. We have resolved to embark on a "food tour" of Beijing's best eats for the rest of my time here, so on Sunday we stuffed ourselves silly at a delicious Taiwanese restaurant, and spent the rest of the day wondering if we would ever be hungry again.

Wurihan poised to dig in
Dessert - a mountain of red and green
sweet beans with tapioca and shaved ice.
Rest assured that we made it disappear.
We wandered around Nanluoguxiang, the area with many courtyard homes and small shops, and ended up both running into people we know. I was amazed that, in a city so huge as Beijing, she and I could each bump into local friends--it's a small world after all. That night, she and I met up with Tina, the previous ABC intern, who will be leaving Beijing this weekend. Hanging out with both of them and remembering that I myself only have a week and a half left makes me realize that going home, something I am eagerly awaiting, will still be bittersweet.

In The News:
Hackers Linked To China’s Army Seen From EU To D.C.
"Greyjing"? Air pollution fouls Beijing's name
Asahi Shimbun correspondent beaten by Chinese police

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fever and Flood

     I wish I could claim that my three week absence from blogging was entirely due to being caught up in an amazing adventure, too immersed in the real world to stop for the virtual one. As it were, though, of the last twenty-one days, ten of them I spent being horrendously, dreadfully ill, in pajamas for days on end trying to remember what health felt like. After developing enormous lymph nodes, a very high fever and body aches, I went to an international clinic, where the doctor diagnosed me with a cold. After a week of bedrest and constant hydration, I wasn't anywhere close to being better, and so went back to the clinic, only to discover that I actually had strep throat. While I enjoyed a movie and TV marathon, being sick away from home, especially in a foreign country, was a really long, miserable, and lonely experience which I do not recommend and do not want to repeat. It was also especially disappointing to spend days on end feeling that the world was going by without me--I missed out on going to work and gallivanting in Beijing with my roommates Sha, Ricky, and Calvin (who have all since left).

With Sha, his dad, and Ricky
Walking around the Olympic facilities at night
Water Cube

With members of the Wellesley Club of Beijing
     I'm back on my feet now, though, and have been doing a host of fun things like touring the US Embassy with the Wellesley Club of Beijing, going to see Brave, eating out-of-this-world ramen, attending a solo swing dance class with Clare, gorging myself on Russian food with Wurihan, and of course staying busy keeping up with the news.

  This last weekend's news was fairly monumental, though as everything unfolded I had no idea of the scale. I had planned to spend last Saturday finally having a "treat yourself" day, complete with souvenir-shopping, delicious food, a much-needed massage and pedicure. Thus, that morning I was very disheartened to look out the window and see--nothing. A thick haze had engulfed the city, making it impossible to see past one block. I checked the air quality index--in the 370's ("Hazardous", according to the monitor)."Not in my lungs," I thought, and with that my self-indulgent day out on the town turned into a much less thrilling day cooped up in the apartment. I was glad to when rain started falling that afternoon, hopeful that it would clear up the air.

Remember this photo from last post?
Same view, this time with heavy pollution
      Little did I know that as I sulked at home, Beijing was facing its heaviest rains since 1951. While my neighborhood was relatively fine, some areas of the city were desecrated by the flooding. There have been a stream of pictures and videos of collapsed roads, cars barely visible above the waters, houses turned to rubble. The aftermath of the rains has caused an uproar online; microbloggers are bemoaning the antiquated city sewer systems, which are to blame for much of the flooding, and also expressing doubts that the government is being honest about the death toll (officially reported to be 37 people dead). Many are angry that a government which has spent billions on glamorous projects like the Olympic facilities would neglect something so fundamental as infrastructure. 

     ABC visited one of the villages that was hit the hardest, and I wrote an article about the scene: In Beijing, Doubt Grows as Thousands Struggle to Rebuild After Floods. Wading through piles of muck, we spoke with locals who saw their homes and livelihoods swept away before their eyes. Looking at the destruction, I had no idea how one could even imagine the rebuilding process--there seemed to be neither beginning nor end to the mess. When asked if the government was doing enough to help them, all of the residents we spoke with immediately said no. They'll be sleeping on cots in tents in a schoolyard until they have a place to call home again, and it's really impossible to know when that will be.

In The News:
North Korean Mystery Woman Is Leader Kim Jong Un’s Wife

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

A Change of Scenery, or Scorpions on a Stick

     The changes that can happen in a week are really astounding. Last Friday was the Dragon Boat Festival, a nationally observed holiday that meant a three-day weekend for me. That Friday morning I woke up in a state of despair, though, having no weekend plans or people to meet. My attempts to tag along with my housemates, the two American guys, were quickly shut down:

     *after knocking multiple times and clearing my throat*
     "Hey, what are y'all up to today? Can I tag along?"
    "Uh, well, I'm going to go get lunch with my girlfriend, and Matt is going to a friend's birthday party, so, uh, yeah..."

     While that plan quickly fell apart, I was shamelessly undeterred by rejection and so texted Wilson to find out if I could crash his weekend plans. Sure enough, he graciously invited me to his friend's birthday celebration that evening, where I met a host of his friends, Chinese and non-Chinese alike. I spent a lot of the night talking with his girlfriend Wurihan and her friend Bai Dian Dian. They were a ton of fun to talk to, Bai Dian Dian (whose name literally translates as White Spot-Spot) putting on airs in a mock-British accent and Wurihan telling me about life in inner Mongolia, where she is from. The two also taught me some Chinese slang that would never come up in class--using 屄 (pronounced , meaning "vagina"--or a more colorful version of the word) as an intensifying suffix. For instance:

     Declaring that someone is 很二 (hěn èr), or "very two", like the number, is to say that he or she is very stupid. To really emphasize how idiotic he or she is, though, you could call this person 二屄 (èr bī), or "double vagina". which is much like calling him or her a "stupid dumbass". There are a slew of other combinations, including 傻屄 (shǎ bī), meaning "stupid dumbass" and 装屄 (zhuāng bī), meaning "pretentious ass" or "poser". 

     My personal favorite, though, is 牛屄 (niú bī) or "cow c---". 

     "Cow c---?!" you exclaim in hushed tones, anxiously glancing at passerby. "What an appalling and deplorable thing to say!" 
    "No, my dear friend, in fact I think you are the biggest cow c--- I know," I cheerfully reply. "You amaze me." 
     In fact, niú bī is a wonderful thing to be, as it means a very confident, impressive, or daring person (think "total badass").

     As you can tell, it was a fun (and informative) evening, and I'm looking forward to seeing Wilson and my new friends again.

     While there's a very high chance a different writer could seamlessly integrate this into the flow of this blog post, moving out of my host family's home was so sudden that maybe this is appropriate.

      In short: I moved, and I am glad of it!

The view from the apartment. The building that looks like it
is leaning is the CCTV building, headquarters for
China's national news station
    Sha, whose family so kindly offered to host me in their spare apartment for the month of July, told me I could move in earlier than anticipated. I was at first on the fence about moving in early, as I still had a week left with my host family and was somewhat daunted by the thought of living alone; however, it soon became increasingly evident that I would be in higher spirits if I had my own space. My host family is very kind and had my best interests at heart, but there were a lot of things we didn't see eye-to-eye on and rubbed me the wrong way. My host mocking the way I speak Chinese in a high-pitched voice and telling me that I should call him if I needed to talk to Chinese people while I was out "since Chinese people won't understand you when you speak" definitely undermined my confidence. He and his mother standing over me and militantly demanding that I eat all the food they put in front of me (often two or three times what I could feasibly eat, and frequently too oily, spicy, and/or fat-laden for my taste) got old very quickly. Feeling that I had to defend everything I did or said because he would quickly look for any fallacies in my logic made me just want to hole up in my room a lot of the time. 

     So when given the chance to have some privacy (and room I could take a full step in), I decided that my concern about offending my host family shouldn't take precedence. I dropped some hints that I would be moving out early, and when Saturday rolled around, Sha came over and helped me move out. My host family wasn't around, so I called to let them know I was leaving, but told them I would come over the next day to say goodbye. When I went over Sunday night after shopping at the outdoor market by their house, we had a really nice conversation over dinner, my hosts lauding my produce selection and telling me that I was welcome to come over anytime. I think this is the best possible outcome--we left on really great terms and still have a positive relationship, but are not encroaching on each other's space.

I can't say I'll miss the elevator.
Especially when I'm trading it in for this.
Sha with the groceries
     Speaking of space (and also autonomy), I am thrilled to now have tons of it! The apartment is lavish, in a word, with marble floors, beautiful decor, a king-sized bed--I am truly living high on the hog. I've certainly been eased into the perils of living alone. After I arrived on Saturday, Sha took me to Sanlitun, an enormous shopping district with high-end designer stores neighboring an enormous counterfeit goods market. After we explored the shops for hours, we stopped by a Westernized grocery, where I splurged on luxuries like olive oil and cheddar cheese, among a few other things, spending about $20 total. In contrast, I spent under $5 at the open-air food market by my host family's house the next day on broccoli, potatoes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, carrots, bananas, mangos, orange juice, dried noodles, and Chinese spices. 
Isn't this food beautiful?
Caught in the rain after gallivanting in Sanlitun
I have since recreated the fateful "spaghetti" with
non-vermicelli noodles, yielding much
more delicious results
     The abundance and freshness of the food I bought with comparatively so little money has inspired me to experiment in the kitchen, so far with mostly positive results. I tried to make spaghetti with tomato sauce from scratch--in lieu of basil and oregano I threw in some Chinese spices, which actually were very delicious. Where I went wrong was with the noodles, though--it turns out that the noodles I bought were vermicelli, which did not mix well with the sauce at all. Still, I am optimistic that my trial and error will yield some interesting and fruitful results, if not a food blog (perhaps a "failed-food blog").

     The craziest thing happened soon after the move--after the so-so swing dancing experience last time (so-so because I had to wander around dark alleyways in the dead of night) I realized one of the other (few) swing dancing venues in Beijing is a five-minute walk away from the apartment. So, Monday night I ventured out with very low expectations for what I might find. As soon as I arrived, I edged over the dance floor, working up the courage and energy to ask someone to dance. Glancing around, I noticed a girl about my age who also seemed to have come alone. We made knowing eye contact--the kind that says, "I don't know anyone here, but I'm friendly and not psychotic! Let's talk!" and so I ended up meeting Clare. There were so many coincidences that it seemed like destiny--Clare, who just graduated from Stanford, arrived in Beijing last week where she is interning and came to the swing place alone that night in search of dancing and friends. We ended up leaving together and discovered that she lives in the building next to mine, and that she will be going to Harvard for grad school--in other words, fate has intertwined us as friends! I was so thrilled to meet her, and we have since set a regular dance date. We went swing dancing again last night and met a bunch of new people, and our next plan is to try joining the public waltz group that happens in the park. We can't stop marveling at how friendly the dance scene is here, and I can't stop marveling that I met Clare!

     While my workplace is about evenly split between Chinese and non-Chinese people, the language of the office is English, and so I haven't quite been getting the full immersion experience. I was discouraged that my Chinese hasn't been improving as quickly as I had hoped, so I took matters into my own hands and spent this last week contacting Chinese schools and tutors. I really wanted to find the best teacher possible, and so I had lessons with a few this week and called Chinese schools to learn more about their programs. I have trouble committing, especially to programs that require you to pay for hours and hours of classes at one time, if I feel that there might be a better option. Also complicating things is the fact that I am working full-time, so I don't have tons of free time to commute back and forth between the apartment, my workplace, and a school (while also managing to practice violin, work out, chill out...) 

     After meeting with two tutors who weren't up to snuff and still reluctant to commit to an inflexible class schedule, I was a bit disheartened. Then, out of the blue, a woman named Joyce I had previously written to texted me asking if I was still interested in working with her. I decided that there was no downside to meeting her for a trial lesson--after all, even if we didn't click I would still probably learn something. To my great surprise, she was anything but incompetent, having successfully tutored other students, and I got a sense that she was willing to work really hard to help me improve. She seems serious but kind, professional but understanding--perhaps the biggest sign that it was destiny is that we have identical work schedules, so it's easy to coordinate meetings. We had our first lesson last week, and I'm optimistic that I'm going to learn a lot!

Sha, Joyce, Tianzi, Jerry, me
     This last weekend I met Sha, Jerry, Tianzi and Joyce (all students from my high school) for dinner. After eating we wandered around Wangfujing, whose streets of tightly packed shops and vendors boast food not intended for the squeamish or faint of heart. While I had heard that China's cuisine includes a variety of delicacies not consumed in the West, nothing prepared me for turning the corner and suddenly coming face-to-face with a bucket of scorpions on a stick, still snapping mid-air. (Be forewarned that I have posted photographic and video evidence!) Next to the scorpions were some centipedes and crickets, and for the particularly famished, a few starfish and seahorses. While I pride myself on taking risks, I passed on the bug-kabobs (which they fry in front of you)--I am happy to remain simply a scorpion spectator.

The gang at Wangfujing
These scorpions were still wriggling, a fact I try
not to reflect on before bed.

     The other particularly unlikely element of this weekend was seeing an opera in Beijing--but not Beijing opera (which is a completely separate art form). Sha and I went to the National Centre for the Performing Arts and saw Wagner's Tannhäuser, sung by Chinese opera singers. It was a fun challenge for me to try to figure out what was going on in the Chinese-subtitled German-language opera. The singers were fantastic, and in a time when many American opera companies are struggling to make ends meet, seeing the huge cast in their elaborate costumes on the lavishly-designed set--coupled with Wagner's brilliant music--was an overwhelming experience.
At the National Centre for the Performing Arts

     Sha's friend Ricky, a rising sophomore at my old high school, is visiting Beijing for the next two weeks, so the two have moved into the apartment with me. While it's not quite the same solitude of living alone, they have (so far) greatly exceeded my expectations for teenage boy roommates--we haven't burned the place down yet, and if the apartment smells like anything, it's cologne, and thankfully not a locker room. I'm excited about this living arrangement--I feel that a crazy story or two is inevitable.

In the News: 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Death by Dirty Oil, and Then Some

At Tina's farewell lunch
     Last week was somewhat characterized by stops and starts, just like the news. For one, the office is a lot quieter: Tina, my fellow ABC intern, had her last day on the job--she's moving on to an internship at Vogue in China--and multiple team members are (or soon will be) on leave for assignments. They have encouraged me to travel around, though traveling is hard to fathom right now, as I'm only just now feeling like I'm getting my Sino-legs.

Because I, like many foreigners in Beijing, have quickly become obsessed with knowing (and bemoaning) the air quality, here's the compulsory update: last week's weather was beautiful, with clear skies, sunshine, and a rainbow (see the picture!) I even went on morning runs that are now just a figment of my memory, currently obscured by a very literal haze. The last two nights, there have been intense storms that I thought would clear things up again for a morning jog. My hopes were quickly dashed a few mornings ago when I checked the air quality index:

06-20-2012 03:00; PM2.5; 338.0; 388; Hazardous (at 24-hour exposure at this level)

Hazardous?! That's nearly four times the level of what's unhealthy.
And the current reading: 

06-22-2012 15:00; PM2.5; 160.0; 210; Very Unhealthy (at 24-hour exposure at this level)

So while that's an improvement, it was probably wise to bag those earlier plans.

     This last weekend was another fun one. I went straight from work to meet Sha and Jerry (who also goes to my old high school) for dinner and a movie. They chose Men in Black III, which, while perhaps not being the movie I would have picked first, greatly exceeded my expectations. (Later they told me they chosen MIBIII because it was the only one playing in English!) I was telling them about my cravings for jianbing guozi, a Chinese street food that is like a crepe with egg cooked inside, then served with lettuce and delicious sauce, when they educated me about digouyou. Here's the short version of digouyou:

(c) Chinese Media Project 2004-2012
Digouyou, or swill oil, is oil that is made by distilling waste fished from sewers. That Google Translate translates digouyou as "cooking oil" perhaps speaks to the stuff's prevalance; a Chinese food professor estimated that one in ten meals served at Chinese restaurants (i.e. in China) is cooked with digouyou. I wouldn't actually have a huge problem consuming swill oil if it were a healthy result of a sustainable recycling process--but you guessed it, it's the farthest thing from it. The China Daily reports, "A deadly toxin found in swill-oil is aflatoxin, which is among the most carcinogenic substances ever known and is 100 times more poisonous than the forbidding white arsenic."

     The next evening, Sha and Travis and I met at Nanluoguxiang, a "new-meets-old" area where designer boutiques are interspersed among the scenery of traditional courtyard homes. We snacked on street kebabs (I know after that last paragraph you're asking yourself, "Why, Audrey, why?") and a new favorite of mine, shuangpinai ("double-skin milk"--it's so much better than it sounds) while cruising the street before dinner. Afterward, Sha placed a few bets on the outcome of the Eurocup soccer tournament happening right now. When I asked him what happens if he wins, Travis chimed in, "He takes us out to dinner!" I joked that if he won a little bit, he could take us out for jianbing guozi. "But I'll probably have to start gambling to pay for our hospital bill."

Hint: the shopkeeper told us the first step is "3-1-1..."
     On our way back to the subway station after dinner, we came across a crowd of people staring at a sign with a Chinese question and numbers on it outside a clothing store. Sha and Travis explained that it was a math problem, and anyone who could solve it would get a discount on the clothing at the store. I was totally amused--imagine if answering the SAT Question of the Day could get you better deals on at your favorite stores? Would smarter people be better dressed?

And in case you're itching to attempt the problem, here it is:
     3 1 1 4 5 2 0 6
     Insert only minus and equals signs to make all sides equivalent

     On Sunday, I ventured out in search of a Catholic church, and found Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. I believe the bishop there is one of the few in China officially recognized by the Vatican--to find such a place at all in largely-atheist China is fairly remarkable. First constructed in 1605, four cathedral reconstructions later it has survived earthquakes, fires, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Cultural Revolution. The service, held in English, was pretty unremarkable except for the sweltering heat and the hymns, which sounded like a juxtaposition between Chinese 80's pop hits and Gregorian chant. The effect was very karaoke, enhanced by the scrolling lyrics on the TV screens mounted inside the cathedral, as well as a live electric guitarist and synth keyboardist duo.

     The next morning before heading to work, I met Wilson Hailey, who is an alum of my high school who has lived in Beijing for at least five years, I think. Between some combination of learning and teaching during that time, he has gotten to know the city and the language like a pro. He invited me to his apartment to have pancakes with his roommates, and so I met him at the subway stop bearing bananas and orange juice. What I wasn't expecting was for him to pull up on his motorcycle to pick me up from the station! The way back was even crazier--after a delicious breakfast (that included salsa!) he informed me that he was dropping off one of his friends to her work, so it ended up being the three of us on the motorcycle on the streets of Beijing. It was definitely a tight squeeze and a wild ride as a passenger, but luckily I made it to work without incident and a lot of built up adrenaline.

     This week I wrote my most popular story yet: Sex Toy Fools Chinese Villagers*. It was hilarious to write, as what happened was a goofy series of events that lent itself to a goofy article. In short, Chinese villagers had no idea that the thing they stumbled upon while drilling a well was a sex toy, and after consulting their local news station, came to the conclusion that it was a rare and fabled mushroom that was said to bring immortality. What made this even ridiculous was the young, cute, and totally unaware reporter's serious report on said mushroom finding that aired on the station's investigative program. (Check out my article if you're curious!) Anyway, it was amazing to see the response it got, including this gem from Twitter:

It's also a relief to write a story like that because there is so much news that highlights the worst parts of the world and people in it, and I was definitely getting a little depressed last week. After all, Pakistani women were sentenced to death for dancing at a wedding, and Chinese women were having their pregnancies forcibly aborted, and there is this ethnic and religious clash happening in Myanmar, and don't even get me started on Syria...Writing silly stories where I can throw in the word "probe" takes the edge off the negative stuff.

     *The title I originally proposed was "Sex-Toy Resembling Rare Mushroom Thrusts Chinese Villagers, Reporter into State of Confusion" but it was scrapped in favor of this one. Maybe it was too long. Maybe it was the word "thrusts". We'll never know.

In the News:
China's Ai Wei Wei Says Tax Hearing is Unfair