Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Love is in the Air

Spring must be just around the corner. And no: I am not referring to the lovely scent wafting from the sewer grates in Pinnacle Plaza. I'm talking about the birds and the bees.

It seems Aidan has acquired not just one, but two new girlfriends. He's not much of a talker, but from the limited amount of information he's let slip, I've been able to determine who they are. They're both cute little blonde girls - one from Sweden and the other from Switzerland (gotta love those international schools!). It's not quite clear if this love is requited. At least, it wasn't clear until a few moments ago, when I realized he hadn't taken his lunch box out of his backpack. I went to retrieve it, and what do you suppose I found in there?

That's right. You're looking at a stash of carefully designed love letters, first-grade style. One particularly caught my eye:

Let's open it up, shall we?

Shay had his first girlfriend in pre-school, but I don't remember any love letters passing hands. They just made plans to get married and have kids. No big deal.

But this? This love letter took some serious time to draw. So tell it to me straight, readers: Isn't it a little early for this? Those Swedes start young, I guess. Or the Swiss. I'm not really sure who drew this one.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Yup, Still in China

There I was at the airport, standing on one side of the security checkpoint, watching as my sister and her daughter checked in on the other side. I was focused on her, but semi-aware of my surroundings nonetheless. As I waited, I watched two uniformed police officers make their way past the check point. With them was a regular guy, and I vaguely wondered if he was a plainclothes officer: he had the build and the haircut, and while he didn’t have a badge, they let him pass right through the check point.

I continued watching my sister, but still I noticed that a very few people were making their way out of the security checkpoint with small luggage trolleys. It seemed odd, because the arrivals section was on a different floor of the airport. But whatever.

Then I saw a guy pushing a small trolley toward the security checkpoint, on his way out, with one small pink bag. “Pink?” I wondered, but before I could think much more than that, the two police officers and plainclothes man came sprinting back to the security checkpoint and stopped him.

He turned to face them. They said something, he responded, and one of the policemen whacked him in the head with an open palm. He didn’t flinch, didn’t wince – just shifted position and continued talking to them as if it was the most ordinary thing to be whacked in the head by a policeman. A moment later, another man and a woman tried to pass by, but they were stopped, too. They looked just like ordinary passengers, dressed in regular street clothes, the woman in a comfy sweatshirt and little black keds. The woman said something to the police officer. She was only about ten feet away, but I couldn’t hear a thing. She didn’t look upset, just a little confused. But then the police officer started knocking her around a bit, too, sticking his finger in her chest and pushing her backwards. She didn’t react, either.

The two police officers led the first man away. He went quietly: to anyone who hadn’t witnessed the exchange, you would’ve thought they were just showing him the exit or something. When a third police officer tried to lead the woman away, she raised her voice, briefly, and tried to brush his arm away. But he got right up in her face and she gave up, resigned, I suppose, to whatever her fate was going to be. She and her travelling companion walked away with the third police officer, again toward the exit.

The whole incident took three minutes, tops. I stood there, troubled, wondering what I had just witnessed.

On the other side of the gate, just beyond where this had all transpired, my sister finished up at the check-in counter and waved her goodbyes. I waved back. People all around me carried on with the business of coming and going.

I wonder what happened to those people.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In the Past Two Weeks I've:

In the past two weeks I've climbed the Great Wall, visited the Blue Zoo and walked Houhai Lake. I've shopped at Silk Street, Yashow and Sunny Gold. I've gotten 4 massages and a pedicure. I've lunched at Hole in the Wall, Din Tai Fung, Bellagio, Malacca Legend, Piazza, Victor's and Miso.

I also flew to Hong Kong, where I spent 2 days at Hong Kong Disney, had room service delivered to a balcony overlooking the Disney resort pool, watched the kids slide down two ginormous water slides, (refused to slide myself), rode the Star Ferry, watched the Hong Kong light show, went up the the peak in the Peak Tram, had a melt-down along with four kids (my own) in a high-end grocery store, ate Vietnamese in the mid-levels, shopped in Wanchai, roamed Hong Kong Park and the aviary, and stole gelato from my kids.

It was fun watching my kids play with their cousin. It was really fun hanging out with my sister, and hilarious how many people told us that we are just exactly alike (we are, mostly).

But now she's gone, and it's back to real life.

I miss her already.

Friday, March 19, 2010

See You Later...

Not posting much because my sis is in town with her daughter. We've been all over the place: Silk Market, Blue Zoo, massages (of course), the Great Wall, the U.S. Embassy... the list goes on and on. Tomorrow we're jetting off to Hong Kong for a few days. I'll be back shortly to fill you all in on the excitement.

Friday, March 12, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Well, look here: the State Department just published its 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights. And there's even a report for China. You should read it. It mentions well-known cases like that of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day just because he wrote something the government didn't like. It also mentions Gao Zhisheng. He's a human rights lawyer. Or at least, he was: He disappeared over a year ago, while in police custody, and the government won't say what happened to him. His family escaped from China on foot - they're safely in the United States now. But where is he?

I'm willing to bet that the person who researched and wrote the first draft of this report had nightmares about Gao Zhisheng.

In fact, I'm sure of it.

An American Girl, a Japanese Car, and a Chinese Auto Repair Shop

Normally, I have it pretty easy when it comes to auto maintenance in Beijing. There’s a place down the street that provides roadside assistance and auto repair. And they speak English. And they come to your house to pick up your car.

But the last time they took my car to be serviced, a few months back, they reported that it needed new brake pads and rotors. Which they don’t sell in China. So I called my dad and asked him to procure the parts. After much back-and-forthing between my dad in the States, me in China, the Honda dealer in the States and the mechanic in China, it was determined that the car shouldn’t need new rotors – just brake pads. The rotors could be ground down a bit if necessary and they’d be good as new. After all, the mechanic said he couldn’t see any damage to the rotors – he just thought they should be replaced at the same time as the pads, anyway.

So my dad shipped me brake pads (thanks dad!). When I called the car place to have them put in, they refused to do it without the rotors, which they now claimed had been damaged, after all. Huh?

I turned to the Embassy vehicle maintenance people. They called the repair place and determined that the rotors probably could be “turned,” (is that another word for “ground down”?), but that the repair place didn’t have the necessary equipment to do it – hence their desire for brand new rotors. The Embassy mechanics only deal with American cars, but they tracked down a Honda service center, explained the situation and made an appointment for me. They sent me a map (all in Chinese), warned me that it would cost at least 600 RMB to have the rotors taken apart and examined, and wished me luck.

I looked and looked at that map. I knew the place was off the Fourth Ring Road, on the north side of town. But would it be visible from the road? Would it even have a sign? And how far down the ring would it be?

I set off this morning before work. I was a little bit nervous about whether I’d be able to get this taken care of on my own. I told Xiao Tong what I needed to do, and I mentioned that they didn’t speak any English at all. She smiled reassuringly and said in Chinese “It’s okay. You can speak to them in Chinese.” Which made me feel better, until I realized it could have been more of a bemused smile. She could have been saying “You? Speak to them in Chinese?” There’s just no way to know.

After all of that worrying, it turned out the place was easy to find. If only they’d told me it was one block past IKEA – every expat in Beijing knows where that is. I found it, I parked and I went inside.

And here is where the fun began. I explained to the lady at the desk in halting Chinese that the Embassy had made an appointment for me, and I had the part with me. She listened, nodding, and then said something totally unintelligible. “I’m sorry,” I answered, “but I don’t understand.” She tried again. She gestured toward the phone and said…. Well, I have no idea what she said. So I replied, in Chinese “My Chinese is very bad.” She just sort of sighed and looked down at her hands.

Eventually, though, we got it all sorted out. I was going to leave the car with them, and they were going to call the Embassy when it was fixed. I think that’s what we decided, anyway, but I can’t be sure.

I left without the car, hailed a cab, and headed off to work.

At the end of my work day, I hailed another cab and showed him my mysterious Chinese map, to indicate where I needed to go. He didn’t understand it either. But eventually, he got me back to the repair shop. I asked him if he knew what IKEA was. He didn’t. But I said I was going to “a place close to a huge store off the 4th Ring Road,” and sure enough, he drove me straight to IKEA.

After all that effort, and stress, and time on the expressway, what do you suppose they told me? It seems there is absolutely nothing wrong with the brake pads or the rotors. They told the car folks at the Embassy that they “polished” the rotors (is that yet another word for “ground down”?). Or something like that. I think they said there was something stuck on one of the brake pads, but is that possible? I don’t know. They did something, that’s for sure, because the car braked a little bit more smoothly on the ride home (and trust me – if you do much driving in Beijing, you need brakes that work). But they didn’t charge me. Not a single jiao. And the brand new brake pads are still in the box - waiting for Jordan, I guess.

Sometimes this place baffles me. After almost three years here, I still get worked up trying to drive myself to a new place. I still can’t communicate about the most basic things. I can drive, though, and hopefully, just hopefully, I can brake when I need to.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010



If you’ve been following the comments on my blog, and it seems that loads of you do, given the number of emails I’ve received over the past 24 hours, then you’ll know that I’ve inadvertently caused a bit of a scandal in the neighborhood with my post about bullies.

I have this neighbor: she’s a really nice woman, one of those people that I always wished I’d had the chance to get to know better. We have boys the same age, but they move in different circles at school, and we move in different circles in this vast compound of ours. Plus which, we both have zillions of kids, so we’re both usually so busy chasing little ones at the playground that we don’t have time for more than superficial chit-chat.

Anyway, it seems this neighbor really did not like my post. Her feeling was that, in a relatively small community such as ours, the mere fact that I posted this story meant I was identifying the boys involved.

I disagree. I believe any of the other parents who complained – and there were several – would know which child was involved. But no one else would. He doesn’t even live in our neighborhood, so likely no one here knows him. And the injured boy also lives elsewhere.

I don’t think there was anything wrong with my post. I read it and re-read it today, and I really don’t think I identified anyone, or pointed any fingers at any kids. It’s true: I called this boy a bully. And I stand by that name. What he did was inexcusable.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want to upset my neighbors. I’m upset about the whole situation, and I’m worried about my son’s safety, but I don’t want to drag the rest of the neighborhood down.

As far as I’m aware, none of my neighbors read this blog. (if you do, de-lurk, please, and let me know you’re here.) Several of them know I fancy myself a writer. But if they’re on to my blog, they haven’t given me a hint, not in the three years I’ve lived here. I don’t think the entire neighborhood is gossiping about my blog – I’m pretty darn boring, when it gets down to it. But then, I’m usually oblivious to the latest neighborhood gossip, so maybe I’m wrong.

I don’t want the neighbors trying to guess which kids are involved. My point in posting was not to single out the kids. Rather, I wanted to express my disappointment in the school, for an inappropriate response to a dangerous situation.

I don’t want my words to destroy the relationships I’ve built over my time here in Beijing. And I certainly don’t want my words being used to cause injury to any other children.

So, to the one neighbor who has taken the time to de-lurk and let me know she was disappointed: Megan, I apologize. Thank you for letting me know you were upset. The post about bullies has been taken down, and I will continue my fight with the school in a less public venue.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Look Who's Here

Everybody who is anybody comes to Beijing eventually. Today it was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's turn. He dropped in to the Embassy and gave a short speech for the employees - it was actually the best speech I've heard in a long while. He's funny, personable, smart - and it didn't hurt that he made a point of singling out the spouses and children of Foreign Service personnel, all of whom sacrifice so much so that our family members can serve our country overseas.

I'm about as far from a Republican as you can get, but I've always really admired this man, despite our different political affiliations. And in fact, today he touched on the fact that we're a "partisan nation." Our founding fathers argued with one another, he noted, and we're still arguing today, but in the end, we manage to work together. We all have to compromise a little - and sometimes a lot - to move our nation forward.

He stuck around for quite some time afterwards to shake hands. Bart and I both got to shake his hand, but alas, no pictures of that: we couldn't exactly hold the camera up and shake hands at the same time.

Still - what an honor.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

It's All Good.. Except When It's Not

So many things to say, so little time.

I suppose I should be pleased that I have two sick kids today and I'm not going to work. Aidan came in my room this morning and said "my stomach hurts and last night I threw up." Ummm, last night? I had to investigate.

Sure enough, at some point in the night he vomited over the side of the bunk bed. That stuff sure can splatter when you heave from the top of a bunk bed. And then, for some strange reason, he rolled over and went back to sleep, leaving it to congeal and harden all over the floor.

What a fun morning I had, cleaning up! I had to - how shall I phrase this? - reconstitute the stuff in order to clean up. Disgusting.

I'm not feeling so well myself, and I can't tell if I'm getting the same stomach bug the boys have, or if the morning's activity just turned my stomach. Time will tell.

And speaking of time, there are less than 18 hours to go in World Maths Day. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Why is "Maths" plural? No idea. Aidan's teacher signed the whole class up on this website, and they've been going on line all week to compete against kids all across the globe. At the beginning of the week, it was just practice matches. Now it's for real - the clock started ticking yesterday, and they can compete in a certain number of minute-long arithmetic challenges, each time against different kids with whom the computer links them up. Aidan loves it, and I find myself in the unique position of having to say "stop doing all that math RIGHT NOW because it's dinner time." Whoever created that site needs a MacArthur Genius Award. And then they can maybe give me some of the money they've been awarded, so I can buy my kids their own computer so I can have mine back already.

Kudos to his teacher for enrolling the kids and teaching them how to use the site. What a great teacher! What a fabulous school!

Stayed tuned for my next post: all the reasons why the school sucks. Well, just one reason, really. But it's a big one, involving bullies and administrators who turn a blind eye.
Please. Write your own stuff.