Saturday, June 30, 2007

I Survived!

When J2 and I got together in 1995, I made it clear that my job required extensive travel, and told him that there was little I could do about it. He accepted it, and was stoic in the face of my rather busy travel schedule, including the famous extended trip to Nepal just as we were moving into our new house (meaning that he had to do all the moving himself) and repeated trips to Russia, China, the Caribbean and other places. Sure, occasionally he was able to join me on these trips, including some of our best trips ever, such as to Brazil's Foz do Iguacu, and to Hong Kong during the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China.

In any event, in all this time, not once did J2 leave me at home while he went on a trip, whether for pleasure or for business. However, all that changed this past week when he went on a business trip to our Shanghai hospital to install a new software system and train the staff in how to use it. He left Sunday afternoon, and returned Friday evening, so I had a whole week to fend for myself. Strangely, his departure coincided with the first thunderstorm of our sojourn in Beijing, and then more followed on the two subsequent evenings. Still, I had the dogs to keep me company, and I busied myself by doing some cooking and baking and catching up on DVDs and TV shows that I knew he would not be too interested in watching.

It was great to have J2 return last night, and the dogs were as happy as me to have him back. We had a nice reunion dinner at our local Sichuan place (with one exception, I ate in every night he was gone), and watched some of the TV shows I knew he'd want me to wait to watch, and then I proceeded to fall asleep on the couch at 9pm. All is back to normal!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sichuan Food Site

I stumbled across this site today and thought it was worth linking here, since it is a pretty good description of the wonders of Sichuan cuisine (easily our favorite) and because it's written by a guy for whom I occasionally am mistaken, since our surnames differ by only one letter and he is also a China hand. In any event, here it is:

Spicy Sichuan Cuisine

Who said there are no second chances in life?

To my great surprise, I got a phone call this morning from the people who administer the HSK Chinese test. Apparently, they have decided that the listening comprehension portion of the test was not administered well, and have offered the students the chance to retake that portion of the test this coming Sunday. Now to see whether I can do any better this time around.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Test

This morning was the day to sit the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Level Test). Finally, the moment of truth had arrived, and my years and years of preparation would come to some sort of resolution. When I got to the venue, I was not surprised to be far and away the oldest person taking the test--why would a person in his 40s take such a test, anyway? But I was a bit surprised to find that I was the only non-Mongolian taking the test at my venue--who knew that there were so many Mongolians in Beijing?? Anyway, the room that the test would be given in was a plain room in a Chinese middle school, with plain walls and a plain white board--not a single piece of decoration was left up, presumably so there would be no 'clues' for the test inadvertently left on the walls.

The monitors were mostly young people, some of whom I think were monitoring for the first time, judging by the fact that one of them kept looking at me answering the questions, that is until I glared at him and the monitor whom I presumed to be the leader, who eventually told him to leave me alone.

The test begins with a listening comprehension section, which comes from a tape that the monitors play from a boombox-style tape player. Unfortunately, the low quality of the tape itself, combined with the low quality of the player, and the high volume that they played the tape at and the absence of anything to absorb the soundwaves in the room resulted in a terrible echo-laden tinny sound that was virtually impossible to make out. As a result, the first 50 questions or so were a complete mystery to me, and apparently to the Mongolians, and despite the occasional efforts of the monitors to adjust the sound to make it intelligible, I had no choice but to guess on all the questions.

The next two sections, on grammar and reading comprehension, were much easier for me, and I finished these sections with no problem. But the last section, which included a portion where you have to write in the missing characters in short paragraphs, was another wash out, since I tend to be a '提笔忘字' ("lift the pen and forget how to write") now that I tend mostly to write in Chinese with the computer.

Fortunately, this test has no bearing on my reality, so it makes no difference how I score. But I would have liked to have thought that I had some chance at doing decently on it. Next time....

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Protest??

The other day J2 texted me with the news that there was a protest going on outside our apartment. I had a hard time imagining that there could really be a protest taking place in central Beijing, but when I got home I saw the photos to prove it. Near as I can make out, the protest has something to do with people being swindled out of their money by the management of our community, and calling on the government and the Party to come to the people's assistance in accordance with their mandate to rule justly and impartially. Interesting...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Nascent Lounge Lizards

Starting a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues started talking about his plans to open up a lounge/restaurant with a bunch of friends. The site was to be a building in the Chaoyang Park, which is not too far from our apartment, and was to have a rooftop bar and a lounge with two restaurants flanking it--one a Japanese place to be run by Alan Wong, who runs Hatsune, one of Beijing's most popular restaurants, and the other a Mediterranean place to be run by the guy who used to run Mediterraneo, which used to be a hot spot on Sanlitun. After many weeks, the place finally opened last week, and on the weekend we were invited to a soft opening. When we got there, around 8pm, the Japanese side was packed, and the lounge was pretty lively. We were seated in the Med side, where they were serving a buffet of all sorts of tasty dishes. The food was great, but we had a bit of a problem with drinks, which were a bit light on the alcohol and heavy on lemon pits in our mojitos, so we switched to wine (which had neither too much water nor too many pits). After our meal we retired to the lounge, where we had a bunch of drinks before J2 and I decided it was bedtime (I had to work on Sunday, and we also had a personal trainer session that morning).

After our good experience with the Med, we decided to try the Japanese side this evening. Sure enough, it was also very good, though the service was a bit rough on the edges. Prices are not too terrible, though they're a bit high for a regular occasion for us (dinner for the two of us, with a bottle of sake, was Y269, or around $35).

It'll be nice to have a place where we can be regulars and get something a bit unusual for dinner. Let's see how things go.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

What have I gotten myself into??

I was persuaded some time ago to sign up for the HSK test (the test of Chinese as a foreign language, sort of like TOEFL) by the Chinese teacher I was working with at work. My first attempt to sign up was a total disaster, since the HSK website (like most Chinese websites, I find) does not work as intended, with lots of links non-functional. It turned out after all that I had missed a deadline, and rather than let you know that that is the problem, the site just gives you a not-very-helpful "general failure" message.

When the next test date came up, I no longer got that message when I tried to register, I then got stuck at the "payment" page. Though I have a bank account with one of the banks that HSK permits to make online payment, it turned out that my account was not set up for online transactions, so I had to go to my bank to activate on-line payments. Once that was done (and that took two visits to the bank, since I stupidly did not bring my passport the first time) I was finally able to get to the next step of the online payment process, though I kept getting failure messages.

After a lengthy call to the bank, I learned that the way online bank payments work here is that you first have to transfer money from your regular account to the online payment account (which I did not realize is separate), and only then can you make a payment. I thus was advanced to the next step of the process, selecting a testing site.

Rather than provide addresses of the various sites, they just give school names, and a very general description of the location. For example, in Beijing, there are many districts, such as Dongcheng (where we live), Chaoyang (where my work is), Fengtai, Xicheng, etc. The sites were thus virtually unfathomable to me, but I saw one that was called the "Ritan Elementary School". Since I live near Ritan, I opted for that one, and was finally able to complete my registration.

This past Wednesday I got a call from someone, speaking rather comprehensible Chinese, asking me to come to the Ritan elementary school to confirm my HSK registration. I asked for the address, and told them that I would show up on Friday morning on my way to work. Not recognizing the address, I looked it up, but it turned out not to be nowhere near the apartment, though it was not too far from work. When I got there, it appeared to be the home of the "Beansprout Bilingual School", which I thought made sense for a test for foreigners of Chinese. But it turns out that it is also the location of the Ritan Elementary school, which used to be located near Ritan so when it moved they decided to keep the name. My registration was in order, and they gave me a little pamphlet on preparing for the test and on what to bring on the day of the test (such as your own #2 pencil and an eraser).

Since the test will take place on June 24, and I have not had a class in ages (though I should have one this coming Wednesday), I decided to start doing practice tests. I just finished one and boy am I in trouble!! Despite having been here for 9 months, and having used Chinese on a daily basis during all that time, I still only got about 70% of the questions right (and I skipped the aural comprehension test, since I don't have the tapes). This is going to be a train wreck of epic proportions, and the funny thing is that the test will do me absolutely no good whatsoever. Oh well, I wouldn't want all that effort--not to mention the Y250 I spent--go to waste!

Friday, June 01, 2007

June 1 Update

Wow, it's already June! Hard to believe we've been here nine months! We've been so busy though, and so much has happened, that it feels like time is just flying by.

Work for us both is proceeding well. My travel has not been too onerous (yet) and though I have had to work pretty much every weekend for a month it's not too bad, since I really enjoy my colleagues. J2 is also about to return to work, initially as a consultant, advising on the design of our new facilities and helping with the implementation of a new dental IT system, so I'll have my lunch and commuting buddy back again.

We have some personal travel plans--we'll be heading to Tibet in a few weeks, and then a few weeks after we return to Beijing we'll head off to Cambodia for a visit to Angkor Wat with some friends from DC. And we have some visitors to look forward to, mostly people we don't actually know, but rather friends of friends. So long as they don't mind bringing us some bags of coffee, they're more than welcome!

We have been pretty lax in keeping up to date in movies, though we did see the new Spiderman 3 recently. Instead we've been trying to catch up on TV shows, including The Shield, which a colleague turned us on to a few weeks back. Not a bad show, though a bit violent sometimes (and it sure is a lousy advertisement for moving to LA!).

Not much else to report, so that'll do it for now. Stay in touch!