Saturday, December 29, 2007

Gray Days

The past several days have been horrendous in terms of air quality. Ever since our friend Dongmei arrived last Friday the skies have got grayer and grayer, culminating yesterday in such bad air that the city authorities actually admitted that the pollution had hit a rate of 500 on a 500-point scale (it had been in the 400s throughout the week). If you recall, last year I reported that the last several weeks of the year were amazingly clear, a fact that I attributed to the city's need to achieve a certain number of "Blue Sky" days per year, and their not having quite got there by mid-December. With the rather high number of gray days this December, I was thinking there was no chance we'd make the target, but, sure enough, a search on the Beijing air quality department's website reveals that, as of December 19, we had had 241 Blue Sky days, just two short of the 2007 target. December 20 was not bad, and today (December 29) is quite blue, so it looks like we'll make it after all.

By the way, I only learned through the New York Times today that the city called on people to avoid leaving their homes on Thursday and Friday, something that I was completely unaware of. There was certainly no clear reduction in the number of people out on the streets, and in fact traffic coming home on Thursday night was worse than average.

Let's hope that, with the Olympics coming in just 230+ days, the skies of Beijing in 2008 will be a bit brighter.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Holiday Party

We did it! We managed to transpose our holiday party tradition all the way from suburban Washington DC to the capital of the Celestial Kingdom! Last year our household goods had not arrived in time to begin preparations in time for the holiday, and besides J2 had by then gone on hiatus from the hospital so we were not in a festive mood. But 2007 has turned out to be
much better--not only did my position at the hospital become stabilized, but J2 is back on full-time status and in a position that he is happier with, so we were very much in the holiday spirit this year.

As many of you who know us already know, the centerpiece of our party is J2's holiday gingerbread house, which is always modeled on a building that visited during an overseas trip that calendar year. This year we had a couple of trips to choose from, including Japan and Cambodia, but in the end we opted for a building from our visit to Tibet this summer. Though in many circles Tibet is considered to be an intrinsic part of China, and therefore should not have been eligible for gingerbreadification, we decided to relax the strict rules and avoid politics for the sake of the celebration. Needless to mention, J2 kept the identity of the gingerbread house under strict wraps to give our guests the maximum impact upon seeing it, and it was set up as the first thing you'd see on entering the house. It was probably the most-photographed gingerbread house J2 has made to date (those Chinese really love the photo setting on their mobile phones!).

In the end, fifty guests joined us for the party, including quite a few from work, but also some of our other friends from around Beijing. The mix of Chinese and non-Chinese was pretty good, and we were very pleased to have non-Americans among the expatriate crowd, including a sizable francophone group (very fitting, considering we live in a virtual French ghetto). The food turned out to be a big hit, though as always we had way too much. One lesson learned--the food that went the fastest was the food I made myself; the things I ordered in from a popular Middle Eastern place did not move as quickly, but there's nothing wrong in my book with leftover hummus and baba ghanouj. And of course, we have a huge amount of cookies and drinks leftover, but there too, there's nothing wrong with leftover cookies, champagne and wine!

This year another change we made was to have our ayi help out with the preparation and general management during the party. I think she had a good time, and having her there really helped out! Definitely something we'll plan on for next year!

I could write on and on about the party, but pictures speak 1000 words, so here are the photos.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

One More for the Translation Police

Normally I try to keep this blog family-friendly, but in this case I make an exception. My friend Mary just sent me this image from a restaurant that seems to have had as hard a time as you can have with the character "干". In the context used in this menu it should be read in the first tone as "gān", meaning "dry", but the restaurant appears to have read it in fourth tone "gàn", which in polite conversation means "to do", but it also has more earthy connotations. Here once again is an example where the simplification of Chinese characters has caused trouble, since the character "干" represents two different traditional characters, "乾" for "dry" and "幹" for the other one...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Chanukkah Miracle in Beijing

So last night was the first night of Hanukah here in China. Even though I was going to be home late because of an early-evening personal trainer appointment, and even though he chose yesterday for a chest workout that resulted in my being unable to raise my arms about the level of my chest, and even though I am under orders to lose 15 lbs of fat (which I think is patently absurd), I decided that I would press on and make latkas anyway, since J2 loves them and I am not averse to them either.

I went to Jenny Lou's (the expat-oriented grocery that has a branch near my office) during lunch and bought two potatoes of unknown variety and a jar of Mott's 'homestyle' applesauce, which I thus had with me at the gym. When Alpha (the trainer) saw what was in the bag (which also included three packages of French unsalted butter) he tsk-tsked me and instructed me to only have a very small amount of the applesauce, which he saw contained way more sugar that he considered appropriate. As for the butter, I explained that we were getting ready for our holiday party and had baking to do, and by no means would I be actually eating any of it (ahem).

So back at the apartment I set to work making my potato pancakes. For some reason, I no longer seem to have my mother's recipe for them (mom, please send!), so I had to make do with what I could recall was the process. Normally, I would use the 'knuckle-scraping' safety grater to grate the potatoes, but mom has not seen fit to give me hers yet, and the one that I bought years ago is just awful so I did not even bring it with me to China. And besides, after the workout session there was just no way I could muster the strength to grate the potatoes by hand. So I put my cut-up and peeled potatoes along with a cut-up onion in the food processor and processed them away. Then, I put the resulting mixture in a dishcloth to wring out as much moisture as I could. Unfortunately, with my chest already wobbling from the effort of hitting the 'pulse' button on the Cuisinart, this was quite a task, and I had to take several breaks in the middle of the process. Then I added two eggs, salt, pepper and a little flour (no matzo meal seems to be sold anywhere in China, even during Passover season, so this was a break with tradition), and pulled out a skillet to prepare to fry them.

It was thus only after everything was prepared that I learned that I had very little oil left and feared I would be unable to fry the latkas. But this was very much in keeping with the Khanuka tradition, when a tiny amount of oil miraculously lasted for eight days, so I figured I'd try my luck. Pulling out the smallest skillet I had, I poured all the oil into it, barely enough to cover the bottom, and turned on the flame. Sure enough, I was able to fry all the pancakes without too much difficulty, and not one fell apart. Best of all, because of the limited amount of oil, they probably were lower-calorie pancakes than the norm, so Alpha won't be upset with me.

Unfortunately, with all this angst over the latkas, I completely forgot to light candles in my newly-acquired menorah.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

A few weeks ago, while shopping for groceries for the Thanksgiving dinner at our local Jenny Lou’s grocery store, I noticed a small sign announcing that on December 1 there would be a charity bazaar for Christmas goods at the German embassy. Reckoning that the Germans have a pretty good handle on Christmas decorations (what with so many of the top-end glass balls coming from Germany) I made a point to go to the event. Unfortunately, J2 had to work today (he works occasional Saturdays), so I had to do this on my own. A Jew, shopping for Christmas goods, at the German embassy--not a sure-fire recipe for success.

But I was not going to be deterred, and J2 gave me pointers on what to buy--anything that looked nice, that would go with our decor. Not exactly the precise instructions I was hoping for, but it was going to have to do. I figured that I would get to the embassy a bit before the appointed start of 11am, and since the embassy is not far from our apartment, that meant leaving home at 10:40. I was shocked to see that there was already a very healthy crowd waiting at the gates, almost all of whom were apparently German. There were also a few Chinese here and there, but they were in the tiny minority, though the Germans were eyeing them nervously, since they knew that the Chinese idea of the correct way to pass through a small opening into a bazaar/market was quite different from the German idea.

It was therefore no surprise when 11:00 came around (and not a second before or after) and the guards started to let people in, that the Chinese started to push and the Germans started to grumble. Fortunately, the crowd was manageable and there was no repeat of the mayhem that befell the Carrefour in Chongqing when they had a sale on cooking oil (in which several people were trampled to death).

Inside the embassy grounds, there was a very Germanic atmosphere, with stalls set up selling glühwein, curry-wurst, bratwurst, beer, etc, all sponsored by one or another German business in China (the curry-wursts, which were just like they sell in Berlin, were courtesy of Volkswagen). Der Bäcker, the local German bakery, had a stall selling stollen and giving out free samples (I got one for our party), and Schindlers (a German butcher) had sausages, hams, etc for sale. I had never been to Schindlers before, and this prompted me to visit after I left the bazaar.

But the one thing that I did not see a lot of was Christmas decorations. The closest I saw were some nice-enough wreaths, but most of them were designed to be placed on a table, and had large candles firmly affixed to them; it was only subsequently that I found one that had no candles and that could be hung on a door. There were no balls, no lights, and no other decorations that I think J2 was hoping for.

One thing that was interesting in the market was that EVERYONE assumed I was German. Even the (German) guard who checked my passport to let me in was taken aback when he saw me hand him a blue passport--as he took it he said he assumed I was German--but then when he saw my Germanic surname he said something to the effect of “aha, I knew it”. Fortunately, my German has not completely abandoned me yet, and I was able to keep up the ruse, though it was a bit confusing switching back between German and Chinese.

I left the market within 45 minutes of my arrival, to visit Schindlers store (where I ordered a smoked ham hock to make split pea soup with), and on driving by the embassy later on was really surprised to see an enormous queue of people waiting to get in! Glad that I went at the opening, and abandoned my plans to go back for a grilled wurstchen and beer.