March 31, 2009

The Bonny Bins of Beijing

Greetings from the Mainland!

Who can forget the euphoria, as a child, of falling asleep on Christmas Eve? Praying that you would just pass out so that you can wake up the next morning? And then, suddenly it was morning, and your whole being buzzed with excitement!  You leapt out of bed, flung on a pair of mismatched socks, and raced to the tree.  Presents!
And then, there were there times that you woke up (maybe older now), and someone had to remind you that it was your birthday.  You had completely forgotten, and would have gone through the entire day without thinking about it if no one had said anything.
Today is a bit like the latter.  I'm sure none of you woke up today thinking, "James is going to make good on his promise today!  He's going to give us the goods!"
But today is the day.  The long-awaited runway show!  Behold, the 2009 Spring show of Beijing's many styles of trash cans!

 This model has a robotic feel to her.  You can rest assured that she will properly dispose of your waste according to the most elaborate methods that science has to offer.

Here we have a sleek culinary model.  You could eat off this baby.

(Incidentally, I put out a fire in this can.  Someone had tossed a cigarette into a napkin, and smoke was pouring out of it like Puff the Magic Dragon.)

These beauties come in all the primary colours.  Their green cousin lives just across the street, but this photographer was just a little embarrassed by the thought of taking a picture of a trash can when it was surrounded by people.

This Vixen's impregnable! And you better hope your trash is heart-shaped, or it's not getting in.

Don't be put off by this lovely Sheila's simplicity.  What she lacks in charm, she makes up for in capacity.  What volume!

Scenario:  Two people approach the same can with garbage in their hands.  Competition?  No way!  This baby solves all our problems by providing twin receptacles.

Every family has an ugly duckling.

Paris, 1962.  Noir sur Blanc.

Et voila!  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  There's nothing quite so satisfying as delivering timely, meaningful news to a hungry audience.
And, in the words of the trash cans at all the Beijing bus stops: "Protect CircumStance begin with me!"

March 28, 2009

I Want my Own Personal 4000 Acre Garden in the Heart of Beijing, and Other Stories

Greetings from the Mainland!
At times, being in Beijing is a bit like walking around a construction site at the Tower of Babel.  You hear all sorts of languages around you: a group of vaguely dark-eyed folks speaking what might be Bulgarian; stunningly blonde Russians chatting in a corner; two very Chinese-looking boys speaking flawless German with perfect Berliner accents; an old man whispering in Turkish into a cell phone on the bus.  And, of course, the ubiquitous Zhonggou hua - Chinese.
(On a side note, have you ever noticed that people often use the word ubiquitous when they want to sound smart?)
Today, the Fam traipsed downtown (the lights are much brighter there, I could forget all my troubles, forget all my cares!) and surveyed the largest plaza I have ever been in.  Tiananmen Square really lives up to the name.  It is extremely square.  And if Tiananmen means crowded, then it is that as well.
An unexpected fate awaited us as we entered that vast piazza.  Gaggles of people meandered hither and yon, some with families, some with their spouse, some by their lonesome.  I was surprised to see that most people were Chinese.  For some reason, I had anticipated that the Square would be seething with tourists (I AM NOT A TOURIST).  Sure, there were the odd blondies here and there, but the overwhelming majority were Chinese.
But why should this be strange.  We wouldn't think it was odd if we went to Ottawa or D.C. and saw mostly white people.  In fact, it would probably seem strange if we didn't.
Back to the unexpected fate: we had trucked the stroller with us on the subway, and now the boys were both sitting in it, wedged in like Siamese twins.  The sight was too much for the folks walking past.  In a flash, they had the cameras out, the video cameras rolling, the cell phone cameras weaving in and out like silver-hooded snakes.
At one point, as we entered a garden just west of the Forbidden City, we were 'lucky' enough to end up in line behind a squad of high school girls. Flash!  Instantaneously, 900 cellphones appeared in front of us, shutters flickering.  Giggles filled my ears, hands caressed my arms, faces pressed too close to mine.  Jessica pondered the softness of their cheeks, as they pressed forcibly against her own.  And the boys writhed beneath a thousand pinches.
Beyond, all was well.  We soon learned that the secrets to life are best expressed in mathematical formulae.  For example, we derived a formula that expressed the probability that if we stopped to take our own photos, a horde of unwanted shutterbugs would descend upon us.
P = D (Q + T + B - G) ^C

where: P=probability,  D=distance from main gate, Q=quantity of people nearby, T=length of time stopped, B=boys' cuteness (a random variable between 0 and 1), G=grotesqueness of the grimaces on James' face, and C=how many cameras are already pointed at us.
There it is.  Life, reduced to an equation.  But by playing with the variables, we were able to escape the mayhem.  At first, we relied on the first variable, D.  Let's get away from this gate!  Everyone who comes in wants to take a picture with us!!!  But we became more subtle.  Don't pause so long!  I'll keep moving while you take a photo!

Then it became, The boys are hugging and being cute again!  James, start grimacing!!!!  Finally, we just learned that we needed to walk past the cameras and ignore the pleas.
(I know that I'm prone to exaggeration, but this is all true!  Consider my previous example of visiting Ottawa.  Now how would it seem if dozens of white people surrounded a poor Chinese family as they tried to eat their carefully prepared sesame-butter and jelly sandwiches?  The Paparazzi would have been proud.)
In other news, I'm assembling material for a few upcoming posts.  You'll like them.  The first is a showcase of the various styles of trash cans around Beijing.  The second is a collection of photos of the various statues found outside the entrances to apartment complexes!  Now that's news!

Food for Thought

March 27, 2009

Jess - Lessons in Chinese, both in class and out

Lesson No1
Its sometimes pays off to unashamedly flatter your teacher.  On Thursday in a series of questions my teacher was asking she asked me:
"Jessica, shei congming?" (Jessica, who is smart?)
Really what choice did I have?  It was the perfect opportunity to pour forth with;
'Oh Laoshi, ni congming" (Oh teacher, you are smart!)
She burst into red faced giggles and said; 
"Bu congming, Wo bu congming! Jessica, ni congming!" (Not smart, I am not smart. Jessica, you are smart!)
Ah yes, well thank you!

Lesson No2
Trying to make a joke in Chinese to my teacher is a gamble, and James has found the same thing.  In learning how to use the word "half" (ban - fourth tone), I was asked to read the sentences at the bottom of the page.  One of them talked about "half a book" (yiban shu).  So I good-naturedly picked up my book and dramatically pretended to rip it in half.  My teacher looked at me blankly.  Needless to say, I felt a little silly!  But there are other times that we laugh long and loud together, so I feel those times make up for the duds.

Lesson No3
When speaking to Chinese people in everyday circumstances, I need to stop assuming that I am saying something wrong when they look at me blankly.  My reaction until now has been to think that I probably said the tones wrong and then I'll try to change them, which then does make it wrong.  In Canada, I often needed to ask someone speaking English as their second language to repeat what they said, usually because of their accent.  So I realized that I am usually saying it right, and if I repeat myself and sometimes gesture, they usually get what I am saying.  

Lesson No4
I must be doing okay because I had my first exam yesterday (oral and written), and I scored a 90%!  James has his on Monday. 

March 25, 2009

Jess' Ode to James on his birthday

Well here we are at another birthday for James who turns 28 today.  "28!"  you may say "why he's still a spring chicken!"  And it is the truth to everyone except James who was complaining to me other other day about how OLD he looks.  He feels young he says, but he thinks he looks like an old man with raccoon eyes, thinning hair and sallow face.  He direly wishes baldness on himself to get over this particular stage of hair over and done with.  That said James actually doesn't care that much, he just needs to drop a few overdone comments once in while.  Enjoy these humorous pictures of him.

Whenever James' birthday comes, I go through the inevitable quandary of what to do for him.  James is not the kind of person you buy a shirt for his birthday.  Never ever buy him anything that might reek of knickknackiness.  If it can't be used and if he doesn't actively want it, its usually a gamble to buy him a gift.  So my question was even harder this year, "What do I get him and how will I ever find it in China with limited mobility and language skills?".   Then it dawned on me!  Here I have the perfect opportunity, with a regular audience and keyboard at hand to compose a little ditty in his honor.  I tell myself that I'm saving up all the unbought birthday presents to buy him his ulitmate dream gift; the only hat in the world to aspire to and very much like something Ghengis Khan would have worn.

James is one of kind.  I don't flatter him when I say that I've never met anyone like him and when I think about all of his characteristics I still have a hard time imagining that I was unique enough for him to notice me.  How many random and unrelated facts have I gleaned from him: like oropolitics?  (Maybe a better question is how many have I remembered)  How often have a I watched him compose silly songs to some imaginary beat in his head?  Just last night I watched him compose a farcical love song in Chinese and record it onto Garage Band with a very self satisfied look on his face.  How many unheard of nicknames has he given me and boys? (Soupy, Soupster, Zupa, Su etc for me; Beoye Brown, Spongalino, Fungalino, John B, etc for Ari; Shooter Brown,  Shoots, ShooterBomb etc for Jude).

How many places have we thought about going together?  Yes, James has very seriously drafted plans for us to build a massive boat and sail around the world together.  How many times have we fallen asleep discussing the global food distribution system, from production to consumption, both here and there?  How many times have we contemplated buying land anywhere in the world and living only on what we can grow or make?  How many languages has James wanted to learn?  How many times have I seen Ari listening attentively as James gives him a detailed flow chart of how to produce a biogass digestor?   How many times has he spent hours designing houses for us, or Mongolian clothing for himself?  

How many times has he encouraged me in my education?  How many papers has he edited for me?  How many nights has he played with my hair while I fall asleep?  How many times has he not minced words with me and told me that I'm making too many assumptions and read into situations?  How many evening has he read his newly composed stories to me and asked me what should happen next?  

Would you believe that this guy has complained to me about how boring he is?

It may seem hard to believe that I dreamed about the kind of stuff James dreams about before he came around.  I actually did not jump on his cart.  But I am positive that I wouldn't have done as many of the things I wanted to without James' cattleprodding.  I am very thankful for his presence in my life, and I am just as grateful that he enjoys mine.  He is a wonderful father, and a wonderful friend and husband.  I don't think I'll ever be bored with him around.  

How much will I miss him when he leaves on trips?  Very much!

Love you very much James.  Happy Birthday

March 24, 2009

A Dog in the House

Greetings from the Mainland!

I hope this finds you well. A fine blue sky has suspended itself over Beijing these past few days, lending a tranquil atmosphere to the place. The air, following a several-day warming trend, has cooled again, and sweaters and moccasins are once again in order. Part of it has to do with the fact that 'they' (the powers that be, I suppose) have officially turned off the heat for summer, and the radiators are cold.

Our friends here have travelled to Bangkok for the week (business, unfortunately, and not a much-deserved vacation), and we have temporarily inherited their dog. Her name is Sheira (I may be spelling that incorrectly). She is a nervous creature by nature - whenever we visited her usual residence, she offered a timid bark or two, and disappeared into the corner beneath a table.

Of course, I don't blame her. If I was eighteen inches tall, I would hide from Ari and Jude too. In fact, I'm 72 inches tall, and I sometimes feel like hiding from them.

I don't think poor Sheira was quite prepared for the sight that met her beyond the door to our apartment. We stepped in, only to see both Ari and Jude waiting, eyes suddenly exploding out of their heads with excitement. Sheira just turned around and tried to go back down the stairs. But to no avail.

Thankfully, there is a perfect spot in our apartment for her. A couch and an armchair completely block off an end table, and we just tucked her bed underneath. She likes Jessica and I, and ventures out when the boys have gone to bed.

Last night, I went for a walk with her, venturing into a neighbourhood that I had been a little nervous about walking in after dark. It's rather silly. The only thing that makes it any different from the others is that it doesn't have street lights. I think the street front is under construction, because it is flanked by walls on both sides. Sheira seemed happy as a clam (a strange feat for a dog) to be on such a long walk. And I, paradoxically, felt safe in her company - a dog who would sooner pee her non-existent pants than bite a would-be aggressor.

On a complete non-sequitur, here's a shot for all you side-car loving motorcycle enthusiasts out there.
I bought a fruit knife this evening, and the brand-name is "Cleverest Son's Wife".  I suppose that because I am the only boy in my family, Jessica can use the knife without fear of alienating anyone.

And last of all, Jessica and I saw a trophy-winning picture setup, but didn't have a camera.  A lady was buying a quilt set with the words "Imperial Concubine Quilt" written on the bag!

March 22, 2009

Hey Jude by Jess

A Funny True Story

Yesterday we went to the park (a new Sunday tradition).  At one moment Jude was beginning to get a little cranky and was not listening very well.  So he was running as rapidly as he could away from me across a field toward a man flying a kite.  I ran after yelling "Jude!  Jude!".  When I caught up with him, I proceeded to reprimand him close to his ear.

Suddenly in the middle of my mini lecture I heard a very karoke-like voice over my shoulder singing "Hey Ju-u-u-ude! Don't make me cry!"  We're not talking about the first simple solitary notes of the song sung by Paul McCartney, we're talking about later in the song where he hits about five notes when singing Hey Jude.  The bold vibrato was so close to my ear that I jumped and looked over my shoulder only to see the Chinese man with the kite walking away with a very suave looking smile on his face.  Apparently Jude is no longer just making it bad for himself, but he also has the power to make this Chinese Paul McCartney cry!

Jess' Monday Morning Report

The weekend brought some unexpected events for us. Ari came prancing out of his room Saturday morning having dressed himself completely (underwear, inside out socks, backward pants and a massive shirt). He was extremely proud of himself and James and I felt the satisfaction of watching one more step taken toward less dependent children.

On the note of child milestones, the same day I bought the toaster oven, I also made the small purchase of a potty seat for Jude. I had to chuckle when the label on one of the options for purchase said "Child's Defecation Seat". Putting it delicately I suppose, although I rarely think of Jude's deposits as delicate.  However, on that note Jude successfully defecated on the porcelain throne on Saturday morning.  It looks like Saturday was a big day for parenting milestones.  James and I are quite pleased.    

Jude has also been going without a soother for a week now (entirely due to the fact that we sort of sabotaged it, by snipping it shorter and shorter)
My only moment of consternation at their development occurred last night after pretending to eat their still baby soft bellies when putting them to bed. I suddenly realized that as boys, they will only be "cute" for a limited time. Little girls stay cute for a while, but boys seem to come out of that stage relatively fast. Even James agreed with me that it was a somewhat sad thought, but was quick to point out that other new and exciting things will replace it

The new latest thing is for them to wrestle with each other. I knew as soon as I had two boys that this would happen, but I wasn't counting on it happening so young (aka, at a time when they are still to ignorant to know about things like broken limbs and the unspoken rules of wrestling like "no eye poking"). Nonetheless they tackle each other to the ground, completely unaware of hard corners that may be around or glass tables (we did not decorate this apartment, it came furnished!)

As they wrestle, their mother prepares herself for inevitable injuries and ponders in her mind how she will react in the event that blood or bones appear (please no!). Then she realizes that if she thinks about this too long she ends up creating too horrible to imagine scenarios. It seems that all she can do in the meantime is watch carefully and try to teach them how not to wrestle (like no eye poking, no knee drops to the ribs, no wrestling when holding pens or dinosaurs with long pokey tails). She has learned that it does not work to tell them not to do it.  She reminds herself that boys have been wrestling since the dawn of time, as not-comforting as that thought is.  She also reminds herself of heavenly protection and thanks God for it daily!

Farewell from the Mainland!

March 20, 2009

Rip van Winkle

Time stops for no man, but my stomach seems to do it all the time.
I woke up this morning sometime between 5 and 6 am with the feeling I had swallowed a rock.  A large, angular one.  Sure enough, my dinner hadn't moved a bit, parked somewhere between my esophagus and my duodenum.  Unfortunately, it proved to be the onset of the plague flu.  The morning and early afternoon were spent in a delirious slumber into which I could not completely descend, and from which I could not completely extract myself.
I felt a bit like Rip van Winkle, lost somewhere in the Catskills, stultified by the strange liquors of Henry Hudson's long-departed ghost crew.  Thankfully, I  awoke before 20 years had passed, but my legs, arms, back, feet, head, hands... they all ache.  The flu is no fun.
Sickness poses an interesting challenge in families with young children.  First of all, the sick-ee becomes a walking petri dish, showering his loved ones with a fine mist of viruses and/or bacteria.  More often the not, the rest of the family succumbs in due time.
But this is true of sickness among any group of people.  The unique challenge that comes with a sick adult in a family with small children is that suddenly all the responsibilities of parenting fall upon the other.  This is just one more reason that I felt like old Mr. van Winkle, who, if we remember, was a bit of a lay-about and a wastrel, with an aversion to 'profitable labour'.  Jessica has heroically managed all affairs in our household, while I ponder my intestines.
Thankfully, the sun seems to be rising on my long night of sickness, and the weekend should not suffer too much.

March 19, 2009

The Irascible Mr. Lin, or These Uniforms ain't Uniform

Greetings from the Mainland!

Textbooks tend to fall into a number of categories. First, there are the textbooks that are 2500 pages long, are written in Size 4 font, and don't have a single picture. Everything about these books is intimidating. Let's call these "Millstones". Second, there are the textbooks that are 100 pages long, don't have more than 5 words per page, and have scads of glossy photos that don't really seem to have much to do with the subject at hand. They more closely resemble an issue of Newsweek than a textbook. Let's call these "Brochures". Third, there are the textbooks that we hope to see: thorough, yet concise; information rich, yet supplemented with a variety of visual learning aids; challenging, yet fun! Let's call these books "Shangri La".

When we began using the textbook for our Chinese lessons, my first impression was that the book was disjointed and unorganized.  Nothing really seemed to proceed in a logical order. Now, as we are some 4 or 5 lessons into the book, things are beginning to take on shape.  My appreciation for the book has grown, and I can see the 'method to the madness' (thank you Bill Shakespeare).
One of the main reasons I felt that the first lesson floundered was due to the overwhelming focus on introductions.  Of course, what else should a first lesson focus on?  Getting the "Hello, my Name is..." bit out of the way is obviously hugely important.  But it can get a bit tedious after a while to repeat eternally.  Making matters worse is the limited variety of names that are used throughout the exercises.  One of the principal characters in most of the dialogues is the eponymous Mr. Lin, or Lin Xiansheng.  (Family names precede titles in China; thus, I am Fu Xiansheng.)
Mr. Lin, Jessica and I both agree, is an old stick-in-the-mud, cantankerous and ornery, convinced that the younger generation is all a bunch of degenerate hooligans who've lost respect for the old ways.  He's the type who never deviates from his rigid routine of tea in the morning, followed by a game of Chinese chess with his cronies on the curbside.  He orders the same thing every time he goes out to eat.
Sure, we're reading between the lines a bit.  But the 'ordering the same thing' part is dead-on.  Consider the following exerpt from the textbook:
Lin Xiansheng: Do you have black tea?
Shopkeeper: We do.  Would you like a sandwich with that?
Lin Xiansheng: I don't want a sandwich, you filthy rascal.  Have you no dignity?  If I wanted a sandwich, I would have asked for one!  Now get me my tea, and make sure it's as black as midnight!
I may have added a bit in there.  Creative license, and all that.
But Mr. Lin has another, darker side.  Rumour has it that the reason he doesn't want a sandwich is because, as you know, sandwiches are at least 50% bread.  And bread is to Mr. Lin what potions were to Dr. Jekyll!  Consider the following sentence:
Wang Xiaojie:  Who gave Mr. Lin bread?
There are many ways to read this sentence.  If the emphasis is on who, then all is well.  But I suspect that the terrifying truth is that the emphasis is on bread.  The story continues as follows:
Wang Xiaojie:  Who gave Mr. Lin bread?  Didn't I tell you never to give him bread?  [A low growl comes from the back of the dimly-lit cage.]  Everybody run for your lives!

In other news, I've noticed before (and mentioned cursorily in a previous post) that Beijing has a definite affinity for uniformed individuals. You will find them just about everywhere: in front of banks, office buildings, malls, strolling the sidewalks, or peddling around on decrepit bicycles. It took me a while to realize that these are not all "officials", in the official sense of the word. Very few are police officers or military personnel. Most are hired by an individual company. Some are part of various neighbourhood committees in charge of cleaning, and so on, and some are there to collect parking fees.
This morning, I saw the entire staff of a restaurant lined up on the sidewalk out front. They were standing at attention, the men dressed in crisp white aprons and caps, a few with hair nets on. The waitresses all wore bright red uniforms with triangular caps perched on their heads. I wished I had a camera.

But the best thing about the uniforms is the total lack of uniformity.  Sure, common themes can be found in most, such as epaulettes, or peaked caps.  But sometimes you see green, sometimes blue, sometimes red.  Stars, bars or insignias.  Braids, sashes, cords, dangling whatnots that would only get in the way...
I apologize for the completely surreptitious quality of these photos, but I really was trying to sneak of a shot in most cases. It helps that the camera is embedded in my cell phone, but of course, people are not idiots, and will guess that I am not checking my messages at arms length with the phone pointed at them.

Notice the boots on the guard in the picture below? Quite a set of kicks.

The last photo is a better shot of the barracks-style housing I mentioned in an earlier posting.

March 17, 2009

As Darkness Descends upon Wangjing

Greetings from the Mainland!

If you take a peek at a map of Beijing, you'll see what look like concentric rings.  Four, to be exact.  The innermost ring that you will see on a map surrounds downtown, which is the old part of the city.  This road was built upon the site of the old city wall, which was torn down as Beijing was modernized.  And though this is the first ring on the map, it is called the 2nd ring road.  The next three rings are, accordingly, the 3rd, 4th and 5th ring roads.
Why no 1st ring road?  Well, according to our friends here in Beijing, the perimeter of the Forbidden City (located at the exact centre of Beijing) was considered the 1st ring.  We live between the 4th and 5th ring roads, about 7 miles from the Forbidden City.
Last evening I took a walk down a boulevard to the southwest.  I brought the camera along, just in case there happened to be something worth shooting at.  I seem to think that most things are worth a few milliseconds of shutter time (I get many stares as I take photos of things that doubtlessly seem completely mundane to people from around here).

Here we have a restaurant. Folks in Beijing seem to eat out a lot. This is understandable. Unlike many places in Canada, restaurants here can be quite inexpensive. It may cost 2 dollars for a very filling bowl of noodles. Of course, that same bowl of noodles would cost mere cents to make, but eating out just saves time. Friends of ours (you know who you are) told us about their Chinese friend, who said that although her family eats out often, they like to eat supper at home from time to time as a way of 'staying close'.

Although the above photo appears to be the entrance to a casino, alas, it is only a restaurant. You will have to slake your gambling desires in the back alley, with the men fighting crickets.

Along major roads, the lights are bright. The sidewalks are well lit, and no one seems particularly worried that they might get robbed or stabbed or kidnapped. Compare that with Higgins (if you dare.) However, an interesting feature to the city is that although it is well lit, there doesn't seem to be lot of egregious power usage. Of course, I haven't seen downtown at night, but here in the 'suburbs' people seem to be quite conscious of their power usage. The stairwells of our building, for example, have lights on timers. You hit the button, and the lights go on. After 30 seconds or so, they will shut off again.

In the daytime, the streets are packed with vehicles of all shapes, sizes, and means of propulsion. By nightfall, the number of vehicles dwindles drastically. They still zip along the main thoroughfares, but on the side streets, it becomes downright peaceful. There are still bicycles everywhere, and most major roads have separate side roads dedicated (at least theoretically) to bicycle traffic.

On the side streets, you'll encounter groups of elderly men strolling with their hands clasped behind their backs, or smoking cigarettes in large groups. Women chatter with one another, gesturing animatedly. The window in this photo seemed so dirty and neglected that I had to take a picture of it.

Don't be put off by the following photo's green tint. My camera doesn't handle partial light well, let alone almost no light. Here, a woman was selling vegetables, late into the evening. She had her produce spread out on crates and pieces of cloth, and she was attracting quite a crowd. It's like they always say. If you build it, they will come.

By now, I was starting to get pretty far from the area I was familiar with. I came to a three-way intersection, where the road ended abruptly in a wall. Beyond it, I could just make out the rooftops of an older, poorer neighbourhood. I crossed the street to get a closer look.

I have no idea what the red sign in the next photo was all about, emerging like a neon cross from the darkness.

This side of the road didn't feel as cozy. Was it just my imagination, or were people were staring at me with a bit of distrust? A fellow in a peaked cap shuffled in close, and my hands went straight to my wallet. I became self-conscious (more so that normal). Not just because I was a sore thumb, but because I felt like I was stereotyping the people around me. Why was I at ease around the folks coming out of the restaurants 10 blocks back, and not these people?

It turns out that the guy who came in close just wanted to look at the last photo I'd taken on my camera. I turned on the display and showed him the ugly blur you see to the left. He looked at me and smiled, and I think he said something about how I really ought to stick to daylight photography. But I couldn't resist trying out the shot. What you can't see in this picture is a really interesting night market. Just to the left was a whole array of carts and booths where men and women were selling sweet lumps of dough fried in oil (a bit like Timbits). Unfortunately, the whole scene was putting off about as much light as an indiglo watch, and it just didn't show up on the camera.

So that was my nighttime walk through the hood. I've attached two more pictures I took this morning. It's gotten quite warm (up in the mid-20s during the day) (that's the 70s for all you Fahrenheit lovers out there) and jackets are becoming an unwanted item. Leaves are budding and flowers are blooming.

This tree is an example of one you'd see all along the roads here in Beijing. If it's not called an Umbrella Tree in Chinese, then there's no justice in the world.

And, of course, the apple trees are blossoming! Only a fool or a tyrant could say that they hate apple blossoms.

Not Every Time, but Sometimes All the Time

Greetings from the Mainland!
You can thank Ari for the title.  It's his newest idiom.  It essentially means (I think) that whatever it is he's talking about is extremely negotiable.  For example, he might say, "Papa, that man over there looks like Shrek.  Not every time, but sometimes all the time."  I take that to mean that the man's features are a bit ogreish, but that with a bit of work (say, a nose job or some botox) he might pull out of it.
This morning I took a walk, bright and early.  Actually, I meant to go to the store to buy some bread.  The boys have become fanatics for what we call egg-in-a-hole.  It's a quick and easy breakfast that involves punching a hole through a few slices of buttered bread, tossing them into a frying pan, and (you guessed it) cracking an egg into the hole.  Even I was in the mood for e-i-a-h this morning, so I threw some shoes on and headed out for the Hualian.  (Incidently, I have to issue a retraction on a previous blog posting.  I referred to the mall nearby our place as the Hualian.  It's actually called the Wangjing Mall.  The Hualian is the grocery store below.)
As I neared the entrance to the Mall, I saw that the doors were shut and the windows were dim.  Closed.  But a steady stream of people were filing around the side, to a back door. Perhaps the clothing store was merely closed, and the grocery below was open for business.  I followed them in through a set of doors, only to be stopped short by a guard.
"No!" he said.  I asked him, "Is the Hualian open downstairs?"  "No!" he said again, this time louder.  I had exhausted his English.
The entire Mall, it seems, only opens at 9 am.  I needed to leave for language classes before then. I would never see the bread, or my precious egg-in-a-hole.
So I decided to take a walk instead.  From my ill-fated door leads a path into the construction zone beside our apartment complex. Something is always being built here in Beijing, and the sky is a jungle gym of cranes and scaffolding.  They have walls built all along the construction sites, which can sometimes make walking from Point A to Point B rather tricky.  Most of the time, it means walking around the site completely, and can add several kilometers to a route.
I enjoy watching the work on these sites, as they are very different they are from sites in Canada.  I don't mean that they are less safe (everyone is wearing hardhats, and there are cages and nets to prevent falls).  Without actually going onto the sites (something I don't envision happening any time soon) I couldn't really put my finger on what makes them seem so different.  Just the look, I guess.
One of the biggest differences is in the source of labour.  At the bottom of the picture above, you can just see a white building with a blue roof.  This is most likely barracks-style housing for migrant labour that is hired for these projects.  You can find these buildings in many developing areas, smack-dab in the centre of upper-middle income housing.
We learned that when these apartment buildings are completed, they do not finish out the individual apartments.  The pluming and wiring is all in place, but otherwise it is just a bare concrete shell.  This leaves the buyer with the obligation to finish the interior.  However, this also allows the buyer to exercise complete control over the decor.
This explains the incredible variation we've seen in most of the apartments we've seen (either in person, or in photographs).  Some are hyper-modern, some are done in a quaint Classical Chinese style, and some are, well, extremely hideous.
One of the things I've come to enjoy about all this construction is that it brings all kinds of people into the picture.  The guys laying bricks are, for lack of a better term, unrefined, and I find this refreshing.  (I saw one of them taking a discrete leak against a wall this morning.)  There are sweepers and trash collectors and landscapers and rummagers and just about anyone else you'd hope to find.  It makes the Embassy Districts look a bit boring and sterile by comparison.


A final anecdote.  On the way to class this morning, the bus was full of Young Pioneers of China.  About 15 boys, dressed in identical uniforms, yellow caps upon their heads, and red kerchiefs around their necks.  They were all about 9, I'd say, and impish.  The ones at the back of the bus kept opening the windows and sticking their arms out, until finally the woman who issues tickets screamed at them.  Their chaperone flew into a rage (a tempest that darkened the sky for a moment, then dissipated) and threatened the offenders.  He then sat in the seat with them, scowling like a bulldog.
For those of you who are curious, the Chinese name for the Young Pioneers is Zhōngguó shàonián xiānfēng duì.  Say that three times fast.