February 28, 2010

One year ago today...

...We were flying over the Pacific on route to China.  This is the one year anniversary blog.  It feels somewhat fitting that tonight is the last night of the New Year holiday.  There have been firecrackers everyday for about three weeks, but tonight they are especially abundant.  We have ceased to notice them.  There are also red lanterns hung all over on the last night of the holiday, brightly lit.  This picture is from Wikipedia, James took the camera with him on his travels this week.  But its just like the ones that are hung.

Even if the calendar did not tell us that this is our one year China anniversary, our five senses would.  At home in Canada, I can always tell the changes of the seasons with my nose.  For some reason it has come as a surprise to me to that I would also be able to do that in China.  Back in the fall, I blogged about how strange it was to be smelling familiar home smells.  We've all heard that smells link powerfully to emotion, but this is the first time I have experienced it so strongly.  The air recently has smelled exactly the same as it did when we arrived.  The market smells the same (and yes it has changed through the seasons).  Our house feels the same.  The heat will officially be turned off by the government in two weeks time, but until then, the temperature inside the house is uncomfortably warm. To deal with the we open the windows a crack to let in a little cool air.  The smell of the smoggy air coming into the overly warm house has on a number of occasions sent me rocketing back in time.  Its amazing how without warning a smell can send me rocketing back to really bizarre and random moments.  Here are a few moments that have been vividly relived.

1) The other night I folded laundry in our bedroom and the smell of the air brought back a sudden memory of laying on our new, strange, board-like mattress with the horrible dim fluorescent light on, reading ROOTS.  Suddenly I was re-experiencing the exact impressions of our new home.  Why on earth would I remember such an insignificant event?  By the way, we now love how hard the mattress is.  I think I'll have a hard time adjusting to anything that is softer.  But at the time, it was very hard to adjust to waking up with aching ribs, spines and hips.  Just a little warning for anyone planning to visit us.  At first it feels like you are sleeping on cement.

2) We went out for supper the other night and ended up eating the same food that we had for our first meal in China (unplanned).  As soon as I bit into the food, I remembered sitting in the cold restaurant, telling Ari and Jude not to lick their food off the table, drinking the then unfamiliar tea and trying not to think about sanitation.  In a flash I remembered in detail exactly what the mural on the wall looked like that was across from me.  Jude broke a glass spoon there.

3) The other day we went for a walk at 4:30 pm (the same time of day we arrived in China).  The sky looked the same, the temperature was the same, the air smelled the same.  Driving from the airport, I was astonished to see that there are characters painted directly on the road giving names and directions.  I distinctly remembered driving up to our apartment building and walking into our apartment the first time.  The first thing I saw when I walked in was a Chinese vase.

4) Just like the first week we arrived, Jude had the flu this last week.  That lingering smell of puke that is so hard to get rid of reminded me of eating Peking Duck for the first time.  Both boys had been vomiting for a few days when we first ate it.  Even though it is Beijing's most world renowned famous food, both James and I could not get rid of the sensation the the sauce just tasted like vomit.  I haven't tried it since then.

5) I had to buy some water glasses this week because all of ours were broken.  I went to IKEA, the same place we bought all our household supplies the day after arriving.  For the record that is actually the cheapest deal around here to get any quality.  I remembered seeing a set of cups charged at 54 RMB and being unable to wrap my jet-lagged brain around whether that was a good deal or not.  Similarly, we considered buying a bed for Jude but I couldn't bring myself to spend 750 RMB (~$115) on it.  He still sleeps on a mattress on the floor!  Oh well, it works just fine for our purposes!

Of course the passing of an  "anniversary" brings on contemplation of the time past.  As with most things, it has been both fast and slow.  Its hard to believe that its been a year, and it seems just as hard to believe that there are still another two years.  Its been good so far!

James is currently off at an agricultural conference near Shanghai.  He was specifically invited to attend by its main planners.  Two days ago, to our surprise we received an itinerary.  There on Monday morning, March 1, from 9:00-9:30, we saw that "Dr. Jim Frey" would be giving a half hour presentation.  A few assumptions made perhaps?  I know that I laughed for a good five minutes at the thought that without my consent, I was officially married to "Dr. Jim Frey" (whom I imagine to be sixty years old and red faced with bad hair).  James was a little more concerned that he was suddenly giving a half hour presentation.  But all is well that ends well, and tomorrow morning, the good people at this conference will hear Dr. Jim Frey's presentation.

Ari goes back to school tomorrow...he and I are equally happy!

February 20, 2010

Clothing Children: An Exercise in Futility?

I have just spent the afternoon trying to do something that goes seems to go against nature.   That is of course, keeping my children clothed and not looking like bums.  You see, I refuse to submit to this idea that just because boys are boys they should always be wearing sloppy looking theme clothing.  You know the usual lineup: junky looking Spiderman jackets, dirty Bob the Builder sweatpants, Japanime sweaters covered in pills and fuzz, stretched out Lightening McQueen racer striped T-shirts etc.  I have excepted the fact that some of these items of clothing are inevitable and even exciting for the boys to wear.  However I balk against them always looking like this.  

Here in China, I have yet another theme for children's clothing to avoid.  It is the most famous (practically the only) cartoon in China for children.  Its name is Xi Yangyang Yu Hai Tai Leng (Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf).  There are a number of reasons that I dislike this cartoon (this is practically on par with the BINGO song).  But to sum it up nicely, it is the Chinese version of CareBears.  That is to say bad animations, annoying voices, the same plot for every episode, a plotting witch and her evil sidekick, horrible music and too much popularity.  To prove my comparison, I have attached two photos each of Carebears and Xi Yangyang.  There are practically no other shows for children on TV (other than Chinese Sponge Bob).  This is alright with me because the boys rarely watch TV, however, it means that everything sold to children has Xi Yangyang theme.  

If you are curious to see an example of this show, I have attached a link to an add on the Chinese equivalent to YouTube (YouKu):  http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTQyMjQxMDI4.html

Even if you watched the clip, you cannot understand my dislike for the show until you know that the kindergarten next door to our apartment blasted the Xi Yangyang theme song into the neighborhood at max volume everyday for six months.  The song on the clip I posted is a newer skip-pier version than the one that was played outside (that one was smooth as honey: very grating).

All of that to say that finding nice kids clothes here that is not Xi Yangyang themed is challenging.  Ari does have one pair of Xi Yangyang pants, but I have put my foot down and decided not to buy anymore.  The only Xi Yangyang paraphernalia I buy is the occasional marshmellow treat, which is quickly ingested and out of site.  

The other roadblock on the path to not sloppy clothing is the nature of boys.  In the last while, my sewing machine has done far more mending than creating.  Ari's Xi Yangyang pants (which were only purchased five months ago) have already shredded at the cuffs. The seams were savagely torn and ragged strings hung amok.  However, I have successfully mended the tears, raised the hem and straightened wildly bent cargo pockets.  The pants may now look like a giant zig-zag stitch, but at least that looks better than ragged tears.  As the youngest of three girls who grew up wearing hand-me downs, it seems downright wrong to throw out a pair of pants after five months of wear.  I'm sure that all experienced mothers of young boys will tell me that this is an exercise in futility, but I'm choosing the hard road.  

As such, Ari's wardrobe has recently seen a huge overhaul.  I have fully converted four pairs of ripped pants into nice looking shorts and I have bought three new pairs of pants (two of corduroy and one pair of jeans).  The new pairs of pants I have hemmed high enough that he won't be able to step on the cuffs.  This has required me to go against my basic aversion to "high water" pants, but hey, if means his clothes last longer than five months, I'm all for it!

Obviously boys are hard on their clothes.  For example, I caught Ari actually using his hands to rip his pants even more than they already were (after the necessary lecture, this incident produced yet another pair of shorts).  This is a good example of a time when I wonder where his brain is.  However, I also recognize that it is not entirely his fault.  I have come to the conclusion that anything sewn and sold in China is far more prone to ripping.  For example, our couch.  Since we have arrived, the relatively new couch covers that came in the apartment have ripped along four seams and worn through in two seats.  You would think that we wear steel wool on our pants.  However, when we mended the covers (more sewing machine) we discovered that even though the covers had been made to look like it had a double seam, they actually only had one thin seam.  But our landlady doesn't know this, and unless we fix them ourselves, we just look extremely careless.  If I was the landlady, I don't think I would believe the defense "All we did was sit on them! Honest!".  

My goal in all of this is to somehow make these clothes last until Jude can wear them and not have to buy him new clothes.  But as time passes and I see all of Ari's previously nice clothes being handed down as "bum" clothes to Jude, I wonder if I am caught in a never-ending cycle.  It seems that Jude will either be stuck wearing a tramp suit or always wear shorts ("What do you mean you can't keep warm in winter with 10 pairs of shorts?")

February 17, 2010

Week to Relax

This week has been a relaxing one.  Because of the New Year we do not have any school and the MCC office is closed (it would be pointless to try to accomplish much when everything is shut down).  Ari has two weeks off from school.  Aiyi is on vacation.  The weather has been beautiful and the air smells like spring.  Aside from a fresh realization that Ari needs school for his insanely high daily quota for human interaction, it has been a good few days.  

Here is how it goes.  Mornings are cranky because Ari doesn't know what to do with himself other than tease Jude, who whines perpetually.  They sleep in the afternoon and after that we spend a few hours outside in some form or fashion.  James and I have recently taken to playing a Chinese form of hacky sack (pictured above) while the boys play in the park or on a playground.  We draw a lot of attention and people will sometimes just stand and watch us silently as we act like a bunch of kids.  Half of the fun is imitating each other's "signature" moves.  Mine is a sort of slow motion Swan Lake kick and James can carry on a solo performance for about 10 kicks in a row.  Something about this game can really loosen you up because your body has to be loose and you can't help laughing a lot.  It also gets your heart going.

I have also enjoyed a wonderful reunion with the old MCC "More with Less" cookbook and a new cookbook called "Simply in Season" also printed by MCC.  Great birthday presents!  In the last year, I have experienced a sort of apathy when it came to making food.  There was something about moving to a country where I didn't know how the food system worked, having less kitchenware, and adjusting to a new life that made me unenthusiastic about cooking.  But it needed to be done nonetheless, and I feel like I have been cooking sub-par food ever since we got here.  The arrival new/old cookbooks coincided with this break, and I have regained my love of leisurely planning, cooking and taking pride in my meals.  A lot of the recipes are a throwback to childhood, but there are a lot of great new things in there as well.  What a good feeling!  There is something very therapeutic about cooking.  James and I have agreed that whoever is in the kitchen has a special "Do Not Disturb" status.  For various safety reasons, the boys are not allowed in the kitchen and this makes for an hour of alone time and a chance to be creative.  I imagine that in the near future, we might start involving Ari in some cooking, but for now we are enjoying the solitude.  I have been happily soaking beans ahead of time, making special breads etc, etc, etc.  What fun!

The other picture at the top is of the boys and I on Chinese New Year's Eve.  Jude was so terrified by the deafening noise that he wouldn't even turn his head to look at the camera.  Meanwhile, Ari has decided the pictures are his canvas for strange faces.  The firecrackers have kept going all week long, but don't nearly have the intensity of Saturday night.  Jude has been comforting himself by spending hours saying "Mommy I'm scared fire'rackers".  His other favorite phrase, "Mommy, my eye hurts", is a product of him always accidently poking himself in the eye recently.

That's all for now!

February 13, 2010

Rockets Red Flare Part II

This is an attempt to show a video of what the sky is like here.  Just keep in mind that the sounds are very badly captured on our little camera.  It was taken from our living room window.  The pictures were all from our neighborhood.

Live Report! The Rockets Red Glare!

The bombs bursting in air!  Gave truth to the night that Chinese New Year has flare!

Take it from me... the best thunderstorm you've ever heard has NOTHING on Chinese New Year in Beijing.  Imagine 16 million people setting off firecrackers!  From the street. Beside your window.  Firecrackers the size of frankfurters (maybe two inches thick).  Aside from the individual bursts and blasts, the whole sky has a deep rumble at all times, like the most ominous thunder you've ever heard.  Sometimes it even sounds like a huge ocean wave.  Screeching rockets!  Since the blasts are traditionally meant to scare away evil spirits they are also set off during the day.  I heard the first rocket this morning at 7:00 am and they've been going all day since them.  Since 5:00 pm on they have had much greater intensity.  I've had a number of pictures in my mind over the last few hours as the Tiger is welcomed in Beijing...

1) Black outs in London during WWII with the sky lit only by blasts, and the sound of anti-aircraft gun and flac exploding everywhere.  Battle in full tilt!  Airplanes! Air sirens! (in our case emergency vehicle sirens and car alarms which are almost as frequent as the fireworks)

2) That scene from Anne Frank where all eight of them are peering out the broken sky window.

3) The 1st of July on Steroids!

Our family has spent the evening with the apartment blacked out running from window to window to catch the best view. "Come to the living room! Come to the living room!"  "Now the dining room!"  Between all the rushing to different windows, it took me half an hour to cut two onions and two green peppers for supper.  All the noise has the ability to send a constant rush of adrenaline coursing through your veins.  I kept on catching myself holding my breath and I felt like a kid who thought it was fun to run around in a dark house, bumping into things.

As suspected, Jude has not been very happy about all the noise.  For the rest of us it all became white noise long ago, but not for Jude.  The poor boy spent several hours trying to prove that he was brave.  But when I gave him a hug at one point he threw himself into my arms and spent the rest of the evening with his head buried in my neck, clutching his stuffed Curious George, heart pounding.  What a brave boy!

Because of the buildings all around, we can hear more than we can see (the only time when it would pay to live on the 27th floor!).  But we are still getting our fair share of the party.  Every square inch of sky we see is getting almost constant action.  We have seen some extremely reckless fireworks habits.  Firing into moving traffic!  Setting up firecrackers on the road (and a taxi just barely missing it!).  Re-lighting a "dud" several times, which to me sounds like a blown-out-eye.  Trust me, these are not small gimpy firecrackers.  Any one person's display beats what we've seen in North America.

By midnight the noise has become so loud that within our own house we have to yell to hear each other.  Our eyes are burning with gunpowder and our throats ache!  The streets are covered with the ghosts of thousands of feet of firecrackers.  My stomach is making about as much noise, complaining because of the smell and from running from window to window, but I just can't stop.

Chun Jie Kuai Le!  Happy Spring Festival and may the Tiger come bearing gifts for you in this new year!

February 08, 2010

Xin Nian (New Year)

It is interesting to watch the passing of New Year here as an outsider.  There are a number of reasons that we feel purely like observers and not participants.  The first reason is that it obviously has a lot of meaning for the people around us, which just makes it more obvious that it doesn't really have any meaning for us.  I am becoming familiar with some of the music that plays everywhere, but it certainly doesn't have the nostalgia that it does for our friends.  The second reason is that it is very much a family event.  It would not be uncommon to be invited to someone's house for the New Year, but for most of our friends that means riding the train for 12-20 hours. We are also a family of four which would make hosting us a much larger task.  The third reason is that without anyone to show us, we really don't know how to celebrate the New Year except to make jiaozi and set of fire crackers.

On a side note, Aiyi did ask us if she could take Ari home to Anhui province with her for two weeks.  We claimed that we would miss him too much to let him go.  This is of course true, but there are some other reasons that I wouldn't be too enthusiastic about him going.  I think that even our sociable Ari would break down after two weeks of constant attention, constant candy and eating, constant loud noise, constant people, constant Chinese (hearing and speaking), no sleep and no reassuring mother and father.

In spite of being observers, there are still many things to see as we watch people.  Such as...

It is the tradition for everyone to buy a new set of full body long underwear at New Year, so all the stores everywhere are selling fancy boxes of long underwear.  Crowds of people search through them, considering what color of long underwear they want for this year.

All of the fruits and vegetables have been soaring in price since Christmas.  Apparently this is an artificial inflation due to the New Year and it happens every year.  It was fairly subtle so I didn't really notice as it was happening.  But suddenly I became aware that I felt like I was spending outrageous amounts of money on food.  Apparently some food is three or four times more expensive than normal.  I've been told that as soon as the New Year is finished, the prices will see a dramatic drop.  Even so, lately the food stores have been packed at all times.

Riding the bus is more and more like riding a market on wheels.  Everyone is buying food and gifts.  When I rode the bus earlier today it seemed like everybody had some large awkward thing that they were trying to maneuver.  Someone pushing a baby stroller piled high with onions.  A man whose arms were bursting with celery.  Another man holding a large crate of oranges above everyone's heads for lack of space.  Two-wheeled carts blocking all of the aisle space and overflowing with vegetables.  Brilliant red packages with gold characters on them.  I have spoken about the challenges of riding a bus crowded with people, but add a few carry-ons and you're really undone.  A while ago, I was crammed into a corner of the bus with a two finger handhold and there was someone was holding a large, hard, circular object (bigger than a beach ball) behind my knees!  It was like doing a wall-sit on a crowded moving bus.

The last few nights, I have wondered over the sounds of blasting that happen randomly around the city.  Sometimes it really sounds like the city is being attacked with bombs and  gunfire (at least how I imagine it would sound).  It seems, that even though it is still five days until New Year's Eve, every night people are randomly setting off firecrackers in the neighborhood.  Last night there were some going off right next to our apartment and the whole building was shaking.  Right outside our window, there was a car alarm that just couldn't handle it and spent the better part of an hour turning on and off. The sound of the blasting reverberates through all of the high rise buildings and echos in loud waves.  There are graphic signs going up around the city to caution people about safety measures.  One sign might for example show someone blowing their eye out (apparently not uncommon).  Last year a building burned down in Beijing when someone's firecracker went amiss.  I am very grateful that we have heavy curtains in the windows.  If they get blown out, I'd rather that the curtains absorbed the glass!  We've been told to expect several hours of close range constant firecrackers on New Year's Eve.  I'm hoping Jude can handle the noise...I'm having distinct memories of how distraught he was during our downstairs neighbors' renovations!

But I do not want these things to sound negative.  I confess that I have complained to James about the inconvenience of buying milk these days and at every nerve in my body jumping when a loud firecracker unexpectedly breaks the silence.  But he has graciously pointed out that I won't be able to experience it's charm if I am so easily irritated at some of the inconveniences.  Loosen up and enjoy the fun.  Things will return to normal in a few weeks!

February 02, 2010


With the lack of any real news around here, I will provide you with a few stories.

Story number 1 (concerning the strange picture)

This picture is courtesy of our friends back in Winnipeg.  That creepy rubber head in the window used to be our neighbor across the street.  The day we moved in, we noticed that there was a strange man who appeared to be in a wheelchair constantly watching us.  It started out very non-suspiciously.  But as the day went on, I started to feel sorry for the man who's caretakers had obviously forgotten him out on the porch.  Oh well.  But the next day bright and early, there he was again...watching...  It became a little creepy.  Everytime we took the garbage out, there he was...watching...  After a while, I became suspicious because the skin around his neck looked a little too flabby (rather Men-in-Black-like).  Only after trespassing on the neighbor's yard and walking up to the window did we realize that it was a strange rubber head.  For many different reasons, we were not all that sad to move out of the house.  However, this recent picture tells us that the head is still there.  Thank goodness, I was afraid he might have moved.

Story number 2

A few weeks ago, as Jude was walking around with two cups on his feet like a strangely hoofed animal (or Tumnus the Fawn), he tripped and spilled coffee all over our laptop keyboard (that is not the funny part).  The keyboard of course fizzled into an unresponsive state.  So James found a Mac warehouse here in Beijing and bought a new keyboard to install in the laptop.  While he was waiting for the parts, the man serving him asked him where he was from.  Upon hearing that James was Canadian he exclaimed with excitement "Jianada ren!  Wo ye renshi Jianada ren!" (Canadian!  I also know a Canadian), at which point he pulled out his cellphone and immediately dialed a phone number and spoke into the phone.  "Nihao, xianzai you yi ge Jianada ren gen wo zai yiqi.  Shuo hua ba!" (Hi, I have another Canadian here with me.  Talk to him!"

James awkwardly took the phone, and he and the stranger on the other end chuckled that they were supposed to have some sort of meaningful discussion because they were both Canadian.  But feeling obliged, they chatted anyway.  The Canadian told James that he had met this man once (five years ago) only a week after he arrived in China.  He generously stated that if we ever found ourselves in Hong Kong we should look him up!

Story number 3

We have gotten used to the fact that people are usually taking our pictures with their cellphones on the street.  My solution is usually to ignore them, but they are far from subtle.  But there was once that James pulled a good stunt.  The man at the bus stop next to him "stretched" with the lens of his cellphone pointed at James.  As the man pretended nonchalance, James gave the camera the biggest goofiest grin possible.  When the man pulled the phone back, he looked at the picture and physically jolted with the shock of seeing James' face.  He looked at James with surprise, and James grinned back.  Subtlety breeds subtlety!


February 01, 2010

James: Three Weeks of Unadulterated Sinus Bliss

Just a little something to help you feel his pain!