Monday, March 28, 2011

A collection of happy thoughts

Over the past two weeks I've been taking mental snapshots, Cam Jansen style. Whenever I hit a patch of stress or exhaustion I like to bring them back to the forefront to remind myself to breathe. Disjointed and strange as they may be, I take comfort in these human moments and thought I would share them with you, in no particular order.

Every morning and every evening there is a young girl on this street (maybe 12 or so) who takes a walk down the block with her elderly grandfather. He uses a tall cane like a crutch and she holds on to his arm gently. They smile and talk and slowly move down the sidewalk as the city rushes past them.

One woman in the apartment building has a beautiful dog that looks to be a cross between a golden retriever and a collie. There is something strangely majestic about the way it comports itself. Every time I look at it passing by I feel as though it has an old soul.

This morning on the walk to work I encountered a hoard of middle school students waiting in front of a local hotel who seemed to be in the neighborhood for a marching band competition. Each school's children wore different colored uniforms and many carried instruments taller than themselves. On the walk home in front of the same building the older women from the neighborhood were playing traditional drums and line dancing with mylar-fringed pompoms.

Over the weekend, sitting in a large pagoda at 日坛公园 (Sun Temple park), I paused my reading for an hour or so to do some people-watching. There were three older men in the pavilion wearing the red armbands of the community watch. They engaged in constant commentary of everything around them and it reminded me of the puppets in the balcony of the Muppet Show. At the other corner of the pagoda two even older men leaned against opposite sides of the same pillar, staring in opposite directions and saying nothing. They tipped their chins up towards the sun.

While on the bus, a woman standing right in front of me commented very loudly to her friend that there was a 老外 (foreigner) on the bus. When I turned to look her knowingly in the eye she was so embarrassed that she pulled her head into her sweater like a turtle.

I walked into my neighborhood convenience store one morning to the sounds of Lady Gaga. The only member of the family around at the time was an older man smoking a cigarette behind the cash register. Later that morning I (along with everyone else around) was treated to a complimentary shower at the bus stop, courtesy of the city worker who decided without warning to power wash the flyers from nearby telephone poles.

Bread Talk used to be my favorite snack shop. Turns out it still is.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Getting back in the swing of the Jing

One of the things I love about Beijing is its ability to provide me with little moments of amusement throughout the day. There will eventually be things that drive me crazy, but as it is at the start of any relationship the quirks are charming rather than infuriating. Take, for example, opening a bank account. While this is usually a simple process, China has a way of delightfully complicating things. A person with less patience (and less love for forehead-slapping moments) may have stressed out over this, but I must admit that I chuckled my way through it.

When I arrived at the bank with my boss, an enthusiastic bank employee came over to help me fill out the application form while I waited for my number to be called. After I filled in my name on the wrong line, he took the form from me, ripped it up, and gave me a new one. I must have looked very confused by this protocol, so he explained that I can't make any mistakes or else the form will not be accepted by the teller. Fair enough.

Take two, I wrote my nationality in the wrong box. Thought I could fix it by drawing a line through it, but Mr. Enthusiastic gave out a squeal of disapproval and confiscated the form. At this point the bank was running out of forms, so he took matters into his own hands. And by matters I mean the pen, out of my hand and into his. Before we could fill out form take three my number was called, so my new foil in bank comedy accompanied me to the window to keep me from violating their strict zero tolerance policy on application mistakes.

It would have been very easy to get angry or yell or complain, but the trick to loving the Jing is rolling with the punches. You have to make the conscious decision to see these situations as real-life Abbot and Costello routines, sometimes bordering on slapstick. And since I kept smiling the bank assistant kept smiling, through the mistakes on the forms, through the bank insisting they had run out of ATM cards, and through the teller shooting him icy glares from behind her plexiglass shield.

In the end I got a bank account, a lovely purple ATM card, and the satisfaction that could only come from seeing my new bank buddy grinning as I left the branch. It's the little things.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Like riding a bike

Even though I don't actually know how to ride a bike (despite being shamefully old for that declaration) the saying still holds true. Being back in Beijing feels natural to me, like I've only been away for three months rather than three years. The language skills are returning slightly slower than I would have liked, but I'm still relieved that Chinese stuck to my brain with such tenacity.

Last night I met up with Wang Ke, an old coworker, for dinner at a place called 红宝鼎 (Hong Bao Ding) on 楠锣鼓巷 (Nan Luo Gu Xiang), a street I knew all too well when I lived here before. Nanluoguxiang is a smaller alley that runs North-South between two major roads. While the street itself hadn't changed much, the feel was very different. The whole neighborhood around it was torn down and under construction, and a lot of that "back alley" charm had been lost.

The food, however, was absolutely fantastic. The specialty at 红宝鼎 is 烤鱼 (kao yu), a roasted whole fish served in a spicy broth with your choice of a selection of vegetables. The fish is dry-roasted, meaning it's coated in a spice rub that crisps up along the top of the skin. The main component of the spice blend is cumin (自然 zi ran), which happens to be one of my favorite foods on the planet, thus making this fish heaven in a bubbling pan.

Over dinner, Wang Ke informed me that I will most likely be his only foreign friend in attendance at his upcoming wedding in May, and should therefore expect to be very drunk by the end of the afternoon. We may have to pin my address to my shirt like a small child on the train...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

TEDx Beijing

I've found that the most effective antidote to jetlag is pretending it doesn't exist. Even though I had just arrived in Beijing Friday evening, I had a pretty jam-packed Saturday thanks to my buddy Chris.  He has generously let me take over the spare room in his apartment for a few weeks until I get myself up and running again and it would seem he is also doing double duty as my social director.

His lovely girlfriend Segolene is one of the organizers for TEDx Beijing, and yesterday they invited me to attend a panel discussion for International Women's Day. The panelists included:

Wang Lei, an inspirational woman who chose to leave her office job in 2004 with the goal of climbing the seven summits and skiing to both poles. She reached this monumental achievement last year when she climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, becoming the first Chinese woman to complete the task.

Casey Wilson, an American entrepreneur who combined her background in economics and love for China to help build an online micro-finance platform called Wokai. 我开, which translates to "I begin," connects financiers from around the world with people in rural China who require small business loans.

Zou Yuan, President of Media Consulting at SinoTech where she helps analyze the Chinese consumer market. She is also the founder of Girl 2.0, a venture which hopes to connect Chinese and American women in order to promote innovation and advance the causes of women in business.

Also on the panel was Elsa Tse, a Chinese student currently working on her Masters degree in News and Communications.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics, some uniquely affecting Chinese women and others more universal. Having never learned about International Women's Day until moving to China in 2005, I feel as though I've perhaps neglected thinking about women's issues more than I should have. The closest I came to prolonged debate was the one semester at college I took a course in Feminism and Philosophy. I was the only woman in the class who wasn't a self-proclaimed feminist, which led to many icy stares and plenty of angry ladies yelling at me.

One of the first points brought up in discussion yesterday was the effect that the one-child policy has had on the physical and mental toughness of Chinese women. Zou Yuan started off the talk with some statistics that I have found troubling for years: 70% of women in China give birth via C-section, while only 20% have an actual medical need for the procedure. She believes that modern women are afraid of pain and effort, even when that pain may be beneficial. Elsa Tse felt that while the fear of pain may be a part of it, there is also a lot of pressure on women to have C-sections for the sake of efficiency to make it easier on the hospitals rather than themselves.

Because she works mainly with rural communities, Casey Walker had a different perspective on the matter. She explained that 80% of the people she works with are women, and many of those are also mothers. These rural women work longer hours than men, are more likely than their male counterparts to put their income towards their children's education, and often are the ones who manage to pull their families out of poverty. So while this fear of effort may be present in an urban setting, she believes that the opposite is true throughout China's countryside.

The discussion moved from this into a debate over what "gender equality" really means for women in China. Wang Lei believes that what is lacking for women in China is the ability to develop individual goals. She explained that in a professional environment people judge you on the quality of your work, so if you work hard and are smart you'll succeed. However, when it comes to the social sphere there is so much outside pressure to do what is expected of them that women don't know how to do otherwise. In agreement with Wang Lei, Elsa Tse added a bit of well-intentioned advice she received from an aunt: "Until you're 27 you can pick up guys, but after that you can only be picked."

While I know that social pressures are more prevalent in Asia, I think that this is a also a problem for women in the West. There is that expectation of becoming the "perfect wife and mother" with no room for an identity outside of that. You may be scratching your head as you remember me mentioning previously that I am not a feminist. Although I am pro-woman and champion for individuality, I don't like the label of "feminism" because I think that a lot of the rhetoric calls for the same rights as privileges as men. This panel discussion reinforced my belief that we should be looking after the unique needs of women, not striving for sameness.

Zou Yuan explained it best as she described gender roles in China. She said that the two sexes are treated as equal, but this means that they are also treated as though they're the same. The reality is that there are physiological differences and this element is neglected in the approach to educating and fostering development in children.

Overall, it was a really interesting conference and a great way to spend my first day back in Beijing. Even though it is not commonly celebrated in America, I encourage you to honor the spirit of International Women's Day and spend some time contemplating what you want out of life. I think Wang Lei put it best when she said that International Women's Day "should be a reminder to get your own status by your own effort."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Enjoy the ride

I've needed a few little distractions here and there to keep me from getting totally overwhelmed with packing. Today has been almost entirely spent putting things in piles and then dividing those piles into smaller piles and fitting the piles into ziplock bags. I am admittedly slightly compulsive when it comes to things like this.

Thank god for Jimmy Fallon. Como se dice "Winning?"

Update: The video I linked to on YouTube has been taken down. You can watch the clip on the NBC website here:

Charlie Sheen, 'Winning' for Men

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I'm back on my way to gone

Well hello there my patient and loyal readers. I've been slightly remiss in getting in touch over the past few months and I apologize profusely. If this were the real world I would bake you something to make up for it, but since it's the weberverse you'll just have to imagine eating your favorite cookie courtesy of me.

While it's no excuse, things have been legitimately busy around here as my mom has acquired her very own bionic knee and needed quite a bit of help in recovering from surgery. I'm not usually one who is enticed by squishier medical details, but I must admit that the whole process was pretty fascinating. I mean, her new knee was custom-cut by lasers in Belgium. That's some futuristic sci-fi goodness.

The rest of my time has been spent preparing (both physically and mentally) for a pretty big move. After a few rounds of interviews I am officially heading back to Beijing to take a marketing position with a Mandarin school. In a way it feels like I'm getting a do-over, since the last time I think I left before I was really ready to go. But I was in love and I had wanted to go back to school eventually, so I convinced myself that it was time to leave. And now I will triumphantly return.

The reason I was drawn to this school is the same reason I am drawn to China: their boundless enthusiasm for what is possible. And with Chinese language programs rapidly gaining popularity in the US and Europe, I think it's going to be a joy to promote. So, starting in about a week and a half, you'll have the opportunity to view Beijing through my eyes and hopefully become as enamored with it as I am. And maybe I'll even be able to convince you to come visit for a little while and learn the language the best way I know how.

In the mean time, I invite you to check out the company and the web presence over which I will soon be manning the helm.
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