Tuesday, December 28, 2010

We are in Yun Nan (云南)

We're in Yunnan! Yunnan (云南) is a large province in the southwest of China (see map). We flew here last Sunday (the 26th) and already have spent two lovely days in Yunnan's capital city Kunming.

Yunnan -- though of course I had never heard of it before coming to China -- is famous for its many ethnic minorities and beautiful landscapes. (Also, the temperature is a bit higher than in Beijing, which is lovely.)

Today, we are taking the express bus to Dali, where we'll stay a few days to explore the country side and connect (with our five words Mandarin) with the local population. After Dali, we'll be going on to Lijiang and Shangri-La, and then return home to Beijing.

I hope everywhere else in the world you are all having a lovely Christmas and New Years break. Try to stay warm and safe in the snow!

Hoofdpunten in het Nederlands: We zijn op vakantie in Yunnan, in het zuidwesten van China. In Yunnan wonen veel etnische minderheden die je in andere delen van het land niet ziet. Ook de natuur is prachtig en het is hier een beetje warmer dan in Beijing nu.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas - Bring Your Passport

A (belated) Merry Christmas to all of you.

Friday night we went to a church to celebrate Christmas Eve (kerstavond). China, of course, is officially a non-religious country (even though many Chinese are buddhists or taoists). So while there are churches around, there are not a lot of them, and they all have a bit of an underground feeling to them.

This particular church we went to was in some sort of art expo center (see photo). We had to bring our passports to show we were foreigners, because Chinese citizens would not be allowed in. It was dreadfully cold and the few space heaters (or the words of the pastor, if you ask me) weren't able to heat up the room.

After the service we had dinner at a friend's house. All in all the evening was lovely - but as Simon said: "it was not like our old church in Washington."

Hoofdpunten in het Nederlands: We hebben kerstavond gevierd in een Katholieke kerk in een expositiecentrum. Chinezen zelf mogen niet naar de kerk, dus we moesten onze paspoorten meenemen om te laten zien dat we buitenlanders zijn en wel naar binnen mogen.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Banking on Your Bank Account

Yesterday was another milestone on the path to.... well, on a path. I am not sure what path.

Bank of China logoIn any case, yesterday I opened a Chinese Bank account. It was a relatively painless experience, even though I had to come back twice.

(Going to a bank here can be pretty frustrating. Once I had to wait for two hours to deposit some money in an account. We also go to the Bank to pay our phone bill, which can take up to an hour.)

The first time I went in for my account, I just noticed that the process was very labor and paper intensive. I must have signed about 20 little papers and keyed my new pin-code in about 30 different times.

The second time, I had to come back because something was wrong with my name.

Of course, the--to a Chinese eye--six names in my passport are very confusing. Three first names (Anna...M...H....), and three pieces for a last name (van...der...Heijden). They had only used my first first name to set up my account, but they had to change it, to include all three first name, so the account information would be identical to my passport. (We would not want to make it too hard on those people who are always carefully reviewing your personal information.)

Incidentally, as I was Googling (as you do) to find the Bank of China Website, of course Wikipedia with its unbelievable supply of information popped up first. I don't think there is a Bank in the world with more history than the Bank of China in just one little century:

From Wikipedia:

Bank of China's history goes back to 1905, when the Qing government established Daqing Hubu Bank (in Chinese: 大清户部银行) in Beijing, which was in 1908 renamed to Daqing Bank (in Chinese: 大清银行). When the Republic of China was established in 1912, it was further renamed as Bank of China by President Sun Yat-sen's government, adding a new role of the central bank.

After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, the Bank of China effectively split into two operations. Part of the bank relocated to Taiwan with the Kuomintang (KMT) government. It was privatised in 1971 to become the International Commercial Bank of China (中國國際商業銀行). It has subsequently merged with the Taiwan Bank of Communications (Chiao Tung Bank, 交通銀行) to become the Mega International Commercial Bank (兆豐國際商業銀行). The Mainland operation is the current entity known as the Bank of China.

Wow, I am feeling exhausted just reading this. I hope my new Bank account will outlive the next revolution :-)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sanlitun 三里屯

Last week -- in addition to Li's cuisine and the gingerbread disaster -- I also found some time to go out.

On Friday evening, some other hip moms and I went out dancing in Sanlitun (三里屯), or San-li-turrrr, as the Beijing folk call it. Sanlitun is the place to go here - it's on the western side of the city, around the third ring road (Beijing has six ring roads that circle in and around the city, so it's always easy to say roughly where something is).

In any case, we had a blast.

Sanlitun has lots of little bars, and often those have short performances or a band playing. I've come to really like listening to music in Chinese (not the Chinese opera (not yet), but just regular pop music in Chinese). (Paul thinks I probably ate too many dumplings...)

One of the bars we went to was in The Opposite House, a truly gorgeous hotel. See the pictures below. (You will never be staying there, because if you come to Beijing, you are staying with us, right?)

I hope one day you all will make it to Sanlitun. :-)

The Opposite House.

A piece of modern art inside The Opposite House.

The bar inside The Opposite House. Great cocktails & good dancing!

Imperial Li- Eating like an emperor

Last week Saturday was a clash of cultures: China vs America. And...I have to say, China won.

First, we ended up accidentally eating imperial food for lunch. Yes, imperial--from the emperor--the kind of food that the Chinese emperor used to eat (before he got ousted from office in 1911).

We were looking for a place for lunch and I knew that one of Thomas' class mates' parents had just opened a new restaurant, so we went to check it out. I thought it would be a pretty casual Chinese restaurant, but after we walked in we quickly realized it was quite fancy. In fact, it was amazing, and I had some of the best food I've ever had.

During the lunch, we learned that the great-great-grandparent of Thomas's class mate really had worked for the emperor, way back when there still was one. Apparently he was the head of the guards and in charge of keeping the emperor safe, which included being in charge of what meals were prepared for the emperor. Apparently, the great-great-grandfather memorized all the recipes and then handed them down to his children. Years later-- after the emperor was gone and even the cultural revolution had washed across China--the grandson (the grandparent of Thomas' class mate) opened up his first restaurant, which later lead to a chain of Family Li Imperial Cuisine restaurants in Shanghai, Beijing, and Tokyo.

So the food was really imperial and certainly tasted like it. We ate from lots of little dishes that wave-by-wave arrived at our table: duck, cooked celery, lotus root, sweet and sour pork, ... delicious.

After lunch we had a quick peek at the photo gallery at the restaurant which showed Mick Jagger, Jackie Chan, and Henry Paulson (a former U.S. Treasury Secretary) visiting. We certainly were in good company! :-)

So that was China. One point for China.

Then later that same Saturday, we delved into American culture. I've lived 10 years in the U.S. and never bothered to make a gingerbread house, so I don't quite know what possessed me to try to make one last week. But our "club house" had organized an event, the kids wanted to go, so we went.

What a disaster! I'd like to blame the materials, the lighting, the table cloth, (something, anything, but me), but I could not put together these gingerbread houses. Any time I glued the roof on, the walls would be collapsing underneath. (You can see in the pictures what these houses are supposed to be like, and what mine looked like.)

Picture: what a gingerbread house is supposed to look like.

It was a "kid activity", but the kids were impatiently waiting for me to somehow build a house, so that they could just glue some candy on top. Well, around me little mansions were being erected, and all I had was 2 sets of 6 loose plates with glue all over them. (The "glue" by the way, was just cake icing, and if you ask me, it did not glue at all.)

At some point, a Chinese man came over to help me with my houses. I think that when a Chinese guy comes over to help you with your gingerbread house, you really are in trouble. The kids, at that point, were already gone, playing somewhere else in the building.

When the second house collapsed, I declared defeat. Among the sympathetic looks of my fellow gingerbread house makers, I picked up the pieces (literally) and walked out. Never again am I building a gingerbread house.

Picture: What my gingerbread houses looked like (foreground).

So that was America: 0
China vs America: 1:0

I vote for more Imperial Li and less gingerbread houses in my future.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sinterklaas in Beijing

Yesterday, I saw it with my own eyes: Sinterklaas is also in Beijing! I know that the last couple years he made an effort to visit "his" children in Washington D.C., but he certainly also has made his way to the far East.

Funnily enough, we've found ourselves in Beijing (of all places) far more surrounded by Dutch culture than ever in Washington. We had (and still have!) some Dutch friends there, but when the Sinterklaas time rolled around, it was kind of hard to keep the story alive with just a carrot and a shoe, and not a lot of Dutchies around. (Truth be told: we had some great American friends who uncovered their Dutch roots and wrote poems and songs for Sinterklaas.)

Here though, we've gone from Halloween straight into the Sinterklaas season. A few weeks ago we went to an event of the Nederlandse Vereniging Peking (the Dutch Association in Beijing). After Simon and Thomas made some picasso-level art, a--to my American friends--politically incorrect black Piet showed up to throw some of his pepernoten across the room.

Then, Friday, Sinterklaas came to the boys' school, and tomorrow we are going to the Dutch Embassy, to spot the good old man again.

I sure hope he is busy writing poems for us tonight (Dutch Sinterklaas presents typically come with a poem). Also, Sinterklaas, I would really like a nice warm sweater for the winter here. If you can bring one from Spain, that would be great. (It's OK if it is made in China).


Sinterklaas at school.

Shoes filled with a small gift from Sinterklaas.

Simon next to Zwarte (Black) Piet.

Thomas completely happy with a handful of pepernoten.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ah, those rich people!

Earlier this week I learned with a shock that by no means are we (we, meaning the foreigners with international jobs) the upper class in town. Wow. This is of course shocking on two levels. First, that we (the four of us) would even be in a place where we can feel so rich. And second, that in the end we are not.

On the first point, I have to admit that compared to the average Beijing population, we are in good shape. The fact that we live in a big house, employ two people, and put our kids in expensive international schools, sort of gives it away. (People at the markets seem to clearly know this, and usually offer me a "best price" ten times higher than a Chinese person might be offered.)

But, as it turns out, we are no match for the rich Chinese around us. When I was at a doctor's office recently (nice, Western-style doctor's office by the way), I was paging through a glossy magazine about all kinds of fancy items you don't need, but most certainly must buy, should you ever find yourself having a lot of money. Like what, you wonder? Well, how about this tag (picture on right) that covers your pet's unsightly butt. (Never thought of that before? Clearly, you are soooo middle-class!)

The magazine also helps you with such life-or-death questions as what 3D television to buy for your children (picture below). I mean, that is the kind of question we all would like, rather than the "I wonder how I am going to do my school work, while taking care of mom and grandma" question 8-year-old Zhang Chengcheng is trying to answer every day.

So I bet these rich Chinese -- The "one million most rich Chinese families" to be precise (see magazine cover) -- would not bat an eye at the entrance fee of 450 RMB to enter a certain fancy indoor play area in Beijing. Granted, it is a gorgeous play area, but really, 450 RMB (about $68 and €50) for an afternoon of play? I was at another indoor play area myself, when some other moms and I were discussing this exorbitant fee.

Apparently too, the managers at this fancy play center have no problem at all filling the space. It’s just a really exclusive club for really exclusive kids. (Mind you, the fact that most Chinese families have only one child, does make it a little easier to cough up the entrance fee. The fee covers one child and two parents. If you go with two children and one parent, you pay double the price).

I won't dwell much further on this rich-poor discrepancy, but if you are interested, this NY Times article is a nice one to read: A China Newly Rich and Still Quite Poor. The article states that while "[o]fficial data put the richest 10 percent of Chinese at 23 times richer than the poorest 10 percent”, a recent study indicates this number is more likely to be 65 rather than 23. (By comparison, the same number is 15.9 for the United States and 6.9 for Germany.) China of course is not the only country with very rich and very poor, but it might not be the first thing you think about when China comes to mind.

With that, I am going to have to write an end to this post. My ayi is busy in the kitchen, my driver is on the way, and I am going to check out one of the local markets with a friend. Seriously. I couldn't make up this new life, even if I wanted too.

Lame old regular indoor play area for regular kids.

The question Zhang Chengcheng would like to ask himself.

A regular boy doing a regular kind of activity (such as flying a chopper in an indoor play center).

A "Villa Life" Magazine, with news-breaking items like the butt-covering tag.

Doctor's office.

Regular boy waiting for his medical treatment.(DC readers: Notice the Murch Puma soccer shirt - now in fashion in Beijing!)

If I was a very wealthy Chinese, I would actually buy this piece of art created by Jean Luc Cornec. It was the best page of the whole magazine.

Friday, November 5, 2010

One, two,... 1.3 billion

Everywhere in Beijing you now see these big bulletin boards announcing the current Census. Yep, that's right, "China [just] started to count its one billion+ people". (The short article explains why doing a census in China is not easy, as not everyone will gladly share information about their whereabouts, in particular if they are illegally living and working in cities, away from their rural home towns.)

Photo on right: Will this house be included in the census? (Local statistics: Four people and three gold fish.)Local statistics: 4 people and 3 gold fish

Back in 2000, China had 1.29 billion residents, and in April 2011 we'll know the current score. If you can't wait till April, try this Website of the "China Population Development Research Center". After 30 seconds or so, the green clocks on the left will start displaying estimates of the current number of Chinese (top clock), and the number of Chinese born this year (bottom clock). (The Dutch site has a clock also, though I didn't see its population counter move :-))

According to those up-to-date population estimates, China has--not surprisingly--still the largest population, with about 1,340,500,000 people who together form 19.5 percent of the world population. The United States is third, with a feeble 310,659,000 citizens, or 4.52 percent of the world population; and The Netherlands comes in at 61, with a grand total of 16,656,950 kaaskoppen(about the same number of people that cram into a metro here on a random Monday morning I think).

To make things worse, this year, for the first time, China will also be counting its foreigners. I suppose we just arrived on time. Next time you see those startling statistics, you can just brush them off and say: "Oh, but Paul and Anna were counted as well, so it's really not that bad!" (Incidentally, we were also counted in the U.S. earlier this year: Global numbers will be disastrous for 2010.)

I took this picture below last week, when I visited a temple close to the third ring road. The English text reads "Census benefits all".

Tuesday, November 2, 2010



I can't believe I actually forgot to mention that last weekend we celebrated Halloween! (For the Dutchies: Halloween wordt in Amerika elk jaar op 31 oktober uitgebreid gevierd. Iedereen gaat dan verkleed de straat op en kinderen gaan de deuren langs om snoepjes te verzamelen.)

On Saturday, the boys and I went to a local farm, the Green Cow Farm, for their annual harvest festival. Well, I felt like I was back in the States, at one of the many Pumpkin/Halloween festivals that are always held around this time of year. The boys decorated pumpkins, tried some farm tools, did a sack race (zaklopen), ran through a corn maze, and just had a whole lot of fun (while Mom sampled the latest harvest wines! :-) )

Then, Saturday evening, Paul and I went to a Halloween party in the neighborhood. Paul dressed up as Van Gogh (why did we never think of that before? Just a bandage on the ear and a trickle of blood!) and I was a "Desperate Housewife of Beijing Riviera", just like on TV!

On Sunday it was really Halloween. The boys got dressed up in their pirate costumes ("Arrrr"), put on an eye patch and a hook, and at 5pm (just before dark) we hit the street. China obviously does not celebrate Halloween, but I have to tell you that outside the U.S., Beijing Riviera (our neighborhood) must have the biggest Halloween celebration ever. I've never seen so many people, let alone witches, vampires, skeletons, and pirates mob the neighborhood. At our own house, we ran out of candy in one hour.

On Monday, Halloween was over. The boys went to school, Paul dressed up like an office worker, and I entered my real life as a (not so) desperate housewife. It's funny, now that we are in Beijing, we have to keep up with three sets of national Holidays: the Dutch, the American, and the Chinese. I am starting to look forward to July 4!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The pirated discs peddled is illegal publication!

Yep, you read that right: "The pirated discs peddled is illegal publication" - I saw that notice last week just outside the Yashao market downtown. (See the picture on the right.)

Ironically, that same evening, I was watching one of those illegally "peddled" pirated DVDs, with my feet nice and warm in a pair of new, fake, Ugg boots :-)

First of all: There are no places here where you can rent DVDs. No Netflix, no Blockbusters, no "videotheek". You only have those "illegal DVD" stores where everyone buys a couple bootlegged copies of America's latest movies for about about 10-15 kuai ($1.50 to $2.00). And where can one find those illegal stores? Well, they are simply inside a supermarket or shopping mall and definitely not hidden at all. If it wasn't for the "pirated discs peddled" signs, I would not know it was illegal.

Second of all: If you are interested in some nice new clothes of a famous brand, come shop at the market I mentioned before. Yashao is full of fake and (according to the sales people) real clothes of well-known brands. You can find a Columbia jacket for maybe $25, or Uggs for $30. (OK, that is the price I paid, and I probably paid too much -- still learning how to negotiate a good price...)

Apparently anything you want can be copied in China. Want a woolen sweater? Go to the wool spinners market and show your design (e.g. an old sweater you like), and they'll make it for you. Want a painting on the wall? How about a copy of a Van Gogh? Need a new skirt? Just go to any tailor and show a picture you just cut out of Vogue. Want a neckless? Just pick a design or bring or buy your own beads and they'll put it together on the spot for less than you pay at H&M.

Pretty neat. If you are planning to come to Beijing, I suggest you start cutting things out of the Cosmopolitan :-)

Here are some quick pictures of the market. Note that this "market" is all indoors, with a lot of tiny stalls inside one big building.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The People's Money

As I mentioned in my last post, life now is starting to revolve around regular family-type events, like soccer, school, and work. Having said that, however, there’s plenty of new things that are now part of our lives.

Yesterday, for example, I carried a big heavy envelop full of cash to my language school, to pay for my next set of Chinese classes. Most places prefer cash over bank transfers, as cash is faster and more reliable than transferring funds between banks. I've heard that especially between banks in the SAME city this can be quite problematic. As a result, I dragged around a huge pile of 100 yuan notes. Good thing I had a big bag, because it did not fit in my wallet.

By the way, there are actually three names that are used for money here. The currency itself is called RMB, which stands for Renminbi, "the people’s money". The main unit of it is the yuan, but in spoken Chinese (at least here in Beijing), people say “kuai” instead of yuan. So a replica of an ancient Ming vase will be 5000 kuai (or perhaps 200 kuai if you negotiate it down to a reasonable level).

One yuan can be divided in 10 jiao (sort of like a dime or a “dubbeltje” if you will), which in normal life is called a mao. You can see some notes of 1 and 5 jiao in the pictures below.

One thing I had to got used to with the money (other than the physical effort involved in carrying all those notes) was how prices are described. If something is $1.50 or €1,50, you simply say something like “one blah blah fifty”. But if something is ¥1.50, you actually don’t say "one yuan fifty", you say “one yuan five”. And along the same lines, ¥1500 would be called "1 qian 5" (qian = 1000). Interesting, huh?

Please do check out my money in the pictures here -- on the right is the pile of notes for my language school. (Thieves take note: the money is already gone!)

5, 10, 20, and 50 yuan notes:

1 jiao (the "dime" or "dubbeltje"):

5 jiao:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Walking where emperors walked - Xiangshan park

Hello friends,

It's been two weeks since my last update, which can only be explained by the fact that all of the sudden life is taking over. Instead of sightseeing (or wishing you had time to do sightseeing), our weekends and weekdays are now all filled by school, work, (Chinese) study, birthday parties, grocery-shopping, and other mundane tasks. Much like our life in DC really.

Nonetheless, today I have for you some photos from a recent trip I took to Xiangshan park, which is also called "Fragrant Hills". (For once, I find the Chinese name easier than the English name, as "fragrant" really does not roll of my tongue easily.) It's a park on the west side of Beijing, and I found it to be some sort of weird cross-over between a city park (there were lots of paths, flowers, and man-made streams, ponds and buildings) and a hike up the mountains. It really was pretty beautiful, if you could manage to see it while hiking up hill among about a couple hundred other people doing the same :-)

As I was checking the Wikipedia page about the park, I realized I actually missed tons of buildings during our hike! I suppose next time I better check Wikipedia before I leave, so at least I know what to look for :-). The park was built (and rebuilt and rebuilt) various times for different emperors, and also severely damaged a couple times (in 1860 and 1900) by foreign troups. I suppose that explains why I didn't think the few buildings I did manage to see looked all that great. In any case, I went to see the park with a group of parents from Simon and Thomas' school, and we had a great time climbing the hill and then rushing back down again to catch the bus back to school.

Here are some pictures.

On the way up, we saw this man fold animals out of a long leaf. One of those dragons -- slightly more yellow and dried out -- is currently hanging out in our living room.

At the top, people were taking pictures...

...and tying red ribbons to the trees. (Presumably some sign of making it to the top? I don't really know.)

I didn't tie a ribbon, but I did make it to the top! Careful observers might notice a certain dragon in this picture.

On the way back I had a delicious drink of yoghurt. It was sweetened yoghurt, which you just drink with a straw from the cups shown here. And when you are done, you simply leave the cup in the recycling bin! :-)