Monday, August 23, 2010

Hurrah, a zixing che! 自行车

Yesterday all the stars were aligned. After an 8am (!) soccer rally between mom (that would be me) and Simon -- with Thomas as the flying Dutchmen all across the field --, and a 9-11 am soccer game for Paul, we all went to downtown for a good noodle lunch at a nice hip place called the Noodle Loft. Noodle dough was flying through the kitchen, and the chefs spun, twirled, stretched and twisted an seemingly endless supply of noodles. Long green noodles... noodles made with one chop stick... pasta-like noodles... All the noodles flew straight into the boiling water and minutes later arrived on your plate. You could order a bunch of different types of plain noodles, separately order little bowls of sauce, and then at your table mix and match with them as you pleased. Yummmm! (Or, as the Chinese see: Haochi 好吃, Good Eat!)

But that was not all. After lunch we strolled a bit through the streets in the CBD (Central Business District) area, which is also close to Paul's work. And there we stumbled on a huge outdoor and indoor market, with more kitchen utensils you care to see, as well as meat, fish, spices, door mats, you name it.... and... bikes!

So I got my first Chinese bike (A zixing che, 自行车, which in my feeble brain with still little Chinese appears as a "self OK vehicle", meaning you can move it by yourself (zi 自). Of course my white bike from the U.S. is coming soon in the sea container (arrival date still unknown), but this new bike with a seat in the back and a basket in the front is much better for small shopping trips. Yeah! Paul of course had the dubious honor to bike home with the bike, while the boys and I took a cab. But Paul, being Paul, drastically put the zi (自) in 自行车 to work and --believe it or not -- only arrived about 10 minutes after the taxi had dropped us off.

At home, Thomas and I immediately went on a bike trip to go get some batteries for his new toy: a Chinese "stop" sign with a red light in it. I am sure that you are not interested in knowing that after a big loop around the hood and to the super market, I ended up buying the right battery in our very own neighborhood store. Oh well.

As you can probably tell: I am now (again) a very happy camper who finally can expand her action radius beyond the daily walks to the bus stop. I remember very well my first bike in the U.S., and remember having the same sense of freedom that comes with having a bike. (I also remember my first bike ride in Holland, but that is a more painful experience - open knees and all....).

Time for bed now, but I'll promise to stop back for a few quick post between trips on my new ride!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wonder filters and wondermilk

Just a second ago a nice guy left my house after cleaning and replacing the water filters under the sink in the kitchen and behind the refrigerator. (The fridges here, like in the US, also have a tap for cold water and ice, so you need a water filter there too).

In general, water in China should not be had straight from the tap. My Chinese teachers in Washington already warned me about that, and it was also mentioned in the basic information packages about China. Supposedly though, the water here in the Beijing Riviera (our mini-neighborhood) is drinkable. But since we prefer to know for sure, we are still relying on our own filtered water.

This reminds that I should talk about the new dilemma in buying groceries here. In a way, we would just like to buy what the locals buy, for local prices. But in reality, we often end up at specialized stores for foreigners, with imported products for higher prices. You can get Cheerio's (an American cerial), but it will cost you about $8 a box.

Although one of the reasons for shopping in the store with imported products is that you can actually read the name of the product (in English, German, or where-ever it is from), but you also have a little bit more of a sense of where it is from and what the quality might be. One particular problem is that the quality of products here in China is just less reliable. This may sometimes just be a perceived problem, but the truth is that you don't know the brands, and because quality standards are either less or not inforced, you don't really know what you are buying. That means you really have no way of knowing how many pesticides are on your veggies or if your milk has some good old melamine added to it.

A lot of what I know now is just from what other people are saying, but we have started to shop a bit more carefully. I think it will be a while until we figure out a routine of where we shop for what, but it seems wise at least to pay attention to the (lack of) information on product safety.

For example, earlier this week I e-mailed the Wondermilk farm,, who will now start delivering fresh milk to our house. Compared to the big gallon-sized containers we got in the U.S., these will be tiny 500ml packages, but considering the milk has no preservatives, that's not a bad thing. So a few packages of this milk, yoghurt, and sweetened yoghurt-- all without additives, hormones and antibiotics-- will be delivered to our house twice a week. The farm is just outside Beijing and (supposedly) their milk is guaranteed to be good because they do everything -- milking the cows and packaging the milk -- in house, which means the milk cannot get possibly contaminated by milk from other farms that do not have the same standards.

I am also considering signing up for an organic food package, sort of for the same reasons. A friend told me that "organic" (in Dutch: biologisch) here takes on a whole new meaning, different from the U.S. or Europe. First of all, there seems to be no official certification --someone could just produce a bunch of stickers and stick them on their apples to sell them for a higher price. But if a farm states their products are organic and you have reasons to believe them, you at least know a little bit about their production methods and the likelihood (hopefully none) of massive amounts of (illegal? unsafe?) pesticides on your food.

I haven't always been the best consumer of organic products in Holland or the U.S., but at least I have always known that if you do buy products in a store or market, there is some sort of system in places (in Holland the Keuringsdienst van Waren and in de U.S. de Food and Drugs Administration) to check on food quality. It feels kind of like the Wild West to shop for food without that kind of security.

I'll keep learning and trying some new things. In the mean time, there is of course no harm in supporting a local dairy farm that tries to do good work. And -- if I am lucky -- there is also no harm in drinking this glass of water from my very own new water filter...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Shang wang! 上网

Finally, I can go "shang wang" (上网, go on the Internet) again! (Notice how "wang", which means "net" (like Internet), looks kinds of like a fisherman's net. The same character "wang" is used for the word tennis).

Now that I am back online, time for a big update:

On Saturday we moved from the apartment complex to our new house at Beijing Riviera. All day that day, furniture kept arriving. Paul had been shopping a few weeks ago, and all the deliveries were held till this day. We had left or sold most of our furniture back in Washington, so we needed quite a few new things. Gradually the house filled up with a sofa (shafa 沙发 in Chinese :-) ), dining room table, more tables and side-tables, and amazingly cute Tibetan cabinets and a Tibetan table with green monsters (dragons) on it. Lots of color to make me happy! We also went shopping and dragged the boys through yet another department store to get a phone, vacuum cleaner, towels, and other items you don't know are so essential till you don't have them. (Well, not that I would have quickly missed the vacuum cleaner if it had disappeared from my house in Washington, but you know what I mean.

On Sunday we did some more homey stuff, but then also went out to visit a depot for old trains. Lots of big trains, steam engines and diesel, and one beautiful black train with Mao on the front, staring at you from up high. An informative panel explained that trains in China had a rich history, but that it was really after "the liberation" that the Chinese government was able to erect a beautiful train system out of the "mess" that was left behind by the previous rulers of China. Good to know!

Living in our neighborhood has been great so far. Granted, it is a bit like Disneyland as one of you readers out there has suggested, but it is really pleasant to just call one main number to ask for someone to please come fix a phone connection and a stove, like I had to do today. And the guys (they call them "workers" here, "gong ren") speak a few words English, or at least understand that you don't speak much Chinese. And I've been getting by with my few words Chinese. "Keyi" (which means something like, "can I", "can it", "does it work?") is extremely helpful, especially when combined with "bu" (no), as in "bu keyi", it doesn't work!

Today the boys went to school for the first time. We'd gone for an orientation on Friday, so they knew roughly what to expect. I took them to the school bus this morning and, without another glance at their mother, they went! Both in bus 15, sitting next to each other. Simon told me later that he was sitting at the window with Thomas next to him, but they had agreed that tomorrow Thomas would sit at the window. Good to hear they can treat each other so well when mom is not there! (At home, it can be a different story...).

Today our lovely Ayi, Ms. L., cooked her first meal for us. I think I can get used to this life style. Simon and Thomas had just come home from playing some soccer on a nearby field --- under the supervision of some really nice ayi a couple doors over – and had a bit of rice and chicken. They even requested (demanded, some might say) chop sticks to eat with, and in between the drum concert they actually managed to transport some food from their plates to their mouths.

The boys are on the couch now, watching a bit of Sponge Bob. While America is just starting the day and Europe is in the middle of it, our day here is up. Soon the boys will hop in their new beds (delivered Saturday), read a book (borrowed from neighbors), and turn off their new bed lights (purchased Saturday at the mall). Our new life is starting to take shape!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Phone line, life line

Today I learned that the word "driver" is an understatement. This person, who officially is not even our driver yet, will no doubt become one essential link to normal life here. Today she came along to help me get a SIM card for my phone. I say "help", but really all I did was ask a few questions in English and in the end put down a package of Yuan notes. Ms. G., however, filled out an overwhelming amount of paperwork -- all in Chinese of course-- and also used her own ID to justify the card, as my passport is with the Ministry of Finance to get a visa.

Another discovery was that to pay for the service, you actually have to go a China mobile office every month and pay the bill in person. Apparently, however, Ms. G. can also do this for me now, at the same time she pays her own bill. It's so nice to be taken care of -- it kind of extends this kind of Disneyland feeling I am already getting at this place. :-)

I am not sure why the phone bill has to be paid in person and if there is another
option, but in just a few interactions these last few days, I have noticed that banks are not really seen as a helpful institutions. Or at least using them to transfer money is apparently just difficult or a waste of time. For the things we are buying, we just pay with cash. Tomorrow for example, I'll be waiting at our new house with a pocket full of cash to pay for some furniture that will be delivered. In a way it makes things easy of course, no need to figure out how to do a transfer. Plus, you kind of feel really wealthy, with so many Yuans in your pocket (1000 Yuan is about 147 U.S. Dollars or 113 Euro, so it doesn't take that much to get a nice stash.)

Saturday we move into our house. I requested a phone and Internet line, but if that doesn't work out, this blog might grow silent for a few days!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A first try at expat life ;-)

Today was my first official day as an expat-wife. Paul went to work and I was at home with the kids at the compound. This is what my day looked like:

  • 6:15am: I get up to make coffee for my dear husband.
  • 7:00am: Paul leaves to join the carpool to work. I read the China Daily (in English) and check some online news sites. I also tidy the house so it is ready for the cleaning ladies to come. (We're in this furnished apartment, which is kind of like a hotel, so every day someone stops by with towels and such).
  • 9:00am: Boys finally awake. After breakfast I help Thomas build a truck with legos.
  • 10:00am: Where are the cleaning ladies? When they come, we'll go out to the playground.
  • 11:00am: No cleaning ladies: we'll go to the playground anyway. We explore part of the compound and revisit two tiny playgrounds and discover one more.
  • 1:30pm: Back to the house for legos and lunch. Finally, the cleaning ladies arrive!
  • 3:00pm: We go to the pool. I meet two other women who also live here. We discuss tennis (for me) and swimming classes (for the kids).
  • 5:30pm: We buy some drinking water (can't drink water from the tap); I start preparing dinner.
  • 6:30pm: Paul comes home from a busy day. I ask how life is outside the compound.
  • 8:00pm: We watch a bit of Nemo (尼莫) and the kids go to bed. Clown fish are not funny.
  • 9:00pm: I type an email about my busy day!

Seeing a bit more of Beijing: Temple of Heaven

Yesterday we went to Beijing. Well, we are in Beijing, but we went to downtown, to get a sense of the bigger world. The first full day here (Saturday August 7) we had stayed mostly around our apartment, not in the least because Simon felt a bit sick, but yesterday was the day to expand our horizon. We meant to go to a park just north of the Forbidden City, but through some miscommunication with our driver (we just said "temple on a hill", and really, that could be confusing here) we ended up at the Temple of Heaven. Because we hadn't intended to go there, it was kind of funny. We barely knew the name of the place and had no idea what was so special about it. Though clearly it was a top destination for a lot of tourists.

Well, here is my first, uneducated impression. The Temple of Heaven is a beautiful, vast site with a series of buildings that together were used for an annual ceremony where the emperor made an offer to please the gods. This included of course sacrificing a calf, silk, and several rounds of wine (interesting how the gods always seem to like exactly what the people like). Around the buildings was a beautiful park, and walking around there was just lovely. A man was doing tai chi, several groups of men (all men!) were doing Chinese chess, and at different places groups of people were singing songs. It was so fun to be in the park, everyone was just having a great time on a Sunday afternoon.

Oh, before I forget, the most fun part was actually the amazing amount of attention our two little blond boys drew. We had barely left the car for our trip to a restaurant just south of Tiananmen square, when a man asked if his kid could be in a photo with Simon and Thomas. He threw a Chinese emperor hat on Thomas and took a series of pictures -- presumably to show off these really strange-looking kids he saw on vacation. And no matter where we went today, people asked to be in pictures with them, or just simply took the pictures with them in it. After a while, Simon and Thomas got the hang of it, and as soon as someone approached them speaking Chinese and waving a camera, they would just huddle, put an arm around each other, and smile.

We might soon start declining the offer to be captured in a picture like a rare creature at the zoo, but today it was just a lot of fun. One time -- I am sure you are not surprised - Paul even walked up to some people who had been taking pictures of them from a distance, to ask to see the pictures. They showed them of course - and there were our boys' smiles - ready to be featured in that family's Beijing photo album.

Back to the Temple of Heaven: After reading up on the site later, I can now tell you this is the first time I learned those old Chinese emperors had some serious work to do. Twice a year, the emperor would leave his home at the Forbidden City (Verboden Stad) at the heart of Beijing, and stay at the Temple of Heaven to prepare for and conduct an elaborate ceremony to please the gods. Because the emperor was regarded the "Son of Heaven" who acted on behalf of heavenly authority, it was important for him to be showing respect to this source of his authority by bringing a sacrfice to heaven. According to the Wikipedia, the offering ceremony had to be perfectly completed, as "it was widely held that the smallest of mistakes would constitute a bad omen for the whole nation in the coming year." Speaking of pressure!

After the (surprise) visit to the Temple of Heaven, we met up with two friends who we know from Washington but now live in Singapore and are on vacation in Beijing (are you still following?). We met at the site of the Bell and Drum Towers, Zhonglou and Gulou. The clocks and drums were used for official timekeeping until 1924, when in one big swoop the last emperor was forced out of the Forbidden City (and out of power) and western-style clocks began being used for official time keeping.

After some drinks - healthy fresh carrot-apple-melon juices - with our friends, we headed back home. A good day out in the big wide world!

Oh, and if anyone is wondering about jet lag, amazingly enough the boys just kind of rolled into our new time zone. Maybe when they didn't want to go to bed in the past, they were already on China time! :-)

Monday, August 9, 2010

A first look at new life

Nothing like trying to write one message for all your friends. I actually wrote one in Dutch, and then later one in English. Funny how they became quite different messages. The English version is below:



It is time for an update, as finally we’ve all arrived in China. If it was sort of quiet from our end for a while, it was because of an extended holiday in the Netherlands. We saw our families, celebrated soccer, got over a soccer depression, and tried to show Simon and Thomas as much of Holland as humanly possible. (For the Dutchies, this included Apenheul, Madurodam, Efteling, and sailing).

For the last two weeks, Paul had already been back in Beijng, and last Friday Simon, Thomas and I joined him. Needless to say, Paul picked us up at the airport, and within 15 minutes we were at our house in the Beijing Riviera neighborhood ( As it is, our new home is close to the airport and about 25 minutes from Paul’s work in the business district of Beijing. (Our address is at the bottom of this mail). My friend calls this place "la la land", which is kind of true because you are definitely a bit removed from the real world. You can call it expat compound or villa complex, and I tend to prefer the latter. It is actually a small little neighborhood with quiet streets, a bunch of tiny playgrounds, lots of sports fields, and a main center with pool, tiny store, restaurants, and also a salon I believe (haven't been there yet!).

This week we’re actually staying in a furnished apartment in this Riviera complex, until our new house (a rental) is ready for us to move in. Timing is good because we're still waiting for our sea container from Washington to arrive, and so don't have to live in an empty house. We did, however, really have to run out to buy some glasses - and Paul ended up buying them at IKEA, of all places. Travel half around the world and still get the glasses you bought back in D.C. :-) (If this makes you think we'll shop in familiar stores for three years, rest assured that while I was still in Holland, Paul already ventured out to some funky Chinese warehouses to buy furniture).

The boys will be going to the WAB school,, the Western Academy of Beijing. The school is very close, but they’ll go with a school bus anyway, as the traffic is too busy to go by bike and it is just too far to walk. We might re-evaluate this in a while, but it also seems fun to go with the bus and make some new friends who do the same commute. On Friday we have a “new family” orientation and lunch at the school, so Simon and Thomas can then see their school for the first time. Classes will start next Monday, August 16.

What else to say? Yesterday we left our little expat compound, uh- I mean, neighborhood, to see some sights in Beijing. We went to the Temple of Heaven, where - beside it being a UN World Heritage site, you also have a lovely park where a man was doing some Tai Chi, groups of people were singing, and others were playing Chinese Chess or twirling with a ribbon (seriously!). Oh, and the other thing they did a lot was taking pictures of Simon and Thomas. At least every 5 minutes someone came up, asking to be in the picture with them. And we saw lots of other people just snap pictures from a distance. After a while, Simon and Thomas got the hang of it, so when a stranger walked up to them holding a camera, they would just put an arm around each other and smile a cheesy smile. We might grow tired of this, but for one day it was kind of fun to be the rare specimen in the zoo!

Today was actually my first day as an expat housewife – not sure how long this will last, but here we are for now — and I (I swear this is true) indeed easily filled my day with tidying up the apartment, going to a playground, and hanging out at the pool. I even met some other women in the neighborhood and talked about possible tennis and swimming classes :-). If I don’t pay attention, it’s going to be hard to fit in time to do some work. (Paul was rolling his eyes when I said this). I promise... after the kids' school starts and I have picked the colors of the curtains for the house.... I'll start looking. :-)

Finally, some contact information and blog notes: I have been posting some notes on a blog for a while. I hadn't told many people about it so far, as it was just a warm-up exercise to see if I could get beyond posting one message on a blog, but it is really there and you can see it at: (I actually had to find a way to access it myself again as this google blog was blocked here) :-) The blog is still a little devoid of pictures, but that's only till the photo downloader arrives in the sea container some time later this month. If I find some time between my tennis classes, I'll try to post a message or picture.

Good bye for now, please note our addresses and phone numbers below. Don't hesitate to chat or call on Skype, that's what we do! (We're 12 hours ahead of the U.S. and 6 of The Netherlands). I hope everything is going well in your world. Till more news, till soon, with love,

Paul, Anne, Simon & Thomas

In China!

We're in China! Last Thursday, Simon, Thomas and I flew to Beijing, and late on Friday we arrived in our new neighborhood. One of the first discoveries was actually that I couldn't access this blog anymore (great planning on my end), presumably because it is a google blog. But now, through some ingenious program I am back in business. I wrote a couple updates that I'll post as a set. I hope they are vaguely interesting!

(and I know... we really need some pictures. Bear with me - soon enough that container with my photo downloader should arrive).

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Today is C-Day, China Day. This afternoon we'll (finally) continue our trip East and fly to China. Paul will be waiting on the other end with coffee and(temporary) housing. Our own new place we'll move into on August 15.

What to say? Right now I am just wondering what else to bring in my suitcase. More peperkoek (a kind of ginger bread) or stroopwafels ? (I think stroopwafels need no translation for my friends, but see the picture just in case.)

But after six weeks in the Netherlands, I am ready to pick up my own life again, with or without additional peperkoek. I am curious what this new life is going to look like, and there is only one way to find out!