Thursday, September 30, 2010

Off the reservation

As I was biking home from Thomas' school last Wednesday -- well, it is Simon's school too, but he was sick at home with a sniffle and a cough -- it occurred to me that you, dearest reader, have not seen much of the world around me at all.

I won't be able to show you everything all at once, but at least I can show you a couple shots I took after I visited Thomas and biked home. I used a bit of a detour to get home, but it does pretty much show you what I see here outside our "villa compound" (a new friend calls it "the reservation") every day. So we'll start with Thomas' school building and -- SPOILER ALERT -- end with me picking him up at the bus stop at Beijing Riviera again in the afternoon.

[ may ask, why was I at the school but Thomas did not come with me? Well, on Wednesdays he would only have a half-day of school if it wasn't for his parents who signed the poor boy up for an afternoon of Dutch language games and fun. Thomas thinks these days are a bit long though and wants to go home with his class mates at noon. So I went over to the school to cheer him up by having lunch with him. Simon happened to be sick(ish) at home that day, but he was in our ayi's more-than-capable hands, which left me some time to snap some pictures for you!)

Hold on tight... here comes:

On the top right: My favorite statue. This boy is standing in a lovely garden in between the Elementary School where Simon goes and the Early Childhood Center (ECC) building where Thomas spends his school hours. Both buildings are on the campus of the Western Academy of Beijing.

Below: The ECC building. Thomas' classroom is inside. He comes out this door to walk to the main Elementary School building to go to the library, swimming, or other activities, or go towards the busses to go home.

A big street. What else to say? Boring you say? Well, it's just a very typical view, so that's why I included it.

Another typical view. There are these walls everywhere -- sometimes pretty, sometimes run down or just plain ugly. But the funny thing is that those walls tell you little about what might be behind them. I've been to places where you wondered why you would even step through the door, only to end up in a big and beautifully-decorated store or restaurant.

Traffic sign - pretty self-explanatory. :-)

Another big crossing. Just cross with the right attitude and cars will stop.

Bike path. This car swirls around me and goes back onto the "bike lane" after he passes me. Cars use the emergency and bike lanes all the time - actually, they pretty much use any open part of the road, no matter what the official lanes might be. On the upside though: I do find because of this mad-driving, everyone really pays attention. In the U.S. I felt people were driving asleep - never checking their mirrors, just cruising along in the same old left lane. But here, cars zig zag all the time, bikes are everywhere, and cars can turn right from the second (!) lane over. So you simply have to pay attention and it looks like people do.

"Homeware Lifestyle Village". This is really close to my house and I've come here twice for coffee now. Homewares are yet to be seen.

Simon said: "This lion is sad". Well, if you are at the "Home Lifestyle Village" and your cousins are at the Emperor's Palace, would you not be sad?

Ten meters after the sad lion you can buy kites.

Forty meters after the kites you can buy a Volkswagen.

All this fun stuff (kites, Volkswagen, sad lion) is happening along Jingmi Lu (lu means "road"). Jingmi Lu is a big and busy street that goes farther out into the suburbs and also runs all the way to the center of Beijing. I've sometimes taken it the whole way, but it is such an ongoing traffic jam in the mornings that it's much easier to pay the 8 RMB toll and take the airport express highway to the city center. We're currently outside the city's metro system -- but not for long! See the note below.

Jing Mi Lu street sign

From Jingmi Lu, I turn left onto Xiang Jiang Bei lu. That's where I put on my sunglasses (if not already wearing them) against the dust...

...because Xiang Jiang Bei lu is just an open construction zone. They are always working on the road and also building a brand new metro line. One station is going to be right here, super close to my house -- I am so excited! For the Washingtonians: Remember the purple line? Apparently here, nobody even knew the metro line was coming. One day a year ago, construction simply began and now they are talking about opening it in a few months.

More metro line construction on Xiang Jiang Bei lu. And behind where I am standing is a gas station with a lady who was selling flowers and plants. I stopped to look and ended up buying four plants for the house.

The plant lady put all the plants (some much bigger than the one shown in the picture) on her motorized bike and we biked the last bit together to my house.

At home I find a (not-so-sick-anymore) pirate. Arrrr!

Simon snaps a picture of his mom counting till two.

Then, at 15:30 (3:30pm), it's time to make the 40-second walk to the bus stop, to pick up Thomas.

Bus is coming!

-- THE END --

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wife Can Drive!

driver's licenseYesterday I received my Chinese driver's license. Hurrah! For the first time in my life getting the license was super easy. No failed test (Holland), no visit to some remote office where you can only get to if you already have a car and license (Ohio), no repeat trips to the Department of Motor Vehicles (Washington, D.C.). I just handed in a bunch of photos and my D.C. driver's license and -- only because we are diplomats here -- the deed was done in a day or so.

Of course this is the (more than) easy way to get a license. just two weeks ago had a funny story and some good resources for getting your license in Beijing as a foreigner. If you have a minute, I would read it, as the example from the test that is mentioned in the article is very funny.

I actually only realized today that my own name does not appear on the license at all. My picture is on it, but the name on the card is 彭勃夫人, Peng Bo furen, also known as Peng Bo's (Paul's) wife! Hah, another darn good reason to stay together :-) My dictionary says a furen is a "a lady of high rank; the wife of a feudal lord; the wife of a high official" and also specifically the "wife of a diplomat." All right then, I suppose that's who I am now.

Incidentally, it's not that I can do much driving as of yet. Our car is being shipped here from the U.S. and is now supposed to arrive some time "soon," like this week or the next. Well, next week is a holiday week because of the October 1 National Day (The date the People's Republic of China was founded), so I probably won't see a car any time soon. Until then, this feudal lady will just keep going on her bike and with the occassional taxi. I suppose there is no harm in that. :-)

Your sincerely,
Peng bo furen

Friday, September 24, 2010

Zhu ni happy birthday! 生日快乐

Simon reading a birthday card and talking to dad on skype

Simon is finishing up the longest stretch of birthday ever. It started yesterday morning (Chinese time) with a load of presents, and will finish today at noon when his actual birthday in the U.S. is over.

I brought cup cakes to school yesterday and the kids first sang "Happy Birthday" and then belted out in a "Zhu ni shengri kuaile." It's the Chinese equivalent of course, and it uses the exact same melody:

Happy birthday to you
zhù nǐ shēngrìkuàilè
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you

(I copied this from ask

I would like to tell you more, but right now the two emperors are eager to get out to a bouncy castle they spotted yesterday at some nearby shopping mall. (A shopping mall called "Euro plaza"....hhm, do you think I am their target audience?).

I hope the pictures from Simon's birthday are self explanatory. (Notice how Thomas is quietly approving the presents too!)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dancing Moon Cake

Calendar showing September 22 and the 15th of the lunar month

As I am typing, fireworks are going off outside. Today is the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival. Not surprisingly perhaps, the moon outside is a beautiful full moon -- as most Chinese holidays are based on the lunar calendar. I've actually included a picture of our calendar here, as at first this calendar was a bit confusing to me.

You'll see the red box for September 22 (today), with underneath the 22 a small 十五 (shiwu, or fifteen). So today is the 15th of the 8th lunar month. Faithful blog readers (hi mom!) may remember that Paul and I were actually in Beijing for the Chinese new year's party, back in February. So now we're about 8 1/2 months later and it is time for another celebration.

One big thing people (apparently) do today is eat moon cakes. Funnily enough no-one, not the foreigners, but also not the Chinese people I have asked, seem to particularly care for these moon cakes. Our ayi (the lady who helps in our house, with "help" being the understatement here) says that she doesn't like them, but her eighty-year old dad (in whose house she lives) does. We actually gave the box of moon cakes that Paul got at his work -- kind of like a Christmas gift in other places -- to her family. I would have liked to try a slither, but from what I have heard -- think egg yolk and red bean or lotus paste in a dry, flaky crust -- they are really pretty awful.

First pose of the dancing moon cake

Thomas, however, made moon cakes at school. I bet the teacher had modified the recipe, because Thomas came back home as happy as can be, and then presented and -- before I could take one decent picture -- gobbled down the entire thing. I couldn't get a straight shot, so you are going to have to do it with some images of a dancing, vanishing moon cake.

Today actually reminded me of being in the U.S. for the first time for Thanksgiving. In case you are not from there -- Thanksgiving is HUGE in the U.S., it's a bigger dinner (if possible) than with Christmas. Everyone who can, flies home to their families for a typical Thanksgiving meal with friends and family. Well, of course our first year in the U.S., Paul and I didn't see this coming at all. I think we might have almost gone to the office, but definitely realized far too late that everything was closed that day. And even after we learned -- in years to come -- to anticipate this big event for which everything just comes to a grinding halt, it took us a few years to really appreciate the day in a similar way as the Americans did and start to have meaningful Thanksgiving dinners with close friends of our own.

Second pose of the dancing moon cake

Today feels like that, because I can tell you the story about the Moon Festival, but it won't tell you anything about what this means to the Chinese, and I don't have a clue about that either. According to the legend, a woman named Chang'e is upset after an (obviously) evil person kills her husband to get the magic potion he has. When she then drinks the potion all by herself, she becomes a god. As she rises up in the sky, she realizes she wants to stay close to Earth and then stops and stays at the moon. So that is the legend (read the full story on According to my ayi, this day is spent eating lots of food and presumably eating moon cakes. And according to me, this is a day school was closed and the boys were home.

Third pose of the dancing moon cake

We did have one dancing moon cake though.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Baba, mama, didi he wo

Teacher hand-out from Simon's Chinese class

Just now, Sunday evening, I was packing the boys' back packs for school for tomorrow -- for Simon: swim clothes and goggles, school folder, money for the cafeteria card; for Thomas: "inside shoes" and school folder with communication book (in which the teacher and I can write messages back and forth) -- and I noticed Simon's Chinese language study materials. A sampling of a handout and his own writing is shared in the pictures in this post.

The one international word in these pictures of course is "mama." I am sure you know what wonderful person that is. "Baba, mama, didi, he wo" is pinyin for "Dad, mom, little brother, and me." (Pinyin is the written-out version of Chinese, which helps a learner of the language know how to pronounce the words or look them up in the dictionary.) So Thomas is Simon's "didi" (little brother), and Simon is Thomas' "gege". And if your sibling is a girl, you either have a "jiejie" (older sister) or "meimei" (younger sister). Luckily, if you don't know if anyone has any sisters or brothers, you can ask in one quick swoop if they have any "xiongdijiemei", ("xiong" here is for "gege") so as not to waste any precious time.

Simon writes: Wo jiao Siming. Wo 6 sui. Wo shi Helenren. Wo jia you 4 ge ren - Baba, mama, didi, wo. (My name is Simon, I am six years old. I am Dutch. My home includes 4 people - Dad, mom, my little brother, me

[Simon writes:] Wo jiao Siming. Wo 6 sui. Wo shi Helenren. Wo jia you 4 ge ren - Baba, mama, didi, wo. (My name is Simon, I am six years old. I am Dutch. My home includes 4 people - Dad, mom, my little brother, me.

Of course, if you are Chinese and under 30, changes are pretty slim that you actually have a brother or sister at all. Exactly 30 years ago the Chinese one-child policy came into effect, so most young Chinese you meet are a single child. (There were exceptions to the rule, so it won't be true across the board). There's much speculation and discussion on what the impact of this policy already is and will be for the Chinese society. People talk about the little empresses and emperors, the single children who apparently have had too much attention from their family, and may end up a bit... uh... selfish and spoiled, or... stressed-out, because of the huge pressure on them to take care of all their grandparents all by themselves.

If you are interested in the topic, you might want to check out the this current series on the American public radio show Market Place about the policy. The site includes some interesting graphs and stories.

Luckily, my two little emperors are already off to bed, and the queen mother has a fine Sunday evening to herself! Good day!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Tea time

A few days ago, Paul and I went to a "lecture on Chinese tea”. Riveting, I know! But really, knowing that China has such a long and rich tea culture and tradition, and knowing that we ourselves barely (and that would be an overstatement) know how much of those tea crumbles to throw into a tea pot, we realized that a quick course in Chinese tea would not be an unnecessary luxury.

Well, we were proven right in minutes. Let me ask you this question:

From what plant (or plants) does green tea come, and from what plant (or plants) do black tea and oolong tea come?

Hah? hah? You know it? If your answer is "I don't know, but they must be different plants" then you are with the right company. Stay with this post. If you said: "Ah, those all come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, but after harvesting the leaves are just processed in different ways." Well, then, hhm, maybe you want to skip on to the next post. Clearly you are out of my league.

Sampling a drop of Chinese tea
Luckily for us, we learned this basic tea fact early on in the evening, before we might have even asked about it and blown our cover as experienced tea drinkers. Following this early enlightenment, our learning continued with a dizzying set of slides about different ways to process, prepare, and drink Chinese tea. But while there are many options, I felt in the end it really was not so complex. To prepare the tea in the right way, just pay attention to the tea (duh!). Green tea has not been processed much (think of fresh green leaves), so you want to drink it close to the date it was harvested and also not poor boiling water on it, as that would damage the leaf. Also, because you just steep it for 30 seconds or so, you can use a glass or porcelain cup to prepare the tea, and then poor the "tea soup" (the water, not the tea leaves) into the drinking cup.

A quick note on "tea soup": Our speaker made an interesting point about the word "tea", saying that when Chinese say "tea", they are talking about the tea leaves, not the liquid. Pouring water on those leaves is basically a rinse of the tea, and what you get is "tea soup", not tea. Along the same lines, they only call things that come from Camellia sinensis "tea" or "tea soup". If you are drinking some sort of flower tea (like Chamomile), they would just call that "flower water", not tea.
Items for drinking Chinese tea. (or: The things I do not have in my IKEA kitchen)
Speaking about flowers, the presenter also told an interesting story related to the Beijing habit to drink boatloads of Jasmine tea. Jasmine tea is real tea (from Camellia sinensis) with some added flavor from the Jasmine flower. According to the speaker, the drinking water in Beijing used to be so incredibly bad that people would drink the Jasmine tea instead of other tea because the taste of the Jasmine was strong enough to (at least somewhat) cover the bad taste of the water. Although people now have access to better water, they've kept their habit of consuming Jasmine tea. I often enough see my Chinese teacher or a cab driver with a big mug of Jasmine tea "on the go".

Back to the tea preparation... So if green tea is fresh, oolong and hong (what we call "black") tea are more processed. That means you don't have to drink them fresh and can use water of a higher temperature when making the tea. You might with some (or all?) teas even throw away the first "rinse" (the first "tea soup"), because it won’t be good to drink. (With green tea, you would never chuck out the first rinse, as that is the best you will ever get out of those leaves.) Because you will be steeping the tea for longer and doing a couple "rinses," it is wise now to use a tea holder made out of pottery, as that will keep the heat in better. Not that using glass would be wrong, the tea would just not be that hot.

Now, a few days later, I can't say that I remember all of the new instructions or know exactly what to do, but I did get some basics under my belt and now know what to pay attention to next time I reach for the Chinese tea. Or I might just grab that bag of Pickwick tea from the shelve and do it the "ole British" way! :-)

Wow- I am back!

I can see my own blog again!
Hi there,
I can't say that I really think you all are eagerly waiting for my next blog post -- I mean, I am sure you have busy lives to lead -- but I have to say that from my end, I am extremely happy to be back on my blog again.

A few posts ago I already reported that we had to install a "VPN" service to be able to access the sites that are blocked here by the Chinese government. Well, finally, in between Paul arriving back from Brazil, some teacher-parent conferences, and some miscellaneous busy-ness, we (meaning Paul of course) finally got around to it. So with this VPN service from WiTopia, we can now again access all the sites under the sun.

What is also so amazingly cool about this service -- and we are wondering why we did not buy it before -- is that now we can go on the Internet seemingly from anywhere in the world. When we open our VPN -- our own secure, special connection -- we can choose if we want to access the Internet through a server in Washington DC, in Amsterdam, or in any of the 30 or so cities on the list. You might wonder why this matters, but even in the U.S. we had noticed that you can't always access all the content on websites in another country. Especially with video clips of TV content, that clip might be blocked so that people won’t be able to access that video for free if (in their own country) the rights for that T.V. product were sold to someone else. (For example, if in the U.S. the television company NBC is paying a lot of money for the rights to show a certain swimming competition on T.V. they certainly don't want you to be watching that same competition for free on the Internet somewhere else.)

Oh well, this is just a long and elaborate way of saying that I am back. Hurrah!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dongxi – East West Home Best!

Our dongxi (东西) have arrived! Our stuff, our things, our belongings, our books, clothes, pots and pans, and other goods from the U.S. have finally showed up here. Hurrah!

Late Thursday we got a call that our things would be arriving on Friday morning. Paul postponed his flight to Baxi (巴西, Brasil), so he could stay around for the fun, and all Friday morning a grand total of 161 items –five of which were bikes—were carried into the house or the storage shed outside. When the boys arrived back home from school, it was a big party. They were just delighted to see their play mobile, Lego and cars again. And I was delighted to see some more of their T-shirts and shorts again.

Also among the items was the cable to download photos from my camera – so here as a special treat a first glance at our house as the movers (including Paul) are carrying in the stuff.

Dongxi by the way—the title of today’s post—simply means “things” or “stuff”. I love this word. It’s composed of the two characters “dong” (东) meaning “East” and “xi” (西) meaning “West”. So “East West” together just means “things”. Going shopping then is Mai dongxi (买 东西), to buy stuff. :-) In Dutch you also have an expression, Oost West Thuis Best, which literally translates as East West Home Best. And I will say, with our East West Dong Xi around, our home finally starts to feel like home!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Help! Can't access my own blog

Aaargh - one thing I miss (besides affordable chocolate) is a reliable Internet connection. It didn't help that just getting our wireless set up at home involved four visits by two different companies, but once you are online, you still have to deal with the fact that access is bit slower than in the U.S. and that you just can't visit certain sites without finding a work-around.

If you are interested, this article gives a bit of an overview of the situation with the "Great Firewall". It's a little bit dated already, but it shows the options I have: Use a proxy (to bypass the firewall that restricts Internet access), get VPN (to establish a secure, encrypted line to the outside world), or quit using Facebook all together.

(I’d list the sites that I can’t access, but when I clicked on the link in the article above that lists those sites… I can’t access the page that would show the list! :-)

So for the last three weeks I was using a proxy: There was program on my computer that helped me access restricted sites, so I could update Facebook (once in a while!) and this blog. But then, two days ago, that proxy got blocked and now I have to look for the next best thing. It’s so darn time consuming! If you read the article above, you probably also got a sense of the changing nature of what is blocked. Something that is accessible today may not be there tomorrow, and a solution that works today, can also be gone the next time the censorship guy (or girl) goes to work …. Aargh!

(And in case you are wondering how this post made it up here: I asked someone else to post it for me! I hope you enjoy reading it, because I can’t....)


Yesterday I turned 6x6 in the Year of the Tiger. And I am a Tiger (from 1974 – I’ll spare you from having to do that calculation), so somehow I think this has got to bring good luck! Thank you everyone for your birthday congratulations. As you can probably tell from other post today - I won't be able to reply on Facebook for now.

It was a great birthday - a year ago I couldn't have imagined I would now be celebrating my birthday with a Chinese class in the morning, Taiwanese food for lunch, and delicious cupcakes with a panda on top with my boys in the late afternoon. In the evening, we went out for dinner--pizza and pasta, a nice treat for the boys after three weeks of pretty much only Chinese food.

P.S. In case you are wondering: Our belongings from DC haven’t arrived yet. They are still sitting in the port of nearby Tianjin. We’re still in the middle of summer here, but apparently it will cool down quickly in October. It would be nice to get a coat and a clean shirt out of the container some time very soon. (Oh, “and toys”, the boys yell.)