Archive for Beijing


“Dear Tenants,

As you have known that the door security system cannot work if there is no power. In that case, the door will not be opened. Therefore, pleaes keep one set of metal key at our security department for back up for the emergency cases. We shall seal the keys up for keeping together with your good self.

Best regards, we remain,
Property Office”

Clearly, I’m more worried about them sealing my good self up than about being locked out in case of power failure. Is that wrong?

Posted by on September 27th, 2005

Today I bought a bicycle

Well, actually, I bought it on Sunday, with help from R. to find the most fashionable color. It’s a matte dark blue “Forever”-brand bicycle, small enough so that my toes touch the ground when I want them to, and with a cute tulip painted on the frame below the handlebars. But, today was the first time I rode it–to work, from work to Chinese class, and all the way home–and the first time I’ve even been on a bike in about four years; make that eight years if we’re counting any real time or distance. I’ve never before ridden very far beyond the comfortable enclave that surrounds my suburban home, and I’d never even made it to the point where you ride along with traffic instead of facing the oncoming cars in order to know what’s coming your way. And somehow I thought I could try all this for the first time in the chaotic onslaught that is the Beijing bike-riding experience. Well, I made it home alive–and exhilarated.

I figured out that the bike lanes off to the sides of roads were meant to be one-way, that the parking lot in front of McDonald’s (Maidanlao in Chinese) costs .09RMB, or about 1 cent, to park your bike under the watchful eye of an attendant while you grab some fries (shutiao) and diet coke (jianyi kele) for lunch, that knocking a water bottle out of a woman’s hand while trying to dash across a busy intersection is probably a bad idea, and that I most likely won’t crash and sustain massive head trauma despite the fact that I didn’t buy a helmet. No one here wears one, and most of them make it to work and back on a daily basis without incident, and traffic, even of the two-wheeled variety, moves so sluggishly that even if one were to fall, I don’t think anything permanently damaging would come of it. I’ll take a picture of my newest vehicle tomorrow and post it–on this first adventure, I thought it wise to leave my camera at home, in case all went to shit and I flipped over or something. Next time, I won’t be so cautious.

Posted by on September 21st, 2005

My regimental alarm clock

Since I haven’t quite yet adjusted to waking up at 7:30 every morning in order to be at school awake and ready to teach my three-year olds by 8:45, sometimes I’m still dozing to the intermittently jarring call of my snooze alarm at 8:00. It is then, however, that I pass irremediably out of the realm of sleep and into that of the unfortunately awake. A few hundred yards down the road is a track, which apparently plays host to the morning exercises of some local school–perhaps the middle school that I’ve noticed on Baijiazhuang Lu, an intersecting street. In any case, at 8:00am the blare of loudspeakers blasting a recorded rendition of some song that recalls the Chinese national anthem, “The East is Red,” without actually being it reaches my wall of windows, imploring me to press against the glass, lean to the left, and witness the spectacle that is the tardy schoolchildren running to their respective places in the straight lines that have formed within the bounds of the track. It has become a tradition to mark the commencement of my day, as I find myself flush against my windows every morning, propelled by the dampened blast of music despite the fact that I know what awaits my gaze. I can’t help but repeat my attendance at this striking event, emblematic of all of China’s regimented past.

Posted by on September 8th, 2005

Internet food delivery

My friend S. turned me on to a dirty secret a few weeks ago: in Beijing, as in Boston, New York, or many other American cities, you can order your dinner online. The site,, became something of an addiction for me of late, though I’ve had to cut back since the prices it charges are assinine, with a 100RMB minimum charge plus delivery fees. Dinner from Mexican Wave or Tandoor to fulfill cravings for exotic cuisines ends up costing between fifteen and twenty dollars–an outrageous amount in a city where I could stuff my face at a normal Chinese restaurant (preferably Sichuan, if I had my way) for 20RMB or $2.50. On top of that, they’re not quite modern enough to take credit cards yet, so it really is an out-of-pocket expense. It’s cheaper to order pizza from Annie’s, which has its own free delivery service, even though you have to actually call them to place your order. (Beijing Goodies confirms orders on their site by text message to your cell phone.) Still, just knowing that a service like this exists changes my sense of how small the differences really are between life here and life anywhere else in the developed world. If you can order cheese enchiladas or garlic naan online and have it show up at your door thirty minutes later, you are definitely not in the third world.

Posted by on September 4th, 2005

Chinese punk rock and caipirinhas

I just returned from a less-than-raucous night out at what’s supposed to be Beijing’s best bar–Yugong Yishan. I have no idea what the name means, but I know characters homophonic with most of the syllables, which has led me to decide it means The One Mountain for Getting Down to Business. I’ll probably never learn the real translation, so my imagined meaning will have to suffice. It doesn’t bother me very much that I go through the day making associations like these. That’s what I get for living in Chinese imaginary space.

But anyway, at this bar, which _that’s Beijing_ voted Beijing’s Best Bar of 2005, I met up with R., a fellow teacher and an artist from New York who’s become one of my best friends here, our friends M., a graphic designer from Buenos Aires, and S.L., a Chinese speaker from Lima who works dubbing CCTV shows into Spanish for some reason, and a bunch of their friends. The international origins of the crowd don’t stop there, as I spent most of the time chatting with S.A., a girl from Denmark who has two jobs–one with a Danish shipping firm and another as a bartender at a British pub here. C. and A., girls from Kuala Lumpur who are fixtures in this crowd were there, but they were talking to two guys, a Brit and an Italian, who never became even acquaintances (not even in hope of reducing them to initials here).

We were there to hear some “French funky band” perform, since Yugong Yishan is known for its live music shows, but when R. and I got there after a late bite at O Sole Mio, we found out that they were a no-show. Or maybe our friends had just been wrong to begin with. Instead, we were going to witness the debut of a ragtag ensemble. Two punk rockers S.A. had seen play a show a few weeks before were onstage with the bartender as their adopted lead singer. Now, punk in Chinese sounds a lot like punk in English–linguistically indistinct, lyrically unintelligible, and loud. They actually played pretty well together, though, and a couple of us were moving along with the songs. We even shouted and clapped after some of the numbers, since the Chinese audience, which was fairly large for 10:30 on a Wednesday night, still managed to seem entirely dead despite the fact that they could understand the songs and we couldn’t. However, that might actually be understandable. The leader, whose haircut gave him the mien of a Wookie trying to look like John Lennon, announced toward the end of their set that he knew one song in English, and he was going to sing it for all us ladies in the back, who were smoking and drinking our delicious and surprisingly strong-for-Beijing caipirinhas ($3). The song was called, as he announced before beginning to sing it, “All I Want to Do Is to Do You.” That sentence formed the base of the refrain, along with lines like, “Shit for the shitters, fuck for the fuckers, put it in your motherfucking mouth, fill the empty spaces,” all to the strains of a punk ballad. In Chinese, he announced it as a love song. We keeled over with laughter, but gave loud whistles and cheers when they were through. Maybe the Chinese songs were of similar quality–and the Chinese audience slightly less easily amused?

In any case, my sole reaction was to want to film a movie about the punk rock scene in Beijing. It would be ridiculous.

Posted by on August 18th, 2005

Making acquaintance

I moved from New York to Beijing five weeks ago, scared to meet the obligations of a year-long contract to teach English at a bilingual preschool and kindergarten. I haven’t been in one place, doing one thing, for such a long time in years. College doesn’t count, since I was always going somewhere or doing something I wasn’t theoretically supposed to be doing–I haven’t been much of a “student” since middle school, despite the modicum of academic success I’ve still managed to achieve. The prescribed life of a high school student or undergrad never really engaged me like that of an adventurer, whether that adventure is inside myself or across the globe, assisted, accompanied, or alone.

So now I’m here, for no reason other than that I wanted to let adventures happen to me and this is the one that found me first. Since arriving, I’ve shadowed more experienced teachers in classes of toddlers and teenagers, designed a summer camp for sixteen preteen boys (and one seven year-old girl) in which we shot and edited two short films, sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” more times than I’d like to recall, and learned that Brits sing their ABCs differently (they break up LMNOP, repeat XYZ, and end with “Now you see, I can say my ABCs”). I’ve also interviewed for three other jobs, and have a meeting over coffee coming up in two days to discuss another opportunity. It’s not that what I’m doing doesn’t pay well or isn’t interesting enough–it’s tolerable on both counts–but teaching is not at all what I want to do with my life, in any formal sense at least, and these other jobs all offer the opportunity to write, something much more in line with my visions of the future (and hopefully the present).

I also decided to pass on the apartment an acquaintance had offered me before my arrival. J.H. had been teaching at the same school for the past year, and living in this run-down two-bedroom apartment with a Chinese roommate for the past five months. The roommate, C., was great, despite the inevitable cultural conflicts I faced when I lived there for my first two weeks in Beijing. C. was a great cook, her egg and scallion jiaozi (my favorite kind of dumplings) were divine, and most of what she made appealed to foreign tastes, or at least to my palate, more than the chicken feet she made to suck on herself.

The bathroom, however, had no shower, just a spigot above the toilet; the kitchen was a dirty, box-like room that made me want to eat out every meal; the hallways of the building were fall of garbage and eerily shadowy. The clincher, though, was the elevator. It seemed mechanically sound–it even had the requisite elevator inspection certificate, which wasn’t past the expiration date, unlike every one I’ve ever seen in Boston, where I went to school–and it even came complete with two thirtysomething women who took turns sitting inside it on a stool and reaching up to press 19 for me whenever I came home and 1 whenever I wanted to leave. These women, captives inside their own “iron rice bowls” (the sinecure-like term the Chinese use for jobs guaranteed by the government for life regardless of their continued necessity), went off-duty each night at midnight, even on weekends, and there would be no one there to press 19–just me, left to hike drunkenly up the unlit stairwells all on my own.

So I went looking for a new place, one I could decorate on my own with plants and saucepans from Ikea, at one-fifth the price the items with the same ridiculous Swedish names would cost in the U.S. Three weeks ago I found it, an unclutteredly spare but mod aerie on the 22nd floor of a brand-new building, where the elevator runs at least as late as I can stay out partying. So far, I haven’t tested it past 3:30am, but I’m certain it zooms up and down with its ads for Audi A6s and Blackberry-like devices long after I’ve passed out in my king-size bed. What follows are some photos I took to give you a sense of what my retreat from the noise, chaos, and dirt of Beijing is like.

Posted by on August 17th, 2005