Friday, September 16, 2005

Sept. 12, Tuesday

Across the street from a jampacked Ikea store is the Bian Yi Fang Peking Duck restaurant. Had lunch there Sunday with a classmate of my Dad's, from St John's University in Shanghai in the 1950's. His children and family friends from California joined us eating duck at least four different ways but no one was quite sure what was salty, sweet, dark, white or whatever. Among other topics, there was animated discussion of the rising stock market and current housing prices: they said they wished they had gotten in earlier so they could have made some money. A daughter-in-law works for Chevron managing "downstream" products like lubricants. New cars and the demand for gas were skyrocketing in part because cars are still relatively cheap in China, she said.

Moved into my new apartment Sunday and watched the 9/11 anniversary commemorations live on CNN. The next night, I got a visit from a leasing agent demanding money for showing me the apartment. We rented through a second agent who offered us a better price. We broke no rules, signed no exclusive agreements and had no idea the second agent was going to show us the same apartment. The Post's Chinese staff navigating the apartment search said it was no problem. But the agent had a problem and came back three times, bringing his bosses / goon squad with him. They tried to push their way into my apartment, turned off my electricity and shouted and banged on my door. I called the landlady, building security and Phil Pan. Only day two in my new home and already I've got the police in my apartment. They sided with us, but the agent's bosses told Phil the next day they were coming back. We're too angry now to pay them a dime. The experts around me say they believe the situation is settled for now.

Sept. 13, Wednesday

Visited the Dongyue Temple just north of Jianguomenwai Dajie. Originally built in 1319 and since restored, Dongyue is a Taoist temple with dozens of small rooms with statues in them – sort of like small chapels. Each "department" describes a spiritual bureaucracy in uniquely Chinese fashion. There are departments for jaundice, for signing documents, for halting the destruction of living beings, for official morality, for false accusations, for wandering ghosts and for 15 different kinds of violent death.

Worshippers leave red wooden ornaments or amulets hanging from the front railing of the most popular departments, such as those for longevity or happiness or for the Door God who wards off evil and brings fortune to a home. The department for controlling bullying and cheating has no red tags. The hall of descendents - where people pray for many healthy children – has hundreds of red tags. There is heavy emphasis on getting credit for good works. At the Department for Determining Individual Destiny, people are encouraged to "perform merits to avoid falling in with low-class society." Even Hell has a fair trial court.

Sept. 14, Thursday

Started Mandarin classes today at TLI-IYU. I'm doing five hours a day not including an hour lunch break. Three hours in the morning for speaking Chinese, new vocubulary words and comprehension of sentences using both characters and Pinyin. In the afternoon, two hours of character drills. Not sure I can maintain five hours but will try. All the Japanese students at TLI (who already know many of the characters or Hanzi) are in class for six or more hours a day. Plus they hire tutors.

Everyone in Beijing is helpful when I open my mouth and the most fractured Chinese comes out. It's not like Hong Kong, where people would ask why I couldn't speak Chinese (Cantonese) properly. Taxi drivers, supermarket clerks, hotel staff, waiters, bartenders - all are patient and eager to help me find the right words.

Last night in a Yunnan-style restaurant down an alley off the main bar strip of Sanlitun, I ordered a delicious noodle dish called Guo Qiao Mi Xian, or "Crossing the Bridge" noodles. Long ago, a wife made her husband lunch each day but it grew cold as she walked it across a bridge to his worksite. So she improvised, carrying a hot soup and raw ingredients. The fatty soup would congeal and the layer of fat would keep the soup warm. When she crossed the bridge she removed the layer of foot and added the ingredients, cooking them on the spot. Including bottled water and rice wine, dinner was less than $5.