Sorry words, I’ve been cheating on you

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I’ve written the next great American novel via Instagram.

I realized recently that I’ve been completely remiss in posting to the site and tried to get to the root of the cause. It turns out that I haven’t bothered writing here since I installed Instagram on my phone. In the last five months I have published 0 blog posts and 438 Instagram photos. In the photos-to-words conversion that’s 438,000 words, or roughly a prose trilogy.

So, what have I been up to in my hiatus from writing? That question is probably best answered by looking at what I take photos of.

Things I eat:

insta-food

 

Things I drink:

insta-booze

 

Pollution:

insta-gray

 

Blue skies:

insta-blue

 

Beijing randoms:

insta-china

 

Flowers:

insta-flowers

 

Chinese people:

insta-people

 

Buildings (an extension of blue skies):

insta-bldg

 

Hilariously bad English:

insta-english

 

So, now you’re basically caught up with my life of recent. I promise I’ll throw words at you with higher frequency, but in the mean time you can follow me on Instagram to see what I’m up to on a daily basis. In the past few weeks this has included a new obsession with photographing mops, which if you live in Beijing makes (almost) perfect sense.

 

When Beijing hands you lemons

January 12 along the 2nd Ring at Dongsishitiao

January 12 along the 2nd Ring at Dongsishitiao

By now it’s basically made the news everywhere that Beijing is in the midst of an “airpocalypse” of epic proportions. This past Saturday night the US Embassy air quality monitoring station spat out a terrifying AQI reading of 755. Considering the “acceptable” level is less than 100, and the advisory scale maxes out its severest warning label at 500, that was seriously ominous.

After a few days of slogging through this soup, your muscles ache, your eyes burn and your skin cracks. It’s easy to get caught up in complaining, whining about the AQI to your friends while you obsessively check and recheck the readings. I’m certainly guilty of doing a bit of this, but I also am struggling to remind myself that I have consciously chosen to live in a developing country that places progress above all else.

So, I decided to pretend it was a lovely summer afternoon. When sequestered in my apartment, this actually isn’t a very difficult task. Our building management is a bit… overzealous when it comes to the heat. We have a thermostat on the wall, but from what I can tell it is merely decorative. And with the pollution levels as they are, I am hesitant to open a window to cool the place down.

Dried lavender

I’ve had this lavender lemonade recipe stored away just waiting to be tried, and I figured now was as good a time as any to give it a whirl. It’s insanely simple to brew and it makes your whole home smell like magic (aka lavender). In China they sell dried lavender for making tea in pretty much any grocery store, but elsewhere in the world you may need to visit a specialty shop to get it.

The most difficult part is waiting an hour while the bulk of the lemonade sits around making itself. Seriously, I just wanted to dunk my head in the pot. The added bonus to this is a gorgeous naturally pink hue that comes from the flowers, which really brightened up my dreary day. I can’t eat artificial red dyes, so it’s been a while since I’ve been able to enjoy a pink drink. If you’re having a party, or just looking to escape your gray surroundings, this is a fast-track ticket to happytown.

Lavender lemonade

You are what you eat

Judging from the photo, this may actually be a literal translation…

Ordering food in China can be tricky if you don’t speak or read Chinese, leading to many a frustrated expat staring into an unanticipated  plate of chopped chicken feet. When I first moved to Beijing in 2005, my Chinese was a bit more limited, which led to a limited set of dishes I could order. I once thought I would be safe when ordering 牛肉面 (beef noodles) from a menu, thinking I would get a plate of noodles and beef. What I was actually presented with was what is now infamously known to my friends and family as “Fear Factor soup,” – a giant metal bowl with piles of spicy peppers floating ominously on top.

Luckily for the non-Chinese speaking restaurant goer, many places now offer English translations on their menus. Unluckily for the English-speaking restaurant goer, these translations may need translating as well. Sometimes fanciful, often nonsensical and occasionally vulgar, mistranslations are never more glorious than when found on a menu. I’ve assembled quite a collection over the years, but a choice gem at dinner over the weekend inspired me to share them. Bon Appétit! 

I think no

This does not make me think of Spring, nor does it make me smile.

I can see why the wild germ would hate that

“Speculation” is the key word in this one

Having a difficult time choosing between Super Cherish and the Baked Elbow

They expect a lot from their yogurt

“Excuse me, but are the garlic cowboy tablets made from real cowboy?”

I admire millet pepper’s bold public declaration

 

Taxi cab confessions

Conversations with taxi drivers generally follow the same formula. I could probably record my side of the conversation a la Ferris Bueller’s doorbell routine and save myself quite a bit of talking time. Yesterday, however, my cab conversation took a turn for the delightfully quirky.

It started raining sideways basically the moment I stepped out of the office. Resigning myself to a very soggy, crowded commute, I was walking to the bus stop when I saw it out of the corner of my eye. Like a miracle, there it was: a red “For Hire” light driving my way. Not only was it driving my way, it was pulling over and stopping for me. Unprecedented!

What followed was the most enjoyable taxi chat I’ve had in quite some time. After telling him my address, the fun times just kept on rolling in.

Driver: That’s near Sanyuanqiao, right?

Me: Um, no. It’s down Chaoyanglu.

D: Oh, right! West of the bridge.

M: East.

D: West.

M: East.

D: I’m pretty sure you mean West.

M: Actually… you’re right. I do mean West.

D: [laughing] 你蒙我! (You kid me!) Look at this traffic! It’s pretty awful.

M: [now I’m laughing] Everywhere you go in Beijing there’s traffic.

D: Ha! You must love traffic. Just kidding! Now I’m the joker! So, where are you from?

M: Where do you think I’m from?

D: Russia?

M: Nope, America.

D: Really? Because you look Russian.

M: I’m definitely from America.

D: Hmmm…

M: [sighing] But my grandfather was Russian.

D: Aha! That explains it. How long have you been here?

M: Altogether about 4 years. I was here for 3 years before the Olympics, and now I’ve been back for a little over a year.

D: [turning around in his seat and raising an incredulous eyebrow] How old are you?

M: Almost 29.

D: Seriously?

M: Seriously.

D: But you look 20. 22 tops. So, if you’re 29, you must be married.

M: Uh, no.

D: But you’re 29!!!

M: In America, it’s not unusual. People get married in their 30’s all the time.

D: Not in China! In China you have to be married by the time you’re 23.

:::awkward pause:::

D: So… do you like to eat Chinese food?

M: Yup! It’s much more delicious here than it is in America.

D: That’s probably because Chinese people are making it. Do Chinese people make the food in Chinese restaurants in America?

M: [chuckling] Yes, often they do. It’s just that Americans like to eat different things, so they cook the food differently.

D: I know. Americans like to eat beef. And also bread. They eat lots of beef and bread.

M: Um, sure. Beef and bread.

D: And they don’t stir-fry food like we do in China. That’s why they’re so fat. Come to think of it, you’ve been living in China for a while. You should be getting skinnier. Anyway, it’s pretty impressive that you speak so many languages.

M: So many?

D: Sure. [counting on his fingers] Russian, English, Chinese…

M: I don’t speak Russian.

D: That doesn’t make sense! Your grandfather was Russian.

M: Yes, but my dad speaks English, so I speak English. My grandmother is German (she’s actually Latvian, but I have no clue how to say that) and I can understand a little bit of German (actually, Yiddish, but who’s counting).

D: Wait, they have a German language in Germany? I thought they spoke English there.

M: No, they speak German.

D: Wow, that’s interesting. Good to know.

:::He rolls down the window and sticks his head outside:::

D: Woah! Just a little bit of rain on me and I’m so cold! Isn’t that odd?

:::another awkward pause:::

D: So… since you’re not married, and you’re in China, would you consider marrying a Chinese guy?

M: I suppose so, although I’m not looking to get married right now.

D: That doesn’t make sense. Foreigners come to China all the time to get married.

M: Maybe? But I’m not really looking for a husband right now.

D: [laughing] You’re such a kidder!

At which point, we pull up outside my apartment gate. After I pay and get out of the taxi, I see him rush off, purposefully avoiding letting another fare get in the car. Was he just looking to chat with a foreigner? Was I just extremely lucky to get a cab? Was it all a mirage?

All I know is that he set the bar high for future rides. Next driver who picks me up is going to have to work pretty gosh darn hard to impress me with his conversation skills.

Patience is a virtue

In case you’re unaware, the current population estimate for China is somewhere around 1.3 billion. Beijing alone is home to at least 20 million, possibly even closer to 25 million. To state the glaringly obvious, that’s a lot of people.

Given such a massive population, you would think that people would naturally be used to, you know, having tons and tons and tons of other people around. And to a certain extent, they are. Cars turn right through crowds of pedestrians as if the street were completely clear. When a bus has reached capacity, people feel perfectly comfortable holding on the door handles and literally being closed into the vehicle. Shopping anywhere on the weekend generally means getting carried along in the natural flow of other patrons and hoping you’re deposited in front of a stall selling what you need.

To me, however, another byproduct of being around so many other humans should be developing a certain threshold for waiting. It seems to go hand-in-hand. The more people there are in a city, the more people there are between you and what you need to be doing. Yet, somehow, the residents of Beijing have what can only be described as a patience allergy.

There are two ways back to my apartment from the main expat shopping area. One way takes you down an avenue with tons of traffic lights, where you eventually must wait for an eternity to make a left onto my street. The other way weaves you through a neighborhood, avoiding the traffic lights and just driving straight South down my street. I think you can guess which way is my favorite.

The only problem with the second route is that, between 6am and 8pm, cars are not allowed to drive South down my street. In a city where red lights are merely suggestive and the sidewalk is often considered an extra lane, it blows my mind that taxi drivers always insist on following the no-drive rule on my street. This means that I can only take this route at night.

One night last week I’m heading home and giving the taxi driver step-by-step instructions on how to get there. We get almost to my street when he panics and tells me that we can’t drive down it. I tell him that it’s totally fine after 8pm, so he doesn’t need to worry. He looks at the clock and screams at me that it’s currently 7:57.

I try using my favorite phrase, telling him it’s ok 差不多, which roughly translates to telling him that 7:57 is realistically the same thing as 8. As I say this, I point to all the other cars driving down my street at that very moment. He’s furious, and says, “去不了!” “We can’t go!” Since we’ve already pulled over to the shoulder to have this argument, I use my lateral thinking skills and tell him I’m happy to wait 3 minutes and then make the trip. He’s so angry at this point that he nearly turns purple as he shouts, “等不了!” “We can’t wait!”

I try to speak slowly as I explain to him that those are the only two choices. Either we go, or we wait, it’s very simple. I tell him I really don’t mind waiting and it’s no inconvenience to me. Despite my grasp of the local dialect, what spews out of his mouth at this point is absolutely unintelligible to me. It’s like a cross between the Incredible Hulk and the teacher from Charlie Brown. I have to stifle a laugh as I tell him I have no clue what he’s saying to me.

“If you can’t understand me, you should get out of my taxi!” he shouts back. I smile, and point to the clock. It’s now 8pm. Very sweetly, I tell him that we can now drive down my street without any worries. Never mind that in three minutes of waiting he made a few extra kuai on the trip. Without wasting fuel, I may add, since he turned off his car during our little spat. Despite this, he is Mr. Grumbles all the way down the street to my apartment gate.

Giving thanks

Western-style ovens are not common in China. I own a sort of toaster oven on steroids, large enough to accomodate a dozen very strategically placed muffin cups. It is not large enough to handle a chicken, never mind a turkey. So, when questions of Thanksgiving dinner arose, my American friends and I were at a bit of a loss.

There were restaurants in Beijing selling cooked turkeys at the outrageous price of around 1,200 RMB on average ($190 – ouch). Our British coworker helpfully suggested we buy some roast duck instead; we helpfully suggested that he shut his damn dirty mouth. I thought all was lost, when I got an email ad about a Chinese turkey farm offering cooked birds for 40 RMB/jin (about 500g). Too good to be true?

Mike on Turkey Day

Cut to Monday evening, where I’m confirming with a go-between that I would in fact like for him to order me a turkey and that, no it wouldn’t be a problem that the smallest bird available was 20 lbs. I told Mike (my Thanksgiving partner-in-crime) the good news and he proceeded to, as he later admitted, “panic” at the size of the bird and invite everyone in his phonebook to dinner. Oh dear.

I started stressing out trying to organize side dishes, clean my apartment and invite my own friends, all while waiting anxiously to make sure the turkey actually arrived. Luckily for me (and my mystery house guests) the bird showed up to my office on Thursday morning, fully cooked, and accompanied by a ziplock bag of turkey innards and a pouch full of mystery sauce.

In the end, Thanksgiving turned out to be a major success. All the things I worried we would be missing (pie, gravy, cranberry sauce) miraculously appeared at my apartment in the arms of strangers new friends. Due to the lack of proper carving tools, I managed to rip the turkey wings and legs off with my bare hands (while another person held it down). And, in a classic “Oh, China” moment, I noticed that the bird had been sewn shut for reasons unknown to me.

A new Thanksgiving tradition?

Upon snipping one of the threads, rice started pouring out the bottom of my giant bird. That’s right, rice. Turns out the nice Chinese farmer who cooked my poultry thoughtfully included his version of stuffing when roasting the turkey. I can safely say this is the first Thanksgiving where I’ve had to yell, “Quick! Someone get a plate! There’s rice shooting out of the turkey!”

Ultimately, as cheesy as it sounds, I am thankful for the sense of family that so quickly develops in the expat community. I knew less than half the people eating from paper plates on my sofa (and every possible chair I could gather), but from the start of the evening we were laughing and chatting like old friends. There was delicious turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes (“The secret ingredient is butter,”) and even homemade sweet potato pie. Americans, Brits, Australians and Chinese came together to celebrate togetherness. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Of cabbages and kings

Beijing's favorite winter vegetable

There was terrible traffic. My alarm didn’t go off. The weather really slowed things up. There was a cabbage and fish sale at the grocery store.

As far as morning delays go, this is definitely a new one for me.

There’s a grocery store in the basement of the building where I work, and when I’m running early I’ll sometimes pop down there to grab breakfast. Fruit, some sort of tasty bun (my favorite is this spongy eggy pancake filled with shredded potatoes and carrots) and maybe a bottle of milk tea. It generally takes an extra 10 minutes out of my morning: 5 in the store and 5 in transit.

Last week I was on my way into the store when I noticed an unusually long line of old people waiting in the produce department. It struck me as odd right away because, well… standing in line is not something that comes naturally around here, especially among the elderly. The orderliness of it all was a bit surreal, to be honest. I grabbed a pre-weighed bag of oranges and was headed the bread counter for my eggy wrap when I was shocked to see what I thought was impossible – another line! This one was in the seafood department, equally long and equally populated with senior citizens.

I tried to shake it off and headed towards the registers with my loot. Unfortunately, this was where I was met with the lines I couldn’t bypass. I thought about abandoning my breakfast, but the shredded potatoes were calling to me (“It’s hibernation season! You need your starches! Delicious starches!”) and I was running fairly early. I’m actually glad I stuck it out, because the conversations in the check-out line were amazing.

Little old ladies were comparing their giant stacks of cabbages (I’m talking 20-30 cabbages per person) and seeing who got the best looking ones. They were marveling over the price and some were even considering sending their sidekicks on a second cabbage run to take advantage of the deal of the century. Better than this was the old men holding up their fish, still writhing and twitching in the little plastic bags that sealed their doom. I was the only one in line without a cabbage and/or fish, and I’m sure that sight was just as strange to my neighbors as they were to me.

And, for the record, I still managed to make it to work on time.