Miss Gioia

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Down a Side Street

On Sunday, I took a little trip down a side street near Tian An Men* square while Chris was getting his hair cut. I found a whole pile of these lovely folk art pigs, which made me chuckle.

Side alleys seem to be where the real Beijingers hang out, usually chomping down on sticks of odd roasted things, like seahorses, starfish and scorpions. The scorpions seemed to be placed on the stick live, as I saw many struggling against their fate. Really, these vendors must be extremely talented to be able to impale scorpions on thin bamboo sticks without getting stung. Maybe they are harmless scorpions....

You can never start eating meat off of sticks too young in this town.

More pictures here.

*Did you know that Tian An Men means "heaven's peace gate"? Fascinating.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Summer Palace

Summer is winding down, as is our time in Beijing. Chris and I realized this weekend that we had not yet seen the summer palace. One quick call to a back up driver and we were off...

This is definitely a "must see" in Beijing, as evidenced by the busloads of tourists posing for pictures everywhere. Thank goodness for them, there were plenty of clear signs pointing the way.

The summer palace was lovely, with lots of trees and greenery. As were walking along a forested path near the end of our visit, we commented that this must be the greenest and cleanest place in all of China.

This is the Dowager Empress' famous marble boat. In retrospect, restoring that boat instead of building up the imperial navy probably wasn't such a good idea, was it Cixi?

Here we are....still smiling after traipsing up and down stairs and around the big lake. Or are we smiling because we have seen all there is to see in Beijing and are now moving on? More pictures of the summer palace visit are here.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

On (Not) Having a Driver

Truth be told, the idea of a driver has always been a bit disconcerting. Of course, my family had them when I was growing up and living in the Philippines and Bangladesh. As I got older, though, I was not so interested in having my own as an expat. Mainly because it seemed so colonial and segregationalist.

I certainly didn't need a driver when I was in the Philippines doing dissertaion research. I even tried to ride only jeepneys during my time in Manila. That lasted only about a month until I got a lung infection from the pollution. After that experience, I reluctantly upgraded to taxis.

In Shanghai, we had the luxury of taking taxis everywhere, as we lived in downtown (Puxi) where they were cheap and abundant. In Beijing, though, we are required to live outside of the city because of our big dog. In the beginning, I tried taking taxis to work, but it was too far, too expensive and too unreliable. Getting a driver was inevitable.

We found Mr. Wang through our real estate agent. He came with a little four door Nissan and cost RMB 7,000 per month (about US$900). For that, I got a ride to and from work (one hour each way) and rides anywhere we wanted on Saturday or Sunday. Gas, insurance and the driver's monthly salary (RMB2,000 we learned) were all included. Not a bad deal.

Most importantly, he was a NICE GUY. He really tried to help us out, to get us things we needed and find us places to visit. Everytime we gave him a gift, he reciprocated. He was quiet during the drive to work, and very safe.

We tried very hard to treat him well. We let him go home if we were out to dinner, taking taxis home instead of making him wait until we were done. We gave him a one-month salary bonus at Chinese New Year AND at Christmas. I travel a whole bunch, so there were many weeks where he had nothing to do.

All in all, it was a fine arrangement, except for one tiny little thing. He was almost always late. If I asked him to pick me up at 7:30 a.m., he would pull in at 7:45, sometimes 8. It got so bad that I would tell him 7 a.m. if I had an urgent meeting that I could not miss. We - and by we, I mean Chris, who speaks excellent Mandarin now - had two very serious conversations with him this summer about the importance of being on time. We also said that if he was going to be more than 5 minutes late, he needed to call and let us know. It never happened. He did not learn.

Three weeks ago, I had an early flight, and he was supposed to pick me up at 6:00 a.m. I finally heard from him at 6:30 as I was racing to the airport in a taxi. So sorry, he said, I will be there in 15 minutes. Ummmm, no.

That was an awful morning. I barely made my flight to Hong Kong. The delay meant that I spent a very stressed out hour in the horribly long immigration line imagining alternate ways to get to my afternoon client meeting. Chris discussed the seriousness of the issue with him for me later that day, but it apparently made no difference.

Unfortunately, the same thing happened again this Monday morning. I was wiser this time and took a cab at 6:05 instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt. On my way to the airport, I called and woke Chris up and said - he must be fired. Had to be done. I would have done it myself, but Chris has experience firing people in China. Frankly, I wouldn't have been able to say it with nearly as much eloquence.

We would have let him go in October anyway, but we were planning on giving him an extra two months salary. Instead, I decided to send a clear message now (immediate and relevant feedback, as HR would say), in hopes of helping him learn what needs to be done for the next family. A harsh message, yes. Hopefully it was a good idea, for his sake.

So I began and ended this driver saga with a heavy heart. Hopefully, never again will we need a driver.


Monday, August 20, 2007


Beijing's 798 art district is a renovated factory area just outside of the fourth ring road. This place used to be remote, relatively speaking, but the creep of urban expansion has now encased it within the city proper. Originally, this area was a place where artists found cheap studio space within the crumbling walls of abandoned factory floors. Now it is closer to a community of gallery and restaurant owners, who are better positioned to pay the high rents and allow the commercialization that comes with popularity.

Art, especially political art, is hard to show and sell here. Some of China's best known artists work and exhibit only outside of China. But, times are changing, and either the government is getting more tolerant (mmm... not likely) or the global art community is looking for future potential. Either way, the buzz is that China's art is hot, full of burgeoning artists who are talented, if not controversial.

Chris and I toured the 798 space today. It was my birthday outing, and we had a really nice time popping in and out of gallery after gallery with concrete floors and whitewashed walls.

I think this is a definite "to-do" area in Beijing, once you have dispensed with the ubiquitous wall. The art was enjoyable. I particularly like big art - big sculptures, big canvases, big bronzes - and 798 did not disappoint. I was surprised by all of the military themed work exhibited. However, nothing really struck me as being cutting edge or bohemian. I guess you still need to go to New York to see controversial Chinese art, which is unfortunate.

Clearly, this is a nice community space, which will hopefully encourage Chinese artists to grow and test their boundaries as the scene here matures. I just hope the graffiti gets more sophisticated soon.

More 798 pictures here and here.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bad China Day

If you stay in China long enough, you will start to notice some of the expats grumbling about "bad China days," as in today is not a good one. Bad China days are days where the cultural divide is really hard to overcome. Days where you just do not understand why people are behaving the way they are. Days where you just want to sit down and cry. For me, today is a bad China day.

I left for the airport at 7:20 this morning, which was plenty of time for my 8:30 flight on a regular day. We live right by the airport. The main intersection by our house, however, had a broken traffic light due to an early morning storm. In the United States, drivers tend to behave quite civilly in this kind of situation, allowing one car after another to proceed carefully - in turn, in line. Not so here. There is no such thing as civil behavior when it comes to broken traffic lights. All people can think about is pushing ahead to make sure that THEY get through. The problem is that if everyone pushes ahead, no one can go anywhere. We all get stuck.

After 20 minutes of sitting in the middle of a crazy pileup in the center of the intersection, I got out to signal to the cars perpindicular to ours that they needed to wait a minute so that order could be restored. Despite my quite respectful request for them to stop (where I stood in front of the car and held up my hand), they gunned the engine once a spare inch opened up and crept forward, blocking us further.

At that point, I slammed my hand on the windshield and raised my voice. I needed to make my point, you see. After that, the driver started screaming at me saying that I am a waiguoren (foreigner) and don't know anything. Then my driver gets out to defend me (sweet man) and screams at them too. At this point, I am so livid that all I can do is yell YOU ARE RIDICULOUS at the van full of male workers. Which did not do much good because I don't know the word for ridiculous in Chinese.

Eventually the driver and I stormed back to the car, where we waited for 15 more minutes with the van right in front of us. You see, they gained a foot and blocked our path (and the 50 cars behind us), but they could not go anywhere either.

I made it to the airport, but missed my flight. Changing my ticket was another long complicated story, which involved three counters and several irate people trying to push ahead of me in line.

Because, obviously, they were more important than me.

Bad, bad China day.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007


I am preparing to take a quick business trip to the United States. It will be quite the whirlwind tour, with stops along the way to squeeze in some family and personal time. I have to take a number of gifts back, including an engagement present and a house hostess present.

It is hard for me to buy gifts here in China because, well, this country makes a whole lot of crap. Don't get me wrong, there are manufacturers of nice things here too, but most of the quality items are made for export only. It is difficult to find something that is representationally "Chinese," high quality and not commercial.

That said, I do have one very favorite store here in Beijing (now in Shanghai too) called Spin ceramics. This shop sells pottery that is very clean, very modern and very Chinese. The items are all exceedingly simple and well designed. Usually they are finished with a subtle celadon glaze, but they also make some stunning red glazed pieces as well. The teapot on the left is a piece that Chris and I bought for ourselves.

The only bad thing about Spin gifts is that they are not so easy to pack. I will probably be dragging these guys through several airports before the trip is over. That's ok. Sometimes the perfect gift is worth the trouble.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Around my Neighborhood

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Beijing Restaurant Review: Cepe

Whenever people ask me how Beijing and Shanghai are different, I usually like to begin by talking about restaurants. Shanghai is a business city, where people like to make deals over a glass of baijou, wine or sake. If you ask me for a restaurant recommendation in Shanghai, I will counter with - what kind of food? Chinese (Shanghaiese, Dim sum, Szechuan, or Hot pot), Japanese (Tepankyaki, Udon or Sushi), French, Vietnamese, American, or Western fusion? In Beijing, where politics is king and expense accounts slimmer, choices are more narrow. I have only three or four restaurants that I will enthusiastically endorse in Beijing; that's it.

My repertoire just expanded, though. Chris and I spent an evening with friends at Cepe, which is the Italian restaurant at the Ritz. Cepe is a french word for mushroom (weird, yes). True to its name, this place specializes in mushrooms of all kinds, including truffles.

Wow. It was outstanding. Perhaps one of the best restaurants I have been to - ever. Really. One of our friends knows the chef, so we were well taken care of, but I am sure that the food would be excellently prepared for everyone. If you are in Beijing and need a restaurant for a client dinner, for a celebration or even just for a break from cheap Chinese food (yeah, you know what I am talking about), this is the place.

On the way out of the restaurant, the chef showed us the humongous house mushroom storage closet. It is a big cabinet with many drawers where the restaurant stores dried porcini, portabello, oyster, morel and also grows its own on big dirt logs. This closet looked like a sleek, floor to ceiling, stainless steel humidor, with piles of mushrooms instead of tobacco. It was the coolest thing.

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