Monday, January 26, 2009

春节愉快!(or Happy Spring Festival!)

As most of you probably already know, tonight is the eve of the Lunar New Year. We celebrated by enjoying some delicious dumplings and home cooked Korean food, playing a traditional Korean game called "Yut," and setting off some underwhelming but still very fun fireworks. (We were beginners, and the guy who was lighting the fuse risked blowing off his arm plenty of times as it was...)

Finally, J and our two visitors hopped on the last subway home. When we got through the door, it was about 11:30pm, and it felt like we were in the midst of enemy fire. But of course, it was really just our friendly neighbors celebrating the biggest event of the year in style.

This was the view just outside our window, from our apartment on the 17th floor. Apparently, most fireworks sold in China are designed to explode right about...oh, the 17th floor. We know this because those puppies were popping right into our frickin' faces, like so:

From Beijing Dou

And also:
From Beijing Dou

Oh, and check out this cool double helixy one:
From Beijing Dou

"But, Marilyn!" you exclaim, "Those fireworks are exploding not more than 20 yards away from all those residential high rises! That can't be safe!"

Never fear, my friend, because we currently reside in a glorious nation whose iron-grip government does not regulate the sales of such explosives on the open street, nor the whims of ordinary citizens as they set them ablaze. If the good ol' CCP's not worried, we needn't be, right? All in good fun! (Ok, maybe that's not entirely true. We've heard people aren't allowed to set them off on private property...but wait, how does that keep up from blowing our limbs off? Or each others' faces?)

Anyway, all this leads to probably the most spectacular, and profuse, display of fireworks I've ever seen this up close. I didn't really capture the full effect on camera, but a quick glance out our window revealed layers upon layers of exploding balls of light for miles in every direction. It's now 2 hours since we've gotten home, and it's still going strong...

So, to finish this post as we head to bed (assuming we can fall asleep to the sweet tunes of sporadically exploding gunpowder), I will borrow an overused and groan-inducing pun that we've been seeing EVERYWHERE here:

Happy 牛 Year!!*

*[FYI, "牛," pronounced "niu," is the character for "cow" or "ox," which--conveniently enough for punsters everywhere (have I mentioned how much Chinese people love puns?)--happens to be the Chinese zodiac animal representing the new Lunar Year.]

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Sunday we got the chance to go to the band Delirious's first concert in China. Some of you might not be familiar with them--they're one of the more well-known Christian bands. They wrote the song "I Could Sing of Your Love (Over the Mountains and the Sea)". Although in recent years I haven't really kept up with their music, one of their earlier CDs had a huge impact on me when I was in high school, so I wanted to check out the show.

The venue was a small local club, perched atop several floors of high-class KTVs (karaoke bars). It was a marked contrast from the last time I saw them, a 30,000+ person Christian music festival that I was volunteering at. A welcome one.

Early in the set, as Martin was talking about how incredible it was that they were finally able to play a show in China, he mentioned that they weren't allowed to play many of their songs. It cast a slightly ominous mood over the show, but it also brought the audience together in focus.

The concert was remarkably refreshing for me. From the boisterous moments of worship to the "Here I am, send me" anthems, the energy in the room was powerful. As the audience warmed up and began to jump, sing, shout, dance, it felt as if all of us were emerging from a long silence, from whispered words and hushed tones, erupting in praise as one voice.

"History Maker" was a sharp reminder for me to remember to dream big. To believe that, with Help, any of us can change history:

I want to be a history maker in this land.
I want to be a speaker of truth to all mankind.
I'm gonna stand.
I'm gonna run into your arms.

Youtube's already got some clips from the show:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Signs of the Times

Saw this guy in the bathroom at the Shenzhen airport.

M and I were really excited when we found out there was a supermarket opening up in the basement of our building. Today, when I noticed that they sell crack, I got even more excited.

Friday, January 09, 2009

It's a Flat, Flat World

M owes you a post, so if this post bores you, blame her.

For the past few years, I've been functionally illiterate. At least when it comes to books. Growing up, I loved reading, but I burned out on it in college (and my post-college internship at a church, which had a pretty hefty reading plan). In the past few years, I've read only a couple books, opting instead to play video games and mindlessly surf the net, reading blogs and news instead. But I miss reading, so I've been slowly trying to get back into it again.

Here in Beijing, we have a lot of downtime on the subway and bus, since most of the time anywhere we want to go takes at least half an hour. Lately I've been thinking, why not use that time to read instead of just playing DS or people-watching. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon one of those carts of pirated books with a pretty decent selection of English books. Yes, they even pirate books here. I'm sure the profit margins aren't nearly as good as pirated DVDs, but printing here is really cheap. The book cart had a couple books I'd missed out on during my non-reading phase: The World is Flat and Freakonomics. I haggled with the pirate book seller (arrrr!) and bought the two of them for 20rmb (~$3usd).

A couple years ago, The World is Flat made a big splash, but I was never sure why, so I wanted to check it out. It's pretty much old news now, and for most of us internet generation kids, it was old news back then too. Thomas Friedman argues that the world has undergone a flattening, mainly through globalism and technology, that has leveled the playing field for people anywhere around the world in unprecedented ways, specifically with regards to outsourcing. And the irony is that I've more or less proven it for him. The past few days, I've been using some passages in his book as material for some of my classes. No big deal, you might think, except that I'm working with outsourced engineers. An English book about outsourcers can find its way into the hands of Chinese book piraters, who then scan (very poorly, I might add, half the words have the wrong letters or even numbers) the book and distribute it to back-alley book sellers, who then sell it to some random ABC kid wandering around the streets of Beijing, who then uses it to with outsourcers to train English communication skills. *shrug* I guess the world really is flat.

But these days, what's been on my mind is that the world is small. As in tiny. M spent a few days in Hong Kong with my aunt and uncle before I finished up work and joined her. The first day she arrived, she took the subway to near my uncle's place and hopped on a 16 seat minibus. From the back of the bus, she hears someone calling her name, and turns to discover our friend Bernice. Mind you, M knows all of about 2 people in Hong Kong at this point. And she just happens to run into one of them. Or yesterday I found out that a couple of our friends that we met here in Beijing went on vacation in Spain with one of M's good friends from high school. Totally random. I've got a dozen other stories just like these, but they've become so commonplace that I've given up trying to remember them.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Durian 2.0

With sad looks on our faces, we left Taiwan today. We had complicated our whole trip by traveling by way of Shenzhen/Hong Kong (because Marilyn was already in Shenzhen for work, and tickets from Hong Kong to Taipei were half the cost of Beijing to Taipei), so we're back in Hong Kong for a night before we head back to Beijing tomorrow.

The night before we left for Taiwan, M and I had decided to check out this dessert place across the street from my uncle and aunt's flat. My aunt had pointed it out and told us it was pretty famous, so we couldn't resist. We got there around midnight and the place was packed, half of the seating area jammed in under these giant tents in front of the building. This place is famous for its durian and mango desserts, but the first time around we chickened out and just had a crispy mango roll and a mango pudding with cream and pomelo. We flipped out. The mango was some of the best mango we'd ever had and the flavors and textures came together really nicely. forward to tonight. M and I make it to HK in time for dinner with my uncle and aunt, and then we head across the street to the dessert place. This time we got a crispy banana roll (which we'd tried to get the first time, but they ran out) and mango with black glutinous rice and cream. The place wasn't that busy tonight, so they brought the dessert out really quickly. As M and I were enjoying the sweet, creamy, and lightly tangy taste of the mango, I got to thinking. If the mango here is so good, maybe the durian is delicious too. Maybe I've just never given it a chance. At first, M was unsure about it, but I convinced her to order another dessert: durian and whipped cream wrapped in something like a crepe or swedish pancake.

The two little puffy guys appeared and M and I stared at them, hesitating. M made the first move and cut open the roll with her fork...that old familiar durian smell wafted into our nostrils. Summoning our courage, we each speared a big bite of durian roll and popped it into our mouth. My tastebuds reeled as I supressed a gag. My brain registered scrambled eggs with green onion and leftover minced pork, but my mouth registered some kind of fruit, cream, and crepe. Maybe the second bite will be better, we wondered out loud simultaneously. Nope. Grimacing, we ever so slowly finished one of the puffs. Relieved, I went back to finishing our banana roll and mango with black glutinous rice, but M wasn't done. The other puffy roll just sat there, watching her. Feeling bad, she cut him open and decided to taste just the cream. Still gross. Then she took a full bite and realized that the other puff wasn't actually so nasty. Oh the pain, if only we'd eaten the half-bad one instead of the totally gross one.

So here I sit, periodically burping, filling the room with the lingering odors of premium grade durian. If any of you were wondering, like me, if fresh high quality durian is sweeter and less funky, wonder no more. If tonight's dessert was any proof, premium grade durian isn't sweeter, it's funkier.

My apologies to those of you readers and friends who love durian, but I've tried a few times and I just can't do it. It is a foul abomination of a fruit.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Ringing in the New Year, Taiwan style

Happy 2009 to you. We can't believe how quickly 2008 went by.

After Hong Kong, we met up with our best friends from our year in Michigan, Gary and Kat, who we hadn't seen since we left in May. Gary's parents live in Taipei, so we stopped there first.

Then we headed to Yilan, where I discovered that I'd missed my calling as a puppeteer:

and M discovered that she had missed her calling as a Qing dynasty princess:

I know, I know, kitschy tourist trap stuff, but we do it with a smug sense of irony. Which makes it all okay. Plus a favorable exchange rate makes it a little more reasonable. (We weren't supposed to take any pictures while they were photographing us, but Gary used his ninja skills to shoot this while no one was looking.)

Next, we headed to the coastal city of Hualien on the East side of the island. So gorgeous-- from beaches to mountain areas, cliffs to valleys, this place is awesome.

M got sick of the same old smiling pose, so I decided to innovate:

We made it back to Taipei late last night in time to watch the famous Taipei 101 firework spectacular. We didn't feel up for heading into the downtown area, so we just watched from the balcony.

The whole time zone thing really throws me off, though. Kind of like how it felt watching Times Square three hours later every year in California, except this time, it was 12 hours earlier and in Taiwan. Hmm.

It was a semi-crazy ending to a crazy year. Crazy, but incredible too. M and I both feel deeply blessed to have the family and friends we do, and, of course, plenty of meals and adventures to share with them.