Friday, December 25, 2009

Beijing Christmas Brunch

Food possibilities are endless in Beijing. Chinese, German, American, French, Spanish, Mexican, Pakistani, Japanese, Russian, etc. But for Christmas I wanted something simple, much like my Thanksgiving dinner at the Great Wall. Instead of just finding a Mom-and-Pop style restaurant with turkey and mashed potatoes, I gave in to suggestions from my other foreign friends and went to the Beijing Kempinski -- one of the major hotels in Beijing.

The dinner was buffet style, but had more than just the typical Christmas necessities. At my fingertips was duck, goose, various sea creatures, vegetables of all sorts, desserts-a-plenty, wine, wine and more wine, venison (sorry Rudolph) and -- an unexpected treat -- prime rib. I haven't had prime rib since coming to China and I probably wouldn't have the opportunity to eat it again until I go home, so I piled my plate.

I joined my former China Daily boss, Mike Peters (who also went to the Great Wall Thanksgiving dinner), for the late afternoon Christmas brunch. I got there around 1 p.m. and made several journeys up and down the buffet line until it closed around 3 p.m.

Although a bit expensive, the live music, ice sculptures, Christmas trees and overall atmosphere was worth the price. I mean, where else (even at home) would I get to have goose, duck and prime rib on Christmas?

Food, food, food.

I made Mike wear the Santa hat. The night before, he was "volunteered" to be Santa at the China Daily Christmas party.

A Barbie doll sized ginger bread house.

There were a lot more people there than are in this photo. They must have all gotten up to get more food.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I'll Be Homesick for Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, and throughout Beijing Review,
Not a [Chinese] soul knew it was the holiday, no one had a clue.
And yes I had my spirit, and my Coal Region Christmas cheer,
But I was stuck working, while my friends were out drinking beer
(and probably eggnog too).

That about sums up my Christmas Eve this year. Just as I wound up working on Thanksgiving, so too did I find myself in the office late Thursday reading over pages and making last minute corrections to the magazine. All the while, some of my other friends were out celebrating Christmas at bars and pubs across Beijing. I had even been invited to a church service somewhere in the city.

I should note this is my first Christmas away from home. The first Christmas I won't see my family for this momentous holiday. This first Christmas I won't go to church and sing every [single] Christmas song (minus Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer) known to man. And the first Christmas I won't be able to open gifts with my family under a proper Christmas tree. It's a lot of firsts, and not ones I'm particularly glad to be dealing with.

A week ago my parents sent me a Christmas package with all the essentials to make me feel as if I were home (sort of). Included were: a Christmas stocking, small gifts for the Christmas stocking, a small fiber-optic Christmas tree with changing colored lights, Christmas candy and Christmas cards and photos. It was a truly wonderful package.

I'll admit, in the weeks leading up to the holiday, I've been a bit anxious. A few of my Beijing friends were heading back to the States, traveling or had already left China for their home countries. It seemed like Christmas was going to be pretty bleak this year.

And then I got homesick. Not extremely homesick but enough to make me want to do Christmas things I never did back home, like go Christmas caroling or bake Christmas cookies. Or even go ice skating on a real frozen lake. Since I'd heard from friends and family that practically the entire East Coast of the United States had been blanketed in about a foot of snow, I even began to miss shoveling the welcomed, yet dreaded, white powder from the sky. Beijing is just cold and windy this time of year unless the government decides they want it to snow (long story, Google it).

But I made the best of it in the days leading up to Christmas. I went out and bought Christmas decorations (which quickly fell apart), listened to Christmas music (which only made me miss home even more) and found myself a nice Santa hat. I wore it once, looked in a mirror and decided it was too much. Plus, my facial hair was dark and scruffy, giving me more of a homeless look than the Jolly Ole Saint Nick appearance I was going for. But I had to try. Apparently, Santas don't exist in China, since I've been hard pressed to find even one miniature version of the red suit-wearing man anywhere in Beijing.

Instead of moping about the lack of true Christmas spirit in Beijing, I decided to force the Christmas spirit on my colleagues at Beijing Review. I'd tried this tactic on Halloween when I brought a jack-o-latern pail filled with sweets into work and told everyone they could only have a piece of candy if they sang a Halloween song. It was a prank but no one got the joke. For Christmas, I was able to find different flavored candy canes -- blueberry, cinnamon, watermelon, but no peppermint -- and brought them in for everyone. No singing was involved this time, but I did warn them that the blueberry canes might cause their mouths to change colors.

I also brought the Santa hat, my Christmas stocking and the small tree in as well. If I had to work on Christmas Eve, I was at least going to make my tiny cubicle look and feel like Christmas.

The rest of the day was ho-hummish. I read stories. I read pages. I read more stories. Going to my home church for the 3 hour Christmas service was starting to sound like a viable alternative to reading pages.

When everyone else in my office had left, I turned on some Christmas tunes but kept the volume low. I just wanted to enjoy the moment of peace and tranquility with Rockin Around the Christmas Tree in the background.

Beijing Review feeds the foreign experts when they keep us late -- usually a rice dish with meat and vegetables from Yoshinoya. It's never bad, but tonight I came prepared, bringing with me a brick of cheese (having been unable to find a cheese ball covered in almonds) and some weird sausage that would have to fill in for the Pepperidge Farm brand my parents always had at home. Ritz crackers were about the only part of the Christmas snack I was able to find. And so I had myself a mini-Christmas feast: cheese, weird sausage and crackers.

And before I knew it, it was time to leave. It was 11 minutes before midnight.

The cab ride home seemed to take longer than it needed to, given that there were few other cars on the road. We passed a few decorated buildings, saw a few Christmas trees and finally arrived on my side of town. I told the driver what alley to drive down and when we arrived he turned around and said "Shengdan Jie Kuai Le!" with a huge grin on his face. I looked at the clock in the cab. It was just after midnight -- Christmas.

I returned the greeting, paid the fare and got out.

"Merry Christmas," I muttered to myself, smiling as I walked to my apartment. "Merry Christmas."

Decorations from home; food that reminds me of home.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ringing in the New Year (Early)

To celebrate the holiday season, China International Publishing Group held a reception for their foreign experts working for the seven CIPG magazines. The event was held at the Beijing Shangri La hotel in the northwest part of the city. The event was similar to the dinner at the Great Hall of the People in October, but specific to CIPG employees. The food was equally sumptuous -- a combination of dishes of creatures from the air, sea and land. And of course there were toasts all around from the bosses of CIPG. The best part were the small stuffed tigers everyone received, a prelude to the upcoming Chinese New Year -- the Year of the Tiger. I can't say I'm a big fan of stuffed animals, but now I have one less present to buy for someone (I'm not sure what the code of ethics concerning re-gifting is in China, but I'll soon find out).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Au Revoir

My French roommate, Alexia (the non-Chinese girl in the photo for those of you who were unsure), left for home yesterday morning. She had been in Beijing since May, interning with Airbus. She'll be home for about three weeks before she leaves again for America where she'll study abroad at the University of North Florida.

For the past month I've been prepping her for her semester-long stay in the States by teaching her useful phrases (like "what's up"), college terminology and, most importantly, drinking games. My time as a college student may be over, but that doesn't mean I can't live vicariously through my former roommate.

Tears were plentiful between Alexia and our Chinese roommate Vivian, but I was happy for my French roomie. She'd be spending the next six months in Florida, the "cool" American state where the sun shines and Spring Break venues are plentiful. And she'll have infinite access to YouTube and Facebook and everything great about American Internet access, little things I've come to live without but miss nonetheless.

Already the apartment seems a little less complete. True, there are fewer dirty dishes in the sink (no one in the apartment liked to clean, especially Alexia) but the lack of French babble and European ascents has created an awkward culture void. My only hope is that the next roommate comes from some Western country, otherwise I'll have no one to talk to about cheese (real cheese), wine (real wine), burgers (real burgers) and how God awful Chinese liquor (pijiu) tastes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Shengdan Jie

If you haven't figured out what shengdan jie means based on the first few words in the blog title, then you aren't listening to enough Christmas music. The season to be jolly is in full swing in Beijing -- lights hang from trees, stores display Christmas knickknacks and employees all around wear read and white Santa hats. I have to wonder if they fully understand the significance of the holiday or just know that when December rolls around it's time to smile, be jolly and dress up like some old fat white guy with a snow colored beard.

To my enjoyment the last month, the walk home from work has allowed me to see a few Christmas decorations outside the shopping center next to my apartment. I haven't seen too many Santas sitting in big chairs, waiting to hear Christmas wish lists read off by annoying little kids, but then again I haven't really looked that hard just yet.

Here are a few pics from around my area. I'll post more as I get out and about the city looking for some Christmas cheer.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Homeward Bound

One of my first friends in Beijing, Marisha Thakur, left for home today. She returned to Mumbai (Bombay), India after a year in China working for China Daily. Marisha was one of my bosses during my summer internship working on the international news section of the paper.

Marisha and one of her friends, Arlene Chang, showed me how amazing the Beijing Ikea is on numerous trips to the goliath of a superstore. The three of us would also get iced coffees, while the weather was warm, and babble about new happenings in each others lives. Arlene, for a while, was looking for a new job in Beijing but eventually returned to Bombay ahead of Marisha. The two were friends before working together in Beijing at China Daily.

On my birthday, Marisha, another friend from work and I went to the China Open.

Now that Marisha has left, I have one less friend in Beijing. But that means I have one more friend in India, a nation on my list of places to go, especially after watching the movie Outsourced a half dozen times.

Marisha's brother and sister-in-law came to Beijing to help her move. One of her friends from Beijing also came to say goodbye.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving: Great Food at the Great Wall

While my parents and other relatives enjoyed a cozy, wholesome Thanksgiving dinner back in the States, I was stuck in the office, working late (it was my turn for production night), eating a small, semi-warm bowl of rice, beef and what I think was pork from Yoshinoya. Dessert consisted of a few Hershey kisses I had hidden away in my desk drawers.

But last night (Saturday), I enjoyed a pleasant evening with a few of my expat pals at a small compound at the base of the Great Wall called the School House. The School House is owned and operated by American Jim Spear and his wife Liang Tang. Located at the base of the Great Wall at Mutianyu (about an hour's drive from Beijing), the out-of-the-way mini-resort is a great escape from busy Beijing (not to mention a nice break from the city air). But more importantly, at certain times throughout the year, they host special dinners. And this weekend they were serving a family-style Thanksgiving feast.

The venue was much smaller than I'd imagined, but what it lacked in scale it made up for in food, festive spirit and friendly people. My friend, Ken McManus, who has been coming here for some time noted that numbers were down this year - there were only about 20-some present and previous years had seen a much higher volume of people. But it was cozy, a real family-like gathering, small kids running around and adults chatting about "big people" matters. Live music played while everyone sipped on their choice of hot chocolate or a variety of wines. I tried a bit of everything.

The dinner itself was great. Served on those spinning table centerpieces, each plate of food - including turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, baked rolls, broccoli and cheese and many other options - made its way to each person at our table. Dessert this time was for real: chocolate mousse, apple pie, chocolate pies and home-made ice cream. It was a nice alternative to my faux-Thanksgiving feast Thursday night.

And soon enough, it was time to leave the feast behind and make our way home. Before leaving, we were given tupperware containers to take leftovers home, because, as Jim Spear said, "No Thanksgiving is complete without leftovers." How right he was.

(FRONT) Mike Peters (China Daily), Brian Peach (Global Times), Brandon Taylor (Beijing Review); (BACK) Ken McManus (South China Morning Post), Jim Spear (owner) and his wife, Liang Tang

Monday, November 23, 2009

Advertorial Extraordinaire

I found myself at the Beijing International Airport this weekend dressed in a suit with an unusual amount of gel in my hair. I sat reading a copy of Beijing Review, one I'd looked at many times before as a photographer and videographer took my photo and recorded video. It was like acting in a movie and in a way, I was a star, just not in Hollywood terms.

I'd been "volunteered" to take part in a CIPG advertisement campaign for Beijing Review. My HR contact had called me Thursday with the ever-ambiguous "What are you doing Sunday?" to which I honestly answered that I had no plans. I heard a few words that sounded like "advertisement," "commercial" and "Sunday afternoon." A woman would later stop by my cubicle to tell me she would pick me up at my apartment and shuttle me off to the Beijing International Airport where a photographer and other camera people would meet us. I was to dress formally and "look good."

"Define 'good,'" I said. The woman chuckled and just walked away.

Sure enough, she picked me and my co-worker, Joseph Kirschke, up Sunday afternoon. We met the rest of the commercial crew at a Starbucks, shot up on caffeine to get us pumped for the photo shoot and met a PR guy for the airport. He gave us each tickets so we could get through security (apparently even with VIP treatment and a airport PR escort you can't just walk freely throughout the terminal) and we made our way in.

The photo shoot would take place in the First Class and Business lounge of the Air China area. Joe and I weren't given specifics on what was going on, but we went with it and did as they told. The whole event took around 4 fours (including security checks and set up) and included two separate shooting locations in the lounge. Overall, it went smoothly.

I haven't seen the final product (I doubt they finished) but I was sent a few of the photos. When they finish the actual commercial part, I'll be sure to post that as well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Park Photos

A few more photos from the Summer Palace event. Apparently we were on Chinese TV as well.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When It Rains It Snows

Last night was Halloween, but the weather must have mistaken it for the Christmas holiday season. What started as a drizzle soon turned into a steady rain. Before long, the rain drops became a bit heavier and whiter. And then it started to snow.

I woke up to find about 3 inches covering the ground. Winter was officially here. It was nice, because only two days before I'd bought my heavy winter jacket and a few extra sweaters. All I needed was a scarf, pair of gloves and boots.

I set out looking for a park to see if anyone was building snowmen, or Snow Mao's perhaps. But after searching for only 30 minutes the cold began to get to me and I retreated to my apartment.

Something Western This Way Comes

I haven't celebrated Halloween in about three years. And I haven't dressed up for the holiday for even longer time. But this year I almost completely forgot about that special day when kids young and old dress up and run rampant trying to acquire as much candy as possible.

Last week, while grocery shopping I came across a small Halloween section, with Scream masks and plastic pumpkins. Feeling compelled to promote the American holiday, I bought a few things and took them into my office.

I really wasn't aware that Halloween was celebrated much outside the United States. My friends from the UK and Australia said it was picking up in their respective countries but still wasn't as embedded in their culture as it is in America.

The mall across the street from my apartment was holding a Halloween party. The locals seemed to enjoy having their photo taken next to a giant pumpkin and the Scream killer. A few people even wanted their photo taken with me. I guess my "costume" as an American was pretty convincing.

A Walk in the Park

At various points throughout the year, BJR will take its foreign experts on sightseeing trips around China and sometimes to local attractions in Beijing. On Saturday, they took us to the Summer Palace, but not just to see the old dwelling of previous emperors. We were taking part in a friendship competition for foreigners.

The event had been explained to me as a field trip. It eventually evolved into an organized event for foreigners from Beijing. I later heard someone mention that it was a competition. Two days before the event, one of my office friends used the word "race."

It turned out to be, as we soon found out, a "long walk" around Kunming Lake, where the Summer Palace is located.

The weather was beautiful - not too warm, not too cold and essentially perfect walking weather.

We were given goodie bags beforehand with an assortment of gifts. We were also required to wear light blue vests to set us apart from other tourists in the area, and perhaps to prevent people from taking boats across the lake to finish the walk quicker.

It took us about two hours to walk around the lake. At various points, signs with "Come On" written on them pointed us in the right direction. Perhaps they were also meant to inspire walkers, but to me they seemed a bit bossy.

At the end we were given free phone cards (the event was hosted by China Mobile). The Summer Palace area was great - another one of Beijing's historic landmarks and simply huge in scale. I'll have to make it a point to get back to see the whole area and not worry about speed walking around the perimeter of the nearby lake.

Great Hall Revisited

Here are a few more photos from the Great Hall event I was invited to last month. The man giving toasts is the president of CIPG.