Monday, April 19, 2010

The birds of guloudong

Until I started spending every day at the National Library, I spent an insane amount of time at Cafe Zarah, this fantastic German-owned cafe near Beijing's old drum tower. I can't tell you how many coffee shops here try to make themselves into appealing expat hangouts and just don't quite get it right--the music's too loud, or too poppy, or not loud enough; the staff is too chatty or too standoffish; etc. It's hard to figure out exactly what the problem is, but it's one I have long found frustrating--in Hong Kong I generally went to Pacific Coffee (Starbucks' prime competitor in Asia) rather than to independent cafes for the same reason.

But Zarah just gets it right (and is always packed as a result). Reasonably interesting art. Nice light. Electric outlets. Oh, and maybe the best coffee in Beijing.

One of Zarah's weird charms, however, has nothing to do with the cafe: the street on which it is located (鼓楼东大街)is home to a large and eccentric collection of birds. Okay, there are only two of them, but still.

Bird #1 is a pet goose. Seriously. He has an ID card that he sometimes wears on a string around his neck. His owner, likely a retiree, takes him for a walk up the street every afternoon. This is not a small street--it's like walking a goose, off leash, up College Avenue in Berkeley. But the goose is relatively well behaved. He walks along, flapping his wings occasionally, and stopping for attention when he gets it, which is basically all the time.

Shortly before I took this photo, for instance, this woman was just totally freaking out about the goose, shrieking and giggling at him. The goose used the opportunity to stare at his reflection in the very shiny black car behind him and practice flapping his wings.

Occasionally the goose gets excited and takes off at this sort of wiggling run down the street. At which point his owner also takes off at a wiggling run behind him. Unbelievable.

Bird #2 is a new addition; I first noticed him a couple of weeks ago, hanging in his bamboo cage from a street sign:

This isn't that unusual; I love going to parks in China and seeing old men hanging out with each other and with their birds in bamboo cages. However, when I went up to take a closer look at this bird, I heard someone say "ni hao" to me in this gruff Beijing accent. I looked around for an old man, but there was no one there! I've seen the bird a couple of times since then but he hasn't talked to me since.

Friday, April 16, 2010

English lessons

Many of you have probably heard me complain about the fact that foreigners in China get asked the same list of 7-10 ten questions by virtually everyone they meet: "What country are you from?" "Are you accustomed to eating Chinese food?" "Why is your Chinese so good?" "What do you think of China?" "Do you know how to use chopsticks?" "How much money do you make?" "How much is your rent?" The list is so consistent from person to person and from region to region that it led me to wonder whether Chinese textbooks contain a standard list of questions to ask foreigners (this seems not to be the case).

Even though I know that people mean to be nice, having the same conversation anywhere between five and fifty times a day gets grating. But today I think I hit a new low: having The Conversation with my masseuse.

I decided to treat myself to a massage at a very nice spa in Beijing this afternoon as a reward for finishing a pretty busy week and getting some good dissertation-funding news yesterday (more noodle adventures in the hinterland next year!). I had heard that Bodhi was very nice, and indeed it was--clean, quiet, beautiful. I particularly enjoyed my complimentary post-massage cantaloupe lassi. The massage was good, too--for the first forty minutes or so.

Then the talking started. When I get a massage, I expect to be kneaded and pulled on but not chatted with. "Does this hurt?" is fine. "What country are you from?" Not fine. I answered the standard questions about where I was from and what I was doing in Beijing as briefly as I could to try to cut off further conversation. But then the conversation took an odd turn:

"Sorry to bother you, but could you teach me how to say your country's name in English?"
I told the masseuse. He practiced saying 'America.' I told him his pronunciation was good.

"Sorry to bother you, but what continent is America in? Is it in Europe?"
"No, it's in North America. Canada and Mexico are also in North America."

"Sorry to bother you, but how do you say North America in English?"

Not exactly the relaxing experience I was looking for, but sort of oddly charming anyway. At least he didn't ask how much money I make.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Beijing bicycles

Busy week! My time is starting to fill up with interviews and early preparation for the next phase of my research (two months or so in southwestern China, exact locations TBD), and I'm hoping to make the rather long trek to the National Library at least two times this week to frantically photocopy some resources I've found so that I can use them when I'm back in the States. I'm also hoping to check out to the National Archives, although I'm not sure how useful its resources will be for me. So not much time for noodles or blogging. In lieu of a noodle post, here are some photos I took last week.

Incidentally, it just took me a minute or two to figure out that lieu is neither liu (刘) nor lu (路). I worry at times that China does terrible things to my command of my native tongue.

Cars are beginning to rule the roads, at least in Beijing--I'm constantly infuriated by the way car ownership entitles drivers to ignore traffic laws, pedestrians, etc.--and especially so when the car in question is a luxury brand! Although, to be fair, traffic seems less chaotic than it did a couple of years ago when the private car ownership boom was really beginning to take off here.

Nonetheless, bicycles--both traditional and motorized ones--remain a fixture here, as do pedicabs, bicycle carts, etc. I'm always amazed by their variety, their occasional wackiness, and especially the ones that look like they've been around since 1949. Here are some examples. This one was one in a long row of bikes that were blown over on a windy day. There were even some shattered mirrors on the sidewalk from motorcycles that got blown over.

The photo doesn't do justice to the weirdly floral design of this bike:

And this one takes the prize for seniority and battered-ness:

Friday, April 2, 2010

NOTD #6: shou gan mian (hand-rolled noodles)

First of all, the best thing about Easter: The Washington Post peeps diorama contest. Check out the photos here.

And now back to noodles. One of the things that makes noodle exploration in Beijing so fun--and probably the only thing that makes it possible to have a whole blog devoted almost entirely to noodles--is the tremendous variety of ways that noodles are made. In the States, Chinese noodles are almost always the spaghetti-like noodles usually labeled lo mein noodles. Here there are mian pian (square noodles a bit bigger than postage stamps), shou la mian (hand pulled noodles), knife-cut noodles, noodles created by flicking a single chopstick against a ball of dough...the list goes on and on.

Probably my favorite of these many types are called shou gan mian, or hand-rolled noodles. The dough is first rolled out like pie dough, then cut into thick strips about a third of an inch wide.

They are chewier and less uniform in size than hand-pulled noodles. Often served with slivers of cucumber and black bean sauce, at restaurants that specialize in shou gan mian you order a bowl of noodles and then choose a topping from a long list.

Or, if you are really hungry and really like noodles and can't decide which topping you want, you order four of them:

(Counterclockwise from top left: eggplant with pork, green beans, tomato with scrambled egg, green peppers with pork)

Then you mix your topping with your noodles and eat it all as quickly as possible. No photos--that part went by too quickly.