Rants & Raves

Tokyo Marathon

clip_image002What a great experience.  First some context, a marathon is 26+ miles, or 42.165 km.  I ran my first and only other marathon in Los Angeles 2 years ago, with my brother Andy and friend Adam Brownstein, and while the experience was ultimately fantastic/wonderful, that race was a ball buster because of a surprisingly warm March 4 in Los Angeles, with temperatures over 80 degrees on the race course (the street reflects heat back up in your face!)  In that race, despite training very hard for many months and feeling physically ready, i hit the proverbial “wall” very early in the race, at about mile 17, and suffered a combination of heat fatigue and cramping as we limped along at my reduced capacity, finishing in a 4:32:00 or so time, well beyond our stated goal of 4:00:00 or less.

So, fast forward two years and here i am in Asia, and it occurs to me that it would be a good experience to try to run another marathon, to achieve my lifelong goal/ambition to do a sub 4:00:00 marathon (i had trained twice for the San Francisco Marathon, when I was in my 20s and weighed a good 25-30 pounds less than I do today, and despite being in great running shape, both times I was sidelined by illness or injury in the very weeks leading up to the race 😦 ).  The problem is, as you might have guessed, that the Beijing air is absolutely, beyond belief, god *awful* and no outdoor training would be possible… and certainly i would not want to run an actual marathon in most major chinese cities.  There is an intriguing “great wall marathon” which includes a large section on the great wall, but that course is not the kind of course i could aim to break 4hrs on, given the ridiculous altitude changes, and unsteady surface of running on the wall.  So while in tokyo on a business trip, i stumbled upon the fact that the Tokyo marathon was being held March 22nd in 2009, and i valiantly entered into the lottery to see if I could get a slot.  Apparently, 260,000+ people applied for a chance to run this year, and I was one of the lucky folks to be awarded a position in the race, making me one of 35,000 privileged runners on race day today.


When I got the notification in october that I had been selected, i immediately told myself “well, that settles it, i HAVE to run…”, as the slot was awarded to me and divine providence was weighing in.  The problem, is that for the entire month of October and much of November, i was suffering from a really bad/painful plantar wart on my right foot, and running exacerbated the pain, leading to me having a pronounced limp and eventually not being able to walk at all!  It was exactly while I was in this condition that I got my notice… so while I knew i must train/run, i had to first attend to a series of painful cryo-surgeries (freezing) on my foot, which further debilitated me for a good 6 weeks.  It wasn’t thus, until December, that I finally could start running regularly, giving me just Dec/Jan/Feb and early march, 3 months, to get into marathon shape.

So, with a real sense of urgency, i through myself religiously into training, on TREADMILLS in our house/basement, at our Villa complex’s gym, and at hotel gym’s as i travelled to Korea, Tokyo, London, Paris, Munich, and Redmond USA.  In my entire training, i did only 4 runs outside on cement, 2 in beijing (after days when it had rained and temporarily cleared the air and revealed the blue sky) and in San Francisco, where i tested myself on a 18 mile course that Adam Dawes and I had run together back in the 90s as we trained together for the San Francisco Marathon (which I never ran as mentioned earlier).

image The treadmill routine turned out to be very interesting.  Running on a treadmill can be BORRING beyond belief, especially when i was regularly spending 60-90 minutes a day, sometimes 4 days in a row, and on my long weekend runs, 2-3hrs at a time on the machines.  Some of my friends who run a lot and who have done marathon’s were incredulous when I shared this regimen, mostly out of absolute amazement that I could put up with the monotony.  I passed the time by listening to the exact same playlist on my ipod, day after day, week after week, forming a intentionally repetitive cycle for my workouts.  A friend in the US asked me what was on  my playlist, here’s the basic gist:

  • Minute by Minute – Michael McDonald;  this is a great track to just warm up to/get loose.  The chorus of “minute by minute” reminding me of the temporal challenge of what awaits
  • These Words Are My Own – a totally cheesy track from Natashia Beningford, who i otherwise never listen to but for some reason this song get’s me loose/fired up
  • Let’s Get Retarded – Black Eyed Peas; note, this is NOT “Let’s Get It STARTED”, the lame retooling of the same song to make it radio friendly and which had chart topping success, rather, i prefer the original with its edge
  • Hey Ya – Outkast; love, it…
  • Star Guitar – The Chemical brothers; this kicks off a more techno oriented 90 minutes of tracks, which is the bulk of my many runs since I less frequently made it into the 2hr+ times
  • Alive 2007 – Daft Punk; this live album, 80 minutes long, of awesome techno/beat music, is my muse.  The music and I have come a long way together, with so many runs listening to this stuff, i’ve come to love it like religion.
  • PDA – Interpol; this was a late addition to the playlist, as I only learned  of this song/group in the last month or so, while playing RockBand2 with the family on the Wii.  It is a great song, and today when it came on, at the 20km mark on the track (approximately half way), it brought a big, silly, sh*t grin to my face.
  • A few songs from Gnarles Barkley’s second album, then follow, before dumping me into the complete Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd.  This Floyd comes during the beginning of the “DARK” period of the run, entering the phase called “the wall” at mile 18-22 or so.  In training when I did my long runs, i just focused on getting past this album to the song that came after it, which would bring me to 3hrs and that’s plenty during training.
  • The playlist continues, of course, all the way to 4:20:00 or so (in cae I have another bad experience and need some music to get me over the finish line past 4hrs).  However, i built the playlist back in december and never heard it till today, which brought many uplifting/music inspired positive moments during the hardest last hour of the run.

So, the treadmill and my iPod playlist were the entire training program, and until today during the real run it was har
d to know how exactly that kind of training would translate into a real road race.  The
treadmill is bouncier than cement, and on a positive note it spared my feet some of the damage that I took 2 years ago, when my feet were pretty much trashed for as much as 6 months after the run (the usual, toes swollen, toenails fell off, etc.—par for the course for long distance runners).  On a positive, it seemed like the monotony of the treadmill would get me into really good mental condition—on race day there is all kinds of things to look at, thousands of people, good crowds, music and revelry… it seemed coming into the race that those distractions, coupled with my Buddha-like ability to mark off the hours while staring at a wall or a mirror in the gym, would make for a happy mental/emotional day on race day.  However, the lingering worry was of course that the hard cement would beat my bones/joints and that the lack of training for that would leave me wounded/defeated mid course on race day.

The happy news is that treadmill training was AWESOME preparation—the mental edge i had was incredible, with the race literally zooming by; i was OUT OF MY BODY and my MIND for most of the race.  That came because of my beloved treadmills.  And as for the cement, yes, i’m beat up, but I now think that any road running is just damaging, not something that per se develops a tolerance/resilliance to the pounding; so i feel like by using the treadmill as much as I did, i actually spared myself injury and stress during training, and today on the race course I handled the 42.165km relatively effortlessly (more on that in a sec!)

So, couple of thoughts about this event in particular: the Japanese are amazing at organizing and structuring things, as anyone who has visited this marvelous country knows.  The starting blocks were so well organized, it made the LA Marathon starting line look like it was run by a motley crew of high school students/amateurs.  In Los Angeles, it took nearly 25 minutes from when the starting gun was fired, to when i crossed the starting line, and we were in the middle of the pack (by comparison, the LA race had only 24k runners, Tokyo today 35k).  Today, i’m pretty sure all 35k of the runners had crossed the startline within 10 minutes of the gun being fired, my group in approximately 4 minutes.  The course was really well maintained/marked, there was lots of volunteers everywhere, porta potties, fluids and food.  Spectacular—really an amazing world class event (as should be expected of this great city); interestingly, Tokyo is trying to get the summer Olympics in 2016, and it is said that this metropolitan marathon in many ways is done in order to show that it has the stuff to organized such activities in the middle of the metro area.  The subways handled all the traffic, as the city was basically shut down to cars throughout the morning, and when i took the subway home after the finish line, everything was humming along.


Ok, so the race… here are some thoughts:

  • There were thousands of people around me the entire day.  The course is relatively narrow, so for the entire first 40km or so, it was wall to wall people, and I constantly had to be on the lookout to not trip on someone or trip someone in front of me.  This made for a exhilarating, if stressful, RACE like feeling.  I never felt alone out there, and kept pace with 3 or 4 guys that i saw during most of the 2nd half, who either would pass or be passed by me as we clearly ran a very similar time/pace.
  • The constant attention to the people around me, so as to not trip, kept me focused/distracted, as did the routine of getting fluids and downing my 5 packs of GU fluids (a syrup of brown rice, in a little silver pack, that gives the body much needed calories and energy throughout the race, when i probably burned as much as 3,500+ calories.)  That, and my ipod routine, kept me largely IN THE ZONE, or better said, OUT OF MY HEAD.  i have impressionistic memories of the first 3 hrs, but basically, it was as if in a dream, and shot by in no time at all
  • I was running a blazing pace, faster than any of my training runs.  I had really good energy, and was able to sprint around people and really dig in.  Most exciting to me and something that really lifted my spirits, is that at the dreaded 32km mark, i really felt good, and i was able to push through all the way to km 37 or so before I really felt any fatigue or "i’m ready for this to be over with already” kind of dread. 
  • I never hit “the wall”, unless you can call the 20mph headwind that blew into us, during the last 3 miles or so, on 2 separate uphill sloaps no less, a wall!  That definitely slowed me significantly, but I kept my arms a pumping, and never walked at all, during the entire race.  I was partly inspired to not walk by the memoir i just finished reading by a famous Japanese novelist and author who is a big runner, Haruki Murakami; i just finished reading the book this very morning, when i woke at 4am and couldn’t go back to sleep, and the words “i never walked, in all of the 20+ races i’ve completed” were with me whenever i considered a short walk to recoup some mojo.
  • The weather was perfect; i ran in shortsleeves, and was never cold, despite the wind and a light rain that came down during the last hour of the race—which was actually very refreshing and i think contributed to my energy levels and confidence (as compared to the heat of Los Angeles, which was my nemesis).
  • Running hard the first 3 hrs was a great decision; rather than acting on fear (of hitting the wall, of running out of juice, of getting cramps) the fast pace gave me tons of confidence, because as I crossed 32km i realized i had a TON of time to make my goal of 4:00:00, and could afford to slow down in the last miles to a much slower pace if necessary—this was a great, great mental edge.  Basically, i knew that as long as I didn’t get injured/cramps, i was going to get to my goal of 4hrs, so it became more about how much I was going to smash the time, not whether i would/could.
  • The last 5km i was following some celebrity dude the whole way; i have no idea who he was, but there was a camera crew following him the whole time, and whenever the bystanders saw him and realized who it was, they would do a double-take and then go absolutely bonkers.  The girls in particular, some would follow along for a hundred meters screaming hysterically.  He looked like an average joe, not a athlete or musician, but who knows… maybe i’ll show up in some photos with him as I was right next to him at times.  Being close to celebrity gave me some nice bonus energy.
  • I knew from the course layout that the last 5km had some uphill spots, mostly bridges that we had to run over as we traversed bodies of water in Tokyo bay.  These were indeed brutal, bringing me to a slow pace and making me pump my arms HARD, with the added full frontal (20mph per weather report) headwind…. fun!

So, most of interest in the whole experience was the finish line experience.  The whole last 3km or so i was feeling a little bit of cramping coming on in my right leg, so I was not really pushing hard, rather, just trying to stay loose and not get stopped by a bad cramp attack which would have made me loose time for stretching, or worse, make finishing in 4hr a lost cause.  The last 165 meters are so are after a dog right turn, so you know you are close, but can’t see the finish line as you round.  When I did come around the corner, and saw
the finish line so close, i st
arted to get really emotional.  I was looking around in the stands, and all around me, for some sort of connection with the people around me, but it was just 10s of thousands of Japanese nationals.  I stated to get really emotional, and after crossing the finish line, and for the next 10 minutes after that as I hobbled around through the detox process (hand in your race chip, get your medal, get a finisher’s towel, oranges and bananas, water, pick up your stuff, change and stretch) i was really really emotional.  I never totally lost it, but basically i was on the verge of breaking down into uncontrolled sobs.  It was just such an elation, such a momentous achievement, the completion of a lifelong dream to finish in such a great time… and I had NOBODY to share the moment with.  I thought of cristina and the kids, of my runner friends, of all the people i wanted to share my happiness with, but I just felt totally ALONE, surrounded by strangers.  I looked around for an american to share the moment with, someone to hug or say “great job” or something, but it just wasn’t the right crowd; the few american’s I did see were usually with friends, or women, and I didn’t want to break down and freak anyone out.  I eventually talked to a Navy guy who was changing/stretching near me, and we shared a little moment, but by then the emotion had subsided and I kept myself together.


So, here’s the news: I ran a sub 3:50:00 time; i won’t know for sure for another day probably.  My race time was 3:52:02, but that doesn’t account for the fact that I didn’t cross the startline until at least 3 or 4 minutes after the gun… so I may have done as well as 3:48:00.  To put that in perspective, that’s nearly 45 minutes faster than Los Angeles.  I completely, utterly, smashed my goal, and I did it while feeling strong and able all the way through.  In fact, i know I actually could have left even more of that out there on the track—if not for fear of cramping/etc., i probably could have even done low 3:40s.  Alas, nothing to regret, it was an AMAZING race… truly a highlight of life on earth, and definitely the completion of a life long dream, which stated back in 1993 or so when I trained for my first marathon, with a “sub 4hr” goal.  To have achieved that, in my late 30s… wow, awesome!

Update June 1 2009 – I finally received my final time, via snail mail routed to the USA and then to China: 3:46:16!


Rants & Raves

Loaded Weapon

I’m sitting here in my 22nd floor room at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo, looking out on the horizon where I see looming rain clouds approaching the city, a view that otherwise would reveal lovely Mount Fuji in the distance.  I’ve been up since 6, but awake since 4am or so when my dreams became too vivid and i passed between the sleeping world into the present one.  Today is Tokyo Marathon day.

The thought I’ve had all week while in tokyo is that “i’m a loaded weapon”—in so far that as i’ve done small 5km runs to stay loose throughout the week, i’ve felt each and every time like i was holding back on pulling the trigger.  Months of training have gotten me very accustomed to 60 to 90 minute runs as the norm (10-17km or so), so doing just 5km has felt like taking a bite of a yummy piece of pie, but not being able to fully enjoy.  It sounds overly self-confident to say it, but I really do feel like a race horse that is being held back from sprinting into a gallop.

Yesterday my friend and colleague in Tokyo, together with his wife and lovely baby daughter, took me out to the horse racetrack for the day; it is the first time i’ve ever been to the race track.  The horses were so fast, i was amazed; it made me think of being a foot soldier in battle in the Andes, perhaps as a Inca, being chased down by those horses carrying men with spears and guns on their backs.  The ferocity of those animals, all ripped and sculpted for the express purpose of running fast….

So while I don’t think of myself as a race stallion per say, i do feel like my training has gotten me as prepared physically as I am ever going to get at this point; and mentally, i feel very at peace and ready for the adventure of the day.  As I listen to Bjork on my headphones here in my room, and peer down onto the street, i can see some of the other 35,000 souls who will be pounding the concrete with me this morning. 

Rants & Raves

Feathering the Nest

In the past, the term “developing country” just seemed to me a p.c. euphemism for “third world.” It indicated in an abstract way that the country’s economy was in flux but inching its way up to whatever.

But being in a developing country is cool, because you literally see everything developing with your own eyes. Before the olympics, construction crews clocked endless hours and the city underwent extreme makeover.  Then everyone went home and the magnificent stadiums sit dormant until someone makes a plan for them. Then the world economy crashed and everyone pulled up on their reigns.  A bunch of  “luxury malls” that went up last year are sadly under-occupied.

The bubble may have burst, but there’s still water in the tub. Beijingers seem to still have faith in their own local economies—helped, I’m sure–by the national government’s commitment to a bazillion dollar stimulus package similar to Obama’s.  A bike ride around my neighborhood reveals many projects literally in the works. The little dusty hutong neighborhoods haven’t ceased building, renovating, reinforcing structures, especially in our neck of the woods where the neighborhoods have room to grow. I wonder what these villages will become in 5 more years.  New subway lines are slated, ground being cleared, old business fronts refurbished, shop signs becoming more permanent. And the next “lifestyle center” i.e. mall is pressing forward, albeit at a much slower speed then before.

I’m looking on a micro-level of course.  Big company friends operate in a state of encroaching crisis. But personal economics work very differently here in China. Individuals are not as invested in the stock market.  People do not consume using credit.  If you want an expensive car, camera or coat, you pay cash. If you don’t have the cash, you don’t have those things. The people that are sweating it are the poor folks that work in factories making stuff that Westerners realize they don’t need anymore.

This weekend, the convention center held an expo on interior design and decorative finishes. The area was packed with cars. 

Building your nest, whether it is an Olympic stadium, a 2 story house, or a place for kids to play in your community seems to be an important part of life and emotional balance. We’re all developing that way.

Rants & Raves

My Mandarin Rocks!!!

I don’t look at our blog that much, since many blogs are blocked here in China, including ours. I can only access it at Forest’s office. But reviewing it recently, it occurred to me that I haven’t blogged in a long time about our language skills. Since so many family members have marvelled at our astounding fluency, I felt no compelling need to boast about it in writing. But today I do feel like bragging.

My Mandarin ROCKS!!!!

Allow me to qualify. It rocks to anyone who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, it rocks to anyone who needs help bargaining prices, it rocks to the Chinese who only expect foreigners to be able to say "ni hao" (hello). Hell, my "ni hao" accent is so good that Chinese compliment my Mandarin prowess based on that alone. Which often invites trouble, because when locals start jabbering in Chinese after giving me props on my basic proficiency, I feel like such a turd following up with a lame "shenme???" (what, or, huhhh?).

I’ve studied twice a week for 2 hours a session privately with a Beijinger since I moved here 17 months ago. Only conversation, not writing or reading. I can navigate typical situations quite well: Taxis, shopping, shooting the shit, housekeepers, restaurants, etc. My comprehension suffers due to lack of non-English speaking Chinese buddies to practice with. Outside of the classroom, I do have excellent conversations while getting foot massages with Forest or some friends: I get a captive audience of 2 or more young Chinese with lots of questions about me, happy to share general info about their own lives, where they come from, what they think of Beijing. Chinese people don’t take offense to personal questions, so it makes for interesting exchanges. Sometimes the miscommunication leads to hearty laughs on both sides.

Chinese folks don’t expect foreigners to speak much Chinese, but they don’t hold back their amusement when you mangle words. And when the wrong tones obscure your meaning a little, even if the context seems perfectly clear, people will often stare like you landed from Mars. I still have a hard time with the word for English, which sounds a lot like the word for sing, so I guess I don’t blame someone for being befuddled when a perfect stranger approaches them asking "Do you say sing?" But given that I am clearly a Westerner, would it be such a stretch to guess what I’m asking? Maybe they think I’m auditioning them for American Idol.

Forest befriended an Argentinian fluent in English and Chinese. He offered extremely valuable wisdom: if you speak quickly enough, people will gather your meaning even if your tones are wrong. Which has been a really useful tactic since my Chinese is basically toneless. Luckily, I have managed to memorize a decent amount of vocabulary. But another weird thing happens sometimes–people expect me to speak in English, so they don’t listen for familiar Chinese words–they try to comprehend my funky Mandarin as if it was English, racking their brain to place such strange vocabulary. It happens to me the other way too. But so many Chinese people speak good English that it happens less.

Considering that we may not be in China for more then a half year, the returns on my time invested in learning Chinese are diminishing. If we stay for more then another year, logically I would progress into reading and writing to gain basic literacy. That way, I could become bold enough to go to a really local restaurant without pictures on the menu, and could maybe read the propaganda banners around town. I am always on the verge of quitting classes. And then I learn one new word or form of grammar that sheds a light on one interaction or another, and it becomes worthwhile.

Carlos gets an hour a day in school, and he can write and read some. This also means he gets to appreciate the depth, poetry and ancient beauty in Mandarin that is lost to me. He understands a lot of what our housekeepers say to him, although he seems to get the Anhui accent more then the Shandong accent…don’t know how he would do with Beijingers. But Carlos being Carlos, we hear nary a word from him, unless we are in the next room with our ear to a glass at the wall. We often wonder if we should have put him in a more rigorous program, but I figure that if he really wants to speak Chinese someday, he’ll have a little key in the back of his brain that will help him unlock it. He’ll know it’s possible. Caetano only speaks a bizarre pidgin style Mandarin-English hybrid, but learns little kindergarten level words and songs. And a couple of good insults. Not really what I envisioned, but we all get what we need.

Rants & Raves

Malaysia Spring Break (Chinese New Year)

Forest says:

Well, it has been so long since either of us posted to our blog, i feel obliged to say something about our recent trip to Malaysia for Chinese New Year.  Kuala Lumpur was a trip: small city, very green and lush, no mosquitoes issues (YES!), and the malls were amazing. Yes, sad but true, we spent both days in KL just going from mall to mall, shopping, checking out children’s museums, and eating yummy spicy gravy saucey goupey food… oh, and the Petronas Towers were really surprisingly gorgeous and pretty, not just tall.


KL bookended our trip to the island of Langkawi, about 45 minutes flight up the coast, basically on the Thailand border.  The island itself was lovely, with lots of jungle and wilderness, and surprisingly little development, despite being the #1 tourist destination in the country.  Our first hotel was a bust however, a older property, on a crummy backpacker haven beach called Pelangi.  We made the most of it, but it felt a lot like being in Tijuana or some other border town… Cristina and I had dinner one night out in the town, and had the pleasure of walking the length of the main strip, dodging open sewer holes every 25ft or so… literally.  When we found a restaurant to sit down at, we couldn’t stop laughing at the surrounding crowd of mostly white, young, unshowered backpackers—reminded me of myself 20 years ago; what I couldn’t figure out is how they could afford to be in this town, which despite being pretty darn low-end, was still pretty pricy when it came to food… i fondly remember having $1 meals back when I travelled with my buddy Adam Dawes through South East Asia in 1993, but at these restaurants the cheapest in and out was going to be $10 or so.
After 2 nights in Pelangi we were inspired and moved to another property, called the Andaman, on the opposite side of the island, 30 minutes from the nearest town.  This place was cheaper actually than our first hotel, but absolutely fantastic/gorgeous, with a private beach, a great swimming pool, and a family friendly room set up with 2 trunk beds in the room (family of 2+2 expected in every room i guess).  The weather all week was absolutely perfect, not too humid, in the mid 80s, with blue skies and a few puffy white cumulus clouds.  We snuck in a Mangrove boat tour, swam on some little offshore islands, and generally had a totally chill time.  Fun watching the kids spend 10 hours in one day in the pool, going up and down the slide in the pool over and over and over and over and over again.  Wonder if they will remember this vacation, or only the photos of themselves with gleeful smiles on their faces.
We saw a bunch of monkeys in the wilderness, that was cool too…


And Cristina adds:

Malaysia is a Muslim country, and while we didn’t do anything cultural in KL, like visit the Islamic Arts museum, just going to the big, rich, trendy malls actually gave us a very full cultural experience.  KL has a lot of wealth from oil (the PETRO in Petronas), so there seems an endless amount of malls.  So logically we spent a lot of time in them. The food court a smorgasbord of regional cuisine, the kid’s dinosaur museum very modern and interactive, the people an endless parade of Malaysian social and religious profiles.  Young couples on holiday fasinated me: women in black veil and shroud, with delicate henna tattoos covering their hands and feet, peeking out of designer shoes, or dressed in very smart fashionable clothes with muslim twist: caps on men, women with elaborately trimmed shawls. I liked seeing teenage girls with blingy head scarves and tight jeans. Most of the Malay women had head scarves elegantly wrapped just so, with some jeweled pin to secure it.  It always matched and accented the rest of their clothes. Occasionally, a little hair would peak out.  Sometimes women had an pre-wrapped scarf with a little visor on their head.
Forest and I debated whether or not the veil was any more oppressive then wearing a bra or shaving for men in the West. I thought that when the men or women were traveling without the opposite sex, their manner seemed extremely modest and serious. Except for the wacky Malay teenage boys with their crazy trendy urban dress and silly behavior.  But when women were with men, they definitely seemed more animated, happy, comfortable and proud.
We also though it interesting to see so many “she-males.” I guess in a culture with very strict mores about gender roles, it’s easier to get away with just switching to the other side completely rather than be a swishy guy. The she-males often worked in women’s retail stores in all their glamorous glory.
Oh, yeah, one more thing compelling us to stay in the Malaysian Mall:  the best bookstore in the world: Kinokuniya, a Japanese “Borders”, in KL caters to Chinese, Malay and English speaking customers.  I didn’t get nearly enough time in there, but it had the best selection of graphic novels and comics, which I’ve happily gotten the boys hooked on. I highly recommend Lulu.

Rants & Raves

Chinese Wedding

Forest and I had the honor of attending a Microsoft colleague’s wedding! It was a great cultural mashup, starting with the email invitation arriving one week before the date and casual dresscode.  We were told only the bride and groom needed to dress up.  I didn’t believe it, such absurdity went against all my Latina instincts; I wore a skirt and heels and felt ridiculous.  I should have heeded our Chinese friend’s advice and not my mother’s wisdom about erring on overdressing versus underdressing. No big deal, worse faux pas have been committed at weddings, including by me, at my own wedding.

Anyway, the wedding was in the ballroom of a big Yunnanese hotel. The floral centerpieces were beautiful and the table settings included a bottle of wine, a jug of Chinese liquor (beijiu, strong rice wine) and a plate of cigarettes. We gave a wedding party member our red envelope stuffed with 888 kuai (lucky number). We sat with Forest’s buddy and his family.  After the guests settled in, the bride and groom entered to much fanfare and camera flash. I think there were like 3 videographers and 2 photographers. Jijia, the groom wore a suit, she a beautiful white dress, Western style.  He had prepared an outstanding multimedia presentation chronicling their childhood and then courtship.  The two spent a long time in long-distance relationships as they both worked overseas after college.  Much of the history was lost on us as we only got a bit of translation. But it was fun to see the pictures. Also, Jijia created an incredible design using parts of their names and a symbol that looked like a bird in flight. This was incorporated into much of the day’s decoration, signage and party favors.

Ceremony was simple and secular.  An old family friend delivered a speech and some homilies.  Mother of the bride wrote a beautiful poem, recited by the father.  The young couple borrowed a Western tradition of jointly cutting a huge frilly multi-tiered cake and posing for a picture with knife in hand. Our friends’ little boy was excited about that part, but after later investigation, he reported that the cake was fake! The last part of the ceremony was my favorite.  The two sets of parents served tea to the couple, and the bride and groom drank tea with their new in-laws and officially started calling them "mother" and "father." I thought it was a nice ritual of bringing new relatives together.

Our Chinese friends told us that modern weddings are mostly made up from scratch, borrowing from Western and Chinese traditions.  Weddings of this fashion are pretty new in China. Before Mao, weddings were arranged by families and brides whisked off to become the groom’s family property, so I’ve read in American fiction! But since the revolution, until the recent economic boom, marital unions have by necessity been a modest and pragmatic affair. I identify with the urge to embrace cultural traditions while trying to express ourselves in a modern way. Is cutting a fake cake any more or less hollow then a wedding ceremony conducted in "Cat in the Hat" cadence, or having dad "give away" a financially and socially independent woman?

After the guests started feasting on such delicious courses (really!) as fermented tofu, sea cucumber soup, goose liver, chicken feet, beef and garlic fried rice, roasted meats and other goodies, the bride changed into a traditional red Chinese dress, and the couple went around with their parents toasting the guests at each table.   Most of the family is in the North of China, and a ceremony was already performed there.  This reception was mostly to include one of the parents military buddies, party comrades, and the couple’s local Beijing college classmates and work colleagues. Like any wedding the world over, it was fun, full of hope and promise, and a few of dad’s drunk buddies.

Rants & Raves

Going home… to China

I’ve been traveling like a mad man these last couple of weeks, and hobbling through my ongoing foot injury/problem, not to mention nurturing a nasty “beijing lung” (a cough that spews green phlegm, that i just can’t shake).

In the past 5 weeks I’ve been in Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, San Francisco, Redmond, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt.  I’m so sick of traveling, i don’t think i want to get on a plane again, at least not till next year!

So it is with great pleasure that i now contemplate, from the Frankfurt airport, that i get to go “home” to Beijing.

Rants & Raves

What I tell folks considering moving to China

I get a lot of friend’s of friends emailing me re: “we are thinking of moving to china, what can you tell me” and I thought I would publish some of those thoughts to our blog so that in future I can just point people to this entry!

  • Cristina and I arrived not speaking a word of Chinese. It is difficult to get around in taxis and restaurants without Chinese, but you can stick to English speaking/western friendly places the first few months while you take some language classes. My wife and I now both speak passable conversation Chinese, and certainly enough for ordering food, getting around taxis, haggling at markets, etc. the language is a blast to learn, and not impossible at all (we didn’t learn to read mind you, just speak). We both did 3 hrs a week with a private tutor for several months, fyi, but there are group classes as well.  Learning chinese has easily been one of the highlights of my adult life, great fun, great intellectual challenge, great window to gaze through into this amazing culture.
  • Beijing city has two major expat areas as far as living: Chaoyang district, downtown skyscraper condos, or Shunyi, which are “villas” (houses) in compounds. We live in Shunyi because of our kids school, as do most families with kids that are here attending one of the two major international schools that Americans flock to: WAB and ISB (our boys at WAB, both school are fantastic). Living in Shunyi is fine, but it is pretty much the sticks, with very few restaurants and activities outside of the school and the housing compounds—about 15 minutes by car to the city which isn’t bad. Chaoyang would be a blast, and if we didn’t have young kids we would have gone for that immediately, great place to live, in the middle of a great big cosmopolitan city.
  • There are a ton of public parks here that are lovely and full of nice walks, boating, and rides/carnival games for kids, so a lot of our weekends consist of “brunch in the city and outing to some park or other”. We also have lots of kid social things like baseball, swimming classes, etc., so a lot of our lives revolve around the kid rhythm. I have some friends here who are single/swingers and they are expats, happy to hook you up with them for more feedback on that scene if that is more your thing… word is that the club scene is great, lots of students in town, and plenty of upscale swinging type sophisticate childless adults to cavort with.
  • Restaurants are awesome… this is a food lovers dream. So many restaurants, all kinds of food. A lot of our outings in the evenings without kids revolve around trying new food joints.
  • Cost of domestic help is very very low, so you’ll likely have a fulltime maid to help with house and or kids, not necessarily live-in unless you want that (we don’t). we also have a driver for our car. Ballpark for these fulltime staff is about $200-300 USD each… so factor that in to your experience, it is a big change from the USA to have domestic support like that (and it can be really great!). My wife and I go out at least 1 night a week, sometimes 3 times, leaving the kids at home.
  • There is great arts scene, theater, live music, lots of galleries and lots of modern art. When you are here, go to visit the “798 Art Community”, a section of town where old factories have been turned into about 100+ private small art galleries… great scene, great stuff going on—there is a real palpable vitality to the place/city.
  • We have internet and broadband at home, as does everyone (biggest internet community in the world, here in china) and therefore a lot of our “media” comes from the web. We have TV and cable at home but don’t watch (we aren’t tv people). Movies in theaters is not a big thing here, in the USA we would see on average 5 movies in theaters a month, here we have seen 2 in 1 year. However, DVDs are $1 each and plentiful, so we get DVDs of recent films we can’t see in theaters, and get TV shows that way as well (just watched the Mad Men series this week, enjoyed). We sometimes read the ChinaDaily, the communist party propaganda paper, it is fascinating (in english) and challenges all of our assumptions about “freedom of speech” which is billed to us in the US (hint: we are far leaning leftists politically and socially, and can’t stand our current administration).
  • Shopping for food: there is a series of grocery stores that cater to expats with products that only foreigners want (eg: peanut butter, tortillas, pace picante sauce, corn flakes, etc.)—one is called Jenny Lu’s, we shop there near our house (3 min walk) and the other obvious one is french conglomerate Carrefour, which is a mad house but has everything.
  • Health: there are western doctors at various western focused clinics, we go to Beijing United, good stuff; dentist here has better equipment and more modern training than our dentists in the US. If we had emergency of any kind and had to go to hospital in beijing we would have no concern, all the doctors are American or Canadian expats. If we were in countryside, however, that’s another story…
  • Shanghai sucks (relative to beijing)—it is a big bright shining exciting city, but it has no soul. We almost moved there instead of beijing, we are SOOO glad we came to beijing. This place is FULL of amazing history and art, and surrounded by thousands of years of historical towns/etc. Shanghai is a 100 year old port city with a strong western influence—nice place to visit, and certainly a viable option, but I’m a big beijing promoter J
  • Rest of China rocks: we do periodic tours/outings with the kids and without to various parts of china; we have been here a year and have seen Xian, Guilin, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Lijiang, Shangrila, and various beijing suburbs. We are just scratching the surface. The country is great to travel across, good accommodations, cheap! A good 3 star hotel in a town might run $40-50 a night; a 4-5 star hotel in a 2nd tier city will be $100 USD. Food in smaller cities is cheap, great food is everywhere.
  • Negatives: the air pollution is really really bad. Traffic at rush hour can be nasty. That’s the only two negatives. I stay off roads at rush hour, and we have swiss made air purifiers in our home throughout the house and we keep them on 24hrs a day (as do many expats) to address the air pollution. I lived in Santiago Chile for many years and got very ill from the air there several times, have not had trouble of that kind here. But I wouldn’t want to live in this city for more than 3-4 years just on the air quality concerns.

Summary: People are super friendly. The country is alive, pulsating. Anything is possible, the future is exciting, change is everywhere… This is the center of the social and economic changes that society and the planet are facing in the next 50 years, both in good and bad sense. Being here, living here, you will immediately get it and be wiser about the world as a result. It is an amazing experience, I can’t recommend highly enough.

Rants & Raves

Summer Has Ended (part 2)

we had a hard time getting tickets to events and refused to pay ridiculous scalpers’ prices, but we did get to the Bird’s Nest (the brand new National Olympic Stadium) for track and field.

We got 6 tickets, not together, and left the little kids at home. After our long vacation, I knew they couldn’t hang. All they wanted was to be home with Camila and play. Camila told her mom that she didn’t want to go because “I’m young and I’ll probably get another chance to go to the olympics, and you won’t, so you should go mama.” They turned on TV and looked for us in the stands!

A big rainstorm hit that morning, but knowing it would be hot, we didn’t wear layers. Some of us wore sports jerseys. Nobody brought an umbrella. We took the subway to the Olympic Green, as cars were not allowed near the stadiums. I don’t take the subway much in Beijing, especially during rush hour, and you can probably imagine how intense it was. The mass of people all got off and slowly shuffled as one through an endless tunnel and up a long long flight of stairs to the street. Once at our stop, we paused along with others too tentative to brave the torrential rain to walk 1/3 mile or so to the stadium. A lot of peole went to work or school. Scalpers approached, slyly and silently holding up real or counterfeit tickets, who knows.

At the midway point through our slog, an enterprising old saviour sold us some ponchos and umbrellas. A hundred meters from the stadium at entry point #1, they were giving them away. The bird’s nest, a tangle of steel beams against the cloudy morning sky, stunned me. I’ve never seen so many shades of gray. The atmosphere was dark and ominous, and a perfect backdrop to the severe shadows and angles of the stadium. Beijing’s flat, gray, monumental horizon thrillingly filled my periphery.

The ebulliant stadium workers made the security process joyful and sweet. Everybody was so happy. We found our (covered) seats inside and shared a moment freaking out on the energy, the incredible vibes, excitement and good fortune of being at the olympics. Anyone who loves sports knows the difference seeing action live. The sounds, the crowd, the food.

Oh yes, the food! Not being a huge spectator sport culture, Beijing naturally does concessions “differently” then in the USA. It was 9am, so beer was out of the question for us although there were 3 diffent kinds to choose from and CHEAP. No coffee, since Chinese don’t drink it. No tea either. No hot drinks at all. Okay, we went with coke, since it probably has more caffeine then a bottle of sweet, iced green tea. Hot dogs came roasted on sticks, cool. Kind of missed the bun but no biggie. Candy popcorn, totally yummy for breakfast with coke (not). And a Chinese pastry, which was gross, especially with a bag of meat-flavored potato chips. And that was that, we sampled ALL the offerings of the National Stadium Concessions! But at least it was cheap. And I will never enjoy people elbowing their way to the front of lines, espcially for food when I’m hungry.

The women long distance walkers finished inside the stadium to much fanfare. We were surprised at how tiny the winner is. High jumping women leaped around like Tiggers in brightly colored spandex. The rain didn’t faze them. The men javelin throwers chucked their spears from one end of the stadium to the next, and as part of the decathalon, they sprinted and long jumped too. I’m always so fascinated to see athletes move around with the natural grace and ease of wind through trees. We were right behind the lady high jumpers and it was fun to see each one go through her warm-up rituals. I could see that many were playing out achievement in their minds, some just soothing nerves, others convening with coaches for up to the minute advice.

The Chinese didn’t succeed much in the athletics games, and their star was injured, but the crowd roared with gusto at every little Chinese athlete’s movement, from tying shoes to jumping off the mat. The Chinese fans dominated the scene. I thought that the spectators would be very multi-national, but foreigners were clearly the minority. I didn’t see any other USA fans. But it was nice that regular peeps could get tickets, including an old couple sitting behind me, eager to practice English, learn where we were from, and eat the food they smuggled into the stands. Ah, wisdom.

After taking a bazillion pictures inside the stadium when the events ended, we went out to the Olympic Green, a huge plaza area in between various venues. It felt like being inside the gates of heaven, everybody so blissed out in a state of harmony, peace, reverence and luck. The battle of women’s beach volleyball raged on the world’s largest TV, people trickled in and out of the Water Cube and other indoor stadiums, and the torch burned against the cloudy sky. We left the party behind for some good old fashioned Chinese food.

The Olympic experience didn’t quite end there, because a miracle, fantasy, prayer, vision was manifested through Uncle Forest’s good Guanxi (personal connections). Will and Emilio got to go to the Basketball semi-final double header and see the Redemtion Team live against Argenitina, and Spain vs. Latvia.

One World, One Dream. For weeks we had been singing the ballad “Beijing Huan Ying Ni” (Beijing welcomes you). Our family has gone home, we’re back to work, back to school, and now the olympics are over. What’s next?

Rants & Raves

Summer Has Ended!

Summer officially ended in Beijing last weekend with the Moon Festival, or the Mooncake Festival as Carlos called it. We celebrated Fall’s arrival, the full moon, a drastic change in weather, and unique semi-bland/semi-sweet/sticky/ornately packaged pastries.

The Paralympics will end soon. Many of us don’t pay attention to the games for physically challeged folks, but it’s pretty big deal and very engaging. Stadiums filled up and tickets were hard to get. We caught wheelchair basketball and seated volleyball on TV. Quite a few friends went to games, and wheelchair rugby or “murderball” as it’s known is a favorite. Very impressive athelticism and spirit.

Nothing compares to the world Olympics of course. I think a billion people in China watched the spectaculater opening ceremony on TV. I hope you saw it. The closing ceremony was boring. Too many speeches. And the segment introducing London 2012 Olympics reminded me of Waiting for Guffman. Bad. A great way to make Westerners look like decadent fools.

Beijing stood still for a little while during the games. Half the cars were taken off the road every day, construction ceased, a lot of locals and expat residents got out of town, and the Casanueva family took over the city!

Andy, Laura, Emilio Chico, Will and Camila stayed with us for most of the month and we toured of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Longshen, Guilin and Beijing’s own Ya Show market.

We took off a few days after the opening, so we hit some big sites in town just before the tourists poured in. We joined crowds on Wanjing pedestrian shopping street, watching and cheering the Chinese soccer team, playing on huge jumbotron TVs. Our visit to the Great Wall was “enhanced” by a group of Brazians carrying around a boombox full of samba, waving a big flag and wearing silly outfits.

Walking from the Great Wall to a restaurant down the road, a small group of Chinese boys waved Will and Emilio over for a game of B-ball on their funky little neighborhood court. All of them were thrilled and E was a great ambassador of the sport, giving good tips and letting one little guy take lots of shots. I’m sure it sounds corny, but it was the olympic spirit in action: cross cultural sharing, caring and commuicating through athletics.

On our trip we saw games on TV, and were dismayed that most coverage included China, so the early USA basketball games were missed, but we saw a lot of Michael Phelps, the gymnasts, the Russian pole-vaulter, and gee, I’ve never been so interested in weight-lifting, but I just love those Chinese women medalists!

The party was in full swing when we came back to the city, and we crossed paths with many many athletes in the clothes markets. Andy went to a tattoo parlor and had to get in line behind players from around the world getting inked with olympic rings.

Rants & Raves

Beijing in Party Dress

This blog has been woefully neglected!  No updates in months due to many wonderful visits from family and friends, some trips around China, including Xi’an, Yunnan province, Shangri-La and remote parts of the Great Wall.  We went home to the States—San Francisco and Seattle—for 2 weeks and saw loved ones there. 
After one year in China, I experienced only mild culture shock in the US.  The cities felt so static compared to  Beijing’s constant state of transformation.  I’m used to all the building, erecting, planning, planting, hedging, blooming, booming. 
Now the capital has her party dress on with breath bated for 8-8-08.  Beijing doesn’t have Olympic Fever, but Olympic dreams, and they’ve covered the land like a soft blanket of giddy hope.  A slumber party to last the rest of Summer.  Fresh paint, banners and garden beds Ornament every boulevard and highway and all the parks’ landscapes are buffed, guilded and meticulously landscaped. There’s bustle in the hedgerow.  Bricks and dust have been replaced by glass and modernism with the launch of splashy new buildings.  A rainbow of Olympic signs proclaiming world unity and victory for all cover yesterday’s humdrum billboards hawking condos malls and luxury lifestyles (for few).
The city is not frenetic but serene, like in an Olympic trance.  Maybe it’s just the delicious dry heat of summer that has everyone ambling along.  Nobody knows what Beijing will be like when the party is over, but for now we groove to the rhythm of cicadas clacking, dragonfly wings flapping and of waiting.

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

China’s #1 Web company announces Silverlight plans

Tencent Corporation announced plans to use Silverlight for a series of services and media experiences on their portal and in their client apps.  Tencent is an amazing company, largely unheard of outside of China, but arguably the most potent brand here in China, in the form of "QQ", which is what they call their instant messaging application and a series of related social applications for blogging, media, shopping, etc.  The QQ brand touches over 300m unique users, more people than in all of the United States.  It’s been incredibly exciting for our team to be working with the Tencent team because of the scope of what’s possible for Silverlight in terms of transforming the UX of so many applications types. 

In the demo that they showed publicly this week, along with their announcement of choosing Silverlight for a series of apps coming in the months ahead, they showed Silverlight integrated with their IM client, within their blog app (for embedable media playback controls, screen shot below), with desktop and browser portal home page "friend notification widgets", and with Silverlight 2’s DeepZoom feature applied to e-commerce shopping experience within their Paipai property.

Video of the demo they showed is up on their labs site,, with beta/live Silverlight apps expected this spring/summer.

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

China’s #1 Portal bringing Silverlight Music Experience

When it rains… Sina, another of China’s heavyweight web properties (they are the #1 portal, specializing in news and blogs), announced Silverlight plans and showed a kick ass music search/playback/browsing experience that took inspiration from the "deepzoom" catalog concept seen elsewhere (such as HardRock site) but took it to the next level with awesome interactions, dynamic results that come in from general web search, and integrated media playback.  What was particularly interesting was how quickly they build the app, with their product unit manager claiming that once the visual designs were done, they build the working prototype (with real web service integration) over the weekend!  Extra points for integrating his powerpoint slides into the app itself, as a series of DeepZoom objects in the collection–got a big laugh/"ahh" from the audience at the press event.

Can’t wait to see the app live, expected within a month.  Here’s a video recording of the demo, without audio unfortunately (lots of Chinese pop music playing!)

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

Yahoo! Japan Silverlight Demo

Yahoo! Japan (Japan’s #1 website by unique users and brand impact) demoed a killer UX concept today using Silverlight, a visualization front end for search and tail content that otherwise is hard to navigate/discover across their massive content repository.  Very creative UI concepts, and great integration of some of Silverlight 2’s killer features such as DeepZoom and high def videos.  A video of the demo is posted online: 

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

VOD in Japan with “Gyao Station”

Continuing the theme of Silverlight wins in the region, the Gyao (Japan’s leading VOD portal, owned by USEN, a large film distributor in market) application that went up in February is a nifty mini-portal that culls media options available for playback into a subject/gallery with nice UX.  The app is data driven so Gyao has been very happy using it to program content from their "tail", "new arrival", or "promotion" inventory.  This app is only really viewable/consumable to its fullest when you are within Japan IP address, given the content protection/rights issues associated with a VOD app like this.

Microsoft Silverlight & Expression

Silverlight in Asia

Well life and work sure do take up a lot of time, but if there ever was a reason to make time for this work related blog effort, that time must be now!  The parade of amazing Silverlight applications coming online here in Asia is really heating up.  I want to give a shout out first to my favorite Silverlight 1.0 application anywhere in the world, Korea’s mNet music video gallery/mashup.  What’s so great about this particular app is that it has a database of over 1m music videos/clips from mNet’s long running inventory of Windows Media format media assets–great example of how companies with installed base of content can put that online in a richer interface using Silverlight, without any recompressing/transcoding of media.  The UX of this app itself is super slick–great search/sifting with paged results, drag and drop a clip onto the main window for a PIP (picture in picture) playback effect with great performance, including full screen, overlay ads are inserted in periodically.  Do a search for "rain", who is the hot as hell Korean pop star king, crossing over to China/Japan and even the USA (i heard there was an elaborate bit about him on the Colbare Report?) (yes, the landing page uses a different technology, but once you get into the player (below) you are in Silverlight nirvana…

Rants & Raves

Lots of Odds and Ends

The cruel Beijing Winter behind us, we look forward to a cruel Beijing Summer.  This Spring we look forward to lots of visitors: The Cristina’s sister and dear nephew, the kids’ Tata Emilio with Forest’s Chilean Aunt & Uncle, the whole Andy Casanueva clan from Santa Barbara, Forest’s buds Mark Sampson and Tobin D.  Who will be next on the list???? Who will be next to book their tickets and make it official???
One of the things we love most about Beijing is the kids school,  Western Academy of Beijing.  It could possibly keep us in Beijing longer than planned,  except we have to weigh its benefits against the life-shortening pollution situation.  After decades of living through Southern California’s smoggiest years on record, and a bronchitis filled year in Santiago Chile, my lungs had recovered in the clean San Francisco and Seattle environs.  Life in Beijing brings our lungs two shades black.   Truth be told, none of us have been really sick and even Carlos’ usual winter hack-fest was pretty tame this year.  However, returning to Beijing after being gone for a week was a little like going into a smoky bingo hall in the middle of a Spring afternoon.  You just smell the havoc.  After reading that the worst exposure to pollutants occurs while in traffic, at least I can rest assured that we are minimizing damage by walking to and from school every day, even more joyfully now that the weather is warm.
Forest and I spent a whole day at “WAB” this week for a Student Led Conference.  Carlos took us around to his favorite classes, and we spent time in his homeroom checking out all the cool stuff he does.  We even got to eat in the cafeteria!  Unfortunately, they didn’t serve the usual grub,  so we didn’t get to sample the vast array of starchy food that Carlos puts on his tray day to day.
Carlos is cranking away on reading.  He gets taken out twice a week to catch up with the other kids on writing and spelling. He enjoys the small group dynamic, the teacher makes him laugh and his confidence in writing stories is going up.  He loves performing arts and P.E., and has really clicked with his classmates. He has a really cute little posse of mates and they play imaginary adventure games at recess. His mind is quite mathematical and his Lego creations are fantastic. 
Caetano’s preschool program is remarkable too.  They have lots of freedom and a great little group dynamic of 12 4-year olds. They spend lots of time on practical concepts: light, nature, numbers, seasons, cooking. Their art is fantastic and they swim once a week, and do lots of creative projects.
Last month I had a meeting with 5 of Caetano’s teachers and a school counselor.  Bad news: it was about his naughtiness.  Not intimidating at all!! Good news:  it has gotten better.  The amazing thing:  feeling this real helpful community spirit among my 4 year old’s educators.  Even better: being able to talk to him about all this, seeing his changes, his effort, his pride in getting  “good notes” from teacher instead of who he hit or what he said, etc. etc.
The two of them crack me up all the time.  When Forest was gone for 16 days, my saving grace was having these two little team mates cooperating so well with me and making each day fun.
Part of the fun has been doing some interesting new things myself and having extra help around the house.  I am taking a jewelry making and drawing/painting class, both of which I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I can’t wait to buy beads at the big jewelry market now that I finally have tools and techniques to start with.  As much as I loved drawing and painting in high school, I am not inclined to sit and sketch or paint anymore.  I don’t feel like recreating anything I see in this way, or mixing paints to match the chroma or contrast.  I like making 3 dimensional things, like Carlos’ dinosaur robot model or papier mache pinatas. In my class, there was a woman there who kept making excuses for how bad she was and how un artistic she is and how hard this was for her and blah blah, and I kept wanting to ask her, “why are you taking this class if you know it isn’t for you?”  She knew she wasn’t going to discover anything new about herself.  She already decided she was bad at it.  Why do people do such things?
The kids have a new “ayi”, a Chinese woman who  picks them up from school and provides Mandarin commentary for every single thing they do.  I am hoping that her voice is becoming part of Caetano’s unconscious. Carlos can’t stand her and tunes her out completely. Caetano is becoming buddies with her.  We’ll see in a few weeks if he can start communicating with her two-way.  At Carlos’ school conference, we got to see how much work he does in Chinese class. His notebook was crammed with characters, names of animals, clothes, seasons, greetings.  He was able to read songs and poems in Pinyin (romanized phonetic version of Chinese words).  But he didn’t understand a thing.  One hour a day of Chinese he gets.  And none of it has sunk in. I get 4 hours a week and am able to communicate roughly with people who speak simply and slowly.  All Carlos can say is “hi” and “thank you.” 
Is he like the woman in the art class? Has he already decided he has no use for Mandarin? Or is his mind already being filled so many things that he would rather learn?  Is he past the magical age when your mind absorbs language like a sponge? Or is he perhaps retaining very much that we don’t know that at some later date will gestate and start to flower when he is ready?

Rants & Raves

more on Japan

Q: Why did we go to Tokyo, Japan for the Spring Festival?
A: Forest had a business trip there since Japan doesn’t celebrate the lunar new year. Tina and the boys needed some adventure so we turned it into a big vacation.
Q: Did Forest work the whole time?
A: No, Forest goofed off with us for the first 4 days and then worked his butt off doing a deal for the rest of the week.
Q: How did the boys like the food?
A: LOVED it. Great Sushi, Shabu Shabu (Cook your thin slice beef in a big pot of liquid), Katsu (fried pork cutlets with yummy sauce), Ramen noodles, Dumplings, Italian Food, El Torito. Mmmm, El Torito.
Q: What did you do with the boys in Tokyo?
A: Went to amazing toy stores, played with the crazy Japanese toys in the hotel, played hide and seek in Yogogi park, visited the Ghibli Museum (home of Totoro) went to Disneyland and Disney Sea, kept our shoes away from people and seats in the subways.
Q: How was Disneyland?
A: See our previous post
Q: What is Disney Sea?
A: It is the OTHER Disney Park with an aquatic theme that was awesome, beautiful, and fun. The rides were for bigger kids mostly, so we were denied entry onto the Raiders fo the Lost Ark ride and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but we loved 20 leagues under the Sea (Caetano calls it 19 steps into the Sea), Tower of Terror, climbing around a pirate ship and not waiting in long lines for anything.
Q: What did you do without the boys?
A: Spent a lot of money and time at the famous Harajuku crazy trendoid shopping area, went to see a Beatles tribute band at a club called the Cavern, where we freaked out on the Young John Lennon look alike and sound alike and laughed when the band stopped playing to tell jokes and stories in Japanese. Oh yes, we saw THE POLICE!!!! A truly lucky circumstance and really fun time. The band looked and sounded great (except for a few songs which they changed around and messed with too much). The crowd was the Japanese version of what would turn out to see the Police in the States. Old fogeys that either showed up in their work clothes or came in their tastefully non-conformist attire, drank beer, went wild reliving their youth. No drunken Karaoke, but we did have a drink at the bar from Lost In Translation where ScarJo’s character meets Bill Murray. That’s the hotel where we stayed, and it was swanky. Free gourmet chocolate every few days. Views of Mt. Fuji. Tokyo rocks.
Q: Were you glad to come back to Beijing?
A: Yeah. China is so different then Japan. So relaxed and free-wheeling. So dirty. But the food portions are big. It’s so much easier to communicate. Milk doesn’t cost $12 a glass anywhere. China has it’s faults, but for now it is home. But I do wish we had a toilet with heat, sprinklers, dryers and music. I do miss that.

Rants & Raves

Spring Festival

The Spring Festival has finally drawn to a close. Traditionally the celebration lasts 4 weeks. Chinese school kids get all month off and go to school the rest of the year. In the professional world, people take at least a week off. In the States I have enjoyed many a New Year’s Parade, but had no idea how much this holiday means to Chinese. Think of it as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one. It is a family holiday, and there are many migrant workers that see their families at only this time all year. People travel far and wide to reunite with parents (or in-laws if you are a woman). The traditions involve eating lots of dumplings, visiting fairs at temples, and lighting lots of firecrackers. Lots and lots of fireworks and firecrackers. Kids receive money in red envelopes and on the official new year day, they are not allowed to cry! Chinese people have lots of superstitions, and what happens on new year day sets the tone for the whole year. So you can’t let kids cry, you can’t fight with anyone, everything has to be just so.

Leading up to the holiday, people scurry about, getting ready for trips or celebrations. Lots of businesses close, including banks, and everything shuts down for awhile. In the States, you can rely on finding a Chinese restaurant open on holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, and on the Chinese NY in Beijing, you get your fast food fix from the European restaurants!

We missed out on some of the fun, since we went to Japan. But I was amused to see Chinese families in Tokyo on holidays as well. I took the boys to Disney Sea, and we ended up by happenstance eating at the Chinese restaurant. That’s where I ran into other “Zhonguoren” taking a break from the weird Japanese food offerings with familiar items like spicy tofu, dim sum and fried chicken with sweet sauce.

Celebrating the mid-seasons this way is very interesting. I think it makes more sense to view the winter and summer solstices not as the beginning of the season but the middle of the season and the mid seasons as the beginning. The darkest day of the year certainly never feels like the “beginning” of winter. And now that it is mid February, doesn’t it feel a bit like Spring’s around the bend? Well, it does here. The weather is warmer and our cats seemed like they wanted to mate, so we got the boy (Marbles) fixed. Over the course of the Spring festival he went from being a shy, skittish little thing to a big, sleek, panther-like predator. Maybe it was all the dumplings he ate….

Rants & Raves

Disneyland, Japan Style

The boyos had no expectations about Disneyland.  The 6 kiddie rides at the Seattle Center = ultimate fun destination for Caetano, and at LegoLand last year Carlos had a meltdown (albeit he was jonesing to go home and work on his fresh Lego purchase). Forest and I grew up making regular pilgrimages to the Magic Kingdom; we wanted the boys’ first time to be great.

Disney Tokyo turned out to be an interesting choice rather than the California or Hong Kong venues.  Interesting because Tokyo itself is one big Toontown.  The crowd, all Japanese, 80% single young adults, 20% families (making the ratio of adults to children 95:5) came to Disneyland dressed in full amusement park regalia.  This means black patent leather spike heel boots and gold sequined mouse ears; school uniform jackets and baggy pants pulled down to there and Jack Sparrow mouse ears; short shorts with suede fur lined boots and a Stitch costume hood; Minnie Mouse ears and matching cape (on a 20-something guy).  Who needs Disney characters running around when you’ve got this on display?

I felt a little resentment at this crowd when they lined up for rides like the kiddie roller coaster and Pooh’s Honey Pot Hunt because the lines were 40-60 minutes minimum.  When I was a teenager, I would not deign to line up for Peter Pan or Pinnochio rides. But this crowd thought it was all cool. And I hear they come again and again.  It’s a place to hang out.

It was pretty great.  Caetano kept saying “I love this place.” Classics like It’s a Small World and Pirates are fresher then ever, especially seeing them through our kiddies eyes. Rides that are new to us (who haven’t been to Disney in over 10 years) like Buzz Lightyear and Winnie the Pooh were awesome.  Forest kept marveling at the technology of the 100-Acre Wood, which had cars that moved without rails, and maneuvered in complex patterns throughout a very interactive and “21st century” exhibit.

Can’t wait to go again.