Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Winter Cabbage

Beijing Journal

Crowding People’s Market for Cabbage: The Price Is Right

Published: December 19, 2006

BEIJING, Dec. 18 — At 5:45 in the morning the cabbage line outside the Old Drum Tower Outer Street New People’s Produce Market is nearly two hours old. First in line is a 72-year-old woman named Mrs. Wang, who awoke at 3, arrived at 4 and would wait until 8:30 for a single head of winter cabbage. Free.

Doug Kanter for The New York Times

Beijing’s winter produce markets are overrun with a bumper crop of cabbage this year, so a worker at the Old Drum Tower Outer Street New People’s Produce Market hands them out free, one to a customer, as a promotion.

Doug Kanter for The New York Times

The line begins forming early in the morning.

Cabbage, or bai cai, costs about 4 cents a head, so Mrs. Wang’s prize was not quite a free refrigerator. She did not mind. Nor did another retired matron who passed the time singing patriotic tunes and a shaky but enthusiastic English rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” And neither did two elderly combatants who shouted at each another in unprintable Chinese for inexplicable reasons.

“They are just fighting because they have nothing better to do,” explained Mrs. Wang, who declined to provide her first name. “We all know each other. We’re all old neighbors.”

Cabbage and old people are civic institutions in Beijing. Winter brings them together. For generations cabbage has arrived in markets by November, and Beijingers have hoarded it as an insurance policy to last them until spring, depending on the outdoor refrigeration of rooftops or windowsills. Cabbage and turnips were the staples that saw people through the uncertain harvests and aching poverty of the Mao era.

But Beijing’s winter markets are now overrun with enough fruits, vegetables and meats that cabbage, if still widely used, has become as unglamorous as old people — except to old people.

The predawn line outside the Old Drum Tower market represents a marriage of convenience: market managers give away cabbage to attract hordes of fixed-income old people in hopes that the spectacle will attract the curiosity of younger, more affluent morning commuters.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Zhang Pinsheng, 68, a retired teacher. “The market doesn’t have to spend money on advertising, and we don’t have to spend money on cabbage.”

They do have to wait in freezing predawn temperatures to collect a chunk of greenery of almost no value — or, for that matter, of almost no taste without sauce.

This year farmers grew so much cabbage that prices dipped to record lows in November, with markets charging only a few pennies a head. Even so, when the Old Drum Tower market introduced its cabbage promotion in late November, the daily line soon stretched under two overpasses and past a new luxury hotel.

“If they were going to give away fish or eggs, the line would stretch all the way to Qianmen,” a neighborhood several miles away, said Li Bao, a vendor at the market. “People would start lining up at midnight.”

The incentive for the hundreds of people who come each day is a blend of need, habit, boredom and a desire for companionship. Several people described lives on the margins. Some were retired; others lost their jobs in the changing economy; others depended on minuscule urban pensions. Mrs. Wang said she did not watch television in her apartment, because “the TV uses electricity.”

Mr. Zhang, the retired teacher, said the free cabbage “doesn’t really solve the basic problems you have, but it can help a little.”

“You aren’t going to get rich collecting free cabbage,” he said. “My life is pretty average. We don’t worry about food or clothes. You’re never really full, but you are never going to go hungry.”

Inflation has ticked upward in recent months, and the rising cost of some foods, as well as cooking oil, has brought some anxiety. Recently, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited an elderly Beijing woman to offer a public reassurance that the government would fight rising prices.

Cabbage, often used as filling for the steamed dumpling so popular in Beijing, seems mostly immune to inflation, though, and some people admitted that the line here was as much a social event as an economic necessity.

Many retirees in Beijing have limited resources and unlimited time to fill, so they congregate in city parks to practice tai chi or ballroom dancing, or just to talk. Another popular pastime is admonishing parents, including strangers, whose children are deemed to be insufficiently clothed — say, less than five layers — in wintertime.

But a few hours in line can also provide entertainment for people inured to hardship and tedium by a few decades of Communism. “It doesn’t matter if I get a cabbage,” said one man, who like several people declined to give his name. “It’s a nice day and I’ve got nothing to do.”

Another woman with a toothy smile and a pink coat agreed. “We have nothing better to do,” she said. “We go for a walk in the morning. We get in line, and we pick up some cabbage.”

Zhang Hongwei, 27, one of the managers at the market, said the cabbage promotion would last two months. He said that most people in line were not buying other vegetables but that their presence “is good advertising and attracting others.”

“If they weren’t here they would just be walking around in parks,” he said. “And it is a tradition in Beijing to store cabbage in the winter. They need to get their cabbage.”

A certain regimen oversees the process. Regulars arrive early, occasionally shoo newcomers into a single-file line and snatch up the laminated tickets handed out by the market to ensure order. Many people bring cushions for comfortable sitting. Line breakers are barked down.

The magic moment comes promptly at 8:30. On this recent day, a manager began collecting the tickets. Another clerk popped open the rear hood of a white van to reveal green stacks of cabbage. Distribution was methodical — perhaps to drag out the advertising as commuters rushed into a nearby subway stop.

Mrs. Wang collected her cabbage with a satisfied smile. She stuffed it into a plastic bag and walked quickly down the sidewalk, oblivious to the cold.

“To be a little cold for a cabbage is not a big deal,” she said. “Cabbage is delicious.”

Ye Gaskells Ball

One of my favorite places to waltz, polka, and generally get gussied up: Ye Gaskells Ball in Oakland, CA.

Thanks to Matt Rollefson for the photos.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

I'm a proud parent

of FACES (Forum for American/Chinese Exchange at Stanford), which has continued to grow tremendously since I handed over the reins in 2003. Here's the Stanford Daily article about FACES that ran on Thursday:

Campus to host FACES conference
October 26, 2006
By Emma Vaughn

As U.S.-Sino relations grow in importance in the global community, the Forum for American/Chinese Exchange at Stanford (FACES) is actively working to promote diplomacy and friendship between the nations’ younger generations.

With three chapters in China and host more than 50 delegates from around the world, FACES is a student-run program dedicated to fostering grass-roots diplomacy and improving ties between Chinese and American students.

“It is basically like having an NGO based at Stanford,” said 2003 graduate Jessica Weiss, who founded FACES in 2001. “Yes, it’s run by students, but it has a strong air of professional organization.”

The capstone efforts of FACES are two projects that brings together American and Chinese student-delegates to discuss U.S.-Sino relations with some of the field’s leading experts.

Shanghai will host the first of these weeklong conferences Nov. 8, and Stanford will hold a second conference in April.

“The annual conferences are really what make FACES different,” said Xiaodong Chen, a graduate student in Management Science and Engineering and Chinese delegate to FACES. “They are of the highest quality in terms of the speaker’s credentials and international influence. They also include a highly selective application process, which guarantees the brightest minds from both countries. The staff are extremely dedicated, hardworking and helpful.”

Richard B. Levin, president of Yale University and a featured speaker at the Shanghai conference, said that organizations like FACES will have a large impact on the global community.

“The security of the planet will require that the future leaders of China and the United States have a bond of mutual understanding,” Levin told The Daily. “By bringing together college students from leading universities with a serious interest in U.S.-China relations, FACES is contributing in an important way to the education of future leaders and, thereby, to international security.”

Delegates to the conference are chosen from a pool of nearly 600 students and come from both American universities such as Harvard, Brown, Duke, Yale and also from Chinese universities like Peking, Tsinghua and the University of Hong Kong.

The goal of these conferences is to bring students in contact with business executives, policymakers and educational figures who can talk about China’s increasing economic and political influence. Previous conference speakers have included William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary who also works at Stanford, Zbigniew Brzesinksi, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, and Robert Kapp, former president of the U.S.-China Business Council.

“What differentiates FACES is its tight-knit and very active alumni network,” said FACES Co-president Kabir Chadha, a senior. “There are reunions in different continents literally happening every week, and email forums are awash with different threads of discussion, ranging from discussing the repercussions of North Korea’s nuclear tests to seeking advice when moving into a new city. The FACES experience gives you access to lifelong friends.”

In addition to the conferences, FACES holds several smaller projects throughout the year, including a student-initiated course, educational panels and an annual China Fair.

“FACES is not just organizing amazing conferences across the Pacific Ocean — it is bringing those talented people together and providing them with a fantastic platform to show their ideas,” said Christine Fung, President of the Fudan chapter of FACES. “It also welcomes students from countries other than the U. S. or China.”

The program first began in the fall of 2001 during a period of tension following the collision of a U.S. plane with a Chinese fighter jet. Weiss, a junior at the time, hoped to use this crisis as a backdrop to create greater Sino-American understanding on campus.

“I wanted to use this idea to promote open communication between both sides,” Weiss said. “I hoped to establish a sort of grass-roots for friendship that would be resilient to the politics of the time.”

In the last year, FACES, which used to be under the jurisdiction of the Office of Student Affairs (OSA), has moved into the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS).

“The reason that they are affiliating with us now is that they need a greater programmatic structure for their fundraising,” said Lydia Chen, associate director of CEAS. “They want more than what the student organizations are allowed to do. We love them and are very proud of them.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Squash victory!

I joined the UCSD recreational squash ladder a few weeks ago. Today, I won a match, moving me up two spots to #14. We'll see how long that lasts...

Ladder Rankings:

Juan-Jose Rebaza 1 info
Alberto Malinow 2 info
Andrew Bell 3 info
Will Cooper 4 info c
Kobe Bogaert 5 info c
Evan Fuller 6 info c
Paul Norton 7 info c
Jeffrey Rangan 8 info c
Arnaud` Van Der Haegen 9 info c
Nazeeh Shaheen 10info
Narayana Santhanam 11 info
Ajit Nott 12 info c
Karthik Bhasyam 13 info c
Jessica Weiss 14 info
Paul Taylor 15 info
Sanmay Das 16 info c
Alison Rush 17 info c
Yuvraj Agarwal 18 info

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

NYT: One Eye on the Road and One on the Litter Box

I enjoyed this a lot, and am posting it at the risk of making this blog completely cat-centric...

Published: October 6, 2006

IT is a good idea, when traveling, to choose one’s fellow passengers carefully. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. When I set out for six weeks in south-central Kentucky recently, hauling a trailer full of furniture, my wife, Nancy, as always, sat in the front seat, wrestling with several maps. But in the back seat were two new faces — furry, wide-eyed, and expressing, very vocally, even more anxiety than the couple up front. Soda and Sweetzie, our two cats (who had no place else to go for the six weeks), were warming up for a performance that would last 1,500 miles, round trip, and set new standards for misery in travel.

John S. Dykes

John S. Dykes

Day 1

11:30 A.M. Soda and Sweetzie are installed in back seat of Honda Civic, stuffed into separate carriers because they cannot abide each other. Both mew piteously. I position a clean oversize litter box in back window of car, which has never seemed so small. We roll forth from Astoria toward the Queensboro Bridge

11:45 A.M. Mewing has just started to abate when a sudden stop causes litter box to lurch forward and dump an avalanche of grit on both cats. Soda, a sweet-natured and dainty creature, lets out a howl of cosmic protest. Sweetzie, a huge tortoiseshell cat of smoldering intensity, volatile moods and tangled neuroses, produces a demonic sound new to us. Careful preparation for trip, involving administration of Rescue Remedy (New Age tranquilizing drops) and Benadryl smushed into bits of raw steak, has not produced the desired behavior modification.

12:30 P.M. A rising aroma makes it clear that Sweetzie, like many soldiers experiencing incoming artillery fire for the first time, has had an extreme fear reaction to the sounds of the tunnel or, perhaps, the litter shower.

1 P.M. I pull into the first available McDonald’s parking lot, grab a stack of napkins and try to clean out Sweetzie’s carrier. It is a big job. The deeper I reach into the carrier, the more Sweetzie feels cornered. She mounts a slashing attack, leaving bloody stripes up and down my arm, then does an imitation of Linda Blair’s voice in “The Exorcist.” Lingering fragrance suggests more work needs to be done.

2:15 P.M. Incessant cries of the damned cause me to open the cat carriers. Soda moves into new, improvised litter box on floor (baking pan acquired at dollar store along the road), and takes a jubilant dust bath. Sweetzie finds her way to a fleece cat bed on floor behind front passenger seat and hunkers down, eyes glowing with an insane luminescence. Peace descends.

6:23 P.M. We pull into a pet-friendly motel in Hagerstown, Md. Research on several Internet sites yielded a number of these oases dotted across the country. A surcharge of $10 over the standard room rate gets us all in. Soda, an enthusiastic eater, reacts ecstatically to bento box that I arrange on a tray, with frilled paper caps from the motel’s water glasses as decorative dishes. (Hair on back stands up.) Sweetzie dives under a bed and remains motionless for the next 12 hours. Any food offered causes her to recoil and unsheathe claws. I sleep restlessly, unable to envision a blood-free scenario for putting her back in the carrier, although I have now refreshed it with a bottle of Evian and innumerable paper towels.

Day 2

8 A.M. Nancy pushes food tray at Sweetzie, causing her to flee from under bed and into my arms. Seemingly broken in spirit, she allows her limp form to be poured into the carrier. Soda, stupefied by high-calorie cat treats, also submits passively.

9:15 A.M. Both cats, released from carriers, return to their places on the floor and settle quietly, convincing me that I have discovered the secret to problem-free feline travel. This is a rash conclusion.

3:10 P.M. Arrive at destination. Civic cannot pull trailer up steep driveway. Cats remain calm, even as smell of burning tires and sound of cursing driver fills car interior. I carry both cats up driveway, arrive gasping for breath. Realize that both cats badly need to lose weight.

Return Trip, Day 1

11:30 A.M. Confident that all concerned are now old hands, I put cats in back seat, place litter box on floor and prepare for a serene, scenic drive back to New York. Soda settles into litter box. Sweetzie takes up position on fleece bed. A few peeps, then silence.

7:15 P.M. Check into different pet-friendly motel in Hagerstown. This one has a working television and a receptionist who does not hide in the back room talking on his cellphone to friends as guests crowd the front desk. Things look good.

7:30 P.M. Sweetzie dismayed by platform beds, which afford no hiding place. Soda thrilled at king-size format, ideal for lounging.

7:35 P.M. Sweetzie missing.

7:45 P.M. Sweetzie found, wedged into a two-inch crack between bed headboard and wall.

Return Trip, Day 2

3:15 A.M. Sweetzie, perhaps disturbed by employee slipping bill under door, begins yowling and pacing the room restlessly. She rejects food, water and neck massages. I roll up towels and put them against the bottom of the door to block sound and light. Sweetzie tears furiously at towels, pushes nose under door and lets loose at louder volume. No telling how tattooed guest with pit bull in next room might take this.

4:30 A.M. We leave motel in haste.

5 A.M. Sweetzie, nerves shattered, prowls the car, looking for an exit. Briefly takes up residence on brake pedal, then tries to press herself forward against the windshield, cutting off my view of highway. Ungodly wailing and lamentation. Cats also upset.

6:43 A.M. Sweetzie realizes that Soda has stolen her spot on the cat bed. More prowling and yowling. Soda is unmoved. Their mutual loathing adds to tense atmosphere in car.

7 A.M. After brief, eerie silence, we slip in a book on tape: Alan Furst’s “Foreign Correspondent.” Something about Alfred Molina’s voice sets Sweetzie off. We turn up the volume. Sweetzie responds in kind. As she claws her way past my left shoulder, I briefly consider lowering the window and giving her a nudge onto the highway.

8:30 A.M. Soda, responding to Sweetzie’s mood, begins prowling the car. She is easily bought off with five or six Deli Slices, a new-fangled calorie-bomb cat treat that appears to be as addictive as crack cocaine.

10:15 A.M. Arrive home. Return cats to their accustomed environment. Reward Soda with a Deli Slice. Cut off diplomatic relations with Sweetzie. Make inquiries. Does U-Haul rent a pet trailer? If not, all future vacations off.

Monday, October 09, 2006

More kitchen adventures

Mulligatawny soup from Cook's Illustrated "Quick" Recipe Cookbook

My high school cafeteria served this southern Indian soup, and I've never been able to find it since. Its curry flavor is balanced by the addition of a banana, two onions, and a yogurt-cilantro garnish.


Meimei has joined Kittenwar.com. You can check on how she's doing vis-a-vis thousands of other extremely cute kittens at http://kittenwar.com/kittens/99245/ or at http://kittenwar.com/kittens/99371/. Somehow the site managers approved her twice. I had assumed that my first submission was disqualified because you can't really see her face, so I submitted the second one. Oops!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Ode to Basil

A little over a month ago I bought one of those "pony packs" of basil: six spindly plants, each a few inches tall. A month later, I'm wishing that I had spaced the plants several more inches apart. Each plant is now a few feet tall. Twice a week I snap off leaves just to prevent flowering. The result is something like the pile you see above - and this is AFTER I made two jars of pesto.

The jar on the left is a basil/parmesan/garlic/olive oil pesto. The one on the right is a sun-dried tomato basil pesto.


Meimei (photo courtesy of Jeremy in Beijing)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Back in gorgeous San Diego

I'm thrilled to be back in California. This was taken in Balboa Park.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dashanzi exhibition

One of my favorite Chinese teachers invited me to see an exhibit of Cultural Revolution photographs - photographer at left.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Photos from Guilin and Yangshuo

Photos from our trip to Guilin and Yangshuo, Guangxi Province (technically an autonomous region in southwest China)

River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo

Terraced fields near Longsheng

Local women of the ethnic Zhuang people

Friday, June 02, 2006

Today, Beijing, tomorrow, Guilin!

Jeremy's parents arrived on Tuesday and after a quick trip to the Great Wall and other sights, the three of them went to Xi'an to see the terracotta soldiers. (I went in 2001 and was underwhelmed.) At my suggestion, we included Guilin on the itinerary for some magnificent scenery - limestone cliffs like you've never seen. Pictures to follow when we return on the 7th.

From the Economist


Jun 1st 2006 | BEIJING
From The Economist print edition

Beijing no longer commands instant obedience from China's local authorities

Get article background

THE Chinese Communist Party is a highly centralised beast, with a power structure little changed from the days of Mao Zedong. Over the next year or so it will be engaged in what official reports describe as one of the biggest shuffles of leaders at every level, with hundreds of thousands due to change their jobs. Nominally, appointments are made by local party committees. In practice top appointments in the provinces have always been made by leaders in Beijing. But that does not mean that Beijing is in complete control.

A good career in the party still depends on following, or at least appearing to follow, the centre's orders. But local leaders calculate that as long as their areas achieve rapid economic growth with minimal unrest, then they have considerable leeway to do as they will. The party no longer really frets about the ideological purity of its leaders. And since the days of Mao each new generation of leaders in Beijing has been increasingly less able to command instant obedience across the country.

To be sure, China is not heading towards a break-up, anarchy or the warlordism of the pre-communist era. The armed forces and the police remain under the party centre's grip. At the provincial leadership level, too, the authority of the centre is secure. Many residents of regions with large numbers of ethnic minorities, especially Tibet and Xinjiang, resent being controlled by Beijing, but their leaders are party loyalists. Provincial leaders, in fact, display far more ideological harmony than was the case in the 1980s or early 1990s. At that time, some were conspicuously conservative or reformist. Ye Xuanping, a popular native leader of Guangdong Province next to Hong Kong, was often reported to be building the region into a personal power base. Worried central leaders moved him to a sinecure in Beijing in 1991.

The problem today is more a profusion of township, county and prefectural leaderships whose efforts to propel growth in their regions produce impressive statistics, but often at a heavy social, environmental or macroeconomic cost. In the last two years the government has been worrying that the economy might overheat and has been trying to curb investment in industries whose capacity has been growing too quickly. But local officials have often simply ignored these measures. As Zhang Baoqing, a former deputy minister of education, put it to an official newspaper last year, China's biggest problem is that orders issued in Zhongnanhai, the party headquarters in Beijing, sometimes never leave the compound.

In March last year, amid growing public complaints about fast-rising house prices, the government issued directives aimed at cooling the market. Shanghai, the main target of these measures, dutifully tightened controls. But house prices in other big cities have climbed rapidly—Beijing's by more than 17% in the first two months of this year compared with the same period a year ago. Beijing's city government is not entirely to blame. Demand is growing as the city prepares to host the Olympic Games in 2008. Interest rates are low. China is reluctant to raise them sharply for fear of putting further pressure on the yuan to appreciate. That could hurt exports and push up unemployment.

But local governments control land supply and have a vested interest in keeping prices high. In 1994 the central government changed the way it shared tax revenues with the provinces, leaving the centre with a much bigger portion. But sub-provincial governments still shoulder the main burden of the provision of health care and schooling (which they do only patchily). Land-related transactions have become a crucial source of local governments' revenue. They are further helped by their ability to persuade state-owned banks—ill-equipped to make sound lending decisions—to grant loans.

In the late 1990s, when China began to privatise urban housing, the central government ordered that the bulk of new housing projects should be low-cost and restricted to middle- and lower-income families. Developers of such housing were to be given big tax benefits. But local governments saw little to be gained. In Beijing only one-tenth of new housing space belongs to this category. Regulations announced this week require local governments to boost the supply of cheap housing. There will not be an enthusiastic response.

Local leaders rarely incur heavy political penalties for failing to carry out the central government's economic directives. Officials in Beijing frequently order clampdowns on the makers of pirated goods. Offending factories are sometimes closed. But local officials who condone such operations as a way of boosting their local economies are seldom punished. Nor are officials who turn a blind eye to polluting industries, unless they cause big accidents or trigger unrest. Transgressions are so widespread that it would be destabilising to launch a crackdown. But just to make sure that career-damaging information does not reach Beijing, local governments often arrest petitioners who travel to the capital to raise complaints.

Central leaders are comforted by the knowledge that direct political challenges to their authority by local governments are extremely rare. Li Fan, an independent consultant in Beijing who advises local governments on election-related issues, says there is strong demand among lower-level officials for political reform. But very few rural townships have pushed experiments with freer elections or more open government beyond the party's guidelines. And none has tolerated organised opposition or open attacks on the party leadership. China's local leaders know where to draw the line.

Friday catblogging!

Finally, I get to participate in Friday catblogging, invented/popularized by Kevin Drum, whose blog I scarcely read except for the cute cat photos.

We adopted a kitten from Animal Rescue Beijing a couple weeks ago. Her name is 美美 (meimei, pronounced may-may) and she's nearly a year old, or so we guess from her size. I was persuaded
to adopt her by the kindly lady below, who says she rescued Meimei herself from the streets of Hainan, a tropical island off of China's southern coast. Meimei had apparently been living off scraps of food discarded by people at a street food stand. Her leg has healed completely, so despite her "handicap," she regularly tears up the apartment each night, sleeping during the day (see photo above).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Beijing Swings!

terpsichorean (turp-si-kuh-REE-uhn, turp-si-KOR-ee-uhn, -KORE-)
  1. adjective: Of or relating to dancing.
  2. noun: A dancer.
[From Terpsichore, the Muse of dancing and choral song in Greek mythology.
The word Terpsichore is the feminine form of terpsichoros (delighting in the dance), a combination of Greek terpein (to delight) and khoros (dance), which is ultimately from Indo-European root gher- (to grasp or to enclose) that's also the source of chorus, carol, choir, garth, court, and garden.]
To my delight, Beijing has a lively swing & lindy hop scene! Jeremy and I went last Thursday and I went again on Monday. Even though I've been away from swing dancing for a good while, it was wonderful. It was as close to Stanford as I'd seen in a long time - just on a smaller scale, with more Chinese thrown in.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

More penguins from East Asia

This time from a bakery near the Beijing World Trade Center.

Friday, May 05, 2006

That Tokyo conference

Since I haven't been at liberty to discuss the conference publicly, I thought I'd post this bit from Knight Ridder:

WASHINGTON - Last month, the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea wanted to meet privately with his North Korean counterpart, hoping he could persuade Pyongyang to return to talks on eliminating its nuclear weapons program.

But the meeting between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Premier Kim Kye Gwan on the sidelines of a conference in Tokyo never took place.

Hill's superiors in Washington forbade him from talking directly to the North Koreans, said three U.S. officials, a conference participant and another knowledgeable expert. All requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.


Hill, the assistant secretary of state, was urged to attend the Tokyo conference after two senior North Korean diplomats agreed in consultations involving two former senior American diplomats that it would be a chance for him to meet privately with Kim, the North Korean envoy, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions who asked to remain anonymous.

This person and a conference participant said Hill saw it as a chance to persuade Kim to rejoin six-nation talks on eliminating North Korea's nuclear arms program. The isolated Stalinist regime has boycotted the talks since the United States took action to halt what it charges are Pyongyang-run money-laundering, drug-running and counterfeiting operations.

Kim met privately with officials from the other nations - Russia, China, South Korea and Japan - involved in the moribund negotiations, said three U.S. officials and the conference participant.

Speaking at a conference in Washington on Tuesday, Hill insisted that "it was my call" not to meet Kim.

"Is someone impeding me from having bilateral contacts? The answer is yes, and it's the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)," he said. "We are not prepared to sit outside the six-party process and let the DPRK boycott the process and look for favors to get them back."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

May Day

This week is a national holiday in China, perfect for some R&R. The umbrella I'm holding is not for rain but to ward off the sun--it was 90 degrees! Here we're standing in front of the entrance to Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace (destroyed twice by foreign troops in the 19th century. Here's the official story)

The construction noise has started again upstairs. Fortunately, it was quiet when our guests came over yesterday. Our Chinese friend, Sarah, had her parents come up from Nanjing for the May holiday. They traveled 10 hours on an overnight train to see their daughter for 2 days! We had them over for a mid-afternoon snack: apple crisp, baked to perfection (Jeremy's expertise), sliced mango, and watermelon seeds. They had never had baked apples before, but they seemed to enjoy it! To my consternation, there were no leftovers.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The infamous Yasukuni Shrine

Interestingly, every Japanese person I spoke to about the shrine told me that the privately-run museum presents a very distorted view of history (see below).

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The best bread of my life

These two items, bought at the Ueno subway station, were the best two pieces of bread I have ever eaten in my life, despite the fact that the one on the right was green-colored, with a few sweet grean beans inside. Unfortunately, together they cost me 1900 yen, about 19 US dollars.

Photos from around Tokyo

Even the bathrooms (okay, especially the bathrooms) are gorgeous by comparison.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Saturday, April 08, 2006


The press contingent

Also parked outside the hotel, waiting for some action

Outside our hotel in Tokyo

Outside our hotel in Tokyo, there are riot police stationed... for fear that right-wing Japanese groups will harass the North Koreans.

Background on the North Korea-Japan abductee issue

Thursday, April 06, 2006

To Tokyo

I leave this morning for 10 days in Tokyo, to rapporteur for a conference on Northeast Asian security that's been called the "track 1.5 version of the 6-party talks". Pictures to follow when I return!

Sunday, April 02, 2006


On Friday I got an email with good news: I've won a Fulbright award for next year! All those hours writing and rewriting have paid off.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Old haunts

I thought I swore never to go back to IKEA Beijing. But we did, and despite our exhaustion bought several armfuls of household furnishings, including a bookcase and coffee table. Rather than paying IKEA to deliver the next day, we saved ourselves 10 yuan by haggling with one of the minivan drivers crowding the exit to snag a customer.

Ping pong?

On the campus of Beijing (Peking) University, one of China's finest centers of higher education.

More photos around town

Dancing in the park (our last days near Tiantan, aka the Temple of Heaven). Yes, we did waltz!

Long time gone

Apologies for my long hiatus - these past few weeks have been busy, to say the least. We now live in a new apartment close to campus and new bicycles to school (at least until they get stolen, like two of my past three attempts to maintain a vehicular form of transportation in Beijing). The easy commute and spacious interior more than makes up for the higher rent.

We've had ample opportunity to sample the nicer restaurants in Beijing with successive visits of my family and one of Jeremy's advisors. One in particular features a 50s era red limo that Mao apparently reserved for his exclusive use. This limo is parked outside the restaurant, blocking about a third of the hutong that the restaurant fronts. In fact, to hail a cab after dinner, one of the restaurant employees - probably hired for this purpose - had to run a quarter of a mile just to flag a cab from the main street and convince the cabbie to enter this narrow and winding alley (cliche aside, this is a literal description - we had to wait five minutes on our way in because a little minivan was unloading produce at the local grocer).

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Oh, China

It's nearing three weeks now that I've been in China again, time enough to settle in and start missing the comforts and sanity of home. First, I found out upon close inspection that I had been living a dream - those stickers I posted about were actually fakes - "Washinton," not "Washington" apples. That's China for you.

Next, I ate a bad apple and was laid out sick for a day and a half. Just as I was regaining my ability to remain vertical without nausea, Jeremy came down with a bad sore throat. Strep throat? You got it, or at least that's what the doctor proclaimed with 90% certainty. Will we ever know? Not really, since he didn't take a culture but suggested a blood test instead - to "determine the strength of your immune system," he said, so he would know what strength antibiotic to prescribe. Not that I'm any expert, but we were just as happy to avoid the use of needles.

But the day ended happily. I had a productive meeting over in the Jianguomen embassy area, in Starbucks, no less. Sitting in a cushy sofa chair, gazing up at the surprisingly blue sky, and listening to a classic Starbucks mix, I could almost imagine that I was in California again. Cliche, perhaps. To top it off, we had pizza delivered for dinner!

So, to sum up our day, in chronological order:

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


And hopefully the last of the bitter cold.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's the little things that matter

Like having ready access to potable water. China's tap water isn't drinkable. Even for brushing teeth, bottled water is recommended. Here I am, immensely proud of having negotiated by phone a water delivery service.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Washington, my home sweet home

I doubt that all of these fruits were really imported from Washington State (I'm not even sure what kind of fruit the pink and green one on the right is), but seeing these stickers on a fancy fruit basket was still a nice surprise.

Chinese chess on a Monday afternoon

Around town

This is why I got my rabies vaccinations (apparently rabies is China's 2nd deadliest infectious disease, if you believe the official AIDS figures released by the government)

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Last night we had dinner with an old friend of mine from high school, Greg Distelhorst. He's working for the Washington Post's Beijing correspondent, Philip Pan. In fact, you can see his name in lights on the Washington Post's most emailed article for today, The Click That Broke a Government's Grip. Interesting article, too.

Saturday, February 18, 2006


Buying a cellphone. Just as much of a headache as in the United States, but with a whole new set of vocabulary. I never learned the words for "prepay", "mobile to mobile", or "text message" in my Chinese classes.

Dairy Queen is tasty under any circumstances, but particularly after a spicy-hot Szechuan meal. We stumbled upon this store at a local shopping mall while looking for flannel sheets, which don't seem to have made it onto the domestic Chinese market (though I don't doubt they're exported by the ton to the United States.)

Caveat Emptor

Life is very good. I bought a computer desk, chair, and halogen lamp from IKEA last night (half an hour before closing, after the crowds had thinned). We assembled the lot in less than two hours and I am happily, comfortably settled in next to the window (plenty of natural lighting) and the radiator (plenty of warmth for my toes).

I had a special breakfast this morning at the top of the China World Hotel, where you can eat your eggs and croissant while gazing out over the city's skyline. Well, the skyline looks pretty much the same in every direction. All of the really distinct buildings are less than three stories tall - namely, the Forbidden City and other bits of history scattered around the city, wedged between high rises and overpasses.

After breakfast, I stopped at the Silk Market, which was once an open-air bazaar near the World Trade Center and still is a major tourist trap and haven for pickpockets. I'd been snookered more than once by inflated prices for tourists (often at higher than 300% markup), so I was on my guard. Some two hours and three shops later, I came away with four items, my wallet lighter by a mere 11 dollars. Still, I wasn't sure that I'd gotten a good deal. Had I spotted this posted placard of handy phrases before making my purchases, I might have done better! (Apparently the Tourism Ministry thought to throw a bone to the unwary vacationer.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day!

情人节快乐! We took a break yesterday from running errands to celebrate Valentine's Day. The weather was unexpectedly beautiful for Beijing at any time of year. The coal dust parted and there was blue sky! The day was full of success, and provided a much needed reprieve from the crowds, sulfur, and bureaucratic headaches of the previous days. (Several hours were spent in vain trying various banks in the area, attempting to recharge the gas card to heat the radiators in our apartment)

Our first stop w
as a karaoke palace (钱柜)on the east side of the city. Karaoke to most Americans means a bar, but in China these establishments can run to hotel-quality. The marble foyer, for one, was a dead giveaway. The complimentary lunch buffet was extensive if not as delicious as the street food we've been having, and our private karaoke room was cushy, soundproofed, and equipped with a 50-inch TV.

Next we headed to one of Beijing's historic attractions for a nice view of the city's lakes from the top of the Drum Tower (
gulou). The area, Houhai, still preserves some of Beijing's traditional four-walled compounds and the narrow streets that in other parts of town have been bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers (see below).

The lakes are still frozen but the bicycle taxis were out in full force. Jeremy bought me a long-stemmed rose for a third of the price asked by a street hawker earlier in the day. We sighted the "Catholic Church" of Beijing and an Italian restaurant wedged in one of the hutongs, got hungry and hopped in a cab. 45 minutes later, we were still in the cab, stuck in traffic somewhere in the vicinity of the international trade district and diplomatic quarters. The sun had gone down, ruining our half-formed plans of dining at the top of one of Beijing's posh (and I mean posh, as in live
string quartets in the lobby) hotels, and we were now starving. Two Pizza Huts later (we didn't eat there - there were lines out the door and weren't in the mood anyway for baby corn with our pepperoni), we eventually stumbled upon a little hole in the wall, where for 6 dollars we dined on 4 dishes. The MSG and the second hand smoke nearly knocked us out.

The evening ended with a "foot" massage, which for 12 dollars included a leg, arm, and back massage as well. The massage parlor, like the karaoke establishment, was more hotel than salon. From what I could overhear of nearby conversations, business deals were being made while calluses were being removed. And I thought, how can I work things out so that all my business is conducted in a massage parlor?

Monday, February 13, 2006

First adventures in Beijing

Jeremy and I headed out yesterday to IKEA, thinking we would pick up a few inexpensive linens and household items. We had barely entered the warehouse before being jostled on all sides by a stream of similarly minded young Chinese in their 20s and 30s. Up the escalator we went, with a security guard barking at the shoppers to move in an orderly fashion. At the top of the escalator we were astounded by the number of people in the store. Each and every display was surrounded by shoppers picking over items. Moving through the store was less like taking a stroll and more like navigating a train station at rush hour. That was the first disappointment. The second was the prices, which were identical to those in the United States. What a contrast to the steaming hot croissant-like bing we’d bought off the street that morning, about 6 cents each. We did our best to leave the store as quickly as possible, which meant finding the aisles that had only 15 instead of 30 people in them. Outside, Jeremy spotted a “dumpling city” sign, which led to a delicious lunch of steamed dumplings and stir-fried eggplant, bell pepper, and potatoes.

Carrefour—the French equivalent of Walmart—was our next stop. Clearly, we had not learned our lesson – avoid Western stores on weekends, where throngs of middle class Chinese gather to spend their money. If anything, the store was more crowded than IKEA. Pushing the grocery cart, Jeremy and I could barely stay together as we moved, slowly and painfully, through the store. Like IKEA, the store is laid out so that you have to go upstairs before you can buy stuff downstairs.

The first time, we entirely missed the down ramp and made a full circuit. On the second pass, we found the down ramp entrance. Like cattle, we emerged onto the ground floor. There we were met with the spicy smoke of Chinese wok cooking and the sight of raw fish, stacked high in rows, heads all pointing in our direction. Hawkers called our attention to special promotions. I snagged a box of strawberries before ducking back into the crowd, checking to make sure that Jeremy and the shopping cart were not too far behind.