Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Keepin It Real

Well, you guys keep me on my toes.

It’s so easy to slip into boring and easy routine here in the compound. Take the kids to school, go to the gym, work, eat, read, work, pick the kids up. Play, eat, homework, out the kids to bed, work some more, read some more, go to bed. Repeat in the morning. It’s easy, it’s effective, it’s right there. And it leaves me a little bored and worse, with nothing to write about up here. Sometimes I think, “I must feed the blog. I better go over to the kite market or something.”

So it keeps me moving. And that’s a good thing.

I have actually been quite busy on the workfront. I am finishing up a few things for Slam and Guitar World and trying to figure out what to write for my next That’s BJ sports column while also get some work done on two stories I am working on for the Journal that are taking forever to get off the ground. In addition, I am trying to finish up some sample columns about life here. And, oh yeah, if I have a chance, I need a few good story ideas to send Sports Illustrated.

Despite all that, I would really prefer to just write these blog entries. I don’t know what that says about me and if you do, keep your mouth shut. If you have a good idea for a China-based SI story, however, please send it my way.

We had to renew our visas today, which is pretty funny considering we only got them a few months ago. But everything you get expires on 12/31 of that year. It is good for the year, not a year. So it is time to get the paperwork going to make us legal residents of P.R. china for 2006. We got all the paper work together and headed down to the police station/visa control office downtown. Same place we visited earlier this year.

Mr. Dou drove us down. We got in lane and waited our turn. The uniformed officee processed Becky’s paperwork then took mine, read it over, looked up and smiled. “Remember me?” he said. “I very like Slam.”

Of course, I remembered him. If you don’t, click .here
and scroll down.

“Now you’ve been here for a few months. Who do you think is the best Chinese basketball player?”

“I’m still not sure who is the best right now, but Yi Jianlin and Sun Yue have the most potential.”

“Oh yeah. Yi is very tall, like Yao. Sun can jump very high.”

Mr. Dou was listening to all this and he was flabbergasted. He had no idea what we were talking about or why this officer was being so friendly and solicitous to me. They conversed. The cop showed him my press pass and said, “I very like Slam” in Chinese I guess. Dou laughed and smiled at me. I think I gained a lot of prestige with him at that moment.

Then the officer asked the question of the moment, “What is wrong with the Rockets?” In case you don’t know they had lost 8 straight before winning last night and Yao is under increasing attack from Houston fans. This is a subject of grave concern here. I did an interview with a national sports newspaper about it the other day and several Chinese associates/friends who know what I do have called or emailed me about it. It’s hard not to just say, “Well, Yao’s not as good as you think.”

Jeff Van Gundy is probably my least favorite coach of recent memory. I despise watching his teams play, and he is so loaded with weird journeymen right now that with TMac out, poor Yao is just exposed. Hopefully TMac and Rafer will be ok and they’ll win some games and keep spirits up over here. I’m sure David Stern is hoping so. There is so much talk about china wanting to find the next Yao but I think the NB wants to just as badly. More soon…

Mad props to Dixie and DK

Dixie started his chemo yesterday and all reports are it went well. I spoke to him after he got home and he sounded pretty much fine, if a little tired.

Dr. David Kann shaved his head this morning in solidarity. Brother Dave says he's following suit. It was my idea so I guess I am on the hotseat now. I did get mine buzzed down to a number one yesterday, but I suppose that doesn't count. All i can say is, meow.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving Report

Thanksgiving was a lot of fun. We had 26 people here, 13 adults and 13 kids, mostly 5 and under. Several people were experiencing heir first Thanksgiving, and they all really enjoyed it. We had representation from China, Israel, Bolivia, Austria , Ethiopia and London. My Chinese teacher Wang Dong came as well as Shei Oster, new to B’s office and his girlfriend. The rest of the folks were Riviera residents and neighbors, including the yardleys, who sort of co-hosted. It was our house but they supplied a lot, including a second turkey.

We had traditional turkey, which was damn good. I followed a simple recipe from Epicurious – equal parts paprika, garlic powder and salt made into a paste and rubbed all over the bird, then just roasted it long and slow. We didn’t have a baster so we iprov’ed by pouring chicken broth over and that seemed to work well. The bird was really mist and tasty.

I also made a stuffing recipe we picked up from Epicurious, with country bread, pine nuts and raisins and a bunch of other veggies. It was delicious. We made a Stove Top and threw it in to the bird as well. Others brought potatoes, sweet potatoes, string beans, salad and, of course, lots and lots of wine. I supplied the endless Tsingtao beer. Mr. Li made us a pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkin and an apple pie on Weds. night. It was all delicious but, as always, the company made it and we had a really nice night.

Its kind of funny but this is one of the firs things that has really made feel like an adult. You’d think somewhere along the line to having three kids, something else would have kicked in, but I still feel like I belong at the kid’s table. But this is the first time I’ve ever hosted Thanskgiving rather than just reverting to being a kid, and there I was at the head of the table.

I certainly missed family and being in Pittsburgh, and seeing everyone but it wasn’t too bad. Jacob felt it most acutely. When we were going to bed, he said, “Thanskgivings at home are way better than this one.” I asked him why. “Well, this was fun, but it was just like a party. It didn’t seem like Thanksgiving.” The kid is smart. That could only mean, “Where the hell is the rest o fmy family?” so I asked if he missed his family and he said, “Yeah, especially Pop pop and Grandma Suzie.” Which makes sense because that is who we have had Thanksgiving with the last few years. I told him it was okay to miss your friends and family who are far away and still be happy and feel good about where you are and that I do so all the time.

He has been going though a bit of a homesick spell lately. About two weeks ago he and Eli both started complaining about missing stuff. It is really funny, too, because Jacob always says “New Jersey” as “this is better in new Jersey” while E refers to our homeland as… England. “When are we going to England, dad?” I guess because we speak English. Maybe because several of his friends are Brits and have probably been talking about going back to England.

Eli was feeling so homesick at one point he said, “I miss everyone in England. Even the adults.” As Steve Goldberg pointed out when I told him this, it must be really bad when they miss the adults. He ticked off on his fingers all the friends he wanted to see when we went home… “Jackson, Eli Gomberg, Ben Kessler, Jun, Luke, Lucas. Do I have another friends to see, dad?”

Jacob was more obsessed with missing our house. At one point in the bath, he pointed to some peeling caulk and said, “See our house in New Jersey is much better. That was particularly funny because the caulk in that tub is really peeling. He had already discussed this with Becky and he then said to me, “Do you know when we go back, we can’t even go into our house, even though it’s still ours?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But you wouldn’t really want to anyhow. Other people live there now and their stuff is there, not ours.”

“I t doesn’t matter, dad. It’s the house I want to see.”

Eli’s homesickness lasted a day or two and hasn’t really been mentioned again. Jacob’s has lingered a bit, though and pops up in odd ways. I picked up some pencils and sharpeners at the kite market last week. He needed them for school but the sharpener was terrible and the points got real sharp, then broke right away, no matter how we tried. He finally threw it across the room, sending shavings everywhere and saying to me, “See, dad? Nothing works right in China!” He has a point. All the good stuff is on container ships bound for Costco and Wal Mart. That same trip I bought a nail clipper that couldn’t clip.

Anyhow, Jacob is still mostly very happy and is thriving at school. They have a merit system where ou get one for particularly good behavior or work and every 10 you get an award at assembly – bronze, silver, gold. He earned his 10th today and is getting a certificate next Thursday and is very, very proud. He is the third kid and first boy in his class to earn his bronze (they just started it about 3-4 weeks ago).

Thanskgiving two is tomorrow (Saturday) at some friends’ house. It starts with a Turkey Bowl. Better late than never. Happy thanksgiving to all.

Scary stuff

Peas in a pod...

My interview with Jim mcGregor which I posted here last week ended up getting yanked from TBJ because the C-E-Nsor said so. I think I'll just leave it at that at this point. Apparently, they just don't like the book, thinking it too negative and don't want to assist in its promotion.

Meantime, back home, Jose Padilla is no longer an "enemy combatant." He is now just a regular indicted street thug or something. Except that he, an American citizen, was held wihtout charges being filed or the right to consult an attorney for a long, long time. Go back and look up when he was arrested. There was some big, bad news from iraq around then. It is scary, scary stuff. And a perfect example of why i feel obligated to not leave political discussions totally alone up here no matter how much Danny Cohen and Suzi Paul and probably a few more of you don't like it. These are not normal times in my humble opinion. The cynical manipulation of fear is breathtaking.

Meanwhile, the Senate refused to sign off on honoring the Boss because he campaigned for Kerry last year. Siegrfied and roy and a New Zealand golfer have been honored with resolutions, along with american Idol winners. I'm sure Toby Keith has had big ribbon planted on his chest. Think about that whole thing for a minute. It is really sick and twisted and downright totalitarian to deny an artist an honor on political grounds.

This is the NY Times editorial on padilla. I think this is a really important case and it should be thought about and discussed by regular people.

The New York Times
November 23, 2005
Um, About That Dirty Bomb?

Almost three and a half years ago, the Bush administration announced that it had arrested a Chicago-born man named Jose Padilla while he was entering the United States to explode a "dirty bomb" and blow up apartment buildings. The attorney general, John Ashcroft, said Mr. Padilla was a Qaeda-trained terrorist so dangerous that he was being tossed into a Navy brig and the key was being thrown away.

The administration hotly defended its right to hold Mr. Padilla without legal process because he was declared an unlawful enemy combatant, one of the new powers that President Bush granted himself after 9/11. The administration fought the case up to the Supreme Court. Mr. Padilla's plot was thwarted, the Justice Department claimed, only because of the government's ability to hold suspected terrorists in secretive prisons where they were sweated, to put it mildly, for information. The "dirty bomb" plot supposedly was divulged by a top Qaeda member who had been interrogated 100 times at one such location.

Never mind. As of yesterday, Mr. Padilla stopped being an unlawful combatant, and the new attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, refused even to talk about that issue. Mr. Padilla is not going to be charged with planning to explode bombs, dirty or otherwise, in the United States. Just in time for the administration to prod Congress on extending the Patriot Act and to avoid having to argue the case before the Supreme Court, Mr. Padilla was charged with aiding terrorists in other countries and will be turned over to civilian authorities.

Mr. Padilla was added late in the game, and in a minor role, to a continuing case against four other men. He faces serious charges that carry a possible life sentence, but they do nothing to clear up the enormous legal questions created by this case, nor do they have the remotest connection with the original accusations.

The Padilla case was supposed to be an example of why the administration needs to suspend prisoners' rights when it comes to the war on terror. It turned out to be the opposite. If Mr. Padilla was seriously planning a "dirty bomb" attack, he can never be held accountable for it in court because the illegal conditions under which he has been held will make it impossible to do that. If he was only an inept fellow traveler in the terrorist community, he is excellent proof that the government is fallible and needs the normal checks of the judicial system. And, of course, if he is innocent, he was the victim of a terrible injustice.

The same is true of the hundreds of other men held at Guantánamo Bay and in the C.I.A.'s secret prisons. This is hardly what Americans have had in mind hearing Mr. Bush's constant assurances since Sept. 11, 2001, that he will bring terrorists to justice.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The other other China

Pictured here are my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant and my meal there, the kite market in two different shots and a pot I bought there. The market actually looks like kind of nice here, because the kites are so pretty. It is really grungy, though.

The day after visiting “the other China,” land of high end stores and clean, antiseptic malls, I dove back into the other other China, in the form of a visit to the Wu Mei store and the kite market surrounding it. It is going to take all my descriptive skills to even attempt to describe this place.

Let me put it this way: Theo told me she used to go there all the time and has mostly stopped. She said her driver, who is a woman, quit hiding that she hated going and finally said to here, “Look, we don’t even go here, you know.”

It is on the other side of Jingshun Lu, the main road which runs North-South, just around the bend from the Riviera, maybe a half mile up the road and set back from the thoroughfare. There is no obvious way to drive in. You have to sort of pick a spot and go in between cars and little buildings and bump bump bump your way across a parking lot that is riddled with holes far too large to be prefixed by “pot.”

Inside there is a huge building. On the far right, in the back is the Wu Mei, a funny little store that has food, drugstore items, liquor and some other stuff. I bought the PBR there as well as some cookies and snacks for the kids. They have these little Pokemon drinking yogurts which Anna and Eli love and I haven’t seen anywhere else. But when I picked up a box of Orion Pies (Chinese ripoffs of Moon Pies) I noticed the price was the same as Jenny Lou’s the Western style grocery store where we do most of our shopping. So much for great local bargains. It is probably negotiable, though.

That is the only real store. The rest of the building and the larger, hanger-like structure next door, is a bunch of stalls, selling everything from basketball shoes to watch batteries, Tsingtao beer to produce, from meat to hardware. And everything in between. It is really pretty dirty in there. I would not buy meat and think twice about buying produce though that seems fine and you can wash it all. I usually soak anything not being peeled in water with a little dish soap for about 20 minutes, then scrub it. Someone told me to do that. I don’t know what it really does.

Outside, there are more vendors. On the side, there are guys selling pots, woks, hardware stuff, axes, hacksaws, you name it. I bought a new bike lock. In the front, there are some food vendors, selling things like scallion pancakes and a bunch of produce guys. In the very front of the lot, there are several rows of beautiful, brightly colored kites which you can see clearly from the road. (hence the whole place being called the kite market.)

I decided to walk over and check out the kites, which I had never done before. On my way I passed several people selling trinkets laid out on blankets. I stopped to look at some and was surrounded. I did some decent bargaining and got two porcelain pots which now house our Chinese tea, a wooden Buddha and a vase or pot of some sort. I think I actually like the stuff. Definitely the tea containers. My stopping to look, then buy prompted a few other people selling stuff to run up to me with their best wares, and some of the stuff looked pretty nice. But I had had enough. On my way back to the car, I bought some oranges, and saw a guy selling goldfish and koy.

I got back in the car and bump bump bumped my way out of there. I was hungry, amazingly having not lost my appetite in there, and drove just across the road to the little hole in the wall restaurant next to the Giant bike store, which I have described before. This place is really good, the quintessential joint you always try to find on your travels. I need to go there even more than I do. The place is always filled with workers, almost always men for some reason.

They know me now and basically start laughing when I walk in knowing I am going to point to someone else’s table and order what they’re having. The owner is a sort of beefy guy of about 45 and he thinks my ordering method is hilarious. And you know what? It works. I always get the meet and scallion pancakes, which are a house specialty. I know that because every single person in there gets them and they are really, really good. Yesterday, I also got a big bowl of what was basically hot and sour soup. It wasn’t that different from a really good version of what they serve in the States except it tasted fresher, with more tofu, more of those little pickled things and bits of fresh cilantro spiked throughout. Really tasty. After that, I drove back into exp[at china and went Thanksgiving shopping at Jenny Lou’s.

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy turkey day to one and all. This is our first holiday over here. It is starting to feel slightly melancholy but not in any kind of really profound way. I always enjoy being in Pittsburgh for the weekend and seeing many, many old friends. My folks are in NJ this year as it turns out anyhow.

We are actually having Thanskgiving over here tomorrow, with a bunch of people, and are going elsewhere on saturday for another celebation.

Thursday and Friday are normal work/school days here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

You want pictures? You've got pictures.

I had a lot of requests for pictures from the restaurant and little village I wrote about the other day. Pictured here are the restaurant's exterior and the frame shop and produce stand.

Also shown is the six pack of PBR, which I was very happy to find in the Wo Mei (I Buy) convenience store. A post on that shopping trip is coming tomorrow. Though they brew the PBR in China that was the first time I've seen it and I was happy. I'll pop one tonight and let you know how it tastes. Fat Al lives, baby.

Next you have my first attempt at Chinese painting, done in a class while the boys were at Sunday school (yet another post-worthy event). Not bad for a first effort, but my next will be better. And the framed picture I picked up yesterday. They did a great job.

The Other China, the dauphin visits and more...

Pictured here are the lobby of the China World hotel and Becky's new purse.

We took the kids to the wonderfully named FunDazzle on Saturday. It seemed like they deserved a little reward for all their good behavior and we hadn’t been there in months. (Click here to this old post if you don’t know what FunDazzle is.)

We had Jacob’s friend Lucas with us, because he had slept over. We walked in there and Jacob and Lucas were gone, off to play full-speed tag for hours. I heard a voice calling my name: “Eli’s dad! EIi’s dad!

"Where’s Eli?”

It was Eli’s friend Donald from his class. They embraced, and bam E was gone. I saw there was a birthday party going on in a little room off of the balcony. Donald was a guest and he brought Eli in to have a drink. I saw lots of kids, most of them Western (Donald is actually Chinese) walking in and out wearing costumes. I walked in to check it out and see Eli. Someone called out my real name. I turned around and the host/father of the party came over and said hi.

It was Adam Pillsbury, who works at That’s Beijing and is the Editor of the Insider’s Guide to Beijing as well as the Kids’ Guide to Beijing, both of which we use often. We met when I went into the office last month. I chatted with him for a while and he and his wife were very nice and invited all our kids in to gorge on lollipops, pizza, cake, juice, etc. They made themselves right at home. As I walked out of the room, a three-year-old kid in full-on Hines Ward Stillers uniform toddled by me tailed by his father, who looked to be about my age and social class. I thought. “That has to be that Eric guy from Squirrel Hill I keep hearing about.”

I went up to him and said, “Hi. Are you the Squirrel Hill guy I keep being told to look up?”
“Probably,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Eric Rosenblum.”
“Hi Eric, I’m Alan Paul, the other Jewish guy from Squirrel Hill in Beijing.”
“Oh, hi! I’ve been told to look you up by all my parents’ friends. It’s so nice to meet you.”
And so it goes. As eric's wife Titi observed, it is always wear-your-Steelers-uniform-to-work day in Pittsburgh and the same principle holds sway for those of us in the diaspora, wherever we may be. It turns out Eric is actually from Steubenville, but he went to Shadyside Academy.

We chatted for a long time while watching our kids and few hundred Chinese youth run until their heads could fall off and then he invited us over to their downtown apartment for brunch the next day. We went and had a really nice time and I was sort of amazed by how many people we knew there. That is partly because he and his wife seem to be friends with an awful lot of journalists, but there were some folks from the Riviera, some from synagogue. Eric and his wife have been here for about 10 years and it amazed me how many crossing paths we already had with them. It was also a reminder that though we live in this sprawling metropolis, we actually reside in a pretty small little world.

Anyhow… after FunDazzle, we headed over to the China World mall. Becky has been over there many times for work, but never into the mall, which is underground beneath a large, top-end hotel and office building. I had never been in there at all, though it is right next to the Kerry Centre Hotel, where we stayed on our first visit here last April and where I have been a bunch of times.

We walked into the mall, went down an escalator and were standing on a balcony overlooking an ice skating rink. Eli immediately wanted to go down and try, as did Lucas, who just moved here from Switzerland and said he is really good at ice skating. My kids have never had skates on their feet. I felt a little remiss about that, especially when it became clear that Jacob wanted nothing to do with ice skating. Adamantly so.

We walked around a bit and the place is huge and sprawling and pretty damn confusing. Becky was looking for a leather store where Lucas’ mother had purchased a purse recently. We were dragging around all over the place. We had left our stroller in the cab we took downtown. It was Lu Taitai, our semi-regular driver, so we knew it would be dropped off at our house later, but I was carrying Anna around and trying to sort of drag along the other three, who were hungover and beat from the three hours they spent racing around FunDazzle like they had rocket propellers strapped on their backs.

All of which was to say, the trip to the mall as not without its stresses and discomfort. But what was really interesting for me was being immersed in the other China. It is really easy to have a lifestyle here where you mostly deal with expats with means (including many Hong Kong, Taiwanese and “returning” Chinese) and Chinese peasants, workers and domestic help. Then you go into a mall and see high-end leather stores, $1000 Chicco strollers, miles of makeup counters, lingerie stores, Benetton, 9 West... and 95 percent of the customers are Chinese. There are a lot of people here with a lot of disposable income.

Our group was sort of falling apart and I wanted to abort the mission and get some food and sit the kids down, but Becky was adamant – she wanted a new purse-- so we pushed on. Anna insisted on walking, so I trailed behind with her while B plowed ahead with the three boys. By the time I straggled into the leather shop, Becky was purchasing the purse, Eli was flopping around the ground and Lucas was trying to staunch a bloody nose. Jacob was just sort of staring into space.

We loafed around the mall a bit more, checked out the ice skating and then hit paydirt, a Lego store, the first time we have been to any such thing here. The boys were really excited and Anna enjoyed playing at the table as well. We bought them each a smallish Lego and headed out. This kind of stuff is imported and is more expensive than at home, but still not that bad. Maybe 10 percent more. Compared to what we pay for other stuff, it does seem really expensive, though.

The one other thing that really struck me at the mall, especially when we passed through the makeup area and some other women’s fashion stores is that virtually all of the models featured in the billboards and ads are Western. That seems sort of sad to me and B concurs. It just seems a little self hating or something and rather absurd considering how beautiful so many Chinese women are. On a practical level, it also seems dumb, because I would think that a Chinese woman buying makeup would want examples of how someone like her might use it to best effect. But what do I know about such things?

We capped off the day with a nice dinner at a quasi fast food Japanese noodle shop, which the kids loved. Mr. Lu picked us up and drove us home and I was really glad we didn’t take a cab because he took a roundabout route to avoid the Third Ring Road, which would have been the most direct route but was apparently totally blocked because of Bush’s visit.

A lot of you have written asking my impressions of Bush’s visit. First thing you should now is our sources of information on it are the same as yours. I am, of course, embarrassed by our dauphin. I thought it was absurd that he came here for one day and went to church. I understand he was making a point but for whose benefit and edification? There are many, many human rts and other issues to take up here and relig. frdom does not seem to be one that is burning people up here from the inside, though others certainly are. That was a stunt clearly served up for "his base" back home. Maybe he can get the Dept of Education to send over some Intelligent Design textbooks.

At the same time, I have seen some on the left, notably Arianna Huffington, giving him a hard time about being so soft on the Chinese about hr issues. That is a tough call, but I don’t think he’s in a great position right now to come here and rattle his saber, humiliating his hosts. It was bad enough that he went to church and gave a speech in Japan praising T.wan as a bastion of democracy. So I think that is actually piling on and unfair criticism. I now am on the record defending W one time.

And no, Becky did not attend any events. the WH kept it very limited to WH reporters and the Journal had someone traveling with him. She edited the stories, though.

Music listened to while writing this post: a wide mix, including Albert King, “I’ll Play the Blues For You,” ; Johnny Cash, “One” – you must hear this now; Bob Dylan , “Shelter From the Storm,” : Jackie Wilson, “Higher and Higher”; Peter Gabriel, "Washing of the water," Robert Cray, “Phone Booth” -- easy to forget how good and promising he once was

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Hanging in the "willage"

There is a little village right around the corner from us, probably no more than 300 yards from the back gate of the Riviera. Villages around here are not what you might think of. It’s not a bunch of little houses clustered around a town square and it’s not shanties. They tend to be long, linked brick buildings, which each contain a multitude of private homes. Often, there are entrances to the villages off of the main road, so you mostly just drive or ride by and sort of look down there.

But there are also several villages you can easily visit and I ride my bike pretty regularly through a few, including this one. You go over there and go past a large standing pipe on the right. Sometimes I see tanker trucks coming there to fill up with water. Sometimes I see regular people with big containers filling up. On the left, there is a small gated community of large homes, a sort of mini Chinese compound. Then you are in the middle of the village’s commercial center.

On the left there is a run-down supermarket of sorts, a meat store and a couple of produce stands, as well as a cigarette/convenience store. Next to the second fruit stand and set back is Tammy’s Frame shop, a really nice little store that definitely gets its share of expat business. Across the street is a little restaurant, which is more or less some oil drums with stools around them under a tent.

I have started going over there to visit the second fruit store quite regularly. They have really good stuff really cheaply. It can be a tad more if you get watermelon or some other stuff flown in this time of the year from the far South of china. Otherwise, I can get huge bags of apples, pears, apple/pears, navel oranges, clementines, bananas, tiny clementines which Anna devours, plus carrots, zuchinni, cucmbers, sweet potatoes, celery.. all for about 4 bucks. I usually ride my bike over and the woman there gets a kick out of helping me carry the stuff out and squeeze it all into my basket and onto my handlebars.

I have also taken a bunch of stuff over to the frame store, most recently a Danny clinch photo of me with Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes taken at the Beacon Theatre 4-5 years ago. That one is really dear to me and I can’t wait to pick it up on Monday. Stuff looks great and never costs more than 10-12 bucks to have something framed and matted. They also have a small amount of furniture and crafts there and it’s nice and cheap, though very limited. We bought our first piece there, a dresser that they said is 80-100 years old and I believe them. That is not considered an antique here. Some say something has to be more than 200 years old to qualify. I will post a picture of the dresser and the town soon.

When I was in the frame shop, I realized I was really hungry. I wasn’t sure about the oil drum place across the street so I asked the guy in the store who speaks a little English about where to eat. He walked me out and pointed to a place two doors down and set back from the street. I thanked him and headed over. It was about 2:00 pm and the place was empty. Chinese eat at exactly noon. It is pretty funny. Between 11:30-12:30 restaurants are packed and roads are empty. After 12:30 they are empty. I walked in there and they looked at me so strangely, I might as well have been an alien. Remember, this place is a 3-minute bike ride from the Riviera, where hundreds, maybe thousands of expats live. And it’s basically next door to the frame store, which definitely serves many foreigners.

I sat down and the two waitresses both came over to try and help me. They handed me a menu, which did me no good, of course. No pictures there, and no one else eating so I could use my favorite point and grin technique. I said I wanted noodles and I’m pretty sure I said it right. I figured whatever kind of noodles they brought out would be good. But they weren’t satisfied with that and kept asking me more questions, which I couldn’t answer. I kept saying, “Wo budong” (I don’t understand). It was pretty comical and they were laughing. They were pantomiming all sorts of things. The only thing I could relay make out was someone making noodles and I kept saying “dui, dui,” which means “right, right.”

After consulting one another, one waitress retreated to the kitchen. The other brought me the tea I requested, then sort of hovered around me. I wasn’t sure what she wanted. I looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back, then pointed to the table and said, in remarkably unaccented Engligh, “Desk.”

“Bu (no) Desk,” I said. “Table.”

She was puzzled. And brought me over her pen and order sheets. I wrote out table. She looked at it and read, clearly, “Table.”

I took the pad and wrote

She read them all. Then my food was ready. The cook poked his head through the opening from the kitchen, wanting a look at me. I smiled, he smiled and stared. The two girls brought me my food, anxious to see how I would respond. It was a big bowl of brown broth. I smiled, smelled it and stirred it with my chopsticks. At the bottom was a big heaping of fresh, flat noodles. I said, “Hen hao” (very good) and started eating. It was simple, peasant food more or less, but quite good. The noodles were definitely rolled out just before being cooked. They were flat, sort of fettucine-style. The broth was beef, with a few pieces of stew meat and some tasty fresh greens floating around. I more or less left the meat but ate the rest and it was good and filling and warming.

Afterwards, the cook came out to have another look and another guy saw me from the street and wandered in to have a cigarette and tea and stare at me. He offered me a cig, which I waved off, then started talking to me, but I could not respond, except to smile and say “wo bu dong.”

My pupil returned with her sheet and I wrote some more words. A few more people wandered in. I now had a class and one of them called me “loashi” (teacher) which made everyone laugh. It made me feel good, to be honest. I was writing down all the simple words, I could think of, any objects I could see, writing them, reading them and pointing. “Bowl, Television, spoon, shirt.” The one waitress was really into it and could read the English and say the words perfectly. Everyone else was just happy to see and hear it all.

Eventually I paid and left. The bill was three kuai. (about 40 cents). I said “Shia shia. Tsai Jien” (Thank you. Good bye.) and my star pupil answered back, “You’re welcome. Thank you. Good Bye.”

I pedaled home, my basket overflowing with fruit.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Life: flu shots, driving around...

We’re all dong pretty well here and chugging along in day to day life. No great adventures. Haven’t made it out of the compound and out into the real world all that much in recent weeks. We were a little staggered by news from the homefront. Becky got real busy at work because a few new people started and she had to work them in. We had our first visitors, which was fun but definitely takes a bit out of you. And on and on we go.

But we’re all good. I am working on two stories for the Journal, which will be pretty interesting if they pan out. I’ll have more to say soon, but one is sports-related and one is a first-person lifestyle piece about stuff I’ve written about up here.

I have been driving around some and it is really liberating. I didn’t fully realize how limiting it felt to not drive after all these years behind the wheel until I got my license and started driving. The kids had last Thursday and Friday and then Monday off for teacher’s meetings or whatever. It felt like they did a need a bit of a break actually, but those three days sure dragged on. On Friday, I drove them all up to River Garden (where we used to live), left them at Kathy’s house for an extended play date, came back and worked =for a few hours and went back and got them. It’s only 10 minutes away sans traffic and that’s no big deal, right? Except it was. Not sure I would have done it f I had to take a cab each way. And then there’s the fact that there’s no better than a 50 percent chance of the cabs having seat belts in the back, which is obviously not a great situation.

Monday, I drove us all down to Untied Hospital to get flu shots. Becky got one at work but I took the kids. It was my farthest afield drive as that is in town, about half way to downtown. I decided to go for it after my friend Ingrid said it was easy to get to and drew me a map and I knew the basic area fairly well. Luckily, Ding Ayi came with me because Ingrid forgot to mention the two insane traffic circles I had to navigate. Ding knew the way and it was very good to have a navigator so I could just focus on driving. The driving is pretty nutso but not all that bad to me having so much NYC road experience. You definitely have to be on your tows and think aggressively. There are not really lanes, but more vaguely defined driving areas.

United is a Western style hospital. Everyone there speaks English and the doctors are supposedly Western trained. Of course, we were just getting shots. It was a nice place, though, quite comfortable with a good kids’ waiting area stocked with great books. Jacob sat down, picked up the Lorax and started reading it to himself. I was so proud.

Eli began protesting going for the shot the night before. He was adamantly opposed to the whole thing and swore over and over he was not going. The word “hospital” freaked him out so I told him in china that’s where you see doctors and it didn’t mean we were sick. That calmed him temporarily, but he was on edgh and definitely plotting how to avoid the shot. We were called in and all five of us went into a little room. I said I would go first to show how it didn’t hurt. Jacob was right in front of me, studying the procedure with the intensity of a greenhorn learning to do a tracheotomy.

They had some kind of problem with my shot. No big deal, butt hey were kind of swirling it around my shoulder muscle and there were drops of blood popping out. Frankly, it hurt (and still does a bit two days later) but I kept smiling. It did take a little long though and Jacob’s eyes were getting wide as saucers. “Oh man!” he exclaimed. “China shots are not like New Jersey shots! They take, like, five minutes, not one second.”

“No, no,” I assured. “That’s how all adult shots are.” God, being a parent turns you into a crafty lier.

He sort of bought it, or at least went with it. Anna was goofing around. Eli was growing more and more terrified. Jacob said he would go next. I toldEeli to leave the room. He did. Then he came back. In and out. Jacob finally sat down on my lap and got his shot. He cried for a few seconds, and Eli walked in while there were tears. “Did it hurt Jacob? Did it hurt?”

Jacob very helpfully said, “Yeah, it hurt. They give long shots here.”

Eli screamed and fled. Seriously. He was gone. Anna sat down on my lap. I unbuttoned her blouse and held her pudgy little arm and she got the shot. She cried for a millisecond. I let Ding take her out and I went out to get Eli. Jacob was back out there reading the Lorax. I looked out the window to see if there was a DVD store on the block so I could properly bribe E and saw a woman in leather pants with long black hair literally trying to drag a man passing by into a massage parlor. They do that here and it’s not the back getting rubbed, but that’s a whole other post for another day. I had to borrow some of those arm-grabbing techniques and drag Eli with me.

I brought him back in. There were two nurses there and he would not sit down on my lap. One of them said, “Your little sister got the shot and she didn’t cry.” Like he cared. He was bucking around like a bronco. Oh, I should also mention that he was dressed in a full Steelers uniform. Gold football pants and a black and gold Steelers logo jersey. We were all kitted out for the game yesterday morning, but I took my Randle El jersey off before heading for the hospital. (They look like a first round playoff loser to me, but that’s yet another post.)

I remembered that I had some candy in my pocket.. these sort of gummy Life Savery things that E likes. I pulled them out and said, “You can have these after your shot.”

“Nope, now,” he said, bucking away from me.

“Okay, you can take one and put in your mouth and suck on it while you get the shot. Then you can have the rest.” He takes it, a tacit acceptance of terms. Or so I think. He dodges off my lap again and screams, “Jus let me finish this and then I’ll get the shot!” Suck, suck, exaggerated, lip-smacking suck. This could take a while. Finally, I pick him back up and one of the nurses says to me, “Hold him hard between your legs. I will hold his arm.”

And so we do. He is moving around and screaming like he is getting a heart and lung transplant without Novicane, but the other nurse gets the needle in and out and it's over. They slap a band aid on and EIi doesn’t quite know what to do so he asks for another candy.

Then we go home. No problems.

Mr. Li was here, cooking away. He had steak and potatoes, but he also had something else cooking., I couldn’t tell what it was so I asked him and he smiled. “Pancakes.” He so desperately wants to make something Jacob will eat. He has whipped up fresh fettucine and made great scallion pancakes and something has always been wrong, with everything but the dumplings. But the fact is, if Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck and Chef Boyardee himself gathered in our kitchen for a quorum meeting and crafted a Jacob-special meal, he would likely sniff it, push it away and ask for a bowl of Honeycombs. Which is what he did with the pancakes. They were kind of greasy, I must say.

Soccer Season is over

Last Saturday was the final soccer game for both boys. I coached both teams and I was completely fried every week by 11:30 Saturday morning. Sometimes we would go out for breakfast afterwards at Steak and eggs, this diner nearby which is quite good, and I would feel like ordering a shot and beer instead of a cup of coffee.

I swore I wouldn’t double dip, but I have coached so many of J’s teams that I thought I should coach Eli. I signed up as assistant coach on Jacob's team, which I was until the head coach started having business trips every week. I was head coach for the last month. It was actually a lot of fun and his games are starting to resemble real soccer games. The real funny thing was when I would ref. (One coach does it every week, which create some problems, actually.) I really don’t know the rules. I think I was a little better than the Chinese softball ump who called an out when the hulking Marine commander playing third base for the Embassy team caught a foul ball off the fence, but I was definitely a work in progress. I took some after school tutorials on the playground from Mr. Wyatt, the Dulwich PE instructor who played soccer in college.

I have to admit, though, that I really did not enjoy coaching Eli's team. First of all, 5 year olds are largely too young to really do this. Their attention span is about 20 seconds. And we spent the first half of the hour doing drills and practicing. Imagine trying to run drills with a bunch of stray cats and you’ll have a picture. Having Eli attached to my left leg three quarters of the time did not help. My co-coach was one of the most boring, least inspiring guys you can imagine, but he showed up with a plan every week so I happily let him execute it. A lame plan is better than no plan, right?

Elis pent quite a few weeks basically not playing and I almost left him at home for the last go. I'm glad I didn’t because he actually played and did pretty well. The other funny thing is, of all the 5 year olds, there are probably 6 or 7 who can really play and they are pretty amazing. Most of them are Europeans. Actually, all of them are Europeans. Eli's friend Brandon is one of them. He's also big and strong and he kept taking the ball and running down for breakaways. It felt really unfair to have these poor little kids standing there at goalie, like a house trying to stop a thundering rhino. Luckily, no one was hurt and the kids are so out of it soccer wise, they only partially release they are being beaten like a drum.

Anyhow, as usual, the kids' sporting life was good for our social life. We met and hung out with a bunch of people this way. Jacob now will start playing floorball this Saturday. i think it is like field hockey with a ball, but I don’t really know. Apparently, Jacob excelled at this game at Camp Riverbend and he is very excited. Guess who is coaching?

Olympics mascots

Here's a photo, as requested.

From The China Daily:
The five Olympic mascots Beijing unveiled on Friday are Bei Bei, Jing Jing, Huan Huan, Ying Ying and Ni Ni, which, put together, translates to "Beijing welcomes you!"

Second Sports column

Sports are most intriguing when it offers up a deeper view into society at large. Such is clearly the case with one of Beijing’s two professional basketball teams, the Aoshen Olympians. Most teams in the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) are affiliated with local sports authorities. But Aoshen has been a rebel outfit since it was formed in 1997, independently funded by a real estate company.

When the CBA twice called Aoshen star guard Sun Yue up to the Under-20 National Team and the team refused to release him, they were banned from first division games. If and where they would play this season became a matter of great intrigue for Chinese hoops watchers, many of whom consider Aoshen to be the nation’s best-coached, most refreshing team.

A détente was reached last June when Aoshen finally released Sun to the National Team. A 6-7 (2.05 m) point guard whose size and athleticism have caused many to finger him and 6-10 power forward Yi Jianlin, as China’s next great hoops hopes, Sun played in the Asian and East Asian Games over the summer. The question then became, would Aoshen be welcomed back into the CBA fold?

Apparently, the year-long ban is still in place, but Aoshen landed in a much more interesting place, opting to play in the American Basketball Association instead, spending the season based in Southern California. Their home games are being played in the LA suburb of Maywood. I got a hold of Sun through the team’s representative in California and met with him the day after his 20th birthday in an empty conference room in Aoshen’s headquarters in a beautiful downtown building. He was in Beijing for one day between the East Asian Games in Macou and a flight to LA, where the rest of the team had been practicing and playing for four months, while studying at the University of the West.

Sun entered the drafty room wearing a pair of faux spray-painted Ecko jeans and a maroon leather jacket, sporting a small cross in his left ear and a silver necklace around his neck. His hair was stylishly coiffed. I was struck by Sun’s size; perhaps Chinese basketball players and officials haven’t learned to lie about a player’s size yet; in America a “6-7 point guard” is usually closer to 6-5, but Sun looked every bit his listed height. And despite the official word, and Sun’s own admonition that he desperately need to gain weight and upper body strength, his shoulders looked broad and square, his arms anything but gangly.

“Everyone calls me Q Tip,” Sun said by way of introduction, surprising me by ignoring our interpreter and speaking in English. “But I don’t know why.”

He also answered directly back in English when I asked who his favorite player was. “Lebron,” he said without hesitation.

Sun is being hyped as a potential NBA player, not least by his team, but even the Hebai native himself won’t go that far. “Right now I am not mature enough to play in the NBA,” he said to the interpreter, careful to have these words properly understood. “I only hope that some day I will be.”

In fact, though Sun is considered a lock for the National Team for years to come, he refuses to even take the ’08 Olympics for granted, at least publicly. “It is my dream and everyone else’s in China to play in the ’08 Games because they are in Beijing,” he said. “Playing on the National Team has been a great experience and I learned a lot.”

He said it was excited to play in the U.S. this year to begin testing his mettle against “the best” but the truth is the ABA is largely a collection of has-been’s and never-will-be’s. Still, the overall level of athleticism and court savvy is undoubtedly higher than in the CBA and this is an extremely intriguing venture for anyone who cares about Chinese hoops. All of Aoshen’s games are supposed to be shown on CCTV Channel 5, so we’ll able to tune in and see how the team fares and how Sun progresses. Check out to stay abreast of the team’s schedule.
I’m not quite sure what to make of the five doll mascots for the 2008 Olympic Games unveiled in Beijing on November 11, exactly 1,000 days before the event's opening ceremony. The mascots are designed to embody the Olympic Flame and the natural characteristics of four of China's “popular animals” -- the Fish, the Panda, the Tibetan Antelope and the Swallow. I’m not sure how many people have been waiting around for a Tibetan Antelope mascot to hug at night, but the release of these furry critters is a sure sign that the Olympic countdown and its ensuing frenzy is officially underway.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Interview for That's Beijing

This is going to run in the next issue of That's Beijing, along with my second sports column, if I ever write it. It is so much more fun to write these blog entries. McGregor is an interesting guy. He actually is the dude who bought this house and the car we drive, when he was running the DJ operations here. We had him over for dinner last month and he reminisced. He is a great tale teller and I definitely recommend his book. I really don't know him too well, though, and besides, as he says in his book, "In China, a conflict of interest is viewed as competitive advantage."

Five questions with James McGregor.
James McGregor is the author of One Billion Customers: Lessons From the Front Lines of Doing Business in China. He was the Wall Street Journal China bureau chief in the early 90s before moving to the paper’s business side and becoming the chief executive of Dow Jones’ China business operations throughout much of the 90s. He next became a venture capital investor and is currently a China business investor, adviser and entrepreneur.

You write that when you first started reporting from here in 1990, American business did not want to talk about their success because China was seen as an international pariah. When did you see that start to change?
It’s still that way, though not for precisely the same reasons. Deng Xiaoping made it kosher to invest in China but no one’s ever made it okay for a foreign company to make a lot of money here. That is looked at as exploiting the Chinese people, so companies still try to keep their heads down here a bit.

From the American or European end, the acceptability of doing business here goes back and forth. On the one hand, companies like to promote that they are doing business in China because it help boosts their stock prices. China is a hot market. On the other hand, however, whenever geopolitical problems arise and the U.S. and China have differences, people like to keep their heads down. China is a mixed bag. It is a complicated place so it is not always a simple story for a business to explain.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about doing business in China?
A lot of the consultants purposefully make China a more mysterious and otherworldly place because that gives them power with their clients. I don’t believe China is that complicated. People here are the same as they are anywhere. Of course it has its own traditions and cultural differences and understanding them is important, but it’s not that complicated. What I try to do in the book is demystify it and say, “This is how people think and this is why… This is the way people act and this is why.” They have a couple thousand years of culturally encoded behavior and you just have to take the time to try and understand that.

•You say that one important thing to understand is that in the U.S. we have the rule of law, while China has rule by law. Can you explain the difference?

The rule of law is the blind goddess of Justice where the law is above everything. As we see right now in the U.S. with Scooter Libby being indicted and as we saw with Clinton and Monica, sometimes the law does things in the U.S. that seem sort of dumb and excessive, but it’s the law and it must be served.

In China, you have rule by law. The law is the means for the rulers to keep control of society and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a huge improvement from personality and cult of personality running the country. They try to have a codified system of rules and regulations dictating how things work, but the party has to be above the law. That’s how the system works. The party is the law and justice is whatever makes the system look good.

•You offer a lot of warnings about becoming too dependent on guanxi or a single government official. Is this something you’ve seen often?
It happens all the time. You have to realize there are 60-70,000 Chinese students in America at any given time. When they graduate they go work for these companies and say, “I have the silver bullet because my uncle is the Minister of Natural Resources” or my brother is this or my friend is that.

Americans are vulnerable to this way of thinking because they are always looking for the silver bullet, the simple solution, the quick way to cut through all the red tape and difficulties. But it doesn’t work that way in China. You have to have many, many layers and levels of support and you have to fit well with what China wants to do and its own plans for economic development. On some level, that seems apparent but it’s not obvious in the United States. You don’t plan your business around what’s good for the United States. You plan your business around what’s good for you and what’s going to make money. It’s counter-intuitive for most people, but if you are trying to get things done, you have to be able to show that what you are trying to accomplish will be good for China and not just your company.

•You talk about lack of trust and people’s expectations of being cheated. In practical terms how does that impact how you have to treat both your employees and your partners and colleagues?

It makes it a more difficult business environment because people just assume you are going to try and cheat them. They think that’s automatically the way you are going to do things and that’s one reason people like to hire people they know or people they know know. Doing business with strangers and hiring strangers, you often assume they are going to rip you off. That is going to take a generation or two to come out of the system. The place has been through 200 yeas of turmoil during which many people have in fact been betrayed and cheated, and that’s the main reason for the high level of distrust between individuals who don’t know each other. V

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Good news

Election reuslts looked good. we neglected to vote absentee, which I am upset about. Will not happen again. But aside from Ah-nold being beaten back, this very local election is what I was happiest about. nothing makes my blood boil more than this "inteligent design" crap.

From the NY Times

A Decisive Election in a Town Roiled Over Intelligent Design

Published: November 10, 2005

DOVER, Pa., Nov. 9 - In the end, voters here said they were tired of being portrayed as a northern version of Dayton, Tenn., a Bible Belt hamlet where 80 years ago a biology teacher named John Scopes was tried for illegally teaching evolution.

On Tuesday, the residents of Dover ousted all eight school board members running for re-election who had put their town in a global spotlight and their school district on trial for being the first in the nation to introduce intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in science class. In swept the full Dover Cares slate of eight candidates, which had coalesced to oppose the change in the science curriculum.

Lost wallets and Chinese fire drills

I was in a cab on my way to Chinese class today with my friend tom. I got a phone call from home and got into a pretty long and intense discussion with my dad. We got to school. It was my turn to pay. I threw a 50 kuai at tom and got out of the car, still talking. Tom handed me change and a receipt and I waved him in, said I’d join him soon. He departed. I was still on the phone, but something didn’t feel quite right. Suddenly, it hit me: My wallet!

I went through those exaggerated motions which must look hilarious to a bystander – patting every pocket, rifling through coat pocket, rummaging through every zippered pocket in my bag.. all to no avail. I was still talking to my dad.
“Fuck!” I said.
“It’s ok” he said.
“No my wallet, my wallet. I left it in the cab.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, alan. Go find it.”
Too late, man. That cab was gone.

I said good bye and headed up to class. I went to the office and told the administrators what happened. They ripped the receipt out of my hand and all three women in there started dialing away. There is no central number apparently, but the cab company’s phone number is on the receipt. They finally got through and were chattering away before hanging up and smiling at me.

“We found them and they will call the driver now,” I was told. “He will not steal it now. You only have to hope another customer did not find it first. Go to class now.”

So I do, rather distracted. Tom had already started. He tells me there will be a fire drill in 20 minutes. We go to work, mispronouncing till our hearts content. Then the fire drill, right on time. We all file out into the stairwell and I say to Tom, “He, this is a real Chinese fire drill.” We cracked up. But it was actually quite orderly and calm and more or less like a fire drill at home. Going down the steps, I was reminded of the classic story of Harold Steinblatt interviewing B.B. King for Guitar World on the 20-something floor of the midtown Hilton when there was a real fire.

Harold had to stifle his run-like-hell impulse to trudge down the 20-some floors with an elderly, obese b.b., laboring every step of the way. People fleeing would stop constantly to say, “Hey, B.B. King!” and shake his hand before running off. I love that story.

Anyhow, we got down to the ground floor and the director came over and told e my wallet had been found and she told them I would pay 100 kuai plus the cab fare from where they now were. No problem. I went back to class and about half hour later, they came ad got me. My wallet was back, with the 500 kuai still in there. Unbelievable.

More hoops talk

Ben Osborne wrote:
The Pistons did look really good last night--and have all season. The game was on NBATV last night, which now carries at least one game every night that TNT or ESPN don't. They use local announcers but put the NBATV fonts on the screen. In any event, maybe the channel over there will cover all the NBATV games (seems logical enough). runs the day's tv schedule every day so maybe you can test this theory out and get to see your beloved Pistons a few more times before you're back in the States. Incidentally, Carlos Arroyo was MUCH better in their first three games. Trust me.

The SportsPlus channel here, which is broadcast from the Phillipines is much more mysterious than that. They have been showing football games and it’s totally random. You flip on Weds. afternoon and they have a game on.. they run the direct feeds from CBS, on tape, halftime show and all. The mystery is trying to figure out a schedule and figure out why they picked he games they do, which are often literally the very worst ones. Texans-titans, bears-anyone, etc.

If you are showing a game 48-72 hours later, shouldn’t you pick the very best available? They also show games live. Someone told me that and Monday at 7 am I decided to try it out, see f the Steelers/Packers games were on, especially since they always seem to show NFC games. , They did have a live game on, but not he Steelers – it was the Bucs and whomever they were playing. So I came back up here and “watched” the game live on the internet play by play. Steelers are really playing pucker ass football right now.

Anyhow, I have searched for a Sports Plus website which hmight have a sked, but gotten nowhere. So it remains random. They were advertising something about weds. NBA action. All the Rockets games are on live by the way but that is CCTV with chinese announcers. (They use the Rockets broadcast and have guys here doing the play by play). I have watched them, but I find watching JVG coached teams to be sort of painful. Thanks for sucking all the joy out of a great game, jeff.

Pistons on the other hand were just playing great ball. And they seem so happy to be rid of Brown. It reminds me of a guy who has a girlfriend who is really hot and great in bed so he stays with her even though about three times a week she goes psycho and throws alarm clocks at his head for no discernible reason. He finally has enough and kicks her out and finds a really nice sane, pretty woman he can relax with and speak with for hours. That is how relaxed the Pistons seem to be playing compared to last year. And I read box scores Ben, so I know how much better Arroyo has been playing. But who knew that Maurice Evans was so good? They may just have been pissed about preseason ranked behind the Nets and Pacers and heat, who brought in a trio of losers. What an insult.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Digging into some hoops

It’s hard to describe how happy I was when I went to the gym this afternoon, got on the bike, flipped on the Tv, turned to Sports Plus to see if any football was on and stumbled onto the Pistons/King s game -- on Pistons TV no less, with homer announcers. They looked great, too. I was so enthralled, I hit the treadmill after the bike so I could keep watching. The Pistons look to be in prime midseason form.

Yesterday, I also did my first real Chinese interview here, with basketball player Sun Yue. He is a 6-7, 20 y.o. point guard who may or may not be the next star to come out of here. Hard to say. I haven’t seen him play yet and the reports I’ve gotten are really all over the place. But he is definitely a 6-7 lefty point guard who is quite athletic, can get in the lane and is now on the National Team throwing alley oops to Yao Ming.

I took one of my Chinese teachers, whom I really like and who speaks great English with me as a translator. On the way there, he told me he had never translated before and doesn’t know anything about sports. That did not seem like a great sign, but Wang Dong did a great job. Or at least I think he did. How do you really know?

The interview took place in the office of the Aoshen Olympians, on the 22nd floor of a downtown high rise. A very modern, quite fancy building that would be quite at home on 52nd Street and Sixth Ave. We got out of the elevator and turned left into a sort of atrium filled with beautiful, tall young woman strutting around and some bad techno music thumping off the glass walls. It was some sort of model show. A guard ran over and Dong spoke to him and he directed us the other way. We walked down the hall, with the guard following us and asking us our business, who we here to see and seeming quite nervous. Then the handler for the team appeared, waved off the guard and brought us into a mostly empty office suite. Certainly no one offered us anything to drink or anything like that. It was also really cold, so we all kept our coats on. It didn’t seem much like the place was used too often.

We sat down at big corporate table in a big conference room and this guy, about 45, was smiling big at me and said, “Let’s begin.” So I started interviewing him while thinking, “Oh my God, are they not bringing sun here at all? Do they think I just want to talk about him rather than to him?” so I asked some questions with Dong very officisiouly handling it all and the man, who was identified to me as a “running and jumping coach” answering with a smile and going on and on about how Sun is not only the team’s best player but China’s brightest hope and a real NBA candiate. The opinion about that is quite split amongst those to whom I have spoken. At this point, he is not even starting for the National Team. Finally I asked him if Sun would be here sun and he said “Oh yes, he’s here. Do you want to talk to him?” Uh, yes. Was he waiting for me to ask?

He walked out and a few minutes later Sun appeared. He is bigger than I thought he would be. Apparently, the chinese haven’t figured out how to lie about bball players’ size yet. He is definitely a legit 6-7 and was much broader than I thought he would be since one of the big raps on him is he has to gain upper body strength, He has stylish hair and little crucifix earring in his left ear. He was wearing some sort of designer faux spray painted jeans, a silver necklace and a butt-ugly maroon leather coat. Apparently, bad, expensive fashion is not exclusive to American prodigies either.

He spoke softly and mumbled a bit – a lot of things are the same about 20 year old basketball prodigies all over the world – and spoke largely in cliches. You think you get sick of hearing jockspeak in America? “Take it one game a time.. it’s all about winning and losing… whatever coach thinks is best…” etc… Well, you should hear jockspeak over here.. “Whatever the team needs.. The country comes first.. Of course I have dream to be NBA player but I must be good enough first” And on and on.

When I asked who his favorite player was, Sun answered directly and quickly without waiting for a translation: “Lebron.” I couldn’t quite tell if he knew what Slam was and I’m not really sure when or if I will even write about him in there anyhow. I started trying to get a hold of him a while back and ended up writing about another kid instead, 7-foot national team center Yi Jianlin. But that’s another story. I will use the Sun interview in my next That’s BJ column and then see what else I do with it. It is sort of an interesting situation. His team was kicked out of the CBA (chinese Basketball Association) and is playing this year in the ABA, an American minor league which barely exists despite its illustrious predecessor and namesake. I will definitely write about this more somewhere. If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

R.I.P Cresenta Fernando

I have met quite a few World Bank people here and Cresenta Fernando has come up in conversation with them several times. This has caused me to think about him quite a bit and I wanted to pause and pay him tribute.

As many of you know, my (sort of, almost) cousin Ariele Cohen married Cresenta in, I think, Sept. 03. They went to Brandeis together and had been together for many years. Cresenta was a PHD Economist and a native of Sri Lanka, where he returned to work for the World Bank. They planned to stay there a few years then return to Washington DC. While on vacation in Gal, on the beach, Ariele and Cresenta and three friends were swept up in the tsunami last December. Ariele and her friends had harrowing experiences but survived. Cresenta was never seen again.

This was, obviously, a tragedy for Ariele and her family and friends. That speaks for itself. But it was really a tragedy for all of us, even if you have never heard Cresenta’s name until now. This is a guy who woke up every morning thinking, “What can I do to improve the world for developing nations today?”

Many of us make the world a little better by not making it worse and doing our own little thing in our own little corners. But Cresenta was out there mixing it up, getting his hands dirty and living his life totally based around these principles. He was young, he was brilliant, he was compassionate, he was dedicated. He was going to do great things. I am sure of it.

I am happy that I got to meet Cresenta and know him a bit. I am sad that I never took the time to dig in deeper and get to know him better. He was soft spoken and quiet and a good listener. He did not talk about himself without prompting. But he was a t the core of a group of great friends and his obvious centrality to them speaks volumes about his character and the quiet power and strength he had. I really enjoyed meeting them all and hanging out at the wedding and again last summer at Cresenta’s memorial service. The latter event was considerably less joyous as you can imagine and listening to everyone share their stories of and passion for Cresenta just wrote large just how much of a tragedy this really was, and just how much he is missed and will continue to be missed and mourned forever.

I just wanted to share that with you guys.

RIP Cresenta. You would have been very surprised to know how deeply you touched me.

Ariele wrote her story herself and did a great job. Click through here
to read it, and make sure you are ready to be moved. She is a great writer and a very strong person.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Family trip to the Wall

Last Friday, Becky took the day off of work and we took the kids out of school, rented a van for the day and headed out to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, with Hal and Ruth., They were leaving the next morning and we wanted to get out there with them and have a special day. Which we did.

Friday was a beautiful, crisp sunny day sandwiched in between a couple of really nasty hazy pollution days. And it was empty out there, by far the least people I’ve seen out there in my four visits. It was really nice to not be totally surrounded, and really walk out there. Weds. I had gone to the summer Palace and Fragrant Hills with Hal and Ruth and both were packed, mostly with Chinese. I also got a call from home with some real bad news while at the palace. So neither of those spots will be too glowing in my memory. The Fragrant Hills were kind of funny. Apparently, it is a huge thing herein the fall to go see the “red leaves” up there. It is in the hills above Beijing and is quite pretty. But the red leaves are pretty pathetic. Clearly, these poor folks have never seen a sugar maple in full fall bloom. The hills were covered with Chinese people, standing in front of every little red-leaved bush taking pictures.

Anyhow, back to the wall… We took a cable car up, went for along walk, including climbing up a couple of towers. Unfortunately, we picked a bad spot for lunch, and were swarmed by bees, which freaked out the boys who wanted to head back.

Hal and I pushed forward with Anna on my back, soon asleep. We walked another half mile or so and then it came to a very steep hill, with a long flight of steps. We trudged up there, slowly but surely. When we got to the top, there was one last flight of steps – about 30 as steep as a ladder. We pulled ourselves up there, my legs starting to really ache. Turns out it was the end of the line. Beyond that, the wall was not refurbished and was crumbling and there was a sign blocking further passage. The view up there was spectacular, as you can see from a couple of the pictures up there.

The next morning at 6:30 Hal and Ruth were off to the airport. They get the award for our first visitors and also for a remarkably short visit – leaving just as they got over their jet lag.

Escaping Chinese products

Twice a week, the "bread man" comes around our neighborhood with his little car filled with fresh baked bread, rolls, pizza, cookies. We usually buy rolls and cinammon bread and pizza. The kids love it. Jacob has come to call him "the bread master," which is how he is now known. Last week, anna ran to me and said, "Bread man here, bread man here" and grabbed my hand to lead me outside, where I took this picture. After he left, Anna returned across the street to sweeping the sidewalk with her friend George. You got to love these old school brooms.

One nice thing about living here has been the lack of commercialism assaulting the kids. There are not 20 catalogues a week coming into the house. They don’t watch TV so they don’t see commercials. We don’t go to McDonald’s or Burger King, and whenever we do eventually venture into one of the places here, they don’t have all the tie in product giveaways anyhow. We don’t spend our weekends going to Costco (though I did discover Carrefour today, a great French supermarket/ department store, but that is another post for another day). So the kids don’t have all these desires ramped up. “I wan this! I want that!” We buy a lot less plastic.

It is rather ironic that we had to move to China to escape the lure of all the China-made crap merchandise. Jacob only wants “cards” which used to mean Yu-Gi-Oh and now means Pokemon. Eli only wants little Pokemon figures. Both are for sale in the clubhouse store for 3 quai. The cards filling your house endlessly are a lot less annoying at 40 cents than they are at 4 bucks.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

R.I.P. bluesmen

Pictured from the top: Little Milton, Son Seals, Gatemouth Brown, RL Burnside

An obituary for three great blues guitarists who recently died, from the current GW. Below that I will paste in an obit for Son Seals, from about six months ago.

Gatemouth, Son and Milton were three of my favorites. I can't honestly say I listened to RL Burnside a ton. One of the proudest moments of my career was managing to get a glowing Gate review into People. That felt really subversive to me. When I flipped open People and saw a big color pic of Gate and knew it was there because of me, I felt really warm inside, like I had really accomplished something.

In college, I got really into blues when I worked at Rick's cafe, which had Chicago acts most weekends. After seeing most of the regulars a few times, I started to notice their schticks and how they would coast at certain times, how the lead guy would allow the rhythm guitarist to play tricky licks while taking credit, things like that. But none of it applied to Son Seals.

That man was serious as a heart attack. It's pretty standard for the band to come out and play a song or two before the front man emerges. Most guys used that as a time to drink, hang out, whatever. Son would come out to the side of the stage and smoke his pipe while watching the band sternly. Those guys played hard and tight because they knew the boss was always paying attention and really cared. I saw him once after he had his leg amputated nad he was just as fierce as ever.

Gate was also a Rick's regular and also put on a great show. One time he was late and the word was he hadn't shown up in the lobby of the hotel and wasn't answering his phone. Someone went up to get him. Concerned when he didn't answer the door, they got a manager who opened the door and found Gate, probably 65, in bed with a young chambermaid. Or so the story goes. He also constantly smoked weed in a little pipe which most people assumed was tobacco. He was a great picker and a true character.

Milton would come out on stage in a glitter gold lame suit, fronting a big, horn-infused band. I saw him a few times over the years on bills with Bobby Blue Bland and B.B King. Milton was always the opener. These dates went back decades and decades to the chitlin circuit. While b.b. became a superstar and Bobby Blue somewhat rose above the old all black clubs, Milton remained chitlin circuit to his core. I saw a emmorable show atthe Apollo a long time ago and saw him a few times over the last few years with the Allman Brothers. He was one of Gregg Allman's three main vocal influences, along with Ray Charles and Bobby Bland and Gregg always seemed to really enjoy having him on stage, though it was all facilitated by Warren Haynes who had become close with Milton. Gov't Mule backed him on a track on an album a while back.

The funny thing about when Milton would come out on stage with the Brothers is he just took over and they became his backing band. That's what he was used to doing and he just wouldn't come out as a guest. It was fun to see and usually quite good, though Warren was always maneuvering the band away fro train wrecks trying to follow their idiosyncratic new leader. Last March, I went to an epic ABB show at the Beacon with Art, Rodger and Per. It was a really great, memorable night, both for the music and the company I was keeping. Anytime you can see your favorite band with three of your best friends, you're way ahead of the curve. The highlight for Rodg was Milton all the way.

Reccomended listening:
Little Milton: "Grits Ain't Groceries," "We're Gonna Make It," "That's What Love will Make You Do" -- all available for 99 cents a pop at Itunes and really great.
Son Seals: Chicago Fire, Live and Burning
Gatemouth Brown: Alright Again, Standing My Ground
RL Burnside: Too Bad Jim


The blues world lost three of its leading old school figures in one month when Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Little Milton and R.L. Burnside passed away in August and September. Though the three were vastly different, they were linked by their lifetime of dedication to guitar.

Brown, who played fiddle as well as guitar, hated being called a blues player and indeed, he also played swing, jazz, Cajun and country. "Folks call me a bluesman because I'm black and… play guitar," Brown once said. "But my music is American music - Texas style." He had a 1954 hit with the hard-charging, fleet-fingered instrumental “Okie Dokie Stomp,” which helped launch a 50-plus-year career. Brown was diagnosed with lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema last year but he refused treatment and continued to perform. He died in Orange, TX two weeks after evacuating his home in Slidell, LA, to escape the path of Hurricane Katrina. He was 81.

A pioneer in mixing r&b and blues, “Little Milton” Campbell was a strong-voiced singer and a pungent guitarist in the B.B. King mold. He had several ‘60s hits for Chess Records and recorded the latter day staple "The Blues Is Alright” in ’84. He was a five-decade staple of blues clubs and festivals and in recent years, he occasionally appeared with the Allman Brothers Band. He was 70 years old and died following a massive stroke.

Burnside’s droning, hard-edged songs were the very definition of “Mississippi hill country blues.” After decades as a noted juke joint performer around his Holly Springs, MS home who made his living primarily as a farmer, Burnside began to find a wider audience after being featured in the 91 documentary film Deep Blues. He then began recording for Fat Possum Records, and his numerous albums gained an alt-rock audience, which helped him become one of blues’ most popular performers in his 70s. He was 76.
--Alan Paul

R.I.P. Son Seals
The mighty Chicago bluesman Son Seals died December 20 of complications from diabetes. He was 62. Frank “Son” Seals was born in Osceola, Arkansas and grew up in his father’s juke joint, The Dipsy Doodle, hearing legends like Sonny Boy /Williamson before he could walk. By the time he was 13, he was sitting in on drums and a few years later, he was on the road, playing guitar with Earl Hooker. He later drummed for Albert King, before settling in Chicago in ’71 and focusing on playing guitar and being a frontman.

His debut album, The Son Seals Blues Band, was released in ’73 and it helped establish both him and the fledgling Alligator Records as forces to be reckoned with. He recorded seven more albums for the label. His final work was 2000’s Lettin’ Go (Telarc). Throughout his 30-year career, Seals’ work was absent any pretense or fluff, marked by intensity, high energy and a complete; his music sounded entirely unforced, like an extension of himself.

In ’97 Seals’ wife shot him in the face and he endured extensive reconstructive surgery. Two years later, his lower leg was amputated but he continued to perform with the same unflaggingly fiery approach until just two months before his death. Phish often performed Seals’ “Funky Bitch,” and the guitarist appeared several times with the jam icons, turning a new crop of fans onto his powerful appeal. He is survived by a sister and 14 children.
-Alan Paul

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Take that Phil Jackson

Hey, my friend and former colleague Scoop Jackson puts Phil Jackson on blast today and I love it. Great job, Scoop. I long ago tired of that phony jerk's schtick.

Halloween in China

Our first Halloween in China was a success. They do it up pretty big time in the compounds and the kids were able to double dip. They celebrated on Saturday at River Garden, where we used to live, and we went up there with Kathy Chen and her family for trick or treating, haunted houses and a little party. Fun for all. Except that the Haunted Houses are run by the Marines (all the Embassy people with families live up there) and apparently they were really scary. I say apparently, because I took Eli to the smaller one. He walked in the first room, looked round at the flickering lights , grabbed my hand and said “let’s Go.” And we did.

Despite our best attempts at getting Jacob into that one, he insisted on upstairs with the Kin, Kathy’s husband, and a bunch of kids. They waited in a line for an hour. When they came out, Jacob said it was a little scary but seemed happy, though a little freaked out by “the guy with the real chainsaw chasing us!”

No problems that night, probably because he was exhausted. Sunday night, however, he woke up about four times with nightmares, until we allowed him to sleep in our bed. He was really freaked out and upset and had mixed his horror from what he saw with some other unrelated fears into one big terror jumble. Monday morning he went into some details with me about how scared he was and I really wished we had forbade him from going in. But that would have been a disaster, too.

Anna is hilarious. It took her about one house to understand what was happening and become very enthusiastic. She was running up to as many houses as she could muster. But she never really grasped the concept of putting stuff in her little basket. She just figured that someone was giving her candy to eat and popping the new stuff into her mouth, even if it meant spitting out something she had just put in . It was pretty funny. We tried to explain, but to no avail. Instinct is a powerful thing. Try telling a dog to have that T-bone for tomorrow.

Halloween here was Monday night, so the kids had a second go at it. You can imagine how that went over. Becky’s parents, our first visitors, arrived here Sunday, with new costumes for Anna (giraffe) and Jacob (skeleton). They were also able to hand out candy while we ran around with the kids a bit. Jacob went off with friends and we only saw him when he came back to dump out his bucket and go back for more.

The whole thing is pretty funny here. They put a sign up in the clubhouse about a month in advance explaining the holiday in details. “Children dress up in costume and ring your doorbell. They say ‘Trick or treat’ and you give them a piece of delicious candy.” They hand out Halloween letters and if you are participating, you are supposed to tape it on your mailbox and turn your light on

I was surprised by how many people partook. There were hundreds of kids running around. A fair number of Chinese got into it – I don’t think the Chinese kids were ever happier that their parents chose to live in a Western compound – and many, many Europeans and Australians, for whom it is also foreign. We were walking down our street with Anna and the Yardleys when an Aussie woman they know came riding by in one of these tricycle bikes, with a big back used to carry kids. She had it filled with beer and was giving it away to parents. We gladly accepted.

“Cheers!” she said. “This is an Aussie Halloween.”