Thursday, July 31, 2008

Delaware in the house

Been too busy with too many things to write alot but brother Delaware Dave is in china... He and wife Kathy ad Jesse have been off in Western China in Yunnan all week. These pics were from last weekend.

Atop the Drum Tower, looking out the Bell Tower.

Hutong doorway

Steps to the Drum Tower. Even steeper than they look.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pictures of Qingdao

We spent three days in Qingdao last weekend. Our first visit there and it's a nice place. Glad we made it.

About an hour away is the holy mountain of Lao Shan (Old MOuntain). It's really beautiful and peaceful, rising right up form the sea. The first batch of pictures is all from there.

Days before Jesse's 16th birthday.

This is all tea. Laoshan tea is considered top grade.
I bought two different types. Really love one of them.
The other is okay. I bargained hard, really surprised the
sales girls.

Algae has been a big problem. It is largely solved.
And yet...

Tremendous beer culture in this town.
Kegs at all these little shops and locals fill up
plastic bags to bring home. Tsingtao factory
your was cool. This is unfiltered beer, with yeast in.

We rode a ferry to this beach. Note the algae.

Lao shan.

Trademark infringement? You decide.

We took a ferry ride. Thought it would be 20
minutes to a tropical beach. It was 45 past
stuff like this.

Jesse got behind the wheel in china, finally.... then
again, so did Jacob.

Beach at the bottom of Laoshan Holy Mountain.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Most recent NBC post.. and link to them alll...

My latest NBC blog post is here. It is now weekly and will soon, of course, be daily. I will also soon be too busy to keep posting these links. Luckily for you, my faithful readers, I have finally figured out where the index page for all my blog posts are.

That would be right here.

So go there, bookmark that baby and keep checking in.

I wrote that post about the torch relay and days later, I actually went on the relay, in Qingdao. it was an awesome, overwhelming experience. I will write about it when I can and try to throw together a video I took.

Travel Guide Column

The Stresses and Rewards
Of Playing the Tour Guide
July 4, 2008

I wear a lot of different hats: father, columnist, blogger, Olympics reporter, bandleader. But the most challenging and at times anxiety-provoking is tour guide. I'm fully in that mode now, with my parents, aunt, uncle and nephew visiting.

I am filing this column from Xi'an, the city in central China that is home to the terra-cotta warriors, the 8,000-strong, 2,000-year-old funereal army of the first emperor of China. You can blame any typos or errant thoughts on the fact that I spent two of the past three nights aboard overnight trains, shepherding my family across China while worrying about their well being and occasionally cursing both our travel agent and my own judgment. How smart could I be to drag my folks, aged 70 and 72, on two 12-hour rides on Chinese trains?

When close family comes to visit, I feel an obligation to make sure they have not only a great time but a genuine "China experience." The easy and probably more intelligent thing to do would be to turn them over to a tour agency. But I want to show them the real deal, take them off the beaten track, make sure they see China as we know it. My wife, kids and I have had some great trips traveling through China's interior, including several overnight train journeys, and we want to share it. We want, in essence, for our visiting family to share our expat experience.

By taking on the job of travel agent and tour guide, however, I am accepting a tremendous amount of responsibility. Throughout our journey I have often felt a creeping anxiety, as I worry whether everything will work out and whether everyone is happy. As I've noted before, when people say they want to go off the beaten track, you never know just how deep into the ruts they really want to head. And in China it's not hard to find yourself in a dangerous or just plain difficult situation.

When my family was in Beijing, we explored some of my favorite spots and I also planned a couple of journeys for them to take on their own. But we also wanted to take a trip together. I planned a visit to Northern Sichuan months ago, but the earthquake made me doubt the wisdom of a trip to that province. With the dates closing in, I decided on a trip to the ancient walled city of Pingyao and Xi'An,

With all those other hats I wear, I probably didn't invest enough time researching every facet of the trip. Instead, I relied on a travel agent who I have used many times. But it's always a mistake to trust the sensibilities of a guide or agent without going over every detail in detail, especially in China where the emphasis seems to be on seeing as much as possible rather than lingering in any one place. The trip ran away from me and it was almost too late to change by the time I realized we were booked onto two overnight, twelve-hour train rides in three nights. (I had thought the two cities were much closer together.)

My wife Rebecca and I have taken several overnight trains and they have turned out to be highlights of our stay and probably the thing about China my kids are most likely to remember for years to come. But there were some significant differences this time -- which didn't bother our kids one bit and wouldn't have bothered us, either, except that I was seeing everything through my guests' eyes. Things that seemed normal to us were anything but so for them. Times like this make you realize how much your own perspective has changed.

There are four classes of Chinese train tickets -- hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. We have always taken the latter, which features cabins with four bunks and some privacy -- if your group is the right size -- plus bathrooms used by fewer people. Most stations we've been to also have special soft-ticket waiting areas. Not so the massive Beijing West Railway Station. We instead walked into a massive room packed with people, many of them farmers or migrant workers heading home laden down with huge bags. Because the hard-seat cars are unreserved -- and many people have to stand for days to get to their destinations -- the line for the train formed early, already snaking to the back of the room when we arrived an hour before departure.

When the train was called there was a tremendous surge forward, with people pushing and shoving as one great mass. After debating how long we should wait, we all joined the scrum and clambered through the line. Arriving on the platform, I noted that we had an ancient train, considerably older than any we had ridden here before. We trudged alongside it, looking up as people piled into the hard sleepers, which are lined with bunks, three in a stack that reaches the ceiling.

The scene astounded my father. "This looks like it dates back to Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang (who left for Taiwan in 1950)," he said. He was right.

Just before leaving we had discovered that our party of 10 could only get seven soft-sleeper tickets -- split among three cabins -- and three hard sleepers. I actually had wanted to try the more communal hard sleepers, but not with my extended family in tow. As we boarded and the reality of being scattered across two cars bunking with strangers set in, I began to feel anxious, guilty and rather incompetent as a trip planner.

Luckily, everyone's sense of humor remained intact. All 10 of us crowded into the single cabin we had to ourselves. The adults cracked open a bottle of wine while the kids climbed to the top bunks and happily settled into some sort of fantasy game. We toasted our trip and shared some laughs, though my father's repeated talk about the filth of the windows and the floor occasionally unnerved me.

The next problem to deal with involved the squatty toilets, which my mother struggles mightily to use. Most Chinese bathrooms also have one Western style toilet, generally marked "For Deformed Man (or Woman) Only." I figured that the train might as well, and set out to ask the conductor. When she didn't understand my request, I searched my Chinese vocabulary and said, "My mother is a very old lady and her health is very bad. She can't use the regular toilets and needs a special one."

She understood and leapt out of her seat, practically sprinting to the other end of the car, where she unlocked a little door, behind which sat a toilet, complete with a "sanitary, cleaned" stripe across the bowl and a new toilet-seat cover. I thanked her profusely.

Later when my mother went for a walk, the conductor ran up to Rebecca and asked if "the old lady was okay to walk alone." In the middle of the night, my mother found the toilet's door locked again. Realizing she had to find someone to open it, my mom -- who is in great shape, exercising five days a week -- hunched her back and dragged her foot behind her in an approximation of a deformed woman. It worked, though I'm sure the act was necessary.

I wasn't around to help her because Rebecca, seven-year-old Eli and I had decamped for the hard sleepers, where Eli and I slept soundly next to each other on top bunks, 12 or so feet above the ground, in an open cabin with 60 or 70 fellow passengers. Rebecca slept directly below Eli, across from a snoring man. As foreigners, we caused a small stir when we first came to the car to check out our bunks, but people were largely settling down to sleep by the time we returned. I woke up at 5:30 and climbed down to look out the window and sip tea next to an old man while most of the cabin snoozed. Remarkably, Eli and Rebecca were two of the last sleepers -- I had to rouse both of them around 7 am as we neared our destination.

Such are the things that memories are made of. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Pingyao was filled with beautiful temples and was remarkably real in its old-world charm, right down to a dusty decrepitness on most of its streets; I expected it to be more faux and touristy. The Xi'An warriors always impress, and the holy mountain of Hua Shan -- where I had a reunion with my former Chinese teacher-turned-monk, Yechen -- was stunning. But the two overnight train rides -- the second was cleaner but slower -- are what we'll likely be talking about for the rest of our lives. It is also the kind of experience that helps our families better understand what our expat life in China has been like.
* * *

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Read comments by readers on my last column about how the annual expat exodus never gets easier.

Normally I'm reduced to rib-cracking laughs by your column, but today as I procrastinate packing up to leave Shanghai by reading your latest column I find myself confronting in print all the feelings welling up inside. We all tell ourselves the same things...what a great experience for the family, the kids...and it is. But saying goodbye to those who have been the "stand-ins" for family and shared all those special moments is just gut wrenching!

We are off to the U.K. (2nd time), but as you well know it is probably just another stopover. Ten years overseas and two children who have never been to school in the U.S. leaves me always feeling guilty for not having the childhood I had growing up in New Orleans (one school for 14 years -- where my grandmother and great grandmother also attended). Will try to focus on all the positives you pointed out today and just keep hoping that the career gods will find it in their heart to bring the Goodyears back for another round in China one day!

--Elizabeth Goodyear
* * *

Thanks for the great story. Having done a four-year stint in Italy and three in the U.K., I have fond memories of the days overseas. The friendships made were, as you say, the very best part. And, the opportunity to learn how other cultures think, work and live was very, very special, too.

--Michaela Laune
* * *

I was an expat in Germany in the 70s, and despite the differences in time and place, share many of the experiences you so ably describe. Your comment regarding the stuff you left in the crate back in the States rarely coming to mind is true. But when you finally do get back, you have a unique experience to look forward to. Sort of a mixture of Christmas (Oh, there's that great whatever, which you haven't thought about in years, but which you really like), and Halloween (That's horrible -- did we really buy that?). It puts your life BE (Before Expat) and AE in some perspective and highlights how the way you have come to view the world, and the relationship to those who inhabit it, have changed. It will be an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.

--Alan L. Copland

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Great Wall hike video

Video of our Jinshanling-Simatai hike.

Original music by, who else?, Woodie Alan

Most recent NBC post -- cheerleaders alert

This might be the most widely read thing I've ever written. It involved coverage of the New England Patriots cheerleaders' visit to Beijing to train Olympics cheerleaders. And it turns out that having the word cheerleaders in an online story generates intense traffic. Who knew?

Apparently, this little item led every NBC affiliate website in America last week. Maybe it still does. Who knows. They actually added a Chinese cheerleader photo gallery to the story and the funny thing is, after all these Getty Images photos, the last one is a shot I took.

The other funny part is that most of the pics are from the MLB game last March between the Dodgers and Padres and I know for a fact that those cheerleaders were actually Korean, not Chinese.

I brought Jesse and Nico with me to the event and I think they were bored out of their minds after their initial titillation. Welcome to the life of a journalist, boys.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Great Hike on the Great Wall

As many of you know, my 15-y.o. nephew Jesse is staying with us for five or six weeks this summer. It's been great. he is working as a counselor at Dulwich Soccer Camp and Jacob and Eli are happy campers (literally). Eli has never had so much fun playing soccer.

They would follow him to the end of the world.

Our friends John and Vivian also have a teen, staying with them, 14 y.o. Nico, a son of a friend and colleague. They live just a few houses away and luckily the two boys have hit if off and have been having a lot of fun together. My kids love Nico as well.

I took Jesse, Nico and Jacob on a great hike yesterday. It was a beautiful but smoldering hot day. We walked from Jinshanling to Simatai. It was the second time I have done this. The wall is unreconstructed here and parts are falling apart. It is exceptionally beautiful and the kids did great.

I was really proud of Jacob, because this is not an easy day. About 10 km, four hours up and down in a broiling sun.

Video coming next.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Cute kid alert

And now for something completely different... Rodger Citron and Andee Cohen's adorable twins Alexa and Amelia. Just because this is such a cute picture.

HuaShan Holy Mountain

These pictures are all from Hua Shan, one of the four holy Taoist mountains in China. It is about two hours from Xian and completely changes your perspective on the area. Really fabulous place. The monk in the pictures is Dong, my ex Chinese teacher. In the one image he is showing Jacob how to pray properly.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Last NBC blog post...

..for now. New one will be up within 24 hours.

Frankly, new one is better than this one.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Desperate times... for desperate measures.

I thought it was quite revolutionary to have T. Boone Pickens calling for a huge investment in wind power on the WSJ editorial page.

Check it out.

Expat Leaving Column

I am falling eve behind. here is two weeks' ago column. New one already posted last week.


The Annual Expat Exodus
Never Gets Any Easier
June 20, 2008

It's feeling mighty empty around here. The annual June exodus is under way, with moving trucks clogging the lanes of our neighborhood and our calendars filling up with goodbye parties. This is the cruelest month in the expat world. It's a transient community with many people on fixed-time work assignments, and people with families try to time their moves for the end of the school year. Every June, at least one person in our family loses a beloved friend.

After going through this a few times, you know what to expect -- but it doesn't get any easier. In fact, this year the great expat migration is hitting my family particularly hard, cutting us all close to the bone. Several pillars of our community are packing their bags and heading off. And we are all losing people with whom we are very close.

Last spring, when we made the decision to extend our stay for another year, it lifted a burden from our shoulders. But just because we reset our own clock didn't mean anyone else's was altered. Had we stuck to our original plan, we'd be packing up to head home to the U.S. ourselves right now. That seems inconceivable -- and we certainly haven't regretted the decision, but all of the recent activity here is a reminder that wherever you live, just deciding to maintain the status quo doesn't mean nothing else changes.

Because things are changing, and people are moving on.

Wyatt Cameron, a teacher at our kids' school, developed Super Moverz, an innovative mix of physical activity and fantasy play that has been a huge hit with kids here. My own three children have participated in these classes virtually every Saturday since we arrived in Beijing, and it is impossible to imagine weekends without them. Wyatt is moving on -- our loss will be San Diego's gain.

Earlier this week, I stopped by my friend Nathan and Kristi's old home to pick up a few things for them. It shook me up to walk into their emptied house and see all signs of their vibrant household gone. Someone from the management office was there finalizing paperwork, and I recoiled when they asked if I was the new tenant. The very idea of someone else moving in offended me.

My expat experience has largely liberated me from an attachment to specific places and things. I thought it would be difficult to leave our house in New Jersey, but I've rarely thought about it. I have no idea what's in the container of belongings we have in storage, and probably wouldn't miss much if it all vanished. Walking into Nathan and Kristi's empty house was a reminder of why stuff doesn't really matter: We make the inanimate objects come to life, and not vice versa. Similarly, it reminded me that the fond feelings I have for this place are all wrapped up in the people. There was certainly no charm to those bare walls, studded with hooks where pictures once hung.

As I've noted before, expat friendships tend to form quickly and develop intensely. I haven't made this many close friends since college. All of us are in the same boat, thousands of miles away from home and generally without our extended families and old friends. Cutting loose from your past can be liberating but also a bit freaky, and the combination fuels the close friendships. We are one another's families, marking holidays, birthdays, graduations and other milestones together. And that's why it's easy to lapse into melodrama when talking about the annual departures of friends; it feels like a family's splitting up, albeit on amicable terms.

These last few weeks have been particularly difficult. After three years, we're losing some of our most stalwart comrades, people who have been by our side throughout our stay in Beijing. The losses are particularly deep for Eli, 7, and Anna, who is about to turn five and is grappling with this kind of loss for the first time -- she was too little to shed tears over the friends who left before.

Kristi and Nathan's son Matias is Anna's bosom buddy. About six weeks ago, she declared him her best friend, after spending most of two days playing at his house. Matias has been in her life as long as she can remember, and unlike her brothers, she doesn't really have close friends back in America. We were talking about him moving away while Anna munched away on a bowl of cereal. In between bites she said, "Well, at least Lauren's not leaving."

When she said it, I swallowed hard. Lauren's mom -- Vicki Lowes, whom I wrote about in my last column -- had told me the day before that there was a high probability they'd be moving on, too, but she asked me not to mention it to Anna until it was a done deal. That happened a few weeks later and when I broke the news, Anna's lower lip quivered and her eyes welled.

"I'm losing my whole soccer team!" she wailed. She was silent for a few minutes, before finally asking about another friend -- "Is Eddie leaving, too?" I assured her he wasn't, not mentioning that Eddie's family will be moving to New Delhi in December.

This week, on Lauren's last day in Beijing, Anna said she wanted to say goodbye. I called, but Anna couldn't bring herself to utter a word. Her eyes were wet and she held the phone mutely before handing it back to me. I served as a go-between, relaying a simple message both ways: "Thank you for being such a good friend."

Eli is also losing his best friend, Wyatt Cameron's son Race. Eli and Race have been inseparable since the week we arrived in August 2005. They were in Year 1 (kindergarten) together, and have been attached at the hip ever since. They've gotten into trouble together, learned to read together and become better at playing by school rules together. As they finish Year 3 (2nd grade), I feel almost as proud of Race for all he's done as I do about Eli. They've provided one another with the kind of support system we all long for -- our families are close, and we will all feel their loss, but not the way Eli will.

Early one Sunday morning a few weeks ago, Eli heard Rebecca and me mention that it was June 1.

"It's June?" he asked, with a horrified tone. "But Race is leaving in June!"

Every year I tell the kids that the moving trucks pulling out now will soon be returning with new people. It sounds a little hollow, even to me, but Jacob actually found a new best friend last August, when Kerk Liew arrived from Singapore and landed across the street.

Maybe the rest of us can get lucky, too. It's important to remain open to the possibility.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

I won an Award

I won a First Place Award from the Society of Newspaper Columnists. It's the first award I've won (or entered, I think) since the North Jersey Business Press Association in 1989. that one was for a profile of the CEO of Bertolli Olive Oil in the mighty Corporate Reporter.

I haven't processed all this yet. It took over a week for me to even learn I had won, which is another story altogether. Anyhow, here's what they said about my work.

Online (all circulations)

1st Place - Alan Paul - The Wall Street Journal Online

Ex-pat Alan Paul, who currently lives in China, explores the things that connect us (nd separate us) no matter which society we inhabit. The Internet allows him to tap into U.S. culture whenever he wants, but he reminds us that people everywhere risk losing touch if they immerse themselves too deeply in America’s seductive media soup. His column on seeing the Chinese government’s iron fist burst through the consumer glitter asks us to reflect on how people can and should fight for freedom. Paul writes about the constant good-byes that are a painful feature of ex-pat life. Then he notes that today’s educated elite are often expected to be nomads who never put down permanent roots. By using the exotic to illuminate the universal, his columns help us sort through the global challenges of contemporary life.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Some ink in China Daily

China Daily, the English language publication of the government here, published profiles of four or five Americans in China today as a 4th of July package -- "Happy Birthday America."

I was one of them. I knew it was coming but was shocked to see
this picture running almost half a page.

Happy 4th everyone.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Some quick photos

In hotel in Xi An.. been a whirlwind week or so since Joan and ben, Jesse,, and my folks arrived.. not much time to write but lots to come sooner or later...