State of the plant nation

Well, all was going relatively well with my new best friends, my Valentine’s plants for a few days. And then all hell broke loose.

Jeff helped me hang my favorite plant, some kind of fuschia I think, and it looked lovely. Then, a few days later, it suddenly pretty much died. I think this is because it was hanging somewhat over the radiator, and it got fried. I’m still trying to nurse it back to life with frequent waterings, but it seems like it may be time to give up. I’m now trying to decide what the best course of action is. Should I clip all the dead vines off? Leave it be? Water it? Give it coffee?

My mint plant also seems pretty sad, but in slightly better shape. The lower stalks have all gotten black and shriveled, but it’s still growing new leaves on the tops of the taller stalks, so that’s a good sign I think.

Anyway, I feel really guilty about killing my plants — I just feel so irresponsible. I guess I just don’t know much about taking care of sickly little plant-things, so they may not have much chance. It’s weird that I can raise all the animals I want, but I seem to have a knack for killing plants. Suggestions/condolences welcome.

New semester, same over-commitment addiction

Although I’m entering my last semester of college, it almost feels like I’m already out of school. I only need to complete two units in order to graduate from UC Davis, and my major and minor are complete.

Oddly enough, because of my high language ability, most of my classmates are in a similar situation. They are mostly graduating seniors, so this semester the bulk of their academic energy will be focused on completing their senior thesis papers. Accordingly, classes are lighter this semester, leaving me with an easily fillable “hole.” In case you don’t know me well, hole is written as “hole” because of my over-commitment addiction, since any normal person would probably be perfectly happy to settle for a lighter classload and more time to absorb material and relax.

Despite my promises to the contrary last semester, I’ve again taken on quite a load this semester.

I’m planning to take advanced writing, contemporary literature, investigation current topics, advanced Chinese reading and maybe a Chinese idiom class.

I’ll be studying for the HSK test, which will be vital to me in finding work. The HSK measures your Chinese language ability with multiple choice, essay, interview and listening comprehension. I’ve heard that Koreans start studying for it in elementary school. I’m. so. scared.

I’m currently reviewing a book for my old publishing house, Berrett-Koehler, which I LOVE and puts out really great books on business, current affairs and self-help topics. I can’t really tell you what the current book I’m reading for them is, but I think it would be very interesting to many of my readers. I previously worked a bit on B-K books The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die, Crunch (my personal favorite), Prescription for Survival and Flight Plan.

I also just got a freelance job through one of my professors out of the blue. I’m correcting textbooks designed to teach Americans to speak Mandarin. So far it’s pretty interesting, and the company seems like a great work environment. Plus, I get to work from home, which is perfect with my schedule.

I will also be starting an internship soon at The Beijinger, which is a well-known expat magazine in Beijing. It sounds like it will be a lot of fun, and of course a lot of work I’m guessing.

And finally, I’m hoping to find time to do some volunteering at NGOs in Beijing.

Yup. I think I’m going to be really bored this semester.

Beijing’s winterscape

Today I woke up to about two to three inches of light, dry snow on the ground.

Icicles by my apartment:

My alleyway looking very clean!

Rental bicycles by the Mudanyuan (木丹园)Subway Station:

The canal by the Mudanyuan Subway Station:

A sidewalk by Ikea:

Can you even tell this is in the city? The snow makes the city look almost rural in parts:

A proper Christmas scene, I’d say:

I think this bush wonders what happened to Spring:

Valentine’s Day flowers

When I was in high school, I used to get cut roses with some regularity. They were, of course, lovely, but they always wilted and then started to smell weird, since I never learned how to properly dry them. Actually, I wouldn’t want to dry and save flowers much anyway, since I hate having clutter around. At any rate, I’ve since tipped boyfriends off that I’m not a fan of cut flowers, being as they’re already dead.

So. Valentine’s Day.

Not actually my favorite holiday, even when I’m not single.

Anyway, Jeff and I didn’t really plan much for the big V day, but we ended up having a pretty good one. We decided to go to one of the expansive flower markets in Beijing, the Zhongshu Grand Forest Flower Market (中蔬大森林花卉市场), which is part of the Beijing Agricultural University.

The entire market was about the size of a Costco, and was divided into three sections. The front-most section has cut flowers to one side and potted plants to the other. Since it was Valentine’s Day, which the Chinese do celebrate, the cut flowers area was complete pandemonium. Like many things in China, the rose bouquets were super-sized, each about 18 to 20 inches across at the top, bursting with roses, baby’s breath and stuff animals. Of course, they also had other kinds of flowers, indeed almost any kind you could ask for.

Behind the plants is a furniture, decorative arts and paintings area. It had some nice wood carved benches, lots of household decorations in the Asian style and other things that were expensive and not to my taste.

Behind that is the exotic fish and pets section. I saw a lot of really weird fish — most of which I can only describe. Some were recognizable —black mollies, angel fish, eels, sun fish, various iridescent fish, clown fish — but many were bizarre, Discovery Channel-worthy specimens. I also saw snapping turtles, several kinds of tortoises, rabbits, chinchillas and birds. My favorite pet was a store cat in a fish store who apparently just doesn’t like fish. In my opinion that store owner’s just asking for trouble. I was also really tempted by the tortoises I saw, but I don’t even want to know the illegalities of importing one of those into the U.S.

The potted plant section, which is the largest section, contains house plants, garden supplies and even fruit trees. There are woven bamboo plants of all sizes, various kinds of orchids, floating lilies, bonsai trees, flowering trees, green house plants of all kinds, herbs, lemon trees, rose bushes, towering tropical plants and of course tons of decorated planter pots and gardening tools.

I ended up getting a mint plant (pot, dish and potting soil 11 kuai; mint plant 8 kuai). I’m still deciding where to put it. The kitchen seems most natural, but I have so little counter space that I’m often wrestling with my dish rack for space when preparing a meal.

I also got this adorable little tree (pot, soil 20 kuai; tree 7 kuai). I’m not sure what kind it is, but I love the bright colors right on my nightstand.

And I couldn’t help but also get this hanging basket (basket, pot and plant package 35 kuai). It’s hanging in my front hall, next to my kitchen.

I love the flowers on this vine!

I think these are the best Valentine’s present I’ve ever gotten, even if I did pay for them myself. Jeff did help me schlep them home, and I wouldn’t have gone without him. I really hope I don’t kill them off by accident. I don’t have the most stellar history of keeping plants alive. I used to have a pet cactus — it died.

I’m hoping to visit some more flower markets now that I know how cheap they are. Zhongshu was really worth the trip, and so far the plants seem like good quality. After all, it is part of the agricultural university. Definitely a must for the plant-crazy headed to Beijing — but you may want to bring a car along. I was pretty sore that I couldn’t drag a lemon tree home on the bus.

Some weather we’re having!

Last week, fed up with the 110-day drought, the Beijing authorities successfully made it rain using weird, futuristic technology that I will not be able to explain. It was refreshing to have some humidity, and since the temperatures were ranging from the forties to the high fifties, it wasn’t too miserable.

The weather seems to have been a false Spring, however. Yesterday it started snowing in earnest, or at least, as earnestly as Beijing can snow these days. Previously snow lasted for about 20 minutes before the weather got too warm, but yesterday and today it was snowing steadily off and on throughout the day and night. In the morning, the whole city was covered in about an inch of clean, clean popcorn snow, and giant dime-sized flakes were floating down slowly. There are icicles on all the cars and snow patches on all the bicycle seats. It’s actually very pretty out, since the snow disguises the usual pollution and dirt.

It should snow tomorrow, and I hope it does. As much as I loved last week’s tease of spring, and hate having to carefully coordinate layers of socks, long johns, sweaters and such, I do love the romance of a powder-sugared walk to school.

Communications cutoff?

Skype appears to be blocked on the mainland right now, and for some mysterious reason I can’t dig up anything about “Skype” and “China” newer than 2005 on a google search. Folks back home, fill me in on what’s going on! Caitlinpedia Brown needs YOUR help!

Burning dreams at New Year’s end

Living in Beijing, it’s sometimes hard to see the effects of the economic crisis here, but in the past few days I feel there’s been a shift in atmosphere.

As you may have already read, a large part of one of Beijing’s signature architectural complexes burned down on Lantern Festival, the last night of Chinese New Year. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which was part of the CCTV complex housing the famed Underpants Building, was to open in a month’s time, and the entire complex has been a source of Beijing pride for a good year ahead of its completion.

The circumstances of the fire were a little unclear at first. Although fireworks, which are let off hyperbolically even in dense downtown areas, were an obvious suspect, officials were strangely mum for about a day. CCTV, which owns the complex, later took responsibilty for the fire, claiming their own fireworks show from the roof of the unfinished building caused the fire.

But it all seems a little — I don’t know — convenient. As one of my friends pointed out today, they were unlikely to make money on a luxury hotel in these economic conditions, and insurance money can only be recouped in accidents. It was just too poetic for the building to burn down on the last night of Chinese New Year after 15 uneventful days of fireworks all around it. Regardless of the true cause of the fire, it’s a little uncanny how completely expected and unexpected the destruction of the hotel was — after all, something was bound to burn down with so many fireworks set off in the city by amateurs. But it’s still hard to believe that this iconic building was the one that burned down; imagine the Trans-America building burning to the ground and you’ll see what I mean.

I fear that the fire is a powerful metaphor for the chaotic times China is facing, and unsettling omen of Beijing’s future. Last year we saw a boom for China in many ways. National pride was soaring, construction around Beijing was racing to keep up with Olympic demand for hotels, restaurants and attractions, old buildings were being torn down to make room for luxury condos for the new generation of business owners and expatriats. Although there were concerns about a world economic downturn, many felt as if China was invincible.

Especially during the Olympics, it was impossible to imagine China tumbling down off of its pedestal along with the rest of the world. Beijing was in a dream world, and we, as witnesses to the Olympics, were privy to a view of China’s future. It was modern, clean, polite and above all, luxurious. The Olympic venues were without blemish, and the Olympics had spurred a flurry of new buildings, including one of the world’s few seven-star hotels.

Six months later, I’m wondering if “one world, one dream” was just a lie, and Beijing will soon discover the cruelty of reality after enjoying such a sweet reverie. The Olympic venues, which symbolized so much, have even fallen into disrepair a scant four months after the games’ closing. When I visited the Olympic Green recently, I tried hard to ignore the fact that the Bird’s Nest stadium was covered in dirt, that the water cube bubbles were wrinkled, that lamps were falling off of lampposts. However, recent events have brought the scene of desolation at the Olympic Green to my mind.

Last week Citigroup announced that in order to finance the maintenance of  the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium — a cost of $8.82 million USD annually — it would turn the complex into a shopping plaza in the next few years. It’s sad to see a symbol that really meant something to so many people seemingly get thrown aside by its owners and the Chinese government. Initially, the stadium was to house Beijing’s soccer team, but they have pulled out of the deal. Currently, the Olympic Green is open to tourists, an alleged average of 20,000 to 30,000 per day according to the tourist authorities. Take this figure with a heaping truckload of salt — Beijing authorities release misleading numbers often, and the two separate times I’ve visited the Olympic Green since the Olympics I may have seen 100 tourists, combined.

Strolling through the empty Olympic Green, it was somehow impossible to recapture the feeling of harmony and hope I felt while I was attending the games. Now, bereft of the crowds that it was meant for, the green feels like an empty mockery of China’s hopes. It speaks only to an excess of ambition and a disregard for pragmatism. How could they tear down homes and businesses to build this gigantic park without a fool-proof plan for its preservation and continued usefulness? How could something once so great now be so empty, falling apart and covered in dirt?

I suppose time will tell if this is truly the beginning of the end, if the destruction of these iconic Beijing landmarks really is an omen. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like the paralyzingly fast destruction of the Olympic Green and Mandarin Oriental Hotel buildings are inextricably intertwined the the economic problems China is facing — or not facing, depending on how you look at it.

The government continues to deny and downplay the economic situation here, but there are signs if you look for them. Construction, which was buzzing all about the city before the Olympics has come to a standstill — many buildings stand as empty shells, paralyzed now for months. Estimates put unemployment at about 20 million people nationally right now, but estimates are usually low. In addition, the government puts growth at about 6.8 percent, while independent analysts from other countries put it at zero to 1 percent. I’ve seen a lot of people on the streets recently with “seeking employment” signs, and friends have commented on a distinct tenseness in the atmosphere. One friend has seen several fistfights break out over nothing, and recent shutdowns of stalls at the horrid Silk Market have caused near riots by sellers. In the South, which depends more on exports and manufacturing, riots have become increasingly common.

It’s going to be an interesting year, that’s for sure. As always in China, this could be a time of incredible social unrest, unlike anything China has seen in many years — or, it could be nothing. Only time will tell.

HEC, how I love thee

After reading an article in the 2008 Insider’s Guide to Beijing about Hotel Equipment Corporation, a restaurant supply warehouse, I decided I had to go have a look for myself.

In short, I completely lost my mind, and it was amazing.

HEC, located in the Feng Tai neighborhood of Beijing, is a bit hard to find, but it was well worth the long trek. The first floor was impressive, housing flatware, dishes and bar equipment at amazing prices — 22 kuai for a beautifully shaped serving platter anybody? They also had a water pitcher I saw at Salt, a premiere contemporary restaurant,  an array of sushi boats, and the futuristic-looking pudding cups from Mango Mango.

But the second floor is where I totally lost all sense of who I was and the fact that I have to pay rent tomorrow, and just started shoveling stuff into my cart. The “Western Cooking Supplies” floor was a wonderland of cheap and scarce kitchen necessities. They had tons of cake pans (47 kuai) and decorating supplies, silicone baking mats (250 kuai), cookie cutters, bread knives, heart-shaped pastry pans, gigantic 40-gallon soup pots, Western measuring cups, a huge tupperware section — to be honest, it’s all kind of a blur beyond that.

The third floor, “Chinese Cooking Supplies,” had full-sized woks (20 kuai), hot pot pots, iron plates for hot plate dishes, a row of bamboo steamers (15-30 kuai), more soup pots, rice cookers, meat cleavers, more tupperware, chafing dishes for buffets, barbecues, industrial-sized ovens … you get the picture.

The fourth and fifth floors have heavier equipment — as in walk-in fridges and grills.

Somehow I managed to leave having spent a bit of 200 kuai, which was fairly good I think. My favorite purchase was two silicone cupcake pans for 47 kuai each. I also got a potato ricer and bread knife, neither of which I’ve seen anywhere else in Beijing. I was pretty much giddy the entire trip, and I think I’ll be making return trips to pick up some things I didn’t buy this time — maybe a heart-shaped baking pan is in my future? I’d better not go too often though, and I think I need a better chaperon than Jeff. Maybe one who doesn’t encourage me to buy things.

Not pictured: my gigantic 16-kuai tupperware box for transporting cupcakes. MMMmmmmm!

Easy Curry, China-style

One of my favorite past times is rooting around for the correct ingredients to dishes I love, as you might have noticed from previous posts. I think I’ve become something of an expert on the various grocery stores in Beijing, and can confidently tell you which aisles in Wu Mart stock peanut butter, Western tea and essential spices.

However, since I often can’t find the called-for ingredients, I tend to make a lot of substitutions to recipes. So far this hasn’t really gone wrong, and since I’m forced to use easily available ingredients, I think these can be great recipes for the cook who just doesn’t have every imaginable spice on hand all the time.

Here is a curry I made Monday that I particularly liked, adapted from/inspired by what’s becoming one of my favorite cookbooks, This Can’t be Tofu.

Empty one can of coconut milk into a frying pan/wok over medium heat and whisk in 1.5 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1.5-2 tablespoons curry powder and 1 to 2 teaspoons Thai red chili paste. I didn’t have an chili paste, so I didn’t add it, and it tasted fine. Add the chili paste a bit at a time, starting with 1 teaspoon, continuing to taste.

Bring sauce to a boil, then let it simmer for five minutes.

Add desired vegatables and tofu or meats. I used 2 shitake mushrooms cut into strips, half of a partly-cooked potato, cubed, 1 head of brocoli, 2 medium-sized tomatoes, cut into chunks, 1 bunch of green onions, and 1/2 to 1 box of firm tofu. Add a pinch of salt and let it cook for a few minutes, until vegetables are tender. Serve over rice. Done!

This is a really easy and quick recipe, and you can vary it however you like. The cookbook calls for orange bell peppers, a 1/4 cup of basil leaves (unavailable in my grocery stores), and 1 bunch of spinach leaves. I didn’t have those so I made my own substitutions, which turned out grand.

I also suggest the more tofu-inclined to trying frying cubed tofu in a small amount of oil first, until golden brown. You can also try the porous and meaty texture of frozen tofu in this curry by first freezing a box of tofu overnight and then cubing it and adding it to the curry. In both cases, it’s a good idea to press the water out of the tofu before cooking by wrapping it in a towel and leaving something heavy on top of it for about 20 minutes. If you’re in a hurry, cut it into cubes and hand press a few cubes at a time carefully, but make sure not to crush them.

Happy cooking everyone, now I’m going to get to baking some more bread!

Embarrassing purchases

I have a feeling that all of my non-Chinese readers are currently looking at this picture thinking, “What the heck is that thing?” Those of you who are China-savvy know that this adorable little contraption is a humidifier, or “steam machine,” as I like to call them. They are pretty much mandatory in Chinese households, so I guess I’m just getting more integrated. You can get non-animal shaped ones if you want, but why would you when you can choose from penguins, lions, frogs, foxes, dogs and pandas that blow steam out their mouths/ears?

“But Caitlin, what are you doing with such a useless item in your home?” you ask.

Well, it all started about a year ago when I started going out with Jeff Lee, who is very particular about the condition of his skin. You see, Jeff has different premium lotions for face, hands, cuticles and body, and special chap stick that he carries on his person at all times. Unfortunately for Jeff, Beijing is currently experiencing a drought and is extremely dry.

Hence, the steam machine.

I guess I’ll let you know how the atmosphere of my apartment changes in the next few days. So far, it has made my comforter colder on the side where it sits. I don’t want to complain too much about it though, or Jeff will take it to his apartment. As useless as I suspect it to be, it’s also sort of growing on me.