July 2001 Archives

Beijing is a city

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Beijing is a city of fluid movements: tai chi in the shadow of the Temple of Heaven; ballroom dancing in a park; pedestrians sauntering down a shopping arcade. Traffic moves with the moment. On broad avenues bicycles, donkey carts and trolley buses share the raod with taxis and pedestrians. Nobody hurries, especially not the big blue government construction trucks that haul dirt and mysterious loads under tarps.

Private car ownership in Beijing is only 10% but in a city of 13 million, that's still a lot of cars. The air is brown from pollution and walking around on a cloudy morning, before the sun can burn off the haze, induces headaches. It is one extremely unpleasant aspect of Beijing (and Xian, we're discovering this morning) that the government plans to correct before the 2008 Olympics.

Arriving at Wansheng Theater

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Arriving at Wansheng Theater was a Neil Stephenson novel come to life.

Our taxi driver pulled up in front of an old, peeling-grey, three story building. Its windows were boarded over and outside the second floor unlit neon letters spelled out "Welcome to our ACROBATICS SHOW" A middle aged man in a dingy polo shirt and sandals waved us around to the back of the building. At the end of the alley, a red neon sign glowed ENTRA CE.

Inside, the William Gibson-inspired setting continued. But it wasn't faked, this is where Gibson & Stephenson get their ideas. Everything was plush but run down. Two attendants showed us to our seats, four boxy armchairs, then served us bottled water and a tiny tray of cookies featuring an Oreo in the center.

The acrobats were delightful. They performed seven or eight acts featuring lithe contortions, balancing objects, spinning plates, winding ribbons. Several times, I had to wonder aloud, "Did she just do what I think she did?" as a woman moved from one improbable position to another by a even less probable route. Her head passed through her hips, I swear...

Maybe Chinese acrobats are Replicants.

We rode three hours

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We rode three hours out of Beijing yesterday to see the Great Wall. There are nearer places, but we wanted to see the Simatai section, described as "not touristy" and affording the best views.

On the drive there, we passed through the northeastern suburbs of Beijing. Towards the airport are the lastest developments. First tall, tall highrise apartments owned by the government and inhabited by the "common people" as our driver, Mr. Lee, informed us. A little further along, we started to see billboards for places like Dragon Villas and "Lomond Lake villas: North American Demeanor, rich and strong" detached houses costing from $1,500 - $9,500 US dollars a month for about 500sq meters. (To see some Beijing real estate, visit www.merryland.com.cn ) Mr. Lee says "The common people say this is the new Forbidden City."

The Simatai Wall had great views. Neverending scenery bifurcated by the Wall. Words can't describe it. I spent a lot of time taking photos and saying, "Wow. Sooo beautiful."

Last night we strolled

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Last night we strolled down Wangfujing, a broad boulevard closed off to traffic. As the evening settled in, crowds of people came out to enjoy the bands and the beer at outdoor festival tables. We dined on food from stalls (avoiding the skewered crickets, scorpions and pupae) at a special night market and had fun in a pharmacy. So much Chinese medicine. An attendant in a green nurse uniform tried to persuade Seth that some natural Viagra would be a good purchase. We ended up with Oreos instead.

You know how you almost always forget something when you pack? This trip, mine is something I rely on a lot more than I expected--a tablet and pen. We scoured the shopping street for a notebook but to no avail. My notes in Beijing will be taken on hotel stationery. Already the details of last night's fun are fading, so I'd better commit them to paper before they are gone...

I'm in China. Beijing

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I'm in China. Beijing reminds me a lot of Hong Hong, Kuala Lumpur & every Chinatown I've ever visited. There's a mix of high-tech billboards and people on bicycles. Old, weed-sprouting roofs on houses hidden behind grey, tile-topped walls. 1970s residential highrises with air conditioners on the outside of each window. Upscale boutiques. Teeming millions. Kanji that's not quite the same as back home.

A nice treat: we got upgraded to a "Cyberroom" at the Crowne Plaza so I'll keep up with 'Blog & mail for a few more days.

Seth & Tara came

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Seth & Tara came back from Akita in the north of Japan bearing a gift box of "Aunt Stella's Hand Made Cookies from the Heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country." It's the perfect blend of Amish & Japanese.

The box is wrapped in pink sprigged gift paper just like all Japanese omiyage boxes, and in addition to the logo stickers and "fresh by" date, it bears a translation of "The taste of Aunt Stella's" which begins sutera obasan kara.... The English on the box reads:


Warm heart communication by Aunt Stella.

Japanese hospitals are medicine

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Japanese hospitals are medicine machines that quickly move patients through a set path from Reception to Accounting. The NTT Kanto Medical Center is no different, but it is newly renovated and offers a comfortable environment. I was there yesterday for an appointment.

I wasn't the only foreigner there, but I was one of perhaps two. My funny name confounded the nurses. I was escorted around the hospital from place to place. Registration took me to the Consulting area. From Consulting I was ushered to MRI. I probably could have found these places myself. Everything is labelled in English, it turns out, but people were kindly pandering to my confusion.

Dr. Arasaki speaks fluent English and put me at ease. I enjoyed watching him use his computer to create my chart as he examined me. And looking at the pictures of my brain was really stunning. I'll be going back, but next time it won't be so scary.

Sitting on the arm

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Sitting on the arm of a friend's sofa last night, watching two little girls put "hair toys" into my husband's too-long hair, I had an insight on writing the description of that scene. Glittering hearts; hysterical laughter; amused patience.

But I slept and my insight faded and though I can still vividly picture the scene, this morning I can't do it justice. And I didn't even get a photo.

Summer is time for

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Summer is time for grilling and Tod has fired up the barbeque three times in the past week. But last night we were hungry and didn't feel like cooking for ourselves. Where did we end up?

A Korean barbeque restaurant for indoor grilling!

Kenbu Yakiniku is a catch--great food, an interesting atmosphere (half industrial, half neighborhood hole-in-the-wall) and it's so close to our house that there's not enough time to start sweating between our door and theirs. Perfect summer grilling.

When I was a

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When I was a little girl, I read a lot of fairy tales, fantasy and historical fiction. I was fascinated with the things people wore and the descriptions of women embroidering all the time. What a lot of work for clothes that we take for granted these days.

Yesterday I was shopping with a friend and saw a shimmering purple dress. It was in my size and on sale so I tried it on. It fit and looked quite lovely but I didn't decide to purchase it until I read the materials and care tag:

69% cotton
31% metal
Dry Clean Only

This is cloth-of-gold, just like queens wore. Of course, mine's not really gold but the idea is the same. Now I need a pair of dancing slippers and a crown and I'll set.

P.S. Today marks the 1st anniversary of this 'blog. Time flies.

Everyone around me is

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Everyone around me is publishing books.

Caroline Pover, a friend of a friend, launched her new book last night. Her apartment was packed with friends, contributors, stacks of the book and lots of champagne.

Being A Broad in Japan is a sourcebook for foreign women living in Japan that grew out of Caroline's magazine and women's network. It's packed with practical information and interviews with scores of people. Leafing through, I recognise many names and even a few of the anonymous contributors are familiar. I have no doubt that this book will be a hit.

Perhaps it is time for me to dust off my own MS and get it published.

For the first time

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For the first time in three years, Japan's trains let us down.

We were on our way to a party in Kisarazu, Chiba prefecture (the "state" to the east of Tokyo). It's about an hour and a half away by train, or only an hour if you catch the Sazanami express train.

Kisarazu is "in the middle of nowhere" and trains stop running at about 10:30, so this would be an early party for us. We planned to arrive around 8, spend two hours then head home in time to make all our connections.

But yesterday evening, the trains from Tokyo were running 90 minutes late, due to signal problems. Our plan to catch the 6:30 Sazanami was thwarted. The next train was due to leave at 7:00, but when it didn't turn up by 7:20, we bailed and called in our apologies.

So we missed the party and disappointed our friends all because the trains were late.

Peterb is in town

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Peterb is in town from Pittsburgh. We haven't seen him in five years, and all of us have been busy in the intervening years--marriage, mortgage, moving--but I think that neither he nor we have changed much.

In a way, that's very comforting. It's nice to have a solid foundation of personality that remains immutable despite changing circumstances. On the other hand, why haven't I changed in the last five years?! I guess I have, but perhaps only subtly. Speaking Japanese doesn't count.

If I had to

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If I had to name one thing I hate about living in Japan, today I'd name bilingual computing.

My Macs are generally pretty good at allowing me to display and type Japanese. But my e-mail program gives me trouble with encoding--I can receive Japanese e-mail, but I cannot send it. And after my recent upgrade to OS 9.1, everything is falling apart. Photoshop 6 lets me do Japanese on one machine, but on the other machine it does not. Why? I'm not sure. I'll have to track it down. A rat's nest of similar problems has plagued me this week.

I should be accustomed to bilingual computing by now; in addition to my own machines I have plenty of friends and clients with Japanese machines and English applications (or vice versa) but I never seem to get the hang of it. Sort of like Thursdays.

The city changes its

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The city changes its clothes at dinnertime.

Hakusan Dori, the four lane boulevard that runs through our section of town is pretty sterile during the day; the high-speed traffic doesn't encourage many small shops and long stretches are lined with office buildings and shuttered shops.

But in the evening, the metal shutters of the shops open to reveal lively and interesting restaurants and bars. Although we've lived here for nine months, until last night we'd never walked up Hakusan Dori in the evening. Now we have a new range of restaurants to choose from!

Last night, we tried One's Drive, a hamburger joint. I tried a sauerkraut dog, but the sauerkraut was Japanese-style pickled cabbage. Tasty, but not sauerkraut!

I tried really hard

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I tried really hard not to work yesterday and to enjoy a day of rest away from my computer.

That is hard work.

It was too hot (another 35 degree scorcher) to go outside for long. Everyone else in the house was engaged in solitary pursuits, like working on web pages or watching movies. I bounced around the house, trying to amuse myself. Ate a marshmallow. Made some iced coffee. Finished a book and took a nap.

I did spend time at the computer--even worked for an hour or so--but it was extremely reduced from my usual 12 hours. I think my day would have been more satisfying if I had just given up and worked like I usually do.

Mini-digger SKR-301

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9:01 am. The extremely cute, bright turquoise mini-digger (model SKR-301) is doing a balletic dance from its flatbed truck to the ground. The skilled operator uses the digging head as a fulcrum to slide the machine off the raked bed of the truck without bouncing it off the asphalt.

Sadly, it is a Sunday morning....one that I had hoped to sleep through. Construction crews begin their work on the dot at 9 am. This timing is so consistent that I suspect it must be mandated by law. Because it is challenging to rest when the SKR-301 is dancing and digging underneath the bedroom window, I'm in the office, checking e-mail and working on a Sunday--I swore I wouldn't. Maybe I'll have better luck next week.

We went to see

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We went to see the lanterns floating on the moat at the Imperial Palace, but we arrived to late to see them launched. They were very pretty in the twilight from the height of the moat walls, but the best view must have been with those who had rented boats and were rowing among them.

Slightly disappointed, we walked through the Mitama matsuri, arriving just in time to watch a troop of men pushing a giant, lighted float through towering walls of stacked lanterns towards the shrine.

The matsuri had dozens of food stalls, vending everything from ikayaki (grilled squid) to candied apples. We shared some Doraemon-shaped cakes, but ended up eating dinner out.

The Sony Building, in

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The Sony Building, in Ginza, is a showcase of Sony's products. Each floor has a different category--televisions, computers, cameras, stereos, games--with sample products you can try, games to play and more uniformed showroom attendants than you can shake a stick at.

I spent 20 minutes playing with the "location free" Airboard, a portable TV/Internet terminal. It was fun and easy to use, but I'm not going to run out and buy one (retail price $1,300).

Also in the Sony Building: a game where you control a mosquito who must bite a girl who is sleeping. If you wake her up, she goes into Battle Mode and tries to swat you! Very amusing, though we never figured out the controls well enough to bite the girl.

My husband is a

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My husband is a delight to wake up.

He's not a morning person. I get up early and work until his alarm goes off, then make coffee and deliver a mug to his bedside. If he's conscious enough to talk, I spend a few minutes chatting with him. On the weekends, I read him articles from the newspaper but weekday mornings are usually filled with talk of the day's plans, weather, and his late-night computing triumphs. Afterwards, I go off to continue working and he falls back asleep (sometimes).

It's a pretty nice way to start the day together.

Today I'm going to

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Today I'm going to the doctor to complain about some strange headaches I've been having. I really don't like the medical profession and this visit makes me nervous and tense, but the headaches are stronger than my aversion and fear.

I'm chickening out though, and not going to a local Japanese clinic. Why? If I have to describe my pain, I don't think I can do it in Japanese. I can say "My head hurts" but that will only get me "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning."

So I'm off to an American doctors' clinic where everyone speaks English and my Japanese insurance is not accepted. Which is OK, because I can't find my Japanese insurance card...

I always feel a

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I always feel a little bit nervous when I have to leave my passport somewhere.

Yesterday, I went to apply for our visas to China. The Chinese embassy's consular section is very nice. Clean, well-lit, open space with plenty of writing desks and even glue sticks for attaching your photo to the application form. Not too many signs in English, but enough to get me where I needed to be and into the right line.

While I waited (only five minutes), I watched a woman with a huge pile of maroon colored Japanese passports sitting at a special desk in the waiting area, sorting documents and photos before submitting them. She must work for a tour company.

When it was my turn, I handed over the forms and passports and received a yellow reciept--one copy of a triplicate form. The white sheet was pasted to the applications and the pink copy was rubberbanded around our passports which the clerk then tossed into a bin on the floor.

I go back on Thursday to pick everything up. I won't lose my yellow slip. I hope they don't lose my passport.

Last night we grilled

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Last night we grilled burgers and lit sparklers on the patio. Perhaps it was an unconscious nod to American Independence Day, though I didn't think of that until just now. At the time it seemed perfectly Japanese.

Fireworks are legal in Tokyo (and all over Japan, as far as I know) and it's really fun to light them off. The packaging all shows cartoon toddlers lighting them over open flames (at least on the packages of handheld fireworks) and since we don't know exactly what any of them are, it's always a bit of a mystery to discover what each one is going to do. The element of danger makes it even more fun.

Last night we had road flares on sticks. They were intensely bright--painful to look at--and burned from green to pink to yellow before dousing themselves. The people walking past our house probably thought we were nuts as we did not have the obligatory toddler lighting them. But then, we're foreigners which makes us toddlers on our own, in a way.

Tod tested me yesterday.

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Tod tested me yesterday. He spent the entire day reconfiguring glass,the keystone in our household computer network. That meant no Internet access for the whole day. I fell asleep at midnight wondering what I had missed.

When I woke up this morning, there was a note on my monitor:

TO BRING UP LINK, PRESS ENTER ON GLASS --TOD

What had I missed? Not too much. Some DigitalEve messages. A client canceling an appointment for Monday. Half a dozen spam e-mails. Nothing of life-changing consequence. I really shouldn't spend so much time tied to my computer.

What did I do while I was offline? I read two and a half books.

My sister, Jenn, is

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My sister, Jenn, is three years younger than I am. It's a good gap in ages, and we've always been friends. But my competitive nature makes us rivals, too.

Jenn's list of one-upsmanship (from my perspective)

  • She's taller.
  • She wore pantyhose before I did.
  • She had a boyfriend before I did.
  • She drove first.

And now she's published the first book. Questioning Walls Open, a collection of her poetry. came out this week. My book is still in MS form, sitting on a shelf, taunting me to revise and submit it. Perhaps this is the incentive I need. Jenn's not going to be the only sister to publish a book.

It's 8 am and

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It's 8 am and I am happy to have my new laptop, Ferry, who I purchased in Dover last month. Her umbilical cord (an Ethernet cable) stretches across the bed, down the hall and into the office to give me Internet access.

I also have a cold. A miserable summertime one, probably brought on by life-saving air conditioning on extremely hot days. Ironic that the life enhancing coolers always make me sick. Which is worse: sweating in 36 degree heat or suffering a head cold?

Since I don't have any client appointments (but plenty of work to do) I will poke around in bed today, nursing my cold and working with Ferry bridging the gap between my upraised knees and my stomach. Fortunately, her mouse buttons are placed far enough away from the edge of her case that my fat rolls do not activate them.

Prime Minister Koizumi must

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Prime Minister Koizumi must be happy. An interview revealed that he always wanted to be a rock star. Well, he is popular enough to be one. His Cabinet's approval rating is a record-breaking 88%.

What I can't figure out is why. They don't seem to be doing much of anything differently, though Foreign Minister Tanaka has an amusing big mouth (often full of foot) and not a lot of diplomatic skills.

Koizumi is making his world tour: golfing with President Bush; chatting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair; and shaking hands with Jacques Chirac in France. Beautiful photo opportunities. Maybe Koizumi is a bit like Ronald Reagan--the leading man with a good supporting cast--because the government today really does seem like theatre rather than solid national leadership. Maybe I'm just not reading the right newspapers.

Hmmmm, can I get thrown out of Japan for vague criticism of the government? Nah...

Tod gave me a

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Tod gave me a present of books. He often orders books from Powell's in Portland and he loves their delivery. They come in big, grey postal sacks.

There's no bookstore quite like Powell's here in Tokyo--not for English books, certainly (the paucity of English books in this city is really depressing), but not for Japanese books either. So we buy our books online and have them shipped overseas to us.

What did I receive in this batch? Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, a book all about the theories behind graphics and charts, very interesting reading, an O'Reilly book on Web Navigation to add to my collection, and a few novels to share.

On the way to

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On the way to my 1st grade student's house, I passed a wonderful French patisserie. The window display of a chouchon (pig) cake caught my eye. It was so cute; I was very tempted to buy it and share it with Katie during her lesson. But it was 3,500 yen and pretty large, so I held back.

Tokyo is strangely populated ethnic food places. Fashions in food launch a thousand new restaurants all offering variations on a theme. A few years ago it was Indian curry. Then Italian pasta. The trend now seems to be bagels.

When the fashion changes, many of the mediocre restaurants redecorate their menus hoping to catch the next trend, while the superlative shops keep serving up their finest. Which is why you can find a real patisserie in Sugamo, or an excellent Indian curry shop on the back streets of Nakameguro. I'm still looking for a really good bagel.

Because of the recent

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Pointing and Bowing RemoteBecause of the recent heat, Tod's been busy replacing batteries in the aircon remotes. Yesterday he did the second unit in the dining room.

"Come look at this! It bows when you press a button," he called to me.

He failed to mention the novelty of having a cartoon of a uniformed Japanese Office Lady pointing at the time and temperature. It was her bowing that he noticed.

She's cute. I wish she did the dishes, too.

Geez, we eat a

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Geez, we eat a lot of salt.

I was shocked when I finished up the last of the salt in the bin (we don't even use shakers anymore) and rummaged around in the cabinet to find some more. There wasn't any. In the course of three years here, we have consumed two liters of salt. I'm sure we didn't use that much salt in 8 years of married life in America.

Where does it all go? Pickles, mainly, and food preparation. Salad dressings, miso soup, marinades, sauces. An infrequent bout of baking. And lots and lots of brined pickles.

Visiting America, I find I salt my foods now. I never used to. My soduim tolerance is increasing. Bring on that salt-broth ramen, please!

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