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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Day 2 . . .

One of my talented cousins (there are many) appeared in his hometown newspaper last week, in a feel-good story about his journey back to health and how it has affected him professionally as well as physically (he's an opera singer so had to relearn how to use his new body). He has inspired me for some time as I watched his progress on facebook but there was one piece of the article I took to heart.

Houkamau and his flatmate completed a 30-day challenge — no takeaways, no sugar, no bread and no booze. Combined with at least five 30-minute workouts a week, the weight started to drop off and seeing the results proved to be a big motivator.

I'm several decades older than Te Ua, female and one-third his size when he was at his heaviest - all factors that make it harder for me to drop unwanted kilos - but decided to take his 30-day challenge and see how I feel at the end. He tells me he and his flatmate (roommate, for American readers) made up their own rules and they seem pretty simple.

No takeaways (and taking your lunch to work each day) is no issue for me as I avoid fast food anyway and prepare at least 90 percent of my own meals.

No sugar will be harder, particularly in the mornings when I like a square or two of chocolate, or a home-made brownie, with my morning coffee. My colleagues may have to do without any baking from me for the next month.

No bread is also not difficult for me as I seldom eat it anyway.

No booze will be a little difficult socially, where alcohol is a major part of the expat lifestyle, and professionally, where meals with officials almost always include toasts featuring the local specialty spirits. The concept of a "30-day-challenge" has become fairly ingrained in society, however, as have "dry" months, so it shouldn't be an issue socially. I'm taking friends to a craft brewery they haven't been to tonight, and plan to have a fun night with them while on soda water. As for the officials and endless toasting - I'll deal with that when/if it comes up.

The exercise won't be a problem, as I do more than that each week anyway.

So, yesterday I went to my favorite vegetable market to buy supplies, baked a frittata to have for lunches for the next few days and made tzatziki to have with vegetable crudites as an afternoon snack. This morning, I'm feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and looking forward to the month ahead. I won't bore people with daily or even weekly updates, but will report in on any results at the end of November.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A change of pace . . .

Before I moved to Beijing, in June 2013, a friend asked if I was going to get a bicycle and I laughed at him. Other friends, whom I have ridden motorcycles with in the United States and elsewhere, asked if I would get a motorcycle and, without laughing, I thought that highly unlikely. I'd briefly looked at the possibility, only to find I would need to first get a car driver's license in China and hold that for a year before I could even apply for a motorcycle license.

As someone who finds it hard to commit to a two-hour movie, that didn't seem worthy of even considering.

Fast forward 2-plus years and I've been having a ball on a borrowed bicycle that was then gifted to me (many thanks, John Butcher). It has expanded my Beijing horizons in ways I never expected and made me feel more a part of where I live.

Then, while attending a photography exhibition by a friend and colleague, I got talking to a young French guy with a motorcycle who said it had changed his life in China. He also informed me that the law had changed (shortly after I arrived, I have discovered). Now, if you already hold a license in your home country, whether car, motorcycle or both (that's all I have), all you need do is pass the written test to get a Chinese license.

He also had a friend with a motorcycle to sell . . .

Anyone who knows me, knows what happened next.

I picked up my new baby last Sunday and rode her home a little timidly, being accustomed to being on a bicycle in Beijing traffic. I took her out again on Tuesday after work and felt a little more comfortable. Today (Saturday), I rode her to find a gear shop and buy a good jacket and great gloves (both achieved) and just had fun. It's been a year or two since I've ridden but it all come back quickly. A need to brake suddenly, and a resulting rear slide, reminded me of the need to use both brakes in an emergency and I played with her weight, power and agility to see what she can do.

I also had to get used to her girth. I'm accustomed to bikes that are able to fit where the handlebars fit but this girl has side boxes attached, giving her some junk in her trunk. Rather than being a cat that can fit where my whiskers fit, I'm a cat with a seriously wide rear end.

But, I'm in love with her, and look forward to learning all her quirks, qualities and faults. I assume she will be forgiving of mine . . .

Baby needed a wash - I was going to buy cleaning gear then realized I can have it done on the side of the road, and support the local economy. Win-Win!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Once more into the breach . . .

It is only as I went to write this that I realized how long it is since I posted here. There was no specific reason for my silence, though many secondary causes. Primarily though, I've been really busy living life and let this slip by the way. I'll try to do better . . .

For those who don't know, I'm still in China and still liking being here more often than I dislike it. Work is going well and I love the people I work with, and I've been traveling a lot more lately, mainly for work but also on my own. In the past few months, I've visited Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and in China, Xi'an (home of the Terracotta Warriors, which I skipped in favor of outdoor adventure and will blog soon), Zhanjiang in Guangdong province and a number of cities in Shanxi province. The latter two were for work so involved long days, many banquets and much article writing to follow.

I've also restarted studying Chinese as, although I can get by without it, now I'm traveling more I want to have more communication with locals. I'm also buying a motorcycle this month so will travel more around Beijing and will need better language skills when visiting nearby villages. Studying for the license in Chinglish is a story in itself!

This week, from Oct 1 through 8, is Golden Week, when much of China has a week off after National Day and many people travel to their hometowns, but I decided to have a staycation in Beijing. Not totally tho, as I've been asked to do a couple of stories in Tianjin, which is less than an hour away by high-speed rail, so I'll head there Monday to stay in a luxurious hotel and pretend I'm accustomed to such a life.

For tonight, I'm off to a fabulous Peruvian pop-up restaurant run by friends to enjoy excellent ceviche and Pisco sours with other friends before they close for the cooler months.

To prove I have actually been working, I leave you with a profile I did on a fabulous Italian chef-slash-nuclear engineer. Beijing is full of such interesting people.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

dances with demons . . .

a friend killed himself and I got the news last week

we weren't friends while we worked together but should have been, but were each so engrossed in dancing with our own demons that we forgot other people had them also

five or more years later, he sent me an angry note and, surprisingly, that led to a level of sharing we didn't have when we worked together

his choice breathed life into my own demons - I looked at my life and didn't like what I saw or who I had become. truth be told, I've never really liked me

my response was to break up, in a no-return fashion, two unhealthy friendships I was in, clean my kitchen and look for the exit door. it isn't as easy to find if you know your demons well enough for your healthier side to not allow pharmaceuticals in the home and you have seen enough spilled blood in your lifetime to have an aversion to spilling it yourself

plus, there was a cat I was minding, friends coming to visit and a job I want to do well

I have a friend who hasn't given up smoking but has successfully postponed his next cigarette for many years now - I'm trying to do the same with the last waltz

and life is grand - messy, complicated, painful and challenging

I was rescued this morning, and will need rescuing more than once, by an 11-year-old with ADHD who was so self-aware and amazing that he gave me the courage I pretend to

Sunday, July 5, 2015

the floofy critter . . .

I'm cat-sitting an adorably handsome ball of feline awesomeness, and noticing that indoor cats are like toddlers. (My last cat critter delivered rabbits daily and once caught a ferret - this is a whole new level of pampered puddytat.)

Eat, shit, yowl, repeat.

He loves people but, like any toddler, misses his mom at night. His first night here, he sang the song of his people all night, loudly. Fewer hours the second night, but he's very vocal. By the third day he had me trained - he yowls and I leap out of bed (because it's mainly in the dead of night) to check his water and food bowls are full, and his litter box is empty of what he does so often. To reassure you, none of those chores have not been done, so we then sit on the edge of the bed while he tells me I don't look after him as well as his mom did. Because . . .

He also thought it was a self-serve restaurant and I woke to disemboweled wet food pouches (he prefers the gravy to the meat) and gravy paw prints everywhere. He denied all knowledge.

Having dealt to the wet food, he chewed his way into two sacks of dry food. The kitty food is now on lockdown, but behind a glass door so he occasionally tries to get to it. I'm pleased the glass is stronger than he is. Not because there's no food in his bowl, he just seems to think the other option must taste better.

His last accommodation was at least twice the size of my apartment, so sometimes he just yowls at the front door as if he thinks I'm hiding some rooms out there.

Today, Day 8, my cleaner came. He doesn't like the vacuum cleaner but quite likes the mop. I'm worried he might get high on the Pine Sol. He seems to think she's okay after being initially unsure.

I have visitors arriving from Shanghai tonight and wonder whether he will approve. I'd hate to make them sleep on the street . . .

Friday, June 12, 2015

the Kiwi settles, briefly . . .

It has been a long time between posts . . .

sometimes, for this bird at least, things need to play out before they can be written about, and this has been one of those times

the thing with being an expat is being aware of why you are where you are, and the cost and benefits - and when it comes time to renegotiate your contract, all of those things come to mind

in the two years of living here, I definitely have not seen as much of China as I intended. I return to Korea regularly, because of a dear friend who is of an age that limits such visits and other friends who have known me a long time and accept me for who I am (a precious thing when your close-at-hand friends are all new)

I still find China exciting, and want to see more, so that's on the plus side for staying

I admire, respect and really like (sometimes love) my Chinese work colleagues - they are passionate about what they do, even when realizing it isn't always the best it could be done

the job isn't bad - I sometimes need to remind myself how much I enjoy playing with language, and get my jollies in the process rather than the result, but, hey, that's journalism

it gets lonely, and "friends" come and go and sometimes you realize they're not friends but only friendly acquaintances, but that's another reason I return to Korea often

there's something new and interesting every day - and that is the key for this bird with the attention span of a spermatazoa

so . . . I'm here for another year . . .

Monday, March 16, 2015

Driving in New Zealand . . .

the following is a column I wrote for publication today, and a serious problem in my home country:

Tourist drivers seen as hazards in NZ

By Tracie Barrett

I had a close encounter with a Chinese gentleman in New Zealand over Spring Festival, although I didn’t initially know he was Chinese.

I was driving a steep, twisting road above Lake Hawea in Central Otago – a stunningly beautiful area and one I know well. My speed was just under the limit to allow for the challenging road and possible hazards.

Judging by the anecdotes of friends and stories in local media, the most frequent hazards on New Zealand’s roads these days are tourist drivers. During Lunar New Year, many of those were Chinese.

In that encounter, a large motor home pulled out to pass on a blind corner in a series of twists and turns, then started to pull back in before being even halfway past my vehicle.

Primed for such driving when I saw the rental vehicle in my rear view mirror, I braked and the huge piece of hard metal and motor missed my car by mere centimeters.

Five minutes later, I rounded another turn to see the offending driver pulled over at a lookout point, enjoying the view with no idea how close he had come to crushing my vehicle and myself into a rock wall. I pulled alongside, ascertained he was Chinese but spoke English and explained what he had just done and impressed on him that the beast he was driving was much wider and longer than he realized and that he would kill someone if he continued driving that way.

I hope he did not, but in the two weeks I was home, eight people died in vehicle accidents involving tourists. One of these was a 5-year-old girl, killed when a pickup truck driven by a Chinese tourist collided head-on with the station wagon her family was in. The driver has been charged with dangerous driving causing death and four counts of dangerous driving causing injury, as the girl’s parents and two sisters were hospitalized after the crash.

Obviously, not all road accidents in New Zealand are caused by tourists, and not all bad tourist drivers are Chinese or Asian. However, as more Chinese visit New Zealand (the number more than doubled between 2010 and 2014 and is expected to continue growing), their presence is becoming more noticeable and there is a growing call for changes in the law to keep inexperienced drivers off the roads.

That might have saved two motorcyclists killed by a 20-year-old Chinese woman in 2012 on the second day of her New Zealand holiday. At the inquest last year, it was revealed that the driver had less than one month’s driving experience since getting her license in China and had not driven in at least 10 months.

Until the law is changed, I expect to hear of many more such accidents and more incidents of what has become frequent recently as locals take the law into their own hands – taking the keys off erratic drivers and leaving them stranded on the roadside.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Foreign Expert, Take II . . .

About two months back, I was asked by China Daily's Foreign Experts Office if I would attend a seminar scheduled for the week before I was due to fly home to Aotearoa/New Zealand. I happily agreed as such things are usually interesting in all sorts of ways that often have little to do with the assigned topic, and asked for more information. The usual things that concern a journalist - the who, what, when, where and why of what was planned, so I could, in turn, plan accordingly.

The only information initially available was the date. I've lived in China long enough to find this unsurprising - information was so closely controlled here for so long that there remains a tendency to treat everything as a secret to be revealed only when absolutely necessary. As an aside, that can be painful for a writer here, but you learn to live and adapt to what is. A week before the date, I had still managed to obtain little more information than that, but had been asked to flesh out my biographical details for the organizers.

Two days before the event, I was told I would be expected to stay overnight the evening before, despite it being held in Beijing and apparently not far from where I live. By now, this had become an adventure/mystery that highly amused me and I was planning to treat the seminar as an improvisational theater activity. The morning before, I was told I would be provided with a car and driver to take me to the Beijing Foreign Affairs Office and given the number of a contact person. Nobody could tell me where I was staying, which I was mainly curious about to know if there was a gym or pool there.

That evening, my driver delivered me to the Foreign Affairs Office, which turned out to have a hotel attached (with gym and pool) and I learned there was some justification to parts of the secrecy after all. The next day was to be spent with a consultation of foreign experts and ministry officials in the morning, following by transportation to the Great Hall of the People for a symposium and banquet dinner with Premier Li Keqiang.

China consciously tries to learn from the best practices of other countries and, I learned, holds such an event annually to consult with foreign experts both resident in the country or with ties to it. This year's symposium marked the first time English-language media had been invited to attend, I was told by the senior China Daily official also invited.

I was impressed by the surroundings and the food, as one would expect in the building that is the political hub of China, and even more impressed with the attention paid to speakers and questions asked of them by China's number two player. I was equally impressed by the company I found myself in - five Nobel Laureates in Economics, a former ambassador to China from Korea, a former minister of education for the Netherlands, and the women I sat with at breakfast. Asked what they do, one replied, "I build commercial aircraft" and the other is a bio-geneticist researching cancers.

I couldn't help but feel like the Maori gal who'd snuck in the back door and bluffed her way to the head table, but I made sure to smile sweetly and behave reasonably well in case they might want to invite me back some day . . .

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Foreign Expert, Take I . . .

Having been an expat for so long, in so many countries, I find it interesting to compare how foreign professionals are treated in each, and how we are referred to.

In Korea, where I have worked the longest, I was considered a "Registered Alien" and had an ID card to prove my status. And, when I think about it, that's how we were often treated. I mainly got along well with my colleagues and employers and was treated well, but there was always a sense that Koreans were more important and so were their opinions.

Here in China, I have become a "Foreign Expert," and the standard of treatment gels with the more respectful term. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have identified the need to learn from the best practices of the developed world and the government has very active programs to recruit talented people from abroad.

We even have complete departments set up to make life easier for us, including the State Administration of Foreign Experts, which often arranges special events for international staff.

One such last week was the 2015 Spring Festival Celebration for Foreign Experts, when we were invited to Bihai Hillside Resort beside Lake Jinhai for the day. We arrived to find experts in traditional arts and crafts set up to demonstrate and teach such skills as tying traditional knots, painting masks and paper cutting, then were treated to performances and an extensive banquet.

It was an enjoyable day in a beautiful setting to which I plan to return when the weather is warmer and the lake has thawed.

Arriving at the resort

Looking out at Jinhai Lake

an exquisitely painted mask

a master of Chinese knot work who teaches at the
Central Institute of Arts and Crafts in Beijing
a student teaches me to knot a bracelet

finished work (not mine)
a master of egg painting

finished products
learning young
paper cutting
a friend blows the animal of her birth year from sugar
another friend and colleague is on the receiving end of an interview

Friday, January 30, 2015

Feminists and feminism ...

Colleen McCullough died

The author of Tim, The Thorn Birds, Masters of Rome  and a host of other books. Her writing enriched my life.

Her obituary in The Australian makes me angry.

The lead paragraph, which does mention she was a best-selling author, then discusses her looks, weight and man-pulling ability. And I thought of my female friends and how they might be reduced to such idiocy - MEK, a gorgeous redhead who also scaled mountains, oh, and advised powerful men; Stephanie, a pretty blond who knew people in power; Susanne . . .  you know, why do we have to justify our specialness?

I'm kinda pissed, but from pissed comes ideas

Ladies, lady friends, let's celebrate who we are and what we have done. (Stephanie started this but I'm taking it a step further.)

We're not going to be around for the obits but I'm asking - what are you most proud of? What do YOU want to be remembered for? What do YOU think is important in your life thus far (I expect much more)?

Let's make a book to inspire

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Smelling the roses . . .

Sometimes it's the unplanned days that give the most pleasure . . .

Life has been busy of late. Work has entailed changes that, as changes do, need time to learn and master. I'm back at the gym and making that a priority on my free time schedule while also fitting in errands and shopping that take time, particularly when you use a cycle and are so fussy you have to go all over the city to get your weekly groceries (not a chore by any means - I love exploring the city but it does take time).

Today's schedule was to take a friend to a framer another friend and I found last week, and have watercolors I bought back from Paris mounted and framed. I then planned to spend all afternoon at the gym and pool before dinner with other friends.

I'm glad I was flexible.

We had coffee and lunch after visiting the framer then went for a walk, which took us to Beihai Park near Beijing's Forbidden City. I had been there before and told my friend about it, including a dancing group I'd seen there, and she asked if I would mind if we went in for a short while.

I'm so glad we did and that I didn't hold myself to my gym commitment.

Instead, we walked, laughed, watched locals ice-skating, playing in ice-bumper cars, boats and all manner of contraptions, watched the dancers and climbed the hill to see the view from the park's White Pagoda.

Watched the dancers,

nd enjoyed an unplanned, unmapped, unfettered day of pure fun.

There was also a gorgeous cat that allowed me to stroke its ears and a busker who looked (a little) like Jackie Chan on the subway (which I NEVER take but am glad I did today).

Next comes dinner . . .

perhaps this is what Jaycee Chan is reduced to after his drug bust???