Thursday, July 28, 2011

Some more pictures...

Back in mid-July, signing my contract for the orchestra. There were two: one in Chinese and one in English.
Shaking "Yu Feng's" hand after signing my contract.
The Big Cat, Vegetable Warrior Princess!
Putting together the bedframe for my new queen-sized matress from IKEA.
Brittany was providing moral support while I put my bed together. She was also pretending to be rowing a boat.
I have to include this... the typical "squat" toilet used my most Chinese people. Bathrooms here do not provide toilet paper nor do they have soap at the sinks (if there are even sinks!)... hello instant hand sanitizer!!!
Potato Chips???
Keyondra and I waiting in the bus with our VIP passes to the Worker's Stadium. The concert that night was a televised, joint concert between our Opera Orchestra, the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, and the National Center for the Performing Arts Symphony Orchestra.
The Beijing Worker's Stadium. This picture taken from the back of the stage.
Keyondra, holding the menu at Casa la awesome Mexican restaurant in the Solana shopping district. We were there celebrating Key's 27th birthday! 

Grocery Shopping

Buying food in Beijing can be a little tricky for those of used to more American/European fare.  I have been truly spoiled by Meijer, Kroger, and the independently owned shops in Downtown Cincinnati and Clifton... there is no way to buy everything I need in one stop here in Bei Yuan. Instead, I figure out what recipes call for what, make a list, and then plan out when I can visit my four favourite grocers.  Let me break it down:

Wu Mart:  Pronounced "Woo-Mah" by the locals, this is the Chinese equivalent of Wal-Mart. It is about an 8 minute walk from my apartment located in the same complex as a small shopping mall.  There are two levels; the first floor is devoted to clothes, toiletries, cooking utensils, stationary, bed linens, and electronics. The 2nd level (the basement) is the food center. I must mention that the escalator to get there is very cool. Perhaps those of you reading this have seen such a marvelous invention before in the States, but I have not. Thus, I am very excited to tell you that these escalators are simply long descending/ascending ramps with grooves for the wheels of the shopping basket. Ingenious I tell you!!!  Ok, so back to the shopping. There is a nice bakery that makes not only breads and some sweet goods, but also baked snacks such as Pringles, chex, gold fish, etc. There is a huge freezer/refrigerator section with more types of fresh meat than you could possibly imagine (literally, every type of meat: livers, heads, hearts, tongues, fish, beef, chicken, duck, and probably some other animals that US citizens might find "interesting").  I, obviously, do not utilize this section.  There is also a deli counter devoted to fresh vegetables and veggie mixes including a large amount of fresh seaweed, fungus, and cabbage.  There is row after row of frozen dumplings, and a large section also devoted to ice creams and frozen desserts.  Eggs are not refrigerated here, but there are always hundreds of boxes of them.  Wu Mart has only one kind of "real" cheese... it's called "Beijing cheese" which isn't bad, but has a light flavour, the texture being similar to mozzarella.  There is one kind of salted butter and one kind of unsalted. Milk is also largely unrefrigerated here, and yogurt is extremely popular (but watch out!  Some yogurt here is "breakfast yogurt," thinner and soupier than regular yogurt... oh, and it's spelled "yoghurt").  The vegetable selection is quite extensive with everything you could want. The drawback is that it may be days between shipments and there are times when what's left doesn't look very appetizing or even ok to eat. The non-perishable food items are separated by a large wall. There are more than 3 isles devoted to candies and dried fruit, and another 5 isles for potato chips, rice cakes, cookies, crackers, and flour cakes. And we thought the US was bad... diabetes is well on its way here in Beijing...   The other half of the non-perishables include an isle for Ramen Noodles, an isle for soy sauce, an isle for every kind of cooking oil imaginable (but no cooking spray), 3 and half isles for juice, water, and soda, and then a spice isle (chili paste, black bean paste, veggie, chicken, beef, and fish stock, dried vegetables, tons of crushed red pepper, oyster sauce, salt, pepper, and ginger).  There is, literally, a dark corner of imported food but this only includes olive oil, frosted flakes, Nescafe, baked beans, ketchup, miracle whip, and Hunt's Tomato sauce.  The best part about Wu Mart is the price of the food which is extremely cheap. 100 RMB is equal to about $15 USD and I can generally buy all my fruits, veggies, cereal, tofu, bread, butter, and soy milk for the week for under that price. 

Ito Yokado: Based out of Japan, this store is more like Meijer and is a 15 minute walk from my apartment.  It has 5 levels: the basement is for food, and the top 4 floors are for clothes, electronics, etc.  The food selection tends to be more extensive than Wu Mart's but at a slightly higher price.  The fish is fresher here--there are large fish tanks from which you may make you selection. Most of the beef and chicken is also carved as it is ordered. Half the eggs are refrigerated and the other half is not.  There are even more varieties of milk, yogurt, and soy milk here.  The international isle has Italian pasta, tomato sauces, parmesan cheese, cheddar cheese, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Brie (and a couple other soft cheeses), salted and unsalted butters, whipped cream, heavy cream, Frosted Flakes, Cheerios, Honey Bunches of Oats, Oreos, Sunmaid Raisins, Skippy Peanut Butter (crunchy and smooth!), an Italian herb mix (but not the individual herbs), Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Curry, American mustard, and regular Pringles. The veggie selection is not as extensive as Wu Mart's, but the quality is consistently very good. Also, you can buy Udon Noodles and fresh sushi/sashimi here. Ito Yokado is also the better place to go to buy toiletries and household products as there is a larger selection of familiar US brands (i.e. Venus razor blades, Crest toothpaste, Listerine mouthwash, Pledge surface spray, Windex, toilet bowl cleaner, detergent, etc).  It is not a good idea to buy Tupperware, eating utensils, sponges, raisins, tomatoes, or garlic here, however, as the price is double that of Wu Mart.  If someone is looking to buy some greenery for their dwelling Ito Yokado also has a small selection of potted plants and cut flowers.

BHG Market Place
: This series of stores is similar to Kroger, the letters of which stand for Beijing Hualian (pronounced "Hwah lee-on") Group.  The location I visited two weeks ago was in the Solana shopping mall, a large European/American style shopping center that hosts such brands as Guess, Mango, Motivi, Promod, Zara, Esprit, Massimo Dutti, Only, and several other international clothing stores (you know it's good because they play Britney Spears and Lady Gaga over the radio there!).  Anyway, if you're living in Beijing and looking for some good cheeses and wine BHG is a really great place to go (the wine selection here isn't super fantastic... there are some nice Italian, French, and even American wines here, but nothing that a connoisseur would appreciate. Luckily, I am NOT a connoisseur and so the selection is perfect for me!). There is every type of cheese you could need, and there is a huge choice of imported organic fruits and veggies.  Unlike Wu Mart and Ito Yokado, BHG sells taco shells, refried beans, more spices, garbanzo beans, frozen pizzas, seedless red grapes, cream of mushroom soup, baking powder, Indian spice mixes, real chicken stock (at Wu Mart the stock is dried granules that dissolve in water. BHG sells the actually liquid stock which makes Brittany very happy), apple sauce, American potato chips (think original Cheetos, Lays, etc minus the weird flavours of Wu Mart such as Cucumber, Spicy Hot Pot, Seaweed, and fish).

Jenny Lou's: This is the store I have visited more recently (yesterday, actually... for the first time,). Located near the Solana shopping district and a 35 minute drive from my apartment (10-15 minute walk from Solana mall), it is the best place for international food finds. Brittany and I had a little party as we excitedly ran around the store yelling at each other each time we found a brand or item of food we love, which was basically the entire time.  It's a relatively small shop compared to the stores listed above, but it has EVERYTHING!!!  Every spice you could need, every type of cheese, many brands of butter, cream cheese, whipped cream, heavy cream, Silk brand vanilla and original flavoured soy milk, bagels (a rare find indeed!), more frozen pizza, dumplings, frozen veggies, frozen Mexican burritos, salsa, several kinds of pesto, gnocchi, tortellini, tomato sauces, olive oils, Crisco Veggie shortening, at least 15 American cereals, Quaker Oats, Nature Valley granola bars, Pellegrino sparkling water (omg omg!!!), German and American beers, a large wine selection, a bakery, more American potato/corn chips than BHG, garbanzo beans, baked beans, red beans, peas, corn, white beans, yellow beans...more beans than your body has room for!, tuna, ketchup, mustard (American, Grey Pupon, Honey, spicy, mild, etc), Tabasco sauce, hundreds of soups (Campbell’s and others), olives, taco seasoning, taco shells, soft tortilla shells, avocados (this may be the only store to sell them...), nutella, maple syrup (real and fake), Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Vanilla extract (real and imitation), and so much more!!!  This may seem like no big deal, but when you've lived in China for two months without the things that you're used to it becomes such a treat!  The catch is that everything here is more expensive than the other stores, either equal to or greater than the price it would be in the states.  I spent 280 RMB ( about $45) on 4 cans of chick peas, 2 cans of cream of mushroom soup, 2 bottles of Pellegrino, a jar of Nutella, 4 kinds of spices, a package of tortellini, 2 containers of Silk soy milk, 2 cans of evaporated milk, and a bag of TVP (textured vegetable protein... very good for we vegetarians!). So, nothing too outrageous.

Watson's: This is not a food store. It's more like a Walgreen's in that it sells toiletries such as make-up, hair care and nail products, deodorant, shampoo, etc. The closest store to me is in the mall that also houses the Wu Mart. 

*WARNING* if you are not a woman or have issues with the topic of contraception please skip this next paragraph*
I have to take a moment to talk about "Feminine Hygiene."  In the states, we have everything. Here, they have most things. What they do not have, unfortunately, are tampons with applicators. Except at Jenny Lou's.  So, if you end up Beijing like me and you're searching for more than just plain old OB brand products, go to J.Ls and you'll find Tampax (original and pearl), and other US brands.
Next, contraception. The interesting thing here is that all forms of birth control are sold over the counter for an extremely cheap price. This includes not only condoms but also b.c pills and "morning-after" emergency contraception. I can only guess that this is mainly because of the law which prevents parents from having more than one child here. In the US birth control can be such a sensitive topic. Here, no one seems to care. The price of the pill ranges from 15 to 25 RMB ($2.50-$4.00).

Well, that's it for now. I tried to upload some pictures but Blogger is a little slow today so tomorrow or tonight I'll probably just publish a post of all pictures. 


Monday, July 25, 2011

Everyone here has...

...really great posture. I have many theories about this.  But seriously, everyone has very straight backs and walks with their shoulders back and heads up. 

Theory No. 1: The beds. The last time I was in Beijing (2006) I was informed that the reason our hotel beds were so "firm" was because many Chinese people believe that the firmer the bed, the better it is for your body.  In fact, some people sleep on wooden boards (or so I hear).  Popular items in the markets are these bamboo mats specifically made to be placed on top of the matress. As for me, I steel my resolve to sleep on my beautifully soft, queen-sized matress night after night as it deforms and contorts my spine and body, lulling me into a deep and restful slumber. 

Theory No. 2: The posture thing is only relevant to those Chinese citizens living in Beijing. What I believe is really happening is that the ridiculous amount of air pollution has vast amounts of radioactive energy that transforms people's spines into nuclear-titanium-super-straight rods.  But, that's just a theory.

Ok, but let's talk about the air quality for a moment.  If you know how the AQI works, please feel free to skip this paragraph. Otherwise, the AQI stands for Air Quality Index. Every nation has a rating similar to this system, including the United States.  In the good ole US of A, the average AQI is between 0 and 100. Today the AQI in Cincinnati is 36, which is in the "Good" category. Tomorrow's forcast is around 90, in the moderate cetegory.  The average AQI in Beijing is between 100 and 200, in the "Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups" and "Unhealthy" category (these are good days... you can see the blue sky!).  Two days ago, the AQI was 405, otherwise designated as "Dangerous: Health warnings of emergency conditions... the enitre population is likely to be affected."  On these days, it is difficult to see more than a half mile away, and impossible to see the sky or even the sun. It's like being stuck in a thick fog, except that this isn't just water vapor.  Fun, huh?  Today is much better, though!  The AQI is at 97... It's sunny and warm and I can see the buildings all the way downtown!  On the worst days I've noticed that I'm more prone to headaches, and the air smells rather foul.  The air feels thick to breath, and I'll wake up slightly congested. I did buy an air purifier, and I've noticed I wake up feeling much better (less congested) than my fellow roommates who are without one. 

A smoggy day.
 The Orchestra: The group is very good and I always feel challenged in rehearsals (in a good way).  Our conductor, Yu Feng (pronounced "You Fung") is a brilliant musician who is meticulous in every way.  I'm not pretending that this isn't a little annoying at times--rehearsals can become very slow as we work 8-16 measures at a time (I've heard that Maestro Paavo Jarvi was similar in his rehearsal technique). But, on the other hand, concerts are wonderful and full of musicality.  Yu Feng is a very animated conductor, which is my preference... it's nice to know that someone is as excited as I am to be performing great music; when I see someone emotionally committing to a performance, I feel able to further immerse myself in the musical moment. The musicians are all very talented, kind, patient, and more than willing to help me out during rehearsals when I need something translated into English.  The good news is that I understand and can speak the numbers in Chinese and the terms for first and second endings ("ee fon-za" and "are fon-za"). I can also understand "hao"= "good", "Hen hao"="very good", "ne ga"="this", and "je ga"="that". 

The China National Opera House Symphony Orchestra Horn Section

The Beethoven Concert: The China National Opera House Symphony Orchestra (I've found out that this is the translation of our orchestra's name) performed Beethoven's first and second symphonies last week at the National Center for Performing Arts (aka: "The Egg").  There are technically 4 venues within the NCPA structure: the opera house, the concert hall, the theater, and the small multi-functional theater. The Beethoven concert was in the Concert Hall which seats 2,017 people; the stage is surrounded by seats so that patrons may sit behind the orchestra (as it is in Chicago... and for size reference, the CSO hall seats 2,522 people).  The concert went very, very well and was warmly recieved, though audiences here are still learning how to attend classical music performances. Everyone always claps between movements, and there was one concert where Yu Feng refused to begin a piece while this one guy in the audience kept yammering on and on... Yu Feng gave a blood-curdling stare and let's just say that everyone became very silent.  Also, it is very common for people for take flash-photos during the performance. I'm used to it now, but wasn't during our first performance of a Mozart Symphony (which also took place in the concert hall).

The 90th Anniversary of the Communist Party Vocal Music Extraveganza: Ok, that's not really the title, but just as it is in the summer in the USA,  summers here bring numerous summer "pops" concerts.  The 90th anniversary of the Communist Party was July 1st, and it, like our July 4th, is a national holiday.  I must break down these numerous concerts by their venues:

The Great Hall of the People: This building is located on the Western edge of Tian'anmen Square and is used by the legislative branch of the government and as a location for special ceremonies. There are several auditoriums, though our concert on July 23rd was in one of the smaller halls. This concert was basically a "Three Tenors" China-style concert; all the songs were popular and traditional tunes with words praising China and, you guessed it, the Communist Party.  I should mention the location of our dinner was in the "Golden Hall."  Here, everything is literally gold, or embellished with Gold. It's stunning.  This concert, like the others, was televised.
Tian'anmen Gate on the northern edge of Tian'anmen Square with the picture of Mao Zedong.

Picture taken from inside the Great Hall of the People overlooking Tian'anmen Square.

Concert-goers entering the Great Hall of the People.
Shanghai Opera House: I can't find this building online anywhere. But, I'm not surprised.  It was a small venue with a small stage, and terrible accoustics.  Imagine your typical small Italian opera house.  Again, this concert was televised, and it was the same repertoire as the concert in the Great Hall of the People (Three Tenors). Because the accoustics were simply aweful, every person was miked; that didn't help during the performance since there weren't any moniters feeding back our sound. It was an every-man-for-himself kind of concert... the intonation was terrible.  I could hear Kyle (trumpet) only.  I remember getting yelled at for not matching the oboe, unfortunatly my only solution was to have the oboist  tell me what was out of tune before the concert and then pray that the performance was better. I assume it was fine since I recieved no looks from the conductor.  Keyondra, playing second horn, later mentioned that though I was playing at A442 with the orchestra, the 3rd hornist was playing at maybe A338 (but sometimes maybe A445???).  I told her I'm buying her dinner and a professional massage for being so great and not going completely crazy during that evening.  The city of Shanghai was very beautiful, but very hot. The temperature was 100 degrees the day we were there, though posted that it felt like 110 degrees.  We took the new bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai traveling at speeds over 200 mph!  The orchetsra was great and bought us first-class tickets, so we really got the royal treatment!  We were fed a great meal after the concert at a fancy restaurant, and then slept in a 4-star hotel with this amazing bathroom (a 7-foot bathtub, a seperate shower with a full-body shower head, a 10 foot mirror, and huge fluffy towels!!!) and the most comfortable bed I've ever slept on! Too bad we didn't get to the hotel until almost midnight. We had to get up at 6am to depart back to Beijing.  The breakfast bar was great, too. 

Dinner after the Shanghai concert with Kyle and Keyondra!

The NCPA Opera Hall: I can't remember what date this was...July 11th maybe, but we finally did a concert in the huge opera hall in The Egg. This seats 2,416 people. The pit is great accoustically, but unfortunatly they put us on stage. There was all sorts of scenery, drop-down screens, and special risers for the chorus.  At least this time they had huge moniters feeding back the orchestra sound so pitch was generally very good.  This concert was in tribute to China's Navy. I should mention that every male citizen here must join a military branch when he comes of age (17, maybe?).  But, like the US, there are military musical ensembles, and several famous singers.  This concert featured a well-decorated tenor and soprano duo. 

The NCPA Opera Hall.

Another view of the NCPA opera hall from where I sit in the orchestra.

The NCPA Theater:  This concert took place July 19th. Again, a huge televised production with special risers for the chorus. I have to say that this concert sticks out most strikingly in my mind. It featured this amazing soprano, Chang Sisi, who was also a member of the military.  I don't think I've ever heard anyone sing so high, beautiful, and with so much wonderful musical direction.  Basically, Kyle, Keyondra, and I all looked at each other once she started singing and went "Holy cow!"...I remember getting goose-bumps all over.  The costume changes were also extremelly elaborate and very beautiful. 

NCPA Theater: On set before filming the concert for CCTV.
Well, we've had many more performances than just these, but I think this outlines some of the highlights. We also did a concert of Mozart Symphonies 39 and 41 in the NCPA concert hall.  I'm currently on a two-week vacation, but when it's over there's rumor of a possible performance of Mahler's second symphony and Beethoven's 3rd symphony.  The weeks after that will be rehearsals devoted to Wagner's Tannhauser, which will open the National Opera House's opera season. The other rumor is that we'll also be doing the Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner's Ring Cycle.  Yup, starting tomorrow my two-week vacation is becoming a two-week long Wagner/Mahler practice session.  I AM SO EXCITED I CAN'T CONTAIN MYSELF!!!!

The entrance to the NCPA is decorated with real flowers. Sunlight filters through a man-made lake that surrounds the building above.
The outside of the NCPA by day. :-)
The NCPA by night.

The NCPA concert hall before the Mozart concert.

The Food: Ok, moving on to one of my favourite topics/hobbies, let me tell you a little bit about the dining situation here. My roomates and I have been so busy/tired that we really haven't had the chance or felt like dining out so much since the last time I updated this blog. Mostly we cook at home in the apartment, which presents its own challenges since there is no oven and only two burners.  When we have double rehearsals during the day, we are fed by the orchestra at our rehearsal hall either lunch or dinner, so I usually only make two meals at home. Breakfast is almost always cereal or bread and fresh fruit. Dinner is the meal I usually get to cook which consists of steamed veggies, noodle-soups, tofu-scrambles, theme and variations on cooked eggs, rice, PB&Js, spaghetti, stir-fries, and more vegetables.  Today, however, I took several hours lurking around the interwebs to find new and exciting tofu and vegetable-based recipes.  I am now very excited to spend a large part of my next two weeks cooking!  I hope to also make a large amount of spaghetti sauce which I will can and store for the future.  The one thing I do love here is that there isn't a whole lot of pre-packaged, processed food. Almost everything must be made from scratch. When you're busy, this can be a drag, but preparing ahead of time helps, and the food tastes so much better.  I've found recipes for no-bake pizza, mac and cheese, and several desserts. I also noted several Indian, Italian, and American meals that can all be prepared sans-oven. 
Another picture of the NCPA by night; this is the front of the building.

The allergy to food?: I'm not sure why, but there are a few things here that do not agree with my body, which is strange since the only thing that bothers me back in the states is too much ice cream (a tragedy, I know!).  But alas, sweet goods here, in any amount, severely upset my stomach. This includes rice-cakes, ice-cream, some cereals, and candy.  Ramen noodles (and the seasoning packets) are also a big no-no, but fortunatly udon noodles are ok. 

The Thunderstorms: Have I mentioned this before in my previous blog entry?  Living on the 25th floor of a building is often nice with a great view. This includes the wonderful view of lightning steaking across the sky towards our windows.  Ok, so the likelihood of actually getting struck by lightning is very slim, but I still close the curtains in my bedroom. Oh, and the thunder is pretty epic'd think Beijing residents would get it by now, but they don't. Every time there's a thunder clap, people's car alarms go off everywhere.  Not fun at 2am. 

The weather: Speaking of storms I should mention that it hasn't rained too often since I've been here, but there are often thunder-storms without any downpour. This is strange to me, after living in the midwest my whole life.  Do these kinds of things happen in the states?  Generally, it's nice and warm and sunny here (even if you can't tell on the smoggy days).  The temperature is always between 84 and 100 degrees, more often than not trending towards the mid to upper 80s (similar to Cincinnati or Detroit).  It's not often too humid here, which is nice. When it is, the worst part is taking the subway siince everyone is so crammed to begin with. 

The roommates: I truly love living with Kyle, Keyondra, Chris, and Brittany. There are all wonderful people and extremelly talented musicians.  I thought that 5 people in a small space might get a little annoying very quickly, but so far, so good.  I think we all respect each other's space and need for time alone.  The apartment is kept clean (ok, so let's be honest, Brittany and I do most of the cleaning, but we're cool with it...), and we cut-off practice time after 9pm.  The bedrooms are relatively sound-proof which makes for excellent practice rooms...and I'm pretty sure our neighbors can't hear us...well, not too much, anyway.

Television: There is one English-language channel. But! I have already found my favourite Chinese TV soap opera,, It takes place in ancient China, filmed on location in several ancient temples around Beijing and northern China.  There is, of course, a man and women, destined to be together but held apart by forces out of their control and oh-my-gosh will they ever be together the suspense is killing me!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Since I can't understand what they're saying, I just watch their facial expressions and body language and make up my own story.  I mean, there are several universal telling emotions: fear, tenderness, hostility, anger, resentment, happiness, excitement, lust, pain, surprise, etc.  So far, I think the younger guy is a prince of some sort, and the girl is a princess captured by the prince's Emporer-dad.  Oh, and there's at least one ritualistic suicide every episode... I think seppuku is the term.  Wierd.

Well, I'm going to sign-off now!  Hopefully the next two weeks will be rich in blog posts as I cook and sight-see and play tourist over the Chinese country-side!