Saturday, August 31, 2013

Where Is My Mind?

If you are going to take four minutes to read this post, click here for an accompanying soundtrack.

Two weeks ago, I took a cab with a coworker to a restaurant a few kilometers away. Halfway through the meal, I wanted to check my phone but was unable to find it. I looked everywhere, but my cell was not on my person. We called the phone; it was turned off. I had left it in the cab, and someone had found my 209 RMB Nokia cell phone, shut it off, and done God knows what with it. I was left without a phone.

Fortunately, after getting a new cell, I was able to go to China Mobile and retrieve my old number quite easily; all they needed was three numbers I'd called in the past three months, my passport, and ten RMB. I lost all the numbers in my phone, but everyone still had mine. The Nokia was cheap; I was attached to it emotionally only because it had a cool flashlight feature on the top. The 300 RMB Samsung phone I got to replace the Nokia has no flashlight.

One week ago, I got back from school and - for the first time - hit the "18" button in the elevator (where I used to live) instead of the "7" button (where I live now). I laughed. But my mispress turned out to be a terrible omen; when I got to my apartment, I found that I had no keys to let myself in. My door is one of those that locks behind you when you leave, so I figured - correctly - that I'd just brought zero of my six apartment key copies with me that day. I knew right where all the keys were. I was locked out.

Fortunately, when I called the HR lady from my school, she called my landlord, and she called a "locksmith," and soon they were all at my apartment door with me. The locksmith - who might better be called "future B&E inmate" - popped the glass out of that little eyehole thingie, stuck a long, metal contraption through the eyehole thingie, and was able to, in less than fifteen seconds, turn my doorknob from the inside and open the door. I have since started using the deadbolt.

This week, I got home one night hoping to charge my almost-dead phone battery. I looked and looked for my phone charger, without success. Every conceivable crevice and drawer had been searched. I was stumped. My phone was dead.

Fortunately, I was able to pause and consider alternative answers. I realized that in all likelihood the charger had been packed into the bags of a friend who'd stayed with me the week before and thus was a mere mile or two away in Shaoyaoju, where the dude had moved. The next day I borrowed a phone, called the guy, and he dropped the phone off later that afternoon. Good thing he hadn't been a couch surfer from Latvia or somewhere.

Fortunately, fortunately, fortunately.

Two questions persist in my mind, though. I used to be on top of things, remembering what needed to be remembered, keeping track of just about everything, and not having these major lapses in mental function. What is happening to me? Am I aging? Is it the Beijing pollution affecting my brain? Is it the result of stress and anxiety about the upcoming draft for the fantasy football league I am in, The League of Smack Talk? Where is my mind?

The other question is scarier: when will my luck run out? When will there not be a quick, easy way out, like buying another cheap phone or calling my landlady or waiting for a friend's help? Maybe solutions will continue to come easily, but there is an equal chance that disaster could strike and I could be rendered completely helpless - an abruptly crashing computer, suddenly traveling without a passport, coming home to an empty apartment, or making a crack about Mao Zedong at just the wrong time.

I'll keep my fingers crossed, I guess.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Green Place

The Muslim place.

That Xinjiang restaurant.

The Green Place.

Whatever you want to call it, it is an important place to many. It might be unhealthy beyond even Beijing standards, it might be run by an ethnic group that the Chinese government has historically slandered, it might be dirty, it might give you a bought of diarrhea that even Jeff Daniels in "Dumb and Dumber" would have to tip a cap to, and it might be past its prime to many who once enjoyed its dishes.

But, to me, it is still the best restaurant in Beijing.

The Green Place's food, and presumably its owner, hail from Xinjiang, the northwesternmost province in China. Thus, the cuisine is much more reminiscent of what you'd expect in the Middle East; it doesn't really resemble more typical "Chinese food." But, then, every part of China - and, indeed, the world - has its own distinct ways of eating.

The initial attraction was seasoned pieces of lamb meat on stick and bread - also seasoned - that had both been roasted over an open fire. Then a plate of barbecued meat became more lucrative, as we discovered more of what was available. And then, when The Green Place modernized by offering a picture menu, a whole new world of delicious dishes opened up. There was the staple fried bread 'n' lamb chunk dish, the seasoned chicken wings, the garlic cucumbers (not delicious), the egg 'n' onion in red sauce, the spicy rice with lamb chunks, the fried flat bread, the rice in red sauce, the square noodles that are freaking impossible - even for seasoned chopstick veterans - to capture and get to the mouth successfully*, the A Da Xi pizza, the wide spread of other miscellaneous vegetables in red sauce, the chopped up noodles in red sauce, the garlic gloves that only Gaspar gets, and the chicken tendons. And the iron tower. And a hundred other dishes in red sauce, and fifty-eight others not in it. And crappy tea.

And the sugar bread salad.

I was first brought to The Green Place one Friday by Mr. Clem and Mr. Rues, and we just ate chuar. We started going to The Green Place every Friday soon after that, Mr. Clem and I, and thus a beautiful tradition - Chuar Friday - was born, despite the fact that the waitresses there appeared to hate us, ruined our orders, and spoke terrible Mandarin. Various other teachers started to attend, both two years ago and last, and even students started to whisper about the lingering smell of cooked meat that emanated faintly from their fourth period teachers on the final day of each week.

As with anything great, The Green Place soon began to expand beyond the boundaries of Friday. Ramon, Nallely, and I started going there on Tuesday nights. I started hosting couchsurfers and would drag them to The Green Place. I took BWYA's baseball team there after we won our first game. My birthday came last year and was celebrated with the consumption of the iron meat tower, which used to be a Xinjiang torture instrument before God (Allah?) showed it to the chefs at The Green Place to cook with.

With more frequent visits, the staff at The Green Place seemed to warm up. The first time I went there alone, I ordered a Coke, some roasted bread, and a plate of roasted meat; only the Coke and the bread came. I didn't know how to say, "Where the crap is my 烧烤肉?" But as we went more and more often, the waiters, waitresses, and the boss ("That guy's such a G," David Emmert once noted) became more friendly and welcoming. One dude patted me on the back once when I entered the establishment; that was when I knew I'd made it. He's gone from The Green Place now. I hope he's living well.

Kara Minor, in a five-day visit to Beijing that did not include a trip to the Great Wall, included The Green Place among her top three highlights in Beijing. Jeff Hunt, an experienced traveler from Korea and Oregon, later left me a Facebook wall post that simply said, "That bread." A French couchsurfer whom I only met for two hours (and took to The Green Place) said in her CS reference that the place made her stomach explode (in delight, I hope but can't be sure of). Other CSers and locals agree: this place is hot.

Or was hot. As with anything great, too much of it can still ruin appeal. As early as last spring, Chuar Friday attendees were clamoring noisily for a new Friday lunch spot. Ramon, Nallely, and I started to eat at the mall more. Billy always ate a sandwich before showing up late to a meal at The Green Place. And not very many couchsurfers come anymore. Perhaps the ol' spot has climaxed in my circle and has fallen to lesser heights. Interest has turned elsewhere to healthier, cleaner, and more novel restaurants.

But! I still love The Green Place. Regardless of whether the MSG-riddled taste of The Green Place's red sauce loses its appeal to me someday or not, this restaurant will always hold a special place in my heart...a special place reserved exclusively for the best restaurant in Beijing.

*Once Ramon and I were eating at The Green Place on Chuar Friday. On Fridays I wear a tie, which means I usually wear a white, collared shirt with the tie. We ordered the square noodle dish and some other crap and were quietly eating, tired from a hard morning of work. We were both looking at the noodles, and Ramon dug his chopsticks in to grab a square. In his attempt to bring a red sauce-lathered square noodle to his mouth, the noodle snuck out of his chopsticks in a crazy 360-degree move and went sailing back down into the red sauce noodle square dish, where it smashed down, made a small crater in the entree, and splattered an enormous glob of red sauce on the left breast of my white collared shirt. We both just looked at where the noodle shrapnel had landed for a second, and then Ramon laughed quietly and said, "Sorry." There was nothing I could do, no way to disguise or hide what had happened. So we just laughed. I did get the stain out, though, surprisingly. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Back to School

Despite the fact that it's been either hotter or muggier than you'd think within the boundaries of natural science laws lately,

Despite the fact that some of my students don't appear to be able to speak English,

Despite the fact that, due to a cold last weekend, my voice routinely squeaks as awfully as an eleven-year-old boy's and occasionally gives out altogether,

Despite the fact that there is some dude living on my couch right now, using up my hard-earned toilet paper and once in a while leaving the door to the apartment open when we both go to bed,

Despite the fact that the school administration was unable to fill the class schedule and thus created a volunteer class,

Despite the fact that the school administration told the assistant director of the enrichment and activities office (read: not a teacher) to teach said volunteer class (in order that I - the volunteer coordinator at the school - wouldn't have more work heaped on),

Despite the fact that, when the assistant director of the enrichment and activities office asked what she was supposed to teach, the school administration then told said assistant director of the enrichment and activities office "to go ask Reuben what to do" (thus heaping more work on),

Despite the fact that the internet has pooped out multiple times, both at home and at school,

Despite the fact that some of my students are still in America, England, and on the moon,

Despite the fact that the second most-long-standing tradition (Chuar Friday) here was violently cast down from its high place and under the wheels of a passing 132 bus this week,

Despite the fact that I have been waking up whenever the sun feels like peeking its hideous mug into my bedroom window, which is prior to 5 a.m. most mornings, unless there is a thick coat of morning smog blanketing the city,

Despite the fact that there is sometimes a thick coat of morning smog on blanketing the city,

Despite the fact that the Twins are 17.5 games out of first place,

Despite the fact that I have no shampoo and haven't had any for a week (though I tried to buy some, and accidentally ended up with conditioner),

Despite the fact that the teacher community at my school seems to have decentralized to random offices that everyone suddenly got all over the place (although who am I to complain? I had one last year...),

Despite the fact that a slough of top notch students left my school, including five from my homeroom,

we are back to school and successfully in full swing!