What I have been writing…

If you read my last post, you know that I haven’t been writing much of the Qrious Life lately. Here’s why…

When I was seventeen years old struggling to put together the right words for my college application essay, moping and stressing around the office of my dear high-school counselor VH, I had a dream to write a book. I wanted to write about growing up “north of the river” (Harbin code words for being a country bumpkin) in the great cold Chinese northeast; about the Shandongnese etiquette riddles my grandfather would mutter at me as I broke all his rules of what girls should and shouldn’t do (climbing trees all summer long with boy cousins was a “shouldn’t do”); about getting up before sunrise every morning to gather firewood to heat up the kitchen and kang with my grandmother (which gave me the lifelong habit of waking up obscenely early); about moving to the big city in Beijing and finding that a home in a “gleaming” (by early reform-and-opening-up standards anyway) apartment building was not nearly as fun as running around the countryside; about going abroad and not speaking a lick of English – nor understanding anything about the normal (read: non-Communist socialist) world overseas – but fumbling my way through for twenty years anyway.

These are my stories.

Then there are the stories of my family: of my mother as a little girl, banging on village doors late at night to find an extra ration of rice so that her newborn brother could have a chance to live during the decade of deprivation; of my father arriving as a student in Harbin from Qiqihaer by train, carrying his life in a hemp sack and his only “valuable” – a fountain pen – in his shirt pocket (which was promptly stolen by a “kind” man who offered to engrave it for him); of my grandmother who was sold in marriage to my grandfather, twenty years her senior, and then spending a lifetime bickering (an arranged marriage that decidedly did not work out in the end).

In the years since those dreamy days of seventeen, I carried these stories in my head, in my heart, occasionally scribbling them down on a scrap of paper to later glue into my writing journal at home. Life, work, and the world got in the way of my actually writing a book.

Recently, VH found me again (thank you, Facebook), and reminded me – well, chided me really – that I still haven’t written that darned book. “Qi!!!!! How’ve you been???? I’m still waiting for the next ‘Wild Swans’ from you…and no one can do it better than you!!!”

The universe works to some logic that I can never seem to comprehend at the time that things happen. But with time and patience, almost everything I find mysterious and incomprehensible has revealed its reason to me. This business of writing may work out the same way because recently I’ve been finding the time, energy, inspiration, and – most importantly – “platform” for writing some of the things I’ve been mulling over writing for two decades now.

I fell in love – with a fellow word-nerd – and his enthusiasm for reading, writing, and exchanging ideas through the written word (and in five languages we cobble together between us) has rekindled in me the dream of writing more. Anyone who likes to write knows the immense weight the words “writer,” “book,” or, even worse, “publishing,” and “agent” can bring when uttered. I don’t dare to make these proclamations privately or publicly, but I can say that I hope to compile, together with my love, a series of writings on the most important things in life (according to me).

So, I promised my dear old counselor, VH: “I’m getting there, to the writing part. I think it will be more a ‘book’ about happiness, love, and transcendence. Maybe no one will read it, but my love will, and we can gift it to our future children, so that they get to know us when we were young and dreaming.” In fact, we’ve already begun. Here I share with you a teaser – the best birthday gift I’ve received, a book my love made of the writings we sent to each other in our first fifty days together. It’s 600 pages long! Looks like I’ll have to work on editing down as much as I’ll need to work on writing more.

What I haven’t been writing…

My last blog post was a whopping 11 weeks ago! That’s an eternity for a word-nerd like me.

I love words. I love savoring delicious strings of words that others have chosen and presented to me, in a prose passage, on a postcard, by email… I love the almost-devilish delight I take in finding precisely the right word – preferably slightly obscure or absurd – for conveying a meaning that feels just right. I often lament that living in a rational-numbers-world feels a little like being forced to write with my left hand all day long. I’m a right-handed girl after all, and that means I am happiest when putting pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard, and commas where they belong.

So, what can keep me away from the business of writing for so long? The only thing worthwhile, of course: the business of falling in love. More on that later… Today, as I step into another year of my life, it seems a fitting time to get back to writing. I share here My Beijing, a travel piece I wrote on the city I now call home, for Notabilia’s My Asia series. (Link here to Notabilia). Thanks to PM for giving me the opportunity, indeed, for forcing me to keep to a deadline, to write again!

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Must eats?

Brunch is not a particularly Chinese, or at least not northern Chinese concept (the southerners have their dimsum I suppose), but there are a handful of hidden gems along Wudaoying hutong near Lama Temple. At Vineyard Café I enjoy a western-style brunch in a very Chinese setting—a converted courtyard home filled with light and air. A bit further into the hutong, past the shops selling Beijing hipster staples (retro Communist-era khaki green “Serve the People” messenger bags, thick frame glasses, old school Feiyue sneakers),Saffron serves up slightly fancier, Spanish-style cuisine.

Duck de Chine in the converted factory yard 1949 is my choice for Peking duck. The ambience is classy—suitable for a gathering of friends, or for a business dinner—and the duck delectable. The Cantonese chefs here also make mini egg tarts that are among Beijing’s best. The adjoining restaurant, Noodle Bar, is also a choice venue for a quick-and-simple lunch with Chinese characteristics. The clean design, sparse menu, and ambient lighting, with an open view of the chef hand pulling noodles, make this the perfect spot for a comfortable lunch for one, or an intimate meal for two.

I relish the chance to take visitors to Hua’s Restaurant at night. At their biggest branch on Ghost Street (where many a night owl ends up after a big night out for its 24-hour dining options), the main courtyard restaurant is just one of eight different settings for diners to enjoy. At the main courtyard, you can book a table with a view of the nightly show where truly impressive (and not cheesy) performers exhibit traditional Chinese arts, like mask-changing, acrobatic tea-serving, and noodle-making.

For something a little different, I like to go to the Xinjiang Red Rose for a dinner and show. Imagine munching on giant Uighur lamb skewers, downing beers, while watching belly-dancing (perhaps a perversion of some of the true cultural elements in western China, but oh well, sometimes a little cheesiness is permissible) or listening to live music performed by Xinjiang and Han vocalists and guitarists.

Hotpot is something I can’t live without, especially in the blistery winters. My hidden gem is Diancaoxiang, a Yunnan-style joint sitting atop 3.3. Order a traditional Yunnan sour soup base and add in a host of southwestern specialties—mushrooms and green vegetables—along with the usual lamb and beef ingredients. The best part? Choosing from a dozen dipping sauces here, ranging from flower-scented sesame paste to plain old soy and vinegar.

There’s no shortage of fine dining and international fare in Beijing. Among my favorites are Bei (an award-winning “North Asian” fusion restaurant located in the basement of stylish boutique hotel, Opposite House) and Maison Boulud(although the food is stellar, the setting is even more majestic).

Must shops?

The Sanlitun neighborhood is, in my opinion (as a resident), the best place for shopping and going out in Beijing. Steer clear of the glitzy malls—Sanlitun Village and Sanlitun North—which specialize in over-priced brands that you can buy for cheaper anywhere else in the world. Instead, visit Yaxiu Market, which is both a visitor’s must-see and a local’s go-to place for random essentials. Smaller and less-touristy than Silk Street Market, Yaxiu sells everything from cheesy traveler’s souvenirs, to functional gear at bargain prices (“Columbia” ski pants), to quirky accessories (winter tights in rainbow colors for S$3 a pop).

There are a number of tailors enticing shoppers at Yaxiu with their next-day service in making bespoke suits and dresses, but my favorite is J&Y Tailor. Run by a husband-wife team in an unassuming shop on Xingdong Road, they can turn around dapper three-piece suits in less than a week starting at S$120.

For more “serious” buying (say, winter furs or creative outfits for a costume party), I turn to 3.3, where local designers and enterprising buyers who scour China’s vast apparel manufacturing world bring high fashion pieces to their discerning shoppers, or Tianyi Market (in west Beijing), another of Beijing’s many wholesale markets. I once scored a gorgeous fox vest at 3.3 for S$300 and put together a few stewardess outfits for a party from pieces scavenged in Tianyi.

Visitors would also get a kick out of the Houhai and Gulou neighborhoods, where hipster and retro stores line the streets. Worth checking out: Plastered T-shirts, selling kitsch and tongue-in-cheek shirts bearing nostalgic logos.

Must dos?

Surprising to many visitors is that Beijing actually has a great café culture. Because the city is inhabited by many journalists, photographers, and other scrappy creatives, complimentary wi-fi and the freedom to stay as long as you like with ordering just one drink are acceptable café behavior. In Sanlitun, The Bookworm is the place to go for smoothies, a lending library, and cultural-literary events, like film screenings and readings by local and visiting authors. The Bookworm also puts on the annual Beijing Literary Festival every spring, which has attracted, in the past, acclaimed writers, like Peter Hessler. In the Gulou neighborhood, Café Zarah offers a cozy atmosphere and rotating photography exhibits.

Pollution and the weather are two common complaints about life in Beijing, but it’s easy to escape by joining Pacific Century Club, where I like to suntan by the glass-roofed heated pool, soak in the jaccuzzis, or exercise in the filtered-air gym all year round. Once a week on Sunday afternoons I teach a vinyasa class at Beijing’s pioneering hot yoga studio, Om Yoga 42, in Lido. Owner Sophia (who is married to the dashing Financial Times’ bureau chief) has exquisite taste and the place—with its carefully selected flower arrangements and teas—feels more like a spa than a sweaty granola spot.

While healthy eating and healthy living preoccupy much of my time, I still like to let loose with a big night out sometimes. On these occasions I like to start the night at cavernous D-Lounge, which feels a lot like a New York Meatpacking District lounge, for good cocktails. From there, the night usually disintegrates into silliness that only Beijing can offer. Russian pole dancers and a little person bouncer named “Brother Rong”? Chocolat club in the Russian neighborhood has it. Blingy-tacky chandeliers and Chinese bottle service (whiskey mixed with red tea)? Latte is the place. For a less crazy night, I like to chill at Fubar, which is hidden behind a “secret trap door” tucked in the back of a glorified hotdog stand (a hotdog restaurant, in fact) at Worker’s Stadium.

Must sees?

There’s no shortage of advice in travel guides and once in a while I, too, like visiting the historic sights. But mostly I like to do things that allow me to discover the “real Beijing.” A romantic Chinese date would include rowing a boat on the lake at Beihai Park and walking hand in hand beneath weeping willows. Scooting or biking around the shady lanes around Ritan Park’s embassy neighborhood is a respite from the heat in the summers. And in the fall and spring, Beijing Hikers is a great way to explore greater Beijing. The group organizes rugged treks in the suburbs, around the Great Wall and other lesser known places.

Must art?

Complain as Beijingers may about the “unsightly” modern structure commonly known as “The Egg” (National Center for Performing Arts), I love that we now have our own venue for performances. Every January, I get dressed up with my girlfriends and go watch the gathering of renowned ballet dancers at the International Ballet Gala in Beijing. 798, the arts district, has become somewhat commercialized now, but it’s still fun to visit for a half-day when the weather is nice (just avoid the weekend crowds). Further north is Caochangdi, a loose collection of photography and art galleries that are deemed—by the haughty artsy crowd—to be less commercialized than 798. Among Beijing’s many temples (and Chinese New Year temple fairs), I find the smaller ones easier to navigate—Dongyue Temple is my favorite, for its strangely morbid display of scenes from the underworld.

Must gos?

Biking or scooting are how the real locals getting around. The subways are increasingly efficient and clean, but only if you near a subway stop, which isn’t the case for most people in this sprawling metropolis. Buses can be helpful over short distances, but to really get from Point A to Point B, you need to carry around a copy of the Beijing Public Transportation guide (a mini tome) and know how to match up the historic neighborhood names with the new ones. Avoid until truly experienced in the ways of Beijing.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Qi Zhai; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)