Beijing’s indefinite particles

The skies were brilliant blue the day I arrived in Beijing. From the street, you could see the tops of skyscrapers. And from the tops of skyscrapers, you could see the outline of jagged mountains on the horizon.

This kind of visibility wasn’t normal, and sure enough within a few days, a haze began to set over the city. The tops of tall buildings disappeared in the smog. The air became heavier, and I found it harder to breathe, especially when I exercised outside, which I like to do. Cars in my neighborhood that hadn’t been moved for days became coated in residue of some kind. If you left a window open at your home, the dust seeped in and settled on the floor.

The view from the 9th floor of my apartment building on a clear day.

The view from the 9th floor of my apartment building on a polluted day.

You get used to the pollution after a while, at least the sight of it. I treat it as a trade-off for living in a rapidly developing land of opportunity, where jobs for college-educated expats are in high demand.

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Strawberry chunks forever

In the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Homeland Security officials, when asked to assess the threat of another attack, often responded: “It’s not a matter of if, but when.”

The same can be said about food poisoning in Beijing. No Western diet can prepare a man’s stomach for the taste, smell and texture of authentic Chinese cuisine. Eat here long enough, and it’s only a matter of time until you’re staggering to the nearest toilet, puking yourself into a coma.

I didn’t get sick for the first eight months I lived in Beijing. It wasn’t because I didn’t take risks. I ate food I didn’t know existed (sea cucumber), bit a bird below the ankle (chicken feet) and tried without much luck to chew through undercooked bull intestines. Any part of an animal is fair game to the Chinese. “Are you going to eat that?” a co-worker once asked me over dinner, pointing with his chopsticks to the eyeball of a fish that had been picked to the bone.

I also tried as many different kinds of restaurants as I could. There’s a huge variety in the city, and with a little research you can find nearly any kind of ethnic food in the world.  Beijing has around 60,000 restaurants, according to a local English-language magazine. Assuming you dined out three times a day, it would take about 55 years to try every restaurant in the city.

How do I know where your feet have been?

I had probably tried less than 100 by the time I sat down for dinner at a nondescript seafood restaurant for a meal of oysters and scallops. Cooked and coated in butter, they were delicious. As it has a tendency to do, the underdeveloped part of my brain that tells my hands to stop putting food into my mouth took the night off. Thirty oysters and a couple of cheap lagers later, I left and made a mental note of where the restaurant was located, hoping to come back. Continue reading