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November 16th
Day one and two of week three were a complete local failure. In a very expatty style I went to yoga, had a lunch meeting at Flamme, bought vitamins and protein powder from the World Health Store and attended an 85 Broads Event at the Royal Smushi House. Luckily I’m only losing this challenge to myself, and I got to hear May Xue (recently appointed CEO of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art) give a talk about her one-woman charge to try and officially register UCCA as the first foreign NGO in China. Go May!

November 17th
Back on track. While grocery shopping I made it my mission to explore the nooks and crannies of Jinkelong, really trying to read packages and understand the contents of mystery jars instead of just assuming that I wouldn’t know the ingredients inside. To my surprise, I could understand more of the pinyin on the packaging than I imagined, and in general the aisles felt a bit more familiar than we I first arrived to China. I bought ingredients for a big stir fry, but still find it hard to produce quality Chinese meal without significant amounts of processed carbs like noodles, rice and bread, which isn’t the best diet for running. (Hence the WHS trip.)

November 18th
I finally checked out Bao Yuan Jiaozi restaurant with my co-workers from The Hutong, and was impressed by the décor and colorful dumplings! (I also went to a talk given by the founder of Heyrobics, and had a work dinner at Carmen.)

November 19th
I spent a good bit of the day biking around in attempting to collect my wallet because it was (miraculously) dropped off at a hotel near Dawanglu, and the management called my apartment complex when they saw my swipe card. Wow, complete miracle! I then headed with Chef Sue Zhou to check out some local spots in Tuanjiehu. She showed me a great baozi place called Bao Rong Xing Bao Jer, where I tried Si HuLuobuo fen tiao (carrot and starch noodle) baozi for the first time. Sue tells me that more and more restaurants are adding starch noodles as fillers, because it’s a cheap way to fill up the baozi. I also tried another bun with a surprise quail egg inside, very tasty! We also went to a typical Chinese pudding shop, where we had warm coconut and red bean pudding. Red beans are just about my favorite dessert, so it was the perfect snack.

November 20th
Typical Chinese-style lunch at school, otherwise not much to report.

November 21st
My friend Aveleigh and I checked out No. 8 Hot Springs Resort at Chaoyang Park West gate. These types of resorts are quite a foreign concept to westerners, but it’s definitely a must-have experience in China. First, the staff gives you silk pajamas before eating at their unlimited buffet. I get a kick out of seeing a whole room of adults sitting around in their pj’s eating food and relaxing. Next, it’s off to the spa! For 198RMB (including food) at No. 8 Hot Springs you can relax all day in the hot springs pool, sauna and steam rooms. The spa also offers other services at an additional cost, and I made the mistake of requesting a “peeling” thinking that this would be similar to a facial. Um, no. I got a somewhat painful full body scrub that polished every part of my body except my face… Overall though I felt like I was living in a fairy tale with pink silk pajamas, unlimited food and lounging!

November 21st
My bike lock broke on my bike, and I pushed it on its front wheel through the hutongs to the shop where I purchased the piece of junk. The owners smashed it off with a hammer in about thirty seconds and gave me a different type, no wonder so many bikes are stolen in Beijing. Then I met up with colleagues at the new U-Town Blue Frog for dinner.

Conclusion:
I wonder if the local local gods are spiting me because of all the Western food I have been eating. First it was a bike crash, then wallet stolen and finally a broken bike lock…
Well gods, I feel guilty enough about my non-local choices, so I don’t need the reminder! This week I realized more than ever that I do still work in expat circles, and many of these mealtime meetings were just unavoidable. Maybe it seems like I have failed this challenge, but every week I have managed to have had new cultural experiences and I’m developing a more clear picture of why it is tough for foreigners to integrate into local culture. Don’t count me out just yet!

Beijinger article.

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It was obvious from first week of the Local Local Challenge that I needed some help. Throughout my time in Beijing I have been lucky enough to come across a variety of foreigners who have really immersed themselves in the local culture, so I called upon a few “expat experts” to enhance my participation in the challenge.

On November 9th I popped in my Pimsleur Chinese lesson and biked over to Jie GuLou #147 for tea at Zheng Yun Cha She with local artist, Helen Couchman, and tour guide Jeffery Schwab. Jeffrey had been friends with the owners of the shop for some time, and although the boss was away on travel, his employee treated us to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony complete with Pu’er tea served from a 5,000RMB yixing clay pot! He also explained that one of their tea table adornments was a bull because its representative of the hardworking and obedient nature of the employees at the tea shop. I got the chance to teach my local experts a few things about Chinese tea before they broadened my horizons around the city.

Helen has been living and making art in Beijing for six years (www.helencouchman.com), and lives in a hutong off Guolou Dajie. She agreed to introduce me to her favorite Sichuan restaurant, and go easy on the spiciness. The two of us headed over to the corner of Gulou Dong Da Jie and BeiLuoGuXian on my bike (Helen pedaling, me holding on for dear life) and feasted on some of Helen’s favorite dishes. (I also brought my re-usable, eco-friendly chopsticks, courtesy of The Hutong http://www.thehutong.com.) We ate lazi ji, a spicy fried chicken dish loaded with hot peppers, ma jiang feng wei (fresh greens and sesame sauce) and san san hua dan dou huar, a salty soup with egg, tofu, mushrooms, tomato, carrots and peas.

Needing to get a bit of work done, I headed to Café Zarah and sipped more Chinese tea. (Perhaps this establishment is considered one of the gems of the expat community, but it’s locally run and I only ordered tea.) For dinner I headed to Sanlitun, but had a tang hu lu while waiting for a friend and then dined outdoors at the Han Zhou Xiao Chi restaurant. I ordered a standard xi hong shi jidan gai fan and tudou jiding, which I had never tried before and loved the flavor.

On November 10th my roommate helped me eat local by making an egg sandwich with bread from a local street vendor, and I managed to get a seat with fellow challenger Jessica Greene, at Noodle Bar in Sanlitun. That place was packed and rightfully so, as the flavors of the noodle dishes were excellent. Jessica and I talked a bit about the challenge, which had prompted her to cook a lot more at home and generally focus her Local Local efforts on not being so wasteful. Quite reflective of our experience Noodle Bar, she commented that even eating locally wasn’t necessarily a waste-free or inexpensive option, and we chatted about how the concept of “local” culture is constantly changing and quite hard to authentically capture no matter where you are.

On November 11th I shopped at Jinkelong for lunch and went to a traditional Chinese medicine treatment. I always find these treatments to be quite intriguing from a physical and educational standpoint, and this time I got huge needles stuck right in the middle of my stomach! I then proceeded to eat a roast and cheese, and drink wine at a dinner party, but I figure it’s only half as bad if I’m not paying…and I met the organizer for Monday Night Jiaozi nights, and planned to attend as part of my challenge!

I hate to say it, but by Saturday I was already getting sick of Chinese food. My school provides a ton of Chinese dishes for lunch, but thinking about eating all that oil before taking a run later in the afternoon was really not enticing. I had veggies (still doused in oil) and one of my favorite dishes, tangsu liji before purchasing some sunflower seeds and a red bean bun from Jinkelong. I was craving a western energy bar, but at least these snacks had a bit of protein. I also headed to a workout session that I won with fitness guru Tony Nicholson of 4 Point Fitness, who didn’t exactly support my attempts to eat more Chinese food from a health standpoint. I’m pretty serious about fitness, so that made it additionally hard to stick to the challenge.

(*Before I get attacked here, I realize that Tony is a foreigner and that personal trainers are a luxury, but he has lived here over ten years, speaks fluent Chinese and trains lots of locals…so we chatted a bit about the culture of exercise in China. This brings us back to the issue of what is really considered “local”?)

To make up for past transgressions, I really upped my local game on Sunday, November 13th. I woke up early to meet back up with Jeffrey at The Hutong for his Prophets, Prostitutes and Spies tour, and spent most of the afternoon at the Xi Xian Zhai Teahouse in the hutongs behind the Lama Temple. A group of us sipped Wu Yuan Mingmei Jiangxi Cha (婺源茗眉江西茶), nibbled on suan jiao (funny translation: “acid horn”) gummy candy, and ate a traditional vegetarian teahouse meal. and ate a traditional vegetarian teahouse meal. Next we headed north to Yuan Dynasty DaDu Park where Jeff amazed us with his skills as a Diablo master. For those of you that don’t know, the Diablo is a spinning top that can be made to do a variety of tricks as it spins on strings. This experience is worth an article on its own, but Jeffrey has been coming to this park for years and has fully integrated into the talented Diablo community. Everyone was so happy to see this American lao wai spinning his Diablo magic, and I could tell they respected Jeffrey’s ability and friendly nature. As Jeffrey puts it, “Playing diabolo replaces going to church…it’s my spiritual solace.” The masters graciously tried to teach me to get the top up and running, but I was almost a total failure.

To finish off the day, we walked around GuLou to visit some hot spots, such as the restaurant where Vice President Joe Biden recently dined. We then walked south to Man Fu Lu (满福楼) Xinjiang-style hot pot where we ordered an incredible feast of everything from mini jiaozi to pig heart…I think.

On a local high from my “Local Sunday,” I headed out to an organic farm with my co-workers, only to have my wallet stolen on the subway. Instead of basking in the glory of organic foods, I rushed home to cancel my credit cards. On a positive note, China Citic froze my account when the thief entered the wrong pin three times, and my co-workers came home with a pumpkin half the size of my body!

Conclusion:

This week I branched out from simply eating locally to participate in quite a few more local activities. I’m lucky to know people like Jeffrey, who are exceptional at integrating into Chinese culture, and are quite willing to share their interests with others. I think I did a better job of going local this week than last, but this was primarily due to a temporarily decreased workload. I’m quite worried about next week, when things really pick up again.

Editor’s Version in The Beijinger.

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I’m happy to say that last week helped me accomplish one of my goals here in Beijing, to get published in a magazine! (Actually, I got 2 articles published in Agenda and one in The Beijinger. Can’t say I like the pic much in Agenda, but you can download my letter from the Editor if you so desire! pg. 3)

The following (for you loyal readers) is the full first installent from the Local Local Challenge, not just the editor’s cut!

It’s the last week before hosting the biggest event I’ve run in Beijing, I just moved to the expat-friendly area of Chaoyang Park West Gate, I’m training for a half marathon and I get a call from my friend.

“Hey, remember that local local challenge idea we were talking about? Let’s do it this month!”

Of course, being the impulsive and excitable person that I am, I don’t think twice and dive right in. The idea of the Local Local Challenge came about as myself and a few friends were discussing ways to more authentically participate in local culture in Beijing. The girls participating in the challenge and I have found our lives becoming increasingly western due to our jobs, lack of Chinese speaking skills and the comfort of participating in activities that are anything but local. We often hang out in Sanlitun, eat at burger and pizza joints, shop at Ikea, and buy groceries at Jenny Lou’s. To be honest, I probably would not have made it nearly two years in China without most of these creature comforts, but it’s a far cry from my initial six months in Tangshan, where I was one of the only foreigners in a “town” of 1.8 million people, was forced to carry around a dictionary because I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese, and avoided western restaurants because the only three were KFC, Pizza Hut and Alba Pizza. For a brief period of time I truly immersed myself in local Chinese culture, and still experience personal and professional benefits of that experience.

Since moving to Beijing my life has gotten a lot more comfortable, but I find myself less and less likely to explore the city and culture that initially brought me to China. Supported by my commitment to blog about my experiences for The Beijinger, I figured that this challenge would force me to re-discover Beijing, or at least push me to get outside of my increasingly expat comfort zone. The idea is simple; try to eat and play locally as much as possible. Chinese lessons and TCM are encouraged, as are riding bikes over taxis and supporting local farmers and food street vendors. My overall completion of the challenge, as judged by The Beijinger staff, will be based on a qualitative analysis of my effort to make cultural connections throughout the month of November. There’s no pretending I didn’t make a late-night McDonald’s run, or have a glass of imported Italian wine; opting for baozi and baijiu would be much more suitable.

The challenge began on November 1st, and I have been taking photos and notes about my experience for a week now. Day one started out quite strong. Breakfast consisted of a TCM-appropriate meal of oatmeal and a hard-boiled egg. I donned a sweater and shirt I recently bought at the Ladies’ Market in Liangmaqiao and headed off on my bike to register at the local police station. What could be more authentic than good ‘ol Chinese bureaucracy? Next I headed to Yoga Yard, which isn’t exactly the most local of activities, but the bi-lingual classes are a good place to practice my Chinese listening skills. Thinking about lunch was causing me anxiety as I headed to work in Guomao. My limited speaking and inability to read Chinese characters often dissuades me from conversing with local shop owners about what’s on their menu, because I have to point at food or simply ask if they have certain items on the menu. They often look at me like I’m a bit deranged, pointing to the poster-sized Chinese menu on their wall. Fortunately, I came across a di gua (sweet potato) street vendor and baozi shop when I purchased lunch with dou jiang (soy milk) for 9.5RMB. Simple, yet delicious and filling. Unfortunately my schedule was so hectic that I only managed to grab a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner, but overall a good first day.

On Wednesday morning I biked down the third ring road and really paid attention to just how many breakfast vendors are out in the morning. Before 10am it’s quite easy to find these kiosks anywhere from Jinsong to Beitucheng along this route. I made a mental note and headed onward. I had to make a pick-up around Chaowai SOHO, and bought lunch at the very local but traditionally Chinese establishment of 7-11. I always get a kick out of seeing how this American franchise has adapted to the Chinese market, with slurpees and Doritos being replaced with Chinese buffets and to-go noodles. Clearly the strategy is working, as the lines out the door for 7-11 lunch in China far surpass those in the States. One culinary delight that is a staple in both countries are the hot dogs, mmm. I bought pears, chestnuts, to-go noodles and sliced bread. Incidentally, there is a great Chinese canteen on the 6th floor of Chaowai SOHO building A, but I didn’t have time to stop in. On my way back from work I stopped for the first time at the fruit vendors under the Tuanjiehu bridge and purchased bananas and persimmons for 16RMB. I was so happy I took a break to stop and chat, as the vendor a jovial guy who threw some free zao (Chinese dates) into my bag! I was a little disheartened to see that despite my efforts to buy local, the bananas were from the Philippines!

Thursday morning I was making program deliveries for Chi Fan for Charity to the Sanlitun restaurants, and really noticed just how little Chinese food exists in the Village. Since the evening food vendors weren’t out, I grabbed a quick lunch of fried bread with bean paste and lettuce (jidan guanbing) from the only vendor available, and staved off my extreme desire to get a mango and red bean ice drink from Herbal Café. I almost made the exception due to the red bean…but I’m committed! For dinner I was in a rush and stopped by for the first time to eat ma la tong on the Sanlitun food street. I soon realized that this dining style is not exactly the ideal selection for a quick meal, and ended up waiting for about twenty minutes for a bowl of veggies. I do miss healthy, quick options like sandwiches and salads…but I digress. A big bowl of ma la tong was satisfying and only 16RMB (1 kuai per stick.)

On Friday morning my roommate made me a “Chinese sandwich” with jian bing, spring onions, cured pork and hoisin sauce. A car hit me on the way to work (I’m ok, minimal bruising, and what could be more authentically Beijing?) and the Chi Fan for Charity silent auction team ordered a great Chinese dinner of dan chao fan (egg fried rice), tu dou si, di san xian and spicy green beans. (name?)

On Saturday morning my knee was a bit swollen, so I opted to take a cab to work. I teach at an international school on Saturdays and we always order a local Chinese feast for lunch. I stopped by Jinkelong instead of Jenny Lou’s to pick up some groceries and purchased a seasonal favorite, nan gua xiao mifan jo (pumpkin porridge.) Unfortunately for the challenge, after the porridge purchase my weekend morphed into an entirely indulgent 3-day expatty rampage. I helped run the 3rd Annual Chi Fan for Charity dining event and ate at Hercules and drank imported alcohol at Hatsune. However, we raised over 300,000RMB for local Beijing charities Bethel and New Hope, so that has to help me gain back a few local points!

By Sunday I was completely wiped out from work and thinking about going local. At the request of friends (and a party to which I had previously committed to help host) I bought German bread, imported cheese and wine, and generally failed to do anything local. On Monday the most local thing I managed to do was fix my internet with the phone company, and attempt to eat at Noodle Bar in Sanlitun with a friend. Unfortunately the noodle bar was completely packed and we opted for nachos and Vietnamese at Luga’s Pho Pho. Aya! I WILL make up for these non-local splurges!

Conclusion:
The intricacies of going local as an expat in Beijing are challenging in different ways than I expected. Yes, language and general lack of time pose significant barriers, but I found it most difficult to balance the inconvenience that it causes other expats in the bubble. After a long day of work, it was hard to suggest to a tired friend that we explore the city and perhaps have a frustrating experience in efforts to discover an awesome hole in the wall restaurant. Scheduling a business lunch at a local dive or food street isn’t exactly practical, and I run the risk of seeming unprofessional to make this suggestion with clients. I wanted to suggest going completely local for my friends’ party, but they were already excited to offer champagne and cheese, so I didn’t think it was worth a fight. Despite my best efforts to remain frugal, I still spent 642.50RMB (325.50 if you don’t count the party I helped host), which is far more than I should really need to spend. Overall I made much more of an effort to go local than during my previous time in Beijing, but I still didn’t get far outside the bubble.

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