There appears to be some confusion on this matter, so I would like to officially clear things up: I am at last back in New York, where I can breathe without coughing but certainly can’t find a decent lunch (or even an inadequate snack) for less than $1.

A few things seemed strange at first. The sky is such a vivid blue that I keep looking up at it. And every time I use tap water, I feel as though I’m doing something wrong. It even felt strange to say the words “tap water” in a restaurant, so I ordered “still” water instead and got something in a pricey, green-glass bottle from Europe. It was not what I had intended.

It’s a relief to talk to people who know their government’s faults, but I have noticed one ridiculous thing. People whom I consider partisan on both sides of the aisle keep trying to equate certain groups in America with the Chinese government. It’s been happening in repeated conversations, and the fact that it’s coming from Republicans as well as Democrats leads me to the conclusion that these assertions are entirely overblown. You can look at almost any government and find similarities to any other government, people. No matter how bad you think it is here, we do not actually live in a totalitarian state.

And I’m happy to be able to speak English whenever I want. I didn’t blog much about my actual Chinese program — because I didn’t want a bunch of entries like “Woe is me. Chinese is so hard.” Trust me, it was grueling. Most of you know that we couldn’t speak English; we also had five hours of class a day, starting at 7:30 a.m., and then several hours of homework and study after that. My Chinese has improved by leaps and bounds, but I’m now at an awkward level. I can talk about China’s economic reforms and their effect on development, but I’ve never officially learned the words for, say, “keys” or “purple.”

All in all, I’m happy I went, and I’m happy to be back. And if you’re around the City and haven’t heard from me, drop me a line. We can go have some pizza or hamburgers or something that isn’t Chinese food.

Hong Kong panorama5) People Movers: Hong Kong’s public transportation is stellar. The buses are double-decker. The subway system is clean, modern and easy to navigate. But the best is probably the huge series of escalators connecting the lower part of the city to a previously difficult-to-access section midway up a steep hill. I just like the idea of escalators as free public transport.

4) Dim Sum: Following a tip from my Princeton in Beijing roommate, Jacob and I had dim sum at West Villa in Causeway Bay. The meat in the chashaobao was sweet, the rice noodle rolls were paper-thin and the steamed meatballs were mild but flavorful. After months of Beijing cuisine, Hong Kong restaurants were a real treat.

3) No Censorship: A summer on the mainland meant I was ecstatic to have unfettered access to the Internet and television stations. Hong Kong might be part of China, but for another 40 years it will be run under a separate system, and that means people have easier access to information.

2) The Views: I can’t decide whether I prefer the view of the city from the top of Victoria Peak or the panorama from across the harbor. Either way, it’s a riot of neon and buildings built onto improbably steep hillsides. I love skylines like this because there is no logical reason for them — no reason for buildings to be built with so many lights, or that tall and close together. It makes me happy that people build them anyway.

And the No. 1 Reason I Like Hong Kong: It’s where Jacob and I got engaged, at night across the harbor from the mainland. So I suppose we’ll have an excuse to go back sometime. Yay!

Egg TartPortuguese egg tarrrrrrrts. Ha! OK, trust me, if you knew what Portuguese egg tarts were, you’d find that joke funny. Maybe.

About an hour away from Hong Kong by super-fast ferry, the former Portuguese colony of Macau actually was home to pirates until the early 20th century. So pirate jokes are particularly appropriate here.

As for egg tarts, they’re probably the best food I had in China. The tarts combine egg custard (like eggy crème-brûlée) with a pastry crust and a thin layer of browned sugar on top. The originals are found at Lord Stow’s Bakery on Coloane Island, although KFC also makes a surprisingly good version.

Coloane is a laid-back, relaxing place with waterfront views and a tiny village that still has a colonial feel. Other good restaurants on the island include Cafe Nga Tim and the wonderful Espaço Lisboa. My favorite main dish in Macau was African Chicken, which is baked with coconut, peppers, peanut butter, garlic and Chinese spices — flavors borrowed from several Portuguese colonies.

The atmosphere on the island contrasts sharply with that in the rest of Macau, where hotel and casino development has been exploding. For years, the casino scene in Macau was dominated by places like the Casino Lisboa, where crowds of people in smoky rooms play Chinese dice and prostitutes hang out nonchalantly in the hallways. But the monopoly was broken a few years ago, and now major Las Vegas companies are moving in. Just a couple days after we were in Macau, the largest casino in the world — a replica of the Vegas Venetian — opened on one of the islands. Vegas is betting (ha! another clever joke!) that China’s economic growth and love of gambling will make Macau a huge destination for Asian tourists.

But even if you go to Macau for the gambling, I recommend taking a break from the tacky buildings and heading to Coloane, at least for a meal.

Me on the Great WallWith Jacob in town, I made my second trip to the Great Wall this week. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been to the same place twice.

It’s not something you necessarily think about if you haven’t been to the Beijing area, but travelers have several options when heading to the wall. Most tourists go to the Badaling section, which means that it’s often so packed with people that it’s difficult to truly appreciate — or even see — the scenery. Luckily, I avoided that experience by heading farther afield. My classmates and I went to the Jinshanling section, and Jacob and I headed to rugged Simatai. Both locations are about two hours outside Beijing.

If you have the time, I recommend avoiding the crowds and heading to Simatai or Jinshanling. You can even hike between the two sites if you’re feeling particularly peppy. I don’t think you can go wrong with either site, but I had different experiences at each. I got the best views at Simatai, but that might have been because it was rainy and foggy when we went to Jinshanling. And the climb at Simatai seemed much more steep and tiring, but, again, the hotter weather on that day might have been a factor. If you’re fatigued at all, you can take a cable car and small train at Simatai; I recommend taking both, as that would give you more time and energy to walk along the wall itself.

Jacob and I hired a taxi from Beijing for the day for 600 RMB, or about $80. I’d imagine you could bargain and get it for even less, but some drivers asked for 1,000 RMB. For less money, you could take a couple of buses or join a tour through a youth hostel. I decided to go with the taxi because tours and private drivers often make unwanted stops at jade-carving factories and the like, where your time is wasted and you’re pressured to buy souvenirs. I had also heard complaints about the buses and minivans, which drop you off at a stop where you may be forced to take a taxi at a highly inflated price. It’s much easier to bargain with a taxi driver when you’re in Beijing than when you’re a hundred miles away and have no other options.

One of my favorite things about traveling is sampling the street food in different countries. Fortunately for me, Beijing has plenty of delicious roadside snacks. To give you a taste of some of it, I went to the Donghuamen Night Market. It’s touristy, but it’s in a central location, is quite clean and has a lot of variety in one place.

Roasted or fried kabobs are always a good bet here, as are fried dumplings and vegetables wrapped in savory, thin pancakes. But the biggest draw is probably the fried scorpions and centipedes. These are mainly for the tourists, and I never saw another place in Beijing that had them. But, after all, most tourists in China are from China, so you can say Chinese people do eat this sort of thing, at least sometimes. I’m pretty squeamish about eating bugs, but I didn’t want to look like a total wuss, so I tried some with the camera rolling.

In case you’re concerned about the cleanliness of all of this, you should know that I haven’t gotten sick once since I’ve been in China. I just make sure not to eat chicken if it’s been sitting out raw, and I don’t drink the tap water. But food that is hot, fresh and cooked in front of me tends to be OK.

Tuo Le Kuzi Fang PiMeaning: Literally, this phrase means “Take off pants. Fart.” Figuratively, it indicates that someone is doing something unnecessary. Think about it for a minute and get back to me if you still can’t figure out why taking off your pants to fart would be unnecessary.

Why I Like This Phrase: I imagine this is pretty obvious. If there’s one thing I love, it’s third-grade-level bathroom humor. But the great thing about this phrase is that I actually learned it from the textbook we use at Princeton in Beijing. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the book, which in general teaches us very formal words, but the lesson with tuō le kùzi fàng pì was priceless. I don’t think this phrase is used very frequently, certainly not in polite company. It is colorful, though.

Pronunciation: The first word is in first tone, and the last three are in the fourth — or falling — tone. Click on the link to hear the phrase pronounced. Repeat at your leisure.

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Look. Blue.
Confucius says, “Look! No smog!”

Something completely strange and unheard of has been happening with Beijing’s weather over the past week. The sky has been blue. The first day this happened, I figured it must have been because of a rainstorm the previous day. (Rain often drives the pollution out of the air.) On the second day, I thought maybe some magical weather system was preventing smog buildup. And by the third day, when I had seen as much blue sky in a week as I’d seen the rest of the summer, I realized it had to be the government.

The Olympics are one year away, and Beijing wants to make sure it doesn’t suffer the embarrassment of elite athletes being unable to compete because, well, they can’t breathe. To that end, this weekend the city will be testing laws that keep more than a third of the city’s cars off the road. But already there is absolutely no smog whatsoever, and this leads me to believe they’re doing more than limiting vehicle traffic. In fact, a lot of people have been wondering whether the government is simply shuttering factories or actually playing with the weather.

The timing of the blue skies is fortuitous — coinciding with the activities related to the one-year countdown to the games. I imagine the Beijing government would love to hear a lot more quotes like this one from the captain of the Canadian women’s beach volleyball team, which was in town to try out the Beijing venue: “We heard about pollution fears but looking at the sky today and enjoying this weather, we don’t see any problem. It’s fantastic.” Wow. She should have been here the rest of the summer, when you could actually smell the chemicals in the air.

I don’t know what they’re doing, but I hope they keep it up for the rest of my stay. Previously, the smog was so thick that it obscured my view of trees and buildings 30 feet in front of me. Now, I can see stars at night.

Time to make the youtiaos
Time to Make the Youtiao: At the stand across the street from my university campus, people line up early for the fried oil strips.

I’ve never been to a country that didn’t have fried dough. If you’re aware of one, let me know, and I’ll make sure to never go there. I’m convinced that fried dough — particularly the kind made at street stalls and festivals — is one of the most important characteristics of a culture, and I don’t know why I’d need to bother with a society that hasn’t even had time to develop this most basic item.

Fortunately, with thousands of years of civilization behind it, China has had ample time to perfect its fried dough, and it has come up with something called the youtiao. The literal meaning of “youtiao” — oil strip — doesn’t sound that appetizing. But I’ve never met a fried dough I didn’t like.

It took me a while to find youtiao, even though I knew they were there. Despite guidebooks and online testimonials claiming that this fried dough could be found “anywhere” in “the morning,” I couldn’t locate it. My morning classes run from 7:30 to 11:30 every day, so I would go out on the weekends at what I thought was breakfast time, about 9:30, looking for the dough. No luck — until I realized that people in Beijing have a definition of “morning” that is different from mine. Their breakfast-food stands open before 6 a.m., and by 8:30 or so they pull a Keyser Söze — like that, they’re gone.

I had my first youtiao before class one day, cooked in front of me by a man named Mr. Liu, who gets up every day before sunrise to set up the youtiao stand. As their name suggests, youtiao are long (like strips), which makes them ideal for dunking in warm breakfast cereals like oatmeal and congee. Like most other fried-dough items, youtiao are delicious, but they should be eaten right away, and there is a clear limit to how many you can eat at once before suddenly feeling disgusting. (My limit is two.) Their consistency is closer to that of a beignet or zeppola than that of a doughnut. And, in a new fried-dough development for me, they do not come with toppings or fillings of any sort.

No matter where I go, fried dough never lets me down. So if you know of any fried dough you think I should check out, please let me know, and I’ll add it to the Very Important List of Fried Dough I Must Try.

Photo of paper
Most of the news in Beijing today focused on the Olympics, but Page A5 of the Beijing News was fully devoted to product safety. (Note the graphic in the lower right. The duck in the background signifies toys covered in lead paint.)

I’ve been paying attention over the summer to the story about tainted Chinese products, and I think it’s interesting to see how Chinese reporting contrasts with the Western news. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve noticed:

• Chinese stories about tainted food tend to focus on it as a domestic issue, alerting readers to dangers, for example. I think this is completely understandable because it’s what affects readers most. But the stories say the government has been working to address this problem for a long time — “years,” usually. This is kind of strange, because the articles touting the government regulations haven’t been around for a long time, and there obviously is still a problem. So either the government hasn’t been doing such a great job, or these efforts haven’t been considered very important until recently. Hmm.

• When the conflicts with Western countries are mentioned, it’s usually in the context of Chinese efforts to ensure product safety and punish the few bad eggs responsible for problems. Chinese media emphasize that most items coming from China are safe, whereas Western media emphasize that almost everything found to be unsafe has been made in China. In the newspapers here, the incidents involving toothpaste, medicine and the like are sometimes referred to as “alleged,” and the Western media are blamed for sensationalizing the problem. (By the way, I tend to think most of the stories in the U.S. are reasonable, but I also think some of the U.S. reporting reflects a nervousness in America about Chinese growth and our dependence on Chinese products.)

• The Chinese stories frequently are accompanied by a smaller story about some sort of tainted product coming from overseas, almost in the style of an “equal time” policy. This sort of backlash is particularly interesting, I think, in the way it affects American companies. Gregory Gilligan from McDonald’s, who spoke to us earlier this summer, said that since these scandals broke, he’s been spending a significant amount of time reminding Chinese government officials that most of the food McDonald’s uses is made in China.

Sure, I don’t have a statistical analysis of this, and my limited understanding of Chinese allows me to spot only the most obvious product-safety stories in the non-English media. But if you don’t believe me about this, you can see some English-language stories here, here, here and here.

I think this tainted-food story is a perfect microcosm of the workings of the Chinese government. Officials are panicking about the ramifications of these scandals, both in terms of business and global standing, even as they attempt to maintain secrecy and deny the very existence of serious issues. I find it fascinating. Of course, I’d find it even more fascinating if I weren’t so focused on my newfound fear of buying toothpaste.

I’ve long thought that “bless you” is a funny thing to say after people sneeze. My sneezing doesn’t mean I’m going to get the plague, and I don’t need to worry that my soul is escaping through my nose. Still, it’s just polite — and I never realized how accustomed I was to saying and hearing it.

Chinese does not have a word that approximates “bless you.” You sneeze in Beijing, and this is what you get: nothing. People don’t seem to realize that they have just witnessed a momentous occasion. Even if they know you well, they simply go on about their business, making you feel insignificant and unloved.

More problematic is that in my Chinese program, we aren’t allowed to speak English. So when someone sneezes, we’re reduced to sitting there and making the international shrugging-shoulders-and-moving-hands-apart-with-palms-up gesture that means “Hey, man, I wish I could help you out, but you see the position I’m in. There’s clearly nothing I can do.” I find it fascinating that I’m so acculturated to “bless you” that I honestly feel trapped and uncomfortable when I can’t even say something similar to it.

Some of us have taken to saying the Chinese word for “good,” because there isn’t anything else to say. This word, , is pronounced hǎo and is useful in plenty of other situations as well. You can hear it pronounced if you click on the link below.

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