Category Archives: Life in Beijing

Six Months in Beijing: Sightseeing Highlights and Recommendations


After living in Beijing for the past six months, we’ve not only had lots of opportunities to see and experience everyday life here in China, but we’ve also hit a lot of the tourist hot-spots. With all there is to see in a city with a population of 20+ million and a wealth of historical sites, I’ve put together a list with photos of our favorite places/must see spots. Since some of these places are obvious, I’d put them in the “usual suspects” category. Others are top recommendations, but may not be included in a several day itinerary of a visit to the capital. I’m also adding a few places that I wouldn’t recommend visiting, unless you have a lot of time, or a really specific interest.

1. Tiananmen Square: with all of the modern history in this massive square in the very heart of the city, it’s a good first stop. At the famous Tiananmen Gate with Chairman Mao’s face looking out across the square, you’ll also get your first sense of where Chinese tourists go (and there are a lot of them!). Traveling to Tiananmen Square is a essential visit for Chinese coming from all over the country, where you can see the Great Hall of the People on one side of the square and the National Museum of China on the other. Mao’s mausoleum is in the center of the square, where you can visit Mao’s preserved body (I tried to check it out one day with Isabel and Sophia, but the crowds and heat were so overwhelming that we changed our plans), something that is emotionally moving for many Chinese. I also considered getting up very early for the daily sunrise flag-raising ceremony (nationalism in China and the U.S. are quite similar!), but could never quite find the motivation to go (with three young kids, sleep is at a premium!).

2.  While in the Tiananmen area, visiting the Forbidden City is another usual suspect must-see. Getting a sense of what life might have been like for the Chinese emperor and his consorts, wives, and eunuchs (no non-castrated men were allowed to sleep in the walled city) in this yellow-roofed massive complex of halls, houses, and gardens really shouldn’t be missed.

3. Visiting at least one Chinese park is at the top of my list. There are so many to choose from (Beihai, Jingshan, the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace [Yuanmingyuan], Ritan, Ditan, the Temple of Heaven, the Beijing Botanical Gardens, Purple Bamboo, etc.) and walking around amidst the cultivated beauty, while watching any of the many group activities that Chinese people regularly take part in, is an essential component of any visit (see my previous posts: Parks in China: Breathing Life into Sprawling Cities and What Makes Them Uniquely Chinese and The Lotus Festival in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park). If you’re in the Forbidden City area, visiting Jingshan Park and climbing the highest hill in Beijing, on a clear day, will give you a 360 view of the city and a chance to look directly into the Forbidden City from above.

4. The Great Wall: of course you’ve got to see it. If you can skip the highly touristy Badaling area and head to at least Mutianyu, I’d recommend it (you can take a cable car up, walk along the wall for awhile, and then toboggan down on a cement track: surprisingly fun and safe with kids!). I really wanted to visit the Jinshanling section of the wall too, as the photos I’ve seen are spectacular, but we ran out of time.

5. Sanlitun Village and Yashow Market in Sanlitun: we came to love the Sanlitun area, with its combination of very high-end retail shops and more middle class stores and restaurants. It’s a great place to see the “new China” in all its consumerist glory, as well as to walk around in a beautiful outdoor mall space (there’s a mall beneath the area as well) with changing art installations and store/brand promotions. Right next to Sanlitun Village is the six-story Yashow Market with floor after floor of knock-offs. This is the other side of China’s consumer (and production) culture and is the perfect balance to the fancy real name-brand shopping just steps away. While a lot of tourists may prefer the Silk Market (we bought the silk for my wedding dress and all of our bridesmaids’ and groomsmaids’ dresses there back in 2002), with limited time, I’d recommend just hitting Sanlitun. Similarly, a lot of tourists visit the snazzy Wangfujing shopping area, but I’d recommend Sanlitun Village over Wangfujing.

6. Take at least one taxi ride around the Central Business District (CBD) area (and other areas of the city too) to see the architecture of recent dreams. Especially cool is the CCTV building, the various SOHO buildings throughout the city, the Global Trade Center towers, etc.

7. Go to a Chinese acrobat show. We’d been to a couple of shows in the past, but the one we saw last week at the Chaoyang Theatre was absolutely amazing! It ended with a steel ball and eight motorcycle riders driving around inside (and upside down) simultaneously. As a bonus: we were a bit slow getting out of the theater and had a chance to meet the performers!

8. Capital Museum: As Manu’s recent post attests (The Capital Museum in Beijing), the Capital Museum is a gorgeous space with fantastic, focused exhibits. Skip the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square and head over to the Capital Museum. Now that the new design of architect Jean Nouvel has been chosen for what looks to be a fantastic looking new National Art Museum of China in the Olympic Park area, in a few years it might be a different story…

9. Nanluoguxiang, or NLGX, is one of the coolest streets in Beijing. Somewhat similar to Thamel in Kathmandu, but not just catering to foreigners, this lively area near the Drum Tower (worth a visit, but we never made it since we’d already visited the Drum Tower in Xi’an) is part of the traditional remaining hutong (alley) neighborhoods. There are funky boutiques, charming bars and coffee shops, and lots of enticing snack stands on this great street.

If you’ve got specific interests, I’d also recommend:

1. 798 Art District: In this former electronics factory complex built by the East Germans, there are now streets of galleries and cafes. A couple of the galleries are impressive, but don’t expect to be impressed across the board. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours, or a day, wandering around, hanging out in cafes and doing a little shopping for unique gifts.

2. Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist Temple Complex: If you have any connection to Tibetan Buddhism, Yonghegong is an obvious place to visit. Beginning in the 18th century, the complex maintained a connection between China’s emperors and monks from Tibet and Mongolia.

3.Peking University: Though you have to have a residency permit to enter the campus of China’s top university, if you can visit it, it’s worth walking around the beautiful grounds (there’s a stunning lake).

4. Olympic Sports Complex: Seeing the iconic 2008 Summer Olympics Bird’s Nest and Water Cube in person does give you a sense of the scale of the endeavors to build these structures, but unless you have a specific reason to visit the area, or a lot of time, I’d skip it. We walked around the fairly treeless concrete grounds in the hot sun, but the sense of national pride many Chinese undoubtedly feel did not arise in us.

5. The Beijing Zoo: While the grounds of the zoo are very beautiful, once you leave the chaos of the main animal buildings, including the overrated panda exhibit, the experience itself can be missed. While it’s not the worse zoo I’ve ever been to in terms of the space for the animals, it’s also not very impressive.

There are a few things we didn’t do that will be on our agenda for our next visit:

  1. The Fahaisi Temple in the Western Hills with Ming Dynasty murals that you have to view with a flashlight.
  2. The White Cloud Taoist Temple. Sadly, we didn’t visit even one Taoist temple while we were here.
  3. The Fragrant Hills Park in the Western Hills. This is supposed to be especially beautiful in the fall when all the leaves are red and gold.
  4. A modern dance show at the “Egg” (National Grand Theater).
  5. Visit the Olympic Forest Park. This huge space doesn’t have the cultivated landscaping of most of Beijing’s parks and some day I’d like to see it.

Things we didn’t do that we’ll probably never do:

  1. Watch a Peking Opera. The piecing voices just don’t appeal to us. We saw a bit of a Hong Kong opera and that was enough.
  2. Visit the aquarium. The aquarium is within the zoo complex and you have to buy a separate ticket. Although it’s got a good reputation, having taken the kids to the fantastic Monterey Aquarium and the Vancouver Aquarium, it doesn’t strike me as something we must do in Beijing. Also, I wouldn’t recommend the joint Chinese-New Zealand “Blue Zoo” venture, unless you want to feed goldfish with a bottle and watch mermaids (real live ladies in bikinis and tails!) swimming with the fish.
  3. Visit the Natural History Museum and/or the Planetarium. I could never gear myself up to visit what I’ve heard are very crowded museums.

Overall, our stay in Beijing has been fantastic and I’m really sorry to have to say good-bye, for now, to this lively city. I hope it’s not too long before we return again.



What’s in a Lotus: The Lotus Festival in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park


In Tibetan Buddhism, lotuses feature prominently. For example, one of the oldest and most important early masters (8th c.) is Padmasambhava/Pema Jungnye, which means “Born from a Lotus,” as he is said to have been reborn in the heart of a lotus after having been burned to death on a funeral pyre. Buddhas, Bodhisattavas, and great masters are often depicted sitting on lotus seats and young consorts are described as being like a perfect, eight-petaled lotus. Lotuses regularly appear in Tibetan paintings (thangka) and sculpture and decoratively on furniture. You can even buy plug-in lotus lights for your home shrine. Because lotuses grown from the mud in water into beautiful flowers, lotuses also represent the mind of enlightenment coming forth from the confusion of ignorance.

Despite feeling pretty familiar with lotuses in this context, until this last month, I had never really fully appreciated them. Thankfully, our neighborhood park, Purple Bamboo Park, is currently holding a lotus festival. I can’t seem to stay away and have already taken four boat rides through a large section of the lake that is almost completely filled with blooming lotuses (a water field!). The slow moving boats hold around 15 passengers and a single rower navigates through the narrow passage of water left open. The boat meanders past blooming pink and white blooms pushing up from large green leaves. Sometimes you can even see a family of ducks or coupling dragonflies in the cavernous area shaded by leaves and blossoms.

One day as I was entering the park, I noticed a man selling what looked like a type of green fruit (I thought it might be similar to a sweetsop). The next day I decided to buy one, but found that they were being sold in tied-together bundles of three. Still having no clue what they were, I asked Sophia’s Chinese teacher, Qing Qing, and found out that they were lotus stalks with fresh lotus seeds. The seeds require effort to eat, as she showed me how first you have to remove each seed from the pod, peel off two different layers, and remove the bitter green interior before you eat it. While the texture reminds me of a nut, similar to a raw almond, it actually doesn’t have a lot of flavor.

Like many foods in China, the lotus seed has warming or cooling properties, but it depends on which part of the seed you eat.  Qing Qing told me that the bitter green stem inside the seed is the only cooling component of the lotus and it can be dried and made into a tea. When the raw lotus seed is eaten alone, it has warming properties that can help with nervousness and sleep problems. The dried seed (the green interior is removed from the top before it’s dried) can be made into a sweet drink by combining the seeds, crushed dried white wood ear mushrooms, and rock sugar with hot water and leaving overnight. Drinking it helps nourish yin and reinforces body fluid.

After I learned where the seeds came from, I went back to the park and suddenly became aware of the seed pod and began noticing that as the petals of the flower opened more broadly, it became visible in the center. As the leaves fall off, the seed pod is left standing amidst the other blooms.

Now I seem to be seeing the seed pods everywhere. For example, last Friday I took Sophia and Isabel to Beijing’s 798 Art District, a former electronics factory complex built by the East Germans that has been re-purposed into a large area filled with galleries and cafes, and we went to a couple of galleries. The first one we stumbled upon featured copper work. If I hadn’t recently encountered the lotus seed pods, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to a whole room of copper lotus stalks and seed pods in various states of growth and decay.

The one part of the lotus I’ve been familiar with for awhile, but have never cooked with yet myself, is the root. To me, crunchy, sliced lotus root with its white meat and beautiful pattern of holes, is the best food to cook in a hotpot. I love how it soaks up the flavor of the broth and tastes better and stays crunchier than a potato.  I’ve also had it in stir fries and in a soup with pork ribs, where it’s a great addition.

lotus root

Lotus Root photo borrowed from:

Thanks to our proximity to Purple Bamboo Park, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the China’s relationship with the plant.  Not only is there a great appreciation of the beauty of the flowers (as there is for Tibetans), but little of the plant is actually “wasted,” as medicinal (and food) uses have been found for the lotus’s roots and seeds in both fresh and dried forms (the petals, leaves, and stems are also used in other Asian contexts).  To me this epitomizes the rich depth of Chinese cuisine and medicine and its millennia-old relationship with plants (and animals) to uncover a myriad of uses and tastes.


My Adventures in Extreme Eating, Beijing Style


As is apparent from my two other posts on food in China (Food in China and the Challenges of Limited Palates and How the Sichuan Peppercorn Led Me to Learn to Cook Chinese Regional Cuisines), I love trying and learning to cook new food (I’ve been able to take five cooking classes, including, most recently, Hunan and Yunnan Vegetarian) and have loved that aspect of my life in Beijing. I’m happy to report that my family (at least the kids!) have become slightly more adventurous eaters over the last six months. While Manu still has no desire to travel around the city with me seeking out unusual ingredients and tastes (three of our four dinners out sans kids over the past six months have been at restaurants featuring contemporary, creative European cuisine), I’ve been fortunate to have made a wonderful friend, Xu Er, who has been happy to accompany me to explore some of Beijing’s stranger offerings.

Our first night out was inspired by my friend, Lindsay, who sent me an article about eating rabbit heads in China that appeared in the NY Times in April, asking me if I’d tried them yet. I have to admit that at first the idea didn’t actually appeal to me, but after I read about how tasty they were and that the rabbits are part of spicy Sichuan cuisine, one of my favorite regional styles, I asked Xu Er if she’d like to come with me and, having never tried them herself, she agreed. The heads are not very large and you have to break them apart, sucking and using your chopsticks to get all of the meat out (eyes and brain included!), but the flavor is quite rich and spectacular. Although we tried both the five spice (a blend of cinnamon, star anise, cloves, fennel seeds, and Sichuan peppercorns) and the spicy, both of us thought the spicy route was the way to go.

Our next foray into the unusual was to try “stinky tofu” (臭豆腐 Chou Dou Fu). I’d occasionally smelled it on the street when the scent something like a very moldy, drippy, smelly (delicious!) cheese wafted my way (I chose to dwell on the former image rather than on other possible associations, such as old shoes), but hadn’t had a chance to actually try it. We went to a renowned stand in the Houhai (lake) area, which, fortunately, was right across from a place that boasted serving traditional Beijing snacks. After we picked up our tofu, Xu Er chose a number of other dishes and snacks she thought we should try, including fried durian (炸 榴莲 Zha Liulian), a yogurt-like cheese with red bean (奶酪 魏 Nanlai Wei), and filled sausage (炸 灌肠 Zha Guan Chang). The stinky tofu was tasty, but the smell is more potent than the taste, I thought (after having eaten some serious cheese, I found stinky tofu to be less intense).  One dish that Xu Er loved (she insisted that we each get our own bowl, as she knew she’d want to eat a whole bowl herself), featured intestine, kidney, and stomach in a soup with a wheat cake (卤煮火烧 Lu zhu huo shao). While I’m not usually a huge fan of most organs (liver aside), I’d recently read a book, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, that elucidates the profound thought and intentions behind Chinese cooking (against the backdrop of an engaging, fictional story). I remembered that one of the important principles is texture. When I ate the soup and its organs with that idea in mind, as none of them were particularly flavorful, the experience was better than I’d have thought and for the most part I appreciated the organs as a conduit for bringing out the flavor of the rich, dark, meaty broth.

Although Xu Er and I went out for a couple of other Chinese meals with more conventional ingredients, our last adventure in the unusual was the most dramatic, as we went to the touristy Donghuamen Night Market, where many non-Beijing foods and snacks are available, which is especially appealing to tourists looking to challenge themselves (many of the specialty items are traditionally eaten in the south, but they’re always available at this market). We had a great time walking past the entire line of lantern-lit stalls before making our purchases. Two of the most unusual things we tried were pigeon on a stick (tasty, but a little dry, not like the velvety pigeon Manu and I ate at Temple Restaurant, Beijing) and deep fried scorpion, which was more crunchy than anything else. A few of the things we saw, but didn’t try, were: large black spiders; large black scorpions; starfish on a stick; snake on a stick; large centipedes; and sheep testicles, also available on a stick (maybe next time…).

Thinking back over the past months, two other foods that I tried for the first time stand out as being particularly good: horse meat and bullfrog. We had horse, which was cured and served in thin slices, at a Xinjiang (the far, northwest autonomous region) restaurant with our friend, Iliyar (and family), who’s from the region. I found that the meat reminded me a little bit of Spanish lomo, but dry, rather than oily-moist. Bullfrog surprised me. I’d read that Chairman Mao loved to eat bullfrog with hot chili peppers, a dish popular in his native Hunan province, known for food even spicier than Sichuan’s, but was not drawn to try it. Then I was at an Imperial style (known especially in the last dynasty, the Qing, for gathering and perfecting the best dishes from all over China) restaurant with my friend, Betty, who remembers eating frog as a child when her family visited Hong Kong, and told me that it’s often served to children because it’s an easy meat to eat.  She was happy to order it, so we ate the tender chunks of white bullfrog meat with hot red and green chilies (what a pretty combination!). It’s true that the flavor of frog is a bit reminiscent of chicken, but the texture is more like seafood, reminding me of squid.

During these last six months, my appreciation for Chinese cuisine has deepened a lot, and I know that I’ve only scratched the surface. Understanding some of the philosophy behind Chinese cooking, I’m eager to continue to try more foods that I’d not have thought would appeal to me and I’m hoping to have more opportunities in the future (maybe we’d even live in China again for awhile). And maybe one of these days I’ll even get up the nerve to eat one of those chicken feet I always see people munching on in the street.

P.S. You may be interested in checking out this article ( about Beijing’s strangest food offerings, including penis hotpot (of various animals), which is supposed to enhance virility!


The Capital Museum in Beijing


Last Friday, we went to the Capital Museum in Beijing. Pam had already gone with Isabel, but she had been so impressed with its various exhibitions, as well as with the building itself, that I also wanted to check it out. I was not disappointed. The building is a beautiful combination of traditional and modern architecture that presents a city proud of its past, but also looking towards its future (you can watch a great interview with the architects here.)

In a city with so many historical sites to visit (the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, the mandatory visit to the Great Wall, etc.), I am not surprised that the museum often goes under the radar (if it weren’t for Pam, I would have also missed it), but I would definitely recommend a visit. It offers a great overview of the history of the city, and it also introduces you to some important aspects of Chinese culture and festivals.

They also have a very decent Buddhist art collection, which made my visit all the more exciting,although, as you can see in one of the pictures below, they could have used a native English speaker to polish the explanations of  the various rooms and artifacts.

If you ever come to Beijing, make sure to include it in your itinerary.

P.S. Pam, Sophia, and Isabel just visited the National Museum of China, which is directly across Tiananmen Square from the Great Hall of the People. It’s recently been renovated, so the giant, Socialist style exterior has a modern, light-filled interior. She said that in contrast to the Capital Museum, the National Museum, not surprisingly, is a paean to China’s great and lengthy civilization, with halls focused on money through the dynasties, jade carvings, fan art, scroll painting, etc. The Buddhist statue collection is pretty good too, which includes a number of large stone and wooden statues (Isabel wanted to pose in front of each of the large “Bu-ahs,” as she calls the Buddhas). With limited time, Pam says she would definitely recommend going to the Capital Museum over the National Museum (and the National Museum is much more crowded, in part due to its central location).

– Manu

How to Fight a Hot Summer Day in China (if you’re a man): Try lifting up your shirt…


We are in the midst of summer here in Beijing and I can tell you one thing:  it is very hot. Temperatures average in the 80’s, and last week we had a few days close to 100 with an extremely high percentage of humidity. I’ve talked to a few locals about it, and they all told me that this is just the beginning… it is only going to get hotter and more humid!

Different countries fight the summer heat in different ways. In the States, people hide in locations with AC (their own homes, malls, restaurants), where the air can be irrationally cold. In southern Spain (where I was born), people avoid the hottest hours of the day by staying indoors, and they only start coming out at sundown, when the streets become intensely alive (which also explains why children are still playing on playgrounds around midnight, since they can’t do it during the day!). Here in Beijing, people also avoid doing any activities during the hottest hours of the day, which means that parks are quite empty during the day and come alive only when the weather cools down in the late afternoon (or very early in the morning!). There is one thing that men do to cool down in a hot summer day, though, that has particularly called my attention: they lift their shirt up halfway, or even take it off completely. At first it seems a little odd, coming from cultures where that can be seen as crass, but it is such a pervasive practice across all social strata that, after a while, it becomes normal. You can see in the small gallery below how pervasive this practice is.

So if after we are back in Charlottesville, you see me having brunch with the family down town with my shirt rolled up, or you see me reading on the lawn in front of the Rotunda without a T-shirt, do not be alarmed, for what it is strange to you (as it was for me) is perfectly normal for a fifth of the world’s population…


Sophia’s Chinese Kindergarten Graduation: Performance, not Ceremony


Sophia graduated from her Chinese Kindergarten two weeks ago. While I’ve actually never attended a kindergarten graduation in any other context, I have witnessed or taken part in many other graduations. Hence, when I arrived at Sophia’s school at 5 pm on a bright and sweltering Thursday afternoon, I wasn’t surprised that I felt a bit wistful of our passing time in China and our children’s growing bigger, and even bittersweet that Sophia was graduating (I seemed to have temporarily forgotten that she also finished kindergarten last year in the States: see Why Chinese Kindergarten?). As I talked with a fellow parent whose only child was graduating, after having attended Brown Kindergarten for three years, I even felt a bit verklempt (though the mother herself didn’t seem particularly emotional).

The graduation lasted for almost two and a half hours. During this time any emotion I had or thought I would have was completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the performance. I say performance, because that is what the graduation felt like to me. Granted, I didn’t get what was said in most of the speeches or introductions (occasionally, someone translated a bit for me when I wasn’t running around after Isabel, who kept trying to rush the stage area), but there was definitely not a ceremonial component.

Sophia was in a total of ten dances and a few of the kids participated in a couple more than that. Not only was there a reprise of all the dances the class did for Children’s Day (see the Children’s Day post), but she crammed during the last couple of weeks with the rest of the graduating children to learn another five routines. Aside from the numerous dance routines (including a new one by the teachers), at one point there was a staged competitive group math problem contest. Another number had the kids reading sentences in Chinese pin-yin. Towards the end of the “show,” four kids rang triangles each time one of them made a statement about how many hours they had spent working on particular subjects.

Sophia and the girls in her class performed in one of the final dances in which they encircled some of the teachers and school administrators. At one point during the song they bowed to each other and the song ended with a kind of group hug. It was well-staged and executed, but, again, it felt performed and not even a tear came to my eye. After the final dance number, the diplomas were quickly distributed (not in a ceremonial manner with each child’s name being called out, though) and we all snapped photos of the group holding their new certificates.

My one kind of secret hope for the day was that I’d get to see Sophia in a graduation cap and gown. Since we’d paid for another outfit, I had a vague sense that it may be a gown. While it turned out to be a plaid outfit (see photos), I did get one glimpse of Sophia in graduation gear: the following day each family received a coffee table-ready mounted photo of their child in a graduation cap and gown next to a class photo. The individual picture, like the graduation event itself, seems to be a requisite component we now possess, but that somehow comes up feeling a bit hollow to me (though it is a cute photo!).


While I had my sense of Sophia’s graduation, she definitely had her own. It was clear that she’d spent so much time preparing to perform the dances that she spontaneously practiced parts of the dances and moves around the house and talked a lot about it. During the performance itself she wore one of her very serious faces and it was hard to penetrate what she was feeling. However, the next day, the final day, when I picked Sophia and Dylan up from school, Sophia burst into tears and was weeping by the time we got home. She spent the next hour in her room staring at the class photo and crying.

Regarding Dylan, we were a little worried about how he’d react to attending the last month of school (until July 31st) without Sophia (see previous post: Life in a Chinese Kindergarten). To our surprise, he hasn’t complained at all and actually seems really happy when going to school. A recent excerpt (June 28th) from Dylan’s Contact Book says: “Hi Dylan’s Family: Dylan is very great, he likes Chinese, he is very glad to speak Chinese to the teachers. He can sing some Chinese songs…”  Now that he’s got a good buddy (Joshua) and is understanding and speaking more Chinese, he’s enjoying himself. Even if he’ll likely lose a lot of his Chinese after we return home next month, it’s good to know, for both him and us, that he’s made a life for himself at school in Beijing.


Children’s Day in China: Wait, Isn’t Every Day Children’s Day?


DSC_0359I’ve been of the mindset that “every day is Children’s Day.” I mean, there should definitely be days set aside for mothers and for fathers, but a special day for children? We parents give them so much that they don’t need a special holiday! While there’s a story, now a family favorite, my mom tells about a Methodist church Children’s Day performance she took part in when she was four, I didn’t personally grow up with a Children’s Day holiday and didn’t feel like I missed out.

To my surprise, in mainland China, Children’s Day, celebrated on June 1 of every year, is a pretty big thing. To start with, kindergarten and primary schools spend a lot of time preparing for a performance. In the case of Sophia and Dylan, they’d been practicing for well over a month and in the last couple of weeks I don’t think they were doing much else at school. In fact, on Thursday, the day before the actual performance, Manu walked by the school and found that all the kids were outside in the 90 degree heat in their costumes in the process of a 1.5 hour dress rehearsal.

The actual performance, which also took place outside, was quite a feat. All the kids (ages 2-6) performed in between one and three tightly choreographed dances and/or songs (they learned the dances through videos that they watched as a class and their teachers made a few tweaks). The music ranged from contemporary pop (the majority) to traditional Chinese songs to English songs from CD’s that come with Brown Kindergarten’s English language books (created at Brown’s South Korean headquarters as a four year kindergarten English program). Some of the costumes were pretty elaborate and everyone, boys included, wore bright red lipstick and other make-up.

To Manu’s and my surprise, Sophia and Dylan both fully participated in the show (Sophia even had some anxious dreams about it the couple of nights before, but performed nonetheless).  The girls in Sophia’s class, who all wore a white, princessy dress with bead work, opened the show with a dance. A few numbers later the girls and boys in her class did a joint number in which they sort of chanted a poem together (well, Sophia didn’t do all that much of the chanting) in English about loving China that ended with a loud “I love China!” At the very end of the show the girls in Sophia’s class returned to perform one more dance, which included making bridges with their arms in pairs that the other girls went under until there were two side-by-side lines. While Dylan spent a lot of time rehearsing, as well as letting us know in the couple of nights before the show that he didn’t want to perform, his class only did one number together (like I said, I’m impressed that kids his age and a year younger managed to perform a rehearsed dance at all!). Each of the kids in his class learned a particular pose that they had to execute at various points during the song. During the final part of the song, Dylan was right in the center holding his pose (he had to cross his legs and raise his arms in a circle above his head with his fingers curling down to touch the top of his head).

While we had to buy Sophia’s dress (at 80 RMB, or about $13, it was a steal!), the kids in Dylan’s class were instructed to wear a “cool swimsuit.” If you notice some of the other costumes in the photos, there were Peking opera-clad boys; children in Flamenco-wear; girls in frilly, pink dresses; boys in Michael Jackson-esque tux and top hat combos (worn by the boys in Sophia’s class); boys in matching t-shirts and sweat pants that said “10 Dollars”; etc.

One of the most surprising aspects of the lengthy performance was that the teachers also performed. The first dance had the teachers dancing with traditional red fans and lanterns while wearing matching Hawaiian patterned capri-length sporty outfits. In the second dance they wore high heels, matching black leggings with a punkish, ripped look to them, and either a tight black or pink top. As a final contribution, one of the teachers sang a pop ballad in English (she did a great job), where, on cue, a student handed her a bouquet of flowers while she kept singing. Since most of the teachers and staff live at the school, if they don’t have family in Beijing, a hang-over of the work unit culture, I imagine that they must have practiced their numbers in the evenings.

After the performance finished (11 a.m.), school was essentially over for the day (kids in China count on Children’s Day being a half day), so we decided to go with Soren and his family to the Golden Resources Mall, which, incidentally, is 1.5 times the size of the Mall of America, where the kids could play in one of its kids’ play areas. On the way out of the school gate, each child, including Isabel, was handed a very large water gun by one of the administrators. I couldn’t quite essentialize what felt so weird about the kids all wielding the guns they received as a Children’s Day gift, so instead I just laughed to myself and embraced it, snapping pictures of my kids with their new toys.

So it turns out that on Children’s Day in China kids primary school and younger do get gifts. Sophia’s Chinese language tutor brought her a little lip gloss-holding duck and told me that she would usually receive a new piece of clothing on Children’s Day when she was little. On Saturday, which was actually June 1st, I bought a t-shirt for Dylan that I plan to save to give to him later, but was asked by the salesperson if I was buying it for Children’s Day. I also noticed when we were at Golden Resources Mall that restaurants like McDonald’s and the Cantonese restaurant where we ate dinner offered Children’s Day specials.

So now that I’ve gotten a sense of what Children’s Day can be, I come back to my original thought that every day is children’s day. While I still think it’s true, at least with our kids, I can see the appeal of children nationwide dancing and performing in the morning, having fun on a school-free afternoon, and receiving a gift or two. Is American society missing out by not embracing the holiday, which is celebrated in many other countries? Regarding performances, the end of the school-year is a tough time for huge efforts, so unless Children’s Day performances were combined with other spring/end-of-year class music performances, it’d probably be too much (and it’s hard envision teachers embracing performance as they have here – what do you think, Pam & Camille?). Plus, it seems that the goal of the children performing in China is to be cute, especially in imitating adult behaviors (this is why that strange kindergarten wedding I posted on Facebook awhile ago has a strong appeal here). In the U.S., especially at younger ages, the notion of self-expression seems to hold greater importance, so unified dancing wouldn’t probably be the choice mode of the performances (here’s a great example of the countries’ differing social priorities of group activities vs. the importance of self-expression – and group dancing doesn’t stop after primary school, as many restaurants and other businesses have their employees engaging in group dancing and other group exercise in the mornings outside before work! And in retirement group dancing can continue: see my recent post called Parks in China: Breathing Life into Sprawling Cities and What Makes Them Uniquely Chinese). Regardless of these differences, what kid do you know who wouldn’t accept a half day of school and a gift?