Monday, November 10, 2008

The Awesomeness of Nonsense

Sure, it's not always awesome. I should know -- I read a lot of it. But sometimes, nonsense is really great.

Seen on a student's sweatshirt:
Sometimes I think your girlfriend is THE ONE.
(And frankly, imagining Keanu Reeves as anyone's girlfriend is kind of scary. Awesomely scary.)

On the side of a trendy-looking green and white tote bag:
Minutemen Meatpuppets Descendants Angst
(That is some awesomely post-modern poetry right there. Or possibly words chosen at random; it's hard to say.)

In a description of the movie Wuthering Heights:
This movie is full of agon-blessedness and crackdown.
(Not just agon-blessedness. That would be awesome enough. But crackdown! What more could a moviegoer ask for?)

Explaining the sentence "She didn't come, but it's not a big deal":
It means she didn't come, but it's not a brain sample.
(No, no, it's not. That would be too awesome for my test.)

Asked to use a slang word in a sentence:
I always play computer games, so my friends call me Chuck.
(There's a superficial resemblance between the name "Chuck" and the word "geek," so that may be what she was going for, but I prefer to think that "Chuck" is the new and awesome word for people who play computer games.)

Attempting to make a sentence with the word "awesome":
I want to awesome something.

Really, what more awesome use of language could you imagine than to turn awesome from an adjective (a superlatively useful one, admittedly) into a verb? That's some awesome nonsense.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to awesome these papers.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

China Sidelights II: Food Too Cute to Eat

It's been a while since I wrote anything about our summer trip, and you may have forgotten about it entirely. Even I may have forgotten. But what better way to escape the bleakness of late fall than to relive the memories of an exciting summer trip? Our intrepid group of five world travellers had seen the Forbidden City, climbed the Great Wall, feasted on Beijing duck, gazed upon the Ming Tombs, and marvelled at the details of the Terra Cotta Army™. That kind of stuff works up an appetite.

So it was, then, that with the Terra Cotta Army™ behind us, we arrived back at our hotel, footsore and hungry. We showered, changed, and met our guide (the impossibly perky Tracy) out front for some traditional Xi’an cuisine.

Tracy led us across the square, through a street-crossing tunnel, and across another square to our destination. The restaurant owners weren’t shy about their capabilities: the sign (which took up nearly the entire front wall) proclaimed that The Legendary DeFa Chang Restaurant is Renowned for its Superior Delicious Dumplings.

That’s right – dumplings! Like Beijing, Xi'an also has a food specialty. Tracy informed us that at one point Xi’an was the home of an emperor who had a particular fondness for the little delicacies and whose staff satisfied his cravings by creating eight hundred varieties of them. I say “an emperor” because I have sadly been unable to trace this tradition any farther than our irrepressible guide. But historically accurate or not, the results are the same: the Xi’an Dumpling Feast. If Xi’an were a city in the United States, the welcome center would hand out literature proclaiming it to be the “Home of the Dumpling” and it would have a water tower in the shape of a two hundred foot tall pot-sticker.

Whether because that would be tacky in the imperial capitol or because the Chinese are just behind the times when it comes to water towers, the only evidence of the Xi’anese specialty are a profusion of restaurants, each attempting to out-boast the others in signage.

Tracy saw to it that we were comfortably seated, ordered the appropriate feast for us, and cheerfully bowed out, leaving five Westerners, two Chinese waitresses, and a vast array of steamed dumplings. They would bring two or three woven paper-lined serving dishes, each of which contained five of some particular variety of dumpling. When we had each consumed our assortment, the servers would whisk the dishes away and bring out a new set.

The servers spoke no real English, but they had a nice system: when a new dish was brought out, the younger girl would step forward and say “Excuse me!” Once she had gotten our attention, she would point to the various dishes and say things like “Chicken. Pork. Vegetable.” Then she would leave us to our food. Sometimes, even her identifications were unidentifiable. I feel quite sure that once she pointed to a plate of dumplings and said “Excuse me! Garbage.”

After a few rounds of this, Brian tried to strike up a conversation with her while she was going through her routine. “Hey, what’s your name?” he asked, just as she said “Excuse me!” She stared back, uncomprehending and clearly thrown off by the interruption. “Your name?” he repeated, slowly and clearly. “My name—“ (indicating himself) “—is Brian. What is your name?” She frowned, as though greatly irritated, and loudly replied “Excuse me! Tomato! Beef!” Then she whirled on her heel and strode off, leaving us to console Brian by laughing uproariously.

The dumplings, eighteen kinds in all, were exquisite both in form and taste. There were spinach dumplings, tomato-and-pepper dumplings, duck dumplings (shaped like little ducks), fish dumplings, and apparently garbage dumplings (which were fantastic). Our final course was lucky soup, which contained perhaps a dozen miniature dumplings about the size of blueberries, and which conferred good fortune based on how many dumplings you happened to ladle out into your dish – without looking, of course!

As we were leaving, Desiree stopped at the display table by the front door. “Oh, look!” she squealed. “Even more cute little dumplings! Oh, we didn’t get the ones shaped like fish . . . and look – frog dumplings! I want to take them home with me!” Since that was apparently not an option, she had to settle for taking pictures.

I close with a personal recommendation: the Beijing duck was good, and worth trying. But the dumplings were awesome. If you have the good fortune to live in the region of a Xi’an style dumpling restaurant, I urge you to go and order the dumpling feast. You shall not be disappointed.

And seriously, try those garbage ones. They’re great.


P.S. Either my connection or Blogger is being dumb right now . . . pictures coming soon.

P.P.S. OK, two days later I still can't add pictures. It says "your picture has been uploaded!" Except . . . it hasn't. I'll keep working on it. In the meantime, just imagine some really cute and delicious-looking food.

P.P.P.S. Finally! Hooray for Blogger!

Friday, October 24, 2008

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Blog . . .

I’m not really happy about using the blog for public service announcements, but here it is anyway. For our friends living in Greenville, this seemed the best way to tell you that we will not be in South Carolina again until August.

I know we had planned to do stuff – I know! And I apologize for canceling it. I especially apologize to those of you with whom we had already canceled. But we wouldn’t be doing things this was if we didn’t think it was important.

We have an opportunity that I can’t really get into here on the blog, and it requires that we go to Canada during our winter holiday. Since the holiday is only two weeks long, that doesn’t really leave time for much else. Actually, it doesn’t leave time for anything else. We’ll be flying more or less straight to Calgary, and we’ll stay there for the duration.

Suffice it to say that we love you all, and we’ll miss you very much. We look forward to seeing you all again at the end of this school year. Until then, there’s always Skype!


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bam! Hamburger!

First, I apologize for my dreadful delinquency. It's been three weeks since my last post -- I know, I know! I'm beating my head on my desk right now. Seriously. I mean, I was when I wrote this.

Anyway, I'll have a for-real post coming later. Now, let me try to appease you with more wacky massacring of the English language. We've just begun rehearsals for this year's Christmas play: an adaption of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. There were some hilarious misreadings during the auditions, and more than once I had to pretend to scratch my nose to hide my grin.

Student A, reading Scrooge: Why are you here?
Student B, reading Marley: Because I'm crazed!
Me, scratching my nose: That's cursed, girls. Cursed.

Later . . .
Student c, reading Scrooge: Merry Christmas? Bam! Hamburger!
Me, scratching furiously: Bah, like in bottle. And it's not hamburger, it's humbug.

Still later . . .
Student A, still reading Scrooge: Why are you cursed? You were always a good businesswoman.
Student B, still reading Marley and getting confused about my previous correction: I cursed too much about business! I should have cursed more about the people around me!
Me: (Unable to speak, shaking from silent laughter, covering my face and waving at the girls to continue)

That was two weeks ago. Right now, I'm grading another rather humorous assignment. I showed the (very) short film Lifted to my students last week and asked them to describe what was happening; you may remember it as the hilarious animated short that went with the Pixar movie Ratatouille, in which a hapless alien struggles futilely to pass a human-abduction exam while his instructor looks on.

Problem is, the word 'alien' is apparently not in my students' vocabulary. I've gotten quite a range of alternatives, though:

> There are two ET in the UFO.
> The strange person want to take the boy out of his room.
> Two organisms come to Earth.
> One monster want to take the human out.
> Two nonhuman beings download the earth.
> A small creature and a fat creature try to take a person.
> Two frogs come in a UFO.
> There are a big green and a small green.
> The small hero wanted to let a sleepy man come out of the house.
> A stranger animal wants to operate the machine.
> Two cartoons live the UFO.
> The beasts are in a plant. (Plant, plane, what's the difference?)
> The mechian person controlled the real person. (I don't know what she meant either)
> We can see two fingers in a fly ship which is like a plate. (I have no idea what she was going for, but 'finger' was definitely not it)>

. . . but no alien! Such are the difficulties of the English language. Until next time (which I promise will be sooner!),


Monday, September 29, 2008

What a strange teacher we have . . .

One of the more common things that we do in an attempt to improve our students’ listening skills is dictation. This consists of reading a passage to the class while they attempt to write it down. Sounds simple, but amongst the reasonably accurate transcriptions there are sometimes rather bizarre (and occasionally unprintable) typos. Grading them can be a hilariously Mad-Gab-like exercise.

This is what the students thought I was saying as I dictated a paragraph about our vacation at the beach.

I didn’t want to go to the beech, because I thought it would be boiling. (True . . . boiling trees can be dangerous. Of course, I meant boring.)

I realized that the ocean and the sand and some guy were actually all very preteen. (Ten points if you can figure out what I said.)

I relaxed in red and interesting book.

We cut many animals that live in the water, such as carbs. (It was a very violent, but low-calorie, vacation.)

I was sorry to live. (That's what a relaxing week at the beach can do to you, folks)


UPDATE: Alfredo (see the comments section) has guessed correctly. Ten points for you, Alfredo. You can redeem those for flights starting at fifteen thousand points.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

China Sidelights I: Duck . . . but NOT RICE!

The Chinese take their food very seriously, as well they might. We benighted North Americans tend to think of Chinese food as takeout – sweet and sour whatever, various permutations of chicken, some rice, and an egg roll or two on the side. And, of course, fortune cookies. That is rather a misrepresentation of authentic Chinese food.

The Chinese have eight major schools of cuisine (or ten, if you include Beijing and Shanghai as separate schools) that are as different from each other as Amish from Tex-Mex. Each style has a dozen or more signature dishes that range from volcano-hot stewed tofu to live shrimp soaked in liquor. A formal meal here, no matter what style of cuisine is being observed, is an impressive sight to behold, and a far more impressive feat to consume (as you're aware if you’ve been following this blog).

Knowing this, we wanted to sample the specialty food of each locale that we visited. We started with Beijing Duck (sometimes called Peking Duck) in, uh, Beijing. We asked our tour guide in for directions to a good duck place near our hotel, and finally found the place some three blocks away. Its sign was nearly hidden beneath a mass of brass plaques, each one denoting an award won or some government recognition achieved. This looked promising, so we strolled in and were directed by a veritable conveyer belt of bowing, gesturing waiters and hostesses to a table near the kitchen.

Beijing duck is a pleasantly simple meal, which is good, since we had to order it all in English, and the servers were clearly not used to tourists. We ordered duck for five people, and then sat around sipping Coke and waiting for the arrival of the unfortunate waterfowl.

In perhaps ten minutes, a businesslike chef appeared, pushing a cart topped with a platter bearing our duck. It had roasted to a crispy and mouth-watering brown, and smelled delicious. Without so much as a glance at us, the chef got to work slicing the meat off of the bone in small, thin strips. As he did so, a stream of smiling servers brought us dainty plates bearing slivers of carrot, celery, and cucumber, and shallow bowls filled with the tangy black sauce for which Beijing duck is known. There was also a wooden dish containing something like flour tortillas, but very small and so thin that they were translucent.

In fact, Beijing duck is eaten a bit like a burrito – the thin tortilla-things are filled with an assortment of vegetable slivers, a few slices of roast duck, and a daub or two of black sauce, then rolled up and devoured by the discerning gourmet. It is, as the Chinese would say, very delicious.

Unfortunately for us, not all present were discerning gourmets – at least, not in the eyes of our Chinese hostess. Our companion Brian, hungry from sight-seeing and less concerned with authenticity than with sustenance, ordered a bowl of rice to go with dinner. So far, so good. When it arrived, however, he decided to supplement the diminutive little wraps, and began spooning a generous helping of it into his wrap. He was interrupted in this operation by a cry from behind our table – the hostess had spotted us.

“No, no!” she said, rushing to the aid of the hapless (and obviously clueless) American tourist who was about to ruin his culinary experience. “No” being the limit of her English, she communicated through gestures and a torrent of passionate Chinese that putting rice in one’s duck wrap was Not A Good Thing and was Not Done by cultured people. She then slowly coached Brian through the process of undoing his mistake, obviously concerned that he be educated out of his barbarism.

Brian (amid gales of laughter from his unsympathetic friends) objected that he didn’t care if it was the right way to do it or not – he was hungry! After a few fruitless rounds of protest, however, he caved in and meekly allowed the hostess to direct him.

Having cast her pearls before swine, the hostess retired, leaving Brian to furtively stuff rice back into his tortilla and cram it into his mouth before she could catch him. The exchange may not have been culturally sensitive (on either side), but I think it was the funniest dinner show I’ve ever seen.

And when combined with the fine two-liter bottle of Coke, it proved to be more than worthy of all the brass-plate endorsements I can imagine. What more could the discerning gourmet wish for?


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mixed Messages: T-shirt sighting of the day

One cute little freshman was wearing a black t-shirt. On the front, in white block letters, was ARMY.

On the back, at the very top, in small glittering gold script, was call me pusspuss.

I guess she's trying to tap that aggro-cute vibe. Or something.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Vocabulary mayhem

We gave an evaluation test to the incoming freshmen last week. Whereas many of them decided to leave certain questions blank, a few brave souls attempted to write sentences for the vocabulary words we gave them.

Some were successful. Others . . . well, others were successful in making me smile while grading this afternoon. Here are some gems of malapropism.

Sneak is a very dangerous animal.

Young people should not eat more sneaks.
(No, because that would be canabalism.)

This kind of sneak is very popular with students.

Nowdays, more and more young people are interested in sneak.

Don’t tube anybody.

Tube it right now!
(To tube, or not to tube . . . ?)

English is a very important curse to students.
(Hmmm . . . I’ll assume she meant course.)

My study life is very busy. I have many curses.

Finally, the doctor cursed the patient.

She accurated me because I didn’t open the window before I left.
(And this is an example of why English is just so tricky. I believe that the student accurately identified accurate as a synonym of correct. Correct, however, can be a verb, while accurate . . . well, you know the rest of that English lesson.)

I revive the cake happily.

I have revived the book.

In order to develop my English, we should revive my English after the class.

I want to ask my friend to tell me about the meaning of devastate.
(But I’m glad you didn’t—because that would be cheating.)


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair

There’s nothing after a hot day of climbing the Great Wall of China than to head back into town and get into a refreshing . . . train. Actually, I can think of several things more refreshing than a train, but since we were determined to see all of China’s cultural relics in as little time as possible, a train was what we got. Another overnight train, to be specific – this one from Beijing to Xi’an.

One of the things that Des and I really liked about our trip was that Beijing and Xi’an are, in many ways, the opposite of Shanghai: ancient, storied, and steeped in cultural history. Shanghai, by contrast, is a thoroughly modern metropolis with practically no history at all – it wasn’t even a walled city until 1553. Of course, it's got to mean something that one of the upstart young settlements in China is twice as old as some people's whole country.

The first amazing thing that we were taken to see was the famous Wild Goose Pagoda, built at the beginning of the 6th century by Empress Wu in honor of the monk Xuanzang. No doubt you’re nodding your heads in recognition right now. The Pagoda (so named because – no joke – a bunch of wild geese once flew by it) is actually a large compound containing not only the pagoda, but also a library, temple, art museum, interpretive center, some very nice bathrooms, and a few dozen Buddhist monks. It was all pretty enough, but I mostly spent a lot of time wandering around, looking at the extremely extensive embossed brass paneling that detailed the life and enlightenment of Xuanzang and trying to figure out what on earth was going on. So now he’s on an elephant – and who are these women with what look like laser beams shooting out of their heads? – and why is this guy on fire? If anyone from the Wild Goose Pagoda interpretive center is reading this, please! Put some of those signs in English!

As thrilling as the legendary Wild Goose Pagoda was, however, surely there can hardly be a greater artifact of Chinese cultural heritage than The Terra Cotta Soldiers™ (yes, I know, I said all the same stuff about the Wall last week. I’m telling you, that’s what it’s like to travel in China!). So famous are the crumbled members of this army that you can buy terra cotta warriors of all shapes and sizes virtually everywhere. In Xi’an, however, the marketing of these earthen individuals is particularly egregious. Before we could be taken to the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang and see the actual army which he actually ordered to be built for him, we first had to go to the Terra Cotta Soldiers™ Factory, from which millions of warriors, great and small, pour forth every year. Several thousand of those warriors, I estimate, were thrust under my nose to the shouted chorus of “Three dollar! Very nice!” As an aside, it’s always bad when you’re quoted prices in USD. Very bad.

Having escaped from the factory with my wallet unscathed, however, (much to the chagrin of the factory workers) we made our way to the tomb, which we learned is an active dig site where archaeologists (who must have had the day off when we were there) are busily extracting the remainder of the army. It was not really what I had expected, and though I very much enjoyed it, I suspect that Desiree was a bit disappointed. “I thought it would be underground,” she said more than once. “This is just like a big gym.” Which, in all fairness, it was. It was like a big, hot gym crowded with thousands of people and a few hundred priceless relics.

The warriors themselves, though rather farther away than I would have liked, were just as interesting as I had imagined. Indeed, the whole tomb was amazing – Qin Shi Huang (whom you may remember from earlier posts was the first emperor of unified China) ordered construction to begin the year after his ascension to the throne of the Qin kingdom, at the tender young age of 22, which seems to me to be a bit young to be pondering your ultimate demise. Maybe he was just morbid.

At any rate, it seems that one can have quite an impressive tomb built if one is willing to wait for thirty-six years. In fact, the only Qin building that rivaled his tomb was reputed to be his five-kilometer-long palace, which was unfortunately burned shortly after his death. The Terra Cotta guys aren't all of the mausoleum -- not by a long shot. It seems that Qin's actual resting place (the central mound of which the pottery army is only a fringe decoration) was built as a miniature replica of his earthly kingdom, complete with jeweled constellations studding the roof and flowing rivers of mercury. I was crushed to learn that this central tomb has not yet been excavated, although the archaeologists' scanning devices (X-rays, ultrasonic rays, Ouija boards, or who knows what) have given them some confidence that the tomb is undisturbed. Of course, the automated poison crossbow traps (not kidding) may have helped with that.

It is rather ironic, though, that a man as capable and ambitious as Qin Shi Huang should have met such an end. He survived numerous assassination attempts, but this king of kings, who was such a tyrant that he tried to burn all the books and execute all the scholars in all of China, apparently died from swilling mercury pills that his court doctors hoped would make him immortal.

Now, his big fancy tomb is swarmed every day by zillions of camera-wielding tourists and local entrepreneurs hoping to make a quick buck selling replicas of the replicas of the soldiers that he condemned to guard him for all eternity. Kind of funny, really.


Monday, August 25, 2008

What? No Escalator?!

After we left the Ming Tombs, our little group headed for that most famous symbol of the Orient: the Great Wall of China. I asked Samantha, our guide, how often she came to the Wall. "Two or three times a week," she replied. "And you climb it every time?" I asked. "No!" she responded with a short laugh. "I will be so tired!" I laughed too, little realizing that the joke was soon to be on me.

Like many of the great engineering feats of ancient China, the Wall was built over a long time; in fact, there have been several walls constructed at different periods in Chinese history. The most popular existing wall (the one you generally see in pictures) was built by the Mings, starting in the mid-15th century. Whether you're a history buff or not, though, the Great Wall is impressive -- extremely impressive. As is so often the case, pictures do not adequately convey the sense of size and weight that you feel when you stand at the base of the Wall, or the awe that washes over you when you realize that the little line running over the hills on the horizon is still the Great Wall.

(I pause to insert a myth-busting parenthesis here: claims that the Wall is visible from the moon are true only if you have had your eyes surgically enhanced with telescopes. It would be comparable to seeing a human hair from two miles away. It is possible to see the Wall from low Earth orbit. Barely. On a crystal-clear day. If you know exactly where to look.)

We went to the Badaling section of the wall. The gates there protected the Imperial capitol, Beijing, from invasion through a strategic mountain pass, and trust me, it would take some serious invading to get through that twenty-five foot high wall. If I'd been a barbarian, I would have just turned right back around and gone home. In fact, the thought crossed my mind as I gazed up -- and up and up -- at the stairs leading from the lowest gate to the first guard tower. Great Wall of China my foot. They should call it the Great Ladder of China. It seems incredible to me that armies, no matter what their condition, could have ever marched across the Wall. It's not that it's too narrow; on the contrary, it's about fifteen feet wide in most places. The problem is that it's ridiculously steep and completely uneven. The average height of a step is probably about double or triple that of a normal staircase like you might have in your home, but each stair is different. One will be six inches high, the next one two feet high, the next eighteen inches, and so on. The widths of the steps varies in a similar manner. Fortunately, the Chinese (not the Mings, but our present administration) have helpfully bolted a handrail to the Wall. This makes thing much easier, but is not always as useful as it may seem, since the steepness of the stairs means that the handrail is sometimes at knee height or lower for a tall man. And yes, I'm a tall man.

Don't get me wrong. The Wall is absolutely worth doing. But for a person with acrophobia, it's quite a feat to get down. Getting up is simply a matter of having enough leg power -- not a problem. Getting down is all about willpower.

As you may have guessed from the fact that I'm writing this post, however, I did make it down eventually. I rewarded myself with a bottle of water, which was available for quadruple the normal price, along with Great Wall t-shirts, Great Wall Commemorative Photos, Great Wall plushies, Great Wall keychains, and the ever-popular red star caps, which seems to show up nearly anywhere there are tourist stands.

Samantha popped up eventually, smiling and looking fresh. "Where were you?" I asked, wondering if there was some kind of lounge where tour guides chatted and sipped iced drinks while their clients dragged themselves, gasping and wheezing, up the worn flagstones of the Wall. "Over there," she replied, waving in the direction of a nondescript hillside. Considering that she'd been gone for three hours, I suspect that my original guess was correct. They probably have closed-circuit TVs in the lounge so that they can keep track of their tourists and take bets on which ones will plummet to their doom or be run over by those infuriating adventurer types who disdain the handrail and always seem to be descending at a run, leaping over three steps at a time like mountain goats and talking and laughing with their friends in some European language while they're doing it.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Brief Exercise in Historical Imagination (Beijing Continued)

By the dawning of our third day in Beijing, we knew the drill pretty well. We met Samantha in the lobby, and were soon on our way for the most important step of the tour -- getting all the tourists from the lobby. It took an hour and a half of driving around the city to retrieve our tour group, which consisted of a nice family of Austrians who didn't speak much english, and a nice family of English people who didn't speak any German, and us.

We started off at the Ming Tomb (actually one of multiple Ming Tomb sites; ours was the Chang Ling tomb). The centerpiece of the site was a gigantic marble stele inscribed with the name and deeds of the emperor. The stele was a dingy red color and covered with scratches and faded graffiti. Samantha caught my questioning look and said, "Yes, long ago this monument was white. During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards came here and tried to destroy it. They burned it and stained it red."

This is the kind of thing you hear a lot on a tour of China. For those of you who don't know much about Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution was a movement whose stated goal was "to rid China of its liberal bourgouise elements." In practical terms, it encompasses more or less a decade of violence, chaos, and destruction beginning in 1966, peaking in 1969, and (in most people's minds) ending with the arrest of four of its key proponents in 1976. Gangs of semi-legitimized thugs (the Red Guards) swarmed over the country closing schools, shutting down businesses, destroying relics of Chinese history, plundering people's belongings, and humiliating, beating, or killing those whom they decided were not sufficiently enthusiastic about the reign of the proletariat. As you may have guessed, the only sure-fire way to be sufficiently enthusiastic was to participate. Apart from the apalling human cost of the Cultural Revolution, many artefacts of China's unrivalled history were damaged or lost. Such as? Well, a home and temple compound was almost completely destroyed and its scrolls burned by a rampaging mob of students and staff from Beijing Normal University; it had belonged to a prominent ancient philosopher named Kong Fuzi. You may know him as Conficius.

So I wasn't surprised that the Red Guards had made an attempt on an imperial tomb. I did find it vaguely amusing, however (as I have at other places) that these thugs were so ineffective. Here's what apparently happened -- some young punks are hankering to go out and break things and hurt people (all in the name of revolution, naturally), and one of them says, "Hey! The tombs of those Ming oppressors are just a day's hike or so! Let's go smash 'em!" (of course, he said it in Chinese). His cohorts enthusiastically follow, and they kick the gates in, shouting revolutionary slogans and waving their revolutionary implements of destruction. They chop up the available woodwork and line up to spit on the imperial altar. Then they head for the stele -- it would be the most obvious target for destruction, since it's a twenty-by-five-by-ten slab of white marble. "Haha!" they shout, as they kick it and hack at it with their crowbars. "Take that, you capitalist-road filth! No-one will revere your memory any longer! Long live the rule of the people!" After about fifteen minutes, this gets a little old, and they decided to actually break the thing, not just take a few small chips out of it. "Ok, who brought the heavy equipment?" says the leader. "Ropes? Block and tackle?" Everyone looks around at each other and there's a long silence. "This pig isn't worth our time!" pipes up one of them eventually. "Let's just burn it!" A cheer goes up. They build a fire around the slab, scribble graffiti like WANG WAS HERE AND SPITS ON THE EMPEROR, sing a few revolutionary songs, and wander off in search of a doctor to beat up.

Ultimately, however, the most devastating rebuttal to the Cultural Revolution isn't a Canadian making fun of it; it's the fact that virtually no-one cares about the art and aesthetic of the Cultural Revolution, but millions of people (foreign and Chinese) pour into these sites every year to admire the splendor of those parts of Chinese heritage that endured every attempt to destroy them. History is not without a sense of irony.

But seriously, setting fire to a marble slab? That was dumb.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Beijing: Louis XIV was an amateur

Day two in Beijing began at the Guanzhou Hotel's breakfast buffet, where my father-in-law was anxiously waiting. Dad Werner is serious about food (when we were planning our wedding reception dinner, he told us that the meal had to be good, "because years later, nobody will remember who got married, but they'll remember the food."), and as we strolled out of the elevator, he trotted up to meet us.
"I came down here at 6:00 to check things out," he said confidentially. "They were just setting up, but they let me in to have a look. Seems like a real classy joint. Got a lot of Chinese food, though."
Dad was correct -- the joint was as classy as I could have wished for, and the food was delicious.

Our guide -- an endearing and informative girl named Samantha -- met us in the lobby and we soon found ourselves stepping out of the bus and into the back gate of the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City, palace of the Chinese emperors, sits in the middle of Beijing and was built over a period of fifteen years (starting in 1406) by more than one million workers. Its moat, walls, and 980 buildings(originally totaling 9,999 and a half rooms) cover an area of 720 hectares -- and that's just the palace area itself, not the three huge parks that border it on three sides.

Now let those numbers sink in for a moment. One. Million. Workers. That's roughly the same size as the entire U.S. Army. All in one place. For fifteen years. Building a home and an office. For one family.

The numbers don't really do it justice, either. The Forbidden City is absolutely colossal, and each imposing gateway or stunning courtyard vista seems to open onto another just like it. Samantha told us that more than 10,000 people lived in the palace during the height of the Qing dynasty. It was cool to imagine uniformed officials hurrying this way and that while soldiers drilled in the courtyards and tittering concubines pretended not to admire them. Since there were probably ten thousand tourists there, it wasn't too hard.

Our tour group was great. Aside from the five of us, there was a Romanian flight attendant on a day trip and a family of Canadians (from Calgary -- small world, huh?) exploring their Chinese heritage. The three little girls (Stephanie, Sandra, and Melissa) were adorable and, considering that our day consisted of six-ish hours of walking in the heat, very well-behaved. We were delighted to be able to speak in english to children after being in Shanghai with college students for four months, and as kids are wont to do, they came up with some real gems. "Wow!" exclaimed Sandra as she was shown a replica of a Qing emperor's silk ceremonial robe complete with gold embroidery. "That's a really big t-shirt!"

The little girls also seemed very pleased to learn that Desiree was my wife, and immediately set about pushing Brian and Lena (our Romanian flight attendant friend) into a similarly blissful state.
"Are you married too?" inquired five-year old Melissa as Lena and Brian were snapping photos of the Temple of Heaven. Upon being informed that they were not married, she opined thoughtfully, "Well, you look like you're married. Maybe you should get married."
"What a naughty girl you are!" retorted Lena, laughing.

The Imperial Summer Palace (a few miles up the road and our final destination for the day) was only slightly less impressive than the Forbidden City. Samantha ushered us through the gate and along a beautiful covered walkway, explaining that no-one but the emperor and those to whom he specifically gave permission were ever permitted inside the walls of the Imperial Palaces. As the walkway opened onto a beautiful view of a broad, placid lake bisected by a shaded causeway and ringed with verdant hills, I exclaimed, "This looks just like Hangzhou!" (Hangzhou is another ancient imperial center near Shanghai which we have visited before.)
"Yes," replied Samantha, "the emperor liked Hangzhou so much that he built the summer palace as a replica. The lake and the hills are man-made."
We are not talking about a small lake here, people. We crossed on a boat to an island in the center and it took us ten minutes.
"Wow," muttered Dad, an excavator by trade. "All with hand tools, too."

There were loud lamentations on the way back to the hotel when our little friends (the smallest of whom we had been taking turns to carry around all day) discovered that we were not going with them on the next leg of their trip.
"But I want to go with Desiree!" moaned Sandra, and grumped around the bus until she fell asleep.
Melissa contented herself with playing with my beard (quite a novelty, apparently, since her father didn't have one) while Stephanie asked each person in turn which animal they would like to be and why. She wanted to be a hippopotamus, herself, "because no-one would bother me. Actually, or maybe a turtle. Or a kitty cat."

We were sorry to see our new-found friends go, but comforted ourselves with ice cream and thoughts of the Great Wall to come. I was not entirely comforted, but it was probably because Dairy Queen was out of blackberry.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beijing: The Saga Begins

One of the most common questions that I get from inquisitive Chinese friends is, "Have you travelled in China?" I don't know if this is a formal question to which no real answer is expected (like "Have you eaten?" Now that can be confusing if you're not ready for it, since it sounds to North American ears like an invitation). Whether it is or not, I have always reluctantly answered "Not much . . . but someday soon I will!"

It was with great anticipation, then, that I peered through the window as we trundled out of the Shanghai Railway Station and commenced our ten-day, mostly-inclusive, fully-featured tour of China's Highlights. Desiree and I were accompanied by her parents (seasoned world travellers in their own right, though this was their first trip to Asia) and our friend and fellow teacher Brian.

The first leg of our trip was an eleven-hour train ride to Beijing, the capitol city of China. The train was a "soft sleeper" which departed at eight-thirty p.m. or so, and the plan was to sleep all night on the train and arrive in Beijing feeling fresh, happy, and ready for a day of sight-seeing. I was skeptical. No matter how soft the included beds may be, I am far taller and wider than the average Chinese citizen for which they were designed. I was pleasantly surprised, then, when the couch/beds on the train turned out to be just long enough for me to stretch out for a decent snooze. True, my slumber was more fitful than what I get from the average hotel bed, but the average hotel doesn't usually get up and walk 900 miles during the night.

We rolled into Beijing right on schedule, and as the train was slowing to a stop, an eager-looking young man with a backpack came jogging up alongside our carriage, banged on the window, and held up a sign with DAVID AND DESIREE TALBERT printed on it. He grinned widely and flashed us a thumbs-up. If his goal was to impress us, he had succeeded. Never before have I heard of someone being met by their local contact before the transportation they came in on had stopped moving.

The young man's name was Jeff, and he grabbed our bags and headed for the exit. Jeff was only our guide to and from the hotel, but he made up for it by talking non-stop all the while. His english was excellent, and while his topics of discussion were often politically incorrect to the point of being surreal, he was an engaging conversationalist. Jeff was widely read, especially in english-language newspapers and magazines, and he took a deep interest in discussing international politics as our driver weaved through traffic. He seemed particularly taken with the recent mortgage banking crisis in the US--something which (despite my background) I had not really followed with any interest--and he was not above cheerfully placing some personal blame at our feet for the recent downturn in his own fortunes. "I lost a lot of money in stock, you know," Jeff said, nodding sagely. "Thank you for that. The Chinese banks were together with the international banks, and they all lost money in your -- how to say it? -- housing. Your housing market. So now I am much poorer than before. Many Chinese are." I felt vaguely guilty, especially since he seemed to think that it was a conspiracy on the part of homeowning Americans to deprive Chinese citizens of their savings.

On the topic of the Olympics, Jeff was just as cavalier. "I am a guide, so I must work during the Olympics. But actually, I don't want to. It will be too crowded -- I would rather stay at home." Since those sentiments sum up my feelings on the Olympics exactly, I just nodded in agreement.

Jeff dropped us off at a plush hotel several blocks away from Tiananmen Square, wishing us well in our attempt to get to the Memorial in time to see Mao's body (in which attempt we failed), and took off, leaving us to our own devices.

Our own devices turned out to be a walking tour of Beijing that Desiree had printed out from an Internet site -- we tooled around a big lake where men were fishing with twenty-foot poles, saw a famous historical site of a famous historical person whose name I have already forgotten (though I do remember a line from the plaque in the garden: "This crabable tree was planted when here was a garden. Mrs. [Famous Historical Person] enjoyed make crab bubble preserves in her free time."), and watched some old people playing Turbo Nuclear Ping-Pong in a public exercise yard. We also stopped in and visited the home of a famous Beijing Opera performer. We were slightly disturbed that it took us ten minutes to figure out that this performer was, in fact, a man, rather than a woman.

After finishing our tour of Creepy Opera Thing's house, we immediately became lost (a crucial part of any holiday), and were saved by a passer-by who took pity on the four foreigners crowding around a map and arguing. She sent us to a nearby bus station and, as rain began to pour down on us, we finally set soggily out on the right path back to our hotel.

I concluded the day's exertions (somewhat dampened by the lack of solid sleep the night before) with a traditional McDonald's Chicken Sandwich, staggered into my room, and passed out with visions of the Forbidden City -- the next day's agenda -- dancing in my head.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

The End of the Semester: A Numerical Journey

June 20th to July 4th: the last two weeks of second semester two thousand eight

Final exams supervised: 3
Number of students caught cheating: 0
Number of students actually cheating: I will seriously pay you like fifty bucks to find out.
Number of words graded: 67,850
Average grade: Not high enough to make grading sixty-eight thousand words fun
Number of colleagues who helped grade multiple choice questions: 4
Amount of gratitude felt: 6x10^17
Number of wooden models of the Eiffel Tower given to us by students as parting gifts: 1

Birthday parties attended: 3
Weight of gourmet teppanyaki eaten at Matt's second birthday party (including reindeer and amphibian): 1.22 metric tonnes
Tab for said birthday party: A very large amount of RMB
Amount we paid: 0 RMB, thanks to Awesome Stephen The Awesome Guy of Awesomeness
Number of times I won Stephen's weird German boardgame: 1. I'm the king of the WORLD!
Number of times Matt was wrongfully executed during Mafia because of the prophetic indications of flourescent lighting: 1

Suitcases carried: 11
Hugs given: 6
Weepy moments: almost 1
Hours spent moping around in an empty dormitory building: 6
Colleagues who permanently left for the U.S.: 3
Large pairs of shoes that that the new people will have to fill: 3

Eras ended: 1


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Things You Don't Want To Hear As a Mock Job Interviewer (But That I Did . . .)

Me: What unit of the hospital do you prefer to work in?
Student 1: Surgical.
Me: Why?
S1: Because I like to see people's organs.
Me: Uhh . . . you what?
S1: I like to see the organs. It's very interesting.

So what position are you interested in at the hospital?
S2: This! (pointing to the line on her resume that says "Computer Programmer")
Me: You want to be a programmer?
S2: Yes, yes, yes!
Me: And you studied nursing?
S2: Yes!
Me: Exactly what are your career goals?
(much confusion . . . I explain this several times using different words)
S2: Oh, yes! I want to have a big shop.
Me: A shop?
S2: Yes! It will have many, many, many beautiful clothes!
Me: OK. Um, since you studied nursing, let me ask you what your idea of a good nurse is.
S2: If the patient is very poor, I will not take his money. I will treat him for free!
Me: Uh . . . great. We'll call you.

Me: What do you think is your greatest weakness?
S3: Sometimes, if I have a lot of work to do, and I think it's too hard for me, and I can't do it, I will get depressed.
Me: And how do you deal with that?
S3: Well, I eat a banana.
Me: A banana.
S3: Yes.
Me: And that works?
S3: Yes. It's very help me.

Me: So what kind of work experience do you have?
S4: I am . . . I work . . . I was . . . A-S-S-I-S-T-A-N-T. In shop.
Me: And why do you want to be a nurse?
S4: It is my . . . my . . . D-R-E-A-M.
Me: (smiling and nodding outwardly, weeping and gnashing teeth inwardly)

Dave (eating a banana)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Lessons from a Cricket

On Saturday afternoon, we had a miniature typhoon. It was one of those brief summer storms that build in the stifling air for four or five days in a row, and then explode in a quickly spent fit of rage. I was sitting in my room, chatting with Brian, one of the other teachers, and glanced outside when the rain began slamming against the walls and windows in sheets. It was an impressive display -- tiny whirlwinds scudding across the surface of the canal, trees bent double, farmhouses obscured by the downpour -- but I felt safe and warm inside, and so thought no more about it. Until I remembered my cricket.

Desiree, gripped with remorse for so cruelly imprisoning our pet, Qin Shi Huang, had urged me to release him. "He can't fly," I pointed out, "and what about all of the frogs that live near the fountain? He'll just get eaten if we let him go."

"Well, we can put him on the balcony," she suggested, brightening up. "That way, if he wants to go, he can, but it will be his choice." Indeed. I'm sure that Jean-Paul Sartre would have had a field day with a statement like that. We carried out her plan, however, and discovered that either by choice or incapacity, our little emperor never clambered over the threshold of the balcony to seek his fortune in the wide world. He seemed content to stroll around in circles, chirping the day away.

What would be his plight, however, in such a terrible storm? If he was knocked over by a gust of wind, he might not be able to right himself, and he would die. I went to the window and peered out, searching for my pet and not finding him. I was just on the point of going outside when I spotted him, huddling up under the air condition on the lee side of the balcony in the only dry spot still remaining. Ah, good, I thought to myself. He's OK.

But scarcely had I taken my seat and resumed my conversation when I remembered that little Qinny Qin Qin would most certainly not be OK. The balcony was equipped with a drain, which was located on the same side as the air conditioner. Well and good, except that the drain was prone to clogging. I had gone outside after previous storms to find the entire balcony under an inch of water. And if a human child can drown in two inches' worth, how much would it take to kill my cricket?

I bounded again to the window and saw that my worst fears were being realized -- the drain was already backing up, and Qin's six little legs were churning furiously, trying to keep him pressed up against the wall and away from the water. "Quick!" I shouted to Brian, "I need a cage -- a cup -- something!" My glance fell upon a decorative tin of tea that had been given to us by a student, and I scooped it up. Pulling the foil-wrapped packet of tea out of the box and throwing it on the desk, I open the balcony door and stepped out into the downpour. I could see a wave of water (a small wave, true, but it looked big enough compared to Qin Shi Huang) sloshing across the tiles toward the little insect, and crying out "Don't worry, cricket! I'll save you!" I thrust the open tea tin underneath the air conditioner. Maybe I was lucky, or maybe the cricket had an inkling of the seriousness of his situation, but he scrambled into the tin without any further urging, and I retreated inside, slamming the sliding door behind me.

I thought about that rescue operation later, after the storm had passed and my cricket was once again scrambling around on dry ground. It occured to me that I am very much like that cricket in many ways. I found myself in a helpless position. I had no more ability to protect myself than that poor flightless cricket did to escape the rising water. Not only that, but neither of us even realized the extent of the trouble we were in. But just when I needed help most, Someone far, far above me reached out of the storm and called, "Don't worry! I'll save you!" Just like Qin Shi Huang, I was rescued. But in my case, I was rescued from the domain of darkness, and placed, not on a dry balcony, but into the kingdom of a glorious Son.

If that's the only thing that I learn from having this cricket, he will have been worth his weight in gold.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

T-Shirt Sighting for May 21st, 2008

Sometimes I see a shirt that looks like it's trying to say something serious and edgy, but doesn't quite succeed.

A student yesterday was wearing a tee upon which were three leering skeletons, partly green and partly white. Each was wearing a helmet and gripping a weapon in its bony fingers -- one had an AK-47, another a grenade, and the third . . . was a bit indistinct, actually. Underneath this grim scene, in dripping letters, was the hard-hitting phrase "WE ARE RGHFY?"

And people say that the counter-cultural movement is dead.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Sentences Encountered Whilst Grading Today

"Don't fudge a book by its cover." (If you must add something to the fudge, go for walnuts instead.)

"True love is from the bottom of the heard." (but all I can think of is 'herd')

"She is a chop off of the old mother." (Feebly grasping at 'chip off of the old block.')

"I feel that Chinese nursing techniques are pay attention to modality and most nurses are very striped-pants." (She isn't talking about uniforms, I don't think . . .)

"The rain in the spring is mizzle, like a smile." (This reminds me of one from my last test. I asked the student to write a sentence using the word 'grocery.' She wrote, "In fact, the Egypt is grocery." Which is pretty awesome, frankly.)

"Driving car is different [from riding a bicycle], you just need to sit there and use your hand to control the steering wheel, after a long time, fats deposited on your abdomen." (Want to lose weight? Stay away from steering wheels!)

"The main body [of a business] is made up by members who are the main driveling force that makes plans into reality." (Having worked in business for a while, I couldn't agree more.)

"When students have a terrible test, their minds will be exchanged." (Which, in some cases, might be advantageous to their grades.)


Friday, May 16, 2008

Invention of the Year

It's nearing mosquito season here in Shanghai. In the States I never thought much about this rather annoying time of year because usually it simply meant borrowing a little insect repellent from a friend at the occasional backyard barbecue or outdoor ice-cream party.

But here, it's quite a different matter. Last year, our office became a favorite hangout for a pretty hefty percentage of the local population, and what I always considered a nuisance evolved into a major problem when I left my office after a long night of work and discovered dozens and dozens of bites on my legs. (The next day, I counted 57 bumps on one leg alone.) My mom always said I had sweet blood that attracted the horrible beasts, but the real problem is this: there are no window screens in China. Combine that with the fact that they have this thing for fresh air and that air conditioners aren't quite as prevalent, and you've got a blood-donation center and insect sanctuary right here in our building.

Enter my new best friend: the electric mosquito racket. This clever little tool—unheard of in America, illegal in Australia—is readily available on the streets of Shanghai. And when he left, our dear friend Elijah passed along his to us. If I see one of these vampiric monsters, I just grab my trustee racket and start swinging. The best part is that when I make contact with the little beast, there is a very satisfying spark and a popping sound (and occasionally a small trail of smoke) to signal the end of his parasitic existence.

Once I stock up on AA batteries, I'll be completely ready to battle the vicious horde.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My kingdom for a carrot!

Qin Shihuang was the first emperor of unified China following the Warring States Period. He is also my pet. Sometimes I push bits of carrot through the bars of his cage and watch him hungrily stuff them into his mouth. Occasionally he will pause and look up at me, but I'm not really sure what he's thinking. I'd guess from the way that he twitches his antenna that he's happy.

Qin Shihuang is my cricket -- or perhaps my locust; we're not entirely sure. Des returned from a day trip with some students two weeks ago and told me that she had bought a present for me. "Cool!" I said. "I didn't realize you were going anywhere near the electronics market! How did you know what CPU socket to get?" "Ha, ha," she replied without apparent mirth. "Here it is!" She drew from behind her back a small wooden cage in which was what appeared to be a dessicated insect corpse.

"Is it glued to the bottom of the cage?" I asked, thinking that this might represent another of my wife's forays into traditional Chinese art (albeit a rather less beautiful one than I've become used to). Then the corpse rolled over and waved its legs in the air.

Apparently, she bought it from a cricket dealer. Cricket fighting is still something of a hobby among older Chinese men, and the passengers on the bus during her return trip to the school peppered her with questions about where she bought it and how much she paid for it, no doubt marvelling at this foreign woman's discernment in obtaining such a fine specimen of insectoid fury. I imagine that this would be rather like a good old boy seeing a sari-clad Indian matron climbing into the driver's seat of a NASCAR racer -- yet another one of our multicultural experiences.

I thought the name was suitably martial, but I haven't asked my students about the propriety of naming a simple insect after the founder of the Qin dynasty (and pretty much everything that came after). He came in a cute-looking traditional wooden cage, but it was pretty small, and Des fretted that he would wither away in it. "It's so tiny!" she wailed. "He doesn't have any room to move around!" "He's a cricket," I countered, "he doesn't even have a brain!" A fierce debate ensued about whether or not he did and did it even matter and crickets have rights too, mister. A few hours later we had established that A) crickets do indeed have brains, albeit small ones and B) we would be moving him into a suitably roomy new cage.

After some searching, Des discovered an old basket with a wire bottom that, when turned upside-down, provided a fine enclosure for the little conqueror. "He doesn't have anything to play with," she fretted after observing him for a few minutes. "He's bored. I need to find some toys for him!" Her first attempt to create a cricket playground consisted of a heavy ceramic teacup that she placed on its side. Though initially promising, this had two disadvantages: first, Qin Shihuang showed no interest whatsoever in it, and secondly, the cup rolled when the cage was moved. Des nearly crushed the poor guy to death the first time she tried to feed him. Her second innovation -- a plastic toy dug out of a box somewhere -- has been much more succesful.

So what does the cricket do, you ask? Well, mostly he sits there in his cage, staring vacantly into space. Maybe he's hungry. Perhaps he's meditating. For all I know, he could be contemplating suicide: If only I had opposable thumbs and a really small rope and vertebrae, I could end this torment! The only really interesting thing that he does is chirp -- so loudly, in fact, that we move him to another room when we're sleeping.

My guess, though, is that he's inherited a little bit of his namesake's ambition, and he's eyeing the rest of the room for his empire. After all, a new Qin dynasty has to start somewhere.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

T-Shirt Sightings May 8, 2008

A white t-shirt with the stylized image of some type of animal, possibly a dog or a cat or a camel on both the front and the back. To the left of the image on the front were the words . . . well, at least, were the following characters:
L@@K 8
(and below these in giant star-spangled letters)

Another student was wearing a black long-sleeved tee with an adorable cartoon monkey dozing under a tree. Her shirt bore this inscription:
wrhkj fbjgkl ferwu csdc


Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Truth about American "Chinese Food"

Did you know that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined?

Did you know that Fortune Cookies originated in America?

For more fun facts about Chinese food in America, read this very funny excerpt (taken from the Reader's Digest website) from the book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. If you have some time, read it. And if you like it, you can buy the book or visit her blog.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
Why is Chinese food so all-American? One woman's delicious discoveries.
By Jennifer 8. Lee

A Winner
At 8:30 a.m., the state of Tennessee had a Powerball winner waiting for the prize office to open its doors. James Currie worked the night shift as a systems operator at Pinnacle Foods, parent company of the Duncan Hines and Aunt Jemima brands. He lived in Jackson and dreamed of buying a Cadillac. Now, at the lottery office in Nashville, he was holding a set of winning numbers—28, 39, 22, 32, 33 and final number 40—which had been drawn in the multistate Powerball lottery the night before.

The office staff asked Currie how he had selected his numbers.

"From a fortune cookie," he replied.

He had been using birthday and anniversary dates, he explained, but then he switched to a fortune cookie number. He'd gotten it from a Chinese take-out restaurant near his home called Dragon 2000. He'd had a good feeling about those numbers.

At 11:18 on that same morning of March 31, 2005, another winner, in Idaho, reported using a fortune cookie number. Same with Minnesota at 12:06 p.m. and Wisconsin at 12:09 p.m. From coast to coast, across the 29 states that participated in Powerball, officials heard the tale over and over, though the details were different. They had gone to a Chinese restaurant. It was take-out. It was sit-down. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet. It was lunch. It was dinner. It was where they ate out with colleagues during the week or took their families on weekends. And at the end of the meal, the winning number had been found in a fortune cookie they'd cracked open themselves.

Reading this story one morning on the New York City subway, I perked up. The March 30 Powerball had an unusually large number of winners—110 in all—many due to fortune cookies. There are roughly 43,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, more than the number of McDonald's, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. And I'm obsessed with them.

Like many Americans, I first discovered Chinese restaurants in my childhood. I grew up during the 1980s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Broadway is sometimes called Szechuan Alley for the density of Chinese restaurants along it. My parents had first settled in the area when my father was studying for his PhD in math at Columbia University. Because my mom never learned to drive, our family never moved out of the city.

My siblings and I are known as ABCs—American-born Chinese. We're also known as bananas (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) and Twinkies (which has more of a pop culture ring to it). There are a lot of inside jokes among immigrant families. My family even has one embedded in the children's names. My parents named me Jennifer, my sister is Frances, my brother is Kenneth. If you string together our first initials, you get JFK, which, my parents tease, is the airport they landed at when they first came to America.

My parents arrived here courtesy of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which opened the doors to educated and skilled workers like my father and dramatically shifted the balance of immigration away from Europe. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea and India stood ready to offer the best products of their meritocratic educational systems.

My mom took care of the home and did most of the cooking, while my father worked on Wall Street. But like many families in our area, we'd order Chinese take-out when she was too busy to cook. As a girl, I would run down to the neighborhood restaurant with a crisp $20 bill in my pocket. Barely tall enough to see past the counter, I'd solemnly order dishes from the big white menu, using the Chinese names that my mom had taught me. (Without exception, the vocabulary words that Chinese American kids—and immigrant kids in general—know best are related to food.)

Then I'd lug home my treasure: a plastic bag of steaming, generously stuffed trapezoidal white cartons. Our family gathered around the table and pulled out the boxes, each one bursting with potential. Would it be the amber-colored noodles of roast pork lo mein? The lightly sweetened crispiness of General Tso's chicken nestled in a bed of flash-cooked broccoli? Or the spicy red chili oils of mapo tofu? Each untucking of the lid released a surge of aroma and a sight to spark the appetite.

Out came the chopsticks, and we'd douse the virginal white rice with steaming sauces, simmered soy sauce, piquant vinegar, slivers of ginger and fragrant garlic. The Chinese food begged to be mixed together: sweet, sour, salty and savory flavors layering upon one another. Then we'd break open the crunchy fortune cookies for the message inside, rarely eating the cookie. The cheerfully misspelled but wise words of the fortune cookie sages gave me comfort. My parents' bookshelves were lined with Chinese philosophical classics like the Analects of Confucius and the I Ching. For a girl who could not untangle the thicket of Chinese characters in those opaque and mysterious books, the little slips of insight represented the distillation of ancient Chinese wisdom.

It Can't Be True!
Then came a shocking revelation.

Fortune cookies weren't Chinese.

It was like learning I was adopted. How could that be? I had always fervently believed in the crispy, curved, vanilla-flavored wafers with the white slips inside.

It was in middle school, while reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, that I first became aware of the mass deception. In one of Tan's tales, two Chinese women find jobs in a San Francisco fortune cookie factory, where one is utterly perplexed to learn that the cookies and their cryptic messages are considered Chinese.

I asked my mom if she had known all along that fortune cookies weren't Chinese. She shrugged. She said when she first got to the United States from Taiwan, she'd assumed they were from Hong Kong or mainland China. China is a large and fractured place. She had never been to mainland China.

Neither had I.

The Americanness of fortune cookies hit home a few years later, in a 1992 front-page story in The New York Times with the headline "A Fortune Will Greet You in an Endeavor Far Away." The article announced that Brooklyn-based Wonton Food planned to sell fortune cookies in China. It added that in Hong Kong, the cookies were already marketed as "genuine American fortune cookies."

The Americanness of fortune cookies should have served as a hint of what else I was to learn about Chinese food. Only now, looking back, do I find it obvious. As a child, I never considered it strange that the food we ordered from Chinese restaurants didn't quite resemble my mom's home cooking. My mom used white rice, soy sauce, garlic, scallions and a wok. But she never deep-fried chunks of meat and drenched them with rich, flavorful sauce. She cooked with ingredients that were pickled and dried and of strange shapes and that never appeared on the take-out menu.

Her kitchen was filled with jars and bags of all sorts of unusual things: white fungus, red beans, pungent black mushrooms, porous lotus roots. She used preserved foods: eerily translucent eggs, spicy pickled bamboo shoots, vinegared mustard greens. Her dishes involved bones and shells, boiled garlic shrimp, chicken feet.

At the seafood stores in Manhattan's Chinatown, my parents would pick through the bins of live crabs, sluggish but still menacing to a wide-eyed six-year-old girl. We would haul the writhing creatures back home and deposit them in the kitchen sink. Then, in my mother's wok, we would steam the life out of them, their waving pincers gradually slowing to a halt. The Chinese holistic approach to crab was not the sanitized, edited version of Red Lobster. Our crabs burst forth with weird colors and textures.

The goopy orange paste, called gao, was the best part, my mom said. My parents were always annoyed when we went to the "real Chinese restaurants" in Flushing, Queens, and I asked for beef with broccoli and lo mein. (Broccoli is not a commonly used Chinese vegetable.) My parents inevitably ordered dishes that had eyeballs, like steamed whole fish with ginger and scallions; my siblings and I turned up our noses at the bitter hot tea. My parents were exasperated. They had thrown their children into a pool of cultural heritage in America: Chinese camp, Chinese chorus, Chinese martial arts, Chinese folk dancing. (Perhaps 90 percent of all Chinese American girls have twirled a silk ribbon at some point in their lives.) Yet on the issue of food, our taste buds were firmly entrenched. My parents groused about our inability to appreciate "real Chinese food."

I never really understood what "real Chinese food" meant until I went to China. Years of study in Chinese Saturday school, daily classes in college and a semester in Taiwan had opened up the world of the dense, opaque characters of my mother's books. China was a foreign country to me, but one where I happened to speak the language. I spent my fellowship year studying in Beijing, but in reality I educated myself by traveling cross-country from the deserts of Inner Mongolia to the lakes of Sichuan to the peaks of Tibet. Alongside the McDonald's and KFCs that penetrate China's core, I encountered a variety of cuisines that were more akin to my mom's cooking than the ones of America's Chinese restaurants.

I began spitting bones out onto the table and drinking watery soup after a meal to wash it down. I even drank hot tea—no fortune cookies to be found. I began to roll my eyes at the take-out Chinese food I had grown up with; it wasn't authentic.

Tracing a Cookie Trail
As interesting as the local food was to me, I was interesting to the locals. You could see their minds processing: She looks perfectly Chinese, she speaks Chinese perfectly, but something is amiss. Perhaps it was the way I moved, the way I dressed, the way I laughed. I wasn't, they felt, of China. Hong Kong? Taiwan? they asked. "I'm American," I explained.

Their reply: "No, you're Chinese. You were just born in America."

I thought, Maybe the same thing was true of Chinese food back home: It's Chinese. It just happened to be born in America.

Or maybe the truth was closer to this: It's American. It just happens to look Chinese.

That morning on the subway as I read about the Powerball winners, people swarmed around me as usual. I wondered, How many had eaten Chinese food in the last week? How many had read their fortunes and saved their favorites? How many might have played the lottery with those lucky numbers? I was entranced by the idea that so many people took that same leap of faith on March 30 and played the identical numbers from a fortune cookie.

Right then and there, I decided to track the winners back to where they'd eaten. Following the Powerball fortune cookie trail, I believed, would help me understand why nearly every one of us has a go-to Chinese restaurant in our lives. (Yes, you could charitably describe me as passionate about Chinese food, though I'll admit that the line between passion and obsession is a wobbly one.)

Within hours, I identified one of the Powerball restaurants, Lee's China, in Omaha, Nebraska. I looked up the number online and dialed. A woman picked up.

I started out by introducing myself in Mandarin Chinese. I received the telephone equivalent of a blank stare.

I switched to basic Cantonese.

More blankness.

I tried English.

The woman cut me off. "We're Korean," she said in a thick accent.

And she hung up.

Over the next year, I compiled a list of the Powerball restaurants and winners, drew up an itinerary and began a consuming journey that crisscrossed the country. By the end, I had visited 42 states. I had driven cars until bugs splattered across my windshield like egg whites dropped in soup. I'd taken red-eye flights, pulled all-nighters driving on interstate highways, stewed on buses for 23 consecutive hours and crashed in the relative air-conditioned comfort of Amtrak trains.

At the end of my travels, I had many ponderous food-related thoughts along with a well-tended stomach. I also had this, delivered as if it were a deep insight: "Do you know how to tell if it's a good Chinese restaurant?" people would ask. Then they'd lean over conspiratorially and say, "Look inside the window. See how many people eating there are Chinese."

Monty McCarrick, a truck driver from Wyoming with a long black ponytail and a receding hairline, called his wife, Joyce, from Iowa, where he'd stopped during a trip across the country.

"Are you sitting down?" asked Monty, whose right arm is marked with a tattoo of an American flag.

"You wrecked the truck," Joyce said anxiously.

No, he crowed. They'd won $100,000 in Powerball.

Two months earlier, they had gone to their favorite Chinese restaurant, in Powell, Wyoming (population 5,000-plus). There, Monty found his lucky numbers in a fortune cookie. Five weeks later, he bought the fateful ticket in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on his way to Ohio.

I dropped by the McCarricks' home, a modest one-bedroom apartment they shared with their cat, Coco, who sometimes accompanied Monty on his road trips. The couple's most valuable asset was their extensive Elvis memorabilia until Monty won the Powerball drawing. They paid off $20,000 in credit card debt.

In Monty's drives across the country, Chinese restaurants were reliable, accessible eating establishments. "They are pretty much in every town you go to," he told me. "And they're fairly inexpensive. You get all you want to eat for anywhere between five and seven dollars." What's nice, he noted, is how predictable they are. "You get the sweet-and-sour pork, the lo mein noodles and the egg foo yong. It's pretty tasty."

He explained that there are some exceptions, like egg rolls. But for Monty, the predictability is reassuring. "I don't like a lot of change. I'm a simple person."

Louisiana had two of the 110 Powerball winners, but, more important, it had Cajun Chinese food. When informed of my quest, a colleague told me I should visit Trey Yuen Cuisine of China, in Mandeville, outside New Orleans, to try dishes like Szechuan alligator and soy-vinegar crawfish. Trey Yuen had been serving Szechuan alligator since the late 1970s, shortly after alligator meat became legal. It was one of the more popular dishes.

Trey Yuen was owned by five brothers named Wong, whose great-grandfather had taken a boat to San Francisco in the late 19th century, seeking work. The brothers traveled across the states, working in Chinese restaurants, until they found the opportunity to open the original Trey Yuen. Their mother used to tell them, "You guys are like my five fingers. Individually, you are not very strong. Together"—she would form a fist—"you are solid." Together, the five brothers have owned their restaurants for more than 35 years.

Trey Yuen's Szechuan alligator dish ended up being light-colored chunks of meat mixed with ginger, garlic and crushed pepper. The alligator looked like cooked chicken but tasted surprisingly springy and tender. "I call it bayou veal," said Tommy Wong, the fourth of the five brothers, in a Texas twang. "Some people are squeamish about trying alligator," he added. Of course, he eventually does tell those who dine on bayou veal the truth—"after they've eaten it."

Tommy showed me a plate of raw chicken lying next to a plate of raw alligator. I would not have been able to distinguish between them if it weren't for the fact that the alligator meat came in long, pale strips. "See how nice and lean it is, and clean. High in protein," said Tommy.

Chinese cooking isn't a set of dishes, I was discovering. It's a philosophy that serves local tastes and ingredients. That idea continued to reverberate as I encountered creations like cream cheese wontons (also called crab Rangoon) in the Midwest and Philly cheesesteak rolls (egg rolls on the outside, cheesesteak inside) in Philadelphia. Chinese food, it seemed, does not have to originate in China.

And some so-called Chinese restaurants are not even Chinese. In the early days before P.F. Chang's became known as a national chain, customers would genially ask how Mr. Chang was doing. There is no Mr. Chang. The "P.F." stands for Paul Fleming, a creator of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and the founding visionary of Chang's restaurant chain.

As American as Chinese Food
In Rhode Island, home to five of the Powerball winners, I stopped at a century-old eatery in Woonsocket called Chan's Egg Roll and Jazz. In its latest incarnation, the owner, John Chan, had turned it into a nightclub featuring prominent jazz acts. This part of New England features the fabled chow mein sandwich, a subject of study for Professor Imogene Lim, a Canadian who speaks better Swahili than Chinese.

I dragged along my friend Lulu, a girl whose doe eyes and round cheeks make her appear like a thinly disguised anime character. Though born in China and raised mostly in Hong Kong, Lulu speaks flawless English. Her parents, both lawyers, still live in Beijing, but she spent most of her academic career in English-language schools—mostly in Hong Kong, as well as a brief period in New York City. When she was six years old, she glimpsed her parents' green cards with their photos and "resident alien" stripped along the top. At the time, Star Trek: The Next Generation was popular, so the idea of extraterrestrials was in her head. Are my parents aliens? she thought in shock. Her parents snatched the cards away.

When the chow mein sandwiches were set in front of us, Lulu looked at them with a combination of mock horror and genuine fascination. Trapped between two pieces of white Wonder bread was a crunchy pile of fried Chinese noodles slathered in a brown gravy flecked with bits of celery and onion. It was moist and soft and crunchy. Lulu giggled. We weren't sure how to approach it. The gravy had softened the bread, making it too messy to pick up with our hands. I attempted to attack mine with a knife and fork. Lulu plucked the crispy noodles out of the bread. It wasn't bad; the gravy gave the sandwich a lot of flavor, and the textural mix of crunchy noodles, sodden bread and flavored liquid was intriguing. In some other life, we might even have thought it was good. But that day, we couldn't get our minds around the idea of a starch-on-starch sandwich.

I learned that for many people, though, the chow mein sandwich captured memories of growing up: Mom's home cooking. Hanging out after school. Flirting. First dates. The sandwich evoked both family and friends. Locals even shipped the mix overseas, unleashing the force of the chow mein sandwich on foreign soil. And during the first Gulf War, in '91, residents sent chow mein mixes to local men who were serving abroad.

When I heard these stories, I was reminded of a phone conversation I'd had after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I was in Washington, D.C., and a number of my friends had been swept up in the historic journey: cynical journalists, idealistic nation builders, mercenary contractors.

Many of these people informed me of the two improvised Chinese restaurants that had popped up next to the landing pad of a military hospital in the Baghdad Green Zone, a ten-minute stroll north of Saddam Hussein's palace. The restaurant in the back was slightly more popular because patrons figured it would be less likely to be damaged by an insurgent attack from the street.

These Chinese restaurants in Baghdad had neither Chinese nor Arabic on their menus, only English. And though the Chinese restaurateurs had never been to the States, they certainly knew how to attract large crowds with American-style offerings like sweet-and-sour pork and panfried dumplings.

Among those friends of mine who had been deployed to Iraq was Walter, a foreign service officer who resembles a bookish version of James Dean. We would chat by phone (his cell phone in Baghdad had a 914 area code, as if he were only just north of New York City, in Westchester County). In one of our conversations, I wondered aloud why the Chinese restaurants were so popular with my friends in Iraq when, after all, diners in the Middle East should indulge in the authentic local cuisine of kebabs and hummus.

"It's a taste of home," Walter responded. Even against the whirl of medevac helicopters, Chinese food had become a beacon for American patriots. "What could be more American than beer and take-out Chinese?" he added.

Favored cuisines become refuges in times of crisis. On September 11, 2001, my friend Daniel and his friends, after their high school classes were canceled and they learned that their parents were all safe, headed to a local Chinese restaurant called Chop Stix, in Scarsdale, New York. Together they watched the news and ate stir-fry. Chinese food was comfort food for them. It was something predictable and familiar when they needed an anchor in an explosion of uncertainty.

I reflected on my journeys to numerous Powerball restaurants across the country. American Chinese food is readily available and has a broad appeal to our national palate. It's something that nearly every one of us has grown up with—both young and old. I marveled that on a single day, Chinese food had united so many different people from different parts of this country: a schoolteacher in Tennessee, a farmer-veterinarian in Wisconsin, a microbiologist in Kansas, a police sergeant from New Mexico, retired septuagenarian snowbirds from Iowa, a bank clerk from South Carolina, a salesman from New Hampshire.

Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie.

But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Apparently, "Not To Be"

Yesterday, while making my way through the crowds of people enjoying May Holiday (or International Labor Day) at Qibao, a small but festive Shanghai neighborhood with traditional architecture and lots of small shops and food stands, I saw a t-shirt.

It was a women's t-shirt hanging in a small clothing stand. Hot pink, with large black letters, it screamed "WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE."

Maybe the designers ran out of space. Or maybe they are answering an age old question. We may never know.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mang Guo Bu Hao! (Bad Mango!)

I have a fondness for exotic fruit. And many fruits that are either unavailable or extremely pricey in the States are quite affordable here in the PRC. Things like papya, dragon fruit, and mango.

I love mango. If it’s one of the options when ordering a smoothie, icecream, or yogurt, it’s usually the favored fruit. (I have particularly fond college memories of making my own mango smoothie whenever I worked a shift at Spill the Beans.) Mango salsa, mango chutney, mango pocky sticks—I have yet to meet a mango I didn’t like.

But last week, I found a mango that really didn’t like me. Or a part of the mango, to be more specific.

It all started when we were invited to have dinner at the home of one of my students. We went to her house on Saturday around 10:00, watched a short outdoor display of singing and dancing in her apartment complex (it seemed to be some kind of show to celebrate and promote recycling), and then pretty much feasted Chinese-style until about 2:00.

For those of you unfamiliar with this custom, let me elaborate. We entered their lovely apartment at around 11:00 and were immediately ushered to the living room, where there was a very nice display of fruit, nuts, chocolates, and tiny elaborately decorated cakes on the coffee table. They poured us some orange juice, and we ate small amounts of the beautiful spread of food, knowing that this was just the appetizer.

In about 20 minutes or so, it was time to begin the real meal. We moved about 8 or 9 feet over to the dining table and sat next to my student and her classmate who had come to join us. Her parents, however, immediately disappeared into the kitchen. They were our chefs and were required in the kitchen. On the table, there were about five small bowls of food (in traditional Chinese meals, you eat small portions of many different dishes). Each place was set with a tiny bowl (used as a small rest stop for your food as it travels from the main bowl and then into your mouth), chopsticks, and a small plate (used not for food but for leftovers—things like bones and shells that you must discard*).

For the next hour or so, her parents brought out dish by dish of what ended up being a 15-dish meal. I’ll try to give you a quick run down of all the delicious food we ate:
• unknown green vegetable (a finely chopped spinach like vegetable with what appeared to be equally finely chopped mushrooms)
• beef (finely sliced with sauce)
• fish #1 (small dried whole fishes that looked rather scary but ended up being one of my favorite dishes)
• salad (basically an interesting mix of potatoe salad with a bunch of mayo)
• chicken #1
• fish #2 (large whole fish cooked in a sauce)
• baby bok choy (the favorite green vegetable in China)
• chicken #2 (fabulous BBQ wings--her father’s specialty)
• mushroom soup (a basic broth with about four different kinds of mushrooms)
• shrimp (the biggest and best I’ve every tasted--cooked in some kind of divine sauce)
• rice
• broiled mushrooms
• unknown vegetable-like seafood
• desert “soup” (don’t know any other word for it) with small glutinous rice balls
• more fruit (eaten at the end of most meals as it is believed to aid in digestion)

It was an amazing meal. Her parents are truly talented cooks (not their profession but their hobby). At the very end of the meal, they came in and sat at the end of the table and ate just a few items from the table, all the while making sure that we had eaten our fill. This was a particularly good time to be with our friend and fellow teacher, Matt, who seems to be a bottomless pit when it comes to food. The family happily watched as he continued to eat even after most of us had become full.

We left the table, but that didn’t mean it was the end of the food. Remember that beautiful spread on the coffee table? Well, as we headed back into the living room to talk and watch a little TV, the family continued to offer us delicious things to eat. I was able to avoid most of the post-dinner offers, but after about a half an hour, I finally succumbed to the offer of a delicious mango. My students even taught me a new way to eat it (because, after all, the trouble of getting the mango off its pit and out of its skin was the main thing that kept me from eating mangos all of the time).

Many Chinese eat mangos by peeling them with their fingers (actually quite a simple task, and less messy than it sounds) and then biting into them directly. My students peeled half of the fruit, ate it, and then peeled the rest. So I did the same.

And that, was my big downfall. But of course I didn’t know the danger I had exposed myself to at the time (namely, mango skin**). I happily ate the fruit, and as we left the house her mother insisted on putting all of the other mangos in a bag for me to take home. So later that night, I ate another mango (Chinese-style), and the next day, I ate one at every meal (didn’t want them to go bad, you know).

On Monday, I had a small blister on one corner of my mouth, and by Wednesday, I had puffy itchiness all the way up to my left eyebrow. Thankfully, I have an entire staff of wonderful nurses on call here at the school (thanks, ladies!), and on Friday I was able to go to the doctor and get a prescription for steroids and powerful antihistamines. My face is pretty much back to normal now. The down side is that I need to avoid mangos in the future (at least the skin, anyway). But on the positive side, I got to give my students a really good example of some vocabulary I taught them: allergy, allergic, and allergic reaction.


*In our experience, the main difference between Chinese food and Western food is that Chinese chefs rarely debone or shell any of the meat before cooking or serving. Most food requires the diner to put it into her mouth (or hold with chopsticks) and attempt to eat around the bones and shells. The most difficult things to eat are chicken and shrimp. While Americans often use chopped chicken breast in a stir fry, Chinese cooks will simply chop all parts of the chicken, leaving the meat firmly attached to the bones. I have seen Chinese people stick most of a whole shrimp into their mouths and then spit out all of the extra parts. It is truly an amazing feat that seems quite beyond me. Most of the time, I try to order things that are cut up very small and seem to have already been separated from the bones.

**I found out later that most people who are allergic to mango are allergic to the skin, not the fruit itself. The mango tree is actually related to the poison sumac family. Very interesting stuff, really. As long as it doesn’t affect you personally by making your face blow up into a huge mass of itchiness.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Culture of Cute

As I walk around Shanghai, I’m struck by the subtle (and not so subtle) differences in fashion. Although you can find outfits that are more traditionally Asian (especially silk jackets for children and older women), there are two trends that are much more noteworthy.

The first notable difference is that, while American fashion seems to have run full-force back into the late 80s and early 90s, youth fashion in China never really left them. My analysis is based on photos I’ve seen from the past few decades as well as what I see every weekend in the subway station: spiky hair, stiletto heels, chunky metal accessories everywhere, bright colors and tight jeans (again, with metal accessories). The young men here seem to especially embrace these fashions, and more than once, sitting on the bus, I’ve said to myself, “Wow. That boy looks a lot like Edward Scissorhands!”

The second fashion creates a very strange juxtaposition. I call it The Culture of Cute. In downtown Shanghai, in a city that boasts sophistication equal to that of New York City, it’s not uncommon to see women carrying small, pink items one would imagine created specifically for junior high girls. The best example is Hello Kitty.

I’ve seen a Hello Kitty bobble head in a fellow teacher’s car (she’s married but has no children yet). One of our dear office staff has a plush Hello Kitty frame around her computer monitor: complete with head, arms, and feet that stick out from all sides. There are Hello Kitty scooters, cell phones, toasters. And Hello Kitty doesn’t have a monopoly on the market. If I go shopping with my students, some of their favorite things to purchase are little knick-knacks and jewelry, little sticker rhinestones and pearls to add to their cell phones. The markets that sell these things are out of this world. Imagine an underground system that contains never-ending booths of key chains, beaded necklaces, and plush purses. It’s like Claire’s took over the entire mall.

While I find the first trend a little frightening (I have yet to welcome a pair of gauchos back into my closet), the later is rather endearing and refreshing. Pink and plush aren’t limited to little girls—they’re for sophisticated professional women who aren’t ashamed to embrace the cuteness of Hello Kitty and her counterparts. I haven’t purchased any of them yet myself, but I gladly display the items given to my by my students. I may not be safe from the underground mall forever, though. Cute is catching.