Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Hot Pot!

Now that we're back in America, we're able to have all kinds of yummy food that we miss when we're in China: cheddar, Hershey's chocolate, Mozzarella, really good Mexican food, real Italian, Stilton, Brie, Parmesan . . . . But the truth is that (aside from missing cheese) we really love the cuisine in China. And when we're craving western food, we can usually get what we want if we're willing to pay a little extra (usually still less than what we'd pay in the States . . . well, with the exception of cheese).

Our favorite things to eat in China are dumplings, noodles, and hot pot--a kind of do-it-yourself soup. Noodles and dumplings are easy to get because they're available at our school cafeteria, but some of our favorite experiences with Chinese food can only be had when we're with a Chinese friend. Many restaurants are set up in a family style, where people order a variety of dishes and then share them all from the middle of the table. These dishes tend to be more complicated to order (judging from the amount of negotiating and discussing we hear from our Chinese friends and the waitresses), and usually we're limited to places that have pictures on the menu or that we have experience ordering from.

A few weeks ago, however, we felt extra brave and set out with a group of friends to order hot pot. It was awesome. We ordered a variety of meats, lots of potatoes, cabbage, noodles, mushrooms, and other veggies. The "pot" sits in the middle of the table and can be split into two sections--one for spicy broth and the other for non-spicy. The broth has garlic, ginger, peppers, and lots of other spices and herbs that we couldn't recognize. It's wonderful!


Sunday, January 20, 2008

We're Just Following Orders

Well, I see by my dashboard notifier that it's been eighteen days since I last posted . . . we'll shoot for perfect attendance next term. Things get a little hairy at the end of the semester, as you can imagine. As I write this, I'm sitting in the living room of our friends the Snyder's house in Detroit. We'll be down in Greenville between about the 4th and the 11th of February. In case you were wondering.

One of the cool things that we got to do this last week was to help out some of our 3rd-year students with a big speech competition that they had been entered in. We've done a few of these extra assignments so far, and while they're interesting, and we're glad to help, they can be a little confusing sometimes. What usually happens is that one of our superiors strides into the office and says something like "Our school has been chosen by the government to give a speech at the UN / to abolish poverty / to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and cast it into the fire / etc and we want you and Desiree to help these two students with that. It's very important. OK?" "Yeah," we reply, "Are we doing it next month?" "We will do it tomorrow." This doesn't really give us much time for planning or even thinking of excuses to get us off the hook, so we just say "Sure! No problem!" and try to squelch our panic.

We've discovered in our few short months here that instructions given for such activities tend to be rather general and (what's worse) fluid. I try to ask very specific questions about what's expected ("So all we need to do is help the students prove the existence of tachyons, right?"), to which we receive a typically Chinese reply ("Yes! YesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesofcourseOK?"). These instructions, however, are commonly amended at a later date ("Right, but of course the students need to demonstrate using the tachyons in faster-than-light-travel. I mean, why would we want to see just tachyons?! Haha!").

Even so, it's always nice to spend some quality time with our nervous pupils. I think our presence has a calming effect on them, which is useful, since they're generally as confused as we are and a lot more worried. As we were flying out yesterday morning, our girls Helen and Nora were diligently sweating it out over the pronunciation of the word "privileged" and the outline of the speech on the relationship between the Chinese and Australian culture. I hope they did well on their speech . . . and that we'll have our excuses ready for next time.


Friday, January 4, 2008

The Great Brain Training

27. That’s how old my brain is, according to Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. That would be OK, except that I’m 26, and possessed of a graduate-level education. Frankly, I expected better of the ol’ gray matter. The “brain age” figure (as you may have encountered in your neurology textbook or some Popular Science article or other) is basically a measurement of mental flexibility, based on the fact that young peoples’ brains process information more quickly, retain it more easily, and generally perform faster and more efficiently than geezers’ brains.

So I’m doing math problems as fast as I can, counting how many people enter and leave a house, attempting to rapidly memorize a set of words and write them from memory, and dreading the appearance of the horrible Stroop Test, all in an attempt to pull off the mental equivalent of the splits.

All this is thanks to a little piece of software designed by Dr. Kawashima that I picked up a few weeks ago called “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!” It runs on my Nintendo DS, and I’d heard about it before. It seemed like an interesting idea, so when I saw it at Yu Yuan market, I grabbed it. I mean, I grabbed it and paid for it. Don’t get the wrong idea.

Now Desiree and I (plus fellow teachers Paul and Brian) spend the titular minutes a day trying to whip our brains into shape. The holy grail here is a brain age of 20 (the lowest age the software measures), and so far 27 is my best attempt. Paul, young whippersnapper that he is, has managed a brain age of 24, but I hope to unseat him with diligent effort. Brian has proved to be frustratingly adept at fast mathematical calculations, and holds the top spot in almost every one of the training programs. He also has the distinction of being the only one of us to have a brain age lower than his real age (it helps that he’s older than we are). We’re also required to draw things like bulldogs, locomotives, and the Mona Lisa from memory (in order to “stimulate the prefrontal cortex” or some such foolishness), and Desiree’s marvelous artistic talents have stood her in good stead. I thought my rendition of a collie looked pretty good until the program compared it to hers, at which point it appeared to be a cross between a horse and a lizard.

All such competition, of course, is designed to push us to ever greater feats of mental gymnastics. So if you’re feeling a bit dull, pick one up! Me, I’ll just be struggling to keep the speed-reading crown away from that pest, Brian.