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.


Monday, April 14, 2008

T-Shirt Sighting of the Day

I saw a student today wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt that had a picture of Betty Boop on the back of it. Ms. Boop was grimacing and thrusting her chubby finger, Uncle-Sam-like, at the viewer; beside and below her were the words "All of the Everything is Betty. No to war." Above her head floated a sequined numeral 5.

Oh, and she was wearing a hat bearing the legend "SWEET SMILE." Just for good measure.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Princess Bride . . . again!!

Ah, spring! That magical time of year when a young man's fancy turns to . . . the Princess Bride. At least, if the young man is me, it does. II showed this to my lovely students last week and had them write papers on a few related topics. Here are some choice comments from their writings.

As you may be able to guess, the prince was unversally loathed. "Prince Humperdinck was a rude and flabby man," said one, and others decried his unsavory actions toward the poor lovers: "The prince tortures Westley and kills him away from Buttercup."

Inigo was quite a favorite. His famous saying was somewhat garbled, but still pretty scary, really: "He loves his father, he likes to say 'I'm Inigo, you bring me life and killed my father. And now, I'm kill kill you.'"

Little Fred Savage always seems to evoke squeals of delight, especially when he protests the contents of Grandpa's book -- "I like the active boy. His grandfather always said 'kiss.' He thought this thing didn't suit his age. He was sensitive to 'kiss.'"

Several of the descriptions of Westley were . . . interesting: "He wants to save Buttercup, so he is intrepid and warlike. Westley's traditional martial arts was good." They also swooned at his defense of the titular princess. Said one, "when the big mouse aggressed the Buttercup, Westley almost protected her." This was meant as a compliment.

I'm always surprised at how many students like the R.O.U.S. To me, it looks like a big floppy rat suit. To them . . . well, you can see for yourself. "The big mouse is a interesting negative character. And it's hardly for a person to crawl on the ground and fighting with a man, so it's my favorite character."

And, invariably, there are some instances of AEDS -- Acute Electronic Dictionary Syndrome; it's also called Talbert's Disease. Symptoms include handing in homework at the last second and always choosing the first definition listed, even if there are fifty of them. "The important man role is a courageous man. He gets the important woman role at the end. I liked this movie, because the simplex and beautiful gut."

Sure. That's what I was going to say.