Monday, June 18, 2007

I'm Moving

I've moved into a new apartment, yes, but I'm also moving the
blog. It's been two weeks now that I've had to have a friend
put up my posts due to, er, the government's dislike of Blogger.

You can find me now on Typepad:



Thursday, June 14, 2007

My First Chinese Present

I went for a walk this morning, and passed three
women wearing matching cowboy hats. I was curious
what store in
Kunming was gettin'down like that.
Confident enough in my Chinese now, I stopped them
to ask where they bought the hats. They were
visiting from
Hangzhou, they told me, and they had
bought them in Lijiang. I asked how Lijiang was and
they told me, "Very nice," and started showing me
some photos on their digital camera. Then one of
them put her hat on my head and said, "Wo song gei
ni." I give you this as a gift. I tried to turn it
down, but they insisted, and proceeded to pose with
me for photographs. Every time I leave home without
a camera, I end up regretting it. This was one of
the worst.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Overeating and Overdrinking in Kunming

My friend Emily invited me to dinner with her family this weekend. I expected to meet her parents, and maybe two or three or other relatives. Instead, when we showed up at a hotel on Dongfeng Dong Lu, and went up to a meeting room on the second floor, I found that I was part of the Li family party of 20. What follows are the three lessons I learned at my big fat Chinese dinner.

V.I.P. Section

We all loitered around the room until someone started the move toward the humongous round table that we all would share. There was a bit of awkwardness and confusion as Emily’s father tried to create a seating chart on the spot. I was first told to sit at one seat, then another. At one point, there were a couple of hands gripping my forearm, yanking me to the left and right; I guess they were just trying to politely usher me to the right place.

I was eventually seated on the complete opposite side of the table from where Mr. Li had first sent me. “These seats are for important people,” said Emily, sitting to my right. To her right was her cousin, the guest of honor; he had just completed the college entrance exam. To my left were that same cousin’s paternal grandparents, his nainai and yieyie. So there we were, the most important people in the room—the scholar, the revered grandparents, and yours truly, along with the one person at the table who spoke enough English to converse with me. Lesson learned: People are always watching me.

Nainai and Me

We ate family-style, of course, sharing two dozen different dishes on a giant spinning glass platform on the table. Whatever dish passed, I would politely put a serving on my plate. But I never seemed to take enough to satisfy Nainai. She just kept heaping it all on: noodles, spicy vegetables, baozi (Chinese steamed buns), sautéed squash, sweet bread with a spicy spread (surprisingly delicious), grilled fish, some watermelon, ginger and celery salad.

As the meal went on, I got a little more bold, and started responding to Nainai’s attempts to stuff me by asking her “Ni ne?” (And you?) and spooning food onto her plate, which made her laugh a great, shoulder-shrugging, belly laugh.

She did all of this with a really beautiful smile on her face, which you can see in the above photo. That’s her 6-year-old granddaughter with us. I’m proud to say that my Chinese was good enough to tease the little girl about her missing teeth.

Lesson learned: grandmothers everywhere are the same, all worried that young people are starving, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.

Baijiu Binge

Over the course of the meal, I was given some explanation for everyone at the table (how they were related, what they did, where they were from), but I didn’t understand most of it and forgot the rest. I did get to meet everyone, though, since there’s apparently a custom of getting up and going around to various parts of the table to toast the people sitting there. The closest thing I can think of in American culture is the way the bride and groom mingle with each table at a wedding reception. But in this case, everyone is involved, giving it a more chaotic feeling.

We each had three glasses at our place: a tall skinny one for orange juice, a glass for white wine and a tiny one, with probably a quarter-ounce capacity. Early on, one of the men filled my tiny glass with baijiu, a strong white liquor that’s got little taste aside from, well, white liquor. When he raised his glass to toast to my health and success, and finished his in one swig, I did the same. This, of course, led to my glass being refilled again for the next toast, and again for the one after that. The stuff is strong and so is its taste. My face heated up, my throat stung and my stomach rumbled. I loved the meal, but the baijiu-binge was a bit much.

Lesson learned: It’s polite to mirror your foreign hosts, but if you do so too enthusiastically before you know what you’re getting into, you might end up binging on baijiu.

One More Time With the Manager

When it came time to leave, there was talk of karaoke. As much as I enjoyed everyone’s company, I was happy to say I had other plans. It’s taken me all of one trip to Kunming’s very popular KTV to determine that I will always try to duck out when karaoke comes up. Being locked up in a dark room with a bunch of my friends singing badly is not my idea of a fun evening, or even a harmlessly mundane one.

I went around saying my goodbyes and thank yous. One member of our group was actually the hotel’s manager. I said goodbye to him one time in the lobby, shaking his hand, giving a little bow and sincerely thanking him. I said goodbye again on the steps outside of the hotel. When I told Emily that I was going to catch the bus, she whispered to me, “One more time with the manager.” I made a big loop around a van parked outside to reach where he was standing, so I could say goodbye and thank you one more time.

Lesson learned: Thank the host excessively.

Li Qing Rong


Water, Water Everywhere...

I have been asked a couple of times if there’s anything I crave from home. Although I sometimes wish it were easier to find a juicy cheeseburger or a tall man here, in general the answer is still no.

But on a hot day, walking around the heavily polluted Green Lake or Dianchi Lake, sweating in the afternoon sun, there is one thing that I do seriously, painfully crave: fresh, clean water to swim in. One of my favorite indulgences is to jump in a cool river, lake or ocean on a hot summer day. There are few crueler jokes the world plays than to dangle people in front of bodies of water that they cannot swim in or drink.

Of course, I’ve lived in New York City for five years, so the feeling is not entirely new to me. I’ve felt it while running along the Hudson River or playing softball at Randall’s Island. But in the U.S., at least I know where to find clean natural water. Last summer, I remember swimming in a river in Northern Michigan, spending a splendid weekend at a friend’s cottage on a Massachusetts lake, and of course taking trips most weekends to Long Beach on Long Island. When I traveled to Israel last December, my friends laughed at me as I swam in every body of water that we passed: the Mediterranean, Sea of Galilee, Dead Sea and Jordan River.

In China, I have not been so lucky. Green Lake and Dianchi Lake (which used to be one lake until the government decided to fill them in for the sake of urban development) look like split pea soup. They are full of algal blooms, which are basically just mad overgrowth of algae. I’m not a marine biologist, but I believe that these can be caused in part by certain types of human pollution in the water, which provide nutrients to certain algae, which then over-produce and dominate the environment. Some algal blooms are toxic, killing anything that feeds on them. Others do damage by blocking out the sunlight and thus starving organisms below the surface.

Thanks to this and other forms of pollution, people wanting to enjoy the lakes are reduced to rolling over the water in giant bubbles (see above photo) or paddling through the muck on a rented boat, and hoping not to tip.

Dianchi Lake used to supply Kunming’s drinking water. Those days are over. In fact, most people here buy their drinking water by the jug. I asked my roommate yesterday how much the 5-gallon jugs cost and she told me 8 kuai, or about one U.S. dollar. Not bad, I remarked.

She frowned. “Yeah, but if the tap water was clean, it wouldn’t cost us anything.”

Monday, June 11, 2007

Do You Know Mark?

I was walking through town with one of Keats' teachers, Eric, when he
asked me this question, gesturing to an advertisement that featured
the eight-foot-long head of a smiling, bespectacled white dude with a

"No, I do not know Mark," I answered.

"He is very famous Canadian in
China. He's really great," Eric said.
In the ad, Mark was shilling a pocket-sized electronic translator. I
asked about his last name, but Eric said he didn't know it. With a
name like Mark in
China, I guess you don't really need a surname.

I continued to see Mark's big head around town, usually plastered on
the windows of bookshops. One day I watched the morning news on CCTV,
and at 9:15 Mark (Chinese name Da Shan, or "Big Mountain." I'm not
kidding) came on, dressed in a silver silk traditional Chinese shirt.
An animated version of Mark flashed across the screen, introducing his
program, "Communicate in Chinese." I've watched it a couple of times
since, and it pretty much goes like this: He introduces a scenario,
which is then dramatized by Chinese and foreign actors, of the
exceedingly amateur variety. Subtitles show both the characters and
the English translation. Mark checks in to explain the translation and
grammar, and help us build our vocabulary.

The program is delightfully cheesy, but it's also pretty helpful in
teaching simple Chinese phrases. And thanks to Mark's strong Canadian
accent and the hokey expressions of the dramatizers, I stay amused for
the segment's 15 minutes. It's also one of those curious examples of a
Westerner who is unknown to the Western world, but is a rock star in
China. I imagine Mark's high school buddies trying to figure out what
ever happened to "that guy Mark," and all the while he's a celebrity
to the 1.3 billion people living here.

In any event, Mark's expectations for me are quite high. Today, after
a short lesson in which a white guy gets directions to the foreign
language bookstore, Mark signed off with this cheerful thought: "We
hope that after watching our program today, you'll be able to get
China with relative ease." Eh?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

A Day in the Park, Chinese Style

Old Chinese people really know how to pass a day in the
park. You've seen them in the U.S., doing tai chi in
the morning, but here they take it a little further. All
of the big parks here have created attractions that you
can pay to enjoy—boat rides, bike rentals, cable cars,
small roller coasters. And they sell snacks and drinks.
But the local people prefer to bring their own
entertainment and food. They sing Chinese opera, dance,
fly kites, play cards. Couples play badminton on open
lawns. Tired workers string hammocks between willow trees
and nap away Sunday afternoons. They bring jugs of tea
and thermoses of soup. Last weekend I saw someone at the
park with a toaster oven.

There seems to be a bit of a generational divide when it
comes to park activities. I asked my 24-year-old tutor
her thoughts on the beautiful Green Lake Park here in town,
and she said, "It is mostly for the old people, practicing
their Jingju (opera)," before conceding that the park is
beautiful. Young people do go to the parks, but mostly to
canoodle with their boyfriend or girlfriend on the tree-
lined lanes that wind past lotus blossom-filled water. All
well and good, but it's the old people, as far as I can
tell, that are really having a great time.

To see more photos of Chinese people enjoying parks, check
out my Flickr account, username rauch22. Most of my recent
photos are park shots.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Hao Che Ma? (Does it taste good?)

Kunming fruit is amazing; stalls all over town sell bananas, apples, pears, peaches, lychees, papaya and on and on. The king of fruit here, in my eyes, is the shuzu: A little bit smaller than a tennis ball, with a little green hat and a sturdy purple skin, it looks like a round, miniature eggplant. To crack the thick skin you give it a little squeeze, much the same way you squeeze the sides of a plastic container to free a baby plant for re-potting. The white fruit inside is divided into five sections, easy to share with a friend or to enjoy alone. Its taste is a little bit tangy and a little bit sweet, and you can eat the juicy fruit without making a sticky mess. With its durable packaging, ease of opening and perfect taste, this is the fruit that I’ve been looking for all my life.

Fresh lychees are a surprise to me, too. In the US, I’d had lychee martinis with candied fruit in them, but didn’t particularly like the flavor or texture. But I’d never known the pleasure of prying the scaly skin from a fresh nut to find a sweet treat inside. And nature’s presentation of them is genius; the knobby pods come in bunches with long stems; they look like bouquets from a Dr. Seuss book.

The mangos here are also amazing. I’m sure one of you in California or Israel will claim to have the best mangoes, but the ones here are hard to beat. They often grow to about eight inches long, and have a great meat-to-pit ratio. I have yet to choose an over- or under-ripe mango in Kunming.

It’s so good to know that the world has all of these flavors and eating experiences left for me to try. Last night I had my first local home-cooked meal. My roommate’s friend made us a dinner with more than a half-dozen dishes: ham in the local style (a fatty, flavorful meat that looks a lot like bacon), lima beans cooked in a sweet and savory marinade, potatoes with “string beans” (a local version; a completely different plant than I am used to), spicy beef, something that my roommate only told me was “like chicken,” a soup with bok choi and tofu/pork balls that looked a lot like matzo balls, a salty cured meat dish, and a ginger and celery salad. It was the best meal I’ve had here, and I didn’t mind the hospitable tradition of inviting the guest to finish off most of the dishes.

All this and I’m losing weight here! Four kilos down after five weeks, and I now fit into a pair of jeans I bought at a too-small size before leaving New York.