Monthly Archives: January 2008

A Cold Day and Burnin’ the Energy

It’s cold today.  As I alluded yesterday, we’re in the middle of a cold snap. 
 
I went to lunch with a friend today, and we never took off our winter coats.  Sitting there at lunch, it occurred to me that if we had been in the USA, the building would have been heated.  I had a mental flashback to dinner last Monday, also with some friends.  We went to a restaurant then, too.  We requested seats away from the window, but there was no heat in the building.  We left our coats and scarves on, and (just as today), we drank a lot of hot tea. 
 
In terms of "carbon footprint," don’t you think it’s more cost effective to wear coats and drink hot tea than it is to heat entire buildings? 
 
At our home, we have air conditioners / heaters that are not like any I’ve personally seen in the USA.  I guess it might be a dual stage heat pump, though I’m not really sure what that means.  We have one large unit on top of the roof.  Inside the house, each room has an individually controlled unit installed on the wall.  When we’re not in a room, we turn the heat or AC off.  In other words, we only heat or cool the rooms we’re actually in. 
 
I think this probably leaves a smaller carbon footprint than the typical heat pump in the USA which heats or cools the entire house. 
 
Our hot water heaters, likewise, are "point source" hot water heaters.  We have two, one for upstairs and one for downstairs, located right at one bathroom and then with a very short line running to the other bath or kitchen (as the case may be).  Each time we need hot water, we turn it on and set the thermostat at the temperature we want.  It turns itself off a certain number of minutes with no use. 
 
Unlike most Chinese houses, we have a bathtub.  As a result, we take baths, especially when it’s cold like this.  Nothing like a hot soak!  As a result, however, our energy bill is really high.  Most people right now in Guangzhou are bundling up in two or three layers of clothes, along with hats, scarves, and gloves. 
 
Sophie last night sent me a message that asked if I were keeping warm.  It prompted me to wonder, is she keeping warm?  Because when you don’t have heat or very much hot water, once you get cold it’s hard to get warmed back up. 
 
Neet calories and hot tea, lots of it!  I don’t need the calories, but thank goodness the tea is so good!   
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Mind Boggling

I just wrote about the different scale of things here.  Case in point: 
 
On Saturday night Song Ying babysat for us.  We arranged for her to use our same cab to get home.  At 11:00 at night, the ride should have taken about 20 minutes.  This morning she told me it took an hour and a half.  Here’s why. 
 
She lives near the west train station, where trains depart for destinations all over China.  We are right at the beginning of peak travel season — the week before Chinese New Year.  Everyone would love to return home for Chinese New Year.  Chinese school children get a month off from school.  Everyone gets some kind of break.  It’s maybe the equivalent of — well, I can’t think of an equivalent.  It’s bigger than Christmas.  A month off from school.  Everyone gets at least three or four days off, many get ten.  And everyone really wants to go home.  It’s very important to spend the evening before Chinese New Year and New Year’s Day with one’s family. 
 
Okay . . . well . . . there were snow storms in Hunan Province and in Kunming.  This shut down the rail lines.  Over 100 trains were delayed more than ten hours in arriving in Guangzhou.  Song Ying told me, there were 150,000 people stuck at the rail station on Saturday night, waiting for their trains.  There was no way for them to get out of the cold weather.  The roads where clogged with them. 
 
Water was selling on the streets for 10 RMB (the usual price is 1.5 – 2), and bowls of noodles were 50 RMB (the usual price is 2 – 5).  The roads were so congested she couldn’t get through to her home. 
 
Wow!  I’d post a picture, but in fact I can’t get one.  The line to procure train tickets is over a mile long.  You can drive and drive and take five minutes or so of driving to drive past the front of the line.  This year, I don’t think I’ll venture to that part of town unless I absolutely have to! 
 
When we took this photo in Suzhou in 2005, we
wanted to illustrate what the crowded train station
looked like.  Looking back on it, we didn’t know
what "crowded" was!  The above is nothing
compared to the crowds during Chinese New Year! 
 
 
Look at this:   
 
This photo came from the China Daily Web
link below.  Thanks to China Daily for use
of the image.  It is very typical of crowds
I have encountered during Chinese New Year —
a very good reason not to travel inside 
China during these particular four weeks!   
 
And as a post script . . .  guess what?  Since I wrote the above little "news flash," Song Ying and I talked some more.  She told me that on Saturday night, the taxi tried three different ways of getting her home.  It wasn’t just that there were a lot of people, but also police had cordoned off access.   And this morning, there was no bus service into her area, either.  She had to walk an HOUR to the nearest bus stop so she could catch the bus to my house! 
 
This news article says they are expecting as many as 600,000 people to be stuck at the train station by tonight.  I asked Song Ying if she wants to sleep here, and she said no.  Maybe she’d better go home early!  Right now it’s 45 degrees outside, but it’s a cold and humid 45 degrees.  Everybody needs to be in early tonight and eat some hot food!  Maybe tomorrow will be a "snow day" for Song Ying.  Everybody needs them now and then, right? 
 
And thanks very much to my friend Ruth M. for sending me this link! 

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Big City Life

One thing I really enjoy about living in Guangzhou is what one might call "big city life."  
 
I can only speak from my limited experience, but I’d venture to guess that the population density, the scale of the human endeavor in China, is nothing like what most westerners have ever experienced.  I’ve read the Hong Kong has the highest population density in the world, but based on what I’ve seen I’d guess that Guangzhou has a higher population density than Hong Kong.  The city is full of high rise after high rise, as far as the eye can see.  The scale is astounding. 
 
I remember one time as I was contemplating a trip to New York City, one of my friends who is from New York was coaching me on how not to appear like an outsider.  She told me, never wear white.  Don’t stare up at the buildings.  Walk as if you know where you’re going.  Living in Guangzhou, I’ve learned that white does get dirty here.  I avoid beggars and touts by walking as if I know where I’m going.  I avoid having taxis drive me "around" by barking out my orders and directing them in what roads to take to get there. 
 
But after almost four years I find myself still staring upwards in awe at the buildings.  Sometimes I thrust my head out the car window to gawk at freeways and overpasses that are sometimes stacked three or four levels deep, vertically.  I admire the architecture.  China’s wealth and burgeoning economy is fueling an explosion in the number of avante garde, new skyscrapers.  They are creative and beautiful.  I find myself continually amazed. 
 
Amazed at everything:  skyscrapers, freeways, numbers of people, filth and smells.  Oh, and sometimes the smells.  One time soon after we arrived, I got caught wearing sandals in a torrential rainstorm.  The water that washed over my feet smelled so nasty that I came to realize why no one wears their shoes inside their house.  Sanitation notwithstanding, the soot that comes in on the bottom of my shoes would leave tracks across the floor, were I to wear my shoes into the house.  It’s a very different experience from living in my small town or in the countryside, where even the dirt is clean dirt in that it won’t make you sick and it doesn’t come embedded in soot and grease. 
 
Whatever the benefits and drawbacks, living here has given me a fortunate opportunity to live in a huge city.  The biggest city you’ve never heard of!  Guangzhou?  Five years ago, I didn’t know where it was.  Westerners sometimes have a better idea of it if I tell him it’s the city the English called Canton.  Then they nod.  People have heard of Canton. 
 
But, have you ever heard of Suzhou?  (I’ve heard a rumor that there are 30,000 Americans living in Suzhou, so maybe some of you have, but prior to moving here I had not heard of this town.) 
 
The first time my husband needed to go on a business trip to Suzhou, I decided to go with him.  We were told it was a small city, so we were expecting something in the range of 300,000 people or so.  Three hours west of Shanghai by train.  Well, it was only small by Chinese standards:  Suzhou has six million people!  Yah, it’s just a small town.   It was during that trip that someone told me China has fifty cities with more than six million people. 
 
But that’s only the beginning.  The scale goes on and on.  Guangzhou may have nine or twelve million or sixteen million (depending on how you count, whether you include only legal residents or the teeming masses of immigrants as well), but the city right across the river to the west of here, Foshan, has another six million, and just to the east of here there are the cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen, with millions and millions more people.  Everywhere one goes there are lots of people.  Every time of day or night, the streets are teeming with people. 
 
One time when we were first here, we went as a family to a shopping mall.  It was noisy and crowded.  I looked over at Sarah.  I can still see the image in my mind of the poor child walking along, scrunched over as if trying to protect herself from falling hail, with her hands plastered over her ears.  She was suffering from sensory overload.  We couldn’t finish our shopping trip (for food).  We just had to leave to get her out of it.  Some people, those who require a high level of solitude and quiet, never adjust. 
 
I’ve become acclimated.  About six months into our stay here, I was on a busy, noisy, crowded street.  It suddenly dawned on me, as I stood there, that I felt okay.  It was a surprising feeling: it felt normal, and the noise and crowds didn’t stress me.  This feeling of normalcy, I realized, was very different than other times I had been on the same street.  On previous occasions, the noise had seemed overwhelming, the crowds claustrophobic.  It was at that moment, on that street, that I first realized I had become somewhat accustomed to living in China.  Six months into my stay here, I had overcome the first hurdle of culture shock.  I found it peaceful and pleasant to have people all around. 
 
                                                     
 
Two pedestrian shopping streets on a typical Saturday or holiday when people are out and about
 
 
One of my Chinese friends lived in England one time.  She, in contrast to me, grew up with these crowds.  She loves them.  She found England cold, lonely, and distant.  I can now adjust to either, I think, but I definitely see the point.  Compared to China, the streets of my small American town seems strangely semi-deserted.  When in America, I find myself acutely aware that there are no crowds, no people walking, no bicyles crowding the streets, no cars creating three lanes in roads built for two lanes. 
 
 
 
I’ve also come to love living in a big city.  In the USA, I was forever driving children places as a carpool mom.  Here, my children can take public transportation almost anywhere they want to go.  If a bus doesn’t go there, taxis are readily available and fairly affordable.  (My teenager just used one quarter of her weekly allowance this weekend to take a taxi somewhere, but that was her choice, and still much cheaper than a taxi in the USA would have been.)  So, one key advantage for me of living in a city has been the liberation from needing a car and from being a "carpool mom". 
 
Another thing is the fun of exploring and experiencing new things.  As in any big city, there are ethnic enclaves and many small shops with things to see and do.  There are literally dozens of museums and gardens to explore.  There are all kinds of musical, theater, and cultural events ranging from Chinese opera to visiting symphonies and chamber groups, avante garde dance troupes to traditional Chinese.  And the restaurants — wow.  Last night we went for a fabulous Italian dinner.  The waitresses speak English with strong Italian accents they learned from their Italian employers.  At our favorite Turkish restaurant, the expat managers rotate in and out of their home country, and they try to teach me the Turkish words for vaious foods. 
 
Another nice thing about experiencing big city life in China is that, while there is violence and crime here just as everywhere, I think perhaps there is a bit less here than in other places.  The people are generally friendly and tolerant, and there seems to be less violent crime.  We play it safe here, but we don’t live in fear of violent crime. 
 
I also enjoy having friends who have come from all over the world.  Having friends from all cultural walks of life has taught me to be more aware and sympathetic, more open minded.  It has changed the way I think, in that when I see an issue that affects more than one country or population, I’m more aware of the different viewpoints and needs that could affect one’s views regarding that issue.  Diversity is real here; it’s not just a euphemism for quotas regarding integration of African Americans with European Americans. 
 
 
 
On the other hand, there are a few drawbacks.  The main issue, in terms of risk, is one that is not really an everyday concern, but we do know about it.  That is, population density makes disease a real concern.  Most of the world’s flu viruses in the last hundred years or so have originated from Guangdong province (this province) or nearby.  Many millions of humans live in close proximity to many millions of animals.  This was the birthplace of the SARS virus, thought to originate when genes from a civet virus mingled with genes from a human virus.  This is where epidemiologists anticipate the bird flu mutation will arise — the feared mixing of genes that will make bird flu readily transmissible from human to human and thus give rise to the next great pandemic that kills millions of people.  In fact, there are many more flu viruses here than those that circulate where I lived before.  The first year we lived here, I had flu three different times.  Yep, that’s three different flu viruses, each time diagnosed by my doctor, each time treated by my Ayi (housekeeper) with traditional Chinese medicine that was very helpful in combating the symptoms. 
 
But overall, in spite of the noise and grime and risk of germs, we love living in a big city.  Unlike in the USA, it’s relatively affordable to live in a city here.  I hate to think what it would cost us to live in a similarly sized USA city.  Living here has given us an opportunity to experience a different walk — a city life — that we never would have experienced in our home country. 
 
When we go back, we anticipate a reverse culture shock when we can’t afford to go out to dinner, when we can’t afford transportation, when we have to drive or walk long distances to get from suburbs into the city.  When we would need to buy four cars just to make sure each adult or semi-adult member of the family has access to basic transportation.  In fact, living here has changed our ideas about where we want to live and how we want to live.  I like having an apartment with beautiful gardens — and gardeners to keep them beautiful.  I like being able to walk out my door and catch a bus.  I like being able to go to an Italian restaurant run by Italians.  I like hearing many languages spoken in my daily life; I like having friends from different walks of life who will share their viewpoints with me. 
 
             
 
 
When we return to the USA, no longer will we live in a suburb!   We anticipate returning to our relatively small town, in our relatively small state, yes.  But in terms of where to live, it’s "downtown, here we come!" 

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The Many Meanings of “Yes”

Yesterday, I wrote a blog entry about fussing at the Trolley Driver in Hong Kong.  In hindsight, I feel a bit embarassed!  Do I actually think it matters if I fuss?  I don’t actually think that one grumpy old codger like me will make a difference, do I?  Also, as I thought about it, it was plain that what I did was so, very, American!  A Chinese person already knows the world doesn’t revolve around him, and he will just grin and bear it.  He already knows what I should have known, that it’s not "worth it" to bother. 
 
I told one of my Chinese friends today about my little temper fit.  She replied that she thinks one difference between Americans and Chinese is that the Americans are more likely to complain.  The Chinese will simply accept poor customer service (or whatever) and not say anything.  My thinking about this subject reminded me of another exchange this summer that I found a bit humorous.  It, too, was a case when an employee said something other than what he meant, in a customer service setting.  Except this one happened in the USA. 
 
While yesterday’s entry could be titled "When No Doesn’t Mean No," today’s entry could be titled, "When Yes Doesn’t Mean Yes." 
 
In June, I arrived at the Detroit airport early in the morning after a very, very long flight over the Pacific.  My original flight had been delayed and rerouted.  I hadn’t been able to sleep at all on the very uncomfortable overnight plane trip.  I was extremely tired and a bit dazed when I had to switch terminals in the Detroit airport.  I couldn’t figure out where my new gate was.  It turns out, I couldn’t find my gate because it was in a different terminal. 
 
I was confused about how to do this.  I asked an employee at the Northwest Airline ticket counter for directions.  He gave me complicated directions, something like, "walk to the escalators, go down, go outside, catch the shuttle bus right there."  
 
I know, in hindsight this instruction was very easy, but at the time I was so tired that I couldn’t understand what he was saying.  I asked him again, peering around and looking for the escalator as he pointed in that direction.  He could see that I was obviously still confused about where I needed to go.  Kindly, he said, "I’ll take you there."  He came out from behind his counter and personally walked me to the escalator I needed.  From there, it was very simple to get to the bus stop.  
 
Yesterday, when I mentioned random acts of kindness by strangers, his action would qualify as one of them.  He was a ticket agent, not an airport guide, and walking a dazed passenger to their gate fell completely outside of his job description.  He saw that I needed help, and he helped me.  I was very grateful. 
 
But before this really helpful, kind person could walk me to my bus stop, he had to field a query from one really irate passenger.  Due to the Northwest pilot’s strike, a lot of peoples’ flights had been delayed, rerouted, canceled, etc..  A man came up with his family in tow and was yelling loudly.  His face was very red.  The airline employee who was helping me found another flight for the man, but the man didn’t like it.  He yelled some more.  The employee found a different flight, but that wouldn’t do either.  The man was livid and yelling.  The airline employee then gave the passenger directions to a different place where they might be able to help him.   He pointed out to that man some distant location, showing him the direction to walk in as well about how far it was.  After that man left, he walked me, so tired, to the escalator where I needed to go catch the shuttle bus. 
 
After we were walking toward the escalator, I asked the man, "Will the manager be able to find that person a different ticket?"  He replied, "No, I’m the only one who can reroute him, but whenever they get really loud, I send them away.  By the time he comes back to me, he’ll be calmed down a bit."  Talk about anger management! 
 
The employee — who was in the middle of being so outrageously kind to me — had simultaneously and cheerfully sent another customer on a wild goose chase wandering through the Detroit airport!  Similarly to this, when I told my friend today about my exchange with the Trolley driver, she smiled and replied, "At least he said "no" instead of giving you the wrong directions."  We both laughed, because we’ve both been given wrong directions before.   
 
So . . . yesterday I wrote about a case in China where "No" didn’t mean "No"; and today I’m writing about a case in the USA where "Yes" didn’t mean "Yes"! 

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The Many Meanings of “No”

I had a fussy moment yesterday.  (You’re not surprised?!!)  Being closely related to being cross-cultural in nature, I’d call it a "TIC [this is China]" moment. 
 
Sometimes when expats get really fussy for no reason, we say that we had a "TIC Day" [i.e. "This Is China day"].  It helps to have a "significant other" to help smooth out one’s ruffled feathers after such a day.  Many times at the end of such a day, one’s spouse or close friend will say, "You’re just in a bad mood and had a day.  Blow it off." 
 
Admonishments from a close friend, telling us frankly that the anger is out of proportion to the event, can provide a useful reality check.  Otherwise, the frustration from having things go wrong in a confusing and alien environment could lead one to think the level of frustration, all out of proportion to the actual offense, was an indication either of insanity or that one is completely unsuited to an overseas assignment. 
 
Fortunately for me (and my family), my TIC moments have occurred with decreasing regularity over the past year.  Now, I have enough knowledge of cultural differences to at least not be so baffled so much of the time.  I can communicate better in the local language, so there are fewer confusing moments on account of lack of communication.  And also, I don’t feel so overwhelmed by them when they do happen.  But still, TIC moments and days do occasionally happen.  I’ll describe the one yesterday. 
 
I needed to go to a very large, very well-known hospital in Hong Kong for a medical test.  My doctor gave me a business card that had the name of the hospital on one side and a map on the other, and he told me roughly where it was.  But I had never been there, and I didn’t want to make any huge mistakes and get lost. 
 
When I arrived at the train station in Hong Kong yesterday, I asked the Customer Service people at the desk how to get to the hospital.  A very helpful employee told me to take the metro to Causeway Bay exit, then to find the trolley stop and take the trolley to Happy Valley.  Once there, I couldn’t miss it, she said.  When I got to Causeway Bay, I stopped again and made sure I took the correct exit out of the metro station, and I got more detailed directions how to find the Tram stop and how to know when to get off.  I found the tram and then rode it to the terminal station, which was where I was supposed to get off.  The map on my business card indicated I was only one intersection away from the hospital, but there were some other side streets.  I wasn’t sure if those streets were on the map, and it looked like the map didn’t exactly match where I found myself standing.  
 
I felt a bit disoriented.  Should I walk to the right or to the left?  How far should I walk?  Should I turn down one of the side streets or at the main road?  Stopping at the exit, I asked the Tram driver for help.  Since we were at the terminal station for his tram, there wasn’t any rush.  I showed him my card with the map, showed him the spot on there that marked the tram stop, and asked him where the hospital was.  He brushed me off, indicating that he didn’t know.  I could tell that he didn’t really look at the map on the card I was pointing to. 
 
I had a hunch that his "no" didn’t really mean "no," it meant instead that he didn’t want to be bothered.  Or something.  When this type of thing happens, one has to be a sleuth to figure out what exactly it does mean. 
 
The first time this type of experience ever happened to me in China, I remember exactly where I was.  In the airport in Shanghai, I wanted to buy an English language magazine to read on the plane.  I went to a book store employee and asked if they had any English language magazines.  At that time in my language development, I was carrying a phrasebook.  I looked up the word for magazine in my phrasebook and showed it to him.  "Meiyou [don’t have]," he replied, nodding his head back and forth, before he went back to his job.  Very disappointed, I was walking out the exit when I walked past an entire shelf of English language magazines.  I was so upset that I called the employee over, dragged him to the stock, and said, "You do have English language magazines!"  Just then, a store manager was also walking by and asked if she could help me.  I told her that her employee had just told me that they didn’t have any English language magazines, when here was a whole shelf of them.  She replied that he didn’t speak English and perhaps he didn’t understand.  I replied to her, that in that case he should tell me he doesn’t speak English and get some help, not just blow me off.   
 
Since then, I’ve experienced many times that the answer "No" often doesn’t really mean "No."  It can mean, "I don’t know," or it can mean "I don’t have time to look it up," or it can mean, "I don’t want to be bothered," or it can mean, "I don’t understand the question."  David and I have learned that to get to the truth of a matter, we actually have to make some strong effort at times.  We do this using various techniques which could be labeled as "active listening."  We ask, for example, "Do you know that you don’t have it, or do you do you just not know where it is in the store?" Or, "Do you just not have it now, or is it that you will never be ordering it again?"   We also try to clarify whether it’s a language issue:  "Ni mingbai, ma [Do you know what I’m saying]?" Or "Ni ting dong ma [Do you understand]?"  When given the opportunity, the person usually will clarify exactly why they answered the way they did.  E.g., "We used to carry this item, but it has been discontinued now."  
 
Well, when the driver told me "no," I just shrugged and set out to figure out on my own where the hospital was.  But the answer was so obvious that the only explanation for his ignorance was that he had made no effort whatsoever to understand my question. 
 
When I figured out,where the hospital was, I got pretty angry because it was so obvious. There was no way the driver didn’t know.  He was just blowing me off.   Just up a block or so in front of me, I could clearly see the fifteen (or so) storey building, clearly marked with a big red cross on the front.  Moreover, later on I also noticed street signs all over the place with arrows and pointing ahead for "hospital."  It wasn’t that this guy didn’t KNOW where the hospital was.  He just didn’t care to help. 
 
I’m glad I had enough savvy to find it on my own.  For me personally, the consequences of his indifference weren’t so severe, and I could make it without his help.  After all, I now speak some Chinese, I had a map and can read it, and I am able bodied.  Unfortunately, some people who might need his help might be none of the above.  They might be sick or even have an emergency, not have a map, and not really be able to get there without asking help from another human.  I’ve been there.  Navigating the strange streets of a new city in an alien land, where I didnt speak any of the language, there’ve been times when I was extremely grateful for the kindness of strangers who somehow materialized from nowhere to meet the need. 
 
In light of his indifference, I did get angry.  It wasn’t that he didn’t know.  It was that he didn’t care to help me.  Most English speaking people whom he shrugs off in this way probably wander off, still dazed.  He never gets any feedback from them. 
 
When I figured out where the hospital was, the driver was still sitting in his tram.  After all, as I said, it was his terminal station.  He had to wait five minutes or so before heading out again.  Even though my language skill isn’t totally great, I went back to him and said in Mandarin, "Don’t tell me you don’t KNOW where the hosptial is.  JUST SAY YOU DON’T WANT TO HELP ME." 
 
In this respect, Hong Kong is probably no different from any other big city in the world.  People fail to help others all the time.  But hey.  At least be honest about it.  Don’t try to make yourself feel better by trying to uphold the myth that you didn’t KNOW when the truth is more like you didn’t want to be BOTHERED. 
 
We Americans are sometimes criticised for being too honest when it comes to feelings.  It’s "easier" just to say less, to communicate less, and avoid all the messy complications that being in relationship with another human being entails.  On the other hand, failure to be honest also enables an undue amount of denial when it comes to moral responsibility.  Sometimes a little guilt can help correct the rudder on a ship.  The feedback we get from guilt, when we feel guilt, enables us to act in such a way that we don’t feel guilty the next time — it helps us improve. 
 
Of course I’ve learned that it probably will make no difference.  My little venting probably had no effect.  But perhaps, just perhaps, the next time somebody asks him for some very minor assistance, he’ll make a more conscious decision about whether he really doesn’t know . . . or if the real issue is that he doesn’t care.  In my mind, there’s a big moral difference between the two.  I hope he chooses to care what happens to another human. 
 
And that, my dears, is my rant for the day. 

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Eating Felix

No, I have not done it, and I don’t plan to. 
 
But since I included in my photo album on my blog a picture of cats in a restaurant, priced per half kilo and ready to be cooked up on a dinner plate, I thought it might be fun to share a conversation I had with Song Ying about this time last year. 
 
                                              
 
Our weather finally turned cold here.  Right now it’s about 50 degrees Farenheit outside.  That doesn’t sound cold, but with a humid wind blowing, and no sun in the sky, it can feel a lot colder than it really is. 
 
One day about a year ago, Song Ying and I went to the wholesale pet market in Fancun District, south of the river.  This market has a different name officially, but most foreigners refer to it as the Hua Di Huan market, because it’s located right at the metro stop by that same name.  I was there shopping for pet supplies.  While we were there, the already cold day turned even colder on account of a misty rain. 
 
There are not only cat supplies and cat food at the Hua Di Huan market, but also live cats for sale.  Most of them are kittens that are obviously for sale as pets.  But I know that, in Guangzhou, people do eat cats. 
 
I know it not just from hearing about it; I’ve seen it.  One day Sophie and I were out at a "fast food" restaurant where you buy small servings of dishes for 8 RMB per plate.  The cook brought out a pan of something that was fresh, hot, and looked really good — colorful with red and green peppers, onions, and some meat.  I indicated that I wanted to get some of it.  Sophie vetoed that, telling me that it wasn’t a good idea.  "Why?" I asked, like a child whose parent has told it that a candy bar is forbidden. 
 
She hesitated.  "It’s something you don’t eat." 
 
"What is it," I insisted? 
 
"I think it’s cat." 
 
Well, she didn’t just think it was cat; she knew it was cat, though she would have preferred not to say so. 
 
Needless to say, knowing this, I wasn’t going to try it.  So thanks to Sophie, I was saved from sampling cat, and I have no regrets whatsoever.  I’m not one of those people (and they do exist) who are so eager for strange culinary experiences that they would take the opportunity while in China to sample the family pet.  Which brings me back to the real story.  The pet market. 
 
In the pet market at Hua Di Huan, there was a cage with a cat for sale.  He was orange with medium length fur, and he was about the largest feline I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  Not only was he not a kitten, he looked positively old.  And he looked very ill; his head sagging and his eyes half closed, as if he had a fever and needed vet care.  He looked positively miserable, like he needed to be inside a nice, warm home.  The last thing he needed was to be sitting out in a cold cage with metal bars in a misty rain. 
 
Additonally, sitting right on top of him, to keep warm, was an equally miserable and sickly looking, tiny little black kitten.  The little kitten was mewing plaintively in her misery, but the old fellow looked like he had given up; he just lay there with eyes half closed and droopy head.  The two of them made a sad, sad sight.  I was shocked.  I wasn’t shocked at the sight of a sick and cold kitten — I’ve seen lots of them in the pet markets mewing and feverish — because as soon as they come to a pet market they are exposed to all kinds of awful germs and get really poor care on top of that —  but I couldn’t imagine a family selling their elderly family pet to a pet shop, especially where it would be placed into such an awful situation. 
 
So, a bit bewildered, I asked Song Ying (who was with me), whether this cat was for sale as a pet or as food.  She told me that this is a pet market and he is definitely for sale as a pet.  Besides, she says, he’s a foreign cat and foreign cats are not delicious.  No one would want him for food. 
 
"What," I think to myself?  "First, how could she say this is a foreign cat and, second, why would she think there is any difference in tasted between one cat and another?"  So ask her, "Why are foreign cats not delicious?" (in broken Chinese of course). 
 
"They’re too big," she replies. "Chinese cats are small."  Then she adds, "You’ve never eaten cat?  I’ll take you to eat cat sometime. You must try it; it’s quite delicious!"  
 
"Uhm, no thanks. Americans don’t eat cats."  I sensed a palpable disappointment, because we were planning to go out for lunch after leaving the market. 
 
Our housing compound has many wild cats running around outside.  They always run when approached, it’s not like they’re pets at all.  But many of the residents feed them, and I imagine there is also some hope that they would help control rats.  But when David got home that night and I told him about the encounter with the big cat, he joked, "I wonder how many of the cats in our compound get eaten by the staff!"  And ever since, every time we see a cat, he says to me, "I wonder if it’s a foreign cat or a Chinese cat?"
 
 
(I took this picture tonight of a cat in a storefront,
watching passersby from inside while his
owner tended the shop.  It’s definitely a foreign
cat, wouldn’t you say?!)

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Eating Scorpions and Bei Jing Kao Ya (Peking Roast Duck)

I had promised to write more about my Beijing trip, and so now I’m following up on that.  Because Beijing was where I ate my first scorpion. 
 
My very first experience with scorpion as food actually occurred early during my stay in China, in the fresh food market.  When you go to buy fresh food, there are sections in the market devoted to different kinds of food.  In one large market where I often shop, the scorpions, along with the frogs and snakes and turtles, are the first thing one sees upon walking inside the building.  Then come the fish and alligatores in tanks.  Near there is is the pre-roasted duck, dog, lamb, goat.  Further down, there is just one person who sells beef (it’s too expensive and takes too many land resources to grow much beef).  Across the aisle are the pork sellers, with parts of carcasses hanging up and pieces laid out on a slab that one can choose.  Nearby, are the chicken sellers.  Some sell their chickens already butchered, and others wait to slaughter the chicken when someone picks it out. 
 
The first time I went to the market and saw live scorpions, I was somewhat amazed, of course.  Not only how do you catch them, how do you raise them, how do you prepare and eat them, and also, WHY?!!  Why would anyone eat scorpion?  Well maybe for starters, it’s cheap to raise and provides protein? 
 
That issue aside, I asked Sophie one day why people eat scorpion.  We were in a restaurant sometime in the spring, and there was a big promotion on scorpion.  A special brochure described about ten different dishes made from scorpion.  Were they delicious, I asked?  "No," she replied. 
 
"Why do people eat them, then," I asked? 
 
"Maybe they are good for cancer," was her response. 
 
Oh, so that’s it.  They’re supposed to be healthy.  It’s Chinese medicine.  I don’t know if it’s supposed to prevent cancer or cure it.  Chinese eat a lot of things that are supposed to be good for you.  And folk wisdom often times has a lot of truth to it.  But still, I felt no need to try and eat scorpion. 
 
And, it seems, neither did most of my Chinese friends.  When I went with my Chinese friends on our trip to Wulingyuan in the spring, all of our meals were selected by our Chinese tour guide based on our food preferences.  At one meal, a plate of scorpions was placed on the table.  They appeared to have been fried up with some shrimp and hot pepper.  The dish looked about as spicy as they come.  (We were in Hunan Province, which is known for its spicy food.)  The ladies I was with immediately sent the dish back to the kitchen, explaining to the waitress that we wanted something else.  Here is a picture of it before it was sent back: 
 
 
The second time I’ve ever been served scorpion was during our Kao Ya night in Beijing this fall.  As a "thank you" to my Chinese hosts for taking me with them on our trip, I wanted to take everyone out for Peking Roast Duck.  I don’t know the name of the restaurant where we went, but it’s large and famous, virtually across the street from Tian An Men square.  Here are some photos of our duck:
 
 
                                                                                                           
 
The first time I ever went to this restaurant, I had been with all Americans.  We ordered the dishes we thought would suit our American tastes.  This time, in contrast, I decided to order the entire set meal.  The waitress recommended that the set dinner for seven people would be plenty of food for our party of nine.  Indeed, it was more than enough as well as very delicious. 
 
I wasn’t surprised that the duck liver was one of my favorite dishes — I like liver and, after all, it’s pate’. 
 
 
 
What did surprise me was that another of my favorite things was the duck hearts.  If one is familiar with what it is like to eat poultry hearts, one knows that they are rather chewy.  The chef had solved this challenge by slicing vertical cuts before quick frying them.  They were tender and delicious, served on a bed of fresh cilantro.  (Before I came to China, I never knew that cilantro is a ubiquitous element of Chinese food and flavor.) 
 
 
Another little surprise was that my Chinese friends didn’t care for the fat on the duck meat any more than my American friends.  To my surprise, they chose more lean food just as my American friends would.  The first time I had been to eat Beijing duck and we all found it too fatty, I thought it must just be on account of our American taste buds.  I realize that all of us find the fat a bit rich. 
 
But back to eating scorpions — how did it come about?  Well, . . . I notice that one of the dishes on the table had deep fried scorpions on it, almost like a garnish. 
 
I think to myself, "Okay, here’s my chance."  Remember, didn’t I say something in a recent post about expats being rather adventurous?  But still, it’s rather like jumping off the high dive. 
 
And I confess, never once in my life have I jumped off a real high dive!  I managed to grow up in Florida, swimming every day, living on Big Bayou, having friends who regularly tried to jump off their diving platform onto the huge manta ray that used to swim underneath, or catch a basketball tossed on the way down . . . but I never did it.  The one time I ever decided to climb to the top and try it, I thought it looked like I was about three stories up.  I know what a belly flop feels like from just six feet — and I climbed right back down that ladder!  Indeed, many years later, I felt rather guilty watching my daughter jump off the high dive when this was required as part of her intermediate swimming class, since it was never required in any of my swimming classes. 
 
But I did jump off the scorpion high dive. 
 
Nobody at the table was eating scorpions.  Nobody at our table had any intention of eating scorpions, either.  Nobody but me, that is!  I decided to try one.  I got somebody lined up to take a picture.  Are you sure, she asked incredulously?  Of course (be brave, I tell myself.  Okay now, one two three)! 
 
I picked up the tiniest one from the bunch.  Its claws and tail had fallen off during frying, so that it resembled a small cockroach more than a scorpion in appearance.  Snap a photo, one bite.  Hmm.  Not so horrible.  Though my friends’ faces were rather shocked and amazed.  They were looking at me as if they couldn’t believe what I had done.  But I decided that the one little bug just didn’t make a very good photo op.  You couldn’t even tell what it was!  I had to do it again!  This time, my courage bolstered, I picked a really good one with nice, big tail and claws. 
 
Could I do it?  Not sure.  Okay.  Crunch, crunch, crunch.  Kind of like crispy overdone beef.  Not bad, really.  Just close your mind and don’t think about it! 
 
                            
 
And then the funny part.  Nobody could let the foreigner eat one and not eat one themselves!  What I had done was like a dare — everyone had to do it! 
 
So we all had a great time taking turns, taking photos. 
 
 
                          
 
 
 
 
                                                    
 
 
 
                                         
 
 
                  
 
As they say in every write up of a fun party, "A good time was had by all!" 
 
 
 
 
 

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The Bat Out of . . .

We just returned home — safely — from a ride with the taxi driver from hell.  It’s not our first.  This was the second time I’ve been in a cab with a driver who cut a wheelie at a red light.  When I got out of the cab the first time it happened, I noticed that his little toyota cornona had oversized wheels with mags on them, as well as a racing stripe hand painted on the side.  I thought to myself, "Well, I should have known!"  After that, I’ve always tried to notice how a cabbie is driving before I even flag it down.  Tonight, I didn’t notice anything unusual about this cab as it approached.   
 
Tonight wasn’t nearly the worst cab I’ve been in, either.  I never feared we were near death, as I have before.  By far the worst was the time I arrived at the train station alone at night, during a rain storm, and there was a wreck on the bridge we have to cross to get home.  The driver — deciding the gridlocked traffic was taking too long where eight lanes cut down to six to cross the bridge — decided to bypass the wreck by cutting over into the oncoming traffic.  The oncoming traffic was not stopped, it was coming at us at normal speed, and there was a lot of it.   It truly felt to me like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride as we sped face to face into the headlights of buses and heavy trucks, zigzagged in the rain through bicycles, jaywalking pedestrians and all the other general road hazards here.  I think that one ride contributed greatly to the fact that I’ve developed high blood pressure since I’ve lived here! 
 
In the meantime, in an effort to control my blood pressure without resort to heavy sedatives, I’ve learned a few phrases in Chinese to communicate with the driver to please slow down.  The first phrase my Chinese teacher taught me was, "Qing man man lai," which means "Please take it easy."  This isn’t usually very effective.  Taxi drivers pretend they don’t know what I’m saying.  So, being American, I get more to the point:  "Qing kai che man yi dian-r," which translates, "Please drive the car more slowly."  They still don’t understand.  So I’ve also copied some of my Chinese friends who say, "Sifu, women bu gan sijian, man man lai," which translates, "Master, we don’t have a hurry, please take it easy."  This seems slightly more effective — perhaps through use of its appeal to the Buddhist sensibility to focus on the spiritual and transcendent in life rather than the mundane issues that make us hurry.   
 
Well, tonight with Clarissa in the front seat (and she speaks better Chinese than any of us), all three of us tried all three of these phrases as well as some other variations Clarissa has learned from her Chinese friends.  The taxi driver gave no indication that he heard any of them.  He continued to tailgate, run up on stopped cars, honk his horn, switch lanes suddenly, nearly run over pedestrians, all while we were in the heavy bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Then, when we got to the straight roadways after the bridge, which had few cars, he must have thought the straight stretch was meant for a little freedom and fun; that’s when he popped the wheelie as he left the red light he had very reluctantly stopped for. 
 
I was a bit surprised that I had actually no concern at all at the way he was driving.  Hmm.  Maybe I should put that in my list of "You know you’ve lived here too long when . . . ."   as in, "running red lights going 50 in a 30 mph zone and you think it’s normal."  My list of "You know you’ve lived here too long when . . . " also includes little things like, "when the footprints on the toilet seat are yours," or "when you leave the ‘Garbano’ label conspicuously on your jacket sleeve," or "you like the smell of the bus," or "you no longer need tissues to blow your nose."  (I’m sorry to say, but some depraved expats have come up with a list of more than 100 of these little items, and at least 50% of them are really funny.) 
 
I wondered if my lack of concern was due to total acclimitization, the fact that in general the traffic was moving too slowly to really fear a horrible wreck, or the fact that once we were on our own road there were no other cars to run into.  Anyway . . .  we were lighthearted enough to joke about this all the way home. 
 
During our ride in the car driven by the bat who had just escaped from hell, and after our requests to slow down were ignored, we began to discuss what would be the most effective way to get a taxi driver to slow down.  I read once of a man who had a business card printed which said, "I have a heart condition, so please drive slowly.  If I should have a heart attack while in your taxi, please drive me to the nearest hospital."  He swore that it worked every time. 
 
But since we had just eaten and were coming home from supper, David advocated that our card should have a slightly different twist.  He said it should read: "I have a weak stomach.  Please drive slowly or else I may vomit in your car." 
 
Hmm  Which would be more effective?  Heart attack or vomit? 
 
If a person has a heart attack in your car and thus becomes incapacitated, this could actually work to your financial advantage.  Gee, maybe you could drive him around all night and run up a really big taxi bill.  (The taxi we were in tonight successfully took the longest and most traffiked route home and thus ran the bill up an extra 4 RMB, or 20%.)  On the other hand, if a person vomits in your car, it stinks.  You just want to get them out as quickly as possible, plus you have to clean it up. 
 
Therefore, I think the "vomit in your car" card would be more effective.  I’m going to have one printed.  Next time you’re coming to China, be sure to ask me for one! 
 

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Butt Cold

Can you imagine a scenario where Mandarin Chinese were taught on television, in school, and even in public areas every day in your own country?  The reason I ask is because the inverse is true:  English is taught here, everywhere.  It’s not just a huge private industry, but a state supported effort.  Including . . .
 
The other day I was riding in a public bus.  There is a television screen in the bus.  Since I don’t read Chinese very well, it’s largely irrelevant to me what kind of entertainment is on the screen.  Sometimes it’s cartoons, sometimes Power Rangers, sometimes other shows.  But the other day I heard a word of English and to my surprise there was an English lesson on the screen. 
 
A man was saying a sentence in English.  The sentence was written in English on the screen, with Chinese written underneath the English.  I looked up as the voice was saying, "It’s cold outside.  It’s cold outside."  Then the next sentence was, "It’s very cold outside.  It’s very cold outside."  There were more sentences, with each using a progressively stronger adverb to modify the word cold.   "It’s freezing cold outside.  It’s freezing cold outside.  It’s bitter cold outside.  It’s bitter cold outside."  And then, the culmination of this progressive series. 
 
I could read it, but I couldn’t quite believe my eyes.  I didn’t think they’d really say it, but then the voice said, "It’s butt cold outside.  It’s butt cold outside." 
 
We see all kinds people who come over here to teach English.  Now, there are a lot of really great people who do this.  For some young people, it’s a way to see the world on a budget.  But once in awhile we see some that you think to yourself, "What zoo did that one get out of?"  You think to yourself, well, what kind of person comes to China to teach English?  Often it’s a person whose personality is on the far end or more from "conventional." 
 
Even among the expats on our social group, I notice that most of them have certain personality traits in common.  As a rule, I’d say the ones who "make it" are extroverted, open to new experiences, curious and open minded, flexible, creative, resilient, physically healthy, and have a strong sense of humor.  If you don’t believe it, try going to some of the parties.  There’s nothing staid about them little events! 
 
                                                                    
 
 
 
                                        
 
 
                                                  
 
I’d even venture to say that we fall in the same basic category for the most part.  I mean, how many of the more "conventional" people you know, could you imagine uprooting family and going to live in a foreign, unknown culture? 
 
(This picture was taken at the restaurant where we
ordered an unknown dish, and it turned out to be
chicken anuses.)
 
All this talk about the strange character of expats, and English teachers in particular (ha! gotcha!), is a prelude to say that once in awhile we see in print or in names the expression of a bit of the native English speaker’s sense of humor.  A rather strange sense of humor.  Now, the translation "cowboy leg" for "leg of beef steer" on a menu is probably the work of an unskilled translator.  But some of the most odd translations are obviously forms of jest:  "Slimy gross stuff on a bun," for instance.  We also see this in the names of people whose English names are things like "Kissup." 
 
Hmm.  I couldnt’ help but wonder if "Butt cold" weren’t the result of some passive aggressive humor.  Perhaps the work of some English teacher who felt they weren’t being paid enough?   We’ll never know . . .
 
Right now in Guangzhou, it is indeed "butt cold outside!"  For some reason, it feels cold even though it’s not very cold.  Perhaps its the humidity.  Perhaps it’s that heat is inadequate in a house designed to keep things cool (there’s no upper limit on the height of a ceiling in a three storey apartment with a glass roof).  But yah, I’d say, "It’s butt cold outside!  It’s butt cold outside!"  

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Kale Chips

I just got this from Sarah.  I think she got it from Richard.  I haven’t tried it, but it sounds like I should! 
 
Kale Chips–a.k.a Seriously Addictive Snack!

Tasty way to eat your greens, plus they taste just like Lays potato chips (my old favorite)

Ingredients:

    1-2 big bunches of kale
    1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
    1 tablespoon oil
    coarse salt (to taste) or favorite seasoning blend

Directions:

Pre-heat oven to 350.

Wash and de-stem kale. Chop or tear into "chip" size pieces.

Spread onto baking sheet. Pour the apple cider vinegar, oil and seasoning (1-2 tablespoons) onto kale. Mix to coat all pieces.

Bake for 10 minutes or until crispy. Serve immediately!

Serves: 3-4

Preparation time: 3 minutes

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