Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Food, glorious food

No idea what this is ... but pretty, yes?
 At dinner on Saturday my nephew asked about China - "so what did you eat?" This from a 16 year old who refuses to eat vegetables and rarely eats anything good for him - and who's now about 6' 4".
Lotus root, cold pork and Sichuan pork (kung pao!)
So I started by saying what we didn't eat, or what we rarely ate -- and that was rice. I assumed since that it was an integral part of all of the Chinese food that I'd eaten in my life in the US that a) it would be a major portion of every meal, and b) I could just live off rice if the food was just too weird. I had already decided that I would be adventurous and also committed to eating meat, something that I normally don't do that often in the US. (Turns out this was a good move, as the real vegetarians in our group struggled at times.)
Mixed vegetables and jellyfish
Most of our meals were delightful affairs that I later heard referred to as ten course dinners: we sat at giant tables with Lazy Susans in the middle, and dish after dish would be delivered throughout the meal. While much of the food was recognizable, we had to turn at every meal to our guide AJ and ask what several of the entrees were, and he'd reply "pork," "chicken" or "mushrooms," etc. I felt like I stuffed myself at every meal, yet as one of my colleagues noted we probably didn't eat as much because we were enjoying a little bit of everything and eating slowly, enjoying the company of our companions. Exactly!
Devouring a meal at a Thai restaurant
Where did we eat? Hotels, neighborhood restaurants, tourist restaurants, airplanes, etc. The hotel buffets were always part American/part Chinese, so I had mornings where I had fruit, pork dumplings, cabbage and a croissant. We ate with our hosts (the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries) in a magnficent ballroom in their compound, which was once part of the Italian Embassy.  The most unusual was the Mongolian restaurant where each group of about 8-9 sat on cloth benches around a table inside our own private yurt! I refused to eat a meal in an American fast food restaurant - KFC (especially) and McDonald's were everywhere - though I did give in and enjoy a Dairy Queen Moolatte and a coffee at Starbucks, which turned out to be two of the most expensive things I consumed on my trip. P.S. to China: y'all have to get with the coffee program - those little shots of mud in the hotel buffets were abysmal.
I also ventured off the beaten path to have dinner with two friends where we had to point to the pictures on the menu, but it was good and cheap. Our waitress (pictured above) spoke no English and seemed a little terrified of us. You can see her putting in our order on what appeared to be a mobile phone, by the way - love the technology.
Could not do frog - just couldn't.
Most memorable foods? I don't think of myself as an advenurous eater, particularly when it comes to the texture of the food, so I passed on several choices that were just too "squishy" for me - the jellyfish, squid, several kinds of mushrooms, etc. I also had to pass up some things that were just too, um, realistic, like the little frogs pictured above. But I did learn to enjoy devouring cooked shrimp whole (shell, legs, antennae and eyes), I did try the soup that was indeed pork skin floating in a broth (though it wasn't crunchy like I hoped it would be), and I enjoyed the chicken joints (!) and the yak's milk (was that really yak's milk?). My favorite meal was the last one in Shanghai, where I tagged along with a vegetarian to a vegan restaurant he'd read about online. We had this excellent curried rice and noodles (with faux meat) that you see just below - man, that was excellent. We each also had two dumplings and hot tea, and the whole meal was less than $10 combined.
How did we eat? Chopsticks, all the way. My dexterity increased phenomenally, as did my appreciation for these devices. I even mastered the noisy noodle slurp.

It was amusing to have the flight attendant on the return flight from Shanghai to Chicago confirm that I had a vegetarian meal. Oh yeah, I thought, I guess I did order that, my mind briefly flickering back over all of the pork, beef, chicken, duck, and seafood I'd eaten in the past 11 days. And when it arrived - naturally, some random bland mishmash of fruits - I just shrugged and devoured it. Welcome back to the US!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beijing: A greater wall than I had expected

Classic photo of China: parasol + cigarette
There's a "WKRP in Cincinnati" episode in which a Thanksgiving Day giveaway goes horribly wrong. The station drops live turkeys out of a helicopter and its horrified reporter on the scene describes their deaths as they smash to the ground. "As God is my witness," says the station executive who organized the promotion, "I thought turkeys could fly."

In that same spirit I say: I thought the Great Wall was horizontal.

What I knew about the Great Wall was that this wall protected China from outside invaders, that it was built in parts over various dynasties, and that the idea that it can be viewed from the moon is a myth.  What I was not prepared for, though, as we rolled up in our tour bus to the Juyongguan Pass north of Beijing, was how incredibly vertical it was. I started flashing in my memory all of these photos of people on the Great Wall and sure enough, they were standing on nice flat stretches and smiling. But no, this was not what I saw - we were going to be climbing up the side of a mountain!

Soon I realized, though, that I wasn't going to climb the entire thing anyhow,  and that I was on the freakin' Great Wall of China - who cares how high I climbed? And I also started to look around at the other tourists, who were more diverse than the groups I'd seen at the Forbidden City and who were far more interested in us. Everyone in our group was approached multiple times by complete strangers who wanted to take their pictures with us. Sure, it made sense to me when the men would want to pose with the attractive women in our group, but I was stunned when several different groups pushed past them to take their picture with me. Me? Yes, at least 4-5 times I posed with young men, men and women, and even one gentleman propped his elderly father (I'm assuming) on my shoulder for a picture. When we asked, our tour guide suggested that we Americans represented success, and that it was good luck to have their photos taken with us.
Christine (center), with SteveB as the photographer.
What struck me about this was that this is one of the few times that I felt different in China. For so much of the time in Beijing and Shanghai, I didn't perceive people looking at me either positively or negatively - I was just another person. It hit me at the Great Wall that I had expected to be viewed as more of a novelty as an American during my trip, and except for the Great Wall, I wasn't.
DPS represent! Alison (@ Brogden) and me.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

China's going to Party like it's your birthday

There's a party going on in China - July 1 is the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist Party of China. I wasn't aware of this, but apparently July 1 is celebrated each year in the country as a national holiday. As we rode on our tour bus, we noticed a whole series of posters along the highways all over Beijing and Shanghai like these three:
According to my ace translator the phrase at the top of each poster goes something like "warmly celebrating the Chinese Communist party's 90th anniversary." The one in the center focuses on Shanghai (note the Pearl Tower and other distinctive skyscrapers) and says is loosely translated as "Beginning a new drive, and transformative development, using hard work to take Shanghai and build a society founded in modernism and internationalism." My translator assures me this sounds better in Chinese. The final poster includes the phrase "Ten thousand years of life to the Chinese communist party" and features the 56 ethnic minorities in China. China Daily has a complete site for more on the 90th anniversary.

Other new celebrations for the 90th anniversary include the debut of the new Shanghai-Beijing high speed train which will cruise along at 300 kph and the opening of the world's largest sea bridge (26 miles long!). The New York Times also has this video clip about the increasing patriotism in China, particularly in Chongqing:

The times sure are a-changing: I expected military reviews and lines of tanks, but so far I haven't seen any.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beijing: Arrival, Tiananmen, economics and the Forbidden City

Chairman Mao in the haze
We left North Carolina on June 16 for Beijing via Chicago's O'Hare airport. The flight schedule was a seemingly impossible arrangement where we left Chicago at 9 pm and we arrived in Beijing about 10:30 pm the next night. We were immediately struck by a blanket of fog which we discovered the next morning was actually smog. This haze continued for the remainder of our trip in Beijing, breaking on slightly on the last day when one of my colleagues gasped and pointed upwards - "Look, blue sky!"

We followed AJ's red hat to get us through the crowds.
We began the next morning by visiting Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. You probably know Tiananmen from the 1989 protests and Tank Man, but you may not know that it's also the largest square in the world. It was very crowded the day we were there, despite the 95 degree heat and humidity. Beijing and Durham (NC) are on about the same line of latitude and so the climate was similar to ours, but I thought that most of the Chinese people were handling the heat better than I was. (Look for an upcoming post on the people of China featuring something we called "the Beijing belly.")

Workers quickly cleared trash.
To access the square we had to pass through airport-like security, but it was quick and relatively painless. In fact, much of the security measures we encountered in China were very similar: pervasive (cameras everywhere, screenings to enter museums and subways, police and security presence) yet surprisingly non-threatening (police didn't carry weapons, security agents were pleasant and efficient). 

Fans were an ideal good to sell on this hot day.  
The other thing that we encountered for the first time here and which would continue for the remainder of our stay was the presence of vendors, such as this woman. Since we clearly stood out as tourists,  we were magnets to wave after wave of vendors who approached us selling all kinds of merchandise. The minute one of our group bought the first souvenir the "game" was on, as we quickly learned that 
  • a) prices were never listed, 
  • b) prices were negotiable, 
  • c) the exchange rate was in our favor (about 6.4 yuan/dollar) and 
  • d) walking away from a vendor was a very powerful negotiating tactic.
The Forbidden City was for centuries the home of various emperors, their families and their staffs. It was called forbidden because no one was allowed to enter or leave the walled city without the permission of the emperor. We made our way through the city quickly because of the combination of a limited amount of time and the heat, but were able to get a good sense of both the power of the emperor and the continuing respect for the Forbidden City by the tourists, who appeared overwhelmingly to be Chinese (unlike at other venues).

One thing I liked was the decorations on the corners of the roofs: the more little "beasts," as the audio guide called them, the greater the status of that building. The Hall of Supreme Harmony had the most so it could easily be seen as the most important.

Below you'll see one of my colleagues from Western North Carolina as he heads off to visit the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Stay tuned for more Beijing posts this week, and please be sure to leave any questions that you have in the comments below.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Back in the USA

Wow. Having spent the previous 11 days in China, I expected the jet lag, but hadn't predicted the "culture shock" (as one of my trip mates termed it) of re-entry into my own country. Why is the air condition so cold, I wondered. Why does the traffic seem so inefficient? Where are my chopsticks? Most of all, where is my day's itinerary?

The one thing I can categorically state about my visit, and which I will continue to emphasize here, is that what I will share is what I saw and heard - and nothing more. Yes, our visit was facilitated by an organization that is part of the Chinese government. Yes, we got a privileged view of China and often were given "VIP tours" of certain sites that we visited. True, we only saw life in cities and did not get to experience the life of rural Chinese people.

No, I didn't completely lose my mental faculties - I knew at all times that I was in a country with a government that has often been criticized for human rights violations of its citizens. There were security cameras everywhere, and I went through numerous security checkpoints where my bag was X-rayed and I walked through a metal detector.

On the other hand, we were allowed to ask anything, and all of our questions were answered. We were allowed to wander around every place that we visited. We had time in each of the three cities that we visited to travel on our own, and we did. I felt safe, safer than I did in the last big American city I visited (Philadelphia). 

So, take my posts with as large of a grain of salt that you need, and please leave comments with your questions. I promise to answer each one.  --Steve

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sorry for the lack of updates.

Gentle readers: so sorry for the delay in posting! The combination of the blocked sites, limited Internet access, a broken power adapter and very busy days here have prevented timely updates. I promise I'll do many updates when I get back to the states as well. For now, I am hoping you'll be able to see this iPhone shot of Shanghai. It's not very good quality, but I hope it will help you understand why the Chinese say that their national bird is now the crane!

Saturday, June 18, 2011


The good news: I'm in China and everything is fantastic! The bad news is that I can confirm what I learned just after I created this blog: Blogger.com and Blogspot.com are one of many sites blocked in China. I am working on an alternate blog site and hope to post that link in the next day. If this works, you should be able to read this post and I hope see the photo I took, but I will not be able to know if it works - so please comment below and I think I'll be able to see those replies. --Steve