Saturday, October 25, 2008

When Fact Feels Like Fiction, Part IV

Having survived our encounter with the killer fish, what could possibly be next? Well, it was finally time to head to our accommodations, the place we would be staying for the next two nights.

As we pulled into the neighborhood where our hotel was obviously located, we looked around. Hmm...Papa John's, fancy restaurants, Shanghai Circus World. This was obviously some sort of Western part of town.

And our hotel was indeed a Western brand...Four Points by Sheraton. What is it with us and luxury hotels in Shanghai?

Now, here's the thing that puzzled me as Ms. Lu escorted us into the elevator and up to the 16th floor...Why did we not have to go to the front desk and check in? Obviously, all of this had somehow been arranged ahead of time. But how? And why didn't we need to show our passports, which we always need to show, even at the Portman Ritz-Carlton?

As I pondered over this final little mystery, we arrived at our room, complete with views of the Pearl Tower in the distance.

And I thought it was going to be a regular old day in China...

~Steve

When Fact Feels Like Fiction, Part III

After the long drive back from Zhujiajiao to Shanghai (think New Jersey Turnpike on the Sunday after Thanksgiving), we found ourselves in for a few treats of the evening variety. Ms. Lu directed the driver to take us to this luxury hotel. No, this was not where we were going to be staying for the night (more on that later). This was actually where we were going to have dinner together.

On the way up to the fourth floor, where this gigantic restaurant is located, we accidentally got off on the third floor and walked right into the middle of a wedding reception. Oops...back into the elevator we went...

Rather than dine in the main room (with hundreds of our closest friends), we found ourselves in a private room set off to the side, behind a closed door. There we were treated to more incredible Shanghai cuisine. This time, though, it was not the countryside interpretation. Rather, this was gourmet-style preparation. Bamboo shoots. Cured duck meat. Small pieces of steak. And the list goes on...

There was, of course, plenty of fish. In fact, the feature dish of the evening was a fish that we do not know the name of. Here's how Roy described it to us...

"There is this fish that is very rare and very delicious. It is also very poisonous. In fact, it can kill you if you eat it when it is not properly prepared. For that reason, the government used to make it illegal for people to eat this fish. Luckily for us, the chef at this restaurant is certified to serve this fish. It will be coming out shortly."

With that as the back drop, out came our poisonous friend, prepared in a dark sauce of some sort. All eyes turned to me. "Please, have a taste." What awaited me was indeed a delicious treat...a nice white fish with a great flaky texture.

Then, Ms. Lu came around the table. It turns out that the skin of the fish is the best part, good for your stomach. Ms. Lu expertly pulled some skin off the meat and dropped it onto my plate, and again all eyes were transfixed.

As I provided this form of entertainment, Z was busy keeping time. "How long will it take for this fish to kill you if it is not properly prepared?" Fifteen minutes was the answer. Hey...we're still here!

And we had one last stop to make...

~Steve

When Fact Feels Like Fiction, Part II

It turns out that the highlight of Ms. Lu's plan for us was a trip out to Zhujiajiao. Zhujiajiao is an ancient city (have you heard that China has 5,000 years of history?) located in the countryside well outside of Shanghai. Frankly, we had never heard of the place, but it sounded very cool...lots of crisscrossing waterways and villages connected by bridges of all sorts. Once again, we were game...so off we went.

Leaving the futuristic skyline of Shanghai behind, we soon found ourselves nodding off to sleep, tuckered out by all of that gift receiving (which really does make you wonder what to do in return...we are still searching for the answer). When we woke up, we were pulling into a restaurant located in the middle of nowhere, apparently not far from our destination.

This stop gave us a chance to experience authentic Shanghai-style food. Shanghai cuisine is not nearly as spicy as the food up in northern China. In fact, it is, if anything, sweet in its dominant impact on your taste buds. As for the food itself, Shanghainese love to eat anything that comes out of the water. There were plants, like lotus served with a glaze...delicious. And there were plenty of creatures. There was some frog, served in its entirety. Prepared in a very tasty sauce. There's just not much meat on those little guys, so you spend a lot of time sucking on bones.

And then there were three different types of fish (yes, for those of you who are squeamish about such things...they were presented from head to tail). One fish had a vague taste of lemon. Another was prepared in a darker, almost barbecue-like sauce. And the third was served in soup. All excellent. "What about Z?", you might ask. Ms. Lu was kind enough to make sure a bowl of soup with nothing but noodles made it to our table.

Our bellies stuffed, we jumped back in the car for the short trip over to Zhujiajiao. The place was as interesting and beautiful as advertised. The first bridge we walked over translates into English as something like, "Set the Animals Free Bridge." In the area's Buddhist past, there were apparently monks who would set fish and other creatures back into the water, lest they be eaten by the locals. (Buddhists don't eat meat and don't believe in killing other living beings for consumption.) I found it peculiar that at the base of this bridge, there were lots of older women hawking pet goldfish. Where are the monks when you need them?

As we wound our way through alleyway after alleyway, we couldn't help but notice these old-style wooden boats that were plying the canals and rivers. Before long (and I shouldn't have been surprised by this), Ms. Lu had procured one of these boats to take us on a pleasure ride. What a fantastic experience that was! Gliding under bridges, past tea houses, listening to a history lesson from our shifu, and watching people go about the business of their day. It was just spectacular!

Back on dry land, we wandered the streets of Zhujiajiao until dark. Along the way, Ms. Lu picked up a silk quilt. It seemed to be a real beauty. It was only much later that I realized it was not Ms. Lu's...Yep, you guessed it...I'm staring at it right now! It's still in its bag. I just don't think we can comprehend the concept that this quilt is ours. Must be some kind of mistake or misunderstanding.

And we were not done yet...We hadn't yet eaten dinner...

~Steve

When Fact Feels Like Fiction, Part I

It was shaping up to be a rather ordinary day. We were scheduled to move from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where the conference on Reform and Opening had finished up, across town to Tongji University, where I will be giving a talk on the US presidential election. Professor Qiu, who had arranged my visit, told me that he would send a car over to pick us up. My assumption was that a graduate student would be tasked with this, and then we would be on our own to continue our exploration of Shanghai. Boy, was I wrong...

When we met up with the car (a minivan, by the way) outside the Jiao Tong Faculty Club where we had been staying, we were greeted by a delegation of three people. At first, Roy, the only English speaker in the group, seemed to be "in charge," so to speak. Accompanying Roy was a driver (a young guy who provided the car) and a middle-aged woman named Ms. Lu.

Ms. Lu, we quickly began to realize, was actually our host for the day, and she had some pretty grand ideas. She started by suggesting that we might visit Cheng Huang Miao, a famous temple located in the heart of old Shanghai. We, of course, were game, so off we went.

It wasn't long before Ms. Lu had given Julie a present, a Chinese-style accordion fan, adorned with birds and scented...a lovely gift. Then it was Z's turn. Upon arriving at Yu Yuan, the bazaar where we had spent some time on our last visit to Shanghai, Ms. Lu promptly walked into a store selling every kind of chopstick imaginable (from the ancient to the post-modern) and purchased Z a set of Beijing Olympics-inspired kuaizi.

As we quickly discovered, Ms. Lu was far from finished. There were writings by Chairman Mao inscribed on slats of wood, for Desi and I to hang on our wall and display in other ways. There were all kinds of traditional Chinese snack foods...nuts, dried fruits and vegetables...bags and bags full of them. Even some zong, a uniquely Chinese food that consists of sticky rice wrapped in leaves.

While some of this shopping was going on, Desi and I slid over to a music shop. Andrew had requested that we keep our eyes open for some gongs and cymbals. We figured we might try out a few here, to get our ears accustomed to the sounds. Then, later on down the road, we might find a little treasure to bring back home to the percussionist in the family. Well, Ms. Lu eventually found us and insisted on purchasing the gong we were playing with at the moment. (The same thing happened when I decided to buy Julie and Z ice cream cones. Before I could get the cash out, there was Ms. Lu again...)

By the time we made it to the temple, Desi, the kids, and I were loaded down with all of Ms. Lu's generosity. (Oh, she also paid for the four of us to see one of these traditional Chinese screen shows, where you look into a big box and are entertained by a funny story that blends the ancient and the modern...Colonel Sanders even made an appearance!)

As our whirlwind was going on, we kept finding out bit and pieces of information about Ms. Lu. She is a friend of Professor Qiu, who could not be with us for the day, due to other commitments (but who called several times to see how things were going...very well, thank you very much!). She was described to us as a "powerful local official" who works in the public security bureau. And she has a daughter in college in Paris, who may study next year in DC.

Our visit to the temple completed, we headed out to meet back up with our driver and head to our next destination. You see, we hadn't even eaten lunch yet...

~Steve

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dorm Life

No, this isn't a post about what my students' lives outside of class are like. I frankly know nothing about where they live, how they spend their free time, and what kind of hopes and aspirations they have for their futures. (Hopefully, this will begin to change next week, as we are all going out for some Sichuan food together. Ah, the universal language of spicy, boiled fish!)

The dorms I'm referring to are a rather different phenomenon from student housing. Everywhere in China, you may have heard, there is construction going on. Much of this building is being done by so-called migrant workers who originally hail from China's interior provinces and have relocated to major coastal cities in search of jobs and higher standards of living.

So where do all of these migrants live while working on specific projects? One common accommodation is temporary, dorm-like structures that can be found wherever big building is going on. These structures, plopped down adjacent to work sites, make for some interesting scenes...

You can walk down Zhongguancun Lu, a major thoroughfare like, say, Connecticut Avenue. There, amidst all of the electronics superstores and bright displays, you can see underwear and bed linens hanging on a clothes line.

Or you can walk out of the School of Government at Peking University and bump into a group of men, tanned from laboring in the sun, hanging out, smoking and playing Chinese board or card games.

I will be curious to hear my students views' on the presence of such communities in the midst of the places where they, China's leaders of the future, live and learn...

~Steve

"Shanghai Dumplings Are the Best..."

...said Julie this morning as we walked around the streets of Shanghai near Jiao Tong University, eating our way from one end of Panyu Road to the other. And I wholeheartedly agree. The textures of the dumplings here, as well as the fillings themselves, are zui hao de!

Today's selection was of the pan-fried sort (guo tie). The outside was thin, not doughy. Fried, but not very greasy. The inside was made of a mildly seasoned meat (most likely pork). They were just as I remembered them from our last trip to Shanghai. Served in a small paper bag inside a plastic baggie, with chopsticks, these are undoubtedly the tasty precursor to the xiaolongbao extravaganza that we are about to embark upon...

~Desi

The Universal Desire To Be Heard

Here I am, sitting at my second conference of the week. Monday and Tuesday, it was the third annual meeting of the Global Public Policy Network. This was held at the Peking University School of Government, right down the hall from my office. Thursday and Friday, I'm here in Shanghai, at Jiao Tong University, participating in a celebration of the 30 year anniversary of China's Reform and Opening. (Without which, by the way, we would certainly not be here. Thanks Deng!)

Now, don't worry, I am not about to bore you with the details. All I want to do is point out two aspects of conference presentations here in China that are no different than those back in the States. As you will see, the two are definitely interrelated...

(1) Time limits are for breaching. Rare is the speaker who can stick to the designated allotment of minutes, no matter how generous that allotment might be.

(2) You never can have enough PowerPoint slides. One day, I would like to see a speaker actually get through, say, 46 slides in 10 minutes.

~Steve

PS: The woman in the bottom picture is the official leader of a large residential community in Shanghai. How did she come to such a lofty position? Was she appointed by the local party secretary? Nope...she won an election! And who says the Reform and Opening is all about getting rich!?

The Brighter Side of Beijing Air Quality

Those sunsets look so much more beautiful through a layer of smog.

~Desi

Chuan(r) Wars

Knowing that we have a son who eats from his own selection of four food groups (noodles, chicken, an occasional banana, and all the junk food he can convince us to let us eat), we knew that the choices that China might provide could pose a culinary quandary for our "carbohydrate kid."

Happily, that has not been the overarching issue we were expecting. In fact, Z might be eating even a bit better here than in the States, in part due to "chuan(r) wars..."

Chuan(r) is similar to a kebab. In Beijing, there are many varieties in what is placed on the skewer, as well as how it is prepared. Sometimes it is spiced directly and placed on a makeshift grill with a shifu fanning and flipping. Other times it is soaked in hot oil (ma la tang style). Yet even within the styles, there is great variation.

Take last Saturday. For lunch we stopped at a chuan(r) restaurant by the west gate of Qinghua University. In all, we polished off 37 skewers of chicken (Z's favorite), lamb (Steve's favorite), potato slices (Julie's favorite), and eggplant slices (my favorite). They were slightly spices and grilled to perfection. In particular, the chicken reminded us of the dark meat teriyaki chicken skewers you could get at a Chinese take out restaurant in the US.

For dinner, it was off to our favorite Xinjiang restaurant in Yabao Lu for...you guessed it, more chuan(r). Here, yang rou chuan(r) (that's the lamb, probably the most popular) abounds. For Z, it's the very lean, white meat chicken skewers that he's most interested in (bu yao la, please...no spice!) We've seen him devour 15 at one sitting. This is undoubtedly source of protein in China.

Piecing together fresh carrots from the alley market, mi fan (white rice that is available at almost every restaurant), buttered noodles (cooked almost daily by his mom), a healthy supply of ji rou chuan(r), and, of course, all the junk food he can convince us to let him eat, he continues to thrive (OK, Grandma?!)

~Desi

PS: Now if we could only do a better job at this milk thing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Over Road, Under Road

Imagine strolling along side the Capital Beltway, using it as a way to get from your house to the bus, the subway, or to work. Or imagine walking across the New Jersey Turnpike, on your way to buy meats, produce, and household items at a marketplace on the other side. These are the kinds of scenarios, unimaginable in America, that play out every day in cities all around China.

How does all of this work? How do little shops and restaurants exist and even thrive right at the edge of six, nine, or twelve lanes of traffic? And how do all of those xingren (pedestrians) get from where there are right now to where they want or need to go in order to get things done...without getting run over in the process?

A big part of the story lies in the bridges that cross over the country's roadways and the tunnels that link the far corners of busy intersections in ways that do not not appear possible when standing on the street with cars, taxis, and buses continually whizzing by.

Now, with all of that said, this is the part of the story where words truly fail. These are not little pedestrian bridges and tunnels we are talking about. This is like Pittsburgh for pedestrians. (Hi Jim and Laura!) Bridges everywhere, with multiple levels, multiple points of origin, multiple destinations. And the story underground is perhaps even more interesting. Oftentimes, when you come back up to the ground, you are at a place that you couldn't even see when you originally descended into the subterranean world of not just xingren, but trinket hawkers, snack shops, and other unexpected little moments of commerce.

If only pictures could capture the full extent of all of this. These bridges and tunnels are, in effect, social devices that take big cities like Beijing and help turn them into much more manageable collections of small, interconnected places...

~Steve