Saturday, November 01, 2008

If I Should Fall Behind...

So far it has been easy to figure out what time it is back home in the States. Beijing shijian (Beijing time) is precisely twelve hours ahead of daylight savings time on the East Coast. So just change the a.m. into p.m., or vice versa, and you're good to go.

Well, with standard time returning to much of the US, our little mental party is over. How will we conceive of the thirteen hour difference? Turn the clock twelve hours back in our minds, and then add one more hour to the result? Or subtract one hour from our current time, and go back half a day?

Try both methods out. Which one is easier? Which one is more natural?

~Steve

Friday, October 31, 2008

Call Me 白君竹

This week, I gave my students their most important assignment of the semester...give me a Chinese name!

I laid down several ground rules at the start. I want a real Chinese name. A name that a mother and father would happily give their child. A name that is more than a transliteration of my English name (a strategy that just doesn't appeal to me).

The idea was that, after spending half a semester with me, my students know me well enough to pick out a name that is reflective of my personality and interests...hopefully just the good side of who I am!

I gave my students several days to think things over, to brainstorm. But it wasn't until we met for lunch, over some excellent chao yu (essentially, fish served in spices over a flame), that I put pressure on the group to make a final decision.

The first discussion centered over what my family name should be. One of the early contenders was gao. This is a real Chinese last (I mean, first) name, and has the added benefit of meaning "tall." But my thinking is that if a certain basketball player named Ming doesn't have the family name Gao, then I certainly don't deserve it either. No matter, this name fell out of contention, as the discussion continued round and round.

Ultimately, the group settled on bai. This is a common enough family name here in China...so now I have many, many new relatives (including another professor here at the School of Government). And it is easy to write...always a good thing to be able to spell your own name!

The given name, though...that was where the collective effort lingered. The students wanted to know my hobbies. "What is your favorite dynasty?"...this was another question I was asked.

Eventually, one of the students wrote three names down on a napkin. "You can choose from one of these," the students suggested, hoping to avoid making the tough final call. "No way," I countered. "This is your job."

What emerged from their last effort was a two character given name...jun zhu. A lot of explanation followed regarding the meaning behind these selections...only some of which I fully understand. The meaning of jun they centered on is something akin to being a gentleman. As for zhu, this has to do with the characteristic of not following the crowd, but standing up for one's own convictions. Both characters, the students assured me, have auspicious meanings.

Now, time to get to work on names for the rest of the crew!

~Steve

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kai Chuang

There's this really cute Chinese phrase that a Jiao Tong student told me about the other day. It has to do with...what else?...food! Specifically, Shanghai dumplings and how to eat them.

Now, we've mentioned before how xiaolongbao and other local favorites come filled with meat and broth. Bit into a hot one and...ouch!

So how do you get around this? And how can you chow down without making a big mess?

The answer? Kai Chuang!

Kai Chuang literally means "open the window." Here's how it works, as the accompanying pictures illustrate.

You use your chopsticks to create a little opening on the top side of the bun. Instant ventilation. Plus, now you have access to the little ball of meat inside and the broth it is sitting in. Toss some vinegar down the hatch, and you are ready to sip and chew.

With the inside cleaned out, the dumpling itself can be enjoyed without fear of burn or spill. The particular version I'm working on here has a crunchy bottom, as it was pan fried rather than steamed.

Kai Chuang...a cool meeting of language and eating...

~Steve

For Fifty Points And The Lead...

...What is the function of the following device, which was photographed in our room at the Faculty Club of Jiao Tong University?

~Steve

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Unexpected Stereotype

Here was a new one for me.

In a conversation with a Chinese graduate student, the topic turned to nationalities. I mentioned my German background. "Ah," he said, "Germans are very clever." Intrigued by this comment, I asked why he perceived German people in this way. His response..."Karl Marx was a very clever man."

Wow. Didn't see that one coming. In retrospect, I definitely should have. This may be stating the obvious, but I'm amazed at how profoundly one's perspective affects his or her world view. (I'm not even sure if I knew that Marx was German.) I guess it's time to open up that world history textbook again. Maybe that was the chapter we skipped because we were rushing at the end!

~Desi

Controversy on the Bund

Our third day at Tongji University turned out to be no less eventful than the first two. It started with me being driven across town from our hotel to the university, where I was to deliver my lecture on the upcoming presidential election. I am still starstruck enough by all of this that, as I was sitting there watching the skyscrapers whiz by, I couldn't help but think how far that little kid from Rahway had come. A nice thought.

As for the talk itself, there were 25 students in attendance, and they knew a good bit about American history and politics. I received one question on the potential importance of voter turnout in determining the result. I was also asked about the issue of liberal media bias. And then one student spent a few minutes wondering if Barack Obama has the potential to be a transformational figure in American government, along the lines of FDR and Ronald Reagan.

The session over, we all met back up and joined Ms. Lu for an excellent lunch of Inner Mongolian hot pot. Plenty of lamb and assorted other treats to drop into boiling pots of heavily seasoned water.

We then headed out to the Bund, Shanghai's quintessential tourist destination, right there along the Huangpu River, with the old European hotels and other buildings to the west and the Pearl Tower and the rest of Pudong to the east.

With such a concentration of domestic and international visitors, the Bund is crawling with hawkers. Not long after our arrival, one pair of salesmen caught Ms. Lu's eyes...these guys who do charcoal sketches of people's faces in just a couple of minutes. Before we knew what was going on, Julie and Z were being whisked to this shady area just off the main promenade and the artists went to work.

Very quickly, a small crowd gathered, as is often the case for things like this. Everyone wants to get a glimpse at how accurate the likenesses actually are.

A few minutes into the proceedings, a female public security officer came along and tried to move the artists away. I was not sure why this would be the case, given that there was commerce of all kinds going on all around us. But, no matter...as soon as the officer moved along, the artists sat right back down and continued their work. It was only when the officer doubled back a minute or two later, that the whole scene picked up and moved a couple dozen yards down the river. Again, I had no idea why.

Then things took a really unexpected turn. Another public security officer, this time a male, walked right up to one artist and grabbed him by the neck. The artist managed to take the portrait of Z he was working on and hand it to his partner. This turned out to be a key move, as the officer proceeded to confiscate the artist's portfolio, which he then slashed into pieces while a crowd looked on.

As for Julie's artist, he moved down the river a little bit further and finished up his work. He then took out the picture of Z he had been holding and completed that one as well. As all of this drawing was going on, his partner, now minus an intact portfolio, wandered by and watched things wrap up.

For our part, we took the pictures and continued our stroll down the Bund. (That is what one does on the Bund...stroll...) About an hour later, guess who we saw? Yep, our two artist friends. And take a stab at what they both were doing? You guessed it...charcoaling a pair of portraits...

~Steve

Living Outside of Myself

When we decided to move to China, I was totally comfortable with the idea. After all, a year-long vacation sounded fantastic (and so far, so good). There was only one thing I was a bit wary of...

I had heard that sometimes banquets with really rare delicacies are held in honor of visiting scholars and their families. In a true sense of hospitality, people from China want you to feast on all of the delicious foods. They might say, "man man chi," which means "eat slowly."

While there's no doubt that I enjoy food, I'm pretty much a meat and potatoes girl. To me, a delicacy might be something like lamb or couscous. And never does a fish pass through my lips.

Yet this weekend I was faced with an ichthyologist's dream. Fish in lemon sauce, dead fish in a bowl of broth, barbecue fish, deadly Yangtze River fish (he tun yu). Yes, I know we're in Shanghai (which means "on the sea"), and therefore the local cuisine includes a lot of fins, so I guess I should have had an inkling. So what did I do?

Ate them. Yes, even the poisonous one. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. I stepped outside of myself and my norms and learned an important lesson in addition to being polite to my hosts. Sometimes a little discomfort is OK. Sometimes uncomfortable situations can induce growth. And...

Almost any food, when seasoned correctly and smothered in sauce can be tasty.

~Desi

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Givers That Keep On Giving

Our gracious hosts from Tongji University, after an incredible day yesterday, were not finished making this trip feel like Christmas in October. This morning, a delegation, including Professor Qiu, our host, greeted us in the lobby of the Sheraton with a few more of the beautiful treasures that are specialties of China and, in particular, Shanghai.

First, of course, China. Yes, that kind of China. A huge box that includes the types of place settings that a Chinese family would own. Small bowls, plates, serving dishes and soup spoons in white with a silver floral pattern. Second, two beautiful lithographs depicting common Chinese scenery. One has a wonderful bamboo motif, the other a colorful sunset. Finally, a framed piece of artwork, colorfully displaying village life in a farming community, ties for first favorite for me (along with the silk comforter which is, by the way, still in the bag).

There is truly no way to describe how this type of hospitality makes us feel, except to say that we may never leave Shanghai...in part because of the wonderful treatment we have received, in part because we have no idea HOW we're going to get all these gifts back to Beijing!!!

~Desi