Saturday, November 22, 2008

Well, I Did It

When we first arrived in China, Xiusha asked us about our eating habits. This is a kind of sport for Chinese people. There's a familiar pattern to the game...

China person asks...Ni chi la de ma? (Do you eat spicy food?)

More often than not, the answer is "no," and the China person is satisfied with their culinary superiority.

For us, the game often goes on for a while (yes, I eat spicy food...yes, I eat pig ear...). That first day, Xiusha had to keep digging deeper and deeper into the China person bag of tricks...until she finally had no choice but to pull out the ace in the hole...

Ni chi gou rou ma?

Do you eat dog?

Normally, game over...except that I responded..."Sure, I would like to try dog."

For three months now, that has been an idle promise. Then the game was played once again when I arrived in Wuhan. This time, though, my hosts followed through. We pulled up to this restaurant, a window was rolled down, and the question was asked...

Ni you gou rou ma? (Do you serve dog meat?) When you put the question that way, it doesn't sound so bad. Just another kind of rou.

All eyes on me, I wasted no time digging in. Is this about to be another one of those "tastes like chicken" moments?

Nope...actually it was more of a beef stew kind of thing, complete with carrots and other veggies swimming in the gravy.

The meal ended (about two hours later), I headed to the back of the restaurant, where the xishoujian ("wash hands room"...you get the idea...) was located. (It was pretty heinous, by the way.)

There, from somewhere outside, beyond the kitchen area, I could hear the sound of a lone dog barking...

~Steve

Wuhan, A City of Eight Million People (That's More Than New York, By the Way)

My professional duties over, it was time to hao wanr (have fun). My incredibly gracious hosts (yet again!) made sure to take me around to all of Wuhan's A-list attractions, like...

Hubei Province Museum (湖北省博物馆). There's apparently a template for museums in China. No need to show you any pictures, as architecturally the building closely resembles the Shanghai Bowuguan. And the exhibits themselves looked familiar. It's all about chronology. Start five thousand or more years ago, and work to the present, from dynasty to dynasty to dynasty.

Mao's Villa. The two most interesting facts I learned about the Chairman? (Aside from the fact that he had a car given to him by Stalin.) (1) He lived a very simple lifestyle, always wearing the same suit. (2) He once ate a meal that featured one hundred dishes...while touching the hair of two beautiful girls. (Hey, I don't make this stuff up!)

Huang He Lou. Climbing up to the top of Yellow Crane Pavilion, I was rewarded with my first-ever glimpse of the Yangtze River (China's Mississippi...or as I told one of my handlers..."the Mississippi is America's Yangtze"...). I didn't care if it was loud all around me or hazy all around the city. I was going to get a nice long look at the river, the barges, the buildings on both sides. (I get like that sometimes at tourist sites...)

Kongming Deng. Now, this is a really cool, distinctively Chinese thing to do. You take this paper lantern (you buy it from a street hawker). It comes with this flammable little piece of...well, I don't actually know what it is...no matter. Eventually, the hot air lifts the lantern off into the sky and it flies away into the night. There's apparently a festival where these lanterns are released en masse. Now that's something I've gotta see...

Local cuisine...and more. Before leaving Beijing, I asked my students what foods I should eat while in Wuhan. What are the local specialties? Re gan mian (hot dry noodles) was one answer. And what a good answer that was! This is the kind of food best eaten out on the street. I think it cost three kuai an order. Now the search will commence for this dish in Beijing (knowing that it can't possibly be as good as in its hometown).

Then there was ya bozi (duck neck). Deliciously seasoned, but too much bone and not enough meat for my taste. And dou pi. It's, I think, the skin of soy beans, with pastry wrapped around them. (More good stuff!) At one meal, pig tongue made an appearance. (I can't tell how good this was. Think lean bacon...)

All of this food (remember, I was only in Wuhan for like sixty hours). And I wasn't even done yet...

~
Steve

How Many People Can You Love?

There I was the other evening, once again, in front of an auditorium full of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members, this time from Zhongnan University of Economics and Law. What more can I possibly say about staring out at that sea of black heads? Why not let them carry the conversation, as they do so well? In that spirit, here are some of the questions I received after giving my talk on President-elect Obama, as well as during another two-hour "rap session" that was held earlier in the day (yes, it was exhausting!)...

My father owns a toy factory. Why is America not allowing his company's products into the country? It is hurting our business. (My answer to that question was kind of long.)

I hear that many Americans have guns in their houses. Now that he is president, will Obama make this illegal? (Another long answer. It's amazing how fast two hours can pass when covering topics ranging from early American history to the importance of educational exchanges between countries.)

Taiwan will forever be part of China. One day, we will have to "do something" about this problem. (There was a question in there somewhere, but it was drowned out by the students in the auditorium breaking into raucous laughter at the "do something" remark.)

I have a very simple question. Will America ever have an Asian president? (Of course it will! Would you dare answer any differently?)

~Steve

PS: That's, by the way, the banner advertising my lecture. And that's the crew, pulling the banner down and folding it up, so I can take it back with me to Beijing...

Business Traveler, China

I remember, four years ago, walking from the Taishan Overseas Chinese Hotel to Xiao Ming's house, to make a phone call back home to the States. Although I was only like a mile away, it was a big deal to us China newbies. And there were questions on the other end...Where are Desi and the kids? Are they safe? Yes, being new to foreign travel exposes your fears in all kinds of little ways.

Fast forward to today. I'm sitting here in Beijing Airport's new, enormous, "dragon" terminal, about to get on a plane to Wuhan. In one respect, this kind of trip is nothing new. Head out to a conference or another university. Give a talk. Attend panels (yeah, right). Eat some good food. See some sights. Return home.

Viewed from a different perspective, though, today is one of those little breakthroughs to cherish. I'll be, I don't know, close to a thousand miles away from home. The kids will get on the bus tomorrow morning and head to school. Desi will find some new way to get around Beijing and some new places to explore. It will be business as usual...

~Steve

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Real Thing: It's a Matter of Taste

Close to a year ago, right before we found out that this year would be spent in China, Steve and I went "across the pond" to Leeds. At the time we blogged a bit about the outrageous prices on everything from taxi cab rides to Coca-Cola.

Now, for the comparison...

While the taste of Coke in Leeds was different than in the US, and the 500 mL volume, which is smaller than back home, had a price tag that, in pounds, was the same as the larger bottles found in the States, the data on Coke in China was, until around a week ago, as follows: The taste...exactly the same as in the States. The cost...around 2.3 kuai or 30 cents for that larger 600 mL bottle. Great deal. However...

These data are not complete. They're actually "pouring in" as I write...

In the last week I have unleashed what seems to be a stunning Coca-Cola conspiracy (perhaps designed to make me quit my soda habit altogether, that is!). While I have been delighted that a taste of home exists all around China, I have evidence that a change is "a-brewing." I have noticed that the last few bottles we have opened have tasted like the much less palatable ones of those in Leeds and in China '04.

Why?

Olympics are over.

Why do I think these two subjects have anything to do with one another?

Those recent bottles have no Olympic markings on them.

As proof, I have purchased several bottles with graphic designs of the Bird's Nest, Olympic Athletes, and the Olympic Rings that remain on the shelves of the Wu-Mart Hypermarket (yes, that's really its name) and one of the less-patronized tiny shops in our neighborhood.

The taste?

Perfect for me.

What would be the motivation for the differences?

My theory is that the formula that is making its way back into the stores is actually the consumer favorite here. The one I enjoy is, obviously, for Western taste-buds. Could it be that those waiguoren tastes were catered to during the Olympics and that now, since those weeks have passed, the Real Thing for China is re-emerging on store shelves?

My plan?

You got it! Stockpile...

~Desi

Then and Now, Part II

Looks to me like neither the Chairman nor the former "Chairman" have aged a bit. Keep up the good work!

~Desi

Fall Without Color

Not long ago, Julie asked me, as we walked out to the bus one morning, "Do willow trees lose their leaves?"

This was a question that has stuck with me over the past several weeks, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there are a ton of willows around here. So what will they actually look like as the seasons go around?

More generally, there are a lot of trees around here, willows included, that have maintained their green hues deep into the fall. As September turned into October, and October into November, it was striking how little change there was in the landscape of trees. There they all stood, pretty much as green as they had ever been.

Sure, there's the occasional tree that has turned bright orange or yellow. And sure there are places here and there with concentrations of brilliant colors. But, overall, Beijing's dominant hue has remained green throughout this time of oncoming winter.

Then, all of a sudden, in the past week or so, it has begun to look much more stark outside. Winds have kicked up, and leaves have started blowing off the trees. The end result? Not only bare trees (a familiar sight to us), but also green leaves laying on the ground (definitely weird to our eyes).

So, yes, Julie. It seems as if willow trees do lose their leaves. It's just that they kind of go straight from being green to being swept up by the passing groundskeepers. Another little Beijing te se...

~Steve

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Our Quick Little Side Trip to Greece

After three months of Imperial palaces, mega-cities, and the Great Wall, we finally just had to get out of here. China was just getting so wu liao (boring). Sure, they have 5,000 years of history. But where are all of their ancient building and ruins? It was time to go somewhere far away in place and spirit...somewhere like Athens.

Although this story might seem remotely plausible, based on the accompanying photographs, we actually walked from our apartment to the location where these pictures were taken. What is this place where East seems to meet West? Yuanmingyuan...known in English as the Old Summer Palace.

According to various stories I've heard, either the Emperor Qianlong or some Jesuit missionaries built this apparently incredibly fabulous set of European-Chinese gardens and courtyards. I say "apparently" because one can only wonder at what Yuanmingyuan must have been like in its heyday.

When exactly was this heyday? We're talking the 1700s and the 1800s. A long time ago (although it doesn't seem that way by Chinese standards...there's that 5,000 years thing again).

And why exactly did its heyday end? Here's how a sign at the entrance to Yuanmingyuan describes the situation...

Unfortunately, this "wonder of civilization" was sacked, looted, and razed to the ground by Anglo-French forces in 1860.

I say, only half in jest, "thank you Anglo-French forces." While your behavior may have been despicable, the end result a century and a half later is a park that is a welcome variation on a theme in a country that favors restoration over preservation.

Now, if we can just make it out to some truly crumbling sections of the Wall...

~Steve

Monday, November 17, 2008

Oh No, Not the Te Liu Lu!

It's nice to be in a place for long enough to, say, have a favorite bus line. Even better, to watch as a new line of buses in that group is introduced...all clean and shiny. That's the 498. And you'll see me run for it (quite a sight in itself) if I see it approaching our bus stop.

It's also nice to be in a place for long enough to have a least favorite bus line. That would be the "Special Number 6" bus (or te liu lu). When we moved here and first laid eyes on it, we thought it was so cool. It's a double-decker, so you can go up top and see as far as the smog will let you.

Unfortunately, this bus has become our family nemesis. With two double rows of seats on both sides and a hefty number of users, the odds of uncomfortably standing really close (on occasion, I've wondered if I've become pre-engaged) are very high. Not to mention that while my height is not an issue, Steve's certainly is. Most of the time, he has to tilt his head to the side until he can move far enough back to stand in the cubby where the steps are located. He's had more than one gash on his forehead from where his noggin has collided with the ceiling...or the pole...or the light.

Because the te liu lu is the bus that most frequently passes by Yan Bei Yuan in the direction we most often go, we'd love to see a new line of these babies. Until then, you won't see us running for it (in hopes that maybe a 498 is close behind). In fact, we might even walk slower so we miss it...right Julie and Z?

~Desi

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Great Wall...Government Style

Although it had only been two weeks since our most recent trip to the Great Wall, we were delighted to return to the Mutianyu section this past weekend. First of all...we're talking about the Great Wall. Why wouldn't we go every chance we get!?

On top of that, the outing (from bus to lunch to tickets) was sponsored by the Fulbright program. (Thanks Ann, Tori, and Nathan!) This gave us a chance to catch up and compare notes with our fellow Fulbrighters. Although we all are part of the same government program, it is striking how different our experiences, and therefore perspectives, can be, whether we are talking about teaching, travel, family life, or research possibilities. That's the beauty of both Fulbright and China itself...they often defy generalization in a way that is very exciting and very freeing.

The whole public sector feel to the excursion culminated with our cable car ride to the top of the mountain. As soon as we scrambled aboard, Desi started saying stuff like, "No way! Give me the camera!" Julie caught on right away, and was apparently just as amazed. In the meantime, Z and I had no idea what was going on. We started looking out the windows. Was there a great view? (My thought.) Is our car being suspended in air by a very, very thin thread? (Z's thought.)

Eventually, the two of us figured it out. It wasn't something out the window. It was something on the window.

Here's what it said...

PRESIDENT WILLIAM .J. CLINTON TOOK THIS CAR DOWN THE GREAT-WALL ON JUNE 28TH 1998

This year was the first summer in three years where we didn't visit Little Rock. I guess Little Rock came to us instead.

~Steve

PS: J. William Fulbright was from Arkansas as well.