Saturday, July 11, 2009

From "I Don't Do Doufu" To "I'm A Big 'Fu-Fan'"

I've never been much for soy products. Back in the States, tofu never even gets a second glance from me, on menus or in grocery stores, because of its look and texture, which don't seem to agree with my palate. Even when it's disguised as a "Boca Burger," or even better (at Ninth Street Bakery in Durham all those years ago), "Fakin' Bacon" or "Soysage," I've never had the desire to even try it.

But here, the use of soy beans is prolific. And while I was slow to appreciate the diverse ways that tofu can be prepared and served, I have definitely become a "fu-fan" this year.

Perhaps one of the most interesting dishes we have seen and enjoyed all year was in Chongqing, when we visited Southwest University. Their specialty is large bowls of soft tofu that have an indescribable consistency. The tofu is spooned into individual serving bowls, and a rainbow of condiments of varied tastes and textures (sugar, pepper, garlic, ginger, etc.) allow the aficionado to experiment with a seemingly infinite combination of flavors.

Two everyday tofu dishes that we order regularly are as follows...

Riben doufu, kind of a strange one for China because it makes use of tomato sauce, which is uncommon here, features cylindrical chunks of tofu that taste similar to custard and are lightly fried and covered with sauce. It is called Riben (Japanese) because each piece of yellow tofu looks like the sun against the red backdrop. Riben is the name for Japan because, in ancient times, that is where the sun came up.

Zhu rou si consists of julienned strips of pork, and strands of raw leeks (at least I think they're leeks...or some type of onion), and served with squares of paper-thin tofu called dou pi, or tofu skin. The first time we ordered this, we had no idea how to eat it. In fact, we had never seen tofu like this before, and weren't even sure it was food! Steve tried it first (of course!) by wrapping pork and leeks and rolling it like a little fajita. After he survived, I tried it, and haven't stopped ordering it since! It is one of my favorite dishes in Beijing.

All things considered, I guess I'll have to stop saying, "I don't do doufu," much to Steve and Julie's delight, as they keep reminding me every time we order a tofu dish, "You do do doufu, and it's OK!"


PS: What a pity that we did not have pictures of riben doufu and zhu rou si for this blog! We had to go out for lunch to get them. Call it a working lunch!

Matteo Ricci

A year ago, none of us had ever heard of Matteo Ricci. Then, one day, Glenn Mott mentioned something to the effect that Matteo Ricci is considered to be one of the most important foreigners in all of Chinese history. So important, in fact, that he is buried right here in Beijing. Sure enough, when Qing Ming Jie (Tomb Sweeping Day) arrived back in April, Glenn and Yan Ke made a trip out to Ricci's grave, and, in the process, stoked our curiosity about this mysterious (to us) figure from the past.

Our interest grew even more when Julie, in a church history lesson on missionaries, learned a bit about Ricci and his life here in China. Turns out, Ricci was a Jesuit who, over the course of several decades of living in China, became fluent in written and spoken Mandarin. Ricci, in fact, produced the first ever Chinese-Portuguese dictionary, an important feat at a time when Portugal was one of the world's leading powers. Ricci was a also a skilled cartographer (feeling jealous yet!?), and laid down the first ever Chinese-language, European-style map of the world.

Because of the way he assimilated into Chinese culture, Ricci gained the favor of the emperor, and became the first ever foreigner to be allowed into the Forbidden City. Ricci's immersion into Chinese society also impacted his approach to being a missionary. Rather than explain Catholicism as something foreign to China, he emphasized that the Chinese people, through their existing religious practices, had long believed in God. He and other missionaries were simply bringing to China a more perfect way to exercise their spiritual beliefs.

This culture-specific approach to evangelization was controversial among Catholic leaders, even in Ricci's lifetime, and eventually the Vatican prohibited its practice altogether. In the end, the association of Catholicism with European culture lead to the expulsion of missionaries from China, and to a rift that, to this day, has not been fully breached.

With all of this as background, we set out, with Yan Ke as our guide, eager to see the grave site of Ricci, and several dozen other missionaries who also were permitted to be buried within China's borders. This expedition lead us to, of all places, a campus that houses a college where government administrators are trained. Yes, there, right in the middle of a Communist Party school, is the tombstone of Ricci, cared for and maintained in a lovely park-like setting.

This place of honor was not always bestowed upon Ricci and the others, though. As we strolled through the cemetery (courtesy of Yan Ke's unrelenting, and ultimately successful, search for someone with a key), a university representative told us that, during the Cultural Revolution, many of the tombstones were hacked into pieces. The evidence of this damage was apparent in the multitude of fault lines we witnessed, indicators of just where the graves had been repaired and reassembled.

As we stood there, our conversation inevitably turned to the historical relationship between China and the West. There is a dominant narrative on this history in today's China, coming on the heels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the decadence and military weakness of the nation's imperial leaders was exposed for all the world to see. This narrative, in a nutshell, is that foreign powers, in their competitive quest for trade and world domination, robbed China of its pride and independence. Without denying such chapters in East-West history, this narrative unfairly pushes to the side the many centuries of fruitful exchange that actually occurred in areas of religion, science, culture, and beyond. The life of Matteo Ricci challenges all of us to rethink just what we all might share in common, an important consideration in a time when China has undeniably entered into a new period of engagement with the West.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Things That Go Drip In The Night

As things start to heat up in Beijing (and the family debate over whether Beijing or DC is hotter in the summer ensues), I have been very grateful that our apartment is equipped with air conditioning. Albeit not central air, these individual units work well enough to keep us cool and comfortable. As is usually the case, though, there are unexpected variations as to how appliances and household items work and are maintained. To drains in the floor and shower heads that protrude from the bathroom wall in sometimes inconvenient places (For example, a friend of ours reports of a residence unit he stayed in for a few days, where the shower head came out of the wall over the sink...Who chose that location!?), add AC to the list.

Sometimes in our apartment, we have discovered items in place that we think, "What's that for?" We've quickly learned that it's definitely there for a reason, and that we should never, never move it! Getting back to the air conditioner units...In the rooms where they are located, there are large, empty containers, like a gallon juice bottle, a big red bucket, and an empty five-gallon paint container. It seems that all that condensation has to go somewhere, so since each unit is independent, it must empty the humidity removed from the room into its own container. If we forget to empty these each day, there are two types of messes that will undoubtedly occur.

One, of course, is if they overflow, they quickly cover the tile floor with murky water. More alarming, though, is when the bucket gets partially full, and the water backs up into the tube, then back into the unit, and starts dripping or spraying out of the air conditioner itself (which is near the ceiling). This usually occurs around two a.m., and makes for a wet wake-up call! Did I mention that the unit is over my side of the bed!?

Now that we're in a better rhythm of emptying the bucket before bedtime, the middle of the night mayhem has diminished. That said, this routine is just another little aspect of daily life that becomes incorporated into a flow that continues to be so different from what we're used to, but still so interesting.


The Lotus Are In Bloom At Yuanmingyuan

And Desi has a camera! These are three of my personal favorites...


Our Youngest Chinese Teachers Ever

So there we were, sitting around the table with Yan Ke, working through a series of stories that date back to various periods in ancient Chinese history. As we translated, Yan Ke kept emphasizing how these tales, about everything from imperial horse races to visiting far away friends on a snowy night, are even today known by every school child around the country. Little did we know, we were about to find out just how much this assertion really holds.

The doorbell rang. Undoubtedly, based on the incessant finger-on-the-bell pattern, this was xiao pengyou, one of Z's main buddies from the neighborhood. We quickly decided to ring him in.

On this day, xiao pengyou was not traveling alone. He came in with another RipStick-riding friend, who at first seemed a bit intimidated to be in a waiguoren home, probably for the first time ever.

It did not, however, take long for this new addition to become a full participant in the language learning fun. Once the boys realized we were learning classic Chinese stories, they pulled up a seat at the table. Yan Ke, quickly sensing an unexpected teaching moment, asked the boys to take turns telling us the stories in their own words.

This was a fantastic, and endearing, decision. The boys took pride in their newfound duties, and delivered the stories with great excitement. As Yan Ke later put it, this was a chance for us to listen to spoken Chinese in a very different kind of way. Rather than Yan Ke reading exactly from the texts he had provided us, the boys narrated the stories in their own words, at their own pace, with their own, natural speaking patterns. There was a lot of na ge and jiu shi, common markers that everyday speakers use to give themselves a moment to gather their thoughts when speaking. Our ears were, to say the least, challenged by these young, wonderfully imperfect voices.

This was definitely one of those little moments that will endure in our hearts and minds for a long time...


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

My Five Star Car

A few days ago, we took a trip to my favorite market, Five Star. Five Star is the best market in the world because of their product and prices. It is also where one of my greatest dreams came true...I bought a remote control car!

While the girls were off buying the world's largest amount of hair supplies, I went off to try and bargain for a new, green car from a particularly "firm" woman.

"How much is this kind of car?"

"This one? Oh, fifty-five kuai."

"No way! Twenty-five."

"Off with you!"

"Fine! Thirty."


"Never! My highest is thirty-five kuai."

That conversation happened over a period of a half an hour, because, at various intervals, I left to go check out other places and on the girls. After due consideration, I bought a green four-wheeler. Now, this isn't just any four-wheeler, because the front two wheels can do a three-sixty. Also, the wheels light up and can roll over any surface.

This car was five American dollars (cheap!)...And very cool! I'm really excited about my new purchase, because I have always wanted a remote control car.


Yan Ke Graduates!

One of the great, largely untold stories of our lives in Beijing is all of the time we have spent with Yan Ke, our Chinese teacher. Actually, at some point, a while back, it became woefully incomplete to refer to Yan Ke solely as our tutor. He has really become one of our family's best friends.

I can't tell you how many nights there have been...The four of us...In my office...Working together through the "long march" that is Chinese grammar. These have been some of our most cherished, everyday times that we have spent in Beijing.

And it hasn't been all work and no fun. There have been field trips to the botanical gardens, the Sackler, and Mateo Ricci's tomb. Just last night, there we were, the five of us, chilling outside at this xiao fandian that, improbably, serves the specialties of Yan Ke's hometown way down there in Hunan.

It all started out last fall with a simple quest to find a Chinese instructor. Back then, never could we have imagined the pride we would feel, less than a year later, at seeing Yan Ke all decked out in the colors of Peking University, getting the chance to celebrate together all that he has accomplished.

We do have one warning, though, for you, Yan Ke...It is not going to be very easy getting rid of us!


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Then And Now

One year later...Some things have changed...Some things never will...

I just like big hair better...


Welcome Back To Read My Blog Again

It's wrong to complain about something unless you are willing to do something to change it. This has been my philosophy about Chinese translation of English language since we moved here.

In America, it drives me crazy when I see words misspelled in public places. Take a sign I once saw on one of the House of Representatives' buildings on Capitol Hill, where "handicapped accessible" was written "handicapped acessible." This is a government building, for goodness sake!

Or, in a department store, where "separates" (meaning tops and pants) was spelled, in big, bold letters, "seperates." Ayou!

Did I write letters to Congress or K-Mart's board of directors? No. But I should put that on my to-do list!

In China, spelling is the least of their worries. Phrases like, "Mind Your Head," which can be seen anywhere there is an overhang, or, my personal favorite, "Please Take the Initiative for Bringing Invalidity Pregnant Parks," as seen on the 114 bus, are common. My though is always...Why aren't native English speakers hired to approve English signs?

Let me start by saying that I don't think it's at all necessary for there to be English signs in China. But, if China is going to welcome it's foreign guests in this way (while also providing some English language learning, practice, and reinforcement for its own citizens), the phrases should at least be close to correct.

It was rumored that Beijing tried hard to correct some of the worst signs before the Olympics, by hiring individuals to proofread. Still, there so many signs (and even public transit announcements) that use Chinglish, that it may take forever to edit this country!

So what can I do about this?

Long story short, a man at a bus stop approached a family of waiguoren (that's us!), and asked if we would assist him with his job. You see, he is working for a publisher who is writing and recording English learning books. At first, his main interest was in having Z and me record the books (as the conversations depicted in the books are between a mother and son), but then his focus changed a bit, as we actually heard him out.

"Can you take a look at the manuscript, and see if there are any difficulties with the translation?"

In an effort to follow through on my aforementioned commitment, I volunteered to assist.

Around six hours, one green highlighter, and a pen later, I was ready to hand back the edited copy. The translations really needed a lot of help. They ranged from disturbing to hysterical. There were Chinglish phrases, some phrases where I had no idea of the meaning, a few eye rollers, and, perhaps most shocking, was a selection of vulgar phrases, spanning various topics. it was if the publisher had no idea of the meanings...Especially given that these books are meant for mostly young English learners.

Here are a few of our personal favorites...

Big in, ther's plenty for everyone.

It's jake with me.

The willows burgeoned forth.

Cute naked guy is really starting to put on weight.

Peck at your dinner.

Over yourself up with a quilt.

Erode with the teeth.

Welcome to put forward your views.

I want to hit the kip.

Zowie, that was close.

Little pumpkin head.

He went to stool.

Silence prevailed.

And those "others" I mentioned...

Take a p***.

You're a pain the a**.

Chicken s***.

It hurts like h***!

This one's really bad...

Oh, what's that? It stinks. Your a******* smell awful.

And last, but not least...

I don't want to ride the b****. (I have no idea what this means, either, but it was in the "Wear Your Seatbelt" section.)

In the end, I was rewarded with two hundred kuai and a second manuscript that was equally needy. Same deal, two hundred fifty pages, six hours, and, well, a raise to three hundred kuai!

The true reward, though, was being able to make my contribution to the next generation of English language learners. If I can just get a few new speakers to say "Watch Your Head" instead of "Mind Your Head," or, more importantly, "Come Again" instead of "Welcome You Back to Our Store Again," then I have really accomplished something!

Now, about my Chinese...