Tuesday, June 25, 2013

General Musings

Firstly, I had two students describe to me The Lion King as part of their assignment. Both  young women told me that The Lion King was about a young lion whose father, the king of a mountain, was killed by a tiger. I've been scrambling to figure out whether or not somehow China changed this and, if they did, why? Or if, for some reason, that's how The Lion King comes across to Chinese people.

Secondly, you know how in America we say, "Hi, how's it going?" or "Hi, how you doing?" and then keep walking like we didn't ask a question even though we totally did? Turns out - and I've heard this from three separate students now - the Chinese version of this goes, "Have you eaten?" or "Have you had lunch?" Can't really put my finger on the usefulness of this of this particular colloquialism excepting to get a very specific answer.

Thirdly, does anyone else have this experience? You know someone - either you're friends with them or you date them - and the whole time you know them they're actually kind of boring? Like, they talk about doing fun, interesting things but they never actually do them? And then, for one reason or another, you're no longer in each other's lives and then, all of a sudden - or a couple days/weeks/months later - that person becomes as interesting as you wanted them to be when you were in each others lives. So, you're bemoaning something to the tune of, "Why weren't you like that when I actually wanted to talk you?" And then you realize that more than one person who you're not really close to anymore has that same affliction. And then you start to wonder if it's you who sucks the interesting out of people, but you realize it can't be you, because you're being interesting and, you know, living abroad and stuff. But nevertheless, in the back of your mind, you're kind of questioning, "Am I a fun leech?"

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Chopsticks: A Hungry History

Fun fact: The word "chopsticks" first appeared
in print in 1699 when Scottish adventurer,
William Dampier, first described them in his
travel history, Voyages and Descriptions. Other
"firsts in print" by Dampier include avocado,
cashew, and barbecue. 
Chopsticks, or as most of us know them better, the troubling utensils with which we struggle at all Chinese restaurants, are the main utensil in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Although there is no official record of their first usage, historians estimate that chopsticks saw their roots in China circa 1200 BC, on the tail end of the long reign of the Shang Dynasty. Somewhat ironically, they were implemented as a replacement to forks.

In their initial usage they were not eating utensils, but rather cooking tools. The thin tapered sticks were perfect for stirring large pots and seizing bits of foods stuck at the bottom. Chopsticks began making their ways into the hands of the masses as eating utensils when a food scarcity made forks and knives obsolete. Crafty chefs knew that to make food last long they should cut it into many little pieces, for quick little bites. (The Chinese word for "chopsticks" translates roughly to "quick little fellows.") This newfound freedom from previous cutting and eating utensils very conveniently complemented the increasingly popular philosophy of Confucianism, which asserted that, "The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives at his table." Thusly chopsticks as we know them began to take form, from twig-like branches to the elegant, to simple tapered bamboo sticks, to the elegant utensils they are today.
Fun fact: Higher-ups used silver chopsticks
because it was commonly believed that
silver would blacken when exposed to the
many poisons of the day. It doesn't.
However, it does blacken when exposed to
hydrogen sulfide, found in rotten eggs,
garlic, and onions. 
Within 100 years of their advent in China, the quick little fellows were popular in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and with their popularity developed mysterious lore and powers. It is rumored in Malaysia that if you are given chopsticks of differing sizes, you will miss a boat or a plane. In Korea, the closer to the tip you hold your chopsticks, the longer you will stay unmarried. In China, if you stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice, you wish death upon someone. Resting your chopsticks across each other is also a symbol of death in China.

Contrary to most Western thought, chopsticks do lend themselves to eating rice, noodles, and even noodle soup, if one has the patience to learn and perfect the art. Oftentimes, the rice or soup bowl is held close to the mouth to avoid unnecessary spilling or splashing. It is worthwhile to bear in mind that chopsticks share more in common with a shovel than a harpoon, and should be used thusly. They do not, however, serve adequately as cutting utensils, so unfortunately the Confucius philosophy of knives as a symbol of violence had to be abandoned in the name of graceful and efficient eating.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Wall

After several days of acting as kings and queens of commerce, Jake and I finally went to visit the Wall, the Great Wall that is. Laolongtou, specifically, the Dragon's Head of the Great Wall, where the eastern end of the wall meets the Pacific Ocean. Being on the wall itself is a pretty fantastic feeling - stepping on thousands of years of history and work - plus, we've been watching Game of Thrones so I feel medieval and badass every time I mention "The Wall."

Visiting the Wall was an impromptu trip, though I'd wanted to do something fun for Jake's upcoming birthday. Having our hosts, Helen and John, and Helen's sister join us was completely sporadic, and it turned out to be pretty fun. John is an expert navigator and also both he and Helen are very much overprotective parents, which is certainly preferable to "Here's a map. Good on ya." John likes to linger near the front of all public transport and make small talk with the drivers. They apparently mostly talk about the traffic. Helen can't really explain why he does this.

But anyway, he and Helen got us to Laolongtou, then Helen's sister took Jake and me inside the attraction. The weather was absolutely beautiful - slightly breezy, maybe a little overcast, and just hot enough to have the salt water air stick on your skin - as we hiked through the many corridors to the Dragon's Head. As we trekked down a particularly steep and eroded ravine, I said, "At least it's not raining."

In the midst of all this history and beauty, I think the thing Jake and I were most excited for was the looming Pacific Ocean, greyish and smeared with seaweed. Helen's sister declined to join us on the beach, but, shoes off, Jake and I curtailed it towards the shore and splashed into the ocean, climbing on the slippery, smooth rocks and feeling the gritty sand grind against the soles of our still winter-acclimated feet.

Behind us was the Dragon's Head and in the distance the Temple of the Goddess of the Sea, where, feet still sprinkled with tan and silver bits of sand, we headed for next. As we crossed the pass to descend the steps, Helen's sister, who speaks virtually no English, began frantically waving her hand and shouting, "Come on!" A nearly black sky rolled across the Pacific, encompassing the Dragon's Head in dark, grey shadows. At first, I pointed to the sky and said, "Dun, dun, dun," and then I remembered that I knew how to say bad in Chinese. So I pointed again and said, "Bu hao."

"Dui," Helen's sister agreed. "Bu hao!"

The three of us jogged up the steps, sped along the rocky paths, and practically ran out the gates. It didn't begin raining until we were safely under cover at the bus stop. And did it rain! Downpour! The streets - poorly irrigated at best - flooded with stink water that splashed the windows of cars and came in through the tire holes on our bus. It was only then that John reminded us that, the day we arrived, it rained, too, when we got on the bus. But it stopped before we reached Qinhuangdao. John said, "It'll stop." Meaning, it'll stop before we need to get off the bus. It did.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

It's Electric (Boogey Woogey Woogey Woogey)

The whole shenanigans with our lap top not charging really started in the States when Jake decided to bring his XBox to China. I rolled my eyes at this luxury as I often do when at home, but thought, "Whatever, he likes it." And then he tried to plug it in in China and *zzzzzt* zapped. Two wall outlets failed, one power strip failed, one electrical converter failed. (I hope his XBox still works.)

After observing Helen teaching a 1:1 lesson yesterday, she sent us with two students, Martin and Mark, on a mad quest for electrical converters, all convinced that this is the miracle fix we need. M & M first take us to Sunning, an enormous electronics store with a first floor dedicated to Sony, Samsung, Apple, Dell, and numerous other electronic brands, and a second floor dedicated to fans and lamps. Martin engages in a long, drawn out dialogue with the clerks about where we could find some converters - which is apparently a very foreign word/concept to the people in Qinhuangdao - and apparently we cannot find them in Sunning. So we go to Tesco, a shoppers' wonderland with a first floor dedicated to mall-like shops, and a second and third floor set up like traditional American department stores (complete with English subtitles!). No go. They send us to another store whose name I don't remember and again no go. That stores sends us to China Mobile, about a 10 minute walk, where they mercifully have converters, but try to swindle us one for 80Yuan ($13), which is really not a good deal. Martin talks them down to 50Y ($8) and we buy it and go on our way. Mark buys us some melon on a stick and Jake and I head back to our apartment to try out our coveted converter. Wah-wah. Works forhis phone; doesn't charge the lap top.

Jake and I head out on our own with the intent to go to Tesco for some more soda and a clock. (No clocks in the apartment - it is the land that time forgot.) On our way, we remember passing at least one (turns out we passed at least five) store with an Apple logo on it. We hit up three before we find one with what we're looking for. I point the MacBook on display and say, "Mei yo (no)" while pointing at the computer and "Dui (yes)" while pointing at the cord. The clerk frantically searches for her keys, which is quite the process, and finally finds them, opens up the locked Apple cabinet, gets us a cord, and I look at it really hard, trying to piece together why it looks so damn familiar, and I realize it's the same wattage and has the same prongs as my cord. But nevertheless, I am convinced of our need, so she tries to sell it to us for 588Y ($95). Jake opens the wallet and says, "We don't have enough." She asks us how much we have and Jake slams 455Y on the table. Sold, with negotiation of return with inked, stamped receipt. Unfortunately now we have no cash, so we can't go to Tesco.

We get home and breathe a sigh of relief because it works. And I wake up at 6:00 a.m. and think again, "That is the exact same charger I have." So I go out and cross-examine my charger versus our ridiculously expensive "Chinese" charger and realize - to my utter shock - that our Chinese charger is MADE IN CALIFORNIA, same wattage, same prongs. Tentatively, I plug mine in. No zappage, and success! So today we can return our "Chinese" charger and get our money back, so we can go to Tesco and buy groceries and clocks.