Archive for March, 2007

Supper was…

Friday, March 30th, 2007

gathering tea leavesPaul Can Cookdinner spreadsatisfaction

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…a small fish, perch, more or less, steamed in a wok with ginger, scallions and beer, and still swimming 30 min before I ate him. A Chinese would have recognized it as authentic, if a little amateurish. How they manage to wield a clever to deliver such small spears of ginger, and still have flesh left on their finger tips baffles me. The ginger and beer is absolutely essential — Paul (a good Chinese friend, concerned about my ability to survive) was horrified the first time he cooked a fish here when I found I had no beer. When you gently point out that you have been cooking and enjoying fish for forty years without ginger and beer, they just as nonchalantly reply that Americans can do without ginger and beer only because they don’t have fresh fish. Lest you think that after using a couple of tablespoons of beer the cook gets to consume the rest, be assured that it’s totally undrinkable — look it says here “cooking beer”; godawful stuff to drink!

The starch course would have appeared less familiar: a diced potato, a diced taro root, some cauliflower, a bit of onion, all wokked, with a dash of soy sauce and a large dash of vinegar. Quite tasty to my palate , but not requiring supplemental rice. With a tangerine and two pipas for Nachtisch.

And leaving out the obligatory soup. If soup is obligatory, it’s also unavoidable. Whereas Judy saves her cooking waters to nourish the plants, Chinese cooks collect them, add a few bits of tofu or meat scraps or fish heads, possibly an egg, and voila, there’s soup.

To Each According to his Aggressivity

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

I bought a bicycle yesterday (275 Yuan, divide that by 8 for dollars); granted a simple model not even with gears. But, I think robust, serviceable and typical of those on the streets. I took it on my maiden voyage to the University today – about 25 min – I can’t tell you exactly how far it is; one of these days I’ll take the GPS along and give an accurate count. A little further, in the opposite direction (south), to get to the “old campus”, and not far beyond that the north shore of lovely West Lake. Bicycling is the best way of maneuvering in this big, but compact city. Though, statistically speaking, the risk factor reduction bicycling may have on coronary infarct is probably more than offset by the risk of getting creamed by a Chinese madman-driver, but I try not to think of it that way.

Chinese driving style is beyond my power of description. Rules of the road, as one would read them in the driver’s license manual, would sound familiar to Americans. It’s the interpretation that bewilders. (Of course, one could say much the say about the Chinese Constitution.) I offer an historical insight: there was a time not long ago when all China moved by bicycle. Light, slow and deftly maneuverable, there seemed little point in regimented rules of use. Thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s multi-colored cats, there is now a substantial middle class — and how else to recognize middle-classedness than by automobile ownership? Problem is, they drive their big, black Buicks (apparently not the granny car you may consider it to be, but a real status symbol) according to the principles learned as teenagers on bicycles. In a nutshell, the only apparent rule to Chinese traffic, human or engine powered, is “the right of way is mine”. I’ll admit there is a certain consistency to it, but it does keep one on one’s mettle, and encourages a strong element of chicken-bravado.

Thankfully, bicycle lanes are ubiquitous, and well segregated from motor traffic. Except when a motorist would really like to stop at that store just there, or would like to spare the problem of turning right out of his housing complex on a divided highway, when he really wants to go left. No problem! Just drive a couple blocks the wrong way down the bicycle lane to the next intersection, and then insert yourself into the stream of motor traffic.

Superimposed on this is the complication of e-bicycles. Technically interesting, these are bicycle-like (ranging upwards in size to motor-scooterlike) vehicles, powered by battery. Cool; green. These share the bike-lanes, but at twice the speed and of dubious braking capacity (generally supplemented by shoe-sole to pavement). I like to think the incessant beep-beep-beep approaching from the rear is just a friendly reminder that “I’m approaching, and you may not hear my silent, electric motor” — that’s the basis of my behavioral response, anyway. Could it be that the inveterately polite Chinese really mean “get the fuck out of my way?”

Yet another complication are the frequent spring rains — raining all day today, alternating light and heavy, but never quite stopping. And so I was induced to learn the fine art of riding bicycle with umbrella held high. It’s an effective method. Though negotiating China’s bicycle lanes with half the braking power and half the steering control, doesn’t seem prudent to me, all the more so because the rest of the crowd, operating under the same handicap, doesn’t seem phased by conditions at all. One has to credit them that they are not just fair-weather bicyclists. But I think I will invest in a rain cape.

Chinese Scatology

Friday, March 16th, 2007

clever plumberleaky pipe

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Lest you all thought the squat-toilets were a relic of a hard-scrabble past, let me tell you that a newly constructed, first-rank Chinese medical school is equipped just so. One is forced to the conclusion that it is the considered opinion of Chinese architects and public health experts that these devices represent the ultimate in hygienic public facilities. (They do indeed eliminate the rigamarole with toilet-seat-cover dispensers and ones phobia of uncovered seats.) That a few stiff-kneed, bottom-heavy, shakily aiming Caucasians find them inconvenient, is hardly of consequence to a race which takes its rest and relaxation in the squatting position.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring the paper.

Settling In

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

plenty of roomcomputer connectionsthe Emporer came by Grand Canal

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My apartment is more than adequate in terms of space; I’ve spread myself out quite luxuriously. It’s a very typical Chinese dwelling, clustered among 20 or so apartment houses fenced off unto themselves, with a main gate on one of the large east-west drags in the western part of Hangzhou. (I guess you could call it a “gated community”, but the image that will conjure to the average American would be awfully misleading. It comes furnished, adequately, including clothes washing machine, three beds in three bedrooms, an over-stuffed Nauga-hide living room set, plus a few funny accoutrements more sloughed off by a one-child family than “furnished”.

A university shuttle bus that stops a couple of blocks away and takes me to the medical school building in less than 15 minutes. And there are lots of apartment complexes in the vicinity, so plenty of retail shops. In short, it’s well set up for the working life. Actually, the work load is light, at least this quarter. I’m conducting one 1 1/2 hour seminar a week, in the style of a “journal club”, which is to say I pick out a recent publication, the group (10 more or less graduate students) reads it in advance, and we dissect it in class. Not unexpectedly, the discussion operates more at the language clarification level than at the scientific critique level — but that’s okay. Beyond that, already one manuscript has been laid on me to “help put that into good English”; I would be inclined to drop the adjective. And then there is the “consultations” with students, which are basically friendly chats, sprinkled with lots of “how-do-say-that”‘s. But then, I don’t want work to dominate my existence here. At this point in my life I’m not on the career-make, just hoping to have fun and some interesting experiences and to fix up my Chinese a little.

The charming parts of Hangzhou are, of course, not just at my door-step. But that can be remedied as I study the bus-route map, and, to really pretend at being Chinese, purchasing a bicycle is high on my list to do. And then there is food: breakfast comes too early in the morning to think about it, so it is setting down to my American routine of peanut butter, jam, bread and coffee. For lunch I join the throngs of students in the Uni cafeteria, which certainly counts as Chinese cuisine, if not so haute. Dinner is the tricky one: whether I cook Bob-style with Chinese ingredients, or try to emulate Yan Can Cook, or just give up and rely on the neighborhood restaurants, remains to be seen. In any case, I’m not worried about starving (though I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds.)