Earth Tones

June 17th, 2007

Three months on, and not a single health problem, unless you consider a marked increase in farting a health problem. Not surprising to me, given that my intestinal flora has doubtless been wholly revamped and my dietary intake qualitatively changed. Though I’m not aware of any mathematical models that would predict the direction of the shift to a new equilibrium, it seems to have been an upward adjustment.

If we assume the same rate of methane production pertains in a billion plus Chinese bowels, exposed to the same flora and taking in the same raw materials, that represents a lot of gas. Methane, as anyone who cooks with gas will know, is a high-caloric, colorless and odorless gas. You’re probably thinking you’ve spotted a flaw in the argument already: odorless? Yes, it’s simply spiked with a little mercaptomethane, as a safety feature, so that you’ll know when you left the gas spigot on. Ah, you meant biologically? Well, that’s also spiked with a few contaminants, presumably part of the intelligent design not to let us get away scot-free with sinful acts.

But let us not lose the main spoor. I’m thinking globally. Because of its caloric content, it, in its billion-fold manifestation, represents a huge loss of energy, and renewable energy at that, daily renewed. At the personal level, this may explain why the Chinese seem to eat so much but stay so slim. A large portion of those food calories they just blow off. To the perspicacious, this immediately suggests a business plan. If Dannon, for example, could hire a few genetic engineers to graft a couple of methanococcus genes into their lactobacillus, they might actually sustain a claim that eating their yogurt has a net negative effect on calorie balance. Atkins, move over. Sure, it would have to bear a G.M.O. label, but Americans don’t give a fart about that.

Methane, even more than carbon dioxide, has a powerful greenhouse effect. But think twice before you write that off as a fatal flaw. Consider Chinese greenhouses, which allow them to get three harvests of veggies per year, one has to assume because the the density of methane in Chinese greenhouses. Sevananda would endorse that. And Karl Rove could parlay the “China-Effect” into a compelling reason to tighten the new Bush post-Kyoto-proposal: it’s only fair to hold the Chinese to their current 1/5 per capita CO2 emission, compared to the U.S., because their per anica CH4 emission is so terrific.

I am sure there is a connection here also to the old Alsatian aphorism that a farting horse doesn’t tire. I’ve tried googling to find a correlation between flatulence and economic growth. But without success. The economists – Marxist or capitalist – apparently haven’t got a whiff of an idea. Economists generally make do with mere correlation, but my hypothese promises scientific explanation with a direct cause-and-effect relationship. And to think of some of the lame issues which have won Nobel prizes in Economics.

Don’t just divulge these ideas to anyone. I need to do more research before applying for patent protection. The bath water is running, and I have been able to find some wide-mouth Chinese jars.


May 25th, 2007

clothes drier

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You once wrote that mostly you were curious about everyday life in Hangzhou. Well, I’m taking a little break from my Saturday morning routine, which is housekeeping day. I put through (usually) two washer-loads of laundry, subsequently to be hung on window-ledge racks to dry. I dust — really damp-cloth-wipe-down — all of the furniture. The dust load is heavy here; a week’s accumulation on tables and dressers is remarkable/disgusting, in any case not to be ignored. I mop the whole apartment; all but the bedrooms have tile flooring, which not only picks up the dust load, but somehow redistributes it as foot-print (house-shoe) tracks recording your every movement. This all starts about 7 or 7:30, because is long since light be then, and my work-day rising time of 6:15 carries over.

When that’s all in hand, I do major weekly shopping (which is never quite enough, a supplemental run or two to the local markets during the week are typical.) I tend to do three separate runs, mostly because of the capacity of my bicycle basket (and I can’t lock goods purchased elsewhere in the “trunk”). The nearby fruit store – a little pricey by Chinese standards (and compared to the local market), but nice fresh fruit – sort of the Wholefoods concept. All told, I probably spend as much on fruit each week as on other foods. The “other” foods take me to one of the local food markets, i.e. dozens of individual stalls under one, large roof. Eggs, meat, fish (still swimming), vegies, oil, soy-sauce, perhaps some Chinese fried flat bread. Stranger foods take me a little further away to the “super-market”, A Wal-Mart sort of place, I’m sorry to say, that is happy to sell you anything from motorcycles to canned beans, with the advantage that you don’t have to ask for it, since you probably don’t know its name anyway. Regular purchases there are my peanut butter, honey, jam, milk and yogurt (runny, by the 2 kg bottle, but good). And, as needed, hand, dish or laundry soap, paper things, and such. Once a week, usually Sunday when returning from an outing, I swing by the French Bakery for a couple of croissants, a baguette, and maybe a Sunday torte or jar of home-made marmalade. Later Saturday afternoon, a two-hour language session.

Sundays have become my “outing” day. Checking off the list of greater or lesser Hangzhou attractions, museums, etc., sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied. Paul is usually available, at least for the more contained, museum-like visits.

Okay, my load of shirts is done. Gotta hang them before they wrinkle.

The People’s Physiognomy

May 18th, 2007

Hongkong hostessesLantau IslandKowloon’s Nathan StreetHongkong Island by night

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I can tell that I’m living in a communist country, (only!) because everybody gets a week off for May Day, the international workers’ holiday. I spent some of that holiday in Hong Kong, the second part of the “one country, two systems” duality, rampantly capitalistic, but not without its charms. I resisted the street offers of “Rolex” watches, but watched a lot of street people, and am prepared to offer some cheap generalizations. Unlike my town of Hangzhou, the Fragrant Harbor harbors a variegated ethnic mix: a few hold-out Brits, Indians who seem to be more ensconced than touring, Africans (or at least African-something; in short, Blacks), the mobile American college set with stuffed backpacks moving in and out of the hostels of Kowloon. Not to mention the majority indigenous and imported Chinese. Actually I will make mention of two characteristics of that Han population: many seem to evidence an ageing population; many are obese. These all, of course, are eye-ball demographics, which any of you can check out in your stuffy libraries. I liked my open-air approach.

On the subject of obesity, I offer Hangzhou’s streets as baseline, where the number of people I would classify as obese is miniscule. America pegs the other end of the scale. Last year in southern Africa we observed, Zambians and Zimbabweans were thin as rails; obesity set in by Cape Town. The Hong Kong populace leans, as it were, more towards the plump end of the scale, but with many, notable and noticeable exceptions. There is doubtless some profound relationship between alimentary and economic systems, but I’ll stop with a bumpersticker distillation: socialism is healthier; or maybe you prefer the Republican version, poverty is good for you.

These paragraphs are just by way of preamble to my observations on physiogonomies in the People’s Republic. I begin by dispelling any Occidental notion that “they” all look alike. Scanning the thousands of faces emerging from a Hong Kong subway station, each for a fraction of a second, I could pick out the familiar face of my friend with the same acuity as I have often done with the crowds rising from the Hartsfield Hobbit Hole. Jet black hair is still the rule, but henna-toned exceptions are many. Most Chinese women are really good looking. Most Chinese men look either like hoodlums or gangsters, depending somewhat on age, but more, I think, on disposible income. You may write this opinion off as that of a suffering celibate, but you would wrong (I mean with regards to the opinion, not the opinion holder.) And, of course, there are exceptions. For examples, the plumber repairing the leak in my bathroom is a truly handsome man, and my friend Zhu Hongyue, who gives me lessons in Chinese cooking, is kind of spirit and handsome of appearance (as are his ginger-and-scallion steamed fish.)

Without your grant of objectivity there is no point in my attempting to analyze these phenomena, so I continue under that assumption. The Chinese readily use the expression “putting on airs”, perhaps because commonplace behavior necessitates a ready phrase. Though I’d like to know where these airs come from. Presumably from the prevailing westerly winds. But that’s a dead-end for me, since the last American composers I’ve looked at are Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, and they appear not to be the objects of this emulation. Maybe it has to do with the boy-child preference of the one-child Chinese family and its resultant gender skew. The guys need to prove themselves real peacocks, while the girls can afford to be natural, nonchalant, practical — all told, not stunning, but attractive.

Supper was…

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

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

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

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.)