Monday, October 30, 2006

Barbecued Sparrows

Last week, the other teachers and I ate dinner with the some esteemed guests. It was basically kind of a wine and dine to keep this particular party happy. We wanted to make sure we impressed them, so we gave them free reign of the menu. They ordered some fresh yogurt to drink, which was quite a treat as fresh milk is extremely hard to find here and quite expensive. (I want to point out here an interesting note that 'yogurt' in Chinese is '酸奶' which literally means 'sour milk'. I actually told my students why it's important to always say 'yogurt' and not 'sour milk' when asking for it in English.) They then ordered some great food, including fresh cuttlefish, spicy river snails, chicken feet, and my new personal favorite: barbecued sparrows.

The best thing about them, (besides the taste, and the fact that they were
barbecued sparrows), was that they were actually served to us in a birdcage, each one perched symmetrically on their perches. As I expected, no one in our party made a sudden lunge for them when they were placed on the table. But they were just too interesting to me not to dig in.

I put one on my plate, kind of looked at it, then asked our guests "这个怎么吃?" ("How do you eat this?") They explained to me you can just eat the entire bird whole. The bones were small and soft from being cooked, so you can just throw the whole thing down your mouth, head and all.


So I gave it a shot, and cracked right through the bones to the little meat that was there. To those of you 'never try things, knock it before you tried its', it wasn't just not bad, it was definitely the highlight of the meal! It was cooked with this really sweet and tasty barbeque sauce. I ended up finishing two of them, but on the second one I just couldn't bring myself to eat the poor little guy's skull. I just left his long neck and beaked face on my plate smiling at me.

I actually have pictures this time, check it out:



This is how they came presented to us.


We took them out of the cage and onto a plate for easy access.

Banned

I just thought it might be interesting to you to know that my blog has now been blocked in China. When I started this blog, I went to blogger.com just because I had blogged there before, but I was pretty sure that this site was blocked. To my surprise, I could access everything in all it's uncensored glory.

However, this week all of a sudden, I went to look at my blog and found out it had been blocked by the government here. Just to make sure it wasn't anything I said, I checked a friend's blog here at blogspot. It was blocked too, and I'm pretty sure he's never mentioned China on his site. I could log into my account and make new posts at www.blogger.com, but I could not view it at www.simonlesser.blogspot.com.

After looking through the message boards on the site, I've discovered that Blogspot actually was, and always has been blocked here. Google just recently changed the IP address of the the site a couple of weeks before I got here, which unblocked the site. It just took the government a couple months to catch up and block it at the new IP address. Nothing to fear though, I've already found a work-around that I can view my blog. (God bless hackers.)

But I do find this a bit creepy. As I am currently reading a book about the history of genocide, I have been thinking a lot lately about the power of information as a prevention against evil and salvation from poverty. But as I took a break from reading my book tonight to come down here and write a new post, I am reminded of just how real and alive these forces still are today.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Adventures in Chinglish: Volume I

Cleverly marketed cultural misunderstandings are really great. Like the storefront in Japan a friend of mine told me about that had Santa Claus hanging on the cross during Christmas season. While these misunderstandings really are a delight to witness, I fear they are becoming less and less common as they once were, due to the saturation of Western culture throughout the world. However, what is still rampant, and almost as funny, is the gratuitously inaccurate use of the English language*.

One of my favorite hobbies here is sign hunting. I'll just take a walk around the city and try to find the most hilarious misspelling or nonsensical English phrase on signs, products, or advertisements I can find. I've included some examples of the ones that came to my mind at the moment or I had pictures of, but the best ones are yet to come.

A sign at one particularly delectible ice cream shop reads, "Fresh Sheam" and "Home Make Ice Cream". Mmm...just thinking about it makes me want two extra large scoops of some fresh, homemake sheam. Maybe someone wanted to say "Shaving Cream", but said it too fast.

I bought a notebook yesterday that was too good to pass up. Each had a motivational, philosophical phrase in English on the front. I purchased my favorite, which reads:

"To everyone, he has an option in the direction of struggle."

This almost sounds deep. I actually double-checked it on Google just to make sure that this isn't a famous quote that I'm supposed to know.

I'll be the first to admit that my vocabulary is lacking, but I really was surprised to find out that 'Leisureliness' is a word.


I found this book in a bookstore here and grabbed a quick shot of it before the security guard gave me another nasty look. (Sorry for the glare).


Did the publishers of this book really think no one would notice that this is not in fact a picture of Peter Pan, as the title would have you believe, but of Star Wars Episode I? I'm cursing myself for being too cheap to buy it.

This is a tourist map hanging in a travel agency in town:


Choosing my favorite here is tough. "Jade Bamboo Shoot World" is pretty great, and "Nine Horse in the house" reminds me of a board game like "Hungry, Hungry Hippos", but the mental picture that "Camel flow love in the river" creates is just too colorful to not be my favorite. I really must visit this place.

This really is just the tip of the iceberg. I'll be sure to put some of the really good ones up soon.


*I'm fully aware that this goes both ways, and as Americans we're certainly not one to talk. As we speak, some clueless American girl is getting what she believes is the Chinese character for "Love" tattooed on her arm, until the waiter at the Chinese restaurant informs her that it really says, "Mustache".

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The sidewalk doctor

After writing about the sidewalk destist here in China, I feel that it would be one-sided and overly positive of me for not mentioning the much less funny, and quite sad, sidewalk doctor.

Much like the sidewalk dentist, these are small little shops, maybe the size of a large dorm room, on the side of the road. In the front of the room, nearest the street, are about four chairs where the patients wait. In the back of the room, there is a curtain in front of the doctor's office, obstructing the view of people walking by. If you look carefully though, the wall can be seen above the curtain, showing that the 'office' is really only big enough for an examining table and a place for the doctor to stand. Sitting in the waiting 'room' are poor, sick farmers, who probably must forfeit a great deal of their wages to not only make it to town (which would be expensive enough for them), but also pay for this grossly inadequate health service.

Reflecting back on my post about the dentist, I can laugh and think about how absurd the whole situation is. Perhaps it's because of the lack of severity of getting your teeth cleaned compared to a urgent medical need or illness. When I walk by these shops around town, looking into the waiting room, I only wish the situation wasn't as incredibly sad as it is. I only wish I could laugh as I do when I pass the dentist.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Karaoke at KTV

Last night I was invited to go to karaoke with some of my students. We had just finished watching a movie about the first black college basketball team in the south, and the racial prejudices they had to endure. About an hour after I had explained to my Chinese students what the KKK was, we were in sitting in our own private karaoke room. I looked up at one of the massive speakers, which branded a logo that stated its brand name as KKKaraoke. I so dearly wished I had brought my camera.

There were about eight of us in the room filled with some (gasp) padded couches, a couple tv's, and some tables for drinks and snacks. It was probably the most posh room I've been in since coming here. Almost like a classy, mafia looking place from the 70's with a lot of red curtains and couches. You had to walk through a dark, narrow hallway past other sealed off karaoke rooms to get to your room, which added to the whole shady, retro-mafia vibe the place had going.

From when I first walked into the room until we all left for the night, I don't think I stopped smiling or laughing. I'm sure I can't do the music videos on the screen justice by trying to explain them, but there were some parts that were so funny I wanted to bust out laughing, but no one else in the room would get the joke. The music, styles, and production qualities of the videos were all stuck right around 1995. This along with the many misunderstandings of trying to immitate Western pop culture led to some of the cheesiest, most hilarious music and music videos. The best ones have the random English words thrown into the middle of them. Maybe if I can find a few of the funnier ones on the internet I'll put up a link.

But even with the absurdities of Chinese pop culture aside, it was really a great time with my friends here. Experiences like these make me look back at my life in Fort Wayne and wonder why I ever thought I might be content living such a mundane life working at Aon.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Welcome

For those of you just joining the story, I recommend starting at the bottom, and working your way up (chronologically).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

你不明白这说什么

Last night I ate at a 四川餐馆 (Sichuan Restaurant). (Sichuan is a region in China that is known for its extremely spicy food.) It was a bold move for me. It was the first time I went by myself into a restaurant that did not have an English menu or anyone who worked there that could understand English. I knew I was absolutely on my own. Maybe it was because it was a Sichuan restaurant it had different dishes than I had ever seen before, but I actually had a lot more trouble reading the menu than I anticipated. For most of the dishes, I could read maybe 1/2 of the characters, but that wasn't really enough to know what the dish was.

I ended up ordering 麻婆豆腐 (Ma Po Tofu). It was different than I had ever had before. It was extremely spicy, but not uncomfortable at all. I couldn't really define the feeling at all. It felt as if my mouth had fallen asleep. My tongue and lips were tingling like they had pins and needles. It actually felt quite pleasant, but incredibly spicy at the same time. It was a pretty crazy feeling.

I talked to my language teacher later that night. He said that the first word, 麻 ('Ma'), means 'numb'. There's a certain kind of spicy pepper that they use that achieves this feeling. It's absolutely bizarre, but the food was incredible.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

No fakes

I bought some new sandals today. They cost $1.30. It was worth it, because I'm absolutely positive they're real Pmua's.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Progress

It's a beautiful day in China. Today, Wikipedia is officially unblocked. There is hope. I believe in the power that information can have for the world.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

In Hong Kong, hot dogs were translated as 'Sausages'.

I tried dog today. It's not bad. My friend Greg knew that I had wanted to try it, so when we went to eat noodles tonight he suggested we eat some hot dog. I really like eating with Greg or other Chinese nationals. I'm always up for trying something new, but usually I never venture to do so by myself. Usually, I wait to try it when it is offered to me. After that, if I like it, (and often times I do), I'll be able to order it myself. But that first step is still difficult to make on my own.

Dog meat is pretty popular in this part of China. People here say that really good friends will get together and eat dog meat together as an act of friendship. You can refer to a good friend as your 'dog meat friend', meaning that you eat dog together often. I guess it's some sort bonding experience.

I had walked by the restaurant that sells dog meat here many times. I always recognized the sign that said 狗肉 (dog meat). So when Greg took me there, I was kind of excited. We got our steaming pile of noodles with Lassie chunks scattered around the plate. All the meat is left on the bone, and dog meat is extremely chewy. This, along with the fact that my front 6 teeth don't line up with each other makes it difficult to eat. Nevertheless, I've figured out a way to eat it. Just throw the whole chunk in your mouth, separate the meat from the bone in your mouth, then spit the bones onto the table or under the floor. It kind of reminds me of the movies about the middle ages when you see some fat king rip some flesh off the bone and then throw it onto the nasty pile of chicken skeletons on the floor.

Anyway, I've eaten some pretty sick stuff since being here, but I've never really felt queasy while eating it. I've found the taste or texture to be appalling, but I never actually felt squeamish. But for some reason, when I was eating the dog meat, I felt a bit of nagging going on in my stomach. I think for some reason, I had an uneasy feeling about taking a bite of Old Yeller. As I was eating this, I was asking myself why this was. Why do I feel a bit worse about eating dog than pig? There really shouldn't be any good reason. Aren't pigs a lot dirtier than dogs anyway? I can't explain it, but I just didn't feel right chewing on lil' Snoopy.

In all, dog meat is pretty good. Chewy, but not bad. That said, I'll still probably order pork next time.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Just a checkup

I have got to take a picture of it sometime, but there is an amazing phenomenon here: The sidewalk dentist. I'm not sure I can describe it much better than that. It's a shop, just like any other. No door, just an open gate. About 5 feet in the gate is a dentist's chair, with a dentist working on a patient's mouth. That's right, just 5 feet away from the street, with no door, is a man extracting teeth from a patient. I could be walking by, maybe eating some ice cream, and take a stop right outside the door and check out what's going on. Maybe take a few feet forward and get a front row view of a root canal.

This leaves me with with some curious questions. How much does it cost? Do you need a license to do this? Do the dentists have licenses? How clean' is it? Do you need an appointment, or do you just jump into the chair? Many other questions scream for their hilarious answer, but I think you get the picture.

I feel like the answer to these questions are all obvious, but I'm still dying to confirm them. If I were really an adventurous person, I'd seek an answer to these questions by getting my teeth cleaned. C'mon! Joe would do it. What happened Simon, you've changed. You used to be cool.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Comfort

One of the teachers here made a comment last week that I never really thought of. He said that nothing here is designed for comfort. I never really realized it, but he's totally right.

My 'couch' is wood, with a half-centimeter thick pillow that sits on top of it. At many restaurants, they sit on stools that are 6 inches from the ground and don't fit half their ass. The beds are as hard as the floors. The toilets are a hole in the ground that you must squat over. No furniture is ever padded.

Tonight I saw the first couch with padding in it. All other ones are just wood. People here must have asses of steel. My butt hurts by the end of the day from sitting on wood.

He said he doesn't think the word comfort doesn't even come to mind to most Chinese people. This is the way it's always been. Comfort isn't a luxury they're familiar with how to use. Only recently the very rich are starting to think about how it might be nice to be comfortable once in a while. Maybe to sit down on the toilet, or relax on a couch that actually feels good to sit on.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A bike ride to remember

Tonight, my language teacher, Geoff and I hung out almost all night. We went biking at 6:00 at night, and we just got home at 10:30. He took me around the countryside. It was beautiful as always. He took me to one of the other rivers nearby. It was about an hour's bike ride into the country.

There's a place where you can cross the river on a very narrow bridge. The bridge is made of wood, and only about 3 or 4 feet wide with no sides or guard rails. We biked to the middle of the bridge and just stared into the mountains. Directly in front of us was the beautiful, calm river, above it the rice fields and farm houses, the village could be seen just above this, with the mountains towering over everything. The sun was setting and passing right behind the mountains as we looked out. It was like a postcard, but better.

On the shore, I heard some people jumping into the river to have a swim. It looked so fun. Next to them swimmers were a nearby 'restaurant'. It was just a little tent that was the kitchen, with three tables that were on top of rafts, floating on the edge of the river. By the time we were finished admiring the view, it was already dark, and we had an hour's bike ride home. Geoff suggested that we should eat at the restaurant, and I was delighted to do so.

I was really excited first of all for being where we were, with the amazing view. Secondly, because he took me to a place I would not normally get to go to. I don't think they even had a menu there. He just asked them what their best dishes are. So many times in China, I see what looks like a really cool place, but I know I can't really eat there because I can't speak Chinese or read the menu. Lastly, I was excited because it was an adventure. It was dark, and we were in the middle of nowhere, eating on a raft on river. I knew that meant that we had to bike back home in the pitch black. This was the kind of adventure I had been craving when I was sitting at my desk at Aon. Wow, I can't even remember how bored I was. I feel so far removed from that part of my life already.

So Geoff talked with the one worker there. He asked me if I wanted to try this kind of river fish. I said sure! He said it's kind of like an eel. I said sure. He walked over to a big bucket of what looked like a cross between leeches, eels, and snakes to show me. I said sure. The leelkes as I'll call them, were actually quite delicious. They had one bone right in the middle of it, which reminded me of duck tongue, but wasn't bad at all. It was spicy and very tasty. We ordered another green vegetable and the best egg and tomato dish I've ever had. It was just so good.

Our table was actually floating on a raft in the river. The mountains and river were all around us. We were sitting in the middle of the rice fields at some farmer's house/restaurant. Amazing.