YARRR!

To all ye landlubbers out there, ye best be takin’ note that today be international Talk Like a Pirate Day! Aye, me and me mateys’ll be celebratin’ with buckets o’ grog like the seadogs we be, to be true!

[Obligatory China-related link] [Paddlin’ Pirate nostalgia]

Chinese Food Quirks

Most of my friends back in the U.S. have long since ceased to write me with questions about China, other than “are you still there?! When are you coming home??” Recently, though, my friend Dan wrote me this question:

so here’s a question for you: you know how in the US 95% of the chinese food restaurants you eat at taste EXACTLY the same? i know u can find a few places that taste different, but for the most part it’s like they all use the same recipes for everything. also, the menus (both printed and up front) are almost always the same too. so my question is: is there like some business start up plan or special school in China where everyone goes to learn american style chinese cooking? and is american style really way different than authentic chinese style? cause if it is then the american ‘chinese’ food places must have learned the american style of cooking somewhere…. as you can see, a very pressing question.

Dan brings up an interesting question, but one which I’m unable to answer. Does anyone know the answer to why Chinese restaurants tend to be so uniform in the U.S.? I suppose maybe it’s quite different in California or New York….

As for the differences between authentic Chinese food and American Chinese food, I’ll make a small list here (commenters feel free to add to it).

The food in China:

  • is smothered in MSG
  • often contains lots of bones, bone fragments, and shells which must be spit out or otherwise removed
  • doesn’t normally encompass “beef with broccoli” (and I sure wish it did!)
  • includes dishes like chicken feet, pig brains, live shrimp, dog meat, and snails
  • usually contains no raw vegetables
  • doesn’t usually include any dessert but fruit (fortune cookies, being a Chinese American invention, are of course absent and almost completely unknown)
  • varies greatly from region to region, city to city, and restaurant to restaurant

SMS Surrealism

A little while ago I got this SMS from a Scottish friend who’s also living in China. This was her response, verbatim, when I asked her how she’s been lately:

pretty good apart from boy friends mother very ill hospital a major freak out there was a live chicken in here a few days ago

Ahhh, China….

White Boy Antics

I have thus far neglected to mention that while I was in Japan, two more twenty-something teachers arrived at ZUCC. They are John and Greg. John has his own site as well, which is morphing into something of a China blog itself. (Side note: there are now 3 Johns among the 16 foreign teachers here, one of whom also has a son named John.) Anyway, they’re great additions to the team of teachers here; the new crew is shaping up to be really good.

John     Greg

The new ZUCC Foreign English Teacher page in now online.

Speaking of new China blogs (yes, an update to the list is coming!), Carl would have a conniption if I didn’t finally mention his new site, which he daily spurns as being “the stupidest blog ever.” It’s about China, though, and it’s not nearly as bad as he claims.

In other news, three of us had a mooncake-eating contest in honor of Mid-Autumn Moon Festival the other day. I’ll leave the details for later. I plan to devote a whole page to it (kinda like the Junk Food Review) if I can ever get the photos from Carl. In the meantime, you can get a taste from the Chinese blog if you read Chinese.

I’ll end this haphazard entry with an amusing incident that happened the other night.

[Scene: a small Chinese bar]

Me: You should talk to her. Practice your Chinese.

Greg: But I don’t have anything to say.

Me: Well just say something – you need to practice!

Greg: Actually, I learned a great Chinese sentence today.

Me: What is it?

Greg: [I like cake.]

Me: OK, great, tell her that!

Greg: What? Why should I tell her that?

Me: Just do it! It’ll be cool.

Greg: I’m not going to tell her that!

Me: Why not?

Greg: It’s stupid.

Me: But just do it anyway. Something good will come of it.

Greg: I’m not gonna do it.

Me: I’m telling you, something good will come of it.

Greg: Forget it.

Me (to her): [He says that he likes cake.]

Her (to Greg): [Really? My family makes cakes! I can give you some cake, no charge!]

Greg: [I like cake.]

No, I didn’t know the girl or that her family makes cakes. But that kind of thing seems to happen in China all the time.

Double Bummer

Bummer #1

Recently the CD-RW drive on my computer quit reading CDs of any kind. That was annoying, because it’s my only CD-reading drive and I rely on it to play music CDs. Since my computer is still under its one-year warranty, I took the whole thing in, thinking I might also add a regular CD-ROM drive and possibly a hard drive. (I’m not much of a hardware guy.)

I went on a Sunday. I was really hoping they could fix it really fast and give me back my computer, because being somewhat of an internet junkie, I hate being without my computer. There was no one on duty. They let me leave my computer there, telling me I could pick it up the next day. Oh well, mei banfa

The next morning I got a call telling me to come in and they could have my computer ready for me immediately. When I showed up it was a completely different story. They told me they had to ship off the CD-RW drive elsewhere to be repaired (a 2-week process), but they could install my new CD-ROM drive. They did. But the brand-new CD-ROM drive wouldn’t read.

They concluded that it was a system problem, not a hardware problem. That would explain why neither CD drive would read, even though the CD-ROM drive was brand new. The CD-RW drive must actually be fine, and wouldn’t have to be sent off to be repaired after all. But they would have to reinstall Windows. I try to keep only Windows system files on my C: drive for this very reason. When they asked me if I had any important documents on C:, I confidently told them no. They could go ahead and wipe C: and reinstall Windows XP.

It wasn’t until much later that I remembered that one of my very important files — “outlook.pst” — was kept on C:. And it contained every e-mail and e-mail address I had.

So there you have it, folks. If you sent me e-mail before two days ago, it’s gone. I lost it all. It’s very likely I don’t have your e-mail address anymore, either, so e-mail me. This includes friends and “China Blog Listing” requests. Sorry.

In a way it’s kind of relieving, as I had waaaay too many old e-mails backed up. I’m going to try really hard to be better about replying promptly to e-mails and keeping my inbox lean, but that may be a challenge since this semester promises to be super-busy starting next Monday.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. When I went in the next day to pick up my computer, they told me it was all better, both CD drives were installed, and I could try it out if I’d like to. I said I would. I put in an MP3 CD to test the CD-RW’s reading ability. It wouldn’t read. It was exactly like before. I tried out the same CD on the new CD-ROM drive. It worked fine.

The computer guys all acted flabberghasted because “it had just been working.” Yeah, whatever. I have to wait 2 weeks for my CD-RW drive to be repaired. Fortunately my computer is now back home and I at least have a working regular CD-ROM drive so I can listen to music.

Competence. It can be a tall order in China.

Bummer #2

Last Sunday I had a meeting with a director of a TV show. He needed a foreigner to play a part. I had a busy day Sunday. I needed to take my computer in to be repaired, so I had to lug my computer to the meeting.

The director looked me over and had me stand up, talked to me a bit, and decided I would be fine for the part of French police chief. Chinese police chief, that is. But French. In China. Speaking Chinese. Yes, strange, I know. But it sounded like fun, and my coming week was pretty wide open for filming.

Well, the director isn’t ready to start filming until this coming Sunday, Sept. 14th. He wants to film for three days, straight through Tuesday. Well, it just so happens that I have a jam-packed teach/study schedule, starting Monday.

I really wanted to do it, but I just don’t have the time. Not only is the pay not great (only about 800rmb/day), but being in a stupid TV drama is just not a priority. Studying and teaching definitely is. The TV people were trying to get me to postpone/skip 2 days (14 hours’ worth) of English and Chinese classes so I could do the filming. Nope, I don’t think so.

A “famous” HK actress, Mo ShaoCong (莫少聪) is gonna be in the series, too. (Has anyone ever heard of her?) Here I thought I’d have the chance to attempt to compete with one of Wayne‘s cool China experiences, but alas, it was not meant to be….

Unicode with Blogger

Unicode is great, but so far underused. It’s basically a newer, larger character set designed to make multilingual computing easier, indirectly bringing peace and harmony to all. Maybe one day we’ll be free of the mojibake and luanma (that’s Japanese and Chinese for “garbage characters”) that thwart our otherwise well-intended communications. Unicode is a step in the right direction.

What does implementing Unicode mean? It means you’ll no longer load up a page to find “garbage characters” and have to change the encoding used for the page. It means you can have characters from completely different character sets (say, Chinese and Korean and French) on the same page. Check out Glome for a good example of that. Unicode is great.

I bring this up largely because I think other China bloggers really ought to adopt Unicode in their blogs. Alf’s latest post reminded me of that. Even though he entered his Chinese name, “阿福,” correctly in Blogger, I can’t read it even when I change the encoding, and he made that post on my computer!

So I’d like to provide some instructions for those that use Blogger.

  1. In Blogger, go to Settings, then Formatting.

  2. Change the Encoding to “Universal (Unicode UTF-8)”.

  3. Save Changes.

  4. Go into the Blogger template.

  5. In the <head> section of the document (that’s the part between the <head> and </head> tags), insert this line:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />

  1. Save Changes.

  2. Publish.

Now when people visit your blog, it will automatically load with Unicode encoding and characters should display fine.

IMPORTANT NOTE: When you input Chinese into your blog entry through Blogger, you must be sure your browser is in Unicode encoding already. Otherwise it’ll all turn out as garbage. If you remember to switch over halfway through your entry, post first, then change the encoding, because changing the encoding will make you lose everything you’ve written in Blogger’s “Edit Post” window. If some of what you’ve written is in Chinese, then you’ll want to copy and paste it into a text file, switch over to Unicode encoding, then copy and paste back in. Nothing lost.

IMPORTANT NOTE 2: If you’ve written in Chinese in the past and it can be viewed successfully in your archives simply by switching to Chinese encoding, it will nevertheless become garbage after you switch over to Unicode. You’ll have to decide if you think it’s worth it to switch. I do.

<gulp!>

I finally officially registered for my Chinese classes at Zhejiang University of Technology today. That means I forked over about 6500rmb (almost $800 USD), I got my textbooks, I got my schedule, and I got my new student ID.

I got a little nervous looking at my new schedule and my new textbooks. First, my week is now completely filled. Every morning, every afternoon (with very few gaps), plus two evenings. I know, most people work 40 hour weeks, but teaching can be pretty tiring, and I’m not sure how great of a student I’ll be. For one thing, I haven’t been a real student for over 3 years, and for another, these classes look really challenging. I’ve described my Chinese level as “high intermediate” before, but these classes are definitely high, not intermediate. These are the textbooks:

  • 高级汉语口语—话题交际 (北京语言文化大学出版社)- Advanced Speaking

  • 桥染—实用汉语中级教程(下) (北京语言文化大学出版社)- Intensive Reading

  • 高级汉语读写教程 (北京语言文化大学出版社)- Reading and Writing

  • 中国社会概览(三年级教材,上) (北京语言文化大学出版社)- Survey of Chinese Society

  • HSK中国汉语水平考试 (北京语言文化大学出版社)- HSK Training

Looking at the textbooks, I see a lot of characters I haven’t learned. I can’t be lazy this semester.

There are only 10 students in the high level. There’s another white guy (Russian or something — not sure), a Japanese student, and the rest are Koreans.

I’m looking forward to making friends with all the other international students, and I’m really ready for another big jump in my Chinese level, but I think it’s gonna be a hard semester. I have to relearn how to work hard!

Asian Ear Cleaning

I found this link via Zod. It’s true in China too — Chinese people do pay a lot of attention to cleaning ears. In the USA common tools found on keyrings include bottle openers and penlights. In China the little metal “ear wax scoop” is quite a hit. It may seem dangerous to one’s hearing to use one of those things, but you see people using them around town (no, it’s not pretty), and I don’t think it’s causing widespread hearing problems.

The way this “culture of ear cleaning” affects me personally is that when I go to get my hair cut, that comes with a shampoo, and an upper body massage, and an ear cleaning, all for 25rmb (just over $3). They do use Q-tips. It’s a weird form of vulnerability, submitting to a stranger’s Q-tip.

Back from Japan

2 of 3 Tazawa brosI’m back from Japan and busy once again. It was a great trip, allowing me to catch up with old friends and have lots of great food and great beer. Unfortunately I was feeling incredibly lazy and I hardly took any pictures. The one day I wanted to take pictures — the wedding day — I got up early and was too groggy and forgot to bring my camera! D’oh! Some digital pics of that are going to be sent my way soon, though.
The wedding was really cool, and struck me as almost entirely like a Western one (and unlike a Chinese one), except that instead of having the religious service in a church, we had it in a Shinto shrine.

The bride was in a beautiful kimono, as were both mothers. The groom wore a hakama (male version of a kimono). The fathers wore dark Western suits. All the rest of the men were in black or blackish suits and light ties (except for me), and all the rest of the women were in nice dresses.

The Shinto rituals were interesting. Fortunately there wasn’t too much of the “sitting on your heels” kind of kneel-sit thing going on, because that hurts me. There was some sake drinking in the ritual. Afterward Okaasan (my Japanese homestay mom) asked me if I had understood the ritual at all. I said no. “Neither did we” was her response.

Then there were bride/groom photos and a group photo, and we all headed over to the hotel for the reception. We had a great meal which was an interesting mix of Japanese and Western food. Obaasan (my Japanese homestay grandma) didn’t want her steak so she gave it to me. Niiiiice.

Beer flowed and flowed, as everyone went around toasting each other. I got tons of omedetou (congratulations) practice in Japanese. Speeches were made intermittently throughout the meal. When mine came around I was already buzzing pretty hard, but I pulled it off pretty well. Everyone seemed to like it. It was kind of hard to write the speech because I couldn’t say anything bad about the groom at the formal reception, but the groom is kind of a crazy, gambling slacker kind of a guy. The content of my speech was basically:

Congratulations to both the bride and the groom, and all present. I lived with the Tazawas for a year and got to know the groom pretty well. When I first came to Japan I had only studied Japanese for one year, and I was completely unprepared for Kansai dialect. The groom helped me with Japanese (read: taught me bad words and funny sentences) and helped me learn about Japan in ways that you can’t learn about in books (He was in his fifth year of college when I met him, and was always skipping classes to drink, gamble, and play guitar in his rock band. His major was English, but he couldn’t speak more than a few words of it. He shattered all my preconceptions about Japanese people.). By fostering this mutual cultural understanding, he acted as a bridge (¼Ü¤±˜ò) between the USA and Japan. Today, in matrimony, another bridge is being forged between the two families. I’m really happy to be here to witness this, and I wish you both the best.

OK, I know the metaphor seems a bit forced, but the Japanese loved it. Shingo (homestay brother) helped me write it, so it wasn’t awkward in Japanese.

Somewhere amidst all the eating and speech-making and even karaoke (yes, in the middle of the reception, instead of a speech, some people sang), the cake was cut and the bride and groom switched into Western style formal wear. Masakazu wore a tux, and Yuki wore a red wedding dress and a nice tiara.

At the end the parents gave speeches. The bride’s father elected to sing a song to his daughter about the bittersweetness of “giving away” one’s daughter to her new husband. The bride was crying pretty hard, as was the bride’s mother. Then the groom’s parents gave speeches, and they were crying too. Obaasan (granny) was crying off and on for almost the whole reception. She was so cute. The groom didn’t cry at all, though.

After the reception there was a casual party for friends at a Chinese restuarant. The food was really good and not at all like real Chinese food. Unfortunately I was still so stuffed that I could hardly eat any of it. There were more speeches. Some of the groom’s friends’ speeches were hilarious.

Masakazu, the groomThe highlight was probably the massive paper-rock-scissors contest. Everyone paid 500 yen to enter, and just went through the brackets, single elimination. I was eliminated in my first match. When one guy won the pot (something like 6000 yen, around $50), the groom challenged him to one more match for all of it. The winner accepted. A big hush fell over the room, and friends of each participant whispered their psychological counsel. There was a big drum roll, and then the groom won it all, scissors over paper. He thought it was so hilarious.

One thing I definitely noticed at the party was the hot Japanese girls. The bride had some hot friends, and the groom’s friends’ girlfriends were pretty hot too. I keep trying to tell myself that Japanese girls only seem hotter than Chinese girls because of the makeup and fashionable clothes, but I have been forced to accept that Japanese girls are just hotter. I don’t think it’s because of genetics, although you definitely see some certain face types in Japan that you don’t see in China, and vice cersa. Oh well. The no make-up innocent look (China’s specialty) is cute too.

After that dinner the party moved on to a bar. It was owned by one of the groom’s friends. Definitely a cool place. The bar was a blast, but my memory of all the details is sketchy. All in all, a very fun day.

I had a great time in Japan with the Tazawas, but unfortunately I was kept busy the whole time and didn’t have time to see my other Japanese friends in the Kyoto area. Oh well… the wedding was the reason for my trip. I just hope my Japanese friends didn’t feel like I was snubbing them.

So that’s my account of the wedding. Classes start at ZUCC on September 8th, and my Chinese classes at ZUT start September 15th. This is gonna be a great semester.

Not so Sino

So I’m now in Japan. All things considered, it was a pretty smooth trip here, although leaving my place and the few days leading up to my departure were pretty hectic. None of that is so important at the moment, though. I’m here in Japan because a good Japanese friend is getting married this Saturday. With the new semester at ZUCC approaching fast, I can’t stay in Japan long this visit, so there’s nothing I can do but enjoy it. And that I am.

Since the purpose of this visit is to attend a wedding, I had three big fears about my return to Japan: (1) that I don’t have the right clothes for the occasion (and clothes in my size are pretty hard to come by anywhere in Asia — I don’t know where Yao Ming shops), (2) that I’d be asked to make a speech, and (3) that my Japanese has gotten worse than I thought (which related also to #2). All of my fears have been realized!!!

My dark gray suit has gotten tight, so I didn’t bring it, electing instead to go with khaki pants, a blue long-sleeved shirt, and a nice tie. Turns out at the formal Japanese wedding ceremony (I’ve never attended one) the suits should be dark. The difference between Japanese wedding and funeral menswear, it seems, is that at funerals the ties are also black, but not at weddings. So I need a black suit, fast. We’re looking. The actual couple are way laid-back about it all, though, so if we can’t actually find the right clothes it’s not a terribly big deal.

My Japanese is still very functional, but I get a bit flustered at times, which is annoying. After a few trips to Japan from China, I’ve stopped responding to Japanese in Chinese (which is really embarrassing), but the Japanese doesn’t come readily enough, and I’m impatient, dammit! I guess the worst thing is that I keep comparing my Japanese level to my Chinese level, and since I can express myself in Chinese with relative ease, it’s frustrating to be so limited again in a language I once considered myself to be quite proficient in. If I were here for a month, though, I’d be OK….

The speech thing is actually no longer a problem. Shingo (ex-Japanese homestay brother) and I had quite a few beers at dinner tonight and decided to write my speech. I told him in Japanese and English (Shingo has spent time in Australia) what I wanted to say, and we worked out the Japanese. It’s fairly short and to the point, yet kinda moving without being at all silly, since the formal occasion does not warrant an ounce of silliness. (Oh, and yes, we did try it out on soberer people before declaring it officially “good.”) Fortunately after the formal ceremony there’s also an informal party. That’s when the fun begins.

The wedding is going to be fine, but I really wish my Japanese was better. There was a really interesting conversation going on last night involving the true nature of Japanese patriotism/nationalism, the question of Japan’s attitude toward China and revisionist history, and the political manga of Kobayashi Yoshinori in particular. The fact that I can even still attempt said discussion is reason for encouragement, but I really wish I could have followed more of what was said — I mean the complex, juicy stuff — and actually added something substantial.

Ah, well. I think I’ll return to the task at hand for the time being: enjoying Japan.

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