Food and Drink

a breather

ChinaMoiLotus Finally, a moment to catch my breath! I feel like we really hit the ground running when we got here (only because we did), and I finally have a few hours to sit and think and process some ideas and observations—and pictures. I have to do a couple of loads of laundry today, but that's about all. A couple of quick notes: Facebook people, if you want to comment, please go to the blog to do so; I can't reach Facebook here to participate in any discussions. My internet access is through the university (and a proxy program hilariously called Ruijie Supplicant) and Facebook, YouTube, and parts of Typepad have been blocked by the Great Firewall of China since the Uighur riots earlier in the month. I can only write posts and comments at Typepad, but I can't actually see my own blogs.

In that vein, Carol asked me over on Facebook (which I saw through my email, which is unaffected) whether I was loving it, and what surprised me the most. Yes, I'm loving it. I love the people here, I love the unfamiliarity, I love trying the new foods (god the fish is good!), I love the experience of being some place that is both completely unlike home and yet so like it in many ways. What surprised me? I'm not sure I was really surprised by anything, not because I know anything about China, or because I'm world-weary and jaded but just because I think I try to keep myself open to every new experience without judging or trying to "translate" it. Comparisons with home are inevitable, but I tell my students at home that the things every human being wants and needs are the same: food, clothing, shelter, safety, peace, dignity, love, and respect. Everything else is window dressing, so the fact that no one has a dryer here, though everyone seems to have washers, is an interesting choice, but not necessarily surprising. I'm not sure that I can explain why I'm not surprised. Perhaps because it's all new and all delightful. Even, in a weird way, the smell of sewage and waste. Hell, Paris smelled like that too, and so did the Longwood subway station back home for a long time. As the book says, everybody poops.

And Scott asked me what I said to my student's question about America supporting Tibet's independence. I didn't go into it then because I was a piece of black, burnt toast, not because I was skirting the issue. She said she was shocked to read that Americans supported Tibet's secession bid, and I can understand why. I told her that I thought we supported it for a couple of different reasons, one of which was that we had done the same thing ourselves to form the nation we live in now. The U.S. broke away from its own empire and since then has liked to see itself as a supporter of the right to self-determination. I said that there were always two sides to every issue and that it was always difficult for one nation to acknowledge that a part of it does not feel like it belongs to the whole. I talked about Quebec and the Texan's brief and recent bid for freedom (to which I say, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out), and I should have talked about our own Civil War, but didn't. I also said that there were a number of famous people in the US who practiced Tibetan Buddhism and who were friendly with the Dalai Lama and this kept the issue in the press in the US, as well as giving some celebrities some face time and free publicity for themselves (cynical? Moi?). I talked about the value most Americans place on individual independence and freedom and democracy and that it was our official policy to support that wherever possible. It was the excuse we used in Iraq, though it really had little do do with that, but that we also recognized China's right to define its own borders. The US also has a policy of welcoming and supporting refugees and exiles (the "huddled masses" argument). I also acknowledged that there's no good answer to that question, only politics, history, and national philosophies. I love that they ask hard questions.

I finally feel like I'm getting a geographical picture of the city, or at least the campus, in my head, too. Enough so that I may do a bit of exploring this afternoon. I'm pretty firmly on a Harbin schedule now, and woke up at 7 (ugh), but it was nice to laze in bed a bit and not have to get up immediately. I have a million thoughts I want to get down but they're completely disorganized, so stuff is just going to come out as it occurs to me. And I have lots of pictures, too, so get yourself over to my Flickr set on China. I'm trying to add new stuff every day.

First, the weather report: it's been very pleasant, if rainy, all week. Not a constant rain, either, but we get at least one shower a day, sometimes very hard, some of the streets flood quickly. Next time, I'm bringing Wellies (and it won't rain at all, of course). The temperature is perfect and it's only a little humid, a lot like the weather I loathed leaving in New York. Yesterday it turned positively sunny in the afternoon and I got a bit sunburned. Many of my students were carrying sunbrellas (lacy and very pretty, even the boys) and were a little mystified by why I didn't want one. Chinese girls like to stay pale. I should have put on some sunblock though. I look a little like Rudolf now.

One or all of the faculty have taken us out to dinner or on field trips during the week, so there's not much time for exploring between socializing and work. Next weekend, I think we might be going to one of the coastal cities for a couple of days, sleeping on the train. I anticipate exhaustion, but it'll be worth it to see more of China.

Yesterday, the undergraduates (about 90 of them) organized a field trip for us to Sun Island, also known as the Tai Yang Dao Scenic Spot (at least on my map of Harbin). This was a great icebreaker and I got to know many more of the students and have some great conversations. They're curious about everything: work, salaries, our families, how we care for our parents (a big issue for the Chinese; Shanghai has begun encouraging families to have two children to take some of the burden off the state for the care of the elderly), what we do for fun, what games children and teenagers play, how we feel about Obama and Bush, how we like the food, what we think of China, what's the best university to study X at, is your GPA or your extracurricular activity more important, what kind of families do we have, how many friends we have, what is New York like? Infinite questions.  The nice things is that as I answer their questions, they tell me about their lives too: where they're from, what their home town is like, if they have pets, how often they go home and how far they travel (one student told me it takes him two days and a night to get home on the train—51 hours!). Many of them are fresh out of high school and don't yet have a sense of what their major involves, or what they want to do with it yet. I find this interesting as most American freshman, though they may not have a good grasp of what their major involves, certainly know what they would like to do, and have at least some ambitions of what they'd like to leave behind. If I can generalize from these extremely bright students (the top 2.5 percent of all of China), they seem to want to just hunker down and get a job that pays them well. There's none of the American bravado ("I want to be famous for . . ." or "I want to be the best at . . ." or even "I want to be able to use my skills to do X this reason.") I'm not sure where this comes from, except that perhaps it has something to do with that aphorism (which I know is from Japan but it seems to apply here too) that the nail that sticks up gets pounded down. HIT tends to promote from within its own student body, so I have a feeling at least some of these students will end up being faculty members. I am, of course, making sweeping generalizations from limited observations, so bear that in mind.

Phoenix The park itself is beautiful: huge (9,390 acres; by comparison, Central Park is 843 acres, or 6% of Manhattan), immaculately kept, and with a number of features that American parks probably wouldn't have. There are several "wildlife" features (squirrel enclosure, a swan pond, an enclosure where you can pet and feed the sika deer) including food to offer the koi in the lake; an amusement park with rides (the first double-decker carousel I've ever seen; a little roller-coaster and a tilt-a-whirl) and game booths; a big lake with paddle boats; and several themed spots: flowers, topiary, forest, an artificial falls, an artificial mountain, marshland with boardwalks, replicas of the ice sculptures. The topiary was just boggling: huge and elaborate and incredibly detailed.

Park-deck  The park feels more organized than Central Park in that people keep to the trails and boardwalks rather than running riot on the grass the way we do. Someone asked me about that, in fact, and I explained that we plant very hardy grass that can take a lot of abuse, and that the Parks Department is always reseeding it, too. When we had lunch, we picnicked not on the grass, but on a wooden deck, which was hard on my old bones and my arse, even though the students very thoughtfully brought cushions for us. That's really pathetic on my part. We also played games there, one of which hilarious involved a student and I attempting to bust a balloon between our butts, and another of which involved passing water from cups held in our mouths. Afterwards, a bunch of people played monkey in the middle with a soccer ball and some amazing footwork.

Bridge My two favorite spots were the Harbin-Niigata Friendship Garden and the lake, which Hu Jing and Zhou Yang took me out on in a paddle boat, something I haven't done in years, and the lotus flower pond behind one of the bridges there. I hadn't realized the flowers and pads were so big. The buds are the size of my fist and bigger than my hand when they open, and a beautiful deep pink color. The pads are the size of serving plates or chargers. The flowers stand up quite tall and straight from the water, unlike the small white waterlilies I'm used to seeing in Cedar Lake, which lie on the surface. The Friendship Garden had another beautiful arched bridge and small pond after the Japanese style.

I took 84 pictures, many of which were of me or my students or me and my students. They weren't as adamant about hijacking my camera as the faculty were, but we all took pictures of each other everywhere, which was kinda fun.

We spent about 6 hours at the park and then went out to dinner with the faculty who are enrolled in the summer camps. Phew! They took us to a hotel banquet room and really laid it on, on English faculty member to a table of about 6. Mine had, among others, Mr. Miao, who is a riot, and likes his beer. I got roped into (very willingly) going around and toasting the other tables, which is what one does after one has eaten well. And did we eat well. Another whole fish, which is sturgeon, I think; slices of sausage in the Russian style (including blood sausage, I think); deep fried pork and shrimp in a sweet, gingery sauce (I'm eating the pork left overs right now, thanks to my hosts, who sent the rest home with me); cubed pumpkin coated in sesame seeds, a delicious beef stew with squash and chunks of corn on the cob; a delicious chicken and mushroom stew; sauteed snow pea pods; a vinegary salad of shredded potato and carrots; egg-drop soup with seaweed, and more which I can't remember. The breading on the pork and shrimp is not wheat or rice but potato starch, and thus delicious. Never met a breading I didn't like. Oh, and dumplings, which I was too full to try. We were all stuffed. Can you say food coma? So afterwards we took the 20 oz bottles of Harbin Beer around with our little 3 oz glasses and toasted the other tables. And the custom is to empty your glass after each toast. The beer is 3.2 so it wasn't much of a hardship, but I mostly stuck to water or coke. I don't think I would have had a hard time keeping up though. I did teach my table the word "chugging" too. Ah, cultural exchange. I was enthusiastic enough that Mr. Miao declared I was very Chinese. LOL. There was much shouting, picture-taking, a little singing, lots of laughter, and I told the folks at my table that their faculty meetings were a lot more fun than ours, which is the truth.

It's a little discombobulating to be 12 hours ahead of you all back home. I'm a half day older now and the news doesn't keep up with me.  As it's midday, I'm off to one of the big shopping centers in a little while to see if I can find a mattress pad for my rock-like bed. I just went to the "Meijers" for a bowl, two gallons of water, some footies, a couple bottles of beer, a sponge and some spray cleaner, all of which cost me 73 rmb or a whopping $12.00. Tomorrow, we're off for karaoke (shudder) and dinner, but I want to do a little exploring in the morning before we go. Laundry tonight.

out of the cocoon

DreamingMoi Been a while since I've blogged here, for various reasons. I've been teaching, grading, working on Bronx Voices, mentoring a student in poetry, reading fiction for other writers, doing some editing, baking, cooking, wasting time on Facebook, hanging out with friends who've missed me and basically having a very busy social life. I'm catching up on "Babylon 5" with Eva and Vinnie, and took myself off to see the new X-Men movie on Thursday, and have a date for the new Star Trek movie with Gretl some time this week too. I finally saw Emilie for the first time in three years (since I left AKRF, and I can hardly believe it's been that long). And I have still more catching up with friends new and old to do.

But I feel like I'm missing something essential, however much I love my friends (and I do!). I'm missing time to write, time to make things, time to post here. I haven't written anything for this blog, or Blogorrhea, or Cocktail Party Physics in far too long. I haven't written any fiction, fan- or otherwise in what feels like ages. I have, however, written a pile of poetry, i.e., one a day for the month of April, which I'm now going back and editing and parceling out to various collections. I'm itchy and anxious and wanting to get back to my own work this summer. My grades are due on the 18th, and between then and now, I have a mountain of grading to do.

Lilacs1But today, I took a me day and went off to the greenmarket at Union Square for the first time in ages, at least when the whole complement of booths is there. It was jam packed, full of flowers, people, early greens, bread, cheese, new potatoes, rhubarb, and winter apples. I bought ramps, and asparagus, and pomegranate ginger lamb sausage, and eggs and fresh pasta and spinach, and at the Garden of Eden up the street, Asiago cheese, morels, and grape tomatoes. Oh, and these:

The market was full of lilacs today, and I've been drunk on their scent since I got there at noon. I bought a big bunch of dark purple ones and carried them around with me as I walked up Broadway through the first street fair I've been to in ages (which was crammed with all kinds of food too: burritos, crepes, Italian sausage, smoothies, corn fritters, funnel cakes, gyros), through Madison Square Park, where the line for the Shake Shack was absurdly long, like a movie premiere, and over to Third Avenue to Oren's to buy another pound of Celebes Kalossi beans for my coffee-drinking friends. I got an iced cappuccino because I was flagging a bit by then and staggered into the subway at 33rd St, all the while smelling the lilacs. Now they're sitting on my work table beside me, filling the room with heavenly scent. The only thing comparable is lavender. The odd thing about them is that you can't really smell them if you bury your face in them, but the smell diffuses throughout the room. It smells like spring, like hope, like renewal.

Like vacation.

I came home and cooked scrambled eggs with ramps, asparagus, and morels. Tomorrow I'm going to make risotto with ramps, sausage and asparagus. And the morels I'm going to eat all by themselves. It's been years since I had them, and though it galls me to pay $45/lb. for them when I used to get them for free, I bought an ounce of them (which is quite a lot, since they're hollow) because I've been craving them. I'm over my rhubarb craving, and the asparagus craving is running out. Now I want peas.

And time. But in the meanwhile, back to grading, editing, etc. until the 18th.

Food Meme!

ChowdownmoiI can't tell you how long I've been waiting for this one. I don't know why I didn't start it myself. I've been told by others that I'm an adventurous eater, though I don't think of myself that way.   A lot of personal taste depends on what you grow up with. I suppose I'm this way because I was made to try everything once when I was a kid. As with literature you have to read in school and hate, everything's better when you don't have to eat it. Also, our tastes changer, literally, as we get older. I hated olives when I was a kid, and now I love them, because I'm less of a sweet tooth and more of an old salt. So I've at least become something of a foodie as I've gotten older. Hence this meme. It's a little about bragging on my part, but it's also about getting to know other cultures: the world is full of marvelous food and it's a great way to introduce yourselve to someone else's way of life. If you live in New York, this is actually pretty easy to do: you can eat in a different country every night, and still sleep in your own bed. The hard part is getting dishes that haven't been watered down for American palates, especially in Asian restaurants. I suspect from Rob's description that the Korean food here isn't as hot as it is in Korea. Likewise the Thai. And I know the Chinese eat things that even adventurous Westerners would balk at. Still, it's worth the effort to try everything, even if you're not sure about it.

The Very Good Taste Omnivore's 100
1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment at linking to your results. (They also have Wikipedia links to some of the obscure ones.)
5) Italicize the ones you'd especially like to try.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

Continue reading "Food Meme!" »

Live Long and/or Prosper

ChowdownmoiI wanna be Kate Harding when I grow up. She has a real talent for going straight for the throat, clamping her teeth on it, and shaking it hard until it whimpers and gives in. In yesterday's rant about what Shapely Prose refers to as the OBESITY EPIDEMIC OOGA BOOGA, she points out that you know, it's not just bad eating habits, people. It's an entire life style devoted to keeping the ants pacified and soporific. Instead of just offering free fruits and veggies for school children, there's so much more that could be done:

. . . Local, organic produce for all my friends! While you’re at it, bring back gym class and train future phys ed instructors to focus on encouraging the joy of movement instead of forcing everyone to move their bodies in exactly the same way, regardless of any pain (physical and/or emotional) it causes! Subsidize exercise facilities until they’re affordable for everyone! Create more bike paths! Clean up local bodies of water so everyone can swim for free! Build cities on the scale of human bodies instead of cars, and keep the streets safe enough for everyone to walk around! Ban high fructose corn syrup! Keep fast food and soda and junk food corporations out of the schools! Raise the minimum wage and shorten working hours so people have more time to cook and be active! KNOCK YOURSELVES RIGHT THE FUCK OUT creating an environment that makes it easier for everyone to eat a variety of fresh foods and get plenty of exercise!

But no, we have sedentary work that keeps us cooped up for 8-10 hours a day and raises our blood pressure in the getting to and from it while still sitting on our asses. We make synthetic, crappy food cheaper than real food. My favorite part of the this rant is the "raise the minimum wage and shorten working hours so people have more time to cook and be active." But no, our jobs demand more and more of our time, of our lives, and we load our kids up with homework and supervised, closely scheduled after school activities (if you're middle class and above) or unsupervised TV watching (if you're not and have to work long hours or 2 jobs to make ends meet) to keep them out of our hair. There's not much about modern life that makes it at all like the life our bodies were built for, from the artificial food we eat, and its great abundance and high caloric count, to the constant sitting on our asses and need for artificial types of exercise (cuz that's what going to the gym or running is: 100% exercise for its own sake). And then we shame the people whose bodies haven't magically adapted within a few short generations to this major environmental change, completely ignoring the idea of different types of metabolisms.

Which brings me to the excellent post by Sweet Machine, another of Shapely Prose's contributors, who reminded me of why I've been so uncomfortable with the whole fat phobia thing all my life—I mean aside from the self-hate it so often involves: it's the habit that Susan Sontag pointed out we have a habit of associating diseases with moral failures or certain personality types, and of blaming people for their illnesses, for  "not taking care of themselves," for giving themselves diabetes, heart disease, blocked arteries, strokes and, goddammit, dying on us! How the fuck dare they do that! Here's a little news flash, doctors and the people they try to con:

Everybody dies.

So far, nobody has yet survived the rigors of life indefinitely. There's no stopping the process of dying, at least not right now. Nobody has found either the Fountain of Youth or the Cure for Death. He's even coming for poor Terry Pratchett, who's lampooned him so extensively and brilliantly. (Seriously, if you haven't read any Terry Pratchett yet, lucky you to have that to look forward to. Start now.) That must be why he's been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's at the age of 59: it's Mort's revenge for being made fun of. Death happens. Sickness happens. Accidents happen.

The latest bit of utter stupidity is the new recommendation to put fat kids as young as 8 on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs to ward off future heart disease. So they can die of something else, eventually. First of all, if this does not smell like a new money-making scam from the desperate halls of Big Pharma, I don't know what does. Secondly, heart disease is the number one killer in this country, we're often told. And when it's conquered, there will be cancer, the number two culprit, then something else, even if it's only "natural causes," which is medicalese for "we don't know why s/he died." In men, the number three cause is . . . unintentional injury. Good luck with curing that one. First you'll have to get guys to stop drinking beer and saying, "Hey! Watch this!"

So if I am going to die, which is as sure a bet as the sun coming up every 23.9345 hours, I'm going to enjoy whatever time I've got. Naturally, I would like to prolong my current life style for as long as I continue to enjoy it. Eventually, though, I know it's going to be more restricted, less amusing, and more painful. In short, I will get old and feebler. My body will age and fail. And finally it's going to either run beserk in some way (cancer), break down (heart attack or stroke) or just quit like my dad's did, at 86. But in the meanwhile, there's life, which includes good food, beer, books, writing, walking around, looking at and doing art, and not freaking out every time somebody comes up with a new recommendation for prolonging my life.

Carpe Diem and pass the peanut butter, baby.

Archaeology, Science, Beer

Beermug_moiJen and I had a great conversation recently about the pervasiveness of science in our lives. It really is everywhere: your furniture (engineering in the milling of the pieces and metal that connects it), the obvious places like your computer and media, textiles (weaving and spinning were some of the earliest technologies); the paint on your walls (chemistry); your transportation (engineering and physics); most of our jobs involve some kind of science, even if we're only pushing electronic paper (computer science). Even agriculture is a science: fertilizers, crop rotation, planting and harvesting technologies.

Then there's beer.

Ben Franklin's assertion that "beer is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" goes farther than any number of scriptures in proving His existence to my mind (even though the quote itself may be a fake). And the quest for substances to "make us happy" has a led to a lot of scientific advancements, not the least of which is basic chemistry (One of my favorite breweries, Magic Hat, actually has a brew called Chaotic Chemistry). Beer is based on the chemical transformation of starch and sugars into alcohol through the use of biological agents (yeast). The fermentation still is one of humanity's greatest inventions, right up there with fire and the wheel, in my personal opinion.

There are scholars who actually spend time studying the history of beer and brewing (why didn't I know these people in college? More importantly, why didn't I grow up to be one of them?) Irishmen Declan Moore and Billy Quinn are two of them, and they set out to discover how Bronze Age Irishmen might have brewed up their IPAs. "This quest" they say in their very important article, "took us to Barcelona to the Congres Cerveza Prehistorica, [this sounds even better than the Medievalists' bash in Kalamazoo which is always a big party, and how did I miss this on my trip to Barcelona?] and later one evening in Las Ramblas in the company of, among others, an international beer author, an award winning short story writer, a world renowned beer academic ["Beer academic"?!? You mean that's a job description? Not a foible? Damn. . . .] and a Canadian Classical scholar - all of whom shared our passion for the early history of beer." Here's Dec and Billy's demo and tasting party, complete with grilled dead pig. Sláinte! And happy Fourth to all you Budweiser-swilling, grilling patriots, carrying on the long tradition of beer and pig-roast.

[Thanks to North Atlantic Skyline for the tip]