Saturday, April 28, 2012

Summer Palace (颐和园) [photos]

I went to the Summer Palace yesterday and liked it a lot. It's my kind of park: lots of twisty trails, trees, and water. Unlike the Forbidden City (故宫), it's a good place to wander around in. Here are a few photos:

A really steep bridge
The view from that bridge
The sky through the willow trees
If only they allowed bicycles.

Friday, April 13, 2012

On the use (and abuse) of chopsticks

The bane of my existence during my first two weeks in China was the CHOPSTICKS. Anyone who thinks that because they managed to follow the directions on the red wrapper and eat some food with the wooden chopsticks at the Chinese restaurant, they are qualified to go to China and dine with the Chinese, is dead wrong. First because those cheap wooden chopsticks are much easier to use than the metal or porcelain ones that homes and good restaurants in China use, the equivalent of kiddie spoons in America: less risky but a pain in the ass if you were to use them all the time (who wants to get splinters from their eating utensils?).

But more importantly, there's a world of difference between using chopsticks to eat from your own plate and using them to eat from communal dishes. Everything in China, or at least in Beijing (with the exception of food at fast-food places), is served on communal plates. When I drop food here – as I still frequently do – it's generally not into my own bowl (communal plates, personal bowls for rice or noodles, is how my host family does it) but onto the table, where, often after splattering me with sauce, it lies as a testament to my inexpertise. Trying to pick it back up just makes things worse: it's almost impossible to pick up something that's lying flat on the table in one try, so I can only succeed in doing so after several seconds of pushing it around on the table, during which everyone else is watching me with dismay.

It's not that I haven't improved with using chopsticks. After two months here, I've pretty much gotten used to using them, and the muscles in my right hand have stopped aching after every meal. Indeed, after my host dad gave me several lessons to correct my improper grip (rather than using the index finger alone to move the top one, as I was taught by the chopstick wrapper, you should use both index and middle fingers for maximum traction), I've gotten a lot of compliments on my technique. Indeed, just as most Chinese people's English handwriting is better than that of American native speakers, so my own chopstick technique is better than that of many Chinese people. Interestingly, there are quite a few Chinese people, in my experience mostly women, who hold their chopsticks in what they themselves acknowledge is an entirely wrong way, with the chopsticks crossed in the palm of the hand rather than parallel. The two people I asked about this both said that their parents just put the chopsticks in their hands when they were little and left them to figure out how to use them, and that they've been doing it wrong ever since.

But despite the orthodoxy of my technique, the use of chopsticks remains an effort to me, something which I have to constantly concentrate on or else fail spectacularly at. (Eating in public sometimes feels like running the gauntlet.) With a fork and a knife in my hand I feel comfortable and stable; I trust their solidity and stability. I still don't feel that way about chopsticks, and perhaps never will.

That said, I must admit that Chinese food is fantastic, generally both pretty healthy and very tasty. In particular, Chinese dumplings and meat pies (of the vegetarian variety) are one of the most consistently delicious foods I've ever had. So if the cuisine came about in conjunction with the utensils, there's something to be thankful for.

The real thing

On my way to China (republished)

Thursday 2/16/12 6:30PM EST

I arrive at JFK's terminal 5 with 3 hours to spare before my flight leaves. Though I had planned to get some last-minute things done before leaving the US, I find myself caught up in the melting-pot atmosphere of the terminal and decide to wander around for a while.

The people at this international terminal are a fascinating mix of 1) American travelers about to depart, 2) foreigners returning home, and 3) airline personnel. In the first category are some young people standing around in a circle. I decide I'm gonna infiltrate them. I walk up to them and stand there as if I belong; nobody says anything. However, their purpose remains obscure until an older woman arrives and starts talking to them in French about their passports. As it turns out, they are New York high school students taking a trip to France for their French class. Despite taking French, they don't seem to understand the woman, but I think most of them are just pretending to be stupid to avoid the embarrassment of seeming intelligent. Par for the course for high-schoolers.

Continuing on in my wanderings, I encounter a group of Asian women in matching blue dresses, all wearing heavy lipstick. I later find out that these are the stewardesses on my flight. I also talk to a hostess for Air France, curious to determine the truth of the stereotype that French natives don't like speaking to people who aren't fluent in French (which I am not). The stewardess, unexpectedly, is not from France: she's an American, and as a foreigner herself, is able to confirm the stereotype from her own experience. However, I have yet to ask a French native to get their perspective on the matter. Perhaps the perceived slights that have led to the stereotype are merely impersonal Gallic arrogance.

I don't get a chance to talk to any of the people in the third category, foreigners returning home. Perhaps I avoid bothering them because they are neither culturally familiar nor paid to talk to me. Nevertheless, walking around among these three groups of world travelers makes me very happy. I feel blessed to enjoy not only new experiences, but also foreign languages, which I see as the key to understanding foreign cultures.

I would like to spend longer in the terminal but need to attend to my procrastinated pre-departure duties. Once through security I make a brief stop at the duty-free store and consider buying some Jamaican rum which they have samples of (it is very flavorful) but decide not to risk the alcoholic associations. I arrive at my gate and make some last-minute phone calls before suspending my phone service*. I then debate for a ridiculously long time about whether or not to spend $13.99 on a neck pillow. I finally decide against it but the decision is agonizingly marginal. I've noticed that I have a hard time deciding how highly to value my own short-term comfort against such goods as money and knowledge (the paradigm of the latter case being, should I watch TV or force myself to do Chinese flashcards?). It's hard to come up with a good weigh to way such disparate goods against each other.

I notice something strange while at the gate, but don't really think about until I'm aboard the plane. Almost everybody on my flight is Asian. Why is this? Do Chinese people travel to the United States much more than vice versa? Or was there something about this particular flight that made it better for those returning than for those starting a trip? I remain puzzled.

My neighbor on the plane is a Chinese man, late 30s, returning from a business trip in NYC. I watch him texting using a handwriting IME and am struck by the beauty of his writing. I wonder whether Chinese penmanship is as much a skill pertaining to the older generations as English penmanship is? The ability to write an elegant cursive hand is something I particularly envy people like the Founding Fathers. By contrast, the cursive I was taught in school is lame and wimpy-looking. I renew my resolve to someday learn a manly cursive script.

On the plane, the stewardesses and the captain speak in both Chinese and English, but the former is the default. One of the stewardesses even greets me with "Ni hao!", despite the fact that I'm not only white but have facial hair. (Beards, from what I've seen, are essentially nonexistent among Chinese men.) Moreover, all the talk from the passengers around me is in Mandarin. Though I understand very little, simply listening to the language is awesome and I look forward to spending time in an environment where the pressure is on me to speak and understand the language.

China awaits, and with it Chinese. I couldn't tell you which one I'm more excited about.