Wednesday, February 29, 2012

one more day

29 February.

It seems like some scientist's bad idea of a practical joke.  Tacking an additional day on the dreariest month of the year.  (At least, in the northern latitudes.)

But it is a handy little memory jogger that each leap year brings another American presidential election threatening the public calm, along with the Olympics (at least, the summer variety). 

Thus one more day each year to keep the calendar in tune with the Earth's laggardly orbit around the sun.  Another proof that Aristotle and his crystal spheres are not as orderly as those chiton-wearing Greeks taught.

But forget about the politicians.  And the high jumpers.  And those Greeks with their island parties. 

29 February means my friend Leo is having another birthday.  That's him at the top of the post.  Doing his best Wizard of Oz impression.

Like everybody born on this day, he tries to pull the old scam that he is one-quarter his actual age.  Even so, he is still younger than this mexpatriate.

I met Leo while working my way through college.  We served time on a checking account reconciliation team in the early 70s.  Back when such things as checks and full heads of hair existed.

We became very good friends.  Along with some of our work chums we formed what we dubbed the Polish Skiing Team (a title that would now send us to diversity prison). 

I stopped in Oregon to serve as the best man in Leo's wedding on my way to an assignment in Greece in 1973.  It was a great life.

I could tell some fascinating stories about Leo.  And I probably should.  His children are fully grown.  And grandchildren always enjoy hearing the misadventures of their grandpa.

But that will be for another day.  I was hoping to see Leo at the wedding of his son last year.  But I could not arrange the logistics of getting there.  Now, that would have been a great venue for The Tales.

Instead, I will simply wish my good friend a very happy birthday.

And hope that he sees the four-year calendar roll over many more times.

oscared out

”So.  What did you think of the Oscars?”

I knew her face.  But it had been a couple of months since I last saw her.  And my mind was scanning face files faster than a Homeland Security computer.

”What is her name?  Donna?  No.  Diane?  No. Denise.  It must be Denice.”

”But what is she saying about Oscar?  The grouch?  Felix Unger’s roommate?  The first name of a famous wiener?”

Then she let the gato out of the bolsa.  “Isn’t it great that the Academy can be open enough to recognize a creative French film?”

Ah, yes.  I guess Sunday night was the entertainment conglomerate’s night of self-delusional awards.  And I missed it.

”Missed” is exactly the wrong word.  I did not see it.  Nor did I have any plans to see it.

There are certain American cultural events that once meant something to me.  But, down here, they sound like the rituals of tribes in Rwanda.

That transition began before I moved to Melaque.  I was once a big Super Bowl fan.  My friend, Stan, and I would get together and invest our full attention to the television.  Starting with the first Super Bowl (before it inherited its monarchical Roman numerals).

And there was a day when the awards for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were a true event.  In high school, we would wrap up our neighborhood baseball game to watch Bob Hope host what was little more than an opportunity to see snippets of films we would never see at the Victory theater.

But somewhere along the line, all of that began to fade.  Probably when I exiled television from my home about  twenty years ago.  It is difficult to invite Elizabeth Taylor and the Green Bay Packers into your living room without an appropriate medium.

I suspect there was something else, though.  When the Super Bowl commercials became more interesting than the game, I stopped looking around for a game day venue.  (This year’s game was played while I was in the air on my way to China.  I have not bothered to see who won.) 

And when the post-modern subtext of the Oscars lost all of its irony, I stopped attending my friends’ Oscar night parties.  The jig was up when the Academy realized the viewers knew that the Academy knew that the show was nothing more than an exercise for Hollywood to pretend it did not make its living off of Porky’s and its piglets.  The award show was merely a parody of itself.

By the time I left for Mexico, both cultural icons were a thing of the past for me.

I guess that is what surprised me about Denice’s question.  I had not given any thought to The Artist.  It would not have played at the Victory theater in Milwaukie.  And I am certain it will not show up in Manzanillo unless the producers add some vampires or sorcerers. 

And why Denise, who lives here most of the year, would care is a bit astounding to me.  Maybe she simply liked seeing the film clips.  Just like when we were kids.

I occasionally mumble about the lack of cultural events in Melaque.  And I will in the future.  But one thing I will not miss is the absurdity of another awards show.

Woody Allen said it best in Annie Hall:  “What's with all these awards?  They're always giving out awards.  Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.”

And, true to form, he (Woody, not Adolf) did not show up on Sunday night to claim his Best Writing – Original Screenplay award.

That is my kind of winner.

imperialism meets the cultural revolution

About a dozen years ago I took a trip to South Africa.  One of the tours offered was a visit to the homes of the poor in Soweto.

It struck me as the height of bad taste.  The brochure showed white tourists crammed into a tin roof shack with bewildered residents.

That feeling came welling back when I was informed we were going to visit a hutong (the old neighborhoods of Beijing), dine with a local family in their home, and, to top it off, ride in a rickshaw to look at a family courtyard home.  It had the sad scent of British imperialism slathered with white liberal guilt.

But I was wrong.  Very wrong. This portion of the tour turned out to be one of my best memories in Beijing.  With the exception of the rickshaw ride.

Everything about the dinner was good. A Chinese family has turned their parlor and kitchen into a tourist restaurant.

Over twenty of us shoehorned ourselves around two large tables and had a delicious home-cooked meal.  Nothing fancy.  The usual stir fry choices.  But it was tasty and filling.  The entire family pitched in to serve us.

Not too far in the past, most of Beijing looked similar to their neighborhood.  Narrow alleyways surrounded by low small homes and shops.

But most of the old neighborhoods are gone.  Having been seized and leveled for high-rise apartment buildings.  These were the type of homes the seniors we saw at the Temple of Heaven once lived in before they were expelled to the outer edges of Beijing.

Then came the moment I dreaded.  Our pedicabs showed up to pedal us several blocks to a courtyard home.  I tried to opt out, but the distance was too far.

I should explain.  Nothing smacks of the imperial era as much as the rickshaw.  Human feet toting white people about.

It is an honest living.  But, as Thomas Jefferson aptly noted: "[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." 

I did my best to enjoy the ride.  The neighborhood was fascinating.  But I could not help but feel sorry for the driver lugging two heavy white guys in his rickshaw.

The highlight was the courtyard home.  At first sight, it did not seem very special.  Just a cluster of older buildings around a courtyard.

The place became very special when the owner told us about the history of his family.

His father, who still lives on the property in his 90s, purchased the home in the 1930s.

The current owner and his sister grew up in the house -- until  the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.  Because the family appeared to be bourgeois, ten additional families were moved on to their property.

His sister was taken away to a rural reeducation camp to plant rice -- far from Beijing.  He was sent away closer to the city.

He soon returned.  But his sister was not allowed to return until the 1990s.  And the last of the ten families left the property less than a decade ago.

He told this tragic tale with no emotion.  It was what it was.

One of our group asked how much the property was worth.  We should have been ready for the answer.  After all, our guide had told us that an average priced condominium in Beijing of about 1000 square feet would cost about $600,000 (US).  Stand alone homes are reserved for the very wealthy with starting prices in excess of $1,000,000 (US).

Based on the property's location, its status in a protected district, and its historic significance, he estimated its value at $15,000,000 (US).  But it is not for sale.  And no one in our group offered to buy it.

Outside the main home is an altar to the family's ancestors.  But the altar on the home's coffee table is just as telling.  A bull.  A replica of the bull on Wall Street.  Symbolizing a prospering market. 

We visited many impressive sights in China.  But I will remember that brave man standing against the tide of history and quietly saying: "Stop."

It is through such man that China will have a better future.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

the sandman eats dinner

Sleep eludes me.

Well, not exactly.  What eludes me is a regular sleep cycle.

Of course, it could simply be a prolonged state of jet lag.  I have been traveling to and fro for three months. 

But it has been two weeks since I returned from China.  My circadian clock should be on Melaque Standard Time by now.

Whatever the reason may be, I was up until 4 on Monday morning.  That did not keep me from a getting a good seven hours of sleep.  But it also meant I got a slow start on finishing up the chores I did not complete on Saturday.

The big one was buying groceries.  I cannot recall the last meal I cooked for myself.  It has been at least three months.  Maybe more like five.

Instead, I have been eating plenty of restaurant food and snacks.  As I have mentioned a couple of times, my waistline is Exhibit A of my need to return both to the stove and the road.  The road for exercise.  The stove for cooking meals a little less heavy on the fats served at local eateries.

So home I came on blistered feet with a roasted chicken and rice from my favorite grilled chicken stand, and onions, zucchini, carrots, jalapeños, and garlic from the greengrocer.

One of the advantages of living in Mexico is that most of the vegetables (with the glaring exception of tomatoes) are extremely tasty.  The fact that most of them are grown locally means they are also fresh.

The better the vegetables taste, the odds of me eating them will increase exponentially.  And they are far better for me than prepared foods.

And that is what I did today.  Out came the wok.  In went the olive oil.  And bit by bit, in went went the ingredients until I had a great dinner -- with four or five more servings for the remainder of the week.

I usually add red and yellow peppers and a tomato or two.  But I can whip that version up some time in the future.

For now, I am back to basic Mexican-Chinese-Italian-Pacific Northwest cuisine.  I just may give fusion cooking a hyper-hyphenated name.

snake oil salesmen

Nothing seems to turn children of the Enlightenment into children of the corn pone as quickly as medical home remedies.

And if you slap on a patina of 5000 years of Chinese wisdom, westerners will go all weak at the knees.  Like a teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

We all know the image.  We’ve seen it in John Ford movies, The Wizard of Oz, and Sweeney Todd

The snake oil salesman drives into town with his wagon filled with bottles of elixir.  With claims of miraculous cures, townspeople trade their hard-earned cash for a bottle of piss and ink, and still feel ill -- a bit poorer, if not wiser.

We saw that little morality play reenacted in Beijing.  The spiel was a wonder to behold.

We were herded into a government-run cultural center where we were offered a foot soaking and massage (with the deceptively scientific-sounding name of reflexology).  While listening to  a silver-tongued huckster in a lab coat tell us all about the miraculous curing powers of Chinese medicine.  Prostate cancer cured by weed seeds.  That sort of thing.

He then summoned a small troop of elderly Chinese men, who he introduced as doctors (but who easily could have been the janitorial staff).  If we chose to accept a consultation, the doctor would look at our eyes, check our skin color and pulse, and smell our breath to determine if our internal organs were out of alignment.

Considering the average age of our group and our obvious corpulence, I could have whipped out my own diagnoses without being subject to a barrage of post-luncheon breath.  Organs out of alignment were probably the least of our worries.

The bottom line, of course, was a sales pitch for Chinese medicine.  And more than a few of our group walked away with a bag of seeds and weeds, leaving hundreds of dollars in their wake.

This little bit of medical performance art gave me an idea.  I wonder if I could hire a few of my neighbors to dress up as Aztec medicine men?  They could then extoll the virtues of various Mexican plants.  There certainly are enough tourists in Melaque to make up a credible market base.

I may have found my second career.

Note:  It turns out that the term “snake oil” has Chinese roots.  Chinese railway laborers used a liquid made from the Chinese Water Snake to treat joint pain.

Monday, February 27, 2012

84 -- and many more

It is my mother's birthday.  Her 84th.

She won't mind me sharing her age with you.  Vanity has never been part of her makeup. 

Of course, almost everyone responds with: "84?  You don't look a day over [plug in some imaginary age]."

She will just smile and thank them.  But she has always known that we all look our age.  Because that is the age we are.  Tautologies do not interest her.

I spent a few days in Oregon when I returned from China.  There were some family trust tax returns to complete and file.  That took me only a day or two.  I could have flown back to Mexico then.  But I wanted to spend some time with my mother and brother in Bend.

My brother Darrel knew I would probably leave before Mom's birthday.  He put together a small dinner party.  It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. 

Some families celebrate with booze.  Our family celebrates with large hunks of charred meat.  A pork roast, in this case, baked with an applesauce and spicy red pepper coating.  My brother is a genius at inventing new ways to cook food.

But the most memorable moment was the morning I left.  Mom, Darrel, and I started the day in one of those breakfast restaurant that are the essence of Americana.  Chatty waitresses ferrying pots of coffee.  Plates the size of platters.  Tables so close together, you are pulled into the neighboring table's conversation on how insurance companies are thieves.  That sort of thing.

And platters we had.  Big breakfasts.  Eggs Benedict for Darrel and me.  Mom usually jumps into the Hollandaise pool with us.  Instead, she had an alternative almost as substantial.  As I said, we celebrate with food.

A couple of fellow bloggers recently commented on how, in their 60s, their weight is now down to high school fighting form.  I thought about that at breakfast while we talked and laughed about politics, Bend happenings, what the future holds (we are not a family prone to get stuck in nostalgic reveries).

I doubt I will ever get obsessed about trying to be my high school self.  I am too busy tasting the next best thing.  And one reason for that was the smiling face sitting across from me. 

It was from her that I learned life is to be enjoyed with a laugh every morning.  That the God we worship is a God that has told us to enjoy life while we love Him and love our fellow sojourners on this planet.  Even the ones who forgo Eggs Benedict.

She could not have given me a better gift.

Thanks, Mom.  I hope this is a great birthday for you.

dim sum ii

On our way back from the Great Wall, we stopped at a jade factory.  Well, we stopped at a sales room for jade with mock “craftsmen” in the foyer.  Some of the pieces were stunning.

This bowl containing two koi was carved from a single piece of jade -- white with an orange agate "flaw."  If I had not foresworn purchasing any more decorative pieces, this bowl would have been in my luggage.

The jade sales room also sold paintings.  At least, I thought they were paintings.  The art was, to say the least, mundane.  Chinese art morphed to appeal to occidental eyes.

But something drew my eye to the surface of the pieces.  They appeared to have a glimmering texture -- as if metal dust had been added to the paint.

They were not paintings.  The images were created with embroidered silk threads that gave the piece an interesting texture.  Far more interesting than the subject matter.  But not interesting enough to be shipped to Mexico.

Roy and I took one day off from sight-seeing.  Instead of heading off to some tourist attraction, we decided to walk around the neighborhood near our hotel.  We found a small urban park where people were enjoying a day in the cold.  It was almost a Seurat moment.

What could evoke China more than young men playing table tennis?  The paddle Nixon and Kissinger used to entice China into the community of nations.

Near the park, was a busy street lined with trees.  I am not certain what it was.  The gray skies?  The European trimming of the trees?  The scooter?  The stylishly-dressed middle aged women?  Or maybe it was the combination.

But, for a moment, I thought I was back in Paris.  It is a bit like déjà vu, but more ephemeral.  More like spatial dislocation.  Whatever it is, it is almost always a pleasant interlude in my cerebral sitting room.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

heavenly games

By the time we got to the Temple of Heaven, I was beginning to suffer from temple overload.

You know the feeling.  If you see one more cathedral, you will convert to Druidism.

But the Temple of Heaven complex turned out to be a well come relief.

The temple itself is beautiful.  It once served a very important function in Chinese society.  This is the place where the emperor earned his fortune cookies.

Like most pre-modern rulers, the emperor was a god in the eyes of his people.  And because he was part of the god family, his people held him responsible for keeping everything running properly.  Including the weather.

If the rains failed to fall, the emperor was responsible.  If the harvests failed, the emperor was responsible.  If his people starved from famine, the emperor was responsible.

And if he did not keep order in nature, he could (and often did) pay with his life.  After all, what good is an emperor if he can’t do his job?  Almost as inconsequential as the Queen of Great Britain.
To keep the harvest rolling along (and to prevent his own head from doing the same), the emperor would come to the Temple of Heaven each year to offer sacrifices to appease the ever-so-fickle gods.

Like most things imperial Chinese, the ceremonies were quite intricate.  After all, we are talking about getting it Just Right to control the gods for human purposes.  The genie must be appeased.

The temple was built for the architecturally-ambitious Yongle Emperor in the early 1400s.  But the gods must have grown restless in 1889.  That year, lightning burned down the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.  The current building was rebuilt at the end of the 1800s.

Even though it is effectively a modern reproduction, the hall (and the surrounding buildings) are well worth a visit.  The purposes of each building are described in Chinese and English.

But the temple complex was not the best part of our visit.  The temple area was opened to the public in 1918 -- following the republican revolution.  As was the surrounding park.  And it proved to be most interesting.

The park is the meeting place for current and former residents of the area.  When we were there, the place was alive with activity.

Young people playing a form of hacky sack with a shuttlecock.  Couples practicing ballroom dances.  And lots of seniors.

Most the seniors come to the park every day.  Many of them lived in the neighborhood before their homes were seized and destroyed to build high-rise apartments.  They now spend an hour or two each day traveling from their new homes on the outskirts of Beijing.

And come they do.  To chat.  To exercise on outside equipment.  To participate in group exercise.  To play head ring toss games.  Or simply to gather around a pack of cards, a stack of dominoes, or tiles for Mah Jong.

What struck me was how healthy most of the seniors looked.  Not only because of the exercise.  But also from the joy of their social networks.   This is what Facebook should look like.

In a few more years, I may be booking for a similar park.  Or maybe this one will do.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

the old soft shoe

I am back in town.*  Melaque town, that is.

After being away for three weeks, I awoke to a list of chores that needed doing -- whether or not I wanted doing them.

The usual small stuff.  Check on the mail.  Buy some time for my telephone.  Stop at the ATM to replenish my depleted peso stash.  Pick up some groceries.  Nip into the farmacia to buy a new razor and blades along with a bottle of mouthwash.

The last three months of eating in restaurants and being toted from place to place like some Eastern potentate has left me with an increased girth.  Most of it has been of my own doing.  A lot of fat and salt has found its way down my gullet.

So, when I awoke at 6 this morning, I got dressed, walked past my anxious truck, and headed to the village on foot.  Walking has always been the best way for me to get regular exercise.

I forgot one thing, though.  For the past three months I have been in  climates where hard shoes are the norm (if not necessity) -- Oregon, Copper Canyon, San Francisco, China.  As a result, the soles of my feet have reverted to the softness of the proverbial baby’s bottom -- you know, the one that is not to be tossed out with the bath water.

By the time I had finished half of my chores, I realized that I had lost the callouses that make sandals comfortable.  Instead, I had developed enough blisters that the return trip to the house was just a bit slow.

There is, of course, an inevitable comparison to be drawn.  Immersing ourselves in cultures requires new sensitivities along with a certain hardness.

I thought of that this morning while reading the latest “shocking” news from Puerto Vallarta.   On Thursday, 22 cruisers off of a Carnival ship were relieved of their valuables while returning from a nature trail excursion.  Masked (and armed) highwaymen stopped their bus, and did their best Pancho Villa impression.  (Well, not really.  Pancho would have shot them all.)  It is all just a bit too retro.

There is the usual internet buzz this morning.  Foreigners (who would never have visited before the incident) claim they will not visit Mexico.  And the Mexican government has issued the usual perfunctory calming statement that the incident is rare.

Which it is.  But nothing will stop the cruise lines from taking Puerto Vallarta off their list -- as they have Mazatlan.  Or they just may pull out of the western Mexico market -- as some lines already have.

I know this drill quite too well, having lived a bit of it.  Lawyers for the cruise line will argue that the cost of insurance and the danger of losing one big lawsuit will severely  reduced the profits from their western Mexico cruises.  And another life joy will suffer the American peanut syndrome.

But I am not going to worry about this little morality play that will play its way out with its own cast of characters.  Just as the death of Robin Woods did here in Melaque.

As for me, I am putting bandaids on my soles and building up my cultural callouses.

*  I still have quite a few tales to tell about my China trip.  But the urge to write about Mexico cannot be denied.  So, I will intersperse the occasional Hispanic tale among my Sinolese commentary.  

the tomb within

On the way back from our visit to the Great Wall, we stopped at the Ming Tombs.

This is one of the places on the tour I had not read about prior to coming to China.  And that is a shame because the place is fascinating in a very peaceful way.

The name is a bit misleading.  The site is from the Ming era, but there are no tombs in the area we visited.  The tombs are in the surrounding mountains.

The Yongle Emperor, the same visionary who designed the Forbidden City, chose a site in the mountains for his tomb.  Thirteen subsequent Ming empires were buried there.

What is open to the public is a park enclosing part of the ceremonial road leading to the tombs.  The full road is seven miles long.

The central feature of the park is a long pathway with a series of statues.  Human worthies.  Animals.  All of them in the service of their Ming masters.  And symbolizing the emperor's power that transcends even death.

You will find civil officials, generals, horses, chimerical qilins, elephants, camels, justice-loving xiezhis, and lions.  Not unlike the road of rams at the Temple at Karnak.

Like most Chinese ceremonial grounds, the site is larded with feng shui principles.  Even the bend in the path has its own meaning.

The path culminates in a post-Ming pavilion housing the statue of a giant tortoise.  Legend promises health or wealth to anyone who rubs either the head or tail.  But, like a stingy genie, rubbers get only one choice.

I skipped the choice and opted instead for another photograph.

Friday, February 24, 2012

walking the wall over you

The Great Wall of China is China’s star tourist attraction.  The center ring attraction.

And it should be.  As an engineering feat, it is a wonder to behold. 

Designed as a military defense mechanism to repel invaders, it stretches 4000 miles -- almost across the breadth of modern China.  And cost the lives of millions of Chinese workers to build.

We visited the wall at Juyongguan Pass -- just outside of Beijing.  At the height of its military glory, the pass was protected by a fort and garrison.  The wall stretches east and west from the fort over mountains that would discourage the strongest of armies.

Of course, as is true of all fixed fortifications, the wall was only partially successful.  One group it was designed to repel was the Manchus.  But they got through and ruled China as the Qing dynasty for 268 years.

One of the challenges of a visit to the wall is to prove one’s mettle by climbing the steps to the guard towers.  That sounds easier than it is.

The steps have a steep rise.  A very steep rise.  Some were even with my knees -- presenting obstacles to the very young and old.

The stairs are not so much to be climbed as to be scaled.  Chinese soldiers in their armor must have been quite fit simply to commute to work each day.

But the view is worth the climb.  Well, the view -- and a sense of being part of an ancient history.

There is an urban myth that the wall can be seen from the moon.  Or, at least, from earth orbit.

It can’t.  It may be long, but it is not wide enough to be seen by the naked eye from space.  But the myth lives on.

That fact does not take away from the wall’s grandeur seen from ground level.  Invaders must have felt like Hobbits standing before the gates of Mordor when they first encountered the wall.

The wall was one visit where I wished we could have spent a full day.  Simply to climb to distant towers and dream about protecting one of the world’s greatest civilizations.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

lingua franca with a touch of lotus

When I moved to Mexico, I knew very little Spanish. 

I had listened to a few language CDs and knew some of the Spanish words that almost everyone picks up in Oregon.  But I was functionally illiterate in Spanish when I headed south.

I had only one survival skill.  Two years of high school Latin.  I knew immediately what a “carniceria” was.  A place that sold “carne.”  Years of reading Dennison’s chili cans helped me there.

But so did “cannibal” and even “carnival.”  Both of them very meaty words.

Of course, that approach got me only so far.  I could translate written words from their Latin roots (and sometimes be led astray), but that approach simply does not work when listening to a spoken language.

My visit to China presented a novel experience.  For the first time in my life, I had no clues about navigating this foreign tongue.

I started to say it reminded me of my year in Greece.  The Greek alphabet could have been just as disorienting as Chinese.  But for two things.  I had been exposed to the Greek alphabet of fraternities, and my study of Russian had given me a  nodding familiarity with the Cyrillic alphabet -- a close cousin.

Written Chinese is not alphabet-based.  Each character is either a single syllable word or part of a polysyllabic word.  There are tens of thousands of these characters.  Each one looking like a small piece of art.

But it is an art I could not truly appreciate because I had no way to open its secrets.  Latin was of no help.

Considering its strained past with the imperialist powers of Britain and armed conflict with the United States, I was surprised to discover that English is a standard second written language wherever we went.  On street signs.  On shops.  On menus.

Chinese school children start learning it in kindergarten -- just as they once learned Russian in the heady days of monolithic Communism.  But, unlike Mexico, where young Mexicans love trying out their English on foreigners, I ran into very few Chinese who would speak English openly.

At times I feel socially isolated in Mexico due to my limited Spanish skills.  In China, I felt completely isolated when I went to the grocery store or ate in a local restaurant.  A deaf mute would have been a better social member.

The government may be totalitarian, but its people’s instincts are entrepreneurial.  Chinese merchants around the world long ago learned that the easiest way to put a Chinese product in a foreigner’s hands and foreign currency in their own pockets was to meet the customer on his own ground.

And, even though I was surrounded by people who spoke only Chinese, I never had any doubt what products were being offered to me -- and how much they would cost.

Even so, I will be glad to return to Mexico.  Where I know what “carne” means, but not necessarily where it came from.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

dining on red china

I had heard from a recent visitor to China that the Chinese food I would encounter in China would bear no resemblance to the Chinese food I enjoyed in Salem.

I have no idea where he came to that conclusion.  My experience eating in restaurants in Beijing and Shaghai is that the food is almost indistinguishable from the dinners I have eaten at my favorite Chinese restaurant in Salem -- Kwan’s.

Chinese cuisine is based on the wok.  Pieces of meat and vegetables are diced into chopstick-sized pieces and are then stir fried in oil.  All of that is then served with various types of small bite foods.  The world of dim sum.

I cannot even say that the ingredients are fresher in China.  Chinese food always demands fresh ingredients.  It happens there.  It happens at Kwan’s.

What is missing is the type of dishes that pass as Chinese food at the Safeway delicatessen counter or the Cantonese restaurants of my youth -- where heavily-breaded pieces of shrimp swim in a blob of diabetic-inducing syrup.

You will not find that type of stuff in Beijing.  Or chop suey -- an American invention that ranks right up there with the Margarita as foodstuffs that have no connection with any ethnicity.

Our hotels offered a very good buffet breakfast where the tourist can choose between a Chinese porridge for breakfast or western eggs and bacon.  I tried both.  But usually, I tried the various Chinese offerings.

Most of our lunches were in large banquet halls served family style.  Plenty of rice and a large variety of stir-fried dishes -- pork, chicken, fish, beef, cuttlefish, shrimp, vegetables.  All of them quite good. 

Even if they were a bit bland.  With only two exceptions, nothing was spicier than what you would find in Des Moines.  And nothing that will put Maxim’s reputation in danger.  But good.

Roy and I decided to go in search of our own culinary delights one night in Beijing.  We found the restaurant we wanted (Hua Jiayiyuan).  The first night, we were seated and we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  For about a half hour waiters scurried all around us, but no one would meet our gaze.  So, we left.

But we are not easily deterred when it comes to food.  We returned on the next night and had a great meal.  For Roy a beer with garlic and chili chicken.
For me, a glass of jasmine tea, a bowl of sea cucumber hot and sour soup, and braised donkey with garlic.  This is the donkey.  Served in a bread bowl.

Both meals were spiced just right with chilies.  Mine was very spicy.  But I suspect that goes along with the donkey dish.  I am not certain I would order it again.  But it was an interesting culinary experience. 

And certainly better than grasshopper.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

dim sum i

Dim sum are a marvelous invention.  Bits of food designed to tantalize.

In that spirit, let me offer up a few bits of visual dim sum.  (I plan on doing a few of these during this series between tour courses to cleanse the palate.) 

China is filled with vendors.  But this is one of my favorites: a roasted chestnut seller.  You can almost hear Mel Tormé in the background.  This seller is braising her wares on the sidewalk in front of the Summer Palace.  I planned on buying some, but never got around to it.

While walking around the lake at the Summer Palace, we saw some dark figures on the other shore.  It looked as if the were walking on the surface of the lake.  They were.  On the ice.  The weather had been cold enough to bring a bit of Minnesota to the Orient.  Or to bring Siberia south.

The Chinese authorities are always on alert to educate its citizens and visitors.  Including this helpful hint.  Above a urinal.

China’s streets are filed with cars.  But there are still plenty of utilitarian utility vehicles.  Including this motorcycle.  With an aluminum enclosure.  Maybe this is where the Volt was born.

And, of course, there is always a McDonald’s nearby.  I was going to say they are as universal as Coca-Cola signs.  But, in China, there are far more KFC shops than McDonald’s.

Monday, February 20, 2012

winter at the summer palace

One of the advantages of bus tours is the ability to see a lot of sights in a limited time.

The disadvantage of bus tours is the limited time to see a lot of sights.

The “if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” syndrome set in with our third major sight of our first tour day -- the Summer Palace.

The Ming emperors built the Summer Palace as a seasonal get-away from the heat (both physical and political) of the Beijing summers.  It is not far from the Forbidden City.  But far enough for the men who carried the emperor in his processional sedan chair.

If you are thinking summer camp, you are close.  There is a lake.  And boats -- including one made of marble.  And forests.  But the comparison stops there.

This is a summer camp in the rarefied manner that the Forbidden City palaces are mere houses.

The emperor had political duties to perform.  So, there are the usual array of political and religious buildings.  (The vandals of the cultural Revolution managed to smash the Buddhas that once graced the temple complex.)
But the lake is the centerpiece of the Summer Palace.  In the summer, it must be stunning with its lotus pond.  In the winter, it is simply cold. 

If the surface water in the photograph seems calm, the reason is simple.  It is ice.  Ice thick enough for adult men to walk on.

The park has been open to the public since the Communist revolution.  No longer is it restricted to the emperor and his retainers.  But irony can run as thick as lake ice.

In the middle of the lake is a former palace where a dowager empress imprisoned her emperor son.  It is now a restaurant.  A restaurant available only to politicians and oligarchs.

The revolution did not end all aspects of feudalism and emperor worship.  Not even on a Belgium Tuesday.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

forbidden fruit

To the occidental eye, Beijing’s Forbidden City is a thing of beauty.  To the oriental eye, it is a place of harmony and order.  Set out in conformance with the principles of feng shui.

500 years ago, the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty decided to restore Beijing as the imperial capital of China.  But he wanted that restoration to reflect the glory of an empire nearing the height of its strength.

The result was the Forbidden City -- where the ordinary Chinese would never enter.  A place that would reflect the very harmony and power that the emperor believed he brought to his empire.

Our visit was far too brief to do justice to this complex of administrative, political, religious, and residential buildings that formed the nucleus of Chinese power until the republican revolution of 1912.  The emperor ruled here in luxury with his wife, his concubines, and a troop of severely emasculated eunuchs who gave up all to serve the emperor.  And always the emperor feared he would be overthrown or poisoned.

Let me walk you through a bit of the complex.

The grounds cover almost 18 acres.  Over the years, the place has been modified, but the original complex was built in 15 years by over a million workers.  As Mel Brooks would say: “It’s good to be the king.”

The Forbidden City is divided into two parts: the outer court and the inner court.  The outer court was where public ceremonies were performed.  (“Public” in the sense that court officials were allowed to attend.)  The inner court was the emperor’s residence.

Access to the outer court is through the Gate of Supreme Harmony with its five gates.  One for the emperor only.

The gate opens up on a courtyard in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, where the emperor was enthroned and married. 

One of the recurring motifs in all royal buildings is the presence of two lions -- guarding the emperor, but also symbolizing his strength.  They always come in pairs.  A male on the right (with an orb under his paw) and a female on the left (with a lion cub under her paw).

The courtyards contain a number of well-placed accessories to display the wealth of the emperor.  But some are merely practical.  Such as, these large brass cauldrons that were filled with water to fight the frequent fires that endangered the city’s wooden structures.  To keep the water from freezing, a fire burned under the cauldron.

Even the art is monumental.  One stone slab sculpture is the largest of its kind in the world.  It is so large that it was carved where it was quarried and then transported to the Forbidden City in the winter by digging short canals and sliding the stone along the ice.

But some art is far more human in scale.

No Chinese residence would be complete without a garden.  And the Forbidden City’s is imperial.  It meets all of the requirements of a well-planned Chinese garden.  Buildings.  Plants.  Water.  Stone. 

The last emperor left the Forbidden City in 1924.  It was damaged by rioting following the Communist victory in 1959.  And it would have suffered additional damage  (if not destruction) during the Cultural Revolution if Zhiou Enlai had not ordered the army to close the city and protect it.

For all of its splendor and order, I found the Forbidden City to be rather sterile.  Rather like Chichen Itza.  Everything is scaled to make human activity inconsequential.

But I guess that is the point.  The individual is subordinated to the needs of the state.

A theme that was all-too-familiar on this trip.