Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


There are rough edges that come from the border of your culture rubbing up against the culture you’re immersed in. I was recently reminded of this during a couple taxi rides from the airport recently.

When was the last time your taxi driver picked up his wife and kid then dropped them off somewhere, all while you were in the car? I know the answer for me: a few weeks ago. This taxi driver picked me up at the airport and then his family. He dropped them off downtown, then dropped me off. In the midst of this, he explained to his wife that I couldn’t understand what they were saying. While he was right, I understood the part where he said I couldn’t understand them. The whole situation angered me. I had returned from Korea, to be greeted by this. I acted like I was writing down his medallion number and he suddenly started playing house with me, asking me where I was from and what foods I like to eat. I told him my favorite sandwich is the one that takes you directly from the airport to home. He laughed.

Last week, after returning from Shanghai, there was a line of taxis waiting at the airport and I got in one. He weaved through the streets and ignored a couple red lights – nothing unusual. Then we came to a toll booth. He slowed down, pushed the bar up and out of the way and sped on, checking his rear view mirror for any repercussions....hmmmmmm. It usually costs around 60 kuai to get from the airport to my neighborhood. This time, it took 73. It could have been because of the route he took, but I didn’t mind. What I did mind was handing him a 100 bill and getting 17 back. He explained that there’s a 10 kuai surcharge on trips from the airport. I laughed while writing down his medallion number. He gave me back the 10 kuai.

On the whole, I’m going to miss China after I leave. Once you get passed the language barrier, you find more similarities between Eastern and Western Cultures. But moments like the ones above remind you of the differences.

Friday, June 05, 2009


One of the challenges I regularly face is what to eat. Such a simple task taken for granted in America requires some form of thought these days. I have to strike a balance between varying my diet and risking diarrhea. The latter was fairly regular in Shanghai, occurring about a once every two months. When I moved to Yantai, people told me the quality of the cooking would get better. This didn’t make sense to me, moving from a cosmopolitan place such as a Shanghai to small-town Yantai, but it’s actually true. I’ve lived in Yantai for four months and have only faced one serious bout so far (knock on wood).

So, Tuesday night, I strolled the streets looking for a good but different place to eat when I came across a restaurant that I had eaten at once before. My second week in Yantai, during Chinese New Year, all the shops and restaurants were closed, but this place was open. The food wasn’t bad and the staff was friendly. But for some reason, I hadn’t been back.

Within minutes of sitting down to eat on Tuesday, a local guy from another table got up and poured me a beer. He was a bit chubby and seemed to have a gregarious personality. Picture John Belushi, but Chinese and not wearing a shirt. He sits across from me and says, “I’m Sorry.” I ask him what he’s sorry for and he repeats the phrase. I would quickly discover this was among the few English phrases he knew. His other shirtless friend joins us and repeatedly explains to me how important it is that we met and that destiny brought us together. At the same time my head is repeating, “Wow, these dudes have a pretty good load on right here.”

They explained that they were army buddies and conveyed common sentiments – not fans of the Koreans, big dislike for the Japanese, North Koreans are cool though and they like Americans. We shared beers and a few laughs and they told me they were picking up the bill. I approached the cashier counter but one of them got up and escorted me back to the table. These dudes were big – not Shaq-big, but bigger than my brother. So, if they had something to say or insist on, I was listening.

At one point, one of them put his arm around me and led me up a dark alley next to the restaurant. "This is it. I’m going to get beat up for the first time in China." But instead he starts peeing. At the same time, he tells me I must do the same because we’re such good friends. I tell him I’ll wait at the end of the alley. He sings.

Moments later, I tell them I’m tired and it’s past my bed time. They’re not having it. They want to dance and sing; they want to go to a karaoke joint. Now, karaoke works a little differently in China. Unlike America, where you sing at the bar in front of everyone, here you get a private room and sing with your friends. I’ve gone a bunch of times and it’s a lot of fun.

Around 2 a.m., we wrap up our party and I head home. It was an interesting night to say the least and far from what I expected when I stepped outside to find a different restaurant. I’m thankful for my new friends and hope to see them again next week for dinner.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Does everything happen for a reason?

Everything happens for a reason. The more I think about it, the less I'm convinced.

There was nothing special or extraordinary about her, at least from what I could tell. She worked too much, didn't like her job, and sometimes felt depressed as a result. We met for a language exchange twice. The first time was at a cafe and the second was at my apartment. She said she strictly wanted to exchange language, but it was just talk. I could tell from the way she tossed her hair that there were more to her feelings.

A few months later, I would leave Shanghai and we’d mutually forget about each other. Last weekend, I returned to Shanghai for the first time in months and we crossed paths. I was with Xiao Yi, the friend I met in Korea, and she was also with someone. She seemed happy and, at first, I couldn’t place her face. Now, I’m thinking about why it happened.

(The above is an excerpt from my journal. Of course, the debate about reasons can extend to far more important aspects of life - disease, war, or the whereabouts of that Air France jet.)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Dragon Boat Festival

Thursday was the Dragon Boat Festival, a major holiday in China. I posted a short description of the reasons and history behind the festival below. The two major aspects I want to comment on are:

1) Everybody was off from school and work on Thursday and Friday. However, in exchange, everyone had to work today (Sunday). Would you make this trade-off? I've thought it over and I like the concept. If the government or my boss wants to give me two weekdays off in exchange for a weekend day, then let's do it. Today was a bit odd though. I woke up and it felt like Sunday, but as the morning progressed and I noticed the usual bustling of the weekend was missing, it felt more like a weekday. By the time I ate lunch, I pretty much forgot today was a Sunday. It flat-out didn't feel like it and I think that's the first time I've had that experience. It was a bit surreal, but then again, what isn't these days?

2) The traditional food to eat during the festival is zongzi, which is essentially a rice glue ball. Like the two-for-one deal above, I am a fan of zongzi. Because the rice and stuffing is wrapped in bamboo leaves, they are a bit of a pain to eat and (from what I hear) even more troublesome to make. However, they have a hearty taste, chewy texture and they mark a unique way to celebrate the day.

Here is a bit more about the holiday, which has resulted in me having a five-day weekend. Had I realized I was going to be off for five consecutive days, I would have gone to Shanghai this weekend instead of last. In any case though, I've been making the most of it by studying and watching a couple movies.


The Dragon Boat Festival, also called the Duanwu Festival, is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month according to the Chinese calendar. For thousands of years, the festival has been marked by eating zong zi (glutinous rice(糯米)wrapped to form a pyramid using bamboo or reed leaves) and racing dragon boats.
The festival is best known for its dragon-boat races, especially in the southern provinces where there are many rivers and lakes. This regatta(赛舟会)commemorates the death of Qu Yuan , an honest minister who is said to have committed suicide by drowning himself in a river.

Qu was a minister of the State of Chu situated in present-day Hunan and Hubei provinces, during the Warring States Period (475-221BC)(战国时期). He was upright, loyal and highly esteemed for his wise counsel that brought peace and prosperity to the state. However, when a dishonest and corrupt prince vilified Qu, he was disgraced and dismissed from office. Realizing that the country was now in the hands of evil and corrupt officials, Qu grabbed a large stone and leapt into the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month. Nearby fishermen rushed over to try and save him but were unable to even recover his body. Thereafter, the state declined and was eventually conquered by the State of Qin.

The people of Chu who mourned the death of Qu threw rice into the river to feed his ghost every year on the fifth day of the fifth month. But one year, the spirit of Qu appeared and told the mourners that a huge reptile(爬行动物)in the river had stolen the rice. The spirit then advised them to wrap the rice in silk and bind it with five different-colored threads before tossing it into the river.

During the Duanwu Festival, a glutinous rice pudding called zong zi is eaten to symbolize the rice offerings to Qu. Ingredients such as beans, lotus seeds(莲子), chestnuts(栗子), pork fat and the golden yolk of a salted duck egg are often added to the glutinous rice. The pudding is then wrapped with bamboo leaves and boiled in salt water for hours.