Archive for July, 2007

Me holding a red pandaAt last, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The culmination of my life’s work. A video of pandas.

I saw veritable piles of the little guys at a breeding and research center in Chengdu, Sichuan. The center is home to adult red and giant pandas, but the main attraction is the cubs. The young pandas you see in the video were born last year and are now in panda “kindergarten.” There also are younger cubs, but they live indoors and aren’t supposed to be photographed, because their eyes are still developing.

In addition to being surrounded by overwhelming cuteness, I learned a lot about pandas at the center. Most surprising to me was the way pandas are born. Obviously, it’s through the normal channels, but it’s unusually speedy. The baby panda just kind of plops out onto the floor with little warning. It seems to confuse even the mother. (You can see National Geographic video of this here.)

The Chengdu center is famous for allowing visitors to sit next to or hold pandas for a fee. (Nobody is going to try to introduce these captive-bred animals back into the wild anytime soon. The ones that don’t stay at the research park are sent to zoos.) The babies weren’t available when I was there, and, besides, the park charges about $120 if you want to hold one. So I paid my $10 and played with a red panda for maybe three minutes. I can happily report that red pandas are as fluffy as they look.

Menu listing Chicken Fried Steak, or fragrant crispy beef steak
In Chinese, it’s “fragrant crispy beef steak.”

Whenever I go abroad, I’m tempted to try the local version of Tex-Mex food. In big cities, there is almost always at least one restaurant claiming to serve the stuff. In Bangkok, for example, offerings ranged from the puzzling “Mexican noodles” to tortillas so awful that I couldn’t finish eating even one.

Every time I travel, I tell myself I’m not going to make the same mistake again, because it always leads to disappointment. And every time, I’m drawn to the one Mexican-food place in the guidebook. This time, I was able to hold out for five weeks.

One of the Chengdu restaurants recommended by my trusty Lonely Planet is called Peter’s Tex-Mex. Before I got on the plane, I thought, “That’s absurd. This isn’t even Beijing. There is no way I’m going to this place.” But the restaurant also found its way onto the list provided by my youth hostel. I kept telling myself it was a ridiculous idea, but I finally decided that, at best, I’d get a good meal, and even at worst, I’d have a funny story. So I bit the bullet.

The dining room was almost empty when I walked in, and that was a little scary. But I soldiered on, through the country-style décor and a bizarre mood music that consisted mostly of American children’s songs (I’m talking the ABC song and Itsy-Bitsy Spider, here). I took a look at the menu …

Hamburger. Chicken burger. Chips. Burrito. Quesadillas – that could be promising. Oh, guacamole. Look at that. Oh, and tortillas! Could they possibly be real? And then it hit me. The chicken-fried steak. With cream gravy. Now, I can’t even get a good chicken-fried steak in New York City. So could it be true? A real chicken-fried steak in China?

Chicken Fried SteakOh, yes. Yes it could. And I have photographic evidence.

I had a chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes, green beans and broccoli. The breading on the steak was a little odd at first. It seemed kind of spiky, the way tempura is spiky. But it tasted fine, and upon softening a bit in the gravy, it was indistinguishable from regular chicken-fried-steak breading. I also had an order of tortillas, which were obviously homemade and tasted great. The waitress, who does not know me and therefore did not understand why I would order plain tortillas, brought me some salsa to go with them. That tasted good too.

Now, I obviously am not grading this restaurant on the same scale I would use to grade one in Texas, but it is better than the Tex-Mex restaurants in New York. It even has migas at breakfast. And on one of the tables is a framed certificate from the Texas House of Representatives, honoring the restaurant’s namesake. I was flabbergasted, so much so that I Googled the owner as soon as I got back to my hotel, figuring I’d see a tale of a Texan who came to Chengdu for some reason and opened a restaurant. After all, the guy’s name is Peter, and he has a certificate from the Texas government.

Except that the guy’s name is actually Lou Zong Hua, which is not anything like “Peter.” A woman who came to China from the U.S. took him under her wing and taught him to cook American comfort food. Their story, should you wish to see more about it, is available here at the always-interesting Christian Science Monitor, where I also learned that Peter’s has a Beijing branch. I’ll probably last another couple of weeks before I give in and go try the migas.

huajiaoThis weekend I took a little sojourn in Sichuan, home of the spiciest food in China. As a Texan, I’m ashamed to say that my tolerance for spices isn’t high, but I figured I’d give the Sichuan food a go – at least a mild version of it.

One of the most important spices in Sichuan cooking is the small, dried pod called huājiāo. It’s not really hot per se, but it has some strange properties. Some people charitably describe its flavor as “lemony.” I prefer the more accurate “like swallowing dish soap.” I know what I’m talking about, because when I was in fourth grade I took a big swig of what I thought was a frosty glass of refreshing lemonade, only to come to the horrible realization that it was soapy water. This spice tastes just like that.

But I don’t think the supposedly lemony flavor is the point of this spice. I think the point of it is that it makes your mouth numb. Seriously. Not as in, “It’s so spicy it’s almost making my mouth numb,” but as in, “It is somehow chemically deadening my nerves.” It makes you feel like you just had some kind of dental procedure, and I hear rural dentists in fact use it as an anesthetic. I’m not a big fan of the numbing effect, at least not when combined with the awful soap taste. It does, however, have one selling point: It makes the real peppers less painful and thus tastier.

If you’re interested in trying huājiāo, I hear it’s now legally available in the U.S. You should be able to find it at a Sichuan restaurant.

View of toiletA couple of alert readers have mentioned their interest in China’s toilet culture. As always, I aim to please, so here you go. (My apologies to those of you who already are familiar with Asian and African toileting methods. Apparently the beloved “squat pot” possesses a certain novelty – and a strange, mesmerizing power – for many.)

Many Chinese bathrooms, particularly those in public places, don’t have fixtures you sit on. They have fixtures you squat over. Sometimes these have flushing capabilities. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they have toilet paper, but usually they don’t. Sometimes they are in stalls with doors. Sometimes … well, you get the idea.

As this recent Wall Street Journal article points out, China is aiming to spiff up its public toilets before the Olympics. This includes installing toilets that won’t make Westerners cry. But, more importantly, it includes making sure public restrooms are clean and have things such as toilet paper and sinks. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t seem to have a clear photo of the average squat pot, so I have provided you with one from my dorm’s public bathroom. (The one in my room has a Western toilet.) The photo is a view of what you would see upon entering the stall. No toilet paper is provided.

As far as I’m concerned, squat pots themselves aren’t problematic. I avoid them because I’m not used to navigating them. If you’ve grown up using this style of toilet, it’s obviously not an issue. In fact, I can see how people who are used to squat pots would be horrified at having their skin touch the seat of a toilet.

The problem is that there usually isn’t toilet paper. Even if there is, sewage systems in many countries can’t handle it, and you have to put it in a basket. This, combined with the lack of strong flushing, means things often smell. And as for the lack of doors, well, I’ve never actually used one of those types. I’ve been told people sometimes bring in umbrellas to give themselves some privacy, but that opening up an umbrella in the middle of a line of people who don’t have umbrellas just makes everyone stare at you. All in all, I’m in favor of promoting toilet culture, but I’m mainly in favor of privacy and good hygiene.

For those intrepid souls eager to learn how to use a squat pot, this site has some helpful, albeit graphic, words of wisdom.

Little Mao.If you visit Beijing and get tired of seeing endless temples and palaces, I highly recommend heading over to the Factory 798 area to check out the city’s contemporary-art scene. About a decade ago, artists began setting up shop among defunct military factory buildings in this district east of town. The space now is home to dozens of galleries, as well as some tony cafés.

As you might expect, a lot of the work references capitalism, nationalism and the Cultural Revolution. It’s sort of Mao-era kitsch for the upper-crust set. (The irony just kills you, doesn’t it? Sigh.) I thought most of the pieces were fun and successfully tongue-in-cheek, though some of it, like the giant upside-down fist, might seem heavy-handed. (That bad, predictable pun was fully intended. In fact, I restructured my sentence to put it in there. And now that I have forced in that pun and ruined this paragraph, I shall move on.)

My favorite trend among the 798 pieces is a tendency toward “cuteness.” Because a lot of the cute artwork is taking a critical look at Japanese and other “cute culture,” the works often combine cuteness with violence or other disturbing imagery. Sometimes the art uses rounded lines and innocent subjects, but transforms them into something disgusting. I’m a big fan, even if I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to art.

My top pick at the galleries combines elements of cuteness and Chinese history, leading to a disarmingly pleasant-looking bust of Mao. Too bad it doesn’t come in smaller sizes.

One of the strangest concepts for early Western learners of Chinese could be the fact that the language doesn’t really have words for “yes” and “no,” at least not when used in isolation. (I’ll pause while some of you read that sentence again and think to yourselves, “Wait. What?”)

If someone asks you a question and you want to say “yes,” you usually have to repeat whatever verb the person used in the question. So if someone asks, “Did you go?” you would respond with “go.” To say “no,” you would use the word for negation in front of the verb — basically, you would say “no go.”

Fortunately, Chinese does have a word for “correct.” I find myself using it a lot, and I can’t tell whether that’s OK or whether I’m simply using it because I have trouble with the whole trying-to-figure-out-what-verb-I’m-actually-agreeing-with-and-then-repeating-that-verb concept. The word for “correct” is “dùi,” (对) and you can say “incorrect” by using “bú dùi” (不对). Trust me, it comes in handy, even if you’re not using it properly.

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Menu ItemsJules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.

Around much of the world, the line from “Pulp Fiction” holds true: A Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. But not in China. In China, a Big Mac is a 巨无霸, or jù wú bà, which I think would literally translate to something along the lines of “Great Feudal Warlord.” McDonald’s itself is 麦当劳, or mài dāng láo, which obviously sounds like McDonald’s but translates to the meaningless “Wheat Facing Labor.”

Recently, my program received a visit from Gregory Gilligan, the head of government relations for McDonald’s here, who discussed a few more issues the company faces in translating a quintessentially American business into a completely different cultural framework. Among the highlights:

• Unlike in the U.S., it’s not possible to do much business in China without government approval. So it’s crucial to use government ideas and catchphrases in pitching business plans. Currently, promoting a “harmonious society” is key. This is true even with dealing with China’s NGOs, which, of course, aren’t truly independent from the government. (Some people call them “gongos” — governmental non-governmental organizations.)

• China’s one-child policy is having a vast effect on business, including foreign companies. The country’s pampered kids already have changed the way marketers approach and cater to consumers. But most interesting to me was the assertion that all these only children seem to be having a tough time with business cultures that emphasize teamwork. That could be a problem as companies like McDonald’s hire and train local executives.

By the way, in honor of Mr. Gilligan’s visit, I went to McDonald’s to check out their Chinese menu. They don’t have pig ears or anything shocking on there. They have pork sandwiches, cups of corn and some strange neon-colored-beverage-ice-cream things that I was scared to try. But their offerings were, on the whole, similar to those in the U.S. I had a crispy chicken sandwich, fries, a Coke and a pie. The chicken sandwich was made out of dark meat rather than white, which was a surprise, and it was quite spicy. The fries were as one would expect. But the pie. The pie was worth the effort.

Eds. Note: For those interested in purchasing-power parity, Jacob passes along this timely link to the Economist’s regular Big Mac Index.

Mmm.Before arriving in Beijing, I had heard tales of the pollution here. I was prepared for the worst, and I must say Beijing has delivered. There have, of course, been a few days with blue sky. But on the other days … well, never before have I seen such smog. The photo to the left is the scene from the apartment where I stayed before moving into the dorm. And although the day was indeed a little misty, that is by no means just a nice, romantic fog you see there. Oh, no. Not unless fog has started smelling like smoke. I don’t know exactly what’s in that haze, but I bet it took a few days off my life.

I’m sure most of you have heard that Beijing is going to improve the air for the Olympic Games next year. There are plans to pull more than a million cars off the road (out of about 3 million in the city). Beijing’s pollution also comes from plain old dust, as well as emissions from factories. So plants in other provinces will have to be shut down for the games as well.

I think Beijing’s central government will be able to pull it off, at least for a short amount of time. In the long term, though, they are facing some significant problems. This Guardian article says China is blaming pollution problems for growing social unrest. Considering that some reports are saying pollution causes as many as 750,000 premature deaths a year, such unrest wouldn’t surprise me.

For tourists and expats, pollution seems to be more of an annoyance than a true danger. If you ever head to Beijing for a long period of time, I suggest you bring lots of allergy and cold medicine. If you wear contacts, either leave them behind or get daily disposable ones. (I haven’t had to break out the facemask yet, but you could always try one of those as well.)

Red Bean Paste BaoziAfter multiple requests for restaurant reviews, last weekend I decided to make a sacrifice for the sake of my readers and try as many dumplings as I could. Several of my classmates and I headed to Din Tai Fung, which is a famous, relatively high-class chain with branches in Japan and the U.S. as well as several cities in China. The service was great, the restaurant was sparkling, and the food was absolutely wonderful. Plus, even though the restaurant is expensive by Beijing standards, we had more than enough food and drinks for five people and paid less than 250Y (about $30). Total. Let me repeat that, for all you New Yorkers. Thirty. Dollars. Total.

And now, I present to you The Parade of Filled Dough. (The main links go to my photos. Most other links go to Wiki articles.)

Pork Xiăolóngbāo: Din Tai Fung is famous for its xiăolóngbāo, which are pockets of unleavened dough filled with pork and soup and then steamed. “How do they get the soup in there?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell you. After they mix the soup, they freeze it into little cubes. Each dumpling gets a cube inside, and when the dumpling is steamed, the soupcicle melts, filling the xiăolóngbāo with sloshy, drippy goodness. Genius!

Shrimp and Pork Shāomài: These open-top dumplings are stuffed with pork and have a very small shrimp (is that redundant?) on top. I don’t even like shrimp or pork, but I liked these. My love for dough can overcome anything, apparently.

Vegetable Jiăozi: Jiăozi are referred to as gyoza in Japan. Our dumplings were steamed and filled with vegetables. They were quite tasty, but they don’t top my list. Compared with the baozi, they were a little dry. (See the fillings.)

Various Bāozi: Unlike the previous filled-dough entries, these bāozi are made with leavened dough that is delectably soft and a little sweet. We didn’t have any chāshāobāo, because we were already having so many pork products that I didn’t even think about looking for more, but chāshāobāo belong to this group. (See the innards.)

Dòushāshāobāo: These dessert bāozi are of the unleavened variety, and they are steamed and filled with a sweet paste made out of red beans. (See the squishy inner workings.)

We also had some vegetables and noodles and so forth, but those are out of the scope of my filled-dough study. Out of all of these, the vegetable-filled bāozi might have been my favorite dish. Or maybe it was the xiăolóngbāo. Or the red-bean bāozi. Maybe I’ll have to go back and see if I can decide.

For the “proper” Mandarin pronunciation of all of these (in order), you can check out this installment’s audio link.

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