Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Teach a Man to Fish, and he'll be Terrified for the Rest of his Life

More fish tales.  If you want to read the beginning of the fish saga, click here.

Me: What is your favorite food?
Vincent: Seafood.  But I don't like to eat fish.
Me: So, you mean you only like shellfish--crab, lobster, etc.
Vincent: Yes.  I really don't like to eat fish.
Me: You don't like the taste?
Vincent: No, I'm afraid of fish.
Me: Again?  Er, I mean, I don't like it when I can see the fish's face.  I only like headless fish.
Vincent: It's not that.  When I was young, my uncle used to chase me around with a whole, raw fish.
Me: But why?
Vincent: For fun?

Peter and I are in a Thai restaurant.  We're in a booth beside a decorative fish tank, which is filled with large goldfishy-type fish.  They make kissing faces at us.

Me: The fish here are nice.
Peter: Sure.
Me: Oh yeah, can you believe it, I had another student today who's afraid of fish?
Peter: Warily eying the fish tank.  I can believe it.
Me: Are those fish creeping you out?
Peter: No.
Me: What if one of them were to, you know, rush at you?
Peter: Maybe.
Me: Really??!  Why are so many Chinese people afraid of--
Peter: Never mind.  I lied.  I am not afraid of fish and I never was.
Me: Really.
Peter: Yes.  What do you want to eat?
Me: The lime chicken.  You?
Peter: The, er, fish soup.  Ground fish soup.
Me: Do you feel safer if they're ground up?
Peter:  Did I say ground fish soup?  I meant I want the ground Christense soup.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Here's What Happened (not related, I just like that title)

The things that get you most in China are the things you never realized were subject to culture.

Blame, for example.  The Chinese blame each other much differently than we do.  Does that sound petty?  Go get someone to mess with your sense of blame, then come talk to me.  You never know how much a thing like that can bother you until it's happened to you.

So there I was, coming home from school, feet swollen up like marshmallows.  The weather?  The arthritis?  The day?  I don't know why.  This morning student scheduled for two back-to-back classes (four hours),  beginning at 8am, did a no-show.  I ate a very salty bowl of spinach noodles and walked 30 minutes in the hot part of the day to get to my second class of the afternoon.  After two hours standing up talking about Moo Goo Gai Pan, I was bushed.  I wanted to get home and put my (marshmallows) feet up.

Hunting through a forgotten box for my summer shorts, I stumbled upon a long-forgotten bag of Dead Sea salt.  Score!  My feet soaking in simulated Dead Seawater, I propped up my laptop and watched and old episode of Star Trek TNG.  And when that was over, dagnabit, I watched another.  ("Darmok" and "Ensign Ro" for those that want to know.)

Later I was looking up the names of really, really big numbers (could I borrow a quattuordecillion dollars, please?) to teach to my students, when the phone rang.  It was Maia, from my school.

Maia: Are you on the way?
Me: To where?
Maia: To school.  Wang Fei is waiting for you.
Me: You must be mistaken.  I don't know any student called Wang Fei, and when I checked my schedule this afternoon, there was no class tonight.
Maia: There wasn't?
Me: No.
Maia: Well, could you come here, and tomorrow I will ask the scheduler about it?  The student is here waiting to have class.
(Here I should point out that it's 45 minutes into a two hour class.  I don't know why she waited so long to call me, but by the time I got there the class would be half over.  Nevertheless, I don't know what to do.  I've been here long enough to second- and third-guess my first instincts, because what I think it the right thing to do is often not--not at all--right in Chinese culture.  Peter's not home; I wish he were so I could call a sidebar for a culture conference.)
Me: Well, I don't think I can.  I don't know anything about Wang Fei, and I don't have a class prepared.
Maia: Oh.  Okay.  Well, do you have class here tomorrow?
Me: Yes, in the afternoon.
Maia: Okay, can you come see me?
Me: Sure.

Phone call ends.  I feel disquiet within my soul.  The American in me is saying, If you go to school now they'll think they can just call you in whenever they want.  They'll get sloppy about scheduling, you'll never have any peace again.  Besides, it's not your fault.  Any class you'd teach would be useless, anyway.

It's long, hard-won, and I don't particularly like it, but important for any person living or working outside their own culture for an extended amount of time is a sense of justice in that secondary culture.  My sense of Chinese Justice keeps hitting the replay button on Maia (who is one of the good ones) going in to tell the unknown Wang Fei that there would be no class tonight.

I call Peter.  He's wrapped up in some noodle caper and can't talk.  I go back to reading giant numbers, not as amused as I was five minutes ago.

Fifteen minutes later my phone rings again.  I'm briefly afraid it's Maia again, or my boss calling to tell me I've committed some grave offense and I must duel Maia to the death.  After this long, I believe anything can happen in China.

It's just Peter, though.  I sketch the problem for him.

Peter: You should have gone.
Me: Really??
Peter: Yeah, really.
Me: But it's not my fault.  I shouldn't have to rush in and teach some crappy, slapdash lesson just to cover for someone else!  It's not fair to the student to get half a lesson.
Peter: That makes perfect sense...in American culture.  In China you have to help her out, and then tomorrow you can figure out what went wrong.  It's better that the teacher comes late than that you don't come at all.
Me: (I can hear his facial expression) It's too late.  She's already sent the student home by now.
Peter: Okay, well, never mind.
Me: Is it bad?
Peter: No, it's not that bad.  Just talk nice to Maia tomorrow.

I hang up.  Mixed emotions.  I picture myself, arriving to class an hour late.  I'd apologize, because I am genetically encoded to do so; I'd apologize and then hate myself for it.  Alternately I picture Maia, explaining to the student that there won't be any foreign teacher class tonight.  I'm not sure what she's telling the student.  White lies are a perfectly acceptable and essential part of Chinese culture.  The student is not happy.  These kinds of things don't go over well.  Some students can be very demanding...at least, the Chinese teachers think so.  I've never had any trouble with them.  But I don't always get the real.

The bottom line is, coming in late, I'd look wrong.  Me not coming, the school would look wrong.  I am no longer sure what part this blame formula played in my split-second decision to tell Maia I wasn't coming to class.  I am displeased.  I pull on Peter's old sweatshirt and go downstairs to buy a soda.

Later, Peter comes home.  I am on the bed pretending that I am planning a lesson, but really I am flipping listlessly though Facebook.  Peter's birthday is on Wednesday, so I don't take much notice of the package he's carrying, wrapped in pink paper.  (Pink doesn't mean anything.  "Real men wear pink" started in China.)

The package is for me.

Me: Why?
Peter: Why not?
Me: I haven't done the dishes.
Peter: I know.  You had a bad day.
Me: Your mom made fun of my lunch.
Peter: No one but you thinks those noodles taste good, baby.

He hands me the box.  I set it on the bed in front of me.  After generous pause, he takes it and loosens the wrapping paper, as if demonstrating.  I take it back and finish the job.

The outside of the box says...

Me: Lose your life?
Peter: Love your life.
Me: Much better that way.

I open the box gingerly.  My husband is not a giver of spontaneous gifts.  It could be anything: a gag,  something he thinks I'll love but I'll hate, something wildly inappropriate...or something perfect.

Out of the box comes a plastic model of a stone, the size of a large grapefruit.  An electrical plug comes out of the back of it.  On top there's a small round patch of green fuzz.  Emerging from the fuzz are three wires tipped with LED lights.  Each light is shaded by a tiny lampshade, one white, one blue, one orange.  In the box is a small card with instructions in Chinese, and a brand name: Avatap.  My husband has Avatapped me.

Quick, I think to myself.  Say something appreciative.  You want to encourage this kind of behavior.  He'll be embarrassed if you don't like it, so say something that you'd say if you liked it.  Make him believe you know what's going on.

Me: Oh...great.
Peter: It's a light!
Me: Yeah, I see that.  Cool!
Peter reaches into the box and pulls out a handful of artificial foliage and flowers.  He briefly consults the card.
Peter: See?  You can poke these in here (indicating the green patch) anywhere you want, and make it beautiful.
Me: Anywhere I want.  Neat!
Peter: You don't know what it is, do you?
Me: It's a light.  A neat-o light.
Peter: You wanted a lamp for beside your bed, but we never found one your liked.  I was going to buy you a new handbag, but I didn't know what kind you wanted.  I thought this was better for you.  Do you recognize it?
Me: It's a hairy lamp.  It's great!
Peter: This lamp is a piece of that planet, Avatar.
A long pause.  
Me: Oh...oh...OH!

Before my eyes it transforms.  The three little lamps are mushrooms.  The foliage starts to look familiar.  The green fuzz is a patch of moss, in which the plastic daisies will pretend to grow.  Oh!

I've had a vague dislike for Avatar ever since I heard that the movie caused a strange phenomenon. People were actually becoming clinically depressed because they wanted to go live on Avataria (whatever, I can't remember the actual name) but they couldn't because it was, after all, not real.  To me, that seemed to be totally missing the point of the movie.  But I'd enjoyed it otherwise, especially the glowing flora.  If that movie had come out when I was twelve, I would have been totally hooked.

Peter: So, you like it?
Me: Now that I know what it is, I totally love it.
Peter: And the LEDs are earth friendly!
Me: Yeah, sure.  Let's plug it in!
As we bask in the blue-white-orange glow...
Me: So are you mad at me about the school thing?
Peter: Of course not.  You can't be more than you are, baby.  Whatever else you are, you're an American.
Me: Do you think the school is going to make a big deal about it?
Peter: No.  Just talk to Maia tomorrow.  Tell her you're sorry.
Me: Do I have to be 100% sorry?
Peter: No. Ok?
Me: Ok.

Sometimes I'm Smart, Too

Tim and I are playing Catchphrase.  This is why it's hard to get good directions in China.
Tim: This word means what you should do if you don't know something.
Me: Research?  Look it up? Dictionary?
Tim: No.  Someone asks you, but you don't know the answer.
Me: I've played this game a quadrillion times with various students, so I know what all the words are.  Tell a lie?
Tim: That's right!
Me: That's sad.

Amamda and I are playing Catchphrase.

Me: When you see something beautiful and you want to remember it, what will you do?
Amanda: Potato!
Me: Potato?
Amanda: Potato.  Potato...photo!  Take a photo!

In a class of 12 students, we are playing a game called "What did I do yesterday?"  The class has decided where Stuart went (Walmart) what he thought about it (crowded) and what he bought (shampoo).  Just a note here: Peter says Wal-Mart smells like China. 

Stuart: Did I go somewhere in China?
Class: Many countries have this place.
Stuart: Disneyland?
Me: It's a big store from America.
Stuart: Oh, Wal...Wa...wo er ma!
Me: Yes, Wal-Mart.
Class: What did you think about it?
Stuart: Confusing.
Class: No!
Stuart: Smelly?
Me: Yes, but no.
Class: Like riding the bus at 6pm.
Stuart: Crowded!

Later in that class, Michael approaches me.  There's about an hour left of this four-hour class.

 Michael: I'm sorry teacher, I have to leave early.  I have something to do.  (This is a standard Chinese excuse.  I guess they don't feel obligated to make up an actual lie.)
Me: Okay, that's fine.
Michael: Okay, teacher, thank you so much.
Me: Tell your girlfriend I said hi.
Michael: How did you know?!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Here's What Happened

Imagine, if you will, yourself, at home alone on boys' night out.  (If you are a boy, please either imagine yourself as a girl or change "boys' night out" to "girls' night out.")  You're having a grand ol' time watching reruns of the Big Bang Theory, pretending it is research for new class material. 

An onion ring makes an appearance.  Your mouth waters.  Your loins quiver.  You try not to remember that you can make awesome onion rings.

You continue watching for a reasonable time, until transition to sleepytime is practical, but you can hold back the truth no further.  You bought an onion two days ago, right before Peter called and announced you were going out to eat.  It sits in the icebox, awaiting you.  (Yes, I know onions don't live in the icebox.  I like to think outside the box.  Or in it.)  You have the flour--you always have flour, Betty Crocker.  The bodega downstairs doesn't close for another 15 minutes.

It's meant to be.

Off you trot in your PJ's (people stare no matter what, might as well be comfortable) and return with a bottle of Xi'an's cheapest.  The pile of dirty dishes in the sink only slightly dampens the mood.  You're whistling (well, you would be if you could whistle) as you forage for cleanish dishes and line seasonings up in a row.  Down, down to the deepest depths of the cabinet you delve for that all-essential but rarely used flour.


You remember the flour clearly.  You remember insisting on buying it about nine months ago, the flour and an airtight plastic tub (ridonkulously expensive in China) to keep it in.  After using about nine tablespoons of it, you decided on a new organizational system.  You wrapped it and a bag of rice up in a cleverly arranged network of zipper bags, then filled the tub with cleaning supplies.  Tub and flour parted company.


A phone call to your husband establishes that he doesn't remember what he did.  More talking establishes that he remembers taking the rice, and only the rice, to use in his noodle shop.  (No, that's not supposed to make sense.)  The karaoke music in the background is getting distracting, but even more talking establishes that he is sincerely repentant for an offense he does not fully understand.  He holds firm on the fact that the rice and rice only left the house with him, and quickly follows up with a promise of piles of golden-brown onion rings at his shop tomorrow (presumably made from rice...?). 

It is tempting.  His onion rings are better than yours.  So much better, you're not even jealous.  And he's truly sorry.  Yep, he's a keeper.

Nevertheless, it won't help you tonight.  You let him off the hook and ask him to sing Poker Face for you (again). 

Plan second is the world's most awesome smoothie: pineapple-mango, FTW!  There's just enough stuff left to make a really good one.  The mangoes are wrinkly...which means they're in perfect ripeness.  Their smell is intoxicating.  Funny, I've never seen pineapple like that before.  I wonder what it tastes--oh.  Where's the trash can? 

So, to recap, you've got no onion rings, no delicious smoothie, and the taste of overripe-and-not-in-a-good-way pineapple in your mouth.  Sigh.

But!  You've still got your Big Bang Theory research to do (that would be a lot more auspicious if it wasn't capitalized) and you do, after all, have the beer! 

Which is warm.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Middle Earth in the Middle Kingdom, or How my Students are Smarter than Me

I am teaching a lesson about Chinese food to Jeff.  I've just shown him a picture of a bowl of Egg Flower Soup made in the good ol' USA.

Me: So, is this like the soup in China?
Jeff: Kind of.  The eggs look wrong.
Me: What's different about them?
I know very well what's different, but it's good practice for Jeff to explain it to me, so I play dumb.  How can he complain about his food in the States like a true American if I don't teach him now?
Jeff: In China we add more...um...checks dictionary...it's not in my dictionary.
Me: Maybe you can describe it to me.
Jeff: It turns blue when you add iodine.
Me: Um, what?
Jeff: Iodine?
Me: Iodine...
Jeff: Yeah, when you add iodine to it it turns blue.
Me: The only food I can think of with iodine is salt.
Jeff: No, not salt.  When we add it to Chinese soup it makes it thicker and the shape of the eggs is more beautiful, really like flowers.
Me: Thinking of Peter cooking. Starch?  Corn starch?
Jeff: Yes!  Starch.  We add more starch.
Me: You know, iodine is not where I would have started trying to explain cornstarch.
Jeff: You're welcome.

Talking with Stan before the Chinese food lesson.  This conversation took place in Chinese.

Stan: I really like blah blah blah.
Me: You like hot and sour diarrhea?
Stan: I like hot and sour soup.  SOUP!

My students aren't always clear on the difference between "hobby" and "habit."  They mix up both the words and the meanings.  Occasionally, my nerdly heart soars when they ask me:

What's your hobbit?

 Bruce is Party Animal's best friend.  The two of them are going to London together to study English and then go to high school.

Bruce: I like cars, but I don't like buses.
Me: Why is that?
Bruce: Have you been on the bus in Xi'an?  Those drivers think they're driving race cars, not buses.
Me: I couldn't have said it better myself.

My last lesson with Party Animal.  We are doing a lesson entitled For or Against?  The legal driving age in China is 18, and there is no age limit for buying/drinking alcohol or buying/smoking cigarettes.

 Me: Are you for lowering the driving age to 15?
Party Animal: No.
Me: But if it were lowered then you could drive.
Party Animal: I don't think I can see over the steering wheel.  (It's true.)
Me: Oh...er...so, what do you think the legal age for driving should be?
Party Animal: 20.
Me: Really?  I know you like cars.  That's a long time to wait to drive.
Party Animal: I know.  I'm not ready.  My mom wouldn't let me drive, anyway.
Me:  Probably true.  Are you for or against a legal age for smoking cigarettes?
Party Animal: For.  I think it should be twenty as well.  They're not good for young people.
Me: Well, they're not good for anybody.
Party Animal: Yeah, but by 20 if they don't know better it's too late.
Me: Do you think there should be a legal drinking age for alcohol?
Party Animal: What's alcohol?
Me: Beer wine, and hard liquor like baijou.  (Baijou tastes like coconut flavored nail polish remover and is the way the Chinese punish unsuspecting tourists.)
Party Animal: I think the drinking age should be 20 also.  No, wait...
Me: Yes?
Party Animal: I think it should be 20 for beer and wine and 30 for hard liquor.
Me: Will you be running for president any time soon?  I think I'd vote for you.
Apparently-Not-Such-A Party Animal: Leaping to his feet and running to the window.  Dude!  I just saw a Lamborghini!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Bit Fishy

I hit a busy spot so I have been absent, but I'm back with a few recent excerpts.  Let's start with a mistake about a traditional Chinese dish.

Kaelee: I like to eat hot pants.
Me: What?!
Kaelee: Oops, I mean hot pot.

Sherrie: I am afraid to go scuba driving.
Me: Scuba diving.
Sherrie: Oh, sorry.  Scuba diving.
Me: I tried to go scuba diving. but I chickened out.  I don't like deep water.
Sherrie: Oh, I don't mind deep water.  I love swimming.  I'm just really afraid of fish.
Me: Wait, you're afraid of fish?
Sherrie: Yes.
Me: Fish?
Sherrie: Fish.
Me: Why?
Sherrie: I don't know.  They just freak me out.
Me: The scales, the unblinking eyes...?
Sherrie: Yes.  Ew.
Me: Can you eat fish?
Sherrie: Yeah, I like to eat fish.
Me: So it's just looking at fish that creeps you out.
Sherrie: I don't like to see them when they're alive.
Me: So Finding Nemo must have been like a horror movie for you.

Me: Honey, today my student told me she's afraid of fish.  Fish!
Peter: So?
Me: Isn't that weird?  Have you ever heard of that before?
Peter: Yeah, sure.  A few people.
Me: Seriously?  Is that common in China?
Peter: I guess so.
Me: You guess?  Are any of your friends afraid of fish?
Peter: Well...I am.  I was, when I was younger.
Me: When you were younger?
Peter: Well, until I was like, fifteen.
Me: Fifteen?!
Peter: It's really not that big a deal.  Look, can we talk about something else?
Me: Finding Nemo?

I am very pleased this show is catching on in China.

Claire: I like to watch an American TV show called The Big Bang Theory.
Me: I love that show.  You said your major is physics, right?
Claire: Yes.
Me: So can you understand the physics they mention?
Claire: Some of it.  The vocabulary's very technical.
Me: So what's your opinion?
Claire: Sheldon is very interesting.

Kaelee: I had the phone interview with the American high school I want to go to.
Me: Which one was that?
Kaelee: Scared Heart High School.
Me: Sacred Heart?
Kaelee: Oh, yes.
Me: So did you feel nervous?
Kaelee: No, I felt great.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Orange Chicken Recipe

I've been promised a good meatloaf recipe in exchange for Peter's Orange Chicken recipe.  I post it here for those who asked for it.  The Chinese don't measure, so all amounts are approximate.  Feel free to experiment and modify to fit your tastes.  If you like it I wouldn't mind getting a few of your best recipes in return.
  1. Take 2-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts and cut into one inch square pieces.
  2. Roll the chicken pieces in flour. (Peter prefers cornstarch, but it gives the meat a mushy texture I dislike.)
  3. Fry your chicken pieces in one inch of oil in a wok or heavy saucepan. Yes, deep fry. Chinese food is not healthy. (You could probably use grilled chicken if you wanted to.)
  4. When cooked through, remove the chicken from the oil and and drain on a paper towel.
  5. While the chicken is cooking, zest and juice one orange. Or more. Or maybe a lemon. Tangerine?  Set zest and juice aside.
  6. In a wok or large fry pan combine two parts frozen orange juice concentrate with one part water.  (adjusting this ratio of water to concentrate will make the chicken more or less orangey.)
  7. In the pan add the juice of the orange. Add a dash of salt. Don't leave the salt out. Add 1-3 tablespoons of good marmelade (marmelade is a little bitter, so if you're not used to it go sparingly or leave it out.)
  8. In a separate bowl mix some cornstarch with water, one part cornstarch to two parts water. Ish.
  9. Place the pan containing the orange mixture over medium heat. Bring to a gentle simmer. Using a wisk, add the cornstarch mixture in small amounts until the sauce is thickened to a pleasing consistency.
  10. Add the cooked chicken to the sauce and let simmer for a minute.
  11. Taste. If it seems like it "needs something" add a dash more of salt, garlic powder,sugar, rice vinegar or a dab of chicken broth..
  12. When it's done remove from heat and sprinkle on the orange zest.
  13. Serve with rice and stir-fried spinach or cucumber salad.

The International Bank of Peter

My salary is long gone, eaten by the bills, so I've been bumming from Peter and his noodle proceeds.

Me: Honey, I need some more cash.
Peter: How much do you want?
Me: How much am I worth?
Peter: Here's 150RMB.
Me: This is all in tens and fives.
Peter: So?
Me: Don't you need change for the shop?
Peter: No, I've got too much.  That's why you get it.
Me: I can't walk around with all these small bills.  People will think I'm a stripper.
Peter: It's not like you'll be going around making purchases of 50RMB.
Me: So this is how you control my spending.
Peter: Not at all.  For the right pair of shoes, you'd risk looking like a stripper.
Me: I want a divorce.
Peter: Can you get a divorce for 150 RMB?
Me: Maybe!
Peter: Your lawyer will think you're a stripper.
Me: Rats.
Peter: So, no on the divorce?
Me: Not today.  Maybe tomorrow.
Peter: Great.  Can you make some popcorn?