Sunday, November 4, 2012

Goodbye Video From Students

This is a precious 'goodbye' video some of my university students made me at the conclusion of our year together. 
I'm not going to lie, I cried.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What is a Mooncake?

"To live is to experience things, not sit around pondering the meaning of life."
--Paulo Coelho, Aleph

Every autumn—prior to the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, to be exact—when the moon reaches its brightest day of the year, the Chinese celebrate Zhong Qiu Jie—the Mid-Autumn festival.  Also known as the, ‘Moon Festival’, Zhong Qiu Jie is the second largest national holiday in China. During this holiday one is incapable of walking about China without noticing the elegantly decorated red and gold boxes, ubiquitous throughout the streets. These lavish boxes don’t hold blocks of solid gold as the extravagantly adorned exterior might suggest, but instead they contain something peculiar to the Western eye:
Mooncakes (see photos below).
            The story behind the Moon Festival, depending on your take on history, is one of the following:

A. “Children are told the story of the moon fairy living in a crystal palace, who comes out to dance on the moon’s shadowed surface. The legend surrounding the “lady living in the moon” dates back to ancient times, to a day when ten suns appeared at once in the sky. The Emperor ordered a famous archer to shoot down the nine extra suns. Once the task was accomplished, Goddess of Western Heaven rewarded the archer with a pill that would make him immortal. However, his wife found the pill, took it, and was banished to the moon as a result. Legend says that her beauty is greatest on the day of the Moon festival.”


B. “The most famous legend surrounding the Moon festival concerns its possible role in the Chinese history. Overrun by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, the Chinese threw off their oppressors in 1368 AD. It is said that mooncakes – which the Mongols did not eat – were the perfect vehicle for hiding and passing along plans for the rebellion. Families were instructed not to eat the mooncakes until the day of the moon festival, which is when the rebellion took place. (In another version plans were passed along in mooncakes over several years of Mid-Autumn festivals, but the basic idea is the same).”

            Because I am a super practical realist, I am going to go with story A. Passing notes in mooncakes is a bit too far fetched for me, however, the idea of a beautiful goddess-fairy lighting up the moon has logic. I’m sure astronauts, upon her discovery,  wanted to keep the fairy for themselves so they brought her to earth and just pretended she was a human. But then the CIA found out and they had to put the beautiful fairy back on the moon. This sounds like an interesting conspiracy theory on what happened with Marilyn Monroe or Jonbenet Ramsey.

I’ll leave it to the reader to make up their mind on the true story behind the mooncake festival, but the greater question still remains—what  is a mooncake?
Mooncakes are an essential edible delicacy for the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. The taste is, put politely…interesting. While mooncake varieties are as infinite as candy cane flavors at Christmastime, they are all essentially a pastry made up of lard (gross) or vegetable oil crust with assorted fillings. The cakes are more or less palmed sized with approximately 1,000 calories per serving.
Now, in the United States we may be plagued with rampant obesity, but we didn’t become the most corpulent nation in the world for lack of delicious food. If there is one thing we are better at than being fat, it is designing the food that gets us there. Case in point, if someone in the United States is going to eat something with 1,000 calories per serving, it better be chocolate dipped in Twinkies deep fried in butter (enter Iowa State Fair) or deep fried steak wrapped in bacon, and breaded with fried mayonnaise balls. 

What lies inside these innocuous little cakes is not fudge or a triple chocolate Oreo pasty (or even a Keltin weight-gain bar fed to the African children in Mean Girls).  In lieu of such tasty, artery-clogging comestibles, fillings such as ‘red bean’ or ‘lotus seed paste’ commonly grace the insides of the legendary mooncake. Who wastes 1,000 calories per serving on lotus seed paste and red beans?!?!?
Mooncakes today go far beyond lotus seed paste as the Chinese have become creative over the thousands of mooncake years. This year I actually bit into a moon cake that had creepy meat in it. MEAT! In a cake! It goes without saying that cake and meat should never, ever be mixed.  I know what I will be bringing up at the next United Nations Summit—no one is safe in a world where cake has meat in it. No one.

As strange as it is to be inundated with creepy meat flavored mooncakes, I suppose it wouldn’t be any less obnoxious for a Chinese person, having no knowledge of Christmas, to be chased around by a fat man with a long white beard on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. That is quite terrifying now that I think about it. I guess every culture has its own little idiosyncrasies that are bizarre to the outside eye and I should be obliged to forgive the Chinese for hiding meat in cake.  I’ll work on it.

Happy belated Moon Festival to you all!!

Each year, the university provides all foreign teachers the gift of a box of their very own mooncakes 

I couldn't be the only one expecting to find treasure inside 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, mooncake!

Apart from the Chinese, it would take Watson and Crick to unravel the inner-workings of the mooncake.

Sources: Parkinson, Rhonda. "The Moon Festival-Mid-Autumn Festival." Chinese Food., n.d. Web. 01 Oct. 2012 <>.

Monday, September 10, 2012

China Quality

This photo belongs in my blog for self-evident reasons. 


Monday, June 18, 2012

The Art of War.

"Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate" 
--Sun Tuz in The Art of War

Discussing the nuances of being a Westerner working in China is one of those ineffable experiences in life. What I can say is that most of the outlandish tales you hear of China come down to a difference in that one little word: logic. The logic that Westerners and specifically, Americans, most value starkly contrasts that of the Chinese. The juxtaposition of Western and Chinese logic is a cocktail of certain confusion and unremitting frustration.

Culturally speaking, Americans are adherent to the idea that time is money, and Americans tend not to like it when their time—or money—is wasted. Likewise, Americans value straight-forward answers. In China, there is little concept of wasting time and likely your time will be wasted much of the time. Furthermore, if there is even an ounce of subjectivity, you will—listen to me closely—never, ever, get a direct answer to the question you asked. Ever.

    For example! In the United States of America, if one asked when the final exam will take place, he/she would likely get an answer like this:

“The final exam will take place Friday, May 4th at 7:30am in Meredith Hall, room 215”

     In The People’s Republic of China, if one asked the exact same question, he/she would likely get an answer like this:

“Because you are a Sophomore, that is, a second year, you are currently enrolled in the sophomore second-year learning program that focuses on English. All English majors must have a final exam that will in fact take place at said time which will be determined by the university at which said time the final will in fact take place. The English final exam will be required by everyone so everyone is required to take the final exam that will be taken at the time which will be determined by the university who has full discretion of determining the final exam time.”

Again, emphasizing my fluency in Chinese translation and all of its manifestations, I would like to translate the above paragraph from Chinese English into Western English:

“At this point in time we have no idea when the final exams will take place, and will likely make the decision irrationally, last-minute, and at a time most inconvenient for you. We will notify you the day before, thank you.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of Chinese logic.
(Anyone ever read, The Art of War? For those of you who haven’t, one of Sun Tzu’s tactics is, ‘confuse the enemy’. The Chinese seemingly employ this tactic in everyday interactions. A word to the wise: if you ever go into or plan to go into business in China, read The Art of War. You will gain invaluable insight to the inner workings of the Chinese mind. Read it.)

      You see, the Chinese, unlike the West, tend not to favor this kind if accurate, informative, logical response; but rather, have been steeped in the Confucian notion that giving straight-forward answers can offend someone, trap you into something, or create problems in general. Thus, they speak in riddles and circles, relying heavily on appeasement. 

     Now despite creating quite the migraine for Westerners, we mustn’t be quick to criticize the Chinese for their seemingly non-logical logic. Consider this: in the US it would be considered reckless endangerment to go about driving on the left side of the road, however, we can hardly rebuke England for all of their left-sided driving. Neither the United States nor England is ‘wrong’ for driving on the right or left side of the road in their home countries—it is just different.
The same can be said for Chinese logic. Therefore, it is not my intention to censure Chinese logic, but rather, connote that a Westerner traveling to China without a basic understanding of their logic is like an American driving in England without knowing to drive on the opposite side of the road--reckless endangerment.

So, for all those planning to visit, travel, live or teach in China, I have taken the liberty of making this handy little chart for you in hopes of alleviating the headache you are sure to face when trying to function in the Middle Kingdom.   

When  a Chinese person says this:
They actually mean this:



“It will be very difficult”

“We/I will try”

“Yes” or “Maybe” or any other response followed by a long sucking sound through the two front teeth
The truth is something you are not going to like, assume the worst. *(It could also mean no). 

“I am not sure” or “I will get back to you later”
No. Please forget about it and don’t ask me about it later.

…Long irrelevant explanation that doesn’t at all answer or even address your question
I have no idea (or no)

     In a word, it behooves you to put a ‘maybe’ in front of anything you are told in China (if it isn’t already done for you). Memorize this chart and you will be on your way to understanding the Chinese. The end.