Thursday, May 29, 2008

Grounds for Divorce

I was talking to a teacher who I am giving private English lessons to yesterday, and she made an interesting comment about divorce in China that I had never heard--a common reason for separation is housework. Many young Chinese have never been taught to do housework their entire lives, and when it comes time to live the married life the husband and wife have so many fights about taking care of the home that it ends in divorce. With the one-child policy and the particularly overwhelming Chinese love for children, many of the so-called "Little Emperors" are now spoiled at home, and not made to help take care of the home. There is also so much competition and pressure to get into the best high school, the best college, and get the best job possible that most parents consider the duty of students to study--and do practically nothing else. Many of the college students at this school are getting a part-time job for the first time, and others will work for the first time when they get their first job after graduation. The student who is giving me Chinese lessons has an uncle visiting Zhangye shortly, and asked me to please not mention the lessons to him--he told her to give up her tutoring and spend all her time studying, and she told him she would. A good many of our students must also hide the fact that they have a boyfriend or girlfriend from their parents, because the parents would never allow them to be so distracted from their studies.

Before she started talking about divorce in our lesson, that teacher asked me something that, as a 25-year old, sounded a little strange: "Do you know how to do household chores?"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

After the Earthquake

I haven't mentioned the earthquake on this blog since it happened, but I'm sure it goes without saying that everyone in Zhangye has been concerned about it and the awful devastation it has caused. Though a few cities in Gansu province did see some damage and even some casualties, we actually didn't feel it here and I've been following it only through news reports.

At the beginning of last week, there were three national days of mourning for the earthquake victims, including a three-minute moment of silence on Monday afternoon. All of the foreign teachers were summoned to take part in a gathering of students and faculty in front of the library during this time. It was both a solemn and slightly surreal experience. It was like any other moment of silence in that the crowd itself did not speak and stood with heads respectfully bowed. However, it was the loudest moment of silence I expect to ever witness--all across the country, horns blared in the cities, in the taxis, on the ships, and on the trains. CCTV broadcast footage from Beijing during those minutes, and our school had set up a TV and enormous speakers in front of library for the event. Two students simply held microphones up to the TV, meaning that while sirens went off in Zhangye, sirens in Beijing being broadcast on the television were amplified into our ears in an odd and highly distorted sound collage. I couldn't quite get my head around it, and from what I've been told it was simply a Chinese way of honoring and remembering the victims of the disaster. One could write an interesting paper just on the meaning and uses of noise in Chinese and Western culture. This was also the first time a national moment of grief was organized in China for anything other than the death of the country's leader, and in general the government response to the earthquake is praiseworthy.

The second incident that stands out in my mind is a recent donation drive to help with the earthquake relief effort. I wasn't on campus at the time, but the other foreign teachers were called by Miss Mao from the Foreign Affairs Office on short notice and told to meet at her office.
Once there, everyone was told they were to donate money to help the earthquake victims, and asked to write down the exact amount they were donating a pre-prepared list with all of our names on it. Once this was done, they were led outside where a donation rally was held in which Communist Party leaders and the bewildered foreigners placed their donations one-by-one into a box, to the cheers of a crowd of students. As each person approached the box, they proudly held up a sign with the amount of their donation, which was also displayed on an electronic screen. The foreign teachers had to oblige, but each hid their money and paper in their fist as they donated. One teacher had actually had to borrow money to donate, because he wasn't told it was a donation at all and didn't bring his wallet. They also were not told who was handling the donation (the Communist Party), or really much of anything about it. The event was filmed, and later shown on the local news, similar to other donation drives we have seen on television. Students have also been asked to donate blood and money in high-pressure situations. Just when you think you're no longer surprised by the differences between China's collectivism and the West's individualism, something comes along to remind you just how differently things are done here.

(There is also a good post about donating on Sinosplice)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pizza Hut in China

I was in Xi'an during the last few days, and for me personally one of the highlights of visiting a big city is the chance to eat real pizza. One would think eating at Pizza Hut would be a pretty cut and dry experience, but it's actually kind of interesting to see how it differs from going to an American Pizza Hut.

For one thing, it's "classy." The servers are well-dressed, the place looks really nice, and there are no groups of screaming children. Western restaurants are more of a fine-dining experience in China, even the ones that would never be considered as such at home. I'm reminded of a short story I once read by a Chinese author. A boy from a poor family was given some holiday money to spend on necessities, but decided to use it impress his girlfriend and take her out to an extravagant meal--at McDonald's. Awkwardness ensues when it turns out his mom is secretly working at the McDonald's to make some extra money for the family.

Pizza Hut also pretty expensive in comparison to Chinese food, so it caters to China's growing middle class, and a lot of the customers seemed to be working couples on a date. Despite the cost, Chinese spending habits were in full force around us. A nearby couple ordered fruit smoothies, salad, an appetizer, a desert, and a pizza, much more than they intended to eat. The other nearby table ordered drinks, chicken wings, meatballs, and three pizzas. With simply a large pizza to split, Nissa and I were the cheapskates of the place.

But my favorite image of pizza places in China, and unfortunately I don't have a picture (but try searching for "China salad bar" on, is the salad bar. You are only allowed one trip, so there is usually one crafty young Chinese person making a salad skyscraper on their plate. By this I mean they load an enormous amount of vegetables on their plate in an attractive pattern that is painstakingly constructed over 10 minutes or more. The dedication and attention to detail is truly inspiring.

And finally, I leave you with this:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Chinese Food: Dumplings 饺子

I love being invited to a Chinese home, because the invitation usually revolves around a home-cooked meal. One of my favorite home-cooked Chinese foods is dumplings, or jiaozi, which are made by wrapping amounts of meat and/or vegetables in little dough wrappings and then boiling them. Wrapping the dumplings is a fun, easy cooking activity that even the most culinary challenged can help out with, but there is a bit of an art to it and mine are inevitably very nankan (ugly). Unlike with most Chinese foods, dumplings can make up a meal by themselves and are usually not accompanied by rice or noodles. Everyone is given a small plate for vinegar and hot sauce in which to dip the dumplings.

The Chinese sense of hospitality is very strong, sometimes even a little overwhelming. When you are a guest in a Chinese home they will attend to your every need and you are unlikely to leave without being utterly stuffed with food. I can even find it a little too aggressive sometimes, such as when the host demands that I "eat! eat!" every time I put down my chopsticks. The above picture is from a recent meal Nissa and I ate with four Chinese friends. The plates of dumplings (the light-colored ones in the middle) were replaced numerous times as they were finished by plates of freshly boiled dumplings prepared by the woman of the home. Gender relations are much more old-fashioned around here, and generally the wife continues to cook while the guests enjoy the meal and the men drink and smoke. There was of course a large amount of food left over after the meal, and the hosts wouldn't have wanted it any other way, or they would feel that they appeared cheap. This also carries over into eating out, and with the exception of casual meals among good friends a Chinese person might order twice the amount of food necessary. A man with a job in business or politics especially might spend a good portion of his salary treating people to dinner. It honestly amazes me that the Chinese are so successful at saving money.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Chinese Food: Sweet and Sour Pork 糖醋里脊 and Home-style Tofu 家常豆腐

A nearly unanimous favorite dish among foreigners in China is sweet and sour pork, known as tangcu liji around here. It goes by other names in other parts of China, probably with variations. It is one of the few dishes in northern China that resembles American Chinese food (though it reminds me more of the "General Tso's chicken" than the "sweet and sour pork" at home), and is also simply delicious. It is a little unusual for a Chinese dish as it is all meat and has a very sweet taste. Most Chinese meat dishes actually have quite a bit of vegetables. And the meat is always in small bite-size chunks because, of course, you must eat it with chopsticks. You never cut anything in a Chinese meal and generally don't eat anything with your hands.

I can't remember ever eating tofu in America, and it definitely never tempted me. It sounded like something you would only eat out of vegetarianism and/or desperation. But the tofu dishes in China are great, so I've come around on eating it. I also never realized the word "tofu" comes from the Chinese word doufu, meaning "bean curd." My favorite is probably the jiachang doufu, or "home-style tofu." It's more solid and has a milder taste compared to other tofu dishes.

Eating out in a restaurant in China is a little different than in a Western country. We often eat at simple and cheap family-run restaurants like the one pictured above. The street in front of our school is full of them. The meal for two pictured above was probably around 15 yuan, or about US$2. Unlike in the West, where everyone orders an individual meal, in China you order for the table. We typically order one dish per person eating, but we might get a little more or less depending on our hunger.

The dishes come out one at a time, whenever they are finished cooking. Because they are stir-fried it only takes about five minutes for the food to start coming out, so there are no appetizers or bread, and salad is rare in China. There is also no dessert. The dishes are all placed in the middle of the table, and everyone at the table shares all the dishes. Everyone has an individual bowl of rice (or sometimes noodles), and grabs some food from one of the dishes with their chopsticks and brings it to their bowl to eat it with the rice. Germ-conscious Westerners are sometimes uneasy with this at first, but it doesn't take long to get used to it and actually prefer it when eating Chinese dishes.

Instead of water, the default drink is tea, which is usually free and served automatically. Soft drinks are usually unavailable and if they are will be unrefrigerated, so I always stick with the tea. Beer (also unrefrigerated) is always available, in extra-large bottles that are meant to be shared.

I like the small, family-owned restaurants. Besides being cheap the food is excellent, and the small staff is usually quite friendly and happy to see you. Nissa and I have learned to cook a small number of Chinese dishes, but it really isn't much cheaper than eating out so it is difficult to work up the motivation to cook for yourself. Many aspects of life in China that were once novelty now seem routine, but eating out is one thing I can always get excited about.