August 28, 2008

So Long, For Now

Well, I think that experiment worked pretty well. I managed to write without embarrassing myself, or even feeling all that self-conscious. And I was able to let people know about my trip without having to write 30 simultaneous e-mails.

The trip back was uneventful -- which is always good. We did some sightseeing the last day, but didn't make it to the Great Wall, unfortunately. Still too sick. Tried without success to have lunch near Tiannamen Square, but ran into language problems at the first place and time issues at the second. Apparently 2 p.m. is past the regular lunch hour, but the waitress was very apologetic.

We made it to Quan Jude for Peking Duck -- a restaurant known for the local specialty. I took some photos, which I will post to Flickr as soon as we hit September. Apparently my files were too large and I hit my monthly limit, so the Forbidden City pix and the Duck pix (oh, and the scorpion pix!) will appear on Sept. 1.

Now, I don't have anything else to say. Seems a bit self-indulgent to just write about any-old-thing that crosses my mind. Who cares?

Thanks for reading

August 24, 2008

Scorpion on a Stick? No Thank You

I used to say, and believe, that I would eat anything -- meaning I wasn't a picky eater. Then I moved to France.

My friend Ursula started to keep a running list of things I wouldn't eat, pointing out that I was much pickier than I admitted. But I think by American standards, I pretty much will eat anything. In France the list of things I will eat -- and like -- is longer than things I won't and don't. I do like snails and whelks and foie gras and gesiers (gizzards) and all kinds of stinky cheese. I do not care for tripe or kidney or pig's feet.

The phrase I'll eat anything takes on new meaning in a place like China, however. Popular items in the Beijing night snack food market Donghuamen are things like scorpion on a stick and fried cicadas. I can say in all confidence: Not gonna happen.

But I was reading an article in the English-language China Daily listing all the less-exotic treats available in the snack district, and I don't think I'll be eating them either. Some popular snacks are glutinous rice cakes, cheese juice, flour tea, pouch-shaped baked wheaten cake, water-boiled sheep head mutton and jellied bean curd. Pass, pass and pass.

I know that a lot of this is cultural; my French friend Isabelle thinks Jell-O and pumpkin pie are disgusting. But I've never really cared for Chinese sweets, and when they're translated like above, I'm pretty sure I'll stick with the tried and true.

Maybe Chinese people think deep-fried Twinkies on a stick are unpalatable, too.

"Easy Chinese"


Almost everyone who already speaks a language thinks it's easy. Of course. If it was hard, you wouldn't be able to speak it. What I object to is trying to teach people by saying, "see, it's easy!"

Aurora Carlson
hosts a program on the international, English-language station of Chinese state television called "Easy Chinese." In it, she gives you an easy phrase to memorize and repeat in times of need. "Where is the bathroom?" "I need some medicine."

This is a better idea in theory than in practice. As someone who learned a new language from scratch, I can tell you there are two parts to communication. Speaking the language is one, but understanding it is the other. It does me no good to know how to say, in Chinese, "Where is the bathroom?" if I cannot understand the answer.

So you haven't just had me memorize the "easy" phrase: Wei sheng jian. I need to memorize the possible answers: To the left, to the right, down the street, past the McDonald's in the alleyway -- you can't miss it.

I appreciate what she's trying to do. But she relies on memory for sounds that are alien to most people, and has a teenager's "Come on!! It's so easy!!" attitude about it. She also demonstrates by writing the phrase in Chinese characters. It seems to me it might be easier to remember if she wrote in Pinyin, phonetic Chinese, so that non-Chinese speakers could at least try to picture the sounds in their minds.

I have settled on a compromise. I have learned to say hello (ni hao) and thank you (xei xei) and content myself with my efforts. Because there will always be answer that I haven't memorized.