Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Going Bananas

I think any time you travel for an extended period of time you sort of start to lose your mind. All the little things that you thought you could live with, like the small ant colony in your bed, the fact that your feet are always filthy, the absence of proper salty tomato juice (it’s a fruit, y’all!) the dearth of personal space – They all add up until a single tiny straw, for example, the sudden and alarming eruption of LEGS from your toiletry basket while reaching for the toilet paper; causes you to make an incoherent phone call home sobbing and hissing broken phrases about “Consummate impudence in my soap dish” and “Insolently capering in my washcloth God Damn it.”

There are some things about Western life that are not only entirely foreign to China, they are literally incomprehensible. The Chinese language in all honesty does not contain a word for “privacy.” They have words that express solitude, and words that express furtive secrecy, but the concept of personal space is devoid entirely of meaning. It’s as telling about our culture that we have developed an entire sacred lexicon surrounding the idea of privacy as it is about China that they have such a significant dearth.

After discovering this, we did some pointed research and discovered that Chinese also has no word for “irony.” This goes a long way towards explaining why Tiananmen Square still has the name “Gate of Heavenly Peace” and not “Gate of Oh Holy Fuck is That a Tank.”

English, too, needs to borrow from other languages terms and phrases that never developed intrinsically, like “Déjà Vu,” “Schadenfreude,” and “Corona.” It’s just as relevant to understanding a culture to examine the concepts that are missing as the concepts that are specifically named.  For example, the Chinese have a phrase “Sui Bian,” which is very difficult to translate into English. Very literally, it means “following convenience,” and so might best be understood as “Easy going.”  But more subtly, it has layers of meaning that are nearly impossible to express, since this is a concept that English has never found the impetus to develop a word for.

But I digress. I was bitching.

Chinese people laugh when you get hurt. Like, they stand there and LAUGH at you when bad things happen. It’s like the entire freaking culture developed around an episode of “Ouch! My Balls.”

And the Xenophobia is insane. INSANE. Everywhere you go, people point and loudly exclaim, “LAO WAI!!!”(foreigner.) It’s like some involuntary ejaculation. I actually think they might explode if they held it in. Even places that see hundreds of white people a day are punctuated by the sound of the sighted-whitey verbal tic.  And they take pictures of you, like you’re what they came to the great wall to look at, and they point at you and tell their children, “There is a foreigner! They can’t speak Chinese. They don’t know how to use chopsticks! They eat pizza. They say, ‘HALLOOOOO!’ Can you say ‘HALLOOOOOO!!’ to your foreign Auntie?” Once, at a restaurant, Fred and I got so tired of feeling like a zoo exhibit that we picked up a filthy kitten, walked over to the table of people who had actually crossed the restaurant with their offspring to stand and stare at us while we ate, and told the cat, “Look! Chinese people! They can speak Chinese, but they don’t understand English! They never use a fork!” The cat did not give a shit, and squirmed and yowled. The Chinese people, on the other hand, were delighted.  “Lao WAI!” They cried, ecstatic.

In Inner Mongolia, in Xilinhot, a group of teenagers with cell phone cameras honest to God CHASED ME THROUGH A MUSEUM trying to take my picture. It might have been hilarious if set to “Yackety Sax,” but unfortunately real life does not have a caustic soundtrack.

And now we are in Thailand, which retains my international award for the country that infuriates me the most. Misfortune stalks me through Thailand, from the minor collision with a tour bus in Chiang Mai to the brutal sunburn blistering the back of my legs on the night train to Bangkok.

And don’t even get me started on my motorbike, which I was so excited to drive again, and which sounds like a maniac dumping a sack of nickels into a metal toilet in an echo chamber.  I’m driving the Honda Robot Diarrhea.

It’s that time during the trip where you just kind of hit the wall, and all those tiny things that make you want to scream come piling up and make a mountain, founded on such underpinnings as the woman stabbing me in the back with an umbrella as I try to board a train with a huge suitcase, the constant covert photographs people take of me in stores, the taxi drivers who drive in circles and smile with all their rows and rows of teeth, the hotels that won’t accept foreigners, even at three o’clock in the morning when you’re sick and limping with blisters, the people spitting on the bus floor, the woman HAMMERING SOMETHING AT FOUR IN THE MORNING ON THE NIGHT TRAIN TO GUILIN (What the fuck could you possibly have to hammer on a freaking train at four in the morning?!?) the paucity of drinkable beer, the unbearable proximity of someone’s unwashed feet, the inability to flush toilet paper, or, for that matter, even FIND toilet paper (it saves restaurants and stores a lot of money to make you bring your own), the innumerable rip-offs, the health code violations, the enormous tropical spiders, the repellent stench of the public toilets – the list of provocations is endless and petty. But eventually one thing will get you, out of all the things that there are, and that one thing will be so idiotic, and so insignificant, and it will send you straight over the edge raving like a gibbering lunatic. And you will end by resenting the hell out of a place that contrives to make you feel embarrassingly stupid even as it drives you completely insane.

In the end, it was the giant sized cockroach fossicking around in my bath tray that broke me. 

I might be getting ready to come home.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chinese Fashion

There are three basic tenets followed when getting dressed in China.

1) A pattern is lovely.


a) two patterns are better.


b) Oh, why the hell not.


Though, in reality, “matching” is a very important concept to the Chinese.  For the past ten years or so, it has been a popular trend to have couples dress alike. Sometimes this can mean just wearing the same color, but more often this involves the purchase and coordination of an entire “couple’s wardrobe.” An ENORMOUS fashion industry in China (and I cannot exaggerate in trying to describe what a huge thing this is) is the design and production of “Couple’s Shirts.” These shirts are often identical, though more often they are merely similar or deliberately complimentary. Most shopping districts will have at least two or three stores dedicated entirely to matching shirts for couples.


I have mixed feelings about this trend, since it seems to me a little exclusionary, and more than a little proprietary.  And I don’t really relish the idea of having your entire image be centered around the fact that you are in a relationship.


  I can just imagine the number of arguments that are precipitated by the prospect of having to coordinate your outfit with your girlfriend every day of your life. However, the store owner I interviewed said that although far more women than men instigate purchase of the shirts, men “can really enjoy” wearing them because “It makes their girlfriends happy.” I’m not sure that goes a hell of a long way towards refuting my point, but she seemed to feel that it was conclusive.

N.B:  More recently, the franchise has been expanded to include a matching onesie or children’s t-shirt for the couple’s offspring.

2) Name brands are important.

name brands do not need to be legitimate, accurate, or representative. It is pretty much enough that they be plausibly recognizable. One thing people go crazy for in China is Gucci. Or rather, Chinese people go crazy for the letters G U C C I. They don’t even need to be in that order. One particular popular fabric simply has the letters printed in asymmetrical stripes indiscriminately across the shirt, forming line upon line of fashionable, mutant DNA. 

China is also big on hats. Boater hats, straw hats, sun hats, big old floppy Easter hats; most of them are describable solely as



3) All English is good English.



Happy Virus.”

no I am not making this up.




While it is true in a sense that Asian countries have a strong affinity for Western style, it is more accurate to note that as far as fashion is concerned, Chinese people just think English looks cool. Just like the Western world embraces Chinese and Japanese characters as art (Fred and I just yesterday saw a guy whose tattoo read “Shrimp Dynasty.” Whoops. ) Chinese people are far more attracted to the shape of the words than the meaning. Most of them never wonder what their shirts say, even if they speak some English.


Even if you’re this bad ass.




A number of companies take advantage of this indifference to sell advertizing space on shirts. I saw a kid in Sichuan walking around wearing the McDonald’s menu printed onto his jumper. Many, many people wear the logos of gas stations or electronics.

Sometimes, shirts are printed in English espousing specific Chinese propaganda slogans. The Chinese government has perfected the dissemination of information until it is nearly a respectable art form. Minority villages have gorgeous, colorful murals covering the walls of stores and houses extolling the virtues of birth control, agriculture, and gender equality. Similarly, the government targets the relevant audience for the single child policy through a germane medium. Slogans are something that young people find extremely attractive, and the popular ones are quickly snapped up by T-shirt companies.


“We only want one.”  This shirt is ubiquitous throughout China. It is sold in all styles, for both men and women.

Another trend that I find equally disturbing is the dissemination of religious propaganda through clothing. China is a communist country, which means that there is absolutely no official sanction of any religion. China is also not stupid, and has no problem making a fast buck  from foreign companies interested in spreading the word.


I’m not really sure what the point of writing this in rhinestones down the side of your leg is, but hey. Whatever.


The “Victory in Jesus” shirt is EVERYWHERE. Neither of the people pictured above had ANY idea what was written on their clothes. We asked.

a) All Spanish is good English.


b) Even Bad English is good English



Oh, dear.    

4)  (BONUS RULE!! FREE FOR YOU TODAY MY FRIEND!)Children are not people.


In China, your kid is pretty much fair game. You can honestly put your child in whatever the hell you want and no one will bat an eye.


Positive Parenting.

Kids are a fashion playground for parents. Clothes and image are so extremely important in China that many little girls wind up looking like Little Bo Peep, and little boys like miniature prep school ponces.


Oh, what the fuck is THIS shit?

The most appalling phenomenon I can say I’ve come across in China is the Children’s fashion industry. The forerunner for things that make me want to tear my hair are the notorious “Split Pants,” the Chinese response to pull-ups. In their favor, I can say that they are certainly efficient. And in a nation of almost one and a half BILLION PEOPLE, the toddler population alone would make a more massive disposable underwear landfill than all the pooping innocents of North America combined. So for that infamous period between “diaper” and “potty trained,” Chinese mothers simply put their children into pants with the seam split through the crotch. That way, when a child needs to use the bathroom, they simply…



And they do.  I watched a woman hoist her child over the top of the great wall to urinate.  Many children simply squat in the middle of the street. Fred and I came across a mother holding her kid above a trashcan to defecate in the middle of the forbidden city. My personal favorite came as I was washing my hands at an aluminum sink in a train car. A woman approached holding a toddler wearing a pair of pants split up the back. She held him over the windowsill, OUTSIDE OF THE TRAIN.  NEXT TO THE TOILET. WHILE THE TRAIN WAS MOVNG.  She glanced shyly at me.  "Say, 'Hello, foreign Auntie!'" she adjured the baby in a loud whisper, smiling. Urinating, the child stared dumbly. a stream of pee flowed onto the floor and pooled in the dip between the cars.  All I could do was blink.


These parents obviously want their kid to grow up to be an asshole. Not only is this kid wearing a ridiculous split onsie,


He is dressed like a FUCKING CHICKEN. Who does that to a child? WHO DOES THAT?!!?

In all fairness, though, there are things I really love about Chinese fashion. It can be daring, innovative, and extremely creative in cuts and patterns.


I loved this look. Every color was painstakingly coordinated, her headband matches the bows on her shoes.

Sometimes, the addition of the hat makes all the difference.


her shoes matched the hat. It was a wonder.

The rebel look has become almost entirely co-opted by  the mainstream, and this frizzed out punk rock mullet hair can be seen on old ladies and young girls alike.


please note the conscripted adherence to the law of patterns.

Accessories form a huge part of dressing up in China. There are loads of shops that sell only vanity umbrellas, in every color and pattern imaginable. Chinese women often use umbrellas like parasols, to keep the sun off. Some of them are true works of art, some of them are just adorable.


This is a fad I wish would catch on. I’m bringing home a dozen umbrellas. The hell with the “Umbrellas are for Chumps” crowd.

In closing, I leave you with a valuable lesson learned at a temple outside Beijing.

Regardless of your affinity for patterns, accessories, or sensual posturing,



Sometimes not even a hat can save you.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Food, part I

There are really two basic and discrete categories of Chinese food. There’s the kind you want to eat,
And the kind you don’t.
(a rack of charred pig face and pickled trotters.)
But since I fear no food, it has been my occasional pleasure to eat selections of both.
IMG_6539        IMG_6415 (Duck tongue in Yangzhou)               (Chicken feet in Beijing)
Eating in China is a non stop adventure, since in a sense every meal is a gamble.
Grocery stores can be off-putting,
Markets can be intimidating,
Restaurants can be downright terrifying.
For the most part, it’s probably far, far better that you never consider where what you are about to eat comes from.
IMG_1246 IMG_1525
The journey of a single grain of rice is probably rife with opportunities for contamination we’ve never even dreamed of, tomatoes are probably exposed to the kinds of diseases most people can only get by living in a sewer. But China does have, in its favor, over 1.3 billion people, and every one of them eats Chinese food every day. And most of them survive. So unless you plan to live off of energy bars and airplane peanuts, roll the dice.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Chinese food can be exceptionally beautiful. This dish is one I love; lightly stir-fried bell peppers and potatoes. Chinese cooks only sauté  potatoes briefly, so they stay a little crunchy and don’t absorb as much oil.


A popular characteristic of Chinese vegetarian cooking is that the product both look and taste like meat.  This is a soy based “shrimp” dish from a temple in Hangzhou.

IMG_1227 IMG_1230
Crystallized fruit from a stand in Nanjing’s Lion Bridge Area
Chinese food can also be remarkably repellent.  Part of this is simply because there are a number of things that we, as Westerners, are not accustomed to relishing. For example, animal fat.
Pure, unadulterated animal fat. None of your damned meat. 
Fat is a delicacy in China, and a highly desirable one. This is Hong Shou (red cooked) Pork (sans Pork) in a beautiful little lakeside restaurant in one of the Beijing Hutongs. This is basically just really nicely presented pig fat.
This, on the other hand, is both visually and gastronomically a contender for the worst meal of the trip: Chunks of Fat.
In Fat Water.
Like, at least add MSG. Isn’t that supposed to improve everything?

A large part of the experience of eating in China is browsing through the extraordinary number of food carts and street stalls.

Street food is abundant, cheap and filling, and encompasses a startling variety of flavors and ingredients.


thes Kabobs are generally chosen by the customer, and then fried in hot oil by the vendor.  Most of these here are fish or fish paste, but there is also mutton, chicken, tofu and pork.
Piles of dates, figs, sweet breads and cookies from a stall in the Muslim district of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia. This is where we bought one of my favorite snacks, a leaf filled with sticky rice stuffed with dates and honey.

A street stall in a Beijing Hutong sells what pretty much amounts to syrup with dry ice in it. The only good that came of this purchase was the picture, it was that nasty.

Some street stalls combine presentation with palatability.
 IMG_6618   IMG_6620 
This guy in Chengdu creates elaborate flowers and animals with melted sugar.
Guaranteed by this guy.
Food differs widely by region, and there are some specialties which simply cannot be reproduced with any accuracy outside of the area of their inception.

The famed Shanghai Soup dumpling which sort of just looks like you’re consuming a breast implant.

Nanjing dumplings are famous for their originality and succulence. These are pumpkin and ground pork dumplings from a tiny hidden stand in a back alley at Nanjing University.

Suzhou is the home of a large population of the Uyghur (Wee – Gur) people, an ethnic minority of Muslim Chinese from the far western reaches of the Xinjiang region.

We ate a bag of lamb dumplings on the boat, and afterwards sought out the restaurant for a late lunch.


A small bowl of sour yogurt comes before the meal, topped with large crystals of rough sugar.

Peking duck is a prize that you can hardly find outside of Beijing. The crispy skin is widely regarded as the most delicious part. The duck is served with paper thin pancakes spread with hoisin sauce, and sprinkled with razored slices of cucumber and green onion.

Mongolia is not really known for having anything that you want to consume. On the reasonable side of the “things you could eat” spectrum is Mongolian milk tea, often made with sheep’s milk and butter, and extremely salty and rich.
Mongolians LOVE sheep. And they love ALL of the sheep.
IMG_6271 IMG_6272 The above enticements are stomach, intestine, kidney and lung.  IMG_6276         I have to admit to kind of liking the intestine, though.
Yunnan, in Southern China, is famous for one dish, and one dish only.
“Across the Bridge Noodles” consist of an ENORMOUS bowl of broth and a medley of highly varied ingredients.


       Highly. Varied.

                                                  yes it’s a bee.

Tibetan food is delicious.

This is Yak tongue. The flavor is intense and rich.

Tibet makes use of more baked pastries and breads than does China, which mostly relies on fried or steamed buns.
Yak meat is a staple, this pasty is stuffed with yak, onions and leeks.  Tibet also brews a milk tea similar to that of Mongolia, with the exception that Tibetan milk tea is brewed with yak butter. I am just going to repeat the words “Yak Butter.”     
   Yak Butter.
My band already has a name, so if anyone wants to call their band “Yak butter” I am totally not going to sue you or anything. Please feel free. It sort of rolls off the tongue. And I mean that in every literal way.

Sichuan is a Mecca for spicy food lovers.  Everything is spicy, from the soup to the bread.  Heaven forefend that I insinuate that Chinese food is in any way bland (Yak Butter. MSG. Oh, my.) But for those who crave daring amounts of capsaicin, there is yet manna in the wilderness. It is rumored that Chairman Mao loved spice so much, he even used it on his breakfast bao.  Consider yourself in good company, Comrade.
Sichuan has a nice custom of serving meals that consist of numerous small snacks. Above are spicy pork dumplings, duck tongue, duck lung, fried tofu, cucumber in vinegar, spicy noodles with roasted peanuts and hot red pepper.
Another specialty of the Sichuan province is Rabbit Head.
Do not scroll down if you do not want to see a Rabbit Head.
A Rabbit Head looks exactly like you think it does.
If you are lame, or already grossed out, or phobic about Rabbits or Rabbit Heads (P.S. What the fuck?) It is better to just click on this, and not go any further.

Here is a Rabbit Head.


This is definitely a plate of Rabbit Head.

Yep. Rabbit Head.
Since it is Sichuan, the Rabbit Head is really spicy. They leave the eyes and the brain in to enhance your experience.
You just spit the bones on the floor.

As an added bonus, Thailand has its own peculiar brand of delicious.

IMG_2884 a tray of hors d'oeuvres in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Deep fried grasshopper and LEO beer.
In closing,
Yak Butter.