Friday, February 01, 2008

No Longer Nico in Luoyang

After yet another long blogging hiatus, I resolve again to resume regular blogging about life in China. I have been getting up very early nearly every morning, and I hope I can use this time to write a little something every day. Call it my new year's resolution, which I'll say takes effect on February eighth, the first day of the year of the rat.
As the subject of this post suggests, I am no longer living in Luoyang. I left there on the thirteenth of December, after having spent almost three weeks in the hospital being treated for a rather nasty infection. I'll elaborate on this only by mentioning that this infection is commonly known as a rectal abscess and leave it at that.
After spending a month in Minneapolis and Louisiana visiting friends and family, I flew to Beijing on January 15th, then flew to Shanghai, where I spent the night. I met my friend Zoe, who moved to Shanghai from Luoyang about three months earlier, for lunch, and then took the bus to Ningbo, which lies on the southern side of the Hangzhou bay.
I've now been here for about two weeks, with three days spent back in Shanghai completing training for my new position at Web International English. So far my impression of city has been very positive.
The first several mornings here I went out early to a produce market near my friend Nick's apartment, where I've been staying. There I encountered a staggering selection of fresh seafood, including about ten kinds of clams, several varieties of live shrimp, and, of course, a enormous array of ocean fish. Those of you who know me would not have been surprised to see me with a huge grin, giddily hopping from stand to stand. You'd also not be surprised to know that this experience has made me confident that I'll enjoy my time here.
The city is worlds apart from Luoyang, with glistening skyscrapers and new villas comprising much of the view from Nick's apartment window. The streets and air are relatively clean, and the riverside view is charming and almost European. There are, of course, the requisite drab communist apartment blocks, but the much of the city glows with prosperity and modernity. Whereas Luoyang is a city just beginning the transition out of the communist past, Ningbo seems on the forefront of the New China.
In the next few days I'll report back with more impressions. For now, it's time to have some breakfast and get started with the day.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Xin Nian Kuaile!

We now find ourselves in the second day of the year of the pig. Chinese New Year is a big deal here, pretty much Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all in one. Many Chinese folks visit their families. For me, however, this holiday has thus far been characterized by several consecutive days of being surrounded by detonating fireworks. My lord, do these people love fireworks. And we're not talking about the namby-pamby shit our benevolent government overlords allow permit us to use in the States. People were regularly setting off what came close to professional grade stuff in the courtyard of our large apartment complex. For the past 3-4 days it's sounded like a war-zone here.

Steve and I leave for Xi'an tomorrow. I'll make sure to take lots of purty pictures and post em' here.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

shangdan kuaile!

Merry Christmas to all. I spent this holiday weekend playing Santa Claus to the delight of dozens of Chinese children. Today we had a potluck with some friends. It was actually one the better Christmas's I've had. Getting together with nice people to eat well and keep out of the cold- that's about all I could want.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Do you want to eat some rice?

This is a question I've encountered fairly often. I've had to remind myself that people here consider rice the main course here. What you'll actually get is a small bowl of rice along with meat, fish, or vegetable dishes.

I want to avoid appearing to be able to identify some cultural truth, however small. I hate writers who do that. If I'm able to comunicate anything to you, it's the unknowability of culture (I suspect not only to outsiders). It's exhilerating for me to be so keenly aware of my ignorance.

Take that as a message from the Dispatch, folks. We report, you decide.


It's been almost 2 months, and I'm starting to feel reasonably at home here. Reaching this point has not been as difficult as I anticipated. In many ways the lifestyle here fits me very well.

I feel vindicated in my decision to come to Luoyang. At least two people recommended I not go there, citing the relative poverty of the region, the prevalence of industry and the accompanying pollution, and the lack of western amenities. All of these observations are true, though exaggerated, but it simply doesn't bother me, and the city, and my place of employment, have much to offer.

What struck me strongly from the beginning is the warmth of the people. I should state right now that there are at most 40 westerners in all of Luoyang, a city of 1.2 million. Any time I go out, I'm guarantied a few stares, "hello"s and calls of "laowai!" (the Chinese casual term for 'foreigner'). I suspected at first that the friendliness I encountered was a result of being somewhat of a local celebrity. Observing folks around me, though, has convinced me that this isn't the case. Most people, whether in restaurants, shops, and seem open for casual conversation. Also remarkable is the apparent lack of classism here. College educated, up and coming young people seem perfectly comfortable chatting with the owner of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

Luoyang is one of the oldest cities in China. According to Wikipedia, it was founded in 1100 B.C., and lies in the heart of ancient Chinese civilization. It has served as the capital in about 13 different dynasties. It is said to have been one of the most glorious cities in ancient China, but this came to an end with the Jurchen and Mongol invasions from the north of the 13th century, during which the city was mostly destroyed. The city never recovered its glory, and in the early 20th century its population was around twenty thousand.

Luoyang experienced rapid growth with the intense industrialization of the 50's and 60's, but lagged behind the coastal areas during the economic boom that began in the early 80's. A lot of what started happening in cities like Shanghai and Beijing over 15 years ago seems to have only recently started here- rampant construction, outside and foreign - investment, an and generally broader exposure to the outside world.

As I mentioned, the experience of living in this sort of a place has been less jarring than I'd expected. I've certainly been witness to the some weird, and occasionally shocking stuff (on which I won't elaborate here, out of respect for the more delicate sensibilities among my readers), but by and large I move around and and go through my daily routine as I have at home or anywhere else.

I work Tuesday through Sunday, Tuesday through Friday I go into the office at 2 PM, and teach two classes starting at 6 or 6:30. Saturday and Sunday are the long days, I usually teach 4-5 classes, which keeps me busy from about 9-5:30. I get every other Tuesday off. I have Chinese classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:30 to 11:30 AM. So I'm kept fairly busy.

I saw most of the local sights when my father came up to visit about a month ago. We visited the White Horse Temple (Bai Ma Se), the Longmen Grottoes, and the famous Shaolin Temple (I'll post pictures of these on my blog soon). I find Buddhist temples to be the most aesthetically impressive places of worship I've seen. The Longmen Grottoes are certainly worth a visit if you're passing through central China (let me know if you are!).

Some of you might be wondering how I could have written this much with not a mention of food. Well wonder no more! In short, the food and food culture here are almost a perfect fit for my sensibilities. The amazing variety of foods here strikes me on a near-daily basis. Basically, people here eat almost anything in any form imaginable. Most of the local stuff is more on the level of street food or what you'll find in a whole in the wall restaurant. Upscale restaurant serve mostly Sichuan (or Szechuan in the old romanization) food, which is enormously popular here.

Henan stradles what might be called the Rice-Noodle border of China, the former being predominant in the south, the latter in the dryer, colder north. Both feature prominently in the what local people eat. There are several other staples, including flat breads, rice noodles, and noodles made with sweet potato starch. Widely used spices include anise, Sichuan peppercorn, white pepper, and ginger. The climate around Luoyang is quite dry, and the local cuisine features a lot of soups and broths. If you order noodles here, without qualifying it in some way, you'll get noodles in soup. It's very common to have some kind of soup or broth with every meal. If you order fried noodles, you'll get a small cup of broth with it.

Some of my favorites eats include Lanzhou lamian (pulled noodles), which you'll find in almost any Chinese city. The noodles are made in theatrical fashion by experts in this craft, who stretch, braid, and skillfully manipulate the dough to create several noodles simultaneously. These are served in a flavourful beef broth.

The local haute cuisine is the Luoyang Water Banquet, which consists of 24 (!) courses, all soups and other liquid-based dishes. I tried a miniature version, consisting of 4 courses, of this at a famous local restaurant with my dad, and it was excellent.

I could go on, but I'll let it suffice to say here that I'm deeply impressed by the conection with food here. I'll try to pass on more meaningful food experiences as I have them. Some pictures are also in order, I think.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Inaugural Post: Recycling a Mass Email

The story so far:

Despite having almost missed my flight out of Minneapolis, I completed the transit to Shanghai with ease. The flight from L.A. to Shanghai went by more quickly than I expected. I was met in Shanghai by Steven Weathers, who was my contact in Luoyang, and recently moved to Shanghai to teach at a university there. Accompanying him were his friend and student Gary, and Mr. Gu, a tax collector in Shanghai. Gary had arranged for Mr. Gu to pick us up by car. It took us about an hour to reach the middle of the city. As we crossed a major bridge into the city center, I was in awe o the sheer size of the place. I recall having a similar feeling crossing the bridge into Manhattan some years back, but the Shanghai skyline easily dwarfs New York's.

We went straight to a restaurant in a hotel. I was expecting a meal, but Mr. Gu had arranged for a private dining room in what was clearly a high class establishment. I was presented with a pack of Chungwa cigarettes, the smoke of choice for the Chinese elite. I was smoking before the food came, an ashtray having been made available for each of us at the table. We ordered several bottles of TsingTao beer, and then the food starting coming out. There were too many dishes to enumerate here, all delicious. As is customary in China, someone had to propose a toast before every drink. I was in a delirious state of bliss, no doubt exacerbated by the jet lag. The meal must have lasted well over an hour. After the meal, Steven brought me to the hotel, and were I slept in two increments of about 4 and 2 hours.

Steven picked my up early the next morning to bring me to airport to catch my plane to Zhengzhou. After a short breakfast, I was off. I lamented my all-too-short stay in Shanghai, but Steven graciously offered to house me were I to visit, and I'm sure I'll take him up on that.

I was met in Zhengzhou by Tracy and Steven Li, the owners of the Joy English School in Luoyang. They were in town to send of the stuff for Steve's (yes, you Steve) visa application. After a delicious lunch in Zhengzhou, we began the two hour drive to Luoyang. Tracy and Steven have a very luxurious car, so I was able to view the landscape in perfect comfort. Henan is one the poorer provinces in China, and the landscape between Zhengzhou and Luoyang gave me a peek at the "other China": small farms, tenement villages, all evoking the nineteenth century, instead of the forward looking, frantically paced scenes of the cities.

The outskirts of Luoyang we encountered were mostly dilapidated, and I briefly wondered if I had bit off more than I could chew in coming here. The inner city is considerably more modern, though hardly comparing to the glimmering facades of Shanghai. The streets are something all of you have seen on TV- a bustling, seemingly chaotic fluid mass of bicyclists, motor scooters, all types of anachronistic driving machines.

We arrived at the complex of apartment blocks which was to be my new home. I was apprehensive when ascending the grubby stairway, but once Tracy opened the door to the place, this was replaced my glee. The apartment has three bedrooms, one of which serves as a study, a for China large kitchen, a large living room with a couch and several comfy chairs, with a large TV with a DVD player. My bedroom contains a queen sized bed and a sliding door to an enclosed balcony. There is a large bathroom with a bathtub, as well as an additional half bathroom by the bedrooms. In short, by Chinese standards this is a massive and luxurious place.

Well, I'd like to keep going, but I have an appointment for hotpot I have to get ready for. I'll send another email soon with more about Luoyang, my new job, and some of the other folks I've met here. Till then:

To be continued...