Archive for February, 2010

Freshest By… Last Week?

Everyone has standards. When it comes to deciding on the best, people have different opinions. This is natural.

When it comes to food labels, here in China it seems no different. "Best by" and "Freshest by" dates are only subjective, right? We have taken to carefully watching this information before buying anything at all anymore. In our experience, those dates really do make a difference! There’s only so many boxes of stale cookies and cereal that one can choke down before learning to read these numbers.

But sometimes, even the dates can bring false assurance. Last week JM walked to the corner store for some fresh milk. Picking up a carton, it felt strangely warm, already well at room temperature. He noticed the dairy refrigerator was turned off.

"Why isn’t this on?" The answer from the grocer on duty: "It’s a cold day outside."

Granted, it was a really cold day, as snow flurries were drifting around. Also, the store’s front door was wide open. But neither of these offset the heat from the working radiator. Apparently thinking the better of it, the clerk walked back and turned on the fridge.

Hmm.. better pass on that carton after all.

You can always read the package, but don’t count on it being the whole story. Not in a country where saving everything possible, even a few watts of daytime fridge electricity, is a cultural norm.

It can get even trickier. The last bag of pasta we bought from a respectable import store looked fine at first glance. Arriving home, we noticed some strange holes on the sides. Sure enough, opening it further, there was a small larvae cocoon, revealing the author of the holes in the bag, having feasted on some of Italy’s finest semolina.

But the reason it escaped us at the store was that someone had already noticed the holes- and put scotch tape over them to hide the fact!

High cooking temperatures correct a lot of wrongs. So pass the chow mien and don’t think too hard about where those noodles and veggies were before they plopped in your bowl!

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Perception (addendum)

And one other media difference with the West: the Olympic medal count. On the Vancouver 2010 website, they list USA as the first place among winning countries, for having 8 total medals, 2 of them gold. Yet, on the TV broadcasts here in China, USA is ranked second place, trailing Switzerland’s (as of today) 3 gold medals.

This goes back to summer 2008. Which country came out on top? China had more gold medals, but USA had more overall. The debate goes on it seems..

Perception is everything

The Vancouver Olympics are broadcast pretty much all day here on Chinese TV Station 5. There’s a lot of coverage for the sports China competes in, like figure skating, speed skating, and curling (which we didn’t even know was a sport). They do show some highlights from other competitions like luge, mogul skiing, and the biathlon.

They tend to replay a lot of the same events, though, over and over again. If you didn’t see that amazing triple lutz by the Chinese skater, you will have a chance to see it again the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth times during the day. This happened too with the women’s hockey match against USA. All during the day, they showed the Chinese team celebrating after a score on the USA goal, their goalie stopping shots with an amazing glove save, and deflecting countless pucks. We didn’t know the Chinese women had such skills! But there they were on TV, over and over again all day Monday.

Then the full game was broadcast later at night. Final score: USA 12, China 1.

It’s a little funny to us, but culturally it appears to make sense. Saving face is a big part of Chinese society. First, you build the impression that things are in fact going really well. Then a crushing blow doesn’t seem to fall that hard in the aftermath. We all need to focus on the positive, don’t we?

Happy New Year (Again)!

It’s here, the year of the tiger! China exploded with fireworks at midnight last night to usher in the new lunar year, and here in Nanjing it snowed for the occasion! Leo slept through it all again, just like last year, but our little Rosaline was shaken by all of the explosions going on outside our windows. Tonight we’re hoping for more sleep.

Valentine’s Day? Perhaps in some countries, but not in China. It’s a holiday with relatively little ado, even when not coinciding with the biggest festival of the year. We celebrated by baking cookies and staying inside with the kids most of the day. Married life is great!

Unexpected treasures

(JM) I stopped into a local DVD store today which was brimming with cheap copies of every movie imaginable, from old, hard to find classics, to Avatar, just a few weeks old and still in theaters. Just over one dollar per disc, or even less if you feel inclined to bargain.

I found the music section, and was stunned to find a whole shelf top to bottom of classical music CDs. There was the same copy of Mahler’s Second Symphony with New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein that I bought fourteen years ago through BMG mail order. For two bucks it would have been a lot cheaper than the twelve or so I probably paid at the time.

Poring through all the top-notch recordings of symphonies, concertos, and chamber music, I came across a disc that brought me to a dead standstill, so unexpected that I found myself speechless. A 1992 RCA Silver Seal recording of Erick Friedman on violin, playing showpieces along with orchestra. Not so out of the ordinary, at first glance, but Erick Friedman never garnered the following of a Perlman or Menuhin or scores of other famous musicians on the shelf, so his recordings are much more difficult to find.

For me, however, the find was all the more poignant since Mr. Friedman was my own violin teacher. I was a member of his last class of violin students in New Haven when he died in March 2004. Hearing him on the CD now brings back to life all the lessons he gave us, a window into the not so distant past of the giants among violin virtuosos.

But for sale on a shelf at the back of a Chinese DVD stall in Nanjing?? This just drives home yet again that to walk on the street in China is to inhabit the most peculiar nexus of our current world. The dirt and grit of labor and pollution mingles ever so seamlessly with all the trappings of advanced industrial society, a place where platefuls of greasy dumplings are sold just a few feet away from cellophane wrapped cultural gems like this music. China is full of contradictions like this, and somehow the 5,000 years of culture provide enough berth to accommodate them. It’s not up to we normal folk to try to reason it out. This is just the way things are.

My teacher never would have dreamed his labors would be peddled in this way. In some strange and unforeseen way he actually hit his target market, posthumously, with the appearance of a violin lover heading back from eating dumplings in a Chinese pedestrian alley.

Make it a Bud

Having an infant brings a fringe benefit along with the sleepless nights: late-night Chinese TV. Fewer things are more bizarre than regular Chinese programming, but the late-night shows certainly take the prize.

One interesting difference of cultural note, however: commercials and advertising strategy. For instance, they sell Budweiser beer here, probably brewed in a local plant on this side of the ocean. Beer gets plenty of ad space on TV, as well as hard liquor, both being standard fare at any Chinese celebration. It’s a little weird to see happy family gatherings on TV with everyone downing shots.

But watching the Bud beer commercial: gone are the sleek, seductive women, the burly weatherworn cowboys, the pickup trucks and ice chests. Instead, enter a parade of ants(!), large black ants, towing bottle upon bottle of Bud beer in perfect formation across national landmarks (including the Great Wall of course), and then showering them upon grateful citizens who are celebrating together, each bottle carefully wrapped in a red felt bag to hearken the coming Spring Festival gifts. Here the advertising currency trades on feelings of patriotism, group celebration, and gift exchange, absolute cornerstones of Chinese culture. They know what makes a sale, and push it for all it’s worth.

But the ants?? Here’s the element of the bizarre that permeates much of Chinese media and culture. With a country developing at rocket speed, the connections holding all the pieces together can seem rickety at times. But in a postmodern age, who’s to be the judge?

So grab your bud and celebrate as a national duty, and don’t forget your little crawly friends.