Dear Mom and Dad,
The halfway point in my adventure has come. It's been two months. To me it feels like about a year.
The holiday spirit is conspicuously absent here. I kind of like the absence of holiday obligations, but I miss seeing the churches and temples here. You'd think that in a 5,000 year old culture such as China that there would be reminders of Buddhist, Taoist, even Confucian thought everywhere. However, the reminders are limited to the plastic icons found in the gift shops near the hotels and at the tourist trap monasteries.
The three million some-odd people here still stare and gawk at me, the foreigner, everyday, everywhere, all the time. It really bothered me for the longest time. But there's a lot of construction going on near my apartment and I've been watching the "Gong Ren" (day laborers) work with primitive hand tools building the foundation for this 20 story high-rise. They work hard for little pay. And they work until about 1 in the morning. These guys are the backbone of China's labor force.
They've got a hard life. I figure that if I provide them with a little entertainment because of my appearance, its a minor pleasure in their day that I'm less resentful now for providing. I still don't like it, but I can't hold it against them anymore. Besides, they never really understood the hateful gaze I would return. I always felt like I'd gotten angry at one who had absolutely no malice in their heart. They'd just smile and laugh more.
I had another run-in with "Western food" a couple of days ago. We went to a cute little Italian restaurant. It smelled really good inside, and the interior design was a reasonably successful attempt at European decor. By this time, I've learned how to determine the quality of the food before ordering.
"What's the nationality of your chef?" I ask.
"Oh, he's American." I'm told.
"Is he here, now?" I return.
"Yes, would you like to meet him?" I'm asked.
"Sure, I used to do some cooking myself, you know." I add.
We walk back to the kitchen. I find no Americans. Just Chinese. Okay, no problem, perhaps the Chef taught the cook what to do. That's fine. But then, I see another problem. Pizza on the menu, and there's no oven. Uh-oh, just a wok with oil, a rice cooker and a few other typically Chinese cooking tools.
I discover their pre-cut garnishes, some vegetables cut into the shapes of flowers. They look nice, but I also see some room temperature French fries and realize that these fries are also being used as a garnish. I lift one up and ask my translator to explain that fries MUST be served within a couple of minutes after coming out of the fryer, uh, I mean wok full of oil.
I guess "shelf life" doesn't really translate well, because when our dinner did arrive, they came with the nice veggie garnishes and a couple of rock-hard zig-zaggy cut fries...
Anyway, they asked me to show them how to cook something. I chose something simple like garlic toast. I searched for a French loaf or something appropriate for garlic toast, but could only find a square white bread that was sweetened with something. It tasted kind of like a pound cake in the shape of a fat Webber's loaf.
Well, I'm a guest, so rather than give them a dose of real American moodiness, a chef who "CAN'T WORK IN THESE CONDITIONS!!!" I chose to create with what I had available.
I buttered up some of the bread and toasted it, face down, in a large frying pan with some diced up garlic. I turned it over, sprinkled on some mozzarella and a little rosemary. I cut the squares into little triangles and placed them artistically onto a plate explaining that presentation is everything. "We eat with our eyes before we eat with our mouths." I added, much to their amusement.
The toast wasn't sampled by the cooks and waitresses who all witnessed the cooking, but rather it was taken out to the owners who were having a small party in the dining room. I felt a little kinship with the restaurant workers, having done it for so long myself, so when the food was taken away, I felt a little bad. Oh well. That's pretty much universal for restaurants, I guess. The grunts go hungry.
We ended up ordering a pizza with "pig" and "pineapple". I hoped that meant Canadian Bacon, but it ended up being some kind of pork cubes. They weren't even smoked. And the pineapple tasted like it came from a Libby's can of fruit cocktail.
Not very good. I shudder to think of what the Chinese must think of Western food after eating at a restaurant such as this. We ate one slice each and left about ten. We called a friend who lives nearby hoping that she'd have a taste for pizza. However, she was no fool. She didn't even finish her one piece. Oh well, nice friendly atmosphere, anyway.
There are a couple more foreign students at the hospital who study with me, now. One is an M.D. from Thailand. She has no traditional Chinese medicine training, and so I spent much of this morning explaining Yin/Yang theory and how it relates to the human body. She's interested in taking back some acupuncture understanding to incorporate into her OB-GYN practice in a town of 40,000 in Thailand.
The other student is a young man from New Jersey. He's here with the School for International Training doing a semester abroad. He's come to the hospital to do a research paper. It turns out that his undergraduate major is in neurobiology. Kind of the point in which biochemistry meets psychology. (Ben Satterfield. went on to create Rootdown.us)
It's interesting to see the different psychological pathologies here. In Santa Monica, the patients whom I see tend to have stress-related disorders. In short, there are many things that they want, that they work hard for, and this takes its toll on the mind and body, especially when there are obstacles to their goals. In China, the pathologies tend not to deal with them not being able to achieve, or get what they want, but rather the pathologies tend to have more to do with a lack of personal initiative.
An example of that need to be told what to do came up recently in the hospital. Ten people were waiting in a small doctor's office earlier this week. When the doctors went outside the door into the hall to confer about a case, a woman described as looking nervous and probably a drug addict sat down in one of the doctor's chairs. Some of the ten in the room thought that was a little strange, that she should sit in one of the doctors' chairs. The woman reached into one of the doctor's bags and removed the wallet, and rushed outside. When the doctor returned five minutes later, he found his doctor's bag was open and the wallet was missing. Of the ten people standing around in the room, only five had even seen the woman. Of the five, three had witnessed the theft, but not one of them had the personal initiative to either stop the woman or even tell the doctors talking right outside the door what had happened. Mind you, this wasn't the psyche department, this was orthopedics.
The woman got away with the wallet. Fortunately, American credit cards are almost impossible to use here.
That's it for now. Happy holiday shopping! Just remember, the massive crowds you're witnessing now, are an everyday occurrence here...
Love from your third born, but favorite son.