Monthly Archives: June 2014

A Change of Perspective

The passage to America
The passage to America

This is the economy class cabin somewhere over the Pacific, halfway to America.  It’s after dinner, after the exciting turbulence, after settling in.

They douse the lights and close the windows. Those who can sleep, will sleep, and those who can’t will play games or watch movies.  I watched a movie, The Lego Movie, which was quite diverting, and of course shallow entertainment, well worth watching if you ever find yourself trapped in a cabin with a hundred other people.

Korean Air has had these little individual screens on long flights for many years, and this year has even added them to the local Tianjin to Korea flight.  They may have fifty (or so) movies and TV shows to choose from, as well as music and video games, and a map that shows your exact position. I also watched a documentary about Hamlet hosted by David Tennant.  This time, though, I finally got tired of playing 3D golf.

 Upsetting the cart
Upsetting the cart

As for the turbulence, it was also more entertaining than usual.  I only managed to squeeze off this one out-of-focus shot of a flight attendant desperately grabbing onto his food cart to keep it from lobbing juice onto the passengers.

And I have to admit it was fun to hit a big bump and see a cabin-full of hands shoot up and grab the seats in front of them, as if that might make a difference.  Don’t these people wear seat belts?

On the seat in front of me, you might notice the USB connection, useful for charging cell phones and ipods (though not strong enough to charge ipads).  So if all those movies on the individualized screens don’t provide enough entertainment, you can access others on your own portable device.

And finally, the rules have changed so you can use your personal electronic devices all the time, including take-offs and landings, so long as they’re not actively transmitting radio waves. What a relief for me, who likes to snap pictures from low-flying planes.  Next time I’ll get a window seat.

Anyway, I remain, as always, a fan of Korean Airlines and also the Korean airport, which has free wifi approximately four times as fast as my “DSL” connection in Tianjin.  And it’s always a revelation to step out from heavily-censored China and access web sites so freely.

The Great Wall

Indeed, Chinese censorship increased quite a bit this summer, making Google and its services unreachable after the last week of May (though gmail has not been blocked so long as you access it through POP and not through its web interface).  The proximate cause of tightening was most likely the twenty-fifth anniversary of a well-known June event. But really, do they need a reason? As always, Chinese authority never feels any need to explain itself.

It has made life more difficult, though, particularly in finding pictures for my English lessons.  Google simply has the best picture-finders.  The comparison with Yahoo is instructive, as Yahoo in China follows all the government censorship rules, vague as they may be.  Even for basic web pages, entire categories of search results are missing, even those that seem to have no relevance to China whatsoever. But then, again, Chinese authority never feels any need to explain itself, or even reveal its interference, for that matter, while the rest of us turn to scratching our heads and wondering if our local Internet provider has become incompetent.

But then, again again, I’ve found an interesting kind of wall here in America, too. My friends Lonnie and Tim wanted to see today’s soccer match between Germany and the USA. (Germany won).  However, we have no cable here, and the game was simply not available over the air at any price. Apparently, ESPN has exclusive rights to the game in America.

On the other hand, the CBC in Canada was streaming it all live over the internet. But on the other other hand, all soccer streaming to the USA was blocked.  So finally, and yes, on the other other other hand, I employed the same software that I use for skirting Chinese blockages to skirt the American blockages so we could all watch the game.  (And please don’t turn me in).

As I sometimes point out to friends in China, information in America is also sometimes controlled, but in a different manner and often for different purposes than in China.


Ah, yes, the non-Esprit type Lotus, the kind that grows, the kind that’s native to India, the kind that’s pervasive in the religious and philosophical symbolism of that land.    It’s pretty common here in China.  And for a plant native to a land without snow, it seems to survive the winter frosts of Tianjin pretty well.

A couple months ago, I happened by the big lake at nearby Nankai University.  Throughout the winter, it had been a semi-frozen mess. But on that day, the lotuses, hidden for months down in the mud and muck at the bottom of the pond, had begun rearing their leaves.

What you see in the middle of the picture is a sort-of peninsula, a path of honor into the center of the pond, where, in the midst of trees, stands a sculptured figure of Nankai’s most famous son, Zhou Enlai.

Anyway, I took a panorama, which appears below.  And then, each week, I returned and took another.  I was surprised, actually, at how slow the lotuses rose from the muck.  Despite the warm winter and early spring, or perhaps because of them, the lotuses lallygagged around for weeks. What I thought would be a more dramatic sequence doesn’t seem so impressive.

Growth lurks beneath the surface

Growth lurks beneath the surface

Leaves Burst Out
Leaves Burst Out
Leaves thicken
Leaves thicken
Deeper Water starts to fill in.
The deeper water starts to fill in.
Flower Buds Appear
Flower Buds Appear
The first flowers open
The first flowers open

That final picture was taken on June 22, with much less growth than in other years by that date.  One can hope that July will welcome a much more luxurious green.

Meanwhile, here’s a picture I took a couple years ago, which shows just how full and showy the display can be:

The full display comes in July
A photographer drowning in chlorophyll.

And next I present my favorite lotus pond picture. Can you find the frogs?

There are two frogs here
There are two frogs here

 California Dreaming

I drove out yesterday to snap some Castro Valley pictures. Whereas a China summer is green, a California summer is gold. Actually, I was surprised by how golden it was, since all that grass had received just a few weeks of spring rain to spring up.  Yes, the drought continues unabated in California and in the West.

Anyway, here’s a panorama taken from the hill behind Neighborhood Church.

2014-06-26 Castro Valley Panorama 4 (Custom) (2)If your Internet speed can handle a four-megabyte file, click on the picture for more detail.

Peeking out at the left edge is the new Eden Hospital, the old one having been swept aside a few months ago. Note also the wild cactus in the middle, as potent as symbol of the West as any.

Other than that, there’s not many notable landmarks in view, since, well, there aren’t many notable landmarks anyway, unless you count the 50+ restaurants along the main drag, and the Golden Tee miniature golf course, huddled inside the curving freeway exit towards the right side of the picture.

Ah well. Castro Valley has never been very spectacular, but still, as the chamber of commerce used to put it, it’s the “Heart of Good Living.”  True, all true.

Canada Geese not in Canada
Strolling Geese trying to keep out of trouble.

At the edge of town, my favorite spot is Lake Chabot, with it’s semi-domesticated flock of Canada Geese and fully-domesticated herd of fisherman.  The staff pour literally tons of fish into the lake each season, just so young anglers have something interesting to catch.

And, as can be seen, boats are also available for rent. And it’s so homey, with the pitter-patter of little goose feet.

Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed writing with this WordPress software. I might write a couple entries this summer, in fact, since now some people on this list are in China.  We’ll see. If any China-based personnel have any requests, let me know them.

And maybe for next semester, I’ll ask people to let me know again if they wish to continue receiving these emails (family members don’t have a choice, though).  It’s been three years since the last time I did that.

And send me a short message about that or anything else if you have time.





The Perfect Lunch

Well, I didn’t travel around much this academic year.  And in a couple  days I’ll be back in North America.

With flower tea for dessert
With flower tea for dessert

I didn’t go anywhere at all for the first semester last fall.

For the second semester, I only went as far as Beijing, and that only twice.

My first Beijing trip took me to the zoo with my friend Liao Chuan. I wrote about that already.  My second visit took me to the perfect lunch with my friend Audine.  Yes, home cooking. There’s just no substitute.

The culinary centerpiece of this extravaganza was one of my favorite Chinese dishes — ganbian doujiao, a typical dish from the Chile-crazed heart of China.  Yes, the upper Yangtze River, China’s culinary counterpart to North America’s Frontera.

Ganbian doujiao is familiar all over China, even up here in the salt-and-oil-saturated north, but I’ve never seen it in any restaurant, Chinese or otherwise, in North America.

Cooking Ganbian Doujiao
More than a flash in the pan.

Doujiao are green beans. You dry them out overnight, and then stir-fry them twice.  Why twice? Hey, I’m not a cook.

I did get to watch the whole process though. The first fry seemed pretty straightforward, but the second one added all those secret spices, including the dried chiles, and the famous Szechuan pepper-corns, which aren’t actually pepper at all, but do tend to numb the lips.

We also had chicken wings, cola-fried.  My hostess prefers Pepsi to Coke, but China extensively employs colas of all kinds in a wide variety of foods.  It’s hard to imagine cola as a typical or traditional element of Chinese cuisine, but there you are.  And the chicken wings were delicious. They appear in the top picture flanked by cherry tomatoes.

Next to the chicken wings in the top picture is a bowl of jaiozi, the staple food of the north.  They’re basically a meat-and-veggie filling wrapped completely in a small pancake and boiled.  You generally eat them by dipping them in vinegar.

Again, vinegars suitable for dipping jiaozi are found everywhere here.  The kind I like is called “Chen Cu,” which is traditionally aged into a powerful flavor somewhere in the nearby province of Shanxi.   It’s somehow not easy to find in California.  Even the fabulous Ranch 99 Asian extravaganza market only had one brand, and it wasn’t the best.  So I’ll bring some home with me on Monday.

Rounding out the lunch fare was a salad based on some sort of arugula or endive.  Salads are not traditional in China, even though China grows more lettuce than any other country on earth (triple the harvest of the United States).  This particular salad, of course was delicious. Tea rounded out the meal, including a flower tea for dessert.

Audine, by the way, is a truly talented artist, talented enough to actually make a living from it. I told her, though, that if she ever gets tired of art, there’s a cooking career just waiting for her in the wings (so to speak).

And in addition to the skilled cooking, the plenteous helpings, and the happy  conversation, I was surprised to discover  just how wonderful it was to truly get away from everything, to a quiet Beijing backwater (and yes, it actually was quiet).  I’m thinking maybe I need to find something equally serene to get away from it all this summer.  We’ll see if that works out.

The continuing Doujiao saga

As long as we’re on the subject of green beans, I’ll also share some pictures I took at the local market two or three months ago which spotlight a couple reasons why I’ve not lost so much weight this semester.  And one of them is the pot sticker.

Cart in front, prep room behind.
Cart in front, prep room behind.

In America pot stickers are generally fried jiaozi.  And in fact, frozen jiaozi have long been available in American supermarkets under that name. Chinese in America from this part of China probably buy them and boil them like they would here.

The picture at right shows a small serving cart on the outdoor path at our local market.  The words “Pot Sticker” are clearly written with duct tape on the side of it.  Actually, a more normal translation would be “wok-stickers.”

You many notice that “wok stickers” has only two written characters instead of the more normal  锅贴儿 (guōtiēr), which makes me think that these people might have come from south of here.

Pot sticker pantheon
Pot sticker pantheon

Anyway, you can also see this cart at the end of the video of the same market that I posted on YouTube a while back. The Headline over its front proudly displays the words “Old Town Pot Stickers,” and with a name like that, they’ve got to be authentic.

And how much are they? For seven yuan, just over a dollar at the current exchange rate, you get seventeen of those babies, including a pair of disposable chopsticks. And like jiaozi, you can take them home and dip them in that flavorful Shanxi ChenCu vinegar.  Or just eat them as they are.

Here’s a closer look at the cart’s main serving area. Each small tray holds one particular flavor. The kind I prefer lurks just behind the server’s hand in the picture – doujiao, green beans, of course.

Open-ended deep-fried green goodness
Open-ended fried green goodness

Now, just because it says “green beans” doesn’t mean it lacks pork, because everything ever cooked in this part of the world always seems to have pork in it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen chicken jiaozi or chicken potstickers.  But pork – you almost breathe it if you live around here.  Anyway, I took a closeup of the green bean potstickers and you can see that they are open on the ends. Obviously they aren’t just fried jiaozi, then.

However, they are otherwise put together much like jiaozi. There’s a simple room behind the cart where this all happens. It’s one of those boxy-type rooms like you normally see in storage facilities, the kind of box that’s anathema to organic architecture.

pot sticker wrappers
The Sticker Squad

Anyway, you can see here a couple of middle-aged ladies sitting quietly making one  锅贴儿 after another — the “sticker squad.” A mound of filler material sits in a bowl at the left side of the little table.  The 锅贴儿 themselves are stacked like logs in front of it.

When they fill up a tray, they hand it over to a younger man, who sticks the stickers in the pot.

The covered Wok
The Wokman

As you can see, the pot is covered, which means that, even though they’re cooking in a wok, they’re not exactly stir-frying.  In fact, whereas stir-frying aims to minimize the frying fat in foods, this arrangement seems to soak it in ever more thoroughly. What you end up with is something at least as artery-hardening McDonald’s fries.  But oh, is it ever tasty.

I’ve never seen these in America, but the cooking technique is so straightforward, it’s hard to imagine that they don’t exist somewhere.

The final fry

Potatoes and Toufu
That’s a spicy potoufu

Not every “fast food” here is salty and fat-infested, but a lot of it sure is. The week’s final food feature is the original – the potato fry.

The picture shows how they fry it on the heated surface of another little cart.  The cooks get normal crinkle-cut frozen fries in bulk and load them onto the frying surface. Oil in this case is minimized, and I think that they actually do contain less than a McDonald’s fry.  But they’re also drenched in spices, as are the squares of toufu frying next to them.

Potatos and Toufu
Serving up the fries

Here’s a closeup. For the equivalent of fifty cents, she fills the little foam plastic container with either one, or a mixture of both, and then asks you if you want any spice on it.

I sometimes have asked for a little spice, but actually there’s so much spice on it already, that you’re not going to taste much difference unless you add a lot more.

When I first saw these potatoes, I thought it was a new neighborhood invention. After all, crinkle-cut fries are hardly traditional in any Chinese cuisine.  But then I discovered the same items cooking in other markets throughout the city, and I realized that they were at least as traditional as the many cola-based foods and drinks.

Anyway, all these foods are really popular with the students.  They fill the path at lunch time, and since everyone has lunch at about the same time, that’s quite a wave.  Here’s a picture I took of the scene a few months ago when I took the other pictures.  Thankfully it’s not so crowded outside the normal meal-commute times.  Gee, I just noticed the words “green bean” on the left side of the picture. I’ve got to go back and see what that is.

You can tell that it's noon.
You can tell that it’s noon.

Today’s experiment

I’ve been warned against streaming video from this website, but nobody said anything about audio, which is a smaller file.  So I’ll try embedding some of my recent piano playing. The piano I use, by the way, is the Casio Privia PX-330, the best piano for the money that I’ve ever played. It cost me about $650, has 88 weighted keys, and a traditional set of three pedals, plus a piano bench.   It feels like a real piano.  It’s sometimes the only thing that stands between me and insanity.  Luckily I’ve got tolerant neighbors.

Anyway, here are three recent samples. If they don’t come across in the email, I’ll just add links to the files so they can be downloaded.

A medium  swing – Skylark

A slow one – Lush Life

A quick pace – How High the Moon

 The Final Word

I’m not going to attach anything more today, but I have been spending a lot of time these last couple weeks writing about language and language teaching. My goal is to get all the lessons I’ve learned over these past five years straight in my mind.

If anybody would like to offer me feedback on one of my recent incomplete drafts, let me know. I’ll email it to you.

And for now, that’s all folks.  I sure hope I can see a lot of people when I’m home.  But I also hope I can get some serene getaway outside of Castro Valley or Portland.

Please write me a short message, if you have the opportunity!








Well, I got my ticket to ride. Barring any major mishaps, I’ll be winging my way to California on June 23rd. If anybody wants something from China, let me know. I’ll be bringing myself some traditional Tianjin Mahua, courtesy of a former student, and some aged Shanxi vinegar, courtesy of the local Carrefour supermarket.  And also some Thai and Indian curry paste, courtesy of a local import food store.

Jingye Lake
Jingye Lake

Yes, things are changing. I took the picture at right three years ago in April, as the leaves were just budding out from the willows along the shores of Jingye Lake.

Jingye Lake is an artificial Lake, like probably all the lakes in Tianjin, let alone the rivers. “Jingye” means “dedication and commitment.”  I’m sure the students are inspired whenever they pass by.

Jingye Lake
Jingye Lake

Anyway, I recently took another picture from the same spot. Can you detect any differences in the view — other than the fully-fledged willow trees, I mean?

Changes are also happening by our apartment block. A bank of mailboxes was recently nailed to the wall by our door, so maybe by next fall we’ll all get new mailing addresses that bypass the “International cooperation” office.  I know that the mailbox keys lay somewhere in our building, but we haven’t received them yet.

The New Mailboxes
The New Mailboxes

This picture shows the workmen installing the boxes, all except the supervisors and inspectors, that is.

To be fair, though, those metal mailboxes looked pretty heavy.  All these guys save one held it up in place, while the last guy, working with a compressed-air drill, screwed it onto the wall.

What I’m hoping for, really, though, is a normal building number so that the mailmen and deliverymen can easily find our address.

Walking out through the bike barrier
Walking out through the bike barrier

A gated development like ours is called a  小区 (xiǎo qū).  小 means “small,”and 区 means “a geographical area.” So together they make “small geographical area.” I guess the fences, gates, and other barriers go without saying.

The picture are right is taken along a fence, so you can’t see the fence itself, but you can see the bike barrier, placed so pedestrians can weave their way through the fence while bicyclists have to struggle.

Actually, though, bicyclists have gotten amazingly skilled at tipping the front wheel up in the air like a rearing mustang, and then wheeling the bike through the curves like some sort of reversible unicycle.

On the side of that building, about 15 feet off the ground appears a small red-white-and-blue sign.  It contains the 小区 name and the building number.   Each row of buildings stands in numerical sequence.  The arrangement is quite convenient to navigate. In fact, about 99.9% of 小区  apartment blocks  in the city  have signs just like that one – the same size, shape, color, and everything.  Deliverymen know just what to look for to make their deliveries.

Except for our building. Our building has no number, just a name, and the tiny bronze sign is placed by the entranceway, to the right of the door, just above a light.  You can see it in the picture of the workmen. You . . . can . . . see it, right?

The bronze sign
The bronze sign

Okay – here’s a closeup. Look above the light. It’s bronze.

Needless to say, getting things delivered can be a bit dicey except for a few regular deliverymen who know the situation.

I wrote a couple years ago that my friend Jeanne and I determined that some numbers  are not used in our 小区. If we claimed and displayed one of them, our building would not only be properly labeled, it would also be positioned  in the proper sequence.  We made the suggestion. We’re still waiting.  I guess some things change faster than others.

Anyway, I’ve tried embedding some more video.  It works on the blog, but maybe not in an email. The first is an annotated replay of my previous bike commute from class, but taking a slightly different route than last time. Sorry for the booming wind sound. But the wind was also responsible for the blue sky.    Click here for a direct link.

The second video is quite short and not annotated. It shows a summer cloudburst.  Even though it’s taken at 2:30 pm in the early afternoon, it’s dark enough to necessitate automobile headlights.  You can also hear what apparently is a custom around here. As the wind rises, and before the rain actually begins, people just start yelling into the sky.  Of course, maybe it’s just the close proximity of undergraduate dorms that explains this activity.

Anyway, occasionally it gets as black as night, even darker than the clip here.  The first time that happened, I heard all the yelling, a lot more than on this clip, and then looked outside, saw nothing but darkness, heard nothing but the yelling. I thought it was a solar eclipse.  And after that, the deluge.  Does this sort of thing happen in America? I’ve never seen it in California.

Anyway, click here for a direct link.

Well, that’s all for now. I’d love to hear from anybody, and I hope that those outside of China can enjoy the videos.

I’ll be making at least one more post before my break. Let me know if there’s something you’d like to see depicted.

As I always used to say … hasta siempre, or maybe now it should be 等到永远  (which doesn’t seem quite to translate it, though)