Monthly Archives: February 2016

Happy Green Winter

Fairmont Ridge, California

Those of you stuck in Tianjin for the winter might appreciate my home town, Castro Valley, California. In many places, people dream of a white Christmas. In California, with the rainy season starting in the fall, we dream of a green one.

The panorama below, taken yesterday on the outskirts of town, shows the trail up Fairmont Ridge from Fairmont Drive. Castro Valley is to the right, San Leandro beyond the hills to the left.  Mount Diablo is visible in the background through the morning fog.  If you click on the picture, you get the big version – and it’s pretty big this time. Clean air, and shirt-sleeve temperatures.

2016-02-10 Fairmont Drive Panorama 1 (Custom)As I locate the car in the parking lot in the picture, I reflect that I am home, but my home is my mother’s, not mine, and I drive a Honda, but it’s my friend’s, not mine.  It’s good to remember such things and maintain perspective about the blessings we receive, that we did not work for.

Bay FairI enjoy taking pictures of this countryside-like area so much, that I might give the wrong impression of the area where I live. It’s not the countryside, but the heart of a megalopolis.  Just before taking the panorama above, I peeked over the hills into neighboring San Leandro and got the shot at right. That’s the “Bay Fair” shopping center.  Yes, it’s an American mall. If  you enlarge the shot, you can just make out a BART metro train moving behind the shopping center.  There’s also a freeway in the foreground.

And now – the obligatory bird pictures from Fairmont Ridge – a junco, a mockingbird, and two yellow-crowned sparrows eating/pollinating willows.

JuncoMockingbirdYellow-crowned sparrows

Two campuses in Tianjin

When I left Tianjin on January tenth, the canals and ponds had frozen over, though still not completely. And the air had put on that typical winter coat of soot.  In fact, a couple weeks earlier, the air quality index had soared — the worst I’d ever seen – 668. And to commemorate it, I offer a screen shot from my computer monitor.

HIghest Pollution so farNeedless to say, this was disappointing. Actually, pollution levels in the last couple years had seemed to improve, and the coal-fired heating plant near us seemed to have been converted to natural gas.

But an AQI of 668 sure makes Castro Valley, where pollution levels usually hover between 30 and 40, look pretty clean (As I write this, it’s 17, while Tianjin is 180).  And if California levels ever go over a hundred, a “spare the air day” is called, and it’s really a pretty big deal. In Tianjin, people are happy when it’s just a hundred.

In China, I had labored under a cough ever since November that never got really bad, but never really went away. Until I arrived in California. After about a week, it disappeared, and never returned. I did catch a cold in Oregon, but after two days, the cough was gone.  Yes, air quality is really something to factor in when considering Eastern China.

Bus Stop at New CampusI’ve got one last pair of pictures comparing the new campus and the old campus for 2015.  The first picture, at left, shows the main bus stop outside the main gate of the new campus. The sun is trying, but mostly failing, to push through the smog. The campus is located on the right – and one can barely make out one of the distant campus buildings across the frozen moat. On the left, across the street, and behind me, as well as in front of me, there’s a patchwork of newly-transplanted trees – all alike. And on the far side of them lies nothing. I suppose one might count the dirt as something.  But it’s really nothing. Nothing for miles. Empty.

Weijin Lu by bus stopThe corresponding shot from the old campus appears at right.  The campus buildings on the left come right up to the frozen canal (it’s a canal and not a moat because it doesn’t surround the whole campus). The smog is the same, but the other side of the street is full, not empty! Buildings spring up everywhere, containing all the resources of a huge city. The blue sign in the picture announces the FM frequency for traffic information. And the bus stop is located in front of the buildings in the middle of the picture.

The guy on the left wears a mask, the kind with a valve for quick exhalations, so the air trapped within the mask doesn’t heat up like a warmed-over Amazon rain forest. That’s my preferred model as well.

The cage in the canal contains a small flat boat, used occasionally for maintenance. It’s the only boat that sails this canal, which ends at the end of this block.  Actually, when they had planned this neighborhood, they had envisioned small tourist boats moving up and down the canal from bases  in the nearby “water park.” In fact, the road at the university entrance arches high over the canal, precisely to accommodate such boats. However, the plans never panned out.  It would have been cool, though. I can so imagine a Chinese gondolier belting out Peking Opera. I’d pay for that. Even if they didn’t dress up in costume.

Apropos shopping centers, if you follow the street in that last picture into the distance, you’ll find yourself at one of Tianjin’s largest malls.  In Chinese, it’s called 大悦城, which translates to something like Big Enjoyment City, but everybody calls it just Joy City in English.  This gives the Chinese English learner, who doesn’t seem to like words longer than two syllables, a fighting chance at pronouncing it.  And if “joy” and “enjoyment” don’t mean the same thing, well, how important can that be? Translation between English and Chinese isn’t really possible, anyway.

Food for Thought

Well, my friend Jeanette and I traveled down to Joy City in early January to share a lunch at a Sizzler, complete with the traditional salad bar. Yes, Sizzler. They didn’t do so well in America, but they’re still growing in China, not to mention Australia.

model motering at Joy City (Large)I didn’t get many pictures that day. However, someone has posted a nice tour of Joy City on Youtube here: https://youtu.be/7wlW–G25Nc

I did squeeze off one shot, seen at left.  Such a cool model motoring setup.  It evokes many happy memories from my youth.  The sign in the corner (translated into dollars) says 7 dollars for ten minutes – 8 dollars for twenty.  That’s a lot of money for the average Chinese person to spend on such frivolities, but not so much, really, for those in the new middle class.

Shao BingOther than the Sizzler, the main culinary highlight for this winter was the Shao Bing (烧饼). My colleague Lee discovered this vendor/chef one evening after work. His little stand is set up along the path through our housing development. I assume that the little girl is his daughter. She regarded me with some suspicion throughout the transaction.  These sorts of reactions don’t happen as often as they used to in Tianjin, though.

Anyway, shao means roasted and a bing is anything flat made from wheat dough. (and every imaginable variation of that form can be found in northern China)

Prior to finding this guy, I had not known about Shao bing, but every time I’ve bought some, passersby have taken note as I ate them.  It’s yet another example of something everybody knows, but I’m just finding out after eight years.

A bing in the handBut they’re great — especially hot off the grill in the early evening. They aren’t plain dough – but some spice is mixed in. They are cheap – less than twenty cents (US) apiece. And they are not all oily like most bing, since most bing end up deep-fried in oil.  Their warmth can really pep you up when strolling home after a long tiring day.

Portable food stands like this are common throughout the city, and often improvised from a wide variety of cast-offs. For example, all it takes is some charcoal and an old oil drum, set upon a pair of wheels, and you have a serviceable and mobile potato cooker.

Sunflower Seeds (Large)Some food processors are more sophisticated, though. This strange contraption roasts sunflower seeds. It looks kind of like a clothes drier without the front door. Sunflower seeds roll around and around until they drift out the front into a basket.

Street-side food contraptions come in many forms. Maybe they pop corn. Maybe they puff wheat (with a loud bang). Maybe they melt sugar for sugar sculptures.  Some occupy the same spot on a sidewalk for years. Others drift about the city. Maybe they’re just never satisfied with one location. Maybe they’re just keeping one jump ahead of the licensing authorities.

Dining Hall ChowOf course none of this wonderful variety of food can be found out in the gulag of the new campus.  They do, however, have dining halls out there. And this picture shows a typical meat and vegetable dish, plus a few spring rolls (which are not typical) all poured over rice (which is almost universal in school cafeterias – even in the relatively-riceless north).  As you can see, this ignorant foreigner put his chopsticks down on the plate backwards.  太不好意思了!!!

Tianjin University PlatesYou’ll also note the university emblem on the plate itself. Thanks to my friend Jeanette, I arranged to buy four sets of these plates and brought them home as practical souvenirs. So, long after I have returned to America for good, I can still enjoy that dining hall ambiance. And I’m pretty sure I’m the first “kid on my block” to own these gems.

Here, for example, is the table at my mother’s place in Portland last month, all set with genuine Tianjin University plates.  We did not, however, use chopsticks that night.

Sights in California

Lake Chabot with GeeseSo I did travel around from California to Portland and back – a jaunt of about a thousand kilometers each way. And of course, I got some photos out of it.

After three years of drought, California finally had a normal rainy season this winter. So I got lots of photos of cloudy, drizzly  weather, like the moody photo of avian swimmers in Lake Chabot, the Lake next to Fairmont Ridge.  There are two coots and three different geese  – A Canada goose, a white-fronted goose, and something that looks halfway between them.

Fishing at Lake ChabotAgain, it’s hard to believe you’re in the heart of a megalopolis when you view a scene of people peacefully fishing amidst hills and forest, unfazed by wet weather.  But in Castro Valley, such scenes are typical.

I also took the path up Fairmont Ridge, as is my habit. As always, the path streamed with people walking their dogs.

Dogs on Fairmont RidgeIn this shot, Castro Valley is in the background.  The asphalt  road leads to a “children’s memorial,” a remembrance of Bay Area children lost to violence through the years. The earliest names are now about twenty years old, and unfortunately, new names are still being added.

Leprechuans on Fairmont RidgeOn a brighter note, I found that climbing the ridge involved considerably less huffing and puffing than it had last summer. I guess my health had hit bottom last summer, and things are looking up again.

And wandering down the path were, apparently, a pair of Leprechauns, judging by their dress and their size next to the gates, the signs, the bench in the background, and  that bulky eucalyptus tree.  Well, with all that green, it’s no wonder they turned up.

Up to Portland

I didn’t take pictures on the way up to Portland – it was too cloudy and dark the whole way. However, the weather cleared on the trip back. So I snagged another shot of my favorite mountain – Mount Shasta — up in northern California.

Mt Shasta and Weed Rest StopIn the foreground is a wonderful institution of the Interstate Highway System – the rest stop. This one is near Weed, California.

Willamette Rest StopRest stops are exactly what the name implies – a place to take a nap, eat a snack, use the (always clean) toilets, etc.  They are located every thirty to sixty minutes along the portion of the Interstate outside major towns and cities. And they usually feature beautiful views, if not of mountains, then at least of forests.  Here’s an typical example not too far from Portland. Note the blue picnic table. It was a bit too cool in the morning to picnic, though.

Cheap Gas by Mt. McLaughlinOne notable surprise was the price of gas. Here’s Central Point, Oregon, where I filled up for a dollar eighty six a gallon.  The mountain in the background is Mt. McLaughlin.

I think that might be the cheapest price that I’ve ever paid for gasoline, allowing for inflation.  I have mixed feelings about such low prices, but it was nice to fill up the tank with a twenty-dollar bill. The trip to Portland takes two tanks.  So a round trip for less than four twenty-dollar bills in fuel is quite a bargain. For  metric thinkers, that’s forty-nine cents a liter. For the Chinese, that’s just over three yuan a liter. I never thought I’d ever see prices that low. Of course, the prices are a bit higher than that in California, due to the refinery monopoly there, but still . . . .

Portland Oregon

Downtown Portland RiverfrontPortland was just as beautiful as always. And it even stopped raining there a couple of times. The picture shows Downtown Portland and the riverfront. Does it always look so beautiful? Yes, it does.

And what about downtown itself? Here’s a panorama of Pioneer Place, an upscale shopping area, on a typical grey and drizzly day. That’s the stylish Apple store on the left side of the street. There are a few artifacts from constructing the panorama from several smaller shots.

2016-02-01 Pioneer Square Panorama (Custom)In Portland, I mainly puttered around the house, and spent a lot of time revising my writings about language acquisition. But I did get out a couple times to the movies, and I did visit a some old friends from Tianjin, and I did go out to a car show.

The big auto showPerhaps due to the fall in fuel prices over the last couple years, the cars that they showed this year seemed bigger than I remembered – except for the Fiat and the Minis, of course.

Honda HRVAs always, I paid close attention to the Hondas. And I wasn’t the only one. Here are a bunch of Honda fans carefully examining the new HRV.

All in all, I wasn’t ready to buy anything, but it was lots of fun, anyway.

The Cat CrowdI also attended a cat show, for the first time in decades. And I wasn’t the only one. Actually, I had no idea that cat shows were so popular. Here’s an overhead view. A half-dozen “rings,” where the judging takes place are located on the right.

Amazed CatCat shows are different than dog shows. For one thing, all of the judges rate all of the contestants. The cat owners, then, are always carrying their pet from one ring to another and to their cat cages, and back again.

Cats also aren’t shown by their own handlers. Instead, the judge just picks up each one in turn. The picture shows a judge about to pick up a cat.

Also, cat shows feature many categories of what would be termed “mutts” in a dog show.  In fact, there were lots of categories — so many that  most contestants were awarded first, second, or third in something.  And of course, some cats were pretty exotic.  Three examples include a Bengal Cat, a hairless cat, and the Lykoi, a new breed that only appeared a couple years back. Its sparse, yet wild, hair makes it look like a werewolf cat.

Bengal CatHairless CatLykoi CatAnd, speaking of werewolves, I also took in a lecture at Portland’s  Reed College given by Dr. Demento himself, that radio disk jockey whose connections to werewolves, fish heads, and Weird Al Yankovich are well documented.

For new fans, here’s a YouTube video from Dr. Demento’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, back in 1991. I’ve been a fan since the early seventies, so it was quite a treat to see and hear him in person.

It turns out that he’s a graduate of Reed College!

Dr. Demento (Large)Here’s what he looks like these days. Unfortunately he was fighting off a flu the night that I saw him.

Interestingly, he presented three lectures that week, and none of them concerned novelty music. It turns out he is also interested in the history of popular music. So he delivered a very academic lecture on the various ethnic roots of American music, illustrated by a lot of recordings that I had never heard before.  The lectures on other nights examined Frank Zappa’s career, and the history of punk rock.

I took a panorama of the Reed College lecture hall where he spoke.  I would point out that this modern room features a chalk board – and no obvious trace of a projector screen.  I mention this because, back in Tianjin University’s new campus, teachers are all on a high tech system where we each have a virtual desktop served up from a central server projected onto a screen in whatever lecture hall we may find ourselves.  Luckily I can still use my own laptop, since the system’s bandwidth often isn’t sufficient to function under load. In other words, it often freezes.

But when we asked why such a system had been implemented, we were told that colleges everywhere else in the world already had such systems, so China has to catch up! But Reed College seems to give greater value to the simple chalkboard. In fact, my friend (and former student) John, who is teaching math at UC Davis, tells me that they also use mainly chalkboards.

Go figure.  Here’s the panorama. It’s really quite a beautiful room:

Reed College Lecture Hall Panorama (Large)

Nordic Food

Since I always feature some Chinese food in these messages, it seems only right that I feature something American in a message like this.

Swedish Association - posterized (Large)In this case, it’s Swedish American. My sister, brother-in-law, mother and I all went out to dinner at Portland’s local Swedish Association. The posterized picture at right was taken with my mobile phone, (I’d forgotten my camera) which has a lot of “artistic” options.

The culinary  highlight of the night was Lutefisk, a method of preparing fish that renders it the consistency of hard jelly, with a fairly bland taste.   They say you have to be Scandinavian to like it, but actually, once you smother it in white sauce, melted butter and allspice, it tastes like, well, white sauce, melted butter and allspice, so not bad at all.

Broder's at Nordia HouseTwo weeks later, my mother, sister and I drove out to a new Scandinavian heritage center.  A local Scandinavian restaurant, Broder’s, set up a franchise inside it, so we enjoyed shrimp salad (Swedes are big on shrimp and crayfish), as well as a cream herring salad, and three open-faced sandwiches on brown bread. (The Swedes are big on these, too). The sandwiches were all different. One featured gravlax – cured, uncooked salmon. There was also farmer’s cheese and curry chicken apple salad, along with pickled beets. For a culture with a noted aversion to spicy food, these Swedish sandwiches had an intense flavor.

Back to China

Well, this message was a bit longer than usual, but then, I had two global hemispheres to cover.  I have just a few days left in California. I’m planning on heading to China on February 21, for what is likely my final semester teaching there.  I haven’t decided whether or not to continue these monthly updates.  Let me know if you have an opinion.