A Mousecapade

For lunch today, I and some colleagues headed off to our favorite Hunan restaurant, across the street from our office.  It’s a great place.  By noon the place was full, and we were busy stuffing ourselves with all manner of super spicy peppers (a characteristic of Hunan cuisine), when suddenly the patrons at a nearby table screamed and jumped away from the table.  Apparantly a mouse thought he was at an Olympic sporting event and decided to back flip into the soup.  He missed the soup, but I think he might have landed in the toufu, from where he scampered quickly to the floor.  Not fast enough, however to get away from the restaurant manager who grabbed him with a pair of chopsticks and marched off to the kitchen.  Naturally the diners at that table promptly left.  The rest of us just watched a bit, then went back to our peppers.  At our table we were a bit troubled that the mouse had been taken to the kitchen, and I must admit that we gave the next dish brought to our table some extra scrutiny. 

Only 320 more days until the Olympics! 

The Great Mooncake Exchange

It’s Moon Festival today in China.  Below is an essay I wrote about it a couple of years back.  Time for it’s annual re-publication.

Today is Zhong Qiu Jie, (lit. Mid-Autumn Festival) in China.  In
colloquial terms, it’s called the Moon Festival, because it’s
celebration coincides with the full moon.  Much like Thanksgiving in
American culture, Moon Festival is a time when people want to gather
with their family members.  If that isn’t possible, then people gather
with classmates, colleagues, and other friends to gaze at the moon and
think of their distant family members who are also gazing at the same
moon.  Poets in the Tang Dynasty were prolific in their writing poems
about the moon, so there’s always a poem to be recited at a gathering.

Another custom on Moon Festival is the eating of mooncakes.  It’s
hard to describe them exactly, but think of small, individually wrapped
fruit-cakes.  There is an outer crust with a super sweet filling.
Usually they are very heavy, and laden with sugar and lard.  Not being
a fan of them, they sort of remind me of sweet hockey pucks. 

Making and eating and giving mooncakes has always been part of the
celebration here, but as China’s level of prosperity has increased in
the past number of years, like many other things here, mooncakes have
sort of become an excess.  In the weeks preceding Moon Festival, all
the stores fill up with tables selling all manner of beautifully
gift-wrapped mooncakes. They are elaborately packaged, and a 6 or 8
mooncakes in a beautiful box can easily cost 40 or 50 US dollars!  The
more expensive the mooncakes you give, the more face both the giver and
receiver get. 

Mooncakes must be sent to people with whom you do business. Clients
send to suppliers, suppliers to clients.  Mooncakes are exchanged among
colleagues.  Teachers give them to students; students to teachers.
Friends to friends; family members to family members.  It’s one giant
mooncake exchange.

And as foreigners who are trying to live as acceptable outsiders, we
join in.  Last night my professor and his family came to my house for
dinner.  When they walked in, he gave me a nice gift box of mooncakes.
I said thanks, took them, and set them in the kitchen (it’s not polite
to open gifts here in the presence of the giver).  When it was time for
them to leave, I gave them a box of mooncakes.  We all  laughed at the
fact that we were just exchanging boxes of mooncakes.  I always enjoy
my professor because of his ability to see the humor in his own
society.  He joked that at the end of the day, mooncakes don’t really
get eaten–they just get passed around, sometimes ending up back where
they started.  I said never mind, and told him that he was more than
welcome to give away the box I was giving them.  He said I could give
away the box they gave me (which I plan to do).

Like many other things in a society like this that places a high
value on ritual for the sake of ritual, the important thing is NOT the
mooncake or the box or the value, but rather that the ritual of giving
the mooncake is performed. 

Mooncakes, anyone?

And for your reading assignment, here is an article about the festival in a local newspaper:

Mooncakes Acquire a Networking Flavor
:    "Mooncakes, a traditional delicacy gifted to families and friends
during the Mid-Autumn Festival, have become an important ingredient in
maintaining business and work relations.  With the festival falling tomorrow, the reception areas of almost every office building are overflowing with boxes of mooncakes.  The traditional festival has become a Chinese Christmas of sorts, topping other occasions for giving or receiving gifts."


It seems that there is no end to the "just when you think you’ve seen/heard it all….." experiences one can accumulate in a city like Beijing.  Last night, as I was coming home from enjoying a wonderful foot massage with a friend at the end of a crazy busy day, I find myself in a cab with a driver who was a Jehovah’s Witness!!!  Will somebody please tell me where I am!

Confucius and the Minnesota State Fair

I realize that I’m a little bit behind the curve here with a post about the Minnesota State Fair, the annual get-together for for us Minn-e-soooo-tans.  It ended last week, and since I’m on the other side of the planet from Minnesota, I saw no reason to comment on the event.   My friend in Shanghai, however, has written a column for That’s Shanghai about the Fair, called The Midwest Way.  An excerpt:

Still, there is one Minnesotan tradition that shares much with China:
the Minnesota State Fair. Like China, Minnesota’s agricultural history
has shaped much of our personality and practices, and the Minnesota
State Fair is our harvest celebration. Think of it as the Mid-Autumn
Festival for the beige-food crowd, or spending a day on the Nanjing
pedestrian street, but with more livestock. In any case, the State
Fair can provide revelations of the same sort that Confucian masters
experienced when observing life in China’s countryside. In short, it
can show The Way. So in humble homage to the Analects, I here present
10 Life Lessons Learned at the Minnesota State Fair:…….

You really need to read the whole thing. 

As for this Minnesotan, she hates the State Fair.  Of course, it’s important to remember that even though I am of Scandinavian descent  and have relatives in Minnesota, I am a transplant, not a native.  The last time I went to the fair was about 10 years ago.  I had a panic attack.  It was the crowds.  (Yes I, who live in CHINA, OF ALL PLACES, don’t like crowds.) But it wasn’t just the crowds.  It was the crowds of over-sized and under-clad bodies.  I still get clammy thinking about it. I just turned to my sister and said "we have to leave."  I have never been back.  I think the panic attack happened in the exhibition hall underneath the grandstand.  Where else?

Pai-Dui Day

Today was "Pai-dui Day" in Beijing. That’s pronounced pie-dway, by the way.  In the ongoing effort to improve the manners of Beijingers in the run-up to the Olympics (now only 331 days away), the city government has decreed that the 11th of each month is a day to get people to stand in lines.  It started back in March, and I first wrote about it here. I’ve dubbed it "pai-dui day." On this day each month, hundreds of retirees are deputized (red arm bands of course) to patrol the bus stops, subway platforms, and other places where lines might contribute to a more harmonious society to wave their flags and blow their whistles and get people to line up.  Surprisingly, it seems to be working (at least for one day a month).

Last night as a colleague and I were boarding a train in a small town in Shandong province to return to Beijing, we encountered a platform officer who was taking her job of getting passengers to line up very very seriously.  About 5 minutes before the train pulled into the station, they allowed all the passengers onto the platform.  When the train came in, we’d have 5 minutes to get on before it rolled out again.  We asked where exactly car 8 might stop, and she waved us and a group of about 10 others down the platform, where we sort of milled around.  A few minutes later she came by barking orders at us to line up.  We half-heartedly complied, and then she started barking  YI PAI, YI PAI (one line; single file).  We all obeyed, and stood there at attention in a neat row.  Until the train pulled in.  Then, the door to carriage 8 stopped about 15 feet away and we quickly descended back into what my traveling companion called "a casserole".

Oh well, that was yesterday, which wasn’t really pai-dui day anyway!

Harmony Alert

The new favorite word here in China the past year or so is "harmony," or some variation of it.  This is because it is the slogan of choice emanating from the upper reaches of the party.  Everything is harmony-this and harmony-that.  China is now in it’s "4th generation" of leadership, and each generation has had it’s slogan–something that encapsulated where China was heading.  The Great Helmsman was all about class struggle and building a "modern socialist society" (note: oxymoron alert).  His predecessor put forth the "Four Modernizations" as the national goal.  It should be noted that this has been a great success.  The third generation leader came up with something called "The Three Represents."  It was very abstract; so much so that it was difficult to find anyone who actually knew what it meant.  It was something about representing the advanced forces of society.  The current leadership has decided that the new national goal is to build a harmonious society. Somewhat harkening back to Confucianism, the thinking is that if we all will just be nice and get along, everything will be fine. 

An interesting feature of political discourse here is that when those on high put forth their latest slogans or buzzwords (as the case may be), everyone on down the political and societal food chain scrambles to find new ways to use and/or display the slogan.  It’s a way of demonstrating "being on board."  This means that suddenly the word "harmony" and the phrase "harmonious society" are everywhere.   Whenever I give a speech or toast in a formal setting, you can bet that I sneak the word "harmony" in there somewhere!  It pops up in the most interesting of places!

Recently I and a colleague were in the Beijing Train Station on our way to catch an overnight train to Qufu (the hometown of Confucius, and thus ground zero of the harmonious campaign), when we spotted a very funny sign above one of the ticket windows.  There was a giant arrow pointing away from the ticket window and it said HARMONIOUS TICKET OFFICE LOCATED ON THE EAST SIDE OF THE STATION. A harmonious ticket office?  Go that way?  What was it saying about the ticket office that was located smack dab underneath the sign?  Not so harmonious? 

Truth be told, there’s nothing harmonious about the Beijing train station.  Nothing.

Stay tuned for more "harmony alerts."