“The Great Minnesota Get-Together”

That is the slogan of the Minnesota State Fair, which is currently taking place in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Fortunately, I am in Beijing.

The last time I went to the Fair (1995 perhaps), I had a panic attack. I had just returned from China and the sight of so many over-sized women in under-sized garments was just too much to handle. I abandoned my sister in the doo-dad market underneath the Grandstands and fled for my life.

My friend Kent, who blogs over at The Talking Monkey has put up a brilliant missive on the Minnesota State Fair. He is more of a True Minnesotan than I am, so has fonder (and funnier) sentiments, which he (fortunately for us) has decided to share with the world in a post titled “Ten Life Lessons Learned at the Minnesota State Fair.”  Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:

Still, there is one Minnesota 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 Saturday on the Nanjing Lu walking street but with more livestock and people in seed caps.


For foodies interested in things like flavor, Minnesota epicurean traditions can leave one feeling a bit empty – our most famous native cuisine, called a “Hot Dish”, describes only the temperature of the container and says nothing about the food.  And for good reason – how much can anyone really do with a can of cream of mushroom soup, ground beef, a bag of tater tots and an oven set to 350 degrees?


However, come State Fair time, Minnesotans go wild with their food choices, turning into participants in some strange TV programming mash-up of Cooking with Julia Childs and Fear Factor. With reckless abandon we eat Tom Thumb Mini-Donuts (which we feel OK eating by the bucket-full because they are, well, mini and are therefor less fattening, per donut); Pronto Pups (which we are basically sure contain no actual pup parts); Sno Cones (a paper cup filled with chipped ice drenched in colored sugar water for which the consumer is charged $3, thus representing a 99.7% gross margin to the seller); and Foot Long Hot Dogs (where, true story, a number of years ago some snotty-nosed kid from Edina just out law school took a ruler to and forced the seller to rename them “ALMOST A Foot Long Hot Dogs”).


But most importantly, the Minnesota State Fair can provide opportunities for flights of existential fantasy resulting in revelations of the same sort that Confucian and Daoist masters experienced when observing life in China’s countryside. In short, spending time at the State Fair can show one The Way. So in humble homage to the Analects, I here present 10 Life Lessons Learned at the Minnesota State Fair:

If you really want to read his list (and I know you do), now is the time to click on over to his site.

Thanks, Kent, for reminding me why I make sure to be in Beijing in August every year.


Where are the Mops?

For those of you who subscribe to this blog by email, the video clip of mops that was on yesterdays’ post “Start Seeing Mops” may not have been accessible in the email that you received yesterday.

I have no idea why that would be.

To see the video clip, click on the title of yesterday’s email “Start Seeing Mops.”  It will take you to directly to the blog.

Or you can go to my YouTube site and view it there.

Sorry for the confusion.


Start Seeing Mops

I’m a compulsive observer. I think it is partly due to a very curious nature, partly due to having grown up overseas, and partly due to training that I received in acting classes in college, when our professor would send us out into the community to just sit and observe. We would sit for hours in the shopping malls (winter in Minnesota, you know) just observing things: the size, shapes, and demeanor of people; social interactions; the physical surroundings.  You name, it we were told to take note of it. “Look for patterns and recurring themes,” we were told. That skill has served me well in my cross-cultural sojourn, whether in language learning (listening for patterns) or just trying to figure out what is going on around me.

Which brings us to the mops. A couple of years ago I started noticing mops. That might seem strange to you given the fact that where most of us come from, mops are tucked away in closets, which means that noticing them perhaps involves me rummaging around in the broom closets of other people’s homes, something I can assure you is NOT the case.

What I started noticing was that in China mops are everywhere –leaning against walls, hanging from trees, propped up against bicycles, sitting in the corners of restaurants, stores, and even banks. Right there — for everyone to see.  They are a part of life. There is no problem in China, it seems to me, that cannot be solved with a mop and a bucket.

I also realized that there was a culture learning lesson to be had in this strange obsession that I had developed. Learning culture is more than just learning about (and adjusting to) the different behaviors and activities of everyday life; it is discovering that there are different ways of  THINKING behind those behaviors and social patterns.

In other words, while mops in China have the same use and function that they do in my home culture, it’s how we THINK about them that is different.  They are not things to be hidden away, but full participants in everyday life.

Since the beginning of my obsession with mops (noticing , not using ), I have been taking pictures of them. I compiled them into a slide show which I use in cross-cultural orientation sessions that I conduct.

Are there everyday things that you can start observing in the communities where you live? Maybe you’ll start seeing mops or maybe something else of special interest to you.  For ‘newbies’ of course the newness of it all means that you’re observing everything. For those of you who have been around for awhile, maybe you just need fresh eyes with which to view the ordinary (but meaningful) things that you have stopped noticing.

One of the unintended consequences of this is that there are now hundreds of people all over China and SE Asia who think of me every time they see a mop. I suppose that is a good thing….

What are you going to start observing today?

Duck Number 100560

Earlier this week I gave a lecture at a training program for middle school English teachers from Guangzhou. They held the closing ceremonies for the program this noon at the Quan Ju De Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant, and I was invited.

For most of the participants, this was their first trip to Beijing, so their first chance to eat authentic Beijing roast duck. And not just any roast duck at any old restaurant, but roast duck from Quan Ju De, “the most famous restaurant under heaven.”

At the end of the meal, the waiters gave each of us a certificate — proof we could take back to our families and friends that we had, indeed, eaten at Quan Ju De.

Not only that, the certificate identified by number exactly which duck we had eaten. Number 100560.

I’m normally not a fan of this restaurant because I think they are way overpriced (you pay for the name), but I have to admit that Duck 100560 was one of the tastiest ducks I’ve ever eaten.

And now I’ve even got the certificate to prove it!!!

Random Acts of Head Gear

I spent Saturday morning sitting on the veranda of a neighborhood hotel, enjoying the warmth of a late summer sun. The orientation program that I have been a part the past three weeks  finished on Friday, and I had wandered over to the hotel to bid farewell to the participants.

As we were sitting there, waiting for the vans to arrive, a nicely dressed man with a BRIGHT BLUE PLASTIC BAG tightly affixed to his head walked out of the lobby, down the street, and hailed a cab.

It all happened so fast that none of us had time to grab our cameras.

Folks often wonder why I don’t have much interest in movies and television. To be honest, it seems to me that there is little that the big or small screen can offer in terms of entertainment that can top the everyday stuff in my neighborhood.


Beijing in Western Literature

One of my favorite books about my adopted home town, Beijing,  is called Old Peking: City of the Ruler of the World, written by a New Zealand diplomat. It’s a collection of descriptions of Beijing written over the years (from the 1200’s to modern times) written by foreigners.

Some of the more interesting entries are references to the city in western literature. For example, we learn that John Milton, in Paradise Lost, has this to say:

His eye might there command wherever stood

City of old and modern fame, the seat

Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls

Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can

And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,

To Paquin of Sineaen kings, and thence

To Agra and Lahor…..

He was a bit confused there, giving the impression that Cambalu and Paquin were two separate cities when in fact those were two different names for the city.

Next time you are at a party and want to impress your friends with some literary trivia, tell them about Beijing in “Paradise Lost.”

The Masked Swimmers of Qingdao Strike Again!

I can hear the editors in newsrooms all over the world this summer barking orders to their China-based correspondents:  “GRAB YOUR CAMERA AND GET TO THE BEACHES IN QINGDAO. WE NEED A STORY ON THE SWIMMERS WEARING NYLON FACE MASKS. NOW!”

There may indeed be other news-worthy events in China this summer — a certain trial of the wife of a certain former official; a certain meeting of officials at another beach (I wonder if they are wearing these as well — but these masked figures on the beaches of Qingdao seem to have become the story of the summer for much of the western press here.

The Daily Mail struck yesterday with this article and photo spread:

One way to avoid the dangerous rays of the sun is to stay indoors, another is to apply a healthy layer of sun cream and slap on a wide-brimmed hat.

If you’re in China, however, there is a third option – a ‘Face-Kini’ complete with a body suit.

The name describes a protective head mask that is being used in Shandong province’s East China Sea coast by beach-goers who want to protect their skin from the sun.

It’s probably best not to view these just before going to bed.

I joined the fray and wrote about them in July in a post titled Swimming Masks.

One commenter wrote asking where they could be purchased. This Daily Mail article notes a price for the masks, so I’m guessing that they are being sold in the shops and stalls that line the beaches in Qingdao.